30 March 2008

Why I love theater

Maybe I should amend that title, because I really mean musical theater (though I do want to make time to see some plays at some point). I've become a theater addict in the last several months. The main reason I love theater is that it's like real life. Actors can make mistakes or forget their lines (hopefully not in a professional Broadway production). Every performance is slightly different and you can't predict every action even if you've seen the show before. A live performance packs so much more emotional punch than watching a film, especially if you're like me and try to get seats as close to the front as possible. When you go to the theater, you have to concentrate and involve yourself where as with a movie, you can just pause the DVD or turn it off. I suppose you can walk out of the theater, but most people don't do that unless the show is horrible. Theater is not meant to be realistic the way the TV and film are and I think that allows audiences to focus more on the acting and story. Pretty scenery, pretty actors, and special effects can disguise bad material on a screen, but not in a theater (at least not as much). A theater show opening is so much more exciting than a film opening, because you know that the show is only going to be playing for a limited duration whereas you can just wait for the movie to come out on DVD (which sucks all the fun out of it for me). Another nice aspect is revivals. Since good plays and musicals are done more than once, you can compare performances and really appreciate different interpretations of the same material. TV and film is frequently a very passive experience for me and I didn't appreciate the craft of acting until I started learning about theater. I've become more attentive to details (maybe that will help my social life).

I'm not trying to bash TV and film. Rather, I'm trying to say that theater should be more important in American culture than it currently is. That being said, I'll try to catch as many good shows as I can!

Song of the day: "All I need is the girl" by Jules Styne and Stephen Sondheim

Finally, a song not composed by Stephen Sondheim! Sondheim wrote the lyrics, but Jules Styne wrote the notes. Mostly, I like this song because it's an old-fashioned Broadway song, the kind of style no one writes anymore.

From Gypsy
Once my clothes were shabby,
Tailors called me "Cabbie,"
So I took a vow
Said "This bum'll
Be Beau Brummel."
Now I'm smooth and snappy,
Now my tailor's happy,
I am the cat's meow,
My wardrobe is a wow!
Paris silk! Harris tweed!
There's only one thing I need...

Got my tweed pressed,
Got my best vest,
All I need now is the girl.
Got my striped tie,
Got my hopes high,
Got the time and the place, and I got rhythm
Now all I need's the girl to go with'em!
If she'll
Just appear, we'll
Take this big town for a whirl
And if she'll only say, "My
Darling, I'm yours," I'll throw away my
Striped tie and my best-pressed tweed
All I really need
Is the girl!

[speaking] I start off easy... Now I'm more -- debonair... Break! And I sell it here... I start this step -- double it -- and she appears! All in white! I take her hand -- kiss it -- and lead her on the floor... This step's good for the costumes... Now we waltz. Strings come in. And I lift her! ... Again... Once more! Now the tempo changes; all the lights come up; and I build for the finale! That's it, Louise! But do it over here! Give me your hand! Faster! Now Charleston right! Again! Again! Turn!

March 30 game recap vs South Windsor Saints

We lost 5-1. Our coach got mad at us for a slow first period start. I don't feel like I did anything wrong, but our team got jumped on for four goals in the first period. I shot twice (one wide of the net and one that was saved by the goalie's stick). Miriam was my center and Linda was my right winger. We played decently in my opinion. Miriam and I were good at supporting each other when one of us was stuck on the boards with the puck. I tried my usual dumping-the-puck-behind-the-net routine and it worked pretty well with Linda. She read the situation and usually ended up with the puck. I clearly remember one situation where the center and I battled a defender for the puck behind the net. I emerged with the puck and saw Linda who was open for a one-timer. Then I glanced at the ice and saw three sticks and couldn't figure out which one to pass to... doh!

I think the main problem with our offensive game (my line) was that we couldn't sustain pressure long enough to get shots and rebound shots. But we tried our best. South Windsor was very good at winning faceoffs in our defensive zone and their point was so quick at getting shots off that I just couldn't get there in time. I'm not sure what I could do other than diving at the puck. Overall, I played a good game, but I ran out of gas by mid-third period. I haven't had time to keep in shape, so it's not surprising.

South Windsor was a good passing team and they had a few players who were very good puck handlers. But as our coach said, they were not good enough to be beating us by 5-1.

29 March 2008

Dan Cleary

Dan Cleary is one of the biggest comeback stories in recent NHL history. He went from a first round pick to a mediocre player who was traded twice and on his way out of the NHL. People criticized his work ethic and he was also involved in a drug driving incident. After meeting his wife and working hard, he finally landed a job with the Detroit Red Wings. He became a great all-around forward and received a five-year, $12 million dollar contract extension with the Red Wings this year!

Why mention Dan? We all need a good old fashioned inspirational story now and then and I think now's a good time.

27 March 2008

Sweeney Todd on tour review

Last week, I saw Sweeney Todd on tour in Los Angeles. There were reports of sound problems in previous performances, but fortunately they were fixed when I saw the show.

It was a good performance, but I just wasn't crazy about the whole actors being musicians thing. I didn't really see how the instruments added to the story telling. Sure, it was cute sometimes, e.g. watching Judy Kaye (Mrs. Lovett) play the tuba badly and Lauren Molina (Johanna) perform slides on her cello, but hardly necessary to the play.

I felt like the two standout performers were Judy Kaye and Benjamin Eakley (who played the beadle). Both were fine actors and singers. Judy chose to play Mrs. Lovett as a sweet, charming character whose only fault was being too fond of Mr. T. She felt bad about locking Toby in the bakehouse.

The judge (played by Keith Buterbaugh) was pretty bland and I felt like his voice was too high for the part. I like a strong bass for the judge.

Lauren Molina did a nice job being a crazy Johanna. The guy who played Anthony was good but pretty much the same as every other Anthony I've seen.

Sadly, I didn't really care for Sweeney Todd's performance (played by David Hess). He didn't really vary his volume much during "My Friends" (he seemed loud for the parts when he should have been soft "whisper I'll listen" etc). His Epiphany was good, but not as good as other previous performers. I didn't like the fact that he tried to threaten the audience from the back of the stage while standing on a ladder. But that's the fault of the director.

I'm just not a big fan of John Doyle's style for Sweeney Todd. I thought he did a much more effective job with the Company revival. The Sweeney Todd revival came off as being clever and novel, but the abstract, minimalist presentation took away some of the emotional punch compared to the original Hal Prince staging. John Doyle often had the actors stand next to each other and act towards the audience rather than facing each other. I didn't like this choice. What's wrong with traditional person-to-person acting? Doyle also chose to substitute the famous barber chair with a baby coffin. I found that really weird and missed the shock value of dumping bodies from the barber chair down a chute.

24 March 2008

Link of the day: Interview with Matt Cornell

Academic Productivity interviewed Matt Cornell, a productivity expert who specializes in helping professors. What I found most interesting was the mention of alternative productivity systems to Getting Things Done.

Creative constraints are good for creativity

Over at 43Folders, Merlin Mann briefly expresses his love for constraints: 30 second videos, 5 item lists, even 140 word Twitter messages. Brevity is great, not just for the audience, but also for the writer/artist/etc who can't get going.

17 March 2008

Startup weekends

Michael Nielsen finds yet another cool idea on the World Wide Web. Pawel Szczesny at Freelancing Science proposes that scientists try a "startup weekend." These gatherings typically take one of two forms. One is parallel working, where everyone is working on their own thing, but they feed on everyone else's energy. I've heard of places where you can rent a cubicle or desk to work alongside other people. Pawel is talking about the other type where you form a group and do a collaborative project. I'm not sure this idea would actually work. You can't do science in one weekend, so once the group splits up to go home, what's to keep the project from falling apart? Long-distance collaborations are very difficult.

Color blind friendly presentations

Today, at group meeting, the presenter showed a plot in red, green, and yellow. Apparently, this combination of colors has the most contrast for normal people. But color-blind people, like the postdoc I work with, really struggle with a plot like that.

I searched for some information about presentations for color blind people and found a great article by two Japanese researchers who are themselves color blind.

Here are some interesting points:
  • If you have a red-green color plot, change the red to magenta. Magenta is a combination of blue and red, so color blind people will be able to see the blue part.
  • It is easier for color blind people to see green laser pointers than red laser pointers (same is true for normal people, too!)
  • Fig 16 of the article shows a good color palette that is clear to people of all color-seeing types (whether normal, red color blind, green color blind, etc).

The article is available for download in PDF and Powerpoint.

Link of the day: Lockhart's Lament

Michael Nielsen posted a link to the wonderful essay "Lockhart's Lament." It was originally written by a mathematician named Paul Lockhart in 2002. He laments the state of K-12 mathematics education in America. I was a bit shocked to realize what a mediocre mathematics education I had, even though I attend some of the top public schools in the country. In retrospect, I realize how rote my math classes were. No wonder I never really liked math as a child. When I went to college, I took physics and my teachers showed me the rich history behind what we were learning, how you could take different approaches to solving the same problem, and how physics was still a growing, changing field. No wonder I became a physicist and not a mathematician.

I feel like even my college math classes were taught in a rather rote fashion. I never really got a feel for how the various facts I learned were inter-related, nor did I understand why these facts were interesting. My analysis teacher mentioned a book called A Radical Approach to Real Analysis by David Bressoud. I wish I had read it; apparently it explains why mathematicians wanted to come up with these obscure concepts like sets and measures.

I really need a good context to understand advanced math. At some point, I just can't handle so much abstraction. I think most people have even less ability to handle abstraction than I do, which probably explains why so many people hate math.

Not that science education is that much better. I remember Bruce Alberts (an author of the famous biochemistry textbook The Cell) saying that he was shocked at how boring his son's high school chemistry textbook was. The only reason that many students learn science and math is because their parents and teachers tell them how important it is. Students probably don't appreciate it until later in life, if they're lucky. I was one of the lucky ones. There are actually a number of prominent physicists working on physics education including Nobel Laureates Leon Lederman, Carl Wieman, and Kenneth Wilson.

Cognitive doping

Jose wrote a very interesting post on Academic Productivity. He wondered is it okay for people to take drugs to improve their mental performance? Obviously, most people drink tea and coffee (legal drugs) and society thinks that is acceptable. But what about prescription drugs like Ritalin (used to treat ADD)? Is doing so "cheating" like using steroids in professional sports? I guess it's hard for me to say since I haven't tried any drugs and caffeine doesn't work that well for me. As Jose mentions, the fact that people feel pushed to take drugs is a negative reflection of modern society. Unfortunately, I don't think it's something that will go away. The more educated the world becomes, the more aware people become of better opportunities and then everyone starts competing for the same limited set of desirable jobs.

A friend made a good point that using drugs will probably not increase your creativity or come up with a new idea to start a project. But I think it will help you when you need that extra push to finish something.

Einstein versus the Physical Review

Not many people know that Einstein submitted an article proposing that gravitational waves don't exist and then had his article rejected by Physical Review. There is a nice historical account in Physics Today.

I guess this article shows that peer review has its benefits -- like saving a giant of the field from publishing an embarrassingly incorrect result.

The unconference

Michael Nielsen has recently become interested in "unconferences" and has posted a list of resources related to planning and attending unconferences.

I was completely unaware of this new trend. Instead of falling asleep through other people's talks and killing yourself preparing your own talk, you participate in moderated discussion groups.

16 March 2008

A Little Night Music review

A Little Night Music is one of Sondheim's earlier musicals and probably the most straightforward and approachable of his works along with A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum.

The book (by Hugh Wheeler) is based on Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. The story revolves around the romantic follies of four men and women in late 19th century mid-summer Sweden. The sun just doesn't set during the summer in Scandinavia, which is enough to scramble anyone's brains. I haven't seen the Bergman film, so I can't comment on how closely the musical follows the film.

The musical is light and playful (Jonathan Tunick, the orchestrator, calls is "scherzo") and as many people have remarked, most of the score is set in 3/4 waltz time. In a sense, A Little Night Music is a dance gone wrong. The musical opens with a short Greek chorus song followed by men and women waltzing. Unfortunately, the people are dancing with the wrong partners. Everyone is chasing after another person who doesn't return their affections. The dance has turned into a romantic game. By the end of the musical, all is set right and everyone is dancing with their proper partners. Sondheim's lyrics are always fantastic, but I especially enjoyed them in this musical. The words are sophisticated and witty and roll off your tongue like a Cole Porter song or an Oscar Wilde play.

But like any Wilde play, the characters portray a world that appears peachy and creamy but where darkness lurks underneath. There's waltzing, gorgeous costumes, and a glamorous actress, yes, but also people living out deluded lives. The central characters are Frederik Eggerman, a lawyer, and Desiree Armfeldt, a glamorous actress. Both are middle-aged people who had a love affair in their youth, fourteen years earlier. Frederik has re-married an 18 year old girl named Anne and Desiree is still acting in touring companies and having flings with married men. Henrik, Frederik's nineteen year old son from a previous marriage, struggles with being in love with his stepmother Anne and tries to drown his sorrow in cello playing and religious studies. Meanwhile, Anne is so naive that she still hasn't consummated her marriage with Frederik eleven months after the wedding day. To complicate matters, Desiree is having an affair with the married Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, but she wants to get back together with the married Frederik! Desiree's affair has also made an enemy of Countess Charlotte Malcolm, Carl-Magnus's wife.

The musical comments on this tangled romantic web in several ways. There is a Greek chorus (a quintet) which breaks into song at certain points. They never sing about specific people or places, but they mirror the mood of the characters. For instance, when Frederik goes to see Desiree after her performance, the quintet sings the song "Remember" which recalls a youthful fling. Madame Armfeldt and Frederika, Desiree's mother and daughter respectively, explictly discuss Desiree and romantic follies in general. Madame Armfeldt tries to instruct Fredericka in human life so she can avoid her mother's mistakes. Henrik and Charlotte are both sharp enough to see what's going on around them, but being ensnared in the web themselves, they aren't the innocent bystanders like Madame Armfeldt and Frederika. In "A Weekend in the Country", Henrik sings that he's going to tag along with his father on a trip to the Armfeldt estate, in order to observe "frivolous lives." The servants Frid and Petra bring in the low-class perspective on love. They are simple people but they recognize real love when they see it. Petra offers her commentary on romance in "The Miller's Son." No matter who you marry whether a peasant or the Prince of Wales, you will grow old, have to feed children, and/or get bored. One should "celebrate everything passing by" since it doesn't last. Sometimes all that money, choice, and sophistication muddles people (e.g. Frederik, Desiree) rather than enlightening them.

Light comedy is done to perfection in A Little Night Music. Frederik's song about unconsummated passion "Now" is hilarious. I still can't get over the line "I'm sorry to say, but is Hans Christian Andersen ever risque?" But that can't compare to the duet "You Must Meet My Wife" which includes one of the funniest lines ever written: "Isn't that alarming? What is she, a bird?" That song is shortly followed by a comic acting scene involving Count Malcolm discovering Frederik and Desiree in their night clothes. Act I ends with a fantastic ensemble piece "A Weekend in the Country" where the characters argue with each other and scheme romantic plots. Charlotte's look of consternation when Carl-Magnus decides to crash the Armfeldt party is truly priceless (to which he sings "Happy birthday, it's your present"). Finally, there is the dinner party scene where Charlotte and Desiree trade insults while Frederik tries to be charming and Carl-Magnus tries to restrain his wife.

I was fortunate to get my hands on a taped video of the New York City Opera's 1990 production, broadcast on PBS live from Lincoln Center. The cast is very good and the sets and costumes lavishly beautiful. Two standout actors were Regina Resnick as Madame Armfeldt and Maureen Moore as Charlotte. They had many of the best punchlines in the book and they delivered them well. Charlotte is my favorite character and Maureen Moore really brought out the self-deprecating, stingingly sarcastic nature of the woman. I think Moore's version of "Every Day A Little Death" is the best I've heard. George Lee Andrews as Frederik and Sally Ann Howes as Desiree were good in the leading roles, but nothing to write home about. Andrews sounded like Len Cariou (the original Frederik in the 1973 Broadway production), but not quite as good.

It's nice to have some (relatively) light, charming Sondheim music that I can actually listen to while working. Most of Sondheim's works are too heavy or emotionally-involving for me to listen to while doing something else!

14 March 2008

Receipt system

I download my transactions via Quicken's One Step Update, but I verify the transactions by comparing them to the receipts I've collected. I get receipts not just for buying items, but also for withdrawing money from ATMs, depositing checks, etc. I also try to remember when I spend cash so I can enter transactions in my Quicken cash account. For transactions without receipts, I write them down on an index card. This includes returning items. Occasionally, I jot a note on receipt to clarify the category. For instance, I might spend money on postage to return clothes. The transaction will show up in Quicken as USPS, but I want to categorize it as "clothes" not "postage".

The receipts I collect go into a small manila envelope.

Every week, when I download transactions into Quicken, I check the payee name and transaction amount against the receipts in my manila envelope. If the two are reconciled, then I put the reconciled receipts into an expanding file with pockets for different months.

Every now and then, I clean out the expanding file and throw out old receipts. I'm not running a business so there's no need to keep receipts. I suppose if I were really obsessive, I could scan the receipts with a flatbed scanner.

Binder clip toothpaste hack

I learned this trick from Lifehacker. I'm really lazy about squeezing the tube from the bottom up. I just squeeze on the fat part of the tube. So every now and then, I squeeze all the paste from the bottom up and use a binder clip to preserve my work.

It works pretty well!

10 March 2008

March 9 game recap vs Salisbury Stingers

Our team had a rough loss 7-1. It shouldn't have been that bad, but our team just didn't play very well. Salisbury had a couple of players who were fast skaters and talented puckhandlers. Their whole game consisted of getting breakaways with these players and then bunkering down in our defensive zone. For whatever reason, our team wasn't very aggressive so we had a lot of trouble breaking out. I played a pretty good game. I had a few good breakouts, but I also threw a pass behind my teammate when she came into the slot and forgot to look across to the weak side when passing. I had one nice breakaway where I surprised the opposing team and ended up near the side of the net surrounded by four opposing players. They didn't really pressure me, so I passed to an incoming teammate who had a good shot on net. I sometimes made the mistake of watching the opposing players attack the net instead of paying attention to my defensive responsibilities. Our line gave up a goal when we watched the play develop instead of picking up the trailing player who of course converted the rebound.

I'm really starting to like my new stick. It's a CCM Vector Catapult 10.0, Recchi pattern. The square blade really helps me pick up pucks off the boards and the pattern isn't too long or overly curved, so I can stickhandle well. The blade also cushions passes very well, so I have an easy time receiving the puck.

05 March 2008

March 2 game recap vs Storrs Lady Lightning

I played an average game, not too bad, not too good. I had a few good breakouts. In one, I came down the left side and shot at the right post. The goalie blocked the shot, but my linemate put the rebound into the net. In another breakout, it was a similar situation. I came down the left side and shot at the right post. The goalie missed the puck, but unfortunately, the post covered for that mistake. I was fortunate to play on a line with Melissa again. We have really good chemistry. We like to dump the puck to each other behind the net. Strangely, I played on the third line, but we seemed to be the best forward line out of three. The assistant coach made up the rosters, so I guess he wanted to give some other players the honor of playing the first line.

I'm still having trouble winning puck battles. I need to focus on playing man and attacking the opponent's stick.

The Lady Lightning were pretty evenly matched with our team. They were slightly better though, which is why they won 2-1. We were stuck in our defensive zone more than I would have liked.

Song of the day: "Now" by Stephen Sondheim

I love the humor and wit of this song. The lyrics just roll off your tongue.

From A Little Night Music
Now, as the sweet imbecilities
Tumble so lavishly
Onto her lap,
Now, there are two possibilities:
A, I could ravish her,
B, I could nap.
It's the ravishment, then we see
The option
That follows, of course:
The deployment of charm, or B,
The adoption
Of physical force.
Now, B might arouse her,
But if I assume
I trip on my trouser
Leg crossing the room...
Her hair getting tangled,
Her stays getting snapped,
My nerves would be jangled,
My energy sapped...
Removing her clothing
Would take me all day,
And her subsequent loathing
Would turn me away,
Which eliminates B
And which leaves us with A.

Now, insofar as approaching it,
What would be festive
But have its effect?
Now, there are two ways of broaching it:
A, the suggestive,
And B, the direct.
That I settle on B, to wit,
A charmingly
Lecherous mood,
I could put on my nightshirt or sit
B, in the nude.
That might be effective;
My body's all right--
But not in perspective
And not in the light.
I'm bound to be chilly
And feel a buffoon,
But nightshirts are silly
In mid-afternoon.
Which leaves the suggestive,
But how to proceed?
Although she gets restive,
Perhaps I could read.
In view of her penchant
For something romantic,
De Sade is to trenchant
And Dickens too frantic,
And Stendhal would ruin
The plan of attack,
As there isn't much blue in
"The Red and the Black."
De Maupassant's candour
Would cause her dismay,
The Brontes are grander
But not very gay,
Her taste is much blander,
I'm sorry to say,
But is Hans Christian Ander-
Sen ever risque?
Which eliminates A...

Now, with my mental facilities
Partially muddied
And ready to snap,
Now, though there are possibilities
Still to be studied,
I might as well nap.
Though I must
To adjust
My original plan,
Shall I sleep
Half as deep
As I usually can,
When now I still want and/or love you,
Now as always,
Now, Anne?

04 March 2008

The difference between students and experts in solving physics problems

Here's an interesting remark I came across in the blog Confused at a higher level:
As she said, if you give the same problem to a novice and an expert and ask them to think out loud, you will see a completely different intellectual structure to the approach. For an introductory mechanics problem, for instance, a student will say things like “oh, it’s an inclined plane. I should think about which forces are involved. Wait, is there friction? What about the normal force? What axes should I choose? Oh no, this is a complicated one — there’s gravity and a spring as well.” And so on. An expert will say something like: ‘Hmm, that’s probably best done by a conservation of energy analysis. Ok, which potential energies do I have to track …” And so on. Neither approach misses the point, but the latter constrains you, and focuses you much faster.

03 March 2008

Song of the day: "Lesson #8" by Stephen Sondheim

This song is about the artist (or creative person) who is stuck. I suppose that if the song is sung in the wrong tone, it can sound excessively self-pitying.

From Sunday in the Park with George (a lot of great lyrics in this inspiring work!)
"Charles has a book..."
"Charles shows them his crayons...
"Marie has the ball of Charles...
"Good for Marie..."
"Charles misses his ball..."
George misses Marie...
George misses a lot...
George is alone.

George looks around.
He sees the park.
It is depressing.
George looks ahead.
George sees the dark.
George feels afraid.
Where are the people
Out strolling on Sunday?

George looks within.
George is adrift.
George goes by guessing.
George looks behind.
He had a gift.
When did it fade?
You wanted people out
Strolling on Sunday-
Sorry, Marie...

See George remember how George used to be,
Stretching his vision in every direction.
See George attempting to see a connection
When all he can see
Is maybe a tree-
The family tree-
Sorry, Marie...

George is afraid.
George sees the park.
George sees it dying.
George too may fade,
Leaving no mark,
Just passing through.
Just like the people
Out strolling on Sunday...

George looks around.
George is alone.
No use denying
George is aground.
George has outgrown
What he can do.
George would have liked to see
People out strolling on Sunday...

02 March 2008

Learning Quicken 2008

I finally finished reading the book Quicken 2008: The Missing Manual. I've been using Quicken for the past few years, but not very well. I decided to get a book to understand what I'm doing. Here are some important things I learned.
  • If you withdraw money from an ATM or pay your credit card, these transactions need to be marked transfers. Otherwise Quicken will think that your credit card payment is an expense. In these transactions, the money is staying inside your accounts, not going to an external institution, so these transactions should be transfers.
  • Set up a cash account for incidental cash expenses. Whenever you withdraw money from an ATM, enter a transfer transaction between your checking account and cash account.
  • I can download all my transactions with One Step Update! This marvelous Quicken feature allows you to click a button and have the program automatically download all recent transactions to your accounts. For me, this includes my bank, online savings accounts, credit cards, and investments at Vanguard. I used to manually download transactions from institution websites.
  • The book recommends *not* clicking on the "Accept All" transactions button. You should check that the transaction is valid by matching it against written records/receipts. I now keep receipts (for purchases, ATM withdrawals, checking account deposits, etc) in an envelope on my desk.
  • If you buy something that you will be reimbursed for later, mark the transaction as being in the category "Reimbursement." You can later mark the reimbursing check as being in the category "Reimbursement" as well. You can also setup a Quicken alert reminding you to check if you've been reimbursed.
  • You can save attachments and associate them with transactions or accounts in Quicken. For instance, you can save your credit card statements as .pdfs and associate them with the appropriate credit card account.
  • New to Quicken 2008: You can tag transactions. This is great because a transaction can have more than one tag, whereas it can only have one category.
  • You can use Quicken's budget function to make budgets. I'm still playing with this function. My expenses vary wildly from month to month because I have a $5000+ expense that comes twice a year.

Not to make things sound perfectly peachy, I did run into a few problems. I couldn't get two of my credit card accounts to update using One Step Update. I had to delete the accounts, go to the credit card websites and download transactions manually. Then in the process of downloading, Quicken asked me to create the appropriate credit card account. When I created the credit card account in this manner (rather than using the File -> New command), the update worked properly.

Also, some of my investment accounts were inaccurate because Vanguard only allows you to download the last 18 months of transactions. For my accounts that were older than 18 months, there was a placeholder transaction which simply says "you had x shares of mutual fund y on z date." There's no pricing information so Quicken can't properly calculate how much money you invested. I had to enter about 60 transactions manually to make my investment accounts accurate and up-to-date.

I found Quicken 2008: The Missing Manual a very instructive book and recommend it highly.

Multiple savings accounts in ING Direct

From Ramit Sethi's blog, I found out that you can set up multiple accounts in ING Direct. That means that if you have an Orange Savings Account, you can set up multiple Orange Savings accounts and access them with one password! This is really useful since you typically need to save money for several different purposes. Having separate accounts makes tracking easier and prevents you from accidentally taking money out of an important savings account (e.g. emergency savings). I went ahead and set up three accounts, each with a different nickname: "general savings", "emergency fund", and "rent". I have an account for rent because I only pay my rent in huge chunks, three times a year.

I also have a HSBC Direct account, but I'm thinking of dropping it in favor of ING Direct because HSBC doesn't allow One-Step Update in Quicken. I've also heard that the Electric Orange ING checking account is good. I've been using a Wachovia student checking account which for a while had no fees. Unfortunately, now Wachovia charges for downloading from Quicken -- a ridiculous $6/month fee.

Suze Orman on personal finances

In the last few weeks, I've been trying to learn more about personal finances. I read this great book by Suze Orman called Women and Money. Why a book about women in particular? Orman says that she herself was surprised to find herself writing such a book. However, after many experiences talking to female friends, she realized that many women lack confidence and let their lack of confidence screw up their personal finances.

I don't lack confidence. My mom is a business owner and has been investing money for me and the rest of the family since I was born. But I have a tendency for excessive spending and occasionally giving gifts when I can't really afford it. Reading Orman's book has inspired me to spend more time on personal finances. My mom already did a great job by investing the maximum every year in my Roth IRA and setting up a Vanguard retirement and brokerage account for me (with no service fees!). I've got a great start.

For young people like myself, Ramit Sethi recommends three books to learn about investing.
  • Suze Orman, The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke
  • Taylor Larimore, Mel Lindauer, Michael LeBoeuf, The Bogleheads' Guide to Investing
  • David Swensen, Unconventional Success: A Fundamental Approach to Personal Investment

Song of the day: "Beautiful" by Stephen Sondheim

A very poignant song about the nature of beauty.

From Sunday in the Park with George
It keeps changing.
I see towers
Where there were trees.
All the stillness,
The solitude,
All the time,
When things were beautiful...

All things are beautiful,
All trees, all towers,
That tower-
Beautiful, Mother,
A perfect tree.

Pretty isn't beautiful, Mother,
Pretty is what changes.
What the eye arranges
Is what is beautiful.


I'm changing.
You're changing.

It keeps fading...

I'll draw us now before we fade,

It keeps melting
Before our eyes.

You watch
While I revise the world.

As we sit here-
Quick, draw it all,


As we look-

Look!... Look!...

You make it beautiful.
Oh, Georgie, how I long for the old view.