Friday, December 14, 2007

Banks DON'T want to help you

OK, this is a bit of a rant but I'm a bit frustrated with banks right now.  They have all of these cute commercials about how they want to help you achieve your goals.  The truth is that they don't.  They don't want to help you, they want your money.  They'll say and do whatever they need to get it but that's what they're really after.

Bank policies are based on how much income they get from their customers.  They will charge you for anything they can get away with.  There are fees for everything.  They also encourage you to borrow money for anything you want.  I recently saw an ad for a medical credit card encouraging customers to use their credit to get plastic surgery.  This is a card that charges about 17% interest.  Oh and that's another thing: interest.

It seems to me that interest rates are backwards.  Those that need money the most seem to be charged the highest interest rates while those that already have a lot of money are charged less.  That doesn't seem right.  However, it's business.  It's all about risk.  Those who don't have a lot of money are a greater risk so, by charging higher interest, banks insure that they make their money back sooner.  That way if a lender can't finish paying, the bank has a greater chance of having already made back what it loaned (which won't stop it from bleeding every last penny it can from the borrower).

Credit card companies are the worst.  They start by charging huge interest rates and then it gets better.  If you miss a payment (or are just a little late) they reserve the right to bump your interest rate up to as high as 30%.  A company that really wanted to help would work with borrowers that are having financial difficulties.  Instead, credit card companies charge you more fees and higher interest as though their goal is to make sure it takes forever to pay off your balance.  Oh wait, maybe that is their goal...

I guess the moral of this rant is never to trust a lender.  So remember, always read the fine print, understand the terms, and don't borrow unless you have to.  Above all, be very careful.  Banks are NOT trying to help you, they're trying to profit from your needs/wants.  

Thursday, October 04, 2007

My new favorite car is a ... MINIVAN?!

Something must be wrong with me. All my life I've been a car enthusiast. I've been enamoured with cars like BMWs, the Dodge Viper, Ferraris, the Mazda RX8, some of the new Mercedes, etc. In the last few years, I've also really appreciated the Mini Cooper, the Chrysler PT Cruiser (which I am lucky enough to own), and even the new Honda Civic.

Through the years, all sorts of cars have spent time as my "favorite" car. Mostly sports cars and classy luxury cars. Cars with edgy designs and high performance. However, I have somehow found myself really impressed with a minivan. A MINIVAN! Can you believe it. I never would have expected it even a couple of weeks ago. However, this minivan is cool!



It's the new Chrysler Town and Country. What makes it cool? It's the perfect family road trip vehicle. Let me explain. It has swivel seats in the middle row (so the seat turn to face the back seats) and a table you can set up - anyone up for cards or a board game on your next trip? It has a dual screen video system (a screen for the middle row and one for the back row) that can each play a different display. It has console hookups for the screens so the middle row can watch a movie (complete with wireless headphones) while the back row plays games and the front row enjoys not hearing the kids complain. But wait, it gets better, not only does it have satellite radio, but it has satellite TV as well. Don't want to watch a movie, you can watch TV instead. How's that for cool. Got young kids? The seats convert to booster seats - no more car seats to worry about (well, unless you've got toddlers or younger). It has a sound system with a 20 GB hard drive for storing MP3s and a touch screen interface. It has second row power windows. It has 3-zone climate control. It has a third row seat that flips back to become a seat for looking out the back of the van. It has a backup camera so you can see what's behind you. It will even tell you if one of your tires is low. This thing is amazing!

So, here I am thinking about how cool it would be to have this minivan. I guess my family has really taken over my life. Now stuff for the family is as cool as stuff for me. This is a car that would be fun for me, fun for the kids, have super-cool tech stuff, and not be the least bit ostentatious. It's the perfect vehicle.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Trying a new Security Software Suite

Although I'm not a big fan of Windows, I still have a couple of Windows computers that I use. Well, there's my wife's laptop and one of my desktops (that I dual boot into Windows every now and then). Anyways, whether you've one Windows desktop or many, you need security software. There are just too many viruses, trojans, etc. out there to avoid it. I had been using Microsoft's Windows Live OneCare but I just switched to Kaspersky Internet Security Suite. Why? I'll tell you.

Windows Live OneCare is not a bad system as far as usability goes. It installs easily, isn't intrusive, and has a neat color-coded icon in your system tray that shows the level of protection you've currently got. I found it easy to use and it didn't bog my system down. As much as I dislike Microsoft, I've got to give them an A+ on their user interface. It's great.

Sure, it's not perfect. On one of my computers, it always showed that I was only partially protected because I didn't upgrade to IE 7 (the reason I didn't upgrade is that I use IE 6 for testing the web sites that I develop). That's annoying. It also would give confusing messages every now and then. Also annoying. It also disabled by VPN client so I could only log in to work with my Linux client.  Annoying but not too bad since I almost always VPN from Linux anyway. However, for the most part, it performed well and I didn't have to watch it to know it was working. Very nice for me.

In fact, it's so great that it was hard to leave. However, when looking at recent reviews of security software, I found that OneCare just doesn't measure up to other suites. For example, tests run by av-comparatives showed OneCare only catching 90.37% of the security threats while Kaspersky caught 98.46% (even worse was cnet which had OneCare only catching 82% of the threats they tested with it). In fact, over the last year, I wasn't able to find a single review that thought OneCare was top tier in terms of effectiveness. So I reluctantly went shopping for another security suite.

I looked at Norton but it has so many negative reviews. Yes it's effective but it seems to lock up peoples machines, use huge amounts of system resources, and it's almost impossible to remove. Not good. McAfee seems to have useability issues as well as effectiveness issues (although still better than OneCare). Then I found Kaspersky.

Kaspersky rates highly in effectiveness (as I mentioned earlier, it found 98.46% of viruses, etc. in a recent security review) and I never found the mass of complaints that seem to plague the other major security vendors. So when I found a copy of it for free (after mail-in rebate), I decided to go for it.

I have found in the last week of using it, that Kaspersky is easy to use, gives a lot more detail than OneCare ever did and it doesn't break my VPN client (which is very nice).  I do miss the color-coded icon but apart from that, I'm quite pleased.  We'll see how it does long term but, so far, I'm encouraged.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Finally a Fair Tax!

Maybe it's not all it's cracked up to be but folks over at fairtax.org have what looks to me like a long overdue fix to our horrible tax system. Their premise is that it would be far easier (simpler to define, simpler to run, simpler to monitor) to tax consumption rather than income. In other words, have a federal sales tax replace the federal income tax.

To me this has the following advantages:

  • No more filing tax returns (except for those states that have income tax).

  • No more taxes on savings. The more you save, the less taxes you pay.

  • The tax base is expanded from those who have legal work to everybody that buys stuff. This includes illegals, tourists, etc. Basically anybody who buys stuff in the US.

  • Makes the US more business friendly. No more worrying about corporate income tax. No need to incorporate offshore to avoid taxes.

  • Lower prices. The current income tax is built into the prices of our products. If you buy an apple, the price includes income tax for the worker that picked the apple, the farmer, the people transporting the apple, the grocery store, and the grocery store employees. The income tax already touches everything we purchase; the fair tax just makes it more transparent.

  • It's simple. One flat tax rate for everything. No complex system requiring an army of lawyers and accountants to understand. Plus it would end the IRS as we know it and save the government billions (I think the US spends $300 billion per year to run the IRS).

  • On top of all that, there will also be a monthly prebate of spending up to the poverty level. This way the tax is not a burden on the poor.


I think it's a great idea and, until somebody shows me how it wouldn't work, I think it would help the country immensely.

What do you think?

Global Warming?

Global warming has become quite an issue lately. Temperatures are rising but that seems to be just about all anybody can prove. There are so many slogans and sound bites on global warming that it's hard to tell what's really going on. Well, here's my opinion:

The problem with global warming is that it is a very complex issue that too many people are trying to oversimplify (including Al Gore). The real "inconvenient truth" is that we simply don't know enough to make some of the judgements that are being made.

Is global warming happening? Yes. I doubt you'll really find anyone knowledgable on the subject that doesn't think it's happening. That's the easy question.

Are humans causing it? Nobody really knows. There is some evidence that human activity plays a part in it. However, the data doesn't show the extent. Are we causing 90% of global warming or 1%. We simply don't know. There isn't enough data.

Is catastrophic climate change on the horizon? Again, we don't know. The complex climate models that everybody seems to think are accurate predictors aren't. The fact is that these climate predictors can't take 1990 data and accurately predict 2000 weather/climate. Yet everybody seems to trust that it's accurate at predicting the climate for 2050. Once again, we need more accurate information.

The real problem with global warming is that we really don't know anything concrete apart from the fact that it's happening. In 1975, Newsweek published an article that claimed global COOLING was going to cause all sorts of environmental disasters. I guess that scare was short lived.

My personal opinion is that the pollutants/greenhouse gases that we are pumping into the atmosphere are, at best, a health hazard to all those living in large cities (asthma, respiratory infections, shorter lifespans, etc) and at worst, an enviromental disaster. So whether or not we're causing global warming will probably always be up for debate but whether or not we should clean up our emissions should not be. I'm all for cleaning up our air. If we do it because of "global warming" then great, if we do for the health of our children then great. It's a win win situation.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Cleaner air... with a lawn mower?


Who would have thought that you could clean the air with a lawn mower? OK, more specifically, my lawn mower simply doesn't pollute the air, after all, every little bit helps. How did I pull it off? I got an electric mower. It's really cool!

SRP, one of the local power companies, runs an annual event where you can trade in your old lawn mower and get $100 off of a new electric lawn mower. Being both a tech nut and being concerned about the environment (yes, I really am!), I jumped at the chance. So, a couple of weeks ago, I got myself a new mower and got rid of my old mower. It was good to get rid of that old thing because, somewhere in the move to Arizona (5 years ago) the gas tank cracked. So not only did burn gas but it leaked gas and made the whole garage smell like gas for a couple of days after mowing. Yeah, I was ready to get rid of it. The only downside of my new mower is that it's a plug-in. The battery powered ones cost $150 more and, with a lawn as small as mine, it just wasn't worth it. So now I'm the proud owner of a Black and Decker MM875 electric mower. How cool is that?

Of course the first thing I had to do when I got home was mow the lawn. Immediately I noticed something about my new mower, my extension cord isn't long enough for the whole lawn. So I had to hook two together. Not a big deal The next thing was how easy to use the electric mower is. No filling the gas tank, no priming the engine, and no pull-string starter. I just pulled a little lever and the mower started right up. Very nice. Not only that but the mower is MUCH quieter than my old gas mower. In fact, I almost felt more like I was vacuuming than mowing (especially with having to watch out for the power cord). On the power side, the electric works great. I had no problem mowing down those tall weeds that sneak into my lawn - especially if you haven't mowed it for a few months - and the mowed lawn looks great (well, except for all of the bare spots but that's not the mower's fault).

All in all, I'm very happy with my new mower. For my small lawn it does a great job and it's less of a hassle than a gas mower.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Which Web Portal: Google or Yahoo?

I don't like searching for my information. I don't want to go to 10 different web sites for national news, political news, tech news, comics, etc. With the advent of rss feeds, I was able to get headlines from my favorite web sites and that was good. However, I use a lot of different computers (at work, at home, sometimes at other people's houses) so I needed a good web-based rss reader, or more specifically, I was looking for a web portal.

Now I'm not your average web surfer. I needed my portal to compatible across several platforms. I regularly use Windows, Mac OS, Xandros Linux, and openSUSE Linux so the web portal had to work on just about any operating system. I'm also a huge fan of the Opera web browser. I know this isn't the choice for everyone but I love its speed, its interface, its mouse gestures, its email client, and especially its ad blocking. So I was looking for an Opera friendly, multiple operating system web portal. Oh, and it had to be easy to set up and use.

When I found Yahoo's portal (http://my.yahoo.com), I was delighted. It allowed me to personalize it to get rss feeds from all of my favorite sights. Not only that, it added neat features like a custom TV Listings section that let me see what's going to be on my TV this evening. It also tracked stocks I was interested in, showed the weather, gave me some of the daily comics that I like to read, and even added calendaring and yahoo maps to the mix. I especially liked that it allowed me to set several tabs to organize my feeds, etc. into different sections. It's simple, useful, and very configurable. Best of all, it works with Opera on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS. It was almost perfect... almost...

There are several little issues that annoyed me with Yahoo's portal. The graphical ads are everywhere and very annoying. Luckily Opera's ad blocker shuts them out pretty well but Yahoo keeps sneaking new ones in. It's really bad if I ever go there using Firefox, Safari, or Internet Explorer; I almost can't use it. Also, it can't get information from any Yahoo Groups that I'm a member of or make any connection to Yahoo 360 for blogging. Also very annoying is that every now and then they change the site just enough so that something breaks on Opera. Basically it works (usually) on Opera but Opera is not a supported browser.

Then I found Google's portal (http://www.google.com and click on "personalize this page" in the top right corner). This seemed to have most everything that Yahoo has and all without the annoying ads. I decided to give it a try. I found the interface very nice and clean. I like being able to drag and drop sections; that's really cool. Google also has tons of widgets (called gadgets) for doing all sorts of things from weather, to games, to maps, to links to other search engines like dictionary.com or wikipedia.com, to just about anything. It even integrated my GMail account so that my inbox showed right up on the portal home page. I like its weather gadget better than Yahoo's and I prefer Google maps to Yahoo's. It's almost perfect... almost...

The first issue I notices is that it sets up specific gadgets for rss feeds. This means that if the gadget wasn't set up, I couldn't get the feed. I fixed this by finding a generic rss feed gadget that would take any feed. The second this is that it won't show the article synopsis under the headline. This was annoying but not a show-stopper. However, the TV listings gadget was aweful. I'd never use it and that poses a problem. Another real problem is that its Opera compatibility is limited. I noticed that, in Opera, usually the feeds don't all load the first time I load the page and I have to refresh it to get the rest. I've also noticed that with all the cool features, it's also really slow. It takes easily twice as long to load as Yahoo's web portal.

So which one is better? Well neither. Or both. I can't decide. I think if you're surfing without an ad blocker, definately go with Google. Avoiding those ads makes the experience MUCH nicer. Personally, I'll be staying with Yahoo for a while longer. It's faster, I like the format a little bit more, and it's TV listings gadget/widget/whatever is WAY better than Googles. However, if I'm ever surfing with a browser other than Opera, it's Google all the way.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Cleaner air in AZ

It's nice to know that there are forward thinkers in government. Arizona has just revamped its alternative fuel vehicles statute. Now, instead of bi-fuel vehicles (cars that run on gas OR an alternative fuel) being able to use the HOV/carpool lanes, only cars with a 45% or better fuel efficiency qualify. Right now that means the Honda Insight or Civic Hybrid or the Toyota Prius.

Finally we'll get the huge SUVs with single drivers out of the HOV lanes. Many people purchased these SUVs because of an ill conceived Arizona law that subsidized the purchase if you altered it to run on gas or an alternative fuel. So a bunch of people collected big subsidies to buy their new SUVs and now run in the HOV lanes even though they're burning gas. Oops! Well, that's finally been fixed and now the alternative fuels statute is a high efficiency statute.

It may be a small step forward, but it's a step all the same.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Exxon Makes $36 Billion in Profits!

The big news is that Exxon-Mobile made a $36 billion profit. There has been outcry from people all over the country that it's sick and wrong for an oil company to make that much money. Hillary Clinton was even quoted as saying that the government should take it and use it for alternative energy development. Everybody is eager blame the oil companies or "Big Oil" for all of our problems. Unfortunately, it's not true.

The problem isn't Exxon, it isn't our government, it isn't the middle east; our problem is us. We've somehow come to the belief that we're entitled to cheap oil the same way we're entitled to free speech. How is it that we blame everybody else for our problems. It's the oil companies, it's the government, etc. We're like drug addicts complaining about how rich the cartels are. We GAVE them our money!

If we want to do something about it, we need to get OURSELVES off of our oil addiction first. Sure we can't do it entirely because our economy is dependant on it, but we can do some things. We can buy cars that use less gasoline like hybrids, flex fuel cars, electric cars (and/or plug-in hybrids). We can carpool, walk, ride bikes, etc. instead of driving wherever we go. We can conserve energy, get solar panels and/or solar water heaters. We can get rid of our gas powered mowers and leaf blowers and get electric ones (or even a good old fashioned hand mower).

Not only that, we can lobby our local and state governments to improve our options. Maybe increase tax breaks for solar panels or improve the express bus system or speed up commuter rail development (I live in the Phoenix area). They could write some intelligent legislation on alternative fuels. There's a lot we can do and, if the people were clamoring for it, our government would eventually get it done. That's how it works.

Unfortunately we won't do it. After all, controling ourselves and changing our lifestyles is HARD! We want somebody else to do it. We want lower pollution, less dependence on oil, more renewable energy, etc. but we don't want to sacrifice for it. We want handed to us on a silver platter and in such a way that our lifestyle stays the same. That's why it may never happen.

If all we do is sit around and gripe about it. Well then, nothing happens. Don't just complain, do something about it. Could I do better? Sure, but I'm not the one complaining.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

State of The Union

I watched President Bush's State of The Union last night and personally thought that it was one of his best speeches. Instead of spending the whole time trying to get people fired up for the war in Iraq, he spent most of the time on domestic items. I was impressed by his ideas and, if implemented well, I think that they will do some good.

His tax exemption for healthcare will allow millions of people who don't have employer supplied healthcare to purchase their own and have it count as a deduction (it's currently not a deduction if you pay for your own insurance). I think it's a good step forward. It's a bit of a risk as some who pay a lot for insurance may have to pay some taxes on their premiums. On the other hand it may help keep premiums down since people won't want to pay more than what's tax deductable.

I also liked the idea of reducing malpractice suits and of streamlining medical records. Both of those could reduce medical costs and thus insurance premiums.

His goal to cut gasoline consumption by 20% is admirable and I sincerely hope we can pull it off. Increasing ethanol (E85) usage as well as improving hybrid and plug-in hybrid technology have great benefits for the environment as well as the economy (think about the billions of dollars that would stay in the US if we produced all of our own fuel).

I like his commitment to education. I know "No Child Left Behind" is controversial but if math and science scores are improving, I think that's a very good thing. I also think there should be competition among schools. If a school isn't performing well, we should be able to pull our kids out and put them into a better school.

I like his stand on immigration reform and hope that can get passed. I was especially impressed when he stated that there should be an easy test for businesses to determine immigration status. If we can get a system that's easy to implement and easy to audit/enforce, then we can cut off jobs for illegals. Then they'll either get legal status or go home. Either way, it's problem solved.

As for Iraq... Well, we'll see. I'm not too hopeful but what can you do.

Overall, I think his goals are admirable and I just hope that he can get them implemented in a way that actually accomplishes them. However, I'm a realist and so I'm expecting that Congress will have a lot more say on what the next two years are like than the president. I just hope they can work together.

I haven't been that big of a Bush fan but, for the most part, I'm really impressed with his current agenda. I just hope it's still good when the rubber hits the road.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Michelangelo

I just finished reading The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. It's a biographical novel of Michelangelo (you know, the famous sculptor/artist whose statue of David and the paintings in the Cistine Chapel are super famous) that gives a very interesting view of his life. It seems that while Michelangelo had a very productive life, it wasn't a very happy one.

One of the first things that I noticed about Stone's portrayel of Michelangelo is that he was obsessed with creating sculptures and a true perfectionist. For a large portion of his life (into his 60s it seems) his every action was calculated toward a goal of sculpting marble - either getting a commission or improving his talent (or both). Not only did he want to sculpt, he wanted his pieces to be as real as possible.

His obsession with carving perfect sculptures drove him to do endless studies of the human form. He even spent months sneaking into a morgue to dissect bodies so he could figure out how the body really works. This during a time when, if caught, he would have immediately been executed. He always put his art above himself.

Unfortunately, politics kept getting in the way. It almost seems as though the more famous he got for sculpture, the more he was pressured to do other things. He would have ignored this pressure completely if it weren't for the fact that it was usually the Pope that was pressuring him. At a time when the Pope seemed to control and/or influence most of the world, it was pretty much impossible to refuse a commission (although Michelangelo did try).

However, no matter what he ended up doing, his goal was always to carve statues out of marble. In fact the four years he spent on the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel was simply to get the Pope to allow him to carve marble. Granted he could have finished in a much shorter time except his perfectionist nature wouldn't allow him to paint something that was good enough and/or to allow him to accept help in painting. It took four years because, marble or not, it had to be perfect.

This obsession with marble lasted his whole life (he kept carving until he could no longer even stand - pretty much until the day he died). The only thing that got him to branch out willingly was probably his perfectionism. He was appointed the architect of St. Peter's because he couldn't stand the shoddy job that the current architects were doing.

For all of his amazing talent (and his talent was truly amazing) he never seemed to enjoy life. He spent most of his life either carving or in torment because he wasn't able to carve (for whatever reason). He never married, never had a family, never tried to enjoy life. He was too obsessed with carving - working 20 hour days for two or three years while producing a sculpture - to let happiness intrude on his life. All in all, if someone told me they wanted to be the next Michelangelo, I would tell them to aspire to the talent of Michelangelo but not to his life.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Shocking New Report: Santa Claus Arrested!

In a shocking blow to children everywhere, Santa Claus was arrested on Christmas Day as he returned home from a night of distributing gifts. It seems that these items are not actual brand-name items but high quality knock-offs produced by workers at a secret North Pole factory. Mr. Claus has been charged with thousands of counts of copyright violation, patent infringement, and theft of intellectual property, with new charges being added every day.

Children and teens all over the world are aghast at a deception that has aparently been going on for centuries. Thousands of teen-age and college age girls, especially in the US, were outraged upon learning that the designer clothes they got for Christmas were not authentic. Charity groups and landfills alike have been swamped with tons designer clothes, shoes, and accessories. Several charities have asked that people stop donating and learn to live with the shame of being not quite authentic. After all, they said, you can't really tell.

This reaction, however, was nothing compared to the outrage of several hi-tech companies. Dell, HP, Microsoft, Apple, etc. are up in arms. In several press releases, these companies blasted Mr. Claus for forcing them to spend money to support millions of computers, software, ipods, etc. that they didn't make or sell themselves. One press release stated, "It is completely unethical for somebody to flood the market with so many products and expect the industry to spend their resources supporting them." Another company stated, "We hope that fat old man rots in jail for his wanton destruction of our business models." These companies are trying to track down the Santa Claus fakes and make sure that they don't get any support (though some companies will offer fee-based support for their products). The billions of dollars in percieved losses caused the stock values of many of these companies to drop significantly.

The recording and movie industries are also going after Mr. Claus for allegedly pirating millions of albums and movies. In a joint press release they stated, "Mr. Claus has done more harm to the movie and music business in one night than all of the pre-teen movie and music pirates have done up to this time." The lawsuits being contemplated may spiral into the trillions of dollars.

In response to the charges, Mr. Claus was quoted as saying, "I was just trying to give a little happiness and joy to the children of the world." In response, lawyers representing most of the major retail outlets stated, "It is hard to imagine the arrogance and lack of respect that would cause him to commit such atrocities. Happiness and joy aren't to be given out freely, they're to be bought and paid for like everything else."