Sunday, December 20, 2009

Don't Mistake Activity for Achievement

John Wooden at UCLAOne of my favorite quotes is from John Wooden, the greatest college basketball coach of all time.  He said, "Don't mistake activity for achievement".  I think about this quote a lot when I evaluate myself and my employees.

Just the other day, I had to give some rather harsh feedback to one of my employees which led to that employee getting less responsibilities at work.  The employee was not too happy with this (although for many employees it would be great news since all it did was give this employee less work) but I knew it was the right thing to do.  The difficult part was that this employee works extremely hard.  If extra hours are needed, this employee puts them in.  So how do you tell someone who worked hard that their work just wasn't good enough?

It was something I learned a long time ago in my own basketball experience.  Growing up, I spent hours practicing.  I would go to the local park and work on my jump shot until they turned off the lights.  But in the end, I just wasn't as good as the other guys on the team.  While they didn't practice as hard, they had more talent than I did.  The facts were that they didn't need to work as hard as I did because their talent and natural gifts naturally made up for it.

Sure it wasn't "fair" but when is life ever fair?  While I empathized with this employee, I have an entire organization to think about.  There was no way I could look past the fact that despite all the long hours and hard work this employee put in, they had not actually achieved the goals I had laid out for them.  I could not mistake their hard work for any actual accomplishment.

Have you ever been in this situation? One where you worked harder than anybody else but yet you couldn't accomplish what you set out to do?  How did you handle it when you came up short?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Never Drink Around Coworkers

My company's holiday part was this weekend.  It was a fun event, I had a pretty good time.  There was food, entertainment, a lovely venue, and of course an open bar.  However, I myself did not take advantage of the latter because I have a hard rule which I always follow.  I NEVER drink around coworkers.

Now I'm not a heavy drinker anyway but I do enjoy having a few drinks occasionally as much as the next guy.  But if I am in a work setting where the majority of the people are my coworkers, I do not have a single drink.  Not one.  While it may sound uptight, I am following very logical reasoning.  There is absolutely no upside to drinking with coworkers yet there is huge downside.

Nobody thinks it is odd when I do not drink.  I usually just tell people I am driving so I don't want to have anything.  This is true anyway so nobody thinks it is too odd.   But there is more to the story than just this.  I am making a very conscience choice not to drink so that I am viewed as someone who is always in complete control of myself.  To rise to the top, which is one of my goals, you have to be viewed as a leader.  Leaders are always in control.  Therefore you should not drink around those who make decisions about your career growth.

Now, I'm not saying that if you drink you can't rise to the top.  That would be silly as I'm sure plenty of America's CEO's drink when around coworkers.  But I highly doubt anybody made it there because they drank and I bet more than one person has had his career derailed because of some foolish drunken mishaps at a work function.

I watched as a coworker and a friend of mine who had a little too much to drink made several off color remarks in front of the entire executive and management team.  Everybody was laughing, and I'm sure nothing bad will come from this.   He will not get reprimanded or anything even close, and he really should not be.  But will anything good come from this?  Do you think that when it comes time for promotions people won't remember these types of situations and think someone less "colorful" would not make a better choice?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Moving to California - Two Years Later

Beach in San Diego

I recently got a message from this blog asking me if, two years later, I thought it was worth it to move back to California.

Before I get into this, I have to say it did not really occur to me that I have been back in California for two years until I got this e-mail.  I knew the two year anniversary of my job was coming up but it did not really sink in how long it has been until I got the message.  The past two years have been such a blur and it seems hard to believe I have been at this job longer than I was at Microsoft.  Maybe that says more about the job I have now compared to the one I had before.

Now on to the question.  Was it worth it to move back to California from Washington?  Ironically I answer this question the same day that it was pouring rain in Los Angeles.  But this makes my answer to this all the more certain.  Yes, it was absolutely to move back to California from Washington.

I was thinking about this as I rode the elevator to work.  I am in a very high skyscraper and the elevator has a television in it that I find myself catching news clips as I enter and leave the building.  On the ride down today, the news had "Storm Watch" flashing on the screen.  Now, after living in Washington for two years, I can tell you.  The rain wasn't all that severe.  It came down hard, but it would be a pretty normal day in Seattle.  The reason this made me think of how good I have it is because weather like this is so unusual we make a big deal about it here.  This is the first time it has rained in the last several months.  Think about that for a second.  It is December and it probably hasn't rained of any significance in several months.   I actually can't even remember the last time it rained. You can't buy weather like that.

Of course, that is not the only reason I am glad to move back to California (but it is a big part).  I'm happier with my job and I am glad to be around family and friends.  My wife is happier (weather affects her more than it does me) so that makes my life better.  So if I had to do it all over again, I would do it in a heartbeat.

But I caution anybody from taking my experience and translating it to your own.  My situation is unique in many ways.  First off, I grew up here.  The culture and lifestyle just really work for me since I grew up here.  Moreover, I have a base of friends and family here.  Moving out here, not knowing anyone, can be really difficult. I find it easy to make and meet new friends but this is not true for everyone and California can be a lonely place if you don't have any friends or family.  But perhaps the biggest deterrent to moving out here has to be the money.  Can you make it work?  Moving to California with no money is not an easy tasks.  It is not easy even if you have money.  Housing is expensive and taxes will take whatever you have left.

My situation is likely not the same as yours.  I make very good money and I live very frugally.  While I certainly "miss" the money that California extracts from me, I probably will not miss it as much as those who live paycheck to paycheck.   The cost of living does not affect me nearly as much as it would other people.  And make no mistake about it, California has a high cost of living.  You combine that with our high unemployment rate and (still) high housing prices, and it can be a daunting financial burden.  This has gotten so bad, I have written how I think the California Dream is vanishing for many, even myself.

So while I have no regrets about moving back here this is not to say I won't once again leave.  High taxes and high housing is driving me away, I'm sure it will drive others as well.  In fact, I had such a conversation with someone about this on Saturday.  But I'll write about that in my next blog.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

How Technology will Save Marriages

I was reading a book today that was talking about the keys to marriage success. One of the main pieces of advice was to communicate with your partner on a daily basis for several minutes on topics not including work, family, or household chores. According to this book, the couples who are the most successful are those that know each other intimately and this requires good communication on a constant basis.

This got me thinking about my own marriage. I tend to think I know my wife pretty well. We constantly talk about things and almost never talk about work, family, or chores (although she does nag me quite a bit J) But we don’t really “talk” in the traditional sense. During the week, I’m pretty busy at work. I’m running around to meetings all the time and would never have the time to call my wife in the middle of the day to talk. But the one thing that is contant throughout the day is that I’m tethered to my laptop. It goes with me everywhere except the bathroom.

This means my wife can get a hold of me pretty much at any time through Instant Messaging. I may not answer her right away but I do eventually get back to her. We normally don’t chat for very long, and the topics can be pretty random, but I get a pretty constant play by play of her day. If, for whatever reason, we are not chatting on IM I can probably she how her day is going via her status on facebook. While I don’t use facebook all that much, it is a constant stream for many people meaning your significant other can stay pretty connected to you throughout the day.

Technology is allowing people to stay connected in so many different ways and in time frames that are suitable in a variety of circumstances. While it is by no means a silver bullet for marriage, especially in an age where divorce is rampant, it can definitely help those who know how to use it and take advantage of its convenience. It has gotten to the point where I actually miss the communication I have with my wife throughout the day if for whatever reason we can’t chat.

How about you? Have you found your relationship strengthened with your significant other because of technology? If yes, how so?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Black Friday 2009

Seven JeansDespite the fact I hate long lines and crowds, I have for the last few years gone shopping on Black Friday.  I go more to see what the crowds are like and what people are buying than I do to go shopping.  I do have one rule though; if I have to fight for parking, I'm turning around and going home.

That almost happened to me this year.  It would have been the first time in the past three years.  The crowds at my local Best Buy were pretty staggering.  Cars were crowding the parking lot making it almost impossible to find anything.  I knew of parking spots on a street running right next to the mall so I tried my luck there and had no problem.  Amazing to me that people would rather drive around a crowded parking lot for 20 minutes rather than to park and walk no more than fifty meters more.

What is even more amazing to me are the lengths that people will go to to get a "good" deal.  My wife went to the Best Buy on Tuesday to buy Super Mario Brothers Wii.  Already parked outside was a row of tents filled with people waiting to get the Thanksgiving doorbuster deals.  This was Tuesday afternoon.  Best Buy's doorbusters were not available until 5:00 a.m. on Friday.  Many of these deals were available online so WTF?  Is it really worth it to waste three days of your life to save a few bucks on crap you probably don't even need?

I'm convinced the only way to shop on Black Friday is to do what I did.  Sleep in and go sometime in the late morning.  Let all the crazies who want to be there as soon as the door opens get out of your way.  There are still some deals to be had later in the morning.  They may not be for crazy amounts off but those "deals" are usually pretty limited anyway and only useful if you don't mind getting some random stuff.

Better yet, you are better off just shopping online.  Amazon had some of the best deals of any retailer, online or not, this weekend. I saw some crazy good deals on things I was actually interested in.  I didn't buy anything from them but if I were gift shopping I don't see why you would do anything otherwise.  My prediction is that in under seven years the days of waiting all night and rushing to physical stores to get the doorbusters will be pretty much dead.  Most people will just come to their senses and do their shopping online.  It is just easier to do and the deals are comparable if not better.

For the first time this year I actually ended up buying someting on Black Friday.  I had no intention of doing so but there was a one day sale at Nordstrom Rack on Seven Jeans.  Nordstrom rack usually sells the jeans 40%-50% off what you can get in the normal retail store but on Friday that added an extra 25% off.  Like I said, I was not looking to buy anything on Friday but since I was bound to buy another pair of jeans anyway in the next few months I figured I would just score the deal while I could.

I'll be interested to see what the final sales numbers are this weekend.  My hunch is that traffic will definitely be up from last year.  It just seemed more crowded.  I'm just not sure people were actually spending more money.  How about you, did you go out or spend any money this weekend?

Monday, November 23, 2009

When Do you Stop Chasing the Dream?

Living in California, and specifically Los Angeles, I know many people chasing their dreams of being in the entertainment business.  These dreams range from writing, acting, and of course becoming a famous musician.  The odds of becoming successful in any of these endeavors is minuscule but I think many of these people think if someone like Britney Spears can do it, why can't they?

I had my own dreams growing up.  I wanted to be a professional basketball player.  For me, this dream ended long ago when it was clear I wouldn't grow past six feet tall.  Needless to say, it has not been something that I have held on to. But for many people they continue to cling to their dreams despite severe financial hardship.  Most of these people cannot make a living chasing their dreams and this puts strains on themselves and their loved ones.

So what advice would you give someone chasing a nearly unobtainable dream?  I am not the type of person who would tell someone to stop chasing their dream.  I believe having dreams and refusing to give up on them are what make some of the greatest people great.  But I am also an extremely rational and practical person who believes at some point you have to take responsibility and get a real job.  In the specific case of my friend who made me think to write this post, he is currently out of work and she does not make enough to support the two of them.

I contrast this to my own current situation.  I have told my wife to go ahead and pursue her dreams.  She is going back to school with the hope of becoming an interior designer.  She will for sure make less money when she finishes school and there is the expense of actually putting her through school. But in the end I want her to do whatever makes her happy even if it doesn't make any financial sense.  But of course our situation is different than our friend's.  I make a very good living.  It is more than enough to cover our living expenses.  So her pursuing her dream has no deep financial impact on our family.

In general, I think the rules should be pretty simple.

  • When you are single and only responsible for yourself, you can do whatever you want

  • When you are in a serious relationship, pursue your dreams so long as it does not cause any financial strain (or resentment) on your relationship

  • If children are involved, really time to put away impossible goals and buckle down.  Your children's dreams are now your responsibility

At the end of the day, it really just boils down to your level of responsibility.  Like most things in life, the less responsibility you have, the more freedom you have to do what you want.  Family always comes first.

What do you think?  When do you stop chasing your dreams?  Have you ever known somebody who chased it too long and what did you do about it?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Just Perfect

Just what we need.  Government oversight of a government organization who job is to give governmental oversight.  That doesn't sound like a waste of money or a lot of bureaucracy.  I'm not saying I am in love with the Fed.  In fact I pretty much hate their monetary policy over the last decade.  By why have so many layers of bureaucracy.  Why not just scrap the whole thing and start over?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Adjusting to Life after Losing a Job

Laid offI was reading an article about people who failed to adjust their life after losing a job.  The article focuses on those who thought they could maintain their lifestyle because they got a severance check from their former employer and failed to realize that they might be unemployed longer than they expected.

It was hard for me to read the article because it is irksome to me to read about people who do not understand the reality of their situation.  It is especially bothersome to me to hear that people act this way in this country where most people have little or no money saved to deal with emergency situations.  Getting severance is a gift.  Few people have the "right" to a severance package.  Most employers provide them as a way to make all the parties involved feel a little better but they rarely if ever have to dispense generous severance packages.

I guess I just do not have a lot of sympathy for people in these situations.  I might if these people immediately cut their spending to the bare minimum to make their savings last as long as possible but none of these people did that.  They all decided to ignore the situation and continue to live as if nothing serious had happened.  I compare this to my own situation of life without a job.

I quit my Microsoft Job in September.  I was officially on payroll until the end of October but I stopped working at the end of September.  I simply used my vacation for that last month.  Despite the fact that I chose to leave, I had enough savings to last several years at my then rate of consumption, I still had a paycheck coming in, and my wife had a job that could cover all the bills, I started to immediately watch my money the day I gave notice.  Why?  I had no idea how long I would be out of a job.

My original idea was to take at least six months off.  That didn't happen because I have a problem not working and the uncertainty drove me nuts.  But despite my very safe position it was just prudent to not spend money the same way as I had before.  I was more careful about anything I bought.  We ate out a lot less.  We canceled plans that would cost us too much money.  I then look at my wife's position when we first moved to Washington.  She did not have a job lined up when we moved.  I made more than enough money to support the both of us but despite this she decided to get a retail job just to bring in some cash.  It wasn't great work but it paid and she wanted to make sure she brought a little something home just to get used to the idea and not feel too "safe".

Perhaps all of this was "easier" for me to do because I made a conscience choice to leave my job so I got to do it on my terms.  The psychology of it does not make much sense to me since I would think that having the situation forced on you would make the problem more immediate and urgent.  But I suppose there are those who would rather avoid the situation than tackle it head on.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Just One More Reason to Hate the Income Tax

I have written in another blog all the reasons why I hate our taxation system.  Taxing income is perhaps the most sinister way a government can collect taxes.  It is easy to hide the taxes and it can be manipulated it in so many ways to confuse you.  I ran straight into one of those today.

The Marriage Penalty is one of the most obvious ways this is true.  It is just absolutely stupid that your taxes should change whether you get married or if you stay single.  Of course, this is going to be true in any progressive income tax.  There is just no way to make a system that is completely tax neutral.  I tried to figure out what the best course of action for me to take on my taxes now that I am a married man.  I am a pretty smart guy and I'm pretty knowledgeable of finances.  But it seriously hurt my head to try and figure out what was going to happen to my tax situation now that I'm a married.  At the end of it I still didn't understand what the heck was going to happen and I'm pretty sure I'm going to owe the government more money than if we had not gotten married.  I wish we could just have a nice simple tax system which was anything but a progressive income tax with a myriad of deductions.  Add that to the impending tax increases we are all about to face (which I'll discuss in my next post) and you can understand how frustrated I am becoming with the whole thing.

Is it any wonder why I, and a few other people I know, are seriously considering moving to a state without income tax.  It is probably the one thing I miss about living in Washington state.  Although when it was 80 and sunny here today and rainy and 50 there, I only miss it so much.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Spending in Bunches

Diverging from my Italy trip for a while because, well I'm back and I'm tired of writing about it.  I may pick it up again.  I may not.  I do have a crazy Rome Airport story.  Seriously, something out of a comedy movie.  But that may be left undocumented.

So only a quick post tonight.  I'm just getting back into the swing of the markets.  I had not made any trades in quite some time because of the wedding and the honeymoon.  I also just don't think it is a good time to enter the market one way or the other.  I knew the market would probably trade sideways for a while and it has for the most part.  I was in no hurry to either go long or to go short the market.

So my question for all those out there today is, do you ever notice that your spending happens in bunches?  My credit card bill for the last two months is, as you might imagine, quite high.  But it is not just the wedding and honeymoon that is causing it.  I had to get new tires for my car.  The bill for my internet hosting came due.  I had two separate membership fees come due.  My wife had to register for classes this month.  And there were more things than that.

Now, lucky for me, I'm a good little saver and these random and volatile spurts of spending can easily be managed but I have noticed this happening to me in the past.  I wonder if this is really a phenomenon or you just happen to notice those medium size purchases a little bit more when you have had other large expenses to pay for?  How about it, do you ever notice that you spending fluctuates greatly and that you will just have one or two months a year where it seems everything comes due at the same time?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Italy Trip - Sorrento & Naples Day 8 & 9

This is taking me way longer than I thought it would.  Oh well, I will plow through it.  Sorry, no pictures for this part of the trip.  This was our second time in the city, so there was not as much new stuff to take pictures of.  The trip to Naples also had no pictures and I will explain why in a little bit.

We got back to Sorrento and we were glad to be back someplace that was familiar.  Unfortunately for us, the hotel we had stay earlier, Hotel Sorrento City did not have room availability that night.  Now I do have to say something about this. Earlier, I gave a fairly positive review of this hotel.  For what we spent, it was a good deal.  But I have to say that the receptionist on this day was extremely unhelpful.  When we got to the hotel we were told they were booked.  We asked if she knew of any nearby hotels that were approximately the same price.  Now most hotels will help you out here.  If they cannot house you, they are usually more than willing to help you out.  But she refused to help us.  I do not know if it was out of ignorance or out of just a bad attitude, but in any case it was very disappointing to me since they had been so good to us earlier.

We made our way down the street where we knew there was another hotel to ask if they had availability.  Lucky for us there was and it was fairly cheap.  Now, I didn't mind staying at a nicer place but this hotel, Hotel Nice,  had one thing really going for it.  It was close to where we were, so we didn't have to carry the luggage any farther, and it was close to the train station where we would have to go to catch the bus to Naples in two days.   The amenities were the bare minimum.  But if all you were looking for is a bed in a good location and a cheap price it fits the bill.  Now a word of warning.  If you want a restful nice sleep with very little noise this might not be the place for you.  The noise outside the window was pretty bad and it continued for most of the night.  To make matters worse, the insulation of the building was not very good and my wife was pretty cold most of the night.  Again, you get what you pay for.

The oddest thing about the trip was that we actually ran into two of our wedding guests in the city.  We had actually run into them twice randomly in Capri and it was odd to run into them again.  It ended up being perfect because it allowed us to just hang out and relax our first night back with some friends without really worrying about what to do.

The next morning, we made our way on the train to Naples.  Naples is the birthplace of pizza.  My wife, being a foodie, wanted to go and get a slice.  So we hopped on the circumvesuviana and headed toward Naples.  Now Naples is not a safe place.  To go with some of the worst driving in Italy (and that is saying something) it is also well known for its mafia presence.  Just the other day there was news of a man shot down in broad daylight.  If that is not enough to scare you I don't know what will.  So we decided not to bring anything of value with us, and that included the camera.  That's why there are no pictures for this part of the trip.

The stories really do turn out to be true.  The driving was quite crazy and the city just has a very dirty feel to it.  We didn't feel particularly safe walking around.  We didn't get mugged or anything but we still decided to get out of Naples as soon as we got our pizza.  We were looking for a particular pizza place that was recommended, but like all Italian locales it is hard to find unless you know exactly where it is.  The problem is that the streets are so poorly marked.  We asked several people along the way and I swear, they all pointed us in different directions.  We finally gave up on that place and just went to a vendor that looked busy.

He had a sign for pizza for 1.50 Euro.  That is pretty cheap but he was busy and the people didn't look disappointed.  We asked for two slices but when he started to hand us a whole pie we decided to just get the one.  We couldn't believe the whole thing was just 1.50.  And it really did turn out to be the best pizza ever.  No joke.  The crust was just absolutely amazing.  There was nothing special on the pizza.  It was literally just crust, some sauce, and a LITTLE bit of cheese.  But it was so fresh and so good.  I would risk going back to Naples just to get another slice.  OK, maybe I wouldn't.

We headed back early and just relaxed back in Sorrento.  We actually had to go back to Naples to catch a plane to Venice early the next morning.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Italy Trip - Positano Day 7

Positano Coast

After Capri, we decided to take a ferry straight to Positano.  We did not arrive at Positano till the late afternoon because we spent one final day hanging out with the guests that came to the wedding.  This trip to Positano would have a big effect on the rest of our trip.  We had planned to spend several days on the Amalfi Coast before we made our way to Northern Italy but after Positano we decided to skip the rest of the coast.  More on that later in the post.

Part of the problem when we arrived was that we were already tired from a full day at Capri. Compounding the problem was that we had not booked a hotel in Positano when we arrived.  We decided at this point to kind of wing it and see what was around when we arrived.  This turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.  The ferry arrives at Positano in the harbor.  We got off the boat and looked around to a city that just goes straight up.  We were asked by several people if we were in need of a porter.  We thought this was kind of strange but it made sense shortly.

All the luggage we had on us prevented us from walking around too much because everywhere we went we were met with a staircase.  So I left my wife to watch the bags while I hunted for an available hotel.  I looked up down and around Positano for something that was in our price range.  Now one thing to know about Italy is that every hotel has a "star rating" associated with.  We had decided that we would focus on mostly three star hotels because we are not particularly picky when it comes to lodging and preferred to try and save some money on the trip.  Most of the hotels in Positano, at least around the port, were rated four stars.  Now I know what you are asking yourself, "What do the stars mean for Italian Hotels".  Well I'm here to tell you they mean almost nothing.  It turns out that these stars are some sort of quasi-government rating system but they have absolutely no consistent meaning from city to city.  A three star hotel could easily cost more money and be better furnished than a four star hotel in the same city.  Three star hotels could have more than $50 Euro difference if not more.   We of course would not learn this until later.

After a very long hike around Positano, I decided that we would stay at whatever hotel was the closest to where my wife was waiting.  I was exhausted and was in no mood to carry the bags all around.  So we went to the closest hotel and asked how much it was.  Despite being four star, it ended up being quite affordable and we just booked it for the night.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat on the beach, I had the veal and she had the cannelloni (both of which were excellent), and then returned to our room and passed out.  It was a good thing because we need all the energy we could muster the next day.

We decided that we were tired of small town Italy and were going to move on.  We had planned to take the first ferry out of Positano to Sorrento but it seems that the ferry was broken in the morning so we had to make the most of it in Positano for the time being.

There is a reason we did not see a lot of overweight people in Italy.  They walk everywhere.  Even more than that, there are a lot of stairs.  Nowhere exemplifies this more than Positano.  Below is a picture from near the top of Positano.

Postiano Top

I did not take a bus to take this picture.  I hiked all the stairs from the bottom to the top.  I am still not sure what possessed me and my wife to do this.  We just kept walking up and up.  We were looking for an outlet or a road that would eventually take us down, but none was to be found.  It seems there is only one direct way to get from the harbor to the main road and that is by taking the stairs.  After we discovered this, we decided to make our way back down.   On our way down we met a friend.

Positano Dog

Shortly after we started to descend we ran into this dog.  At first he seemed like any other normal dog but he ended up being extremely intelligent.  He would follow us wherever we went.  He would run ahead of us but if we did not follow he would run back to us and continue down the path we were taking.  On one part down a road we found we noticed that he kept running to the other side of the road.  He would run to the other side, see that we were not following him, and then run back.  He kept doing this over and over again, insisting that we follow.  It turns out he knew what he was talking about.  A few meters down the road and it was clear what he was trying to tell us.  There was a blind corner coming up.  He was basically trying to get us to the safe side of the road.

We did not have any food on us at the time to reward him for his efforts and by the time we did get food he ran off.  Still he created one of the more memorable parts of our trip.

We finally got on a ferry mid-afternoon that took us back to Sorrento where our trip would continue.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Italy Trip - Capri Day 4-6

Capri Coast

Most of the rest of Capri is kind of a blur.  We purposely did not do very much the day before because I was still getting over being sick and we were playing it safe.  We shored up the restaurant plans for the wedding and took care of some loose ends.  We met up with a few of our guest and went out to dinner with those that had arrived.

I'll skip over the details of the wedding other than to say it ended up being perfect.  We were a little worried because the photographer had plane trouble but other than that the wedding went off without a hitch.  The skies even seemed to clear even though it was rainy the day before.   I am not sure we could have picked a better venue to actually have the wedding as the views were absolutely spectacular and the hotel staff was so helpful.  Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the restaurant we went to that had some of the best food we tasted on the entire trip and had the hands down best cup of cappuccino.

I do want to say one thing about the Hotel Ambassador Weber.   After my previous post, it may seem like it is the worst hotel in Italy but nothing could be further from the truth.  I will say that the quality of the rooms can vary greatly.  The one I had was awful.  The one that I changed to was quite nice.  The room was spacious (by European standards anyway) and the view from my balcony was spectacular.

Hotel Weber View

The staff was more than helpful in every possible way.  There are so many things that could go wrong with a venue and there are so many ways people can not be helpful (which we would learn later in Italy) but none of that happened.  I am sure that we made more than the usual number of request from their guests since we had a lot of things that had to be done.  But the hotel staff was always happy to help us.

We saw the other part of the island on our last day there but decided to skip the Blue Grotto.  Capri is famous for it but we decided it was not for us.  We get seasick so the idea of being on the ocean in a small little boat was not our idea of fun.  It also seemed somewhat like a tourist trap being way to expensive for such a short experience.

From Capri, we decided to take the direct ferry to Positano which would turn out to be one of the more memorable stops on the trip.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Italy Trip - Capri Day 3

Sorrento Port

After our stay in Sorrento, we got up bright and early to make our way to Capri, the location of our wedding.   The challenge we had was to somehow make it to the port (pictured above) from our hotel.  The town of the Sorrento is high up on a cliff while the port is down below.  We weren't quite sure how to use the bus system (yet) so we decided we would take all our stuff and hike down the hill.  It would be the first of many trials we had with our luggage.  To make matters worse, I woke up with an upset stomach.  It was a precursor of bad things to happen later as this would end up the worse day of the trip.

Port of Capri

We actually made it down to the port fairly easily.  We were a little bit worried about getting sea sick on the boat but that did not happen.  I could only wish that getting sea sick would have been the worse of our problems.  We arrived at the Capri port about 45 minutes after we left Sorrento and attempted to figure out how we were going to get to our hotel which was on the other side of the island.  The hotel had a shuttle service from the port but we ran into what would continue to be a problem for us, making phone calls.  Don't ask me why, but for whatever reason my wife and I could not figure out how to make a phone call in Italy.  I am not exaggerating.  The phone was a serious problem for us.  We tried to make a pay phone call to the hotel but this was too big of a challenge.  We asked someone for help and rather than help us make the pay phone call she just called the hotel for us from her own phone.

We ran into a couple also trying to make it to the hotel but had been waiting for 30 minutes for the shuttle.  They finally got fed up and decided to take a taxi.  Not even one minute later, the shuttle driver showed up to take us to the airport.  We actually pulled into the hotel at the exact same time as the other couple.  Now for a disclaimer.  What I am about to write is not a complete picture of the hotel we stayed at,  he Hotel Weber Ambassador.  A bunch of things conspired to make this a bad day, not all of which was the hotel's doing.

We were staying at Capri for three nights.  We had decided fairly late that we wanted to stay on the island the Thursday before the wedding so we could plan and set up some stuff.   We were shown to our "garden view" room which should have been characterized more appropriately as a furnished closet.  It was small, even by European standards but like I said earlier, my wife and I are not particularly picky when it comes to room size.  I opened up the curtains to let some light in.  I was met with a wall. If I looked straight up, there was an opening.  It looks like my "garden view" was if I looked straight up.  I was starting to get a little bit worried.

Tired, and a bit cold, I decided to take a shower.  The shower definitely didn't help the situation as it had no water pressure and no hot water.  The day was getting better and better.  I then noticed that the bathroom door did not shut.  the door was warped in such a way that it was impossible to close the door completely.  What else could go wrong?  At least I could relax a little bit and watch some TV.  OK, maybe not.  The TV had nothing but snow.  Why on earth do you put a TV in the room that doesn't work?  Just for decoration?

We went into town to get a bite to eat but I had no appetite.  In fact, I was feeling quite nauseous.  So we headed back to the hotel.  By this time, I as feeling quite cold and realized that I had the chills.  I tried to bundle up in the bed at the hotel but as those who have had a bad case of the chills knows, there is nothing you can do.  We still had several things to take care of for the wedding like picking a restaurant and getting her a bouquet.  I was in no condition to go as I could barely get out of bed at this point so my wife went on her own.  Before going I asked her to be careful as we would be separated with no real way of getting in contact with each other.

I passed out almost immediately.  About an hour into my rest, I heard a click and the room went dark.  At this point I honestly though I checked into the Death Hotel or something because nothing seemed to be working.  I was not sure if it was just my room or the hotel but when I started to hear noise in the hallway I figured out it must be at least hotel wide.  I could barely move so I was in no shape to go inquire about what was going on but I also could not just lie there not knowing.  I waited for the lights to come back on but they were not.  So about ten minutes later I decided to get up and figure out what was going on.  When I walked out of the room, it was clear the problem was at least hotel wide.  I followed some low flickering lights down the stairs and walked past the reception to step out on the terrace.  It was quite apparent that this was not a hotel problem.  The whole island was dark.

At this point, I'm pretty worried.  Nobody knew when power would be restored and I have no way of getting hold of my wife.  Compounding the problem is that I'm sick and the only way into town is to walk up some very dark, very steep streets.  So I sit and wait, and wait, and wait.  About an hour goes by and I decide I have to go do something to go find her even if it means dragging myself up the streets.  Just when I'm about to go, she thankfully walks into the door.

We sit in the lobby for the next hour or so.  The lights would eventually go on about an hour and a half later but at this point my big worry is what else is going to go wrong before my wedding?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Italy Trip - Sorrento Day 2

On the first night in Italy, we slept.  I think we slept a total of 12 hours.  Liz was getting over some sort of bug and we were tired from the long journey.  Because we went to bed really early it did not prevent us from getting up bright and early the next day.  This is something we have tried to do consistently throughout the trip because I wanted to take as many pictures as possible and the best time to take landscape pictures is first thing in the morning. Unfortunately for me, the day ended up being pretty cloudy in the morning, but I made do with what I had.

One of the odd things about Southern Italy in general is the preponderance of dogs just walking the street.  I am not sure if Italy just does not have the same amount of animal control as the States do but the loose dogs on the street was quite noticeable.

Sorrento Dogs

The golden dog pictured above became our guide in Sorrento.  He seemed determined to show us the sites and followed us wherever we were going.  It was early, and the streets were empty (another advantage of taking pictures really early in the morning) so he probably had nothing better to do.  He eventually guided us down to the coast where I was able to get some good pictures of Sorrento early in the morning.

Sorrento Coast

After the hard day of traveling the day before, it was very serene to be on the Sorrento Coast with nobody else around.  After walking around the city in the early morning, our next stop was to make it to Pompeii and see the ruins.   This was supposedly a short train ride from the Sorrento Train station but like most things in Italy, my wife and I found a way to make it difficult.

Pompeii TrainOn the train, called the Circumvesuviana, has two stops marked for Pompeii, Pompeii and Pompeii Scavi. For those who do not know anything, Pompeii seems to be the right one. But for those who know Itallian, Scavi means "dig". So Pompeii Scavi is the right stop if you wish to go see the ruins of Pompeii. It is also the easier stop to get to as there is no transfer while there is a transfer of trains to get to Pompeii.

My wife and I were in the last train car and were confused about which one to get off on. We guessed "Pompeii" and as it turns out we were wrong. Only one person in our car got up to exit the train at the Pompeii Scavi stop so we figured we were OK. But when the doors closed we saw a throng of (excuse me for being racist here) white tourists who had exited the train and heading toward the site. We quickly looked up "scavi" in our dictionary to find out what it means and quickly determined we had missed our stop. To compound the situation, the train heading in the direction back passed us on the way to the next stop meaning we had to wait even longer for it. When we got off on the next station it was clear we had made a mistake. We were the only ones to get off the train, clearly not something that would have happened at a major tourist site. On the bright side, my wife and I will always remember that "scavi" is the Italian word for dig.

When we finally made it to Pompeii Scavi, the ruins were right outside of the small train station. The site is huge. It is hard to imagine a whole city like that being buried by a Volcano only to be dug up later by a bunch of archaeologists.

Pompeii Street

While I think it was an interesting place to go I think I was somewhat disappointed by the whole thing.  For me, the ruins start to blend into each other after a while.  One pile of rubble starts to look like the next pile of rubble.  What was even more disappointing was that all the best places to go were restricted to tourists by gates.  Below is a picture of a typical experience for us.

Gate at Pompeii

It is probably safe to say that a third of the places listed on the audio guide were closed off to the public.  It is probably equally safe to say that all of the best and most interesting places were gated off.  It became increasingly frustrating that the audio guide would tell you to walk through a doorway and see a beautiful fresco painting only to be met by a locked gate.  Even worse when you could not walk into the site in the first place.   Since there were so many places that were closed, we were able to walk around the whole of the Pompeii site in a matter of about three or four hours.   Our luck being what it was with the trains, we saw the train back to Sorrento pull out in front of us so had to wait for the next one.

That night, we went to another out of the way restaurant.  I had the calzone, she had the spaghetti with clams.  They were both excellent.  It was seriously the best calzone I had ever had.  The crust of the calzone was excellent and the cheese was just superb.  We were also given some of the local champagne, prosecco which ended up being pretty tasty.  Thus far we were pretty impressed with the food we had been served in Italy.  And this was only the beginning of the trip.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Italy Trip - Sorrento Day 1

We decided to get to Italy a few days before the wedding to set some things ups.  We wanted to check out the hotel, find a place for the reception, get a bouquet, and settle a little bit before the wedding.  Our original plan was to spend the night in the city we landed in, Naples, and eventually make it to where we got married, Capri.

After doing some research and reading we decided against that plan.  Everything we read about Naples was umm ... interesting.  All the guidebooks warned tourists that Naples could be dangerous.  They made it sound as if thieves were around every corner and the mafia was just waiting to shoot you in the street.  So we passed on Naples and went to the other town with an easy ferry to Capri, Sorrento.

We booked through Expedia a small little hotel called Hotel Sorrento City.  Picture below.

Hotel Sorrento City

As it turns out, it was a great location, right on the main drag in Sorrento.   One of the disadvantages of taking a long trip is that you spend a lot of money on lodging simply because you have so many nights to account for.  My wife and I have decided to stay at relatively modest hotels to save some money and because we are not really fancy people anyway.  We only require a safe location, clean room, modest bed, and a nice hot shower.  Most other problems we can deal with.

Hotel Sorrento City satisfied these conditions so it was adequate.   But it was not more than that.  The room was definitely small but not that small when you compare it to the European standard.  It was somewhat odd that there were built in pull down beds on the side of the wall but I guess that could be convenient for some.  I wish there was free internet access but there wasn't.  I wish there was wi-fi but there wasn't.  Just a small little pay station in the lobby.  The breakfast that was provided was pretty good though.  My wife really liked the coffee out of the coffee machine but she has liked all the coffee that we have had since coming to Italy.

Sorrento itself was a very nice city.  Our very first stop was to the center square to catch a bite to eat.  Right in the middle of the main square was a place called Fauno Bar.

Fauno Bar

It seemed to be a typical Italian outdoor cafe but bigger.  There were lots of people there, and that is usually a sign of an OK place to go, so we asked for a table.   I had the cannelloni, my wife had the gnocci.  It was seriously some of the best Italian food we had up until that point.  The pasta was clearly fresh and the cheese was very tasty.  Part of it was that I was pretty hungry by this point but the other part of it was that Italian food is just better in Italy.  Go figure.

One of the odd things we noticed while we were eating was that we were THE ONLY people who ordered food.  I'm going to write more on this later but it seems that Italians eat really really late.  Dinner doesn't start until 7:30, and in some places 8:30.   After dinner we were wiped out from the trip so we went back to the hotel and just fell asleep.  That concluded our first day.

Italy Has Bad internet

I have been meaning to post along my trip but I have found my internet connections in Italy to be lacking.  The last two places I stayed at, one in Bologna, and one in Florence, have both had internet connections which have been flaky.  It seems about 1 in every 3 requests is just dropped.  I could understand if it were just one hotel's bad connection but two?

I finally got to a hotel which seems to have a steady, albeit somewhat slow connection.  Unfortunately, I'm too tired to post as I've been driving all day in the search of an elusive mall.

So I will have to try and catch up later.  Right now, I'm in Lucca Italy.  About to go see the wall that surrounds the city and maybe make it to Pisa to see the tower.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Italy Trip - Getting There


OK, I'm finally back blogging.  I'm still in Italy but I finally have some time to sit down and blog a little bit.  My intention was to blog along the way but there was a little hiccup with that plan.  Internet access has been spotty and I was way busier with wedding stuff than I thought I would be.  I'm going to try and catch up in the next few days but we will see.  I have a week left to go in my vacation and the second half is probably as jammed packed as the first.

Getting to Italy was an adventure by itself.  We had booked a flight to Naples Italy with stops in Seattle and in Paris.  The stop in Seattle was fortuitous because I got to visit Rick and make a stop at one of my old favorites Sushi Land.  Great to see Rick, not so great to go to Sushi Land.  Maybe I've been away too long or maybe something has really changed, but it just wasn't like I remembered it.  The pieces were smaller and the fish not as fresh.  Oh well.  After stuffing myself with fish and saying goodbye to Rick, we were on our way to Paris.  It was a lovely twelve hour flight.  I slept some and then watched The Hangover on the plane.  I'm usually not a fan of these types of movie but perhaps my low expectations and my being trapped on a plane with no choices made it entertaining. 

After departing this flight, this is where the fun really began.  All I have to say is the Paris airport probably needs to be rethought.  I had two hours to get to my connecting flight.  I barely made it.  First, I had to walk what seemed like an eternity to Passport Control.  I walked so long I seriously thought they were going to make me walk the rest of the way to Italy.  After getting through Passport Control, I had to walk again through security.  This was very odd to me.  Security in Paris was odd.  They asked for our passports (not odd) but then made me empty out my camera bag.  Then they stopped my (then) fiancee and checked all her stuff again.  Then they asked for her passport again.  So now she has had her passport asked for three different times. 

By this time, we are cutting it pretty close to the time.  But my fiancee is extremely hungry and thirsty so she needs to stop for some food and water.  As we approach the gate she stops at a small cafe.  I can see our plane boarding and I'm worried because we have quite a bit of carry on and I want to be sure I can get a spot.  She gets her food and water and we rush to the plane only to be once again be asked for our passport!  This is now four times since coming into Paris that she has had to produce her passport.

When we finally reach Italy we land in an airport where there they make you exit onto the runway before reaching the terminal.  Just outside is a bus waiting to take us to the terminal.  So we board the bus and, I'm not exaggerating, the bus drives 20 yards to the terminal.  It was kind of crazy.  We wait for our bags, which comes really fast, and then look for some sort of official looking person to either ask us about our bags or to check our passports.  Neither happens.  When you compare that to the Paris experience you can see why we were quite confused.

At this point, my fiancee is pretty ill and is in no mood to get on a bus for an hour.  So we sit in the Naples airport with all of our stuff for about two hours until she feels well enough to get on the bus.   She is not getting much better but time is running out for us to get to where we need so she muscles up some courage and we get on the bus run by CURRERI Viaggi .  It is a private company who specializes in making the trip between Sorrento and Naples.  However, hen we get to the bus, the driver tells us he can not take us all the way to Sorrento, he can only take us part of the way.  There is some stupid bike event or something blocking all the roads to Sorrento.  Seriously, they stop all the traffic going into a city for one stupid event?  What am I getting myself into?  Looking back, I kind of doubt they did; I think the bus driver was just being lazy and not wanting to drive us the whole way (we were the only people on the bus). 

The driver drops us off at a train station, the Circumvesuviana, close to Sorrento but still a 15 minute ride.  Here we are, tired and weary from our long drop, and still needing to slog through the local train to get where we need to be.  To make matters worse, we have no idea where the hotel is as soon as we get there.  It could be on the other side of town for all we know.  When we finally arrive Sorrento much to our delight, the hotel is just minutes away from the station.  We were REALLY lucky because most of the hotels are not that close.  Most of them are quite far away.  We get to our hotel room, which is quite small but typical of European hotels, and just finally relax.  We shower and then go get a quick bite to eat in town (the above picture is of the main Sorrento square).  More of Sorrento in the next post. 

All of this reminded me of why I really hate to travel sometimes.  It wears on you.  Things are never as easy as they should be and you are usually not as comfortable as you are at home.  This is magnified when you are in a foreign country where you don't really speak the language.  All in all, it was an ordeal to get to Italy (and every time we have had to move) but so far, a great trip.  More on that in the next post.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Where Have I Been?

It's been about a dozen days since my last post.  In the two years since I've started this blog I've probably never gone more than 4 or 5 days without a post.   I try to stay pretty consistent, even if it is only a quick post, but I just haven't been able to lately because I've been too busy.

You see, I'm getting married in a week.  To make matters worse, I've been in the middle of finalizing a huge platform change for my company.   This has left little time for anything other than work and planning for my 2.5 week trip to Italy.  Since I'll be gone for several weeks, and I will not be following current events or work,  the topic of my posts will be quite different.  So instead, for the next several weeks, I plan on blogging about my wedding and my trip.   Hopefully I will have some good pictures and some good experiences to share with everybody here.  So if you are interested in my travels, stay tuned.  Otherwise, see you all back here in about 3 weeks.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Cheap Flight - Too Good to be True?

I am trying to plan out my vacation to Italy.  One of the hard parts about the trip is that we want to go from Southern Italy to Northern Italy.  Taking a train could take several hours and sitting in a train is not my idea of a fun vacation.  So we decided to look online to see if there were any cheap flights from Naples to Italy.  I figured there might be some sort of deal like Southwest Airlines which offers really cheap flights within California.

So I went to Expedia to search for a deal.  I was not really expecting anything really cheap but figured it was at least worth a search.  What I found I still can't quite believe.  I bought two tickets from Naples to Italy for $67.  That is not $67 each.  That is $67 TOTAL.  What seems even odder is that the taxes and fees for the flight are $65.  That means the tickets were $1 each!  The tickets are from what seem to be a reputable airline, Meridiana, so I'm at a loss to understand how a flight can be so cheap.  To compare, every other flight listed on Expedia with other carriers were for $330 each.

So what do you think?  Am I going to show up at the airport only to fly I'm going to fly in the luggage compartment?

Monday, September 7, 2009

How To Buy a Suit

Canali SuitI have spent the last several weeks looking for a suit.  This is not just any suit, this is the suit I am going to wear for my wedding. So I wanted to get the absolute best suit I could without spending an arm and a leg.  Boy did I not realize what I was getting myself into.

First off, let me reiterate advice I often give on this blog when it comes to buying big ticket items.  Always buy the best you can afford.  No more, no less.  If you buy something cheap, you will regret that you did not buy the nicer item.  If you overspend, you will suffer buyer's remorse.  To that end, I set my suit budget to be between $600 and $1200.  I have not been in the market for a suit recently, so I wasn't sure what I would find in that price range or if this was too high or too low.

This price range ends up being in the upper middle portion for most suits.  Think Nordstrom and Saks not Macy's or Penny's.  The upper echelon of suits usually run $2000+ with many getting in the $5000+ range.  I had no intention of buying anything close to that unless it was made of gold.   Anything cheaper, in the $200-$300 range, looked fine at first but close inspection and actually wearing the suit revealed significant drawbacks.  So I was happy with the general price I was aiming for.

Who knew that having this budget in mind could be such a problem.   The first problem you run into with suits is that there really are hundreds of options, styles, and differences between each suit.  It is not like buying a TV where you can narrow it down to a few models from a few stores.  It is as if each and every store has its own set of suits.  The selection of suits was different from stores of the same retailer right down the street from each other!  One store may carry Hugo Boss, the other one would not.  If they both did carry Hugo Boss, they would for sure have different models.

What made the whole situation worse was my "unusual" body shape.  You see, I'm actually in shape.  This means I am thin and have broad shoulders, a wide chest, and a narrow mid-section.  This gives me a suit size of 38, but that is over-simplifying the problem.  It is hard enough finding a 38 in a suit because most men in the United States are not as trim as I am.  There are just not a lot of size 38 suits made. But when you throw in the fact that I have a wide chest and broad shoulders you can be certain that nothing is going to fit quite right.

There are four things you have to look for in a suit to make sure it properly fits (listed in order of importance)

  • The shoulders are in their proper place

  • You do not get any stress marks in the back of the suit (between the shoulder blades) indicating the jacket is too small or too big

  • The lapel does not pop up but lies flat against the chest

  • The sleeves are of the right length

The problem for me always lies in either the first or third bullet point.  Size 38 suits are usually too narrow in the chest meaning the lapel does not lay flat.  Size 40 suits are too broad in the shoulder meaning I do not get a proper fit up top.  You want to get a suit that fits as perfectly off the rack as possible because you want as little tailoring done to the suit as you can get.  I went to just about every possible store in Southern California looking for suits.  The list included:

  • Five Nordstrom's

  • Two Sak's Fifth Avenue

  • One Niemen Marcus

  • Four Bloomingdale's

  • Ten Macy's

  • Two Men's Warehouses

  • Two 3-day suit Brokers

  • Nine different Malls

And I did not find a suit that worked until I went to a Nordstrom Rack.  But more on that in a second.  From the list of stores I visited, you can clearly see that this was not an easy task.  I tried on suit after suit.  In each store I probably tried on a minimum of 2 or 3 suits and in a few I tried on as many as a dozen.  I tried on so many that I feel somewhat like an expert in suits.   My problem was compounded because I had particular needs.  I needed the suit to be either black or dark gray, not navy, since this was the suit for my wedding.  So given all this, it was a near impossible tasks to find a suit.

So how did I finally find the right suit?  It was a war of attrition.   I had to narrow it down to what I did not want before I found what I want.  Brands that simply did not work for me because of my body shape ended up being

  • Hugo Boss

  • Calvin Kline

  • DKNY

  • BCBG

  • Alfani

  • Joseph Abboud

  • Paul Smith

  • Dolce and Gabana

  • Versace

The mistake I made was to keep trying on brands that just did not work for me in hopes that I would find a suit from that manufacturer that would suddenly work. I can not tell you how many Hugo Boss suits I tried on before I finally realized it was a futile exercise. The most ironic thing was that I got this bit of advice at the second store I went to (it was a Bloomingdale's) by a very helpful salesperson.  He told me that the only suits that were going to work for me were by either Zegna or by Canali.  He showed me a Zegna but did not have a Canali to show me.  He said he would only sell me a Zegna and that if I did not like what he had on stock that I should go find a suit made by one of those tailors at another store.  This was very wise advice (as you will see in a minute) and leads me to my first and most important bit of advice.  If you find a salesperson who is knowledgeable, helpful, and puts your interests ahead of his own.  Buy your suit from him.  I probably could have saved myself a big headache if I would have just taken his advice to heart because I found the only suits that worked for me were

  • Canali

  • Zegna

  • Armani

Notice these are all Italian made suits. It seems I should have been European and not American because I only fit into clothes made in Europe.  This is exactly what the salesperson told me would happen and it took me trying on dozens of suits before I finally reached the same conclusion he gave to me at the very beginning.  My body type would only work in one of these suits.

Now the problem with this advice is that these suits are all very expensive.  While I could afford some of them in my price range, they were at the upper end of my price range.  All else being equal, I would have liked to spend at the bottom of the range simply because I do not wear suits too often.  Did I really want to spend $1200 on a suit that I would only wear a few times in my life?   The problem was, as soon as I found out what a good suit is supposed to look like and how it is supposed to fit, I could not let myself buy a suit that did not look nor fit properly.  Before today, I found exactly two suits that would work but they were both above $1000 and one of them was above my budget at $1295.  So what was I to do?

Ironically, I decided to listen to my own advice and go back to that original salesman despite the fact that his store was about one hour away.  I was willing to spend the money and buy the suit from a man I trusted.  It became ironic because I ended up not buying my suit from him, I didn't even see him, but from a store I would have never gone to if I were not have decided to go back down to see him.  My fiancee suggested I go to the Nordstrom Rack and take a look at the suits there.  I had been to other Nordstrom Racks and not been impressed with their selection.  But the one I went to was different.  It was probably the "nicest" Nordstrom Rack around because it was next to fanciest mall we have in Southern California.  The selection of suits was actually quite large and the discounts were substantial.

I ended up getting a fantastic black Canali suit.  It was the best fitting suit I had come across yet and, being at a Nordstrom Rack, it was the lowest price I had seen for a designer Italian Suit.  It was 70% off of MSRP came in at the low end of my budget at $600.  It was such a fantastic deal that I bought it on the spot without thinking too much about it.  Just to be sure, I checked another Nordstrom Rack in the area and there was not nearly the same selection.  Once again, two stores, just down the road from each other, and not nearly the same suits.

Once again, my patience in shopping paid off.  I was about to give in and just pay full retail for a suit that actually met my needs but ended up getting an even better suit for a lot less than I would have paid.  I love a great deal!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Better to Serve Myself

Fresh and Easy LogoI've done some of my shopping at the Fresh and Easy that recently opened in my neighborhood. The idea behind Fresh and Easy is somewhat opposed to the trend lately in supermarkets.  Fresh and Easy stores have much smaller footprints than grocery stories that have become supersized as of late.  It also offers far fewer choices than others, usually only offering one brand and its own store brand on most items.

What it lacks in variety it makes up in price.  I do a lot of comparison shopping and the prices there are probalby the best per item that I can find locally.  They definitely beat my local Ralphs and they are probably even better than the Trader Joe's, the normal price leader around these parts. Yet despite being cheap, I've been pleasantly surprised with the quality of the food that I've gotten.

But I'm writing this post to cover my favorite thing about the store.  They only have self serve lines.  Yes, that's right, they do not have any cashiers.  You scan and bag your own groceries.   I am sure this is one way they are able to keep costs low.  The grocery business is very low margins and one of the biggest variable cost is headcount.  They reduced this by making their stores self serve.  While I really do value good customer service, I really like self-serve models when it comes to paying.  Most lines take too long because most people are slow or have too many questions.  I want to pay for my item and leave.  If I have a problem it is my fault and problem and nobody else.

This is like me and having my gas pumped.  I hated living in New Jersey because you can't pump your own gas.  This means you have to wait for the attendant to come over and pump your gas.  If he is busy with others, you have no choice but to wait.

How do you feel about self-serve models.  Would you rather just have cashiers or do you like doing it yourself?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Market at the Turn

The market probably reached its top last week and I expect the correction I've been predicting the last few weeks to finally happen now.  If I'm wrong on this one, and I've been wrong lately, the market rally will happen without me.  I have a lot of money sitting on the sidelines, but there is just no way I can put money into a market that has run 50+% in the last few months.  The market could continue to rally from here.  Heck it could go 20% up more from here no problem.  But if it does, it does so without me and I will have missed out on one of the best market opportunities of my lifetime.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Race Matters

Found this on  It seems Microsoft changed the look of one of the people pictured on its website.  The controversy stems from the fact that on its Polish website, it overlaid a picture of a white man over a picture of a black man.

Now, I'm pretty sensitive about certain racial issues but I am not in this case.   In fact, I see pretty much nothing wrong with what Microsoft did.  This is advertisement.  It needs to appeal to the demographic you are after.  I know nothing about Poland but I am assuming that the demographic is nothing like it is in the U.S. and that there are not many people who are black.  To appeal to that demographic, Microsoft probably felt it need to make the people look more "Polish".

While I would like to think everybody would be enlightened and not take race into consideration, I know better.  My company puts up several webpage.  We have one page in particular depicting a family.  This family looks very "American".  It depicts a white couple with a cute young daughter in front of a big suburban house.  This page works great for our site, but it only works great in the United States.  In ever other country, it does much worse.  The page is rather simple, and it changes language depending on the country.  The only reason it would only work in the United States and not in other countries is because the family just looks American.

So I see no problem in Microsoft changing the picture to better match the target audience and have no idea why anybody would make a big deal about it.  What do you think?

Microsoft changes ethnicity

Monday, August 24, 2009

Technology Expert?

Many of my friends would consider me a technology expert.  If there is a problem with a computer or some sort of gadget, I'm usually one of the first people my friends call.  So what I'm about to write is pretty embarassing.

Tonight I went jogging.  When I go running, I like to listen to music.  Being too cheap to buy another mp3 player (my fiancee uses the one I have), I use the mp3 playing functionality of my phone.  It runs Windows Mobile on it and thus has a Windows Media Player.  The phone has a micro-sd slot in it, so I can load the card up with music and play it on the phone.  Since my phone is bluetooth capable, it has the added benefit that I can match it up with bluetooth headphones and not have to deal with any wires.

So when I started on my run today, much to my dismay, there was no sound.  I struggled for several minutes trying to figure it out.  I adjusted the volume on the headset itself.  No good.  I turned up the volume on Windows Media Player.  No luck.  I searched in all the options and menus to see if there was some mute setting.  No go.  Then my mom called.  And the phone had sound.  The phone rang and I could hear my mom's voice through the phone.  WTF?  I tried running the music without the headphones, it normally will play through my phone's built in speaker.  Still nothing.  Now I was confused.  I tried one more thing.  My fiancee's ringtone is a song.  I knew the song wouldn't play on Windows Media, but what if she called me?  Would it play the ringtone like it was all the standard rings?  Sure enough it did!

So seriously, what the hell was going on.  It seemed that my Windows Mobile device had all the sounds working except for Windows Media Player.  I could take calls and hear the phone ring but that was it.

It turns out there is one more volume control (making a total of three) that I had to adjust.  The headset itself has a volume control and it was turned way down.  This is the main volume control for the entire phone.  It is so important, it has its own stupid control on the side of the phone.  I can not explain how absolutely stupid I felt when I figured this out.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Thank God For Google Cache?

I did a stupid thing and deleted my last post.  But thanks to Google cache, I was able to recover that post in its entirety.  While I'm really glad I have the ability to recover from my own stupidity, makes me realize just how permanent the internet is.

Is the Reversal Here

Market went down today by over 2%.  While this is not the first big pull back for the market since this insane run up, it is starting to feel like we have hit a top in the market and we now are going to test some technical levels below.

I have slowly gotten out of some of my short positions but stayed in them for the most part waiting for this turn.  I got a little bit more short today, but overall I still lost a lot of money as I’m a little heavy weight in some commodity names and in China, two things that did not do well at all.  I wanted to get a little bit more short in a few sectors but ran into a small snag when Etrade would not let me short some ETFs.  Seems as if it is difficult to borrow some of these, probably because there are still lots of people short this market.

I checked the levels on all my accounts and much to my surprise, I have a lot more cash on the sidelines than I realized.  Most of this is due to the fact that I’ve not been doing very much buying in the last few months and I’ve been earning money in my day job in the meantime.  I’m looking to buy something if the correction I predict actually happens but to be perfectly honest, I’m really not attracted to anything unless we get a very serious correction, a correction back down to the March lows.  I just can not get very bullish about where we are as a country.  Yes, we may have averted disaster in the short term.  But does anyone really think that all that borrowing our government did is actually going to turn out well?  How did that work out for all those people who took out those home equity loans?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Great Compliment

I had my best developer resign on me this week.  It is something that obviously bothers me.  You hate to lose your best employees because people of that caliber are so hard to come by.

The one bright spot came today when I went to talk to him to try and convince him to stay.  Knowing why he is leaving, I had little hope of trying to get him to stay but I had to at least give it a try.  As I started to go into my little spiel he told me to stop because there was little chance I was going to convince him to stay.  He told me that the one chance I had was if I told him that I was going to leave the company in a few months and that I would take him wherever I went.  He really enjoyed working for me and that it was hard to find a boss that he could respect.  He just did not want to work at my company any more.

It is an honor to work with smart people.  It is an even bigger honor when these smart people basically tell you that you are a great boss.  Makes me that much sadder that he is leaving.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Are We Just Cycling Through Bubbles?

The market had a small sell off today.  Nothing to get too worked up about but perhaps the start of something bigger.

But as this market tries to find its equilibrium point, it got me thinking.  Are we just going to keep cycling through bubbles?  And if so, how badly is it going to end?  If we do indeed keep putting off our problems, like all financial mistakes it will just be that much worse when the bill comes due.

Right now, the market has rallied about 50% from its lows.  This run-up is in a matter of months.   Does that actually sound normal to anybody?  The market has gone up this much because the government is pumping out cash like there is no tomorrow.  This has already had some effect that should cause people's eyebrows to rise.  The rally has been very broad based.  And I emphasize the broad part.  Some of the worse stocks are doing OK.  Stocks of companies that should not exist have actually gone up with the rest of the market. When junk is doing well, you know you have a bubble on your hands.

Just look at the other bubbles that we have had in the last decade.  The valuation of some of the dot coms were just ridiculous.  Billions in "value" for companies with no revenue.  The housing bubble was probably worse.  Run down shacks were selling for small fortunes in parts of the country.

Bubbles take longer to form than just a few months, but maybe this one actually has formed faster because we have had the others one that preceded this one.  Maybe we aren't even in a bubble and I'm making too much of this.  But I just don't see how we can have possibly gone up this much this fast.  The future does not look bright from here.  Granted, expectations were so low as to be ridiculous before but anyone who thinks that we are going to just bounce off the bottom is just not looking around.  There really is not much of an economic recovery happening.  People are still losing jobs and companies are still pulling back.  Is this really news to get excited over?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Let Experience Be Your Guide

One of my favorite investment books is One Up on Wall Street by Peter Lynch.  I like it so much because he explains stock picking in a way that the average person can really understand.  One point he brings up is to use your own day-to-day experiences to guide you in your stock picking.  Does your kid have a favorite toy that he says all the kids need to have?  Does your daughter need that hot pair of jeans from that great new retailer?  Stay in a nice hotel that was clean and affordable?  Find out if the company is public and buy the stock!

I often use this bit of advice to try and figure out what stocks I want to buy. But today I got just the opposite.  I decided not to buy a stock because of my own experience.  I had been considering for some time whether or not I wanted to buy Yum Brands.  This is the company that holds such companies like KFC and Taco Bell.  I'm not a huge fan of these restaurants but I like the space and I like the exposure that Yum Brands has in China.

I do not personally go to any of its restaurants too often but every once in a while I get a craving for a Chalupa.   So I went to Taco Bell today, the second time I have gone in the last six months.  But for the second time in as many visits, my service was horrible.  I had to wait almost 15 minutes from when I ordered my food to when I got it.  How is this "fast food".  It isn't even slow food.  It is food moving at glacial speeds.

Could these be just isolated incidents?  Maybe.  But it has convinced me not to go back to a Taco Bell and it convinced me not to touch the stock.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Can Fox Get Users to Pay for Content

Fox announced today that it would start to charge users for content on its Internet News sites.  Can Fox make this work?

I find this pretty hard to believe.  I'm a pretty avid internet user and the thought of paying for content really just does not sit with me.  For example.  I often visit ESPN and the Wall Street Journal.  Both these sites have sections for paid content.  Despite the fact that I often go there and I sometimes want to see the stories they have for paid subscribers, I honestly do not feel that compelled to pay for their sites.  Why?  Because there is so much other content available elsewhere that is often just as good.

In this day and age all I have to do is search on Google and I most likely will find another similar story for free.  At worse, I probably will find a blog somewhere that talks about the content of the story.  As I tend to be a skimmer of news anyway, that is all I want, so it works out for me.

We have a whole generation of people who cannot even imagine paying for content any more.  I am not saying that all content should be free.  Far from it.  I actually think it might have been better if content was never free.  But the genie was let out of the bottle a long time ago and it is going to be pretty hard to put back in.

Somehow Murdoch thinks if he does this, and can make money, it will force all media outlets to do the same, thus eliminating the problem of free content.  Yeah, fat chance of that happening.  I can pretty much promise you that if this even came close to reality, and it will not, there would be someone who finds a way to get users this content for free.  Look at what happens every time the music industry tries to shut down a sharing technology.  Another one takes its place.

Does anyone here actually pay for news content?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Get Out the Way

Today, I cut my short positions.  This just felt like the wrong thing to do here with the market continuing to rally.  I do expect a pullback relatively soon but I have left the money in these shorts far longer than I wanted to.  I tried to stay disciplined and say I would get out of the short position when I lost 10%, and I didn't do that.  The trade kept falling behind and I kept waiting for the turn that never happened.  Rather than continue to lose money, even though I think the market will turn soon, I got out of the trade and cut my losses.

I still have smaller positions in this trade, but it is past the point where I think I can reasonably make more money than I already lost.  Had to do it.  There comes a point where you have to admit you were wrong and just move on.  I don't think the market takes off from here, but I'm also not so sure we can come back down to retest the lows.  If you have shorts on at this point, just get out of the way of this market.  I know with my luck, this will exactly mark the turn, but I just could not continue to fight the market.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Free Money

The market continued its rally today.  This was in no small part to good news coming out of the government's "Cash for Clunkers" program.  Most of the pundits out there are calling this a great success since this has risen auto sales month over month.  Something that hasn't happened in a long time.  But is everything really that great?

In short, no.  I think the analysis that states that this marks the bottom of the recession is a little short sighted.  The problem with any program like this is that its long term effects are hard to measure and almost impossible to see.  While I have no doubt that the program had beneficial effects for the auto industry this month, its longer term effect is not so clear.  One problem that a government provided subsidy like this poses is the same problem we have had for the last decade or so.  What happens to auto sales six months from now when the money has run out?  Will demand still be there for automobiles or will yet another government stimulus be needed?  Are we just pushing sales to the near months and the expense of the far months?  How many of these sales would have happened without the stimulus? Compounding the problem, we will all pay for this with interest.

What most people do not realize is that this is a simple transfer of wealth from all of us to those who are buying cars now.   Government subsidies must eventually be paid for and that money comes from the income tax that we all pay.  I know for many people, this seems like a good thing.  I mean, it is free money right?  Sadly, no.  We all pay.  Does that mean I think the program is a bad thing?  Well the jury is out.  Being pro-environment, I'm at least glad some of the cars being traded in are being taken off the road.  But as an economic stimulus?  Sadly, I think it will fail.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

When The Market Doesn't Agree With You

I made a bet several weeks ago against the real estate sector.  Specifically, I made a bet that we would see continued weakness in the Commercial real estate market.  I made this bet because I just looked around my neighborhood and the ones I drive by and I notice numerous empty store fronts without any real chance of all of them being occupied.  I actually did not realize how bad it is in certain areas of Southern California since my neighborhood is somewhat insulated from steep residential declines.  But if you go into areas where house prices have fallen more, and thus affected consumer spending more, you see a lot more empty buildings.  This is going to continue to be a drag on the economy and more importantly on the balance sheet of the those who own commercial real estate.

But right now, the market is just too good.  Everything is going up and it is a bad time to be short anything.  While my portfolio is up over the last several weeks, it would be even stronger if I wasn't short here and short against the Dow Jones.  This does not really bother me since when the market looked weaker, I probably would not have gotten into some of my better positions if I did not short something against them.  So net, I have made more money than I have lost.

Is it time to take profits on that position.  If they were short term plays, absolutely.  The market rally is now right around the level where greed and fear is taking over.  There is no more reason to bid this market up yet it keeps going up.  Yes, the world is not falling apart.  But if you think a recovery is right around the corner, just take a peek there.  You will notice that the next street over looks pretty bare.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Too Hard on Candidates?

I'm usually in interview loops for most of the management positions in the company.  I believe in giving a simple "Hire/No Hire".  Most people in interview feedback are quite wishy washy.  They say things that are middle of the road without truly committing one way or the other.

But I learned early on that you have to give a solid yes or no on any interview.  When in doubt, you give a no.  This comes from the simple fact that it is much better to pass on the right person than it is to hire the wrong person.  Getting rid of the wrong hire can be really difficult.  So when it doubt, better to just pass on the person.   Now I'm not sure if it is the quality of candidates we are getting or if my standards are too high, but I have not been giving very many "Hires" lately.  Perhaps it is because I'm interviewing for mostly higher level management position.  These are the positions with the most leverage in the company.  A wrong hire here can affect dozens of people and really affect the profitability of the company.  Given that, I'm extremely reluctant to hire the wrong person.  But am I being too difficult.  If I'm giving out almost no "hires" are my standards just too high?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I Know I Have Not Made It

It has been hot in California the last few weeks.  It has been in the 100's in some areas.  High 90's in the others.

If you are like me, you are not able to sleep at night if it is too hot.  Lucky for me, I have central air-conditioning.  My problem?  The air works much better in the living room than it does anywhere else.  Further, the temperature sensor is also in the living room.  So to get my bedroom cold at night would require that I put the temperature insanely low in the living room.  For someone like me who hates waste, this is not an acceptable solution.

Those who follow my blog know how I feel about the lower standard of living my generation now has compared to the previous generation.   It just does not make sense to me that someone with my combined household income has to make some of the trade offs that I have to make.  I am not really complaining about it, it is just the way life is.  But it is something I find particularly interesting.

Anyway, the reason I bring all of this up is that this "heated" situation just makes it all that more clear that I have not yet "made it".  To solve my hot night dilemma I have had to move my bed, or more accurate my mattress, into the living room.  I no longer have a living space, I have bed.  And to quote my fiancee, it just looks kind of "ghetto".  We are making the most of it.  In many respects we like it even better this way (we can now watch the big TV in bed).  But it just puts me in my place of how much farther I have to go to have a truly comfortable and un-comprising living situation.   A household that makes in the top 5% of the US has resorted to sleeping on a mattress, in the living room, on the floor.  But hey, at least I have the mattress.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Market Is Up ... For Now

Surprisingly, the market was unchanged on Friday despite major misses by Microsoft and Amazon.  With the market showing some resiliency despite disappointing earnings from these bell-weather stocks, one has to believe that the market is indeed up from here.

But it quite honestly does not make any sense.  We are not in for any type of recovery any time soon.  I think a lot of people are looking at the housing bubble popping like the tech bubble popping.  People believe that recovery is just around the corner and that companies' earnings will follow.  I just really don't see that happening.

One just has to look deeper into the numbers to see what is happening.  Most companies are beating expectations because of the bottom line, not the top line.  That is, their revenues are not that strong.  They manage to meet earnings because they have controlled their costs effectively.  This should be a good sign because it will allow companies to use operating leverage if the economy recovers.  Sales will grow faster than the cost structure meaning that companies will be very profitable on their way out.

But this assumes the economy is going to recover soon.  Look at what happened last time.  We came out of the problems we had by creating another asset bubble.  Housing.  By keeping interest rates low and allowing questionable lending practices, the government was  able to paper over the previous problems with brand new problems.  Of course, it took a few years to play out but like all deferred problems, the new ones were much much worse.  Further, the jobs that disappeared with the tech bust never really came back, they just reallocated.  We had a "jobless" recovery last time.  Many of the high paying tech jobs never came back.  Some were replaced by good paying real estate jobs but by all accounts more good jobs were lost than were made.

That is not going to happen here.  I just do not see us able to paper over the problems that we have now created.  They are too big.  The housing bubble will not be re-inflated so what will take its place?  Health care? Another tech bubble?  I honestly don't see anything even remotely resembling a recovery back to where we were. Companies are being very cautious when it comes to raising their cost.  For most companies, the biggest single cost is headcount and most will not be willing to increase this anytime soon.  Flat is the new up and I think more than a few companies will be willing to forgo higher revenues for a more predictable and low cost structure.

So we will see a long period of cautious companies.  Risk taking will be dampened.  This will mean that we will have an extended period of high unemployment.  This should have the effect of keeping any sort of earnings growth muted because most companies have cut to the bone at this point and will not see any more gains achieved from there.

How much more can it go from here?  Like all other market movements, I have no idea.  The market can stay stupid far longer than anyone can anticipate.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Has the California Dream Vanished?

I have been writing often about California lately.  I have done this mostly because there have been many things on my mind, not the least of which has been if it is really worth it to live in California.  For the most part I think it is.  I love most of the things that California has to offer and I have many ties to the area.  My family is here, I went to high school here, and I have a lot of friends in the area.  But I have lived in three of the four corners of the United States and can honestly say that I think I can make it work anywhere I go (with the possible exception of Alaska).

So if I love it here so much why would I consider leaving?  Well, California has been in the news a lot lately, most of it not too good.  There have been several articles wondering if the allure of California is fading.   With the budget crisis the way it is there is little doubt in my mind that a tax hike is around the corner.  Considering how high the tax burden already is, I am in no mood to see even more of my paycheck go out the window.  Unemployment is high and the opportunities for me in the area are somewhat limited.  While I like my current job, I don't know if I will be there five years from now so I am just planning ahead for what I will do down the road.

Of course one of my biggest problems with California will come to no surprise to my loyal readers.  The cost of housing.  It is still way to high.  Most of the homes in my area are still asking for $500,000.  They are nowhere near worth that.  But even if prices come down another 20%, the housing would still be overpriced.  On the eve of my marriage, I have to look at the situation and ask myself, "Is living in California worth reducing my standard of living?"

I know that I can make just as much salary wise in other parts of the country as I can here.  In fact, in many areas I might even have a distinct advantage given less competition for jobs.  So what is someone like me, a young successful mid-career professional supposed to do?  Do I continue to pay high taxes and live in a small rented apartment?  Or should I consider moving to a state like Texas which has a very low tax burden (no income tax at all) and very affordable housing?  I did a quick search in some of the bigger metropolitan areas like Houston and Austin and there are many houses that I could pay cash for.  For houses in the price range I want to spend, I could easily find a four or five bedroom house for what I could get a condo for here.

Yes, I know what the argument against is.  I would have to live in Texas.  But seriously, I'm sure it is not all that bad.  Most of the people I know from the area speak highly of it and would go back if the right opportunity came along.  I'm not saying I'm going to move there or anywhere in the next year, but it is something I would have to consider.  it is something I would have to consider even sooner if California did something stupid like raise taxes yet again.