Personal finances

You know you are getting old when

  1. You start paying attention to mail from Social Security
  2. Medicare Supplement adverts begin to flood your mailbox

Both of those have happened. Will you still love me when I’m 64? And Medicare sets  you free from your employer’s health care plan! When that happens, my employer has nothing to offer that I want!

Some Modeling

That’s what I do so naturally, this winter I sat down and made some financial planning models. I’d done that exercise a year or so ago but was not satisfied with it. I began to look around for something more robust than my shaky advanced mathematics and found Economic Security Planner is a sophisticated planning product developed by a Lawrence Kotlikoff, Boston University professor of economics, and his graduate students. It originally began as research with a spin-off company started to provide Windows software and web service. Professor Kotlikoff is a regular contributor to NPR’s Marketplace and to PBS News Hour.

Introducing ESPlanner

ESplanner is available as a web service and as a MS Windows program. The program version comes in 3 levels, basic, andvanced, and professional. The advanced and professional versions provide the same model but the professional version has client data management capabilities of interest to professional financial planners. The web service is layered with tiers similar to those of the program product. For most people, especially, those like me who keep a Microsoft Free Household (TM), the web service is the way to go. One program does not justify the hassle of Parallels and MS Windows administration when there is a viable alternative.

You can try the basic planner as a web service. The free test drive lets you enter model parameters, make runs, and retrieve reports but you cannot save your model for future updating. ESPlanner offers several levels of subscription that make saving model configuration, support, and advanced features available. The advanced versions of the model offer a couple of additional features.

  1. Monte Carlo evaluation for susceptibility to economic and market variability
  2. Pessimistic planning assuming that you loose all of your stock assets.

My first impressions of both of these features is that they are of limited use for assessing the basic adequacy of your retirement planning. What they do is offer some additional assurance that your standard of living is reasonably immune to market and economic events.

How ESPlanner Differs

Most free planners let you assume a yearly draw and determine the amount of assets needed to provision that draw at retirement. ESPlanner has a second mode of operation that answers the question “Given the assets I have, how much can I draw yearly?” Being in the position where wealth accumulation is drawing to a close, I used ESPlanner in this mode to determine what level of income my estimated assets at retirement would support. To my knowledge, this capability is unique and the results were reassuring. I was able to confirm that I held sufficient retirement assets to maintain my current standard of living.

What’s In the Model?

The ESPlanner model includes the following processes

  • Asset holdings
  • Investment performance
  • Proper treatment tax-favored (IRA and 401K) and regular brokerage accounts
  • Proper treatment of defined benefits pensions
  • Social Security and Medicare
  • US and State income taxes
  • Longevity assumptions (they recommend planning to 100)
  • Recurring obligated payments like mortgage, insurance contracts, etc
  • Planned expenses like cars, home renovation, college tuition, offspring’s weddings, etc
  • Periodic income from work or other continuing periodic sources
  • Lump sum income from estates, asset sales, etc.

The model calculates the yearly discretionary spending that your assets can support. In ESPlanner’s terminology, discretionary spending is any spending that is not obligated by law or by contract. For example, your taxes, mortgage payment, and loan payments are obligated. ESPlanner estimates your Federal and State income taxes from your total taxable income.

Monte Carlo Modeling

With the optional Monte Carlo feature enabled (at added cost) the model includes Monte Carlo analysis of sensitivity to historical stock market variability. This feature is useful for confirming that your holdings are adequate to survive stock market swoons and recoveries and inflation variability.

The Upside Investing Bit

The “Upside Investing” bit models the conversion of stocks to “safe” assets like bonds. Typically, you do this as you harvest growth assets to produce income. The process is a bit of a bucket brigade from stocks to intermediate bonds to short term bonds or cash. This is a rolling process because a good bit of the portfolio (50 to 65 percent) must remain growth invested to produce asset growth that keeps pace with inflation. The model does Monte Carlo analysis to confirm the adequacy of the asset migration plan in the presence of stock market swoons and recoveries. I found this feature less useful, possibly because I misused it.

Inflation and Investment Performance

Mean inflation rate and mean investment performance for each investment account are model input parameters. ESPlanner recommends 3% inflation and 5% investment growth. I used these values. The 5% value may seem conservative but this value is picked to reflect your mix of stocks and bonds. This is an assumption that I need to verify from time to time. During 2013, the S&P 500, NASDAC, and Dow are all up handsomely with soft bond performance. Bonds are returning coupon.

ESPlanner considers inflation and asset growth/shrinkage as part of the model but this does not appear explicitly in the reports. Rather, ESPlanner shows the reports in constant dollars. I find this easier to interpret than use of future dollars for future years. Future dollars make the inflation effects apparent but could mask declining real standard of living.

Social Security?

In the spending model, Social Security is an input obtained from the Social Secuirty web site or the yearly mailng. For a single person, that works well. If you have a spouse, you and your spouse have different ages and different earnings histories, and you have dependents, Social Security strategy becomes a complex problem with about one million permutations. The purpose of the Social Security optimizer is to evaluate you and your spouse as a unit to determine the optimum Social Security utilization strategy. Who should be the primary, who should be the survivors. Should one of you start and then suspend benefits? If you are single, the result is obvious as explained below. If not, then you need to use this model.

ESPlanner, Inc offers a Social Security optimizer. I gave it a try also and was surprised! The Social Security Optimizer told me I should delay collecting Social Security until age 70. Being a single male, this is a pretty simple decision. Delaying to age 70 to begin drawing Social Security increases your yearly draw by 1/3 from a defined benefits inflation protected source. By doing so and putting this result into the ESPlanner spending model, I was able to show that my yearly spending could increase relative to starting Social Security at age 66. The increase was significant.

This result seems counter intuitive so some explanation is in order. In the age 66 scenario, you must conserve assets early in retirement to maintain late in retirement standard of living. By delaying until age 70, those sequestered assets are freed to pay income during the shorter 100% out of pocket period. Basically, you are betting that you will live longer than the median life expectancy which Social Security uses to determine the payout rates. The Social Security early and late start adjustments are actuarially neutral. If your family history suggests, as mine does, that you will outlive median life expectancy for your cohort, it is a reasonable risk to take. My aunts and uncles not claimed by lung cancer or early colon cancer lived into their late 80’s and both paternal grandparents lived past 90. Given that I don’t have the risk factors (smoking, agricultural chemicals) of the early mortality uncles, It is a good gamble.

The other thing that surprise me was that Social Security would be a significant fraction of my after-seventy spending. For me, about half, maybe a bit more. A big surprise since I’m about a 92 to 93 percentile wealth unit. I’d assumed that Social Security would be providing Starbucks Money. Suddenly, I’m very much more interested in the shenanigans of the Republican House of Representatives now that I know Social Security will be doing more than buttering my bread.


New Music

It’s been a busy winter music wise. After watching Arron Embry, Ryan Keen, and some others, You Tube pitched Shaun Kirk and Kim Churchill who popped up in My Playing for Change subscription. I found Arron Embry at work listening to the clip linked above. Ryan Keen is courtesy of the London iTunes festival app. Apple produces this gig each summer and offers each set for streaming. Often, the opening acts are rising stars getting their first big event exposure. iTunes Festival is the UK equivalent of the Newport Folk Festival but it is not restricted to folk. Every genre of small ensemble music, jazz, classical, pop, singer songwriter, is there is some measure.

And over on the Jazz side, another serendipitous You Tube find, young Beka Gochiashvili, a Georgian teenager who has attracted the attention of the likes of Chick Corea, Bryan Blade, Lenny White and others. Beka is a force of nature. At 16 he picks up a lick by ear and makes it his own, playing in paragraphs. He’s quick but, more important, he can think on his feet taking a musical idea and making it his own. He’s studying at Juliard to get his theory, composition, and business skills. If you poke around on the Tube, you can find his recital videos from his trio lab. He’s one of those rare people who have the technique, something to say, and the arranging and leader skills to pull it together an make music that is more than the sum of its parts.

One of the miracles of the digital age is that folk’s formative years are being recorded and published. All of these guys are great and they’re all self produced. Well Lenny White produced Beka’s record (iTunes). Wonderful things are happening, none of them at a major label.  Beka’s Trio Recital is something else. Here are these three teenagers playing their hearts out trying to keep a properly professional face for their professors. Don’t let ’em steal your groove face, Beka.




I became a TiVO early adopter in 2002 buying a Sony TiVO for use with Cox Cable. Having a couple of greyhounds who needed walked during the evening, I quickly became hooked by the ability to record shows for later viewing and to pause what I was watching when the dogs demanded attention or to use the loo. As digital TV approached, I traded the Sony for a TiVO HD and went digital with cable cards. The writers strike drove me to take a look at BBC America. I discovered Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Top Gear.

With the passage of 5 years or so, the TiVO HD’s disk is getting tired, I tired of commercial cable, and TiVO’s $20/month is no longer a good value. After all, how many episodes of Ice Road Truckers can one person watch before going batty? What to do next?


Enter the cat. Elgato makes media center software and video capture hardware for Apple Macintosh computers selling under the EyeTV name for about a decade. In the Apple community, Elgato is the company to go to for this capability. The current version of EyeTV supports the current Elgato video capture devices plus selected video tuner hardware made by others.

EyeTV 3 can record programs by channel and title. No need to do the VHS thing and set channel and time. Just open up the program guide and select record or record all. Record will create a one-time schedule entry to record the selected program. Record all creates a smart schedule to record all unrecorded broadcasts of that program on that channel. This capability mimics a TiVO Season Pass but goes it one better. You can add additional conditions that an episode must satisfy in order to be recorded.

Some Silicon Dust

I wasn’t keen on the Elgato USB tuner. This device is laptop oriented and can work with off the air and cable tv but I was not keen on connecting a lightening rod directly to my computer. It would be nice to have at least a little isolation. Silicon Dust HDHomeRun Dual came to the rescue. This is the current version of HDHomeRun which has been around for 5 or so years. The device has a dual cable/air turner, a bit of computing, and an Ethernet connection. Application protocols allow EyeTV or Windows Media Center to tune channels and start data streaming. The new digital TV is already digitized so no finicky analog to digital converters are needed. Just recover the MPEG-2 stream and tunnel it over IP to the host.

Silicon Dust makes multiple versions of HDHomeRun for use in Europe with DVB and in North America with ATSC. The current Dual version has 2 tuners and can stream 2 streams at a time. The HDHomeRun Prime version has a cable card slot and can stream both “clear QAM” and copy protected QAM. The Prime version also has a USB port for controlling a cable company switched digital video interface.

Putting it All Together

Setup is simple. Move the antenna cable to the HDHomeRun, plug up Ethernet, plug up the power adapter (small switching supply, not a hulk). Install EyeTV 3 from a disk image, start it, and add the license key. EyeTV 3 wakes up a start up wizard that guides you through the process of setting up the HDHomeRun, creating a TV Guide account ($20/year not $20/month), and loading the channel guide. Once this process is done, your DIY DVR is ready to use. The first year of the program guide is included in the EyeTV 3 price. All of this took about an hour with a little wrestling needed with TV Guide. It didn’t load at first. Elgato support forums had the fix, clear the guide and reload. This worked well.

EyeTV Remote App

For the princely sum of $5, Elgato has an EyeTV remote app which shows the program guide, lets you schedule recordings, review your completed recordings, and view recorded programs on your iThing. EyeTV App is AirPlay capable so output can be redirected to an Apple TV. Once the program is running on Apple TV, the iThing is free for other use like making phone calls, playing Angry Birds, or reading while PBS talking heads drone on.

EyeTV and Live TV

EyeTV 3 has the ability to pause and rewind, and resume live TV in a manner similar to TiVO. Unfortunately, with my older Mac Mini, this feature is usable on the main display but not on iThings or Apple TV. The Mac OS X Quick TIme libraries support MPEG-2 rendering allowing proper play back locally. Air Play to iThings is another story. iThings require conversion of the video stream from MPEG-2 to H.264. This is a compute intensive process that my older Mac Mini cannot do at 30 frames per second. It kept falling behind and trying to catch up Keystone Cops style.

The Apple Quick Time Codecs can use the video hardware for this process. This capability was in development and was one of the reasons Apple moved from Intel on board video to nVidia GeForce 9400 chips in that particular Mac Mini. But the older parts just don’t have the horses needed to do video conversion tasks at broadcast resolution in real time. A check of the Elgato forums did not have a clear answer t this question. Elgato’s specification is for the processor. They’re not thinking that the trans-coding process is actually occurring on the video hardware.

The solution was simple, keep the TiVO HD alive for live TV viewing. It has no trouble with that task. It occasionally snow crashes when retrieving the program guide or the recording catalog but I’ve moved these tasks to EyeTV. I can keep this guy going. Cost for this solution, $20 for a new high quality splitter. My older NTSC splitter is not up to splitting DTV.


Here’s what this project cost.

  • $90, EyeTV 3
  • $5, EyeTV App
  • $80, HDHomeRun Dual tuner
  • $20, Digital splitter 1 to 2

Operating costs

  • $20/year, TV Guide
  • $240/year savings, TiVO program guide 

This project has about a 1 year pay back. As I approach retirement, I’m all about getting Corporate America’s hands out of my pockets. Sorry TiVO, you’ve been disrupted.

Web hacking

Google Voice Don’t Talk Southern

Hey Daddy this. Aunt Nancy, I was just returning your call, had a rental exactly when you called earlier in the couldn’t talk, but get back with me when you get a minute. Okay. That.

Just What is Google Voice

Google Voice is a new twist on plain old telephone service that integrates land and mobile services for you. A single number to ring them all (with apologies to J. R. R. Tolkin).

How Dave Got Google Voice

My iPhone 4 had been off contract for several months but was in good condition (Nick hadn’t taken a taste of this one) so I was free to do something without giving AT&T my first born male child (joke’s on them, I don’t have one to give). I considered purchasing a new iPhone but what to do with the old one that is still going strong? And buying a new one just forges new chains to AT&T or Verizon, pick your lesser of two evils.

Then I stumbled across the Straight Talk iPhone 5 announcement. “Hummm, what is Straight Talk?” Straight Talk is the largest carrier in the Americas with service from the Arctic Circle to Terra Del Fuego. They are a Mobile Virtual Network Operator. They lease capacity wholesale from AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon. My iPhone is an AT&T phone. It has a SIM slot and is built for GSM frequencies so it can function on AT&T Straight Talk with HSPA+ 3g++ data service.

The folks at Cult of Mac have instructions for setting up an iPhone on Straight Talk So I ordered a SIM (by mistake, two of them) and decided to give Straight Talk a try. Activation and setup went smoothly following the instructions in the booklet. The only hard part was popping my AT&T SIM out using a paper clip.

Once I had confirmed Voice, SMS, and data, I put the AT&T SIM back in to file for divorce from AT&T by transferring the number to Google. A day later, the transfer was complete and I configured Google Voice to ring my new mobile number and my home number when anyone calls my old Sprint, then AT&T, now Google number.

Google Voice Features

Google Voice offers incoming telephone service and, using the Google Voice App, outgoing telephone service from your Android or iPhone mobile. The application offers visual voice mail at the web site and on your Android or iPhone mobile. Google visual voice mail is similar to the iPhone service. It shows each waiting message, no calling to listen to a list of messages. You select the message to play it. But Google upstaged Apple by transcribing the messages to text. It shows them in Google Voice, forwards them by SMS, and forwards them by E-mail.

Google Voice also provides the slickest voice mail on the planet. If you pick up, you answer normally. If the call rolls to voice mail, you can pick up, optionally record the call, or forward it to voice mail.

One More Thing

Google Voice can be configured to black list callers, including telemarketers. And it collects everything you need to file a complaint. Great for the 2016 elections!

The Bill

Straight Talk offers “unlimited” voice, text, and data for $50 per month, $30 less than AT&T for exactly the same service. You join Jack Bauer in the land of “burner” prepaid cell phones. Each month you have to visit Straight Talk to add another month, 3 months, year, or enable auto-refill. If you subscribe for longer than a month, you get a discount. Since you brought your own phone, Straight Talk is not financing your phone for you.

Why I Left AT&T

When you go off contract, they keep billing you the $25/month they were sending to Apple to pay for your phone. As long as you stay on your original service level, they keep collecting that extra money. Enough of it that you can buy an unlocked iPhone and come out several hundred dollars ahead. If you’re an impoverished student, carrier financing of your phone is helpful. If you’re a retiree, you want people’s hands out of your pockets so I sacked AT&T even though I had not experienced horrid service from them. The value wasn’t there, especially with them taking $25 a month to keep unlimited data for my next phone.

When It’s Time for a New Phone

Buy a new AT&T compatible phone unlocked from Apple. Put the Straight Talk SIM in it. Begin talking. You can get older refurbished phones at a nice discount at the Apple Online Store. If you’re willing to wait until world wide rollout is complete, you can get a new unlocked version of the current phone.

What, No Verizon

Currently (2013), this trick only works for AT&T phones that use a SIM. You may be able to do the same with a Verizon phone but the technique relies on all of a phone’s carrier identity being on a SIM. Verizon iPhone has a SIM slot but it works on a subset of frequencies supporting voice in Europe.


All US carriers are moving to Long Term Evolution data (LTE). And there’s a voice variant. As this happens, all US phones and eventually all phones world wide will use a common set of protocols. There will still be differences in spectrum from country to country but the goal is to have a common pool of frequencies supported world wide plus additional channels in the larger countries. When this happens, Verizon and Sprint folk can join the fold.

The Opening Quote

Earlier Sunday, I’d called Aunt Nancy. She had house guests and asked to call back. When she did, I was slow answering when 2 cordless, the cordless base, and my iPhone all began ringing at once. Chaos. I missed picking up so the call went to voice mail. Google’s Elbonian slave labor transcribed the call producing the result above. Hilarious but enough of it right to fix it up from context. If the text is a hopeless garble, the speech is still available for playback. Oh, and Google can archive messages for a good long time. Be careful what you say on my voice mail. It will be in the Google way back machine long after we both are buried.


How Lance was Named


I adopted my first greyhound during the 1995 Tour de France. With Greg Lemond recently retired and a new American star, Lance Armstrong, beginning his career, I was following the race as best one could from Connecticut. Needless to say, I needed a name for a dog not knowing whether my luck of the draw would be a male or a female (bitch is the term of art). Application approved, I drive out to western Connecticut to pick up my new hound. The adoption coordinator brings out the two year old black boy pictured above, Boligee Pistola, called Pistol around the kennel. And Pistol had no idea he had a name. Needless to say, he really needed a name.

A few days before, there was a mishap on the Tour. An Italian rider on Motorola (Lance Armstrong’s team of the day) had gone off the road and over a mountain cliff to his death. With the Tour drawing to a close, young Lance decided to do something to commemorate his fallen comrade. On the last day of road racing, about 30 kilometers out (20 miles) Lance Armstrong attacked from the front of the pack opening a 2 minute lead. Out front by himself, he held his lead until the finish through the final climb up to a ski lodge. Breathless, he comes to a stop, dismounts, seeks out the Italian TV interviewer, and says in rough Italian, “Today, I rode with the strength of two men.” Lance showed serious courage on the final climb and some serious class with this act. I believe this win was the first stage win of his career. Up to this point, he had been learning the art and riding in support of the team stars.

I was so impressed with Lance Armstrong’s gesture that Pistol became Lance. Lance Armstrong, like Michael Phelps, has that unique combination of body structure, physiology, and competitiveness that it takes to be a world champion. Lance Armstrong is driven to excel while his namesake was content to sit in the back during his 1 month racing career. Lance Fourlegs quickly petted out. Lance Armstrong, gaining experience, learned the art of the Tour, and began to rise to the top of his sport to have his career interrupted by testicular cancer.

I can understand the temptation to use performance enhancing techniques in the Tour de France. What those riders do is amazing and if you’ve not tried to race bicycles or completed a 100 mile ride, it is hard to appreciate the challenges they are facing. The peloton races 200 kilometers (120 miles or so) and, tomorrow, they get up and do it again. The Tour is probably the toughest sporting competition on the planet. At the pace they are riding, the athletes deplete the body’s glycogen stores and must efficiently burn fat to complete the race. By the end of the Tour, each rider is ripped, probably 4 to 5 percent body fat even though they are eating 9000 or so calories per day. This is an event that places great demands on the body’s ability to recover to race again tomorrow.

The longest I’ve ridden is 108 miles on my first century ride. I love to ride and to bike trek but I don’t have the physiology for it. The next day, I was a dehydrated zombie walking around in a fog. It took a couple of days to recover. And no, I didn’t get up and do it again tomorrow; I was useless. Having this experience, I can understand the desire to have a technical edge to be ready to race next morning. European cycling started an arms race to make it possible to ride today’s times on today’s courses day after day with a rest day every four stages or so. Lance Armstrong joined that arms race and competed with the same drive and pursuit of excellence that he showed us on the road. I can understand why he did so and that he did does not lessen the courage and class he showed in that first stage win in his learning years.


New camera

The picture below is one of the first I took with my new camera, a Sony Alpha 65. The Sony is somewhat different than a traditional SLR. It has a fixed mirror that transmits most of the light to the main sensor. Part of the light is reflected to a second sensor that drives an electronic viewfinder and serves as autofocus sensor. This design allows the Sony cameras to provide continuous autofocus during still and motion picture shooting. In movie mode, the zoom lens may be used and manual focus may be used. Motion picture shooting, though good, is not a match for a camera designed for that purpose.

Fletcher Sunset
December Fletcher Dr Sunset

After many years of point and shoot digital photography, it is time for a proper camera with a proper viewfinder and no shutter lag. I’ve been putting off this purchase for some years because the technology was in flux and digital sensors weren’t the equal of the prior art from Kodak and Fuji. In the last 5 years, this has changed so, this winter, I finally made a choice and bought my first DSLR camera.

Buying point and shoot cameras is easy. They are self-contained. There is little that carries over from one to the next. DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses so the choice of a camera is a commitment to a lens family. Most hobbyist cameras are sold with a nice general purpose lens, usually a wide angle to portrait focal length zoom lens. This lens is a great learning lens but usually makes performance compromises to keep the kit price reasonable. Most hobbyists later buy one or more fixed focal length prime lenses or zoom lenses with different characteristics than those of the kit lens

Jessica and Katelyn candid
Jessica and Katelyn

I’m just beginning to explore the camera. It does very well taking holiday gathering photos. The camera has little shutter lag, particularly if the red eye blinky flash feature is off. The kit lens has a nice focal length range for general photography including candid portraits at full length. The aperture range is f3.5 to f5.6 or so which is the primary compromise that keeps its price reasonable. It is a very flexible lens that is equally at home in the lounge taking kid and pet pictures and at the beach taking landscapes.

Christmas Day 73d St Beach
73rd Street Beach Christmas Day

The Sony Alpha 65 is designed primarily for hobby use but is up to light professional service. The camera uses a unique lens mount, the Sony A-mount. Sony partners with Carl Zeiss gmbh for lens design and manufacture. Carl Zeiss also makes A-mount lenses for the camera. Professionals regard Zeiss and Leica lenses as the finest there are. A-mount to Leica mount adapters are available. Access to these two lens families was one reason for my choice. Sigma and Tamron, two third party lens makers also have nice A-mount product.

The body features were the second. The electronic viewfinder works well with eye glasses. It is bright and visible outdoors and indoors. It shows a wealth of information inset in the display and what is shown can be tailored. The display features include an artificial horizon that aids in leveling the camera in roll and pitch. I use the artificial horizon quite a bit.

The camera has a rear LCD display whose use is optional. It is used to set up the camera for a session and to review images and footage. These tasks can also be done with the finder but are most conveniently done in the rear display. This display is articulated and can be rotated to permit use as a ground glass viewfinder. This is a useful trick when the point of view needs to be different than eye-level. But like all of its ilk, it will wash out under bright conditions. The camera automatically switches between the finder and the rear panel. Placing the camera to eye enables the internal finder. Moving it away enables the rear display.

One thing I was unaware before starting my research is shutter life. Most shutters are designed for 100,000 to 150,000 operations. That’s 20 years of shooting for a hobbyists but maybe a year and a half for a busy pro shooting advertising. The Alpha 65 is designed for 100,000 frame service life and is not drip proof — it’s not sealed to be out in the rain, something a photojournalist would want. These things make it more a hobby camera than a pro camera. But the image quality is first rate and the sensor and processor are shared with Sony’s pro products.

Holiday Letter

2012, That Was the Year that Was!

2012 has been an interesting year that included bidding a fond farewell to Faux News, my 64th birthday, Barak Obama’s reelection, a new blue ray player, and a new camera and several milestones.


This summer, Aunt Mildred, Dad’s brother John’s wife passed away. This fall Johnny and Sue Gray (Dad’s sister) celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. Shortly after that, Uncle Charlie Hamby passed away and recently, Aunt Gurla, John Watson’s wife. Aunts and uncles are getting thin on the ground.

Last year’s round of Christmas letters brought news of Peter Newcomb’s passing. Peter and I worked together at Combustion Engineering. Peter was a key part of the management of our simulator upgrade business, and was, like me, a former Navy Nuclear Propulsion professional. Peter was an interesting character who just missed a walk-on as offensive end at Penn State and worked for Pensky Racing in his miss-spent youth. One summer, motorcycling with his wife on holiday in North Carolina, Peter road by the farm and noticed the sign and asked about it on his return to work.

Charlie was notable in his dedication to the farming way of life and his active support of farm land preservation. Charlie was eloquent in his recollections of the good times had on the West Rowan, NC farms during the rough times of the depression. The Hambys, Watsons, and Bargers farmed the land at the west end of Sherrils Ford Road with the Watsons and Bargers on what was to become the extension service farm, “state farm” next door to today’s Hamby Brother’s Farms. One quote that has stuck with me over the years is, “I’m a farmer because I’m too stubborn to work for somebody else” Charlie also actively supported responsible hunting by leasing a tract for dove hunting to the local game preserve. Charlie was a character always ready with a ghost story for the nieces and nephews.

Gurla (Barger) also spoke fondly of her years growing up on the farm, particularly recalling how the three families would work the fields together and would help each other in times of hardship. This sort of helpfulness was a farm life tradition with 3 generations and sometimes 4 living on the farm. These were the days when mechanization was beginning. During the depression, my dad’s family worked the land with mule and horse teams. After the war, they began to mechanize and shifted from tobacco and cotton to dairy production. Uncle John was the leader of this transition, introducing ideas brought home from NCSU School of Agriculture.

Back in the day, people actually married the girl next door. Mildred Watson was dad’s girl next door and Gurla Barger was John Watson’s girl next door. As you drive around west Rowan County, you see names like Berringer Road, Hildebrand Road, etc, named for the farmers who built them for access to Sherrils Ford Road or the Statesville Road. During the pre-mechanized period, farms produced livings for several of the sons. With mechanization, national, and now world commodity markets, it is a challenge to support one family and children often move to the city as we are seeing in my cohort and our children.

Now, most of us are wage slaves in varied occupations and scattered all over the south east. Only a few cousins still farm, notably Louise Watson and her husband Joe Dean and Paul Hamby who does corn and beans on Hamby Brothers Farm. One second cousin is working on a microelectronics PhD, something about sharks with lasers. Another is a genetic biologist and is actually studying reef shark migration using DNA analysis. Another is a nurse. Cousin Jackson is in the large animal veterinary pipeline at Kansas State. Another is an undergrad at NCSU, judging from his Facebook posts, majoring in NCSU sports fan. Another has just started UNM and is either undeclared or unconfessed. And cousin Dustin is angling to work as a race car mechanic for one of the NASCAR teams. Others are IT professionals, cosmetologists, farm land preservationist, wilderness preservationist, you name it.

You know you’re old when you start reading mail from Social Security

Will you still love me when I’m sixty-four? Well, I’ve made it past that milestone and have actually been reading the Social Security Administration mailings I’ve received for the last two years. In the past, I would file them with the tax records after taking a brief glance. Needless to say, my retirement planning is changing from strategic to tactical.

I’m in that brave new world of defined contribution retirement. The strategic part is that I began saving for retirement in 1972 and believed Billie Holiday when she sang, “God bless the child who’s got his own.” Early on, I did not like the idea of leaving my retirement to the good graces of others and have been a conservative retirement saver. I also have a good financial advisor at Essex Financial Services which is the top ranked independent financial planning company in Connecticut. Hooking up with EFS was a beneficial side-effect of Mom’s injury back in 1993. The law firm who did Mom’s estate planning referred me to them. Between the two I’m well positioned to retire at 65 should I wish to while maintaining my standard of living.

It is important to do some careful planning as transition approaches because time value of money things can be counter-intuitive, particularly when Social Security is part of the mix. I found a good planning tool at that can do basic time value of money things. The basic planner is free and serves as a sales tool for their software and web services. The basic planner can function in accumulation mode or in economic mode. In the traditional accumulation mode, you tell it how much yearly income you would like in retirement and it determines the assets you’ll need to accumulate to produce that income. In economic mode, you tell it what your assets are, how they behave, and your obligated expenses (debt and other contractual obligations) and it will tell you how much discretionary spending your assets can support considering Social Security.

The model presents things in terms of your obligated expenses (taxes, contractual expenses, Medicare Part B, and your additions). Discretionary spending is anything not included in the obligated expenses Way cool. This is how I determined that I was OK. The model lets you add life stage expenses to the obligated side of the ledger. These may be things like eldercare, college expenses for offspring, or capital expenditures for home, cars, boats, etc that are one shot or recur for a few years.

When to take social security is the counterintuitive bit. Not having a surviving spouse, it is simple for me but the complexity of Social Security law with surviving spouses, disability, two earnings histories, two ages, two longevities, etc in the mix makes for a complex optimization problem. Esplanner has a tool for this problem too, unfortunately not free. In my case, it concluded the obvious, wait until 70 to collect Social Security. This increases yearly payout by 1/3. If you live to 85 (a reasonable assumption given aunt’s and uncle’s longevity), you break even. The counter intuitive bit is that this actually lets you increase you standard of living by freeing some assets held in reserve to produce late in life income for higher yearly discretionary spending. I would have expected being fully out of pocket for five years to have the opposite effect but the increase guaranteed (assuming Dec 2012 law) late in life income gives the opposite result for me.

The optional fee-paid models also lets you make assumptions about investment behavior and runs Monte Carlo simulations to determine the 95/95 spending supported over an ensemble of several hundred investment performance and yearly inflation random walks out to age 100. It also has an upside planning mode (a third option) that assumes that all equity investments are lost. Given this scenario, it does a Monte Carlo analysis to determine the 95/95 income that your bond investments can produce.

The basic planner does best estimate planning. If you guess the ensemble average investment performance and inflation rate conservatively (lower investment yield and higher inflation shrinkage) you will be ok but with lower predicted spending rates. Given that model initial conditions change each year as you spend and investments perform or not, it is good to repeat the exercise every year or so planning income harvesting for 2-3 years out.

This outcome is highly dependent on your total assets and the split between tax-favored and taxable accounts. You have to run the models for your individual initial conditions and assumptions. And the model produces predicted results. Actual results will differ.

At Last, a Real Camera

I finally tired of point and pray photography. With retirement approaching and time to kill, it was time to acquire a real camera. My pick is the Sony Alpha 65, a digital SLR camera, but with a twist. This camera uses a half-silvered fixed mirror that passes most of the light to the main sensor but splits some to a second sensor that services the viewfinder and phase shift autofocus sensor. The viewfinder is electronic which lets the camera show technical info and settings in-set in the finder. The finder design is excellent. I can see the full frame with my bifocals on and a diopter correction makes it possible to focus without them or I can let Auto do that chore. The finder also has a way-cool artificial horizon that lets you level the camera in pitch and roll. A pure optical finder can’t do this trickery at all. A hybrid finder can show a much smaller amount of information, usually mode, shutter speed, and aperture.

The fixed mirror makes the camera quite and low shake, just a focal plane shutter is moving. The shutter and electronics are capable of 10 frames per second until the burst buffer fills. The camera can also shoot full motion HD video in addition to high quality stills. The autofocus is like that in a motion picture camera. It continually focuses the camera as the subject moves and allows use of the zoom during filming. The auto exposure logic manages passable sunsets and indoor candids. This is the first camera to get them decent.

Being an enthusiast’s camera, it is also capable of full manual exposure and focus. In this way, it handles somewhat like a film camera but aperture and shutter speed are set using a front finger wheel. You have to toggle between them. Most of the time, you pick one and let Auto pick the other. Another convenient control lets you manually bias the exposure and you can configure the camera to take automatic bracketed 3 or 5 frame bursts.


So far, I’ve avoided writing politics here because I know many of you are set in your preferences and won’t be persuaded. But, many of you are just getting started. I’ll write a bit about my biases at any rate. First and foremost, I’m a city mouse. I grew up in small town New England on a river and surrounded by woodland. Gales Ferry, CT ( the Ferry) was a great place to grow up, but I’ve become a city mouse.

I was fortunate to go to a good private high school with a twist. Norwich Free Academy provided high school services to Norwich and the surrounding towns on a contract basis. That is to say, it had elements of a public school but also elements of a private day school. I was fortunate to have good teachers and one taught me civics. I firmly believe that whatever our political preferences, between elections, we all should work together for the good of the commonwealth.

The two great inventions of man that make everything possible are written language that allows us to have an institutional memory that is potentially but not necessarily accurate and the city that brings us together to specialize and trade. Life as we know it today is a result of our making effective use of these two enabling inventions. Great cities are more than the sum of their parts and owe their essential character to the interaction of those parts to make something more than the whole. Technically, they are systems. A system is an entity whose existence results from the mutual interaction of its parts.

When you look beneath the superficial analysis offered on the for-profit news or even NPR, when you look at the long analysis pieces in journals like The Atlantic Monthly, you see that our divide is between city mice and country mice. The city mice understand the benefits of living and working together and are willing to chip in for the common good. Many things that are just there in the country must be preserved and maintained or provided in an organized and engineered fashion in the city, things like open space, woodland for recreation, etc must be reserved and maintained to sustain the resource when exposed to concentrated use. Water, waste disposal, environmental quality, all require greater and more sophisticated effort than in the country because of scale. But because we are concentrated, we bring together critical masses of resources and talent to do things that don’t happen in the country. And we all realize that these advantages of membership require us to pay our city club dues (taxes).

That connection is less strong in the country. Many individuals seek country life because they find different things to value in a rural setting including a sense of freedom that results from the lower density of people in rural areas. Rural settlers provide their own water and sanitary services and schlep their own trash to the transfer station because the population is too diffuse to require doing these things as community services. Yet we still have to be good stewards of our land and follow good practices to preserve clean air and water to the benefit of both city mouse and country mouse. Because the country is less densely settled, the challenges and conflicts are different and a one size policy does not fit both our dense urban areas and the Nebraska outback with its 500 person Connecticut-sized counties. Techniques and doctrine that are adequate in the country fail under the weight of concentrated life in the city.

I view government to be much like a gardener. The gardener clears his garden patch, amends the soil, and maintains a proper environment in which his garden plants can prosper. The sower sows seed on prepared soil, unprepared soil, and rock. The seed falling in the seed bed germinates and grows well while that landing on sand and rock does not grow. I was fortunate to land in good soil. Like Paul realizes the importance of maintaining healthy soil on Hamby Brothers Farm, I realize the importance of maintaining healthy national soil so my second cousins and their kids can prosper too.

Many of our differing political preferences follow directly from our urban or rural living choices. One school of thought believes we’ve chosen where we live to be consistent with our political taste. Another believes that cities, by their very nature, are liberalizing forces in our lives. I lean to the second of these opinions but I have seen indications of the former in my cousin’s choices of places to retire.

Personal Computing

Mountain Lion Arrives

After yesterday evening’s fireworks wound down, I installed Apple OS X Mountain Lion on Oswald Cobblepot, my middle-aged Mac Mini that does photo, movie, and music chores. Mountain Lion installs in two steps, purchase of the installer from the Mac App Store and running of the installer. The installation process takes a couple of hours but requires minimal attention once started. At least, that’s the case when upgrading from Lion to Mountain Lion.

I was a little bit nervous. Although the skies were quiet when I kicked off the update, another wave of storms came through the area about mid-way through. The thunder gods were kind and left the power alone. Once installation is complete, the machine restarts using the new OS image and updated programs. The changes from Lion to Mountain Lion are subtle. Apple has revised the OS X applications to look a lot like their iPad counterparts in IOS 5. They’ve added messages, reminders, notes, and a notification system similar to that in IOS. A lot of the release is about integration with iCloud. Mountain Lion syncs notes and reminders in addition to calendar items, contacts, and mail.

At the moment, there appear to be no downsides. The applications that I use weekly work without fuss. These include iBank and Investoscope, both purchased outside the App Store. Gatekeeper is a new feature of Mountain Lion that is baked into the process launch services of the operating system. The process manager checks each application being started to verify that it was signed by the Apple App Store or a registered developer. Gatekeeper will let you run unsigned applications by presenting a dialog reporting that the image is unsigned and requesting authorization to run it.

Apple did not tinker with Air Play other than to make it possible to redisplay the Mac OS X desktop on an Air Play display server. iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, Apple TV, and other Mountain Lion equipped Macs can be Air Play display servers. This is a nice touch for business. Buy an HD HDMI interface projector, connect it to an Apple TV, and presenters can show visuals without all the silliness that goes on at meetings. And you can play Hulu+ content on your telly, even things not permitted to play in iPad/iPhone.

Another thing Apple left alone is the annoying habit of the window manager of going into beach ball mode and refusing to let you work with another application when you make a slow to finish request. In 10 years of life with OS X, I’ve yet to see a pattern to when the window manager does this. Modal dialogs are evil, particularly those that kidnap the mouse until dismissed. Apple is slowly eliminating this sort of thing but there is still some of it left. OS X’s great strength is that it is multi-user and multi-tasking from the kernel up. No need to act like Windows 3.1.

A third party audio player went into a hard run playing a high resolution FLAC file while I was writing this article. That’s about it so far for troubles. And this may be the player’s fault, not the OS update.


New DTV Antenna

In early June, a local company installed a DTV antenna for me. About 2 weeks later, I discontinued Cox TV service but kept Cox Internet service. The experience was reasonably pleasant and my TV watching not at all affected. After all, how many reruns of Ice Road Truckers and Mythbusters can one watch in a night? There’s so much program being produced that you can’t see it all as it originally airs. As I learned my way around Netflix, Hulu+, and iTunes, I found myself watching less and less off the air (TiVO, actually). Thus the decision to scrap cable TV.

A DTV antenna is the device that lets you do this. This is a post mounted device similar in appearance to an oven rack with some wire frame bow ties in front of it. The Antennas Direct antenna that I have gives about 14db of gain and is surprisingly compact but it is UHF only. Our area has only UHF channels so the reduced bandwidth is no loss. The antenna mounts to a J post mount secured to the roof. This requires some roofing skills. The antenna feed line and ground line cross the roof and drop down. The feed line continues to the smart home voice/data/video distribution panel in my closet. The ground line continues down to the power panel ground rod.

The local installer installs these antennas for $300. It typically takes a 2 man crew 2 hours to do the installation. On my day, they got behind courtesy of Tidewater congestion and left as a thunder storm approached with the mast and feed line ungrounded. I contacted the owner and they came out about one week later to complete the work. The crews doing this work have some basic construction skills but are not licensed electricians and don’t have old work electrical skills. If they did, they’d be much better paid licensed electricians.

If you are considering a change from cable or dish TV to DTV by antenna, I’d recommend having a licensed electrician do all the inside wiring out to the exterior of the building. Your electrician will have the old work skills to add wiring to your building with a minimum of mess. Let the antenna people wire down to the ground block that your electrical installs. This will result in a much neater installation. The folks who do this work just don’t have the time to do a neat old-work job like your electrician would.

When I was researching grounding, I learned several things. The antenna and feed line must be grounded. This is true for both DirecTV and DTV antennas. The National Electrical code requires it and DirecTV requires its affiliated installers to do proper grounding. A quick survey of the neighbors shows that grounding is not happening. Most installations have no grounding at all.

Why ground? Electrical and fire safety. Grounding keeps exposed wiring, like the F connector body, at ground potential to protect you and your equipment from the mysterious influences of strong electric fields. The second thing it does is to mitigate the possible lightening damage should the mast be struck. I’m surrounded by trees but a strike on one of my trees could hop over to the house, particularly the TV antenna. The energy follows the ground wire which directs it to ground. This is a better deal than having it use the building to find its way to ground. Even with a ground wire, the lightening energy will probably hole the roof deck and splinter the framing it passes near on the way to ground. There may be a fire. Without grounding, the damage would be much more and the fire off to a much better start. A Ledyard neighbor learned about lightening strikes. This one punched a hole in the garage roof and splintered the corner studs and started a small fire which the volunteers were able to put out without major loss. Back in the day, antennas were properly grounded unless homeowner installed. All the local TV retailers provided antenna installation service and did it right.

How well does off-the-air work? Better than cable actually. Digital TV works perfectly or not at all. When it begins to get flaky, the picture tiles where packets of the picture data went missing. There is no snow, ghosting, strange colors, etc. Just a pristine image or nothing. The cable companies typically compress the local broadcasters additionally to get more channels on the cable. Got to make room for that adult content somehow. It is typical that PBS looks better off the air than off cable.

By not watching cable, I’ve missed most of the political nastiness that the SuperPACS have aired 😦 I’ve been using Hulu+, Netflix, and iTunes to watch the best of the best from the last decade or so. I’ve been buying Game of Thrones and Merlin from iTunes, and filling in from Netflix and Hulu+ I can always find an hour of TV worth watching after catching News Hour, Daily Show, and Colbert Report.


IPad Faceplant

In a moment of clumsiness in the dark my original iPad took a high dive off my dresser to do a face plant on the oak floor five feet below. Miraculously, there was no visible damage but sadly, no Apple Care. Yesterday I dropped by the Apple Store to visit the Genius Bar. Had I been an Apple Care dude, they would have swapped it for a refurbished unit. In spite of my clumsiness. My alternative was to do an exchange for $250. I spent some time looking at the new one while awaiting my turn at the bar. You can’t believe the new display; it is drop dead gorgeous. Since I use mine for magazine reading etc, I opted to pick up a new iPad. What to with the old one?

Well, it’s not kaput but mostly usable because there’s about a thumb width of dead screen at the top. Many tasks are still possible and for someone without, it is a free introduction to iPad and half off on a refurbished unit. A little display flipping moves the bad stripe out of the way, the touchscreen is still good and AirPlay is unaffected. The bad spot is an annoyance.

A friend lives in a house full of Frankenstein Windows machines built by her son and handed down. Mike keeps current so she has Win 7, Home Essentials, Xbox Live, and Netflix but is still tied to her desk. I showed her the new one at church and pitched my retired unit to her. She was fascinated by Scribbles and Paper. And she paints which means she’d like the drawing programs that can do water colors, pastels, and pen and ink — that’s Paper. And I showed her the conceptual design her son’s Small Potatoes architect friend had made for me. She’s game so I’ll clean the beast up and get her started with an iTunes account and a good password so her granddaughter doesn’t spend her into the poor house. And add a few of my favorite apps so she won’t have to run them down herself.

The real magic of iPads is AirPlay. I can play anything in my iTunes library on the iPad or send the output to Apple TV to see on the big screen. As Cult of Mac has noted iTV is here today, you just have to integrate the bits as I described in an earlier post. The magic of the new one is the high res Retina display. Text approaches book quality, Time Magazine’s Lightroom, Flipboard Photos, NatGeo, PBS video, etc are crisp and luminous because blacks and contrast, already good, are the best LCD display out there. Images are smoother with noticeably less posterization. Skin tones are natural. (Nothing helps the Fox bimbos! Not even Apple magic can make them real) After that, it is little things like touchscreen insertion being easier and textures and shading in the UI widgets.

The camera is a pleasant surprise. It is the same one in iPhone 4s and it is sharp. The Retina display shows the full image in a manner almost like using a big view camera. You can see to compose. This may turn out to be a surprising bonus. Maybe some entrepreneur will make a tripod mount for it.