Monday, May 2, 2016

Rolling my 401k into an IRA

My long-term retirement savings have been mostly in a 401k provided by Fidelity, which was set up through my former employer. By long-term, I mean money meant to be used after I reach at least age 59-and-a-half, when 401k and IRA funds can be withdrawn without penalty. Recently I decided to take that money and roll it over into an IRA with Vanguard.
I've thought about doing a rollover for a while now, mainly to consolidate my holdings into one place. I already have a bunch of other Vanguard accounts, and this 401k is my only Fidelity account. Moving it over makes things easier for me to keep track of. As part of the move, I can also change how the money is divided across investment types. That's a nice bonus, since I was charged a trade fee when I did that within the Fidelity plan.

The reason I chose to do this now is that recently the Fidelity plan has changed to charge me a fee every quarter. It's not a lot, but any fee at all is a terrible thing when the entire point of the account is to grow money over time. Per their FAQ, Vanguard is happy to provide me a no-fee IRA account, as long as I use electronic delivery for the various documents they send out. Which I already do, for my other Vanguard accounts.

Since I already have Vanguard accounts, it was really easy to get things started. I just logged in and clicked through a few forms that explained the process. All my personal info was pulled from my existing account, so I didn't have to re-enter anything. I was able to select my new investment funds - two index funds, one for stocks and one for bonds. Each has lower fee rates than the funds I had at Fidelity. At the end of the process, I was given a letter explaining how Fidelity should make out the check used to transfer the money.

Next, I called Fidelity to let them know I wanted to perform the rollover. I couldn't do this part fully online, so I called their customer service. I was pleasantly surprised to get a person on the phone in just a few minutes. No long wait time. The representative was very helpful and even explained that I was actually getting a credit along with the fee, meaning that I wasn't losing any money from it. I appreciated that, but I decided to go ahead with the transfer anyhow, for the benefit of consolidation. To his credit, he didn't try to push me into staying with Fidelity. Once I said I was sure I wanted to go ahead, he finished up the process right away.

Then I had to wait while the check was mailed to me. Fidelity doesn't mail directly to other institutions, which is a little annoying but understandable from their perspective. Less potential for a customer to blame them for another company's mistake. When it arrived a week later, I opened it up and put my Vanguard account number on it, then mailed it to Vanguard. Less than a week later, Vanguard sent me an email confirming that they'd received the check and my rollover was complete.

All told, a fairly painless process. Both Fidelity and Vanguard did a fine job of customer service in making this an easy transaction.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Additional Recent MTG Booster Drafts

I had a good time with the Magic: The Gathering booster drafts from a couple of weekends ago, so I've attended a few more.
These events were at two other stores in the area, different from the two in my previous post. Alpha Players runs drafts on Wednesdays, and they're closer to me than the other stores - only about 15 minutes away. They have an interesting mix of inventory: half the store is Magic and other card/board games, and half is disc golf. Plus a mix of collectibles, like diecast Nascar cars. On Friday nights, Big Kidz Games has drafts after their Friday Night Magic event ends. It doesn't even start until 10 PM, so the playing isn't usually done until around 2:30 AM. They still have good turnouts, though.

In the earlier drafts, I was pretty surprised to finish as high as I did, considering how little I play Magic in a competitive environment. So it's not too surprising that I haven't been doing as well in more recent events. In one session, I didn't win a single match in the three rounds that I played. It's not as bad as it sounds, though, because all three rounds were very close. Two games to one in two of the three matches, and at least one loss in all three cases could have gone either way, depending on what was drawn in the last two or three turns. Which says something about how close these events can be! I also tied for second in another draft, and took eighth (of twenty-five) in my most recent foray.

It's still been plenty of fun, though. Well, mostly. Occasionally you get a match where your deck just doesn't want to cooperate and your opponent just steamrolls you, and those aren't a lot of fun. Usually that happens when you get a terrible shuffle with too many/too few lands, and have to take the mulligan option on your opening hand several times. Fortunately that's pretty rare. Most of the time, at least one game in each round is interesting and requires some thought about how to play for the win.

And of course, there's the new cards obtained in the draft. I was fortunate to pull an Archangel Avacyn in one draft and Nahiri, the Harbinger in another, though I couldn't use either in the actual draft since my other cards weren't the right colors. Nice additions to the collection, though. And sometimes things work out to actually use the big cards, such as the Thing in the Ice from my most recent event. Fit nicely into the blue/black deck I was drafting, and it even won me a couple of games.

Out of all the places I've played in these booster draft events, I think I like Big Kidz Games best. There's a nice big play area, they have a lot of board games and such in addition to the Magic stock, and most of the folks that show up there are pretty laid back (as opposed to hyper-competitive). The late night draft times don't bother me too much, since sleeping in on Saturday morning isn't a problem. I probably won't go every week, but I'll likely be back a few times.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Less Uninterruptible

Woke up this morning to an unfamiliar beeping noise. My first thought was that it must be time to change a fire alarm battery, but those sound a bit different. Turns out it was the UPS behind my computer desk.
That's UPS as in uninterruptible power supply, not brown delivery trucks. I've had this one for years...maybe 8? 10? I don't remember exactly, and I'm too lazy to go look it up. A good long while, anyway. A decent UPS is a long-term device that you don't even notice is there, ideally. At least, until the power goes out. I had this one connected to just about all my media center electronics. The beeping was because the battery had finally given up the ghost and was no longer holding power.

Originally I got this UPS because the power in my condo would flicker on a fairly regular basis. Not every day, but probably once or twice a month. That doesn't sound like much, but if you've got electronics that are always on (particularly computers), that kind of inconsistency can really mess with the system. Fortunately, that problem has gone away as of a few years ago, when the local electric company upgraded the various power delivery systems in my area. I haven't seen a power flicker since, and full outages are rare as well.

The other major reason for having the UPS was that I would occasionally want to access my home system when I was traveling, and for that it needed to always be on. If there was a power outage, everything would turn off, and there was no one at home to turn it back on. With the UPS, as long as the power outage was a fairly short one (under a half hour or so), everything would keep running. Since I rarely do extended travel any more, this isn't really a concern any more either.

The UPS was also a surge protector, again a very important component for sensitive electronics. Especially during the summer, when thunderstorms are in the area. Everything important is plugged into power strips, though, with their own surge protector functions. Short of a direct lightning strike, which would fry anything regardless of surge protection, it should be pretty safe.

So I think I'll just do without a replacement UPS, at least until something changes that makes it necessary to have one again. I'll find a recycling center where I can take the old one - it's got a big, heavy battery so you don't want to just toss it in the garbage - and stick with basic power strips to power and surge protect my various electronic devices.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Final Year of Vin Scully Broadcasts

I've been watching quite a few Los Angeles Dodgers games this year. Not for the team itself, but for their broadcaster.
Vin Scully has been broadcasting various sports for almost 70 of his 88 years. That's not just longer than I've been alive - my parents weren't even born when he started. He's been with the Dodgers since 1950. I don't have any particular feelings one way or another about the Dodgers (outside of my Midwesterner mild dislike for anything from New York or Los Angeles), but I'll watch their home broadcasts just for a chance to hear Scully call the games.

I enjoy the older broadcasting style for baseball games, with just one announcer and minimal "sideshow" segments (by which I mean anything not about the game at hand: interviews, scoreboard updates, etc). Almost no one other than Scully does the single announcer format any more. Most television broadcasts (and some radio) have taken to including those sideshow segments, but not Dodger games that Scully is working.

Listening to Vin Scully call a baseball game almost always includes a bit of a history lesson. Baseball is a slow game with plenty of time to tell stories, and there's no one else in broadcasting with more stories. The viewer might hear how a particular play reminds him of something Jackie Robinson or Don Drysdale did many decades ago, or an anecdote from the days before pre-recorded commercial breaks when a beer cooler ice on a hot summer day melted and spilled all over the unfortunate announcer on the air. I'm often doing other things at the same time as I'm watching the game, but a Vin Scully story usually grabs my full attention for a few minutes.

It's amazing to me how well truly gifted sports announcers fill the hours of a game with constant commentary. Listening to Vin Scully call a game isn't just a chance to hear stories from long ago, or descriptions of the current game. He has background on every player, comments on every play, something to add for any situation. Sure, other announcers do the same things, but few (if any) in the business today are a smooth as Scully. Just about every other broadcast uses two-man teams, and even so many of them have more dead air in a typical game than Scully's solo work.

Vin Scully has said he'll retire at the end of this baseball season. I can certainly understand why, at almost 90 years old. Nonetheless, I can't help being sad to see him go. It'll be the end of an era, and his work will be missed. Meanwhile, I'll take every opportunity this year to turn on a home Dodgers game for his last year on the air.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Feeling Helpless

There are times in life when you're on the outside of a terrible situation, with no reasonable way to make a difference. It may not impact you in any significant way, but that doesn't stop the feeling of wanting to help. You'd like to do something, anything that will improve things, but you just don't have any options...you're helpless.
It's not hard to find examples of this kind of helpless feeling. I've had two extended family members and several friends diagnosed with various long-term illnesses in the last decade or so, for instance. My own personal most recent example is an Internet forum post from a person I've interacted with casually for years, mostly about video games. He's dealing with cancer in his family, describing a very difficult situation. It will likely continue for years as various treatments are applied. I'm helpless to do anything about it - we don't know one another outside the Internet forum, and even if we did there's not a lot I could do aside from listen. Any words of sympathy from me will just be a repeat of things he's heard many times before from people much closer to him. (Though I still say the words, just in case.)

These helpless situations make me sad and angry. Sad for the people who have to deal with whatever is going wrong, and angry at my own inability to affect the situation. To the point of tears, sometimes, especially if I know the people involved. And that in turn makes me feel a bit guilty. I don't really have any skin in the game, so who am I to be feeling poorly about a situation that doesn't affect me? Knowing that doesn't help, unfortunately.

Distracting myself from the situation is one option, and it actually works pretty well in truly remote cases. Wars or terrorism that is going on halfway around the world, for instance. The helpless feeling is there, but only briefly. Once the next news story comes up, or I start doing something unrelated, I can put it out of my mind. Unfortunately, distraction doesn't work nearly as well when I'm close to the situation, usually because I know someone involved.

Sometimes, I'm able to redirect the energy from the sad/angry/helpless feelings into productive outlets. This blog, for instance (though "productive" is questionable there). Or the occasional volunteer work that I participate in. I can't affect the original situation through whatever I'm doing, but I'm helping someone, and that certainly counteracts the negative feelings.

Another coping mechanism is prayer. You see some variation of the "thoughts and prayers with you" phrase more often than just about anything else in response to someone having a difficult time. I suspect I may not be particularly popular among other believers (in almost any faith) for my viewpoint on this, but prayer just doesn't help me with the feelings of helplessness. My faith as an evangelical Christian certainly tells me that prayer is important, and I do pray regularly for all kinds of things, including these helpless feeling situations. It doesn't help me feel better, though, because logic tells me that an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God already has done everything that He feels is appropriate regardless of what I have to say. I do believe He still listens - otherwise I wouldn't pray at all - but it just doesn't give me any relief from that helpless feeling.

In the end, though, what helps most in these situations is this: in the act of sharing, some portion of the emotional load is lifted from the person who is suffering. I first came across the saying "shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased" in a Spider Robinson novel long ago, and I'm sure he wasn't the first to express that sentiment. Over the years, I've found that saying to be true on both counts. The closer you are to the other people involved, the more it applies. The feeling of helplessness is much lessened when I remember that simply sharing these difficult situations benefits those involved.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hearthstone: Whispers of the Old Gods release

The latest Hearthstone expansion released yesterday, together with the introduction of the Standard format.
As far as releases go, this one wasn't terrible, though certainly not perfect. Sometimes major updates to online games can be a major fiasco, with all kinds of game-breaking bugs or ridiculous downtime. The Hearthstone folks did this one right, though, with two separate updates: first the 5.0 patch a few days ahead, then the new set release yesterday. Putting too much into a single update is a great way to screw up the system, so I was glad to see the two-part release. Not everything was smooth, though. There was still a lot of downtime for some people (including me) when the authentication server had some problems, which lasted several hours past the scheduled outage window. Annoying, but fairly minor as expansion launch problems go.

Once the server issues were resolved and I could log in, I was greeted with a short introduction to the new Standard format, as well as three free Whispers of the Old Gods packs. Opening those packs also gets you C'Thun, the signature legendary creature in this set, and two of his helper cards. It's important that everyone get C'Thun right away, since many of the cards in the set directly interact with him. I suspect we'll see a lot of people playing C'Thun decks at first, largely because it's new. Besides, who doesn't like destroying your opponent via tentacled elder gods? Interest will likely fall off pretty fast, though, as there's a whole lot of ways to get around C'Thun, not least of which is to simply end the game before he can be played on turn 10. Still, it's a fun idea, and useful to newer players since C'Thun is available to everyone.

There probably aren't many Hearthstone players who haven't already seen the news about the Standard format, but it's nice that the developers put in a little bit of explanation for those who somehow missed it. There's also a handy deck construction feature which will highlight the cards that aren't Standard-legal in your existing decks, and suggest replacements. The suggestions are pretty bad, to be honest, but that's OK. The important thing is knowing what needs to come out if you want the deck to be usable in Standard. Once that's taken care of, you can make your own judgement about what replacements to use.

It's important to have Standard-legal decks, because you need to win some Standard games in order to complete two special release quests. Winning 2 Standard games is worth 5 Whispers of the Old Gods packs. Completing that quest gives you another, to win 7 Standard games, for 5 more Whispers of the Old Gods packs. Thirteen free packs (10 from quests, 3 from the initial free stuff at login) is pretty nice. Blizzard clearly wants people who aren't spending a lot of time and/or money in the game to feel like they can catch up with the newest things.

I ended up retro-fitting a couple of my decks (Dragon Priest and Aggro Shaman) for Standard, which was a pretty easy process since each of those only used 2 older cards. I also built a Beast Druid deck. None of them are spectacular, but between the three I was able to win the 9 games needed to complete the quests in fairly short order. It helps that I wasn't in the higher echelons of ranked play to begin with. Much easier to win at the lower ranks, which is where I tend to stay since I play very little constructed.

So the new set release went fairly well. I'm glad that Blizzard is going out of their way to make it easy on players to get into the new set and constructed format, with the new cards and deck construction helper. It bodes well for the game's success when the developers are smoothing the process for older players to return and newer ones to get started.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Middle Earth Collectible Card Game

More than 20 years have gone by since Iron Crown Enterprises released their first Middle Earth: Collectible Card Game (MECCG) set. It only lasted a few years, but that doesn't stop some of us from pulling it out as often as we can.
Back in 1995, the game was still called Middle Earth: The Wizards, and it was fairly simple. Oh, there was some complicated stuff with how you moved around Middle Earth to various locations, and I don't think anyone liked trying to figure out how influence worked. But overall, it had a straightforward theme: take a few characters around the map of Middle Earth, gathering up allies and items for the coming battle against the darkness while preventing your opponent's efforts to do the same. Or possibly try to destroy the evil of the One Ring, of course, although that was fairly difficult to pull off.

The MECCG designers had a hard time knowing when to stop, though. ("Delved to greedily and too deep" into the complexity of design, one might say.) The addition of dragons, agents (ugh), and then entire new playable factions (Ringwraiths, Fallen Wizards, Balrog) made the game a complex mess that required a huge amount of effort to learn. A basic two-player game could take hours to finish. There are some really cool themes in every MECCG set, but actually playing the game became more and more difficult. Eventually, the game collapsed under the weight of some unsound business decisions from the publisher, but I'm not sure how much longer it could have continued to grow regardless.
People still play the game, even after all this time. As recently as 2006, there were world events, held mostly in Europe. There are still World Council web sites. Haven't heard anything for a few years, so that may finally have ended, but I still get the occasional email from someone looking to sell cards or find out info about the game. And you might find MECCG players at several of the larger gaming conventions, often playing small tournaments with the pre-constructed challenge decks.

Locally, there are a few of us who still play whenever the opportunity arises. For years, we'd use sealed product that we'd picked up for practically nothing once the official game support had stopped. It ran out eventually, though. Now we mostly take a whole bunch of cards and randomly divide them out among 3-5 people, then play the results like a sealed deck. These games are generally bloodbaths. Kings of Gondor, Elven Lords, Wizards, Men, Dwarves, Hobbits...the corpses pile up. Even if you play it safe and stay away from dragon country or the heart of Mordor, there's still plenty of danger. Especially since combat involves dice rolls, and those things are treacherous. More than one mighty warrior has been defeated by the dreaded snake eyes.
One goal of these games is to win, of course, but the larger goal is to pull off something thematically cool and/or crazy. For instance, I once took Gandalf to Moria, and the Balrog got dropped on him. Which I promptly defeated with Sacrifice of Form - exactly the theme battle that card was designed for. (OK, actually it got cancelled and I had to go back and do it again later once I got the Sacrifice of Form back in my hand. But it still fit the theme!) Or the time someone had Boromir in a company being attacked by Orcs, and used Many Foes He Fought so that Boromir protected everyone else (and died). Just like the battle at Amon Hen. Near misses are nearly as good...such as when the random shuffle gave the same player Gandalf, Frodo, Gollum, the One Ring, Gollum's Fate, and various other supporting cards. Everything you need to take the One Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it...until Gandalf got killed, and he had no other way to actually put the One Ring into play.

There aren't a lot of games that I still get excited about playing, nearly 20 years after they went out of print. MECCG may be a complex mess of overly-ambitious design, but it's still one of my favorites.