Authors Posts by Brainy Smurf

Brainy Smurf

I'm three apples high and nearsighted. I like yellow-haired smurfs, robot invasions, sarcasm, and anything where the secret ingredient is love.

Original Roof and Siding - Summer 2006As the weather has finally begun to turn warm, it’s now time to start planning for phase 2 of our home improvement. Fun, fun…

This past December, we re-roofed the house utilizing a $12k loan (with a crappy 15.5% rate) from Bank of America. Thankfully, that should be paid off entirely later this month.

This summer, we plan to have vinyl siding put on, a few new doors, a new basement hatchway door, and some of the porches should likely be rebuilt from scratch.

Financing the work, though, has always been a problem due to an insurance issue we have.

Due to things like Hurricane Katrina, insurance companies aren’t willing to accept as much (or any) risk these days. Long before the hurricane, our carrier, the horrible Allstate, abruptly cancelled our policy because our home was over 100 years old. Nothing quite like carrying a new mortgage and having your home owners coverage lapse less than 3 months in. Thanks Allstate. Really appreciate it.

Anyway, while searching frantically for coverage, it became very apparent that it was going to be difficult to insure an older home. Amica, while they wouldn’t cover the home, was the most straight forward and for that, I’d recommend them to anyone.

They flat out said, “We won’t issue a policy for a home that old.” I asked about how they can even operate in the Northeast US since most of the homes here were built well before 1950, many before 1850. The response was that many of their customers in New England had been grandfathered in, but as homes sell, or homeowners look to change carriers, they could run into problems.

Seems, I was ‘dropped’ into this problem by Allstate.

Allstate Insurance Sucks.

Have I mentioned I’m not a fan of Allstate yet?  Long story short — I eventually ended up on a very expensive State plan. The don’t cover much of anything and they require that an inspector come through my home every few months. Each year, when it comes time to pay the premium, they get threatening — insisting that “problems” be corrected or they’ll drop coverage. It’s an empty threat though — this is the bottom of the barrel. The funniest part is that they essentially ask you to tear down your home and build a new one — oh, and keep paying their premium (400% higher than a ‘real’ insurance company) after that and things will be fine. But, you’ll still need to take a day off from work every few months to let an inspector come in and tell you that your basement takes on a little water after a big rain. Sigh…So, after having this hanging over our shoulders for a few years now, we’ve made it a goal to get the hell out of this situation. My parents say I should just sell the home and buy one of those poorly constructed contemporaries from the 1980’s. No thanks. We’re gonna make this place ‘look’ new. Updates to date:

  • We replaced an ancient oil burning furnace (seriously, it was a modified coal furnace) with a new natural gas one.
  • We updated our electrical service from 60amp (with those weird little screw in fuses) to 200amp service with a modern breaker box. We also had an outdoor meter installed so we wouldn’t need to let the electric company in anymore to check our usage.
  • We had an obsolete chimney removed. It was in poor shape and it wasn’t venting anything, so it was a problem waiting to happen.
  • We had the roof replaced. The roof actually had it’s original cedar shingles under a couple layers of the typical ones you see these days — resulting in a rather lumpy appearance. We did a complete tear off and installed plywood before having it re-shingled.

Adding siding and doors to that list will make the exterior look new. The non-cosmetic parts of the interior (furnace and wiring) will be new, and thankfully the plumbing is just fine as-is. That, in theory, should put the insurance issue, which has been a thorn in our side the last four years, to rest.

Yes, financially it cost us a fortune to make these upgrades — especially when it wasn’t really on “our” schedule… And the return (the future savings on our homeowners insurance) isn’t all that great. But now, with them soon to be out of the way (and paid for in full), we should be on a great track for the next decade or so. I can’t think of another large scale improvement left to be made. Cosmetic interior renovations will seem inexpensive after this. I hope.

So, later this month we’ll have the various contractors come in for estimates. We already have two in mind — both have recently done work on similar homes in the neighborhood and they both look great. It will be interesting to see how different their quotes are.

We’ll keep you posted.

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I think I’m going to start doing an update twice per month…

I spend so much time looking over and keeping track of my finances, it’s hard to wait an entire month for status reports — especially when I feel as though I’m “this” close to ridding myself of the debt nightmare I dug myself into.

Exciting in a nerdy sort of way.

Not a great finish for the month of April…

Negligible gains in our savings and our checking account took a monster hit — though much of that is answerable to the sizable decrease in the balance of our home improvement loan. In the end, a modest 2.36% gain.

In regards to the home improvement loan, from Bank of America, it was originally $12k at 15.5% (that was the best rate we could get on an unsecured loan — ridiculous) back in December of 2006, we’re on pace to be done with it later this month. Thank heavens.

For the next round of renovations this summer, we’re going to try the local credit union and probably charge a pretty fair chunk on plastic too if we need additional funding.

The credit card balance tipped to the wrong side for the first time in over a year during this period. I had an unexpected expense for a design project I’m working on — a project that unfortunately I’d already been paid for, so this cut heavily into the profit. Drat.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks, a few more April invoice payments will roll in allowing us to get back on a more aggressive track.

Seven more months to come up with another $33k to reach our goal for 2007.

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I was thinking that I should probably post my financial goal for 2007.  Sure, we’re well into the calendar year now, but it’s not to late to set a goal for the year.

It’s been a long journey since I decided I’d had enough of debt. Sometimes I wish I’d logged it all better so as to pick up more momentum just from looking at the results.  It’s all in there in my Microsoft Money file, and I can tell you, once you decide to change your ways, there really is a snowball effect.

To think, no long ago, I was shelling out over $400/month in finance charges to credit card companies. 

That’s over $10/day… for nothing!?  Nothing?!   Never again.

So, my goal for 2007 is to raise my net worth, not including the mortgage or house, to $100k.  It’s not a very ambitious goal, but we’ve got some expensive home improvement projects coming this summer and likely our first child on the horizon in 2008 as well.

The digits for January 2007 are on the right. As of the numbers on April 15, I’m 31% of the way there having increased the net worth $15375.

By January 2008, I hope to have the credit cards hovering around the $300 level and ‘other’ loans (currently a home improvement loan at 15.5%?!  Ouch!) at $0. I’ll keep paying the auto loans regularly as the interest rate is so low (less than I’m currently making in an ING Direct account), there really isn’t any advantage in paying them early.  If all goes as planned, the additional home improvement will be paid out of pocket for the most part and contributions to savings and the 401k should increase as the debt disappears.

Something I thought I should mention — I’m afraid some readers might look at these numbers and finance posts as “bragging”.  Far from it.  I know we’re doing alright, better than a lot of households across the fruited plain, but at the same time, I’m also aware of the fact that $1 million dollars is within grasp of nearly every resident in the country, regardless of income.  I’d bet everyone reading this has a neighbor that has over a million in the bank somewhere.  I’m not there yet, not even close, but I’ll get there, and logging it all down along the way will help keep me focused.  Then, maybe then, I’ll have a number worth bragging about.

Point being, these are not high numbers in the grand scheme of things, and I’m not looking to brag.  I’m looking to show how easy it is to accumulate wealth — if you’re willing to put in the effort.

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Headlines all over the place are touting yesterday’s surge that put the DJIA over 13,000. And then, just a few lines into the articles, every one of them taken from the AP wire, they drop the line, “But appearances can be deceiving, and there may be more reason to worry than rejoice about Wall Street’s latest accomplishment.”

I disagree. While it is odd that it’s taken less than 7 months to go from 12k to 13k (it took like 7 years to go from 11k to 12k), I don’t think it’s realistic to call this a repeat of the dot com era.

Last night, CNBC was essentially calling this bittersweet, dropping in references to the rising energy costs (I still think gas is very affordable), the slumping housing market (it’s not slumping, people are just overpricing their homes), and the sub-prime mortgage issues in the news lately. On those, hey, if you fell for a 5-1 ARM mortgage, it’s not like you didn’t see the day coming when the rate would go up. You gambled and you lost. I like to think the number of people out there with this problem are greatly exaggerated in the media.

I’m also not one to get excited because the Dow hit a nice round number. Honestly, 13k is no more exciting than 12.5k for me. I love how they drop stats like it was the “35th record close since the start of October.” Talk about meaningless filler!? Did you know I just reached a new record for breaths taken since birth? Yep, I just raised it again. One more. And again.

Don’t get me wrong, any day that has a 1% gain is huge — my net worth for next month, should the pattern hold steady, will show that. The number 13k, though, is meaningless. Love it — a meaningless headline.

My real point though is that this is *nothing* like the dot com era. I made a lot of money before it came tumbling down, but I lost my shirt on stocks like (what was I thinking?). The past 6 months or so of gains haven’t come from the Amazons, Googles, or Yahoos. It’s been the staples, Boeing, Pepsi, Corning, etc… That’s a big difference. Those aren’t volatile stocks.

And this talk of the economy tanking just doesn’t hold any weight in my wallet. Things are cruising along just fine. And no, the price of gas hasn’t changed the way I live my life. Not one bit.

Neither has this latest milestone.

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pcmac_shutup.jpgLeave it to the folks at Apple. Great marketing, I’ll give them that, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re now nothing more than a walkman manufacturer. (Will the whole iPod fad die please?)

The computing side of the company was never great to begin with, but ever since their “rebirth” with the iMac (ooooooh, pretty colors!), they’ve been that annoying mosquito buzzing around your ear.

You just can’t get them to go away….

The most recent campaign, though a few years old now, is still pretty entertaining, even viewing them from the “PC” side of the aisle.

Effective with the masses too, I’m sure.

I could refute every claim and inference made in each individual commercial to date, but I’ll spare you. To the veteran computer user, it’s all obvious propaganda.

The funniest part of the campaign to me are all of the references to how square the “PC” fellow is, compared to the hip “Mac” guy.

Now I don’t know about you, but about 10 minutes after graduating from high school, I stopped caring about being hip or cool.

Now it was time to be successful.


No offense to the “Mac” character, I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but I don’t really want to be like the guy who always wears a hoodie over a ratty t-shirt and never combs his hair. Or the one who brags about how cool his “video-mails” are.

I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but around here the guys with video cameras hooked up to their computers are generally perverts. Not exactly something I want to emulate.

And the shots at PC’s for crashing, or having viruses, or being difficult to upgrade are really low blows:

Sure, Macs don’t crash — but that’s because they’re toys.

You can’t push a Mac to the brink because there isn’t any software available to ‘push’ them.

They openly admit that they don’t do “spreadsheets” or “calculations” in the commercials in favor of making silly graphics or whatever.

Okay, um, what did we buy this computer for again?

Oh yeah, watching DVDs… Wait a minute, isn’t that what the TV is for?

The virus topic is another slightly skewed shot at the PC fellow.

Fact is, even in 2007, far less than 10% of computer users on the internet are using Macs. A *tiny* minority.

The “purpose”, while disturbing, of a virus to to infect as many as possible, so why on earth would some loser computer-whiz kid write some malicious code to infect a tiny group of computers?

Why would they do that?

Hey look, my personal virus wasn’t even a blip on the map. It’s about bragging rights, and a virus for a Mac can’t offer that.

Difficult to upgrade?

Hey, at least it’s possible. Don’t see too many ‘Grape’ iMacs in service these days… (You can find them in the “bulky-trash” dumpsters at your local dump though).

They never once mentioned back then that once the monitor blew out, you had to trash the whole computer…

True, upgrading a Mac is easy as can be — just buy a whole new Mac!

Love those $1k upgrades.

Being a PC user, I’m still using my trusty HP keyboard from 1995 and a Dell monitor from 1997. My hard drive from my first 386 still works today in my current set-up.

Can Mac say that? I think not.

When I do upgrade my CPU every couple of years, and that’s all I need to upgrade, it’s never more that $400.

My graphics cards, sound cards, monitors, etc… just make the trip with me.

And the old CPU’s just end up as servers — I still have a Pentium-60 in service. That’s nearly 13 years old.

And just where are the Mac servers? Where are the Macs in business?

Oh yeah, I forgot, they’re just toys…

Let PC and his cousin who runs Unix take care of the big stuff.

Mac can keep finger painting…

Seriously, don’t even consider a Mac.

Computers aren’t that confusing or difficult anymore; owning a mac just labels you as retarded.

And yes, there is something wrong with that.

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Kickin’ it retro style.
Flying Toasters
Over the weekend, while grooving to bad 80’s tunes in the car by myself, I was blinded by, well, a blinding flash of brilliance! You know, one of those moments of true clarity every brilliant one has from time to time.

Suddenly, it hit me — I had a vision of toasters with wings. Less than a second later, I thought, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s totally been done.” But while pondering it over the next few minutes (okay, I’ll be honest, I thought about it for well over an hour), I couldn’t help thinking about what happened to the once popular flying toasters.

It took me a bit, but I eventually found the brain cell that had been holding the name “After Dark” for all of these years just for this very moment.

After Dark was the company in the very early 1990’s that somehow managed to convince computer users to shell out $30+ clams for a silly screensaver. They probably made a fortune — of that, yep, I’m jealous.

I think of stuff like flying toasters all the time… I just don’t have the type of mindset to market them effectively. I mean, really, I’d like to shake the hand of the guy who came up with the idea of a flying toaster and then thought, “Hey, this should be a screen saver. We’ll make millions!” I hope it was the same guy that came up with both ideas. Genious.

Anyway, hats off to the Flying Toaster of the early 90’s. I miss the days when the screensaver you had made you more, I dunno, sexy?

Can geeks be sexy?

You betcha. In 1992, if you had some toasters flying across the screen, you were the talk of the town. Or library… Computer lab? Sigh…

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I like to drive. A lot.

In my travels, I’ve hit the lower 48, along with 9 provinces. I like to think I have a pretty good idea of the driving habits on those in North America.

Okay, that may by over stating it just a bit, but I do know that some states have left more of an impression than others.

The most aggressive drivers, (other than anyone in a pimped out Mitsubishi), hail from the state of Rhode Island and the province of Quebec.

These folks will ride your bumper like no one else.

A merge or, heaven forbid, a yield sign mean nothing to these drivers.

The quirkiest part is that although they are generally very agressive, they don’t go into a rage status. I have yet to witness any hand gestures or facial expressions. The just refuse to give you space with a blank look on their face.

The worst drivers though, by far, are those from Virginia. I honestly think that state has so many variations of their license plate design (seriously, over 180 of them!?) so as to fool other drivers into thinking, “Oh, that idiot’s not from Virginia.” Fact is, most of the time, they are.

Virginia Plate
What makes them the worst? Well, for starters, let’s pretend we’re taking the drive from New York City down to Miami.

 I-95 the whole way.

Major highway, three lanes — slow, travel, and passing — for nearly the entire stretch.

Generally, you can maintain a speed of around 70mph for the entire trek once you’re clear of the New Jersey tolls.  In theory, you should be able to hang in the travel lane.

But this is where the Virginia driver comes into play.

See, apparently in Virginia, and Virginia only, there is no such thing as a slow, travel, and passing lane. You’re just expected to pick the lane on your choice and the speed, or lack there of, of your choice.

So, it’s about 3:00am and there are just a few trucks on the road, and the diehard drivers like myself making our way through North Carolina.

Thinking we’ve *finally* cleared all of the NJ stoppages, DC traffic, and Virginia is in our rear view, not to mention that it’s the middle of the night, it should be smooth sailing all the way to sunny Florida.

What’s this?

I’m passing a car on the right… and they’re going… 55mph?!

A Virginia plate.

 Imagine that?

Up ahead, I see truckers moving into the travel lane.

Virginia plate in the slow lane — but now the trucker is moving into the passing lane — ooooh!  He’s even flashing his lights at the slow poke in front of him.

Virginia plate.

Okay, my turn. I go all ‘Rhode Island’ on this one. I could have easily moved into the passing lane and pass this guy, but that’s not the point.

It’s pre-dawn, there’s a fair amount of traffic on the road considering the time, and this guy is going 15 miles under the speed limit?! The slow lane is empty.

I flash my lights.


I flash them again.

Still doesn’t seem to get it. One of those double trailer trucks eventually flies by on his right hand side.

I flash again. Nothing.

Dude, you just got passed with authority by one of the slowest trucks on the road.

The crazy part is that when you do pass them, they look over at you like, “I wonder why his headlights were flashing? I’d bet that truck blew his horn to let him know his headlights weren’t properly aimed…” Unreal.

On top of the fact that they don’t have *any* highway etiquette (only state in the union — seriously!), they’ve also ‘caught’ the “what’s a signal for” but that’s plagueing the entire continent.

More about that in the future…

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A “Lance-less” School Bus.You know what really fires me up? 
School buses. 

Yep, that’s right.  And I’m not just talking about the short buses for the “special” students.

A few years ago I bought a house in the same town that I work in. 

We’re talking maybe a 2 mile commute.

Now, every morning on my way to work, as luck would have it, I get behind a bus that stops at a student’s house and the bus puts on his red lights and the stop sign comes out (and whats up with the new lance contraption on the front bumper these days?  Do buses joust after hours?), and waits for him to come out of the house. 

When he does eventually come out, he takes his sweet time, and he’s usually still getting dressed — and often stops to go back into the house to grab his back pack (or kiss his Mom as I like to think).

But anyway, the kid, let’s call him Harold, eventually gets on the bus — and the bus sits there until he sits down.  Apparently he thinks he’s one of the cool kids cause I can only assume it takes so long for him to sit down because he’s making his way to the back. 

In my day, once the doors closed behind you, you might have had 10 seconds before the bus started moving again.  Can you imagine if trains ran the way school buses do now?   They’d never move.

So, while you might think that things are moving now; no, two houses later, yes, two.  We’re talking 120 feet — maybe 4 bus lengths (not including the lance) and the lights go back on, the sign comes out, and we repeat the whole process. 

The saddest part is that these are HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS?!  And because of that, being the car immediately behind the bus, I’m subjected to numerous finger gestures from the aforementioned “cool” kids.  Or is it “kewl” these days.  Whatever.  Harry is a loser as far as I’m concerned.

Now, I’m not an impatient person, but when I was in school (and that’s not that long ago), I rode the “loser cruiser” every single day.  I’m not going to say I had to walk a mile, uphill, each day through the snow, I won’t go that route, it was usually maybe 200-300 meters from my front door where a bunch of us from the neighborhood would stand and wait — maybe 5 minutes, sometimes in the rain even, but that’s not the point. And if you weren’t there, the bus DID NOT wait.

Some of my fondest memories are of my next door neighbor chasing the bus and on the rare occasion that the bus did stop again, the walk of shame they were forced to make as they found a seat.

Fat chance of that happening these days.  The school bus is now more like a personal chauffer service.  Sort of explains the “entitlement” attitude of the current generation.  And the fact that they don’t need to walk farther than their front door anymore might help explain all the fat kids out there. 

That’s right, I called them fat, cause let’s face it, they’re not chunky and that ain’t baby fat.  And obesity isn’t a disease.  They’re fat.  But I digress…

You might wonder what I’d say if these weren’t high school kids or if my feelings would change…  Well, I’ll tell you.

See, I come home for lunch each day too, which means I catch the kindergarten bus.  Now don’t get me wrong, they’re really cute with their “Dora the Explorer” lunch boxes and stuff and it’s neat cause they actually wait out by the road — definitely a step up from the lazy teenagers. 

These kids are excited to get on the bus and go to school, which is great. 

 It’s too bad that wears off so quickly with the state of public school these days.  (I’ll rant about the luggage bags with wheels they all use later…  Some of them are so damn lazy, they’ve even got wheels in their sneakers… which are velco closure of course.  The height of laziness.)

Anyway, the bus comes, lights go on, stop sign goes out, lance swings out, and traffic stops.  Watching a little 5 year old make that enormous first step onto the bus is one of those things you can’t help but smile at.  But then the mother comes out the front door, still in her robe and slippers, hops into the bus, and has a freaking conversation with the bus driver — a lengthy one too.  Um, hello?  What’s up with that?  Then, one house later, we repeat…

Now, I can understand why a mother might not want her 5 year old to be crossing the street and such.  That’s easy to comprehend.  At the same time, just 15 years ago, 5 year olds *were* crossing the street.  Were our mothers bad mothers; putting us in harms’ way? They taught us to look both ways, then go. Atleast that’s what I was taught.

It seems they don’t teach that any more and I think that’s where the problem began.  Kids don’t know that cars hurt.  And that’s because they’ve never had to cross the street, so their parents haven’t had the need to teach them that, well, cars hurt.  They really hurt.  They can even, gasp, KILL YOU!

The whole “bus stop” in my front yard thing has become the status quo it seems — these lazy morons in high school have never had it any different, so even they don’t know to look both ways, because they’ve never had to.  Scary, because they can drive…  Even scarier, some of them are even parents now too…  Their kids haven’t got a chance… Afterall, cars are everywhere…

So I guess that’s just one of the things that snarks my fries these days.  I look back fondly on my time spent at the bus stop each morning with Bryan, Megan, Alicia, David, Tammy, Seth, Steve, and Nick.  Okay, maybe not Tammy, I never really liked her.  And yeah, sure, when we got to school and filed off of the bus, we all went our seperate ways and were assimilated into our individual cliques, but for those 5 minutes standing on the corner, we were kinda like a big family at the dinner table. And yes, we kissed our mothers as we left the house, on time, to catch the bus.

Did I mention we were all thin, happy, and sociable too?  You know, the way kids *should* be.

Can You Dig It?


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