Protect Documents, Data, and Uninsured/Irreplaceable Valuables

Fire and theft are rare, but devastating events. I keep my backup hard drive, passports, birth certificates, coins, stamps, and other important stuff in a fireproof safe. Check your homeowner’s insurance policy, many collections are not insured under most policies, but for me some of the stuff I keep in the safe is more sentimental than valuable. I have an older model of an electronic keypad Sentry 2 cubic foot Fire Safe  but have found that, either from my kids playing with the beeping buttons, or by design, that my batteries run down extremely fast. (I started removing them when I am not in the safe recently, to find that they last significantly longer.) They may have corrected the battery drain issue, but if I had to do it over again I think I might opt for the mechanical dial lock because I know it won’t have battery issues and will not be generating any battery waste. You may think that 1.2 cubic feet is large enough, but what I have found is that I was able to fill 2 cubic feet with important stuff rather quickly, and could use a lot more space, so the larger the better.

I also keep my USB backup hard drive in the safe. At the end of each quarter, I try to backup my main data drive, so that if something were to happen, I would only loose three months of data at the most. Some newer safes such as the Sentry Data Storage Chest and the larger Sentry 2 cubic foot Fire Safe with USB now offer USB cables that allow you to actually keep a backup or a main drive plugged in all of the time, which would allow users to setup live backups.

See more on why you need to Backup Your Data.

Free Stuff From Your Local Library (Not Just Books)

Of course your library has books. Now, don't get me wrong, the books are great. I check out all kinds of real estate, business, self-improvement books, and more. But libraries today can offer way more than just books. My library, and maybe yours, also offers e-books, e-magazines, audio books, DVD rentals (even new releases), music CD rentals, and even offers free music downloads (to keep). And it isn't just what your library has on its own shelves, you have access to the entire library system. Many libraries are part of a network of libraries that offer inter-library loans and transfers. I log onto my library's web site and reserve content from any other location on the network and it is delivered (when available) to my local branch where I pick it up. Our library system and many others additionally can offer content from outside the system depending on what external services the library subscribes to. For that stuff, I can even download to my devices without even ever stepping foot into the library itself (except when I originally got my card). Today I see that they have now added a learning center full of tutoring and test-prep services. Our library also usually has a calendar full of on-site activities for patrons of all ages. The weirdest thing my library offers is fishing poles, free to rent. Onsite they have computers, study rooms, conference rooms, and WIFI. So, if you don't have a library card, go get one and see what they have to offer. AND ITS ALL FREE! Support your local library!

MY LIBRARY: Central Arkansas Library System - Maumelle, AR - www.cals.org 

Perk Street Redeems Itself and Clears Dave

After almost a year after Perk Street cancelled all perks points (see perk-street-closes-and-cancels-perks), and closed for business, I received a check from them for the full amount of my perks with no discount rate. I was very impressed. Had I cashed them out while they were still in business, I would have had to cash them out at a 10% discount rate. For a long time I was disappointed in Dave Ramsey for recommending Perk Street to me in the first place, especially since I had in turn recommended it myself (see interest-bearing-internet-banking-and-a-cash-back-debit-card). I was a little more disappointed in Dave, assuming that he had at least been paid for his repeated endorsements on his radio show (or at least his podcast).  But I knew it wasn't Dave's fault, or even Perk Street employee's fault that the business had to close down. I even understood that they had other obligations to their employees and possibly others. But in the end, I am reassured that Perk Street employees did what they could to keep their word with their customers (even though they had long since closed their doors) and that Dave chooses to partner with people and companies that have a strong moral compass and business ethic.

Thanks Dave and thanks Perk Street team! 

Garage Door Opener Weak Signal / Interference from LEDs

Four months ago our Chainberlain LiftMaster Professional garage door remotes started acting flaky. The remotes would only work in very close proximity to the door, like right in front of the door. We would repeatedly attempt to close or open the garage door from the cars parked right in front of the driveway and would only have success maybe after 20 tries.  At first we thought it was a battery issue, but in my car the garage door opener runs off of the car power. I then cleared all remote codes and re-learned all the remotes. I also noticed that the LED learn indicator would blink as if it was receiving a signal, but when there was no signal being sent. I assumed that it was getting some kind of interference, but didn't know from what.


The issue continued to plague us for months. Maybe the antenna had come loose. Maybe the safety sensors were out of alignment. I finally found a discussion board (http://www.diyforums.net/i-have-a-liftmaster-garage-door-opener-unit.-the-remote-work...-7206324.html) that cited LED light bulbs as the culprit for other people's similar sounding issues. But, I didn't have any LED bulbs (or so I thought). I was using a CFL bulb in the garage door opener. Maybe that was causing some interference as it was getting old. I removed it but still no success with the remotes. What else had changed? Then I remembered that I had moved one of the HooToo IP cameras to the garage a few months ago. It has a ring of IR LED lights around the camera lens. The lights automatically activate when there is low light.


As soon as I unplugged the camera, the remotes started working fine again. The camera is now back in another room, because apparently as long as LEDs aren't on the same power circuit, the opener will work fine. The LEDs apparently send an interference signal back up the power line which is enough to confuse the receiver board of the garage door opener. Any other circuit in the house is apparently far enough away to not be a problem. I suppose I could alternatively, disable the IR LEDs as I mentioned in a previous article (disabling-ir-on-hootoo-indoor-hp-ip210). So watch out for more interference issues as the use of LEDs becomes more widespread in household bulbs, holiday lights, and other devices like this camera. 

Protect Yourself From Data Theft

OK, I may be a little paranoid, but maybe a little paranoia is acceptable when it comes to personal data security. On my home server I have attached a 1 TB external USB hard drive. It contains basically my entire digital life on it all the way back to papers I wrote in high school up through pictures of my wedding and the births of my children, to today. The thought of someone breaking into our house and stealing our stuff is scary enough, but to think that they would also have access to all of my digital info takes that fear to a whole 'nother level. Not that someone wants my sophomore paper on To Kill a Mocking Bird, but passwords, copies of drivers licenses, social security cards, birth certificates, and other stuff might be of interest to a person with malicious intents.


So to prevent the misuse of my data, I encrypted the entire hard drive. I used a Freeware program called TrueCrypt. It allows users to encrypt entire drives and/or file folder containers. I opted to encrypt the entire drive for my external storage device. When the power to the drive is disconnected, the USB is unplugged, or the computer is shut down, the encryption service disconnects and the drive must be remounted using the correct password. This should prevent the average smash and grab criminal from gaining access to the data inside the drive, should they even attempt to do so. I am not an authority on cyber crime, but would not be surprised if this was a common occurrence, or at least an emerging trend.

This setup makes it a little inconvenient since I have to enter the password to remount the drive when rebooting the computer. Unfortunately, it houses all of our stuff, so until it is mounted, the FTP, media libraries, and other content is unavailable. However, for the most part, the home server that it is connected to stays powered on. I also recently disabled automatic Windows updates which caused occasional unanticipated restarts. Also, the PC and the drive are hooked up to a UPS power backup to prevent disconnects and/or reboots from power flickers or short outages.

One way I am still vulnerable is if someone brings a PC to my house and plugs into my network, or if someone logs onto one of my PCs and actually sends out or saves out my files. Although, I am not expecting anyone to pull a Mission Impossible 6 on my data, I think I need to consider what I could do to close that gap.

Also, recently I have been wanting to upgrade my storage to RAID mirrored Network Attached Storage (NAS). But the next question I have is how do I keep someone from getting access to the data on those drives if stolen. Also, I would like my periodic backup to the drive in the fireproof safe to be completely automatic, and more frequent than every three months, which is how often I do it manually now. I think that NAS drives generally leave the data completely unprotected in terms of encryption and none of them offer an affordable theft and fire resistant enclosure. So, anyone that can connect to it will have access to the data. I don't know if the NAS devices can even be encrypted. Something to think about a little more.

Portable thumb drives are also important to protect. These are extremely easy to loose. Think about it, what would you do if someone had all of your thumb drive data? Do you even remember what all was on it? Would it make you vulnerable?

I decided to encrypt most of my thumb drive after I lost it for about a week. I keep a readme file on it with my contact information, so that if it is found, an honest person could return it. But not knowing where it was or who might have it was killing me. Was someone looking at my data; my budget, my contact lists? Was everyone else listed in my files exposed now because of me (keeping data on them and now loosing it?) To remedy this worry for files on my thumb drive I opted for an encrypted file container which takes up about two-thirds of the space on the device. This contains my portable files. The other third of the device contains the TrueCrypt installation executable (to install on other computers), a local thumb drive installation of TrueCrypt that can be run off the thumb drive itself, and a bit of unencrypted free space for quick file transfers. Now, I can sleep at night if I loose the device, knowing that if found, the only data available is my "return to me" readme file containing my contact information.

Some would argue for the use of cloud services for data storage, but I don't always have a fast internet connection, sometimes don't have any internet access, storage is often limited, and are those services really keeping your data secure? I prefer to keep my data under my control.

Overall I feel a lot safer with the systems that I have put in place to protect my data and recommend that you do the same, or similarly protect yourself, or at least consider what could happen if your data was made public. 

Perk Street Closes and Cancels Perks

Today Perk Street customers, including me, were informed that Perk Street would be closing and that any unredeemed perks were being cancelled effective immediately. I had over $1300 in unredeemed perks in my account. Yesterday I could have redeemed them for $1300 in gift cards with various establishments or redeemed them for a $1170 account credit. Now they are gone. I am frustrated to say the least. I suppose that this was in the fine print of the perks policy, but it still doesn't sit well with me. If anyone got a Perk Street because of my recommendation, I am sorry. Dave Ramsey was a long time endorser of Perk Street until recently. I can imagine that they stopped paying for the Dave Ramsey commercials when they started making budget cuts because they were in the process of shutting down. I have heard that this was part of today's discussion on the Dave Ramsey Show, but haven't been able to watch or listen to it yet, although they have made a few posts to Facebook and Twitter regarding this mess.

Shortly after I wrote my first article recommending Perk Street they lowered their perks earning rate from 2% to 1% and changed their "cash back" redemption policy from cash to gift certificates or 90% of cash back effectively earning 0.9%. However, they did implement Power Perks giving people the opportunity to earn more with specific vendors on specific items and eliminated the $5000 min balance rule. But, in the end none of that really matters.

UPDATE: Perk Street Redeems Itself and Clears Dave

Remote Controlled Over WiFi Interactive Robot

I will admit up front that this is not necessarily low-cost, but is super high-tech and super cool. I was recently invited to attend the grand opening of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's (UALR) Emerging Analytics Center (EAC).  I helped provide some of the 3D models for their visualization "cave" demonstration. During the tour they showed us some other technologies, including a Double Robotics robot. It is an iPad enabled unit that works as an interactive mobile robot that is controlled remotely over WiFi from anywhere in the universe with an internet connection. If you are into The Big Bang Theory it is known as a MVPD (Mobile Virtual Presence Device). Mechanically, the Double consists of a self-balancing Segway-style robotic base with an iPad mount. It even has height adjustment to put the remote user at eye level for sit-down meetings or stand-up conversations. ULAR plans to use their's for campus tours as well as a tool to allow offsite partners to interact with other team members or even inspect hardware remotely. It allows users to login from anywhere and use the robot as a surrogate body while displaying a live video feed of them, allowing independent mobility and/or the ability to interact with local participants. Although UALR intends to use it as a Tour Bot, I would think that tours could be facilitated with a static Google Street View type of interactive map at a significantly lower cost point. Although it may not have the same coolness factor of the Double, a Street View type tour also wouldn't be dependent on the weather. But the real benefit of the Double comes from it's ability to allow remote users to launch independently, and to interact (even on an impromptu basis if desired) with the local population.


Photo Credit: Double Robotics

I have seen other devices similar to this in the past, but most of them were limited to a remote user controlling the unit over WiFi and viewing a video feed, but lacked a two way video/audio feed to allow them to interact with local people. In the spirit of the low-cost theme these other ones are cheaper, but are also Do-It-Yourself, so require a significant amount of technical know-how, or a lot of time to learn through trial and error. The DIY machines do seem a little more robust, but don't include that remote-person-to-local-person interactivity, and the Double is a refined turn-key solution, although quite pricey.

See the Shelato Security Robot Turtle here:
www.shelato.com/SecurityRobot/

See an R/C Car WiFi Spy Bot here:
hacknmod.com/hack/build-a-wifi-enabled-spy-robot/

There are a number of video chat clients available, but they all run on stationary devices and rely on a local host to transport the device (and them) around. As a satellite employee of a much larger offsite group, I frequently host live mobile video feeds for offsite users at my facility, but it would be nice to let the offsite users host themselves, and allow me to get back to my work. At home, I once strapped a PC running Skype with my mom online from Florida to my son's Powerwheel Jeep at our house in Illinois, so that she could ride around the basement with him and his brothers.


We have also used our iPhones, iPads, and laptops to enable the grandparents to play remote-hide-and-seek with the kids from out-of-state. Again, that requires a local host (me) without a robotic surrogate body. Maybe someday we can get my mom to babysit the kids in Arkansas from Florida or even outsource babysitting to a low cost provider overseas. (UPDATE: My wife said, "Maybe not!" OH well, they probably won't need a babysitter by the time the tech is ready anyways.)

At $2500 each (iPad not included), the Double might seem like a costly gadget. However, if companies, schools, or families can avoid travel costs to locations that currently have frequent visits, or could increase productivity and/or quality of life significantly (by improving interactions with sites not currently getting enough attention) by using one of these units, or could increase revenue just by having something cool to demonstrate to customers, there may be a business case. Perhaps companies could also consider keeping one that ships to and returns from various locations as needed instead of sending people. Either way, it would enable employees to spend more time at work instead of in a car or on a plane, while at the same time improving communication and collaboration. One of the main selling points that Double focuses on is the ability to interact with team members on an impromptu basis, before and after scheduled meetings, seeing someone in the hallway or at the water cooler, approaching someone at their desk, etc.

Now for the questions. I have a number of technical questions regarding the Double unit.

  • Does the unit have a docking station that the unit can be docked to by the remote unit that will keep the unit charged? Or does it need to be plugged in manually? 
  • Is there a power meter to allow the remote user to know when to start returning to the dock/home/charger? 
  • What happens when the iPad looses its WiFi signal (is there a go back 10ft upon signal loss command?) 
  • How does the unit get around a multi-level building (does it have an elevator button pushing attachment?) 
  • How does it get through closed doors (wait or go find someone to open it?) 
  • Will updates be offered? 
  • What protocol does it run through (will it work through a company firewall?) 
  • Is there a more robust offroad or industrial version, or is one planned? 
  • How well does the unit deal with debris and minor obstacles? 
  • How robust is it to weather? 

I have submitted these questions to Double Robotics and will post an update as soon as I have a reply.

For more information, see their site at www.doublerobotics.com.

Let me know what you think. Leave a reply below. 

Help me disable my UPS alarms! Tripp-Lite OMNIVS1000

I have two Tripp-Lite OMNIVS1000 Uninterrupted Power Supplies (UPSs) in my house. As much as I love the fact that they condition the power for my electronics, regulate voltage swings, and provide backup power for short outages (which I believe extends the life of my electronics, see Protecting Your Electronic Hardware from the Power Company)...one thing drives me crazy. The "I am on battery power" audible alarm. See the video below.


It beeps with this piercing three ring tone every 10 seconds. This can be disabled manually by pressing one of the buttons. So, every time the power shuts off I have to jump (usually out of bed in the middle of the night) and run to shut the alarm off. But in the dark with the power off, it is easy to push the wrong button (there are two) and shut the unit off, which defeats the main purpose of having it for battery backup. If I manage to hit the right button and only mute it, it will finally, when the battery is nearly dead, generate another piercing solid tone. However this one cannot be disabled without shutting the unit completely down, or waiting it out until it shuts itself off. So when this happens in the middle of the night I need to get up and disable the audible alarm and if the outage persists, shut them down before the batteries go dead. It is a very manually intensive process, and I have two of them. You can imagine what happens when this occurs when I am out and my mom or a babysitter is home with the kids. I feel weird leaving an operating manual for my house for these unlikely contingencies, but it has happened before and I kind of feel bad not covering all scenarios.

I looked online for replacement UPS units but worry that they will have the same, or other, or more issues, and the ones I have actually do what I need them to do, I just don't want the noise. Even if I got another UPS, I would still probably use these units to backup additional devices, which would defeat the purpose of "replacing" them.

So in order to make an outage more bearable for all, I attempted to get this noise disabled. I was unable to find anything online to help me. If you are reading this, that is probably how you found this page. Hopefully I can at least save you the trouble of doing the same thing I did. So, I (safely) opened one of them up hoping to find a speaker that I could effortlessly unplug. I was unsuccessful. The control board is a single printed circuit board, with nothing that stands out to me as a tone generator, speaker, or noise maker. In addition all of the components are hard soldered to the board. Even when experimenting up close I can't tell where the noise was coming from. I am also unsure if I want to permanently disable the alarm or worse yet, break the unit by doing so, but at this point I am willing to try... if I only knew which doo-dad was the speaker module. Any guesses? I am including a picture below. I think it might be the white box at the top.

My next step might be flipping through my Digi-Key electrical parts catalog to see what a tone generator might look like.


One other gripe I have about this UPS is that it does not turn itself back on when power is restored, and I cannot automatically reboot my home server when the power comes back on (which would require a UPS reboot AND a PC reboot trigger). So whenever there is a >30 minute power outage, I need to push two buttons to reboot; the UPS restart and the computer restart,  which is extremely inconvenient if I am not home and trying to access home server resources. So I must choose between having a battery backup or having automatic reboot of my network when power is restored. If you have any thoughts or ideas please leave a comment below. Stay tuned and I will post an update as I learn more!

UPDATE: Disable via software! See below:

"Anonymous" left a link to LINK to an article that describes how to turn off the alarm via the Tripp Light software in "business mode". It seems to be effective. 

Road Warriors: Keeping USB and 120VAC Devices Powered On

If you spend a lot of time in the car and need to keep your devices powered up, or even to have as a "just-in-case" item to keep in your car, you will need a 12VDC to USB or 12VDC to 120VAC adapter/inverter to plug them into. I like the Griffin Compact USB Ports just because it is so small. It is basically flush when you plug it in, even so much so that it allows Ford, and GMC socket covers to close over it. The cover in my wife's Pontiac would not close over it, and recently, it wasn't deep enough to reach the bottom of a Mazda power port (frustrating!) Also, since it is so compact, it is sometimes difficult to remove, so I would recommend it for a semi-permanent installation. It is a 1 amp USB port, so will not support iPad and other high-current charging devices. If you need support for iPad or some other device up to 2.1 Amps then the Bracketron is also a good compact alternative. Also, this one is a little easier to grab for removing it if you have only one port and/or other devices that you use in your power port. If you need 120 Volt AC power for anything else including PCs and other devices that use 120VAC, I would recommend a Black and Decker 100 Watt Inverter.  However there are a few disadvantages. With a 12VDC-120VAC inverter you will get some noise if you are listening to audio off of a PC for example. This is because you are converting 12VDC to 120VAC then to 19VDC. (Generally PCs use 19VDC power.) The noise is generated in the 12VDC to 120VAC inversion function. There is also some fan noise on these so check the other reviews. So, for some specific applications you may want to spring for the 12VDC-19VDC converter option, but they will only be useful for that particular type of device even if you get a universal converter with multiple tips. The 12VDC to 120VAC are a little more versatile because you can use them for a number of devices. I like the pocket sized one just because it is so portable. I carry one in my backpack with me. Several even have USB ports as well. Another one I liked for the car was the Rally 200 Watt Cup Holder Inverter. It has (2) 120VAC outlets, a spare 12VDC Outlet and a USB Port, although, I am not clear on how many amps the USB provides.

Free IP Camera Viewer Apps for iPhone and iPad

I use two different iPhone IP camera viewer apps: CamViewer and Netcamviewer These are both free and offer basic functions with some advanced functions being offered as in-app purchases. Both are fairly easy to setup as long as you already have your IP camera setup for viewing outside your home network with proper  routing, IP address configurations, passwords, and a dynamic IP service for your home network.


CamViewer supports viewing a single camera at a time, and offers pan and tilt controls that works with my Hootoo Pan and Tilt IP Camera (HP-IP210F) and probably other Similar IP Cameras with the same control protocol. However, the Left/Right controls are reversed, but that is a shortcoming that hasn't caused too much trouble.  It also offers a data counter when viweing if concerned about your data usage. It also offers IO switch support and preset positions. You can setup at least two cameras (I am not sure if the free version supports more.) but it does not support a multi-camera view.
     In App Purchase Add-On: Audio support


Netcamviewer supports a multi-camera viewer, but the free version only supports two cameras. It does not support any motion, so would probably be my choice if I only had stationary cameras.
     In App Purchase Add-On: Unlimited cameras


These apps also work for iPad and the multiview is especially nice for keeping an eye on the kids while they are in another room or outside. Between the two apps, and until I add more cameras, these seem to offer all of the functionality that I need at no cost and enable me to view and manipulate my IP Cameras when away from home. 

When I am not watching my cameras I rely on motion detection to record activity. See Motion Detection on a HooToo Indoor (HP-IP210F) and Similar IP Cameras for more on that. 

Motion Detection on a HooToo Indoor (HP-IP210F) and Similar IP Cameras

I mentioned in a previous post that my Hootoo Pan and Tilt IP Camera on-board firmware has an option that will dump pictures to an FTP folder when motion is detected, but that it dumps way too many pictures and inundates the FTP folder, thereby crippling Windows where it takes significant time to even load the directory contents. The Hootoo firmware provides an interval user input but not a duration, and I haven't been able to figure out what the default duration is, in either minutes or number of image captures. I updated the firmware hoping that it would have an improved (shorter) motion detection snapshot duration, or better yet, a user input variable for duration, but it did not. There are so many captures that it makes finding any motion captures very cumbersome and time consuming. So usually, I just go to delete the images, since there was no cause to investigate them. For purging the directory, without crashing windows explorer, I wrote this batch script which I can execute from my desktop.

del C:\ftpdirectory\camera1folder\* /Q
del C:\ftpdirectory\camera2folder\* /Q

In the past I have used Yawcam with hard-wired USB cameras. Yawcam is a good solution for a single USB camera and it does work with wireless IP cameras over the network as well. It was a great performer when I used it for security motion detection. However, it is a PC based solution instead of a on-board camera solution.  In order to use it you need a PC to run it, but that is OK since I have an "always-on" PC server, but not everyone may have this available.

Yawcam also offers some additional features like region inclusion/exclusion for motion detection. However,  since it is an external monitoring software, it will not exclude motion from panning and tilting like the on-board software will, so any panning and tilting will be interpreted as motion, but since I keep this particular camera primarily stationary, I think it will be much better than the on-board solution given all of its drawbacks.

The other issue is that Yawcam (at least the version I have) only supports one camera. So, I am putting it only on the main house camera and will either disable motion detection or will periodically purge the directory. There are some sites that show you how to setup two instances of Yawcam, but it causes some issues with the kernel regarding licensing which I didn't really want to deal with.

The next thing I might be interested in is adding some event triggers like doorbell rings or something that would correlate to the motion detection images.

Disabling IR on a HooToo Indoor (HP-IP210F) and Similar IP Cameras

I mentioned in a previous post that I wanted to be able to disable the IR (infrared) lights on the front of my Hootoo Pan and Tilt IP Camera that come on when it detects low light. When these cameras are setup inside, but directed outside, the IR just bounces off of the window. So far I have been unsuccessful searching for a software solution to disable the IR lights, and as far as I know there is no physical switch or jumper to disable them. So today, being the mechanical type, I decided to open up the camera to find out if there was a way to electro-mechanically disable them without rendering them permanently disabled. I was afraid that the entire camera/light assembly would be fully integrated, but to my luck the IR assembly was separate from the camera assembly, separated by a four wire jumper harness.

I simply removed two screws in the back of the camera with a Phillips screwdriver to separate the camera housing. Them I used a flat screwdriver to pop off the harness at the IR board. the jumper harness can be easily reconnected, but will require removing the main camera board with two additional Phillips screws simply to gain better access so that I can reconnect with my fat fingers. Everything else including motion detection is still functioning. So, this will be a good short-term solution to the IR light issue. Next step may be to actually put a switch in the power source of the four wire harness and install an external switch so that I can manually enable and disable the IR without disassembling. This would be great for the camera that I sometimes re-position for specific needs, like tornado watching out the front and back windows.

I included a few pictures of the process below so you can decide if this is something you would want to pursue.

Still, I need to keep a piece of dark paper taped to the front of the camera to suppress the natural reflection of the camera itself in the glass just due to ambient lighting hitting the camera.

Now, if I could only figure out what to do about the motion detection dumping too many pictures to the FTP.
UPDATE: I think I figured out a work around to the motion detection issue here.

Are Smart TVs with Integrated Cameras Worth the Cost?

Although there are new TVs to market that offer internet applications including Skype, Facebook, NetFlix, etc. I believe that you would be better served to use a TV dedicated PC to enable your existing TV or a new “Dumb TV” rather than having to buy the latest internet-enabled smart TV. The price difference between a new smart LED TV with integrated Camera is roughly $1700 compared to the comparable "dumb" model and you can get a mini PC, camera, and remote mouse and keyboard for half of that, and have more access and options. Many websites like Hulu.com offer free content to PCs, but not some other platforms like iPad and smart TVs.

Many of your favorite shows are available on Hulu Basic (free) if even on a limited basis (often only a few of the most recent shows are available on the free service), or on the shows web site, ie The Daily Show, Colbert Report, Trucks, Extreme 4x4, Saturday Night Live, etc. However, you cannot access this free content through any of your TV enabled, non-computer devices like iPad, iPod, iPhone, xBox, Roku, smart TV apps, etc. Therefore, you must have a TV Dedicated PC. I recommend this Dell computer with 802.11N WiFi and HDMI, plugged in directly to the HDMI on your TV, permanently. With a TV dedicated PC you will have the entire web on your large format screen unlike the Logitech Google TV, which has been blocked by many of the free content providers already. And if you subscribe to HULU Plus, which I have not done, you will just be adding to the content available, but won’t be limited to one device, since HULU Plus is available on most devices.

You could argue that the integrated smart apps on a smart TV are just easier to setup and use, and yes, out-of-the box functionality is probably smoother. However, I feel that the free content will be limited by content providers.

I think a TV dedicated PC is the way to go. This gives you the most functionality on your TV, at a lower cost, with more flexibility for upgrades. And you can throttle your purchases as you want to add features, so that you don't need to shell out the full cost of a smart TV all at once. But, yes, it will take some additional setup. Add a webcam and a wireless keyboard and you will have the ability to view web sites, stream web videos without a subscription, and video chat with Skype from the comfort of your couch with your entire family able to view the show.

UPDATE:
I finally broke down and purchased an Android USB stick PC. I think it was around $50. I also ordered the Logitech wireless keyboard with track pad (below) to control it. The stick PC works OK, but I am having trouble figuring out what to do with it. I have installed a few apps to stream media from my server, check email, etc. But after setting it up, rarely find myself wanting to use it. Also, as I mentioned above, most free online content is blocked to this device, although occasionally the commercials still come through just fine. 

Sound Test Your Electronics Immediately After Purchase

I am not an audiophile, but I do get extremely annoyed by rattles, and resonance buzzing from things that shouldn't, like plastic speaker enclosures, etc. A few years ago I bought a Samsung TV which was a floor model,for two years it was hooked to a surround system. Then when we got another TV for the living room we rearranged the TVs and found out that the floor model had a rattle at certain frequencies. It is so annoying to watch a movie and hear this resonance rattling the plastic shroud at certain frequencies. I even went into the TV to try to tighten, glue, or remove whatever it was making the noise. In order to troubleshoot it, I had to be able to recreate it consistently, so that I could try different solutions. It was then that I developed this testing file with Cool Edit 96 (old version). I was able to estimate the frequency the rattle was coming from and made an additional single tone file for diagnostics. I never could find out how to fix it without making things worse. So I decided that in the future I would test the audio for any annoying resonance/rattling while still under warranty, preferably while still within the return period, and best of all before even leaving the store or offering to buy. The file I created is 10 Hz to 10000 Hz in 60 seconds with a constant rate of change. The audio does start right at the beginning of the video, but all people cant hear it and not all speakers will produce sound below their capability limits. Same goes for the high end. So if you hit resonance, just note how many seconds you are into the file. Then take (seconds*(10000-10)/60)+10=Frequency in Hz that your stuff resonates at. You may even get more than one or several due to frequency orders. For more on that refer to Wikipedia: Acoustic Resonance. Please use this file at your own risk. 

X10 Security, Cameras and Hootoo IP Cameras


I tried X10.com security and wireless cameras. I ordered about ~$800 worth of equipment and was excited about a no fee security system, internet camera access, enhanced home automation with macros, motion sensors, and other features. However, after setting up and thoroughly troubleshooting I had issues with all of it. The security motion detectors couldn’t detect me. The complete system required countless batteries. The security dialer required a land line which (at the time) I was hoping to unload. The cameras had bad interference with (2.4 GHz Spectrum) phones and wireless (802.11) devices. Additionally, the system would allow only one camera at a time to be active, had extremely low visibility at night even well lit areas. Also, the security dialer was only capable of calling a few phone numbers and was not a monitored device. After I evaluated this setup for a few weeks, I sent all of it back to X10.com. I looked at other security systems, but they aren’t integrated with all of the features I want. I would like the system to notify me of water in the basement, carbon monoxide, smoke, etc. When we moved into our new house it was equipped with an integrated alarm service, but now I am paying a monthly monitoring fee. However, I still wanted to have cameras.

I mentioned the X10 security cameras and the issues I had with them. After some more research, I decided to purchase a couple of Hootoo Pan and Tilt IP Cameras (HP-210F). These particular ones are pan and tilt, with two way audio, web enabled, motion detection, low light, infrared cameras. Some of these features work fine and others aren't so great. Most features require Internet Explorer to take full advantage of. The interface is kind of clunky and required some even clunkier proprietary IP camera detection software to be installed on my PC for initial setup. The IR is pretty good for low-ambient light visibility but I have one inside pointing out of my front window and have not been able to disable the IR, so had to block it with cardboard. With router porting, I am able to view them remotely when away from home, and the FTP service is able to capture images upon motion detection, although it doesn't seem to know when to stop. Therefore the picture directory has to be purged almost weekly to prevent data overload, even on a newer PC. A few times I have let the data run over and had to purge with a command line because Windows 7 couldn't handle the load. I have used Yawcam for motion detection before and I rather prefer that software, but getting it to work with more than one camera is difficult, and it takes up home server system resources to run it. The audio isn't even worth turning on, for either listening or broadcasting, but it is equipped. The firmware updates are nowhere to be found if there are any. An annoyance is that when the power goes out, the camera tends to re-position itself to this nonsense factory position, pointing at the ceiling. There doesn't seem to be a way to reset this so that it comes to a default position after a power failure that I want, so I sometimes wonder if I should just construct a bracket or platform that puts the default position where i want it, but is I haven't had a chance to do it yet.  But for the price that I got them for, they seem to perform basic functions satisfactorily. They are good enough that I am considering two to three more HooToo Outdoor IP Cameras to add to the set.

UPDATE:
This site has some interesting stuff on Foscam command line switches that seem to work on my Hootoo cameras, but I couldn't find one that would cut down the number of FTP pictures sent after motion was detected or one that would turn off the IR lights.

Also, I was able to download and install the latest firmware and web GUI from the Hootoo site, but they didn't seem to change much except the web GUI changed from green to blue!

UPDATE: Disabling the IR Light
UPDATE: Improving the Motion Detection Using Third Party App

Interest Bearing Internet Banking and a Cash-Back Debit Card

High-tech, no fee banking. I use ING Direct for the core of my banking. It is completely internet-based. It offers interest bearing savings (although not much these days) and interest bearing electronic checking (which is even less). I have direct deposit both of our paychecks, and the account is linked to up to three other external accounts, allowing me to transfer money between all of my banks. It is a paperless account, but the ING Electric Orange Checking account is able to link up to electronic billing from most providers, send electronic transfers to anyone with a bank account, and is able to send paper checks as well for free. If you want a referral to ING Direct and a $25 referral bonus please send me an email.

WARNING! Update: Perk Street Closes and Cancels Perks
UPDATE: Perk Street Redeems Itself and Clears Dave

This year we also started using PerkStreet Financial. We had been using the credit card to get cash back. The cash back program we were on was really nice. 1% on everything, 5% on gas and the cash back was debited to the account automatically every month. So we had been putting everything on it, including school tuition and paying it off at the end of every month. Plus we got a 30 day pass on paying for stuff. But then we started listening to Dave Ramsey (who said using credit cards at all was a bad idea, tune in to hear more) and Chase really jacked up the cash back award program. So we stopped using the credit card. First we had to get 30 days of expenses back to be current, but when we did we switched to Perk Street. They offer a cash back debit card (1% cash back, 2% if you maintain a $5000 minimum balance, if you use it for signature-based transactions)

There were a few local banks that offered ~3% APR interest on checking if you had ~10 transactions a month and maintained ~$15,000 balance, but after running the numbers, we were better off with the 2% per month on transactions.

Now, studies show that you spend more if you use plastic, but I think that I am fairly frugal and now that we are on a budget every month, we do a better job of deciding where our money will go.

Planning a Budget for High-Tech Stuff and Staying out of Debt

Budgeting may not be very high-tech, but how else are you supposed to get stuff without going into debt. I will just say that it is best to have a well thought-out plan.

I love spreadsheets and for years, projected bills and tracked spending, but I never really planned my spending. So until recent years we lived month-to month. Then, several years ago my friend let me borrow his Dave Ramsey Total Money Makeover CDs and after several months, I finally decided to see what he had to say. It boils down to this: get out of debt and stay out. His techniques, including the debt snowball, are more psychological than financial/mathematical, but it makes sense, because people act on emotions more so than calculations (in my opinion). Dave covers the many reasons for eliminating debt and has a systematic approach for doing it. I won’t go into any more detail here, but you can check out Dave’s 7 baby steps on his website.

Dave Ramsey also offers a free daily podcast which is a 40 minute condensed version of his 3-hour daytime talk-radio show. I download it every morning and listen to it in the car to and from work. Most of the show is Dave taking calls from ordinary people with questions on money advice, stories of both what not to do, and success stories of people who have done it right.

12 Volt Power in the Sky

I knew that some airplanes had power ports, but always assumed that if the airplane was equipped with them that they would be readily accessible and located in near the seat controls. This is not the case. Power outlets on airplanes are under the seat. I have never known where they were and always assumed they weren't available on my flights. For years I have been trying to plan my power usage and charge the batteries right before the flight and use my devices sparingly. On small local planes power isn't always available, but then isn't really necessary for short flights. International and other larger aircraft and longer flights usually have power outlets, but not always at every row. Sometimes they are in every row, it depends on the plane and the configuration that the airline ordered.



Go to seatguru.com next time before selecting your seat to see where the power ports are located. If you don't manage to get a seat with a power outlet you could get a 12 foot extension cable and ask the seat owner to plug you in. You may also consider bringing a 12V splitter. If you have a device that uses USB power to charge you could pickup a Bracketron Mini USB adapter, which supports iPhones as well as iPads and other higher current devices, since it offers a 2.1 Amp usb outlet. If you need 120V power, I use one of these Black and Decker 100 Watt Inverters to charge other devices like my camera batteries. Now, I am not sure how much power you can consume before you start blowing fuses, tripping circuit breakers, or taking the plane down, so be careful.

So, now you don't need to buy the extra battery pack for your digital device. But if you are ever in other situations where you find that you are running out of power the Boost case and battery pack is a good one that nearly doubles your battery capacity (for iPhone).

If You Go to Chicago, Stay in the iPass Lanes

Face it you don’t have change, and who wants to stop at a toll booth anyways. You can pay for the tolls you blew through online at http://www.getipass.com/ within 7 days. Just remember which ones you went through (they are numbered), what direction, time of day, and the vehicle and plate info. It is better to just pay them online, and safer, not scrambling for change and stopping at the toll booth. Not to mention that is just isn’t convenient, especially in bad weather. Plus, some exits are iPass only, so there may not be any other option but to blow through. Note: I am not sure if you can be pulled over and ticketed for this, or what those consequences may be. If this is a concern, keep reading.
Now, if you are driving through Chicago often, or even not so often, I would highly recommend that you get an iPass at http://www.getipass.com/. I live down state and drive through Chicago maybe twice a year, but thought it was worth it. Of course, back when I got it I was actually stopping to pay tolls. It is $50, $10 for the transponder which is refundable and an initial $40 for your toll pool, which reloads automatically from your credit card at the $10 minimum pool. There is a bonus: the charge for tolls is half price with an iPass. In addition you won’t need to remember to do anything (within 7 days) and won’t have to go online to pay tolls every time you drive through. So after the first $25 in half-price tolls, it will have already paid for itself in dollars and convenience. If you have multiple vehicles, you can add them all to your account, to be used by the same transponder. If you don’t want to share the transponder or more likely think you will forget it in the other car, or if you want to carry one with you to use in rental cars, you can add a second iPass to your account for only $10 and pull from the common $40 toll pool. I mount mine to the windshield with 3M Dual Lock plastic strips (which are awesome and way better than Velcro for semi-permanently mounting moderately heavy, hard-backed devices) Two strips came with my iPass, but I needed extra strips to share between vehicles. For a temporary mount, like for a rental car, I recommend a suction style holder.

Keeping Lead-Acid Batteries Charged
And a Few Tools for When You Don’t

I recently replaced the battery in my 1997 Chevrolet Tahoe that was over seven years old. This is pretty old for any car battery, and this one was an Autozone Duralast. I was OK driving around with an old battery, because a few years ago I received Black & Decker Booster Pack with air compressor that I could use to start if my battery finally quit on me. Last summer I kept a Solar battery maintainer plugged in at work to try to top it off. When it started to really die last fall I didn’t think it would make through another season of cold cranks so I finally replaced it. Then just the other day then, left my lights on at work. I actually keep my phone number on my windshield so people can call me if something like this or other more serious things are happening to my truck, but no one called that day.
So, I came out to a cold truck that wouldn’t crank, even with my booster pack on it (although, I can’t say when I had charged it last.) My truck takes a lot of cold cranking amps. I finally got a jump from a friend that gad an even bigger Black and Decker Booster Pack (400 Amps) that he carries for his boat (so that he can party all day out on the water with his radio blasting until it dies, and still have a way to restart at the end of the day.) Needless to say, I left my truck running as we ran a couple of errands on the way home and stuck my Diehard Battery Charger on it overnight. I have had a 12V Battery Tender Junior on my 2006 Harley-Davidson 1200 Sporster R almost since I bought it, and haven’t had any battery issues with it yet. The battery tender junior is cheaper since it doesn’t actually have a charger in it. I also have a 1973 Harley AMF TX-125 Dirt Bike. It ran well a couple of years ago then all of the sudden it gave up. I have recently come to the realization that the cause may be the battery. This bike is purely kick start, so you wouldn’t notice a dead battery necessarily, but it has been sitting, hardly ever run in my garage with no battery maintenance charge on it. I have a Jeep that sits in storage most of the year. The boys and I just went to run it the other day to keep the gas from going bad and keep the batteries charged. It is actually a 24V Jeep and has (2) 12V batteries in series. One under the hood, and one just in front of the windshield. It was made 24V for cold starting in the Korean War. Before this jeep they were 6V and after it they went to 12V. So, to keep the batteries charged for this one I have been looking at a Battery Tender 24V Tender and Charger. A 24V battery tender alone would probably be cheaper, but I can’t find one offered. Also, since the batteries are in series, I am concerned about charging them, because there are issues charging batteries in series. Because it is only two in a row and because they don’t completely discharge like an electric vehicle, it doesn’t concern me too much, and it is probably better to let them charge than to not charge them at all. I could get two 12V tenders and wire it to charge them both independently, and it may even be cheaper (and more versatile for my fleet management) I also have an electric Go-Ped Hoverboard, which is 24V but is (4) six volt batteries in series. I have actually failed the last battery in the series before through repeated full discharge and charging, so I actually rotate them periodically, maybe twice a year (would recommend more often if I used it more). I also picked up a Schwinn scooter that is 24V, but it has (2) 12V batteries, one of which was dead when I got it, which I suspect was a series problem again, and since it is an electric vehicle and probably completely discharged and charged repeatedly. I also have a remote controlled HUMVEE, with a single 12V battery which is dead due to long shelf life and no maintenance, and two newer Powerwheels Jeeps for the boys. The Powerwheels manual actually sets forth some very specific charging guidelines. Charge at least once before and after use for 18, but no more than 24 hrs and at least one 18 hr charge a month even when not in use. I still wonder if I can put a battery tender on these, because the powerwheels batteries are expensive, but I haven’t seen anything that will work unless I build my own. Unfortunately the plug on them is unique and hard to get to. There are multiple vehicle maintenance/charging banks available, but if you have a power plug available near each vehicle then the tender juniors are actually cheaper.