Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Art of Zen Living

I've been working on a project.

I started a blog a while back, and I've had a number of people ask me why I don't write more, or write a book, or do some freelance writing. My answer was both straight forward and simple: because I suck at writing. Apparently this is not considered a polite way to respond when someone says they love to read the things you write.

It's taken some cajoling, and I've gone back and read some things I wrote years ago and decided I was correct - they were terrible. Then I read some of the posts I've written recently, and I'll grudgingly admit that compared to the old stuff, the newer articles were at least readable.

So I decided (since right now I have the time) to launch a blog that's more focused than what I've done in the past. The idea is to write what I know, and what I learn.

It's still a little rough - over the next few days I'll be filling out the gaps. So if you see something that looks like it might should be a link, but isn't, or a page that says "more here later", that's why. Content is also limited right now to a few articles from my old, personal blog that work well within the focus of the new blog. I'll be transferring a few more posts over, and new content should start showing up at a rate of at least one post per day by the end of this week.

So, with no further introduction (because, you know, 4 paragraphs of introduction should suffice for just about anything), I give you:

The Art of Zen Living

Friday, April 11, 2008

Comparison Shopping - How stores work against you.

I remember how cool it was when stores started putting "extra" information on the shelf tags to make comparison shopping easier. This was, of course, years ago.

I've been slowly putting together a price book of all of the "everyday" prices at stores in my area for the things I buy regularly. The first time I took my note sheet along, I was far too trusting. I thought to myself "Well, they list the break down on the tag on the shelf!". I ended up coming home with a sheet scribbled all over with prices and weights and volumes. Some time later, with the help of a calculator and a lot of patience, I had the pricing broken down into usable form.

Not surprisingly, the best prices are on weird combination. As an example, the 3.8 ounce box of Splenda is the best value at my local WalMart - by about 5 cents an ounce. No one buys that one, because the "price comparison" information lists "price per pound" (which is insane) while most of the other sizes of Splenda list the "price per ounce". Too hard to do the math on the fly, people just ignore that option and choose from the others.

I didn't have time today to check other items, but I've noticed it in the past with Olive Oil, Coffee, Cheese and other staple (for me, anyway) items. The best price is one of the choices that is listed differently from the others. I'm going to do a little research over the next week or so and see what I find out. In the meantime, if you want to comparison shop, take the time to use a calculator - your wallet will thank you.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Blogging and Blogs - specifically, mine

Don't get me wrong, I knew there was going to be a lot of work associated with getting a topical blog set up. I've been practicing some different techniques (i.e. shamelessly promoting) for driving traffic, watching my stats, and gathering resources in preparation for taking the next step. I've decided who my target demographic is, what my starting topics will be, and started putting together a list of topics to write on. I've even written a few articles. In other words, I'm ready.

Now all I need is a name. I've got a list of names I like, and a list of names that are *available*. Unfortunately there isn't much overlap between those 2 lists. When my mind is empty enough, the right name will come to me. In the meantime, I'm learning a lot about the process, and about myself.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008 Initial Impressions

Man, I wish I'd known about this back in December*. I've got a rather convoluted Excel spreadsheet I've been using to track my weight, exercise, splurges and other things I think may affect my weightloss and fitness levels. This, however, takes the whole thing to a new level. It automatically calculates the number of calories you burn per day based on your size, how much you burn based on your activity levels and all of that. What took me hours of research to track down, this site did in the 30 seconds it took me to fill out my profile. Very nice.

Like most powerful tools, be prepared to spend some time setting it up. Yesterday I found myself walking over to the pantry or fridge, getting a food item out, entering the nutritional data into the site, then putting the food item back. I'm very picky when I shop (for instance, I buy low carb low fat flax pitas - there was nothing in the "pita" catagory that was even close to the calories and carbs in what I buy) so a lot of what I eat isn't in there as food. I think it's awesome that you can add your own, custom foods. The only downside is that there doesn't seem to be a way to "build" your own recipes. When I select "Chili con Carne, with beans" from their menu, it gives me the nutritional information, along with a list of ingredients and processing methods. I can customize the nutritional information, but not the ingrediants. If I could just change "celery" to "green peppers" and add a few other things to the ingredient list, it could tell me what the nutritional value of MY chili is. That would really rock.

Accountability is easy to get as well. You can choose (as I have) to make your daily information and current progress available for others to see. I'd imagine it would make you think hard before you eat that piece of fudge if you know the whole world is going to see it on your daily food list.

I'm a little disappointed that I can't seem to find my type of walking on the list. I walk about 3 mph while carrying a load of 10 pounds - 5 in each hand. I can tell you based on how my arms, abs, and shoulders feel at the end of my walk that carrying that weight adds a LOT to the exercise that you get. My guess would be that it comes close to doubling the number of calries burned. The closest I see is "uphill, carrying load" or "carrying load, upstairs". I can throw on a 10 pound weight vest and not get nearly the same amount of exercise I get carrying those weights. I'm fudging it a little and listing my walk as "Walking, 4.0 mph, level, firm surface, very brisk pace" when I'm carrying the weights, and as "Walking, 3.0 mph, level, moderate pace, firm surface" when I'm not carrying the weights. Here recently, I've been trying to do both every day.

Today I plan on adding more of my "custom" foods, so I can get an even more accurate picture of where I am, and where I want to be. As you can see in the screenshot, Fitday has some really cool reporting features that let you really get an idea of how you're doing, and where you could improve. My Excel spreadsheet will likely stay with me until I've been using Fitday for at least a month, then I'll retired it. I'll also post an update on my long term impressions of, and it's usefulness as a tool for weight loss and fitness.

*I did go back and enter my "weekly weigh in" data going back to December 5th, which is why my public chart has data going back to the beginning of March.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Revolution Money Exchange


Over there. At the top of the page. See the button?

You knew it was bound to happen eventually. Paypal has been getting more and more expensive for as their fees have gone up, while the interest and cash back they offer has gone down. Someone was going to want to jump into that game sooner or later.

This new option is different - they charge no fees (unless you overdraw or want a check or paper statement issued) but they also pay no interest. My guess is that they keep the interest on your money while they have it - which is still cheaper for you. This was how Paypal started, back in the late 90's, so they were making money but not taking anything out of their customer's pockets directly. How times have changed.

Here's the important part about Revolution:

"Account issued by First Bank & Trust, Brookings, SD, Member FDIC and part of the Fishback Financial Corporation."

In other words, it's a savings account, just like at the local bank, insured and everything. Yes, Federal law required you give them your SSN info - Federal law also requires they keep that info private.

So, if you'd like a free $25 for an account you can close later if you decide you don't need it, I'd sure love to have the referral!

Refer A Friend using Revolution Money Exchange

Zen Kitten: Singletasking

Something else I've noticed about my cats, including the visiting kitten, is they are extrodinarily good at singletasking. Singletasking is a skill that is rapidly disappearing in our culture, replaced by multitasking, ADHD, ADD, and a variety of other acronyms. Before I go any further, please understand that I'm not saying that these things don't exist - but I am not convinced that they are as prevalent as our society seems to think, and doctors tend to diagnose. How is it that a child diagnosed with ADHD doesn't seem to have a problem sitting and playing Halo for 8 hours straight, but is medically incapable of paying attention in school for a 45 minute class?

I think there is a strong possibility that if I were growing up now, I'd be classified as one of the ADD or ADHD kids. Just a few years ago, the marketing for some new drug had me seriously wondering if I might have Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. Do I have any of these? No, I don't. If it's a book I like, I can read for hours, watch TV, play video games, whatever - concentration isn't an issue. If it's something I don't like doing, I have to use the skills I was taught growing up, focus and concentration. Skills my teachers and parents taught me in the standard ways - if I didn't concentrate, I got bad grades, which carried with it a bunch of consequences - no TV, no phone, no radio, grounding, etc. If my lack of concentration disrupted other students, there might be detention, in school suspension, or corporal punishment.

At work, when working on a task or project I don't like doing, I don't have the same options I do at home. I bring my concentration and focus to the task, but then I have to stop and answer the phone. Or talk to someone at my door. Or check e-mail for an update. These things are part of my job - I'm required to multitask. In our society, we've come to expect multitasking. Despite study after study after study that clearly shows us that multitasking undermines productivity, quality and service levels, we still insist on it at work, and in our personal lives.

My cats don't have this issue. They are what they are, and they do what they do. Whatever it is they are doing, they are focused on it as completely as possible, and they are at their happiest when they can focus on the task at hand completely. If they're forced to split their attention, they quickly become agitated, and it doesn't take much to push them over the edge where they decide to go hang out in the other room, or under the bed. I bet you know at least one co-worker like this.

So why do we insist on this destructive behavior? I don't know. I do know that the more I focus on the one thing I am doing, the happier I am at that moment. Even if it's doing nothing more than petting a cat.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

"Responsible Lending"

Over the weekend, I attended a function that included lunch. At the table behind me, I overheard 2 people talking about how several friends were in tight spots with their mortgages. That didn't surprise me, but as their conversation developed, I was dumbfounded when the blame was placed entirely on the mortgage lenders.

I'm not saying that mortgage lenders weren't making bad loans, but at some point, don't the consumers have some responsibility to read what they're signing? Didn't we all grow up hearing things like "let the buyer beware", and "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!"?

The conversation touched on the fact that the lenders should have told people this or that. No mention of the obvious - that the lenders don't work for the borrowers, the lenders make their money from the borrowers. If the borrower (customer) wants someone "on their side", they need to (and should!) hire a real estate attorney to look over the contracts before they sign them.

The lenders were irresponsible - to their share holders. Those are the people they have a responsibility to. They were irresponsible because they sold people more than they could afford. Really, the lenders are responsible for figuring out how much they can get out of a borrower without forcing the borrower into default. If that means the borrower eats nothing but ramen noodles and rides a bike to work for the duration of the loan, it just means that the lender got the best deal they could for the people they ARE responsible to - the aforementioned shareholders.

The person that is responsible for making sure they don't spend more than they can pay is the borrower.

The thing I find truly scary about this is that I'm a complete idiot when it comes to money and finances. I've just recently figured out how to actually make a budget, and even I know the basic rule "don't spend more than you have". How much worse off are these hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people that are caught in the mortgage crunch if even a self-acknowledged "financial idiot" knows more than they seem to?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Zen Kitten

For the past week or so, I've been watching my friend's kitten for her. I've been working with this little kitten, teaching her some different things, my cats have been teaching her different things, and while she's very stubborn, she's picking some things up. The kitten's name is Starr, and she's half Sphinx (hairless) and half domestic short hair. This is the first in a series of posts about the lessons I'm learning from my cats.

What I didn't expect was to learn so much from this kitten. Today, I'm just going to talk a little about Starr's concept of things and ownership. Or, more precisely, her total lack of this concept. My cats understand very little about ownership, but even as adult cats, they have some idea of the concept - they're territorial. At first, the kitten was allowed into the common areas, kitchen, living room and bathroom, but the lanai was off limits with the exception of using the litter box. Same with the bedroom. Those areas "belonged" to my cats. It didn't take long for them to decide that Starr wasn't much of a threat, and allow her access to the entire kingdom (in as much as a 1 bedroom apartment can be considered a "kingdom").

Starr, on the other hand, has no concept of ownership. If she sees something interesting, she goes and plays with it, uses it or investigates it. While she's in control of it, it appears to be "hers". Once she's done with it, she walks away and doesn't have any concern for what happens to that object next - the other cats can have a turn, I might throw it away, it doesn't matter - she's staked no claim on it, and as such it passes out of her awareness as readily as it passed into her awareness.

At first, I felt a little bad, because it seemed like nothing here was hers. But as I watched her, I realized that she didn't feel bad about that at all. She had nothing that needed her time, nothing that needed her attention, nothing that needed to be defended, nothing that owned even a little part of Starr. Yet she was free to use anything she came into contact with. I begin to understand how she is able to maintain her sense of wonder while looking at the world. She is attached to nothing, desires nothing be different, and as a result, she does not suffer. That will change, which bring us to Megan.

Megan, my female cat, on the other hand spent the first few days desiring the kitten not be here lol

Friday, April 4, 2008

Grocery Guide

Over the past few weeks, I've started a Grocery Price Guide. It's an idea I've seen on several blogs now, so I thought I'd share my experience with it.

Put simply, I made a list of as many items that I buy regularly that I could think of. At this stage of the game, I made no judgments about if the items were dumb or not, just made a list of what I typically buy. Keep in mind, I've ALWAYS been a pretty good comparison shopper - I never buy anything without comparing it to other items of the same type. If this isn't a strength for you, then you may wish to make a "first pass" with your list and see if you're just spending some "dumb money" anywhere on your list.

Next, I made columns for each of the stores in my area that I have access to:

BJ's Wholesale

We also have Sam's, Costco, and Winn dixie in this area, but I currently have a BJ's card, so I'm not going to buy a membership anywhere else until that expires. Winn Dixie is too far no matter how good a deal they may have - and with gas prices going up, that will just get worse.

Yesterday, I was in Publix, and I took my list with me. It turned a 3 minute "just grabbing 3 items" trip into about 40 minutes as I wrote down prices.

Yesterday, I had to go to WalMart to get 1 item. BJ's is right next to the closest WalMart, so I took my list and went to both places. Albertsons is having a sale on boneless, skinless chicken breasts (1.69/lb) so I'll go there with my list over the weekend. At some point I'll have to get to Sweetbay.

I think shock is the right word. Prices are all over the place. BJ's and Walmart split things pretty much down the middle, with a few (large) exceptions. Ground Turkey? Worst price: Walmart $3.75 a pound. Best? Publix - by over a dollar! $2.69 a pound. Keep in mind this is ground turkey breast. Walmart does have "15% fat" ground turkey for $1.89 a pound. Since I brown the meat first, that may actually be better for turkey chili.

Fortunately, Publix is on the corner, so gas isn't an issue, really. Walmart and BJ's are next door to each other, and I hit BJ's for gas (usually within $0.02 of the lowest price in the area, if not the lowest, so I accept that for the consistency). I can be fairly confident of being able to get the lowest price available and still only make two trips (fuel wise).

I highly recommend putting a list like this together. I've already found out that several sale items I was going to go get are more expensive at the sale than they are regularly priced at other places. It's also nice to be able to make an informed decision on whether or not to get something one place or the other, or if this week it's worth paying a little more for a single item (or 2) to avoid having to make 2 trips.

I haven't tracked it, but my guess is that I'm saving between $5 and $10 a week just by knowing where to buy what. That doesn't sound like much, but it stacks up and I only shop for me. If I'm only saving $5 a week, in a year that's still $260. Imagine how much the savings would be for someone that shops for 2 (or 4) people.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

HDTV Antenna pictures

As promised, here are some pictures of my antenna set up.

It's...uh...not the prettiest thing. However:

This is the "in action" shot. It fits behind the TV without an issue. You can make out just a bit of the wood if you look closely, but once I get back in there and clean up all the wires, I'll move the antenna to the center, and it will be completely hidden.

Of course, I'm not really content to leave things like they are now. Since my intention is just to pull in my local channels, my design can be a little more flexible. At some point, I think I'll get a nice, smallish piece of wood, cut it into a circle, paint it a nice black, fork out the $5.98 for clean, 14 gauge wire and fashion some sort of sunburst design that I can hang on the wall behind the TV as "modern art". If I mount the transformer behind the wood, no one need even know it's an antenna unless I tell them. The possibilities, as they say, are endless!