All posts by Steven W Cheung

“The Century of the Self” series

Similar to the “Arithmetic, Population, and Energy” video, this series ranks right up there as a “Must Watch.”  I was fortunate enough to find and watch this a couple years ago on Youtube (before its removal), and rediscovered it this week – so I wanted to share it with all of you.

I’ll let the Wikipedia description summarize the series (it does so perfectly):

“This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” —Adam Curtis’ introduction to the first episode.

The series describes the propaganda that Western governments and corporations have utilized stemming from Freud’s theories.

Along these general themes, The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of modern consumerism, representative democracy, commodification and its implications. It also questions the modern way we see ourselves, the attitudes to fashion and superficiality.

The Century of the Self: Engineering of Consent

The Century of the Self: Happiness Machines



Tenants – Make your apartment search easier!

Looking for an apartment?  Having been a tenant myself, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the search!  For example: Where do you start the search?  What are the most effective ways to find a new place?

Here are some tips and tricks to minimize hassle, get access to as many options as possible, and rent the apartment you want!

  • 1. Figure out “What you’re looking for”

Do you know what you want?  Being an Admin for the Nassau County for Rent group, I see vague, nondescript requests often. (How can we find what we’re looking for, if we don’t KNOW what we’re looking for?)

So – the first thing to do is to determine what would we like to have in terms of:

– Number of bedrooms & bathrooms (easy)

– Max monthly budget : Renting for the first time and unsure of what’s a “safe” budget?  Take your monthly income and multiply it by 0.35.  This is a common “safe number” or ratio between housing expenses vs monthly income.

– Target towns / areas for the apartment : Be as thorough as possible.  The more specific town names you have, the easier the search will be!

– Pets permitted : Do you have to bring a pet with you?  If so, seriously think about this question – most properties DO NOT allow pets of any kind, so by having / bringing a pet, a huge number of properties are no longer available as an option.

  • 2. Have ready and on hand “what you have to offer” 

Unlike buying an off-the-shelf item, apartments are a limited commodity, and their availability is generally controlled by its landlord or apartment manager.  To maximize your chances of securing the apartment you want – it pays to be prepared BEFORE starting the search!  Here are some items to prep before / while searching for the ideal apartment:

– a. How is your credit?
(i.e. Can you show that you will pay on time?)

This will be one of the most commonly asked questions in your apartment search.  Most landlords these days will likely require a credit check- so it’s in your best interest to check it BEFOREHAND!  Learn how by clicking / reading here:

Tenants : Why you need to check your credit – and how to do it for FREE (No Credit Card, No BS)!

By having your credit report ready and on hand, you’ll help improve your chances of success and cut down the time required to find the right place!

– b. How much do you earn per month/year?
(i.e. Can you prove that you can afford this place?)

Along the same lines as the credit report, have your last 2-3 pay stubs handy!  These will show your income, which many landlords use as a measure of ability to pay.

As a general rule of thumb, some landlords target to a 35 percent gross income to housing ratio. (What this means is:  Say if you make $1000 per month. Of that $1000. landlords would generally would not want their renter to to spend more than $350 per month on rent.)

Note that not all landlords use this calculation as a qualifier, so it may not be a big deal. However, keep in mind that you’ll likely be competing against others for the same apartment – so targeting apartments that fit into this ratio will help you “win” the search!

– c. Are your funds for rental & security deposits liquid and ready to move?
(i.e. Can you sign the lease, or should the landlord keep looking?)

Time is money – so landlords & PMs hate having an unoccupied unit.  If you fit the landlord’s bill for credit & income requirements – the last hurdle would be getting funds ready to sign the lease!

If you don’t have your funds ready yet, seriously consider postponing.  Otherwise, you may find it all in vain if you find the perfect place – but it was passed along to someone else since the funds aren’t available to secure the place.

How much should we save?  Typically, landlords would expect 1 month’s rent + 1 month security (2 months total).  If you’re using an agent, add another month for their commission (3 months’ total).  Some areas may require 1st and last month’s rent + security (3 months total + agent, if applicable).

  • 3. Start your search, and narrow down the list

Got the criteria above figured out?  Awesome!  It’s now time to  start looking!  This article by yours truly covers the topic nicely:

Top FREE resources for finding your next apartment

Best of luck in the search!

Defending PCs against Malware, Spyware, & Virii

I’ve been getting more requests as of late for an article to cover PC security.  While user education is ultimately the best way to keep a PC running well, setting up the right protection before beginning your journey into Cyberspace will also help prevent problems from occurring in the first place.

Fortunately – getting the right protection doesn’t mean having to pay alot!  Here is a list of FREE software that you can download TODAY to help keep your PC running in top notch condition!

  • Change your default browser

Start by clamping down one of the most vulnerable spots on your computer – your internet browser.  “Drive by downloads” and much malware enter in through browser vulnerabilities. Download one of these two browsers (or both!) to stymie this threat!

FireFox (Opinion: Better privacy / no Google spying)

Chrome: (Opinion: Faster overall performance, less buggy/quirky)

These browsers auto update w. the latest versions as they are released – making sure you’re patched against the latest vulnerabilities.

  • Add an Ad-Blocker

Next, add an ad-blocker for your browser.  Many ads are designed to be “clickbait” – causing malware / spyware to potentially be loaded.  Eliminate this vector altigether by installing Ad Blocker Plus –  available for either of the above browsers:

Adblocker Plus:

  • Add Anti-virus, Anti-spyware, and Anti-malware programs

Next, since there’s no perfect defense, it’s time to add some memory resident program / scanners to shield against “bad” downloads in real-time, as items are being downloaded & stored onto your PC:

Malware Bytes

Spyware Search and Destroy

For Antivirus, read these articles for free anti-virus, and choose what you think is best!

By having the protections above – a auto-updating browser, ad blockers, plus built-in defenses against bad downloads – we are several steps closer to keeping a PC running healthy.

Best of luck!

Top FREE resources for finding your next apartment

Ready to start your apartment search?  Here’s a list of some great websites to start the search online – from the comfort of your chair!

Craigslist – Click on ‘Apts / Housing’
Yahoo! –
RentBits – Click on ‘Rental Search’
AOL Real Estate
Oodle – Click on “For Rent” to filter out item sales – Click on your location, then “Rentals” category
Geebo – Click on “Rentals/Roomates”
Yakaz –  Note: This is a compilation search engine
Trovit – Click on “Homes” (Note: This is a compilation search engine)

(Listing updated July 11, 2015)

Alright – with all the resources above, have you found a bunch of potential options yet?  If not, or if you want even more options, consider your local:

Pennysaver / Town Crier / Newspapers:  Some small, non-PC savvy landlords still do advertise – don’t dismiss it!

Supermarket bulletin boards : Like print media ads, non-PC savvy landlords may also use a local bulletin board.

Real Agent : Help the apartment you want FASTER with help!

“Whoa – an Agent?  I may have to pay for that!”

Alot of people write off the help of an agent because of the cost associated.  However, having known many landlords – one should be aware that the best properties may NEVER be offered / shown as an option online – and these places would ONLY be available behind these Gatekeepers.   If the search doesn’t go well – seriously consider working with a Real Agent!  You may find that the number of available option can DOUBLE – since you now have access to many more “private” listings.

Tenants : Why you need to check your credit – and how to do it for FREE (No Credit Card, No BS)!

These days, more and more landlords are relying on credit checks for potential applicants before any lease offer is made.  Thus, it’s absolutely critical that one checks their credit report, fix any mistakes / errors, and be prepared to explain any negative remarks when hunting for an apartment!

I’m sure you’ve seen the plethora of “Free Credit Check Offers” that promise a free credit report… but once you visit those sites they invariably ask you for credit card information to “sign you up for a free trial, which turns into a 4.99/9.99/19.99 subscription if you forget to cancel!”


Here are two places where you can get a REAL credit report for FREE (Yes – you can put away your credit cards):

    This is the first and ONLY site set up by the big three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, & Transunion) in the United States, to furnish free annual credit reports, as required by federal law.  Accept no imitators (well, maybe except CreditKarma – see below).  A full discussion on can be found by clicking here.
    Unlike, you’ll get your FICO credit score. This site’s business model is ad-based, so how they make their money is to send emails / offers to your inbox.  Just set your junk mail filters carefully – and all will be well!  A full discussion on CreditKarma can be found by clicking here.

OK, so we’ve got our credit reports – what now?

Once you have the report, PDF/save/print it, and be prepared to submit it along with any apartment application.  (Note: Most landlords will still want to confirm the info provided & get an independent credit report – expect this to happen, as this is perfectly normal.)

If you have good-excellent credit: Great news!  Having this info available on demand will put you ahead of the pack!

Conversely – if the credit reports show up blemishes, review it now/see why it is, & make sure it’s accurate! (Wrong / bad info can often be corrected.)  If the negative remarks are accurate, be prepared to explain how the issues happened – and what you can offer to the decision maker (either landlord or property manager / “PM”) to help guarantee against late / non-payments from occurring again.  (i.e. You’ll need to convince the decision maker that payment problems won’t happen.)

Hint: Have fair, bad, no credit?  A possible work around is to offer additional months of security (that are refundable after a certain amount of time passing with on time payments) and/or higher than asking rents may do the trick. (Doesn’t always work though – but the worse they can say is “no!”)

Best of luck in the search!

Landlords: 17 Key Items to Include in Your Next Rental Listing

As the old saying goes – “time is money.” So, when you’re ready to market your rental property & find a tenant – you have to ask yourself: “How much time do you spend finding your tenants?”

To maximize efficiency – i.e. eliminating unnecessary exchanges and questions by providing answers up front – here are 17 key pieces of info that you should list to minimize wasted time – making your tenant search faster and simpler!

1. How many bedrooms / what rooms are present?

2. Is this a basement, 1st Floor, 2nd Floor apartment, part of a duplex, or a whole house?

3. Where is the property? (If you don’t want to give away the address, list the intersection – or at least list the town, at minimum.)

4. Is off-street parking permitted? If not, how many spots are included? (Why? In some towns – like Valley Stream, Lynbrook – that don’t allow overnight parking, this should be fully disclosed to save yourself the hassle of wasting time on a tenant that may have too many cars!)

5. Which school district is this in? (Big for some Long Islanders, you’ll save yourself alot of unnecessary Q&A by listing the school district up front.)

6. Do you have photos? (If not – use your smartphone and start taking pictures! If you want to get more tenant responses, you’ll need pictures!)

7. Are utilities included? (If so, what’s included?)

8. Are pets allowed? (If so, what pets are permitted?)

9. Are smokers allowed?

10. How much is the rent & security deposit?

11. Is there a lease required? (If so, for how long?)

12. Will you require a credit check? If so, what are your credit requirements? (Stating this upfront will eliminate alot of unnecessary appointments from unqualified tenants!)

13. Do you accept programs / Section 8? (It’s ok not to accept – better to state so up front, so there’s no surprises when someone’s inquiring.)

14. Is there an application fee to be considered as a tenant?

15. When will the apartment be available? (Some tenants like to start looking early and be moving 2-3 months from now, while others are looking to move ASAP. Eliminate yet another unnecessary question up front!)

16a. Are you the owner? (If so, state so, since it’ll be assumed that there’s no fee involved.)

16b. …or, are you the agent? Or, are there any fees involved? (If so, state the fee structure; e.g. 1 month’s rent.)

17. Lastly, leave a phone number or email address for contact!

Hint: If you don’t want to leave your real phone number, get a GoogleVoice number and have it forward to your cell phone!

After making your listing, save it! It’ll come in handy in the future when the property is vacant again – so you can easily repost it!

Best of luck!

How come today’s workers are making less & not “getting ahead”, when we are more productive than ever?

Every so often, I come across an article or comments that bear along the lines of:

“If today’s worker is more productive then the workers of yester-decade, why aren’t we getting further ahead? Shouldn’t we be all working only a couple of days a week instead of the 35-40+ hour standard workweek?”

Besides the fact that globalization has changed the value of what “productive work” is in America (which is another whole discussion altogether that I’d like to visit at some point), the other costs of living – such as housing and health insurance – may actually be the driving force behind where most of our productivity gains have gone.

Housing is pretty easy to explain.  Just take a look at the following chart, courtesy of Federal Reserve Bank:

FRED - CPI Rent vs Avg Hourly Earnings

In short, housing has kept up over 500%, since the 1970’s.  This easily explains why the “boomers” were seemingly able to purchase a home and fund a number of what appear now to be luxuries with far, far less income.

OK, so housing has gone up – so why have real wages seemingly gone down so rapidly? (i.e. why do most folks feel like they are just ‘treading water?’)

More interestingly – not only has housing increased, but Health Insurance costs may perhaps be the second major component to the problem of “declining wages”  Take a look here:

FRED - Housing + Health

As one can easily see – combining housing + health insurance costs, as a % of total employee compensation (or pay, in short) – steadily increased from 27-30% or so in the early 1970’s – to 56%+ (close to DOUBLE) in the present day.

Understanding the incredible increase in healthcare costs in terms of lost wages may be a bit tricky.  Unlike rent or a mortgage payment which is clearly paid by the employee – health care costs, besides being available with a myriad of options and also having a portion of it being covered by the employer – employees may not be as easy to “see” its true costs .

As a basic example, at my company, a plan with “pretty good” family coverage is about $1500/month. This works out to about $18000/year.

With median household income at less than $60000 a year[1], just healthcare alone is 30% of the PRE-TAX budget of an average family!

“But hold-up.. isn’t New York’s living expenses much higher?
Don’t New Yorkers earn alot more than the average US family?
Shouldn’t that increase be also taken into account?”

OK – let’s look at up… Unfortunately, the increase really isn’t much, at $58003 [2] . Working out the math, we’re STILL at over 30% of PRE-TAX dollars being spent on health insurance.

“But wait… it can’t be 30% of my budget.  Don’t most employers split or cover a portion of the cost of health insurance?”

Therein lies the issue.  Even with productivity increases, the increasing cost of just health insurance alone whittles away at many businesses abilities to increase their employee’s salaries accordingly when average yearly increases were in the realm of 10-11% per year. [3]

Granted, this rate is coming down with ACA / Obamacare being in affect in the past couple of years – but the increases have been happening for a long time.  For this article, let’s take a look at the more historical, longer time horizon perspective.

So, let’s do some quick math.  Let’s assume that:
– Our NY family earns the average $58000 income, pre-tax
– Health insurance takes up about 30% of a family’s actual compensation package / cost.
– The employer covers about 50% of this cost.
– The average annual increase in health insurance cost is 10%

So.. that works out to an average annual increase in $1800/year for insurance, or about  3.1% of the $58000 salary.

With this increase, whether the company or employee pays for it becomes immaterial.  Bottom line – before taking into account inflation, an average family is “losing” ~3% of their income / earning capabilities just because of rising health insurance costs.

Envision this – the company wants to give you a 5-7% raise…  but by the time they either cover the 3% increase in cost themselves, or deduct it off your paycheck – you’re only actually getting a paltry 2-4% NET.

So, forgetting Globalization for the moment, it’s easy to see how the two prongs of ever rising cost of housing plus exponentially increasing health insurance costs can easily cause the average worker’s income is flat-lining (or decreasing really, in real / inflation-adjusted dollar terms).


[1] –

[2] –

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[WSJ] Best Books for Investors: A Short Shelf

Jason Zweig, a columnist over at the WSJ, published the following list of recommended books on investing. With the myriad of choices available and limited time, it may be helpful for those looking for some “vetted” reading material.  Enjoy!

Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich, Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them

In clear, simple prose, Belsky and Gilovich explain some of the most common quirks that cause people to make foolish financial decisions. If you read this book, you should be able to recognize most of them in yourself and have a fighting chance of counteracting some of them. Otherwise, you will end up learning about your cognitive shortcomings the hard way: at the Wall Street campus of the School of Hard Knocks.

Peter L. Bernstein, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

The late polymath Peter Bernstein poured a long lifetime of erudition and insight into this intellectual history of risk, luck, probability and the problems of trying to forecast what the future holds. Combining a stupendous depth of research with some of the most elegant prose ever written about finance, Bernstein chronicles the halting human march toward a better understanding of risk—and reminds us that, after centuries of progress, we still have a long way to go.

John C. Bogle, Common Sense on Mutual Funds

The founder of the Vanguard Group and father of the index-fund industry methodically sorts fact from fiction. Following his logical arguments can benefit you even if you never invest in a mutual fund, since Bogle touches on just about every crucial aspect of investing, including taxes, trading costs, diversification, performance measurement and the power of patience.

Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton, Triumph of the Optimists

Neither light reading nor cheap (it’s hard to find online for less than about $75), this book is the most thoughtful and objective analysis of the long-term returns on stocks, bonds, cash and inflation available anywhere, purged of the pom-pom waving and statistical biases that contaminate other books on the subject. The sober conclusion here: Stocks are likely, although not certain, to be the highest-performing asset over the long run. But if you overpay at the top of a bull market, your future returns on stocks will probably be poor.

Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! or What Do You Care What Other People Think?

These captivating oral histories of the great Nobel Prize-winning physicist ostensibly have nothing to do with investing. In my view, however, the three qualities an investor needs above all others are independence, skepticism and emotional self-control. Reading Feynman’s recollections of his career of intellectual discovery, you’ll see how hard he worked at honing his skepticism and learning to think for himself. You’ll also be inspired to try emulating him in your own way.

Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor

Originally published in 1949, called by Warren Buffett “by far the best book on investing ever written,” this handbook covers far more than just how to determine how much a company’s stock is worth. Graham discusses how to allocate your capital across stocks and bonds, how to analyze mutual funds, how to take inflation into account, how to think wisely about risk and, especially, how to understand yourself as an investor. After all, as Graham wrote, “the investor’s chief problem—and even his worst enemy—is likely to be himself.” (Disclosure: I edited the 2003 revised edition and receive a royalty on its sales.) Advanced readers can move on to Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, Security Analysis, the much longer masterpiece upon which The Intelligent Investor is based.

Darrell Huff, How to Lie with Statistics

This puckish riff on how math can be manipulated is only 142 pages; most people could read it on a train ride or two, or in an afternoon at the beach. As light as the book is, however, it is nevertheless profound. In one short take after another, Huff picks apart the ways in which marketers use statistics, charts, graphics and other ways of presenting numbers to baffle and trick the public. The chapter “How to Talk Back to a Statistic” is a brilliant step-by-step guide to figuring out how someone is trying to deceive you with data.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Successful investing isn’t about outsmarting the next guy, but rather about minimizing your own stupidity. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2oo2, probably understands how the human mind works better than anyone else alive. This book can make you think more deeply about how you think than you ever thought possible. As Kahneman would be the first to say, that can’t inoculate you completely against your own flaws. But it can’t hurt, and it might well help. (Disclosure: I helped Kahneman research, write and edit the book, although I don’t earn any royalties from it.)

Charles P. Kindleberger, Manias, Panics, and Crashes

In this classic, first published in 1978, the late financial economist Charles Kindleberger looks back at the South Sea Bubble, Ponzi schemes, banking crises and other mass disturbances of purportedly efficient markets. He explores the common features of market disruptions as they build and burst. If you remember nothing from the book other than Kindleberger’s quip, “There is nothing so disturbing to one’s well-being and judgment as to see a friend get rich,” you are ahead of the game.

Roger Lowenstein, Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist

This book remains the most comprehensive and illuminating study of Warren Buffett’s investing and analytical methods, covering his career in remarkable detail up until the mid-1990s. If you read it in conjunction with Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball, you will have a fuller grasp on what makes the world’s greatest investor tick.

Burton G. Malkiel, A Random Walk Down Wall Street

In this encyclopedic and lively book, Malkiel, a finance professor at Princeton University, bases his judgments on rigorous and objective analysis of long-term data. The first edition, published in 1973, is widely credited with helping foster the adoption of index funds. The latest edition casts a skeptical eye on technical analysis, “smart beta” and other market fashions.

Bertrand Russell, [Sceptical Essays or The Scientific Outlook](Sceptical Essays or The Scientific Outlook)

Russell is Buffett’s favorite philosopher, and these short essay collections show why. Russell wrote beautifully and thought with crystalline clarity. Immersing yourself in his ideas will sharpen your own skepticism. My favorite passage: “When a man tells you that he knows the exact truth about anything, you are safe in inferring that he is an inexact man…. It is an odd fact that subjective certainty is inversely proportional to objective certainty. The less reason a man has to suppose himself in the right, the more vehemently he asserts that there is no doubt whatever that he is exactly right.” Think about that the next time a financial adviser begins a sentence with the words “Studies have proven that….”

Alice Schroeder, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

With unprecedented access to Buffett, Schroeder crafted a sensitive, personal and insightful profile, focusing even more on him as a person than as an investor—and detailing the remarkable sacrifices he made along the way. If you read it alongside Lowenstein’s Buffett, you will have an even deeper understanding of the master.

Fred Schwed, Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?

First published in 1940, this is the funniest book ever written about investing—and one of the wisest. Schwed, a veteran of Wall Street who survived the Crash of 1929, knew exactly how the markets worked back then. Nothing has changed. Turning to any page at random, you will find gleefully sarcastic observations that ring at least as true today as they did three-quarters of a century ago. My favorite: “At the end of the day [fund managers] take all the money and throw it up in the air. Everything that sticks to the ceiling belongs to the clients.”

“Adam Smith,” The Money Game

In the late 1960s, the stock market was dominated by fast-talking, fast-trading young whizzes. The former money manager George J.W. Goodman, who wrote under the pen name “Adam Smith,” christened them “gunslingers.” In this marvelously entertaining book, Goodman skewers the pretensions, guesswork and sheer hogwash of professional money management. Reading his mockery can help sharpen your own skepticism toward the next great new investing idea—which almost certainly will turn out to be neither great nor new.

Have you read any of these books yourself?  Feel free to share your  thoughts & feedback!