King of the Bee!

Please allow me to present my stepson, Logan, the winner of the 2008 Pinnacle Charter School Spelling Bee!

Logan with trophy

A couple of years ago, Logan performed well enough in the school Spelling Bee to attend the Adams 12 district bee, but was tripped up by the word “condor,” which he actually did know how to spell. This year, he got his revenge on the condor, and conquered the spelling bee with the winning word “terrestrial.”

The Pinnacle is a K-12 charter school, and two years ago, it was part of the Adams 12 district. Now, however, it is part of a state charter, and the participation rules for charter schools in the Scripps spelling bee events are evidently significantly tougher than for public schools. The school made sure it crossed all its Ts and dotted all its Is, and was allowed to participate as a qualifying school. Since it is not part of a public school district, that means Logan’s win puts him directly into the Colorado State Spelling Bee, which will take place at the Colorado Convention Center in March!

Way to go, Logan! We’re extremely proud of you, and we’ll be there rooting for you in March!

Douglas Bruce Incident (a.k.a. “Brucewatch”)

Note, 4/1/2008: Though this post was originally written on 1/15/08, Representative Douglas Bruce has continued to make headlines for his inappropriate behavior in the Colorado House, and I’ve continued to post links to the articles about him. Therefore, it seems appropriate to take this April Fool’s Day opportunity to rechristen this post “Brucewatch.”


Some of you may have heard about the Douglas Bruce incident that took place on the floor of the Colorado House yesterday. If not, here are some links to bring you up to speed.

Bruce Alive and Kicking in the House (dead link)
Bruce Kicks Photographer During House Prayer (dead link)
Bruce Would Not Discuss Kicking Photographer in News Conference
Douglas Bruce’s Official Website

Today, I read that the House Minority Leader Mike May (mike.may.house@state.co.us) and the Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff (romanoff@coloradohouse.org), a Republican and a Democrat, have come together to launch an investigation into the incident.

House Panel to Investigate Lawmaker’s Kick at Photographer

Here is the text of an e-mail I just sent to both men. I hope those of you in Colorado will join me in these sentiments, no matter what your party affiliation may be.

Dear Mr. Romanoff and Mr. May,

I want to thank you for taking the initiative to investigate the actions of Douglas Bruce yesterday on the House floor. From all accounts, it was clearly a case of assault and intimidation, even if it didn’t result in significant injury. Coupled with Bruce’s insistence that he be sworn in during open session and his refusal to take his appointed seat in a timely manner, his actions make it clear that his priority is self-interest, rather than representing his constituents. His refusal to apologize for his inappropriate actions further cements this impression.

As I’ve heard others say, this is not a party issue, it is a human respect issue, and I commend you both for seeing beyond party lines to deal with the real issues.

In the end, I hope you find that the most appropriate action the House can take is expulsion. If this man resorts to violence as a first option — immediately after prayer, at that — he is not a man that I want in my state government.

Yours sincerely,

Stace Johnson
Federal Heights

Update 3:05 PM: I already received an e-mail acknowledgment from Mike May. The language in the e-mail seems fairly standard (i.e. a form letter), but I’m very pleased to have received acknowledgment at all in such a short time. Mr. May, thank you for your quick response!

Update 3:20 PM, 1/18/2008: The special committee investigating the actions of Douglas Bruce has recommended that Bruce be censured, and that he apologize to the full State House for his actions. So far, Bruce seems unrepentant, claiming that his heel kick was merely just shoving the photographer out of the way. Yeesh. Here’s the news update.

Update 1:20 PM, 1/20/2008: Bruce maintains that he did nothing wrong, and that merely “tapping” someone with the bottom of his shoe does not constitute a kick. Hmmm … Mr. Bruce, if you look at the video taken of you while you were performing the action, it appears that you not only tapped, but shoved (with your foot, i.e. kicked) the cameraman hard enough to make him lose his balance and knock over one of the cameras next to him. That seems like more than a “tap” to me, and yes, it does constitute assault (Simple assault, technically, a misdeameanor.) If you don’t know that, you shouldn’t be a lawmaker, Mr. Bruce. And if you can’t exert enough self-control to restrain yourself from committing a misdemeanor on the House floor, you should not be allowed in the House.

Update 9:10 PM, 1/23/2008: Lawmakers introduce an unprecedented resolution to censure Representative Bruce. It’s not expulsion, and it remains to be seen whether Bruce will have to stand on the House floor before his peers while the censure is delivered, but the Colorado House has never before resolved to censure a Representative, so it is a pretty strong punishment.

Update 4:38 PM, 1/24/2008: Bruce compares himself to Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington during a rambling defensive speech after censure.

Update 4:51 PM, 2/15/2008: Keep it up, Bruce. Now he’s refusing to vote on health care resolutions and veterans’ rights issues, despite being a (now former) member of the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee. See all that smoke behind you, Mr. Bruce? Those are the bridges you are burning, and if you keep being uncooperative as a representative of your constituency, you will have a short time in the Colorado House.

Update 9:50 AM, 2/21/2008: Under the microscope. Mr. Bruce submitted expense reports for the five days that he delayed taking office earlier this year. That’s $750. Fortunately, someone caught it, and he says it was a clerical error and will return the money. Why don’t I believe him? I would say this is a witch hunt, except that Mr. Bruce has clearly broken the rules repeatedly, and there’s documentation to back up the claims. I can’t imagine that he will hold office for long.

Update 10:11 PM, 4/1/2008: Dirty Campaigning at the Capitol. Today, Mr. Bruce decided to deliver fliers to his fellow Republicans in the Colorado House, attacking his opponent in this year’s Republican Primary. This brought yet another warning to Bruce from House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who determined that the brash campaigning, while not necessarily against the rules of the legislature, was in poor taste. Seems consistent to me; I have yet to hear of Representative Bruce doing anything in good taste since he took his House seat.

24th ComputorEdge article

My latest article for ComputorEdge hit the web on Friday. It’s entitled “The Dark Side of the Coin,” and is about Internet resources people can use for climbing out of debt. It was while researching this article that I truly found the usefulness of JD Roth’s GetRichSlowly site, as well as Leo Babauta’s ZenHabits site (which just won Best Overall Blog for the Performancing Blog Awards 2007. (I’m not sure I would make a verb out of “performance,” but then again, it does make a unique blog name.)

I’ve been dealing with debt in various degrees for at least the last twenty years. After losing my job in 2005 (during my honeymoon, I might add) and after Lannette’s diagnosis of fibromyalgia and resulting need to leave the corporate workspace, we found ourselves living on about a third of the income we had been bringing in while both of us were employed. The effect was catastrophic to our lives, resulting snowballing debt we couldn’t pay, a vehicle repossession and near eviction from our home.

Things are better now, but still somewhat tight. I’m working on creating multiple income streams that can help a little; my writing for ComputorEdge was one of those streams, but the magazine’s new Web-only business model (a.k.a., no more pay for articles) means that I need to find a replacement for that. Perhaps the replacement will come from computer consulting. Perhaps it will come from selling other articles. If I get really lucky, maybe it will come from writing short stories (but that means I need to actually submit some, and not squander the opportunities when I get them.)

At any rate, the blog resources mentioned above are very helpful and inspirational, and I recommend them to anyone who wants to get a handle on his or her finances (or life, for that matter.)

We have a winner!

Since last year, I’ve been subscribing to the GetRichSlowly blog, written by J.D. Roth. I found his blog through Gina Trapani’s LifeHacker blog, and I’m finding that reading GetRichSlowly is helping me to keep a focus on getting my finances in shape. I’ve always had a tendency to bury my head in the sand when things get dark in my financial world, and keeping up with GRS helps me avoid that tendency.

Last week, GRS ran a contest, asking for true stories of frugality by readers or people close to them, and I submitted a revision of my Of Laptops and Cub Scout Slides post. The contest was to have three winners, all of whom would receive copies of Jeff Yeager’s The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches. It actually turned out that there were four winners, and I was one of them!

I had linked to the above blog entry from the GRS site, and I was surprised to see a big spike in traffic on that post. Over the weekend, nearly 200 people read my “Cub Scout Slides” blog post, which I didn’t expect at all. I’m hoping I got some new RSS or e-mail subscribers out of those page views; if you are new to the Lytspeed Communications Creativity Journal, please speak up in the comments and let me know. And thanks for visiting!

I don’t think of myself as being good at being frugal, so I feel a little like I don’t deserve to be awarded a book about frugality. What this shows me, though, is that I do have wonderful examples of frugality in what my parents taught me, specifically my Dad. My wife has told me before that I need to collect all these great stories that I have of my Dad and put them together in one place. Maybe this blog is the place. I’ll create a new category for those kinds of stories.

It’s also interesting to note that I had referred to GRS in my most recent ComputorEdge article, which comes out Friday, January 11th, 2008. The article is called “The Dark Side of the Coin,” and is about debt reduction.

Hmmm … the stars seem to be aligning. Maybe this really is the year I will make headway against 17 years of constant debt.

Caveat Emptor — Used CD-ROM drives

I have purchased a lot of things on eBay, and I have rarely had any problems. There was one time that I purchased a Motorola H700 Bluetooth headset that turned out to be a Chinese knock-off, but I just reported that to eBay as fraud and got my money back quickly.

Recently, though, I ran into a rather serious problem. Fortunately, it was not as serious as it could have been, but I want others reading this to know what to look for.

Recently, I posted about how I had gotten a couple of broken laptops from a co-worker and restored them to running order as gifts for my wife and stepson. One of the things I needed to do with my wife’s laptop was order a new CD-ROM drive, and I found one for a decent price on eBay. After waiting out the auction, I was the only bidder and got it for the starting bid price. The seller sent it quickly, and it arrived yesterday.

When I came home on my lunch hour, I opened it up, popped out the floppy drive, inserted the new CD-ROM drive, and powered it up. Unfortunately, the new drive worked perfectly.

I say “unfortunately” because it booted off a CD that was already in the drive when it arrived. In a matter of seconds, I saw a Norton Ghost 6.0 screen pop up, and the next thing I knew, I was faced with a Windows 98 startup screen and a C:\ prompt. I was confused. The first thought that went through my head was that there had actually been a CD in the drive and that it had wiped my wife’s hard drive. I quickly dismissed that as paranoia, but I knew that the Norton Ghost screen had to have come from somewhere. I opened the CD drive, and sure enough, an unlabeled CD-R was in the drive. I took it out, closed the drive, and rebooted, confident everything would be fine.

It wasn’t. I got a Windows 98 splash screen and a C:\ prompt again. I typed dir and found that all 6GB of the hard drive was free. The drive had been formatted to boot as if it were a Windows 98 boot diskette.

I put the unlabeled CD-R in my home computer (on which I have disabled auto-run for CDs) and explored the contents. It had six files total:

BOOTCAT.BIN
BOOTIMG.BIN
DOSBOOTF.GHO
GDISK.EXE
GHOST.EXE
START.BAT

Here are the contents of START.BAT:

gdisk 1 /mbr /wipe /sure
REM gdisk 1 /del /all /sure
ghost.exe -clone,mode=load,src=x:\dosbootf.gho,dst=1 -sure

For those who don’t speak DOS, this translates as follows:

Run Norton's GDISK program and erase the Master Boot Record without prompting
(The second line is ignored because of the REM (REMark) statement)
Run Norton's Ghost program and replace the contents of this drive with a DOS boot floppy image without prompting

The CD that arrived in my wife’s CD-ROM drive was specifically designed to completely wipe the operating system of any PC that boots from it in a matter of seconds. When I first figured this out, I assumed the victim mentality and thought that someone had intentionally planted the disc in the drive as a long-range hacking prank, but soon the System Administrator in me took over and realized that this was probably just an accident.

When organizations surplus old computer equipment, they generally take at least some steps to make sure that company data is scrubbed off the hard drive before it leaves the building. This disk is likely the result of one of these scrubbing sessions, where a technician simply booted all of the machines from this disc to quickly erase all of the data. Unfortunately, s/he forgot to take the disc out of the CD drive before it was sent to the liquidators, and this drive wound up in the hands of my eBay Platinum retailer.

At this point, it becomes a question of who takes responsibility for the disc’s presence. Since I purchased the used CD drive from the eBay retailer in good faith that it had been inspected prior to sale, I think the retailer is at least indirectly responsible for the loss of the data on my wife’s hard drive. Inaction does not absolve him of responsibility for the product he’s selling. By the same token, I could have used a paper clip to open up the drive prior to installing it in the laptop, but I think I was justified in assuming that the vendor had already done this.

The reality is that I paid a fair price for a working CR-ROM drive, and I received that. Unfortunately, along with it, I received a disc that destroyed the operating system on my wife’s computer, and that will cost me much more (in terms of time to restore) than I paid for the drive. If I go to the grocery store and purchase a product, then get home and open it to find mold in the product, I take it back with my receipt and the grocery store replaces it or gives me my money back immediately. It seems the same in this case to me. I purchased a product, the product works, but it had obviously not been inspected before shipment and damaged my wife’s computer. I would think that an eBay Platinum retailer would not think twice about simply refunding my money as part of good customer service.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that I have not mentioned the name of the retailer. I want to give him the opportunity to rectify the situation. I will probably follow up later with the results, whether favorable or unfavorable for the retailer.

So here’s where the Caveat Emptor (“Let the Buyer Beware”) clause comes in. Even though I think that the seller is partially responsible for selling me a product containing a disc that was a danger to my data, I could have avoided the situation by verifying that the drive was empty in the first place. By opening the drive with a paper clip, I could have found the disc before ever putting the drive in the computer and all would be safe. I probably would have still contacted the seller to let him know that he needs to inspect his merchandise before it leaves his door, but no data would have been lost.

Caveat Emptor.

Update 1/5/08 @ 2:13 PM: I received e-mail from the seller, saying he thought my request for a refund was reasonable, and that he would talk it over with the other owner. In exchange, he would like the disc back so he can try to figure out which vendor it came from. He even offered to pay return shipping for the disc. I think that’s completely fair, and shows that his company does believe in good customer service. Assuming things continue to progress as they are, I would buy from this seller again with no hesitation.

Update 1/9/08 @ 9:14 AM: The seller contacted me today to let me know that his business partner agrees that refunding my money is an appropriate action, considering the circumstances. He has also given me permission to reveal his company’s name and link to his eBay store, which I am happy to do, considering how responsive their customer service has been.

Synaptic-Systems eBay store

To all you mom-and-pop eBay shops: this is how to handle a customer service problem. Communicate with your buyers, and when they have a problem with a product, stand behind the product and do what it takes to make the buyer happy. Your reward will be word-of-mouth advertising, because you were willing to fix the problem.