Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Wonder of Ethanol: Lower Gas Mileage, Higher Food Prices, and Now Bonus Car Death!

Author: Nick
Category: Money

comic 30 - alternative energy

You’ve probably heard all about ethanol fuel by now—the “miracle” biofuel made out of corn that will transform our reliance on foreign oil into a reliance on foreign corn, or something. According to some pro-ethanol scientists, ethanol is cleaner burning than regular gasoline, it’s a lot cheaper (around here, a gallon of 85% ethanol fuel goes for a buck less than a gallon of good old American gasoline), and it’s the only thing saving the U.S. from terrorism and Asian bird flu.

Despite the alleged benefits of ethanol, it has some pretty serious drawbacks that have been known to fuel experts since day one:

  • It lowers fuel economy. That 10% ethanol being mixed into your gasoline might be helping to keep it 10 cents a gallon cheaper, but you’re probably getting 10-30% fewer miles per gallon because of it. Since all the gas stations around here switched to a 10% ethanol blend, my gas mileage has dropped by about 15%!
  • It makes food more expensive. Rice is to Asia what corn is to America. Since the government subsidizes farmers to sell their corn as fuel instead of food, it’s pretty obvious that corn and anything made of corn will go up in price. But even foods not made of corn are experiencing skyrocketing prices. That’s because a lot of animals eat corn. So when corn’s price goes up 50%, Mr. Moo Cow’s own price (both meat- and milk-wise) won’t be far behind.
  • Ethanol’s future is uncertain. You can find a study to support virtually every stance on ethanol. Some studies say that even every pound of U.S. corn converted to ethanol would still only power a tiny percentage of our automobile fleet. Others say that the U.S. landscape could be transformed into an ethanol factory to power every car, though yet other studies say such a conversion would destroy the ozone in two seconds flat. It’s not even certain whether corn ethanol produces a net energy gain or loss, and ethanols from other crops may eventually replace corn ethanol altogether.

One thing is becoming more and more certain about the mysterious biofuel: ethanol is likely ruining your vehicle’s engine. Because ethanol-blended gas doesn’t burn as hot, the vapors usually emitted by fuel aren’t burned up and instead deposit themselves into your engine and other vital car components. Mechanics are seeing a big uptick in expensive repairs caused by gunked-up engines in ethanol-driven cars.

So what can you do about this conspiracy to kill your car? Well…

  • Uhh… You could, like, not drive? Ethanol is making its way into just about every gas tank nowadays, and fuel station owners love the stuff because it’s temporarily keeping gas prices in the realm of affordability.
  • Hmm… Drill your own oil field, perhaps? Build your own refinery?
  • Er… Flex fuel vehicles? Well, those use 85% ethanol, so your engine might gunk up eight times faster than with 10% ethanol.
  • What about… Electric cars? Hydrogen fuel cells? Solar power? Even if they were a viable alternative today, they’d probably have even more mechanical problems than the occasionally gunked-up engine.
  • Or maybe… Nope, that won’t work either. Face it, your car is screwed.

Okay, so maybe you do have one option: bump up the frequency of those oil changes and other car-cleansing maintenance intervals. Unfortunately, whichever route you choose for your fuel needs, you’re going to be throwing more and more money at your car’s problems. Soon your best bet will be to just sell your car, stay home, and eat your foreign-grown, $5-an-ear corn with the rest of us.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Helping Your Wallet Survive a Science Fiction Convention

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 29 - sci-fi convention

I’m writing this article at a time and place where I never imagined I’d possibly write an article: from a sci-fi convention at four in the morning. The reasons why I’m here and awake at this stupid late hour are not important, but as I’m going through receipts and bar tabs and other bills that will come due over the next 48 hours, I can’t help but notice that these things cost a helluva lot of money. Here’s just a small sample of what we’ve spent money on here in the last few days:

  • Lodging. We are definitely learning to appreciate the value of sleep this weekend as we’re staffing the night shift of Convention Security/Operations. We’ve been sleeping 8am till 2pm for the last few days on a delightfully comfy bed—but the room costs $150 a night.
  • Food. We have tons of free food options (more on that later) but we’ve found ourselves paying for plenty of meals with friends too.
  • Drinks. Uh, yeah. I’ve had a drink or two this weekend. Okay, 42 of them.
  • Toys. These sci-fi cons come with big merchant rooms selling everything from books to props to jewelry to costumes to inflatable alien punchbags. Fortunately I’m actually not that into most sci-fi stuff (except for the occasional Trek foray), so our spending is usually light in this area.
  • Arts and crafts and auction prizes. We do, however, tend to go a little overboard in this area. Tonight was a charity auction that gave away all sorts of stuff I don’t need, except for a signed copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which I do need. Tomorrow’s the art auction; not sure how much damage that’ll do to me.
  • Registration for other conventions. Most sci-fi conventions will set up a table at other conventions to draw attendees looking to hit multiple cons each year. While we didn’t have to pay to attend this convention since we’re staff, we’ve been dangerously close to being convinced to attend some other area sci-fi cons for which we would need to pay to attend. But then we remember that we’re not really science fiction fans and that we’re just helping out at this convention as favors to friends from other conventions.

You’re probably thinking that a sci-fi dork can really rack up quite a bill from a four-day convention like this one. And you’re absolutely right. I’m sure there are people at this convention who are spending thousands of dollars just to be here and take home some junk. But not us. In the end, we’re probably going to walk away from this weekend just spending a few hundred dollars, almost all of it in those last two categories of discretionary spending listed above. Here’s how we’re saving tons of money at this and other similar sci-fi/fantasy/anime/whatever conventions while Joe Nerdboy is devoting all $6.25 an hour of his job at the video rental store to coming here.

  1. Work for the convention. This is, by far, the biggest money saver. Yes, this means you’re not at the convention just for fun, but most conventions aren’t going to be fun 24/7 anyway. After a while, you’re likely to get a little bored even if they’re showing all six Star Wars movies dubbed in Wookiee. Why not take some of that downtime and help keep the convention running. Full-time staffers like us generally put in six or more hours each day (except for a select few positions which are always on duty) and have the rest of the time to enjoy the convention, hotel amenities, and other area attractions. As a staff member, you’ll generally get free or discounted lodging, free or discounted meals, free admission, and maybe even an exclusive party or two.
  2. …Or volunteer. If being on the staff of a convention isn’t your cup of tea, Earl Grey, hot, then you can still reap some of the benefits by volunteering a few hours of your time helping out with odd jobs. I generally prefer to staff rather than volunteer, but both do have their perks.
  3. Follow the convention “chain.” Several conventions in the same geographic region may, in fact, be run by the same groups of people. For example, a lot of the people who staff this sci-fi convention also run the biggest D.C. area Japanese animation and culture convention. And if you’re a particularly helpful or distinguished staffer at one of them, you’re often treated to lots of free drinks or even meals by grateful folks at the next convention. Those 42 drinks I’ve had this weekend? I’ve only paid for two of them (though I’ve bought a few rounds for other folks too).
  4. Stay out of the merchant’s room. Even if you know that authentic Klingon bat’leth offered in the merchant’s room for $250 can be had on the internet for $175, you’re still going to be sorely tempted to pick it up at the convention because (1) you can show it off to your geeky friends, and (2) it’ll go great with the full ceremonial garb you’re wearing. So do your pocket book a favor and avoid the merchant’s room altogether.
  5. Bring food and drink. If you’re not willing to staff or even volunteer at a convention, be sure to bring lots of your own stuff to eat and drink. Hotel food is always pricey, and even eating out off site can set you back heavily. You can easily save a couple hundred bucks by packing your own snacks, nutritional staples, and alcohol. Yes, you will drink at the convention, so you might as well do it as cheaply as possible.
  6. Make lots of friends. Some people survive entire conventions feeding only at the inevitable room parties that pop up each night. Be social during the day so you get lots of invites to night-time get-togethers.
  7. Leave most of your credit cards at home. Just bring one with a credit line big enough to pay for your hotel bill and any other minor expenses you may occur, but not much more. This way there’s no way you can take home that $8,000 1:50 scale model of the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind if you lose your monetary senses.

Of course, the biggest cost of all attending a science fiction convention is to your social status. Having never attended a true sci-fi con before this weekend, we were at least at the level of dork. Now we’ve been demoted to geek status, but at least we’re not leaving here with a massive black hole in our bank account.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Punny Poll #32: Who Owns the Moon?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 28 - moon ownership

The results of the previous Punny Poll confirmed what I already suspected: we’re screwed. When asked if they’re worried about paying for their children’s college tuition, 35% of respondents said they’d be sending their kids to clown college. Another 22% have their eyes on state college, which isn’t such a bad thing. I mean, I’m a product of a public university and I can count all the way up to 450! About 10% of poll-takers weren’t worried and said they could afford to pay tuition bills, and another 14% said scholarships and loans would cover their children.

Popular Mechanics, a technology magazine which has since been replaced by the internet, featured an interesting article recently about ownership of the Moon. It talks about the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which says that no nation can claim the Moon or occupy it as we did, say, with America a few hundred years ago. (That didn’t stop the U.S. from sticking a flag on it in 1969.) The treaty does not, however, address personal or corporate ownership of the Moon. Not too long ago, a guy named Dennis Hope started selling chunks of land on the Moon for about $20 each. National sovereignty and real estate law aside, there’s also the practical consideration that you can’t really own property unless you’re around to defend it, and except for the secret Russian laser cannon on the far side of the Moon, nobody’s really in a position to secure it.

What the articles doesn’t discuss is the 2008 Punny Money Moon Treaty which says that ownership of the Moon goes to whichever answer in the following poll gets the most responses:
[Read more…]

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Alcohol at the Office: Exciting Innovation or Inviting Intoxication?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 27 - drinking at work

As a stockholder of Google Inc. (I own three whole shares), I occasionally get e-mails and letters regarding all sorts of fun Google investor news. Lately a lot of that news has been “our shares are plummeting, you should have sold at $700.” One item in particular I recently read on the Google Investor Relations page caught my eye:

Consumption of alcohol is not banned at our offices, but use good judgment and never drink in a way that leads to impaired performance or inappropriate behavior, endangers the safety of others or violates the law.

My first thought upon reading this was “sweeeeeet.” So were my second through seventeenth thoughts. Eventually, after fighting very hard to resist the temptation to submit my resume immediately, I considered the implications of allowing alcohol consumption at work. First there are the obvious benefits:

  • Alcohol can make co-workers easier to deal with. Oh man, I can think of a dozen people where I work that are fifty times more mellow and easier to work with when they’ve had a drink or five.
  • Alcohol inspires creativity. If you don’t believe me, just keep in mind that the following things were invented by drunk people: electricity, computers, the internet, and reality television. Just make sure you’re not too drunk that you can’t remember your great ideas or at least write them down for later.
  • Alcohol can benefit worker productivity. Allowing personnel to drink at work gives them one less reason to want to go home, so they’ll be more than happy to put in the longer hours today’s work environment demands.
  • Alcohol helps with the Monday Blues. After drinking your weekend away, the last thing you probably want to do is go to work Monday morning. But if you can bring your friends Heineken and Captain Morgan with you, Mondays won’t be quite so bad after all.
  • At least it’s not drugs. Employees who can drink at work will be far less likely to sneak out for a quick “smoke” break, and I ain’t talkin’ ’bout cigarettes. And while some people might argue that alcohol is a drug, I would argue that those people should shut the hell up and have a drink.

Of course, there are also some drawbacks to allowing employees to drink while working.

  • Alcohol can impair judgment. “Should we buy out our competitor for $100 million when it’s only worth $5 million? No! That would be stupid! [Five drinks later.] Yes! That would be awesome!”
  • Alcohol makes people tired and/or slow. While alcohol might keep your workers happier and working longer, they might spend some of those hours re-reading the same paragraph 47 times or sleeping under their desks. Counteract this unfortunate side effect of alcohol by blaring extremely loud heavy metal throughout your office building.
  • Drunk people sometimes fight more. This one sort of speaks for itself, so I’ll also note that a policy allowing alcohol at work is not compatible with policies allowing guns and knives at work. One or the other, people!
  • Alcohol can inspire all sorts of bad behavior. If your workplace already suffers from numerous sexual harassment or ethnic discrimination complaints, letting workers drink might not improve things.
  • Other people might look down on your business if everyone’s drinking all of the time. Then again, Google seems not to mind if its workers get sloshed on the clock and it has at least 70 billion users worldwide.

In the end, the decision on whether or not to allow alcohol in the workplace should be made on a case-by-case basis and only after careful consideration of numerous factors including but not limited to employee diversity, workplace safety, and worker productivity. And if your place of business decides that openly allowing you to bring a six-pack to your cubicle for lunch isn’t a good idea, you can just pre-mix your booze and sneak it past security in a soft drink bottle like everyone else you work with already does.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

How to Fake Pregnancy So You Can Get Free Ice Cream on May 21st

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 26 - free ice cream

You people probably think I’ve really lost it this time. But it’s true! Baskin Robbins is giving away free ice cream to expectant women on May 21, 2008. Between 11am and 10pm, customers in select cities can pop by their BR for a free three-ounce soft serve cup or cone—but only if you’re preggers!

Now if you’re like me, you like free things. And if you’re like my wife, you like ice cream. So when Baskin Robbins and Ben & Jerry’s both had free or cheap ice cream events a couple of weeks ago, we didn’t hesitate to stand in line with a bunch of other cheap bastards to get some of that frozen milk stuff. This time, however, it’ll be much harder to claim our prize. That’s because my wife is not pregnant.

I don’t know about you, but I think this promotion is a little too sexist. For one, it excludes a really swell bunch of folks known as men. Plus it rewards rampant baby-making and overpopulation. Worst of all, it excludes the portion of the population most deserving of ice cream: adorable little girls. I can imagine poor seven-year-old Katie crying to her mom that Baskin Robbins wouldn’t give her free ice cream unless she had sex with a man and got knocked up. Also, unless they can finally figure out how to make their own sperm, lesbians are SOL on this deal too.

Notice that I said it will be much harder to claim our prize, not impossible. No no, I’m not going to impregnate my wife just to get her some free ice cream. (Try explaining that one to your future child. “You weren’t an accident, sweetie. You were a coupon!”) Because this promotion is so dastardly and devious, I feel it is my civic duty to find a way to take advantage of it! And if you’re like me and your wife won’t let you near her until this promotion is over is not with child, here are some tricks you can use to fool the folks behind the Baskin Robbins counter into thinking you’ve got a bun in your oven. (Note: All of these tips work best if you’re a woman.)

  • Bump it up. BR is calling it “Bump Day” for a reason: you’ll need one on your belly to cash in on this deal. If you’re already fat in the right places, you should be able to pull this step off easily. If not, there are a variety of bump simulation devices (BSDs) available on the market today. Rolled-up t-shirts, zip-lock bags full of pudding, and hot water bottles are just a few items you can use to pull off the necessary look.
  • Act pregnant. When you walk into Baskin Robbins, you should do all of the things a woman normally does when she is toting around a baby in her uterus. For instance, if you bring the baby’s “father” along, you can cuss him out for “making you that way.” Or you can ask the person behind the ice cream counter if you can get that order with a side of pickles and hot dogs.
  • Get your glow on. You know how pregnant women have a sort of “glow” about them? Yeah, you can fake the glow pretty easily with various lotions and other things you probably have in your make-up box right now.
  • Provide photographic evidence. A picture from “your recent ultrasound” (oh hey, what a coincidence: a Google image search for “ultrasound”) should be enough to prove that you’re with child, even if it doesn’t show yet.
  • Bring a pregnancy test. If you’re not pregnant, it’s going to be very difficult to pass one of those over-the-counter do-it-yourself pee-on-a-stick tests, even if it’s for free ice cream. So get one of your pregnant gal pals to help you cheat by taking the test herself. Then bring the pre-completed test to your nearest Baskin Robbins, wave it around in the cashier’s face (it’ll be more convincing if it’s really dripping wet), and claim your prize.
  • Break water. Step 1: Strap a plastic bag full of water to your upper thigh under a dress. Step 2: Go to Baskin Robbins. Step 3: Puncture the bag. Step 4: Scream, “My water just broke! Give me my ice cream so I can go to the hospital!” They’ll probably give you one of those 10-gallon buckets just to get you out the door.
  • Just lie. If you’re not interested in any of the above ideas, you could just lie and say you’re pregnant. After all, pregnancy doesn’t really show until a few months in anyway. Of course, if they start equipping Baskin Robbins with ultrasounds, you might be in trouble.
  • Free ice cream for sluts, too. Even if you don’t look or act pregnant, you might still be able to get your free ice cream simply by asking for it, especially if you dress like a whore. If the employees ask if you’re pregnant, simply wink and reply, “Why, are you offering?”

Fair warning: if you try to con your way into some free ice cream with a phony bump and you end up getting pregnant shortly after, you totally had it coming. That said, you might want to avoid Baskin Robbins’ experimental new flavor that it’s offering only during this event: Vanilla Sperm Explosion.