Monday, June 30, 2008

California, Too Expensive?

I was chatting with a friend today that I hadn't talked to in a while.  We were just discussing how things were with each other and the conversation eventually turned into how she was doing at her job.  She has been in the job for a while, and I know she has been thinking about leaving for a long time.  But as we talked it came up that she was thinking of looking for a job out of state.  I couldn't believe what I was hearing until she explained that California has just gotten to expensive to live in.

And to a large degree she is right.  She is, like me, part of Generation Screwed.   She does OK by most standards, but she is, like me, a renter.  She wants to get married, raise a family, and eventually own a home.  Of course those in the generation face the daunting problem of saving a small fortune to buy a house.  Coupled with the high taxes and high gas prices in California, no wonder she is thinking of leaving.

It really makes me wonder how bad it is for those in California less fortunate than me.  I have started thinking about how I can save money when faced with these economic uncertainties.  Now for me, most of this is psychological in nature (more on that later), but for many many people it is a stark reality.    California is a very expensive place to live.  For many people, all the benefits of living in California don't outweigh the lower standard of living. How does the average person achieve the American Dream in California?  How is it possible to start out, pay off loans, stay out of debt, save enough to buy a house, save enough to send your kids to college, and then save enough for retirement?  I find it difficult enough as is with a high salary, no kids, and no debt, I just can't imagine how it must be for those faced with multiple challenges.

So what happens when more and more people start feeling this way?  Is it possible that we see a migration out of California?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Doctors, Just Do What They Say?

I went to the dentist today.  Unlike some people, not a huge fan of the dentist.  Today was a prime example of why I am not.  I've had a number of cavities in my life and it appears that its time to redo some of those fillings, so I'm going back next week to go take care of it.

Here is the thing though.  I am just doing whatever it is they tell me I need to do.  It's not cheap.  It will cost me out of pocket about $350.  Lucky for my, this is coming out of money I still have in my HSA from Microsoft, so in reality, I'm not really paying for it, but that isn't the point.  I could imagine for a lot of people, spending $350 when nothing is obviously wrong would be a very difficult thing to do.

So what do most people do in this situation?  Would they just spend the money and get everything fixed or would they ask a lot more questions and only do the things they absolutely had to do?  It's easy for someone like me to just do whatever is advised, but I really wonder what people do when they have to make choices about their health.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Generation Screwed

I often think that my generation is getting the very short end of the stick.  I'm sure lots of people feel that way about their respective lives, but it is an odd thing for me.  You see, I've always done very well, but I think I've done very well despite some pretty big obstacles put in front of people my age, 30.  Here is the quick list of what 30 year olds today have a right to gripe about

  • Tech Bust of 2000 -  Right before I graduated college and was about to enter the working world, the tech bubble was in full swing.  the Dot Coms of the world were producing millionaires for people with my exact skill set.  Of course, right when I graduated, tech mania subsided, the bubble burst, and lots of my peers lost their jobs.  I even technically lost my job.   So right when it was most important to have a job, since few, if any, of my peers had a safety net, we were losing our first jobs.  The jobs that would set a foundation for the things to come.

  • 9/11 - One short year after I graduated, we had 9/11.  This changed the face of the United States and brought on an even wider economic slowdown than the tech bubble bursting.  Our lives became a little more frightening and a lot more inconvenient.  It brought changes to our government and our lifestyles which I frankly don't really care for.  A few years down the road it even helped re-elect one of the biggest idiots we have ever had as President ....

  • George Bush - Can you believe that this has been the man who has been President of the United States my entire adult life?  If that doesn't show you how screwed my generation is, I don't know what does

  • The Housing Bubble - This one might just be the worse one of all.  My combined household income would, according to wikipedia, qualify me to easily be in the top 5% of households in the United States.  If we took into account how much I have in savings ...  Well let's just say I'm not doing half bad.  Yet I don't own a home.  I don't because ever since I was able to afford it, it hasn't made any economic sense to buy.  Prices were just too high.  Most people my age probably could not even really afford it until about 2005, but by then housing prices had skyrocketed to unprecedented levels.  To make matters worse, many of my peers bought anyway!  So now, they are losing their shirts as home prices fall.  Since they just bought, they have no equity.  Many of them will be foreclosed on, ruining their credit for years to come.

  • The end of Pensions and the Collapse of Social Security - Pensions as we know it are done.  My generation now faces the very daunting taks of an unsecure retirement.  Many of our parents have guaranteed income the rest of their life thanks to generous pension benefits.  My mom retired in her early 50's and has a pension that will pay her 1/2 her salary for the rest of her life.  No such luck for me.  I'll be saving for retirement by myself with no such guarantees.    To make mattes worse, my generation will be the one to have to deal with the Social Security mess.  Fantastic!

  • Inflation - I've written before and I'll say it again.  Inflation is very, very bad.  It has been dormant for almost my entire lifetime.  But right when it matters most, when people my age should be starting to accumulate wealth for retirement, it springs back to life.

I could go on and on.  These problems aren't like the Great Depression or a World War (although we have had to deal with a very long, protracted war even though we reached "Mission Accomplished" years ago) but still.  While these problems haven't really affected me personally, I've seen their effect on my friends.  It makes me think that things are even worse for us than I believe since I myself have never felt the pain first hand.  What do you think?  Am I part of generation screwed or am I making a bigger deal about this than it really is?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Saudi Arabia to Increase Oil Production - US Wants More

Oil WellBecause I follow the market so much and because I'm fascinated (from an economics perspective) with the rising price of gas, I find the calls for Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing nations to produce more oil to be pretty silly.  Yes, I get the fact that American consumers are feeling the pain at the pump.  This is causing all sorts of other problems and will probably lead to the double whammy of inflation and recession, stagflation.  Believe me, I don't want to see that.

But I find the whole situation amusing for a few reasons.   First off, I really think it might be in the best interest of the United States to just let oil stay this hi.  There are already signs that America is pulling back on their gas guzzling ways.  By most accounts, SUV sales are down anywhere between 20%-40% as Americans switch to smaller cars.  Air travel is also down as more and more people are opting to stay at home.  I think in the long term, America will be better off weaning itself from our oil loving ways.  If oil stays this hi, alternatives will be found.  Nothing motivates people like money.  When oil is cheap, nobody has any incentive to find another alternative.  With oil this expensive, the alternatives start looking a lot more attractive.

But here is the kicker.  The oil producing countries get this! I really don't think they want the world's addiction to oil to end any time soon.  But it is hilarious to me to see the United States ask, cajole, and demand these countries to produce more oil.  These countries have every incentive in the world to pump more oil.  Oil, even hard to reach oil, probably only cost about $50 a barrel to produce.  Yet it sells on the market for almost triple that.  Now think about it.  What would you do if you could produce a product and sell it for triple what it cost you to produce?  You would make as much of it as possible as fast as you could!  There really is no reason for the US to keep asking to increase production.  However much the oil industry is a "cartel" believe me, they cheat when they can.  Although they artificially keep supply low on purpose, all the OPEC countries have a huge incentive to cheat on the quota.  They have done it in the past when oil wasn't this hi.  The incentive to cheat is even greater now so what makes anyone think they won't?

So let OPEC do whatever they want to do.  I honestly think the United States, it its smart, can win either way.   Then again, that may be asking too much.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Done With the Train

Despite the fact that gas is soon going to be $5 a gallon, I've decided that I'm done with the train.  I've been trying to take the train
on and off for the past few month but decided today that I have had it.   Like a typical Californian, I'm addicted to my car.

A couple of things killed the train experience for me.  While it is generally more convenient for a majority of people who can get on it easily, it really isn't for me.  My commute isn't that bad.  I do hit some traffic, but I know enough of the side streets to be able to get around any traffic jams.  The money hurts a little bit, it is taking me about $60 a week to fill up my tank, but it isn't horrible.  Two things did it for me.

  1. The train takes longer.  Door to door, it takes me 30-40 minutes in my car.  The train takes me about an hour.   Round trip, I can save 40-60 minutes a day.  That really starts to add up.

  2. I get a headache when I ride the train.  Don't know why, it isn't bumpy or anything like that.  It just gives me one.  it usually takes me about an hour to recover from it when I get home, sucking up even more time.

So that's it for me.  I was trying to do my part to help the environment and the horrible traffic congestion in Los Angeles, but in the end, my own convenience and comfort wins out.  I know, I'm a horrible human being.  Was it the right thing to do, or did I give up too easily?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

That Good Deal, Not So Good

In fact the deal can be bad for you in multiple ways. Here is what I'm talking about.  I went to get a sandwich today at Quiznos.  I decided to get a small sandwich because I wasn't that hungry and I find that the small is a good size for lunch.  Anything more than that is too filling.

But as I was ordering my sandwich,  I noticed that the large was only $7.00, only $2.00 more than my small.  This must be a recently reduced price because normally the large is about $9.00.  The part of me that loves a good deal was tempted to just order the large.  After all, it was only $2.00 more and I would have gotten much more sandwich.  But that's the problem, and actually it is two fold.  First off, I didn't really want more sandwich, but we love a good deal so we are willing to spend more money for something we don't really want.

The bigger problem was that the sandwich would make me bigger.  As I've gotten older, I definitely have to think about what I eat.  It would have been so easy to just order it and eat the whole thing.  American's love of a good deal combined with our desire to "finish what's on your plate" definitely isn't helping America's waistline.  So not only would I waste money, I would be getting fatter, and I would eventually have to deal with all the consequences of getting fat.

Do you find yourself doing that too?  Do you buy things you don't really need just because you can get a good deal on it?  Why do you think you do it?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Real Estate Agents - Dumb, Naive, or just Liars?

Before the crash came, I remember real estate agent after real estate agent saying what a great time it was to buy into a house.  If you didn't buy soon, you would soon be priced out forever.  Housing was the best investment ever (it isn't) and it would never go down because it never had.  Hurry, buy now.

The latest housing numbers are pretty grim.  New housing starts fell to their lowest levels since the started tracking the number.   Housing in my neck of the woods is down 27% year over year (they aren't down enough).   Yet I keep hearing real estate agents say that now is the best time to buy.  Their reasoning, prices have dropped so much and there is so much choice for buyers.  What does that make real estate agents?  Are they just dumb because they couldn't see the fall of housing coming when it was pretty evident to anybody who was paying attention.  Are they just naive because they don't understand how horrible the current situation is and how much worse it is going to get.  Or perhaps they are just like every other sales guy out there, willing to lie and say whatever it takes to get a sale.

I keep looking at housing prices in my city, and they just aren't all that great.  There are some houses which aren't outrageous, but none I would say is affordable, and I earn way more than the average American household.  For me, I would need to see prices drop at least another 30%-40% from here before I would even consider buying.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Credit Cards - Too easy to Get

This may seem obvious to a lot of people but it wasn't so obvious to me until today. You see, I don't sign up for a lot of credit cards. In fact, I have only one credit card. Ironically, I was talking about this very fact with Jenny today. We discussed some statistics that showed that a group of people had as many as ten credit cards each. It was shocking to someone like me because I have no need nor do I have any desire to have more than one credit card.

But today, I wanted to add my girlfriend to my credit card so that I could better manage our expenditures and I can pay for things when she is the one actually going to the store. A pretty common thing for us which we have gotten around the last few years by me just paying her back. I decided I had enough of tracking all of this, so decided to just sign her up on my account. The process couldn't have been more easy. I logged in to my account online, filled out about 5 questions, and they are going to send me a second card with her name on it.

I was dumbfounded by how easy they made the process. Having been in charge of a sign-up process in the past, I can appreciate how hard they actually worked to make it as simple as it was. Of course they make it this simple because it is crucially important to them to make sure people have as many credit cards as they want. The more steps you put in any process, the more likely someone is to drop out. In reality, I'm glad the process was easy, I wanted to get one and I don't like being bothered with things that are hard to do. But it made me think of a television show I recently watched about how easy it was for people to get cards and how they got themselves into trouble. Now don't get me wrong, I don't feel a lot of sympathy for these people. I'm all about personal responsibility and hate it when people blame the big bad credit card companies for doing what they are supposed to do, make money.

How about you, how many cards do you have? Do you find it really easy to just sign up for new ones?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Panasonic 50Pz800u Service Menu

The Panasonic 50PZ800u service menu is easy to get to.  For the most part, you should not access it.  Doing so can supposedly harm your TV in many bad ways if you don't know what you are doing.  However, a lot of new owners want to know how many hours their new Plasma TV has.  You can either keep track of the number of hours you have on the TV, or you can find the information in the Service Menu.

It took me a while to finally find out how to access it to determine this, but here is how.

  1.  On the TV itself, hold down the "Vol -" Button

  2. While holding the volume button down, press "info" on the TV remote three times.  Wait.  Depending on what mode you are in, you will notice the display change.  Two blue windows will appear in the upper left portion of your screen.  This is the service menu.  Keep reading if you want to know how to determine the number of hours on the set.

  3. Now press the "2" button on the remote.  This will pull up a window with the word "SRV-TOOL"

  4. Press the "OK" button on the remote.  A light blue grid will appear.

  5. On the Grid, cursor down (using the remote down arrows) to the row labeled "PTCT"

  6. Cursor to the right.  It should be an empty box.

  7. Hold MUTE for 3 seconds.  The amount of time the display has been on will be next to the word "TIME"  this is in hours and minutes.

To get out of the service menu, I just power cycled the TV by holding the power button down on the TV itself.   I hope this helps some people.  It took me a while to find this and actually figure out exactly what I needed to do.  If it helps you, leave a comment!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

DirecTV installed

directvlogo.jpgDirecTV + Panasonic 50PZ800U = WOW!

Before I go more in depth in this, wanted to say sorry for all the post about my new TV. I don't have a lot of time outside of work, and most of my time this past week has been playing with my new toy, so I haven't done a lot of thinking about things outside of work and this TV.

So today the DirecTV guys came around to install the system. I got one HD+DVR (H21) receiver and I got one standard receiver for the bedroom. They hooked up the H21 to my Panasonic via HDMI and fired it up. It took a few minutes for the receiver to do what it had to do and it was up and running. I started scanning through all the HD channels that are part of my basic package, and there are a lot of them, and was amazed by how great everything looks.

Not everything is roses. I'm not in love with the response time of the receiver. I don't like it when I hit the button on something and there is not an immediate response. I also HATE the way you have to set up the channels on HDTV. This normally involves unselecting a bunch of channels that you don't actually get or removing channels you just don't want to watch. Not sure why they haven't found an easier way to do this yet.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Panasonic Plasma: First Thoughts

Kobe Drives

So I've spent the day with my plasma, and I grow to like it more and more.

The TV got its first major test today, as I watched Game 3 of the NBA finals.  One of the major reasons I got this TV was because I watch lots of sports, and I can't stand watching fast action sports on LCD TVs.  I have to say, the set looks fantastic.  I've been watching the games on my 24" LCD monitor, which is actually pretty good.  Now I don't want to compare an LCD monitor to an LCD TV, as they are different beast, but nevertheless, I didn't know how great the game could look having never really watched a true HDTV in the comfort of my living room.

Every Kobe drive and all of Sasha's Daggers were brought to me in crystal clear High Def.  The TV produces an unbelievable picture with amazing color accuracy.  The dish installation comes on Thursday, so I will have to wait a few days to get dozens of HD channels, but the OTA broadcast is pretty good.  Not much beats a Lakers win, the only thing that might would be watching a Lakers win on this HDTV!

Once you get HD, its hard to go back.  I only have two true HD sources, OTA broadcast and a few 1080P films I have on my computer.  Other than that I only have my DVD player, my Wii, and my old Xbox, none of which will output a true HD signal.  The TV does an adequate job of upscaling the picture, but compared to HD it just isn't the same.  Pictures are of course noticeably softer, but what else can you expect?

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Panasonic Plasma Arrives

Panasonic 50PZ800U

My Panasonic 50" Plasma, the 50PZ800U, arrived today., right on schedule.  I was very anxious to get it and despite the fact that it arrived early in the delivery window, It still seemed like it couldn't get here fast enough.  The delivers brought it in the door, unpacked it, set it up, and put it on my console.  Overall, a fine experience.  Didn't like that it took almost a week to get here, but really you shouldn't expect much more when ordering something like this online.

My first thought when they placed it on my console was, "Wow, this is a beautiful TV."  My second thought was, "Wow, this thing is huge!"

I'll have to post my thoughts on the TV in a little bit when I get a chance to really put the TV through its paces.  But here are my initial thoughts.  Keep in mind that this is my very first HDTV, so my perspective is one of a neophyte.

 TVs don't look the same as they do in the store - Seriously, it's like night and day.  I looked at this TV A LOT in the store and my opinion of it is very different than now.  I read all the forums, and everybody would say that you shouldn't judge a TV by how it looks in the store.  It was really hard for me to do this.  The bright fluorescent lights completely distort the picture.  Most of the time, TVs are set to "vivid" mode which makes the picture extremely bright and over saturates the colors.  In the store it looks great.  At home, it looks like everyone has bright orange skin.  This TV has a THX mode which is supposed to make the picture extremely accurate.  In the store, the picture looks washed out.  At home, it is by far the best setting.

 HDTVs need HD material - Don't get me wrong, the Standard Def material I have seen looks OK, but it doesn't look great.  I have played several different sources on this TV.  The best sources have been of course Blu-Ray Movies and over the air HD signals.  The TV looks fantastic when using these high quality sources.  SD sources like  SD TV and standard DVD look OK.

I did have a little bit of a scare.  It seems the TV doesn't like it when I connect my PC via HDMI.  The TV refused to power on and the little red light in the front blinked at me seven times.  I had to dig around the AVS forums to find an answer.  I was forced to unplug the HDMI connection and power cycle the TV.  This bothers me a little bit but it is something I can work around.

More thoughts after I get a chance to use the TV a little more.  But so far, so good!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Delirious with Anticipation

The TV arrives on Monday, already have the delivery scheduled.  I'm anticipating the thing so much, I almost want the weekend to end so I can get the TV.  Yes, I've finally reached a new level of craziness.

It had arrived in LA early Friday morning.  I was a little disappointed that they couldn't deliver it before Monday so I could enjoy it over the weekend.  In good news, the TV has all of a sudden become much more expensive on Amazon.  It's about $100 more than where I bought it, and about $200 more when you consider the rebates Amazon gave me.   I was hoping the TV would continue its downward price slide so I could continue to cash in on rebates, but it doesn't look like its going to go below my new base price anytime soon.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Biggest Scam in the World

I've discovered what the biggest scam in the world is. But I'll get to that in a second.

I'm still eagerly waiting for my TV. I've grown really impatient, and now part of me wishes I just went into the store and haggled it out with the people there. I watched the NBA finals on my computer and kept thinking to myself how much better it would look on my new 50" Plasma TV. The hardest part of the wait is that there is no new update where the TV is. It got to Columbus and the it seems to have stalled. For all I know, it is close to LA and they just haven't updated the status. Not knowing where it is sucks.

So what is the biggest scam? It has to be HDMI cables. Seriously, I just don't get it. Go to any store and try and buy a HDMI cable. I guarantee you won't find one for under $30 and most likely will have to pay $50 or $60. If you buy a Monster HDMI cable, it will set you back $100 or more.

Here is the thing though, it really doesn't make any sense to buy one of these cables. HDMI is a digital signal. Long story short, either the signal gets there or it doesn't. So long as the signal gets there, you are going to get a crystal clear picture. The chances of you losing the signal on a short cable length are not very high. Some argue that the better cables give you more bandwidth but really this is a bunch of lies and most consumers will never know the difference.

I bought my cables from a company called Monoprice. They had a good selection of cables, their prices were excellent, and their service was fantastic. I got my cables in a few short days from them and paid only $6 for my 10" HDMI cable. Same cable in the store would have easily cost me $50 anywhere.

The thing that perplexes me most though is that I have never seen a cheap cable in a store. I've seen them all over the place like at Monoprice and at Amazon, but have yet to see a cable for around $10 in any retail outlet. It's odd. Simple economics would tell you that retailers shouldn't be able to charge these exorbitant amounts when a cheap alternative so clearly exist. There is clearly a demand for these types of cables, but yet nobody has yet come in and offered a cheap cable. It may be that HDMI is still not as standard as some of the other cable types, since HDMI is only available on higher end TVs. But still, I find it odd.

Any thoughts on what is going on here? What do you think is the biggest scam out there?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Hardest Part of Being a Manager

I was having a conversation with someone today about being a manager.  Being a manager is one of those things that everybody thinks is really easy but in reality is never as easy as you really think it is.  There are a lot of challenges most people just can't deal with.

Now, I'll be the first to say that if you have the right attitude and mindset it can be a relatively easy job.  You see, managers don't really do anything.  There, I've said it.  In the end, they are responsible for the work of others and generally don't produce anything concrete themselves.  Now that may sound nice and easy, but it has its own very difficult challenges.   The hardest part is dealing with the people themselves.

In a perfect world, people would just do what you tell them to do, do it well, and do it without complaint.  But the world is never perfect.   In fact, more often then not people are going to fall short in one of those three areas and you are going to have to deal with it.  Now here is the hard part, how do you deal with it?  If you are like most people, you want to be liked.  Humans have this desire to be liked by other people.  However, all good managers at some point have to be an ass.  Either someone is going to screw up, and you are going to have to tell them they screwed up, or you are going to have to tell someone something they don't want to hear.  Perhaps they are behind schedule on a key project or you can't give them the promotion or the position they want.  Whatever the case may be, most people do not want to be the bearer of bad news.

I've learned to deal with it in a relatively easy way.  I've just accepted that work is not a popularity contest, it's work.   If people decide they don't like me because I had to tell them something they didn't want to hear or make them do something that they didn't want to do so be it.  I've made plenty of friends in my life and a few people not liking me is OK.  That doesn't mean I'm a jerk at work, I hate those guys as well, but at work, I do what I have to do to get the job done.   Most people accept that and even respect that.  In fact, I have found that most people hate those managers who go to the other extreme, try to please everybody.  In the end, when you try to please everybody you please nobody.  So long as you are consistent in your message, and people know you are working toward the good of the company or the team, things seem to just work themselves out

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Tracking the TV


Like any good obsession, I'm watching very closely where my TV currently is. Unfortunately for me, my TV started all the way on the other side of the country in Harrisburg, PA. It is slowly (very slowly) making its way across the country to me. It currently resides in Columbus, Ohio, where it is resting before continuing its journey westward to L.A.

TV is "estimated to arrive" on June 11th, which gives it another week to make the rest of the journey. This is most definitely one of the reasons to buy your TV in a brick and mortar star, instant gratification. I've already paid for the TV, I would like to be enjoying it right about now, but I wait. Considering I got it for almost $1000 off MSRP, I suppose its worth the week+ wait, but it isn't easy.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Too Much of a Good Thing

I went to an all you can eat sushi place for dinner tonight.  I was determined to get my moneys worth so I ate and ate and ate.  All told I had about 10 pieces of sushi a Rainbow roll and a roll that consisted of a spicy tuna/shrimp roll topped with Salmon.  To give you perspective, my girlfriend, who normally probably eats as much as I do, had the same Spicy Tuna/Salmon roll and was quite full.

I seriously don't remember ever filling so full as I did at the end of that meal.  I was full to the point of feeling a little nauseous.  It's odd how people try to maximize something even to the point of their own detriment.  There was actually very little point in me to continue to eat.  The amount I was going to pay for the dinner was a sunk cost, there was no way my eating was going to affect the final price I paid.  I probably would have enjoyed myself even more if I had stopped two pieces of sushi earlier, but my consumer instinct told me to have that one last piece just to make sure that I got a good deal.

It was a completely irrational act but I did it anyway, and I'm sure I will do it again.  We all do.  Humans obsess over things that in reality have no bearing on the future.  The stock market is actually a pretty good example.  So is housing at the moment.  I held on to my e-trade stock, as well as a few others, WAY longer than I should have because I was so under my cost basis.  It was dumb.  My cost basis really had nothing to do with what the stock was going to do in the future, but for some reason, I kept thinking about it and refused to sell it when I should have.  It literally was a mistake that cost me a few thousand dollars.