Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for August 24th, 2012

Fascinating near-future science fiction

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Daniel Suarez writes fascinating novels. Daemon was the first, and Freedom™ was a follow-on novel. I’m now reading his third, Kill Decision, as highly recommended by James Fallows, and it’s extremely good. I’m just 100 pages in and I can’t put it down. Really is a book people should read. It doesn’t seem to be set in the same future as the others, but in a likely sort of future, I would say, elements of which are already visible. I got my copy from the library; check there for yours.

Written by Leisureguy

24 August 2012 at 6:46 pm

Taking the insurance companies for a ride

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Fascinating story by Jake Bernstein in ProPublica in which insurance companies, hoist by their own petard, complain loudly and to little avail: they are protesting against the contracts that they themselves wrote.

Joseph Caramadre has spent a lifetime scouring the fine print. He’s hardwired to seek the angle, an overlooked clause in a contract that allows him to transform a company’s carelessness into a personal windfall. He calls these insights his “creations,” and he numbers them. There have been about 19 in his lifetime, he says. For example, there was number four, which involved an office superstore coupon he parlayed into enough nearly free office furniture to fill a three-car garage. Number three consisted of a sure-fire but short-lived system for winning money at the local dog track. But the one that landed him on the evening newsas a suspect in a criminal conspiracy was number 18, which promised investors a unique arrangement: You can keep your winnings and have someone else cover your losses.

Caramadre portrays himself as a modern-day Robin Hood. He’s an Italian kid from Providence, R.I., who grew up modestly, became a certified public accountant and then put himself through night school to get a law degree. He has given millions to charities and the Catholic Church. As he tells his life story, his native ability helps him outsmart a phalanx of high-priced lawyers, actuaries and corporate suits. Number 18 came to fruition, he says, when a sizeable segment of the life insurance industry ignored centuries of experience and commonsense in a heated competition for market share.

Federal prosecutors in Rhode Island and insurance companies paint a very different picture of Caramadre: They say he’s an unscrupulous con artist who engaged in identity theft, conspiracy and two different kinds of fraud. Prosecutors contend he deceived the terminally ill to make millions for himself and his clients. For them, Caramadre’s can’t-miss investment strategy was an illusion in which he preyed on the sick and vulnerable.

ProPublica has taken a close look at the Caramadre case because it offers a window into a larger issue: The transformation of the life insurance industry away from its traditional business of insuring lives to peddling complex financial products. This shift has not been a smooth one. Particularly during the lead up to the financial crisis, companies wrote billions worth of contracts that now imperil their financial health.

In a series of detailed interviews, Caramadre said the companies designed the rules; all he did was exploit them. Their hunger for profits in a period of dizzying growth and competition, he contends, left them vulnerable to someone with his unusual acumen. The companies have argued in court that Caramadre is a fraud artist who should return every last dime he made. In his rulings to date, the federal judge hearing the civil cases has agreed with Caramadre’s contention that he was doing what the fine print allowed.

The secret to Caramadre’s scheme can be glimpsed in a 2006 brochure for the ING GoldenSelect Variable Annuity. On the cover is a photo of a youthful older couple. The woman sits next to a computer, sporting a stylish haircut and wire-framed glasses. A man with graying hair and an open collared shirt, presumably her husband, is draped over her in a casual loving way. Images of happy vibrant seniors enjoying their golden years together — frolicking on the beach, laughing in chinos next to a gleaming classic car, enjoying the company of grandkids — populate the sales material for life insurance’s hottest product — the variable annuity.

As outlined in the brochure and in countless others like it, the contracts worked this way: The smiling couple gives money to ING in return for the promise of future payments. The consumer chooses how the money is invested, usually in mutual-like funds that have stocks, bonds or money market instruments. This is the “variable” part of the equation.

There are two main benefits to this arrangement not found in the ordinary mutual funds sold by brokers and financial advisers. Taxes on variable annuities are deferred until the consumer takes out cash, which means it’s possible to move your money among funds without paying taxes until the money is withdrawn. (An investor who cashes in shares of a mutual fund must pay taxes on any gains.)

Variable annuities also typically include a life insurance component called a guaranteed death benefit. With this guarantee, if the market crashes — but you die before your investment recovers — your beneficiary still gets a lump sum equal to either the death benefit or the value of the investments in your account, whichever is greater.

The target audience for brochures like that of ING’s are people nearing retirement with a nest egg to safeguard and perhaps grow a bit. It’s a huge and growing market. In 2011, as the first wave of baby boomers began to retire, there were more than 40 million people age 65 or over. Between 2001 and 2010, life insurance companies sold about $1.4 trillion worth of variable annuities, according to LIMRA, an industry association.

Caramadre got the seeds of his idea in the mid-90s when he attended an investment seminar for insurance agents. He quickly saw how variable annuities could be a hot product for insurance companies — particularly when they could charge hefty fees for attractive goodies like the guaranteed death benefit.

Caramadre decided that he wouldn’t offer variable annuities to clients in the way the insurance companies envisioned. It was too expensive. “They are just whacking you for fees,” he says.

What Caramadre wanted was a way to get his clients the benefits without their having to die. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

24 August 2012 at 1:23 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life, Law

Griswold skillet now listed

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One of my Griswold skillets is now up on eBay. Eventually I’ll add the others.

Written by Leisureguy

24 August 2012 at 10:56 am

Posted in Daily life

Embracing the non-consumer lifestyle

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The Sister passed along the link to an interesting lifestyle choice, as Katy Wolk-Stanley describes in this article:

Katy Wolk-Stanley, 44, of the website The Non-Consumer Advocate, is on a mission to live on less — and not define herself by purchases. Here, the Portland, Ore., writer and mother of two shares her thoughts on why she decided to “de-clutter” her life:

I am a woman who hasn’t bought anything new in five years. But it’s actually not as black-and-white an issue as it seems at first. I do buy some things new, including:

  • Underwear, socks and bras
  • Personal care items (makeup, etc.)
  • Food
  • Harmonicas (I haven’t felt the need to buy one yet, but you never know when the mood might strike!)

It may sound like a pain in the tuchus to stay away from new purchases (an initiative I call “the compact”), but it’s actually turned into an amazing stress reliever. Not because I’ve replaced my new purchases with used stuff, but mostly because I hardly ever buy anything anymore. And when I started to buy less stuff, it made me want less in other areas of my life as well. (It’s funny how once you start examining one area of you life, other areas hop along for the ride.)

So out went the boxes, shelves and closets full of stuff we never used, and in came a bit more air to circulate in the spaces left behind. And as a result of our de-cluttering, our home is now easier to keep clean, which translates into less time spent on housework and more time being able to welcome friends and family into our home.

And I began to appreciate life’s bounty a bit more. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

24 August 2012 at 8:37 am

Posted in Daily life

Betrayed by Kindle conversion

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My book just got its first-ever one-star review: a guy familiar with the Kindle version of the 5th edition found that the Kindle 6th edition lacked the features—namely, web links—that made the 5th edition Kindle so nice to use.

I had no idea. I commented on his review:

I’m very sorry to read this. The Kindle conversion was done by the same entity that did the previous conversion. I have contacted them to see why this problem exists and how it can be fixed. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

UPDATE: I have been on the phone and discovered the source of the problem. Unbeknownst to me, there is an unpublicized conversion service that, for a fee, will do the good conversion as in the 5th edition. Kindle Direct Publishing also offers a (publicized) conversion for free—so far as I could tell, it was the ONLY conversion service, so I used it. I had no idea that it was free because it was worthless.

I have contracted for the good conversion and have unpublished the Kindle version for now, until the new version (the kind of conversion done for the previous edition) is ready, which will take 4 weeks.

I deeply regret that the inadequate conversion was published. And I very much appreciate your comment that revealed the problem to me. I apologize to those who already bought the new edition. A good Kindle edition should be available before the end of September.

This amounts to locking the barn door after the horse has bolted, but so far as I can tell, it’s the best I can do at this point. I have let CreateSpace know that they were remiss in shuffling me off to the Kindle Direct free conversion rather than explaining the options, and I hope that they will change the way they publicize that.

I cannot describe what a black mood this has cast over me.

Written by Leisureguy

24 August 2012 at 8:33 am

Posted in Books, Shaving

Vanilla shave

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I do love the scent of vanilla, so today was vanilla day. (Vanilla is still the most popular ice cream flavor, did you know?)

Mama Bear’s Vanilla Cream shaving soap made a good lather with the Rod Neep brush, a one-off with an ivoroid handle and a coin minted my birth year embedded in the base.

The razor is one I greatly enjoy: the HP (Highly Polished) stainless open comb from iKon, which was the second razor from iKon—version 2.0, as it were—and an extremely comfortable and effective shaver. I had it gold plated by Razor Emporium, and I like the look in gold with the highly polished finish. With a Gillette 7 O’Clock SharpEdge blade, it delivered a very fine shave indeed.

A splash of Paul Sebastian aftershave, which has a vanilla element in the fragrance, and I’m off for the day.

Written by Leisureguy

24 August 2012 at 8:26 am

Posted in Shaving

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