Quick Thoughts on Voting During Last Week’s Election

This may be a bit of a delayed reaction, but I enjoyed voting in last week’s election. What made last week’s election different for me is that this was my first time voting as a registered voter in Monmouth County. Up until I bought my house last spring, I was registered at my family’s home in Morris County. As you might deduce, this created an annual problem where I had to drive all the way up to Morris County (and near the Sussex County border, no less!) to vote on Election Day. Sure, I could have registered to vote in Monmouth County when I began renting my most recent apartment, but I never had the security of knowing whether or not I would be in that one place for a long period of time so I never made the change.

What I enjoyed about voting last week (besides the 3 minute commute to my polling place) was that I had a chance to vote for candidates that will have some level of impact on me and my immediate community. Again, as a guy who has been voting in Morris County for the last 15 years, the people that I’ve been voting for have largely not been the Mayors, Town Councilors, Board of Education members, State Legislators, and Congressmen who have a direct impact on the community where I actually live. Last Tuesday, the votes that I cast were different in that they have a direct relationship to my daily life.

And the American in me enjoys the fact that I get to vote in the first place! Unlike most folks out there, I enjoy voting for people from both sides of the aisle – which I did last Tuesday. One of the great things about this country is that we have a choice. Frankly, I wish we had more that two viable choices and I really wish that the Libertarian and Constitutional Parties would grow to become larger players in American politics. But that’s okay – the people are beginning to realize that there are more than two answers to every political question and that it’s not such a bad idea to get people with different ideas involved.

As for the results from last week’s elections, well I didn’t think it was any big surprise. Of course the Republicans were going to run away with the Senate and increase their lead in the House – the majority of the places and states in this country are center-right and every political map proves that point. Yes, the cities and urban areas vote heavily Democratic and that’s where the President has his most ardent supporters, but most of this country isn’t filled with cities and urban areas. Thus the results from last week are no big surprise.

Plus, I’m a big believer in divided government. We have a Democratic President and I think it’s a good idea to have a Republican Congress to check his power. I thought the same thing when President George W. Bush was in charge – a Democratic Congress was good for him to have to collaborate with the other side (which he did very well at the beginning of his first term as well). The biggest “check” that I think will come out of the Republican Congress is their ability to conduct fuller investigations in the Senate. The talking heads on television suggest that there are a variety of scandals brewing from Benghazi to the fast and furious gun running issue to immigration and now to the fact that there were blatant lies told to the American people in order to get the Affordable Care Act passed.

While those are all issues that deserve fuller investigations, what I’m looking forward to knowing more about is the IRS targeting scandal. Folks, if the accusations are true – that the IRS targeted individuals and groups that they disagreed with politically – then that is going to be the biggest scandal in the history of American politics up through our lifetimes, I guaranty it. This is the exact type of issue that the colonists rebelled against back in the late 1700s and it’s the exact type of issue that makes our government ineffective in the 2010s. So… that’s what I’m looking forward to from the new Congress: a true investigation into the IRS targeting scandal.

The Internet As It Exists In 2014… It Kind Of Sucks

Before I began writing this entry, I wanted to reach out to a few of my long-time online friends just to shoot the breeze. I wanted to ask them how work was going, how their side projects were coming along, if there was a project that we could collaborate on, etc. This is what the internet used to exist of when programs like ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger were running wild on everyone’s desktops. In 2014, we don’t have that any more. Sure, we have Facebook Messenger and Gmail Chat, but they’re both extensions of different social media websites. They’re not designed for one-on-one interaction between individuals in a private, friendly setting.

Frankly, the internet in 2014 kind of sucks.

While I don’t think that we need to go back to the days of the Prodigy internet message boards or the original America Online, I do think that as we’ve moved further down the path of “Social Media Life” we’ve actually removed much of the interaction that we used to have with our online friends. Even as close as 10 years ago I could log-on to the internet and have my Yahoo Messenger load up as well as my AOL Instant Messenger and immediately engage in any number of one-on-one conversations with both my “real life” friends and my internet friends. And the conversations weren’t useless or the type of silly drivel that you read on these humor websites. No, we were making connections and having real conversations. It was fun!

Today, everything seems to need to be filtered through a Facebook or other social media-like portal and I don’t like it. I want to be able to log-on and talk to the folks who originally made the internet fun for me. I also want to be able to pick these people’s brains in a more readily available manner than sending a message into a seemingly black social media hole. There’s no connection in that method of communication.

Unfortunately, though, I don’t think that we’re ever going to get back to that level of meaningful one-on-one interaction on the internet. I think we’re stuck in a mess that doesn’t allow people to grow real friendships through shared online interactions. And given the friends that I’ve made through these online interactions, I think that’s a real shame for future generations of internet users.

Suddenly Buying A House Wasn’t Such A Bad Idea

One of the elements of my adult life that has traditionally been unstable is housing. Sure, I’ve always had a place to live and no, I’ve never wanted for a roof over my head. However, having stable housing was always something that evaded me no matter what situation I was in at the moment. I’ve rented a single room in a large boarding house and I’ve rented a room in a house with a group of fellow college graduates who were just out of school. I’ve rented apartments with two other roommates and I’ve rented a townhouse with one other roommate. The one aspect in all of these housing situations is that there was a time limit on how long I’d be living in any of those units because they were rentals. And, frankly, that time limit was exactly what my roommates and I wanted over the years. The limit gave each of us a chance to get out of a lease if we needed to and it also gave us a chance to negotiate better terms on an annual basis. Let me be clear – I have no complaints about my housing situation leading up to my decision to buy a house.

This isn't the actual "sold" sign from my townhouse, but you get the point

This isn’t the actual “sold” sign from my new townhouse, but you get the point

The common theme, though, was the unstable relationship between my finances and my housing situation. What I mean by this is that by not owning the different locations where I’ve lived over the years I was at the mercy of externalities that could (and did) have a direct impact on both my housing stability and my personal finances. For example, if one of my roommates decided to (or had to) leave in the middle of a lease, then their leaving would increase my monthly expenses by a factor based on how many other roommates I had at the time. In other words, an expense that should have been “fixed” in my personal budget was always at risk of increasing based on externalities that were outside of my control.

As a guy who works in finance and who is a maniacal manager of my personal finances, I don’t like it when I’m not in control of my long-term fixed costs and, by consequence, other financial stability-related issues.

At the end of February 2014, my now-former roommate told me that he was finally hired by a group that he had been hoping to get a job with for the past few years. This was a tremendous success for him and a really good, positive moment. This was also a good moment for me because I had been searching the “for sale” listings for a few months at the time that this news came around. In a different scenario, I would have been at my wits’ end trying to find a way to piece together a new living situation. However, after paying off my student loans and feeling financially free since August 2013, I was ready to purchase a home.

The stability that I received in my personal finances from paying off those student loans was great. Yet, it also made it abundantly apparent that I needed to stop renting and buy a home sooner rather than later. Given the high cost of owning a home in New Jersey (if you’re reading this from a state other than New Jersey, you don’t want me to start going into our property taxes), it was always a smarter move for me to live with at least one roommate instead of buying a home of my own. Over the years, though, certain things change. One example of the things that changed is that I’ve gotten older over the years and with that age has come a certain rigidness in what I want in my home. I like what I like and don’t want to be bothered with whatever annoys me! When you live with a roommate, you have to share space and sometimes you can get annoyed by what your roommate does without even thinking about it. Maybe you don’t want to watch the same show on the television or maybe you don’t want to wait for your roommate to finish making breakfast/lunch/dinner so you can get into the kitchen to fix yourself some food. Perhaps you’re not a fan of the state that your roommate leaves the kitchen in when they’re done making their food. The list can go on and on.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t had a wonderful group of roommates over the years. Rather, this is all to reiterate the point that as you get older you change. And as I got older I slowly segregated myself from the entire townhouse that I lived in to just living out of my bedroom. Imagine a very dorm-like situation – I would wake up, shower, and prepare for work all in the same room. When I got home from work, I grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator and then headed to my room to catch up on the day’s news, do some work for my small businesses, and then eventually go to bed… just to perform a very similar routine the next day.

I won’t get too deep into the process of buying a house here, but suffice to say that I found a place nearby where I live now that I felt was priced right. I struck a deal with the owner for a few thousand less than the townhouse was on the market for and we’ve were out of attorney review quickly. The home inspection was done and came back stellar, the appraisal was completed and the value is right where I thought it would be and my mortgage company was lined up and ready to fund me. In the space of about a month, I was able to go through the entire searching and closing process. Not too bad.

For the few weeks that I worked through this process, I had a chance to consider how I want to arrange the 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath townhouse that I bought. I had a chance to consider what I want to do with the garage that is attached to it, what I want to do with the living room, dining room, and eat-in kitchen. I also had a chance to think about which family events I want to host on an annual basis and which events I want to host for my friends in the area. Another aspect that I considered is how I wanted to furnish the place and that’s another aspect of the townhouse that I thought about during the closing process. Luckily, my sister-in-law’s twin sister is an interior designer and she came in to help me choose colors, textures, furniture, and more!

Buying a house was a fun time and not such a bad idea. Plus, I now get to write these blog entries from the comfort of my personal home office – which is fully separate and apart from my bedroom and living space!

Video of My Presentation on Sigma Pi’s ACE Project

Last month, I gave a presentation about how to plan, perform, and follow-up on an award-winning ACE Project. The ACE Project is specific to Sigma Pi Fraternity and the presentation is really only relevant to Sigma Pi undergraduates and alumni volunteers who want to know more about this topic. Or, if you’re interested in listening to me give a presentation for a little over 30 minutes, then you’ll enjoy this video. I apologize in advance for the weak sound in the video – hopefully, you can adjust it on your end so it works well for you.

My next filmed presentations for Sigma Pi Fraternity will be in February 2015. The two topics that I’m speaking on are Sigma Pi Fraternity in New Jersey and True Greek Leadership. It’s going to be a lot of fun!

Thoughts on My First Small Business – Usable Web Solutions

Many years ago I prepared a schedule of blogging topics and arranged those topics by month. For example, during the month of October I noted that I would write a blog entry about any of my small business ventures or even my future business plans. During November, I noted on the schedule that my health would be a good topic to focus on and during December I listed the holidays as the primary topic. And the schedule went on for the entire year. Anyway, I pulled that schedule out the other day for inspiration on what to write about in this entry. Since we’re in the month of October and the schedule says “small business,” I thought it might be interesting to write a short entry on the first small business that I opened – Usable Web Solutions, LLC.

uws-website-image

The quick update for Usable Web Solutions, LLC is that I carried through on my plans to remove all of my third party clients and now the business operates as a shell corporation that owns several independent websites. While I enjoyed working with most of my clients most of the time, I began to run into issues where certain clients just wouldn’t pay for my services. In business, I live by a simple code – you pay a person/company what you promised to pay them, assuming that the good or service provided was of the expected quality. Simple. I never had a complaint about the very high standards that I set for my work; rather, the clients who stopped paying me ran into their own financial troubles and their financial troubles became my issue. Not good. As you might suspect, once those clients stopped paying regularly I cut them off and canceled those contracts.

Then I ran into several issues where clients began to think that since I was their website designer, then I was also their in-house technology person. They were wrong. Some folks just didn’t understand that the guy who makes your website isn’t the guy who is tasked with fixing your Microsoft Word when a document doesn’t open… particularly when the contract you signed with that website guy clearly states his responsibilities being tied solely to your website presence! Thankfully, I only had one or two of these clients over the years (each with several websites, come to think of it). Spinning them off to other web designers in the area was an easy decision when their contracts came due.

And then there was my favorite type of head-shaking client – the ones who knew almost nothing about technology, but they would boss me around demanding that complex activities (think highly sophisticated database building) take place in a matter of days. I had one client that demanded an integrated third party payment system be installed on their website by the end of the day. Granted, if they were using PayPal or Google Wallet that would have been an annoying, but rather easy task. But, as I’m sure you suspect by this point, they didn’t want to use the easy option. They wanted to use the most complex, obscure website payment system on the internet. What fun?! After I finished that job (it took a weekend to get it working correctly), I let that client know in advance of their contract expiring that I wasn’t going to renew it and they should find another company for their website services. Last I checked, their website still hadn’t been updated and I spun them off as a client some 3 or 4 years ago.

Sure, I had many great clients, but my aggravating ones easily won the day and forced me out of the third party website management business. It just wasn’t worth the aggravation.

Today, I keep Usable Web Solutions, LLC open and I use it to manage and build my own suite of websites. You’re reading my personal blog site – JerseySmarts.com. In the coming weeks, I plan to release some new websites and reintroduce some of my old websites that I’ve retired over the years. None of these websites will have input or management-level requirements from anyone on the outside of Usable Web Solutions, LLC (and as the guy who owns and operates that company, what I’m really saying here is that I’m going to manage the suite of websites myself). Having all of my websites managed under my own banner and operated by me and me alone should make the entire management process flow much easier.

That’s your quick update on Usable Web Solutions, LLC. It was my first small business and the first major success that I had as a business owner. Here’s hoping for many more similar successes in my future!