Chicago Weekend

ChicagoTin and I went to Chicago for the weekend so that I could go to the Philippine Consulate there and renew my passport.  It was a very eventful two days for us to say the least.

First off, we left home around 3am in the morning  so that we could arrive there early to avoid rush hour traffic going in to the city. Chicago from Cincinnati was a 5-hour drive already and I wasn’t about to extend it beyond that. On our way there, the drive was going very smoothly until I missed a lane change and ended up in the downtown Gary, IN area.

The part of Gary that we drove through, looking for the I-74W exit, was very creepy. We passed through what I assumed was the main thoroughfare in the downtown area and almost every building was boarded up. The roads were in terrible condition, riddled with very deep potholes which made me very afraid it would ruin our car or something. Passing through there was like going through a ghost town. Later on, I would search on Gary, IN and I found this link by urban explorers who visited some of the abandoned buildings in the area. I am sure this is not representative of what the whole city is, but it was scary to see that there were areas as abandoned as it was.

We arrived at the Hyatt in downtown Chicago around 8am (a bit early because we forgot about the time difference) and was pleasantly suprised that they allowed us to check-in early. We settled in and left for the consulate around 9am. It was my second time in Chicago so N Michigan Ave was a bit familiar to me. We found the consulate quite easily and proceeded to renew my passport. I was actually so shocked by the excellent level of service that they  were giving out in the consulate.  At one point it seemed that there were 3-4 people who were assisting me throughout the process and all of them were so friendly and helpful. This is a very stark contrast when you have to deal with the government back in Manila. Most employees were either underpaid or undertrained that it’s usually like pulling teeth just to get things done. I know that the environment is very different, but still kudos to the staff over at the Philippine Consulate in Chicago for making my experience very smooth and pleasant.

After a lunch of fiery, extremely-hot-it-will-make-you-vomit, peanut noodles (due to an overdose of sriracha chili sauce) and a quick nap, we went to the Chinatown area to stroll around, take pictures and grab an early dinner.

ChinatownChinatown was a bit deserted because it was an ordinary Friday. We took some pictures in the market square and after a while proceeded to the much touted Ken-Kee restaurant in that same area. The menu was very long which had a list of preparations of almost all kinds of meat that included goose intestines, pig intestines, etc. We were not feeling adventurous so we opted for a fried Tilapia in sweet and sour sauce, and calamari with garlic-chili flakes. Ken-Kee did not disappoint as everything tasted very fresh and flavorful. After dinner, we had to go back to the hotel because we brought some chinese barbecue buns which we had to store.

After that, we again went out because we had tickets to the Bulls game that night (talk about a full schedule). We were so tired of all the walking that we already did that we decided that instead of taking the cheaper bus (which was a 5-block walk) we just took a cab going to the United Center.

United CenterThe United Center was a bit drab compared to other sports stadiums we visited. The atmosphere was not as festive as we were normally accustomed to when going to games. We took some pictures and quickly found our seats in the upper section. At the third quarter mark of the game, the Bulls were leading the Bucks by about 9 points, we decided to call it a day and avoid the crowds after the game. We took a cab back to the hotel and after a few minutes we were already in dreamland.

In the morning we took our breakfast vouchers (we got our hotel room with breakfast and parking for only around $129 before tax thanks to Travelzoo) and went to the buffet downstairs. We checked out at 11am and started the long trip home. Getting out of the Chicago downtown area was not that easy for us. Even though we were armed with a GPS, as soon as we hit the underground streets, we lost the GPS signal and were completely lost. We almost went into a one-way street which would have been disastrous. After a while of driving around, we finally found the exit to the highway.

The trip back home was thankfully uneventful, and we got home around 6pm. The whole ordeal was very tiring but was laden with very good experiences for both of us.

Living on food stamps

Snow CrabHere is a blog of a CNN reporter who decided to go on an experiment to live on $176 a month as his food expense. According to him, he wanted to see what it feels like to live using food stamps that the government gives out. So he approached a state government employee who told him that $176 is the most a single person can qualify for under this program. Since, he cannot get the actual food stamps, he got a debit card, placed $176 on it and decided to use only that for his food purchases for an entire month.

I just found his experiment a little trivial because I don’t think that it is that hard to live on $176 a month for food. Now don’t get me wrong, I am in no way trying to downplay the hardships of those folks who qualify and take advantage of the food stamp program, but his experiment does not really do them any justice either. Aside from food, like most people, they also need to find the resources for housing, utilities, child care, etc.

Why do I say it’s not that hard? Me and my wife spend on average, $80 on groceries every week. That accounts for everything we buy in the grocery including non-food products (which frequently are the most expensive like shampoo, razors, etc.).  In the past month, we did probably went out to eat twice a week for an average of 15$ per meal. Almost, everyday I bring my own lunch to the office made of leftovers and my wife goes home to eat lunch too.

Doing the math, let say our ‘food only groceries’ is 75% of the $80 total which is $60 a week. So that’s $240 a month. We eat out for $30 a week, which is $120, add that to the groceries, we spend $360 a month on food. Dividing that between the two of us, that’s $180 per month per person for food, $4 more than the experiment, without even really trying.

I guess my point is, there are so many people out there who are so out of touch, and are really spending so much, that they think $176 a month is so low to spend on food (this reporter even went to a doctor before the experiment thinking what he was about to do was a health risk) when in reality this is what most middle-class people really spend without even being stingy. They fail to see that it is really not the amount, but rather the smart choices you make. Just last Sunday, with a total of $83 for groceries, we spent $13 for 1.5lbs of snow crab and ate that for dinner (I felt I was living the high life). I’m thinking it wil cost you $40-$50 at Red Lobster to eat the amount of crab we had. You can always get more for less.

Pirate Bay trial wraps up

PirateI have been  monitoring diligently the current Pirate Bay trial being held in Sweden against co-founder Peter Sunde and four others. I found the trial highly amusing given by the apparent lack of knowledge of the prosecutors on how bittorrent technology really works and what Pirate Bay’s participation in all of this really is. Aside from that, they have asked for $13 million in compensation for purported revenue loss which nobody clearly knows how they got to that amount.

The defendants throughout the trial maintained that Pirate Bay is a mere search engine and a repository of user uploaded content. Which is very true. They are no different than Google. When you do a torrent search in Google, it acts almost the same, giving you links to torrents. No copyrighted content exists on their servers because what users’ actually upload are torrent files which users made themselves.

The verdict is due on April 17th and I’m anticipating it because this sets a precedent. In the end, it is for the swedish courts to decide on the future of Pirate Bay, but I’m really a little bit scared on what the impact this will bring to the Internet and its users.

Debt Reduction Calculator

Calculator2008 was not a very good year for a lot of people, including us, in terms of finances. We watched our net worth slowly shrink down due to a variety of reasons. Our 401ks seemingly stopped growing because a large chunk of our allocations where on riskier but higher return investments such as stocks. The DJIA at this point  last year was double of what it is now. The USD which was very strong for several years took a nose dive against asian currencies. Coupled with unforseen circumstances and our relocation last year, we found ourselves with a pretty significant amount of debt.

Thankfully though, I feel we are still on track on paying off our debts and at the same time growing back our savings. Also, we did manage to pay off  our subdivision lot and car back home last Jan, so this cleared some of our income to be dedicated for debt payments. A very nifty application which I am using throughout this process is the Debt Reducation Calculator.

Basically, this excel file filled with an unbelievable amount of macros and formulas will allow you to input several accounts so you can manage your debt payments. It features several strategies on paying of your loans, credit cards, etc. so you can see which is the better way of paying things especially if you have accounts with different interest rates.

This calculator features the Debt Snowball strategy, which let’s you benefit psychologically in paying off your debt. Basically, it is paying off your smaller accounts so that you can build momentum and see a lot of ‘progress’ early on. Other strategies include, high interest first (which I think is the best one really, feeling good does not put money back in my pocket), no snowball, or custom order.

You can download the tool here.

Calvin, Hobbes and Susie all grown up

Calvin and HobbesI have been a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes ever since I could remember. It’s a series of comics created by Bill Watterson about the adventures of a young boy Calvin (named after the theologian John Calvin) and his imaginary pet/stuffed tiger Hobbes (named after the philosopher Thomas Hobbes).

Bill Watterson strictly believed in that comics should be kept as an art form so he vehemently resisted merchandising of any sort which is why you would not see any Calvin and Hobbes toys, shirts, etc. (aside from the occasional sightings of the infamous, unlicensed, Calvin peeing on something car sticker) even though it would have probably netted him big money.

I guess, the reach and influence of the comic strip has been phenomenal so people started creating fan art of their own. Here is an example portraying Calvin, Hobbes and Susie all grown up to be young adults which I thought was very cool.

I think I am going to start re-reading some of the comics I have in the house 🙂

Hiding div blocks using Javascript DOM and Checkboxes

CodeLotus Domino has a unique function to hide certain elements of a design element called “Hide-Whens”. Basically, this text option can be set to hide a field, text or code based on a formula. But, if you plan on using this on the web and would like it to be triggered by a field change event, more than likely you will need to refresh the entire form so the hide-whens will take effect.

This is not pretty especially if you have several fields refreshing and controlling other fields or texts. Also, this presents other problems because constant refreshing slows down your application.

So the use of Javascript DOM for hiding objects inside a DIV can prove useful if you would like that users be able complete a form without refreshing it from the get go.

object.style.display=value

Toggling this DOM property’s value to “none” would work the same way as a hide-when when you can create a function from it using the fields on your form. For my example below, I used a checkbox field to trigger the function and toggle the display property based on the value of the field.

Here is a simple demo in HTML. This is easier though to implement in Notes as you can just place the function in the onchange event of a field. You can also further develop the function if you are using multiple checkboxes  or if you have a more complex rule on hiding/displaying the fields.

Use, the following function on the onchange event of your checkbox:

toggledisplay(‘div id‘, ‘field id‘, ‘value you would like to check‘);

Here is the javascript function:

function toggledisplay(divname, checkfield, checkvalue)
{
var count=0;
var fdivname = document.getElementById(divname);
var fcheckfield = document.getElementsByName(checkfield);

for (var z = 0; z <fcheckfield.length;z++) {
if (fcheckfield[z].checked) {
if (fcheckfield[z].value == checkvalue) {count=1;}
}
}

if (count==1 )
{fdivname.style.display = “”;}
else
{fdivname.style.display = “none”;}
}

On being IBM certified and the new Lotus Notes

IBM CertifiedLast week. I passed the exam to gain an IBM Certified Associate Developer Lotus Notes and Domino 7 certification. I previously held a Notes 6/6.5 certification, but since IBM retired that test, I needed to get certified in version 7 in order to progress to Advance Application Developer status.

I have always pondered if focusing on Lotus Notes development was a correct career move for me. There are some companies moving away from  Lotus Notes as the industry perception is that Lotus is a dying platform (not necessarily the consensus). But, enter the newest version that turned gold this year, version 8.5. My biggest turn on was the decision to move the IDE into Eclipse.

Eclipse originally started with IBM, which probably contributed to finding itself in Lotus Domino development. It already was being used in Rational Software Architect which was a replacement for some of the modules of Rational Rose. This IDE upgrade provides a lot of  drag and drop functionality which can be edited on the code level. Not to mention the usability of Eclipse in terms of coding Java and JavaScript. The introduction of Eclipse to the Lotus Notes application development will certainly open a lot of doors for developers and adapters.

On the highly touted Xpages

Xpages are the new design elements introduced in Lotus Domino Designer 8. They are forms specifically (as of now) for web development. Here is as blog entry I read showing how to join data from multiple views on Xpages and I’ve got to say, this is very cool. XPages  will probably single-handedly propel Lotus development into the Web 2.0 generation.  Here is another blog entry showing what Xpages opens up for developers (just the mention of AJAX partial refreshes and joining views makes me drool).

So, I guess the idea of Lotus Notes and Domino is an old, clunky, severly limited platform is a thing of the past. IBM certainly did itself (and a lot of loyal developers who’ve invested decades on Notes) a huge favor in providing a better tool for better applications more suited for today’s technology trend.

No Reservations finally visits Manila

No ReservationsWe are big fans of the Travel Channel.  Our favorites shows include, Samantha Brown’s Passport Series, Andrew Zimmerns’s Bizarre Foods and of course, No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain. Last February 16, they aired the episode where the latter finally visited the Philippines after constant requests by people over the Internet and the antics of a guy named Augusto.

To tell you the truth, I was a bit disappointed in a way because the episode seemed bland. It did not show fully what the country had to offer. It seemed like all they did, was eat something, somewhere in each segment. Although cultural food is one of the focuses of the show, given that the host is a chef, there was always something unique that Tony Bourdain would point out that will somewhat define the people of the places he visits.

Food is really one of the cornerstones of Filipino culture, but it is not everything, I wish they scheduled their visit on a festival like the Panagbenga,  the Ati-atihan in Kalibo or the Sinulog. They could have also featured a unique location, such as the caves in Sagada, the Rice Terraces, Palawan or Boracay. If they did this, maybe they would have noticed the happy-go-lucky, hospitable and humorous  people which is what really makes the Philippines stand out.

Embarking on the road less traveled

About Face 3As promised to myself (haha), I will try to further my knowledge on web usability as this an important cornerstone of application development especially with  apps that require a lot of user interaction.

Usability is so important the the US government has deemed appropriate to set up the site usability.gov as their primary source of information on user centric design. I have started perusing the resources on this site particularly the Guidelines on Research Based Design & Usability.

Also, I’ve started on an Alan Cooper book, About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design. I’m not yet too far on the book and I will post more on the material once I get to finish it.

Down the road, I will probably push my manager to consider sponsoring me for a Human Factors International (HFI) series of seminars. Based on what I’ve read and heard, they are the premier training provider for software usability employing usability professionals and human behavior specialists. I’m also considering gunning for a Certified Usability Analyst (CUA) certification.

Whew, after reading all that, it seems like a lot of stuff to do. I think I will pace myself on all of this but will remain focused. I’m hoping to post updates in this category as I go along.

Bit by the recession bug

Recession Bug It felt like the opposite of being ‘touched by an angel’.

I remember my mom  asking if we were affected by all the hoopla about the recession here in the US and I answered, no. I felt confident since both Tin and I work in the IT industry that our jobs were in a way “recession proof”. I guess in these extraordinary times, nothing is a given.

No, we were not laid off or anything like that (knock on wood). We just learned that HP will be implementing an across the board pay cut of 10-15% for executives and 5% for exempt employees, which is a bummer since Tin works for HP. I know this is a far cry from the problems a lot of people are experiencing,  losing their jobs, foreclosing on their homes, unable to find credit for their businesses, etc. but it feels like a step backward in our goals and responsibilities right when we felt we were making some headway.

What to do now?

There are several items I think that we can do to ‘fight back’ and respond:

  1. Start brown bagging everyday – I have been doing this a lot lately but I think I need do it everyday. It potentially saves us $5-$8  a day which translates to a savings of $100-$160 per month (doing the math actually encourages me more), aside from making lunch for me much simpler because I don’t need to go out or think about where to go.
  2. Minimize eating out – We currently try to eat out only on weekends, probably 3-4 times. Bringing this down to a maximum of twice a week is a savings of around $200-$240 per month.
  3. Curb the ‘gadget’ hunger – I am a self-confessed gadgetaholic, I guess this experience will strengthen my resolve.
  4. Look for additional income – You will see this advice in almost all the finance blogs on the net, but the reality is, it is easier said than done. I think I will start with looking for stuff that I am not using at home and selling them off on Ebay or Craigslist.
  5. Increase our value career wise – I recently received a Lotus Notes certification which I guess is a step in this direction. Probably looking for ways to increase our value in the eyes of the employer will be good thing in this economy.

Here is a CNN Money article which I read some time ago that gives some useful tips to recession proof our jobs. And here is a blog that I frequent which always has something to help people be more financially independent.

All in all, I think the key here is to be consistent throughout this crisis and focus on the goals.