Monday, March 15, 2010

Just a little update...

...I don't want anyone to worry about me if you don't hear from me for a few weeks...Captain America and I will be in Switzerland and Italy, and quite frankly, I'm hoping blogging will be just about the last thing on my mind. But I will fill you in when I return! And hopefully I'll be smart enough to upload pictures!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Happiness Project

I've added The Happiness Project to my blog list. It's something that I've been reading for a while, but I didn't want to add it to my list because I wasn't sure if I liked it. Sometimes it seems so...quaint...neive...innocent. As if you can just decide to be happier. And she wrote a book, which she shamelessly promoted on her blog. And I was just thinking, another self-help book, but I added it to my reading list anyway. I'm never going to get to everything on my reading list. *Sigh* So sad.

And then, BookSnob, another blog I've been reading, but wasn't sure I liked, wrote a review of The Happiness Project (the book, not the blog), and she compared it to Eat, Pray, Love, but more like for the rest of us who can't take a year vacation to foreign countries to figure out our problems. And she (Katy Keim) mentioned that it was very brave of Gretchen Rubin to tell people (at cocktail parties, etc) that she was starting a happiness project. I mean, think about that conversation. Random party goer: So Gretchen, what are you doing this weekend? Gretchen: I'm starting a happiness project! I'm going to do a ton of research and read a bunch of works by all sorts of people and figure out what actually works to make me happier and what doesn't, and I'm going to write a blog about it! Random party goer: Uh-huh.

So then I thought, what if she's actually sincere? What if Gretchen really wants to make herself happier, and she wants to help others (me!) do it to? And then (and then!) she posted this post about the office. I haven't actually seen the clip she's referring to, but based on her description, I can totally see it in my head (yes, my imagination works like that). I really like Pam and Jim, too. They're really nice, really decent people, who aren't always right, but even when they're wrong, they're not that wrong either. If the entire show had characters like them, you'd want to puke. But it doesn't, so it works.

My husband bought me a house, too. I mean, I helped, but really, he bought me a house. I should be happier about it. I have a house! With three bedrooms and a yard and trees! But then there's that pesky should. It's very easy to get into trouble when one thinks one should something when one does not.

Gretchen Rubin includes this in her post:
One of my resolutions is to Imitate a spiritual master, and my spiritual master is Saint Therese of Lisieux. I often puzzle over a particular line she wrote, an observation that seems very significant to me, but that I don’t really understand: “for the love of God and my Sisters (so charitable toward me) I take care to appear happy and especially to be so.”

I'm going to work on being happy about the house my husband bought me. Despite the problems. We discussed just the other night about how no one has a perfect house. And even if we built it ourselves, we know we'd move in and think, we should have done this, we should have done that. It's probably easier to be happy about the one I've got rather than to go and build a new one.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A numberline with no 0

I just finished reading my January 18, 2010 Fortune Magazine. Yes, I'm a little behind, but that's nothing compared to my Businessweek situation. The last column in Fortune was The Decade that Was by Stanley Bing.

Except he has it all wrong. Not his assessment. Just that the decade hasn't ended yet. 2009 is not the last year of the decade. In fact, no year that ends in "9" ever is the last year of the decade. Yes, yes, I drew numberlines in grade schools. But with timelines, there's no year 0. When was Jesus born? Right. Year 1 on our calendar. What was the year before that? Year 1 BC.

Every ten years or so this issue comes up. On one side are the people like me, who are right, and on the other side are the people who think my side is nuts, and that it's more fun to party like it's 1999, or '09, or '19, than to worry about random quirks of time.

And you know what, it doesn't really matter. Time only moves forward, so it's not like any of us are ever going to see a scenario in which there might be a year 0 (although I bet the problems that would cause would be way more interesting than the decade that was, or was not yet, depending on your point of view).

But I'm still right.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wow! A post on vocabulary, Harry Potter, and technology. What more could you want?

A new word has recently been introduced into my vocabulary, and I'm not sure I'll ever manage to use it quite properly. You know the sort of word I mean. You see it in writing, and you get it, but your tongue doesn't roll over it, and it's definition in context doesn't exactly line up with what Mr. Webster says, so you're not exactly sure you'll get it right if you use it yourself. Today's word: apparatgeist. Wikipedia categorizes it's entry on apparatgeist as "words coined in the 2000s," so while all you science types out there don't think wikipedia is a real source, I would make that argument that for developing, changing, evolving things, like modern vocabulary, it might just accurately reflect the changes. And besides, wikipedia is a great starting ground for trying to understand something.

My sister once came up with the word "disgusterating," meaning something that is both disgusting and aggravating (I think she was applying it to me, love), although I don't think it's been officially "coined."

Tangents aside, an apparatgeist is a term that suggests the spirit of the machine, both in the design of the technology and the significance accorded it by "users, non-users, and anti-users" (or: everybody). In my imagination, this means that Peeves is now able to use cellphones, remote-controlled vehicles, and remotely detonated dungbombs within Hogwarts' walls, which we all know isn't possible, because, like Hermione, we've all read Hogwarts, a History.

Right. So I learned this term through an article in The Economist called "The Apparatgeist calls: How you use your mobile phone has long reflected where you live. But the spirit of the machines may be wiping away cultural differences." The article discusses, how, anywhere in the world you say a modern technology, like television, and people know what you're talking about, but cell phones don't fit that bill because people in different places call them different things. Americans call them cell phones, referring to the technology used to make them work, but some countries call them mobiles, referring to their usefulness, while others call them handys (yes, that's the spelling in the article), referring to their size. The article does not discuss the age-related terms. My friends don't call them anything that I can think of. We just say, call me, or, text me. But my mother, on the other hand, will tell me I can call her because she'll have her cell phone with her (uh, why wouldn't you have your phone with you?...oh, right, because it might be attached to the wall in your house).

Apparently, people use their phones differently in other countries, and have different attitudes about phone use. The Spanish, it seems, find it rude to not answer a call, regardless of what else may be going on (in my world, I have a cell phone for my convenience. Captain America also has a cell phone for my convenience. So I might not answer a call, but Captain America had better have a good reason for not taking my call!).

Local economics might be a factor in cell phone usage, too. In countries where air time is expensive, but phones are relatively cheap, a person might buy a flashier phone, but talk less. If phones are highly-subsidized, people are less likely to take good care of them because the resale values are nonexistent.

Also, in some countries, cell phone penetration rates are over 100% because people have more than one phone (full disclosure: I have more than one phone. I have a free one from my company, and the one I had before I started my job. It has a contract, so I'm waiting for that to expire. I'm too much of a Luddite to think I need more than one phone to look cool. Or maybe I'm just too cool to need to look cool, because a true Luddite probably wouldn't even own a cell phone in the first place.).

Much like an MBA class exercise, Nokia breaks down cell phone users by category, rather than geography. There are "simplicity seekers," who only want their phones for emergencies, "technology leaders," who want the latest devices, and "life jugglers," or people who use their phones to coordinate the many aspects of their lives (think: soccer moms).

In the long run, according to the article, most national use differences will disappear. Personally, I think users will move towards smart phones, or whatever Apple has in the pipeline that's going to be even better than the iPhone. But this is going to be problematic for service providers, who will need to develop more robust (and expensive) networks.

Here's the bigger question, which the article places in the last paragraph: are we becoming slaves to technology? I'm going to say yes, and no. Technology has done some wonderful things. I love being able to google anything and find an answer. I love being able to send friends' links to things they might find interesting. I also love that technology has allowed the creation of amazing devices, such as AED defibrillators, which even I am capable of using.

However, I don't subscribe to twitter (is subscribe really the right word?). Really? You think every thought you have that you can voice in 140 characters is important? Or how about the way that technology can spread illogical panic? H1N1 anyone? Let's kill all the pigs, and oh, yeah, by the way, pandemic means it's been found on all continents. Not that people are dying all over the place. Good job, newscasters!

Also, I think constantly being connected should only be a tool to further relationships, not a surrogate. I'd rather have face-to-face conversations with friends. That not always being possible, sure email and texts are good. I never moved back to my hometown after high school, and I've moved to two different states since I've graduated from college, so I feel I can say, with some degree of accuracy, I'm not really friends with any of my friends that I never actually see. Which is not to say we've had a fight, or don't like each other anymore. Electronic communication alone does not cement relationships. And too many electronic relationships without enough physical ones will foster loneliness.

So what's a person to do? Technology should work for you, not the other way around. Everything in moderation is a pretty good policy, for well, everything. You really can turn off the computer and have coffee with a friend, or put the phone down and talk to your spouse over dinner. And if you've already figured out a way to moderate your technology usage? Good for you! That makes you way cooler than a flashy phone, in my book, anyway!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

How to apply cost accounting to life...sort of

I'm going to start off this blog by saying that I am not a cost accountant. I'm a revenue accountant. But way back in undergrad, I did have to take a cost accounting class, and I actually enjoyed it. (This is unusual, even for accountants. Cost accounting is a big pain in the butt that no one likes to do except for a few freaky people. Apparently I'm one of them.)

The basic idea in cost accounting is to add up all of the costs of something so you can figure out what it's price should be. There are two types of costs: fixed and variable. Yes, we accountant types are very creative. Fixed costs are generally set, at least for the time being, and include things like overhead and wages, while variable costs vary with the number of units produced. So rent and salaries are fixed costs, while materials are variable. Hourly wages and energy use fall into that gray area about which accountants argue, and is the reason all of you out there who aren't accountants still don't want to be accountants.

There's a relatively new business idea out there called the triple bottom line. The three pieces are the economic bottom line (the one we're all used to thinking about), the ecological bottom line, and the social bottom line. The idea is that companies that do well in all three are really, really great companies, and that the other ones just suck by comparison. I'm a capitalist by nature. I believe that a company's job is to make money for its shareholders. The end. I'm not heartless. I just don't think that it's a company's job to solve the world's problems. I don't think a company should be obligated to support the special Olympics, or saving baby animals, or whatever. Those are good causes, sure, but it's not the job of a company to further them.

However, companies have found that people like buying their stuff even more if they support a cause, or try to improve the areas where their stores are located, or reduce the environmental impact of their products. I love that Coca-Cola is a sponsor of the special Olympics; I love that Starbucks purchases fair trade coffee and tries to help it's farmers improve their skills without destroying the environment; I love that Kashi sells whole grains and not bleached wheat crap.

Based on the concept of a triple bottom line, a consumer would pay for all of the costs associated with a product, including the social and environmental costs, and not just the financial costs. So that can of Coke that's helping to sponsor the special Olympics? Well, you'd also have to pay to carbon-offset the energy used to make that can, and it's contents, including the high-fructose corn syrup. And that corn syrup, well, it relies on petroleum-based fertilizer, that's being washed away by rain, potentially entering our drinking water, but also wrecking havoc in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. And, on top of that, it's (at least partially) causing the obesity problem in our country. And that obesity problem is causing health care costs to go up, because, **GASP** obese people have more health problems than people with a healthy body weight. So now that can of coke, which under traditional cost accounting, probably cost about $0.30 to make, and sells for $0.75, now would cost (and I'm making a WAG here) $4.50. For Coke to get the same profit margin, it would have to sell it for $11.25. Outrageous, right?

Believe it or not, the reason I'm bringing this all up is not because I'm ticked that I'm going to have to pay for a bunch of obese Americans, although I am annoyed about that. I'm bringing this up because next week Captain America and I are headed to Europe for two weeks. According to our Lonely Planet guidebook for Switzerland, "two people taking a return flight between Europe and the US will contribute as much to climate changes as an average household's gas and electricity consumption over a whole year." Yikes! The Lonely Planet has not lost it's mind and started encouraging people not to travel; it simply suggests to tread as softly as possible, and to carbon-offset your flights, etc.

According to Riot 4 Austerity, the average American usage of gasoline is 500 gallons per person per year, and the average usage of electricity is 11,000 kwh per household per year. Because I'm a bit of a mathlete dork, I actually figured out what this would cost us. At $0.13/kwh, the electricity would cost $1,430. At $2.84/gallon, the gas for a family of four would be $5,680. So in total, our flights should have cost us $7,110 more just to offset our carbon footprint. Good Lord! That's more than the budget of our trip!

So then I started wondering, what if we had to pay that much? Well, first of all, we wouldn't be going. But then again, it's only been in the last 50 or 60 years, or so, that air travel has become even reasonably affordable for the average American. Perhaps, if we had to pay the full costs of things, including the cost of environmental change, we would be more thoughtful in our purchases. Perhaps if we thought more about our purchases, we'd make fewer, but with more care. If a Coke cost $11.25 a can, perhaps we would only purchase it on special occasions (as a kid, we were only allowed soda on special occasions, and we're not obese in my family--I'm sure this is not the sole contributing factor, but still...). And then, if we only made thoughtful purchases, our carbon footprint would be lower, we'd potentially be paying fewer health-care costs, fewer costs of our increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, and fewer costs of chemicals in our drinking water. We might actually be better off if we just took the time to think about what we're doing.

The Lonely Planet also says that it "regards travel, overall, as a global benefit, but believes we all have a responsibility to limit our personal impact on global warming." I agree. I'm not saying to give up travel, or Coke, or anything else that brings your life a little pleasure. By all means, it's your life: live it! Just think about it, too!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The joys of home ownership

We've had a number of home projects going on lately.

First, we had our windows replaced. Then we had the light in the garage fixed. Today the plumber is supposed to be over, and sometime this week, I'm getting a new dryer! And then my short list will be all checked off, and I'll have to find something new to keep my stress level elevated. Because, in case you didn't know, owning a home isn't relaxing. Despite my resolution to spend more time on my couch, I don't think my stress level has been this high since...well probably since the disastrous relationship I was in prior to meeting Captain America came to an inferno of a conclusion, what would that be, six years ago, or so.

Don't get me wrong: I really like living in my house. It's just about the perfect size for the two of us, the location is great, and we have trees in the yard! In SoCal! Of course, I rarely go out to the yard, but I just like knowing the trees are out there, in case I ever do decided to venture outside. I just don't always like owning my house.

I'll start with the easy stuff. As you know, if you read about my adventures with laundry, the light in our garage went out. My husband tried to fix it, but it only lasted a few weeks. Uncle Chef was supposed to come down to help fix it, as well as make other repairs, but then the dryer went, and I insisted we needed the light fixed. Here's my logic: the dryer man can't replace the dryer in the dark, so we need a light. Captain America argued that there's plenty of daylight in the garage if the door is open. I remained unconvinced, and several arguments and $145 later, the light was fixed.

We have some sort of warranty on our home, which I don't understand, because our house was built in 1958, but for $55 the warranty people sent out an electrician. Except the problem in the garage wasn't electrical, per se. The wiring was apparently okay, but the fixture itself had died. The electrician explained it much more clearly, but in the end our option was, we could pay the electrician another $90 and have him fix it, or for about $40 Captain America could go to Home Depot and buy the fixture and do it himself. I have never pitched such a fit over $90 before.

Apparently, the real problem wasn't the $90, it was that I was taking away Captain America's man-card. I said, when we come back from Europe, Uncle Chef will come down and teach you how to do this, but right now, it needs to be fixed and the electrician is here. And I actually laughed about the man-card bit. But I apologized! I didn't mean to hurt Captain America's feelings. I'm a girl...if I can't fix something, I hire someone who can, or I buy a new one. I forgot that men don't always think like that.

So we survived the electrician with our marriage in tact and headed out to buy a dryer. We ended up at Sears, and we're happy with our pick. The dryer I liked best was rated the "best buy" by Consumer Reports (a coworker of mine, also in the market for a new dryer, went to the library and got a copy of the Consumer Report, which she gladly shared with me. It's nice to know nice people!). They should deliver the dryer later today!

And the plumber came yesterday. Our shower broke. It seems like the handle was stripped, and just wouldn't turn properly. In this case, Captain America watched some videos on how to fix it, but decided that in the end, it might be better to just watch the plumber and save himself the aggravation and time of trying it himself. Good choice, Captain America!

So, back to the big project of having our windows replaced. Captain America had been wanting to replace our windows because, well, frankly, they suck. They were the original single-paned windows that used "stick technology" as the locking devise. I had been hoping to pay off the truck this year. See, Captain America, you do win sometimes! And there's some sort of tax credit for energy-efficient windows.

We decided to go with Sierra Window Concepts, with the hopes of meeting William Shatner. And despite their annoying sales tactics. The guy came to tell us about the windows a few weeks ago, and spent three hours at our house! I had expected an hour or so, but he went over every detail of everything! A couple of times! And then, he would do comparisons with other windows. Good grief! We are totally capable of looking at other windows on our own! In my opinion, and in Captain America's, this was all a little too much. We eventually negotiated what we considered to be a pretty good price, but that was a hassle, too. Captain America had another window guy come over for a comparison, and his estimate was about the same, and we thought the quality was about the same, but the warranty on Sierra Window Concepts was better, so we went with them.

Then we had a debacle about frosted glass. I could have sworn the sales guy said they didn't do frosted glass, but that they could put a film on our windows. Captain America insisted that they said they could do frosted glass, but that we didn't want it. I was discussing this situation with a neighbor from when I lived in New Jersey, who also has a window in her shower (literally IN the shower), and we began to wonder what sort of window company can't make frosted glass.

As it turns out Sierra Window Concepts can make frosted glass, and somehow I was napping through that entire discussion. Evidently, I don't have a long attention span when it comes to windows. So we had to change our order. And I was feeling a little bit like, can't they hold off on our windows...I'm not ready for this!

The two big problems that we encountered were that Captain America went to the showroom without me because I didn't have time to go. I didn't know I had opinions on windows until I realized I didn't want what we had ordered. So we've learned that if there's a big project for our house, Captain America can't make decisions on his own. Not because he makes bad decisions. But because I'll apparently have opinions on things I would never have thought about before buying a house.

The second big problem is that we agreed to the Sierra Windows the day the salesman was there. Yes, we had negotiated them down in price, but I still felt a bit hurried. Like I said, I hadn't planned on buying windows this year at all, but I certainly hadn't planned on buying them before our trip to Europe. Who has time for windows when there's a vacation to plan! Our plan was to get a couple of estimates before we decided, but evidently that plan went out the window during my nap time!

So I worked from home on Friday while the window guys installed our windows. The salesman told us they would clean up afterwards, which, of course, I didn't believe at all, but they did a really good job. Of course Captain America vacuumed after them, but I'm pretty sure Captain America dreams of getting one of those robotic vacuums so it can follow me around the house.

We had huge rains on Saturday, but no tsunami, and we found no leaks. So after about six weeks of aggravation, we have really nice windows.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Can finding the right motivation help prevent procrastination?

A dear friend of mine found this article from The Economist, about which she thought I should rant. It's titled "New-year irresolution" and it's about why people fail at New Year's resolutions, except that the hope is to explain such failures through an economic model. What's sort of funny is that the article comes up with some solutions to overcome procrastination...and my friend sent me this article about two months ago. Hmmm...

So the general premise is that, historically, it has been assumed that people are "time-consistent," meaning that if asked today when they are going to do something, if a person says "Oh, next Thursday," and you ask them this tomorrow and the next day and the next day, the same Thursday is always the answer. This doesn't work because people are time-inconsistent.

This time-inconsistency is also known as being "present-biased," meaning that people will put off doing unpleasant things, even if the cost today is small. This is why it is so hard for many people to save money, or give up soda, or do anything else that's not all that much fun. Today, you can't buy something, if you hope to save money for something later on. Changing habits, even if you know the change will be worth it, is both really hard to do, and usually slightly painful.

I exercise about four times a week. I'm actually pretty consistent about that (I know because I write it down). But I guarantee you that for at least three of those four times a week, I can think of about 10 other things I'd rather be doing, or that I also need to do. And it's not even the exercising bit that's the problem for me. I have to drive to the gym, and park in their crappy parking lot, and check in, and lug all of my stuff to the locker room, and...I could go on an on. But, I know I'll feel better after working out, and that I'll still be able to eat cookies and fit into my pants. I'll probably panic when bikini season hits San about four days, but I also know that if I tried to do one of those crazy diets where I give up carbs and exercise like a madman, I'll turn into a madwoman. So this system will have to be good enough.

Wow...I got a bit off topic. I was just illustrating the draws of procrastination and the virtues (?) of biting the proverbial bullet and just getting on with things. Back in the world of The Economist, the article cites that a few economists looked at the economics of procrastination. Try saying that three times fast!

Here's the economical problem: very few farmers in Africa use fertilizer, even though it's fairly inexpensive, and will increase their crop yield, despite knowing this. The problem comes not actually from the use, but from acquiring the fertilizer. It would make the most sense for these farmers to buy the fertilizer right after the harvest, when they actually have cash in their hands, rather than around planting time, when they're running low on money. However, the farmers usually have to do something, like walk a few miles to the nearest store, or buy a bus ticket. These things aren't big deals, but they're not that much fun, either, so the farmer thinks they'll do it later. And you know what happens.

So a scheme was developed! And, as in all quality economic schemes, there was a control group. The control group of farmers were just left alone to go about their business, while another group of farmers was given a deal in which, if they bought fertilizer right after the harvest, they would get it delivered for free. A third group of farmers would get the fertilizer delivered for free, but only if they bought it at planing time, and a fourth group of farmers were offered a 50% subsidy on the fertilizer.

The conclusion of these scenarios was that both the free delivery right after harvest and the 50% subsidy increased fertilizer usage by 11%, while the free delivery right before planing time had a statistically insignificant effect on fertilizer usage.

Personally, I'm a big fan of free delivery, although half-off is good motivation, too. A bigger underlying problem, though, is that people have to be motivated to make choices that are ultimately good for them. This year, my company started offering a Health Savings Account. After researching it, my husband and I decided that this was in our best interest. Why? Because it's a low premium and a high deductible. That doesn't sound too good, until you consider that my annual is free, as is his yearly physical. And the company set up an account with $1,100 for us to spend on other health care expenses. So yes, our deductible is $1,400, but we only have to pay that $300 before the co-pay rates kick in. Here's why this was so attractive to us: we're healthy. We don't smoke, we exercise, we don't have any on-going medical problems (like high blood pressure, or diabetes). We were tired of paying our health insurance premiums to subsidize people who were making bad decisions (and when we were on Captain America's health insurance, we were subsidising families. If we wanted to pay for sick kids, we would have some of our own!).

Some people respond well to carrots. In this case, it seems that finding the right motivation would work well. Some people respond well to sticks. Again, the right motivation would be helpful. And if you can't figure out what will work for you, or if you're stuck on finding the solution, you could just ask me, and I'll TELL you what to do. You want to lose weight? STOP eating McDonald's! You want to save money? STOP buying lattes! You want your kids to become productive, intelligent members of society, of whom you can be proud? TALK to them, ENCOURAGE them, don't buy them EVERYTHING THEY WANT, and for heaven's sake, TEACH by example! But STOP with the procrastination-enabling excuses! BE the Nike motto, and JUST DO IT!