Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Why The Heck Do We Keep Watching the Olympics?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 50 - tiebreaker

It just doesn’t make sense. I’m not really a big sports fan at all. I mean, I’ll watch the occasional baseball or football game, and about the only sports I play are on a Nintendo Wii. So why have I logged over 20 hours of Olympic watching in the last 10 days?

An even better question: why are the rest of you watching so many Olympic events with me? The rest of the year, I bet 75% of you run out of the room screaming at the sight of a sporting event on your television. And I know that virtually all of you would never dream of spending even 10 minutes watching sports like rowing or synchronized diving or rhythmic gymnastics if they didn’t have the word “Olympic” prepended to their names.

And the sporting events that Americans actually watch outside of the Olympics? They’re barely mentioned at the Summer Games. Baseball is just an afterthought as the American team is composed of minor-league wannabes filling in for major leaguers who wouldn’t dare leave their teams for weeks or even months in the middle of real American baseball season. Basketball gets some decent Olympic coverage—but America stopped caring about professional basketball about 15 years ago. And football? Yeah, that’s what the rest of the world calls soccer, so don’t expect to see touchdowns and two-point conversions at any Olympics on this planet.

So if we don’t watch fencing and beach volleyball and table tennis the other 1446 days of every four years, why are we suddenly glued to our TV tubes for two straight weeks to watch these bizarre sports, most of which America sucks at? I’ll tell you why (and finally tie this article into something money-related, lest I waste my once-a-year off-topic permit): the Olympics are an escape from the financial woes of our everyday lives.

Most people will probably admit that the Olympics provide a nice diversion from normalcy. After all, the Summer Games only happen every four years, so the Olympics are something special—not just some ho-hum boring annual event. But notice that I said the Olympics provide an escape specifically from financial woes. How am I drawing such a conclusion? Well, how else do you explain why we watch 16-year-old girls in skin-tight outfits swinging around on bars and dancing on balance beams only once every four years? Am I still not making sense? Okay, let’s look at it this way:

  • The Olympic games are the most expensive sporting spectacles ever. Putting together a venue for the Olympic games is an expensive proposition. It’s estimated that China spent 12 yuan (approximately $293 gazillion U.S. dollars) to put together the Beijing games. Poor people like us, for some crazy reason, enjoy watching countries spend a ton of money on temporary things. In a few more days, nobody’s going to give a damn about the Beijing Water Cube or Bird’s Nest or Ping Pong Castle. Maybe we just feel good knowing that we use our personal money for more practical things like inflatable furniture and high-definition mailboxes.
  • Most Olympic athletes are, and forever shall be, poorer than us. Except for the gold-medal winners of the big sports who are pretty much guaranteed cushy endorsement deals, 99% of the athletes you see at the Olympic games are dirt poor. Heck, most of the American Olympians are probably making less money than your typical four-year degree-holder. So yes, that guy from Botswana can run 100 meters while you’re still saying “100 meters,” but at least you have food on your table every night.
  • Gold medals are shiny. Forget that many of these Olympic sports have National and World Championships that also award gold medals to top finishers. There’s something about the phrase “Olympic gold” that consistently pulls in those TV viewers. Perhaps if we awarded big hunks of precious metals to doctors, police officers, and sanitation workers, people might start caring about them a little more.
  • The Olympics are a free vacation away from garbage TV programs. While technically the Olympics are reality television, it’s leaps and bounds above the other reality television NBC has to offer (except American Gladiators which is awesome so shut up). Sure, we could do something crazy like turn off the TV and go outside, but why would we want to do that when we can get over 400 different Olympic events beamed halfway across the universe into our living rooms for cheap or free.
  • If you don’t watch the Olympics, you’re a Communist. The U.S. has so successfully commercialized the 2008 Beijing Olympic games—despite the fact that they’re being held in the most Communist country left today—that not tuning in and watching the Nike and United Airlines commercials would be like giving away your constitutional right to sit on your ass and watch other people exercise competitively. The Chinese are already trouncing us in the gold medal standings; you don’t want them to come over here and force their economic growth and prosperity on us, do you?

Essentially the Olympics become much less about the sport and far more about the spectacle—the super-expensive, gold-plated, sponsor-supported spectacle. I don’t know about you, but my wallet feels a little bit heavier just watching a few rounds of women’s floor exercises… well, at least until I start shelling out for assorted Shawn Johnson merchandise.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Helping Your Wallet Survive a Science Fiction Convention

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 29 - sci-fi convention

I’m writing this article at a time and place where I never imagined I’d possibly write an article: from a sci-fi convention at four in the morning. The reasons why I’m here and awake at this stupid late hour are not important, but as I’m going through receipts and bar tabs and other bills that will come due over the next 48 hours, I can’t help but notice that these things cost a helluva lot of money. Here’s just a small sample of what we’ve spent money on here in the last few days:

  • Lodging. We are definitely learning to appreciate the value of sleep this weekend as we’re staffing the night shift of Convention Security/Operations. We’ve been sleeping 8am till 2pm for the last few days on a delightfully comfy bed—but the room costs $150 a night.
  • Food. We have tons of free food options (more on that later) but we’ve found ourselves paying for plenty of meals with friends too.
  • Drinks. Uh, yeah. I’ve had a drink or two this weekend. Okay, 42 of them.
  • Toys. These sci-fi cons come with big merchant rooms selling everything from books to props to jewelry to costumes to inflatable alien punchbags. Fortunately I’m actually not that into most sci-fi stuff (except for the occasional Trek foray), so our spending is usually light in this area.
  • Arts and crafts and auction prizes. We do, however, tend to go a little overboard in this area. Tonight was a charity auction that gave away all sorts of stuff I don’t need, except for a signed copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which I do need. Tomorrow’s the art auction; not sure how much damage that’ll do to me.
  • Registration for other conventions. Most sci-fi conventions will set up a table at other conventions to draw attendees looking to hit multiple cons each year. While we didn’t have to pay to attend this convention since we’re staff, we’ve been dangerously close to being convinced to attend some other area sci-fi cons for which we would need to pay to attend. But then we remember that we’re not really science fiction fans and that we’re just helping out at this convention as favors to friends from other conventions.

You’re probably thinking that a sci-fi dork can really rack up quite a bill from a four-day convention like this one. And you’re absolutely right. I’m sure there are people at this convention who are spending thousands of dollars just to be here and take home some junk. But not us. In the end, we’re probably going to walk away from this weekend just spending a few hundred dollars, almost all of it in those last two categories of discretionary spending listed above. Here’s how we’re saving tons of money at this and other similar sci-fi/fantasy/anime/whatever conventions while Joe Nerdboy is devoting all $6.25 an hour of his job at the video rental store to coming here.

  1. Work for the convention. This is, by far, the biggest money saver. Yes, this means you’re not at the convention just for fun, but most conventions aren’t going to be fun 24/7 anyway. After a while, you’re likely to get a little bored even if they’re showing all six Star Wars movies dubbed in Wookiee. Why not take some of that downtime and help keep the convention running. Full-time staffers like us generally put in six or more hours each day (except for a select few positions which are always on duty) and have the rest of the time to enjoy the convention, hotel amenities, and other area attractions. As a staff member, you’ll generally get free or discounted lodging, free or discounted meals, free admission, and maybe even an exclusive party or two.
  2. …Or volunteer. If being on the staff of a convention isn’t your cup of tea, Earl Grey, hot, then you can still reap some of the benefits by volunteering a few hours of your time helping out with odd jobs. I generally prefer to staff rather than volunteer, but both do have their perks.
  3. Follow the convention “chain.” Several conventions in the same geographic region may, in fact, be run by the same groups of people. For example, a lot of the people who staff this sci-fi convention also run the biggest D.C. area Japanese animation and culture convention. And if you’re a particularly helpful or distinguished staffer at one of them, you’re often treated to lots of free drinks or even meals by grateful folks at the next convention. Those 42 drinks I’ve had this weekend? I’ve only paid for two of them (though I’ve bought a few rounds for other folks too).
  4. Stay out of the merchant’s room. Even if you know that authentic Klingon bat’leth offered in the merchant’s room for $250 can be had on the internet for $175, you’re still going to be sorely tempted to pick it up at the convention because (1) you can show it off to your geeky friends, and (2) it’ll go great with the full ceremonial garb you’re wearing. So do your pocket book a favor and avoid the merchant’s room altogether.
  5. Bring food and drink. If you’re not willing to staff or even volunteer at a convention, be sure to bring lots of your own stuff to eat and drink. Hotel food is always pricey, and even eating out off site can set you back heavily. You can easily save a couple hundred bucks by packing your own snacks, nutritional staples, and alcohol. Yes, you will drink at the convention, so you might as well do it as cheaply as possible.
  6. Make lots of friends. Some people survive entire conventions feeding only at the inevitable room parties that pop up each night. Be social during the day so you get lots of invites to night-time get-togethers.
  7. Leave most of your credit cards at home. Just bring one with a credit line big enough to pay for your hotel bill and any other minor expenses you may occur, but not much more. This way there’s no way you can take home that $8,000 1:50 scale model of the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind if you lose your monetary senses.

Of course, the biggest cost of all attending a science fiction convention is to your social status. Having never attended a true sci-fi con before this weekend, we were at least at the level of dork. Now we’ve been demoted to geek status, but at least we’re not leaving here with a massive black hole in our bank account.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Making the Most of Your Money at Summer Movie Blockbusters

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 20 - movie theater

It’s looking to be a big big summer at the box office this year. Tons of highly-awaited movies are coming soon to a theater near you—movies like Old Guy With a Funny Hat, Old Woman Looking to Get Some, and Kids in a Crazy Magic World. With so many great films, and with ticket prices approaching the price of a semester of Harvard tuition, it won’t be easy to choose which ones will get your hard-earned entertainment dollars. Use this guide to help you maximize the bang you get for your movie buck this summer.

  1. Catch a matinée. Do you really need to see that movie at 9 o’clock at night? Here’s a tip: they show the same movie at 2 in the afternoon, and the ticket prices are usually a good deal cheaper. Some theaters have matinée showings that start as late as 4pm so you can catch a flick and still be able to spend your $100 for overpriced restaurant food.
  2. Check for discounts and special offers. You might be able to shave a buck or two off the regular ticket price by presenting your AAA or other association membership cards. Also look in the back of Entertainment Books (on sale for as little as $5 now) for coupons that’ll knock a few dollars off even full-price admissions. Be sure to read all of the fine print with any discount offer as some promotions can’t be used for new releases.
  3. Go for the dinner/movie package deal. Some restaurants close to movie theaters will offer discounted tickets with a meal purchase. If you were planning to dine out anyway, you might as well take advantage of these offers. Just make sure you’re not walking into a super-pricey restaurant.
  4. Don’t order tickets online. Yeah, it might seem like a smart idea to order your tickets over the internet and print them out at home or have them waiting for you at the theater, but there’s usually a fee that’ll tack an extra 10-20% on to your ticket price for ordering them online. Unless you’re worried that a hot show is going to sell out before you get to the box office, don’t pay extra for a pseudo-convenience.
  5. Sign up for movie rewards. Just about every major theater chain has a reward program that’ll give you something like a free small popcorn after you see 37 movies. It’s not much, but there’s no need to leave free stuff on the table.
  6. Skip the popcorn. Seriously, why are there not laws against five bucks for ten pieces of popcorn? And what sadistic jerk thinks that selling a 50-cent package of M&Ms for four dollars is okay? With prices like that, you have a duty to sneak your own snacks into the movie. Just be careful where you hide them since some movie houses now search bags for hidden video cameras. (Personally, I find that strapping some Skittles to my wife’s upper thigh is a smart and sexy way to enjoy a treat at the movies.)
  7. Look for second-run theaters. They’re hard to find nowadays, but these hidden gems can save you big bucks and still let you catch newer movies in theaters before they come out on DVD. Ticket prices start from just a dollar or two, so it’s worth it if you don’t mind waiting until everyone else has stopped talking about the movie to see it.
  8. Don’t buy into the hype. You’re not going to die if you don’t see Spiderman 12 and Harry Potter and the Sandwich of Magnanimity in theaters. For less than the price of just two theater tickets, you’ll be able to buy the DVD when it comes out. Or you could rent it for much less than that. Or you could just give the movie industry the finger until it decides to stop cranking out sequel after lame sequel, which will be never.

Now you can go see that horrendous insult to a classic anime series or whatever crap DreamWorks’ computers spit out this year and still have enough money left over to build that flying robot suit you’ve always wanted.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How to Buy Four Nintendo Wii Systems In Just Four Weeks, Finale

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it turns blue when i push the power button

Last Time: Epic Battle

January 30, 2008, 8:30a.m.

Only 24 hours remained until my deadline for finding those last three Wii systems. After that, the anime convention I worked for would have to rent them instead—at nearly full retail price for just one week’s rental period. I was determined not to let that happen, but the single Wii I had procured so far simply sat in the corner of my living room and laughed at me.

“What the matter, Nick?” said the Wii. “Can’t find me any friends? Why don’t you give up and go back to playing with your own Wii? Loser!”

As tempted as I was to throw that Wii through a window, I realized that would have set my count back at zero once again. Instead, I decided it was time to kick the search into high gear.

January 30, 2008, 10:30a.m.

Two hours later, I had finished programming the numbers for every EBGames, GameStop, Best Buy, Circuit City, and every other potential sellers of Wii into my phone. I programmed them in order of distance from my home, out to a radius of 12 miles. I even put together a cute little map with push-pins and concentric circles that would cause any stranger on the street to think I was hunting down a serial killer. In a way, I was; only the killer was not one of people but one of every second of my free time.

I started a round of phone calls after a quick lunch break. I got about halfway through the list with no success when suddenly I started getting answers like “Yup, we’ve got one in stock” or “We have a few left.” In fact, I received three such answers. I could get this quest done today with a little luck.

I managed to convince each of the three stores to hold one Wii system for an hour in my name, but it wasn’t until I consulted the push-pin map that I realized it would take me 52 minutes just to drive between all of them. I realized I needed some help, so I whipped out my little black book and started calling people who owed me favors over the years. About 10 minutes later, I realized I had been using the Yellow Pages section for “chiropractors” instead of my little black book, but my posture had improved 20% just from speaking with them.

Realizing I was on my own for this one, I ran to the car and set course for the nearest store.

January 30, 2008, 12:15p.m.

Picking up the first two Wii systems was rather anti-climactic, unless you consider the armed robbery taking place at the first one and the unexpected crossover with the cast of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit to be climactic. Regardless, I had Wii systems #2 and #3, and the only store left in the area with one in stock was at a shopping mall just one traffic light away.

As I entered the mall parking lot, I was faced with turning left—a route I was vaguely familiar with from the single time I had been to this mall—or going right. Choosing familiarity over my gut instinct, I went left and parked in front of a JCPenney department store. As I madly dashed through the first floor’s maternity section, I glanced at my watch and calculated that my hour-long hold time would expire in seven minutes. “Plenty of time,” I said aloud.

Inside the mall proper, I located a directory map to confirm my suspected location of the mall’s videogame store as one level directly above my current location. I found the “You Are Here” sticker immediately, and the map listing for the game store under the “Entertainment” category placed it in location D5. I was right—D5 was one level up from me… on the far end of the mall.

With six minutes left, I began to calculate just how long it would take me to climb the stares and run the entire length of the mall. Since the map had no scale, I had to extrapolate one by estimating the size of the nearby Hallmark storefront and comparing it to the store’s representation on the map. By my estimate, the Hallmark store measured 25 feet while its picture was an inch. The “You Are Here” and “D5″ looked to be about 34 inches apart, so that meant I’d have about 850 feet (plus the height of the stairs) to travel. I guessed that I could run 500 feet a minute, but when I glanced at my watch and realized I had spent the last five minutes and 50 seconds doing math, I determined that I would need to average a distance of 850 feet in ten seconds to make in there on time.

So I did that (more or less) and threw myself onto the counter of the videogame store in D5. Out of breath and unable to spout even a single word to help the clerk identify my purpose, I simply motioned toward my crotch.

“Oh!” he exclaimed. “You want a Wii. Yeah, we have plenty left.”

“I’m… huff… sorry?”

“Yeah, we got a shipment of 30 today and only sold two of them so far. How many do you want?”

Epilogue

After that day, the Wii became much easier to find. While that store in the mall sold all 30 of its units by that evening, Amazon.com finally had them back in stock shortly after. The anime convention’s treasurer kindly informed me that he saw plenty of them in stock at a Wal-Mart the following week, but he was unable to find even one Xbox 360 due to new supply problems from Microsoft.

As for me, I haven’t played 10 seconds of any videogames whatsoever since the ordeal ended. But now that this story has been told, I think I’ll be able to get back to playing with my Wii sometime soon.

And if you want a dirty joke out of that last line, you’re out of luck because I’m giving up on the Wii puns (and the big puns too).

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

How to Buy Four Nintendo Wii Systems In Just Four Weeks, Part 4

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

you will have a ball with this next part of the saga

Last Time: Shading Dealings

January 18, 2008

It seems my internetting diligence has finally paid off; word on the e-street is that GameStop is getting another shipment of Wii systems today. Some stores will receive as few as three units, while others may get 15 or more. I wake up early to start calling stores, but these efforts prove futile as GameStop’s Wii shipments come via UPS during the day. I’m tempted to set up an automated dialer to call every GameStop in the area with the following recorded message:

Hi, you’re being called by Nick, a guy who really needs three more Nintendo Wii systems by the end of the month. If your store currently has a Wii in stock, please press 1. Otherwise, please stay on the line until you have one.

Fortunately I don’t need to go that far because a mid-morning call to a GameStop just two miles away reveals that they’ve just received a shipment… of three.

January 18, 2008, 11:25 a.m.

Telling my boss that I needed to sneak out for an hour to “take a Wii” probably confused him enough that he won’t even realize I’m gone. It only takes me 10 minutes to get to the GameStop after I find out they have Wii units in stock. Unfortunately the store refused to hold one for me for even 15 minutes, but I’m sure my town doesn’t mind me testing out its new red-light and speed cameras as much as I did to get here.

I dash from my parking spot into the GameStop, narrowly avoiding a collision with a grocery delivery truck (luckily it was parked, so I had the advantage). I run up to the counter, catch the eye of the mid-20s clerk, and ask, “Do you have any Wii systems in stock?” I wince as I hear what I hope is the echo of my own voice, but alas it is another customer asking the same question at the same time. I turn and see a gorgeous young Japanese woman in a short white dress (it’s 40 degrees outside) opening her sequined purse.

Miss Hottie Japanese Girl: I’ll give you 20 dollars above retail for it.
Me: Wha? Huh? Abup…
Mr. GameStop Clerk: Sorry, we can’t sell it above retail price.
Miss Hottie Japanese Girl: Then how will you decide who gets it?

Crap, I think to myself. A mid-20s guy has to pick between pleasing another mid-20s guy or an extremely attractive girl in a slinky outfit. I get ready to walk out the door.

Mr. GameStop Clerk: Well, I suppose we could have a contest.
Me: A contest?
Mr. GameStop Clerk: Yeah, to see who wants it more.
Miss Hottie Japanese Girl: What sort of contest?
Mr. GameStop Clerk: Well, how about…

…the most massive one-on-one videogaming tournament you’ve ever seen, featuring a trip through gaming history with 23 stops along the way! First we’ll travel back to 1986 where you will each play through the Sega Master System’s Fantasy Zone to completion, with 65 points being awarded to the highest scorer. Then we’ll move on to a grueling six-hour Duck Hunt marathon on the NES, followed by a best-of-30 Mortal Kombat tournament for the ages! And then…

Me: How about we just play best-of-five Wii Tennis on the display over there?
Miss Hottie Japanese Girl: Okay!

January 18, 2008, 11:55 a.m.

Before long, the Wii Tennis match between me and the really hot Japanese girl is tied at two games apiece, and I currently have the advantage in the final game. All I need to do is slam this next serve into her court and that Wii is mine!

I flick the Wii remote above my head and time it perfectly so I hit her with a power serve. But as I’m about to bring the remote down, my cell phone rings, throwing off my timing and giving her a serve she easily returns in my back court. Now we’re at Deuce #3.

I answer my phone. It’s my boss.

Mr. Boss: Er, um, Nick, what exactly did you mean by “taking a Wii?” You know our company has a strict policy against sexual encounters during work hours, homosexual or otherwise.
Me: Oh, uh. Sorry, Boss. Don’t worry, it’s nothing like that.
Miss Hottie Japanese Girl: Will you hurry up? I want that Wii already!
Me: Shhh!
Mr. Boss: Uh… if you say so. I hope she’s pretty at least!
Me: Yeah, she i—er, I mean… I’ll be back in 20 minutes. *click*

I turn to my opponent and glare.

Me: You’re going down, missie.
Miss Hottie Japanese Girl: Tee hee. I haven’t even used my secret weapon yet!

About five minutes and six more deuces later, she has the advantage. I suspect I’m finally starting to wear her down, but I need to be careful because I’m just one point away from losing. I lean back, flick the Wii remote in the air, and smash a power serve her way. She sees it coming but barely manages to return it. The ball floats gently toward me. I see an opening and get ready to send it there. Then suddenly…

Miss Hottie Japanese Girl: Oh no! My dress has fallen off!

I try not to lose my concentration, but my opponent has found my one weakness. Instead of timing my return perfectly, I end up spinning around, tripping over my own feet, and stumbling head-first into a nearby shelf.

Mr. GameStop Clerk: The winner is… Miss Hottie Japanese Girl!
Miss Hottie Japanese Girl: I win! I win!
Me: That’s so cheating! You weren’t even naked!
Miss Hottie Japanese Girl: Ha, you wish. Now where’s my Wii?
Mr. GameStop Clerk: Coming right up!

I follow the Japanese girl to the counter, hoping the clerk will find a second Wii miraculously while searching for hers. Instead…

Mr. GameStop Clerk: Hey, where’s the Wii I had up here?
Mr. GameStop Assistant Clerk: You mean the one I sold to that kid 10 minutes ago?
Me and Miss Hottie Japanese Girl and Mr. GameStop Clerk: You WHAT???
Mr. GameStop Assistant Clerk: Yeah, he came in and picked it up while you all were over at the Wii station.

I laugh to myself a little bit, disappointed that today would be another Wii-less day, but satisfied that my new arch-nemesis would be walking away empty-handed too. Speaking of her, she glares violently at the clerk who’s been serving us, walks toward the door, but turns around before leaving and glares at him again.

Miss Hottie Japanese Girl: And I was going to sleep with you if I got that Wii!
Mr. GameStop Clerk: Oh wait, I just remembered we have another one in the back. Why don’t you follow me… back there… and we can look for it together?
Miss Hottie Japanese Girl: Tee hee! Sure!

And so off they go to the back room. I look at the assistant clerk.

Mr. GameStop Assistant Clerk: You’re gonna blog about this, aren’t you?
Me: You betcha. But instead of writing about how it really ended—with me getting here five minutes after the last Wii sold out—I’m gonna make up a more entertaining story involving a hot Japanese girl and an epic Wii Tennis tournament.
Mr. GameStop Assistant Clerk: You must not get very many readers.
Me: I bet I will after today!

Next Time: Wii #2 At Last!