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

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.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Community Day at the Harris Nuclear Plant

Today Progress Energy hosted Community Day at the Harris Nuclear Plant. I live with in the 10 mile radius of the plant and the Harris Plant has been a good neighbor of mine for the 21 years I've lived here. Progress Energy mails me safety information each year which I scan and leave next to the phone in the kitchen. Progress Energy also supplies clean low cost carbon free energy to my home, and along with the other nuclear plants, 40% of the electricity to homes in the carolinas (nuclear power supplies about 20% nationally).

Years ago I had went to the Harris visitor center and viewed the displays. The control room simulator where they train nuclear plant operators was closed on that too long ago visit. The simulated control room is an exact copy to the actual one in use at the Harris plant. Now days the control room simulator is only open to the public this one day a year (generally the last Saturday in August)
, so the chance to take the control room simulator tour made today's visit a must do. The tour is available by reservation for schools and clubs. Kids get to have all the fun!

As luck would have it they were rebooting the simulator during my tour so all the dials, gauges, lights, and displays in the simulator control room were off. I didn't get many pictures this time, but I did get to ask a lot of questions. I also got to see the the computer room that runs the simulator.

Today while I waited for the control room simulator tour to start I visited the booths they had and spoke to the Progress Energy representatives. I learned that their certificate to operate the current reactor at Harris plant has been renewed for another 40 years of operation. I also found out there is 140 years of wet storage in place at the Harris plant. That after 5 years in wet storage that the spent fuel can be moved to dry storage. There is no dry storage at the Harris plant, but I believe that the spent fuel storage problem will be solved in the next 100 or so years. A Traveling Wave Reactor which Bill Gates spoke about at the 2010 TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) conference seems to be very promising solution to the spent fuel problem.

I was pleased to see the solar voltaic sign in front of the visitor center along with a PHEV (Plug in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) Ford Escape. As a BEV (Battery EV) owner I'm a big supporter of EVs and I'm very interested in carbon free ways to produce the electricity needed to charge them. Carbon free renewable energy like the solar voltaic are a part of the answer, but for that enormous base power we need nuclear. Period. So get over it. Go visit a nuclear plant near you. They are a good neighbor and will welcome you and keep you warm on a cold windless winter night.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Burning Up

So it's been hot lately. I've been burning up in this heat. I've never liked the heat and humidity we have here in the south even though I've grown up with it. All the heat has made it difficult to run in the evening. It was still 85F (29.44C) at 9PM last night, so I've been running on a tread mill I purchased from Larry a couple years ago before he moved to Arkansas. It's a good, powerful, full size tread mill and it easily handles me. It has some nice features:
  • digital speed and incline controls
  • time and distance traveled
  • calorie burned
It also allows you to set a calorie burn goal, and when you reach your goal the belt slows, and in a few seconds, stops. Since my favorite part of exercise is when it is over, I like anything that will get me to my favorite part. So I set the burn goal for a whole box of mac & cheese (2 servings, or 500 calories) and started jogging. I was surprised when the thread mill shut off in about 25 minutes, way short of the 40 minutes I was expecting.

So is the 75 calorie for 6 minutes of jogging I used wrong, or is it the calorie counter on the tread mill? Well they are both wrong, and probably for the same reason. Both assume some weight value and chances are I'm not that weight. Well there are calorie calculators all over the web. But very few provide the formula. I found a formula that most scholarly pages site is from Energy Expenditure of Walking and Running, from Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise, Dec. 2004.
Your Total Calorie Burn/Mile Your Net Calorie Burn/Mile
Running (>5mph) .75 x your weight (in lbs.) .63 x your weight
Walking (3-4mph) .53 x your weight .30 x your weight
Total Calorie Burned (TCB) includes your basal metabolism (what you burn just sitting there), and the Net Calorie Burned (NCB) is just what the exercise burned and is what typically gets shown by calculators.

So just how long do I have to spend on the tread mill to burn up 500 (total) calories? Ever how long it takes me to go 3.12 miles if I run, or 4.4 miles if I walk. So 37.5 minutes based on 12 minutes per mile pace which is about right or me. When walking your center of gravity does not move (up and down) as much as when you run, so you don't burn as many calories. That is an overly simple explanation. How Many Calories are You Really Burning? is a good place to start reading if you want specifics. Also exercising on a tread mill or on a track is about the same. But a flat track and the hills in your neighborhood are of course, different. Proving once again your mileage will vary!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

What would you do for some Macaroni & Cheese?

So, I'm trying to lose a few pounds (a stone or so for you Brits, not money) and was wondering what was a calorie that I see on those labels all the time. I knew that a calorie was a unit of energy so with a little searching I found a handy California Energy Commission web page What is Energy?
The California Energy Commission web page says a piece of buttered toast contains about 315 kilojoules (315,000 joules, or 75.28 food calories) of energy. With that energy the web page says you could:
  • Jog for 6 minutes
  • Bicycle for 10 minutes
  • Walk briskly for 15 minutes
  • Sleep for 1-1/2 hours
  • Run a car for 7 seconds at 80 kilometers per hour (about 50 miles per hour)
  • Light a 60-watt light bulb for 1-1/2 hours
  • Or lift that 5 lb (2.26 kg) sack of sugar from the floor to the counter 21,000 times!
Sort of helps you picture just how much effort it takes to burn off a 250 calories candy bar - like lift that sack of sugar 70,000 times.
I can't confirm or explain their numbers. I did the metric-English conversions for this post, but I've heard before that running a hour is about 700-800 calories burned, so I suspect they are in the ball park (on the pitch). I suspect 75 calories is low for a piece of butter toast, but 315K joules is 75.28 kilo-calories (aka food calories).
I think on food labels they should put "Jog 20 minutes after eating this" or other depressing (but meaningful) warnings on the labels.
For me? What will I do for mac & cheese? I'll just take a 5 hour nap.

Monday, July 12, 2010

2010 Peachtree

Peachtree 2010
I'm sure you all noticed I've not posted much this year. Not a lot going on. Just work mostly. I did run in the Peachtree this year. This was the 2nd time for me. I cut 10 minutes off my time this year. Mostly because it was cooler and much less humid. That and I drank more before and during the race. I think last time I struggled because I got a bit dehydrated.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Again with the Cables

Hello and Happy New Year!
For Christmas I got myself and new Blu-Ray DVD player with internet video streaming (aka Netflix). Beside watching Blu-Ray and regular DVDs I can also watch movies streamed 'on demand' from the internet. The Blu-Ray player is connected to the internet using the the Wired Ethernet port I installed next to my 'media cabinet.' But to hook up to the plasma I needed to run a second HDMI cable from the Blu-Ray in the media cabinet to the plasma.

The media cabinet is actually in a closet that shares a wall with the den. In the den my plasma is mounted on the fire place hearth. The picture shows the plasma just after I hung it a couple years ago. If you look closely you'll notice there are no cables connected to it in that picture. Sort of reminds you of those commercials where a handsome couple sit watching their flat screen hanging cable free on a perfectly clean wall. If you read the disclaimer that flashes up during the commercial it says 'simulated picture shown' - most people believe they say that to make an excuse for why their super HD picture looks so bad on your crappy TV. But I know different. They 'simulate' the picture because you can't get a real picture on a flat panel without running lots of cables to it! And cables showing can really spoil the picture - which I'm sure some readers know too well.

Well over the last couple years as I hooked up various devices to my flat screen plasma and cable (mis) management got to be a real problem. No perfect picture here.

On the lower left you can see the hole in the wall the cables use to pass through to the closet on other side. I never finished the opening. I have enlarged the hole as I ran more cables through it.

The Blu-Ray used the last remaining connection on the plasma's input panel, so with no more cables possible I decided it was time to finish off 'the hole.' I also wanted to hide the cables. The next picture shows the finish outlets with the new connectors. 2 HDMI, 2 component video, 1 video, external antenna, 3 speakers cables, sub-woofer, and power cords.

Not bad. Much neater for sure. I ended up adding a 2nd opening for speaker wires for the surround sound. The black bundle of (13) cables snakes up the side of the bricks. Way better than it was, but I was still not happy.

While staying with Dexter and Jan in Atlanta for the Peachtree Road Race I noticed Jan had put their cables inside of a tube she made out of fabric. It was gathered fabric and I thought it looked nice and did a good job of hiding the cables. I don't have access to a sewing machine, so Gale suggested I just make the hem using glue. Then use hook-and-loop along the edges of the fabric so when fasten it would form a tube. So I took a shot at it and made my own cable tube!

I don't have Jan's sewing skills so it does not gather as nice as hers. My fabric also does not match the wall paper like hers (Wall paper? What wall paper? I anit got no wall paper in my house!). But, I think it turned out pretty good. Doesn't look like a snake crawling up the wall now.

So after about $150 in cables and connectors, a bit of fabric and glue I'm having a Happy New Year!