money

The Rewards of IHG Rewards

A few days ago I wrote about a credit card I have that's tied to Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG). As I mentioned then it's actually one of two I own. The other one is hitting its anniversary, too, so it's time to check the score.

I signed up for the Chase IHG Rewards Club Premier card 2 years ago. At the time I forecast it would be worth $1,200 in its first year. Was it? I actually didn't check the score at the first anniversary. I'll do a quick analysis of both years now.
Chase IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card

First Year: Not Quite $1,200

In my first year of owning this card I earned 167,800 points. Most of that was the 125k signup bonus, but I also charged $4,270 to the card to earn the remaining points.

I value IHG points at $0.007 apiece, so the points are worth $1,174.60. Pretty close to my $1,200 goal, hmm? But I've got to subtract from that total the $89 annual fee as well as an opportunity cost of about $85— the amount I would've earned if I charged those same purchases to a no-fee 2% cash-back card. This yields a net value of $1,000.

So, $1,000 isn't $1,200, but it's still a pretty good score. I think I could've gotten closer to my forecast if travel weren't wrecked for most of 2020 with the Coronavirus pandemic. It's kinda hard to maximize value with a travel affinity card when there's little to no travel for 10 months of the year.

Second Year: Over $500, Wow!

Travel in the past 12 months has been tempered by Coronavirus pandemic, too, but I've managed to squeeze some nice travel benefits out of this card. First, though, the basics: I earned 11,580 points worth $81 on charges of $315. Offsetting that gain are the annual fee of $89 and an opportunity cost of $6. Uh-oh, it looks like negative territory. I'm $14 in the hole!

But about those other travel benefits.... The card grants a free-night certificate at renewal time. I made it worth $150. That puts my net up to $136 in the black. Another benefit is that the card offers 4th award nights free. When I book a 4-night stay on points, I pay for 3 of the nights and get the fourth free. I wasn't able to use that benefit in 2020 but I've managed to use it three times this year. Those free nights have saved me $400. That raises my net for this year to $536. That's amazing for a second-year win!

For Every Season, Churn, Churn, Churn

So, with me able to squeeze several hundred dollars of value from this card even in out years, I'm going to keep it, right? Ha ha, no. I'm going to churn it. Chase and IHG are offering an even more lucrative signup bonus than the one I signed up with two years ago. Now it's 150k. I'll cancel this card soon and apply for a new one in a few months. It's entirely possible I can play the next one for over $1,200 in its first year. Will I score that well the second time around? I'll check back in about 14 months.



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Wiseguy

New Characters Join The Sopranos. Jumping the Shark?

Season 5 of The Sopranos opens with news that several new characters will join the show. In-show the reason is that a bunch of convicted mobsters have just gotten out of jail, their paroles happening around the same time many years after a justice spree of organized crime convictions. Seeing a raft of new characters coming into the story, moreover with flimsy justification, made me wonder: is this where The Sopranos jumps the shark?

For those who don't know, Jumping the Shark is a storytelling trope named for the 1977 episode of TV series Happy Days in which the iconic Fonzie (played by Henry Winkler) ski-jumps over a shark. The meaning of Jumping the Shark is that a series has lost its way and has to resort to gimmicks to shore up its declining viewership. As the pages on Jumping the shark on Wikipedia and Jumping the Shark at TV Tropes, explain, the gimmick doesn't have to involve water skiing or shark jumping. There's actually quite a long list of disruptive tropes writers can engage in that may signal the show is going downhill creatively. One of the more common ones is introducing a bunch of new characters.

As I've mentioned a few times before I have the benefit of hindisght when it comes to questions about whether The Sopranos holds together or falls apart. The show wrapped more than 15 years ago. It was acclaimed all the way through, and it ends just one season later (6 seasons total).

Watching the first half of Season 5 has satisfied me that this is not a case of Jumping the Shark. The four new characters are well integrated in the narrative. The story remains centered around Tony instead of being changed from that core premise.

Two of the new characters become minor characters. We see them on camera infrequently, and their function is mainly to show that the world Tony Soprano inhabits is not standing still. He's got to deal with changes and challenges that come from new people who might be his friends, his enemies, or both.

The other two characters, Feech LaManna and Tony Blundetto (played by accomplish film character actor Steve Buscemi), become on-screen regulars (at least through the first several episodes of season 5). They, too, are well integrated into story. There are character sub-plots about each of them, but these ultimately center around Tony and how he deals with differences of opinion and unwanted behavior under his leadership of the organization. Plus, the Tony B. character arc is just fun. He's a person you feel good rooting for because while he was a criminal in the past he's trying really hard in the present to go 100% legit... with some slips and falls along the way.



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Golden Eagle

D'oh! My Back, part 2

Late yesterday morning my back gave out. When I saw my my doctor in the afternoon she said it's likely a pinched nerve in a muscle— which, while painful, is less bad than other things it could be, such a herniated disc. We won't know for sure, though, until scans come back.

Getting those scans is more of a process than it ought to be. First, I waited a few hours to see my doctor. That was partly by my choice. I figured I could go to the emergency care clinic right away... and have to wait there who-knows-how long, easily an hour or two, sitting in a room with people choking and gasping with Covid-19 symptoms. As if being in a room with people with a contagious disease wouldn't be bad enough, just sitting there would be painful. Instead I was able to get an appointment at 2pm with my own doctor, which meant I could stay at home, lying down, until time to drive over to the clinic 2.5 miles away, then wait a few minutes at worst without being surrounded by unvaccinated plague sufferers.

The next step was getting x-rays. It was really a bullshit next step; the kind of soft-tissue injury I likely have will not show up on an x-ray. It needs an MRI. But health insurance companies routinely require pre-authorization for MRI, and part of that pre-authorization is demanding that an x-ray come back inconclusive first.

Getting an x-ray meant going to a different clinic. And that meant another hour or so wait in line before getting the scans. Then the x-ray itself was a ridiculously process, involving a 5-axis scanner in a huge room. Whatever happened to, "Okay, stand here, ZAP!, done"? It probably costs 20x this way, which is sadly part of the reason why they do it.

It'll take another 1-2 days for my doctor to get the results, then she'll have to order an MRI... which may require a few days to schedule, then a few days to get results back. With any luck I might be better by the time they figure out what's wrong with me!

Anyway, after the ridiculously thorough x-ray I picked up a few prescriptions at the pharmacy. I've got a muscle relaxant and a prescription strength pain pill (naproxen). Starting on those loosened my back enough and lessened the pain enough that I could walk around the house at slow speed and do things like occasionally sit and stand without falling over in pain.



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Golden Eagle

D'oh! My Back

My back gave out on me today. I was taking a leak around 11 and all of a sudden I almost fell over in the bathroom. A bolt of pain shot through my lower back and my right leg went weak. It felt like I'd been stabbed or shot.

I managed to finish my business without pissing myself and tried to see if I could walk it off. Walking was difficult and I needed to brace myself against the walls. I decided to lie down in bed. Even that (getting into bed) was painful, though it was better once I was laying flat— except when I tried to roll to shift positions.

After 5 minutes I tried to get up from bed. I couldn't. It was not only painful but my muscles froze when I tried. My body simply would not let me play through the pain. I phoned Hawk to come home and help me.

Hawk came home with take-out food for us to have for lunch. Again I tried getting out of bed, figuring I'd try to get to the dining room table, but again my body said, "Nope, not happening" when I tried to get out of bed. Instead I ate a picnic lunch while propped up on pillows.

With food in my stomach I popped a bunch of ibuprofen and a few acetaminophen to dull the pain. They only helped a little. They were enough, though, for me to managed to get out of bed an hour later to go my doctor's office. While getting out of bed was a minutes-long process of trial and (painful) error, one I was up standing and even walking weren't so bad. But sitting back down, such in the car to get to the clinic? D'oh!

To be continued....



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Wiseguy

The Sopranos: Paulie Becomes Awful

Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri has been one of the core characters of The Sopranos since its first episode. In the first few seasons he's portrayed sympathetically— at least comparatively for a member of an organized crime gang. "Honor among thieves," etc. But in season 3 and especially in the later part of season 4 his portrayal changes. He becomes a very unsympathetic character, showing tendencies toward sadism and rash, desperate behavior.

The change of character first appeared in season 3 when Paulie rode Christopher hard after Christopher became a "made man". Hazing the new guy would be one thing. Teaching him tough-love would be one thing. But Paulie takes it to an extent that is sadistic... and at least slightly perverted. When Christopher appeals to Tony to put a stop to it, Paulie threatens to kill him.

Also in season 3 we saw Paulie's growing rashness. In the memorable Pine Barrens episode I wrote about, the whole situation of Paulie and Christopher getting lost in the woods and almost dying is precipitated by Paulie choosing to escalate things with a guy who paid them their money but wasn't polite enough (in Paulie's eyes) about paying it. Through Christopher's POV, and indeed from how we see guys like Tony behave, we know that other guys in Paulie's position would've shown better judgment and not picked a fight over such a minor slight.

Two developments in season 4 reveal Paulie as a really awful person. In s4ep8 Paulie finally settles his elderly mother in an expensive care home, but she is ostracized by women she's known for years. Paulie threatens the son of one of the women, who's a high school principal, telling him to tell his mom to be nicer to Mrs. Gualtieri. Then Collapse )

What's so wrong with this, in the context of a gangster story where everyone's awful? It's awful because it's using violence over such a trivial matter. Compare it to Big Pussy's explanation about when he decided to turn against the gang and become a rat. He was offended that Tony ordered him to find a car belonging to a school teacher that had been stolen by low-level criminals. Big Pussy felt it was so far below him (or anyone at his level in the gang) to use violence and face risk over such trivial things that he considered it a reason to break his oath to the gang.

The second thing in season 4 that shows Paulie to be a really awful person is how he hurts an innocent person in s4ep12. Collapse )

One of the themes of The Sopranos is that careful, judicious people survive and advance, while rash and violent people die— either at the hands of people they cross, or at the behest of their own superiors who deem them a hazard to the organization. In light of this I believe the writers are laying the groundwork for Paulie to get whacked by his own people.



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Wiseguy

La Niña, Atmospheric River, Bomb Cyclone

The SF Bay Area and much of Northern California have been getting soaked with rain this weekend. There are a variety of names used to describe the weather phenomena at play: La Niña, Atmospheric River, and Bomb Cycle. What's in a name?

La Niña: Spanish for "baby girl" this name sounds downright mild. It describes a condition where waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean are warmer than normal. This shifts around the prevailing winds in a way that gives the Pacific Northwest rainier weather and the US Southwest drier weather. La Niña conditions last for a year or longer at a time.

Atmospheric River: This one sounds like it could go either way. Rivers are good, right? But rivers are also dangerous, and can flood. This name describes an atmospheric condition where wind currents carry warm, moist air from the tropics to the West Coast. It lasts for a few days at a time and dumps rain on us.

Bomb Cyclone: Okay, I gotta say, nothing sounds good about this name. A cyclone is a violent weather thing like a tornado. And a bomb? Either one on its own is bad; put them together and it's like... I dunno... a sharknado?


So, all three of these are happening at the same time in California right now, bringing us heavy rain and high winds. While we desperately need rain to replenish drought stricken reservoirs and groundwater tables the amount of rain we're getting all at once has oversaturated the ground, causing flash floods and slides. And the wind's a hazard, too.

Near where I live the weather has been relatively mild. We've had 1-2 inches of rain in the past 24 hours plus occasionally gusty winds. Elsewhere in the Bay Area rainfall has been 4 inches, 5 inches, up to 10+ inches in some places. And winds have been fierce enough to topple trees, knock out power lines, and flip over trucks on highways.




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Golden Eagle

1 Killed, 1 Injured in Gun Accident on Film Set

It's been above-the-fold news here in the US the past few days that a gun accident occurred on the set of the film Rust in New Mexico on Thursday. Well known actor Alec Baldwin was handed a prop gun he was told was "cold"— meaning not loaded with ammunition— yet when he used it during rehearsal of a shooting scene it fired a projectile, striking two people. Director of photography Halyna Hutchins was killed and movie director Joel Souza was injured.

I've held off writing about this for a few days as I hoped clearer details would emerge. Sadly the facts remains unrevealed. Police are still investigating, and the film production company is denying or no-commenting everything. Statements from members of the film crew, some on the record and some off, paint a damning picture. One crew walked off the set that morning over safety protocols being ignored, and there have been past complaints against assistant director David Halls— the person who declared "Cold gun!" as he handed the weapon to Baldwin— for cutting corners on gun safety practices.

So, evidently the gun handed to Baldwin was not only not "cold", it was also not loaded with blanks. Apparently it contained a real bullet. One thing I wonder is, WTF? Why would live ammunition be anywhere on a movie set? Blanks are enough to create the recoil and muzzle flash of firing a gun, the things filmmakers want to capture for verisimilitude.

Then of course there's the obvious problem of safety practices not being followed. Even blanks are dangerous. In 1993 actor Brandon Lee was killed in an accident during filming of action/sci-fi movie The Crow when a blank round discharged a metal fragment that was lodged inside a gun. Thus there are industry practices for how to manage the use of guns as props on movie sets. They were ignored here.



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money

IHG Rewards Card Earns its Keep

Recently I completed another year of owning the Chase IHG Rewards Club card. I've had this particular account for 4 years now but it's actually my third such card. Altogether I've had some incarnation of this card in my wallet for most of the past 10+ years.

For me to own a credit card for 10 years, even if off-and-on, you'd expect it'd be a great bargain, something I'd make frequent use of. You'd be about half right. 😅 It is a bargain, even though I barely use it. Last year I charged nothing on it, and it still came out with a net value of $122. This year I charged a bit over $1,000 of purchases on it. Is it still worth it? Let's check the score.

Chase IHG Rewards CardI charged $1,150 to this card in the past 12 months and earned 5,730 points. That works out to almost 5 points per dollar charged. That's well higher than the card's ordinary rewards rate of 2 points per dollar spent on gas, grocery, and restaurant charges, and 1 per dollar on everything else. I got to 5x because Chase and IHG ran a promo for 3 months offering a total reward of 5x on all charges. I shifted my eligible spend to this card for those months to hit the bonus then shifted it back to cards that pay better.

Points, More Points, and a Free Night

Those 5,730 points aren't all I earned, though. I piled on almost 14,000 more points in rebates for points I spend on award nights staying at IHG hotels. That's one big reason I've kept this card all these years— it pays a 10% rebate on points spent. As long as I have points to spend on award nights, this card stretched them further. I value IHG points at 0.7 cents apiece, so the 19,680 I earned in total are worth $137.76.

In addition to this 10% rebate on points redeemed the card also pays a free night certificate each year at renewal time. I've been able to make these certs worth $150 each. That's the other reason I keep this card even though it charges an annual fee of $49. The cert alone is worth 3x the cost.

Okay, so let's net it out. The benefits are $137.76 + $150. The costs are $49 for the annual fee plus $23 opportunity cost— the value of cash back I could otherwise have earned charging the same purchases to a 2% cash back, no fee credit card. The benefits minus the cost yield a net value of $215.76. That's better than last year's net by almost $100. I'll keep this card at least another year.

Footnote: Churning, but not Here

"Wait a  minute," you might think. "You're not churning?"

In the past I turbocharged the number of points I earned from credit cards by churning them: opening new cards frequently to earn their big signup bonuses, then canceling them after a year or two to lather, rinse, repeat. A few things have changed since then. For one, the rules of the game have changed. The banks wised up to how churners play the game— BTW I was far from the big players at churning— and tightened restrictions on eligibility for signup bonuses. I do still churn, but much slower than before.

Two, this particular card isn't offered anymore! Chase and IHG now offer a different card. It's at bit more up-market, with slightly richer benefits and a higher annual fee. Those of us with the old card are able to keep it; they're not closing down accounts or converting them.

I signed up for the new card, too. That's totally allowed, and the benefits stack nicely with this old card. And since the new card is still open for new accounts and offers lucrative signup bonuses, I'm going to churn it when it comes up for renewal soon.



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coronavirus

Hawk Gets her Shot

After writing this morning about how Moderna and J&J Covid-19 vaccines are now approved for booster shots in the US I reminded Hawk to check for appointments to get her booster. When she looked Thursday night it was too soon after the CDC's approval; clinics hadn't updated their systems to provide shots under the new policy yet.

This morning (Saturday morning) appointments were available at CVS, a local pharmacy/drug store chain we've been customers of for years, but they were being snapped up quickly. When I checked availability there were appointments available throughout the day Tuesday at local stores. Ten minutes later, in the span of time it took Hawk to enter her insurance information, those were all gone and the earliest date available was the following Monday. In the time it took her to click to a different store to see if they had anything sooner and click back, Monday was all booked up. She booked for Tuesday— 10 days away!

Hawk checked back on CVS's website throughout the afternoon to see if anything sooner opened up. It seems like CVS was releasing new appointments all day. She traded up to an appointment late next week then again to an appointment Tuesday night— only 3 days away. Finally, as she kept looking late this afternoon she found one just before dinnertime. She booked it, hopped in the car 30 minutes later, and got her shot. Now we're both boosted!



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Wiseguy

The Sopranos Pulls Out of its Season 4 Slump

Ironically just 1 episode after I complained about The Sopranos season 4 hitting a slump the series picked up its pace again. In s4ep9, "Whoever Did This", Ralphie become distraught after his son is injured in an accident. He shows some character growth by reckoning with some of the bad ways he's treated people... but in his grief he also starts losing control and does something awful that enrages Tony.

Collapse )

In the next episode, "The Strong, Silent Type", the picked-up pace continues. We see another scene of Christopher's heroin use— one of the things that made the mid-season episodes tedious— but now this arc of the story reaches a climax. Christopher hits a new low with his fiancee, Adriana. Collapse )

Christopher's friends and family stage an intervention. They enlist the help of distant associate of the gang who's a recovered drug addict. He's actually a good guy who's very patient and tries facilitate a positive, "by the book" intervention. It's humorous, though, that he thinks these gang thugs never confronted anyone about a problem. They threaten and beat people frequently! The intervention starts out gently, but gangsters Paulie and Silvio predictably lose their cool and start beating Christopher up in front of everyone, including his mother— who eggs them on! (Christopher and his mom have a strained relationship. That was shown at the end of the episode where he learns who killed his father.)

Christopher enters a drug rehab clinic after Tony makes it clear to him it's that "or else".



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