Category Archives: Frugal Living

Replacing Hood Release Cable on a 2003 Saturn Ion

Just a quick note on this one. We have an old Saturn with 155,000+ miles on it. Things are at the stage where lots of stuff is starting to break (exhaust, front brakes, starter) and need repairs, but it still is good basic transportation to keep around as a second car and gets better mileage than our Subaru Outback.

With all the recent repairs I’ve been doing, the fact that I’ve been using a coat hanger stub poking out of the grille to open the hood (after the release cable broke a couple of winters ago) started to get old. Looking around the web there was little info on how to actually do the repair but the parts were fairly cheap – I was able to get a “used” and “minor cosmetic issue” unit from Amazon’s Warehouse deals for under $16. So I decided to give it a go. (BTW, the cable ended up being brand new in original packaging when it arrived, yay!)

Should you be looking to do the same, I figured out an easy way to get the fix done.

Our cable had snapped (and the handle came off) from the end inside the car. The cable is routed from inside the kick panel next to the driver’s side, up behind a bunch of insulation/sound deadening stuff, through the firewall (passing through an integrated grommet) and into the engine compartment. From that point below the cowl area it travels along side the battery connection/fuse box frontwards and through a hole in the radiator support and turns toward the center hood release. There are two routing clips along that route through the engine compartment, one near the fuse box and one just through the radiator support.

It seems there was a factory technical service bulletin at one point due to the fairly common seizing and breaking of the hood release. Water was getting inside the cable sheath and freezing in cold weather or causing corrosion which ultimately jammed the cable. Cables were replaced while still under warranty and they changed the routing of the cable to pass over (instead of through) the radiator support to eliminate the dip in the cable which was trapping the water.

Looking at this situation, I was not looking forward to having to manually route this cable so I was looking for some way to get it done more easily. I ended up figuring out a really simple solution and had the cable done in less than 10 minutes once I started. Here’s what I did:

Inside the car, remove the trim alongside the driver seat/rocker panel area – lift the plastic at the seam/split and snap it off (4 clips, 3 on the rocker panel and one under the dash). This reveals the hood release lever mount and the cable end. While our lever was already broken off, you can take off the lever here and remove the cable end.

Under the hood, remove the cable end from the hood release lever (I also removed the grille assembly via the 3 small bolts to give me more working room as I was removing my prior coat hanger hack as well). Pull the ferrule towards the front of the car (firmly) to remove it from the bracket and then down to provide slack in the cable. Wiggle the cable end out of the release lever so the cable can come fully free. Trace the cable and release it from the two guide clips mentioned above.

Now that the cable is free of all but the firewall pass-through, go back to the driver’s footwell. There I used a plumber’s pipe cutter tool to cut the cable sheath several inches from the cable end and pulled the sheath off so that I had several inches of bare cable available (you may need to cut off the cable end ball). I then used a pair of vise grips to clamp on the sheath and pull about a foot of the cable assembly back into the footwell. This dragged along the integrated grommet on the cable, which I slipped off after removing the vise grips. Now there was a full length of smooth cable sheath I could pull back through the firewall to the engine compartment side.

Inside the car, I took the new cable assembly and attached the lever to the end of it. After wrapping several turns of the old cable around the front/latch end of the new cable (being careful not to kink the new cable), I wrapped a couple of turns of duct tape around it (staying clear of the new cable as much as possible in order to not gum it up). I was able to then go out to the engine compartment and simply pull the free end of the old cable and it dragged along the new cable, pulling it through the firewall (including seating the grommet) and along the existing routing to the radiator support. Once there I did the equivalent of the factory TSB and routed the cable over the radiator support and back down to the hood release to prevent the cable dip.

However, before installing the cable at that end, I lifted it to face vertically and squirted a whole bunch of white lithium grease in the cable end to lubricate it and inhibit moisture. I then proceeded to install the cable into the hood release as it was before, being sure to snap the ferrule in properly and tight. Snapped the cable back into the guide clips and installed the release lever onto the cable in the footwell. Slid the release lever assembly into the mounting bracket in the footwell and tested the release to be sure the hood opened (which it did smoothly/easily!) and then reinstalled the fascia panel from the kick panel and along the rocker panel.

Now that I knew the hood could be opened normally, I then reinstalled the grille assembly and made sure to align it with the hood (required some wiggling before tightening the bolts). Done – now we don’t have to explain to service personnel how to open the hood anymore!

DIY Crock Pot Sous Vide System

On a visit to some friends I became aware of the whole topic of Sous Vide “under vacuum” (SV) cooking, the concept of using a controlled water bath to cook food (particularly meats) at low(er) temperatures for more consistent and desirable results. High end restaurants have been doing this for a while. At the time, Sous Vide systems were quite expensive but some home cooks were doing ingenious hacks to simulate a professional SV cooker by using hot water in beer coolers, etc. In that discussion, I mentioned that I thought one of the small computers I was toying with for home automation (HA) could make a simple & cheap SV system with some other basic parts.

It took me some time to come back around to the whole SV idea myself. Not too long ago I came across a great deal on some London Broil at Market Basket and that served to get me going on setting up my own SV system using parts I had already at the house from my previous HA projects. While there are now some SV immersion systems on the market for under $200, I thought I had everything needed to make one on hand. I figured I could try it out and see what I thought of SV cooking without spending any more money. Here’s what I came up with.

DISCLAIMER: This post is just to document what I did. I’m a hobbyist and know almost nothing above my tinkering. I DO NOT MAKE ANY ASSURANCE THAT THIS IS APPROPRIATE FOR HEALTH OR SAFETY CONSIDERATIONS. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR OWN FOOD HEALTH DECISIONS AND FOR USING ELECTRICITY RESPONSIBLY. I WILL NOT BE HELD LIABLE FOR ANY ACTION YOU TAKE TO FOLLOW THIS SAME PATH AND ANY DAMAGE THAT MAY RESULT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED! But should you make some delicious food as a result please comment to let me know!

OK, with that out of the way, here’s a photo of my solution:

My DIY Sous Vide System

The major parts here are:

  • standard Crock Pot slow cooker
  • Programmable Power Controller, consisting of:
    • CAI WebControl PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) unit
    • DS18B20 1-wire temperature sensor, embedded in a stainless steel probe
    • AC to 9v DC power adapter
    • 5v “Arduino” relay board
    • Misc. breadboard wires, low voltage wires and a PC 12v fan connector
  • 110v home wiring components:
    • Light switch
    • Power outlet
    • Appliance power cable
    • Misc. wires and connectors

Update 5/29/2016:

I’ve now been using this set up successfully for nearly a full year. Today I’m doing a SV Leg of Lamb for later finishing on the BBQ grill. Other meals have included lots of chicken, pork and beef – each one has turned out really well (I’ve yet to do fish, but will try it soon). I’ve not posted my PLC code up to now because I was awaiting it becoming stable – which I think I can now consider it, as it’s pretty much worked unchanged since day1 – so here it is. A bit of explanation:

HEAT_ON is a subroutine to energize the power relay, HEAT_OFF does the opposite.
HEAT_MAIL informs me of changes in state of the power relay.

Using the WebControl PLC’s General Setup page, various values can be set to control the program:
UROM1 is the desired set point (degF *10), so 1360 is 136.0 deg
UROM2 is the lower offset (degF * 10), so 8 is 0.8 deg – this controls the amount of swing in the actual temperature and will need to be tweaked for a given crock pot. This determines the actual point at which the heat will be turned on.
UROM3 is to enable or disable the power relay. 1 enables.
UROM4 is to enable or disable the email notices. 1 enables.

START
SET VAR1 0
TSTEQ TS1 0
EMAIL EM1
SUB UROM1 UROM2 VAR1
TSTLE T1 VAR1
CALLSUB HEAT_ON
TSTGE T1 UROM1
CALLSUB HEAT_OFF
END

HEAT_ON:
TSTEQ OP2 0
SET VAR4 -1
TSTNE UROM3 1
SET OP2 0
TSTNE UROM3 1
RET

SET OP2 1
SET VAR2 T1
TSTEQ VAR4 -1
CALLSUB HEAT_MAIL
SET VAR4 0
RET

HEAT_OFF:
TSTEQ OP2 1
SET VAR4 1
SET OP2 0
SET VAR3 T1
TSTEQ VAR4 1
CALLSUB HEAT_MAIL
SET VAR4 0
RET

HEAT_MAIL:
TSTNE UROM4 1
RET

TSTEQ VAR4 -1
EMAIL EM2
TSTEQ VAR4 1
EMAIL EM3
RET

I’ve also set up a script on a Raspberry Pi on our network which I use for data logging of each batch. At 10 minute intervals it captures the relay state and current bath temperature into a .csv file via a URL get from the WebControl. I can use this data for tweaking the UROM2 value above and for modifying my recipes going forward.

I’m very pleased with the system now and may be extending it to control more than one bath. For instance, today I was wanting to do both a pork loin and the lamb leg at the same time. There’s not enough space in the crock pot for both, despite the temperatures being able to be the same (but duration differing). With some code changes and multiple probes & relays I could control several baths.

I may also be creating an internal web portal on the pi which could provide real-time graphing and settings management for the SV set up, so I don’t have to look up what UROM values mean what each time! πŸ™‚ This will be more important if/when I extend it to multiple baths, as only the UROM values have a built-in web interface on the WebControl unit.

Hack: Recycled Scrubbies!

We love to save money and the environment. Aways great when you can get a two-fer, and here’s one!

Do you need non-scratching scrubbing pads for cleaning around the house? Did you know that the woven plastic netting from vegetable packaging like this onion bag works wonderfully? No need to buy scrubbies when you can make them yourself from something you aready have!

Just cut the woven material away from the product labeling and you’re set to go (it used to be easier when the bags used to have simply ties – before they started bonding plastic labeling to the netting – but I haven’t found any brand that doesn’t do it now). Avoid the other non-woven plastic “netting” bags that are sometimes used (where they simply slit a flat sheet of plastic and stretch it into an open net form) as these have sharper edges and may scratch.

Be sure to test it someplace inconspicuous to be sure it doesn’t scratch the surface in your application. I find these work great for cleaning out grubby pots and the kitchen sink. If they get messy just toss ’em in the recycling bag after rinsing them out and grab a new piece – they don’t “cost” anything, after all! πŸ™‚
2015-05-20 20.29.34

Spicing Up Your Dance Collection with Pepperplate

In this post I will lay out some history of how I have managed my dance collection and what I am currently exploring as a way to greatly simplify the work of building and maintaining that collection and making it available whenever and wherever I am.

I’ve been calling (leading/prompting) contra dances for several years now. One of the things you need to figure out pretty quickly when you decide to become a caller is how you’re going to record and organize your dances.

Like most beginning callers, at first I recorded dances by hand on index cards (or all too frequently, any spare sheet of paper I could find at a dance). As my collection grew (and I started actually having to use these compositions to lead others through the dances) my requirements for standardization and legibility grew. (In all fairness, my background includes quite a bit of business process work – so I’m a bit of a process wonk.)

So for a couple of years now I’ve been working with a system which typically involves too much work. Why? Because I chose to standardize on using 3×5 inch index cards, which turns out to be pretty darn small. The 3x5s have enabled me to carry my core card collection easily in my dance bag if I want. But the small size means I need to really work on re-writing a lot of the material I gather to abbreviate or summarize and reduce to a standardized shorthand format I record on my cards. The real estate has been very constraining (but in fairness has made me really good at slimming down language clearly). And when someone else wants to see my card or I post a dance to a discussion group there’s sometimes questions about the notation.

I have been creating these cards using a template I had set up in Open Office Writer (now Libre Office) which then I would laser print 4-up on card stock as I added new ones or a given card wore out/was revised and then cut them with a paper trimmer to size. I could also export the cards to a large PDF file containing my whole collection. I kept both the pdf and original files backed up and synchronized across several computers via Spider Oak so I would never fear losing my collection. An example card:
A dance card format example.
My workflow for finding dances and transforming them into a usable card was essentially:

  1. Find a dance I liked. This could be from dancing or seeing one danced or based on something in email from a group/forum, etc.
  2. If got in person, I originally would scribble it down. Sometimes a caller would offer to email it to me. My latest trick has been to either take a cell phone picture of a caller’s card or quickly get the dance name and/or moves entered into Google Keep on my phone.
  3. If via email, I tag the email with a “Dance to Collect” tag in GMail which becomes a queue to transcribe from.
  4. Discover my dances in queue (Keep, email or photos) and review them for quality/suitability. Was I just in a dance trance and got carried away or is it really a good one? Will I actually call it? If all good, continue on. If not, delete or recycle the paper.
  5. Process worthy dances into standard format, adding them to the master Writer file. Queue them in the “dances to review” section and when there’s a suitable chunk, print on recycled regular sheets of paper to try out.
  6. Kitchen Validate. Try dancing my transcribed card in our kitchen. If needed, cajole other family members to run through it with me. Apply my now standard set of QA checks to the dance (progresses? work for both roles? etc.) and create teaching notes as required for when I’d call it.
  7. Dance Validate. When a suitable opportunity presents, call the dance. Note any key learnings on the card and mark it as validated as applicable. Factor in any dancer or musician feedback (often noting the tune chosen, if I’m sharp enough to ask).
  8. Update Cards. When I’d think of it, I would drag out my cards and scan them for ones with handwriting on them and record that information back into the electronic copy. If significant, I’d reprint the card(s).

As you can likely tell, that’s a lot of work. However, my cards enabled me to do a pretty good job calling even material that was new to me. I often got positive comments from musicians I worked with about the cards being very usable.

If you’re a caller, you might ask why I wasn’t using one of the existing caller tools to capture my cards, like Caller’s Companion or Dance Organizer? Well the answer is that I don’t have any iThings or WinThings. I run Linux on all my computers plus my cell phone and tablet are using Android currently. Sadly both of the established caller solutions don’t support any of what I’ve got.

So in a fit of frustration the other day I launched into yet another of my ~yearly reviews of the caller/leader software out there and found the dedicated applications landscape to have essentially remained unchanged. I thought briefly of setting up something on my own domain, veino.com, to do this as a database application but that would be limited to where I could get on a network. So, as an open source enthusiast, I started thinking creatively (we often need to do this, as popular “local app” tools are frequently omitted for Linux in particular). My breakthrough was thinking “what is a dance card?” and my answer was “it’s effectively a recipe for a dance.” With that insight, I started researching the recipe management software solutions out there. Again, I found a lot of stuff for OS X and Windows, even Android and a bit for linux. As I looked into it I realized my criteria basically boiled down to:

  1. Being able to add or edit dances anywhere I was on any device
  2. Being able to print them to hard copy if needed
  3. Being able to organize them into a program for an evening.

These were the core requirements, several ancillary ones flowed from there. These included the ability to classify dances in standard ways for filtering, searching to quickly find one, and managing my work queue. Also important was the ability to work offline when a web connection was not available (and sync that work when connected again).

The end result of my search was finding the Pepperplate recipe suite. It supports all my electronic devices, either through local apps or website tools. It supports tagging, filtering and search. The dance and meal analogy gets extended via treating a dance as a dish, a program as a menu and a booked event as a planned meal. It supports sections (parts) of a recipe, like sauce (A1), ingredients and instructions (moves and calls/teaching points). Pepperplate provides for adding dishes to a menu, and menus to a meal. I find that the analogy fits pretty well and I can use this tool to do most of what I want for my dance collection seamlessly. It also supports sharing recipes (dances) in a couple of easy ways.

The biggest difference from what I’ve otherwise found in the caller tools space is that this will work with pretty much all popular (and even unpopular) devices and that it automatically syncs across them. And not that it really matters given the relatively low cost of the existing dance leader applications, but it is also free.

I’m in the early stages with Pepperplate and tried calling from it for the first time just this past weekend. I only have a limited set of dances in the tool so far but it has been doing pretty well. I’m no longer severely space constrained! I do have some criticisms and have discovered some workarounds (mostly Android settings) to get around them. And BTW, there’s a big plus for me: the Android app includes a timer for each dish (dance) in a menu (program), so I can set it for how long I want to run the dance and a “can’t miss” message pops up to keep me on track.

In fairness, there are some risks and glitches with using Pepperplate for a dance collection beyond the obvious. These include a dependence upon a business with a not entirely clear how they make money business model. They might also not be happy with it being used this way (though from a quick review of their Terms of Service it appears to not be in violation and doing so just provides more eyeballs for their ads served). However, the data is stored locally on the device for off-line use and (at least on Android) is in a format that can be backed up and extracted/manipulated should Pepperplate.com go belly up.

Is it ideal? No, but it’s ~85-90% of the way IMO. Until something better comes along, I think I’ll be using Pepperplate to manage my dance collection going forward.

In a later post I’ll cover my experiences and tips with using the tool for this application: limitations I’ve found as a dance organizer (and even as a straight recipe) app, how I’ve set things up for ease of use/applicability and how I’ve fit Pepperplate into the dance collection workflow I lay out above. A quick preview: it has made things much easier!

Better Than a Rooftop Box – Take 2

After a bit of a delay I finally got around to finish painting the trailer begun some time ago. I think it has turned out really well but is eggregiously over-engineered – hence it has a new acronym-derived nickname: MOET (Massively Over Engineered Trailer). At least it should last for a good long time!

Here’s some shots of the (mostly) finished product, which is painted with Interlux Brightsides marine paint using the “Roll and Tip” method. There’s just two things outstanding for this right now – I have the vinyl to sew up a matching yellow spare tire cover and I’m in the process of designing a new LED-illuminated license plate holder to mount on the back center of the box (you can see the power connector for this is already installed in position). Yes, I’m not satisfied with any pre-made ones on the market currently. πŸ™‚

Click on any of the images below to enlarge the picture.

Front3-4Front View – Note the shiny paint!

Rear_3-4Rear View – Showing changes from the original version including illuminated guide posts and high signal lights

Rear-OpenHatch Lid Open – With revised integral wiring channel for compartment lighting

Ear-FrontFront View of Added “Ear” – I needed a way to mount the guide lights which would allow them to clear the lid rim

Ear-RearRear View of “Ear” – Additional turn/stop signal light and guide light wiring is routed through here into box. Note the quick disconnect to allow removal of the guide posts for storage.

Driver-Rear-WiringChannelDriver Side Wiring Channel – Including protective cover for wiring junctions and switch for lid LED light

Pass-Rear-WiringChannelPassenger Side Wiring Channel – All wiring is routed inside dry fitted 1/2″ PVC pipe to protect it from cargo damage

Autumn Olive – Crab Apple Jam

jarI’ve become a little bit crazy about foraging for unloved natural foods available nearby. For a little over a year following a class given by Russ Cohen, we tried to find Autumn Olive (AO) in our area, checking out just about every bush with red berries nearby but coming up empty.

One day we tried a “story walk” with our toddler daughter in a nearby conservation area and bam! we happened on autumn olive bushes! Once we knew what the real plants looked like (they were talked about but not shown in Russ’ class), I came to see them everywhere. They’re very distinctive once you’ve found one.AO-berries

So, with the fruit everywhere and so easily gathered, the next challenge was to make something with it! At first, I tried the fruit leather mentioned in Russ’ book. Several gallons of berries became three quart baggies full of deep rich red fruit leather. Sadly, my wife isn’t fond of it – although our daughter shares my fondness for the tart fruity taste.

The same conservation area has a crab apple tree whose fruit was made freely available. One day we went picking and turned them into a very flavorful jelly that my wife is very fond of.

A friend heard of my fondness for AO and gave me a recipe for AO tart from Northern Woodlands magazine, which I made for a potluck at a contra dance and found wifey liked that (contained sugar where the fruit leather hadn’t).

I’d found another small crab apple tree while gathering the latest batch of AO for the tart, so I had some of those and a bunch of extra AO left over and was looking for something to use them up. There are very few unique AO recipes out on the web and even fewer for AO jam or jelly. I did come across one jam recipe that used commercial pectin, but I didn’t want to go that route and remembered how easily the crab apple jelly had naturally set. Seeing that I had several cups full of crab apples on hand, I thought I’d take a shot at coming up with my own combined Autumn Olive – Crab Apple jam recipe (despite this being my first time making jam, but hoping that combination might become a hit with all three members of our little family).
jar-open
To my delight, it turned out great! Good flavor and a firm natural set with wonderful color. So here it is…

Autumn Olive – Crab Apple Jam

Ingredients

6 cups crab apples (firm, ripe)
8 cups autumn olive
3 & 2/3 cups sugar
1 tablespoon concentrated lemon juice
1 tsp coconut oil (optional, for foam control)

Preparation

Cut crab apples in half from top to bottom, remove blossom end and stems. Clean autumn olive berries to remove all stems, leaves and unsound fruit. Process 2 cups of autumn olive berries through a food mill to remove seeds and skins, yielding a cold puree (I had this left over from preparing the tart above, and decided to use it in place of adding water to the pot for boiling the fruit). Add the puree, the prepared crab apples and remaining clean autumn olive berries to a large pot. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.
ao-ca-pot
first-boil

Empty the pot’s contents into a food mill and process to yield a cooked puree free of seeds and skins. To me, the appearance and texture was much like a good tomato sauce with slightly brighter color. (The crab apples I’d found were late season and grainy when raw, and some of that carried through into the puree.)

food-mill

hot-puree

Put the puree into a clean pot with the sugar and bring to a rolling boil. (This being my first time with this recipe, I tried adding the lemon juice to help the set and added the sugar gradually until it seemed right.) Adding the coconut oil will help suppress the foam formed during the boil and save time later (some canning recipes use butter but that didn’t seem right to me, so I substituted the coconut oil successfully in both the crab apple jelly and this jam). Keep boiling until the mixture starts to “candy coat” the back of a metal spoon. The mixture is somewhat firm but still liquid at this stage.

Transfer the cooked jam to prepared canning jars and process normally (I used a quarter inch or so of head space processed in boiling water for 15 minutes), cool and store. Yield was almost exactly 12*4oz jelly jars and one pint jar of rich red firm set jam.

My daughter and I enjoy this jam a lot. My wife likes it less than the crab apple jelly (she seems to taste a “bitter” note in autumn olive fruit which we don’t). The grainy nature of the late season crab apples seemed to reduce with the further cooking, but there’s still a hint of it in the final jam. I look forward to trying to refine the recipe next year with earlier fruit, just hope the existing stock lasts that long!

Unlimited Home Phone Service for Under $3/Month

UPDATE JUN 2015: We’re now two years in and the Anveo solution has been working great. We added an 888 toll-free number for emergency calls to home and to give out for other purposes. SPAM callers are routinely added to our blacklist and have become much fewer as a result. Monthly cost of service is well under $5 typically at our usage, including the extra 888 number. Call quality remains great (the only quality issues we’ve had were a result of our cordless phone being in the same frequency range as our wireless router – sound on a wired phone is fantastic). I’m looking at doing some stuff with Anveo’s new web API to automate some telephony in the future.


UPDATE OCT 2014: Well, it appears Google has changed their mind and what I describe below continues to remain available via Google Voice and the Obi device. I took their word for it and moved my solution over to Anveo (including porting my number to them), which has been pretty robust and much more flexible, but does cost a bit more a month (peanuts, really). However, had I known then that GV would stay available on the Obi, I would have stayed with the solution documented below.


UPDATE OCT 2013: Google has announced that the interface that the Obi device uses to connect with Google Voice will stop working on May 15, 2014. This means that the days of free voice calls using the Obi/GV solution detailed below will be coming to a close at that time. The Obi will still provide VOIP access to other low cost services (like Anveo, as detailed below) going forward.


I’ve been using VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phone service since 2006. I was previously using a small local company, Galaxy Voice, with pretty much zero problems from the start (just an occasional need to reboot my Grandstream ATA or network gear periodically after a power outage, etc.). I was very happy with their plan I had – which cost basically $5 or less monthly (usage-based). Unfortunately, I got a notification email that they were effectively going out of business (due to the failure of their supplier) at the end of June 2013. So the hunt was on for a replacement carrier!

I knew about the possibility of using Asterisk PBX software on a local linux machine to be able to make low/no cost calls using Google Voice (hereafter referred to as “GV”), but setting up an Asterisk server with dialplans, etc. is not for the faint of heart. So I was really looking for a traditional VOIP provider that would replace Galaxy Voice at the cost level we had been used to. The basic consumer-oriented VOIP companies (e.g.: Vonage {which I’d used before for my work-from-home business line} or VoIPo, etc.) all seem to have decided that the ~$10-15 price point is their target, unless you pay for two years in advance. Paying in advance for a long term commitment to something I had no experience with was a bit of a leap and their long term pricing was still on the high side of my target (given that both my wife and I use our cell phones for much of our calling, so the home phone has been mostly just for accounts contacts, etc. and not daily use). So another solution was desired.

Google Voice

I’ve had GV in place for several applications up to now and was very pleased with the service and features. For instance, I set up the New England Folk Festival Association (NEFFA), a purely volunteer-run organization, to use a GV account as their main number which then sends to select board members an email transcription and vmail link for follow up action. Also my wife and I have GV numbers which we give out so folks have “one number” access to us on both our cell phones and home phone. Additionally, GV offers SPAM filtering for calls much like their well known email filtering! So going with GV was a great idea from my perspective. Now, just how to do it without major complications…

Obihai ObiTalk Devices

My research ultimately accidentally uncovered the Obihai tech ObiTalk devices, which promised easy GV configuration right out of the box. As I sometimes subscribe to the “pay just a little more to get disproportionately more” school of tech purchasing, I went with their model 110 device (~$50) instead of a 100 (~$40). This way, if I ever found a need to connect my new Obi110 with my old Grandstream HT-386, I’d have the analog phone port available.

Porting Fun

The biggest difficulty in the whole process was working through porting our old home phone number from the rapidly dying Galaxyvoice through to Google Voice. Because Google only supports porting in mobile numbers, I had to port the number twice: from Galaxy to a cell phone provider (I used Tracfone as I already had an old phone for them sitting around) and then from Tracfone to Google Voice. Long story short, this process cost ~$40 total and took a little over a week including the shipment of a new SIM card.

Setting Things Up with the Obi110 and GV

As the first stage of the porting process was under way, I created a new Google account to use solely for the home phone service. I did this standalone account as a security mechanism so, even if the account got hacked, there would be no additional risk of my primary account’s other personal information (email addresses, etc.) being leaked. This let me pick a new local phone number to use as a GV number in the interim. I then used that account’s details to set up and test the Obi110 device. It worked great, no issues with call quality and NO bill. The one major limitation I discovered is that GV doesn’t support 911 calls.

E911 Support and Other Feature Needs – Anveo

So to cover the 911 need (we have a small child at home and working 911 is always a great idea), I opted to sign up for inbound and outbound service through Anveo.com (see link below) and use that as the second VOIP service registered on the Obi110. This worked out for several reasons… for one, I needed to provide a number in my parents’ area code ($2 per month with unlimited incoming minutes) so they could call me from the facility they are now living in (which only allows local calls) and Google Voice did not currently have any local numbers available – so GV was not an option. Secondly, they provide E911 service for a very low monthly fee ($0.80/month) plus the outgoing call rate (low, and we hope to never have to dial 911). As a bonus, Anveo supports both FAX receipt (free) and sending (very low rate) using that same number. Third, as Google Voice does not allow for one GV number to forward to another GV number [*I later discovered a unique workaround for this, see below], we’d need a new number for my wife’s and my GV “one number” numbers to forward to. Fourthly, Anveo allows you to set the outgoing caller ID to be any number you can prove you own (by answering a call at that number), so any call we place via either GV or Anveo will always show our home phone number as the caller ID.

Setting up the Anveo service on the Obi110 was really easy through their portal and worked straight away. Anveo provides a ‘933’ number you can call to test 911 without bothering your local emergency center, which showed all was set up properly. BTW, Anveo’s payment scheme is pre-paid, much like filling a gas tank: you use some payment mechanism (PayPal is preferred) to put funds on account with them and they bill against (deduct from) that balance automatically for the service used. They’ll alert you when your account balance gets low so you can top it up. So far I am very happy with Anveo – they responded to (by implementing!) a couple of feature requests/fixes I submitted to their feedback form in under 24 hours! When did you ever see that from the likes of AT&T or Comcast?

Buttoning Up

Once the Tracfone port completed (which required much hand holding/follow-up on my part due to the Galaxyvoice situation), the GV porting was submitted and finished in just a couple of days. When done, the old home phone number now rang straight through to the phones attached to the Obi110. Success! The interim GV phone number will go away in a short while (but if I wanted to keep it as a second number they offer to do so for a one time fee of $20, before that expiration date). As with any VOIP solution, the Obi110 is subject to power outage downtime, so I added it to the set of machines powered through our UPS for battery back up. And we can always call on one of our mobiles during an extended or widespread outage.

Bottom Line

We now have a full phone solution fielding more features than we were looking for, paying just $2.80/month (even lower once I take advantage of Anveo’s 1 year prepay service discount).

Regular calls come in and go out through Google Voice. Calls from my parents (and FAXes) come in through Anveo and should we ever call 911 it will go through them (as can outbound FAXes via their web portal). We don’t have to do anything special for calls, just dial (or answer) the home phone and the Obi110 routes it all correctly. We’ve been using this solution for over a month and nobody has said a thing about the GV call quality or not being able to reach us – so all is well. The one downside is caller ID. Unfortunately GV has very limited caller ID – all calls processed via GV show only the phone number (not name) passed through (both in- and outgoing) to any phones involved (there’s a lot of folks clamoring for caller ID with name to be added, which I hope they do). Google does offer somewhat better caller ID via the voicemail and contacts system – so long as you tag a contact to a given phone number, the GV web portal shows the contact name you set (for instance, on a voicemail transcription).

The biggest chore with the transition was researching the possible solutions (which I hope you benefit from here :)). Should you value this info and sign up for Anveo service, I hope you will provide my referral code 3018755 at the time of sign up so I can get a small service credit, you enter it here in the signup form:Anveo-Referral

Google Voice to Google Voice Forwarding Discovery

As has been widely lamented on the web, GV does not allow for one GV number to forward to another. This is a significant limitation for many hoping to use GV as their primary carrier, and I anticipated running into it once we ported our home phone number over to GV. I expected that my wife and I would need to change our personal GV “one number” numbers to point to the new Anveo number we provisioned above (which is why I went for the Anveo $2/month unlimited incoming service vs. the $1/month + usage minutes service – our monthly total cost could be as low as $1+0.80/month as a result of my GV internal forwarding discovery).

Remember, we had already had our separate GV numbers set up with the home number as a forwarding phone (whilst provisioned via the old VOIP supplier). To my happy discovery, our separate GV numbers continued to ring through to our home phone number after it was ported to GV! So it appears that the GV system is perfectly capable of forwarding from one GV number to another, they just preclude it when you set up a forwarding number. The key is to already have the forwarding set up while the target number is outside the GV system and then to port the number in, which will bypass the apparent step of checking for GV internal forwarding.

Again, I hope you find this information helpful and I definitely recommend implementing this solution if it meets your needs. Please do consider using my Anveo referral code 3018755 if you follow our path and use them. Happy calling!

Silencing a Harbor Freight Item 93575 Safe

Harbor Freight sells a pretty decent safe for secure storage of selected items in the home, their item number 93575. With the right discount coupon the cost was about $24, just a couple of dollars more than their smaller safe but, IMO, of much better quality/construction.

I wanted to use this for a discreet situation where the safe’s very loud keypad beep would be a distinct disadvantage. Others had posted solutions on the product review pages that involved totally silencing the beep through squirting super glue into the speaker or de-soldering it from the board.

Mine is a simple solution with what I believe are two distinct advantages: ability to adjust the volume to retain some of the feedback capability, and reversibility – the ability to undo the change and return the safe to factory condition in case you’d need to return it for some reason.

What I did was to insert a small screw into the opening in the speaker housing, which I screwed down carefully and slowly until it reached the volume level I wanted. This worked great and has remained the same for several weeks now. See the following photos for how to do it.

Motley Fool: Immoral or Incompetent?

I have to say I feel quite let down.

When I first started investing to save for my retirement (quite some time ago) I came across material from the Gardiner brothers, a.k.a. the “Motley Fools”. The information was funny and empowering, helping me to learn more about this important topic. One of their key principles was that you could get your best performance using low cost mutual funds/index funds and bypass all the shenanigans that Wall Street tried to sell you. They were lauded for their ethical approach to investing and straightforward talk.

Well over the years they seem to have strayed from this index fund advice, and I was riding along with them by becoming a member of fool.com. They had a good privacy policy and claimed to not give away your email address. However, they started sending out these incredibly long emails pitching their own various newsletters and advisory services, and I still hung on despite starting to feel uneasy. Others have written about this change and some took them to task for it. But their “CAPS” experiment was interesting, and I could easily delete the emails, so I still stuck around.

Well, a short time ago I started getting SPAM messages sent to the email address I gave them. Owning my own domain, I am able to give out unique virtual email addresses to anyone I wish — in doing so, I can track down just what I’m ticked off about and going to relate to you here. So understand that my email address with fool.com is only known by me and them.

These new SPAM mailings are coming from very shady pitches for penny stocks, etc. They are the standard dregs of the internet masking as investment advice at best, and are potentially identity theft schemes at their worst. And here’s the kicker: these are being sent to the unique address I gave fool.com – which exists in reality in no place but their own servers.

So I dutifully sent an email to their provided address for such things (PrivacyPete@fool.com), and waited. And waited. It has now been a loooooooong time (nearly a year ago now) and nobody has got back to me about this. So this leaves me with just two possibilities (is there any other?):

  • Motley Fool is violating their own privacy pledge and has starting selling their mailing list, or
  • Motley Fool’s account management has been hacked, proving their incompetency in protecting subscriber information.

Either of which is totally unacceptable. I’m a Fool no more.

Password and Files Encryption/Sync/Backup: Gettin ‘er Done!

One of my to-do list items for quite some time now has been to get my computer files organized and to set up automated backup and synchronization across my computing devices.

I’d kept putting this one off because I wanted to deal with some foundational issues first:

  • pruning down my files and eliminating duplicates both within my desktop machine’s file system as well as with my netbook’s files
  • selecting a sync solution
  • converting my password safe from my former J-Pilot/Palm solution
  • etc.

I did a ton of research and would get close to doing something then another priority would take charge and it would get put on the back burner again. Well, in recent months I’ve finally selected and put in place several needed building blocks:

  • Password Sync: originally I’d selected KeePassX but I then looked further into LastPass, which does much the same thing and has many more features bundled in – they key one being a native cloud sync and backup capability for all our passwords. Works on effectively every platform I would ever consider including my Debian (Linux Mint Debian Edition) and Linux Mint machines, my wife’s Mac and a possible future smart phone/tablet, etc. Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc. all supported! Done on my machines, pending on the Mac (which got KeePassX in the interim). [Update 1 Jan 2014: Mac is finally done, had to update OS X to enable Safari to update to a version supported by LastPass. I’m not a Mac expert and it is just different enough from Linux/Unix that I had to figure a bit out.] Use my referral code and we’ll both get a free month of LastPass Premium! https://lastpass.com/f?2884566
  • File Sync and Cloud Backup: I selected SpiderOak because of great cross-platform support. Think of it as Dropbox but with built-in cloud encryption so no worries about the files being compromised on the server/network. I’d considered rolling my own solution using a power-sipping always-on Linux ARM-based device with rsync and/or a PogoPlug but realized SpiderOak did what I needed in much easier fashion. Done on my desktop, pending on the others.
  • Local File Encryption: Protecting our sensitive files in case of having a machine fall into someone else’s possession. I selected TrueCrypt because of (getting to sound like a broken record?) similar excellent cross-platform support. I’d considered other solutions including the built-in Windows, Linux and Mac filesystem encryption options, but what I wanted was a single solution that would work with all of them plus enable syncing the secured files across all our devices using SpiderOak. The kicker for me was when I figured out that what really required the local protection of encryption was actually quite small compared to our number of overall files – I don’t care if someone finds out what I paid for our gas bill or my various basic correspondence, yet our financial account details, tax records and similar would need protection (these files end up taking well under a Gig of space). Remember, LastPass protects all our passwords separately. Done on my desktop, others pending.

The best part of all this is that every one of these solutions is free for the basic features we need and they all work across all the machines we have and anticipate being interested in at any point in the future. If/when we grow to need additional features or capacity, they are priced quite attractively (SpiderOak and LastPass). TrueCrypt is totally free for all features. Most are open source too.

Once I realized the amount of encrypted storage required was so small, my interest in consolidating and eliminating file duplicates became a nice-to-have vs. a need (I had previously been concerned that syncing a large TrueCrypt volume over the internet would be a significant performance issue). Getting to a secure solution was more important and a brief scare when I left my netbook behind at a public dance a few weeks ago (with several financial files on it) pushed me to make that part happen sooner rather than later.

Getting a NewEgg mailing with a Shell Shocker special on a 500GB hybrid (solid state and conventional platter) drive for under $80 put the final bit in place – now my netbook could have more space than my total desktop disks, so it would all fit as is without further winnowing. And with the SSD portion of the new drive used as OS and program storage, the machine promises to scream along compared to before and last a lot longer on battery power.

In order to make this solution the best it can be, my first major consolidating step will be to start over with a totally fresh install of the latest Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) with the new disk on my Asus EeePC 1000HA and then layer in the individual pieces as described above. I’m starting on that work now and will post more when done.

I’m excited to have this work finally coming to fruition! After my netbook is done, I’ll be moving on to finishing the same things on my desktop machine and my wife’s Mac (after a required Snow Leopard update there – to update Safari – to support LastPass). Wish me luck!

Palm GnuKeyring Conversion to KeepassX

I was a very early user of the original PalmPilot device. Way back when I actually had the PalmPersonal syncing with my ’90s era Sun Microsystems SPARCstation 4 work calendar and email, etc. I eventually moved on to a Treo90 which I think was the optimal personal organizer of its era (I ended up owning three of them over time, ultimately).

Sadly, the Palm solution no longer is feasible, even under Linux. The deal breaker for me was the lack of being able to dependably sync my google-based calendar, etc. with the Palm. So time to move on, which I did for most everything, but…

I had been using J-Pilot’s Keyring plug-in to manage my set of passwords – I hung on to this handy tool until I finally became unable to use J-Pilot to sync via USB with my Treo and was forced to manually sync my password info across my desktop and netbook. Enough became enough!

Research discovered that the excellent Windows application KeePass had been ported/reinvented for Linux, Mac (and even Win) as KeePassX. As a free open source application with excellent encryption, it was an obvious solution to fit my Linux-based environment (and my wife’s Mac). A side benefit was that there was even a KeePass version available for my J2ME-based mobile phone, so the Palm-type “on hand at all times” capability could be available once more. All these versions could work from the same password database file format, so syncing a file across them would enable the info to be always up to date anywhere I would be!

My final concern was how to get my all my existing Keyring data into that KeepassX solution. Well it turns out that someone else named Wouter blazed my trail there through a similar migration and it only required minor changes to work perfectly for me. Here’s what I did to modify Wouter’s method to suit my needs.

Note: when Wouter refers to extracting the file saxon.jar from the Saxon downloaded zip file, the actual file name is saxon9.jar. Also the Jochen Hoenicke conduit to export the Keyring file to XML is actually named export.jar, not xmlexport.jar as in Wouter’s command line.

So I gathered all the files into the working directory as Wouter recommended. I then executed the (modified) command line
java -jar export.jar Keys-Gtkr.pdb MY-KEYRING-PASSWORD-HERE > keyring.xml
which created the keyring.xml file.

I paused here to go into the XML file and make edits as required to clean up my old Keyring data, as it was much faster to do it here in bulk rather than the one-record-at-a-time editing that would be possible in the KeepassX GUI application. For instance, in Keyring there was no dedicated URL field like in KeepassX, so I had put them all in a notes field before. Now I moved them all over to the dedicated field. In other places I had comments in the user name or password fields, but these totally screw up the Autotype function in KeepassX, so I moved or deleted them. Once this was done I could move on to the next step from Wouter.

I executed
java -jar saxon9.jar -xsl:keyring-to-keypassx.xsl -s:keyring.xml -o:keypassx.xml
to create the final KeepassX XML import file. This was then able to be opened in KeepassX successfully with all my data in the categories I had originally set up, etc. Great stuff – thanks, Wouter!

Next step is to get KeepassX installed on my other machines and set up a Dropbox or similar synch mechanism to keep them all aligned automagically. That will have to wait for tomorrow!

Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) on an Asus EeePC 1000HA

I’m a long time user of UNIX-based computers and have been using Linux exclusively for my primary computing for close to 10 years now. For the past couple of years Linux Mint has become my favorite distribution for desktop and laptop use.

This EeePC netbook had been running Eeebuntu Linux, which was fantastic. Eeebuntu 3.0 was based on Ubuntu 9.04 and Debian Unstable. Built with customization to various packages and a modified kernel it provided support to this netbook that was a perfect fit. That project enabled all the function keys to work and had outstanding power management that kept the machine running on battery for extended use.

Sadly, the Eeebuntu project seems to have broken down as they pursued new goals. IMHO they lost direction and got sidetracked with developing a fancy website for their proposed new release and expanding their project’s scope significantly. In the end this stalled any real end-user progress. In the mean time the old Eeebuntu became outdated and, being based on Ubuntu 9.04, stopped getting any updates. So things like Flash stopped working, etc. I waited as long as I could for their new release, but needed to move on.

Getting tired of the need for repeated reinstalls required by both Windows and Ubuntu-based Linux, I became very interested in Debian Linux. Debian is a rolling release, meaning updated software is available regularly for your existing installation. In practice, this means a software environment that should never require reinstallation but will still keep up with application development! And Linux Mint happened to announce the availability of a version based on Debian (called LMDE)… this gave me the push needed to give Debian a go on this netbook.

So I installed the latest available image of LMDE on my Eeepc in Fall 2011 from a USB stick. Everything went smoothly, no real hiccups at all. There was a minor issue with a package due to an upstream Debian problem which was fixed by marking one package to not update (this was covered in a note on the LMDE page). When installed, I had a good working system with most of the standard function keys working – the machine was totally usable but the dedicated keys for webcam switching, etc. did not operate (unlike how they had under Eeebuntu) and the power management was not tuned for battery preservation.

Luckily one of the former Eeebuntu developers (Andrew Wyatt, a.k.a. fewt) has made available an applet for power management of EeePCs (and other machines) that could be installed. Called Jupiter, it allows switching the CPU to one of three power scaling modes automatically on power events, enabling much longer battery life. It has other functions as well including video mode/external monitor selection and touchpad control.

The combination of LMDE and Jupiter have become a great solution for this netbook and I look forward to using them together for a long, long time to come!

Better than a rooftop box, and roomier too!

I’m one half of a “new parents” team focused on our little daughter. Wow, kids require so much stuff!

So, we were planning an extended car trip and I knew we were not going to be able to comfortably fit all her stuff and support equipment into the car, with our own adult stuff, and still allow for us to feed her on the fly in her carseat in the rear. I knew this would mean external storage space but I hated the idea of one of those big rooftop boxes.

Why? Primarily two reasons:

  1. Gas mileage impact: sort of like dragging a rooftop sail down the road, this was going to cause some serious drag
  2. Access challenges: getting to the box on the roof and getting stuff into and out of it was going to be a pain. My back is not what it once was…

So I was thinking that a small enclosed rental trailer would be the ticket. Something like this one. Once I calculated the cost for our extended trip, I figured I could build one for the same or less money (than either the trailer rental or buying a good rooftop box) and we’d get to keep it for future needs. New project!

So I end up buying a Harbor Freight trailer frame kit. This ships-in-two-boxes kit comes pretty much complete but completely disassembled. They intend for you to add a make-your-own simple plywood platform and an optional stake side kit to complete it, which they supply basic plans for in the assembly directions. As I wanted to haul stuff in complete weather protection, I had to come up with a better solution.

My design ended up being a weather-tight wooden box made primarily from two sheets of 4′ x 8′ marine-grade plywood and a couple of 1″ x 4″ x 8′ poplar boards. It has a pretty simple but very effective gasket system, much like a refrigerator door (so effective, I find that opening it requires waiting for the resulting air lock to release!). Stainless hardware enables a swing open lid and good security. Upgrades include an LED trailer light kit (with the wiring harness expanded to include a dedicated ground wire throughout) and an interior LED light fixture to view the contents at night. Also a spare tire and mount (modified to go on the front surface of the box instead of on the frame tongue). I came up with a PVC pipe wiring channel to protect the wires underneath and keep the box weathertight.

The box is coated with West System marine epoxy currently and will eventually have a marine one-part polyurethane paint finish for better appearance and UV protection (have to wait for warm weather to apply it – all the assembly and coating to date was done in my residential basement due to sub-freezing weather!).

I’m really pleased with the result! The MA RMV had no issue in registering it. The trailer is barely noticeable in towing (~1500 miles so far), and seems to have little or no effect on our gas mileage. It swallows 4 large plastic storage bins and some additional bulky gear and is easily loaded and unloaded. The interior stays perfectly dry, even when using a power wash on it (I built in a boat drain plug just in case, but there is no need for it now). It is so light and well balanced that I can easily disconnect and wheel it around with one hand while still drinking a coffee with the other.

This photo make the trailer appear larger than it is - the top comes just about up to the bottom of the car's rear window and it is much narrower than it.

My only complaint is that it is so compact I can barely see it out of the rear of the car – which makes backing up a real challenge! Basically, once I see it on either side of the car while backing, it is too late – the trailer is at a significant angle already. I may need to add some lights or poles to show the corners of the box for backing up. But for now, I generally find it easier to just pop it off the car’s hitch and wheel it where I want to put it than try to back it up any distance.

Will update this post later, once the final painting is completed.

Update 12/14/13: I finally finished this project in early fall of this year with some other enhancements besides just painting, check it out!

Linux Mint 11 (was Debian/Xfce) on a HP Pavilion ze4600

My brother’s Win XP laptop died. He has limited computer needs, really just needs to use some web applications like Facebook, Yahoo mail, Hulu and Youtube. In the past he has had significant virus issues under Windows and I’ve been proposing to him for years to move over to Linux. This happenstance caused him to be finally open to it.

This HP laptop is fairly old, it has an old AMD mobile processor, USB 1.1 and no built-in wireless hardware. This meant that the operating system had to be fairly lightweight to make this solution work well. I personally use Linux Mint (currently Mint 11/Gnome) as my own desktop and was aware of the new Debian Edition of Mint, which is available in a version using the Xfce desktop (again, lightweight resource use) which I thought would be very suitable. Plus, I wanted to get more personal experience with Debian. πŸ˜‰

So I launched a project to install Mint LMDE Xfce edition on this machine. This proved to be quite difficult. For some reason, the installer would run extremely slowly – but curously, would speed up if I kept the mouse moving. But seeing as I only discovered that the second time around, once the installer had run overnight the first time around, that was little help. I ended up installing LMDE twice, because the first time it would not work properly. The second time worked, and the machine was quite nice and snappy, despite the paltry resources of this machine.

So all was good, and I got things set up well and everything he would need to use was working. Delivered the unit, he was happy. Great. Project over…

Not quite. A few days later I hear he is having trouble. It is difficult to troubleshoot remotely because there seems to be some sort of permissions issue that is preventing him from running even the tools I would normally use to connect to the machine from my home. It was almost as if SELinux was somehow in play and blocking stuff, but it had all worked before and I did not create his account with privs to change anything sensitive.

I never did get LMDE back working on the machine. Instead I chose to reinstall from scratch using Linux Mint 11 LXDE. That went smoothly (and much quicker!) and the machine has been running trouble-free since. And I was smart enough to create an image of the install this time as a backup to slap back on the machine should he have any other problems. Everything will be right back to working state in just a few minutes.

In all fairness, Mint LMDE is new and “not for your average user”, so my having trouble is really not that unexpected. I’d hoped to be able to get it running and stable and then lock it down from any changes that would destabilize it, but that proved to be insufficient. I really do want to move to a Debian base to avoid the major reinstalls periodically required with Ubuntu-based systems (Debian systems have “rolling” upgrades which keep fresh without the need to reinstall) but I think that will be best attempted with my own desktop or netbook in the future. Best to keep the others I support on the more frequently traveled path.

One Year of Mobile Phone Service for ~$120, with New Phone!

Yes, I’m frugal. Not so much when I’m giving a gift to someone else, but otherwise I really like getting only what I need for what I want to pay or less. So I grew disenchanted with standard monthly mobile phone service some years ago, as I was paying a lot but needed little. I discovered the world of pre-paid cell phone service, and specifically that provided by Tracfone, and never looked back.

Getting married a short time ago, my wife and I have been slowly moving to align our similar services and subscriptions. I have been wearing a very low tech but extremely reliable Nokia 2600 “candy bar” style phone since 2007 which has had GSM phone service via Tracfone. I was spending $29 every three months for service and got signal just about everywhere I’ve gone, as it would roam on the AT&T, T-Mobile, etc. networks (all within plan). She had a LG clamshell phone on a shared Verizon plan that cost about that much per month for just her portion and was happy with their network coverage (no roaming). Her phone had recently started to fail mechanically and that was the kicker to finally get this particular part of our merger completed.

So off I went in search of a solution which included:

  1. New phones for the two of us (hopefully something fairly full featured and even capable of browsing the web on the few instances we’d have to do so “on the go”)
  2. Minimal monthly cost (ideally no more than what I was paying)
  3. Keeping our existing phone numbers
  4. Neither of us are big talkers or texters, so low usage constraints might be OK

Long story short I ended up going for a deal from the Home Shopping Network, of all places. We got two LG 500g GSM phones, each with a little over one year of Tracfone service, including 1320 minutes, for $120 per, shipped. Both included a phone case, car and home chargers and a future “Triple Minutes for Life” bonus – when we add airtime purchases in the future, the minute values will be tripled automatically. I had my prior service balance ported over to the new phone (for even more time and service minutes) and was able to transfer my phone number very simply as it was all within Tracfone’s systems.

For my wife, the phone number situation was a bit more tricky – she actually gives out her cell number fairly frequently, so keeping her number was very important. Because we were moving her from Verizon to Tracfone and might want to move to another carrier in the future (and have heard you can’t port out from Tracfone), I wanted to ensure we’d have the most flexibility. As a result, instead of a straight port, we activated her new phone with a new number altogether. Her old phone number will now be ported over to Google Voice (for a one-time fee of $20). By going with Google Voice, people dialing her old number can be forwarded automatically to her new phone just like they’d expect – but that number can also ring our home phone or any other number she may be at so we don’t need to use mobile minutes in those instances. And she’ll also get automatic transcriptions of voice mails and other bonus features. If keeping her old number didn’t matter, then GV and their features would be free – I can get the same with a new number from them.

So bottom line, we ended up with way better phones, great coverage and more features for significantly less money in aggregate — roughly $260 total for a year+ of service for the two of us. Nice!

By the way, we can both help each other if you decide to go with Tracfone! I can send you an invitation through their Refer-A-Friend program which will give you a $5 discount on your phone order and earn me a referral bonus. Just add a comment below on this post requesting the referral and I’ll send one to you as quickly as possible.

LG 500g
An example of our new cell phone

Reviving “Dead” NiMH Batteries

I prefer to use rechargeable batteries whenever possible. Recently I noticed that several of our AA cells were being reported as dead (“null” when inserted) by the charger. Some of them were rather new, so I was a bit miffed at the idea of them becoming unusable in such a short time.

I remembered a couple of colleagues in the lab at my former employer performing a trick to “revive” a dead NiCd battery pack — they charged a capacitor and then discharged it through the cell to blast away any dendrites that might have formed between the plates. Now these were NiMH, not NiCd, but I wondered whether there were any similar tricks to reawaken these.

It turns out the issue and solution are much simpler. The cells in question had depleted so far that they were below 0.9v, and the better chargers apparently view such cells as dead. There were all sorts of suggestions out there for hooking up larger batteries (or even arc welders!) to force the battery to a higher voltage that the charger would then view as “live”. I wondered about using one of the old style (a.k.a. “cook the battery”) chargers to boost the voltage instead (similar idea, but with much less risk), so I put the dead ones into the old charger I’d normally avoid – for just a 5 minute juicing.

That did the trick – the better (current sensing and limiting) chargers would now accept these cells and bring them back up to full charge without overheating them. This worked on all of the cells previously left for dead.

A Frugal Shopper’s Bonus: Ebates

One of the earliest sites I joined on the internet was this one, way back in 2002 – wow, 2002! Seems like things have changed so much, so quickly!

OK, back to the real point of this post. I’m frugal, I admit it. When I buy something significant, like a new car or computer, I research them and strive to find the best one and to get the best price. So when I’m done, it annoys me if I find out later I missed an obvious chance to save more. When buying stuff on-line, Ebates is frequently that chance.

Ebates is a referral/rebate system for on-line shopping. They have selected partners that will give you cash back – in most cases on top of any other coupon or deal – for items you purchase after going through the Ebates site to get there. You get the cash back as a total accumulated through Ebates, paid quarterly. Their partners are ones you likely already are looking at, you just don’t know otherwise about the rebates! Examples of their 1200+ store partners are HP, Dell, Godiva, JC Penney, Sears, Macy’s, LL Bean, etc., including my favorite computer/electronics store: NewEgg.

Generally, the only thing you have to do is remember to visit Ebates first, then follow the link from their site to the place you’d otherwise shop already! After that, it is all automatic (in a few cases, you need to enter a discount code or similar). Generally, you get 1-6% cash back, but I’ve also seen ones as high as 15% or fixed dollar amounts like $60. For stuff you were already going to buy.

So now you know why I kick myself if I forget about using Ebates. Don’t kick yourself – join and start saving now. If you follow my link here to sign up, I’ll possibly get a small reward for referring you and you’ll still get the same great deals – so please click below to join for yourself (and me). And remember to use them afterwards!

Contra Dance Calling Log

Update 1/1/2019: This post is no longer maintained and now well out of date as I’ve been calling and leading dancing regularly for over a decade now. I lead contra dances at regular series about New England and also in several other states. I also do special events/festivals and private Barn Dance events for schools, scouting groups, churches, social groups, etc. Please see my calling page for more information.


Continue reading Contra Dance Calling Log