Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Budgeting Season Comes After Christmas Season.

My 2010 expenses.  The top 20% of categories have 67% of expenses.
Near New Year I always review my budget. This might be because we spent too much on Christmas gifts.

This year I downloaded 850 transactions from Mint into Excel, and sorted through them.  It is good practice using pivot tables.

I spend too much on cable TV and eating out. Although it feels like my DW's indulgences in organic foods are expensive -- grocery spending is not going up.

The mortgage is the biggest expense, then groceries and other household stuff, house repairs, and so on. Taxes would be the biggest of all, but I ignore them. The budget buster this year was the new furniture we bought.

My budget is a legacy of my grad student years when we tracked everything, so we could afford food and toys for the kids both. This system was pretty detailed.

When I came out of grad school, the budget helped us figure out how big a car payment we could afford, and later I used it to help find money for college expenses. These systems got looser and looser.

I used to use Borland Quattro, which was a spreadsheet program. Later I switched to Excel -- then off to Quicken, then Quicken Online and now Mint.  Recall that Quicken bought Mint in 2009, and promised millions of users an automated conversion path to Mint. Quicken never delivered on that, instead they just told me and thousands of others to reapply. It was easy to switch though. Took an hour or less.

Budgets are so easy with -- at least at the level of detail that I am comfortable with. I know some people track down to the last nickel, and I don't do that. My budgets are trying to get the big stuff, and try to make the little stuff average out correctly over time. can't be as secure as PC or Mac based software, but it sure is easier to use. Far far better than Quicken for Mac's offering.

On the other hand, these programs create canned budgets don't answer the questions I want answered, and I can organize it myself in Excel better. That is why I download everything, and replot it myself. I can also compare this year with the last few years, and that is really useful.  For example that is how I know that groceries cost less than last year despite the organic yogurt in the 'frig.

After I look at expenses, I want to look at savings -- so digging into the 401k is next.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Finches of Darwin

I came across someone unfamiliar with the story of Charles Darwin on the Beagle in 1831 and his trip to Galapagos, so I thought I'd post on that.

The birds on Galapagos are very similar in structure, and provided Darwin inspiration for his Theory of Natural Selection. At the time they were called Finches, but Moderns call them Tanagers. They are clearly similar in features and color. Natural selection provided slight differences in bills that allowed them to eat from a variety of food sources.

In 1845, Darwin wrote, "Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends".

I can't say it better than Darwin did.

Darwin's Tanager - by John Gould who
was on the Beagle with Darwin
Darwin's tanagers are not actually an example of speciation, but rather, they are can all still interbred. This is an example of a species with huge variety of traits. This provides huge flexibility and adaptability wthin the population.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

2010 Christmas Poem

Christmas is just another day
when seen from sometime far away.
The winter's dark brings time to pray
and feel the root of my Holiday.

To remind myself that I can be
for a day or an hour during coffee and tea
-- helpful a little more and reaching a little further
As friend, husband, or neighbor or father

Are gifts really bad and simply distractions?
I say they are rather
an increasingly rare reciprocal action
So I buy for you
And you buy for me.

I listened for hints, way back at Thanksgiving.
As I sliced up the turkey, I logged ideas in mind
You mashed up potatoes, and listened for my mine

And together we built and we grew and combined
And all us together built a Giftgiving
So holiday event so grand and so fine
That we remember them all as the best of our times.
-- an emergent holiday meeting of minds

When I gift successfully I feel and I find
That listening and empathy has helped me refine
how to deal with people the rest of the time.

Gifting is best when I've spend time,
-- the time to select, return, and refine.

When I buy gift cards and give cash for propriety,
my money does not built the holiday society

It's really a waste, just a deep well of chaos,
nothing but bother and a flaming deadweight loss.

Jesus' birth and the Christmas story
I hold as dear as piles of money
I love the music, Carol of the Bells
Mannheim Steamroller and the smell of candles
Tinkly lights and front yards all lit
Frank Sinatra and Sarah Brightman

Jesus's birth brings to my mind,
How much better I can be most of the time.
It helps me to focus and helps me to find
A better more moral and higher incline.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Stalker picture

The Stalker (detail) by 'AlsaPaints'.   I found this while looking for Christmas gifts this afternoon.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Michigan Unemployment No Longer Worst in the Nation


Something is going right.

Michigan unemployment is down to 12.4%, from 12.8% last month. Down from 14.4% in 2009!

After years of leading the nation in unemployment, Michigan has achieved 3rd worst. Well, actually tied with California for 3rd worst. So I am grasping for good news -- you can't blame me.

Hopefully this is a sign of improvement in the manufacturing economy, and a better 2011. 

Cute Toy Quorra from Tron

This toy was hand made by Michal Miszta.  It is a  'dunny,' which is like a bunny -- it has rabbit ears.  I have been spending time on gift sites, and I came across this one.

It is based on the character Quorra from Tron Legacy.  It is interesting, because the Tron graphics are so black and cool, and here it is parodied as a toy rabbit.

I have not seen Tron Legacy at this point, but it opened this weekend.


26-January update:  Click here for my movie review.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ethics of Christmas Gift Giving

Why do we need to talk about the ethics of giving?

Giving is an absolute good.

Decisions to keep wealth for your selfish little self is clearly less good than giving it away. Isn't it?

Is it ever bad to give?

Well, yes if you are truly impoverished, or if giving food away meant that you could not feed your kids, then yes -- it would be bad to give food away. 

Maybe that is a special circumstance, not like the circumstances most of us live in. 

Giving is bad if giving creates an unhealthy dependency upon handouts, like American sugar farmers, or other beneficiaries of governments.

If the gift were really a veiled extortion, more like 'Trick or Treat, then giving is not really giving. It is just a bribe or kickback. 

Economists talk about the inefficiencies of gift giving because the gift I receive is always an imperfect reflection of what I would have bought for myself. This means some of the gift money is wasted, and to an economist all waste is bad. 

It is not especially good to give if I am just expecting an equivalent gift back. That is even in the Bible, Luke 6: 34-36.  I'd argue that while it is not actually charitable to do that, but it is still good for the society to trade in this way. It helps build relationships, and society is founded on relationships.

"It is more blessed to give than to receive."  Acts 20:35

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Yeast Cancels Toxic Acrylamide Threat in Bread not Crackers

Remember headlines like, "Is Eating French Fries Deadly?" from 2002. It might be, but there is a simple nearly-natural solution for bready foods.

First, the dangerous chemical in french fries and in baked bread is acrylamide, and it is a carcinogen. It ts found in many starchy foods after cooking, including french frieds,  crackers and non-leavened baked goods like pancakes.

Second, the normal fermentation of wheat with yeast reduces the toxic acrylamide by 88%. It does this by feeding on the amino acid asparagine, and using it up. The acrylamide forms during baking over 121C (250F.)

Aspargine is a good food source for yeast. Now Canadian yeast maker, Functional Technologies, has a yeast that works even better. It is only nearly-natural because it is a genetically modified yeast which uses up asparagine more effectively that natural yeast.

asparagine, an amino acid
This looks like a solution for wheat breads, but it does not work on rye bread where asparagine is evidently better protected.

While yeast is good news for bread. It is no help for french fries and coffee which also have an acrylamide problem, and no simple way to use yeast.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Greg's Favorite Christmas Songs

I put up the Christmas tree yesterday, and to get in the mood I broke out the Christmas songs. For me, that means taking Christmas Songs playlist out of its folder and back to the main iTunes menu.

I am looking for better Christmas songs. Why? Because I have not got all the good ones yet. 

I poke around on the internet looking for recommended Christmas songs, and I never find much. I thought I'd put mine out there. [It occurs to me that is what iTunes's Ping is all about, but I don't like Ping.]

Greg's Top Christmas Songs

1. Gaudete by Mediaeval Baebes - Great a capella hymn; Happy and pretty. One of my favorite songs of all time. It's the only a capella song on the list.

2. Pat A Pan by Mannheim Steamroller; I'm never tired of hearing this one. Mannheim Steamroller are modern Christmas classic, but they are overplayed.

3-5. Carol of the Bells by The Bird and the Bee
Two more versions of Carol of the Bells: Harry Connick Jr, and the classic by Vienna Boys Choir. This my favorite traditional Christmas hymn.  I have a dozen versions.  Honorable Mentions are by Celtic Woman, Los Lonely Boys, and Mannheim Steamroller.  This will give you a big variety of music styles in the same song.

6-9. The whole album The Christmas Eve by Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but especially Christmas Canon Rock, What Child is This, The Lost Christmas Eve, and Anno Domine.

10. Greatest Time of Year by Aly and AJ  -  Adult singers are too cynical to sing such happy music. Their "Little Drummer Boy" is pretty good too.

Honorable Mentions

A. Linus and Lucy by Vince Guardaldi Trio - great song, but not Christmassy enough for the main list.

B. Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel by Enya - Very slow and quiet, so you need to be in the mood for it.

C.  Soul Cake by Sting - This song was new last year, and I really like it. It is a folk song, so it not church music, but still traditional in feeling. It has a great mood. I can picture the poor people in the English countryside asking for food.

D. Baby Its Cold Outside by Dean Martin - This is the best of the Rat Pack Christmas songs.  So cute. The lyrics are so well delivered. I don't know who the female singer is, and I have looked.  This is better than all the other versions.

E. Christmas Time is Here by the Boston Pops Orchestra - Very traditional and very nice

F-G. The Holly and the Ivy and The Little Drummer Boy by Mannheim Steamroller; Two more of my favorites from the large body of good Mannheim Steamroller songs.

H.  Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring by Sarah Brightman; very traditional and pretty.

I. Santa Claus is Coming to Town by the Jackson Five, as a placeholder for the whole Christmas Collection Album. These songs are a little too gimmicky and dated, but they have such a free-spirited feeling that I put them on. I also expected static from the family if I left it off. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" is really good too. "Little Christmas Tree" is the most sincere on the album.

There are so many others. Snow Angel by Tori Amos is a nice song, but not quite at the level. Tori is probably a Druid anyway.

Sorry Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra fans. Your guys did not measure up.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mac Excel 2011 Paste Special Bug Work-around

Macros are back in Microsoft Excel:Mac 2011
As mentioned in a previous post, the paste-special shortcut does not work in Excel:Mac 2011, but it is easy to write a work-around since macro recording is back (!) in this version of Office.

I have not been able to make a shortcut to open the Paste Shortcut menu, but one can address each of the individual options with an individual macro.  Post a comment if you figure out how.

Here is a macro for paste-values, and it is about the simplest thing in the world.  It is useful for when you want to save the result of a calculation, without moving the formula itself. 

Sub PasteSpecialValues()
' PasteSpecialValues Macro
' Paste SpecialValues
' Keyboard Shortcut: Option+Cmd+v
    Selection.PasteSpecial Paste:=xlValues, Operation:=xlNone, SkipBlanks:= _
        False, Transpose:=False
End Sub

The Paste Format one is similar.

Sub PasteSpecialValues()
Sub PasteFormats()
' PasteFormats Macro
' Keyboard Shortcut: Option+Cmd+Shift+F
Selection.PasteSpecial Paste:=xlFormats, Operation:=xlNone, SkipBlanks:= _
False, Transpose:=False
End Sub

I could build a little menu in Visual Basic to similar the real Paste-Special function. It would be better if Microsoft would fix the bug, so that Shift-Command -V would operate Paste-Special, as the menu indicates.