Rate hike (05.11.06)

Once again, the Federal Open Market Committee decided to increase short term interest rates by 0.25% to 5%, the highest level in 5 years, and well above the 46 year low of 1% in 2003.  What does this mean for you?  

If you are in possession of extra money, this rate increase bodes well.  Investors will earn higher returns on funds held in interest bearing accounts, like a savings account, a certificate of deposit (CD) or a money market account.  I am currently earning a very satisfactory 4.15% rate on my ING savings account.  I strongly recommend that personal investors maintain a cash reserve of between three and six months worth of expenses in an easily accessible, risk-free account.  Even though you might earn less than if you invested in stocks, you will always have cash at hand in case of an emergency.  If you spend $1,667 a month in expenses, you should consider having $10,000 on hand.  At a rate of 4.15%, you will earn $415 a year, or about $34.50 a month, or about $1.14 a day.  This can add up fast.  Compound interest is a true wonder of the universe.  If you left your $10,000 to compound at 4.15% for 30 years, your emergency reserve would more than triple in value, becoming almost $34,000.

If you need to borrow money, this rate hike will tighten the screws on the money you owe to banks, credit cards, your mortgage and any other variable rate debt that you have.  This rate hike will increase your monthly payments, extend the term of your loan, or perhaps both.  Although 5% may seem like a low rate, most borrowers pay a much higher interest rate on their debt.  Many credit cards might charge delinquent customers a rate above 20%!  Even the most credit worthy consumers will pay more than 5%, perhaps 6-8% for a loan: Yahoo is suggesting that you can get a mortgage for 6.15%.  My only remaining debt, my student loans, will likely be affected when my annual rate adjustment occurs in July.  My current rate, around 5% will likely climb as high as 6% or more.  I should just pay that loan off already.

Inflationary concerns.  One reason that Ben Bernanke (and predecessor Alan Greenspan) and the Fed have continued to increase interest rates is to stem the rise of inflation.  Current estimates put inflation at around 3% annually (whoa! that means your 4.15% savings rate is really the bare minimum necessary to earn any money!) and others, like myself, feel that actual inflation in the prices of goods for which we we pay is higher.  (Gas prices, electricity prices, home heating oil,  anyone?)  In any event, further rate increases from the Fed indicate that inflation may still be on the rise (bad) while a halt in the increases might indicate either that inflation is in check, or that the Fed (wisely) wants to measure the cumulative effects of its prior increases before taking the baseline of interest rates any higher. 

Interest rates that are too high stifle the economy by preventing companies from borrowing money at a reasonable rate.  Balancing the conflicting interests of inflation and stagnation (or worse, stag-flation) is a challenging task.  So, reader poll: In six weeks, when the Fed meets again to discuss interest rates, will they INCREASE rates again, HOLD rates steady, or LOWER rates?  Bonus poll: what do you think the accurate measure of current inflation is? 

Locker selection etiquette (05.10.06)

[The following thoughts are largely mine, and I feel very adamantly about this, but I must give proper credit to Dave Barry, who discussed a similar concept with regard to urinals. Test your urinal etiquette here.]

I was at the gym just now, and went about my typical routine.  I present my member ID card, they ask about towels, I say "one of each" indicating that I want a large and small towel.  (Those of you who do not get small sweat towels and wipe off exercise equipment should be ashamed of yourselves...)  I then proceed to the locker room where I go about the very important task of selecting a locker. 

Why is this task so important?  Good question.  Perhaps even more than urinal selection, picking a locker that is far enough away from other members is critical, and to not do so is a serious faux pas.  In the locker room, people change clothes, walk around in towels, load and unload gym bags, apply personal hygiene products, etc. etc.  The lockers at a typical gym are narrow, have no space between them, and often exist with two lockers stacked in the same vertical space.

Most lockers are much more narrow than even the skinniest member, and two lockers exist in the same vertical space that will be more than occupied by a single member.  As such, it is vital that gym-goers select a locker that will maximize the space between both members currently in the locker room, and those that may return from their workout at any moment.

Rule 1a:  Never, ever select a locker next to a member who is present in the locker room.  Just don't do it.

Rule 1b:  Never, ever select a locker next to a locker that has a padlock on it.  The other member could return from the shower or their work out at any time.

Rule 1c:  Always place a lock on your locker.  If you do not, you tempt thieves AND you prevent other members from practicing proper locker etiquette.

Rule 2:  Leave at least 1 locker width between you and any other occupied locker.  Attempt to leave odd numbers of locker widths between you and occupied lockers, so that other member can also have "buffer lockers"  if it becomes busy enough to require using the lockers you intentionally left empty.  

Rule 3:  If it becomes absolutely necessary to use a locker adjacent to an occupied locker, try to select the opposite vertical position, i.e. if the occupied locker is the top locker, select the adjacent bottom locker.

Rule 4a:  It should be noted that most locker rooms are large enough so that members should never HAVE to use adjacent lockers. However, if you wind up in this unfortunate situation with another member, you should excuse yourself as you gain access to your locker, remove your necessary items, and change at least 2 locker widths from the heathen that failed to properly select his/her locker.

Rule 4b:  Though it may be tempting to cast irritated glances at another member, be very very careful not to violate locker room "staring" etiquette. 

 

Art (05.07.06)

I had the pleasure of attending Somerville's Open Studio this weekend.  Of particular note was Dorothy's studio.  I visited Dorothy on both days, and was pleased to see both that she has produced some excellent new work, and that many people, including buyers, were coming around.  It feels a little weird to be proud of your friends, but its true: Dorothy has created some really excellent artwork.  I also visited several other studios while I was in Dot's building, and saw an excellent assortment of works including some cool stained glass work, and some large format photos.  Even more, I found an artist who had done some excellent black and white ink and pencil sketches.  I bought two of them.  One sketch is of a man smoking a cigarette.  The ink color is an excellent contrast to the hue of the paper, which is casually folded to make the piece tall (rather than wide) and which adds some excellent white space.  The other is of a woman looking out on the viewer.  This sketch is drawn with pencil using mostly horizontal strokes and has excellent chiaroscuro.  I'll be taking them to FrameMakers for framing sometime soon.  I will post scans of the sketches as soon as I pick them up from the artist, Matthew Rochon.

Halfway between Erie and Pittsburgh... (05.05.06)

Ok, ok, I was in Erie, not halfway to Pittsburgh.  I just had the pleasure of visiting my sister Meredith at Mercyhurst College.  I drove out with my mother and father on Wednesday, and back again on Friday.  It was a long time in the car for a rather short visit, but it was totally worth it.  Here are a few observations from the trip.

Cost of living: I am fairly complacent these days about the COL here in Boston.  I drink $5 beers and $12 martinis without batting an eye.  Haircuts are $30, massage is $72/hour, and the house that I would like to purchase will cost $600,000 at a minimum.  We stopped on Wednesday night in Rome, NY, a small city about 5 miles from the New York Thruway  (even though it is 4 hours from Erie, Rome is on the Erie Canal).  After checking in to a rather iffy motel, we walked across the street to the Flashback Sports Bar, where we had dinner.  My dad had clams that he claimed were excellent and my mother enjoyed a grilled chicken dish and each had a beer.  I of course had fries, and five beers.  When I finally settled up the tab at the end of the night, I was certain that the waitress had made a mistake: the bill was for $21.85.  Now, Labatt's may not be the best beer, but it isn't exactly High Life either.  I can't remember the last time I bought dinner for three and seven beers in Boston for anything less than $50.  I left a $9 tip since I felt so weird about paying so little.

Red Sox: When I asked the bartender at the sports bar to change the channel to the Sox game, I got a strange look; and several patrons cast a dubious look in my direction. What the hell?  Ok, so I just forgot that I had crossed into a land where Yankees/Mets fans outnumber Sox fans 100-1. It was still weird.

Bittersweet Motel: Our hotel in Erie was much nicer than the Rome motel.  It was no Ritz or Four Seasons, and it certainly wasn't the Sahara Hotel and Casino.  But for $114 a night, we had a very sizeable room, parking, pool, gym and a portable office (which turned out to be important since I had to do work on the trip).  Best of all, the hotel offered FREE (!) wireless internet and FREE (!!) incoming and outgoing faxes.  I certainly enjoyed these comforts.

Working Class Town: According to Meredith, Erie has more bars per capita than any other city in the US.  And given the prices, this might actually make Erie seem like a cool place to be.  But seriously, one of the town highlights in a store called Beer-4-Less.  Erie is very strip-mall oriented.  There are parts of town with lovely old American-industrial architecture (both houses and commercial properties) but there are a lot of old run down factories, abandoned buildings, and decrepit houses.  I wouldn't begrudge anyone for residing in Erie, but I don't think I would actively seek to spend more time there.  Meredith also claims that Erie is the "Fattest city" in the US, a claim that doesn't quite square with Andrew Connell's claim that Butler, PA is in fact the fattest town in all the land.  Either way, local residents of Erie are, um, rather large on average.  With favorite restaurants including such places as the Quaker Steak and Lube, I can't be surprised.  

Meredith:  My sister has found an excellent group of friends in Erie, (drinkers!) and seems to be doing quite well as her junior year draws to a close.  Her violin performance in the orchestra (which we saw) was quite impressive.  Excellent work, Mere.  

Giving money to strangers (05.03.06)

I have long had an internal debate about giving money to strangers.  In Boston, the homeless and indigent are everywhere, shaking old coffee cups with a few pennies inside.  Some of these people say nothing, others have signs detailing their tails of woe (homeless by fire, lost legs in Vietnam), some claim to be sober.  The final sales pitch is always the same though: "Got any spare change?"  It's rare that I don't actually have some change in my pocket, but I have myriad reasons to not give it away: they'll just use it to buy some vodka; it's not enough to do any good; I earned this money, why should I just give it to you?  Call me selfish, but I give money to charities, so I don't feel overly stingy with the wealth that I have been so fortunate to earn.

 Separate and apart from handing out Argent de Poche to someone standing on a street corner, is a more interesting experience I have been having more recently.  Several times now, I have been approached on the street by someone claiming to be in distress, and asking not for a couple of quarters but for some SERIOUS dollars.  

The hospital story: About a year ago I had my first experience with this scenario.  I was walking briskly from the red line to North Station, where I was to meet my mother before going out for dinner.  As I was walking past Mass General, a large man ran up to me out of breath and launched into a long story, the short version of which is this: The guy parked outside MGH, his car was towed, inside the car was his wallet and all of his cash and personal shizzle.  Now he needs cash to take the train to the impound lot which is off in some far away land, and cash to pay the impound people since he doesn't have his wallet.  The guy is pretty slick, knows that I don't have $80 cash on me, and also knows that there is an ATM directly inside the hospital.  I can take his info, and he'll take mine, and I can even take his diamond ring as collateral.

What a story!  And what a dilemma!

On the one hand, if I was actually in this situation (and I recently locked myself out of the house with no keys, wallet, t-pass, credit cards, nothing) I would probably be hopeful that enough human goodwill might exist to help me through such a situation.  And of course I have enough goodwill that I would pay back any good soul who assisted me.  But on the other hand, how dumb do you think I am!?  Should I believe this cock and bull story?  Should I allow a stranger to lead me to an ATM, withdraw cash, give it to him, and then get back on the sidestreet along which I was walking?

 I made it all the way inside MGH before I realized that I was probably making a very risky choice by even considering helping this man.  My $80 is at stake, my ATM card is at stake, my personal safety may be at stake.  I told the guy that I was sorry, but this situation just made me uncomfortable, and I turned to walk out, now late to meet my mom.  The guy continues to follow me.  To ask me for anything I can offer him.  I started to worry a little.  Would this guy assault me as I walked away?  I debated breaking into a run and just hightailing it.  Instead, I handed the guy $20, told him it was all I could do, and made fast for the train station.

I won't give a homeless guy 50 cents, but I handed this man $20!  Granted, these circumstances were different...  For what it's worth, I never got my $20 back.  I don't know if I was swindled (I suspect that I was) or whether the whole incident frazzled the guy enough that he forgot about me.

Comfort level and prejudice.

The guy above was african-american, 30ish, built, and the situation and location all put me out of my usual element, and I my choices were not made in a typical rational/logical fashion.  But what if I had been outside my office, and the man in question a short, 60-year-old, white guy in a Brooks Brothers sport coat?  Would I have withdrawn and handed over $80?  Would I have felt any differently if I didn't my cash back?

The neighborhood story:  In the last several months, I have been approached by another man twice within about 3 blocks of my apartment.  His story is similar: Locked out of his house without keys, wallet, anything.  Wife was in an accident in Springfield and he needs to get there ASAP.  He forgot all his shizzle when he ran to the car in his upset state of mind.  Can I spot him $20 for train fare?  He only lives a few blocks away and will pay me back after his ordeal.

This man is white, 50, normal build, and dressed like he was lounging around the house.  I hesitate, reflect on my previous experience, and tell him that I can't help, but that I hope his wife is okay.  He doesn't like that answer and follows me as I walk past him.  Then I realize: this man is seriously drunk.  He is stumbling, and he did smell a little of rum.  I told him to bugger off.

The same guy hit me up outside the supermarket just the other night.  He offered to use his credit card to buy my groceries if I would pay him slightly less money is cash--his wife had just been in an accident in Springfield and he needed train fare pronto.  I told him that he should use his stolen credit card to get whiskey money elsewhere with someone else.

The implications for goodwill.

Especially now that my trust has been violated, I feel like I would never offer assistance to any stranger in a situation as described above.  But this is sort of a sad testament to the state of humans, a boy who cried wolf story that has ruined my ability to help a person in distress.  Can't we all just get along?  Am I crazy to feel this way?  Does anyone have a suggestion about how to square charity and goodwill with the risk of being swindled?

 

5-02-02 (05.02.06)

Happy Kenny P. Day and 5-02-02!  Cheer and beverages are in order.  It gives me great pleasure to send good tidings to all of my friends, especially those who are members of the C&C, on this most special holiday. (05-03-06 Update: that was a lot of Cutty.)  

 Colbert rocks the press corp (05.01.06)

Stephen Colbert, of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, had the last laugh at the White House Correspondents dinner on Saturday.  Colbert's 20+ minute segment was less "comic" and more scathing and pointed.  In fact he "told the truth. Jaws dropped. Eyes popped. The live audience gasped."  You can watch a video of the dinner, which also includes some classic footage of President Bush and an impersonator.  I'll let Colbert's commentary on the state our country and the current presidency stand on its own: he really nailed this opportunity to be less of a funny-man and more a writer, investigator, and presenter of news stories.

 Parents sue town over "Gay" curriculum (04.28.06)

Ok, so I don't usually read The Metro, the free local AP wire 'newspaper,' but I do grab it for the free Sudoku puzzle.  Today, the cover story caught my eye, a brief piece on a couple from Lexington, MA who are suing the town, the school board, the superintendent, the school, the principal, the teacher, and several other individuals at the school all because their child's class received and have been reading a storybook "that depicts gay relationships."  Separate and apart from the unfortunate manner in which people settle grievances in our country these days (everyone sues everbody), this outrageous display of hate and intolerance is quite disturbing and disheartening.  

Ok, so the plaintiff is David Parker (and his wife) who has been JAILED for prior school/homophobia-related issues.  He feels that the school has been "indoctrinating [his] children in a lifestyle that [he] finds immoral."  The school, of course, disagrees, claiming that "they have no agenda and have done nothing illegal."  What are the main issues here?

1. Mr. Parker needs a serious attitude adjustment.  This sort of blatant prejudice doesn't do anyone any good, and is in fact quite harmful.  But he is entitled to his own private opinion.  He can choose to live a heterosexual lifestyle, and can even privately teach his "values" to his kid if he desires.  He can even "opt his child out" of a school program by moving someplace where his sort of values are more likely to be espoused (like Texas, Utah, or Wyoming.)

2. This attitude that anything in a school's curriculum constitutes "indoctrination" (def 1. to instruct in a body of doctrine or principles; 2. To imbue with a partisan or ideological point of view) is crazy.  If Mr. Parker isn't the definition of "partisan" or "idealogue" I'm not sure who is.  Also, I guess I would be upset if schools were encouraging my children [note: I do not actually have children] to espouse Nazism, I would be quite upset.  However, I would be just as upset if World War II and the holocaust were eliminated from the curriculum.  But even this example is not quite on point, since being gay is NOT wrong or immoral in the first place.  By Mr. Parker's standards, our schools shouldn't have students reading stories that tell the tale of an evil villain, or include acts of violence, or contain hurtful language.  I guess students won't be reading the text of his suit either.

3. Everyone named in the suit is behaving like a pansy!  They all claim that they have done nothing illegal.  They do not indicate that this guy is a whack job or that there can be nothing wrong with including gay material in the classroom.  This is another sadly pervasive mentality in our culture: people seem unwilling to take a stand on important issues for fear of offending someone or winding up being liable in a lawsuit.  The result is that far more harm and offense occurs as a result of the inaction.

4. This guy is a whack job!  For all the above reasons.  There is nothing wrong with presenting gay material in the classroom!  AND: if this guy thinks his suit (which was filed in the US District Court in Boston) is going to prevail in Massachusetts, he's got another thing coming.

Lessons to be learned: People need to stand up together for the defense of basic human rights that are threatened by hateful people like Mr. Parker.  We cannot remain silent about violations of these rights, because even if Mr. Parker's suit does not prevail, he has made his point, and no one is openly or directly debating the heart of his claims.  It should be patently obvious that while ignorance may be bliss, it is also the root of so much the hate and unrest that has occurred in this country.  Having schools include more in their curriculum is almost always going to be better than less.  Not all states are created equal: I guess that's part of what makes the US such a potentially great place.  Next time you consider moving, take a look at your own values and how various states' interests align with your own. 

Let's go sailing! (04.27.06)

The weather finally seems to be heading into actual springtime mode.  After a couple of (excellent) teaser days with 70 degree temps, the cold and rain has made outdoor activities such as drinking, sitting on the porch, and sitting on the porch drinking, among other things, quite impractical.  

It has also made sailing quite undesireable.  Ok, ok, I'm a fair weather sailor.  It happens.  So get in touch and make me go sailing with you.  If you live in Boston, you should consider join Community Boating at your earliest convenience.  Let the red flag days roll!

 ZEP and ZAP are hott (04.25.06)

I've recently picked up some classic Frank Zappa albums.  While I still feel like some of his tunes are a little too "out there" and incoherent, I have come to appreciate a lot of his musical creativity and, more importantly, the "Jam" dynamic of the band.  Zappa was just awarded the lifetime achievement "Jammy" award.  Pick up the album "Hot Rats" for some cool examples.  The disc opens with Peaches en Regalia, a personal fave, and then rocks out from there.

 I've been cranking through some favorite albums on the iPod recently too, and have been reminded about just how hot Led Zeppelin is.  Keith and I played Good Times Bad Times during our jam session on Sunday "Good times, bad times, you know I've had my share / Well my woman left home with a brown-eyed man, and I still don't seem to care."  And I also played through Zep III, a totally underrated disc.  Of particular note should be the blues powerhouse Since I've Been Loving You.  This song just totally wails for a solid 7 minutes.  "One more time!  Just one more time!  Since I've been loving you, I'm about to lose my worried mind."

 Bank Password Security

I'm pretty well fed up with the hodge-podge of security measures that exist for online banking.  At my Citizens Bank online page, I have to log in using my 16-digit ATM card number and password, which can be  any combination of numbers, as long as it has at least four digits.  Those that know me well are aware that I have my card number memorized,  but I still think that entering a 16-digit login is a little over the top.  Moreover, who wants to have their credit card number flashed on their screen every time the check in at the bank?  A rep from Citizens informs me that I can SAVE my card number on the website, to avoid entering it each time I log in.  Thanks but no thanks.  About a year ago, I opened up a savinges account with ING Direct.  (Wanna get $25 for nothing?  Email me, ccweir at gmail.com.)  This bank is pretty awesome since it currently offers 4.0% APY, FDIC insured.  How awesome is its security?  When I first started at ING, they made me enter my account number (8 digits), PIN (4-digits), and security question (year of birth, zip code, some digits from SSN, etc).  Is the bullshit security question all that necessary?  I don't really think so.  Maybe ING should allow their customers to select a PIN that includes letters/symbols and is longer than 4 characters.  Even though I love how much money I make at ING, they made the login EVEN WORSE.  Now, I have to enter the account number and security question as before; the PIN is the same 4-digit crap, but instead of typing it in, I have to enter it using my mouse on a visual keypad.  I hate using the mouse.  Total BS.  It gets even better.  I just opened a new account with Emigrant Direct, which has historically offered APYs on FDIC insured accounts about 0.5% higher than ING (current rate, 4.5% APY).  These guys let me select my own login, which MUST be 8-12 characters and include at least 2 letters and 2 numbers.  My password must fit the same bill, AND MUST BE CHANGED EVERY 90 DAYS!  These companies need to come up with some happy medium of solid security that doesn't take me 27 minutes to log in, or require me to change my password if I choose not to.

 Luna 

I've been thinking a lot about the band Luna recently.  My reinfatuation is due in part to the new/old album I just picked up: "Penthouse."  Buy it, it's awesome.  The other part is clearly Britta (see Figure 1.)  

Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips have continued to create and release music.  Check out their website for more info.  There is a new album coming out soon.  Also, pick up a copy of L'avventura, their first effort.

FIGURE 1. There is just no denying the hottness.