Sunday, October 28, 2007

Move over Apprentice

I've been watching Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsey recently and its actually a very interesting show to watch from a business standpoint. The basic premise of the show which originally began in Britain, is that the foul-mouthed but extremely successful and talented Scottish chef travels to restaurants which are in disarray due to various reasons and he tries to save them in a week's timeframe. It's not only an interesting look at what goes into creating a successful business, it's also a fascinating look at personality pitfalls of owners which lead to failure.

Over a few episodes, I've noticed a common theme which is the desire to be 'unique'. People seem to much prefer attempting to create their own niche rather than perhaps fit into that is already their. For example there was a pub restaurant in a small town in England that was attempting to be a fine dining restaurant when its potential customers really wanted pork pies and fish and chips. Certainly having pride in one's business is a double-edged sword when one tries to break boundaries too much rather than adapt. This is probably why franchise restaurants are becoming more and more successful these days as the owners' pride does not interfere as much in the restaurants concept.

For me personally, the other effect of the show is making appreciate no longer being in the food industry. It amazes me how deeply ingrained the culture of restaurant is that people simply expect to be absolutely berated by the boss/head chef while getting paid low wages and often expected to work long hours. It seems like no other industry short of human rights-abusing sweatshops is this the accepted norm. I'm just glad I'll never be back in that situation again.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Market Always Provides

It's interesting how there are so many market niches out there that we go completely unaware of. For instance with cat food, I had hardly even looked at the fancy feast or other top shelf cat food and always simply bought the cheapest cat food that my cats will still like. Growing up, I saw cats get addicted to the expensive wet food and I was in no hurry to do let them do that. I figured that the expensive cat food was just due to a combination of factors such as advertising/branding costs and filling a niche for well-off people who want to feel like their indulging their cats.

However, at one point I bought a certain cat food that was on sale that week, and one of my cats began to have an allergic reaction to it. Simultaneously, my other cat was starting to get overweight due to an insatiable appetite which was outweighing, so to speak, the exercise he was doing running all around the house.

Doing a little research into the field, I found a whole world of different cat foods. I found that every one of the brands available at my supermarket were awful in that they were filled with grain while cats of course are carnivores and can easily lead to the weight gain I was seeing. Even brands like Fancy Feast and Science Diet, the more expensive brands at my supermarket are quite looked down upon by those in the know. This was going to require at least
heading to Petco/Petsmart to get a proper brand and perhaps even a specialty pet shop. This was the best list I found:

1st Tier:
Solid Gold
Innova EVO
California Natural
Nature's Variety Prairie
Evanger's (not the vegetarian formula)
Wysong (wet)

2nd Tier:
Chicken Soup
Blue Buffalo
Merrick (wet)
Pet Promise (wet)
Newman's Own Organics
Natural Balance

3rd Tier:
Eagle Pack
Nutro (Complete Care and Max Cat)
Diamond Naturals
Royal Canin
Wysong (dry)
Pet Promise (dry)

4th Tier (last resort) :
Science Diet
Purina One
Trader Joe's
Whole Paws

5th Tier (avoid):
Fancy Feast
Purina Cat Chow
Special Kitty (Wal-Mart brand)
Meow Mix
Store Brands

Fortunately I did not have to go too far to find a good brand--my nearby Petco carried 'Blue Buffalo' at a decent enough price and even had a 'weight management' version to boot. Still, needless to say it costs more than my previous Friskies. I should probably be careful exposing myself to more things to spend money on, the market always provides!

On the Necessity of Driving

To drive or not to drive? That was certainly not the question in San Diego where even biking was all but impossible with the way the roads are built and city was planned. However here in D.C., its something we are starting to wonder about. Kym is taking the metro to school and any other social activity really (since all of her friends prefer to take the metro as well) and I am able to take a 20-minute walk to my job each day (which is fortunate since parking would be a huge pain). As we pay for auto insurance, parking fees, gas and maintenance, we are starting to wonder whether wallets would be better off without the four-wheeler.

Really, my main argument against ridding ourselves of it is simply convenience. After all, it is nothing new to spend money on convenience is it? We pay more for an apartment so that its a location that's easier to get to places from, we buy prepared or delivery food since its clearly more convenient than cooking from scratch, and we have plenty of kitchen gadgets sure to make tasks easier when we do.

However, a new company is starting to take off that pokes a lot of holes in this argument: Zipcar. Though I don't recall seeing it in San Diego, it is a company that is really filling the niche for people in our situation who only need the car to run occasional errands like grocery shopping. Basically you're given a card that you can swipe for keyless entry to the car at a time you reserve and are charged an hourly rate for this.

It all seems like a great idea, but I'm just not there yet. Too many times it seems I will need to grab the car and get something at the last minute. This morning there was something wrong with the fish and I had to get to Petco asap for antibacterial. Or other times we will have everything we need for dinner but realize we have run out of one key ingredient. It's easy to say 'be better organized on your shopping trips' but that can be very difficult if we're talking one shopping trip per week for everything from vegetables and meat down to olive oil and stock cubes. I'm not going to say going carless will never happen, but for now the sound of keys jingling in my pocket is a comforting one.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Working With Your Hobby Or For It?

Kym and I just bought and aquarium and after cycling it for about a week we finally got to go fill it with fish. Although for basic aquarium supplies like water conditioner, gravel and hood we went to Petco/Petsmart and a modest local aquarium store, when it came time to buy the fish themselves, we both thought it was definitely worth the time, gas money and slight premium to go to a top-notch aquarium store out in Bethesda that has some rave reviews on Yelp, Congressional Aquarium.

The drive wasn't too bad fortunately as it was early Saturday evening (although you can never be sure on the Beltway out here). Soon after we got there we realized it was definitely worth the drive. Not only did the store have a huge selection of all different fishes, the staff were very knowledgeable and helpful. At first we were planning have a tank of South American Cichlids, and we were referred to a staff member who was their resident 'expert' on the fishes. Without hesitation he then went through all of the fish that would work well in the tank, asking us questions about our preferences and making recommendations from that. Clearly not the canned information you get at many of the larger stores these days. Unfortunately one of the bits of information he gave us is that with a 55-gallon tank, he only recommended we have 3-4 fish total in their since they can grow so large (certainly not aiming to make a large sale this guy!). So in the end we decided to go for a completely different type of tank set-up which didn't seem to phase him at all and he referred us to another employee who knew a lot about 'community fish' tank setups.

When we headed off with our bags of fish it struck me that all these workers were going to be there till late that Saturday night which made me thankful again that I am out of the whole working weekends, nights and holidays schedule that I was stuck in when younger. And yet, it seemed very apparent that these people were truly doing something loved. All the employees we talked to seem to own multiple large tanks and had the kind of knowledge on the subject that one only acquires through passion. This is of course not a rare question as most everyone encounters this as they attempt to balance the benefits of working in a field you have a passion for while not ending up in their mid-thirties struggling to make ends meet with their degree in Native American Art.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Plug for Greasemonkey

Anyone not familiar with Greasemonkey should really get acquainted with this great addition to the browsing process. The basic premise for various reasons, there are features a website could offer that would enhance the browsing experience of its visitors, but which would likely affect its bottomline whether by hindering advertisers or perhaps enabling competitors. Or there is the issue that many websites have to be tailored to the lowest common denominator and/or first-time user resulting in a website that is intuitive to use but possibly not as efficient as it could be for an experienced user. Heck maybe there's just a website with a lot of great content but not the best design.

The first step of course is to install the extension for your browser. The preferred browser for Greasemonkey is Firefox, since IE, Opera, and Safari's versions won't necessarily be compatible with all of the Greasemonkey scripts (though most of them will work so still worth the download even if you set on using one of the latter three browsers).

For downloading Greasemonkey scripts, by far the best site I have found is Userscripts. From there, I'd suggest using the search box with your most visited sites and scroll through the results for anything that tickles your fancy. Sometimes it's even worth it to look for a site that has something specific about it that really irritates you. For instance, I like reading the articles off of but I detest the fact that a video immediately begins playing that I end up frantically trying to pause when I forget that I have my sound on loud while in a situation where the blaring noise is rather embarrassing and rude. Lo and behold I am certainly not the only one who feels this way and someone has written a script here that removes not only the video but most of the annoying ads.

A couple of my current favorites are:

IMDB - add Rottentomatoes info which adds Rotten Tomatoes professional film critic-based to the IMDb movie pages and their user-based ratings. It is obvious why IMDb might not want to (or even be allowed to under copyright?) include this in their page, yet I find this incredibly useful now that studios seem to be 'stuffing the ballot box' so to speak, on their when their big-budget films are first released. Meanwhile I like IMDb's features overall more than than Rotten Tomatoes, so this is a great best-of-both-worlds solution.

Google Images Auto AutoPager is both very creative and very useful. Not only does it change the link on images in Google's Image Search to go directly to the image rather than the original site which made you have to click an extra link for every image (never quite understood why they do that--something to do with copyright perhaps?) but it also turns the search results into a never ending page that automatically loads the next group of images as you approach the bottom of the page. If you've ever reached page 14 of a google image search looking for that perfect image you'll understand how incredibly useful this script is.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The iGeneration

Since my wife Kym began law school she's has been thrown full force into the world of Facebook. Facebook can be a great tool for keeping up with friends but her professors and advisers have repeatedly stressed that it is a double-edged sword to be wary of. Apparently, for highly important (and costly) positions such as lawyers, it has not just become possible that an employer will check their younger applicants' profiles on social sites such as Facebook, but it has almost become a virtual guarantee.

Oftentimes, when learning the world of applications and resumes writing we rely on older standard advice coming from books or long-standing career counselors. However, this "iGeneration" (as I was recently informed I am apart of) who has grown up with the internet both socially and professionally is encountering brand new issues as the barrier between social anonymity and professional careers breaks down. Other examples include having a different email for resumes than friends (probably not a great idea to but under the contact info) and googling your name to ensure it doesn't return results that might cast you in an unflattering light in addition to keeping an objective watch on your Facebook profile (again, probably not the best idea to list "porn" under your list of favorite movies as I have seen some profiles do).

Friday, October 05, 2007

Is There Such a Thing as Investing Too Early?

When should one start investing for retirement? I've heard once you hit the latter half of your twenties, once you graduate from college (assuming you go), and even once you move out of the house and get your first paycheck. I have even met some people who began investing while still in high school with their savings account.

Yet I do wonder how objective this advice is? Is it being given by people who have carefully analyzed the pro's and con's of saving from an early age or is it people who are more quickly approaching their retirement, wish they had more money in their account, and put numbers into a excel spreadsheet that tells them "Gosh if I had invested $500 per month starting when I was 14, I'd have a lot more money right now!". I've lost count of the amount of times people have shown the 'magic of compound investing' as if it were this amazing enlightenment. In reality however, I'd say it exaggerates its benefit since it isn't really factoring in the inflation that will have a severe impact on the savings and it underestimates the financial realities of trying to put a significant portion of your money away when you are still at the very beginnings of a career.

Personally I believe that one should really start investing when you have a real 'career' job. Putting away money while earning a few dollars above minimum wage will look pointless in a decades time when you're earning multiples of that income.

Granted, I could be falling prey to the same rationalizations that I accuse those investment advisers to exhibit, but I still feel confident in that assertion.