Compost

A few years back I “fondly” recalled my parents’ compost pile.  That was during the Texas years.  It wasn’t fun.  I vowed to never force the experience upon my own kid.

And I have indeed stuck to that principle, though I’ve admittedly since started composting anyway.  But in fairness, there’s a lot of organic waste that needs to be disposed of, and why fill up the trash bins with it?  And we have gardens.  So fine–there are advantages.  But I won’t go crazy with it.

No, I’ll create a quaint and reasonable compost pile.

Right side: last year’s yard waste

Plus, I have a tiller to mix it up, so no manually turning with a pitchfork.

And so far, I’m impressed with how well it’s breaking down.  As new kitchen waste gets added to the pile (something I do make the kid take care of), I simply pile leaves on top from the edges to keep the stink down.

Apparently it’s possible to do these things non-obsessively.  Who knew?

–Simon

Index Funds

Oh goody!  Please let this be another article from a self-proclaimed “expert”, blathering on about long-term plans and investing wisely.

It is not, to be clear.  You are safe here.

So what the hell am I going to talk about?  Why, it is indeed about investing, and probably wisely, and definitely with the long-term in mind.  But I am not an expert.  There’s the difference, I suppose.

FidelityMy employer migrated our 401ks to Fidelity.  I poked around in there for a while, using their retirement score projection algorithm to make some adjustments both to my investment strategy and my contributions.  It was really riveting stuff, but necessary if I ever want to leave cubicle life.  Then they gifted me some restricted stock units (stock I don’t get until I add another 2 years to my tenure), which got me interested in exploring Fidelity’s full site, and not just the dumbed-down version the company maintains for retirement snapshots.  And I admit, it looked cool, in the way a well-designed spreadsheet of data does.

I had never consciously invested for a variety of reasons:

  1. I never had the liquid assets to buy stock shares
  2. I knew very little about how the stock market works
  3. I was afraid
  4. It looked like a lot of work

But then I heard of Index Funds.  Well, I had heard of them before but never gave them much thought.  Their mention tended to pop up on podcasts and news segments, so the seed had been planted well before I seriously considered buying them outright (I don’t consider my 401k to be that granular–though it technically is investing in index funds under special tax benefits, albeit about as hands-off as you can get).

And after some rather very basic research, discovered that:

  1. Many of them required no minimum investment and have very small fees
  2. I didn’t need to know much to benefit from them
  3. Risk could be mitigated with preference–how safe an index I was willing to buy
  4. The investment strategy for them is passively managed and I could auto-invest, requiring almost no effort on my part

Okay, sounded kind of fun.  I searched for Fidelity-owned index funds that matched these qualifiers.  I decided to “diversify” with 3 of them, ultimately choosing 4 so I could have a dividend-paying index to add to the mix:

index funds

I linked my savings account for EFTs and bought $10 of each, then configured their auto-invest feature to automatically perform an EFT and buy $10 for each one on a rotating weekly basis.  I was an official investor!

Then COVID-19 struck and I subsequently lost 17% of my investments.  Ah well, I suppose they’ll go up again eventually (I won’t even mention what it’s done to my 401k!).

losses
My investment of $50 is now worth $41.26. Awesome.

But stocks are up today!  I might make a buck or two back!  Time will tell how well this works over the long term.  And I now have one more old man hobby to occupy my hours of solitude in the basement.

Liz has threatened to tell her father I’m investing so we have something to talk about.

Oh god.

–Simon

Financial Responsibility

Like many American kids, I had an allowance.  I received a monthly $10 bill, and combined with the regular birthday/Christmas checks from relatives, created a small sum, locked away in a little green cashbox, awaiting some future purchase that would bring me joy.

Norwest
Norwest Bank, which has since merged with Wells Fargo

Then my mother decided that I should open a savings account, wherein I deposited my entire “fortune”–secured now by a financial institution (Norwest Bank) and FDIC.  I was told that the purpose was to keep the money safe, earn interest, and learn how to save for the future.  In reality, I learned that my money had instead been taken from me, I couldn’t use it to purchase anything, and I couldn’t withdraw it without my mother’s co-signature.  The goal I can only conclude was to teach me how to save money, but instead taught me the futility of wealth acquisition–further exacerbated once mother instituted a fee penalty system for not doing chores, which quickly exceeded the total monthly allowance.  Monthly payday became instead a bitter ritual in which mother produced a ledger, and after reading a laundry list of chores I hadn’t done (which during a month’s time, were chores I didn’t even remember anymore), and concluding I had a negative balance, and subsequently demanded immediate payment.  In the end, she didn’t teach me financial responsibility, she taught me the meaning of unregulated capitalism.  Like…sharecropping almost.  Or wage slavery.  The hopelessness of working under a system designed to prevent any sort of meaningful gain.  It was a useful lesson, but not the intended one.

Les MisérablesIn short, I failed to learn the meaning of money.  It was merely an abstraction, because when I had money I wasn’t allowed to spend it, and what little I had was fleeced from me anyway.  I learned that work was a pointless exercise, and that you couldn’t take anything from me when I had nothing to begin with.  So naturally I felt little compulsion to contribute to the family.  I also dragged my feet when forced to find a high school job.  You can’t motivate someone to play a game they know is rigged.

I didn’t wish to repeat these mistakes with my daughter.  I concluded then that you have to learn how to spend money before saving it, for why work if you can’t enjoy the fruits?  I also believe that the allowance should operate more akin to a business model.  The kid contributes, and so she receives a stipend.  Companies don’t get to fine their employees for oversights.  There are consequences, sure, but they can’t, for the most part, impact the immediate paycheck.  Instead, the employee receives a wage based on the level of contribution and thereby has a stake in the company’s equity.  The kid will have good weeks and bad weeks, but the amount should remain constant until a more thorough review is performed.

And with that, here’s premise 2 (and with it the main story): the stipend must be provided in a manner in which the kid understands.  Cash may be king, but it’s rarely the primary means of storage and/or transaction.  Money is digital.  It’s plastic.  And to further confirm this point, the kid has demonstrated an excellent understanding of gift card balances, while failing to conceptualize paper.  She understands the math, but not the physical.  I concluded that she would need a checking account and debit card.

Yet it’s interesting how truly behind we as a society are in that we expect digital transactions, yet not readily allow children to make these digital transactions.  Some internet research revealed that many banks do not permit children to hold checking accounts because, as minors, they can’t use checks, which are essentially signatory legally-binding agreements to money exchanges.  I could understand that much, but that didn’t explain why I as a 17-year old could still acquire a checking account prior to leaving for college (though it did have to be co-signed by my father).  So what were the implications of using a debit card as a minor?  None that I could find.  I decided to reach out to our primary bank: Wright-Patt Credit Union.

Over the course of 4 emails, I was advised that such an account was indeed allowed:

Wright-Patt Credit Union“This is an account that we offer with certain requirements. Your daughter can have an account in her name as long as she has a government issued ID and a debit card can be issued if a parent or guardian is joint on the account with her. Your daughter and the jointer [sic] member will need to sign a Minor Debit Card Indemnification Form before a debit card can be ordered. This form identifies the joint owner as responsible for the minor’s use of the debit card and overdraft. Since this is a regular checking account it will be able to have online banking, receive direct deposit, and we can set up a special access that will allow you to transfer between your account and hers.”

And that…

“Overdraft can be disabled for the debit card causing it to decline instead of taking the account negative and receiving the subsequent charge, however, the Idemnification [sic] form will still need to be on file.”

Fair enough.  So I would to get her a state ID (https://www.bmv.ohio.gov/dl-id-idrkids.aspx)–something that I had been planning to do anyway.  So one fine Friday afternoon, I took her to the BMV with all the requisite paperwork.  The IDs however were no longer printed on site, so we needed to wait for the US Postal Service.  In the meantime, they issued a temporary ID.  Gambling that this would be sufficient, we drove to the local banking branch.

After a lengthy wait in line, an officer ushered us to her office.  I explained what we were wanting to do, and she reaffirmed that it was indeed allowed, but she couldn’t accept the temporary ID.  We would need to wait.

The ID eventually arrived, and we made the trip yet again.  After waiting in line, another bank officer–a notably much younger one at that, took down our request, but then advised that they didn’t normally open checking accounts for kids until they were teenagers (I wasn’t given an exact age requirement).  I responded that I had already discussed this at length previously and had been given the green light.  She said that she would have to ask her manager, and left.

Upon returning, she confirmed that the decision was a judgment call of the manager on duty, and that she had been advised to not open the account.  As if to appease, she suggested that we open a savings account instead.  Mentally recounting my childhood experiences with a savings account (which I laid out at length above), I declined.  I considered raising a fuss with the manager, but didn’t feel it a good use of my time as I doubted they’d reconsider just because I complained.  Instead, I made a mental note to issue a formal complaint regarding the conflicting information, and left without further discussion.

Day Air Credit UnionI immediately drove to my second bank: Day Air Credit Union.  I initially took my car loan out with them in 2007, and after some initial aggravation with them not processing my proof of insurance paperwork properly–leading to a fight over them purchasing their own auto insurance for me on their behalf and adding it to the loan (this was eventually straightened out)–I had abandoned them until I opened a separate emergency savings account.  They always struck me as one of those “old people” banks–not the most technologically-modern, but willing to cater to specific needs with extreme patience.  I explained my plight to the teller, and she admitted that while she didn’t know if they could accommodate us, the officer would make that determination.

The officer did indeed make that determination, and in our favor.  The kid now has a checking account with a debit card, with weekly direct-deposits scheduled to it.

CFPBSo why exactly did Wright-Patt give us the runaround?  I did some digging along those lines to see where it fell into “fairness”.  But while checking accounts are indeed managed by the CFPB, since it’s not borrowing anything it doesn’t fall under any sort of Fair Lending clause.  And while the decision to open a checking account is based on reporting agencies (https://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/documents/cfpb_consumer-reporting-companies-list.pdf), since the kid would have a complete lack of any checking account history, I suspect that bank instead made a judgment call which fell under the right to refuse service (you know, what casinos do if you win too much).

So be it, I guess.  There were other options, so the ultimate success of the mission soothed the fury of the experience.  And I’m happy to report that the kid has already made some discretionary purchasing decisions, weighing the short-term happiness an overpriced item might have brought against the depletion of the account and the longer-term goal of having money to spend on vacation.

I love it when I’m right.

(Also, up yours, Wright-Patt).

–Simon

LED There Be Light

Aquarium equipment, like all hobby paraphernalia, runs the full price range gauntlet.  And one can certainly make due with cheaper components, save one piece: lighting.  It always amazed me how much a simple fluorescent hood costed, provided it could accommodate multiple lightbulbs (stock units invariably housed a single), and since I required multiples to satisfactorily grow any plants–yet couldn’t afford the units–I was left with a final option: DIY.

Initially, I took that tiny plastic bulb housing and wired in a set of secondary bulb connectors (these were 24″ T8 fluorescents).  And that worked, but was still much too dark.

Then I acquired a second stock fixture, identical to the one I had, bolted the two together, covered the inside with aluminum foil, mounted the ballasts to the back, and affixed a total of 4 bulb connector sets.  I was pleased with my handiwork, and had successfully created a lighting fixture that was considered “medium light” by hobbyists.

Here it sits in the basement, having finally been decommissioned–awaiting disassembly

Each ballast ran to a separate power cord, in turn to staggered plug timers.  Each bulb was also a different spectrum, selected to suit my own preferences.  At one point I even attached a moonlight (clips at left), but it had since burnt out.

Ultimately it worked, but was somewhat…janky?…ghetto?  You get the idea.  It was a hack, and an inelegant one.  I vowed to remedy that.

(Yet it still provided nice lighting, as can be seen in this prior post):

Elusive Photogenics

Technology has advanced somewhat since those days, and a new option, initially also cost-prohibitive, has now become quite affordable: LEDs.  And that, combined with my mid-life salary, left me with little excuse to forestall any longer.  It was time for research.

My requirements were simple.  It needed to be around 2000 lumens (4x 15watt 24″ T8s run 2000-2400 lumens, more or less, and given the bounceback effect from their omnidirectional properties, plus their fading output, 2000 lumens was probably at the high end of what I was getting with my rig), 30 inches, and not plastic (I wanted something a little more aesthetically pleasing).

I found some good candidates, but the aquarium community steered me towards the Nicrew brand, so I ultimately decided on this number:

NICREW ClassicLED Gen 2 Aquarium Light, Dimmable LED Fish Tank Light with 2-Channel Control, White and Blue LEDs, High Output

As a bonus, they make a dual-channel timer/controller for it, so I can stagger the times of the white and blue lights for nighttime, as well as set the blue level intensity.  Here’s what it looks like installed:

Nice and low-profile

It also uses half the energy.

It also probably won’t kill me if it gets wet.

And it looks pretty nice, too.  If you’re looking to upgrade an aquarium light, LEDs are certainly worth consideration.

–Simon

Desperate Times

I never would have predicted that Windows would have gotten so bad that my own wife would choose to abandon it, especially given her disdain for Apple.

But the OS world is not one of strict duality.  And upon my suggestion, she agreed to Ubuntu, convinced with my recommendation (in turn based upon my own recent experiences with it).

The process was essentially the same as the above linked post, so I won’t go into detail again here.  Instead, I’ll just share this picture, and again vouch for Ubuntu with yet another successful experience:

If Windows 10 has made you pine for an adult operating system, and Apple isn’t your cup of tea, then consider the latest Linux distros.  They’re far more user-friendly than they used to be.

–Simon