Friday, December 21, 2012

Strangling the NRA

I'm not exactly a "pro-gun" kind of guy, but I don't really have anything against them either. However, I absolutely loath the NRA. I've never liked them and their utterly ridiculous claims. Today, they've shared their solution to limit the deaths in school shootings: armed guards! Seriously? That's their solution? That's their only solution to the problem?

Imagine all of the points of failure that had to happen before the Newtown shooting could happen. You needed an obviously disturbed individual who probably didn't get the psychiatric help he needed. Perhaps no amount of such help would have changed things, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize it's not exactly a high national priority.

He also needed a way to acquire assault weapons that could inflict maximum casualties. Let's face it--if he had a handgun, he would not have been able to kill so many people before police arrived. In this case, it appears he took the guns from his law-abiding mother. What the heck did his mother need with an assault rifle, though? Her personal protection? Ha! That didn't work out very well for her!

But the fact is, even without access to his mother's guns, he could have bought them off the street from pretty much anyone without so much as a background check. HELLO?! I don't know the details, but for all I know, he might have even been able to purchase them legally through gun stores.

There's another point of failure: the police, clearly, didn't get to the school quick enough. More cops on the streets could have saved lives. Not just in the schools, but in the streets! You want them to be able to get to any situation like this quickly regardless of where it happens. Mass shootings can happen anywhere: in movie theaters, in shopping malls, at schools, at work places, at farmers markets, at festivals, etc.

But putting armed guards in schools is not a solution. In a country where the TSA occasionally shoots off a gun in airports by accident and where cops accidentally shoot unarmed men mistaking them as a threat far too often, more guns in schools is not a good solution. Bring in the guns when they're needed, and keep them out of schools when they aren't.

But let's say that we do start having armed guards patrolling our nation's schools. Let's say there's a madman who wants to shoot up the school. He knows there's a guy walking around with a gun. What do you suppose is going to happen? If I were the shooter, I'd be sure to take out the guy with the gun first. Which might actually be pretty easy to do if you can take him by surprise--and after you've been patrolling schools for years without any incidents, I kind of suspect such guards aren't likely to be particularly attentive until after they start hearing shots being fired. And--double score!--you can take his gun off of him to use for your own purposes.

And what about all those other places where mass shootings can occur? Do we need to assign armed guards to every shopping mall, every park, every work place, every theater, every street corner in the nation? Or are only schools worthy of having extra guns? Having more police coverage throughout an entire city so they can react quicker and decisively for any number of emergencies besides mass shootings (that, all things considered, are relatively rare in the first place) makes a heck of a lot more sense than armed guards walking around in schools.

Now, as tragic as the Newtown shootings are, far more children are killed by accidents involving guns than by crazed killers, and I'm more than a little annoyed that everyone is up in arms wanting to stop something "like this" from happening again. I'm all for wanting to stop it too--and I'm certainly in favor of just about any legislation that can help reduce this problem--but I wish everyone would think bigger. For every child that's killed in a mass shooting like this, there are dozens that are killed at home by improper storage of guns. Where's the outrage there? THERE SHOULD BE OUTRAGE!

Getting a friggin' drivers license requires more hoops to jump through than buying a gun, and that's utterly absurd. I had to prove I knew the laws of the road and that I could safely drive a car before they'd issue me a driver's license. AND even then, my license was only good for driving around regular old cars. I'd need more tests if I wanted a motorcycle license, and other one if I wanted to drive big rigs.

One more thing I find more than a little annoying is the fact that everyone keeps talking about the "26" victims of Newtown. There are, in fact 27 if you count his mother. I'm pretty certain she didn't volunteer to take four bullets to the head. Somehow, though, nobody seems to want to treat her as a victim--probably because it was her guns that were used for the massacre. She's still a victim, though, and acting like she's anything less than that is an injustice.

Anyhow, I don't hate guns, but I absolutely loathe the NRA. Their lies are right up there with cigarette companies claiming that their products don't cause cancer. Not that anyone with two brain cells ever believes a cigarette company's claims. Anyone with two brain cells doesn't believe the NRA either in matters of gun safety or gun control, but it still makes me angry when I see them offering such stupid ideas that are so obviously self-centered.

I don't even think most members of the NRA agree with the NRA, just like most smokers never believed the cigarette company's lies. But if that's you--stop funding them! Drop your membership now! Tell them you want real solutions to gun control. Remember, gun control does not mean gun banning--it means gun control. Make sure people who know how to use them and use them safely can have them, and make sure those who don't know how to use them or use them safely can't get access to them.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Being Unfriended

So there I was, checking my Gmail account, when I happened to noticed a little message in the corner saying, "(3) people unfriended you."

This really surprised me. Not that people would unfriend me--admittedly, I probably don't even know half the people who've friended me on Facebook, and it wouldn't at all surprise me that someone would come along and go, "You know, I want to clean out my account of people that I don't really know" and wind up unfriending me. Or perhaps unfriending me by accident when they tried to unfriend someone else. So I didn't really care that three people unfriended me. Ask me if I care--nope, I don't! =)

No, the thing that really surprised me is that they'd TELL YOU that you've been unfriended. Talk about a way to hurt someone's feelings! (I assume that some people would be more sensitive to being unfriended than I am, even though I think the whole concept of "friended" and "unfriended" is kind of misleading in the first place. Just because I'm friends with someone on Facebook doesn't mean I know them in any way, shape or form in the real world! I might, but more often than not, I don't.)

Out of curiosity, though, I clicked the "..." to find out more, which is when that ad for a "free" Facebook tool to learn who unfriended you.

And then it all made sense. Of course. It's totally a scam. How would Google (I was using Gmail, after all) even know how many people have unfriended me on Facebook in the first place? How would they be able to display that information in a PAID AD through Google? Yeah, I bet nobody has unfriended me recently. And if they have, I bet whoever put this ad up doesn't have a clue how many people have actaually unfriended me.

And nothing ever comes for "free." As if they're trying to be helpful. Seriously? How is telling people who've unfriended them possibly going to help anyone? The only thing it could possibly do is cause hurt feelings.

Now, I'm not suggesting it's impossible to create an app to tell you who's unfriended you. It's easy enough to create a program that can log into your Facebook account and monitor who your friends are--and monitor who is no longer a friend in the future and make the deduction that you've been unfriended.

BUT--why would you really trust a program to LOG INTO YOUR FACEBOOK ACCOUNT to monitor your friends? Because you know that's what is going to happen. Of course the program is free. Look at all that valuable information they can get about you by logging into your account. Assuming it doesn't actually install a virus or malware or something on your computer in the first place.

Frankly, Google should be embarrassed that they have crap ads like this on their system. Preying on people's insecurities in order to hack their accounts. And that's what I consider it--hacking. They're tricking people into installing worthless programs that may have a cost far higher than a monetary outlay.

Be careful of ads you see online. They could just be scams! Even if it comes from a generally reputable company such as Google. *nodding* I put Google ads on this site--and they often point to wonderful useful websites. But keep your guards up! Because the next ad link you click could just be a scam.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Stock Market Predictions, Revisisted

Yep, it's confirmed. They're flipping coins! =)
In my last post, I saw a prediction that the stock market was poised to extend a rally. So I took the opposite view and predicted that they'd be wrong and that stocks were poised to go down. I'll readily admit, I have no idea what the stock market will do from week to week--I just don't believe that the "experts" do either. But even if they flip coins, they're likely to be correct half the time.

So how did my predictions do? The S&P 500 was at 1224.58 when I posted, and today, one week later, has closed at 1238.25. Alas, the "experts" seemed to have been right this week--with an increase of 13.67. But seriously, a 1% wiggle in price isn't really something to get excited about. *shrug*

But... consider this! NASDAQ closed a week ago at 2667.85 and today is at 2637.46, which is down 30.39 points! Considering that in the article, they hung their hats on companies like Apple (the largest influence on NASDAQ), IBM (not part of NASDAQ, but was down for the week anyhow), and Microsoft (one of the largest influences on NASDAQ)--in fact, every one of those tech companies that they picked out by name--were down, I think my belief of doing the opposite of what experts and "everyone" recommend still has merit. ;o)

They might have hit a forest (S&P 500), but they missed another forest (NASDAQ), and they missed all of the trees I checked in the forest that they did hit!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Stock Market Predictions

I happened to notice this article about S&P 500 index poised to extend streak. Despite the fact that I was taught to capitalize all but the most trivial words in the title of a piece, the part that really bothers me is the confidence this person has to call next week's stock market gyrations. It begins:
With one-third of the Dow components and crowd favorite, Apple, reporting results next week, U.S. stocks are setting the stage for another week of gains.
 I'll readily admit, I have no idea which direction the S&P 500 will go next week, but I can tell you that there are 30 Dow "components" (really just a fancy name for "companies") and 500 S&P "components," which means there are precisely 470 stocks in the S&P 500 not even being considered.

But really, what are the chances that stocks will be up next week if everyone already thinks that stocks will go up? All of the "smart" money will have already bought stocks at the end of this week in anticipation of stocks going up next week--but then who does that leave to buy stocks next week? It all but guarantees that stocks will go down next week. And the more people who believe it will go up next week, the more likely the stocks will go down instead.

Apple might be a crowd favorite, but they can also disappoint. Even if earnings come in above expectations, they could still give guidance that things might be disappointing--or at least not as good as everyone hopes and expects.

Why do they stuff so much media with this crap? I'm going to go out on a limb and dare to be different. I'm calling for the stock market to be down next week--and my theory is no more than because "everyone" seems to expect it to go up next week. =) I won't sell any of the stock I have--and I'm 100% invested in stocks--because I don't think one week will make any difference at all. Even if it's down next week, it might still go up the week after that, or the week after that. And anyhow, I could be wrong. =)

But I am calling a down market next week anyhow!

Monday, October 10, 2011

In Defense of Debit Card Fees

Seems that Bank of America stirred up a hornet's nest by charging folks $5/month for using their debit cards. I don't see anything wrong with this. But, before you string me up in effigy, it's only because I don't see Bank of America as the cause of this fee. No, the anger is misplaced. The blame really should lay on the shoulders of Congress.

Congress passed some laws limiting how much banks can charge in interchange fees. Which, frankly, seems un-American to me. Why should Congress be getting involved in how much a business can charge for their services? What next? Create a law that pizza places can't charge more than $5 per pizza?

Imagine what would happen if such a law were passed. Some pizza places might just go out of business. Or.... they might jack up the prices of other products to make up the difference and make enough to still stay in business. But... then what if people just start buying the pizza and avoiding all of those other expensive products? Well, instead of jacking up the prices of other products, perhaps adding new fees for a pizza can make up the difference instead. You know, like a "pizza preparation fee." They'll sell you the ingredients for $5, but if you want them to put all of those ingredients together into a pizza, well, that'll be another $5.

You might think comparing pizzas to debit cards is silly, but basically, this is exactly what happened. Banks paid for stuff like "free" checking and debit cards with money from those interchange fees, and because of an act of Congress, they can't anymore. They have to make money in other ways--by charging for other fees or increasing already-existing fees. Banks warned this would happen if Congress went through with their meddling, and by golly, that's exactly what's happening.

People have always been paying those debit card fees--they were just more hidden from view. You paid for them in higher prices on the goods you bought with them. It was built into the price of the goods and services you bought. Now they're separated, itemized, as it were.

I'm kind of surprised that Bank of America hasn't been better explaining all this, though. Really, it's been a PR disaster for them, and it seems like they're response has been nothing more than, "Tough, live with it." They really need to do a better job explaining why this new fee has been created in the first place--Congress made them do it. =)

Bank of America seems to be the whipping boy for this issue, but all the major banks are moving in this direction, and I'm sure more will continue to do so. It's not a bank-specific problem--it's a banking-specific problem.

And since we're talking about banks, here are a couple of my own thoughts on the subject:

If you aren't using a credit union, WHY NOT?! For those Occupy Wall Street folks complaining about banks making too much money, HELLO, use a credit union! It's essentially a non-profit bank! You get better rates, fewer fees, and more bang for the buck. It's amazing to me that for-profit banks can even stay in business against credit unions. And for those people who choose to use a traditional for-profit bank, well, it's America, and by golly, you have every right to squander your money on poor service. I'm not going to go in the streets and protest it, though. =)

And, if for some reason you can't join any credit union, well, I do have one account with a for-profit bank I've been quite happy with you might also consider: ING Direct. They're an online-only bank which lets them save on costs like, you know, buildings and tellers, and other expensive stuff that brick-and-mortar banks still have to deal with. It feels more like a credit union than a for-profit bank, but of course, the catch is that you have to do all of your business online. =) For most people, though, I don't think that's a big hurdle to clear. There are plenty of free ATMs around to get money out of, you can direct-deposit your paychecks into the account, and really, what else do you need? I have a credit union back in San Luis Obispo that I like, but it's a little distant for me to use regularly nowadays. I started online banking when I moved to Oregon and continue to use to here in Washington and have been happy with it for years. =)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Why David Trainer is an Idiot

I was reading Don't Fall For the Market's Head Fakes by David Trainer on this morning. At least I was until I reached that graph. I have a major problem with this graph: the scale. If you look at the left-hand side of that graph, you'll see the levels for large-cap stocks in increments of 500, each of them evenly spaced, which I've reproduced in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Scary-looking, huh? Not really--it's blatantly misleading. 

The problem with that scale on the left is that an increase from 500 to 1000 means it doubled in value. The difference between those numbers is 100%. At the top of the scale, from 3000 to 3500, the value went up a mere 16%. A 500-point change in 1926 was a lot more than a 500-point change in 2010, and not at all comparable. The scale should have been logarithmic for apple-to-apple comparisons between 1926 and 2010.

If you look closely at the graph, you can even "sense" that this graph is bull$#!! The Great Depression started in 1929. The Dow fell from a high of 381.17 in 1929 to a low of 41.22 in 1932--a staggering 89% drop in value. But look at this graph during that time period. That black line representing the stock market looks absolutely flat. If the Dow fell the same number of points today--339.95, it amounts to a 3% drop in value. How useful can a graph possibly be when a 3% drop in value today is equivalent to an 89% drop in value in 1929-32?

And that "trendline"--how is it possible that a "trend" can overshoot the value it's supposed to be trending (and by such an enormous margin!) from 1926 through 1994? To show how ridiculous this trendline is, I took a segment of the graph above for use in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The trend--from 1926 through 1980, seems to be quit a bit off from the
 actual values it's supposed to be trending. Could it really be off by this much for over 50 years?!
 Is there anyone during these 54 years who ever showed such a graph to explain why stock
 prices were so incredibly undervalued for over 50 years? No--because that "trend" wasn't created until 2010!

But what would a properly drawn graph look like? This is the second problem I have with the graph: The small print. Sources:   New Con­structs, LLC and Ibbot­son Ibbot­son, 2010 Ibbot­son Stocks, Bonds, Bills and Infla­tion Val­u­a­tion Year­book, (Chicago: Morn­ing Star, 2008), 228–229. *Large Cap Stocks as defined by Ibbot­son are the best com­par­i­son for the S&P 500, which did not exist as it does today in 1926.

So basically, this scale is completely made up using a source I don't readily have access to. It's true, the S&P500 did not exist today as it did in 1926, but the Dow Jones Industrial Average did. Why not just use that? The Dow has always been made up of a large cap stocks, and it's an index I can look up values for and graph with ease on Yahoo Finance.

Figure 3: A properly scaled graph of the DJIA from 1926 to today.

Looks a lot different like this, huh? You can quite clearly see the stock market crash from the Great Depression early in the graph. Now that must have been painful! A similar crash today would send the Dow plummeting nearly 10,000 points to about 1,000.

And what about the trend line? Unfortunately, Yahoo doesn't have a slick option to "insert trendline" into their graphs, but I figured I could eyeball one myself and add it in. Can't be any worse than the graph provided by David Trainer. So I added a trendline for Figure 4.

Figure 4: My custom-made trend line. Fits a lot better than David's trendline, doesn't it?

There are statistical methods available to get a statistically correct trendline, and while I don't claim my trendline is 100% accurate, just looking around, it feels intuitively correct. Before the Great Depression, at the end of the go-go '20s, the stock market is now widely considered overvalued and speculative. (At the time, it wasn't so obvious, but in hindsight, it always is!) And my trendline shows that. At the greatest depths of the Great Depression, stocks were considered cheap, and my trendline shows this.

For pretty much all of the 1980s, my trendline shows stocks to be undervalued, and had you loaded up then, you'd have done pretty well for yourselves. But by 2000, stocks were wildly overpriced at their worst values since the Great Depression, and again, my trendline shows this.

And during the market meltdown that hit bottom in 2009, my trendline shows that stocks fell well below normal values and only recently returned close to the trendline.

So while my trendline may not be scientifically precise, it does seem to be more-or-less correct. And really, when it comes to the stock market, it's better to be approximately correct than precisely wrong. =)

So what does this mean for the future? I won't make any claims about what will happen next week or next month or even next year. I have no idea what will happen. But I do know this: That trendline is going up. Through a Great Depression, two world wars, through 9/11--it keeps going up. If the trend continues, the Dow could hit 20,000 in the next 10 years. Maybe more, maybe less, depending on the state of mind of investors at the time. But whatever the actual value turns out to be, it's almost certainly going to be higher.

And that's why I think David Trainer is an idiot. He can't even look at a simple graph and say, "You know, this graph is misleading and deceiving." All those clues in the graph never made him sit up and think critically.

But that's okay--it's people like him that scare others out of the stock market, driving prices down, and allowing me to purchase stocks that I believe are significantly undervalued. Just because I think he's an idiot doesn't mean I don't like him or appreciate his efforts in allowing me to buy stocks on the cheap. Thanks, Dave! =)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Trademark This!

I just finished reading an article titled Apple Sues Amazon Over Term 'App Store'.

And I want to be the first to say BOOOO Apple! How Apple even managed to trademark such a generic term in the first place I can't figure out, but that's about the same as PayLess Shoes trying to trademark the term "Shoe Store" or Ben and Jerry's trying to trademark the term "Ice Cream Store." It's stupid and ridiculous, and a completely waste of everyone's money.

So BOOO Apple. If you want to trademark a term, come up with a creative name. That's your specialty, isn't it? Creativity? Surely you can do better than "App Store." That sounds like something Microsoft would have come up with.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Bing vs. Google

There was a news report where Google accuses Bing of copying their search results. The folks at Bing say that's just nonsense. Which is the truth?

Seems to me like it's pretty darned easy to test that theory. Run a few search results in both and see if they turn out the same. So I tried that. =)

When I search for "letterboxing" on Google, I get links to LbNA for the first four search results, then a link to Atlas Quest, then two links to wikipedia, then a link to Silent Doug's

A search for "letterboxing" on Bing, I first get a link to LbNA, then a link to wikipedia, then a link to Atlas Quest, then a link to Silent Doug's

Guess what that means? The results are different! Apparently, the results are only the same if you're searching for made-up words. =) And really, how often do you search for made up words?

If you want to talk about the quality of searches, when it comes to "letterboxing," I think I'd give the edge to Bing. The fact that Google clutters up their results so the first four results point to the same website makes it harder to find multiple sources of information. However, I will admit, I'm happy that the first non-LbNA website on Google is Atlas Quest, while AQ is #3 on Bing. But because of those multiple links to the same website, Atlas Quest actually shows up as the #5 link on Google. Which, I suppose, might make Google more popular with people who don't like Atlas Quest, but in terms of quality searches, that's just bad....

Seems more like a desperate ploy by Google than anything. Perhaps feeling a little threatened by Bing's growing influence? Which seems ridiculous to me--Google is still the 800 pound gorilla in search. They should act like it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

401(k)s Suck

After complaining about health insurance being tied to one's job, I'd like to expand that complaint about it being tied to 401(k) plans.

Back in my Intel days, my health insurance and 401(k) accounts were basically selected by Intel. Neither of which really made me happy. Why can't *I* make such selections? Being as healthy as I am, I didn't make much use of my health insurance options. I remember Intel sending me a statement one year saying they spent something like $4,500 for my health insurance, and I laughed thinking, "Wow, they really got ripped off!" I'd have preferred them pay me that money and I'd have bought my own health insurance somewhere else.

When I first started working at Intel, I also opened up a 401(k) account because hey, that's what you do to save for retirement, right? After about a year of saving money in the account, I took a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of them and decided to stop. Oh, I'd still save for retirement, but I decided I liked a boring old IRA better. The main reason--to disentangle myself from the mutual fund choices that Intel provided. I thought they sucked.

I had to open an account with some firm--I don't even remember what one it was anymore--and I got a sheet with a list of 20 or so mutual funds I could choose to invest in including stocks, bonds, money markets, and pure Intel stock. I think it might have been USB. I remember somehow ending up in a situation where I had a USB account with something like $10 in it. I don't even know how that happened, but I had that account for three or four years wondering why they kept wasting money telling me about ten bucks I had in my account. I finally got annoyed enough at the statements that I finally called them and got them close the account and send a check for me for ten bucks.

I put all my money in what I considered the lesser of 20 (or so) evils--an S&P 500 index fun. But why should I be limited to those options in the first place?

When I started working, I signed up to have my paycheck direct deposited in a bank account of my choosing. It's a great system! It works like this: I open a bank account wherever I want, then I tell Intel the account number so they can send my money into it. Why can't 401(k)s work like that? It's so simple. I can invest the money with any company I choose.

The one really nice thing about being laid off--besides having more time for other hobbies--is that they kick you out of the program. I was required to take my money and split, which I considered a blessing. =) I rolled it over into a traditional IRA with an institution of my choosing, and could then invest it in any choice of thousands of mutual funds and stocks.

But the system is screwed up, if you want my opinion. Intel should not be able to limit my investment options to the 20-or-so options they deemed acceptable--and if there's one investment in my book that's NOT acceptable, it's investing in your own company's stock. Just ask anyone that used to work at Enron or Lehman Brothers--but that was a prominent option. Obviously, Intel's investment choices did not have my best interests at heart. It had their own interests at heart, which is the very reason they should NOT be in control of those accounts in the first place.

Amanda has a 401(k) due to her working the corporate job and recently let me take a gander at the investment options they provide. I cringed. I did not like the options at all. Even the S&P 500 index fund had an expense ratio of 0.5%--which I consider absolutely insulting when I know there are such index funds with an expense ratio of just 0.1%. That index fund was charging five times more than it should! And it was the cheapest fund available in terms of expense ratio. Criminal!

But in her case, I suggested she should keep adding to it. Not because the funds choices are great, but because her airline has matching contributions. That's really the only thing that makes it worth while. If it weren't for the matching contributions, I'd tell her she was better off taking her retirement money elsewhere. Intel did not have matching contributions, so that issue wasn't a consideration for me.

Once Amanda retires (or is laid off--this is the airline business we're talking about here), she'll be free to roll over the 401(k) into an account of her own choosing--one with more and better options available. Until then, she's stuck with cruddy investment options.

But it ticks me off. Direct deposits into a bank account of my choice worked so well. Why is it so darned hard to do the same with 401(k) accounts? The company you work for should not be who gets to choose where to invest your money.

I had a second account I opened while working at Intel--this one in regards to the stock participation plan. Basically, it let me buy Intel stock at a discount. Normally, I'm not inclined to buy stock in the company I work for (and at the time, I felt Intel stock was wildly overpriced anyhow), but they'd let me buy the stock for a minimum of 15% below the current market price, and I could sell it immediately for a profit. It was free money! It would be stupid not to take it.

But it meant I had to open an account with E*Trade, a company I loath. I used to have a brokerage account with them. I used to have a bank account with them. And eventually I realized the errors of my ways and ditched them. Until Intel foisted them back onto me. Bastards! Can't they just deposit the stock in a brokerage account of MY choosing? Direct deposit the stock into a company I'd actually want to do business with?

This is actually fresh in my mind, because that E*Trade account still haunts me today. I haven't worked at Intel since 2001, and somehow 63 shares of Intel stock got stuck in a twilight zone. I wasn't able to sell the stock, because they didn't have "paperwork" to authorize it. I couldn't transfer the stock out of the account, because it didn't match the name on my other brokerage account. And those stupid 63 shares have been collecting dust ever since, mostly because I was too lazy to fill out paperwork to "authorize" the company to sell them. Really my own fault, in that sense, but the stock is down about 50% from that original purchase price, so it's turned into a remarkable loss for a little "free money."

Anyhow, I'm tired of them sending statements to me for the past decade, and finally decided to do whatever it took to close the account. And if, God willing, I can actually get that stock sold (*fingers crossed*), I can actually claim a capital loss on it and save some money in taxes. It'll be the first good thing this stock has ever done for me.

So I called up E*Trade this afternoon, punching in account numbers, codes, and at one point yelling into the automated talking machine, "I want to talk to a real, live talking person!" And the machine sweetly responded that it "could not understand my request." I pounded the phone a few times, then pressed pound over and over and over again to see what happened, and the automated voice suggested that if I wanted to talk to a representative, I could press one. So I pressed one, and finally got to talk to a real-live, honest-to-goodness person. "And what's your account number?" he asked. ARGH! Why the heck does their stupid machine ask me to punch in my account number if apparently their service representatives can't even see that information?!

We chatted a bit, him trying to convince me to open an E*Trade bank account, and my telling him I wanted to cut every last thing tying me to their wreck of a financial institution, and he finally transferred me to a trading specialist who, somehow, remarkably, was able to put in a sell order for those 63 shares of Intel (requiring no paperwork on my part--why the hell couldn't they do that back in 2001?!), and I should be rid of those evil shares once the market opens later this morning. The trade will cost $14 and change, and they were "kind" enough to waive the $40 fee they normally charge for doing something I wanted them to do eight years ago for not selling it online through their website. (I wanted to! *rolling eyes*) Good riddens! The money should settle after a few business days, then they'll send me a check and close the account. Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel!

By comparison, my main brokerage account currently lies in the hands of Scottrade. I can't say enough kind things about these folks. I recently called them about a week ago. I owned a few shares of Terra Industries, and they paid out a special one-time dividend of $7.50 per share, which plopped about $2,000 cash into my account. Normally, I'd just reinvest the dividends in whatever stock looked particularly attractive at the time, but I'm looking to fund my IRA and HSA accounts come January. (I've already maxed out my contributions for this year.) I wasn't entirely happy about having $2,000 in dividend income showing up for the IRS (really, they couldn't wait an extra two weeks for the new tax year so I can delay paying taxes on it for 12 months?), but at least it gives me two grand in cash to put towards these other accounts. The only catch was--I needed to get the money out.

So I called up Scottrade about a week ago. And you know what happened? Someone answered the phone, saying something like, "You've reached Scottrade. How can we help you?" No buttons to press. I told him, "I need to get some money out of my account." I told him my account number, how much money I wanted to take out (two grand), and confirmed the address on the account that the check should be sent to, and we hung up. It was a wonderful experience, and that's exactly the reason I prefer doing business with Scottrade rather than E*Trade. Nothing I've ever tried to do with E*Trade has ever been easy.

And get this--I can buy or sell a stock at Scottrade for $7. E*Trade charges twice as much, and the service there sucks!

I'm getting a little track, but my point is this: I wouldn't have had to even deal with E*Trade if it wasn't for Intel's meddling to begin with. Just deposit the stock into an account of my choosing, just like you do with my paycheck. I could have gotten better service, at better prices, and been a heck of a lot happier with the end results.

To me, jobs are where I get paychecks. My employer really should not be involved in choosing my health care, retirement options, brokerage accounts, and so forth. But everyone always goes on like this is normal, or even good. If you're a corporate drone, it may be the best option available. But it shouldn't have to be that way, and I sure wish someone would fix it.

Why I Hate Politics

There are a few things in the news that have been bothering me, so I'm going to complain.

First up: Gitmo. There's talk about moving the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay into the United States, such as to a prison in Illinois. I guess some are going to be tried in New York City, mere blocks away from where the Twin Towers once stood, and a lot of people are all up in arms about this.

And I wonder--WHY? Who the heck cares? They're in a prison in Illinois. What do people think will happen--they'll escape and go on a rampage killing everyone they can? I suppose technically it could happen, but that can happen to Gitmo too. At least if they escape from Gitmo, they can escape into Cuba and be beyond our reach. Much better. *rolling eyes*

I suppose the idea of exiling Bad People onto an island is appealing to a lot of people (Alcatraz, anyone?), but they're in prison, which in my book makes them no more dangerous in Illinois than they would be in Cuba. The idea of holding people prisoner indefinitely without a trial I find a little disturbing. If there's good evidence that these people are dangerous, why hide it? If there's not good evidence that these people are dangerous, why are they being held? I never liked the setup to begin with, and if they start putting some of these folks on trial--great!

Most trials are held near where the crime took place. If I rob a bank here in San Luis and get caught, you'll probably see me showing up in court here in San Luis--not Seattle. So holding a trial for someone related to the 9/11 attacks--it makes sense to have it in New York City.

A change of venue makes a lot of sense in this case--granted, it would probably be tough to find anyone in the world who was an unbiased opinion of the matter, but some folks will likely be more prejudice than others regarding the manner, and the citizens of New York City are probably among them. No discredit to the citizens of NYC--that's perfectly understandable. But the victims of a crime are not exactly the best people to choose to decide their fate either. So it starts in NYC--I don't really have a problem with that. If both the defense and prosecutor don't mind holding it in NYC, by all means, let them. If they want a change of venue, though, I'd give them that too. But my point--for all the drama that shows up in the news, I think it's much ado about nothing.

Then there's the health-care debate. Politics of the worst kind. The "public option" is one of those things that seems to get people riled up. Supporters seem to suggest that it could single-handedly save the world, while those against seem to suggest that it'll be the end of the world if it's allowed. I'm in neither camp--my thought is that it's much ado about nothing. I don't think it'll help reduce health-care costs in the long run (the for-profit companies don't have particularly high margins to begin with), but it's not going to be financial ruin either. So I don't really care if there is a public option or not--just so long as it's not subsidized by the taxpayers. Whatever it takes in in premiums must cover all expenses. I don't expect it to be for profit, but it should not be allowed to run at a loss either.

Republicans are whining about all the things wrong with the plan. Perhaps there's some element of truth to their statements, but they're in the minority and therefore it is their duty and cry and throw tantrums every chance they can get. Some of you might think I'm bashing the Republicans, but the Democrats would do the same thing if the rolls were reversed, and did so after Republicans took control of both sides of Congress during the Clinton administration.

Here's the problem with Republicans: They have practically no power. They don't control the Senate, the House, or the Presidency. It is in their best interests to see Democrats fail. It is in their best interests to see the economy tank, health-care costs spiral out of control, inflation to shoot through the roof, and lose the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If those things happen, the Republicans will sit back and say, "Ah, see, I told you that would happen. It's all those Democrats fault, but we didn't have enough people on our side."

Heaven forbid, if a solid, really good piece of health-care legislation did come out of Congress and it turns into a stunning success, Democrats will happily take all of the credit (and given the Republicans staunch opposition, deservedly so). So it's in the best interests of Republicans everywhere to see that the Democrats fail. Absolutely and completely fail. With health-care being such a hot-button topic, it makes sense that Republicans want to torpedo any legislation regarding it. They need it to fail. Doesn't matter if the legislation is good or not--it just needs to be stopped.

I personally don't have a strong opinion about the current health-care bill being kicked around in Congress one way or another. My biggest complaint regarding health-care isn't being addressed at all--which is why health-care is tied to the company one works for. That's just f****d up.

Imagine that everyone always got car insurance through your job. If you lost your job or changed jobs, you'd also lose your car insurance or be required to change insurance carriers. It's stupid--why should my employer decide where I can get my car insurance?

That's the thing that ticks me off the most--that insurance is most often tied to one's employer. I think it's stupid. There are historical reasons for why that developed, but it's a terrible setup.

It also hides the real costs of health insurance from the people who have it. If you have to fill a prescription but it costs you only $10 no matter where you get it, what are the chances you will comparison shop? Not very high. Maybe the drug normally costs $30 at Costco but $90 at Walgreens. That's a HUGE difference, but it doesn't matter to you--you pay $10 at either place.

Ultimately, the people paying premiums ARE paying that added cost, but one's employer is often the person footing the bill, so it still doesn't "hurt" like it would money out of your own pocket. Companies that are footing the bill don't like it, though, and are pushing more and more of the costs back to the employees that are ringing up the bills. Fair is fair. *shrug* There's a lot of talk about 'socialized medicine' and how terrible that would be, but that's practically what we have already. We have a socialized health-care system wearing a capitalism costume, creating this strange creature that combines the worst of both approaches. Getting away from that would be a good thing.

Back to the auto insurance comparison--what if you're driving around without auto insurance, then wreck your vehicle. If you tried to get insurance a week later, your wreck isn't going to be covered because it's a "pre-existing condition." So yeah, a health-insurance policy that doesn't allow for pre-existing conditions makes sense. Insurance is supposed to protect you against unknown events in the future. It's not really "insurance" if it's protecting you against known events.

I don't really have a good solution to this pre-existing condition problem. I haven't heard of a good solution to it either. If you wreck a car then want the pre-existing condition covered, I'm sure the insurance company would be happy to accommodate you--but they're going to add the cost of that known expense to their premiums. They have to to stay in business. Same goes for health insurance companies. If they know you're going to cost a lot of money to treat, they're going to charge a lot more to cover the cost. Maybe basic health insurance should be a fundamental right for every American. It'll cost more, but treating poor, uninsured folks in emergency rooms isn't cheap either.

We don't want our employers telling us what company to use for auto insurance, so why the heck do we let them tell us where to get our health insurance from? That's screwed up.

Whatever happens with the current health-care proposals, it won't be the end of the world as we know it (like the Republicans suggest), but I don't see it helping much either (like the Democrats suggest). It's politics as usual--much ado about nothing. *sigh*