Cleaning out

A week ago, Andrea wrote in her blog

Meaghan is moving out and going to Fredericton for work, so we are cleaning out all kinds of crap that I’d been keeping “just in case” When you’re down to one kid, there’s a lot you suddenly realize you don’t need any more. We’re motivated to finish up a few things on our house too, with room to shuffle around.

This weekend was a long weekend & we had a two-day yard sale. Interestingly, the most appropriate post shows up in that post’s related post list.

I never want to move all my crap again.

After that last move I had said I didn’t want to move again until the kids had all moved out. When Meaghan told us earlier this year that she was planning on moving out we started giving thought to the day where we would put our house on the market.

Even though we had had a few clean out sessions we still had (and have) quite a bit of stuff that we were mostly hanging onto just in case. This is a big house and we have lots more room than we need. Keeping most of that extra stuff wasn’t inconveniencing us much at all. So, there wasn’t a great deal of urgency in trimming it down.

What we decided to do was work our way through the house and put everything into one of five categories: things to keep that we are currently using, things to keep that we won’t need for six months (ex. winter tires), things to sell (hence the yard sale), things to donate to charity, and things to toss.

A couple months ago we rented storage space for six months. As we’ve been working our way through the house, we’ve accumulated stacks of each category. Once we get a carload of charity items or storage items we load up the car & off it goes. Now that we had the yard sale, Andrea has a list of the “to sell” items that are going to go to charity.

It’s been really good for us to go through and decide on the things that we really want to keep and the things that we can let go of. I’m glad we decided to do this now rather than wait until Emma was in the range of thinking about moving out.

A side benefit to this is that once Meaghan moves we’re going to have enough empty space that it’s going to be relatively easy to empty some rooms to do some renovations that we’ve been postponing. To date we haven’t applied a fresh coat of paint to any of the tin ceilings. With just the three of us here we’ll be able to move sleeping quarters to one half of the house or the other and keep the fumes out of the half we are sleeping in.

20 years of Internet

I realized last night that I’ve been using the Internet for about 21 years. I had access to it through work before it was publicly accessible anywhere in Canada. We were among the first people to sign up with NBTel when they offered dial up service to their customers. We had almost a month’s worth of free service because they gave out accounts before they had the usage tracking systems in place. Initially, the rate was $.16/minute ($9.60/hour), but within 2 or 3 months it dropped to $.10/minute and the basic service fee included 30 hours of usage.

To mark the occasion, I thought I’d list a few memorable highlights of the last 20 years:

  • 1992 – Obtained Internet access in January, bought our first computer (486DX33, 4MB RAM, 32MB HD, 1024×768 XVGA monitor). Later in the year Meaghan was born.
  • 1993 – I started working with Ultrix (Digital Equipment Unix variant) & SCO Unix at work.
  • 1994 – Upgraded to a 56K modem, I left my full time contract with the provincial government.
  • 1995 – Incorporated my consulting business, signed on with Digital Equipment as an OpenVMS Systems Specialist.
  • 1996 – Diversified my business – Andrea also had a business which needed funding. My business bought hers. That was the beginning of us being business partners as well as life partners.
  • 1997 – Signed on with StarChoice Television (now Shaw Direct TV) to be the IT lead through the startup phase. This turned out to last much longer than initially anticipated. I remained involved in the enterprise until they hit about 400,000 subscribers.
  • 1998 – Another diversification year – we had 3 part time employees each doing different jobs.
  • 1999 – Pretty well all the year was spent on Y2K projects. For that year most of my clients had their normal spending restriction removed if the purchase order had Y2K in the description of what was being purchased. A busy year for me.
  • 2000 – I did a lot of Y2K followup work, late in the year Emma was born.
  • 2001 – We moved to Miramichi & bought our first old house.
  • 2002 – I started a programming instructor position at NBCC Miramichi.
  • 2003 – I bought my second motorcycle (Yamaha 535 Virago).
  • 2004 – DSL service (1.5 Mbps) came to our neighbourhood and we promptly upgraded (from 56K).
  • 2005 – My position at the college came to an end.
  • 2006 – I took a job here. Initially, I was hired to work on an business optimization project involving the Hungarian Algorithm.
  • 2007 – After a year of unsuccessful searching for a decent rental with 4 bedrooms, we bought this house, got our first taste of satellite Internet which was the only option other than dialup.
  • 2008 – Sold the house in Miramichi, left the position that we had moved here for, started working with Andrea again.
  • 2009 – Merge of WordPress and WordPress MU was announced, we shifted our business plans accordingly.
  • 2010 – I worked extensively on the merge, switched from Satellite Internet to fixed wireless, our first grandchild Izzy was born.
  • 2011 – Andrea & I started working with and later joined Copyblogger Media.

I’m looking forward to what the next 10-20 years has to offer 🙂

SOPA – About Copyright & Trademark violations

The author of the original, now nearly dead, SOPA legislation in the US was Congressman Lamar Smith. As word spread about the draconian measures in the bill, someone decided to check Lamar’s website and found that his site used a Creative Commons photo without attribution. That means his site was infringing on copyright. Shortly after the news broke Lamar’s site was taken down. It reappeared later with the images removed from the background and banner.

Legislators in Ireland are under pressure to pass a SOPA like law from the subsidiaries of the same companies that lobbied the US for SOPA. Earlier today, news broke on Twitter that Sean Sherlock’s (the man behind the Irish version of SOPA) site also contained copyright infringement. This site was also taken down today and probably we can safely assume that it will reappear without copyright infringement.

In Canada, there is pressure on parliament to pass Bill C-11 (Canadian version of SOPA). Can you guess what’s coming next?

The party currently in power in Canada is the CPC party. Lo and behold, In the lower right of the CPC website is a fake Youtube Logo:

Youtube does provide a terms of service for using their logo. Youtube also provides the approved logos in downloadable form.

Yes, those three sites only had minor infringements. But, they are infringements nonetheless.

  • How many websites currently have accidental fake logos?
  • How many websites currently have an image downloaded from a photo hosting service (ex. Flickr)?
  • How many websites currently have an icon the developer borrowed from Windows, OSX or an application?

The answer is probably millions. Is there a point at which technically illiterate politicians will clue in that the laws they are proposing will negatively affect millions of existing websites?

The additional irony with the CPC instance is that Youtube might end up being blocked from Canada if C-11 is passed.

SOPA & PIPA Blackout

I wanted to give a brief non-technical explanation of why we participated in the Internet blackout in protest of SOPA & PIPA. To start, here is a great TED talk:

Under current law (DMCA), you & I are allowed to incorporate existing content into our own works so long as it falls within “fair use”. Fair use means you can use short clips from movies, short music clips from other artists, quotes from other written works, etc. without it being copyright infringement. SOPA & PIPA eliminate fair use.

Further to that, the proposed laws also make linking to web sites that contain copyright infringement (under the new definition) illegal (on the grounds of aiding and abetting copyright infringement). What that means in practical terms if SOPA & PIPA pass into law is that most existing blogs both foreign and domestic would fall into the definition of a copyright infringing website and/or intellectual property theft.

A person who has a site offering free yoga videos and instruction is technically taking revenue away from the traditional entertainment and broadcasting industry. However, most like the person running that site is making money from advertising and/or creating a customer base for one on one consultation. From an economic standpoint, the site may be eliminating a job at News Corp or one of the other media conglomerates but it is not costing the economy a job.

The media conglomerates cannot get legislators to shutdown the distribution infrastructure (the Internet), so they drafted legislation that targets the content producers (ie. you & I). If you have not already done so, I encourage you to contact your representatives to let them know that you do not want the Internet to be censored.

First Snow

We woke this morning to a winter wonderland. The forecast yesterday said we were going to get a bit of rain. The temperature is hovering around freezing. Combined with the snowfall it makes for a pretty landscape.

Well, well, well

Our summer was derailed one Sunday night in the middle of August. I was in the kitchen getting a snack or drink & I heard the water pump shut off in the basement. Unless things are really quiet and you listen carefully, you don’t hear the pump running. The loudest noise it makes is the pressure switch turning on or off. Since it was quiet, I heard it shut off. About 5 minutes later, I heard it click back on. The thing was that everyone else was in bed & I hadn’t used any water.

I went down to the basement and shut the pump off for the night. A few minutes later, I turned on the tap in the upstairs bathroom and only got air. I thought, “Well, this isn’t good.” On Monday, I took the cap off the well and checked for water with a flashlight and was somewhat relieved to see light reflecting back. I spent the entire day Monday trying to get the pump primed. I succeeded in getting about 15 gallons of quite dirty water but had no luck on getting the pump to hold it’s prime.

On Tuesday I checked out the local rental places to see if I could rent a video camera to lower into the well to see what I was up against. The population is low enough here that there isn’t enough people to rent one on a frequent basis, so none of the rental shops had one. After a couple phone calls I found a plumber/well-drill company that had one.

On Wednesday afternoon, the well/plumbing guys came by and lowered the camera into the well. The good thing that we saw was that we found there were several feet of water in the well. The not so good part was that the bottom of the well didn’t look like the bottom of a well. It looked like a pile of mud & rubble. Just below the bottom of the well casing there was a fair sized pocket that was quite a bit wider than the rest of the well. The casing only went about 10-12 feet into the ground. The guys said it looked like the well had collapsed. That sounded like what I saw.

Since there was water in the well, we moved on to trying to get the pump primed. The guys did get it primed a couple times but as soon as the pump shut off, it was back to square one. Either something had happened to the line between the house and well, or something had happened to the line in the well. My guess was that the last collapse had damaged the foot valve. At that point the alternatives we had were

  • Dig out and replace the line between the house & well (and hope for the best).
  • Drill a new well.

The catch was that the old well is inside a carriage house converted into a garage and the water line goes under about 30 feet of asphalt driveway. Even though it might be less expensive than drilling a new well, it wasn’t going to be pocket change. Andrea & I didn’t have much trouble opting for a new well. The prospect of doing the repair and then having the well collapse again in a year or two wasn’t worth whatever price difference there might be.

Since we didn’t have a few thousand lying around in the middle of August, I set up a temporary water system. I moved the pump to the garage & ran new pipe down the well and too the house. You can see the water line in this picture (in front of the car):

I should emphasize temporary. Winter comes early in Canada. We’ve already had a couple nights where the temperatures have hovered around the freezing mark. We have had the pellet stove on a few times. Once I had the temporary water system hooked up, I scheduled having the well drilled this week.

Today was that day. I’d never been up close on a well being drilled before so I wandered out a few times to check on how things were going & watch the whole process. Once the well casing was in, I was surprised at how fast the the drill went down and how much water came up. This particular drill was one that pounded (like a jackhammer but slower) while constantly spinning. It blew steam and compressed air through the bottom of the drill to blow the broken rock out the top of the well. Here’s a pic from the first hour before hitting bedrock .

I also keep a rough track of the time. The first 30 feet of well & installing the well casing took about an hour & cost about $1500. After that, drilling ran at about $1700/hour (if you don’t include setup and take down time). The actual cost is based on the length of the casing needed & well depth vs time, so that’s just an interesting comparison.

When the drill hits water, they don’t immediately stop. They drill down a bit further to ensure that there is a bit of a reservoir there. On my last trip out, there was a lot more water coming out of the top of the well than there had been in my previous trips. I took that as a good sign. The guy who owns the rig said he’d found water. Then, “I don’t think you’ll be able to pump this one dry.” Later he estimated the flow to be in the range of 12-15 (imperial) gallons per minute. I looked up pumps tonight and they seem to be in the range of 4-6 gallons per minute (so even if the pump ran constantly it couldn’t keep up).

Even though this was an expensive day for us, it was memorable in another way. Well drilling is probably not a popular career choice. There isn’t a lot of fame or fortune in it. I could tell that he was really pleased with the result. Pleased in the sense that he had nailed it. If you’re going to work, you should want to do good work. And, rightly so, should be pleased when you do do good work.

Yard Work

When we bought this house 4 years ago it had been empty for more than two years. During the first summer, I was spending all of my available time getting the house in Miramichi ready to put on the market. So, the yard had suffered three years of neglect. When I started working on it, I found that the previous occupying owner had put down landscape and sheets of plastic, cut holes to plant a few things and then mulched. While that may work for a garden that’s being cared for, left to itself, it makes for a complete mess when neglected.

The mulch had decomposed and was full of twitch grass and other weed roots. The side garden had several shrubs and only one of them even looked halfway decent. In the spring two years ago, I ripped all but two of them out. One of the ones I removed was only about 3 feet away from one of the ones I kept. That summer the remaining one grew and looked healthy. Last summer, it blossomed. this year, you can hardly see the leaves for the blossoms:

When I was doing the final prep work on the house in Miramichi I brought two rugosa and two antique rose bushes here. Both are strains are old enough that they have no copyrighted/trademark to restrict natural propagation. Both grow suckers of the same type of rose from the roots, so they are not a product of grafting. Last year I moved a couple of the sucker plants to the side garden. Here’s one getting ready to blossom:

There are a couple other pics in Andrea’s photo stream which you can get to by clicking on either of the images above.

Financial Planning – Elsewhere

A bit of a timely post on the Freakonomics Blog. The study looked at American finance but it is probably applicable throughout most of North America and Europe:

The most worrisome finding is that many people do not seem well informed and knowledgeable about their terms of borrowing; a sizable group does not know the terms of their mortgages or the interest rates they pay on their loans. – via Freakonomics

A week ago I wrote about Financial Planning.

Financial Planning

Every financial planner (Canadian) I’ve talked to or read has recommended investing in RRSPs. This advice still applies even if you owe money on a mortgage, line of credit and/or credit cards. We do have two RRSPs: one with the locked in amounts from when I was contributing to employer plans and another where the money can be withdrawn at any time. The employer plans were not optional and the funds will not be accessible to us until I reach age 60. The reason we have the second plan is it’s a convenient way to have a fund set aside for a significant financial emergency.

The thing with this financial planning advice is that it isn’t the best use of your money. The Canadian tax system even has incentives built in which make it advantageous in the short term to invest in RRSPs while you have a mortgage. Depending on one’s tax bracket, the short term tax incentive ranges from a one time credit of 25-40% of the funds deposited in a RRSP. That sounds like a really great deal in a financial market where savings interest rates are less than 5%.

Essentially, you are giving the RRSP holder money which is lent back to you as a mortgage at a higher interest rate. The interest rate spread between mortgages & RRSPs over the last few years has been about 3.5%. For the life of a mortgage & RRSP, the mortgage is collecting 3.5% more interest than the RRSP is paying.

When we bought this house, we still had the house (and mortgage) in Miramichi. The only choice we had for a mortgage was 25 years. While we were paying both mortgages, there wasn’t much room for contributing to an RRSP. Once we sold the house in Miramichi and did a bit of planning we switched our mortgage here to bi-weekly payments. Our mortgage allows up to double payments without penalty.

For the last 3 years, we have been paying an extra $42 in each bi-weekly payment. Yesterday, I did the math & those 78 payments of $42 has saved us over $10,000 in interest on the mortgage. The first $42 saved us 24 years of interest at the mortgage rate. In terms of retirement savings, we have gained the 3.5% for 24 years. The next $42 we pay will save us 21 years of mortgage interest and gain 3.5% for 21 years.

There will be a point where the tax incentive makes the RRSP truly more advantageous. In another 5 years or so I’ll probably run some formulas to figure out when we should switch. At a guess, though, I would say the tax incentive only become the best choice in the last 5 years of the mortgage.