Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Taxes and the Census

Do you think people don't really think about taxes? Look at the latest census numbers to come out and the effect it has on Congressional seats.

New York-2
New Jersey-1
South Carolina1

There are seven states that don't have any state income tax.  These include  Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming.  Of the eight states that actually gained seats, four of them are included in that list.  The two that gained the most, Texas and Florida, are some of the most income tax friendly states.   Some of the least friendly states, New York and New Jersey, are the states that are losing people on a relative basis.  of course, this is not the only factor causing this shift.  There also seems to be some correlation between warmer and colder states, but it is pretty interesting when you look at it through the lens of people trying to avoid paying taxes.   This is exactly what you would expect.  People protesting with their feet.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Hidden Cost of Control

One of the things that managers and executives often forget is the very high cost of putting in controls to run the business.  I am not here to say that a company should not have any controls.  There are obvious places that rules and process should be put in place to make sure the desired outcome is achieved.  But I see the same pattern happening over and over again for companies as they reach a certain size.

When companies are just starting out, there is usually little to no controls in place.  Developers have access to production machines, employees can buy anything they want, assets might be listed in someone's notebook.  But as companies get bigger and bigger, and more employees are hired, something inevitably happens.  Someone screws up.

This is actually caused by several problems.  But top on that list is the fact that companies lower their hiring standards.  Nobody likes to admit that it happens but it does.  If everyone could be trusted to do the right thing and know what the right outcomes were, there would be very little need for controls.  But as it is, companies feel compelled to add headcount the bigger they get.   When it is discovered that finding really talented, dedicated, and smart people is difficult companies compromise.  They instead turn to the misguided notion that process can replace people.

The thinking goes that if you just put enough rules in place, any idiot can follow the rules and achieve the right outcome.  Problem is that the same people who believe this do exactly that, they hire idiots.  This of course perpetuates the cycle.  Since idiots are hired, they need more rules put in place for them.  Now you may be thinking, what's the big deal?  So a few less than talented people are working at a company.  No big deal right?

Well I have yet to see a company segment out their rules by the capable and the idiots.  The same rules apply to everyone.  This creates a reversion toward the mean.  The idiots are able to do a little bit more when they are told exactly what to do.  Of course the superstars on the team also have to follow the same rules.  Rather than being able to use their judgment according to the situations, they get bogged down in formal process and rules which were never meant for them.

Management and executives always say the same thing, "We will keep the process down to a minimum".  My favorite is, "The process is simple.  You just need to ask and I will approve right away."  The problem of course is that management is very busy.  If all decisions have to be made by a single individual, and that individual is never around, decisions don't get made.  This slows people down by a lot more than you would expect.

But there is more.  Not only does it slow down things as they are happening, it actually prevents things from happening in the first place.  I have seen this behavior with my own eyes.  Rather than have to fight through the process, smart people will just not bother.  They do not want to waste their time hunting people down and getting a dozen people to sign off of every little change.  They just will clam up and never make any suggestions, waiting for someone to tell them exactly what to do.  In this day and age, where innovation is king and speed is of tantamount important, this can be a slow and agonizing death.  I have a great example of this.  I have been in situations where every little computer request needed to be scrutinized.  I had an engineer whose computer was painfully slow.  Now realize, a computer is an engineer's main tool.  If it slows down by 1/2 you literally have an employee who is 1/2 as productive.  Rather than ask for a new computer, the engineer just suffered.  When his computer slowed down, he would just sit and stare at the screen.  How ridiculous is that?

Of course, this problem is not readily apparent, so management often does not notice how their own participation can slow so much down.  In my next post, I'll describe what should be done to fix this problem.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

How People Keep Themselves Poor

It is often amazing to me how people treat money.  What I am about to tell you is a true story about somebody I know.

Someone I peripherally know got married.  She had not known the gentleman too long but it was young love and she did not know any better.  They decided to have a "traditional" wedding.  That of course means "expensive".  All told, the wedding cost over $70,000.  But here is the kicker.  The family did not pay for the wedding.  Instead, the bride put it all on her credit card.

This is not someone who comes from a very rich family.   $70,000 is probably two years of salary to this person.  But you only get married once right?  But wait, it gets worse.  The marriage lasted all of three months.  I will not get into the reasons why but the couple had differences that they were not prepared to deal with.  But think about this for a second.  Two years of salary are now down the drain.  In reality it is closer to three years when you factor in taxes.  All this for a marriage that lasted 1/10 the time it will take to pay off the expenses.  Let's compare this to my wedding.   I spent a total of $7000.  I make much more than the person I am talking about and have much more money in the bank.  I did not have to save for my wedding nor did I have to scrape to get the money together.  I just had it.  My wedding had no material impact on my financial situation and never will.  Despite the lack of impact it had on my finances, I can honestly say I had a perfect wedding.

This incident will impact this girl for the rest of her life.  She is going to spend the next several years attempting to pay this debt off and it will drag like a weight behind her no matter what she does.  So what is the lesson here?  The problem goes well beyond the mere fact that she spent way more on her wedding than she could reasonably afford.  It is about how people view money in relation to their life.

Like it or not, your life will involve, and often revolve, around money.   You need it to live and you need it to do most anything you want to do.  Since money is so involved with your entire life, the accumulation of wealth is something that has to be very carefully cultivated.  As this incident shows, one mistake can create havoc.  We live in a society where most people feel fine trading short-term wants over long-term needs.  This is what happened here.  I am sure the bride did not think about the long term ramifications of what she was doing.  She wanted to have the "perfect" wedding and was willing to trade away her future for it.  Of course, she probably did not consciously make this trade off and that is the problem.  The future seems so far away and unreal to some.  It is difficult to actually think about it and plan for it.  Because it is difficult, people choose not to deal with it.  Of course this is no excuse, life does not really accept excuses, and when reality hits them people often wonder how they got themselves in this mess without realizing they were the source of their own problem.  They just decided to defer the problem to their future self.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Low Interest Rates Does Not Equal Good Deals on Housing

I keep hearing real estate "experts" say that now is a great time to get into housing because of the low interest rates that are currently available.  Let's forget the fact that real estate experts always say it is a good time to buy housing.  They said it in 2000 at the beginning of the boom and said it again in 2007 at the peak of the housing bubble.

But let's look at the logic of this argument.  There is no doubt that interest rates are low right now.  This means that people can generally buy a more expensive house because their payments are going to be less per month as they pay less in interest.  So it sounds like a great deal doesn't it?  Get more housing at less money.

However, there is a slight problem with this.  It isn't just one person who has this opportunity for low interest rates, it is the whole country.  This creates competition for housing and drives up demand.  This is exactly what happened in the early part of the century.   Housing prices rose because people had access to cheap money.  As the money became more expensive, and the cost of housing reach unsustainable levels, the bubble burst and housing prices tumbled.

So think about the current situation.  Interest rates are once again insanely low.  They have absolutely no where to go but up from here.  We know that as mortgage rates go up, people can not afford as much home lessening competition.   There is no way that interest rates can go much more down from here so that means that they will go up.  Since we know that prices and rates are inversely related, this means that housing prices are definitely coming down.

Do you really want to own a depreciating assets?  Experts say if you have no plans on moving for several years than don't worry about it.  But who knows what your situation will be like in a few years.  In the long run, it is much cheaper to have a smaller principle payment and higher rates than the reverse as you can always refinance but you can't easily lower the principle amount on a loan.

So please, to all real estate professionals, quit trying to sell that low interest rates mean its a great time to buy.  It just doesn't add up.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Why Finishing College Might Actually Hurt Your Career

I was thinking about all the people who never finished college and went on to great careers.  Just look at this list off the top of my head

  • Bill Gates

  • Steve Jobs

  • Michael Dell

  • David Geffen

  • Larry Ellison

  • Mark Zuckerberg

The list could go on for quite a while. In thinking about this I actually think this is not entirely a coincidence.  On that list are some of the most powerful and influential people in our modern business world.

Now in any sort of argument like this it is important not to confuse cause and effect.  It could easily be argued that all these people would have been successful whether or not they completed college.  It is not the fact that they DID NOT complete college that they were successful.  It is merely the fact that successful people will be successful no matter what.

While I certainly believe that may be partly the reason, I'm not sure there is not some level of causation.

One of the things I have been thinking about lately is how our society is organized and how it has created certain outcomes.  One of the things that is readily apparent to me is that our society is not geared to produce creative thinkers.  Our education system is very rules based.  And rules are in direct opposition to creativity.  The more rules you put on someone the more you constrain and limit her creative side.

We have created millions of students who know how to follow the rules and conform.  We use standardized test to measure performance and emphasize rote memorization and regurgitation over creativity and original thinking.  Those who are able to excel at these things are the ones who do well in school but they are not necessarily the ones to change the world.  You cannot change the world if you are constrained to thinking like everybody else and by following the rules that others have laid out for you.

I am not trying to be negative about our education system.  I am someone who benefited greatly from the current system as my strengths lie in taking standardized test and in rote memorization.  I therefore excelled in school.  But I am also not (yet) lighting the world on fire like the list above.  We as a society have emphasized this type of learning and environment to produce exactly what we wanted; a group of workers who would excel at doing exactly what was asked of them.   This was exactly what was needed for the majority of jobs that we created during the twentieth century.  Factory workers need to follow instructions exactly.  So do accountants (the last thing we need is "creative accounting".

So while I think our education system is great at producing this type of worker, it is not so great at creating the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.  As we move away from a world where the good middle-class jobs are no longer available in the factories of Detroit but only via the screens of Silicon Valley, can our education change with it or will we be doomed?

Monday, May 31, 2010

Too Many Lawyers?

I went back to my ten year college reunion this weekend.  Princeton has reunions every year.  The big reunions are every five years (the biggest being the 25th reunion) and as such, I decided to go down for the day since I was in New York City.  Quite a crowd turned out.  Despite it being her 25th, Michelle Obama was not one of them.   It was more enjoyable than I would have predicted.  Last time I went to reunions for my fifth, I did not have a particularly good time.  I decided to go for the entire three day event.  By the end of the second day I really was wondering what the heck I was doing there.  This time, I decided only to go for the day (and none of the nighttime activities) and it ended up being the perfect amount of time to see the campus and a few of my friends I wanted to catch up with.

One of the things that sticks out to me though was a fact that was given at the end of the P-rade.   As my classed marched down I heard two facts.  One was that my class, the class of 2000, was setting attendance records for the 1st, 5th, and 10th reunions (all reunions I attended).  But the more interesting fact was that the number one profession of my class was being a lawyer.  To be exact, it was stated that 14% of my class had become lawyers.

Now, I went to an Ivy league school and you would expect a large percentage of my class to be in high paying jobs.   Since law is a high paying job it does not surprise me that it is a profession many in my class pursued  What surprised me was that it was number one.  And as I thought about it I though what a sad commentary that actually is for our society.

Don't get me wrong.  I think lawyers are necessary in our society.  I also don't think all lawyers are scumbags like others might.  But for me, law is an ancillary profession.  It is best as a supporting function to the creation of value and wealth to our society.   It is in the same class of profession as accountants and clerical work.  These are jobs that are absolutely necessary but at the end of the day is overhead to the actual creation of wealth.   This is in contrast to things like medicine, manufacturing, or the creation of intellectual property that actually drive the economy and create value in our lives.

So what does it say that the brightest mind in the country if not the world are pursuing careers that are not creating wealth to our society?

I think it says a couple of things.  First, I think it says something about how the cost of obtaining a world-class education has skewed the choices we make.  Most of my class graduated with quite a bit of debt.  This problem is only getting worse has college becomes more and more expensive and having a college degree does not make you stand out anymore.  It used to be, for my parent's generation, that having a college degree was not the norm.  Now, all my friends have one and that in itself means you have to find other ways to differentiate.  Most people are finding it necessary to get a post-graduate degree to really make themselves stand out and earn the money needed to pay back these college loans. This is a true fact.  I am the ONLY one of my college friends that does not have a post-graduate degree.  Think about that for a second.  I'm the only one.  I have lots of friends from college and they all decided to pursue even more education.

The second problem I see is that we are emphasizing the wrong things. As a country, we have created a society where one of the best paying jobs is being a lawyer.  Now to be fair, this has been the case for quite a while.  But I would argue that before it was more a function about the scarcity of the education required to practice law than it was about the voracious appetite to produce lawyers.  But we are now pumping out lawyers at a very large rate.  There must be an overwhelming demand for lawyers in order to keep salaries as high as they are.    This is because we have created such a complex set of laws and a society that is so litigious that it is required for any large corporation to have an army of lawyers ready to protect and to sue.

So rather than create professionals ready to find the cure for cancer or to create the next great product we create an army of people ready to sue others.  How on earth can we change this dynamic?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Macbook Pro Review

Macbook Pro

I recently got a Macbook Pro for use at work.  I'm not sure when I became such an Apple user (I have an iPhone and an iPad) but I now have the trifecta of Apple products.  This marks my first OS X computer.  I've been a user of plenty of other operating systems such as OS/2, Solaris, Linux, and Windows.  I did use a Macintosh SE way back in the day.  But I have not used any modern Apple OS so I was interested how it would turn out.

To sum it up, I'm completely unimpressed.  I really went in with an open mind.  In fact, I really wanted to like it since I like my iPhone and everyone I know who uses Macs love it.  They love it so much they won't stop talking about it (which bugs me a little actually).  As someone who greatly values easy to use products and products which are designed with the customer in mind, I was hoping that this Apple product would really open my eyes to how computing should be done.  It hasn't.   Even more disappointing is that I have one of the nicer Macbook Pros.  I got the one with an Intel i7 processor, upgraded HD, and upgraded Video Card.  This thing should be rocking.

Now one thing I will say is that I feel I might feel differently if I had not used Windows 7.  Compared to Windows XP, the Windows version most people are familiar with, I think OS X blows that out of the water.  If OS X was like this 5 years ago when XP was really your only choice than I can understand the love.  Even compared to Vista it is superior although I never hated Vista as much as others.  But compared to Windows 7 I'm just not sure the Apple "simplicity" edge is really there anymore.  Here is how it breaks down for me.

Stability - This is the one thing I was really interested in seeing.  Apple users swear that Macs never crash and make fun of Windows users who experience the Blue Screen of Death.  Well I am pretty sure all those people need to shut up.  Since the launch of Windows 7 I rarely, if ever see the BSOD.  It may have happened over the last year but I honestly don't remember having any issues since Windows 7 went RTM and I'm a pretty heavy computer user so you would think I would run into it.  Within the first two days of having my Macbook Pro the thing crashed three times.  A week later, I had it freeze three times in a row on me in one hour.  This is not an exaggeration.  I called over the Mac lovers in my group to show them because they didn't believe me.  I let the computer sit for 30 minutes untouched and it sat their frozen.  The mouse would move but otherwise nothing was responding.  The only solution was a hard reboot.  Just yesterday, after giving a presentation, I unplugged the Mac from the projector and then the screen went dark and stayed dark.  Completely unresponsive.  At least with the BSOD, you know something is wrong.  My Mac just decides to die on you with no indication that there is actually anything wrong.

Business Software -  If you work in an office that is on Exchange and uses Outlook, forget the Mac.  I'm an Outlook power user.  As someone in management, my day consists of checking e-mail and going to meetings.  All things that  I depend very heavily on Outlook for.  There is no real substitute on the Mac.  Entourage,  the Mac Office equivalent of Outlook is a complete joke.  I could write a whole post on why it is inadequate but it would probably just upset me.  If you use the other Office products like Excel, Word, and Powerpoint don't fool yourself into thinking that Office on the Mac is like Office on Windows.  Yes Microsoft makes both products but that doesn't mean they are the same product.  They really aren't.

 Lack of Software in General - There are some basic things I need to be able to do on my computer and there are programs I have found on Windows to do them.  Similar products aren't available on the Mac.  It took me a while to find DB client program which would connect to all the various Database servers I needed to connect to.   I had several free versions to choose from on Windows but could only find one which I had to pay money for on the Mac.  The same can be said for photo editing.  Maybe I'm biased because I like Rick's Paint.net program but it really upset me that I found it difficult to edit simple pictures.  Those who like iPhoto are crazy.  More on that later.

"Simplicity" - The mac is supposed to be easy to use right? I wanted to edit a picture and then save it.  I opened the photo in iPhoto and tried to save it.  Was unsuccessful. Could not for the life of me figure out why the original photo, which I wanted to save over, had not changed.  I called over 4 engineers to my desk to figure this out.  3 of them are Mac users.  None of them could figure it out either.  How on earth is that simple?  Also, why is it that most of the useful commands take pressing 3 keys to do.  Ever try to take a screenshot on a Mac.  I have to hit three keys.  That is if I can remember which three.  One button on a PC.  And I don't care what anyone says.  A mouse with only one button is not easier to use.

Hot Hot Hot -  This is the hottest running laptop I have ever had.  Seriously, if it were sitting on lap during any serious computation, it would burn me.

The Little Things -Here are a bunch of other things that just annoy me

  •  No easy way to lock the screen.

  • Plugged in a Flash drive.  Didn't recognize it and didn't tell me it even attempted.

  • I really like the Windows 7 feature of dragging windows to various locations to change size and shape.  No such thing in the Mac.

  • Windows are very easily lost behind one another.

  • Closing a window doesn't actually close the program.

  • Force quit is not as effective as good ol' ctrl-alt-delete.

While the overall tone of the tone of this post may seem negative I'm not actually that down on the computer.  It is certainly nice but it isn't the life changing thing I was expecting.  It's like that over-hyped movie everyone talks about.  Ever notice how the movies everybody raves about are never as good as you thought.  I think the same thing happened here.  I like the computer, it is a solid performer, but I was just expecting a little more.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Back After Some Maintenance

Sorry for the VERY long break.  Part of it was me being busy but a lot of it was the fact that my hosting company decided to stop supporting my blog and I had to scramble to figure out what I was going to do.  I didn't really want to update the blog while the situation was not settled so I avoided making any posts or responding to any comments.  I moved over the comments that got lost in the migration to the best of my ability.  This site still has some issues after the move but I will try to address this over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Actual iPad Review


Ok, so I got an iPad.  I didn't actually get one myself.  Since I work for a web company, and the iPad is supposed to change the way we use the web, I figured I would order one for my group to see what the hype was about.   I ordered the Wi-Fi only version, since I didn't plan on walking around town with the thing.  I ordered 32GB version, just one step up from the base version, for $599.  I posted previously about the iPad in my non-iPad post but now that I actually have iPad in hand, here are my thoughts.

It's smaller than I thought it would be (that's what she said).

It is heavier than I thought and this makes it less useful.  It is not comfortable to hold the device in one hand for very long.  Since this is going to be used by most as an e-reader, this makes the device impractical for its main use.   1.5 lbs. may not seem like very much, but try holding that up in the air with one had for more than five minutes.The screen is as gorgeous as people says it is.  OK, maybe it isn't that beautiful.

The web browser is not a full browser, or at least people aren't treating it that way.  I use Evernote to take notes down and I wanted to copy a URL for me to read later.  Safari refused to let me use Evernote through the web.  It kept insisting I download the app which I didn't want to do.

The web browser seems to adjust the page to fit the screen.  However it can do this randomly.  I will be reading a page every once in a while and it will change the page.  Very annoying. This is not the same as the screen rotating randomly.  That is a different problem.

The screen can rotate wildly at times.  While it has a screen rotation lock, I don't always have it enabled and thus the screen is likely to just rotate.

Streaming Netflix movies look pretty good.  I'm actually kind of impressed with this app and it is very easily the best app on the iPad.

The lack of any really good free apps is disappointing.  This is in direct contrast to the iPhone where I have found very many useful free apps.  I actually have only bought a handful of apps on the iPhone and I find it more useful than I could ever want.  The can't say the same thing about the iPad.

The lack of Flash support is annoying.  This has been talked about to death but I was one of those who didn't think this really mattered until I actually needed it.  I wanted to watch the masters over the web and couldn't because all the video is in flash.  My vet told me to go watch a video on Youtube and of course, I couldn't.

The battery life is probably better than advertised.  The device can go all day even with some heavy use. 

Final Verdict:

I've used the iPad for over a week now and I think it is a nice little device but would hold off buying one for myself.   I'm not sure it is worth the $500 bucks it takes to get it and I'm not sure it is as "magical" and "revolutionary" as Apple is trying to make it out to be.   It is definitely less useful than a laptop, less convenient than a smart phone, but it does serve nicely as a "niche" product.  I just don't think niche products are worth $500.The device is at its best doing light browsing sitting on the couch.   Since it is always on, it is very convenient to grab it to look something up quickly.  My wife particularly likes to use it to browse through various shopping websites.  She thinks it is very convenient because it is a good size for her and doesn't get hot like a laptop would on her lap.

Some people will love the device just because it is new, different, and of course, it is Apple.  But for those of you who hold no such loyalty I think it is best to wait on getting an iPad.  Several other hardware manufacturers like HP, Sony, and reportedly Google are getting ready to launch their own tablet devices.  They are bound to be cheaper since you won't be paying the Apple premium.  Since I have found the apps for the iPad less compelling Apple won't have this advantage over its competitors.  So as long as the competition make a solid web browsing device, then I think it best to take a wait and see approach.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Calculate Your Social Security Benefits

Social Security CardHow sad is it that when I saw this article on determining social security benefits I instantly thought to myself, "I know exactly how much I will make in Social Security, $0"

According to the Social Security administration, we will start running Social Security deficits in a little over 6 years.  It will go bankrupt in a little over 25.  Since I won't be eligible for Social Security for over 30 more years, I'm pretty sure there is not going to be anything left for me at that point.

What is the most sad is that I will have been earning the maximum amount for the maximum allowed time.  In other words, Out of all the people in the United States, I'm the biggest payer into Social Security.  Ironically, I'm pretty sure I'm never going to get a penny out of it.  What a scam.  If you ever wonder why I rant against government, this is just one other perfect example.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Non-Ipad post

I feel kind of left out not talking about the iPad when it seems like it is the only thing every other news source in the world is talking about. But since I don't have an iPad right now, I really have nothing to talk about. I actually meant to swing by the local Apple store today to check it out but I've been sidelined with a cold the last few days. I'm feeling so left out I was considering just holding my iPhone really really close to my face figuring it wouldn't be much different than actually having an iPad in the first place.

To be fair, I actually have an iPad on order. It is supposed to arrive in the next week or so. However, I'm not one of those early adopters that is Apple crazy. I ordered one because it has relevance to my work and so I wanted to have first hand experience using this device who others seem to think will save the world. My expectations are a little more modest. Now, I think the iPhone is great. It is very useful to me and I'm a proud owner. I've used Android based devices, both the Nexus One and the Motorola Droid, and have to say the iPhone wins by nose. I've been meaning to put up a comparison but like much of my blogging efforts these days I just haven't gotten around to it.

I'm sure the iPad will be a fantastic device. But let's get real here for a second. Apple did not invent the tablet. The tablet has been around for quite a while and it has never caught on. Maybe Apple has improved upon the idea. I'm willing to keep an open mind. But as someone who has used tablets in the past and found them a little wanting, I'm somewhat skeptical about it. I guess we will have to wait and see until I actually have one in hand.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Schwab - Finally works!

After a lot of problems, I finally got my Schwab checking account to work.  But not after having a few more problems.

Since last time I posted, I got sent a letter with my PIN number on it.  I went to an ATM to withdrawal money and the stupid thing STILL DIDN'T WORK!.  You cannot imagine my frustration at that moment.  I refused to try again just in case I punched my PIN in wrong (I'm sure I didn't since I was VERY careful) since trying more than three times and getting it wrong locks the card.

So I had to call Schwab, yet again, and ask them what the heck was going on.  They let me enter a new PIN right then and there and assured me the PIN was active immediately.  I did not have to wait to use it.  This time, I took my wife with me, who was right there when I selected the new PIN, so she could watch me enter the numbers.  And finally, after a little more than three months, I am now able to fully use my Schwab checking account.

Is this one time patience will pay off.  I guess we will just have to wait and see.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Schwab - Still Having Problems

It is now the middle of March.  I opened up my Schwab account in December.  In all that time you would guess that I would have been able to pull out some money from my account using an ATM machine.  I still have not been able to.  It is not entirely Schwab's fault, I have had some issues of my own remembering my PIN, but for heaven sake, how long will it be before I'm able to pull some money out.  I'm so frustrated with everything if things go wrong this time, I'm closing the account.

Now Twittering

I've created a twitter account.  It is more my speed anyway as I like to post short messages.   http://www.twitter.com/doublejourney

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Cheap Way to Have a Wedding - Destination Wedding

Capri Island

I recently read an article describing the cost of a wedding and the impact it can have on your finances for the rest of your life.   It made me extremely glad that I had my wedding the way I did because it ended up being a lot more fun, much more memorable, and , believe it or not, much cheaper.   Don't believe me?  I've decided to lay bare exactly what I spent on the wedding just to demonstrate how one can save money by doing a destination wedding.   I didn't spend anywhere close to the average of $20,000 that the typical wedding costs today.A little bit of background.  My wife and I went to Capri, Italy to get married.  We wanted to go to Europe for the honeymoon and we wanted to get married with a beautiful view of the ocean.  Capri provided both of those.  We sent out about thirty invitations and we ended up with thirteen guest (two guest dropped at the last minute).  We only sent invitations to people we really wanted to go but even if we sent out much more I do not think our attendance would have been much higher than it was.  We spent a total of fifteen days in Europe.  We paid for our own wedding and honeymoon, neither of us asked for help from our parents.Here is a list of typical wedding costs

  • Cost of the venue

  • Ceremony officiant

  • Flowers

  • Cake

  • Reception

  • Wedding Attire (dress, tuxedo rental, etc)

  • Entertainment (DJ or band)

  • Photographer

This does not include all the little things that people end up paying for in a wedding like various gifts and decorations so cost can end up being much more than would appear on this list.  So how much did I actually spend on the wedding?  My official number is $3885.  This includes

  • Photographer - $1600

  • Reception Dinner - $1700

  • Flowers - $45

  • Driver - $225

  • Her Dress - $180

  • Her Shoes - $70

  • Wedding Invitations - $45

  • Various snacks for guests - $20

I did not however include some other cost that might normally be associated with the cost of the wedding.  Most of these things are not specific to the wedding itself.  Things like my suit and shoes, (which I have used for other things) and our hotel room (which we would have spent anyway since we would have to pay for it anyway on our honeymoon).  However, I will list these items just in case people want a full comparison.

  • Flight to Italy - $1500

  • My suit and shoes - $700

  • Hotel Room - $925

So that at the outside put the total cost of my wedding at $7010.  That's it.  Things I did not spend any money on included

  • Venue - Hotel let us use their balcony, and it's amazing view, for free

  • Officiant - It was hard to coordinate an officiant in Italy so one of our guests volunteered to do the ceremony

  • Cake - Didn't have one

  • Entertainment - Didn't have a huge reception so didn't have to provide entertainment

Despite "doing without" on some of these things, I have to say it was one of the best weddings I ever went to (I am admittedly biased).  The food was amazing.  We went to the best restaurant on the island and it was better than any Wedding food I had ever had.  Heck, it was better than any food I have had period.  The venue was breathtaking, see the picture above.  I honestly could not have had a better time at my own wedding.  I often hear people talk about how they just never get enough time to talk to their guests.  That definitely did not happen to me as I felt I had ample time to talk to each and everyone of my guests.  I did not waste any money on things that just did not make the wedding more memorable or directly added value to myself or my guests.To sum up.  Had a great wedding.  Didn't spend a lot for it.  Couldn't ask for anything more.Don't mortgage your future for one day.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Why Computer Progamming is Hard

I had a perfect example at work today why working with computers is more difficult than people realize.  It was further enforced by the fact that my friend Rick posted a link on facebook that hit the sums it up perfectly, computers do exactly what you tell them to do.

Think about that for a second.  Whether you realize it or not, human communication is very imprecise.  A lot of what is communicated between people is implicit.  Intent is not something that computers understand.  They only understand the exact instructions you feed them.

Several months ago one of my engineers was told to turn on a feature in the system to run a test.   We had turned it off because the feature was causing some problems but those issues were resolved so the powers that be wanted to turn it back on.  He did exactly what the request asked for, he turned on the feature.  The feature controls whether or not a certain data source is used or not.  There are times when some of our customers explicitly turned it off and under no circumstances should it be turned back on.

But since it was turned on for the purposes of this test, this overrides any configuration that our customers can do.  Nobody thought it would do this because this is not normally what happens when we run tests.  The system is usually set up to avoid these circumstances.  So what was the problem?

The problem was that the feature should not have been turned on.  It should have been set to not be off.  Believe it or not, in this case, the opposite of off is not on.  It is in fact not off (Null for those familiar with computer jargon).  The computer, and the engineer, did the right thing.  The "intent" however was not to just turn it on completely.  The intent was not to specify that it was off completely.  If there were other configurations which said to turn it off, as is the case for some of our customers, those rules should have taken precedence.  Of course they did not because the computer was told to turn it on.

So you see, the problem is not the computer.  It is that we live in a world where things are not always specified precisely.  And that is what makes software development so hard.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Multiple #1 Priorities

I just ran across a job description that had as one of its requirements

- Ability to handle multiple number one priorities simultaneously.

Really?  Did the person who wrote this job description not understand how this is quite literally impossible.  Now I understand what the intent of this requirement is.  There are often times that you have to try and correctly handle a situation where everything seems important and nothing can be dropped.

But one things is for certain, when push comes to shove there can only be one #1 priority.  It is something that most people just can't deal with because they refuse to or don't understand how to prioritize.  The more I work, the more I realize just how rare a skill it is to find someone who can correctly prioritize.

I fail to see how anyone, especially in upper management, can not know how to prioritize.  It comes so easy for me.  If you ask me to, I can almost always stack rank a list of things.  Want to know who my best employee is, no problem.  Want to know the most important thing about investing, its reaearch (followed by patience).  Perhaps the only thing that you might not be able to stack rank is which of your children are your favorite (although I bet a lot of people could actually do this)

I run into this problem constantly at work.  People don't seem to understand that there are trade offs at work.  When faced with having to make one, these people seem to prefer not making one and letting the outcome be random rather than make a conscious choice to try and prioritize correctly.

Just this one requirement would make me not apply to a job.  It clearly shows me that at some point you would be faced with a lose-lose situation when something had to give and yet nobody would be willing to make the call.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Finally Got Card

It is Mid-February and I just got my ATM card from Schwab.  I almost canceled my account. I was so frustrated that I had not received my card in over a month but the last time I called they agreed to FedEx me another card.  It finally came, almost two months after I opened my account.  I can't fault Schwab's customer service, every time I called they were quite helpful.  It just didn't end up in good execution.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Clever Marketing for Mancrunch.com

CBS announced that it was rejecting an ad from mancrunch.com that was to be shown on Superbowl Sunday.

I have no opinion if CBS is actually being discriminatory here.  Their excuse is that they are unsure if the company, who I have never heard of before, could actually pay for the 30 second spot which runs for about $2.5 million. This sounds somewhat fishy to me because it seems the owner of mancrunch.com is willing to pay cash for the ad.  The wording on the rejection is

"CBS Standards and Practices has reviewed your proposed Super Bowl ad and concluded that the creative is not within the Network’s Broadcast Standards for Super Bowl Sunday,”

Now I've watched the ad.  It really is not that bad so long as you are comfortable with two men kissing which I suppose many people are not.  But seriously, I've seen WAY worse ads featuring heterosexual couples so I find CBS' flimsy excuse pretty bad.  Why not just come out and say, "We don't want to show two homosexual men kissing."  At least they would be being upfront and honest about the whole situation.

But that's not what I'm actually here to write about.  The one winner in this I can assure you is mancrunch.com.  Seriously, they are getting a ton of free publicity and it is all very positive.   I've been on several sites and there is a lot being written about CBS' rejection.  At the end of it, mancruch.com will probably get more press for their rejection than they would if they had actually been able to run the ad.  And they won't pay a dime!

I'm not saying that mancrunch.com did this on purpose but it probably could not worked out better for them.   That actually would be  pretty interesting tactic.  Just make a commercial so racy that it does get rejected.  People are just too curious and in this day and age they will go out of their way to find the commercial online.  I'm pretty sure it is something that Godaddy has been trying and I'm surprised  more companies don't try this.

Karma is a Bitch

When I was at Microsoft, I worked on the billing system for my product.  This was mostly an integration effort with another Microsoft team that specialized in payments.   One of things that I worked on was trying to resolve a lot of the problems that our customers had with giving us money.  For a myriad of reasons, we did not make it very easy for people to hand money to us.  Many of these problems were not ours but that of our partners.  You would think that something as simple as handing someone money would be easy but it is not and our customers would constantly get tripped up just trying to do this one simple thing.

Well, this just bit me in the ass.  I have another website that I use for personal reasons.  Microsoft was handing free domain names and free hosting when I was looking to get it so I signed up with them.  My needs were relatively modest so I was perfectly happy to let them handle it.  Well it is time for renewal and the free offer is up so they want me to start paying for the service.  I have no real issue with this so I tried to log in to figure out how much it would cost me to renew.

Well, I spent at least 15 minutes clicking every possible link but absolutely nowhere can I find information on how much it is going to cost me to renew this domain.  How stupid is that?  All I want is the price.  This is the most basic thing in any sales transaction.  Tell me the friggin' price. But this piece of information is NOWHERE to be found.  For all I know, they could charge me a million dollars to do this renewal.

The saddest part of this is that this is what almost all of Microsoft's online applications use to get paid.  Anyone have any thoughts on why Microsoft can't put a successful online strategy together?  If you can't get billing right, what the hell?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Joined iPhone Nation

iPhoneThis week, I got an iPhone 3Gs.  I actually got it through work, they replaced my Blackjack.  Although I have never felt compelled to get an Iphone, I was still interested in what all the hype was.   The people I know who have one swear by them.  My wife always jokes how I'm addicted to the internet and so the thought of having a device like the iPhone at my fingertips was appealing to me.  It probably was not as appealing to my wife.

A few days in and I have to say that I have mixed feelings.  It definitely is a great device.  It is easy to use and extremely useful.  the App Store is fantastic and you really can find an App that does pretty much whatever you want.   I've mostly used it to keep up to date on my e-mail and to do things like check the traffic or sports scores.  I could do the same thing with the Blackjack but it is easier to do with the iPhone as there are built in apps to go and get that data.

But I'm struggling with the iPhone on several fronts.  The  biggest problems I have come across

  • The battery life is just poor.  If I don't charge it overnight, the thing will be dead by the next morning

  • The network is slow.  Probably more a problem with AT&T but it is still kind of annoying

  • I hate that it doesn't multi-task.

  • Typing things in is a pain in the ass.  I am constantly typing things wrong.  This thing needs a real keyboard.

  • I can't tether it to my laptop without jumping through some hoops

  • The e-mail client my work uses is actually better on the Blackjack.  On the iPhone it doesn't automatically download new messages.

I think Apple hit their target market.  It is a great consumer device.  It is just a bad device for work.  I'm probably happier with this device than the Blackjack but only because it makes my personal life a little better.  Ironically, my wife, who probably won't like me being glued to it while we are out, is now hooked on one of the iPhone games.  She is literally playing it right now and completely ignoring me.

On a similar note, is it just me or is the iPad kind of a disappointment?  Seriously, what problem is this trying to solve?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Charles Schwab Review

Schwab SignI decided to open up an account with Charles Schwab.  After getting married, my wife and I needed to setup a joint account.  We have split our finances for a while now, and marriage has not changed that, but we wanted the convenience of having one joint account.

Setting up the account has not been the best experience.  For whatever reason, Schwab seems to not have come into the 21st century.  It was possible to setup a brokerage account online but it was not possible to set up a checking account online.  This required that I physically print out an application.  I thought I would be able to walk it into a Schwab branch and open an account right away.  There was a branch just down the street so this is what I decided to do.  However, all that did for me was save me some postage.  I guess the branch couldn't setup the bank account either, so they mailed my application to some central location.   They told me they would call me that day to tell me the brokerage account was opened.

No call came that day.  They cashed the check that I used to fund the account and yet still no call.  I called to check what had happened and was told that the account was opened and someone must have just forgotten to call.  OK, no problem.  The next step was to wait for the information on my bank account.  I waited and waited.  I waited two and a half weeks and heard nothing.  So I called again.  It turns out that the person who entered the information failed to enter the apartment number.  So my checks and my bank card seemed to be lost in the mail.  I was told to wait a few more days and it should show up.  The checks did eventually make their way to me, but no card.  I had no means to use an ATM and withdraw any money.

After a few more days, my wife called in.  The first person I spoke to did not seem to fix the missing apartment information.  Customer Support said they fixed the information and the cards would be coming.  A few days passed and my wife's new card did indeed come.  My card did not.  So she called again.  It turns out that for whatever reason, my information was not updated until later and a new card was not sent out at the same time.

So here I am.  It is the end of January and it has been over one month since I started this process.  I still have no bank card from Schwab.  On the plus side, the customer support, in terms of wait time, has been pretty good.  Each time I call, I get connected to a human right away.  But I am disappointed by the fact that I have had to call so many times to find out how good the response time is.  I have not used their services too much as of yet, I've bought no stock through the brokerage account as of yet, because I don't want to move money into the account until I have full access to it, so I can't say too much about the other features of the account.

One last annoying thing.  Setting up money transfers is a real pain in the ass.  Once again, Schwab has not come into the 21st century.  The only way I've been able to fund the account is to "push" the money there.  That is, i go to my other online accounts and setup a transfer from them to Schwab.  Schwab makes it VERY difficult to "pull" money from other institutions.  It is impossible to do this online.

So given all my problems, I can't strongly recommend Schwab.  I really like their customer service but that's about it.  I don't think any of this will cause me to close my account, but I'm somewhat disappointed that things just haven't been smoother.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sorry Gone So Long

I've been quiet over the last several weeks.  I've been wanting to blog but with the holidays I have found it difficult to sit down and focus on what to write.  I really haven't had anything meaningful to say either.

The holiday's came and went.  It was a rather quiet holiday.  I did not have to do too much shopping and work was rather subdued since most of the staff was out.  I try to make some headway with my reviews but somehow found a way to not get very far on those.

That is my challenge for the upcoming week.  I have to get through my employees reviews.  I once again find myself doing way more reviews than I want.  I think it is important to do a good job with them, so I'll get them done right, but I often just wish I could wave a wand and have them done.  The tool my work is using even has something similar to this but I feel it is a cheap way out so I refuse to use it.

I have been EXTREMELY quiet when it comes to my trading activity.  I really just don't know where this rally came from and now have no desire to get in at these levels.  I've waited for the pull back that never came and it looks like i missed out on some really great gains.  Lesson learned but no need to compound my mistake by doing something foolish now.  I'm looking carefully where to invest.  I recently opened up a new brokerage account, separate than my other one, so that my wife and I could invest together.  I opened it up at Schwab, so now I have accounts at most of the major brokerage houses.  I'll give a review of them shortly.

So I'm back.  Hopefully I won't take a hiatus as long as this one again.