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Hill Jogging

by @ 10:34 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Hill Jogging
Jogging addicts have an interesting trait. Wherever they go, the first thing they usually search for is a location to jog. At least that's true about me. Actually it's a nuisance sometimes, much like smokers who run out of cigarettes when they travel and they need to search for a store that can hook them up with their next fix. On a recent business trip to San Diego, I had to use the treadmills in the hotel gym and it's not always easy to find a free one to jump on. I ended up asking the locals and they pointed me to a decent boardwalk by the water.

But one of the locations I've been wanting to try is the neighborhood where my daughter's ballet school is located. After nearly two years of driving her to the school in the next town over, I decided to give that area a try today. Before driving her to the school, I surfed on to Google Maps to get an idea of the nearby roads and discovered a perfect loop to run on. Next I jumped on one of my own pages on this site to get an idea about the distances involved. Doing some rough calculations, I arrived at a total distance of approximately 5 miles. Perfectly reasonable, given my time limit of about an hour. I memorized some of the road names and after dropping her off at the ballet school I was off and running.

Soon I realized a big miscalculation in my investigative method. Google Maps (and other online maps) is great for driving directions, but they are not topographical and that makes a big difference when you are operating on your own power. Serves me right for not paying closer attention to the road names. Just about every road had the word "hill" appended to it. Let's take a sample: Indian Hill Road, Pipers Hill Road, Teapot Hill Road, Mallory Hill Road, Dumplin Hill Road, and Nod Hill Road. At least there was one exception, Mountain Road!

I can’t remember the last time I ran on so many roads whose names ended in Hill. And hills there were, some covering long inclined stretches. To add more adventure to my course, I was lost a couple of times adding more distance to my already grueling course. There was no chance to slow to a walk and catch my breath. I had to be at the school on time and to make matters worse I had no track of time as I don't even have a watch.

Thankfully I eventually found the way and made it back to school with a few minutes left to spare. I was able to complete the course (later on, going back in the car, I clocked it at 7.5 miles) and I came out of it relatively unscathed, save a little leg muscle pain.

Lessons to learn: Don't assume the new area you have chosen to run in would be flat. There is considerable difference between running on a flat course and running on a hilly one. And, when you map out your new course, pay more attention to the road names and the directions to follow. Of course, knowing myself, I won't learn a thing from all this, other than having a new appreciation for the term "uphill battle".

Berkshire Hathaway Phantom Stock Split

by @ 10:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Common sense and investing wisdom dictates that an investor should look the long run and diversify. Many of us engage in wise investing through our retirement planning via 401K or IRA accounts that are generally contributed to and left alone to compound for years. The diversification portion is achieved, by default, through mutual funds.

There are however some stocks (not counting ETF's) that are relatively diversified by definition, because the underlying companies comprise businesses of various types. General Electric (GE) is one such company. Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) is another, headed by the famed Warren Buffet. There is however one problem (at least for the average investor) buying shares in Berkshire Hathaway. Today's closing share price of that stock was $100,000. Now that's a tidy sum, putting the stock well beyond the affordability levels of many investors who would want to own a piece of this conglomerate.

Most companies faced with surging stock prices choose to partake in what is known as a stock split. As an example, a company whose stock price has reached $100 per share, might opt for a 2-for-1 stock split where each share turns into two with the share price at $50. It's a zero sum game. It has no effect on the market capitalization of the stock, and the shareholders see no difference in the values of their holdings at the moment the stock is split.

The general rationale behind a stock split is that it makes owning the shares more affordable and therefore it attracts more demand. In some cases it does work as intended and the stock sometimes surges upward post-split. The increased volume also comes with the side-effect of volatility. Berkshire Hathaway, however, has decided that it can do without the volatility. I suspect most investors in that stock are institutional holdings (such as companies and mutual funds) or very wealthy individuals. Today the traded volume for BRK was a measly 690 shares, with the low and high of $99,900 and $100,250 respectively. No doubt the difference between the bid and ask prices were in the tens of dollars and not pennies as most stocks typically experience.

Just to compare, GE's closing prices today was $35.53 with a trading volume of 26,087,600 shares. Accounting for all the GE stock splits over the years, the stock's effective split works out to 4608-for-1. If GE had never split, its share price would be $163,722.24 today and the traded volume would be about 5661 shares. Adjusting GE's stock price to that of BRK, the volume works out to about 9268 shares for GE or about 13.5 times the BRK's traded volume. Okay, I admit this is totally unscientific and a stock's traded volume is more affected by the condition of the company, forecasts, analysis, and the mood of the investors, among other factors, than its price per share. But if we were to accept this piece of information as valid for the moment, the conclusion would be that splits do indeed create more interest in a stock. Now we'll just wait for Warren to declare a 10,000-for-1 split. Sure, I might buy a few Berkshire shares at $10 a piece.

Cell Phones and Seat Belts

by @ 9:02 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Who says jogging is a safe exercise? For those of us who like to run outside it's anything but. I can't count how many times I've been chased by dogs, slipped on black ice, tripped over a branch (and one time on a snake), or have had close calls with cars. Tonight's episode involved an SUV driven by a woman chatting away on her cell phone. As I approached a bank's driveway, I noticed the SUV approach, trying to make a right turn. She stopped at the edge of the driveway, looked right and looked left. It was dark, but the street was well lit and I thought for sure she'd seen me in my white T-shirt approaching. I generally avoid cars that are about to make turns by going behind them, but I was sure she'd seen me; more like she saw through me. As I confidently stepped in front of the SUV, she gunned the car and at the last moment made a frantic stop. She'd finally seen me, but only after I had collided with her giant car. Thankfully it wasn't a big impact, but it must've rattled her. That's when I noticed her right hand holding the cell phone up to her ear. I'm not much into confrontation, specially when I have to conserve my energy for jogging. I decided to turn back and circle the car and we both went about our ways. I lived to collide with another car on another day.

There are good laws and then there the bad ones. We've had a no-cell-phone-while-driving law in Connecticut for a few months now. It's a good law, but from what I have observed little is being done to enforce it. It's a good law because it protects people from those who get too distracted to notice their surroundings while chattering on their cell phones or fumbling for a number to dial. Instead the state has decided to put more effort into enforcing the seat belt law, something that I consider a bad law, actually a stupid law. Who is being protected by the seat belt law other than the driver or the passenger sitting up front?

I am not anti seat belt, but people should have the freedom to decide whether or not to buckle up. I don't wear a seat belt most of the time. You are free to label me foolish, but I am not jeopardizing anyone else's safety. You could argue that if I were to have an accident, there is a cost to society in terms of higher insurance premiums, higher hospital bills, or wasted police time. Fair enough, but that argument could be applied to any activity. We'd have to ban skiing because a percentage of people are injured every year and require assistance. Why not ban sky diving, riding motorcycles, swimming, or even marathons while we're at it? That could save on money and resources that go into rescuing and treating those who are injured while participating in a variety of activities. Let's also ban butter, ice cream, and burgers too. Having sex would also make a good candidate, specially for those with advance age. Clearly there has to be a rational line where individual freedom should trump possible cost to all.

Banning cell phone usage, while driving, is rational. Instead, the public is subjected to countless ads designed to scare them into wearing their seat belts or face fines; the so-called "Click it, or ticket" campaign. Thankfully I don't even own a cell phone, so no problem obeying the cell phone usage ban. But if I were inclined to break a law, I'd be wise to get a cell phone, wear my seat belt and yak away while driving. I'd be safe the whole time while putting others at risk, and little chance I'd get a ticket for it.

Google, YouTube fear factor

by @ 8:25 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Hard to imagine that a 2-year old company started from scratch could be worth $1.65 billion, but that’s what YouTube is worth to Google. I had never visited YouTube’s site until about a month ago and that was just to see how it compares with Google video. I like Google video because of the simple interface, but it hasn’t been without technical glitches such as congestion and outages. I’m not sure how YouTube’s reliability has been, but I suppose that’s immaterial at this point. It will be one of Google’s products anyways.

This deal has certainly kept the analysts and pundits buzzing. USA Today had a couple of articles about the changing landscape of the online industry. One interesting observation was how fast some of the new startups reach lofty levels these days. I agree, but only cautiously. Sure we’ve had MySpace, YouTube, and now there’s talk of Yahoo going or FaceBook, but I view these as anomalies; jackpots for the lucky few who saw traffic rise to unimaginable levels on their sites.

At this point the Web titans are nervous about being upstaged by younger rivals encroaching on their secondary territories. Google is probably not too worried about a newcomer offering fancy Web searches, but a video site is a different matter. There’s also the fear of rivals snapping up the promising companies, and the helps to feed the buy-up frenzy,

Okay we knew all that, but one wonders if YouTube will ever earn its keep. Did Google give its own video service enough time to blossom, or have their abandoned their patient ways that got them to where they are now? Google wasn’t always the most popular destination for Web search. But having a good product with enough differentiation, a constant drive for perfection, and patience paid off in the long run. Maybe Google could have applied some of the same principles to Google video without having to spend the big chunk on YouTube. But I suppose once you get that big, the fear of losing the number one spot forces you into making frenzied, and sometimes not too wise, decisions.

Half Marathon, 2006

by @ 10:43 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Robert Hashemian, Half Marathon 2006, 2005
Running a race such as a half marathon is not unlike taking a test in school. Be it that I don't run these races to win (far from it), they still require some preparation and discipline. Some competitors spend months training for it. They follow a strict plan, run a set number of long miles per week, go on a regimented lifestyle, and participate in other races to get themselves prepared.

Not me, and not this time around. Just like some of the exams I used to take, I decided to wing it and, as expected, the result wasn't so rosy. Of course for people like me these races are not about competition. Just like a class that a barely passing grade would do, finishing the course is the ultimate goal. I ran my second half marathon on October 1st and it was an interesting experience. I did finish the race and I never stopped or down-shifted to a walk, but the experience was much more grueling than the one from the previous year.

I hadn't done much training for last year's half marathon either, but I was running longer distances prior to the race on the order of 10 to 12 miles, and I was running them much more frequently with more gusto. This time around the longest trek amounted to about 9 miles that I ran only once one week before the race. Yes, I was running a number of 5 or 6-mile routines, but I wasn't very consistent either.

The morning of the race I was feeling pretty okay. I had a couple of bananas and a few dates and headed for the meeting point. It was a chilly and rainy day and by the time we got on the course, it was obvious that we were going to face soggy day. And soggy, we encountered - a general rain condition punctuated by several periods of heavy downpours. Most runners welcome the dousing, but I'm not a fan of wet running, not that I had much choice in the matter.

Everything started out okay, but by the 7th mile I noticed that I'm feeling tired. I was constantly looking out for the mile markers and I had slowed down considerably, judging by the runners passing me by. I tried to get back in form and get my mind off the fatigue, but there was no fighting it. I wasn't in any pain, my body was simply out of energy and struggling to protect itself from stress and I had no choice but to heed. At several occasions I thought about slowing to a walk, but that would have amounted to a defeat, so I kept it going and kept looking out for the mile markers.

By the time I reached the 11th mile, I figured I might catch a second wind and ride it to the finish line. No such luck, the stress kept on hammering away and getting soaked by the downpours wasn't helping either. At this point I knew I was going to finish the race and that was the only thought that kept me moving, but the few last miles were passing just too slowly. By the 13th mile, I knew I was only a mere 1/10th of a mile away from the finish line, but even that tiny distance felt like an unending mile. And then it was all over. Looking back at the clock over the finish line, I was just relieved to have come in under 2 hours. Not a cause for celebration, but at that point I was happy it was done. I didn't beat my last year's time, but I came close and that was enough. Yeah, I barely passed. There's always the next year and another attempt to improve.

Here are my times from 2005 and 2006:

Year  Place  Age  Age Group    Time     Pace
---- ----- --- --------- ---- ----
2005 286 38 50 M 30-39 1:54:05 8:43/M
2006 287 39 66 M 30-39 1:55:52 8:51/M


Mortgage Scam Mail

by @ 10:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

There's yet another hidden danger in spam that occurred to me today after receiving my umpteenth mortgage refinance junk letter in the mail. So much information on the dangers of online scams (be it in the form of spam, phishing, or other types) has been disseminated that most people now treat online come-ons with some caution.

Unfortunately it is possible that all the attention to online fraud has shifted the focus away from mail fraud. You know, the kind of junk we all receive in our mailboxes everyday. I'm afraid that people may be letting their guards down and may be becoming more trusting of what they receive in their mailboxes.

With a recent drop in mortgage rates coupled with recent stagnation of the housing market and the end of fixed terms for many interest-only mortgages, mortgage companies have been on the prowl for new business. That may explain the flurry of letters we now receive inviting us to refinance our existing mortgages to lower rates.

The refinancing invitations are not new phenomenon. They've been around for years, but the timing to snag unsuspecting homeowners may be just right. The junk mail letters come in all shapes and sizes, but they have one interesting characteristic in common. They all have the appearance to be from the actual mortgage company that the homeowner does business with and that could dupe the homeowner into believing that the letters are legitimate correspondence form their mortgage company.

Most of them highlight the name of the mortgage company in large fonts and try hard to divert attention from the fact that the letter is from a totally unrelated company offering to refinance the existing mortgage. The small print (also known as mouse print) says it all. It usually states that the mortgage information was culled form public records and the sender is not associated or affiliated with the homeowner's actual mortgage company.

Perhaps it's a bit harsh to judge all these letters as scam, and this practice might not be illegal, but people should be aware that any company that tries so hard to hide its identity, while impersonating the homeowner's present mortgage company on the front, is being deceptive and their letter deserves a swift trip to the trash can. They are as bad as any refinancing spam they receive via email.

Windows XP printer sharing

by @ 11:05 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

We have a network of three XP PC's at home and one laser printer that's connected to my PC over the LPT1 parallel port. My wife is a heavy printer user, so every time she wanted to print a document, she had to attach it to an email, retrieve it from my PC and then print it. Tonight she finally asked me to hook up her PC to the printer too so she could print directly from her PC.

Printer sharing is supposed to be an easy task. You set up a network, share the printer on the node that has the printer physically connected, and you're finished. Easier said than done. If my PC is PC1 and hers is PC2, first I had to share the printer on PC1. Then on PC2 I'd choose "Add Printer" from the "Printers and Faxes" window and click on the Network printer and specify \\PC1\hp. At that point I get an account verification popup where I have to supply my account name and password on PC1 and save the password. That works, but because my account has admin privileges, that means that PC2 would have unfettered access to all the resources to PC1. For example running the command \\PC1\c$ on PC2 would give full access to all PC1 files. That's not a big issue at my home, but this doesn't seem right. There was a perfectly fine user account on PC1 that could have been used instead to set this up, but every time I entered the credentials, XP refused to add the printer to PC2.

This is one of those problems I had dealt with in the past, but had forgotten how I had resolved it then. Finally, after a few rounds, I remembered the solution. The user account I was using on PC1 had a blank password and that just doesn't sit well with Windows when trying to access PC1 shares using a password-less credential. In fact an account on a PC can access the shared resources on another PC, over the same network, without providing any credentials if the account name and passwords match. Unless the accounts have blank passwords. Once I assigned a password to the user account on PC1 and specified that password when adding the printer on PC2, everything worked as expected and I was able to easily print from PC2. Of course I had to make sure that the firewall and local area settings for the PC's were configured correctly as well.

I suspect some registry setting somewhere in the bowels of Windows XP can change this behavior to allow for password-less accounts to work, but why do users have to be shackled by these absurd rules? I'm sure Microsoft did it for our own good. What would the poor users do without Windows guarding them every step of the way?

Jesus Spam

by @ 9:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Most of the spam unleashed on mailboxes are initiated using a mail server cranking out emails in bulk. The more sophisticated ones use crude mail-merging techniques to insert the victim's name and perhaps slightly change the content or headers of the emails in an effort to elude junk mail detectors. It's old news. Cheap Viagra, eBay account suspension, Citibank alert, Nigerian money laundering scheme, etc., etc.

It sounds crazy, but spam does have its positive side. Junk emails sometimes make for amusing reading. Occasionally when I feel the need for a little entertainment, I scan my junk mail folder and read a few that have catchy titles. Tonight, I happened on the following, and by the looks of it, it appears that it was targeted for me. Here it goes:







[Fake Name Deleted]


Wow, what a coincidence. Jesus just revealed himself to me in an email. He was so touched by your message that he told me to ask you to use that Paypal button on my site to send me all your money. No need to stress your little fingers clicking on the Google ads for me. In return, I will pray that Jesus Christ would make you the wealthiest man on Earth and save your soul. Also encourage your friends to do the same. I'll pray for them too. Promise!


More evil than spammers

by @ 10:17 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

About 2½ years ago I wrote an entry in my blog about the growing power of anti-spam outfits. I'm no fan of spammers, but when I see vigilantism, it alarms me even more than the problem it tries to correct. Vigilantes always act altruistic, but their intentions are often sinister. Generally all one needs to do to uncover their real goals is to follow the money. Sometimes it's not so obvious, but the telltale signs are there.

Now one of these guys, Spamhaus, has been successfully sued in an Illinois court. Here's the scoop. Anti-spam companies publish lists of offending domains and Internet addresses in what are known as black lists (also known as RBL for Real-time Black Lists). The list is supposed to be compiled using means such as complaints by people and decoy mailbox captures. People who manage mail servers can subscribe to these lists, thereby allowing the mail servers to identify and tag messages originating from servers in blacklists. Operators can then set up automatic procedures to deal with such emails, such as having them deleted, sent to spam folders, or alter their subject lines for users to recognize them quickly.

You might ask: "what's wrong with that?" On the surface, nothing, until you begin to consider what happens if a critical mass of servers on the Internet subscribed to these lists. What happens if a black-list operator adds a perfectly innocent domain or address to its list out of vendetta or spite. Suddenly all emails from such organization will stop flowing and their business could be paralyzed. That's way too much power to be given to someone without any accountability.

Look at what's happened in this case. The court has ruled against Spamhaus, yet they arrogantly refuse to stand down or even acknowledge their strong-arm tactics. I don't know much about the plaintiff in this case. Maybe they were spammers, but what angers me is the utter disrespect and scorn Spamhaus has for law and order. The only law they accept is their own. Perhaps Spamhaus has helped to hinder a few real spammers, but on some level they are even worse that the spammers they are supposedly battling.
*Note: My position vis-à-vis black-list operators is completely impartial. I have never sent a piece of spam, nor has my site ever landed in any black lists.

Cashback credit card

by @ 6:19 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I know I am just a pawn in the credit card game whose real beneficiaries are the banks and card companies that make outsized profits off the backs of consumers and merchants alike. At least I can feel good about having a no-fee cashback card that rewards me for my spending. Some false comfort.

Let's just break it down. Credit card companies charge merchants fees for every transaction. In turn merchants mark up their prices to cover their costs and everyone ends up paying more for the bit of convenience, including people who don't or can't have a credit card. A lucky few with reward cards, may get a bone tossed at them once in a while.

The institutions also make serious money from those who carry balances on their cards. It's a perfect racket and since new bankruptcy laws make debt forgiveness almost impossible, the money keeps on rolling in.

The reward system is one way card companies buy the loyalty of their customers by the cheap, but a recent experience with my Citibank cashback reward card left me wondering whether the perk, if you can call it that, comes at the expense of customer service.

The Citibank cashback reward process is pretty straightforward. Charge up your purchases, the card will kick 1% or so of the purchases back to you up to the maximum of $300 annually. Okay so far, but here's where the process gets silly. You can request a cashback check when your balance reaches $50 or more. Why should I request this money? Can't they just credit my account automatically when my balance reaches $50? Even if for some reason I had to request the reward (probably to cross sell me when I contact them), why do I have to wait for a check in the mail?

I decided to put that question to Citicard on their online customer service page. Here's what I wrote:

hi, can you offer a way to apply the cashback to the card balance? seems that this would be beneficial to you too. no checks to issue, no possible lost checks to track, and the money recycles back to you quick. less work for both sides. is this really so hard to implement? thanks.

And this is what I got back:

Customer Service Wrote:
We are unable to apply your cash back as payments on your account.
Thank you for using our website.

This is really a type of answer you would expect from a software engineer with some deficit in customer interface skills. Someone like myself. The answer is terse, unhelpful, and rather blunt. My reaction was, "Why did I even bother?" Obviously they know the process is asinine and they're not going to do anything about it. Yep, I'll be waiting by the mailbox for my next cashback check.


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