Tuesday, October 30, 2007

All Shook Up

I just got back not too long ago from having dinner and some beer with Joey (the recently married friend) over at the Tied House in San Jose. Anyway, we were seated at a table against the wall when all of a sudden we heard a thundering sound, and everything started shaking.

It's an earthquake. Ho-hum, all of us Californians have experienced plenty of these. But, then this one got pretty bad, and it was a second or two before Joey and I found ourselves sharing the tiny space beneath our table. Decorative glass and beer mugs fell off of the shelves and came crashing onto the table. Our dinner was ruined, and glass pieces were all over. I got a tiny cut on my arm, but it was really no big deal.

Anyway, after the excitement was over, we got moved over to a new table, and they got us new food and more beer. And, the manager did what any good manager should... they comped our meal.

Here's the info on the quake, in case you didn't catch it on the news... I wonder if it was even big enough to make the national news. It registered at 5.6 on the Richter scale, and it hit a little bit to the east of Milpitas, probably around 10 miles away from my place, and less than 5 miles from where we had dinner (probably why we felt it as strongly as we did). I heard that those all the way in San Francisco felt it slightly too.

Here's an image I pulled from the USGS.

And, because I'm kind of obsessing over all this data, here's a seismogram taken at a station nearby showing the quake.

Technically, we're not out of the woods yet. The USGS strong aftershock warning says the following:

STRONG AFTERSHOCKS (Magnitude 5 and larger)

At this time (immediately after the mainshock) the probability of a strong and possibly damaging aftershock IN THE NEXT 7 DAYS is approximately 30 PERCENT.


Most likely, the recent mainshock will be the largest in the sequence. However, there is a small chance (APPROXIMATELY 5 TO 10 PERCENT) of an earthquake equal to or larger than this mainshock in the next 7 days.

Italy Trip Report: Siena

Okay, so where were we... ah, yes. We head for Siena from Naples after our Pompeii excursion. It turns out that this isn't that common a train route, and so we kind of get shafted with this fairly expensive train ride that takes us to Siena with a quick stop over at the Chiusi-Chianciano train station (some 50 miles southeast of Siena). As far as we could tell, there's really nothing much there, but it was late and quite dark.

It's been more than 5 hours since we left the Naples train station, and we're really beat at this point. We finally pull into the Siena train station, and it's just our bad luck that we arrive at the same a giant bus full of university students show up. There was going to be no respecting of the standard Taxi Line outside the station. After I realized this, I had to use what I learned in Shanghai (home of the rudest Chinese folks, especially when it comes to hailing a cab), and basically jumped out in front of one and stole the cab right from under the noses of some students.

The cab takes us quite a ways to our destination, the Montaperti Hotel, which turns out to be in Asciano, a suburb of Siena. We didn't know what to expect really, since it was actually one of the less expensive hotels in our itinerary. But, once we entered, we were greeted by a really friendly and helpful guy, and I remember the two of us being really impressed with the hotel's decor. We get to the room, and we are really happy with it. It's got a huge balcony, and the room is so nice, and the bed is so comfortable. I cannot recommend this hotel any more highly than this... it was really fabulous, and the well-priced room rate bolsters my opinion even more.

Bar / Lobby at Montaperti Hotel

Even though it was late, we went downstairs and got a few drinks, which we then brought back to our room. We didn't want to waste the awesome balcony, so we had a few drinks outside, then called it a night. We did manage to take a few pictures from the balcony in the morning, as it did provide us with a nice view.

View from our balcony

Getting to the city from the hotel wasn't too bad actually. The city was only a short 20-minute bus ride away. So, we spent the day checking out the city, and it was great. I felt that Siena provided a much more relaxing atmosphere. There were tons of tourists to be sure, but for some reason it felt more chill than many of the other cities we hit on our trip.

We went to see the city's Duomo, and that was pretty neat, since the architecture and overall look of it was unlike anything you'd really expect; there is this black-and-white zebra striped theme throughout. And, the reason for this has to do with the strong Moorish influence over the city during its creation. The cathedral has a rather unique Gothic look that I can't describe all that well, so I'll let these pictures speak for themselves. The floors also had many inlaid works of art, which depicted both biblical and mythological subjects.

Il Duomo in Siena
(too bad there's ongoing restoration work)

Interior of Il Duomo

High Altar of Il Duomo

Inlaid Floor Art in Il Duomo

While randomly walking around the city, we passed by a branch of the oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, founded in 1472. I figured I had better take a picture of it, since I've got an interest in finance and all that is related. We never did step inside a branch, but I imagine that it's just a regular bank. Besides, I'm probably one of very few that even thinks of the bank as a tourist attraction. Ha ha.

Sign from a branch of the
Oldest Bank in the World

While we were in the city, we had a wonderful meal over at a small little place called the Osteria Castelvecchio. It wasn't that easy a place to find, but it was worth the trouble. I had a delicious vegetable soup, and a really well-prepared spinach risotto. The restaurant is known for its Tuscan-style vegetarian dishes., but QB was craving chicken, so that's what she got. I'm getting hungry just thinking of that meal.

Spinach Risotto

Tuscan Chicken Dish

Here is a shot of the Piazza del Campo, which is in the heart of the city. We kicked it here for a while, mostly just resting.

Piazza del Campo

We also checked out the Civic Museum, but I guess I'm not enough of an art scholar to appreciate it. I definitely didn't consider anything I saw to be that memorable there. They were pretty strict with the no photograph rule, so I've got no shots from inside.

That covers the highlights of our day in Siena. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel to get our stuff, and almost immediately, we made our way back to the train station. Our next stop was going to be a major one... 3 nights in Florence!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Quick Update

I doubled up on the Mattel (MAT) position at 21.04. Average cost is now at 22.35.

This Wednesday, the painters will be coming over to take care of the final step in the process of fixing the problems caused by the incorrectly installed tub overflow washer. Hopefully, this will be the last major issue at the house. I am so very tired of having to deal with these problems.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Cheapskates and Single Trip Salad Bars

This is what happens when you mix the notoriously cheap Chinese* and a Pizza Hut salad bar that only allows you one plate, instead of the usual unrestrictive all-you-can-eat variety.

* I get to call Chinese people cheapskates, because they are my people, hehe.

Apparently, a single salad bar order is enough to feed the entire family.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

An Awesome Dog

I don't really like dogs, but this just kind of made me laugh: An Awesome Dog.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


They say that "a man's home is his castle." Well, they didn't quite get it right. It's actually, "a man's home is his hassle." I just got in to work after babysitting the remediation work a bit more. They ran all sorts of tests to ensure that everything dried out as expected, and they removed all the loud air-blowing and de-humidifying machines from the house. Now, I am left with a kitchen with a torn up ceiling, and a family room with partially ripped out baseboards.

The next step is for the drywall guy to show up and redo the entire kitchen, and for the baseboard guy to come and reinstall new baseboard pieces. This should all happen on Friday, when I'll have to do more babysitting. Then, next Wednesday, everything will be repainted. A hassle, indeed!

And, I'm getting bloodied a bit today in the market. Ugh.

Monday, October 22, 2007

It's Raining, It's Pouring...

*** Updated with pictures. ***

No, wait. It's not raining, my house is leaking from an improperly installed overflow drainage system. And, here I am waiting for the home builder's contractors to show up. They plan on ripping open my ceiling and access the plumbing upstairs from below. Then, there's going to be days of drying, followed by patching everything back up and repainting.

They are also sending over some sort of air quality hygienist to test the air to ensure there's no mold issues. I don't think there should be any, since I contacted them pretty quickly about the issue. There shouldn't be any rot at this early stage.

So, I guess I'm the unluckiest homeowner... well, I take that back. Those folks down in SoCal are really hurting badly. I have a lot of friends down there, and several of them are working from home due to the fires. My dad even said that the hallways where he works carry a smoky smell.

Whatever. This is a crappy day. Hopefully, your day is a lot better than mine.


Here's what I see now when I look towards the kitchen from the family room. They've completely sealed off the kitchen, and began cutting out chunks of the ceiling. And, now they've brought in a few pieces of machinery to dry out the area. What a production.

And, this simple tub overflow washer was what caused all of this to begin with. First, notice that it's not radially symmetric. One side is thicker than the other. That one subtlety is important, as whoever installed it, did so upside down. Can you believe that? Ridiculous.
One cool thing from all of this was that I did get to see them use an infrared scanner to detect exactly where the water had spread above the ceiling of the kitchen.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Poker Update

I'm hoping that tonight marks the start of my poker turnaround. I started off the session running really, really cold. It was almost an hour and a half before I picked up Pot A. Then, I finally had a few hands hold up along with one where I got pretty lucky against CK. We were both blinds, and he flopped bottom two pair when I hit top pair with a flush draw. We went to war, and I caught my flush to beat him.

It wasn't long until I was up around 350. Then, I suffered a few brutal beats, mostly against an old grumpy lagtard. I spun my wheels for a few hours, then climbed back to near my peak, finishing the session at +326. I still feel that my game is decent, so for now I won't be changing anything. It'll be good to get back into a winning groove.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Italy Trip Report: Naples and Pompeii

We left Rome on the morning of the fourth day. But, before we left, we managed to exchange the bulk of our cash into euros. We realized that the small money changer shop that we first exchanged our money had given us the best rate by a fair bit ($100 gave us 70 euros). It was better than any bank, and much better than any of those larger shops.

Anyway, we get to Naples, and I go and find the tourist information office so we can figure out the best way to get to our hotel. The girl invited me into her office where there was a window that she pointed at. Looking out, you could see the Grand Hotel Sant'Angelo right outside the rail station, which meant that it probably wasn't going to be too nice. The area around the rail station in Naples is really crummy. Lots of shady street vendors and the area was just dirty.

We walk over to the hotel, and surprisingly the lobby is decent, and the staff was really friendly. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all. Unfortunately, the room was not so nice. The AC didn't work so well, and the bathroom was not in the best shape. Oh well. It was only for a night, so we didn't raise a stink.

Shortly after checking in, we head off to the touristy St. Lucia district. We walked around quite a bit, and I have to say that the view was nice. We stopped at some random restaurant, Trattoria 'Ntretella, for a late lunch. The guy who served us looked like the actor/director, Roberto Benigni. Too bad I didn't muster the courage to take his picture. But, believe me, he really looked like him. QB ordered some grilled fish, and I had a decent tasting clam pasta dish.

After having some food, we explored the area a bit. Our walking map wasn't as detailed as we would have liked., so we mostly wandered around aimlessly. Sometimes we would hit upon some major shopping streets, and at other times we would end up in some random alley and have to backtrack a bit.

We did go and check out the Egg Castle. There's not much there to see in the castle itself, but the views were magnificent.

After the sun had set, we decided to try some of the famous Neapolitan pizza. They say that pizza was invented in Naples, and we figured if we were there, we had better try it. I can't say I was all that impressed by the pizza, and I know QB didn't like hers too much. I mean it wasn't bad tasting or anything, but I'll take a good Chicago or New York pizza over what we had. Maybe we chose the restaurant poorly. This is quite possible, as we had the rudest, pushiest waiter ever. He was so incredibly pushy. In any case, it really soured our mood. Not long after our meal, we called it a night.

The next day, we headed off to see the ruins of ancient Pompeii. That's the city that was totally wiped out by an unexpected eruption of Mount Vesuvius almost a thousand years ago. It's really amazing how well preserved the city was in the volcanic mud and ash. Crazy to think that some guy back in the 1500's was digging up a water channel for the city, and happened to uncover this great archaeological site.

We walked all around the ruins of the ancient city for many hours. We didn't even get to see everything by the time we left. And, from what we were told, only 2/3 of the city has actually been uncovered. The rest is still entombed.

The ancient city dwellings were really something to check out. Everything was so well preserved that many of the wall paintings were still in reasonably good condition. You could even see the stoves in the kitchens and the erotic art that covered the walls of the local brothel. I really enjoyed this part of the trip. It's hard to explain how I felt, but there's something about picturing how life was a couple thousand years ago. It's not really all that hard to imagine given all of the well-preserved visual aids.

After checking out the ruins, we walked around a bit in the city. This was mostly because I got the two of us lost. But, I did manage to get a picture of a cat that caught a lizard.

And, that's pretty much it for Naples and Pompeii. The next installment whenever I have more free time will cover Siena.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Word Games for Money

If you like (and are pretty good at) word-based games, you might want to check out this site called World Winner. I guess they offer a whole lot of other games too. You basically get to enter various sized tournaments for money. Some tournaments are as small as 3 players, and others don't really have a cap.

After you win a bit you have to pretty much stop playing for money though, since they track how well you do over time, and begin pitting you against better and better competition. The rake is really high... for the $1 5-player tournaments, the payout is $3.50. So, they're raking $1.50 from the $5 in entry fees. The $2.50 3-player tournaments, they pay out $6. Again, a $1.50 rake.

But, let me say that in the beginning you are likely to be mismatched. I was able to squeeze out nearly $100 before it became pretty clear that I was no longer winning the majority of the tournaments I was entering. My strongest games were Word Mojo and Scrabble Cubes.

The site has a single-player challenge for money called Top This! where you have to top a score that their system believes is 50% to be beaten given your history. For this type of challenge, they take a large rake ($1 wins $1.60 and $2.50 wins $4). Anyway, my Top This thresholds are 1389 for Word Mojo, and 562 for Scrabble Cubes.

You can also sign-up and play for free, so if you want to get an idea of how strong your game is before you commit real money, you can.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Brain Test

Okay... here is a picture of a spinning dancer. Do you see the dancer spinning clockwise or counter-clockwise?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

More information can be found here: Right Brained vs Left Brained article.

I personally see the dancer going clockwise... very, very strong. It took me a long time to see the opposite spin direction. I had to concentrate on the feet and slowly move higher to get my brain to flip. That said, I'm surprised at the result of this test. I always assumed I was a more logical left-brained type.

Okay, this is odd. If I look at the picture directly, each time I immediately jump into clockwise mode. But, if I look at something outside of the image and allow my peripheral vision to try and focus on the dancer, I almost always jump into counter-clockwise mode. Anyway, I thought this was a neat image.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Running Badly

Well, I played a session last night, and I unfortunately have to report that I am clearly in the middle of a moderate downswing. After having won nearly 500 bets, I am now looking at roughly a 120 bet slide peak-to-trough. The games haven't changed to my knowledge, and I'm confident that things will right themselves with time.

If the downswing continues, I will be taking a much more serious look at my game, just in case something is different. In the meantime, I'll keep doing more of the same.

I've had too many 100+ bet downswings in the past, but almost all of them were online where competition is quite a bit tougher than in the live California games. I think I've only had two slides of that magnitude in live play. But, as they say, play long enough and you'll see some pretty sick drops.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Italy Trip Report: Rome

In case you missed the teaser post: Link to an older post with some pictures.

Also, the photos I'm going to post up won't have QB or me in them. If you'd like to see the full collection, shoot me a message, and I can give you access to the online album.

Onto the report...

We left the house at 2:30am PST on September 18. After a long journey, QB and I landed in Rome on the morning of September 19. We had all of our hotels booked ahead of time, but we had no idea what the best way would be to get to them. We figured we'd wing it.

We went to the tourist information booth at the airport, and we're told to take the Express Train to the city's main train station, Termini. We needed some Euros, so I changed a tiny amount at a poor rate (made even worse by some additional fixed rate charge). The train takes us there, and we quickly catch a taxi that takes us to our hotel, Villa San Pio.

The hotel was really nice, and the room quality was much better than I was expecting. We were quite pleased with the staff and the hotel's location near Ancient Rome. From here, we could easily walk to the Colosseum and explore the ancient parts of the city. The hotel's breakfast was quite good as well.

Here's a view from our room.

The food in Rome was hit-and-miss. Undoubtedly, part of this had to do with how things are cooked in Italy. We didn't know this at the time, but many dishes are grilled with extremely light seasoning. While I enjoy a lighter taste, I was craving for more flavor.

As an example, here's a typical meat dish... grilled lamb. It wasn't bad, and the lamb meat didn't have a strong smell. It was just that there wasn't much flavor.

We also tried a seafood restaurant that came highly recommended by our travel book... Cafe Mancini. Neither of us was really impressed. I'm not going to say that it was bad, as it certainly wasn't. Just that the dishes didn't deliver what you would expect for the prices. Part of this might also have to do with the fact that neither of us really knew just how expensive Italy is, especially with a weak dollar. I suspect that we had a preconceived notion of what to expect given the prices being charged. The service was good here, which means that it wasn't bad. After the trip, I can say that restaurant service in Italy is virtually non-existent.

A couple dishes from Cafe Mancini...

I must say though that we had two amazing meals (we went a second time, since the first time was so good) at a neighborhood restaurant called Il Bucatino. It was filled with locals, which was probably a good sign.

QB fell in love with the Roman Chicken dish. And, I should mention that if you eat tripe, you've got to try the tripe as it is prepared in Italy (see old post for photo). It is some seriously good stuff. Chinese-style tripe dishes cannot compare... at all.

While in Rome, we got to check out the Colosseum. The Colosseum, when looking at it from outside is breathtaking. But, once inside, I wasn't too impressed. The stadium is really huge though, so I suppose I should have been more in awe.

We also explored Palatine Hill (see old post for photo). And, we dropped by the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain just to see what they were all about. I remember how nice it was walking around Rome. You walk around semi-randomly, and you are bound to run into some pretty neat sights.

Here are a couple of photos... the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain.

Not much to say about those two spots other than how crowded they were with many people lounging around. Both really beautiful, so I don't blame anyone for wanting to just park themselves.

There was this one area, Piazza Navona, that had a ton of local artists (I think) trying to sell their work on the street. There's only foot traffic in the piazza, so that helped keep area a bit more peaceful. It was a great place to do some people watching. Restaurants and cafes lined the perimeter, and there were a couple of fountains there too, if I recall.

I might as well throw up a few more pictures of Rome. Here is a shot of the Tiber River and one of the many bridges that cross it.

This one is of some random street while walking around the city.

We also went to the Vatican Museums. The museum had a lot of stuff to look at. You would think that it would contain only religion-based exhibits, but it wasn't like that. There were a lot of historical exhibits including some covering ancient Egypt and Asia.

I took a ton of pictures at this museum. Probably too many, but there were so many things that made me take a step back and say, "Wow." Here's a picture of the most decorated hallway I've ever had the privilege walking down. Seriously, this was one impressive ceiling.

Here is Raphael's famous work, Transfiguration. I was shocked by how vibrant the colors were... my photo does it no justice. I'm ignorant when it comes to art, but it doesn't take much to see that this was some magnificent work.

And, here is a shot of the main altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, where Michaelangelo painted his famous work, the Last Judgement.

And, in closing, here's a view of Rome from atop Castel Sant'Angelo.

The next update will cover Naples and the side-trip to Pompeii's ruins.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Sears Online Rant

I'm really steaming right now. Sears.com has basically given me the most horrific buying experience ever, and I'm currently in the process of getting the entire issue resolved. I'll list the key points of the story below.

1) Washer/Dryer ordered on the Website in early September. Says it should be delivered in 3-5 business days... awesome.

2) They contact me telling me that there is a delivery delay as the model I ordered wasn't in stock at the warehouse. Ugh. But, they offer me a $25 gift card, so I'm like, okay no biggie. New delivery date is set, but I'm going to be in Italy, so we re-scheduled it for today, Oct 5.

3) My credit card bill shows 2 seemingly unrelated charges from Sears. One is for the correct purchase amount, the other is some random amount. I assume it's a system glitch, and I contact Sears and my credit card company. The incorrect charge is refunded... cool.

4) I receive no courtesy delivery phone call yesterday, as promised. So, this morning I call them to find out what the deal is, and to get a tighter delivery window if possible. I am told that the order doesn't exist. It has been canceled completely and marked fraudulent, yet I have already paid for it.

5) I get transferred around on the Sears customer service system for a while, and then when I finally get to talk to a human being, she tells me that the all the Sears systems are down that have the billing records, and now I need to contact them in an hour or so, and pray that their system is back up and running.

So, that's where I'm at right now. What a nightmare... worst.experience.ever.

I am going to write their corporate headquarters about this, but I doubt anything will happen as a result. Maybe I should vote with my pocketbook, and cancel the order completely. Only thing is that I spent a great deal of time researching models and everything. So lame... completely unacceptable.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Portfolio Update

Today, I initiated a Long-Term Portfolio position in Mattel (MAT) today at 23.66. If MAT trades 10-15% lower, I will probably add to it. The company reports earnings on the 15th of October, so I'm taking a chance here buying into the upcoming earnings report. Also, BMO Capital downgraded the stock to Underperform today. But, I don't know the contents of the analyst report.

Italy: A Mélange of Photos

Here is a sampling of photos from the Italy trip. Enjoy!

Colosseum - Rome

View from Palatine Hill - Rome

View from the Egg Castle (Castel dell'Ovo) in Naples

Ruins of Ancient Pompeii

Details of Duomo di Siena

View of Florence from Giotto's Bell Tower

Piazza del Duomo - Pisa

Leaning Towers: Asinelli and Garisenda - Bologna


Urban Area in Milan

And, a few obligatory food pictures...

Roman Tripe

Shrimp Tagliatelle

Cuttlefish Spaghetti in Ink Sauce

Neapolitan Seafood Pizza