Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Records Recovery Services

After buying a new home last month, I received an official-looking letter from Records Recovery Services asking me to spend $87.00 to receive a copy of my deed. The letter included a "due date", my property’s parcel number and other information about my home and land.

The thing is, land records can be obtained from your county's Recorder of Deeds by anyone, including companies like Records Recovery Services, which probably has small offices in every state from where they harvest the publicly available land transfer information, generates these letters, and attempts to sell deeds to the property owners at hugely inflated prices. Usually, copy charges from the Recorder’s Office are $2.00 for the first page and $1.00 for each additional page for a total of $5.00. Selling that report for $87 seems unethical and quite shady to me. You know what? I wouldn't mind paying $10 in order to avoid the trip to the court house. If I'm feeling generous, I might even be up for paying $20. But, $87? That's far and beyond unethical, in my opinion.

I spoke with a rep from Records Recovery Services. I'll give him props in that he didn't try to scare me into paying the $87. I tried to bait him by asking if I could be arrested if I didn't pay the money, but he didn't go for it. I told him that I had an offer from one of his competitors for $60 and asked if he could match that price. He said he didn't have the authority to do it. I then asked him to tell me why I should spend $87 on this and where the extra costs factored in. After promising to connect me with someone who could explain it, he hung up on me. That should tell you all you need to know about how Records Recovery Services operates. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Red Dead Redemption 2: Painful Screw-ups Part IV

I've been busy outfitting the house with smart home devices and with getting furniture in for the new place and getting stuff set up and put away. Still, I managed to get some time in this weekend to play Red Dead Redemption 2 a bit more. I'm still plugging away in Chapter 3. I've managed to hunt down most of the legendary animals and have started fishing for the legendary fish. I am comfortable with the game and am immersed enough in the story that I am focusing on getting story missions done on a regular basis.

No matter how skilled I am at playing Red Dead Redemption 2, I will always have my share of fails. I still get distracted looking at the radar and end up crashing my horse from time to time. And, of course, I'm also taken by surprise on occasion and get killed by a wild beast. Check out the video below for Part IV of my Red Dead Redemption 2 fails:


Friday, January 11, 2019

The Nest Yale Smart Lock

When I was growing up, my father was paranoid about house keys. We had gotten robbed when one of my brothers' friends swiped his key and used it to enter the house when he knew when we'd be away for the weekend. So, in my dad's mind, between my parents and my siblings, there were seven keys representing seven potential security breaches. When I was in high school, I lost my key while studying in the local library. I informed my father who then bemoaned the prospect of having to replace seven keys. I figured that, since neither my name nor address had been etched into my key, anyone who found it would have no clue what house it went to, so, theoretically, they'd have to blindly go house to house in order to find the correct deadbolt. And anyone who took the time trying the key in every deadbolt in town probably deserved to have our stuff. My father wasn't pleased with my "logic" and the lock was quickly changed out.

The Nest Yale Lock in All Its Glory!
My point in telling that story is that locks aren't the end-all of home security. Yes, a lock is a deterrent, and is a first-line of defense, but, if someone really wants to break into your house, a deadbolt isn't going to stop them. A front door lock is a means of managing access. To that end, I purchased a Nest Yale lock to integrate with my smart home. The Nest Yale smart lock requires a Nest hub in order to work with full capabilities and integrate into Google Home, so, if you're thinking about purchasing one, make sure that you buy the model that comes with the Nest hub or get one separately.

Installation was pretty easy as the Nest Yale smart lock installs much like a traditional deadbolt. The issue is that the deadbolt has to fit perfectly into the latch in order for the lock to work as expected. Previously, we had been closing the door and pushing it in an extra inch in order to securely lock the deadbolt. This meant that the original deadbolt had not been seated properly. So, when I would ask Nest to lock the door, the deadbolt wouldn't be able to fully extend, which would lead to an error.

Upon further inspection, I discovered that the locks had been changed more than once and that a number of previous screw holes had been put into the door and into the latches. I had to buy some wood putty in order to fill in the old screw holes so that I could properly screw in the Nest Yale lock.

One issue that I have with the Nest Yale smart lock is that it doesn't come with a door handle. My whole purpose in buying the lock is so that I won't have to worry about carrying my house keys. So, I can either unlock the door via the keypad using the keycode I gave myself or I could unlock it via the app on my phone. Yet, having a lockable doorknob on my door defeats the purpose of having a smart deadbolt. So, I had to replace the doorknob with a handle that matched the Nest Yale smart lock. I get it: Nest and Yale don't want to get into the complex issues that come with having to offer multiple iterations of their lock. Offering three colors is enough. Best to push off the handle issue onto the consumer in order to keep things simple. It's still a tad frustrating.

Overall, I'm pleased with how my Nest Yale smart lock works. Everyone in the house has downloaded the Nest app and have created their own code for access to unlock the front door. There was, however, one noticeable objection to this system: In a "you're not my REAL dad" moment, one of the teens wondered if I was using the lock to keep track of their comings and goings. Okay, yes, in theory the Nest Yale smart lock could be used to do that. But, I really don't care who is locking and and unlocking the door and I don't care when they're doing it. I just want to be able to get into my house without my keys if I need to. So, for those in the house who don't want to be tracked, they can use the side door or the back door which still have traditional locks on them. For now.

I haven't made use of Privacy Mode yet, which turns off the outside keypad so that even people with access can't use their codes. They can still open the door via the app though. I'm sure I'll enable it when we go on vacation in March.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Energy Scammer Gets Angry

A telemarketer pushing an energy savings scam called me yet again. When he asked if I received federal assistance to help me pay for my electric bill, I went off on a rambling tangent about getting lost trying to find the federal assistance office. He was a bit impatient, but overall seemed to handle that tangent okay. Then asked me to get a pen and my Com Ed bill. I then launched into a story about my favorite pen and where I had bought it. This really seemed to piss him off because he kept threatening to cancel the deal and ordering me to give him my Com Ed account number. I told him to hold his horses and then started to tell him about how I had just gotten my Com Ed bill when he finally hung up on me.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Setting Up Amazon Alexa

In order to give my bedridden father quicker access to his Ring Video Doorbell, one of my brothers and I decided that it was time to bring him into the world of Smart Home assistants. We debated back and forth for a while about whether to go with Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. I lobbied for Google Home as I have experience with it and could get it up and running easier. However, I had to admit that, since Ring is owned by Amazon, going with Amazon Alexa is the more logical choice. So, for Christmas, we bought my father an Amazon Echo Show and managed to get our hands on a free Amazon Echo Dot.

Amazon Alexa Vs Google Home


Setup


Setting up the Amazon Echo Dot isn't all that different from setting up Google Home Mini. Just download the Amazon Alexa app onto your cell phone, then plug in the Amazon Echo Dot and follow the instructions. I was surprised that, unlike Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa doesn't require you to do a voice check as part of its setup process. Setting up the Amazon Echo Show isn't much different than setting up the Google Home Hub, though much of the setup on the Echo Show is done on the actual device rather than via the app on your phone. This opposite is true for the Google Home Hub.

Usage


Amazon Alexa and Google Home both operate in similar manners. One of the things that I like about the Amazon Echo devices is that they light up with a blue light to indicate that a device is listening to you. Google Home devices light up in a way that, to me, is not nearly as noticeable. A huge issue I have with Amazon Alexa is the trigger word. Saying something like "Hey, Alexa" to activate a device is fine so long as you don't have someone with a similar name living in your house. Yelling across the room to someone with a similar name activates Amazon Echo devices and suddenly Alexa is telling me that she doesn't know how to tell me what she wants for lunch. I'm sure you can change the trigger phrase if need be, but, since it isn't an issue for my father, I figured it would be easier not to muck with it.

The Amazon Echo Show integrates with the Ring Video Doorbell well enough. I still hate that there's so much lag involved, though. My father will say "Hey, Alexa, show me the front door" and then Alexa will say that it's contacting Ring which takes anywhere from 5 to 10 seconds. That just seems way too laggy for me. I don't yet have a Nest Hello so I can't make a good comparison. Maybe that sort of lag time is normal. I guess I just figured that, since Amazon owns Ring, the integration would be much snappier.

There are two huge advantages that the Amazon Echo Show has over the Google Home Hub:

  1. The Amazon Echo Show features a larger (albeit bulkier) display with a better speaker. 

  2. You can do video calls via Skype on the Amazon Echo Show. No such luck with the Google Home Hub, as it does not have a camera attached to it. 

Overall 


My father is happy with his Amazon Echo Show and its integration with Ring. The lag time between Alexa and Ring doesn't bother him, which is much more important than any minor annoyances I have. The system is working well enough that I'm looking at adding an August Smart Lock to his smart home so that he can lock and unlock the door via his connected devices. I still, however prefer the Google Home infrastructure.


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Into The Spider-Verse

I got dragged, over my vociferous protestations, to "Welcome To Marwen" last weekend. I'm pretty sure that being forced to watch that movie is considered a form of torture by The Geneva Convention. At the very least, I consider it grounds for a break-up. So, in order to soothe escalating movie-watching tensions, I chose "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" as our movie option yesterday afternoon.

"Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" has been called the best Spider-Man movie to date. I can see where people could plausibly make that claim. Don't let the fact that it's an animated feature put you off. "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" has a lot of depth to it and every character gets their moment to shine. Moreover, the story itself was satisfying yet also lugubrious at times. "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" details the life of neophyte Spider-Man, Miles Morales, as he copes with his newfound powers and tries to climb out of the shadow of Peter Parker's original Spider-Man. Meanwhile, Morales is pushed into attending a boarding school, where he is uncomfortable to the point of being humiliated a multitude of times. This discomfort and isolation leads to him feeling insecure about his newfound capabilities. Enter alternate universe Peter Parker who has had a number of setbacks himself. This "hobo Spider-Man" mentors Miles as they and other alternate Spider-heroes try to stop a threat to the entire multiverse. Miles eventually overcomes his insecurities and ultimately takes a “leap of faith” allowing him to realize his true capabilities. This heroic feat leads to a cathartic denouement.

So, is "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" the best Spider-Man movie ever produced? Well, I liked it, but I think that distinction still goes to the cut-scenes in "Marvel's Spider-Man" PS4 (look for the PS4 Spider-Man costume in the Spider-Lair on the far left in "Spider-Verse"). Still, "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" is well worth the price of admission despite a few glaring flaws and plot-holes here and there.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Geeni TAP Smart Wi-Fi Light Switch

I've completed Phase 1 of my Smart Home deployment which includes:


  • A Google Home Mini for each of the four bedrooms.
  • A Google Home Hub for the Kitchen
  • A Google Home Hub for the Family Room
  • A Google Home Mini for the Garage
  • A Merkury Innovations Wi-Fi plug for the Christmas Tree Lights
  • A Merkury Innovations Wi-Fi plug for the Coffee Maker
  • Three Merkury Innovations Color Smart A21 Light Bulbs for the Dining Room
  • Four Merkury Innovations Color Smart A21 Light Bulbs for the Living Room
  • A Nest Gen 3 Thermostat
Since the fixtures in the bedrooms are solid LEDs and not light bulbs, I've had to wire in smart light switches in order to gain control of the lights through Google Assistant. So, Phase 2 of my Smart Home deployment began with the installation of my first Geeni TAP Smart Wi-Fi Light Switch. It's a light switch that doesn't require an additional hub to work. You can control it from the Geeni app and/or Google Assistant. Since my lights and wi-fi plugs are all managed through Geeni, I figured that I would stay with that structure. 

The good news is that I managed to install the light switch without passing any current through my body. The bad news is that, due to the nature of the neutral wiring in my house, the install was a pain in my rear. Most smart light switches currently on the market require the presence of a neutral wire in order to work. The one running though the bedrooms in my house doesn't offer much slack, so getting access to it so that I could twist it with the switch's wire was very difficult. The other issue is that the wire connectors included with the switch were too small to properly twist the paired wires together. I had to buy a pack of standard gauge connectors in order to twist the wires together properly. This meant that the switch box that houses the light switch had less room to hold the new Geeni switch. It took some creative placement in order to get it mounted flush with the wall. 

I eventually prevailed and I'm pretty happy with the results. The Geeni TAP Smart Wi-Fi Light Switch performs as expected. At $29.99 it's a bit more expensive than I would like, but, one can't argue with results, right? 

Friday, December 28, 2018

My Credit Card Number Is Go F*** Yourself

A "Lower Your Credit Card Interest Rate" scammer called me. He was trying to sign me up and get my credit card number. Whenever he asked a question, I hemmed and hawed and otherwise delayed so that I could keep him on the phone as long as possible. Just when he thought I was going to give him the credit card number, I ended up saying that my number was "5 1 7 GO F*** Yourself".

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Ring Video Doorbell

My father has Parkinson's and is very nearly bedridden. In order to make life easier for him, my mother purchased a Ring video doorbell so that he can see who is at the door and converse with them via his phone or laptop. He'd like to eventually get to the point where he could touch a button and unlock the door, but first thing's first.

Mom bought the Ring video doorbell without consulting me. Had I been informed of the decision prior to her purchase, I would have recommended the Nest Hello. Yet, part of any good challenge is to see how one can make do with what one has been provided with. Mom has had issues getting Ring to work reliably with my dad's phone, so, as the family tech expert my Smart Home skills were put to work this Christmas with the goal of getting the Ring video doorbell working. I got it working, it just took an age.

The big thing that the Ring video doorbell has going for it is that you don't need to hook it in to an existing doorbell wire in order for it to operate. Ring can run on its own battery. That's a very attractive feature for folks like me who have houses without wired doorbells. The thing is, my parents' house has the necessary wiring. I don't know why their electrician elected not to use it. I can't imagine my mother would be too happy having to remember to recharge the Ring every-other-day.

Setup isn't all that difficult. You connect Ring to your wireless network, register for an account, confirm your registration, download the app to your phone or computer and then sign in. Easy enough, except the Ring kept having issues either talking to my father's phone or connecting to the wireless network (despite a very strong signal). Still, it's not the setup that I have an issue with so much as Ring's overall performance. On my father's near-premium phone, Ring is slow to respond to commands and incredibly slow to show the video feed. This, I'm sorry to say, is unacceptable with my father's condition. He needs something more peppy.

Myself, I'm so unimpressed with the Ring that I have actually contacted and electrician to run a wire to my doorway so that I can install a Nest Hello.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Installing The Nest Gen 3 Learning Thermostat

With my successful installation of the Nest Gen 3 learning thermostat, Phase 1 of my smart home plan is complete. Wal-Mart was running a deal where you could buy a Nest 3 and a Google Home Hub for $300. Since the Nest Gen 3 usually runs about $250 and the Google Home Hub usually runs about $150, I felt that this was too good a deal to pass up. Plus, my electric company will give me a $125 rebate on the Nest Gen 3.

Before you even buy a Nest, you need to check your existing thermostat wiring in order to make sure that your system is compatible. In order to do that, you just have to pull your thermostat off of the wall. Once that's done, take note of the letters pogs that your wires are going into. You will also want to note if you're using a cross over cable to connect two pogs together. As you can see in the picture of my own wiring, I've got a crossover between RC and RH. Otherwise, I've got wires going in to G, W, and Y (and instead of my Y wire being yellow, it's orange). Once you've got your wiring properly documented, head on over to the Nest website and check out the Nest Compatibility Checker.

So, assuming you have a compatible system, installation is a snap. It took me less than 10 minutes. First and foremost, TURN OFF YOUR FURNACE before you begin the installation. You should have a service switch somewhere near your furnace, but, if you don't you can still turn it off at the breaker box. Once the furnace is off, get the wires out of your existing thermostat. You'll want to make sure you document which color wire goes in to which letter pog. Nest provides you with a bunch of stickers that you can wrap around the wires, but, it may be less of a hassle to just take a picture and refer back to it.


My own system seems to have had at least one other thermostat attached to it at some point, so the area around the thermostat has some screw scarring. If this is the case for you too, you can make use of the included mounting bracket that will cover up various nicks and wounds around the thermostat. Then, you partially mount the Nest backing and place the wires into their corresponding places. There's no need for a screwdriver here. You just hold the pin down and push the wire in until it clicks. Once you get all of the wires in their proper places, you place the Nest control panel onto the backing and turn the power back to the furnace. Nest will then take you through the initial configuration which includes creating an account on Nest.com which will help you control the thermostat from the Internet and will also integrate it into Google Home.

It hasn't even been 24 hours since my install, but I'm already loving this thing. At the very least, the ambient temperature sensor seems to be more accurate than the one that was in my old thermostat. And I like that I can set the thermostat over the Internet. It also has an option to use my phone's location to determine when I'm away and lower the home temperature accordingly. In order to use this feature properly, I'll need to get everyone's phone connected, but I haven't gotten buy-in from everyone in the house yet. I'm told it feels a bit too much like "Big Brother" watching. I say, if Big Brother wants to know when I'm driving to work and when I'm driving back, more power to him, so long as the house is at a comfortable temperature when I walk in.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Medicare Scammer Calls Me

A Medicare supplemental insurance scammer called looking for me. She started off by talking about the upcoming raise in Medicare rates. I kept asking her why she was increasing my Medicare rate and telling her that I was on a fixed income. She asked me what supplemental Medicare plan I had, and I told her I had Medicare Part Q. She eventually got tired of trying to explain things to me and hung up.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

We Bought A French Bulldog

With the move to the new house this past weekend, I felt that it was a pretty good time to welcome a new dog to the family. My daughter had been wanting a French Bulldog for quite some time, so I started looking into them. They're the result of the breeding together of English bulldogs and French rat terriers. The French Bulldog breed is a playful, intelligent breed with an even temperament. French bulldogs have issues breeding, owing mainly to their narrow hips, so, puppies can be very expensive.  It's not uncommon to have to shell out $8,000 for one. I wasn't going to do that.

I joined a few Facebook groups that connected breeders and buyers. I found that an overwhelming number of them were shipping dogs out of the Ukraine for about $2,000. I imagined showing up at the airport, meeting the dog minder and ending up with a Borzoi. "Vat? Iz dog, yes? Iz French! Dog iz born in France".  No, thanks. I was tempted to tell my daughter "Let's just adopt a dog from the shelter. Maybe you'll get lucky and they'll have a French Bulldog".

I did eventually find a breeder in Texas who was doing a mid-western caravan dropping of puppies. They had a few females available and we picked one that seemed from the video to have a playful personality. The price was fairly reasonable, and I wasn't asked to put down a deposit or sign any weirdo contracts. She was even willing to meet me at my new house. I declined that, however, as I still somewhat suspected that a beat-up white van might pull up to my house, a bunch of thugs would jump out, I'd have my money stolen and I'd be left with some worn out Neapolitan Mastiff. I instead suggested meeting at a well known, well traveled landmark in the area and arranged to have some friends blend in nearby as backup.

Introducing Her To Television May Have Been A Bad Idea
About three hours before scheduled delivery, the courier called me to tell me that she was lost. She was tired as she had been driving all day, so would I agree to split the difference in distance and drive out to meet her halfway? My spider-sense started to tingle, but I agreed, suggesting that we meet at another well known landmark roughly halfway between us. I couldn't ask my entire spy network to accompany me, so I brought along my two favorite goons instead.

We sat at the landmark for about 30 minutes eating drive-through food and keeping lookout for a van or truck with out-of-state plates. The courier called, saying that she couldn't find the landmark....which was easily visible from the highway. She then asked if I would be willing to meet her in a hotel parking lot that she had stopped at. I looked it up on Google Maps. It was well off the main drag but still somewhat decently traveled. Still, it was better to be cautious. I stopped about a block from the hotel and dropped my goons off with instructions to walk towards the lot but stay out of sight. If anything goes wrong, then SWARM!!!

My preparations would prove to be unnecessary. Instead of a gang of Russian dog runners, I was met with a frazzled woman minding four puppies who just needed a good night's rest. I paid her the agreed upon fee, called the breeder to confirm the transaction and then was met with the cutest puppy ever put on this Earth. She has already turned out to be a fine addition to the family. She loves zipping around the house chasing after everyone. And she is so very quiet. I only just heard her bark for the first time last night when I put on the television to watch the last half of Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I had worried that she might take after Walter The Frenchie. But, thankfully, her bark has very little whine to it. So far.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Christmas Plates

I closed on a house last week. The best part about it is that I was able to do it without cheating on my taxes or getting my mommy to co-borrow with me. Because that's how an adult does things, right?

A few weeks before my final walk-through, I told the previous owner that she could feel free to leave any items that had been in the garage and I would take care of disposing of them. Along with some other odds and ends, there was a decent dining room table and chairs stored in there that I felt we could use for a few months until we get around to furnishing the dining room.

After moving the dining room table out of the garage and into the dining room, I found a box tucked into a corner. It had obviously been there for quite some time, as it had been pretty well worn and faded. And inside that faded box? A pristine set of Christmas dinnerware. Someone had obviously opened the box, took one plate out to look at it, put that plate back in and then forgot about it. I imagine a previous occupant getting the Christmas plates as a gift, opening the box up for a round of halfhearted Ooohs and Aaahs and then deftly stashing it away while making a vague mental note to use the plates the next time that relative came over for the Holidays.

In a way, finding these plates was kind of fitting. Christmas came early this year when the family was brought together under one roof. Our little band of misfits found a place to call home and these tacky plates are a good reminder of how even the most unexpected offerings that life throws at us have their place. Our place is together, with these plates in our cabinets.....very deep in our cabinets, but there nonetheless.

So, we all gathered around the ramshackle dining room table and ate dinner from our Christmas dinnerware with smiles on our faces, laughter in our hearts, and joy in our souls. Myself, I decided to forgo the use of my usual coffee mug so that I could be the one who drank from the Christmas mug. And it was the best cup of coffee I had ever had.

All These Plates....But Just One Coffee Mug?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

How Google Home Makes Calls

We ordered pizza tonight. It went well with the ice cream cake we were having for the birthday party. Normally, when I'd call the pizza place, I'd just whip out the cell phone and place the call. But, now that I have Google Home, my Google Assistant can do it for me. I merely said "Okay, Google: Call [Pizza Place]". Google Assistant confirmed the number, dialed them up, and put me through. I placed my order with them and, when they confirmed my number, they spat my cell phone number at me. What the what? How did Google Home know to use my cell phone number?

Some folks believe that Google Home connects to your cell phone via Bluetooth and makes the call using your cell network. That's not the case. Google Home uses Voice-Over-IP technology (VOIP) to make calls. Phone call information is essentially the same thing as website information, streamed movies, MMORPG data, etc etc. The Internet doesn't natively know the difference between all that. It's all just data. So, it's not much of a task to send audio up and get audio down so long as you have two receivers in place (in this case, Google Home and a traditional land line phone) that can interpret the data properly.

But why did the pizza place think I was calling from my cell phone? Well, that's the contact that's in the Google account that I use for Google Home. If you don't have a phone number tied to your account, Google Home will dial a number for you, but your number will come up as [Private] on the receiver's Caller ID. You can also input any number you want to have show up on the Caller ID, but you have to have access to that number because Google will text or call the number in order to confirm that you're not spoofing.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Red Dead Redemption 2: Painful Screw-ups #3

I've got 14 days, 14 hours and 22 minutes of game time on Red Dead Redemption 2. I'm at 24% story completion, 49% overall completion and I'm currently about 2 quests into Chapter 3. I'm really enjoying just exploring, hunting, fishing and finding treasure. I think it's fair to say that I've gotten the hang of the game. Yet, I still have my share of epic fails in Red Dead Redemption 2. Here's the latest video of my painful screw-ups: