Monthly Archives: March 2010

9 reasons international business travel was fun…back then

A few days ago at work, I was reminded after telling a few stories about the glory days of travel across Europe, South America and Asia that business travel back then was significantly more prestigious/luxurious/etc.  I don’t think you’ll see the kind of treatment I got back in the flush days of the late 90s and early 2000s ever again.

So what was fun about travel back in 1999/2000?

  1. Traveling first or business class: I never traveled coach.  The thinking of most of the companies and/or clients I worked for or with was that heavy-duty international business travel demanded business class travel.  It probably did – I often rolled off the plane, showered and headed to the office.  You want to try that after spending 14 hours in coach from New York to Istanbul?
  2. Charging “actuals” for meals (in other words, whatever you spend, rather than being allotted $25 for dinner).  And by meals, I include alcohol.  If you took clients out the expectations were that you’d slam that Amex down like you’d just won at dominos.  A dip in the martini wading pool was part of the evening.
  3. Staying at luxury hotels. It’s hard to define luxury, but to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s views on porn, I know it when I see it.   My favorites?  St. Martin’s Lane in London; the Grand Marriott in Bucharest and the Swissotel in Istanbul.  Nowadays I think business travellers are lucky if they don’t have to double up with their coworkers at the Best Western.
  4. Drivers. I won’t say I always had drivers; depending on the location I might drive myself or take taxis.  In Russia, I frequently hitched a ride.  But having a dedicated driver was not unusual in places like Indonesia.
  5. Freedom from connectivity. Today, no matter where you travel in the world, it’s hard to claim a lack of connectivity.  BlackBerries, GSM, and omnipresent Internet access in most modern countries make it hard to hide.  This freedom was starting to die when I was traveling; toward the end of my career I received a GSM phone that worked in Europe.  But I was able to set myself free in the evenings:  once I went out to eat, I could legitimately claim not to have read emails.
  6. Isolation. Related to the freedom from connectivity, isolation gave me the opportunity to make a lot of decisions that today’s traveler has to run through supervisors.  Much like a 19th century ambassador, I represented the home country while overseas; I didn’t have conference calls and video conferences making me into a staff gopher.
  7. Airport security. Before 9/11, crappy and pointless airport security existed.  I am sure if I totalled up the hours I’ve spent in visa control at Sheremetyevo in Moscow I’d cry.  But most of the delays were due to stupid red tape, not airport security guards trying to defend against yesterday’s terrorist tactics.
  8. Novelty. When I visited Romania, I was still unusual: an American.  Not that there weren’t Americans there, but it was still a small novelty for many, many of the people I met.  I’d belly up to the bar in the evenings and be surrounded by Germans, Russians or Italians, but seldom Americans.  I imagine by now Americans are swarming over Eastern Europe.
  9. Before the end of the love affair with America. I’m sure many Americans sneer and scoff “so what” when I say that most of the world hated us – bitterly – after the Iraq War kicked off.  I’m glad I traveled at a time when we had a president who was beloved even more than the current one overseas.  I’m glad I didn’t have to say I was Canadian, like our security department warned us to say post-2003.  I’m glad I traveled when people clapped me on the shoulder and asked me to tell Madonna and Bill Clinton that Czabo from Hungary said hi.

Even considering all of these advantages, I still got tired of business travel.  I’ve told my colleagues many times that the tenth trip to Paris is just another stupid business trip.  The novelty wears off.  But times were better, and I’m glad I got my chance to enjoy the corporate excess when corporations were still excessive.

teaching matters

I don’t really remember if I have talked about my stint in PhD school at length before. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics I was accepted directly into a PhD program at a very, very large state university.  My goal was to pursue a PhD in order to become a college professor.  For a couple of generations, my family has been educator-heavy:  my father was a college professor (he’s now retired); my mother is an elementary school gifted teacher; my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother were both teachers, too.  It seemed a perfectly reasonable career path for me.  My part-time job through college was substitute teaching, so I was familiar with the day-to-day business of teaching.  I arranged all of my classes each semester to fall on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday schedule so I’d be free 2-3 days a week to teach.

So I arrived at graduate school with a specific goal:  to become a college mathematics professor. Sure, I had dabbled with the idea of being a lawyer/diplomat/etc. throughout college but it had become clear to me after four years that I only enjoyed two subjects enough to be serious about them:  mathematics and Russian.  I also enjoyed computer science and linguistics, but I didn’t spend enough time taking classes in either discipline to have the credentials to go to graduate school without a fifth undergraduate year.  I briefly considered Russian, but this was the early 90s, and Russia appeared to be descending into chaos; a PhD in Russian seemed to be a ticket to nothing more than reading Dostoyevsky in the original Russian.  So I settled on mathematics.

Looking back, I realize that I was good at Russian and mathematics for only three reasons:  I had some talent for languages, I was good at abstract thinking and I had young, enthusiastic and personable professors in both subjects. I’ve always thought of mathematics as a language:  I can’t understand why someone who is good with foreign languages wouldn’t have the skills necessary to understand the “grammar” and “vocabulary” of mathematics.  But without good teachers I would have lost interest in those subjects.  I love history now, for example, but my history professors in college (and high school, for that matter), were boring, pedantic and uninspiring.  It took me ten years after leaving school to rediscover my love for the subject.

To summarize my experience in PhD school:  I didn’t make it past the first year.
I didn’t enjoy my teachers.  They weren’t teachers.  They were researchers and writers who were forced by their sponsor – the university – to stoop down to teaching on occasion.   Conversely, I did enjoy teaching the intro to calculus classes I had to teach as part of my graduate stipend.  I think my students enjoyed them, too.  But one thing leapt out at me early in my stay:  I’d have to endure 5-6 years of horrendous “instruction” in areas I didn’t enjoy to become a college professor.

I think looking back I would have been happy enough to continue teaching intro to calculus.  It’s hard to understand how another five years of abstract mathematics would have enabled me to teach better.  It would have helped me write papers or do research, of course.  But I wondered as I dropped out why I couldn’t have been on a “college professor” track instead of a “college researcher/writer who teaches an occasional class” track.  The same thing can be applied to almost any discipline.  Could I be a good history teacher, for example?  I think I could, because I’m a good teacher.  I’ve taught enough training classes in my corporate positions, mentored enough staff and done enough speaking to realize that you don’t have to be an expert to educate.  And conversely, just because some of my professors in graduate school were brilliant at, say, field theory didn’t mean they could teach anyone how to tie their shoes.  They were clearly bored with the concept of instruction.

There’s a tired old saying that makes me grind my teeth every time I hear it – in my younger days I actually punched a fraternity brother who was mocking me with it:  “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.” Anyone who thinks that because they are an “expert” at something – sales, car repair, accounting, golf, whatever – that they can teach that subject should shut up and go run a course on that subject.  They should develop lessons:  not just a speech, but lessons.  They should try working with slow learners while challenging fast learners.  They should experience how easy it is to lecture and how hard it is to engage.  Too many people think they can teach, when all they can do is talk.

Good teachers have inspired me. The same can be said of good mentors.  My first manager in public accounting (now a partner) was a wonderful mentor and teacher.  She patiently worked with me my first couple of years to develop my accounting and auditing skills.  She was never too busy to explain and never impatient.  It took me another four years of working for petulant, irrational and mentally and emotionally abusive managers in the firm to realize how rare she was.  When it became my turn to mentor staff, I always remembered her example.  Being a good teacher made me far more effective in corporate life; it made my relationships with the people who worked for me better.  It made them more efficient, happier and more likely to turn around and train the people who worked for or with them well.

I’ll finish with another anecdote. When I started third grade my family very briefly moved to northern Illinois (I think we were there less than a full year) for my father to finish his graduate degree.  My parents jumped through hoops to get my brother and me into a good public school, rather than the faraway and dangerous public school we were zoned for.  Even then, I didn’t fit in with the kids there, and disliked most of my teachers.  One teacher, Ms. Zider, took it on herself to help me since I was struggling so.  She came up with extra lesson in geometry for me (this is third grade, keep in mind).  She worked with me at lunch and after school.  I was excited by the lessons and they are the only thing I remember from that long, largely sad year.  As an adult, I can better appreciate what she did:  she gave up her free time at lunch, time after school when she could have been finishing up lesson plans or doing paperwork to stay late with one friendless kid who was otherwise bored at school.  Teachers matter.

a farmers’ market is just an outdoor mall sometimes, and links

I wrote this post Saturday noonish, after returning from a morning out at the farmers’ market.  I’ve noticed that far too often the term “farmers’ market” is thrown around when the event is actually more of an arts-and-crafts fair.  This one today certainly was.  I only saw two booths actually selling produce.  Most of the vendors were selling seashell earrings, craft breads, birdhouses made out of salvaged wood, and so on.  It’s a lot of fun, and it’s enjoyable for the kids (lots of music, balloons and this weekend, Easter Eggs).  But going to one of these so-called “farmers’ markets” is no more than a trip to a mall.  It’s outdoors, and it’s more pleasant, handcrafted stuff than the plastic-and-polyester junk at a mall, but it’s still people trying to get you to drop money on junk you don’t need.

Links of the week:

Defense Beats Offense:  I agree, for the most part, but to use a football analogy all the defense in the world isn’t going to help you when you’re losing.  If you’re deeply in debt – I’m talking six figures – you may need to play some offense and increase your earnings, or you’ll spend a long time waiting for coupon clipping to save you.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t, but if you start a side business and establish a new wealth stream, you’re going to pay it off faster than you can by pennypinching alone.

Seth’s Blog: First and never:  I don’t link to Seth much – he doesn’t need MY help – but this was insightful, I thought.

Use Less Soap and Detergent in the Washing Machine:  Referencing an article in the NY Times, this caused some habit changes in my household, too.

Know your limitations when you do it yourself: Definitely. It took me as long to put crown molding in one room in our old house in Jersey as it took a skilled craftsman to do the rest of the house.

Postpone College In Order to Pay For It With Cash?: Maybe not postpone, but if you have to take out more than $40,000 or so in today’s dollars, you would be better off either (a) going somewhere less expensive or (b) postponing college and working instead. Incurring more debt than your expected first year’s salary is, frankly, stupid.

6 Things You Need to Know Before Buying Your Next Car: I hate buying cars, to be honest – I dread the whole process. Part of my problem is that I seldom manage to pay attention to tips…

Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss Reviewed: I’ve reviewed the Four-Hour Work Week too (see “the four(ty) hour workweek | brip blap“), and it’s a book worth reading. Whether you agree with it, or aspire to that lifestyle, is up to you. I aspire to it but I don’t work enough to achieve it.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Transitioning Well from One Job to Another | Million Dollar Journey

How to Make Extra Money with Your Brain: Your brain is, of course, the main instrument of wealth-building unless you’re a pro athlete, and even then I’d argue that the difference between a run-of-the-mill pro athlete and a star athlete is probably linked more to the brain than to pure physical prowess.

Should You Do a Roth Conversion?: I’ve been debating this, but my conspiracy theory brain always kicks in: I do not believe that in the 2040s, when I’d be withdrawing from a Roth, that they will still be tax-free. I think our brilliant leaders will find a way to penalize “rich people” who have bothered to save money in their “fancy tax shelters” and we’ll see means-based withdrawal taxes. You just wait and see. It’s coming, sooner or later, for ALL retirement savings. The middle class “rich” who relied on the honesty of the government (seldom see those four words in a row, do you?) will see that all of these promised benefits will be jettisoned to take care of a war with Canada or Myanmar or whoever’s playing Eastasia that year (we have always been at war with Eurasia, Winston). End rant.

Thoughts on Tipping Etiquette: Why Should I Tip?: Because it’s expected. Why should you hold open the door for able-bodied women, or speak quietly on your cell phone on the bus? Just cause.

Is Your Budget Making You Bitter?: I don’t budget, although I probably should, but I live a frugal enough lifestyle combined with making a fair amount of income. I try never to let myself regret things like a nice evening out. If you have the ability to enjoy a pleasant evening out, enjoy it at least once in a while. It’s like dieting – once or twice a year you can have a piece of chocolate cake. It’s not like having a heroin addiction where you need to swear off cake (or eating out) forever.

Highest Paying College Degrees: I’m always surprised that engineering hangs in there at the top in various forms. Having spent the last six years on Wall Street and seeing the wild salaries there, I’d assume finance would be at the top, but I guess for every Gordon Gecko there are 2,000 Johnny Banktellers who make $30,000 a year. I’ll tell you one thing: I wouldn’t bet against an accounting degree for a money maker, though.

photo by NatalieMaynor

the 5 o’clock test

You’ve probably heard the saying that “we’re all in business for ourselves.” This statement resonates with me.  Everyone is, in effect, an entrepreneur.  You may be an entrepreneur with a narrow set of expertise and only one client:  an employee, in other words.  Yet you are not a permanent part of your employer’s company.  As you move on through life, you will be an entrepreneur of your own brand, seeking to move from one client at a time to another.  You may become increasingly specialized in your services, but the brand – you – is still something you’ll attempt to promote and improve upon as you move from client/employer to client/employer.

Even if you buy into this mindset, though, it can be tough to think like an entrepreneur in a 9-to-5 job. An employee has a fundamentally different way of viewing the world than an entrepreneur does.  One of the main ways you can tell if you’re an employee with an entrepreneurial mindset versus an employee with an employee mindset is this:  do you worry about being at your desk at 5:00 PM (and also, 9:00 AM)?

If you have the employee mindset, you’ll want to make sure you’re a team player. You’ll have a contract specifying a minimum of 40 hours per week, and you’ll watch that clock to make sure you are in your seat 40 hours (at a minimum).  The employee mindset says that the “where” (sitting at your desk) is more important than the “what” (getting results).   The employee is banking on ‘face time’ being the critical measurement of success.  If you have ten hours of work to do or two hours, the hours will be the same.

The entrepreneurial employee’s mindset is different. If you’re in at 10 and leave at 3, it doesn’t matter as long as you get the job done.  If you need to be there at 5 (or 6, or 7), fine.  If you can leave early, also fine.  The employee with the entrepreneur’s approach knows that his or her “brand” is based on whether or not goals were met.  Whether you sat in your desk an extra two hours after your work was done for the day, just so you were there at 5, doesn’t matter.

Has anyone in a professional career has ever bragged in an interview about how they could always be counted on to stay in the office until 5:00?   Employers don’t care.  Clients don’t care, either.  Skills and results are the only thing that matters, right?

Unfortunately that’s not true. A lot of lip service is given in the corporate environment to work/life balance and the idea that only results matter, but anyone who spends more than a day or two in a cubicle knows this isn’t true.  Whether or not you have butt firmly planted in chair at 5:00 matters nothing to your next job, true.  But in office politics – the business of surviving in and flourishing in your current job – ‘face time’ is critical.  Look around the office and see how many people are coasting, working at less than full potential, simply so they have their tired face visible when 5:00 rolls around.  These people may understand, deep down, that there is no real reason to be adhering to a 9-to-5 schedule, but that’s the corporate culture and it seems unlikely to change.

If you feel the desire to be in your seat at 5:00, fine. Many people are more comfortable not rocking the boat.  But if you feel that you NEED to be in your seat at 5:00 or you’re going to be disciplined, you’re not in an organization that values results.  You’re being paid to fill a budgeted position so a manager can move up the corporate ladder by pointing to his management of a team of 20.   And before you think you can just coast along showing up at 5:00, remember this:  managers with that mindset weren’t born.  They were sitting in your seat 20 years ago, waiting for the clock to move past 4:59…

linklings, small business energy edition

I’m jumping the gun on something I’ll write about more next week, but I attended a very interesting function this week. It was a launch party for a magazine in which I was a contributing writer, and most of the attendees were entrepreneurs, small business owners or reps of banks and other service companies (payroll, etc.) who served small businesses.  The energy and enthusiasm of people with an entrepreneurial bent versus a similar gathering of corporate types was stunning.

I’ve been to entrepreneurial gatherings before, and attended more corporate events than I can count, but this event reminded me how different the energy is between the two. And I’m not bashing corporate types out of hand; even though I’m not a corporate employee I’m still firmly embedded in corporate life, and consider myself part of corporate culture rather than entrepreneurial culture.  I was impressed by the people I met and made a resolution to start spending more time at networking events for entrepreneurs and less mixing with corporate types, even though that’s where I get my work. Sometimes it’s about inspiration, not trolling for clients.

On to the links:
Census Pre-Notice: Government Waste At Its Finest.:  This letter absolutely appalled me, as well.  This letter, in fact, is the type of thing that makes me sympathize for a few seconds with the ‘small government’ crowd.  Whoever the moron is who decided to send out this letter
Implementing PAYGO Rules For Personal Finances:  Don’t buy something until you either make more money or save on something else.  Radical concept.  I don’t approve of the politics behind the recent shenanigans to block the extension of unemployment benefits, but why this is such a radical concept for DC explains a lot about the mess our country’s in.
How to Negotiate Remote Work With An Employer:  This is the holy grail for me.  Sometimes I manage to convince clients to let me do this, but more often than not they are stuck in “facetime” mentality.
How to Waste $55 in Washington D.C. (Hint: Take a Bus Tour):  I have to be honest – all of the monuments and memorials and whatnot in Washington bore me, with two exceptions:  the Vietnam War memorial (which is deeply moving) and the World War II memorial, which – for me, at least – was “off-the-charts” moving.  Seeing that and seeing the eternal flame outside the Kremlin, which honors the dead of what they call “The Great Patriotic War” is overwhelming when you think of the number of Soviet and Allied forces who died defeating the Axis.  Chilling stuff, particularly given that my head is stuffed full of World War II stories from my mother’s father, ranging from the noble to the horrific.  My father’s father refused to speak one bit about it – being a German-American, speaking German at home and being sent to the German front was apparently not something he ever felt like discussing with anyone.

A few other good reads:

expatriate altruism

Without much effort, most of us can think of two or three large-scale tragic events that occurred in the last decade that shook us. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, that killed over 200,000 people, springs to mind, or the recent earthquake in Haiti that may kill many more when the final toll is realized (due to sickness, lack of clean water and so on).  Without much additional effort, man-made disasters like war, ethnic cleansing or terrorism can also be added:  9-11, the Sudan or the invasion of Iraq.  Many people are motivated to help in these instances, by giving – often to incredible extremes – of their time and money.  But in a time of great economic hardship in America – or any other country – should a helping hand be extended across the border, or should citizens look to help their own country first?

Not every disaster has a face. When natural disasters hit, it’s easy to put faces to the tragedy.  Television coverage of the Haitian earthquake veers too close to tragedy porn for my comfort.  The exploitation of suffering by news organizations for the sake of ratings – which attract advertisers – is understandable.  But imagine if that attention was turned to the “less sexy” issues that kill in America:  poverty, cancer or even crime.  The possibility of improvement is significant.

I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t empathize with the rest of the world, but I think many people still imagine it is 1991 and America has an unquestioned and unquestionable perch atop the world, economically, militarily and even maybe philosophically.  It doesn’t anymore.  America is sick, too.

The debt forgiveness movement focuses on countries with crippling debt, but America is approaching that point, too. We send medical aid to Haiti, but you know what?  I know people who don’t have health insurance right here in America and who can’t afford to see a doctor.  Americans want to think that they are showing their generosity by extending a helping hand to the rest of the world, but it hides that fact that there are urgent, desperate needs here that aren’t being addressed, too.

I know this may come across as jingoistic, and perhaps it is. My liberal political leanings have always been shot through with a nationalistic bent; I have always felt deeply the saying “charity begins at home.”  To demonstrate my mindset, I’ll point to the idea of charitable giving in general.  Most people say that you always have something to offer the less fortunate.  That’s true.  Wallace Wattles, in the Science of Getting Rich, points out that the best thing you can do for the poor of the world is to get rich yourself.  Sounds crazy?  Look at what Bill Gates or Warren Buffett is doing.  The vast accumulation of wealth allows you to make a real difference in a given area (for example, immunizations for Gates).

Am I being selfish? If I choose to give to a local charity in northern Florida instead of contributing to Chilean relief, am I being cruel because their need is more urgent?  If I say that taxpayer’s money that’s being spent on aid to other countries would be better spent on providing health care for Americans, am I being a jerk? I don’t know – I’m torn myself, sometimes, but to pretend that America (or the West in general) are full of limitless generosity to the rest of the world seems disingenuous.  At some point we have to admit that the doctor is sick, too.

photo by respres

babies in bars

Late in Bubelah’s first pregnancy, we stopped in at a bar after a visit to the doctor for a routine checkup. I had a beer and she had a seltzericon.  It was a mild winter day, mid-afternoon and we were savoring some quiet time together before the main event, due a few weeks later.  As we chatted, I was slightly surprised to see a couple walk in with a stroller and a baby who appeared to be about two years old.

As they sat at the bar, with their baby parked behind them, I stewed. I had a lifetime of bachelorhood behind me; the main interaction I had with children before I had my own was glaring at them when they cried on airplanes.  My just-recently born niece and nephew were – as far as I can remember – the first and second babies I had held in my life.  I hadn’t been around people with children much at all; my life in New York and Moscow before that was centered around singles life.  Babies and toddlers were a vague, distant afterthought.

So when the toddler at the bar started fussing, my passive-aggressive fury mounted, and I threw the parents a nice rough glare. They seemed to shrug it off.  Being midafternoon, the bar didn’t have any smoke in it, wasn’t crowded and except for a few patrons around the bar and towards the front watching a soccer game on TV, it was quiet.  My glare cut like a knife hurled in the parents’ direction – or at least I imagined it did.  They probably thought I was squinting at the TV.

I am more sympathetic now, of course, since I have two toddlers of my own. It’s tough to avoid “grown-up” places when you have kids.  Just because I have kids doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to visit an adult-oriented establishment from time to time.  The obvious answer is to have a babysitter, but it’s tough to leave two small toddlers alone in the evening with a babysitter unless you have a great deal of trust in her (and yes, I’ll be sexist and say “her”).  And now that I’m a parent, I’d like to expose my almost-four-year-old son to a nice restaurant once in a while.  I’m not sure my daughter appreciates the difference between McDonald’s and the Olive Garden and Morton’s yet, but why not let her enjoy french fries from Morton’s, too?

But. There’s a but.

Kids don’t belong in bars. There are two reasons:  first, they aren’t 21.  What’s the cutoff?  If I bring my 12 year old to a bar, is that OK?  Is it fine as long as they don’t drink?  If so, can a 16 year old stroll in?  19?  Second, I think other patrons have a right to a “no-children-allowed” bar experience, just as they do to a “no-kids-at-R-rated-movies” experience or a “no-kids-playing-in-the-office” experience.  I have seen both; I remember going to see the movie Alien Versus Predator at a matinée * and sitting there with my jaw on the ground as stroller after stroller rolled in filled with (understandably) shrieking babies.  I’ve seen quite a few single mothers who work in accounting over the years bring their kids in to the office in an emergency (babysitter sick, everyone else at work, etc.).  It’s not fair to everyone else to bring kids there.

This may be an Americanism.  Europeans don’t worry much about children at bars.
Maybe most cultures don’t care.  I’ve sat on enough beer garden benches with rugrats playing tag in the aisles while in Germany to know that.  Americans may just be more prudish, or more considerate, or less (or more) family oriented.  I’m sure the argument can be made that exposing children to the drinking of alcohol isn’t healthy, but you could make the same argument (in my opinion) for exposing them to TV, junk food, pop culture, toxic big cities and even various political philosophies.

I’m not sure when I’d start feeling comfortable bringing my kids to a bar at happy hour.  The article I read that prompted this thinking (here) seemed to be centered on the parents’ need for socializing.  I view that as selfish.  If you want to socialize, get a babysitter.  Have lunch while your child is at day care.  Take turns as parents staying home while the other goes out.  It’s not ideal, of course, but many of the comments were dead on:  you are a parent now.  If you miss hanging out all afternoon drinking sangria at the local watering hole with friends: tough.  If you’d like to pop into the local bar for a beer with the kid in tow on the way home from work when your child is sleepy:  too bad.

So if you go to TGI Friday’s with the family in tow, fine. They’ll put you near the kitchen, give you some crayons and a kids’ menu and tolerate the tossing of forks.  Should you go to O’Hallorans at 7 pm with your two-year old?  Nope.  Head home, read Runaway Bunny and suck it up.  There’s a happy medium, and I’d rather not be the guy pictured on CNN with an obviously crying baby on my lap and a half-drunk glass of wine in front of me (look at the article).

* I love science fiction.  I loved Alien.  I really loved Aliens, one of my favorite movies ever.  I loved Predator, too – how can you go wrong with two future governors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura) fighting an eight-foot-tall invisible rastafarian bug-man?  I was really excited about Aliens versus Predator before it came out.  I did NOT love AvP.  Way to stick a fork in both franchises, people who made AvP.

photo by Penningtron

linklings, sneezing leads to a CAT scan edition

I’m a bit late with this week’s link roundup (surprise) but I have an excuse. As I was driving to work for an early morning meeting on Tuesday, a heavy, driving rain broke out.  The pitch black, heavy rain and early hour (about 6:30) would have been bad enough but my windshield wiper chose that moment to whip off the car.  I had to go retrieve it in the pitch black, driving rain and 70 mile-per-hour traffic and then use a small pair of pliers to try to work it back on – all in cold weather with a light windbreaker on.

Needless to say I was soaked. Traffic accidents on I-95 extended my cold, shivering wait in the car to two hours.  After spending 20 minutes in the gym locker at work with a hair dryer on me, I felt more or less OK.  Then…. bam.  About 24 hours later, I felt sick.  I visited the urgent care clinic and got some help.  24 hours later, with my blood pressure soaring, severe sinus pain and serious weakness, I was off to the doctor.  I had to get a CAT scan to rule out a stroke, but apparently it was just my body’s reaction to the infection.  My blood pressure’s been normal for 7-8 years, and was just checked about 3 weeks ago so the surge was weird, and made the doctor double-check with the CAT scan.  Not a fun experience.  On the bright side, with some antibiotics and a brief course of blood pressure medicine I’m back to feeling more or less normal today (120 over 70 type blood pressure, and sinus pressure greatly reduced).

Too much information?

Well, just wait til you see the boatload of links I’ve got:

Some more good reads, but now I’ve run out of steam to comment…

americas-richest-counties: Personal Finance News from Yahoo! Finance: And finally, a nice little bonus read on a statistic that always kills me. “Highest income” is a radically different concept from “richest.” I had a high income in New Jersey, but my expenses were proportionately higher. If you want to get a true look at “richest” you’d have to incorporate some sort of cost-of-living metric.

how to make money on Facebook

Here’s a financial lesson for anyone who participates in online social media of any sort. It’s a cautionary tale about online privacy; not the stalker-type issues that most people are worried about; instead, it’s about how you have to be careful to reveal too much online about business dealings.  I was catching up with some relatives who sold their house a couple of months ago, and they told me an amusing story that showed how they “made money” using Facebook…on their home sale.

My cousin Stan and his wife Elaine listed their house about six months ago. They had remodeled it and priced it to sell in a market that had been hit very hard by the collapse in real estate prices.  Fortunately, they weren’t in any hurry to sell; the mortgage was paid off, they were already living in their new empty-nest retirement digs, and the old house had no association fees and only minimal costs (low property taxes, some minimal lighting and heat for the winter, etc.)

They finally received a good but not great offer, accompanied by the earnest money check. No issues came up, and the usual back and forth of the negotiating process went on.  Stan and Elaine are older than I am but (like me, I guess) have stayed right on top of “the internets.”  After they received the check – with the prospective buyers’ names and address on it – it took Elaine about 5 minutes to find the buyer on Facebook.  She was simply curious whether they were serious buyers or not.

What did she find? Posts on their Facebook wall about how they had found their dream home.  How they would pay anything to get it.  Links to pictures – gushing comments from their friends and family.  In short, drool splattered (electronically) all over Facebook.  The buyers were even inviting all of their friends over for a big party the weekend after closing.  Elaine found all of this – before the final price had even been agreed on!

As you can imagine, this gave Stan and Elaine (a) confidence that the sale would go through but also (b) a gargantuan advantage in the ongoing negotiations.  Instead of being tentative and worrying about offending the (still potential) buyers, they were able to become far more resolute about refusing any concessions, changes in the contract or even agreeing to make changes based on (relatively minor) inspection issues.  They didn’t become jerks about it, but they realized that they had an advantage over the buyers.  That advantage translated into a financial gain when they were able to push back on every change not in their favor.  Presumably the buyers never knew about Elaine’s visit to their Facebook page – maybe they assumed she was “too old” to be on Facebook – but more likely they simply never thought of Facebook being used that way.  Maybe they just assumed Stan and Elaine were tough negotiators.

Of course, a similar situation can arise outside of social media – I once made the mistake of being a little bit too complimentary while viewing a home with owners present – Bubelah’s done it, too. But we knew they knew in that situation.  Maybe someone more Facebook-savvy than me could tell me that there are ways of monitoring who views your wall/profile/whatever.  I’m not sure I’d trust that, though, because a more tech-savvy person always lurks around the corner, who can hide themselves from that monitoring, and on and on ad infinitum.

Keep your mouth shut online while the deal is ongoing. I can’t think of any reason that blabbing about potential deals online can help you.  From the other party finding out and being annoyed (prices being revealed, locations being outed) to simple financial loss, how can you benefit?  I am not a social media junkie, but I keep a low-key presence on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (as well as two forums, 48days.net and a blogging forum).  I have learned from Stan and Elaine’s amusing recollections of their home sale that it never hurts to assume that every single person on the planet may be reading your posts/tweets/wall messages, no matter how unlikely you might think that could be, and even the most harmless comments can have effects you couldn’t predict.

photo by kaibara87

stonehenge

Once you have an understanding of your own mortality, you either try to ignore it or you think about ways to avoid it. Ignoring it is easy for most people; the drone of American Idol or the smell of another Big Mac are probably all defense mechanisms against awareness of the end.  Avoiding it is tougher, although the most popular solution (reproduction) is easy for most people.  Feeling that part of you will live on in your descendants is a good defense against that self-knowledge.  I found it was an oddly comforting thing which I didn’t expect when having children.  That feeling intensified as I started passing down stories about my deceased relatives to my kids; you’re almost performing some sort of Matrix-like implantation of memories into the next generation.  The memories will fade away generation by generation, but the increasing ease of creating near-permanent media (pictures, videos and so on) provide the cues to spark those memories.

Setting the question of whether children satisfy the desire for pseudo-immortality, you have to turn and look at Stonehenge.
Some people got together a long time ago and said “let’s build something.”  We don’t know exactly why, although it was probably some sort of place of worship or sacrifice or celebration.  But we do know someone built it, and in a way the builders put some small part of themselves into that structure which is still sitting there.

Not everyone will build Stonehenge or paint the Mona Lisa. Not everyone will even go to the effort to trace their family tree more than 100 years into the past.  Many people won’t care, and retreat to ignorance.  Many people will care, and cling to their children as proof ‘they’ will live on forever.  Many people will turn to religion and the promise of an afterlife, but even if true it will still be a different life from the life they know.  The happiest people, I think, will build.

Most of us are terrible at building our Stonehenge. I have not created anything of much permanence yet in this life.  I have not built anything, or written anything of any significance, or started anything I expect to last much past my time here.    I suppose I could prepay hosting fees to Godaddy.com for the next 100 years and hope they stay in business and bripblap.com would be here for a while.  But I haven’t started a company, or written music or a novel.

And this is why I try to remind myself to focus on creativity.
It’s easy to get up, go to work, eat a sandwich, come home, watch TV and go to sleep.  I’ve been doing more of that than I should, recently.  Doing nothing is a comforting white noise masking the lack of creation in day-to-day life.  Small changes can make a difference.  Even planting a few seeds will make you feel better than your favorite TV show.  Stonehenge wasn’t built in day; the builders must have missed entire seasons of “Druid Idol.”  But we know they were here.  How will people know you were here?

photo by SKI tripper