Bobby Flay for Christmas

I'm not sure if this will become a Christmas tradition, but yesterday I decided to trash the kitchen and spend a few hours preparing something other than our usual Christmas dinner of king crab. Having always enjoyed barbecue ribs but never having cooked them, I watched my share of the Food Network in preparation for this holiday feast.

I settled upon four dishes to cook: ribs, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and asparagus. The one underrated skill in cooking a meal like this is time/project management. I settled upon four recipes that weren't too complicated which offered good guidance on prep and cooking time. The wine pairing was a Shiraz.

The first recipe is from Guy Fieri, and it's Johnny Garlic's Famous Garlic and Rosemary Mashed potatoes. Should you try this recipe, double the listed cooking time. This was the only item that wasn't ready on time, and I didn't find any reason for them to be famous.

The other three recipes were from Bobby Flay: Ribs with Chipotle-Molasses barbecue sauce, Grilled Asparagus Wrapped in Proscuitto with Shaved Pecorino Romano Cheese, and Grilled Corn on the Cob with Garlic Butter, Fresh Lime, and Queso Fresco. Each of these were fantastic--especially the ribs. Fortunately I have another rack and enough barbecue sauce left over to make another tasty dinner this week!

For the record, my wife gave dinner an "A" for taste with a "C" for presentation, mostly because I didn't have time to clean the kitchen before sitting down for dinner.


Tracking Santa

NORAD's Santa Tracker has upgraded its technology this year, with webcams and aerial video of Santa and his sleigh as well as a Santa-tracker using Google Earth. Finally... government money well-spent!

Those wanting to speak with a member of the NORAD Santa Tracking team can call toll free: 1 (877) Hi NORAD or 1 (877) 446-6723.

It's time for Mrs. Claus and I to get to work assembling Santa's gifts for our girls. Merry Christmas!


A quitter, liar, coward, and a cancer

After spending the evening at the Georgia Dome watching their Monday night debacle against the New Orleans Saints, I thought the Atlanta Falcons may have reached rock bottom. I couldn't have been more wrong.

I was floored to check the AJC this morning and read that head coach Bobby Petrino had quit the Atlanta Falcons mid-season and had been named the head coach at the University of Arkansas just before midnight Tuesday evening.

I then watched the Arkansas press conference in disgust as Bobby Petrino and his wife Becky had the Razorback cheerleaders join them on stage and do the "Wooo, Pig, Sooie" cheer. He looked like the ass he is. Good riddance. Here's hoping that Arthur Blank and Rich McKay don't botch the hiring of their 3rd head coach in just 4 years.

Some quotes from Atlanta Falcons players and others...

"He preached team. He preached family. And then he quit on us. That's not what a man does." -Joey Harrington, quarterback

"It's a selfish act by a guy who has no class... who only thinks about himself." -Warrick Dunn, running back

"I think he's a quitter and a fraud. And I've been a supporter of Bobby Petrino... He'll throw water in your face and tell you it's raining. That's Bobby Petrino." -Sean Salisbury, ESPN

"I don't have any respect for him." -DeAngelo Hall, cornerback

"Disloyal." -Jamal Anderson, defensive end and Arkansas alumnus

"He allowed us to be embarrassed on national television while he's cutting a deal... We didn't realize we had a cancer on our team in the form of a head coach." -Lawyer Milloy, safety

"If you're going to preach being a team player, you have to be a team player." -Roddy White, wide receiver

"I feel betrayed with the decision that he made." -Keith Brooking, linebacker

"It just shows his true color, like a coward with a yellow stripe down his back." -Grady Jackson, former defensive tackle with the Falcons who was cut on 10/23 by Petrino (and signed by Jacksonville a week later)

"I think the timing of Bobby's decision was wrong. It was wrong for the coaches. It was wrong for the families depending on him, that he brought here that had invested in him and invested in this team. It's also letting our players down— the players I've heard him tell consistently to play all four quarters. All four quarters does not equal, in my opinion, 13 games." -Arthur Blank, Owner and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons


No more camping for awhile

I had my reservation booked weeks in advance, and on our day to pitch the tent, conditions were perfect--no rain in the forecast and daytime temperatures in the low 70's with evening temps in the 40's.

So a couple of weeks ago we drove up to Red Top Mountain State Park late in the afternoon and checked in at the lodge. Despite being nearly full, we were able to get a campsite with a fantastic view of Lake Allatoona. The view is much different than normal, however, as the lake is incredibly low.

Grilled hotdogs over an open fire were on the menu for dinner followed by smores for dessert. Sleep came early as we had big plans for the next day. I had a new gas stove to cook scrambled eggs & bacon on, and what is fall camping without hot chocolate? After breakfast we were then going to go on a nature hike, but first we needed a good night's sleep.

By the light of a full moon, we all trecked up to the bathrooms to brush our teeth and then climbed into our cozy sleeping beds. Everyone slowly dozed off to sleep... except for me. I heard the fall leaves rustling in the trees as the wind blew across the lake. I heard the crunch of fellow campers walking along the crushed rock path next to our campsite. I heard the metal zipper in the corner of the tent tapping against the metal teeth. I heard the polyester tent whipping in the wind. And I heard the owl, which couldn't have been but 50 feet from our tent, hooting throughout the night. The hours passed slowly: 10:00pm, 11:00pm, midnight, 1:00am, 2:00am...

And then around 2:30am, my youngest daughter stood up in her pack-and-play. We got her back down, but then my oldest declared that she wasn't tired at 3:00am. "Close your eyes and go to sleep," was our retort. By 3:30am, I had a full mutiny on my hands. After consultation with my wife, whose idea of 'roughing it' is staying in a Holiday Inn, I asked, "Who wants to go home?" It was unanimous, except for me. I wasn't about to pack up camp in the middle of the night and wake up other campers. So I loaded the family into the minivan, and they left for home. I then had the good fortune of falling to sleep and not waking up until my wife called at 10:30!

I did get to cook that breakfast and drink hot chocolate, albeit alone. I packed up the gear, and was especially careful in folding up the tent, knowing it will be several years before I try to push camping on the family again.


The Moody Blues are wrong

Ten years ago The Moody Blues sang the tune "You Can Never Go Home," but they're dead wrong.

This week I had meetings in Cincinnati, and two customers have offices just 5 miles from my home town of Reading, Ohio. I had some unexpected time to spare, so on a whim I decided to call two people who made a strong impression on me growing up.

I had the opportunity to catch up with my 7th and 8th grade Latin teacher, Don Lucas, over burgers and Coke. He's been retired from public teaching for 20 years, and his gain was their loss. For someone I so admired, it's almost serendipitous that we're both now in the same line of work--he owns a travel agency while I work for a dot com travel company. My next stop was Reading Junior/Senior High School to see my 8th grade English teacher, Ronda Eisenhard, who is now a counselor and coach.

My visits with Don and Ronda reminded me that I don't want my life measured by professional or financial accomplishments but rather by the quality of my relationships. They lived their lives as examples to thousands of kids, and their influence is still bearing fruit today.


FREE Software from Microsoft and Intuit

Microsoft is giving away software?! It's true. They're giving away Microsoft Office Accounting Express 2007, but of course they're hoping that some percentage of customers will want to upgrade to their Professional version for $149.95.

Comparing the Express against the Professional version as well as Microsoft Office Small Business Accounting, though, and it's hard to understand why a small business would want to pay to upgrade unless they're in manufacturing, in which case you're probably going to want a more robust accounting product anyway.

For those who prefer to use Intuit's products, there is a version of their QuickBooks product that is free--QuickBooks Simple Start 2008. We've been accounting for our real estate investments in Quicken, but I'm going to try both Microsoft Office Accounting Express and QuickBooks Simple Start to see if either might be better.


Life lesson from a last lecture

If you had an opportunity to give one final speech, one last chance to be heard, what would you talk about? For Carnegie Mellon University professor Dr. Randy Pausch, that question wasn't a hypothetical. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, this husband and father of three children (ages 5, 2, and 1), has only a few months to live. Last week he delivered his final lecture entitled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." It's well worth watching (but be forewarned: the video runs an hour 30).

If it seems like something is missing at the end, it is. Click here (Windows Media Player will open) and "fast-forward" to 01:25 in this other video to see the awards and honors presented to Dr. Pausch.

Update 2/22/08: Palliative chemotherapy is working, and Randy Pausch is still alive and healthy.

Update 7/25/08: Randy Pausch died today at the age of 47. He is survived by his wife, Jai, and children, Dylan, 6, Logan, 3, and Chloe, 2. Donations can be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, or to Carnegie Mellon's Randy Pausch Memorial Fund, which supports the university's continued work on the Alice project.


Life-changing events

I can count on one hand the number of events that I find simultaneously scary as well as thrilling. All of these impose great change, and without exception are life-altering. In my experience, most of these turn out to be overwhelmingly positive while the risk of heartbreak always exists. My family is possibly in the early stages of such an event, and we're doing everything we can to prepare. I was recently reminded of a quote by Churchill which I find all-too fitting, however, "Planning is essential, but plans are useless."

I promise to share more when it becomes appropriate.


Second chances

It's hard being a Falcons fan this year.

The first sucker-punch to the gut happened when the Falcons traded its best quarterback, Matt Schaub, to the Houston Texans in late March. In the event they're not already aware, the Falcons will realize they traded the wrong quarterback when they get their jocks handed to them September 30 when the Texans visit Atlanta to play the Falcons.

The second hit was when the Falcons signed Joey Harrington to a 2-year contract to back up Michael Vick. Harrington is more known for interceptions than touchdowns, having thrown 79 of the former and only 72 of the latter.

And everyone knows the Michael Vick saga, whose illicit activities came to light back in April.

With a record of 0-2, last night the Atlanta Falcons' season began its turnaround by cutting the inaccurate Matt Prater (only making 1 of 4 field goals) and signing Morten Andersen as its placekicker for the 2nd time in as many years. At 47, #5 will be the oldest active player in the NFL. Playing for the Falcons last year, Morten Anderson hit 20 of 23 field goal attempts and made all 27 PATs. In addition, Morten became the greatest scorer in the history of the NFL last year with 2,445 points.

Hopefully the Falcons' next step will be to sign former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich to the roster.

Meanwhile, Falcons tickets are readily available (and cheap) for this weekend's game against the Carolina Panthers.


Backyard Update #3

The playground is complete, the two outdoor electrical outlets are installed, the siding has been repaired, the low voltage transformer has been mounted, and all of the landscape lighting has been installed!

The most rewarding part is that my daughters love it. My oldest daughter would swing all day if we let her.

For those who have asked, this is the Cambridge Wooden Swing Set with Slide by Leisure Time Products purchased from Sam's Club. For 2008, Sam's is carrying the Woodridge version of this same set, and the only difference between it and the Cambridge is the addition of a bench seat on the lower deck.


Never forgetting

I was waiting in the carpool line to drop off my oldest daughter at preschool this morning when it hit me... today is 9/11, it's a Tuesday just as it was 6 years ago, and the time was 8:55am which was after the first and before the second plane struck the World Trade Center towers. Of course I'll never forget where I was on that date: home and safe along with my wife, who was home sick. Were it not for a late cancellation of a meeting, I would have been in a plane bound for San Francisco along with two other coworkers from the east coast. And were it not for that late cancellation, one of them would be dead. My friend and coworker in New York had a confirmed seat on United Airlines Flight 93.

My daughter wanted to know why Daddy was crying, and I did my best to explain what happened 6 years ago in language that a preschooler would understand. I'm sure I failed miserably. When she's old enough, I'll introduce her to The September 11 Digital Archive, Here is New York, or the New York State Museum's digital history of 9/11 entitled, "The World Trade Center - Rescue, Recovery, Response."


Backyard Update #2

Of 99 steps needed to complete the playground, I'm down to the last 17. Fortunately the storms held out long enough for me to install the rafters and half of the roof. Once the roof is complete, the swings, a tunnel, and climbing wall are all that's left.

Tonight I worked in the garden. My tiller found a few boulders last week, so I tried to dig them out using a pick and shovel. The boulders won; after trying to dig out a particularly large one, the handle on the pick broke.

At least I was able to finish one job--getting all of the landscape lights installed in front of the retaining wall.


Backyard Update #1

A third of the landscape lights are installed, the fall garden is tilled, the bird feeder is up (though in Atlanta, I'm sure they'd rather have water--we've had 11 days of 100 degree+ temperatures so far this month), and the playground is half done.


One project leads to another

Just before final grading and having sod laid during our backyard renovation, we decided we wanted landscape lighting. We did some research and found that low voltage lighting best suited our needs, and the timing was perfect--low voltage wiring doesn't need to be buried, and sod can be laid right over it. I marked where we wanted six well lights and then laid 100 feet of 12-gauge wiring in front of the retaining wall and "looped the wire" in front of each mark. Behind the retaining wall we're going to have three spot lights to illuminate trees, and I laid this wiring at the edge of the sod line, because it can be buried with mulch.

With the crew gone, my first priority has been completing the playground, but last night I worked on running electrical to install an outlet outside the house for the 600 watt transformer and timer. As often happens, the project grew to include installing a light switch to control the outlet as well as expanding the narrow entry to the doggie door.... Stay tuned.


Cheney calls invasion of Iraq a quagmire

This is a widely seen video from an interview of a then unemployed Dick Cheney in 1994, but it's worth seeing again. It's shocking how prescient his message was, and it begs the question, "If Saddam wasn't worth more than 146 American casualties in 1994, why is the 'liberation of Iraq' and overthrow of Saddam worth over 3,700 American casualties today?"


Backyard living is great!

After taking a six month hiatus from our last North Point Community Group, we joined a new group earlier this year. It was a horrible experience. Barely a month after meeting weekly, two couples quit, and the group leader asked the remaining couples to "hold tight". A month later he sent out an email letting us know he too was quitting and advised us to find a new group. We won't be joining another one anytime soon as we've found a more productive use of that time--every Sunday afternoon a babysitter arrives and my wife and I enjoy three uninterrupted hours of peace.

Yesterday we traveled to our new Atlanta IKEA to do some shopping, and in addition to a bookcase and some plastic dinnerware, we came away with a great find--a children's picnic table for $30. My oldest daughter (3 1/2) and I put it together last night in less than 10 minutes. It's perfect and saved us over $70 vs. others we were considering.

This morning the same daughter got up, put her clothes on, went downstairs, climbed onto the counter in the kitchen to grab the new dinnerware, and set the table on our back patio before coming back upstairs to wake us. She is so excited about her new backyard and really wanted us to join her for breakfast on the patio! After a quick shower and clothes, we did just that.

The weekend was spent working on assembling the playground... and I'm guessing it'll be Wednesday night before it's done.


My home, my castle: Backyard renovation - Day 9

Today they poured the steps to the back door, rolled the sod, filled some of the spaces between blocks with mortar, used liquid nails to hold the stair steps to the blocks, and reinstalled the chainlink fence.

The forms need to be removed from the steps leading to the back door, but for all intents and purposes, the project is done!

Of course I still need to install the playground, but I'm going to wait 10 days for the sod to grow before putting it together.


My home, my castle: Backyard renovation - Day 8

As I surmised two days ago, the backyard renovation wasn't completed today, but it's pretty darned close. Before the sod arrived, I laid cable for low voltage landscape lighting, which will get installed soon.

The sod truck arrived at 9:30am, and as soon as the pallets began to be unloaded, the crew started their final prep work of the soil (mostly raking up surface rocks). By 7:30pm, all of the sod had been laid and the sprinklers were tested. My oldest daughter thinks we've installed a water park in the backyard!


My home, my castle: Backyard renovation - Day 7

Back on Day 1, I mentioned that "we got permission from neighbors behind us to allow the equipment to cross their property and enter through the rear of ours." I failed to mention that this permission was through implied consent rather than individual consent. Basically I informed the handful of owners in the townhomes behind my property what I was doing to my yard, when I planned to do it, and that I was going to use their shared drive for access to my property... and if they had any problems or questions to please contact me. Lacking such contact grants me implied consent, which is much easier to secure than getting each homeowner to sign statements granting me explicit access (which also puts me at risk of having one of them say, "No").

On Day 2 I received a call from a neighbor who owned one of these townhomes who was livid that, unbeknownst to me, the guy who was running the stump grinder had parked his truck behind my fence. In the course of the day, I was told he had to move it twice as it was blocking a shared drive my neighbors use to access their garages. The tone of the call was vile, and I didn't feel the neighbor was interested in coming to a reasonable agreement. She was also pissed about my letter and that I was receiving implied rather than individual consent (my words, not hers).

I was frankly embarrassed that I hadn't noticed the truck parked behind the fence, though I later learned that it was shielded by a thick hedge. I knew I needed to have access to their shared drive to get equipment and materials in and out of my back yard. Losing this access would have resulted in added expense which would have made the entire project cost prohibitive. I was wholly apologetic about the parked truck and laid out what I was going to do to resolve this problem so that it would not happen again. Perhaps I wore her down, but we finally reached an agreement that no vehicles would park on their shared drive, no vehicles would park on the public street in front of their homes (despite having the legal right to do so), the shared drive would be swept at the end of each day as the crew left, and their drive would be washed down when the job was completed. I delivered either hand-written or face-to-face apologies to all who shared the driveway behind my property, explaining what had happened and what was being done to ensure it would not happen again.

I then immediately went into research mode. I came to learn that I only needed permission from one individual in their whole subdivision to use the shared drive, known legally as an ingress and egress easement. Rights to use this easement are granted to each homeowner in the neighborhood, not just those needing to use it to access their own townhome. In addition, I learned that permission to use this easement would override any individual's objections to use this easement. Fortunately I have a good friend who owns one of these townhomes, and I received his permission to use the easement. I also approached a couple of other neighbors who own townhomes behind my property and received both oral and written permission to access this easement (their drive), though I hoped there would be no further objections.

Things went well for a week, and then...

Storm clouds
Yesterday morning after the crew unloaded the irrigation supplies for the sprinkler system, I started talking to the irrigation specialist to communicate the changes my wife and I had decided upon over the weekend. Of course the irrigation guy was also the driver... and in the five minutes I held him up, a visiting relative of the complaining neighbor wanted to exit the drive. I received a voice mail on my cell phone from the complaining neighbor, and my wife received a call on our home telephone. In the time that it took to call my wife, however, the truck was already moved.

And it should be noted that it didn't take a call to get the truck moved--as soon as the crew recognized someone was trying to exit the drive, they alerted the driver who moved the truck and drove it just over 4 miles to park in front of my house as he did each morning.

I returned the neighbor's voice message but had to leave one of my own as she didn't answer. I explained that the problem was completely my fault as my five minute conversation kept the crew from moving their truck immediately upon unloading the equipment. I thanked her for alerting me and assured her this would be over very soon.

"Well, good morning to you too"
In order to be as courteous as possible to all of my neighbors, the crew always arrived at or after 9:30am so as to not disrupt anyone using the drive to leave for work and to ensure that any noise would occur after most had left home.

This morning was an exception, as the 30 yards of topsoil were being delivered and the landscape crew (and owner) arrived early. By 8:45am the first load of dirt had been dumped, and the second truck was backing down the drive towards my rear property line when the visiting neighbor burst out onto her deck and demanded to know, "What the hell is going on?" I told her I was having dirt delivered, and she demanded the truck stop, claiming I did not have her permission to use the drive. I directed the truck to keep driving, and the crazy relative threatened to call the cops. I told her to go ahead and call the police because I had permission to use the ingress and egress easement. "Ingress what," she asked? "Call your real estate attorney," I said. I asked her what I could do to make her happy, but she didn't respond. She was pissed. I tried to reason with her, but she left her deck and stormed into the house.

While crazy relative fumed, the second truck dumped its 15 cubic yards of topsoil and pulled away. Then minutes later, crazy relative moved her car so as to block the drive. Fortunately as she was doing so, another one of her neighbors drove out of their garage and attempted to leave, forcing crazy relative to move her car.

Knowledge is power
I knew it would be coming, and it didn't take long for complaining neighbor to hear from crazy relative and then call me. I explained that I had secured individual consent from several neighbors to use the drive behind my property (which was more consent than necessary--I only needed consent from one neighbor). I explained that per her neighborhood's conditions, covenants, and restrictions (CC&Rs), she lacked the authority to block my access to the drive after permission had been granted by another homeowner. I also expressed that I wanted to keep peace with all of my neighbors but that her crazy relative was being unreasonable and that if she did block my access, I would not hesitate to call the police myself or sue her for damages (resulting from any delay to this project). We quickly came to an agreement whereby crazy relative would shut up and not interfere with the project.

With that problem behind us, the crew finished grinding stumps, built a small block wall to support one side of the soon-to-be-poured patio, picked up a lot of rocks from the yard, and waited for the cement truck. It arrived just after noon. I was shocked--despite the insane slope of our yard, the cement truck driver was able to maneuver to within 15 feet of the new patio without sliding or rolling his truck.
Within 30 minutes I had a patio poured!

The rest of the afternoon was spent on the patio, cutting and installing capstones, continued soil preparation, spreading the topsoil, and final grading. Sod arrives tomorrow, and the job should be done by the end of the day.


My home, my castle: Backyard renovation - Day 6

Over the weekend we realized that the retaining wall created a much more level area above it than we expected, so we decided to lay more sod and add another zone to the as yet to be installed sprinkler system. The patio was supposed to be poured today, but with the ground still very wet, we're holding off on that until tomorrow. While nothing else was done today, the crew did get the sprinkler system installed.

I spent 2 hours in the backyard this evening loading a wheelbarrow with large rocks and only managed to clear out the lower area in front of the retaining wall. There is still a good amount of soil preparation that needs to happen before spreading topsoil across the backyard... and the area where the playground will be built still needs to be graded in addition to the area in front of the retaining wall... and there are still 4 stumps that need to be ground down.

The owner of the landscaping company called my wife this afternoon to let her know that the 30 cubic yards of topsoil will be delivered tomorrow at 8:00am while the concrete will arrive at 11:00am. I left messages for the owner this evening asking who from his crew will be here at 8:00am to give the dumptrucks access through my back fence (the chainlink fence gets reinstalled each evening) and advise the drivers where to dump the dirt... I'm guessing the answer is no one since the crew has yet to arrive before 9:30am, but I'm holding out hope.

The new estimated completion date is this Thursday, but given the ever-growing punch list, I'm guessing this won't be done until Friday.


My home, my castle: Backyard renovation - Day 5

We were rained out today, but hopefully the weather will hold out tomorrow...


My home, my castle: Backyard renovation - Day 4

Today the form was created for the patio which will be poured on Monday.

A lot more grading was done as well. On Monday the sprinkler system will be installed, 3 dump truck loads of topsoil will be brought in, and final grading will also be done.


My home, my castle: Backyard renovation - Day 3

The retaining wall is now 90% done, with only capstones remaining to be added. The stump grinder worked all day, but we still have half of the stumps that were cut down which need to be removed.

More grading work was accomplished, and the placement of the patio was staked out.


My home, my castle: Backyard renovation - Day 2

The day started with laying out the exact location of the retaining wall as well as the poured concrete patio. From there, the bobcat went to work taking out some more of the hillside followed by grading in front of the wall.

The blocks for the retaining wall were unloaded, a level line was struck, the crushed granite was laid, and the crew began setting and leveling the base layer of blocks. Once finished, the wall will be nearly 5' high and over 50' long with stair steps running through the middle of the wall.

Survive a plane crash by avoiding first class

There is a widely-held belief that seat selection on an airplane has little bearing on whether passengers survive a crash. Popular Mechanics, the only magazine I ever new my grandfather to read, shows that this belief can be deadly.

Their analysis shows that it's much safer in the back of the plane, and in fact, "Passengers near the tail of a plane are about 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than those in the first few rows up front."

Read the full article here.


My home, my castle: Backyard renovation - Day 1

A 40 foot elevation difference from the back of my house to the property line along with 30+ trees creating too much shade fostered an environment that was very conducive to mosquitoes and erosion while not being very useful or kid-friendly. The shade made it nearly impossible for grass to grow, resulting in a lot of dirt and weeds. A deck on the back of the house was in an advanced state of deterioration, and because of improper grading, the area under the deck had become a breeding ground for mosquitoes as well as an impediment to permanently solving the problem of water seeping (sometimes gushing) into the basement during heavy rains. Several years ago I "temporarily" dug a trench which has kept the basement dry, but it's an eyesore.

This spring we decided to do something about the backyard after I finished remodeling the living room. Our needs were simple; we wanted the following for our backyard: grass, a lot more usable space, some trees removed, the yard graded, a retaining wall built, a playground for the girls, and a patio installed.

With the living room 95% complete (I still need to install the travertine around the fireplace), my wife started making calls. Over a 6-week time, she solicited bids from 7 different landscaping companies, and we settled on 3. One dropped out of the running, and we asked the two finalists to return so that details could be discussed. Experience, cost, and the ability to start immediately favored one of the companies, so we scheduled the job.

Getting the equipment in was a challenge. Because the front yard is steeper than the back, we got permission from neighbors behind us to allow the equipment to cross their property and enter through the rear of ours. The crew of 8 was able to take down 11 trees, a job that would have taken me every weekend for a month.

So at the end of day 1, the trees are gone, a huge pile of mulch is waiting to be spread, and some grading was done. It's amazing how much brighter the yard and the rooms facing the yard are.


Deathly Hallows at Kroger

Though I don't read, my wife is an avid reader and loves the Harry Potter series. So at midnight I visited my closest 24-hour Wal-Mart in an effort to purchase the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Upon getting to the entry doors, however, I and the 50+ other prospective book buyers pouring out of the parking lot learned that the store was no longer a 24-hour Wal-Mart.

My next stop was Kroger, and they were well-stocked with no line. By 12:10am they'd already sold 6 boxes of books with 19 boxes remaining. I guess tonight will be a bonding experience for many families, as I saw parents along with their kids, each with a book in hand. I personally think the woman in front of me had the right idea, though. She was buying a 12-pack of Heineken along with her copy of the book.

Me? I'll either wait for the movie or listen to it on my iPod. I'm sure my wife is finishing up Chapter 1 about now.


Garden update

It's been three months since planting, and we've already made our first batch of salsa with tomatoes from the garden. Unfortunately the peppers aren't getting enough sun and the sunflowers were devoured by birds.

The tomato plants look like they'll keep producing for a good month, and the Sugar Baby watermelons are coming along just fine.


Sometimes it hurts being an early adopter

Fortunately my home phone service was already in the process of being moved from Sunrocket, but for others, this isn't good news:

from: sunrocket@sunrocket.com
date: Jul 19, 2007 7:34 AM
subject: Important Message from Sunrocket

Dear Customers,

After significant effort by the Company to avoid this result, SunRocket is in the process of closing its operations and therefore will no longer be able to provide you with the phone service that you have been accustomed to. However, this email provides you with an opportunity to sign up with select service providers who we believe will offer outstanding replacement service

In order to assist you, we have entered into negotiations with a number of service providers. As a result of those negotiations, we have entered into agreements with 8x8, Inc., provider of the Packet8 service, and Unified Communications Corp., provider of Teleband service to offer you the best options and we are proud to recommend the following alternatives to you. Please make your decision to move to a new service provides immediately as future service is uncertain.


The Packet8 Internet phone service incorporates patent protected technology from 8x8. Inc., a publicly traded company in business for more than 20 years. The service works in the same way as SunRocket.s and offers a virtually identical feature set.

. No Startup Costs
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A Savings of over $100!

Copy and paste the following link into your Internet browser: http://getpacket8.packet8.net/sunrocket/ or call 1-800-868-0068 and mention special offer code SUNROCKET

Unified Communications Corp./TeleBlend

The TeleBlend Internet phone service incorporates patent-protected technology from Unified Communications Corp., a privately held company in business to provide outstanding customer service and telephony products. Teleblends has been working behind the scenes already to restore and continue service for all Sun Rocket customers The service works in the same way as SunRocket.s and offers an identical feature set with our Unlimited Transfer Plan.
. No Startup Costs
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Copy and paste the following link into your Internet browser: http://www.myteleblend.net

It has been our pleasure to service you at SunRocket!


At what point is incompetence treasonous?

Our President is delusional... when will the Senate have the guts to hold our Commander in Chief accountable? For someone with an MBA, President Bush does not understand that the economic and human sacrifices of this war are sunk costs, expenses which are unrecoverable and shouldn't be considered when determining whether to abandon or continue a particular action.


Is Atlanta real estate a buy?

The NY Times has an article today on Atlanta's increasing rate of foreclosures. What the article fails to highlight is the fact that borrowers in metro Atlanta use interest-only mortgages at a higher rate than the rest of the nation, which is a key contributor to the increased foreclosure rate. Those who took out a 6-month LIBOR +1% interest-only mortgage in June of 2003 when LIBOR was at 1.124% have had their mortgage payments more than triple in the last 4 years.

Buying low and selling high are the keys to profitable investing, but knowing what is a high and/or low is often difficult. My barometer for knowing a good real estate investment opportunity is its ability to generate positive cash flow, but that doesn't apply to people who are in the business of flipping houses.


Lou Ferrigno is calling

In general I don't like receiving gifts. If I need something I buy it... or I figure out a way to buy it. I have most of what I want, and what I don't have I don't need. Despite peoples' best intentions, unless a gift has been cleared by my wife (who knows what I need before I do) it will probably be converted to cash via eBay unless it has a gift receipt. Remember, it's the year to de-clutter. So around my birthday and Christmas I'm known as being "difficult to buy for".

Several years ago my brother found a crazy and unique birthday gift that didn't get put on a shelf to collect dust. He had Lou Ferrigno call to wish me a happy birthday! Yes, it was the Lou Ferrigno whose 15 minutes of fame ended when The Incredible Hulk television series was cancelled in the early 80's. My brother doesn't have any Hollywood connections, but he did find Hollywood Is Calling who does. You've got to love the Internet! What random and crazy gifts have you received?


Update on Saving with VoIP

With my Sunrocket deal expiring next month, it's time to switch VoIP providers. And just in time, ViaTalk is running a promotion offering unlimited local & long distance calling for $199 for 2 years with free router (but activation is $29.95 and shipping is $9.95) which comes to $9.95 per month. Until I can convince my wife to drop our "land line" in lieu of cellular only, this is hard to beat.


Visit Amusement Parks for FREE!

There are numerous scam "mystery shopping" websites, but I wanted to highlight one that is completely legit: Amusement Advantage. Should you choose to apply, be sure and have 25-30 minutes available to register.

I live in Atlanta, and they currently have 5 open assignments (opportunities for prospective mystery shoppers) for Six Flags over Georgia, two for weekdays and three for weekends, as well as 3 weekend assignments for Zoo Atlanta.

The requirements of an assignment as well as the payment varies, but don't expect to quit your day job to become a mystery shopper.

Out of Pocket Cost
For the Six Flags assignment, the shopper is required to: purchase at least one ticket at the ticket booth, buy a prepared food item at a food location, pay to play an employee serviced game, and make a purchase at a gift shop. Here is my "back of the envelope" calculation of the minimum cost for a family of four (two adults & two children--a 4-year old and the other child under 2): $10 parking + a children's ticket is $29.99 + $3 tax (no fee for children < 2) + $30 for food + $5 for the game + $5 for a gift shop purchase ~ $83.

Shopping Requirements
The assignment requires the shopper to have a digital camera and spend 5-6 hours at the park. In addition to the above tasks, the shopper also needs to take 10-15 pictures of employees without name tags as well as any conditions that warrant a picture (such as overflowing trash cans, etc.). After the visit, the shopper will need to upload the photos and complete a 10-12 page evaluation that will take 2-3 hours to complete. Receipts for the ticket booth, food service, and retail purchase will also need to be submitted.

In return for completing the assignment, the shopper will receive 2 tickets to Six Flags before the "shop" and 2 tickets after. Amusement Advantage indicates that these 4 tickets are worth $175.96, but you can buy tickets online for $39.99 each + $3 charge for "Print-n-go" = $162.96.

I look at mystery shopping as a way to offset some of the cost of visiting an entertainment venue that I already plan on visiting. Should you choose to become a mystery shopper, don't forget to look at other states for assignments before leaving on an out-of-state vacation!


Camping trial run

Camping in the back yard before venturing away from home was a brilliant idea, and we decided that Saturday was as good a night as any. The tent was raised with ease, and I'm even more happy with the purchase than when I clicked "buy".

My toddler and preschool-age daughters had a late nap in anticipation of a late evening. We gathered up sticks and started a fire in an outdoor metal fire-pit. Once the fire was red hot, the butter-laden and foil-wrapped corn on the cobb was left in the fire for 15 minutes to cook. Hot dogs grilled over the fire rounded out the nutritious backyard dinner.

By the time we finished the first two courses, the sun had set and the mosquitoes were finishing their own feeding (of us). We put my youngest in her pack-and-play, and closed off her "room" of the tent. She didn't like the distractions we provided and let us know with her crying, so she got half the tent.

To round out the camping culinary experience, the rest of us cooked marshmallows & made smores.

Next up was the true test of whether we'd be able to go camping anytime soon... bedtime for our 3 1/2 year old. She was going to sleep in an all-in-one Dora sleeping bag/inflatable mattress while my wife and I were on a queen size inflatable mattress with a cotton blanket to help wick away the sweat; even laying on top of the sleeping bag was too hot. How could I forget to mention the temperature was 86 degrees with absolutely no breeze?

Other environmental factors not boding well for a good night camping included a bright spotlight on a neighbor's house behind us as well as what sounded like an outdoor party at another house in the neighborhood behind us.

Once settled into the tent, I told a couple of camp stories, and my wife and I read several books before officially declaring it bedtime. We stared out the open top (we didn't have the canopy over the tent since there was 0% chance of rain) and saw the moon, a few stars, but mostly we just saw airplanes. This peace was interrupted with, "I need to go potty."

Since I was closest to the tent exit, I climbed out, put my shoes on, and carried her into the house to do her business. This scenario was repeated several more times within a 45 minute period. Once back in the tent, she was too excited to go to sleep. She wanted to lay on the tent floor rather than her sleeping bag/mattress. Then she wanted to sleep on Mommy and Daddy's mattress. Then she wanted to talk about the stars. Everyone was hot, and it was pretty obvious that only my youngest was going to get any meaningful sleep unless something happened. And at 11:21pm Saturday night, it did. Without a complaint, we all decided to head to our cozy beds and air conditioned house.

October sounds like a great month to try this again!


Camping with kids

For Father's Day this year, my wife and girls surprised me with a family tent along with a plan to go camping next Saturday night. After much thought and discussion, we decided to do more research on tents and give consideration to a "trial run" of camping in the backyard before venturing out for a "real" night out under the stars.

Doing the research, I learned a lot. For one thing, only figure that 2/3 of the manufacturer's listed occupant capacity can comfortably sleep in the tent. So for a 6-person tent, 4 would fit comfortably. Another thing I learned is to seal all of the stitching, regardless of the manufacturer's claims of a tent's ability to stay waterproof. And camping technology has changed a lot since I last went camping as a Boy Scout. There are now tents that are wired for electricity, including the Eureka N!ERGY 1310, which has 3 12-volt outlets inside. And there are now two popular types of tent structures, the traditional dome and the newer cabin-style, which gives you more head-room.

We decided we wanted a tent that could comfortably sleep 5 and had a relatively high ceiling. After hours of time spent online reading reviews and checking out innumerable sites, we finally decided upon the Wenger Lugano 16- by 10-Foot Two-Room Eight-Person Family Tent with Canopy. It has a 4.5* rating after 23 customer reviews, and Amazon was running a special of $20 off, making this tent $100 with free shipping.

Others in the running were the Columbia Cougar Flats Six to Eight-Person Two-Room Cabin Tent for $249.97 which was rated at 4.5* with 75 customer reviews, and the Eureka Titan Luxury Family 13.5- by 9.5-Foot Eight-Person Two-Room Tent for $449.90 which was rated 4* with 4 customer reviews. Should we decide that camping really is for us and the tent we're buying doesn't meet our needs, we'll upgrade later.

Any advice on "gotta have" gadgets or camping with younger children?


Save big by shopping online

Like many, I loathe shopping in retail stores and most of my purchases are made via the Internet. Prior to making a purchase, I follow several steps to ensure I'm getting the best deal and doing so has saved me thousands:

1) Conduct a Google search to find out if there's a coupon code or promotion available for the item I want to purchase or the merchant from which I'm planning on purchasing the item
2) Check eBay to see if someone has the item available in new or nearly-new condition
3) Search the SlickDeals and FatWallet forums to learn if anyone has found a better deal or an obscure rebate on the item I want
4) Look up the prospective merchant via one of several commission rebate sites and select the site giving the best cash back on the merchant who will get my business

For the fourth step, my sites of choice are Upromise, Ebates, and FatWallet. I checked my commissions from these sites in preparation for writing this entry and was surprised that my commission rebate checks totaled $636.82 over the last 4 years. I've received $392.82 from Upromise, $209.49 from Ebates, and $34.51 from FatWallet.

The premise behind Upromise is terrific--it was started to give families an easy way to save for college. You can even link a 529 plan from Vanguard or one from 8 states so that funds are automatically transferred to your child's 529 account. Some of the companies offering cash-back through Upromise include Exxon, eBay, McDonald's, CVS, Wal-Mart.com, and many others.

Should you choose to sign up for Ebates, do so by clicking here so you'll get a $5 bonus for signing up; I get a $5 referral bonus as well. As long as your cash-back amount is greater than $5, you'll receive a check each quarter. Just a few of Ebates' participating retailers include iTunes, Sears, REI, OfficeDepot, NetFlix, and Gap.

FatWallet has both forums as well as offering commission rebates, and I've recently found that they often give 1 to 2 percentage points more than Upromise or Ebates. Many of the participating retailers overlap those that participate in the Upromise and Ebates programs, but several of those offering a higher commission rebate include Target, Newegg, Apple, Kmart, Snapfish, and uBid.com.

A new entrant and competitor to the previously mentioned sites is Jellyfish which gives commission rebates but also has a live show 24/7 that is basically an online version of the Home Shopping Network with fluctuating prices. Again, it has many of the same retailers participating, but I noticed that Jellyfish is offering a 7.5% rebate from Target vs. only 4.4% from FatWallet and 4% from Ebates & Upromise. It's certainly worth a look.


My home, my castle: Living room renovation - update #8

With the living room construction done, the decorating has begun. FLOR carpet tiles are going to be used in lieu of an area rug and have been ordered. The lounge chairs and black-out window shades are also on order and will be arriving soon.

Ultimately I'd like to replace the glass-top coffee table as it's not the safest to have with kids in the house, but that's not in the budget now.

Over the weekend I picked up enough 18" travertine tile for the fireplace surround, but the color was too light. Fortunately Atlanta has some great sources for tile. I'll probably end up getting it from Floor-Stone (yes, their website sucks) where I purchased the bamboo several years ago. I've found that their listed prices aren't always firm, and they're much more open to haggling than other retail flooring stores.


Scales of justice

I got to be up close and personal with the law this week as I was not only picked for jury duty but was actually chosen to serve on a jury.

Georgia used to have pretty liberal laws as it relates to jury duty, and it was easy for white collar professionals to avoid serving. That has changed. In fact I was sitting next to a doctor in the jury waiting room.

As luck would have it, I was among 30 prospective jurors chosen to be queried by the prosecution and defense attorneys. During jury selection, I was picked as juror #12 and thus the last juror to decide the case.

Having two preschool girls, I wasn't eager to hear a case of sexual assault and child molestation, but that was my lot. After sitting through the trial, it surprises me--no, it scares me that the defendant was charged. The Assistant District Attorney did a poor job of prosecuting the case, and the police investigation was beyond incompetent (failing to interview potential witnesses, never visiting the location of the alleged attack, not knowing key details of the child's home life as it related to other adult males, and never answering two critical questions the child refused to answer). There was absolutely no evidence other than he said/she said, and an innocent man's life has been hell for two years as a result.

Jury deliberation was very interesting, and I'm growing to dislike evangelical Christians more and more. Something bad happened to a little girl, but just because a defendant is black and male does not mean that individual should be the one to pay for the crime. Fortunately logic and reason prevailed, but only after hours of challenging the juror's stubborn belief that was not supported by evidence.

In the end justice was served and an innocent man is free, though it wasn't a pretty process.


My home, my castle: Living room renovation - Weekend update #7

One thing I've learned after doing the living room remodel: I suck at measuring, cutting, and installing crown molding. Fortunately my wife is great at using wood filler and caulk to hide my mistakes.

The room was habitable by Monday morning, and by the end of the evening, most of the finishing touches were done to the room.

I still have some things to do along the hallway between the living room and kitchen as well as tile around the fireplace, but the project is 90% complete and looks fantastic. I can't believe this is the same room that was dark and felt cramped; the room feels huge, and getting rid of unnecessary doorways along the hallway and leading from the foyer has made the living room so much brighter.