2007-12-27

A Free Internet Backup Service

For years I've had an RSYNC backup solution for my immediate family's computers. Each computer would perform a remote RSYNC over SSH to my home Linux box on a daily basis. It worked great, but it was a pain in the butt for a few reasons:
  1. Lots of parts to maintain.
  2. A lack of on-disk encryption.
  3. No easy restoration process.
  4. Required me to have a server powered up all the time.
Recently, I stumbled upon a Mac and Windows internet backup solution for the grand price of Free. It's called Mozzy Home, and its pretty darn good for the following reasons:
  1. It's free for the first 2 GB of storage
  2. It supports encryption - Mozy can't even see your file content (but it does appear that they can see your filenames and directory structure)
  3. It is super easy to set up
  4. The client software is pretty good, and supports easy restores.
You can get a free Mozy Home account here (shameless referral code attached):

https://mozy.com/registration/free

The biggest limitation with the (free) Mozy Home is the 2 GB limit. But for about $5 a month, you can back up an unlimited amount of storage - that's a lot!

Now I was thinking "Cool, now I can back up the terabytes of storage of my work server for $60 bucks a year". Um, no. The license doesn't seem to allow for that kind of use... and for good reason - crazy customers would likely swamp them with "unlimited" data. For professional use, you have to go for their "Pro" plan, which, sadly, fails to support pro-class platforms such as Unix, Linux, or even Mac OS.

So although Mozy isn't my option for the corporate servers I'm responsible for, it is a fine solution for Windows and Macintosh home computers. It greatly simplifies my Family Technical Support responsibilities, and I won't have to discuss the difficultly of data recovery when a drive crashes.

Porsche Key Remote Battery Repair Video How-To

We now live in the age where part of your life is spending time and money maintaining and repairing things like your car keys.

My Porsche's remote key was getting weaker and weaker, until one day it stopped operating altogether. Keyless remote without the remoteness. Not so good.

I was a bit fearful spending a sizable chunk of my time and money at the dealership to have such a small problem addressed, and so I decided that I would try to replace the battery myself.

The following video guide shows you how to successfully open up the key and replace the alarm remote battery.





Items required:
Nothing feels better than a $5 Porsche repair.  Replace the battery in all your keys at once and then don't deal with it again for years!


CFL Globes: Good and Bad

Some Globe-style CFLs are sucky.

As you know from reading my blog, I'm a fan of not throwing away my hard-earned cash. So it was obvious for me to replace my incandescent bulbs with much more efficient CFL bulbs. My conversion saved me quite a bit of money, but there was one trouble-spot: the CFL globes I installed in the bathroom.

I have one of those old-fashioned bar fixtures in the bathroom, designed for a set of three exposed globe-style bulbs, and so only globe style bulbs would look right in the fixture. I use my bathroom quite a bit, and the fixture with incandescent bulbs would normally require 180 watts to power (3 bulbs @ 60 watts each). Replacing them with CFLs seemed like an easy target for reducing electricity costs. "No problem!" I thought, since globe CFLs are readily available in retail stores.

My 1980's Style Bathroom Light Bar with Globe CFLs.
GE CFL in the center, Sylvanias on each side.

I bought a set of three 14 Watt "Commercial Electric" globe CFLs from Home Depot (I think). Sadly, they had a long startup time - much like the CFL bulbs of yesteryear. I would go into the bathroom, flip on the switch, and wait in the dim light for a minute or more. It all came to a head when guests arrived - they complained that the bathroom lights weren't working. I told them to "hold it" for another minute while the bulbs warmed up. Embarrassing. Soon after, one of those globes failed - my one and only CFL failure.

I considered swapping out the fixture for a more modern one (that doesn't use all the tacky globe bulbs), but since I live in an apartment and don't want to make investments on my landlord's behalf, I decided to stick with the old-fashioned fixture.

I went back to the store (Lowe's?) and bought a set of three 9 watt Sylvania globe CFLs. I figured that a brand like Sylvania would operate more to my satisfaction, but I was wrong. The Sylvania globes were even slower in terms of startup. As a fix, I ended up swapping out the center CFL with a 25-watt incandescent globe in order to provide enough light at startup, and then after a minute or so the Sylvania globes would catch up and surpass the brightness of the 25 watter. Finally, my bathroom lighting was adequate, with two crusty CFL globes and one incandescent globe.

It all came to an end this week, when the incandecent blew out after a pitiful 3 months of use. So I went back to the store to buy a replacement. I found a GE CFL globe at Target, rated at 15 watts. I decided to give it a try, and plunked down $6 for the bulb (versus $2 for a short-life incandecent globe).

I placed the GE globe in the middle position of the fixture, again to give suitable light while the slow Sylvanias warm up. And to my glee, the GE gets bright very quickly. It takes less than a second for it to fire up, and almost immediately delivers full brightness. And that will make my bathroom experience all that much better, with a total consumption of about 33 watts - a reduction of almost 150 watts.

I could replace the two remaining Sylvania globes with GE globes, but now that I have plenty of light, I'll keep my bathroom lighting in its current configuration.

Conclusion and Recommendation

If you're buying globe-style CFLs, I recommend that you try the GE globes. I haven't had good luck with the other globe-style CFLs I've tried.

Other than globes, I've had great luck with CFLs. I haven't had a single issue with a "twist" or capsule CFLs, regardless of brand.

If you have other experiences or helpful hints, feel free to comment.

2007-10-26

Electricity Usage Update: 12% reduction

I reduced my electricity consumption by 12% this year (2007) versus last year (2006). I consumed an average of 110 KWH of electricity per month during 2007, as shown on the chart below:

Now that I've done all the cheap and easy things to reduce consumption, and so I don't know if I can save so much more next year. I've done everything I could easily pursue, including:
  • replacing old fashioned light bulbs with CFLs
  • turning of my computer equipment, lights, and other stuff when it's not in active use
  • reducing equipment that consumes lots when doing nothing (such as my old VCR)
  • adjusting my fridge properly
So, any ideas of what else I can do? Since I live in an apartment, I can't readily upgrade my fridge (which averages around 50 watts). I could buy a new LCD TV, but I'm not much of a TV watcher so that doesn't seem like it'd be a good move.

2007-09-29

Why do clock radios suck?

Most people keep a clock radio within a few feet of their head for nearly a third of their life. A clock radio tells people when to wake up hundreds of time a year. So then why do most clock radios sold in the US suck?

They all seem to have crappy buttons, an even crappier tuner, and in short, have failed to go through any substantial technology update since the advent of the LED clock - over 25 years ago.

Why can't now be the dawning of the age of the modern clock radio?

Here's what I'm looking for in a clock radio:
  • Large, adjustable-brightness display.
  • Digital tuning, with presets.
  • Automatic clock setting.
  • RDS - Radio Data Service.
  • Very low power consumption.
  • Excellent battery backup.
  • Reasonable price.
  • Decent buttons and switches.
These "requirements" aren't some sort of crazy dream - many very small, low cost devices have some of these features.

2007-08-10

The Yamaha DD-65 and YDD-60 Digital Drums

Almost everyone I know who is into drums should get their hands on the Yamaha DD65. It's a low cost, fun little kit that you can throw in your car to jam with your buddies. It's a lot easier than throwing your gear in your Subaru.

The DD-65, also known as the YDD-60. Eight pads in a pretty package.

I've owned the older, venerable DD-55 for about five years. The DD-55 is the ancestor of the newer DD-65, and is an evolution of the DD-50, which was first released some time in the mid 1990s.

I just put my DD-55 on this light snare drum stand it's ready for some jamming.

The classic DD-55. Seven pads of rockin' fun, since about 2001.

Yes, everyone will tell you that the DD-55 isn't actually a real drum kit. No kidding. However, a skilled drummer can get some great sound out of this little box, and you can definitely keep the band together with it. Plus, it's perfect for apartment living.

2007-07-24

The Mac Mini Discontinued?

There are rumors that the Mac Mini is going to be discontinued. I disagree. Instead, I think it will evolve by being merged in with the Apple TV product. Of course, I don't work for Apple, so I have no idea if my plan is workable. But I do think that it is a possibility, as it considers:
  1. Leveraging current engineering projects
  2. Reducing manufacturing costs
  3. Simplifying the product line
  4. Staying reasonable in terms of product costs
Here's my thought of how I would converge the Apple TV and Mac Mini concept into one compelling product:
  1. Stick the guts of a MacBook into an Apple TV sized case
  2. Drop out the LCD, the battery, the keyboard, the DVD
  3. Drop in a (cheaper, bigger) 3.5 inch HDD drive, in lieu of a 2.5" notebook drive.
  4. Add various Video Out options
  5. Provide a standard MacBook power brick
Now you've got a fully capable computer - a computer as powerful as a MacBook - that basically cost nothing to engineer (other than reboxing the thing). You still have a computer that is essentially a MacBook, but it just doesn't have all the expensive components of a notebook computer.

Of course, this computer has USB, Firewire, Bluetooth and 802.11. So there are no limitations in terms of adding peripherals or storage. Need a DVD? USB or Firewire is there. Plus, this device would have two video-outs. With suitable dongles, you can send video over HDMI, DVI, Component, VGA, and even S-Video and Composite.

Conclusion

I agree that both the Apple TV and the Mac Mini aren't going to be around for much longer - in their current form. But I think its because they are evolving back into a more capable computer that could leverage Apple's pre-existing efforts.

2007-07-14

A tip of my hat for the new Roomba

I really hate vacuuming, and so I vacuum as little as possible. However, in contrast to my hate of vacuuming, I love a clean house. And so I either find myself vacuuming (yuk), or living in a not-so-clean house (yuk).

So to reduce my emotional distress related to vacuuming, I recently bought a Roomba. Here are my impressions and some tips:

Efficacy of the Roomba

The Roomba certainly keeps my floors clean. I'll still have to get out the traditional vacuum to clean the moldings, window sills, and some tricky spots (like behind my desk), but the bulk of my vacuuming effort has gone away.

The Roomba is not nearly as fast as the local cleaning service - but it does do a good job of covering all accessible floor surfaces. My routine: I get up in the morning, and just before I leave for work, I ask the Roomba to vacuum a particular room in my house. By the time I get home, the room's floor has been cleaned and Roomba has recharged itself.

The Roomba can miss some pockets of dirt. But since I have the Roomba working just about every day, it eventually gets just about everything.

You and your dirty, dirty dustbin

If you have a dirty floor, the Roomba's dustbin can fill up quite rapidly. I recommend that you empty the dustbin after each run until you understand how quickly it fills.

Roomba Power Consumption and Considerations

My Roomba has the very neat-and-cool "Home Base" dock. When the Roomba is tired (low on battery power), it searches for the dock and plugs itself in.

I hooked my watt meter up to the Home Base. When the Roomba is charging (amber light pulsing), Roomba-in-dock consumes about 30 watts. Once the Roomba is fully charged (green light), Roomba-in-dock consumes about 5 watts. When the Roomba is out of the dock, and presumably vacuuming, the home base consumes about 3 watts.

My Roomba came with a metal nickel hydride battery - a battery type that is much more environmentally sound than the nickel cadmium batteries used in many other consumer electronics. It should still be properly recycled after it's exhausted (many years from now, I hope), but at least it has less toxic chemicals inside.

Roomba the Martyr

One of my sofas has just enough clearance for the Roomba to scoot under, which is nice because Roomba can vacuum under it. But, sadly, this sofa is quite old and not so plumb... and so Roomba can get wedged under it. Further compounding the situation, the sofa has very sharp staples sticking out of the bottom, resulting in a scarred up Roomba.

Roomba senses objects (like tables and walls) by bouncing into them. And so my Roomba quickly developed "bump marks" on it's front bumper - mostly white paint from my mouldings. I haven't noticed any Roomba-generated damage, but Roomba itself is quickly looking marred up.

Roomba has sacrificed its beauty for me. In return, I feed it dirt and electricity, and shovel out its dust bin.

2007-07-08

Prius owners and Biofuel users beware!

I'm sorry to say that driving a Prius or making your own biofuel doesn't make you "green". These things might make you feel good, and they might reduce the world's energy consumption by a few BTUs.

But you can be very "green" by spending NO money at all.

I'm not anti-Prius, and I'm not against biofuel. In fact, I think they're both cool. And I'm certainly not an environmental wacko. I'm just a pragmatist.

In the end, reducing your purchases, investing money wisely (say, in a new fridge or in CFL bulbs), and recouping money on your prior expenditures is, in the end, a very green strategy that can help minimize your negative impact on the environment.

And now, the six most important environmental tips you've been waiting for!...
  1. Buy less new stuff. The stuff you buy requires substantial energy and materials to produce, package, and ship. The less crap you buy, the better for the environment. Remember that factories require a lot of energy and materials, and produce a lot of waste. Almost everything you buy comes from some sort of a factory.
  2. Need something? Then buy used stuff on eBay or Craigslist or at the neighborhood tag sale. In a sense, used stuff costs nothing to produce. Sell or give away all of the stuff you don't use any more - the reuse of your old stuff slows down the amount of new stuff other people have to buy. Sell that old iPod that's in the drawer, make a kid happy, and make some money.
  3. Share your stuff. Share gardening tools with neighbors. Give your magazines to your friends at work. Use the public library. Minimize the amount of idle stuff in "storage". Airlines are experts at making the most efficient use of the airplanes they have so that they can minimize the number of airplanes they need to buy. Imagine doing that with your stuff within your neighborhood.
  4. Fix "broken" stuff. Fix it yourself, or give it to someone who can.
  5. Live in a smaller building. Or, live in a multi-family building. If you have extra room in your house, think about renting it out for storage or whatever. If you have a spare garage bay, rent it to the neighbor for his MG (or whatever) - it's money in your pocket, and it means that your neighbor won't have to build a new garage bay that requires a lot of energy and materials to make.
  6. Try not to throw out stuff. Donate away things you don't need. Everything that goes in the trash or down the drain is basically environmental waste. The easiest way to reduce your waste is to not buy junk, or to give the stuff you don't want to those who can use it. Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and other places that accept your used stuff.
Of course, I still consume energy and throw stuff out. But my goal is to minimize.

In the end, being green isn't always easy to see. A good kitchen dishwasher can be more green than washing dishes by hand. The purchase of a brand new fridge is more green than keeping a 15 year old fridge. 50 households hiring a lawn service can be more green than 50 households with 50 lawn mowers.

To the Prius owners and Biofuel fiends - you've made an investment in a great technology. Just remember that there is much more to being green than driving an efficient car or burning waste oil.

2007-06-20

CFLs and outdoor timers

For the longest time I used incandescent light bulbs on my outdoor light fixtures, primarily because I had a rather ugly looking timer that only supported incandescent bulbs. I'm totally dumbfounded why retailers and manufacturers seem to focus on electrical products that don't support fluorescent lighting, but that's another story.

So I have looked high and low for a timer that met my "simple" requirements:
  • wall-mountable, programmable timer
  • decent looking (or at least not butt-ugly)
  • compatible with CFLs
  • not insanely expensive
I went to Home Depot, Lowes, and the little neighborhood hardware store without finding anything that met my simple requirements.

Happily, I can announce that I found a decent programmable timer that met all my requirements: It's the Swylite LST100. They don't seem to be available in many traditional retail stores.

It works great, and it looks awesome. It was easy to install, and I've had no issues with it. Now I can save some major energy bucks by using CFLs in my outdoor sconces and lamppost.

The best part of all: its clock remembers the time after a power failure! No more clock resetting! Woohoo! In your face, my old Intermic timer!

My Swylite LT100 timer, as installed by LanceJ.

2007-06-13

Ripping CDs Quickly

My cheap-but-effective CD-ROM Unit

I decided to re-rip my CD collection in a lossless format. Happily, my new ripping experience was fast and reliable.

During my last ripping exercise, I used Linux as my OS of choice, and I ripped to MP3. The experience was mostly excellent. But due to a hard disk failure, I decided to re-rip one more time - this time, to a lossless format.

I chose the Apple Lossless format - a well-supported and efficient format. One beauty of a lossless format is that the data can be converted into another lossless format without any loss of quality - just in case audio file formats change in the future. I also considered using FLAC lossless, which I believe would have been another excellent choice.

My hardware: I used my Mac Mini, along with four inexpensive CD-ROM drives attached via IDE-to-USB adapters. This allowed me to rip four discs in parallel, greatly increasing my ripping performance. I suppose I could have hooked up more drives, but I only had four adapters readily available. USB to IDE adapters are very inexpensive, and can be easily found on services like eBay for under $10.



For software, I used "Max", an excellent, well-integrated audio conversion tool. Unlike iTunes, Max can rip several discs in parallel. In contrast, iTunes rips serially - only one disc at a time.

Now, my CDs are going back into the storage room, hopefully to never see the light of day.

2007-06-04

Who is at phone number 10000123456?

Today, while walking my dog, my telephone started to ring - but I hesitated answering, because I didn't recognize the weird phone number:

10000123456
Do you want to know who is at the strange phone number of 10000123456?

Well, it turns out that this is a generic phone number that is used when people are calling you via Skype?  But how can you find out exactly who is on the other end?


All I know is that Skype is pretty awesome when using a great Smartphone.   Check it out: Using a Smartphone to make Skype calls can feel like you're using a real phone, but is actually using Skype.  

So remember, if you see the number 1-000-012-3456 or "1 000 012 3456" or similar, you might want to answer - it could be very important, and not a random sales pitch!

2007-05-27

Putting photos on a map using GPS

I was planning to go on vacation to Yosemite, and I got it in my head that I'd like to be able to build a map of where my photos were taken. It turns out to be shockingly easy.

Hardware Required
  • A digital camera. I have a Canon SD400. Almost any digital camera will do.
  • A handheld GPS. I have a Garmin eTrex Vista Cx, but almost any GPS with data export capabilities will suffice.
Figure 1: GPS data plus Digital Photos can produce JPEG photos with location data and KML files for Google Maps or Google Earth.

From the camera's vantage point: Photos with EXIF data

A digital camera often stores the date and time within the photo. The camera also stores tons of other chunks of data within the photo: the camera model, shutter speed, zoom settings, and numerous other parameters. This data is stored inside the JPEG file using a standard called EXIF, and just about every modern digital camera supports this format.

From the GPS angle: Track points

While your GPS is on, it is collecting data about where you are. Every few seconds your GPS notes its latitude, longitude, and altitude, and stores this data within memory along with the current time and perhaps some other data. Each position/time stamp record is called a "track point", and the collection of all track points is called the "track log".

Your GPS's track log can hold a finite number of track points. My Vista Cx can store us to 10,000 track points within its track log. Some GPS units record a point every 1 second, while other GPS units record a point every time you've moved away from your current location. Sometimes the GPS uses a hybrid strategy.

Using a computer, it is possible to pull the track data off of the GPS and store it in a file.

The Merge

The way to building Geolocated photos is to merge GPS track points with a photo's EXIF timestamp. If your photo is dated "January 15th, 2007 at 09:30 AM", all you have to do is look up that time within your track log to find out exactly where the picture was taken.

You can then modify the photo's EXIF data to including latitude/longitude data.

Figure 2: EXIF data, augmented with position data.

Doing this once by hand sounds fun, but it could become tedious if you had dozens (or hundreds) of photos. And so therefore, software has been created that easily does this match/merge process for you. This software will modify the EXIF data for all your photos, given a collection of GPX files.

Using geodata

OK, so now you have a wonderful collection of data: Photos with location data, and tracklogs of where you've been. How can you use it?

Some software
I used GPSBabel to extract the track data from my Garmin Vista Cx GPS into the standards GPX data format.

I used GPSPhotoLinker to merge the track data into my photos. The program loads track logs and photos, and then updates the EXIF data in the photos with the location data plucked out of the track log. It took about 20 minutes to process about 400 photos.

I discovered that JetPhoto Studio can be used to create KML and KMZ files from my collection of photos. JetPhoto Studio also appears to be able to merge GPX files with photos, but I haven't tried that feature yet.

I used Google Earth to view my GPX, KML, and KMZ files.

I also used Google Maps to allow others to easily view my GPX, KML, and KMZ files over the web.

2007-05-17

Mac USB Parallel printer adapters

Now I am able to use my old HP LaserJet printer like a champ with Mac OS X - by using a low cost USB parallel printer adapter and a little bit of magic software.

USB to Parallel adapters are inexpensive little adapters (generally under $20) that allow you to connect a printer using the old "parallel" connector standard over USB. There are generally two kinds of parallel interfaces on a printer: Either the 36-pin Centronics-style connector, or the 25-pin D-shaped printer connector. My HP used the bulkier 36-pin connector, so I bought an adapter with that style connector.

The low-cost USB-to-Parallel adapter I use with my Mac

But it all wasn't as easy as it should have been - even though I pluged it all together, my USB to Parallel adapter would either lock up after a single print job, or it wouldn't be detected by the Mac at all. I suffered with the situation for months, and even imagined purchasing a more modern printer. But perseverance paid off - I got it all to work by installing a simple printing package.

My solution to this problem was to install USBTB. This alternative printer backend for Mac OS X now lets me use my "USB to Parallel" adapter reliably, and with zero fuss. [And USBTB has worked wonderfully under many OS versions: Tiger, Leopard, and Snow Leopard.]

USBTB detected my printer model right away. I just selected my
printer's driver
and within 30 seconds I was printing my thesis!

Those old Centronics connectors are no longer a reason to throw out an otherwise reliable workhorse printer. Owners of those solid older laser printers now have a reason to rejoice!

Update: 6-Feb-2010

Another great option is to use a low-cost Parallel to Ethernet "print server", as noted here.

2007-03-31

How much energy do YOU use?

Ever since my electricity savings kick, which started in October 2003, I have saved in a big way. In fact, I once used 170% more electricity than I do now. Here's a plot of my actual consumption:

In 2001, the per-capita home electricity consumption rate for electricity in my state was 2,816 kWh per year - a number I managed to exceed by about 10% back then. This year I'm running at about 1,260 kWh per year - less than half of the average person. As always, there is room to improve.

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