Archive for December, 2007

Electronic Wonders?

It is definitely a new age.  Yesterday, I was sitting in a comfortable chair and reading my book dejour at Borders when I noticed a new display being setup.  On a two-sided kiosk, a RCA Small Wonder Camcorder, a Matsunichi 7″ Digital Photo Frame, a Sansa 1GB Express Music Player, a Sony Clock Radio w/iPod Speaker Dock, a Sansa Music Shaker for Kids, and last but not least, a Sony Book Reader were displayed and ready to test drive.  The reader even came with a 40% discount on your first downloaded Audio-book.  As I walked over for a closer look, an eager clerk intersected my path with a smile and an invitation to help.  I nodded no and went closer.

The camcorder fit snugly in my hand and immediately brought to mind how easy it would be to turn this on an unsuspecting world.  But that world would need to be deaf to not hear the audible clicking sound of its operation.  And that thought brought me to thinking about the way our world has yielded its sense of privacy.  Like Bill Maher has pointed out we can go back to worrying about that when the idiots give up their cell phones.  Or as this review at C-Net pointed out “While its video quality is only so-so, RCA’s Small Wonder EZ101 will appeal to technophobes looking for an idiot-proof way to quickly send video e-mail clips to friends and family.” 

Next in line was 7″ digital photo frame that implored the user to insert a memory card loaded with pictures and let the auto-slideshow begin.  You know I actually remember a time when people rolled their eyes at the boredom of watching someone’s home movie.  Now apparently we can’t wait to see what naughty little blooper some friend has caught on film.

Meanwhile, the Sansa 1 GB Epress music recorder was waiting for me to eagerly put the ear pads in place and listen to my favorite songs, record my own songs, or simply plug it into my computer to get ready for my next youtube/facebook, whatever. 

For a small and inexpensive player, the Sansa Express offers an impressive array of features. As noted above, there is voice recording and memory expansion. The Express also has an FM tuner with autoscan, recording, and up to 20 presets. It supports MP3, WAV, WMA (including subscription), and Audible files as well as playlists. You can even create an on-the-go playlist on the device. Alternatively, use Windows Media Player or drag and drop to transfer those and other files. Music is arranged handily into the Creative step-down interface structure. Menus are basic, but the top one is icon-driven–a nice touch. You do not get album art or photo viewing with the Express, nor is the player technically compatible with Macs, but we were able to transfer an MP3 from a MacBook Pro (the player did not dismount properly, though).

What the world really needs though is another iPod speaker dock which Sony seems ready to offer with its new 2 alarm clock radio.  Not only will you be able to iPod your listening and control it with a wonderful labor saving remote but it charges your iPod while you sleep.  Just think you’ll be able to go everywhere white noising out your world and making more money.  Oh wait, did that sound too cynical?

It wasn’t that long ago (or maybe it was) that one could enjoy your own battle of the bands as each group of beach goers brought their own boom box to share the joy.  Nowadays that problem is solved with headphones or earjacks and now Sansa has added a way to keep the kids occupied with its new Shaker device.  This one is great on oh so many levels, first it’s for the little kids to start their lifetime appreciation of music even earlier than when they use to dance to the commercials on tv.  Second, it has great built in obsolesence since the memory size is only 512 MB and the battery needs changing every 15 hours.  And finally, it’s rumored to be child proof but that flap at the base doesn’t look that sturdy.  Ah well, with a price range of $27 to $35, don’t worry it’s easy to replace.

Last on the list was the item that originally caught my eye – the Sony Reader.  Unfortunately, the kiosk setup was not actually online so there was no way to test drive the reader myself.  One confusing note was provided when I discovered that the specs for the Reader were printed out on the back of the promo literature for the RCA camcorder and reverse but once that was cleared away I could still take a look and decide whether this like the other items listed above was worth its $300 price or just another in the seemingly endless stream of needless but consumerist advances that today’s economy seems to demand.

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Post Getmas and all is well

This is a pivotal time here at the old beach house.  I’ve long been an Apple user but over the past four years I’ve gradually moved most of my computer using time into the blogosphere where strangely enough I have found less and less use for Apple’s supposed talents.  Though I am just modestly Luddite in my technocracy, I really find that I can’t stand the hoop jumping it takes to follow Apple’s new programming language and technological breakthroughitism.  I just want an operating system that works to allow me to use this computer tool to write and communicate via the internet.

So as of tomorrow it is goodbye Apple as I open up my new desktop, as built my computer geek of a son, and sail off into the future.

Meanwhile, it seems as though Nature has taken a hand in the immigration situation:  According to Wednesday’s LA Times, the U.S. is becoming less alluring to illegal migrants.  Though why the editor chose the term “illegal” over “undocumented” in her title I’m not sure, she does explain quite well that the housing industry’s decline is possibly the main reason why fewer undoc immigrants are able to find work here and thus why they are heading home and advising their countrymen and women to stay there too.  So it’s a win-win deal.  Less homes being built, monster homes especially, less immigration.  Ain’t Mother Nature grand? 

And finally in news from the front, Iraq, that is, is that the U.S. has unleashed the latest in technology to help fight the endless war there.  Robots, radio controlled, but lethal have begun patrolling the country-side.  At $250,000 a pop, they are quite the bargain in this trillion dollar enterprise.  And I love the acronym, SWORDS.

Ah well, happy holidays.

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Credit card gambles

As I have chronicled in the past, my partner T. loves to play the credit card game of 0% interest offers.  She has such great credit that the companies just can’t keep themselves from offering her massive loan limits, $27,000, at 0% interest for 9 or even 15 months.  Actually, it is more likely that their computer setup reads her payment history (perfect) and her credit score (780) and automatically generates those cute little check offers so that she can take advantage of this great opportunity to go into debt.  T.,  on the other hand, doesn’t go into debt.  She takes the offer and parks the money in a CD at 5.2%, pays her monthly minimum, and collects the difference as another way to add to her income stream.  Last year, she made an additional $2500. 

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This is your brain on eggs

Everybody has heard about the dangers of cholesterol but still the drug warlords keep showing us these cheesy-attempts-to-arouse-our-fears commercials.  Meanwhile, real people with no axe to grind or fear that they want to arouse are coming more and more to the fore as the heat to change our current drug policy increases.  Witness this opinion in Saturday’s LA Times.  Diana Wagman, a professor at Cal State Long Beach is the author of several novels and is currently in recovery from cancer.  She explains quite interestingly her discovery of the commonality of marijuana usage among her social community as she deals with the ravages of radiation therapy.

On the other hand, just up the coast from there, this item caught my eye.  In Merced County, California a permanent ban on medical marijuana dispensaries will go into effect Jan. 17.  The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to pass this ordinance even though there are currently no medical marijuana dispensaries in Merced County.

And that in a nutshell is the bizarre world in which we now live.  Medical need treated by a proven drug that’s only side effect appears to be the unreasonable fear it arouses in the populace. 

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Rewards

So I signed up for an Amazon Credit Card offered by Chase Credit Card Services because I wanted to try out the idea of earning points.  In the first month, I earned 270 pts. at Amazon and 180 at other locations for a grand total of 450 pts.  My bill informed that it would take 2500 pts to earn a $25 Amazon gift card.  The actual dollar amount I spent to earn my 450 was $179.95.  All of the purchases were in my normal budget for the time period.   That is, I wasn’t just spending to spend.  I would have spent the cash anyway but I wanted to test the value of this offer.  The offer includes a 0% charge if the charges are paid by the billing date.

So I set aside the cash, and I paid the bill immediately.  Still, for $179 I received 450 in points.  In other words, to get my first reward of a $25 reward certificate, not cash, I would have to spend another $716.  Hmmm?  Do I need anything immediately?  No.  Can I be patient enough to spend regularly and monitor the repay cycle so as to avoid the 22.49% APR?  Probably.  Is this meticulous approach to spending, thinking about the purchase, setting aside the money, monitoring the cycle, and using the reward ($25 or more) appropriately, going to be worth my time and effort?  I think so.  At this point the key word is Patience. 

Some side effects:  I won’t hold up the line.  I don’t have to use my pocket cash.  I can pay via online banking.  I can monitor my expenses.  I can overspend very easily so being careful is even more important.  Especially since being able to buy things without caution has always been my down fall.

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Banks and how they work

It was quite a while ago but I still remember it.  My small family, three kids and a wife, was finally making a go of it in San Diego.  I had quit college and found a job as a delivery truck driver.  We had a two bedroom apartment in Hillcrest from which I walked to work every day.  I sort of liked it since it was down 6th Avenue along Balboa Park and only three miles one way.  It was walking home uphill that sometimes wore me down.  Anyway, we had caught up on our bills, this was before god gave us all credit cards, and even saved up $100 which we had in a savings account at B of A.  It was coming up on Spring when we, my wife and I, decided maybe we could afford a car but we needed a little help with the down payment so I went into the bank to ask for a loan.  That was when I learned how banks work.  No was the answer.  I didn’t have a long enough work history, a year and a half, and I didn’t make enough, $2.12 an hour, to justify the bank taking a chance on me.  I was stunned.  But not as much as I was this morning when I opened up my LA Times to find out that those very same banks that refused me then are getting theirs now.  

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How the sub-prime mess relief works

It is a complex problem and strangely enough the government has come up with a rather simple method for taking care of it.  All you have to do if you are one of the thousands of motgage holders who are at risk is pass a simple set of tests that will allow you to qualify for the Fast Track Rate Freeze Plan.

Test One – Your current FICO score must be below, yes that’s right, below 660.  I know, after years of being concerned about that score not being high enough, you must now show that indeed you do, and probably did not, qualify for the loan you now hold.  The idea behind picking that score apparently is that if you are at 660 or above you could solve your problem by re-financing.  Good luck with that and caveat emptor, too.

Test Two – To obtain an expedited rate freeze, you must be “current” on your mortgage.  Here, two standards may apply: You aren’t more than 30 days behind right now and haven’t been more than 60 days late in the last 12 months or you aren’t more than 60 days late now and haven’t been more than 90 days late in the past year.  So the term “current” in this context means that you have, but barely, been keeping up somehow and that is good proof that helping you will in fact help you.

Test Three – The LTV test measures you current loan-to-value ratio, another way of saying how much equity do you have in the property.  Here again lower is better.  3% or lower and you qualify, any higher and somehow this means you are less likely to default and you might even qualify for a refinance plan.  This by the way, this constant referring to refinancing, is the elephant in the room.  This whole plan is voluntary but what is in it for the lender and the loan industry is that all of this refi action comes with a cost that presumably will be added to your new mortgage package and end up in the pocket of those very nice folks who are so willingly helping you out.

Tests Four and Five – The mortgage has to be on your permanent residence and your monthly payment must be scheduled to increase by 10% at the reset.

Pass all 5 tests and you are almost there.  The only thing left is that your mortgage servicer must also believe that you would default without the rate freeze, then you are in and supposedly safe for two more years.

So here’s my take on all this.  Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet.  Even if you have equity up to 10%, you still may be better off defaulting on the loan. 

Here’s why:  This is a wake up call for you and the real estate industry.  You haven’t been able to afford this property and if you truly look at your financial future you might never be able to qualify for it as long as two things stay constant.  One, as of now our rate of pay in the US is not keeping up with the inflation rate.  How are you doing in this regard?  Two, real estate prices are and have been based on the belief that real estate value will continue to increase by rates of up to 10% a year.  Do you really believe that it is in your best interest to continue supporting this idea?  Take the opportunity, yes, I said opportunity, that  this situation has provided and do some research.  Who knows maybe you’ll come up with a more affordable future.

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