November 25, 2011

Playing the Credit Card Rewards Game

As a US-ian, I rarely use cash and even more rarely coins. For several years I exclusively used a debit card, as opposed to a credit card. Not sure about international terminology, but a debit card is linked directly to a checking account, and can only spend money that exists in that account. If you have less money than you're trying to spend on a given purchase, it will be denied (or your bank will cover you and slap on a ridiculous fee). Some might also call it a check card.

Money can't buy the thrill of the steal
Recently, I entered the world of credit cards. I long avoided them due to the stigma they've earned over the past decade and a fear of finding myself in debt. I've always lived within my means, and usually below them, but a family history of fighting credit card debt has left me wary. Couple that with inertia to move on from my debit card, and you end up with several years of debit cards.

Then I started planning a long term trip. I knew I'd fly some long distances, and concluded airfare would be the largest single expense. That's when I started looking into points programs, and it was a quick hop to credit card rewards programs.

Just so we're all on the same page, these rewards program typically give you points for spending money on the associated credit card. The number of points per dollar spent depends on what and where you're buying. These points can then be redeemed for cash (1 point = $0.01) or spent on rewards, such as gift cards and electronics. For some credit cards, though, you're able to transfer those points directly to a frequent flyer airline program and redeem award tickets.

The reason you would opt for the transfer (and not just cash) is that points can end up being worth more than $0.01 upon redemption, particularly if you book international premium tickets. So while not necessary, I would definitely not turn down a first class flight across an ocean.

So how does the game work? I simply make all purchases through a specific credit card and earn points. There are also additional services, such as dining programs, that can earn additional points. Plus, the first time sign up bonuses can easily fund an entire ticket, but these require planning. I'll go into the strategy I've planned to earn my future airfare in a future post. For now, I'll finish with the most important rule of this game:

Pay off your balance every month!

Talking to Strangers

Here in the States, we just celebrated Thanksgiving, a national holiday which centers around an enormous meal meant to share with friends and family. The meal is supposed to remind us that we have much for which we should be thankful, and serves as a chance to see some people once a year. After all that family and friend interaction, let's take a moment to be thankful for the opposite: talking to strangers.

No way - you met Sponge Bob?!
Any self-respecting parent will ingrain the maxim "don't talk to strangers" into their children. For good reason; children are naive and easily tricked, which presents a problem if the stranger has malicious motives. With age and experience comes maturity and the ability to read character. At this point, I would encourage every one to start conversations with the people next to you.

Sure, some people will clearly not be in a chatting mood, and some days neither am I. Often enough, though, a surprisingly good exchange will result. You'd be surprised at what people know about and want to tell you. A few recent examples from my life: how to buy a sailboat, the finer points of bocce ball strategy, profit margins on buying fake electronics in China and selling them in Miami.

This works in foreign countries and is a great way to practice a new language. I had a very nice chat (50-50 English and Korean) with a South Korean (SK) cab driver about North Korea (NK). Like many of the older generation in SK, he believed everyone is Korean (no North or South designation) and for that reason force should not be used to deal with NK. He asked me to tell Obama to leave NK alone; I'm still working on getting some face time for him.

Sometimes things get a little heavier, and people will open up about past relationships, dealing with depression, addictions and other things that you would normally never tell anyone. I call this the "stranger effect": unloading a personal burden by telling someone you'll never see again your problems. It's like a modern day confessional booth.

After several years of chatting people up, I can say the key to a good conversation is listening. If you pay attention, you can ask insightful questions, and that shows you care. The resulting rapport is the bridge over which strangers will send their information, and with that information comes a better understanding of that person (assuming no lying). That empathizing leads, in its own small way, to a better understanding of the world in which we live--something we could all stand to do better.

November 24, 2011

Holidays Are a Great Time to Work

If you have a tedious day job, that title probably makes you shiver. If you work in a lab or workshop with shared resources, you'll at least understand the logic. If you just like doing the opposite of what's expected, you'll agree that official holidays offer a great chance to catch up from all the unofficial holidays you observed during normal work weeks.

I can lay claim to those last two conditions. It's wonderful to have full access to equipment and not need to coordinate schedules with someone. If I also feel like I'm sacrificing something to be doing the work, then I feel empowered. So for those reasons, I went into work this morning, along with a handful of Chinese nationals.

I couldn't stay too long since I needed to clean my apartment. So, in the spirit of the holiday, I want to say I'm thankful that my mom decided to fly in this afternoon so I could tidy up the place.

Also, thank you whoever made this cookie jar

November 20, 2011

A Book Review: Factotum

Charles Bukowski's Factotum (Kindle) is the story of a low-income, alcoholic transient whose companions are whores and jobs are menial. Sure, there's more to it: rejected from the WWII draft, aspiring writer, even a possible murder. Nonetheless, the series of events that transpire, which are loosely connected at best, ultimately rely on the elements in the first sentence.

Bonus points if you name the country.
Factotum was my first Bukowski novel. I caught a documentary on his life a few years back, so I had an idea of what to expect as far as subject matter, and understood the main character, Henry Chinaski, served as a semi-autobiographical character. Therein lies the key to this story's success. The matter of fact nature with which the most absurd events are described rings true only because of the intimate knowledge the author has of the subject matter. Even if I had the writing skills of a master, my version of this story would sound hollow and feel weightless.

Despite the seedy nature of Chinaski's life, his choices bring up an interesting point. He doesn't take work that would interfere with his writing, even though his drinking probably handicaps him more than anything. Despite the perpetual poverty in which he continues to live, he ultimately chooses to do so for the sake of following his chosen profession. In a society where people trudge through life with jobs they hate, I have to give credit to Chinaski for rejecting society's norm. He does so at many expenses, and is not necessarily happy (how do we define that adjective anyway?), but he's living his life.

Given the semi-autobiographical nature of this story, I'm left wondering if my path through life would make an interesting novel. The cliche answer suggests everyone has a story. Is it the one you want to tell, though?

I have to at least mention how I came to read this book. The recommendation came at 5:30 am in the house of a woman I had met twelve hours prior who owned an unexpectedly good book collection. We were drunk. Seems appropriate.

Purchase the paperback, Nook or Kindle version, or just go to your library.

November 19, 2011

The Problem With Solutions

Let's consider a problem addressed in a design class from several years ago. An enormous multinational corporation (you use or know their products) makes a water-purifying sachet. It works quite well as far as I know, but the difficult part--and the focus of the project--is how best to move these sachets from the area they're manufactured to the area that they're needed.

Now this is a solution I support
Economies of scale will lead to the cheapest manufacturing costs when the items are manufactured in an automated factory. Only relatively developed countries can offer the services necessary to operate such a facility (i.e. electricity, skilled labor). While this route results in the cheapest manufacturing costs, those savings quickly evaporate when tasked with delivering the product to the end-user. First, there's the issue of moving the product from the factory to the country that needs it. This cost is typically not a deal breaker, but these sachets do not generate significant revenue since pricing must match means of the users. Second, recipients reside exclusively in third world countries, which lack the basic infrastructure required to efficiently move anything. Furthermore, those residents that really need them tend to exist in the most remote areas, where it can truly be impossible to deliver these items on a regular basis. Clearly, this approach does not qualify as sustainable.

So the other exterme option is to manufacture the sachets in the larger cities of the countries that need them. This route takes great steps toward solving the transportation issue, but the decentralization of manufacturing eliminates savings due to econmies of scale. Automated factories will not operate efficiently due to a lack of consistent electricity and skilled labor, requiring manual production of the sachets. In order to produce an appropriate quantity, a large amount of individuals must be employed.  Once again, a non-sustainable solution in terms of revenue generation.

One could conceive of a hybrid approach, doing a certain amount of manufacturing in a factory and letting the final manufacture occur in the end-use country. Depending on the costs of manufacturing individual components, this approach could be optimized and may produce the least expensive route. Nonetheless, as of today, the company continues to produce these sachets on non-profit basis and sell them at cost (which is pennies). I applaud their decision to do so--it's a wonderful example of corporate social responsibility.

The real issue in terms of creating a self-sustaining solution is the attempt at developing a panacea. The sachets require materials not locally available, which leads to the manufacturing and transportation problems described above. Furthermore, it would still require the company to exist, operate profitably and to choose to allocate resources to producing the necessary materials and providing appropriate training. Now imagine a product that requires only materials local to the affected area, can be produced by the native population with little to no specialized knowledge, and is cheap enough that the locals can actually afford it without subsidy. Whether or not you believe this solution can exist or not (I'm optimistic), one thing is certain: it's form will vary depending on the geographical location. Sub-Saharan Africa will use different materials in a different process than southeast Asia.

Have Clipboard, Will Obey

Let's reflect on a little tendency of human nature. If you act like you know what you're doing, people will follow your lead. I'm certainly not the first one to observe this facet of humanity, but I recently had a pretty nice night because of it. I found myself in DC at a random house party in Georgetown. I knew one person there, who knew one person there, who knew maybe three people there, which amounts to me knowing no one. Clearly under dressed, disheveled from a long car ride and in no way part of the scene going around me, I would've left if not for a decent bar set up in the middle of the dining room. Whoever lived there had purchased a small, portable Ikea-esque bar and simply stacked some cups, big bottles of middle quality liquors, a few mixers and some chopped up limes on it. A large cooler of ice sat behind the bar, along with a shaker and some cups. As a former bartender, it took 45 minutes before I gave in to the urge to get behind  there and ask the first person who approached, "What're you having?"

This bar is a dramatic reenactment of the one in this story
During the hour and a half I spent tending my new bar, my buddy and I managed to meet some pretty cool people, take a few shots and enjoy myself considerably. At some point, one of the guys who lived in this house came up, introduced himself and asked if I needed anything restocked--a pretty poignant moment regarding the topic of this post. Not nearly as much as the fact I walked away with $20 of tips at an open bar in a random house party, though. All of that simply because I decided to stand behind the bar and prompt people for an order. Take the lead, and people will follow.

I consider this series of events an example of the roles people are conditioned to play. Here in the States, we have bars with bartenders who make drinks we order. Then we pay them and give them a tip. Even in the absence of paying for the drink, the idea of tipping someone with cash is ingrained from youth in this country. It's a polite thing to do, and I found myself on the receiving end of it after stepping into the role of bartender. In countries and regions where the Western style bar does not exist, this situation wouldn't exist. People falling into prescribed roles will definitely still occur, though, perhaps even more so in a country with a stronger, more homogeneous cultural heritage. We're expected to play a certain role and behave a certain way, and it's much easier to go along with it than fight it. At my current age of 26, it's easy to see this happening every time I get on Facebook and see another high school classmate engaged, married or raising a kid.

What role are you playing?

Let's Get Angsty

There's always the gutter
Two-thirds of the way through an engineering PhD, figuring a little more than a year till defending. Add on a couple months for an approved sabbatical, but more on that later. The contents of my thesis will come from working in a wet chemistry lab. The results can be exciting, the analysis entertaining, but the work I find boring. Experiments are quite tedious. In reality, it does not take that much time to setup and execute the experiments I do. It's just remarkably boring to me. The ennui of doing this type of research makes it very difficult for me to get motivated to start. In physical chemistry terms, I have a high activation energy. Perhaps the closest thing to a catalyst is the possibility of having everything work and getting to author a scientific publication with the results. The currency of basic research consists of articles and citations, and publishing is very much the payday. It's actually a pretty nice incentive. Given the strong ties between employee happiness and recognition of contributions, being listed as an author on a publication is hard to top.

The issue I run into concerns the impact this work has on society. I consider basic research very important (certainly I'm bias, but there's an unbias argument for it), but I have difficulty motivating my myself to action when I feel the questions I'm asking and answering have grown increasingly confined to a narrow slice of scientific inquiry. Furthermore, I have increasingly wondered about the relative importance of uncovering new knowledge to solve problems, versus applying existing knowledge. For researchers purely in basic science, the point is to find something new and understand what's not currently understood. I've discovered knowledge for the sake of knowledge quickly grows unsatisfying. Without the context of having it somehow assist society, as altruistic as that sounds, I'm left to wonder what's the point? Attempting to apply this knowledge to make money strikes me as an even less interesting pursuit, although succeeding in this regard certainly has its fringe benefits.

So that's where I am, walking a path I have difficulty finding internal motivation to continue down, with the typical career trajectories of academia or industry not providing external motivation. Not exactly the most hopeful of situations, but not entirely bleak. For starters,  I am highly educated (some would say overly so) and that education has largely focused on problem solving. Sure, the topics actually had names like Thermodynamics, Kinetics and Heat Transfer, but the concepts apply to essentially any situation: indentify and isolate the problem, consider the resources and information available, determine the best approach based on the desired criteria. Furthermore, I have proven capable of working with a variety of people and teams, leading groups (still learning!) and independently generating ideas. Thus it would appear that the key to my future is finding the right thing on which to focus my efforts and stop holding myself back.