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Taxes and Tires September 4, 2014

Filed under: Bicycling,Bicycling,Books — acgheen @ 12:00 am
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This wasn’t quite how I’d expected my day to go. Ideally, I’d have been outside in the cool of the morning, washing my bicycle. That my bicycle is better cared for than my pickup is a well-known fact. During the heat of summer, when gas prices skyrocket, those two wheels carry me nearly everywhere. I can ride from one side of the town to the other and back again without wincing. (It’s an odd reality given my lack of stamina with nearly every other form of exercise.) A 25 mile ride can take place quite by accident.

Instead, I was indoors, on the phone, trying to resolve what I’m considering dubbing “The Great Tax Saga of 2014”. I don’t usually have any difficulties with my taxes. I fill out the 1040 EZ and I’m done. This year, however, presented a few difficulties including a misunderstanding as to whether my employer was to pay the employer’s part of my taxes or I was. It took several 8 hour work days to get the situation sorted out, but I was set to go and mailed my return, payment enclosed, two full weeks before the deadline.

It wasn’t until later that I discovered there was another problem. While the IRS had signed for the return and processed my payment, they hadn’t processed the return, itself. After another hour and an half on the phone with two separate, but extremely helpful employees, it was determined that I needed to refile. (I still firmly hold to a belief formed in my days as a Staff Assistant to a U.S. Senator that the IRS is the easiest Federal agency to work with.) Still, it was lunch time now and my bike was still in the garage.

I ran off several photocopies and dashed off a letter with precise names and dates (just in case the IRS wanted to double check my story), and stuffed them in an envelope for later mailing. (I hadn’t sent anything to the IRS via registered mail in years, but was glad I had done so this year!) Back to my bike.

I’d spent a small portion of my morning (before discovering the tax problem) reading a copy of “The Bicycling Guide to Complete Bicycle Maintenance & Repair: For Road & Mountain Bikes” – a volume which I had determined to read cover-to-cover. Unlike my automotive endeavors, my interest in how my bicycle works is more than academic. I’ve ridden several thousand miles on this particular bike and, to date, the worst it’s done is drop a chain. I’d like that to be the worst that ever happens to my baby.

The morning’s topic was “suspension” and I was eager to discover what type of front-wheel suspension my bike possessed. (And to discover whether it needed adjustment… which I was sure it did if only because I wanted the experience of fiddling with the settings, myself.) But washing the bike was to come first.

It was nearly 80 degrees outside when I opened up the garage. I grabbed some de-greaser for my chain and derailleurs and a bit of polish for the frame. Then I turned on the hose and began the meticulous work of removing the grime from all those hard-to-reach places between the pedals and spokes. Yes, it was work. But I’ll take tires over taxes any day!

 

 

The Digital Age and What Finally Got Me to Join It July 4, 2014

Filed under: Books,Digital — acgheen @ 12:00 am
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I lay back on the couch and closed my eyes. It was midafternoon and, despite having a couple magazines to read and a few writing projects to complete, I was too tired to focus. On an ordinary day, this would have meant setting everything aside for a nap. But not today. Instead, I’d plugged my ear buds into my iPad and pressed the icon which read “Tap for an audio version of this story”.

It was a fair compromise between what I wanted to be doing and what I knew I should be doing and it was made possible by a technology which I’ve passionately resisted for years. Digital books and magazines were, in my opinion, a form of modern heresy. After all, reading was not about convenience, but about the blissful union of information and tactile sensation. It was about the weight of a book in my hands, the feel of the paper as I turned the pages. I yearned for the musty aroma of well-worn volumes and the gritty residue left on freshly-cut paper. None of these could be provided by anything “digital”. And this meant that anything digital was distinctly inferior.

It was my fiancé who forced me to take my first steps into the brave new world of electronic media. He had noticed me drooling over a multi-volume set for which I had the money, but not the space. The obvious solution to my problem was to give me the books in a form which took virtually no space at all. And, since they were a birthday gift, I could hardly argue.
It wasn’t long before I’d discovered at least one merit to this new format: the volumes could be cross referenced. This was, in my opinion, the only redeeming quality of these books which, according to my laptop’s hard drive, consisted only of 1’s and 0’s. Still, it was sufficient to interest me in the purchase of several more volumes which utilized the same software program. Digital books, I decided, were acceptable. But only for research.

This concession, of course, did nothing to reduce my stalwart resistance to the medium. I watched as brick and mortar book stores were driven out of business and lamented the loss of these landmarks of learning. I mourned as my friends raved over their Kindles, Nooks, and a variety of low-end reading devices. And I was prepared to hold a wake when all of my favorite magazines began to offer “digital only” subscriptions for nearly the same price as the print editions. Why, oh why, would anyone want to buy anything in digital for the same price as the easily preserved print edition?

It wasn’t until one of my magazines offered a free digital edition as a companion to my print edition that I began to understand the answer to this question. The magazine was “TIME” and that’s exactly what I dedicated (quite accidentally) to exploring the strange new world which it opened to me. The digital edition contained more content (a plus), but this alone would be insufficient to entice me. Instead, it was the unique interactivity which drew me in. I watched as social media updates enhanced the articles. I viewed video materials which expanded upon the traditional immobilized content. I zoomed in and out of maps, photographs, and NASA satellite images. And I listened as my iPad read articles to me while I engaged in the relaxing activities necessary to ensure my wakefulness through the rest of a busy day.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Digital was not the death of learning or the tactile experiences I associated with reading: it was an expansion of them. It was an opportunity to learn and explore without ever leaving the comfort of my living room. And it was good.

 

The Total Money Makeover: It’s All About Choices February 27, 2014

As I neared the end of my budgeting exercise, I began to panic. It was clear that I hadn’t been putting enough thought into the practical matters of life (like saving for the day when my truck finally gives up the ghost). But it was also clear that saving for those eventualities left me with far less to spend on the things in life that I enjoyed. How exactly was I supposed to make the most of my free time if I didn’t have a couple hundred dollars to spend on books each month? And what would life be like without Starbucks?

It was clear that if this was going to work, more than just my budget was going to require a “makeover”. While I acknowledged my relative wealth with my mouth (and with regular charitable giving), it was clear that the message had yet to reach my heart. I had enough, but I felt like I was impoverished. I had failed to recognize that the wise handling of money (just like everything else in life) is about our choices. Dave may have recommended that I dedicate a certain percentage of my income to retirement… but I didn’t have to. Budgeting money for the future was a choice I was making. Dave may have suggested that I consider spending less on food, but budgeting less was a choice. It was a choice between living with a sense that money controls me or that I control the money. The former brings a sense of slavery. The latter, an undeniable freedom.

Drawing a deep breath, I looked through my budget again – this time with an eye towards practicality and an intense focus upon the two categories to which my impulse spending was most frequently directed. Truthfully, there was nothing that prevented me from making coffee at home. Doing so would reduce my food expenditures by more than half and I could reduce that spending even more if I really tried. Likewise, I rarely had the time to read all of the books that I purchased. With the skill of a surgeon, I cut my budget to reflect the purchase of a mere two volumes a month. (If I needed more reading material, it was rumored that there was a nifty place in town called a “library” where I could go pick out books and take them home… absolutely free!)

I took Dave’s advice and put together envelopes for both of these impulse categories. With cash in each, I would be able to regulate my spending in ways that were nearly impossible when I used my “charge-it-to-the-credit-card-and-pay-it-off-at-the-end-of-the-month” method. Then, I gave the new method a try at the brand new health food store.

List in hand, budget in mine, I cruised the aisles admiring all of the delightful product offerings. I carefully examined my options for each item on my “needs” list and selected the most financially responsible products. Then, each time I picked up something that wasn’t on my list I asked myself, “Do I want to remove cash from my miscellaneous food envelope to pay for this?” One item after another went back onto the shelf, ear-marked for another day. I left the store having spent a mere pittance compared to the previous month… and each “treat” I purchased tasted twice as sweet!

I didn’t begin reading The Total Money Makeoverwith the belief that I needed help. By the end, it was clear that I did. Dave’s advice helped me to recognize that even those who handle money better than others, don’t necessarily handle money well. And that those who handle money well, can always be taught to handle it better!

The Total Money Makeover

 

The Total Money Makeover: Why Planning Matters February 20, 2014

We weren’t very far into Dave Ramsey’s book, The Total Money Makeover, before I began to feel just a twinge of conviction. While I was better at handling money than most of my friends, it was becoming quite clear that “better” is not the same as “good”. In fact, my money management skills were, to put it mildly, appalling.

I lived within my means… but not on a budget. To be honest, aside from a few monthly bills for necessities like insurance, I couldn’t tell anyone where the rest of my money was going. I kept a running tally of how much I made vs. how much I’d spent and made purchasing decisions based upon that figure. If there wasn’t enough money, I didn’t spend. If there was, I spent without discretion.

I had a retirement account… but I wasn’t contributing. Instead, I’d left funds contributed by previous employers to build on their own. I had set the investments on autopilot and had never given a moment’s thought to actually calculating the future value of the investment. I would have enough to take a cruise when I retired, but that was as far as my “planning” had gone.

I gave generously… but usually in a panic. Christmas and birthdays were always emergencies. I wanted to give the best to the people I loved, but doing so usually meant foregoing other things that would normally have consumed my funds.

The truth is that I’ve always been more of a visionary than a planner. (Dave refers to people like me as “free spirits”.) While my income was sufficient to meet my needs, I wasn’t handling it efficiently. To do so, I would need to engage in an ancient art with which I claim only marginal familiarity: planning.

This planning began with sitting down and writing out a budget. (Dave offers a great budgeting tool online at: http://www.daveramsey.com/tools/budget-lite/ if you’d like to try this for yourself.) I began with my income (a known quantity) and then carefully subtracted all of my regular bills and contributions. I then began to make my way down a list of things that, according to Dave, ought to be priorities… like saving for medical expenses, automotive repair, and retirement. This was followed by more “discretionary” categories like clothing (I can make due with what’s in my closet and not freeze or go naked) and food (I enjoy gourmet cooking and know full well that portabella mushrooms are not a “need”). It was here that my journey of discovery began.

As I looked over the figures for my previous three months (I had been faithfully tracking my spending in Quicken for over a year), it became evident that my claim not to be an impulse buyer was less than honest. No, I didn’t grab candy bars at check registers or make instantaneous decisions to purchase “discount” goods at the local retailers, but I did have two particularly weak categories: food and books. I admit to having been aware of the latter and even intentionally stayed away from the local book store when money was tight, but the former came as a bit of a surprise. It seemed that health food stores were also a form of kryptonite. Something needed to be done and now. (To be Continued…)

 

Astronomy, Debt, and The Total Money Makeover February 13, 2014

My first and last encounter with debt came during my transition from Jr. High to High School. I had developed an avid interest in astronomy and the local Sam’s Club was carrying a beautiful Bushnell, 4.5” reflecting telescope. At nearly 3’ in length, it was a monster and I couldn’t prevent myself from drooling over it.

Up until this point, I had been making due with a pair of 10×50 binoculars. They were strong enough to show the phases of Venus, the thin rings of Saturn, and Jupiter’s moons. I could make out binary star systems easily enough or see the vague, gaseous outline of the Orion Nebula, but I longed for so much more. What I really wanted (and wanted now) were the views I got through the telescopes of my big-league astronomy club buddies. I wanted to hold the heavens in the palm of my hand and I knew that this telescope would allow me to do just that.

Seeing the magnitude of my desire, my parents offered me a deal. They would buy me the telescope. It would be both my birthday present and my Christmas present and I would be obligated to repay half of it. I quickly determined that $250 dollars was not an insurmountable debt (at least not in comparison to the treasures it would unlock) and agreed to the arrangement.

Of course, in my eagerness to possess this wondrous new toy, I hadn’t really taken the time to consider just how long it would take me to pay it off… or to create a plan for doing so. Looking back, it should have been obvious that on an income of $2-$5 a week, freedom was not going to come any time soon.

At this point, it’s important to note that this lack of planning was not due to any failure on my parents’ part. They had taken the time to teach me about money and, in reality, I should have known better than to blindly indulge the seemingly irrepressible desire to own a telescope.

Over the next few years, I spent my time struggling with a stomach-turning sickness whose onset always seemed to coincide with my use of the instrument. My payments had not been regular (there were other things I also “needed” to own) and, though my parents were not charging interest, they weren’t making any indications that their loan was about to be forgiven. Tired of dealing with the sense of captivity which accompanied my debt, I set up a plan to pay off the telescope. In a matter of months I was free and made a vow that I would never go into debt again.

Unfortunately, my debt-free state left me with a sense that I was actually quite good at handling money and, in comparison with quite a few of my friends, I was. I lived within my means. I saved money whenever I intended to make a “big” purchase. And I had a nice little emergency fund which allowed me to shuffle the money around whenever disaster struck. When a friend expressed an interest in going through Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover, I agreed to as well, but only in a supporting role. I didn’t need a “makeover”… or at least that’s what I thought. (To be Continued…)

 

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything January 23, 2014

I first heard about Joshua Foer’s book, Moonwalking with Einstein through an NPR podcast. A U.S. Memory Champion, Josh’s adventure in “remembering everything” was very much an accident. He had been assigned to write about the USA Memory Championship and, in the process, had made a life-changing mistake; he asked one of the competitors (Ed Cooke) exactly when he had realized that he was a savant.

Ed was quick to explain that there was nothing at all unique about his ability to memorize the order of full decks of playing cards or recite seemingly unending lists of binomial digits. It was technique, not natural ability, which made one a memory champion. Everyone in the human race has been given the same equipment. The question is whether we will make full use of it.

Over the next year, Josh set out to explore the claim. He interviewed people with extraordinary memories and people who seemed to have forgotten nearly everything. He read through ancient texts on the art of memory and spoke with modern psychologists and neuroscientists. He explored the world of popular memory improvement gurus and, most importantly, spent hours every day improving his own ability to memorize. In the end, he became the reigning U. S. Memory Champion.

His real triumph, however, was the book which documented his research and his journey. Far from being a textbook on how to memorize (though more than a few useful techniques are contained within its pages), Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is an in-depth look at how much (or how little) science really knows about how the human mind works.

Beginning with the ancient Greeks, Josh explores how the art of memory has evolved. He introduces readers to the influence of books as an aid to memory and to the Internet as a remedy for having to memorize anything. And he explains why it may not be easy to revive the art of memory once it has begun to fade from public consciousness.

From theory to case stories, oral societies to modern classrooms, Josh takes his readers on a fantastic journey through the fascinating world of memory and the history of memorization. It’s a journey that you won’t want to miss!

 

 
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