Thursday, October 30, 2008

NaNoWriMo-ing Again

Starting Saturday, I'm doing NaNoWriMo again. So far, I have a vague idea what I am going to write about. It is another sci-fi novel, set in a near-future universe where I place a lot of my stories. Other than that, I have only a vague idea of what the plot is going to be.

Anyone care to join me?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Todays Political Thought

I spent three years living in Holland, Ohio, home to this news cycle's Quintessential Everyman. I find it hard to believe there is $280,000 worth of leaky pipes in that township. It is not a big place. In fact, it is small enough that, were I still living there, I probably would have actually gotten door-knocked by Obama. That would have been seriously cool. Or not.

Looking at what sort of skewering Joe The Plumber has taken in the past 18 hours, though, I'm not sure I would want to have been Personally Pandered To By The Actual Candidate. As was so eloquently put on The Daily Show, "They tell you that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. What they don't tell you is that twelve of those minutes are a rectal exam." It is really not relevant to the discussion of tax policy that this one particular guy might be working under a questionable situation regarding his professional licensure, or that he owes back taxes to the state (maybe if it were an IRS lien, there would be an argument). I can just about guarantee he's not the only guy in Lucas County with a tax lien, and that should not disqualify him from taking the opportunity to ask about how tax policy will impact him and his plans for the future. Everyone has a few things about his life that he might prefer not get broadcast over CNN. I have a question in mind for the imaginary time when I would get to bend a candidate's ear for half a minute. However, I'm not sure that knowing what the candidate would do about the people who stand to lose their jobs if some of the health care reforms go through is worth the media proctoscope.

Full citizen participation is the heart of democracy. We can't have full participation if people are afraid that the mere act of asking a candidate a question will let loose all the skeletons from the closet. We can't have a functioning republic if only the squeaky-clean get their voices heard. Senator Amidala may have been wrong. Liberty doesn't die with thunderous applause. It dies with the squeal of schadenfreude.

Friday, October 10, 2008

AIG's "Executive Retreat": Due to Budget Cuts, The Light at the End of the Tunnel Has Been Shut Off Until Further Notice

Recently, America has been up in a lather over AIG spending $440,000 on what is widely being described as an "Executive retreat" a week after asking for a multimillion dollar bailout related to this financial crisis. The White House even went so far as to send out the head spokesperson to call the move "Despicable." As a PR move, the retreat at a posh resort on the heels of a bailout was not that great of an idea. However, as is often the case with news items, once you dig down below the headlines, reality is a little more complicated.

First off, if one reads descriptions of what actually went down, beyond the enumeration of $23,380 worth of spa treatments, it becomes apparent that this was not a junket for the executives. This was the annual sales convention for the top life insurance agents at the company. Those agents are under the auspices of the AIG American General insurance division, not the financial division that caused the need for the bailout. Company executives were present, because having a sales convention without at least a few executives is sort of pointless. It would be a bit like having the office Christmas party without the boss, but we'll get back to that in a bit.

So, what exactly is a sales convention? It is not the sort of convention you think of with a convention center hall full of vendor booths. A sales convention is a nice vacation that the company throws for its top producing agents, the small percentage of agents who bring in the most new business. The company puts those agents up at a nice hotel and plans a buffet of interesting group activities and treats. Gratis spa treatments and rounds of golf are fairly common on the activity buffet, because the stereotype of the tax bracket that the qualifying agents inhabit is that men relax playing golf and women relax getting pampered at the spa. The convention includes some meetings and banquets where the cream of the crop are recognized--those who brought in $1,000,000 or more of new business, for example--and where management psyches up the agents for another year of getting doors slammed in their faces, being called all sorts of nasty names, and occasionally having weeks or months with no paycheck. It gives the execs and agents a chance to meet face-to-face, probably the only time in a year that the agents will have in-person contact with the people who can best solve a problem with a client. The sucking up factor is not to be discounted here. In effect, the sales convention is the office Christmas party, except only the most profitable workers get invited.

Emp. Peng. is a life and health insurance broker, though he does not work with AIG, and we had some firsthand experience participating in the exact kind of "junket" that is at the heart of this kerfluffle with AIG. Last summer, one of the companies he contracts with sent us on a trip to Las Vegas. Entirely on the company's tab, we spent four nights at the Bellagio. We were wined and dined every one of those nights. Two nights we were treated to an upscale dinner and a show. One night they rented out Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, where we got exclusive access to the animals, the animal keepers, a private dolphin show and a dolphinside buffet dinner with open bar. One night, we had a private banquet punctuated by Rat Pack impersonators. During the day, we had our choice of activities, including not only the spa treatments and golf outings that are getting AIG in trouble now, but also a tour of Hoover Dam and a cooking demonstration luncheon with the resort's head chef in their multimillion-dollar studio kitchen. Except for Hoover Dam, we were taken everywhere by stretch limousine. For all four days, all we had to pay for was breakfast and whatever we did on our free time.

With the activities enumerated like that, it is hard not to consider such an event extravagant. In the bigger picture of the company, though, this is essentially giving a bonus, but only to the two dozen or so of several hundred independent agents who are the most profitable to the company. While I don't know the final cost of the Las Vegas trip (renting out the dolphin habitat is not as costly as it seems: $3,500 flat fee, plus $100 per person for catering), it likely was not any more expensive than giving a pittance of a bonus to everyone, but unlike a universal bonus, the agents have to work harder to bring in enough business to qualify for it. The convention is a carrot that the company dangles out to get agents to bring in more money to the company. Incidentally, this sort of trip is not the reason for high premiums on insurance, any more than annual bonuses paid to supermarket checkers are the reason for the outlandish price of milk. This is keeping the bottom of the corporate food chain happy, and happy corporate plankton is profitable corporate plankton. In fact, by encouraging agents to write more new policies, the conventions help keep premiums down. The bigger the pool of insured people, the lower premiums can be for everyone since risk is spread out further.

Back to the AIG thing. The media reports that the tab for the event was $440,000. That is a lot of money. What they don't report is how many people that covered. The closest I have been able to find is some reports indicating that there were fewer than 10 executives present. Assume a 1:4 executive to agent ratio, which was about what our Las Vegas trip had, and factor in that it is customary that everyone on these trips is allowed to bring a Plus One, and let's call it 80 people. Our Vegas trip had around 50, and was with a smaller company, so 80 people is not an outlandish guess. That's $5,500 per person, not a lot for a high end vacation, especially at a place where the rooms are $600 a night. The $23,380 for spa treatments would get 126 of the spa's least expensive treatments and 65 of the most expensive. So, yes, they went to a posh resort, and that doesn't look all that great in the papers the next morning. On the other hand, a weekend at the Motel 6 and breakfast at Denney's just doesn't make being an insurance agent worth the bother. And it is a lot of bother. That four days in Las Vegas represented more hours I spent with my husband than I had gotten in the previous two months, including sleep time. It is not all that uncommon for him to come home at 10 p.m., exhausted, and have to be out of the house again at 7 o'clock the next morning for another 18 hour day that he will return from famished because he didn't have time for even a snack.

So, what were AIG's alternatives? These conventions are planned a year in advance. One highlight of the final banquet is finding out where next year's convention will be. I can't imagine the execs announce a location without getting a block of rooms booked first, so this St. Regis shindig was probably booked at least a year ago. The bailout became an option less than a month ago. The plane tickets would likely have already been purchased by the time the bailout was offered, and my experience with these conventions is that, however posh the resort is, the company flies you in on the cheap, which means coach, nonrefundable. Had they cancelled the convention, the accounts would still show the company "wasting" several thousand dollars on airfare for tickets not used, and whatever other nonrefundable deposits they had placed a year before the economy started going down in flames.

Even more than that, there is the impact on the workforce. The agents being feted at this wingding were not AIG employees (possibly explaining why media characterizes it as an executive retreat: the execs were the only actual AIG employees there). Most insurance companies work on the commission-only independent contractor system, so the agents are self-employed, not employees. The one and only perk of being an independent contractor with an insurance company is the prospect of going to convention. There is no health insurance--it may surprise you to find out that insurance agents don't get breaks on insurance--no 401(k), no sick days or paid vacation. Even though the conventions are most-expenses-paid, it still means taking time off, and in a commission-only job, if you don't sell (not just "don't work," but "don't sell") you are not getting paid. The agents who went on this "executive retreat" had worked their asses off to get that far, and for the company to pull the rug out from under them at the last minute would create an even worse environment for the agents than there is now. Emp. Peng. would probably have a colorful similie involving sexual frustration here, but he has his own blog if he wants to post those.

The insurance agents are already suffering from conditions beyond their control and not of their doing. Given the media coverage, people are simply not buying AIG insurance products now. The agents can't sell. Fortunately, AIG does not use a captive agent system, so the independent contractors who were selling AIG policies aren't completely screwed. In a captive agent system, the agent is only allowed to represent the products of one company, and if the company goes south, the agents have no prospects for income aside from going to another company and starting at the bottom. AIG used independent brokers who, if they were smart, had a variety of companies at their disposal and could switch to offering policies from other companies. Still, to make convention, an agent almost has to give preference to one company over another in assessing which policy would be most suitable. It is malfeasance for an agent to go with a preferred company to make convention when there is another company in their portfolio that better suits the client's needs, but if all else is equal, there is nothing unethical about an agent steering to a preferred provider. The agents who make convention are the ones who push the company's products the most, and are the best hope for ever making the company profitable again. It is not in the company's long term interest to piss these people off, and that is exactly what would happen if the carrot got snatched away at the last minute, after they had put in all the work. Pissed off insurance agents leave the companies that piss them off. If you like having the same agent for your insurance policies two years running, it is in your best interest to let the companies do what it takes to keep the agents happy and affiliated with them. They really do precious little in this area. That $440,000 was possibly the entire annual "keep the agents from quitting" budget.

Appearances matter, though, and AIG should definitely not be using any of the bailout money to finance the sales convention. Nonetheless, there was a very sound business reason for having this "executive retreat" go on in spite of the troubles with the company. The timing was bad, leaving AIG without any good options for handling the situation, but I think that they may have made a good call in pissing off taxpayers and keeping their agents happy, rather than pissing off taxpayers and the agents. Face it: this "junket" was planned way before the bailout became necessary or possible, so as soon as word leaked out of plans for it, taxpayers and the White House would have found it despicable whether it was allowed to go on or not. At least by allowing the convention to go forward, they have a shot at retaining some of the folks who can save the company in the long run.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

About this Financial Crisis...

I'm sure it is a complex mess of causes and solutions. I just have one question: if the banks are getting bailouts and the CEOs are getting golden parachutes, can I at least get a seat cushion that acts as a flotation device?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

John McCain Ads Using the Same Video Clips as Energy Shot Ads

Here's an ad for John McCain that ran (at least on Tuesday) in Ohio. Pay attention to the video clip in the lower left hand box right at the beginning:

And here is an ad for Five Hour Energy Drink. Pay attention from the 18 second mark to the 22 second mark

That is unmistakably the same lady in an apron and blue shirt. Not faulting them for using stock footage. I don't imagine most campaigns purpose-shoot all of the clips for their ads. Still, after the incident where the sleeping child in Hillary Clinton's 3 a.m. phone call ad turned out to be an Obama supporter and much older now, one would think the campaigns would double check where else the stock footage is being used.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Say What?

Emp. Peng. and I spent the day at Mid-Ohio Con, a lovely comic book convention in Columbus. Whatever the impression given by news coverage of a comic book convention, most congoers are not, in fact, in costume. However, some are, and Emp. Peng. and I found ourselves waiting in line for Alan Dean Foster in front of a mixed-gender pair of stormtroopers. Having some time to kill, we got to chatting with them. After we established that the way female stormtroopers go to the bathroom is to think about it before they leave home, the male component of the pair confessed to not knowing who Alan Dean Foster is. The stormtrooper was more of a movie guy, and despite writing the story for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alan Dean Foster is decidedly a written-word guy. The next sentence out of the stormtrooper's mouth would have caused me to spit mango smoothie all over stormtrooper armor if I had been insane enough to pay $5.50 for pureed fruit at the stand 10 feet to our right:

I so do not fit in here.
Had he been anywhere else on the planet at that moment, he might have been right. There are a lot of places where a guy dressed as a stormtrooper will not fit in. As a matter of fact, a comic con is about the only place where a person can dress as a stormtrooper and fit in.

Friday, October 03, 2008


Here's a quick read from The Onion. I'll wait here while you go read it.

Are you back? Good. As with everything in The Onion (see prior post on the Alpha Yam that refused to be candied), that was satire. Still, as with most good satire, it brings up an interesting point. Why do we trust 17-year-olds with a two-ton chunk of steel (or whatever it is they make cars out of now), but not their own bodies?

I was not having sex at the age of 17. However, I was driving a car then, a red Volvo sedan. In one memorable instance, on my way to pick up a dozen eggs, I drove that car into the back end of a Ford Taurus with "Happiness is Being a Grandparent" license plate frames. Fortunately, no one was hurt and I didn't even get a ticket. Apparently, the responding officer considered my hysterical sobbing, situated in the Venn Diagram intersection of the sets "Just rear-ended a grandma" and "I just crashed the car...I am sooooooo dead," evidence that my lesson was well learned.

Even more fortunate, my parents were of the opinion that accidents happen, and it was more of a matter of when I would hit something, not if I would. Plus, I think they were just happy that this time, they did not get the news by way of an EMT who, fed up with the receptionist at my father's workplace parroting the company policy against personal phone calls, finally snapped at her, "This is the paramedics. His children have been in an accident. Get him on the phone." We were both fine, but needed some parental guidance regarding what to do about the Pinto we had just totaled. (Note to self: in retrospect, it seems I should avoid Fords).

Among my cohort in high school, car accidents were not unheard of. Neither was teen pregnancy. The accident rate was probably about the same for both. Now, while rear-ending a Taurus is not in the same league of life-altering events as getting pregnant, being involved in a fatal accident is, and I knew a couple of people near my age who were involved in those (only one as the fatality). Yet the grownups do not, for the most part, flip a gasket and insist that teenagers should not be taught to drive responsibly, simply because there is a chance that they could hurt or kill themselves or others. Driving is an essential skill for independent living as an adult unless you live in Manhattan, and best to have them learn and make mistakes while parents can help pick up the pieces when, as will inevitably happen with anything with a learning curve, accidents happen.

Sex is no less essential than driving in adult life. Why then, do we trust teenagers with the car, but not the driver?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Dunkin Donuts Owes Me Some Trans Fats

Normally, I eat healthy foods. My default diet is mostly lacto-ovo-vegetarian since I like cheese way more than I like meat. Forget about having half of your grains be whole grains; I don't even buy non-whole grains or flours. I will often get my five servings of fruits and vegetables in before 2 p.m. Even when I don't eat healthy foods, I at least eat foods, not the processed corn-syrup laden stuff that some people try to pass off as food (word to the Velveeta fans: if the box has to tell you it is food, it isn't).

This is not to say I am a nutrition Nazi. When I am a guest somewhere, I will eat whatever is put in front of me, even if it violates my No Tentacles rule of food. More to the point, I understand that there are occasions where eating isn't about the nutrition. Sometimes, a person just needs something yummy.

Which brings me to the box of Dunkin Donuts Munchkins I bought today. Those are doughnut holes for the five of you who don't live within shouting distance of a Dunkin Donuts, or are boycotting them until they reinstate all of the letters in "Doughnut." My parents used to buy PengSis and me Munchkins on occasion when I was five or so, and the availability of the chocolate ones in the university cafeteria probably played no small part in how the Freshman 15 became the Sophomore 25. I hadn't had a Munchkin in probably close to 10 years, but today, after my 15th and final trip to the home store to pick up something I needed to fix the house up for our mortgage refinance appraisal--final only because I had three hours before the appraisal--I stopped by a Dunkin Donuts to get myself a little I Survived The Appraisal treat for afterward.

So, near as I can tell, the appraisal went well, and after all I put myself through trying to make sure everything was perfect so the appraisal value will come in high enough so that this eleventh attempt at refinancing will go through. Lest you think I am exaggerating, I am not; in the past year and a half, we have tried no fewer than 10 times to refinance our mortgage, but more on that in another post. At this moment, the next possible hitch is that the house doesn't appraise out high enough. We need it to appraise for about $5,000 more than we bought it for 3 years ago, when the bubble was still inflating. After the stress of this, I decided that I deserved to retreat into some of the comfort food of my youth. Since warm cinnamon pull-apart bread and Dad's coffee cake were not viable options, I went for the doughnut holes.

As mentioned, it has been most, if not all, of a decade since I have set tooth on a Munchkin. Last time I had one, people still thought trans fats were a miracle texture-producing ingredient. Now, the box that the Munchkins come in proudly proclaims "O Grams Trans Fats."

I want the trans fats back. Here is the ingredient list for chocolate glazed Munchkins, my eternal favorite:
Enriched Flour (Bleached Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Sugar, Water, Palm Oil, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil and Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil with TBHQ and Citric Acid Added to Help Protect Flavor, Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), Contains 2% Or Less Of The Following: Maltodextrin, Whey, Wheat Starch, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Salt, Baking Soda, Soy Lecithin, Nonfat Milk, Xanthan Gum, Modified Food Starch, Polyglycerol Esters Of Fats & Fatty Acids, Propylene Glycol, Artificial Flavor, Mono- & Diglycerides, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Egg Albumen, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, Soy Flour, Monocalcium Phosphate, Sodium Caseinate, Potassium Sorbate (Preservative), L-Cysteine Hydrochloride, Agar, Citric Acid, Cellulose Gum.
Notice something? Except for the cocoa, and the baking soda, egg albumen and nonfat milk in the "Contains 2% or less of" section, there is not a dang thing on that list that is, strictly speaking, good for you. If you were wondering, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose and Agar are both vegetarian substitutes for gelatin, and both Sodium Aluminum Phosphate and Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate are leaving agents. Propylene Glycol is used in foods as a solvent for flavorings or colorings. TBHQ, tertiary butylhydroquinone, is a preservative. While everything in the ingredient list is edible, I would not go so far as to say that this is indicative of it being, in aggregate, food. But that's OK. I don't buy chocolate glazed Munchkins for their fiber content (incidentally, .5 gram per doughnut hole). I buy them because I want to eat something yummy.

They were yummier when they had the trans fats. Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose is also an ingredient in stucco. Agar is used as a growth medium in petri dishes. Propylene Glycol is in shampoo and deodorant. Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate is part of what puts the Tartar Control in tartar control toothpaste. A little bit of trans fat isn't the worst thing in a Munchkin.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

December Inflation

Time again for the annual--I think it is annual, anyway, though I can't seem to find the others in the archives--rant about December encroaching on the rest of the year. I am almost tempted to give Wal-Mart a pat on the back for waiting until October to bring out the Santas, but when I stopped by today, the Christmas displays clearly had more than one day's work already completed. Still, I have come to expect that from retail outlets. It is only a matter of time before more stores follow Hallmark's lead and segue straight from Fourth of July merchandise into Christmas tree ornaments.

I know I think this every year, and I probably blog it every other year, but the December Inflation is getting worse. It is bleeding out of retail sales. Today's mail consisted of a bank statement, some coupons, business stuff for Elie, and the December issues of Analog and Asimov's.

It gets worse. I could deal with getting my magazines two months ahead of time, but that is not all they have done. When I went to put the magazines on my To Read stack, I discovered that both magazines are now half an inch taller and a quarter of an inch wider than they used to be. This disturbs me to an extent that suggests that professional help would not be amiss.