Thursday, December 24, 2009

Congratulations Derick and Emily!

My close friend Derick proposed to his girlfriend, Emily, last night. I am thrilled for them as Derick and I have had many great conversations about relationships and specifically even her before they actually started dating. He was attracted to her from the beginning and to see that work out into a marriage about 2 years later is amazing.

I was blessed with the opportunity to help him with his project on how he was going to pop the question. Derick is a professional movie maker (editor, animator, and more) who works for a company called Centerline locally here in Raleigh making, amongst other things, videos for what I work on at IBM. Since he is a production guy, everyone expected something big out of him and he delivered. He and some of his friends including myself spent two late nights filming light writing out of the 18th floor of the Clairon Hotel in Downtown Raleigh from 6 PM to 6 AM last Thursday and Friday nights. Fortunately these were some of the darkest days of the year, meaning two all nighters would be all that was needed since it took almost the whole 24 hours. Then Derick edited for about 4 days estimated guess.

Light writing is the idea that you leave a camera lense open (exposed) and capture all the light that comes in. In doing that, you capture certain intentional light which eventually when merged with another photo (or 500) can spell a word, phrase, or sentence. There is more info on it here on wikipedia. For this project, Derick chose to do it in downtown Raleigh which meant going over the natural terrain of the city. Some of these letters are partially up walls (the WILL, The M, A, and Y in Marry, and the M in Me), through bushes/brush (Emily's whole name), and across busy streets.

Please check out the video he made of the proposal and rate it 5 stars...he deserves it!

Light Writing Proposal from Derick Childress on Vimeo.

Most importantly, congrats to Derick and Emily! Heather and I couldn't be happier that you two will be together and look forward to your friendship for many years to come.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Before you make that purchase...

Heather and I have come up with a system that has really started working to jointly control any compulsive spending and I thought I would share it. It started off with the first two questions but we have expanded it to 3 questions we ask one anothee in order to better think our purchases out. I added just some of the sub questions which have come up in my mind when thinking out the answers recently.

1) How often would you really use it?
-- Is it worth buying another item for how often it will be used?
-- Do you need it or just want it?
-- Can you borrow or try it out before committing to spending the money?
-- Is there something that you can sell or get rid of first to offset the cost? We do this with cars all the time, but not other things we buy.
2) Are their cheaper alternatives?
-- Does this purchase have reoccurring costs such as supplies being more expensive than alternatives?
-- What are the tradeoffs to the cheaper alternatives?
-- How long will the cheaper alternatives be good enough?
3) Can the money be better used elsewhere?
-- If you used the money to pay down debt would you end up being able to afford something better in the long run?
-- If you aren't going to use it often, would it be better to support a charity or a friend in need?
-- Would letting the money grow in a savings or an investment account be better while you think it out?

Try it and let me know if you come up with other short questions to add to the list

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mountain getaway

As Heather said here, we had a real enjoyable mountain getaway. I thought I would label some of our favorite and least favorite things.

Lodging: We stayed at Parkway Vacation Rental's At Home with Nature. I would issue a Buyer Beware on these folks. While their service was excellent during the sale - when we got to the location we found all sorts of problems in the house. Once told about it - they promised to fix them the first day we were there and never did. Here are examples of what we found:

  • Mold in the kitchen sink and shower
  • Bedroom doors without handles
  • Toilet Seats split in half
  • Hot tub that never worked
  • Phone service (which we were supposed to have in our contract unlimited loca+long distance) which was turned off
  • DVD Players without cables. Remotes without batteries.
  • An oven door that doesn't shut (great for kids, eh?)
  • Lack of playground and tennis courts prominently listed on their site. Two guards at the gate confirmed this.
  • Broken dining room chairs

The place was once beautiful - its a shame this management team is running it because its falling apart.

Food: We ate in a lot - but had some yummy food out...
Kojay's cafe in Blowing Rock - Loved it and ate lunch there twice. The coffee, however, was not a hit.
Higher Grounds in Boone - Best Coffee. Heather complains about other lattes now after having theirs.
Dan'l Boone Inn in Boone - Great southern all you can eat family style breakfast. We had 14 people which they accommodated in about 20 minutes and it was a blast.
Kilwin's in Blowing Rock - best ice cream.

Things to Do: We kept it low key and were there in November when some things like Tweetsie were closed..but there were things we loved.
Grandfather Mountain. Its a zoo and a scenic getaway all in one, what's not to love? They do push the fudge a bit much though :-)
Playground in Boone - this was the most incredible playground we have ever been to. See the pictures on Heather's blog.

Finally, I'll say this...even if the place you stay in isn't meeting your expectations - when you wake up to this its wonderful:
Sunrise in the NC mountains
Sunrise in the mountains near Boone, NC
Sunrise in the mountains near Boone, NC

Petco and Natural Balance Dog food

I know I haven't blogged in a couple of months so I plan to do a mini-blog series on what's been going on in our lives. The first thing to mention is that sometimes us common folks know more than doctors and veterinarians...or at very least the latter. We have had our mutt Cassie for 6.5 years. When we got her, she had mange and she basically never stopped itching since then. Two vets have told us that our dog Cassie has dry skin - the latest told us to try fish oil in her diet. Fish oil can be real expensive, so we went to Petco to see if they had foods with fish oil. The employee there told us that sometimes the dogs keep itching because of allergies (we should have thought of this but never had) and recommended this (expensive) organic food, Natural Balance, with no wheat in it. Since Cassie went on it she has stopped itching...or at least itches very infrequently like a normal dog.

Just so you realize how bad it was..we found out 2 weeks ago that Cassie had a staph infection because she scratched herself bad enough. Now, she doesn't itch/scratch and her infection is practically gone. Thank you Petco for being more knowledgeable than our veterinarian!

Cassie is still around :-)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

My media stand

One of my projects this weekend was to create a media stand. We just switched from Time Warner Cable to DirecTV this Friday and that left my receiver sitting on top of my blu-ray player which I didn't like. In general - its a bad idea to stack AV equipment on top of one another because they all generate heat and heat is bad for electronics. So, I needed to create some space between them but our Pier 1 entertainment center only had one shelf..and they don't sell it or the extra shelf for it any longer. So, I decided to make a simple stand for the receiver...

I started by getting a 4 ft long dowel rod from home depot that was 1" in diameter. This cost $3.35. Next, I reused a piece of particle board I had in the garage that used to be shelves in our garage when we bought the house. IMG_0435

That particle board was perfect, just less than 1 ft wide. I cut that board to the right length, 20", and the dowel rods for legs at 7.5" high. I attached the dowel rods with some wood screws I had around the house and used some plywood left over from when we refinished our kitchen to create a small DVD shelf on the front 2 legs of the stand. Then I used a cheap $1 can of flat black spray paint to paint it so that it would be unnoticeable in the cabinet.

It is very stabile and fits perfectly. I am going to enjoy being able to look at that stand and think I put it all together for less than $5...while people that don't read this will never notice it :-)

With a light shining on it:
Closer up view of media stand

Normal view with the speaker above:
Erik's media stand

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Saving for college

Reading this Sunday's Wall Street Journal article on saving for college, one might view our children's future ability to have a debt free education as hopeless. In the article, there were some important facts:

For the 2008-2009 school year, the average cost of attending a four-year public school for in-state residents -- including tuition and room and board -- rose 5.7% to $14,333, according to the College Board. The cost was up 5.6% to $34,132 for a private university. (These numbers aren't adjusted for inflation.)

Well, if you round up to $15,000 for public school and 6% per year, in 12 years that will double to $30,000 per year. If you have younger kids you might have a couple of extra years but let's assume those last few years won't get much interest as you pull the money out into conservative investments. It would mean that you have 12 years to save $120,000 per child. This is amazing to me and I can't even fathom at this point being able to save $10,000 per child per year. But, you have interest on your side, right?

Using an investment calculator, I figured that if you could save $430 per child per month for 12 years at 10% return per year, we could save our $120,000 in those 12 years. If you assume 12% return, you only need $375 saved per child per month. At 8% return, you need $500 per child per month. And that's just for an average public school!

What were we thinking having 2 kids only 1 school year apart? I can hope that we are able start saving $1000/mo within a couple of years for the kids but it can't be easy. I can also hope that we, as a society, get control of these college expenses and don't continue to let them grow at such a high rate assuming our children can bear the brunt of it through student loans. Until then - this is something to think about for sure..

Monday, September 14, 2009

2 years of exercise with the last 6 months of frustration

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this month and the one special thing it means to me. See, as of this month i have been working out consistently for 2 years. I have never worked out for 2 years straight without a break of at least 2 weeks. I always slacked off at some point and going into this, I unfortunately expected to do the same. In the last 2 years though, I haven't slacked off. It started at 4-5 days a week and has grown to 6 days a week with a couple of exceptions for vacation and business trips. Even on vacation and during business trips, I try to squeeze in workouts every time I can. When I went to the Venetian in Las Vegas last Spring, I knew I wasn't willing to pay the outrageous amount they were asking for their I brought my Perfect Pushups and did those plus some in place cardio and ab workouts.

People often ask about results and I am pretty happy with mine. You have to first understand that my primary goal when I began was not to lose weight. I had started and failed at that goal way too often. I didn't want to go on a special diet that I would eventually fall off the bandwagon. Instead, my goal was to be able to be active with my family again. You might remember when I wrote extensively about this goal in January of 2008 when it seemed to be working. I didn't want to have to hesitate when doing something active with my girls. I didn't want to make an excuse when asked to help a friend and I thought I was too out of shape to help them. I wanted my daughters to grow up in a physically active and healthy environment.

Within one year of having a normal exercise routine, I was comfortable doing whatever. I wrote extensively about that last October. I was able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted at the time. In that first year I had lost 40 lbs without going on a diet and I felt great.

One might expect similar success this past year. But in the past 6 months, I have had to deal with a lot of frustration. From that October timeframe til April, I gained about 15 lbs back, theoretically all muscle. Then, in May, I went to Las Vegas for a business trip...the one I mentioned above. Two of my good friends went with me and we were supposed to go indoor skydiving. The indoor skydiving place put us on a scale when signing in and I weighed too much to do it. I had been looking forward to it for weeks and I couldn't do it because my weight. This was the first time since I was back in shape I couldn't do something I wanted to do because of my body. It wasn't that I wasn't in was just I weighed too much.

Since that point I have had nothing but frustration with myself. I have been pretty hard on myself as my wife would probably attest. My goal is and has been to be in good enough shape to do whatever I want to do. But it wasn't about physical fitness, it was about weight. Unfortunately I don't have the answer to my frustration. I know how I can lose weight, either by focussing on pure cardio and not building muscle or by going on a diet.

Until I find an answer I will make my primary goal to stay in healthy enough shape to do whatever I want. I do have a secondary goal to lose enough weight to do the indoor skydiving I missed out on last next May when i am back in Las Vegas. However, I don't plan on altering my diet or exercise routine, so I don't know if this is feasible. However, since May i have lost another 5 lbs.

For now, I will be bouncing in inflatable toys with my girls - something I wouldn't have felt as comfortable doing two years ago:

TK Jungle - Mallory's bday party

Monday, August 17, 2009

What's driving, priorities or life?

I'm not particularly old but I have lately been in a position where more and more people are asking my advice. At least, I have found this one piece of advice seems very relevant for my generation. That advice is very simple, let your priorities run your life and do not let life run your priorities. I won't make this a conversation about what are the appropriate life priorities but am willing to have that conversation with anyone who wants to know my opinion...but instead, I want to talk about keeping your priorities first and let them run your life.

How does that work? I think so much of my generation hasn't set priorities and often thinks this is something "old" people do. But flying by the seat of your pants leads to one thing, life dictating your priorities. Some examples I have seen are people claim they can't do what they want (pay off debt, go on vacation, stay at home with their child, work less hours, have family dinners, eat healthy, exercise, etc etc) because they don't have the time or money. More often than not though its a decision they make to not make the sacrifices necessary to do what they say they want to do. Yes, you may have to eat beans and rice for dinner more often to pay off debt for go on vacation. Yes, you may have to move to a smaller house than you'd like to stay at home with a child or have a less stressful job. Yes, you may have to sacrifice career advancement or even get a job that pays less to spend more time with your family. And yes, you might have to sacrifice watching TV (even DVRed TV) to get more exercise! :-)

From my limited life experience I have found that when I can follow this advice above (and I fail consistently and am far from perfect) my life goes particularly well. My children are happier, my wife is happier, my focus is better, and the results of my work are even better. When I don't follow it, there is more stress at home, more fights between my wife, less happy children, less fulfilling and rewarding times at work, and overall I fail at life.

So, how do you get started? Make a list of your priorities in life. Check them daily as to what you, in reality, made your priorities. Try your best to correct it in your current life without drastic changes. If you find something just isn't working like you can't work less for fear of getting fired and you need that drastic change...make a 2-5 year plan to change the course of your life. I am not suggesting you just quit and hope that everything will work out. But a multi year plan could include downsizing your house, paying off debt, and changing to a job that fits within your priorities. If its to get out of debt or you can't save for a vacation, check out Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University to learn how to get out of debt and live your life without debt.

And because everyone needs a plan mapped out.. :-)

Step 1: Set your priorities
e.g. God, Family, Friends, Health and Exercise, Work, Play

Step 2: Keep a log of where your time is spent and where your focus is during your "downtimes"
e.g. 60 hours of work, ate family with dinner 2 out of 7 times this week, spent 2 nights in a recreational sports league, watched 8 hours of TV

Step 3: Analyze how to reorganize your time and investments in order to meet your priorities.
e.g. 2 less nights in sports league would allow for 2 more nights at home.

Step 4: Look for hard to solve problems and decide how to approach them.
e.g. Does work each week have to be 60 hours? Can you spend less time away at work, work your email instead of watching TV, or do you need a new job?

Repeat :-)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On social media and personal websites

One of the interesting things I have noticed these days is a lot of software developers in my generation (early Gen Y, late Gen X) have their own websites and spend as much time publicly marketing themselves as the companies and products they work on. In these positions, these people often blur the lines of their professional and personal lives.

When I joined twitter, I debated heavily whether twitter would be personal or professional for me. I had been trying to take a hard(er) line on Facebook and LinkedIn, much like my colleague Billy Newport stated here, where Facebook is for friends and family and LinkedIn is for professional contacts. I got enough Facebook invites from colleagues eventually that I made the rule that I would accept those who I would seek out to have a beer with if in town. I thought that was a good qualification...but I realized that this line was getting hard to maintain. And that is about the time I was joining twitter.

Well, when I joined twitter I decided this would be my first experimentation at having one point of contact that was both personal and professional. So far, I have no idea how it is working. Most of the people that I regularly communicate with on twitter are those that I would also gladly be Facebook friends with and some of them I am Facebook friends with. If I had to declare what is happening one way or another I would declare that twitter is more personal and less professional for me because it is personal at all. I think once I let my personal life bleed into it, it was mostly personal. But, I still have regular professional postings and there is a chance that my microblogs on twitter have some professional followers.

I come back to the original reason I began this blog post. Do I need a website? In this new day and age, is it more important for me to market myself? Years ago it wasn't needed because of corporate loyalty. These days it seems more common and in my age group corporate loyalty is not the norm. I don't know if I have a public enough presence to switch companies in a heartbeat or to be recruited by the top software engineering firms on a regular basis...but I am also not sure that is what I want. For now, this is something I heavily debate and try to make a decision on.

And, since I blurred the lines with this post on my personal blog...I thought I would also show off the cool stuff I have been designing as part of my product. Here is a recent video (only 1 min long) I made to show off the user experience we created with the function I designed:

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Localvore challenge complete...

So, we finished the localvore challenge. We had tacos last night on our last localvore day and made some corn salsa with fresh off the ear corn. The ground beef was from Angus Acre as I had written before. Here is what we learned:

1) We don't know what is in season anymore. I am not sure if this is a generation Y thing or it spans generation X as well. But, growing up I remember my mother always knew what the seasons for various fruits and vegetables are. I have no idea but need to learn. I think this chart from the NC Dept of Agriculture will help. but I hope to raise children that are knowledgeable of their surrounding farming...which leads me to the second point.

2) Its obvious that my suburban life has positioned us too far away from those that have the very important job of growing our food so that we are out of touch. One thing I hope to do is visit more farms with the kids and one of the primary ones on the list is Homeland Creamery where we get our milk from. As milk is one of the words Madelyn knows and can say, I think that this is something she can more readily understand.

3) We need to continue to look for local replacements for things we missed this week. Whether it be yogurt (our favorite is made in CA), food bars, tortillas or bread, if a local replacement is available we should try to shift towards it. Likewise, we need to reconsider how often we eat bananas and apples which seem to all be from far away.

4) We enjoyed the beef, thought the chicken was not so great, were indifferent on the eggs (farmers free range vs our normal Egglands best free range.), and always like fresh seafood. The vegatables were all great and Heather is sick of cantaloupe :-) In the end, we may keep trying to eggs and expect we will try to get the large quantities of beef like 15 or 30 lbs batches.

It was a fun experiment in which I learned a lot. If we do it next year, it may be a challenge for dinners only as it seems more reasonable and maybe would encourage more participation.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Pure localvore failure

I told Heather that we couldn't be strict localvores anymore after seeing this tweet of hers:

Over halfway through the challenge and I don't think I have ever craved food so much in my non-pregnant life

The point wasn't for us to be hungry or go hungry. The point was to try to eat local. I am sure that I will be able to analyze this further in the upcoming days and weeks but here is our problem:

1) Heather and I got into a pattern of not eating as many carbs and having healthy mid-morning/mid-day snacks. We lost this when we went local. The "snacks" ended up things like toast or bagels with butter and jam or a hard boiled egg.
2) We bought lots of food for great dinners (over a week's worth in fact) but utterly failed at breakfast and lunch. Breakfast we had bagels, toast, eggs, and homemade waffles. With the time constraints we are on in a normal week, that often doesn't work. Not only that but for lunch we had tomatoes (which we ran out of), cheese (which we ran out of) and PB&J + leftovers. Some days we didn't have leftovers so what do you do?

So, as of yesterday we started straying a bit from the localvore menu and ate healthy snacks when hungry. For dinner we had a completely localvore meal though - chicken in Bone Suckin Sauce, butter beans, and mashed irish potatoes from the farmer's market...with Lumpy's ice cream for dessert.

We are going to try to close out our week with as much local food as possible but I don't think we are going to continue unhealthy eating or being hungry for the sake of eating local.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Localvore update

Today as I was eating breakfast I found something unique - for the first time in my life I could name where all the food and drink I was consuming came from. What a difference. Last night we had swordfish from Southport Seafood Company. This company actually brings their seafood to the North Raleigh Farmer's Market which is less than a mile from our house. We also had green beans from a vendor at the farmer's market in Raleigh which came from Wilson NC. For dessert, we had some delicious chocolate cherry Lumpy's Ice Cream. This morning I had 2 eggs from Acre Farms in Plymouth, NC and whole wheat toast made at Great Harvest off Six Forks Road with butter and a glass of milk from Homeland Creamery.

For the past probably 6 months we have been getting our milk at Fresh Market from a local creamery called Homeland Creamery. This week we also got a huge tub of butter. This Creamery is out in Julian southwest of Burlington but before Greensboro...about 75 miles from our house. Heather and I were considering a trip out to the creamery to take a tour. We figure that since we so often are drinking milk (and now eating their butter) it might be valuable for the kids to see where their milk comes from. Thoughts?

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Localvore challenge

As Heather talked about here, this week we are undergoing a challenge to buy all local grown or produced products for our meals. So, I thought I would start chattering about what we bought and what we ate.

Friday at the Raleigh Farmer's market we got Cantaloupes (3 for $5), green peppers ($.50 each), irish red skin potatoes ($.99/lb), red peppers ($1 each), german johnson tomatoes ($2/lb), butter beans (2 pints for $7), green beans ($2/lb), corn ($.50/ear), zucchini and squash.

We also picked up stuff in the indoor side. First we got a block of sharp cheddar cheese, peanut butter, and strawberry jam from the berry patch market. Later I realized once we got home that it being from Colfax, NC is outside the 150 mile radius. :-/ This was at the Berry Patch. We also got ground beef ($5/lb), london broil ($8/lb), and free range eggs ($3/dozen) from Acre Angus Beef at the indoor side. They are from Plymouth NC. The actual meat is packed in labels from Riverside Meats in Trenton NC. Both of these make it within the 150 mile radius.

On Saturday, we started at the North Raleigh Farmers Market (open 8am until noon) and got a whole chicken (3.7 lbs at $4/lb), chocolate cherry ice cream ($4/pint) from Lumpy's, a loaf of whole wheat bread ($4.25) from Great Harvest, and about 2 lbs of fresh swordfish ($16.50). There was also some cheese there for the first time. There are 3 places that sell fresh eggs from $4-5/lb. The guy who sells fresh lamb at bratwurst for the first time and there are vendors like Cane Creek Farms who was featured recently in the N&O.

Then, later Saturday morning we went to Fresh Market to get milk and butter from Homeland Creamery in Julian, NC. We also got locally produced bagels.

So, what did we eat for meals? Saturday morning I made homemade waffles. For lunch we ate cheese and tomato (german johnson) sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly, cantaloupe, and some purple hull (pink eyed) peas. For dinner we ate at Heather's dad's house so we didn't have a local only meal necessarily but I believe most of it was.

This morning (Sunday) we had bagels, hard boiled eggs, and cantaloupe. For lunch I made some homemade flour tortillas and ate london broil on it. Made a quesadilla for the girls who also had peanut butter. Heather had some tomatoes.

The tough things so far is the lack of snack foods and fruit for the girls. As a regular part of my diet I had been eating fruits like apples and bananas, food bars from Odwalla and Kashi, and almonds. None of these things are available locally so I am forced to learn of new snacks. I also don't want to eat unhealthy just for the sake of trying to eat local. As for fruit, watermelon, honeydew, sprite melons, peaches, blueberries, and cantaloupe were the only real fruit options this week. That is a lot of options but when bananas, grapes, apples, and pears are part of the regular staples in the household, its tough to switch.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Loving my new BlackBerry Tour's Camera

So, I have had my BlackBerry Tour exactly a week and I already love it. My previous BlackBerry, the 8830 world edition, didn't have a camera. I was really starting to realize how many opportunities I missed not having the camera. The BlackBerry Tour has a better screen and a whole bunch of great stuff, but what really mattered to me was getting the camera. Its a 3.2 megapixel camera with a 2x zoom and a great flash..and above all that it takes great pictures. Here are some pictures so you can see the quality. First, I took this one at the farmer's market this morning. Just a quick snap and it came out great. For those of you not used to Flickr, you can click "All Sizes" above the image to see it at larger sizes:
North carolina farmer's market

Next is a picture from this afternoon under the shade in our backyard of Anna and Madelyn playing at the water table:
Playing at the water table

Finally is a picture of a butterfly I took at the NC Museum of Life and Science's butterfly house:
Durham museum of life and science butterfly house

I was able to quickly snap these photos and upload them to facebook and flickr. I am glad to have the camera phone now and now have no excuse for not capturing more of life in pictures!

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Class Warfare in the grocery store

Heather and I have spent a lot of energy lately pursuing a diet of more natural and organic foods, looking to remove the chemicals in our lives as much as possible. This started with the birth of our first daughter and looking to provide her with the best foods and drinks. Organic produce, organic milk, and more. We inevitably found that our children's eating pattern models directly after our own eating pattern and started to more and more push ourselves to eat more fresh, natural, and chemical free foods. We also have been putting more of an eye to environmentally conscience products, buying detergents like Seventh Generation, aiming for local foods when possible, and avoiding some of the farmed fishes that have apparently been a problem. We are near the end of this journey with just a couple of items remaining to be changed out once we finish the last of our previous supply.

This journey has come at an expense, both to our wallets and our cravings. The cost of eating natural has nearly doubled our food budget. We still are looking for alternatives when we want certain things like a Cherry Coke. In the end we have been blessed with the means and will power to work through this transformation. However, one thing has been paining me for the last couple of months. If natural and organic foods are better for you, then why sell any others?

There is a fundamental issue if these foods are indeed healthier for people...that issue is with the fact that most natural and organic foods are priced such that lower income individuals cannot pay for them. I believe that this needs to be a new battleground for those concerned with the lower income earners rights to pursue a healthy life.

The far left pundits would say the establishment targets the poor as shown by things such as more fast food establishments in poor neighborhoods. Frankly, the right to prepared food is not my concern and I do not believe a low income individual has the right to eat at the most expensive restaurants.

The far right pundits would say that all foods in the grocery store are governed by the FDA and they have established firm rules to ensure people's health. I think that is crap. The FDA hasn't been doing enough and America is getting fatter. Children are going through puberty faster. Something is not right.

The bottom line in my opinion is that the government needs to step in enough and start declaring all of the chemicals we are throwing at our children to be bad and create some new rules for food producers. I don't want them to wait until its too late as they did with the tobacco industry. I want them to make a decision based on the best information and start to influence the industry. The health of my children's generation depends on it. The health of those who cannot afford to do it themselves depends on it.

My political position disclaimer: I do not believe in class warfare in the Robin Hood sense or that we should balance out incomes so that someone who is uneducated and not trying in life (see the guy in "Swing Vote") would make the same as a top CEO. However, what I do believe is that all Americans have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and when the system fails to provide that right then the government should step in as minimally as possible. Amongst other things with the right of life comes health, right of liberty comes freedom of oppression and the right to bear arms, and with the right to pursue happiness comes family, religion and education. I believe that ideally in a capitalist environment all of these needs can be met by entrepreneurs and charities however I acknowledge that the right to life and specifically health care has not been met properly through these means and while I agree with the government getting involved, I believe they should do so as minimally as possible to solve the current issue.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Private school is expensive

Heather and I not thrilled with the state of the public schools here in Raleigh. Our neighborhood has been redistricted so we pass other schools to get to our kids and things don't match my expectations coming from a great school district in Pittsburgh. There are some great charter and magnet schools but they are pretty much entirely by lottery, so we have to hope we get selected. If our kids are not selected for a magnet or charter school, we can enter a lottery for our very nearby year round school or go to the traditional school. The other options, of course, are private schools or homeschooling.

We just recently have started to research private schools. We have a bias towards the nearby North Raleigh Christian Academy (NRCA) where many people we know have gone. We also have several secular schools like Ravenscroft. I actually found a great list of private schools that includes teacher to student ratios. The problem is we just have realized how expensive these can be. Excluding the new family fees, NRCA is about $8000 and Ravenscroft is $17,000 for grades 1-5. Since Madelyn and Anna will be back to back school years, this would be around $1350/mo for NRCA and $2850/mo for Ravenscroft. Wow! How do people do this? Ravenscroft is more expensive than my alma matter, University of Pittsburgh, is right now. Both are more expensive than Pitt was 10 years ago when I was in college.

Anyway, Heather and I were hoping we could figure out how to make this work but so long as we have a mortgage we don't see how we can. So, I guess for now we concentrate on getting rid of the mortgage and trying to get the right charter/magnet school.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The floor is on fire

As a kid, I had a great imagination. One of the things I used to pretend is that the floor was on fire and I needed to move my feet as quickly as possible to keep them from burning. This morning, I found myself playing a similar but opposite game.

So, we just remodeled our master bathroom. Pictures will follow this post. In remodeling, we added a new shower, new vanity, tile floors, and a new throne. We also debated adding a heated floor. See, my mom has one of these in her place and doesn't find it overly useful. After having talked with our contractor, he said they were very useful so long as you have a thermostat...which my mom doesn't have. So, we went with it. Installed is a Nuheat thermostat. Until today, I was questioning the value.

Well, last night got into the 40s here in Raleigh...for the first time since we had our new bathroom. Well, that floor got cold. Unfortunately, not all the floor is heated and, in fact, I need to walk to the "cold" section to get my towel for the shower. I found myself dancing over that ice cold the floor was on fire.

Tub and Toilet

heated floor thermostat

New shower

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dryer Vent Booster Fans

Since we moved into our house in April of 2005, we have never had a perfectly working dryer. See, when we bought the house we bought a new washer and dryer as the person who bought our previous home had wanted ours. The GE dryer we had worked okay at first but just would not work on bigger loads like the same model we had at the previous house would. It got worse and worse where even a small load of laundry would have to be dried more than once. Eventually, it was obvious that the dryer had died at less than 4 years old. Before having a new one installed, we got Sears to come out and clean our dryer vent while cleaning the carpets. The things the technician said made it clear to us that the problem is only partially the dryer.

In our house, the washer and dryer are in a small closet in the middle of the house on the second floor. The vent goes up into the attic and out the roof. Overall, I have measured this vent at over 20 feet with a 90 degree turn at the very beginning and one 30-45 degree turn in the attic. Because of the position of the vent, the hose connecting the dryer to the vent also has a 90 degree turn. Thanks to our friend Scott, he got me looking into dryer vent booster fans.

Yesterday we had a Dryer Vent Booster Fan installed at out house by our friend and contractor Scott Smith of RWS Construction. The fan I choose was the Suncourt Centrax 4" booster fan. I did a lot of research on these devices and this was my favorite. I found this site to be the best in terms of information and it includes one of the largest lists of these devices.

As near as I can tell, there are a variety of differences between these devices. The basic differences, if I were to sum it up, are the power of the fan (cubic feet per minute or cfm), the way the switch works, and how protected it is from lint. For switches there were three types, manual, pressure sensing, and current sensing. Reading reviews of these devices at various places including Amazon led me to believe that the pressure sensing swicthes could cause the fan to be turned on at the wrong time (like a hot muggy day or a windy day) or not turned on at the right time. I decided immediately after reading all of the problems that I would stay away from these. This left the current sensing or the manual switch as my remaining options. I focused in on the Suncourt because of its price and the current sensing switch. When reading the iaqsource page on the Suncourt, I saw the following:

Boosting may be necessary when the total duct length exceeds the following:
No Bends - 25 feet
1 Bend - 20 feet
2 Bends - 15 feet
3 Bends - 10feet

Another important fact about this device included that it was UL tested meaning it was safe and should not catch on fire.

So, its installed, operates very quietly, and hopefully in a year I will write more about how I like this device. It took Scott about four hours to install but it is my expectation that the savings in electricity (and from broken dryers) that this device may give us will be fully worth it.

Friday, March 06, 2009

A sad reminder

I never knew Kristi Walker, but I wish I had.

Heather and I were a part of a group called Triangle Leadership Forum and "graduated" from that in 2006. It was a meaningful experience that to this day has sculpted our marriage, parenting, and my leadership at home, work, and in church.

Chuck and Kristi Walker were taking that same Triangle Leadership Forum journey to be completed in 2010. On October 22nd of 2008 we got an email about Kristi and asking us to pray for her. She remained in our prayers for the less than four months she had from diagnosis until she passed. I didn't know Kristi and knew little about her situation. I knew she was a young mother and had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

In the past few days I decided to learn more about Kristi and her situation just because I didn't know much. I read her obituary and found she was just 6 months older than me, a mother of three boys, and a local to Raleigh. Here is a professional blog on Kristi that tells women, even young women, why they need to get screened. For a mother of three young boys to have passed all I can remind myself is that God is in control and has a reason. Also - women should get checked consistently and early.

I am not sure why I am writing this other than I think that as many people our age as possible should hear this story. I will try to come up with something more cheery to blog about next.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Madelyn walking

This video of Madelyn walking is the great news of the day. She is 10 months old and just took her first journey over 3 steps and did it on video! I am a proud papa!

Sunday, March 01, 2009

New Green home tax credit info

Warnings have come out not to trust salesmen alone as to whether their products meet green home requirements for the 30% tax credit up to $1500. Here is a website that talks about the specific requirements. If you are looking for specific information on heating and cooling for example, you could look at this table which has information about windows, storm doors, insulation, roofs, AC, furnaces, heat pumps and more that when installed can allow you to claim this credit.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Feedback on facebook worlds

I got numerous pieces of anonymous feedback and perhaps the best was that I needed to start using friends lists. I was sent this very good article on how to use friends lists and manage the different relationships you have with people. I am going to try some of these things out and see how they work but I think that article is worth reading if you use facebook with any regularity and are concerned with your privacy.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Facebook presents the colliding worlds

This article reminded me of the reality that facebook is really causing colliding worlds for so many people. I mean, I post personal pictures of my kids and have friends from high school reconnecting there. As Stephanie tweeted (below), we really might regret some of which is now popping up on facebook 10 years later.

A colleague from work also recently said on his blog:

I wanted to use facebook to share family photos etc which are, clearly, private so I had to enforce the family friends only on facebook as the photos are private (photos of family etc) in nature which are of no interest to anybody but close friends and family. So, this is what I'm up to in case someone invites me on facebook and wonders why I don't accept. Professional is linkedin, close friends and family is facebook.

I think thats a reasonable distinction but I am going to take it a step further. Those that I am friendly enough with at work to go to a movie with, have a beer with, or eat lunch with can "friend" me on facebook. But those using it as a business networking thing, perhaps I will respond suggesting we connect on linked in instead. What do you think?

I close with this seinfeld clip:

Thursday, February 05, 2009

20 things I did in My 20s...

This year I turn 30. In fact, its less than 4 months away. I started thinking about all those things which happened in my 20s - some major changes...and I decided to write them down with some ages. These are in no particular order, just in the order I have been thinking of them

In my 20s I...

1. Fell in love (23) and then got married (24) to the most wonderful, caring, beautiful woman
2. Left my hometown of Pittsburgh on my birthday (23) and moved to Raleigh, NC
3. Bought my first (22) and second (25) home.
4. Lost a best friend and gained a best friend. (23)
5. Found out what it was like to be called daddy (27)...twice (28).
6. Lost family, a grandfather (22) and grandmother (25).
7. Reconnected with family thanks to blogs and social networking sites. (27)
8. Reached one of my early professional goals of being named a Senior Technical Staff Member (28) at IBM.
9. Saw my Steelers win two Super Bowls, the first on TV (26) and the second in person (29).
10. Became an uncle through birth (22), marriage (25), and soon birth again (29).
11. Gained a lot of great new family through marriage (23)
12. Graduated with honors from the University of Pittsburgh (21)
13. Traveled with my wife to Switzerland (23) twice (25).
14. Traveled to many other places like Jamaica (23), Hawaii (26), Bermuda (27), Montpellier France (26) and the UK (25, 27, 28).
15. Got my first dog, Cassie (23)
16. Taught a college class (28) at East Carolina University
17. Refinished our kitchen (27) and bathroom (hopefully 29)
18. Broke one bone - my foot (22) and still went skiing for a week with a broken foot
19. Purchased multiple cars, a Jeep Grand Cherokee (21), VW Passat (22), Honda Prelude (22), Toyota Matrix (25), and Honda Pilot (27)
20. Got out of debt (aside from our house) and lived debt free since (24).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Child Care credits/deductions

I was doing some reading up on the economic stimulus plan that passed the house yesterday, looking for specific details about how it might put money in the pockets short term for the non-business owner like myself. I read this article and a couple others which all mention the same sort of thing with no fine details:

The bill also gives most taxpayers breaks of $500 each on their payroll taxes and increases tax breaks for college tuition, first-time homebuyers and child care.

So, it appears that there is some notion of getting $500 tax credits on payroll taxes as well as additional tax deductions or credits that are given for college tuition, first-time homebuyers, and child care. I never read much on the child care credits and was wondering how sending you child to preschool might be accounted so I read up on it.

Preschool is a valid child care tax expense however there are implications which may disallow claiming it for certain people. The child care expense tax implications are all explained in only a way the IRS can explain something, by calling it "IRS Publication 503" which can be found here. One of the interesting things is that if you have a stay at home parent with no earned income you cannot claim any child care expenses including preschool. To claim all of the preschool expenses, the stay at home parent would need to have an earned income of at least as high as what you are attempting to claim as expenses or you can only claim as much as they make. Here is an example from the IRS with some minor edits.
Your earned income for the year was $18,000. Your spouse's earned income for the year was $2,000. You paid work-related expenses of $3,000 for the care of your 5-year-old child and qualified to claim the credit. The amount of expenses you use to figure your credit cannot be more than $2,000 (the smaller of your earned income or that of your spouse).

See, its designed to be a "work related expense." the IRS says this means that both of these have to be true:
  • They allow you (and your spouse if you are married) to work or look for work.
  • They are for a qualifying person's care.

But it seems that according to the IRS the stay at home parent isn't working unless they have earned income. Tell that to a stay at home parent and you might get slapped ;-) I thought this was the last interesting part:
Volunteer work. For this purpose, you are not considered to be working if you do unpaid volunteer work or volunteer work for a nominal salary.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Snow Day

Yesterday was the biggest snow day (~4") since I moved to Raleigh in 2002. Here are some pictures of our house and us in the snow:

Snow Day

Snow Day

Snow Day

Snow Day

Snow Day

Snow Day

Snow Day

Yes, much to my disapproval my daughter was wearing jeans in the snow. At least they were lined. She lasted about 10 minutes, she is a good little warm weather southern gal :-) I was wearing m snowboarding gear and Heather was wearing what she called a snow bib and what we would call something else like snow pants.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Interest Rates

So, like many "homeowners" I have been watching the interest rates plummet and preparing to refinance. I finally began the process of refinancing on Tuesday when 15 year fixed rate mortgages hit between 4.25% and 4.5% locally. Heather and I are on an aggressive track to pay off our house and so we had to make sure our closing costs were as low as possible. I called many companies and here is my anecdotal occurrences with each of them:

  • One of my friends had luck with Citi using our employee referral program and I contacted them. I immediately had the phone answered and they took my name and number on Tuesday. On Thursday, after having not received a callback, I called again and got someone after less than one minute on hold. They quoted me nice rates, gave me their contact information, and told me they would be available Friday and Saturday morning. When i called Friday the lady's voicemail said she was on vacation.

  • Two companies never returned my calls - Wells Fargo and Chase.

  • The current company who holds my mortgage, HSBC, had rates 3/8 higher (4.875) than the next highest person I contacted (4.5%) and still wanted a full origination point.

  • My credit union, Coastal Federal, was the only one who came through. They had low closing costs, low rates, and gave me no hassle. You can check their rates here. They charges 1/2 pt origination, no discount points, no application fee, and I locked in a 4.5% 15 year mortgage which is a substantial savings from my current 5.875%. Overall closing costs were around $2100 which in NC seems to be a great deal.

Also on the interest rate front, the high interest online savings accounts are rapidly dropping their interest rates in the 2.5-3% range. My credit union has a pretty cool program called "Go Green Checking". The biggest issue I have is that who wants to put your real savings, like emergency savings and long term savings for cars, in a checking account with a card you use frequently. See, you have to use this card 12 times a month, which means you have 12 chances to get your numbers stolen. Sure, Visa says it will replace your money if stolen but reports say that this can take 2-4 weeks sometimes. This is my emergency savings, I don't know if thats secure enough for me. Thoughts?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Not the water cooler

Everyone here at work is outraged. Why? Because as of January 1st, we lost our "drink subsidy" which was a benefit not very well defined but often used. I often don't write about work stuff, but I think it says something about the state of the economy. Allow me to expand...

In early December we all got a note saying that the drinks were costing the company too much and the drink subsidy would be going away. We had $.25 sodas, free cheap coffee, and water coolers. We have had these things since I have been here in RTP, so almost 7 years. As of Jan 1, the sodas went to $.75, coffee was pay per cup at $.50, and the water coolers disappeared.

The money is only the start of complaints. The water fountains which were not really used for the past 7+ years do not chill or filter the water, in fact the tap water in the kitchen tastes better. Sodas are < $.25 per can if bought in 12 packs at Target or Walmart on sale, so justifying that $.50 hike is hard to do while trying to claim they are just stopping the subsidy. So, many people seem up in arms.

My sensible side, Heather, says that in the grand scheme people are losing their jobs left and right and here we are complaining about the water cooler. I guess the more I think about this is it is our first loss of benefits. Some companies have lost their 401k match and others have even lost part of their salary. I guess this little benefit seems to hurt because it is something tangible daily...but if put in perspective, its not as bad as it could be... :-/

Thoughts anyone?