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Archive for February, 2009

I once read an inspirational email sent to me by a friend.  Or perhaps I read it as a joke in our false positive inbox at work.  I forget which, but it doesn’t matter.  Allow me to paraphrase.

A man returns home from hard day’s work.  Just before he gets home to meet his family, he puts his hand next to the door and pauses for a few moments and bows his head.  He finally lifts his head and hand and heads into the door where he meets his family.  The next morning, he leaves the house and closes the door.  He puts his hand next to the door, the same place as the night before, and then leaves for the day.  This process repeats day after day after day.

One day, his neighbor, who has been observing him for some time, asks him why he does this.  The man replies "I have many problems at work and in life.  When I get home, I leave my problems outside my home on the door before I meet my family.  In the morning, I pick them up again when I go off to work."  The moral of the story is simple – separate your work life from your home life and don’t bring your problems home with you.  It’s very inspirational.

Except that it doesn’t work for me.  I have discovered that I am incapable of separating work from personal. 

I like my job.  I like it a lot.  In fact, I can’t envision doing anything else within Microsoft.  I read articles about spam filtering on my own time.  I participate in discussion threads about spam.  I plan articles on my other blog and sometimes spend weeks on an entire series.  I love going to antispam conferences.  At home, I am constantly thinking about ways to thwart spammers, thinking about writing specs, thinking about ways to make our processes more efficient.  I suppose that the reason I cannot separate it out from my life is because it has become a very important part of my life.  I don’t want to separate it.

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Today, the Senate passed a bill totaling $817 billion.  That’s nearly a trillion dollars.  "Holy flirking schnit!" I said to myself when I saw the size of it.  Combined with the $800 billion TARP bailout earlier this year plus the original $200 billion stimulus plus all the other bailouts of individual companies, we’re approaching nearly $2 trillion. 

So how did we get into this mess?  Is the government buying up all these assets, cutting taxes and embarking on new spending projects really a good thing?  Let’s examine these things one by one, starting at the beginning.  I’ll put everything into an oversimplified nutshell.

It all started during the Clinton era when the government passed a law called the Community Reinvestment Act.  This law, continued during the Bush Administration, was designed to increase housing among all Americans but especially among minorities.  Government encouraged pseudo-federal organizations like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to become less stringent in their lending standards.  In 2001-2002, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to 1% and long term mortgage rates dropped alongside them.  This was a perfect storm.

People with No-Income-No-Job got loans (NINJA loans).  Everyone could get loans and banks were happy to lend the money.  Loans were cheap because interest rates were low; it was assumed that people could refinance before the floating rates went up.

To further complicate matters, as interest rates declined in recent years, investors — particularly conservative ones — sought to increase their return without giving up safety and liquidity. They wanted something for nothing, and the market obliged. They were given instruments ultimately based on mortgages on private homes. They therefore had a very real asset base — a house — and therefore had collateral. The value of homes historically had risen, and therefore the value of the assets appeared secured. Financial instruments of increasing complexity eventually were devised, which were bought by conservative investors. In due course, these instruments were bought by less conservative investors, who used them as collateral for borrowing money. They used this money to buy other instruments in a pyramiding scheme that rested on one premise: the existence of houses whose value remained stable or grew.

So we have the following:

  • Government that encouraged home purchasing
  • A Federal Reserve lowering interest rates
  • Banks lending out money to people who were risky
  • Investors willing to purchase the securities

So long as house prices kept going up, things held together.  But eventually, interest rates began to rise.  The assumption that homeowners would do anything in their power to keep their home is a valid one, but it stopped working.  When your mortgage payment goes up 50%-100%, you have less incentive to keep making it.  Homeowners could no longer afford their mortgages, so they stopped paying and started walking away.  Suddenly, the bank was stuck with an asset and nobody was paying for it.

Banks have always had to foreclose on homes, but now they had to foreclose on a lot more.  Demand dried up because rates were too high; banks suddenly had a lot of houses on their hands with nobody paying back the loans on the money they lent out.

Banks are in the process of lending money, it’s what keeps their business going.  At a certain point, the facts could no longer be hidden, and vast amounts of value evaporated — taking with them not only the vast pyramids of those who first created the instruments and then borrowed heavily against them, but also the more conservative investors trying to put their money in a secure space while squeezing out a few extra points of interest. The decline in housing prices triggered massive losses of money in the financial markets, as well as reluctance to lend based on uncertainty of values. The result was a liquidity crisis, which simply meant that a lot of people had gone broke and that those who still had money weren’t lending it — certainly not to financial institutions.  Money started to "freeze."  It became very difficult to borrow money because nobody was sure if the guy they were lending it to had a lot of bad assets on their balance sheets and would later on default on the loan.

So that, in a nutshell, is how we got here.  But there is more, much more to the story.  And that is something I will go into during my next few posts.

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Today, 60 Minutes ran a story about the band Coldplay.  I’m not much of a music geek so I have a hard time mapping songs to bands, and it’s made even more difficult by the fact that most of the time I don’t even know the name of the song.

However, one band that I like is Coldplay.  They played some of their songs on 60 Minutes and I was like "Hey, I like that song.  And that one, too!  Oh, and that one!"  I had known that they wrote Clocks in 2003, but I didn’t realize that Viva la Vida as well.  I went and listened to a couple of more songs on iTunes, and I have to say that I liked them as well.  I guess that makes me a fan of alternative rock. 

This contrasts me from my sister who likes techno, which I despise.

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I have a list of banned foods that I refuse to eat, and that list also includes banned restaurants.  I have a new food for that list.

This past Monday at work I decided to have a cup of tea.  Normally, I avoid flavored tea because I don’t like it.  The flavor ruins my tea experience.  But for some reason I can’t explain I decided to have a cup of tea flavored with cinnamon (ie, a cinnamon teabag).  That was a mistake.

An hour later, I started to experience stomach pains.  Two hours after that, my stomach was really hurting.  The cramps started in the pit of my stomach and ran up along the inside of my rib cage.  I couldn’t even stand up.  I ran through what I had eaten recently and the only thing was the cinnamon tea.  I had a couple of antacids but I learned my lesson – cinnamon tea is now on my list of banned foods.  That list now looks like the following:

  1. Milkshakes, especially from Tech City Bowling
  2. McDonald’s breakfasts, from the one on Redmond Way
  3. Red Robin, because the service sucks
  4. Priht’s Indian restaurant, because the food is not good at all
  5. Kimchi, because it’s horrible stuff
  6. Cinnamon tea

I’m sure that the list is bigger than that, but these are the top 6.  Note that food I don’t like (like raisins) is not necessarily on the list of banned foods.  To be on the banned food list, I have to have had a bad experience with the food.  The above six qualify for that.

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My idiot neighbors, so named because they play music really loudly all the freaking time at all hours of the day, including right now as I type this, need to read notes carefully.

The other day, I got a note in my mailbox.  It was from the property manager, it was one of those "Dear Resident" letters that everyone in the complex gets.  It was one of those letters that reminds residents of the rules of the establishment.

It said stuff pay your fees on time, don’t park in others’ assigned parking spots and your vehicle must be properly licensed.  However, the one thing that caught my eye was the following:

The property’s quiet hours are 10pm to 8am; during these hours please try to be as respectful to all of your neighbors by not running, jumping, playing loud music or doing laundry.

If I would have known this note was coming in advance, I would have intercepted the note head for my neighbor’s mailbox.  I would have created a new copy and stuffed it in there that read the following way:

The property’s quiet hours are 10pm to 8am; during these hours please try to be as respectful to all of your neighbors by not running, jumping, playing loud music or doing laundry.  We’re talking about you, apartment K112.  Seriously, are you really that ignorant that you don’t realize that playing loud music at 1 am is irritating to others?  Stop it!  Morons…

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t realize that the note was coming.

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These past couple of weeks, we have learned that three of President Barack Obama’s cabinet nominations have had problems in the past paying their taxes.  Two of those nominations have since withdrawn their names from consideration. 

Timothy Geithner is currently the Treasury Secretary; he was voted in 18-5.  Former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle was up for the Department of Health and Human Services while Nancy Killefer was up for Chief Performance Officer.

As I look around a discussion board where they discuss politics (but I rarely participate in anymore), the Republicans are saying "So much for change!"  The Democrats counter and say "So what?  It’s not like the Democrats are any better!  You guys should hardly criticize!"

This misses the point for two reasons:

  1. President Obama campaigned on the theme of change.  If the Republicans really were as bad as the Democrats say they are, then these tax allegations demonstrate that the "change" was nothing more than a catch phrase.  It’s all staying the same.
  2. More importantly, it’s all about perception and hypocrisy.  The stereotype is that Republicans are against taxes and want to cut them, whereas the Democrats are compassionate and want to spend money on all these programs and therefore need to raise taxes to pay for them.

    If Republicans are evading taxes, then it’s because they are against taxes and are doing everything in their power, even if illegally, to avoid them.  However, if Democrats avoid them, then what they are saying is that everyone else should pay taxes… but not them.  They are redistributing everyone else’s money but not their own.

    So you see, it’s the double-standard.  The party of pro-taxes, right or wrongly perceived, cannot afford to be seen as wanting to spend everyone else’s money but not their own.  It’s what hurt the Republicans, the party of small government that increased its budget every year for eight years.

    That’s the point that the Democrat apologists are failing to grasp.

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Last week, my dance instructor, with whom I am planning on doing a performance with in two weeks, asked me think about what my outfit will look like.  I said that I was planning on doing black trousers and a black waistcoat (that’s a vest for my North American readers).  I didn’t know what color I wanted the shirt to be.  My instructor suggested two options: either white or black.  Going with white would provide significant contrast but going all black would look slick.  I said I would consider them.

I started shopping around and looked at white shirts and black shirts (believe it or not, I have neither of those colors in my closet).  While in the store, the inspiration hit me for what I wanted to do.

I tie this dance performance closely to my magic performances.  In magic, I try to create a consistent character.  Many years ago, I used to street perform in a suit and tie and try to look very formal to set me apart in the crowd.  Over time I relaxed the look and started to perform in much more casual attire.  Results were mixed; sometimes it worked out well and sometimes not.  However, performing in more formal attire has always had a special place in my heart.  I can never go back to performing in a suit and tie, however, because I always make sure I perform with my sleeves rolled up.  Wearing a coat jacket would not allow me to do that.

My magic tends to explore certain themes and motifs.  A theme is an underlying story that is woven throughout the entire act.  For example, a magician might have a gambling theme and every effect is related to gambling.  Another magician might do a mentalism routine and every effect is a mentalist one.  I have, historically, been very poor at creating a consistent theme throughout my act and I believe it has been to my detriment.

A motif is not to be confused with a theme.  Motifs pop up and recur from time to time during a show.  An example might be to offer a spectator a chance to win $20 if he fails to do something.  The magician succeeds.  Some time later, he gives the spectator a chance to win $50… and then later on $100.  It is recurring.  One motif that I do explore is color.  I prefer my props to be either white, black or red.  My close-up mat is red.  The multiplying ball routine uses red balls.  I always use red decks of cards.  However, I also have a set of white (blank) cards.  The appearing cane I have is black with white tips.  I like to contrast these against black backgrounds.  If I can’t get a black background, then I use a dark color like navy blue.  So you see, color is one thing that is important to me and always has been, long before I started thinking about it.

And this pops back to my choice of outfit.  I have always wanted to perform magic wearing a vest so that was one easy choice.  I was walking through a store and I saw a red shirt.  As soon as I saw it, I knew that was I was going to perform in it.  Red is one of the motifs I have historically used to perform magic and it contrasts nicely against a black background (trousers and waistcoat).  It fits in very nicely and later on I can use it to perform magic when I finally strike out and find a regular performing gig.

DSCI0282

Doesn’t that guy look sharp?  It’s actually more formal than I had planned to look.

But wait, the story actually gets better.  Red and black fits in very well when performing magic.  When my instructor asked me what color of shirt I had decided on this past week, I told her but I cased it within a story.  I brought along a deck of cards (red-backed, of course) and said the following:

One of the things I work with a lot is a deck of cards.  If you think about a deck of cards, the color of the cards is black.

At this point, I turned over the top card:

 image

I leaned over, took hold of her left and and lifted it up so her hand was parallel to the floor, palm up.  I took the card and placed onto her palm, face down.  I continued:

However, the cards are not simply black. (I waved my hand over the card three times — three is another motif of mine — and snapped my fingers) Oh, no, for if you continue onwards, the cards are also… red.

I turned over the card from her palm to reveal the following one at the same moment I said the word "red":

image

So you see, for me, it wasn’t enough to simply reveal what colors I had decided to go with.  I had to encompass it within a story to give it meaning and it’s all woven together with a consistent unity.  Anything less simply would not have done my choice justice.

By the way, there’s one more subtle subtext alluded to in this story.  Can you spot it?

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