TV in My Pocket

It seems like streaming media is all the rage now. For a while now, we have been able to watch content not only on our TV, but on our phone and our computer too. I don’t know about you, but I still prefer larger screens.

The bigger problem for me is when I travel. If I’m lucky, we get to an Airbnb and they have Netflix set up. But they don’t always. And when we stay at a hotel – not a chance.

Chromecast to the rescue! The Chromecast is a brilliant dongle by Google that turns any TV to a smart TV. So long as it has an HDMI connection, that is. It streams content in full HD from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and a host of other services. At £30, it really is a no brainer.

When I travel, I always carry one with me. To connect it, we set my wife’s phone as a WI-FI hotspot and connect our devices to it. This works around hotel WI-FI network security restrictions. You know, these pop-up login windows that greet you when connecting. Chromecast doesn’t like those.

With the Chromecast plugged in, we get to enjoy our content on a big screen wherever we go. It really is a brilliant little thing.

By the way, having a Chromecast is great even if you have a smart TV. My Samsung TV is getting a bit old, and Samsung stopped updating its software a while ago. This means Amazon content freezes the TV regularly, for example. With the Chromecast, I don’t have to worry. I simply stopped using the built-in Amazon Prime app of my TV.

The Shredder

These days I still get a few letters a week. It’s the end of 2020, so that surprises me a bit. But, here we are. A few of these letters I need to file. Others I can scan and then dispose of. The rest I can dispose of straight away.

There is a small problem, though. A lot of these letters have my personal information on them. I don’t necessarily want somebody snooping around finding out my bank account number, or my Tesco membership number. Sure, some of these are not as sensitive as others. The odds of somebody snooping around are probably not big anyhow. But why take the risk?

There is a simple solution. I bought a shredder. If you’ve been reading my past posts, you know I did my research. So here’s what I was after:

  • Shred multiple pages at once. This would save me time.
  • Deal with paper clips and staples. I don’t want to have to remove those.
  • Shred credit cards. This is far better than cutting them in half.
  • Shred CDs. Not many of those around nowadays, but it’s nice to have.
  • Have a reverse mechanism in case it gets jammed.
  • Have sufficient storage. I don’t want to have to empty it every week.

Sadly, the Ativa AT-12X I bought 5 years ago is no longer available on Amazon. It still serves me well. If I had to buy a new one today, I’d probably buy the AmazonBasics one. It beats my Ativa model in every aspect and is very affordable.

If you do not yet have a shredder, consider getting one. Protect your privacy offline too.

I can’t believe I managed to get through this post without a single Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pun.

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Post #35, Version 317

I often find I want to go back to older versions of my documents. Whether it’s my CV, excel sheets with my balance or document templates, older versions are useful. Maybe I deleted something I shouldn’t have. Maybe I want to understand why I made a change. Sometimes I’m just being nostalgic or curious.

If you’re a developer, you already know there’s a solution for this. You may not be using it for this purpose, though. If you’re not a developer – don’t worry, you don’t have to be to benefit from this.

The solution is called version control. Git is probably the most popular one. It is also completely free. What git does is, it lets you easily maintain versions of your files. Every time you make a change, you can save this change as a version. You can add a comment to help you remember what changed. You can then easily go back to older versions.

Once you get the hang of it, using git becomes second nature. You have free apps that help you manage your versions. Sourcetree is a popular one for Mac and Windows.

It gets cooler, though. You can store your files on the cloud for free by using a free service such as GitHub or Bitbucket.

Version your files. It takes a little bit of learning, but not much. It’s worth the effort. You’ll be happy you did when you want to dig out the first version of your CV or that recipe you used before you decided 2 tablespoons of salt were a good idea.

My International Connections

I believe there is not a single person in the world today that travels without electronic devices. Whether it’s a mobile phone, a tablet or a laptop. Some would carry all three, and maybe other devices, too.

And, with no exception, at some point these devices need charging. This is where the trouble starts. There are 14 (!) standards for power outlets. Trust me, I counted.

Now, you do not want to be stuck without an adapter at an airport. The prices they charge are truly a daylight robbery.

This is why I spent some time looking for the ideal power adapter. These were my criteria:

  1. Must be portable
  2. Must support at least some of the most common standards: the British, the American, the European and the Australian
  3. Must have USB connections

Since I wasn’t in a rush to get an adapter, I ended up on AliExpress. The range of options is unbelievable. The prices are incredible. I mean, I found an adapter that ticked all my boxes, and it cost roughly $7. Naturally I bought three. You can never have too many! Plus, if one is toasted, I have a spare. I’ve had them for a few years now. All are still working. In fact, I even use them at home to power USB devices.

Go grab a couple. If you find a better one, let me know and I’ll update this post.

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A House Connected

If you have dead WIFI spots in your home, this one’s for you.

I’ve moved flats quite a lot in my life. I don’t think I remember a single one where WIFI connectivity was perfect. There are always dead spots. Well, that’s if I’m lucky. In some flats, whole rooms got spotty WIFI.

When you set up a smart home, things get worse. You suddenly have many devices fighting over the bandwidth. My lights used to lose connectivity. And then my scales would. Google Home would stop responding. This was not the smart home I had in mind.

So I figured I’d get a better router. And I did. After extensive research, I bought the TP-Link AC2800. It did work slightly better than the router my ISP provided, but not by much. And worse, every few days I’d have to restart it or there would be no WIFI connection at all. What a disappointment.

I didn’t give up, though. I had a plan B. I ordered the Amazon eero mesh kit. The three-pack was all I needed. Set up was very straightforward. I can happily say this solved my problem perfectly. Every corner of the house has WIFI now. The WIFI connection never drops. All devices stay online consistently. They reliably communicate with other devices on the mesh network. They even connect with devices on the primary router WIFI seemlessly.

So, if you’re having dead WIFI spots around your flat. I strongly recommend a mesh solution. I’m satisfied with the Amazon eero, but I’m sure other products work roughly as well.

Cover photo: Parasite.
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I Got Chills, They’re Multiplying

Lying in bed, feeling like life was sucked out of your body. You know you’re not well. Time to check your temperature. Who’s the evil sadist that came up with the idea of an instrument you have to stick under your tongue? And then you have you keep it there for a whole minute…

Well, luckily, this is 2020 and we have progressed! You can measure your temperature in seconds(!), and you can do it by scanning your forehead! Not only that, but the results are transferred to your phone. Now you can look back at the warm memories of being cold in bed last winter. Those were the days!

This is not a cheap product. But it really is pretty cool. Measuring my temperature has never been more straightforward. Just slide the thermometer across your forehead and get a reading. The design is slick. I really do love it. This smart thermometer is from Withings – the same people who got us the scales I covered earlier. Check this thermometer out here.

And may you always remain cool!

Cover photo: Tim Denison
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Abracadabra? Open Sesame? Err…

Having secure passwords has never been so important. Hackers are working overtime and passwords are leaking left and right. You can check if any of your passwords was exposed here.

Now, what password did I use for that website? Man, this is hard. I have so many accounts, on so many different websites. On top of that, I have credit cards and bank accounts… Each one of these requires a password.

I used to sort my passwords into two groups: the sensitive ones and the ones I didn’t care too much about. For the ones I didn’t care about, I used one of my default passwords. For the sensitive ones, I used a more complex password.

This worked well for me… For a while. As the number of sensitive passwords I needed grew, I realised using the same password was probably not the safest course of action. So I started using KeePass to store my passwords. It’s a free, open source solution, and it works on pretty much every platform.

KeePass stores all my sensitive data in an encrypted database saved as a file. I can save that file on my Dropbox* and access it from anywhere and from any of my devices. This is great!

I also save my passwords in my browser. Until recently, I only used Google Chrome. When I wanted to try out Microsoft Edge, I realised I had to retype all my passwords. Eew. So I decided to give LastPass a try. LastPass stores all my credentials for me and has plugins for all popular browsers. This means once I stored my credentials in one browser, I can use them in others, too.

LastPass also helps me generate unique, impossible to guess passwords. So I no longer need to settle for easy to hack passwords for my less important accounts.

When I look back at my initial approach, it wasn’t great. Do I care if somebody hacked into my BoardGameGeek account? Actually, I do. No more plain passwords for me, then.

Update (17/02/2021): LastPass are making changes to their business model. The free version only works on one device type. This sucks. I am currently trying out Bitwarden, which promises to always be free.

* Using the Dropbox link above would grant you 500MB extra for free. I’ll get 1GB.

Oh, Phone, Where Art Thou

Have you ever lost your phone? I have. I sometimes find myself distracted and I simply forget where I left my phone. This happens to me more than I’d care to admit.

Luckily, most people would happily return your phone to you if they found it. They just need to know who to return it to.

A colleague once taught me a nice little trick. Always have an alternative way of contacting you on your lock screen. The easiest is to show your email address. Every phone has this option. You may have to dig a bit into your settings to find it. For the few minutes that search takes, it’s worth it. If all else fails, you can replace your locked screen wallpaper with one showing your email address, or the phone number of a close contact.

As a safety measure, make sure to enable Find My Device on your Android phone, or Find My on your iPhone. It’s always easier to find your phone yourself than to trust a stranger to find it for you…

Let’s Score

There are times when you find yourself in a pinch and in need of a loan. Other times, an opportunity presents itself that requires money you don’t have lying around. Then, you may want to take a mortgage.

I moved to the UK in 2013. This was the first time I realised some countries had rating systems for their residents. The US does it, and so does the UK.

The rating, also known as a Credit Score, measures how credit worthy you are. The higher your score, the more likely you are to get a loan. You are also more likely to be approved when renting a new flat, for example.

Intuitively, I thought the more money I had, the higher my score would be. I was wrong. In fact, there is no mention of your balance at all in your credit score.

So what DOES affect your credit score? It turns out there are quite a few easy ways to improve your score.

  1. Register to vote. This is the easiest one. Make sure you register to vote. Yes, that affects your score. The longer you are registered in one address, the better.
  2. Hold credit cards. This one is straightforward but not always as easy. The details are a bit obscure, but I believe any credit cards will do, so long as you use them and pay the full amount on time consistently. The more you have – the better. Aim for credit of at least £15,000.
  3. Always pay your bills on time. Never, and I mean never, miss a payment. Always pay your credit cards in full on time. It’s easier to do if you set up a direct debit.
  4. Stick to one provider. This one takes some time. You only have to choose one provider. I found it easier to stick to my mobile provider. Do that for 6 years for the optimal score. You can continue switching your other service providers.
  5. Keep your spend low. How low? 1% to 25% of your credit limit is ideal. You can do this by either spending less or having more credit. This is measured per card.
  6. Consolidate your credit checks. This has a short term impact on your score, so you don’t want it spread over a long period of time. This includes opening bank accounts, applying for loans and applying for credit cards.

A few words about credit cards. I keep my credit cards active by spreading my subscriptions between them. This way I don’t have to worry about them not being utilised. Every once in a while, I see if I can raise my credit limit on my cards. This is easier than applying for a new card.

There are a few other things to keep in mind: your spouse’s rating also affects your score. Having a mortgage is also constructive for your score.

I try to always keep my score as high as I can. I never know when I’ll need a loan or to pass a credit check. Banks are happier to give you better loan terms if your score is high, too.

Oh, one last thing. You can keep track of your score on a few websites. Some are free. Check out Credit Karma and Experian. I felt the latter was a bit spammy, but I’m sure some won’t mind.

I hope this helps you keep your score high, too.

Good Morning, Home!

We’re on the verge of 2021. Sci-Fi films had us driving flying cars by now. Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet. That does not mean we have not progressed.

Smart homes used to be a rare thing. You’d hear about them only in shows following the lives of the rich and famous. This is no longer the case. Google’s assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri (and others) made smart homes accessible.

Having done my research, I decided to go with Google. Most reviews agree it is the most advanced of the three. We currently have three Google Home minis around the house (one in each bedroom and one by the entrance), one Google Nest Hub in our Kitchen and one Google Home in our living room.

The advantages are many. We can now play music throughout the house. With Google sunsetting Google Play Music, we switched to a Deezer subscription. So far, we’re quite happy with the results. We can also control different devices from anywhere in the house by using voice commands. Smart routines automate your everyday menial tasks – you can have Google play a bedtime playlist and dim the lights when you tell it good night, for example.

We replaced all our light switches with smart ones. We also have Lifx bedside lights as well as a floor light. This means we can turn all lights around the house on or off without getting up or walking around the house.

In the living room, we have a Samsung Smart TV which also has a Google Chromecast dongle attached to it. This means we can turn the TV on or off using voice commands. We can also play content, pause and stop it the same way.

Every home is different, and the possibilities are endless. There is no doubt this is the future, and it’s tangible. It’s still rough around the edges, true. But your life can become a bit easier with a little work and some initial spend.

Keep in mind having so many wireless devices around the house can degrade your WiFi stability. We tried fixing it with a strong router – but that did not solve the problem. We finally found a solution for this recently in the form of an eero mesh network (more on that in a separate post).

Ok, Google. Publish this post.

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