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Fuquay Varina, North Carolina, United States
A guy finding out if life really does begin at 50.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Who's That Coming Down the Drive?

I've been in this house since 1989 and I like that it's set back from the street and surrounded by woods. I have a 400ft driveway that I had paved back in 2009. The way the windows in my house face I see mostly woods. It's hard to see cars that come down the drive except for one window in the back bedroom. At one time I had a inexpensive wireless motion detector to detect cars as they came down the drive. It was triggered by anything, cars, wind, sun, deer, you name it. False alarms continued even after I relocated it several times. I finely gave up on it.

I spotted a solar powered wireless 'metal detector' type drive way alert on Amazon, but the reviews were hit and miss at best. That got me thinking about about a system I first saw in the mid 80s when I was still in Florida. I remember seeing the Winland Electronics Vehicle Alert System in catalogs all those years ago and from time to time ever since. The Winland system requires you to install a sensor next to the drive way and run (plus bury) a cable to a console installed inside your home. It's still around because it works.

The Winland system was always more expensive than what I wanted to pay, especially since I needed more than the supplied 100ft cable. Now days $400 isn't as expensive to me as it used to be. I'm older and I don't like surprise visitors as much, so I ordered one with a 350ft cable. You can click the picture above and see and read about my installation of the system.

I have to say making a trench 330 ft long and a few inches deep is a bit more work than I expected. The tree roots and crossing two creeks using flexible metal conduit added to the effort. I worked at it 3-4 hours a day until it was done. I used my hammer drill with a bit borrowed from Wally, and put the cable through the foundation below grade.

I made a counter out of a inexpensive pedometer to keep track of how many vehicles come in and out my drive. The counter works well. My idea of using a wireless doorbell to alert me if I'm working in the garage didn't work due to RF interference. I'll install a wired buzzer next time I'm pulling cable through the conduit to the detached garage, so I can be alerted if I'm out there.

I'm hoping for many years of trouble free service from this system. I'm sure sooner or later something will break the cable. Hopefully by then they be cheap wireless systems that work and I'll just get one of those.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


In a prior post Fresh New Year I mentioned I installed and starting using GnuCash. It's been over a month now and I have reconciled a bank statement. I'm no GnuCash expert, but I do now have the basics down.

Since my first post I've added another 25 accounts (mostly for expense). Accounts are easy to create - just a couple clicks. You can edit accounts after creating and rename or move from one parent account to another which is handy. Accounts are hierarchical and you can nest sub accounts. I have a top level account called Expenses, with many sub accounts. For example under Expenses I have an Auto account with a sub account of Gasoline which has two sub accounts xB and GMC which are my two vehicles. Auto has other sub accounts for Maintenance, Insurance, and Fees. The names of these accounts can be whatever I like, and I can have as many as I wish. The Summary page rolls up the accounts showing balances at each level. So it's a snap to see that I've spent $311 on Auto expenses this year, and $83 of that was for Gas, with $56 worth of Gas for the GMC, and $27 for the xB. All of that was shown on the account summary without actually looking at any account register.

Entering transactions is easy. Simple check register style. You 'transfer' money from one account (your checking account) to another account, Expense>Auto>Gas>GMC or example. The from account (Checking) balance decreases and the other account increases. So the core concept is you are moving money around. Your paycheck transfers money from an Income account to your checking account. Income accounts like expense accounts can have as many sub accounts as you wish. All the base accounts (Asset, Liabilities, Expenses, Income, and Equity, Trading, Banking, Receivable, and Payable) can have as many sub accounts as desired.

GnuCash allows importing from QFX/QIF so I was able to easily import my downloaded Credit Card transactions and my banking account transactions. You can schedule reoccurring transactions. It uses memorized transactions to pre-fill accounts and fields as you enter new transactions which saves typing. You enter Walmart with account Expenses>Groceries once and the next time you start a new transaction and type a 'w' it suggests Walmart with the account Expenses>Groceries.

Split transactions let you transfer money to multiple account in one transaction. For example, a paycheck gross amount is transferred from an Income account, then taxes and other deductions transfer to other accounts, and the net is transferred to your checking account. The split transaction was a bit confusing at first. After mastering it, it turned out to be a lot like Quicken's split transaction.

I need to use GnuCash Budgeting next and then I'll take a crack at setting up my Investment accounts. So at this point I'd say GnuCash did have a bit of a learning curve, but so far so good.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Watson on Jeopardy

In case you not heard, an IBM computer named Watson will take on the Jeopardy champs February 14-16. What you may well witness on Jeopardy could be the event that leads to the computer being the third leg of technology equal to fire and the printing press.

Those of you old enough to have used a slide rule in high school or college (I am) will remember very well being in total awl when you held your 1st pocket calculator. I bet you still remember when you got it - I do. I had to wait for the prices to come down before I was able to buy my first one in 1975, a HP-21 Scientific Pocket Calculator. Since we today take calculators for granted and they are so cheap that we discard them when the battery is depleted, you might like to know I paid $139.00 for it in 1975. That $139 is the same buying power as $578.36 today.

I believe Watson, with it's ability to process Human Natural Language will in time take us from the 'computer as a slide rule age' we are in today to the 'computer as a Pocket Calculator age'. Future inexpensive Watsons will take the drudgery out of using computers the same way the pocket calculator took the drudgery out of finding the cubed root of 2197.

I realize this might be a big yawn on the why brother scale for most people, but I believe this TV event will be remembered as is man's landing on the moon. Maybe not as well or by as many, but shame on you that miss it. I saw the moon landing and with luck and a TV I'll see this important first too.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Fresh New Year

Well each December I notice my pile of receipts getting bigger. I used to enter my purchases into Quicken, but stopped just after tax time in 2008. I used Quicken for 10+ years ever since the mid 90s when Parson's Technology and their MoneyCounts (which I loved) got purchased by Intuit. Intuit provided Quicken for free to me as a replacement for MoneyCounts. I dutifully upgraded yearly through Quicken 2007 for ~$50 a year. Quicken kept getting flashier and flashier but it really never added features that I used. I tried two 'online' web based finance packages, but one reminded me too much of Quicken, and the other wouldn't let me track credit card purchases. I really just wanted the simple (to me) double entry system MoneyCounts had.

Well a couple weeks ago I found GnuCash, a free open source double entry finance program that reminds me a lot of MoneyCounts. GnuCash runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac. I downloaded and in less than an hour I had my accounts set up ready for a fresh start in the new year which is the best time to start using finical software. GnuCash is worth giving a try.

Speaking of New Year - I hope all have a happy and prosperous one!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Getting things in sync

You may not know it but over the last few weeks I've been sorting out my HD and surround sound setup. Basically I had cables all over the place since I got that new HD TV in June. It's now nice and neat and everything is hooked up.

But I now have a BIG issue with lip sync when I use the surround sound (digital 5.1). There has always been a slight lip sync issue, but inserting the Google TV box between the Satellite receiver and the the TV made it way noticeable (worse).

The 5.1 audio signal from the Satellite receiver uses fiber optic cable to connect to the Surround sound with the 5.1 decoder. Next the decoded signals are amplified and sent to the various speakers. That decode does not take long. My guess is a millisecond.

But for the video the path is not so direct. The HDMI cable runs from the Satellite receiver to the Google TV box. The Google TV box de-interlaces the 1024i and rescans that to 1024p and sends that video to the TV using second HDMI cable. The TV then decodes the video again and displays it. It takes 1/15th of a second (2 1/30th second frames) to rescan 1024i to 1024p and it takes another 1/30th of a second to display a frame on so that's at least 1/10th of a second (100 millisecond) delay in the 'picture' relative to the audio. When viewing actors on screen I hear the audio long before their mouths open - their lips are out of sync.

Lip-sync is not an issue when using the simple stereo speakers built into the TV. The digital audio sent with the HDMI data is delayed by each box so that it stays in-sync. Also in reading the forums for my Satellite receiver it has some non customizable lip sync correction built in. But based on the forums, lip sync is still an issue. I suspect that's due to the differences in the Surround sound decoders people own.

To fix the lip-sync I bought a digital audio delay device.

I installed the device. The delay to correct the Satellite lip-sync turned out to be 200 milliseconds, and the Blue-Ray was 50 milliseconds. Each of the 4 inputs can have a different delay which is remembered across power on-offs. If can provide up to 680 milliseconds of delay. My guess is 50-250 ms delay is more than enough to handle typically lip-sync problems.

The audio delay device is made by Felston. Model DD740. It's an excellent, but pricey solution at $250. The 'more expensive' surround sounds have an audio delay capability you can adjust. I highly recommend that you check the specs before you buy a surround sound to make sure it has an adjustable audio delay. This delay is not the room balance adjustment. This is delay specifically to allow you to adjust for lip sync. I had to weigh the expensive delay device vs just buying another surround sound with delay capability built in. There is no 'cheap' delay device that I could find. In the end the device won because it can handle 4 sources, and it fixes the problem once and for all.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Google PowerMeter

I've been interested in home automation ever since I read about X10 for the first time in Byte Magazine in May of 1980. I purchased a X10 starter kit that had two lamp modules and one appliance module in the early 80s. In the mid 80s I had X10 devices turning on the outdoor flood lights and inside lights when the garage door opened (which my ex appreciated). By the early 90s here in North Carolina I was controlling my lights, water heater, and heat pump. I even automated closing the garage doors at 11pm if the doors happen be left open. Opening and closing a garage doors that swings like barn doors was a feat, but that's another story.

One reason I automated was to save money. All during this time I wanted to be able to measure the power being consumed. To paraphrase Lord Kelvin "What you can measure you can improve." With that in mind years ago a found an old power meter (with the dials and spinning wheel), and had the dream to wire it into my home and install a sensor to track the spinning wheel. Due to all rewiring and software that would be needed my dream never came true. Then Google came along. Google is investing $5 billion into Atlantic Wind Connection which I think is good for the planet. But buried in that article was this little tidbit "It (Google) also offers home energy management software via Google PowerMeter." PowerMeter! What's that? Well $200 + shipping, and about 30 minutes of install I now have Google tracking my energy usage. There not much data yet as you can see from the image. Stay tuned.

The $200 device I installed is a TED5000-G. No software to install or keep running on a PC. The TED has two devices. The first device is a sensor installed in your power panel that transmits over your house wiring to the 2nd device. The 2nd device is plugged into standard outlet and into your router using an Ethernet cable. The 2nd device called a gateway is running a web server that creates web pages with graphs and gauges showing your power usage. The gateway will optionally send data to Google so you can share it with those you choose. The devices monitors your power usage once a second, and stores the data locally:
  • 60 Minutes of second data
  • 48 Hours of minute data
  • 90 Days of hourly data
  • 10 Years of monthly data
All of that you can export to a spreadsheet (Google exports data also). Google has only the basic graphs, but your data is rolled up and compared to other PowerMeter users. Right now it says I use 2% more power than others with similar size house. I'm sure that is due to the limited data collected so far. I'll blog more as I learn more.

FYI - Since this is all browser based it displays nicely on my iPod Touch.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Security for Who?

We all love our key less remotes for our cars. Super convenient, great invention. One thing is now there are actually two things that have to be replaced when we "lose our keys." The remote and the key attached to it. They can be very expensive to replace if we own one of those 'newer' cars.

The remote that unlocks the doors you can get on eBay/internet for most cars fairly cheap, even if you have a high end car. You can then program it yourself to unlock the doors. So losing or replacing a bad remote is at worst inconvenient. It's optional, and maybe not even worth doing.

The actual 'key' can be tricky if you have a newer car that has a key with a 'chip' in it. That chip (a form of RFID) is called a transponder and is separate from the key less 'remote'. These chips can look like a gain of rice, or a piece of foil. Normally the transponder chip is embedded in the plastic handle of the key. The transponder is there to prevent theft by removing the lock tumbler and then turning the switch. Possibly they also prevent thief by hot wiring, but serious if a thief is smart enough to hot-wire a newer car I don't think defeating a transponder key would even slow him up.

You can get the key 'blanks' on the internet or local locksmith. You can get the metal key 'blank' cut to match your car's locks. BUT... The locksmith might not be able to set the transponder chip in the replacement key, so that replacement key will not start the car. In that case you end up going to the dealer anyway and paying the gun held to your head price for a new key. Well there is a cheap solution that is worth a try and works with no programming.

You probably have (had) two factory transponder keys given to you when you purchased the car. Instead of ordering one key blank to replace the lost one, order two and have both of them cut. Then tape the remaining 'factory' transponder key under the steering column out of site. It might have to be kept close (inches) away from the switch - you might be able to have it feet away - experiment. The hidden transponder key will respond to the car's security ping and allow the replacement key to start the car. Use the two (or more!) replacement keys from now on to start the car. Lose one of them it's no big deal.

The best thing about this is that you probably won't lose that 2nd factor key since it's attached to the car. Sure this hidden key could make your car easier to steal. You have insurance for thief, and serious how many cars have you had stolen in your life? Now, how many of you have lost a key? If you are really concerned about thief, after awhile of using the replacement keys cut the actual metal working end of the hidden key off or dig the chip out of it. Trying to remove the chip should be tried while you still have both factory keys in case you damage the chip trying to remove it. Then just tape the chip or plastic handle in place. Remember we are taking about the key here. Not the remote.

FYI - There has been no proof from the auto insurance industry that transponder keys have reduced car theft. A teacher once told me that locks are to keep honest people honest. A thief is going to have something to take care of that lock. A car thief (verses a smash and grab the contents) is not going to try and steal your car unless he already knows he can start it (or has a tow truck). So the fact that the thief knows your model of car has a transponder is enough to prevent its thief - until he has the hack to get around the transponder and then it's worthless.

The only thing that has been proved is that transponder keys provide financial security for the dealer. Today it's the $200+ for a new key and remote, maybe another $100 for towing the car to the dealer to 'reprogram' it. But the real security that transponder keys provide goes like this:

"Oh so sorry... The key code for your car is no longer available...Your car is too old...You'll have to buy a new car, and pay us to dispose of that worthless hunk of metal."

Think about it.