Sunday, March 30, 2008

On taking inventory.

Even before I interviewed a local sheriff deputy about his house burning down, and asked what our credit union could do to help his family out, I knew a complete listing of everything I owned was a good idea.

After all, fires happen all the time. I’ve already had valuables stolen from my car. And shucks, zombies could take over any day now.

So I decided that March would be "taking stock" month, a sort of spring cleaning that put all my material possessions in order, taking photos of everything I owned, and keeping information like serial numbers and replacement costs in a handy spreadsheet should disaster strike. Little did I know how much work it would entail.

But it’s all been supremely worth it.

Little did I know, for instance, that my comic collection includes almost 800 comics worth more than $3,200. Just my Spider-Man collection clocks in at $1,500, give or take a few hundred. It took a day in a half, with some online help, to figure all that out.

Few things scare me more than the thought of someone breaking in to our apartment and making off with one of my Macs. While it’s true that I lock my Apples down with enough passwords to make Fort Knox jealous, and I do a decent enough job of backing up all my data with external hard drives, but still.

What’s funny is that, if you take my comic collection, it’s worth more in ashes than it is sitting in the five or six boxes that store them. People aren’t willing to pay a good price for the latest edition of "Ultimate X-Men," but if they all burned up my insurance company would have to give me top dollar for them.

Everything I have is worth something. It’s hard for me to guess what the exact values are, but I’ve read that as long as you keep some sort of record, you’ll be paid back if disaster strikes.

Part of this project has involved cleaning and gutting as well. I have magazine subscriptions that date back years, and some of the issues I’ll never even look at again. Into the recycling bin they go.

All of this will be documented in spreadsheets, photos, iTunes lists, and burned onto a CD that will be kept off-site. After all, it doesn’t make sense to keep an inventory if the inventory melts in the flames with everything else, right?

So here’s my advice: if you have things you value, and they’re not all indestructible, take the time and effort and document everything. Everything. Stand in each room, even, and take a general "here’s-this-side" photo, just in case you forget anything.

Photos, quilts, childhood toys - those you can’t replace. But no sense in watching everything go up in smoke. We’re not all Superman, and we can’t keep everything in the Fortress of Solitude.

It’s called CYA - which means "Cover Your Assets" or something like that. There’s no better time to take stock than now.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Renew subscriptions online, save a tree

A thought occurred to me today, just as I was about to drop two magazine subscription renewal envelopes in the mailbox:

Why not do this online?

I subscribe to two monthly magazines, Wired and Harper's, and both have been bugging me for months to renew my subscription. Harper's even sent me a letter saying that, by renewing early, I could save them the cost of several more notices.

Now I realize what a smart idea that was. Renew early and save the company postage and printing costs AND save on the fuel it takes to ship that envelope from Red Oak, Iowa to my apartment in Jackson, Michigan. Harper's wins, and so does the environment.

But then I thought, shucks, I betcha I could do this online. Sure enough, both sites had a renewal section. All I needed was my name and address, and a debit card, and in two minutes both subscriptions were renewed. No postage needed, no mail infrastructure to engage, no check to write, no yucky envelope taste on my tongue.

I should've thought of this a long time ago...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

$600 rebate check rich.

Michael Bloomberg, the plucky mayor of New York, recently compared the tax rebate checks to giving an alcoholic a drink: "This country has a balance sheet that’s starting to look more and more like a Third World country," Bloomberg said.

In which case, we’ll all be tested. Binge, or resist temptation? Splurge, or save?

Nevermind the moral questions regarding this tax rebate deal (here are the details, from the IRS) - others have done more thinking on this than me.

All I know is, I’m probably getting $600. And most of you are, too.

But what to do with all that cheddar?

Because I’m like most Americans (and especially like most people our age), I have what’s called a "negative self worth," meaning I owe more money (car loan, student loans) than I have in the credit union. So I’ll tip the balance at least a few hundred dollars in the "savings" column. A nice deposit of $300 into my emergency fund would do well for my security gland (that one in your head that beeps and swells every time you write a check you don’t know if you can cash). That’s smart thing number one. There are many others.

Smart thing number two would be to donate some of it to my favorite charity or cause. Right now our local organizations are hurting because Michigan’s economy (and, good lord, Jackson’s) sucks right now. So a few dollars here and there would do a lot of good.

Then the fun part comes in (we’ll call it "not-so-smart-thing number one"). I’m leaving for my New England trip sometime this spring, and a few hundred dollars would be welcome in my gas and food budget. This depends on when I get the check, of course, but most signs point to sometime in May.

If it doesn’t come in time, I’ll just consider it a New England trip rebate, and the rest of money can pad my checking account for rent or an emergency.

An iPhone? Not with this money. I’ve already set aside the funds for the Jesus Phone, thankyouverymuch, so it’s already a given.

How about you? What will you do with YOUR tax rebate check?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Warning: fake news story

Lawrence is carted away from The Parlour after failing the Dare to Be Great Challenge.


A Jackson man was hospitalized today after attempting The Parlour's "Dare to Be Great" 21-scoop ice cream challenge.

Dave Lawrence, a 26-year-old Brooklyn native, was taken away from the Parlour's Wildwood St. location after lapsing into a diabetic coma - one bite away from completing his quest to be placed on the ice cream vendor's wall among others who had completed the task in years past.

Lawrence was spurred on by a 48-year-old Oklahoma man's completion of the challenge earlier this week, as well as a dare by his friend Chris Spielman.

"Chris is in Wisconsin, and should've been here to help," Lawrence said, his breath labored in between full system flushes at Foote Hospital, where he was being treated as of press time. "That wimp...couldn't have come as I did."

After eating most of the 21 multi-flavored scoops of ice cream, Lawrence collapsed with his last spoonful on its way to his mouth. Patrons called the ambulance after repeated attempts to massage the last remaining bit down Lawrence's throat.

"We thought we would help him finish it, even if he was passed out," one woman on the scene said. "The rules don't say you have to be awake the whole time. After a few minutes of trying, we finally gave up and called the hospital."

Lawrence is being treated for glucose shock, hypertension, and acute bloating - all due to a catastrophic system reaction because of his Type I diabetes.

"To hell with sugar-free ice cream," Lawrence was heard screaming when he began the challenge. "That's like eating tofu burgers, and it's a laxative."

Family members refused comment, but had purchased a trophy with Lawrence's name and the Dare to Be Great Challenge carved onto a brass ice cream scoop in anticipation of the challenge's completion.

Foote Hospital doctors are pessimistic about Lawrence's chances of making it out of the coma any time soon, but one surgeon said any hope of recovery rested in Lawrence's chance of digesting the 10 pounds of chocolate chips, sprinkles, and strawberry chunks.

"He may never walk again," the surgeon said.

The Parlour claims no responsibility for the incident, adding that the Dare to Be Great Challenge wasn't meant to be attempted by diabetics. The restaurant's proprietor says he will add Lawrence's name to the "attempted" list, however.

Donations can be made to the Lawrence Dared to Be Great But Shouldn't Have Even Tried It fund, which will help pay for the stomach pump's electricity costs, at any Jackson-area American 1 Federal Credit Union branch location.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Chaos and tomfoolery at the Restaurant Rally.

John and I drink to ease the pain of living.

Midway through my first margarita, I knew that the Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce's Restaurant Rally would be trouble from the start.

The idea was crazy enough: a group of local restaurants offering free food to anyone wearing a bracelet, with chamber members slung around town in short school buses, herded like cattle into the waiting arms of Jackson entreprenuers. Pay $20, buy the ticket, take the ride, and eat 'till you puke.

Our table was casually munching on the free chips and salsa at the Crazy Cowboy when the chaos of the evening took its toll.

"We need a plan!" I said.

We were missing sombreros and donkeys with tutus.

But no one heard me. One minute we were drinking $1 margaritas and chatting about the evening's plans, and the next minute we were leaving in a huff - off to the next restaurant in line.

We stuck to the downtown restaurants at first, which seemed like a good idea at the time. since most of the spots were within a block of each other, we could maximize our Restaurant Rally experience in the shortest amount of time. Crazy Cowboy to Lenny's Sub Shop to Bella Notte to Daryl's Downtown - it all seemed so easy.

When one travels with rowdy companions, however, ease became merely a misguided state of mind. I couldn't help but feel sorry for Bill (or was it Bob?), the owner of Lenny's, who had a feeding trough set up for the chamber members who trickled in off the bus. Imagine four yellow submarines zipping around town full of hungry business owners and their dragged-along employees. I remember hoping the bus drivers were earning time and a half.

Suzanne showed up midway through our free sub sample (a simple club sandwhich, with a glass of water). She had volunteered to host one of the four buses, and we were one of her stops. We asked where she was going, and whatever she said didn't interest our party.

We called the cops soon after this.

Instead, we moved on to Bella Notte Ristorante, a preppy Italian joint that held steam trays full of pasta and sauces. Noodles, tomatoes, cheese, broccoli, chicken - again, all buffet style, and thank goodness we showed up early. Soon the line was 20-patrons deep, their eyes twitching with hunger. Some folk singer was bellowing "Hallelujah" in the corner, and Captain Jackson showed up to restore order to the madness.

"Have we lost all sense of decency?" I asked, pushing my way through the half-starved food line in order to make my escape. Our party left before the drinks even got there, and we no doubt pissed off a good many chamberettes with our cries of "excuse me" and "I have to use the restroom."

Andrea nurses her drink.

Walking into Daryl's, probably the classiest joint on the whole tour, one couldn't help imagining some secret business deal taking place while we were herded to the backroom - some waiter standing gaurd to make sure the rabble behaved themselves.

And that was hard, because when we arrived the buffet (again!) had run out of Daryl's famous dinner rolls. Instead, we made fools of ourselves devouring barbeque wings in front of William Ross, Jackson's city manager, who looked on in horror at the amount of booze placed in front of us.

I was six wings into my meal when the drinks finally arrived, and was on my way to grab a few more brownies (which they also ran out of), when we again left in a huff. Carolyn's sister, Andrea, even pushed me into the door - the restaurant turning their heads in unison at my "ouch!" - to make her getaway.

This time we loaded onto one of the buses, bravely corraled by an Ambassador Committee member who had given up on all sense of order and logic. We behaved like savages, and were told to "Quiet!" by the hapless bus driver during a railroad crossing. The destination was Ground Round, but after some lobbying a lady convinced us to stop at the Greystone. All she said was "seventy-five cent beers" and clawed my way off the bus. What else needed to be said?

Greystone's idea of a "deluxe meal."

The Greystone Tavern, made famous by its delicious hamburgers, was my kind of place: narrow, smokey, full of long faces and blue-collar sensibility. The waitress tried to place us at a long table in the back, but it was all in vain. Our group headed directly to the bar. I stumbled my way to the bathroom and found it clean.

We had nachos (they call it, oddly enough, "Beef and Greens") and peanuts at the Greystone - more like a night at a ballgame than a dine-and-dash, but whatever. Some 18 year old calmly passed out our food, and deferred to the angry looking waitress who kept having to shout her demands.

"That's fine," I answered back, "at least the bathroom's clean."

And what do you know, our circus-on-wheels exited the Greystone in a cloud of peanut shells when another bus arrived to take us to the Time Out Bar & Grill. The bus ride there was a blur, but I do remember trying to leave my Greystone nachos on the bus for the next person to board.

Found her!

We ran into Suzanne again at the Time Out, along with the dart crowd - that group of hard-core gamers who considered lawn darts a bastardization of their fine art.

"I just hope there's no crime tomorrow," Captain Jackson said, smoking a dark-brown cigarette, "because my utility belt won't fit."

Alex searches for meaning admist the madness. "Want a shot?" he asked.

We all knew how he felt. By then we had consumed so much of Jackson's finest food - and yet had only visited a few select restaurants - that the night had to come to a conclusive end before someone got sick.

Time Out offered fried cheesecake and cold pizza, all presented behind a stronly-worded sign to let the locals that this was a bourgeois affair. We weren't as spirit as we were at the Cowboy (which seemed like an eternity ago), and I think we all felt like the Restaurant Rally had run its course.

Jackson isn't known for its politeness.

"Find the fire exits, Dave," John told me. "I'll follow you."

Instead of making an exit fit for any movie, we simply loaded onto a bus bound for downtown, our origin point, and unloaded back at the Crazy Cowboy. We had come full circle, in spirit as well as in destination, and we said our goodbyes.

My companions blatantly stole this fine glass from a struggling downtown business.

It was an epic evening, for sure, and there's no better way to take in all that Jackson's fine eateries have to offer than loading drunken chamber members on cramped buses and shout orders to them in between crude jokes and pornographic picture messages (that last one involving two ladies and Subway's current slogan, which I didn't get), with no time to discover the personality of a place because you're too busy whisking away to the next stop.

Complete chaos, and I felt it first thing that night. But what could I do? I had bought the ticket. I had taken the ride, and eaten the nachos.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

I made

Top 100 things to do before I die 65 has been crossed off the list:

That's right - my long tirade on Apple's environmental record made Macsurfer, an Apple news aggregator.

And that one award last year that I got to go to Orlando to accept? We won it again. And we're waiting on news from another one.

Everything is coming up Milhouse.

Monday, March 3, 2008

On a "stuff"-free March.

"As the world goes 'round / It's got me thinkin'
That the things I want / Keep me sinking / Down." - Zwan, 'Ride a Black Swan'

Last Thursday, while waiting for a meeting that never happened, I browsed around our nifty Nomad Bookhouse in downtown Jackson for an entire hour. The best part? I had a great time, and didn't buy one book. Same goes for our downtown library; I get lost in there for hours on end, and it doesn't cost me a dime.

As the world goes 'round, it's got me thinking, too - that less of what makes me happy is possessions, and more of what makes me happy is experiences.

I always have to remind myself of that, but maybe it was Steven Stoll's article in the March edition of Harper's, titled "Fear of Fallowing: The spectre of a no-growth world," where he argues that - after the basics are taken care of - the accrual of possessions makes us no more happier as time goes on.

The opposite effect, in fact, could be true. American happiness peaked in 1950, says Bill McKibben in Deep Economy, and afterwards has dripped down a few percentage points. "The point is not that [economic] growth has caused depression and anxiety," he writes, but beyond basic needs like food, shelter, and a few material possessions, it fails to deliver the joy marketers want us to believe.

Stoll goes on to say that our current rate of economic growth is unsustainable and that, by 2050, we'll need two planets to provide the natural resources to furnish everything we're producing. The solution? To stop growing, and devout our productivity to, say, more leisure or better efficiency.

Says Stoll:
The end of growth will not mean the end of progress, to the extent that we can redefine progress as consisting of something other than accumulation.
Imagine that - working hard for something other than buying more stuff.

That's inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, that I'm devoting the month of March to reducing my strain on the nature of things. A Washington Post article I read called it the "Enoughasaurus."

It's a mighty Buddhist philosophy: the impermanence of things offers nothing but desire (for more) and suffering (at lack), and so provide no value. Jesus, too, said that the quickest way to heaven was to give up all possessions and go do good for our fellow humans.

That doesn't mean I'm going to give up everything I own. I'll admit, I do love my Macs and my music. But it does mean I can give up a lot of my stuff without any adverse affects on my spirit.

To whit: I've saved countless magazines from the subscriptions I've had over the years. How often to I go back and read them?

And books? I do plan on having a library for myself and my kids, but there's a lot of books that I'll never want to read again, or have no intention of reading. Someone else may find a better use for them.

Even my comics. Good lord, I went through a spell in college where I would gather comics to read and store away, and retain only for their "value." Now I'm old enough to recognize the lessons of the early 1990s, when the comics market (as it is) bottomed out. I remember my dad collecting Batman comics when I was a teenager just because he thought they would be worth something "someday." Now they sit in a box in his basement, and they aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

Selling off some of my stuff, as I did in a big eBay spree a year ago, can help me fund the things I do enjoy. I want to get back to running come spring, and I have a big trip planned. And a few little projects I want to undertake - it all takes capital, and I can acquire the needed funds through reducing my dependency on "stuff." I don't need stuff. What I do need are the things I really enjoy, which are experiences I'll never forget. That's how life is lived.

Some of this will be hard. People develop an emotional attachment to their stuff, and I'm no different. I'm mighty proud of the Apple collection I've acquired, but I sure as heck don't need any more. I like doing stuff on Macs. A few dusty computers just sitting there bring me no true happiness. I'm scared I'll end up like my grandma, who is so swimming in material possessions that she's miserable and looking for a way out.

I'd rather be able to see New England, go visit friends, help out the organizations I belong to, and do a bit of writing and designing when I can.

We could call it a "no growth life." But that's misleading. I'll be growing, just not in possessions.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Sunday Project: setting up AirPort on an iBook G3

The subject.

I love my G3 iBook. I bought it right before my Route 66 trip because (a) I was nervous about taking my then-new G4 and (b) the thing is built for road-warriors and students. It's the toughest laptop I've ever seen, and I knew if I took it all the way across the country, it would survive in a pinch.

And it did, both on the Route trip and the Seattle trip. But one drawback was its lack of wireless connectivity. I underestimated the number of hotels - even run-down ones - that have wireless internet these days. One night, in Needles, California, I drove to three different hotels looking for an ethernet connection, never finding one (which is one reason why the Route updates didn't come as often as I wanted).

Now that's all over with. I grabbed an AirPort card off eBay for a reasonable price, and took today to actually install the thing.

Thetools were simple: a flathead and Phillips screwdriver head, the smaller the better. Also, I grabbed instructions of the support site.

The first step was to remove the battery. No sense in getting shocked. On modern Apple laptops, the battery is super easy to remove. Turn the thing over...

The two giant silver screws take one-half twist to remove. Take the cover off, and grab the plastic handle attached to the battery:

The battery slides right out. Mine looks like it was a replacement model from 2004, but already it looses charge faster than it should. Looks like I'll have to shop for a new one.

Now that the risk of electric shock is gone, time to get some real work done.

Toget to the iBook's guts, you have to take the keyboard off. Simple enough: slide the latches toward you, and the keyboard slides right out:

It'sa good thing I only want to install the AirPort card, because replacing anything else (like the hard drive, for instance) would be a nightmare. There are screws everywhere. Luckily, the AirPort holster was held in place by only one screw, which means someone had already installed one and taken it out (the previous owner, probably). Anyway, unscrew however many screws there are:

And slide the holster right out:

The wireless antenna was easy to find - it was the only cord not attached to something. It plugs right into the top of the AirPort card:

Getting the card into the holster was tricky, because it doesn't really hold the AirPort card in place. Instead, the card slides into the top of the palm rest, right above the trackpad:

Then the antenna requires that you loop it around the top of the card, so everything lays flat:

Booya - an installed wireless card. One screw to lock the holster in place, put the keyboard back on, lock the keyboard latches, and turn the puppy on.

Apple makes it super easy to set up the software side of things. Under "System Preferences" and "Network," OS X automatically detects the new card. Just tell it what your wireless station is called (mine is called, simple, "AirPort" because I have an Extreme Base Station).

Recognizing my base station was no problem, but when I put in the password, it wouldn't connect. After doing some research, I found I had to scale back the security because this AirPort was an older version - 802.11b.

After that, bam - everything ran smoothly. The AirPort card recognized my wireless station (as well as all my neighbors) and connected at full power.

And look at that. No wires. Full-speed internet. It zipped right along, and the only thing holding back loading time was the speed of the computer (it's 300 Mhz - pretty slow by today's standards).

But it works, and it took me about 15 minutes to set up. Now when I take my road-worthy iBook to New England, I can connect any way I want.

Now if I was only brave enough to update the RAM in this screw-heavy beast...