Saturday, February 27, 2010

Murtha--Not Officially Corrupt

This Slate article talks about the recently late Congressman John Murtha, and how he was never corrupt in the accepted, legal sense. That's all well and good so far as it goes, but the article also talks about how he was always after pork (my word) for his district. In my book, that is nearly as bad.


I got a USAir(ways) Dividend Miles Credit card from Barclay's a year ago, because they gave me a bunch of frequent flier miles and--when I insisted--no annual fee. I had no intention of using it, and never did. I was just in it for the one-time grant of mmiles.

I was slightly bemused to get a letter from them telling me they had canceled it for non-use. Without even a prior warning. I don't really have a problem with that. As I noted, I had no intention of using it, and I was clearly an unprofitable customer. Still, I have had plenty of other credit cards in the same situation, and that has never happened before. If anything, I might have expected a solicitation, accompanied by a mild sweetener, to try to prompt me to use the card and hopefully fall into the habit of using it once prompted. (Note: I'm not complaining about how it was handled, merely making an observation on an unusual consumer event.)

I wonder if the same Artificial Intelligence that (kinda) works for fraud detection also works to identify people who got the card solely for a the miles, or solely for a 0% balance transfer.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

NBC Olympic Vandalism

I love the Olympics! And I really love the Wintery Olympics in glorious HD! What I want to know is--why does NBC think they should be able to vandalize the picture? What I mean by that is--why must they appropriate 3% of my pixels for the non-stop display of this?!

I know, I know--they overpaid for the telecast rights, and they are perfectly entitled to vandalize my picture, if that's what they want to do. I just don't see what purpose it accomplishes. I get that they might want to flash it occasionally--which actually might be more effective--but why does it have to be there 24 x 7, so to speak? I don't think it is much more effective than the hated DVD anti-piracy warnings. In the long run, I have to believe there is bad karma to companies that needlessly antagonize their customers, just because they can.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Develop an Advertising Allergy

Is it possible to develop an allergic reaction to advertising and marketing? Whenever I see something heavily promoted, I think:

1. Maybe it is not that effective or necessary--otherwise it would do a better job of "selling itself".
2. For certain, even if the product is effective--that brand must be over-priced because of all the advertising. So, note to self--look for a generic version of the same product. Avoid advertised brand at all costs, because ipso facto is must be over-priced.

In general I always like to think about how businesses are making their profit, and do everything reasonable I can to make sure I am a minimally profitable customer. Buy on sale, of course. Never order alcohol in restaurants. Avoid buying products which require expensive consumables.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Doc Searls on Google As A Bubble

Really good article speculating that the internet advertising that feeds Google is a bubble. I have always been pretty skeptical about the long-term potential of internet advertising, and I find this totally compelling. Why do people love bubbles so?

Every Computer Glitch Is (Not!) A Virus

There are many reasons why being the go-to tech support resource for family and friends can be trying. Amongst them is the tendency for wildly incorrect self-diagnosis. Instead of reporting "I have a problem", the report I get is almost invariably "I think my computer has a virus". Just one of those little things...

Obama's Vegas "Diss"--Bring It On

At a speech to high school students, Obama said ""You don't blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you're trying to save for college. You prioritize. You make tough choices." He has since received a certain amount of criticism for that assertion, from such disinterested, insightful parties as the mayor of Las Vegas. Critics who clearly have both deep insight into the fundamentals of a strong, sound, sustainable economy, and who only have the best interests of the whole country at heart. Yeah, right.

The libertarian in me says, if people want to blow money gambling (yes, casino gambling does constitute blowing money), then they should not be prohibited from doing so. The pragmatist and ascetic in me says--gambling is bad for people, and bad for the overall economy. So just because it is legal, doesn't mean we have to pretend it is a neutral thing--much less that it is a positive good.

My personal, cherished belief is that the country is aching for a person or institution who will speak to them as if they were adults, who will consistently tell them hard truths. It will not be popular at the time, but would anyone deny that there are millions of people now who wish that someone had looked them in the eye and told them that buying houses they could not afford was a really, really bad idea, not likely to end well? Saying that gambling in Vegas amounts to blowing money is such a truth. Strong countries and socieities do not build strength on gambling.

Here are my ideas of some other hard truths that we would be better off for imbibing, understanding and accepting:
  • Healthcare reform won't come cheap. There is no free lunch. But we need to do something. There is abundant empirical evidence that modern, high-quality health care can be obtained for much less than we are spending--the gigantic political/policy/cultural/economic challenge is in getting from here to there. There is no shortcut, but it is not impossible. The journey will start with an honest assessment of the facts. (Here is something he could have said.)
  • We need to lose the credit mentality. Not just "responsible" use of credit. The fact is, there are not that many consumer cases where even responsible use of credit is a desirable thing. Credit is over-rated, period.[1]
  • The place of the United States in the world is changing. It is inevitable. The United States can still be the "leading" country in the world in most respects, but it is simply not realistic for it to continue to be the dominant hegemon. It is best to face this fact, and strategize accordingly (It would have been much easier for Bush to tell this truth, than for Obama to take it on.) [2]
  • It will take a long time to work off the effects of this financial crisis, and the debt we have accumulated. We should accept that and plan for it. Don't fool ourselves, and think that boom times are around the corner. (I do think this concept is taking hold somewhat.)
  • A hard question we should ask our collective selves: instead of having 15+% of the population effectively unemployed, and much of the rest over-worked and living in fear that they will be next, would it be better to contemplate an approach where everybody takes a 15% pay cut, but "everybody" also keeps working?. It is one thing to advocate a laissez-faire approach to unemployment when the rate is in the 5% range, the economy is sound, and qualified candidates can generally find replacement jobs. It is quite another in the current environment, when the bad luck of being in the wrong position in the wrong company at the wrong time can throw one out of work, with prospects for a very long period of unemployment. I know I am personally worried for a number of families who are unemployed and not finding work--I think I would actually feel better if I were making 15% less, but my friends were still employed.[3][4] The key to that, though, is the "all in it together" aspect.[5]
  • We have other major, major financial crises awaiting. The national debt of course is one huge one. Retirement is another. The three-legged retirement stool--comprised of pensions, savings and social security--is in very rickety shape. You know things are not sound when Social Security is one of the stronger legs. Private pensions have vanished for the vast majority of workers. Though there are exceptions with very high earners, private savings (mostly in the form of 401ks) are not going to make up for the lack of a pension. The only solutions: start saving way more, plan on working much longer.[6]
  • Cost of college is right there with healthcare in terms of devouring our standard of living. It is ridiculous how expensive college has gotten. And unlike healthcare, there is no intrinsic reason for it. There are structural reasons, relating largely to government getting in the financing game. They are well-known, I have been reading about them for years, but for whatever reasons, they have not percolated their way into public consciousness--in my opinion, most middle-and upper-middle class parents are still very much followers in this regard, pretty much blindly assuming that whatever the cost of college is, it is ultimately reasonable and worth it. This one would be easier to fix than healthcare, it just requires a sea-change in attitude.
  • Call to strength. The state of the union is not so strong. It is far, far from hopeless. But not so strong. However, strength is and should always be our goal. Toward that end, we need leadership which calls the nation to court strength. That means choosing saving over Vegas. Planning for a long, productive career, instead of coveting early retirement[7]. Reconsider our high-overhead lifestyles.[8] Take a hard look at how we spend our time--every minute spent watching Survivor is a minute not making yourself stronger, smarter or more capable. I know, leisure has its place, I totally agree it does, but--how we spend our leisure is just something to think about[9]. And it means investing in your personal fitness, mental, physical and financial.
More than some politicians, Obama dabbles in speaking some hard truth, but then he backs off. Here is his back-pedal on the Vegas comment:
"I was making the simple point that families use vacation dollars, not college tuition money, to have fun," Obama said, according to the letter released by Reid's office. "There is no place better to have fun than Vegas, one of our country's great destinations."


[1] Yes, there are exceptions. But not as many as you think. Newly graduated college student needs a car to drive to work? Okay, probably so, but does it have to be a brand-new car, with all the options that make modern cars expensive? The home mortgage would be another example. It is often cheaper to own than rent, for one thing. But--the size of American houses has gone up and up, even as family size has decreased. The mortgage mentality is part of what drives this. So yes, it might be necessary to borrow for your first house, but if houses were somewhat smaller and more affordable, the amount borrowed might be drastically cut. Instead of a 90% loan on a $250,000 house ($225,000 borrowed), how about a 50% loan on a $150,000 house (75,000 borrowed--1/3 as much debt).
[2] I say this even though I am a moderate "American Exceptionalist".
[3] From a practical and cultural standpoint, I do recognize that this is all-but-unthinkable in the U.S. Most of my peers to whom I have mentioned it, honestly had not even for a moment thought of the srpead-the-pain approach. For those who consider themselves Christians--and even more so those who believe the United States is a "Christian nation"--this is something to think about.
[4] There is also an optimizing aspect to this approach. In many cases, the result of cuts is that those remaining behind working harder than ever, for the same wages. While those laid off are either involuntarily idle, or spending all their time mostly vainly hunting for a job. So both the employed and the unemployer are worse off, though in different ways. On the other hand, if wages and hours were cut, roughly in proportion, it would provide at least a partially off-setting benefit to the loss in wages. I know this is absolutely, completely "un-American" and will never happen.[5] I am thinking of "austerity Britain", but hopefully less severe--if we start soon.
[6] In regard to working longer, I think there is a silver lining. It seems like most of the studies I have read about suggest that people who are able to work, and working, in later life often age better than the early-retired.
[7] If you have planned very, very well on your own to retire, more power to you. Go ahead. All I am saying is that most people are not in good shape for retirement, so while they should definitely begin saving for retirement, equally important is to plan to keep working for a long time. An important part of that plan is preserving your ability to earn--your skills and your health.
[8] Houses that get bigger, even as families get smaller. Cars that get more expensive, without getting any better at their core mission of providing transportation. Capital-intensive kids sports (no, your child is not likely to get a "full ride" just because they are pretty good at baseball!) My daughter's band trip is to Hawaii. Hawaii! That just doesn't seem like a reasonable thing for a public school to even consider.
[9]  Call me a scold if you will. Guilty as charged.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mark It Down

First sunny winter day that was so warm, I had to crack the windows in the sun room.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Lasik Centers That Do 1000s Of Procedures Each Year

I know they are hauling money to the bank, but--doesn't it get boring for the physicians?

Monday, February 01, 2010

iPad Paid Content

This article talks about the importance of media deals for the iPad's success. To me, that is a total non-starter. Same drawback as for the Kindle--I just about wouldn't want one for free (I would take a free iPad, though)...I am firmly in the "information wants to be free" camp. Or if that is not always true, it is certainly always true that I want information to be free (free as in beer as well as free as in speech), and I sure am not going to run out and pay $$ for device that will cost EVEN MORE $$ in ongoing consumables. I hate consumables, and try hard to avoid them, as much as practical, in any consumer product (e.g., I am not buying a $60 shop vac that requires a $20 replaceable filter; I am going to stick with models that have washable filters)

Yes, I know--producers of content need to get paid. I know that, I understand that. But I am not going to do collude in transfering cash from my pocket to theirs (with a big cut for Steve Jobs). And I most certainly am not going to willingly submit to a high-overhead way of paying for content that supports "high-priced office buildings and expensive lunches".