Monthly Archives: May 2010

letter from a thief


I wanted to see how you were doing these days.  I know you never expected to receive a letter from me, but I’ve often wondered what my crimes against you did to your life.  I think you should know they weren’t crimes of passion:  I planned every minute.  I tricked you, I forced you, I took advantage of your weaknesses.  I struck again and again; I haunted the best days of your life.  I took more from you than you ever realized.

You didn’t notice I was stealing from you.  I took everything in small amounts.  There might have even been stretches of time when I stayed away from you, or you managed to travel away from me.  These times were few and far between.  I was with you many mornings and every night.  I waited in the house while you were gone, and sat between you and family and friends.

You couldn’t stay away from me.  You knew something was wrong.  Some days you came closer than others to realizing what I was stealing from you.  But I was careful to dress up my crime in pleasant pictures and pleasing sounds.  Sometimes you thought I made you happier, or better.  I never did.  I stole, relentlessly.  I never stopped, and my only aim was to hurt you.

I stole your money every month, and you gladly gave it to me.

I stole your health every day, keeping you immobile while you ate things that people wouldn’t have recognized as food 100 years ago.

I snatched away the seconds of your life, then the minutes, the days and the years.

I filled your brain with the desire for things you didn’t need.

I kidnapped you from your family.

I showed you murder, rape, misery and all the horrors you could take – and you came back again and again for more.

I took it all from you and you never once complained.

I don’t know if you can find it in your heart to forgive me.  Maybe you won’t.  Maybe you can’t.  I can’t stop myself, and I don’t want to stop.  I steal from almost everyone you know.  Now I even creep into your children’s lives, dangling toys in front of them and singing happy songs while I lure them away from their parents.

Maybe you read this, or maybe you were sitting – even now – in the room with me, mouth agape, eyes reddened, body and mind softened by the years of abuse I have heaped upon you.  It doesn’t matter.  I’ll still steal from you, until you stand up for yourself – and you probably never will.

Best wishes,
Your Television

Preparing for Your First Post-Grad Interview: The Importance of Being Well-Read

(Steve’s note:  This is a guest post; I thought I would point it out since the references to Russia might make it sound like me!)

Funny story: Less than a year before I graduated from my alma mater, I studied abroad in Russia for a semester, and encountered some–needless to say– bizarre experiences. One that stands out in my mind was when I was sitting at a café, reading a book and sipping on wonderfully grainy cup of Nescafe instant coffee.

During my stay in Russia, I found that it was surprisingly unusual to hear English spoken in public, even in a city as big as Saint Petersburg, so my ears instantly perked up when I heard two people across from me speaking English. There was some Russian speaking involved, but from my reasonably proficient background in the language, I understood the situation—a woman, presumably working for a multinational company, was interviewing a Russian man for a bilingual job. Half of the interview was to be conducted in Russian and half was in English. When the English part started, the woman asked the man, “What are some of your biggest weaknesses?” The man looked slightly confused and nervous, then perked up and confidently answered in a thick Russian accent, “Nu, I drink too much, and I smoke too much, and sometimes I cheat on my wife.” His expression was completely blank, so I knew he wasn’t joking.

The woman’s face turned beet-red instantly; she was obviously not expecting that answer. I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. I suppose you could chalk up the man’s response to a case of “lost in translation”, but for me this example stands as the ultimate obvious no-no in an interview situation. Initially, I brushed this experience off as one of the many funny incidents during my time in Russia, but later the image of the man making a deal-breaking mistake would come back to haunt me as I prepared for job interviews after college.

Sure, I knew I wasn’t going to make a faux pas to such a grave extent, but still, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Of course, for my first interview, I researched the company extensively, I practiced with a friend on eye contact, and she even threw at me some of the more bizarre questions to help me think on my feet. When time for the actual interview came around, however, the experience was like nothing I anticipated. There were the typical interview questions, like why I was best suited for the job and what did I expect to be doing in five years, etc. But what really surprised me was the extent to which my interviewers were simply curious about my intellectual interests.

What came in handy—what really saved me in this interview—was the fact that I had diverse reading tastes. Steve has written about the importance of reading before, but I’d venture to argue that reading a lot can do more than simply further enrich your intellectual life. Believe it or not, it can actually be useful in your career. During the interview, I was able to defer to several different theories and current events in economics, philosophy, technological advances, and even literature, simply because I read voraciously in my free time while in college.

And I don’t think that my experience was a singular one—many of my friends, all of whom are, to a certain extent, intellectually curious, also had similar first-time interview experiences. While I’m not sure if gauging intellectual curiosity is a newer trend in recruiting practices, I think it’s great that hiring managers seem to be taking this direction.

So in the final analysis, it pays to read. It is certainly worth your while to soak up ideas, from whatever angle or perspective. Being educated—and keep in mind, I’m not necessarily referring to formal education here—will make you a happier, more confident person. And it may just help you land that job, too.

About the author: This guest post is contributed by Emily Thomas, who writes on the topics of online college degree.  She welcomes your questions and comments by email at

summer colds, and links

I don’t know if there is anything more pathetic than a kid with a summer cold.  While the sun shines and the grass gleams, my two kids are hacking and coughing and drifting listlessly around the house with a nasty virus.  Both have had fairly high fevers which makes taking them out in the hot sun seem like a bad idea, so cabin fever is mounting (for them and us).

But that’s a summer cold for you. 

A few summer-themed posts – all good reads if you have a lawn and/or kids:

Free Summer Activities for Kids: The library is the #1 place, in my opinion – the kids never get tired of it, and it’s easier on parents than running around the park.

The Cost of Maintaining the Perfect Lawn: It’s fairly substantial, depending on how you approach it …

Summer Yard Prep for Pennies: … but here are a few good tips on how to get the yard looking nice.

And if you haven’t read the funny Wall Street trader letter that’s gone around the Internet, read This Wall Street Trader Wants Your Job. It’s going to either crack you up or make you furious.

And a few more links:

how to build a love of learning

Why don’t Americans like to read?  And they don’t.  You’re reading blogs, so you obviously enjoy reading, but many people don’t.  You think other people ought to like to read.  But books don’t hold much sway anymore.

  • 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.
  • 42% of college graduates never read another book.
  • 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

One of my fondest childhood memories is reading “The Hobbit” along with my dad. We had a big illustrated edition – a lot of the cheesy Rankin-Bass stills, where Gollum looks like a frog – and he read it to me in installments. I don’t remember how many times we read it or how old I was, but I do know that I read “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (on my own) before 3rd grade, so it was probably when I was 5 or 6. But my point is simple: I remember being almost insanely excited with the idea that another chapter was going to unfold. A picture would be painted in my mind – by me – and the next day another picture would be drawn. I would go to sleep in the bunk bed I shared with my brother, my mind filled with trolls and dragons and dwarves.

I try to read to my children frequently, and have done so since they were born. My son likes books better than my daughter.  Every time I start to read to Pumpkin, Little Buddy runs over and insists on sharing (which means reading to HIM). But I think both kids have an early love of reading. I don’t read to them for any other reason than a long-term attempt to inspire a love of books in them. Books have been some of my truest and dearest friends throughout my life, and I think children need to learn early in their lives that a life can revolve around books without TV, video games or the internet.

Books, for me, are a stand-in for intellectual curiosity. That curiosity is different from getting an education; far different.  I argue that for most people, college is a crutch. Their intellectual curiosity is sated by four years in college – they read, they take interesting courses, they graduate and 58% of them never read a book again. Many people don’t even consider college as a place for true learning, but instead a diploma mill used to obtain fruitful employment.  My wife, Bubelah, thinks college is necessary for growth, and that college forces people to expand in ways they never would on their own. I say that college can only assist growth.  If you take advantage of the opportunities in college – or the continuing education available after college such as books, adult courses, or even through TV – then you have intellectual curiosity.  Intellectual curiosity, if someone has it, won’t stop with college. There is no excuse to quit learning, ever.

I’ve gotten glances from my coworkers from time to time when I sit and read a book in the office cafeteria while I eat lunch. I look around and see I am the ONLY person reading (without exaggeration) in the entire cafeteria.  I read history, or graphic novels, or fantasy/sci-fi.  It’s hard for me to imagine how exotic that appears to most people. The idea of reading anything other than a newspaper or magazine seems trivial or immature to them. Worse yet, I might be considered an elitist, or a bookworm.  When did intellectual prowess or a curiosity about life become a characteristic to be mocked? I care about history, space exploration, politics, ethics, literature. I’m a pointy-headed intellectual – and I drink beer and love pro football, too.

So how do you create a love of learning? Read.  After our formal education is done, we may gain knowledge through experience, or discussion, or other avenues – but reading is so freely available and simple that it can only be deemed a great failure of any society that doesn’t encourage it as a core virtue. You should do it whenever you can.  It doesn’t even matter WHAT you read: just read.  I’d like to see America become a place that’s proud of intellectual curiosity, but too often intellectual curiosity is mocked and belittled by people whose idea of culture is determined by TV executives. Knowledge should be a lifelong goal, not something satisfied by four years in college.

(I originally posted this, in slightly different form, in 2008)

landscape design, and links

So this week I started taking a landscaping design course in the evenings.  Nothing too hardcore, just an intro to the general principles; I learned how to draft out the area I’m going to landscape and a few general principles about Florida greenery.  Why am I doing this?  I’m not a particularly outdoorsy person (although I enjoy being outdoors, just not working hard outdoors).  I’m not a green thumb kind of guy.  But as a personal development type of thing, I was looking at taking some finance/accounting classes and suddenly decided (with a little prompting from Bubelah) to try something completely unexpected.

To give a little background:  the house we bought in north Florida has a beautiful backyard which is a large square, fenced in, with nothing but grass.  No trees, no flowers, no shrubbery – a blank canvas.  I decided I could put something in like a Japanese garden (or whatever) and call that my hobby du jour.  Blogging’s lost it’s sheen as a hobby, to be honest – something new needs to take its place.

So wish me luck trying something completely out of my normal wheelhouse like landscape design.  There’s a little tingle you get when you learn something completely new – maybe next I’ll sign up for a class in pottery or something!

On to the links:

how to avoid giving gifts at work

That’s right:  how to AVOID giving gifts at work.  A pet peeve of mine, for a long time, has been the corporate office “pitch in for a gift” routine. If you aren’t a corporate employee, let me explain.  What happens is that there’s one perky busybody in every department who decides to buy a flower basket when co-workers gets sick, or a teddy bear when they have a baby, or an item from the registry when someone gets married, or even a little gift for everyone’s birthday. This busybody goes around and asks everyone for a “donation,” knowing full well that for most people refusing is an embarrassing proposition.

I have never liked this business of pitching in.  I like it even less now that I’m a consultant, and anyone with half a brain should be able to realize that I have even less interest than the average employee in participating.  Plus:

  • 1. I don’t always like the person for whom the present is being purchased.
  • 2. Sometimes the reason for the gift is trivial – someone is having a birthday? What, are we 12?
  • 3. There is a subtle discrimination – someone who has been around longer, or has a better position, or is simply more popular gets bigger or better gifts.
  • 4. If the busybody is encouraged, soon you are shelling out $10-$20 a week for “voluntary” gifts.

I am also very uncomfortable accepting such gifts, and have often said point-blank that I don’t want any gifts. Maybe I have a distorted view, but to me if I receive a gift I feel an obligation to return it the next time I’m asked to contribute. Then I’m “stuck” as a regular contributor.  And I won’t do it.  I often make a point early on to tell people that I do not participate with any “optional” offerings – gifts, flowers, etc.  I don’t give to the boss’s favorite charity, either, another pet peeve.  Going around soliciting for your daughter’s Girl Scout cookie sales is soliciting, plain and simple.  So is Yankee Candle and anything else the boss brings in and coos about being “fun, you should try it!”  Imagine if I started bringing in sales brochures for my consulting business and handing them out to people in the finance department.

Now that I’m a consultant – and technically not “part” of the department – I find it easier to refuse. I am stingy enough with gift-giving for my family and friends (and myself) that I resent any “required” gifts for my co-workers. I know, in a sense, that this just reflects the realities of most people’s lives – that they spend more time with their co-workers than with their friends and families and therefore want to contribute to the morale of their workplace. Yet every time I’m asked to pitch in $10 for a co-worker’s cheese-and-sausage gift basket I see $10 that could buy my son some books, or $10 to add to my nieces’ and nephew’s custodial accounts, or even $10 that Bubelah and I could put towards an occasional evening out. I am selfish that way.  I want to give money to charities of my choice, not to a charity chosen by a coworker who had a great-aunt pass away.

So am I crazy? Do you have people asking you to contribute to “departmental” gifts at the office? Do you participate? Am I just being a jerk?

As we know it is always something, whether it be anniversary, birthday, or new born baby gifts.

what’s the point of net worth?

Having been involved in several conversations about the calculation of net worth over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that net worth isn’t that important. The reason? Net worth is a difficult number to analyze, and the difficulty in analyzing it makes it a worthless tool for measuring progress in your financial life.

1. You don’t know how it’s calculated. A lot of people include home equity in that calculation, for example (value of the home less mortgages/loans against it). I don’t include it, because I believe that it’s not a value you can “cash in.” If you cash it in, you still have to buy a new place to live. The only way to “cash it out” is to sell and then move into a rental or downsize, which is not a typical move most people make these days. The counterpoint is that it is an asset that you can borrow against; a bank will give you a loan against that value. Regardless, you just can’t know if people include it or not.

2. A net worth of $200,000 means different things in a small town in Texas and in La Jolla, California. In one place it’s a substantial amount that could generate a sustainable income. In the other place it’s lunch and a tip. Many of us may know that we’re staying put our whole lives, but many of us might be living practically anywhere in 20 years. Knowing whether you’ll be living in Smallville or Gotham would make a big difference.  Since I moved from New York City to a small town in Florida I’ve understood this statistic better than ever.

3. Net worth doesn’t accurately measure cash flow generation. If you have an asset (a rental property, etc.) that generates cash flow, is that worth the same as one that doesn’t (like bricks of gold or a non-dividend paying stock)? In the long run, of course, that cash flow adds to net worth, but the potential future accumulation of cash isn’t really represented in a snapshot view of net worth. That’s not the purpose of a net worth calculation, but it is a problem with analyzing it.

4. Net worth also doesn’t show risk. If I have $500,000 invested in equities, is that the same as $500,000 invested in a money market? Again, for a snapshot in time, yes, but one of them is substantially riskier than the other. If you could apply some sort of risk calculation to your holdings it might make a difference in how you look at the overall picture, as well.

I don’t think it’s all that important to know your net worth. If you use it for motivation or simply feel better knowing what it is, by all means do so. But just like knowing that Harold weighs 200 pounds isn’t that helpful in getting a picture of him unless you also know whether he’s 5 foot 3 inches or 6 foot 8 inches, or whether he’s solid muscle or flabby, knowing your net worth doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about your financial position. It’s part of the picture, but definitely a small part.

after the hacking, and links

I have had a week.  Obviously the site got hacked this week, and without the help of one of my fellow Money Writers I would have been sunk, since I didn’t have the technical expertise to deal with the attack. I’d like to think I’ve acquired some basic coding skills, but I quickly realized that I’m not even vaguely capable of dealing with serious coding problems.

I’m overwhelmed with projects right now – landscaping, house, blog, personal finance, etc.  One of the things I’ve come to realize is that you can’t allow the to-do list to grow too large or you become overwhelmed and shut down.  I’m close to that point now – I have so much to do I just don’t feel like doing anything, which is clearly unproductive.

Well, on to the links:

Cash for Caulkers: A great program I hope to take advantage of…

Why We Blog – Part 1 and Part 2 (I really enjoyed these two posts).

Jacob, always interesting, has How I got out of consumerism: I don’t know if it works for everyone but it’s something I would like to think I could embrace… eventually, right after I buy some junk I don’t REALLY need…

Looks like somebody is closer than ever to moving to Portugal: We are selling our house, for definite this time!

And more…

how to learn to love your job

Q: Did you always dream of drawing and writing, or were you about to happily settle for a so-called normal job? Was it the misery of “humiliating and low-paying jobs,” or the joy of drawing and writing, that pushed you this way?
A: I pursued a normal job so I wouldn’t starve to death while figuring out how to have an extraordinary job. I just didn’t know how it would play out. –Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

How can you find a great job? What’s the secret to a fulfilling career?

The perfect job. Who doesn’t dream of finding a job that’s not just good, but great? Flexible hours, massive responsibility (or lack thereof), high pay, interesting work, friendly and interesting colleagues, travel with perks, and a corner office overlooking the city. Chances are that it’s just that – a dream. Most of us who work for a paycheck are stuck working at something less than our dream. The need to pay the rent, the mortgage, the medical bills and so on makes the necessity of a paycheck too much to disregard. But before you despair, here are 9 things to remember about your current less-than-perfect job that might make you feel just a bit better:

1. You don’t have to go out feet first. I pose this question to coworkers often: do you plan to die at your desk after decades of working for this company? The answer is always no, so I say “then you plan to quit at some point – it’s simply a question of timing.” Remember that your job is not forever. The drama and politics that seem so real now will be gone in 10 years – probably even less – from your memory.  Look forward to quitting – someday.

2. You are not your job. Albert Einstein was a patent clerk. Nobody remembers Einstein for his year-end patent clerking evaluation, or the patent clerk staff meetings he skipped. He was not defined by his job, but by what he did besides his work. If you love to paint, don’t let the fact that you work in retail sales discourage you from painting.

3. Take pride in your paycheck. It may seem like a small thing, often dismissed as “not following your dreams,” but there is some value to simply bringing home a paycheck. If you have a family, be proud that you can provide for them. If you are single, be proud that you stand on your own feet without help from your parents. Even if your job is not perfect, take some pride in the fact that through this job you can support yourself (and your family).

4. Never stop learning. Even the worst possible job presents opportunities for learning – even if they are lessons like “I never want to do this again.” Try and find opportunities in your job to learn new skills. Those skills might come in handy at your NEXT job.

5. Your colleagues may change. If you suffer with a particular colleague, remember that they may leave any day. You don’t necessarily HAVE to be the one to blink and quit! Sometimes you can outlast people that irritate you.

6. The next job may not be that great, either. Everyone has experienced the sinking feeling of quitting one job, moving to a new one and discovering it may be even worse than the one before. If you set an expectation that your life will be a never-ending series of triumphant improvements, you may have some too-high expectations to overcome. Even a near-perfect job will have its off days.

7. Working on the side is only possible if you have “a side.” Writing the next great American screenplay is a terrific idea (although you’ll be crossing the picket lines if you do). However, nobody has ever said that you have to do that and nothing else. There is no shame keeping your day job to support yourself and working on side projects meanwhile. Scott Adams kept working at the phone company in a cubicle even after Dilbert became a syndicated comic strip. Keep at it. Success will come.

8. Don’t discount the social aspect of a bad job. Sometimes the job duties may be bad but the people you work with are great. If you have a bad job but you like your co-workers, keep in mind that a rewarding job doesn’t always guarantee like-minded, friendly colleagues.

9. Motivation isn’t always positive! Sometimes keeping that not-so-perfect job is what spurs people on to avoid “jobs” altogether. Maybe the employee lifestyle just isn’t for you – use that frustration with your current job to inspire you to discover your real passion and break away!


Just in case you’ve been wondering about the lack of posts over the last 4-5 days, brip blap’s been hacked.  I’ve been working with Godaddy to resolve it, and they’ve been great, but it’s taking a while for the fixes to cycle through.  Bear with me – original content should be back up soon.  I hope.  These are the headaches that make blogging feel like a job!

And in case you’re wondering why I can post even as I complain about not being able to post:  I can post, but the interface through WordPress that I usually use is a mess.  Everything is messed up on the administrative side, not visible to you as you visit this site.

It’s annoying, obviously.  I don’t think of this blog as a “big” site, worthy of hacking, but apparently it is.  Live and learn.  I have a few new posts but I’m going to try to fix the site before posting them.  Bear with me, and wish me luck as I delve into coding/hacking/etc. areas that I am completely unfamiliar with…