Remembering to Give Thanks

November 27, 2008 at 2:37 pm (Uncategorized)

It’s Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S., and I hope everyone has the opportunity to spend some time with those you care about today.

On Thanksgiving it can be easy to simply enjoy a good meal and hang out with friends and family and leave it at that – it is, after all, what really makes it such a good day.
But I think it’s important to take a moment to consider what today was really meant to be used for – to take a moment to ponder upon and be thankful for what we’ve been given in life.

It is of course very true that few of us have perfect lives; some are without work or have other financial hardships, some have health issues, others may be dealing with anger, frustration, or sadness in our lives. But even so, we all have those little gifts that our lives just would have taken much harder turns for the worse without.
It could be the love of your family or your friends. It could be your children or grandchildren. The job that, as much as it annoys you most of the time, is helping keep food on the table and a roof over your head. Some may be thankful that this is a country that allows us to gather like this and express ourselves openly in our conversations without fear of persecution, or that it is able to supply the food we enjoy today, something many other areas of the world can’t say. Or, it could simply be a thankfulness that God allowed us to stick around long enough to see one more sunrise – in a way every day is a gift, and there’s never a guarantee that you’ll get another one tomorrow.

Me, I’m thankful for my family, whose love I know will always be there, even though I don’t visit them nearly as much as I probably should. I’m thankful for friends, both old and new, many of which I also probably don’t stay in close enough contact with. I’m thankful that I found a girl who has happily dealt with my crap for over six months and whom actually seems to be interested in signing on for much longer. As much as I bitch about it on an almost daily basis, I’m thankful for my job, something many people are without right now. And even when times are tough, I am thankful for every new day and every new opportunity.

Please take a moment today to consider what you’re thankful for as well; and to finish, I’d like to end with this short classic film with also reminds us that there is more to Thanksgiving than turkey and cranberry sauce (hat-tip to Art of Manliness for pointing out the vid):

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Stock Market: Giving Up. Again.

November 26, 2008 at 12:29 pm (Money & Investing)

Yup, no matter what I do, I get screwed. Even on days that should be a sure thing I get screwed. Take today – there were a *ton* of economic reports released today, all of which were negative – so I figure hey, it’s a good time to bet that the market will go down!
But – I forgot to take into account that no matter what I do, the market will do whatever makes me lose money. So, instead of the market going down with all the bad news, it went up!
Yup, apparently because I bet on it going down, the entire stock market got together and decided that regardless of the bad news, it was a good time to buy a bunch of stock.
For f*** sake. This randomness is making me pull my hair out, and I give up, at least until the volatility quiets down, which will probably be months down the road.

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Update on a Tuesday (er, I guess Wednesday now)

November 26, 2008 at 1:45 am (Uncategorized)

Oy. Even when I’m “on vacation” I feel like I’m being pulled in too many directions.

This week work gave us Thursday and Friday off for the Thanksgiving holiday, and I decided to take Mon-Wed off as well giving me a full nine days off of work. School also takes wed-fri off, and I decided that I wasn’t going to bother going in on Monday for a 45 minute lecture when it was my only pseudo-obligation that day… especially when there was a warm body snuggled up next to me under the covers giving me all the more reason to not feel any urgency to leave the house that morning.

There’s only about a month left of school, and I’m quite ready for it to be over. The history class has been more interesting than I anticipated, the art class not so much, but either way it’s just taking up much more of my time than I’d like – hell, even while “on vacation” I’ve had to do a bunch of reading, and sometime while I’m off this week, between holiday visits, dinner dates with the girlfriend, and other such things, I’m supposedly going to try to get most of a research paper done for the history class (my chosen topic: the origins of astronomy in ancient civilisation). I’ve had a stack of books for nearly two weeks and so far have barely had time to even look at time.

Things are still going pretty good with me and LabGirl, though the winter doldrums are already starting to kick in a little bit. We both enjoy doing things together outdoors, but not as much when it’s crappy-ass cold outside (28F and falling as I write this, with only much colder weather to come). As a result our last several weekends have sort of turned into days of just hanging out around the house watching movies or whatever, and mid-week we’re still making dinner for each other every week. It’s nice most of the time but nothing that I’d really call fun, and we’ve already had a few instances of falling asleep on the couch. In between there’s been random stuff here and there – last weekend we had a gaming night with her family, and yesterday we had a short adventure installing new light fixtures around the outside of her house – but as far as fun activities to do, this town pretty much shuts down for the winter starting in October, so we’re going to have to start getting creative. We’ve been tossing around the idea of buying some cold weather gear so we could still go play outside in the cold, but it hasn’t happened yet because of that whole thing about how we both hate the cold. May still come to pass though, we’ll see.

On the work front, I’m conflicted. There is a part of me that is really, really annoyed and has been for a while, in regards to scheduling and work hours. The problem is that due to “budgeting constraints,” they’ve limited how much work each employee can do on any given day … we are paid on a production basis, which means basically the the more work items you complete, the more you get paid. Well, problem with this daily limitation, is not all of the work we do is equal. The majority of the people in my section do pretty mindless work – hit a few keys on the computer, done. I, on the other hand, and among the “select few” of people who were able (as in, had the cognitive ability) to work on an aspect of the job that actually took more thought, and thus requires actual reasoning and effort, and thus takes longer to complete.
Well, in their wisdom they decided that it would only be “fair” to make sure that everybody gets paid somewhere in the same ballpark every day, and then once they’ve hit that point, they can go home. So everybody makes about the same, so everybody should be happy right?
Uhhh… no. Us “select few” are pretty fucking pissed, and the only thing keeping us from walking off the job is the fact that we don’t think there’s anywhere else for us to go right now.
See, the folks doing the “hit a couple of keys and you’re done” work are able to fly through the work so fast that they can hit their daily limit within an average of 3-4 hours. Then they go home for the day.
The “select few,” on the other hand, have been lucky to get to leave after 7, and actually more often end up having to work overtime in order to hit our daily goal. Which, as I mentioned, is set up to pay about the same. As the people who get to go home after 3 hours.
Mind you, I have no problem putting in a full shift, or even overtime if it’s needed – I just have a problem with the people with easier work for half the amount of time making the same wage as us every day.
And the ones most vocal with the bitching? Mostly the ones having to go home after 3-4 hours, because, unbeknownst to us “select few,” they were apparently getting seriously overpaid previously, and on an average eight hour day apparently were taking home about twice what I was with my work that actually fucking takes effort and thought. So of course they’re now upset that they’re no longer making a windfall that the others of us didn’t even know was happening.
Which once again proves that just like in most workplaces, showing that you actually have a brain only ends up fucking you over in the end.
All of this, along with the school issues mentioned a while back, is another catalyst in me making plans to look into a trade of some sort.

Ummm… a couple of quick computer notes, over the weekend I got rid of OpenSuse and decided to go with Linux Mint instead. Mint is sort of a modified version of Ubuntu – Ubuntu being by far the most popular version of Linux for home use. However, Mint takes it and makes it even easier to set up and get around in, and since I’m a big “I just want it to work” kind of guy, that sounded good to me.
(Side note – the “I just want it to work” is apparently not a popular stance in the Linux community, as it is very heavy with geeks who enjoy the challenge of stuff not working right out of the box and thus requiring their computer-ing skills. Personally, although I have a few computer-ing skills, I find instances where I actually have to use them to be a pain in the ass, and thus don’t really understand that mentality. I want to load the software, and have it work. The first time. Without having to jack around with it for hours. Thus, Mint).
So far not a huge amount of difference, though it has been kind of nice in that due to the wider support community and the fact that when people program for Linux they usually focus on Ubuntu first (frankly Ubuntu is sort of becoming the “Windows of the Linux world” in that respect) I’ve been able to get a few things to work right off the bat that I had trouble with on OpenSuse, such as a few games.

Speaking of that, while off work, I installed a new game (well, sort of a game) that I’ve caught myself staying up waaaay too late playing around with, and for no real good reason that I could point to. I’m talking nights staying up til 4am here.
My curiosity finally broke me down over the weekend, and I installed Second Life.
Now, the complaints I had previously about just the concept in general really kind of proved to be true – mostly that there doesn’t really seem to be any real point to the game. There’s no real goal to achieve. You just create a character (or “avatar,”) drop it into this virtual universe, and really just sort of wander around aimlessly.
Well, unfortunately I’ve found that this whole wandering-around-aimlessly thing is a huge time-killer, because there is actually quite a lot of interesting, odd, and just plain weird stuff to see.
On the nicer side, you can create your character in whatever image you’d like, go explore countless fantastic locations from city locations to medieval castles, and interact with other characters from around the world.
Interestingly I also discovered that Second Life has a bit of a “dark side,” where you can find just about any kind of “alternate lifestyle” interest simply by clicking on a “include adult content” checkbox when searching or browsing locations to check out. You can hire a virtual escort, and take her/him to a sex club if you’d like, of which there are an apparently endless variety – just all-out orgy clubs, female only clubs, male only clubs, bdsm clubs, latex/rubber clubs, furry clubs, even a club for the hentai “girl on alien tentacle” crowd. In fact, if you’d like, your avatar can pick up some extra cash by working as an escort or exotic dancer in one of those clubs.
Well, OK, I’ll have to admit to my curiosity getting the better of me and that I went and took a look around at a few of these types of locations – and I’m still trying to decide which is stronger – my sense of being intrigued, or my sense of being disturbed. I have no problems whatsoever with the idea of “alternate interests” when it comes to sexuality, but the idea of fantasising about a crappy 3D image of a sluttily-dressed woman that is probably being controlled by a 13 year old girl (or worse, boy) somewhere might be a bit too much.
Still, even the non-freaky stuff gives plenty of weird stuff to explore, so I may have some trouble keeping away from this one when I need to – hopefully I’ll get bored with it quickly.
Another side note – SecondLife has apparently become popular new place for “cybersex,” which has resulted in more than one news story being released to the ‘net about marriages coming to an end because of a spouse getting involved in “relations” in this virtual world, and there was even one story about a girl who tried to file charges about being virtually raped.
Weird. Just weird.

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Robot Chicken: Star Wars, Part Duex

November 20, 2008 at 1:40 am (Movies & TV)

Yeah, the Robot Chicken guys made another Star Wars episode – and I have to say… the first one was pretty funny, and this one may actually top it – holy crap this had me L-ingOL in several spots – you can see it over at the Adult Swim web site, just click here!

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Star Trek Trailer #2

November 18, 2008 at 2:08 am (Movies & TV)

Holy crap – it actually might not suck.

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Stock Investing: A New Strategy

November 15, 2008 at 1:58 pm (Money & Investing)

OK, so as some of you know, somewhat early in the year I decided I had enough “non-essential” cash around that I felt comfortable trying my hand at stock market investing.
I knew the economy was shaky, but pundits everywhere were saying that the nosedive was likely at an end, that things should start improving any time, and that there were good investment opportunities out there if you took the time to look. So, I figured I’d look, test the waters, and see what happened.

Well, what happened is I lost a whole crapload of money.
The market would have a good week, all the pundits would go on about how it looked like the bad times may be finally coming to an end, and with hope in my heart I’d buy a stock, thinking it may finally be time for the market to start climbing and for my investment to grow.
Only to have that hope dashed within a matter of a couple of days, when some news report causes the market to crash yet again, making the value of the stock I bought drop like a rock, usually well below what I paid for it.
And this was a pattern that repeated several times over the course of the year.

Now, over that time I have learned a lot. That education was admittedly expensive, but hopefully like any learning it will end up paying off in the long run. Most of these are realizations that finally clicked in just over the last few weeks.

A) The economy is crap, and will continue to be crap for a good while – this is especially true with a new government administration coming into office that is obscure at best and that most investors just plain don’t think have their best interests in mind. Any pundit who is optimistic is full of it.

B) Due to A, making any investment that relies on improving market conditions is a losing bet. The market will, at least once every 2-3 weeks, have a “rally” of positive growth based on some tidbit of good, or even “not as bad as we thought it would be” news. As I did, lots of people buy stocks during these rallies. They will lose their ass when more bad news comes out 1-2 days later.

C) Due to B, the best way to make money in market investing right now is to bet against the market. That being, invest with the assumption that the market will continue tanking, not with the hope that it will start growing again.

How do you do that?
Well, there’s a type of stock transaction you can do that is called “selling short,” which is kind of complicated, but in a nutshell is a process in which you make money by buying a stock in hopes that it will actually lose value. In the inverse of normal stock trading, you actually make money based on how much the stock loses, not how much it gains.
That said, as I mentioned it’s a bit of a complicated process, requires buying on credit, and requires a large amount of money (at least a lot as far as I’m concerned) in your account to do, which is why I haven’t been doing it and had been taking my chances on “hopeful” buys instead.

Well, that ended a few weeks ago with a discovery I wish I had learned about several months ago: the inverse ETF.
These are funds (think something like a mutual fund, where you have another company do a bunch of stock trades in your interest and it all just goes under one account) that do all of the dirty work of short selling for you in the background. Quite simply, as a general rule whenever the markets go down, these funds go up.

As an example about 10 days ago I invested in the ProShares Short Dow30 fund, which is designed to gain profit whenever the Dow index goes down (this is the market index that tracks most of the “big hitters” on the market, such as 3M, AT&T, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Exxon, GE, Intel, and a ton of others).
It works splendidly – as usual, the markets went down over the last 10 days, with slight fluctuations here and there. But in a nutshell by about day 8 or 9 I had already gained a 9%+ profit (at which time I started to really wish I had more money invested so that percentage would equate to more actual cash).
At which point, if I was smart, I would have sold my stock while I was ahead instead of taking my chances. But, I got greedy, and held on, hoping it would go up even higher.
And then…. one of those rare “rallies” I mentioned earlier happened, for no real apparent reason. The market jumped up in value. That meant this fund dropped in value…. and I lost all of the profit I was looking at just hours earlier. The only thing that kept me from losing money is that I had set up a “stop” on the account, indicating that if it were to drop to a point where I would lose money, that it was to automatically sell at that point. It did, and I ended up with a profit of less than 1%.

But… over at TradeKing I was looking through others’ notes on similar trades, and saw that other people were actually making money on these accounts while I wasn’t making a dime… so I started up some conversation to find out what was going on.

Turns out one of the biggest lessons in this confused market is that you can’t allow yourself to get greedy. Look at the history of the fund for the last several months. Notice the highest it got during that time, and absolutely assume it will not go higher than that – that, in fact, it probably won’t even get that high again before dropping. Find a few percentages below that point, and when the stock gets there, sell. Don’t think about it, don’t wonder if it might go higher. Just sell. Using this technique, these guys were raking in 50% profits in a matter of several weeks.

I’ve also learned that when you buy a stock can be just as important as when you sell it. Just because a stock or fund price starts going up doesn’t mean it’s a good time to buy, at least under current conditions.
Most funds right now don’t have steady, predictable gains or losses. They pretty much just fluctuate all over the damned place from day to day. However, what they do that is somewhat predictable is that those fluctuations tend to fall within a certain price range.
For example, here’s a chart of where the prices were at on the Dow fund I was in for the last two months:

Notice that for about the last six weeks, although it has been bouncing around a lot, the bouncing has been mostly constrained between two price lines: the low $70’s, and the high $80’s.
When I bought, it was about halfway between at about $79 per share. However looking at these fluctuations, it probably would have been smarter to wait a little bit and see if the pattern repeats itself, with the fund dropping back down below $75 – this would both give me more “wiggle room” for the fluctuations without worry of losing money, while at the same time giving me a bunch more profit when the fund decides to “top off” in the upper 80’s again, where as stated earlier it would be time sell (for example you can tell the system to automatically sell if the price hits $89).

One more lesson: as the market reacts to news, which is mostly bad, it’s probably a good idea to take note of when financial reports and other such things will be released. And according to this calendar, next week they will be releasing some doozies: the Home Builder’s Index, the Consumer Price Index, the latest jobless claims report, and the quarterly GDP report.
Now, most of that is, of course, expected to be bad. About the only expected positive spot (based on the predictions shown on the calendar link) is the home builder’s index, which I’m surprised to see is expected to actually be in the positive.
With those mixed expectations it’s probably going to be another roller-coaster week next week, so it’ll be even more important to watch the chart for a good time to get in rather than just jump in because “it’ll probably be a bad week, so that fund will probably go up.”

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Remembering VD

November 11, 2008 at 9:14 am (Uncategorized)

Veteran's Day

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Catching the Poker Bug

November 7, 2008 at 12:05 am (Gaming & RPGs)

Well, I’m a little late since the huge fad phase for the game passed a year or two ago, but I’ve gotten slightly hooked on Texas Hold’Em Poker.
It started out on MySpace with their versions, but I’ve since “branched out” onto poker-specific game sites where you can actually win stuff.

I’ve opted for the web sites that allow you to win prizes without actually having to take a chance on losing your own real cash. You can actually win anywhere from small cash prizes, or sometimes gift cards, all the way up to thousands of dollars in online tournaments, without risking a dime of your own money.
I don’t think I’m quite that good yet, but I’m working on it and seem to be doing a decent job of not losing my virtual arse.

There are a lot of poker sites out there, and I’ve looked through a whole bunch of them. Right now I’ve got two that are favorites, although I’m still tinkering a little with a couple of others.
The criteria I like are:
-Gives you the chance to win real prizes, preferably cash ones
-Can’t have a ton of annoying ads flashing, making noise, etc while I’m trying to play. I don’t mind a couple of ads, but I don’t want them annoying or distracting me while I’m trying to think about how to play.
-Can’t require Windows software. I am one of an estimated 29 Million Linux users. Thus, I can’t use your damned Windows software.
-If it’s Flash based (which is probably is if it doesn’t fall into the prior category), it can’t be all crash-y all the time. I’ve found that some sites like to crash Flash for some reason.

So – the sites I prefer?

1) PurePlay: Several game options, simple interface, doesn’t crash often. The one time it did the support staff was very quick and friendly about refunding me the tournament credits I lost when it happened….

2) PrizeWagon: Pretty similar setup, a little more thematic maybe.

If anybody’s interested in playing a few hands let me know 😉

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And so begins the Obamaian Era

November 5, 2008 at 1:11 am (Political Ponderings)

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More on the Electoral College

November 4, 2008 at 9:48 pm (Political Ponderings)

Electoral College: Thought you were voting for president? Think again.

Well, since I’m in an election kinda mood I thought I’d babble on a little bit about how it actually works, since a whole lot of people don’t really know.

See, the misconception is this – that when you go into the poll, and you put a mark down for Obama, or McCain, or Barr, or whoever it is that you want for President, that you’re actually voting for President.

That is, unfortunately, not the case.
Say hello the the Electoral College System.

In a nutshell, the way it works is this:

Each state has a set number of elected representatives, equal to the number of Senators and Representatives that state has in congress.
Here in my home state of Illinois, we have 21 of them.

When you, for example, mark down “Obama” on your ballot, rather than saying “I want Obama for President,” what you’re really saying is “I want Obama’s representatives to be the representatives in Illinois.”
You’re actually voting for them, not for President.

Why does it matter, you may ask?

Two main reasons, which may or may not be seen as a big deal (probably depending on if it causes your guy to lose or not):

1) As seen in one of my previous posts, the number of electoral votes can be way out of sync with the number of votes from the actual population. Reason being that states with larger populations get way more seats in congress. As a result it’s very possible that, even though if you were to do a count of everyone’s votes, one candidate won – he may still lose because those votes weren’t in the right states.

2) As previously stated, you don’t vote for President, these representatives do. Now, when you vote in a Democratic representative, you expect that he’s going to vote the way the citizens are voting and vote for the Democratic President. But guess what – there’s nobody holding a gun to his head. He may get some wild bug up his arse and decide to vote for somebody else anyway. It’s certainly happened before.

And there you have it: Why, when you get right down to it, your vote is pretty much worthless 😛

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