Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Miniature Flashlight for Everyone

A couple years ago, my dad gave me one of these lights. It's less than 4" long, and thinner than a pencil. It quickly turned into the most useful small light I've ever had. I was struck by how bright it was for its size. I used it often, at home and work, to find my way around the house at night, to examine the insides of computers, see how to plug in cables on the back (they always seem to be in dark places), etc.

Then one day I lost it. I was very bummed out. So I searched the Web, for hours on end, for wording like "LED flashlight" or "LED mini flashlight," but never could find it.

Finally I had the bright idea of asking Dad where he got it. (Sometimes the best solutions are low tech!) He told me a particular sporting goods chain, whose name I've forgotten already. But I found it on their site (their own branded version). They called it a "torch" instead of a flashlight. No wonder I couldn't find it. I've never before heard a flashlight called a torch. (Is that a British usage or something?)

Anyway, I then realized Amazon might have the original manufacturer's version at a better price. Sure enough, after searching for something like "LED mini torch" I found it! Anyway, it's made by Coast Cutlery, and at last I have gotten my replacement. It will live in my shirt pocket forever.

It has replaceable batteries, but the LED uses so little power you won't be worrying about that for a good long time. If it appears to be on the dim side, use a voltmeter to check the battery voltages.

And of course this light is really "light" -- a must for backpackers.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

October is Tax Time

I knew a guy who sold his business at a big profit. A few months later (the following year) he was pretty upset. He had so much capital gains from the sale, that it threw him into owing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). Normally long-term capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than ordinary income, but he lost much of that tax benefit.

To make matters worse, he said he had some stock that had gone down. If he had sold that stock before the end of the prior year, and taken the loss, it would have offset a lot of the profits from his business, and avoided the AMT! As I said, he was pretty upset that he had missed that opportunity. Selling the stock later would still get him a deduction, but it wouldn't be worth nearly as much. He had paid a lot more taxes than he should have, and there was no chance of getting it back.

Another guy in the same conversation, who was an accountant, then said words I'll never forget:

"A lot of people think April is tax time. They're wrong. October is tax time."

"That's when you need to take stock of what your tax situation is going to look like, and take steps to solve any problems before year-end, while you still have a chance."

There you have it. October is right now, so get to it.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Saving Money On Tires: What's the catch?

This is the continuation of my earlier post on tires. They were intended to be consecutive, but there were a couple of entries in between, that I posted in response to events.

If you use a different size tire than the vehicle's original equipment, there is a catch. However the effect is small.

A smaller tire means the wheel it has to turn faster to go the same speed, which means slightly more wear & tear on all the moving parts, up to and including the engine. And since the RPMs are higher, your gas mileage will be a bit less. The speedometer will read a little too high, and your odometer turns a bit faster. It's like driving in a slightly lower gear, so you also get a bit more power going up hills.

Of course if you get bigger tires, everything is reversed. In particular, note that the speedometer will read a little too low, and you'll need to back off on the pedal a bit to keep from getting a ticket. (This happened to someone I know.)

Again, the effect is small -- but all in all, if I had it to do again, I probably would have tried to get the next larger size tire, rather than the next smaller size.

The tire sales rep told me the speedometer should be off by less than 1 MPH. In my tests it looks more like 2 MPH. And you definitely need to test it. (You should test your speedometer anyway, but especially after getting any new tires.) Just get out on the highway and watch the mile markers. Time how many seconds it takes to go one mile, and divide that into 3,600 to get MPH.

For example, if it takes you 52 seconds to go the mile, then your speed is 3,600 / 52 = 69.2 MPH.

If you don't have a companion to wield a calculator while you're driving, the alternative is to keep adjusting your speed until it takes one minute for the mile. Then you're going 60 MPH, and just compare your speedometer to see how far off it is.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Covering All Shorts in Oil Stocks -- But Not Buying

The carnage in crude oil, and energy stocks, looks to be finished -- at least for the time being. Both the daily and hourly charts seem to point to a recovery bounce, so I have closed out all short positions and put options in oil stocks.

However, the bounce could be fleeting, and prices could easily revisit their recent lows, so this is not the time to jump in buying with both feet. In fact, that time may not come again for an extended period. The newsletters I follow have either already sold, or will sell on this October bounce, somewhere between about 50% and 80% of their energy stocks. The "oil boom" of the past three to four years appears to be over.

Yes, oil prices will rise again, but oil & energy stocks should no longer be a big part of your portfolio. (If they were, you have been feeling a lot of pain since May.) Diversify into other areas.

The smaller company stocks have been leading the market for years, but it looks like that's changing. The big companies are now dominating and probably will for a good while. These things go in cycles.

In an earlier post I said high tech was going to be good. That still might be true, but it doesn't necessarily mean small companies. There are plenty of large tech companies also.

You will want to concentrate on investments that do well in a slowing economy. That's another reason to cut way down on energy stocks -- as the economy slows, we use less energy, thereby putting downward pressure on prices. And if China's economy slows also, the effect is multiplied.