The Dallas to Houston high speed rail project is doomed

Posted in green living with tags , , on 10/22/2014 by Fox

When I was a kid, I went to the store and asked the guy, Do you have any toy train schedules?
~Steven Wright

So after no more was heard about the San Antonio to Dallas via Austin high speed rail project, Someone apparently decided to spend a lot of money to propose a Dallas to Houston high speed rail project, which lacks the fundamental flaw of the previous project. Namely, Houston is a bigger and more important metropolitan area than San Antonio, or even San Antonio plus Austin (let’s face it, the old project was really Austin to Dallas, with an extra leg to just connect San Antonio because why not). This new project is so far underway that I actually received a little DEAR OWNER OR CURRENT RESIDENT card in the mail informing me of a public input meeting that I won’t be attending because I will be drinking beer in Terlingua and giving absolutely no fucks about anything, much less a doomed high speed rail project.

And why, exactly, is the project doomed? Well, for starters, we’ve got the same problem I discussed with the SA-D rail line. There’s a lack of good intra-city transport in Texas cities. There’s the sad beginnings of intra-city transport, but it’s not going to be the first thing most white and/or affluent people think about when they think of transportation. Sure, if this is built you can get to Houston from Dallas or vice versa and quickly. But unless you’re a salaryman moving only from one downtown to another, or willing to waste a lot of time with crappy “mass transit,” you’re hosed.

From looking at the maps, this high speed rail is not even remotely interested in stopping anywhere along the way. Sure, it might stop in Teague (if there was anything in Teague worth stopping for), and if one of the alternative routes is the Chosen One, a stop may appear outside of Bryan/College Station (only slightly more interesting than Teague), but more likely than not, this sucker is not stopping for anyone, Aggie or not.

If it were to make two stops along the way, let’s just say Teague and BCS, I could see salarymen moving their suburban asses to one of these towns and just taking the train to work. Most people who work in Houston commute from Fucking All Over anyway (some as far as Brenham and no, I am NOT joking). This way, they wouldn’t have to drive or fight traffic and they can have that wonderful small-town lifestyle where their children get bored and do meth and the cops don’t care because their own children are in on it.

But it doesn’t appear to be stopping nor does it appear to actually be taking the human equation into account at all, for all they’ll sell it as a people-mover. Like most of the high speed rail projects out there, this thing is meant to move cargo, not people.

What do you say when your co-worker is the idiot of the year?

Posted in green living with tags , on 10/15/2014 by Fox

Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error.
~Marcus Tullius Cicero

Today one of my co-workers informed us that oil is a renewable resource that replenishes itself naturally without taking thousands of years and thus we will never run out of oil.

For a moment, we thought he was being sarcastic. Then the horror sunk in.

Yes, there are people that seriously believe that oil is a renewable resource, just like there are people who seriously believe that atheists don’t exist, and that the Beastie Boys aren’t rappers.

None of us said anything, which answers the question of what you do in this situation. This guy is known to be full of shit, and we’d already used up our Arguing With Each Other Instead of Working quota on Monday when we discussed institutionalized racism. (Pro tip: Saying that everyone can rise above their situation when your white ass cannot rise yourself out debt is called “irony,” and this will get you laughed at. Loudly.)

Sometimes you just let them be idiots. My mother and I have this sort of relationship. She’s allowed to foam at the mouth for up to five minutes, and I don’t say shit. More than five minutes, and I walk out of the room. You gotta pick your battles.

To be fair, he didn’t say anything earlier in the day when I said that no, we wouldn’t run out of oil, but it would get to a point where the cost to extract it exceeded its value or alternative sources became advanced enough to be financially competitive. But he made his statement with such conviction that I actually had to double-check to make sure there wasn’t some new piece of information that had somehow passed me by. But then I realized Answers in Genesis agrees with him, and thus I knew he was yet again just full of shit. I haven’t found a correct piece of information on that site yet.

Less minimalist, but still pretty damn minimalist

Posted in simple living with tags , on 10/08/2014 by Fox

Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off.
~Coco Chanel

Home ownership requires a certain amount of stuff. Especially when the home is a fixer-upper and calling an electrician to install lighting and new outlets is way out of the budget. I own all kinds of odd tools now, some of them purchased, some of them given, some of them on loan. Most fortunate for me, a friend of mine had a bunch of lawn tools, including a small lawnmower, in storage. I get to use them in exchange for storing them in my garage. He gets to clean out his storage unit (hopefully to one day not need it), and I get free access to stuff I need.

And of course, there’s the inevitable influx of furniture. There’s a little more room in the living and dining rooms (okay, a lot, but not enough to matter), and a lot more room in the bedroom, as well as an entire second bedroom. And everyone I know takes this to mean I want all of their unwanted furniture. Some of it is worthwhile, some of it I don’t need. This is where knowing how to say “no, thank you, though” to people is very helpful.

So I own a lot more than I did when I went on hiatus. But most of it is just furniture, instead of knick-knacks and assorted crap. All of it is second-hand (at best). As stated above, furniture is all too easy to get for free, and if you want to be picky, good things come cheap for the patient on Craigslist.

I’ll be honest and say that most of it is there to be seen. I have a chair in my bedroom, and I’ve sat in it once. The cats enjoy the new stuff far more than I ever will, but my bedroom was a bit…barren. Searching for “Help, my bedroom is too big” on Google doesn’t get you very many good tips for how to deal with what most people would consider a decent size. (How many people actually use the “reading nooks” they create in their homes? I read on the couch.) I’d curtain off half the room, but what would I do with the new space? I guess I could hide the cat tower there, but then I’d have to listen to them climb it at night.

That’s not to say I’ve fallen completely off the minimalist wagon. A funny moment this morning was when I realized that the reason my countertops seemed absurdly deep to me was because they were made for “normal” people…the people who keep appliances and canisters and spice racks out and visible. Deep cabinets and larger countertops allow people to prepare food while still having the coffee maker, knife block, and flour canister present. When even your used-daily toaster lives in a cabinet, the countertops seem a third too large to be useful.

Does owning two chairs I don’t regularly use make me not a minimalist? Decide that for yourself. I don’t give a damn. I try my best to own the least amount of stuff possible, and to consider each object brought inside my home carefully. In short, I feel that minimalism is a state of mind, rather than a hard and fast number. And sometimes, you own more than you’d really like to. But maybe you just end up with 600 extra square feet you didn’t particularly want (although the larger bathroom and kitchen are nice). C’est la vie.

Living the home-cooked life out of a mini-fridge

Posted in tiny living with tags on 10/01/2014 by Fox

You don’t need a silver fork to eat good food.
~Paul Prudhomme

The first thing in my house to break down on me was the fridge. The only appliance that was not covered by the home warranty. And buying a new one would involve depriving me of the last of my emergency fund, or now that the final car payment has been sent off, siphon off the first of the funds that would replenish it.

Luckily, a friend was kind enough to allow me to borrow a mini-fridge. Not only that, but he’s in the middle of a full kitchen remodel and his wife wants a new fridge. They’ve promised me their old one. The mini-fridge, while still small, is a better size for me, except the freezer isn’t nearly big enough. And since I’m running tight on funds, I’m cooking about 90% of my food right now.

Yes, I’m cooking 90% of my meals while using a mini-fridge.

It’s not so bad, actually. I do batch cooking, which seems like something that wouldn’t lend itself well to the mini-fridge life, but it works. I go to the store, buy the ingredients I need, then come home and cook the meal. There aren’t any loose veggies or trays of chicken sitting about in my fridge. It’s all cooked and portioned out so I can Fridge-Tetris it nicely in there amongst the other obligate fridge items.

I store my sodas for work, the tea and beer for at home, the condiments that need refrigeration, and a week’s worth of food in the mini-fridge. There’s still room for my water pitcher, too, believe it or not. There is not, however, room for TV dinners or leftovers from eating out. Good thing I’m not doing any of the former and extremely little of the latter. I still wonder how the can’t-cook-won’t-cook crowd survives.

Now, the freezer is a problem. I normally portion out chicken breasts into singles, but without the freezer room I have to cook the chicken pretty much immediately for lack of space. This weekend I’m making enchiladas and chicken penne gorgonzola. I have to decide if I want to split a whole tray of chicken for these recipes, or if I want to use beef for the enchiladas and pre-cooked chicken for the penne gorgonzola. It depends on how small of a chicken tray I can get and how much the beef and pre-cooked chicken costs. And just forget about my tendency to hoard bread. There’s no way I can fit even one loaf in that little thing.

What I need is a fridge slightly larger than the mini-fridge with a freezer that’s almost as big as the refrigerator itself. But nope, they don’t make those. They just make really big refrigerators. And then even bigger refrigerators. I suppose if you have a family you’re feeding, but I don’t need that much room. And I cook!

The Penny Hoarder is full of shit

Posted in simple living with tags on 09/26/2014 by Fox

[G]ood cons are all based on the victim’s need, and the successful con artist is the one, I guess, who can exploit that.
~Alfred Molina

So this morning I ran across a post on The Penny Hoarder. It was supposedly about how to save a thousand bucks in a year.

It was really about how to net The Penny Hoarder some cash via referral links while saving five bucks and doing a lot of bull that won’t net you shit.

If the slimy smile on his face or the Oprah endorsement doesn’t run you off, just glancing at the links he posts should. Just about every one of them is a referral link.

If that’s not skeezy enough for you, this asshole is encouraging people to sign up for new credit cards. He’s making a killing off those, you’d better believe it. And in the meantime, his victims are killing their credit scores and potentially getting themselves (further) into debt.

He says that the “normal” financial advice isn’t grounded in reality and that his method of attempting to use credit card promotions, bullshit online surveys and the rest will get you back on your financial feet. The credit card promotions alone kill this idea, and the online surveys and get-paid-while-you-watch-tv bullshit never works the way it’s implied. The reason why normal financial advice didn’t work is because the Penny Douchebag lacks self-restraint and isn’t grounded in reality himself. If you can’t keep yourself from using the credit card when it’s frozen in a block of ice, don’t blame the methodology. Cancel the card, give it to a (very trusted) loved one for safe-keeping, or some other way of making it unusable.

He’s also a fan of getting people to sign up for programs that monitor your internet or smartphone/tablet usage. Because that sounds like a fucking fantastic idea, especially for a mere $5 a month.

Even if you do find a promotion, survey, or program that works well, they disappear quickly. I used to do mystery shopping for my credit union. Ten to twenty bucks a month for submitting a report on an experience I had with the teller or mortgage advisor. After not quite a year, the program ended in favor of “fill out a survey about your experience and enter to win a giftcard!” I still made fifty to a hundred bucks, but that option is gone for good. I also participate in research studies for the local university’s agriculture department. That’s twenty to forty bucks maybe two or three times a year.

It’s nothing you can make a living off of. It’s beer money, and that’s all it will ever be to most people. If it was otherwise, The Penny Hoarder would be making more money doing that than posting referral link filled posts to a bullshit blog. And exactly what it is…a few feel-good stories about people finding some niche job they love and making money at it, outnumbered by referral links and crappy financial advice.

Getting out of a shitty financial situation takes dedication, time, and hard fucking work. Those feel-good stories are in the minority. Disregard them. They’re not going to help you.

Mountain gorillas, poverty, and incongruity

Posted in green living with tags , on 09/21/2014 by Fox

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.
~Epictetus

I was invited last week to a free screening of a documentary about Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Such films are a solid reminder that while I’m not wealthy by American standards, I am wealthy by world standards. I have a 1,200 square foot house all to myself. I have my own car. I have air conditioning. It’s hard for me to watch something like that and not feel privileged, grateful, wealthy, and wasteful.

It’s almost a form of pornography for white, affluent, first-worlders. You feel better about yourself, but guilty, too. And you feel better about yourself for feeling guilty.

At one point in the film, someone mentioned that each of the groups wrestling for control of the area had their own agenda. My immediate thought was “And what is your agenda?” It’s impossible to claim that everyone but you has an agenda. That everyone but you is lying.

And then I went to the after party and listened to someone connected to the park talk about the work they’re trying to do while a bunch of college students ignored him and drank the free beer. It was hard to watch. There are people in Africa making illegal charcoal on park land, and these guys were chatting and drinking without a care in the world.

I wondered how much was spent that night, on free alcohol and travel and electricity, and why it didn’t go directly to the park instead. My friend wondered what she could do to help, claiming to be poor. I tried not to get snappish. She’s better off than I, and we’re both far beyond some Americans and almost everyone in the film.

What is the point of such an event, though? They didn’t appear to be soliciting donations, and if they were, why offer free booze? My only guess is that they were “raising awareness.” Hoping, maybe, that by spreading the word someone with enough money to make the free booze and travel expenses and the rest worthwhile. An elaborate setup aimed at the few with the money. The rest of us are left to the beer and the guilt.

What is there for my friend to do in such a situation? Nothing, I fear. The Congo is far from Texas. Aside from offering what money you can, there is nothing to be done, unless you wish to give Virunga part or all of your life. Some have, most won’t.

It was a difficult night. My friend’s distress, my doubts, the atmosphere contrasted with the content. I didn’t feel moved, I felt nauseated. The only awareness raised was the awareness that I need to stop doing these things to myself. I need to stick with first-world problems. I’m not affluent enough to deal with the third-world ones.

How I paid off a brand-new car in one year

Posted in simple living with tags , on 09/18/2014 by Fox

Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation.
~Robert H. Schuller

First, off, I apologize for my rather erratic posting schedule. I had a post that I wanted to write a week ago, but I’ve been busy with the house and it just hasn’t happened. I wanted to post something, though, and this one requires a lot less putting together of thoughts. Hopefully I’ll have some breathing room to write the other this weekend.

One Sunday in October last year, I was cooking pancakes for breakfast when my neighbors from a couple doors down knocked on my door and informed me that the apartment complex had flooded badly the night before and that our cars were among the victims.

Sure enough, the interior of my car was soaked, just up to the bottom of the dash. I ate my breakfast, called my insurance company, called my father, sent out the fox signal to friends, and then started cleaning out my car. I threw away what was ruined or useless to try to salvage, and left the doors open (seriously, who was going to steal a half-drowned car?), and attempted to dry it out.

A couple friends showed up to give advice and to help salvage the engine. We got it running, took it to a car wash, and vacuumed the shit out of the seats, hoping to get as much water out as possible. Then I drove it on the highway, trying to drive as much water out of the exhaust as possible.

Then I drove it to work on Monday, and my bosses helpfully allowed me to use a large fan and space heater to dry it out some more. My insurance agent handling the claim told me to expect someone that day (Columbus Day, actually), to have a look. He came by, examined the car, expressed surprise that I was able to drive it to work, and left, informing me that the car was likely totaled. I blue-booked the car at about $6,500, and figured I’d get a couple grand from the insurance company.

Tuesday I got a call from the insurance company. They totaled the car, and estimated its value at $9,000, due to “low mileage.” I didn’t think it was that low, but I wasn’t going to argue. My deductible was only $500, so I got half the value of a brand-new Nissan Versa in exchange for my six-year-old car.

So I bought a new one. I took three grand out of my emergency fund, went to the dealership, found a Versa without all the bells and whistles (seriously, it doesn’t have power locks or windows, how cool is that?), and in a good color. My old car drowned on Saturday night, I drove a new car to work on Friday.

I financed the full amount of the car, minus my $3,000 down payment. I opted for a three-year note, which made my monthly payment quite high. Financing through Nissan netted me $500 off the purchase price. When I got my insurance check, I threw it at the principal, dropping it like a rock. And here in about two weeks, I will send off the check that will pay the last of it.

Naturally, you can’t plan to have a six-year-old car drown, nor can you plan to have your insurance company offer you half the cost of a new car in return. But take this as a case study. Things can go horribly wrong and there’s nothing you can do. Things will go horribly wrong and there’s nothing you can do. But you can prepare. An emergency fund and living below your means will turn disaster into a story about How Fucking Awesome My Insurance Company Is And How Nissan Versas Hold Their Value Really Well Actually.

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