Author Archive

It’s the beginning of a new year, so it’s a great time to enumerate the resolutions that I’ll start on in January and abandon by March. That might sound cynical but it let’s me set some really ambitious goals. For example, I plan to grow 5 inches. That isn’t to say that I’d be upset if I only grew 4, but I want to make sure I stretch myself. Before you say ‘that’s impossible’, just the other day I was at the doctor’s for a yearly physical and they measured me at 5’5”. A little over a week later I ended up back at the doctor’s office and I had grown a full inch – 5’6”. Admittedly the nurse didn’t measure me the second time, but when she asked how tall I was I said 5’5” or 5’6” and she smiled and said, ‘looks like 5’6” to me’. An inch in a week. My only concern is that if I top 11’ by the end of the year I’m not sure where I’ll find shoes.

My slightly less exciting resolutions include continuing to run 8-12 miles a week, acclimating to my new group at MS, doing some sort of home improvement project, read as much as possible, get back to MD at least once to meet Leonie (in person), update my phone apps and try not to wait until Dec. to use all my vacation. I also want my hair to grow back from my buzz cut. I’m throwing that one there because I want to make sure I can tick one off at the end of the year.

I feel like I read a lot over last year, but I didn’t have a system for keeping track of paper books that I finished. Luckily, for Kindle books, I can just look at what’s on my device since I always move them into a ‘year’ category when I finish them.

A memory of light charnel prince Desert Spear Daylight war Dragonwing Elven star Fire sea First shift - Legacy Firstborn Heir of Novron Infinity blade Into the labryinth Ready player one Rhitmatist Rise of Empire Second shift - order Serpent mage soul meaningSteelheart the briar king The emperor's soul  The hand of chaos The seventh gate The Wise Man's Fear Theft of swords Third shift - pactvodnik Warded man Wool Omnibus

I honestly liked almost every book I read this year. The biggest standout for me though was definitely Ready Player One. The book has been around for a couple of years but I only just got around to reading it a few months ago. I highly recommend it for anyone who nostalgically remembers 80s tech and video games. It also happens to be well written and clever.

I only recently read Vodnik and was pleasantly surprised. I read a lot of fantasy (a lot) and after a while the mythology of the stories blend together. There are thousands of books about dragons and elves and dwarves. I love a lot of those books as well, but every once in a while it’s nice to read something completely different. Vodnik is a story based on Slavic mythology and that alone would make it worth reading. The Vodnik is a water spirit that drowns children and stores their souls in porcelain tea-cups; not for any malevolent reason, but just because that’s his nature. The story that Moore weaves around the mythology is both mysterious and engaging. I would highly recommend this for any fantasy lover that’s tired of reading the 500th version of Lord of the Rings.

I read a bunch of Brandon Sanderson this year as well. I’ve mentioned him several times on Facebook and he’s currently my favorite author. He hasn’t written anything that I haven’t liked, and he’s written several things that I’ve loved. I think The Emperor’s Soul was probably my favorite short story that I read this year, with Steelheart and A Memory of Light both being equally good novels. I honestly can’t imagine A Memory of Light being better given the seemingly thousands of plot lines that were still outstanding and the sheer enormity of completing a 13 book series written over the course of 22 years. Obviously if you’ve been reading the Wheel of Time then you’ve read A Memory of Light, but if you haven’t started The Eye of the World yet I strongly recommend it as hugely engaging and of staggering enormity. I would only caution that the series could have been several books shorter and it’s likely that you’ll want to rip out certain people’s braids about half way through. The end of the series is awesome though! Steelheart was face paced and read a lot like a graphic novel. I could easily see a movie being made from the series at some point.

Wool was a recommendation from a friend that I hugely enjoyed. Unlike almost everything else I read this year it was closer to SciFi than Fantasy. As far as I can tell the story is being regularly expanded through various serial novellas (ala The Green Mile) and then being collected into larger works. Unfortunately this makes keeping and distinguishing between the most recent versions challenging, and sadly Amazon still sucks at being able to associate multiple books in a series. Regardless the first 5 books (the Wool Omnibus) were extremely good and I would definitely recommend them. I found the 6th, 7th, and 8th parts of the Silo series to drag on a bit and I haven’t read past that yet. The first 5 books are a complete story though so worth reading even if you don’t finish out the whole series.

The Riyria Revelations and The Demon Cycle were both fun reads, but eminently forgettable. I wouldn’t suggest them unless you want something relatively brainless and quick. The Death Gate Cycle is something I re-read every few years because I love the story and authors so much. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were really the first Fantasy authors that I read (The Dragonlance Chronicles) so I find it hard not to go back and re-enjoy their stuff every once in a while.  The Death Gate Cycle is very good from a world-building (4 worlds actually) perspective and contains a pretty original mythology. I also give the authors a little bit more slack with respect to re-using all of the cliché monsters because, outside of Tolkien, they pretty much wrote the seminal works. Separately, I would definitely recommend the Dragonlance Chronicles for that reason alone. It’s basically the baseline for AD&D and there have been dozens if not hundreds of books based on the world and mythology that Tracy, Laura and Margaret started with that series. I find the writing style of the Chronicles (and the Death Gate Cycle for that matter) to be a little rudimentary, but the story makes up for it.

Soul Meaning was recommended by Good Reads and I would suggest skipping it. It reads like the screen play for the next Michael Bay movie with lots of gun fights and explosions without any character development. It’s the first book I’ve read in that style, and I don’t understand the appeal. It’s an extremely quick read though, and it’s not at all boring. Sadly you’ll likely have forgotten what it’s about by the time you finish reading it (assuming you can ever infer it from the endless action sequences).

I’m still reading The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone so I’ll reserve judgment. I very much enjoyed the first two books, though I also read them on our Hawaii cruise so that opinion may be somewhat colored.

Happy New Year!

About 2 years ago I wrote a program called Tivo to Media center because we have a Tivo in the family room and an Xbox in the bedroom.  The bedroom TV isn’t hooked up to cable, but we can watch dvds, streaming shows from the xbox, or television recorded by our Tivo (using Tivo to Media center).  It’s a generally painful process to copy the shows since it takes several hours, but with the program I can just let it do the copying overnight and then they are always available.  This has worked out well, though it’s honestly pretty rare that we end up watching the copied shows anyway.  Still, it’s nice to have the option.  The other choice, of course, would be to simply buy another Tivo since they support multi-room viewing.

Anyway, I was generally happy with the way it was working.  The other day I watched a show and decided I wanted to add it to the list of shows that were copied to our media center.  It had been a while since I’d let the program run, so I spun it up just to make sure it was working.  Of course, it wasn’t.  After a little investigation it turns out that the Tivo web server was returning 403 (Forbidden) for the downloading of those shows.  After looking into it further, it seems that the cable companies have started to annotate content with a bit that specifies whether the content can be copied or not.  Further, the FCC has required device manufacturers to obey this flag.  I looked through the 300+ shows recorded on our Tivo and almost all of them are now set to ‘copy once’.  This means that they can be recorded, but cannot be copied to another Tivo or computer.  Unfortunately this completely defeats the purpose of my app, and I can’t imagine Tivo is terribly happy about it either since it cripples their TivoToGo and multi-room viewing functionality.  In short, it’s lame.

Oddly this bit is being set by the cable companies, apparently in completely inconsistent ways.  I’m certain that some networks ask for their content to be ‘copy once’ only.  However, it seems that Comcast and Verizon, e.g., set the bit differently on the same shows.  That’s frustrating to say the least.  What’s more frustrating is that 15 years ago we could have just recorded the show on VHS and watched it on any device in the house. 

I can’t imagine that the cable companies believe this is a long term solution.  At least, I hope they don’t think that.  I am fairly tired of paying for cable service, a cable card, and Tivo fees all separately anyway.  It’s just silly, expensive, and apparently going backwards.  I continue to hope that XBox will make more deals with TV providers so that at some point we can dump the cable card and Tivo entirely.  Sadly the most recent deal with FIOS only works for Verizon customers and not Frontier. 

I’m sure everyone has been waiting with baited breath to see what became of the typing game that I mentioned in my last post.  It’s coming up on the last weekend of my vacation, and I wanted to make sure to finish the game before I have to go back to work.  It’s always incredible how much work there is to ‘finish’ any project.  In particular, I always forget that with games you want to support sound effects, music, icons, etc.  It took a while, but I’m finally decently happy with the game as it stands (meaning that for a brief moment I’m just too tired to think about any more changes).

I learned a lot about XNA from this project.  Particularly about 2d sprit manipulation.  The XNA content pipeline is a thing of beauty really, it’s so convenient just to be able to plop all of your assets into the content project and load them using the content manager.  It’s also a great place to do build time processing and manipulation.

I also learned that I still have no idea how to draw good looking sprites.  I had originally planned to have several different space ships that varied depending on the length of the word being typed, but ultimately gave up after I had started on the first ship.  I spent a  lot of time tweaking the ship I did end up with, and it still looks awful.  It’s not so much the general shapes that seem to cause me problems, but the actual texturing of the object.  I have like 16 million colors to play with, and my ships look only slightly worse than the 16 color Gameboy sprites. 

I thought about trying to craft some music myself.  I even watched several videos explaining how to use FL Studio.  The videos convinced me that no matter how good the software has gotten you still need to have some form of rhythm to compose decent music.  The guy giving the tutorial would often put together a quick pattern and then play it, and I’d be bobbing my head and thinking wow that’s awesome, and then he’d spend the next 30 minutes explaining how terrible that sounded and showing all of the things that needed to be done to make it sound reasonable.  If I ever switch professions, video game composer is not going to be high on the list of options.

The game itself ended up being pretty close to what I had envisioned.  The basic idea is that ships fly across the screen with words ‘mounted’ on the top.  The goal is to type those words before the ships make it to the other side of the screen.  You start the game with 3 lives, and each time a ship reaches the left side of the screen, you lose a life.  When you have no lives left, the game is over.  There are 10 ships per ‘level’, with an unlimited number of levels.  A ship’s speed is dictated by the level that you are on, insomuch as the speed increases on each level.  There are 3 difficulties, easy, medium and hard.  The difficulty controls how quickly a new ship will start heading towards your left side.  I’m not convinced that hard is really that much more difficult than easy, so maybe I’ll need to tweak that.

There were several problems that I hadn’t considered when I started, which are amusing in retrospect:

  • I had to find a word list to use which wasn’t too hard.  Unfortunately after playing the game a bit, I started to notice that there were all sorts of profanity in the words it was choosing.  Honestly the random number generator seems particularly prone to picking out the dozen or so swear words from the dictionary, because pretty much every game it would throw something out there.  I had to remove these by hand, which almost certainly means I’ve missed some.  Oh well…
  • It turns out that playing on landscape was way easier than portrait for a long while.  The reason?  Landscape is quite a bit wider than portrait, and since the ships go from right to left, it took them longer to get across the screen.  I eventually fixed it by just scaling their speed appropriately.
  • There is no API at all for the phone keyboard (it’s meant to be ‘invisible’ to app developers).  Unfortunately that makes programming a game that needs to know what kind of keyboard is being used, how large it is, what keys have been pressed, etc. very difficult.  I think I figured out most of the issues, though ultimately the choice of landscape vs. portrait, and hardware vs. software keyboard is made in the options page prior to starting a game and can’t be switched until the next game.  Worse, it’s entirely possible to claim a hardware keyboard even if you don’t have one (which means that the software keyboard will be drawn, but the ships might fly below it).  There is still one bug sitting around where the software keyboard will randomly disappear.  Touching the screen brings it back… but I have no idea why this happens and cannot figure out any repro for it.

I will probably throw this up in the Windows Phone Marketplace after I get some folks to try it out and let me know what they think.  Anyway, I thought I’d include a short video showing what the game looks like:

A few weeks ago at Thanksgiving, Irfaan introduced us to a new board game called Betrayal at House on the Hill.  The game is a lot of fun and it’s different from any other board game that we have played before.  The game is divided into two main phases.  The first phase consists of exploration where there is no real objective other than to try to ‘improve’ your character by finding items, increasing your character’s stats, and triggering events that may help you in the second phase.  The second phase, known as the ‘haunt’, starts after a random number of turns.  In this phase one of the players turns into a traitor and the objective of the game is revealed.  There are roughly 60 different unique scenarios in the game, again randomly determined, all of which have unique objectives.

The game itself is a blast to play, but pretty quickly we realized there was one major flaw.  The stats, which dictate whether a character is alive or dead, how far the character can move during a turn, how well the character survives various events, and pretty much every interesting aspect of the game are tracked by moving 4 small plastic pointers up and down the side of a cardboard character cutout.  The problem is that these plastic pieces tend to slide and the space between each of the values of any given stat is very small.  For the first couple of times that we played the game, we resorted to paper and pencil to keep track of the stats in addition to the cutout to make sure that we were tracking them accurately.  Ultimately, since I was on vacation last week, I decided it would be fun to solve this problem with a Windows Phone 7 app. 

I hadn’t written a full WP7 app before, and it’s been something I’ve been meaning to do for a while.  I figured the stats tracking app would be a good starting place because the app itself was conceptually pretty simple.  I figured it would have two screens, a character selection page and then the page on which the stats were actually tracked.  The trickiest, and most interesting, part of the app had to do with tracking the actual value for a stat.  In the game it’s important that for any given stat you can see the value that immediately precedes and immediately follows the current selection.  The reason this is important is because the game often gives you a choice about what stat to increase, and the scales for the stats are nonlinear.  It’s entirely possible to increase speed, for example, w/o actually being able to move any faster (e.g. the scale might be 3 3 4 4 4 5 5 6 6 8).  In that case, it might behoove you to increase your might instead.  Unfortunately there was no ‘out-of-the-box’ control that had exactly the look and feel that I wanted.  The DatePicker/Calendar control was probably the closest, except that I didn’t want the selection ‘wheel’ to disappear when it lost focus, and I wanted it to be horizontal instead of vertical.  Ultimately I decided to write my own control.

I finished the app near the end of last week, though it really only took a couple of days to get it entirely functional.   I learned a lot in pretty short order – all of which I think are fascinating, and will probably bore anyone else to tears that managed to read this far:

  • The selection of a listbox in WPF and Silverlight is tracked via hashcode.  So if you happen to databind to a List<int> and your list duplicate multiple values then your selection will be wonky.  In the multi-selection case it will select all of the numbers of the same value, and in the single selection case it will simply select the one that appears first in the list.
  • The performance tools for WP7.1 are really good.  It was pretty easy to figure out why selection in my app was slow (which I didn’t even notice until Luke said – hey! why is selection so slow!).  Sadly it was non-obvious on how to make it faster.  In reading about performance tips for phone apps, it turns out that I did pretty much everything wrong.  In general, my biggest performance problem was simply that the visual tree for my character stats page was too complicated.  Outside of removing controls, optimizing the display, and removing certain converters, there was little I could do to speed it up.  Ultimately I delay loaded some controls which made the experience better but didn’t actually speed up the loading of the page.
  • Microsoft Express Design is a fun product to use to make small graphics, such as for the icon of your app.  I made a haunted house design of which I’m very proud.  Everyone else that’s seen it hasn’t thrown up, and given my artistic talent, that says a lot for the software.
  • JPGs load faster than PNGs, content loads faster than resources.
  • The new Beta option on the marketplace is really cool.  It publishes the app comparatively quickly.  My experience was the app could be downloaded within 12 hours of being published.  That said, it sucks that you cannot update a Beta app.  I ended up creating a second ‘Beta’ after I got some feedback and wanted people to try out the new version.  That requires putting in all the same information again.  It also sucks that you cannot tell when the app can actually be downloaded by people.  You know when it’s ‘published’ (which happens within an hour or so), but it’s many hours after that before the folks you’ve added to the Beta can actually get the app.  They don’t get sent email, so you sort of just have to keep trying it until it works for you and then send them email yourself.  The best practice seems to be to wait a day or so.  Until they fix the update thing, you really shouldn’t bother until you think you’re really done the app and you want broader testing.  The best thing about it, of course, is that the people trying the app don’t need a developer unlocked phone.
  • Saving state is pretty easy, but implementing the INotifyPropertyChanged pattern just generally sucks in C#.  There is so much boiler plate code.
  • I remain confused about capabilities.  I tried removing all of the ones I don’t need (which is all of them), and the next time I opened the project the tools prompted to me add them all back.  I figure I’ll just leave them there for the moment.

The app ended up looking like this:

CharacterSelectionMissyDubourdeVivianLopez

The icon for the app, of which I continue to be happy with of despite the looks of confusion when I show it other people, looks like this:

BetrayalMarketPlaceTile

I don’t know that I’ll actually post the app to the real marketplace or not.  I’m waiting to hear back from the company about whether they would be okay with the usage of some of the artwork from the game.  That said, it turned out pretty much exactly how I imagined it which is always gratifying.  Phone development is really a lot of fun since it brings back that feeling that it’s possible to write a complete app by yourself.  That said, the quality of a lot of the apps on the store is pretty amazing.  In particular, a lot of the games are flat out astounding.  Still, it’s fun to write apps that you can use at least for yourself 🙂

I was going to switch over to do some Windows 8 development, but I had so much fun working on the app above I decided I would do another quick phone app this week.  I wanted to try a 2d XNA game.  My general premise is a ‘typing texting tutor’.  The idea is a simple game that has words that fly across the screen.  You try to type the words before they get to the other side.  The dictionary contains normal words + a lot of SMS acronyms.  I just started, but already I’ve found that the keyboard API for the phone is woefully inadequate for what I’d like to do.  The other thing that is woefully inadequate are my drawing skills.  This is what the app looks like so far.  Hopefully it will look much better, and be functional, by the end of the week:

ttt

Earlier this week my phone started buzzing constantly making its ‘you have a text message’ sound.  I was pretty sure I didn’t suddenly become hugely popular in the texting community, so I knew before looking that I was either getting a stupid number of spam messages or my phone number had been confused with someone important.  I was sort of hoping for the second, but not surprisingly, every message was about coupons, deals, and Nigerian princes without any other friends (well, except for the nice person that really wanted to tell me about my ‘secret crush’). 

I’m not a fan of text messages; I much prefer email.  In addition to being generally superior in every way, email also doesn’t cost extra money on top of my data plan.  I don’t have a text messaging plan on my phone because I simply don’t get enough text messages.  It costs an extra $5/mo. to get up to 200 ‘free’ (I love that) text messages.  Without the plan, each text message costs $0.20.  For those of you playing along at home that means I’d need to receive/send more than 25 text messages a month to make the plan worthwhile.  I rarely (read: never) get that many text messages, so I’m perfectly happy to save the $60/year and spend it on the lottery instead.   

Unfortunately that triggers this odd psychological effect where my passing hatred of text messaging has become a blinding rage.  While I don’t mind when friends send a text message, I absolutely cannot stand the idea that I could actually be charged an unlimited amount of money (in $0.20 increments) for the privilege of learning about the most recent Viagra deal. 

I did what I usually do and spent the week complaining about it to anyone who would listen.  Apparently everyone I know has a text plan, because they all looked at me with a confused expression when I explained the spam was costing me money which quickly turned into something I can only describe as disinterest tinged with pity. 

After my plan of ‘ignoring the problem’ didn’t actually decrease the number of spam messages, I spent time this morning trying to find a solution.  It turns out that for every text message account your phone company creates an email address.  The address tends to be of the form of MOBILENUMBER@txt.att.net’. Any mail sent to that address is converted to a text message and sent to your phone.  Spammers simply send mails to every mobile number @txt.att.net and wait to see if they get any replies.  In this case my phone company is AT&T so I went to their website to see if I could either change that email address, or simply block any messages sent this way.  It turns out that this is possible (yay!), but requires going to a different AT&T site.  That other AT&T site is http://mymessages.wireless.att.com/.  That site requires a separate registration from the normal AT&T wireless site (which, of course, makes no sense at all).  Anyway, after signing up for that site (which sends you a text message for confirmation <teeth grinding>), you can block all text messages sent to you as email.

In short, it’s been a great day. 

 

image

Rach and I just got finished carving pumpkins!   You can see the results below.  Any guesses on who carved which? (Aren’t the shadow bats cool?)

IMG_7723IMG_7727 

Earlier this evening we watched the season finale of Project Runway (Mondo got robbed), while eating yummy Chinese food.  Now we’re about to watch scary movies.  I’m a little worried though, because the movie I asked for is apparently a comedy, and I remember it as a horror.  Makes me wonder whether we ended up getting some movie other than the one I remember :) 

Thanks for all the birthday wishes on Facebook!  I know I haven’t posted recently.  Work has been extremely busy, and while that isn’t much of an excuse, it’s pretty much the only one I’ve got.  I expect things will remain roughly equally as busy up until at least Thanksgiving.  I’m hoping around then that things will slow down at least slightly. 

Regardless, great birthday so far, and now off to watch a horror/comedy.

… to have two posts in a row titled “can’t sleep.”  I haven’t posted in a couple weeks.  I’d like to say it was because I was too busy, but I think it has more to do with being too lazy.  I’ve been off my normal schedule ever since getting back from the Bahamas last month.  I’m unbelievably envious of people that can maintain a constant weight.  I’m either losing weight or gaining it.  I’m currently on the later half of that cycle.  Rach and I have several weddings coming up, so I figure it’s time to buckle down and start getting back in shape for the upcoming craziness.  I have to say I’m more than a little excited for the couples.  In just a little over two months Rach and I will be attending no less than 3 weddings (and we’d really like to attend 4 if 2 of them didn’t happen to be on the same day). 

Outside of work, which has been particularly busy recently, Rach and I have been re-watching West Wing and 24.  We finished West Wing a couple of weeks ago, and just finished season 2 of 24 this weekend.  West Wing is definitely one of my favorite shows of all time.  The beauty of the show is that it makes me believe in our government.  It’s obviously idealized, but I love that regardless of whether I happen to agree with the point that the character is trying to make, they are all incredibly competent.  It’s so easy to be cynical about what happens in D.C. and pretty much every time I hear Palin talk I want to gnash my teeth and gnaw at the furniture, but I continue to believe that with enough time and energy we can make progress.  You may hate the healthcare legislation but it gives me hope.  It gives me hope outside of the specifics; it gives me hope that our government isn’t so impossibly paralyzed by partisanship that it’s possible to tackle a problem of such infinite complexity and contention.    So thank goodness for Obama, and thank goodness for West Wing.  Hesiod was right, the box contains more than just earthquakes, snowstorms and war.

Rach and I have also been playing a fair bit of Xbox.  We just finished off King Kong, Lego Indiana Jones, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Assassin’s Creed 2.  King Kong was terrible… terriiiible.  It was a pretty easy 1000 gamer points, but they forgot to add the fun before releasing the game.  The problems are too many to list, but the highlights are the poor controls, amazingly poor combat, and a boring story.  It gets slightly better towards the end but it’s not worth playing unless you want quick points.  The rest of the games were all fun to varying degrees.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a very fast play through, but had a lot of fun moments.  It reminded me of the first time I saw TMNT on television; Aaron and I thought they had a misprint in the TV guide.  It’s geared towards kids, but Rach and I had fun playing it together.  Probably the biggest problem with the game is that the last boss is 10x harder than any other part of the game. 

Lego Indiana Jones was fun but definitely less enjoyable than Lego Batman.  LIJ follows the first 3 Indy movies very closely so there aren’t a lot of surprises.  The puzzles are also a lot less intuitive (in a puzzlehunt we would say they are ‘un-clued’ meaning that you just have to try different things until they work, there is no hint that points you in the right direction).   The other problem with LIJ was that there were too many achievements for which you really didn’t make any progress at all on during story mode.  I don’t mind a few, but a play-through probably only gave us half of the achievements, and the rest were things like ‘swing with Indy’s whip 250 times’. 

Assassin’s Creed 2 was amazing.  It’s one of the best 360 games that I’ve played.  I highly recommend it.  It has a good story line, phenomenal graphics, great game play, intuitive controls and a nice progressive talent disclosure system.  The achievements are a lot of fun, and there are really only one or two ‘annoying’ ones.  Grab this game if you haven’t played it yet!

I just started playing Mass Effect (the first one) and so far it’s really, really good.  It’s a ‘space opera’ RPG and the universe and story line seem great so far.  The game play takes some getting used to, and I currently have it on casual and still end up dying a fair bit, but I’m slowly learning how to control the squad, upgrade items, manage inventory, etc.  It’s funny because it reminds me a lot of one of my favorite games – Star Flight 2.  Star Flight 2 was a DOS game released in 1989 and I played it constantly when it came out.  Obviously there have been changes in 20 years, but it makes realize how astonishing SF2 was for its time.  It had hundreds of worlds to explore, and something like 30 alien races to interact with.  Its graphics are atrocious by today’s standards, but the scale of the game was epic for something that came on a 1.44mb floppy.  Ah, nostalgia…

DOSStarFlight2-1-750 DOSStarFlight2-2-750

I can’t sleep for some reason, so I figured I’d write a post and then start work early.  Honestly there hasn’t been a lot going on since we got back from the Bahamas.  Both Rach and I have been focused on work.  We did meet with an attorney to draft up wills, which puts us close to finishing the set of items that we wanted to take care of this year for our personal finance.  I still need to set up our money market account for our emergency fund which I’ll likely do this weekend. 

The wills process was interesting.  The part that we probably understood the least was the estate tax.  Apparently this year the federal estate tax has ‘expired’ such that if you were to pass away now, then you could leave your inheritance without that tax applying.  In general the tax is stupidly high; in 2001 for example, the estate tax was 55% of your ‘taxable estate’ – which that year was anything over $657,000.  In recent years it’s been more reasonable, in so much as the exclusion amount (the amount of money you can leave without being taxed) has gone up.  In 2009 the exclusion amount was $3.5 million and the tax was 45%.  Who knows what the estate tax will be like in 150 years when I might have to worry about it, but given the trend it will 1) exist, and 2) have a “low” exclusion amount, and 3) be a stupidly high tax rate.  This isn’t even considering a tax levied estate tax.  For WA the estate tax is decoupled from the federal tax, which ranges from 10-19% depending on your taxable estate.  So if you own property in WA and you want to leave $10 million dollars and you die next year, you would be taxed 55% on $9 million of that, and another 19% on $8 million.  That’s a lot of tax!

The investigation was enlightening.  In general I think it’s perfectly reasonable for the govt. to impose an estate tax.  I think a $1 million threshold is too low however; minimally the threshold should increase over time, and yet it 2011 its scheduled to ‘reset’ to $1 million instead of the $3.5 million that it was in 2009. 

So are there decent ways to minimize the estate tax?  I think so.  First, why die with that much money?  Amassing wealth for the joy of watching your the numbers on your bank statement go up seems silly.  I, personally, believe that if you end up collecting a lot of money, then you should try to spend some of it!  Outside of potentially helping you relax and have fun, it helps the economy when you spend money.  Second, you don’t have to wait until you die to start distributing your wealth to your heirs.  You can hand over a certain amount of money as ‘gifts’ tax-free each year.  Why not do that?  You then get to leave more money and you get to see how your heirs use it!  Third, in general it’s probably better to leave most of your money to the youngest/younger generation.  That way it’s most likely longer before that same money gets to a point where it could be eligible for the estate tax again.  Finally, there are various tax shelters that allow you to leave more money, given certain restrictions, without the estate tax applying.  For example, our lawyer suggested that one such mechanism was to create a trust if either Rach or I died.  We could ‘leave’ that trust up to $1 million (depending on the estate tax threshold at the time) without worrying about the estate tax.  In addition, another $1 million could be left tax-free to whoever is living longer.  The survivor could draw from the trust for various things (though not for everything) – medical expenses, ‘life-style maintenance’, but not things like extravagant vacations.  When the survivor passes away the money in the trust would automatically pass to our heirs without being taxed, and would no longer be limited by any of the trust restrictions.  That’s in addition to the normal amount that could be left to our heirs without being affected by the estate tax. 

I think Rach and I will mostly try to avoid dying with a huge amount of money.  We’re pretty successful at spending money to date, so maybe it won’t be a problem longer term :) 

Rach’s poem of awesomeness:

Twas the week of the wedding, and all through the Bahamas
Friends and family all gathered, despite weather traumas
Swimsuits were worn as we soaked in the sun
Knowing the wedding was soon to come
On Monday guests gathered to meet and greet
At a local bar with decorations so neat!
Tuesday’s rehearsal dinner was super
Anson snuck in ketchup for his burger and grouper 🙂
Wednesday brought with it a weather surprise
We awoke to see trees bend before our eyes!
The staff at the resort were calm with assurance
That the wind would not be a wedding deterrent!
“Now Jane! Now Eric! Now All! Stay calm!
We shall move the ceremony to the resort’s side lawn!
Among the buildings, the wind will be the norm.
And a reception indoors will keep everyone warm.”
So, with hairspray and pins we made preparations
To share in all the wedding elations.
Out to the lawn, we all made our way
To watch Eric and Jane on their very special day.
Jane walked down the aisle with beauty and grace
While Eric had the most blissful look on his face.
They said their  “I Do”s, then we headed indoors
To watch the newlyweds on the dance floor
The entire evening was amazing, no doubt.
It reminded us all of what love is about.
So, the rest of the stay was spent with good friends
And it was so sad on Saturday when it all had to end
Back to the real world we flew on a plane
But as we left, if you listened, you could hear us exclaim
“Congrats Jane and Eric! You’re married! Woo! Woo!
We couldn’t be more happier or more ecstatic for you!”

Rach and I are now on the plane flying back from the Bahamas.  We had an amazing time; in fact, you can tell just how amazing a time we had because I’m writing this after about 17 hours of flying and layovers (with another 2 or so to go!).  The Bahamas were our first international destination vacation and actually our first time out of the country ever.  It was definitely a new experience to go through customs and to see how different life is in another part of the world – even a part as close to the US as the Bahamas.

Of course, the Bahamas are pretty straight forward with respect to international travel.  Getting through customs going into the country was a snap.  They asked us a single question, and were mostly interested in getting data on us for increasing their tourism (which is obviously their biggest industry).  The islands have their own currency, but it exchanges 1 for 1 against the US dollar.  That made it super easy to spend money, which we happily did :-)  The only issue is that if you use credit you get charged an international exchange rate on purchases, though with First Tech that rate is only 1%.  Of course, an ‘exchange rate’ when the currency is 1 for 1 seems a little silly.

We landed in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, last Saturday and then took a small propeller plane to Marsh Harbour on Abaco.  We then had a van drive us over to Treasure Cay (pronounced “key”) where we spent the vast majority of our time.  We shared a beautiful condo with Dave, Sarah and Chris at the Bahama’s Beach Club.  The condo looked out over a pool and then directly onto the ocean.  We ended up getting a super great deal on it because of the time of year and economy, so it was only about $110/night.  Getting a condo was awesome; it had a full kitchen and a washer/dryer.  We actually made dinner most nights there.  It’s hard to describe how beautiful the area is; but it looked so incredible that it was like standing in a stock photo picture of ‘paradise.’  It was almost unreal:

The island itself is definitely one of the more out of the way places in the Bahamas.  It’s decidedly different than the places that Rach and I have vacationed in the past.  First off, there was only one real restaurant.  Luckily that restaurant had pretty excellent food; I had an amazing lobster tail there the Sat. we landed.  It had been forever since I had lobster, so I was unsure whether I was going to like it – but it was amazing.  I originally thought crime was going to be an issue in the area, but it was clear after a couple of days that at Treasure Cay it isn’t a concern at all.  It’s basically a small little retirement/resort town.  The grocery store was also in walking distance of our condo so we bought a lot of stuff from there over the week.  The prices for food, despite having no tax, were anywhere from 2x-7x as much as they are in the states.  It was pretty crazy.  Abaco is geared towards golfers and fisherman, but it’s a pretty perfect place if you want to lie back and relax as well.  We essentially had the resort to ourselves for the first half of the week which was great for reading, sunbathing, and relaxing.

Obviously the main reason for heading to the Bahamas was to celebrate with Eric and Jane.  The wedding was beautiful.  I had the occasional responsibility as best man, but mostly I just hung around and provided moral support for Eric (not that he really needed it, he was having a great time with virtually zero jitters).  The ceremony itself was on Wednesday and was held outside.  Unfortunately a freak wind storm blew in that required moving the location around a bit, but the resort folks and Jane pulled it off amazingly well.  The reception ended up being held inside a large condo which actually allowed everyone to be seated at essentially the same table.  The photographers must have taken several thousand pictures; I really can’t wait to see how they turn out!  Given the beauty of the location, the skill of the photographers, and the amount of joy at the ceremony and reception I think they are probably going to have one of the best wedding albums ever.  After the ceremony, we had some appetizers at the reception; there were enormous shrimp that were amazingly flavorful as well as a really great tasting mushroom stuffed with crab.  After mingling for a bit we sat down for dinner and then speeches.  I finally got to give the best man speech that I’ve been working on for a while and I think Eric and Jane liked it, so I’m pretty happy about it.  After the speeches Eric and Jane cut the wedding cake, which was 3 layers (coconut, chocolate, and red velvet).  Rach and I can attest to the fact that the chocolate and red velvet sections were very, very good.  Finally there was the dancing, which despite desperately trying to avoid, I ended up doing some of.  I’m generally not a huge fan, but for the few dances I went out for I had a great time.  All-in-all it was fantastically memorable, and hugely fun.

There were lots of things I really enjoyed about our vacation, but a few really stood out.  First, it was just great to be down there hanging out with friends.  We ended up playing a lot of a game called Zombie Fluxx which Dave and Sarah introduced us to – we’re big fans now!  Second, the place was laid back and relaxed.  It was easy to just doze off, read a lot, and generally unwind.  Third, the gym looked out over the beach and when I went in the mornings I would get a beautiful breeze off of the ocean.  Finally, renting a condo that had a kitchen and laundry meant we could pack light and eat reasonably healthy and cheaply while we were there.

After this trip we definitely want to try out Hawaii in the future.  The only really frustrating part about the trip was giving up two whole days for the flight.  It actually took us 24 hours from when we got to Seatac to get to the condo.  Rach and I are definitely not used to that much time spent in airports and planes, but it ended up being surprisingly bearable since a lot of us had the same flight so we could entertain each other during layovers.  Hawaii seems like it would be similar in some ways, and a lot closer.  We’ll have to see when we’ll the chance to try it!

You’ve won a brand new car!  It can replace the Donkey that you’ve been riding around on. 

I’ve been driving a 1996 Honda Accord for several years now.  It was a great car.  It was very reliable, extremely economical, and hideously boring.  I honestly didn’t mind that much since I wasn’t driving very far at all on any given day.  Basically I’d drive to work and back which consisted of a total of an 8 minute drive… assuming there was heavy traffic.  It was also nice to basically ignore the car and have it continue to hum along.  That said, the car had all kinds of issues.  It was stupidly loud – most people thought I had intentionally removed the muffler so I could out decibel a motorcycle.  It was a manual transmission which meant Rach couldn’t ever drive it anywhere, and that I quickly got tired of driving it in any sort of real traffic.  It had a big rusting dent in the side from when some kids in our old neighborhood decided to try to break into it.  It didn’t have a stereo because, perhaps the same kids, would steal it every time I got a new one (lost two that way).  The ‘defogger’ would frequently reverse itself and decide to fog up all of the windows instead.  Oh, and it was a nice shiny color of Old.  It likely would’ve lasted another 100k miles, but Rach and I had been saving up some money for a new car for a while and we decided it was a good time to go looking.

My new car is a 2007 Acura TSX, and I love it.  I love it for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is I feel like I got a super good deal on it.  It’s got about 50k miles on it, but it shines like its brand new.  I convinced the dealer to take my ‘96 Accord as a trade-in for over $4k.  Given that we only paid 10k off the lot for it originally, and its bluebook value was closer to $2k of scrap metal, and it looked sort of like it was taken care of by a semi-domesticated band of wolves, I was pretty stoked.  In fact, overall, we ended up paying enough under the original sticker price on the Acura that KBB actually told me the trade-in value of it was almost equivalent to what I paid.  I expect this means that the engine will fall out in a couple of weeks, but for the moment I’m ecstatic.  Two important things that I learned about negotiating for a car is that it’s critical to start at a super low price point in the bargaining process (you may get it), and second to always negotiate on the “Out the Door” price, particularly if you live in a state with a 9.8% sales tax on autos.

I had no idea how many advancements they have made to cars since ‘96.  I thought it was pretty advanced to have power windows; after all, my car didn’t even play music any more.  My TSX has so many cool features that I could probably go on and on about, but there are some which are just super, super cool.  It’s automatic.  I know, I know, simple right?  I love it.  I just got so tired of dealing with a manual transmission.  It has heated seats which are just absolute paradise in the mornings.  It has auto climate control, and individually customizable heat/cool for the driver and passenger.  Now I don’t have to stew in my own sweat when it’s 70 degrees out and Rach decides to put on the heater :).  It has seat memory so that you can set it once and if someone else drives your car and adjusts your settings you can just hit a button and it reverts to your saved configuration.  I don’t know if anyone has noticed this before, but Rach and I aren’t the same height.  This feature is inspired.  But wait, it’s even better – it’s tied to the keyfob.  So if I use my keyfob to open the doors (yep! remote entry) then when I open the door it updates to my settings.  The car has a hands-free link and I can’t remember the last time I used my cell phone so often.  It’s great to be able to chat with family and friends while I drive home.  It has different programmable voice prompts and commands in an extremely calming voice.  I sometimes hit the push to talk button just for the extra company.  It has a system called ‘home-link’ which is basically a programmable transmitter that I can use to open our garage door, so I no longer need to hang anything on my sunshade.  The car has an auto-dim rearview mirror – I don’t understand how it actually works, but I dig that I never end up blinded by the SUV’s headlights behind me.  It has built in sensors that monitor things like tire pressure, and a trip computer that shows fuel economy and estimates remaining range before a refill is needed.  It automatically resets the tripometer when you refill the tank.  It has comfy leather seats with at least 8 million adjustable settings.  It has cupholders in the front and back.  It has a 6 disc CD changer, built in XM receiver, and radio controls on the steering wheel.  It’s got a sunroof, heated mirrors, fog lights, interval wipers, 6 air bags and it comforts me when I’m feeling down. 

Here it is 🙂

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