Denial is no Way to Deal With Debt

They say that the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one. Now, I’ve never had the kind of problem that necessitates a trip to rehab, but I have struggled with something almost all of us have or will deal with in our lives: debt.

I was fortunate enough to have parents that provided me with some financial education at a fairly young age (and living with no money in the Soviet Union had an impact) — note to any parents reading this: start talking to your kids about money early; it’s more important than talking to them about bullying, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Having some financial education led me to consider cost as a factor when choosing a college. As a result, I limited my options to affordable in-state schools that my parents were able to pay for in full – thus avoiding the crushing student loan burden that holds so many young people today from truly starting their lives.

However, that didn’t stop me from making foolish decisions along the way. College students are fertile turf for credit card companies. I started out with a $500 credit limit, but by the time I finished school and got a full-time job, I was around $7000 deep in credit card debt. Contributing factors included a minor (but still expensive) at-fault car accident, sloth (a few months of self-imposed unemployment after being fed up with retail), and good-old-fashioned frivolous spending.

That $7k dwindled fast after a few months of full-time employment and austerity, but as any Greek will tell you, austerity bites. Hard. It’s a demoralizing slog even if there is an end in sight because hours upon hours of your labor aren’t going towards your life, or even towards taxes, but into the void. At $20/hr (roughly my pay at the time), $7k is 350 hours of work. Almost 9 full working weeks spent for someone else.

This isn’t meant to be a tale of woe, or even a cautionary tale – this is simply my story. The simple reality is that the fix is in. Countless intelligent and well-paid individuals spend their entire working weeks figuring out ways to get people like you and I to take out loans and give them more money. If you have so much as halfway-decent credit, your mailbox is probably filled with credit card offers promising huge credit lines and enticing perks.

The rigged game is also why I joined Payoff. Yes, we’re offering a loan product, but that’s not what we’re all about. We’re here to help you get out of debt (particularly credit card debt), live your life to the fullest, and achieve whatever dreams and goals you may have, regardless of the path you take to get there.

So check us out and have a chat with a real boy or girl about your debt, the worst thing that will happen is you’ll get a few ideas on how to manage it better. You might even be able to save a few thousand in interest payments while you’re at it. Or reach out to me on social media – I’d be happy to hear your story and offer advice or insights. I’ve been there, and I got out. You can too.

Cell Phone Addiction Blues

“Has it really come to this? I can’t even take a leak without looking at my phone?” I asked myself earlier. I didn’t like the answer – “evidently so.”

I don’t know why this epiphany about my smartphone addiction (I’m a “refresher” – GIVE ME MORE FRESH INTERNET! MORE!) in this particular way on this particular day. I’ll blame the nearly full moon the day after New Year’s. But that’s how it happened. And turns out, with each pointless refresh, a tiny part of me dies inside. Because it’s never actually that interesting. In fact, odds are pretty good it’s some kind of marketing materials. Drowning in marketing for professional reasons, now that’s dedication.

I know I’m not alone. I know people that practically sleep with their phones as if they’re comfort teddy bears. In fact, there is no cell phone etiquette for the most part because everyone’s an addict. Everyone “gets it.” As a result, society collectively doesn’t even try (for the most part – sweeping generalizations for dramatic effect are just that). #firstworldproblems and all that, right? Well, it is still a problem. People driving like they’re drunk because they’re texting or watching lolcats, people walking into practically everything, etc, etc. And I’m not pointing this out from a position of superiority – I’m just as guilty, just as much a part of the problem rather part of the solution.

The only solution I can think of is an unlock counter. I figure at some point I’d reach a number that made me go “Seriously? What the hell, man?” I like to think it would be well under 100. But don’t expect the cell phone makers to start putting those into the OS. An addicted customer base is a loyal customer base, after all, and the best way to keep them loyal is to keep them addicted. If we weren’t all hopelessly strung out on bytes, we’d be less likely to stand in line for the new iPhone or give AT&T an extra $100 to get the next Galaxy 6 months early (note: I don’t know of this actually happening with a Samsung – I think the madness is confined to the House That Jobs Built).

We’d probably also all be just a little bit more productive if we conquered this ADD, but I have no idea how. Maybe there’s an app for that. Let me go check my phone…

Pork Tofu Soup, as Made by a Russian-American

Now here is something you could say is uniquely American: A recipe for an Asian dish (in this case, Korean tofu soup) by a Russian that lives in California. I can’t even say it’s Korean tofu soup, because that would be a lie – the only thing Korean about this is the pepper powder. Anyway, I lived a block and a half away from a 24-hour Korean tofu soup place for a while and developed a liking for it. I don’t live that close to one now and decided to try making some myself on a whim. It seemed easy enough.

In the interest of full disclosure: I found the recipe I based this on somewhere else on the internet. I’d give them credit, but I can’t find the paper I printed it out on.

Time Needed: 30 minutes, including meat and vegetable preparation.

Pork Tofu Soup IngredientsWhat You Need:

  1. Stone Pot If you’re planning on making this more than once, get a stone pot. You can use a regular metal pot, but the stone pot works so much better.
  2. Tofu: Soft tofu is optimal, but anything up to medium-firm will work. I used whatever they had at Costco.
  3. Vegetables: Collect your favorite vegetables and cut them into small, thin slices. I only had carrots on hand.

    I’d avoid tomatoes or anything similar, I can’t imagine that working out right.

  4. Meat: You can use whatever meat you like. In this case, I used two normal-size pork chops. I’ve never seen pork tofu soup on a menu, but just because it’s not kosher doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

    Cut the meat up into the smallest and thinnest pieces your cutting skills and patience will allow. You should use enough to fully cover the bottom of the pot; use enough for two layers if you like it meatier. Replace the meat with more tofu or vegetables if you’re a vegetarian.

  5. Soup Broth and Noodle Packet

  6. Egg: Eggs are tasty. Use one or two, depending on your cholesterol level.
  7. Broth Powder: It’s just water otherwise. The sauce packets from Ramen work if you have nothing else.
  8. Red Pepper Powder: you just have to have this. You can wing everything else besides the tofu and the pepper powder.

A Word on Quantity: You can alter the tofu/meat/vegetable balance to suit your tastes, just make sure you don’t put in so much that the pot overflows.

The Cooking Process

1. If you haven’t already, cut up your meat and vegetables and make sure everything else is handy. Put broth powder into one cup of water and microwave for one minute.

Stone Pot with Cooking Spray

2. Put your pot on the oven and either add a tablespoon of cooking oil or two tablespoon’s worth of cooking spray.

Pork in Stone Pot

3. Put the meat into the pot once the oil starts bubbling. Let it brown/whiten slightly, then remove.


Vegetables in Stone Pot and Pork on Plate

4. Put the vegetables in once you remove the meat. Let them brown slightly.

Soup broth in stone pot

5. Once the vegetables have browned, add the broth. Bring to a near boil.


Pepper powder and tofu soup

6. When the broth is near boiling, add the tofu, breaking it into pieces. Then add the pepper powder.

Soup With Meat Re-Added

7. Bring the soup to a near boil again, then re-add the meat. Cover and bring to another near boil.

Ready Pork Tofu Soup

7. Add the egg(s). I recommend breaking up the yolk, but you can leave it intact if you want. Cover and let it cook for 3-5 minutes. Turn off heat and let cool.

Recipes should serve as guidelines for your own tastes, so don’t take this one as gospel, especially given the lack of vegetables due to self-imposed sanctions (in my case, sanctions being “too lazy to buy some right now”). Give it a shot and let me know what you think in the comments below.

Ukraine: Tensions Rise as the DNR’s End Grows Near

Not-So-Polite Individuals

Not-So-Polite Individuals

The last time I wrote words about Ukraine, Putin had just finished ganking Crimea under the cover of the smoke coming from the $51-billion dollar Sochi Winter Olympics money fire. In the intervening months, things have not only gone plaid, but flannel plaid. It is a minor miracle that the conflict has remained localized.

For those that haven’t been paying attention, a pro-Russian insurgency broke out in Eastern Ukraine, specifically the provinces of Donestk and Lugansk (or Luhansk, as you would say it in Ukrainian or Southern Russian), proclaiming the Donestk and Lugansk People’s Republics, respectively. Sometime later, the two combined to form Novorossiya, after the Imperial Russian name for the region.

Your average American could hardly be faulted for not being able to find these on a map (Google Maps doesn’t count, that’s cheating); then again, your average Russian probably find these on a map prior to the start of this conflict either.

Aleksander Borodai

Aleksander Borodai. Yeltsin would be proud.

Choice Individuals

For an insurgency that’s supposed to be a spontaneous people’s uprising against fascist tyranny, it sure is filled with all sorts of Russians. Take the political leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, premier Aleksander Borodai. Besides the fact that the man is CLEARLY an absolute lush, he’s also a “political consultant” from Moscow. Then there’s one of the bigger characters of the Battle of Slovyansk (this town was the insurgents’ stronghold until it was taken by the Ukrainian military) – the Russian Cossack Alexander Mozhaev (circled in the top image). Under the funny hat and unkempt beard is a felon on the lam who, hilariously enough, fled with his crew when things started going bad and has not been heard from since.

Igor Strelkov

Igor Strelkov. Would you let this man give your children candy?

Of course, the biggest character of all is the military commander of the DNR, one Igor Strelkov slash Girkin. A GRU colonel with a hardon for war reenactment, the Russian Empire, a creepy mustache, and one hell of a pedosmile, Strelkov claims to have been involved in every Russian military conflict since it stopped being the USSR. A Bosnian newspaper found what it claims is a picture of him in, well, Bosnia, during the Yugoslav Wars in the early 90s. Popular uprising my ass.

To Strelkov’s credit go several summary executions carried out under a 1941 directive by Stalin that was since revoked by several governments (including the original “people’s mayor” of Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev; incidentally, Ponomarev was actually a local), and increasingly insane orders such as a ban on profanity and the imposition of martial law in the city of Donestk, which is home to 1.5 million people. If a guy with a couple thousand men behind him at best tried to impose martial law on say, San Diego, everyone would just laugh (and then proceed to shoot back).

The Airliner

The cherry on top of this clusterfuck is MH-17, which was shot down by some drunken insurgent after some genius in the Russian military command decided that it would be a good idea to give some barely-trained (two years as a conscript in the Red Army in 1988-1990 doesn’t count) drunks a surface-to-air missile system. I almost want to say that they were set up with bad intelligence on purpose, because they would have to be among the top 5 idiots in the history of the world to think that an airline at cruising altitude was a valid military target. At least the Soviets shot down Korean Air Flight 007 ON PURPOSE. Then again, Iran Air 655 was an epic cockup too, and that one was carried out by actually trained personnel. Never ascribe to malice that which can be ascribed to incompetence.

Neither the US or USSR desecrated the bodies of the victims either.

We May be About to Witness Sudetenland 2.0

Despite a shaky start and continuing heavy casualties, the Ukrainian military is slowly gaining the upper hand. Most recently, they were able to cut off Donetsk from the rest of the insurgent territory (and thus the Russian supplies and arms from across the border). The UAF is gearing up for a storm of Donestk; hopefully they carry it out without resorting to Grads, Smerches, and Tochkas. Lugansk will hold on for some time still, but then there’s the $64,000 question – will Putin do it? At this point, he’s already been hit with pretty heavy sanctions from anyone that matters this side of China, and he’s starting to look increasingly weak in the eyes of the nationalists that are propping up his precious approval rating. And it’s not like anyone will do anything about it besides more sanctions (which Russia hopes to manage by trading more with China).

In terms of cold-blooded realpolitik, invading is the sensible for Putin to do (especially given that he is that kind of a bastard). He’s already screwed when it comes to the West and he’ll be screwed internally if he doesn’t act. They’ve been halfway there for weeks anyway, as Russian artillrey has been shelling Ukrainian soldiers trapped near the border since mid-July or so. The Russian army will surely crush nearly-bankrupt Ukraine’s armed forces, but not without paying a decent price in blood. Though poorly equipped, the Ukrainians have some pretty solid combat experience to their name at this point. This is, of course, the worst-case scenario, but hey look over there guys – we’ve got a bond crisis coming!

Go Vote Tomorrow: A Last Minute Primer on California’s Top Two Primary System

Tomorrow is the 2014 California Primary Election. You probably won’t vote because it’s a midterm primary election, and turnout in midterm primaries is generally dismal (in 2010, 1/3 of registered voters and ¼ of eligible voters showed up), but you’ll also be making a big mistake.

Neel Kashkari was one of the co-authors of the TARP bank bailout. I Report, You Decide.

Neel Kashkari was one of the co-authors of the TARP bank bailout. I Report, You Decide.

You see, this is the first midterm to use California’s “top two” primary system, which was enacted in the aforementioned 2010 primary election by Prop 14. Prop 14 passed with 54% voting for and 46% voting against, meaning that it took just 13% of all Californians that could vote to massively shakeup the state’s election system. So go out and vote, and tell 10 of your friends and family members to do the same. If they each bring 10, well, then you’ve got a pyramid scheme to Get Out The Vote. This happens to be the only pyramid scheme I’m ok with.

The practical effect of the “top two” primary system is that it effectively makes the general election a “runoff” between the top two vote-getters, which is very European of us. Unlike the Europeans, however, we only have two viable political parties – for now. California’s primary system could actually be used by a third-party, along with the current weakness of the state Republican Party (which is worthy of its own post) to at the least sneak into the general. They’d just have to make you get out and vote.

Tim Donnely is from Georgia. He also tried to bring a gun on board a plane in 2012.

Tim Donnely is from Georgia. He also tried to bring a gun on board a plane in 2012.

If you do want to vote third party, THIS IS YOUR ONLY CHANCE UNTIL 2016. There won’t be a Green Party candidate for governor in November, nor will there be a Libertarian, or a Peace and Freedom, or anything else candidate. No, we will all get the choice between Jerry Brown and the Prison Guards Union OR one of the following two Republicans: Neel “TARP and Axe Commercial” Kashkari or Tim “Georgian Minuteman From the San Bernardino Mountains” Donnely.

This is seriously the best they have. Sorry, inmates, your indefinite stays in SHUs are going to continue unabated.

The only exception to the “top two” primary is the Presidential Election, which operates under its own set of rules. But Representatives get elected every two years, along with State Assemblypersons. Even if there’s no big-name federal election going on, some person who has a say in how your life will be ran will be up for election. You might as well show up and make them uncomfortable.

Source

http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/sov/2010-primary/pdf/2010-complete-sov.pdf

A Rant About the Orange Crush

Google Map view of the Orange Crush InterchangeI traded traffic on the 405 for traffic on the 22. I don’t know if that was such an upgrade because traffic on the 22 sucks worse, and there’s less of an excuse for it. Whereas the 405 gets backed up because of volume and bad driving (why can’t freeway drivers handle curves? It is a mystery!), the 22 gets backed up because somewhere during the Measure M funded constriction process, some asshole decided to add too many ramps, creating complete clusterfucks of merging vehicles.

Take the Bristol Eastbound on-ramp. That ramp feeds not into the main freeway, but the two lanes that feed onto the 5 south and 57 north. These are separated from the rest of the freeway by a wall, presumably to reduce “slamming,” but this creates its own problems. For example, people entering from Bristol that don’t want to get on the 5 south get less than 500 feet to merge.
To make things more fun, the 57 south and 22 east feed onto the 5 south at about the same place. And the 5 south carpool slash HOV is always backed up because the 57 south feeds into it, and then two lanes merge into one. The HOV lanes are also separated from the main freeway by a wall.

The 5 north to 22 west connector sucks too, again because someone wanted to put in an extra on-ramp. Instead of being 2 lanes that merge into one near the end, this connect has one lane that goes onto the 22 west and one that exits towards The Outlet Mall Formerly Known as the Block at Orange. This causes a crushing amount of slamming, of which I am admittedly guilty off because I’ll be damned if I lose another 10 minutes of my life because some politician really wanted an exit. I have no respect for this design. Sorry folks, blame the government and make them close that off-ramp.

Oh, then the 57 south feeds into it a couple hundred feet later, just as you think the interchange-caused jam is going to clear up. Instead, it goes on basically until harbor. Hell to the yeah. Screw you Orange Crush. Good thing you have the East LA Interchange to make you look good.

SoCal’s traffic is legendary. We waste a horrific amount of man-hours every year sitting in this nonsense because nobody can afford housing in the core and there aren’t any jobs in the Outer Rim, err, Inland Empire. Regional transit options are woefully inadequate, there’s no more room to build more freeways. All we can hope for is the self-driving cars. Maybe, just maybe, through the magic of computers, we’ll solve this problem. If not, we’re all going to REALLY lose our collective shit one day. But in the meantime, we could at least not stuff our overloaded interchanges with poor designs. The bad traffic they cause radiates for miles in all directions.

On a related note, I wonder how things will look at the 22/40 connection when they’re done with that construction. So far, I think it just might help.

Russia Invades Ukraine, Prays Nobody Gets Shot

UPDATE: The pretext for Russia to formally invade Ukraine happened overnight, with the newly-installed Crimean prime minister requesting aid to restore peace and order. Putin promptly asked the Russian parliament to allow him to send troops into Ukraine; it was approved unanimously. Good times.

To say that things have escalated quickly in the Ukraine would be a massive understatement. A week ago, the world was watching the Sochi Olympics go completely smoothly under the watchful fatherly eye of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Viktor Yanukovich was the president of Ukraine. Less than seven days later, Yanukovich is unemployed and Russian VDV paratroopers are effectively invading the Crimea.

A number of other events have taken place in the meantime. These including the revelation that Ukraine is completely broke (in part because Team Yanukovich stole billions), the release of kleptocrat and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison, and Yanukovich’s former residence being turned into a public park nicknamed “the museum of corruption.”

Pro-Russia Rally in Sevastopol

And then there’s the small issue of not everybody being ok with an incompetent and corrupt yet still democratically elected president being overthrown using the muscle of nationalists and fascists. Most of these people are ethnic Russians in the south and eastern parts of the country, particularly the Crimea. The Crimean Russians haven’t taken the government change well by any stretch of the imagination. First, massive pro-Russia rallies took place in several cities, with Russian flags being forcibly flown from some government buildings, most notably in Kerch on the far eastern side. Oh, and they formed “self-defense groups,” which is a fancy term for militias.

Usually, nothing good happens when armed militias start being formed. This case isn’t one of the rare exemptions like the anti-cartel vigilante groups in Mexico. Within days of being formed, masked gunmen that presumably are part of one of these militias (operative word being presumably, they could have been Russian Spetsnaz Special Forces for all anyone knows) seized control of the Crimean parliament and several other government buildings. Then the Russian military just kind of showed up, with the only hint of a bullshit pretext being a statement that all armored vehicle movement has been agreed upon with the Ukrainian government, something the days-old administration denies. Except that still doesn’t explain the paratroopers or the shut down of Crimean airspace.

Now what? It’s not in anybody’s interest for anyone to get shot, despite the whole massive violation of sovereignty thing, because the second somebody gets shot, Shit Gets Real. And this is the kind of shit getting real that may make those Senators bitching about the army getting too small be right. Also, they literally can’t afford it. Ukraine, as I mentioned before, is completely broke to the point of imposing capital controls on foreign currency; the country is certain to default in a few months unless it gets a huge amount of aid, the latest estimate being $30 billion. Russia, meanwhile, is teetering on the edge of recession; a severe enough crash could produce unrest too big for even the well-drilled OMON to handle.

So, until the next escalation, the situation is analogous to an armed guy walking into your living room, sitting on the couch, and then daring you to do something without actually wanting you to do anything because then everyone is fucked. And the cops probably aren’t going to come.