First World Problems Rap

Definitely a good laugh. The “problems” of the first world, even contrasted with those faced in the first world even 30 years ago, should make you roll your eyes.

When it’s a personal tragedy that your automatic garage door opener isn’t working, you *really* need to reevaluate your priorities. Hell, I still get a little giddy when I play with my power windows in my SAFE, QUIET, DEPENDABLE car. Which car will probably need a tire change in maybe another couple of years and will require me to manually tinker with its engine um.. never.

Staying Abreast of Latest Books

My taste in books spans from the serious (such as “The God Delusion”)  through to the fantastic (pick anything by “Peter F Hamilton” or “John Scalzi”)  through to comics (such as Dilbert, FoxTrot and XKCD).

An issue I’m facing right now is how to easily stay on top of new releases by authors that I favor.

For news and most notifications these days I can take advantage of RSS feeds and aggregate them in a single place – I use Google Reader – this lets me stay on top of the latest and greatest from a wide variety of sources without having to constantly be visiting and revisiting sites checking for changes.

I believe I now own every one of the non-anthology Dilbert books available (the anthologies IMHO are just a waste of time since they just rehash comics but collect them together in a theme). So I went to Amazon expecting to find some kind of Dilbert or Scott Adams RSS feed that I could just plug into my aggregator and when a new book becomes available it would pop up for me and then I could choose whether it was something I wanted to pick up or not.

Imagine my surprise to find that this kind of service is remarkably rarer than I thought. Amazon doesn’t appear to offer anything like this, although some older message board postings I saw indicate that you used to be able to subscribe to email alerts for new Author publications.

In the case of Dilbert, I went specifically to the website to see if something was available there. Scott Adam’s is a tech savvy kind of guy – he was publishing his email address and not-so-regular newsletters at a time when most authors were still viewing the internet with fear and suspicion. But even he doesn’t seem to have this seemingly obvious sales tool available.

Has anybody found a solution to this issue? I’d prefer to have some kind of consistent centralized solution rather than having to track  down every individual author’s web site and then try to fashion something from the content therein.

I *did* find this tracker based off the Amazon site which is exactly what I want but it doesn’t appear to be functional. Probably the API on which it depends is no longer functional / available? It’s a great idea though. Free for you and me, the provider gets a modest kickback from Amazon for directing book purchasing traffic to them.

Any ideas or suggestions would be welcome!

How Do *You* Manage Your Credit Card Use?

When I listen to Clark Howard (a local consumer advocate) I sometimes wonder if I’m alone in my approach to credit in particular and spending in general.

I’ve had a credit card since I was in my late teens. My perception of the word “credit” in the name “credit card” was always that the Credit really only extended as far as the grace period from when I purchased the item until when payment was due on the account.

I have never held a balance on a credit card.

When my wife and I started living together we actually merged our finances at that time and I undertook to manage the household finances.
In the arena of credit we had only two rules, we would discuss big purchases, and that we would make no purchases on a credit card that would not be fully funded by the time the credit card bill was due.

Everybody needs a safety net, these days mine is provided by a home equity line of credit. Something that can be dipped into should an emergency arise or if you have a project to do and it makes more sense to do it now and pay for it in arrears (such as a tremendous sale on something that you were already planning, and saving, to purchase).

Back, before I owned a home, my local bank was able to make available to me a $5,000 line of unsecured revolving credit. This was MASSIVELY better than relying on my credit card for such debt as the interest rate was more in line with a car loan than that of a loan shark which, I’m sorry to say, is the nicest thing I can say about credit card interest rates.

So we live within our means.

I also receive with disgust those awful Cash Advance Checks. I have some sitting in front of me right now. I honestly cannot see anything good about them. You get charged a premium to take out the money and you begin paying an insane rate of interest on them immediately. Certainly you pay more than you could ever hope to earn in all but the riskiest stock ventures. In my house those Cash Advance Checks are immediately consigned to the shredder along with a few choice words directed toward the marketers responsible for them.

I have my credit card set up to pay off in full, automatically, directly from my bank account so that I do not have to risk the check going astray in the mail (this has happened before).

For any other bills that I need to pay, I pay those immediately when I receive the bill. Why gamble that I won’t forget about it and miss the due date? The interest I may earn, even when interest was in full integer digits, was always puny and never worth the risk.

The amount of money that I have saved in not paying late fees and not pissing it away in ridiculous interest charges can easily buy me my nice new computer system several times over.

So how do *you* handle your credit and why? I know that there are cool deals out there where people can get money interest free for a period. So they take it and invest it, paying it back before it is due.

Subway, overpricing by accident? Does anybody know?

I was in a Subway restaurant a few weeks ago (July 20), the one in Alpharetta at 131 South Main Street, and decided to split a sub with my wife. We ordered their foot-long Chicken and Bacon Ranch sub, toasted. This is a premium sub that goes for $7 according to their menu. We “make it a meal” for an additional $2 and get a medium drink and potato chips too.

Somehow, when this is rung up it costs $10.70.   So I point this out to the manager and she checks the menu and sees that this is obviously not right, apologizes and refunds me the difference. She also says something about how she’s not sure why the computer is doing this but she’ll get it taken care of.

Yesterday, we went back to Subway and ordered the same meal again (I am really a sucker for that sub) and, lo and behold, the same situation. Again I pointed it out and this time there was no question just a “Gee, you’re right, it’s still wrong.”. The manager remembered me from last time and told me they had no control over the pricing in the computer but that she’ll notify “head office” again.

Am I being cynical here in believing that Subway is overcharging on a premium item because they know that they *can*? How carefully do you check your change or the price when you are at a fast food restaurant?

Don’t get me wrong, the employees were very polite and there was never any question about what I should be paying for the sub. But it seems to me that such a glaring error is something that would be addressed quickly.

Does anybody know of any other Subway overcharging? Is this an isolated thing at an isolated store or is this something a bit more widespread. Given that they claim that pricing is set centrally I should think that all the Subway restaurants in a certain area (presumably throughout Alpharetta at least) would share the same pricing tables and, hence, will all be charging the wrong price.

Let me know…

Hey! I won! contest

The day after my birthday I was listening to one of my podcasts when I heard my name mentioned as one of the winners of their most recent contest. It turns out I won Cameradojo’s third prize of a Lensbaby Composer! This is a very well regarded lens in photographic circles, it lets you do some pretty cool things in-camera. Most notably being able to have a spot (apparently ANY spot) in your image crisply focused while keeping the rest of the image in a pleasing blur.

I knew immediately that this was something well beyond my abilities to take advantage of. So I shot a quick note to the guy who runs the Cameradojo podcast (Kerry Garrison) to see if the fellow who won the fifth prize, a Think Tank Backpack (just click the “Backpacks” image), would be willing to make a like-for-like swap. I presume Think Tank Photo would be offering their least expensive offering so I figured I was trading a $270 cool lens for a $140 utilitarian backpack, something I would have much more use in my situation. Maybe a bad deal by some folks’ reckoning but it’s more important to me to have stuff I’ll use than to have stuff ’cause it’s valuable.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Kerry did go that extra mile and contacted the other winner on my behalf and, no surprising, he agreed to the swap.

So now I’m waiting for the new backpack to arrive! I’m looking forward to having something made to protect my camera instead of my current system of using a normal backpack and padding things rather haphazardly with various cloths.

MetroPCS phone for Michelle or why limited competition and walled gardens suck

I’ve had a Sprint account since about 2001. They weren’t bad and they weren’t great and the plan was only modestly expensive (about $52/month).

This gave us a very basic 500 anytime minutes each month for two phones with 50 roaming minutes and the usual long distance, etc.

I don’t need my own phone anymore as I use my company provided phone (Blackberry) nowadays. I found it really inconvenient to carry two phones and, since my cell phone number really doesn’t matter since I use GrandCentral, I can be phone agnostic.

So I did some research to get a phone for Michelle. What I wanted was for her to have all the phone features she’s used to plus text messaging and web access.

Sprint, like the other big carriers, charges a ridiculous amount for unlimited text messaging, $20/month.

My brother just got back from about 6 months in the UK and he was telling me exactly how reasonable cellular phones are over there which served to galvanize me even further.

I stumbled on to MetroPCS quite by accident. I was going to check out a T-Mobile shop and ended up in the wrong strip plaza. So I asked them what they had.

For the same $52 per month ($45 plus all those useless taxes) Michelle gets unlimited minutes, unlimited text, unlimited picture messages (take a picture and send to anybody), unlimited web and the usual long distance in the US. Another plus was, with a prepaid card, she can now call Canada for 2 cents a minute. Sprint would charge about 60 cents a minute to Canada. We have a calling card that she was using that gets that down to 7 cents a minute (from TTI National).

When I called Sprint to cancel my account after porting Michelle’s phone over to the new service they made the usual pitch to try to retain me (Boy, I think I’m going to tell the IVR system that I want to cancel my account EVERY time I call a business, no waiting to speak to a representative at all!). But the guy kept missing the point entirely as he kept offering me more expensive plans that didn’t even come close to the MetroPCS offering.

Now, as with anything in life, nothing is 100% perfect. What we lose in going with MetroPCS that we had with Sprint is a) we simply CANNOT use the MetroPCS phone at all in Canada, and b) there is some question about how well the phone will work outside of a metropolitan area.

For item a) above, the cost of using the Sprint phone in Canada was prohibitive enough that we used them sparingly. Michelle is ALWAYS with someone who has a local cell phone anyway so she just used theirs in the past to make a quick call. So there isn’t much lost there.

For item b) if we keep some extra cash on her MetroPCS account then she can always call from those “roam” areas if she needs to. Again, she’s seldom in those areas without me and my phone goes anywhere. So there is little or no expense to be had there. And if it’s an emergency, all modern cellphones can work in all systems regardless for calling 911 unless you’re just simply in a truly dead area and then it doesn’t matter what plan you’re using.

So, we had to search for a plan and a company that came closer to treating us like something other than a sponge to be squeezed for every penny we could pay. I have a very low opinion of all of our cellular providers since they have always been so adversarial rather than a consumer-partner. They need to realize that there is a LOT of money to be made even at a fair cost for services and that customer loyalty must be earned by treating the customer… um, fairly.

Even Verizon, widely considered one of the best for service and coverage (and the one I use for my work phone) I discounted because I’m still ticked at them for disabling the GPS in my blackberry – a feature intrinsic to the phone with no impact on the cellular network – so they could indulge in the blatant money grab of coercing their customers to pay a monthly fee for Verizon’s own flavor of navigation software.

And ALL of the big companies seem to take a perverse glee in massively overcharging for international long distance services. With the increase in cell phone usage, there has been a marked DEcrease in available pay phones or other alternatives for making such calls. So they use the Hotel model of the captive customer to nail you hard against the wall for such “luxuries”.
Also, text messaging has gotten *more*, not *less* expensive over the past few years. Not bad for a form of communication that is built into the infrastructure and is of absolutely no cost for the cellular companies. Every data signal going to and from your phone carries the space for SMS messaging whether you are sending messages or not.

I’m not saying that these things should be provided for free, but there is a reason that pretty much everybody hates their cell phone provider. They are viewed, not as a great service and a good value, but as an adversary who will absolutely crush you if you misstep. Ask any parent who didn’t have an unlimited texting plan when their kids discovered SMS…

Closet Cleaning

If you’ll recall, due to some changes in my lifestyle, I’ve lost a bit of weight recently (about 22 lbs so far). As a result I’ve found that many of my clothes no longer fit very well.

Also, my closet has been mysteriously filling up over the past decade or so and was sorely in need of a review. Michelle and I tackled the closet on Christmas day. We went and hauled everything out with the rule that only used / useful items go back in.

Closet Cleaning - Shirts and Dress slacksI can’t believe I didn’t think to take pictures until the closet was empty, but I *did* take some shots of all of the stuff that was in the closet once I had it all spread over the bedroom.

My first thought, on surveying the mountain of clothes was “How does someone who seldom sets foot in a store and NEVER buys clothes amass so many shirts, pants and associated stuff?”.

Closet Cleaning - Shirts and SlacksIt turns out that Michelle has been diligently purchasing updated and properly sized clothes for me all these years and just putting them into the rotation. I am completely blown away by the number of shirts that I have. Nearly 4 years ago I posted a mini-poll asking people how many shirts they have, I now have AT LEAST 25% more shirts than back then (now about 110). That doesn’t even count t-shirts in my drawers for exercising and just schlepping around.

The local goodwill should be happy. Nearly all of the clothes that I’m about to take over to them are pristine. They’re simply way to big for me now.

Ironically, some of the clothes I’m keeping are ones that were too small for me but I hadn’t reviewed my closet to discard them. Thankfully, men’s fashions are such that pretty much anything I wore a decade a go can still be worn today. 🙂

I now have:

  • about a dozen Office shirts
  • another dozen Office / casual shirts (can wear to office on “Jeans” day or similar)
  • about a dozen leisure / sports shirts (golf, cycling)
  • half a dozen pair of jeans
  • nearly a dozen office pants
  • nearly a dozen blazers

all of which actually fit me and are in good shape.

I also have left exactly one dozen pair of shoes / sandals / boots.

Gone are the sweaters and hoodies that I’ve received over the years from well meaning relatives and software vendors. Also, I finally parted with many of the shirts from my triathlon and running days. They’ve been worn many, many times while exercising and, while comfortable, were just plumb worn out.

Rebel SwimmingI also bid farewell, finally, to my venerable Rebel Swimming hoodie that I picked up back in high school over a quarter of a century ago.

Some things I won’t be using for a while (if ever) still remain. I have summer and winter trench coats that are in perfect condition, I also have three dozen ties that are still absolutely fine (we got rid of the worn and silly ones). The cane still remains, hopefully it won’t be needed for another half century or so but it’s still perfectly fine.

Closet Cleaning - The new and improved closetCloset Cleaning - The new and improved closetIt’s a good feeling to move into the new year with that closet tidied up.

Click Here to see all the pictures

Maybe you’ll feel better about the junk you’ve got hanging around
when you see how much stuff I had to go through in clearing out my

Canada Life - 150 Year towel-in-a-bag souveneirOh, is anybody out there interested in a Canada Life 150 Year celebration towel/bag thingy? It’s a towel with an attached pouch into which the towel folds (see left). Let me know.

The garage is the next big task. Things have been accumulating on my workbench for years now as I’ve simply had far more things that I want to do than time to do it and stuff just accumulates when you don’t deal with it.

Odd that nobody pays attention to those that are supposedly losing out

In this article about a mailman in North Carolina who simply stopped delivering junk mail, I find it both amusing and odd that the fact that nobody complained or was even remotely bothered that their junk mail did not make its way to them was noted by either the direct marketing association spokesperson or by the mail service that enables them.

Admittedly, there is money being made and that’s the driver. But any drug pusher or criminal has that motivation too.

We receive *thousands* of pieces of this crap every year. I do what I can to minimize it. I’ve even contacted some of the more egregious catalog senders to have them limit their mailings to a few times per year (Victoria’s Secret graciously responded and now I get something maybe quarterly rather than weekly. Can you imagine how many catalogs I had to receive before even *I* didn’t want to look at them anymore???).

This year again, the AOPA Air Safety foundation sent me a half dozen thick envelopes filled with sample cards in spite of my contacting them to ask them to reduce such. I received no response at all from a recent email to them. I declined to purchase this year as a result.

There are a lot of necessary excesses that we learn to tolerate as a price for our way of life. We see things like driving 1-2 tons of metal a mile to get a $2 quart of milk as reasonable and (somehow) proper. But some things simply have no value-add in my life, and I believe in most other folks’ lives. In my opinion, anything that is unsolicited and provides no benefit, even as a side-effect (TV ads, for instance, at least provide the entertainment value of the accompanying programming), can be stamped out without hesitation.

My Yearly Rate of Return

I just checked my 401(k) statement and it tells me that my yearly rate of return for the year to date is…

-22%  (!)

It almost makes me wish I’d blown it all on household electronics.

All those forecasts – “We’ll use the conservative model of 7% growth per year” – aren’t looking all that promising at this point.

I’m taking the advice being sent to me by all those incredibly wealthy folks who run the various brokerages and I’m “staying the course”.

Am I just being foolish? Should I just stop investing in my future and join the majority?

Sometimes I wonder…

De-cluttering our home and our lives

Garage SaleWe’ve been a bit busy for the past little while. In the post renovation euphoria, we realized that we really like the quasi-minimalism that we had in our newly re-invented rooms. We can find what we’re looking for and we like the feeling of lightness that comes from just knowing that there is not a mountain of *stuff* either behind the closet doors or filling up the drawers in the desk/cabinet/you name it.

Add to that Mich has been watching various home improvement shows and eventually zoomed in on “Clean Sweep” and has even ventured so far as to buy the “Clean Sweep” book (It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff) and started taking it’s philosophies to heart.

So we’ve been working our way through the house re-evaluating EVERYTHING. We’ve been discarding old papers that at one time we thought were so important – who really cares about those pay stubs from 15 years ago? And re-evaluated our “time capsules”, which are boxes of items that we didn’t want to get rid of for one reason or another and thought that they’d be interesting to us many years in the future. We went down from 4 time capsule boxes to 1. It *was* a little interesting going through some of the items we thought were so precious 15 or 20 years ago, but it was much more cathartic evaluating them and either selling, giving away or discarding them.

On the whole, digital pictures and smaller mementos to trigger memories of good times past are sufficient for our purposes.

Our neighborhood has a couple of garage sales a year – where the homeowners association does some advertisement and folks know to come through ’cause there will be a lot of sales concentrated in the area. So we participated in the one that was held last week and divested ourselves of a BUNCH of stuff and cleared a modest profit as well 🙂

Combining this de-cluttering with the philosophies embodied in our focus on “Getting Things Done“, we’re finding ourselves much clearer in our expectations for our free time and our lives and goals in general.

We picked up DVD storage pages, the kind that fit into a 3-ring binder, and we’ll be collapsing our DVD collection down from a couple of shelf-fulls to a handy binder size. This AFTER culling the collection for the garage sale.

Today we’ll finish assembling the shelves we picked up yesterday and complete organizing the back room we’ve designated as our “storage room”. We have no basement and there are some things that you simply do not want to store in a shed or the garage (Christmas items, party supplies) and so we’ve designated a room in the house that will host such items. But only after a THOROUGH vetting – do we really want/need to keep these things?

It takes a LOT of energy and effort to work through this kind of project, the renovation was a good shaking-up / taking off point for us. Hopefully the momentum from this effort can roll through the rest of our life as the satisfaction of finding what you need when you need it as well as being pleased with how your place looks is almost beyond description.