Tuesday, December 30, 2008

3% Gone

Remember when you were little and you were looking forward to something? Something like your birthday, or Christmas, or Summer vacation from school? If you're like me, it seemed like the simple fact that I wanted some date to arrive, caused that date to arrive as slowly as possible. I used to believe that the power of the mind somehow made time appear to slow. The key was to distract myself from dwelling upon the object of my desire.

Broach the subject with practically anyone these days and they'll tell you that life is simply too busy. You'll hear things such as:

"Can you believe it's almost 2009 already?"

"Where did Summer go?"

"It seems like last Christmas was just a few weeks ago."

It's true, to some extent. When I was little, artificially filling my time with other things helped me to forget about the passage of time. And now that I am older, my life does seem to be busier. However, time is still ticking off the clock now at the same rate it was 30 years ago. A minute is still 60 seconds long.

Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that it all boils down to perspective. I am in a period of my life that is full of goals and ambition; full of things I have to and want to do that I could not do when I was younger due to lack of resources or ability inherent with age, and full of things that I might not be able to do later on in life due to age, health or circumstance.

When I was two, I had to wait half as long as I had lived at that point in order to reach my next birthday. Half a lifetime is a long time to wait. 

I'm 33 now. Currently, each year represents about 3% of my entire lifespan. If each of my 33 years represented 3% of my life, I'm now at 99% with just a bit left to go. The years are flying past me right now - and not for lack of awareness - but because there is still so much I want to get out of life. Life is especially rewarding right now with our young children and I'm keenly aware of how quickly it is passing.

Depending on your perspective, the good news is I think life will once again appear to slow down. When I'm old, say 90, each year will be approaching approximately just 1% of my lifetime. I imagine I'll say something to the other geezers at my home like, "Dude, 365 long days and I'm only one year closer to the end."

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Skunk Hat - Djeryd vs. Q-Tip

Djeryd has his finger on the pulse of Hollywood. Or rather, his head.

This guy, who befittingly calls himself "Q-Tip", was obviously at Disneyland and saw Djeryd sporting his skunk hat, which then served as inspiration for his wardrobe in a hip-hop video release shortly thereafter.


The resemblance is not entirely dissimilar.

Monday, December 22, 2008

I Wanna Wash My Hands, My Face and Hair With Snow

As I fought my way out onto the deck in my flip-flops this afternoon, with tape measure in hand to see how much snow had fallen (20 inches so far), I considered that if I had known it was going to snow this much, I'd have done a few things differently. For example, I would have: 
  • Set up a measuring pole in the yard, or on the deck, to easily mark the snow's progress
  • Taken a few pictures each day, of the same thing, from the same location, to compile one of those time-lapse photo series
  • Stocked up on seed for all of those starving birds that decided to pass the Winter at our place and now can't find their worms
  • Mailed our last couple of Christmas cards (just the ones to my boss and my boss's boss) before being cut off by the Post Office
  • Bought some kind of sled/disc for the girls to slide on
  • Put Christmas lights on some of our landscape trees; they look killer with their thick coat of ice on all of the branches, and white lights would have been spectacular
  • Upgraded our cable package from Basic to something with more to watch than the 24 hour/day weather report that is now on every single station
I actually did do a couple of things in preparation that I am semi-proud of:
  • Put chains on the Jeep when there was just an inch or two of snow on the ground
  • Put a tarp over the Jeep to allow for quick snow/ice clearance in case we need to venture out
  • Had the propane tank filled
  • Got Christmas shopping completed
  • Stocked up on goodies to help make our long days together more enjoyable


Saw that some dude was doing this to cars all over Seattle this week and thought I'd try it out myself. My face was so cold it burned, but pretty cool results, I think.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Give Cards Some Credit

We have two credit cards. One is just a backup that we never use. Our primary card is used mostly for travel-related expenditures: airline tickets, accommodations, car rental. And that is how I discovered the $850 purchase from an online jewelery retailer in New York. I was simply reviewing the damage from our October Disneyland trip.
  • Hotel? Check
  • Enterprise? Check
  • Alaska Airlines? Check
  • Sara bought herself some very nice diamond earrings over the Internet? Huh?
I can't say I was surprised. But I also can't say I was overly concerned. I cut my teeth on credit cards when I first started in the banking industry. Fraud is generally only a big issue for the customer when they are away from home, such as on vacation in another state - or worse, abroad. The reason? The moment the card issuer catches wind of fraud, it kills the card and the financial resources available to the customer are now severely limited.

A simple call to Chase was all it took to get the ball rolling. I told them it wasn't my transaction and they immediately gave me a provisional credit in the full amount. At that point the onus was on the merchant to prove the transaction was valid. Since the jeweler could not prove that (since it was fraudulent), the credit became permanent.

Then I received a letter from Chase asking me to identify all fraudulent charges on the account. We have several companies that charge our card automatically. The declaration of fraud listed transactions from Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, PayPal and Walgreen's, but those were all valid. The only fraud was the transaction from the New York jeweler.

From what I was able to learn, it sounds like the jewelery purchase was shipped to an address within 5 miles of our house. My guess is the perpetrator was some employee from one of the local businesses where we may have used the card in the past. We were fortunate, I suppose, that there weren't more fraudulent transactions. There easily could have been. This also reinforces my assertion (and others) that we are more likely to have our credit card compromised physically than electronically. 

We now have a new card number and all is well. This experience highlights one of the key benefits of a credit card versus a debit card. Had the fraud occurred on my debit card, that $850 would have gone missing from my account instantly. That could have caused a number of problems for me like overdraft, declined transactions, bounced checks and/or negative reporting to CheckFree. As it was, my credit line was merely hindered by $850 only temporarily and I was made whole, including interest, upon reporting the fraud.

To be clear, there is little, if any, difference between the liability protection between most debit and credit cards. They are both offer near complete, no fault, protection. The difference, to me, lies in the extent of the collateral damage.



Thursday, December 18, 2008

My Christmas Gift to You

I've got another gem of a tool for you.

Sumo Paint is like Photoshop's little brother. It can do many of the same things that Photoshop does, and just as nicely. Its interface is quite a bit simpler due to the fact that it lacks most of the highly complex, professional-level functionality intended for Photoshop's uppercrust. 

Big deal, right? Image editors are a dime a dozen, right?

Well, not only is Sumo Paint simple and powerful, it's also free.

Oh yeah. It's also entirely web-based. This is Web 2.0! 

It's as though you have the software installed on your machine, but you don't. It's on the Internet. You've got your File menu, your Edit menu and all of your other menus, just like when you use applications on your computer. But Sumo's not on your computer. It's on the Internet. 

Processing power? Compatibility? Upgrades?  

Forget about it. You're in the cloud now. If you have an Internet browser, you can use Sumo Paint. You can still store your images on your local machine, so don't worry about privacy. Not that I'd recommend Sumo-ing your driver's license or credit card - you know, being that the app is web-based. Or, if you want, you can store your images on Sumo's remote servers. Personally, I'm keeping mine in house for now - but I don't object to outsourcing the storage should I ever feel the need.

Let's face it, Photoshop is the Everest of image editors, but it is also quite expensive AND extremely complicated for the average user. GIMP is a free, open-source alternative, but still complex. You could pick up Photoshop Elements or Paint Shop Pro or something, but those still cost. Sumo Paint doesn't.

I may not use it at home because I still have an old, primitive copy of Photoshop that is still functioning, and I am trying to become more proficient with it. But for work? You bet. When my only employer-provided option is MS Paint - are you kidding?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

UPDATE: Madison's Ballet

Madison's upcoming ballet, The Enchanted Toy Shop, originally scheduled to play this Friday and Saturday, has been rescheduled due to weather-related issues. The new dates are January 9th and 10th. The place and show times are the same. All tickets will now be honored for any of the performances. If you had a ticket for Friday night, you are not obligated to attend the rescheduled Friday night performance. You can choose to go to either Saturday performance instead.

While there is certainly a good chance of ice and snow on the original scheduled nights of the performance, the real cause was due to the school closures on Tuesday and Wednesday. Turns out the school district doesn't allow any activities on days when the school is closed, so the ballet studio couldn't get inside the theater. Those were the two final full dress rehearsals where they were to run through tech, blocking, etc. 

Monday, December 15, 2008

I Just Didn't Care

I was talking casually with a couple of friends and the topic of steroids came up - specifically, steroids in professional baseball. I'm the kind of guy that is a little bit informed about a lot of different subjects. I try to have an opinion one way or another because it makes for interesting conversation - at least for me.

One of the guys lamented how drugs had ruined baseball, so I naturally took an opposing viewpoint so that we could continue the discussion. I brought up points along the lines of 
  • Not being able to dismiss the past 25 years of baseball history as invalid
  • Pill-popping players were mostly hurting themselves
  • If everyone was doped up, the playing field was more or less equal
I didn't know it at the time but I was in way over my head. The two baseball PhDs I was talking to had obviously dedicated a lot more brain cycles to the subject than I had. They were quite passionate about the topic and I had apparently struck a nerve with both. The conversation quickly escalated into much more than I had bargained for. I felt like Bugs Bunny trying to sneak out of the bottom of a dog pile during the commotion.

The short of it was, of course I think it is wrong to use drugs. And of course I think it is wrong to cheat. And of course I think using performance enhancing drugs in competition is cheating. I was just trying to spark a lively conversation, but evidently I lit a full-on five-alarm fire. Problem was, I simply don't care enough about the subject to spend any material amount of time or energy pondering its finer points.

I need to be more careful in the future.

Friday, December 12, 2008

40 Movies in Two Minutes

I haven't abandoned this blog. It's these busy weeks I mentioned a couple of posts ago. Tomorrow begins the marathon six 4 and 5 hour rehearsals and performances in the next eight days for Madison and her Enchanted Toy Shop ballet. Hopefully we don't have an ice storm this weekend, which would really foul things up for the production.

I suppose if I had a ton of readers I could get sued for posting the following picture. But it is a low-resolution version and will be in your program anyway, which I am in charge of making. I'm including an ad for the photographer, so hopefully she'll chalk it up as free advertising. After all, it's not everyone who gets a mention on the Ducheznee blog (that's right, I just linked to myself).

Professional photos of the entire cast were done by Pam Morlan Photography


And here is the photo...



For details of the upcoming performances of The Enchanted Toy Shop produced by Abernethy Performing Arts, please refer to "The Exhausting Toy Shop".

Meanwhile, for your viewing enjoyment, here is a very well-done short video of snippets of inspiring speeches from 40 or so popular films, including perhaps the greatest film of all time, The Last Starfighter. You'll also find the Muppets, Charlie Brown, Morgan Freeman, Hoosiers, and inexplicably, The Neverending Story, Angels in the Outfield and Free Willy. Although their parent films may not be, this compilation is rated PG. No foul language - just a very "brief" clip of Will Ferrell without a shirt on, which nobody should have to see. 


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Elementary School Foresees Great Advances in Mobile Computing

We were asked by Madison's school to take a survey about how to improve the effectiveness of instruction. It ended up being thinly-veiled attempt to justify spending a lot of money. 
  • Should the school have SmartBoards in every classroom?
  • Should the school provide supplemental lesson material and instruction for school-funded iPods?
It's not important how we voted. The sole purpose of this entry is to laugh at the third high-tech learning proposal: Laptops on carts.
  • Should the school acquire a set of laptop computers and put them on carts to allow them to be easily transported from classroom to classroom?
"Did you just say, 'Laptops on carts'?" I asked Sara.

"That's what it says."

"Are laptops not already sufficiently portable, that they need to be placed on carts?" I questioned, rhetorically.

"Apparently not, Honey. Here! You finish the survey."


Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Exhausting Toy Shop

WOW! We just received Madison's final rehearsal schedule for her rapidly approaching performances of The Enchanted Toy Shop.

Our only prior experience with "ballet" was at the community school. It wasn't even called ballet, but "Creative Movement". Madison's classes at the community school culminated with a "performance" where each of the different classes would appear briefly on stage and dance a little jig. Camera bulbs flashed. Camcorders whirred. Parents smiled proudly, approvingly, for having witnessed the fruits of six frustrating 30 minute episodes of trying to find parking at the community school.

Sara learned of a new ballet school that is located much more conveniently for us and with better class scheduling. The cost difference was negligible. In addition to her actual instructional classes, Madison also wanted to participate in the school's Winter production, The Enchanted Toy Shop. She landed a role as a Curly-Haired Baby Doll.

This meant she had one additional one-hour session per week outside of her normal classes. This additional session was to learn her specific routines, not just ballet technique and skills. None of this has been much of an issue up to this point - until today.

In the two weeks remaining until her performance, Madison must be at an additional four, four and five-hour full dress rehearsals at both the ballet school and the performance hall. She also must arrive a full two and a half hours early for each of her three performances. I expect I'll be able to catch up on my back issues of Wired and Portfolio. 

We were obviously not expecting all of this. The community school required virtually no commitment whatsoever. This new school, however, is life altering - at least for the next couple of weeks. This is the real deal - just a small step beneath the Moscow Ballet Company, I'd wager. Madison is easily the youngest and least experienced ballerina in the production. There are several career dancers and hard-core recreational dancers. There are full costumes, hair and make-up. It wouldn't surprise me if there were a live orchestra in the pit, although I'm pretty sure all of the music is prerecorded.

I'm not saying that having known what lay ahead we would not have enrolled Madison in her new ballet school; but I certainly wasn't prepared for this level of involvement.

I'm not even exactly sure when we'll be able to get the Christmas decorations or get our tree. Saturdays are full. 

If you would like to support Madison, her school, and her fellow ballerinas, here are the details:


presents

The Enchanted Toy Shop
A Holiday Ballet for All Ages

December 19th, 7:00PM
December 20th, 1:00PM and 7:00PM

Jackson Auditorium
Old Oregon City High School
1306 12th St., Oregon City, Oregon

Tickets, call 503.974.9235
$12.00 Adults, $10.00 Seniors
$10 Children 12 and younger

or



Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Black Friday - Part Two

Black Friday is so named because the sales from that day, the day after Thanksgiving, historically represent the point at which retailers begin to turn a profit for the year. They move from being in the "red", or below the break-even line, to being in the "black", the territory of net profits. Presumably, the masses of shoppers trying to get a jump on Christmas on that day, in large measure, are responsible for that shift from red to black.

My question is this: if Black Friday is such a great day for retailers, why not make some wholesale changes to the entire event in order to generate even greater amounts of revenue.

The problems, as I see them:
  1. Crowds - Black Friday draws every type of person out into the world. People that can't drive or park. People that lack basic consideration for others. People that can't see well or count. People that can't write a check in less than five minutes. I'm not saying anyone should be prohibited from shopping, but the environment created by Black Friday brings too many people into too small a space. The finest military marching band would have difficulty getting each member to navigate the scene effectively.
  2. Small Window - Many retailers run their "doorbusters" only for a few hours very early on Black Friday. I didn't count, but I'm sure there were at least 40 ads in the paper on Thursday. Retailers are competing for dollars, but by asking everyone to be in so many different places at the same time, they are harming themselves. They force consumers to make an exclusive choice. Many stores have checkout lines of 30 minutes or longer. That wait eats up the time when those shoppers could be out shopping at other stores. They are cannibalising each other by monopolizing customers.
  3. Limited Inventory - How can a store ask tens of thousands of people to come buy products at their store and then only have a few items in stock to meet that demand? We'll hear in the news about a difficult holiday shopping season with lower-than-expected sales. I walked away empty handed from at least four stores on Black Friday simply because they didn't have what I went in for. I didn't have time to poke around for alternatives because I had to get to my next store before they were sold out. 
I see it all like a hydroelectric dam. There is a certain volume of water that the dam can handle. That volume of water has value in the potential energy it can generate. We want them to run as efficiently as possible in order to generate the greatest amount of electricity at the least possible cost. When there is too much water behind the dam, it spills over and is wasted. When there are too many people in too little area, trying to buy too few products at too many stores, that is like water spilling over the dam. Capacity is exceeded. Opportunity is wasted. Inefficiency prevails.



Anyone can see the Black Friday ads from practically any major chain several weeks before the big day. Web sites like bfads.com and blackfriday.info distribute the information in several formats and provide a forum for the public to discuss the deals. Reasonably so, most of the deals are in-store only, i.e. not available online. Retailers want customers in their stores so that we can buy other things while we are there.

Some ideas for a better customer experience and an even better holiday haul for retailers:
  1. Allow consumers to pre-order products that they will want to buy on Black Friday. Retailers could then plan their inventories accordingly and hopefully have enough on hand to meet demand. 
  2. Extend Black Friday into "Black Weekend" or "Black 10 Days After Thanksgiving". How many of us stay home on Black Friday just to avoid the madness? Most of us. Were it not so strenuous, how many of us would like to partake in the bounty of great deals that abound? Again, most of us. If we're sitting at home, retailers have a 0% chance of selling us anything on Black Friday. If we're in their store to buy their loss-leader, there's a fair chance we'll buy other stuff, too. Therefore, it makes sense to do whatever it takes to get people in the door.
  3. If a store has parking for 500 cars but can only serve 200 per hour in the checkout lines, that's not good. Long checkout lines are bad for business. Some economists will argue that if the store check stands are operating at capacity and there is a long, steady stream of customers, that is ideal because the store is selling everything it possibly can. I would counter that there is a downside. Water over the spillway. In each of the stores I went to I had other items in my cart that I had picked up during my search for the item on my list. My thinking was, "If I have to stand in line anyway I may as well make it worth my time." However, in each case where the item I wanted was not available, I ditched my cart along with its contents and headed straight for the exit. There were A TON of abandoned shopping carts in all of the stores I visited. To me, that represents lost revenue. Those customers have left for one reason or another (e.g. did not find what they were looking for, too crowded, lines too long) and are not coming back.
Retailers obviously want demand to be as high as possible in order to generate as much income as possible. There is natural high demand on Black Friday and during this time of the year in general. The basics of supply and demand dictate that the solution lies in increasing supply to meet demand. Pre-ordering will help retailers plan their inventories more appropriately. Extending Black Friday over several days would allow more customers to get into the stores. It would also spread the customer volume out over a longer period which will reduce the peak pressure overall and help retailers serve a larger percentage of customers.

A monsoon versus constant rain. You can plan for the rain. Not much you can do about the monsoon except to find some cover and wait it out.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgivagain

The Cohen's had Chrismakuh. The politically correct have Chrismakwanzanakuh. We have Thanksgivagain.

It is believed that Thanksgivagain traces its origins back at least ten years - near the end of the 20th century - when, upon finding themselves competing for holidays with their children's in-laws, old mother and father Wilcox graciously agreed to celebrate most major holidays on an adjacent, non-holiday day.

Thanksgivagain is the day after the fourth Thursday of the eleventh month of the Julian year. It is the day when the Wilcox clan, both young and old, gather together for a fine Thanksgiving meal, again. Despite having stuffed themselves to seam-bursting levels just 24 hours earlier, they do it all over again on Thanksgivagain, further testing the stress limits of both stomach tissue and bathroom scales.

Happy Thanksgivagain, everyone!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Black Friday - Part One

I browsed through the advertisements from the Thanksgiving day newspaper last night after everyone had gone home from our family gathering. We didn't "need" anything, but I hate to miss out on a good deal for something I can or will eventually use. We are still looking for a couple of Christmas presents for the kids, and I found a few things in the ads to get for them. With Madison and Brookie having spent the night at Grandma's, Karsten and I ventured out to brave the throngs of bargain hunters. 

Naturally, there was not one single store that would meet all of my needs. In fact, of the eight items on my list, no two items were from the same store. 
  1. Sears was our first stop. False advertising. The item did not exist at that location.
  2. Second stop, Walmart. False advertising. The item did not exist at that location. No empty shelf. SKU not on file.
  3. Third stop, BestBuy. Sold out.
  4. Fourth stop, Home Depot. Success!
  5. Fifth stop, OfficeMax. Two in a row! Unfortunately, that was not for a present. Just replacing our worn out shredder.
  6. Sixth, Toy-R-Us. I was a fool. Even IF they'd had the item in stock, the customer relations of Toys-R-Us is so poor - with their checkout line that stretches around the perimeter of the store, clerks that cannot answer simple questions, trashed product packaging and general clutter, barriers made out of products that prevent shoppers from walking where they want to, and so on, and so on - I knew I was setting myself up for disappointment from the get-go. I won't even mention the parking lot or some of the rabble they tend to attract.
  7. Next was Coastal Farm to stock up on cat food. In store? No problems. Parking at OCSC? 20 minutes. I ended up parking at the opposite end of the shopping center in front of Rite Aid.
  8. We also needed to pick up a new pacifier tether for Karsten. He's worn out his third one already. Rite Aid doesn't stock any. Fred Meyer doesn't carry the type that work with pacifiers made on our planet. Kmart was sold out. No tether for Karsten.
  9. Last stop, Chevron. No lines. Good prices. Good service. Ahhhhh.
With little to show for our effort, Karsten and I made our way home to where our Thanksgiving leftovers needed attention.



Monday, November 24, 2008

Business Up Front, Party in the Back

Unsupervised play time this week meant "beauty shop" for Madison and Brooklyn, Madison being smart enough to be the beautician and make Brookie be the customer, but not smart enough to realize how much trouble she would get into once the deed was done.

We've been allowing Madison a lot of freedom to do her "crafts" as she has demonstrated more responsibility. She tells us she wants to be an artist when she grows up. I suppose that is what helped her to feel comfortable sneaking some scissors from the cupboard.

For her part, Brooklyn was more than a willing participant. She's the one that came downstairs to show off her new do and in the process, blew the cover of the illegal hair cutting ring operating out of our toy room. The only things missing were some tattoos and unnaturally tan, leathery skin. Brookie has a mullet.



Both girls are presently locked out of the toy room - the crime scene - until Christmas Eve when all of the cousins will come over and we'll be forced to let them in. Madison has also lost all of her "craft" privileges until that same day. That was my punishment for them.

Sara's choice is psychological abuse every time they ask for anything. "No, because you cut Brooklyn's hair and now she looks like a hillbilly."

Madison also wanted to choose a punishment. She decided to institute a library-style system for their DVDs. Now, all of their movies are in a drawer in my office and they must check out one at a time and return it before getting another.

So far both girls seem rather indifferent to the entire situation. I'm not sure who's punishing who.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Archie

I watched American Idol for the first time ever during the most recent season. I was following the two Mormons; Brooke White and David Archuleta. Both are fantastic singers and both represented the Church very well.

Brooke has a rough, sultry voice that, in my mind, makes her unique not only among the other contestants but the entire industry. David's voice is velvety smooth like milk chocolate and he specializes in hitting the high notes.

For those that were perhaps on holiday from the planet at the time and are not aware of the results, David Archuleta wound up placing 2nd and Brooke took 5th. Two weeks ago David was the first of the contestants to release his debut album. I had pledged my support long ago and the album was automatically downloaded into iTunes because I had pre-ordered it.

Part of my commitment to DA meant I would listen to the entire 16 songs (got a few bonus tracks with the preorder) at least twice before passing judgment. It's a good thing I did. After one listen there were only a few songs that stood out - that I thought I could hear on a regular basis. After the second time through, there really is only one song that I don't particularly care for.

"Crush" is the first single from the album and was released a couple of months ago. It's catchy and reached #2 on Billboard's Hot 100, but not the best of the lot. In my opinion, that honor goes to "Barriers", a satisfying R&B crowd pleaser that I hope gets plenty of attention on the radio to give it the airtime it deserves. Following closely for supremacy is a beautiful quasi-duet with Kara DioGuardi - who also co-wrote the song - called "To Be With You."

A couple of my other favorites include a made-famous-on-Idol cover of "Angels", originally recorded by Robbie Williams, and "Touch My Hand", a peppy little number that will have you singing along in the car.

Perhaps the best quality of this album is it is chock full of good music. There are no caps being busted in any one's posterior. No degrading descriptions of women. No foul language. No suggestion of impropriety. There is no reason whatsoever to hide this disc when you give somebody a lift. Unless, of course, you have a thug image to maintain in front of your homeboys.

Still waiting for something from Brooke White.





Tuesday, November 18, 2008

NoFlix

I fully expect to be asked the following survey question someday: "For how long have you had your current DVDs from Netflix at home?"

This would, of course, serve as some type of indicator as to how busy one's life is at that particular juncture. 

We've been with Netflix for nearly four years. Early on, we were extremely eager to take full advantage of the "unlimited" feature of our rental agreement. We typically could turn around a DVD on the day after we received it in the mail. This allowed us to churn through six DVDs per week using our 3-at-a-time plan, barring post office holidays. We definitely got our money's worth back then.

But that was all before kids numbers two and three showed up. Before swim lessons. Before preschool. Before ballet. Before they were capable of hurricane-force destruction on a daily basis. And before they overthrew the previous commander in chief of the television in a bloodless coup.

We've slowed down quite a bit since those times. Just a few months ago we were averaging approximately three DVD turnovers per week - still a remarkably good deal when compared to renting those same 12 movies from a local rental store each month.

However, the three discs we currently have at home have been in our possession since the end of September. That's seven weeks. We've paid two monthly dues during that span, yet have not watched a single movie. We're obviously already aware of this and still cannot seem to find time to watch our current films.

So we agreed we should suspend our account until after the first of the year when (hopefully) our lives will be a bit less hectic. Netflix allows customers to suspend their accounts for up to 90 days without losing anything. Sort of like a vacation hold on your mail or newspaper.

I haven't gone through with the suspension yet. Reason being - we have seven days to return the DVDs currently in our possession before a you-bought-it fee of $20 per movies is assessed. Therein lies the problem - at present I don't think we can reasonably expect to watch our current movies and return them within seven days. It's not that we don't want to watch them - we do. It is simply a matter of prioritization. 

And so it is that our Netflix movies remain at the bottom of my inbox, AKA to do list, AKA honey-do list, AKA that big pile on my desk. Kevin Spacey, Steve Carell and Natalie Portman will simply have to bide their time waiting for their 15 minutes. Sorry guys. After four months the membership dues will wash with the $60 I'd have to spend to buy you outright. If you're still around at that point, I'll be forced to return you, unwatched.



Saturday, November 15, 2008

WordWeb

Every day I get an email from radio tech talk show hostess Kim Komando. Every day she offers a short review and recommendation of a free computer software download. These are things like organizational tools, security software, system tools, games, graphics/music/video programs, etc. In all cases she has investigated the companies behind the product and tested the software herself before recommending it to her listeners/readers. I've tried several of them over the years and still use many of those free apps such as:
  • AVG - virus protection, comparable to Norton or McAfee
  • Scribus - a free desktop publishing package similar to PageMaker
  • GIMP - the free Photoshop


Most days I simply skim Ms. Komando's description of the software and move on. I keep a lookout for something that meets an actual need that I have. AVG AntiVirus, for example, saves me the $60 annual subscription fee charged by most of the alternatives. AVG does offer paid products such as their premium security suite, but they give their antivirus software away for free to get you in the door. Thus far, I haven't been compelled to step up to a more powerful product, nor have I experienced a security breach of any kind since I've been using their product.

Scribus solved a problem I was having where I needed to create unique text wraps around and within custom shapes. There may be a way to do it with Office, but I couldn't figure out how to do it. Scribus allows me to edit the points of my shapes and place text on the inside of those shapes, whereas Word and PowerPoint only allow me to wrap text around the exterior of a predefined or custom shape.

My new favorite is a dandy of an app called WordWeb that was featured a few days ago. I can't believe how much I'm using it. WordWeb is a dictionary/thesaurus/encyclopedia all rolled into one very easy to use package. It is not a spellchecker, per se. The app resides in the system tray next to the clock. You use it by holding the CTRL key and clicking on any word with the right mouse button. Up pops a small tabbed window containing everything you could possibly want to know about the word. 

I'll show you. Pick a word - "varmit" - got it. Oh, WordWeb told me that is not a word and suggested I might actually be looking for "varmint". That's true, I was. Here's a screenshot:



This works on any text (read: not words in an image file). I like having a universal solution that works anywhere within my operating system. Word, Excel, Internet browser, blog, whatever. Same process. Same interface. Just today it saved me, in two separate work-related emails, from using words that did not mean what I thought they meant. Anything that can help me not come off as a half-wit (I just used WordWeb again to find a synonym for "moron").

If you're interested in experiencing the same enlightenment I now enjoy, you can find WordWeb here: http://wordweb.info/. The download on the left is the free version.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Evangelical/Catholic Props

Some promising developments being forged among the various Christian sects. Perhaps common ground has finally been found. 





Saturday, November 8, 2008

That Phone Call

I got that phone call again today...

Computer: Do not be alarmed. There is nothing wrong with your account. However, this is this is your last chance to take advantage of lower interest rates on your credit card. This will be your final notification. Press "1" now to speak with an account representative.

(I press "1")

Person: Are you calling about our lower interest rate offer?

Me: No, I'm actually not calling. You called me about my account. Which account are you referring to?

Person: So you are not calling about a lower interest rate on your account?

Me: Which account?

Person: On your credit card.

Me: Oh, are you my credit card company? Which one are you?

Person: Huh?

Me: What is the name of your company?

Person: We're offering a better interest rate on your credit card.

Me: Great, what interest rate are you offering me?

Person: Well, first I'll need to get some information from you. Let's start with your name.

Me: Oh, I'm not going to give you any information.

Person: Sir, I will need to ask you some questions to complete your application.

Me: What application?

Person: For your lower interest rate.

Me: I'm not applying for anything. You're either offering me a lower rate or you're not. 

Person: Sir, I don't understand why you called us if you don't want to fill out an application by phone.

Me: I didn't call you. You called me.

Person: Sir, I'm afraid I can't process your application unless you can provide me with some information about you.

Me: Excellent! The computer that called me said this was my final notification.

Person: Yes, sir.

Me: Do you promise?

Person: Uhhhh, yes, sir.

Me: Good. Because that's the same thing it said last week and the week before. I'm glad this will be the last call.

Person: I do apologize for that.

Me: Thank you very much. I'll talk to you next week. Bye.

-------

It's not so much that I mind the phonecalls - I actually will talk to everyone that calls (surveys, market research, political polls, policeman's ball fundraisers, etc.) - it is the shadiness of this particular operation. I do not like that they purport to be one of my financial institutions. I do not like that they ask for sensitive information over they phone on a call they initiate. I do not like that claim each call will be the last, yet continue to call back. I do not like that the humans I get transferred to have such poor command of the English language (though many are native speakers; I deliberately made the phone rep above speak very politely and properly so the phonetic interpretation of the conversation did not distract from the content.)

I used to simply hang up. Now I try to waste as much of their time as possible so they don't bother you.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

And... Again!

Another 450 points were shed today, bringing the two-day selloff to 10%.

For the record, I really do hope that our elected officials can develop policies and legislation that serves to strengthen our economy, our security and our quality of life. And I don't care who gets the credit. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

So This is "Hope"?

Exit polls showed the economy was the number one issue on voters' minds when selecting a candidate. Presumably they voted accordingly.

The stock market was down 500 points Wednesday in the first trading session after the election.

Just an observation.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Mmmmm, Gas

A couple of months ago we took "A Long Drive" out to Timothy Lake to look for a GPS treasure for the Mt. Hood Territory geocache contest. On our way home we passed through Sandy and got caught in a big traffic backup around the Arco gas station in the middle of town. There were news vans and even a chopper flying overhead filming all of the activity. Turns out both the cars and the news people were all there because they were selling fuel for $2.99/gallon as a publicity stunt. "Gas Under $3.00" was the lead in on the 6-o-clock news.

I filled up the Jeep for less than $50 for the first time in at least a year. $2.44/gallon with my Fred Meyer Rewards card. That alone could spell a small economic recovery package, I think. That's $30 less than I was paying just a few weeks ago, which essentially $30 extra in my pocket, since I would have spent $80 were it not for the dropping prices.

Last night we drove out to see the Pypers in their new house and saw unleaded for $2.30/gallon at the Safeway in Molalla - less with your Club Card.

-----

One of my business school professors at hyper-eco-PSU tried to convince me that it was my environmental responsibility as a human being to drive a bio-diesel. Tell me, if that one guy - you know the one with all of the bumper stickers - if that one guy is buying up all of the vats of used cooking grease to make bio-diesel for his slug bus, what are the rest of us supposed to do? Buy new vegetable oil from Costco at $7.99/gallon? For a business professor he definitely lacked a basic understanding of capitalism: the market will develop/produce products that it can sell for a profit; meaning mass-market appeal at a competitive price. The fuel savings on many hybrids doesn't even offset the higher purchase price over the average life expectancy of the vehicle. 

Now, I'm all for alternative fuel vehicles - hybrids, electrics, solar, etc. - as long as they don't cost me more at the car lot (which they currently do), more to operate, or look like a Jetson-mobile. Somebody will eventually stumble upon the right formula for mass-market success, and my guess is sooner than later. They will figure out how to produce vehicles at a competitive price and with comparable features and performance. They will figure out how to power them in an environmentally friendly and economically efficient manner. Meanwhile, over the course of the next 10-20 years while that technology is worked out and the infrastructure is built, I'd rather be paying $2.00/gallon than $4.00 for the vehicles I already own. And it's not like gasoline is going to disappear from the marketplace overnight either. It will take many years for the market to replace our dinosaur-powered rides with something better. As alternative-fuel vehicles grow their share of the market, I expect traditional fuel prices will plummet like last year's fashions.

Here's hoping the supply/demand curve continues to shift in our favor as we all change our driving habits and supplies improve.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Shelf Reliance

Ever since we went to the dry-pack for the first time we've had a problem: How to store all of those boxes. We've got the space for them. but keeping the #10 cans in their six-pack cases was not working for us - too much shifting and restacking whenever we needed to find a particular item.

Surely by now you have seen these heavy-duty canned food racks from Shelf-Reliance. They look awesome. They are industrial strength with retail-style features, most notably how they allow you to rotate your food so that you're always using the oldest stuff first so you don't get stuck with a 20 year-old can of nastiness. FIFO, or "first in, first out," is the accounting term for this type of inventory management system.

There are several different setups, but the one I've had my eye on for the past couple of years is the Harvest 72" #10, denoting it's six foot height and that it stores #10 cans. In fact each unit holds 112 #10 cans. A big 'BUT' - each unit retails for $460! Yowsers! Occasionally I find a discount code for $75 off, $100 off, or free shipping. I even came really close to placing an order at one point.

I hesitated because I was considering additional details like where to put them in the garage and how many racks I would need just to store all of the cans I already had in boxes, in addition to the non-trivial price. 

The only place that made sense to put the racks was in the same place I intended to build a workbench. So...

- A trip to Home Depot
- 15 2x4s
- 3 4x4s
- a bunch of 5/16" hex bolts, washers, nuts and nails

... and, viola!




My self-shelf-reliance holds 231 #10 cans (a bit more than twice as many as the Harvest 72" #10). It cost less than $100 in materials. I would have needed to buy two Harvests ($920) to equal the storage capacity I built for $100. Plus, my homebrew Harvest is more practical for me. I sized it such that it is the same height as my table saw, allowing me to use it as a workbench/outfeed table. When loaded up with food, it is also very heavy which makes for a nice sturdy work surface. 

The dimensions are approximately eight feet wide by three and a half feet deep by however high to the top of my table saw. This allowed for three levels of cans, seven cans deep and eleven across (3 x 7 x 11 = 231). I had orginally envisioned four levels of cans, which would have increased capacity by 77 cans, but I decided the value of having it match the height of my table saw was worth more to me. Like the rack from Shelf Reliance, the rails on mine are slightly angled so that the cans roll to the front. Like the rack from Shelf Reliance, my system employes FIFO inventory management, with the ability to load cans from the back of the unit.

I still need to add the table surface, and there is plenty of room directly underneath the suface for drawers and a woodworking vise, which I intend to add at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Perhaps the best part is that my system holds all of my current inventory, with some capacity left unused. It is easy to see exactly how much we have of particular item, and use that information to determine the amount we still need to acquire. I take that back - the best part is that Sara actually likes it and doesn't think (not anymore, anyway) this project was a waste of time. I take that back again - the best part is that we can now walk all the way around the car when it is parked in the garage now that the boxes of food are out of the way. Ah, nevermind. I think the first one really is the best. Organization has a way of making a person feel in control of things. I won't be blindsided with surprise about what I have or don't have in my dry-pack inventory.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Good Boy

Madison has been working to develop Karsten's language skills for a couple of months now. She interprets his various noises into complete sentences to help us understand what he is trying to say. One of the first "words" she claims to have taught him is "dada" because that is one of the sounds he makes as he babbles. Well, she did work with him to tone it down on the repetition, to just say "dada" instead of "dadadadadadadada". 

Madison and Brookie have been trying to convince Sara that Karsten is now capable of talking, but she wasn't buying it. "He's just making sounds," she'd say. Meanwhile, Sara has been desperately trying to get Karsten to say "mama". 

So tonight as Sara was feeding Karsten just before bedtime - Karsten always gets silly with giggles and noises during this time - Sara once again tried to steer his babbling into a "mama". I was sitting nearby on the couch. As usual Karsten wouldn't do it. Sara tried again, "mama". No response. One more try, then Karsten tilted his head all the way back so that he could look at me and said, "dada" and smiled really big.

As of Oct. 28th, 2008 and much to her chagrin, Sara finally accepted that Karsten really has learned and said his first word. The actual date was probably August 28th, but today is the day that will be recorded in official Wilcox family historical records: the scrapbook.




Monday, October 27, 2008

"Jack"-o-Lantern

I have never really liked carving pumpkins for Halloween. Pumpkins, to me, are slimy and smelly and the act of dealing with them in their non-pie state makes me less inclined to consume their 8" round offspring - even when topped generously with Cool Whip.

But, parenthood demands tremendous sacrifices for the childrens' sake. Madison and Brooklyn promised to help scoop out the guts if I would make them a jack-o-lantern. 


Grandpa and Grandma Wilcox came over to help out. Grandma helped by finding the most artistically complex design ever conceived and then selling the girls on it. It was some kind of pirate-ty skull with snakes and flames and smoke and fog, and called for Michelangelo-like skill in order to remove all of the pumpkin that didn't belong in the sculpture. I had to put my foot down. We Googled for some other ideas and found one we liked a lot that wasn't too difficult.

I mentioned in an early post that the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland gets completely redesigned during the holidays (Halloween through New Year's) based on Tim Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas" - a movie we have not yet seen. However, the image we found looked a lot like the pumpkin-head guy from that movie/ride. We're pretty sure his name is "Jack".

One flame didn't cut it so we overclocked it with three tea candles.



I was pleasantly surprised with the results and may have another go at it next year.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Two Free iPods

Several years ago a new Internet business model emerged. It is the model that allows consumers to receive free products by completing offers from third party merchants and signing up "friends" underneath you to do the same. The free products, at that point in time, included things like golf clubs, an LCD monitor and, my choice, an iPod.

Freeipods.com was the site I felt comfortable with. I chose a two week trial membership from Blockbuster's DVD rent-by-mail program. The service was quite a bit slower than the Netflix service we already subscribed to, so I cancelled it. My obligation was complete. Blockbuster paid freeipods.com some amount of money for the chance to earn my business.

Then I needed to find five other people to sign up and complete one offer apiece. After that I would qualify for my free iPod. I quickly got my brother and mom to sign up, more out of sympathy than anything. I don't know that either of them ever really intended to try for their own iPod. My third person took a little bit of work. My brother-in-law was not interested, but had mentioned it to his brother-in-law who, with a little bit of incentive ($$$), signed up. Incidentally, he wound up doing a whole bunch of these things and got tons of free gear (PSP, GameCube, etc.). At that point I had three people and the end looked attainable. However, I had exhausted all of the people I knew that I felt comfortable exploiting. I didn't want to ask coworkers, friends, neighbors or other acquaintances. There was still a very good chance that the whole scheme was a hoax, and a lot of people believed that. Me - I was willing to take a chance. I took precautions like setting up a new, generic, web-based email account to use for the program.

I resorted Craigslist to find my last two people. My posts kept getting flagged and removed because some people didn't read my ad thoroughly to understand what I was offering. My ad basically said I would pay them for their time and risk of completing an offer for me. I had a small, but steady stream of curious responses, but had to keep raising the ante until it was substantial enough to persuade two people to participate. I PayPal'ed the money to them and submitted my completion to freeipods.com. A few weeks later - a brand new, free, $300 iPod arrived at my door via FedEx. Mine wasn't entirely free due to the bribes I had to pay, but it was still a steal of a deal. My iPod was the white 20 GB, monochrome model, and I was very happy with it.

Jump ahead to a couple of months ago. Sara's new office was hosting an open house to introduce themselves to the new neighborhood. They wanted music and Sara was put in charge of it. We'd do this all the time at home when we were hosting some type of gathering - create a playlist on the iPod then plug it into the whole-house speaker system. Everything was great at the open house until "someone" decided to set the iPod in a precarious and insecure position high atop one of the speakers that were brought in for the event. Apparently iPods aren't designed to withstand a six-foot drop onto concrete.

That same week I got a solicitation in the mail from KeyBank. It was offering a free 4GB iPod nano to new customers that opened a checking account and met certain transactional requirements. I saw no downside. It wouldn't cost me to open or maintain the account. And I was going to use the specified banking services anyway, whether it was through Key or my regular bank. In other words, aside from jumping through a few hoops, the impact to me would be extremely small.

So, all online, I transferred $500 to Key to open a new account. The offer stipulated that I needed to make one point-of-sale purchase using the debit card. That was easy enough. Additionally, I needed to transact any two direct deposits or two electronic payments or one of each. I wasn't prepared to change my direct deposits to Key, but the electronic payments was a piece of cake. Normally I use BillPay, exclusively, to pay bills. Key wanted me to provide my payees with my account information and have the payee draft the money from my account. That was okay with me. I picked two non-critical bills that offered that payment option and set them up. 

That was it. I just had to do those three things before the end of October to meet the requirements of the offer. The Terms and Conditions stated that my iPod would be shipped within 90 days of the end of the promotion. I set a mental timeline of the first of the year. Just a few days after completing the three requirements, the Manager of the local KeyBank called me to let me know I had qualified for the iPod and could expect to receive it by November 5th. Sweet! 

In the meantime, Apple announced upgrades to their entire iPod product line. The nano got a redesign, memory increase, and a larger video screen, in addition to several software changes. I figured beggars can't be choosers, and if I was happy with the old nano a month ago, I should still be happy with it; and I was.

On October 1st I got an email from FedEx advising me that my iPod was being shipped that day and to expect it on October 3rd, our last day in town before leaving for Disneyland.

The tiniest of packages arrived around mid-day. It was literally inside a small bubble-wrap-lined yellow envelope. Much to my delight, they sent me the latest and greatest. Instead of 4GB, I got 8. I got the larger video screen. It even has an "excelerometer" inside that responds to movement and orientation (Want to mix up the songs? Shake the iPod like a Polaroid picture.) And I got it a full month sooner than promised and four months sooner than I had originally expected. And I've diversified my banking servicers just a smidgen.

Sara is forgiven.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Student Becomes the Master

Like a lot of kids, Brookie has long had issues with hitting. She hits walls, toys, legs, Madison, herself, Karsten, and anything else within arm's length. I'm getting pretty tired of dealing with it.

Yesterday she hit Madison and made her cry. Madison cries until someone acknowledges that she is crying, and then she stops. Frustrated that time-outs, spankings, removal of privileges and banishment to the garage are failed strategies, I asked Madison, "Why don't you hit her back and see how she likes it?"

Madison started crying even harder, "No, no. I won't do it!"

"Why not? Maybe she'll learn to stop hitting you if she knows what it feels like."

"But Heavenly Father wouldn't be happy if I hit her back."

She's only five, yet she has already buried her weapons. Then there's dad, encouraging her to slug her little sister.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Princess Renaissance

We were at a barbeque recently where a little girl showed up in a Cinderella dress. I've long been fascinated with the gradual, yet sudden, emergence of the Disney Princesses as a leading brand within the Disney empire. Like an old, dilapidated heirloom furniture piece, Disney has been able to dust off, clean up, repair and reintroduce many of their princesses as modern and hip. In conjunction with that, they have developed new princesses of the same mold to join forces with their predecessors and create the now familiar Disney Princesses. It's Voltron for little girls - and we've got the backpacks, coloring books and pajamas to prove it. It's to the point that the movies and merchandise has no real theme or story other than the fact that they include two or more princesses on a given product. 

Snow White was the first. Then came Cinderella and Aurora. Each of them had to stand on their own. In modern times, the new lineup saw the addition of Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine. It was all about the movie, the message. "Someday my prince will come." "A dream is a wish your heart makes." (Uh oh!) Don't pretend to be someone you're not. Miracles cease to be miracles at midnight local time. Love conquers all. A kiss from a stranger can raise the dead. Wait until the day AFTER the expiration date on the evil sorceress' curse before coming out of hiding. 

Then, some genius recognized the assets Disney already had. They didn't need to, and probably couldn't (see Mulan, Pocahontas) keep churning out new heroins with each successive animated feature. By packaging the top six princesses together, making them friends of each other, aligning their historical time lines, ages, and locations so that they can all exist in our present day, Disney has created a all-star team for girls. In the process, the new princesses have given face lifts to the original princesses and, in turn, the originals have provided instant street cred to the new ones. We are judged by who are friends are. Well, Jasmine's friends are Cinderella and Aurora, so Jasmine must be of pretty high caliber herself. Snow White hangs out with Hot Belle, so she must be sophisticated and modern, too. I would argue that the original princesses have earned their almost mythological celebrity by withstanding the test of time, but were fairly simple characters in their films. The new princesses are much more complex, but relied on the reputations of their fore bearers to quickly vault them into rock-star status.

It all comes down to merchandising. There are a few extreme people that obsess over a particular subject. People that collect everything with a cat on it, or Star Wars. There's a commercial running right now about a Pittsburgh Steeler fan with a room in his house where everything is Steeler-branded, except the table lamp. In the Disney realm there are a few people that collect Mickey Mouse stuff and flaunt it. I think in most cases we would view those people as outliers - not the norm.

But in the case of the Disney Princesses, Disney has positioned the brand as mainstream. They've made it acceptable and actually normal for every girl to obsess. Every other girl at Disneyland has a princess dress on. Entire shops and restaurants are exclusively devoted to them. There are series of DVD based on their collective star power. The nightly parade is designed around their popularity. New attractions, shows, and ice-capades are based on their joint stardom. There is even a closed circuit television channel at the resorts that runs all-princesses, all the time programming. There is also a "Dream Suite" contest where someone can win a night's stay inside a princess castle-like hotel suite inside of Disneyland (It is located directly above Pirates of the Caribbean.)

At our house we've got board games, toys, DVDs, storybooks, clothes, hats, shoes, pajamas, pillows, stickers, coloring books, chairs, jackets, jewelery, dolls, costumes, crowns, and wands, all with "Disney" and "Princess" marked somewhere on them. I'd really like to think that my girls aren't as odd as some of the other obsessive aggregators of themed items. Maybe they are and we're facilitating that behavior. 

At lease we already know and accept that we are suckers. We decided early on that we would allow this obsession as long as the girls were only cuckoo for one thing. We don't have Barbie or Care Bears or My Little Pony. We're exactly the kind of people Disney is looking for - chasing look-a-likes all over Disneyland for their signature instead of riding rides, paying Ariel's Grotto prices for lunch, watching the princess channel every waking hour even though it repeated the same 10 minute program all day long, and spending an entire half day standing in line at the Princess Faire all for the right to shop at the Princess Store.




Sunday, October 19, 2008

Mickey Mouse Hats

We knew before we arrived that we wanted to do something fun as a family to mark our vacation. We had noticed previously, and on this trip, that some families all had matching hats or custom t-shirts made for their group. We decided we would all get mouse ear hats.

The problem is, a mouse ear hat is not the kind of hat that can be worn outside of Disneyland. It is basically a one-time-use product - like a $15.00 yogurt cup - except that afterwards you've got figure out what to do with it. It cost too much to throw it away. Five mouse ear hats take up a lot of space on the bookcase. We're probably not smart enough to take them with us on our next trip to Disneyland. Or too proud.

Brooklyn and Madison chose matching Princess mouse ear hats, which is just as well. They always want what the other one has, so by getting the same thing, there is little incentive to covet. I wanted a Captain Jack Sparrow hat, but it failed the ears requirement, so I found the manliest ear hat I could fine, a white one with embroidered character signatures all over it. Karsten chose the classic, standard issue Mickey Mouse hat. Sara's was the best. She got a Pirate Princess hat, complete with a silky bandana. I'm not kidding, it looks great. I think she should wear it more often.

Djeryd, Erik and Anna also got hats. Anna got a Minnie Mouse hat (correct me if I'm wrong, My) and Erik got a baseball hat with included sunglasses. This was also the day Djeryd was first smitten by and mind-melded with - you guessed it - the skunk hat.


We posed for pictures in front of the castle. 




Then we tried to figure out how to get them home without crushing them.



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