Friday, January 27, 2006

The Straw That Broke Our Backs

To add insult to injury, it now looks like tax millages are going to go way up because of the unfair and uneven way tax assessments have been adjusted post-Katrina. Which means our tax burden is likely to grow considerably. Earlier we were on the fence about what do with our home in New Orleans but now it is clear that it is time to sell and leave the city. This makes us incredibly sad since we'll miss our absolutely tremendous neighbors and the great culture and urban living. The only question is now is whether or not we sell immediately or try and hold out until August when we'll have been in the home two years and don't have to worry about the taxes on our home appreciation.

I am slowly starting to understand the federal government's lack of desire to help Louisiana. It seems like everything in this state is being done ass-backwards and while everyone knows it, absolutely no one is willing or able to work towards fixing it (in fact, there are many who take pride in it.) I too would be reluctant to give to a city begging for money with one hand while the other hand actively works to make is tax structure even more uneven, unfair, and biased towards the wealthiest few.

I wish I could say it is a battle we could stay and fight but at this point, I feel like the only true vote we have is with our feet. We are incredibly lucky that we are in both an economic aland logistical positions where we can chose to leave the city. Not that city has made it so that we could afford to stay if we really wanted...

Larcomar at Night

Last night we went out to a Mangos cafe in Larcomar with Gwen and both kids in tow. We had an excellent dinner - my risotto with mushrooms and blue cheese was tremendous. On the way back home I stopped to take several shots of the city in the early evening. For some reason I always seem to have more luck with night time photography. In the last two pictures, the cluster of white umbrellas on the cliff edge is where we had dinner.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Because My Mom Asked...

Here are more pictures of Will to satisfy his adoring fans (I'm not deluding myself with any thoughts that anyone actually reads this blog to see pictures of me). This afternoon, I was able to wrap up work a little early and spend some time playing on the rooftop terrace with Will. Here are some of the best shots from that session. And you'll note that while I was able to get him to wear a helmet while riding his tricycle, I was not able to convince him of the necessity of pants.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Few From The Zoo

Holly has already blogged about our trip to the zoo so I won't say much more than "these are a few of my favorite pictures from the zoo."

Walk Around Miraflores

Friday afternoon Will and I had a little stroll around Miraflores while Holly cooked dinner. We went up the coast a bit to Lover's Park and then came back through the neighborhood. Here are some shots I took along the way.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Taxes, Revisited.....

This has me thinking that maybe I need to run for office so that I too can get my home way undervalued and my property taxes reduced. We pay over $400/month in property taxes on our home now which is about what we were paying in Ann Arbor. But at least in Ann Arbor we had a great school system, great public services, and some faith that everyone's property value assessment was fair. Its a very interesting exercise to look at the properties for sale in New Orleans and check out their tax assessments. Granted, once the houses are sold they'll be taxed at their sale value. However, its amazing the number of homes that are selling for way more than our house is worth but whose current tax assessment is just a fraction of ours.

Some examples:

Our home is on Jospeh St (you can look it up by my last name but I don't want to give the address on the public blog). We purchased it for $329,000 and its appraised value post-Katrina is now $284,000. This translates roughly into $4,800 a year in taxes depending on what the millage rates are set at (and includes our homestead exemption).

1923 Octavia Street is selling for $775,000. It's appraised value is $158,600 which means that (assuming the owners live there and get a homestead exemption), they are paying roughly 3 times less taxes this year than we will be but their house is worth twice what ours is.

1935 Octavia Street is selling for $999,000. It's appraised value is now $240,000 which means they are paying about 2/3 the taxes we are (assuming homestead exemption again). What's even worse, is that last year the house was appraised at $400,000 which is what it sold for in 2003. So somehow their assessor saw fit to say that the home was impacted enough by Katrina that its value is only 60% of what it was before (and it definitely did not flood). If this was truly the case, how is that its now on the market at just under a million dollars? For reference, our appraised value came down around 12% due to the storm.

427 Arabella is selling for $495,000 though, to be fair, it has been on the market a long time and is not selling at this price. It's appraised value is now $110,400 (it was $125,600 before Katrina) which means the owners are paying roughly one fifth the taxes we're paying.

I really do love New Orleans, but its looking less and less likely we'll be there any longer than we have to be for Holly to get her degree. I'm blessed with the ability to work from almost anywhere I want and that makes it hard to rationalize paying $400/month in taxes plus $400/month in insurance (property & car), and still have to shell out at least $8,000 a year for my child to go to a decent school.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Night Time In The City

Late evening in the city is my favorite time. The air is cool and the city has settled into a noisy yet peaceful slumber in the soft glow of its own light. Tonight there is an almost full moon peeking through the low clouds that roll in from the ocean. I can hear snatches of Spanish and German drifting up from the patio of one of the nearby homes.

Wynton Marsalis for Mayor of New Orleans

This is the speech that our illustrious mayor should have given.

Juggling Practice

One of my goals for the new year and for this trip in particular has been to make more time to practice my juggling. Here are a few shots of me fooling around on the roof top of our house on a nice afternoon this past weekend. And yes, I know I make funny faces when I juggle...

Pictures From Our Three Day Weekend

We spent a great extended weekend exploring the city a bit more. On Saturday, we had a great lunch with Holly's professor and several other students here in the beautiful neighborhood of Barranco. Afterwords, we wandered around the neighborhood and let Will play in some of the parks. Here are some pictures we took of the area. It is a strong candidate for where we want to live when we return here.

Friday, January 13, 2006

My Home Away From Home

Here is a shot of the office I'm using in the house were renting in Lima, Peru. It's a little room about 6' x 8' tucked off of the master bedroom. It has doors into the master bedroom and another out to the patio where we hang our laundry to dry (and where the stairs to the rooftop terrace are). Its a wonderful, private location for getting work done. Though if this were my house, I'd build an office up on the roof (attached to the extra full bathroom that is already up there) so that I'd have a nice view and get more of the wonderful ocean breeze.

By virtue of having the card reader on her laptop, Holly always gets first dibs on the pictures we've been taking in Peru. However, I'm going to put up one of my favorites I like to call "I can't believe you're making me do this". This is a picture of Holly holding up the travel bug we picked up while geocaching before we left the states. The travel bug is known as B's Bunny and you can follow his adventures here.

What ever happened to that 80's music?

It's alive and well in central and south America. During our two trips to Honduras, it seemed like we couldn't go a day without hearing Lady in Red at least once, if not two or three times. It seemed like every other house, bus, or car had a radio on and it would invariably be playing something by one those 80's super-groups likes Kansas, Chicago, or Boston. During our first trip there, I event spent an hour or so sitting out under the stars in Arena Blanca, listening to Rush's Exit Stage Left album blasting up the mountainside from a nearby house.

Since we've arrived in Peru, we've mostly heard the latest America pop playing in Larcomar and surrounding areas. However, last night we were in a very upscale Ripley's department store and I slowly realized that the song playing was Genesis' (It's No Fun Being An) Illegal Alien (everything else being played was recent pop hits). I couldn't figure out if it was just a poor choice of musak or part of a subtle anti-immigration campain on the part of the U.S.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Telecommuting From Halfway Around The World

I have been a full time telecommuter for over two years now (plus a 7 month gig a few years before that) but this is the first time I've really tried to take my show on the road, let alone to another country. I'm not counting our temporary moves to Mobile, Alabama when we moved from Michigan and more recently evacuated due to Katrina. Those times I was able to pack up my development machine and take it with me. For this trip to Peru, moving my monster box and its two 20" flat panel monitors was not an option.

The first thing I did was pick up a laptop. Since I rarely ever need a laptop when I am at home, I could not rationalize picking up a high end (expensive) one for the six weeks we're going to be in Peru. Instead, I went for reliability and purchased a refurbished IBM Thinkpad R40 from I've been a big fan of Thinkpads ever since I had one when I was a road warrior during my brief gig with Arthur Andersen. Holly has a Thinkpad T23 which I consider to be the perfect combination of weight, durability, and power for the average user. Unfortunately, I'm not the average user and I needed something a bit beefier in terms of processing power and disk size in order to accomodate my development environment.

So I went with the R40 which is a step down in the product line but was available with a faster processor, larger disk, and a DVD reader/CD burner on for $599. Using a combination of discounts includings Overstock's 12% off for a first time buyer, Fat Wallet's 4% cash back, and Discover Card's 5% off of online purchase promotion, I got the price down to right around $500 after all the discounts and kickbacks. Of course, the $100 I saved was promptly spent on maxing out the laptops memory at 1 gig.

Moving my development environment over to a new machine actually proved to be a welcome opportunity to clean up two years of cruft and a good chance to just reorganize my development directory structure. I'm actually looking forward to transferring my new environment back to my real development box when we return home.

In order to stay connected to my coworkers in the states (usually just for my weekly status calls), we brought along our Vonage internet phone with us. This just consists of a small box that you connect to your internet firewall and plug a phone in to. Fortunately, the power supply for it (like the laptop) handles the 220 volts/50hz that Peru uses. We've been Vonage customers for almost 4 years now and it been great to be able to take your home phone with you wherever you go.

So, in theory I now had everything I needed to work remotely. In practice, there's been a few kinks to work out. Fortunately, we spent the holidays in Mobile at Holly's parents and that let me test out my telecommuting rig before we were way far away from home. Now that we've been in Peru for almost a week, here are my thoughts on my long-distance telecommuting experience so far:
  • The laptop has worked suprisingly well for me in terms of having the oomph needed to build software. It's nowhere near as fast as my monster development machine at home but with enough memory, its done a decent job. The biggest issues is that its disk I/O is much slower so I have to be judicious about when I do things like clean rebuilds of our entire development base.
  • One thing that hasn't work so well is the laptop's limitted screen size. I've grown accustomed at home to having two identical 20" flat planels that run at 1600x1200. Since I bought a low end laptop, its display only does 1024x768 and thats painfully small. I anticipated this problem and before we came to Peru I confirmed that the I could hook my laptop up to the monitor for the computer that is in the house that we're renting. So I do have at least two displays to work on, albeit both of them are half the resolution of the ones I'm used to.
  • Our Vonage phone has also been a disappointment too. Even though we have a cable modem here in Lima, the bandwidth is not particularly good, particularly on the upstream end. Even at its lowest quality setting, we've had lots of dropouts, making it difficult for the people we call to hear us.
  • As a result of the problems with our Vonage line, we've moved over to Skype internet phone which does not involve any custom equipment as it runs on the computer and uses my laptop's microphone and speakers. This is working much better for us and most importantly, it provides me with call quality statistics so I can keep on the call and know if I'm likely to start having trouble communicating.
All in all, its been fairly easy to take my telecommuting show on the road. I think the small losses in efficiency I have on a laptop have been more than made up for by the wonderful support we have in Peru. Having someone who can watch Will all day and help out with meals, cleaning, and laundry makes a huge difference and as led to me working longer days as I don't have anyone else dictating when I need to stop work.

For any of our friends and family out there with a high speed internet connection, check out Skype - its free to call other Skype members (we pay 2 cents a minute to traditional phones). If you do install Skype and want to call us, just e-mail us for our id.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Veni, vedi, blogi...

Well, if Millard can neglect a blog, I figure I can manage to neglect one too. I've been thinking of starting one for a few months now and our ongoing trip to Peru has provided me with the final incentive to do so. If you're looking for articulate, well-written posts please be sure and read my wife's blog. If you're looking for the random musings of a man trying to be a curmudgeon before his time, you've found the right place...