Amazon FireTV developments

Several weeks ago, I ordered a FireTV.  Right out of the box, it’s pretty nice, but some things have happened…

About two weeks ago, a procedure came out to root your FireTV.  While there wasn’t a lot known that you could do extra with root yet, I rooted mine knowing that things would come.

Some time later, a new version of the Amazon software came out with additional features.  Some say it’s more stable (though I haven’t had a stability issue, really).  A day or two later, someone had figured out how to upgrade without losing root access.  It also appears that this new version is vulnerable to root as well.  I upgraded and all was well.

Someone posted how to get the Google Play store installed on the FireTV.  I installed it, but was underwhelmed, because there wasn’t much you could install, since the store saw so few programs compatible with the FireTV.

A couple days went by, and then I found Market Helper, a tool that lets you tell Google that your FireTV is really a different piece of hardware.  I selected the Nexus 7 tablet.  (You do have to log into your dashboard from your computer before it will register it as a different device type.)  Initially, it didn’t seem to be working, as the things showing up on the FireTV didn’t seem to change yet.  Browsing the Play store online, however, allowed me to select apps to install on my new Nexus 7.  After selecting to install something, within a few minutes, it was installed on my FireTV.  Some time later (perhaps an hour) I checked the Play store on the FireTV and saw many more options available to install, so it worked, but it took a while before the results were seen on the Play store app on the FireTV itself.

With Market Helper, you can install LOTS of stuff, easily.  The only down side is that the software might not work well with FireTV because it’s meant for a tablet.  Most apps have their interfaces optimized for a touchscreen.  Apps like Xfinity TV are available if you have your FireTV connected wirelessly, but the interface expects you to have touch.  With a keyboard and mouse, this can be worked around, but it was awkward to stand up at my TV to run this app.

Back several days ago, I had read that the FireTV was compatible with the Logitech Dinovo keyboard.  That appears to be a confusing term, though.  Apparently, it refers to multiple keyboards.  I thought it refereed to my Mini keyboard that I bought a year or two ago to use with my Logitech Revue.  Try as I might, I couldn’t get the FireTV to recognize my mini keyboard.

Until tonight.

I searched Logitech’s website and downloaded the Logitech Unifying software for my Mac.  I hit the advanced view and it said there was no Unifying receiver in my computer.  I opened the back of my keyboard and removed the USB dongle that was stored there (which was never needed for my Revue), and I attached the USB dongle to my Mac and it linked my mini keyboard to it.  I was then able to type on it and the letters appeared on my Mac.  Cool!  The mouse pad area worked too!

It was about then that I had the thought, “Gee… I wonder if it’s linked to this dongle now, and will it work if I plug it into my FireTV”.  So, I tried it.  I’m absolutely THRILLED to report that it works!  Both the keyboard AND the mouse portion!  The home button on it even works to take you to the FireTV home screen!  This is awesome!  Now, I can sit in comfort across the room with the mini keyboard and use those apps that require a touch interface!

July 4, 2014 at 11:19 pm Leave a comment

Hayward Ecostar VS Pool Pump Flow Rates & Cost Savings

Sort of off my normal topics, but somewhat related to budgeting…  My pool pump started making a terrible noise on Sunday evening.  Today, I replaced the pump with a new variable speed pump.  Instead of running full speed, like my old model, this one lets me adjust the RPM in 50 RPM increments from 600 RPM all the way to 3450 RPM.  I’m trying to determine the optimal RPM to run my pump at.  The VS pump should let me run at a much lower rate over a longer period of time and save energy (which should translate directly to saving money on my electric bill).  Apparently, running just a few hundred RPMs less cuts the energy use in half, so this could end up saving me serious money every summer.

I plan to run my pool pump 24 hours per day while turning over the water at least once each day.  First, I needed to figure out the Gallons Per Minute (GPM) rate of my pump…

(Below information from a post in a forum on troublefreepool.com)

Variable Speed Pump Flow Rate Approximations

The following formulas use the affinity equations to yield a very rough estimate of flow rate.

1.5″ Return Line with 1 x 1.5″ Suction Line:
Intelliflo Flow Rate (GPM) = RPM / 47
EcoStar Flow Rate (GPM) = RPM / 48
Plumbing Head (ft)= 0.0167 * GPM^2 – CEC Curve A

1.5″ Return Line with 2 x 1.5″ Suction Lines or 1 x 2″ Suction Line
Intelliflo Flow Rate (GPM) = RPM / 44
EcoStar Flow Rate (GPM) = RPM / 45
Plumbing Head (ft)= 0.0140 * GPM^2

2″ Return Line with 1 x 2″ Suction Line
Intelliflo Flow Rate (GPM) = RPM / 37
EcoStar Flow Rate (GPM) = RPM / 38
Plumbing Head (ft)= 0.0093 * GPM^2

2″ Return Line with 2 x 2″ Suction Lines or 1 x 2.5″ Suction Line
Intelliflo Flow Rate (GPM) = RPM / 35
EcoStar Flow Rate (GPM) = RPM / 36
Plumbing Head (ft)= 0.0083 * GPM^2 – CEC Curve C

2.5″ Return Line with 1 x 2.5″ Suction Line
Intelliflo Flow Rate (GPM) = RPM / 34
EcoStar Flow Rate (GPM) = RPM / 35
Plumbing Head (ft)= 0.0074 * GPM^2

2.5″ Return Line with 2 x 2.5″ Suction Lines
Intelliflo Flow Rate (GPM) = RPM / 33
EcoStar Flow Rate (GPM) = RPM / 34
Plumbing Head (ft)= 0.0069 * GPM^2

In my case, I have a line from my main drain and a line from my skimmers.  They are 2 inches when they come out of the ground, but if I recall correctly, before my pool was refinished, they were 1 1/2 inches.  I’m sure the pipes weren’t replaced, so I’m going to say I have a single 1 1/2 inch return line and two 1 1/2 inch suction lines.  Since my pump is an Ecostar, that means the RPM / 45 should give me an approximate GPM rate.

My pool is 27000 gallons.  Running 24 hours a day, that means my GPM needs to be 27000 / 1440 = 18.75 GPM.

RPM  :  GPM
600  :  13.33700  :  15.55
800  :  17.77
900  :  20  – Minimum speed to run 24 hrs a day to turn the pool over once
1000 :  22.22
1100  :  24.44
1200  :  26.66
1300  :  28.88 – Turn over my pool 1.5X per day (Or run pump for 16 hours/day)
1400  :  31.11
1500  :  33.33
1600  :  35.55
1700  :  37.77  – Turn over my pool 2X per day  (Or run pump for 12 hours/day)
1800  :  40
2000  :  44.44
2200  :  48.88
2400  :  53.33
2600  :  57.77  -  Turn over my pool 3X per day  (Or run pump for 8 hours/day)
2800  :  62.22
3000  :  66.66
3200  :  71.11
3400  :  75.55  – Turn over my pool 4X per day (Or run pump for 6 hours / day)

My old pool pump was a StaRite 1.5 HP pump, part number P2RA5F-182L.  It runs at 3450 RPM.   I have no idea of the GPM performance, but I can tell you that when I ran my new pump on 3250 RPM (the default “quick clean” RPM), the returns felt much stronger than with my old pump.

According to the label, my old pump drew 9.6 watts at 230V.  Multiple them together (per this page:  http://www.spectralightuv.com/pool-pumps.html) and that’s 2208 watts.  Divide by 1000 to get KWh = 2.208 KWh.  Most recently, I’ve been running this 24 hours a day, for a total of 52.99 KWh per day.  My local electric rate is about .11 per KWh, so since I started running my pump 24×7, it was costing me about 5.83 every day!

If I run my new pump at 1000 RPMs, it consumes 105 Watts (it shows the live Watt usage right on the display panel).  If I run it 24×7, and go through the same math process described above, that yields 2.52 KWh per day, costing me about .28 per day.  That’s less than $9 per month!

Wow!

Up until about a month ago, I ran my pump on a timer, running it as few as about 2 hours a day during the winter, on up to 6 – 12 hours a day through spring, and finally started running it 24 hours a day last month.  I don’t know what a good “average” number per day would be, but if it were 8, my average cost over a year would be a little over $700.  With the new pump, running 24 hours a day at 1000 RPM every day of the year would cost just over $100 per year.  Of course, I’ll run it at a medium speed for a few hours here and there to vacuum, but that shouldn’t substantially increase the cost.

So, the budget side of this story is that I’m going to be saving a bunch of money on my electric bill from now on.  This pump cost $870 before tax.  The single speed pump I was looking at was around $500.  By the end of the year, I should have recouped that cost difference.   Assuming the pump lasts two years, it pays for itself completely with the energy savings.

July 4, 2014 at 7:08 pm Leave a comment

Amazon Fire TV

I recently sold my jail-broken AppleTV 2 and bought an Amazon Fire TV.

If you have any Amazon content, the pre-caching it does is tremendous.  Basically, you select your content, and it’s playing almost instantly.  No waiting for 10-15 seconds for it to start streaming, it’s there.  The Voice search is pretty neat too, but it only works with Amazon content.  Amazon is really trying to suck you into their ecosystem.  Unless you already have Prime, resist the urge.  I understand that they are working to expand the capabilities to other services, like NetFlix.  On one hand, Amazon’s content has an advantage on their device because of the pre-caching and voice search, but if they bring that to Hulu Plus and NetFlix, that would be huge.  It would make the Fire TV THE streamer to buy, as the competition can’t easily just add two big features like that.

I can honestly say that it’s nice to have a platform where Plex is actually supported.  I’ve read that some people are having various issues with the Plex client, but  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it has performed better than just about any Plex client I’ve used before, with the exception of the Mac client. One issue I have had is that it sometimes starts trying to play content, then acts like it can’t find it on the remote drive.  I moved Plex Media Server from my Synology NAS to my Mac mini because I needed more processing power to transcode high-def shows.  With the Fire TV, just about everything plays back natively, so I may move PMS back to the NAS, as I think the issue with not being able to always see files may be related to the way volumes are mapped in Mac OS X.  One issue I do have with the Plex app is there is currently no support for changing Aspect ratio… So, if your show was recorded at standard def, with bars on the sides, you can only watch it with Plex looking that way.

Pandora.  It works.  You can start playing something and exit the app to look around at other content, while it keeps playing.  Well behaved apps (like Plex) will let you select something to start playing, and stop Pandora at that time.  XBMC doesn’t do this.  Both it and Pandora play at the same time.

Side loading.  Yes, you can do it, and Amazon didn’t make it hard.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that things are as good as they should be.  For example, while the Comcast Xfinity app works when side loaded on the FireTV, it expects a wireless connection.  If you have a wired connection, it complains that it can’t see a wireless connection, and thus won’t play.  Also, it’s built for a touch-screen interface.  Trying to use a keyboard and mouse to navigate that is less than ideal.  I’m assuming they will put out a version just for the FireTV.  I look forward to that, as I think it would be well-used in my home.  I honestly expected more decent apps for it by now, since it’s been out for over two months.

XBMC.  This is one of the items I had the highest hopes for.  Yes, it works.  Yes, it plays back most video content I’ve thrown at it (not all).  But it does some strange things sometimes.  It is pretty good about letting you adjust things like aspect ratio though.  I’m using the ServerWMC PVR plug-in, and it is okay.  I had ran this previously on my AppleTV 2, and it runs much faster on the Fire TV,

Weirdness… I had been playing Pandora the other evening, then started a show on Plex.  After hitting a button (or perhaps a couple) on the remote (FF?  Play?  not sure), Pandora started back up playing again, while Plex was also playing.  Not good.

More weirdness.  The other night, I had turned off the Fire TV.  A minute or two while later, it came back on.  I turned it off again, and went to bed.  About 20 minutes later, the TV turned itself on again.  I unplugged the HDMI cable from the Fire TV.  Problem solved.  The next afternoon, I rebooted the FireTV and plugged it back it.  Worked fine as far as I could tell.  This evening, the TV was turned on when I entered my bedroom after dinner.  I’m almost 100% certain I hadn’t turned it on, and it was on the same screen that it had been on the evening before.  My wife states that she didn’t turn it on (she hasn’t yet bothered to learn how to use the Fire TV, instead mostly watching TV on her iPad).  Anyhow, there’s a standard that lets HDMI connected devices do things like power on the TV and change the input.  Tonight, I found the setting on my Vizio and disabled it.  What is strange it that this problem didn’t start until just the last couple of days…

June 11, 2014 at 11:22 pm Leave a comment

YNAB and Savings accounts

How to Save with YNAB

I’ve been using YNAB for a little over a year.  During that time, I’ve used it with lots of accounts, but those accounts were mostly of the credit card or personal loan variety.  What has eluded me all this time is how to best handle Savings accounts.

You see, all of my income goes into my checking account.  Before YNAB, I used multiple ING accounts to split money into different categories… So, each goal would have its own savings account.  (ING makes that incredibly easy)

With YNAB, that’s not necessary, though.  You can put everything in a single account.  It doesn’t matter what your bank account balance is, all that matters is available money in the category.  There is, of course, one big drawback to the all-in-one account method, and that’s interest.  My checking pays a laughable 0.1%.  Other banks, especially on-line banks, offer much more interest.

This is where confusion set in for me…  I’ve seen various suggestions on how to handle savings with YNAB, but none of them seemed to make much sense, or they looked like a pain to track.  Like most people, I have multiple categories of money that I won’t need for months, but I need to keep the category balances separate.

The other night I came up with an idea to make this work with YNAB while still being simple to keep everything straight.

To Get Started

Organize

Make a super-category called Long Term Savings.  Move spending categories under Long Term Savings that contain money that you don’t expect to need for at least a month or two.  In my case, I moved these categories:  Emergency Fund, Christmas, Home Insurance, Property Tax, Car Replacement, Mom & Dad’s Anniversary, and School Fees (2015-16).  Look at the balance for the Long Term Savings super category.  That is the total of all those categories.  If you are anything like me, it’ll be at least a couple of thousand.  Dollars.  That have been wasting away earning 0.1% interest (or possibly even less).

Get a High Interest Account and Track it

Next, set up a new high-interest savings account with your favorite bank.  I was able to create one on right through Barclay’s website in about 15-20 minutes.  Create an on-budget account in YNAB to track your new account, we’ll call it High Savings.  It is important that it be on-budget, since you still want to keep the purpose of these dollars segmented.  As part of the new account creation process, you’ll probably be asked for your initial deposit.  Deposit the Long Term Savings super category balance into your new High Savings account.  Be sure to do a transfer in YNAB to your newly created on-budget account.  Don’t categorize this in any way.  You aren’t spending money, it’s just moving around, so a transfer is what you want.  At this point, your Long Term Savings super category balance should match your High Savings account balance.

That’s it!  You are saving!

Adding Money

After future paycheck cycles, place your money into categories as usual.  When done, take the new Long Term Savings super category balance and subtract the High Savings account balance.  That’s the amount to deposit into your high-interest savings account.  Once again, after this deposit, your super category balance and savings account balance should match to the penny.

Earning Interest

When interest is deposited into your savings account, add it to High Savings as income, and budget it into your choice of categories that are already part of the Long Term Savings super category.  Once again, it will balance out.

Spending your Savings

When the time comes to spend money out of these categories, use a credit card or write a check, being sure to attribute the spending to the proper category.  At this point, your High Savings account should show more money than the Long Term Savings super category balance.  As soon as practical, subtract your Long Term Savings balance from your High Savings balance and transfer that amount out of High Savings to cover your spending.

Anyhow, I am sure this won’t make me rich, but I do think it will earn me an extra $40-50 per year… Probably more, especially when interest rates creep upwards, as they will inevitably do.

 

June 11, 2014 at 10:31 pm Leave a comment

Amazon Free Shipping – Not the deal it once was

Back a few years ago, I almost always selected the Free Shipping option every time I ordered from Amazon.  The items I ordered usually arrived about 3 days later, sometimes 4 days.  Every once it while, it was longer.  Mostly it was about 3 or 4 days.  At order time, they always seemed to show a delivery estimate way later than when it actually arrived.  I always suspected those long estimates were worst-case to encourage you to use one of the paid shipping options.

Back some years ago, Amazon started using these new hybrid services for Free shipping.  Either Fedex or UPS would initially receive the package in a single large shipment.  They ship all of those packages to a USPS center close to the destination.  USPS handles the “last mile” delivery to the customer.  I honestly don’t remember getting too many orders shipped this way, but when it happened, it seemed to add a day or two to the ship time.

Then I got Amazon Prime.  There’s something very nice about not having to worry about the cost of shipping and still getting your items in two business days.  Since I live in Florida, and this year they were going to start charging sales tax because they were building a distribution center in Florida, (not to mention the $79 price wasn’t in the budget), it seemed like a good time to let Prime expire.  Without the automatic 6% discount (FL sales tax), I expected to shop at Amazon less, so why pre-pay for shipping when I’m likely to order less from them.

I’ve purchased a few items this year since Prime expired.  Two items have been purchases for work and I’ve used the Free shipping each time.

#1:  Ordered 3/27, delivered in 5 business days
#2:  Ordered 4/19, delivered in 4 business days#3:  Ordered 5/4, delivered in 5 business days
#4:  Ordered 5/13, delivered in 6 business days
#5:  Ordered 5/19, likely to be delivered in 5 business days

When I ordered item #5, an Amazon Fire TV, it was late on Monday evening.  I figured that even using the Free shipping option, I had a good chance of having it delivered before the weekend, even though the Free Shipping estimate was for late the following week.

Order #5 was ordered late Monday and  “left seller facility and is in transit to carrier” at 11:13 PM on Thursday.  Why did it take 3 business days to get the order out the door?  Fedex Smartpost scanned it in at their Orlando facility at 7:06 PM on Friday.  It’s already made it to my home town as of 7:40 AM this morning (Saturday), so I’m expecting it to arrive by USPS on Monday.

There are a few possibilities I see here:

1. Amazon has to fill a tractor trailer of “free shipping” packages before anything in that lot ships
2. Amazon sits on the order a couple of days to make sure Free Shipping isn’t the great deal it used to be
3. Amazon’s shipping is much more complex than I can imagine
4. The partnership between UPS and USPS, and between Fedex and USPS are super cheap for Amazon at the cost of being painfully slow.

I don’t know if #2 is happening, but given that they have an incentive to delay shipping on that option (to encourage shoppers to get Prime or pay for shipping), it wouldn’t surprise me.

I found out after I ordered the Fire TV that they are also sold at BestBuy.  Had I known that and considered that option, I’d just have picked it up there…

Perhaps most surprising about this to me?  Amazon missed a perfect opportunity.  They could have included free two day shipping for all online orders.  The push for this device is really to get customers into the Amazon ecosystem.  Give them a free taste of the streaming you get through Prime (30 days), and the voice search (that only searching through Amazon’s content, as of today at least).  Make it easy for customers to consume content that Amazon sells.  Just like Apple.

May 24, 2014 at 8:08 am Leave a comment

Synology DSM 5.0 is out, meh…

Back on March 10th, Synology released DSM 5.0 to the world, post-beta.

I’ve been running it now for about two weeks, and I’m fairly happy with it.  There were no issues with upgrading to it from 4.3, and even installing 5.0 Update 1 a few days after the initial 5.0 upgrade went very smoothly.  It’s been just as stable with the 5.0 as it had been under 4.3, which is to say VERY.

First off, the main feature you’ll notice is the new coat of paint.  They already had the most advanced UI for a NAS on the market, but they’ve been pushing the boundaries anyhow.  The icons are now more colorful and generally simpler in design.  Really, it looks like they gave DSM the IOS 7 treatment.  It appears the devs are moving toward the Mac style, right down to the Launchpad look-a-like that shows up each time you hit the equivalent of the Start button.  Good news if you have tablets at home, the UI is now touch-capable.

For small businesses, the new DSM supports a central management tool allowing you to see all your NAS devices in a single app.  Haven’t tested that, as I only have one Synology NAS, but this sounds like a great new feature for small businesses that have multiple NAS devices.

Cloud Sync is a new feature allowing you to sync your Google Drive, Drop Box (and perhaps other) storage accounts with your NAS natively.

From a functionality standpoint, they claim to have sped up the performance of both AFP and SMB file transfers. Oh, and if iSCSI is your thing, they claim it is up to 6 times faster.

Personally, I’m not very excited about this new upgrade.  Yes, the speed enhancements are very nice, but most of the new features weren’t really aimed at users like me.  The new UI was really unneeded at this point, either, since it was already better than anything else you can get in a NAS.

What would I have rather seen?  It may be boring to the people at Synology, but more high-quality apps.  Work with the third parties out there to make all the apps on Synology devices better.  For example, I understand the built-in video station does some hardware assisted transcoding.  It would be awesome if they would give specs to the Plex guys on how they could incorporate that into Plex also.  If they did that, perhaps I wouldn’t have moved Plex from my Diskstation to my Mac Mini (my main workstation).

April 2, 2014 at 10:30 pm Leave a comment

Budget failures

Today, I’d like to talk about budget failures.  During the last year, I’ve been budgeting and almost immediately, I saw the huge positive effect on my life.  I have convinced several people to get YNAB, and even bought a couple copies to give as gifts.

I know that three people that I’ve either given YNAB or gotten them to get their own copy, who have had “budget failures”.

With the great feeling of control I have using YNAB, I have trouble understanding these failures.  Why would anyone stop using a tool that gave them the feeling of control and peace that YNAB gives me?

The reasons offered for these failures:

1.  “I make too little money to budget.”

2.  “Manually entering in the transactions is too much work.”

3.  “I ran into a situation I didn’t know how to handle in YNAB.”

Personally, I think all three of the above are excuses.

Not enough money to budget?  If you have a low income, budgeting helps make each of those dollars go farther.  If your income is lower, you’ll probably benefit MORE from using a budget.  I totally don’t get this reason.

Budgeting too much work?  It’s a little work, sure.  My wife and I enter most transactions on our phones.  When I get home in the evenings, I spend a few minutes logging into each of my banking websites, marking cleared transactions, and performing a reconcile.  That’s typically three websites, each taking probably a minute.  Some less.  So probably 5 minutes or so a day is all that I need to keep on top of my budget.  You don’t need to check it daily, most people would be fine with once or twice a week.  In that case, it would probably take you a little more time to update everything.   The relatively small amount of work is required, though.  It’s important to keep up with it pretty regularly so you have the awareness of your spending.  Awareness is key to keeping your budget.

I couldn’t figure out how to handle situation X.  In this case, check the YNAB forums.  If the question isn’t there, ask it.  Figure it out and keep budgeting!

I think the real problem is this:

The Reality of the Budget.  Lots of people don’t really want to know their financial situation.  They know its not in a good place, but they don’t want to know precisely how bad things are.  Why would anyone not want to know?  I think I can answer, because I believe I’m guilty of this.  I didn’t want to know how dire the situation was, because if I knew, that would make me want to limit my spending.  I would feel compelled to avoid spending money unless I really needed to.  Like an alcoholic in denial about having a problem, I wasn’t ready to stop overspending.

I imagine you’ve heard the phrase Knowledge is Power before, and it’s really true in this instance.  Knowing your total debt creates that awareness that makes you want to get rid of them.

Awareness doesn’t stop at knowing your debt.  You also need to be aware of your daily spending.  Check your category balance before spending money, not your checkbook balance.

In short, the more aware of your true financial situation, the better spending decisions you’ll make.

Being Ready.  I think a large part of whether you’ll be successful using a program like YNAB is whether or not you are really ready to do it.  Like the proverbial alcoholic that has to “hit rock bottom” before they are ready to quit, I think everyone needs to be at a point in their life when they realize they really do need a budget, before they have a good shot at being successful.  You have to want it more than having your Starbucks fix three days a week.  Until you want it that badly, you’ll probably just keep failing.

 

March 28, 2014 at 11:42 pm 2 comments

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