Saturday, July 18, 2009

An entire year of worthless nonsense!


One year ago I opened the Natural State Hawg so that I might be able to bore and confuse people around the world.

Folks, it’s been a heck of a good time. I’ve met some fantastic bloggers and genuinely nice people through this little blog of mine – probably my favorite things about this project, actually.

Frankly, I am almost amazed that I’ve lasted a year. Who can prattle on about virtually nothing for almost 12 months straight? Apparently, I can do just that. Why? Because this world produces no shortage of things that amuse me, intrigue me or just plain piss me off.

Also, I make my living as a writer. I’m a public relations guy by trade (I still prefer the term “media cat”) and once made my living as a newspaper reporter. Evidently, there’s a lot of truth to the old adage suggesting that writers run around writing stuff at random because they can’t help themselves.

I figure I’ve got at least another year in me on this blog. I would like to thank my regular visitors – you cats are the best.

SEO Results – because it’s all about traffic

A few weeks ago we started a blog at my office. We use it to get our message out to the media, the public and our members (I handle public relations for a trade group representing Realtors).

Before we bothered with the blog, I did my research and found all kinds of advice about achieving what we wanted – a lot of traffic. Getting traffic has a lot to do with promotion.

If your site is promoted properly, then your ranking in Google will increase and you’ll find all sorts of traffic. Why? Because sites that are promoted well wind up on the “first page” of a Google search for terms related to the site.

When you do get to the point where you wind up on the first page of search results, you get a scad of organic traffic – the best kind of traffic there is if run a commercial site. Organic traffic, see, is made up of people who are very interested in your site because they have located it through their chosen search terms.

There are many ways to get that organic traffic, of course. An established method involves making sure a blog is search engine optimized (SEO) – to make sure the blog is full of keywords that search engines will grab.

ThinkBIG is a company that promises to help step customers through the confusing SEO world by helping site owners set up those keywords that will attract traffic. Is ThinkBIG a reputable company? Read some testimonials from people who have achieved solid SEO Results through the company and decide for yourself.

Friday, July 17, 2009

What the hell is the government up to now?


I ran across a little fact the other day that has just bugged the hell out of me since then.

I was writing a story about interest rates for a small newspaper in Little Rock. It seems they’ve popped up over 5 percent and that has slowed down both sales and refinances. My task, of course, was to find out why mortgage rates are rising.

I should point out that it’s ridiculous to claim that any interest rate below 6 percent is high on a 30-year, fixed mortgage. Still, rates hovered between 4 and 5 percent for so many months that people got used to it.

Here’s the thing about those low interest rates – they are primarily the result of the Federal Reserve buying up mortgage backed securities on the secondary market. Now, mortgage backed securities are exactly what they sound like – you take a bunch of mortgages, package up that debt and sell it to investors. They behave rather like bonds.

On the day after Thanksgiving, the Federal Reserve announced it was essentially guaranteeing $500 billion in mortgage backed securities. The hope, of course, was that investors would then regard those securities as safer investors and buy them. Because the yields would drop, interest rates would fall and people would be motivated to purchase homes.

Additionally, buying up and guaranteeing those loans would give more capital to banks which would, in turn, lend money to people seeking mortgages.

That plan worked. Sort of. Mortgage rates dropped and capital started flowing a bit more freely. Ultimately, however, people started refinancing like crazy at low interest rates, thus flooding the market with more debt.

So, we’ve got far more mortgage backed securities out there than investors are willing to buy. Naturally, then, the yields on them have increased and that has caused interest rates to rise a bit.

Bear in mind, too, that the current mortgage rates are terribly artificial. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association of Arkansas, the Fed is buying $20 to $40 billion worth of mortgage backed securities per month.

A lot of that money has been borrowed from our good friends in China, of course. That causes a whole set of problems I won’t bother examining now. However, it should be said that being heavily in debt to your ideological enemy is a terrible idea.

The question, of course, is what happens when the Fed starts buying up those securities? Interest rates will likely go through the roof, of course, thus causing all kinds of problems.

What’s fascinating about all of this is that an alternative plan that makes a whole lot of sense (and may have cost less) has been watered down horribly. A couple of years ago, the National Association of Realtors suggested that the housing market would be helped considerably if the government gave a $15,000, non-refundable tax credit to everyone who purchased a home.

What we got was a $7,500, refundable tax credit to first time homebuyers last year. This year, of course, that credit was extended through Nov. 30, was raised to $8,000 and is non-refundable. The hope of a $15,000 credit for everyone is back before Congress, but who knows how that will do?

In other words, we’ve opted for a very expensive plan that artificially decreases interest rates and, obviously, can’t last forever. Had the government opted for a $15,000 tax credit to every homebuyer, it goes without saying that sales would have gone through the roof and the desired economic boost would have been in the works.

Further, people receiving $15,000 from the government after filing their 2009 tax returns would have provided an additional economic boost by purchasing things. Expensive things like cars (which would have certainly helped the struggling U.S. auto industry).

I can’t help but wonder why on earth that plan didn’t gain more traction. It couldn’t have cost more than we’ve already spent in an attempt to help the housing market. Furthermore, it may have actually been more effective.

So, what’s the deal? Are the feds afraid to turn that much money over to individuals? Are they afraid we’d just be “foolish” and save it?

The whole thing is confusing. Meanwhile, we’re spending billions trying to keep interest rates low. What kind of hell will be unleashed when the government stops spending that money?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What’s all the fuss over snus?

This week a friend of mine at work bought some Camel Snus to the office.

Naturally, I had to try some as I’d heard a bit about it and had listened to the questionable claims that it is safer than my beloved Red Seal Long Wintergreen (yeah, you bastards just go right ahead and judge me – I’m an Arkansan, dammit). I tried some of the stuff and figured it wasn’t too bad.

Camel is pushing this stuff hard, folks. A couple of friends of mine went to Rocklahoma last weekend (lucky bastards – I missed it again) and brought back a ton of smokeless tobacco samples for me. I ought to have a tee shirt -- “My friends went to Rocklahoma and all I got was a bunch of tobacco.”

Anyway, there were six tins of Camel Snus in the bag of loot my buddies scored for me. After doing some research, I’ve noticed that a lot of people have opinions about Camel Snus. I, of course, want to add yet another opinion to the rest of them out there. Because – well – why not?

What is ‘snus,’ anyway?

Snus is a big deal in Norway and Sweden and it is a snuff that’s different from American chewing tobacco in that there’s no need to spit when using it. It’s different from American chewing tobacco in that it’s not fermented, sugar generally isn’t added and it is steam cured rather than fire cured.

Apparently, fire curing tobacco builds up a heck of a lot of carcinogens, whereas a lot of that is avoided in steam curing. So, there are some people out there arguing that snus is a “safe tobacco” as it’s less dangerous than cigarettes, American chewing tobacco, etc.

I’m not buying it, folks. Anyone who thinks this stuff can’t cause cancer or rot your jaw out is living in a fool’s paradise. You can’t tell me that swallowing a bunch of snus juice rather than spitting it out doesn’t do some harm, either.

There’s a debate raging over the health impacts of snus, of course. As with most debates these days, the side with the most money to buy scientists who are willing to advance a certain point of view will win.

Is that Camel Snus any good?

Actually, it’s not bad at all. It comes in pouches and there are 15 of those per tin. The pouches are to be placed in the upper lip and stay flavorful for around 30 minutes (a conservative estimate, to be sure).

The two Camel flavors – frost and mellow – are both very sweet. The frost one tastes rather like a perverted mint variety of Life Savers while the mellow snus tastes like a sissified form of Levi Garrett or Red Man leaf tobacco.

The advantage here is that you don’t have to spit this stuff, so you can (in theory) enjoy it anywhere. Bring some snus along to the movies, the office, on a date, while you’re the best man in a wedding or during a job interview. Camel has no doubt noticed that there are smoking bans anywhere and folks who show up spitting Skoal all over the place are generally shunned.

Here in Arkansas, however, spit tobacco isn’t uncommon (there are  three men in my office and everyone of us is a tobacco cheBeAManwer). Seeing a spit bottle on someone’s desk isn’t exactly uncommon in this state, so the notion that snus can be “hidden” doesn’t go over as well here as it might in other parts of the country.

Besides, the little packets just plain bug me. They remind me of that rotten pouch tobacco that has never been overly popular around here.

Unlike those nasty pouch tobacco things, snus is actually quite flavorful and delivers a healthy (pun intended) dose of nicotine.

It’s worth mentioning that I’ve read quite a bit about snus in the past couple of days and have noticed there seems to be a bias against the Camel brand. Some folks don’t like the small quantity of snus delivered by Camel as compared to the “real” brands from Sweden. Others say the quality of the tobacco used by Camel is inferior and I’ve read that it doesn’t have much “bang for the buck” compared to other brands (15 packets per tin does seem a bit slight).

Those are all valid arguments, of course, but there is one bunch out there that should just shut up – the “snus snobs.” Yes, some folks talk about this Camel stuff like it’s a Chevrolet in a world full of Jaguars. We’re talking about tobacco, folks. Shoving snus is your head is never going to be sophisticated, folks. Quit acting like it is.

The final verdict

When all is said and done I rather like Camel Snus. It doesn’t deliver the same nicotine hit as my beloved Red Seal Long Cut Wintergreen, but it’s not bad at all.

Here’s the thing – it just doesn’t deliver that buzz-happy, slap to the face that comes with loose tobacco. And, I just can’t get over the whole spitless notion and the fact that this reminds me a lot of that Klugman limp-wristed pouch tobacco stuff. The pouches always seemed a bit sissified, you know?

“Be a man. Be a Klugman,” Zorak once said on Space Ghost Coast to Coast.

Some of that logic applies here. Who wouldn’t want to be manly like that gruff-but-loveable Jack Klugman?

Still, I figure I’ll buy some from time to time. It’s a change of pace, at least. and tastes pretty good. I’m curious to see whether Camel’s marketing attempts will be enough to make this product popular.

Rot in hell, MasterCard!

I was watching television the other night when it happened -- a MasterCard commercial came on that had the Ramones in it.

That's right -- the Ramones. The detergent-voiced jerk narrating the commercial was saying something about jeans and referring to rebellion or some such rot when a short clip of the Ramones appeared (I didn’t show that hear, obviously – I opted for a great performance from the band instead of repeating MasterCard’s faux pas).

That kind of thing just drives me up the wall. How in God’s name can a soulless, evil bunch like the schemers at MasterCard get away with smearing a punk legend in order to get a few more people addicted to easy credit and high interest rates?

Companies like MasterCard are very responsible for the rotten economy we’ve got now. They’ve spent the past few decades trying to convince people that patience is not a virtue – buying junk we don’t have money for with credit is a lot more fun than saving up for things, apparently.

MasterCard and their ilk have played games with interest rates in hopes of squeezing some more cash out their overburdened customers, giving out credit cards to high school kids and setting up on college campuses and handing out cards to people with no verifiable income. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, MasterCard had to run out and use the Ramones to hawk their crap.

There’s just something inherently wrong with people intent on stealing our money using a bunch of rebels like the Ramones to further their insidious ends.

It’s probably just as well that three of the original four Ramones are dead and they didn’t have to watch the band’s legacy get tarnished in such a crass manner.

Now I remember one of the reasons why I don’t carry credit cards – I hate MasterCard, Visa and virtually any company that issues the things. If I could do without that debit card I’d be rid of it, too.