Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Today I want to pause and give thanks. And prayer.

I give thanks for my family, my sons & daughters, my daughter-in-law and sons-in-law, my grandson (who is really fun to be with), brothers, sisters, mother and mother-in-law and my extended family (father-in-law and grandmother-in-law). And I pray for them, along with the two granddaughters who will be here son and another grandchild next year.

I give thanks for our military. And I pray for them, especially the ones who have to be away today.

I give thanks for our country, that we live in a country where we choose for our leaders and we have a chance to choose again in 2, 4 or 6 years. I pray for them. I pray that they will lead, not as I want, not as others want, but as God wants and as our country needs.

I am thankful for my job. That I have the opportunity to do something I enjoy and be paid well for it. And I pray for the upcoming changes to my job, that I can achieve the goals I have set and live up to the expectations of those around me.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Profit prohet part 2 - Magazine subscriptions

I hadn't planned this post, it just came up yesterday. In the morning, I went to fill my tank ($1.65/gallon - woohoo!) and my credit card was denied. Later in the day my wife said one of her Christmas purchases (online) was returned. Being the master sleuth, I looked at these two events and recognized a pattern.

My wife called the credit card company and after speaking to one of India's finest found out there was a charge from a "highly fraudulent" company, so the card was put on hold. (Why didn't they call me to tell me this? That's work for another day). Anyway, it seems a subscription renewal service had charged $94.64 for a magazine. I won't publish the name of the mag, but let's just say it's devoted to sports and is very well illustrated. I like the photos and my son likes the stories.

So, my wife called the magazine to find out about the charge. I distinctly remember getting a "courtesy card" a few weeks ago telling me the renewal was coming. I didn't know if it was a 2 or 3 year renewal. When she asked, she was told this was for 1 year. She explained that she thought this was a lot of a year and was asked if we had received any promotions. No, she explained, this was an automatic renewal.

After thinking a bit, the gentleman reduced the price to $49.84, a 47% savings. Two more calls to India's finest at my credit card company and the card was reactivated.

Now, the magazine is definitely entitled to a profit. They have some of the best photography I've ever seen. They have to pay those photographers and a lot of writers. They have to distribute the mags. And some investor wants to see some return on his/her money. But they don't have to have over 100% profit and they don't have to get it from me.

So, here's the moral of the story (that I learned yesterday). Never use automatic renewal on the magazines. Always ask for a lower price. The savings will buy my wife and I dinner.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Multi-level marketing

I've written about pyramid schemes and profit, I thought I'd devote a few bytes of storage to discussing multilevel marketing (MLM). Also called network marketing (my preferred term), this is a group of people, most working only on commission, who sell a product through other people. For example, you may get a call from your friend to sell a product and find out his friend got him involved. Once you start selling, you'll be encouraged to get other friends involved. You'll get a part of the commission on each product your friends sell, and you'll pass some of your profits up the line.

Sound a little like the pyramid scheme? Well, you're not alone in thinking that, but more on that later. Examples of multi-level marketing include some well known companies like Avon and Mary Kay. Amway was probably the biggest named MLM company for a long time, but has since dropped in popularity. Another company that I've heard about is Vector Marketing. Vector sells Cutco knives. Reported to be the best knives in the industry, the most popular knife set sells for about $1200. With "associates" making commissions of 10% to 30%, a person could make a lot of money selling these products.

You can even spot older and more common examples of network marketing. Tupperware, Christmas Around the World, and even lingerie parties (I never get invited).

But network marketing counts on you selling your products to your friends, co-workers, family and those around you. If your selling technique is abrasive, you can start losing your friends. Co-workers and family and people will avoid you. If you're not a strong seller, you might just go hungry. This means that MLM works best with products that, to some degree, sell themselves or are consumable, like Avon and Mary Kay. That way the customer comes back to you. It's hard to use up a knife set (unless you're OJ Simpson), but make-up is used ever day.

So what's the difference between network marketing and a pyramid scheme? Basically, it's the product. In my airplane example of the pyramid scheme, there is no product involved. With Mary Kay, Avon or Vector the purchaser has something they can hold in their hand. The product may be overpriced, there are a lot of people who make a profit on the product, but at least there is a product.

So where is the line between pyramids and networks? 70% according to MLM Legal Attorney Jeffrey Babener. The idea is that 70% of product sales should be to outside consumers, not just to build inventory or for self-use. If an "associate" buys a lot of product for his/her own use, they're not really selling. (Same goes for "selling" to your family). Also, most of the commissions earned by an "associate" should be from product sales, not for signing up other "associates" (sometimes called "suckers").

I should note that Amway was sued for being a pyramid scheme. However, this part of the lawsuit was dropped. They were found guilty of price fixing, but their sales technique was not dismantled. (see here).

MLM is not the same as a pyramid scheme and the profits are (at least somewhat) justified. However, the companies should be evaluated and anyone entering an MLM should make sure he/she knows the costs associated.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The profit prophet

Ok, I admit I like cute subject lines. And I don't claim to be a Prophet with divine wisdom or to be able to determine the future. My intent with this blog post is simply to speak some basic facts about profits. And according to this site, a prophet is a person who brings a message or warning.

You may recall that I posted a couple of days ago about pyramid schemes. (see here) This is a method of making a quick profit. Unfortunately, it's an illegal method. Participants in these schemes are falsely promised great profits, but aren't told that the game will end and many people will be left with no profit at all.

But I want to be sure to send a message that profits are not always a bad thing. In fact, profits are good for everyone.

Let's say you take your car in for repairs. You realize that Bob the mechanic is buying parts and then marking them up before installing them on your car. Then he charges you a service charge for the time he actually works on the car. Why should he be entitled to a profit on the parts?

In my simple example, there are a lot of reasons that Bob should receive a profit. For starters, Bob's family counts on his profits. They probably like to have things like a house to live in, food on the table and maybe even clothes (unless Bob is a private nudist). Bob may also have expenses not directly related to your bill. Bob has to pay for electricity at his shop, franchise fees, advertising and that nasty tasting coffee that you drank in his waiting room (It wouldn't be nasty tasting if he read Steve's blog here).

Bob may have some management and they too have families and needs. Of course, Bob's co-workers also contribute to management's well being, so they're not entirely dependent on your car repair.

So profits for Bob the mechanic aren't a bad thing, in fact they're required. If Bob didn't make a profit, he probably wouldn't be repair cars. Instead he'd go to work as the greeter at Wal-Mart or take some other job that pays him for his efforts. Of course that doesn't mean that Bob has to make ALL of his profits from the repair of your car. You'd expect him to work on other cars as well.

My whole point here is to point out that profits aren't all bad. As you might guess, this is part of a series and (big surprise here) I have other thoughts in this series. You'll just have to wait a day or two to hear more.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Not a good excuse

Ok, guys, this is one excuse NOT to use.

Seems a man used his iPhone to take a picture of himself. Except, he wasn't taking a picture of his face. The article only explains that it was a "raunchy picture". Then his wife found out it was on his Yahoo e-mail.

This guy has a great idea. He explains to her that while he took the picture (for what reason, it doesn't say) but that he didn't send it to anyone. Instead, he explained, "he'd been a victim of an iPhone glitch."

Now here's where it gets good. You have to give this guy credit for creativity (or stupidity). He told her that ""photos sometimes automatically attach themselves to an e-mail address and appear in the sent folder, even though no e-mail was ever sent."

So see dear, I took the picture and yes I sent a note to this other woman, but the picture really wasn't included. Don't you see honey?

Well, it seems that the woman didn't completely believe him, so he decided to expand his story. he said he went to the Apple store and the folks at the Genius bar told him this.

The woman wasn't quite a believer, so she asked online at the Apple support website. Other people there explained that this was not a glitch. It's not clear if she followed through with their recommendations.

So men, don't blame your indiscretions on your iPhone, it won't work. Here's the article if you want to read it. I confess that I interpreted a lot between the lines.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pyramid Schemes

Recently, I've taken an interest in Pyramid schemes. No I wasn't taken by one and no, I don't plan to start one. I just wanted to know more about them (can you sense follow-on posts?)

So I did some research and found out about a simple one called "The Airplane Game". You've probably heard about it, but understanding it will help you understand more pyramid schemes. There are several variations, but I'll focus on a small, simple one.

Let's say you get together with 2 of your best friends, you appoint yourself as Pilot and the other two as co-pilots. They each "recruit" two stewardesses (or would in be stewardi?). The Pilot in this game has one responsibility, that's to collect money. The co-pilots do less than that (after the initial recruiting), they just wait on the next round. Oh, sure, they collect from the stewardesses, but they pass it to the pilot.

The stewardesses have the toughest job. They have to recruit passengers. The go find two of their friends for this. The passengers each pay $1 to the stewardesses who pass it to the co-pilots, who pass it to the pilot. At the end of round 1, the pilot collects $8 (for $0 invested).

Now it gets fun. The pilot comes over the intercom and announces that the flight will split. He's retiring and each of the two co-pilots will be promoted to head up their own flight. The stewardi will be promoted to co-pilots and each passenger has the privilege of moving up to the stewardess role and recruiting two new passengers.

The goal here is to be pilot of your own flight. The beauty of this is that it only takes four rounds to get there. The payoff is $8 for every $1 invested, so you might change the flight cost to $100 (and $800 payoff) or you might even play multiple times. Say you sign up as a passenger under two different stewardi, you'll get paid twice.

What could be better? Well, doing something legal might be better. Or moral. Or ethical. Choose at least one. Dave Ramsey always says that "He who hastens to get rich will not go unpunished." I hope he's right about this when it comes to the airplane game. But where does this fall apart?

Well, it's very simple the game can not run forever. If you assume (falsely) that EVERYONE will play the game, by that I mean every man, woman and child in the US, the game can only last 25 days (based on 2007 population estimate of 303 million). Since you can't sucker everyone, it will end sooner. When it does, all of the passengers (about half the people), all of the stewardi (another 1/4) and the co-pilots get $0. That means 93% of the people get nothing, 7% get 800% return. Pretty lousy returns.

The word for this kind of game is FRAUD. Pure and simple. Let it be known, that if any of my family tries to do this, I WILL TESTIFY AGAINST YOU. Remember this is the man who never asked "Do you want me to stop this car?." Or at least never asked it twice. Instead, I stopped the car. I should also note that I haven't posted anything here that you can't find some other place, such as wikipedia.

So why am I writing about Pyramid schemes? Well, the answer to that will have to wait for another day.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Comments on comments

I have to admit, I love it when someone comments on my blog. Whether they agree with me or disagree or maybe they just love my pictures (which I don't use often). Occasionally, I'll get someone who is astroturfing* (neat sounding word, isn't it?). And I've gotten a few spam attacks. A couple of people have asked me to advertise their product (I won't do that, I do this for fun, not money).

But what amazes me is when someone finds an old post and comments on it. Yesterday, Lisa found one of my old posts and agreed with it. (see here). Sure, she posted a link to her site, so maybe she's trying to increase her site traffic. She also mentioned her husband is a Nationwide Insurance agent (the post was about that), so maybe she's trying to earn him more business. Or maybe she's hoping that when people visit her site (seen here) they will take advantage of her ministry opportunities (I've seen her site, looks like she's doing good work). Who knows why she took the time out of her day to comment.

All I know is that it makes me feel good when people comment. Thanks Lisa!

* For those who don't know, astroturfing means that someone is trying to give the impression that there is a grassroots campaign for or against something. For example, when I posted about PayDay Loans, I had some comments from people paid by the industry.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why so many attacks on Gov. Palin?

I have to admit, I wasn't a fan of Governor Palin for VP. It's not that I opposed her, and it didn't affect my vote (I still voted for the McCain/Palin ticket). It's just that the VP candidate didn't have any effect on my vote. Senator Biden's nomination didn't affect my vote either.

But I've been amazed at the number of attacks against the governor from the northern state. The stories of her outlandish expenditures appears to be (at the minimum) overblown. Her supposed mistake calling Africa a country, not a continent has been called into question, with even the source of the story being questions. MSNBC recently made an on-the-air correction to the story because of the sources. (see here).

I've already stated elsewhere that the chances of Governor Palin running for president in 2012 and winning are slim. History isn't on her side. The ONLY time that a VP candidate who lost came back to win the presidency later was in 1920 when FDR ran as the VP candidate with James Cox. If you look at the presidential history, Cox was never on the list. FDR of course, came back in 1932 as the president (elected 4 times).

So what is it about this lady that draws such hatred? Liberal blogs suggested she should stay home and raise her family. They suggested that her Down Syndrome child wasn't hers, but her daughter's. They suggested she was inexperienced (her days in political offices outnumbered the Democratic presidential nominee). And they quoted anonymous sources to point out supposed arguments between her and the presidential nominee.

My personal pet peeve was the people who referred to her simply as Sarah or Palin. I've made it my personal goal to be respectful to candidates (winners and losers) on both sides of the aisle by including their title. So Governor Palin, Senator McCain, President-Elect Obama and VP-Elect Biden.

One just has to wonder what it was about her that was so dangerous.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veteran's day

I hadn't planned to do a Veteran's day post. I had other plans. Then I started reading a couple of other blogs to start my day and ran across this one from A Voice of Reason, who just recently restarted blogging. You should read it, he knows what he's talking about.

I told Voice that I never had the privilege of serving in the armed services. My father was in the Army Air Forces. It was part of the Army, but split off to be the Air Force, so technically, I think he was in the Air Force. He joined in 1945, I believe after VE day (Victory in Europe - May 8) but before VJ day (Victory in Japan - Aug 15). When I asked him what he did during the war, he said he typed letters, drove generals around in jeeps, etc. He spent some time in Japan (after VJ day).

And my favorite memory, is his explanation of the beginning and the end of his service. Seems he was stationed in Seattle for a while, waiting on a ship to take him to Japan. While he was there, he planted grass seed every day. When he came back from Japan, he had to cut the same grass he had started a few years earlier. How ironic.

All of my dad's brothers served in the armed services. One was at the Battle of the Bulge. Another was in the Navy. I've heard some great Navy stories from that uncle. One of my dad's brothers spent a great deal of time in the last few years of his life helping at the VFW, serving other veterans.

I have two brothers who served in the Air Force. One was only in the service for four years and he met his wife there. He enlisted late in the Vietnam era and spent his career either in San Antonio, Tx or a little town in Italy. The second brother was in for over 20 years, much of it in the Philippines. He also was in San Antonio a while, Myrtle Beach SC, and in NJ. He had several short assignments, Germany, Panama, Korea and others I can't recall. And he went to the Dhahran Saudi Arabia in the first Gulf War. While he was there, he made a cassette tape one night while Scud missiles were falling at or near his base. Sometime, I'll listen to that again.

More recently, my step-son served in the Army. He jumped out of planes. He had already enlisted when I first met him and was at Ft. Bragg when his mother and I married. Since 9/11 occurred about two weeks prior to the wedding, we weren't sure he would make it. But he did and few months later he went to Afghanistan. After that, he came "home" (to Ft. Bragg) and then went to Iraq. After his duties in Iraq, he faced a new battlefront, marriage (sorry, couldn't resist that).

Currently, my step-son-in-law is serving in the reserves as he studies to be a Chaplain. He was full army for a while before he went to college. Unfortunately, I don't know much about those days in his life. I do know that he has a lot of Army plans in his future.

All of the above named veterans came home safely. In fact, I can only think of one veteran I personally know who didn't come home safely. Joe Freeman died in Vietnam when I was about 10 years old. His name is on panel 30W of the wall. I didn't really know him, but I knew his family. We went to the same church. I remember attending a service in his honor. And I remember tears in his father's eyes.

Today, I want to say thank you to all of the veterans I know. Thank you for your service. Whether you were drafted or you enlisted, whether you went overseas or just served here. Whether you were in during peace time or during war. Thank you. Thank you for giving up part of your life to protect mine.

Thank you.

Friday, November 07, 2008

To everything there is a season

You may recall my post back in June about the Paulownia trees in my backyard (see here). Well as a wise man said "there is a time for everything and a season..."

Well, the season has changed, and Jack (the tree) has taken notice. Just as last year, the leaves on this tree have fallen (see here). As sad as it is, it's a part of life. And of course, we have the hope that next year, Jack will return to his state of fullness. So with that, I leave you these pictures, from June and from November.

Hmmm.. To everything there is a season... someone should make a song about that... nah, that's for the byrds...

June picture showing the size of the leaves.

Now the leaves are dead or dying, but they are still big (about 15 inches across).

The tree, almost leafless.

Another picture of the trees, now...

And how the trees looked in their prime.

A view of the Paulownia trees and the trees in the background.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Why did Barack Obama win & John McCain lose?

I know you're tired of hearing about the election. But I wanted to summarize some of the information I've heard/read about the election results and offer some opinion.

On election day, I listened to Dave Ramsey. For those of you who don't know, he runs a radio program about financial management. He is big on getting out of debt and talks to people daily who are over their heads, looking at bankruptcy or just sick and tired of being sick and tired. He's on the local Christian radio station, and he speaks from a Christian perspective, but he speaks to people of all faiths and people of no faith.

Ramsey's program on Tuesday was devoted to asking people who they voted for and why. If someone said they thought their candidate was better, he wanted to know what issues made them better. In doing so, he discouraged any arguments based on age or race. From my unscientific viewpoint, the calls were pretty much balanced between the two candidates with a sprinkling of calls for third party candidates.

There were three messages that I heard repeated several times: 1) Obama represents a change from the policies of Bush, 2) Obama is better able to handle the economy and 3) McCain will move the country pro-life, Obama pro-abortion.

The interesting thing about the last comment is that it didn't come out strongly during the months before the election. If McCain's strongest asset was his pro-life view, he evidently didn't have widespread support. More people are either pro-abortion, ambivalent or weak on the abortion stance.

Regarding the first argument (change & McCain = Bush), it's obvious that Obama got his message across. However, I would argue that this isn't a real issue. The people calling in to the program couldn't specify what they wanted changed or how McCain was a continuation of Bush.

The economy is the issue that seemed to carry the most weight. There were a few callers who believed that Obama's policies were socialist. There were more who liked his economic ideas. This reminds me of a time when the American people cared more about the economy than anything else. The result was the most morally corrupt president in our 200+ years. The result was a booming economy and a free-wheeling spirit. As a result of that free-wheeling, we've had at least two economic collapses and terrorist attacks (see this list).

Since 9/11, there has not been an attack on US soil. On 9/12/2001, almost everyone believed we would have continued attacks. The attacks overseas have reduced greatly. Why didn't voters think about this and cast their vote accordingly? A year ago, Iraq was a big issue. Today I heard that soldiers are coming home TWO MONTHS earlier than even Bush predicted. It's clear that we will be out of Iraq soon regardless what the next president does. Given these two facts, I think a continuation of Bush's policies wouldn't be such a bad thing after all.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A new president-elect

I know you've heard that we have a new president-elect. Of course, we knew we would, if not today in a few days once the votes were counted. We just didn't know who it will be until late last night.

I won't post a lot about the election, if you're like me, you're burnt out on the whole thing. One report I heard said that the election process started 22 months ago and I don't doubt that report.

I will post this item and possibly one other tomorrow after I've digested the information some more. But for today, I just want to say that future president Obama will be MY president. What I mean by this is that I will support him. He was not my individual choice, but the nation has chosen and I will support that choice.

Our country has lived through a lot of good presidents and some bad presidents. Two presidents have been impeached (neither removed from office), one president resigned and eight have died in office (four assassinated). I have no doubt that the next four years will see some good times and some bad times. Regardless, I will support the president.

One side note is that our constitution provides for the case where a president is elected, then is unable to serve come inauguration day. (There is a movement still out there to check Sen. Obama's birth certificate). If that happens for any reason, the VP elect (Biden) will become the president. I doubt this will occur, but I will support that president also

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election day

It's finally here. After one of the longest, ugliest, most prolonged battles I've ever seen, today is the day we cast our votes. Many have already voted and I think that's good. I voted absentee once when I lived in NC, I can't remember why. SC doesn't have early voting, so to vote early here you have to sign an affidavit saying you can't be there on election day. Any reason is acceptable, but I just feel funny when I know I can be here.

So, in about 6 hours, I'll walk about 1/4 mile to my voting place. It's nice being that close, and I'll save the parking spaces for those who have to go further. Surprisingly, my son has asked me to wake him up when I go so that he can go with me. It's his first election and until last night I wasn't sure he was going to vote. His reasons seemed actually to make sense, but I won't fight his battles here.

Sometime tonight (in theory), we will know who the next president/vice president will be. Unless something really unusual happens, we will either have the first African-American President-Elect or the first female Vice President-Elect. It's a historic election. We've had African-American candidates before (Alan Keyes to name one) and we've had a female VP candidate (Geraldine Ferraro). But this is the first time we've had them on both major parties' ticket.

Regardless who wins, the election process, as ugly as it has been, serves to inform us. We know more about both candidates than ever before. We have the potential to take the issues that concern us the most and evaluate the candidates' responses. What will the next President face? We may not know, but we should be able to estimate how they will react.

But at the end of the day, or the end of the voting, one thing will still be true. Actually, several things will still be true. 1) President Bush will still be president. 2) God is still in control.

When you think about that last one, what else really matters?

* Update - I just finished voting. From the time I got in line until the time I walked out, under 1 hour total. Our state limits you to 3 minutes in the voting booth and does electronic touch-screen voting. I took my time, reviewed each selection before I made it, reviewed it again after I made it, then went through the final review twice to be sure. Not sure how long I was in the booth, but it was under the 3 minutes easily. 1/2 mile of walking up & back, I won't have to exercise for another month now.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees - Movie Review

The tag line for this movie says "Bring Your Girlfriends, Sisters, Mothers and Daughters" - so why did I go? Simple, because my wife wanted a night out. Here's my opinion on the movie (no spoilers included)

This wasn't your typical "chick-flick". I felt like it spoke to a different topic than I expected. Dakota Fanning plays a 14 year old girl raised in rural SC in 1964. Lily (Fanning's character) has some shadowy memories of her mother who died when she was only 4. Her relationship with her father is "troubled" and she clings desperately to what little information she has on her mother.

Seeking more about her mother, she escapes to a honey-farm, run by three black women where she learns about bee keeping (hence the title).

Life in rural SC in 1964 was complicated (and the movie even admits that). Queen Latifah plays a loving, motherly type, who is quick to help, slow to speak. Alicia Keys plays her quick to act, chip-on-my shoulder sister who is mad at the world. The Civil Rights Act has just been signed and not everyone in SC is happy about it.

You should know before you see the movie that it deals a lot with race relations in 1964 (did I mention in rural SC?). There is a lot of hatred, but there's also some love shown. Not racy, hot sex-filled love. There's some true love shown between the races. There's also love shown for another sister, named May (I won't spoil this part with details).

You can watch the movie and be outraged at the way people are treated. You can be happy at a little girl finding out about bees. I watched the little girl's father. I think it would be interesting to remake the movie from his point of view. What did he feel for his young wife? How did he meet her? What about their daughter? When his wife died, how did he raise the little girl? What drove him to be the way he was?

One comment in the movie (almost a spoiler) was near the end when Fanning's character saw her father. She admitted that she had seen her mother's death for the impact it had on her life, for the hole it left in her. She never thought about the hole it left in him. To me, that made the movie worthwhile.

Another part of the movie showed support. Support for people. Without giving away details, there are at least two people described or seen in the movie who just aren't able to handle life or the current hand that they've been dealt. Instead of being critical, the character played by Queen Latifah just supports them, helps them through.

If you see the movie, and I think you should, I'd ask you to look at it from that angle. Then think about the same thing in your life. What event (or sequence of events) have happened in your life that have caused you to focus on the impact, but ignore the impact on someone else's life?