Thursday, December 28, 2006

Stupid people rush to refinance now, per Washington Post

This Washington Post article talks about "good" reasons to refinance now. How "good" are those reasons? Not very.
  1. "You have an adjustable-rate mortgage that's scheduled to reset into higher payments in the six months ahead. Your loan might be a payment-option mortgage, an interest-only mortgage originated in 2003 or 2004 with a three-year reset, or simply an adjustable tied to short-term Treasury rates that's already costing you more than the fixed-rate alternatives.
  2. You have a "piggyback" first-and-second mortgage package that was originally intended to let you purchase your house with a minimal or zero down payment while avoiding mortgage insurance premiums. But now the floating-rate second is above 8 percent and you want to bail.
  3. You need cash for a home improvement, a business investment or a vacation home now available at a bargain price. Even though the fixed rate on your first is below 6 percent, the opportunity to cash out thousands of dollars and refinance into a larger replacement mortgage is compelling, even if the rate is a little higher."
The problem here is that all these options presume you're a sucker:
1. You're refinancing because you took an earlier bet on adjustable-rate mortgages. Good for you, but you shouldn't have one in the first place. All three of the options listed are flat-out stupid as snake socks, for reasons that should be obvious.

2. You're not stupid for avoiding PMI; that's a legitimate option. However, getting the second mortgage as a floating rate was dumb as a sack of broken hammers. We already know you didn't have the money to just get a single mortgage with a decent downpayment, which means you don't have flexibility to have rates rise on you, but you went ahead and got the 2nd mortgage as a floater anyway.

3. Wow. I can't even begin on how wrong this entry is. Unless the home improvement is actually necessary home repairs, all three of these are just pointless exercises in wasting equity and chaining yourself to a bigger mortgage.

Makes me glad I've got money in REIT funds, to get money from the people taking money from stupid people.

Sunday, December 24, 2006 announces impending death of Dragon, Dungeon magazines

No, not really. In this press release, they announce that they're discontinuing their 2- and 3-year subscription discounts, and introducing a new 6-month subscription package.

Now, I used to get 12 issues of Dragon magazine for $15, and 12 issues of Dungeon for $18. Of course, at that time, comics were also ninety-five cents a pop. Also, my cow went to school uphill, both ways. If a 6-month subscription is TWENTY TWO BUCKS, well, that's a sign of impending collapse.


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Pre-Christmas report

As the old saying goes, "Any holiday that doesn't require driving or flying anywhere is a good one!"

The second-best Christmas gift I have given so far this year was to a teenager I know. He's on the geeky side, so I gave him 3 boxes of fantasy and sci-fi paperbacks, along with 10 or 12 games I'd gotten at thrift stores and garage sales, and an older computer with a decent monitor and a Linux boot cd. Oh, yeah, and a TMBG CD and the original Knights of the Old Republic PC game. Plus all my Illuminati, Mythos, On The Edge, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. etc. collectible card game stuff. I'm totally the Nerdfather, patron to the younger generation of kids that are smart-maybe-a-little-too-smart.

My best Christmas gift this year was telling my wife that our house is now free of 3 boxes of fantasy and sci-fi paperbacks, along with 10 or 12 games I'd gotten at thrift stores and garage sales, and an older computer with a decent monitor and a Linux boot cd. Most importantly for our safety, my upstairs closet doesn't have a copy of Monopoly dangerously close to a copy of Anti-Monopoly. Now the two can't touch accidentally and cause a massive explosion. Not as massive an explosion as my wife was going to have if I kept the giant pile of junk around the house, though.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I love the Post Office

No, really, screw you guys. I do.

1. it's where my mom works. You can send any wacky postcards to Todd's Mom, Box 1, Ellston IA 50074. My sisters and I grew up getting cards and packages from relatives all over the place.
2. I ran into an old co-worker today at the post office, and we had a nice chat. I spent $12.46 on stamps. She spent over $46, but she had way more cards, and some of hers were headed to France and Germany.
3. 80% of our Christmas cards are mailed. Lee did 99% of the work.
4. The rest of the Christmas cards are ready to go, and so are my packages for the latest board game Math Trade. Jeff, if you're reading this, it's been a hectic week... I meant for these to go out Saturday, but they didn't.
5. My kids get all kinds of packages. My aunt Sue and uncle Dale sent Alex and Cori an awesome Sesame Street game and puzzle for Alex, and we're up to about 15 separate puzzle assemblies in 2 days.
6. It's a reminder that I'm grateful not to be working as a leasing temp and have to deal with hundreds of packages in a little tiny space in whatever office I worked in. Starting December 1, most properties begin sending notes daily to every resident with a package, which requires a lot of monitoring of the package room and distribution of packages. One property I worked at wanted me to put them inside individual apartments. Oh, that was the same one that allowed dogs up to 90 pounds. I found two large dogs immediately, and set off an alarm on the third apartment. Another 500-apartment property had a 10' by 14' space packed with boxes of all descriptions, up to the ceiling in some cases, overflowing out of their regular package closet. After only 3 days of constant notices to all 300+ package recipients, I had most of the mess down. The package count was surreal. I was getting rushed by lots of residents, and had to remember where their stuff was, since some of it was too heavy or awkward to re-sort numerically.
7. Charles Bukowski's novel Post Office was good, if you like Charles Bukowski.
8. The recent DC superhero stamps are awesome.
9. I spent quite a bit of time in high school trying to break into the gaming market, and actually got something published in a small-press magazine called Vortext, now defunct. I got paid $9.50 for it. Getting the magazine with MY NAME in the table of contents was a blast. It was on a balmy day in mid-June, and I walked back home from the post office to savor everything.
10. My parents got me magazine and comic book subscriptions, and that was awesome. Ranger Rick, National Geographic World, the Star Wars comic, and so on. Later, I bought subscriptions to the aforementioned Vortext, Dungeon, Polyhedron, and Dragon magazines. It was a simpler, nerdier era.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The rest of the weekend - Reynolds & Reynolds Christmas party

Lee and I got our friend Emily to babysit, and we went off to the UCS, oops, Reynolds & Reynolds Christmas party. Here's how it works:
  1. Free food
  2. Free booze
  3. ???
  4. Profit!
It was up at the Wyndham Greenspoint. We were able to get a discounted room rate, and I even got up there and checked in early enough to get our room preferences.

My old co-workers were there, and I got a lot of back-slapping and hand-shaking from the rank-and-file, and some of the supervisors.

The D.J. at the party sucked and sucked. To give you an idea, a few years ago, the Beach Boys played at the UCS Christmas party. Yes, the actual Beach Boys, featuring actual Brian Wilson on drums, and the actual grandchildren of the lead singer, whose name I can't remember, but I'll call him Beardy. As they left the stage, I shouted, "We love you, Brian! Keep taking showers!" This was the evil, no-fun opposite of that.

This D.J. was whiny about no one dancing, had the music turned up too loud, had the sound levels set to where anyone on the mike sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher, played the Aggie Fight Song, played Vanilla Ice songs, etc. Beardy never would have stood for that.

Lee and I stayed far away from the blare, and sat in the outer hall, feasting and hanging out with Very Intoxicated Co-workers. Topics discussed included:
  • How people's moms made them self-conscious about their bodies
  • How awesome booze is
  • The relative merits of spending $1200 on a new Sig or spending $800 on a titanium driver (probably mostly ironic, but I was in the middle of two conversations and I wasn't sure)
  • How much the D.J. sucked
  • How "Buckles" broke his hand, and what happened next. Ha ha, David. You're just the same as I remember, except injured in a comedic fashion.
  • My new job, specifically that it is "good, and that's about all I'll say."
After I caught myself singing along to David Alan Coe's version of Steve Goodman's "You Never Even Called Me By My Name," a.k.a. The Perfect Country Western Song, I knew it was time for us to go brush our teeth and crash. Full lyrics here, by the way.

In the morning, we got up, ate the bagels I packed, and then went to Panera to have coffee and eat more. Lee had a pastry, and I ate more bagels.

After that, we went home, and eventually everyone took a nap, and then we went to the Olive Garden, where everyone ate a lot except Alex, who mostly drank lemonade. When we were headed home, she let us know, "Need more lemo-ade, Mommy! Need more lemo-ade, Daddy!"

So we told her the straw was "all used up" and promised her lemonade at an unspecified future time, instead. Good parenting is all about supervision when needed, discipline when required, love all the time, and believable lies when it's convenient.

Thursday night: New Games

Thursday, Chris, Tim, Larry, and R.J. made it over and we were almost done with our first-ever game of Tower of Babel (Reiner Knizia's Tower of Babel, by Reiner Knizia) by the time Beth and Roxanne showed up.

After that, it was time for Fearsome Floors, another new game for the group. I had to at least break it out of the shrinkwrap, or I might have keeled over dead, from sheer failure-to-game. It happens, you know.

Fearsome Floors turns out to be goofy and cool. There's a stand-up monster figure, and every turn, everyone moves their little dudes a few steps, and then the monster marches around, usually eating people. There is a pattern to the monster's movement - it mostly marches straight forward, unless it can see someone to the right or left who's closer. This allows for clever players to put their fleeing teenagers/FBI agents/little dog in a position to confuse the monster, so it marches right by them. Cute, and will definitely get played again.

Unfortunately, it's missing a blue wooden disk. I need to email Rio Grande Games and let them know... there are also some bonus stickers that didn't come with disks, so hopefully I can talk Rio Grande Games into sending me 3. I'll be happy to pay for the extras.

Gamecount: Individual game sessions played for the year = 193, New game titles played for the year = 43.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sterling McCall Nissan shopping spree promotion - how free is this money?

I got a letter in the mail from Sterling McCall Nissan today, offering me a $1,000 shopping spree just for test driving a car before December 31. I'm guessing they'd like to make their numbers this year, and that Nissan is underwriting most of the cost.

If I go, I'll post and let you know how it goes. I sure could go for jumping through some marketing hoops to not ever buy from a dealership, ever.

Number of new vehicles I've ever bought: 0.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Linux Nerdery Ahead!

After getting Alex down for the 3rd time this evening, I resumed poking at the large pile of salvaged computer hardware near my desk.

I plugged in and tested one system, which doesn't boot. Bad mobo? Bad power supply? Both? Beats my pair of jacks.

The next 3 server boxes have no power supplies. I'd love to boot these and see what happens, but bleah, that means freakin' power supply transplants. I think they're Pentium 2 or 3 processors on decent motherboards, with good video cards, and anywhere from 256-768 mb of RAM. That means they're okay. Setting them aside for the moment, I pulled out one of my biggest failures as a tech: my Compaq 7478.

Let's list everything wrong with this PC:
  • It's got no hard drive, because I broke the other hard drive's circuit board removing the power supply cable.
  • It's a Compaq, so attempting to install Windows has failed using other hard drives, because Compaq used a jacked-up boot sector arrangement.
Other than that, this was a rock-solid PC for me for over 4 years, running Windows 98 version b with nary a hitch, right up until the end. I eventually traded up for something a little bigger, but it worked great until the day I needed to recover data from Lee's dead computer. The original hard drive had been in there for close to 5 years, and I broke it.

Did I have a backup? NOOOoooo! Don't be silly, because 1. I wasn't going to break it, ah hah ha ha ha sob, and 2. there wasn't anything important on there. Oh, except 4 years worth of email.

Anyway, I put in a salvaged 120 gig hard drive, which apparently had a Windows 2000 Server boot partition on it. Unsurprisingly, it locked up shortly after booting.

I got out my trusty Linux distro CDs: Knoppix and Mepis. After a moment's thought, I set the Knoppix CD down. Why test, I figured, when I can install?

Even as we speak, Mepis 6.0 is installing to the hard drive, using the amazing Mepis desktop 1-click install.

I'll let you know how it goes, but hopefully, by this time tomorrow, I'll have a Linux PC running side-by-side with my main PC. I've used Knoppix quite a few times for data recovery, but this will be my first time to try Linux for true extended usage.

Sunday at Larry's: Power Grid!

After last night's game, Lee and I stayed up too late. I am in the middle of reading Judith Levine's Not Buying It, which is great.

Anyway, Lee and I were awakened by Alex, and after a brief period of playing "tent," I took Alex downstairs so Lee could rest a little longer.

While Lee was asleep:
  • I made tabouli; this is my first try and I couldn't help snitching some throughout the day. Beth's friend Roxanne makes amazing tabouli, and mine isn't as good. On the other hand, I also didn't work as hard at it.
  • I filled the dishwasher, cleaned off the counter, ground coffee, made coffee, and transferred the peanut oil from my last batch of sweet potato chips from the big pot into a glass applesauce jar.
  • I fed Alex breakfast.
  • I made Alex and I some couscous. She's not as adventurous an eater as I want yet, but she did eat a couple bites. To make sure she loves it, I mixed hers with peanut butter; this works as a mix for me, too.
Cori slept in past 10 in the morning, so after all of us had lunch, I put Alex down for a nap and laid down, too. Lee headed off to buy groceries, with Cori in tow.

After she got back, I took them to church and dropped the girls off at their Sunday School classes, and headed to Larry's to play a quick 2-player game of Power Grid, and give him the Benelux & Central Europe expansion map. This was our first try at the 2-player variant. It's a little different - 3 sections on the map are used and 3 are blocked off, the auctions are rarely as spirited, and someone must build all 21 cities to trigger the endgame.

As it happened, I moved slightly ahead in city-building, and ended up triggering the endgame by building the 21st city, with only 2 Electros to spare. Larry could only power 15 cities, and I could power 17. Victory!

We managed to play the whole game in just over an hour and 15 minutes, which is great. Power Grid has proven to be a hit with everyone in our gaming group. Given the spectrum of experience and demeanor, I'm glad that we've managed to find a happy compromise.

Gamecount: Individual game sessions played for the year = 191, New game titles played for the year = 41

Saturday - hanging out

We spent the day over at Lee's sister's house, helping them pack up in preparation for beginning to move next week. Their 2 girls and our 2 girls had a great time.

Lee and I managed to get the girls to bed, and I got her to play a 2-player game of Blue Moon City with me.

She played once at Thanksgiving; it's tough for both of us to start learning/teaching a game from scratch after 9 pm. We agree, it's a racing game, not a building game. There's a strong focus on efficiency. In the end, she managed to add a 6th stone to the central pillar and win the game, while I was trying to get together enough dragon scales and crystals to finish up as well.

Gamecount: Individual game sessions played for the year = 190, New game titles played for the year = 41

Booted to Linux

Yayy, install process finished and rebooted to Linux successfully!

Okay, it's 11:59 pm, I'll check it more tomorrow.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Houston Gamers (catch-up from last week)

I went to the Houston Gamers last Saturday. There were two groups upstairs playing Struggle of Empires and Power Grid. I stayed downstairas and played Money, San Juan, and Zombie Rally with Todd Cole, his girlfriend Cynthia, and James Spurney.

Money (Reiner Knizia's Money, By Reiner Knizia) is a great little auction game. It's out of print, or I'd already have a copy.

We played my copy of San Juan, and I lost, lost, lost. I did several very bad things that are ways to lose, and after that, I lost. I still had a good time. Todd Cole bought a copy of it at the end of the night, so that was something.

Zombie Rally is an envelope game about racing zombies. Cynthia disabled all the other zombies, and won handily.

Cynthia was in a wheelchair with a cast due to taking a fall a few weeks before, so we were trapped downstairs. The guys behind the counter spent their time playing clips from YouTube at high volume. Also, I'm certain pornography was being viewed at one point, but thankfully, the monitor was pointed the other way.

Did I mention many geeks are pathetic, horrible man-children?

Gamecount: Individual game sessions played for the year = 189, New game titles played for the year = 41

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Out with the old... Warning: boring financial talk inside

Last week, I faxed in my 2007 benefit paperwork. I'm reserving $2,500 in health care flexible savings, and $5,000 in child care. Both are at the maximum, though our child care will be more than double that.

Why the extra health care cash? I'm thinking it's time to get Lasik. My kids keep kicking me in the face, tackling my head, rolling onto me, and so forth. Were my glasses to be crushed tomorrow, I'd be hard-pressed to replace them for under $300. I also foresee that the cost of glasses will continue to escalate, especially as even better lenses and technology is available.

Annoyingly, all the other benefit elections except the Health Care and Dependent Care Savings are for the period from January through September. I leave the obvious deductibles problem this creates as an exercise for the reader.

The 401k paperwork is also in my bag, waiting to be compared. They offer managed portfolios! Just check one of three boxes and have them manage a portfolio for you, be it aggressive, balanced, or conservative, at the mere cost of ANOTHER quarter of a percent on top of whatever else they buy. Also, their definition of aggressive means, "Still a lot of bonds in here, for some reason." They do offer sector funds, including a Vanguard REIT. I'm a big believer in REITs as a means of diversifying a portfolio.

The interesting choice: the 401k can be split as a percentage between a traditional 401k and a Roth 401k. Since there's no employer match, I'm having a lot of trouble with this decision. On one hand, Roths are fantastic for just about anyone. On the other hand, paying taxes on the initial deduction is painful.

I was counting off the numbers for a friend of mine on Friday, and did a couple of quick count-on-my-fingers calculations using the Rule of 72. We went to Urban Outfitters and looked at various books and horrible, horrible hipster gear. I recommended various stuff based on websites I've seen, managing to convince him to buy 2 copies of Snakes on a Sudoku by internet-Renaissance-man Francis Heaney, and also somehow twisting his arm into buying a desk calendar. Someday, I'll buy those PostSecret books, too.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Best stupid spam email subject line ever

"Combat Robot Unicycle Trials!"

Yeah. That's totally worth all the junk in my inbox.

2006 Christmas wish list

I've been thinking about Christmas. Here's what I asked for last year. Several people gave blood and/or made donations to Child's Play, a charity that gives games and toys to hospitals for kids.

I got some other stuff on my list - exceptional props go to my sisters for getting me a New Yorker subscription. Lee is stealing them when they arrive to read the last-page comic caption contest and write her own caption first. That's good stuff.

So, yeah, here's what I want:

Board games:
  • Don't worry about it, I'll buy stuff for me.
  • Magazine subscriptions to Make, McSweeney's, the Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, or the New Yorker.

It's on now (Elizabeth Grigg's blog, that is)

Elizabeth Grigg has upgraded her blog to a newer version of Movable Type, fixing her comment troubles.

On Sunday, we went over to Sue and Jack's house, to bring them some pizza and hang out with their brand-new baby Simcha, who was 6 days old at the time. Usually, newborns sound like creaky doors, but their new girl sounds like a mewing kitten.

They have cut down the trees in their back yard and have a giant wooden playset that's mostly unassembled back there. The kids no longer call it "the jungle." Now they call it "the desert."

Friday, December 01, 2006

Thursday night: Tim brings back his tweaked prototype

Chris, Tim, R.J., and Larry came over on Thursday, and a good time was had by all.

First, we played the new Cheapass Games title Enemy Chocolatier. In it, players compete as candy-makers buying up neighborhoods near a magical chocolate factory to either win the love of the people, or complete their secret recipe and dominate the people, love notwithstanding. There's a lot more meaty decisions than most of the Cheapass line, and we had a lot of discussion afterward about possible strategies and how the game would play differently the next time.

Lee came downstairs from putting Alex to bed right as we were packing up Enemy Chocolatier.

Tim brought back his cyberpunk game prototype. He'd already brought back a bunch of re-worked event cards sometime between then and now, for more advice.

It's neat, because after watching all of us play, taking notes, and hearing our feedback, Tim's produced a tighter and better game. As before, all the players are cyber-couriers, with 5 million generic currency to start, all hoping to make 20 million generic currency in order to retire.

The board layout had changed slightly, but is still a set of white squares separating various edge nodes that serve as as pick-up spots, delivery spots, or sources of cybernetic enhancement.

We played for almost two hours, bopping about from space to space, picking up/delivering/getting enhanced. I began yawning like crazy, and realized it was 11 pm. Announcing this started a mad rush for the door, as everyone had to be at work on Friday.

What Tim changed:

1. increased good stuff on cards drawn at Random Stuff spaces on the board.
2. added action cards that are saved for later play into the Random Stuff card mix.
3. increased players' starting money, thus their options.
4. added more powers.
5. changed how turn order works.
6. varied how stacks of jobs appear.
7. streamlined the "getting hacked" mechanisms.
8. added more cards, period, to the Random Stuff card mix.
9. increased payouts of all jobs.
10. greatly increased payouts of the "dangerous" jobs, since none of the risk-averse players took ANY in the last game.
11. added a second player-vs.-player combat system.
12. increased the amount of ways players could interact, encouraging negotiation.
13. re-worded cards and added minor flavor text for variety.
14. created money and little colored upgrade chits.

The more I typed, the more impressed I got. Tim, as it develops, was LISTENING to us.

His changes streamlined play, and the original design intent has been enhanced by his responses to our playtesting. This time, everyone had more fun, with much less random grousing. Tim took more notes and handled the whole session with the usual aplomb and enthusiasm that makes him an all-around good guy.

It's fun to see how the group acts and thinks about the new situations presented in the game. I hope we'll see more prototypes in the months to come.

Gamecount: Individual game sessions played for the year = 186, New game titles played for the year = 40*. I'm counting Tim's revised prototype as a new title, due to extensive reworking.