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).

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Last night I went to watch the newly released film Captain America: The First Avenger with some friends. This was a newly released by Marvel Studios based on their "Avengers" universe -- with a planned film for all characters thus far portrayed (e.g. Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor). I am not much a comic book person, but I generally like movies based on comics. Maybe it is because this type of movie have a foundation to build from, instead of having to create a completely new universe. The movie itself, Captain America: The First Avenger, turned out to be a good movie. I would still rank X-Men: First Class as the best movie I've seen (so far) this summer, but this one should be critiqued on its own merits.

For those new to the Captain America series (like myself), it is based on the character of...Captain America. Captain America is the namesake for Steve Rogers, a "scrawny" kid from Brooklyn who desires to enlist in the Army but is hindered from his physical limitations. Unlike the Captain America he would become, Rogers is short, skinny, and fraught with health problems. But he has intelligence and heart, two traits that would be critical in his selection to be genetically transformed into Captain America by an augmentation serum. Similar to Batman, Captain America has no superpowers outside of his genetic enhancements that supposedly make him the model of "human perfection" -- at least physically. For example, the serum-imbued Rogers is capable of sprinting for absurd amounts of time, lift incredible weights, and has photographic memory. His trusty weapon is the vibranium-built round shield, that is virtually indestructible (aka adamantium) yet light enough to throw around like a boomerang.

The movie opens in the present-day, as some excavators come across a frozen underground temple in a tundra environment. Unless you are extremely alert or read spoilers ahead of time, this scene does not make sense until the very end. One excavator digs up what obviously is the shield of Captain America, and elects to phone the "Colonel". We are thereafter immersed in a flashback in World War II. Apparently the Allied forces are winning the war against the Nazis but, known only to a select few, the Nazis have been fragmented into two groups: the traditional swastika-bearers, and a group known as "Hydra". The latter is commanded by the person who will become the Red Skull. We are shown the Red Skull obtaining Odin's cube and how Steve Rogers becomes Captain America. [I am skimping on the plot summary now because it's not important to the review.]

The first thing I liked about this movie was the characterization of Steve Rogers. Rogers is bullied by others and told multiple times that he called enlist, yet he is persevering and refuses to take "no" for an answer. Although he is physically limited by height and (lack of) muscle mass, he is to be very analytical (in the scene where he takes the flag from the pole, a-la Mulan) and selfless (in the scene of the mock grenade). These are qualities that are more important than brute strength alone. Rogers is also socially awkward throughout the movie: even after getting a physical upgrade to Captain America, he seldom flirts with women and focuses his attention on Agent Peggy Carter (a solid choice btw...). I like how the directors stayed consistent with their depiction of the serum's effects -- it results in only physical changes. Bottom line is, I think we can all identify with the pre-transformation Steve Rogers.

Another positive development in the movie was the blossoming relationship between Agent Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers. While the initial attraction is obvious, one would think one would jump the other after Rogers becomes Captain America. But they are able to deepen their work relationship and do not outwardly state their feelings for each other until the end. Frankly, I was saddened that there was only a single kiss before they parted ways. If the point was to portray the tragedy of their relationship, the directors have done very well.

On the other hand, I found it incredulous that "Hydra" was overcome so easily by a band of merry-men led by Captain America. "Hyda" had much superior technology (e.g. disintegration guns and mammoth tanks) but were taken down by Captain America's team. This did not make much sense -- except perhaps by the fact that their leader, Red Skull, was a maniac. For example, in the prison outbreak scene, the Allied prisoners manage to get their hands on Hydra weaponry quickly and use them effortlessly. Instead of fighting back, Red Skull elects to put the factory in self-destruct. I think the movie could have been more suspenseful had we been shown a demonstration of Hydra's power instead of simple allusions. In other words, Hydra is the typical "all bark, no bite" kind of bad guys.

Overall, Captain America: The First Avenger seem to have just the right amount of amount of action vs plot development. Action scenes were very good, even if Captain America did seem to channel his inner Achilles (e.g. Brad Pitt in Troy) a bit too much. I suppose the serum also boosts your senses to Spiderman-like levels? The humor contained also seemed just right: the audience I was part of laughed on the right occasions. Acting was, needless to say, very solid too. I like all the cast, especially the traditional obscenities-spewing American commander and the foxy romantic interest for the protagonist.

It's a 8/10 in my book.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

End of the Year (Performance) Review

A couple of days ago, I had my year end review with the company I work for. This is part of the standard procedure for working professionals in the United States (and the rest of the world?), regardless of private or public affiliation. As a recent joinee to this spectacle, I thought it would be useful/helpful to share my experiences on this matter.

In most cases (depending on the size and industry), there are two of these so-called "performance reviews" in any given year. Sometimes there can be even more than two if the position/industry requires it, such as an account executive position. Private companies tend to have these scheduled midway through the fiscal year and at the end of the fiscal year. A fiscal year is different from a calendar as it is unique to each company: some companies can stick with the calendar year (January to December), or others (like mine) have a July to June schedule. For example, fiscal year 2011 just ended for my company and we are currently on fiscal year 2012.

I actually had a performance review back in mid-March. But because I had just joined the company, there was not much to discuss about. My manager and I had a brief, 10-minute conversation of what lies ahead and what I needed to learn. This time around, however, the review process was more thorough and involved a lengthier exchange. The process itself begins at my company when you complete a self-assessment and ask designated others (by your manager) to complete peer reviews for you. I had three peer reviewers and submitted one peer review for someone else (my manager of all people). After the preliminary assessment is done, my manager schedules a time to sit down and talk about my performance one-on-one.

The discussion process was surprisingly light my performance and heavy on the future goals. I suppose this is because we are goal-setting for the next fiscal year. It started with my manager taking the lead and discussing what others said of my work -- which was very positive. Then he gave me a brief overview of the process from there: his vision for my role on the team and how this relates to my own. I recall talking mostly about technical skills to acquire and better familiarizing with the business. My questions were mainly on the subject of having more work to do -- admittedly I do not much responsibilities at the moment. We ended the performance review by making plans for another meeting in a few weeks. The reason for latter is that we did not discuss compensation (e.g. promotion, salary increases, bonus) in this round, because of changes in the performance review structure.

As it is often the case, I have a few words of advice on the process of being reviewed:
  1. Do not be nervous. Unless you screwed up royally and your company is not "under water" (financial trouble), then you have no reason to be worried about. I was kind of nervous during my performance review, which turned out to be unfounded upon. The key is to have the work to show for what you have done.
  2. Focus on the future. While the words "performance review" suggests a recap of the last year, the main point is actually begin plans for the next year. Think about what you want to accomplish in the next year, particularly in terms of how it will help your team and your manager. It would good to visualize your role in the company in a longer period (2-4 years?).
  3. Speak kindly for others. This may seem like a no-brainer, but the urge to write negatively of those who wronged you can be very strong. You have to resist the urge at all times. You must realize that the position of strength (e.g. write a review for someone else) is only temporary, and there could be a major fallout if someone finds out you've reviewed them negatively. Oftentimes everyone receives a copy of their peer reviews. It's a time to forgive any misgivings and portray the other person in positive light.

Budget Discussion -- Part 4 "Savings Rate"

It's been a while since I discussed anything related to personal finance. Part of the reason is that my own budget management has been in flux, with all the moving expenses and everything. For instance, I will have to be changing the license plates on my car soon (which will cost a pretty penny). But I thought I'd share an important topic in this post related to personal finance: savings and savings rate.

At a time where unemployment rates is increasing and government support programs like Social Security and Medicare are facing cuts, personal savings is extremely important to have financial stability. This is particularly relevant for young professionals, who are nowhere near the age nor the particular situation that warrant applying for government assistance. Nor should you consider government assistance programs such as food stamps as anything but the last resort -- when all other venues for financial support have been exhausted. It is incredibly damaging to own's self-esteem and psyche to receive government aid.

So where do we begin? I am not going to espouse anything along the lines of a recommended amount you should be saving per month. Savings are highly subjective: depending on your spending patterns and any situations that might arise. Therefore, throwing a number out there isn't helpful -- more so as everyone likely has different income levels. But for starters, saving something is better than saving nothing. I have a difficult understanding people who insist on spending every last dollar they earn in the form of end-of-the-month splurges. One should not live a life rife with worries over finances, yet it does not make sense to save nothing.

Working with the premise that we ought to save something, I believe the next step to sound fiscal management is to consider your paycheck (as opposed to the wage rate) in percentages. In other words, start to think your spending as percentages of your paycheck. Case in point: if you earn $2,000 per month and pay $500 for rent, then rent is 25% of your personal revenue. This way, it is much easier to practice budget management by limiting a certain category (e.g. food) to a particular percentage. We can also better establish gauge the amount of every paycheck we can be saving -- by transforming into a percentage.

To better illustrate my point, I will provide a mock example of the revenues vs expenses for an individual on a monthly basis:
  • Income (in-your-pocket) -- $2,000 per month
  • Housing -- $500 per month (or 25% of income)
  • Food -- $400 per month (or 20% of income)
  • Transportation -- $100 per month (or 5% of income)
  • Entertainment-- $400 per month (or 20% of income)
From the above example, one can see that if the planned budget holds, then this individual will have $600 left to spend. Percentage-wise, this is 30% (100-25-20-5-20), which is a phenomenal savings rate. More realistically, a savings rate would probably be between 10-20% due to individual preferences (e.g. housing probably is 30-40% of income). This is still very good if you can hold to it. The best part of thinking expenses as percentages of income is the leeway it provides for future tinkering. It allows someone to take a look at where income is being spent on and adjust if a certain category is taking up too high a percentage.

Personally, I have an abnormal savings rate of (considerably) more than 30%. This may be shocking but it's less surprising if you consider the spending patterns and quirks (e.g. shopping on Craigslist) discussed before. Cooking and packing lunches are also very helpful to bring down the percentage allocated to food costs.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Step Up to the Plate, Google Nexus 3 Phone

My trusty source of gadget information, Engadget, post an article early today announcing the soon-to-be arrival of the Samsung Nexus S smartphone on AT&T network on July 24th. There is nothing exciting about this announcement. When it was first released on Sprint last December, the Nexus S was an impressive piece of smartphone hardware. It boasted the newest version of Android OS, along with the impressive specifications of a 1Ghz processor and plenty of memory. But today, it has been outclassed by the flood of dual-core smartphones like the Motorola Atrix flooding the market.

All hail to the Neximus Prime!

Yet I picked up some interesting rumors in the comments section. A few people joked how the need to get the Nexus S when its iteration was just around the corner. As any good tech junkie would, I looked into the rumor and voila, they are true. An announcement has not been made yet, but all signs point to a release of the Samsung Nexus S Prime (going a little heavy on the Transformers theme, eh?). There is no fixed date, only an estimated of late 2011. The upcoming device is rumored to run on the next stage of Android development (2.4, Ice Cream Sandwich), packing a Super AMOLED HD display and a possible Tegra 3 processor. Pretty impressive specs.

Part of the reason I am writing about the Nexus S Prime is out of frustration about the Samsung Galaxy S II. As noted previously, there is no indication when the superphone will be arriving here in the United States. It seems to have arrived in every other country already. (What are you doing, Verizon and AT&T?) I refuse to believe the suggestions that it will arrive statewide in August until I see the device. Looks like I may forsake one Samsung smartphone for another eh? Good job Samsung, least you know you'll make money from me...the only question is, when?

Ron Paul for President!

My disdain for Barrack Obama as our President is not something I've hidden from you readers. If it's not already obvious posts such as this or this, then you know now. He seems to be a genuinely good guy based on his personal demeanor and hobbies, but unfit to become the president of a nation. For one, he is spineless when it comes to matters of his own party -- and it often appears he does not have a clue of how to run a country. Obama's 2008 campaign moniker of "Change" has not been realized at all. Instead, we have gone backwards as the country has fallen deeper in debt and unemployment levels at decades-high. Enough of Obama. Time for a breathe of fresh air.

Into this backdrop comes, in my humble opinion, the worthiest candidate thus far declaring his intention to run for the presidency. His name is Ron Paul, a Republican state representative from Texas, who has served many terms in Congress and is well known for his libertarian beliefs. I actually supported him in 2008 -- until his defeat to John McCain in the Republican primaries. but whereas in 2008 I could only provide moral support, this time around, I intend to support him with my vote and (possibly) with campaign contribution.

So why do I like Ron Paul? There are a number of reasons:
  1. Consistency. In an era where politicians flip flop on issues faster than the time it took me to type this sentence, Ron Paul is a breath of fresh air. He is part of a minority in Congress who stays true to his platform and vote accordingly. The Ron Paul you see today isn't much different from the one that first appeared 20 years ago.
  2. Experience. With age comes experience, something very important in the political arena. If you are naive (e.g. Obama), then others will manipulate you or it will be difficult to build consensus. Ron Paul is old. His age may be a bit worrying, but Ronald Reagan was older when he was first elected.
  3. Honesty and frankness. This one may be the biggest reason I like Ron Paul. He is a straight shooter who is not afraid to tell the truth. His frankness may not always be well taken (e.g. when he suggested that September 11 is a result of American imperialism), but we must learn to live in reality. I would like to see a president who can be honest with the country about its issues, and work to resolve them.
  4. Platform/Economics. Ron Paul has demonstrated a very high level of economics understanding, particularly in the neo-classical tradition (Austrian school is neo-classical). As an economist myself, I can identify with this. More importantly, his goal would be to implement the ideals of libertarianism such as small government and privitalization. However, I think a lot of people inflate the amount of economics Ron Paul really understands -- he is a doctor too, after all. His statements about the gold standard are not 100% correct from a economic perspective. But he also has a great deal of common sense, which is definitely a good thing for running a country.

Based on what I have read in the news article comments and blogs, a lot of people share my hope for Ron Paul's election. But the snag in the path is winning the Republican primary in order to become anointed as the GOP's challenger to Obama. And herein lies the snag: in a national election between Obama against Ron Paul, the latter would win in a landslide. Yet the political structure is not designed this way -- each GOP candidate must first fight off other candidates in local elections for registered Republicans. These elections are "local" because they take place in only specific states. To make matters worse, those inclined to vote for Ron Paul are likely not registered Republicans (e.g. moderates). This means Ron Paul's chances are entirely to how his message and platform targets a niche segment of the voting population.

I am hopeful that Ron Paul can win the Republican primary. In 2008, he lost due to a lack of name recognition and ostracization by the mainstream media. The latter looks to remain --which is perplexing, as Ron Paul is for deregulation-- but more people know his name know. More importantly, there is tremendous frustration with the direction the country is headed. Obama shouldn't shoulder all the blame for this country's woes on debt and unemployment, but shoulder a considerable portion of it. Looking back at Obama's track record, I am very disappointed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Personal Anecdotes on Optimism

For those who do not know (aka 99.9% of you readers), I am a very optimistic person. It's been a trait I have had for many years, at least since mid-way through high school. This sense of optimism, or having profound hope and positive thinking for the future, can be found in every aspect of my life -- in relationships, in career, and in family. The funny thing is, I cannot pinpoint the origins of this optimism.

Does this glass look half-empty or half-full?

What I can do is share with you 3 personal stories to illustrate my optimistic self. This hopefulness does not always serve me well, but I'd say the good results overshadow the bad. One thing that will become obvious is that I am more optimism than the average person; as a dear friend kindly shared today, mine borders on idealism.
  1. The first comes from something I realized yesterday while driving to a church event. When I attend church or visit Baltimore, my preferred travel path is to take I-295N for as long as possible. This wouldn't be a problem if I-295N was not often congested with traffic, which is particularly bad during rush hour (go figure). One solution is to transfer onto I-95N at its intersection with I-295: I-95 is broader, better paved, but slightly longer. As evidence for my optimism, I never transfer onto I-95N...even when it is quite obvious I-295 is heavily congested. Tens of such occasions have arisen and, paradoxically, I stuck to I-295N in every single one. In my mind, I always believe that the congestion will clear up --even when real-life experiences clearly debunk this belief.
  2. The second is born of a conversation I had with a friend. We were talking about our perspective on personal relationships, and used the analogy of cups being half empty vs half full. I made the honest admission that I always regarded half-empty cups as half-full and oftentimes even 1/3 full cups as half-full. I then made the (still truthful) declaration that even if there is only a single drop of liquid in the cup, I may consider it to be half-full. At this my friend refuted that "what if there is no cup?" I replied "there is always a cup".
  3. Last but not least, I think the single greatest example of my optimism is in my regard for Mandy. There clearly is little factual evidence and lots of conjurations in my posts about her. Sometimes I realize I am being delusional (which is very bad) but I never really stop believing in a bright future -- even while saying that I will.
So there you have it, a few illustrations of my optimism. I firmly believe that optimism is better than its opposite: pessimism. And I hope you are optimistic too.

UPDATE (07-23-2011)
After just watching an episode of Scrubs (season 3, episode 3?), another anecdote of optimism just came to mind. The analogy is that of a hot air balloon: the balloon is anchored to the ground but has a tendency to float up into the air. When disappointments happen, the hot air balloon is punctured and falls back onto the ground. Yet over time the puncture is repaired and the hot air balloon takes flight once more. The point is the balloon will float as long as there is someone willing to repair the puncture and fill the balloon with (hot) air once more. The anchor represents reality -- if you cut the anchor, then the balloon will float away (into oblivion).

On a different line of thought, one must also try and strive to the best possible. This is like playing basketball -- you have to take a lot of shots, and you are bound to miss a few. But if you become discouraged and fear missing shots, then you will not score any points. Even the best shooters recognize that they will miss sometimes. But practice makes it better.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

(Yet Another) Blog Update

[This will be a short status update as I am still working on posting more. Today's triple posts is an outlier to the norm.]

The biggest change over the past few weeks to this blog is the decreased number of technology-related posts. While the lack of exciting news was a factor, this change was mainly the result of a personal decision. I realized that the 50-plus views enjoyed before (now this is about ~25 a day) is attributable to the various "tech news" I had been blogging about. It seems a lot of people were coming across my blog when searching for more information on the tech announcements -- and I suspect they were not interested to read my thoughts/opinions. More readership is nice, but I do not want to compromise the purpose and quality of this blog for just that.

I have been making an attempt to write more about the young professional life, and reflecting on my own experiences to advise others. Hopefully this will become the main focus of this blog for the future. All the other topics (e.g. cuisine, personal finance) serve mainly to entertain.

Apple 2011 Q3 Earnings

It's that time of the year! Companies, especially technology ones, are releasing their quarterly earnings statements. One of the most awaited ones in recent years has been Apple's and its Q3 2011 earnings do not disappoint at all (perhaps only for competitors).

Apple's Q3 2011 earnings are its best ever, with revenue totaling $28.57 billion -- of which $7.31 billion is profit. Not sure where this ranks the company in total revenue, but these figures have to Apple within the elites. A brief breakdown of the revenue sources reveal something we already known for a while: most of the revenue come from hardware sales. The Apple juggernaut sold 20.34 million iPhones, 9.25 million iPads, and 3.95 million Macs. These are extremely impressive figures, with which no other hardware manufacturer can compete against (especially when you factor in the diversity, e.g. Samsung/HTC may ship more phones, but nowhere near the number of tablets). Even the slight blip in the earnings statement was expected: a decrease of iPod Touches from 9.41 million to 7.54 million.

While I am no fan of its products, I am a fan of Apple's sheer business savvy-ness as measured by the loyalty of its massive customer base. The ecosystem Apple built, while decried (rightfully so) by critics for how closed it is, looks to be sustaining the company's revenue growth. Customers who are lured into a single Apple product will ultimately buy other Apple products too. Case in point: my roommate started off with an iMac, but now owns a MacBook, an iPhone, and an iPad.

Well done Apple, Jobs well done (couldn't resist). I may even break my self-imposed embargo on your products by buying the iPad 3...if you release it soon.

Bearish Financial Markets = Time to Jump In?

It's been a while since I have shared my (valued?) thoughts about the financial markets. The reason for this is better explained by the bearishness of the markets, rather than my lack of interest. After all, I have invested a considerable portion of my liquidity into certain companies. But I will also admit that it has been tough looking at the market movements over the past couple of months -- wild fluctuations with a generally downward spiral.

The writing of this post coincides with a visit yesterday to my bank, in order to make a deposit I received. My bank's tellers (very nice people) have been attempting to convince me to open a savings account from the day I opened my checking account 6 months ago. I haven't opened a savings account for three reasons: (1) pitiful interest rates, (2) possibility of buying a house, and (3) possibility of investing more into stocks. Now, the first reason remains and I do not think I will be taking up reason two unless something really good comes up. I have been muting on the third reason due to the inactivity of the financial market. Yet I realized moments ago that right now may be a good time to jump in.

The stock market (Dow Jones, Nastaq alike) have been acting crazy for most of the summer. And I do not mean "crazy" in a good way at all -- nor am I glad that a former prediction turned out to be correct. Reasons for its melancholic activity can be attributed first to the slow disintegration of the EU's monetary stability, and now because of the possibility the U.S. will default on its debt. Both are worrying developments with a very real probability of the worst becoming realized. The EU and its single currency system, in spite of looking good on paper, has resulted in all member states tying economic stability to one another. This means that a domino effect -- the economic downfall of one country, say, Italy-- can drag the entire EU bloc into economic hardship. For the U.S.'s debt default problem, the fear is that the current political standoff between Republicans and Democrats will not be resolved in time. Neither party is willing to suck it up for the good of the country.

So where does that put me? Well, I am unsure about how to invest the savings I've been accumulating for the past many months. The only certainty I have it that I need to find elsewhere to park it than my checking account -- which pays an even more pitiful interest rate than the savings one. Problem is, the highest interest rate I can get for a savings account is 2% -- which is at least 3% less than real inflation. This leaves the other viable alternative as jumping back into the stock market. Yet this triggers another question: where or who to invest in?

There are a few options:
  1. An obvious course of action is to bolster my current positions, namely in AMD and in Ford (GE grows too slow). AMD is the more attractive option at the moment: not only did its stock price jump up almost 6% today, but the fortunes of its main rival, NVIDIA, has been faltering. (Ford Motor has actually been slowly sinking lately.) But I hesitate to strengthen my hand in AMD further due to a number of concerns. The first is that the microprocessor market may be moving away from x86 architecture in the future and into ARM architecture. I would use Microsoft's demonstration of its Windows 8 OS running on ARM as the evidence to support this; furthermore, the current disparity between processing power is not an unbridgeable gap. Another is the persistent debt-to-asset ratio of AMD -- it's still too high a number.
  2. Buy Pepco Holdings. I've been eyeing this stock for almost a year now, namely because of the high dividends the company likes to pay out. It seems stable, with a steadily cashflow, and even possibility of being acquired by a bigger rival (lots of consolidation in this industry). BUT, its stock price has been holding steady, which makes it a GE-clone.
  3. Buy Nokia. If you've been reading my posts on "tech news", you'd realize that I am a big fan of Nokia. I have not been thinking of owning its plummeting stock...until I read this article today. The author sounds overly optimistic, but I understand the stated optimism. The CEO sounds like a complete idiot when making statements like this though. More research is needed but, for now, it looks promising.
  4. Buy Towers Watson. A very close friend of mine works for this consulting company, which was formed last year out of a merger between two competitors. It appears to be a solid company based on my friend's anecdotes and, if synergy means anything to you, I anticipate an upward movement of its stock price.
There you have it, the options have been documented. Hard part is to decide which one to take -- as I do not have the capital/audacity to try more than one. I am going to think about this for the next couple of days...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Story of Jonah

This past weekend, my church held its annual summer conference. The theme of the conference was on "calling", as in being "called" by God for a purpose or mission. One of the pastors gave a sermon on the book of Jonah in the Old Testament, which made me remember how much I liked the story of Jonah. This post is a reflection of this affinity..

The book of Jonah revolves the prophet of the same name, who is called by God to the city of Nineveh to proclaim the word of God and call its citizens to repentance. Failure to repent will result in their destruction. Comically, the prophet Jonah does not like the mission he receives and attempts to flee from his duties. This results in him being famously swallowed up by a whale, an entire city in sackcloth and ashes (including animals), and an angry diatribe from the prophet toward the Lord. All the aforementioned are unique to the book of Jonah. Needless to say, of all the books of the Old Testament, Jonah's story is perhaps the most entertaining one.

First off, how could one reasonably expect to escape God, the Creator of the world and ruler of Heaven, by fleeing? Jonah did, or at least tried as hard as possible to run away. The prophet simply did not want to travel to Nineveh and deliver the warning God had for them. It's a complete farce and, as expected, God "catches up" to Jonah and persuades him to fulfill his calling. The interesting thing to point out is that, despite half-heartedness from Jonah in delivering the message, the whole city of Nineveh quickly responds in repentance. Perhaps this is a strong indication that calling is more important than the caller. Furthermore, the final exchange between God and Jonah is also farcical -- Jonah suggests that he understands God's intention all along and whines that his efforts were unnecessary. Jonah obviously has never heard of Job.

Back in college, I took a course on the Old Testament. The professor was a rabbi who definitely knew her (strange, right?) ins and outs of the texts. I had known of the book of Jonah at that point, and therefore wrote an entire essay analyzing the merits and legitimacy of the book itself. Below are certain excerpts I copied from the essay:
  • Various pieces of evidence lend legitimacy to the book of Jonah as biblical text, and to the individual of Jonah as a true prophet. The presence of themes such as universalism, repentance to God, and God’s compassion echoes biblical traditions found in other prior books, such as the book of Isaiah. As exemplified in Isaiah 43:7, the God (Yahweh) worshiped by the Israelites is proclaimed to be same deity worshiped by other peoples. “Everyone” including foreigners and eunuchs are called to partake in God’s “glory”. In calling the inhabitants of Nineveh to repent to “his” God, Jonah expresses the tradition of universalism. God’s own words appear to uphold this tradition at the end of Jonah, when He rhetorically asks Jonah “should I not be concerned about Nineveh?” (Jonah 4:9). Biblical Schlar John Collins notes that the book of Amos also reflects universalism in the prophet’s final vision, which suggests that “Israelites are not favored by God, but that God lords over all people and is responsible for everything that happens” (158).
  • The story of Jonah also depicts a God whose character is consistent with what is revealed to other prophets. God is active and intervening throughout the story, from sending a storm to conversing with Jonah. Just as the Elijah and Elisha narratives contain extraordinary events, like ravens providing bread and meat for the prophet (1 Kings 17:6), so does the book of Jonah, as when the fish “provides transportation” for the prophet and the bush “give[s] shade over [Jonah’s] head, to save him from his discomfort” (Jonah 4:6). Perhaps the best indication of God’s character is His great compassion for the Ninevites. God first offers the opportunity for the Ninevites to repent for their sins –through sending a prophet to deliver the message. Subsequently He relents in the destruction of the city.
  • Jonah is shown to be a very self-centered prophet, even after God offers him a second chance to do God’s work. He expresses little concern for the lives of the Ninevites. Instead, he cares much more for his own reputation and the possibility of being labeled a “false prophet”. This is first evidenced by his terse “cry” to the Ninevites to repent, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). The terseness of Jonah’s calling may imply of his desire to see the people of Nineveh continue leading their sinful lives, which would ultimately result in their destruction. His selfish desire contrasts the often lengthy and repetitive preaching by other prophets for the people to change their away –examples by Joel and Jeremiah have already been noted. In addition, there is no reference in the narrative to Jonah himself partaking in the repentance rituals. The impassiveness of Jonah is odd in the tradition where prophets were seemingly the first to take action: the prophet Isaiah “walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia” (Isaiah 20:3), while Ezekiel laid on his side for 390 days and ate food baked “on human dung” (Ezekiel 4).
  • Throughout Jonah’s interactions with God, examples of his reverence of God are rarely found. His actions and speech towards God contrast with attitudes of adoration and devotion as one expects in response. This is epitomized by the revered reaction towards God by the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. In contrast to Jonah’s displeasure at God’s work, Isaiah proclaims his unworthiness to stand in His presence. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6:5). Ezekiel similarly falls on his face and is “stunned for seven days” following his divine encounter. Isaiah and Ezekiel are both deeply afraid of God’s holiness, which is evidently a fear not shared by Jonah. Aside from referring to God as “Lord” and offering a prayer, Jonah appears to treat God casually –as one treats a human acquaintance. He attempts to run away, becomes angry and, most significantly, believes he can predict God’s character and actions. This sense of arrogance is exemplified by his question “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?” (Jonah 4:2). Unlike other prophets, Jonah thinks he has God “figured out”.

I thought the conclusion to this essay was very written and, because it encompasses the purposes of this blog post, I thought I would end with them:

Contrary to popular perception, Jonah is not the main character of the narrative. The story is primarily about God and only secondary about the prophet, since God is the protagonist active in on every occasion. God is the one who: calls Jonah, sends a storm, provides a fish to rescue Jonah, judges Nineveh, and teaches Jonah about His character; His presence is all-encompassing. In the book of Jonah, God is shown to be a personal God. Jonah himself can be interpreted as merely a foil to highlight God’s power and character. As previously shown, the prophet Jonah possesses numerous personal flaws such as deep-seated selfishness and lacking compassion.

The last chapter of the book of Jonah indicates the main theme of the story: God’s boundless compassion. His compassion is available for everyone, regardless of nationality or even former belief. All God requires is repentance from sin, and people can be assured that He will relent when they repent. Like many of the other prophets, Jonah’s calling for the Ninevites to repent implies a need of Israel to repent for her sins. One can argue that the quickness and willingness of Nineveh’s response represents a model for Jerusalem. But God’s mercy sometimes can become the basis for pride and prejudice –which is evident by Jonah’s attitude toward the Ninevites. When Jonah’s selfish concern for the plant (Jonah 4:8) is compared to God’s concern for Nineveh, the sheer absurdity of the comparison testifies of the extent of God’s compassion. God is not limited to humans; He is also compassionate towards animals (Jonah 4:11).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Self-Inception (Mandy)

I am an idiot. That is a fact. This is evident in my predisposition toward the lovely lady named Mandy, with whom I am (hopelessly) attracted to. I have written about her in various posts -- posts summarizing our current situation and outlining steps to take in the future. For repeat readers, I hope my posts on the matter have been more about entertaining and less about didactic-ness...because I am about to re-reevaluate my situation with her.

There are many reasons I consider myself an idiot in relation to my relationship (or lack thereof) with Mandy. The biggest is perhaps the unwillingness to let go and just move forward -- which I suppose makes Westlife's song more relevant than ever. I often make intentions to minimize my thoughts or hopes related to her, but rarely act on them. It's the classic "intention without commitment", or "talk the talk but can't walk the walk". Part of this stems from the fact that she is absolutely gorgeous; I admitted to a confidant last night that, honestly, I consider to be the most beautiful girl in the whole world. Therefore, it makes is very difficult to forget about her, as the mere sight of her compels me to throw my plans of abandonment to the winds and jump back into the foolish aspirations of being with her, etc. In other words, she is what I consider to be the epitome of the definition of "eye candy" -- even more so as I know she has the persona to back up such a claim.

I think a good analogy for what I have been trying/failing to do is found in Christopher Nolan's film "Inception". The movie was very good, but I like it more for the ideas about dreaming and the subconscious discussed. One such idea is the act of performing an inception: planting an idea into someone's mind, which leads this person to act according to the planter's schemes. In my situation, I have been intending to perform inception on myself by planting the idea that my relationship with Mandy is over and now it is time to move forward. Yet this obviously has not worked. While part of the problem is the lack of commitment (discussed in greater detail later) to execute, I think the bigger part could be underestimating the difficulty of this so-called "self-inception". It's one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted. Period. It's probably harder by the reluctance to completely jump ship. Have you ever attempted to destroy a hope or dream of yours? Organically (e.g. voluntarily), it is excruciating at best.

My lack of commitment to implementing my (abandonment) plans is born of reluctance. As my confidant so helpfully pointed out, I have not been willing to follow through with moving forward with Mandy. In reality, when I have been taking a step forward, I seem to immediately take two steps back -- and the result isn't pretty at all. What can I do from this point on? I believe the first step is to repeating to myself the reality of the situation: I am powerless to influence her at all and, after clearly (albeit awkwardly) expressing my affections, there is nothing to do besides wait and hope for her to come around. In the words of Stephen Covey, the famed author of the book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" (a blog post exclusively on this is coming), Mandy is outside of my "circle of influence". Realization of this is very important, because it persuades us to not waste time trying to influence something that we cannot really influence. I am still working on step two...

Frankly, I have been hoping to "get coffee" with Mandy for the past couple of months. The purpose of such a meeting would simply to ask her: WHY NOT ME? My rationale for asking such a question isn't as foolish (though it still is) as you may think. At the heart of it, I simply want to understand what about me repels her and whether I can ameliorate any personal shortcomings. Things like looks, height, and profession, I will not be able to change; but if it is behavior-based, then that is very much possible. I picture this as being a comical meeting if it ever happened --yet could be instrumental in solidifying my commitment to move forward (after all, I can't change my looks or height). Just to be clear, my confidant is very much against this course of action.

[I am tired and now going to sleep. This blog post was originally intended to be longer, but I have run out of things to say. It's essentially a stream of consciousness type of a post...]

Friday, July 15, 2011

Thoughts on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II

Let me be upfront and state that is not a movie review, nor review of any sort. You can find plenty of those all over the internet -- or being told by others. I just wanted to take the opportunity provided by the fervor surrounding the release of the last Harry Potter film (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2) to reflect on the entire series, and my past experiences with it.

In more ways than one, JK Rowling's epic is special to me. For one, I am part of the generation who grew up with Harry Potter: we are approximately of the same age and, more importantly, shared the same school year. The effect of Harry Potter with my life story is further highlighted by the fact that I lived more than 3 years in England (Great Britain). In those 3 years, from 1999 to 2002, I witnessed the meteoric rise of Harry Potter from a popular children's book into a cultural and global icon. Of course I became a huge fan, along with many of my friends. It is incredibly nostalgic, therefore, to see the (final?) conclusion of the series. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is the last film made on Rowling's now-timeless classic.

Two memories in particular come to mind, when I look back now on my past experiences with Harry Potter. The first occurred in the sixth grade, a few months after I arrived in England from Portugal. By this time (winter of 1999), the fourth book in the series (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) had already been released -- which I remember because I recall a classmate reading it during our "reading periods" in school. The series had already gained considerable traction in England but, using myself as an example, it had yet spread to other countries. The memory involved my inquiry about what Harry Potter was/is to the teacher, which was overheard by my classmates -- who thereafter wore very incredulous looks. It was obvious they could not believe what they just heard, that someone did not know who Harry Potter was! I learned quickly and became an addict of the books, but this specific memory remained.

The second memory follows the release of the first Harry Potter film (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone). I recall that there was considerable craze, especially in schools, about going to watch the newly released film. Since I had become a "Harry Potter convert", I schemed with a friend to go watch the film. Fortunately his parents were able to take us, and I remember we were extremely excited. Lines were long -- for the showing after ours, the line went around an entire block! But it was not a positive experience. As shared by others at the time, I had been disappointed by the movie's shallowness and the general unimpressiveness of the special effects use ( to be fair, this was 1999). I have since singled out the Nimbus Two Thousand, the greatest broom for half of the epic, to resemble some old stick. I suppose my experience supports an old adage: movies rarely do justice to the books they are based on. For better or for worse, I had since refused to watch any of the subsequent movie releases of Harry Potter.

The fact as it currently stands is that I have no intention to watch this final movie. I heard it's good, but I feel that many viewers are watching it for the reasons similar to those expressed above (e.g. sentimental).

This last one should be better than the previous ones, as Time Warner had (wisely) split the final book into two separate movies. If it did not seem outright greedy, every book should have been split into two movies each. The overall continuity would suffer, but I believe the result experience would more than justify such an action. In simple economic terms, the elasticity of demand for Harry Potter films is relatively inelastic -- meaning the population of viewers is pretty much the same regardless. Once a Potter fan, always a Potter fan. But carrying out my vision is a logistical nightmare: it would span at least a decade, and require the involvement of all important actors/actresses to come to fruition.