Some Productivity Tips

I get shit done.

And as a boss, if there's one thing that I look for in employees, it's not intelligence or ability, but their ability to get shit done.

So here are some basic rules I have that help me be more productive day in and day out.

1) Turn off notifications

More and more the research shows we (humans) cannot multitask. Males and Females. We have finite neural resources and switching tasks is hard for our brain. So any time you get a notification on your phone or computer: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Email, Texts, Hangouts, Strava, etc. Your brain is using valuable neural resources. Is it worth it? Not to me. I try to minimize the notifications on my phone by adjusting app preferences.  Do I still check Facebook, yes... but it's not a beacon of distraction calling to me anytime someone likes a post of mine.

2) Touch it Once

This follows on the heals of (1). If you are going to use neural resources to switch tasks and read an email... then go ahead and finish up with the task. Don't just read an email and think "I'll respond to that later," because you'll inevitably end up seeing and thinking about that email many times before you finally take action on it. If you're going to read an email, take action and move on. If you don't have time to read and action an email, then don't check your email at that moment.

3) Guard your inbox

Very few newsletters, marketing campaigns, and notification emails add value to my life. If they're not useful, unsubscribe or use filters to sort these out.

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A Letter To My Brother about Finances

My brother is about to finish school and start his first job. I'm writing this post to him, based on lessons and things I've learned along the way, but hopefully it's helpful to everyone! My financial goal here is to live comfortably (not excessively) and be able to retire someday!

  1. If your employer has retirement matching, max it out! This is free money, and will really add up in 30-40 years. It means you'll have less immediately available spending cash... but it will make it easier to meet your long term financial goals.
  2. Pay off high interest debt as fast as you canDebt with interest rates over about 4-5% will bleed you dry. Always pay the minimum monthly payment, but whenever possible, any money you can put towards this debt will likely save you more money than you can make through investing. Plus, lowering your debt will improve your credit, which could save you thousands of dollars when making big purchases like a car, or a house.
  3. Debt is not a bad thingOur parents raised us to be debt averse, and I'm mostly thankful for this... but interest rates presently are much lower than they ever were when our parents were our age. If you have the opportunity to buy something with cash, or take a loan at a rate less than 4%, you might come out ahead if you take the loan and invest the cash! *This assumes you don't get a floating interest rate that could skyrocket, and that the stock market doesn't crash...
    1. Credit Cards aren't bad either! Some money gurus will tell you to cut up your credit cards. If you can't use a credit card responsibly, I'd agree with this advice, but with willpower, credit cards can be a very powerful tool giving you cash back bonuses or points towards vacations. Just make sure to always pay off the full balance every month, and your credit card will pay you to use it. *There's a lot of subtle arguments against this, which I'll link to, but not dive in here...
  4. Plan for Goals. Whether it's a downpayment on a house or car, a new mountain bike in a few years, or a remodel, think about purchases you'll make 5-15 years down the road. I use an investment tool with low fees called Betterment which automatically helps me estimate how much I should put aside each month and invests the money in stocks and bonds.

    This screenshot shows how I might use Betterment to plan a bathroom remodel in three years. It says I need to put away $132.82/mo to meet my goal.

    1. Home Ownership is NOT always a smart move. The 2008 housing crisis challenged the notion that buying a home is a no-brainer investment, and that renting is "throwing your money away." In reality, the choice between renting and buying is very muddy.  The NY Times has a really nice calculator to help break down the cost/benefits of renting and buying. What can be real deal-breakers in the Rent vs Buy decision are things included in rent (Free Internet, Trash, Water), and things like HOA fees in a neighborhood you might buy in.If you live in a market, like Denver CO,  where home prices are growing at a rate of 10%, (and rents are growing at a similar rate) than buying a home can be a very sound investment... but if you live in an area where rent and real-estate are relatively flat (like Springfield, IL) renting can be a sound choice. This is especially true if you do not enjoy home maintenance/improvement projects and shopping for and maintaining appliances.
  5. Be careful about subscription services. These can really sneak up on you, and eat away at your money. When you start paying monthly fees for cable, internet, smartphone data, streaming entertainment (Hulu, Netflix, Spotify, Pandora), cloud storage (Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, Box, etc.), online shopping (amazon prime, etc.), a big chunk of your income can start to disappear. Figure out what has value to you, and try to limit the rest. Even saving $10 a month on subscription services can turn into $15,000 by the time you retire.
  6. Budget the Rest. After setting aside money for your big goals, little goals, and necessary bills, find a system that works for you to budget your money. I use mint, although there are a lot of great tools out there.  For me, the key is to be aware of my spending so I can make data-driven decisions on my actions.
    1. Sometimes being cheap can cost you money. A stupid example is pants. I wear pants to work every day, and I was buying cheap $40 pants, and blowing through the crotch or knees of my pants every 6 months or so...  I then bought a pair of higher quality $70 jeans that have lasted years.

What other advice did I miss?

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Getting started with the Particle Photon

I love using all flavors of Arduino in the engineering classes I teach. They're great tools, and students do some truly awesome stuff with them. More and more, students want to build connected devices.  This used to require an expensive WiFi shield or Ethernet shield, or require the students to switch to developing on a Raspberry Pi.

Enter the particle Photon: a promising tiny Arduino-based micro-controller with WiFi for only $20.  This opens up a huge world of possibilities for Arduino-based projects... once you get it working

The web-based IDE

At its core, the photon was designed to be programmed via their app and their web-based IDE.  While in principle, this sounds great, I found the two hard to use and lacking functionality.  The first hiccup is the Photon couldn't get past the authentication page for my university's WiFi. Resolving this took a lot of patience working with our school's IT department, and while this isn't exactly Particles fault, it was still annoying.  Once running, it was easy enough to blink an LED and view sensor data from the cloud (very cool).

However; when I took my photon home, it took a lot of work to connect to my very old router. Here's the post that saved the day on that front.  After that I had problems with my photon loosing connection to said router every 5-15 minutes, and then locking up until i manually reset it.

Maybe I'm old school, but I  just want to write some code... and then flash flash it to my device over the USB cable, not the web. And I want my LEDs to blink, buttons to press, and servos to spin even when I don't have an internet connection....

CLI: the back door

On a Mac, the only errors I got were easily fixed by saying please. (or sudo)

The good news is all this is possible with the particle photon.  The bad news is at that next level that takes quite a bit of extra effort. The Command-Line Interface (CLI) lets you compile code and flash it using your own text editor and terminal prompt. Instructions to install the CLI are available for Windows and Mac, but on my windows computer I found it to be impossible to get working. (I think installing python 2.7 and visual studio are the two steps missing from the windows instructions... but the Microsoft visual studio installer kept crashing on my Microsoft Surface running Microsoft windows 10!)

My thoughts exactly Aaron...

Once you do get everything set-up, compiling and flashing your code is a breeze.

  1. Write some code in your favorite text editor. Mine is sublime text 2.
  2. Compile it from the command prompt. This is well documented on Particle's website. An example compile might look like:
    particle compile photon GitHub/smartLamp --saveTo firmware.bin
    
  3. Put your photon in DFU mode. Hold both buttons, then release the RST button. Wait for the light to flash yellow, and then release the other button.  This tells the photon there is some incoming code
  4. Flash your code. This is also well documented.
    particle flash --usb firmware.bin
  5. Enjoy! (Note: If you want to debug your photon, using the CLI or the web-IDE, you might

Some extra tips

I love me a good API, and the particle has a lot of really cool baked-in functionality that is well-documented. My favorites include:

Note: Many of these projects, and ones i've tackeled, have required you to start your code with

SYSTEM_MODE(MANUAL);

This maneuver seems to open a lot of functionality and control, but you also loose the ability to run the web IDE at this point.

I've got a couple projects i'll post shortly. In the meantime... happy hacking!

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Wireless Google Calendar Display using Raspberry Pi and Arduino

When I'm not in my office, I like for people to know where to find me. Am I teaching a class? Working from home? In the manufacturing area?

So I thought it'd be cool to build a little device that I could put in my office window that shows where I'm at and when I'll be back...

On the window side:

On the window side, the parts were pretty easy. I'm using:

The Arduino waits for a radio message, separated by null characters (\0) to differentiate between the Descriptive text, Location, and End time. It's pretty straightforward.  One of the trickiest things is assigning the radio "pipes" and setting the payload size (Note: The max payload is 32 bytes!!). Playing with the OLED was also a bit challenging, although I got it to display how I wanted.

https://github.com/mrsoltys/Raspberry-Pi-Google-Calendar-Display/blob/master/ArduinoSketches/ArduinoRF24_OLED/ArduinoRF24_OLED.ino

The Brainy Side

The brainy side.

The real crux maneuver is getting a device that can talk to the internet and pull google calendar information. I looked into doing this with an Arduino, but in the end decided a Raspberry Pi would be better. I'm using a B+, although I think any revision should work just fine. You'll notice I'm also using an Arduino Nano between the raspberry pi and the the radio. In theory, the Raspberry Pi should be able to talk to the RF24 Radio, although after sinking a couple of late nights into it to no avail, I decided to use the Arduino Nano as a bandaid and take serial input from the Pi and send it out over the Radio.

Here's the Python code on the Raspberry Pi. It asks your calendar for a current event, and then parses out the summary text, location info, and end time. It then sends the text via a 2-wire serial connection to the Arduino to be relayed over to the radio. You'll have to sign up for your own account under the Google Developers API, and enter your credentials into the google_calendar.py bit of code.

https://github.com/mrsoltys/Raspberry-Pi-Google-Calendar-Display/blob/master/gCalDisp_Serial.py

Conclusions:

While I've made the project sound pretty simple, I learned a Whole Lot doing it and was pretty proud of the result.  The project still gets bugged out sometimes but a power cycle usually works out the kinks.  I think with a little refinement, This could be a really cool way to schedule community conference rooms or collaborative spaces.

Questions? ask away in the comments section!

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On Commuting... By Bike, Bus, and Car

When I was in Grad School, I road my bike because it was the easiest thing to park on campus, it was environmentally friendly, and the quickest way to get around town. Now that I live in the suburbs, 10 miles from where I work, a few things have changed... but driving to work isn't one of them. Here's why:

Who has time to drive?

I love to "double-dip" on my time.  When I bike into work (a 35 minute ride one way), not only am I commuting, but I'm also getting my workout in for the day. When I ride the bus, I normally open my laptop, turn on the WiFi hotspot on my phone ,and have one of the most productive 30-minute chunks of time I'll see all day. When I drive (normally in rush-hour traffic), the best I can do with my time is listening to a thought-stimulating podcast or audiobook... but I generally see the 25 minutes it takes to work as a time-sink. I also hope you notice that the time-difference is small between cycling, busing, and driving.

Driving makes me a monster

When I'm in the zone on the bus, or constantly moving in the bike lane, small changes in my commute time (like traffic or a headwind) don't phase me. But when I'm driving, and a traffic light is backed up because people are too busy texting to realize the light has turned green, I feel my blood pressure rise and my thoughts towards others become decidedly non-holy. I become an aggressive driver: "Come-on Moron, get out of my way" only to get to work 3 minutes faster. Really, I could rant about how angry driving makes me: but I think it's probably good to focus on the inverse: Cycling makes me happyIt allows me to collect my thoughts, lower my blood-pressure, and enjoy the scenery. I think this video sums it up best:

Driving is Expensive

According to a 2011 study, the average american commuter spends over $800 per year on commuting costs. A more recent 2015 study found that commuters in urban areas can spend an average of $2,600 per year.  I'm prone to lean towards the higher number.  If you look at gas costs alone, you can get a ballpark estimate:

 \frac{\$3}{Gallon} \frac{Gallon}{25 Miles} \frac{20 Miles}{Day} \frac{30 Days}{Month} = \frac{\$72}{Month}

In addition to that, a parking pass in the city where I work costs $60/Month, and then you have to tag vehicle maintenance on top of that. That brings my annual estimated driving cost to $1500/year!!

Cycling isn't free, especially if you encounter the eventual stolen bike... but the startup and maintenance costs are super small compared to driving a car.  I'm fortunate to work for a corporation that provides bus passes to it's employees, so that's free for me as well.  If you live in a city with a bike share, the costs of cycling could be even lower than you think!

But what about...

Saftey? On average, cycling deaths constitute 2% of all traffic fatalities annually. Now of course, there are more car drivers than bike riders out there, and so it'd be wise to normalize this by how many bike commuters there are. Across the US, 0.61% of the population commutes by bike, so it'd be easy to conclude that cycling is 4x more dangerous than driving...

With enough training in statistics, you'll come to realize there's  always more than one way to look at the numbers. in 1998 a study found that there were 0.26 fatalities per million hours of exposure for cycling compared to 0.47 fatalities per million hours of exposure to driving passenger cars. This might suggest that cycling is twice as safe as driving.

In the same dataset I mentioned above, 24% of cyclists killed in traffic accidents had BACs of 0.08 or higher. In addition, 30% of fatalities occur between 8pm and 4am. My conclusion is that smart, sober, defensive cycling during daytime hours or with proper lighting can make cycling as safe as driving a car.

My kids? I don't have children yet, and so I can't speak to this. I had a hero I'd see around Boulder: He had a tandem bike, with a pull-along bike attached to it, with a burly trailer attached to that. He'd ride his 3 kids to school on that awesome bike train every day.  Kids can ride bikes too, and I'd like to ride my kids to school someday. It seems like great family time and  a good way to encourage healthy values to your children.

I'll get sweaty! This might be true, especially at first. I bring a change of clothes into work with me and some deodorant. I was also able to find a shower at my office building after staring at the fire maps for 15 minutes.

 

 

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ATtiny85 and the Particle Photon

As you know: I love all things Arduino and use them extensively both as a hobby and as a teaching tool... I wanted to talk about a few products that I've been especially stoked on lately, just for those nerdy blog readers out there.

ATtiny85

Here's the ATtiny connected to two 8-bit shift registers to give it 16 output pins. Note I'm trying to obey law

Here's the ATtiny connected to two 8-bit shift registers to give it 16 output pins. Note I'm trying to stay in the Ballmer Peak.

For my money, buying Arduino nano's for $5 off ebay from china is about as good as it gets. But, when size and money are limited, the ATtiny85 is a pretty awesome device. It boasts an 8-bit processor and 6 I/O pins and cost less than a cup of iced coffee.  It's easily programmed using one of SparkFun's Tiny AVR programmers and you can expand it's output easily using a couple of shift registers. If you'd like to learn more about shift registers, see this Bildr Blog!

Particle Photon

Particle (previously known as Spark) blew me away with it's previous board the $39 Core. The board is about the same size as the Arduino Nano, and comes equipped with wifi and a pretty powerful cloud API. For me this really brought some cool Internet of Things (IoT) ideas to life.  I can't wait to get my hands on their new Photon Board, which boast better specs at half the cost. Now if only anybody out there has any ideas for recapturing kinetic energy into electricity to power one of these things... I think they could be pretty unstoppable.

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Home Buying

My last post was more than 8 months ago! I want to start updating my blog again, So we'll start with the biggest update I can think of: we bought a house.

A little background:

graph

In early 2015, Boulder housing prices began to climb steadily

The city of Boulder is surrounded by a moat of open-space that prevents expansion and keeps property values high. Across the moat are the "L" towns: Lafayette, Louisville, Longmont, and Lyons. Some of these look very much like suburbia, while others are rated as some of the best places to live in the US.  The Denver metro-area has long been one of the fastest growing metros in the nation, but pile that on with Google's announcement to expand their Boulder campus 5X and a couple other factors, and we saw housing prices begin to skyrocket around 15%!

A big reason we had waited to buy a house was this NYT Rent vs. Buy calculator which shows that buying isn't always the clear economic winner; however, the combination of wanting more space than our 700 sq-ft apt offered, our rent quickly rising, and wanting to put down some more roots in the Boulder area made us call a realtor.

I've long vowed never to leave the City of Boulder limits... but after being outbid on more than one townhomes that we liked by tens of thousands of dollars we realized we were already out-priced. We either had to reduce our expectations or look across the moat.

On our first day looking outside the city,

We found an amazing house. It was next to a micro-brewery, surrounded by parks, and walking distance from the grocery store, library, rec. center, and some restaurants.  It had gone under the market that Thursday morning. Three days later we were under contract. Two weeks later we had closed. What a whirlwind. I really need to give our realtor, Pat Clowes, a huge thank you for being extremely on-top of it during those two weeks to make the sale go through.  We wern't the highest bidder on the house, but a number of things Pat led us on, including waving some typical buyer's privileges, a quick closing, attractive financing, and a nice letter to the owners landed us the deal.

A few tips I can give to those that are currently looking

  • The letter to the owner was a nice touch. I've heard multiple stories of families getting homes despite not being the highest bidder. Many of them have the "love letter" as a common denominator. Chances are the current owner has fond memories of their home, and knowing it's not going to someone who's going to rent it or scrape it will pay off.
  • Get a Realtor who you like, but also one that can play ball. Our realtor, Pat Clowes, described the process as a combination of Chess and Football. I don't think he could have been more right.
  • Try to save up to get to that 20% down-payment. More if possible.
  • Loans through local lenders, like credit units, can be more attractive and have better rates than loans from the large national branches.

A season later

Court and I moving in

Court and I moving in

While we're not veteran homeowners, I will say we've enjoyed the process. We're still learning to identify which plants left by the previous owners are flowers and which are weeds... and loosing the battle at keeping-up with their landscaping. We're not the best painters, but thankfully Courtney's dad has an artistic eye and helped us pick out some great colors.

Decorating a new house that's twice as big as your old apartment is a pricey expense that the Realtor doesn't always warn you about.  We've been able to do a great job on the cheap by searching consignment shops, thrift stores, garage sales, hand-me-downs from friends, and the occasional discount online retailer.  I'd say despite my being thrifty (i.e., cheap) to a fault, Courtney has done an amazing job of making the place warm, cute, and homey.

I'd say we're really glad the house we bought was freshly re-modeled, although it seems we're always able to come up with things we'd do to the house if we had the time... Although for now we still prefer to spend our weekends cycling, camping, fishing, and hiking.

Come Visit!

I guess I'll just end the post by mentioning that our new place does have plenty of room for guests (as my brother, and college roommate can attest to). We'd love to host you if you're ever in the area!

-Mike and Court

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Poormans Nest

Ok, for sure not as sexy as the NEST

Ok, for sure not as sexy as the NEST

I start a lot of projects and never finish them. So in the spirit of documenting where I've been, here's my Poorman's Nest.  Here I'm using

  • one of my Microview's I had laying around
  • A potentiometer (on pin A0)
  • A small digital temperature sensor (on pin 3)
  • A 4.7k pullup resistor
  • A 220v relay (not shown, but follow the  the yellow wire to pin 5)

Here's my code:

I abandoned this one because:

  • We have baseboard heat, which draws close to 20 amps at 110V. I got a little nervous messing with this kind electricity.
  • The relay draws about 200 mA when held closed. That's significant, and means the thermostat would need a fatty battery or a dedicated power source.

I might resume this project if:

  • we move somewhere with a more modern 24V heating system
  • I can find a latch-type relay that doesn't need power to keep it open or closed.

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The Future Value of Money

We live in a subscription society. Gone are the days of buying music albums. Instead, you can pay $10 a month to listen to all the albums you want.  When my friends are telling me about how great a subscription service is, they usually light up and say something to the effect of

It only costs Ten Bucks a month!

That's about the same as two lattes a month... but these small bills add up big.

Spotify ($9.99), Netflix ($8.99), Amazon Prime(8.25), Pandora($4.99), Hulu ($7.99) in addition to the necessary WiFi bill ($55), and extra purchases on redbox, iTunes, Google Play!  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average American spends $210/month on entertainment.

No biggie, right? Our spending on entertainment is less than 5% of our average annual income.  But many of these services overlap, and if we could cut our spending in half, we'd save ~$100/month without it hurting too bad... If we put that savings straight into our home mortgage payment (or student loans) we'd pay our home off 5 yrs earlier and save more than $54,000 that would have been lost to interest over the term of our loan...

It's hard to make decisions now that won't pay off until 25-yrs later, but every $10/month you shave in the present turns into more than $5,000 in your pocket 30-yrs from now.  So maybe I'll cancel Netflix, and hold off on those lattes...

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Replacing Dropbox Pro with Amazon Glacier, and other services

Recently I've started auditing my tech spending to save some money.  One of the things I decided to drop was my subscription to Dropbox Pro, costing me $99/yr for 100 GB.  (really 140, because they double your free-space with a pro account). Here's what I did.

Photos: Amazon S3 Glacier Backup

A big chunk of my data in dropbox was photos: precious memories that must be backed up. Enter Amazon Glacier, a $0.01/GB cloud storage solution that assumes you don't need regular access to your files.  This is perfect for my photos: I want a place to keep them off-site incase my house burns down or is robbed, or my laptop gets smashed.  There is a fee to retrieve your files on Amazon Glacier, and it's not fast, so this is an emergency backup only: not a fancy sharing and syncing service like dropbox or google drive.

Starting out with Amazon Glacier can be a little daunting.  At first appearance it seems like you need a backup client like FastGlacier ($30 Windows)Arq ($40 Mac), or SAGU (Free Windows/Mac).  These are all a bit clunky, and they encrypt your data meaning you must have the app to get your data back. For whatever reason, I prefer to work directly with Amazon and not have to go through a middle man.

Screenshot 2014-07-15 06.50.11

Be sure to set up the rule to archive to Glacier, If you don't storage on s3 is $0.03/GB

It turns out you can upload directly to glacier using Amazon S3's web interface. Head over to console.aws.amazon.com/s3/, and after setting up your account and logging in, click "Create Bucket." Once your bucket is created, you can set it to archive to Glacier Storage by selecting your bucket, clicking the "Properties" button in the upper right, and heading over to the "Lifecycle" menu. Here we want to "Add rule" and configure it to Archive to Glacier immediately on upload (after 0 days).  Save your rule and you're good to go.

Screenshot 2014-07-15 06.53.39

Setting my Archive Rule

You can now upload files by clicking on your bucket, and clicking the "Actions" menu and then selecting "upload".  This can batch upload whole folders, or individual files.  You can also set up encryption if you want. To save space, I created zip archives of some of my larger photo folders before uploading. I'm not sure how this plays out with pricing when you need to re-download your files after an emergency, so try to keep these somewhat small.

Screenshot 2014-07-15 07.03.06

The uploader actually works really well!

And now your files are securely backed up! I love that this is a secure solution for my photos, and at $0.01/GB, it comes out to be the cheapest option I've found.  I should also note that i've used Amazon S3 in the past to host data for my project website PowProject.com.  It has a lot of functionality built into it, and is a totally cool tool.

Music: Google Play Music

My entire music library available from my phone

My entire music library available from my phone

A large portion of my dropbox folder was my music library. This was an easy fix, because Google Play Music will let you upload up to 20,000 songs onto the cloud for free. All you need is the Music Manger, which uploads your songs and allows you to download them if you ever need to recover your files. This is a great solution, because you can also use google play music to stream your library from the internet on any computer, or mobile device.  On my mobile, all I have to do is click a pin button to download a song, album, or playlist to my device for listening without internet access.

Dropbox and Google Drive

There are still some files I need synced between computers, or to share with collaborators.  These are ones that I split between my free space on dropbox and google drive.  Both have their Pros and Cons, and I like Dropbox a bit better...

 

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