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December 30, 2008


This evening at work Paul was visiting a couple of the groups and looked out my window at the sunset. He pointed out a sundog. I usually kind of ignore stuff like that, but he asked if I knew what a sundog is. I didn't. He said I should look it up, so I went to Wikipedia really quickly and found an article about them. Only then did I actually look out the window, and there in the clouds about 20 degrees to the left of the setting sun was a bright spot. He said that was the sundog and it was caused by ice crystals in the cloud refracting the sunlight back towards us. The hexagonal shape of a snow crystal bends the light, similar to a rainbow (except rainbows are on the other side of the sky from the sun). Today's sundog showed a little bit of color refraction, reddish on one side and bluer on the other side. He said there was probably one on the other side of the sun too, so we walked around to another side of the building to go look. Not quite as bright, but there was a spot in the clouds on the right also.

December 29, 2008


I've been looking for stuff to watch on Netflix and one neat thing is they have lots of TV series on DVD. Two shows I've been thinking about are the Sci Fi channel's remake of Battlestar Gallactica and NBC's Heroes, which I never watched despite good reviews and word of mouth (I remember Kathy saying she liked it). I watched the first part of BSG this weekend, which was the opening miniseries (3 hours). It was good, so I'll go ahead and get the rest of the disks. But this Sunday Target had Heroes on sale for $20, so I figured that was a pretty good deal. There are 7 disks and 23 episodes, so that's less than a dollar an episode and now I can watch them on the train if I want. I watched the first two episodes and it seems like it could be pretty good. Season 2 was available as well, but because of the writers' strike there were only 11 episodes, but it was the same price. So maybe eventually I'll get those disks from Netflix.

Not worth it's own blog entry, but this weekend I watched a documentary online from Netflix called Helvetica. Yes, it is a whole feature-length film about the font Helvetica. Made in 2007 on the 50th anniversary of the font, it covered the origins of the font in a modernist Swiss workshop, the impact it had and still has, and different graphic designers' opinions about it. Some like its simplicity and the fact that it doesn't draw attention to itself, others hate its ubiquity and how generic it is.

December 22, 2008

End of Year Scheming

Despite a catastrophic year on the stock market, I would like to contribute my 2009 Roth IRA limit of $5,000 in January. Since I don't have cash lying around for that, I'd like to sell some other investments and take as big a loss as possible for 2008 and then use those proceeds for my Roth contribution in January. If possible, I don't want to miss any trading days by having money in a bank account, given that any day could possibly be a big rally that I would miss. But I can't take a loss on something in 2008 and buy something in 2009 without missing a day. Or can I?

One fund that I want to sell is Fidelity Small Cap because it has huge distributions each year (despite losing 40% of its value this year, it still distributed 1% in gains this year) that I then pay taxes on. So I want to sell all of that for $2,100 and realize a $1,500 loss. What I will do is sell it before the end of the year and move it that day into Fidelity Diversified International, a non-Roth fund in which I already have more than $2,100 (important later on). I will have to pay a short-term redemption fee of 2% to Fidelity on Small Cap's December reinvested distribution of $8 (not a big deal) but all of the other shares have been held long enough not to incur such a charge (though a reinvested June distribution of $16 will incur a short-term instead of a long-term loss, not that it matters much since long term losses will cancel short term gains and/or regular income).

Then, in 2009 I can sell some of Diversified International directly into my Roth IRA. Diversified International has a short-term redemption fee as well, but Fidelity says that as long as I have enough older shares in the fund (which I do since I have more than $2,100 there right now), those will be sold first and I won't pay a short-term redemption fee. Even better, because there is a loss there too, I will take a small loss (diluted by the shares bought at the end of December) on that sale for 2009 since I am using the average cost of the shares (I did the calcs today and figured a loss of $129 if prices don't change until then).

For the rest of my $5,000 contribution limit I am going to sell some Nasdaq Powershares (QQQQ) that I have with Scottrade. In order to avoid sitting out of a rally, I am going to get some cash I have with Scottrade in check form right now and then sell the Powershares by the end of the year to replace that money. If I sell those shares on Dec 31, I won't be able to buy anything in the Roth until Jan. 2, but I'll only be missing a day. If I sold the shares and then waited for Scottrade to mail me the proceeds it would take a week or more.

So here's the plan: before the end of the year, move Fidelity Small Cap into Diversified International (taking an '08 loss), move cash in Scottrade to my bank account, and sell my Powershares at Scottrade (taking an '08 loss). Then, on January 2, move $2,100 from Diversified International (taking a small '09 loss) and $2,900 from my bank account into the Roth IRA.

The only question now is would it be to my advantage to sell some other mutual funds just to realize a loss and then reinvest that money in 2009? The IRS will let me offset up to $3,000 in income with capital losses and right now my net realized losses will only be around $300. If I sold about $8,000 of Vanguard 500 Index, I would realize about $3,000 in losses, which would be taken off of my income and earn a $930 tax rebate (25% federal plus 6% state). I see no reason I wouldn't do that. If I reinvest it immediately into another Vanguard fund, I wouldn't be out of the market for any time either and would not be subject to wash rules for selling something at a loss and then buying the same thing back in less than 30 days.

December 18, 2008

Opting Out

Recently I got a revised credit agreement from my credit card company, Citibank. Generally I don't look real closely at those agreements because I pay off the card every month and don't pay fees. So when they raise the fees or change the interest rate, it really doesn't affect me. But it does make me mad that Citibank has gotten itself in a huge financial mess of its own making, has borrowed billions from the taxpayers, and now is going to take advantage of people during an economic slowdown by raising their interest rates. With interest rates on government bonds hitting new lows, an adjustable credit card interest rate based on the federal prime rate also goes down. But Citibank wants the rates to go up. Again, it doesn't really impact me, but a lot of people are getting pay cuts or being laid off and those interest rate increases will really hurt them when they are down.

By the rules, you can opt out any time a credit card changes the terms on you. This is because you never agreed to the rules when you got the card. However opting out means that once the card expires, it will not be renewed. Today I called Citibank and they said that my rate would be going from 8.99% over the prime rate (currently 3.25%) to 14.99% over the prime rate. I opted out. My card doesn't expire for almost two more years, so it's not a big deal right now and I was thinking about switching to a Capital One card anyway.

December 5, 2008

Tuba Christmas

This morning Bill told me that Paul wanted to go downtown for lunch at the Chinese place we used to go to. At our new office we have to take MARTA 3 stops down to Five Points to get there, so we don't go that often. But Bill had an idea that it wasn't just about Chinese. We got to Five Points and Paul walked us over to Underground where there were a bunch of chairs set up. Within a few minutes a line of casually dressed musicians starts walking up, starting with a bunch of tubas (technically sousaphones since they're the type used in marching bands). Bill figured we were here to see a concert. I said "This band has a lot of tubas!" Paul said there was more to it. As we watched more people with horns walked in and sat in the chairs. Paul asked if I noticed anything else. I said it must be an all-brass band. He said no, wait a little. After about 50 people walked in with tubas I realized this was an all-tuba band. The event we were about to see was Tuba Christmas, a 30-year tradition, but one that I had only heard about before (from Paul, of course). Paul looked at all of the tubas and said "You don't see that every day!"


I took a picture of the tuba band with my cell phone, then called Susan and a couple of people at work so they could hear the joy of Tuba Christmas themselves. The band, eventually 200 tubas, played a number of Christmas Carols and the band director would speak between songs telling the crowd (about 200 people) about tubas in general and about Tuba Christmas. I knew about the sousaphones already, but there were a number of other tubas there as well in addition to a large number of euphoniums. The biggest tubas, the director said, would uncoil to 18 feet, but the euphonium was only 9 feet. A few people had instruments with two horn bells and apparently could switch between the two, the smaller bell producing a trombone sound. That is a double-bell euphonium.

Here's a photo gallery from the AJC.

Then we had Chinese.

December 2, 2008

Gas Buddy

I've used the website www.atlantagasprices.com to find out where the cheapest gas is (it is part of a nationwide system called gasbuddy.com). When there were shortages, it was very helpful just to find out where any gas was. It is one of those great internet collaborations where a few people making small contributions of information can create a treasure trove. From time to time I might enter a gas price into their database, but nothing much. However I have a couple of gas stations near me that are never listed in their database and sometimes they have cheaper gas than anywhere I know about. But the only way to add a station to their database is earn a certain number of points. My thinking from reading the complex rules is that would happen if you had 10,000 points. The way you earn points is by entering gas prices, but you only earn 150 points at a time that way. I figured I would never get there. The people that enter prices regularly seem to be the same over and over again and you can tell roughly how many points they have by how their car icon. The red icons mean they have the most points, millions of points. I did find out that you get 150 points for every price you enter (and you could enter 4 prices for one stations: regular, midgrade, premium, and diesel), so if you enter a lot of prices you can earn points a lot faster. It's still not that easy for me because I only pass one gas station on my way to MARTA (actually two, but the other isn't in the database!). I also found out that if you answer their weekly poll you get 100 points. So I started doing it.





After a couple of weeks of entering prices fairly regularly, I'm getting the hang of it. One key is to set up favorite stations because these show up on your home page and are ready to be filled in right away. So I have about six favorites. I also need to write down prices in the car because I quickly forget them (try remembering prices from three different stations, then try doing different grades of gas too). So I'm up to 5,000 points so far, halfway to getting a bronze car icon. The max you can earn is 750 points a day for gas prices, but I've only done that twice.

December 1, 2008

FastAccess Isn't Either One

This weekend my DSL account started having problems holding a connection. It isn't that uncommon for the connection to drop once a week or so, but it was dropping every 15 minutes. I was watching a movie online from Netflix which was grainy anyway because I have the slowest speed of DSL, but then it would just freeze. Sometimes the connection would come back on its own and sometimes I would go and unplug the modem so it would restart (the modem would re-initiate on its own, so really it was the same process either way).

I hoped it would go way, but it didn't so when it was causing me problems tonight I called tech support (888-321-2375) and got a computerized solution system that detected I had a connection problem. It walked me through a series of steps and at the end asked me if I could see the internet page it had directed me to. I could at that particular minute in time, so it congratulated me on fixing the connection and hung up.

I called again and made up stuff so that I would get a real person. I hoped I didn't get anyone from Mumbai since they are probably all stressed out about this weekend's terrorist attacks. I think I got an American though.

Sure enough, they walked me through their standard steps and I had internet. I explained that it would go down in a few minutes. And he said that he wouldn't be able to tell anything as long as the connection was good. On cue, the connection went back down. He had me go in and make sure my password was correct, which was a waste of time. I said, isn't there a way to test the line? He said yes, but it would only show something if my connection was down. He wound up running the test while my modem lights were red instead of green and discovered some line interference (I figured it had to be the line or the modem). So he said he would contact line maintenance and asked me to hold. This phone call has now lasted one hour and fourteen minutes (shouldn't count against my Verizon minutes since it is toll free) and I haven't heard from the guy for the last 40 minutes, but he asked me to stay on the line. I really have other things to do so I think I'm going to have to hang up or at least go to the grocery store.