Monday, March 25, 2013

March Madness: Where time stops

I love the intense competition of the NCAA basketball tournament, but I'm often frustrated by the way otherwise exciting, fast-paced games slow to a slog at the end.

With the game entering its final minutes, just as you're getting to the edge of your seat, the action is abruptly halted by a logjam of commercials, timeouts and repeated fouling. Then there are the referees who stop everything to review the slightest detail. "Should the clock be at 18.3 seconds or 18.4?" they wonder, as if the fate of humanity rests on the decision.

How much time are we really wasting at this point?  To find out, I timed the end of five games on March 23-24. Here's what I found.

Butler-Marquette: The last 3 minutes of the game took 14 minutes and 54 seconds, nearly five times the actual playing time.
Gonzaga-Wichita St.: The last 2 minutes took 15:04 that's 7.5 times actual playing time.
California-Syracuse: The last 3 minutes took 16.46, five and a half times actual playing time.
Indiana-Temple: The last 3 minutes took 9:49, just over three times actual playing time.
Kansas-North Carolina: The last 2 minutes took 9:04, four and a half times actual playing time.

I had figured the approximate ratio would be in the range of three to four times playing time, so I was surprised that it took longer than that to finish four of these five games.

Why was the end of the Indiana-Temple game so "fast"? Possibly because it was just a one- or two-point game down the stretch, so neither team felt so desperate they had to foul. Also, by luck, there were no referee reviews in the last three minutes.

The lesson here, as you might have guessed, is to use your DVR.  Pause the game early go walk the dog, sort the laundry, whatever so when you get near the end you can skip through the inevitable delays and enjoy the game more.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

L.A. Fitness deal – $34.99 monthly and no initiation

Visitors to my blog are reporting success in getting a good online deal at L.A. Fitness $34.99 a month and zero initiation fee. Here's what to do:


Update on this topic: Want a deal on joining L.A. Fitness? Call Paul

Important update: See "How to Save Money Joining L.A. Fitness"
See also: "Want a deal on an L.A. Fitness membership? Ask Kay"
Go to the L.A. Fitness "Friends and Family" page.  But note that sometimes that link only takes you to the L.A. Fitness home page. So you have to trick them a little bit.  At the L.A. Fitness home page, look for a "Join Online Today" ad to appear. Click on it. On the next page, you'll see a button that says "Join Now." Click on that.

You should then be looking at a page that says "Join Now Online" and "Find by State or Zip Code." At that point, come back  to this article and click on the "Friends and Family" link again. This should take a page where you enter a code.

As of Sept. 5, 2013, these codes work:





As of Aug. 25, these codes work:


Deal is $34.99 a month; no initiation

Grab the deal!

If they don't work for you, try another number nearby in the sequence (can't hurt).  If you still can't find a working code, check the comments below or go to my post here, where helpful readers are posting new tips all the time.

Update: See my post "How to get $29.99 per month and no initiation fee at L.A. Fitness"

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book review: "24 Days"

They just didn't know when to stop.

I'm referring, on one hand, to the puppetmasters of one-time corporate giant Enron, whose greed pushed them to create one corrupt scheme after another until the whole house of cards came crashing down in 2001. But I'm also referring to the authors of "24 Days," who would have had a much better book had they stopped about halfway through.

For the first half of "24 Days," authors and Wall Street Journal reporters Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller put together a tight journalistic whodunit recounting the final months of energy giant Enron. This is certainly not a book for everyone, but financial journalists and forensic accountants will appreciate the details of the reporters' relentless digging into company documents and dogged pursuit of the inside story.

Enron is a difficult topic for any writer because the company hid its shady financial schemes in unfathomably complex schemes in order to deter regulators, auditors, investors and journalists. Readers who attempt this book must prepare themselves for a trip into a tangle of accounting terms like "balance sheet management," "derivative instruments," and "share-settled options."

Still, given the territory, Smith and Emshwiller do an admirable job of engaging the reader as they work the phone and pore through documents for clues, battle with hostile sources and rush to meet deadlines.

The title, however, is a strange choice. The "24 days" supposedly refers to the amount of time it took for Enron to collapse, but in fact that was just steepest portion of the company's dive, a period when $19 billion of stock market value was lost. But Enron's stock had been dropping before that period, and it continued to drop after it, so 24 days is a rather arbitrary choice. And if you think the book covers only this 24-day period you're WAY off "24 Days" covers something closer to 24 months of history.

That's too bad. By page 190, the 24 days is over and Enron is essentially finished. At this point, Smith and Emshwiller should have offered a short epilogue summarizing subsequent events and ended the book. Instead they ramble on for another 200 pages emptying out their notebooks and recounting every conversation, interview and thought they ever had related to Enron. They include the life histories of Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, the involvement of accounting firm Arthur Andersen and consulting firm McKinsey & Co., and the tragic suicide of former Enron executive Clifford Baxter. There are interesting pieces here, but they are just jumbled together. Rather than having a taut tale of a company's death spiral, the book unravels into a mishmash of all things Enron.

One other gripe: At the start of the section detailing the collapse of Enron, they include a graphic that details key events to come. It's a nice way to give away the story.

As something of an aside, I wish the authors had stepped back from the weeds of the story to address why we should care. That is, Enron defenders would argue that everything was fine until reporters started poking around and "caused" the stock to fall. There is a good response for this Enron was doomed to crash sooner or later anyway and hurt investors. But I would have liked to hear the reporters explain why it was better for investors to lose their shirts sooner rather than later.


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Monday, March 11, 2013

The day I got punched in the face -- Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

I waited a good 10 minutes for Deputy Hernandez to come back so I could tell her what happened. I was eager to get home, so I was tempted just to leave and forget it. But I also felt that I owed it to my fellow Metro passengers to have this sort of incident documented, and to do what I could to hold this man responsible for his actions.

I'm glad the deputies were there and able to arrest this man, but in other ways they seemed to take only a lukewarm interest in the assault. They made no attempt to find witnesses and get their statements (even though two witnesses had already found me). When I told Deputy Hernandez that, yes, I would like to press charges, she implied it would be a big hassle and perhaps not worth the bother.

She said that in this situation, since police hadn't witnessed the punch, it would be classified as a misdemeanor and I would essentially be making a citizen's arrest, then going to court to testify against my attacker. There was also a fair chance that this man would never show up in court (why would he?).

I went up to street level with the deputy, where her car was parked, and she spent a good five minutes looking in the trunk of the car trying find the right form to fill out.  I continued to stand and wait as she wrote information on the incident down. I'd been standing with her for 20 minutes before she gave me a form to write down my description of events. Even when all the paperwork was done, I still had to wait five more minutes for a "report number."  Clearly, not the most efficient process. All in all, I spend about 40 minutes, mostly standing around doing nothing, waiting for the police to do their work.

Initially, Deputy Hernandez told me that since this guy was clearly mentally unstable that they would try and find some reason to keep him in custody longer, perhaps by requesting a mental evaluation  But just a few hours later when she called me she had forgotten to put my birthdate on the report she said they were about to release him.

She suggested that he might "plea out" and there won't be a trial. About the best result I think I can expect out of the situation is putting the incident on his record, so perhaps someday it and other crimes will add up to some real jail time.

There are some bigger issues in this whole incident, one of which is the question of why there are so many mentally ill people wandering Los Angeles' streets. That's a topic that's too big for me to tackle here.

This episode also raises anew questions about Metro's peculiar "honor system." On Metro trains, you're supposed buy a ticket, but there's nothing to force you to do so. Anyone can walk into a station and onto a train without a ticket.

The catch is that if fare inspectors find you without a ticket you can be cited and fined as much as $180. That's a pretty substantial penalty, but there are some big problems with this system. First, they rarely check for tickets. I've gone for months of daily commuting without any ticket inspection.

Second, there's little penalty if you ignore your ticket. The Los Angeles Times said in 2007 that "most of the 60,000 passengers cited each year never pay up or go to court to fight their citations, resulting in the low collection rate, according to court statistics." True, the court may issue an arrest warrant for those who don't pay, but that's hardly a deterrent for transients.

In the end, Metro train lines end up as the transportation of choice for the kind of people who don't care if they're wanted by the law. And that makes Metro dangerous for all of us.


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The day I got punched in the face

I've commuted on Los Angeles' Metro train lines for some 15 years. During that time, I've seen several near-fights and some scary, ranting people on the train, but the only actual violence I've witnessed happened was when one young man got pummeled by two others in the aisle (he walked away, though shaken).

Then came March 6.

I was on my way home and transferring from the Red Line subway to the Blue Line, just like normal. It was about 5:30 p.m. and the underground Seventh Street Metro Center was abuzz with commuters.

As I headed up the stairs to the Blue Line, I vaguely noticed two men just ahead of me. The second man, who was wearing a black sweatshirt, was closely trailing the man ahead of him, and it appeared that they were together. There was nothing particular notable or unusual about that, so I only gave it a moment's thought.

As I ascended the stairs, in a hurry as always to reach my train home, I found the second man oddly taking the steps more sideways than upward and getting slightly in my way. So I shifted farther to the left and by taking the stairs two at a time, I moved ahead of the second man, but behind the first.

At the top of the stairs, commuters heading to the Blue Line must do a U-turn and then touch their "Tap Card" to a kiosk to register payment for the ride. As I made the turn, the second man suddenly rushed ahead of me and deliberately blocked my path to the kiosk. At this point, I thought was just dealing with a very rude person and said, "Excuse me!"

He turned around and looked at me he said nothing and punched me right between the eyes. It was stunning. I took a step back, checked to see if my glasses were broken (they weren't), and said "What the fuck was that all about?" He didn't answer.

(In retrospect, I find it interesting that I did not instinctively try to hit him back. That's probably a good thing; retaliation would have led nowhere good.)

At this point I got my first good look at him. He was black, maybe 35 to 45, perhaps 5-foot-9 or so, lean and compact, and with a slight growth of beard.

I stepped away to look for a police officer since Seventh Street Metro Center  is a major transit point, cops are often around. I looked back at my assailant, to make sure he wasn't coming after me; we locked eyes from 10 yards away and he pointed at me threateningly.

As I was looking for an officer, the other man the one I thought was with the guy who punched me came up to me. I didn't learn his name but I'm going to call him Luis just to make this story easier to follow.  Luis said he'd seen what happened, was as stunned as I was, and was definitely not with the other guy. Luis said he'd noticed the other guy following closely behind him, almost as if  the second guy was trying to "protect" Luis. Indeed, it looked as if Sweatshirt Guy had taken some offense when I got between him and the person he was "protecting."

Sure, that doesn't make sense but neither does punching a stranger in the face. Clearly, my attacker had a few glitches in his hard drive.

After a minute or two, I found two female sheriff's deputies and told them what happened. Luis pointed out that my assailant had gotten on a Blue Line train that, luckily, was still waiting at the platform. Looking through the windows of the train, I spotted my attacker and pointed him out to the deputies. They boarded the train, asked him to stand up, and handcuffed him.

As they walked away with him, I followed. Deputy Hernandez came back to talk to me, but at that moment, the attacker started trying to get away from her partner, so she rushed back to help. (They later told me that he had seen a girl he wanted to talk to and was trying to go her.)

They eventually took the attacker away.

What happened next? See Part 2.


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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Amazon fails on Goldfish math

Amazon's listing of Pepperidge Farm baked Goldfish crackers, in a 66-ounce package, shows the price as $16.99.  Conveniently, for comparison shopping purposes, Amazon shows that the price works out to "$0.21 / oz".

But that's wrong. The $16.99 price, divided by 66 ounces, works out to 25.7 cents per ounce, not 21 cents. If it really was 21 cents per ounce, you'd be paying $3.13 less.

Who's to blame for this false advertising?  Perhaps it's D&J Shopping Connection, the vendor who is selling the product. But this is Amazon's website, so they bear ultimate responsibility for what's on it.