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Archive for September, 2010

I like to think of myself as a reasonably healthy eater.  Actually, on second thought, I’m more of a reasonably “not unhealthy eater.”  By that, I mean that I try to avoid too many foods that are bad for you.  One of those areas that I avoid is sugary drinks like Coke and Pepsi, but also Iced Tea.  I mostly stick to water.  But another thing that I do is eat breakfast on most days, even if it is only two slices of toast and a glass of orange juice.  I’m not normally very hungry in the mornings but I do force myself to eat something.

Lately, I have discovered a new type of breakfast that tastes pretty good.  Rather than eating cereal with milk, I have been eating cereal with yogurt.  I take a raspberry, peach, blueberry or strawberry yogurt, empty the contents of some cereal into it and then proceed to consume the entire portion.  I put it into a bowl so it’s almost like eating a normal bowl of cereal.

This is something that I quite like, at least for the time being.  My culinary selections change on a regular basis, but hopefully this is something that I will keep up for the longer term.

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The other day, I was in a bookstore like I so frequently am.  And as per usual, I went to the finance and investing section and started to peruse a few books.  This is my favorite section of the store although I rarely buy books anymore.  I simply borrow them from the library.  In addition, I think I’ve already learned a lot when it comes to finance and investing, both through reading tons of books but also through personal experience. 

As I was looking over the books, I came across a few by Dave Ramsey.  Ramsey is a financial advice giver who has is own radio show and has written many books on the topic.  More recently, he has created the Financial Peace University course which mixes some Christian doctrine in with advice on how to manage one’s money.  Much of what Ramsey advises is common amongst many advisors – get term life insurance instead of whole or universal life, get a will made up, have a large rainy day fund, plan a budget and stick to it, contribute to a 401(k) and Roth IRA, and so forth.  A lot of it is good advice.

I picked up one of his books (I forget which one) and started to flip through it.  Much of it was stuff I agreed with, but there was one thing that I thought was oversimplified and incorrect – his position on debt.  The one thing that stood out was Ramsey’s position that “all debt is bad” and “there is no such thing as good debt”.  Essentially, you should stay out of all debt no matter what it is – credit card, automobile, shopping cards, and so forth.  In fact, you shouldn’t even have a credit card and instead pay cash (or debit) for everything.  Avoid debt at all costs (ha, ha, pun intended).  I can’t recall if he said this or not but ideally you should even pay cash for a house.  Since this is nearly impossible for most people, his position is that it is a necessary evil to incur debt for a home purchase.

My position on debt is more nuanced than Ramsey’s.  I differentiate between good debt and bad debt.  I believe that a person should stay out of debt in the case that cost of the debt incurred is depreciating in value or provides no incremental value.  Huh?  Let’s say that you wish to purchase a new automobile for $30,000 and take out a loan for that amount.  The automobile is now declining in value every single day, yet the total cost of your loan still remains at $30,000 and you are making interest payments as well.  Thus, the debt is secured on something that is depreciating.  After you pay off all the interest it will end up taking more than $30,000 out of your pocket, it will be closer to $35,000 or $40,000.  That additional five to ten thousand dollars is something you could have used to invest and increase in value and provide a richer rate of return.

However, not all debt is depreciating, nor provides no incremental value.  If the after-tax cost of borrowing money is less than the rate of return on that borrowed money, then the debt is good.  It is debt that increases in value.  Suppose you took out a $100,000 low interest loan from the Treasury Department at an interest rate of 1%.  You then took all that money and put it into a high-yielding certificate of deposit that returned 3%.  In this case, it is a net 2% gain and while the cost of the loan is still $100,000, the value of the money is $102,000.  That is a positive net difference of 2%.

So you see, not all debt is bad.  If you get a positive after-tax return on the money that you borrow, then that is a scenario where debt is good.  Businesses need to incur debt in order to expand.  Credit card debt is bad because for the most part, the things you purchase do not go up in value.  You use them once or a few times but they are not used by you to return any additional capital that you wouldn’t have already had (think restaurants, boats, expensive clothes, etc).  They also have very high interest rates so even if you could use the stuff you purchase to make money, you would be hard pressed to make more than the interest rate on the card.

To evaluate whether or not debt is good or bad, you need to evaluate marginal rates of return.  Is a better to take out a loan on a $20,000 car?  Or is it better to pay cash?  Well, a car is going down in value so you should just save up the cash and pay for it all in one chunk.  On the other hand, those of us with cars use them to get to work.  Or we use them to shuttle around our friends and family.  Or we use them to go to leisure events, or spiritual centers.  So while you are waiting around for public transit while you are saving up, what’s the cost of your time? I used to go dancing in downtown Seattle on Sundays, and I would take the bus.  However, getting down there would be a 15 min walk and wait to the bus stop, and then a 45 minute bus ride down there making 1 hour of travel time.  On the way back, dancing would finish at 9:30 and the bus would get to the stop at 10 pm.  Adding that to the one hour travel time and we’re now looking at 2 1/2 hours of travel time.  If I took my car, it was 20-25 mins each way, for a total savings of an hour and 45 minutes.  What’s my time worth?  To me, the travel time did not justify the savings of the cost incurred of driving (mostly gas, parking is free on Sundays).

If you incur a loan on a car, you will pay interest.  However, you will also save travel time whenever you want to go anywhere.  What’s the price of your time and freedom in the interim period of saving up for the purchase?

So from my perspective, the position of “all debt is bad” is untenable.  It depends on the following:

  • Is the purchase of the thing that incurs the debt going up in value?  If so, then the debt is worthwhile considering.
  • Does it allow you to save time and effort compared to not having the purchase?  Can you even use it to expand your income stream compared to not having it? If so, then what is the cost of financing the debt?
  • Does the cost of financing save you time?  Does it release cycles in your lifestyle (ie, free up your energy for other tasks)?

In either case, there are some purchases that you will have to make.  In this event, evaluation of the cost/benefit ratio is what needs to be done, rather than a blanket avoidance of debt.

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Driving errors

A few weeks ago, myself and my girlfriend were driving around Alki Beach.  Alki is a general area in west Seattle.  West Seattle, for those who are not local to the area, is an area of Seattle that is kind of a peninsula that sort of sticks out from the rest of the city.  Prior to a couple of weeks ago, I had never been out there despite living in this city for three years.

image

The area is a very nice area but it is a very expensive place to live.  We looked at the house prices of a couple of places by Alki beach and they were in the neighborhood of $800,000.  Ergo, I will never live at Alki beach. 

The problem is that some of the side streets are very narrow.  We were driving around the more populated part of the town looking for a place to park when I pulled into a parking lot.  It was kind of one of those small side parking lots behind a building that only has a limited number of spots.  Anyhow, I pulled into the lot and looked for a place to park and decided that I didn’t want to park there.  I pulled into a openish space and turned the wheel.

As I was turning around, I heard a sickening “crunch” noise.  Right then and there I knew that I had bumped something, and it was going to cause some damage to my car.  As I pulled away, I looked down and there was a slab of cement about a foot high sticking away from the wall.  If you were right up against it, you wouldn’t see it because it is outside of the line of vision from the motorist.  I proved that fact as evidenced by the fact that I hit it.  I sighed to myself.  “Great,” I muttered, “that’s something I didn’t need.”

I got out to inspect my car.  It turns out that there is a noticeable dent on the underside of the bumper by the driver tire.  It’s not big but it is evident.  Not only that but some of the paint of the car is scraped away, and some of the yellow paint from the cement is there as well.  My girlfriend advised me to not fix it because it’s not really drawing attention but it bugs me.  I haven’t decided yet what I am going to do.

I’ll probably get it fixed.  Eventually.

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Back to the gym

One of the things that I have real trouble motivating myself to do is go to
the gym regularly.  For a number of months, I was only getting out there at the
most once a week, and even once every two to three weeks.  This wasn’t that big
a deal when I was doing a lot of dancing, but I have cut back on that somewhat
lately but haven’t replaced it with a new physical activity.  It’s got me
worried that my muscles are going to atrophy.

Well, that changed this past week, at least for the past six days.  That’s
because in the past six days, I have gone to the gym three times (once every two
days).  I am doing this in order to ensure that my hip muscles stay strong. 
Since I sit down for most of the day, that means that my muscles are in a
compressed position which shortens them and leads to tightness.  I am convinced
that this is causing at least some of my discomfort in my right hip.  I am not
sure how much it is affecting my left hip.

This past Sunday, I decided to do a particular exercise that I hadn’t done in
a while.  This involves a machine wherein you sit down and put your legs around
a device where you squeeze your thighs together.  There is an alternative one
where you put your legs on the inside of the pads and push your legs apart.  The
first exercise strengthens you inside hip abductors, the second strengthens the
outside hip abductors.  I find that my legs going forwards and backwards
(neutral position) are fine, but the muscles that abduct the legs (ie, sideways
motion) are quite weak.  This was made evident to me this past week.

I did a bunch of reps on both my inside hips and outside hips.  As is common
for exercise that I haven’t done in a while, my inside muscles felt loose but
not sore.  24 hours later, the were starting to tighten up.  48 hours after the
original exercise, they felt sore.  Quite sore, like the standard level of
delayed onset muscle soreness that you feel after a workout that you haven’t
done in a while.  As I was driving into work today I kind of had my legs in a
position where the muscles were just on the cusp on being stretched.  They felt
really rubbery.

But what cemented the fact that they were out of shape was when I tried to
stretch my inner legs. To do this, I do a stretch that is sometimes referred to
as “butterflies”.  What you do is you sit down and bring your heels together
(heel to heel) and bring them in close to your body.  You then push down on your
knees with your elbows.  You can also lean forward and do this, but the result
is that you get an extremely good stretch on your inner legs.  While doing the
stretch, depending on how far you go down, it’s painful.

Well, with the sore abductors I attempted to do this stretch.  I couldn’t do
it.  Bringing in my heels together and putting only slight pressure on my knees
led to a lot of pain.  I couldn’t do it at all.  Sure, I wanted to stretch my
leg muscles so they wouldn’t be so tight.  However, it was clear that it wasn’t
going to happen.  I have to wait until the muscle soreness passes.  As I type
this tonight my right leg feels a lot better and my left leg is still getting
better, but it’s not back to normal.

I used to do that exercise three years ago but I stopped because it got too
easy (ie, I could do the full weight set without a big problem).  I have lost
it.  My goal is to get back to that full weight set and then see how my hip
reacts, along with all of the stretching.  Hopefully it lessens the pain and
makes it tolerable.

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Upcoming elections

If you pay any attention at all to politics in the United States, you will know that things are not looking too good for the Democratic Party.  They currently hold control of the House, the Senate and the White House.  They hold sizeable majorities in both houses of Congress.  Yet as we get close to elections, things are not looking too good for them.  If you read the polls at all, you will see various predictions and most of them point to the Republicans picking up control of Congress with a slight majority (but not as many as the Democrats currently have) and picking up a few seats in the Senate but not enough to regain control of it.  It doesn’t take any serious prognostication to see this, all you need to do is check out Real Clear Politics or 538.   This is a significant shift because it wasn’t too long ago that the Democrats picked up significant gains in the House (2006) and large seats in the Senate (60 in 2008).  At the time, it looked as if the Republicans were going into a significant decline.

What is causing this reversal in fortune?  There are a number of factors that I believe have influenced it:

  1. First things first, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  While the Republicans are going to make significant gains and probably retake the House, it’s not because voters are particularly enamored of the Republican party.  It is a matter of them being even more disillusioned with the Democratic party.  The Republicans’ approval rating is not any higher than the Democrats but voters are prepared to punish the Democrats in the same way they punished the Republicans in 2006.
  2. Independent voters decide elections.  Each party, Republican and Democrat, have core constituencies.  Survey after survey suggests that there are more Democrats than Republicans in the United States by about 4% (ie, 35% to 31%).  The rest are Independents who switch up their votes.  The core constituencies are those that vote for their party every single time.  Independents vote differently in each election and cannot be counted upon, and it is these voters that matter.  In swing states (like Ohio and Florida), they decide elections.  California always votes Democrat, and Texas always votes Republican.  But when Independents throw their weight behind a particular candidate like they did for Obama in 2008, and for Democrats in 2006, the balance of power changes.
  3. Independents are uncomfortable with government spending.  President Obama was elected on a theme of hope and change.  Yet to Independents, they see more business as usual.  Worse yet, with Democrat majorities every where, while under Republican President Bush the government was spending oodles of money, under Obama they are spending boatloads of money.  One could argue that the Democrats inherited a weak economy and had to spend the money to stave off a depression, and one could also argue that under John McCain the Republicans would have done the same thing.  But the flip side is that the economy got particularly bad in 2007 when the Democrats controlled the House and the Senate and did nothing to stem it back then, they’ve spent so much money already with no plans to abate in the future (and nothing to show for it), and therefore Independents will not sit by and watch the increase in spending continue.

    It is this swing of Independents support from Democrat to anyone-but-the-Democrats that has swung the balance in the GOP’s favor.

  4. The Tea Party is a player but not in the way you might think.  To my Democrat friends, the Tea Party is a racist, anti-government bunch of rednecks who are the extreme right-wing of the Republican party.  Actually, many Tea Party folks are those who normally vote Republican but those that sympathize with them and identify with them are usually quite representative of the population as a whole (excluding the far left wing of the Democratic party).  Yet protest movements are not unusual in American politics.  In 1992, Ross Perot captured 17% of the national vote.  In 1996 he captured only half that much and most of that vote went to Clinton in his re-election year.  The Republicans subsequently lost seats in 1998 and many independent voters punished them because of the way they handled the Lewinsky scandal.  The point is that in 1992, a national Perot movement siphoned off Republican support which allowed the Democrats to gain, and in 1996/1998 they threw their support behind the Democrats.  In 1994, they threw their support behind the Republicans and the Democrats lost the House.

    The point in all of this is that protest movements can swing politics.  In the case of the Tea Party, they are protesting big government and they come from mostly the Republican party.  Their protest is not necessarily aimed at the Democrats, but at big government.  And they will punish the Republicans if they come to power and do not enact upon promises/ideologies of controlling government.  Thus, these protests come and go… but they never actually go away.  This one is as much a protest against both parties as it is against the Democratic party.

That’s how I see things.  Actually, it’s only a small lens of how I see things.

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Back-to-back travels

As I said in my previous post, next week I am going to Vancouver for a conference for three days.  I am planning to go up on Tuesday and then return Saturday night.  But before returning, I shall catch a Canadian football game because my team is playing there.

However, as I return late Saturday night, the very next day (Sunday) I am catching a flight to Washington, DC, for a 3-day conference there.  This means that my total travel time is going to span 10 days.  Not only that, but because of the useless internal travel portal that we have (worst portal ever), I will probably have to catch a 7 am flight.  This means I will get back into Seattle at 1 am and then have to catch a 7 am flight, meaning I have to be at the airport by ~5:30 am. This means I have to leave my home at 5 am.  And that means I have to be up at 4:40 am (I can shower and change fast).

Oy.

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Preparation

Next week in Vancouver, I am presenting a paper that I wrote entitled “The Psychology of Spamming.”  I could have called “The Psychology of Scamming” but that would have never made it past the screeners who selected the paper.  Essentially, the crux of the paper is why people fall for scams that are delivered via spam messages.  This is not a technical paper.  Instead, it goes into how our brains work, ties together emotion and then looks at how those types of things are exploited by spammers.  I did a lot of research on this one and some of the hypotheses I had going into the paper did not hold when all was said and done.  Indeed, I have an internal preview for it tomorrow and I am not ready for it.  Just thinking about it now makes me very nervous.

I’ve been thinking about incorporating a magic trick into this presentation, the way I do for almost every presentation that I ever do these days.  I’ve known which one I wanted to do for a while, and this weekend I finally got around to building the props for it.  Some of my favorite effects are tricks in which I build the props myself as I can customize them to my liking. The downside of this is that because of my inferior handiness, they usually don’t come out looking the way I want them to.  The one I built this past weekend is an exception to this and it is passable.

Here is the effect – I bring out four small blocks of wood about 4 square inches and 3/4” think.  Sticking out of the center of one of them is a large nail.  The nail is very real because I will take a piece of fruit on push it onto the nail, thus demonstrating its sharpness and danger.  I then put all four blocks of wood, called bases, on the table and cover each one up with a Styrofoam cup.  I have small pins in the bases into which to wedge the cups so they don’t fall off accidentally; they are held there by pressure.

I then call a volunteer up on stage.  The scene is this – there are four cups on the bases and beneath one of the cups is a nail sticking out of it.  I ask the volunteer to turn around and kind of shield the cups from view while I mix around the cups.  He then turns around and then we do the same thing except they mix the cups while my back is turned, shielding it from view.  At this point, nobody knows under which cup lies the nail.  I then take out four cards labeled 1 through 4 and place them in front of each cup, thus numbering the cups.  Beneath one of them is the nail, but no one knows for sure which one it is.

I then take out a blindfold and place it on myself and I ask the spectator to call out a number.  Suppose he calls out 3.  I then push block three forward, hold my hand over top of the Styrofoam cup, hold it there for a few seconds… and smash it down quickly crumpling the cup in the process.  If he would have called out the wrong number, I legitimately would injure my hand quite severely and have to be taken to the hospital.  I do this all in the name of entertainment and making a point.

We repeat this one more time.  The spectator calls out block 2.  I push the cup forward, hold my hand over top of it… and smash it down on the cup.  Once again my hand is intact.

One more cup to go.  The spectator calls out block 1.  I push it forward and hover my hand over it.  I give the spectator a chance to change his mind.  He says no.  I hover and hold my hand over cup 1 and prepare to slam it down.  I hold my hand up and just as I slam it down I move it over top of cup 4 and slam that one down!  The cup crumples and no nail has been impaled on my hand.  I escape with no injury whatsoever!

That’s the theory, anyhow.  We’ll see how it works out in real life.

The reason I do this is to illustrate a point.  When emotions get involved in our decisions, they can interfere with logical decision making.  Consider what I just described above.  Would anyone really do something like that in real life, idly watch by while someone attempts to almost injure themselves?  What about the emotional state of the spectator?  They did everything I asked of them without protest and I did this by invoking a fear response along with some anxiety.  By inducing fear, we become open to a more heightened state of suggestibility.  I hypothesize that the fear response is at least part of the reason why we fall for scams.  Furthermore, as humans, we don’t make judgments based upon the probability that something might occur, but only on the impact of it occurring.  Thus, in my demonstration, while it may be unlikely that I get hurt because what they are seeing is a trick, it is the fact that I could get hurt and it would be pretty severe that impacts the decision making process.

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I’m better than that guy

This past weekend, myself, my girlfriend, and some of her family + extended family when to the Puyallup Fair in Puyallup, Washington.  If it weren’t for her, I’d never go to these things because I don’t do those types of things (least of all with my friend Frank who would just moan and say he doesn’t want to go).  I wasn’t expecting all that much.  I’m quite used to fairs in the town of Oakbank, MB, where the fairs are pretty small and to be honest a bit lame.  It’s a small town, after all.

However, I was very surprised by the Puyallup Fair.  The grounds were quite large and they even had an amusement park.  It’s not like DisneyLand in terms of quality, or even the Red River Ex, but I’d say that it was on par with at least most carnivals that might pass through town.  There were also a lot of eateries from which to get food.  The drawback is that none of the food was particularly good (other than the one steamed ham I had which was decent) but hey, what can you expect from a fair?

One thing that I did get a kick out of were the stage shows that were available for free.  One was a comedy juggler act, the other was a magician.  I decided that I really wanted to watch the magician, so I dragged my girlfriend down to the open stage and prepared to watch his show.  Now, when I watch magicians, I am not normally trying to figure out how they do their stuff.  I don’t really care that much because I have my own repertoire of stuff available that I use to perform with.  Instead, I watch the showmanship of the performer to see if there’s anything I can learn (ie, borrow… ie, steal).

This magician did four effects:

  1. A comedy card trick where he makes the card float but then gives it away
  2. The Cups and Balls routine
  3. The Invisible Deck
  4. Vanishing Coke bottle (wherein a bottle of Coca-Cola is put into a brown, paper bag is crumpled up and tossed away).

I can’t help comparing himself to myself, and I am pretty sure that even though I am biased, I am better.  First of all, the order in which he structured his show was incorrect.  In magic (indeed, in any act) you have to build your show.  That means that either the impact of the effect gets stronger, or the props get bigger.  For that reason, he made the wrong selection of doing the Vanish Coke bottle last.  The routine only uses a paper bag and a coke bottle, and it vanishes once.  By contrast, the Cups and Balls has the balls vanish over and over again, it’s a longer routine, and the finish is very climactic.  It’s a fairly big effect especially for a street show.  It uses multiple props.  He should have put the Cups and Balls at the end of his routine and built towards it because it has a much better climax.

In addition, he should have done the Invisible Deck before the Vanishing Coke Bottle.  The Invisible Deck is a good trick, but in the right hands (ie, mine) it is a great trick.  He only performed it such that it was a good trick.  It was also a mix of mentalism with standard magic.  I try to stay away from that because they don’t belong together.  Doing a standard invisible deck is good but if you can mix it up with an invisible watch, then it makes a huge impact as evidenced whenever I perform it.

Finally, I probably would have done the Invisible Deck before his opening card routine (even though they don’t naturally flow together).  The reason is that he opened up with an invisible deck (zero props), goes to a card routine with magic wand (two props), then does the Coke bottle (two props but larger) and then finishes with the Cups and Balls routine (multiple props).  That’s the order I would have done it in as it builds and naturally finishes.

Of course, I probably would have done an entire mentalist show (only 20-25 minutes).  If I had, I probably would have done the following:

  1. The Invisible Deck
  2. Places (wherein a location is selected and revealed from a diary) or Travel Location (wherein I ask the spectator to think of a word/place and then I reveal it)
  3. Number, Please (wherein a called out number is shown to add up to numbers on the reverse side of a paper by me)
  4. Word Work (a book test where the word ends up written on the spectator’s arm) or Liar, Liar (wherein I find the person in the group of five that is telling the truth)

I think that would be an entertaining mentalism routine.

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When I moved here from Canada to the United States, one thing that really frustrated me was the fact that they would not take my previous driving history into account when I was living in Canada.  This means that at 29 years old, when I insured my car, I was starting from scratch.  From my insurance’s point of view, I had zero driving history and that was reflected in my rates.  The fact that I was accident free for the previous 6 was irrelevant and so I had to pay a higher rate.

The problem is that less than two months after I switched to Geico (they really were the cheapest option I could find), I had an accident that was my fault (groan!).  After that, my rates went up.  I was ultimately paying $160/month, or around $1920 per year for car insurance (I pay monthly rather than all at once and that adds $60/year, or $5/month to the payments).  I can’t remember what I was paying in Canada but I think it was at least $500 less than that.  That’s because I had a much longer driving history established.  If this seems high to you, I agree with you.  It is high.

Seeing as how I had no choice, and seeing as how car insurance is expensive here in the United States, I paid it.  But this year, finally after two years of no accidents, I am only paying $154/month on insurance!  Hooray!  That’s a 3.75% discount!

Now, 3.75%, or $60/year may not seem like much to you, but I’ll take what I can get.  In my world where everything is getting more expensive – cable + internet, HOA dues, property taxes, food (probably, if I took the time to track my costs), health care, dividend taxes… it’s nice to do it right for two years (have no accident) and get rewarded for it.  You have to celebrate your victories when you can get them!

And that’s a good thing.

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Ever since I put my condo back up for sale on the housing market as well as the rental market, I just can’t seem to catch a break.  Everything seems to be series of things going wrong.

  1. In June or July, I was approached by someone who wanted to do to the rent-to-own wherein he would rent from me for a while and eventually purchase it.  I was interested but it fell through.  He wanted me to lower the price by $20,000 (12% of the listed price, and 25% of what I paid for it).  I couldn’t go that low and I never heard from him again.
  2. In August, one of my friends accepted it for rental.  He had to move out less than a week later when we discovered that the entire complex does not allow dogs.
  3. I set up an appointment with a property manager for this past Saturday to meet up and look at the place.  She had a family emergency and never showed up.  I waited around for an hour and wasted my time.
  4. I had another appointment with a property manager scheduled for 12:30 pm today (Friday).  She misread the email, or mischeduled, or something, because she got there at 11:30 am, a full hour earlier than need be and missed me.  I wasted another trip.

I sit here and let out a sigh, and shake my head.  Almost nothing is going right with this place.

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Previous presidents

From time to time on this blog I comment on politics.  I like my approach because I attempt to come at things rationally and ditch partisanship at the door.  I would call my approach to politics pragmatic, which means I do what works.  Unfortunately, this makes me into a little bit of an unprincipled weasel.  But to that accusation I say the following: which is preferable, remaining true to one’s principles and getting nothing done?  Or getting stuff done?  I choose the latter.

Just today I was browsing a stock investing blog and the owner the blog made a post about the anniversary of Sept 11.  He claims to not be either a Democrat or Republican, but in my estimation I would clearly affiliate him with the Democratic party in spite of all of his protests otherwise (if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…).  Here’s what he wrote:

When people ask why I dislike the presidency of George W. Bush, it was that colossal failure to rise to greatness on that occasion, and indeed, to engage in a series of decisions that — not in retrospect, but at the time — reflected terribly poor judgment.

Unlike many others, I only blame W in small part for ignoring the warning pre-9/11. There were lots of false positive warnings, so claiming he should have recognized how serious that one was is much easier to do in hindsight.

But for the catastrophic series of decisions that he made following 9/11, I hold him 100% accountable.

The failure that he talks about is how in the aftermath following the attacks, the United States became a very unified country.  But in the years following it, the Bush administration embarked on a number of policies that “squandered” the opportunity to capitalize on that unification.  They instead imposed very divisive policies.  This is usually embodied within the context of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Anyhow, the blog writer lets people add comments to his post and many people, of course, had comments.  Politics is a divisive and emotional issue. 

I can’t respond to everything, but instead I want to single out one comment that I read:

Grew up in nyc area and cannot believe how much power bush had after 9/11 to do right. for god’s sake, even iranians held candlelight vigils for the dead.

usa went from 99% of world actually pitying us, to despising cheney/bush tactics. the fall was amazing. and dangerous, and frustrates the hell out of any thinking human, anywhere on the globe.

The thinking behind this comment is that the world was rallying behind the United States on Sept 11 and would have co-operated with pretty much any request to build a coalition to stop terrorism.  Unfortunately, the arrogant policies of the administration ended up alienating the rest of the world and now they wouldn’t co-operate with the US simply out of spite.

This view is very commonly proposed by critics of the Bush administration.  Unfortunately, I believe that it is incredibly short-sighted and naive.  While it is true that the rest of the world did express sympathy for the United States in the short period of time following the events of Sept 11, it does not follow that they were ready and willing to co-operate in any manner that the US would request.  A prime example is Afghanistan.  The Taliban (loosely) ruled the country and wouldn’t surrender or give up the co-ordinates of Osama bin Laden in 2001.  Thus, the US had to go in and attempt to excavate him.  And while other nations did express sympathy, it is a long way from expressing sympathy to actually doing something.

Most of hijackers on the plans on that day were of Saudi Arabian descent.  The goal of the United States’s invasion of Afghanistan was not to get bin Laden per se, but instead to prevent any country from being a harbor of terrorism.  While Afghanistan did provide sanctuary for Al Qaeda, they did not provide much logistical support.  The problem for the United States was that much of the funding and financing for terrorism was flowing out of the middle east and Saudi Arabia in particular.  So, even the capture of bin Laden wouldn’t have addressed the terrorism problem because another individual could set up shop elsewhere (probably Afghanistan or Sudan) and continue planning attacks.  It takes money to fund terrorism and that was the heart of the issue.

However, the Saudi government’s crack down on terrorism was half-hearted, at best.  They had their own internal problems to deal with and experiencing a jihadist uprising of their own.  Thus, the sympathy they expressed in the time after Sept 11 was just that – sympathy.  It wasn’t followed up by any action.  Kind words that are not followed up by action aren’t worth a lot – that and $3 will buy a cup of coffee from Starbucks.  The Saudis did eventually crack down on their internal support for terrorism but it certainly wasn’t out of pity for the Americans.

The American mistake of believing that the Americans alienated the rest of the world, in my view, is based upon the belief that the world revolves around America and shares American values.  In other words, if America asks for the aid of another country, so long as they like us they will do what we ask.  This isn’t reflective of reality.  Each country has their own agenda.  It is assumed that France didn’t participate in the invasion of Iraq and blocked the war effort because they were ideologically opposed to the war for moral reasons.  America’s actions made them mad.  This isn’t entirely correct.  Since Charles de Gaulle after WW2, the French geopolitical strategy was to create a large nation state big enough and unified enough to challenge the United States for global hegemony in the form of the European Union, and for France to be the driver of the European Union.  In other words, France wanted to be a competitor of the US.  They couldn’t do this 1-1, but they could do it as part of the EU.

The reason the French would oppose the war effort is because, in their view, it conflicts with their geopolitical strategy.  If the Americans set up shop in Iraq, then that increases the ever-expanding American empire.  America is getting bigger with more and more fingers in the pie.  That sets the US up in yet another comparable advantage while leaving the EU and thereby France even further behind.  It didn’t make logistical or geopolitical sense for the French to join in the invasion of Iraq because they would be handing the US yet another leg up on them.  And this was intolerable to the French.  In fact, anything the United States and asked for help by the French would have to be balanced against their own geopolitical strategy.  Pity from Sept 11 would not cause them to do anything not in their own best interests.

This is why I believe that the statement that the Bush administration wasted everyone else’s goodwill is shortsighted.  America may have had sympathy and pity but there is no way would those emotions would have caused any country to help or act in a way that was contrary to their own geopolitical imperatives.  Emotions are malleable and fade over time, but a country’s national interest is bigger than the tragedy of Sept 11.

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A few weeks ago, I commented that I was able to convince my girlfriend to travel to various parts of the world and hit up multiple countries.  The first such instance of this was a trip to Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.  I managed to convince her to agree to this.  Since that time, we have looked into the logistical planning of all of this and we have had to cut Honduras.  It simply wasn’t going to fit into the schedule.

Next up, I have a place to stay in Singapore and am in the middle of convincing her to go there next year some time.  I managed to get her to agree to do Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia (to see Angkor Wat) and Vietnam.  However, after doing some logistical planning, we have to cut Cambodia and Vietnam.  Cutting Cambodia is really disappointing to me because the ruins there are my new life long dream to see.

The fact is that I like adding lists of countries to the places I have been to.  I don’t mind staying a day or two in a place and then moving on.  My girlfriend is different, she doesn’t like moving around very much (hmm, even though that’s exactly what we did when we went to central Oregon and Grand Coulee dam in central Washington).  I guess in order to hit my total scale of countries, I need to say we’re going to six or seven countries and then expect that to shrink to two or three.

Gotta plan this stuff ahead.

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As I said in my previous post, last weekend my girlfriend and I went to the John Day fossil beds.  I thought that this might be a good time to run down what we all did.

Saturday
Drove down from Seattle to central Oregon, this took ~6 hours
– Hiked Smith park (canyon?) which is a significant trek of ~4 miles
– Drove up Pilot Butte in Bend, Oregon

Sunday
– Drove up a hill-like thingie of elevation 8000 feet.  The temperature up there was 3° C (about 38° F).  It was freezing!
– Hiked around a glass-like park.  I say glass-like because it was rock that was shiny like glass and has a similar molecular structure.
– Hiked around the first John Day fossil bed
– Hiked around the second John Day fossil bed
– Hiked around another park
– Went to a park/museum (not where I saw the fossils)
– Stayed at this place (recommended):

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Monday
– Went to a tourist museum where I saw fossils
– Hiked around the third John Day fossil bed
– Hiked around another mini-fossil bed
– Hiked around yet another mini-fossil bed (at this point, all the various rock formations, while cool, were starting to look the same to me)

I list out all of these things to iterate the point that we did a lot of hiking, at least 12 miles worth by my estimates.  And you know what?  My hip held up just fine.  In the evening it wasn’t hurting at all (no more than a normal day of walking might) and during the hikes I didn’t experience any pain at all.  I was pretty proud of that.

This should not be interpreted to mean that my hip is better.  It isn’t.  It still hurts when I rotate it in certain directions.  It is so painful that I wonder if they did anything to fix it at all.  What’s worse is that my other hip has now started feeling worse in the past month.  It was never my good hip, however.  It was always my hip that hurts less.  I always kind of figured it would deteriorate and now it has.

But it’s not all bad news.  The good news is that my left hip does feel better.  There’s a part on my left hip where they shaved away some bone on the outside of the hip that doesn’t hurt anymore.  Surgery seems to have fixed that.  And that part which doesn’t hurt on my left hip does hurt on my right.  So, the part that it seems like they fixed on my left side is likely fixable on my right side.  So in that regards there is cause for hope.  It makes me wonder if they did anything on the inside of my hip.  I guess my hips are starting to equalize, rather than one being bad and the other being good.  Now one is somewhat bad and the other is somewhat a little better.

The other encouraging thing is that the surgeries I have had have not been a big deal.  My recovery periods have been pretty quick and I haven’t experienced a lot of discomfort while getting better.  Heck, this last time I was dancing after 2 or 3 weeks.  Indeed, about 6 weeks after my surgery I was in San Francisco for a conference.  I `challenged my ex-girlfriend a race up the stairs.  She could take the elevator and I would take the stairs to the sixth floor.  And you know what?  I won!  I took that as a pretty good sign that my hip was probably alright, even though parts of it still hurt.

So will I have to go back under the knife?  Probably.  Maybe the third time will be a charm.  And maybe the fourth time will be, too, since I don’t want to do both at once.  We’ll see how it goes.

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Labor Day travels

This past weekend, Labor Day weekend, my girlfriend and I traveled to central Oregon where the crux of our trip was a visit to the John Day Fossil Beds.  What are the John Day Fossil Beds, you ask?

Well, John Day is a guy in the 1800’s who was robbed by some native Americans (so the story goes) and when he was rescued, they ended up naming a river after him – the John Day River.  The John Day Fossil Bed is a basin somewhat close to a river where they have found extensive archaeological sites with a very rich set of fossils of animals, plants and rock formations.  It’s around 14,000 acres in size in central Oregon.  There are no dinosaurs here, the fossil rocks were laid down after the dinosaurs died out 63 million years ago.  There are many formations that were laid down in layers and they name these after the strata of rocks.  The most recent one was laid down 7 million years ago and is called the Rattlesnake formation and the oldest one is the Clarno formation.  In other words, the rocks are very old.

I went there hoping to see fossils, and I didn’t see any in the wild but I did get to see some in a museum.  But live out in the parks, I got to see tons of rocks:

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The above image is one of the fossil beds.  These particular rocks are shaded red.  A volcano is what laid them to rest as the ash and lava spewed out from the volcano and laid it to rest in layers where it hardened.

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It’s hard to tell from this picture, but the rocks here have a green tint.  That’s because the chemicals in the rock react with the atmosphere and each other to form the green tinge.  You can also see layers in the rocks, like a cake.  These are called “tuffs”, they are the same as the above – volcanic ash and lava that landed on the ground and hardened into rock formations.

Below is a picture of me moving the mountain using only the power of my mind:

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The above picture is another rock formation on the many hiking trails in the park.

So you may be thinking to yourself “All these rocks are cool, but what about the fossils?  Did you see any?”  The answer to the question is yes.  Now, as I said earlier, there are no dinosaur fossils here.  The dinosaurs died out ~63 million years ago and these rocks were formed ~60 million years ago.  But there were still plenty of fossils that we saw.  While we saw plant fossils (and let’s face it, when people see plant fossils they think "Boring!”) we did see animal fossils as well.  We saw fossils of prehistoric bears, deer, large cats, and so forth.  I actually can’t remember them all but they are on display at an incredibly nice visitor center that is leading up to one of the fossil beds.  That was one of my favorite parts of the trip.  Hoorah for science!  Whoo!

Overall, the weather was good and I had a great time.  If you ever get a chance to get out to this park, you should definitely jump on that.

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Stereotypes

This past weekend, my (Asian) girlfriend and I took a trip to the John Day fossil beds in central Oregon (more on this in a future post).  It’s a long drive down, about 6 hours and so the two of us took turns driving.

I consider myself a pretty enlightened individual.  Since I travel quite a bit, I am conscious of the fact that certain stereotypes just don’t apply.  So, when I do make stereotypical comments, I am doing so by playing a role that doesn’t actually apply to me.  I do it in order to poke fun at myself but by no means do I actually believe that the stereotype is relevant.

For example, sometimes when my girlfriend and I come to a door that is not open, I say to her “Oh, you should just kick it down.”  When you she gives me a quizzical look, I continue “What?  It should be no problem for you.  All Asians known martial arts.”  This, of course, is not true but in the United States, in many of the movies we see when the main character is Asian (or even the bad guys), they all know martial arts.  I play off of this because it’s an American stereotype of Asians but I don’t really believe it is true.

Similarly, when we are in a grocery store and there are several items, I ask my girlfriend to quickly add up the prices of several items.  When she replies that she can’t, I say “Sure you can, dear.  All Asians are good at math!”  This belief is also common among Americans because all of the Asians we knew in school were smart, particularly in math.  The reality is that Asians who immigrate to the United States are usually wealthy and wealthier parents are more intelligent, usually.  Intelligence of the parents is correlated with intelligence of the children, and so the fact that we see smart Asians in school is because our sample size is not random.  We are seeing a group of kids that come from smart parents and they would naturally do well in school.  The reality is that if we took a random sample of Asian children, they’d perform the same at math as American kids, on average (maybe slightly better but not enough to build a stereotype).

This weekend, however, my stereotypes were reinforced.  I drove the first little bit to Oregon but after a couple of hours we switched off.  That’s when a weird thing happened.  The stereotype of women drivers (this is one I never use nor have I ever used it), particularly Asian women drivers, is that they are not very good.  They are prone to accidents and incompetence on the road.  The reality is that women drivers, statistically speaking, are safer drivers than men.  They have lower insurance rates to prove this.  Whether or not this extends to Asians, I don’t know.  But I say my girlfriend is a fasian (fake Asian) anyhow.  She’s Americanized.

Anyhow, my girlfriend was driving and it was odd.  She kind of was swerving a bit and not quite staying in her lane the entire time (you know, the bump-bump-bump-bump when you meander over the line markings).  This happened a few times.  There was no explanation, either.  I looked at her and said “Carol… you’re reinforcing my stereotype of Asian women drivers!”

She laughed at that.  Ironically, I didn’t think it was that funny.

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Religion seems to have captured the news lately.  The way that people are reacting to it is very puzzling.  It is not the political right’s reaction that puzzles me so much as the political left.  I believe that I can adequately understand the right’s reactions to certain events around religion but the left I find difficult to grasp.

A couple of weeks ago, national furor was incited when it became public knowledge that a developer in New York City wanted to build a community center about two blocks from Ground Zero, the place where the World Trade Center stood 9 years ago before it was brought down in the terrorist attacks.  At issue of this center was that it was an Islamic community center.  The political right became righteously indignant about this because in their view, the World Trade Center was brought down by terrorists interpreting the Islam religion in an extreme fashion.  Building a mosque so close to Ground Zero was akin to rubbing salt in the wounds of 9/11 victims.  It was Islam that destroyed their lives, and now they are building a monument to Islam on their grave site?  This was the ultimate insult.

The political left’s response to this was that it wasn’t on the site of the World Trade Center, but several (ie, two) blocks away.  Furthermore, this site was not a mosque per se, it was a community center with a mosque inside of it.  Community centers are good for the community because they build rapport amongst the people.  We also are a country built upon religious diversity and by protesting the mosque (using political power to do it in the form of city councils), that demonstrates to the rest of the world that we are intolerant of Islam (this is the main argument that they use).  And another thing, this is private property.  If someone wants to use private funds they can build whatever they want because it’s guaranteed by the first amendment that Congress shall make no law establishing a religion.  That means that the government cannot pick and choose which religions they want to discriminate against.

President Obama, for his part took the diplomatic way out.  He affirmed the rights of the people to do whatever they wish to do with private property, but cautioned that the situation is sensitive.  Many people draw no distinction between radical Islam (which the 9/11 terrorists subscribe to) and more liberalized versions of Islam which the bulk of the Muslim population believe.  Obama is right, of course.  Religion is a divisive issue (can’t the left see that?) and people lost their lives over it.  Using logic isn’t going to work.  How much trouble it is worth to put up this mosque?

But now, we have a separate issue.  There is a church in Florida that is planning to burn a copy of the Quran.  There’s a couple of reasons they would do this.  Perhaps they are showing that America is a Christian country that won’t tolerate false religions.  Perhaps they are trying to demonstrate that intolerant Muslim countries will be met with intolerance in America.  Perhaps it is an anti-Islamic symbol on the 9-year anniversary of Sept 11 (ie, the US will not be intimidated by radical Islam).  In any case, the bonfire was a serious publicity stunt.

Many political leaders decried this as a poor idea.  If the American pastor did this, it could be a recruitment drive for terrorism.  The reason is that terrorists/extremists could use this as demonstrative proof of America’s intolerance of Islam.  Because Islam is the true religion and there is no room for intolerance, they need to rally people to their cause in the struggle against Islam, of which America is the greatest target.  In other words, these actions would inflame radical Islam and put Americans abroad in greater danger, particularly in Islamic countries.  His act is completely legal but is not a good idea.

This is a good point.

But it’s not what I am getting at.  Instead, I see a few friends on the left smugly accusing this pastor of being dumb, stupid, and other such adjectives.  They do this because they believe that this pastor doesn’t “get” it – he’s not intelligent enough to see that his actions demonstrate American ignorance and will inflame others.  It’s just another example of Christians/the American right believing that they are superior to others.

It is this attitude that leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth.  While I agree that the burning of the Quran is not a good idea, I believe the left is being hypocritically smug.  On the one hand, it is completely American to buy up property and use it for whatever you wish, even if it is for a Muslim mosque and will anger others.  On the other hand, I have yet to see anyone from the left claim that this is completely within this Florida pastor’s first amendment rights to do something like this… but shouldn’t because it is a bad idea.  The fact that it might anger others despite being completely legal is not put forward by anyone.  The very actions that they defended before using the Constitution are now being completely abandoned.  Either defend the Constitution or don’t; stop picking and choosing.  Whereas before the emotionality of the subject was irrelevant, now it is completely relevant.  This arrogant display of selective ignorance is why I could never wander over to the political left.  They claim the title of being intellectually superior and aware of the right’s hypocrisy, but are unaware of their own.  The right thinks the left is merely deluded – I think that this is less dangerous because they aren’t considering that the left believes they are right nor do they completely understand the left’s belief system.  By contrast, the left understands the right’s position and disagree but fail to consider that they themselves may be wrong at the same time.

The only one who claims that doing a book burning is protected by the Constitution and is American (to a degree) but not a good idea – exactly the position that everyone ought to take with the Islamic center in New York City – is conservative talk show host Glenn Beck.  Beck is not known for his objectivity and playing fast and loose with facts, but the very fact that I have to agree with Beck makes me roll my eyes at the left.

Maybe South Park will make an episode about this.

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