Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Check out the Online Energy Audit Site

Hey, check out this site put up by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

It is an online energy audit tool.

Here is what the site says about itself:
"About The Home Energy Saver

The Home Energy Saver is designed to help consumers identify the best ways to save energy in their homes, and find the resources to make the savings happen. The Home Energy Saver was the first Internet-based tool for calculating energy use in residential buildings. The project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), as part of the national ENERGY STAR Program for improving energy efficiency in homes, with previous support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's PATH projgram, and the California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program."

This is a very cool website, and I have started entering my own house in. You can get as detailed as you want in explaining your appliances, insulation, usage and house set-up. You also give them a pay-back period so that they recommend only improvements that make economic sense for your situation.

You get a reference number that you keep so that you can go back later and make adjustments to your situation.

In the end, it gives your projected costs foryour current house (which you can check against your current budget....you do have a budget?) Then it gives you a list of suggested improvements, their costs, and the calculated savings gotten from each!

It really is a well done site. Check it out!

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Monday, October 30, 2006

"Watch the pennies and the dollars take care of themselves!" - Ben Franklin

I find it to be absolutely true that if i watch my pennies, the dollars all seem to step right in line.

So here are a few things I did this weekend to watch my pennies.

1) Recycled old things: I saw an ad for a camera "show" at Hunt Photo and Video and remembered that I had an old medium format Mamiya RB67 camera in my closet that I had not taken out of the case for about 4 years. I decided to take it to Hunt since I knew they took trades, and since it was doing me no good in the closet. I traded it in for a 7.1MPixel digital camera, (check out more detail on this trade in my Journal)

2) End of selling season discounts: I went to the farm stands and took advantage of some great 50% off prices on produce! Yummy...lots of squash, pumpkin, beets, leeks, peppers, carots, cabbage....and even cheese. I started by making some Saurkraut, and going to town "pickling" the pumpkin and Kohlrabi. I also made Pumpkin Jam and a Kohlrabi and Cabbage Cole Slaw. The entire pile of food cost me about $28.00, and we will eat it all winter long. (the squash will stay fine in the cooll basement)
Check out My Journal Entry in the Farm stand Sale and my activities cooking up a storm and check out some of my photos too)

3) Did an inventory of weatherstripping: I found some worn sections that were letting daylight (and plenty of air) in. I replaced those, and put plastic weather sealing up on our windows. (I started this, and still have a few to do) I also found a few feet of hot water pipe in the basement that I insulated with foam tubing made for the job. (quick, simple and inexpensive)

4) Wrapped the water heater, and turned its temperature down a notch: I was actually burning myself many mornings in the shower...so I knew we had some headroom in the temperatures, so turning the temperature down was not such a bad thing. (and even Cheryl was fine with it) Wrapping the water heater will help in the long run I am sure.

5) Travel to work on slightly off-peak hours: This not only makes the commute smoother, it saves gas and wear and tear on my patience.

6) Buy "Just Before" or "Right After" an Event: Tonight my wife picked up the Halloween Candy, and being the night before Halloween, the store apparently had a sale going on. Yea, they normally have sales after the holiday, but I guess if they have a ton of it the night before, they might as well move it out!

Ok...so those were not deal makers or breakers...but they are all part of living a life always with an eye toward saving. It isn't all that hard and the more you do it, the more second nature.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Is Congress turning a blind eye toward our trade problems?

It does appear that the news today indicates that a committee created by Congress does see a couple of issues with our China / US Trade. It appears that they see that the Chinese have kept the value of their currency low on purpose to keep the cost of their prices low. (thereby making their good cheaper here, and keeping our goods out of China because they are more expensive.)

But why then have they agreed to "sit on this" for now? Do we need to start writing them letters to get them off their backsides?

Could this be a kind of Election time "slide it under the rug" thing? Are the Democrats as much in on the problem as the Republicans. (of course my answer has always been YES)

Sharpen those pencils and write to papers and congress-critters! (Senators and Representatives)

SBA Podcasts and Training: Designed to help you start a small business....

Podcasts are a new and growing thing...and wouldn't you know it...the Small Business Administration (SBA) is getting into the act!

Check out the SBA Podcasts which are still very few in number, but are somewhat helpful. They talk about business plan generation, and several other basic topics for new small business owners.

Each program can be downloaded to your MP3 or iPod device and you can listen to it at your leasure. One of the SBA Podcasts I listened to also described a set of FREE online training classes that anyone interested in starting a busines. I have not tried them yet, but the link here is what they described.

I suggest people read this book....

Books I enjoyed and recommend:

"Three Billion New Captialists" is one of the "bathroom reading" books I have just finshed, and I must say I recommend it to everyone. It discusses the various trade policies of the world, and blends this information together with things like savings rates, debt, and the general interdependence of countries in the world.

This isn't all theoretical stuff, Prestowitz was in the trenches, working as the Counselor to the Secretary of Commerce inder Ronald Reagan. He describes many things with first hand knowlege. He describes the things that I have seen happening in the electronics industry....with China and India.

This is how his book is described on Amazon:

"From Publishers Weekly
Ex-Reagan administration trade official Prestowitz follows up his critique of U.S. unilateralist foreign policy in Rogue Nation with this perceptive diagnosis of the nation's economic decline under globalization. While China and India focus on trade and industrial policies and turn out competent workers who put in long hours at a fraction of American wages, the U.S., Preston argues, struggles with crushing trade and budget deficits, a zero savings rate, failing schools, dwindling investments in scientific training and research, a collapsing dollar and a debt-dependent economy that will face an "economic 9/11" once foreign creditors bail out. The argument echoes Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat (Forecasts, Apr. 4), but Prestowitz's analysis is more thoughtful than Friedman's pro-globalization cheerleading. He criticizes, from firsthand experience, Washington's cavalier embrace of free trade and aversion to industrial policy ("they'll sell us semi-conductors and we'll sell them poetry," notes one Reagan administration economist) and argues cogently that the research and development apparatus and high-tech entrepreneurship that is supposed to save America's economy is likely instead to follow the manufacturing base offshore. It's a lucid and sobering forecast."
I highly recommend the above book.

As I was reading the above book, I also started reading another book along the same lines, except with a much more negative assesment of what the end result of our slide will be. This second book is called "The Second Great Depression" written by Warren Brussee.

Mr. Brussee is not an economist, but is an Engineer who is retired from GE. He has apparently written books before we well, though those were on Six Sigma Quality discussions.

This book has a similar view of our problems, though with less personal hands-on insite into the inner workings. The other thing is that while Mr. Prestowitz' book describes some possible horrible results....he never goes so far as to suggest that those predictions will come true. (just that they COULD come true.)

Both of the above books are worth the price and I suggest you at least borrow them from your local library.

As of yet UNREAD books:
So what is in my pile of reading these days?

I just picked up three books at Borders books today. All three are on economics in one way shape or form, and they look sort of interesting. (I have only just cracked them open to peek)

Exporting America is a book that looks kind of interesting because it appears to talk about the very thing I have seen in the Electroincs industry....with our mad drive to outsource.

From the review:
What is the new economy? What is globalization? Is the euro the final seal on European Union? How is e-commerce transforming our world beyond economics? What is virtual money, and does it have real value? How do social concerns and societal ills (drugs, poverty, AIDS, endangered natural resources) play a part in the rapidly changing world economy. What are multinationals, and do they signal the end of nationalism? These and many other pertinent issues are concisely addressed in the most accessible primer for those who want to be economically literate (and who doesn't?).

Economics, Making Sense of the Modern Economy looks as though it might be written for "the rest of us". There is no doubt that it doesn't answer every question....but it will begin my education on the matter.

From the review:
Book Description
Top writers and contributors to "The Economist" come together to deliver an accessible and expert analysis that shows readers how to make sense of the modern economy.

About the Author
"The Economist" is one of the most trusted publications in the world, with an informed readership of over 1 million weekly, over half of those in the U.S. and Canada.

Last but not least, I will be reading a book that is very basic called "A Beginners Guide to the World Economy".

From the review:
"What is the new economy? What is globalization? Is the euro the final seal on European Union? How is e-commerce transforming our world beyond economics? What is virtual money, and does it have real value? How do social concerns and societal ills (drugs, poverty, AIDS, endangered natural resources) play a part in the rapidly changing world economy. What are multinationals, and do they signal the end of nationalism? These and many other pertinent issues are concisely addressed in the most accessible primer for those who want to be economically literate (and who doesn't?)."

I guess Congress does see some issues...but why don't they move!

It does appear that the news today indicates that a committee of Congress does see a couple of issues with our China / US Trade. It appears that they believe the Chinese have kept the value of their currency low on purpose to keep the cost of their prices low. (thereby making their good cheaper here, and keeping our goods out of China because they are more expensive.)

But why then have they agreed to "sit on this" for now? Do we need to start writing them letters to get them off their backsides?

Could this be a kind of Election time "slide it under the rug" thing?

Friday, October 27, 2006

Now the Energy Efficiency Initiative Makes Sense to me!!

I just read an article that puts the growth of the world into perspective for me. I now see great opportunity persented by the quick growth of China and India.

Unfortunately, the article points out that it will be China themselves who will be running into these problems....so if we are not quick to act, they will be the people fixing the problem for themselves. (in terms of inventing and producing the solution.)

What problem am I describing...the giant crunch for resources as the people of China and India come to the day where their per-capita consumption rises to that of the USA. According to the article, there are just too many people...and consumption at that level is not possible.

The article note that China by itself would use ALL of the worlds oil supply per year if they had a transportation infrastructure akin to what we have in the USA. (three cars per four people)

So what's my great idea....strike first by solving these problems. The problems seem to be around energy, food and a whole gaggle of other natural resources.

I'm sure China will find it's way to solving these problem when they start actually getting in the way of growth....but what a value add it would be if we were standing there waiting with the solution in hand....ready to SELL it to them. (but we have to make that stuff....no sense in selling them the idea so they can make it!)

I just came across this group who appears to be associated with the US Government (see the email addresses of .gov) and they appear to be working with China to solve these very issues I discuss. That's great that they will be resolved, but let's get the USA in as part of the solution! We need a piece of that to allow is to have a "value add". If we just give away out ideas, it's no wonder we can't export enough to cover our input needs.

Just a thought.....now another; let's go off and find leaders who feel like leading us to success in our economic struggles. (if we only had candidates who would bring this sort of thing to the front burner)

The economy slows....not a good sign, but not my big worry....

I am not at all surprised to hear that the economy has slowed way down the last quarter. (GDP growth is down to 1.6%.....below inflation I'm sure...which means a loss) That's the slowest growth we have seen in about three years!

Let's face it, we have been experiencing a housing downturn, and it wasn't too long ago that we had "through the roof" oil prices......American's have been on the ropes taking a beating. (and it's not them pulling off some sort of "rope-a-dope") {sorry for the old Mohamad Ali reference)

Let's face it, over 70% of the GDP is driven by personal consumption. When comsumption goes down...so does the economy. This can happen when people lose either their ability to consume (when their money goes to increased energy) or when they lose the confidence to spend (which is not typical of many American's who seem to be hell-bent on digging their own grave by going always further into debt)

The economy has been set-up to slow down. It would have been a shock to see it do anything but that. (It almost looks as though oil prices are used as a modern day accelerator or damper on the economy...as though interest rates were not as effective!)

But another wildcard is the midterm elections.....conservatives worried about liberals, and visa versa!

On the other hand....while energy prices almost seem to be being "modulated" to control the economy, the housing glut is anything but under control! (But I'm not sure how much this worries the average person)

None of this worries me since the picture at the 20,000 ft level is totally out of my control. The best I can do is keep my eyes open for pitfall and opportunity. I feel that if we have a nortmal downturn, we will eventually get out of it. Things are cyclical. But what I fear is the large debt we are all sitting on, and how that may end up being a catalyst for other more serious "adjustments". I fear that those that we owe it to might lose faith is us, and our interest in paying them off.

Faith I say....why does faith have anything to do with this. Well, it is my opinion that the great value add of the USA to the world right now is our huge appetite for goods and services. We are happy to go into debt to get them! China and India needs buyers....for they are trying t0 set up their infrustructure as producers.

Some day they will be buyers....and when the USA is no longer the #1 market, not only will Cell phones not have english writing on them, but the world producers will have little interest or need in the USA.....for we will be so in debt to them and they will no longer have a NEED to loan us money. (buy our bonds and dollars)

I honestly don't think the average American is even aware of the debt we have....and if they know it, they have no sense that they are ultimately responsible for it. (even if the government just "prints money", we will all suffer with massive inflation and increased cost of goods purchased.)

So what am I going to try to watch....well, I am going to watch the size of the other economies, and how confident those loaning us the money are in us. I guess my main indicator will be the value of the dollar. If it either starts to lose value, or if we see another currency somehow taking the place of the dollar....it might be time for real consern. (say if energy were suddenly sold in Euros instead of dollars)

So I am going to try to learn a bit more about the currency markets. I'm not so much interested in trading currency....but in watching out for worrysome signs. (what would I do if I saw some....I'm not sure!)

Here are a few links I am going to start with to learn about currency trading. I need to learn in order to understand whether I am seeing a significant trend, or just a normal cycle. (the education and knowledge itself can't hurt!)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Currency...another dimension to think about?

1) So the USA is the largest debtor nation in the world at the moment with the worst negative account balance. (-$829 billion in 2005, 10x worst than the next closest)

2) The US savings rate is now negative, so we are in no real position to take over out own debt.

3) The good news is that the USA is the worlds largest economy...and by far the largest consumer....the developing world (developing production capabilities) needs us.....

4) We have the largest public debt.

4) These people (China and India) who are developing happen to be great savers....and they don't mind funding our debt so long as we buy their goods. (and therefore transfer our wealth to them in the mean time....as well as ramp up their production capabilities)

But the question is....will they continue to fund out excesses? Will they ever become worried that we will not "pay our bills"?

But what does "pay our bills" mean? Well, it first means will we pay out on our US Bonds they might be holding...but they also hold a lot of good old US Greenbacks as a currency reserve.

Why do they do that...well, the US Dollar is considered very stable. In fact, many of the worlds commodity markets are sold in dollars. The entire world energy market is sold in dollars....and every country has energy needs, so it is in everyone's interest to have a solid dollar. (there is a theory that this is why we went to way in Iraq....the started selling oil in Euros.....and perhaps a reason and France and Germany were not so eager to get involved....but I digress)

So what do we average people do about all this.....do we have people running for office discussing this? (I seem to remember people in the past...Tsongas and even Perot)

If we have savings, how should we invest? Should we diversify into investments based in other currencies? Which currencies would they be? (I suppose that changes as time goes on....I mean if the economic system were to fall right now, I think China and India would also be in big trouble...though they would end up with all the production capability and therefore the ability to dig their way out. (much the way the USA was after WWII....the only country with production capacity...and we benefited greatly!)

I am not sure I have fully convinced myself of the above problems.... Well, I guess I'm convinced those are problems....I'm just not sure there are no "solutions" I might not be missing.

Send me comments if you see a dimension of this situation that I am missing! (and give me your suggestions for solid currencies)

Are you on target for retirement?

Nationwide Investment Services Company has an online retirement calculator that takes your basic information and gives you a quick assesment of your "retirement score".

This score is a simple metric that looks at your finances against your age to see how likely it is that you will be able to maintain your current standard of living during retirement savings. (projected)

It is all quite simple, and you really need only estimates of account balances and debts owed.

Our "retireability" score was 135.....what is yours?

(BTW: The guy on the right here is one of the several "talking helpers" who help you navigate the questioning process and then give you verbal feedback with advice encouragement and tips. It's at least a little entertaining.)

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Check out CAPS.FOOL.COM...it might help you decide for yourself.

This is a cool "game" that another BLOG refered to the other day, and I have been trying it out for the last two days myself.

It is called CAPS.FOOL.COM, and you get to pick stocks and rate them as outperforming or underperforming the market. Each stock is ranked by the people picking it, and by how it actually performs against the market.

You get ranked based on how accurate your picks are.....and then your raking on any of your picks is weighted depending upon your ability to make good picks. (yes, it sounds like a deadly embrace....but it makes sense)

You need to have seven stocks chosen to get a ranking, so I picked a few just to get to the seven I needed to get rated.

My picks are:

SUNW Sun Microsystems Inc Underperform Yes
VG Vonage Holding Co. Underperform Yes
CHU China Unicom Ltd Overperform Yes
CHL China Mobile Ltd Overperform No
SSRI Silver Standard Reserve Overperform No
USB US Bancorp Overperform No
SKS Saks inc. Underperform No

BTW: My game name there is Bigqueue

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Economic Conditions in New Hampshire

The State of New Hampshire Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau does a very nice job with their monthly newsletter about economic conditions in the state of New Hampshire.

I signed up for these newsletters way back when I was elected to the Litchfield Budget Committee. I used them to give me the general flavor of the state economy, so I could judge how people might be otherwise impacted by taxes or other payments.

Once again...the year over year numbers are interesting. Of course, it sounds like a broken record, but Manufacturing is WAY off from a year ago. Something like 1600 jobs below. Over all though, the state employment levels rose by 1.5%, or by 8,800 jobs statewide.

Most of the job increases came from services jobs, as well as some forms of retail. The surprise to me was the increase in construction...especially given the large decrease in housing starts.

Of the 18 industries listed, there were 14 that had positive year over year growth. The remaining 4 industries had a fact down year in their job market.

NH also continued to have to lowest unemployment rate in the northeast. (of course, we also have perhaps the lowest unemployment benefits, so there may be a corrolation there!) The NH rate of unemployment is 3.5% as compared with 4.9% and 4.7% for Massachusetts and the enture USA respectively.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

A list of "25 Rules to Grow Rich By" from Money Magazine

I think that most of these rules of thumb are probably old, and mostly well known....but it doesn't hurt to look at them again.

Actually....these are mostly lessons in being Frugal...which proves yet again that it is the way that you spend (or save) money that counts the most!

BTW: Check out the article itself because it makes even more detailed points, and includes several great wizards to do various bits of calculation you might find useful.

Here is the list:
1. For return on investment, the best home renovation is to upgrade an old bathroom. Kitchens come in second.

2. It’s worth refinancing your mortgage when you can cut your interest rate by at least one point.

3. Spend no more than 2 1/2 times your income on a home. For a down payment, it’s best to come up with at least 20%.

4. Your total housing payments should not exceed 28% of your gross income. Total debt payments should come in under 36%.

5. Never hire a roofer, driveway paver or chimney sweep who is going door to door.

6. All else being equal, the best place to invest is a 401(k). Once you’ve earned the full company match, max out a Roth IRA. Still have money to invest? Put more in your 401(k) or a traditional IRA.

7. To figure out what percentage of your money should be in stocks, subtract your age from 120.

8. Invest no more than 10% of your portfolio in your company stock – or any single company’s stock, for that matter.

9. The most you should pay in annual fees for a mutual fund is 1% for a large-company stock fund, 1.3% for any other type of stock fund and 0.6% for a U.S. bond fund.

10. Aim to build a retirement nest egg that is 25 times the annual investment income you need.

11. If you don't understand how an investment works, don't buy it.

12. If you're not saving 10% of your salary, you aren't saving enough.

13. Keep three months' worth of living expenses in a bank savings account or a high-yield money-market fund for emergencies. If you have kids or rely on one income, make it six months'.

14. Aim to accumulate enough money to pay for a third of your kids' college costs. You can borrow the rest or use some of your income to help out when your child is in college.

15. You need enough life insurance to replace at least five years of your salary – as much as 10 years if you have several young children or significant debts.

16. When you buy insurance, choose the highest deductible you can afford. It's the easiest way to lower your premium.

17. The best credit card is a no-fee rewards card that you pay in full every month. But if you carry a balance, high-interest rates will wipe out the benefits.

18. The best way to improve your credit score is to pay bills on time and to borrow no more than 30% of your available credit.

19. Anyone who calls or e-mails you asking for your Social Security number or information about your bank or credit card account is a scam artist.

20. The best way to save money on a car is to buy a late-model used car and drive it until it's junk. A car loses 30% of its value in the first year.

21. Lease a new car or truck only if you plan to replace it within two or three years.

22. Resist the urge to buy the latest computer or other gadget as soon as it comes out. Wait three months and the price will be lower.

23. Buy airline tickets early because the cheapest fares are snapped up first. Most seats go on sale 11 months in advance.

24. Don't redeem frequent flier miles unless you can get more than a dollar's worth of air fare or other stuff for every 100 miles you spend.

25. When you shop for electronics, don't pay for an extended warranty. One exception: It's a laptop and the warranty is from the manufacturer.

One thing is Clear....things are not at all very clear!

After reading this BLOG which describes a talk given by Mohamed A. El-Erian, the President and CEO of the Harvard Management Company. These are the people who manage the investment of the $29 billion Harvard University Endowment.

Apparently the fund has been doing quite well with their investments, so the comments of the CEO might something to listen to.

As I read this, he says several things.....first, he "expects" the US economy to have a soft landing. He expect this not only because he sees indications of softness....but that even the dramatic softness (my words) will not result in dramatic downturn (my words) because the rest of the world could not stand it.

He seems to say that a US recession would result in a world downturn, and this would not be good and everyone knows it. But he notes that there are certain things that need to happen....and he lists a few of them. (he notes that we current have a massive imbalance in US trade which has apparently hit records that no one has seen as a percentage of GDP)

Mr. El-Erian notes that these things must occure:

+ Rebalance of US economy—US must consume less.

+ Structural reform in Euroland and Japan to grow faster.

+ Asia has to consume more.

+ Oil exporters provide cheap financing in the interim.

BUT: if any one of these parties moves first, they’re hurt.
This is a classic game theory dilemma/prisoner’s dilemma. So without
coordination, it’s best not to move.

When discussing the huge imbalance, and the fact that Asia is essentially "loaning the USA thye money needed to buy their goods" (and therefore keep our debt growing), he noted that there may come a time when Asia will recognize that the "paper" (IOUs) we offer them for their goods will be going down in value....and there are three schools of thought:

A. Optimists ("new paradigm school") looks
at: US productivity gains, demographics, entrepreneurship. Maturation of key
emerging economies. Gradual resurgence of Japan/Europe.

B. Cynics. Others believe we’re on verge of large
disruption: size of huge current account deficit, leverage in financial sector,
bubble in housing market, risk of a change in the asset preferences of holders
of US financial assets.

C. All the views in the ‘muddled middle’: those
noting ‘dark matter’ (measurement error), enhanced policy credibility, system
He then notes:
This is a frightening slide. Endowments and foundations have
to focus on long term, and there are question marks about what the long term is.
I admit to not understanding a fair bit of this discussion, having only a very limitted knowledge of economics and world affairs. I also admit to being one of the above noted Cynics, seeing our country following the debt crazed path my parents always warned me against folowing. (and I always trusted my mother and father's advice :-)

Yes, I am perhaps worrying too much about all this. If it is all a soft landing, we will all have time to react and yes, we will take our lumps for sure...but hopefully not so dramatically.

My friend Pradeep has been warning me about his vision of the hard landing though....for about 4 years now. My thoughts were of deflation and depression....but he has about convinced me that hyperinflation is the route. (since it would hurt the world as a whole less)

Either way...or neither way...as Mr. El-Erian notes, "Endowments and foundations have
to focus on long term, and there are question marks about what the long term is."

Hmmm.....now US education is losing ground!

Here we go again.....another segment of our world leadership slowly ebbing away. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/6cb6c5f2-5ec0-11db-afac-0000779e2340.html From the article:

The US is in danger of losing its status as the first choice destination of international students, according to a new report.

The report, by the American Council on Education, an industry research group, said that while the country is still the most popular destination, other countries – namely Japan, France and Germany – are outpacing US growth in that market.

Here is something for all you renters.....

Check it out.....it does comparisons of rents in your area.

I think it might even be interesting for home owners to see how close their mortgage payments are to rents in your area.

Either way, it is a cool idea.

What are your setback values?

I checked the battery in my thermostat, and then checked on the values I have programmed.

I have not adjusted the values for about 3 years. I guess we have always been frugal with our energy needs, and I think we have had a programmable thermostat since we first moved into the house.

Yes, we have extra blankets on the bed, and we sleep with the dogs there too.....

So our setback programs are as follows:
Monday - Friday: Saturday - Sunday
5:00am = 67F 7:00am = 67F
7:00am = 60F 10:00pm = 60F
5:00pm = 67F
10:30pm = 60F
So what are your thermostat settings?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Wow....my in-house audit comes up close....

Wow, I pulled together a spreadsheet where I listed all the electrical devices I have in each room of the house with their measured power (both in use and in standby) and I then estimated their average daily use in operation and in standby.

I multiplied that all up and divided into my last bill of $102 to come up with a dollar cost per KW-Hr estimate....and guess what, without cheating I was darn close. (on pass one, without any fudging)

My spreadsheet came out with an average of 648 kW-Hrs per per month at a rate of 14.89 cents per Killowatt-Hour. The Department of Energy's statistics for the average cost of residential energy in NH as of June 2006 is 14.37 cents per Killowatt-Hour....considering that my numbers have taxes included in them, think that is probably remarkably close.

Energy Conservation and Supplier Choice in NH?!

I went out to look for websites that talk about electrical energy conservation, or just general savings and I came across a whole bunch of interesting resources.

First there were the sort of sites I was looking for. Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH) has a page on doing a sort of energy check-up. They talk about insulation, air leaks and a few other energy wasting situaion that you yourself can look for and assess.

They also have a page with some sort of Energy Calculator to help you figure your personal situation. (I say "some sort of" because the page requires a registration, and while I have registered, I still have not received access....their systems obviously isn't fully computer automated)

The PSNH has a page that they refer to as an Appliance Usage List. This page lists all the appliances typically found in a home and their typical power requirements. This will lessen the need to buy a Power measuring meter like the "Kill-A-Watt" I blogged about several posts ago. (you can get them cheaper on EBay)

They then have a page titled Energy Quick Tips that presents a list of tips to save energy. I found many of them to be obvious, but quite frankly, not things I do simply because my mind is not in a "save-energy" frame of mind. Reading these tips reminded me of some of these simple ideas, and helps to reinforce a sort of "let's save by using common sense" state of awareness.

But the thing that I did learn that was really new to me was this program of energy choice that has been forwarded in NH. It is apparently the concept that competition is the way to lower prices, and so the Public Utilities Commission has worked on a way to separate the distribution part of the energy business from the energy supply part. We will apparently be billed separately, and so we can "choose" the energy supplier as we would like.....for whatever reasons we want. (if you like safe, green power...there is a company there for you)

So there is apparently a FAQ and a whole lot of information on the Public Utilities Commission Website. This page shows the "big picture" for those of you who like to see things graphically as I do.

One concept is that you will be able to buy as a part of a larger group and save by buying in bulk. I'm not sure any of these bigger groups have been defined, but it is a good idea I guess. They even have a webpage that gives you a comparison worksheet to help you organize yuour thoughts for a decision. (it is even availible in PDF form)

So the world of energy is changing....time to poke my head out of my hole and check it out...

In the mean time, I am off to the store to get some weather stripping! (I'm starting with the small stuff....sort of a bottoms up approach!)

Then there is the Energy Star Pledge....again, it costs nothing and actually does nothing....except perhaps plant that seed in your own head that will hopefully grow into a constant stream of thoughs to "be frugal"...."make good choices that save". (plus, the page has coupons for money off on bulbs and fixtures that same money)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A start of my Electrical Power Inventory

If you recall from a few posts back, we have grown a $100 a month electric bill. This is way more than we expect it to be, and I am going to get a handle on where it comes from.

I have started a small spreadsheet that I will eventually share with you. I am going to itemize all power usage in our hose....room by room. In each room of the house I will be taking an inventory of all applainces and estimate their hourly usage.

So here are a few examples of measurements I took with my new Kill-A-Watt tool. (I have taken many more, but don't feel like typing them)
  • Sylvania 60W Soft White Bulb - 57 watts
  • Commercial Electric 60W CFL Bulb - 23 watts
  • 17" Hitachi Superscan Elite 630 Monitor - 68W Idle/77W Full Power
  • Athalon 1.2GHz PC - 4W Powered off/90W Operating
  • Motorola 505101 Surfboard Cable Router - 5 Watts
So I am going to finish the spreadsheet and see if it makes sense. In techie fasion, I will create a parato of device usage which will allow us to go after the heavy hitters in order to get the biggest bang for the effort first.

PS: For example, from the small bit of data above, one thing I learned to do....at least shutting down the monitors on our running computers every night. I suspect that investing in a network disk or making one computer a sort of data server might be the next step....but I have to be careful with data back-up and availibility. (which of course if a huge advantage of having many systems on all the time) Then there is the issue of all the automatic updates these computers do at night....like downloading podcasts and the like....so I don't see all the computers being shut down. (but some sort of mirroring arragement might make sense for a sort of instant "back-up")

So many possibilities.... (saving money isn't always easy I guess)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Welcome to Squanderville (a Warren Buffet description)

I know I am a little bit behind the times here when I am reading and BLOGGING about an article written by Warren Buffet in 2003....but then again, Mr. Buffet may be that far ahead of the curve. (I found reference to this article in the book I wrote about in a post of mine in my Livejournal. The book is called "Three Billion New Capitalists")

Either way, I think we can both agree that he is not a dummy, as they used to say about EF Hutton....when Buffet Speaks, people listen!

So what did he say in that article? Well, he spoke about his decision to invest in foreign currencies for the first time in his 72 year life. He said that as an American he hopes his view of what is going to happen is wrong, and that he never profits from that investment.....but he doesn't feel he is wrong, and feels it was the prudent thing to do. (and it would be irresponsible to the investors of Berkshire Hathaway if he did not.)

So what is the crux of his fear....the massive US trade deficit. He said we are very quickly draining our net worth to the rest of the world, and they will eventually recognize the fact that we will NOT be paying our bills off any time soon. (and of course will get tired of sporting us credit)

Buffet notes that our current trade deficit is 4% of GDP, and that in 2003, the world owned $2.5 trillion more of the USA than we own outside the USA.

Here is a direct quote from the article that tells the part of the story that scares me the most:

In the late 1970s the trade situation reversed, producing deficits that initially ran about 1 percent of GDP. That was hardly serious, particularly because net investment income remained positive. Indeed, with the power of compound interest working for us, our net ownership balance hit its high in 1980 at $360 billion.

Since then, however, it's been all downhill, with the pace of decline rapidly accelerating in the past five years. Our annual trade deficit now exceeds 4 percent of GDP. Equally ominous, the rest of the world owns a staggering $2.5 trillion more of the U.S. than we own of other countries. Some of this $2.5 trillion is invested in claim checks -- U.S. bonds, both governmental and private -- and some in such assets as property and equity securities.

In effect, our country has been behaving like an extraordinarily rich family that possesses an immense farm. In order to consume 4 percent more than we produce -- that's the trade deficit -- we have, day by day, been both selling pieces of the farm and increasing the mortgage on what we still own.

To put the $2.5 trillion of net foreign ownership in perspective, contrast it with the $12 trillion value of publicly owned U.S. stocks or the equal amount of U.S. residential real estate or what I would estimate as a grand total of $50 trillion in national wealth. Those comparisons show that what's already been transferred abroad is meaningful -- in the area, for example, of 5 percent of our national wealth.

More important, however, is that foreign ownership of our assets will grow at about $500 billion per year at the present trade-deficit level, which means that the deficit will be adding about one percentage point annually to foreigners' net ownership of our national wealth. As that ownership grows, so will the annual net investment income flowing out of this country. That will leave us paying ever-increasing dividends and interest to the world rather than being a net receiver of them, as in the past. We have entered the world of negative compounding -- goodbye pleasure, hello pain.

So he said that 5% of our wealth had been transfered away so far, and with our current trade deficit rates, they will be adding 1% per year!

I'm sorry to be such a pessimist.....but if someone like Warren Buffet is saying this, why aren't there people running for office on this sort of message? Where are the Paul Tsongas of the 21st century? Where are the H. Ross Perot's? Where are the Warren Rudmans?

Is Warren Buffet perhaps scenile and off his rocker? I have not heard that being reported either....so I guess I leave you to make up your open opinion on what is going on and what you are going to do about it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Electric bills are soaring....time for an energy auditWell

Well, my wife and I have been watching the electric bill go up for a year or so. Our last few bills topped the $100 per month mark, and this set off alarm bells in my head.

So I decided to make an electrical energy audit of the house on a room by room basis. I will be making out a spreadsheet with every electrical device in each room, and calculating a room by room power draw with typical usage patterns.

This is a good idea, but how was I going to estimate some of the devices around the house?

Answer.....the Kill-A-Watt device.

This is an inexpensive device that measures voltage and current of a load on an AC line and calculates instantanious power as well as long term power usage. (very useful for measuring devices that have irregular power patters)

Oh I bought a Kill-A-Watt on EBay for $24 and I'm planning on doing a bunch of
measurements to get a sense of where the low hanging fruit may be

I will be posting graphs and spreadsheets that show you the kind of savings I am targeting

Inflated Home Prices....oh my!

The Nashua Telegraph had an article today titled "Perks may be inflating home prices".

What kind of perks you ask....for one, I guess sellers are so desparate to sell that they are offering the buyer money back (under the table) in order to entice them to bite. The mortgage company knows nothing of the "kickback". All they know is that the house was on the market for $600,000, and the buyer pays $600,000.

Little do they know, the seller might have paid the buyer $20,000 in cash to close the deal. The $20,000 is under the radar screen, except for the fact that the transaction for the house was really $20,000 less.

In other words, the already slipping housing market may in fact be slipping even more than is reported!

Another shocking finding from the article is that the percentage of people taking out what they call "non-standard" financing has gone from less than 10% in 2002 to about 31% in 2004. Those would be things like ARMS, interest only loans, etc.... People seem to continue to crawl even further out on the limb.

What's up with that? Where are we going?

I listened to a Cramer Podcast, and he said he was surprised at the strength of the market these days. He noted that some company revenue numbers were coming out these days and industrial stocks were doing well!
(Actually, they are doing very well.)

On the other hand we have all heard of the recent housing "soft patch".
(we might even be living it ourselves trying to sell a house) It seems to be more than a simple regional slowdown, but a slowdown in many locations across the country. It is said that housing is one of the great multipliers....that is it has a very long reach into production and services. It is said that as housing goes, so goes the economy.

The stock market has been flirting with new highs. Gasoline prices are falling faster than they went up. Consumer confidence is said to be rising proportional to the falling fuel prices...and I read that people are spending that "saved" money in a sort of "happy yo see the savings" confidence.
(consumer spending does after all account for about 75% of the GDP... so this certainly helps the numbers)

Wow...lots of ups, and downs...all at the same time.

We know that the Federal Reserve has been on a "cap inflation" crusade for years....but there is some indication that the core inflation numbers are up a bit.

According to the article, employment levels are still strong....so what's up with the economy? What will the Federal Reserve do to rates?

The FED is talking about tossing a coin as to whether to raise or lower rates. No clear direction. However, the article did say that they would much rather see the economy slow a bit than to see inflation rear it's ugly head.....so my guess is that at this point the odds shift away from a rate cut, and perhaps a little toward continued slowdown in the economy.

Will the stock market continue to hit new highs? Are people moving money out of Real Estate and into the market? Will they go back if housing hits price bottom?

While it hasn't yet turned into a roller coaster, But then, I don't think the ride has really begun.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Hmmm....more thinking on this BLOG....

So this morning when I woke up my mind kicked into gear with thoughts of how I would split my interests and posts between my Livejournal and this BLOG.

Then I began thinking about how often I would post, and the kind of posts I would enter. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks....I had thought of all the very positive educational aspects of posting a BLOG like this....but I neer thought of the potential negative side-effects.

One that I considered this morning related to my sitting down and posting some information on my own personal progress. (no, I'm not posting net worth, but some comparison form month to month of it...as well as some sort of calcualtion of where my investments are)

Some people enter this sort of accounting every month....I rarely consider it but every quarter in my normal life. Would the BLOG cause me to get too active in this regard?

The only time I was so active was back in 2000-2001 when things were quite bumpy in the investment arena. I didn't do much adjusting, but I kept a close eye, even weekely at the time.

What to do...that to do?

Suggested Reading:
I'm not at all a reader of fiction, and I'm not even the kind of volume reader my wife is. So I tend to stick to non-fiction, almost bathroom reading. Lately I have read two books on the economy, with predictions for things to come. I find them interesting because I have always supported the thinking that our country has been doing some not so great things in the credit and debt department. I mean both at the federal government level, and the personal debt level. (remember, I was born and taught that saving was the way to get ahead....not by leveraged buyouts and buying on margin)

I understand the concept of a "force multiplier" and the real lever of using OPM (other people's money), but there comes a point where social drinking can turn into alcoholism!

So the books.....the first is called "Three Billion New Capitalists", and it is written by Clyde Prestowitz. He was the Couselor for the Secretary of Commerce in the Reagan Administration, so he knows a little bit about the inner thinking of the people in our government. (so it seems from reading the book)

Anyways, I will review it more fully later, but it is jam packed with information about how we got from being the largest creditor nation in the 80's to our current state of largest debtor. (by an order of magnitude too...but more on that later)

The socond book is called "The Second Great Depression" by Warren Brussee. This is another interesting book that goes through a similar description of the various imbalances that have been set-up in our economy and with the dollar. Brussee's opinion comes out quite loud and clear in his book title. (Prestowitz is not so pessimistic, but he at least sees some hope for a solf "belly-flop" landing....my words, not his)

Brussee was a quality Engineer from GE who apparently wrote two other books on Six-Sigma quality made-easy. He seems to aproach the problems in the economy as an Engineer would, but looking at the numbers and seeing how they add up. (and how they might add up in the future)

But the economy is too complex to follow a simple set of equations, so there is plenty of room for speculation...and Brussee does plenty of that. But he does parallel the activities of today with the bubble economy of 1929, and so his theory does have some historical basis.

The Brussee book does not have as many mind crushing statistics as "Three Billion New Capitalists", but iti s not lightweight either. I recommend both, but don't let your brain come out of gear and forgot to do some thinking on your own.

Just a Quick Introduction.....

I suppose the first thing I need to to is introduce myself, and give you a little insight into why I want to create this BLOG.

First of all, I am an Electrical Engineer who live in New Hampshire. I was born in 1958, and I am a fairly conservative investor. In fact, my parents always taught me to be patient and that "Slow and Steady wins the race". They told me this was true in life, and with money.

Being conservative with money, I also subscribe to a couple of other sayings.....
  • Look before you leap.
  • Measure twice, cut once. (and the name of this BLOG)
I am going to write to this BLOG because I have been convinced that if you want to pay attention to something and learn more about it....therefore, it is a good idea to WRITE about it. Blogging is a GREAT way for a non-expert to get more involved and learn about an area of interest. (from others, and from your own research)

Being a saver, and a worry wart (I didn't tell you that, did I), the past 10 years I have been conserned with some of the activities going on in our economy, and the natural saver in me worries about our countries huge appitite for DEBT! The USA is the largest debtor nation in the world....by an order of magnitude.

Our competativeness and therfore value-add to the world has been eroding for the past 20 years. I believe our countries manufacturing prowess is no longer what the world looks up to. I also see our technology superiority being sold off and exported at an ever accelerating rate. But we do have one thing the rest of the world still absolutely needs....we are the #1 consumers in the world...and even if we don't have the money, we are willing to sell our future for the comforts of today. (we do this by going further and further into debt!)

I believe that this has left our largest contribution to the world, and even there we are losing ground as Europe and the Far East (India and China) rev-up their economies and collect wealth.

They will soon become the #1 consumers, and at that point we will become expendable.

Is this enough pessamism for one post...I suppose. I hope I am all wet, and I hope to explore these issues as well as talk in general about my own investment thoughts and direction.

I do NOT think I will get so open as to post my net worth or the dollar value of my investments, but I might try to find a way to talk about it in terms of percentages of total or at least % variations. (we shall see)

Just to round this off, I guess I will point you at my Livejournal account, and my home page. Both of those will give you a lot more insight into me than this short post could ever hope for.
I even have a few finance related ideas posted on my journal...you can see them here.