Monday, April 7, 2014

Why Sansa Stark is Useless

Sansa Stark is a full-blown idiot.

I read an article on why Sansa Stark is one of the strongest characters in Westeros. The author says that the reason why we hate her so much is that she has the audacity to be a twit while acting like a lady. The writer says that her turning in her father for treason and thereby getting him killed and then being trapped in King's Landing was "silly."

Sansa Stark is useless. You can be feminine and be useful. It's true that she's had a few moments here and there where she shows as being a worthwhile human being, but getting Ned Stark and Lady killed is just part of a list of sins that she will never be able to erase.

Sansa Stark is a stereotypical cheerleader, ok? She likes being pretty; she wants to be the queen. You can root for her - she's in an incredibly awful position throughout the series. Her ambition to be the queen lands her in a situation where she's basically killed her father and betrothed to a conscience-less monster. Real cheerleaders take charge; they don't accept ignominious defeat. If you look at all the angles to gain more power (classic ENTJ), then you wouldn't make stupid, deadly mistakes.

It's like Glinda (Galinda)'s song in Wicked: I Couldn't Be Happier.
That's why I couldn't be happier
No, I couldn't be happier
Though it is, I admit
The tiniest bit
Unlike I anticipated
But I couldn't be happier
Simply couldn't be happier
(spoken) Well - not "simply":
(sung) 'Cause getting your dreams
It's strange, but it seems
A little - well - complicated
There's a kind of a sort of a cost
There's a couple of things get: lost
There are bridges you cross
You didn't know you crossed
Until you've crossed
And if that joy, that thrill
Doesn't thrill you like you think it will
Still -
With this perfect finale
The cheers and ballyhoo
Who wouldn't be happier?
So I couldn't be happier
Because happy is what happens
When all your dreams come true
Well, isn't it?
Happy is what happens
When your dreams come true!
Glinda gains redemption through seeing how empty all of her success is. Sansa is a twit. She pretty much never earns redemption ever, because she continues to be a helpless ornament and tool used by other people. She could  take the throne, her desire all along, but she doesn't.
Sophie Turner, the young actress who plays Sansa, recently defended her character. "Sansa's one of the most intelligent characters on the show," Turner told You Magazine. "She's been plotting it all in her head from day one. She's the dark horse." 

She has been plotting it all in her head from the very beginning. However, I don't think that she would foresee that pretty much her entire family would die in the attempt. She doesn't know that Arya is alive. I don't think that anyone knows that Bran is alive, either. She switches from being the beautiful, pampered daughter of one of the nation's most powerful lords (second in command) to being the beautiful tool of anyone who wants to use her. It's dreadful. That's why we hate her.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Taxes and Home Bases: Where I'd Live

There are a few places that I'd willingly live.

Florida

First on my list is Florida.

Financial Samurai did a recent analysis on which states were the best to retire to.

Because Florida could be where Sebastian sings "Under the Sea," I've also considered alternatives.

Nevada

Tony Hsieh is doing a fantastic job of revitalizing Las Vegas, and the rehabilitation of Las Vegas coupled with the presence of a school for highly gifted children makes Nevada attractive.

Nevada residents also pay lower taxes than most Americans.

Colorado

Boulder is also an attractive destination, ranking in the top part of Richard Florida's list of the places where the Creative Class lives.

It has a ton of recreational opportunities, and it also has a major airport (Denver) nearby. It's easy to use part of Colorado as a home base for a traveler.

Washington

The lack of income tax is very attractive. Go Curry Cracker uses Washington as a home base, and it results in 0% federal and state taxes.





By carefully planning, they are able to minimize their taxes. Justin over at Root of Good is able to keep his taxes very low, but $0 is even better than 0.1% federal tax on $150,000 in income.

Conclusion

Taxes and lifestyle play huge roles in deciding where to live. It's worth it to carefully consider where you want to be over the long term. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Traditional Retirement Accounts Are Okay

Roths 4 Ever

I've been a curmudgeonly holder of Roth accounts since I was 19. I wrote about my irrational love of Roth accounts. I love Roth accounts and the flexibility that they offer.
Taylor Lautner on Team Edward

A piece from the Saturday Night Live skit on Twilight with Taylor Lautner is appropriate here.
Ellie: Thank you. There was a time in my life when I, too, loved Edward Cullen, when Jacob was nearly a blip on my radar screen. But then something changed. Maybe changed. Maybe I learned the value of a guy who is also my friend. 

Traditional Retirement Accounts

That's how I feel about traditional retirement accounts.

I just graduated from college last year, and I worked about half the year. 2014 is the first year that I'll be a full-time employee for the entirety of the year, and that means a lot of things. For one, it's the first year when I won't be my parents' dependent in my entire life. For another, it means that I go into the realm of [ominous music] traditional retirement accounts.

It made so much sense when I was safely in the 15% or lower tax bracket (most of college) to pay the taxes up front. As Ramit Sethi points out, anybody who invested $10,000 in SWA at the right time would become a tax-free squillionaire.

I scorned Mr. Money Mustache's suggestion that I plunge my money into trad 401k. What did he know about my little impoverished cash flow, former software engineer for Fortune 100 companies that he was?

Front-loading

Everything changed when I read the Mad FIentist's post on front-loading. Suddenly, I saw the logic in sending the government less money in the front half of the year; you keep more money, and that money will grow in the stock market for longer. There is no argument against front-loading.

So I trotted off to Fidelity's website, and I adjusted my withholding with about $200 of buffer.

Delicious Money

In a plot twist, I decreased my take home by a negligible amount while increasing my 401k contribution by more than $1,000 per month.

It's not even a plot twist. That's how math works - when you don't pay the fed and state governments any taxes, then you end up with more. Though I knew that in theory, ending up with an extra $1,000+ in 401k savings was a bit of a shock.

I'm never going be able to reduce my FICA taxes, but my federal and state taxes are fair game. Given the amount of my tax refund, I know that whatever software my company uses for payroll vastly overestimates how much I should be sending the fed and state. 

The money that I had left over after contributing to my traditional 401k was so meager that I had negligible federal and state taxes. This month's taxes represent a miniscule portion (less than 20%) of the taxes that I sent last month.

Conclusion

While it makes sense to Roth for 15%, getting into the higher tax brackets means that you can save more money by putting it into traditional accounts. I've long been fascinated by Mad FIentist's article on retiring 2 years earlier with tax deferred accounts, and I'm starting to see how I'll be able to capture some of it myself.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Hungry

Source

It's time for yet another post on hunger.

I'm part of the developed world. I understand that I have more than sufficient food. I know that I live a cushy life, surrounded by endless luxury.

I'm hungry.

The Lenten fast is not a lot - you just give up meat on Fridays. Giving up meat on Fridays makes me more conscious of how much meat I eat.

I had salmon for lunch as well as vegan pad thai.

I'm hungry.

I could scarf down a lot of food right now, and I'd still be hungry. I need to eat meat.

I'm hungry.

This season is a time for reflection - a time to look inside and reflect on your own life. I understand that the vast majority of the world doesn't have the easy access to meat that I do; even the French, though in a developed country, have exorbitantly priced meat. That's why my parents always stuff my aunts and uncles to the gills with steak when they visit.

I know that I live a soft life of luxury and that I'm lucky to be a knowledge worker, mostly working on the computer or with other technology.

I'm hungry.

There are so many people in the world worse off than me, with more on their mind than the mild discomfort of being slightly hungry.

One of the developers told me that the reason why India doesn't have any of the software giants, like Facebook, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, is that in India the problems to be solved are poverty and miseria. It's hard to focus on something so high level when you see people in slums on the street. It's hard to focus on something so high level when your stomach is empty.

I'm hungry.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rutabagas, Bitcoin, and Bing

Bitcoin

Money is a store of value. Before there was currency, you bartered. Maybe you had the best cabbage and your neighbor had great rutabagas. You would trade whatever you thought was fair. If someone had something rare (medicine, for example), you might be able to get a lot of rutabagas for life-saving medicines.

With the recent fall of Mt. Gox, people have been very concerned about Bitcoins.

I've read this before, that Bitcoin needs to go beyond pure speculation and become a transfer of value. People look at Bitcoin and buy it, because it has the ability to skyrocket.

In a hypothetical situation, possibly in Colorado, I may have been eavesdropping on two people who were discussing Silk Road and the cost of a medicine only legal in some states. At the time, Bitcoin had risen in price from $400 to $1000 in a short amount of time. I can remember one of them saying, "That's really expensive [medicine that is only usable in some states]."

That's the thing - when Bitcoin is used as currency for real-life items, there's an actual value. You can buy rutababas, and the rutabagas have to have a comparable dollar value.

Pseudocurrencies

Source

I've recently become both a Bing user and a Swaggernaut. I also got my sister hooked. We are interested for two different reasons:

  1. Free month of Hulu
  2. Amazon credit
There's a whole discussion on the MMM forums about the free bounty. Someone said he considered the gift card company scrip. There's a small arbitrage opportunity of paying 475 Bing Credits (if you're a Gold member) for 500 Swagbucks, then buying a $5 Amazon Gift Card with 450 Swagbucks. I admit to doing this once, but it's an incredible amount of hassle. First, you have to wait for the Swagbucks to arrive (one day), then you have to wait for Swagbucks to send you the GC code (11 days). It's just not worth waiting 12 days when you can just pay 475 Bing Credits for a $5 Amazon Gift Card. It's worth a few cents, but not the time that you waste just hanging around for it.

I'm deeply reminded of Terry Pratchett's book, Making Money, in which the lovable and reformed crook Moist von Lipwig took charge of the Mint of Ankh-Morpork. People had already started using his postage stamps as currency, because they were paper, light and easy to carry. You could always affix one to a letter and send it. Postage stamps were used purely for monetary exchange - not for sending letters.

Amazon Gift Cards are becoming a pseudocurrency, like the stamps. We are all sure that Amazon is solvent. It is publicly traded, and they have healthy financials. Gift cards have no cash surrender value, but that's fine at an Everything Store.

When I was in college, I was asked to participate in a survey about Universum. I got somewhere around $10 for taking the survey.

However, I wasn't paid. Amazon gift cards have no cash value. It's tremendously easy to send out those gift cards, because you can give them an Excel file with email addresses and amounts. They will dispatch it for you.

Uncle Sam and other uncles

You have to report any money that you receive from a company as income; finding $20 bucks on the sidewalk is income, and so are the gift cards that are apparently considered cash equivalents. Financial regulations are cumbersome nowadays, and they are only going to get worse. While I support consumer protection, it's legislation that seems purely shaped to get into everyone's way.
Japan says that Bitcoin is a commodity, and it will say that capital gains and sales tax apply. That's better than classifying it as a currency.

It is interesting to watch all of this unfold. Bitcoin is still in its nascent stages, and I hope to see a similar, low-friction currency used around the world. Right now, it's still something in the shadows; only by normal citizens' use can Bitcoin become acceptable. It's a tautology: normal people will use Bitcoin if normal people use Bitcoin.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Internet: 20 Years in the Future

Introduction
Smartphones, connectivity, political participation, and global communication will all change the face of our reality in ways that we do not yet comprehend. Twenty years ago, in the year of the Internet, we did not understand that the Internet would enable political revolutions such as the Arab Spring. We did not know that social media would have such an incredible impact on the method by which we communicate to our friends. We are going to see short-term changes which will bring the long-term changes which will shape the Internet in 20 years.
Smartphone Revolution
HongMi
Source

Smartphones are going to change everything. There are countries that have never gotten on board with the desktop Web revolution; they did not have the money to buy a full-blown computer in most households. Now, it is relatively inexpensive to buy a smartphone that will work in the third world. Firefox OS is hitting the very cheapest phones, and people over at the Mozilla Foundation have plans to power 2 billion smartphones in the developing world[1]. Mid-tier phones, such as Xiaomi’s Hongmi phone, which sold its first 100,000 phones in 90 seconds, will cater to the burgeoning middle class in countries such as China. The phones only cost $129 each, and their specs are comparable to an iPhone’s specs[2]. People in the developing world will be able to afford smartphones, where before they could not afford $1,200 for an iMac. In the next 20 years, mobile will be the primary form of connecting to the Internet, because it is the most readily available way to do so.
Constant Connection
There are still places in the world without the sort of infrastructure that Americans take for granted. It is actually easier to connect an enormous amount of people via wireless signals from blimps (as Google intends to do) than it is to lay fiber optic cable everywhere[3]. America only has the amount of fiber optic cable that it has, because people thought that there was money to be made. People in the developing world are now in contact with everyone else, and I hope that in 20 years everyone on Earth will have inexpensive Internet access.
Political Participation
With the new availability of the Internet, people will be able to communicate more effectively. We have seen Twitter used recently to coordinate political protests. The technology that we have today is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mass coordination for change. Iceland used comments from Facebook and Twitter to influence its crowdsourced constitution[4]. Obama has instituted his We the People section on whitehouse.gov in order to listen to what American citizens had to say. Politics will change in the next 20 years as more politicians harness the Internet’s power to coordinate mass movements and communicate with a large constituency.
Global Communication
The Internet has always facilitated communication, and it has removed an enormous amount of the friction that used to exist for international communication. My mother used to buy phone cards to call her siblings in France; now, she is constantly on FaceTime with them. It is a free way to call people who live on a different continent. Additionally, I have a friend in Israel, and we use WhatsApp to communicate. It is a quick and cheap way to communicate using our mobile phones. He also communicates with our friends back in Ecuador; having free text messaging after the initial purchase of the app means that he has unlimited access to friends in North America and South America while he lives in Israel. His ability to stay in touch is phenomenal, and it would not exist without the Internet. More international communication will take place in the next 20 years; WhatsApp is just the forefront of what is possible.
Conclusion
We can see maybe a few years into the future, but the next two decades are still murky. I hope that the Internet is used for good, but it has the capacity to be used for anything. The Internet is a tool that all of us can use to help people communicate with one another, and that simple fact will drive incredible change in the next 2 decades.

This blog post was originally written as an essay for the Coursera IHTS course.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Van Jacobson, Jembes, and Violins

The Van Jacobson protocol is credited with saving the Internet. The major issue that the people on the Internet faced was transfers between 10 MB networks that were sending things out with 56 KB lines, which Van Jacobson neatly solved. 
Jembe, which has many spellings
Source

Jembes from Ville A and Violins from Ville B
A good analogy would be transportation through a mountain pass. In the beautiful Ville A, which is full of charming people who are interested in commerce, they make jembes (drums) out of resources that they have in plentiful supply. These jembes are highly prized by people in Ville B, which is on the opposite side of the mountain. People in Ville B make violins out of their resources, wood and string, which are prized by people in Ville A.

In a given year, people in Ville A will make 100 jembes. People in Ville B will likewise make 100 violins. Each village has the resources to buy all 100 of the instruments. In a perfect barter system, people in Ville A would end up with the 100 violins made in Ville B. People in Ville B would end up with the 100 jembes made in Ville A. That was the original idea of the Internet, and it worked for a very small amount of files, say 1 jembe and 1 violin.

The real problem here is the mountain pass, or the bottleneck, which restricts the rate of trade. In order to transit between Ville A and Ville B, you must get to the other side of the mountain. The width of the mountain pass is such that a slender person can barely squeeze through, and such a person can only carry one instrument. Only one person can pass through at a time, due to the narrowness of the mountain pass. 

Because of the slowness of such passage, there are huge lines on each side of people eager to profit from their labor. Everyone would like to sell a jembe or violin, but not everyone can go through at once. Some become discouraged and walk away. Others drop their instruments on the way through.

The Van Jacobson protocol made it such that you would slowly increase how many things were sent. Therefore, only the amount of things that the route could handle would be sent through at a given time. Once you established how quickly things could be sent, then you knew how quickly you should be sending them. The jembes and violins would be inefficient if only one of each made it to the other side of the mountain, but it is also suboptimal to have people make musical instruments but become discouraged before getting to the opposite village. The Van Jacobson protocol says that there should only be as many things in transit as can safely be handled by the system.

This blog post was originally created as an extra credit essay for the purpose of the Coursera class IHTS, taught by Charles Severance.