Michael

Feb 142012
 

Since I’ve found myself with some extra time on my hands lately, I’ve chosen to focus some attention on the yard.

The front yard is complete from a design aspect. All the labor that needs to be done is maintenance. There’s grass, shrubs, bushes, a rose bush, and a few small trees. That doesn’t mean that this is easy. A significant amount of time goes into the upkeep of the front yard.

My house is surrounded by trees and they wreak havoc on the grass. Every few days I go out and remove the leaves from the grass. I know it’s February and trees should begin blooming soon, not shedding their leaves, but the leaves keep appearing. It’s an on-going process that begins in October. I fill the enormous yard debris bin to capacity no less than 6 times every fall.

Once you remove the leaves, you are left with dead grass or bald spots where the leaves once rested. It’s a manual process but a fairly simple one to get the grass to return. First, you remove the dead grass with a claw tool. The dead grass should break off easily. If it’s difficult, it’s not dead. After the dead grass is removed, you’re likely left with a bald spot. Stimulate the dirt by loosening it up with the claw tool. Fertilize the entire lawn (I used bat guano this year) and it should come back to 100% within a few months.

The backyard is a different story. It’s about half complete and there are two drastically different climates due to enormous tree coverage over half the yard. When I bought the house, it was fully complete with a large grassy area in the back. I lost about half of the grass on the sunny side of the yard. I struggled for awhile to figure out what to do with the space because I want to do something with that space but I don’t want to have the yard burn up again. I eventually decided to put raised garden beds on that half and grow vegetables.

As it sits today, the back yard is in a state of disarray. Rhododendrons line the fence. There’s a large area between two rhododendrons that I have historically piled the leaves between yard debris pickup days. Should I decide to get chickens, this is where the coop would likely go.

In the north west corner of the back yard is another large bare spot. This area is historically overgrown with knee high grass and blackberry bushes. Blackberry bushes are the worst. They are covered with thorns and are difficult to kill. I went out yesterday, clipped them down to about 6″ and sprayed the roots. I took the thorny vines and filled a yard debris bin with them. I spent three hours filling the bin with weeds and blackberry bushes from the corner. It’s cleared up now and ready to go for whatever I want. I may put a secondary compost bin back here. I have yet to decide but it looks much better now than it did before.

Feb 122012
 

One thing that most people will say about me is that I hate paper. It’s inflexible to organize, impossible to search, and leads to clutter. I really do not like clutter. I had known of Evernote’s existence for quite some time but I hadn’t figured out exactly how to use until I was looking for a way of digitizing grocery lists.

Evernote is a note synching service. You can type notes on your computer, cell phone, or tablet computer and view them on any other one of those devices. Typing on mobile devices can be cumbersome so I was really attracted to this because you didn’t have to type your notes up on them.

At the time, I had been leaning toward this type of grocery list but I knew that I was never going to print it out weekly. My first step was to digitize it and turn it into a Google Doc. In addition to this, I was able to meal plan on the same document. This worked for a while but it wasn’t ideal to view the list on my phone while I was shopping. Perhaps I could have formatted it differently but I wasn’t pleased enough with the current results to play with it anymore. This is when I began using Evernote.

Every week, I would sit down with my computer, meal plan, and type up a complete grocery list. When I was shopping, I would just delete the items off the list as I put them in the cart. I loved this solution because Evernote was easy to use, fast, and above all, paper free. A few weeks later, I created a second list for CostCo. This was working but it was taking longer than it needed to. Every week we would buy a gallon of milk so why was I removing it from the list every week?

This is when I switched my list to one that contains a static list of grocery items and has a check box next to each item. Instead of organizing the list alphabetically or by category (produce, proteins, dairy, etc), I organize the list by the route that I walk through the store. Now when I go grocery shopping, it’s fast and I never forget anything that I need.

This is an example of my CostCo list:

CostCo Shopping List

CostCo Shopping List

Today, I use Evernote primarily for lists. I store account information, grocery lists, todo lists, and my daily workouts with Evernote. It has greatly improved my productivity and organization.

Evernote does have a few issues. Occasionally I experience a sync issue where my lists are duplicated 2 or 3 times. It’s not a terrible inconvenience but it is annoying. When this happens, I clean up the duplicates from my computer. The other issue I’ve encountered is that it can be difficult to format these lists. Fonts will occasionally vary from the one I’ve selected or a random blank line will appear within my list that I didn’t put there. Again, this stuff is easily cleaned up from a desktop computer.

Summary:

Pros:

  • Reduces Clutter
  • Increases Organization
  • Increases Productivity
  • Convenient

Cons:

  • Occasional Sync Issues
  • Occasional Formatting Errors

Evernote Rating: 4/5

Jan 182012
 

I spent about an hour yesterday calling all of the companies that I write checks to monthly to see what I could do to lower my payments due to my unemployment. I began every call with the same sentence — “I’ve recently lost my job and am calling to see if I can lower the cost of this service before I have to start cutting back on my services.”

Here are the results:

  • AT&T – (Cell phone) They wouldn’t charge me less for my current plan and it didn’t make sense to scale back my plan as it’s already pretty minimal.
  • Clackamas Garbage Co. – They didn’t answer the phone and asked me to leave a voicemail. I opted not to at this time.
  • Clackamas River Water – The representative I spoke with stated that they were unable to reduce rates.
  • Comcast (internet) – Comcast didn’t offer to reduce my rate but they did suggest that I scale back my service to a lower speed, which I did. This saves me about $20/mo.
  • DirecTV – DirecTV knocked $10 off my bill for 12 months without having to scale back my service.
  • Farmers Insurance – I was unable to reach my insurance agent (phone) because the local office was closed due to inclement weather. Snow was falling at the time. My email bounced back as well.
  • Homestreet Bank (mortgage) – This is a real catch 22. I cannot adjust the interest rate on my mortgage due to type of loan that I have. I also cannot adjust loan until I’ve missed 3 consecutive payments. I cannot refinance the house without a job. I would also have to payout the amount in escrow to before I could modify the loan. I could make half payments but any shortage or missed payment would negatively impact my credit score.
  • NW Natural – The gas company is unable to reduce my rates. They referred me to 3 Energy Assistance Programs.
  • PGE – The power company were also unable to reduce my rates but I could let payments slip and pay it off in the future should things get dire. I just needed to let them know that I was doing this intentionally.
  • Water Environment Services – I might be able to cut sewage rate in half should I qualify. Some info on a program is being mailed to me that I’ll need to fill out and mail back in.

I guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised that I wasn’t able to lower my monthly costs by much. The real thing that surprised me was that only one person stated that they were sorry that I had lost my job. I spent some time working in a call center and while I’m certainly aware that you can become numb to the grinding nature of the job, it’s not difficult to say something brief and supportive. The lady at DirecTV was the only one to state that she was sorry I had lost my job and at the end of the call, she circled back around and wished me good luck in my job search.

Jan 132012
 

The largest project (in terms of man hours) is the digitization project. The digitization project is where I convert all of my CDs and DVDs into digital formats. After conversion has been completed, I can access the files from my server via xBox 360 using XBMC.

I have already worked on this project for months and it feels like it’s never-ending. I’ve chosen to break it up into small chunks daily to break up the monotony of the process.

The conversion process for music is simple. Take my music CDs and convert them in MP3 files using iTunes. iTunes will organize them by artist/album and everything will be easy to find should I need to access the files outside of iTunes. iTunes will find the artwork automatically as well which saves me the chore of this task for most of my music.

The process for converting DVDs is not as simple for a number of reasons.

  1. There is no tool that I am aware of that converts and organizes videos automatically like iTunes does for music. With DVD ripping tools, you have to convert the video, organize them, and then catalog them. This takes time.
  2. You will likely need to use different settings from disc to disc and there are a tremendous number of settings. Depending on your content, you may want to use different settings for movies, a concert, and a sporting event.
  3. Movies are frequently encrypted with a copy protection scheme because the MPAA considers it to be illegal for someone that purchases a movie to make a digital copy of it; even for personal use.

XBMC does a good job of indexing both audio and video files and transcodes them on the fly to other devices like the Xbox 360 or the iPad. It does so by looking up the folder or filename and comparing it to an online database. If it finds a match, it will index your file and add some metadata to it that makes it easier to find, including the actors in it and the genre of your video.

The problem is that your video is not always found in an online database. Sporting events are notoriously problematic. I have looked time and time again for a solution for my MMA videos — all of which require serious amounts of manual configuration. I found an MMA plugin for XBMC today that will index these files with minimal effort. All you have to do is create a text file with an event number in it for each of your videos and the plugin will look them up in Sherdog’s Fight Finder to index them. It’s still a manual process to create each of the text files but it’s not too much work and it will be well worth the labor to be able to watch these videos on the TV in my living room.

Jan 112012
 

A lot is on my mind yet the words escape me. I don’t know what I should or should not say about the series of events that have led me to this moment. It’s probably better to keep quiet though, even though that’s really not my style.

I started this blog as a means of accountability. I had found myself unemployed one other time in my life and I had nothing to show for it but wasted time. I have another opportunity now and I have vowed to do things differently this time.