Apr 27, 2010

Owning a Home - The First Year

Well, it's been a year since we bought our first home. Sure doesn't seem like that long ago. With the market being as it is, our home value has increased only slightly over the past year. But I am thankful that the value did not plummet as others have done. We planned on adding a 2nd bathroom by now, but the funds to do so have just not materialized. So we continue to live with a single bathroom. Kind of annoying, but we get by.

Still am getting used to having so much room. Our home isn't exactly huge for four people (1400 SF), but having spent my entire adult life in small apartments, it's practically a mansion to me. I also am still coming to terms with the fact than we are entirely responsible for everything here. No calling the landlord if there is a leak or an electrical problem. We have had a leak, and a few electrical problems in the past year (it is almost a 40 year-old house after all). Fortunately, I had friends that were able to help us fix these problems with minimal expense.

Since we really extended ourselves financially to buy this place, I sometimes start getting anxious about money. When we were renters, we usually had several hundred "extra"dollars every month. But not now. Our PITI is about $400 more than we were paying for rent. But we get by with, again, help from family and friends. My Mom throws us some money once in a while. And a good friend helped us a lot when we had our kitchen fire a few months ago.

Here are a few of the lessons we have learned over the past year:
  • Buying a house really helped to reduce our tax burden (i.e tax returns more than doubled)
  • Sometimes neighbors can be real jerks
  • Pride in ownership brought about odd territorial instincts in me (i.e. "You kids get off my lawn!!")
  • I suddenly cared about anything that might raise property taxes
  • Taking care of the yard is both satisfying and a real hassle. Kind of like having kids.
I am hoping that our property value starts to climb faster as the economy improves.  I would love to get a HELOC and pay off all my unsecured debt. We will see what the future brings. For now, I still a have to pinch myself once in a while. Having a place that's mine is really nice.

Apr 26, 2010

Engineering Discovery Days - 2010

The University of Washington holds an event [almost] every year called "Engineering Discovery Days". It consists of dozens of student-conducted demonstrations throughout the UW engineering buildings> Well, this year I finally went and took my son along. There was lots and lots....and lots to see. So much so that we (that is I; Finn could have gone all day) decided to leave early.

There was a bit of a hassle parking. I arrived with a debit card, only to find out from the kid running the gate that it was a 'cash only' operation. So we left to find an ATM and came back with $20...only to be told then that exact change was required! So I fudged the rules and parked anyway. They didn't seem to mind. So then off we went across the ginormous parking lot. We were met with a huge stair climb (I estimated over 100 steps). The climb almost killed me and, two days later, my calves are still sore. Hence I had to 'recover' for about 5 minutes at the top whilst Finn anxiously urged me to get going.

Once we got the right area (we did a little aimless wandering first), we headed to the Mechanical Engineering building. There we saw a cool robotic lathe cutting an aluminum wheel for a race car out of a solid chunk of metal. We also saw a little robotic arm using temperature sensitive wires (you could blow on them and make the arm move). And we stopped by a 'memory metal' demo and watched a student twist a formed metal spring into all sorts of crazy shapes; only to have to snap back to its original form when dunked in hot water (they let Finn dunk it). Then we watched some chemical engineering students demonstrate the basics of combustibility using propane valves and pipes (that the kids could control). Finn really liked that and asked a lot of questions. The students seemed surprised that he was asking things why the flame was blue and why it didn't melt the pipes.

Only 2.4 Million pounds? Pffft, I could lift that...

We stopped by a traffic engineering room in the More building. They demo'ed how those vehicle detectors work (the ones that make the light change at intersections). And Finn got to play a game they were calling Traffic Hero! Needless to say he really liked that exhibit. They used Guitar Hero controllers to simulate counting cars in a recording loop of traffic coming across the 520 floating bridge.

Remember kids: that's a 'TOILET'.

Then we stood in line for 30 minutes to do something called 'Ride the Earthquake'. It was a mechanical platform they had rigged with safety rails and seating for 14. It shook for about a minute. It was no Space Mountain, but Finn liked it. There was also this gigantic crane (or some such). It's pictured above. So then it was back home. We both had a good time, but next time we go I will look for parking that is not a gazillion stairs away from the actual exhibits. We spent almost three hours there. Not bad since was free to get in ;0)

Waiting to 'Ride the Earthquake'

Apr 16, 2010

iPad. a completely uninformed review.

Today my boss got his new, work-issued, iPad. We often get to tinker with emerging technology so as to vet it for other departments. He let me play with it for about 3 minutes. So here is my 3 minutes review.

First thing I noticed was it was heavier than I thought it would be. When typing on the virtual keyboard (which I hate doing in general), I had to hold the iPad with one hand. After only about 30 seconds I had to switch hands because it was hurting my wrist.

My boss loaded the Citrix client and we able to connect with no problems. The touch screen allows very fluid navigation, even when using a UI not designed for touch screen input (i.e. small scroll bars, tiny text). But we were met head-on but the iPads inability to multitask. Before we could try any other features, we had to log off the Citrix session and close the client. I really and put off by that seeming limitation in the iSomething line of toys serious products.

Another issue I had was the ultra high glass screen. It looks great in dim lighting, but makes the screen unreadable in bright light. We were working next to window and the incoming sunlight prevented me from seeing the screen at even a moderate angle. Not to mention the glossiness become a total fingerprint magnet. After a few minutes the screen was covered.

Using Google Maps and other visual-heavy apps was pretty neat. Zoom! Woosh! Loved it. So that's all. Battery life? Don't know. Internal memory? No idea. You'll have to look elsewhere for that information :)

Apr 12, 2010

Starbucks: Friend or Faux?

I have been noticing a certain pattern developing in the Starbucks Drive-Thru's in my area. I don't know if it's a global phenomenon, but it just might be. I really don't have a name for what's happening, so I will just describe it.

Lately, when I go through the drive-thru at a Starbucks, especially if I do so during a non-peak time, there is this lag between when I give them my money and when I get my coffee. That in itself is not unusual. But more and more the person at the window insists on making uncomfortable conversation while I wait. Now, we're not talking about the basic 'How's it goin'?' here. In the past few months I've been asked (and this is not a joke) the following questions:
  • "What are up to today?"
  • "Where are you going?"
  • "I see you're dressed-up. What are you doing?"
  • "How are you today?" 
    • That one was fine, until they followed it up with "Okay? Just okay? What's wrong man?"
  • "What do you do for work?....I bet you make good money, huh?"
Since this has happened at several different Starbucks in a couple of different cities, I can only assume this is a training issue. I have noticed that the worst offenders are young kids (i.e. 16-18). They are probably not comfortable talking to strangers and whatnot, so they are most likely over-compensating with too much talking.

I think Starbucks needs to stop pretending to be 'your local hometown coffee shop' and just come to terms with what they are: a multibillion-dollar mega corporation. I don't want to 'be friends' with the person at the window. I just want my coffee. I save my friendly chit-chat for places that actually know my name (and not from reading it off my debit card).