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3rd January 2012

12:07pm: Housing 2: Looking back on the purchase
We finally did it; the purchase closed and we own a house!

I did say I'd document what we ended up doing, to compare our estimates going in to what we actually ended up with. Maybe someone will find this information helpful, but in part I just want to do a post-mortem sanity check.

Okay, first some up-front facts. As I said before, at my previous apartment I was paying $999/month for 1450 square feet, 3br 2ba. (The rate for new tenants was something like $1050, close enough.) Now I have 2183 square feet (3br 2.5ba) plus a 2-car garage, and a yard and a deck. The house's list price was $183,900, and we offered $180,000. Because we didn't have much cash for a down payment, we got an FHA loan at 3.5% down payment. With everything, the PITI (principle + interest + taxes + insurance... in other words, the monthly payment) comes to ~$1275/month.

(More specifically, the principle and interest is $825, the mortgage insurance for putting less than 20% down is $165, and taxes and insurance are $285.)

So, I'm paying ~25% more towards my residence, but getting 50% more living space, not counting the garage and yard. (And that payment will drop when we pay off enough to cancel the mortgage insurance... which will take 5-10 years, but will happen eventually.) There are other benefits, like not sharing walls/ceilings with neighbors. If you wanted that much space in an apartment I think it would cost a lot more than $1275/month.

I did say before that there were a lot of foreclosures going for under $100,000, and that's true. But once I spent many hours sorting through the listings, and saw some of them in person after getting an agent, I saw that most of them were either too small, or were badly designed/laid out, or in too bad of shape. If you have the money and time to hire contractors to spend many months fixing up a house, you could end up with a great house for an amazing price.

I was a little more eager to move than that, but mostly I just don't have that kind of cash on hand. I'm willing to do some upgrades over the long term, but in the 12-month future I wanted something that was close to move-in ready. (I also found, after seeing a bunch of houses, that the features I was looking for in the layout (large kitchen, spacious master bath, etc.) just weren't done in older houses. I decided I'd rather have a newer house that's laid out how I wanted, than a charming older house that doesn't fit how I know I use my dwelling space.)

We had already set ourselves an absolute maximum of $200,000, figuring that we should easily be able to find something less than that, but if we did go that high it would still be a safe purchase given our income/spending. (It's actually a very conservative number, as we could afford that much on just my income alone, though it would be at the limit of what's recommended.) So although our goals shifted a bit as we explored options, we stayed within our plan. The house appraised at $200,000 to buy or $233,000 to build, so I think we managed to get a good deal, too... just not as good as I'd rather optimistically thought we could get.

To complete the purchase, we put 3.5% down, so that's ~$6300. There are also a lot of additional costs at closing, such as fees to set up your mortgage, paying for lender-required inspections and appraisals, and starting off your escrow account (used to pay taxes and homeowner's insurance). However, Fannie Mae offered an incentive of 3.5% of the sale price towards closing costs if we closed by a certain date. So even though I thought our closing costs were a bit high (the loan origination fee seemed a bit pricey to me), we ended up owing nothing in closing costs... we only had to pay the down payment and the escrow, which came to ~$7900.

There are lots of expenses that go with maintaining a home, which you don't have to deal with in an apartment. Even little things, like needing garden hoses and ladders... until now I've never needed them.

I also had to purchase/install quite a lot of things in fairly short order so that we could move in, such as a refrigerator. But, I got to purchase my refrigerator, so I have one that is spacious, efficient, and arranged the way I want it. It's unfair to say that it's a purchase I had to make because I own a house, because I would have done it in the apartment if I could, except I wasn't allowed to.

(Speaking of better quality, I now have walls constructed with proper insulation and 5/8" drywall, a powerful, high-efficiency HVAC... instead of the cheapest materials and systems the builders and managers could get away with. The list just goes on.)

So, I assert that although I'm paying more than I was as a renter (both per-month and in a continuing series of "one-time" purchases like the fridge), I'm getting much more for my money. If I had shopped for a house that was roughly the same size and build quality as my apartment, I'm certain I would have ended up paying less than I did for rent.

But there's the additional benefit that of the $1275/month I pay, $258 of it is building up equity in the house (assuming the value of the house remained constant), and I can count $566 of it as a deduction on my taxes. If you naively equate building equity with keeping the money, and treat the rest of it as being thrown away, then I'm throwing away $1017/month... almost exactly the same as I threw away in rent! Except with the mortgage, that number will slowly shrink as I pay off the principal (rent only ever goes up), and it will drop by an extra $165 when I pay off 20% and can drop the mortgage insurance.

Granted, for "throwing away" the same amount of money, I'm getting less services. No one comes to cut my grass or blow the driveway. But again, on the other hand I have a lawn and driveway that I don't have to share with others. So you get more of some things and less of others, and it's a matter of perspective which is better.

For the sake of comparison, I ran my actual numbers through Ginnie Mae's Buy vs. Rent Calculator, just to see what it says. I'm using an assumption that I'll stay in the house for 5 years before moving. Depending on the tax rate and appreciation rates I enter, it thinks I'll save anywhere from $12,000 to $34,000 by buying.

Some thoughts for anyone who hasn't already gone through the home-buying process before:
  • Any house—new, used, or foreclosed—is a risk, and your only defense is a thorough and trustworthy inspection. It's true that when people are evicted from their foreclosed house, they often strip it down, taking light fixtures, shower curtain rods, etc. However, you're probably saving more than $10,000 by buying a foreclosed or REO house, so you can afford to install new fixtures... and now you have your choice of style. The warnings that people who are foreclosed on may have slacked on regular maintenance and upkeep also apply to regular sales, too, and constant vigilance on your part is the only way to avoid a problem house. I will definitely include REOs in my search the next time I buy a house; banks are likely to paint, replace carpets, and do some upgrades to make the house reasonably presentable.
  • Do some introspection and know as much as you can about what you want from a house before you talk to an agent. Know what area you want to live in, what size house you want, how you want the house to be laid out, features you definitely want or don't want, etc. You can have ranges or multiple options for all of these questions, but the more questions to which you say "I don't know" or "I don't care", the harder it's going to be for the agent to sift through the listings looking for something that will fit you. In terms of space and features, we knew that we wanted a house that has a logical use of internal space (i.e., prefer no grand entrys or cathedral ceilings, no awkward sized bonus rooms, no pointless ledges or decorative pillars), a large gourmet kitchen, a formal dining room, and a spacious master bath.

1st June 2011

9:59am: Housing: Rent vs. Buy
Wow, it's been a long time since I used LiveJournal for anything. Anyway, to the topic at hand:

First, I of course have to disclaim myself: I'm no expert. I've been trying to read some books to educate myself on the home-buying process, and I'm not expecting to shop seriously for another 6 months or so, so that I can get my finances a little more settled with my new job.

My goal is not to get rich; I just want to use my resources wisely (savings, income, education, credit, etc.). I think of housing as an "investment" in the same way as a savings account: it's doing something with money that's better than sticking it under a mattress or lighting it on fire. I'm not trying to speculate or gamble with my money, just make it work for me.

To simplify the discussion, I'll give out some numbers to work with. My take-home pay—after deducting the $5000 annual limit for an IRA and taxes—should be around $4,800/mo. Currently I'm paying $1000/mo for rent, for which I get 3br/2ba in 1450 square feet. My credit rating is excellent (or whatever they like to call the top rating). I have a bit of debt in student loans and credit cards, each of which I could knock out in less than 6 months if I followed an aggressive schedule. However, I have no savings to speak of, so knocking out the debt precludes saving a significant amount (which may not be a bad thing; it just depends on how much money I'm going to need on hand and how soon). I'm planning on staying put for at least 4 years from now (so that company stock options can vest, and so I can build up some really strong experience for my résumé).

Some quick things I'm not sure everyone knows. 1) Yes, I have very little money for a down payment. There are options for first-time homebuyers like FHA that can help you get a mortgage with very little down payment. That's as much as I'll say on that, since I haven't researched it thoroughly, but let's assume for argument's sake that it's possible for me to get a mortgage for as little as 5% down. 2) There continues to be a glut of distressed houses in Atlanta right now. There are options like short sales, where the owner sells a house for less than it's worth to stave off foreclosure. Then, during the actual foreclosure process, houses are auctioned off at the courthouse. The people who buy at foreclosure auctions are mostly investors, and you have to really know what you're bidding on if you don't want too much of a gamble. (If you have some prior knowledge about a house that you know is going up for auction, it can make sense.) I'm more interested in REO (houses that failed to auction and are now owned by the lender, who wants to get rid of it as soon as possible) and HUD (the Fed's Housing & Urban Development program, which sells foreclosed homes and gives preference to first-time buyers). In both of those cases, the home is already vacant, and you can see and inspect it before bidding, which minimizes the risk of ending up with a house in need of major repairs.

According to a quick loan search on Google, with 5% down payment (including FHA loans, obviously), I could get a $150,000 mortgage for ~5% with $2,500 or less in fees, leaving me with payments of $800/mo.

Most of the distressed homes in Atlanta are going for $100,000 or less ($50,000 is a much more common number) depending on how big you want to go. (I viewed a home from an estate sale going for $160,000 that was way more house than I need—about twice as big as my current apartment. And a mortgage for that would still be $200/mo less than what I'm paying now, excluding the one-time costs of buying.) At the more realistic prices, I'm looking at payments of $500/mo for $100,000, or $400/mo for $75,000, or $250/mo for $50,000.

I ran some numbers through Ginnie Mae's Buy vs. Rent Calculator (note: doesn't seem to work in Chrome), which says it takes into account the one-time costs and the additional costs of taxes and insurance. I had to distort the numbers very heavily against buying just to get them to come up roughly even over 4 years. And as above, the numbers I ran would get me a house that's much larger and nicer than the apartment I'm in now, so for roughly the same amount of money spent I'd be getting a lot more house.

So, here's where I'm confused: The cost of buying in Atlanta is currently much lower than renting, due to low interest and an excess of distressed homes. Renting doesn't ever make money: if I spend $48,000 in the next 4 years on rent, I'm out $48,000. If I spend that same amount on a house, that's potentially $40,000 in equity I could build up, which could be put towards the cost of a next house, or gotten back by selling the house and going back to renting. (I'm excluding some money for one-time fees, and assuming the value of the house stays constant. With a distressed home, you're buying it for less than it's worth, so that's very unlikely, but let's make the simplest assumption.) More likely, I could get a roughly-equivalently-sized house for about half as much, paying only $24,000 over 4 years (and building up $20,000 in equity), which leaves me an additional $20,000 to invest in savings, stocks, mutual funds, or anything else.

Obviously there's a worst case, where housing prices continue to plummet, and I end up with no equity. But in that case, I would have either 1) spent the last n years in a much nicer house than my current apartment, or 2) put the money I saved on a mortgage that's lower than rent into other investments. Yes, I would have lost money, but I was going to lose money renting, too.

So, everyone, please inform and educate me. What am I overlooking or miscalculating that would make renting preferable to buying given the current situation in Atlanta and my current finances?

24th November 2010

1:40pm: I like my Kindle. People are speculating a lot about whether e-books will replace paper books, and how this will change the publishing industry.

I'll skip to the end of that discussion and say: No, they won't replace them entirely. An e-book reader is better than books, but it's not as good as a book. It's convenient to shove it in my bag and be able to read whatever I please, rather than having to pick and choose half a dozen trade paperbacks which still take up too much space. But it will never compare to having a book in your hand.

For an example that will unquestionably prove my point, just try to use a textbook on an e-reader. Have you ever been working a homework problem and stuck your fingers in 4 different places where you needed to reference tables or explanations? Yeah, try doing that on an e-reader where just "turning" the page takes half a second. Now imagine having to navigate menus to choose a bookmark... ugh. No, textbooks are at least one area where e-book readers will never replace paper books.

Now, having said that, what I'd actually like to do is go over some of the little faults I've found that make the e-book experience worse than paper books.

The resolution is not one of them. It has an 800x600 screen that's about 6 inches wide, so it's very high resolution, enough so that you really can't see pixels to speak of. And the text is nicely antialiased, so it looks very nice.

Hyphenation, line breaking, and justification are all problems. We figured this out decades ago with TeX, so I don't understand why it can't hyphenate words. (Hyphenation and evenly-broken lines are one of those subtle things that contribute to making text look "nice", even if most people don't consciously notice it.) They say that they're trying to keep from having to do hyphenation and line justification on low-power devices, but... you know what, it's not that difficult! TeX does it in milliseconds on my fast machine, and you only have to do it once when you load the file on to the device.

Non-text items are also a problem. Textbooks with formulas, for instance... the only one I tried just had low-resolution JPEGs for the formulas and mathematical symbols in the text that weren't in the font. It looks awful, it's sometimes not even readable, and it's just a disgrace.

A lot of the books you can download are scanned and OCRed... badly. There are typos! I'm going along reading some fantasy novel and there are typos in my book because of the OCR! That's also shameful.

I just tried downloading some short stories in Japanese, and it seems they just did the text as a high-resolution (but not antialiased) JPEG. I know internally it's all Unicode, so why can't we handle languages other than English? Come on.

While I'm at it... Project Gutenberg. Their documents are in ASCII? What the fuck were they thinking?! They talk about how they could easily convert their ZIP files to a different format, but then they decide to store their books in a dying format with no internationalization support and no text markup, and this is supposed to be a good thing?

What they should have done is settle on Unicode for the text, design some simple markup (probably based on XML) for basic text features like, I dunno, italics... y'know, shit that needs to be there, and then from that they can easily convert to all the other formats like they're already doing. If you decide to change your markup, fine... so long as the old format is well-documented and simple enough to be easily portable, it doesn't really matter what it is.

(They're trying to justify using plain text instead of proprietary word processor formats, and that's fine. But it's not an excuse for not providing any way to mark up text.)

What I'd like to see improved in the e-book file format is: better support for metadata (lots of fields for author, translator, title, all with various sortings (last name first, first name first, title sorted ignoring articles, etc)); insert soft hyphens in every word where you allow them (optionally with some way to encode the weight) and have the reader do hyphenation and line breaking properly; support world languages (composing East Asian characters, right-to-left text, Indic scripts, etc.).

An extra nicety would be to provide a way to handle formulas gracefully, maybe by allowing embedded graphics to be SVG.

I like that they designed something that's not just a PDF, so it displays the text in a manner of its choosing, letting my change the text size and stuff and automatically reflowing the document. (That's why PDFs don't convert very well, because they've already had text flow done.) There ought to be some reasonably standard and simple format such that I can output my TeX document as an e-book and take advantage of all these features.

20th November 2010

6:47pm: I just spent the last 26 hours with no Internet access at home. I have a term paper due on Monday and a final exam on Tuesday, both of require the Internet for me to be able to work on them.

I had to spend about 2 hours on the phone with Comcast over those 26 hours to convince them that yes, someone needs to show up today to fix this. It turns out that my modem was dead, so I bought a new one to replace it, and now everything is peachy. Nothing was actually wrong with the connection.

This means that, strictly speaking, Comcast did absolutely nothing wrong. I have no idea why my modem died; it was more than 4 years old, which is about the lifetime of a cablemode, according to the tech who showed up (who was very knowledgeable and talked with me at length about behind-the-scenes upgrades they're making to their service). However, the only way for me to know that the signal was okay would be to use a testing unit like he had, or plug in a different modem. Neither of those are viable options for me without spending at least $100.

So, was I right to demand that Comcast show up just so they could tell me it was my problem to fix? Well, what else was I supposed to do? I have no way of knowing whether there's a problem on their end, and I'm not going to blow my money on a fool's errand buying new equipment until I know that I actually need to. And waiting until Monday or Tuesday was not an option; I need the Internet to complete my paper and study for my final.

I'm still not convinced I want to keep Comcast. Even though they met me demands and sent someone to fix it today, they've just pushed me past my limit. Every 4-6 months I have to call them up because it's stopped working due to a more-than-transient failure.

Annoyingly, the decision is a little more complicated now. The new modem is (at the tech's recommendation) a very powerful DOCSIS 3.0 modem, and the "low-end" bandwidth limits have been upped to 20Mbps/4Mbps. I have to say, this is quite fast, and I welcome the extra speed. And (also according to the tech) Comcast is building their own Internet routing backbone to take advantage of the fat pipes they have available.

Unfortunately, other Internet solutions are not at this speed yet, and to get anything close definitely costs more.

So that being the case... what do I do? I haven't done any research yet to see if other companies are more reliable, and while I like the speed, I'm sick of having fast Internet that goes down at really inconvenient times (NB: pretty much any time it's down is inconvenient, because I use it all the time). I think I would be willing to have sacrifice some speed to have a more reliable connection. I've been quite used to 6Mbps/768kbps and unless I'm running really big torrents---or downloading huge road map database dumps---it's plenty fast most of the time.

Television, by the way, is a separate issue. My analog capture card is still broken with MythTV. I'd like to say "fuck it" and replace the card with a different one. But this digital-analog thing is a problem. Having to use an IR blaster and capture only SD video is kind of lame.

As far as I can tell, I could buy a satellite card with a slot for a satellite CM card, and if they would activate the CM card to authorize the computer, everything would Just Work. I might only get one pick of satellite provider, for now (until the other one transitions to DVB-S), but I can probably live with that.

The only question is whether they would actually authorize it. I suppose I could slip the installation tech a benjie to encourage him. Aside from that, I haven't heard any technical reason why it won't work.

27th September 2010

11:15pm: Well, that's that. I finally got my ass over to the dentist, where I learned that I have 7 cavities, 2 of which are the totally destroyed areas of back molars that I knew about which would be difficult to treat (and even if I did, they would be hard to keep clean even if I had excellent oral hygiene, which I don't), so they're going to be extracted.

So there. Game over; I gambled with my mouth and lost. I'm tired of being plagued with worry about it, so I'm vowing to get this fixed as quickly and thoroughly as possible, sparing no expense and sacrificing no quality.

Time to go brush my teeth. Should have done it just after I ate...

19th May 2009

11:41am: I love working on cars!
A friend, Grant, is stuck waking up at 4:15 every day to take public transit in to work from campus. As it happens, he works across the street from me, but that doesn't really help him at all. Clearly he needs a car (despite still only having his learner's permit). I suggested that ridingsloth's old Honda, which I was fairly certain was not in use at all, might be available as a cheap option... providing he fixed it. I asked ridingsloth, who said the car was Grant's for the low price of getting it running.

So, we've now spent 3 part-days working on the car. I used to help my dad do a few things on our tractor, including removing the mowing deck so the blades could be sharpened, but that was a diesel engine; it just doesn't require much maintenance, and didn't have many accessories. I know how to change the oil in a car, but I've never done it myself, let alone anything more complicated than changing a tire. (I'm really good at jump-starting cars, though. I seem to have to do it a couple times a year (not usually for my own car).)

I'm pleased to say that I've now inspected spark plugs and a distributor, drained gasoline, and partially flushed and bled brake lines. What's more, I love doing it! We took a car that had sat unused for two years and wouldn't start, and have gotten it to start, fixed the soft brake pedal, and (by sheer luck) got the fourth cylinder to fire again. I feel incredibly accomplished.

I'll hate to see Grant take the car; I've now put enough work into it to feel some ownership, especially since with the engine running more like it ought to, it drives much better than it did when I borrowed it to practice driving stick. 5500 RPM out of a car that used to "shake like a junkie" above 3000!

16th January 2009

8:42am: I have a secret
I.... love... Grey's Anatomy.

The only thing is that you have to realize that it's not a medical drama, like House. It's more of a soap opera set in a hospital, only without the bad writing and acting and whatever that permeates the actual genre of soap operas.

When I started watching it, they introduced the main character (in as much as an ensemble cast has one), and the guy she slept with who was a bit of a sleazebag. But over the course of half a season, things change a bit and you grow to like him. Then his estranged wife shows up, and of course you hate her. But then you come to see that she screwed up, and you feel bad for her. Then the guy she cheated on her husband with drops by, and of course nobody likes him. But eventually you start to realize that, while he is an ass, you really can't blame him for it either; he makes up with the husband, and they go back to being friends like they were before, and so everything's okay.

They've repeated this cycle like a dozen times: introduce a character, get you to hate them, and then transform them to where you actually sympathize with the character enough to like them. Even the characters I loathed from the get-go, absolutely bitterly despised, have been turned around through this process.

Somewhere around the sixth time they pulled this stunt, I started to realize how masterful it is to repeat the same sequence so many times, without it feeling like the show is just recycling the same idea, and to do it successfully every time.

The other thing is that the show is packed with drama. In one episode, it's not just that (say) someone's sister shows up. It's that someone's sister shows up, and someone's fiancé dies, and a couple breaks up, all while victims of a car accident go in and out of surgery, living or dying seemingly at random, to provide a changing backdrop for the on-going drama.

10th December 2008

5:40am: Just a thought
In the UK the car I rented was, if I recall, a Vauxhall Corsa 5-door hatchback. 1.4L, 96.2 horsepower. That was a great car. I loved the way it handled, the gears, the comfort level of the interior. If I were looking for such a car (cheap supermini) that would definitely be on my list. I was driving around with 4 people, but it performed just like I'd expect it to.

In Australia I rented a Hyundai Getz, which was a 3-door hatchback, 1.4L 97HP. It was terrible. The seat was uncomfortable, the steering wheel was too far away while the pedals were too close, the gears were awful. This car would struggle to make it up some hills in 3. In terms of ride comfort, that was one of the worst cars I've been in, simply for the combination of seat and driver position. And considering I was the only one in the car, the performance was wretched.

8th December 2008

12:14am: I really should be studying right now
I was thinking about the possibility of commonplace cogeneration (electricity + heat) or trigeneration (electricity + heat + cold) in private homes.

It makes sense. Cogeneration is efficient, as it puts the heat of electrical generation to use. Some buildings use steam pipes for heating or other uses, and that steam comes from a cogeneration plant. Homes need heat in the winter, and domestic hot water year-round, so this could work. It's simply a matter of whether the cost of fueling the cogenerator is cheaper than purchasing electricity. (Likely, since electric companies overcharge private user and undercharge large [generally corporate] users.)

The problem is that if you don't want to overproduce heat or cold, you don't get much electricity out of it, so you aren't saving yourself much money. So you have to find good ways to put both (or all three, in the case of trigeneration) to use.

In the winter, you could use a Stirling engine, which produces electricity from a source of heat and cold. (Sounds crazy, but it's real. It extracts the difference in energy from the heat and cold sources to produce mechanical energy, which could power a generator. Small toy versions run on the heat from a cup of coffee vs ambient air, or even the heat from the palm of your hand.) The heat you produce by usual means (eg fuel), the cold comes from outside, and you get electricity and whatever heat is leftover to heat your home and your hot water. That's simple cogeneration.

In the summer it's more complicated. You can use other engines and chillers to take in heat (again produced by fuel) and generate electricity and cold. The cold air conditions your house, the excess heat goes to your water heater.

The problem is that in both scenarios, you're limited by the amount of heat or cold needed. You want your house to be comfortable, not overly heated or overly cooled.

Then it hit me. Many people have a pool! A pool is nothing but a 25,000 gallon heat sink. Now let's see how this works.

In the summer, you can cool your house, and use that heat energy to warm your pool. If you've never owned a pool you might not realize that a comfortable pool temperature doesn't occur naturally in most parts of the US; many people use solar covers to heat the pool when it's not in use.

In the winter, you can heat your house and the pool, which will take a lot of energy since the pool will require a lot of heat. But you'll generate a lot of electricity, and whatever you don't use, the power company buys from you! (Yes, this too is real. The spinning power meter can go backwards, and if it does, you get paid (in the US).) Now your house is warm, the pool is open year-round, and you're paying less for electricity, if not taking in money from it.

I have no idea whether this is practical. Even ignoring the cost of equipment, I don't know what the relative costs are of commercially-generated electricity vs heat-producing methods. Certainly you could use fuel (gasoline, diesel, natural gas, etc.) but those are probably not the best option. Nuclear is not bloody likely. Solar is an option, as are fuel cells.

Oh, here we go. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MicroCHP. It's right in pointing out that you want to size your home installation of cogeneration to not produce excess heat, since we need much more electricity than heat, but doesn't discuss this idea about using pool water as a heat sink.

3rd December 2008

7:08pm: Superficial thoughts on Australia
Most of these could be applied to traveling abroad in general.

* There are not enough TV stations. Also, it's interesting how channels Eight, Nine, and Ten are on 4, 5, and 6 in my hotel. This idea of numbered stations is confusing (the only major one we have is ESPN2; I'm not counting local stations including their broadcast channel in their ID). In American hotels we usually have 20 stations, sure, but at home assuming you purchase cable, you get at least 60-80 channels, possibly many hundred.

* The power sockets are annoying. It's at least better than the UK where you have to have 3 prongs because there are shutters inside the outlet for protection. And it's inherently polarized, which I appreciate. But really, these outlets are huge. On top of that, each outlet has a switch on it, which would probably be unnecessary if you weren't using enough voltage to seriously injure a person.

* On the plus side, all of my equipment I've had to use can automatically adapt to any frequency and voltage, so I can actually use a very small adaptor for most things.

* From my observations, about 80% of Aussies tend to walk on the left. It's tough to tell because fewer than 10% of Chinese tourists bother to adapt to the local custom. Since I seem to walk faster than both of them, I end up dodging and weaving down the sidewalk.

Seriously, people. When you go somewhere else, don't take your own culture with you. Adapt. It shows that you're not a stuck-up asshole.

* Australian beer is disappointing. The major stuff is on par with the big American beers, which is to say it's all light lagers with little flavor that are hardly drinkable. I've been told the microbrews are better, but I've yet to actually find any. Even in microbrewery-deprived Georgia it's relatively easy to find a bar that at least has something decent on tap.

* The wines, in contrast, are fantastic. Every one I've had has been excellent, even the ones that aren't my preferred styles.

* Sydney is a really great city. It's clean and very walkable. Sadly, I'm not really getting to see any of it because I'm busy with the conference.

* The pedestrian crossing signals make funny noises as an audio aid for the blind; at first I thought it was in imitation of some local bird, but apparently that's not the case. They are, however, incredibly slow; and once they do change, they change back faster than you can possibly walk across the street. I suppose the slowness is due to Australia's laid-back, no-hurry attitude, but I don't understand why they don't give you more time to cross.

* WHAT DO PEOPLE DRINK AT MEALS? We've had some nice meals as part of the conference, and yet only at one has there been a true bottomless glass of water. (But there was also bottomless wine and beer.) The lunches have come with shotglass-sized orange juice and water, with only enough for each person to have 1 to 2 glasses.

* My hotel, where I've eaten breakfast a couple times, has a Fruit Fucker 2000. It's an imposing machine into which you insert a whole fruit, and it separates the juice from the skin, pulp, seeds, and other components, which collect in a hideous-looking container at the back of the machine.

* I only tried a dab of Vegemite once, and it was obvious why it isn't very popular. The individual servings (again, from the hotel) are very small, which is as it should be. I should try it again for real, but it's pretty overpowering.

* More generally, it's interesting to note how some parts of Australia resemble the US, and some resemble the UK (breakfast foods, for instance. Also, toilets. I hesitate to claim that our version of something is better than the worldly alternative, but... the waterfall toilets, which are also the style of UK and Europe, do not work as well. It doesn't drain the bowl, just trades old water for new, so sometimes the toilet paper doesn't end up disappearing, which in our toilets (which the Japanese also use) only happens in poorly-designed toilets, and only occasionally.).

* The coins are enormous! They are all very thick and heavy (roughly as thick as a nickel), and quite large. The 50 cent piece is about as big as ours, while the 2 dollar piece is so tiny you could easily lose it.

Sorry, it's not much of a travelogue, "Australia is awesome" kind of post. But really, I've only had one day free, and evenings there have been conference events/dinners, after which I go out for a couple drinks with some of the other attendees. So in terms of sightseeing (not counting pubs) I haven't really gotten to see much at all.

20th November 2008

3:07am: Random recollection
One day (a few years ago, I think it was) I was talking to my dad on the phone. He related a story from the week. One of the pine trees behind the pool was dead, so he went to cut it down. Once he had felled it, he realized that he had cut down the wrong tree. He said his hands were shaking when he realized what he'd just done.

At the time I kind of laughed at it a bit, because that's what sons do, laugh at their dads' absent-mindedness. And I was sort of laughing at him for being so broken up about cutting down a tree. At the same time, though, I felt bad; without meaning to he'd cut down a perfectly healthy, living tree. I hate to say it but I think if I'd done that my hands would have been shaking, too.

11th November 2008

4:04am: I'm sleeping on someone's on-campus couch... again.

Something tells me I should maybe feel bad about this, but... I really don't. I mean, work (school) is here, as are the friends I've been spending much of my free time with. Why would it be better to spend the extra time (and fuel) just to go home and then come back for no reason other than properness?

I do need to prepare for this occurrence better; tomorrow I'll run to Walmart and stock myself with a set of basic toiletries so I can shower and freshen up. (Aside from borrowing their bathroom, I could also use the showers in the Klaus building (or the CRC)... though I wonder why that would make sense.)

I'm tempted to say I miss living on campus, but in truth, that's not what I miss. It's nice to have a hang-out place to go during the day; my lab sort of works for that, but I don't really have friends there, so it's more just a place to kill time. Really I think what I miss is having roommates with whom I can sit around the apartment and waste time with. Greg and Ken and I lead fairly insular lives at our place1. If I could transplant these guys into a nice, off-campus apartment, then it would make a lot more sense to consider living with them, but there's no way I could go back to making the sacrifices that living on-campus requires.

1 Funnily enough, when Greg drops in their apartment for game night on Mondays, he hangs out and we have fun and all that good stuff. It's just that we both treat our pad as a place to keep our belongings and sleep and not much else.

31st October 2008

4:53pm: I identified the hooligan kids who have been messing with my scooter. (Get off my lawn!) Nothing major, but every time I use it all the switches have been flipped, maybe there's minor damage like the bike was knocked over. I saw them hanging around it as I parked the car and walked inside, and I wasn't going to say anything until I saw one of them get on it, and then I decided we needed an intervention.

I remember being a kid, and being fascinated by other people's cool toys, and how humiliating it is to get chewed out for just being curious. So I struck a deal, and offered to take them for a quick spin around the parking lot. Unfortunately, the rubber seal around the valve stem is leaky, and now the rear tire has no air in it, so I don't even consider it safe to ride for myself, let alone with two people's weight on it. So, I said it would have to wait for another time, and hopefully they left feeling properly chastised.

But now I've got to fix my tires. (Both of them; the front grommet it looking worn, too.) Getting the rear tire off is a big ordeal; you have to take most of the gearbox off to access it. Anyone want to help me out with that some afternoon?
5:31am: No need to hide this
I must apologize... I am a lying sack of shit. Whenever I say, "I don't want replies," what I really mean is, "I desperately want the validation of knowing that somebody bothered to read this, but I don't want replies that just say 'Yeah, you've got everything right,' because if I thought I had everything figured out I wouldn't be so plagued with doubt, but I'm also afraid that you're going to point out exactly what I'm doing wrong and I'm going to feel stupid as a result."

It's passive-aggressive. I don't know why I just now connected that, but that's what it is, and since I'm done with passive-aggressiveness in my life, it stops now.

So... fuck it. Do whatever you want. Reply, don't reply. Cheer me up, put me down. If you think I'm being a whiny little bitch, call me on it. Just ignore whatever I say about what I want you to say.

What is with this weird bout of honesty and forthrightness? I haven't been on any cough syrup for 12 hours.

28th September 2008

9:11pm: I hate Atlanta citizens sometimes. Thanks to the gas shortage (imagine! who thought they'd live through an actual gas shortage in the 21st century?) people are stepping up to conserve, by taking public transit, carpooling, telecommuting, etc. But as soon as gas supply is back to normal they'll go back to doing things the way they were before... myself included.

It's the way supply and demand works, but it doesn't lead to people acting very altruistically.

26th September 2008

2:55am: I have my pictures from Japan up, finally. Not much with the pictures of people (*sigh*) but I do feel I got some pretty artistic shots of what I did shoot.

25th September 2008

9:45pm: I have two complains about POIs on my satnav.

(POI = Points of Interest. That is, lists of restaurants, gas stations, churches, parks, whatever.)

The map comes with the basic ones (like what I listed above) though it makes no guarantee of completeness. It is pretty satisfactory, though, and rarely wrong. You can also download user-submitted POI databases.

Problem 1: The interface on the program used to download new POIs is bad. You have to scroll through the list a page at a time, waiting on it to refresh each time, and after you install one you get sent back to the main menu and have to start over.

Problem 2 (the bigger one): The databases submitted are sometimes pretty obscure. "Grocery stores near Putnam, CT." "Rest stops off I-70 in Utah." "Wachovia banks in Hampton Roads, VA." "MIT Fraternities." You can also find databases that cover the whole nation... or so they claim. How do you tell the difference between "Quiznos" and "Quiznos Usa"? Which one is more complete or accurate?

A wiki style would be much better for this. The largest database I've seen is 10 MB; most are only a few hundred K. So it's not like you're likely to run out of room on your device if you load it up with a bunch of national databases. And the information would likely be more complete and up-to-date.

16th September 2008

7:48pm: As I mentioned before, I think, this PhD Comics strip is completely factual. As such, I've taken it to heart and am trying to be quicker about my e-mail writing: say what I need to say, don't draw things out, and press 'send'.

I must be doing okay because I replied to some industry personto tell him our testbed isn't quite ready for release yet, and my advisor complimented me on my response to him. (By which I mean I got an e-mail that read "good note. karsten". He can't even be bothered to capitalize letters.)

15th September 2008

11:21am: My paper got accepted! That means someone has to go to Sydney, and unless I'm mistaken, it's probably going to be me.

The comments are fun to read. A bit scathing at times, and very firm-minded. These people know exactly what they like and don't like about my paper. Still, I can turn it around and try to figure out what they didn't understand because I didn't make it clear enough.

More info to come later (like when I have it).

13th September 2008

4:20pm: Bandwagons
Life just doesn't come in a steady stream. It comes in huge bursts.

After giving in to Google Reader, I'm now feeling pressure to join Twitter and some other sites. I'm still not sure I "get" Twitter exactly, but it seems like a lot of my other school friends are on it, and that I'm missing out.

Speaking of social networking, I'm finally getting to where I have friends in school to hang out with. Not that people haven't been inviting me out to do things on the weekends. But it feels like it only comes after an hour of calling people trying to find out who is doing something sociable. I don't like feeling so desperate; in fact after so much effort, I start to just give up on having fun for the evening. I'd rather have to choose between activities than call around trying to find just one.

I do end up with a dilemma of having disjoint sets of friends, but I'll see if I can't integrate them now and then.

Which reminds me, I've just learned of a group called Monday Night Brewery. They're not a registered brewery yet, just a couple of guys who are experimenting to create some good beer in expectations of distributing it. I don't know when they meet, or how I'll make it out there if they meet during Glee Club rehearsals (which they probably do) but I'm going to have to go check it out.

29th August 2008

5:23pm: Oh crap, that was stupid
I opened up my contact lens case to find out I'd forgotten to fill one of the sides with solution before closing it.

26th August 2008

2:28am: Garfield Minus Garfield is much funnier when you're reading it with other people and you just start laughing and can't stop.

Also, I should try to remember how to be a guest in someone's apartment without soaking up their time against their will. It's been a while since I've gotten [had] to do that. (Actually, I never had to do that... it was always my apartment people were in!)

12th August 2008

2:13am: My D-Link router didn't work with my Mac's wireless, and on top of that Ethernet ports started flooding the network with packets and generally misbehaving, so I ditched it and bought a Linksys router. This went against my years of experience telling me that Linksys products are crap.

Sure enough, it's 6 months later, and the thing developed a problem where it would freeze up a couple times an hour. And I mean really freeze up; even LAN traffic dies. Many times it revives itself somehow, but not always.

For lack of any other solutions, I decided to go third-party firmware. Mine is one of the newer Linksys routers that only has 2 MB of flash memory and runs VxWorks, but no matter; DD-WRT has a micro distribution designed for it.

Good news, I didn't brick my router. But this new firmware doesn't seem much more stable than the old one. In fact I'd say it's less stable, although I wonder if maybe it's a bug in the httpd serving the management pages. (The status pages have a 3 second auto-refresh, but after staring at it for a while the processor usage skyrockets and the router dies. Monitoring it over telnet instead, though, it has been up for a little while now.)

As a makeshift solution I set the Keep Alive option, which pings a site periodically and reboots the router if it can't reach it. That way I can at least have access during the day, even if it is interrupted.

5th August 2008

4:32pm: Did you ever think that some technology has been around for so long, that it would just be that way forever? And yet, they manage to make improvements, like how water coolers now have a seal on the bottle so you can put it in without sloshing water all over the place.

4th August 2008

10:16am: Parking
I got my parking permit from Tech for the coming year. But instead of E40, the Klaus deck, the building I work in, they stuck me in E81, the Tech Square parking deck.

What the hell? I thought Parking's policy was that renewals get priority over new requests. The Klaus deck was never more than 2/3 full—the third floor never had more than half a dozen cars. It seems unlikely that so many people with higher priority signed up that they filled it up. Maybe the deck is reserved for staff and faculty, only Parking doesn't claim that as a policy, either.
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