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Archive for January, 2017

This past week, the wife and I got invited to a financial seminar (something about retirement) at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse which is one of the high-end steak houses in Bellevue. We are both going, and I think we are allowed to invite two more people because they sent us invitations for four people.

It’s pretty common for us to get invited to these things. We live in the wife’s parents’ home, and the various marketers know people’s ages around the neighborhood. So they’re always inviting the wife’s parents (by mail) but we go instead (heh, heh, heh) [1]. In the past we’ve gone to two financial seminars, and one for solar panel installations. We’ve never bought anything, but they are still interesting. Plus, you get a free meal. Previous ones have included McCormick and Schmick’s in downtown Bellevue, and Maggiano’s.

Anyhow, the dinner is free (!!!) and we’ve invited 3 other couples, and all three have turned us down due to other commitments. I literally can’t even give these free tickets away for Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.

 

[1] They are mostly looking for older people. Half the invitations we are not allowed to use because it says "Please, no attendees under 40."

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Last year, I wrote a few blog posts about my reaction after the election of Donald Trump and how at first I was in shock, but then I started to get over it.

Disappointed smile

Since he was inaugurated last week, I’ve either been holding out hope that it wouldn’t be as bad as it sounded like (repealing the Affordable Care Act), pleased that it was all bluster (saying torture works, but then deferring to his Defense Secretary [no doubt intended to appease the base at first, but then the rational people]), or accepted that we as a society are probably screwed due to climate change (leading to depression). Fortunately, I’ve been busy at work to distract my attention.

But today I am angry.

Steaming mad

You may have heard that President Trump recently issued an executive order banning people from entering the country if they are from one of several Muslim-majority nations (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya). There are a few other bans, including an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria. While saying it is not a Muslim ban and that it’s intended to avoid allowing radical terrorists into the country, many people think it’s just a euphemism to exclude Muslims because many countries that do export terrorists (unintentionally, usually) were left off the list.

My left-leaning Facebook feed exploded in outrage.

Baring teeth smile

I’ve stayed off of social media, but inside I am mad. Really mad.

Trump had said before the election that he was going to do this, so it should come as no surprise. But it still surprised me that it’s this blatant.

What bugs me about this is the lack of empathy for people trying to escape war-ravaged regions, and people on the other side – who are not in that situation – saying “Sorry, you were born in the wrong place. Go away, you’re not welcome here.”

Sarcastic smile

I find this cold-hearted and arrogant and I can’t imagine denying others entry who are fleeing from terrible circumstances (I know that there needs to be vetting; it’s something that’s already done).

For you see, back in the 1940’s, Jewish emigrants from Europe were trying to escape the destruction that was going on in their country, and no other country accepted them – including the United States. They had to turn back, and many of them ended up dying in the concentration camps.

When I was younger, I wondered “How could this be? How could nobody accept them?”

Sad smile

The answer is that the United States and the allies were at war with Germany. They were worried that the refugees had German spies among them that would infiltrate American society and undermine the US war effort. To avoid taking that chance, the US rejected them all.

That’s the same reason that’s being given today, the refugees from Syria pose a threat to US society and would undermine it from the inside.

But even more than that, I’ve written how my own grandmother was effectively a refugee after World War II, coming to North America 4 years after the war ended. But not before spending 3 years in a Soviet work camp.

What would have happened if immigration officials would have said “Sorry, but you’re German. We can’t trust you, we just fought a war with you people. Besides which, your husband fought for the Germans and was our enemy. You are too much of a risk.”

Or, what if they have said “You spent 3 years in a Soviet work camp? We’re in a cold war with the Soviets, you could be a spy. Sorry, you can’t come in. Go back to Europe.”

What then?

Thumbs down

Today, I am in the reverse position. I get a say on whether to accept refugees from places that need to be escaped from (well, not really; the party I voted for didn’t win [even though more of us voted the same way I did]). I am only in the position I am in by sheer luck. I did nothing to be born in Canada and get a privileged position of also being a US citizen. I was born in the right place at the right time.

By contrast, these other people were born in the wrong place. It’s not their fault; how can I hold that against them when the exact same thing wasn’t held against my own ancestors over 75 years ago? Had that happened, I wouldn’t be alive today. I owe my very existence to a national policy that is at odds where US policy is headed.

That’s not fair, and it makes me angry that the refugee-deniers are exploiting their privilege.

What makes my head spin is not that the US government is doing this against the wishes of the people. I know that Trump sits on a base of support, and his comments are intended to unite them behind him. I estimate that at least 25-30% of the US population is in strong support of this. Another chunk who supported Trump may not totally agree but are willing to go along with it since it doesn’t affect them.

And that is what gives me deep pause…

Don't tell anyone smile

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Traveling on the cheap(ish)

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how I (and the wife) travel.

Before I met the wife, I did a number of trips:

  1. Italy and Switzerland in 2009
  2. Peru in late 2009
  3. China, Taiwan, South Korea in 2008
  4. Australia and Fiji in 2006
  5. England in 2005

After the wife and I got married in 2011, we did a couple of expensive trips:

  1. New Zealand in 2011
  2. Southeast Asia in early 2012
  3. Argentina and Chile in late 2012

Those three trips were not cheap. We flew regular airfare, stayed in normal hotels (or Vacation Rental by Owner, VRBO), and bought food frequently at restaurants.

Since that time, we’ve done several other trips:

  1. Vienna, Austria and Prague, Czech Republic in 2013
  2. Turkey in 2014
  3. Eastern Europe in 2015
  4. Germany in early 2016
  5. France in late 2016
  6. Hawaii in early 2017

We’ve been much more successful in driving down our costs in the later years than in the earlier years (both when I was single or married).

How?

It’s done through multiple methods.

First, I get to travel for work.

I volunteer to go to conferences, but I also research them and present my bosses with the estimated cost, and the justification for why I should attend. I am also active in the email community so people know me, and they invite me to participate in panels or present at the conference.

When you are asked to present, and if I ask early enough to go, I usually get permission to attend. I understand work’s travel budgeting process, and I really am one of the best people from my team to attend. I bring a lot to the industry, and I bring a lot back.

This means that when me and the wife travel, my flight is covered, and at least part of the food and lodging is, too.

So that reduces part of the cost.

Second, we’ve gotten good at reducing flight costs in other ways.

If you sign up for a credit card, you often get a sign-up bonus of 25,000 to 50,000 (or even 100,000) bonus points once you spend a certain amount within 3 months, which is easy. Sometimes you get a free ticket, or travel companion ticket.

The wife and I have signed up for multiple credit cards over the past couple of years and taken advantage of the airline points (I even flew my sister down on airline points). That also helps to reduce the cost.

It hasn’t affected my credit rating, either. And since I no longer have a mortgage and have no plans to acquire more debt, even if it did I wouldn’t care (unless it meant I couldn’t get another card, but usually it means the interest rate is higher and that’s no problem because I pay in full each month).

That’s another way to reduce the cost of travel.

Third, we don’t stay in hotels most of the time.

For long term trips, nothing racks up your travel costs more than hotel bills. Whereas a flight may be $1000 for a trip to Europe, or $500 domestically, a hotel can run you $200-$250 per day in the United States and Europe. 5 days and you’ve exceeded your flight cost for overseas travel.

To get around this, we now use AirBNB. These are often 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of a hotel. This makes it much easier to slash the cost of your lodging (if you travel to see family, the cost is usually free; but you can’t go see family or friends everywhere you go, and you don’t want to overstay your welcome).

Fourth, the lodging can help reduce the food bill.

Part of the reason traveling is so expensive is that you have to pay for all of your meals, and that costs far more than when you are at home.

To get around this, we again leverage AirBNB. We will stay in places with a kitchen (if long-term) or provide breakfast. If it has a kitchen, we will frequently buy bread, milk, coffee, and fruit so we can eat breakfast in the hotel/AirBNB. Then we also sometimes pack a small lunch, although half the time we eat that are are still hungry by 1 pm.

Still, it reduces the overall cost of food by about 20%.


So there you have it. Using a combination of techniques, we’ve gotten good at international or long-haul domestic trips at keeping costs under control.

I was decent at it before, but we’re really good at it now.

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If you’ve been following the news the past couple of days, one of the big headlines is that the United States’ intelligence agencies asserted that the Russian government interfered in the recent Presidential election, and that they attempted to tilt it in Trump’s favor.

Donald Trump shot back, casting doubt on the agencies’ competency – “These are the same ones that said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction”, meaning that since they had no credibility in the past, why should we believe them now? He also said that hacking is too hard to verify after the fact.

Well, for one thing, those two things aren’t the same. For another, it’s quite obvious that the Russian government was involved in the attacks; hacking can be hard to verify but not always. Sometimes the trail is clear, and it is in this case.

The underlying accusation is this:

  1. Trump has been friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the past 12 months, far friendlier than any past President

  2. Putin is a lifelong intelligence agent, and knows how to manipulate Trump. He did it during the campaign, and is still doing it

  3. Trump fell for Putin’s manipulations, mistaking Putin’s praise as genuine statements of admirations (Trump does this – he praises those whom praise him first, and attacks those who insult him)

  4. Putin only praises Trump in order to manipulate Trump into reversing US foreign policy. This will give Putin and Russia a free hand to operate within their sphere of influence, since there is no other power strong enough to stand up to Russia

  5. Trump pushes back on this because, first, he doesn’t believe (or want to believe) that he could be manipulated.

    Second, by consenting that Russia did hack the election, it undermines his victory – the only reason he won is because a foreign power interfered on his behalf, and he wouldn’t have done it on his own. This undercuts the Trump brand of winning.

That’s roughly the argument for why the hacking matters, and why Trump doesn’t believe it.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Instead, I want to look at Trump’s statement after the intelligence briefing on Friday, Jan 6, 2016.

Leading up to it, Trump was fighting with the intel agencies, a fight I think is a terrible idea. Even as media pressure began to swirl, Trump said things like this:

image

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He issued denial after denial that Russia was involved in any capacity.

But after the briefing, he said this in a statement:

“While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations, including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election, including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines”

CNN went on to say :

“Trump also tried to defuse controversy over his criticism of the intelligence community and continued refusal to accept Moscow’s actions, calling the Friday meeting "constructive" and offering praise for the senior intel officials. He said he will appoint a team within 90 days to figure out ways to stop foreign hacking.”

 

I think there’s a clear concession from Donald Trump:

  • He used to say Russia wasn’t involved. And now after seeing the evidence he still can’t say they were. But he did mention them in conjunction with China hacking (which is true), other countries (also true), and other groups of people (still true) as trying to break into the US’s cyber infrastructure.

    By mentioning Russia alongside others who are also known to hack the US, he is effectively conceding “Okay, you’re right” to the US intel agencies.

  • He concedes that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee, but he also buffers that by saying that it didn’t affect the election… which implies that his victory is not undermined, and therefore cannot be delegitimized. It also doesn’t undercut his brand.

    In other words “Yes, they may have been hacked, but I still won fair and square.”

  • He called for a plan to be done in 90 days to combat hacking. Why do this if it wasn’t a big problem?

  • He didn’t make this statement on Twitter. That’s key; Trump uses Twitter to drum up support for his followers as an unfiltered source straight from The Donald. He would never use the mainstream media to issue a message that undercuts his brand

The words are coded, but still clear. Trump lost this fight, but still is good at manipulating the media, and Twitter, to come out ahead. Look at what he said after the report was leaked to NBC news right after he was briefed on the matter:

image

I can’t tell if Trump is being genuine or not. If he is, that is why it is a bad idea to pick fights with intelligence agencies. They don’t fight back directly, they do it passive-aggressively. The leak documents to reporters who whip up the public and distract you from your message as you spend time having to deflect from media circuses.

Yet Trump is not that naïve (I’m pretty sure he isn’t). If he didn’t know that’s how the game is played, he does now. He went to Twitter to distract from his concession, and instead tried to flip it as fake outrage that the report even leaked at all.

Trump is good at that – using Twitter to distract others in order to cover weaknesses. That’s why he started ranting about the new Celebrity Apprentice with Arnold Schwarzenegger having lower ratings. People would chase that instead of his concession.

Then, look at how he uses his concession (a loss) into a weapon against his opponents, the Democrats:

image

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His side was strong, the other side was weak. Yet, even in spite of that, he makes this misleading Tweet:

image

That’s not what the intelligence agencies said, they didn’t say that the hacking had no effect, they said they don’t know how much it affected it – from no effect whatsoever to giving the election to Trump (in such a close election, especially in 3 mid-western states, small things matter).

So while Trump is saying there was no effect on the outcome, the intelligence agencies are saying “We can’t measure it because it requires asking people whether or not the revelations from the hack affected their votes – switching to Trump, or staying home and not voting for Hillary, or voting third party. And even if we asked people, they may not tell the truth. And even if they think they are telling the truth, they may be confused by their own motivations.”

Thus, while I don’t agree with anything Trump has said recently about hacking, and not trusting the intelligence agencies, and I am not comfortable with his cozy relationship with Russia, there is no doubt that he is fantastic at public relations and turning weakness into strength.

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We discovered over the past couple of weeks that we have a paper shredder in the house.

IMG_0348

This cat sure doesn’t like pieces of paper randomly laying around. She sits on them, chews up the paper, and spits it out.

This was a pamphlet for a cruise (my in-laws get them all the time). I guess the cat is not a fan.

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