Friday, November 4, 2011

The Power of Twitter

As a self-dubbed "technocrat", it may seem an embarrassing confession that I do not have a Twitter account. I have other social media accounts like Facebook, Groupon and, as much as I dislike them, LinkedIn. But I never opened a Twitter account, primarily since I saw it as an additional distraction on top of all everything else. Though I will admit I was tempted more than once to do so.

Personally, the main advantage of Twitter is its ability to post a public text for all your friends/"followers" to see. It's identical to Facebook's status bar -- yet much more simple, and with the myriad of additional features like editing your profile, etc. I suspect the main reason for its exponential popularity lies in this interface model: specialize in one thing only, which in Twitter's case is simply allowing members to post a line about themselves or others (but mostly about themselves). It's the main reason Facebook trumped MySpace, as the latter offered too much customizations. Seems like people like the ability to customize, but only to a certain extent.

This news report from ESPN illustrates one of the great things about Twitter: allowing the direct communication between two individuals who otherwise would not have been able to. In the example, the owner of the NBA team Miami Heat is fined for purportedly violating the league's policies on discussing the current lockout. The $500,000 fine comes from a number of tweets the Heat owner, Micky Arison, responds directly to a number of questions from NBA fans. In short, his tweets mock the other owners and possibly reveal the growing rift in the opinion between all the 30 team owners. Humor nature of the example aside, it shows a billionaire talking directly to a....non-billionaire -- something that could probably not occur in Twitter's absence.

I might finally be signing up for Twitter, in the (very) near future. Why the change of heart? There are two reasons. The first is that Google recently announced the shutdown of its "Buzz" feature, which was quintessentially Twitter-on-Gmail. I don't "Buzz" a lot, but I think I will miss it. Second reason is the real possibility of obtaining a new smartphone -- with a data plan. This means I'd be able to tweet from anywhere, which is something I am not currently able to achieve.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Implications of Anwar al-Awlaqi's Death

On paper, I agree that terrorists deserve to die. My reasoning is simple: those who are not afraid to take the lives of others deserve to be deprived of theirs. Although as a Christian I believe in compassion and forgiveness of the sins of others, this is one of those rare exceptions. In a similar vein to serial killers/rapists -- defined as those who commit the same heinous crimes over and over again-- one's number of chances to change is limited. Can you imagine what would have happened if the in the biblical story of the prodigal son, the younger son left his father again? I shudder to think that the father would have shown the son the same love and are as before.

But the death of Anwar al-Awlaqi, the Al-Qaeda terrorist suspected of organizing activities targeting American soldiers and civilians, raises a profound and vital question. Does the U.S. government have the constitutional right to target and kill its own citizens? The central issue, of course is that Anwar al-Awlaqi was born in the United States and therefore is a U.S. citizen. By having him assassinated, President Obama and the CIA essentially have just ended the life of an American citizen on purpose. Had this man not been a terrorist, this mounts to blatant murder. But, the problem isn't so black and white as Anwar al-Awlaqi is a terrorist.

Based on the comments I have read from the Yahoo article, it appears the overwhelming majority of commenters support the action of President Obama and the CIA. They say things like "terrorists only have one right: the right to die" and express gladness at al-Awlaqi's death. I agree with this sentiment on the grounds that, despite being an U.S. citizen, the man effectively convicted treason when he took up al-Qaeda's cause in terrorizing the United States. In the olden days, the punishment for treason is...death, since treason is regarded as the most egregious sin one can commit against his/her country. But let's stop for a moment and think about the consequences of this. In other words, what's next?

What worries me is that this marks the beginning of something terrible: the erosion of our rights as citizens of this country we call the U.S. of A. Not that this hasn't started since 2001 -- the Patriot Act and espionage scandals that followed-- but for the first time, the government has targeted and killed one of its governed. This time the killing is justified as al-Awlaqi is clearly a terrorist and therefore not subject to the protections offered by the Constitution. Yet what would stop the government eventually to label other "classes" of citizens and also designate them to die. The line has been crossed and the boundary has been blurred.

An analogy that comes to mind is the message of the movie V for Vendetta. In that film, the British government essentially creates a disease that frightens the population into voting for an absolute dictatorship. It is an extreme comparison, but I think we should be careful and not overlook the significance of what has happened. There may be frightening consequences.

Follow up on the Xiaomi Phone

A month or two ago, I posted something concerning the newly announced Xiaomi M1 "superphone". While I was very impressed by the specifications of the phone, it was the (relatively) low price of $310 that really caught my eye. Other tech enthusiasts shared my opinion -- how could a dual-core 1.5 Ghz, 1 GB of RAM, 4-inch HD screen phone cost a meager $310? It just did not seem possible as similar spec-d phones retail for at least double that price. Needless to say, I was eager to see the reviews of the product.

Well, now Engadget released their review (a first in the English-speaking internet world) on the product and it is positively raving. To summarize, the reviewer(s) were impressed by the MIUI version of the Android OS, the large battery size, the transflective LCD screen, and (shockingly!) the Xiaomi phone's low price. The knocks/criticism was minor at worst: its relative heft and processor performance. All in all, Engadget's review validated the Xiaomi M1 phone as a successful product that will be sure to sell millions....under the right market conditions. Only problem is, the device will not be available outside China PR. I'm sure you can purchase it off Ebay or other international retailers, but that is a serious obstacle to the device's popularization.

So what's the point of this blog post? It's not just to regurgitate the contents of the Engadget review. Instead, I am declaring the very real possibility that I may purchase one in about a month's time. You see, my father will be traveling to China for a business trip and I realize that I could have him bring me back one (I would reimburse him of course). Furthermore, this possibility is made more real by the opportunity the Xiaomi phone presents to improve my fluency in Chinese. Figure that having a device in native Chinese would force me to re-learn some things, right? The Engadget review already mentions that the device should work with the AT&T network. Bingo.

For repeat visitors to my blog, you may remember my former discussions about possible gadget acquisitions from iPads to a new phone. Fast forward from then to now, we have seen the formerly "possible" devices become reality. For instance, the iPhone 5 is right around the corner, the Samsung Pad 10.1 has been released and, after much agonizing delays, the Samsung Galaxy S II phones have been released (or close to) at AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. I am no longer in the market for a tablet computer, due to my company's expected transition to Windows 7 -- which nets me a Lenovo X220 laptop. But I am still very much in the market for a new cell phone. Do I risk purchasing the new phone from overseas? That is very much possible.

I'm Back*!!

The title is kind of a misnomer since it's suggesting that I will be resuming my blogging activities as before the announced hiatus. The truth is, half and half. While I will be resuming blogging every now and then, the topics will be more personal. In many ways, this blog will function as a personal diary of sorts -- to track my current activities like reading materials and traveling destinations.

To be completely honest, I realized as of late that, despite the demand on time it places, blogging can be very beneficial. Informing your viewers/readers aside, it also helps improve your writing as well as provide a sense of accomplishment. As someone who can be labeled as "driven" and "goal-oriented", I like to go to sleep each night knowing that I accomplished something (even if it's a self-created illusion). The fact that I find myself idle at work more often than not helps too...

Kicking things off, I just came back from the local library with an exciting haul of reading material. I like to read (evident by the posts as book reviews) and I try to borrow a myriad of books on a wide range of subjects to sustain this habit. The books from this haul are as follows:

  • Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See -- this is supposedly a famous novel and it's a culture-specific fiction, which I like to read. Fiction adds variety to the rest of (non-fiction) below.
  • Using Microsoft Access 2010, by Alison Balter -- realized I need to learn Microsoft Access.
  • Oracle SQL: Essential Reference, by David Kreines -- same as above, my work involves using Oracle and so knowing SQL would help tremendously.
  • Learning MySQL, by Hugh Williams -- same as above
  • Drive: the Surprising Truth..., by Daniel Pink -- this is another widely-acclaimed book. I just finished "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely.
  • The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton -- heard about this from a TED talk and thought it sounded very interesting.
The goal is to post some sort of review (maybe not on the SQL and Access books). But I'm behind already on book reviews so, I'd advise not to bet on it...

Thursday, September 1, 2011

(Yet Another) Blog Status Update

Here we are again. I haven't posted anything for the past week and a half. The standard excuses apply: work, school has started, and I am still a tiny sad about Mandy. But these excuses aside, I am hereby officially announcing a reduction of my work on this blog. Rather than "beating around the bush" on the subject by offering excuses after excuses for the (obvious) inactivity, I think it is best to be forthcoming. Does this mean I will stop blogging altogether? NO. It just means I will be posting less frequently.

A few reasons has led to this announcement of sorts:

  1. School has started and I will be devoting a significant chunk of free time to homework.
  2. Really need to be better prepared for work, such as learning the necessary programming language to be successful.
  3. Am part of a campus Christian fellowship and outreach to students will further consume significant chunks of free time.
  4. Would rather spend a little more time on reading and playing sports than spending a couple of hours a day writing about a myriad of different subjects.
In addition to reason #4, the biggest factor for my future diminished activity is that these past few months with blogging have been an experiment of sorts. When I first started back in April, the goal was to push hard and see where I can go with it. I had some grand vision of eventually becoming a professional blogger (aka quitting my current job). At first the main issue was creating content to attract readers to my blog -- this took time but I understood the effort needed. Readership steadily picked up to the point of my blog averaging 50-60 views per day (~1000 views per month) by late June. I was pretty encouraged by this.

Yet for some reason, the amount of views hit a wall at this point. I never surpassed this threshold, except on occasions when some unique posts attracted short-spurts of interest. (I am also responsible for slightly diminishing my blogging output). In addition I found myself lacking the time to blog, since it mostly was a reflection of personal experiences (e.g. writing a book review requires that I first read the book). These two issues combined was discouraging; the 4 reasons listed above only sunk the ship faster. Henceforth, I will be blogging perhaps 4-5 times per week on the identical range of topics as before. 

Another obstacle I should point out is that Blogger, as good of a blogging platform as it is, can at times be frustrating to use. The level of customizations are very limited, for example. It's actually mind-boggling that a Google-owned site of great potential is marred by a lack of refinement. I think I would set up my own blogging site next time -- if I ever took up this experiment again.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Economics of Kim Kardashian

This economics-related post will be on a very odd subject: Kim Kardashian. While I personally dislike the socialite and television personality, she is a smart entrepreneur who has used her reality series "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" to catapult herself (and her family) into mainstream media. One may even argue she has become sort of a social icon. She may be easy on the eyes, but her success has more correlation with her marketing shrewdness than her looks. Today, Kim is amongst the most widely recognized figures in both social and mainstream media.

Interesting example, right?

I think this article from Yahoo! provides a great insight into Kim Kardashian's rise to prominence. For some familiar with current celebrity gossip, Kim just married NBA player Kris Humphries in a private ceremony over the weekend. The article goes on to detail how she probably earned a profit from the wedding, based on the exclusive deals made with People magazine, E! television channel, and a myriad of wedding services such as cake and wedding gown makers. One cannot but be impressed with this revelation -- even if only form a purely business standpoint. Weddings are amongst the most expensive special events out there and, given that she is a celebrity with money to spend, you can bet the wedding cost at least $1 million.

Think about this for a second: what makes Kim Kardashian a marketing juggernaut that all sorts of brands want her to become their spokesperson? On the surface, she appears to have no exceptional skill or talent besides looking prettier than the average female figure (keep in mind that "prettiness" is highly subjective). I'd argue that there are plenty of women better looking than her. However, very few have been able to transform themselves into a icon as she has. I think her success has been contingent on her ability to be associated with other celebrities, in addition to demonstrating a desire to become a household name. Amongst the many examples of this: she has been in relationships with arguably better-known celebrities like Ray J, Reggie Bush, and Miles Austin. More recently, she has been associated with Justin Bieber -- the perennial paradox of this wave of "new age" celebrities. Although these aforementioned relationships did not last, they lent Kim increasing exposure to the social media at large. At the same time, she has worked with E! television to expand on her television show. The results can be seen by her 2010 earnings of $6 million, purportedly higher than any reality star.

What Kim Kardashian represents is an example of how "web 2.0" has revolutionized our definition of marketing. Social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and even LinkedIn has allowed the general public to exert some influence on the mass media. Before these social networks came along, our relationship with mass media was a one-way street of reading/hearing whatever we were told by the newspapers, magazines, and television channels. But now, through these social networks, we are able to create some semblance of solidarity and voice our preferences -- in other words, our "word of mouth" can now penetrate those far beyond our immediate vicinity. And this is something companies have long yearned to see: what their target audiences are interested in, and the vehicles with which to reach these target audiences. Web 2.0 has allowed companies to rely less on marketing boutiques and their respective marketing research, and instead see the real-time trends -- all for free! For some companies, they seem to think Kim Kardashian as a fitting vehicle to push their products onto the general populace; others use Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Closing of a Chapter (Mandy)

So we finally come to it, the ending of a chapter in my life with regard to this girl called Mandy. I have written about her extensively on this blog (look under the tag "Mandy"), namely because she had become such a major part of my life. Now it is all over. I can be a fool and continue my pursuit of her, but it would be in vain -- and plus, I promised her I would honor her decision.

One of the things I have been trying to more of it being straightforward with others and not "beat around the bush". Sadly, in hindsight Mandy and I could have had a relationship if not for my indirect approach to her. When I first met her almost 3 years ago, we were both college students taking part in a church conference. We quickly struck up a friendship due to being placed together in a group and talked to one another ever since -- albeit less frequent for the past year and a half. I will admit that it was love at first sight: she was stunningly beautiful, kind, and we appeared to get along very well. As a romantic person, I envisioned that we would later start a wonderful relationship that hopefully would have led to more. But that turned out to be just a beautiful dream.

To quickly recall what happened, I was turned down last winter after I finally mustered the courage to tell her about I felt toward her. (This is apparently a very unorthodox way of approaching a girl, as my roommate has since told me something about "playing the game".) Yet in my optimism and changed career fortunes, I decided to keep the hope alive and try again at another time. Last weekend during our beach retreat, I was pleasantly shocked to get her phone number with which, after some intense self-wrestling, I decided to ask her to get some coffee. We ended up settling on a phone call where I tried to ask her out again ("...I would like to take you out Saturday..."). Needless to say, she turned me down again and stated that she feels she is not ready for a relationship at this time. We talked about a few other things like our future plans before hanging up.

At first I was surprised at how well I had taken her response. I was very disappointed of course, but I respected her decision and told myself that there really is nothing I could do. But the next day (a Monday), I woke up feeling very much lost -- a feeling that intensified as the day went on and eventually turned into a depression. I started to deeply regret having approached her again so soon after getting her phone number, in addition to the realization that her decision was finalized certain things. It was a miserable thing to feel as it also dawned on me that Mandy had been an inspiration for many things -- e.g. going to the gym and working out. After work, I headed home and held a long-and-frank prayer -- a "crying out" to the Lord about my disappointment and loss. Thereafter I hit rock bottom, and then started to expel the negative emotions that had taken hold. The past few days have been a steady climb back to my normal self. Yet I realized that this experience has changed me significantly.

Not only have I become a little more jaded about this aspect of relationships, I also started to view Mandy differently. She remains a pretty amazing person, but I also came to see her as someone who is averse to taking chances. Or at very least slightly lacking for empathy; empathy is quite different from pity (for the record, I'd hate to go out on a pity date). I had put myself out there twice for her --something very difficult for guys to do-- yet she would not bulge. Is this because she's scared? If so, I have been absolutely terrified! I think a lot of times, women have this false impression that men are generally insensitive and therefore can be treated as such. However, that is a gross over-generalization: it takes tremendous courage and resolve to ask someone out. I went for it and chased after something that had become dear to me. I guess I am just deeply disappointed that I did not even get a chance to interview.

In sum, it is high time to bury this dream I have held onto for so long. It's the best for everyone involved. Looks like she is ultimately the Estella to my Pip, or the fire that might consume me completely had this continued.

TED Talk: Origins of Pleasure

I just watched this very entertaining yet at the same time, didactic TED talk on the subject of pleasure. More commentary to follow later...

The interesting thing is that this TED talk attempts to argue how the perception of beauty is universal due to evolutionary origins. Yet to me, the speaker fails; I just do not agree.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dealing with Unrealized Expectations

[Let me preface this post by saying that it will be more sentimental than usual because of my recent rejection by Mandy. In addition the term "unrealized expectations" is not the most pleasant-sounding, nor is it the most appropriate one. Perhaps a better one would have been "unfulfilled dreams".]

Expanding on a previous post about the song "I Dreamed a Dream", this one will be a reflection of how to deal with our perceived failures. A more honest definition could be when things do not turn out the way we expected/hoped them to. How do we really deal with this? Some try drown themselves in alcohol, or fall into depressions.

I think it would be good to open through recounting three episodes in my life where I had to deal with these so-called unrealized expectations. You will see that they were excruciatingly painful at the time....
  1. One semester suspension from college for plagiarism. When I first arrived in college around 5 years ago, I was a hot-headed freshman who had a very elevated image of himself. There was a definite arrogance about me that was created out of being admitted into one of the most prestigious colleges in the country --while having somewhat mediocre grades and standardized test scores. In other words, I viewed myself as an "untouchable". This facade came crashing down when I intentionally plagiarized on a writing assignment, was caught, and ultimately suspended for one semester. Although a single semester may not seem much, the fact that it would be the second half of my freshman year was monumental. Instead of settling down into the college life, I was ushered back to live with my parents for 5-6 months. I remember hating myself for having made the mistake, a hatred that intensified as my parents openly were embarrassed by my actions. I was told to avoid questions concerning my being home, to the point of marginally lying. During this time off, I worked at an Office Depot store close by as well as volunteered at a nearby fire museum. Eventually I was readmitted to college and returned for sophomore year, but the experience will always be with me. I vividly recall the hopelessness when I found out I would be suspended and the shame of having to tell my parents about what happened.
  2. Graduating without a job. As a member of the Class of 2010, I graduated from college with a degree in economics but into an economy in recession. Having had made no concrete post-graduation plans outside of working, it was incredibly stressful as the countdown to graduation started falling into single digits while I had no job offer. I had spent hours every day frantically applying to jobs but, perhaps due to my lowly GPA and/or lack of extracurricular activities, I received few opportunities to interview and zero job offers. The fact that I would have to return to live with my parents further added to my anxiety -- not that I do not love them, but it seemed an utter embarrassment. In my desperation, I contacted my dean about the possibility of delaying graduation by one semester (reasoning is that I had been suspended for a semester prior). She brought me into her office and offered me a medicine that I was not expecting: frankly telling me that I did not have the right perspective. I recall this conversation very well. The dean stated noted that I probably arrived in college with a very different image of where/what I would be four years later. But that this was okay and I should be grateful to have parents who would be willing to have me back with them. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, as it was an opportunity to reconnect with my family. Admittedly at the time I wished she had offered me a job instead, yet I came to understand the wisdom of her words. Sometimes it's okay to not have our ideals realized.
  3. Not having Mandy. (If you are a repeat reader of this blog, then this is a no-brainer. I've been writing about this girl under the tag "Mandy" for months now...) The night I returned from the beach trip, I decided to hold a honest conversation with Mandy and ask her out again. The optimism was spurred by two things: the message of a church conference we both attended, as well as her inadvertently giving me her phone number. Needless to say, I was turned down for the second (and perhaps final?) time. While I was disappointed at the time, the weight of that disappointment did not set in until the day after. I felt absolutely crushed yesterday, both emotionally and physically drained. To understand my reaction, let us backtrack a bit. I met Mandy more than 3 years ago during a summer church conference. At the time I had doubts in staying with the church but I fell in love with her immediately after meeting her. It's somewhat inappropriate but she was the major reason I stayed with the church for a months following that encounter. Ever since then, I have always tried to interact with her as much as possible -- because she grew became the "girl of my dreams" and a source of inspiration for many things I did. In my eyes, she was absolutely amazing and I longed to be with her. But I also understood the folly of my thoughts and received an impression that she did not feel the same for me -- yet I chose to persevere and ignore the signs. Last winter was the first time I mustered the courage to tell her about how I felt and...I was turned down. Though I vowed to stop my incessant dreams and pursuit, my own circumstances changed as I was offered a much better job here in Washington D.C. For this reason and a firm conviction that she was "worth it", I found myself lapsing against my self-promise and beginning to try to impress her. This culminated into the past weekend, when I felt we had renewed our rapport and that perhaps she realized I have much changed since our last interaction. So I gambled and asked her out. And...I failed. This time the effect was much worse, as she indicated that it was her and not me -- which meant there is absolutely nothing I could do. More heartbreakingly, she suggested that I try date other girls. I was appalled and depressed throughout yesterday; in hindsight this melancholy hit rock bottom sometime yesterday evening as I felt a combination of utter misery, hopelessness, and inadequacy. But after a feverish prayer and dialogue with a friend and my roommate, I began to slowly recover. (I suppose I recovered enough to be able to recount all of this).
I think it's safe to say that no one likes to have their plans foiled, because if you did, then that is borderline madness (!). We all aspire to hopes and dreams on everything from careers to relationships -- the pursuit of the so-called "perfect life". While this pursuit itself is a bliss --as it is a purely theoretical construct, for we humans are imperfect to begin with-- we must not abandon these aspirations. Sometimes inspiration is the greatest catalyst to change; other times, that catalyst arrives in the form of life experiences.

Having dealt with unrealized hopes/dreams myself (as recounted above), I empathize with anyone who also had these experiences. The reality is, unless one has been pampered from birth, we have all experienced disappointments in one form or another. There are different sorts of disappointments, of course -- which triggers different reactions from us. Whether it is from having a Starbucks barista messing up your special coffee order or being rejected by a significant other, it is debilitating when these occasions happen. Some respond with anger, others fall into a depression that may last for months or even years. Yet what we can take away from these disappointments is that they have strengthened our resolve and taught us valuable lessons about mistakes we might have made along the way. It can be hard at first, but we ought to remember disappointments for what they have taught us -- rather than delving into the "could have beens".

The above being said, I put together a brief list of take-aways from my own experiences in dealing with disappointments. These may not apply for everyone, but I do think they have universal applications:
  • Taking a risk and failing is infinitely better than avoiding the risk altogether. Deep down we are all afraid of taking risks ("risk-averse"): we play like to play it safe by maintaining a status quo rather than altering it, however ameliorating that change may be. But by not taking the risk, you create the much bigger inner monster called "Regret". Regret is like a seed that eventually grows into a tree within us. It may eventually dominate our thoughts and debilitates like nothing other. There's nothing quite like desiring to win but having the fear of losing crowding out the excitement of winning.
  • Seeking the help of others. Particularly in the U.S., we live in a culture that very much admires self-reliance and independence from influence of others. This is often a good thing, but can also be bad in instances where the help of another can exempt us from the growing pains of trying things on our own first. Ironically, most people jump at the opportunity of helping others yet refuse to ask for help in return. I think the main problem is pride. You have to be conscious of this when seeking exterior assistance. In my second example, the meeting with the dean transformed the way I looked at things.
  • Focus on learning from the failure/disappointment. This begins with refusing to scapegoat others and instead focus on your own shortcomings. What could you have done differently? If given a second chance, how would you change? The simple truth is, we learn so much more from our failures than our successes. In addition, failures toughens us mentally so we are better prepared for future encounters.
  • Fear is nothing but an artificial construct. Building off from a previous blog post about dealing with fears, in a very bizarre manner, we tend to feel very liberated when our fears are realized. Of course there are feelings of sadness and disappointment too, but we also sense freedom from our fears. This leads to the realization that fears had no influence on the outcome to begin with -- which we would do well to keep in mind.

Follow Up: Dow Jones Drops 513

When I last wrote about the precipitous drop of the U.S. stock market, it turned out to be the beginning (not the end) of some ridiculous movements. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 513 points on the day I wrote, which was followed by another drop the following day, then another, then a huge rebound, then another drop before finishing with a rebound. The net change from August 4th to today is actually very minor: less than 100 points. But as I noted before, the movements in-between offered a "golden opportunity".

The question on your mind is, what did I end up doing? For starters, I invested in most of the companies I had expressed interest in before: Pepco, Nokia, and Clearwire. I would have brought more of others, such as Ford and Morgan Stanley, but ran out of capital. My investment was pretty evenly split between the 3 companies I ended up buying stock in -- despite very different number of shares based on their share prices. Here is the breakdown:
  • 1215 shares of Clearwire @ $1.42-1.78-- I ended up buying more than anticipated because it kept falling. The buy-in was made in 3 different stages, coming to an average price of $1.73 per share.
  • 315 shares of Nokia @ $4.89 -- I brought less of Nokia than expected, due to the optimism on Clearwire and the realization that I wanted some stability in this capital influx. That so-called stability is in...
  • 200 shares of Pepco @ $17.64 -- I always wanted to own Pepco for their high-yet-constant dividends. When its price fell to below $18, I made a move to buy more than the originally-planned 150 shares.
As of today, I am up about 14% on this investment. It's nothing breathtaking but I'm happy with the results thus far. I have actually sold 200 shares of Nokia yesterday due to its price jump -- the goal is to buy back more eventually, when the price goes back down.

UPDATE 08-19-2011
Stock price of Clearwire jumped 30% this morning on rumors that Sprint is seeking to buy out the rest of investors (e.g. Comcast) in the company. Not sure why on earth Sprint would want to do that, but I'm happy at the news since it means the stock price has doubled since my purchase. This article also makes a compelling argument to buy even more in the company. I'm thinking about it. Nonetheless, I do not think Clearwire is something to be invested in the long-term of more than a year. The industry is simple changing too fast.

Xiaomi M1 Phone: a $310 "Superphone"?

Being back means that I will once again be providing some coverage of any exciting gadgetry or new technology announced. The latest is the so-called "Xiaomi M1" (translates to "smile" in Chinese) by a Chinese company of the same name. From all the information available, the company Xiaomi is a new Chinese start-up whose main goal is to profit from the ever-growing Chinese smartphone market. A combination of affordability and patriotism will surely score them points with at least the domestic population, if not across the seas too.

As reported by Engadget, the Xiami M1 is scheduled to be released in October 2011 but can be pre-ordered as recently as August 29th. It is an Android-running "superphone" that integrates Qualcomm new MSM8260 chipset that runs at 1.5 GHz, in addition to 1GB of RAM and a massive 4GB of ROM. Other features include a gigantic 1930mAh battery that promises at least 2 days worth of "real-life" usage, a 4-inch HD touchscreen, aGPS, Bluetooth, and a myriad of other sensors. What makes it very interesting --aside from the impressive specifications-- is its svelteness of mirroring the Apple iPhone 4's dimensions as well as weight. This seems to put it in the ballpark of the Samsung Galaxy S II too. Furthermore, the company announced that the superphone would ship with MIUI OS, which is a custom UI based on the Android 2.3 Gingerbread; owners of the device will even be able to flash whatever ROM their heart desires.

But by far the biggest draw for the Xiaomi M1 is its price: $310, or 1,999 renmenbi. While any other major handset manufacturer can probably build a phone with similar specifications, I highly doubt their price will be anywhere close to $310. You simply cannot buy an unlocked, dual-core superphone for that price. (For comparison purposes, the iPhone 4 retails starting at $649 unlocked or $199 subsidized from a carrier.) I am guessing that if this announced price holds, the Xiaomi M1 will make a killing against all its competitors -- possibly with the exception on the most fanatical of customers. It will create a market for itself.

While I personally will not be buying this phone (waiting to see what Nokia has in store), I can see the success of this phone radically altering the cell phone industry. It wouldn't be as revolutionary as what the iPhone has achieved, but will put heavy pressure for prices across the board to decrease. Customer loyalty holds little meaning when a similar alternative can be brought for 1/2 the price. In addition, I think this may mark a turning point for Chinese hardware manufacturers. Until now, manufacturers have been dominated by (outside of Apple), Taiwanese companies like HTC or Korean ones like LG and Samsung.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Music Liners -- "I Dreamed a Dream" by Glee Cast

Unless you are a connoisseur of Broadway shows, you probably never heard of the song "I Dreamed a Dream" until Susan Boyle's epic performance on Britain's Got Talent last year. This was precisely the case with me who, like many others, was mesmerized by Ms. Boyle's stunning rendition of the song originally from "Les Miserables". She ultimately did not win the competition, but brought attention to an awesome song.

To give some background, the Broadway show "Les Miserables" is based on a French novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. The story centered around the lives of ordinary Frenchmen living through the early 19th century France, from roughly 1815 to the beginning of the Paris Uprising of 1932. The ex-convict Jean Valijean is the protagonist who seeks redemption for his past deeds. In relation to the song, "I Dreamed a Dream" is sung by the poverty-stricken single mother Fantine about the hopelessness of her situation. She eventually dies and leaves her daughter at the mercy of a cruel couple.

"I Dreamed a Dream" is, as its title suggests, a song about the harsh realities of life. The theme of disappointment is revoked throughout, as the character of Fantine experiences the cruelty of abandonment, deceit, and being used by others. Overall, it is not an uplifting piece of music at all. But I appreciate the song for the counter balance it creates against the typical pop-ish and upbeat songs I listen to. Sometimes you realize that life is not all rosy as you had believed or imagined.

I like Glee's cover of the song, namely because it is sung from the perspective of one female to another. In the television show, the character played by (the talented) Leah Michelle performs it as a duet with her long-lost mother (played by Idina Menzel). Even though I was mesmerized by the rawness of Susan Boyle's performance, I liked this duet more for general listening purposes. The main thing is the word change in the line "And I still dream he would come to me..." to she.

To go through our standard practice of these posts, the lines from this song I really like are:
"Then I was young and unafraid, when dreams were made, used, and wasted."
"And still I dream she would come to me, that we would live the years together."
"But there are dreams that cannot be, and there storms we cannot weather."

All the above are pretty self-explanatory, since they capture the destruction of naive-ness and youthful optimism. When you are young or lack the experience, our notions of certain things can be the complete opposite of reality. You probably had dreams when you were younger about becoming an astronaut or something grand, right? But has that worked out? (If not, I sincerely hope you are content with the outcome.) Experience is a "no-frills" teacher who does not hesitate to subject us to pain if the need arises. What we also learn through the process is to be afraid at certain things, such as death of our loved ones.

Personally, I associate the song with Mandy and the realization that we may not be together as I had hoped and dreamed of. Until yesterday, I hardly ever given up the hope that she would respond positively to my advances and that we may become something. But the beach trip triggered a series of events that culminated in finding out that...I have no chance. So now, it truly is a dream that cannot be.

Back from Blogging Hiatus

Although I did not announce my absence from blogging, the important news is that now I am back. It's been a roller coaster of a week or so since I last blogged. The main explanation for my absence is that I went on vacation with some friends to Ocean City (MD) and, as much as I like blogging, it's a difficult endeavor when the sun is shinning and the beach is beckoning.

I will probably be elaborating on some of the following over the next few days but, to give a glimpse of the roller coaster ride I had been on, here are some key events that happened:
  • Ran someone over on my bike to work
  • Took and subsequently failed a waiver exam
  • Enjoyed the beach for the first time in 2 (?) years
  • Watched the sunrise twice
  • Was rejected again by Mandy
As you might surmise, the last bullet point was definitely the most pivotal one of the bunch. But all in all, it has been an adrenaline-filled week and a half. I am back and these "Chronicles" will continue.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dow Jones Drops 513 = a Golden Opportunity

As a finance person, it was impossible to ignore the precipitous drop today of the U.S. stock market. The Dow Jones Industry Average (DJIA) dropped 513 points, ending the day at 11,384 (-4.3%). It is the worst single-day drop since 2008. The other stock indexes did not fare any better: the S&P 500 dropped 60 (or 4.8%) and the Nasdaq dropped 137 (or 5.1%). I am really glad I am not a trader on Wall Street, or involved in any facet of stock trading. Can't imagine the chaos on the trade floor.

But I like to believe I am a value investor. This means that amidst the black and gloom, I see a golden opportunity to invest in the market. As Warren Buffett so famously said, "You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out." What he did not mention is that real profits can be made when swimming against this tide. Last time I made an investment into my stock portfolio was the summer of 2009. Earlier today I just wired a fresh investment into my brokerage account -- just looking for the transfer to be recognized now...hopefully by mid-day tomorrow. Sure I've been hit by today's negative stock movements, but do did everyone else.

So what companies am I eyeing? The usual culprits I mentioned in the last post apply. In particular, I have my sights on Nokia and Pepco Holdings. Yet I am not able to buy into all these companies, at least not without a massive influx of capital (which I neither have nor would want to throw down). Therefore I will be a bit choosy and select only a few:
  • Nokia (~500 shares) -- I am a fan of the company and believe in its comeback in the near future. There is no way the company's stock is worth only $5 per share. Considering its strong patent portfolio, market presence, and new partnership with Microsoft, its price ceiling should be at least double.
  • Clearwire (~1000 shares) -- I had not considered this company before but, after seeing its stock drop more than 25% today, I am going to take a gamble on it. Operating expenses may be up, but the company's technology still possesses tremendous potential for both wireless customers and land-based. The target price should be around $5 a share.
  • Pepco (~150 shares) -- Pepco remains a blue-chip company and therefore a prized asset if I can acquire for a discount. Its revenues are stable and pays a tidy dividend every quarter.
  • Morgan Stanley (~? shares) -- I used to own stock in Wells Fargo, but pulled out when its stock languished for about a year. Of all the major banks that remain, Morgan Stanley is not my first choice. That honor would go to JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs, but I cannot afford either of their stock. Morgan Stanley at $20 per share looks to be a reasonable consolation prize.
  • Increase my holdings in AMD and Ford -- I strongly believe that you can't hedge your bets too much when capital is lacking. There's a reason why I have holdings in both companies right now, and I believe in their future. Market studies just shown that AMD has increased its market share against Intel (albeit marginally) and I get excited every time I see a Ford TransitConnect on the road.
Back in 2009 when I entered the stock market, my portfolio went up 50% in the first year (thanks mainly to AIG and Ford) and doubled by the second year. Hoping I can replicate the same feat through all this drop.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

iPad Killer Alert: Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet

After lamenting last week about the unavailability of a solid alternative to the iPad (and even insinuating that I might even buy the iPad 3, whenever it comes out), I stumbled upon something that could be a "game changer". Yes, it is another Android tablet. But no, it's not like the other tablets released by the likes of Asus and Samsung.

The product I am referring to is a tablet made by Lenovo, now famous for its production of the ThinkPad products. The company is allegedly planning to release a ThinkPad-branded tablet on August 23rd. While the specs seem pretty standard (e.g. Tegra 2, 1GB ram, Android 3.1, dual cameras), there are a few things that make it truly stand out:
  • Vast array of ports -- one of the missing links of tablets is connectivity and Lenovo addresses the problem head on. This tablet will have a full-size USB port, a mini-USB port, SD card slot, and HDMI port.
  • Digitizer pen -- not only does the tablet have a built-in slot for the pen, but the pen allows a much wider array of uses for the tablet. The pen makes is perfect for students to take notes or for artists to draw on. Suddenly, it looks like I won't even have to buy notebooks for school anymore.
  • Price -- the retail price is rumored to be less than $500, perhaps at $479 for the 16GB version of this tablet. The base price does not include the digitizer pen, but it'd only be a $30 add-on.
  • Business usage -- tablets thus far have been mass-consumption devices. RIM took a step in the right direction with its PlayBook, but flopped on the hardware and software integration. Lenovo is primed to succeed in this area as they can leverage the security of its other ThinkPad products.
The more I read about this product, the more I like it. It's not exactly an "iPad-killer" but it holds tremendous potential. Given all the available information, I will make a premature prediction that this ThinkPad tablet will be the best Android tablet available. The only drawback I see is that age of the hardware, namely the Tegra 2 processor that will soon be replaced by the Tegra 3 ("Kal-El"). If Lenovo somehow sticks a Tegra 3 into this tablet, I will be placing a preorder at the earliest opportunity.

If you need any more convincing, check out the video below:

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Hidden Costs of Medical Student Debt

I just chanced upon reading this insightful article from the New York Times Blog, about (as its title implies) the hidden costs of medical student debt. The author (Dr. Pauline Chen), a practicing doctor somewhere in the U.S., offers a personal recount of her experiences of indebtedness out of the aspirations of becoming a doctor. The truth is, indebtedness for medical students has been the norm for many decades but has quickly increased over the past decade or so. I think the statistics offered by Dr. Pauline Chen are valid: over 80 percent of each medical student class will graduate with debt, and the average debt per student is $158,000.

This figure may not seem much given the purported salaries of doctors, but in reality, I think there are many misconceptions that need to be debunked (disclaimer: I do not work in the field of medicine). First of all, not all doctors are created equal. Depending on what field they specialize (e.g. internal medicine, pediatrics), their paycheck may range from $80,000 to millions per year. I think it would be ignorant to assume all doctors are filthy rich; I'd bet the vast majority do not make more than $200,000 per year.

Aside from the problems of the attitude toward personal debt brought up by Dr. Chen, I think there are a significant number of other problems that warrant attention. These problems --both individual and societal-- are the culprits behind the skyrocketing medical expenses and...colossal debt for students. A number of them are specific to the United States:
  1. Length of required commitment -- normally 12 years from beginning to end; 4 years of premed in college + 4 years of med school + 3-4 years of internship
  2. High levels of stress -- being given the responsibility over someone's livelihood is no laughing matter and will cause stress when things (inevitably) go awry
  3. Uneven supply and demand distribution -- the American Medical Association places quotes on the number of graduates admitted into and graduate from medical schools each year. The result is a huge demand for doctors but little supply.
  4. Misaligned incentives -- unfortunately, good doctors often do not stay in their specialty practice long enough to make a difference. They tend to pursue high-income venues like plastic surgery instead.
  5. HMOs -- these have infinitely both complicated and raised the costs of medicine in the United States. Healthcare insurance is no longer being used as your average insurance -- you don't call up your auto insurance company for an oil-check of your car, do you?
  6. Bottleneck in certification process -- see #3 above.
Did you know that I did not always want to major in economics? When I first arrived in college, I was unsure about what career path I would take. Medicine seemed like a legitimate path back in those days -- after all, both my parents studied medicine (although they are not doctors). It took a rigorous course in genetics to make me realize that medicine was not for me. I wanted to become a doctor and follow many of my friends to medical school, but I ultimately realized that I could not deal with being stuck in education for another decade.

In addition, another reason for my unwillingness to pursue the medical route pertains to point #2 (above). It is the responsibility over the lives of others. Practicing medicine is difference from experiments -- there is no turnarounds if you screw up. If you do screw up, someone will most likely die. I am a pretty sensitive person (if that is not already obvious) so concern over this will consume me. Call me a coward, but I do not want the burden of knowing that I could have saved someone by administering a different treatment...that I was responsible for the death of a patient.

[When I started this post, I believe I had another intention altogether about what to write.]

Enabling the Dreams of Others

For voracious readers out there, the title of this post is a reference to the book The Last Lectureby the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch. It is an amazing book -- made more so as it was written from the perspective of a person dying of cancer. After reading the book, I really wish I had met Randy before he passed away (though you can see his lecture here). But this will not be a book review; instead, I am borrowing from Randy to elaborate the ideas in the chapter of his book of the same name ("Part IV: Enabling the Dreams of Others").

I believe that the element of "kindness" has become increasingly rarer in the society we live in. As discussed previously, our society has become enamored with the trappings of wealth and power. Money has been transformed from a medium facilitating exchange of goods to a means of validating our self-worth and, to make matters worse, in measuring ourselves to our peers. This preoccupation with money has led us to become selfish individuals who look at the world as a zero-sum game: the giving to others lessens what we have. I know of this attitude very well, because I am guilty of it.

When I see homeless individuals on the street corner, my immediate reaction is to avoid them or, if that is not possible, ignore them. Sometimes I do give them spare change, but the resulting feeling is the same -- being slightly disgusted with myself at this perceived coldness. I can rationalize all I want about the reasons for my actions: (1) homeless people are lazy, (2) they'll just use whatever I give them to buy alcohol or drugs, (3) it will give them false hope, and (4) whatever I give will only provide marginal benefits. But when I reflect upon my actions, the (damning) conclusion I see is an obvious lack of kindness toward others. Whatever happened to empathy and compassion that the Bible talks about? I would be a hypocrite to not admit that I am a lesser Christian for not following through on the teachings in the scripture.

Self-deprecation aside, the truth is that in our daily interactions, there are always opportunities to be kind to others. Whether this is tipping the nice cashier or holding the door for the person behind you, there are daily instances of these episodes by which we can be kind to someone else. This "other" person could be a complete stranger but when someone is in need, their affiliation/relationship with you should not matter. I wouldn't be wrong to argue that as kindness is identical to altruism (yes there are nuanced differences), our actions should be labeled as such if there were ulterior motives. For example, if you hold open a door because you are romantically interested in the person behind you, you aren't really being kind, are you?

Yet we are going to take this a step further, to the realm of hopes and dreams. Superficially, this is always desiring to help others when you are in the position of doing so. For example, if someone is looking for employment in your company, you can contact the hiring manager and/or refer this individual. Sometimes companies offer bonuses for successful referrals -- so it's a win-win situation. Or you can start by agreeing to become someone's professional reference, or writing a positive letter of recommendation. The basic rule of thumb is this: if you are ever have the power to do something, you should put it to good use. Outside of career employment, you can introduce potential lovers to one another or just offer help when someone needs it. The foundation is desiring to become an enabler for another -- even if the path they chose eventually diverges from their original intention. We are to offer help, not to judge.

At the heart of it, enabling the dreams of others takes an attitude of helping others and applies it to younger generations. It's about being an inspiration, a model figure that eventually inspires others to do the same. In The Last Lecture, Pausch uses the example of a former student "Tommy" who offers Pausch's students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour the studios of LucasArts (of Star War renown). He reasons that Tommy did it in gratitude for how Pausch helped guide and inspire him while he was a student -- that Pausch "enabled" his dream. On a practical level, it's about being involved in the local community or in your family to help younger siblings. One should never underestimate the potential of even the softest touch of kindness.

[I think eventually I will be posting something more focused on Pausch's book. It's a truly amazing book that offers many wise anecdotes.]

iPhone 5 Spotted in the Wild?

I can be a hypocrite sometimes and this might be true in the case of Apple products. After slamming the company over the fanaticism of its customers (e.g. trading a kidney or going into debt for a iPad 2), I am starting to warm up to some of its products. While a Macbook is out of the question, I have already floated the idea of getting the iPad 3 when it November 2011. Now I've just read about the soon-to-arrive iPhone 5 and thinking to myself, should I spring for it?

As reported by this article ("Appolicious"? what a horrible name!), an alleged iPhone 5 was caught in the wilderness of San Francisco yesterday. A tipster apparently caught sight of an iPhone model different from his own iPhone 4, snapped some pictures, alerted the website 9to5Mac, and the rumor mill exploded. Although the open secret has long been that the iPhone 5 will arrive in two months -- in the month of September-- Apple has managed to keep a close lid on its specifications. But here we have it, someone outside of the company has glimpsed the new iteration of the iPhone.

Unfortunately, not much useful information could be derived from the "leak", aside from a larger and curved screen. The tipster reported what he saw to have the screen size comparable to the HTC EVO (which has a 4.3 inch screen) and also "thinner" as well as "wider" than the current iPhone 4. None of these revelations are groundbreaking news -- there were already rumors (coming from component manufacturers) that screen size might be different this time, and Apple is known to obsess about thinning their devices.

But what makes this post interesting is my new openness to the iPhone 5. Because as you see, my birthday is in September and I am thinking of finally upgrading from my trusty Nokia e71x. As a tech geek, I have long been fascinated with getting a new phone and I'm getting sick of waiting of the newer and better devices. The biggest reason is the lack of competing products from others: Android devices suffer from lag due to non-native integration of the OS into the hardware, HP is being timid with webOS phones, Blackberries stink, and Windows Phone 7s are being slow to release. I am hoping to at least try the Nokia N9 though, before making a decision.

Romans 8: "More Than Conquerors"

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then can condemn? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?36 As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[l]

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[m] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The overall passage of Romans 8 ("Life through the Spirit") discusses the difference between living by the Holy Spirit and living according to the flesh. Yet in the former, there will be suffering in the present -- for future glory. Our assurance is that the Spirit will help us through our struggles and suffering because, after all, our God is gracious and loving.

I am singling out the above section from Romans 8, because it is an awesome reminder of who we are and the hope we live for. Although at times we may feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, or perhaps pressure from our culture/peers to conform, the reality is that we live for something much greater. And even more importantly, we are loved by God. This is a love that never fails, always hopes, and always perseveres. This passage provides complete evidence of how God acts in our lives and reminds us of who "has our back". God, the Creator of the universe and giver of life, is this person.

In particular, I am enthralled by the imagery evoked by verse 38. There is absolutely nothing that separates us from the love of God that is found in Jesus Christ -- not demons, not time, not even death! If that does not lend hope for Christians, then I do not know what will.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Last week (yes, there is a lag going on) I finished reading the best-selling novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by the Swedish author Stieg Larsson. I starting reading the book because my roommate owns it and, ever looking to build my literature repertoire, I thought it would be a good choice. It turned out to be a fantastic book -- something Swedish other than Ikea!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first book of a trilogy that was left unpublished by a now-deceased Stieg Larsson. It's a very good thing that Larsson's heirs elected to have the works translated and published. There are two protagonists (at least in the first book) for the series: Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist and reporter, and Lisbeth Salander, a gifted hacker and very capable personal investigator. Because it is the first of a trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo serves as an introduction to both protagonists and also to the antagonists. Larsson is clearly a very capable mystery-novel author, as this book is composed masterfully and keeps the reader on the edge. I would present JK Rowling's Harry Potter series as a fitting analogy, except Larsson's works are much darker and mature in content.

To give a short synopsis, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens with Mikael Blomkvist being accused of libel against the powerful financier Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. Mikael is sentenced due to having published a damning article on Wennestrom, which the court ultimately finds to consist of unfounded lies. Mikael is forced to quit his position as a part-owner of the magazine Millenium, but is immediately offered an arcane opportunity to research into the disappearance of the niece of another powerful business magnate, Henrik Vanger. While all this is going on, we are also introduced to Lisbeth Salander, an antisocial female hacker who has suffered abuse at the hands of her guardians. She is characterized as incredibly head-strong, determined, and vengeful. Hers and Mikael's paths eventually cross for work purposes, and they quickly develop a hybrid bond that consists of mutual acceptance and physical intimacy. The story ends with a shocking revelation about the Vander family's history and, through Salander's help, Mikael restores his public image.

Larsson's work is clearly intended for adult audiences. While the writing is never explicit, it is not censored to exclude graphic imagery such as physical torture and sex. The author does not seem to be fazed to include them -- which lends authenticity to the work overall. For example, there are incidences of rape and incest that are not for the faint for heart. In addition, the motifs symbolized by the character (e.g. Salander as representing an idealized, strong-willing and independent woman). What makes Larsson's effort so good is the right mixture of the adult elements that is balanced by comical occurences sprinkled throughout the novel. I like the change in scenery from the other works I recently read.

Plot development is also masterfully carried out by the author. The reader is shuffled back and fourth between the two protagonists, in addition to flashback of each respective protagonist. This create the effect that makes it easy for a reader to become immersed in a character: to feel what the character is feeling, and to see what the character is seeing. I found myself at times being annoyed of the shuffling process -- only to realize later that the annoyance was due to my increasing attachment to a certain character. In a way, Larsson teases the reader by introducing bits and pieces about each protagonist until their two independent stories start converging together. The result is synergy: we like each character even more than before, since they complement the other character extremely well.

One thing I really like is the inclusion of unique cultural elements into a novel. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the setting is Sweden (duh) and the character are model representatives of their country. Larsson seem to have taken the initiative to include as much detail of Sweden as possible -- perhaps to further enthrall the reader into the novel. For example, we are told of the severe cold in the winter as well as the popularity of small wooden cabins near bodies of water. Where do you find this in the United States? The extent of cultural integration brings to mind another great novel: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Overall, I must say I was very impressed by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Normally this can be hinted by the speed at which a book -- positive correlation between liking the book and reading sped. At times the scenes may have been a tad too dark or too explicit, but the novel is clearly the work of a literary master.

Cuisine Fix: Pork & Squash Stir Fry

[Let me preface this post by noting that I cooked this dish before the "Eggs & Tomatoes" dish. This one is a little complicated, has more photographs, and therefore I waited until now to post.]

Most of the dishes I will be blogging about are stir fry dishes, namely because they are quick, easy, and healthy. This one is no exception: a stir fry of pork meat with squash and mushrooms. Total preparation time is about 10 minutes (twice as long as the previous stir fry).

As shown by the photograph above (see, I remembered to document this time), this dish consists of only 4 ingredients. The beauty of stir fry is that you do not need many ingredients to cook up a good dish -- and the only equipment needed is a wok and a stove. There is no messing with the oven, or with any other pots and pans. The ingredients shown are as follows: sliced onions, sliced mushrooms, diced pork meat (that I had previously marinated in soy sauce and frozen), and sliced squash. Squash isn't my ingredient of choice to be honest; my parents grow squash and insisted I take one.

And once again, the ratio of ingredients is not terribly important: there's a lot of squash and little meat simply because I wanted to cook all the squash. [Maybe it's also to compensate for the hot dogs I had been chowing down prior.] Onions are used as the saute base and mushrooms were there because I found them in the fridge. All in all, maybe I did not think things through while preparing this dish -- it's more of being forced to cook because some ingredients were going bad, rather than cooking with a passionate desire...

Instead of the usual white rice, I elected to also make pasta to go with this stir fry. Pasta-making has to be one of the easiest things to cook: all you do is boil water, put in the pasta, cook it, and then add some pasta sauce. I personally am not a huge fan of pasta but, hey, sometimes you need a little variety in the staple food.

The steps I took to prepare this dish (strictly the stir fry) are:
  1. Add a few (4/5?) tablespoons of cooking oil to the wok
  2. Once the oil is heated, add in the sliced onions and begin sauteing them
  3. After onions start to bronze, add in the meat (to avoid any undercooking)
  4. Add some salt and soy sauce and cook until the meat is ready
  5. Add in the mushrooms and squash together
  6. Put the lid on, lower the heat, and let it simmer for 3 minutes. The key here is to have the squash soften and become tender
  7. Stir, remove from heat, and serve
If you followed the instructions, your dish should look something like this:

I am a huge fan of boiled corn, so I added half a cob to my dish as a side. As you can see, I like to keep things simple and just have the pasta with the stir fry. It was pretty good!

Automobile: Insurance (Part 2)

And here we are, the final part of the mini-series on the woes of automobile transfer to the state of Virginia. I think the issues I have discussed reflects the norm, rather than the exception, of dealing with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in any state. But that is now the past and now I move on to examining the nuances of obtaining auto insurance.

Until yesterday, my auto insurance has been together with my parents with the insurance company Liberty Mutual. We have been with this company for many years and their rates were very good in the state of Maryland. But upon inquiry of their rates in Virginia --which turned out to be quite high-- I opted to shop around with other insurance companies. I applied an economic methodology (or just logical) of getting as many quotes as possible, and then selecting the best one in terms of price and coverage.

The Background/Vehicle Profile
I drive a 2008 Honda Civic, an LX-model with 4 doors. I first received my driver's license since the age of 16 and have a spotless record. The only blip could be a speeding ticket (caught by a camera) received last year. I also am considered a good student, with at least a 3.0 GPA from college. But I am not yet 25 years old, an age gap that commands high premiums from insurance companies.

The Playing Field
I looked into a wide range of insurance companies, from the big names to the no-named ones. I tried to select two choices with each company: one at minimum coverage possible (which allowed a straight, skeleton comparison of premiums) and one at the desired coverage. Desired coverage includes a 50/100/50 liability ratio (explained in detail later) for insured and non-insured, in addition to a $500 collision as well as comprehensive deductible. I tried to apply as many discounts as possible, given my background. Minimum coverage is 25/50/25 liability ratio and no other coverage. My cost-per-month results for the Honda Civic are as follows in Arlington, Virginia:
  • Geico -- $86.35 for desired, and $42.84 for minimum
  • AllState -- $73.83 for desired, and $27.5 for minimum
  • State Farm -- $63.6 for desired (did not bother to get a minimum quote)
  • Liberty Mutual -- $150 for desired
  • Progressive -- $85.35 for desired, and $40.01 for minimum
  • Nationwide -- $77.60 for desired, $40.63 for minimum
  • 21st Century -- $105.78 for desired, $91/23 for minimum
  • Esurance -- $74.14 for desired
  • Costco -- $120 for desired
The Decision
From the results above, AllState and StateFarm appeared to be my best options in terms of cost-to-price. AllState had the best priced (by far) of the barebones insurance. However, you should never opt for the barebones package unless finances are really tight or another exceptional reason. My explanation is a no-brainer, with the current rates of medical expenses and car repair costs, you will likely be bankrupt if you get into any accident. Period. $25,000 sounds like a lot of money, but it's a drop in the bucket if either you get insured or someone else is.

Ultimately, I picked StateFarm and loaded up on the coverage. My final premium is about $77 per month, which includes: 100/300/100 liability ratio, $0 deducible for comprehensive damage, $500 deductible for collision, $1000 medical expense, and towing reimbursement of up to $100. This price also included renter's insurance (for my apartment) as StateFarm offers a sizeable discount -- which turned out to be only an extra $2 per month. I was very satisfied with how things worked out. It also helps StateFarm has an office closeby!

The Policy Jargon
After talking with multiple agents and reading on this topic, I feel that I have a pretty good command of the definitions for each coverage topic. You can read about each topic on any insurance company's website (e.g. State Farm's), or you can read my interpretation of each:
  • Automobile liability. This is divided into two categories, property damage and bodily injury damage. Both categories are normally the same. To illustrate, my 100/300/100 liability ratio is $100,000 per person for bodily injury ($300,000 total per incidence) and $100,000 for property damage. This topic comprises the bulk of the insurance premium.
  • Medical expenses. Think of this as specialized coverage for any medical expenses. $1000 may seem little, but it's specific for medical-related costs and hence easier to file claim on.
  • Underinsured motorist. As its name implies, this is when you get into accidents with those without sufficient coverage or no auto insurance at all. By law, liability ratio for this is the same as the automobile liability. But the premium is much less.
  • Collision. When you get into a collision with a moving or non-moving object (God forbid!) and your car is damaged, this is what you'd use. Normally there is a deductible, which comes out of your pocket before the insurance company starts paying. After "Automobile Liability", this it typically the second most expensive premium.
  • Comprehensive. Any other damage than collision, be it theft, fire, etc. This is actually one of the most affordable premiums and I strongly recommend decreasing your deductible to $0. The different in cost is about $20 from $500 deductible, and the peace of mind is worth it in my book.
  • Towing and Labor. Used when your vehicle is disabled and needs to be towed. Insurance covers the first portion of the costs, and you are responsible for the rest. This thing costs only a couple of bucks, so you should definitely have it.
  • Miscellaneous (e.g. rental coverage). I do not regard these as necessary, as is the case of reimbursement for rental cars. To each his/her own though...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Automobile: Transferring States (Part 1.5)

[I did not plan to have a "Part 1.5" but, after some craziness at the DMV, decided it would be worthwhile to write a new post about the experience.]

This morning I left before 8am to drive to the Virginia DMV Center in Arlington. My boss had graciously okay-ed my late arrival and the DMV opens at 8am. So I thought I would be the first person in line and be able to get my affairs taken care of quickly... Wrong! By the time I arrived at 8:10am, there was a line of 7-10 people gathered outside. (Surprisingly, there was also people waiting inside.)

After waiting for about 30 minutes, my turn came up and I presented all the documents I listed before to the DMV agent. She was neither talkative nor particularly kind. But she was efficient and took titled and registered vehicle in about 15 minutes. However, she hit me with two unexpected/nasty surprises.

The first (and the nastiest) was the 3% vehicle sales tax. I thought I had been waived from it with the notarized "Purchaser's Statement of Tax Exemption" form, but was levied a $35 fee anyway. The reason? My parents had written "$1" as the selling cost in the vehicle title. Against logic and common sense, this made the transaction a sale and not a gift. Therefore I was forced to pay the tax.

The second surprise was that I have to change my driver's license to a Virginia one. The cost of this is $32 and the explanation given is that "You can chose not to, but the cops will penalize you since you have Virginia plates now". Not wanting to return to the DMV again nor trouble with the police, I acquiesced and opted to get one before leaving. This turned out to be a bad decision.

Why was changing my driver's license a bad decision? Because the Arlington DMV Center had a systems shutdown for more than 30 minutes! This meant that agents were not able to process my application until about 10am. When the system came back up, it took less than 5 minutes to run everything. So in hindsight, I should have left after getting what I went there for: titling and registration. But I stayed and had to endure a prolonged wait time. I suck.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Automobile: Transferring States (Part 1)

[This is the first of a two-part series on automobile-related topics, like getting car insurance and what to do when moving between states.]

Over the past few days (I seem to use this expression a lot, huh?), I have been figuring out the best means of legally moving my vehicle from the state of Maryland to the state of Virginia. I should have already done this by now but external forces have forced my procrastinating hand. This post comes in the midst of the process --an ordeal I hope to end by Wednesday this week.

The background is a simple one: my parents gifted me a car during college, but they did not title nor register the vehicle in my name. Because I had been driving it exclusively in Maryland, there has not been issues with formally transferring the vehicle to Virginia. Now I have to do it because I will otherwise lose parking privileges in my apartment complex's parking lot. Transferring the vehicle means I have to title and register the vehicle with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

There are a number of documents one must have to successfully transfer a vehicle, some of which are specific to the state of Virginia:
  • Safety Inspection Sticker -- this must be renewed annually and can be obtained at any authorized garage. The cost is $16. This is also required prior to titling the vehicle.
  • Vehicle Emissions Test -- the vehicle must pass this test every few years and the cost is generally around $30. I am able to skip this step as I have a current (within the past 12 months) vehicle emissions certificate from the state of Maryland. Also required before titling the vehicle.
  • Signed "Power of Attorney" Form -- can be obtained directly from Virginia DMV website and required if you do not hold the title to the vehicle.
  • Notarized "Purchaser's Statement of Tax Exemption" if the vehicle titling falls within certain criteria, such as between family members. Otherwise you'd have to pay a 3% tax of at least $35.
  • Signed "Odometer Statement" between buyer and seller (or transferees)
  • Completed Application for Title and Registration (VSA 17A)
  • Proof of Address
  • Title or Registration Card from previous state and/or by previous owner
  • County Tax Sticker -- I was told this should be completed before titling the vehicle, the cost for Arlington county is $33
  • Current Insurance (discussed more in part 2)
It's a mind-boggling list of documentation to title and register the vehicle. After speaking with multiple DMV agents, I am told that both the titling and the registration can be performed on the same day -- provided all the necessary documentation is there. Some of the items listed are straightforward, but others are not so much. A few are specific to my case of transferring a vehicle not currently titled to me.

In my case, my parents (owners of the vehicle) must sign the "Power of Attorney" form that effectively cedes authority to me on the vehicle. This grants the ability to title the car in my name without them being present. An "Odometer Statement" also appears to be required, unless you fall one of the rare exemptions. A third item also needs to be completed -- if you do not wish to pay the $35 minimum vehicle sales tax-- called the "Purchaser's Statement of Tax Exemption". This document (only a single page) needs to be notarized.

Although titling and registering the vehicle can occur on the same day, this need not be the case. It makes sense to do both on the same day though. Titling involves the least of the documents listed, with only the (1) proof of address, (2) completed aforementioned forms, and (completed Application for Titling and Registration. Registering a vehicle requires the rest on the list, such as the insurance and county tax sticker. Total cost for the whole thing from beginning to end should be around $100 ($10 for title, $40 for registration, $16 for safety inspection, and $30 for emissions test) plus insurance -- which is very expensive in Virginia.

I'd say the process can be completed within a few (2-5 business days) if all the documents can be readily found. I just completed the Safety Inspection and tomorrow plan to finalize all matters related to insurance. On Wednesday morning, I will be going to the DMV to title and register my vehicle. Hope to not hit any snags...

Cuisine Fix: Eggs and Tomatoes (Stir Fry)

A traditional Chinese dish (at least in Northern China) is what is known as "Eggs and Tomatoes". This dish is incredibly simple as it requires only 3 ingredients, and takes about 5 minutes to prepare. While you might not be surprised to hear that it's one of my favorites to prepare, you will certainly be surprised that it is one of my favorites to eat also. I will honestly prefer to this to most "fancier" dishes you find in Chinese restaurants.

Only 3 ingredients!

As noted above, there are only 3 ingredients to prepare this dish --aside from something to serve with, like rice. The ingredients (as you can see from below) are: eggs, tomatoes, and garlic or onion. The proportion of eggs to tomatoes and vice versa varies according to individual tastes. For instance, if you like eggs, you might go on a 1-for-1 proportion of one egg for every tomato used; I like the 1-for-1, or sometimes even a little higher distribution (e.g. 5 eggs and 4 tomatoes). The photograph shows 5 scrambled eggs, 4 coarsely sliced tomatoes, and about 1/5 of a diced Vidalia onion. I prefer garlic but did not have it when I demoed. Of course you will also need oil and salt to complete the full ingredients spectrum.

Step 1 Completed (Scrambled Eggs Set Aside)

Here are the instructions to prepare this deliciousness:
  1. Scramble the eggs first -- scramble the eggs in the fry pan first (using oil and a pinch of salt), remove and set them aside for later.
  2. Add oil to the pan and begin to slowly fry the diced onions/sliced garlic. Do this until the onion/garlic is starting to slightly brown.
  3. Add the sliced tomatoes to the pan, and quickly mix everything together. Put on the lid (if available) and let it simmer for a minute. The goal is to see the tomatoes slowly breakdown.
  4. Add the scrambled eggs from Step 1 to the mix, along with a half a tablespoon of salt (again, depends on how salty you like it)
  5. Mix everything and let it simmer for 2 minutes.
  6. Remove from heat and serve.
Dish Completed

As you can see, it's a really easy and straightforward dish. The dish itself may not be much of a looker but, if you followed the instructions right, it should taste great. A key ingredient is salt -- the taste is arguably enhanced the more salt you put in. I normally serve with rice, and maybe a few slices of meat (e.g. sausage as shown below).