Monthly Archives: February 2009

First Night of Craft Night

Tuesday night was our first try at Craft Night. I thought it would be a way for the gals to get together, work on projects, eat a bit and gab as much as we possibly can in a couple of hours. I was not disappointed with our first group effort.

Amy wields the button press
Watch out for Amy. She has tools and she knows how to use them!

You can't tell in this photo just how preggers Jessica is at this point.
Jessica very quietly crocheted a baby sweater for her youngest baby.

Ashley lets everyone know how she feels about her progress.
Ashely has just recently picked up her cross-stitch habit again. (I’m sorry Jon, I know it’s mostly my fault.)

Allis & Crystal diligently working on their projects.
Allis won the realistic crafter award of the night, she only brought enough stuff to get finished in one night. (The rest of us all thought we’d be farther along on our projects than we were by the end of the evening.) Crystal, our newbie stitcher, got off to a great start, even though she thought she’d be finished already.

Hallie started work on a couple of embroidered pillow cases and I continued work on my pieces for my cross-stitch purse box. (I’ve almost finished the second of four panels.) It was a fun night and I can’t wait for round two in a couple of weeks.

Lastly, here is Liza’s favorite new game.
Hobo baby rocks out.
She scoots the rocking chair up to the wall and rocks by pushing on the wall with her feet. She happily did it for about 20 minutes last night while I was cooking dinner. Also, see her one-sock action? She works very hard to get that one sock off. She doesn’t need both socks off, just the one. I don’t know why she does this, but it drives me crazy.

You Don’t Know What an Ad Hominem Argument Is, You Moron

Look, idiot, it’s clear to everyone here: you don’t know what an ad hominem argument is. We’ve tried to be polite about it on the assumption that someone as lead-brick thick as you deserves some slack, but c’mon.

Let me see if I can explain this in teeny tiny words that you might understand, you giant cesspool of stupid. When you argue, you may want to say that the other guy’s wrong because of who he is or what he believes, and because you are a sucking chest wound disguised as a person you go ahead and do it. Someone says, “I don’t support the death penalty, because people are so often falsely convicted that you’re likely to kill an innocent man.” You, being a pudding-slurping three year old, trot out something like this:

“Sure you’d say that. You’re a liberal.”

See that? That’s an ad hominem argument. You’re not saying why they’re wrong, just that they’re wrong because of who they are or what they believe.

Then maybe the guy you’re arguing with replies:

“That’s a stupid argument, you idiot.”

See that? That is not an ad hominem argument, you towering genius of stupidity. An insult isn’t an ad hominem argument, and not just because it’s true in your case. If you’re not saying that the other guy is wrong because of who he is, it’s not ad hominem.

I know you don’t see the difference, since you’re ten pounds of stupid in a two-pound baggie. But maybe this will shame you into not screaming “ad hominem!” every time someone points out your myriad shortcomings.

I’m not holding my breath, though, even though I’m downwind of you.

A Few More Random Things About Investing

My Two Rules of Investing post resulted in several good questions from people, both in comments and in email. I’ve got answers which are worth every penny you’re paying for.

How much should I be investing? Oh, goodness, there’s a question with no good answer. It depends on what your current financial situation is, how old you are, and all kinds of other situations. My general recommended approach is this. First, pay off any and all credit card debt, and do so as fast as you can. Then build up some three to six months’ worth of living expenses in a decent savings account. Then move to investing, and save what you can.

The important thing to realize is that any money you use to buy stocks and bonds should be money you won’t need for years. In the last year or so, the New York Stock Exchange lost half of its value. If you needed to sell stocks today to cover some unexpected costs, you’d be in a world of hurt.

Should I invest in an IRA? Absolutely. Any money you’re planning on using for retirement and not touching until then should go into an Individual Retirement Account.

They come in two flavors: traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs. In traditional IRAs, you don’t pay taxes on the money you put in them today, but you do pay taxes when you withdraw the money. In Roth IRAs, you pay taxes now, and later withdraw the money tax free. In financial jargon, traditional IRAs are tax-deferred investments (because you pay the tax later instead of now), while Roth IRAs are tax-exempt investments (because you don’t pay taxes on the money later). The rule of thumb I always see is that, for most everyone, Roth IRAs are better than traditional ones. You’re putting money in your IRA hoping that it’ll grow. With a traditional IRA, you have to pay taxes on those profits. With a Roth IRA, you don’t.

If I just want to invest some money without having to worry too much about it, what should I do? If you can, get a lifestyle fund. For instance Vanguard has a range of all-in-one funds. You pick a lifestyle fund based on when you’re going to retire. Vanguard then adjusts the stock, bond, and cash blend automatically, so you don’t have to rebalance anything. Even better, they use index funds, so the expense ratio is around 0.18%.

The only problem is that you’ve got to have $3,000 to get into one of those funds, and that can be tricky. In that case, you can either sock money away in a savings account until you reach that point, or start with a fund that will let you invest as little as $50 to $100 a month.

Saturday Breakfast

Ever wonder what we do around here on Saturday morning? I know, how have you gotten on this long without having this knowledge?

Here’s the answer to your burning question: Donuts.

Donut Bar

I’ve always meant to fry some biscuits to make donuts and haven’t ever done it. (Is there anything more Southern than this? Maybe frying pickles, that’s the best I can think of.) This morning I got brave and tried it. The results: powdered sugar everywhere. The kids like to dunk their own.

Eli shows how he can eat a donut.

Liza especially loved licking the outer coating of sugar off of the donuts. She was unsure how to proceed after she got all of the sugar off though.

LIza chows down.

She finally figured it out and ate her fair share.

Liza likes donuts.

References in The Lonely Island’s Incredibad

So perhaps you bought Incredibad, the comedy record from The Lonely Island, because you liked their stuff on Saturday Night Live, and now you’re left wondering why the album includes some really terrible interludes, and what the joke behind “Like a Boss” is. Luckily you’ve got a white thirtysomething physicist to explain the references to you.

The cover for The Lonely Island album Incredibad.The record is fundamentally a hip hop album. Its nineteen tracks are produced by twelve different people, and nearly half of the tracks include guest stars. Its first track, “Who Said We’re Wack?”, is aimed at the group’s detractors, a mainstay of rap albums (like 50 Cent’s “What Up Gangsta?” from Get Rich or Die Trying). It even has a handful of interludes, the kinds of skits that Prince Paul and De La Soul first made popular on the 1989 album 3 Feet High and Rising. The only thing missing is a dis track.

A number of the album’s songs ape specific hip hop genres for comedic effect, like Peter Schickle’s parodying of classical music or “Weird Al” Yankovic’s style parodies of artists such as Devo and Frank Zappa. “I’m on a Boat” draws on the style of crunk rap performed by Lil’ Jon and others, and is reminiscent of newer crunk-influenced bands like 3OH!3. “Dick in a Box” echoes the sexually-charged songs of early ’90s contemporary R&B groups such as Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up”. Some tracks draw more directly from one specific song: “Like a Boss” takes the Slim Thug song of the same name and foregrounds the corporate metaphor, “Incredibad” mimics the content and style of the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere” to explain how three white guys got together to become rappers, and “Natalie’s Rap” is structured like Eazy-E’s “No More ?’s” while incorporating elements from other late ’80s L.A. gangsta rap groups like Eazy-E’s own N.W.A.

In several cases the guest stars and producers are part of the joke. “I’m on a Boat” plays its crunk influences, but T-Pain’s heavily Auto-Tuned crooning of “on a boat, on a boat” plays against the style. “Santana DVX”, which parodies rappers’ obsession with champaigne by extolling the virtues of Carlos Santana’s brand of champaign, is produced by J-Zone, one of the more comedic rap producers, and the guest, E-40, sang his own ode to an unusual drink for a rapper in “Carlos Rossi”. “Ras Trent”, which details the adventures of a white college student trustafarian’s delusions, was produced by Sly and Robbie, who are among the best reggae producers.

There. Aren’t you glad I was here to dissect that frog?

Two Rules of Investing

Since the economy’s doing so well, let’s talk investing! Everything I know about investing in stocks and bonds can be boiled down to two rules.

1. Buy index funds.
2. Diversify.

To understand index funds, you have to know what an index is: a collection of companies or bonds that someone tracks to get an idea of how the market is doing. Standard and Poor’s 500 Index is one of the best known by virtue of its age. It takes 500 large companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange and combines their stock price and number of shares to create a single number. But there are lots of other indices, such as the Russell 2000 that tracks small companies, or the Wilshire 5000 that tracks almost all of the NYSE stocks. At its simplest, an index fund buys all of the stocks listed in one of these indices and holds them. It’s a form of investing called passive investing, and is exciting as a bowl of dirt. There’s not any real buy-and-sell action, and you can’t beat the market with an index fund. The best you can do is get a return that matches the index.

Why index funds? Why not individual stocks? What about actively-managed mutual funds, where fund managers are buying and selling stocks to try to beat the market’s average return? I gave up on buying individual stocks early because I suck at picking stocks. I don’t have a lot of time to research companies, and even if I did, I’m going up against all of the mutual fund managers and other investors whose full time job is researching companies. Me buying an individual stock is like me betting on the ponies. I’m putting money into a company hoping the company’s stock value goes up.

That leaves actively-managed funds. As one financial advisor explained to me, if you buy an index fund, you’re spending the most on the stocks that are the most expensive. Wouldn’t you be much better off spending more on cheaper stocks so that, if they go up, you get a much greater return?

The problem is that mutual fund managers don’t actually do that very well. Getting the market’s average doesn’t sound exciting, but how many mutual funds meet even that modest goal? It turns out that most fund managers don’t beat their benchmark index, and they have no real ability to time the market. And even if they do beat their benchmark in one year, there’s little evidence that they can continue to do so over the long run.

It gets worse, though. Every mutual fund charges ongoing fees, expressed as the fund’s expense ratio. Every year, a percentage of the fund’s assets go towards paying the fund managers, paying the research team, paying for marketing, and so on. Those annual fees handicap a fund’s returns right out of the gate. For instance, if a fund has a return of 5% one year and its fees are 2%, the real rate of return is 3%.

In 2007 the simple average of stock funds’ annual fees was 1.46%, though individual fees can go much higher. Index funds, on the other hand, have extremely low fees when done properly. For instance, Vanguard’s 500 Index Fund has an expense ratio of 0.15%. That means your average actively-managed large-company fund has to be 1% better than the market average to beat the Vanguard index fund. And the actively-managed funds can’t even beat the average most of the time!

So why not just buy a single stock index and be done with it? Because you may need that money at a time when the stock market is in the tank. Ideally you’d have some investments that perform well when others are doing poorly. What you’re looking for is a set of investments that are uncorrelated, so that the performance of one is unrelated to the other.

That’s what diversification attempts to do. Instead of holding a handful of stocks, or just some bonds, hold different groups of assets. You should at least own a mix of US stocks (both in large and small companies), bonds, international stocks and bonds, and cash. You sacrifice some potential gain (but not much!) in return for greatly reducing how much your portfolio’s value will fluctuate. And the costs of not diversifying can be dramatic.

What’s tricky is deciding how much to put into what investments — what your asset allocation should be. There are various calculators to help you decide, like the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System’s. But once you’ve set your allocation, don’t fiddle with it. Trying to time the market will cost you a lot of money. Instead, do two things. One, invest systematically. A smaller monthly investment is much better than a yearly lump sum or, heaven help you, trying to time the market. Two, once a year you should rebalance your portfolio. Some of your investments will do well (or at least less poorly) than others, so your percentage of money allocated to different assets will change. Sell off the winners and reinvest in the losers to bring your percentages back in line with your goals. It sounds stupid, but what you’re doing is buying low and selling high.

There are myriad tweaks you can make to those two rules, but they’re where I would start. They won’t guarantee that you’ll always make money, or protect you as the global financial markets merrily burn, but they’re better than just about any other current approach.

To Eli on His Fifth Birthday

After the success of outsourcing last year’s birthday party to JumpZone!, we decided to do something similar this year. We let you choose where we’d have the party, which is how we ended up at Chuck E. Cheese’s. You’ve been a fan of the pizza rat for a while, even if his restaurant makes your parents’ heads hurt, so we said yes. You were so excited, and you had so many tokens to spend!

Ten minutes later you’d spent all of your tokens and were miserable.

This has been the Year When You Learned to Read. You’d been showing signs of reading for a while, but we weren’t sure whether you were really reading or just reciting from memory. On our Christmas trip back to Arkansas, you and I got into Pop Don’s car to go to the grocery store. You saw the Calvin sticker on the back of his truck and said, “Look, dad! That says ‘Fords suck!'” And thanks to you reading, your mom and I can now sleep late. You happily go to the kitchen, grab the giant tub of pretzels, take it back to your room, and read quietly to yourself while scattering pretzel crumbs everywhere. This is what we call “advanced parenting”.

I don’t know if it’s due to your reading, but your story-telling tendencies have really increased. One morning you came into our bathroom while I was getting ready for work. You opened a drawer and found a three-pack of floss. “Look!” you said. “This floss is green, and this one is a different kind of green, but this one is white.” You hauled them all out and onto the counter. “The flosses are going on a trip. Look, here they go, they’re going up Scope Mountain.”

Your creativity extends to re-writing the rules to board games. You got May to play one boardgame with you. She sceptically asked, “Is this really how you play the game?” after you explained how the pieces all had to hop over each other and then you spun the spinner and then you got to take all of the game tiles. “Oh, yes,” you said.

Most every night, after Liza has gone to bed, we play videogames. I say “we play,” when what I mean is that “I play videogames, and you tell me what to do.” Sometimes you even let mom play. Your love of story above all else has helped decide what we play. You loved Psychonauts, but had no interest in Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz despite its much higher monkey-to-gameplay ratio. We’re working our way through Kingdom Hearts now, so all of your questions are about the Heartless and why that skeleton guy is so tall.

Even though you’re now five, you still need naps, even if we can’t convince you of that. Whenever you are tired or hungry — or both! — then you grown twenty extra arms and can’t be still. If we could keep you from sleeping or eating for two days, I’m convinced you’d develop superpowers and go on to have a dramatic and fulfilling life until finally merging with the Speed Force.

This year we took you to the theatre for the first time. We saw Wall-E, which you loved because ROBOTS. Even before the movie you were fascinated with robots. You have robot t-shirts. Mom made you robot thaumatrope invitations for your birthday party and robot buttons as gifts for everyone who came. Every morning, as I leave for work, you tell me, “Be careful! Don’t run into any robots!”

I’ve been fascinated watching you become a more independent person. You play on your own more, and there are times that you shoo your mom and me away. You’re learning how to deal with your emotions. Temper tantrums have become a regular fixture, as have demands and threats. It’s all we can do to keep from laughing, though, when you tell us, “If you don’t do what I want, then I’m not going to play with you now!” That threat is emptier than Pellucidar, coming from a boy who has trouble breathing if people aren’t watching him do it. You’ve also started talking back to us. “Whatever,” you say, channeling your thirteen-year-old self.

Say, did you know you have a sister? Liza now walks and talks and forces you to interact with her. She idolizes you, you know. And there are times when you are lovingly, achingly sweet towards her. Two minutes later you’re picking her up and dragging her around like a sack of wet cats. “She won’t get out of my room!” you yell over her shrieks.

I’ve been hard on you a lot this year. I’ve been tired and sick, and too often I’ve taken it out on you. I think that’s what happens to parents. When I’ve been really strict, I look at you, see an echo of how you looked when you were one, and realize that you’ll be gone before I know it.

Eli, Liza and dad play videogames

Liza is a Talking Fool

These days, Liza says a lot of words. You can only understand a handful of them, of course, and then only if she points to the object she’s referring to, but she’s gone beyond what she could say in June!

Er, except she still likes talking about butterflies.

But there are a lot of other animals she likes to talk about! Like birds.

And ducks.

And elephants.

And frogs.

And monkeys. (Gosh, she knows what a lot of animals say.)

And pterodactyls!

And dinosaurs! (Generic ones, I guess.)

Of course, she’s interested in things other than animals. For example, she talks about food a lot. She’s fond of blueberries.

While she likes bananas in general, when they’re baked into bread, she’s in love.

Nothing, though, beats cake. Just tonight we were reading a book and she became very excited when she saw a cake on one page.

She’s started singing songs, and when she gets started, it can be hard to get her to stop. Here’s the first part of her singing “Deep and Wide”.

Liza likes “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, but she tends to get distracted by making twinkly star hand motions.

A number of her songs come from Yo Gabba Gabba, like this one.

One of her favorite songs from the show is I Like Fish. The lyrics are: “I like fish. I! Like! Fish! I like fish! I! LIKE! FISH!” You can imagine what we think of the song.

When I was recording Liza, she was fascinated by the microphone.

Liza’s fond of splashing in the tub. Of course, she has to narrate what she’s doing.

Back in the summer, she liked asking, “What’s that?” She doesn’t do that any more. Now she asks, “What’s this?”

I love how she says “yes” and “no”.

And now the sound that kills me every time she makes it.

Update of What I’ve Been Working On

Body Farm Poster
This poster was for the “My Bloody Valentine” library event that happened this past Friday night. We were playing up Friday the 13th and Valentine’s Day happening back to back this year. I was really pleased with the way the poster turned out. A friend attended the event and emailed me that Dr. Bass, one of the Body Farm authors, loved it and the crowd gave it a round of applause when he mentioned it. Thinking about it is still giving me a thrill.

Friendship Cross Stitch
A cross stitch piece I finished about a week ago. I wish now I had photographed it with a quarter so you can tell how small it is. It’s just under four inches tall. It was my first attempt at miniature cross stitch.

S is for
A blank book I made with my new Bind-It-All machine. I used watercolor paper for the inside pages and the cover is made from a Charley Harper Puzzle Piece. Here’s the back.