Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Resolutions...


It's the New Year and the majority of Americans are more-than-happy to leave the old one behind. 2009 was not a great year by any standard. In fact, a majority polled think the 00’s were the worst decade in…well…decades. On the flip side, a majority of Americans (although probably not the same majority!) are hopeful 2010 will be much better - I know I certainly am among them. I think if we all tried to be a little more balanced in our approach to life, avoiding extremes, we wouldn’t have all the craziness that sometimes seems to plague us. Not to say that flirting with limits and sometimes breaking them is not needed; if no one ever did we’d probably still be living in caves. Nor am I promoting never rocking the boat. Ideas need to be pushed, we need to stretch and challenge ourselves mentally and physically, we need to take chances. But a lot of our current quandary is the result of greed and hack reaction. Too much nowadays, people seem unwilling to read the fine print – or even the directions for that matter – to look more deeply in to an issue. We want a 30 second sound bite of everything but no more (and I think even 30 seconds might seem too long for a populace raised in the post-MTV age). I read not long ago that if the Cuban Missile Crisis happened today, the end result would probably be nuclear war instead of a crisis averted. In 1962 JFK had time to think and deliberate without being pressed by the press and Congress for a quick response to the situation. Today, the media juggernaught and politicians’ desire to be the constant center of attention combined with our collective short attention span unfortunately serves only to demand an immediate response from the president to every little blip and hiccup.



I’m not usually one to make New Year’s Resolutions. However, this New Year in trying to be a bit more balanced, I’m going to make my best effort to multi-task less, try learn about fewer things but each in more depth, read the long news story all the way through, and pay attention to the details. In that spirit this installment of The Balanced Guy will be dedicated to trying to help you be a little less crazy, a little less paranoid, a little less scattered, a little less…period. And fair warning – I get up on a bit of a soapbox this time around. 




I recognize the irony in this given that The Balanced Guy blog is about giving you short blurbs of information on a multitude of topics. However, maybe one or two of them will interest you enough to look a little more closely. Won’t you join me?


Greenbacks - In his recent article “Why American Consumers Can’t Add”, Bob Sullivan exposes a less-often-discussed contributing factor to the current economic crises – Americans are generally terrible at math, especially consumer finance. I find math to be a somewhat tricky subject to write about for several reasons.1) I wasn’t a math whiz growing up and had problems with it 2) I’ve actually turned out to be pretty good at doing basic math in my head 3) and I even have an MBA in finance yet still find some components of consumer finance tricky to understand at times. This all leads me to the realization that there are so many branches of mathematics and complex financial instruments that wanting people to have even a basic understanding of it all is almost akin to asking them to perform brain surgery. At the same time, basic financial literacy is something everyone should have. Not to knock my parents but they never taught me how to balance a checkbook, the basics of paying bills or the concept of a mortgage and interest rates let alone the intricacies of investing. I had to figure it out on my own. Which reminds me – I need to start involving my oldest son next time I sit down to pay bills.



Tasty LicksIn his masterful work, Last Child in the Woods, from 2005 (yeah, yeah…so it’s not brand new, it’s still excellent), Richard Louv examines and explores in detail how American society has taken its children out of nature and created a host of problems by doing so. Because I don’t think I could do better, I’m going to simply copy and paste a great and concise review of the book written by Jeanne Hamming that is posted on its Amazon listing.



Unstructured outdoor play was standard for me as a hyperactive child growing up in the rural Midwest. I fondly recall digging forts, climbing trees and catching frogs without concern for kidnappers or West Nile virus. According to newspaper columnist and child advocate Richard Louv, such carefree days are gone for America’s youth. Boys and girls now live a "denatured childhood," Louv writes in Last Child in the Woods. He cites multiple causes for why children spend less time outdoors and why they have less access to nature: our growing addiction to electronic media, the relinquishment of green spaces to development, parents’ exaggerated fears of natural and human predators, and the threat of lawsuits and vandalism that has prompted community officials to forbid access to their land. Drawing on personal experience and the perspectives of urban planners, educators, naturalists and psychologists, Louv links children’s alienation from nature to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, stress, depression and anxiety disorders, not to mention childhood obesity. The connections seem tenuous at times, but it is hard not to agree with him based on the acres of anecdotal evidence that he presents. According to Louv, the replacement of open meadows, woods and wetlands by manicured lawns, golf courses and housing developments has led children away from the natural world. What little time they spend outside is on designer playgrounds or fenced yards and is structured, safe and isolating. Such antiseptic spaces provide little opportunity for exploration, imagination or peaceful contemplation. Louv’s idea is not new. Theodore Roosevelt saw a prophylactic dose of nature as a counter to mounting urban malaise in the early 20th century, and others since have expanded on the theme. What Louv adds is a focus on the restorative qualities of nature for children. He recommends that we reacquaint our children and ourselves with nature through hiking, fishing, bird-watching and disorganized, creative play. By doing so, he argues, we may lessen the frequency and severity of emotional and mental ailments and come to recognize the importance of preserving nature. At times Louv seems to conflate physical activity (a game of freeze tag) with nature play (building a tree fort), and it is hard to know which benefits children most. This confusion may be caused by a deficiency in our larger understanding of the role nature plays in a child’s development. At Louv’s prompting, perhaps we will see further inquiry into this matter. In the meantime, parents, educators, therapists and city officials can benefit from taking seriously Louv’s call for a "nature-child reunion."



What I can say is this book struck a chord with me and in the year since reading it, I have made it a priority to send my kids outside to play much more often. We are fortunate to have pretty big back yard that is far from perfectly manicured and even has a small - very small - section of “woods” in the back corner. We’ve only been back in NJ for about 6 months, having moved from Florida where the landscape is utterly man-made, manicured and manufactured – there are no woods in neighborhoods there and it showed in my children’s play when they moved here. At first, they were completely baffled at how to play in a backyard with no toys and I literally had to show them how I used to build cities and roads out of sticks, rocks and dirt. Since then, they’ve come a long way and can now occupy themselves for hours outside. Try this simple test with your kids – send them out without any toys and see if they can figure out how to entertain themselves. If they are having trouble, you know they need more unstructured play time in the great outdoors. Think back on your own childhood – are your fondest memories of playing in that stream behind your house or playing Atari? You know the answer.



WWWD? – Maybe you have, maybe you haven’t heard about “over-parenting” or “helicopter parents”. A recent article in Time is pretty interesting. These are the folks who schedule their kids’ lives 24/7/365, leaving them little time or chance to just be kids, to imagine, to play, to figure things out, to fail at something, to get hurt and to learn to pick themselves up and dust themselves off. I’m not sure how parents got this way, but some failure, pain (physical or emotional), and loss are an important part of the human experience. A good day is all the better for having known a bad one. I don’t know about you but I’ve learned more from failure than I ever did from success. To be sure, success is sweet and a taste of it will drive you to seek more, but the whip-crack pain of failure motivates even more. As parents our job is not to completely shield our children from failure, but to gradually expose them to it so that when they finally go out on their own they aren’t slapped upside the head when things don’t go their way. Speaking of kids’ heads, I was dumbfounded when recently ice skating and nearly half the kids were wearing helmets! What the…? Has it come to this? I recall being 8 years old and taking off for the day into the woods and fields with my BB gun and pocket knife, simply being told “Be home for dinner”.



Giving our children time to be bored, with no planned activities is incredibly important to their development. Boredom is the great crucible where ideas are born (just as long as someone is around to provide some modicum of supervision to ensure no real mayhem erupts or they don’t play video games all day instead). You’d be amazed what some scrap lumber, a hammer and nails can become. Most importantly, boredom enhances creativity. In both academia and the working world, professors and employers are finding that our young adults, while good at performing calculations and other rote tasks, are lacking in the ability to think creatively and problem-solve. No doubt you recall those lazy summer days as a kid spent conjuring up games from what was at hand instead of “playing” with a pre-programmed toy or video game.



Finally, I’ll make a call to abolish “participation trophies” given out at the end of a sports season. When did this become so widespread? I recall as a kid a the YMCA awards presentations when the tops teams got to go up and receive trophies for their success while the less-successful – the losers – sat, applauded the winners, learned to be good losers, went home empty-handed and let the pain of their loss feed their desire to do better. I was at both ends of that situation at different times. I also have a few participation trophies – they’re useless. However, in my box of childhood memories, the medals, awards and trophies from actual victories – those…they mean something despite the time gone by.



Honeydew – I’m learning to hand-cut dovetail joints. Sure I could get a dovetail jig for my router and make them perfectly, lickety-split but the satisfaction (and frustration!) of laying them out, cutting them and making minor adjustments all by hand until it works wouldn’t be there – not to mention the lack of power tool noise. It certainly takes a lot more time but I’m not a professional cabinetmaker under a deadline to complete a piece of furniture for client. However, having high-quality, professional tools makes a huge difference. The first few times I cut dovetails I used an old miter saw I had. It was not an enjoyable process. Then for Christmas I received a Veritas dovetail saw by Lee Valley Tools. Wow…what a difference! While my skill at making a professional looking joint increased only marginally (everything takes practice) the ease of cutting increased exponentially. It tracks straight and seemingly melts its way through wood.



The Wide World – Go for a walk. Seriously, take a hike. And if you want to turn it in to a fascinating experience that can fill an entire afternoon, take along an Audubon Field Guide. If you live anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic states, I highly recommend you buy the National Audubon Society Regional Guide to the Mid-Atlantic States. It’s a great handy reference for most things you’ll encounter along your walk from trees and flowers, to bugs, birds and bears. It’s fun and satisfying to learn the names of the flora and fauna in the world around you; to be able to tell your children that it’s not just a butterfly but an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and not just a tree but a Yellow Poplar and the tallest tree in eastern forests. Showing your children you have a bit of knowledge and interest in the world around you can only help pique their curiosity and desire to learn as well. Soon they’ll be turning over rocks in the stream, wanting to know what that “bug” is (it’s the burrowing crayfish, Cambarus diogenes) and then soon running up to you with not just wildflowers they picked but White Wood Asters.



Should you want more information, Audubon goes into much, much more detail with separate field guides to butterflies, fish, wildflowers, trees (eastern US), trees (western US), the night sky, weather, rocks, mushrooms, fossils, seashells and most regions of the US along with a host of other topics. They are perfectly sized to toss into a backpack and are durable with a flexible plastic cover and sturdy pages.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Zebrawood and Purpleheart....

1. The Competitor - Sports
2. Mr. Muscle - Fitness and Health
3. Your Ride- Cars
4. Greenbacks - Career/Money/Finance
5. Toys - Gadgets (i.e. boys toys)
6. Tasty Licks - Music, Movies, Books and other Entertainment
7. Arguing - Politics
8. The Great Outdoors - hunting, camping, extreme sports
9. WWWD? (What Would Ward Do?...think about it, it'll come to you) - Family
10. Black Socks & Flip-Flops - Personal Appearance
11. Honeydew - Home Improvement/Tools
12. The Wide World - Travel/Vacation
13. Eye Candy

OK, so I'm not really sure where to put this blurb since it doesn't seem to fit under any of my usual ones. Even "Honeydew" doesn't really work nor does "Toys". Therefore I've decided to just put it at the top. The picture doesn't do this place justice, this place being Willard Brothers Domestic & Exotic Lumber. If you're a woodworker in the Central Jersey area, this place is heaven; if you like fine furniture this place is heaven; if you just like cool places, this place is heaven. I've taken both my wife and kids there separately and they all came away thinking it was just simply very cool. Regardless, I'll file it under one of my favorite places in the region.

Here's the gig - Willard sells lengths of lumber - all kinds of lumber: domestic and exotic. All cuts: lumber, burls, blocks, quarter-sawn. through-sawn, you name it. Some of the pieces are 3 or 4 feet across. They specialize in historic trees. Don't worry, they don't go cutting down historic trees willy-nilly. When a special tree dies or it otherwise has to come down due to disease, damage from storms or other reasons Willard steps in, takes it down in large sections and turns it into lumber to be used to craft beautiful furniture. Maybe you graduated from Princeton University and remember a beautiful tree on campus. There's a good chance Willard Brothers has lumber from that tree if it died or had to come down. Furthermore, you're in luck if you'd like to have a desk or table made from that very tree because you can buy the lumber from that tree and have a custom furniture-maker craft you a one-of-a-kind piece of furniture for your office or home.

Kids (and even you) will find the "showroom" fascinating. If you've never really been aware of it, wood naturally comes in all the colors of the rainbow. You can find wood in yellow, orange, red, brown, white, green, ebony, and even purple...yes, purple (it's called, not surprisingly, "purpleheart"). There's also zebrawood, which as the name implies, is black and white striped. It's all simply gorgeous with each wood having a distinct texture and scent.

One of the things I like best about Willard Brothers - it's not corporate. It's down-home, gritty and dirty, and careful-or-you-might-actually-pinch your fingers-or-bump your head. If you decide to go, they're located on Basin Road in Trenton. That's off of Baker's Basin Road which crosses Route 1 where Mrs. G's Appliances's are. Well, worth a Saturday afternoon visit.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Congress, football and George Washington.

OK...no long intros this time around. Let's just get into it....
  1. The Competitor - Sports
  2. Mr. Muscle - Fitness and Health
  3. Your Ride - Cars
  4. Greenbacks - Career/Money/Finance
  5. Toys - Gadgets (i.e. boys toys)
  6. Tasty Licks - Music, Movies, Books and other Entertainment
  7. Arguing - Politics
  8. The Great Outdoors - hunting, camping, extreme sports
  9. WWWD? (What Would Ward Do?...think about it, it'll come to you) - Family
  10. Black Socks & Flip-Flops - Personal Appearance
  11. Honeydew - Home Improvement/Tools
  12. The Wide World - Travel/Vacation
  13. Eye Candy



The Competitor – Sports

You’ve probably heard the news but in case you haven’t, it seems Congress is taking up the issue of the college football BCS. While I’m not a big fan of the current system (I mean c’mon, how can either Texas or Alabama in good conscience lay claim to the title of “National Champion” when at least one other team will finish the season unbeaten? – TCU or Boise St and possibly Cincinnati), I think lawmakers in Washington have bigger issues to deal with. But who knows? Maybe it’s their way of blowing off steam with all of the pressure they’ve been under to right the economy but not too sure what President Washington would think of this...more on him below.



Greenbacks - Career/Money/Finance

While it’s not as though Princeton University is hurting for cash in the way that many Americans are, its endowment took a significant hit over the past year falling nearly 23% between June 2008 and June 2009 to $12.9 billion (I should be so lucky to have such problems) . Considering that almost half of its operating budget comes from its endowment that can put a crimp in its style, especially the style of one of the higher-flying universities in the country.


However, the university reported this past week that its returns for the fiscal quarter ending September 30, 2009 rose a modest 5%. What does this mean to you or me? Well, for starters it’s hopefully yet another sign that both the domestic and world economy is on the mend. You might also be able to take a few lessons from some expert investment professionals who, as caretakers of large sums with a very long-term view, allocate and choose differently than many other investors.


That being said, I’ve just added to my reading list When Markets Collide: Investment Strategies for the Age of Global Economic Change by Mohamed El-Erian (who also happens to have run Harvard’s endowment for a year just prior to the market collapse). It’s won numerous awards, including the 2008 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award as well as being selected as a 2008 Best Business Book of the Year by The Economist.


Tasty Licks - Music, Movies, Books and other Entertainment

If you’ve got young boys (or even girls) amongst your brood, you might want to check out G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra on DVD. While there are certainly better action movies out there, I’d be willing to bet that the majority of the 5-15 year old set will find the 118 minute high-action adventure quite smashing – I know my three guys did. The special effects were great, especially the sequence where the G.I. Joe team is racing through Paris trying to stop the destruction of the Eiffel Tower.


As an adult, the movie was ok (don’t look for any Oscar-worthy performances) and I’m not quite sure it matched my expectations with regard to the G.I Joe I grew up with – the big ones from the 1970’s, not the smaller ones popular in the 1980’s which is the G.I. Joe the movie is based on. And while I’m a big fan of action-adventure, sci-fi and fantasy movies and more than willing to suspend disbelief as needed in terms of technology and/or magic; I have a harder time when movies decide to blatantly ignore the laws of physics – really basic ones at that. Without giving any plot away, let’s just say that if you blow up parts of an ice cap, big chucks of ice are not going to sink and potentially crush whatever is below them – there is a reason the Titanic sank: icebergs float.


Arguing – Politics

While I like to keep The Balanced Guy as politically neutral as possible, I can’t help but recommend you read (and not just listen to) the entire text of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech no matter which side of the aisle you align yourself with. While there will always be those at both ends of the political spectrum that will criticize any president no matter what he says, in this case his speech is garnering praise from such Republicans as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. You can find the text in full here.


While extolling the virtue of reaching for “the world that ought to be”, he asserts the right of a country to defend itself and aid and assist other nations and people while reminding the world that for the past 60+ years, the United States has kept the peace around the globe. In short, the world would be a much less-secure place today it if hadn’t been for American blood spilled, hard work and justified use of force.



WWWD? (What Would Ward Do?...think about it, it'll come to you) – Family

Looking for something a bit off the usual path to do with the family on Christmas Day? If you’re in the NJ/PA area why not try attending the Annual Christmas Day Crossing at Washington Crossing State Park in PA commemorating the 1776 Christmas Day crossing by General George Washington, the Continental Army, and militia. From here, they marched to Trenton where they took the British and Hessians by surprise and captured not only the barracks and city of Trenton but also the imagination of the American people and reinvigorated what had been a failing war.


The reenactment opens (fortunately for us and the actors) at 11 AM with the crossing commencing at 1 PM. This allows the kids to wake up (at 6 AM or sooner no doubt), find that Santa has visited and open their presents before you get them dressed and take a drive to watch the Crossing. Washington and his men were not so lucky as they crossed during the dead of night in a storm – we should feel fortunate they were so committed to the ideals many Americans today unfortunately often take for granted.


Honeydew - Home Improvement/Tools

Tiling – Part II. Last time around I discussed installing a tile backsplash in your kitchen between your countertop and cabinets. I took you through installing the tile, cleaning up and grabbing a beer. In the second part I’m going to discuss the really “fun” part – grouting. Now I know you’re thinking to yourself “There’s nothing I’d like to do more on a Friday night than grout tile except maybe read about grouting tile”. So, since you’re looking forward to this, settle back, grab (another) beer and read on.


Your tile is up on the wall (level and flush), the mastic has set, and you’ve cleaned up. Great. Now prepare for one of the biggest messes you’ve ever made in home improvement. Grouting is a messy job, no way around it. While professional tile guys will usually do the job with minimal mess, face it – you’re not a professional tile installer and neither am I despite having installed quite a bit of it. A few pointers before starting: 1) WEAR GLOVES!!! Grout is very caustic, having a fairly high pH level (meaning it’s an alkaline) so it will burn your hands if you don’t protect them – I speak from painful experience…2) Cover your countertops with heavy plastic, butcher paper, cardboard or something else you can tape down and then throw away. Don’t use a tarp or paint drop cloths you want to use some other time.


As I briefly mentioned last time, there are many color choices for grout and the one you pick will significantly impact the finished look of your project so take time to thoroughly investigate your options. Your standard white grout will certainly brighten the look but will also simply look wrong in many cases. A contrasting or brightly-colored grout may look snappy at first, but make sure you can live with it for the long run. Depending on the size of the job, you can sometimes buy grout pre-mixed in tubs but it is much more expensive than grout you mix yourself. There are also usually more color choices in grout you have to mix. Depending on the joint size between your tiles you may want to use either sanded or unsanded grout. There are also varying types of grout such as cementitious and epoxy. I won’t go into the performance differences here but the main one is that the cement-based ones are mixed using water and the epoxy ones with an additive. Finally, I recommend buy a tube or two of matching caulk. Most grout manufacturers make it so be sure to buy from the same company. You’ll use this in places like where the tile meets the bottom edge of the cabinets or after you’ve cleaned up and the grout has set, there will be those small spots where grout is missing.


The tools you’ll need to do the grouting are mainly a rubber float (to spread the grout on the tile), a large bucket to mix the grout in (buy a cheap one you won’t mind throwing away), a source of clean water (assuming you picked a cement-based grout), a mixing paddle, an electric drill (cordless if it’s fairly high voltage, otherwise a plug-in one) and lots of elbow grease. You can mix the grout by hand but I strongly encourage you to buy a paddle to use in your drill – it saves time and energy. I can’t emphasize enough to follow the directions for mixing on the bag/box of grout in terms of quantity of water, time to mix, standing time, etc. Usually you have to add the water, mix the grout, let it stand for a bit, and then mix it some more before applying it. Pay attention to the working time indicated in the directions otherwise you may have a lot of grout that hardens before you can use it (meaning: don’t mix the whole bag at once!) When properly mixed, it should be roughly “mudpie” consistency – not runny but not so firm that you can make a ball out of it. You have to be able to spread it without it falling out of the joints.


OK. Your first batch of grout is mixed. Now what? Using a wide putty knife or trowel, pick some out of the bucket and while holding your rubber float rubber-side up, plop the grout on the float. Bring it to the tile on the wall and in an arcing motion apply it to the wall in a rainbow shape. Keep the leading edge slightly off the wall while applying pressure to the trailing edge to force the grout between the tiles. Don’t worry about following the grout lines; just go right across the tiles. Once you make the initial pass and your float is empty, go back over the area from a variety of directions to ensure the grout is evenly distributed between the tiles.


As the shampoo bottle says “Rinse and repeat”. Not that you need to rinse but keep on repeating. You’ll find that a lot of grout will fall down onto the countertop; feel free to pick it up and keep using it (unless it’s dried out). Before you get too far along, rinse off the float and go back over the just-completed area while pressing very hard. You want to remove any excess grout from the surface of the tile as well as ensure the grout in the joints is set at relatively even widths (you don’t want to look at a grout line between two tiles and see that it gets thicker and thinner as it runs between them). Discard the excess grout that comes off at this point as it’s been too overworked to use elsewhere.


I’ll jump to the end because the rest is simply doing that over and over until it’s done. When you are finished with initially applying the grout you’ll want to go back and, using a fairly damp cloth, wipe down the newly-grouted tile to remove any excess and even out the joints. There is no secret to it other than having a critical eye and your tolerance for (or intolerance of) of imperfection. However since the grout has still not cured don’t wipe too hard! You’re not trying for a final, clean surface at this point, just one that isn’t covered in scads of extra grout.


Now, stand back and look at the utter disaster of a mess you have created and feel proud of yourself…and grab a beer because you’ve got a lot of cleaning to do. While cleaning up, revel in the wisdom of having used a disposable cover on the countertops. Let the grout cure for 24-hours or as indicated on the directions before a final cleaning. Be warned! The final cleaning is not a one-step process as it usually takes 2 or 3 or even 4 cleanings before it looks good. To aid in the cleaning process, buy some grout haze remover and have plenty of old rags on hand. Finally, you’ll want to seal the grout and if you used stone tile, I recommend a sealer/enhancer for the stone not only to prevent it from being stained but it gives it a “wet” look and brings out the natural color and beauty.


Last but not least, reinstall the outlets, light switches and covers (make sure the breaker is turned off first). Do this before using the tube of matching caulk to spot-fill the inevitable holes since you may also find a switch cover or two where the grout just doesn’t quite look right around the edges.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Save some money and burn 800 calories an hour! Call now!

The Holiday Season is upon us once again and I hope you had a good Thanksgiving with friends and family. We took the kids and joined my sister-in-law and her family on Thursday and went into NYC for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. We drove in through the Lincoln Tunnel and found parking to be a breeze since the parking rules weren't in effect.

If you've been to the parade before you know how much fun it is; if you've never been I highly suggest planning on it for next year even if you're from out-of-town. We flew in a few years ago, stayed in the City and went to watch the balloons being filled the night before.

So on to this week's blog...


  1. The Competitor - Sports
  2. Mr. Muscle - Fitness and Health
  3. Your Ride - Cars
  4. Greenbacks - Career/Money/Finance
  5. Toys - Gadgets (i.e. boys toys)
  6. Tasty Licks - Music, Movies, Books and other Entertainment
  7. Arguing - Politics
  8. The Great Outdoors - hunting, camping, extreme sports
  9. WWWD? (What Would Ward Do?...think about it, it'll come to you) - Family
  10. Black Socks & Flip-Flops - Personal Appearance
  11. Honeydew - Home Improvement/Tools
  12. The Wide World - Travel/Vacation
  13. Eye Candy
The Competitor - This refers back to two recent news stories (#1 and #2) - one from before Thanksgiving but I forgot to mention it in earlier posts - so shoot me.; and the other I saw posted today. It seems that Northeastern University in Boston and Hofstra on Long Island have dropped - yes dropped - their football programs after more than 70 years for fairly similar reasons. According to the Northeastern, "the investment required to make it competitive was too high." It was also noted that this was a forward-looking statement in that needed renovations to the stadium coupled with what it would take to make the program competitive were major factors in the decision. While supposedly relatively low attendance (around 2,000 per home game) was not a factor, I can't imagine if the stadium was packed for each home game the decision would have necessarily been the same.

The spokesman for Hofstra said that the $4.5 million annual budget will be directed toward other uses and coupled with "...the low level of interest, financial support and attendance among our students, our alumni and the community, the choice was painful, but clear."

Now a disclosure. Much as you see in a statement when a reporter owns stock in a company about which they are righting a story or some similar happenstance in order to be transparent so as not to be accused of hiding bias, I have to admit a bit of a bias here. My alma mater cut the varsity team I was on in college while at the same time massively expanding the football program. AND...Northeastern was one of the schools my team competed against...AND their program is still there. So excuse me if I see a bit of irony in this story. Next!

Mr. Muscle - Burn 800 calories an hour! Guaranteed! Sound too good to be true? One thing in life I've learned is that if it sounds too good to be true it invariably is. However, there are exceptions to the rule. In this case it's a way to win the annual Battle of the Bulge; and I'm not talking about the WWII event. No, I mean the fight against those unwanted pounds that seem to slip on oh-so-quietly while you are having that extra drink, those too-good-to-pass-up cookies Aunt Mildred makes each year or yet a second, er third, helping at that holiday dinner party.

Luckily I've found a great way to win that weight-gain fight and even usually manage to wind up the holidays lighter than I started. My chosen torture method? The Concept2 Holiday Challenge - this year is the 10th Annual. Between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve the goal is to row 200,000 meters on the Concept2 rowing machine (affectionately known as an "erg"). Not all at once mind you! Not as hard as it may seem but yet not quite as easy either. Mainly it takes dedication (in fact when I'm done writing this evening I have to hop on the erg and row 10,000 meters, which will take me just under 40 minutes). My prize? I get a small commemorative pin...and some personal pride in having completed a goal. You can do this no matter what your form of exercise - set a goal to complete by Christmas or New Year's Eve in terms of distance or time and then make that goal known to your family and friends. Each year my wife knows I've committed to completing the Holiday Challenge and makes sure I don't slack off. That "public declaration" is a tremendous motivator to following through.

Concept2 has a great interactive website with an online logbook to record how far you rowed each session. I've been recording my meters since the 2000 "season" and it's great to be able to look back and see progress over time...and not so great to see when I've slacked off or am starting to see the effects of age!

Rowing is a phenomenal way to get in shape via a low-impact exercise which burns more calories per hour than just about any other exercise. When I'm in good shape, I can burn over 1,300 calories an hour rowing. 1,300! Even when I'm not in the best of shape I can still torch about 1,000 an hour. If you're interested in where to find a fitness club with a Concept2 rowing machine, click here. It'll take you to the website's Indoor Rower Finder. And if you have further interest in rowing as a sport, the best way to find information on a local rowing club is to contact USRowing.


Toys - Do you have an iPhone? Skip down to the next entry; if not, keep reading. This is about the iPod Touch. My oldest son just got one for his birthday. Wow. Just wow. It truly is a small hand-held wonder. Because it's not a phone, it accesses the web via a wireless connection, and since we have Verizon FIOS in the house, this works perfectly. However, it was funny as I was driving him home from practice last night and he kept calling out the wireless networks we were driving through. You can browse the web, retrieve and read email, download and play music (it even has a halfway decent built-in speaker considering that it's only about a 1/4" thick), get apps just like for the iPhone, as well as the usual weather, stock quotes, calculator. Damn - I just realized you can link directly to YouTube and watch videos.

I also have to give my son props - he bought the 2nd generation version from the Apple Store for about $200 instead of the 3rd generation and saved $40. Then for $5 he went online and upgraded to the 3rd generation software. Net savings? $35. Not sure if I'd have thought of that myself. All-in-all even after only having messed around with it for a short while I'd give it two thumbs up.

Honeydew - Want an easy way to make your kitchen look snazzy that you can do yourself? How about a tile backsplash? In a weekend you can fill in that space between the top of your counter and the bottom of your kitchen cabinets with some gorgeous tile, learn a new skill, add value to your home (yes, even in this abysmal market) and earn valuable points with your significant other for a boys' night out .

The pic to the right is a natural stone tile job I did for some friends last year. While the stones came attached to sheets, the shape of the sheets (a slightly spiraled 4-pointed star) and the way they fit in an offset pattern made for an interesting challenge. For my own home I selected sheets of 2" slate tiles that conveniently filled the space between the countertop backsplash and bottom of the cabinets (typically 12") with no cutting. It pays to think ahead!

What tools will you need? Tape measure, tile cutter, tile snips, tile trowel, tile file, scraper, putty knife, level, rubber float (to apply the grout) and a utility knife (always need one of those). While you can do the job with a manual tile cutter, I highly recommend renting a tile saw to make the job go faster and easier. If you can find an assistant (example shown below) that's a big help. You'll also need mastic - that's the "glue" you use to stick the tile to the wall. Make sure you use the right kinds as it differs for ceramic vs. natural stone tile. Finally comes the grout and its myriad color choices. It's amazing how vastly different the project can turn out depending on your choice of grout color. Also determine if your tile choice has bullnose tiles available. Those are the ones with a slightly rounded edge on one side that you use where the tile field dies into an open space on the wall.

Lay the job out ahead of time working from the center, making sure you know if any cuts will need to be made and where. What you want is for any cut tiles to wind up in corners and immediately under your cabinets and not in highly visible areas. You also don't want to have to cut tile once you have mastic up on the wall. Plan ahead! Follow the directions on the tub of mastic; in particular any having to do with preparing the wall to accept the mastic such as a primer or roughing it up with sandpaper. I usually put up 1 or 2 square feet at a time depending on how easy or complex the particular section is. Slab it on with the smooth edge of the trowel then flip it around and use the toothed edge to remove excess and create the ridges necessary for the tile to properly adhere. While you might be tempted to put on "just a little more mastic" than required, think twice - when you put the tile on and press it to the wall, any extra will squeeze out between the tiles and make for a tough time grouting especially if you don't clear it out immediately and it dries.

Working around switches and outlets is often the trickiest part of the job. Shut off the breaker for any electrical switches and outlets in the area to be tiled, then remove the cover plate. You'll need to loosen the switch/plug so you can pull it out and away from the box - just don't disconnect it (unless you want to). Use masking tape to protect the switch/outlet from mastic and grout. You'll have to reset it at a new depth once the tile job is done so make sure you bring the tile close enough to be covered by the cover plate and so that the flanges will rest on the new tile.

Once you get going the job is fairly easy, especially since most tiles these days are self-spacing. I recommend placing the tile saw outside as it can get fairly messy. Even if it's outside, place a drop cloth under it as the dirty spray of water can leave a stain on your floor, porch or deck that is hard to remove. As you complete a section of tile, take a piece of corrugated cardboard about the same size, hold it to the wall over the tile and rub hard with your hand to help level and set the tile. When you are done setting the tile it needs to set up for 24 hours before you grout it. Clean up and have a beer or two. I'll explain the fine art (actually the fine mess) of grouting in my next posting so come back for more!




Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mass hypnosis and brunettes

Life is funny sometimes, quite often actually. Or maybe just terribly predictable when it comes to large groups of people - which was the basis for Issac Asimov's Foundation series. Anyway, it appears that it's no accident that the days with the highest number of visitors to The Balanced Guy are when the thumbnail that accompanies the link is of an attractive woman.
Like this ---->

Not that I try to use sex to gain readers, but as the old saying goes "sex sells". So I go with the flow. And I think that by life being "funny" I mean both funny ha-ha AND funny hmmmm.....

Being that this is a holiday weekend, I'm going to keep this posting a bit shorter than usual. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving with family and friends - make sure you let them know how thankful you are they are in your life; don't automatically assume they know. Being told you mean something to someone is a powerful positive force in your life.
  1. The Competitor - Sports
  2. Mr. Muscle - Fitness and Health
  3. Your Ride - Cars
  4. Greenbacks - Career/Money/Finance
  5. Toys - Gadgets (i.e. boys toys)
  6. Tasty Licks - Music, Movies, Books and other Entertainment
  7. Arguing - Politics
  8. The Great Outdoors - hunting, camping, extreme sports
  9. WWWD? (What Would Ward Do?...think about it, it'll come to you) - Family
  10. Black Socks & Flip-Flops - Personal Appearance
  11. Honeydew - Home Improvement/Tools
  12. The Wide World - Travel/Vacation
  13. Eye Candy
Your Ride - Nothing takes up an entire evening like a one hour car repair job after work. So we were coming home from the Delaware Water Gap Sunday evening when I asked my wife "is that smoke coming out from under the hood or dust?" (We'd just come to a stop on a back road). "I think it was dust" says she. Next time we stopped there was no doubt something was coming out from under the hood of our 2001 Chrysler Town & Country LX mini van with 116,000+ miles on it - and no, that's not a pic of my van but wish it was...remember those custom vans when we were kids?

So we pull over and I check under the hood and feel a bit perplexed. There was some kind of fluid all over the place and it looks (which scared the hell out of me) that it was coming from the power steering fluid reservoir. However it didn't look like power steering fluid but I could see no other place it could be coming from. Long story short, when we got home I determined there was a hole in the cooling system, specifically in the thermostat housing cover. Major sense of relief that it was only that and not a problem in the power steering. So a quick call to Advance Auto Parts - no dice, the part was too specialized for them to carry. A call to the local Chrysler dealer - bingo they had it in stock. With the gasket, about $30. I get home and take it apart - now pay attention here - the thermostat was a mess. Lesson learned - should've just bought a new thermostat when the guy at the parts counter asked if I wanted one the first time I was there. At this point it's about 8:30 at night. Luckily the Chrysler dealer parts department is open 24 hours!! New thermostat - $11. Needless to say I wrapped it all up around 11 PM and it cost me about $50 to DIY. I'm guessing the price tag to have it repaired at the dealer would have been around $250 if not more.


The Great Outdoors - If you're looking for someplace to get away to for the day and you're in the NY/NJ/PA region, try the Delaware Water Gap if you've never been there - or even if you have but it's been a while. We've hiked there several times over the years and it never fails to amaze for its beauty regardless of the time of year. It's also a great hike for the family no matter what age your kids are - if they are infants put them in a back pack.

To get there from Jersey, take I-80 West...it runs right through the Gap and trail heads are off the highway. The basic hike at the Gap itself (as opposed to some of the other areas like Sunfish Pond) takes about 4 hours round trip. To get to the top of Mt. Tammany you have the choice of two routes - the Red Dot Trail or the Blue Dot Trail. The Red Dot is shorter (1.5 miles) but steeper while the Blue Dot is about 2.5 miles. We prefer to go steeper earlier and then follow the Blue Dot back which takes you along the absolutely stunning Dunnfield Creek. Following one waterfall after the next, each prettier than the one before it is a great way to wind up your hike. Words of caution - bring plenty of water, snacks and be prepared for the weather to change without warning. It's also usually quite cooler and windier at the top (as you might expect.)


Black Socks & Flip-Flops - I've known for a few years now that I'm getting a bit thinner on top and have opted out of fighting it with any hair re-growth chemicals or (God forbid) a rug. But when going through some recent pics , there was one taken from behind and slightly above me. All I can say is "yikes!" Since I'm 6'4", most people don't often notice my hair is not as thick as it once was - but I know. Thus every few months I go down the path of pulling out the Wahl clippers (the same ones I mentioned in my first posting), slap on a #3 fence and go to work. About 10 minutes later I emerge a new, and very different-looking, man. Best thing is that my wife likes the look. So, while the bald look has been popular for a number of years now like me you might not want to go for that complete look or maybe haven't given it thought. Instead you might want to ask someone you trust if you've been fooling yourself about your hair.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Next

Yet another posting and a big thanks to Princeton Scoop (www.princetonscoop.com) for featuring me on their most excellent social media marketing website/blog/Twitter pages. If you're anywhere in the Central Jersey area, I highly recommend checking them out for "...the latest deals, steals, events and happenings..." Your significant other will probably like it even more.

  1. The Competitor - Sports
  2. Mr. Muscle - Fitness and Health
  3. Your Ride - Cars
  4. Greenbacks - Career/Money/Finance
  5. Toys - Gadgets (i.e. boys toys)
  6. Tasty Licks - Music, Movies, Books and other Entertainment
  7. Arguing - Politics
  8. The Great Outdoors - hunting, camping, extreme sports
  9. WWWD? (What Would Ward Do?...think about it, it'll come to you) - Family
  10. Black Socks & Flip-Flops - Personal Appearance
  11. Honeydew - Home Improvement/Tools
  12. The Wide World - Travel/Vacation
  13. Eye Candy
The Competitor - Really interesting article on LiveScience this week about elite athletes and the question of where enhancement (chemical, surgical, training or genetic) crosses the line and what is the difference from the genetic advantage they have over the average human - or as the article states "All top athletes, after all, have an advantage over non-athletes. They're bigger, stronger or faster. That's why they are athletes."

One question asked and a good one if you really think about it is "What's the difference between an athlete having LASIK surgery to improve his or her vision and some other surgical or chemical enhancement?" I'm not saying I'm in favor of athletes using steroids but just pointing out that there is not always a bright line to cross; more often there are grey areas.

Nor do I think that all elite athletes use performance-enhancing drugs. As Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein "Follow the money". I am fortunate to have a number of good friends that were Olympic athletes, some of them Gold Medalists, but not in a high-profile sport. As a result none of them have ever gotten rich from their athletic success. I can also tell you that I am completely confident in their never having used performance-enhancing drugs. Why? Because I've flat-out asked them and the extent of our friendship is such that they would tell me the truth. So if you're not in a sport that can make you rich, the temptation to use performance-enhancing drug is greatly diminished.

Long story short - an article worth reading and thinking about.

Mr. Muscle - Take a look back at my Nov 7 posting and boy did I hit the nail on the head regarding the misuse of Body Mass Index (BMI). According to a news article, at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, students with a BMI over 30 ("obese") must take and pass a fitness course to receive their degrees. This kind of stuff scares me, using a 150-year-old method developed to describe populations as a measure for individuals. As a former college athlete I'm all for fitness and continue to workout regularly, but using the BMI is just plain misguided as it is well-documented that athletes often have a BMI over 30 due to carrying more muscle mass than the average person. The problem with BMI is that it doesn't take into account what makes up a person's weight - muscle or fat. I can't fathom how James L. DeBoy, chairman of Lincoln's department of health, physical education and recreation, doesn't know or take this into account. Instead they should be using a person's bodyfat percentage as a better measure of whether they are overweight or not.

While not a national powerhouse in any sports, I'd like to see how the university handles telling the football players (who most likely have a BMI over 30) they need to take a fitness course to learn about the benefits of walking and weightlifting.

Your Ride - I'm starting to be a regular Carnac as I refer back to yet another seemingly prescient post, this time from Nov 2 when I gave Ford kudos for high reliability marks from Consumer Reports. Seems like this American icon has done it again with The Ford Fusion being named the Motor Trend Car of the Year. Another good reason to Buy American.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Gold and hobos off the street.

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I was running through news articles yesterday and this one caught my eye as being particularly obvious. When I showed it to my 12-year old son he immediately saw how ridiculous it was, laughed and said "Even a hobo off the street could say that!". Amen. Needless to say here's the quote from the article in reference to the price of gold.

Dennis Gartman, founder of The Gartman Letter, told CNBC Monday that the price of the precious metal will "continue to go up until it stops."

Holy as-obvious-as-the-nose-on-your-face Batman! Now, I'm guessing Dennis Gartman is a pretty sharp guy but c'mon I think he could come up with something better than that! And shame on CNBC for actually leading an article with that quote or for possibly misquoting the guy. That's like me saying "I'll continue living until I die." Duh.

  1. The Competitor - Sports
  2. Mr. Muscle - Fitness and Health
  3. Your Ride- Cars
  4. Greenbacks - Career/Money/Finance
  5. Toys - Gadgets (i.e. boys toys)
  6. Tasty Licks - Music, Movies, Books and other Entertainment
  7. Arguing - Politics
  8. The Great Outdoors - hunting, camping, extreme sports
  9. WWWD? (What Would Ward Do?...think about it, it'll come to you) - Family
  10. Black Socks & Flip-Flops - Personal Appearance
  11. Honeydew - Home Improvement/Tools
  12. The Wide World - Travel/Vacation
  13. Eye Candy

Mr. Muscle - I'm going to the physical therapist this week to deal with a knotted muscle in my back. It's a recurring sports injury that has plagued me for years and every once in a while I tweak it. Normally with some ice, ibuprofen, some massaging from my wife and time it works itself out. Sometimes it doesn't. About 6 years ago I wound up have PT for several weeks when the knot was pressing down on the nerve to my right arm and my pinky and ring finger went numb. Having just moved back to Jersey after a number of years away I asked my brother-in-law, who works in the medical industry and has lived here his entire life, where to go. Without hesitation pointed me to Pinnacle Therapy in Lawrenceville, NJ. So now I have an appointment with them and next entry I'll let you know how it went. Getting older sucks.


Tasty Licks - "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" screamed Chicken Little when it wasn't. In the movie 2012 the sky definitely IS falling...along with everything else. It was a perfect, albeit maybe a tad long, rainy Saturday afternoon movie with my son. Loads of fun, action, action and oh yeah, action. Don't go looking for a movie to change the world (although the world certainly changes in this movie!), nor one apt to pick up any Oscars except maybe for special effects.

John Cusack plays the main character, Jackson Curtis, who beats the odds of death and destruction so many times that I'd give him my life savings to play with in Vegas - except Vegas gets trashed in the movie. His ex-wife, Kate, is played by a very attractive Amanda Peet.

Anyway, all-in-all a fun flick and generally family-friendly. It's rated PG-13 but really fine for kids as young as about 7 as long as they can handle intense action. I don't recall any person-on-person violence but lots of people die (it is the end of the world!) but sans blood. I might have heard the f-bomb dropped once. Last bit of advice - go on a Saturday afternoon when you can pay matinee prices or you might be pissed you paid full price.

The Great Outdoors - If you're addicted to your GPS and can't drive to the corner store without plugging in the address so you can hear that soothing female voice say "Turn left. In. 100 feet." then I have a challenge for you - put it away, buy a map and a compass and become a real man. I get a kick out of what seems like increasingly common stories about people turning left into: a pond, incoming traffic, a house or store or someplace else common sense says not to simply because "the GPS said to".

Don't get me wrong - a GPS can be a literal lifesaver if out in the deep wilderness or to save time if navigating around an unfamiliar city when the clock is ticking, but it seems people are more and more not learning which way is north, south, east or west let alone know how to use a compass. I've got several hand-held compasses made by Silva. My higher end one is a Ranger which runs about $55 and can be used to measure angles of inclination of a hill, the magnetic declination can be compensated for, has a closing cover with spotting mirror, map scale and a luminous dial among other features. At the other end of the spectrum I've got a few Polaris models (about $13) that I have for teaching Cub Scouts how to use a map and compass. I've also got a great story about how I got my friend and I unlost in his boat in the fog using a navigational chart and the boat's compass when he forgot to bring his GPS along. He was skeptical but amazed when we landed almost dead on target despite the pea-soup thick fog.

A compass is a surprisingly easy thing to master yet can appear more complex at first when you learn how it correctly use it. A really fun, challenging outdoor activity is orienteering in which finding your way with a map and compass is raised to an art form. Check out the US Orienteering Federation website for more info. If you've never used or even seen a US Geological Survey Quadrangle Map (or USGS quad map) they are really pretty cool showing roads, buildings, topography, parks, and a host of other features. A section of the one covering my area in NJ is shown to the left.

If you decide to give it a try make sure you bring your kids along - you'll all have fun and you'll all learn something along the way.