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!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


"Multitasking" is a buzzword we're all familiar with - it (theoretically) means the ability to do several things at once. What it usually means is the ability to have several things going on at once, none of which get done as well as they should, and some of them get left half finished and forgotten.

What most people I come across seem to lack completely these days is the ability to single task. As a society, we're always ready to answer the phone, respond to an e-mail or IM, listen to the radio or have the TV on while we do other things. As Yoda would say "Never our minds on where we are, on what we are doing!". He'd be right.

My challenge for the week (feel free to try this with me) is to take at least one task a day - be it brushing my teeth, baking a loaf of bread, doing the dishes, washing the car or cooking dinner - and concentrate on only that task. The idea is to do that one task slowly, deliberately, in a focused manner and to do it completely - I'll turn off my phone, mute the computer speakers, turn off the monitor, whatever I need to do to not be distracted, and I won't allow anything to interrupt me until my task is complete.

The idea is to connect with the "now", at least for a time, and use these tasks as a sort of meditation in mindfulness. I'll post here in a month and let you know how it went, and what my impressions are.

One footnote: For the past several months, Thursdays have been my "weekly weigh in" days. I post my progress on the blog I do on Myspace (nothing interesting, just a "news, weather and sports" kinda thing to keep my friends up to date), which helps keep me on track. As a result, I've found that when I say I want to try something "for a week", that week tends to start on Thursday for me. While that's the "how" of it ending up that way, I will also admit that I enjoy the fact that my "week" runs from when I want it to rather than the more usual start day.

Monday, March 31, 2008

HDTV Antenna - the simple way

So I've mentioned that I'm considering dropping cable TV after the spring season, due to the fact that the 2 "cable only" shows I just can't wait for DVD for are ending, and pretty much everything else I watch is on the major networks.

So I started looking around for an antenna for my TV. I was a little shocked by the wide selection (and the prices! $25 to over $100??? For an antenna?) and I suspected that since the "HDTV" antenna was sitting right next to regular old coax cable marketed as "HDTV READY!" with a fair markup, there may be some hype going on.

Back to the internet to do some research before I spend "dumb money".

As it turns out (as I suspected), an HDTV signal is broadcast over the air in the same manner that TV has always been broadcast. The difference is in the tuner, not the antenna. Something else I learned is that there are a lot of people making their OWN antennas. Hmmm.

So I grabbed a basic design, and decided to go "all out". I bought the screws (98 cents) the washers (88 cents) and the UHF/VHF Transformer (sounds impressive, doesn't it? $3.79 at Lowes). The board, wire coat hangers and cable TV cable were all "reclaimed" or "found". Total cost to me was under $6. That's a savings of $14 over the cheapest "store bought" rabbit ears I could find, and given the nature of rabbit ears I have no doubt that this works far better (just take my word on the engineering techno mumbo jumbo, K? THX!)

I used this design (video) and it took me about an hour while watching Reaper yesterday afternoon. Hooked it up today, and get a BETTER picture than Comcast for the local HD stations. I pick up about 24 stations total, although 6 of those are "regular" and "HD" versions of the same station.

I'll get some pictures up later, but I'm quite pleased with myself.


As some of you already know, I was laid off (fired, canned, removed from employment) last Tuesday. The reason given was that I was unable to meet customer service expectations. At first I was a little shocked, then I adjusted a bit. Wednesday morning I woke up and felt relieved. I won't go into too much detail, but to say that when you're working at a membership driven organization, the amount of abuse that your customers think is OK to heap on you is exponentially larger than at a "regular" business. I was relieved I wouldn't have to go in and take that level of abuse on a daily basis anymore. There's more to the story, but nothing I'd deem interesting enough to post here.

At the end of it all, I think I lasted longer there than the 4 people that held that job before me (one of which is a buddy that I've talked to since I left), and given a turn over rate that high, I don't think it's me.

What's interesting to me is my reaction to this news. Yes, this time is a little different because in addition to having a little saved, I'm also getting unemployment, but there's also very much a feeling that WHO I am is not connected to my job and what I do. I'm open to other possibilities that I'd never have considered before.

One of the first things I'll be doing is committing to making at least one blog post a day. More to come!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Today is SPLURGE day!

I have one "goal" for my weight loss - currently 165, it's moved around a little as I get closer and have a better idea what I'll look like - but I've also set up several "milestones" and allow myself to celebrate them. The last one was when I broke 200 pounds. I was a bad dieter tho - it took me so long to decide what I wanted to do to celebrate, I ended up doing nothing and waiting for my next milestone - 185. Which I hit today.

So today, I hit 185. When I hit that speed bump when I quit smoking, I moved 185 out to yesterday's weigh in as far as when I wanted to see that weight. As it turns out, I missed it by one day. If you'd asked me 10 days ago, I'd have told you I didn't think I'd see it until sometime towards the end of April, so it was a nice surprise to get past it now rather than later.

I went to Perkins with a friend and cashed in those 2 "free meal" vouchers (see this post) and got the pancakes AND a muffin! I learned that since I eat so little (zero?) refined sugar normally, I prefer pancakes without the sugar syrup. They're so rich and fluffy they're a treat just with a little butter.

Tonight I'm having some sort of pasta as a SIDE dish, and we have Perkin's brownies for dessert.

I'm pretty good with this weight loss thing - you can reward yourself with food when you hit milestones. What I don't know what to do with is smoking. I'm pretty sure that rewarding myself for 30 days smoke free with a cigar or cigarette would be a good way to end up a smoker again. Today is day 50 not smoking. I have until day 60 to come up with a reward for myself. Comments and ideas welcome!

Speaking of Smoking and Quitting Smoking, look for a post in the near future about the tobacco free Florida commercials.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

We need a BMI Chart for (former) fat people.

Someone needs to come up with a BMI chart for people that used to be fat.

I've often wondered how in the world I could possibly hit even the max end of the BMI chart for my height. 159 is a BMI of 25 for a 5'7" male, and 25 is "overweight". So I'd need to be 158. Wow. How's that ever going to happen?

So I decided to check my body fat. I checked 3 times with 3 methods, and came up with these numbers:

You have 20.4% body fat.

You have 39.4 Pounds of fat and 153.6 Pounds of lean (muscle, bone, body water). (weight = 193)

You have 21.6% body fat.

You have 41 Pounds of fat and 149 Pounds of lean (muscle, bone, body water). (weight = 190)

You have 22.6% body fat.

You have 43.2 Pounds of fat and 147.8 Pounds of lean (muscle, bone, body water). (weight 191)

We'll take the middle estimate of 21.6% with 149 pounds of lean. That would leave me, at 158 pounds, 9 pounds of fat. We'll round up and call that 5.7% body fat.

But Dan, you may be asking yourself, what's the problem with that?

Allow me to tell you how body fat percentages break down for white males:

Average American 22%
Healthy normal 15%
Top Athletes 3-12%

That's right - to hit "healthy normal" I'd need to weight 175, with about 26 pounds of body fat.

Even if I hit 0% body fat, that still puts me at a BMI of 23.3, way at the high end of "normal".

I've heard several theories, but the one I like best, that makes the most sense to me, is that when you're as fat as I was, your muscles have to develop a greater density just to support all that extra mass. We're talking structural musculature here, so don't get all excited that under all that flab lurks a weight lifter's body. Since we, as fat and former fat people, are carrying this extra muscle, we weigh more and it throws us off the (BMI) chart.

For me, this all works out OK - my goal is to bring my body fat down into the 5-7% range anyway, and see how that looks. But for someone that just wants to lose the weight and get healthy? Looking at this chart could be very demoralizing. So don't look. Use the scale to chart your progress, and when you start getting down closer to the size you want to be, start using body fat to choose a weight goal if you need to. Or choose a clothing size you want to be. If you are, or have been, more than 100 pounds over weight, realize this chart may not apply to you.

Next up: I have muscles now I've never known about!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Journey of 1000 miles.

So far this year I've walked 116 miles. I've set myself a goal to continue to track my walking (or running, if I try that out) until I reach 1000. And it all started with a single step out the front door to "go for a walk".

I'm not tracking all my walking - just the "for exercise" walking. At my current rate, it will take me about a year and 3 months, barring days missed for various reasons (I missed a week earlier this year due to being too sick to get out of bed, then I had to work back up to my 2 miles a day, for example) - I'll keep you posted!

So why this goal, this commitment? Other than the fact that I enjoy my walks? My experience is that consistency is the single most important factor in losing weight or gaining muscle. The weights and reps may change, but the number of times a week and amount of time you spend needs to stay the same or possibly grow slightly.

One of my "hot button" issues (sorry, all the political nonsense is rubbing off - I felt a need to "spin" some "buzz words" ;) has always been weight, weight loss, and more to the point, the way denial sets in because we think it's "kinds" and "polite".

I wish, when I was 300 pounds, and I said all the usual excuses about being big boned and not being able to lose weight, etc. etc. that SOMEONE had had the courage to tell me, in no uncertain terms, that I was what was called "fat". I really couldn't see it. 2 events conspired to help me see it - the first was seeing myself in a picture I didn't expect me to be in. I was flipping through the pictures, and thought to myself "Hey, who's that big fat guy coming in the door?". Since it was a digital pic, I zoomed it in, and it was ME. Ouch. I decided right then and there something needed to be done, but I lacked any urgency about it. I was getting ready to leave for vacation and go see my mom, so there wasn't a hurry. I get to mom's, and she had a scale! Thought I'd hop on and see how bad things were. The scale told me I was pushing 300 pounds! Obviously broken. So I asked mom if she knew how accurate her scale was. As it turned out, she'd been to the doctor earlier that week, and when she got home, she checked her scale against the weight she'd been at the doctor's - it was within half a pound. Double ouch.

Obviously I've yo-yo'd a bit since then (this was 2003), but (finally back the the point) my hot button issue has always been "consistency". You don't have to cut back to eating nothing (in fact, cut too far back and you'll slow your progress), but cut back to a reasonable amount. Measure it however you want - calories, fat grams, carbs, whatever. Eat WHOLE foods. Stay away from processed crap that was created in a lab. Low fat and low carb diets work because they end up limiting the number of calories you are able to consume. They do this 2 ways - first, you have to stop putting food into you when you reach the daily limit (20g of either carbs or fat, whichever you're watching). Second, both diets limit your options, and the food you eat gets *boring*. This is a very enlightening experience. You'll find yourself standing in front of the fridge, looking for something to eat, and seeing nothing that "looks good". You're bored with ALL your food. Then you think to yourself "but, if I were hungry - actually NEEDED food - I'd eat SOMETHING. So obviously I'm not hungry. So why am I here?" Suddenly you start to realize that you've been eating for a LOT of dumb reasons. Bored. Nervous. Angry. Tired. Wired. None of these are good reasons to eat, and they will make you fat. Decide what you want to count, then stick to it. Don't beat yourself up if you "cheat" - but feel free to beat the crap out of yourself if you use "not beating yourself up if you cheat" to rationalize cheating every day. Give it your honest, best effort. If you fail, try again. "Fall down seven times; stand up eight times". Simple. Powerful.

Get at least a multi-vitamin. You're want to take "how much whatever do I need?" out of the equation, but you don't want to end up with scurvy, either! I take a "men's" multi-vitamin, a "super B complex" and a vitamin "D" supplement. Your needs may be different.

Once you've decided what you're going to count, sit down and plan. Don't try and wing it. Plan out 4 weeks of what you're going to eat. For me, I knew I had to keep it as simple as I could. I ate the same thing, day in and day out for 28 days. Low carb shake for breakfast. 2 oz of cheese mid-morning snack. Lunch was a hamburger (probably between 1/3 and 1/2lb pre-cooked weight). Afternoon snack was 2 oz cheese. Dinner was a grilled (well, George Foreman grilled...) chicken breast. Lunch and dinner included whichever low carb veggie I wanted. Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts. Those were the 3 on the list I liked, so those were the ones I choose between. YMMV. Evening "snack" was usually some peanuts or cashews - these were a big treat for me :) Drink lots of water. I try to get around 2 liters a day. That's 4 16.9oz bottles (I refill my bottles, but that's another post), so it isn't really as much as it sounds like.

OK, now you have an eating guide. Step 2 - get off your ass. Seriously, get up and MOVE. Doesn't matter what you do - run, do jumping jacks, push ups, skip, whatever. I'm a walker. Now that I've quit smoking and I've been walking daily for months, I may try jogging, but walking has worked well for me. When I started, I was 300 pounds and smoked a pack a day. I couldn't run for anything. I started walking about a mile a day. Mind you, if you're walking or exercise, then *walk*. Shoot for about 3 miles an hour (think of how fast someone walks when you think "Wow, they're in a hurry!" and that's about the speed you want...). I see some people in my neighborhood that "walk" for "exercise" (they've told me this...) and they have their dog with them, and wander a bit, stop, wander a bit more, stop again...and they say they can't figure out why they aren't seeing the results of all this "exercise". I explained it, and that seems to have solved their problem. Also, look for opportunities to walk "extra" - I parked as far away from the door as I could at work, and I left my lunch in the car. When I went to the store, I parked all the way out at the edge of the lot. If I went to the mall, I parked at the edge of the lot - on the far end of the mall from the store I was going to. Don't give me the "I don't have time!" excuse. Every year you're fat, you loose 3 months off the end of your life. You think you don't have time now? Just do it - don't worry about the time.

Once I started to get into a groove, I stepped it up. Started walking a mile and a half, then 2 miles a day. Takes me about 40 minutes. Once I was at 2 miles, I started carrying weights - and dropped back to a mile a day. I started with 2.5 or 3 pound weights, I don't remember which. It's a LOT more intense to carry weights (I'm talking the dumbell style weights) when you walk - it passively works your chest, arms, abs and obliques. No, I can't find anywhere that say this is true, but I know what *hurts* the next morning! The pattern stayed the same - 1 mile, then 1.5 then 2, then switch to 5lb weights and go 1 mile, then 1.5 etc. I'm trying to decide right now, actually, if I want to go to 8lb weights, or if I'm just gonna leave well enough alone. We'll see.

Measure your progress, but do it for knowledge, not for "inspiration". I chart my weight every day. I've learned a LOT about the way my body works, what it's cycles are, and what my normal fluctuations in weight are. I use my morning weight on the chart, but I weigh myself as soon as I get up, and right before bed. You will be heavier at night, if you didn't know that :)

So, that's my experience. I used it to go from 300 pounds to 170. I let myself get back up to 238.5 (10/21/08), and now I'm down under 189. My goal is 165. Look for a post from me soon on body fat and BMI soon, with an explanation why my goal weight is above my BMI :)

One last thing: I highly recommend you focus on the process rather than the results. Take the time to notice that you begin to feel better, physically. Find something you like about your walks (or whatever). If you're in it for the "here and now" benefits of the process, the results will follow without you having to worry about it. This will also help you stay on track because you're enjoying the process, and merely observing the results. That emotional detachment lets you stay on track and on target!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

When Frozen is better than fresh...

Let me get this out of the way first. For me, frozen chicken breasts make more sense and are a much better deal than fresh. This, for me, is an epiphany. I've always had an aversion to buying pre-frozen meat. Odd, given that I've never had the same issue with pre-frozen veggies. The past few weeks, I've been defrosting and using pre-frozen chicken breasts. The deal was too good to pass up. I was looking at BJ's at "freezer package" fresh chicken breasts - packed in easy to separate packs that you put straight into the freezer!

I'm a single guy. If I buy 12 packs, then 11 of them go straight to the freezer and become "pre-frozen" anyway. All this time, I've been paying $0.79 (average) extra a pound for the privilege of paying for freezer wrap (ziplocks, foil, whatever), spending 15 minutes separating it all out, wrapping it up, and turning it into pre-frozen myself.

From here on out, I'm getting the cheaper, frozen ones from the start.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Finding my passion

I was reading over at The Simple Dollar an article called Seven Steps to Finding What You’re Truly Passionate About, and as I got through the first part of it, I realized I'm perfectly positioned for this. I might even take it one step further, and suggest that if you get through step one (eating right, exercising, eliminating negative personal relationships and getting enough rest) you'll naturally gravitate to "seeking" mode. The rest of the tips, however, will make you an efficient (and as a result of the efficiency, a less frustrated) seeker.

As I've addressed those basic issues in my own life, one after another, I've found myself actively searching for something else. Some of you know (and the rest of you will know after this sentence) that I'm learning about Buddhism. Am I ready to call myself a Buddhist? Not yet. I am going to find and go to a local Buddhist temple or barring that locate a Zendo (meditation center) around here and meet some Buddhists and learn more.

The more I center my life, the more I find myself in need of some more basic interests. I'd love to find a hobby that I can enjoy - I just don't know what. Thanks to Trent over at The Simple Dollar for some excellent tips on making the search easier and more fulfilling!

Thoughts on the 100 Items Challenge

It's interesting to me that my perspective has changed dramatically. I believed that, after this past weekend, I was done cleaning out my space and eliminating unneeded "stuff". Then, while making dinner last night, I found that in the time it took for the veggies to cook (about 10 minutes) I'd completely filled my kitchen trash can with more stuff.

My mindset has changed. Rather than setting aside time to work on a "project", I am actively seeking, as a habit, to simplify and enrich my life. Pretty cool. I found myself going through my jewelry can (you'd have to see it to understand - it's an old, brass basket that I come home and throw my watch and whatever else into) and there were things in there that looked like nothing more than junk to me. 2 rocks (polished and decorated) that were given to me as a gift at my wedding. I was divorced in 2001. I've been carrying these rocks since 1999, out of some bizzare social obligation I felt. They were given to me, so I can't just throw them away. I threw them away. About half the things in there fit into that category - they all went into the trash.

While I was doing all of this, it occurred to me that the 100 items challenge, as currently being practiced on the internet, is pretty silly. Random things are excluded (books and collections) because they would be inconvenient to include. Shared items are excluded. 100 is a random number.

I don't know that I'm going to create my own challenge, nor if I do that I'll try it, but it seems to me that the exclusions should be for "sets" - for instance, my tool set. Each "box" could count as one item - I have 2 tool boxes. That means that the case for my drill, the case for my circular saw, the case for my jig saw and the 2 cases for different drill bits all count. So my tool set, even though it's a set and a collection, would still count as 7 items. I have a chess set (currently boxed) that I would count as one item. My DVD collection would not be a single item. Computer software would have to be handled differently - my collection of games in not one item, but I would count a single title as one item, even if it's multiple CDs.

Infrastructure. That's what I'm calling it. The little things you need to live a modern life. Dishes, silverware, scrub brush. I was looking at my computer last night and trying to figure out how to "count" it. Is the mouse a separate item? The keyboard? The printer? Then I got to one that annoyed me: the network. Does my cable modem count as an "item"? It brings the internet into my home, the same way the electric meter brings electric in - do I count the electric meter? What about my wireless router? It's required to run some of my other stuff - Tivo, computer and Xbox 360. Furniture, I think, would have to be counted. I have to carry it out when I leave, therefore it's mine. Consumables (soap, shampoo, windex, toothpaste, canned tomatoes, spices) get excluded, so long as you only have one of each item. If you want to have 2 kinds of toothpaste, then that second tube is an "item". If you have 2 kinds of cinnamon, then that second bottle is an "item".

Same goes for pots and pans - as long as you have a reasonable amount (looking around the internet, it seems the average "normal" set has 3 pots, 2 skillets and lids for each) then it can be added to "household". Dishes would be the same - the first, household set, up to 8 place settings (if you have more than 4 people in your home, you'll have to adjust this, but be REASONABLE in the spirit of the exercise) can be excluded. Same with the silverware, glasses, etc. Small appliances don't get excluded. That George Foreman Grill? It's an item. So is your food processor, BOTH fondue pots, the espresso maker, the crock pots and toaster. OK, so that's my list - yours may look different. I do count the fondue pots as "sets" - I compromised and got rid of the forks from the second set - I can see a reason to have one electric and one sterno based pot (depending on what I'm making) but I couldn't see a way to justify keeping 2 sets of forks and servers.

So how would you do that for a family? I think the key is to exclude the children and anything that is theirs and theirs alone. Then count everything shared between you and your spouse that doesn't belong "more" to one than the other, and divide that by 2.

One thing is certain. Even after spending all this time going through everything, I still have a ton of junk that doesn't add anything to my life. My commitment to myself is to, over the next few weeks, continue to remove as much of it as I can from my life.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The 100 things Challenge

I was reading over at Zen Habits about the 100 things challenge, thinking to myself "how in the world could I possibly ever do this???". In fact, the first comment was along the lines of "this is insane and stupid!". I agreed, at first. Then I went back and re-read.

This is NOT a single person challenge. I mean single as opposed to married. My bet is that the first commenter was single.

In the "challenge" you exclude non-personal things (dishes, detergent and the kitchen sponge, for example) and anything you share with other family members. Wow, that's a huge loop hole.

I'm single. The couch? Mine. TV? Mine. Tivo? Mine. Computer? Mine. Shampoo? Mine. End table? Mine. Laundry basket? Mine. You see where I'm going with this, I'm sure. These, for someone with a family, are things they get to exclude.

I'll also give you that this is something that is probably done more for fun than anything else, but even giving that, the whole "collections count as one item and books don't count at all" rule is a complete cop out. 1 DVD is 1 item. Don't believe me? Go to WalMart, get a cart, stack 300 DVDs into it. Go to the 10 items or less line. Explain to the people behind you that you don't have 300 items, you have one "collection" that counts as a single item. See what people say.

I'm probably not a good person to ask about that - I got rid of almost all of my DVDs recently. I'll likely get rid of the last few in not too long. I'm using it as an exercise in simplifying as well as an exercise in patience. If I want to see a particular movie, I now have to put it on my list for netflix and wait. Well, technically, I'd have to restart my netflix, then put it on the list. Patience.

I am, however, now curious as to how much I actually own. I think I'm going to count this weekend, then pick a number of items I feel would be a good number and see if I can make it!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Financial Functional Illiterate.

That would be me.

I'm still trying to get my head around doing a budget - and that's actually going well. Right now I'm laying low, waiting for the end of the month. I've laid out my "guesstimate" budget in Excel, signed up for (which tracks most of my purchases) and now I'm waiting to see how well I'm able to stick to my budget, and where I can cut back farther. I find I'm actually a little impatient - I want the end of the month to be here so I can see how I did, and get started on revision 2.

The very, very first thing I'm doing is building up a one month buffer in my Suncoast savings account. It earns a very small amount of interest (about a third of what the E*Trade savings earns) but it is attached to my checking account for overdraft protection. Once I have a month of money in that account, I can stop living paycheck to paycheck, and set up automatic withdraws to my E*trade savings and my investment accounts.

I'm convinced that the only way to get ahead is to NOT be behind. Living paycheck to paycheck, even if all your bills are paid on time, is being behind. It took me a while to get my head around that idea. I can't comfortably set up ANY automatic payments right now - bills, savings, investing or otherwise - because I am not 100% certain there's no way those payments won't accidentally bounce. So priority one is getting a full month's budget stashed in that Suncoast savings account.

Priority 2 is getting an "emergency" fund stashed in that E*Trade savings account. I'm thinking that $1000 should be enough to start with. That should cover any "average" major auto repair or bill. It's also a nice, round number. The trifecta is that it seems to be the number lots of financially literate people recommend to start out an emergency fund with.

Priority 3 is getting my credit cards paid off. Right now, that's down to about $1200.

I know, I know - it sure seems like that last one should be first. That makes the most sense to me. But then, my financial life is a train wreck, and the people out there that have been writing personal finance blogs for months and years say this is the order it has to be done in. At the risk of sounding Zen, financially speaking, I know that I know nothing. So we'll do it their way.

One thing has become very clear - I've been living stupidly. Well, that's not true. I've been living ignorantly. Now that I know better, if I continue to live that way, it would be living stupidly. What I mean is that until now, I've always thought I was making just barely enough to "make ends meet". I had no idea where my money was going, and I was always broke. It's sort of amazing to find out that I make enough to live comfortably, and still have a fair amount left over for savings.

That defines the difference between financial literacy and financial illiteracy. The financially illiterate has a hard time making ends meet no matter what their income level. The financially literate can find a way to live comfortably at a wide variety of income levels.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Update: The Stuff Project

Over the past 2 weekends, I've been working on reducing the amount of stuff that owns me. Yes, you read that right. The further along in this project I get, the more I feel like I was the one that was owned.

The first part of this journey came to be when I decided I wanted to know if I could live in a one bedroom apartment, or if I need a 2 bedroom. You see, I've been living in a one bedroom only because I have a garage I pay extra for. Lots of my stuff lives in that garage so that I can have room to live here, in the apartment.

I needed to know if I could squeeze uncomfortably into a one bedroom apartment, or if I needed a 2 bedroom, so that my stuff could have it's own room. Oh, at first, I was rather unskillfully calling that second bedroom an "office" or "computer room". But the more I began to unclutter my life, the more honest I became. A second bedroom wouldn't be the "computer room" or "office" - my computer was already quite happily sharing a room with me here, in the apartment. I came to the realization that the second room would just be for my stuff. Wow. Scary. My stuff is going to have me paying rent for it now?

This is where it hit me like a brick. I pay rent for that garage. I'm already paying rent for my stuff. $600 this year just so my stuff has a place to live. I'm a slave to my stuff.

I scouted my apartment. I counted how many boxes I could stack up, and where. 25 total. Oh boy - is that going to be enough? We're talking the little boxes paper comes in - the "case" size.

In the end, I needed one big box (about the size of 3 of the paper case boxes) and 2 of the paper case boxes. I'm still not convinced I even need all of that.

Once I got started, it has become easier to let go of things - I hope to make that a habit. Also unusual for me is that I've insisted I make use of what I already have - I may reduce, but I may not add new things. So I did not buy the microwave stand that in the past would have been *required* for this project. Somehow it wasn't needed after all. Same thing with the table and new book case. The result is that I'm content with my space, and with my mind. More content with both, I think, than I would have been if I'd gone and spent the money on the "new" things I "needed" to "make the place work".

I was getting ready to observe that I can now take that extra money I saved and put it all in the bank. That is an unskillful thought. It arises from greed. Since this is money that I'm surprised to have, I believe the correct thing to do is to put some in the bank, and donate some to a cause I can support. Generosity is more skillful. More on the whole Buddhist thing later.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Tivo HD

So Woot! had a refurb Tivo HD up last week for $179.99 (plus the usual Wootly $5 shipping), and I decided to take the plunge. Cable guy was here to install my cable card, and I'm up, running and very very pleased :)

My rationale was this: dollar for dollar, I get really good value out of my cable TV + Tivo setup. My cable bill, including internet, is $87 plus $12.95 a month for Tivo. Now, I'll admit that I'm spoiled, and I have (and love) my HDTV. It's a guilty pleasure that I've been running both a Comcast HD DVR and a regular Tivo. My thought process is that by dropping the Comcast DVR, I'll be saving $11.95 a month on my cable bill, plus I'll gain a bit on my monthly electric since I'll only have one box running instead of 2. Since I'm blowing my entire entertainment and discretionary budget (those 2 items together total $100 a month) on this purchase, that leaves $84.99 as a net cost. Deduct what I'm saving on my cable bill, and this pays itself off in 7 months.

Yes, I'm justifying, and the best thing for me to have done would have been to just cancel cable and get an antenna for my TV. In time, I might get to that point, but for now, I want to know if Galactica makes it to Earth, and who the last cylon is, damn it.

Woot! "customer service" sucks, BTW. I've ordered from Woot 4 times in the past year, and 2 out of the 4 have been bad experiences. The expensive ones, at that.

Tivo's customer service, on the other hand, rocks. Tivo is sending me new cables for (get this) ALL of my home theater components! I made a comment about my other gear "is going to be SO jealous of the brand new Tivo component cables!" and she asked me how many I needed! I just needed one other set, so I didn't get greedy. I also mentioned that I was planning on giving my old Series 2 box away to get a Tivo Rewards referal so I could get one of the back-lit, learning Tivo remotes. She upgraded me on the spot to the better remote.

Tivo was great, and I was more than pleased with their response even before all the upgrades.

Yes, I realize that Woot just shipped me the box they got from Tivo, but part of the cost of doing business is that you have to, as a retailer (and that's what Woot is, make no mistake about it) be prepared to make things right with your customer if a manufacturer drops the ball. A response from Woot that was basically:

"Heh. Oh well. We placed an order for it, you'll get it sometime. Later, loser!"

Pathetically inadequate, especially when the customer has identified that this is the second bad experience in 4 total tries.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Oh wow.

So I started to write a post about index funds and investing. That became a post about budgeting and investing, which turned into a post about budgeting, debt reduction and investing. That turned into budgeting, debt reduction, savings, stopping living paycheck to paycheck, and investing.

I've spent the last hour typing, and I have a JUMBLE of great info that makes no sense.

Over the next few days I'll chop it up into usable posts, and get it up here!

Be patient with me while I get the hang of this - it's a whole new way to blog for me.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The tyranny of "stuff"

Stuff. In America, we have a LOT of it. In fact, we have so much, we often pay people extra to store it for us. "Self Storage" places are everywhere.

We're so attached to our "stuff" that we understand and validate stories like this:

"I know of one couple who couldn't retire to the town they preferred because they couldn't afford a place there big enough for all their stuff..."

How horrifying. To NOT retire to your dream area because you're so attached to your "things" that you need to be sure that they have a nice place to live.

Being in a place where I'm remodeling my world view and psychology, I see both sides of this. The American consumer in me understands on an emotional level this attachment to stuff. Intellectually, I can acknowledge that it makes no sense at all, and is, in fact, outdated.

I read an interesting article a week or so ago about our attitude towards "stuff" and how it's outdated. The author made a good point - go back and look at old pictures. From the 40's, 50's, 60's and even into the 70's - don't look at the people, look at the backgrounds. Notice how empty the houses are. There is a distinct *lack* of "stuff". If you look at old houses, from around the turn of the century, you'll find they didn't have closets in the bedroom. There was no need for them - stuff was rare and valuable and often everything a person owned would fit nicely into a trunk or chest of drawers.

But then something happened. Record players became common. Followed by the 8 track. Now you could own music and other things that had previously been radio only for most folks. This was followed quickly by cassettes, CDs, VHS, DVD, Computers and computer software and cheap crap from sweatshops in far away places. "Stuff" was no longer rare and valuable, it was all over, easy to find, cheap to acquire and always (in the back of our minds, anyway) useful!

Except...our attitudes about "stuff" didn't change. In our heads, we still think of stuff as "rare and valuable", even though it isn't.

I'm guilty of this - big time. In the past, I've paid $80 a month, for a year, to store things that I had been in boxes for the 2 years prior. Round numbers, adding tax, we're talking $1000 to store things I hadn't used for years, and as it turns out, didn't use for years after that. If I want to be totally honest about the cost, I paid an extra $50 a month in rent to have a garage to store my extra "stuff" after that. So total is $1600.

My lease ends on 4/30 - and you can bet I'm dropping that extra $50 a month from my rent.

That's a side benefit to my real purpose. My real purpose is to "detach" from my stuff. Somewhere along the line, I, like most Americans, stopped owning "stuff" and started to be owned by my "stuff". This is not an acceptable state of affairs. At this point in my journey, I'm vaguely aware that there's a balance between having things and not having things, and appropriate and inappropriate relationships to things. I'm not sure where the line is, but I know I'm way over it. Better, then, to have not enough attachment than too much. That is my thinking, so it was time to act.

I spent this weekend going through my things in boxes in the garage. I'm not done, but it's a start. The idea is to get rid of everything that won't fit into my apartment. I'm also going through my apartment and getting rid of anything that doesn't fit some simple criteria:

1) Do I use it at least once a month?
2) Is it irreplaceable?
3) Does it have a specific purpose that makes it useful?

Honestly, I had to "create" category 3 when I realized that my plunger wasn't irreplaceable, and that I hadn't used it in over a year. It's one of those things that you just have to have, even if you aren't using it. Many of my tools also fit into that category, but I've had to tread lightly to be sure that I don't use it to "protect" things that should go.

I've scratched the surface, I'm really not sure how far into the process I've gotten. I know that there was one full car load and then about a quarter car load that's gone to Goodwill already. Yes, I got a receipt - on one hand, the spiritual journey requires I detach from my stuff and stop seeing it as valuable. On the other hand, I'm trying to learn fiscal responsibility, and living in the real world it's silly not to take the $700 or so in tax deductions (and recoup some of the $1600 I've wasted storing this crap!).

The other thing I struggled a little with is what to do with the "stuff" that has value to other people. Yes, I'm perfectly OK with looking at my collection of Magic: The Gathering cards as ink on paper to be thrown away, but I also know that I can trade them for Government Issued Ink on Paper. In the end, I see no reason not to sell what I can. I'm not going to any great lengths - some stuff (trading cards and "collectible" hobby items) will go to local shops, some stuff (a few small furniture items) will go to Craig's list, and the rest (Software, games, DVDs, watches) will go on Ebay. Again, I may as well recoup some of the expense of carting this stuff around.

At the end of the weekend, I feel lighter than I did at the beginning. I still have a ways to go to get to where I want to be with my "stuff". Another issue that's come up while I've been working on this is my relationship with my "space". There's a whole 'nother post coming about the re-arranging of my apartment....

Daylight Savings, Energy Wasting?

There's an interesting article over at WSJ today, about a study that was done when Indiana recently switched over to DST. The conclusion is that observing daylight savings time costs the people of Indiana an additional 8.6 million dollars a year in electricity costs.

WOW. Now, there's some interesting information in the article, talking about the difference between this study and the studies in the early 1970's being air conditioning, which accounts for why there was an energy savings seen back then, and not so much now. Given that we just extended DST nationally for an extra month (the reason being to save more energy and fight global warming), it's ironic that we appear to be doing the opposite.

Still, the article also observes that there may be other reasons to keep DST:

"There may also be social benefits to daylight-saving time that weren't covered in the research. When the extension of daylight-saving time was proposed by Mr. Markey, he cited studies that noted "less crime, fewer traffic fatalities, more recreation time and increased economic activity" with the extra sunlight in the evening."

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Refreshing Personal Finance

I'm going to be looking at a variety of budget tools over the next few days - all the free ones. I see no reason to pay a fee for something when there are great, free alternatives available out there.

Initially, I used Excel to generate my basic budget. I'm fortunate that I have about 9 budget items, and that's it. I suppose I could break things out a little more, and have both a "groceries" and a "dry goods" category, but I really don't care if paper towels and windex live in the grocery line category.

Once I had my budget, I wanted to start tracking. I'm looking at a few different free options, and today's was Total set up time was under an hour (1 Credit Union with checking and savings, 2 credit cards, 1 investment account and 1 paypal account). The transactions all categorized fairly well on their own, and as I went in and assigned things manually the systems seems to learn to look for different key words in the transaction descriptions. For instance, at first both credit card payments were tracked based on the "ACH withdraw card" keywords. When I manually renamed one to "HSBC Payment" all of those transactions started tracking off of "ACH Withdraw HSBC". I'm not certain that it's an adaptive system, but if it proves to be then that will be really nice. does a good job of showing you your spending habits, and tracking where your money is going. It has some nice alert features you can set up to send you e-mails or text messages. The spending trends displays a nice pie chart, showing what you've spent where, and you can get that displayed from one month at a time to, "all time". I like that you can click on each category and "drill down".

A few things I've seen that I already don't like is that I can't manually tell it that I'm not using my E*Trade account as an investment account. There's several years of history in my E*Trade account from when I was using it as my default checking account, so it would have been great to load all that in and see historically how I've spent my money, but Mint refuses to get the transactions from that account. Since NOW I'm using it strictly for investments, it's OK - but if you aren't using a "regular" account for your checking and savings, you might have problems.

*Side note: I liked using my E*Trade brokerage account for day-to-day because it was fee-free. Checks were free, they rebate my ATM fees from other banks, and there was no annual or monthly fees. My current credit union doesn't even give me that good a deal!

I'll also be checking out here in the next few days, to see how it compares.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Taking Stock

"The key to wealth is being satisfied with what you have."

It's interesting to me how intertwined things are. At the beginning of this year, I started out having one of my goals as "pay off my debts". Seemed simple enough - pay down my credit cards and pay off a loan. It occurred to me that it couldn't hurt to do a little research about what the most effective way to do that would be.

Along the way, that simple "pay off my debts" goal got changed around into "become financially responsible".

I looked around me, and what I saw was that I didn't live nearly as poorly as I'd thought. I also don't live nearly as well as I could.

Now I need to start by taking a financial inventory - then I'll move on to learning about budgeting tricks. I suspect that there's a lot of learning ahead of me in this category.

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Future of Medicine and "The Bottom Line"

If you're my age, you remember the promise that DNA held back in the 1970's. How "one day", we'll be able to identify what diseases you'll get, and heal you before you're even sick!

That was before the dark times. Before the advent of the HMO. How much proof do you need to decide that our system is horribly broken? Check out this article about people refusing DNA tests for conditions they're likely to have.

"Insurers say they do not ask prospective customers about genetic test results, or require testing. “It’s an anecdotal fear,” said Mohit M. Ghose, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, whose members provide benefits for 200 million Americans. “Our industry is not interested in any way, shape or form in discriminating based on a genetic marker.”"

Puhleeeeeze. This from the people that are being sued in pretty much every State in the union for despicable acts in the name of the bottom line. The only reason they AREN'T testing is that currently they need blood to do the tests. If they could figure out how to test us without our knowledge, you can bet your ass they would.

Nationalized health care isn't the answer, but we need to move fast to protect ourselves from this kind of genetic discrimination. The basis is already in the law - which prohibits discrimination based on some specific genetic traits like race, gender and (yet to be proven, but it will be) sexual orientation. It's time to start demanding that our politicians expand that protection, before a lack of it starts costing human lives.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Subprime Primer

This is a pretty funny slide show about the sub-prime mortgage debacle. Not that there's anything funny about any debacles.

The sad part is that as over simplified as it is, it's also fairly accurate...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Chantix - Update

So today is day 18 smoke-free for me. I've had a few interesting experiences, the most interesting annoying of which is what I call "the blahs". This actually started before I quit completely - I had a week where I was smoking 2-3 a day before I just said the heck with it.

It's not that I'm unmotivated - I'm going to work, working out, doing my walk, my place gets cleaned, my laundry gets done, I've gotten my application information in to start school in the fall, my financial aid info it filled out and in - if anything, I'm more motivated about getting my life together than I have been for a while.

Socially, I'm "blah". Getting together with friends seems to take too much energy. I'm not myself - my sense of humor is off, my timing is different, and everything I say or do seems/feels forced to me. It's the "to me" that's important there - no one else seems to notice a difference.

I have 7 weeks of Chantix left, so for now I'm going to stick with it. This is the best I've ever done when it comes to stopping smoking. I can't discount that. If 3 months of feeling "a little off" and being a bit isolated is the price, then the price doesn't seem all that high when taken in the context of an extra few years of life, ya know?

So for now, I guess I'll stick to work, exercise, TV, video games and routine.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Dumb Money

Kevin over at No Debt Plan has a feature called "dumb money". I recently found myself having a similar conversation with...errr.....myself about going out over the last few weekends. I'm not ethical enough to NOT steal the "dumb money" tag, but I am ethical enough to acknowledge where I stole it from. Look for "dumb money" posts here in the future.

The SUN (and global warming)

Ars Technica had an interesting article today, talking a bit about the sun's effect on Global Warming. There are starting to be studies done specifically to that rule out the possibility of solar activity having an effect on global warming.

My honest opinion is that we don't really know if we're seeing global warming, nor do we know why it's happening, if it is. There's just WAY too much money and power tied up in the concept of Global Warming to believe we're getting any real information about it. On one hand, Gore is trumpeting an alarm. On the other hand, he's doing next to nothing about it in his own life, despite having ample funds to drastically lower his personal impact on the environment. On top of that, he's making a ton of cash selling "carbon offsets". When I take those 2 facts into account, I have a hard time believing him. I don't believe what most sales and marketing people say about their products, either, so take that into account too.

There are lots of good reasons to do "the right thing" where the environment is concerned, I just don't think that a panic inspired by "The Brothers and Sisters of The Church of Global Warming" is one of them.

And yes, I'm the guy that, at every bookstore he goes in, moves all the copies of "An Inconvenient Truth" to the "Religion and Spirituality" section. I'll post the pictures sometime ;)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Apple: It just works, well sometimes.

This article is talking about the new iPods, and the fact that they aren't compatible with any Apple OS older than Tiger.

In particular, I love this quote: "Now, I've seen the criticism that some of those True Believers have directed at those of us disillusioned ones, left behind by the shiny new OS's. We should have read the system requirements on the box.. I admit it. I didn't."

It really sums up everything I've always hated about Apple. Apple is the company that had this huge ad campaign that basically said "Apple: it just works!". Well, apparently not. And it's not like this is some 3rd party solution we're talking about here, it's an Apple product.

"Apple: it just works. Well, sometimes. Only if there's Mac support, and only if it's an Apple product that we decide should work with what you have. "

Me, I'll stick with the PC - at least if something doesn't work with my PC, there will be 25 other choices that do the same thing I need to have done.

HD-DVD is dead! Long Live HD-DVD!

Well damn.

I suppose it was inevitable. Sony has lost so many format wars (VHS, MP3, Minidisc, memory stick, etc. etc.) they were bound to decide to just buy a victory eventually.

I have the HD-DVD add on drive for my Xbox360. I like it a lot. I also have an "upconverting" DVD player that shows my regular DVDs in HD. I like that a lot better. I bought it for $49.95 on sale at Best Buy. That said, I CAN tell a very, very slight difference between watching an HD-DVD disc and an upconverted DVD. Only on certain scenes, at certain times, if I'm looking very closely. Certainly not enough of a difference to justify the additional cost of HD-DVD players and discs. And if it's not worth the extra cash for HD-DVD, it's certainly not worth the even higher cost of Bluray.

Eventually, I'll get a PS3 so I can do the Bluray thing, and play the few PS3 exclusive titles I'm interested in. My guess is that for a good, long time the REAL winner of the "format war" will be the regular old DVD we've all come to know and love - played in upconverting players.

Perkins. Dirty Dishes, Great Customer Service.

So Saturday I was going to meet a friend for lunch, then go catch a movie (Maybe, Definitely was the movie. I enjoyed it, although according to the WOACAs in front of me, making a few, quiet comments to the person next to me is "talking through the whole movie" lol). I like breakfast food. Don't get to have it very often, since I tend to drink breakfast. So I look forward to these weekend brunches when I get to eat eggs, bacon, toast, etc. etc.

We arrive at Perkins, order waters, coffee for me, a diet coke for my friend, and I unwrap my silverware. The knife has a big splotch of dried egg on it. So does the spoon. Also the fork. Gross.

The coffee gets here. There's a dark, dirty ring on the inside of the mug. There's caked on grime on my water glass, with bits floating in the water. The outside of the coffee pot has some sort of dark, oily looking substance around the top where filth has built up over time.

I explain to the waitress that I don't feel comfortable getting food here, because it's going to come out on plates that are likely just as dirty, but with the food covering the dirt, how will we know? We get up to leave, and I stop and talk to the manager. I got the assistant manager. She seems completely unconcerned. Says "Oh, the dishwashed probably forgot to clean out the trap, that's all! Hope you'll come back and try us again!". Well, yes. The dishwasher probably did forget. Then the waitstaff ignored the dirty silverware when they were rolling it up in the napkins. Ignored the dirty glasses, didn't mention the dirty coffee cups, ignored the dirty glasses. The management (her) also apparently didn't pay any attention, or she'd have noticed that all the dishes in her restaurant were dirty. This wasn't one person, it was the entire staff.

Not being happy with the manager's "oh well!" attitude, I e-mailed Perkins when I got home. I explained what happened, and pointed out that I saw no reason to go back and give them another chance. It's my money, and for my money, I don't see a good reason to go to a place that I may well have to walk out of again.

Sunday afternoon, I get a call from the store manager. He agrees that all of the items at the table being dirty is excessive, and says he'll address the issue. He asks if I'd be willing to come back in if it was on him. Well, sure - that seems fair. He promises that corporate will be mailing me 2 free meal coupons, and takes down my address.

My experience at Perkin's wasn't good, but my experience with customer service was fantastic.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Chantix - works or not?

Chantix is the new "stop smoking" drug from Pfizer - and it'd been getting a lot of press. This article describes how it made an otherwise normal individual into a raving psychotic , and this article talks a bit about another person's experience, along with incidental information about how her family members did with it. If you check the comments associated with the first article, you find people on both sides of the argument. The only part of that I find surprising is that the people who it didn't work for seem to think it shouldn't be on the market at all.

Excuse me? I've been on Chantix for a month now, and while I do have some of the common side effects (gas, nausea, vivid dreams) I also, for the first time in 20 years, quit smoking. Is it for everyone? Obviously not. Personal responsibility should be used - several of the stories involve people that were taking Chantix and also taking other drugs for recreational purposes. Now, I don't claim to be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I would think that if I'm taking a drug designed to make a change in the chemistry of my brain, I will want to avoid taking any other drugs (booze included) that alters my brain chemistry.

Another common quote I see is "I didn't do any research while I was on Chantix...". Again, who's fault is that? Did you read the drug information sheet? Did you understand it? If you didn't understand it (like I had no idea what "suicidal ideation" was - so I looked it up.) did you make an effort to find out what it is? Reading through these articles and comments, I am grateful for the comments that point these things out, or I'd feel as if perhaps I was the only one that bothered to monitor myself when I start a new medication. It's my job, after all, to look after myself.

This is not the first time I've taken Chantix. I took it once before, but didn't manage to stop smoking. I cut down dramatically, but I never had the alone time I needed to actually *quit*. Chantix did a great job of crushing the physical craving for nicotine, and a great job of taking all the pleasure out of smoking. Once the drug kicked in, smoking was a smelly, foul tasting experience that did nothing for me. The habit of it, however, was compelling enough that I continued to do it even though it was an unpleasant experience.

I'm sure everyone deals with the actually "quitting" differently. For me, it meant picking a weekend I could sequester myself in my apartment, alone, where I could pace, laugh, bitch, scream, and be as grumpy as I wanted without impacting anyone else. There was a secondary reason for this as well - side effects. Specifically, Chantix has the side effect of causing (not much) gas. The problem really came in when I quit smoking and substituted sugar free mints. That first weekend, I must have gone through 4 or 5 packs of mints a day.

For those of you that don't know, sugar free mints and gums are usually sweetened with something called "sorbitol". In small quantities, it lends a sweet taste to gums, mints, candies, etc. In larger quantities, it's a laxative. In larger quantities, it's an emergency laxative. Gas, the runs, etc etc. Being alone in my apartment meant that I didn't have to explain why I had enough gas to get me from here to Vegas and back.

So there you have it - my experience so far. The down side is that it's only the first part of the battle that's over. Apparently the statistics look like this:

44% of people manage to quite smoking with Chantix. Of the ones that do quit, only 23% are still not smoking at the end of the first year.

That may not sound very encouraging, until you realize:

17% of people that use the patch quit smoking. Of the ones that do quit, only 7% are still not smoking at the end of the first year.


If you make it to the end of that first year, your odds are really, really good.

Now, if someone would just start making mints with Splenda, I'd be all set...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Personal Responsibility = Escape Poverty

This is an older article over at Whatever, but it's something I couldn't have written without going off on a rant. Which is my issue, and something I should work on. That's a post for a different blog.

He boils it down to these 5 points:

  1. Get an education.
  2. Take responsibility.
  3. Get help.
  4. Learn patience.
  5. Filter out the stupid and ignorant.
He's right - do those 5 things, and you will escape poverty. I'm flummoxed as to why he stopped there. These 5 things are not only a recipe for escaping poverty, they're a recipe for attaining happiness.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Television Returns...sort of.

TV Guide has an article up outlining what we're likely to get out of the rest of the TV season this year. The shows I care most about (well, the ones that aren't being canceled) are listed here. There's a longer list available in the article.

Battlestar Galactica
Returns April 4 with first half of 20-episode final season. Production on second half could start as early as March. Airdate for those TBD.

Four pre-strike episodes left. Unclear whether additional episodes will be produced for this season.

Boston Legal
Expected to shoot 6 to 8 new episodes to air in April/May.

Burn Notice
Production on Season 2 expected to get under way in late April. New episodes could start airing as early as July.

The Closer
Expected to kick off its fourth season this summer.

Desperate Housewives
Expected to shoot 4 to 7 new episodes to air in April/May.

Grey's Anatomy
Expected to shoot 4 to 7 new episodes to air in April/May

Expected to shoot 4 to 6 new episodes to air in April/May.

Seven episodes remain. No additional episodes expected for this season.

Six pre-strike episodes remain. Five additional episodes could air this season.

Could produce a handful of new episodes to air in April/May.

Season 5 concludes Feb. 19. Production on the show's eight-episode sixth season expected to start up this summer. Airdate TBD.

Expected to shoot 5 to 9 new episodes to air in March/April/May.

Private Practice
Slim chance it could return with 4 or 5 new episodes this season. Either way, it'll be back in the fall.

Three pre-strike episodes remain. Expected to shoot 5 or 6 additional episodes to air in April/May.

The Shield
Final season already shot. Airdate TBD.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Four pre-strike episodes remain. Future beyond that TBD.

Reciepts Required...

The Consumerist has an interesting article this morning on Barnes & Nobel changing their return policy. Now, I'm all for businesses changing the return policy to stop rewarding shoplifters and scammers, my problem with it is that even though they end up saving a ton of money in the process, prices don't go down. The end result? More hoops for innocent shoppers to jump through, but no benefit to them. The store gets to save money, the stock holders may see a bigger dividend, the store posts a higher profit margin, but the little guys still get screwed. Think the employees get a raise? I doubt it.

Maybe it's time for "Retail Unions". Credit Unions provide banking services, but since they're non-profit, the focus is more on the members (also known as "customers") rather than the profit margin. What would the result be if a store adopted that philosophy?

Could you imagine the screening process? You'd want to eliminate anyone that might shoplift, scam, or damage anything. Check arrest records? Credit Reports? References? Suddenly, just telling people you're running an errand could become an exercise in snobbery. Oh, and what about kids? Allow them or not? Require parents to sign a waiver accepting financial responsibility for any extra cost their kids cause? How much does it cost to have an employee clean up that smashed display, or mop up the broken apple juice bottle because the little darlings were running wild?

Still, I think that might be somewhere I wouldn't mind shopping. It's extremely rare that I ever need a store to go "above and beyond" for me, yet there's no question that I pay a little extra for everything I buy as a result of the people that do end up making stores go "above and beyond" on a regular basis - unruly kids, "Women of a Certain Age", scammers, etc. etc.

Perhaps its' time to start letting those types of customers pay their own premium.

Heterogeneous Geekdom

OK, so I'm a bit blog happy this week. I've been kicking around the idea of starting a blog *about* something. The problem is, of course, about *what*? My bookmarks range from Consumer Rights issues to frugal living to Sci-Fi, from gaming to tech-o-centricities, webcomics and political commentary. On any given day, I may come across any number of different things I find interesting. Which always brings me back to "so what to write about?"

All of it. That's right. I'm just going to use this space as my own, personal dumping ground. If *I* find it interesting, then I'm sure you (well, by "you" I mean my readers. When I get some.) will too.