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Friday
May272011

The Refectory

Sometime in the 1997-98 time frame, I had a business trip that took me through Columbus solo.  Actually, I think it may have taken me into Cincinatti, but I rented a car and came to check out Columbus.  J had been working for Battelle in Richland, Washington for a couple of years, and we envisioned that one day we might have to relocate to Columbus as that was where the Battelle mothership was docked (how prescient we were!). I was working for Foster Wheeler at the time, but having to do a lot of travel between Richland, Los Alamos, Atlanta, and New Jersey, and for some reason had the extra layover and time to check out the city.

I don't remember much about that review, except for having dinner at this one restaurant that had taken over an old church.  For years, I couldn't even remember the name of it, but a few months ago--when we learned that we would possibly be living here in Columbus temporarily--I had a discussion with a Columbite who clued me that the name of the place was The Refectory, a modern French restaurant in NW Ohio on Bethel Road.

As a thank you to the lady who watched over Klia while we were away, we hosted a dinner party there, and it fairly well lived up to my memory. The wine selection was great (we had an Oregon Pinot Noir and then a Cabernet Sauvignon from Walla Walla, Washington), the food was elegantly presented and tasty, and the service was outstanding.  Here's some views of the food, from when I remembered to bring the camera out:

Baked Goat CheeseDuet of Sole and SalmonAntelope

To top it off, the rest of the party ordered from the dessert menu, but I went for the liquid refreshment: a flight of three different Glenmorangie scotches:

A Flight of Glenmorangie

The Refectory is definitely on the high end of the cost range for dining in Columbus, so I can't see us making it a habit.  The food was also quite rich.  I had the antelope, which I described to my table companions as tasting like a cross between deer and duck in that it had the consistency of the former and the richness of the latter. However, they do have a lot of special events, including wine tastings, and since we need a refresher course on California wines (I tend to order Pacific Northwest wines, as those are the ones I know), I suspect we'll be back.

Thursday
May262011

A Moment of Weakness

Saw this ready-made margarita in a bottle branded Skinny Girl in the local grocery and bought it on a whim.  I like a good margarita, but since we are in temporary housing, I'm not ready to purchase both a bottle of tequila and a bottle of triple sec, not to mention having to squeeze the limes without a citrus juicer.  I checked the bottle and it implied that everything was all natural ingredients (i.e., no HFCS), and being without bar and supplies, I thought, "Hey, it can't be too bad, can it?"

It's that bad.  The pro: it's not overly sweet.  The con: that's because it's fracing close to water.  There's no bit in it, and I agreed with J that it tasted like they had added salt to the mix.  We'll finish it off, but won't be buying it again.


SkinnyGirl MargaritaJ looked up the brand online and discovered it was the creation (quickly sold to a larger conglomerate) of an "actress" from Real Housewives of New Jersey.  If I had known that, I would never have purchased it.  You'll note that I'm not providing any links here.

Yes, it's that bad.

Saturday
May212011

Current eBook Pricing Will Lead To Publisher Failure

This opinion piece from Nik Fletcher captures my feelings about current pricing for digital texts perfectly.

When CDs first came out, we paid the premium for the form factor because we felt we were getting extra for our money (the increased fidelity and idea that the CD would not get worse over time as it was played as LPs did) but also because we understood that the economies of scale were not yet present (i.e., CDs cost more than LPs to make because not as many were produced). The music industry kept the line on that price point for years, even after the economies of scale had reversed. That's because once you get a market used to a price point, it's easier to stick with it. Think of $3.00 gas, which we would have complained about when it was unusual 10 years ago (heck, even 1 year ago) but would gladly pay now.

Book publishers and the online distributors have set a unreasonable price point for eBooks. Fletcher's point concentrates on the economies of production, underscoring the fact that the physical price point is less than the digital, even while the costs of distribution have been reduced. Based on research I did 20 years ago, publishers only sell 1 book out of the 4 they print. The others are eventually pulped or sold to liquidators for a one figure fraction of their suggested retail price. The increased price for books over the last fifty years has always been laid on the increase in paper costs (which does not decrease as more copies are made, unlike your publisher's overhead costs); an eBook reduces the entire cost of that part of the price of a book to zero. Even with the 30% cut that Apple and Amazon want for every book sold through their distribution channels, publishers stand to make a much larger profit than they have with traditional print runs.

But instead of embracing the digital revolution to change their business for the better, they have decided to follow the wrong lead of music and video publishers to maximize the profit they can gain in this early period. And, like those industries that have gone this way before, they are opening the backdoor for pirates to step in and establish a different model (either an all-you-can-eat buffet or a much reduced per price point through file sharing).

As I have a number of authors for friends, as well as having hope of publishing a book of my own some day, it's not that I'm unsympathetic. But, like in the case with the music labels, it's the publisher making the wrong decisions here, not the artists and writers.

Saturday
May212011

Bring Me My Fife

When some guys hit middle-age, they have affairs or buy expensive cars and bikes. My friends, however, build things or buy exotic guns. Me, I buy computing toys and musical instruments. The case in point for the latter is my new Yamaha YFL-24S, which I purchased used from Music-Go-Round. No, I've never played a flute. Heck, I've never played a woodwind before, having started playing drums when I joined band in middle-school, switching to the baritone a couple of years later, then the trombone when a junior in high school. I also took guitar lessons when I was young as well as taking piano lessons, which I stuck with a bit more although when I play the piano now I typically "fake" it by playing the chord structure, based on having taking music theory in high school. So, why a flute? I wanted a musical instrument that I could travel with and one that could play melodic lines.
Friday
May132011

Congrats to Michael!

My nephew, Michael Cox, just received his B.S. In mechanical engineering from Texas A&M tonight, after a quick three years (chalk that up to some great college prep work by the magnet school he went to in Houston). Well done!

He's now off to Harvard, after a summer trip to Europe, where he will start work towards a PhD.

Sunday
May082011

Back in the USSA

After a interesting three years in Malaysia, we have returned to the US with a cat and a lot of great memories and friends on the other side of the globe. Before we left, people warned us that the reverse culture shock--that is, dealing with everyday necessities in your home country such as driving, feeding oneself, housing, climate, etc.--would actually be worse than what we experienced going to a foreign country. I guess the reasoning for this is that you expect things to be difficult in a foreign location, but think yourself an expert and "at home" in your country of origin.

So far I'm having a better time adjusting to it than J, but then again, I was more ready to return as my work had been substantially less rewarding personally in the last couple of months. Still, there are a few things that strike me as a semi-outsider to American culture, such as:

  • People in the US need to lose weight. I estimate that over half of the people I see here in Ohio are overweight, and many of them are obese. No wonder health care costs in the US have skyrocketed! I thought I was a bit overweight, as I gained about 15-20 pounds after my heart surgery two years ago. If anything, seeing the extremes around me has only solidified my resolution to get rid of a few of those extra pounds.
  • At least some of that weight is likely from the continued consumption of overly large sugar-filled drinks, from the 32+ ounce soda to the grande coffees. After having one frappucino from Fourbucks, I have decided to return to drinking seltzer water, or just plain H2O. Well, when I'm not having a glass of wine.
  • We used to joke about how much the Malaysians liked to shop, including how the malls were always packed. Compare this to my trip to the Mall of America in Minneapolis, which was almost like a ghost town. Of course, I think half of the reason why Malaysians visit shopping malls is to enjoy the air conditioning that someone else is paying for. A later trip to the Easton Shopping Center here in Columbus was busier, and there seemed to be lots more buying. When it comes to consumption, it's really hard to beat someone from the US.
  • Our visit to the Whole Foods grocery store underscored that last point. The sheer scale of the store and the number of different items that were on offer was overwhelming. We could probably eat every meal for the rest of the month from picking and choosing items at the Whole Foods deli alone.
  • It is good that the grocery store is so good, because the restaurants aren't. We need to hit the Short North area of Columbus, which may prove better, but so far the places we've stopped in to eat have offerings that are: (a) too large, (b) bland, (c) fat-filled or covered, typically with bland cheese, and (d) uninspired. I remember every restaurant in the US offering a chicken caesar salad; now it seems that every restaurant has agreed to offer the same chicken sandwich, minestrone soup, toasted bad appetizer, etc. It is kind of like radio in America: they seem designed to meet the interests and desires of one large demographic only.
  • Hey, it's cold here! It was less than 40 degrees F when we landed in Minneapolis, and Columbus was in the 50s for our first week back. We finally warmed up yesterday when the weather finally got up to 75F. I'm still feeling chilled, though, and expect that to last for awhile.

But it is good to be back, even though we are still unsure where our next couple of years will actually be spent. The first piece of that puzzle should fall at the end of this month, which I'm looking forward to as it has been months coming.

Saturday
Apr302011

A New Negroni?

My buddy Dwight tipped me to a new negroni recipe over at the NYT. This is the kind of creative cocktail stuff I like, especially the overnight step with the orange wedges followed by grilling them and muddling them into the drink so that the charred bits infuse the sweet vermouth.  That's something I can truly get behind. If anything, my bartending skills have atrophied in the last couple of years due to an over-indulgence in the simple pleasures of the gin-and-tonic, as I've had limited to access to full bar stock.  As we will be living in temporary quarters for the next couple of months, I won't be able to indulge myself in recipes quite like this for awhile, but I'm looking forward to the day when we are resettled and I can play around again with unique concoctions.

Monday
Apr252011

Boxing Day

We are in the last week of living in Malaysia and the tasks are coming at us fast and furious.  Today was "boxing day," as the Unigroup packers showed up with all the boxes and crates to wrap up the things that will be going into our sea shipment on Wednesday.

Boxing Day

They did 90% of the downstairs packing today; tomorrow will be the rest of it and the bedrooms upstairs, as well as our air shipment.

Wednesday
Apr132011

Cat/Mouse (in the style of Marat/Sade)

As we prepared to return to the U.S. at the end of this month, we took inventory and determined that there were a number of things we needed to sell to get under our return shipping weight allowance.  In addition, we needed to sell our car, since 1) vehicle shipping was not covered in our contract and 2) it's a right hand drive, which would be difficult to deal with in the States. There are several ways to go about selling used items in Malaysia, but the most popular is a website called Mudah.my that is very similar to Craigslist.

After a bit of delay, I finally got our 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid listed on Mudah yesterday. Within the hour, I had my first response to the ad:

from Erik <eriknevand@live.com>
to engelcox@gmail.com
date Wed, Apr 13, 2011 at 4:12 PM
subject Reply: Honda Civic Hybrid 09
mailed-by mudah.my
is the car available? 
I responded with an affirmative, adding that we were looking to sell the car by the end of the month.
from erik nevand <eriknevand@gmail.com>

i am really interested in buying the car, what is the condition of the engine, is there any additional information i need to know about the car? can you send me more pictures?
Ok, valid question.  I didn't mention engine condition in the ad, although I had stated there that the car hadn't been involved in any collisions.  I responded, "My wife and I purchased this car in 2009 and have been the sole owners and drivers of it.  We have never been in a collision and have maintained the car according to the dealer's maintenance schedule (I have the dealer's maintenance book with all the stamps from the dealer's maintenance department).  The engine is in perfect condition. You can see larger photos on my web site here: http://glen.engel-cox.org/Glen_Engel-Cox/For_Sale.html (click the photo to start the slideshow with larger images). I can take any additional pictures if there's something in particular you would like to see (i.e., under the bonnet).  Or you can come view the car at our home in Gita Bayu, Serdang."
I have looked at it a few times now, and after looking around, I'm satisfied with the great condition but what's your best price for it.i would like to get it as soon as i can. I hope to hear from you soon, and i will make all transportation preparations for  it to be transported to my home in London,UK.

And that triggered the alarm bells. You see, we aren't the first expatriates we know who needed to sell a car before leaving. One of our colleagues had to leave very quickly last year and used Mudah to list his mini-van. He was excited to get some immediate interest, but thought it strange when the person contacting him wanted to have the vehicle shipped to UK.

There are two things that are really expensive in Malaysia compared with many other parts of the world: one is alcohol, the other is cars.  Because Malaysia has two car companies that it wants to be competitive in the market, it levies an import tax on all cars not manufactured here, effectively doubling or tripling the cost on many cars, depending on the engine size and "luxury." Some car companies get around this by assembling cars here, but even then the cost can be a 50% increase in price in comparison with, for instance, Indonesia.

Which begs the question as to why anyone would want to buy a car in Malaysia, even a used one, and pay the costs to have it shipped to the UK, where you can purchase the same or similar vehicle for much, much less money.  The answer, as should be obvious, is that the prospective buyer is a scam artist.

Having previous knowledge of his modus operandi, I responded to his message by saying, "The price posted is my best price and would have to be paid in full before any transportation would take place.  You would also have to find a local person here in KL to handle all transportation arrangements. I am not willing to do any of that. In fact, if you are serious about purchase, I would expect you to make an earnest money deposit of 10% of the purchase price while you are arranging for transportation for me not to consider other offers. Payment in full would have to be made by 25 April."
Ok good, I think am satisfied with the condition of the car and also pleased with price.So i want to buy  as soon as possible.I would  make payment with paypal or bank transfer, but i prefer paypal because paypal is the most easy and most secure method of paying online, Do you have a paypal account?

And thus he revealed the other part of the scam: PayPal.  This may surprise you, as PayPal is often touted as the "most secure method of paying online" as the scammer wrote, but PayPal accepts credit cards and allows you, as a seller, to accept credit cards as well. What if the credit card is bad (typically stolen)?

"When a stolen credit card is used to purchase goods or services through PayPal, the money can seem to appear in your account. In fact, you can even withdrawal the money after it has been transfered to you. But as soon as PayPal realizes the credit card was stolen, they immediately debit your account for the value of the transaction. Even if you've already withdrawn the money and provided whatever good or service you were offering, PayPal still holds you liable for the fraudulent credit card that was used to pay you from half a world away." (Hat tip to Dan LS's post in the comments thread at Newsvine for this concise depiction.) 

Since I now was certain that I had a PayPal scammer working me, I decided to play with him.  I responded, "I'm sorry, but I've got a local buyer who wants to buy the car for cash for my asking price.  However, I told them I had a previous contact who was offering me the same price.  My local buyer won't go any higher.  If you were to offer me more, I could consider selling it to you, however. Let me know."
How much do you want me to pay?
Oh, my dear scammer, I want you to pay dearly. But we're still playing this little game, so I asked for a very specific amount.  "Well, to make it worthwhile for me to have to deal with your long-distance arrangements, I think you need to offer at least RM 130,000."  Why RM 130,000?  That's what we paid (rounded to the nearest 10,000) for the car in 2009 when we bought it new. (Note: The current price for a new Honda Civic Hybrid in the U.K. is approximately US$10,000 cheaper than the price I asked for.)
Ok good, I think am satisfied with the condition of the car and also pleased with price.So i want to buy  as soon as possible.I would  make payment with paypal or bank transfer, but i prefer paypal because paypal is the most easy and most secure method of paying online, Do you have a paypal account?

When this response came through my gmail, I almost missed it because the message was empty except for a link that said "quoted text."  Why?  Because it's the same exact response he had used two messages earlier.  I suspect some kind of automated system at work.

Deciding to string him along a bit more, and to see how he would respond, I said, "I'm not comfortable with using Paypal.  Can you make transfer using SWIFT code for my Maybank account?"

Ok then, I will make a bank transfer

At this point, I wasn't about to share any personal information beyond what is readily available through a simple search on the internet with this fellow, so I decided to push him a little further.  "My friends have cautioned me about dealing with people long distance. How can I be sure you are serious?  Can you post a video on youtube that states your name and my name and your interest in the car.  It helps to be able to see an actual buyer.  You know, it's like the famous New Yorker cartoon, "No ones knows you're a dog on the Internet."  If I see a real person, then I feel I can trust you to follow through on this transaction."

I probably shouldn't have mentioned the friends, or using the New Yorker cartoon reference, but even had I left those out, there's no way "Erik" was going to actually post a video.  I had just moved, in his world, from being a victim to being a pain. Making a video is just too much work for a scammer. To be safe, he'd have to get someone off the street to pose as "Erik" because he wouldn't want to appear in the video himself.

I did get a response from "Erik," however:

Are you making a mockery of me?
Yes, "Erik," yes.  Although, really, it's you who has made a mockery of yourself.  I just documented it.
Friday
Apr012011

LinkedIn Hacked in the Night

I had the opportunity tonight to add a new connection to my LinkedIn account. After doing so, as normal, LinkedIn provided me a list of additional "People You May Know," which I normally review. I was surprised, however, to see some people on that list that I knew, but didn't know were on the Internet.  People like J.R.R. Tolkien, Ernest Hemingway, Werner Heisenberg, and, my favorite, Robin Hood: