The Keyport slide: Pain in the ass to buy, but nice once you have it

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Let’s face it … keys are annoying. There may be a day, friends, when we can use biometrics to sign in everywhere … but that day is not here yet. In the meantime, we get by with lots and lots of keys and key FOB’s.

The Problem

Keys, and the associated rings that they hang off of, are not particularly well organized objects. The key itself is a flat metal piece with lots of pokey bits. Then the head goes onto a ring in a perpendicular fashion, which just makes the whole thing take up more space and fit awkwardly into your pocket.

Women carry around purses, so big key rings tend to be a little more OK since they just go in a big bag.  Although, we all know that those keys end up scratching up everything else inside that purse.

Men, with just jeans pockets, value their pocket space. A key ring, with all of its jabby bits, occupies lots of valuable pocket real estate. Enough, in fact, that we have to pick and choose the keys we want to carry around, lest we leave imprints of keys in our thighs and worn holes in our pockets.

The Solution

Is there a better way? Yes.  It’s called biometrics!

Oops … as I said earlier, we’re not quite there yet. So enter the Keyport Slide 2.0 … the next best thing. Born of necessity (apparently, motorcyclists don’t like large gangly keychains banging around their ignition either), the Keyport Slide tries to solve the eternal problem of the colossal keyring.

The Slide accomplishes its magic by allowing you to fit 6 keys into a compact space barely larger than a Tic Tac box. It does this by using custom blanks and fitting them into a custom plastic container. Holding each key blank in place are spring loaded buttons that allow you to “slide” the key out when you need it.

The Process (ouch!)

Sounds great, but how do you actually get one!  Suffice it to say, the rubber meets the road a bit awkwardly.

1. You have to take pictures of every key on a paper template and mail them in so that Keyport can tell you what you need to do with each key.

2. If you’re lucky, all of the keys will have standard blanks that can be mailed to you. If you are unlucky, some of the keys will require custom duplication by you, which must then be mailed into Keyport for custom fitting. In the case of auto keys, you may additionally need to select and mail in a copy of the key with the key transponder that is inside the auto key so it can be custom fitted into the Slide.

2.1. You can pick additional gadgets to fit instead of more keys.  USB drives, pens, lights, etc.

3. Mailing keys in requires printing of more forms, and the willingness and trust to send the keys to your stuff in the mail to a company. You may also need to pay your dealership good money to make a copy of your car key before you mail it in. What a racket!

4. Then you wait.

5. When everything comes back, your custom keys will be ready, but you will also receive the standard blanks. Those need to be taken to a locksmith and duplicated by you.

6. Finally, you’ll have everything you need to assemble the slide. Tiny spring loaded buttons, blanks, and the key transponder goes in on the side so it doesn’t take up a spot.

7. All done. Finally!

As you can tell, this ends up being more like 80 to 100 dollars in parts from Keyport, 20 or 30 in service from a locksmith, and perhaps 80 bucks to get another car key made. There’s also all the time spent in visiting the post office, locksmith, filling out forms, etc.  Not cheap, and certainly not a one stop shop process. In addition, the website isn’t all that clear or consistent about exactly what you need to do, so expect to spend some time muddling around trying to understand what it is you need to buy.

The Final Product

I have to say that, despite the unfriendly process of purchasing the Keyport Slide, the final product is quite worthy.  And, in its defense, the difficulty is mostly by necessity … I can’t think of many ways to make the buying experience better that wouldn’t drastically increase the cost.

The weight of the Keyport Slide, fully loaded, as compared to the keys it replaces, is reminiscent of moving from the iPhone 4S to the iPhone 5. It feels almost ethereally light for something that holds six keys. Physically, your hand gets a bit confused … where did the weight go? It turns out that the metal heads of each key contribute significantly to the overall weight of your keys. Remove the heads and just keep the keyed portion, as the Slide does for you, and you have a very light set of keys!

The form factor allows you to fit six keys, with three buttons to each side that latch and unlatch the keys to slide them.  This has allowed me to put in keys that I don’t normally use, but which are really a problem if I forget them.  Great peace of mind.

One decision I had to make was in regards to the car alarm.  As you probably know, car manufacturers have gone down the consumer unfriendly road of making their FOB’s larger and bulkier than ever before … all so that you can “unlock your car without a key”.  To keep it simple, I’ve had to let go of using the alarm fob.  Instead, I simply physically lock/unlock the car with the Keyport.  This works, and it also disables the alarm even if it is set, thank goodness.  I felt that the annoyance of having to carry the giant key and alarm fob in my pocket (constant) was greater than the annoyance of having to unlock the car door manually and lock it with a button (couple of times per day).

The Keyport also sits rather large in the ignition of the car.  It’s not heavy in the ignition by any means, which is good.  But it does feel a bit awkward when twisting the key to get the car started.  The plastic slide juts out further from the ignition than most key sets would.

Conclusion

The entire process of purchasing is a pain, true.  But I take real joy in not having to remember which keys to bring.  It’s also even better not having a large, weighty, and sharp metal mass in my already tight jeans pockets.  I enjoy the benefits of the Keyport every day.  Recommended … if you are willing to put up with the hassle of ordering and getting keys duplicated.

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Lost a bit of weight thanks to Grown Up Soda and Dry Soda

 

 

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As we are perhaps all wont to do, I’ve gained a bit of weight in my older age.  Don’t take this the wrong way … I’m not exactly fat by any standard, and I don’t look old.  But I do have a very slim frame, and the weight was all going to my belly.

As I’ve now discovered, this was due in large part to my love of Coke and Cherry Coke … or really, any sort of tasty fizzy soda.  Hey, if Warren Buffett loves Cherry Coke, it can’t be all bad, right?  Well, he probably doesn’t drink two or three cans a day either!

The first thing I tried was switching to Gatorade or a lighter drink.  Well, going cold turkey (aka water only) was just not cutting it.  And Gatorade actually has just as much sugar, so that tasted worse and wasn’t really any better.  As a kid, I used to dilute Gatorade mix and drink it, but I just don’t have the time or the willpower to futz with that any more.

Turns out I need some sugar throughout the day.  And I really enjoy the fizziness you get from a soda, which I find really refreshing.

Knowing that moderation is often a much more sustainable approach, I set out to find the next best thing … soda with less sugar.  After all, the way I drink sodas tends to be haphazard.  I open the soda to get that first refreshing hit of cold fizz and sugar.  And then, after two or three swigs, I’m actually pretty sated.  But the can is open, and now I’m obligated to keep drinking from it because it’s there.

So … OK, this can’t be too hard to look for, right?  Shockingly, half sugar drinks without artificial sweeteners are incredibly onerous to find.  So obscure are they, in fact, that one starts to think there must be some sort of sugary conspiracy in the works.  And who really enjoys the taste of artificial sweeteners?  I can’t believe there’s a market for that stuff.

Regardless, I finally found some palatable alternatives in the form of Grown Up and Dry Soda.  With roughly half the calories, the sodas still taste quite decent.  I’ve taken to the Ginger Ale and Cola flavors quite well.  The lavender flavor is OK, but gets tiresome quickly.  Same with the Apple flavor.  The Blood Orange flavor is sticking with me so far, however.

I’m actually surprised at how effortless it all was.  I would say I dropped from 155 lbs to 146.5 lbs over the course of three weeks, and really didn’t have to change much.  I allow myself to drink Coke when eating out (which means mostly on the weekends) and it hasn’t really impacted my weight at all, so I suspect this is going to be sustainable over the long term.

I still find myself snacking quite a bit a night, although the chips have been cut out.  And recently I find myself quite hungry at night, which I believe is my body telling me that we’ve run into the limits of what changing out the snacking and soda routine is going to accomplish.  But I’m at a pretty good weight right now, so I’m just going to let it ride.

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The consumption mentality

Recently, I’ve been fascinated by various forums and blogs about personal finance … and the weird situations into which people get themselves.

There’s a large subset of people out there (arguably, the vast majority, actually) that don’t think about how to establish or grow their own financial base.  They only think about the ways in which they can spend the money they can get.  Those are two very different things!  I’m convinced that this is not solely an issue of intelligence (because I know plenty of smart people that don’t think about investing), but, rather, of awareness as well.

Some portion of it has to do with the propensity for abstract thinking.  To some people, numbers in a bank account don’t feel real.  But a new gadget or a piece of clothing is as real as it gets!

Stated another way, it might be a manifestation of a cognitive bias known as “What You See Is All There Is”.  The idea, in other words, that while it’s very obvious and familiar how to spend money on things you want (having had the concept of spending hammered into you by 24/7 advertising), it’s not very obvious at all how putting money into investments turns into a better outcome over time … especially with all of the uncertainty inherent in the stock market.  So we go with the things we know, rather than the ones we don’t … even though the good advice about investments is out there and plain for all to see for those who are willing to look.

To the unobservant person, investing might even feel like gambling.  After all … how do you look into a stock and see the “potential” behind it?  It takes a lot of context to do that.  It might as well be a coin flip.  That’s probably why most investors will take a 50k gain off the table even when another 50-100k or much more is likely ahead.  The ability to judge the potential of an investment just isn’t there for them, and even the abstract average gains that are superior on paper don’t look as good as a realized gain now.

I’m not sure I have the answers for whether investing your money is a better solution to life than taking regular vacations, eating out, and buying yourself a nice new car.  But if you do all those things regularly, and yet you’ve never considered exactly what the right amount of money to invest in your retirement is and where it should be invested, ponder the concept that there are a plethora of other ways you can allocate your money besides just spending it.

Perceiving money as something only to be consumed is a trap.  Everyone sort of “knows” that investing money is something that should be done, but I bet the vast majority of people don’t spend enough time on the flip side to make it a “real” option, mentally speaking.  But it’s something that has to be done … seeing the growth potential behind your hard earned money will take you much farther in life.

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What it’s like to live on the Las Vegas Strip

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Now that I own property in Las Vegas, I’ve made week long stays there several times.  While I’m not a full time resident, I think I’ve gotten enough of a feel to comment on what life on the Strip is like.

1. There’s always something happening.  Chinese New Year celebrations and displays.  Hot dog eating finals.  A big fight night.  Restaurant week.  Vegas Uncorked.  Huge trade shows.  Concerts and visiting DJ’s.  I often don’t find out about this stuff until *after* I’ve made plans to fly out, so it’s not like I’m planning to show up at the right times!  There is always something neat going on.

My point is … even if you’re a “local” and have seen all the permanent fixtures and displays of the Strip, new events pop up so often that you’ll never really see “everything”.  The place moves faster than you do.

2. The city never sleeps. I’m a night owl, so I like the option of being able to get up and go grab a bite after midnight.  There aren’t a lot of places you can do that, but in Las Vegas, it’s entirely doable.  And walkable!

3. Normal life does not have to be vacation life. Most people have their vacations in Las Vegas as their frame of reference.  They hear about living there and imagine their vacations and having to do that stuff every day.  Shopping.  Fancy restaurants.  Clubbing.  Walking all day and all night.  Who could take that?

Not me!  Yes, it’s possible to do that.  No, it’s not very balanced.  It’s not what I do, and it’s probably not what you would do either.  I go to Vegas and I play a video game, watch TV, or surf the web after doing work just like anyone else would do in their own homes.  I might go see one nice show or eat at a nice restaurant just because I’m in Vegas for that week, but otherwise … no real pressure to do anything Vegas specific.

4. Traffic can be a doozy.  Certain properties are worse than others to get in and out of than others.  Some of the City Center properties only exit onto the strip, which is terrible for obvious reasons.  Of course, a huge concert or event can also screw things up even more, which means you either need to be a patient person, or waste time being cognizant of when traffic is going to turn nasty.

5. Billions of dollars are being spent by tourists to improve your backyard.  Imagine if you bought a home and someone offered to put in a million dollar garden display and rotate it every month.  Well, that’s kind of what it feels like to own on the Strip.

Las Vegas spends billions of dollars to attract tourists with new buildings, displays and amazing architecture.  Technically, you don’t own it. But if you can just walk downstairs and enjoy it any time you want … well, is there really a difference?

If you live in City Center, from the best Veer and Vdara units you have the Bellagio Fountains putting on a water show for you every 30 minutes.  You can walk over to the Conservatory and take in the amazing floral displays any time you like.  The ridiculous shopping is there for the high rollers … but you can just window shop too.  Heck, if you can look at the amazing jewelry any time you want, why fork out money to buy the stuff!  World class pastry chefs and cooks are just a short walk away if you want an amazing dessert or a meal.  And on and on.

At the MGM, the three star Michelin rated Joel Robuchon is a 5 minute walk away, along with a wide variety of top rated restaurants.  They just opened the biggest nightclub in Vegas an extra 5 minute walk away.  Sure, if you bought a house in the ‘burbs, you could have your own private pool.  Or you could just go downstairs to Wet Republic, a 53,000 sqft massive pool party and hang out for free.  See what I’m getting at?

By living on the Strip, you’re getting some of that billionaire lifestyle for free just by virtue of the location.  It’s an experience you really can’t duplicate anywhere else … well, unless you’re an actual billionaire.

6. The options are life enhancing.  What I’m actually trying to say here is that it’s not so much the doing of everything that makes one happy.  It’s just the idea of so many things being available, even if I’m not going to use 95% of them.  Options equal freedom, and freedom and variety feels really great.

7. Grocery shopping and other errands need to be run off strip.  OK, in a pinch, you can hit up a Walgreens or ABC for some sandwiches and snacks, or maybe order room service if you are living in one of the condo hotels.  But there aren’t any real grocery stores where you can stock up within walking distance.

Delivery is an option via Safeway/Vonn’s, so there’s that.  But sometimes you just need to do your own shopping, like at Home Depot and Walmart.  Yes, you’ll probably want a car if you live here.

8. For normal life, public transportation isn’t great.  Speaking of cars …  taking taxis off strip is too expensive for regular life, and public transportation isn’t well oriented for running off strip either.  If you are being super cheap … it’s possible.  But a bus ride to Walmart could take 40 minutes.  And if you are being super cheap, what are you doing on the Strip again?

So life isn’t as walkable as it might be in a normal and well planned city, unfortunately.  It’s too bad they never got that anchor supermarket into City Center.  That would have made a big difference.

9. People watching is awesome.  There’s something very different about people watching in Las Vegas vs other towns.

First of all, people watching isn’t that easy to do in most places to begin with.  Things get quiet early.  Here, you have critical mass well after midnight, both in terms of people to watch and good places to sit.

Second, Las Vegas brings together all types, so you really get a variety of different people to look at.  Countries, ethnicities, poor, rich, young, old … they are all here.  “I cannot believe she thought that was OK to wear!?”  “What is that couple all dressed up for?”  “Those girls are clearly going to the club.”

Third, people are here to have a good time!  The vibe is just a lot more relaxed and enjoyable.  This isn’t the bustle of people trying to get to work or burn through a power lunch.  Everyone is casually dressed during the day, and there’s a mix of casual vs dolled up folks at night.

10. Having friends come visit is easy … and fun.  Of course, the very nature of Las Vegas means that all kinds of companies want you to get there as simply and easily and cheaply as possible.  Why?  So that you will spend your hard earned money.  All roads (and flights) lead to Vegas!

What this means is that many of your friends will be swinging through town just in the normal course of vacations, trade shows, etc.  There is no better town to be in for randomly seeing old friends face to face.  Of course, intentional visits are easier as well, if for no other reason than the frequency and service levels of flights.

Oh, and if you’ve ever had friends over and wondered what you were going to have to plan to show them a good time, don’t worry.  You’re in the easiest city in the world to figure that problem out!

11. Life can feel transient/temporary.  Your home may feel like less of a home because of all the people who rent instead of buy.  In a condo-hotel, that’s even more of the case because of the hotel part of the development.

Some people want their homes to be a true retreat from the action and to be able to get to know the neighbors.  Well, if you’re living on the Strip, you’ll have to take that as it comes.  Your neighbors will be different every weekend in a condo hotel, and in a full-time residence, your neighboring units will probably be renters or just an empty pied-a-terre investment by an out of towner.  Personally, this doesn’t bother me much as I live in a condo now, and I don’t really know all the people around me anyway.

On the other hand, you start to notice the people that do actually live in the building.  There’s a certain sense of camaraderie that arises as the real live-in owners start to recognize each other.  So it cuts both ways.

12. It gets hot.  Of course, we have to mention the weather.  This is the desert, and it gets damn sunny out there in the summer.  Bring the sunscreen and sunglasses.  Learn how to cut through casinos and malls.  Take taxis or the monorail when possible.  Moisturize a lot, because it’s dry too.  It’s manageable.

Conclusion

In summary, living on the Strip is really quite a remarkable experience like no other.  You might need to be flexible on the traffic, and if you hate people and the occasional interruptions to a constant routine, you probably wouldn’t like it.  But the variety and ever-changing nature of the Strip is a wonderful thing that you mostly only need to partake of when you want to.  I plan on enjoying it for as long as possible.

I’ll conclude with a couple of other articles written about this topic.

Las Vegas Sun – Living like a local on Las Vegas Boulevard

Las Vegas Weekly – Home Sweet Strip: Highs and Lows of Life on Las Vegas Boulevard

Posted in Las Vegas, Lifestyle, Real Estate | Leave a comment

Playing around with the Nexus 7 (2013)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I scored a 129 dollar official refurb of the latest generation of the Google Nexus 7 off eBay.  Granted, it’s probably about to be refreshed any day now, but it’s still a full featured tablet and doesn’t seem to be in danger of going obsolete any time soon.

I spent a pretty long time trying to get the thing to work today because the wifi connectivity on it was absolutely horrible.  However, the nature of the problem didn’t seem to be hardware related.  I eventually narrowed it down to an incompatibility with the Airport Extreme in WPA2 Personal (aka not mixed) security mode.  Crazy.  I’ve now read a lot about Nexus 7 wifi problems in the past few hours, but none of the feedback was especially specific in what would solve the problem.  This seems like a rather huge bug to be solely WPA2 related, but I have no way of verifying that right now.

Otherwise, the tablet is obviously a steal at 129.  The screen is good quality and “retina”.  I’m not impressed with the incompatibility with one of the most popular routers/access points on the market, but beyond that, it seems like it does everything one would normally want out of a tablet.  It’s adequate at web surfing, but the lack of horizontal size means you really start to struggle with getting web pages large enough in a vertical orientation.  As a device for wifi surveying, I think it will do the trick, but the iPad is so far clearly a superior device, even if it is significantly more expensive.

Update: My Nexus 7 is behaving well right now and I think it ended up being some sort of bug with Bonjour Sleep Proxy functionality that was being served off one of my Airport Extreme’s.  Once I rebooted that Airport, the Nexus began connecting to the wi-fi correctly.

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Fundamental vs relative (or positional) value in real estate

Two useful concepts to understand in real estate (or indeed, in any business) are the concepts of fundamental and relative or positional value.

Fundamental value is best thought of as “cost plus”or “cost savings”.  As in, if the land costs x, and the structure costs y to build, then the builder should sell it to me for x + y + z (z = profit).  Or, if I buy x, it will eventually save me y dollars.  This is the mode under which you purchase a bunch of screws at Home Depot, most of your food at the supermarket, and perhaps how you justify buying a new PC that will improve your productivity.

When we think of “fundamental value” in real estate, we most often see this used as a good  baseline of value in areas with lots of land and more remote locations.  Almost by definition, these areas have plenty of supply in the form of interchangeable homes and office space, limited only by the desire of the builders to build in response to demand.

Relative or positional value is much more complex.  Viscerally, it’s easier to explain the concept by working backwards from examples such as luxury cars, art, and jewelry … none of which seem to serve much fundamental purpose for going about your day … and yet all of which still sell like hotcakes.  That’s because people buy these items to appease their own needs for self-actualization or to signal their status to others.  In other words, to show off.

Relative or positional value in real estate occurs in “hot” areas where everyone wants to be.    At this point, we’re not talking exclusively about how much it costs to build somewhere.  We’re mostly accounting for the fact that someone else might be willing to spend more than you to be there.  Purchasing thus pivots towards the zero sum game … where there can only be one winner.  Charlie Munger calls this “the Rembrandt effect”.

Examples

Being able to buy real estate for less than fundamental value is a pretty rare situation, but it does happen.  In the case of Las Vegas over the past 5 years, it was literally like picking up a dollar for 80 cents based on fundamentals alone (with construction costs at 300 to 400 per sqft), unless you thought that Las Vegas was going to crater and blow up (I did not think that).  There are cases, like Detroit, where being able to buy below fundamental value was actually a symptom of much worse problems (an accelerating dystopian environment).  Obviously, you should avoid those scenarios.

Relative or positional valuation is what accounts for the majority of the pricing here in San Francisco, New York and other urban centers.  Business (and hence money) tends to concentrate in these urban cores.  Rich people want to be close to work, and they value the dynamic and varied lifestyle that a city brings.  Supply is constrained by regulations and existing structures, which stokes the fires even further.

Also, some hot vacation destinations are prime areas for positional valuation.  Ocean views are hard to come by!

In addition, one very important positional issue is simply that rich people like to live around other rich people.  Now, you may not think highly of the class warfare implications that this might imply.  But it’s hard to say it isn’t true.

In general, you can assume that people (both rich and poor) are willing to spend some percentage of their income to live in better, safer and more interesting areas.  It just so happens that this translates to a lot of actual dollars when the wealthy want something.

As you may have guessed, real money can be made (and lost) in areas where the valuation is based on relative and positional factors.  As positional valuations are based purely on the desires of a crowd, you must be very confident in being able to read the conditions of a market.  You won’t have an obvious and immediate “save x dollars” value proposition in front of you.

Location, current demographics, and future demographics are all very important positional valuation factors.  These are fairly obvious, and I won’t go into them too much right now.

One interesting caveat for buyers that I would like to mention, however, is the fallacy of incorrectly comparing two properties and equating their values by some amount.  For example, property 1 in prime location A is worth X, so property 2 in location B one or two cities over should be worth 80% of X.  Or “I get 30% more square feet for my money in location B, and it’s only a couple of cities away!  Let’s save some money!”

This is how a lot of people lost their ass in the last real estate crash.  There is absolutely no substitute for buying either in a truly up and coming area, or in one that has already arrived.  When money comes flocking back into a market, you must own in an area where people with money want to buy.  Or, you must do your homework and be confident that the area you are buying in is going to contain more and more of the positive positional pricing effects that are lifting the pricing in the best areas.  Period.

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Surface Pro 3 impressions

I got a chance to check out the new Surface Pro 3 at the Microsoft store today.  Most of the stores should have demos ready by now.

Overall, it’s a big improvement from a Surface Pro 2.

  • It’s surprisingly light for a 12″ screen with a more square aspect ratio.
  • Let’s get real here … 16×9 is a terrible aspect ratio for a tablet and the fact that it took Microsoft three product launches to address that is simply ridiculous.  The new 3×2 (15×10) ratio is good.
  • The kickstand works well at all angles, although it’s so stiff that you will be skittish adjusting it at first for fear of bending the hinge too far.  I still don’t understand why the stand runs the whole width of the tablet.  Surely with metal the material strength is high enough that they only need the stand around the edges?
  • The keyboard works better than any previous cover.  The extra hinge does secure the cover with extra stiffness.  But, the touchpad is still a bit too small and doesn’t seem to sample input as flawlessly and as often as a Mac touchpad.  Plus the keyboard always feels like it’s too close to you, making you twist your wrists to compensate.
  • The included pen is nice, although I’m not totally convinced how I would use it yet.
  • Performance seemed good, although the polish of the built in apps was questionable as usual.  In particular, IE looked like it was being upscaled.

The problem with this iteration is that the Surface Pro 3 just feels too big to be used as a real tablet.  I handed it to my girlfriend and we both agreed … it just didn’t seem friendly enough to use on the couch or lying in bed.  Maybe in a pinch, but, otherwise, no.  So you’re sort of left with a tablet that doesn’t quite get to a notebook level computing experience, and is annoyingly large if functioning as a tablet.  Bleh.

I’d like for convergence between tablets and notebooks to succeed as I would like to carry less computing devices on long trips.  But we’re not there yet.  The lightness and overall usability advances of the Surface Pro 3, however, shows that we are getting ever closer to the goal.

 

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The NYTimes Rent vs Buy calculator

One of the often pointed to resources when deciding whether to buy a home is the New York Times Rent vs Buy calculator.  This is a fully interactive web page that takes in many assumptions and spits out how many years, if ever, it takes to make buying better than renting.

While it truly is a great resource and one you should play with extensively, it’s not actually very good at telling you whether to rent or buy.  Why?  Because the calculation is dominated by the appreciation rates you plug into the rental and home appreciation fields.  Even a single percentage point can make a massive difference.  And so, yes … even though this tool can factor in everything you need it to, you still need expert knowledge to guess at whether the appreciation rate should be 4% instead of 3%.

Real estate is a highly property and location specific business, so the other sin of a calculator is that it assumes a lot of average things.  In the current market, if you are looking to buy, you should be investing in areas and properties where other people with money will want to buy in the future.  In other words, places that are anything but average.  One of my rationales for this is the overall trend of technology and globalization accruing more wealth to less people who can scale market efficiencies.

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pfSense is great if you want to build your own router/gateway

I’m pretty hard on my networking hardware.  For a few years, I’ve been quite happy with OpenWRT running on a WNDR3700 by Netgear.  Just the routing and gateway functions … I always separate wireless access point functionality onto other devices.  As I’ve mentioned before, I have been very pleased with Airport Extreme’s and Express’s as my wireless access points for a number of years.  They are not always reviewed the best in performance.  But they have all been stable, which is where most of my wifi experiences have gone bad.

However, when I moved to San Francisco, I realized we had WebPass service in the building.  The service speeds are mindblowing.  I measured around 500 mbps up AND down once (on the new pfSense based router, which I’m about to talk about).  Compare that to Comcast business class service at 7 mbps up and 28 mbps down.  I’m not even sure how fast the service really is, because I doubt if other test sites can actually keep up.

As is true in so many instances, when you open one performance bottleneck up, another one takes its place.  In this case, it was the WNDR3700.  Its basic routing speeds only ran up to 200 mbps unencrypted.  Even the Airport Extreme 802.11AC router I bought a couple of weeks later only seemed to get around 350mbps.  Encrypted throughput was the real killer.  I like to VPN home sometimes, and embedded hardware in a consumer class router just doesn’t cut the mustard.  I was topping out at 7 mbps upload.

So it was time to do something new.  The requirements?

1. High CPU performance – For the aforementioned VPN throughput and to make sure the full connection gets utilized when I need it.

2. Low idle power – This is still a router, which means it has to be on 24/7.  We want plenty of CPU power for spikes in utilization, but we don’t need to kill the monthly energy bill the rest of the time.

3. Stable and full featured – We’re not in Kansas any more!  With some of the very specific requirements I mentioned, no consumer level router is going to fit the bill.

As far as hardware goes, it was pretty clear I needed a PC of some sort, but a light weight one.  Routing isn’t gaming level intensive, but it appreciates performance on occasion.  As it turns out, Intel’s NUC platform fits the bill well.  Fortunately, at the end of last year, the new Haswell processor line … well regarded for its power efficiency … had just been incorporated into the latest revision of NUC’s.  I bought the Core i5 NUC … you can think of this as a Macbook Air equivalent processor.

For software, I went to an open source solution called pfSense.  Even though OpenWRT was stable, it required way too much command line tweaking.  On a PC, I had way more options to select from.

Now, the problem was that the Haswell hardware was new enough that pfSense wouldn’t install natively on the platform.  So I ended up doing something a bit hacky, but which turned out to work.  I simply installed Ubuntu on the NUC, and then using KVM, virtualized pfSense on top of it.  This required some detailed network interface configuration on the host to get everything working, but the important part is that it worked.

The second problem was that the NUC only had one network port.  Of course, any router or gateway is going to need at least two ports!  The way to work around this was to either A. Use a USB network adapter to add a port. or B. Use a VLAN capable switch to create extra physical ports from just the one port on the NUC.  As it turns out, the USB network adapter I bought was not stable under Ubuntu, so I was forced to go with the second option.  Luckily, this also worked.

This might sound like a lot of work, and it was!  But now that it’s all working, it works very well.  I’ve also gained the following features as a result.

  1. High speed VPN
  2. High speed routing
  3. Traffic shaping.  In my case, this means smarts so that one client can utilize most of the connection if no one needs it, but fair allocation if multiple clients are active.  In other words, one user can’t kill the whole connection for others.
  4. Very detailed statistics, graphs, and logging
  5. Both UPnP and NAT-PMP support
  6. Guest network support (in combination with VLAN’s).  Guest networks allow you to provide wireless service to guests without giving them access to your local network.
  7. Future proofing.  This hardware should be able to keep up with bandwidth requirements for a very long time.

Most importantly, it’s extremely stable.  If you have the time to tinker with pfSense and are a power user, I highly recommend it.  The one thing is that you might want to take a slightly less aggressive route and buy hardware that it can run on directly.  My choice to virtualize it is what added a lot of the complexity … although now that I’ve worked through the issues, I have more flexibility since I can use the NUC for other computing tasks.

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The best vacuum cleaner (for me)

Dust seems to be one of those things that just invades and clutters your home no matter how much you try to prevent it.  And while it’s a pain to clean it up (and believe me, I don’t consider myself very domestic!), we all have to at some point.

The characteristics of a good vacuum cleaner are:

  1. Runtime – It has to last long enough to get through your cleaning cycle.
  2. Suction – It needs to have enough suction to pull up whatever you are trying to clean.
  3. Disposability – Throwing out a nasty dust bag can create a huge mess of its own.
  4. Accessibility – Can you pull the vacuum out and clean something up on a moment’s notice?  Will you have to find an outlet first?
  5. Size/Weight – it must be light enough to use comfortably.  A heavy vacuum cleaner can be not only unnecessary for the task, but also make you more unlikely to do any cleaning at all.

Based on all of the above, I settled on the Dyson DC35 (there are newer models now … the DC44 and DC59).  Why?  Read on.

  1. Runtime – 12-15 min on normal, 6 on max suction.  Enough to do a quick pass across 1300 sqft.  But it’s easy enough to use that we rarely do full passes.
  2. Suction – On the hardwood floors here, it picks up everything we need it to.  It is MUCH stronger than a dust buster and can easily suck up dust bunnies off a desk or in a corner without having to be right on top of it.
  3. Disposability – The bin simply pops open with a latch release.  More thorough cleanings can be done by disassembling the vacuum.
  4. Accessibility – This is one of the best features of the DC35.  A wall mount keeps the vacuum above the clutter … plus the charger slots into the wall mount so that you can “dock” the vacuum and it is always charged and ready to go.  Additional attachments hanging from the mount allow you to switch between floor and hand vacuum modes as needed.  And, of course, it’s cordless, so you don’t need to find an outlet for it next to wherever you are cleaning.
  5. Size/Weight – The Dyson DC35 is incredibly light and not an appliance where the words “push” or “lug” have to come into play.  You might not want to vacuum several floors with it, but it’s a great choice for cleaning up a single room.

In short, I think this is the perfect vacuum for smaller living areas.  The wall mount saves space, which is by definition at a premium to begin with.  The integrated charging keeps it ready so you can “clean as you go” instead of having to lug out a huge vacuum cleaner.  It’s multipurpose, so you can replace a dust buster and a floor vacuum with just one compact device.

My only criticism of this vacuum is that it requires you to hold the button to vacuum.  This is fine most of the time.  It saves on battery life, because you can just hold the button on the areas that need it.  However, for extended vacuuming sessions, holding the button gets tiresome.

Nevertheless, it really is the perfect vacuum for a smaller space.  And arguably, even a larger one too.  I find the ease of cleaning with it means it actually gets used, as opposed to a larger and more powerful vacuum that nobody wants to dig out of the closet.  Buying the slightly older DC35 may be preferable, since you can usually find factory refurbs or used models for $175-200.  Highly recommended.

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