Monday, February 28, 2011

What's the frequency, Alex Henery?

The New York Times sports section made a strange reference in a story yesterday that I just don't get. The story about the NFL "combine" – where prospects try out for pro football teams – had this line:

"Nebraska kicker Alex Henery (whose combine warm-up number, sadly, was not 8 but 6), also hoped for a degree of anonymity."

Alex Henery kicking
His warm-up number "was not 8 but 6"?  Huh?  It sounds like the writer, Mike Tanner, is making an inside joke, but if so, he's aimed way too far inside. I even asked a Nebraska alum, a friend who follows Cornhusker football, and he doesn't get it either.

Intriguingly, one of the online comments on the story says this:

"I will not state how long it took me to catch onto the Henery line because it might hurt my Wonderlic score."

That still doesn't help, though. Can anyone explain this?  Please put your thoughts in the comments box below.


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Friday, February 25, 2011

First look: Amazon video streaming

Amazon just announced a new video-streaming service, a clear challenge to Netflix. I have Netflix and enjoy its easy-to-use video streaming, but I find that many movies and TV shows I would like to see are not available on it. Could Amazon be better?

I decided to check Amazon's offerings by reviewing my two Netflix queue lists – one for video streaming, the other for DVDs by mail. The only items I put on the by-mail list are those that Netflix doesn't offer by video streaming.

First, looking at the top 10 items on my video streaming list, I found that Amazon offered 7 of 10 of them in its "instant video" format. Then, looking at my DVDs-by-mail list, I found that none of the first 10 were available on Amazon's service.  So it's clear that Amazon actually has fewer offerings than Netflix.

Still, Amazon's service is just $79 a year, versus about $120 annually for Netflix (we're on the one-disc-at-a-time option). And Amazon's offering is part of its Prime product, meaning that you would also get free two-day shipping on thousands of other books and items you could order. This could be a good deal if you order a lot of things from Amazon.

But Netflix includes the DVDs-by-mail option, which Amazon does not. So choosing Amazon instead of Netflix would greatly reduce the movies and shows available to me.

If you happen to already be an Amazon Prime member, the new video-streaming is a great bonus. But Netflix has a good product and a wide selection of movies and shows. So at least for now, we're going to stick with it.


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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Review: "Touching the Void" by Joe Simpson

This is the story of Joe Simpson's extraordinary ordeal and miraculous survival while climbing in the Peruvian Andes. While the book is not quite as extraordinary as his ordeal, it's still pretty good.

Simpson takes the reader along practically step-by-step as he and partner Simon Yates make a difficult climb up the mountain Siula Grande. He falls and breaks his leg high on the mountain, takes a 100-foot fall into a crevasse while trying to descend, then crawls and hobbles for three days to camp after Yates leaves him for dead. He openly shares his emotions and pain as he repeatedly faces what seem to be certain-death situations.

It's an often gripping story. Even though it's clear that Simpson ultimately survives (how else could he write the book?), I still read on eagerly to see exactly how he would do it. A nice addition to the tale are some small portions written from the perspective of Yates.

That said, I do have a few issues with the book. First, even though it's only 172 pages, it's too long. This really should be more of a long magazine article, rather than a short book. Most of the first third of the story – the climb up to the summit, before Simpson breaks his leg – is probably of interest only to serious climbers. Also, while it is nice that Simpson shares his experience in so much detail, he overdoes it. As he struggles agonizingly toward camp, his descriptions of his pain, his doubts and his fear of death get repetitive. I found myself skimming ahead.

The photos in the book, printed on plain stock rather than glossy paper, are disappointingly dark and murky.

Finally, the book comes to a strange and abrupt end. The brief postscript is too short and rather cryptic, and doesn't include any information on what ultimately happens to the other figures in the book, Simon Yates and their campmate, Richard.

Still, if you like adventure stories, you'll find a lot to like in this book.


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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Computer beat humans on Jeopardy, but was it a fair test?

Ken Jennings, Watson and Brad Rutter
The Man vs. Machine contest on "Jeopardy" this week was disappointing, not only because the computer Watson won in a rout, but because the first two of the three shows were cluttered with too many IBM promotional segments. Yes, it was interesting to see how Watson worked, but one segment was enough. We get it, IBM, you guys are smart.

Watson is impressive, but the show also should remind "Jeopardy" viewers of the underappreciated art of pressing the buzzer. On any particular clue, more than one player may know the correct answer, but it's the one who presses the signaling device at the right time that gets to answer (you sometimes see frustrated players rapidly pressing the button, but still not getting in). In this week's contest, Watson clearly had an advantage in reaction time.

Despite the crowing of the IBM guys over Watson's victory, I have to point out that this was not a true "Jeopardy" test.  A normal Jeopardy game has at least a few video and audio clues,  and sometimes a whole category of them. But because Watson can't see or hear, these were left out. Hmmm, I'd say IBM still has some work to do.


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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Review: Refinancing with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage

My wife and I recently refinanced our mortgage, and our lender, Wells Fargo, just sent us a survey to rate its performance.

Thanks for asking, Wells Fargo. All in all, I'd have to give you a C-minus.

First, the positives: In the end, the loan was successfully completed, and we got a pretty good rate. I was also pleased that our loan representative, Eric Sevilla, was generally accessible by phone and email during the process. On one evening, I even spoke to him while he was going to a school event for his daughter.

Now the negatives:

First, it took way too long. From the time we applied to closing took 88 days – nearly three months. I have bought six homes in my lifetime and refinanced numerous times but I have never had a loan closing take anywhere near this long. The length may be due to new procedures banks have instituted since the real estate collapse to sift out questionable loans, but my wife and I have excellent credit and significant equity in our home, so by all standards this should have been a "slam dunk" loan.

While a long closing is frustrating, you might think it would at least result in careful and accurate handling of your loan. After all, if lenders are truly taking their time to thoroughly review applications and not hurrying through the process, they will be making fewer mistakes, right?  Sorry, not in this case. In fact, there was a distressing amount of sloppiness in the handling of our loan.

On three occasions, our Wells Fargo loan processor, Pam Ragonese, requested documents which I'd already sent her. At another point, Pam sent us a document that clearly wasn't meant for us, even though the last name of the parties was the same as ours. When I pointed this out to Pam, all she did was change the first name of one the parties – and then sent it back to me.

As we neared closing, Eric abruptly told me our loan would be required to have an escrow account (which we did not want) "because the current taxes are showing delinquent."  Um, one problem: Our property taxes were NOT delinquent, and they never have been. After I proved this, Eric relented.

With past mortgages, I've always requested a loan amount slightly more than we actually needed, and then had the amount lowered when we got to closing just to pay off our existing loan. This is necessary because the exact payoff amount is hard to determine until you're ready to close.

But this time, Eric said Wells Fargo couldn't lower the loan to match the payoff amount without going back to the loan review process (why lending us less would be an issue is a mystery to me). This created a problem because now Wells Fargo would end up owing us $2,700 at closing, and their rules didn't allow that. They were boxed in by their own rules lowering the loan amount was the obvious thing to do (even the title company handling the closing said so), but Wells Fargo wouldn't. 

The solution they came up with was to pay our property taxes early for us. I requested that they make only a partial payment -- $2,700, just enough so that no payments or refunds would be due at closing. But escrow officer Kristin Hart of North American Title rejected my idea, saying "the tax collector won't allow a partial payment to be made."

This is a good example of why consumers must question everything in the lending process. Quite simply, she was wrong. I only know this because I happen to work close to the Los Angeles County tax collector's office and walked over there and asked them if their office accepted partial payments for property taxes. Absolutely, they said.  But 99% of borrowers would not have been able to do this, and would have just had to take the (incorrect) advice.

On the day before closing, I pointed out to Eric that my wife's name had been misspelled on a closing statement, and I wondered if it was wrong on all the documents. This caused a day's delay, after which I was assured that all the documents had been corrected. Except they hadn't. When we got the closing documents, my wife's name was misspelled on many of them and we had to make manual corrections.

Finally, there was a document that addressed a couple minor items that had shown up on our credit report. Wells Fargo had asked for a explanation and I'd sent them one (actually, I sent it twice), but apparently no one bothered to read it. When the "explanation" showed up in our stack of closing documents it was factually inaccurate and even grammatically nonsensical. And, this time, they got my name wrong.   

Hmmm. perhaps a C-minus is too generous.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Monday, February 7, 2011

Free money through Craigslist? Um, no

If you buy or sell on Craigslist, you have to be wary of scammers. The Craigslist folks say the best way to avoid problems is to deal face-to-face with the other party, which is good advice.

I bumped into a Craigslist scammer the other day, and while it didn't cost me anything, it still bothers me that there are people out there so intent on tricking others.

I saw an ad on Craigslist for a free TV. Free TVs are not that uncommon these days, because many people are buying new flat screens and dumping their old, still-working televisions. So I sent an email asking if the TV was still available. I got this response from a "Jeanne Sutton" at

I'm sorry that I didnt get back to you sooner, I offered this to someone else but she hasnt replied. Are you still interested?

I need to go to a work event tomorrow but then I'll be home for a few days. Let me know when youre around.

That sounds fine, right? So I emailed back saying yes, I was interested, and asked when I could come by. Then I got this:


I am so, so sorry.. the first person actually replied back again, and it turned out her first email went to my spam box and I never saw it. I feel really terrible..

You know, I wasn't actually going to mention this, but 2 weeks ago I received this check in the mail for $1100 from the state. It seems if you make less than $85k each year you could be eligible to get it as part of some grant program. Im not sure about you, but receptionists don't make too much and that extra money really helped us out this month.

I applied for grant #AM8266, the one that said "Economic Relief" in its title. The process was easy, you just have to go to this page:

Only takes 4-5 min and it can all be done on the computer. One thing though: please don't tell too many people. I assume they don't have endless budget and I would want to make sure my friends can receive the grant too. Thanks, and im sorry again for the mixup.


Oh, yeah, I'm sure there's a whole bucket of money out there for anyone who asks for it (and even if there is, why are you telling a complete stranger?).  And just in case you doubt that this really is a scam, consider that someone on Gawker reported essentially the same email exchange with a supposed Craigslist seller, except that in that case the scammer claimed to be a teacher named "Beverly."


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Thursday, February 3, 2011

The home field advantage? It's the refs

Players, fans and coaches believe that their teams have a better chance of winning when playing at their home stadium – and statistics show they're right. According to an analysis of thousands of games in the new book "Scorecasting," a home field advantage exists in all sports, at all levels, in leagues around the world.

The home team wins 54% of the time in Major League Baseball, 69% of the time in the National Basketball League, 58% of the time in the National Football League, and 62.4% of the time in professional soccer worldwide, say authors Tobias J. Mokowitz and L. Jon Wertheim.

But why is there a home field advantage? Many people assume that athletes simply play better when their fans are cheering them on, or at least that the visiting team doesn't play as well without crowd support. Some think the visiting athletes lose an edge from traveling long distances, eating out and sleeping away from home. Some fans figure that home teams simply are more comfortable playing in their home environment.

In fact, according to Moskowitz and Wertheim, none of those are a factor in the home field advantage. Instead, it's the refs (or, in baseball, the umps).

Moskowitz, a professor of finance, and Wertheim, a writer for Sports Illustrated, carefully dissect a slew of statistics to show that referees and umpires are influenced by home fans into giving a slight – but signifcant – edge to home teams. The home teams are called for fewer rules violations, and get the edge in close calls.

  • In soccer, referees give more "added time" at the end of the game if the home team is behind, but less if the home team is ahead. Home teams also are called for fewer penalties, and receive fewer red (ejection) and yellow (caution) cards. Notably, when two European soccer teams were forced by their league to play their games in empty stadiums because their fans had been too unruly, the home field advantage disappeared.
  • In baseball, home teams strike out less and walk more than the visitors, especially when the game is close. "In crucial situations, the home team receives far fewer called strikes per called pitch than does the away team," Moskowitz and Wertheim say.
  • In the NFL, the home team is penalized less and also benefits the most from the more valuable penalties, such as those that result in first downs. Home NFL teams used to have a big advantage in turnovers, but that has disappeared, the authors say, since the league began using instant replay to check the accuracy of referee decisions  itself a revealing development
  • In the NBA, home teams get a huge advantage in calls that involve the most referee judgment, such as blocking fouls and palming, but no advantage in calls where the refs have little discretion, such as 24-second violations.

How do we know that visiting players don't just play worse, perhaps because they're tired or frustrated by the crowd?  Because in the parts of the game where we can isolate performance, the authors show that there's no difference. Visiting teams shoot free throws just as well as home teams (yes, even with all those opposing fans waving their arms behind the backboard). Punters and kickers in football do just as well on the road as at home. In hockey shootouts, a situation where the referees have little role, home and away teams do equally well.

The authors further show that the distance teams travel has no effect on the home field advantage, nor does it matter when a team travels to play in a different climate, such as when the Miami Dolphins play on "the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field."

Moskowitz and Wertheim say just one other factor plays a part in the home field advantage and it applies only in the NBA and the NHL. In those leagues, visiting teams play more games on consecutive nights than home teams. This does, the authors say, contribute somewhat to the home field advantage, but it's still not as significant as the referee bias.

The authors don't accuse referees and umpires of consciously favoring the home teams, but rather of subtly being influenced by screaming fans. And indeed, the more packed the stadium, the bigger the referee bias.

I can't say I'm pleased with the authors' conclusions, but they pile on so many statistical elements that it's hard to dispute. I was always raised to cheer for your team and leave the referees and umpires alone to do their job. But after reading "Scorecasting," I have to conclude that if you want to help your team, forget about shouting "Charge!" or "DE-fense!," and instead start yelling at the ref.


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