New addition to the home: welcome Denny!

This is just a little post to show my tech-pride!

My vision of a functioning networked home took a big leap forward in the past few days with the addition of a new home theatre PC for the den, christened Denny.

Denny is an off-lease IBM desktop PC with a 2.4 GHz Pentium 4, 512mb RAM, 40 GB hard drive with Windows XP installed. And what a deal -- $149 at a local used PC retailer. Given that XP itself goes for, what, $180, it's like buying Windows and getting a computer free. And I found it exciting because the last time I paid for a whole computer, a Pentium 4 was out of my reach, and I was spending a coupla thousand at the time. Sure, a P4 is anything but cutting edge these days, but for my purposes, it was a great deal.


I spent a bit more to add a 500 GB SATA hard drive, and ordered an equally outdated EVGA FX 5200 video card so I could have an S-Video output to the TV. Ordered a wireless keyboard/mouse combo. And in the household tradition of cannibalizing old computers to equip the new ones, I pulled the SoundBlaster Live!24 sound card out of Little Eddie Dingle (the existing home theatre computer) for its SPDIF digital output, and yanked the Hauppauge PVR 150 & 250 tuner/MPEG2 encoder cards. The Firefly RF remote went downstairs, and I dug up an old ATI Remote Wonder RF remote for upstairs. I raided Eddie for 1 GB of RAM, too.

I mooshed it all together, and it took more than a little tinkering to get it all to work. I had to roll the video card drivers back to what must have been 2006-era drivers in order for the machine to put a picture on the TV. And I must've done something wrong when installing the tuner cards, because only one worked until a complete driver-wipe and reinstall last night. But all in all, it works perfectly now.

Denny is now the monster, with 1.5 GB, 40 GB system drive, 500 GB SATA data drive, TV out digital sound output to the amp. Eddie is slim and trim at 512k with an aging Radeon 9000 putting a picture on the TV, and onboard sound rocking the speakers.

I'm running Snapstream Beyond TV on Denny -- so named because this is the computer for the den -- and running Beyond TV Link on Little Eddie, which remains in the living room. Denny will be a server and Eddie will be a client. Either machine can watch recorded television. Either machine can watch live TV. We can watch up to two live shows at a time, provided nothing's recording at the moment.

Now, Denny is one ugly mo-fo of a computer. IBM doesn't make a PRETTY machine, but the guts are super-solid and easy to get around. There's a ton of room in the case and you hardly need tools -- the hood just pops off, the drive trays are on hinges with handles, and the expansion ports even have a little lever above that lets you pop cards in and out, no problem. The beast runs quieter and cooler than the fancypants setups I'm running in the rest of the house.

And it's all possible because of the network! Yay, network! And yay used computers. Helluva deal!

One more little project... I couldn't put Eddie in the entertainment cabinet because alarms would go off warning me the computer was about to melt. I wanted to give it another shot with Denny. I drilled a(nother) hole in the cabinet to attach a fan.

I cut the wires off an old 80mm PC case fan in the junk box. I chopped an unused USB cable and stripped that, too. I attached the red to red, black to shield and soldered 'em together. Wrapped it in ugly electrical tape. And as the Americans say, wuh-luh! USB puts out 5 volts. The fan wants 12. So, the fan runs more slowly. Slower fan means quieter fan.

In the end, the whole thing still gets too toasty for comfort with the cabinet door closed. I'm hunting around for a 120mm case fan (bigger blades=more air) and an old AC-DC power adapter that's closer to 12 volts. That oughta help.

Did it: credit card cancelled

After mulling about it here several times before, I took the plunge and phoned Citibank to cancel my Mastercard this afternoon.

It's been sitting in my spare-change jar for months. The last transaction on it was a credit to me after overpaying once and not using it for a long time.

The MC is my oldest card. I got it in the early 1990s, and the available credit limit was pretty huge. But really, I never use it any more. It has no bonus features such as Air Miles or cash back or loyalty points. It's just a legacy credit card.

It's been out of sight and out of mind for a long time, so ... now it's gone for good. Ta-da.

Keeping your phone number while moving; or, how not to get screwed by Aliant

Let's say this happens: you're an Aliant customer, and you contact Eastlink to order phone service that maintains your existing number. Eastlink says everything's cool, just be sure not to cancel your service with Aliant or the number won't transfer. Eastlink does *not* you that you'll be liable for an extra month of service payment if you don't give Aliant 30-days notice of cancellation. Your Eastlink phone service is set up, the number is ported, and Aliant service is terminated. But because you never told Aliant you were leaving, you triggered the 30-days-you-pay-sucker clause and now you're on the hook.

That's how our final phone bill came out to twice what we expected.

Talking with Aliant, I've learned that this applies to customers who subscribe to bundles and long-distance plans. We subscribed to one of those all-the-services plans with a 1200-minute long distance plan. As I understand from the Aliant CSR and the supervisor above her, if we'd only had a phone line without a bundle, we wouldn't have been nailed. Instead, we got charged for the extra month of extended service, long distance and the ubiquitous "network access charge."

As if we didn't have enough impetus to leave Bell-Aliant and go with Eastlink as our phone company, we got another one. They kicked us on the ass on the way out the door.

When you see fine print on the bill that says something like "30 days advance notice is required to cancel this service", do not assume that the service *can't* be cancelled without 30 days advance notice. Sure, it can.

It can, but you'll get a bill for it.

From Aliant's Terms and Conditions:

Notwithstanding 21.1, with respect to Local Value Packages, PrimePaks, long distance plans, Internet Services, Aliant Value Packages and Aliant TV, a residential customer may terminate service by providing Aliant no less than thirty days advance notice of termination (the “Notice Period”.) The customer will be charged for service until the end of the Notice Period, except in the circumstances outlined in 21.2.


Turns out it took a major ruling to allow Aliant to do this. About a year ago, the CRTC decided that Bell-Aliant had the right to charge customers who left the company without 30 days notice. Competitor Eastlink said that was bad for them:
EastLink submitted that Bell Aliant's proposed 30-day notification requirement could prevent competitors from porting the telephone numbers of Bell Aliant customers wanting to switch to a competitor's service. The company indicated that the current porting process only operated correctly when a Bell Aliant customer contacted EastLink directly to arrange for service disconnection.
EastLink argued that if a customer requested service disconnection from Bell Aliant as required by the proposed 30-day notification requirement, EastLink's local service request would be rejected by Bell Aliant.

But the CRTC said Eastlink's arguments were meh, so Aliant tweaked the fine print to include the break-up penalty.

So, if you're thinking of leaving Aliant, here's my suggestion: cancel your bundle 30 days before your move, but keep the phone line. Or at the very least, call Aliant to "discuss your final bill." And don't take your new phone company's word for it when they say "we'll take care of it." They *will* take care of it -- but the billing policies of your existing phone company are *your* problem to deal with.

Also, did you know that each time Bell calls you to pitch you something -- high-speed internet, Bell TV, etc. -- they log it on your customer record? When I was kvetching with the CSR's supervisor about Aliant being dickish with us, he pointed out that we said no to all their sweet offers over the months and hadn't even called to ask how they were doing.

When did curtains get so long?

Last time I cared about curtains -- did I ever care about curtains? -- curtains went from just above the window to just below the window.

Now I'm told that curtains go from a bit above the window ..... to the floor. And they're not called curtains any more -- they're "panels".

We've successfully hung our "panels" in the living room. The bedroom should be done soon. But some of the basement windows seem to invite the shorter curtains -- the foundation wall sticks out and comes up half-way to the window. Floor-to-top-of-window curtains ... panels ... might look weird.

But I've wondered about something else: when curtains fall over the front of baseboard heaters, is that good or bad? Does the heated air just go up behind the curtain, travel up the cold face of the window, where it might condense and not disperse beautifully through the room?

Or are the curtains an overall plus for heat saving, as outlined in this post from Clever Dude?


    • In the winter, keep your curtains open during the day to let the sunlight in and heat the house. Close them at dark to keep the heat from escaping outside.
    • In the summer, keep your curtains closed during the day to block the hot sun and keep the house cool. Open them at night (along with your windows if you're not using A/C) to let the house air out.

What's been your experience?

Back to money matters: Household Budget lessons

Inspired in part by J. Money at the highly readable Budgets Are Sexy blog, and in part by the gajillions of dollars we've seemingly spent in the past five weeks of house buying and moving, I'm going to tackle something I've never detailed on the blog before: the household budget.

This post went through three major revisions.

Big Ass Lesson #1: Blogger doesn't have an easy way for me to do tables. And back when I first learned HTML, tables didn't exist. Then it was coding tables by hand, which I hated. So, screw tables. No tables in this post. Gonna do it old-school and ugly. Enjoy.


Big Ass Lesson #2: Don't blog about your spouse's bathroom habits. That's the comparison my partner uses to describe her aversion to sharing the actual dollar-figure details of our cashflow. Perhaps it's in part a Very Canadian aversion to doing anything that would call attention to the fact that you're doing alright in life, in case it might make others uncomfortable. Perhaps it just gives her the heeby-jeebies. So, here's a hopefully-informative but un-embarrassing look.

Big Ass Lesson #3: Revision #2, without the numbers, was still too much exposure for my lady.

So, here's a laying-bare of the budget, naked but wearing a parka:

Cashflow in: Every payday, soon-to-be-Mrs. BigAss and I put a set amount of cash into "our" chequing account. We used to figure things out proportionally by inome, but our incomes are now close enough that it's presently unnecessary to do all that math. We had a zero-balance plan set up before the house-buy, but we bumped it up by a little more than 10% as a "make things work" number. Any more and we'd be feeling the hurt in our personal moneys. Anything left over after putting in the "chunk" is ours to do with what we please. For me, I stash a bit away in savings or the company stock program, and fritter away the rest on dumb stuff like cigarettes and cinnamon buns. And transit passes and taxi fare and flowers and such more-important things. It's not a lot, but it adds up if I'm smart (which one would hope that I am, by now).

Cashflow out: We have expenses. They are accounted for. That's all you're getting. I will say that the mortgage is the biggest piece, with savings, electricity, car lease and groceries also being major players.

Question to the audience: I'll grant that I've long had issues with boundaries on sharing my personal information, often leaning too far on the wide-open side. I'm more likely than most to tell people things about myself that others would be uncomfortable sharing. Gosh, I wonder where I learned that. Anyway, talking about money is clearly something a lot of people feel is taboo. Sure, there are plenty of blogs around where writers go into excruciating (and educational) detail about their budgets ... but to be fair, all the ones I can think of are run by unseen people under pseudonyms. Me, I'm out here as me. And as my 'manda reminds me, this is not a PF blog -- this isn't Big Ass Super Finances. It's mostly read by friends, family, acquaintances and assorted weirdos looking for dozens of varieties of "big ass".

So, what do you think? Is a "critique my budget" post only appropriate for people who don't tell you who they are, where they work, etc.? Does the fact that I'm full-out telling you who I am make it creepy and weird to explain our money strategy? Thoughts?

Back to money matters: The Household Budget

Inspired in part by J. Money at the highly readable Budgets Are Sexy blog, and in part by the gajillions of dollars we've seemingly spent in the past five weeks of house buying and moving, I'm going to tackle something I've never detailed on the blog before: the household budget.

Big Ass Lesson #1: Blogger doesn't have an easy way for me to do tables. And back when I first learned HTML, tables didn't exist. Then it was coding tables by hand, which I hated. So, screw tables. No tables in this post. Gonna do it old-school and ugly. Enjoy.

Cashflow in: Every payday, soon-to-be-Mrs. BigAss and I put $830 into "our" chequing account. We used to figure things out proportionally by inome, but our incomes are now close enough that it's presently unnecessary to do all that math. It was, I think, about $750 per pay, but our draft budget for the new house settled on $830 as a "make things work" number. Any more and we'd be feeling the hurt in our personal moneys. Anything left over after putting in the "chunk" is ours to do with what we please. For me, I stash a bit away in savings or the company stock program, and fritter away the rest on dumb stuff like cigarettes and cinnamon buns. And transit passes and taxi fare and flowers and such more-important things. It's not a lot, but it adds up if I'm smart (which one would hope that I am, by now).

On the income side, Quicken 2007 tells me that comes out to $1803 per month for "our" chequing.

Expenses:

Auto:
- Insurance: $86 (covers both of us on the car)
- Lease: $327 (yes, I know what PF bloggers will say about leases. I say it too)
Bank charge: $15 (gives us oodles of Interac debit transactions and all we need)
Dining: $150 (generous budgetining for pizza and eating out on Fri & Sat)
Entertainment: $25 (for what, I dunno, since we don't really *do* much)
Gifts given: $40 (to account for xmas, birthdays, parties, etc. throughout year)
Groceries: $435 (I think that's ~$100/week, an average of what we spend)
Housing: $1240 (principal/interest/taxes for mortgage)
Insurance (home): $34 (am I mixing this up with car insurance?)
Maintenance (home): $100
Pets: $50 (guesstimate of buying food for Kitty and Kitty)
RRSP Payback: $150 (paying me back for the $20k from my RRSP)
Savings: $200
Utilities:
- Cable/Phone/Internet: $110 (bundle package; doesn't include long distance)
- Electric: $250 (budget figure as discussed in previous post)
- Propane: $12 (accounts for fireplace tank rental and minimal use)
- Water: $33 (complete guess! we've never paid for water)
Vacation: $200

Total income: $3607
Total expensees: -$3456
Difference: $151

So, if we stick to budget, $500 (vacation, savings, maintenance) goes into "our" savings account and $150 surplus gets added to "our" chequing account each month.

Some notes....
- Water bill is a mystery. IIRC, the number came from loose research at the Halifax municipal web site, but could be way off.
- Paying back $150/mo to my RRSP will pay off the $20k in 11.1 years, versus the 15 years the government requires. IMHO, the sooner it gets returned, the more time it'll have to grow, and the sooner we'll be out of 'debt', even it it's really a debt to ourselves/me that the government would allow some leeway on.
- 'Pets' does not account for Kitty or Kitty getting sick or needing chekups. That'd be Emergency Fund time.
- We hope/plan/have honest good intentions of setting up additional high-interest accounts to make more visible distinctions in the categories for savings. I'm imagining Wedding Fund, House Repair Fund, Emergency Fund and Planned Spending. It could easily be tracked in a spreadsheet, you'll say, but if I can't hack up a table for my blog, how likely am I to manage that kind of spreadsheet?
- Telephone doesn't include long distance use. That occurred to me about 45 minutes ago.

Whew! Thoughts, wise ones? I'm sure 'anonymous' will have something to say...something like my mom or dad would say, I'm sure!

Back to money matters: recalculating net worth

I put the net worth calculations on hold during the house hunt, because I was not clear about how to spread out the numbers with a house in the mix. I'm still not clear.

Now I've taken a stab at it through NetworthIQ, where I've been following my net worth for the past year.

The tricky part is this: we took $20k out of my RRSP through the federal Home Buyers Plan. That went from being 'my' money in my net worth to being part of 'our' house. Also, I can't in good conscience claim the whole equity value of the house for 'my' net worth, since it's 'our' house. Besides, I'm not entirely sure how to come up with that number anyway! And as of this moment, I don't have immediate access to how much is paid down on the mortgage.

So, here's what I've done.

Under 'assets' I put the price the house sold for. $200k. It may sell for more or less today (hopefully more, since we've put thousands into fixing things and improving the place), but that's the most recent reliable figure as far as market value.

Under 'liabilities' I put the mortgage value. $183.6k. The difference does not provide me with a net positive when the $20k removal from my RRSP is concerned, but it does even things out a bit more than just typing in the real numbers that are left in my accounts after the transaction.


In the end, this January's net worth number is barely above last January's. Am I disappointed? Not in the least! Considering the stock market's performance and how much money people have lost (on paper), I'm just glad it hasn't fallen precipitously. Add in the home purchase and everything else I've spent money on in the past year, and any gain is a good gain.

I think it was a brilliant (but obvious) move to keep the money I was expecting to withdraw through the RRSP HBP in something stable -- in this case, a Money Market Fund. If I had kept that money in an equity mutual fund instead, my down payment money would have shrunk, what, 40% or so by the time it came time to buy the house. That would have been disastrous. As it stood, only about $7000-9000 of my RRSP money was in mutual funds, so most of my investment was relatively safe during the free-fall.

Back to money matters: electricity

We got a power bill recently -- "hydro" to those in some other provinces, although that outs us as come-from-away-ers in this province -- that summarized our use at the new house from January 1 to mid-month. This was *before* we moved in, although it does account for heating the home up to habitable temperatures and washing many loads of clothes.

The bill was ... well, it was more than $200. This was a bloody shock, since our bill at the apartment was about $120 each two months. So, in two weeks, we'd used more power than in three months at the apartment. I couldn't believe it. Amanda said we needed to do something about it, but I was so much in shock that I just looked at the bill, muttering that it was "outrageous".

The culprit here appears to be electric heat. Most homes in NS are heated with oil. Natural gas is only now coming to parts of the province. Our neighbours have oil heat, but we have electric. And despite changing keeping the home heat at a near-frosty level, most of the qualifying bulbs to compact fluorescent lights and being diligent about turning lights off when we're not using them, we're going to be saddled with outrageous bills during the cold months. We got printouts the electricity usage from the previous two years, and it's clear we're in for winter power bills in the $700-800 range. Outrageous.

So, what's our solution?

We're still keeping vigilant about the lights. But the lights are not the real problem. It's the heat. We have the new HRV, which, as I understand it, is supposed to help move the heat around the house while conserving heat. We're also *not* heating certain areas we don't use. The spare bedroom is The Cold Room for now. We're keeping doors closed in areas that are not being heated. And we're keeping the thermostats low -- around the 15 degree celcius range. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it feels a lot warmer than that in here.

Nova Scotia Power has an equal-payment program, known colloquially as A Budget. We figure out what we're willing or able to pay each month to spread the pain over the whole year. Some months we'll pay a lot less than actual usage, and some months we'll pay a lot more. On average, though, the monthly payment should tally up to the actual use at the end of the year. If we overpaid, the budget will be recalculated to account for it at the start of next year. Same deal if we underpaid.

When we were considering the home purchase, we went over the numbers on hand and figured out the power would average out to $250. I re-checked the numbers, added 10% to account for a recent rate hike, and again it came out to about $250. NS Power did their math and came up with about $235.

So, our balanced household budget had a $250 electricity payment calculated into it -- so that's what we're paying. $250/month, every month, for the next year. Yup, it's about four times what we were paying in the apartment -- but we weren't paying for heat in the apartment.

Outrageous. But a dude's gotta stay warm.

Apartment Before & After

When I moved into the downtown apartment in fall 2005 -- around the time I started this blog -- I snapped a series of pictures to send back home so Amanda could have a sense of how big the rooms were.

After moving out, I tried to take the exact same photos to show what might've changed. The property managers were due to do a move-out inspection, so I figured the before-and-after pictures might come in handy if the honchos claimed some damage had occurred.

Check out the whole series and see if you can spot any differences. You may nee to "view other sizes" to really see.

Today was my last day at work, and I'm okay with that

Today marks a weird spot on the calendar for me. It’s one of those landmarks that really doesn’t mean anything, other than to illustrate the...