Bend the Round

…where the madness is recorded.

Favorite Personal Finance Stuff on the Web February 15, 2008

Filed under: list — bendtheround @ 8:17 pm
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I’m in debt.

Not outrageously, dangerously in debt, thank goodness. Just a little, especially all things considered (“all things” being the four years in a private college and four years of living in one of the most expensive areas in the US). But it does bother me – especially because none of that debt is toward a home or a business that can grow in value. I’ve got no equity. I don’t think that it’s an uncommon situation anymore, either. It seems like a lot of people are in roughly the same place. We’ve got car payments, student loans, bastardly credit card debt (credit cards rate a nasty descriptor, in my opinion). Some of us do have mortgage payments. Hell, some of us have a couple kids in the mix, too. Now THERE’S an expense for ya (parents… I don’t know how you do it, I really, really don’t).

And yet, talking about money is a little taboo, isn’t it? Our personal financial resources are just that – personal. I’d no sooner ask my friends about their credit card debt than I’d ask what underwear their wearing because it’s none of my damn business.

I’m not asking to share any financial stories here. There are plenty of great personal finance blogs out there (I’ll list my favorites below) and since I’m still in the process of figuring things out for myself, I’ve got no business setting myself up as an expert.

What I can do is share some of the things that are helpful to me. None of this stuff is guaranteed to work for anybody else. Personal finance is, after all, a personal thing. Everybody’s got a differences of opinion on how things ought to be handled, how much debt they’re comfortable with, and everybody’s got a different set of resources to work with.

So with that… here are some things that have been helpful to me. I’ll add things to the sidebar where appropriate.

#1 Online Banking

I pay almost all of my bills online. The only exception is the water bill. (I had some trouble getting the website to recognize the information – that was a year and a half ago, though. I suppose it’s time to try it again.) I used to sit down every pay period, figure out all the bills so I could see exactly where I was financially, then write out the checks. That came to a screeching halt when the bundle of payments I sent out through the office mail room arrived back at my apartment – the mail room clerk had taken my money for postage, but neglected to actually put the postage on the envelopes. My credit card bills were included in that bundle and I got hit with late fees and my APR was jacked up. Lesson learned…don’t trust anybody else with my bills. Take care of it personally. That way, if something goes wrong, I’ll just be angry with myself instead at someone else who just made a mistake.

I happen to have an account with Wachovia, so that’s the online banking system I use. I’m not particularly attached to it – in fact, I’m considering closing the account in a couple months, but for now it’ll do fine. I would imagine that the features it has are pretty standard.

The single most important feature to me has turned out to be the automatic payment schedule. I hated the idea of letting the damn computer take money out of my account. I fought it for years. I cannot tell you why. It’s just one of those irrational ideas I got into my head and wouldn’t let go. It’s especially puzzling since I’ve got my paycheck set up to automatically put a set amount into my savings account every time I get paid. That’s definitely a type of automatic payment. Anyhow, for a couple years, I’d pay as much as I could every month toward my credit card balance and save enough out for groceries, gas, etc. Sounded like a good plan – except that it never worked. I always wound up with some unexpected expense or temptation and I’d reach for the bastardly credit card. So, finally, I broke down and set up automatic payments for my credit card. Every time I get paid, I automatically make a payment toward my credit card balance. I’ve been at it since Christmas, and by God, it’s working.

#2 Mint.com

Warning: The site does take a bit of faith on the part of the user.

The idea behind Mint is to provide a place where you can track all of your accounts and all of your spending. It does this by collecting all your usernames and passwords for various accounts and displaying transactions and balances from those accounts. (This is where the faith comes in…if the site is ever hacked, all your usernames and passwords are in there. Yikes.) The site is free to use. It pays for itself by providing advertising for banking and credit card companies – but they have it set up to take a look at your current accounts and only show you ads for companies that could potentially save you money in interest rates, fees, and rewards. And they sequester those ads to a page titled “Ways To Save” so you have to go check them out voluntarily to see them.

I’ve been using the site since October or so, and I really like it. There are some distinct improvements that need to be made, but because the site is still technically in Beta, I have high hopes that those features will be added. Specifically, I’d like the ability to track add my car payment so I can watch the balance wind down, and the ability to add my student loans. I’m not sure if you can add a mortgage account to Mint. This isn’t an issue for me, but it it was, I’d want that on there, too.

Once I set it up, I very quickly saw that I spent way too much money in a favorite store… ok, fine… it was Ulta. They’ve got this bonus point system – you can save up points and get free stuff, and it sucked me right in. I bought a bunch of Christmas presents there. Anyway, I curbed my trips to Ulta and saved a fair amount of money. I don’t know how long it would have taken me to figure out that my little trips were racking up more than bonus points without seeing it laid out in Mint. I also got an eyeful of just how much I spend on food (groceries, fast food, and eating out). I knew it was a significant expense, but geez.

Mint also helps you set up and stick to a budget. You can set how much you can spend on various transactions, and it’ll track how much you actually spend. If you overspend in a category, it’ll email you and let you know. It even puts the info in a nice little bar graph every month so you can see how you’re doing.

Mint’s easy to use, the interface is nice, and so far it’s been trouble-free for me. If you’re looking for a reality check, Mint might be a good place to try.

#3 NetWorthIQ.com

I just found recently, so I’m not sure how this is going to work out yet. Seems like a neat idea, though. NetWorthIQ gives you a simple form to fill out to figure out your net worth, then tracks your progress. You can fill out the form as often as you like (every day or week, or month). Every time you fill it out, a point is plotted on your graph, so you can see if your net worth is growing, shrinking, or staying the same or time.

It’s billed as a social networking site, so if you *want* to, you can share your totals. I’m opting not to. My net worth is on my short list of personal info I’d rather not have published on the internet. For me, the real value here is the incentive to stick to the plan of paying stuff off. (Damn those student loans, they are one hell of a debt.) Having the visual indication of progress might be helpful. We shall see.

#4 Like-minded Individuals Online

One of the hardest things about paying off debt is resisting temptation – just one big temptation can really set you back. (Thank you, Captain Obvious, right?) It’s tough. Maybe especially if you live an a particularly affluent area where its seems like everybody around you has nicer clothes, cooler electronics, and a newer car. One thing that can help is contact with like-minded individuals. There are a couple blogs I like to read to help me keep perspective…I’ll add them to my blogroll for you.

Get Rich Slowly – This one includes daily posts on personal finance topics ranging from the pros and cons of paying off a mortgage early to wacky stuff like people voluntarily living on less than $10 a day as a protest against the US government. I’ve found the site to be accessible and interesting.

The Simple Dollar – The posts here are a little more general interest, I think. There are some book reviews, and reviews for websites and services that can help save money (I think I may have found Mint and NetWorthIQ through the Simple Dollar…can’t recall anymore). It’s also readable and the topics have held my interests for quite a while.

Zen Habits – While this isn’t solely a personal finance blog, there are occasional finance-related posts. He most often blogs about tips and tricks for dealing with everyday life. It’s way better than I’m making it sound. Honest.

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Top Ten Favorite Action Cartoons February 11, 2008

Filed under: list — bendtheround @ 9:55 pm
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In the past couple years, it’s really come home to me – I watched a HELL of a lot of cartoons growing up. Seems like if it was animated, I’d seen it. Ever seen Harvey Birdman? (It’s an animated show on Adult Swim on Cartoon Network. Harvey Birdman is an ex-superhero who is now a lawyer. His clients are all old cartoon characters…many of them at least moderately obscure.) Yeah, I knew almost every single one of the characters from their original shows. I watched THAT many cartoons.

A lot of my favorite cartoons are action cartoons. My personal definition of “action cartoon” is any non-anime cartoon in which straight-up action is the sole or main focus instead of comedy/cuteness. (Excluding cuteness keeps the Smurfs, My Little Ponies, Rainbow Brite, Doug, Rugrats, ect in a different class from X-Men…as it should be.) There have been plenty of action cartoons…but which ones were/are the my favorite? And by what criteria?

Cartoons are judged on the following criteria:

  • Story arc (as remembered from whatever time I saw the cartoon)
  • Quality of the characters (ie, do the characters kick ass or suck ass?)
  • I have to have actually seen(and remembered) enough of the cartoon to judge it.

Drumroll, please….

#10 – Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack

I was initially a little turned off by the animation style of Samurai Jack. It only took a minute or two to adjust to it, though – and about one or two additional seconds to realize that the animation style can be remarkably beautiful. While I was appreciating the visuals, I almost accidentally got sucked into the story… hero samurai thrown far into the future by an evil spirit. I haven’t seen very many episodes, but I’ve liked every one I’ve seen. One of these days, I’d like to see this one from start to finish.

#9 – Spiderman (90s)

Spidey

Radioactive Spiderman, look out!

The 90’s Spiderman cartoon was one that I watched every single Saturday. If I missed one, I’d actually go around asking people who might have seen it what happened. Obviously, I enjoyed the story arcs. Plus – kick ass theme song!

#8 – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (original)

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I’m told that even at a VERY young age, I was drawn by martial arts. My dad earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do in his 20s. Apparently, when I was a toddler, I’d go with my mom to watch Dad at the dojo, and I was so quiet and fascinated by what the students were doing that it attracted the attention of the head honcho. So, basically, I feel justified in blaming my childhood obsession with TMNT on Dad, lol.

God, I loved this show. I seem to recall practically running in circles singing the theme song every time the show started. (I was occasionally an excitable kid.) Even when it was running out of story and they started introducing crazy rabbit samurais and Mona Lisa the one female turtle, I still enjoyed it. Hell, I even loved the live action movies they made. I’m still impressed by the martial artists who managed some of those moves in those suits.

In retrospect, one of things I remember most vividly is a single scene in an episode I don’t even recall. April (the women the Turtles repeatedly rescue) gets fed up with being pushed around by one of the bad guys and starts doing fake martial arts moves in an attempt to scare him off. It was possibly the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen animated – and, as previously stated, I’ve seen a shitload of animation. And I still think that’s awesome. Probably about the most pathetic thing one can do is try to fake martial arts. You cannot do it and avoid looking lame. Super lame. If there’s one thing TMNT did, it was inspire a whole generation of us to kick and karate chop without regard to just how stupid we all looked – and here was the very show that inspired it laying it right out there… you look like a moron when you do that. Stop it. Go learn something, so you won’t look like an ass. How awesome is that?

#7 – Star Wars: Clone Wars

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I count myself lucky to have been exposed to Star Wars at a young age. I’ve heard through the grapevine that my family got our first VCR specifically because Star Wars came out on VHS and damn, we couldn’t miss that!! I wasn’t even born when the first Star Wars movie was in the theater, but I was timed just right to be up to always be aware of it. I’m not sure who I knew about first, baby Jesus or Luke Skywalker. (My mother is now horrified. It was probably Jesus, Mom…I just can’t prove it.)

To get to the point, I’m a Star Wars fan. Not a super-fan (I won’t argue with you about whether or not Greedo shot first, for example), but definitely a fan. So, when I heard that they were going to animate the Clone Wars storyline, I was pretty psyched. I had serious doubts about the choice of animation style at first, but it wound up being a good choice. The clean lines and fluidity of the animation lends a certain something to the martial arts scenes, which, let’s face it, is one of the big interests of the Star Wars franchise. We love us some light saber battles!

So, big points for style, story, and light sabers!

#6 – Reboot

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Ah, Reboot… the very first CGI TV show. I was mesmerized by the thing. The fact that the whole show was done in CGI animation was just awesome. It’s no big thing now, but in 1994 when it first came out, it was just…wow.

I didn’t get to see the series in it’s entirety. I saw the first season for sure and most of the second (when it started getting really interesting). Right about then, I started missing an episode here and there and wound up missing large chunks of it. I would like to see the whole series one day – I think it’d be interesting to check out in retrospect. Especially because the Web was cast as such a huge threat in the second season, as I recall.

I hear that they are working on a trilogy of movies for Reboot. Neat! The movies were announced in July of 2007. Not sure what’s happening with them, if anything. I’ll keep an eye out for them, though.

#5 – X-Men

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The 90s version of the X-Men was the high point of Saturday cartoons for as long as it was on. The animation wasn’t as great as it could have been (though, I don’t think I would have known any better if it hadn’t been for Batman, and the likes), but the show more than made up for it with the character development and storylines.

It must have been daunting to tackle the X-Men’s universe for a kid’s cartoon show. It is one of the most complex on this list. There were tons of heros, tons of villains, and tons of characters in the grey. Still, the story was told well enough to prepare me comic-related conversations and movies for years to come.

I thoroughly enjoyed the character design – yes, even Wolverine’s crazy yellow suit. My hands-down favorite was Gambit. He wins most awesome cartoon-character accent ever. Who knew it’d be Cajun?? But it is.

#4 – Batman Beyond

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Nobody likes to talk about it, but eventually, Bruce Wayne’s going to get old. He is human, after all. When that happens, what happens to the Batman mantel? Someone has to pick it up…after all, there are new criminals and super-villains who need to be scared shitless then have their asses kicked and handed to the cops. Enter my favorite Batman spin-off.

Animated in my favorite action-cartoon style, Batman Beyond starts with the re-invention of Batman in the form of Bruce’s chosen successor, Terry McGinnis. The story arc is excellent. It’s nicely entwined with the Justice League story arc eventually, but I won’t say any more in case you haven’t seen it.

As much as it hurts to see Bruce as an old man – and it DOES hurt – it’s worth the dose of realism for this one.

#3 – Superman (90s)

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I don’t think it’s possible to grow up in the US and not know who Superman is. He is THE superhero. He could mess you the hell up if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. He just wants to make sure that everything’s right with the world. Basically, the ultimate feel-good superhero.

Superman’s been around since the late 1930s, and has attracted the interest of countless writers, so his story is rich and complex. Makes for some damn good cartoon fodder! Throw in my favorite 90s DC Comic cartoon animation style, and you’ve got the makings for one great half-hour spot on Saturday mornings. Or after-school cartoon-time…whichever.

The story arc was excellent, and like Batman Beyond, tied in nicely with the Justice League story arc. It had some pretty great crossovers with Batman, too.

Also, I liked the way Lois Lane was portrayed in this version quite a bit. She has undergone plenty of transformation in the 80 years of Superman’s existence, so her character can be hit or miss, I think. Despite frequently requiring rescue from ridiculously dangerous situations, in this version she still manages to come off as smart and tough. And she does it all in a pleated mini-skirt. Thank goodness it wasn’t an anime – if it had been, the show would have been loaded with panty-shots. Probably would have made a bigger deal out of one of the cops’ apparent the lesbian relationship, too.

#2 – Batman (90s)

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I can’t think of anything about the 90s Batman cartoon that wasn’t great. The opening music was iconic, the voice talent was perfect, and the animation complemented the mood exactly the way it should have. It easily could have gone another way. (Adam West’s version of Batman, for example, is pretty much the polar opposite. Nothing against the Adam West Batman at all – I loved the camp. I’ve even seen the movie!)

Batman is another character that’s been around forever – his first appearances are also in the late 1930s, I believe. He’s drawn just as much, if not more attention, than Superman and his story is at least as rich with detail. His universe is populated with a mind blowing number of villains and allies, so it would have been easy to bog down the cartoon with a new and flashy character every episode. But they didn’t – and it was great.

This was also the first appearance of my favorite action cartoon animation style. I find I have a hard time articulating exactly what’s so great about it, but I think part of it is that the male characters are drawn just as outlandishly as the female characters. If a real guy really had a shoulders two to three feet wider than his hips (depending on just how bad-ass he’s supposed to look), he’d look pretty freakish – just like a real woman would look like a freak if her waist was ten inches around while her chest was forty four inches around. The outlandishness of the human figures struck the right chord for me, though. It was something we hadn’t seen before. And I liked it!

I’ll have to admit a soft spot for Batman. He’s a favorite superhero of mine because out of the most popular/most famous superheros, he’s the one that is the most possible. If you were rich enough, smart enough, strong enough, lucky enough… you could BE Batman. He wasn’t from another planet. He wasn’t bitten by anything radioactive, and there was no terrible lab accident – he’s just a man with some serious childhood issues, and the mental and physical arsenal to take those issues out on the bad guys.

#1 – Justice League/Justice League Unlimited

justice-league-anime.jpgjustice-league-unlimited.jpg

 

The Justice League was started with the seven characters on the left – Superman, Wonder Woman, the Green Lantern (Jon Stuart), the Martian Manhunter (aka John), the Flash, Hawk Girl, and Batman (though, to be fair, Batman only dropped in when it was super-serious…he’s not a team player and doesn’t pretend to be). When it became clear that the original seven could use some extra help, the JL was expanded to include a huge number of superheros all working together for the greater good.

Eventually, the amount of power they amass makes some people nervous. I won’t say more in case you haven’t seen it. It’s absolutely worth a look. Even if you’re not a comic book/superhero/sci-fi fan, it’s good storytelling.

Like the X-Men cartoon, Justice League could have VERY easily fallen under the weight of the universe of characters in it. Instead, it focused on a fantastic story arc with wonderful tie-ins to some of the greatest action cartoons I’ve ever seen. Everything fit. Everything made sense. There were plenty of “wow” moments. My only complaint is that I want more. That’s less of a complaint than greed, I suppose. I should count myself lucky that it JL and JLU were made and made as well as they were. But still… with a cast as vast as the one JL/JLU had to work with, the show could have gone on forever without getting too stale or contrived.

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Well, that’s the list. I’ve included some additional info for ya here in case you’re interested in some of the stuff that didn’t make the list. If I forgot a great action cartoon, let me know!!

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Considered but not included (and my reasons why):

  • Thundercats – I remember that Thundercats kicked ass, but not why…
  • Transformers – ditto Transformers… I loved the toys, and thought that the Decepticons could go to hell, but I can’t remember much of the story.
  • He-Man/She-Ra – I LOVED He-Man and She-Ra when I was a kid. Yet, I remember precisely nothing about them.
  • Batman (the newest one) – I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I thought Batman looked funky with his bat-ears shrunken like that. It made the whole series just a tiny less appealing and I never went out of my way to check it out.
  • G.I. Joe – Go Joe! and all that, but the stories didn’t stick with me like the others did.
  • Scooby Doo (and all his various Scooby Do and <fill in psuedo-celebrity name here> offshoots) – it’s basically the animated Law & Order of the day… same plot line with different specifics in every episode.
  • Teen Titans – this one almost made the list, but I’m not as familiar with it as the ones actually on the list. I do recall finding Raven’s angsty-ness and Starfire’s cutesy-ness annoying.
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (current) – I did actually watch an episode or two since I was such a huge TMNT fan when I was a kid. I just couldn’t get over Raphael’s voice. Hate it.
  • Spiderman (recent) – Spiderman’s proportions were freaky – he looked like a freakin’ alien ok?

Considered but not included as action cartoons:

  • Venture Bros – there’s action and some drama, but it’s just too damn funny to be on the list.
  • Frisky Dingo – ditto above
  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force – ditto above
  • SeaLab – ditto above
  • The Tick – ditto above
  • A Pup Named Scooby Doo – it was just a little too cute
  • Doug – considered for a nano-second…it’s really a drama/cute cartoon
  • Ahhh! Real Monsters – ditto above
  • Rugrats – ditto above
  • Wild Thornberries – ditto above, but extra awesome factor for having Tim Curry’s voice talent
 

Top 3 Indespensible Beverages January 14, 2008

Filed under: list — bendtheround @ 3:18 pm
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1. Water. Duh. How many little sayings are there around this one? “Water = Life” “Our bodies need water.” “Our bodies are made up of 124.2% water.” Whichever catch phrase floats your boat, the point is that if you’re dehydrated, you’re hurtin’.

(I’ll enter “Gatorade” as a subset of “Water.” Gatorade is my preferred sports drink, but I tend not to use it unless I’m either running more than five miles or hung over. Those two situations seem to merit the extra boost of electrolytes that Gatorade is known for. Otherwise, I’ll stick to water for my hydration purposes.)

2. Tea. Iced or hot, tea’s been around for ages, and damn is it good stuff. Sure, every other day there’s some new study published saying how the antioxidants in green tea can help stave off cancer or mice fed on a diet of pure concentrated tea achieved enlightenment and immortality, etc. That’s not the best reason to drink it, in my opinion.

Allow me to digress here and define “tea.” “Tea” means a beverage made from whole tea leaves or an herbal concoction (tisane) prepared by steeping the proper amount of tea in water of the proper temperature for the proper amount of time. No powdered mixes! (Nothing against the powdered mixes – some of them are pretty tasty – but it’s not really tea.)

Anyhow… The great thing about tea is the endless variety built into it. There are hundreds of teas and lots and lots of different ways to doctor up your own personal cup. You can add sugar, honey, sweeteners, juice… you can brew the tea to be particularly strong or weak. Maybe best of all is that you always know pretty much exactly what you’re drinking. No high fructose corn syrup or weird dyes for you. Just the tea and whatever you put in there.

3. Whiskey. Good Irish Whiskey in particular. Maybe that’s a bit of a shock after “water” and “tea” but I’m a big fan of this particular beverage, with the natural caveat of “to be consumed in moderation.” My personal favorite it Jameson, though, I have to admit that I’ve only had one or two other whiskeys. Anyhow, a nice dose of whiskey – about a quarter cup does for me – sipped until it’s gone, is just great. In the winter in particular, I like to have a bit of whiskey before bed. It’s a nice chance to sit down, have a little drink, and unwind before going to sleep. I’ve also come to a practically superstitious belief that whiskey is a good cure for the common cold. Whenever either have a cold or feel one coming on, nothing quite beats it back like whiskey. (Seems to work with or without chicken soup.) Don’t ask me how that works, I just know it works for me.

So! Those are my top three beverages. There were plenty of others that were considered… milk, juice, wine, beer, sodas, other hard liquors, but I think I’d stick to these as my top three.