Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Another Fun Money Tip

So, there appear to be a number of my friends who like to give Uncle Sam and their local taxing authorities a bunch of money over the course of the year, trusting the .gov to maintain their savings account, and who are pleasantly surprised by how much money they get back in the Spring. Personally, I'd rather not do that, but there is a year-end tax strategy one can use to increase the amount  of your own money refunded money the nice man saved for you that you receive.

(consider this a generic disclaimer about YMMV based on your AGI) For every $100 that you put into an IRA before April 15th, you will receive a credit on your federal and state returns equal to the percentage of the marginal tax bracket you fall into. Doesn't that sound funny? Whoops, I just fell into a tax bracket, twisted my ankle! So, if your marginal tax rate is, for example 15%, you'll get $15 more in your refund check for every $100 you put into an IRA.

If, and I know that this is a big if for some folks, you have some money you have managed to save without the help of the lovely folks at the IRS, putting it in an IRA before the 15th of April designated for the previous tax year will get you more money back from your "savings account." It also has the double-plus-good advantage of also being saved for your retirement someday.

Statistics tell us that few people in this country are maxing out their 401Ks and IRAs, so at least the strategy is potentially available for many. In a practical sense, perhaps not.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Succubus Blues by Richelle Mead

Mead has created an intriguing character with Georgina Kincaid, succubus. As an immortal creature who absorbs the sexual energy from her "victims", portraying her as a shy and insecure bookstore clerk creates a delicious twist in the story. She also seems to have a conscience, and prefers to only feed off of scumbags, leaving the nice guys of the world alone.

But events force her...hand. Another one of Mead's usual love triangles develops quickly when she first encounters her favorite author, Seth Mortenson, at a book signing at Emerald City bookstore, where she works, and makes an utter fool of herself, then when she meets a mysterious and handsome stranger, Roman, who definitely makes her resolve not to involve nice guys in succubus business...hard to stick to.

For the squeamish, there are two extremely explicit sex scenes in this book, so handle with care.

Like many urban fantasy novels, this is set up as a little bit of a mystery. One of the lesser immortals, a vampire, is killed. Their toughness is legendary, and the only mortals able to do the deed are born vampire slayers, there's either one of those hanging about, or perhaps, as Georgina finds out when she begins to play amateur detective, he has been killed by another immortal. The attacks on immortals continue, and Georgina continues to investigate, even when the arch demon of Seattle tells her to butt out.

While dancing the tango with the two men in her life, Georgina must figure out the puzzle before any more of her fellow immortal friends get killed.

There's some interesting flashbacks to her mortal life, before she made a deal with a demon to become a succubus.

Mead has created an interesting and conflicted heroine, as required, and given her some moral - really, a demon has morals and scruples? - dilemmas to overcome. The whole demonic realm appears to run almost more like a business organization, with quotas for the number of souls corrupted, etc., than like anything remotely theological. A fun concept. We'll have to see where Mead takes it.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Live 10 by Terry A. Smith

It's a sad thing when an old Christian becomes jaded, you know. Reading Live 10 left me merely with a sense of deja vu; nothing new to see, just a new wrapper around old ideas. When I was in my twenties, I read nearly every positive thinking book published at the time - I owned several boxes full before I gave most of them away to a friend in real estate. Norman Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie, Robert Schuller, Og Mandino, Zig Ziglar, Dennis Waitley, Charles Clason, and a whole host of others. I'm also well-steeped in Christian apologetics and devotionals, from such worthies as C.S. Lewis, R.G. Spruill, Max Lucado, Lee Stroebel, Charles Swindoll, Henry Blackaby and many more. So it's very very seldom that anything new comes along. The last thing I read that had what seemed to be a new take on things was the Purpose Driven stuff by Rick Warren.

Heinlein wrote one time that every generation thinks they invented sex. The same thing may be true about the positive thinking, name-it-and-claim-it self help topic that surges every so often in church circles. Live 10 may be all the rage in "young" churches these days. It seems mostly to promote the idea that God wants you to pursue your dreams, no matter how big, and to be successful, happy, and fulfilled, demonstrating His glory in all aspects of your life.

He may, or He may not.

Remember the story of the men who died when the tower collapsed, and the disciples wondering who sinned, resulting in those deaths, or the blind man about whom they had the same question? Sometimes, there is no "short term" reason for tragedies, and sometimes God's glory is displayed when He heals them, thus justifying their earlier suffering, but there ARE NO guarantees of any of that in this life. Read Job.

Honestly folks, God may or may not want your business to succeed, either in order to bless you, to teach you something, to bless someone else (maybe the person who buys your bankrupt business and founds an orphanage there), or do something else entirely. I've seen wonderful ministries start and succeed, start and fail, start with one leader, but only succeed when another leader comes along...basically all possible iterations of success and failure possible in Christian lives - and let's not even get started on what happens to Christian marriages in this era!

Heh, I haven't even talked much yet about what IS actually in the book, have I?

Smith lays out the case that every person is specially gifted and called to do great things for God. In his world, following the passions that God gave you will result in self-actuation and accomplishing great things. He quotes extensively from some noted Biblical scholars and a number of leadership experts, and devotes a lot of time in the latter portion of the book to talking about how to become a motivational leader. Pretty standard fare.

I did find a few points of interest.

Smith quotes Dorothy Sayers on "the three humiliations of God: the incarnation (God becoming a man through Christ), the crucifixion, and the church. It is amazing that God has so reduced himself in order to win the willful participation of people in their relationships with Him and the fulfilling of his purposes and their destinies. He absolutely insists that we deliberately cooperate with Him in order to complete the human story."

He talks about the necessity of doing the right thing over and over again, even when it seems pointless to do so, and illustrates it with a baseball story.

"Martinez had repeatedly run from his position at first base in order to cover second base on similar blips to the outfield. It was tedious. It was boring. But it was the right thing to do even when, hundreds of times before, it never resulted in an out. One play on this one night influenced the outcome for one win that moved the Yankees toward perhaps the most successful season in baseball history."

On morality,

"Richard Daft wrote that there are three levels of personal moral development: preconventional, conventional, and post-conventional. Preconventional is the most immature level, typically evidenced in young children and individuals who keep the rules only because they are afraid of consequences. In the conventional level people adopt and follow the moral norm of the culture around them. They do what is expected, not necessarily because of their deep convictions but because they know it is the correct thing to do. The post-conventional level of moral development, or 'principled level,' is when 'leaders are guided by an internalized set of principles universally recognized as right or wrong.'"

Smith likes to quote Kierkegaard. Modern worship leaders would be well to heed the following:

"Soren Kierkegaard said that we suffer a certain role confusion in corporate worship. We think of the congregation as the audience, the preacher as the performer, and God as the prompter. In fact, members of the congregation are the performers, the preacher is the prompter, and God is the Audience."

I had to chuckle when I read about something he said about his mid-life crisis.

"Adult kids - kids who used to have to ask permission to leave the table - were out, making their own decisions, some of them good, and some of them decisions I wouldn't have made."

Let me make clear that (in my opinion) there's nothing terribly wrong about most of the advice in this book. If it's the first book of this genre you've run across, you'll probably enjoy it, and take away some inspiration and ideas. If you've been around a while, though, and have read some of its ancestors, I wouldn't spend the double sawbuck on picking up a copy.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Midnight Blue Light Special by Seanan McGuire

So, I finally came up with a term that I choose to use for the occasions when an author heads up a chapter with a piece of faux history, an adage from a fictional wise man, or a quote from persons of fictional or other dubious heritage - epigram. Epigram as seen in the #2 definition from Webster's Collegiate Dictionary - a terse, sage, or witty and often paradoxical saying.

McGuire done a couple of things in this second iteration of the Incryptid series with her chapter headings. First, she's included an epigrammatic quote from the females in Verity Price's family tree, usually dealing with the intertwined subjects of love and weaponry. Second, she has placed a graphic above these that indicates inn whose "voice" the tale is told. Fortunately, she's telling a multi-POV story with just two narrators, rather than massively multiplayer, like Weber, so once I caught on to it, it was easy to tell whether Verity, whose graphic was a set of dancing footprints, or Sarah, whose graphic was a mathematical equation (reflecting, of course, her favorite hobby of auditing math classes) was the protagonist of the moment.

Another refreshing thing in this urban fantasy is that Verity doesn't have all the de rigeur trust issues that plague the genre. She has a loving and well-armed family, and has many allies in the cryptid population of Manhattan. In fact, it's far more likely to be those allies who have to learn to trust Verity, for a change, when a hit team from the Covenant of St. George arrives in town to check on their boy, Dominic De Luca, and to make sure any cryptids in the area are swiftly eradicated.

In fact, the only trust issue for Verity is whether or not she can trust her boyfriend, Dominic, to look out for her and the monster population, rather than to return to the not-so-loving arms of the Covenant and his own family, when push comes to shove.

How many of us have felt just this way, in a metaphorical sense?
"Come on, let's go see a dragon about an apartment."

McGuire is prepping us new POVs in the next couple of books in the series, primarily concerning Alex, Verity's brother, when she allows us to get into her adopted cousin Sarah, the cuckoo's, head.

"It's being a cuckoo like me that's hard. Sometimes I feel like neither nature nor nurture did me any favors. Here, Sarah. Have a moral and ethical code that means you'd feel bad killing people for your own enjoyment, and have a set of instincts and hereditary skills that means you're not really built to do anything else. It'll be fun!"

Not as much carnage as I, and the waheela, Istas, were hoping for when the final showdown arrives, but this is a fun and easy read, with a slightly odd take on the urban fantasy scene.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Never Go Back by Lee Child

 Susan Turner is just a pretty voice on the phone, the CO of his old MP command, to Jack Reacher, as he bulls his way through his last adventure, but he decides he needs to see her in person, and ask her out to dinner, so he hitches all the way to the DC area and ventures on base to meet her. When he arrives, however, he discovers that she has been thrown in jail for allegedly accepting bribes and stashing the money in the Cayman Islands, and someone has filed homicide charges against him for the beating death of a suspect he interviewed sixteen years ago. To make sure that Reacher really feels the heat, he's also the target of a paternity suit from a woman he allegedly had sex with while he was in Korea fifteen years before. Whoever is behind all this has made a careful assessment of Reacher's behavior and decided that his tendency would be to take it on the run instead of facing the charges. Bad idea.

When some enlisted thugs come along to encourage him to move on, he shows them his own special brand of encouragement with which we are all familiar. The new, temporary CO of the MP detachment implements an obscure clause of Reacher's enlistment to re-activate his military status (Hmm...wonder why he never gets a paycheck in the course of this book?) and basically confines him to the base. When Jack begins to dig deeper into the case against Turner, he gets framed for the severe beating of Turner's attorney, to add more fuel to the fire.

So it's not unexpected for us Reacher fans when Jack decides to "bend" all the rules, and breaks Susan out of jail, and goes for a walk on the wild side while they both try to figure out whose toes Susan has stepped on that has the access to old files as well as current intel to make criminal cases appear out of thin air against the duo.

In this iteration, we see the Reacher we all know and love create chaos and confusion among his enemies, but we also get to see, perhaps for the first time, a more tender version of Reacher when he travels to Los Angeles to discover the daughter he never knew. Another good (and very fast) read from Child.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Few Minutes with Oswald #2

In today's selection, Chambers says,

"Beware of thinking that the areas of your life where you have experienced victory in the past are now the least likely to cause you to stumble and fall."


"The Bible characters stumbled over their strong points, never their weak ones."

While reading the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (stalled out around the halfway point), I found that he had a long term - lifetime - project of instilling in himself a number of desired virtues, and subtracting his vices from his life. He would focus on one virtue until he felt he had acquired it, then move to the next on his list. Yes, an actual handwritten list.

While I've never quite gone to that extent, which may surprise those who know me well enough to have seen first hand what an obsessed list-maker I am, I've slowly over the course of time eliminated a number of foolish behaviors, and tried to encourage the tiny seedlings of virtuous ones to grow and root deeply in my lifestyle, with varying levels of success. Without digressing too far, it's interesting that the things most folks regard as sins - sins of the flesh - are far easier to conquer than bad habits of thought - sins of the mind or heart.

So, I have to view Oswald's observations with a sense of trepidation. It would be very upsetting to be tripped up by some horrid habit I thought long vanquished. I pray it isn't so.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Few Minutes with Oswald

A "chance" acquaintance I met on a recent trip sent me a copy of My Utmost for his Highest, by Oswald Chambers.

In today's reading, I found the following:

"Whenever we sense that Jesus Christ is rising up to take authority over some great task, we are there, but we are not ready for some obscure duty. Readiness for God means that we are prepared to do the smallest thing or the largest thing - it makes no difference. It means that we have no choice in what we want to do, but that whatever God's plans may be, we are there and ready."

I had a chance a couple of hours later to do what may have been God's work when I found a toddler wandering in the street, playing in a mud puddle, with no adult nearby. I followed the trail of discarded toys back to the open door of a nearby apartment, and alerted her mother, who had no idea that her child had wandered away when she was supposed to be napping.

A small thing? Perhaps.

Shadow Heir by Richelle Mead

 The result of Eugenie's wild escapades with Kiyo turns out to be twins, who are prophesied to rule both the faerie and human realms as the Storm King's heirs. Those who are opposed to this are hoping to kill her before the twins are born, which makes traveling back and forth between the worlds so she can make her obstetrician appointments a bit dangerous. After one too many attempts, she decides she must go into secret exile until she delivers, so Roland finds her a secret hiding place with a shaman he knows in Huntsville, Alabama. The shaman has a nephew with whom I'm sure Eugenie would develop a love interest, were this series to continue further, but Mead says it's the last one, so we're spared that bout of mad, passionate, graphic sex anyway.

The twins decide to come early, so Eugenie undergoes an emergency C-Section, and they both turn out to be healthy, but require some time in NICU before she can take them "home". Just as she's about ready to do that Roland visits with news that her kingdom and many of the others in the Otherworld are under a spell keeping them in unnatural winter (shades of Narnia!), likely cast by the queen of the Yew Land, Lania?? She decides to return immediately to see if she can save her land, and bands together with Dorian, Kiyo, Jasmine and some of her underlings on a quest to break the White Witch's faerie queen's spell. Since Kiyo tried to kill her and their unborn children, she's not happy about him coming along, but he is Maiwenne's contribution to the cause, so she can't argue about it too much. Her demonic familiar, Volusian, once lived in the Yew Land, and he seems to have unfinished business there which trumps his hatred of Eugenie, so he turns out to be quite helpful in the quest.

The saga does mostly wrap up in this novel, but not so tightly that Mead couldn't bring the series back to life if it were necessary, or inspiration struck. All of the same potential for conflict with other faerie rulers and personal drama still remains, the only thing that's settled - somewhat - is the Storm King's progeny's prophecy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Dreamwalker by C.S. Friedman

Funny story here. I have read nearly every novel C(elia).S. Friedman has written, and they have always proved engrossing. When I began this blog, I had the second novel in the Magister trilogy sitting on my TBR shelf, and it was supposed to be about the fourth review I published, as soon as I read it. Still haven't read it. Mostly because I meant to go back and read the first book over again; it had been far too long between publishing dates, and I was pretty fuzzy about what had gone before. The third novel in the trilogy is out, and I never did buy it.

When I saw that Friedman had written either a stand alone novel or the beginning of a new series, then, I was overjoyed and I immediately took steps to acquire a copy of Dreamwalker.

I'm afraid that Friedman has finally sold out to the forces of evil. While, like everything else she has ever written, it is eminently readable, it's such a rehash of modern female protagonist based fiction that my jaded brain says, "Bleah."

Jessica Drake, or Jesse, is a girl living with her single mom and younger brother who has strange dreams, which she turns into paintings. When a mysterious stranger evinces interest in those paintings, and in Jesse's family, and Jesse discovers that she's not genetically related to anyone in her family, despite hospital records, the story gets rolling. Adolescent with heretofore undiscovered mystical powers - Check!

She goes online to find out if there may be other changelings like her, and encounters a pair of teenagers, Devon and Rita, who come from different backgrounds, he's the rich son of a doctor while Rita is a foster child, but have the same genetic mystery. Add a pair of friends she must learn to trust to succeed - Check!

When Jesse's brother, Tommy, is kidnapped by forces of evil from an alternate Earth (also Check!) and her family home is burned down, she and her friends find a way to sneak through the Gate between the worlds (yeah, like no one's ever tried that before, and the keepers of the gates are a bunch of dolts, this allegedly has been going on for centuries) to rescue him. In the early going, Rita appears to be jealous of the attention Devon pays to Jesse. Budding love triangle - Check!

When they ally with a band of rejected misfits living in the sewer system at their destination, they find out that the Gifts of the rulers of this alternate reality are the source of all of our legends of supernatural beings. A logical explanation for faeries, vampires and werewolves at last - Check!

Still trying to figure out the deal with the black Neanderthals who are enslaved by the master race. Probably Jesse and her friends will lead a slave revolt at some point in the saga. Wouldn't want to leave out any tropes. Shades of Spartacus!

A very quick read. We'll see if Friedman manages to bring the series up to her usual standards, or whether she falls into crass populism in the end, as the sequels arrive.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Stealth Savings

I've found, over the years, that the best way to save and invest is to a) automate it, and b) save before you have a chance to spend it. I like to call this "stealth savings".

If you're fresh out of school, and just starting your career, you may think that you'll always have time to save later on..."someday". Unfortunately, "someday" seldom just leaps up and whacks you on the head with a two by four and gets your attention, so it's best to make "someday" today. This is actually the best possible time to start the saving and investing habit, and the best shot you've got at using the effect of compounding over time to grow your net worth.

You see, when you first start that new job as a new graduate (or for those of you starting career #3 later on), you have the chance to set up automatic payroll deductions before you even receive that first paycheck. The human tendency to rapidly grow accustomed to spending whatever amount of money you have in your checking account works in your favor, if you make sure that a certain percentage of your income is sent away before you ever see it, to go to work growing and compounding for you.

The first thing to fund at your new employer is your 401K plan. This subject has been thoroughly explored by personal finance bloggers for ages, but I'm just going to tell you what I told both of my children when they headed out on their own after college. At a bare minimum, contribute enough to your employer's 401K plan to take advantage of every bit of the match that they offer. I've seen a 50% match up to the first 6% contribution from a number of employers so often it's probably the "standard" that 401K custodians offer. Rule #1 - get every penny of matching funds that you can. It is FREE money, TAX FREE! Well, actually tax-deferred, but that's another day's topic.

There is absolutely no better way to get a guaranteed return on your investment. I can think of no other investment out there that will get you a 50% immediate return, before any compounding. Even if the matching percentage is lower, as long as it's better than the average returns of the equities market (historically between 8% and 12% long term), take the free money!

Now, I actually recommend allocating no less than 10% to your retirement - and some financial planners will recommend 15 - but you can spread that out between 401Ks, IRAs and Roth IRAs, if you have them set up. However, as a newly minted baccalaureate, you probably haven't gotten around to it yet, so the 401K is quick, easy, and painless.

After that, you'll get your first paycheck, and within a few months, you'll have become accustomed to living on the net amount, while happily knowing that your retirement is being at least partially funded and that you're getting better returns than anyone with a hot stock tip around the water cooler.

One other opportunity that's often made available by employers is called an ESOP (there are a couple other acronyms out there, too) or Employee Stock Ownership Plan/Program. These have sometimes gotten a bad rap because of companies like Enron that played fast and loose with the accounting, and encouraged their employees to invest heavily in the plan, as well as loading up their 401K with company stock. If you see this sort of hype happening at the company you're joining, RUN!

For most well-established companies, however, the risk involved in an ESOP plan is minimal, and the upside can be quite nice.

While I, personally, have never had an ESOP available where I worked, my wife has been able to take advantage of them twice in her career. And when Mama's happy...well, you know.

The first ESOP plan we encountered allowed her to put a certain amount of money in company stock, deducted regularly from her paycheck, and the company contributed a 100% match to purchase the stock, up to a maximum dollar figure which I can't recall just now - it was fifteen years ago. We were all over that like white on rice! We weren't exactly high rollers at that time, busily raising our family, but she contributed $25 a month, the company contributed $25, and the net effect was a 100% automatic return. Unless the stock's value went to zero, it was very difficult to lose money on the deal. By the way, the company she worked for was very stable, had been in business for decades, had a good business model, etc. That's not to say you shouldn't give this a shot if you're working for a high tech start up - just don't play with money you have to have to pay the bills. I'm sure Bill Gates' early employees are happy they took advantage of the stock plan at Microsoft.f

The first part of the stealth strategy, then, is participating in any automated savings plan, especially those that get matching money, offered by your employer. If you're self-employed, you're gonna have to do it the hard way.

So, here's the second part of my stealth strategy. Whenever you get a raise, put at least some of that raise into an automated savings/investment plan. You'll never miss the money this way. The least painless way to do this is, for example, if you get a 4% annual raise, instantly allocate 2% more to your 401K contribution. Then, you get half of the net raise in your take home pay, which you can spend on a few little rewards, or increase your lifestyle slightly, while half of the gross (pre tax) raise is going directly to your retirement plan. Do this regularly over your career and you'll be a happy camper when you're ready to retire.

Alternately, you can increase your contributions to an IRA or Roth account, if you've got one set up by now. Your financial planner should have gotten you all set up, right? Or, you can increase the money you're putting away in company stock. As long as it's not cutting into your basic living expense budget, it's usually a good strategy.

In our case, my wife went from contributing $25 a month to $50, then to $100, then $200, over about five years' time. When she finally left the company, she had a pretty substantial investment nest egg of their stock. Additionally, it paid quarterly dividends which were DRIP'd (see Get Rich Slowly's great article on DRIP investing) back into the plan. We ended up making a lot of money on that stock by the time it was all gone. We sold little bits of it here and there, to take advantage of other opportunities.

The second time she participated in an employee stock plan, it wasn't a "match" type of plan, but gave a fixed discount on the price of the stock for money contributed throughout the course of the year, purchased for her at the end of each plan year, based on the lowest price, either at the opening of the year, or at the closing of the year. Even if the stock went down in price, you couldn't lose money!

That plan also offered dividend reinvestment, but we declined it, and had them send my wife a dividend check every quarter, so she'd feel like she was getting some immediate, concrete benefit from the plan. Once every three months, she'd get a nice little "mad money" check from the company, and get to spend it on fun stuff for herself. Use whatever strategy motivates you best.

The point of this tale is not "Woohoo! Look how much money we made!", but that we did it without ever really noticing that the money was not in our budget, because we used the stealth tactics of a) automating the investments and b) investing the money before we ever got the chance to spend it. When you combine those tactics with the effects of free money from an employer match, price subsidy, the compounding effects of dividend reinvestment over time and price appreciation over time, you, too, can have powerful results.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Like a Mighty Army by David Weber

All right, I have to admit here that I'm finally getting a little tired of Weber's massive data dumps, especially on the subject of troop movements and supply logistics. I can't "see" where these forces are located on some map in my mind, and their only purpose seems to be to make this whole world more "real" in the minds of Weber and those who war game for fun and profit. Or is it what he does when he runs out of interesting plot twists and schemes?

The cast of characters alone runs over 80 pages, the glossary another twenty, with six pages of maps up front.

Has Weber reached the point of having nothing new to say? That would be truly sad, but we've seen it with authors before. And what is this "we" I'm spouting? Are the multiple POVs seeping into my brain?

Key takeaways from a nearly 700 page tome. The Empire of Charis continues to implement new manufacturing techniques, with one of the key elements being their establishment of a bureau of standard measurements, which assures interchangeability of parts for their weapons, as opposed to the individual craftsmanship that goes into each and every one of the Churchlands' weapons.

Hektor and Irys and Daivyn return to Corisande, Daivyn is acknowledged as crown prince, Irys elected to the Ruling Council, and Hektor and Irys are wed in a ceremony that binds Charis and Corisande tightly together. An attack by the Church's rakurai leaves both of them grievously wounded, and the only way to save Hektor is via Merlyn's "magic", which lets the two young folks in on the big cabal's secret - the true history of Safehold.

Merlyn, Nahrman and Owl decide to create another PICA, and imbue it with Merlyn's original personality and memories, but returning him to his original gender...and seijin Nimue is born.

Charis launches a major campaign in Siddarmark to take back all of the lands the Church conquered. Long story short, they manage to destroy a huge portion of the Army of God, both on land and at sea, with their new artillery pieces, ironclad ships, and breechloading rifles. The Church is trying to catch up to their methods, but it is difficult to overcome the proscriptions on technology.

Some of Weber's slipping in new names is funny, when you can catch them...a servant named Zheevys, a nobleman named Graem Kyr, the everpresent Nahrman Baytz come immediately to mind, though there are many others.

Nowhere near the end of this saga.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mythbusting Again

From U.S. News and World Report
Paying off debt before saving for retirement a bad choice
Some popular financial pundits urge people to pay off credit card and other non-mortgage debt before saving for retirement. Such advice is arguably the most costly mistake a future retiree can make. While every situation is unique, such blanket advice misses the mark for two reasons.

First, the vast majority of a retirement nest egg does not come from the money you save. It comes from the compounding returns earned off of the money you save.

Compounding requires time. Delaying retirement savings by even a few years can significantly reduce your savings decades later. Second, with today's interest rate environment, it's easy to lower the rates on most debt. From mortgage refinancing to credit cards with 0 percent introductory rates, the cost of debt can be dramatically reduced while you work to pay it off.

True, the vast majority of a retirement nest egg does not come from the amount saved, but from compounding returns over time. But what about the compounding interest on debt?

If you make the minimum payments on credit card debt at 18% or more, you'll end up paying for a long long time, and the interest will vastly outstrip any returns you're like to get, even in a bullish market. For my own long term calculations, I like to use 8% returns over the long haul, which is far more realistic than the 12% Dave Ramsey likes to use in his seminars. It is very very difficult to find a credit card that doesn't charge at least 12% interest, so even if you get Ramsey-like returns on your investments, you're only breaking even, not to mention what it's doing to your cash flow.

For example, on a credit card balance of $15,252 (the US average), at 18% interest, making a 2% minimum payment - and that's a constant payment of 305.04, not the decreasing approximately 2% minimum payment that appears on your statement- it will take you 94 months to pay it off, for a total expenditure of $28,674, nearly double the original amount. That figure gets worse if your interest rate is higher.

To end up with $28,674 in your retirement account over 94 months, at even the generous 12% returns touted by Dave Ramsey, you would need to contribute $185.22 each month. If you try to subtract that amount from the minimum payment you have to make on the credit card debt, you'll never pay the credit card off. The amount owed will simply grow unbounded, even without the extra charges the bank is going to whack you with for not paying the minimum.

And, I'd think it would be obvious to anyone with even a tiny knowledge of arithmetic that if you are only required to pay a 1% minimum on your credit card at 18% APR, once again you can never pay it off! The monthly interest exceeds the payments - just staying even requires a 1.5% minimum payment! At 12% interest and 12% return, your debt doesn't grow, but you pay on it forever, even if you don't run up more when the kids go off to college. Quite frankly, the numbers are more likely to be 6% to 8% return and 18% to 21% credit card interest, for most people.

In the opening line of their advice, they say "paying off credit card and other non-mortgage debt", then they go on to talk about refinancing your mortgage as a solution. Are they advocating wrapping credit card debt into a new mortgage? I have no objection to refinancing a mortgage to get shorter terms and lower interest rates, when possible, but increasing the balance on what's already probably the biggest debt you owe isn't really such a good idea.

Psychologically, most people who refinance credit card debt, whether it's into a mortgage payment, or through some other debt consolidation tactic, end up running the credit cards right back up again in a very short time. From that standpoint alone, it's a very bad idea.

What about transferring the balance to a 0% introductory rate card? If...and it's a big IF...there are absolutely no fees for balance transfers, and IF the 0% rates last at least a year, and IF you divide the balance by 12 and make every equal payment, so that it's paid off within a year, it can be a great idea. Again, what really happens for most people is that they get the 0% interest for one year, and either make minimum payments and/or run the balance up higher with new purchases, and when the rate reverts to its default rate, they're worse off than they were before.

The best idea might be a "balanced" approach, where you contribute at least enough to your 401K plan to get the employer match - it's the risk-free yield you'll ever get, and then pay down your debt as aggressively as you can with what's left over. Note: people generally spend everything they have in the checking account if they don't have a spending plan (budget) in place, so I recommend getting a plan and working it asap.

Ok, rant complete. Have a nice day.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Codex Born by Jim C. Hines

 Hines begins to do a really interesting thing in this book:

"Electronic books lacked the physical resonance of print. The words were nothing but a collection of zeroes and ones translated into a transient image on whatever screen you used to read them. We had always assumed that e-readers would be useless for libriomancy, that the variety of reading devices and the impermanence of the files would prevent anyone from tapping into that collective belief. Porter researchers wrote dire predictions about the dilution of our magic as more readers moved from print to electronic, whittling away at our pool of , belief."

There's a huge debate raging among bibliophiles these days. Some folks think that only the texture, odor, and smell of an actual printed book contribute deeply and profoundly to the reading experience. Others believe it's just the words, the collection of ideas, the narrative, that matters, and whether it's displayed on a screen or printed on a page makes no difference to the reader's pleasure. Personally, I'm leaning towards the latter camp, though I have wonderful memories of loaded bookshelves and mouldering libraries, antiquarian bookstores piled high with tomes. There's just something to be loved about being able to carry your entire collection of thousands of books on a device no bigger than a single paperback book, you know? I enjoy reading ebooks just as much as I do a traditionally bound chronicle. The debate, however, may shape the future of the reading experience forever. Only time will tell, and I love that Hines is addressing the debate's implications for his world here.

Hines introduces a new character, a teenager named Jeneta, who is serving as an intern to Isaac during summer camp, to help him with his research, and help Hines explore the ebook/libriomancy concept. Unfortunately, he doesn't really follow up on it in this book, though it appears he may do something more interesting later on.

I'm sensing a common plot gimmick here. Isaac encounters some ultra powerful enemy, and he's the only one in place to stop or slow them down, so he does something impulsive, dangerous and borderline stupid, and ends up very nearly dying. Only the magical healing powers of some artifact pulled from a book, the skills of some other libriomancer, or the love of his special dryad can pull him back from the brink of death each time it happens.

The long haul plot arc of the series seems to be about the "destroyers", beings from another reality trying to get into ours and get revenge, acquire bodies to possess, and gain power. Leader of the Porters Gutenberg probably knows more about these creatures than he's sharing. This time, a rogue magician has allied with some of Gutenberg's old enemies - Chinese libriomancers who were followers of the eastern inventor of movable type - to try to resurrect his son, who was one of the libriomancers killed by vampires in the first book, but he's being played for a fool by the destroyers.

Major battles ensue, and Isaac and Lena are right in the thick of things all the way. Still amusing, and it's really fun picking up on the SF and Fantasy references.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Nanny State Blues

Ranting variations on a theme

One of the persistent memes in US politics today is that people are essentially incapable of taking care of themselves, and thus the government must be called upon to take care of them – to act in their best interests. I’m not even going to get into the silliness of government officials knowing what’s best for anyone (and how do we know they're more qualified than the folks they're assigned to take care of?); that’s an entirely different discussion. I’m afraid that anyone with even a lick of sense and powers of observation would have to agree with the first principle here – a significant number of people are, quite frankly, not doing a good job of taking care of themselves, and really do need someone to take care of them; the matter of who should do so we’ll leave for another day.


One of the justifications for passing the silly ACA six years ago was that there were millions of uninsured people out there. A segment of the demographics counted was the young people who simply felt that they didn’t need health insurance, or that it was too expensive.

I’ve had some personal and anecdotal experience in that area, as I once worked for a company that offered really nice health insurance coverage at what I felt was a very reasonable price. A young coworker who was also a personal friend determined that he and his lovely wife were young and didn’t want to pay the premium for their coverage.

This was fine until she contracted a rare form of terminal cancer. Her illness and death left him not only emotionally but financially devastated, because he felt that he “couldn’t afford” his portion of the company subsidized the health insurance. How many of the health care bankruptcies in our country start with a tale much like this one?

Yet I am reluctant to endorse legislation which makes it mandatory for a person to purchase health care insurance. It seems a violation of their rights to me.


Every other day in the media and the financial papers, it seems, there is another story about how Americans have only saved an average of $1000, $40000 or some other absurdly low figure in their 401Ks or IRAs. Surely something ought to be done about it, right? Honestly, I’m afraid many people are not quite bright enough to figure out that they really are going to need some money to retire on some day. Maybe they’re relying on hitting the MegaMillions jackpot at some point.

I’m sure a number of them say to themselves, “Some day, when I’m making $X a year, I’ll start to put money in a 401K. Some sweet day!” But for most of them, that day never quite rolls around, and when the kids are finally out of college and the nest is empty, they look around and think, “Wow! I really need to get to work on this retirement thing.”

So, the government proposes some mandatory retirement plan (I thought we already had a pyramid scheme mandatory plan called Social Security) like MyIRA, where they’ll put your money away in an account earmarked just for you. If you’re foolish enough to believe they can be trusted not to spend all of that money, too, I’m not sure your survival instincts are well-developed enough that you’re going to survive long enough to retire, so it may be a moot point.

Again, I don’t believe in coercion to force people to buy government sponsored bonds and slow growth funds in a MyIRA, but someone’s got to beat them about the head and shoulders to wake them up, right?


What about recent legislation in New York which keeps those poor, coke-swilling fat folks from drinking too large a cup of sugar syrup? I mean, it’s painfully obvious that obesity has reached gargantuan (see what I did there?) proportions in the U.S.A these days. Someone ought to do something about it!

Maybe if we just require bigger (supersized?) nutritional labels on the food we buy in the convenience stores, people will be able to read them. I hadn’t realized there was a connection between Type II diabetes and myopia, but perhaps I’m just oblivious to the obvious.

Verily, verily, I give unto you the most obvious commandment of them all. In order to lose weight, you must “Exercise more and eat less”. I have a personal friend who lost over 150 pounds by following those two simple rules over a year’s time. A stunning transformation!

I’m pretty certain even a kindergarten child can understand the concept, so we are we a nation of fatties? It can’t be a matter of awareness, it has to be all about self-control. But should we cede to the government the right to determine our diet? What if I like chocolate cake? Should some bureaucratic be allowed to rip it from my grasp? He can take if from my cold, dead, hands, if he dares.


What about safety issues, like motorcycle helmet laws, seatbelt laws, the mandatory use of child safety seats? When you remove my automatic, cynical reaction which tells me that someone at Graco is lobbying their congresscritter to keep making stricter child safety seat laws which oh so coincidentally coincide with their introduction of the latest, greatest and…dare I say it?...more expensive model, there’s not a whole lot of there there.

First, I believe that wearing a helmet makes riding a motorcycle somewhat safer, or at least not quite as likely to result in massive head injuries. I never ride anywhere without one, and I would never let a passenger ride without one. But do we really have to tell adults that they must wear them or be cited? If you're over 21, and I tell you not to stick your face in the lion's mouth, my responsibility pretty much ends there, if you decide to do it anyway. Again, I think some senator's brother-in-law owns a helmet manufacturing company, and came up with a new way to drum up some business.

Don't even get me started on the new "overfill protection" propane tanks we all had to buy to replace our perfectly good old "unsafe" tanks.

Child safety seats I can actually support, to some degree, as we all have an obligation to protect the small and helpless in our care. But it just seems crazy that every other year a new study comes out telling us which way they have to face, directly contradicting last year's data. I think that if you're hurtling down the road a mile a minute in a great big pile of steel, Murphy's Law is eventually going to catch up with you, and people are going to get hurt, no matter which way their seat is pointing.

I'm actually amazed sometimes, as I cruise down the multi-lane freeways, that all these people, each with their own agenda, manage to navigate to and fro every day with as little mayhem as they do. Think about it.

Ok, I'll climb down off my soapbox for a bit now.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Flip this Zombie by Jesse Petersen

 It's a bit disappointing when an author begins with a good gimmick, but fails to follow through. Some of the Pratchett Discworld novels have lost their sense of humor at the midpoint, and Tom Kratman's very intriguing use of the final sentence of each chapter to set the scene for the first sentence in the next chapter was fun to dissect, until he abruptly stopped doing it. In the Living with the dead series, the really cute bit was the motivational saying at the beginning of each chapter; in Married with Zombies they were about marriage counseling and relationships, and this one started out with business slogans, but the connection to zombies became very tenuous after the first chapter, which had the heading, "Do what you love, and the zombies will follow."

Sarah and Dave have shifted south, just like the snowbirds, to Arizona to avoid the cold winters of the Northwest, and have established a reputation as very good zombie killers. They begin to hear rumors of "bionic" zombies, which are much more aware of their surroundings than ordinary shamblers, and faster, too. The pair are contacted by a scientist, Dr. Kevin Barnes, a survivor living in a pre-Apocalypse military facility and asked to help him by capturing zombies instead of killing them, they are initially reluctant to help, even though he shows them his serum which can restore zombie guinea pigs (I know, right?) back to normal life.

The clinching argument, however, turns out to be a hot shower for Sarah. Electricity and hot and cold running water have gotten scarce since the zombie plague, and the chance to get clean and smell good trumps all. During their first outing to capture a fresh zombie for Kevin, the duo rescue a 12 year old boy, Robby, who is being chased by a pair of zombies, and keep him from being eaten. He is so grateful to them that...Naw, he's actually a rotten little conniving brat who demands a share of the proceeds from the captured zombie which he "led to them." They end up dragging him back to the secret underground lair of the mad scientist, and he tags along on their next excursion as well.

Again, some fun zombie killing action, some snarky dialogue, and a believable protagonist duo make this an entertaining and very quick read - took me about three hours from start to finish.

And there's a sequel.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Grow Your Own in Pots by Kay Maguire

There was a time when the title of this book might have had an entirely different connotation in my life, but in my middle-aged state, we're simply talking about fresh vegetables, folks, so don't get your hopes up.

For very nearly as long as I can remember, I've been a fan of fresh vegetables from the garden, especially tomatoes, and since my wife and I bought our first house, we've always had a garden spot. I decided that this year I wanted to try growing some tomatoes in large pots along a sunny fence in our back yard, so I picked up Kay Maguire's book to make sure I'm doing things correctly.

Some good tomato growing tips:
  • Pollenate tomatoes by misting the flowers or shaking them to help set fruit
  • Companion plants for tomatoes are marigolds, borage and basil
  • Trim the plants down to one main stem until five "trusses" develop, then pinch back tops
  • Feed weekly with 5-5-10
This book has great illustrations of space-saving projects, with step by step instructions, and everything is esthetically pleasing as well as allegedly productive. One downside, however, is that Maguire doesn't do a very good job of defining terms for the non-professional gardener. Perhaps she's written a basic gardening book, and assumes we all will have read it prior to reading this one.

Some of instructions also seem contradictory. For example, in order to keep plants in pots more humid and reduce watering needs, she suggests clustering them all together in groups in a convenient spot. But to avoid garden pests, like bugs, from spreading from one plant to another, she tells us to keep space between them. Sounds more like an art form than a science, which I suppose is to be expected.

For those who are interested, there was a fairly large section on how to grow fruit trees, including citrus, in pots, which could come in handy in colder climates, where you could take the plants inside during the winter months, and back outdoors when the summer sun reappears.

I liked the projects where she grows sweet potatoes in those cloth grocery bags, cilantro in an old colander (drat, I threw mine away), and rows of lettuce in crates. Lots of great ideas here.