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:


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


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.