Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Writing Checks: 2013 Year in Review

Last January, I wondered how many checks I write in a typical year. So, I started counting.

One year later, the answer: In 2013, I wrote 38 checks. (Note: this only counts my checks, not Amber's checks.)

Those 38 checks can be categorized thusly:

- 20 checks were church donations. At the start of the year, I would give a check every time we went, typically every other week. Then a few months ago, I decided it would be more efficient to give a check every other time we went for twice the amount. So, the number of church donation checks will go down in 2014, although the actual amount of money given will not. I think there might be a way to have our church deduct from our checking account automatically, but...nah. Physically putting something in the collection dish makes me feel good.

- 7 checks were day care "tuition" payments. Amber and I alternate these, usually. Now because we pay a few bucks extra for a sort-of toddler gymnastics program, we actually have to write two checks to day care per month. There is currently not a way to pay either of these electronically.

Note that before we had Marla, we only went to church on Christmas and Easter, and we obviously didn't have any day care payments. So, most of the checks we're writing now, we wouldn't have written prior to having Marla.

The remaining checks:

- 6 checks were for curling or kickball registrations. Our curling club offers an electronic payment option, but it costs a little bit extra (and also costs the club a little bit extra on top of that), more so than the cost of a stamp. Knightdale kickball most certainly does not have an electronic payment option.

- 2 checks were medical bill payments. You know, when the insurance doesn't cover everything, and you get a bill in the mail several weeks later. That sort of thing.

- The remaining 3 checks: one for our homeowner association (HOA) dues, one for a school fundraiser for our niece, and one to the company that inspects our home heating and cooling systems.

And, that's what a year in checks looks like! All the other payments we make, we do electronically, with credit/debit, or with cash.

Monday, December 30, 2013

South Florida Trip

Other than to see my family in Jacksonville, Florida has never really been a vacation destination for Amber and me. Amber generally prefers vacation destinations that are colder, more mountainous, and more Canadian. I generally do also, and that's all well and good, but...maybe just this once, we can go do some sightseeing in Florida?

With Christmas falling on Wednesday this year, and our day care being closed all last week, I thought it made sense to take the entire week off and do a little extra road tripping on top of the usual Jacksonville family visit. And given that we would already be in Jacksonville, I thought we'd go down to Miami and spend a day in Everglades National Park.

"So...why not Disney World, given that you have a 2-year-old daughter and all?" Marla doesn't really know what "Disney World" is yet. Best to save our visit for when it will be more meaningful to her, in my opinion. And I'm assuming that Christmas week isn't really the best time to go to Disney anyway, if you don't like crowds.

So, no Disney World yet. Instead, lots of swamps and birds and stuff.

Those pictures are actually NOT from the Everglades; these were from Lettuce Lake Park in Tampa, at which we stopped on our way down to Miami. Mostly we were just looking for a playground close to I-75, but it turns out they had a nice little boardwalk, too. (By the way, "birding" is a big thing in Florida, which I had never really realized before. "Birding" is the main attraction at a lot of Florida parks.)

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"So...why did you drive to Miami by way of Tampa? And what's with that 'Point C'?" That was all for statistical reasons, of course. Southwest Florida is far away and hard to get to, and there isn't a whole lot there other than beach resorts and retirement communities, really. So even though I grew up in Florida, there were still two counties in Southwest Florida I had never been to. Now was as good a time as any to take care of those, along with the only stretch of interstate I hadn't driven in Florida yet (I-75 between Tampa and Miami, including Alligator Alley).

Really, it didn't take that long to get to Miami via the statistically-inclined route. We were there by 4 pm, at which point, we...didn't do much else the rest of the day, because we were tired, and Miami is a real pain in the butt to get around. It's really no different than any other big city in that regard, though, except that the weather is almost always warmer in Miami.

One thing that's kind of neat about South Miami is just how much different it is from the rest of the country - culturally, ecologically, climatologically. That was kind of the allure, for me. Drive for a few hours south, and you're suddenly somewhere else completely. Want to visit the tropics, but don't feel like going to another country? Go to Miami! (Or Hawaii. Or technically Puerto Rico, but there's a language barrier there; lots of people speak Spanish in Miami, sure, but it's not like you can't get by in Miami with English only.) The tropics (or subtropics, really) have never been a prime destination for us, but it was a nice change of pace, I thought. Next trip, we can go back up north somewhere. But Amber still hasn't been to the Florida Keys (too long of a drive to check out on this little trip) or Hawaii (can't drive there at all, obviously), so there will still be room for the occasional warm weather vacation destination in the future.

The next day, we went to Everglades National Park, and then the day after that we went to a tropical botanical garden in the morning and started driving home in the afternoon. I'll post pictures from those places in a few days. (Amber takes better "scenery" pictures than I do. My specialty is pictures of quirky things like four-digit state highways.)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Debt Collection Scam

I don't have any experience with debt collectors, because we always make our payments on time, etc. So...I was a little surprised when a debt collection agency called "Dynamic Recovery Solutions" (more on them later) called me several months ago, claiming I owed $157.97 to "Columbia House" for some DVD rentals or something from 2007. Umm...no?

"But...are you sure? That was a long time ago. Maybe you just forgot?" Umm...no? I've never done business with this "Columbia House", and I don't rent DVDs at all, really. Then, a couple of days after the phone call, they sent me a "bill" in the mail, and mailed another one (the same one) again a week later.

I did a little research before taking my next action. Turns out, there might be a couple of levels to this.

Now...I understand that debt collection agencies aren't the most popular companies out there. Generally, if you research a debt collection agency on the internet - even a legitimate one - most of the stuff you come across will be negative: "these guys are TERRIBLE", "do NOT do business with them", and so on and so forth. I don't hold it against debt collectors in general; getting people who are late on payments to pay up can't be easy, and sometimes the most effective way to get results is to be, well, persistent. I get that. So, just because the internet has a strongly negative view of this "Dynamic Recovery Solutions" doesn't mean they're not a legitimate and law-abiding debt collector.

Besides, maybe this apparent scam is more about Columbia House than the debt collection agency itself. A little more Google research reveals that Columbia House has been involved in some high-profile scams of their own, such as sending you unsolicited CDs or DVDs in the mail, and then billing you for them later. Except that I've never even received any such thing from Columbia House. Maybe the people who lived in our house before us did? Who knows. Either way, no.

Well, my final conclusion was that this is just a scam, initiated by the debt collection agency. It's certainly possible that "Dynamic Recovery Solutions" does, in fact, partake in legitimate debt collection. In fact, I bet they do, if nothing else to help keep law enforcement off their back regarding their bogus debt collection efforts. Naming a company with a particularly shady track record like Columbia House as the creditor? That makes it at least sound credible. That amount of $157.97? That might be "the largest amount that some people are willing to pay without asking too many questions". Any more, and the alleged debtors will put up more of a fight. Any less, and DRS doesn't make as much money off the scam, of course. And of course, a bill of $157.97 sounds more legit than a nice and round $150.00 would.

And here's another fun thing: when Dynamic Recovery Solutions calls you, they fake their caller ID so that it looks like the call is coming from a local number. That way, you're more likely to answer. Because if you get a phone call from an area code you don't recognize, or an "unknown" number, you don't answer, right? (I don't.) And it's a different fake phone number every time, so you can't just block their fake number. (It wouldn't surprise me if all debt collection agencies do this, actually.)

I'm not the only person who has been accused by these guys of a Columbia House debt that didn't actually exist. And I bet some people actually paid up, too, just to get DRS "off their back". But not me.

So, what to do in a situation like this? I sent Dynamic Recovery Solutions something called a Debt Validation letter, or DV. You can find various DV templates online, but the gist of the letter is this: "Provide written proof that I owe this money, or else you are not allowed to contact me again under federal law." After I sent that in the mail, wouldn't you know it, I never heard from Dynamic Recovery Solutions ever again. And that's smart from their perspective: by not chasing after people who are more willing to fight back, they run less risk of someone taking them to court and potentially bringing the entire scam down.

So, be on the lookout for these Dynamic Recovery Solutions guys. If they contact you claiming some BS debt from several years ago, don't pay it. (Unless you actually do owe the money, in which case, maybe you should try to pay it.)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bicycling Johnston County

Lately, I've been doing one "long" bike ride per month. Usually, these rides involve 45+ miles of bicycling, plus a drive of 30-60 minutes each way to the starting/ending point in order to take me to more new and exciting places. (I started getting bored riding the same old roads within a 10-mile radius of my house a while ago.) All that bicycling and driving means that these end up being 6 or 7 hour round trips, so once a month is plenty.

Last month, I did a 55-mile ride northwest of the Triangle, starting in Yanceyville and going through Danville, VA, among other places. That's hillier terrain than we have in Durham - the idea was to challenge myself, after all - and so the ride was very difficult. I was more exhausted at the end of that ride than I can remember ever being after a bike ride. Maybe I should have kept my "hilliest ride ever" on the shorter side, instead of going for both length and difficult terrain simultaneously?

Well, after that experience, I didn't feel like challenging myself with hills this month. So I went in the opposite direction: Johnston County. 50 (actually 49.5) relatively easy miles, starting and ending in Smithfield.

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In comparison to Caswell County, this ride was easy. Maybe even too easy. The hills actually do help keep things more interesting, it turns out. (Note - what classifies as "flat" in North Carolina is still hillier than what you'd find in most of Florida, excluding the panhandle.) So while I didn't feel particularly "challenged" out here on the Coastal Plain, if I do ever decide to try a 100-mile bike ride, I think I'll be doing it east of I-95 first.

So, Johnston County cycling is relatively easy, compared to more northerly or westerly locales. But is it as popular here as it is closer to Raleigh? Whenever I ride my bike close to home - pretty much anywhere in the Triangle - I'll always see other bicyclists out and about, no matter how cold or warm it is. (Although Il see more fellow cyclists when it's warmer.) But the farther away from the Triangle you get - in any direction - the fewer and fewer cyclists you see. On my Johnston County ride, I saw exactly ZERO other cyclists, total, all day. I guess cycling is more of a city thing. Normally I'm concerned that drivers away from the city don't respect cyclists on the road as well, since they're not as commonplace, but I didn't have any issues with that on Sunday. (Only real "issue" I had was with unsecured dogs running after me, which is also more of a thing the farther away from the city you get.)

By the way, I've done at least some cycling in 13 out North Carolina's 100 counties. I'm not saying I'm planning on bicycling in all 100 some day, but...

As of today, I'm now only 138 miles away from having to decide whether to call it "Myanmar" or "Burma" in my fictionalBicycling Trip in Asia. (Leaning "Myanmar".)

Monday, December 16, 2013

New Hope Valley Railway

In an effort to do something fun and exciting Saturday morning, we bought some tickets for a Christmas-themed train ride on the New Hope Valley Railway. The train ride has been on our "local things that would be fun to do" list for a while, so why not do it during Christmas season? Especially now that Marla knows what "choo choo trains" are.

So, the New Hope Valley Railway: you buy tickets (we bought ours in advance), and then you go on a one-hour train ride up and back through the woods. The train station is located about 30 minutes south of our house, and the train tracks are actually a southern continuation of the rail line that, farther north, has been converted into the American Tobacco Trail.

To be honest, it's not a particularly scenic route, especially for someone like me who bicycles in this area frequently. As we were boarding the train, I joked, "Which side of the train gives us the best mountain views?" (I don't think they were amused.) But you don't do this for the scenery, you do it because it's a nice, relaxing train ride. I also appreciated how "old school" it was. For example, our train featured a classic steam engine. (They also have a diesel engine.)

What makes the train ride "Christmas-themed"? Mostly, it's just decorations and background music, but Amber said that it was "just right" - not over the top, but just enough to get her in the Christmas spirit. (That's how we like it!) The subtle Christmas decorations along the route were a nice touch, I thought.

And, to top it off, Santa Claus himself rode with us! He gave Marla candy, and Amber got a lump of coal, because I guess she's been naughty. Like the candy, Marla also tried to eat the coal. (But, was it clean coal?)

We're not really the "let's go to the mall and stand in line so that Marla can sit in Santa's lap" type. This is much more our style. Marla doesn't really fully understand who Santa is anyway.

On site, there's also a railroad museum, but Marla was much more intrigued by the model train set next to the parking lot.

Seriously, we had a hard time tearing her away from the toy trains. Maybe we know what to get her for Christmas now?

(Side comment: a couple of the toy trains were Thomas-themed. We actually try to avoid the "Thomas & Friends" show, though. Amber and I pejoratively refer to the show as "trains making bad decisions", because that's basically what it is. I guess the idea is to teach kids lessons on what not to do, because Thomas's friends are really pretty irresponsible. That'd be fine, except that somehow these irresponsible trains have been given really big responsibilities! I feel bad for the people of Sodor.)

So, anyway, it was fun, and I recommend it, mountain views or not.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Nexus 5

To make a long story short, I have a new phone that I bought a few weeks ago: a Nexus 5 from Google. I bought it as it was released - actually ordered it before it was released - which is pretty unusual for me.

A lot of people are all about Apple: they always keep up with the latest iPhones, iPads, laptops, whatever, get all excited when Apple announces their next thing, and have stayed loyal to Apple products for years. That's fine, but me? I've never owned an Apple product of any kind - not a Mac, an iPod, anything. Instead, I'm all about Google. Gmail is my primary email, Google Calendar is my primary calendar/to-do list, Google Drive is the place where I keep all my notes and statistics and curling league standings and stuff, and Android is my smartphone operating system of choice. (And, of course, I use Google for web searches and Google Maps for anything map related, but even Apple users do that, right? If you don't, then you really are all about Apple, I guess.) So, a phone you can buy directly from Google, with all kinds of Google gizmos on it? Sign me up!

So, recall that T-Mobile does wireless plans a little differently now. Instead of giving you discounted rates on phones plus a two-year contract, T-Mobile charges full price for their phones (which you can pay over a 2-year period), but also has no contracts, and offers lower monthly fees, which makes T-Mobile cheaper in the long run even factoring in the higher cost of their phones. The idea behind this is is that you can upgrade phones more frequently than two years if you want to. Generally, I think this move has worked out well for T-Mobile.

But...it means that there's really no benefit to buying a phone directly from T-Mobile anymore, versus a third party, provided the phone is "unlocked". T-Mobile marks up the prices of the phones they sell directly, sometimes by a lot; last I checked, T-Mobile still charges more for the Nexus 4 than I paid Google for the brand new Nexus 5. So, buying an unlocked phone from a third party seems like the way to go. The Nexus 5 isn't the best phone out there, but it's a heck of a lot cheaper than the latest Samsung Galaxy or HTC whatever. It's also nice to not have all of the extra crap that T-Mobile puts on all of the phones they sell.

The best thing about the phone is just that it's a LOT faster than the phone I had been using. Smartphone processors are getting faster and faster very quickly, kind of like PCs were doing 15 years ago. This means that if you have a 2-year-old smartphone, the latest versions of most apps will run very slowly on it, because they're all built for faster smartphones. If you're a heavy smartphone user, upgrading every 2 years is almost a must. (That's one reason why I went "cutting edge" this time, instead of buying a phone that was already 6-12 months old.) The Nexus 5 also supports LTE, which my previous phone did not. LTE is really fast compared to what I'm used to; it's even faster than my home wifi, or at least it seems like it. (But I still use wifi at home, for reasons I'll get to.)

So, let's talk features. Google's answer to Apple's Siri - ask a question out loud, get an answer - is...well, I don't know if this thing has a name. But you can say "Okay Google, [question/command]", without pressing any buttons, and it'll do what you say. Sweet! I turned off the "Okay Google" voice recognition part of this, though, because I read that it's not kind to battery life. I can still give voice commands, I just have to press a button first. I'll trade that for some extra battery life.

Google also has this thing called "Google Now", which supposedly tracks your Google searches (through anywhere you have Google Chrome installed, including your PC and phone), movements via GPS, that sort of thing, to try and give you useful information - i.e. tell you there's a traffic delay on your work commute, before you even leave home - without you asking for it. I decided I'd give it a try, although to be honest, I haven't really gotten much of a benefit from Google Now yet. I turned off all sports-related updates, since I watch the majority of my sports via DVR (since we basically live on Marla's schedule), and so I don't want to know what the score of the Carolina Hurricanes game is right now. I'm still 30 minutes behind! The work commute information isn't all that useful for me, personally, since I have a pretty short commute that pretty much never has delays. And the other stuff - Google Calendar reminders (stuff I already check), "hey since you're away from home here's a nearby restaurant with good reviews"...nothing groundbreaking, really. I won't turn Google Now off, but I haven't gotten a whole lot out of it, yet.

Here's one thing that the Nexus 5 does which I really like. Through Google+ (which I don't use all that much - pretty much the only Google thing I haven't latched on to, really), it automatically uploads all of the pictures you take with the camera to an online "backup" server when you're connected via wifi. So should something happen to your phone, all your pictures are preserved, even if you hadn't transferred them over to your PC yet. Also, let's say I want to post a picture from my phone on my blog. I don't have to manually transfer it from my phone to my computer first. Instead, I can just upload "from my phone" on Blogger, and there it is, instantly.


(That's from a random rest area in Ohio. I don't know why I took that picture, but hey, at least I can post it to my blog instantly!)

Speaking of wifi, now that most (all?) wireless providers cap the amount of data you can use in a month, wifi is pretty much a necessity if you want to stay under your cap, especially if you're going to take advantage of things like automatically-updating apps and photo backups. In hindsight, it's hard to believe I went so long - April 2010 - before hooking up my house with wireless internet. On the other hand, it also took me quite a while to even get my first smartphone, compared to most people...but regardless, if you have a smartphone, you should really have wireless internet, too.

So, after all that, I'm sure I've barely scratched the surface of what this phone can do. Hopefully it won't become obsolete too quickly.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Peppa Pig

Let's be honest: if you're a parent, most children's programming is pretty annoying. At least, I think it is.

But, we've found some exceptions. In fact, Marla's favorite cartoon - pretty much the only one she asks for by name anymore - is something that Mommy and Daddy like watching too! (In moderation.) It's a British cartoon called "Peppa Pig". It airs every weekday on Nick Jr. at 5:00 PM and 5:30 PM, and at other times on weekends. Here's a sample episode:

The episodes are only five minutes long, which is a nice length, especially for a two-year old. (As if my attention span is really that much longer.)

In general, I think there's a lot to like about Peppa Pig:
- It's crudely drawn, but in a cute, clean way. (Much preferable to 3-D computer animation if you ask me!)
- The children act like children. Sometimes, they're a bit of a handful. Parents can appreciate that.
- It's not "zany" or "loud". It's pretty low key, and most of the episodes involve the characters doing normal everyday things.
- Not too much singing! Thank goodness.
- Being British, there's a good bit of dry humor that we parents can appreciate as well.

This doesn't come across so much in the above episode - after all, "Daddy Pig's job sounds very important" - but like many successful cartoons (and sitcoms), the patriarch of the family - "Daddy Pig" - is lazy, a self-proclaimed expert at everything (even though he's not, especially at reading maps) and as the Wikipedia article puts it, "round in the tummy". (Although to be fair, every adult male on the show is pretty "round".) Most episodes focus on the Pig family, but there are many support characters, most of whom have personality quirks of their own. My favorites are Pedro Pony (always late), and Miss Rabbit (who works seemingly dozens of jobs simultaneously, which is ridiculous, but it works because the writers are in on the joke).

Why does Marla like Peppa Pig? Hard to say. Maybe because she can relate to the "family unit" (except that she doesn't have a sibling)? Maybe because the animals are cute? Maybe because it's not too "zany" or "loud"? Does she just like the British accents? I don't know what it is. Seriously, Peppa Pig is the ONLY show on television that she'll sit down and watch for more than, say, 10 consecutive minutes. Any other show - even Elmo - and off she goes. Either way, she's made a fine choice, because Peppa Pig is the most entertaining children's show we've seen.

So, yeah, we don't watch it every day, but we do watch it a lot. In fact, I've been keeping track of all of the episodes that I've seen. Not counting the Christmas special, there have been four 52-episode seasons to date. (Each episode being five minutes long.) Of those 204 episodes, I've seen 163...so far. It's my goal to see every single one. That's pretty much only possible via YouTube, though, because I've noticed that Nick Jr. never airs most of the "Season 4" episodes. (There have been four 52-episode seasons to date.) But, most of them - if not all of them - are on YouTube. Even in other languages!

I guess you could say that Peppa Pig is kind of a big deal, actually. But she isn't marketed in the USA anywhere near as much as other children's programs, like Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer. Really, I think we stumbled on it by accident, only because Nick Jr. happens to air it at a convenient time. (Although it doesn't really matter when it airs anymore, because we have our DVR record every episode for us.) I wouldn't even know it existed if we didn't have a kid.

Are there other shows on Nick Jr. that I've never heard of, but that we may enjoy as much as Peppa Pig? Perhaps we'll find out some day, if Marla lets us. Until then, let's go jump up and down in muddy puddles! (Muddy puddles are a recurring theme throughout the show, first introduced in the very first episode...)

Sunday, December 01, 2013

No Shave November: Results

Here's what happens when I don't shave for 30 days:

Did I make an animated GIF of my beard growing for 30 days? Yes. Yes I did.

So, the beard looks a lot better than the mustache. I got much more positive feedback this time around, even though there are a few gray hairs mixed in there.

Perhaps you noticed in the GIF that there's a mustache-only frame mixed in there? That's because this morning, when I shaved for the first time in a month, I decided to leave the mustache at first just to see what a full one-month mustache would look like, since last year I gave up on the mustache after 14 days. And...yeah. Never again.

While the beard looked fine, it wasn't the most comfortable. Some days, it was itchy; some days it wasn't. This was the case from about one week in, all the way until the end of the month.

All told, I think the two-to-three week beard is probably the "sweet spot", in terms of comfort and looks. I might even grow it again, perhaps even in a month other than November.