Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Monday, October 17, 2011

I saw quite a few Guy Fawkes masks this morning, and, I will admit -- especially as a fan of "V for Vendetta," and, one who enjoys the IDEA of rebellion, marching against the Man, whoever that may be. (I'm the fucking man, and you're the fucking man as well?)

And, yet, I suppose I am "moderate" in my views on banking. It makes the world go round, right?

I have found myself in a number of conversations about banking of late. Yours truly has one foot solidly planted in the middle class, but another which, if feet had memories, would remember what it is like to borrow money to pay rent.

The below was my response to a discussion about the matter, and I thought I'd save it here.

This is where it comes down to a matter of politics and philosophy, I suppose.

"Greed" is a funny thing. I think what people are concerned about is that banking is very good business, and makes a lot of people a great deal of money -- but by and large the people who make money through banking already have a great deal of it.

Of the great deal of money to be made in the banking sector, a fairly modest amount of it is in the simple retail banking section as is traditionally explained -- that is, taking in money on deposit and lending it out at interest.

To increase profitability of retail banking, corporate banks like BofA raise a bunch of money through fees. New legislation has curtailed the old fees, which tended to be "under the hood," if you will -- such as the old way of doing overdraft fees, or, over-the-limit fees on a credit card. The new ones are more overt, like the debit card fee, or, account maintenance fees / annual membership fees for credit cards.

Yes, coporations are people, as we've recently heard, but some people object to the transfer regime from lower-income folks to those with higher incomes, and, especially, with higher wealth.

The first two quintiles of income, as bank consumers, especially in the previous era, paid money for the services they received. The higher income / wealth folks largely received money for keeping their money with the bank -- and of course the highest compensated employees of those banks also earned lots.

I'd suspect most of those mid-to-lower income folks, if asked up front if they'd like to pay for their bank account with, for instance, $150 annually in fees, they might have demurred. Since they did not expect to pay them on the "free account," this was easier, and the fees snuck up on them when they fell foul of the fine print.

Now that the fees, of, say, $8 per month for the account and $5 per month for the debit card, are out in the open, many are electing to flee to the relative respite of credit unions -- which still work to earn money for stakeholders, but, do not have to be concerned with nondepositor shareholders, large executive salaries, or, indeed, taxes on their profits. This last is an oft-forgotten cost advantage of credit unions with respect to retail banks.

I do not fault for-profit banks for charging for their services, but I believe the way that they were previously collected was and still disingenuous.

Note: I agree with recent changes, like the Fed's banning of overdraft fees without preauthorization, even though these changes cost me money. I read the fine print. I didn't pay a dime in these overdraft charges, credit card overlimit fees, what have you. Instead, I reaped the rewards of cashback bonus debit and credit programs, even though those programs were funded with the fees paid by less-fortunate, less-attentive customers.

I think everyone ought to watch where they walk. But, simply placing a sign reading "caution! Mines!" and providing a small-print map of their location does not mean I agree with collecting the valuables of those who misread or ignored the map and were blown up.

SO: Do you like playing minesweeper?

Monday, October 10, 2011

You're still out there?

Wow, I'm kind of touched.

Friday, October 07, 2011

I’ve promised a few people that I’d write up my take on this year’s High Pass Challenge, which rolls 112 miles from Packwood, WA up what has become one of my favorite climbs – Mt St Helens, up to Windy Ridge overlook. I have only done this climb twice, but once I am back to the base I am already planning my next visit.

Great roads, spectacular scenery, almost none of the congested traffic that plagues any of the Rainier climbs.

As a reformed racer, I feel a little like I am stealing kids’ lunch money, doing rides like these. I may not have bothered to sign up for a USAC license this year, instead contenting myself with cycling to work and some fairly aimless “training” slugfests. When the opportunity arises to do a competitive ride up a mountain, how can I resist?

Five hundred riders queue up at the start line for High Pass, and, the crowd is something between the come-as-you-are circus that is Seattle-to-Portland, and the grim-faced bunch of assassins at Ronde van Oeste Portlandia.

But, wait: there is an official start line here. There are barricades and an announcer. Heck, I am handed a timing chip at the sign-on. What have I signed up for? By the time I finish the last minute used coffee disposal, there are already a couple hundred riders stacked up by the start. Forget that: I duck under some tape at near the front of the bunch and observe the moment of silence the director announces on this tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Seven a.m. exactly, and we’re rolling, but this is no race start. Nobody launches all out, hell-or-glory attacks, there is simply a turbine-like spooling up of riders as the pack quickly sorts itself out into those who want to prove themselves against the clock, and those who simply want to finish.

It’s about fifteen miles to the base of the climb, and, though I do a couple of quick turns at the front, I have no interest in flogging myself on the flats. We cruise along at a moderately fast pace – twenty-six? Twenty-seven?

The monotony of the remote highway twelve is broken by a race team’s train, which has finally gotten itself organized, hitting the front. At first I think the pace will increase, but, as soon as it starts, suddenly there is chaos: riders fan out over both lanes of the road. The race team pulls over to the side, and the mismatched pack at the front rearranges itself. I will later find that one of the racers broke a pair of spokes on his high-zoot wheels, and the team pulled over to help him out. Whoops.

I recognize the café at the turn at the microscopic town of Randle, WA, as the place where the flat stops. I make the turn, glance around at the other riders at the front of the pack. I wonder how many of them have done this climb before? The first couple of miles are some of the steepest of the whole ride.

For a few beats, I set a false tempo, waiting to see if there will be a flurry of matches burned as riders throw themselves at the mountain. Nothing happens. I briefly recall a movie character saying, “my turn,” but I cannot remember who it is.

A deep breath, and, I’m riding my tempo – out of the saddle, an over-geared metronome, I do set my watch to 350 watts and ease into the pain. The first thirty seconds, you always feel like a superhero. The next minute, a superstar. After that, it’s all reality: lungs, legs, heartbeat in your ears.

Five minutes or so, and the first rise in the road is over. I back off and flick a glance over my shoulder to see who’s left – maybe a dozen riders, with another dozen a pace behind. I let a couple of characters drive the pace on the false flat section for the next couple of miles and allow myself to enjoy the beauty of the area. This is great stuff. It’s dry today, but has rained recently enough the everything is green, fresh, alive. The mountain mist hangs in the air, redolent, storybook-like, amazing.

And, like that, we’re back to climbing. From here, we’ve got maybe fifteen miles, all uphill, and a rolling seven before the turnaround. I rise out of the saddle, pull back on the bars, and make sure my legs know the plan: no sudden accelerations. This isn’t a race. Don’t try to break people. No need to hide the hard work. Just ride.

A few miles later, we get to a stop sign and a narrow wooden bridge. Somehow a rider fell from this a couple of years ago. We cautiously cross, snowmelt still pooling over the road, and I count the riders with me: six. I get to the front again and chat with the guys I find up there. Skinny college-aged rider in an unmarked jersey takes the pace for a moment, but, it is too slow. I take back over and introduce myself.

College seems capable and composed here, but at some point on the mountain he will fall off. I recognize Ecker – he’s got TT bars. Some guy has a camelbak. A grizzled veteran seems to have fallen out of bed in 1994. Local race team kit has stars-and-bars on his sleeves: he’s won a national championship at some discipline. Another racer has full dress on: Carbon rig, Record components, and expensive carbon-fiber wheels.

This is the last I will see of these riders until the top. No looking back, no attempt to get anyone else to share the road, no cagey tactics to save some energy for the finish: it is in these ways that not being a true race is liberating. Up we ride. More amazing scenery. We climb of the trees into the volcano’s blast zone. Spartan, dead, at a glance, but really an impressive amount of life returning.

An hour or so climb crawls by. These are the moments I live for, a sort of memento mori, where life is measured in seconds, minutes, not years. Who cares what tomorrow will bring, after all, when one is counting heartbeats?

I think from time to time that someone will pass me, but, nobody does. Upward, upward.

Finally, the climb is over, and we are rolling down again – no dramatic single summit, this, but a gradual rolling ten miles along a ridgeline, a little bit up, a little bit down. Behind and beside me are still five, and we take turns sharing the pace on the flatter sections.

There’s one guy who I don’t understand: Grizzled 1994. He’s been on the same ride as everyone else, but he decides to attack the little rollers? I mean, it’s not a real, committed attack, exactly, but it is a noticeable acceleration. Power meters don’t lie, and he’s clearly gunning it.

Fine. Whatever. I roll to the front and force him to pick a pace, and sit on his wheel, for a few minutes, and he eventually drifts back into the group.

At each of several viewpoint turnouts, there is a noticeable anticipation in the group. Is this it? Is this the end? My legs, too, feel the burn from the climb. A few more magnificent corners, and we roll through the long loop of the parking lot at the end. That’s it for the out – time to head back.

Things get a little odd from here. Two turn straight around. Two stop at the restroom. Everyone catches their breath. Those relatively few feet of “up” on the return trip are the part where life feels the hardest. Ouch.

We stop for water long enough to fill bottles, and roll on down the mountain. The group gradually reforms, minus a couple. The descent is amazing. Twists, turns, but no hairpins, one can leave it wide open pretty well the entire way – though the pavement quality fails miserably at times. That’s got to be the ice and snow, over the winter.

I lose a bottle, nearly full, on a massive crack that looked shallower at thirty-five miles an hour. Whoops. I feel much faster descending than my usual cautious self, keeping pace, if barely, with Ecker, in front of me. Dang aerobars. Well, and, he's good at it. He's going fast.

So fast, in fact, that he misses the one crucial turn, despite my shouts of “wrong way,” and ends up taking the shortcut down the mountain. I mean, no, not the crashing kind. Just the way that cuts ten miles off the ride. One other rider goes wrong with him, and someone else has been dropped.

Now it is just three riders who regroup on the one lane, poorly paved little forest service road back into town: super racer, and, dude with the camelbak. guess the fred thing was a ruse, and the water was just to avoid stopping. Slick. We were meant to stay on this the entire rest of the trip, but a mudslide has washed the road out ahead, forcing us back onto the highway.

The last twenty miles are a blur. I’m pretty much cooked. Another companion pulls the ripcord and relaxes. Then, we do – dropping from twenty-five to a mere twenty miles an hour for a few miles, until we realize we are there.

And that, as they say, is that.

Great ride, everyone.

Thanks to the Cascade Bike Club for putting on an event like this. Tons of fun.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Goldilocks and Argentius

Saturday morning, I woke up at about seven to a cloudy August dawn. We had most of the windows open, since it was a pretty humid night – living in the city, I suppose I’ve grown accustomed to ignoring the noises of people going about their nightly business.

I brush my teeth, dress, and walk downstairs, but do a double-take when I get to the couch. There’s a young lady with curly black hair laying on it. She seems to have found the throw blanket and pillow I keep at the end of the couch. On the plus side, she looks comfortable. On the other hand, I’ve never seen her before in my life.

Sometimes yours truly can be fairly verbose, but all I could think to say was, “Woah. Who are you?”

She’s awake before I get to the base of the stairs, furrows her eyebrows together, and looks around my house quickly. “Um. Kim?” She winces, a little. That’s definitely last night’s dress she’s got on.

“Okay, Kim… so, you probably know what I’m going to ask next,” I say. I probably furrow my eyebrows back.

“Believe me, I’m just as confused as you are,” she says. “I don’t even know where this is. I mean, where is this?”

I tell her what intersection we are on, which turns out to be almost fifty blocks from where she lives. I’ve slowly looked around the house – nothing appears out of place. The change jar, and my keys, even, are still on the sideboard. I delete the numerals nine, one, and one, from my phone, without hitting “send.”

At this point my equally confused better half comes down to see what the voices are about. I tell her, “It looks like we have an unexpected guest, dear – and one who did not expect to be staying here any more than we did. M, this is Kim.”

I’ll give her credit for taking this all in stride. M is a pretty down-to-earth-girl. She looks a little surprised, but that’s it. “Oh. Hi, Kim. Do you, ah, need some aspirin? And, I think these are your shoes, they were in the yard.” She hands over a pair of black, strappy heels.

Our very own Goldilocks considers this for a moment, accepts the shoes, declines the aspirin. “Listen, I’m really sorry about all of this. I keep trying, but I can’t remember a bit of how I got here. I was at a bachelorette party… but that was on thirty-eighth. That’s a couple of miles away. Do you two, like, know Paul, or something? I thought maybe I ended up at his house. God, this is why I don’t go out.”

Neither of us is, or knows, Paul. There is a sense of resignation, and, a bit of relief on Kim’s face. Even if Encyclopedia Brown isn’t here to solve the mystery, at least nobody’s in any immediate danger, right? Kim inspects her belongings. I bring her a glass of water. She’s got her ID and wallet, but, no phone. I loan her mine, she makes a couple of quick calls.

She assures whoever’s on the other end of the line that she is safe, that she ended up somehow at some “really nice people’s” house, but that she has no idea where or how.

“Kim, I don’t mean to, I guess, rush you, but, we are off to breakfast. Can I call you a cab? Do you have everything? I mean, except for your phone, I guess.”

She agrees, and gathers her things. At first, I thought she was younger, but now I think she’s at least a couple of years older than my twenty-nine. She will have a strange story to tell when she gets home, I suppose. I call the cab.

Wherever you are, Goldlocks – I mean, Kim – take care of yourself, okay?

Friday, June 24, 2011

This one's for Krushor

PS #1 -- Call this reverse psychology.
PS #2 -- I do appreciate the irrelevance of this topic for proles like yours truly.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Hey Millionaires! Tacoma needs you.

Yours truly naturally finds himself with some bleeding-heart tendences. After all, at twenty-nine, he has grown up in a generation in which the rich have gotten richer, but the average worker has grown … more average

Being if anything closer to the latter, he of course wonders if this is fair, right, and just.

Yet today, Tacoma needs a millionaire to help himself.

Have a look at this stately old home, would you? It’s for sale in my town. Perhaps Jay Gatsby would’ve turned up his nose at merely ten thousand square feet, but, ten thousand! The place is full of beauty, art, and history. It must be saved, preserved – the whole of human experience is bettered by the existence of places like this.

(neither the author nor anyone he knows has any involvement in or gain, financial or otherwise, to be made from the property referenced above)

Yet, it is five times the size of, and a greater multiple in price than, my own humble abode. Never in my wildest dreams could I afford such a residence, nor, to be honest, would I want to, solo. This DIY die-hard would be utterly drowned by projects – trim painting, glazing, recaulking, tuck-pointing, would overcome my life. Who would maintain the garden on its half-acre lot? Who would polish the marble and clean the flues of the six fireplaces?

And, yet, somebody must. One would suspect, when the place went up – especially in an age before power tools, let alone Swiffers and roombas – that such menial tasks would’ve been performed by the help, and I suppose if given the chance I wouldn’t much mind being the painter and groundskeeper here, if it meant I could call it home and come and go as I pleased.

Take a look at the real-estate listing for the place. It’s fantastic. They do not, as the expression truthfully tells, make them like they used to.

As I turned it about in my head, I briefly thought of an amusing idea: what if there were half a dozen similarly minded people as myself*? After all, the house boasts eight bedrooms. There’s plenty of space for everyone, and we could all share the views out that fabulous parlor as we shared a drink and a word. We’d each pay no more than the price of a fairly average apartment!

* No, gentle reader, these thoughts are by no means serious. There is no means readily available to execute them, anyway.

The thought experiment, though, quickly ends in the failure similar to that known as the tragedy of the commons, otherwise known as “why everyone beats the living tar out of rental cars.”

What I don't understand is why this should be. Sure, I've know a few groups of people who all collectively run a household. But, these are largely young folks just getting started in their lives, and a central aspect of these group homes is that nobody lives there permanently -- everyone is a renting tenant, and an absentee owner uses the place as a source of income.

Capitalismus victor!

I think of this as I look around the city streets in my new hometown, and think of things like "pride of ownership." Neighbor A, for instance, is a middle-class homeowner not too different from yours truly. He has a lawnmower and a slightly larger-than-average urban lot. Mine is quite small.

Today, without anyone saying anything, he mowed both of our lawns. I followed behind with shears and a push broom and trimmed the parts that the power mower could not get to, and swept and gathered the trimmings. Job done, and probably swifter than if each of us had both of those tools to manage our own lots and nobody else's.

An interesting microcosm for a superficial task, perhaps.

But, clearly, I am missing something. Otherwise, why would society be building tracts of uninspiring, cookie-cutter homes when there are places like this around? I have no simple conclusions, but, it is food for thought.

As for Gatsby?

Hello, there, wrecking ball!

Friday, April 01, 2011

The end, or, back to the beginning?

This humble bungalow is tucked away in the south end of the hilltop, where it had sat unoccupied amongst its neighbors since I started taking this route home.

A few months ago, this felt like a place that the wrecking ball had yet to come -- boarded up houses near an old brick school, a tetris piece fragment of a neighborhood from days past. Why do these things speak to me?

It'd be a brave bet to move in here, but, it could be a rewarding one. A fairly flat lot with an expansive view of the bay down the hill -- beautiful, if you, like yours truly, consider a working waterway in an old industrial city beauty. A great deal of morning sun.

You could fall down the hill and wind up downtown, such as it is.

I couldn't resist turning the lens inside the place. Torn down to the studs. Construction types -- this is an indication that someone cares for the place, right? They are restoring it, not just stripping it?

If it was scheduled for demolition, why would one bother to carefully pick out the interior, but leave the studs in good shape?

I feel the same way that people feel about these houses, I think, as some do when they see a cold, lonely puppy. Even if it's a bad idea, you just want to take make them home!

Friday, March 25, 2011

I pass this coffee stand daily, and, somehow it has always seemed Tacoma-appropriate that they will sell you a Polish dog along with your Latte.
Today I noticed something new:

With deft strategery, they placed this sandwich board sign in view of the transit center across the street.

It does make me wonder: at the Sexy Barista Corporate Training Center, what does the training consist of?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

News Flash: The Largest Economy in the world is broke. Really, really broke.

Additional News: Americans have a lot of Stuff. Junk, even. We have a lot of Stuff that we do not especially want, much less need.

If I told you that you had a guaranteed buyer for every old Sammy Hagar t-shirt and Mister Wizard’s Genuine Flux Capacitor -- 2 of a series of 9, collect them all – in your garage, attic, or basement, what would you say?

You do. It’s Uncle Sam. Ladies and gents, we’ve got to quit this Spacely Regulator addition. They were never any good anyhow; good thing he stuck with sprockets.

Yes indeed, tax refunds are expected soon, for those filers who itemized their tax deductions for 2010.

While many reforms are needed to the tax policy, here is a simple one:

In-kind charitable donations, for items valued at less than $500, should be strictly capped.

I had a look at the President’s budget for 2011 – the deficit numbers we are looking at, realistically, are staggering, moreso because they are persistent. If you believe the White House, while there may not be a projected surplus, deficits will be in the manageable 3% range by 2016.

Yours Truly, in brief, does not believe the White House.

Looking at numbers from a few think tanks, accounting for things like continued AMT relief – which the White House and CBO seem to regard as some kind of choice, when clearly it is not. They do this every year.

Editor’s note: If this were a better blog than it is, I would cite a source here. The numbers I have here are from the Heritage Foundation, which, while they seem to be solid, aren’t exactly the most middle-of-the-road analysts.

In any case, this was my first year itemizing my deductions on my tax return, instead of simply taking the standard deduction.

Donations to charities are encouraged by making these donations tax-deductible, and, while the legitimacy of some charities may concern me, overall I think this is a laudable rule.

However, there’s a glaring loophole that one can drive a truckload of ancient concert t-shirts and mismatched flatware through: the donations of household goods to places like the ARC and Goodwill.

When I moved into the new house, as you might expect, I took a whole mess of things to Goodwill. I hate waste, and try to hang onto things as long as they are useful, but, let’s face it, the tote bag from the conference two years ago, the trade show t-shirt, the VHS tapes, these have got to go.

I used Intuit’s excellent Turbotax software to assist me with my taxes this year – though I’ve outgrown the 1040-EZ, I am not in the realm of complexity where a CPA’s services would make any sense.

To assist me in totting up my deductions to charity, Turbotax has a built in feature that they call “it’s deductible!” Simply fill in what you gave, and it will populate the rest into the appropriate IRS form. Great.

I was amazed at how far this got me – almost scandalized. I wrote off about five hundred bucks of donations, based on the “conservative” side of Turbotax’s guidelines. This is all perfectly legal, kosher, permitted, says the IRS.

While I am not such a white hat as to make an unsolicited donation to the federal budget – as simply ignoring my donation would be – I think this needs to be reined in.

The amount of a donation that can be written down ought to be connected with the value of the donor’s loss of use of the item.

In my case, Goodwill was a good turn – it saved the clothing, the coffee pot, the mixer, from the garbage, and perhaps someone else will put them to good use.

But, six bucks for a t-shirt? Give me a break.

Feeling a little badly about my $500 write-down (about $100 in my pocket, at current marginal tax rates,) I looked on the IRS’s website, and on Turbotax’s, to se how most people behaved.

The average deduction in my income bracket is over $2,000.

While donations of cash can be written off as well as donations of goods, I am curious how this $2,000 breaks down. I’d be willing to suspect that at least three-fourths of it was in-kind.

If middle-class folk truly were donating 5% of their income to charity, I’d wager the nation’s nonprofits would be partying in the streets – partying, you know, charitably, and all.

They are not.

This pretending needs to stop.

There are many complex ways I can think to rein in this silliness, but I’ll propose a simple one: The amount of charitable in-kind donations for miscellaneous used items which can be deducted from one’s income should be capped at a modest amount. I will propose $300.

Cash donations will have no cap, so long as they can be documented and the recipient organization is a legitimate charity, and specific, high-value donations will be permitted at the amount that the charity sells the item for.

This is currently the case for donations of motor vehicles, which were subject to similar nonsense when they were subject to much less scrutiny: Sure, that broken-down Ares K is worth $2,000!

Everybody happy?

Oh, yes, of course, fix entitlements, reform medicare and social security, and solve global hunger – I know, I know there are other things to which we can direct our attention.

But, this is simple and it is fair – it will eliminate a strange distortion in the tax code which, once again, mostly favors higher-income folk with no specific purpose.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Time is slippery, but potential big changes coming soon. We will see...