I want to like IFTTT, but it barely works

So I’d heard so many good things about IFTTT, I decided to give it a try. In short, it simply doesn’t work for me. Here’s what’s wrong.

  1. Only one trigger and action per recipe. This is horribly limiting, and I don’t understand why it would be difficult to add these features. Basically, it is literally, if this, then that. But it should allow if this and this or this but not that, then that and that else that.
  2. Location services trigger over and over again on my Android. I made a simple recipe for, IF Chris arrives home, THEN log the event in my automation system. It will do this, then do it 20 more times over the course of the evening with me barely even moving. Whaaaa?
  3. I tried to make the Hue lights flicker when Echo’s timer goes off. This just plain didn’t work. It seems to have problems connecting to my Hue hub, even though Echo connects to it just fine.
  4. I tried to get Automatic to log when I arrive and leave from work and home. This sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t, seemingly randomly.
  5. The web interface for building recipes is just bizarre. “Here’s the kitchen sink! Now let’s jump 10 miles down the page! Here’s another kitchen sink full of icons! There’s nothing to do here, just push this button.”

The only successful triggers I’ve gotten to work are saving analytics data to a Google spreadsheet, which is great. And I like that it allows me to do my own HTTP commands, and does it reasonably well enough. However, the software has a lot of room for improvement, and I think I might move on to Stringify or roll my own solution if they don’t get it together.

My 2016 Resolution: Big Data, Smaller Stomach

In my life, I seem to have three recurring problems:

1) Achieving my desired weight (I want to go back to 165, but I’m at 185 or so)
2) Skyrocketing energy bills (looking for $250 average but hitting $450)
3) I have bad driving habits that cost money

This year, I have enlisted the help of big data to help rectify these issues. Here’s the plan.

1) For weight control, I need to diet and exercise more. For diet, I need to go back to the plan of calorie counting on MyFitnessPal, and keeping track of my calories burned using a FitBit. My FitBit Surge should be arriving soon, and once I have it, I can begin collecting data on my progress. Next, I plan to join a gym or invest in exercise equipment, and possibly buy a wi-fi scale to automatically keep tabs on my weight, BMI, etc.. Further steps I can take are investing in a pressure cooker and cutting down on the amount of days eating out.

2) This one is tricky. I already have access to my KW/h online which is updated every few hours, but this doesn’t tell me anywhere near what the full story is. I have decided to try Smappee, a smart meter with promises to isolate each major appliance in your house and keep track on their individual electrical usage.
This should allow me to see the watts being used by the pool pump vs. the AC, fridge, etc. so that I can make decisions on when to run equipment, for how long, or even what devices to get rid of. We’ll see if it works. I have the feeling I’ll discover the pump needs to be swapped out for something more efficient, and possibly even the fridge. The only other thing to do in this category would be to improve home efficiency and go solar, which I’m not prepared to do at the moment. This is more in line with what I want to do once the house is paid off.

3) For improving driving efficiency, I have already purchased an Automatic, and have been using it for over a month. So far, it has helped me drive better and save money in the process. It probably won’t immediately pay for itself, but I imagine in the next few years it will. Next on the list would be to buy an electric car to completely eliminate the cost of gasoline and maintenance.

The conclusion I’ve come to, obviously, is that the best way to solve a problem is by collecting and analyzing data. These solutions should assist with that, and should point me in the direction of a better, more efficient life.

One Year of Credit Card Rewards

So it’s been one year that I’ve built up rewards on my credit card. Let’s see how I’ve done.

Citi Double Cash $735.21 Most used card. 2% on everything
Barclaycard Sallie Mae $279.91 Gas and groceries at 5%
Chase Freedom $356.88 Most of this probably from when dining was 5% for Q2
Chase Sapphire $84.31 Not really using
Credit Union Visa $50.20 1%?
TOTAL $1506.51

So I made $1500, for essentially doing nothing but using credit cards strategically in place of a debit card.

Thoughts on these cards. The Double Cash is essential to the strategy; 1% cash back almost isn’t even worth it, but 2% is a game changer.
The Sallie Mae is worth using, considering gas and groceries are things I buy all the time, and groceries in particular are expensive. Unfortunately, this card is no longer available, but at least I’m grandfathered in for now.
For the Chase Freedom, I’m actually shocked at how much I made, considering how little it was used, at least in Q3 and Q4 it wasn’t used at all. Chase Sapphire wasn’t really used at all.
My Credit Union’s card is awful. For as often as Stacie uses it and how much she charges to it, $50 is a joke. And to add insult to injury, the points expire. I really need to get rid of it.

Will I do it again next year? You bet. Free money is free money.

More Home Automation Equipment Reviews!

I have been hard at work integrating more stuff into my Internet of Things. Behold, and bear witness to my cool new set of crap.

Amazon Echo

This is seriously the coolest thing ever. I was skeptical at first, but I heard so many good reviews that I had to try it. It’s great. And you should get it.

So what is it? Alexa is her name, and she’s basically one of those computers from Star Trek: TNG. You tell her to play music, set timers, read you the news, fetch the weather, turn off the lights, lock the doors, and more. She isn’t as smart as Siri, but she’s a whole lot easier to deal with.

Pros: Links to some of the popular automation hubs. No buttons to press. Capable of answering many questions, and pretty funny sometimes.
Cons: Not as smart as Siri, doesn’t support ISY hubs (yet) without Hue emulation, Skills Kit is limited in verbal capabilities, no way to make Alexa speak on her own (without crazy hackery).

Philips Hue

This might be my favorite so far. Once I bought the 3 pack and realized how cool it was, there was no going back. I put these suckers in 80% of my house, and man is it cool. You don’t realize how much lighting affects your mood until you try it yourself, and it’ll really make you feel good. Until you realize you
spent $2k on light bulbs.

Pros: It’ll seriously impress your friends. Integrates with Echo and other hubs. Compatible with some 3rd party Zigbee bulbs. Have I mentioned how cool it looks?
Cons: Price. Zigbee range kinda sucks.

Insteon Doorbell Kit

This kit includes an Insteon I/O and a circuit board to attach to your doorbell. The installation was easy (luckily I was able to run the wiring through the attic with just enough wire to spare). Programming the ISY was actually the tricky part since it was triggering the event twice, but I figured out a workaround.

Automatic

This gadget attaches to the ODB-II diagnostic port on your car and provides repair codes, analytics, efficient driver training, GPS, business trip logging, crash alerts, and more. This isn’t a home automation gadget per se, but it connects with IFTTT to trigger events. Therefore, you can do things like have it unlock your door when you arrive home, lock it when you leave your property, turn on the AC when you leave work, ETC.

Pros: No monthly fees. Every car should have these features built-in.
Cons: Doesn’t track in realtime (get Mojio if you want to do that). IFTTT events don’t always seem to trigger. Parked car finder is useless.

Insteon Door Sensor

These are pretty huge compared to the usual magnetic door sensors, but what makes these things great is how hackable they are. If you open it up to change the battery, you will notice there are terminals to manually wire in your own microswitches. What is this good for? Well I used it to place a switch on my mailbox, so that I can receive alerts when the mail arrives.

Insteon Hidden Door Sensor

These are a great alternative to the ugly, blocky magnetic sensors that Insteon sells, and seem to work fine.

Insteon OutletLinc

I wired 7 of these into my arcade, and they work great so far.
Pros: Easy installation.
Cons: Should use screw connectors instead of me having to use wire nuts. Takes up a ton of space in the gang box.

Insteon 8 Button Remote

Works everytime I press it. However, keeping it synced and programmed with the ISY has been a little less impressive, but I’m not sure whose fault that is exactly. But still, it works well enough that I’ll probably buy one to control the arcade and bedroom.

AutoSlide

This is an automatic sliding door kit, to turn your sliding glass door into a supermarket door.
Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to make it work yet, and support has been difficult to get in touch with, so I can’t currently recommend this product.

Global Cache WF2IR

This wifi box is supposedly able to translate TCP commands to IR signals. It works great from the ISY (with network module installed). However, I haven’t been able to get most of my commands working. For instance, the AC can turn on and adjust up, but not down. My Boxee can channel up, but not down. My TV doesn’t do anything at all. Meh.

Pros: Opens up a world of control options. Automate an AC, TV, media box, audio amp, and more.
Cons: Pricey, uses raw TCP instead of a REST API, kinda flakey with capturing some signals.

Add-A-Motor Model 80

A simple device that motorizes any drapes that rely on pull-cords or chains. Integrates with any home automation device based on on-off signals.

Pros: Reliable.
Cons: LOUD. Very loud. Because of the way it works, you cannot query its state.

On the Subject of Guns and Murder

Today, I woke up in my flame-retardant bed, and took a shower with treated water that probably won’t give me legionnaire’s disease. The air outside is clean because the factories across the river have to meet EPA standards. I get in a car and proceed to perform the incredibly dangerous act of driving, but I’ll probably survive; My car is tagged, titled, licensed, insured, equipped with dozens of safety features, and passes government efficiency requirements (it’s not a VW). I listen to an FCC-regulated radio that is required to alert me if there is a natural disaster looming, and probably won’t give me brain cancer. I pass under bridges, jets, and cranes that probably won’t fall on me because they go through mandatory inspections. While I’m away from home, it probably won’t collapse since it was built and wired to national, state, and local engineering codes. Everyone at work has been vaccinated so I probably won’t get a life-threatening illness. I probably won’t get hurt on the job because of OSHA laws. I use a computer that probably won’t burst into flames because it is UL listed. I eat lunch at a place that has been inspected by the county so it probably isn’t rat infested, and the food I eat meets FDA standards, so it probably won’t give me salmonella. I get my paycheck on time because the state requires it. After work, I go to a movie, but despite the 1st Amendment, people can’t yell “FIRE!” in the crowded theater without probably facing criminal charges.

Now imagine a deranged man bursts into this dark theater, locks the doors, and kills most of us. He bought his guns the same day, easily and legally, without any sort of regulation that should have kept him from doing so. This is the reality of living in the United States. And you know what? I’m tired of ignoring the elephant in the room.

The point I’m getting at is twofold: First, laws and regulations are necessary and save lives. The point of living under a government is to promote the general welfare, as long as it is constitutionally legal. Second, in a free country we don’t ban/outlaw things, because that is almost always the wrong approach. When cars were invented and killed lots of people, we didn’t give up and ban them; we put a massive amount of regulations on them and every single year since, the death rate has dropped. Almost nobody is trying to cheat the system and buy “black market cars” and fake licenses. At the same time, nobody looked at at all the car deaths 100 years ago and thought, “whelp, cars are dangerous in the wrong hands and people are just gonna keep dying. Traffic lights won’t work, people will run them anyway. Let’s just have the wild west out on the streets because freedom.”

This is why Americans are sick of near zero regulation of firearms. The vast majority of people don’t want to take your guns away. They don’t want to repeal the 2nd Amendment. They WANT you to keep your guns, protect yourself, and enjoy them as long as you’re sane and responsible (and nearly all gun owners are). They just want the same common sense gun laws nearly every other country in the world has, because they work. Not 100% of the time of course, but they make a difference and save lives.

Additional thoughts on the US gun murder epidemic

1) More or fewer guns is not a solution. There are no reliable stats that suggest the quantity of guns will change the murder rate. Show me one that says one thing, and I’ll show you one that says the opposite.
2) Banning gun-free zones is a bad idea. Just like you might have concerns with someone coming into your house with a gun, a private establishment should have the right to make their own decisions. However, these establishments should be subject to lawsuits if they make no attempt to provide ample security while being gun-free.
3) I don’t think anyone is making the argument to “ban” all guns. That’s impossible and unconstitutional anyway. But I do think that every state should be able to decide what constitutes a well-regulated militia to the extent “necessary to the security of a free State.”
4) Like driving, you should need to pass tests and get a license to own guns. It should be more difficult than walking into a gun show. To me, this is a bare minimum definition of a well-regulated militia. If you haven’t proven your ability to safely own and use a firearm, I don’t think the Constitution is talking about you.
5) Like driving, you should need to carry liability insurance for every gun you own. This will require a third party to analyze each person’s risk factors (illness, medications, history, location, etc.), and they would be incentivized not to insure high-risk individuals and certain firearm configurations. A gun would not be purchasable or transferable without proof of said insurance. Uninsured gun = fines. Insured gun stolen = fines. Insured gun used in crime = fines for insurance company and payout to those affected.
6) Keeping guns from getting stolen or used by children is your responsibility, and an extremely important one. Put a GPS tracker in your gun safe. Some states could have laws requiring this.
7) “Stuff happens” is not a helpful solution. Of course murder will keep happening with or without gun laws, just like drunk driving will happen with or without DUI laws. The point is there are actions we can take to help prevent gun murder and make guns much more difficult to obtain for those that shouldn’t have them.
8) We need to come to serious terms with the mental health issues in this country and what is causing them. I have a feeling the answers are all things none of us want to hear, and that’s why we aren’t asking the questions.

New Years Resolutions

Last year, my New Years Resolution was to pay off the mortgage on my condo — which I did. It was sort of a bittersweet moment in that I forked over a hard-earned $55k for a property that was now only worth $35k, but it was either that or spend the next 11 years paying that plus another $25k in interest. Now it’s mine, and I can pocket the rent on it instead of forwarding it to the mortgage company. This also leaves me looking toward my last, final debt, which is the mortgage on my house. The house won’t be easy, but the quicker I can pay it off, the quicker I can move on to the financial independence chapter of my life.

This year, I want to spend some time on myself. I have gained 20 pounds over the last couple of years, partly due to less-than-good eating, and partly due to a sedentary lifestyle. I plan to alleviate this through diet and exercise. Walking a mile or more every day, plus sticking to a 1700 calorie diet should hopefully get me where I used to be, if I can follow through with it all year. I plan to use MyFitnessPal.com to keep me focused, and give me the quantitative data I so desperately desire.

In a way, I feel like this year I started becoming an everyday man. I don’t feel like a twenty-something special snowflake anymore; that honeymoon is over. Now I’m just your average Joe beergut wanting to lose weight this year while watching TV and eating Cheetos. These next ten years of my life are going to be that test everyone goes through, where they have to decide whether they’re going fall in line, be good consumers, and raise a family… or do something different with their lives. I’m not going to settle down just yet. I’m going to live a fantastic life, and I’m going to start by giving it the funding it needs. I want to travel the world, help others, learn new things, and relax with what makes me happy. I can do more of this with money, and I can get money by investing, and not being in debt up to my eyeballs.

I also have to remember where I came from, and how the decisions I made brought me to where I am now. When given the chance, I decided not to hang out with bad people. Not to do drugs. Not to let prostitutes in my car. Not to steal from businesses. Not to hold grudges. And especially, not to settle with being some everyday shemp. The downward spiral happens the minute you decide to do any of this, and it’s not going to happen this year, or ever.

Attention Web Designers

Please stop doing the following.

Creating external links without a default target=_blank. You might be against it for whatever religious reason, but this doesn’t change the fact that people expect this behavior. I’m looking at you, Reddit.

Unnecessarily modifying the URL as you scroll through a page or highlight text. This makes me have to hit the back button 20 times.

Loading your title tags up with SEO garbage instead of my location on your page. This doesn’t help your SEO, and it makes tabbed browsing frustrating.

Infinite scrolling. Unless you can save the user’s position after they return to the page from clicking something, don’t do this. The user will have to scroll all the way from the top, wasting the user’s time and wasting your bandwidth even more.

Creating floating divs that pop up when you hover over text. I’m trying to read here.

Designing a website to be mobile-first without appropriately scaling up. This is just as bad as making a non-responsive website.

Needlessly using custom scrollbar solutions. These tend to break a lot and suddenly snap me back to the top of the page, or stop scrolling altogether. They also don’t scroll the way the user expects.

Using Hashbangs for AJAX crawling. That is so 2010. There are better ways to do this now.

Making black and white, animated on hover, circular cutouts for your About Us photos. Good lord, this is overplayed.

Outsourcing your blog to Tumblr. This is tacky. And what’s the point? Are you trying to anger the Google Gods? Or has Rails backed you into a corner with bad WordPress knockoffs?

Using slow CDNs. It sorta defeats the purpose.

Requiring users to use an app or sign in with Facebook. I leave every time, no exceptions.

Populating the meta keywords. No search engine since the 90s uses these. All you’re doing is giving the competition a glance into your marketing strategy.

Skeumorphism. No more cloth and wood backgrounds.

Java and Flash. The world really needs to move on now.

A Millennial’s Guide to Financial Success

by A. Millennial

Below are a few lessons I’ve learned about money that I hope will help other millennials, or any other generations for that matter.

Stop letting the media and politicians scare you.
Now is a great time to be alive. Houses are cheap, interest rates can’t get any lower, the stock market keeps chugging along, jobs are plenty (yes they are, quit making excuses), and cars get more MPGs than ever. Stop worrying about the next bank failure and start making your money work for you.

Decide what you need and how much your salary must be to achieve this.
Do you want a waterfront mansion when you retire? Do you want to travel to every country in the world? That’s awesome, now figure how much you’ll need to save and start bringing it home. But do you really need those things? Maybe you do. Or maybe all you need is a Volkswagen to tow your tinyhouse around to where the jobs are. That’s cool too… but whatever you need, stop sitting around and start making it happen.

Live within your means.
Try to spend only 50%-80% of what you make. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, you’re doing it wrong. Those leftovers are what create your net worth, and with no money in savings, you’ll be perpetually broke the rest of your life.

Stop hating capitalism.
Capitalism is such a great system here because there’s such an abundance of labor needed to make the products and services we use. One day robots will take over labor and capitalism might go away, but until then, you are responsible for winning your own bread. There are a million ways to be a millionaire in America, if you have the motivation to be one.

Stop buying stuff.
If you have something you never use, get rid of it. If you’re only going to use something occasionally, rent or borrow it. Resist the urge to go nuts with a hobby, stop buying crap you don’t need, and break the endless upgrade cycle. Most importantly, keep away from luxury stuff. Most millionaires don’t even buy into that kind of lifestyle.

If you must buy, buy modular.
For the stuff you buy, find something that can solve multiple problems, even if it costs more. Buy a multi-tool instead of 5 separate tools. Buy a desktop PC instead of a laptop, so you can upgrade it when needed. Buy an adjustable ladder instead of 3 ladder sizes. Find apps for your smartphone that replace the need for a standalone gadget. As long as you can appreciate all functionality in something, go with the thing that does more, and/or will stay running longer.

Don’t have a wedding.
Weddings are a massive waste of money. Get married (or not!) and celebrate, but there’s no reason to make a complicated scene out of something that is becoming increasingly meaningless in society. Avoid marriage for as long as you can, as long as your partner agrees. In the long run, marriage can do more harm than good to your finances, especially in the event of a divorce, which is mathematically probable.

Stop being a victim of society.
You can blame politicians, boomers, parents, the 1%, the Man, the Illuminati, the kyriarchy, the voices in your head, whomever you want all day for your financial problems, but not doing something about it is YOUR FAULT. Yes, you’re a victim, and yes, I’m blaming you. We’re all victims. But this is your life… make it what you want it to be, and leap any obstacle that gets in your way like the millions before you have.

Don’t work hard, work smart.
“Hard work” is such a meaningless phrase. Digging holes and filling them is hard work, but not practical. Retail is hard work, but not rewarding. Roofing is hard work, but will wreak havoc on your health. Work smart instead. Automate your work tasks whenever possible, or figure out how to simplify them. If work is hard, that usually means a tool needs to be invented to make the work easy. Make that tool.

Don’t work a job that sucks.
Enjoy what you do, there’s just no excuse not to. If you hate your job, find a better one and quit. If you don’t like your career, learn a new one. Doing what you hate to make enough money to keep hating life, is a waste of a life.

Understand that time is money.
Every hour you play video games, watch TV, or surf Facebook, is wasted. You will learn next to nothing. Cancel your cable (yes, even Netflix). Make your time count for something, unless it’s Friday night.

Avoid drugs.
Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, etc. are a massive black hole for your money. They will do more harm in the long run than good, so keep this stuff to a minimum, or cut it out of your life completely.

Make food at home.
Buy a dutch oven, stand mixer, and food processor, and suddenly cooking will be fast, fun, and nutritious. Cut down on your meat intake. Experiment with generic brands and see which ones are equal or better than name brands.

Be honest about whether or not you need a degree.
Do you want to be a lawyer? Doctor? Architect? Engineer? Go to college.
Something else? You probably don’t need it, brah. But don’t take my word for it, do your own research, and don’t be afraid of the conclusion; it may save you $30k or more. Community college is also a great way to get a great education for much less.

Stop listening to Dave Ramsey.
“I love Dave’s teachings, except when he says to do X. And Y… and Z….” I know, I’ve heard it a thousand times.
I’m not a Dave hater or anything, but his method has a massive, obvious flaw: psychology over reality. This is why his books sell so well. However, he is giving you mathematically unsound advice. Credit cards are not the devil. Having a 30y mortgage and investing the savings is usually a better idea than a 15y. Expecting the stock market to yield 12% a year is a bad idea. Buying a beater car is going to cause more problems than it solves. Leaving money under the mattress instead of investing it is incredibly stupid. Paying off your high interest debt first is usually better than paying off the low balances.
If you are irresponsible with your money, than fine, you should use his method. But if you can trust yourself with your own cash, do things the right way.

Don’t be afraid of investing.
One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t start investing until later in life. Nowadays there are so many ways to do it, but the most common way is, of course, the stock market. If you don’t have time to research companies to invest in, use something like Motif; prefab portfolios are built for you by experts, which you can buy up and watch them grow; it’s really that easy. I use it and its a wonderful system and takes a lot of the complication out of investing. If you want hands-free investing, try Betterment. There are tons of great services out there that help you diversify better than the old Charles Schwab model. Don’t invest the way your dad did.

Start a 401K or Roth IRA. Now.
Don’t have one at work? Make one for yourself. You can use pretty much any trading platform for this. Don’t be like the millions of boomers who didn’t have a plan for retirement.

Be frugal. Don’t be a cheapskate.
Frugal living blogs are all the rage these days, but some of the advice is ridiculous. Before you try to find out the exact amount of bathroom tissue it takes to get the job done, or turn your swimming pool into an aquaponic garden, listen. Your life isn’t worth pinching extreme pennies over. You’ll get stressed out and that’s no fun. Instead, find out where your money is going and figure out where significant corners can be cut without sacrificing your sanity.

Credit cards are not evil. Just don’t carry a balance.
Credit cards can open up thousands of free dollars and give you free vacations, if you are responsible. Always, ALWAYS pay off a credit card in full every month. Also, don’t mess with credit card churning, as this loophole is slowly being closed up.

Pay for large purchases in cash, when possible.
You probably can’t buy a house in cash, but at least use cash for vehicles. The more lines of credit you have open, the more enslaved you are, and the more money you’re losing to interest.

Create a spreadsheet of your ongoing expenses.
I use Google Docs to keep track of all my bills and when I’ve paid them. If I don’t have this checklist, I’ll forget, and then I’ll have a bigger financial problem. Also, it helps to see what’s coming up, how much is left to pay off a loan, and where your money is going.

Log into Mint.com at least once a week.
If you don’t have a Mint account, get one immediately; it will change your life. Mint allows you to link all your financial accounts into one magical system. You will have transaction history, goals, charts and graphs with income and expenses, and a place to track investments. Once you have a Mint account, you should log in every other day and keep track of what’s going on with your money. Mint is a must-have, and I can’t really stress this enough. If you don’t have Mint, stop reading this article and create an account *now*.

Get an online savings account.
Don’t bother with the awful interest rate your bank or credit union is offering. Instead, try opening an online account with Ally Bank, where there are MUCH better (but still relatively poor compared to the good old days) savings rates. Don’t bother with CDs and Money Market, as they don’t offer much more than an online savings account right now.

Negotiate your bills.
Your mortgage is usually a good place to start. Check around to see if you can get a better homeowner insurance rate, and check your property records to make sure you aren’t overpaying on taxes (screwups are extremely common). Jack up the deductibles on your car insurance. Also, cell phone companies are currently caught up in some fierce competition right now, so threaten to leave if they won’t cut your bill down… and if they don’t, dump them for a cheaper company. Right now T-Mobile seems to be leading the charge to dirt cheap unlimited plans.

Go green to save money on utility bills.
Buy a wifi thermostat. Automate your ceilings fans and drapes. Replace your old appliances with energy efficient ones. If you have the money, go solar, buy low-e windows, or get a geothermal AC. If you need a new roof, go with a reflective metal roof.

Have a second stream of income.
Make money on the side by turning a hobby or talent into a business. Places like Etsy and Bigcartel make it easy to sell products online. Or, take a second job. There are lots of evening jobs out there looking to hire. You can also look at investing at places like Prosper or Lending Club.

Keep your credit score clean.
Your credit score should be north of 750. Do you know what your score is? If not, use Mint.com to track it for free. Also, you are entitled to a free credit report every year. Credit reports won’t give you the exact number like Mint does, but it’ll tell you exactly why your numbers are what they are.

Found where you want to live? Now buy a house.
Owning a house outright is the smartest thing you can do for your future. You will have a much smaller overhead when living off your retirement, you can’t lose your shelter, and you have something to pass on to your family. Or if you need to sell it, it will likely increase in value.

Have a house? Buy another one.
Real estate is a good way to make extra cash, but the more tenants you have, the more headaches will come with it. Are you a handyman? You’re about to become one. Being handy is a great way to save money, anyway.

Trade in your car for something more economical.
Buy electric if you can; there are 80% fewer parts and cost pennies a “gallon”. If you can’t buy electric, try a hybrid or a subcompact with good mileage. When you can, use a bike.

Understand the difference between retired and semi-retired.
If you read blogs like Mr. Money Mustache, you’ve been told that the way to retire is the save up hundreds of thousands, then spend the next 50 years of your live living off of 25k a year. This sounds like it might work for some, but you have to consider what will get in the way: market crashes, inflation, medical emergencies, lawsuits, and other disasters you aren’t insured for. And what about vacations? College funds? Or otherwise living the good life?
Quitting your career at age 30 is a dangerous way to retire. As long as you can work in your field, do it. If you absolutely want to live in a tinyhouse and live off of ramen instead of helping the world solve problems, go for it. I seriously understand that millennials live for that stuff–but it isn’t retirement. You’ll still end up working, and it’ll probably be somewhere less rewarding.

Know your net worth.
The best way to calculate this is Mint.com. Throw in your home value, car value, and all non-consumable assets worth more than $50. Subtract your debt and loans, and that’s what you’re worth. This number should be increasing steadily every month. If the number is negative, your mission in life is to make it positive. If positive, your goal is to shoot it to the moon as fast as possible by bringing in more income and/or paying off debts. Every year, re-calculate your home and car value using Zillow and KBB.

Understand that money passively works for you.
If you know how to invest, money at rest makes more money. This money can then be reinvested, making more money. The easiest way to create wealth is to create snowballs and roll them down mountains. You won’t “get rich quick”, but this method is far less risky than any scheme.

Diversify.
Don’t just do one thing on this list, do as many as you can. For investing in general, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.

Don’t get too obsessed with money.
Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy peace of mind. However, once in awhile you need to step back and appreciate the world, the people you care about, and other things that money can’t buy. Life isn’t about money, it’s about what you do with what you have and the mark you leave behind. Money can help you accomplish these things, but it is only a means to an end.

When you conquer this list and there’s nothing left to do… give.
The saying goes, “It’s better to give than to receive,” and it’s true. Give to those in need. Donate time and money to your community. Life isn’t a competition. Help people do what you did by teaching them to fish. Take care of yourself first, but be altruistic when you can. You can be both selfish and selfless depending on when your needs have been met.

Home Automation Reviews Galore

Universal Devices ISY994i

After deciding the basic SmartHome Insteon Hub wasn’t going to cut it for my home hacking experiments, I decided to bring in the big guns. Universal Devices’ ISY994i is an incredible piece of home automation machinery, and worth every penny.

Everything you need, it does out of the box: Static IPs, remote capabilities, upgradability, complex scripting, and more. If you want to take it to extremes, you can add a Z-Wave dongle, ELK interface, and more. Plus, it has a wonderful REST API so you can easily write your own software and apps for it. It’d be nice if you could have it return JSON instead of XML, but hey, that’s a minor complaint.

First Alert OneLink SCO501CN-3ST + Insteon Smoke Bridge

This is the sort of stuff I look for in home automation. I don’t care about controlling my lights and fans, and other cheesy stuff; I mainly want to collect data, keep the house efficient, and alert me immediately if something has gone wrong. Imagine if your house was on fire or had a carbon monoxide leak, and you were able to receive an alert even when you were away from your house? Wouldn’t that easily be worth a few hundred dollars?

First Alert’s OneLink system doesn’t do this out of the box, but once you add SmartHome’s Insteon Smoke Bridge, you can do just that. Via scripts, you can send emails or texts explaining the scenario (fire or CO), that way you can check your cameras, call 911, etc.. It could save lives, and save your house.

Even without the Smoke Bridge, the OneLink system is a pretty advanced smoke detector system. Maybe not as advanced as the Nest Protect, but it doesn’t need to be either. It will warn you with voice when it detects an issue, and will broadcast it to every smoke detector in your home. That way, if your kitchen catches fire while you’re upstairs in bed, you are guaranteed to hear it and find out about it early, making evacuation much safer.

Why this solution and not the Nest Protect? I wanted something that would work with my Insteon network, and would look less like a big ugly box on my ceiling. This entire system also cost less than a single Nest Protect (minus the Insteon hub).

Insteon Leak Sensor

When I first moved into my house, disaster struck two weeks in. My tankless water heater suddenly decided to fail, and by fail I mean it burst a pipe and spilled water into the kitchen downstairs. A lot of water. Luckily I was there to shut off the main, otherwise it would have caused thousands of dollars in damage. Since then, I have lived in fear of the same thing happening again. But not anymore.

This leak sensor came with the Insteon starter kit I got, and I couldn’t be happier with the way it works. The second it detects water on the floor, it sends a notice to your Insteon controller, allowing you to take necessary action. For me, this means an email and text, but if I were inclined to do so, I could add an electronic valve to the main to allow my Insteon controller to shut off water to the house. Cool, right? Next, I want to buy a second one of these to put in the laundry room, where most of the water accidents tend to happen these days.

Every home should have two of these.

Morning Industry QF Series Deadbolt + SmartHome MorningLinc

This was my favorite of all purchases so far. This deadbolt allows you to electronically unlock your door in 3 ways: traditional key, keypad, and RF keyfob. The keyfob doesn’t work from more than 15 feet, but the keypad works great. I’m sure the regular keys work, but I don’t think I’ll ever need them.

Adding in the MorningLinc bridge to an outlet in the next room, I was able to easily link my Insteon home automation network to the deadbolt, so that I can set a schedule to automatically lock/unlock the door, lock it from the app I made, etc.. Really, this is the best part about the whole setup.

My only gripe with this setup is I’m unable to have Insteon query the device to see if it is currently locked or unlocked, and I have no way of auditing the system to see who has entered and left the house (you can set up to 10 unique codes). Also, if you try to make Insteon lock the door and it has been manually unlocked with the deadbolt (or vice versa), it will not trigger correctly. However, I was able to work around this by having my Insteon scripts run both commands at the same time, ending with the one I want. This forces the unit to synchronize, even if it occasionally has to run both commands one after another.

I love this thing, and I can’t imagine life without it. I only wish it had Bluetooth Smart or NFC support.

Skybell

I finally got around to installing my new wifi doorbell, which is a Skybell. It is one of those Kickstarter-y projects that came out of the gate with lots of bugs, but as of this writing, the firmware updates seem to have ironed out whatever it was people were complaining about. Mine had some problems out of the box, but once I got it going, it has proven fairly stable.

So the problems. First of all, when they say you need a 1.5mb upload capability on your ISP, they are serious. Unfortunately, my bargain Comcast account is 1mb upload, so it can sometimes choke on a connection. This will be made worse if you can’t get your wifi strong enough, which becomes a huge task when you have a brick house like I do, and the room the router is in is surrounded by brick walls on four sides (because it used to be a garage). My old repeater wasn’t doing the trick, so I upgraded to a Netgear EX6200 AC1200 High Power 700Mw Dual Band Range Extender, which is so amazing I should write a separate review about it. Seriously, this thing carries several houses away and barrels through brick.

Anyway, the Skybell. Syncing didn’t always work the first time, and often it would fail so many times it would get stuck in reset mode, which required me to unhook a wire from the low voltage transformer on my doorbell to hard reset it. Not a big deal, but kind of annoying. Once it syncs, you never have to do it again.

Now for the good: the doorbell notification works every time, immediately. Calling the camera to view it works most of the time even on my lousy internet connection. Listening and talking works. The quality of all three are generally not spectacular, but considering how small it is, it works pretty decent. Motion detection works, but all it does is trigger a doorbell notification, and that wasn’t really the way I wanted it to work, so I turned it off. What it ends up doing is it rings the bell automatically if someone sits there, and I was ending up with a few false positives since it sees cars driving past my house.

Overall, I like it, but what I’d really like is an open API. Not only would I love to be able to access it from third party software or a web browser, but I’d love to be able to access it directly without the use of their cloud. Mostly because, if Skybell went out of business, all I’d have left is a big ugly doorbell with no extended functionality.

My Advice to Everyone

Write.

There is so much emphasis these days on reading and how it will open up your life. And don’t get me wrong, it will. However, I think the best thing anybody can do for their careers is to write, and write well.

Looking back at the successes in my life, almost all of it had to do with writing. Awards and contests. Scholarships. Honors. Jobs. Promotions. In almost all of this, writing was involved. I’m not the greatest writer in the world… I can ramble, jump around, list things endlessly, and generally fail to end sentences, but the important thing is I’m comfortable writing and know how to convey a basic message. My advice to anyone who wants to get what they want out of life has always been to master writing as best you can.

Be a good speller; with spellcheckers integrated in everything, there’s no excuse for bad spelling.

Get good at grammar; understand capitalization and punctuation rules, and know where the apostrophe goes.

Be concise, but be complete. Don’t leave out details, but don’t go off on unimportant tangents.

Organize your thoughts. Have a main idea. Give supporting details. Structure your paragraphs so they make sense.

Bend the rules if you know what you’re doing. I break rules all the time if I think it will help my communication. Because sentence fragments.

Sound smart without sounding pretentious. There is nothing more amateurish than individuals who use recherché lexicon in order to impart an elementary communication of their mind. It makes you sound like an idiot.

Write poetry.

Life isn’t Twitter—write as much as you need to write, no more, no less.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Therefore, get a visual in your head and write what you see.

Start a blog. Own your thoughts and don’t be ashamed to make them public; just make sure to have the right ideas.

Before you open your mouth… research. Don’t let your uneducated opinions control your communications.

If you have writer’s block, you didn’t brainstorm properly. Organize your thoughts in Notepad and return to battle when you’ve got the map laid out.

Know when you’ve written enough, and shut up.