Friday, June 25, 2004

E*Trade Flat Fee Trading...Not So Fast

In just 3 years, I've gone from not even knowing how to get started investing to a good understanding of technical analysis. My trades all executed with either E*Trade Securities, LLC or Scottrade. I maintained my mutual funds and, early on, played with trading some lower priced stocks in an E*Trade account. Spending $19.99 for limit orders, trading frequently at E*Trade was difficult given the amount of money I had available (for active trading, a rountrip over 2% is too much) causing me to move active trading to Scottrade.

Somewhere along the way, E*Trade introduced an order processing fee. This meant that instead of paying $19.99 for a limit order, I was now paying $22.99 for that order. If E*Trade needs more money per trade to be profitable, I can understand that, but my issue with their move is that they continue to advertise trades at the lower dollar amount when clearly you will never pay that amount. Scottrade has a similar practice where they pass through some exchange fees on sales orders, but in their case, it is typically only $0.07.

After achieving a 10% profit in the 5 months leading up to the Iraq War, I took my small amount of money out of Scottrade to use to buy my wife a 10th anniversary present. Since then, my only equity trading account has been an E*Trade account. Today, I reviewed E*Trade's higher volume trading accounts to see if I could stick with one broker instead of maintaining multiple brokerage accounts. Unfortunately, I found out by reading the SMALL PRINT that I cannot.

E*Trade's Priority Account page tells all about $12.99 flat fee limit orders. It's still higher than $7 at Scottrade, but it might be worth it to deal only with one brokerage. Knowing after my order processing fee experience that there might be a catch, I scrolled down and found a link for additional information about the offer. Clicking the link revealed the real flat fee amongst other things.

E*Trade in fact intends for everyone to pay the $3 order processing fee. Even the Priority and Power E*Trade accounts carry the order processing fee as an extra. Additionally, they are not actually flat fees. E*Trade charges the normal rate of $19.99 until the customer reaches whatever trading quota has been met on the account. Once met, the fees switch to the lower rate and excessive charges are refunded at the end of the quarter. Additionally, there's a $0.01/share fee for orders over 5,000 shares.

So much for $12.99 flat fees.

Experts tell you early and often to read the fine print and see if a broker plans to nickel and dime you to death, but they often recommend E*Trade in the same breath. Let's call a spade a spade...E*Trade IS a "nickel and dime you to death" broker. It's unfortunate, too, as they have a lot of nice products and services and provide a nice place to centralize bank accounts, mortgages, loans, brokerage accounts, retirement, etc. Because of their good points, I will continue to use them, but I intend to keep all of my equity and options trading elsewhere.

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Thursday, June 24, 2004

Album Review: Velvet Revolver -- Contraband

It finally happened, and I was caught sleeping at the wheel. Driving home the other day, I heard the DJ on the local hard rock station introduce Velvet Revolver, Slither and proceed to list the band members. To my surprise, that list included Slash, Duff, and Matt Sorum of Guns N' Roses fame. The frontman, former Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Wylan, came as a surprise, but I was nonetheless anxious to hear if the true GN'R sound was back. After the joke that was Guns N' Roses return at the MTV Music Awards a few years back, anything seemed possible.

Fortunately, Slash and company did not disappoint. While Wylan's voice lends that Pearl Jam / Stone Temple Pilots "sound" to the tracks, you can hear the GN'R-style guitar, not the Use Your Illusion I & II sound but the Appetite and earlier sound...coming right through. Each song powers through a new, hard-driving guitar line with Wylan blending in surprisingly well.

It wasn't much more than a day before I had bought the CD on the iTunes Music Store and burned a copy to keep in the truck with me. Audioslave (highly recommended) finally got booted out of my 10-year-old, nothing-works truck CD player in favor of Velvet Revolver. We'll see how long it can keep its position in my truck's top 1 countdown.

If you like bands like Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Guns N' Roses, and Audioslave, you should definitely check out Velvet Revolver. It's the hard rock I've always loved without all of the silly rap.

Note: The real CD includes a scheme which attempts to prevent you from playing it or ripping it on your computer. It's disappointing to see artists taking such a step, but there's part of me that can understand their reasoning. I'm sure they also have the RIAA breathing down their necks to start pushing these new DRM technologies or face a future of bankruptcy. Hopefully, iTunes and the like will continue to bring independent music up to a more even playing field with the RIAA so artists have an alternative. Read more about the protection scheme at Slashdot.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

As If Patents Weren't Already Bad Enough

It was with great interest that I read a Reuter's story about Mylan suing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over granting Johnson and Johnson a patent extension on the drug Duragesic. Apparently, Mylan planned to bring a generic version of the drug to market before being cutoff by the FDA granting a 6 month patent extension.

Patent Extension...what the hell is that? A little Googling found the answer.

Apparently, the FDA and USPTO will grant drug companies patent extensions based on the amount of marketing time lost to the FDA's approval process for the drug. This sounds a lot like big drug companies in the pockets of our representatives.

Are there examples in any other field of similar laws allowing patent extensions? Where else does our government grant patent extensions when one of their bureaucracies delays a product to market?

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Friday, June 18, 2004

Fast Food Style Bait and Switch

I like a #3 supersized with a Dr. Pepper as much as the next guy, but I don't much care for the extra fat that kind of eating has left around my midsection. In an effort to drop the spare tire, I've been trying to cut down on burgers, fries, pop, ice cream, etc. That has meant no more trips to McDonald's as nothing there could be mentioned in the same breath as the word "healthy".

To my pleasant surprise, the fast food giant brought out their Market Fresh Salads a few months ago which included a grilled chicken caesar salad, the only kind of salad I can stand to eat. Unlike the Atkins wrap craze at their competitors, McDonald's actually offered a healthy alternative (I don't consider high saturated fat healthy like some in the Atkins crowd). You can find the salad nutritional information here. Granted, the Paul Newman dressing makes it a bit higher in fat, but they have a low fat alternative and you could always toss theirs in favor of low fat Lighthouse dressing.

The real kick was that the salad tasted as good or better than any I've ever had. Adding carrots and grape tomatoes provided a nice alternative to the romaine, chicken, and dressing salads of more expensive restaurants.

Unfortunately, McDonald's hasn't kept up the quality of the salads. Instead of romaine lettuce, the last 3 salads I've eaten have been stuffed with iceberg lettuce. For most people, this is fine, but for a person who prefers romaine and pukes on a bite of iceberg, it's not fine.

It's the traditional bait and switch. I was lured by quality and switched to cheap alternatives. Every so often, I try another one thinking it was just a fluke, but it's not. McD's continues to sell me a majority of iceberg lettuce with every caesar I try. Very disappointing...I'll have to hope that one of the others takes McD's lead but sticks with quality ingredients. So far, I haven't seen a straightforward chicken caesar anywhere else.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004 The Warm and Fuzzy Front for the Lovenox Cash Cow

"Look honey, there's a commercial on television about a site for DVT treatment and prevention. What do you want to bet it's a thinly veiled advertisement for a certain pharmaceutical company that has tens of thousands of our hard-earned dollars?"

This may not have been the exact text of a one-sided conversation in our house a couple weeks back, but it conveys the basic idea.

DVT stands for Deep Vein Thrombosis. The media like to popularize the coined term "Economy Class Syndrome" as an alternative to DVT. Put simply...blood clots. Most DVT's appear during surgery, pregnancy, or long flights, but there are other potential causes such as medications (steroids, birth control pills), trauma, etc.

In 1993, my wife had a DVT that resulted in a pulmonary embolism (PE). Fortunately, she survived, and we found out she had a blood clotting disorder that could be triggered by a number of foods/medications. For the rest of her life, she will be on some kind of anti-coagulant to control the condition and decrease the possibility of another DVT/PE.

During and shortly after her hospital stay, the Doctors attempted to use Heparin to control the clotting. To their surprise, her condition did not respond well to Heparin therapy.

Most of the time, the anti-coagulant is Warfarin Sodium, better known as Coumadin. Coumadin has been around a long time starting out its life as a rat poison. Given that there are no patents encumbering its use, Coumadin is relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, it is also difficult to manage, slow acting, sensitive to minor changes in Vitamin K, and teratogenic.

We were introduced to Lovenox 6 or 7 years later when she had to have minor, outpatient surgery. Unlike Coumadin, the pharmaceutical company Aventis still has patents on Lovenox, and they use them to their financial advantage charging around $100/day (on average) for the medication in the United States.

Some insurance companies will cover Lovenox, some won't. Some will cover it at the normal medication rate (90/10, 80/20, etc.), but others will classify it specially and cover it at a rate lower than other medications. This is fine for a one week dose due to outpatient surgery, but when you have to go on Lovenox for 2 years to attempt to have a child, it can be a real problem.

Needless to say, that's what we did. Originally, we were covered at 90/10 through Cigna. Of course, 10% of $3000/month is still a lot of money. When insurance time rolled around for her company, though, our insurance changed to Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS). Now, don't get me wrong. BCBS is about as good an insurance company as you can find, but my wife's company selected a plan that classified Lovenox at a 70/30 tier. Consequently, we had to cover 30% of $3000/month. At $1000/month for a year, it was all we could do to stay out of the red.

Now, back to Aventis...a few points:

  • Lovenox Patents: The only remaining patents are 4,692,435 and 5,389,618. There are currently two generic manufacturers (Amphastar and Teva) trying to get approval from the FDA to create Lovenox generics. Aventis, as of August 2003, sued both, but they decided not to try to protect patent 435.

  • Patient Assistance, according to Aventis in 2002, has such low income requirements that most Americans would not qualify. How many of you out there can add $300, $1000, or even $3000 per month to your expenses without a problem?

  • During the two years my wife used Lovenox, we found a Canadian Pharmacy that would sell us Lovenox for 1/3 the cost of the drug in America. Given the dangers of not having Lovenox when needed, her Doctor's unwillingness to help, and the FDAs occasional crackdowns on medication shipments, we decided not to buy the drug in Canada.

So what does this have to do with you ask? Did you not notice the little Aventis logo in the upper right corner of the site? Aren't they just the most helpful bunch you've ever met?

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate the work Aventis has done bringing Lovenox to market. In fact, Lovenox played a huge role in allowing us to have a child. The problem here is that Aventis demonstrates significant greed in its pricing and business tactics.

If over 100 million people have been treated with Lovenox as they claim, did it really need to cost $50 for each syringe in the United States?

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Monday, June 14, 2004

Movie Review: Chronicles of Riddick

Back when Pitch Black was originally released in 2000, I remember thinking that the previews looked interesting. The only clip they showed was of a man spitting alcohol through a lighter flame revealing a mass of creatures surrounding him. As intrigued as I was, though, this wasn't the kind of movie my wife liked to see so we didn't make the journey to the theater. When it later appeared on DVD, I couldn't help but rent it remembering the interesting trailers of its theatrical release. In a time of retreads, sequels, and prequels, Pitch Black stood out as something original with an unusual look, intriguing characters, and interesting twists. A couple of weeks later, I owned the DVD and still enjoy watching it today.

When I first heard the news of a Pitch Black sequel, I was quite surprised. As the trailers displayed, this wasn't as much of a sequel as it was a spin-off of the Riddick character. Either way, I knew I would be going to see this one at the theater, and I finally got my chance to see it at a matinee this morning.

Where Pitch Black blurred the lines between Science Fiction and Horror genres much like Alien, the Chronicles of Riddick comes in as pure Science Fiction. The main characters of Pitch Black, the creatures, make no appearance in the Chronicles of Riddick. Instead, this movie looks at what happened to the 3 survivors of Pitch Black and introduces us to a larger part of the Pitch Black universe.

Even though I miss the creatures from Pitch Black, it certainly didn't make sense to craft a sequel featuring Riddick returning to the same planet and fighting the same creatures. Instead, the writers imagined new worlds and a backwater for the Riddick character while at the same time incorporating minor details Pitch Black fans will find interesting.

Much like Pitch Black, this work has originality, an unusual look, intriguing characters, and interesting twists. At the highest level, Chronicles of Riddick plays as a hero film with an end of the world theme. Delve deeper and you find a reluctant anti-hero motivated more by vengeance than good. The planets introduced in the film are each spectacular in their own way, one ice, one fire, and one earth-like. The intricate computer graphics make up for the loss of the Pitch Black creatures. Riddick continues much as he left off in Pitch Black, but Jack from Pitch Black (now Kira), Lord Marshal, Vaako, and Dame Vaako provide the intrigue this time. And while the story ties itself up well, the twist at the end of Chronicles of Riddick promises an interesting sequel.

If you're a Science Fiction fan, I highly recommend The Chronicles of Riddick. If you're a critic who likes to over-analyze movies, keep on moving...nothing to see here. Let us have our fun and live in peace. Quit trying to ruin what movies are really about...entertainment.


Welcome to my Blog

Given that Blogs are a geek fad and that I'm considered a geek by profession, I thought I'd jump on the bandwagon. It's not like me to follow the crowd, but in this case, I'll make an exception. With any luck, some of the content here may be useful to someone, or at the very least, mildly amusing. By amusing I don't mean to imply that I'm doing stand-up comedy on the Internet stage. In truth, most of what I write will deal with life experiences, technology, or music/movie reviews. Nevertheless, I don't delude myself into thinking my opinions important. Indeed, I expect to be mocked by be it.