Monday, May 26, 2014

2 Bikes and a Bike Trailer in a Honda Fit

My wife has been the proud owner of a 2007 Honda Fit for the past 7+ years.  We have taken it from San Antonio (where it was originally purchased), up to DC, all the way up to Maine, and lots of places in between.

It's truly an amazing car.  Honda really did something right when they set out to design a small hatchback with a premium on cargo space.  For example, they moved the gas tank under the driver's seat (similar to the Jeeps of the 1940's) -- giving you as much room as possible in the back.

This Memorial Day Weekend, we did a family trip to a nearby park for a bike ride: me, my wife, and our daughter Beth.  This included my road bike (a 58 cm Motobecane Vent Noir), Bonnie's road bike (a 53? cm Specialized Ruby women's road bike), and Beth's bike trailer (a Nashbar bike trailer).  Oh, and of course, Beth's child seat, and all associated wheels, helmets, gloves, and backpacks for a picnic lunch.

Here's everything OUTSIDE of the car, ready to go on our picnic bike trip.

... and here's everything IN the car, as we were leaving for the morning trip:

Not to worry, Beth had plenty of room for herself:

Loading takes a little bit of care: Bonnie's bike goes in first as it's the shortest.  Then my bike goes in, and its handlebars fit neatly between the driver's and passenger's seat, as you can see in the above photo.  I also place a towel over the greasy chain to avoid greasing everything up.  And then the Kid Karriage II fits nicely in next to that.  Strap everything to the handy fittings on the driver's side of the car, and voila!  You're all set for a picnic.  Total load time takes a little over 5 minutes.


On a bittersweet note, we will be selling her trusty orange Fit soon.  Daughter #2 is due in July, and we need to move to a bigger car that can safely carry all kids, associated Stuff, and we'd like to have room in the car for a Friend if we ever have to carpool.  Although fitting 3 kids across can be done in a Fit, we are blessed that we have the financial ability to purchase a larger car.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

How Much Does the World Value You?

Doing things on your own can be a difficult and humbling process.  Such is the case for me and my first self-published book.  Below is a screenshot of book sales over the past 90 days:



Sorry if that's tough to read.  The x-axis goes from February 2 to May 3, 2014.  The y-axis has a maximum of 5.   All told, I think I have sold about 60 copies of my $0.99 book since I first published it in mid-December 2013.  At $0.35 cents profit per book, that's a little over $20 profit for my efforts. That doesn't quite cover the cost of beer while I was writing it.

Now, please don't misunderstand me, I had no illusions of grandeur here.  (Ridiculously distant daydreams, maybe, but illusions, no.)  I published it myself.  My attempts at marketing have been a few posts to LinkedIn, emails to friends and co-workers, and the occasional line-dropping in conversations at the office and elsewhere ("Hey, have you heard I published a book?").  In the grand scheme of things, my marketing efforts have been pathetic.  I'm an engineer, not a advertising specialist, and these kinds of things really don't come naturally to me.

But it's kind of humbling: if you told all your friends and all your contacts and all your acquaintances to buy / support / spend money on you, could you still put food on the table?  In my case, the effort required of friends was: 1. Have an e-reader of some type and be willing to by an e-book, and 2. Spend $0.99 on me.

I was surprised at the number of people who said, "Nope, I don't have an e-reader" and/or "I don't do e-books."  Wow.  With a few notable exceptions -- like when I'm doing research and want to write notes in the margins or highlight things to come back to -- I really prefer e-books for their portability.

But to take this to a more general level, society is quick to celebrate and remember the victories and NOT the vast majority of failures.  The Kindle Direct Publishing Newsletter is just such a vehicle.  To read their monthly newsletter of people extolling the virtues of KDP and how they have been able to "sell more books than they ever thought possible..."  The sentiment and the rhetoric are as addictive as crack.  The managers of KDP know it, and man, are they good at selling it.

And of course, it's all hogwash.  There are only 14 people in the "Kindle Million Club."  Almost half of all startups fail within 3 years.  (another similar source)  The overwhelming majority of participants never win the lottery, and it's only the winners that are celebrated.  Perhaps that's why we take a perverse pleasure in reading about those who won, and then lost, everything.

The deck is stacked.  People fail every day, probably far more than we realize.  But it's a blessing that the human brain tends to hold on to those slim chances of victory and persevere, even when the odds are overwhelmingly against us.  For, if we didn't try, the world would be a much more boring place.

So treasure and value the successes that you do have ... and keep trying.  Statistically, you can't miss every time.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas! - A financial tracker for 2014

Shortcut: you can find the expenses tracker template here on Google Docs.  (The link will be updated when Google publishes the template.)

The US Navy commissioned me into service as an officer in May of 2000.  They then moved me to Washington, DC, and finances were tight. My annual salary was under $25,000 per year. (Side note: military pay raises were pretty good after September 11th.  A newly commissioned officer in the Navy today, in DC, will make about $4800 per month, or $57,600 per year, including the housing allowance.)

I was living in an apartment on Columbia Pike with 2 other Navy officers who worked with me.  This was the first time I was really out on my own, and I wanted to make sure that ends would meet.  So a drew up a spreadsheet and dutifully recorded every penny that came in and every penny that came out.  Every night I would open up the spreadsheet program and enter in what I had spent.  Once per month I would enter in the money that Uncle Sam direct deposited in my account.

When moving to a new apartment ... when buying a boat to live aboard (and negotiating interest rates and monthly payments) ... when buying Christmas gifts ... it was great, because I always knew exactly where I stood.  Sometimes I didn't like it, and in those cases, it motivated me to be patient or to change some habits to make it work.

I have been doing that faithfully for the past 13 years, and the spreadsheets (1 for each year) have evolved, to be a little simpler, a little more flexible, a little more concise.  When Google Docs came around, it became very easy to access the file from anywhere and to share with my wife.  (Second side note: she has been remarkably cooperative about also keeping track of expenses in my slightly-OCD-way.)  I decided to give a (small) Christmas gift to the internet and publish my template for 2014 as a freely available Google Docs template.  Here's the template for 2014.

The template has 12 tabs, one for each month.  Each day is a row, and the days are numbered for 2014.  The columns are various categories: Groceries, Meals, Gas, Tithe/Donations, Play, Medical, and Other.  I've found those categories to be pretty good for the things I spend money on. (Hint: I didn't get it right for the first few years.  Your mileage may vary.)

On the bottom are fixed expenses: mortgage, electricity, internet, insurance, etc.  I also left rows for various activities that have regular, monthly expenses like gym memberships or day care.  Then there's a column for "Random Income," because, well, sometimes money comes in randomly.  Then there's a column for fixed income.  Paychecks go in there.  The nice thing is that this bottom section (except for Random Income) is nearly identical from month to month; fill in those values for January, then paste into the next 11 months.

The spreadsheet adds things up in a variety of ways: by day, by category, and sums everything up in the Red "Monthly Savings" cell.  I have a target savings number for each month.

I hope this may be of use to some of you.  It certainly won't work for everyone.  In my case, the need to follow this rigor stemmed from fear: living in an expensive town on a relatively small income forced me to be diligent.  And then it became habit.  And it's stuck ever since.

And that's one thing I'm thankful for this season.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Skywriting - My first book is published!


It's been about 4 years in the making, but it is now finally done.  You can download it in Kindle format for $0.99 from Amazon.

Some thoughts:

  1. It's about 28,000 words.  Novels are traditionally considered at least 40,000 words.  I intended to make it a full length novel, but I just couldn't meaningfully stretch things out, and I didn't want to "pad" the story with extra fluff and slow it down.  So, a novella it is.
  2. It's meant to be inspirational to scientists, engineers, and other technical folks around the world, but the audience isn't limited to technical people.  In no way am I comparing myself to him, but John Grisham has written a lot of very good stories about the judicial system, and they're engaging.  Similarly, Tom Clancy was fantastic at writing about the military, but all kinds of people read his books.  Why can't a similar genre exist around good engineering?
  3. I did the publishing and cover art myself.  Adobe has a fantastic deal where you can download a free version of their software (Photoshop and Illustrator, in my case) for 30 days.
  4. Since it's my first book and it's not THAT fancy, I can only justify charging $0.99 for it.  The downside is that, at this time, I'm stuck with 35% royalties.  If you charge $2.99 or more for your book, Amazon will give you 70% royalties.  That would be great, but I'm too sheepish to try and charge that much for my story.
Happy reading this holiday season!  The best compliment you can give to an author is to promote it further in social media: Twitter, Facebook, Google+, wherever.  And, unfortunately for my semi-cloistered self, I'm not that connected in social media, so I have a hard time reaching out to 10,000+ people at once.  And, if someone could give a review of my book on Amazon, I'd really appreciate it.......



Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Permanent Fix for the Budget Crisis

Unlike most politicians, engineers are normally paid to provide solutions to problems.  After witnessing the antics of our government over the past few weeks -- and even the more concerning way in which they offhandedly dismiss the threat of a default on the US debt* -- I'm really not sure what US politicians are paid for.

I have a solution.  It's not new, it's not novel, it's not particularly ingenious.  But, based on its implementation elsewhere, it's probably effective.

If Congress can't pass a budget, the senior leadership of both the House and the Senate are removed from their positions.
And Congress can't go home until a decision is reached.
This means the Speaker of the House, the Majority and Minority Leaders of the House, and the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate.  We'll leave the President pro Tempore alone for this one, for some semblance of continuity.


The basis for this is in Australia's constitution; Section 57 to be exact.  The actual language is a bit wordy, but here's the summary: if their House passes a bill, and the Senate refuses to pass it ... and that process happens again after three months ... then the Governor-General is allowed to dissolve BOTH houses of Parliament.

Yes, dissolve.  Both. Houses.  Every bum is thrown out (except, notably, for the Governor-General and the Prime Minister.)  And it's happened six times since 1910.  Leave it to the Australians to be thorough about things.

While it would be tempting to throw out everyone in the U.S. Congress (all 535 of them) if a budget isn't passed ... I ... I ... I just can't bring myself to recommend a measure that sweeping.  (I also don't believe it would be adopted.)  Although it's tempting.  And then, we'd be like the United Kingdom, who conducts all of their campaigning for a new government in a 3-week sprint.

Warren Buffett has offered something similar in the past: he said that any sitting Congress that passes a budget that is more than 3% of the Gross Domestic Product should not be eligible for re-election.

There's another basis for this: other than public perception, there's not enough impetus to force a decision in the U.S. Congress, either for passing budgets or for raising the debt ceiling.  Congresspeople are too comfortable -- flying home to their constituents for long weekends even when weighty matters are at hand; never scheduling a single 5-day work week in 2013; still getting their paychecks even when the government is shut down -- that they're not truly motivated to make a decision.  When Congress has a job to do that's mandated by the Constitution (pretty clearly in Article I, Section 7) , their living and working conditions need to start degrading pretty rapidly, frankly, when that job isn't getting done.

Enter the Catholic Church, and the notion of Conclave.  The idea here is to make it suck so badly that the Cardinals are forced to make a decision.  The need for this was crystallized in 1268, when the Cardinals took two years and eight months to make a decision.  See, the Cardinals were enjoying their time in the lovely village of Viterbo in Central Italy.  A lot.  And the locals got upset.  So, they locked the Cardinals in the local church.  Still no decision.  The locals tried starving them out, but food was still snuck in.  The locals then tore the roof off the church, and a decision was finally reached: Gregory X would become the next pope.  In 1996, Pope John Paul II relaxed the Conclave rules a little bit, but they're still stuck in the Sistine Chapel for most of their days.

You may note that, in the solution I propose above, the President is notably absent.  This is unfortunate -- the President is supposed to be a leader, to participate in the negotiations, not an armchair quarterback -- but I can't think of an appropriate punitive action for the Executive Branch in these scenarios.

So, I think there needs to be some drastic, swift consequences when Congress doesn't perform its Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities.  The above action is probably most easily implemented as a House Rule and a Senate Rule.  It would be ideal if it were implemented as a Constitutional Amendment -- but such a movement would have to come from two-thirds of the states, and a national convention like that has never been successful.


*This kind of reckless, off-the-cuff prognosticating about: 1.) an issue that is so immensely important to the everyday lives of the working people and, 2.) something that the Congressmen clearly has no idea what he's talking about, is incredibly offensive to me.  If this were any professional society with a shred of accountability and responsibility, people who make such ridiculous claims would be disbarred, excommunicated, tarred and feathered, or worse.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Bug in the Gas Pump

I think I found a bug in the gas delivery system ... or maybe it's in their pricing scheme ... I'm not sure.

Yes, I checked, and that bug really is INSIDE the display.  I have no idea how it got in there.

(For you math nerds out there, that's $3.17 per gallon.)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Government Shutdown and ... Jon Stewart

I've been thinking a lot over the past few days about what to intelligently write about with the government shutdown, and how to succinctly express my views.

No need.  Jon Stewart has done it excellently.  Please watch the following 7 minutes:



Don't forget -- Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert led the "March to Restore Sanity"-- and thousands of people showed up on the national mall to support their middle ground approach.  Where has that ethos gone?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Yucca Mountain Spotted Fever #4

I've been writing off and on about some of the developments at Yucca Mountain over the past few years.  While the average citizen probably doesn't know much or care much about it, it is still a $15 billion+ program that gets fewer headlines in the mainstream press than it probably should.

I had a good summary of the state of things in late 2010 in my Yucca Mountain Spotted Fever #2 post.  To summarize:
  • Way back in the 1980's, Congress said, "Thou shalt bury nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain."  The US Department of Energy was tasked with making it happen, including getting approval from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • The US Department of Energy said, "Eh, this Yucca Mountain thing is too thorny; we can't continue with it."
  • The NRC said, "Uh-oh, DOE is giving up.  Hey, group of smart folks here at the NRC, what should we do?"
  • The Smart Folks said, "You have no statutory ability to give up.  Congress has directed; you must follow."
  • The NRC said, "Ummmm ..... we'll get back to you."

And that's about where it has stayed for the past two years.  Then-Chairman of the NRC, Gregory Jaczko, was in no hurry to continue the analysis, presumably due to his ties to Senator Harry Reid, who has stated his vociferous objections to completing Yucca Mountain in his home state of Nevada.  (Quoth the Senator: "I am proud that after two decades of fighting the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, the project has finally been terminated.")

So, the "smart guys" told the NRC to GET ON WITH IT, but the NRC kept dragging its feet.  Some members of Congress wrote sharply crafted letters to goad the NRC into action.  An important point to make here, though, is that no additional funding has been provided by Congress to complete the review.  The NRC has about $11 million to finish the review, which -- while a lot of money to you and me -- is a pittance to the NRC.  Every hour of every person working at the NRC is charged out at something like $276 per hour.  Novice, experienced, subject matter expert ... they're all $276 per hour.  For the record, my charge out rate is $178 dollars per hour, and I'm paid comfortably in an organization with more overhead than I care to admit.

Well, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ruling last week: The NRC does not have the power to stop reviewing the Yucca Mountain project.  "As things stand, therefore, the Commission is simply flouting the law."  Another judge on the court noted that "former NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who has since resigned, orchestrated a systematic campaign of noncompliance."

The Wall Street Journal then added, "If Mr. Jaczko worked on Wall Street he'd be indicted."

And so the NRC must continue down its path of evaluating the DOE's application to certify Yucca Mountain as the single geologic repository for nuclear waste, although everyone knows that the remaining $11 million is not enough to complete the review and Congress has little incentive to continue to fund it.

I feel sorry for two groups of people: the electric customers in this country who have been dutifully paying the 0.1 cent per megawatt-hour fee (which Congress continues to collect) and received nothing but waste in return, and the handful of NRC engineers and reviewers who must review the application with the knowledge that it's basically dead on arrival and their work will be forever shelved.