Thursday, June 28, 2012

Are You Good At Maths?

I'm such an inconsistent blogger. Lately I've only been home probably two nights each week which is insane. Due to the lack of time from trying to do everything every day, it's going to be a quickie today. (No sexual puns nor innuendo intended lol)

Anyhoo, trawling through my emails, I found an old puzzle that was quite fun to work out. I'll give you the answers next time I write.

Puzzle Scenario

There is a bus with 7 girls inside,
Each girl has 7 bags,
Inside each bag, there are 7 Big cats,
Each Big cat has 7 small cats,
All cats have 4 Legs each!

Question: How many Legs are there inside the bus?
Good luck guys! ;) Solved it in 1 minute flat so if you're faster than that, I bow to you =)

Some others on the email thread mulled over it for hours so if it takes longer than a minute, you're not alone.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Times Are Getting Tougher Economically And Financially

Tougher Economic Times

Perhaps times are getting tougher and it's really not just plain old belt tightening by householders but now also belt tightening by businesses.

Recently I spoke to a gentleman who does deliveries to businesses in the area and he told me that one of their client had just made 30 positions redundant.

My family's business has slowed down and my parents said that the past few months have been tough trading for many of their own customers. They sell at the wholesale level and their customers trade at the retail level.

Unfortunately I can't mention anything about my work due to confidentiality issues but I've had a few conversations with some clients about cash flow issues and that they're having difficulty too with the current economic environment. While I'd hate to get anyone angsty or anxious over the economic environment, I can't help but feel apprehensive myself and am in no condition to write anything refuting those thoughts.

Today's conversation about the fourth batch of redundancies across Sydney is a bit too close for comfort in my social and work circle. A few years ago, the topic of redundancy was a foreign issue but now, it's like every two months, another batch of redundancies...

Tougher Financial Times

All economies operate on two main policies which are fiscal policy and monetary policy, which are either contractionary or expansionary. Basic economics in a nutshell:

a) Fiscal Policy: Governments and their budgets
b) Monetary Policy: Central banks and the interest rates

i) Contractionary: Slowing down the economy on purpose by spending cuts and/or increasing interest rates
ii) Expansionary: Trying to boost the economy by spending more and/or decreasing the interest rates

You can see how much influence a country's government wields over their nation simply by reading about the gross mismanagement in the U.S, Greece and Ireland and the catastrophic effects on the population via unemployment.

I dislike the current opposition leader Tony Abbott and particularly his time as Health Minister, however I also dislike the policies that the Labour Government keep rolling out.* I would honestly like to to see the Liberal/Coalition government replace him so that we can vote the Liberals back into the House of Reps before life gets even tougher due to regulatory changes. (You may dislike the Gillard government but don't forget to vote Labour into the Senate or else we'll get another political travesty if the Liberal/Coalition controls both, the House of Reps + Senate.)

First thing that will hit several households starting 1st July will be the cut to private health insurance rebate. The second major hit will be from the carbon tax and the price inflation that is bound to happen. Carbon tax hasn't even been implemented yet and already the energy companies are already racking up power bills saying that the funds are needed to start preparing for a carbon tax environment.

Carbon tax= Scheme for the investment banks to cream off

The third worst policy decision is cutting the over 50s superannuation concessional contribution limits to $25,000 which includes both the employer guarantee component and any salary sacrificed into super.

In summary:

1. Cut to private health insurance rebates
2. Carbon tax to be implemented
3. Cutting concessional super contributions for over the 50s down to $25k

You've got folks in their 50s at their prime age for saving because the kids have moved out, have graduated from Uni, are working and finally self sufficient. Suddenly they can't boost up their super funds anymore. On the one hand, the government prefers everyone to be self funded retirees but on the other hand, they whip them and change the policies so that their ability to be self funded retirees has been shackled.

Why? The superannuation environment is taxed at 15%. If the over 50s (or younger crowd) don't salary sacrifice into super, then the money they earn are taxed at their MRT (marginal rate of tax ie their highest tax bracket) which can be up to 45% tax.

By doing this, they're going to get a lot more in tax revenue.

Are times tougher? Yes. Are times at their toughest yet? No.

SMG is not looking forward to the economy unravelling and is hoping that Aussies out there will keep earning and spending. Save some and spend some. If we all just hoarded our money, it bodes ill for the nation.

* Disclaimer: Have to disclose that the SMG household will be affected negatively by the policy changes. Who likes having to pay more for everything yo?!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Inspirational: The Author Stephen King

I'd always considered Stephen King an author of horror fiction but after reading the article by Neil Gaiman*, realise that not only does King write horror but he also writes novels across other genres exceptionally well.

Back in school, I would inhale his books literally. Who doesn't get freaked out by Carrie and Pet Cemetery? On the opposite side of the genre spectrum, he also wrote The Green Mile and the Shawshank Redeption which was adapted into a movie which is still awesome.

His Charitable Endeavors

He's inspirational because his private charity, King Foundation gives to many charities. King does discuss the fruitlessness of donating to charities:
"We all sit down and give away money. That's frustrating. Every year we give away the same money to different people...It's like chucking money into a hole. That's frustrating."
His Poverty In Early Days

King and his wife Tabitha were very poor when he first out as an author. It never occured to me to wonder about his background and whether he drew from his life experiences:
"Tabby came from nothing. I came from nothing, we were terrified that they would take this thing away from us. So if the people wanted to say, 'You're this', as long as the books sold, that was fine. I thought, 'I am going to zip my lip and write what I want to write'...I was convinced they would take this all away from me and I was going to be living with three kids in a rental house again, that it was just too good to be true..." 

Of Stephen King and Tabitha's poverty in their early days, Gaiman writes that:
"He couldn't get a teaching position when he graduated, so he worked in an industrial laundromat, and pumped gas, and worked as a janitor, supplementing his meagre income with occasional stories...They were dirt poor. They lived in a trailer and King wrote at a makeshift desk between the washer and the dryer. All that changed in 1974 with the paperback sale of Carrie for $200,000."
 Around 1985, eleven years after he sold Carrie, he finally started to relax and think, "This is good, this is going to be okay." That's responsibility for you. And the acknowledgment of the transient nature of being an author or an artist of any sort. Are you going to be a one hit wonder or will you actually get to build a career in the arts or publishing industry?

King is an amazingly successful author with approximately 350 million books sold to date. Even with all his successes he can still say,  
"I am just a common person and I have this one talent that I use....Nothing bores me more than to be in New York and have dinner in a big fancy restaurant where you have to sit for three f....king hours. You know, and people will have drinks before, wine after, then three courses, then they want coffee and all the rest of this crap..."
 His Passion
 "They pay me absurd amounts of money for something that I would do for free."

Reading Gaiman's interview, I'm struck by the thought that writing is so natural to him that he says,  
 "I didn't know that the guy who did do it was going to be there, didn't know anything, about how it happened, but when I wrote it, it was all just there for me. You just take it. Everything just fits together like it existed before. I never think of stories as made things; I think of them as found things. As if you pull them out of the ground."

His Writing Habits

I find this quote the most fascinating. For someone who has been an author for many decades to never run out of ideas, to keep writing daily simply because he loves it:
"I sit down maybe at quarter past eight in the morning and I work until quarter to 12 and for that period of time, everything is real. I think I probably write 1200 to 1500 words. It's six pages."

People who are passionate or really obsessed by something are really fascinating. They seem to have so much life, such enthusiasm and pleasure. After reading that interview, Stephen King was no longer the horror author in my mind but a very passionate writer who really loves and enjoys his craft.

Readers and food for thought: Are you passionate about any aspects of your life? Your work? Your interests and hobbies? 

* 'The King And I' by Neil Gaiman, Good Weekend (05/05/2012)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Oops She's Done It Again: MonaVie Juice Scam Hits Sydney

My mum bought bottles and bottles of the 'miracle' health fruit juice. $960 worth of fruit juice, packaged into 24 small bottles. After attending a packed seminar, she's convinced by the spruiker that this miracle juice is the real deal.

They've done a really good sales job on her by convincing her that it's nutricious and will cure any medical issues that she has.
"The MonaVie premier juice blends contain powerful nutrients that aid your body in the fight against aging and other symptoms of oxidative stress. In fact, just four ounces provide you with the antioxidant capacity of approximately 12-14 servings of common fruits and vegetables." From their site.
Four ounces is equivalent to half a cup. This may mislead people into thinking that half a cup of fruit juice has the health equivalent of 12-14 servings of fruit and vegetables. What about the lack of dietary fibre? What about the nutrients lost in processing? What about the additives and preservatives in the MonaVie fruit juice? If you're simply chasing antioxidants then you'd be better off eating fresh punnets of blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, kidney beans and prunes and they're vastly cheaper by comparison.

They call it 'relationship marketing' but dissect it to the bone and call it for what it is- multi level marketing and pyramid scheme marketing. Where the more people you recruit for selling their products, the more you will make.

Miracle Cures Simply Don't Exist

There are no miracle cures. No miracle anything. No miracle food, no miracle spa, no mirracle mud or food or juice or plant.

After my friend lost two Aunties to cancer in 2011, my faith in 'miracles' is nonexistent. Money was no problem so they have tried everything under the sun: the all-vegetables-and-fruit diet, the raw veggie diet, the EXTREMELY expensive mangosteen juice cure at $70(?) per bottle, the $15k cancer clinics in Germany plus the bottles and bottles of pills and vitamins found on the internet.

There are no miracle cure for any human disease. There are doctors working tirelessly to treat cancer and that's all that I'm left to believe in after witnessing cancer destroying the body while the assortment of 'miracle' juices, food, pills and diet did nothing to stop the inevitable ravaging effects of cancer.

MonaVie Juice Scam And Lack of Healing Evidence

When I first read about the MonaVie juice miracle-cure-all* scam at I thought, 'yeah yeah, another scam...what's new?!'.

Until it hit the shores of Australia and makes the round in Sydney.

And then my own mum goes and buys 24 bottles of the stuff at $40 PER BOTTLE! You read it right...$40 for one bottle of fruit juice!

Forget about snake oil salesman, moving right along to the modern day snake juice salesman.
She is adamant that it is an amazing juice with amazing health properties because that is what she has been told at their seminars. That the juice was formulated by a doctor and the doctor who apparently formulated the juice was at the presentation. If it's formulated by a doctor, it's gotta have medicinal benefits right? Unfortunately not.

After all that I've written about scams and attempts to expose scams, it happens right in our own backyard. The irony.

Now I'm more concerned about my own mother ripping off her friends under the disillusion that the miracle juice has amazing health properties and that months later down the track, they'll all be angry, resentful and upset with her. (Like other victims around the world getting upset).

To prevent this from happening, I told her that if she must spruik the product(because she's been convinced at the seminar), don't sell it to them. Just tell them to go directly to the vendor and make up their own mind about whether they wish to try or not. When one makes a conscious decision to buy themselves, then when(there's no question of 'if') the dominos collapse, they made the call.

If you can't avoid the loss, at least try and minimise the loss and the fallout right?! Crikeys.

Maybe companies should be signing up to the MonaVie sales technique course in how to sell products.

With MonaVie's sales skills, they could sell sunshine to those living in the dessert and ice to the eskimos/Inuits.

Further Reading:

2. *

Saturday, June 16, 2012

I Trading Systems: Dodgy Or Not?

I Trading System (ITS)-Sports Betting Software For Horse Races

Got a super glossy brochure in the mail today from 'I Trading Systems' that is spruiking all the magical buzz words of the typical sport betting software. More and more red flags are raised when I skim through the brochure.

ITS claims that you can turn $1,000 of initial investment into profits of $78,934.24 in 18 months.

Sounds nice though doesn't it? I'd like to take my $100k and turn that into $7.8 million in 1.5 years but if that were possible with their extra-ordinary software claims, then why hasn't Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or Mark Zuckerberg invested into this amazing opportunity?! Why be only a billionaire when they could be gazillionaires in only 1.5 years? Why haven't the AFR or the WSJ or the Murdoch publications caught onto this fantastical investment deal?! Maybe I shouldn't write using sarcasm just incase I mislead someone out there. But everyone needs to ask themselves these questions when faced with these 'deals'.

As per the old adage...if it's too good to be true, it usually is.

Read into the fine print and you'll see that their pretty graph and their extra-ordinary claims have a little minor clause: "Each and every result was carefully simulated and recorded...Figures are extrapolations only and represent faithful statistical modeling of simulated results for applicable period." The software is so fantastical that they can't even give you the actual results and can only provide 'simulated' results based on 'extrapolations'.

If those figures are only simulated and extrapolated then why would they even bother throwing in the paragraph, "These figures are accurate and are guaranteed to be certified correct as released by official government endorsed agencies".

Such fancy talk but which 'official government endorsed agencies' bothered to check simulations? Anyone could sit there and churn out piles of simulated materials and pretty little graphs and who the heck from the government would care to check and verify if they've already clearly stated that the results are simulated? The ACCC and ASIC would hopefully pounce on anyone who tries to publish actual results which are false and misleading, but if the publisher or advertiser have clearly stated that the results are simulated, they couldn't care less.

Are they an authentic company? If you're an investor or wannabe investor, here's a checklist that you can follow if you get a tempting brochure or investment offer and wonder if the investment is authentic or a scam.

Scams sicken me. People work so hard to save up for their future. Trying to invest so that they can afford to send their children to school, support themselves in retirement and also support their ageing parents. Let's bankrupt these dodgy sellers and scamsters by stripping them of potential victims.

Investigating I Trading System

* "...passive, tax free income in the vicinity of $50,000-$60,000"
Buzzwords are used. "...passive, tax free" is always enticing and get investors salivating

* Glossy brochures saturated with good looking models on almost every single page indulging in leisure activities. You name it, they've pictured it: models posing on luxury yachts, couples golfing, island getaways, men in business suits, glossy column graphs (full of simulated numbers not indicative of actual trading), pretty women in convertibles, pretty women in bikinis, women holding multiple shopping bags...

* Letter has "Brisbane/New York/London/Paris/Tokyo" printed on the bottom but if they're based in five capital cities then why don't they have a huge internet presence? One simple looking shallow website without much depth. No press releases. No mention in the news. No history. If you're a business with offices in those five capital cities and serious about business then you'd at least have webpages for all offices. In multiple languages such French and Japanese

* While every single registered company operating in Australia has an ABN or ACN number which you can check out, I Trading System has a "BN" number. It was so slick I almost missed that. Never heard of a BN number. Dodgy dodgy dodgy. Ditching the 'ABN' acronym means "BN 221 382 86" is a useless and worthless number

* They mentioned 'The Australian Financial Review', Australia's most prestigious financial publication, out of context. I'd be impressed if the AFR gave them a glowing review and credited 'I Trading System' directly but if the AFR DID give them a positive review or endorsement, then they'd have published that on their website...but surprise surprise...that was nowhere to be found

* Using professional words and graphs without any substance. Graphs and figures were all 'simulated' and no actual performance figures were given. So value of the supplied graphs and figures=meaningless.

* Trying to target the vulnerable and those seeking high returns without any effort: "Self experience necessary... work from home or your own boss..."

* And the clincher type of urgent, hurry or you'll miss out type of compelling directive: "Please note that I Trading Systems cannot guarantee that you will be able to acquire the program at the time you receive this literature"

Searching the net for information out there, I stumbled across a few interesting sites.

A poor person who has been scammed by ITS which you can read about here to the tune of $4,400.

So to answer my original question that was posed, dodgy or not? Resoundingly YES for DODGY.

Further Reading:

1. here
2. SMG related post: United Kingdom Beware of Shipping Container Scams
3. SMG related post: Meet James Lovell: 31 Year Old Ponzi Scamster
4. SMG related post: How To Lose Your Life Savings (on Bernie Madoff and Roger Munro)
5. SMG related post. Original post on shipping container scams and how to identify scams in general

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Confronting Homelessness In Sydney

"$50 can feed ten people who are homeless, for a day in our Loaves & Fishes Free Restaurant". Quoted from 'The Exodus Foundation' run by Rev. Bill Crews
$10 to feed one person per day.

The Exodus Foundation is doing a wonderful job feeding homeless people in and around Sydney city. My cousin has seen their vans feeding many hungry homeless folks. She lives in Woolloomooloo, the harbourside suburb where the actor Russell Crowe, the singer Delta Goodrem and the radio man with the golden tonsils, John Laws own property. Woolloomooloo is also where a large number of homeless people like to congregate.

Maybe charity organisations need to make the heartbreaking decision of cutting the funds for food and saving some donated funds to buy real estate. Buying properties with beds or heated floors where they can sleep out of the cold and provide lockers so that they can store their possessions and can have toilets and showers to clean up if they desire. Be more mobile to go for job interviews and beable to search for food without lugging their possessions around.

Reading about homeless people and third world nations suffering absolute poverty always makes me feel so sad. An article in the Good Weekend, wrote about how families were stewing leaves to feed themselves because they had a poor harvest season and their food supply ran out before the next harvest. Imagine surviving on foraged leaves boiled in water, day in and day out.

How can we as a society, form a solution that is more longer lasting than simply trying to stay afloat by simply feeding the homeless daily?

Housing first.
Education next.
Employment after.

We can berate the government for not doing more for the homeless, but then the State Budget just handed down plans to axe up to 10,000 public service jobs across the next four years and that may be the cause of more homeless people. That means another 10,000 unemployed skilled individuals competing for jobs versus the potentially unskilled, homeless and unemployed folks.

So much easier to say, "Get a job" or "Do something useful" but how hard is it to survive in this tough world without literacy nor an education? Even basic literacy won't get many people far. Several years ago, this guy I once knew told me how he struggled to read and complete government and welfare forms. Luckily he signed up for a baking apprenticeship and now successfully runs his own bakery with his wife doing the paperwork.

Imagine if he was single, unemployed and didn't even know how to complete the welfare forms and was too embarrassed to seek help. If he was living on his own, his fate could have easily swung the other way and he could have even been one of the 'homeless' that are scorned by some.

There is so much food wastage around Sydney. Oz Harvest does a fabulous job of collecting the wastage(from what I've read!) but even on Masterchef, the cooking show on TV, the Sheraton Hotel dumped a tray of deliciously golden hash browns because they were 'overcooked' and also dumped a soggy batch of undercooked hash that would likely be welcomed by the homeless.

Not that I'm suggesting we feed homeless people inferior food but if I were homeless, I'd wolf down those hash browns that were so easily dumped into the bins. Oz Harvest already collects left over food so how bad can the leftovers be before someone who is homeless can afford to reject food?

Have you thought about your life and the 'what if' scenario of you and your family being homeless?

What would you do? How would you survive? How far would you go to survive and feed yourselves? Would you beg or be too proud? Which family or friend would you turn to for help before you end up on the street? What type of jobs would you be willing to accept if you were on the edge of being thrown out of your home due to unpaid mortgages or unpaid rent?

There isn't really much difference between a homeless person and a homeless cat, both of which I wrote about in the past. Both topics are depressing. The truth is depressing.

I recently read about a woman who smudged lipstick on her teeth on purpose. Her test was to see who would politely speak up and what people would do in uncomfortable, socially awkward situations. She had lunch with her friend who mentioned nothing about her red, lipstick smudged teeth. She went shopping and the service staff who served her all looked at the ground, looked away and didn't want to make any eye contact with her. Nor did any of them tell her that she had lipstick on her teeth. They were uncomfortable and discomforted.

Are people more inclined to look away and avoid socially awkward situation? Preferring to pretend that the homeless person sprawled out on that park bench and sitting lost and despondent by the train stations merely don't exist? Is that the type of society that we have evolved into?

What would you do if you saw someone who had either lipstick smudged on their teeth, their flys undone, their tag sticking out of their shirt, a piece of toilet paper hanging out the back of their pants, wore their shirt inside out or the buttons on their shirt buttoned up wrong? Would you look away whilst thinking, 'OMG so embarrassing' and hope that someone else tells the poor person or would you discreetly tell them? Just think about it...

SMG xx