Monday, July 30, 2007

So long, Bill.

Bill Walsh died today.

So long to one of the greatest football coaches of all time - a guy who could turn a losing team into a five-time Super Bowl champion squad.

He made my Niners what they...well, what they used to be, oh about 10 years ago.

Rest in Peace, Bill.

eJunkies anonymous.

I've made a big step in my life. One that has involved plenty of thoughtful analysis and probing soul-searching. It's nothing to be taken lightly. I have to do what's best for me.

I purchased compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Because I have to do what's best for the environment, too, and when I learned that most of a incandescent bulb's energy is lost to heat - and how I could save money on my electric bill - it just made sense. It's not often you'll get a household item that will pay for itself over time.

The deep, deep discount on ($4.99 for four bulbs) helped a lot, too.

So now when I turn on the lights at home I know I'll be helping the environment, saving on my energy costs, and reducing my impact on Global Warming - literally. Have you ever felt a lightbulb when it's on?

I think something clicked in my brain back when we learned about recycling and Earth Day in school. All that planting trees and three-Rs just made sense. Why waste?

Katie also handed me her old cell phone to recycling (or sell on eBay - we haven't decided yet), so I sent an e-mail out at work asking for anyone's old phone so I could take it to our recycling site. I also bought and distributed recycling bins around the office - especially near the copy and fax machines - so we can reduce our paper waste.

The funny thing is all this doesn't take much work. A few half-hours a week, and you can make a little bitty impact.

Considering we're all making a great big impact on the world at large - did you know the plastic we create will never go away? - it's shameful to think some people don't do anything.

It might be that I dig the warm, squishy feeling I get when I do something like e-cycle cell phones or batteries that would have otherwise ended up in the trash. I don't look for any recognition or thanks, but it always helps when people play along.

At work, when I asked for paper grocery bags to store all our to-be-recycled paper (it makes it easier to just toss the whole thing in the recycling bin), my coworkers came through in spades.

And after I sent out the e-mail, one coworker came up and gave me a cell phone she put in her desk. She didn't know what to do with it.

Little things like leaving lights on when no one's in the room, or throwing away a blank sheet of paper and not using it for scrap, or buying those stupid disposable mops that Swiffer is so proud of - it drives. Me. Crazy.

But I'm not interested in changing everyone's mind. It's impossible. I remember Dr. Renner picking on me in the newspaper office, saying he was going to crown me "resource managment czar" because I was such a pain about reusing paper and turning off lights. And this coming from a professor who would burn through reams of paper like a junkie with pharmacy keys.

Instead, I'll quietly go about doing my own thing - like those fancy new lightbulbs - and wait for the rest of the world to come to its senses.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


If you're reading this, you've probably jumped over from that OTHER web site.

Well, welcome to this one. Because as tonight, I will no longer be a member of the MySpace community. This has been a long-time coming - I've been thinking about it since my big trip, after my account got hacked - and I've finally come to the decision to unshackle my online social life from that site and maintain a lower-profile site here.

I'll probably keep my Facebook account, just for people (like the guys in ATO) to be able to get ahold of me if they need to. But MySpace? I just don't think I need it anymore.

I have a feeling I'm one of the rats leaving a sinking ship. And my resentment toward MySpace's garrish personality and crass commercialism has been a itch that won't go away.

There are practical reasons, too, of course. Potential job interviewers, gun-toting Marxist guerrillas, and looney exes - not to mention all the fake porn profiles - all know MySpace as a potential spying tool.

Sure, I'll miss the ability to monitor my friends' lives from one simple site. I'll miss the picture comments and the blog discussions and the stalking. All of that will be hard to recreate. But I have recreated it, in some form or another, and I don't have to worry about the newest movie release from Fox blocking my log-in abilities.

And frankly, I talk to 10-20 people on here regularly. The rest are mere school or work or random acquaintances. My life is too busy to keep tabs on every one of my 300+ "friends," and I've got too much to do to even attempt it.

Believe it or not, the Internet offers other ways to keep in contact; if you need me, you know how to reach me.

Who knows: with the freedom and the openness of my Blogger page, maybe more things in life will be forthcoming. Maybe I'll post more often, maybe not. Maybe people will read it, maybe not. Does it matter? Is my life affected in any way? Will I shed a tear when I don't have a MySpace sign-in name?

Until that August 1 deadline hits, I'll maintain some sort of phantom presence (think "Sixth Sense," not "Ghost Dad") and close any open engagements that remain. In the meantime, I'll leave enough Internet ectoplasm for you to find where I've gone.

Let me just say that this whole thing - since 2005 - has been a great experience. I like to think I was one of the middle adopters, before MySpace really took off last year, and have enjoyed seeing all my friends and coworkers pour into this site and set up their own profiles. I loved posting "Welcome to the cult of MySpace..." comments on newly-acquired friends' pages. And having "MySpace friends" and "MySpace conversations" (those that start out with, "So I saw on MySpace how you've...") is a cultural thing other generations just don't get.

Well I got it. Now I'm getting out while the getting's good.

The weekend in pictures.

We'll call it the "Tour of Eastern Michigan" weekend. Friday night in Berkley. Saturday morning in Ann Arbor. Saturday afternoon in Hell. Saturday evening in Oscoda/Greenbrush/Lake Huron. Sunday at Mackinaw and St. Ignas. It was the whirlwind trip.

It all started at Shanita's party in Berkley. I went up right after work and joined Shanita, Andrea, Annie, and Karen - right after a quick dinner at the A&W drive-up root beer stand.

Holly, Amy, Heather, another Amy, and a whole bunch of other Adrian folks joined us for flippy cup, my all-time favorite drinking game. It's more like a sport really.

This is Drunken Mike. I guess he has his own web site, but he didn't last too long. We saw he curling up in the grass, and later this chair, and we crowned him "Early Party Pooper." He was lucid for part of the bonfire chat. Then again, so was I.

Unfortunately I had to skip out on breakfast with the crew to head to Ann Arbor. Keith and I wanted to go to the Briarwood Mall Apple store grand opening. First we grabbed breakfast at Bob Evans, then headed to the mall where we waited in line for an hour.

The line stretched almost the whole length, and even double-backed in on itself. The mood was anticipatory. We all wanted to get a t-shirt (and most did). But mostly I just wanted to get my hands on an iPhone.

And what a joy it was. The keypad took some getting used to, but it wasn't long before I was checking my e-mail and looking up Katie's address on Google Maps. Keith downloaded a YouTube clip. The calendar feature is beautiful, and I even called and left Katie a message. On an iPhone. God, I love Apple stores.

After a quick ride to Trader Joe's for wine, I came home, took a nap, and loaded the car for our trip up the coast of Lake Huron. I told Katie that we had to "take a detour" first. She thought we were just taking the scenic route - and we were - but she's always wanted to see a little town called...

Hell. We stopped in Hell. We shopped in Hell. We took pictures in Hell. It's mostly two stores and a tourist stop, but it was kind of neat. They even sold one-inch parcels of land for $6.66. What a bargain. I got a coffee mug, and Katie got a dead rubber duck.

Fun times were had by all. Hell was right on the way to US-23, which we were taking the whole way north. I figured, why not? That, and I love taking the scenic route.

We drove up US-23, past Saginaw and Bay City and into Tawas City, Standish, Oscoda and stopped at the Pappas Motel near Greenbrush, just south of Harrisville. The motel was great - and one of the few vacancy spots the whole way up. It had a bedroom, a kitchen stocked with pots and pans, and seemed to cater to the hunting/fishing crowd.

We liked how it was right on the lake, so Sunday morning we got up and took a walk. This was Katie's first look at Lake Huron.

We had breakfast in Harrisville, at the Olde Place Inn. The breakfast buffet was sorely underprepared and understaffed. The poor ladies running the place never stopped refilling the eggs and waffles. But it was tasty, and we got our fill of fresh fruit.

A quick stop in Alpena, which had a beautiful marina and some sort of festival going on. The downtown section was really cool, and the breeze coming off the lake was refreshing.

Just north of Rogers City, where the highway ran alongside the lake again, we stopped at a little picnic area. I glanced out the car window and couldn't believe how blue the lake was. We walked down a sandy path to the shore, where some ladies were collecting rock, and Katie ventured out into the water.

I think it was Andrea who said people who haven't seen the Great Lakes don't realize how big and ocean-like they are. We were lucky weather-wise, because it was perfect. Sunny, warm, and breezy.

Ah, Mackinaw. Katie had been here, and to the island (spelled with a "c" at the end) before, but it was my first time. The town is one giant gift and ice cream shop, and I knew that if I came back home without some fudge for my grandma I'd be a dead man.

We browsed through the gift shops; Katie was looking for a sweatshirt, and inside the Mackinaw Outlet they had a giant fish tank full of salmon. Ugly fish, but they are yummy.

Just before you get to the Mackinaw Bridge they have a little park with a circa-1892 lighthouse. I wanted to get out and actually see the bridge before we crossed it. What a site. It didn't look that big from shore.

That changes when you cross over. To look out over Lake Huron and Lake Michigan - and see endless water on either side - was spectacular. And I couldn't believe that the shores were that close together. I guess on a map they look so far apart.

St. Ignas doesn't suffer from tourist-itis like Mackinaw does. It's more like a maritime town: a little grungy, with a fishy smell. We stopped off at the dock and went out to see the ferries come in.

And man do they fly. Katie said they're jet powered, and I believe it.

The waves from the ferry came crashing against the dock, and down below you could see the remains of the old dock, still intact.

That was it. We left Mackinaw about 5 p.m. and got home a bit after 9 p.m. The drive home was quiet (Katie was reading the new Harry Potter book) except for the wind through the windows and White Zombie from the iPod.

It really is a great state we live in, where you can see so many distinct personalities. Gov. Granholm, at the recent governor's meeting in beautiful Traverse City, pledged to protect the lakes from thirsty western states - and for good reason. The Great Lakes are a treasure, and make us a destination known worldwide.

How cool is it that, in a few hours time, we can see the largest freshwater lakes on Earth?

Pretty cool.

Monday, July 23, 2007

On doing more with your free time.

Let's say you don't turn on your TV ever again.

Maybe you can pitch it, or give it away, or recycling it - whatever.

If you're the average American, you would gain back about four hours a night. That's almost 30 hours of your life per week. Turn off the TV, and it all comes back to you.

But what to do with that free time?

We've already discussed what TV has done to the average American citizen. It's horrible. We went from the largest participatory democracy after World War II to a nation of lazy couch potatoes who can't find an hour or two a week to give back to our country (take that, JFK).

Not to mention TVs are big energy hogs.

Well, someone has found out what to do with all that unplugged free time. He started an Internet business, and quit his real job after the thing took off.

As he says, most folks don't realize how much time they actually spend in front of the TV. With him, it was less (about three hours).

With me, it's far less. If I watch any TV, it's usually during football season, or watching CNN while I eat breakfast. And I have one sit-com ("The Office," natch) that I just can't miss.

But then I think about how much time I spend farting around on the Internet, and it doesn't take much thinking to figure out where my time-suck is. You're reading it.

I don't watch TV because I'm usually busy doing something else. Either I'm working on a project for one of the two groups I belong to, or spending time with friends, or hanging out with grandma, or running, or meditating, or selling stuff on eBay, or planning giant trips, or...

You get the idea. The point is, there's far too much to do in life. And television can take that all away.

The I-gave-up-TV-to-earn-money guy gives and takes, and knows that there are a few TV shows he doesn't want to miss each week. So sometimes he limits his weekly viewage time.

I cringed at the thought of using my freetime to work even more (I think a third of our life is plenty, thank you). But you can make it into "passive income": take a walk and roll in the dough. Not a bad idea.

After not watching TV for so many years - even in college I was out doing things, not in front of our big screen - I've found I rarely miss it. My coworkers love to talk about "American Idol" and "Survivor" or whatever the latest crime-drama is, but my glaze over as soon as the conversation begins. I'm not a snob. I just don't care for TV all that much.

If anything, I'd rather be reading.

Anything, in the end, can become a time sinker. Shucks, if your nose is in a book all day you can't get much done either. But there's something to be said for responsible, mature time management.

There are far too many wonderful things to experience in life. I'd rather do them than watch them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Deals with the devil.

There's a big difference between making cookies and buying cookies.

For one, the first is a helluva lot more fun to do. Right now Katie is licking the spatula clean - and for good reason. The batch she just whipped up can't be beat. After a tough day at work, baking is a great way to take your mind off things. You lose some of yourself in the creation, and that's a good thing.

But also, in the end you save a bit of money. The cost of a bunch of sugar, flour, eggs, and chocolate chips is cheaper than going out and buying a pack of Oreos or Chips Ahoy. Plus, the homemade variety taste better. Straight out of the bowl, even.

It's thoughts like these that are helping me come to grips with the horrors of living in middle class America. Every little bit helps. Example: ING's and WaMu's free checking (check out the fun web site!) and higher-yield savings accounts. Or Citi's $100-bonus "ultimate" savings account.

In my quest for financial peace, there's a certain amount of glee that comes with pilfering $100 from some megabank. Working at a credit union builds enough animosity toward the big Bs, but giant corporations in general give me the willies. So it's with great pleasure that I will gladly take a 5% interest rate and a Ben Franklin for doing nothing more than depositing $1 to start the account.

According to the Dave Ramsey plan, your first step is to build up a $1,000 emergency fund. When Murphy's Law strikes, he says, it's good to have a grand for those just-in-cases - and it's a preventative method to stop using your credit card for things like car repairs or doctor's bills, should they strike.

Then, after you've built up your emergency fund, you tackle your debts with ferocity. Instead of saving any extra money, you use your funds to get rid of debt. After THAT, you go back to your emergency fund and save for three to six months of expenses (for things like car accidents or job loss - you know, real emergencies).

I've been looking for a good, non-CD, non-money market account to store my baby emergency fund. Well, at a 4.5-5% interest rate, I can't find a good reason not to take advantage of some of these internet savings accounts, even though they're with banks. My measly .5% rate at American 1 just can't compete.

But then I find that Citi will pay you $100 - no strings attached - to open one of their high-yield accounts. Sold. There are few better ways to earn a quick $100. The only stairs to climb are a signature you have to mail in, a 90-day waiting period for the deposit to hit, and a few personal questions about your financial life.

I have my emergency fund set, but an extra $100 added to that keeps Mr. Murphy at bay, in my mind.

These new internet savings accounts are a fairly recent phenomenon. A few months back I recieved a mailing from ING (which has really cool company colors) about their checking account that offers a 4% interest rate. Now, if you know much about checking accounts, you know they don't typically offer any sort of dividend. ING can afford to do such a thing because everything's done online. You can offer bigger incentives when you don't have tellers working in brick-and-mortar branches. No doubt they make up some of the cost from investments and fees on some of their other account. The idea is to get customers in the virtual door, and boy is it working.

Hey, they got me.

Now credit unions are trying to figure out a way to compete (by, say, requiring direct deposit, e-statements, a debit card - all either save or earn money for CUs), but I say don't bother. Something tells me these interest rates can't last forever. Maybe it's a fad. Maybe it'll all go away when the big banks get the customer penetration (pun intended) they want.

Little things along the way have boosted my financial confidence. I've waved goodbye to my 19%-interest-rate Bank of American Visa and hello to a 0% Chase card that will let me tackle my debt barrier-free. I've paid off three other credit card, and one is about to bite the dust in the months to come. I'm making money on eBay. I've got overtime at work. And I've got a written budget that I'm actually using and following.

I remember money used to be a big stress point for me back in college. It seemed my money always had control of me, not the other way around. Not any more.

The discipline I've discovered in my new workout routine has sprung up in other areas, but education and a bit of research helps.

Maybe deals with devils aren't so bad after all.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Our groceries to admire.

Grocery shopping is always an adventure.

My grandma is not a big fan. She does it rarely, and with great consternation.

But I love it. I love the people watching, the dodging carts in the aisles, the picking out of produce, the existential wait in the checkout line.

Over time, I've even come up with a system that makes the whole thing even more pleasurable. It's guided by four years of self-made discovery.

The list.

With anything, the key is always preparation. Grocery shopping is no different, which is why your shopping list is so key. If you forget something, it should only your own fault - not the list's. My advice is keep track of needed items as soon as they spring up. Use the last of the coffee? Note it immediately (especially with coffee). And the method doesn't matter. I use a mix of text files and scraps of paper. When I hit the store, however, I usually have everything noted down on paper.

The store.

I'm not going to complain if you're a Wal-Mart person (not in this venue; to your face is another story), but I would recommend you head somewhere that has more of a local interest in the community you live in. And one must consider price. So I head to Meijer, knowing that they're semi-locally based (Grand Rapids) and provide the same deep discounts as the big chain stores. In fact, I'll put their prices against anyone's.

Jackson has the benefit of having two Meijers, but I stick to the one closest to the airport (the other, East End, store is too sterile, too Wal-Mart like). When Don and I lived at Granada it was super easy to whip into the store to pick something. But now we live across town; the drive is worth it, however, and I've got such a detailed mental map of the place that I can't abandon it. That, and there's this quirky greeter lady that wears balloon hats and yells at you when you enter and leave. Personality is key.

First things first.

There's some debate on how to approach your shopping: whether you should start at the back and work your way toward the checkout, or start right when you get in. My own philosophy is to start at the beginning because that's where the produce is, and produce is an excellent place to get in the mood for shopping. I'm all about fresh fruit and veggies, and Meijer has the largest, best produce section of any store I know. The regulars include bananas, broccoli, carrot sticks, apples, and sweet potatoes but can include green beens, tomatoes, asparagus, grapefruit, and squash, depending on sale prices. Also, don't neglect the discount shelf. A few bad grapes won't hurt a thing when the whole bunch is $0.49.

No meat, no man.

The deli and butcher is next, and here I usually look for items on sale, too. While I'm getting pretty sick of lunch meat, if ham or turkey is cheap enough I'll get it. I usually pick out some sort of fresh fish (white fish, walleye if it's cheap, perch, rainbow trout), stock up on chicken breast strips, and only grab red meat when I have a specific recipe in mind. In my Meijer the cheese and sausage is close to the meat, so I grab those on my way through.

OJ did it.

I go through at least one can of frozen orange juice a week, but I've noticed since last fall's citrus crop was damaged by frost, the price has jumped up dramatically. Luckily today I found some clearance grapefruit juice (with calcium!) on sale for $1, so I stocked up. The frozen section is a great place to grab fruits and veggies that maybe aren't in season, tater tots, frozen pizza (my roommates staple food), and any sweet treats.

This week only!

Meijer has this deal where, say, if you buy a crapload of items they'll give you a discounted price on the whole lot. Today's example included 10 yogurts for $4. In fine, small print they say "Down from $45/each," which means you're getting a discount of a nickel on each one. But the trick is you don't HAVE to buy 10 to get the discount. You can buy one and still get it at $0.40. I use this trick every time I step in the store, especially on basics like cereal, bread, crackers, pork & beans, tuna, and Gatorade. But never milk. Today they had two gallons of milk for $5, but I only go through a gallon every two weeks. That other milk will go to waste, but I still take advantage of the discount. I also think about items I can stock up on, like potato chips, and actually use the three-for-five bucks deal. Shit, why not? That means I won't have to buy them next week.

Sticking to it.

It's pretty hard to stick to a shopping list when discounts are everywhere. I know that every time I go shopping I will stray from the list in some way. This is natural. I don't even have to be hungry and I'll quickly go over-budget on grocery items. But as soon as you except this as fact it'll make the whole experience easier. Because I pay in cash, I make a mental list of my items' prices and keep track of the running total as I go along. This means that rarely will I be surprised when the check-out total rings up. There's no sin in grabbing a few extra cherries if they look sweet.

Check this out.

The checkout line is the place where most folks make their biggest shopping blunder. Instead of throwing every grocery item on the belt in random fashion, try placing similar items together. I think you'll find it makes the whole experience a better one, because it makes the checking-out easier on the cashier. Eggs and bread should go in the same bag because they're so fragile. This is key. You would place a watermellon and a bag of chips together only if you're a fool.

Also, a general sense of humanitarianism is needed during the whole process. Today a guy in a cast had two frozen dinner compared to my 16 or so items. So I let him go ahead of me. Why torture the bastard? I've got all day.

Using this overall strategy would make anyone rethink the foundation of modern supermarkets, but the important lesson is to do what works for you with a background sense of love of your fellow shopper.

My grandma hates Meijer because she think it's a constant battle: narrow aisles, ramming carts, cutting in line. It's a Roman system, but once you get the hang of it there will be less blood shed.

And a side note: shop at your farmer's market whenever you can. Stop by those roadside stands because a tomato fresh out of someone's garden will beat the pants off any store's selection.

Hey, I'm heading to the store. Need anything?

Monday, July 2, 2007

iWait, therefore iAm.

To iPhone or not to iPhone - that is the question.

Even our president at work asked me if I stook in line for an iPhone this weekend. Apparently I'm the Apple guy at work, and I was kind of disappointed I didn't have a good "iWaited" story to share.

"Even if I did get one," he said, "I'd never in a million years figure the dang thing out."

Ah, but that's where you're wrong, sir. You see, Apple makes things easier to use. Before the original Macintosh came along, we all had to run our computers from terminals. You know, the "c:/run boot/deliver pizza" commands? Imagine no trash can, or no double-clicking icons. Computers were tough for non-computer people. Apple made them easier. MP3 players use to be bulky and hard to control. Apple made them fun to use with the iPod.

And now with cellphones, Apple has made an elegant solution to an ugly problem we all face every day. Visual voicemail? How come no one has invented this yet?

So the justification to buy an iPhone is an easy one. It's either that, or grab a Jitterbug and keep things simple.

But then there's AT&T.

That's where things get messy. Do I really want to support a giant corporation that's already been taken to task for trying to take over the world?

I'm just glad I'm not the only one wondering about the moral dilemma that is the iPhone. I love Apple. I hate AT&T. I really like my Centennial coverage (especially now that it's gone nation-wide).

What to do?

Apple/AT&T made things a bit easier by announcing a pretty reasonable rate plan. I mean, I pay $60 a month now, and I sure as heck don't use all my minutes. Free data? Bells and whistles? Sounds like a deal.

The only issue left: is NOW the right time to buy one?

Farhad Manjoo over at answered that one for me - even if I wait, the design elements Apple has unleashed will ripple through the phone industry just as Apple's innovations did in the PC market. Visual voicemail? Touch screens? Easy-to-navigate web on a phone? Soon we'll see these features all over the cell phone world. It's either that or perish.

But damn, the iPhone sure is a pretty thing to look at, isn't it? Why not give up my clunky grey Samsung in exchange for a clear, bright, vivid iThingy?

Well, because the iPhone starts out at $500. And knowing Apple, ten months down the road they'll come up with an iPhone Nano or somesuch and totally piss off everyone who waited in line on Friday for their piece of electronic gold.

I'm so glad I waited to buy an iPod, for instance, because they had just released the video version when I bought mine.

So I think I'll wait. I'll see what else Mr. Jobs has up his black turtle-neck sleeves, see what happens with the bugs and glitches (though I'm sure they'll be few), and sit on my iHands and ride this manic steamroller 'till the end.

Shit, why not? My cell phone service contract just expired, making me a free agent. I'm the piece of sough-after hardware in the free market system, right?

In the meantime, I'll watch the brouhaha from afar - with the cold, distant analyzing eyes of an impartial player in some weird trapeze act.