Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Giant Anti-Hurricane Wall Around the Gulf of Mexico Would Pay For Itself

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

comic 57 - like a hurricane

As Gulf Coast residents prepare to do battle with yet another tropical menace, a few questions may come to mind. For instance, why in this era of polio vaccines and internet pizza delivery have we not found a way to prevent hurricanes? I mean, they’re just large masses of condensed water vapor with some snazzy visual and sound effects.

Well, it’s not like science hasn’t tried. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, artificial attempts to dissipate hurricanes have included everything from dropping a tarp across the ocean to block evaporation to blowing the things to hell with nukes. Unfortunately, as hurricanes are made by God when He is really really angry, nothing that man has constructed can stand up to them.

Until now.

Instead of attempting to destroy or dissipate a hurricane, we should instead try to block or redirect them to locations nobody cares about. The simplest way to accomplish such a task would be to build a giant wall in the path of the hurricane.

Now I know what you’re thinking: What is Nick smoking today, and where can I get some? But I assure you that I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and I think an Anti-Hurricane Wall could help prevent trillions of dollars in property damage, not to mention countless lost lives.

The best place to start testing an Anti-Hurricane wall would likely be the Gulf of Mexico as it’s home to vital oil refineries and lots of people dumb enough to live below sea level. Here’s how an Anti-Hurricane Wall would work in the Gulf:

  1. Build a giant wall between Florida and Mexico. The wall would have holes near the bottom to allow sea traffic and dolphins to travel through it freely.
  2. The wall would be made of tough anti-hurricane materials such as plywood and bungee cords.
  3. When a hurricane reaches the wall, it would run into the wall and would—much like a person or rambunctious kitten impacting a wall—fall down and start crying or something.
  4. Eventually the hurricane would give up and go home or at least to some other country that can’t afford an Anti-Hurricane Wall.

See, isn’t that simple? Of course, building an enormous Anti-Hurricane Wall the size of the Gulf of Mexico would present a few challenges:

  • The wall would need to be about 500 miles long if built from, say, Key Largo, Florida to Cancun, Mexico.
  • The wall would need to be about five miles high as that’s about how high the outer portions of a hurricane tend to reach. Sure, the eye of a hurricane can reach almost twice that height, but if the surrounding part of the storm can’t get by the wall, neither can the eye.
  • Building a 2,500 square mile wall in the middle of the ocean could be quite expensive. Even if we used some 10% off coupons at Home Depot, it would likely cost around, oh, $100 billion for the 70 billion square feet of plywood and other materials needed to build this thing. But considering that Hurricane Katrina did over $80 billion in damage by itself, this thing could pay for itself in a couple of years.
  • Insurance companies could probably be convinced to pay for some or most of the wall as they’d stand to save the most from blocking hurricanes from making landfall.

Of course, there are a few negative consequences to building the Great Wall of the Gulf of Mexico. For example, I don’t think Cuba would see much sunlight ever again, and they might not like that (especially since they’d be on the wrong side of the wall). Plus some people would argue that the only wall we should be building in that region is across the U.S. border with Mexico, though I would argue that hurricanes are at least a little more dangerous than illegal immigrants. Oh, and heaven forbid a hurricane managed to knock down the wall; the ensuing tidal wave would likely wipe out the entire Gulf Coast, but let’s not dwell on the negatives any longer.

Depending on the effectiveness of the Gulf Coast Anti-Hurricane Wall, I would later recommend constructing one off the U.S. East Coast since, well, that’s where I live and I think I deserve giant protective walls as much as any Texan or Louisianian. So start calling your senators and representatives today and ask for Anti-Hurricane Walls before it’s too late. Oh, and let them know that plywood’s on sale at Lowes this week: buy 5,000,000, get 5,000,000 free!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

All The Free Magazines You Could Ever Want Without Having to Rob a Liquor Store

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

If it seems like I’m not popping up in your daily reading list as often this week, I do apologize. You see, I’ve simultaneously caught every virus and bacteria known to man which is making it slightly difficult to hold a pen for drawing comics, type on a keyboard to write articles, and resist the urge to rip out my own lungs and beat them with a shovel. Happy times!

So in the meantime, join me in enjoying a website which has entertained me for the last 24 hours or so with tons of free electronic versions of your favorite print magazines. The website is called Mygazines, a clever play on the words “magazine” and “gay,” I think. At this website, you’ll find lots of current magazine issues including popular ones like Money, Smart Money, Even Smarter Money, and Naughty Neighbors. Yes, that’s right, financial and pornographic magazines, all in one place, all for free. No need to thank me.

Tune in for more Punny Money programming just as soon as these 73 prescription drugs start kicking in…

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Super-Widescreen Laptops: My Lap Isn’t THAT Big!

Author: Nick
Category: Money

comic 34 - desktop replacement

Like many others, I switched to using notebook (or so-called “laptop”) computers years ago after realizing that having a computer I could bring with me anywhere meant I’d never have to decipher my own chicken scratch in a paper notebook ever again. That was the clear distinction between a notebook and a desktop computer: portability. Sure, you could throw your LCD monitor, 20-pound desktop tower, keyboard, and mouse into a large backpack and take it anywhere you like, but the idea of hauling around something in the sub-six-pound range was a lot more appealing.

My current notebook has a screen that’s roughly 14 inches wide. (As with TVs, the width of a computer screen is measured diagonally from one corner to the opposite.) When I first got it nearly five years ago, that was a relatively standard size for notebook screens. Today, notebooks are much more commonly found in sizes ranging from 15 to 17 inches, and there are already several notebooks on the market above 20 inches! These monsters won’t fit into most standard notebook carrying bags… or most non-standard bags. In fact, your best bet for hauling around these giants is stealing a pillowcase from your bedroom and shoving it in that!

While the 20-inchers are typically priced at the high end ($2,000+), an alarming trend has appeared in recent months: wider notebooks are actually cheaper than their smaller counterparts. Most of the major manufacturers—Dell, HP/Compaq, Gateway, Sony, and others—offer customizable screen sizes for the same notebook configuration, and you’ll generally have to pay anywhere from $50 to $200 more to downsize from a 15.4-inch screen to a 14.1 or 13.3. The reasons for the price premium are many:

  • Smaller screens mean smaller parts needed. The extra inch or two provided to wider notebooks means you can cram bigger parts in that are easier and cheaper to manufacture.
  • Smaller screens are often viewed as more desirable. People really do want the smaller notebooks, but since notebook makers aren’t really listening to that demand, they can charge more for the smaller ones because people will buy them right up.
  • Businesses are willing to pay more for smaller screens. Companies with lots of money to invest in notebooks for its employees are usually first in line for the smaller-sized notebooks. Smaller notebooks work best for companies because they take up less office real estate and won’t cripple their workers who carry them to and fro.

The funny thing about these 17-inch+ notebooks is that the classic “laptop” designation given to notebook-sized computers really no longer applies to them unless you’ve got an extra-large lap. And I doubt there’s anyone with a 20-inch lap who has fingers small enough to use a notebook keyboard. A new phrase was coined to describe these big machines—“desktop replacements,” meaning they’re as powerful as your three-year-old desktop computer, but you can probably still tote it around if needed.

So the next time you’re in the market for a notebook computer, you’ll definitely want to give ample consideration to the appropriate screen size and weight for your needs. All too often, I’ve run into people who only paid attention to things like processor speed and disk drive space when purchasing their notebooks, and they’re always complaining that they hate lugging around their 17-inch, nine-pound monstrosity.

dell mini laptop
As for me, since my notebook is still in Stage 3 of its lifecycle, I’m hoping a good deal on a sub-15-inch notebook will come along this summer because I absolutely refuse to buy one that’s bigger than what I have now. In fact, I might try to hold out for Dell’s upcoming mini-laptop offering, shown here at almost actual size! Okay, at nine inches, it’s slightly bigger than pictured, but it’s still a far cry from those 20-inch behemoths that’ll keep chiropractors in business for the next half-century.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Five Stages of a Product’s Life: Saving You Money on Replacing Expensive Household Items

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

comic 22 - product life stages

The end is near for my five-year-old laptop computer. I built this thing myself from parts just before my last semester of college. I’ve replaced just about every part since then at least once except for the casing and screen. Unfortunately I’ve just about reached the end of the line for what upgrades and repairs can do to keep it going. The keyboard is missing several key caps (I pulled off one of the “Ctrl” keys and put it where the “E” was), the power supply jack is wiggly, the memory capacity has been maxed out at 2GB, and the hard-to-reach internal Wi-Fi died long ago. Still, the laptop is capable of performing as well as a laptop you’d pay $800 for today, but it’s only a matter of time until a major component fails or more of the casing starts to fall apart and I’ll replace it altogether. My laptop is at Stage 3: Wait and See.

For a few years now, I’ve used a system of assigning ratings to expensive items I own in order to track where they are in their useful lifespan and make budgetary plans for items I may soon need to replace. For instance, a brand new item at the peak of its performance is in Stage 1: Good As New while that same item that just broke in half and no longer works probably belongs in Stage 5: End of Life (though it might only be in Stage 4: Obsolescence).

What exactly do these ratings mean, and how can they save you money? Let’s look at each rating and consider the circumstances under which you would use each of them.

Stage 1: Good As New

If you just went to the store and bought a product off the shelf, it should fall into this category. And if you properly use and maintain that item, it should stay in this category for a long time to come. Items that are Good As New are in flawless or nearly flawless condition and are as good as or even better than similar items currently on the market. Every feature of the item still performs as well as the day is was built. Good As New is obviously the best category of products to own, but it certainly isn’t the cheapest.

Product Examples:

  • A new car fresh off the dealer’s lot.
  • A refrigerator you just bought new at the appliance store.
  • A refurbished DVD player you bought for $100 less than a brand new model.
  • Your grandmother’s set of cookware, painstakingly maintained and better than anything you can buy on the market today.

Notice that Good As New doesn’t necessarily mean “brand new.” In fact, the age of a product is often irrelevant to its life stage. What matters is the condition. Some items, including many appliances and tools, can be kept in Good As New condition for decades with careful maintenance. (Others, like pretty much any consumer technology product or gadget, can be in perfect condition yet still fall out of Good As New status. More on that later.)

When to Replace: Items in the Good As New stage should almost never be replaced. Instead, money that would have been spent replacing the item can be used to repair and maintain the item to keep it in Good As New condition. If you’re in the habit of replacing items that are Good As New, you might as well take your existing products to the store, give them to the store for free, and then buy the items back from the store. Yes, replacing Good As New items is that dumb.

Less than 1% of new products you buy should be to replace items in the Good As New stage.

Stage 2: In Working Order

You probably think most of the items in your household right now fall into this product life stage. (And you might be right.) Products In Working Order still do the job they were originally tasked to do. They work well, they might be a little old, but there’s something newer or better out there. If you had an infinite supply of time and money, you would throw these items in the trash and buy some Good As New ones instead.

Product Examples:

  • A 12-speed whatchamacallit when they just came out with a 15-speed.
  • A fairly-equipped five-year-old car with no mechanical problems.
  • A basic toaster that still toasts toast.
  • Any functioning iPod that’s more than six months old.

Even without much maintenance or care, many products will stay in the In Working Order stage virtually forever. Unless something malfunctions or degrades due to wear and tear, that basic two-slice toaster could very well toast your great-grandchildren’s toast. Don’t try to tell them that though, because they’ll be using their 30-slice laser toaster while you’re still using Old Toasty.

When to Replace: If a product in your house is In Working Order, you should try to hold off replacing it for as long as possible. The toaster still toasts your bread like it did when you got it ten years ago; it just doesn’t toast the face of your child’s favorite Sesame Street characters into it like some of the new ones do. Or maybe it toasts 99 slices out of 100 properly, but it turns that unlucky one slice into charcoal. Instead of replacing In Working Order items with Good As New ones, you may be able to repair it or even enhance it with replacement parts (like I’ve done with my laptop).

Sometimes, though, it does make sense to replace In Working Items simply because newer versions with useful features or lower maintenance and operation costs exist. Since the current item is still doing the job, you should take your time to research newer versions and wait for a really good deal to come along. But only 5% of products you buy should be to replace items In Working Order.

Stage 3: Wait and See

Items that fall in the Wait and See stage of life are still quite useful and typically in fairly good condition, but they may have some problems or may be moderately out-of-date. You may be able to hold out for some time with an item that is Wait and See, but there are certainly a growing number of advantages to finding a replacement in Good As New or In Working Order condition.

Product Examples:

  • My good old 1991 Nissan Sentra.
  • A low-efficiency but working furnace that still keeps you warm during the winter.
  • VHS tapes, or any other entertainment medium for which players are becoming rarer.
  • My cell phone; it calls people and that’s about it.

Hanging on to items that are just Wait and See can sometimes be painful. Your neighbor certainly isn’t helping when he brings home a 10-speaker surround-sound entertainment system while you’re still watching TV on your 19-inch Sorny-brand tube.

When to Replace: Wait and See items belong on your Christmas list, even if Christmas isn’t for another six months. That said, you may want to replace the item yourself, especially if a newer item comes with great features that’ll save you time or money. But before you zip on down to the nearest big-box store, you’ll need to do your homework. Can your current product be repaired at a reasonable cost? (And if so, is there a good chance it will break again before long?) If repairs are out of the question, shop in-store and online for a replacement, comparing a variety of items and feature sets. Since your current item is still doing (most of) its job, you can afford to take your time here. Once you’ve found the right replacement product, consider selling the old one on your favorite internet market place or at a yard sale to help recoup some of the cost of your new purchase.

No more than 15% of products you buy should be to replace items at the Wait and See stage.

Stage 4: Obsolescence

You probably don’t have too many items in this category lying around the house; if you do, they’re probably gathering dust in the attic and you may have a bit of a pack-rat problem. Items in the Obsolescence stage suffer either from moderate to major mechanical failures that would be expensive to repair, very high maintenance or operation costs compared to newer versions, or incredibly outdated feature sets. Even if they still perform some of their original functions, you’re almost embarrassed to still own these products.

Product Examples:

  • The car you spend $4,000 to repair every year. And there goes the transmission…
  • Your desktop computer that can run Windows 98. Barely.
  • A two-slice toaster that only toasts one slice at a time, and it takes 15 minutes to do it.
  • Your 30-year-old vacuum that still sucks up 99% of dirt in your carpet… and redeposits 40% of it on your hardwood floors.

When to Replace: The typical item that has reached the Obsolescence stage in your average American household will get replaced inside of a week. That’s not always a bad thing, but it does mean that most people don’t shop around first for a good deal. Just because your washer and dryer are on their last legs doesn’t mean you have to replace them today. You might be able to bum a couple of loads off of neighbors, or you could always hit up your friendly local laundrymatista. For entertainment or convenience products, you may be able to wait quite a while for a bargain price to come along before pulling the trigger.

Still, you may not be in a position to wait months or even weeks to replace items you use frequently such as major appliances, automobiles, or computers. As usual, consider the repair cost and frequency before dropping a wad of cash for a Good As New replacement. If fixing the product isn’t possible and its days are numbered, start frequenting internet deal sites, keeping a close eye out for prices that are “good enough.” You might not be able to score the deal of the year based on your timetable, but you don’t need to settle for the first new item you see.

30-50% of products you buy should be to replace items at the Obsolescence stage.

Stage 5: End of Life

It’s over. Finito. Kaput. Your product has gone to that great junkyard in the sky. You might as well not even own the item anymore. (It might be cheaper that way for some things, since large appliances can be difficult to haul away.) If it’s a product you absolutely need right now, then you better hit the road (assuming it isn’t your car that bit the bullet) and do some serious shopping. Hopefully you saw the untimely demise of your product coming (i.e. it didn’t just jump from Stage 1 to Stage 5 overnight) so you’re already looking around for a replacement.

Product Examples:

  • The only thing coming out of your toaster toasted is itself.
  • Your car just exploded. A lot.
  • You now have two whole-house heaters: your furnace and your air conditioner.
  • You just burnt dinner, your whole house is smokey, and the smoke detector with the new battery just sat there silently.

When to Replace: As with items in the other stages, consider if repairs are possible and economical. If they’re not, determine your timeline for replacement. Much like items in Obsolescence, End of Life items may not need to be replaced right away if they’re products you don’t use all that often. If your portable MP3 player just played its last tune, you’re certainly not going to die if you wait a week or two for a good deal on a new one unless you have some sort of strange disease where you need to hear music all of the time or else your brain implodes, which you don’t. Even items you think you need to replace today—dishwashers, microwaves, televisions—can probably wait a bit… at least until you have a chance to scour the internet for a baseline of prices.

And if the idea of dropping a ton of money on a Good As New item makes your stomach turn, you could always look for an item In Working Order or Wait and See condition. Some products, like cars and electronics, are easy to find used at a good price and in good shape.

50% or more of products you buy should be to replace items at the End of Life stage.

By keeping your product replacement habits in line with the suggested budget percentages listed in this article, and by taking care of the things you already own, you can help control the natural consumer impulses to buy the newest, biggest, and best items available. And if following this advice means that you end up with a house full of items in Stages 2 to 5, don’t be embarrassed; be proud that you’ve resisted the urge to splurge needlessly.

As for me, I’m still on the lookout for a new laptop, so hopefully no more keyboard letters fall off until I can find one at a dcnt pric. Oh crp.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sharper Image Bankruptcy Renews My Faith in Basic Consumer Intelligence

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

well, if they were really sharp, they would not be going bankrupt, now would they?

It’s likely old news to everyone by now that electronic oddity store The Sharper Image is going bankrupt. You may have heard about it on the news or from a friend. Or perhaps you found out the hard way when you tried to use a Sharper Image gift card in the store only to have it refused. That’s right, as it flaps around like a fish out of sound fiscal waters, The Sharper Image will no longer take its own gift cards.

While I could easily talk at length about how wrong it is for a store to stop accepting its own gift cards, I have to say I’m quite amused by this situation. You see, The Sharper Image is the most perfect example of a store that needed to go bankrupt. I can think of no store, not even my arch-nemesis Wal-Mart, for which financial collapse is a more fitting fate. My anti-Sharper Image stance can be traced to the three characteristics of The Sharper Image that led to its demise:

  1. The Sharper Image sells nothing but crap that nobody needs.
  2. That crap is overpriced.
  3. Despite the fact that Americans like to buy useless, overpriced crap, The Sharper Image couldn’t figure out how to sell their own useless, overpriced crap.

The fact that The Sharper Image is going under has slightly renewed my faith in the American shopping public. I’m shocked they were around for as long as they were selling dinosaur robots and other technological amusements that are about as fun as stabbing oneself in the face with the broken shards of a Chia Pet. Even I, someone who is easily amused by every latest shiny blinking contraption (fortunately I possess just enough financial restraint to keep myself from buying them… usually), have no problem passing by The Sharper Image every time I encounter one of their stores.

I think the best indication of just how worthless The Sharper Image is (was?) is the fact that some credit card issuers have reward programs that let you trade in one dollar worth of reward points for roughly $8,000 in The Sharper Image gift cards which is roughly enough value to get you one pack of used Sharper Image-brand AA batteries (batteries not included).

Now that I think about it, there is the possibility that The Sharper Image will emerge from its bankruptcy somewhat intact, still taking up shopping mall units that would otherwise turn into emergency backup Starbucks in case the mall’s primary or secondary Starbucks location ever had an espresso machine failure. If The Sharper Image does manage to return from the abyss, please… I implore you, don’t fall for its shiny blinking subterfuge. Stay far away from those robotic dinosaurs and roll-up piano keyboards like in that one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and hopefully The Sharper Image won’t make it very long into Round Two.