27 July 2007

Water Cost $1. Knowing it came from the tap, priceless.


Of course, those of us in the know already knew most bottled water is merely tap water. Tap water in the US is actually cleaner than most bottled water simply because it is so heavily regulated to be that way, so it makes sense to simply bottle it up in a package and send it off to earn a pretty penny. I wouldn't recommend buying the stuff anyway unless several conditions are met. Is it real spring water. Is it for emergency purposes (like if there's a flood/hurricane/power outage). And is it in bulk and therefore dirt cheap. Otherwise, what a rip.

car chase, not for a while


Apparently the pressure to cover high speed police chases must be intense. Because I can't imagine why we'd need two following it, let alone a third which witnessed the crash between the other two. Personally I can't figure out why they need to cover them anyway.. but that's just me.

The silver lining, if there is such a thing here, is that perhaps the media will put some new regs on the choppers and we won't be bothered with such silly stories as a high speed pursuit in progress. Perhaps not.

22 July 2007

top ten lists

CNN top 10 list of most viewed stories from today. There are few which were missing which might have been important, but it is a convenience to me to see which are the top 10.


This is a fun story and is an impressive feat, if the tallest building record wasn't toppled every couple of years now days. So it's really not that important yet since the building isn't done yet anyway.


Who? Why is this important at all? A former corrupt televangelist's ex-wife dies. Big deal.


I guess that's important. The headline though was odd. It read, US strikes not wanted. Really? A country doesn't want us to attack? What a shock.


Stories about the following are irrelevant fluff pieces: Bus/train/airplane crashes, school shootings, building fires. Yes they are terrible tragedies, but they have no real importance unless they are part of a larger story. IE, a series of arsons, defects in airplane construction/maintenance, etc. Otherwise, I don't care.


This is a story? Oh no! I was trapped in a national landmark for hours without power! Woe is me!


This would be useful if the myths dealt with things that matter. ED, hair loss, laptops effecting sperm counts? Whatever. Give me the mythbusters show and get rid of this segment. At least entertain me when (dis)proving a myth.


NASA really isn't news. It's sort of cool to see stuff in space though. And storms on other planets are pretty impressive. But again, what exactly is the impact on us here?


This is basically relevant news and its ongoing. Yay. But somehow talking about the weather just seems so banal.


Let me know when she passes Mao on the best seller list. Jesus would be next in line. I can't say I'm impressed with the quality of work she's doing, but at least kids are reading something. That's a start.


Hey, look at that, an actual story.. buried at 10. Way to go viewing public!

A few that didn't make the cuts. Israel released 250 or so of Abbas' foot soldiers to help in his war against Hamas for control of Palestinians attacking Israelis. That's an odd twist. And the Turks elected by a wide plurality a populist Islamist/free market government. What a weird combo. Stricter religiousness and free market economics? That will have interesting ramifications on both the Iraq war (because the Turks are fighting the Kurds) and the EU (because the EU has lots of issues with Islamists lately). Somehow or other those two stories were buried. Same with the ongoing Nigerian lawsuit against Pfizer.


17 July 2007

Surprise! you are a terrorist


Nice work people. They're certainly very sneaky with those children and bombs on airplanes and such. Children younger than this are a terror on airplanes. But they are not quite terrorists.

401k Good, bad and Ugly

Back again to my real job (which is not complaining about politicians).


401k Plans are a type of qualified retirement plan. Most of these share similiar features that make them an imperfect way to save for retirement, at least by themselves. We are sold on them for a variety of reasons, that the company matches, that it is easy, that it will grow, and that we receive a tax break for them. Ultimately we are told also that we will be in a lower tax bracket when we receive distributions, which makes the tax deferral a useful strategy. I propose to examine these tall tales and see what's left of use.

First keep in mind there is one true tidbit of note and use. The employer match. This is free money. It's not as substantial as people think. If they gave us a check for us to do with as we pleased immediately, it would be a true match. As it is, the money is subject to a partnership. With the I.R.S. Who tells us how much they are going to take. Doesn't sound like a partner to me. Additionally, they tell us when we can use it. If we want to use it sooner, they usually hit us with amazing penalties and taxes. So ultimately that match turns out to be alot less because of the eroding factors of taxes and time. But yes, it's still free money. That's the good.

Now the bad. It's true it is easy because the money comes directly from our paychecks. But the tricky part is where it goes. Some companies require the match or even the entirety go into company stock. This is really dangerous. Relying on one stock for financial independence is generally ill-advised to begin with. But when that stock also happens to be your employer, if they go belly-up not only would you lose your retirement, but also your job. The double-whammy is certain failure. My advice there is to look for a way to move it as soon as possible. Even without a forced match, many people are overwhelmed by the options, large-cap, small-cap, etc. Without someone of reasonable economic education to advise them, most people either choose to invest when they should be saving (which is riskier) or save when they should invest (which is often too conservative). Concurrently, many people treat this as a private savings account that they can use. When they switch employers, rather than rolling over the accounts, they spend them. Thus not only is the money used poorly, it's gone and it generates a huge out of pocket tax burden. This is really, really bad.

The ugly is the last mystery and myth behind the curtain. We are told that we are receiving a tax break and that we will be in a lower tax bracket when we go to use the money. First of all a tax deferral is not a tax break. The tax is still there, but now it is an uncertain tax that we will owe on the earnings as well as the principal. No problem, we're told we'll be in a lower tax bracket when we retire. But how does one achieve this mythical status? There are three ways to be in a lower tax bracket. First is deductions, such as home mortgage interest, but the house is paid off usually by that time, so that's out. Second is children, but the kids better be moved out by 59 1/2. So that leaves make less income. Since many people may be foolishly counting on pensions (which are dying off) or social security income (already dead to me), this is entirely possible that it will be true that there will be less income. But is this assumption that we will have less income a good one, or even a healthy one? I submit that it is not. Consider the expansion of technology that has occurred over the past 30 years. Did the average person have a computer, cell phone, DVD player in their homes 30 years ago? They did not. These are all new expenses to a daily lifestyle which is potentially increasing. Did the average person spend as much on medical care? They did not. The assertion that we will need less money to live on when we retire is probably a poor diagnosis. And in fact, we find evidence that it is a poor diagnosis when we examine what financial planners are telling us. They tell us cure to this problem is to work longer or accept lower standards of living. This is a cure? Why not just simply keep the same standard of income to begin with without having to work longer? Shouldn't this be what our planner has been doing for us?

There is still another problem. The tax is still out there floating on us. We cannot say with any certainty what the tax rates themselves will be in the future, but it is perhaps safe to assume they will be higher than they are at present. If that's the case, even if we stay in the same bracket we will pay more. It's entirely possible we could move into that lower bracket and still pay more. Taking the lack of control we have over tax rates out of the equation, the assumption that we should be in a lower tax bracket is still valid. But we can only do that by having income that is not taxable. The income from a qualified plan, the 401k, is entirely taxable. Both income and principal are sitting there over many years generating interest and earnings for us, and our partner. Einstein called compound interest the 8th wonder of the world. This would be true if it wasn't subject to compound tax as well. Our partner, the I.R.S, will decide to tell us when we go to retire and spend this money what they will take of it. Sharing in our success and tireless saving with the greatest of ease.

So what can be done about it? Certainly getting the free money from our employers is a laudable goal. Beyond that, there is no reason to use a 401k as a vital asset for our financial independence. It must be combined with other more flexible (and non-taxable) methods in order to work effectively. There are some better options coming into the situation in the form of ROTH 401ks for example. But thus far, few employers have gone into this, and even fewer will have bothered to explain the potentially vital difference. ROTH accounts are taxed on the initial contribution only, all the earnings are free of tax so long as they are used in specific ways (such as retirement, but also education, buying first home,etc). This subtle difference is potentially a great one when we go to spend the money we've earned over a lifetime.

15 July 2007

politician says something stupid, must be another day

"I wonder what the good governor would say to the French, who drink more, smoke more, eat more cheese and still live longer than us despite paying less for health care?"

Huckabee is the 'good governor' here in question. Since he's not a legitimate candidate, he gets to say things that might be considered relevant, if they were in fact useful. Once in a while, something slips though. He decided to bash Michael Moore, somewhat indirectly, by saying that Americans should take more control over maintaining healthy lifestyles rather than depend the more expensive route of seeing the doc as they become sickly and fattened. In reply, one of Moore's producers shot back the previous quoted line. To which I have some things to say.

"who drink more". This is true the French consume more alcohol per capita. However it's mostly wine and it is not true that the average Frenchie is an alcoholic guzzling down wine glass after glass. (this will be the only time I'll defend the Frenchies, it has to happen sometime). Wine, if anyone cared to research before they blast away, actually effects health in a positive manner, unlike beer (the American drink of choice). At least in moderate doses, which is all most people would drink at one time. Beer is usually just empty calories and must also be consumed in higher quantity to achieve the level of punch that wine has. Good all around.

"smoke more" - I'm guessing this is a characterization, otherwise, it's really the only line that has any weight behind it.

"eat more cheese" - This is really stupid. What's wrong with cheese? Eating it by the wheel would be pretty unhealthy, but outside of Ron Burgundy's Baxter, I've never heard of such a thing. The French also eat their cheese and drink more milk in its rawer states. Which means to us, it tastes better too. We on the other hand have to sell real milk with the label of 'artificial', because it hasn't been chemically (read: artificially) blasted to prevent bacteria from forming when it sits around for a few days.

"pay less for health care" - someone is still paying for it, in their case the taxpayer. If they're reasonably healthy, which the above 'problems' do very little to imply any serious health risks of the general population and do not at all note any positive measures that the French do employ which we do not (portions are smaller, people tend to have more vacations=less stress, food is fresher and better prepared, etc).

I'm not going to go to total war against universal health care. I suspect the proper course is to create better standardization between the various insurance companies to cut the ridiculous overhead down to size. Hospitals, according to the insider perspective I get from doctors, do much to encourage people to come in here in America, when they often don't need to. Concurrently, our population is pretty much out of shape and vaguely resemble a sniveling clod of human ailments. And our drug companies want us to feel that way (watch the ads, go get some drug that you have no idea what it's for).

As usual, Moore makes a few quick hits but fails to really notice what's really at stake here before proceeding to a quick prescription to the problem and dismissing his critics as heartless bastards. Drug companies in other countries have to supply a good deal more information than sound bytes and possible side effects voiced over a suddenly happy little round clod. I have no problem with our own having to compete within this framework instead and having to compete with international drug companies, thus ameliorating the price considerations by limiting advertising and creating more credible competition. As far as UHC, I'm not convinced on the basis of the greed and infidelity of private insurance companies that we need to nationalize our system. That seems like the bazooka hunting the mosquito approach. Besides, not all of them are corrupt bastards (perhaps more than most for now, but there's way too much money involved here anyway, we're bound to get screwed). I believe that market forces do eventually force companies to behave. Films like Moore's tend to produce enough public outcry to force internal regulatory effects. If whatever lacking for credibility or accuracy (generally of omission of facts), the sensationalism does produce stark contrasts that people can easily grasp and run with politically. Where the problem lies is in his scripted result. Essentially Moore makes a film in order to prove his already held opinions and ignores objective data standing in the way of it. Along the way a few useful points are made and then buried under a political agenda. Do we and should we take issue with the way health insurance is handled in this country. Indeed we should. Should we take offenses to the way drug companies behave and influence public policy (along with unethical docs), yes we should. Should we consider the advantages of other countries health care systems? Yes. But what are they really? Is the advantage that the health care is 'free' and readily available? Probably not. I suspect the advantage lies in other factors, in the proper relationships between doctor and patient by practicing general medicine more effectively and availably. Here we're farmed off to a specialist or a surgeon before we've even finished signing all the forms. It's hideously more expensive that way for one thing. And on the list could go here. I'll not bore us any longer with the ideas of health care reform, because there was a larger tidbit that needs addressing.

The problem here is not merely limited to health insurance and drug companies; virtually any lobby carries more weight in DC than the public. Maybe we should start by simply making a movie focusing on the overall damage of corporate lobbying and the successful inroads it has on public opinion as a whole, as well as the outright bribery and influence peddling it does. I think we would understand with greater clarity that there are two major necessities of this disease. One. We, the people, must become better informed and activated in our political duties. This does not mean that we should do one or the other. We must do both. And two, we must not tolerate corruption, graft or other underhanded dealings involving influence. I view it personally as akin to treason, but with a view to private benefit rather than some other state. China just shot one for this reason, maybe that's the starting point. Public servants must be selected with an eye toward the public good, rather than a public sound byte. Of the various candidates for president 08', I've yet to hear anyone outline anything with great seriousness. It's mostly sound bytes and broadly arched plans for the future. Give me some specifics and quit firing broadsides at each other. Or else we're going to need something like the Reign of Terror to clear the room. At least the French came up with some interesting ways to publicly execute people.

For the record, Huckabee's an idiot too. I just happened to like something that was said in the sense that it gave me something to write about.

12 July 2007

125mil for this?

Speaking of people and money. This is really stupid.


For those of you, which is most, who aren't skilled at reading sports stats, this guy isn't very good, he is decent at scoring and that's it. Zero other skills, defense, rebounds, passing.. etc. And he just got a 125 million dollar contract over the next 6 years. Go figure.

It does make one wonder though. If people in other facets of life were paid this exorbitantly, that could be funny. We'd read about the deals a factory worker who drops stuff all the time gets and bitch and moan about it just like this now.

rural dems oppose mpg?


What the hell is a rural democrat? How is this different from an urban one? Should it be different? Seriously people, we need more than two parties.

As far as the actual story, things at work here are not bad by themselves. I'm always amazed that how public policy that has some good intentions has to be propped up by bad science and thus made easily open to attack. I don't care about GCC, but having our cars run on less gasoline makes perfect sense to me. Or having less smog in our cities and so forth. These things do not bother me. When its somehow connected to this idea that we're destroying the planet and endangering our very existence, no thanks. We're not going to save the planet by doubling the fuel efficiency of our automobiles. We might be giving our economy some breathing room, and certainly there's nothing wrong with playing it safe and finding ways to reduce pollution. I don't like pollutants anymore than the next person.

But carbon emissions aren't going to destroy the world themselves. Why we need a tax on them I don't know. Tax the gas, they're already doing that. Europeans made a concerted effort to tax the hell out of the stuff, same with Japan. Where do our fuel-efficient cars come from.. oh that's right. Europe and Japan. Shocking. It doesn't take the so called "man on the moon" idea to get our fuel addictions down to a more moderate level. It just takes some fiddling with the supply and demand. The market will provide. Keep buying Japanese cars. Eventually Detroit will either get the picture or go out of business.

Two problems. One this Dingell character is ok in criticizing the GCC crowd that seems to be 'in charge'. Who cares if they're in the same party, they're obviously not the same ideologically. But two, what the hell is 35 mpg for cars going to do? I already get that and I don't have a hybrid or a plug in (it is Japanese though). Look for something more radical as a goal. Like 60. Even if we don't make it, so what. We'd get to something more useful like 45-50 mpg as industry standard. Right now Detroit is lucky to make a car that gets over 20 IRL as opposed to the fake stickers they put on them.

We're surrounded, give up


Thought this was interesting. It's fairly long (almost as long as my health care essay, but much more researched and with some graphs thrown in). The basic gist was easily summarized on the first couple pages though. Human beings when given something objectively and observationally obvious can do a fine job using large numbers of statistics to come up with decent or correct answers. The weight of an ox, the location of a historical site, and so forth. But understanding abstract concepts like economics or foreign policy appears to be something that needs to be left to experts, or at least people with a moderate level of education. One line which was particularly amusing (besides the line on the Berlin Wall) was this one: "pondering two more facts could keep us up at night. Fact 1, the economics the average introductory student absorbs is disappointingly small." The entire essay seems to suggest that people are generally purposefully ignorant and thus irrational, which is a common problem not just with economics. Continuing with the excerpt: "Fact Two: below average students are above-average citizens. Most voters never take a single course in economics. If it is disturbing to imagine the bottom half of the class voting on economics policy, it is frightening to realize that the general population already does. The typical voter, to whose opinions politicians cater, is probably unable to earn a passing grade in economics" To that I say, along with just about anything else of empirical study (history, sociology, etc). People are comfortable with things that have answers, because that's how we're brought into things educationally. Math has an answer (at low levels, most people never study into harmonics, proofs, or non-linear dynamics), science sometimes does as well. History rarely ever does. All it does is make more questions. Its a never ending cycle of dialectic that just annoys people to study. They're more comfortable listing off semi-factual information rather than linking it together into a coherent world view.

I'm always amazed that the average person seems to equate my study of philosophy as an indicator that I must be extremely smart. To me it is hardly a mark of intelligence to study philosophy (although Kant or Aristotle does feel like reading Yoda if you're not doing your mental exercises). Practicing it on the other hand...that's a rare gift. But then, the average person is easily impressed by the wealth of random facts I can offer up to them to dissuade their bizarre world views, in any direction I so choose. The average person also doesn't read these things either. So I feel safe in launching my war against the dumbmasses. It's just too tiresome to deal with the idea that democracy fails because the good people are too dumb and too lazy to make it work.

03 July 2007

muslim radicalism, linked


While I'm not directly fearful for my life, I do recognize that this is one of the major destabilizing forces at work in the world today. Not surprisingly, it has religion at its core power source, but if you read along you see that it is not the religion itself, but the various individual interpretations of it that are of note. This is a central problem of Islam itself. It was always intended that individuals would interpret the Qo'ran and that a central clergy was not wanted or needed. This is of course ridiculously impractical, as people read certain passages with gusto and others with disdain, leading to conflicting viewpoints of extremism with no margin for discourse. But in any case, those certain passages do allow for the vicious acts of violence in Allah's name. That Islam as a moderating influence has refused to acknowledge this flaw and begin to debate the theological grounds for this abomination only leads to more problems. For whatever Christianity's flaws and errors, and they are many, it has progressed (slowly) through a series of theological self-examinations and recriminations. Islam however is designed to squash debate over itself. Thus the mindset can be recycled back to the early days of jihad and into a system of disorganized chaos (not even directed or purposeful, just mindless slaughter). With the technology available to wipe out a crowded marketplace of people with a single devout person, Islam will have to grow up much, much faster.

01 July 2007

Light em up?


For those of you who smoke, thought this might be interesting. Probably not planning a trip to the British Isles anytime soon I take it.

I found a few points here worthy of further comment:
"Smoking is the single most preventable cause of death". Actually this is probably incorrect. Smoking is heavily related to various forms of ailments, but I'd have to say that weight related stuff is passing it, if not already then soon. So I'd say (over) eating/improper nutrition is the most preventable cause of death. In developing countries, maybe smoking is up there (and rising, they're called emerging markets for a reason). But it's still probably behind lack of adequate diet/water and third to lack of adequate health care in the first place.

"harm done by tobacco smoke is now known to be significantly dangerous"- the same person in fact from the story. Not surprisingly, they're from an advocacy group. In point of fact, secondhand smoke is not overly harmful. It's just extremely annoying. If someone were to sit in a smoke-infested room for hours on end (such as the employees), then perhaps I'd say that's a raw deal with health effects from many months or years of exposure. To that I say, find a different job. But for most of us non-coughers, smoking is merely unpleasant, not deadly. It's unpopular to say so, and hey, I don't want to be around the stuff myself. Bad science doesn't support popular politics though.

"A quarter of adults smoke, with the level higher among those doing manual and routine jobs." -- Again from my long protracted essay (which I'm sure nobody would bother to try to read it all) on health care, poor people (those who do the manual and routine jobs) are more likely to smoke. There are no suggested alternatives in this ban or any other ban I know of to deal with this problem. I had a suggestion which did not require us to ban private businesses from permitting smokers in their domains. As the story later points out, it's going to directly affect, even if only temporarily, some businesses. That should not be the idea. The idea is to limit as naturally as possible the number of smokers (particularly among the poor) by making the choice a harsher one. Bans in public places do not directly reduce the number of smokers at all statistically the way a hit to the pocketbook does. I ask how exactly this improves public health?

"People will still be able to smoke at home, although those receiving home visits from local authority employees can expect to be asked not to smoke for a period before they arrive." -- I thought this was cute. Even though I would prefer myself if I was to visit someone who smokes that they do exactly this, I would not require it. It is after all their domain, and they are the master of their own domain. I'm not sure if this is a requirement or a 'suggestion', but I can imagine it will make it's way to a requirement before long. Always a wonderful thing when the government flexes into our private domains. I'd have to wonder also how this would work with someone who is being arrested or having their property searched. It's not like they'd call ahead and say, yes hurry up and destroy the evidence too while you're not smoking.

"Offshore oil rigs, hotel rooms and prison cells are among the few places where public smoking will continue to be permitted" -- I suppose it doesn't make sense to disallow criminals. Trading of smokes is one more thing which keeps inmates from rioting. And a hotel room is sort of like a private apartment. But the offshore oil rig? Does that really make sense to allow someone lighting up right above a complex machine that is dredging up inflammable substance? Seems a bit this side of stupid to me.