Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Poorest Country in Europe - Revealed

Europe often evokes romantic thoughts of Buckingham Palace, The Champs-Elysees, or a posh ski resort in Switzerland or Austria. The other day, I was thinking about how many people are limited when thinking about Europe - limited in the sense that they are only thinking about "Old Europe."

Of course, there are many countries in Europe that are characterized as emerging markets, most notably those in the Balkans and the former communist states of Eastern Europe. Poverty, corruption, and crime is rife, nevertheless, they are surely part of Europe.

That got me wondering: What's the poorest country in Europe? It would be interesting to do a bit of research and find out what has held this country back in relation to its neighbors. Was it economic mismanagement, war, or some other reason? Here's what I discovered .

So what's the poorest country in Europe? The answer, not so surprisingly, is the Republic of Moldova. Moldova has a per capita GDP of $3400. That's strikingly lower than its closest European competitors, Kosovo, ($6400) Ukraine, ($7200) and Bosnia and Herzegovina, ($8200).

Moldova is not a member of the European Union, Eurozone, or NATO. Although Moldova borders Romania, Moldovans cannot travel to EU countries without a visa. This isolation has contributed to Moldova's dire economic situation.

Moldova has no natural resources and is heavily dependent on agriculture for exports. Moldova is torn between East and West, with trading partners divided between Western Europe and Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Although Moldova is making progress towards integration with the European Union, it's still far off.

Furthermore, Moldova has a breakaway region that is supported by Russia. This region, called Republic of Transnistria, is made up of mostly Slavic people. The region has been independent from Moldova since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

If the global economy grows, Moldova will benefit as foreign remittances increase. Many Moldovans work in Russia or other parts of Europe and send money to their families in Moldova. As Moldova further integrates with Europe, the economy will see a boost as exports increase and the government has access to more European sponsored loans. Lastly, Moldova has to find a way to ease tensions with Transnistria, if only to calm the fears of foreign investors. Until then, keep enjoying that fine Moldovan wine, surely one of Moldova's most appreciated exports!

Romania, Moldova, Village houses Poster
Romania, Moldova, Village houses Poster by ExploreRomania
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Richest Countries in the World Ranked by GDP

The richest countries in the world are a diverse bunch, with some nations gaining their wealth through oil and natural resources while others attained prosperity through international banking and finance. This list ranks the richest countries in the world based on per capita gross domestic product (GDP).

GDP is calculated by adding the value of all of the good and services produced within the country on an annual basis. This number is divided by the total population to create per capita GDP. All statistics come from the CIA World Factbook.

Highest Per Capita GDP #1: Qatar - $179,000

Qatar is the richest country in the world thanks to tremendous oil and natural gas reserves. While overly reliant on natural resources for government revenue, Qatar is trying to diversify its economy. Oil and natural gas reserves were discovered in Qatar in the mid 1940's, which vastly improved the standard of living.

Highest Per Capita GDP #2: Liechtenstein - $141,000

Liechtenstein is a tiny European country with a population of only 35,000. Low corporate taxes and ease of incorporation contribute to Liechtenstein's business friendly climate. Liechtenstein has an unemployment rate of only 1.5%.

Highest Per Capita GDP #3: Luxembourg-$82,000

Luxembourg is a major private banking and insurance center. Luxembourg is also known as a tax haven, attracting many international companies wishing to lower their overall tax liability. Unlike Liechtenstein, Luxembourg is a member of the European Union.

Highest Per Capita GDP #4: Bermuda-$69,900

While primarily known as a tourist destination, Bermuda's largest industry is finance. International corporations like Bermuda's favorable tax structure and regulatory atmosphere. The tiny island attracts 500,000 visitors annually. Although the Bermudian dollar features Queen Elizabeth, the currency is pegged to the U.S. Dollar.

Highest Per Capita GDP #5: Singapore-$62,100

Per capita, Singapore has more millionaires than any country in the world. Singapore boasts a diverse economy, anchored by shipping, services, refining, and especially finance. Singapore is characterized by competent government, non-existent corruption, and a stable and growing economy. Singapore has recently attempted to market itself as a tourist destination.

Travel to Kyrgyzstan a Challenge, But Each Year Brings Improvements: Slowly but Surely, the "Wild East" Learns to Welcome Visitors

Last month I took my seventh trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I hadn't visited the country in a few years, and I'm pleased to report that the immigration and customs process was smoother than ever. There are no direct flights to Kyrgyzstan from the United States. Most Americans reach Kyrgyzstan by way of Aeroflot, BMI, or Turkish Airlines, transiting through their respective countries. I chose Turkish Airlines since I'm familiar with Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and have the benefit of Star Alliance Gold status.

I flew to Istanbul out of JFK Airport in New York and had a five hour layover at Ataturk. Turkish Airlines has really come a long way in terms of service and amenities. Their planes are new and the service, food, and overall experience is comparable to Western European carriers. Once in Istanbul, I headed to the Turkish Airlines lounge, which was the finest Star Alliance lounge I've ever visited. After walking in, there was a billiard room with a large pool table and shelves with a variety of coffee table books.

Walking onward, the main lounge area had a great selection of comfortable seats. From relaxing chairs and couches to café style tables, the seating arrangement was suitable to everyone. A self playing piano adorned the middle of the space. The lounge featured hot food cooked to order, and several bar stations with beer, wine, and soft drinks. International newspapers were plentiful and flat screen televisions relayed the day's news.

After relaxing for a few hours, I started walking to the boarding area. I was a bit nervous when the Turkish Airlines representative said that she would be checking passports and visas. Although I could have gotten a visa at the Kyrgyz consulate in New York, I was traveling and couldn't leave my passport overnight. Luckily, Kyrgyzstan permits travelers from the United States and most Western European countries the opportunity to purchase visas at Manas Airport.

When I approached the Turkish Airlines representative, she gave me a bewildered look as I told her I planned to get my visa at Manas. "Good luck with that," she said as she typed a text message to her colleague. "What are you talking about," I responded. "The Kyrgyz consulate website says that I can get a visa at Manas Airport?" "Fine," she huffed, as she dismissively handed my passport back to me. I was a bit puzzled, but boarded the flight as planned. In my past travels to Kyrgyzstan, I never had problems getting into the country. However, this was the first time I opted to purchase a visa at the airport, after I had arrived.

The flight to Bishkek was mostly Kyrgyz citizens returning from shopping junkets in Istanbul. There were a few American servicemen going to Manas Airbase, and a group of Dutch men going on a hunting trip in the Kyrgyz backwoods. I slept most of the flight, but was awakened by the rough landing at Manas Airport. Bishkek landings are always bumpy, given the coarse condition of the runway.

Upon exiting the plane, three Kyrgyz police officers were waiting, eyeing the passengers. Although they have always been very helpful to me personally, the tall Soviet style hats make them look intimidating. I walked into the immigration area and was relieved to find a woman working at the visa window. During the flight, I wondered if I would be able to purchase a visa at landing (3AM) or if I would have to wait until normal business hours, the next day. As I approached, I took a visa application and filled out basic biographical information. When I finished, I handed the application to the visa woman with my passport. I was shocked when she returned me my passport in less than 3 minutes. I paid the fee of $70 and was on my way to the immigration officer. He proceeded to look at the visa, and then look at some of the other stamps in my passport. I could tell that he wanted to know why I traveled so much, but his English was limited. He stamped my visa, and handed me my passport without incident. While I've never personally had an issue at Manas, I know colleagues who have had problems getting into Kyrgyzstan. I've heard these problems can generally be sorted out with an extra payment, but this ambiguity remains a concern to people traveling to Kyrgyzstan.

After clearing immigration, I walked down a hallway to a Turkish Airlines representative collecting barcoded luggage tracking stickers. At JFK, they stuck the luggage tracking sticker on the ticket stub of my JFK-IST boarding pass. I had to dig through my pockets and carryon bag, but eventually I found it. I'm not sure what would have happened if it had been lost. After that, a Kyrgyz customs agent directed certain passengers to put their bags through a scanner. As I walked, he pointed to my small carryon bag. I put it on the belt, and took it out the other side without incident. There was also a metal detector set up, although the passengers weren't required to remove metals or jackets.

That was the last leg of the entry process to Kyrgyzstan. As I walked out into the terminal, throngs of drivers shouted "taxi, taxi." I kept walking as if I knew where I was going, nervously looking for my friend. A minute later, through the hoards of passengers, drivers, and police, my friend emerged. I was in Bishkek without a problem.

Back in the USSR: Bishkek's Wedding Palace Architecturally Significant, Euphoric

Sitting in a posh coffee shop in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's University neighborhood, my Kyrgyz friend and I were suddenly interrupted by a parade of shiny Mercedes-Benz speeding through traffic, all mercilessly laying on the horn. "Is that the President's motorcade," I naively asked. She flatly responded, "No, it's a wedding," as if I was born yesterday.

As I sat there looking confused, she went on to tell me that Kyrgyz weddings were ruckus affairs, involving alcohol and legendary late night parties. A paradox, I though. Certainly not what I had in mind for this Central Asian nation that seemed so disconnected from Western boozebag culture. "My brother's wedding was the same, although we rented an American stretch limo when we left the House of Happiness."

I almost spit out my coffee with laughter. "The House of Happiness? Are you joking?" Only seconds later, I felt bad for letting my emotions get the best of me. But something about the name "House of Happiness" struck me funny. She proceeded to explain that the House of Happiness was a non denominational church-like structure used for weddings. As the Soviet Union worked to marginalize organized religion, the state built improvised cathedrals to function as wedding halls. "Take me there. I have to see the House of Happiness!" In my mind, the name was a cross between a horror movie and Disney World attraction. To my delight, she responded, "It's only a 10 minute walk, we will go."

If you love to walk, Bishkek is a wonderful city to hit the pavement. Bishkek reminds me of New York because of the constantly bustling street scene. Even at midnight or 2AM, people are hanging out, shooting the breeze and patronizing the many newsstands selling cigarettes, soda, and snacks. While this is surely a symptom of a poor economy where most people cannot afford cars, it's rather comforting to be surrounded be people all the time. Just put on a fur jacket and some warm boots, and you'll blend in just fine.

My excitement grew the closer we got. Finally, only a few blocks past Bishkek's quirky Circus building, a concrete and glass behemoth emerged from the drab surroundings. It was everything I had expected, and more. All I could do was stare with amazement, trying to make sense of it all. The Crystal Cathedral came to mind, as did the Fashion Institute of Technology campus in New York City. Put them both together and you get the House of Happiness. Unique, ugly, modern? Who knew? Somehow, it worked well and I liked it. The building was clearly old and in disrepair, with several windows shattered and stonework in poor condition. I still felt a sense of euphoria as my friend and I walked arm and arm up the steps.

We opened the door, and an old Russian man sat at a check in desk. Apparently, there were weddings scheduled for later in the day and he was working to set the place up. My friend asked if we could take some pictures. "Only in the lobby," he answered in Russian. The lobby had a huge vaulted ceiling with marble walls. Roped off was a carpet that led to the ceremony area. "Please, just ask if we can go into the main church area," I begged of my friend. She relayed my message, to which the old Russian responded, "Only the beautiful lady in white is allowed to walk on that carpet."

Feeling shafted, we peered into the church-like area. A vast round stained glass window drew my attention; the glowing sunrays making the arched structure feel warm and comforting. While the place was never a church, it does have a strange spiritual feel about it. I liked it, and although a bit worn down, I was very happy to see it still in use.

Upon our exit, my friend asked some locals to take our photo. They happily obliged, thinking that we were contemplating a wedding at the House of Happiness. As we arrived back at the hotel, I immediately jumped on Google to do some research about this amazing building. It turned out that my friend's translation was a bit off. Officially called a "Wedding Palace," the Soviet Union started building them in the late 1950's. Every Soviet Republic had one, and many were modern and extreme designs. I read that an Oligarch had purchased the Wedding Palace in Tbilisi, Georgia and is using it as his mansion. Many others still seem to be functioning as Wedding Palaces, although they now face competition from organized religion. Whatever happens, I hope that the Wedding Palace buildings will be preserved and remain open to the public, as the one in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan is.

Lenin Statue, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan Magnets
Lenin Statue, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan Magnets by Fiedler_Mundt
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Occupy Wall Street Continues Despite Mixed Messages, Neighborhood Opposition

The line at the Starbucks Coffee Shop at 30 Park Row in Lower Manhattan was filled with the usual characters last Wednesday morning. Investment bankers, bond traders, and corporate titans flipped through pages of the Wall Street Journal while awaiting their morning Frappuccino. Quite a normal day in Downtown, New York, despite the Occupy Wall Street protests mere blocks away.

While global commerce has not been impacted, the fledgling Occupy Wall Street movement is growing in leaps and bounds with increased news media coverage and donations. A recent visit revealed mobs of reporters and television cameras peering down on a small group of camped out protesters. A much larger group of tourists walked through the park, gawking with laughter at some of the homemade signs and grimy looking digs.

Although Occupy Wall Street prides itself on its leadershipless structure, the group has become a smorgasbord of protestors advancing their individual causes. Playing to the cameras above, a man holds a sign reading "STOP FRACKING." Only feet away a small group spread a long poster blaring "HOW ABOUT WE START REPARATIONS." The Communist Party of America was on the scene passing out literature, as well as members of numerous labor unions who were offering financial assistance to the protesters.

Several protesters were lying down on the ground with oversize packs of Crayola markers. Still sprawled out in their sleeping bags, they spent the afternoon creating more makeshift signs using brown cardboard boxes. While there were certainly plenty of signs, they were all very general and dissimilar in nature. The movement's ambiguous philosophy has constrained it from speaking with a common voice. The universal theme of "We are the 99%" was coupled with a menagerie of other messages, all seemingly unrelated.

Despite the disorganized nature of Occupy Wall Street, donations have been pouring into the group. New York City Police are keeping a watchful eye, but seem unwilling to forcibly remove peaceful protesters. While Mayor Mike Bloomberg is sympathetic to some of the group's complaints, he also knows that they have worn out their welcome with downtown residents. In the end, it may be Mother Nature who has the final say.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Trinidad and Tobago a Powerhouse in Oil and Natural Gas Production

Visions of palm trees and beautiful beaches usually come to mind when speaking of Trinidad and Tobago. While certainly known for its tourism, Trinidad and Tobago is also a powerhouse in oil and natural gas production.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Trinidad and Tobago ranks 45th in world oil production, placing the country behind Germany and before Italy. The tiny islands produce 151,600 barrels of oil per day, drawing from 728.3 million barrels of proven reserves.

While crude oil production has been declining since the early 1980's, natural gas discoveries have reinvigorated the industry. With the advent of LNG, (Liquefied Natural Gas) natural gas is cheaply and easily shipped to nearby consumer markets. In 2010, Trinidad and Tobago exported 20.41 billion cubic meters of natural gas, making the country the 11th largest exporter in the world.

Trinidad and Tobago has been careful to avoid the "oil curse" some countries experience when they sell their black gold. In Trinidad and Tobago's situation, oil and natural gas revenues comprise 40% of GDP and 80% of exports. The paradox is that this huge industry only employs 5% of the population. Understandably, officials have been working hard to diversify the economy and prepare for the day when natural resources run out.

The strategy seems to be working, as Trinidad and Tobago has a stellar reputation amongst multinational corporations and is welcoming towards business travelers. The CIA World Factbook estimates Trinidad and Tobago's per capita GDP to be $21,200, solidly middle income and one of the most prosperous economies in The Caribbean and Latin America.

New York Second Most "Hipster" State in America: Hipster Phenomenon Spreading Across The Five Boroughs With Epicenter In Williamsburg

While New York's Williamsburg neighborhood is universally regarded as the hipster capital of the world, New York placed second in a recent hipster statewide ranking. Minnesota edged out New York to take first place as "The Most Hipster State in the US," as identified by BuzzFeed.com.

While BuzzFeed.com acknowledges Williamsburg to be "home of the hipster," the website gives Minnesota the top spot because the of sheer number of "hipster" web searches originating from the state. The website points out that Minnesota has a third of New York's population, but the "regional interest" is more concentrated.

In other words, Minnesota has a higher per capita hipster ratio than New York. Buzzfeed.com identified popular hipster related search terms such as "hipster look," "hipster girl," and "urban hipster." The rankings fly in the face of the generally accepted idea that hipsters are a phenomenon typically found in the Northeast.

Hipsters are generally described as 20-something nonconformists. Best known for wearing skinny jeans, they also wear old sweaters, retro jackets and jewelry they probably found at a thrift store.

Hipsters congregate in neighborhoods with thriving arts scenes and progressive political thinking. Most large cities in the Northeast have a designated hipster neighborhood, although the lifestyle has spread to liberal enclaves throughout the country.

I am not a hipster shirt
I am not a hipster shirt by iamnotxxx
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How to Invest like Warren Buffett: Four Rules To Outperform Most Investors

Thanks to CNBC, most people are convinced that making money in the stock market is best left to professionals. The anchors and their "expert" guests throw out arbitrary numbers, facts, and predictions with impunity.

Just because they talk circles around each other doesn't make them more successful investors! More often than not, their predictions are not accurate. The average investor doesn't need CNBC, nor do they need to know short term market predictions or which stocks may be in or out of favor.

These four rules will provide a bit of guidance to the average investor. These rules will serve to simplify your strategy while giving you returns that beat most actively managed mutual funds or brokers with "the next big idea."

1) Keep it simple. Contrary to popular belief, investors don't need to own dozens of stocks and mutual funds to be properly diversified. In fact, a handful of index based ETF's will give you exposure to the entire world. Here's a sample portfolio constructed of Index based ETF's: Vanguard Total Bond Market (BND) Vanguard Total Stock Market (VTI) and Vanguard FTSE All World ex-US (VEU).

2) Keep it cheap. Index based ETF's are best for the average investor. Index funds have no manager and invest in wide swaths of the market, oftentimes holding hundreds of stocks at a time. Two examples of the most widely quoted indexes are the S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average. When it comes to index based ETF's, Vanguard, Fidelity, and Schwab offer some of the lowest expense ratios in the business. Vanguard Total Stock Market (VTI) carries an incredibly low expense ratio of 7 basis points (0.07%). Keep in mind that the average actively managed mutual fund charges well over 1.00%, and most of them lag the market over time.

3) Invest on a regular basis. Also called dollar cost averaging, this strategy helps you to take emotion out of investing. Investing the same amount of money regularly will allow you to buy more shares when prices are cheap and less shares when prices are expensive. You'll also have no need for CNBC or investing magazines.

4) Rebalance once a year. Depending on your age and circumstances, you may want a certain percentage of your portfolio invested in bonds. One common rule of thumb says that you should hold your age in bonds. For example, if you are 60 years old, you should hold 60% bonds and 40% stocks. At the end of the year, these percentages will be out of whack because of market returns.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

3 Top Bond Funds For Steady Income: Consider These Low Expense ETF'S

With the stock market in a seemingly perennial funk, many investors are turning to fixed income for a reliable stream of cash. The problem is, CD rates are dire and money market funds are yielding at close to nothing. What's an income investor to do? Here are three passively managed bond fund ETFs that provide a decent yield.

SPDR Barclays Capital High Yield Bond (JNK)

The cheeky ticker symbol says it all: This fund invests in junk bonds, otherwise known as high yield corporate bonds. While junk bonds have an erratic and fly-by-night reputation, investing in a bond fund offers diversification and a juicy yield. JNK is passively managed, helping the fund to keep expenses at .40%, lower than the category average of .47%. The top 10 holdings include some familiar names like Citigroup, AIG, Harrah's and Clear Channel Communications. As of this writing, JNK is yielding 10.8%. The fat yield comes with some risk, mainly in the form of sharp price swings not normally associated with bonds.

PowerShares Emerging Markets Sovereign Debt Portfolio (PCY)

Globetrotting PCY tracks the DB Emerging Market USD Liquid Balanced Index, which includes bonds issued by 22 countries. The Philippines weighs in as the fund's largest holding, while Mexico, Brazil, Columbia, and El Salvador round out the top 5. While Emerging Market countries were formerly considered most likely to default, heavily indebted developed economies such as Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain are changing conventional thinking. PCY charges .50%, 5 basis points cheaper than the category average. PCY currently yields 6.11%

Vanguard Total Bond Market (BND)

It's definitely not sexy, but it's reliable and it's dirt cheap. BND is like the tortuous, slowly and steadily paying a decent yield while staying away from the swashbuckling and volatile moves of its Junk or Emerging Market brethren. BND is passively managed and tracks the Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate Float Adjusted index. BND charges a miserly .12% and yields a better-than-the-bank 3.62%. BND is diversified, with the top 10 holdings only accounting for 10.83% of assets.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Making Money with Zazzle: My Experience "Creating a New Fashion Brand"

I'm certainly no fashion designer, but I've always admired their collective sense of creativity and freedom. On a whim, they're able to take an epiphany or idea and make it a reality, morphing itself into a photogenic figure strutting its stuff down the catwalk. Truthfully, the nitty gritty of choosing fabric, selecting patters and contemplating styles bores me. It's the branding and cache that certain labels manage to acquire that I find fascinating.

Only a very small minority of shoppers actually pay close attention to fashion trends. The average shopper won't rush to buy a designers' new seasonal collection. In reality, most of us are looking for that luxury association, by way of sporting around an alligator, horse, sailboat, or some other recognizable brand affiliation on our shirt.

While I agree that a Polo Ralph Lauren shirt or Lacoste sneakers may outstrip their Wal-Mart brethren in quality and craftsmanship, consumers are mostly paying for the brand identity, which is meant to convey status. In my opinion, the difference in quality is very much a perception deeply drilled into our heads through a combination of magnanimous pricetags and glossy ads appearing in Vogue and Esquire.

At one point in my life, I tried to "beat the system" and only buy clothes that were unbranded. This morphed into shopping for name brand clothing at thrift stores, a pastime that I still very much enjoy. While I was channel surfing one leisurely night, a documentary about Tommy Hilfiger caught my eye. Someone who used to work for Hilfiger commented that his clothing went "from preppy to gangster and back to preppy."

The American public can be very finicky, but a little publicity can do wonders for a brand. Some famous rapper wears a logo shirt to the Grammy Awards, and the snowball effect can propel a brand into stardom in a matter of months. That's when it hit me: why don't I try to start my own "clothing line" and see if I can make it popular. Not that I expect to become the next Yves Saint Laurent, but it would be a learning experience and it would be fun.

I wanted some kind of logo or slogan that would be a little preppy, original, and play on my "international man of mystery" persona. I bounced a few ideas around in my head, and then something interesting came to mind.

A couple of years ago, I was traveling to Lagos, Nigeria quite frequently for work. While in Lagos, I was shocked to learn that the city has its very own yacht club, unsurprisingly called the Lagos Yacht Club. I don't know why, but this struck me as extraordinary. I couldn't get over the fact that a dangerous and corrupt African city where more than half the residents lived in severe poverty partook in what's commonly called "the sport of billionaires." It just seemed odd and out of place. I thought it would be amazing to have some type of keepsake from the Lagos Yacht Club, such as a t-shirt, but the security guard from my hotel cautioned that the trip would be dangerous and taxi drivers were not to be trusted. No t-shirt from the Lagos Yacht Club, but I had an idea.

That got the ball rolling, and soon I found myself settling on the "Yacht Club" theme for various villainous cities around the world. Kuwait City Yacht Club? Monrovia Yacht Club? Muscat Yacht Club? Finally, I settled on Vladivostok Yacht Club. Although I have never been to Vladivostok, it's one of the places I most want to visit. As a Russophile, I knew about Vladivostok's history as headquarters for the Soviet Navy's Pacific Fleet. Russia has continued the city's tradition as a naval port. The city's Far-East location is also interesting. Nestled close to the borders of China and North Korea, this outpost marks the tail end of Moscow's long grip over the Asian continent.

I got on Google and typed in the phrase "Vladivostok Yacht Club" just to make sure the city didn't already have one. To my shock and surprise, Vladivostok did indeed possess a thriving yacht club, called the "Seven Feet Yacht Club," along with an active sailing scene. No problem though, the name "Vladivostok Yacht Club" was still up for grabs.

The next step was designing the actual shirt. With no budget and an idea, I went with Zazzle.com. This way, I could design the shirt, buy one for myself, and benefit from the website's print-on-demand structure. The benefits were great-no inventory and a platform to easily sell and expand the clothing line. The design process was remarkably easy. I typed in "Vladivostok Yacht Club" in big letters, along with the phrase "Sail with the fleet" below it. I chose a sky blue shirt with slightly darker blue for the letters. An interesting font gave the t-shirt an intriguing look. A few graphics from the public domain really propelled the shirt to glory.

After about a month on Zazzle.com, I sold one shirt. I suppose that somebody with some kind of connection to Vladivostok bought the shirt. Little do they realize that they got in at the bottom of a huge trend in fashion! It's a good start, but I want more. I'll begin taking steps to market Vladivostok Yacht Club in a broader way, possibly using some guerilla tactics. For example, I live in New York City. Maybe I'll wake up early one morning and stand in front of the "Today Show" set in Rockefeller Center while wearing the shirt. Maybe I'll do it on a monthly bases? I'll definitely step up internet marketing of the shirt, visiting sailing blogs or Vladivostok pages on Facebook and Myspace, aggressively linking to my Zazzle store. Down the road, maybe I'll even invest in a website. I've considered www.VladivostokYachtClubClothing.com or something similar.

Zazzle also has a broad range of products for which to expand your idea. So far, I've extended the Vladivostok Yacht Club collection of products to include a mug, magnet, and keychain. Not bad since it took all of about 10 minutes. As with anything new, spreading the message and marketing the brand will prove to be the most challenging aspect of its success or failure. Whether Vladivostok Yacht Club will be compared with the likes of Paul & Shark, Lacoste, or Vineyard Vines remains to be seen. Check out the flagship Vladivostok Yacht Club shirt for yourself and let me know what you think!

Vladivostok Yacht Club T-shirt from Zazzle.com

Samuel Adams Poised for Growth: Boston Beer Company a Craft Beer Brewer with Big Ambitions

Samuel Adams Boston Lager was the first brand introduced by the Boston Beer Company. Founded in 1984 by Jim Koch, the company had grown substantially since then. Koch named the company's flagship beer after American patriot Samuel Adams, who fought for years against the British Crown and played a role in the Boston Tea Party. Fittingly, the Boston Beer Company is now the largest American owned brewer, inheriting the crown after Anheuser-Busch was taken over by European conglomerate InBev.

While the Harvard educated Koch was always a gifted businessman, several doses of luck helped the brand to gain early recognition. Koch quit his job as a consultant and focused on reviving an old family beer recipe. With a new name that evoked America's colonial past and a bit of clever marketing, Sam Adams Boston Lager was born. Success came quickly in 1985, as Samuel Adams Boston Lager was named "Best Beer in America" out of 93 competitors at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado.

Since its founding, Koch and the Boston Beer Company have expanded the Samuel Adams line to include 16 beers such as Sam Adams Light, Boston Ale, and Pale Ale. Boston Beer also brews nine seasonal beers, with Samuel Adams Winter Lager first making its debut in 1989. Other popular favorites include Summer Ale and OctoberFest.

In 1995, Boston Beer Company became a publicly traded company, listing on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol SAM. Once again, the timing was exceptional as more expensive craft beers were booming in popularity at the expense of cheaper choices like Miller and Budweiser. The Boston Beer Company continues to aggressively reinvest in its business, developing new brands and recently bringing brew operations in-house instead of contracting out beer production. Beer has traditionally been extraordinarily resilient in times of economic distress. Considered a "sin stock" along with its tobacco, defense and gambling brethren, the alcoholic beverage sector is known for its stability when the stock market gets turbulent.

From 2005 to 2009, SAM has increased revenue from $238.3 million to $415.1 million. Financial reports from SAM indicate a strong 2010 as craft brewers continue to take market share from more established industry players. According to the Brewers Association, volume for craft brews rose 9% while overall beer volume dropped 2.7% in the first half of 2010. Samuel Adams is by far the largest craft brewer, accounting for a whopping 21.5% of the craft market. As of 2010, the company employed 780 people and boasted 15,557 stockholders.

According to Standard & Poor's, "Products are distributed locally through a network of about 400 wholesalers and 265 sales people, who then sell to retailers such as pubs, restaurants, grocery chains, package stores, stadiums, and other retail outlets." While the company lacks "primary brand status" with distributors, analysts suggest that Samuel Adams beers remain attractive to wholesalers because of their premium pricing.

While SAM still is still considered a growth stock and does not pay a dividend, there is considerable debate on how long a company can legitimately call itself a craft brewer. While the term "craft brewer" has traditionally referred to production of 2 million barrels or less, it's clear that Boston Beer will inevitably exceed that amount. Founder Jim Koch argues that it's all in the process and ingredients, and amount of beer brewed is irrelevant. In 2009, Koch said that Samuel Adams had a market share of .5%, which leaves lots of room for growth.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Changing Face of Pattaya, Thailand - A Tropical Paradise with a Beautiful Beach, Cheap Beer, and Lots of Girls Becomes Family Friendly

The resort town of Pattaya lies about one hundred miles south of the legendary Thai capitol of Bangkok. Combining a sumptuous and appealing mix of beaches, bars, booze, and girls, many expatriates from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have made Pattaya their second home. Pensioners in particular enjoy the easy and affordable living in Pattaya, soaking up the sun during the day and suds late into the night.

Pattaya first gained its resort town reputation with American troops during the Vietnam War. Soldiers spent their rest and relaxation time in Pattaya, and the place has grown exponentially since. In recent decades, Pattaya has tried hard to shake off its "adult playground" label in favor of more family friendly fare. While beaching and go-go bars are still a huge attraction, Pattaya has succeeded in bringing in more wholesome forms of entertainment.

Former booze bags can trade in their tallboys for a set of clubs, with over 20 golf courses within an hour's drive. Animal lovers can visit the Sriracha Tiger Zoo and its world famous population of crocodiles and tigers. The Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden is located just a short drive away and will awe any horticulture lover. World class fishing, boating, and shopping are all readily available and more affordable than other traditional American snowbird enclaves like the Caribbean, Florida, Mexico, or Hawaii.

Many expatriates will find Pattaya's beachfront property to be a bargain. Land ownership is strictly limited to Thai citizens, restricting expats to renting or holding title to a condominium. There are many Thai real estate agencies with an online presence that specialize in helping expatriates purchase property in Thailand. Check out http://www.real-estate-thailand.com to begin your search, keeping in mind that $1 buys around 32 baht at the latest exchange rates.

While Pattaya has settled down over the past decades, the go-go bars and girls of the Walking Street are still as lively as ever. Although beer and food can be amazingly cheap, be sure to pay on an "as received" basis in order to avoid any misunderstandings later in the evening. In general, crime is low in Pattaya and people are not out to fleece visitors, although misunderstandings are common thanks to the language barrier.

Pattaya is known for lots of things, but the Walking Street may be the city's most famous attraction. The Walking Street gets its name because of its "walking only" designation in the evenings. This is where the party is, with all kinds of restaurants, bars, clubs, and assorted entertainment lasting late into the night.

According to the State Department, health care in Thailand is "generally adequate" and "good facilities exist for routine, long-term, and emergency health care" in Bangkok. While Bangkok is Thailand's undisputed destination for medical tourism, Pattaya has a growing reputation for affordable quality medical care. Hospitals in Pattya include Bangkok Pattaya Hospital, Pattaya International Hospital, Banglamung Hospital, and Pattaya Memorial Hospital.

According to the United States State Department, "citizen tourists staying for fewer than 30 days do not require a visa but must possess a passport that has at least six months validity remaining and may be asked to show an onward/return ticket." The State Department briefly issued a travel warning to US citizens visiting Thailand during the Red Shirt protests of 2010, but that warning was cancelled as safety and security improved. Before your trip, be sure to check for the latest updates at http://travel.state.gov/.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: The 90 Second Fitness Solution - My Personal Experience with the "90 Second Miracle Workout"

Get rid of the leftover crap, focus on the meat of the workout, and get it over with in all of three minutes. Sounds good to me. But does it work?

It was a lazy morning on December 21, 2009 and I was lying in bed, trying to motivate myself to take a jog around my Queens, New York neighborhood. As usual, procrastination set in as I tossed excuses around my head. "It's cold outside and I'll get pneumonia, I might step in dog poop, I don't feel like having a long conversation with the neighbor who always hangs out in the foyer."

I'm certainly not the gym type, so I gain 10 pounds or so each winter and lose it again in the summer. During the warmer months, I tend to swim, bike, and run on a fairly regular basis. The cold puts a crimp in my workout style, and I tend to blame it on Old Man Winter instead of myself.

As all of these reflections were running through my mind, something miraculous happened. WCBS2 "News This Morning" was on in the background. The chatter was low, just loud enough to mask the voice of my annoying upstairs neighbor who insists on screaming into his cell phone. All of a sudden, I snapped out of my inert daze when I heard anchors Kate Sullivan and Maurice DuBois bantering about "The 90 Second Fitness Solution." As someone who's certainly far from a muscle head and hates the gym, the comment immediately piqued my interest. Like a guard dog aroused by a knock on the door, I grabbed the remote and turned up the volume.

Sullivan and Dubois spoke of a miracle workout that took only 90 seconds to complete and still got measurable results. "Damn," I thought. "If I can't do that, then I'm a real fat ass!" As a skeptic by nature, I was far from convinced, but they had me for the segment. Sullivan went on to highlight a book called "The 90 Second Fitness Solution," written by New York City fitness trainer Pete Cerqua. Cerqua was in the studio to talk about the workout, and goofy weatherman John Elliot was going to go through the motions and demonstrate the exercises.

The 90 Second Miracle Workout actually consists of two 90 second workouts, to be performed for a total of three minutes each day. Cerqua explained that the workout was effective because it enabled us to "remove momentum, or all the motions that you don't need and keep what you do need." So far, so good. Get rid of the leftover crap, focus on the meat of the workout, and get it over with in all of three minutes. Sounds like a plan!

Cerqua instructed Elliot of assume a pushup or "plank" position for the first exercise. Cerqua reasoned that anyone can do the workout, even if they cannot do a pushup. From then on, the exercise is pretty straight forward. Hold the pushup position for a total of 90 seconds. Cerqua recommends using a stop watch for the countdown. As Elliot assumed the position, Cerqua enthusiastically lectured "Don't move, that's the key! The not moving is working every muscle in your body pretty much. Triceps, shoulders, chest, back, gluts, hamstrings, abdominals, everybody feels this in their abs the next day." After about 10 seconds of demonstrating, Elliot seemed to be struggling a bit and stopped, as it was time to move on to the next exercise. I was skeptical but excited. After all, Cerqua was in really good shape. Could I look that ripped if I exercised for only three minutes each day?

The second part of the exercise is basically a squat. Don't think of the traditional squat, where you go all the way down to the floor and back up with fast repetitions. Cerqua's version calls for a long and drawn out squat. For example, Elliot was told to squat down a bit and hold the position for 10 seconds. After that, go down another inch and hold for ten more seconds, and so on and so forth until you go all the way down and back up again. Cerqua recommends 5 steps down and 4 steps up, for a total of 90 seconds. After seeing this, I thought "this looks pretty damn easy, but how in the world is 3 minutes ever going to get me toned?" Well, here's a rundown of the progress I've made so far.

I've been following the the 90 Second Fitness Solution every day since December 21, 2009. Not to burst anyone's bubble, but the miracle workout is much harder than it sounds! Although I did fine with the squats, 90 seconds in pushup position was brutal at first. After about 40 seconds, my arms were quivering like a cheap piece of Chinese spaghetti. After about 50 seconds, I would collapse. Rather than beat myself up because I couldn't complete a 90 second workout, I decided to make a modification.

I did the squat part for the full 90 seconds, and cut the plank part down to 40 seconds. After about 2 months, I was completely comfortable in the plank position for 40 seconds. It was clear that I had made progress, so I decided to kick it up a notch to 45 seconds. I'm still at 45 seconds, and it's getting better. Maybe in another month, I'll bump it up to 50 seconds. Sometimes, if I really want to feel good about my workout dedication, I'll do the workout in the morning and before I go to bed at night.

In the six months that I've been following The 90 Second Fitness Solution, I've noticed tangible results. My legs are much more toned and defined. My thighs are leaner and my muscle is more noticeable. I can say the same for my arms. Although I'm clearly no Arnold Schwarzenegger yet, my arms are more ripped than they have ever been before.

I'm a bit disappointed that the 90 Second Fitness Solution has been so ineffective on my abs. All of my fat is in my stomach area, and that's the one spot I need to concentrate on in order to improve my appearance. Cerqua says that The 90 Second Fitness Solution benefits all major muscle groups in the body, and I don't disagree. I can feel my abs straining when I'm doing the workout, but I don't think the 90 Second Miracle Workout is going to solve that problem. Maybe Cerqua can invent a 90 second stomach workout to compliment the other two exercises? Overall, I'm pleased with the 90 Second Miracle Workout and I'm glad that I began to follow the routine. After all, it's better than doing nothing. Although the results are slower than I would like, there's nothing wrong with slowly getting diesel, 90 seconds at a time!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Three Bargain Hotels in Manhattan - The Frugal New York Experience

While New York City is undoubtedly pricey, the notion that it's an unaffordable city to visit is wrong. I laugh every time tourists tell me they save money by staying at hotels in New Jersey or Connecticut and taking the train into Manhattan. Staying in Manhattan is by far the best way to get the complete New York City experience.

Nothing against the other boroughs, but for a first time tourist, Manhattan is where it's at. The majority of attractions are located in Manhattan, it's the easiest borough to navigate for a newbie, and you can walk or take the subway to just about anywhere else in the city. Why spend time commuting when you should be pounding the pavement and exploring!

Don't let the New York mentality fool you - there are hotel bargains to be found in Manhattan. Many economy class chain hotels have sprung up over the past five years. Although they will charge more than their brethren located around the airports or in the suburbs, the central convenience they provide makes them a sensible investment, not to mention the time and aggravation you'll save!

Plus, there are lots of great independent hotels that are cheaper and have a whole lot more character than the likes of your run of the mill Marriot, Hilton, or Westin. Websites like hotels.com and travelocity.com will give you a good idea of what's out there. Be sure to narrow your search to Midtown and set a price cap of $200. See what pops up, keeping in mind that prices and availability are constantly changing depending on the season. While you're searching, keep an eye out for these three hotels. They are centrally located, uniquely New York, and won't break the bank.

The Hotel Pennsylvania is endowed with 1920's style charm, affordability and an amazing location. Situated at 7th Avenue and 32nd Street, the hotel is directly across from Madison Square Garden and Pennsylvania Station. Tourists who are unfamiliar with the city couldn't ask for a better location, they're right in the middle of it all! The area is a bit chaotic during the day, especially during the morning and evening hours when hoards of commuters file into Penn Station for their ride home.

Hotel guests can easily walk to Times Square and Rockefeller Center, while Central Park, Chelsea, Union Square, and Greenwich Village are only a short subway or taxi ride away. The Pennsylvania's Midtown-South location can be a bit seedy at night, but that's all part of the charm. Find out more about the Hotel Pennsylvania at www.hotelpenn.com.

Located in the same neighborhood, the New Yorker Hotel is another solid choice that has earned a fine reputation with frugal travelers. At 8th Avenue and 34th Street, the New Yorker is the closest hotel to the Jacob Javitz Convention Center, making it popular with business travelers with who are in town for a trade show. The New Yorker's art deco architecture and grand lobby make for an enthusiastic welcome. Marble floors, gold leaf doors, and high ceilings with chandeliers give the place a palatial feel.

Although that palatial feel is pretty much restricted to the lobby area, the rooms are more than decent and most offer amazing views. The west side of the New Yorker has unobstructed views of the Hudson River while some rooms on the 8th Avenue side provide breathtaking views of the Empire State Building. For more information on the New Yorker, go to www.newyorkerhotel.com.

The Carter Hotel may not be pretty, but any property charging $99 per night in the heart of Times Square must be included on this list. Intrigued yet? Read on! The legendary Carter Hotel is west of Times Square at 250 W. 43rd Street. Guests are greeted by a peculiar gold sign at the main entrance announcing "you wanted in Time Square & Less."

Possibly a reflection of the Hotel's Vietnamese ownership, don't judge the place by its sign! While it's certainly been a long time since the Carter's glory days, recent renovations have made the hotel tourist worthy once again. Don't be fooled -The Carter is the motor inn equivalent of Midtown's hotel scene. Having said that, the place has come a long way since New York City paid the hotel to house its homeless in the 1980's.

While any potential guest will probably have second thoughts after reading horrifying customer reviews on any number of travel websites, these rants should be taken in stride. Bottom line: If you're high maintenance, you probably won't like the Carter. But if affordability, clean sheets, and a private bath are your only requirement, it may be the perfect place. After all, you're going to be out exploring the city and not hanging out in the room all day! Check out the Carter's website at www.carterhotel.com for more information.

Whatever you do, don't buy into the myth that a trip to New York City has to include white glove service and five star hotels. With a little research, an affordable Manhattan getaway is possible!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

How to Invest in Vietnam: Frontier Market Exposure With Vietnam Country ETF (VNM)

Vietnam is a Perfect Example of a Frontier Market. Still a Communist Country, Vietnam is Making Slow but Steady Progress in Implementing a Market Based Economy

Investing in Vietnam had been all but impossible for the rank and file until lately. BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) countries have been all the rage since Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neill coined the acronym in 2001. While these markets are certainly far from mature, the financial crisis of 2008 proved that they are more closely aligned with western economies than previously thought.

Looking to invest in markets with less correlation than developed countries, many investors are now discovering frontier markets. Described as less liquid and more volatile than emerging markets, frontier market countries are often politically unstable and extremely unpredictable. Still, for investors able to stomach market shakiness, huge potential lies ahead.

Vietnam is a perfect example of a frontier market economy. Still a communist country, Vietnam is making slow but steady progress in implementing a market based economy. The Ho Chi Minh City Stock Exchange was established in 2000 and has grown substantially since then.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Vietnam's per capita GDP in 2009 was $2900. Although many countries experienced negative growth, Vietnam's GDP increased by an impressive 5.3%. Low wages combined with increased political stability make Vietnam ripe for increased foreign investment.

Foreigners are allowed to directly purchase stock in Vietnam, but it's a hassle that isn't worth the effort for retail investors looking to put small amounts of money to work. In August of 2009, Van Eck Global launched an ETF dedicated to Vietnam. With 32 securities and a net expense ratio of .99%, this is by far the easiest and most cost effective way to gain exposure to the Vietnamese stock market. Simply called the Vietnam ETF (VNM) the fund replicates the Market Vectors Vietnam Index.

The index includes companies that "predominantly are domiciled and primarily listed in Vietnam and which generate at least 50% of their revenues from Vietnam." As a result, only 68.6% of index companies are actually located in Vietnam. The remaining companies do a substantial portion of their business in Vietnam, but are based on other countries.

While the fund has mostly traded sideways since inception, it has certainly generated substantial investor interest. At the close of the first quarter of 2010, fund assets stood at $131 million. At that time, Van Eck estimated the P/E ratio to be 18.58 with a dividend yield of 2.41%. Investors should take P/E and dividend yield information with a grain of salt, as extreme volatility is common and expected when investing in frontier markets.

Those willing to roll with the market's punches will almost certainly be rewarded. If history is any guide, just look to countries such as Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea to see how rapidly an impoverished country can be transformed.

Chickens on Motorbike-Vietnam Card
Chickens on Motorbike-Vietnam Card by work2travel
View Vietnam Cards online at zazzle

How to Invest in Frontier Markets - Frontier Market ETF's Make Diversification Cheap and Easy

Less Developed Economies and Low Correlation with Developed Countries Makes Frontier Markets Attractive to Investors Seeking Diversification.

Emerging Markets were all the rage until the 2008 financial crisis - when the grits hit the fan. Previous to 2008, investors drove Emerging Market country P/E ratios to sky-high levels. Since crashing and burning, Emerging Markets have caught a second wind and soared. While long term investors may still find Emerging Markets to be attractive investments, the days of snapping up shares for fire sale prices have passed for now.

Many investors who sold during the dark days of the financial crisis are now kicking themselves for missing out on the market's subsequent rally. These investors may want to consider lesser known Frontier Markets, generally described as a notch below Emerging Markets. Frontier Markets have less developed economies and are often located in countries with considerable political uncertainty.

Because Frontier Market economies are less reliant on financing from industrialized countries, they were generally less affected during the economic downturn. The lack of correlation with developed countries is a key attraction for investors seeking diversification. Investors interested in Frontier Markets must be able to tolerate frequent and extremely volatile swings in net asset value.

Frontier Market investing used to be near impossible for the average Joe - but there are several ETF options that are relatively cheap and provide good diversification. The most prominent Frontier Market ETF is offered by Claymore. This ETF (FRN) is based on The Bank of New York Mellon New Frontier DR Index.

The index presently defines the Frontier Market countries as: Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Ukraine, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Jamaica, Panama and Trinidad & Tobago.

The index has been criticized as too "Emerging" and not enough "Frontier" as some of the countries included are solidly middle income. Additionally, the index is extremely top heavy. Approximately 64% of assets are concentrated in, Chile, Egypt, Columbia, and Poland. However, the index still provides broad asset allocation for a reasonable .65% annual fee.

Frontier Markets are certainly not an appropriate investment for everyone. The companies involved are usually in the early stages of growth, and any profits are typically reinvested in the business instead of paid out as dividends. Therefore, investors seeking a steady stream of income should look elsewhere. Before jumping into Frontier Markets, it is advisable to make a long term commitment to the investment. Investors who are able to ride out any short term storm will fare better in the long run.

Investors who cannot stomach price swings of 20% or more should seek a safer place to stash their money. Potential investors should also stagger their investment to take advantage of dollar cost averaging. Although dollar cost averaging isn't normally recommended for ETF's, it may be worth making four quarterly investments instead of investing the entire sum at once.

Though a commission will be charged by the brokerage for each purchase, the advantage of spreading risk is worth it. When purchasing shares, it is advisable to use a discount brokerage such as Charles Schwab or Fidelity. Premium brokerages can charge up to ten times as much.

Other Frontier Market ETF's to consider are PowerShares MENA Frontier Countries (PMNA), Market Vectors Africa Index (AFK), Market Vectors Vietnam (VNM), and Market Vectors Gulf States (MES).

The Three Best Starbucks Coffee Shops in New York City

Some people love to decry the Starbucks experience as generic or corporate. These naysayers don't realize that every Starbucks coffee shop has its own unique identity - although some shops are much more intriguing to visit than others. There are hundreds of Starbucks coffee shops in New York City, and each one is distinctive and special in its own way.

Certain Starbucks coffee shops don't have much of a local scene. Hands down, they are not good places to hang out. Avoid them unless you just want to grab a frappuccino and be on your way. Boring Starbucks shops can be found in commuter heavy locations such as Pennsylvania Station or Grand Central Station. Generally, these stores aren't very stimulating and they lack any neighborhood feel.

Starbucks located in the financial district or certain commercial parts of Midtown Manhattan can also feel desolate on weekends or outside of rush hour. These Starbucks really don't have a connection to their community because nobody is there interacting. Corporate warriors dip in to grab a quick latte during their hectic workday, but in general, people don't spend quality time there. This leads to a cold, empty, and uninviting feeling.

If you want the real Starbucks experience, then choose a shop located in a vibrant residential neighborhood. Everyone knows that New York City apartments are punishingly small. Sometimes, city dwellers just need to get out of that confined space for a little bit. Maybe they can't stand their annoying roommate, the neighbors are maddeningly loud, or the air conditioning is broken and it's 110 degrees inside. Starbucks provides the perfect refuge.

Since New York City houses a huge population of writers, artists, and freelancers of every type, Starbucks also serves as a de facto community office for the masses. It's a perfect place to hold meetings, bust out a chapter of a novel, read the newspaper, or just gain inspiration from all of the motivating people around you.

The best Starbucks of all time is located in New York's Union Square neighborhood. Don't be confused though - there are two Starbucks coffee shops in Union Square. The better Starbucks is located on 17th Street and Broadway, at the corner of Union Square West. It's larger, with a front and back room. There are plenty of tables and ample outlets for customers using laptops. Union Square Park is across the street and serves as the heart of the neighborhood. The park is a popular hangout spot during warm weather, with a farmers' market on weekend mornings and lots of artists selling reasonably priced paintings and crafts. The New School and New York University are close by, adding another creative element to the already eclectic crowd.

The interior of the building that houses this particular Starbucks is very unique. Large windows, high ceilings, handsome molding, and old style mosaic flooring give the place a 1930's feel. This Starbucks attracts a real mix of students, actors, creative types, a few tourists, and lots of skateboarders who hang out in the park. Warning: This Starbucks is generally quite loud, and can get a little rowdy late at night.

The second best Starbucks in New York City is on 63rd Street and Broadway, near Lincoln Center. The crowd here is very different than Union Square. The people here generally older, more subdued, and conservative in their behavior. Most customers are restrained Upper West Siders. They come to read, write, or conduct a quiet meeting. Students from the nearby Juilliard School also frequent this Starbucks; tending to use it as a glorified study hall. Since this location is closer to Midtown and next to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a fair number of tourists tend to wander in.

Still, the scene is generally calmer and less boisterous than other locations around the city. Be aware that this Starbucks can be quite busy if there is an event going on at Lincoln Center, home of The Metropolitan Opera, The New York City Ballet, and The New York Philharmonic. However, it is quite an interesting scene to watch theatergoers walking by, all dolled up in their tuxedos and gowns.

The third best Starbucks in New York City is at 51 Astor Place. Located near 8th Street (St. Mark's Place) and Cooper Square, the area housed two Starbucks coffee shops until one closed recently. Named for John Jacob Astor, the neighborhood is located on the fringes of the East Village, Union Square, and Greenwich Village. Students and late twenty to early thirty-something hipsters comprise the main clientele for this Starbucks. Nearby institutions such as The Cooper Union, New York University, and The New School provide a vivacious mix of students, who use the coffee shop as a modified library for studying.

This Starbucks also catches the creative spillover from the East Village, only an avenue away. The East Village is one of Manhattan's last affordable neighborhoods, but even that distinction has been waning as of late. Even so, the area houses a myriad of waiters and waitresses who are aspiring actors, writers, photographers, designers, and filmmakers. Oftentimes, these hipsters make up the mid-afternoon rush. Having just rolled out of bed and on their way to wait tables around the city, they stop in for a caffeine jolt.

This Starbucks is especially large, boasting lots of tables and a few cushy armchairs. The music here always appears to be a bit louder than other Starbucks establishments. Although the building is old, it has been modified to include sunrooms on two sides. The sunrooms are amazing for people watching, reading, or meeting friends. However, please be aware that the sunroom is not conducive to computer work, as the glare can be very strong during the day.

While Starbucks' corporate headquarters may be in Seattle, New York City feels like the coffee chain's second home, as there seem to be shops at every corner. Undoubtedly, there are lots of unique Starbucks in the five boroughs, but this guide will help you discover three of the very best.

Remember, while the image of a twin-tailed siren graces every store, each coffee house is individual. Visit them and not only will you have a chance to discover a new neighborhood, but you will have the opportunity to interact with the people who live there and make it unique.

An Element of Sin: Investing in Tobacco Stocks 101

While some people don't like to invest in so called "sin stocks," owning shares of tobacco companies could potentially fill an important gap in your investment portfolio. Tobacco stocks are characterized by low P/E ratios and high dividend yields. As a result, many investors seeking a steady stream of income find them to be attractive, especially when interest rates are low. Investing in tobacco stocks is inherently risky, because the companies are exposed to near constant litigation from former smokers seeking damages.

While tobacco companies have generally been successful at fighting this litigation, it is a constant source of hesitation for the industry. Additionally, there is uncertainty associated with the future of tobacco companies now that they are regulated by the FDA. At this point, it is unclear if tobacco companies will be forced to further curtail their marketing practices, change ingredients, or drop brand segments all together.

The domestic tobacco industry is mature, and cigarette volumes are declining in the United States and Western Europe. Draconian taxes and smoking bans have made cigarettes less accessible. Marketing restrictions imposed in the 1990's have severely restricted the ability of tobacco companies to reach new customers. Additionally, the public's perception of smoking is more negative than at any time in the past. However, cigarettes are very addictive, and smoking is an extremely difficult habit to quit. Add the fact that smokers tend to be extremely brand loyal, and it becomes clear why this slowly declining industry is still very profitable. Internationally, cigarette volumes are increasing.

Most developing nations lack strict smoking bans like those seen in much of the United States and Western Europe. Smoking in bars, restaurants, and the workplace is still legal in many parts of the world. Combine this with low taxation and it's easy to see why smoking cigarettes is still extremely popular in many countries around the globe. Smoking is also perceived differently in many developing nations than it is in the United States. In America, a smoking habit is often seen as a sign of weakness, while smoking a Marlboro or Camel in a developing nation is frequently considered a status symbol or an affordable luxury.

The long term future for both domestic and international tobacco companies is inherently negative. Increasingly, governments are gaining the political will to pass strict laws taxing and regulating tobacco products. However, as we have seen in the United States and Western Europe, the industry is much more resilient than anyone could have previously thought. Although cigarette volumes are slowly declining by a few percentage points each year in developed markets, the business is still extremely profitable. While tobacco companies know that manufacturing cigarettes may not always be a viable business, the day of reckoning will not come for a very long while.

In the meantime, tobacco companies are increasingly diversifying by developing new tobacco products seen as less harmful than cigarettes. These products, mainly variations of smokeless tobacco, can be used discreetly in places where smoking cigarettes is forbidden. Smokeless products provide the user with a nicotine fix while not upsetting bystanders or impacting the health of others. Analysts estimate that the smokeless tobacco segment will grow by 5% in 2010.

All of the large tobacco companies are publicly traded, meaning that anyone can easily buy their stock through a stockbroker. Domestic companies include Altria Group (MO) Reynolds American (RAI) Lorillard (LO) and Vector Group (VGR). Tobacco companies with international exposure include British American Tobacco ADR (BTI) Imperial Tobacco Group ADR (ITYBY) and Philip Morris International (PM).