Friday, October 30, 2009

On Finding a Web Host

Disclaimer: links to web hosts are referral links. Signing up through them is appreciated, but I don't expect anyone to. =)

For the past few days, I have been searching for a quality web host - preferably for ridiculously cheap. These two criteria (quality and inexpensiveness) are often at odds, but not always. I got a few recommendations, including DreamHost, Host Gator, and LunarPages. DreamHost was recommended about a year ago, while Host Gator and LunarPages were new recommendations. I was looking for some more information on the hosts, though.

As it turns out, it is very difficult to find information on web host quality. Most of the search results you get back for "web host reviews" and "top web hosts" and similar queries are lists of affiliate links ordered by highest paying referrals. In other words, they're a list of top web host affiliate programs, rather than top web hosts. I'm sure it's not the only honest web review site out there (assuming it is honest, of course), and it might not be the best, but struck me as fairly honest. One of his other sites,, was also helpful with some raw performance data. The fact that he hosted his sites on Host Gator was perhaps the best selling point.

That, coupled with the fact that the recommendation for LunarPages was qualified with some reports of downtime, left me heavily leaning toward using Host Gator. When I looked, also listed HostGator in the top two in all three performance categories on the main page. I also found recommendations somewhere to have separate companies manage the web hosting and domain registration. I'm not convinced that is really necessary, but since Host Gator charges $15/year or so, and most places only charge $10/year, I figured I'd look into it. Five bucks is five bucks, right? I found Namecheap to be the most recommended place to register a domain, but as I'll explain in the next paragraph, I didn't end up using either it or Host Gator.

Just before I registered the domain, I decided to check one last time what DreamHost's domain registration costs, and how I could manage two accounts at once through them. It was when I was exploring my account control panel for a domain I ordered a year ago that I noticed I can host multiple domains through the same account. The only added cost is the domain registration of $9.99/year, which is close enough to Namecheap's rate. I originally signed up with DreamHost during a special for something like $22 for two years of hosting. It really was a ridiculously good price. I'm sure they are counting on renewals, which I don't think any host offers ongoing discounts on. So, while I probably can't continue getting hosting for so cheap, a little bit of research into multiple domain hosting saved me a lot of money, or at least put off the decision of finding a new web host for another year. All three web hosts listed in this post appear to offer multiple domain hosting, so my decision isn't narrowed down at this point. Chances are that I'll stick with DreamHost just to avoid the hassle of transferring things, unless prices are wildly different.

Now, all I need to do is develop an attractive web page. As you can tell from this blog, I go for simple layouts and colors (or lack thereof). Building an attractive page will be a first for me! (Help...)

Host Gator

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Old School Assignment

I have discussed a story from my childhood and how it reflects my personality. I think this old assignment from college also reflects my personality, so I thought I would share that, too.

I found an old Technical Writing assignment after I fixed my file server. The assignment was to write a technical manual on an item in the kitchen. Almost everyone chose a toaster, a blender, an oven, or some other type of appliance. Everyone except me, that is. I created a manual for a bowl.

Click for full size (readable) image!

HipStuff was one of the companies my roommate and I planned. It started with his idea of HipSoft, which had the slogan "Software that doesn't suck." We had Hip subsidiaries planned for a lot of sectors, and the category was always one syllable. HipCo was the parent company, and HipStuff was kind of a catch-all. We also had HipFilm, I think, which would make movies that didn't suck. I found out this year that G4 shows movies as: "Movies that don't suck." I don't think they stole the idea from us, despite the similarity.

I remember adding the feature of the No-Tip base after I started the diagram. I started with a circle, naturally enough, but then realized the bowls would tip over. I was so astonished that I could miss something so fundamental that I decided to make it an official feature. I also particularly like the feature about the "Uniformly Symmetrical Shape," and the cleaning tip that mentions "extensive drying times" instead of a bowl full of (soapy) water. Mostly, I just like the idea of a bowl requiring a manual. My teacher was not thrilled, but had no choice but to give me an 'A'.

That was probably a common feeling... "Mark just spat in the face of the spirit of this assignment, but he did it correctly. Drat!"

New Parts for File Server

I fixed my file server a couple of weeks ago. I now have my 3.5TB of storage space available again! If you'll recall, I've fixed my file server a few times before...

I started trying to fix my file server a couple of months ago by reinstalling Ubuntu. Unfortunately, this would hang at about 5% on the formatting/partitioning step. I suspected a faulty system hard drive, but didn't get around to trying another one until early October. I tried an old (from back in high school, for at least part of the machine) 40GB drive. The installation went through, but the system wouldn't boot from that drive. Since the drive had been in my garage for a number of years, I didn't particularly trust it. So, I went to Micro Center and picked up a 500GB hard drive that was on sale. It, too, allowed the installation to complete but would not boot up. It should be noted that the system hard drive has to be an IDE hard drive because I use all the SATA ports for the RAID array.

I figured it was most likely a faulty motherboard at this point. I went to and picked out a cheap motherboard and processor (I always prefer to buy them together to ensure I have the right socket and so I don't have to mess with reapplying thermal grease whenever possible). Along with my new camera, the parts arrived in just a few days. I really do love Newegg.

There's not much else to tell. The installation went well, the raid was recreated without much hassle. I did learn a new command: mdadm --scan --detail /dev/md0 >> /etc/mdadm/mdadm.conf. I don't remember having to run this command or having to mess with mdadm.conf at all, in fact, in the past. I'm not sure what has changed, but in order to get the raid device to persist after rebooting, I had to do this. I'm just happy it all works.

And it does all work! I no longer have that noisy north bridge fan (this motherboard doesn't have a north bridge fan to get noisy)! Everything seems much more stable and efficient. I'm really quite pleased with the new motherboard. I'm also happy with the new camera. I took some pictures of the file server, which I can't believe I haven't done before!

The old, very dusty, motherboard.

My newly installed motherboard. So pretty.

The entire case. This is my first Micro ATX motherboard, and it is surprisingly tiny.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

One-Time Expenses

A couple of days ago, my friend and I were talking about many things. One of these things included a comment about one-time expenses and how there seems to be one every month. I decided to analyze my one-time expenses over the past year and see what I can learn about my budget (as informal as it is). So:
  • December: Living room TV: ~$800, second 24" monitor: ~$300.
  • January: Video games: ~$100. Not too bad...
  • February: Ladder to fix the roof: ~200, paying some guy to fix the roof: ~$60.
  • March: No big expenses. Go me!
  • April: Nothing again!
  • May: Fiona died, and I took Apple in to get tests and shots: $130.
  • June: Adopted Mac & Cheese: ~$100, initial vet visit for Mac & Cheese: $110
  • July: Apple's eye infection: ~$50, Mac & Cheese declawed: ~$260, new tennis racquets: ~$230, video games: ~$100.
  • August: I did good again!
  • September: Video games: ~$75, miscellaneous family expenses: ~$200.
  • October: File server parts & digital camera: ~$400.
  • November: Planned car repairs: ~$400

This puts me at just about $300 per month for one-time expenses. I also want to get a new bed at some point, a storm door for the front, a new car eventually, and probably a few other things I have forgotten about while compiling the above list. The storm door will improve the heating/cooling efficiency of the house. The bed, at least, will likely be purchased at Nebraska Furniture Mart (can you believe I used to be anti-NFM at one point?) and therefore be spread out over the following 24-30 months...

I think the video games will also be a less frequent expense for awhile, since a lot of the video game purchases were large packs of games, and should keep me busy for quite a long time, really. There are still at least 10-20 games I haven't even installed/tried. I really hope my pet expenses (one-time, that is - food and litter are frequent purchases) are very low going forward. Regular check-ups only, please! My file server is running much smoother now (see future post), so that will hopefully truly be a one-time expense for the year or more. I remember justifying my living room TV as roommate retention. It's at least getting use. Some car repairs are definitely necessary - I worry about every strange noise I hear when I drive right now, which is not pleasant at all.

...I think what I learned is that even after compiling a list of one-time expenses while expecting a ridiculously high total, I still went into justification-mode after seeing it. I do keep my regular expenses fairly low, and I'm not at all worried about my cash flow. As I discussed previously, I save $200 each month, and that's after maxing out my 401(k) and Roth IRA contributions every year. I save a lot of money each year, and have multiple layers of financial cushions should I ever need to cut back on expenses. However, even if it's not strictly necessary, I think an occasional analysis of spending patterns is helpful.

Update: Speaking of Nebraska Furniture Mart, I forgot about my living room couch. It was purchased on my NFM card, though, and I technically haven't started paying that off yet - I'm still working on my dining room furniture. Or maybe it is my downstairs TV. I love 0% interest! Also, I think it important to mention my new furnace, since it was almost a full year's worth of one-time expenses by itself. Things happen.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Reserve Cash vs Investing

As I discussed awhile back, here, I have a primary E*TRADE Complete Savings account, and a reserve E*TRADE Complete Savings account. I set up a $200/month automatic transfer from my Complete Savings account to my Reserve Cash account quite awhile ago. This was in addition to a sizable initial funding.

So far, this has worked very well at keeping me from investing this cash in (riskier) stocks. For the most part, I think this has worked because the balance of each account is relatively small, so it doesn't feel like I have that much extra to invest. You'll notice that I don't say spend - I have an automatic transfer of $1200/month to my checking account, which covers all credit card transactions plus those utilities not charged to the credit card. This has been more than enough to cover my limited expenses so far. It also helps me keep the few bigger purchases I make, such as buying a new camera, well spaced throughout the year. My main problem in keeping a cash reserve is that I feel that money is wasted just sitting there, when it could be averaging 8% per year sitting in the stock market.

I think this feeling will become a larger issue very soon, when my Reserve Cash account will surpass my Complete Savings account. At that point, I fear it will suddenly appear to be a much larger chunk of money than it is. To combat this feeling, I think I need a specific goal. For example, MyMoneyBlog's author keeps $100K in reserve, which is way too much cash to have on hand (at least for me). If I take my $1200 spending money plus $1400 mortgage payment, I get monthly expenses of $2600. In an emergency, I can take off more than $100 from my mortgage payment, and can easily cut down spending. But, to be conservative, let's leave one month's expenses at $2500 (a small adjustment for nice round numbers).

My first thought is to keep $10K in my reserve account. This would be at least 4 months of expenses, and is a nice round number. Combined with the fact that I always keep at least $3K in my Complete Savings account just in case there's a problem with my direct deposit for a month, this seems like a more than adequate cash reserve. However, never having had an emergency in my life, I'd be interested to hear other perspectives. Is 4 months of expenses a stupidly low cushion, despite most places recommending 3-6 months? How many months expenses do you keep on hand?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

New Camera

My old camera is a PowerShot A610 5.0 MP camera. It still works, but it requires a lot of batteries. I bought some rechargeable batteries, but they only keep the thing running for about 15 pictures. They also lose their charge after sitting in the camera for a day or two, and they don't stay charged if I leave them in the charger, either. Basically, the (name brand) rechargeable batteries I bought are crap.

I've decided that my next camera will have a Li-ion battery pack to avoid these problems. If my new cell phone is any indication, it should last quite a long time with each charge. It looks like this will also allow for a smaller camera, since they can make Li-ion batteries in whatever size they need for the camera.

That decided, the question is now what type of camera to get. So far, I'm a fan of the Canon PowerShot SD780 IS and the Canon EOS Rebel XSi. I like the idea of getting a camera that will be able to handle any future photography plans I may have (ie, the Rebel), but I think I have to admit that 99% of its features would go completely unused by me. I don't know what most of them are, let alone how to use them effectively. The only thing I know I'd like currently is the rapid frame rate. On the other hand, I'll never learn about photography if I only ever have a point and shoot camera.

And then there's the size. You basically have to plan on taking pictures with a DSLR camera. It's not practical to take on a walk on the off chance you get inspired by a flower or eccentric person. The SD780 is only a little bit bigger than my cell phone, and less than an ounce heavier.

It comes down to practical versus ideal. The point and shoot will suit my current needs wonderfully, I'm sure. I've always liked the idea of being artistic, though. Photography is one of the few art forms where you don't have to be able to create beautiful things. You can be a successful photographer by knowing how to capture the beauty in things. (I realize many photographers do create beautiful things and photograph them, or alter photographs to make them better, etc. In no way do I mean to trivialize photographic artists or their art.) Can I capture the beauty in things, or do I just think I could? Would I devote the time required to learn about photography, thereby making a DSLR actually perform better for me than a point and shoot camera?