Monday, September 29, 2008

House of Representatives Rejects Financial Bailout Legislation, Dow Jones Plummets 777 Points

Today the House of Representatives voted 228-205 against passing a bailout package. The rescue package will eventually help most lending institutions, from the Wall Street power brokers to the Main Street community banks. In turn, big and small borrowers will be helped with lower costs for loans and more competition from banks for their business.

Congress now has three options.

Option 1) Adjourn and end the legislative session. Then come back and 2009 and revisit the issue. This gives Members an opportunity to focus on re-election and not be accused of bailing out wealthy bankers. But liquidity - the amount of money available to lend - will likely dry up in days if action does not happen soon.

Option 2) Adjourn until after the election. Then hold a lame-duck session of Congress after the election. But again, the same pros and cons in Option 1 apply.

Option 3) Introduce a new bailout package that convinces enough Members to vote for the bill. Vote for the bill before the end of this week. This is the most likely scenario.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Exchanging Money

Most banks offer reasonable exchange rates. And using your ATM card overseas is normally reasonable as well. I was able to use my Washington, DC-area bank ATM card in a Citibank ATM in Hong Kong and only got charged a $2.00 fee. Plus the exchange rate was comparable to what the market was charging. Contrast that to the Telex kiosk I used to get some pocket change - which charged me a $6 exchange fee and only gave me 90 cents on the dollar. Telex offered a lousy deal.

Capital One credit cards do not charge an exchange rate. Most other major credit card companies (Chase, Citi, Bank of America,...) charge around 3% on top of your purchase to cover the exchange rate. One thing to keep in mind about Capital One is their credit limits are normally low. So if you do use the Capital One credit card, make sure you don't exceed the credit limit. Otherwise you will get charged an overage fee.

The recommendation is to have enough pocket change to pay for a cab ride to your hotel. Then use your ATM card to get additional cash. And have a few U.S. dollars on hand if the ATMs are down.

A few dollars here and there for the exchange rate doesn't seem like a lot. But I'd rather use that extra money for food and other purchases than give it to the money changers. Some people would rather use their credit cards to collect points for future rewards. Using the options that best suit your needs is always the best way to go. Just remember to spend a little time figuring out what the best options are.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

MTR - Hong Kong

The MTR or Mass Transit Railway is Hong Kong's subway, bus and light rail service provider. The subway system is clean, efficient and reasonably priced. The biggest question that kept running through my mind was, "Why can't the Washington, DC Metrorail service be just as nice?"

After touching down at Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok International Airport, retrieving our luggage and clearing immigration, we headed for the MTR outlet. We purchased two Airport Express smart card passes, which included three days of unlimited subway use. The Airport Express line was quite impressive. Designed for travelers, it has spacious seating, luggage storage areas and video displays in each car that provide transfer information in multiple languages. In less than 30 minutes, we traveled from the airport to Hong Kong's Central district.

Another very nice MTR feature is the shops and eateries located at each stop. Stores ranging from 7-11 to Giordano (the Chinese equivalent of The Gap stores in the U.S.) are available at the stations. My favorite is a bakery called Maxim. The Mrs. and I enjoyed countless pastries, rolls, mini-cakes and other desserts from Maxim's. And, the other benefit was I didn't gain an ounce. We walked around 2-3 hours a day and that actually helped me lose weight.

On our third day, we went to recharge our 3-day MTR tourist smart cards, and learned a few things. First, the smart cards are valid for 72 hours from initial use. Second, you cannot use the automated machines to recharge the tourist smart cards. They have to be recharged in person with a station attendant. Third, while you can use a credit card to purchase the 3-day smart card, you can only use cash to recharge the cards. And fourth, when you return to the airport, you can return the 3-day smart card to the MTR station manager for a full refund of any unused fare, plus the HK$50.00 deposit. The Mrs. and I ended up getting back about HK$180 (about $30 U.S.) which we managed to spend on more pastries, lunch and trinkets at the airport.

Two things about the MTR I would change is 1) color-code the station signs to help people transferring from one line to another figure out which way to go - the multiple subway lines are already color-coded, putting the color-coding on the station signage is logical; and 2) the subway cars can get packed during rush hour - but then again - if you can't deal with crowds, you shouldn't be visiting big cities.

I'd still love to go back and visit soon!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hong Kong!

The Mrs. and I headed out to Hong Kong for Thanksgiving. It was a fantastic trip. We had a great time! I will post a series of entries highlighting our trip. For this entry, I'll talk about the long journey there.

We decided to leave on Thanksgiving Day because it is easy to get flights, especially international flights on Thanksgiving Day. Most Americans spend the day with family, eating turkey and watching football. Few travel internationally that day. And that makes it a good day to travel abroad.

For the trip, I cashed in 120,000 United Mileage Plus miles for two round-trip tickets. Since I am a Premier Executive member, I get Economy Plus seating which includes 5 extra inches of space. I can also reserve the exit rows - which provide even more space. Having that extra leg room in the exit rows makes a big difference when you fly - especially long distances. Being able to stretch your legs on flights without having to arch your body around people and obstacles is incredibly nice.

We took the 7:00 am flight out of Dulles. It was a 767, which means it included in-seat personal entertainment systems. A series of movies, music channels and GPS tracking/flight information is available. While not as sophisticated as European competitors, the entertainment system is still nice to have. If you have the choice between a 767/777 v. 737/757/321/320 when you fly, pick the 767/777. The wide body plane handles turbulence better and offers more amenities than the smaller planes.

As we approached San Francisco, to transfer to the flight to Hong Kong, we could see how nice the Bay Area looked. It was very sunny, with hardly any clouds. And the temperature was just about right - warm enough to get by with a light jacket and just a bit of crispness in the Fall air. There was a strong pull to spend the weekend in San Francisco before heading to Hong Kong. But Asia beckoned louder and a couple of hours later we hopped aboard a 747 bound for the Orient.

The flight to Hong Kong was relatively uneventful. My biggest surprise was the route, which took us north towards Alaska, then followed the Aleutian Islands across the International Date Line, then southwest towards Japan. I would have guessed a more direct route, across Hawaii and the Philippines would have been faster.

14 hours later, we landed in Hong Kong, cleared customs and headed for our hotel. More in the next installment.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Movie Review: Elizabeth - The Golden Age

The Mrs. and I were out at Arundel Mills Mall and decided to see Elizabeth - The Golden Age at the Muvico Egyptian Theater. The theater has over 20 stadium sized screens. Unfortunately, this movie was relegated to a smaller theater.

The movie itself was quite impressive. An all-star cast including Cate Blanchett as the Queen, Geoffrey Rush as Sir Francis Wallsingham and Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh delivered fantastic performances. The dialog was quick and witty, the plot was engaging. The sets were impressive. And the costumes were very detailed.

Unfortunately, what started off as a colorful period piece turned into a gigantic video game. The director used computer generated images of the Spanish Armada setting forth to conquer England. He then morphed Queen Elizabeth into Joan of Arc, complete with long, flowing locks of hair, full battle armor and a poor attempt at a pre-battle rally speech before the impending doom to be delivered by the Spanish Armada.

The director also rewrites history. He moves the final battle to English Channel and neglects to mention much of the Armada survives the initial engagements, then sails around the British Isles but ends up losing significant ships to a hurricane off the western coast of Ireland. Very disappointing. I won't spoil the ending, but the fact you are reading this in English and not Spanish is a good indication of how things did turn out.

If you are a history buff and/or enjoy watching Blanchett, Rush or Owen act on the big screen you will enjoy the movie. But the battle scenes are not very impressive and are only worth the price of a DVD rental.

Monday, September 17, 2007

La Tasca - Restaurant Review

La Tasca is a Spanish tapas restaurant with a half dozen locations in the Washington, D.C. area. A friend of the Mrs. was in town attending a medical conference. We met up with the friend after the first day of the conference and headed out to Jaleo originally. But the wait was close to a half hour for a table. So we headed over to La Tasca.

Spanish tapas is similar to Cantonese dim sum. You order a series of small plates and share. We ordered nine dishes in all. Most were good or very good. I liked the calamares a la Andaluza (lightly fried calamari), costillas de cerdo (pork spare ribs) and the paella de verduras (vegetable rice).

My biggest disappointment was not with the food itself, but the small portions. For example, the asparagus dish came with four shoots - which worked out to $1.24 per shoot. That's ridiculous. When La Tasca first opened, the portions where much larger and the prices were lower. Granted, expenses have gone up. But throwing in a few more shrimp or asparagus shoots into a dish won't break the restaurant revenue stream.

The DC location is situated a couple of blocks south of the Convention Center. It appears the DC location has become a tourist trap - charging high prices and offering small portions. I just hope the other locations offer better portions for the prices charged.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Restaurant Review - Qdoba Grill

Not being sure what to expect, I tried Qdoba Grill the other night. The restaurant turned out to be a poor imitation of Chipotle's.

Chipotle uses an assembly line to make your burrito (or salad) fresh. First, they use a hot steam press to heat your flour tortilla. Then you have the option of adding rice, pork, beef, chicken and a host of other toppings and salsas. At the end of the production, you have one very big burrito.

Qdoba attempts to mimic the process. Unfortunately the restaurant fails in two areas. First, the ingredients have no flavor. It seems like the cooks have never heard of salt or pepper or any other spices. And second, the servers offer tiny portions of each ingredient. I felt like I was in the orphanage in the novel Oliver Twist, being served measly portions and humbly asking for more.

Bottom line: Head to Chipotle's if you want a decent burrito. Qdoba isn't worth your time or money.

Restaurant Review - Vapiano's

Vapiano's is new to the U.S. Originally from Germany, the Italian-style eatery offers several unique spins. First, you are given smart cards to use. Next, you order at various stations - pizza, pasta, salad, beverages, dessert. Each order is added to the smart card with a quick swipe. At the end of your meal, you go to the cashier, hand over the smart card and pay your tab.

The pizzas are hand tossed, thin crust and made to order. They are slightly larger than California Pizza Kitchen pizzas. The thin crust and fresh toppings really help to bring out all the great flavors. I ordered the capriccioca - ham, mushrooms, artichokes, olives and tomato sauce. It was good to the last bite!

Friends who have tried the other items generally agree the pizzas are the best items, while the the pastas (in-store, handmade) are hit or miss. Happy Hour runs from 5-8 PM daily, featuring $3.00 beers and a few discounted food items. The restaurant attracts a large lunch and Happy Hour crowd.

Try Vapiano's out and let me know what you think.