A Random Stack of Stuff

In a sad state of affairs, I managed to lock myself out of my own blog for a couple of weeks. For whatever reason, this site gets hammered by hackers. I took some security precautions to make things more difficult for them. As a side effect, I made them more difficult for myself. I couldn’t figure out how to log in!

I’m back now, though, with a stack of random stuff.

In the olden days, I would use a horizontal rule to separate sections of my posts. Will that still work? I’m experimenting to find out!

The condo is cold.

Both the thermostat and the stand-alone weather station say that it’s 68 degrees (20 degrees centigrade), which is supposed to be a comfortable room temperature, but my fingers and nose and toes are cold. My coffee is cold. I need a hot bath. Something tells me I’m not ready for winter. (And something else tells me it’s time to turn up the thermostat!)

I have a tendency to take on too much. Every opportunity sounds great, so I eagerly accept. It’s taken me years to tame this urge.

Kim has been encouraging me to reduce the quantity of things I’m involved with so that I can focus more on the quality. That’s a fine philosophy. She thinks I should take on no more than three major projects at a time, and she thinks it would be better if I kept it to two. Or one. I’ve been doing that for the past couple of months, and it’s working great. I’m able to do each of the things I choose to do with greater intensity.

(Kris’s response to this: “Ha! I wish you luck at narrowing down your activities. Kim is a good influence, it seems, and helps you control some of your self-destructive tendencies.” Who knew I had self-destructive tendencies?)

Even with this narrowed focus, I’m not getting everything done that I want.

Two weeks ago, I spent several days in St. Louis for Fincon, the Financial Blogger Conference. (This conference is about much more than blogging these days, though.)

I didn’t speak at Fincon this year. Instead, I volunteered to be emcee. I’ve decided that I’m done being scared to speak on stage, and I want to get better. I asked Philip, the conference organizer, if he’d like some help, and he said yes. So, I introduced speakers and made announcements from the main stage. It was fun!

But that week in St. Louis took time from my biggest project at the moment — producing a book about personal and financial independence. In theory, this is an ebook. And, in theory, the manuscript is due on Friday. It’s still possible I’ll meet that deadline, but more and more I suspect I’m going to need another week to finish.

On some levels, this delay is frustrating. It’s very important to me to meet my obligations to my “publisher”. At the same time, I’ve realized that this book could be a legacy project for me. In fact, I consider it my life’s work. It’s the culmination of everything I’ve been reading and writing and thinking about for the past decade. I have high hopes it could help many other people.

So, missing my deadline: bad — but not the end of the world.

Next year, I’m going to try something really different.

I hate deadlines. I’ve decided that next year will be the “year without deadlines”. I’m not going to take on any big projects with drop-dead due dates.

I have a couple of regular ongoing gigs that are time-sensitive, such as my column at Get Rich Slowly, but I won’t add any new deadlines, and I’ll try to minimize the effects of the deadlines I already have to deal with.

What I really want to do next year is turn my attention to fiction.

Before I stumbled into a career as a professional blogger, I wanted to write short stories. I took writing classes at local colleges, and participated in a monthly writing group. I loved it.

When Kim moved in last July, I was forced to sort through boxes of my old papers. As part of that process, I found some of my old stories. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed them. Not to be conceited, but at times I’m a damn fine writer!

Starting in January, I’m going to take another fiction writing class — my first one in a decade. My goal for 2014 is to write a novel, believe it or not, something I never thought I’d do.

I used to think I couldn’t tell a story. Now I know that’s not true. I can tell stories, and I can make them compelling. I just can’t do it out loud. My ADHD causes me to jump all over the place, which makes my stories incoherent. But on paper — or in pixels — I can edit myself. I can carefully craft the arc and flow of a story. I can tweak words and sentences until they’re just right.

Last night, I had the most hilarious nightmare.

The world was devastated by nuclear war. Cats, which had developed speech due to radioactive fallout, were Earth’s only hope of salvation, but they couldn’t be bothered. We’d prod and prod the brightest cats to take decisive action, but they’d only glower at us, lick their paws, and go back to sleep.

If our future depends on cats, we are doomed.

The day my dishwasher died

When I bought my condo in February, one of the things that impressed me about the place was the built-in shiny silver kitchen appliances. They were all so fancy and fun! My parents always had cheap appliances. When Kris and I were married, we too had cheap-ish stuff. (The dishwasher at our last house was almost 30 years old when we inherited it! Kris finally had to replace it last spring.) I soon learned that shiny silver kitchen appliances may be fancy but they’re not always fun.

The Trouble With Fancy

“What’s the deal with the microwave?” Kim asked soon after I moved in. “I can’t just punch in a time and go?” “No,” I said. “You have to press cook time, rotate the little dial to select the timer, press the dial, rotate it again to set the timer, press it again, rotate it down to start, and then press it again.” “Wha–?” she said. “Exactly,” I said.

Why anyone would design a microwave in this inane fashion is beyond me. The most common function now takes about 10 times as long as it ought to. Sure, we can select all sorts of fancy setting if we want to. But we never want to.

Meanwhile, the fancy fridge had its own issues. The plug at the back of the ice-maker bin had fallen out and gone missing before we moved in. Whenever we had the ice-maker make ice, the cubes would cascade down the back of the freezer. (I fixed that, obviously, but it was still dumb. Why was there even a plug in the bin?) Worse, we couldn’t use magnets on the doors.

But most frustrating was the dishwasher. Instead of an easy mechanical dial and push buttons, the controls were computerized. You selected a cycle (and various options) from a control pad. I’d never seen such a thing before. I liked the idea of it, but the reality was different. It was stuck in pot-scrubbing mode. I scoured the instruction manual and the Internet to see if this was normal behavior, but I couldn’t find any answers. So, for eight months, we washed our dishes on this single cycle.

Last Sunday, even that option disappeared. The control panel became unresponsive, constantly flashing “rinse only.” Kind of a bummer since Kim had just spent the weekend making bone broth, which had dirtied nearly every pot in the house. A little research online revealed that I wasn’t going to be able to solve this myself. I called in an expert.

Dishwasher Disaster

Yesterday, a service tech from Sears stopped by the condo to diagnose the problem. “Huh,” he said after a few minutes of fiddling with the dishwasher. “Interesting.”

“I don’t like to hear that,” I said. “I used to repair computers. I know that ‘interesting’ is code for ‘I have no idea what’s going on’ or ‘You need a new machine.'”

“You might need a new machine,” said the service guy.

He spent another 20 minutes playing with the dishwasher and punching info into his diagnostic computer. Eventually, he came to me with the news. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “That control panel is gone. You need a new one. That’ll set you back $460 for the part. Plus there’s labor. Plus there’s the $80 for my visit today.”

“Ouch,” I said. “Right,” he said. “And it looks like there are other things that could fail soon.” (He named the parts, but I didn’t file those in my memory.)

“So, we’re looking at $600 or $700 total to repair this?” I asked. “How much does a new dishwasher cost?” “They start at $600 or $700,” he said. “Plus, if you choose to go that route, I can give you a coupon for $100 off if you buy it from Sears.”

This sounded a little like a slimy sales gimmick, but the guy seemed in earnest. I sighed, thanked him for his time, and took the $100 coupon.

Over-Analytical Man

Now I’m faced with two unpleasant tasks. First, I’m back to washing dishes by hand. This isn’t really that big of a deal. I washed dishes by hand for all of 2012, both at my apartment and at Kim’s house. The dishwasher is a luxury. Still, it’s a luxury I like, which brings up unpleasant task number two. I have to shop for a new dishwasher.

I’ve come to realize that I don’t enjoy shopping for furniture or appliances. I see the process as a necessary evil. I put it off as long as possible. Why? Because it’s overwhelming. There are so many products available and so many places to buy them. Because I’m by nature a Maximizer, it’s too easy for me to get locked in “analysis paralysis.”

Note: Here’s a quick review of the difference between Maximizers and Satisficers (terms I picked up from Barry Schwartz’s fascinating “The Paradox of Choice”). Maximizers want the best; they need to know that every decision they make is the best possible decision. Satisficers settle for “good enough”; they find something that meets their needs and don’t worry about the possibility that there might be something better. As you might guess, Satisficers tend to be happier and more productive than Maximizers, living with less regret. For Maximizers like me, increased choice just means increased suffering. When we have only two or three options, it’s easy to choose the best one. When there are 20 or 30, it’s almost impossible.

After the service tech left last night, I pulled out the July 2013 issue of Consumer Reports to read up on dishwashers. It wasn’t helpful. The article rated 87 dishwashers — 87! — with 10 recommended models and one “best buy.” How do I choose? Should I buy another KitchenAid to match the rest of the appliances we have? But I don’t even like the other appliances, so maybe I should opt for another brand? Should I only go with the models that Sears stocks so I can use the $100 coupon? Or should I browse at Costco? And how much time am I really willing to devote to this process? Ultimately, this is what I decided to do:

  • Set a budget. The dishwashers listed in Consumer Reports range from $260 to $1,800 (although most of the cheap dishwashers get poor test scores). Since it would cost $600 or $700 to repair our current dishwasher, that’s my spending target. (I’ll admit I’m willing to spend a little more than that, but not much — certainly not over $1,000.)
  • Select a store. I don’t have time to install the new dishwasher myself. I’m in the middle of writing a book and prepping for this year’s Financial Blogger Conference. Plus, I don’t want the hassle of disposing of the old dishwasher. Because of this, I need to buy from a place that will deliver and install the dishwasher. I’m not a Sears loyalist by any means, but because I have a coupon and because there’s a Sears close to me, I’m going to start there.
  • Limit my search to certain brands. I realize good appliances can be had from any provider. For my purposes, though, I’m going to limit myself to three brands: KitchenAid (to match the rest of the kitchen appliances we own), Samsung (because I like my Samsung washer and dryer), and Bosch (which gets great ratings from CR while having the best reliability).
  • Set a time limit. I know myself. I could turn this into a two-day quest for the Best Dishwasher Ever. I’m not going to do that. The next time I run errands, I’ll add this to the list. I’ll spend a couple of hours looking at the various models and choose the one that best matches my needs after the end of that time.

“You seem like a frugal guy,” the service tech told me as he was leaving yesterday. “I can tell you don’t like to spend money.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“Here’s what I’d do,” he told me. “Don’t go to the main Sears store at the mall. There’s an outlet center down the road. Go there. They’ll have last year’s models, but that doesn’t matter. They’re still fine machines. That’s your best bet for finding a bargain.”

So, that’s my plan. I’ll start at the outlet store (where my coupon is no good — although I’ll ask if I can use it). If I can’t find anything there, I’ll head to the main Sears store. And then to Costco. But that’s it.

I realize this is a lot of hand-wringing over a broken dishwasher. We each have our weak spots though, right? For me, it’s shopping for furniture and appliances. I hate it. It’s overwhelming. And it hurts to see how expensive everything is.

I’m fortunate to have enough money in savings to cover this expense; a decade ago, this would have been a disaster that set me back deeper in debt! Of course, I’m open to suggestions.

How do you shop for major appliances? How do you keep from becoming overwhelmed? How do you find good deals?

I’m open to any tips and tricks you might have to make this less painful and less expensive.

Ecuador 2013: A Short Visit to the Galápagos Islands

At last, after three weeks in Ecuador, I am home. I’ve actually been home for a week, but that week has been a whirlwind, and I’m only now finding time to write about the last half of my trip.

Put simply: The Galápagos Islands are amazing.

The Galápagos are filled with raw, natural beauty.

Most folks are familiar with the role this archipelago played in the history of science. As a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, the 26-year-old Charles Darwin spent several weeks surveying the flora and fauna of the Galápagos in 1835. His experiences there — and in South America an Australia — planted the seeds that grew into his theory of natural selection.

More than 25 years ago (!!!), I studied Darwin’s On the Origin of Species during my freshman year of college. Because of this, I thought I knew what to expect from the Galápagos. I was wrong.

“Are you my mother?

The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands some 620 miles off the coast of Ecuador. They’re a chain of small land masses still in the process of creation, floating on the “conveyer belt” of the Earth’s crust. The youngest islands are still being molded by occasional volcanic eruptions. The older islands, however, have had millions of years to mature. They sport lush ecosystems filled with fascinating plants and animals.

There’s lots to see on the Galápagos…

Most Galápagos tours are land-based. You fly to one of the handful of small towns and take day trips to nearby points of interest. I chose a boat-based trip through G Adventures, and I’m glad I did. My six-day tour included three nights aboard ship and visits to five of the thirteen major islands. It wasn’t enough. I plan to return to see everything at some point in the not-too-distant future.

From our yacht, we took dinghies to the shore…

…where landfall was easier for some than others.

You have to be willing to get your feet wet on the Galápagos.

Some of my group of fourteen were disappointed by the land excursions because so much what we saw was similar from island to island. We saw iguanas (red here, green there, black everywhere), boobies (blue-footed here, red-footed there), frigate birds (so fun to watch!), gulls, owls, and — of course — sea lions. The sea lions rule the Galápagos. There are colonies of them on every island.

Everywhere you go, there are sea lions.

I, however, enjoyed the animal life. The diversity isn’t great because the islands are isolated. That’s kind of the point. And it was interesting to see that natural selection favored blue-footed boobies and red-skinned iguanas on one island while preferring red-footed boobies and green-skinned islands on others.

Guarding a nestling…

We spotted an owl on one island, which is rumored to be rare…

Plus, the Galápagos wildlife offers one huge advantage over any other animals I’ve ever seen: The creatures don’t care about humans. As in, they completely ignore us. Except for the bull sea lions, who will charge anything that enters their territory, the birds and the reptiles and the sea lions are perfectly content to come right up to visitors. If you’re not careful, there’s a real risk of trampling something. We were constantly dodging lizards. And once, while fiddling with my camera, I nearly stumbled onto a pair of sea lions napping in the carpetweed!

I almost tripped over this duo of snoring sea lions.

Brian bonds with an iguana…

Even the fish in the tidepools would come say howdy…

The highlight of the trip for me, however, was the snorkeling. I’d never snorkeled before, and I’ll confess it scared me a little. But since I’m saying “yes” to life, I said yes to this. It was like drawing a winning lottery ticket.

Preparing for my first dive…

I splurged for an underwater camera. I’m glad I did.

Turns out I love to snorkel. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever experienced. When I put on the mask and look beneath the waves, I enter another world. An hour passes, and it seems like mere minutes. We snorkeled five times in my 72 hours on the boat. I could have done twice as much.

This friendly fellow came to say “hello”.

I was sad, however, to have missed the giant tortoises. They’re one of the main reasons I made this trip, and I was looking forward to getting up close and personal with them. It was not to be. On the morning I left the group, they continued on for tortoise-viewing. Before I left, though, they had a little fun with me; they found some tortoise footage on DVD and played it for me on the TV in the boat’s main cabin.

This is as close I got to the giant tortoises

Kicker Island, where we did a final round of snorkeling…

Alas, my time in the Galápagos was all to brief. Before I knew it, I was back in Quito. And once there, I was pining for home.

Quito is not without its charms, but the Galápagos are better…

Ecuador was marvelous, and I’m certain to return. Now, however, it’s back to Real Life. For the past week, I’ve been working hard on three different projects: my role at Fincon in three weeks, starting an online magazine, and (most importantly) writing an ebook about how to achieve financial independence.

Graffiti in Quito: “Smile…in spite of everything, life is beautiful!”

Now I need to decide where to go next. The 2014 travel catalogs have begun to arrive, and they’re filling my head with visions of far-away places. Should I go to Australia and New Zealand? Kenya and Tanzania? Madagascar? Thailand and Vietnam? Wherever I go, I want to take Kim with me. This is the second September in a row that I’ve gone on an adventure without her. I don’t like it. I want us to travel the world together!