Retirement, health insurance, financial institutions up at Currency site

Currency, a new personal finance site sponsored by American Express, has just gone live with several articles by me. . . . .

Currency, a new personal finance site sponsored by American Express, has just gone live with several articles by me.

On retirement

The main article is How Much Money Will You Need to Retire?

It appears along with sidebars:

On health insurance

The main article is How Freelancers Can Budget for Health Insurance.

It appears along with sidebars:

On financial institutions

The main article is Should You Put Your Money in an Alternative Financial Institution?

It appears along with sidebars:

You may have noticed my posting on Wise Bread was a bit sparse lately. Part of the reason is that I was writing all of those. Enjoy!

Failure to deliver possession

Around here, most leases have a “failure to deliver possession” clause that says that, if the landlord can’t deliver the apartment at the start of the lease, you don’t have to pay the rent until he does. That seems superficially reasonable, so lots of people sign leases with that clause. Especially lots of students.

What the students don’t understand is that, without that clause, the landlord would be responsible for paying the damages that result from the landlord not honoring the lease. (Typically, the cost of a hotel room and storage fees for your stuff. Also extra money to your movers, since they probably charge extra to unload your stuff into storage, and then load it back up to deliver it when your apartment is finally ready.) Instead, with the clause, the student is just out in the cold—no place to live, no place to store their stuff—for an indefinite amount of time. Plus, they can’t just go find another place to live, because they’ve signed a lease. Once their landlord delivers the keys, they have to start paying the rent.

This is not something that I would have worried about when I was a student. In fact, I was shocked and appalled the first time I heard about a whole apartment building that was supposed to be finished in time for students to move in August 1st, but was still unavailable the day the dorms opened in late August. (The most common version of this clause in contracts around here does give the renter the right to cancel the whole lease if their apartment isn’t available after 30 days. Maybe that’s required by state law, or maybe it’s just that judges found it unconscionable to try to hold a renter to a lease for an apartment that can’t be made available even several weeks late. In any case, it’s kind of meager comfort since all the good and cheap places to live will have been long ago rented out by the time it’s safe for you to sign another lease.)

Over the years, though, I’ve gotten kind of inured to it. It happens year after year. Especially in years that a big new apartment building goes up, the newspapers have a bunch of stories in late August with sad and angry quotes from frustrated students with no place to live. I almost begin to hold it against the students, for being so foolish as to sign such a one-sided lease. And then I remember how surprised I was the first time the real effect of that clause was explained to me. I remember realizing that I could easily have been caught in the same error. Even six or seven years out of college, I didn’t know the ins and outs of that clause. How could the students know? (Actually, I kept a dorm room right through college, partially because I knew that I didn’t want to try to deal with all that stuff.)

I wish I knew a way to prevent this problem. The two obvious ways have both already failed:

  • Education doesn’t work, because there’s simply too many things that someone who’s trying to set up housekeeping for the first time needs to know. The evidence shows that this particular one falls through the cracks. (The local Tenant Union has been warning about this issue forever.)
  • Reasonable rules don’t work, because there are reasonable rules, except that the rules permit the parties to agree to waive them.

I guess what we need are rules that can’t be waived (or, at least, can’t be completely waved) in the lease. But that’s always fraught. Some people really don’t need the protection—local students who can easily enough wait another few weeks to move out of their parents’ house, for example. And the landlords are already taking a risk by investing in constructing a new apartment building. Layering it up with the risk that a minor construction delay could force them to cancel dozens of leases may be asking too much.

But I’m sure that the current scheme is bad. I see the bad results in the newspaper year after year.

Jay Lake on titles

I’ve had a mixed experience with titles. For some stories, they come easily. For others, I can wrack my brain for hours and never come up with a title I’m happy with.

So, I was pleased to see Jay Lake’s note on titles, which has several useful ideas.

His last suggestion (Bible searches and Shakespeare searches) has the obvious extension of searching in other classic poetic works, but a quick search failed to turn up a really good site for that. Of course, you can search in any particular classic work by grabbing the whole text off Gutenberg, and then just searching in your web browser. But it would be handy if there were a good poetry search tool where you could target your search to a few broad category of poems, and I couldn’t quickly find one.

Making doom funny

In my review of Dmitry Orlov’s book Reinventing Collapse, I talk a bit about how everyone says that the book is funny, but no one ever quotes the funny bits. There’s a reason: The humor sneaks up on you, building on previous bits. All the really funny bits are only funny if you’ve read up to them.

For those of you who want to read something really funny about peak oil, but were unconvinced that such humor was worth shelling out the cost of a book (or taking the time to read it), there is now an alternative: Dmitry Orlov’s latest article at Culture Change, Peak Oil is History.

Once again, it’s tough to quote a sentence or a paragraph that’s funny, but that’s okay: Just click on over and read the article. It’s free, and it’s much shorter than a book.

Whether you’re one of the people who understood peak oil some years ago or one of the people who just figured it out, Orlov wants to make sure that you understand that the reality of life on the declining side of the oil production curve won’t look like the mathematically smooth logistic function that’s usually displayed. Rather, it will look something like the front side of the curve, with spikes and dips that map to wars and recessions and other catastrophes. Further, he wants to make sure that you know those little jerks up and down—especially the jerks down—matter to you.

It would be theoretically possible to ride the downward curve of oil production in a fashion that would look like the reverse of riding it up. In fact, if we’d spent the thirty years since Jimmy Carter warned that our “intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our nation” preparing to do so—improving our rail infrastructure, switching to wind and solar energy, and generally becoming much more efficient—we’d be in a position to do that pretty comfortably.

In practice, though, things are going to suck.

Things will, however, suck rather differently than people expect—which is Orlov’s point. People expect that the rich will go on much as they have, while the poor will get squeezed by high prices—and there will be plenty of that. But after laying out the reasons why it won’t work that way, Orlov concludes by saying, “it becomes difficult to imagine that global oil production could gently waft down from lofty heights in a graceful smooth and continuous curve spanning decades. Rather, the picture that presents itself is one of stepwise declines happening in more and more places, and eventually encompassing the entire planet.” A stepwise decline that quickly results in even rich people having “no access to transportation fuels and severely restricted transportation options.”

Orlov makes doom just about as funny as possible, perhaps even a little funnier.

Eighteen Views Suffice

View of Mt. Fuji, originally uploaded by bradipo.

Jackie and her mom and I went to the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s exhibit of Utagawa Hiroshige’s “36 views of Mt. Fuji.” This was part 2 of the exhibit, and featured 18 of the woodcuts.

I’ve always liked the Japanese woodcuts of this era, for much the same reason that I like poster art: I like the use of strong, simple images and the effective use of a limited color pallet. (I also rather like the particular shade of blue that they used.)

Besides the woodcuts, we also spent a chunk of time in an exhibit on drawings together with prints, etchings, and the like. Some were source drawings prepared for the engraver. Others were copies of etchings, drawn as studies. I find it interesting to think about the differences between poster art and woodcuts, versus etching, engravings, and so on—differences in intention, technology, result, etc.

We also walked a bit on the grounds. I particularly enjoyed the tow path along the canal behind the museum.

This was just our second visit to the museum, which is too bad—it’s a great museum. It’s more than 2 hours away, though, which makes for a rather long day. We enjoyed it enough that we’re thinking about getting a room in a hotel and making a 2-day trip of it. That would mean that we could spend a whole day (or two half-days) at the museum, instead of trying to cram everything into a few hours between two long drives.

Immigrants not competition for jobs?

Cardiff de Alejo Garcia links to a paper by economists Gianmarco IP Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri that tries to make the case that, because US and foreign-born workers choose different occupations, they’re really not competing for the same jobs. (The paper itself is behind a paywall.)

The main thrust of the argument seems to be this:

Certain jobs get lots of foreign-born workers while others get almost exclusively US workers (tailors 54% foreign-born, crane operators 1% foreign-born). Because of this, more foreign workers won’t increase unemployment, because the foreigners would just be competing with other foreigners for those jobs. Further, more foreign workers won’t even decrease US wages, because even another thousand tailors won’t put any pressure on wages for crane operators.

No doubt my own experience as a software engineer colors my perceptions (computer engineers are 33% foreign-born), but I’m unconvinced.

For one thing, these sorts of pressures occur at the margin. Even a modest number of workers (of any nationality) willing to work for less, will have the effect of holding down wages for everyone else.

For another, there is indirect pressure. Even if a Chinese cook doesn’t compete with a US cook for a job at a diner, another thousand of them will hold down wages for Chinese cooks. That will result in lower costs for Chinese restaurants, which do compete with diners. That puts pressure on diners to hold down their costs—including wages for cooks.

Finally, people’s job and career decisions aren’t static in the face of these pressures. Perhaps few software engineers decided to become lawyers (only 4% foreign-born), but a great number of software engineers have moved on to doing something different. Each one who does so is now competing in that new field, potentially holding down wages over there.

Of course, outsourcing production overseas has had at least as strong an impact on employment and salary levels as immigration has. I’m just glad that I figured out early that I would shortly be competing with someone who could live a middle-class lifestyle on $6000 a year. That gave me a few years to take the necessary steps to arrange my life otherwise.

Speaking on Esperanto

Our local group will give a brief presentation on Esperanto this evening. We’ll speak (in English) about the language itself, why you might want to learn it, and about the activities of our group. If you’re local, and interested in Esperanto, consider stopping by.

It’ll take place at 5:30 PM this evening (Thursday, August 26) in the Foreign Language Building on the University of Illinois campus. We’ll gather in the atrium, then move to some free room. (Campus organizations can’t reserve rooms until they get re-certified, which apparently you can’t do in advance.)

If you can’t make this meeting, we’ll be  doing a repeat Wednesday evening next week (September 1st).

And, in any case, if you want to learn Esperanto, join us Thursday evenings all semester for a free beginners class!

Paŭzo en la stacidomo Union

My first Esperanto-language short story “Paŭzo en la stacidomo Union,” appears in the new issue of Beletra Almanako!

Kovrilo de Beletra Almanako N-ro 8.My first Esperanto-language short story “Paŭzo en la stacidomo Union,” appears in the new issue of Beletra Almanako! My contributor’s copy arrived today. I even made the cover.

I am in very good company—a veritable who’s who of current Esperanto literature.

“Tiu,” Emma diris

Otto rigardis kien ŝi kapmontris. “Tiu alta viro en la drelika jako?” Li pripensis. “Filo de riĉaj gepatroj. Eksigita el pli ol unu universitato pro tro da petoloj kaj maltro da studoj. Ricevas iom da mono de la patrino, sed ne sufiĉe por vivteni sin.”

You can get it from Amazon: Beletra Almanako 8 (BA8 – Literaturo en Esperanto) (Esperanto Edition)

Or directly from the publisher.

If you can read Esperanto, pick up a copy today!

Cool Scrivener feature: show stamps

Tobias Buckell’s recent post on chapters was not only interesting in its own right. It also brought me to Scott Westerfeld’s valuable post on pace charts. Even more cool, though was a tidbit in a comment on that post, with details on a cool feature of Scrivener: You can show stamps on the note cards!

Scott’s example involved marking the note cards to indicate what sort of tension was driving each scene. With that information he could see if there were long stretches without an action scene (or if his action scenes started falling too much into a simple rhythm). That gave him useful information for adjusting the pacing—keeping things moving, mixing things up, etc.

I’m going to be using this all the time now. For example, the story I workshopped last month is both a heist story and a love story. This feature gives me a way to mark the scenes so that I can see which aspect of the story is being advanced and then view that aspect of all the scenes:

Screen capture of Scrivener corkboard
Scrivener corkboard

I was completely unaware of this feature, even though I use Scrivener all the time, so I thought I’d spell out how to do it.

  1. Make sure that the “Inspector” is being displayed.
  2. In the Inspector under “General” find the “Status” pop-up menu and select “Edit.”
  3. Add whatever status items you’ll need.
  4. Go through your scenes, setting each Status as appropriate.
  5. In the Menu select “View->Index Cards->Show Stamps.”

It was step 5 that I was completely unaware of. That’s what causes the diagonal overprinting of the status to be shown across the cards.

I can see using this a dozen different ways to illuminate the story structure.

What renewable energy really looks like

Tobias Buckell just posted about Portugal’s push into renewable energy. He links to an article claiming that 45% of Portugal’s grid electricity now comes from renewable sources, and that they’ve managed this with just a 15% increase in electricity costs. Making the (somewhat unlikely) assumption that one could get another 45% increase for another 15% increase in price, he suggests that it would be totally worth it:

I’d take a 30% hike for energy independence and no money being sent to terrorists in a fucking heart beat.

Frankly, I would too. In fact, I’d be willing to pay a lot more than that. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it would cost a lot more than that—more than most people would pay.

First of all, Portugal was already paying about twice what we pay in the US for electricity. The 15% bump was on top of that. Second, Portugal had substantial untapped sources of hydro power. The US doesn’t.

Either of those, I expect, would doom the project. The first makes it unaffordable—I’d be willing to pay 30% over double what I’m paying now for electricity, but I doubt if very many other people would. The second makes it impossible—we have a lot of untapped wind power, but that comes and goes. Use of wind power will grow, but even with a much better grid (to distribute power from where the wind is blowing to where people are using it), you need something more reliable for baseline power.

But neither of those is the real problem, which is that the US uses three times as much electricity per person than Portugal does. (13646 kWH  versus 4663 kWH per capita in 2005, data from the World Bank.) If you look at the historical per capita energy use in each country, you can see that both countries have shown steady growth—but Portugal is only up to about where the US was in the early 1960s. (And, sadly, following right in our footsteps.)

So, to shoot for the Portugal model we’d have to:

  1. Cut our energy use by two-thirds,
  2. Double the price (plus 30%), and
  3. Either invest vast additional sums in the grid (perhaps $100 billion) or accept brownouts when the wind wasn’t blowing.

Again, I’m totally up for that. My electricity consumption is probably already two-thirds below the US average. My typical electric bill runs just about $30; I’m sure I could stretch my budget to cover $70 if the payoff was no more carbon in the air and no more sending buckets of cash to people who hate us.

But based on the way people actually behave, I’m forced to assume that most people would rather burn the planet and fund terrorists than turn off the AC, downsize the car, and pay up for organic, locally grown food.