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Archive for August, 2010

Paying off some debts

Well, this past month after several years of saying I was going to do it, I finally paid off my student loan.  It’s something I could have paid off a long time ago, but hadn’t done so.  This is because I had a sizeable portion of funds left in a bank in Canada where it was auto-debiting.  I left it like that, but I did the math and I could see that it was going to run out of funds soon and so I simply decided to pay off the rest of it.  It wasn’t a lot of money, but it’s one part of my debt that has cleared.

The next debt agent to go will be my car loan.  I refinanced my car earlier this year and transferred it from a bank in Canada to a bank in the United States. This was back when I needed the money to pay down my condo when I anticipated selling it.  They ended up giving me more money than I needed, which means it is also more money on loan to me than previously (quite a bit more).  I paid back half of it, and I shall be paying back the rest in the next little.  What is irritating is that I transferred some money from a US account to my Canadian bank to cover the payments… and then 4 months later I switched the loan over meaning I transferred the money for almost no reason at all.  I lost on the exchange rate back then, and since I am going to take some of those funds to cover part of my car loan I will be losing on the exchange rate again.  However, at least that loan will also be paid off which should help my credit rating.

Speaking of credit ratings, what good is good credit worth, anyhow?  If I were to get foreclosed on, it would seriously hurt my credit.  A short sale on my property (meaning I sell it for less than I owe on my mortgage, subject to bank approval) is similarly hard on my credit rating.  It would stay on my record for seven years.  However, as I looked at it, I wondered “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Well, with bad credit, I wouldn’t be able to do the following:

  1. Get a credit card.  I currently have an American Express Gold Card with a very high limit that gives me points.  It’s pretty much all I need, but if I wanted to be safe I could also get a Visa card before doing a short sale.  That way, I’d be prevented from ever getting another card for the next 7 years but it wouldn’t matter because I’d have all I need, not to mention my debit cards.
  2. Get a loan to buy a house.  This is not much of deterrent to me because after the experience of owning this particular piece of property, I am not really looking at buying another piece of real estate for a long, long time.  So on the one hand, I wouldn’t be able to buy a house.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to, either.  I guess in the span of seven years I might change my mind, but on the other hand the experience of owning this one has disavowed me of any notion I might have had towards doing it again.
  3. Get a loan to buy a car.  This is the one drawback of poor credit.  I want to replace my car in the next little while.  There’s nothing wrong with it, but my philosophy is that it is better to sell too soon than too late.  This works very well for stocks, and almost everything else as well.  If I don’t use credit then I have to save up the cash and buy it all at once.  While that’s not terrible, it does limit my choices because it means that the most expensive car I’d buy is maybe $20,000.  Not that I’d ever want to get anything more expensive, the point is that having to pay cash means that certain options are removed.
  4. Go into politics.  From time to time I get political aspirations.  At this stage in my life, a mere 31 years of age, I am starting to get too old for that game.  If you want to get into the game you need to get into it fairly early in life, joining a party and working your way up in the ranks.  Although, I guess it’s not completely out of the question since I have been interested in foreign policy for a long time.  However, politics is an incredibly dirty game.  If you have any sort of dirt in your background, your enemies will dig it up and spread it around for everyone to see.  They will misrepresent you and do everything to sink your campaign.  No matter which party I would join, I’d have default enemies without doing anything to anyone.  And if a bad credit rating were in my history my political opponents would dig it up and use it against me.  That could do me some serious damage.

I am not really considering a short sale or voluntary foreclosure.  But on the other hand, if it had to go down this way (suppose I had to move out of state), I know my options.  And, if I had to move out of country, it wouldn’t even matter!  Your credit history doesn’t follow you around!  Before I moved to the US in 2007, I didn’t exist anywhere in the world, at least according to my bank and car insurer.  It’s the one time when having a bad history doesn’t matter!

Not that I’m moving, but if I did… then it’s not all bad.

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Well, a week ago I had renters for my condo.  Today, the place is empty.  The reason?  Apparently, my homeowner’s association does not permit dogs of any kind in the complex, nor have they since 1988.  My tenants have (had) a dog, and therefore they cannot stay in the place.

I didn’t realize that when I let them move in.  They were approached by a member of the HOA board and instructed that no dogs are allowed and would have to move out.  I tried calling them but to no avail; basically, by the time I could convince everyone in the unit to change their policy it would be way past the time the tenants could have moved in and worked things out.  Effectively, the easiest thing for them to do is move out.

This is not optimal for me.  For one thing, I now have to rent it back out and get a property manager.  That will cost me 10% of the rental income per month.  That hurts because my real estate taxes and HOA dues have both gone up.  To summarize, my costs are going up and my revenue base is declining, and the underlying security is also declining in value with no projections for an increase in the near term.

Sigh…

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The other day, Futurama featured an episode where the spoofed the Creationism/Evolution debate.  I thought that the episode was incredibly funny, below is a clip of the show:

Futurama Thursdays 10pm / 9c
Evolution Under Attack
www.comedycentral.com

In the episode, Professor Farnseworth becomes disgusted that there are so many people who believe in Creationism that he decides to leave the planet.  He brings along the others and they settle on another planet.  While there, he brings along some small, mini-robots who evolve and go through all of the same cycles that life went through here on earth.  The robots claim they evolved, but Farnseworth claims that he created the robots, ie, he advocates creationism, the very doctrine he bitterly denounced while on earth.  He is put on trial for teaching creationism (spoofing the Scopes Monkey Trial) and in the end, everyone agrees that evolution is possible, is most likely the mechanism that produced life but could have been set in motion by an exterior power.

In my younger days, I was actually a strong proponent of Creationism.  I debated a few evolutionists about how they were wrong, and my belief was they were deliberately covering up data that went against their views, or they were deceived.  Indeed, most tests showed the age of the earth was young, not old.

Since then, I have changed my tune.  As it turns out, it is not evolution that is incorrect but creationism.  That is why so many evolutionists refer to it as “creation science”, that is, put it in quotes.  The reason they do this is because from their point of view, the creation scientists use the term science to give themselves an air of legitimacy but are actually distorting science in order to support their claims.  The reality is that we actually have a lot of evidence to suggest that the earth is old.  One of them is the amount of radioactive decay in some rocks.  Using a formula, we can actually determine by working backwards how old certain rocks are, and some of them are millions of years old.  Creationists get around this by suggesting that radioactive decay is not constant, it actually speeds up and looks old, thus, the results are false.  This is incorrect, radioactive decay is constant and the results may be off by a few hundred thousand years, but not by millions.  The rocks are millions of years old.

The above clip is a humorous spoof on the creationist position.  Another creationist argument (young earth creationist – wherein the earth is less than 7000 years old) is that we haven’t found a missing link between apes and humans.  Farnseworth points out that we have found several, but the orangutan keeps saying that no matter how many links are found, they haven’t found the link between that link and apes.  Eventually, Farnseworth has to concede the point and the orangutan says that this disproves the theory of evolution.

We actually do see a gradual complexity of life in the fossil record, and we have found several human transitional forms although it is not necessarily a smooth transition.  The point is that this line of reasoning where more and more missing links must be found is known as “raising the bar.”  No matter how much evidence one position finds, the other refuses to accept it and imposes more and more near impossible conditions. 

There actually is sufficient evidence to see this gradual change in human life.  It isn’t that evolutionary scientists are deceived into thinking that evolution actually occurred, it’s just that the mass body of evidence out there indicates that this is what happened historically.  The position of the evolutionists is that creationists are not interpreting science correctly because they are motivated to come to a different position; if evolution is true then that means that the earth cannot be 7000 years old which contradicts a literal reading of Scripture.  It also contradicts the belief that humans were created as they currently are without ancestry from a common link.  Thus, in order to preserve faith, the science that suggests otherwise must be explained away, interpreted unnaturally or impossible proofs requested.  That interpretation may not support the evidence, but it does support the position of faith.  Note that a failure of evolution to explain something does not constitute de facto support for creationism, it only means that evolution does not explain it.

It is unfortunate that this requirement for a literal reading of scripture that requires a young earth leads some to reject science.  The reality is that there are other ways to interpret the passages in Genesis without requiring a literal interpretation.  There are a few ways to interpret it if you still want to read it as an historical record, but a better way to see it is part of a mythology that is used to illustrate a point the same way the story of the tortoise and the hare illustrates a point.  The Genesis record is that of a supreme deity, God, creating the world in an orderly fashion (Genesis 1) or somewhat more ad hoc (Genesis 2).  This contrasts it to other ancient myths that suggest that the world was created by accident by gods at war with each other, a sort of cosmic accident.  The Genesis account is of God creating the world very good.  At some point in time, humans spoiled things by disobeying God and were kicked out of the garden wherein they would have to work hard.  That’s why people suffer in this life time and that’s why there is an alienation between humans and animals (originally they lived in harmony, now humans use animals to work for them, and humans eat animals).  It explains that things are not supposed to be this way from a spiritual (?) perspective, the underlying point is that mankind is alienated from God.  It was never meant to be taken as a literal history. 

You can reconcile that with evolution any way you like.  You can say that we are alienated from God but that things won’t always be this way.  Or you can come up with some other interpretation, it doesn’t really matter that much so long as you grasp the uber-point.  The fact is that reading this as a literal history is prone to conflicting with the science of what we can actually observe by looking at the physical and historical evidence.

Science, of course, is not inherently bad nor good.  It can be used either way.  The dangers of the denial of science, however, is almost never a good thing.

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Here are some updates on my condo:

  1. I managed to get the place rented back out to a friend of mine.  Because of this, I am not paying a property manager an 8% cut anymore.  This means I get to keep more money from rent, right?

    Well, no.

    I decided to keep the rent the same as my previous tenant with the belief that since it was a renter’s market, it was going to be difficult to rent it back out even at that price.  It turns out that I was wrong about that, I went to Craigslist and took a look at all of the listings, my advertised price would have been in the lowest 10% of all listings.  I probably could have gotten at least $20/month more.  But, a deal’s a deal and I just wanted to slow down the bleeding.  I told my friend how much I wanted, he agreed, and that’s that.  But I’m still making more money right?  After all, there’s no property manager so my net gain (uh, technically a loss) is still more than it was before.

    Well, no.

    My homeowner association dues have gone up 15% in the two years since I bought the place, that is an annualized increase of 7.2%.  That is painful to absorb.  My property taxes have also gone up, though I have to confirm by what logic the county can increase them.  If they have assessed the property value higher then I have to educate them that nobody in their right mind would buy at that assessed rate (since I couldn’t even sell my place for $20k lower than I bought it for).  If they are raising rates, then they must have raised them quite a bit in order for me to be paying more in property taxes.

    The net difference in all of this is that without the property manager, the increase in taxes and dues is actually adding a $5/month increase in the shortfall I have.  I will have to increase the rent every year by a significant amount in order to offset those projected increases.  That is quite frustrating because I can’t seem to make any progress on this (ie, keeping expenses fixed).

  2. My new tenant is, on the other hand, going to make some improvements to my place.  These include changing some light fixtures, painting a focus wall, and so forth.  The place will look better when they move out then after they have moved in.  However, he also wants to bring in his own appliances swap in his and get rid of mine.  He originally wanted to bring in the washer, dryer and refrigerator in exchange for $400 off of next month’s rent.  I managed to get him to come down to $350.

    I wasn’t sure about this.  Did I really want to replace my own fixtures?  Well, the dryer had something broken on it and the fridge was missing something as well.  I decided that since everything else with the place was wrong (water heater, plumbing, cupboards) I may as well be proactive and get these other appliances switched out as well.  After this, the next thing to go will likely be the dishwasher so I suppose that’s only a matter of time before it eventually costs me.

  3. The good news in all of this is that I can now start to project my costs for the next few months.  If all goes well, then starting in October I should be able to reasonably predict what my fixed cashflow pattern will look like and hopefully it stays the same on a month-to-month basis.  Having an empty condo is a pain, having a condo where the costs keep going up but the revenue cannot is even worse.

    But the one good thing of having a rental condo are the tax breaks.  If I were to move into it, I could save $126/month (assuming water/sewer/trash at my existing complex is ~$50/month).  That is $1512 per year.  However, the tax refund that comes from depreciating the “asset” is $1654/year which is more than the savings I could have by moving into it.  I know it sounds ridiculous… and it kind of is.  Last year, I deducted my homeowner dues.  If I deduct them again (which I will) then it is a refund of $870/year.  Combined with the other one, that is $1654 + $870 = $2524/year.  The net difference of renting it out is ~$1000/year not to move into it.  Those are two tax breaks that are not available to a home owner.  Furthermore, replacing the water heater, and all the other stuff, will come to a tax refund of $442/year (for this year only).  That means, with all of the rounding up, I get a refund from my taxes of $1500 net difference that I wouldn’t get if I moved in.

    And all I have to do to get that is lose money every month.  What a deal!  And don’t get me started on writing off real estate taxes and mortgage interest…

    Edit: Hmm, okay, as it turns out my tax break is not nearly as good as I thought it was.  I thought that I wouldn’t have to add in my rental income as it is offset by the loss of the mortgage payment.  It turns out that isn’t the case.  This means that my HOA dues + phantom depreciation offset my rental income (best case) and my tax refund is halved; it’s now no better than owing it directly.  Sarcastic smile

So the bottom line is that I am losing money.  But the flip side is that it could be much, much worse.

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This past weekend, I had a couple of magic performances.  I thought that I would share a couple of stories from them.

  1. On Saturday, I performed at a children’s party.  There were about 10 kids, including adults.  Part of the problem of performing for children is that unlike adults, if they think they know how a trick is performed they are pretty confident and will let you know how you did something.  Even when they are wrong, they don’t have the inhibitions to keep something to themselves.  Sometimes they are right, sometimes (more often) they are wrong.  Yet that doesn’t stop them from pointing out how something was accomplished, or where a coin went, or something similar (kids are not the only ones to blab something, yet they are more notorious than adults).

    Even more so, sometimes they interject and ask to touch a particular object, or do something one more time with something else.  I usually ignore comments about how I did something because I have no interest in legitimizing their “cat calls.”  I also won’t do something under a particular set of circumstances that they set up.  It’s my show and I am in charge of it.  I set up the effects, I am in control of the performance.  I will not let the spectator assume control over anything because as a performer, I am expected to know where everything (or almost everything) is going.  I cannot always pre-judge the reactions of the spectators, but there is no chance that I will let them set up a challenge and then attempt to meet it.  That is something I refuse to do.

    Anyhow, there was one girl in the show who was making some accusatory remarks and setting up challenges, but she didn’t really bother me.  I used her as a volunteer in a show and I could tell that while her remarks were kind of out of line, her intent was not malicious.  She was just excited and into the magic.  Teenagers have malicious intent; they want to show off to all their friends about how cool they are and they accomplish this by attempting to show up someone else.  Kids are not like that.  This girl was the same, but I didn’t respond to any of her non-malicious challenges.

    I did my two sets of 30-minute shows and finished the act.  As is normal for one of my shows, afterwards some of the kids came up to me and tried to peer inside my suitcase of stuff.  I don’t hide it that much because my stuff packs quick and if you’re a muggle, most people don’t really understand magic supplies anyway.  Without knowing how something is done it doesn’t really help you to look at my props.  You need the knowledge to go with that, and unless you’re a mentalist you cannot crawl inside my head.

    This girl was someone who came around after the show.  “Mr. Magician…”

    ”Yes?” I replied as I was putting my stuff away.

    ”That was an awesome show!” she said.

    ”Well, thanks,” I replied, but before I finished, this little girl gave me a hug.  I guess she really liked the show.

  2. Today, Sunday, I performed at a reunion, it was a high school reunion (class of 1970).  That’s long before I was even born.  I didn’t have too many details ahead of time and I didn’t know what audience to expect.  I was told that it would be all age ranges, so I had an inkling it might be kids and adults.  However, I also got the feeling that I would be doing walk around magic.  Walk around is my favorite type of performance to do because it is just like it sounds.  There are small groups of people, pockets of people, and I walk up to each of them and do a small set of effects and then move onto the next set of people.  What makes it easy is that I only need to have a limited set of effects and then I do them over and over again.  I get good at performing the same thing.  Usually, I have a bank of 5-7 effects and rotate through them.

    I got to the place and I scoped it out.  There was about 20 people there but there were no kids.  The people were also gathered into small groups, and in that instant I decided I was going to do walk around.  This was my favorite brand of magic and I was going to nail it.  But what to do?  Do I fall back on my sleight-of-hand stuff?  Or do I do small mini-mentalist routine?  It was a tough decision.  I ended up doing both, for one group I would do sleight-of-hand, for the other I would do a mentalist routine.  That seemed to work out alright.  It was a pretty good day and I only messed up twice – once doing an Ambitious Card routine (which never happens) and the other time doing Sam the Bellhop which I recovered from easily.  That’s a difficult trick and sometimes I pull too many cards out.  For mentalism I tossed in my Invisible Deck routine, Any Card at any Number, Spoon Bending, and my newest effect, Any Place (wherein a thought of location is revealed to be written on a piece of paper inside of a box that I had placed on the table from the start of the mentalist routine).

    I was doing a few sets here and there and was having a good time.  The crowd was really into it, and I was on a roll with my mentalist stuff.  I had just finished performing Any Card for one set of people and when I do that, people frequently make references to gambling.  The first reference is that they wouldn’t want to play cards with me, presumably because my skill with cards is so great that I could easily take their money.  There is a degree of truth to that.  The other reference is they say they want to take me to Vegas where I can clean up against the house and take home a wad of cash that I hadn’t come in there with.  I generally don’t confirm or deny either way whether or not this is possible.

    One person then asked me an interesting question – How do you do at stocks?  I smiled internally at this one.  Obviously, his question was that if I am so good at knowing cards, the maybe I am really good at picking stock turning points.  If I had this skill, I would be able to time the market a lot better and be able to clean up.

    I wanted to answer the question, but I didn’t.  I had to stay in character as a mentalist/magician.  If I were going to tell the truth, I would tell him that my stock trading ability sucks.  I would let him know that I am good at money management in trading and could build a very good lazy portfolio, but I am otherwise quite poor at active trading (at least lately).  My skill at predicting people’s actions and thoughts does not extend to the market.

    But I didn’t tell him that.  I just smiled and moved on to the next effect.

So, those are my two stories.

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Today, Saturday, my girlfriend of ~3 months left to go camping in California.  Originally, she was going to go to Canada (Banff) but due to the cold weather there instead opted for warmer climes.  This is a trip she had been planning on going for a while.  Originally she was going to go for 12 days, but instead reduced it to 9 in order to reduce the amount of time spent away from me.  I did not ask her to do this, she did it of her own free volition.

I’ve known that this trip was coming up for some time and so I had to mentally prepare myself for it.  We’ve been spending a great deal of time together, seeing each other pretty much every single day.  And so, I knew in advance that the separation would probably be an adjustment for me, even if it were only for a week.

Now, I am not so naive as to think that couples other than ourselves do not experience the same type of separation anxiety.  After all, early on in relationships, chemicals in your brain fire so as to form bonds of attachment and I am no different.  Yet I figured that mentally preparing myself for this time apart would make it a little easier.  I didn’t think it would be that bad since I spent the vast majority of my life single.  This would be a reversion to the mean, so to speak.  In other words, I would be single which is how I spent most of my life.  It’s only a week and besides which, we’ve only been together 3 months.  How deeply could bonds have formed?

But here it is, the first day, and as I record my thoughts I understand that this separation is not my preferred state.  Looking to the week ahead I see that I am going to have a great deal of spare time.  Because our respective schedules do not align (work shifts are different, and so work hours during the week), I always have a little bit of time after work anyhow to do various activities such as trading research or exercising at the gym.  However, knowing that I will have additional spare time is not something that I feel I need more of.  I’m pretty good with the current arrangement of a partial evening by myself and a partial evening with the g/f. 

I had a magic performance up in Lynnwood today, not far from my g/f’s place.  Some time after she had left, I was hanging out there waiting for the show in the afternoon.  I lay on the couch to get a few zzz’s, but as I was lying there, I kind of looked around.  I looked… and let out a sigh.  It is difficult to describe the emotion that I feel; it’s kind of like a sense of mild loss knowing that alleviation of it won’t occur for the next little while, but not depressing as it won’t be corrected in a relatively short period of time (9 days is only 9 days, after all).  Still, as I said earlier, this state of being single involuntarily when I hadn’t been previously is not my preferred state, and that realization kind of makes me look at the clock.

Heh.

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Have you ever wanted people to listen to you?  If they did, would you consider that to be a good thing or a bad thing?

I’m used to people not listening to me.  At work, it happens all the time.  I say stuff, usually in email or in person, and most of the time it goes unnoticed.  I’ll have to explain an issue 3 or 4 times to the same people sometimes in order for them to keep mental track of an issue.  This is particularly true of my Dev lead.

It’s also true of my family and some of my friends (especially Frank).  I’ll say stuff and then bring it up in conversation casually some time later and they will act as if it is the first time they have heard it.  I sometimes use this to my advantage; if it’s a personal thing I might use it as part of a mentalist effect several months later.  I am not above doing that, not by a long shot.

But it changed upon my recent acquisition of a girl friend.  She seems to remember all sorts of things that I say.  What sorts of things, you ask?  Well, she knows that I hate kimchi.  Of course, that’s an easy one because I talk about my hatred of kimchi all of the time.  But she has picked up on other things.  I will say that I am looking forward to picking up a particular magic effect and she’ll say “I know, you told me that already.” 

I did?

“Yes,” she answers, “last week.”

Wha—?

Or how that she’s going out of town this week and I plan to go dancing with my friend Hobbes, I asked her what I was going to do without her.  “Oh, you can go dancing with Hobbes.”  Duh, what?  I never talk about Hobbes, he called me up one time and suggested we do it.  I told her about this conversation but this was like two weeks ago!

And this happens to us frequently.  Things I have only told her once or at most twice, I will say again and she’ll reply “I know, you’ve already told me that.”  When she says that, then I recall saying it to her like a week before.  But certainly when I repeat it I am not aware that I have said it before and she has retained it.

I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.  On the one hand, it’s nice to be listened to.  On the other hand, I hope I don’t say anything that I instantly regret and be brought up again and used against me!

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