Monday, May 28, 2007

diamonds are not this girl's best friend

I like diamonds as much as the next person: there's something about the way they sparkle that's unlike anything else I've ever seen. It's like wearing a star. As is often the case, however, beauty sometimes comes at a terrible price.

The diamond trade has never been a peaceful one, owing both to the environmental havoc caused by mining and to the tragic suffering experienced by populations who were virtually enslaved from the nineteenth century (if not earlier) to yank rocks out of the ground. In modern times, however, diamonds mined in Africa are often used to fuel bloody civil wars. Sierra Leone, Congo, Angola, and Liberia in particular continue to suffer from conflict fueled by diamond blood money: in these areas, the diamond trade is largely controlled by rebel groups that do not hesitate to attack, mutilate, and kill civilian populations.

Seven years ago, a number of South African countries with legitimate diamond trades banded together to establish a process to help take conflict diamonds out of the global marketplace. This initiative, known as the Kimberly Process, is designed to document and track diamonds upon entering a country that particpates in the process, with the the objective of establishing proof that the diamonds did not originate from areas where gemstones are used to fund war.

Not all countries participate in the Kimberly Process, so there's no guarantee that the diamonds you see at any given store originate from countries with legitimate diamond mining operations. There are ways to help determine a diamond's origin, though. The easiest is to simply refuse to buy a diamond of unknown provenance. Diamonds that are well-documented through the Kimberly Process (and by documentation, I don't mean a GIA valuation) have a much greater likelihood of being clean than diamonds that don't carry documentation of origin. In addition, Canada has established a voluntary code of conduct for diamonds originating in its mines. This code includes stringent requirements for documenting and tracing origin and actual markings on the stones themeselves to identify the diamond as being from a Canadian mine. This code is voluntary, so again, not all Canadian retailers participate. Nevertheless, finding a Canadian marking on your stone is a strong indicator that no one was murdered for it.

Setting aside trade initiatives, stop and think for a moment about the ads you see for diamonds: engagement rings, anniversary rings, necklaces, earrings, and now the newest entry into the marketplace, the "right-hand ring" for women who want the ring but don't have and may not want the fiance to go with it. Who sponsors those ad campaigns? Many, if not most, come from DeBeers, the largest diamond cartel in the world.

DeBeers is out to make money. Why let a corporation dictate acceptable ways of declaring love, prosperity, or whatever else diamonds are meant to represent? If diamonds are truly, honestly your thing, or if you're really entranced with the importance placed on them by tradition and DeBeers, then that's great: buy lots of clean diamonds! On the other hand, if your interest in diamonds is less an interest in the diamonds themselves than blind fulfilment of perceived social expectations, well, that's something else altogether, and there's room to question that. Why should people buy diamonds as an emblem of love simply because we've been conditioned to think that that's what we're supposed to do? Bringing it a little closer to home, how valid are what is perceived as society's expectations in the context of your own priorities, values, and personal financial goals?

If you want to ask these kinds of questions, diamonds are a good place to start.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

for whom the bell tolls

Every time I visit my parents, I'm thankful that they have a comfortable retirement. I wouldn't say they're rich but their burn rate is less than my dad's pension, so their money is actually growing instead of diminishing. They live in a really nice retirement community with step-up levels of care as they need it (getting them to accept it is another matter entirely), and before they hit their eighties and concomitant health problems, they spent their retirement traveling around the world. Their health problems are serious and increasing in number, but my parents have a really good insurance plan and more than enough money to cover medication, doctor's visit, and hospitalization co-pays.

I suspect they're more fortunate than most.

I tried to dig up some recent statistics on poverty among the elderly, but the interweb pretty much let me down. According to this site, though, the number of senior citizens is poised to explode as more baby boomers start retiring. How prepared are they for retirement? It's hard to tell, but on a couple of different sites I saw statements indicating that currently one in ten elderly Americans lives in poverty, with poverty concentrated among women (not surprising, given that women still outlive men on average) and senior citizens who live alone. The site linked above notes that health care costs for seniors have tripled in less than ten years, and that seniors spend 11% of their total expenditures on health, compared to 5% for the population as a whole. A few months ago, I heard on NPR that the current conventional wisdom is that people who retire today should have $200,000 earmarked just for health-related expenses.

Remember, corporate and even some gubmint pensions are largely a thing of the past, so most of us are pretty much on our own when it comes to retirement.

How prepared are you?

Saving for retirement early on is more important now that it has ever been. The magic of compound interest means that a dollar saved today and allowed to compound for thirty years at eight percent will give you ten bucks. (Woohoo! Ten bucks! Stay with me for a minute.) Start saving ten years later, though, and eight percent interest will only give you four dollars instead of ten. Multiply that first dollar by an order of magnitude of a few hundred to a few thousand year on year and you'll quickly see that by delaying saving for your retirement, you'll take a large and painful hit in the pocketbook. That could mean postponing your retirement, having less to leave your heirs (if that's your thing; personally, I'm blowing it all), and/or having to live a less-than-ideal lifestyle in your retirement.

That's just taking your savings plan into account. When you consider external factors like tax laws, the picture gets uglier. Look at the current administration: we're pouring billions into the Middle East, and what's happened to taxes in recent years? The burden has increasingly shifted to the middle class, but overall taxes have gone down. Social Security is paid through current payroll taxes. With the retirement tidal wave preparing to hit, what do you think is going to happen to your taxes? I think they're going to go up and most of us are going to feel the pain for decades. How will paying more taxes impact your ability to plan for retirement? I'm kind of betting that it's not going to help.

In short, what I'm saying is to save early, save often, and keep on doing it until you hit your own golden years. They're not as far off as you think.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

--John Donne, 1624

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

homeward bound

I'm in the gate at Portland International Airport in the Rose City, home of free wi-fi. It's a red-eye flight but I'm R and R-ed and looking forward to sharing with you some of the fine frugal thoughts I've had in the course of the week.

The really great news is that unless I seriously piss off my firm's global CIO in the next few weeks, I'm within striking distance of a very large promotion at work.

Oh yeah, people. Here's to not pissing off the brass in the meantime.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

vacation

I'm off to the West Coast for a week with family and away from technology. There may or may not be an update in the interim. If not, enjoy your week. I plan to.

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lust for shoes

I don't fall prey to wanting something someone else has very often, but on Wednesday it hit me like a freight train. I was at a very boring meeting of one of the many committtees associated with my running group, and a friend I haven't seen in a while walked in. She has outstanding fashion sense, and as always I admired the elan with which she had put together a great-looking outfit from a variety of things that I probably wouldn't expect to go together.

Then, I looked at her shoes, and that covetous feeling hit me.

I wanted those shoes.

They were deep burgundy in color, with a high heel and a strap across the top, and I wanted them so badly I could almost taste it.

Whenever I have really strong feelings about something, I try to take a step back to see if I can figure out where those feelings come from and why they're so powerful. To that end, later that night I thought about why I wanted someone else's shoes so much. I came up with a few navel-gazing reasons:

They're pretty. Duh. That's an easy one.

I haven't bought clothes of any kind in a while. This is the result of a challenge I set for myself: I'm not much of a clothes horse anyway, but I decided last year that I'd try to make it through all of 2007 without buying any new clothes. I have to make an exception for pajamas since all of mine ripped, but so far it's mid-May and I've stuck to the plan. It's been really eye-opening in terms of learning to make do with what I have but I'm getting a little tired of what I have and some things are genuinely starting to wear out, work shoes in particular. In other words, temptation is developing.

I like them on my friend. My friend is really beautiful, and I think there's an element of maybe it'll rub off on me at play.

They're different. My shoes are like Henry Ford's color scheme for cars: Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black There is almost no thought required for black shoes, so that's all I've worn for years. Burgundy is different in kind of a nice way.

I'm prone to shoe fixations anyway. Runners' feet are nothing to shout about and in fact, it's usually best to keep them covered, but my feet are small (size 6) and I've never met a woman's shoe that didn't work well with small feet. Price notwithstanding, I find shoe-shopping easy and angst-free, unlike shopping for pretty much any other kind of attire.

The funny thing is, as soon as I went through this exercise of figuring out why I wanted the shoes. . . well, I didn't want them anymore.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: there's no substitute for critical thinking.

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Saturday, May 5, 2007

missing in action

Err, sorry about that. Vegas was even more hectic than I expected. I ended up getting up at 4:30 every morning because that was the only time I could exercise. After that, I had to put out email fires and meet the bossman for breakfast no later than 7:00. Sessions went till 5:30 p.m., and then I had to go to networking events that lasted until 9:00 or later and hit the email again after that. Having no personal expenses outside of the blasted mousse made for a frugal week, though it hardly makes up for a major flight delay, being sat on for five hours by the large passenger next to me, and arriving back home at 2:00 a.m. with a 7:00 a.m. conference call on my calendar.

I'm just saying.

Last week was also busy, both because of ongoing work catch-up, friends catch-up, and, well, a little bit of a dating situation. It started before the Vegas jaunt, a nice European gent who happens to agree with my views on dating. The only problem is that he's a senior colleague, a peer of the bossman.

This has the potential to get all kinds of ugly, doesn't it?

I put it right out on the table that I'm not willing to throw my job in the dumper for something I have the heebie-jeebies about in the first place, even though we're not violating any HR policies. As a result, we have a gentlemen's agreement not to rush into anything and to keep it on the down low at work. Nothing changes professionally except that the gent is recusing himself from commenting on my job performance during the annual review cycle.

Hoping to be back in the blogworld saddle in the next day or so.

In the meantime, how YOU doin'?

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

another one bites the dust

Another mortgage payment gone.

Eighteen months left. Keep the faith.

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