2007 Presidential $1 Dollar Coins to Debut in Houston

It’s actually a lit bit embarrassing. It sounds like the new 2007 Presidential $1 Dollar Coins are going to debut in Houston … with a George Washington impersonator. Yes, you read that right.

They are really trying to play up the educational angle on these new coins, and the impersonator is part of that.

More coverage here in the Houston Chronicle.

Some quotes from the article:

Gloria Eskridge, the mint’s associate director for sales and marketing, said millions of the coins, which will be the same size and gold color of the Sacagawea dollars now in circulation, will be produced in mints in Philadelphia and Denver. Additional coins honoring presidents, in order of their incumbency, will be issued quarterly.

Added Eskridge, “This is about giving Americans a choice. There are times when a dollar coin is easier to use. Instead of carrying around a pocketful of quarters for public transportation, for instance, it’s more convenient to use the dollar coin.”

I wonder how you end up in an executive role at the US Mint… In any case, Eskridge is missing the point here. The dollar coin will not work in the United States until they get rid of the one dollar bill. Period. They did it in Canada when they replaced the $1 bill with $1 & $2 coins recently.

You need the two-dollar coin to minimize the number of coins you get paying for a cheap item (like a candy bar) with a larger bill.

The Washington dollar will be the first such coin introduced since the debut of the Sacagawea dollar in January 2000. That coin, honoring the Shoshone woman who served as guide to Lewis and Clark, featured a gold tint to help differentiate it from the similarly sized U.S. quarter. More than a billion of the coins have been issued, the mint reports.

They talk like having a new dollar coin program launch only seven years after the last one failed is a good thing. I think I am one of the extremely few people who likes the coins, although they tarnish way too easily. I still carry them in my car ashtray, for parking and tolls, on the rare occasions I need them.

Well, I hope the Presidential $1 Dollar Coin Program generates interest. They are cool coins, but I’m afraid if they don’t solve the basic problem of the one dollar bill, these are destined to be a trivia item in 10 years.

Maybe I’ll get lucky, and no one else will buy them. Then my sets will be that much more collectible.

Launch date is February 15th.

Previous articles on the program:

Fascinating: Referring Links to This Blog (Psychohistory)

This is just a quick note on blogging, but it is just so much fun to see the list of referring URLs every day in WordPress.

WordPress tracks the list of most common source URLs for your readers, every day.  You can click them, and see how people found your blog.  Unlike the “search keywords” that people use to find your blog, these URLs are usually real articles or blogs themselves, and it can always be surprising how people are finding your site.

One day, I noticed that a common referring URL was Google Translate, English to Spanish.  That’s right, it seems that a number of people out there are reading my blog regularly, in Spanish.  How neat is that?

Here is a fun one from today.  The referring page led a lot of people to my article on Wii Damage, which has been very popular the past few months.


I don’t know what they are saying (I think it’s Dutch, but I’m not sure), but it seems to be leading a lot of people to my blog.

Another referral today… Google Translate, English to Arabic:


It’s amazing how global the web is.  I’m a little surprised that my post is worth translating, but there you go.

For those of you keeping score at home, my blog is now averaging 300-400 hits per day, a steady increase of almost 100% month to month.   More importantly, the traffic seems much more even these days, as my older posts seem to draw a steady stream of views daily.

And the number one search term leading people to my blog is still, after two months:

harry potter and the deathly hollows

Right now, it’s link number #5 on Google for that query.

The Apple TV Does Not Suck

Sorry, I had to add a quick post here about Apple TV.

I had lunch this weekend with some close friends, several of which have worked for Apple in the past. And I was surprised at how negative they were about the Apple TV.

First, check out this article on Seeking Alpha.  It looks like the Apple TV may be blowing away expectations already, with 100,000 sold.

Second, the Apple TV does not suck. Here’s why I’m excited about it:

  1. Tivo Home Media Option 2.0. It feels like Tivo stopped innovating with the home media option once it got into trouble with it’s future as a company and a product. Right out of the box, the Apple TV takes the best things that I love about the Tivo interface, and brings them to my iTunes content. Tivo handles my iTunes playlists & iPhoto libraries just fine, but Apple TV takes support to the next level with support for iTunes Store content and TV/Movies/Music Videos. High definition is a plus, although I’m still living in the stone age of 480p.
  2. Media Server Heavy, TV Interface Light. I think this is the right model. You want a big, brawny server with loads of storage, and a lightweight client with smart caching to receive content. I honestly see my house with an Apple TV on every set instead of a DVD player. I know the first TV that’s getting one is the one in the kitchen, where my young son is just destroying DVDs left and right. No need for that – he can just pick from a menu.
  3. Goodbye AVI. Hello, MP4. I’m very excited about MP4 files, ripped with the H.264 codec. High quality, smaller files. A 2 hour movie seems to fit in about 1 GB. My friend John was very caught up with the lack of AVI support, and maybe he knows something I don’t. But to me, this just sounds like complaints that the iPod doesn’t support WMA. My prediction – the lack of support of AVI is going to turn out to be bad for Microsoft, and not hurt Apple TV.

Now, there are plenty of features I’d like to see on the Apple TV. I’d like to see a concept of “libraries” of content, so I could make a library of kid-friendly content for my son. Maybe some sort of enforced filter or protection would be sufficient. I’m also worried about 802.11N scaling across my house, especially with multiple TVs going.

I’m also concerned with the grey areas around ripping DVDs, versus the clear availability and accessibility of ripping CDs. Normal people need to be able to convert their DVD libraries to digital content easily, the same way that iTunes lets people convert their CD libraries.

The wild card here is YouTube and other ventures. Depending on how much unique content avoids the MP4 format, the more inclusive Apple may have to be. With Google & Apple linked at the board level, however, don’t be surprised to see the Apple TV support YouTube at some point, in some form.

I still would love a way to automate the conversion of my recorded Tivo programming into iTunes content. What I really would like to see is a Tivo Series 3 where the hard drive in the box is really considered cache storage – the real file store would be my media server, and the Tivo would archive all recordings to the server when it wasn’t busy.

All sources would lead to the media server, my digital content receiver. And all paths out of the media server lead to devices like the iPod, iPhone, and Apple TV.

But if that vision doesn’t work, maybe I need to rethink my $100/month DirecTV bill.  Maybe with basic programming, I could save $40/month and put that money into acquiring content in other ways.

Apple TV is definitely a 1.0, but it does not suck. 😛

Microsoft Caught with a Bad Case of Mac OS Envy

There is a new blog on WordPress called Graceful Flavor, and they tend to focus on Apple news. They had a post yesterday that immediately caught my eye, entitled:

New Microsoft Email Shows Panic Over OS X Tiger Features

Now, everyone these days expects Microsoft to have iPod-envy, iTunes-envy, even iPhone-envy. But given that the OS wars were largely fought and won in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, it’s a bit surprising to see a dominant giant like Microsoft caught with not only acknowledging the strengths of Mac OS X, but almost despairing at them.

A snippet here, from an email from Lenn Pryor, the former Director of Platform Evangelism:

Tonight I got on corpnet, hooked up Mail.app to my Exchange server and then downloaded all of my mail into the local file store. I did system wide queries against docs, contacts, apps, photos, music, and … my Microsoft email on a Mac. It was fucking amazing. It is like I just got a free pass to Longhorn land today.

What about this one?

Here’s my take on this:

  1. Big suprise, Mac OS X is a strong product.  Let’s face it – the dominance of Windows over Mac OS had everything to do with x86 and DOS compatibility, and very little to do with the overall design of the 100s of features that make up modern operating systems.    At minimum, it’s fair to say that Mac OS X is an extremely strong product in many areas, and it’s not surprising to see Microsoft clearly interested in learning from its competition.  I know that within Apple, we spent plenty of time discussing new and planned Microsoft features.
  2. Microsoft is a huge company, these quotes didn’t come from Bill Gates.  Is it really so shocking that there are Apple fans within Microsoft?  Come on.  It’s a huge company, and it’s not surprising that several people in middle management are Apple fans.  Sometimes your best people are the ones who can look outside your four walls and see the world differently.  I don’t know if these people are considered thought leaders or pariahs within Microsoft, but either way, these emails aren’t really surprising.
  3. The grass is always greener…  When I was at Apple, while most people were convinced of Apple’s superiority in design, innovation and approach, there was always an inherent sense of insecurity and envy of Microsoft’s ability to reach the broadest audience.  There was envy of their resources, their ability to fund money-losers for years on end in long term markets.  But this wasn’t unique to Apple.  Or Microsoft.  All companies who compete ferociously in technology develop an appreciation, which can quickly turn to envy, for the unique advantages of their competition.  The trick is to remember that strategy is about unique differentiation – what makes your company, your products, your services and your brand unique in the market.  Trying to match your competitors feature-for-feature is a death spiral towards commoditization and lack of identity.

No matter the bravado, I guarantee you that there are people at Apple writing memos about the inspiration they have gotten from Vista.  Sure, they’ll say, there’s a “better way” to do some of these things.  But they’ll have a note of envy for DirectX 10.  They’ll be jealous of how quickly third parties come in to fix holes in the Vista feature set.  And Mac OS 10.6 will likely end up stronger for it.

Are We Over-Saving for Retirement?

There was an article in the Saturday New York Times (1/27/2007) that really got me thinking. It was called:

A Contrarian View: Save Less and Still Retire with Enough

I must admit, my initial reaction to the title was extremely negative. In a country where private pensions are quickly becoming a thing of the past, and Social Security continues to float in a bizarre state of political denial, telling Americans that they need to “save less” seemed irresponsible, bordering on criminally negligent.

The article didn’t initially endear me either with its analysis. Witness the third paragraph:

Nevertheless, a small band of economists from universities, research institutions and the government are clearly expressing the blasphemy that many Americans could be saving less than they are being told to by the financial services industry — and spending more — while they are younger. The negative savings rate, they say, is wildly distorted.

A small band of economists from universities, you say? No names, of course, of either the economists or the universities. But it’s good to know they are in a band, albeit a small one. Maybe they work with Robin Hood, and his merry band of thieves.

Of course, it’s rare for the New York Times to be this shoddy with reporting, so I move on through the article.  And it turns out, the article does have a point.  Look at the graph that was included with the article:


Aha!  Real sources, real numbers, and credible analysis.  It turns out, this is a legitimate piece, just written in a fluffy, air-headed style.  There is real financial analysis here to this question, and there are some issues raised by it which are worth considering.

One of the biggest innovations in personal finance in the last decade has been quick and easy access for individuals to sophisticated planning tools that previously were only available to professionals.   For example, many people used to just take a basic percentage of return, like 8%, and then project what their savings might be by the time they are 65.  (In fact, many people still do.)

Now people have access to tools, like at Financial Engines,  that do Monte Carlo analysis.  Monte Carlo analysis, like it’s name-sake city, is focused on risk & gambling. With Monte Carlo analysis, the computer will run through thousands, if not millions, of randomized versions of the future, based on the historical performance of different asset classes like stocks, bonds, and cash.  These simulators don’t tell you how many dollars you’ll end up with when you turn 65.  Instead, they give you probabilities you’ll end up with “enough money”, however you define that.

This New York Times article didn’t go into too much detail, but based on the tidbits in the piece, my guess is that the “band of economists” are focusing on a few ways that these models could demand “over-saving”:

  1. 1929-1937.  All Monte Carlo simulators worth their salt include, as part of their randomization programming, historical extremes, like the Great Depression.  In fact, the book I read by Ben Stein constantly refers to this period as the ultimate measure of a good strategy.  However, is it prudent to base your planning on what seems to be more and more of a historical outlier?
  2. Social Security. Almost all calculators that I’ve seen tend to evaluate your portfolio with no assumption of Social Security.  Now, I’m personally pretty negative on the idea that I’ll be collecting anything resembling the currently promised Social Security benefit, but in fairness, if you took the US Government at face value, that promise is worth a significant chunk of change.  Roughly $812,000, if you buy my earlier analysis.
  3. 85% of Income Needed.  Almost all planning tools tend to estimate your needed income in retirement as 85% of your pre-retirement income.  This assumption is actually based on the idea that normally you save 15% of your income, so when you retire and you stop saving, you don’t need that 15%.  Fine.  But this assumption is likely faulty in two regards – first, it likely differs based on your expected lifestyle in retirement (travel, health), and second, it’s unlikely to be a flat 85% through the rest of your life.

So, there are points to be made here, and it is something to think about.  I personally have been faced with difficult choices for saving that don’t have immediate, obvious answers.  What do you prioritize – saving money for a larger house & family, for retirement, for college, or travel & family fun?  What’s the right balance?  There is some truth to the fact that you could, in fact, over-save for retirement, and miss out on your life with your family while you are young.  You could live to 125, but you also could also die tomorrow.  I’ve had close friends and mentors who have died before ever seeing retirement, so these aren’t just theoretical questions.

In the end, I probably agree more with critics that say that the last message Americans in general need to hear is anything that sounds like save less.  No, in general, Americans are already getting an A+ in that class.  They are getting a D right now in save more, so while their are nuances that are worth discussion here, this article was the wrong way to present them.

As personal finance tools grow more sophisticated, however, it is also worth noting that in the end, they are just tools.  Garbage in, garbage out.  If you put in bad assumptions about the market or your goals and values, you will get bad answers out.  Sure, they’ll look pretty.  But they won’t steer you toward happiness.

Thoughts on My First 24 Hours with a Nintendo Wii

So, I actually did get a Nintendo Wii for my birthday. And yesterday, for the first time, I actually had a free moment or two to hook it up and play with it. Since then, I’ve probably played a total of 60 minutes of Wii Sports, and I thought I’d capture some of my first thoughts.

First, I wrote in a post about the Nintendo Wii a while back that I thought the new Wii Remote was a gimmick. Well, while I still think it’s a bit of a gimmick, it’s a well executed one. The thing works. It’s very easy to pick up and play, and there is something very engaging about interacting with video games this way.

In fact, my two year old son, Jacob, thinks it is absolutely hysterical to watch people play with the Wii. I think he loves seeing people jump around, and then have it be mirrored on screen. I don’t know, but when my brother Daniel was playing Wii Tennis, we could not get him to stop laughing.

It’s great. More importantly, it is well designed. The wireless detection and motion measurement is good enough to work and not be frustrating.  My faded, scarred memories of the Nintendo Power Glove have now been put to rest.  This is what motion detection should be in a gaming environment, with very little setup.  I’ve have found some sports more “realistic” than others. Tennis and Baseball seem to map well (there is something very rewarding about hitting a home run with the Wii Remote). Bowling is OK, but has some kinks. Golf and Boxing are really not designed to reward people with realistic motion.

From a product design standpoint, the way the remote fits in the hand, the placement of the buttons seems excellent. The affordances of the Wii remote seem to match the intended motions well.

Now, since I’m a nitpicker, here are my design suggestions for Nintendo:

  • Learn by example. It’s clear that the Wii remote is measuring some types of movements and not others when you play certain games. It would be nice to have a standardized “visual feedback screen”, where you could make sample motions, and the Wii would “diagnose” what it actually detected.  When is it looking for lateral motion, up/down, twisting.  It would be a big help to avoid frustration if you actually knew what the game was looking for. It took me 5 frustrating minutes to figure out the motions that the boxing game really cared about. Another idea here would be a “demo” mode where the Wii showed you how it expected you to work the remote for that game.
  • Ship with Two Controllers. It’s a bit lame to get the machine, and then realize that most of the games are more fun with two people. You can’t find extra controllers anywhere – Nintendo should have launched the 1.0 package with two controllers. It would have highlighted the social aspect of the Wii.
  • Expand to the Feet. It seems like there should be something, like the Nike+iPod insert, that you could add to your feet for these games. Since it’s only looking at the motion of the hand controllers, games that need foot motion are left out, or end up somewhat awkwardly implemented (like Boxing). This interface could really scale to having multiple on-body measures – maybe eventually motion points in multiple places (like arms, legs, torso).
  • Wii Elbow? Wii Shoulder? After playing for an hour, I hate to say it, but you can really feel it. It’s not tiring, per se, but I could feel a little bit of tennis elbow coming on, and my rotator cuff was feeling a little strained. Maybe there needs to be a stretching routine for the Wii? I know this sounds goofy, but I’m expecting to see more engineers walking around rubbing their elbows & shoulders as 2007 goes on.

It’s not surprising to me that the Wii is selling as well as it is. What is suprising is that the Wii is almost outselling the Xb0x 360, even though the Xbox is a high definition box with more games and with ample supply. I agree with this article – I’m going to be checking out Nintendo stock a little more closely.

I’m going to play a bit more now. My “Wii Age”, according to Wii Sports, started at 50 when I first played, and is now down to 33. I’m going to have to work hard to get down into the 20s.

In the meantime, watch out for Wii damage (my most popular post on the topic), and tighten your straps.

What Would You Do for an eBay Star?

I have a confession to make:

I am addicted to eBay User ID badges.  You know, the little icons that appear next to your User ID on eBay.

It all starts with that innocuous feedback star.  You get that yellow star at 10.  It’s great, and now all of a sudden you can use Buy It Now!  But it’s really just temptation.  Temptation to get 40 more feedback to get the blue star.  Fifty more to get the turquoise star at 100.

One of my big moments in 2006 was definitely crossing the chasm of the next 400 to get my purple star, at 500.  Will I stop?  How can I when the red star is just an quick shot over to 1000…

But it’s not just feedback.  The train of icons began with my eBay Store, giving me a little Stores logo next to my name.   Then I dicovered eBay Reviews & Guides.  With a 100 helpfulness votes, I got the pencil.  I’m now a “Top 5000” reviewer, which also follows my name.

And now, today, after three months of heavy selling, I have earned, perhaps temporarily, the ultimate logo – PowerSeller.

There is a lesson in all this madness for people creating products & services based on community driven activity & content.  Badges sell.  People love to acquire them, to have a little scorecard, to reach the next level of recognition.  Tiering works in all sorts of consumer products, and eBay has it in spades.

I have seen lot of new sites and services that keep score, a record of achievement.  But I think scores are somehow too clinical, too cold.   A number.  A score.  It just doesn’t resonate as strongly as a badge.

Well, I’m still working my way to that red star… only 400 more unique positives to go until I hit 1000.

Pangea Ultima: A Look at the Earth in 250 Million Years

I love the Science Times, issued by the New York Times every Tuesday. It’s just 8-10 pages of really interesting new discoveries, insights, and analysis of modern science.

Unfortunately, I rarely have the time to read the paper regularly during the week. As a result, I don’t often get to read the Science Times on the day it’s published. However, my mother just gave me a pile of the last 15 or so Science Times, and I’ve been reading through them. (Thanks, Mom!)

One article caught my eye tonight – it was the cover story on Pangea Ultima, Dr. Scotese’s name for his future estimation of the movement of the continents over the next 250 Million Years.

Dr. Scotese has a full website showing the continental configurations ranging from 200 Million years ago (Pangea), all the way through the modern world and beyond. This includes some nifty Java applets that actually let you rotate a 3D globe.

This site is the best – it shows you a drag-based animation of the next 250 million years, all the way to Pangea Ultima.

Very cool. Some tidbits from the analysis:

  • Africa seems to get wedged upward, between North America & Eurasia
  • Antartica moves back up, collides with Australia, which is headed back into a collision with Eurasia
  • Los Angeles moves to be side-by-side with San Francisco in 50M years. By 250M years, it’s up by Alaska, and California is now part of the west coast mountain range
  • Mediterranean sea is gone in 50M years. The Indian Ocean is on its way to becoming an inland sea itself.

It turns out that our current understanding of planetary techtonics takes us more easily into the future of 50M years, and that the complexity of projecting beyond that is still very high. Still, it’s neat to see an informed attempt at the projection. It makes you realize how small & unique our little window into Earth’s history really is.

As an aside, Wikipedia, as usual, has an incredible write-up of Pangea Ultima. I’m beginning to use Wikipedia more than I use Google – I’ve even made it the default in my search bar in Firefox. Anyone else finding themselves using Wikipedia more often these days?

529 Plans: The Beneficiary Loophole & How to Save More for College

I haven’t written a lot about 529 College Savings Plans, but my previous post on Picking the Best 529 College Savings Plan has been incredibly popular.  Even now it regularly is one of the top ten posts on the site for page views, over two months after it was written.

Recently, the blog My 1st Million at 33 did an in-depth analysis of whether it was worthwhile to “eat the penalty”, and use the 529 plan as an additional retirement savings vehicle.  The answer there was basically, no – the tax benefit is outweighed in most cases by the income taxes and penalty if you withdraw the funds for non-college expenses.

Since the topic of college savings is particularly interesting to me, I thought I’d follow up here with an insight into a potential loophole in the structure of current 529 plans.  Loophole might be too strong a word – but there definitely is an inherent flexibility in the current 529 plans that most people seem to be unaware of.

The loophole is actually not an accident, but part of the 529 plan design.  You see, one of the big problems with building a savings account for a particular person to go to college is the basic risk that maybe that person won’t go to college.  Maybe they won’t need the money after all, winning a full ride on a football scholarship.  Maybe your investments will do so well, that you will have over-saved.

As a result, 529 plans allow you to do something about it.  You can, once per year, change the beneficiary of the plan to someone else.

This one little ability, however, means that you have a lot of control over the destiny of your 529 plan.

Let’s say you are 20 years old, and you know that you plan to have children someday.  Theoretically, you could open up a 529 plan with a close relative who is someone under 30, and start saving immediately.  Ten years later, when you finally do have a child, you already have an account stocked with 10 years of savings.  You switch the beneficiary to your new child, and voila!  You are 10 years ahead of the curve saving for college.

This example might seem contrived – after all, how many 20 year olds  are interested in pre-saving for their children’s college.  Most 20 year olds are busy trying to pay for their own college.   But I chose it to illustrate the simple fact that you are no longer trapped saving for college for a single person, or even for a single lifetime.

Let’s take a more realistic example.  You are newly married, and you and your spouse have decided that you will likely try to have more than one child.  For this example, let’s just say you plan to have three children, each three years apart.   The ability to change beneficiaries drastically alters your strategy for saving for college.

Instead of starting a college fund for each child when they are born, and trying to equally fund them, the math says you should just over-save for your first child.  Think of it as saving for college for all three of them together, rather than separately.

Any excess you have from the first child can easily be moved to the second, and then the third.  The advantage is that while you’ll have 18 years to save for child 1, you’ll have 21 years for child 2, and 24 years for child 3.  As a result, you’ll need to put less away overall if you let compounding do the work for you over a longer period of time.

I’ve done some quick & dirty models in Excel, and it looks to me like the savings can be fairly substantial – if you have the ability to over-save in your first child’s 529 plan.

I used some simple assumptions – an 8% rate of return, and a contribution rate of $5000 per year, per child.

If you saved for each child separately, you would end up with $207,231 for each in Year 18.  Pretty darn good, except for the fact that you’re putting away $15,000 per year for the middle 12 years.

Instead, if you take advantage of  the ability change beneficiaries, you could instead decide to put $10,000 per year, with the birth of the first child.  Over the course of the 25 years of saving,  you would put away $250,000, lower than the $285,000 contributed in the example above.  But you’d end up with approximately the same amount of money for each child, when you need it for their college tuitions.  (For the sake of simplicity, I assumed that each child would cash out 1/4 of the $207,231 per year from the first example, leaving the remainder to compound for the next year (and next child).

Now, in order to really take advantage of this, there are a couple more steps you need to be aware of.  First,  most 529 plans will not let you contribute past some account value.  It differs by state, but it typically caps off between $250K-$300K.   The money can still compound, but you can’t contribute any more.

None of my examples required contributions for a single child above $250K, but even so, it would be simple enough to just start a new 529 for a different child at the point you max out the first one.  The limit seems to be on contributions, not on total account value, so there seems to be no limit on the power of compounding.

The second issue you’d have to deal with is how to withdraw money to two beneficiaries at once.  In order to handle that problem, you’d have to “split” your 529 plan into two separate plans, either with the same provider, or by moving some of your assets to another state.  Once the plan is split, you can then change the beneficiary on one of the plans.

Another potential use of this ability to change beneficiaries might be as a form of estate planning.  If you are wealthy enough to have taken care of your own retirement needs, and savings for your childrens’ college, you could effectively start early on funding college for your grandchildren.   By changing beneficiaries when needed, you could make a 529 account last almost forever.

From a practical standpoint, I don’t expect a booming market in multi-generational 529 plans.  First, some people have despaired so much at the pace of rising tuition, you could argue that it’s better to not save for college and count on financial aid.  Second, not everyone is as enamoured with the tax protected status of 529 plans, since the government could take that away at any time.

Nonetheless, saving for college is a big enough endeavor that many families find themselves with not enough years to save.  One of the reasons people actually can fund their own retirement is because they use a working career of over 40-50 years to do it, giving their money a chance to compound many times over.

Changing beneficiaries offers people the ability to extend the clock for college savings, which can really help, particularly if you have multiple children.

Run the numbers yourself, and let me know what you think.  I’ve already built out some models that take into account inflation, rising tuition, and rising contributions.  The basic benefit of over-saving for the first child continues to outweigh any of these factors.

Reminder: I am not a financial advisor or tax professional.   Be sure to vet any ideas provided here with appropriate experts in financial planning and tax law before following any the tips outlined above.  Yes, I am posting a disclaimer here.

Update:  Looks like this question has been around for a while.  I found this tip on the Morningstar site saying it’s OK to split a 529 plan in the case of an “over-funded” first child.

Mission to Pluto: New Horizons Craft at Jupiter

I am a huge supporter of space exploration, and a big fan of the recent boom of entrepreneurial activity around space. For example, I’m the type of person that gets excited when I see that the Blue Origin spacecraft managed a very successful test recently of their new launch vehicle. (Blue Origin is Jeff Bezos’ pet space company).

However, I have a special connection with the ongoing mission to Pluto, dubbed “New Horizons”. The spacecraft has been in the news lately because the ship will soon be passing Jupiter, on its way to rendezvous with Pluto (which is a planet).

The reason is kind of quirky – it has to do with my activity on the Speech & Debate team in High School. I went to a very small high school (less than 200 students), but it had, at the time, a very successful and well-recognized Speech & Debate team. I was successful enough on the team to be both President of the team (about 40 students) and Captain of the Policy Debate team (sometimes called Oxford debate).

I had a lot of success in individual speech events – my specialty were the variants where there was little to no preparation. Extemporaneous speaking was an event where you had 30 minutes to prepare a 7 minute speach on a topic, typically current events or policy. Impromptu, my favorite, gave you only 2 minutes to prepare a 5 minute speech on anything. Literally anything – a quote, a person, a place, an item. One of my best speeches ever was the final round of the Stanford invitational, where I won first place after picking my topic out of a Stanford bookstore bag (it was a condom).

One area where the team had struggled historically had been the annual, official statewide competition for policy debate. Unlike college invitationals, the state competitions tended to have “lay” judges – parents, friends, locals. As a result, winning had more to do with persuasive speech, and less to do with well thought out policy or evidence.

Our senior year, at the qualification tournament at Bellarmine High School, my partner and I had prepared a special case – one that was less technical, inexpensive, and incredibly compelling. It was a secret – we had never used it before at a tournament (we typically did 15-20 tournaments across the country, per year). The topic that year was space exploration.

The policy proposal? Send an unmanned spacecraft to Pluto. It was inexpensive (under $200M), obvious (it’s the only planet we haven’t explored close up), and it had urgency – there was a specific window in Pluto’s orbit that makes it economical to launch only once every decade or so. Pluto goes through a unique atmospheric event every 200 years, and it turned out that sending the craft immediately, in the next decade, made the most sense.

Not as grandiose as a moon base. Not as compelling as a manned mission to Mars. Not as exotic as developing solar sails. Not as economically valuable as beaming solar energy down from orbit to provide clean, inexpensive power.

But it won. And we qualified for the State tournament that year.

We didn’t end up winning the State championship that year, although I did pick up 2nd in the state in Extemporaneous. But I still look back on that case fondly; it was our last one.

That was spring of 1991. And as it turns out, it was a good idea, and we really are doing it. And now the ship is racing across the solar system, due for its rendezvous with Pluto… in July 2015, when my oldest son will be 10.

See you in 2015.

Funny eBay Story: Jessica Simpson & Creamsicle Lipstick

I don’t know why I found this story amusing enough to click on.  But I did.

Jessica Simpson’s creamsicle lip candy lipsticks up for grabs on Ebay

Bizarre.  The things that I go through life happily not knowing… like the fact that Jessica Simpson has a “Dessert Treat” line of cosmetics & fragrances.  

But now I do.  All because I tend to click on almost any article with eBay in the title.  Damn you, Google News.

Just for fun, I decided to see what eBay Express had to offer in terms of “Dessert Treat” products.   Pretty surprising selection, actually.  Over 1000 items for sale, and our new search engine even has “Dessert by Jessica Simpson” as a searchable brand in Fragrances.  Apparently, on eBay Express, Creamy Coconut & Cotton Blossom are the frangrances with the most listings, but Cinnamon Frosting is a close third.

As for the Creamsicle Lipstick, well, I guess it’s technically “lip gloss” whatever that means.  But there are 27 items available on Express right now, as cheap as $2 with free shipping.

Now that this information is in my brain, possibly for a while, I can only hope that sharing it here will provide at least one person out there with some benefit – even if that benefit is a laugh or two at my expense.

My Second Sale on Half.com: Turning Textbooks into Gold

The usual disclaimer: I work for eBay, and until recently, I was part of the product team responsible for Half.com. So I am biased. Not a little. A lot.

I have always believed that great engineers and product managers live their products and use their products. It’s the best way to get first-hand understanding of your users, and it can open your eyes to challenges that just aren’t obvious when you are looking at theoretical designs and analytical data. Being a user yourself can help give you an essential “gut feel” for your product.

Until recently, I managed the product team responsible for eBay Express, Half.com, and some features for Shopping.com. As a result, I started listing old textbooks on Half.com a few months ago, during the slow season, to get a better feel for the product. I had used Half.com extensively as a buyer, but never before as a seller.

I just got my second sale on Half.com, and I thought I’d share a few of my insights, as a user, while they are still fresh:

  • Selling on Half.com is Easy. It’s almost too easy. You just type in the ISBN number, specify the condition, and type a few notes (up to 250 characters). Half.com recommends a price to you, and you pick a price. That’s it. I’d argue it’s even easier than GoogleBase or Craigslist, because the site inherently understands books, and provides simple, contextual information while you list.
  • The mystery is when the sale will happen. Half.com has a different model than eBay. On eBay, you pay an up-front listing fee, and there is a clearly specified time your listing will be live, typically a week. On Half.com, your listing is free, and it lives forever. You only pay when it sells. But the question is, when will that be? As I’ve discovered, sales of textbooks seem to primarily happen in big “back to school” months. The book I sold today was listed several months ago. I had to think about where I had hidden it away, so I could ship it.
  • Being an eBay seller made me a better Half seller. eBay sellers are expected to pack & ship quickly. They are expected to send email, letting the buyer know that the package is on the way. eBay sellers also generally know how to use postage printing to turn around larger packages quickly. On Half.com, these things are optional, but I felt like I was giving a higher quality of service because of my experience selling on eBay.

So, here is my little money making tip for all of you within a decade of being in school. Go find your textbooks. Take 15 minutes, and list them on Half.com. Pick the recommended price from Half.com. Put them in a box, and put the box somewhere safe. Wait for the next textbook season, and you might find some welcome news in your inbox.

Just like I did today.

PS If there is anyone reading my blog who is in school, and is not buying their textbooks on Half.com, you are wasting a lot of money. Save your money. Buy your textbooks on Half.com. Parents, if you have children in college, and you are paying for their textbooks, make them buy them on Half.com.

Vanguard introduces four new Bond ETFs, with Super Low Expense Ratios!

11 Basis Points. Not one percent. Not one half a percent. Not even one quarter of a percent.

0.11%. That’s the new expense ratio on the Vanguard Bond ETFs. These were announced this week on the Vanguard RSS Feed.

$11 for every $10,000 you have invested. Combined with the 9 basis points you pay on the Total Stock Market ETF, you could have a 50/50 balanced portfolio for the total cost of 0.10% every year.

I know that things like this don’t excite everyone, but I see this as more than just a good deal. I see empowerment for everyone. People forget that 30 years ago, you couldn’t get index funds unless you were a large institution with millions to invest. Even then, you couldn’t get one with an expense ratio under 0.5% until 15 years ago. And getting one freely, with no fees save commission, like this, with no minimum investment? Forget about it, until now.

Now the small investor, with just a few thousand saved, can have access to the tools previously limited to massive institutions. And it seems to only be getting better every year.

From the Vanguard website:

Vanguard has filed a registration statement with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) to offer exchange-traded shares for four existing Vanguard® bond index funds: Total Bond Market Index Fund, Short-Term Bond Index Fund, Intermediate-Term Bond Index Fund, and Long-Term Bond Index Fund.

Pending SEC approval, the four new bond ETFs will provide broadly diversified exposure to the entire U.S. bond market as well as discrete segments of the market at an expected expense ratio of only 0.11%.

Vanguard ETFs™ are uniquely structured as separate share classes of existing Vanguard mutual funds. For example, Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF will be a separate share class of the $40 billion Total Bond Market Index Fund, the industry’s first bond index fund and one of the largest bond mutual funds in the country. Introduced in 1986, the fund seeks to track the performance of the market-weighted Lehman Brothers Aggregate Bond Index, and holds nearly 2,800 corporate, Treasury, agency, and mortgage securities.

The new ETFs will be managed by the Vanguard Fixed Income Group, which oversees $310 billion in fund assets, including $65 billion in bond index fund assets.

Nate Etter Has a Blog!

I love outing friends who have blogs.

Now, Nate, it’s your turn.

I’ve known Nate since, oh, sophomore year at Stanford. 1992 I believe was the year.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with Nate since the beginning of last year, when he joined eBay to take over product management for the Sell Your Item form.  He now runs the entire product team responsible for listing on eBay.

His blog is already making me feel a little guilty about not having more family pictures here… I’m going to have to work on that.

As a side note, I found Nate’s blog through a most interesting turn – the WordPress.com tag functionality. I’ve started noticing that WordPress itself is becoming one of the regular referrers of traffic to my blog. I think their on to something, by getting bloggers to discover each other, and by using tools like surfacing “hot blogs” and “hot posts” to bloggers. I think they sample through some posts all the time, on every page, giving everyone a little bit of exposure.

Ironically, I noticed that one of the tags that people were using to find my blog was “Friends”. I clicked on it, and I recognized Nate’s Skype icon as the icon for the blog.

Thank you, WordPress, for reconnecting us. At least, our blogs.

Equinox Releases iSale 4 at Macworld 2007. Unbelievable eBay Selling Tool for Mac OS X.

I know I said I was a bit disappointed by Macworld 2007, but I did see a few things that I liked.

One was the new version of iSale 4 by Equinox software.


This application just keeps getting better and better.  I was really impressed with their new, searchable, listing template functionality.  I was also very impressed with the visual, live update of sales status, and the order tracking functionality.

The application represents the best possible combination of creative use of the existing eBay APIs, and a best-in-class Mac OS interface.   They support very Mac-specific touches like iPhoto integration, .Mac picture hosting, and other goodies.   The feature list at this point reads like a “Who’s Who” of Apple & eBay functionality.  Check it out on their website.

They even support the ability to preview your listing on both eBay & eBay Express!  Right in the application.  Gorgeous.

My wife continues to use GarageSale to sell on eBay, and I use the new Sell Your Item form from eBay.  But when I see great work like this, I just have to give them a shout out and say to readers, if you are looking for a great Mac application to make selling on eBay easy, try iSale.  It’s a free trial, and it’s worth checking out.