Posts Tagged 'money'

MSgt Dremel: Thank you for saving a life.

Dear Master Sergeant Dremel,

Honestly, I just did a little stalking and found out that you retired from the military some time ago, but I will always remember you as Master Sergeant Dremel (“like the tool” you would always say, yet I had never heard of Dremel tools). And, in fact, I will always remember you.

I was literally raking sand while waiting for a new job.

I was literally raking sand waiting for a new job.

I won’t blame you if you don’t remember me. I was one of a few young airmen that passed through your office at the advanced Russian school at DLI. Sometime in 2008 I failed the Arabic DLPT and began the long process of reclassifying to another job. My friend (who had failed out of Arabic with me but also spoke Russian) had been sent to work in your office as an aide. He put in a good word for me (because I was tired of sweeping sidewalks and raking sand, literally) and you requested a second aide to help clean up and organize a few things around your office.

I was feeling pretty down at the time, but this isn’t a story about how I was thinking of suicide and you talked me out of it (as the title might suggest). I had signed up with the Air Force to get the $12,000 signing bonus and I felt that the new Arabic test was broken and I had been cheated out of my bonus. I knew that I had the option of getting out of the Air Force at that point, and I was seriously considering pursuing that option.

I will always remember how kind and sincerely caring a person you are. I still remember the story you told about how, at another location, you and a few other guys were concerned about a dangerous section of road that the administration was not taking proper care of–the road required some safety markings (a crosswalk, if I recall correctly) and after months of fighting for the markings to be painted no action had been taken. You and your cohorts obtained the necessary supplies and painted the markings yourselves to prevent further injury at that location.

Similarly, you saw that I was in need of a mentor and you stepped up. I will always remember the day you asked me about my plans for the future and I told you I was planning on getting out. You listened and then, in a few more words, asked me to reconsider and give the Air Force another shot. You talked about the many benefits, to include education and health care, that I would be throwing away, and you appealed expertly to my logic and sense of responsibility.

In my mind, the military represented something I didn’t want to do. I felt wronged by the system, had a deep disdain for all of the running and physical exercise required, and didn’t feel comfortable with the military culture. However, your words convinced me to give it another chance.

Within a year your actions brought me tears of gratitude, and I am sorry that it took me this long to reach out to you and let you know what kind of impact you had in my life. Let me tell you the full story.

I had been doing very well in the Arabic program. I was, in fact, near the top of my class. I was selected to study for a month in Egypt. While I was away at Egypt, on 7 February 2008, my wife gave birth to a beautiful little girl we called Sophie.

The light of my life.

The light of my life.

Sophie was the light in my life. We had another son, but he was my step-son and as much as I treated him like my own, this was my own spawn. She was beautiful. She was happy. She made everyone around her happy.

By the time I wound up in your office she was barely half a year hold. Late December of that year, less than two months after you convinced me not to pursue an early exit from my contract, I got a call from my unit superintendent who informed me that a slot had opened up for “some computer job” and, if I wanted it, I would need to report to the new training by the first week of January.

Bundle of Joy

Bundle of Joy

I took the job and after the training, in May of 2009, we trekked across the country from Monterey, CA to Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington DC.

Everything was going pretty well. I still didn’t enjoy most aspects of military life, but it was nice having everything taken care of. In addition to your encouragement to give the Air Force another chance, I had the attitude that a job is a job and having a good one was better than not having one.

Happy

She made me happy.

By October that year the first signs that something was wrong began showing. We didn’t notice at the time, but in hind sight it’s pretty clear.

Notice the head tilt.

Notice the head tilt.

She had started walking, running a little, and growing more and more confident in her movements. Then, out of nowhere, she reversed progress. She wanted to hold hands more. She used furniture and walls to steady herself. Her head was almost always cocked to one side.

It took us another month and a half before we were concerned enough to get an appointment with her pediatrician. The appointment was set for Wednesday, 16 December 2009.

Her doctor, Dr. Barnes, wasn’t too concerned on the surface. She thought it could be a nutrient deficiency or something else that could be resolved with medicine or therapy, but just to rule out anything serious, she got us an appointment to get a CAT scan the next day at Walter Reed, the larger Army Medical Center for the National Capitol Region.

So, on Thursday, 17 December, we took Sophie to the hospital to get a scan. After the scan, instead of being sent home and told that they’d get the results to us in the next couple weeks (as is usually the procedure), we waited and waited for what seemed like hours (but may have only been a half hour or so, I don’t know). Eventually we were pulled into a closet of a room with a computer and two doctors. They pulled up her scan and showed us a big black area about the width of a baseball and told us that they weren’t sure what it was, but they were sure she would need an MRI and they were not equipped to do it there. They were referring us to the Children’s National Medical Center down the road. Sitting in that room I looked at my wife and knew that everything had changed and could never go back to being the way it was before. They sent us to the ER where an ambulance would pick us up and take us in for the MRI.

The ambulance took forever to arrive. We were scared and confused. It got late. Sophie had been fasting for the scan, and since she would be going in for another she had to continue her fast. She was hungry, tired, and righteously upset. She was the only one that cried though.

This is the first MRI result.

This was the first MRI result.

They couldn’t get her in for the MRI until the next morning. Immediately afterward they urgently recommended surgery. It all happened so fast. Wednesday: ordinary pediatrician’s visit. Thursday: precautionary CAT scan. Friday morning: brain surgery?!? There wasn’t time to think about it then though.

While in the waiting room we were sitting stoically by a nervous mother. “What is your child in for?” she asked. We instead asked what her child was there for. “He’s getting his tonsils removed,” she replied. We never told her what we were there for.

It was about that time that we got up and decided to walk the hallways for a bit. That was the first time we cried. Still though, our thoughts were focused on our family and our daughter. In that moment I was enjoying a gift you had given me–a gift that I became poignantly aware of less than a week later (we’ll get to that in a minute).

After the six hour surgery, I stayed the night in the hospital with Sophie that night and my wife drove home as it began to snow. The next morning we found that we were snowed in. You may have heard of that snow storm in the news as it was the beginning of the terrible 2009/2010 snow storm that hit the East coast.

The snow gave me a chance to finally update my family on what had happened.

She recovered quickly, and by Monday there was a break in the snow, a few roads had opened, and the doctor told us that we were free to go. Less than a week later, the day before Christmas, we got a letter in the mail from TriCare informing us that all of the bills for the hospital had been paid.

A wave of relief rushed over me. It wasn’t until that point that I remembered that in the civilian world people pay a lot of money for things like brain surgery. I wish I had kept that letter with its 6-digit total. That was the gift you gave me. Four years and almost a dozen expensive MRIs later, she is in perfect health, and we don’t owe a dime for any of it. We received some of the top care in the world, from one of the most qualified and expert pediatric neurosurgeons in the nation, under the guidance of one of the most respected and loved pediatric neuro-oncologists in the world, and it was all for the cost of one decision that you ultimately helped me make.

So, Master Sergeant Dremel, how did you save a life? Surely, even if I had left the military, Sophie would have received the care she needed. We would certainly not have been living near the Children’s National Medical Center in DC, so she wouldn’t have seen the same experts she saw. But, you know what? This isn’t about her life. She might have had a worse time with another hospital, or even had a very similar experience. But it would have cost me a fortune under any medical plan I would have been able to afford (remember, this was less than a year after we parted ways).

There are things worse than death. Not being able to support my family and provide for their needs is one of those things for me. That is my life. And you saved it for me.

Thank you.

Healthy, Happy, & Smart

Healthy, Happy, & Smart (with her Teacher)

For some photos and information about Sophie’s adventure, see:

New Computer? – Start Here

**EDIT**

If you’re just looking for a list of free software to install on your computer, I’ve created a Springpad notebook full of links to my favorites. If I find anything else to add, I’ll put it there.

I want to start out by saying that I am just a guy. I wasn’t paid to write any of this, I don’t work for any of the companies mentioned, and these are all just my opinions. If any of the mentioned companies wanted to pay me because I wrote all these nice things about them, I’d be willing to talk to them about an arrangement. 😉

Having said that, here are the chronicles of my recent adventure procuring and setting up my new laptop. I’m going to break this down into three separate categories: Hardware, Pre-installed Software you Don’t Need, and Free Software you Might Need. Lucky for you, I’m all about free, open-source and simplicity; so the only part that I spent money on was the hardware.

I’ve designed this as a sort of guide to assist YOU in purchasing and setting up a new computer. People are always looking at my glasses. After they get a good look at my glasses, they say, “Hey, I need a new computer. What kind should I get?” People with new computers are always asking me, “Is it better to just use Internet Explorer, or should I get one of those new browsers?” Also, it has been my own experience that just using all of the default software (that ships with the system) for document editing, virus handling, and many other tasks is a bad idea. So, here are all of my answers and tips in one place. This may not be the definitive guide to getting a new computer, but it is MY definitive guide for those who need it.

So, without further chit-chat, let’s look at your hardware options.

HARDWARE

This one’s easier than you might be inclined to believe. Sure there are a lot of choices, but it all comes down to what you want to use the computer for.

The computer I wanted this time around was a laptop I could actually take places. Last time I got a laptop (over five years ago) it weighed ten pounds, it was more of a desktop replacement and cost me over two thousand dollars. Now I’ve got a desktop, and I wanted an inexpensive computer that could go places with me AND do stuff. I’ve got an Asus eee PC (a netbook), but that thing can’t really do stuff. I mean, it can do some stuff (I use it for NaNoWriMo every year), but it’s a little wimpy when it comes to multitasking and other processor/RAM intensive activities.

The Argument for Desktops

First, if you’ve got the space for it and you don’t need to move it, get a desktop. Laptops have really gone down in price lately, but an equivalent (as far as hardware and capabilities) desktop will always cost less than its laptop counterpart (as of this writing).

Desktops have the greatest range in options as well. You can get a cheap-o system that is really only good for running your web browser and a word processor for under a hundred dollars, or you can pay tens of thousands of dollars for systems that can perform at speeds rivaling supercomputers. No matter what you’ll be using the desktop for, you can always find a system that perfectly meets your needs without spending more than you have to. Always.

The first step in selecting a desktop is to imagine yourself using that computer for the next two years. What will you use it for? Do you play many games? You might need to spend more for a system that will be compatible with future game releases. Will you be hooking it up to your TV to watch shows and movies? There are a lot of media center pc options. If you’re a Mac person (which, I might be if I had more money), you might want an Apple TV rather than a new computer.

Just decide what you’ll need the computer to be able to do, and consider these simple guidelines (which, unless you’re a “power user,” will more than cover the basics). I don’t need to say it, but if you know enough about computers to know that these guidelines aren’t comprehensive, then these guidelines weren’t written for you.

  • RAM – For most users, this is arguably the most important decision. More RAM means faster, smoother, more powerful computing. You want to open and use every program installed on your computer at the same time? You need lots of RAM. Will you only do one thing at a time for the rest of the time you own the computer? You can get by with 2 Gigs or less (depending on that one program you’ll be running!).
  • Operating System Bits – Related to RAM, but separate, is the operating system you’ll be using. Right away I have to mention that a 32 bit operating system cannot handle a full 4 Gigabytes of RAM, and certainly not more. If you will want 4 Gigs or more of RAM, you’ll need a 64 bit OS. Otherwise, 32 vs 64 bits will not have much of an impact on you.
  • Operating System Flavor – Which OS you choose will depend on many factors, but at the risk of bringing on hoards of criticism, I’m going to go ahead and simplify things this way: If you’re lost when it comes to choosing your operating system, just get Windows 7. Sure, Macs are simple, but getting software for them can be a hassle. Windows may have a poor track-record when it comes to stability and ease of use, but I’m putting a lot of faith in Windows 7, and I think it’s a safe choice for YOU. If you know you want a Mac though, please get it!
  • Processor – When it comes to desktops, you’re really only going to concern yourself with how many cores and processors you want. Adding processors and cores means better ability to process multiple instructions at a time (translating to blazing speed and excellent multitasking), while a single core on a single processor will more than meet the needs of most users. Don’t get the fancy processor set-up unless you know you need it. For most modern operating systems and software, though, I recommend at least a single processor with dual cores. More than that and you’d better be doing some serious video editing or 3D graphics (like games).
  • Hard Drive – If you’re doing video editing or if you’re archiving your DVD collection on the hard drive, get something huge. If you’re just surfing the Internet and writing papers in Word, you don’t need much hard drive space. Even the smallest hard drives shipping these days are more than ample for the average user. Note that media center systems should have more hard drive space to store videos or recorded television.

Sure, there are more factors than just these to consider, but if you’re not a power user who already knows about the other factors, then you don’t need to worry about them. What you don’t know can’t hurt you here.

The only other thing I would caution is to avoid brands you’re not familiar with and be wary of prices that are significantly lower than competing systems with similar capabilities. Your desktop shouldn’t be too expensive, but don’t be a cheapskate once you know what you want. Just pay what the trusted manufacturers are charging.

I currently use a first generation HP TouchSmart for my desktop, and it’s held up very well in the two years we’ve owned it. Both of my laptops are Toshibas, and we love them. Namebrand systems are always a good bet.

Where Desktops Fail

The only problem with a desktop is that it is not very portable. Sure, some of the newer CPU box form-factors (especially in the case of media center computers) are very small and lightweight. However, the screen and input devices are not built in, thus to use the system it must be hooked up to these things, and to move it you have to unplug everything. Convenient? No.

So what if you really need something you can take to class with you? You need either a laptop or a netbook. Can’t decide which one? Consider this:

I thought I could get a netbook and do the same things with it as I do with my laptop. I was wrong. Even with a full size keyboard attached and an external mouse, the netbook screens are too small to be practical in a number of applications. For a true, natural computing experience, you’ll still want a larger system. They make laptops that are much closer in size (and price) to netbooks, but they are much more convenient. If you’re not sure about getting a netbook, don’t. Just go for a smaller laptop. I promise you’ll be happy with it.

If you know you want a netbook, get it. If you’re not sure, don’t. You’ve got to be committed to liking your netbook, or you’re going to hate it.

Other than the netbook vs laptop decision, there isn’t a whole lot more to think about. How portable do you want it? There are a range of sizes from 13 inches to over 18 inches for screens. Some are less than an inch thin, and others have huge 12 cell batteries that lift them about three inches off your table top. Some run hot from having their hardware crammed in to a small space, while others have minimal hardware configurations and are quiet and cool. Again, the considerations for desktops will all hold true for laptops, but you might want to consider the following IN ADDITION to the desktop suggestions:

  • Overall Size – You’re getting a laptop because a desktop isn’t portable enough for you, but how portable do you need your laptop to be? If you are still just going to leave it set up in one place for long periods of time, you might consider a larger desktop replacement laptop. These systems offer the same performance as a desktop, at often competitive prices, but at the end of the day the screen folds up and you can pack it away in a bag. Expect these to weigh close to ten pounds though! Then there are the ultra portables that weigh in at under five pounds (mine weighs like three pounds!). Keep in mind that a netbook can weigh close to one pound, but you’ve already decided you want a laptop, right?
  • Battery Size/Usage – Some laptops these days are being designed as marathon machines. They can squeeze almost a full day of usage out of a single charge, but that efficiency comes at a price (both in dollars and performance). Most laptops are designed to fully contain a six cell battery, but by doubling the number of cells to twelve (and subsequently, increasing the size of the battery pack itself, causing it to protrude out the back or bottom of the computer), you can double the life of the battery. Also, Intel and AMD make processors specifically designed to use less power. They usually run at far less than 2 Gigahertz, and they cannot handle too many big tasks like gaming and video editing as well. You could try, but if that’s what you need the system for (primarily) you’ll just have to charge the system more often.
  • USB Ports – If you use a lot of devices at once, you’ll need at least three USB ports. I always recommend using an external keyboard and mouse with a laptop whenever possible simply because they can be replaced much easier than the built-in devices. The less you use them, the less likely they are to break. So, with a keyboard and mouse plugged in, you will want to have at least one more USB port for external hard drives, thumb drives, cameras or whatever else tickles your fancy. A few laptops only have two ports (one on each side), most have three, and a few have up to five USB ports. Get as many as you can without spending too much just for that feature. Also keep in mind that some USB devices have a special “Y” shaped cable that plugs into two USB ports. If you might need one of these devices, you’ll want a laptop with two USB ports that are close together, not one on each side.

In my most recent purchase, I wanted something far more portable than my old laptop but more capable than a netbook. I went with a Toshiba Satellite, ultra thin system. This particular system (like most ultra thin, lightweight systems) does not have an optical drive (no DVD or CD drive). That wasn’t an issue for me because I knew that all of the software I could ever need I was going to download for free once I got it connected to the Internet. If you install a lot of software from disks but still want a system like mine, there are some great external drives that will meet your needs. I may end up getting one too so I can watch movies on my laptop, but for now I’m fine without an optical drive.

Accessories

The final hardware consideration is, what else do you need? Some people need lots of storage but end up choosing a laptop with a smaller hard drive. In that case, just get an external hard drive. Do you transfer a lot of files between systems? Get a thumb drive. Actually, I recommend that people get thumb drives even if they don’t need them for transferring files. They make a great place to keep backups of your most important files.

Keyboard:

The only thing I know you’ll need if you got a laptop is a mouse and keyboard. There’s no getting around it – using the laptop keyboard puts wear on it that could eventually require maintenance. If you use an external keyboard, and it breaks, you can just unplug it and get another one. My favorite typing keyboard ever (that I’ve used anyhow) is the Logitech Classic Keyboard 200. It currently sells for $13.99 on Amazon.com, it is comfortable, and I’ve never had any problems with it. I love it.

Mouse:

I do recommend spending a little more for your external mouse though. Touch pads are great for basic navigation and occasional clicking, but nothing beats a scroll wheel on the Internet, and when doing graphics work or gaming you just can’t live without a mouse. My current favorite is the Microsoft Explorer series. Specifically, my wife and I love our Explorer Mini mice. Amazon.com sells them for about $40, they retail for about $60, and there is currently a vendor on Amazon that is selling them for under $20 (with $4 shipping). The great thing about the Explorer mice is that they will track on literally anything but glass and mirrors (although in some tests these mice have actually tracked on glass and mirrors!). We can use them on shag carpet, glossy surfaces, pitted surfaces, hair, clothing, anything at all, and more. If you want a great mouse, Microsoft actually has a great product.

PRE-INSTALLED SOFTWARE YOU DON’T NEED

All computers come with what is lovingly called “bloat-ware.” This is software that people pay the manufacturer to include pre-installed from the factory. In some ways I guess it’s good because I’d like to think that the money they earn from that endeavor goes toward keeping costs lower for me, but I rather doubt it.

Anyhow, the first program I highly suggest you uninstall (if it’s installed) is Norton Anti-Virus. Many computers come with it pre-installed along with an offer for a whole year or month or day of free updates. It’s not worth it. Microsoft has a free program you can download right away that does the same thing (well, roughly the same thing).

To get rid of Norton (or any program, for that matter), just go to the control panel and look for “Add/Remove Programs” or something like that. Find the offender, click “uninstall,” and follow the directions. Most virus protection software will require that you restart after removing it. That’s OK.

Now, I don’t recommend you leave your computer virus-protection-free for long. It is a dangerous thing. So once you’ve finished uninstalling the crud you don’t need, make sure you immediately download the “essential” software I have listed below, in the order I’ve listed them.

First though, look for any programs that say “offer” or “setup” next to them and get rid of them (still in the Add/Remove Software tool). Also, some systems (most Toshibas and HPs) come with some kind of game portal that you should get rid of.

Many people will tell you to get rid of a lot more than this, but it’s not always necessary. After you’ve been using the computer for a month or so, go back to the Add/Remove Software tool and look over the list. If you recognize the program and you know you use it a lot, don’t get rid of it. If you recognize it and you know you don’t use it a lot, get rid of it (just make sure you know what it does first!). Everything else is probably OK to leave installed.

FREE SOFTWARE YOU MIGHT NEED

Some of these are more essential than others. I’ll categorize them to simplify this. In some cases it won’t matter what program you get as long as you get something that does the job. So, if you’re ready to get started, open Internet Explorer (unless your system came with another browser pre-installed, in which case you should DEFINITELY use the other one!).

Note: This list is designed for Windows users ONLY. Many of these programs are cross platform, but I’m not going to say which ones because I’m not making this list for Mac users. Sorry guys. Maybe another time.

Essential Software

These are programs that you will need to get – almost everyone needs these programs. Right away, before downloading anything, you need virus protection!

  • Virus Protection – Search for “Microsoft Security Essentials,” or go to http://www.microsoft.com/Security_Essentials/. Click on the big “Download Now” button, save the executable and run it. Make sure you have already removed any virus protection that shipped with your computer, then close your web browser while the program installs. Once it installs make sure it runs OK, then let it scan your system. Depending on the size of your hard drive, this can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Since this is the first thing you’re doing on your new system, everything should be clean. After it scans your system, you may proceed with this list.
  • New Browser – DO NOT USE INTERNET EXPLORER. Sure, there are a lot of sites that require it, but I can show you how to get around that later. For now, just download one or both of the following browsers and try them out. You won’t miss Internet Explorer after a few days. I promise. My favorite is Google Chrome, but I was once a die-hard Firefox fan (I even have an embroidered FireFox shirt). They are both worlds better than IE, more secure, faster, and prettier. While I might catch some heat for this, I am going to recommend that you just get Google Chrome. It’s better. Once you’ve downloaded and selected a new browser, close Internet Explorer and never open it again (unless you really have to).
  • Free Office Software – While there are a few options for this, my favorite (and arguably the most user friendly and robust) is OpenOffice.org. Just go to their website in your new, shiny browser, and download. It’s that easy. The installation is easy and the program operates a lot like Microsoft Office. There are some differences, but OpenOffice.org can do just about anything Microsoft Office can do, and in some cases it does it better. If you ever find that OpenOffice.org just isn’t meeting your needs, feel free to go back to the Microsoft version, but I don’t think most people will ever need to.
  • Media Player – Windows Media Player is pretty good, but there are a lot of things it can’t handle. For everything else, there’s VLC. VLC can’t do everything, but I’ve never found a video it couldn’t play.
  • Photo Organizer – Since most people maintain some kind of image collection (from digital cameras, web graphics, etc.), you’ll probably want a good program to organize and lightly edit those photos. Google Picasa is a great product that is completely free and I recommend it to everyone.

Everything Else

Those, to me, represent the bare-bones necessities for a new computer. If you get nothing else, make sure you get those things. The remainder of my list is specific to my needs and wants, based on what I want to use the computer for. If you know of other great free programs that aren’t listed here, please add them in the comments.

  • Dropbox – This is a really cool file program. It creates a special folder that automatically backs itself up online any time you add or change files in the folder. If you install Dropbox on other computers and link them with your account, Dropbox will synchronize all of the folders across all of the computers and devices you have Dropbox installed on. I love it.
  • Notepad ++ – If you do any web development or coding the old fashioned way (in notepad) you might want to try Notepad ++. I found this little gem several years ago and have installed it on all of my computers ever since.
  • Skype – For video calls and VoIP, my favorite is still Skype. We’ve been using it for quite a while now and we love it.
  • Google Talk – Actually, I didn’t download the Talk program, I installed the Video and Voice plug-in. While most of our video chats are handled over Skype, we have more friends with Google accounts than Skype accounts. With this plug-in, I can have a video call with any Google Talk contact who is also using the plug-in or the desktop client. I’ve only done it once, and it was a long time ago, but this is a valuable thing to have on standby.
  • Google Earth – There’s nothing cooler than exploring your planet in 3D with a nearly infinitely scalable, detailed and textured model with Google Maps plastered all over it. This is as fun as it is useful.
  • Google SketchUp – I am a bit of a 3D hobbyist, and SketchUp is a great way to rapidly visualize a model. It’s a wildly different experience from most of the 3D software I’ve used, but once I got the hang of it I realize it was easier and more intuitive than anything else I’ve ever tried. Plus, it’s free!
  • Blender – On the subject of 3D, how does a free 3D program with advanced features sound? SketchUp may be easy and fast, but it’s not anywhere near Blender’s level. I don’t know if it’s just me, but Blender is extremely un-intuitive to learn. However, I’ve seen what it can do, and I’m impressed enough to trudge over the learning curve and figure it out.
  • Paint.NET – If I’m going to make awesome 3D images in Blender, I’ll need software like Photoshop to make textures, composites, do touch-ups, and more. Windows Paint won’t do any of that. In fact, Paint is nearly useless. Luckily, there’s a better Paint. This program can do layers, adjustments, transparency and even some cool effects. Sure, there’s a lot that it can’t do, but it’s free. If it does what you need it to then you’ve lost nothing, right? I even made the cover for my new book entirely in Paint.NET.
  • Inkscape – Paint.NET can handle most of my 2D needs, but it is primarily for raster images (bitmaps). For vector images, I love Inkscape. It’s relatively easy to learn, and it can handle almost anything you can dream up.
  • GIMP – Many people believe GIMP capable of anything Photoshop can do. I don’t agree, but I do think GIMP is better than Paint.NET for more advanced jobs. A lot like Blender, I find GIMP hard to learn, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. I want to learn it so I can see how long I can live without Photoshop. Someday I’ll be rich and it won’t matter. Until then, I’ll be struggling with GIMP.
  • WavePad – I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s a free audio editing tool that I hope will allow me to make simple audio tracks for animations or an audio book. We shall see. Once I’ve tried it, I’ll write a review (and link to it from here).
  • VideoPad – Like WavePad, I downloaded this to see if it would be suitable for creating simple promotional or family videos. I just want to be able to cut scenes together, edit things out and add simple effects. If this program is a winner, I’ll write a review.

CONCLUSION

I hope this helped. As I use my system and learn more about what programs are meeting my needs and which ones I don’t have that could help, I may modify this list.

I’m 100% sure of all of the hardware tips though, as well as the “essential software” bit. The important thing to remember is that there are hundreds of thousands of free programs out there that you can find that will do the same things that more expensive software can do. Look to the free stuff first, and if it doesn’t work out, pay for what you need.

Good luck and happy computing!

Sophie’s First Oreo

We’ve had a very busy last couple of months. Allow me to attempt a summary here.

It has been crazy. We traveled, we found a new job, we novelled, we did some shopping, we fed Sophie an Oreo cookie…

Photo by Rochelle – From Family Stuff

Like I said. It’s been crazy. If you check out the Family Stuff album, you’ll likely see more photos of Sophie’s first Oreo experience. One of my favorite shots is of her examining the slimy remains of one of the cookies.

Ok, poll time. I spent the entire month of November writing for NaNoWriMo and completed the first draft of a 50,000 word “novel” (really, more like half a novel in length, and far less in actual content). This site (blog thing) is decidedly not for me to post entire chapters of a mediocre first novel draft. However, I might make it available for curious eyes via DeviantArt if enough people would be interested in reading it. Please be honest, the poll is completely anonymous and I won’t be upset if nobody wants to read it (I’m not sure I really want to read it again). To be fair, it is titled “Alex” and it is a science fiction novel that would most likely appeal to teens (though they might need to be drugged or bribed to actually read the story). It contains very little of my famous witty humor, and was written with the sole goal of reaching the 50,000 word count mark.

Most likely, I’ll spend some of my writing nights going over the draft and using it as practice for some of the editing techniques I’m learning about in the various books on writing that I’ve accumulated. With a massive amount of luck and stupidity on my part, the draft may even one day find itself polished enough to not  embarrass me as much as it does today.

For those of you who haven’t followed us very closely while I wasn’t posting here for a while, our Thanksgiving trip to Arizona went really well. We had a great time and my parents were extremely gracious hosts. We all got to meet my sister’s friend (of the male variety). I found it surprisingly easy to resist throwing most of those embarrassing jokes at him. I had hoped to find it in me to ruffle him up a little, but alas – he came away unscathed. Maybe next time.

We had considered visiting other people while in Arizona, but we didn’t even get confirmation that our travel plans were approved until the last minute, and since we drove out (a 12+ hour trip) most of our vacation week was spent in the car. Eventually we do hope to visit all of our dear friends and family members (except those who live too far away for our meager world-travel budget – we’re sure you understand).

In the way of a quick update, our family is doing very well. I recently received a call about an assignment. Training begins in the early parts of January (don’t send any perishables for my birthday, I’ll be done with training sometime in March). Micah is making steady progress adjusting to school life, Sophie is making steady progress adjusting Mommy to slave life, and Mommy and Daddy are nervous about the move (we still don’t know where we’re going to be sent for this job).

Photo by Brian – From Family Stuff

Most of my time at home these days is spent laughing at Sophie (like when she climbs into the space under the sink as seen above, but then decides its too far up to get down on her own) or working on a new family project (tentatively titled, “The Family Book” – including our family mission and the system outlined below, among other things). Ok, there are plenty of other things I spend my time doing, but those are the big ones.

Our family is developing a financial system. It’s something like a reward system and an allowance all rolled into a tortilla. At school, Micah is rated by his teacher based on his performance during different class activities. He comes home with a rating of a star (excellent), happy face (only one warning, then he did better), sad face (the warning didn’t improve his behavior) or a rain cloud (his behavior was terrible). 

Under the old system, we used the Wii as our leverage to get him to keep his bed dry and his school behavior satisfactory. If he went three or more days in a row with a dry bed, he was allowed to play the Wii for any amount of time that we saw fit. Wii privileges were removed when he woke up with a wet bed. However, if he behaved well at school, he could earn up to half an hour of play time per day regardless of his bed. At the time he was rated in five different categories in the classroom, so it followed that stars and happy faces were worth six minutes each, and anything else was worth nothing. Too many rain clouds though, and he got nothing.

The new system is much cooler, in my opinion. Using a free program called InkScape I designed our own family money. When Micah gets home from school, he gets two family dollars for a dry bed, two for each star and one for each happy face (he’s been way too satisfied with happy faces lately, but that still means he was doing something wrong and the teacher had to correct him). If we catch him doing anything extraordinarily wonderful at any time, we (his parents) can hand him some family money to say thanks.

Here’s a sample of the family one dollar bill:

There are also $5, $10, and $20 nominations available.

There are also $5, $10, and $20 nominations available.

Whenever he wants, he can use his family money to purchase things from the family store (a list of available items that we have posted on the refrigerator). Among the items for sale are: minutes to play the Wii (five minutes for one family dollar), going out for a scoop of ice cream (twenty family dollars), and going out to breakfast at a restaurant with mommy or daddy (thirty five family dollars). The prized item on the list (as far as he’s concerned) is a little card I made in InkScape that entitles him to play the Wii without purchasing minutes. The card is nice, with pretty graphics and everything, and we even had it laminated. The back of the card explains:

This card entitles the holder (child) to unlimited time on the Wii (with no need to purchase additional play time) according to standards and regulations to be determined by the parents of said child.

This card may be revoked at any time by the parents based on infractions to any set household rule.

Basically: as long as you hold this card you don’t need to spend your family dollars on Wii time, but if you break any rules or wet your bed, we’re probably going to take that privilege away from you and you’ll have to save up your money to buy it back. We didn’t want the card to be impossible to get, so it only costs ten family dollars. On a really good day, he could earn two for a dry bed and he now gets three ratings from his teacher so up to six family dollars from school behavior – that’s eight family dollars a day. Even if he doesn’t have perfect days, he should have enough to buy the card after a couple of days with no problem. Although, today he only got two family dollars (two happy faces at school, a sad face and a wet bed in the morning). We gave him his own wallet to keep everything in (the money and the Wii card, when he buys it) and basically told him to treat all of this stuff like the real thing. He seemed excited, but a little depressed that he only got two dollars on his first day of doing the new program.

When Sophie gets older (old enough to count and do basic addition with some help) we’ll start her on this too. I think it’s a good introduction to money and it is a great reward system for children who can handle it. If we tried it right now with Sophie, she would eat the money. She loves eating paper. We really have to watch her lately, because anything she can tear goes directly into the mouth for consumption.

She’s been experimenting with new sounds as well, and a lot of what she says sounds like real, deliberate speech. She forms rudimentary sentences using phrases like “bite bite” which sounds more like “bye bye” combined with “mama” or “dada.” She also says “dis” (this), “dah” (that) and “I did id” (I did it). She also claps (occasionally her hands even slap together to make the traditional clapping noise, but most of her clapping is silent) and says “yeah!” Most of her expression is in her beautiful face, though, and she makes the most adorable happy sounds (lots of raspberries, grunts and squeals).

Everything she says is said with a fat, heavy tongue that causes spit to go flying everywhere and all of her attempts at “S” sound more like “SH.” Imagine our surprise, then, when she attempted to say “sit” this morning. If she hadn’t demonstrated the action immediately after saying it, we might have thought she had picked up a bad word from somewhere (though we couldn’t imagine where – nobody in our house uses words like that). Since she was already seated when she said “sit,” the only logical place to go from there was to the reclined position, which she achieved by throwing herself backward.

To demonstrate to us that she had completely mastered the word and technique, she sat back up, said “sit” (with the “SH” sound still, but a little clearer), and threw herself back to lay down again. 

To give you an idea of how I spent my November, as of right now, this entry contains roughly 1,500 words. To meet the requirement of 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo last month, I had to average at least 1,667 words a day (for thirty days) or, since I wanted to finish early, I set the goal for  myself of hitting at least 2,500 words a day. I didn’t always meet that goal, but I did finish the story a few days early and there were at least two times when I didn’t write for a few days in a row.

Well, that’s all for today. I’m sure there is more I can share, but it’s late and I want to get this posted and send out an e-mail so you all can enjoy my meaningless ramblings. Thanks for reading, and be sure to keep in touch.

Debt Calculator

OK, all done entering the information into the spreadsheet I was talking about.

Now I’m just trying to figure out if there are any anonymous donors out there willing to shell out a thousand dollars a month for three years to my family…

The spreadsheet asks for your bill paying budget to calculate how much extra you will apply to each debt to pay it down. If I had a total of $1,000 to spend on my debt (not the other bills, we need our paycheck for that!) then I could have it all paid off in under three years. Three years! That would be beautiful.

The program’s default value for the budget is $500, and if we went with that it would take us a little over six years to pay everything off.

As things are right now, if we don’t put any extra money to the debt at all, it will take us a little under ten years to pay everything off if we use the snowball technique described in the spreadsheet. Interestingly, by paying an additional fifty dollars toward our bills each month (which we might be able to do) we can pay it all off in about eight years, nearly two years faster than if we just pay what we’ve been paying (which is not the minimums on everything).

Of course, none of this takes into account changing interest rates, the impending financial crisis we will experience when our car dies, or any number of additional factors that can drastically change the payment schedule. A lot can happen in a year, and even more can happen in eight years. We hope to have all of our debt paid off in eight years, but we know that a lot of things that are out of our control could end up extending (or, perhaps, reducing) that time frame.

By all means, wish us luck, and if you happen to meet a ridiculously rich person who doesn’t know what to do with his (or her) surplus of income, send him (or her) my e-mail address. I’m sure we can work something out.

Debt

Debt has been in the news a lot with the financial crisis our country finds itself in today. Credit, loans, mortgages, and so forth. It seems to me that our society (and subsequently, the American dream) is built upon the idea of getting what you want right now even if you don’t have the money for it.

I was raised by a financially smart father who taught that the only things worthy of going into debt for are a home and an education. By his example he showed me that in some cases it may be necessary to go into debt for other worthy family related causes such as health care and a safe (but economic) vehicle. This is what I learned from my father, and it is the way I have tried to handle my own economic decisions.

The phrase my father would use is “living within your means.” If you do not have the means to obtain something, then you can’t get it. Debt should be used wisely to secure your family’s future. Too many people these days are actually digging holes and setting traps for their family to deal with in the future. It’s all about getting what they want now. Not many people give much thought to getting out of debt, and even fewer people give any thought to staying out of debt in the first place.

When I met my wife I was going to an expensive college, and we still have a lot of debt left over from the two student loans I took out while going to school. We also have a little debt left over from some medical care my insurance wouldn’t pay for while I was working at the bank, and some debt left over from a few important repairs we needed for our family car.

Soon we will be receiving a little extra pay for a few months so we are coming up with a plan to make the most of this additional debt-smashing cash. There are many methods out there for paying debt down as fast as possible, and I looked around until I found something that looked good. I found a free debt reduction spreadsheet that offers flexibility and ease.

Obviously, I will be calling the main creditors to see if I can negotiate with them, but in the end we will fill in all of our debts, the remaining balances and interest rates, and the sheet will let us try several payment plans to see which plan gets the job done the fastest.

The main idea is to “snowball” the payments. You look at your budget, take what you have available that isn’t going toward regular payments, and focus it on one debt until that debt is gone. Then you can take all of that payment and apply it toward the next debt until that one is gone. The spreadsheet helps design a plan that will be fast and effective, providing a payment schedule and even telling you when all of the debt will be paid off.

Sometime today we hope to get most of the data entered, but I’ll have to call the creditors next week. Hopefully though, by the end of the weekend (at least) we should know how long it would take to pay off all of our debt with our current interest rates.

I can hardly wait to get all of that nasty debt paid off. Freedom from debt feels great, and it will free up a lot of money we keep pouring into credit cards and interest. Once it’s all paid off, we may not live like kings, but we will not have to worry quite so much about fixing the car, or even looking into getting a new car. We will save more money and set up a food storage. It will be nice.

**UPDATE**

We did finish with the input phase of the spreadsheet and the new post about this exciting number crunching can be read here.

Looking for ideas…

Well, either you are or I am. 😉 I’m in this strange little cloud right now where all I can safely think about is my future. Never fear, I’m still focusing on maintaining a healthy presence in… the present, but my mind wanders often, and its favorite spot to visit lately has been the future. I think about the technology of the future, mostly, but occasionally my mind ponders ways I might be able to capitalize on my talents and earn a living doing something other than working for someone who owns my soul (on paper).

Ultimately, I am aware of many of my talents, but unable to figure out how to make money with most of them. Obviously, if I could become a writer of any kind (fiction, nonfiction, magazine articles, whatever) I could get paid for it. However, of my other talents, how can I make money? I often know what technologies will be important in the near and distant future, beyond just recognizing what is popular. Microsoft’s Mesh was no surprise to me, nor is virtualization, or the movement for online/offline access for web applications (Google Gears, Adobe AIR, etc.). The moves large companies make concerning social networking and other social/technological decisions are simply expected developments toward the future I already know is coming. How in the world does one capitalize on this type of foreknowledge?

If anyone has any suggestions, please share. Otherwise, expect me to figure something out just a little too late and miss the boat. I shall consult with a few other close friends and family members to see what they have to say. If I could put my talents and knowledge to work making money for me, I wouldn’t need to slave under the oppression of bureaucracy any longer…

That’ll be great. Until then, I’d better get to sleep so I can get up in time to avoid arriving late to work.


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