28 May 2008

Links for the day

  1. Swarm!
  2. Food myths (expiration date, smexparation date!)
  3. Stunning, even glamorous, sea slugs.
  4. Cylon Baseships Run Windows XP?
  5. Icon sets, and more icon sets (good for use with RocketDock and Stacks)
  6. He-man's "hilarious accidental homo-eroticism"
  7. Bus + Train = This:
  8. If you are still not sure that cell phones are evil, this should convince you. Don’t ever try this! -(yes, it's fake, but a good fake) - via the Presurfer via Neatorama
  9. Shipping Container Architecture

    Photo: Peter Aaron / Esto - via Architecture and Hygiene

    It’s hard to believe that those ugly cargo shipping containers can make beautiful homes, but they do. WebUrbanist has a neat post about homes, offices, shopping malls and even hotels built from cargo containers:

    There are plenty of benefits of to the so-called shipping container architecture model. A few of these advantages include: they are plentiful, they are easily transported, they’re stackable, relatively inexpensive (as little as $900 for a used container), they can be prefabricated, and they’re extremely durable. Residential applications are also becoming a popular topic of conversation among green supporters.

    Link (via Neatorama)

  10. Powers of 10 video on the tubes.

27 May 2008

What's Your Water Footprint?

• The production of 1 kilogram of beef requires 16,000 liters of water.

• To produce 1 cup of coffee we need 140 liters of water.

• The water footprint of China is about 700 cubic meter per year per capita. Only 7% of the Chinese water footprint falls outside China.

• The USA water footprint is 2500 cubic meter per year per capita.

What’s Your Water Footprint?

Find out using a calculator provided by WaterFootpring.org

TED: "If I controlled the Internet" (a poem) ( Rives )

25 May 2008

Megan's review of "Dan in Real Life"

"Two people who who get together for the first time are not going to bowl, they're going to boink!"

22 May 2008

What kind of DJ are we looking for to do our wedding?

Crazy smart dressing friend asks, "is this a paid kind of thing?"

It's a paid thing, but we're looking for something quite a bit lower than the "shit, people go crazy for wedding, let's charge $100/hour to plug in an ipod to these speakers we got out of the back of a truck around Safeway on pay day and then talk shit about the people there into the mic while they dance to the YMCA then steal the circulating fifths of Jack Daniels floating past because the guy in charge has basically been just drinking it himself because, seriously, who wants shots from a big fucking bottle with their Aunt Whoever watching while they build up the courage to ask some girl to dance/make-out before drunk driving home and hitting a tree they couldn't see because the tears blurred their vision after being rejected by, then finding out they'd just hit on, their cousin who wasn't really even that hot so why, WHY did my mom encourage me to 'go for it, she's you're type!' ?"
Actually, yes, we are looking for a DJ, know any who fit this profile? Looking at you Pat:

Credit Cards and (online) Savings Accounts

You want it quick and dirty? Fine:

Savings: ING Direct (always a good rate, easy to start and use, no wacky restrictions, $25 bonus for starting plus $10 for the person who referred you - email me for one if you already know my email) or Alliant Credit Union (great rates, some restrictions like paying a $25 fee to be a member unless you have a local branch, and credit unions are amazing).

Credit Cards: depends on your credit and needs, but plan on carrying ZERO BALANCE and getting a CASH rewards card with NO FEE (careful, some start with no fee but charge a fee after 12 months). Visa and Mastercard are taken everywhere but offer lower rewards, American Express (AmEx) and Discover are accepted in far fewer places but offer better rewards (because they charge stores a higher fee when their cards are used). I like the Chase Freedom Cash Rewards card (3% back on most used spending categories, 1% on everything else) and AmEx from Costco for acceptable rewards and limited fees and no general screwiness. The Capital One Cash Rewards is okay (1% back on everything) if your credit is not good enough to qualify for the Chase Freedom.

There are places to compare credit cards, most of them are crap for one reason or another (they don't show you some of the best offers, they focus on cards that give higher referral bonuses, they're poorly constructed and rarely updated, etc); however, if you must use one, the most common seems to be Credit Card Offers which ignores the limitations of Discovery and AmEx cards. The reality is that many of the better reward cards get there by charging you or the shop that runs the card a higher rate (high APR), some fee (like $50 annually), or screws you with weird/high fees for being late. Alternatively, many don't charge a fee for a year but then hit you with an annual fee that you probably won't notice. That's why I suggest the Capital One (1% back but no weird or annual fees) or the Costco AmEx (accepted in way fewer places, but higher reward of 1-3% and no weird or annual fees other than being a member of Costco).

App-o-Rama: a little crazy
Some people push their debt from 0% card to 0% card hoping to get card after card that also does not charge a transfer fee. This can work pretty well (but rarely does according to "Suze" who I have no idea about - she may be crazy, she may be smart, I'm just unfamiliar) if you have a limited debt (less than $10,000) and a shit load of time on your hands to screw with all the changing and fees that should not have been charged or that you didn't know about. But you're much better off just getting a loan from your Credit Union at a reasonable rate (7% or less) and just eating that interest and making reasonable payments - otherwise you (1) get hit hard by fees, (2) get a worse credit score from continuing to open a bunch of cards that you don't pay balances on, and/or (3) end up not being able to make another 0% card with free balance transfer so you get stuck paying the crazy interest on the card that had 6 months interest free but is not 17.9% and charging you fees for your failure to pay the big minimum balance that has run up.

Not saying it can't be done, but it's rare, otherwise the credit card companies wouldn't be making money hand over fist by making these offers. It means most people are getting taken for a ride most of the time, and it's a long shitty ride in the back seat and you have to pee (really bad) and the car smells like baby farts and your friend's dog won't stop jumping on you to get to the window because he smells the baby farts so much more strongly than you but the window on his side is broken because your friend is too poor to fix it because he got some shitty credit card offer then got screwed!

Oh yeah, and some people like Mint.com for keeping track of their spending habits and account amounts (before you ask, yes, I think it's safe, and no, it's not possible for "hackers" to get your passwords from it).

Can you tell I'm thinking about money?

19 May 2008

Happy cat ... very happy.

And I'm happy - my co-workers (who are just great people) took me out for congratulatory drinks tonight so you get a happy cat pic.

18 May 2008

If You Failed the California Bar Exam: repeater info - what to do next?

A few friends have asked me what worked for me after failing then repeating and passing the bar exam. Here's what I replied over email to them, please let me know if there's anything to add in the comments:

There are three main things that mattered for me (and may matter for you) as I studied for the exam a second time:

(1) How you studied in the past (i.e., Barbri, PMBR, Survival Series, etc).

(2) How much you’re able/willing to spend this time (Is a firm helping to pay? Can you get an affordable bar study loan? Can family help?), and

(3) How much time you'll have for studying now (Are you going to work full time then take a month/two weeks off? Work part time for 12 weeks with the last two weeks off? Not work at all?)

I took barbri and both PMBR courses my first time. I felt Barbri was a good choice (if for nothing other than the good study materials – most repeater courses also depend on you’re having the Barbri Mini-Review and left over MBE questions). I felt PMBR was most valuable for their materials (over 3000 MBE questions that are okay with variously helpful explanations). If you can get the PBMR materials from a friend/craigslist (now’s a good time to look, people sell out their materials right away) it is probably more helpful than the courses which just give you drawn out explanations of the questions and a timed testing situation.

My situation was pretty flexible, I began studying a couple weeks after failing and determined that I would be able to afford about $2500 in study expenses (I’d say this on the low end of the scale when it comes to repeat study costs in order to get significant additional instruction, but is certainly varies based on different situations—I had a lot of ground to make up). Counting down the weeks from 14 weeks before the exam, my plan was to work full time for weeks 14-11, part time (15-20 hours/week at work) from 10-4, and take weeks 2-0 off. This was a good amount of time for me because I started pretty early, but others will find their situation is very different.

I used several resources for my studies, I’ll list them below, but don’t limit yourself to this list, I’ll list others further below).

(a) The Survival Series by Jeff Adachi – This is an amazing set of materials, best bang for your buck by a long shot. The main two volumes are called “Bar Breakers” and train you on writing essays, just incredible stuff there. The other materials are for studying the subjects – the Survival Guide is a set of condensed outlines which are not perfect, but a really excellent summary to memorize. There are also flash cards which are almost identical to the Survival Guide text. I made my own flash cards as per the Essay Intensive suggestion – I found it worked very well, but for three subjects I ran out of time and knew they were less likely to appear on the exam (though one of them did). I think everyone should get the 2 volumes and the survival guide, but flash cards are a maybe. Bar Breakers ($100?) Survival Guide ($30) Flash Cards ($100) (approximately, search for them on Craigslist then get the updates form Jeff’s website for free, great stuff).

(b) The Bar Code – they offer a book (The Cheat Sheets, $139, great – can’t recommend enough!), a class that meets 4 times and you get 15 graded essays (also amazing if you’re working and can’t attend weekly or daily classes – this is what I took , amazing essay feedback and the courses are excellent on helping with hard subjects – cost is $1300), or tutors (tutors are a bit more expensive, but you get 60-70 essays graded with incredible feedback and tons of personal help – this is what I would have used if I had a little more time and substantially more money –$3500-4000).

(c) John Holtz – private tutor ($450 retainer is very reasonable, he’ll go over your essays with you and create a study plan which is reasonable, his feedback is great and he works over the phone/fax) and teaches a Performance Test course (also $450, complex method that worked GREAT on one PT this summer, and was harder to apply for the other PT – overall, it was worth it. Email me if you want a more detailed review of his class and his method). The Bar Code also offers a 2 day PT course that others seemed to respect and the price is the same, $450.

(d) Strategies & Tactics for the MBE (Multistate Bar Exam) by Kimm Alayne Walton – absolutely the best MBE study guide – all the “tips” and suggestions that PMBR will give you but presented in a much more organized and transparent method. This was highly recommended by John Holtz and The Bar Code tutors/teachers. Absolute necessity for repeaters, should be used by first time takers too.

(e) Flash cards – I made my own based on a summary of the materials in the BarBri Mini-review and the Adachi Survival Guide. I really liked this method. The most important thing is to keep the “answer” side of the card to under 25 words – otherwise it’s more than you can memorize which is the whole point. SHORT ANSWERS! This is super important, Adachi and The Bar Code agreed on this, keep the answers short. If you think there has to be more on the issue, separate it out onto another card. The Adachi cards a too long usually, must your own with SHORT answers. This will be part of you studying for the first 12 weeks and it will be all of you memorization practice for the last two weeks. Memorizing at the end is very important, see the Adachi book for the reasoning here – this made a HUGE difference for me as the first time I spend the first 10 weeks memorizing, then the last two weeks practicing essays – totally backwards!

I thought this was a good combination of affordable and focused on my weaknesses (I needed to make up on my PT and Essay scores which apparently is common). Essay Intensive helped with my essays, Holtz’s course helped with PTs, and I studied by making the memorizing flashcards from the mini-review and Survival Guide.

Finally, you'll know more when you get your score back (i.e., priority for MPE or essays or PTs). I freaked out quite a bit afterwards and did far too much research about the different programs that were available, but focused on the Bay Area. First, you should consider what you can afford in terms of time and money, then focus on what areas you need to work on, and last which programs fit those requirements (mine is only one of many examples).

Random thoughts now, sorry, just passing by, email me for other ideas or check here later for feedback or updates to this.

-----------old post repeated here for more options---------

Options, options, options. I've been researching which books, programs, tutors, and bullshit work the best and here's the general plan:

  1. Jeff Adachi's Bar Survival series - Bar Breakers I and II are the biggest parts, there are also flash cards (pretty good), a "Survival Guide" (has outlines which parallel the flashcards closely), and a book on the MBE's (which is supposed to be inferior to other MBE specific resources). ($100 off craigslist for all the above, ~$325 new)
  2. Strategies & Tactics for the MBEby Walton and Emanuel - recommended by many online and by John Holtz (see below). $56

Courses, seminars, tutors: (not all recommended, some just listed for convenience)
  1. John Holtz - PT and Essays, seminar and tutoring. 3 day course on the PT for $450 (reviews range from mixed to very positive, more on the positive end). Based in LA but teaches PT course in SF also. May be available to tutor for a similar price. Tutoring is over the phone and fax. Free study plan by email. You work off materials you already have or can get on the cheap (PMBR big books, Bar/bri stuff, the Walton book above, Bar Breakers, etc). I'll be using him personally, but below are some other options I researched.
  2. The Bar Code - $1200 for the "intensive" program, $3000 for the "complete program." Mixed reviews, some really like their materials, two of my friends recommended it. (I might use it with Holtz's program/help).
  3. Essay Advantage - Essays only, substantive review and essay feedback.
    1. $1500, taught by Jeff Adachi in SF, operated by Bar/bri. Supposed to be similar to the bar/bri experience but with sole focus on essays which get a bit more feedback than in the regular course (this apparently varies, but the same person has been grading them in SF for a while now and gives a respectable level of feedback).
    2. 12 classes, 6 graded essays. Classes during weekdays so incompatible with work.
  4. PT advantage - same as above, but for PT only, $450 for "alumni" of bar/bri.
  5. Emerson's tutorial bar review - Recommended by a friend of mine, but costs $4950.
  6. Barpassers - $2000, see chart, also recommended by a friend. Commonly used, slick presentation materials, on the affordable side but less personalized than most others.
  7. MicroMash - $900 for MBE's, $1600 for MBE's + State specific materials (for California at least). This is a computer program that is sold by Thompson-West. Supposed to be good help with MBE's. VERY similar to the Smart Study program Bar/bri students are familiar with.
  8. The Writing Edge - some people seem to like Vivian Dempsey, but her course is $5500, high even for a private tutor.
  9. CalBar Tutorial - many random recommendations, some negative though. Paul Pfau is behind this - some love him, some really hate him. Serious spite.
  10. Hugh Reed / passyourbar.com - good reviews out there, though few. Hugely expensive! Small classes for $4,400, private on-on-one tutoring for $14000 (and some options in between).
  11. Fleming’s - covers essays, performance exam, and MBE
  12. National Bar Review - private tutoring, they advertise heavily
  13. PASS - online course — covers essays and performance test
  14. Adaptibar - online MBE course.
  15. Bar Graders - private tutoring for essays
  16. Bar None Review - essays, MBE, performance exam
  17. Bar Perfect - private tutoring on essays, performance exam
  18. Shari Karney - too EXPENSIVE ($6,000 for limited help, $12,000 for the "platinum package" which I think includes hypnotherapy. Not a good choice in my opinion, few independent reviews. On the plus side, she includes her prices on the website (most other private tutors do not because it forces you to call and then they can personally sell you their brand of snake oil).
  19. There are others, post your recommendations, reviews, additions, or thoughts in the comments!
* Here's a link to my little spread sheet on the courses: (not updated!)

17 May 2008

Bay Area Credit Unions - why are you in a big bank still?

Basically, Credit Unions (CU) have fewer (and smaller) fees and much higher interest rates on savings and CDs or money market accounts. Also, they're not invested in horrible projects all over the world (i.e., 3 gorges dam).

Which is the best CU in the Bay Area? Depends on where you live or work and what you need it for.

I like Cal State 9 for those here in Berkeley/Oakland. No over draft fees, free checks, free checking account, decent savings rate, excellent loan rates, a few branches, and just good people working there.

Why a credit union and what the hell are they if not just some little screwy bank with fewer branches?

CU's are owned by the customers, your money like you "shares" in the business. CU's are nonprofit orgs so they basically focus on giving good service (which is why you see fewer and lower fees and lower loan rates).
This puts banks, which have to pay profits to stockholders, at a disadvantage. Instead of paying stockholders, credit unions return earnings to their members in the form of dividends or improved services. Lower overhead means lower rates.
Usually, to join you need to be in a certain county or work group (like federal employees, firemen/police, etc). This is the main limit imposed on them by law, keeps them small which is good and bad, but mostly good.

CU's are insured like most banks that are "FDIC" insures, it's just called something else: NUCA insured.

Better Rates:
Check out http://www.creditunion.coop/ratedex.php for a a comparison of most big banks' rates to most CU's rates. Basically CU's win

Bay Area CUs:

15 May 2008

Getting "Getting Things Done" Started?

Well, this seems to be the most evangelically promoted book (by David Allen) since the Atkin's Diet, but too many folks I admire are into it for me not to give it some thought:

Getting Things Done

Well, here's where I've found good primers, intros, summaries, and ideas on how to begin. Mostly, it'll be good to clear out my gmail inbox and actually start using all the lists I make of things to do.

From what I gather, it's basically a way of making a to do list with emphasis on the do part. Everything is about getting all your plans on paper/gmail/google calendar and keeping that list up to date while just moving through it without fucking around during or inbetween your "next actions." (He's all about being ready to do something as soon as your done with whatever you're working on now ... stops you from screwing off I suppose). There's plenty more to it, that links above will tell you more than you ever wanted to know though.

I'll be archiving most of my emails tonight I guess.

13 May 2008

Get Rich Slowly and a few more money websites

So one site points to another and another and then you're on Get Rich Slowly and reading plenty of good financial tips.

My first few steps to begin after the wedding:
(1) Start an Emergency Fund - $1000-$2500 in a separate savings account for, well, emergencies.
(2) Open a high interest online savings account - probably ING, maybe another. Rates are supposed to go up soon, currently 3% or better is good.
(3) Start saving - $100/month for now if LRAP kicks in soon.
(4) Make a budget - good, simple spread sheets all over, I chose this one

Get Rich Slowly - general financial and frugal tips

Personal Finance (PF) Blogs - aggregator of other finance sites with no original content (which says that Blueprint for for Financial Prosperity is the most popular finance blog

Five Cent Nickel - General financial and frugal tips, look to their "most popular" rather than simply most current articles/posts (that's true of all these sites!)

No Credit Needed - railing against credit cards, good tips.

Mint.com's blog - mint is a good budget tracking tool, but they also aggregate some good financial advice.

The Frugal Law Student - seriously? Well, yes. Included for fun, not a ton of info on financials, but other good stuff about the law student era of your life.

Wise Bread - frugality, good stuff! This site has a dedicated following to the personality of it's author, the advise is fairly common, but well written often (not well written like literature, more like wacky radio show host).

The Simple Dollar - general financial site, some stuff about frugality, a bit more "adult" (i.e., wealthier people, not pr0n) stuff.

My Money Plan - kinda meta of other financial sites, a little too aggressive with credit cards and silly offers.

Consumerism Commentary - general financial tips, simpsons avatars which is a bonus

Clever Dude - general frugality, some more broad financial tips.

My Money Blog - general but good original content.

Money Smart Life - general financial and frugal tips

The Dough Roller - more about investment than frugality.

Credit Addict - meh, too much about credit cards, but an okay resource generally.

07 May 2008

Collection of fuel efficiency tips

So I always try to limit my gas use for financial and environmental reasons, so do you. Here is a short list of the ways I change my car and driving to save gas:
  1. Fewer trips - obvious: take the bike, carpool, many errands on same trip, walk, etc.
  2. Drive slower - the speed limit is a good easy estimate. Most automatic transmission cars are most efficient at the speed when they shift into their highest gear. For example, my 1991 Toyota Camry station wagon shifts into 5th gear at 55mpg - if I kept driving 55 and was always in 5th gear, that is where my car would be most efficient. Driving slower also makes you more efficient by limiting the impact of wind resistance - it increases exponentially about 55mph. My goal speed depends on how much of a rush I'm in (see below).
  3. Don't rush - makes you drive slower (above) but also prevents rapid acceleration or braking. Braking kills your efficiency, downshifting to accelerate does too - and these are things you do when you're rushed (i.e., trying to pass others, coming up too fast on a light or another, slower, car).
  4. Get a fuel consumption gauge to tell you your efficiency - I like the Scangauge II but it only works on cars that are relatively new (about 1992 and higher, using the OBD II connection system). Lets you see what changes in your habits and car do to your efficiency.
  5. Basic maintenance - change the oil, get a tune up. This is probably the easiest thing you can do and it will save you money in other repairs over time.
  6. Inflate your tires - even over inflate them a little (just a little, not more than 5psi unless you're feeling like you can risk death without inconveniencing your friends and family - a .05% increase in efficiency is probably not worth the risk of a .05% increased risk of death or injury if for no other reason than it will probably cost more to repair your car after a tire blows out then you'll save.
  7. Put a cover over your front grill - keeps the engine warmer (and sooner) which is good for max MPG and makes you a little more aerodynamic (but just a little on most cars). You can go crazy making your car more "aero" but the returns are usually limited. The grill cover gives you the most increase in efficiency for the lowest cost and time. I'm going to use coroplast (corogated plastic - get it at a sign store, they'll give you scraps for free usually - also useful for guinea pig cages).
  8. Get okay fuel - Sierra club rated the big gas companies, BP seems to be on top, Chevron and 76 in the middle, Shell super lame. I've heard from mechanics to get 76 or Chevron also, but I believe the "quality" of your gas depends more on the individual station and whatever sediment or other crap their tanks have collected over time. Who knows, Costco is probably a good bet too - at least the price is right and they have no reason to screw over members who give them such easy money.
  9. Draft trucks - dangerous to get too close, but following a big truck gives you a small increase in efficiency. Don't get too close - it's more efficient generally, but if you have to brake even a little it overcomes any advantage you gain from drafting.
  10. Want to do more? Become a "hypermiler" by looking for tips at www.ecomodder.com
  11. Longer list (100+!) here