Sunday, October 31, 2010

Car Modifications for a Daily Driver

A couple of days ago, someone's list of 10 enhancements for a daily driver made the front page of Jalopnik. The list had some good points, but it read more like a guide to making your daily driver double as a weekend race car.

Views vary on this, but the goal of a daily driven car are primarily safety, efficiency, and practicality. With this in mind, here are a few relatively inexpensive modifications you can make to your car to make it better at what it does.
  • Better tires. The original author hits this pretty much right on. My only addition is to take local weather and road conditions into account. If you go for performance tires, you might need an extra set of rims with separate winter tires.
  • Aftermarket air intake. Depending on your car, you can easily get an extra 1-2 mpg and a 3-5% increase in horsepower from an aftermarket air intake. While you don't need the horsepower in a daily driver, it's nice to know it's there. If you don't floor it all the time, the slightly improved fuel economy will pay for the cost of the intake in a few years.
  • Fumoto valve. You really should change your own oil. It saves you money, and it gives you a chance to get under your car -- you might notice CV boots or other wear items going bad before they cause a more expensive failure. I never spent the money on a fumoto valve, but if you tried changing your oil and made a mess you might look into one.
  • TPMS update. Most new cars have tire pressure management systems to let you know when your tire pressure is low. Unfortunately, most do not alert until your tire pressure is extremely low. Go to your dealer and ask if they can update your car's computer to throw a tire pressure alert when the pressure is 3-5PSI low. Keeping your tires properly inflated makes your car safer and makes it use less fuel.
  • Rims. The original author mentioned rims, but with the focus of buying wider ones. Instead, consider getting lightweight alloy rims in your stock size. If you run different tires in the summer vs. winter, use the light rims in the summer to see an improvement in fuel economy. Wheels are heavy and unsprung weight, so in theory you should see a significant improvement. 
That's about it. There are not many modifications you can make to a street car that actually make it a better street car. Quite the contrary, most modifications are either too expensive to justify or actually harm your car's performance.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

AMD Neo: A Fataly Diluted Brand?

I've been looking for a new laptop. Even as a tech guy, I'm not terribly picky about the specs in my laptop -- that's what a desktop is for. Really, it just needs to be good enough to run a modern Linux distro and let me multitask. The trouble comes when I also want it to be small and light (but larger than most netbooks -- I can't type on anything smaller than about an 11" widescreen). Oh, and I want it to be cheap and have at least 3 hours battery life.

Until recently, I had to compromise somewhere. Ultralight laptops were too expensive, and netbooks were too slow. Luckily, the AMD Neo platform changes things. It is cheap, power efficient, and may or may not feature reasonable performance. Wait, what?

It turns out there are a lot of different AMD Neo processors. The cheapest and most common is a single-core chip comparable to newer Intel Atom CPU's, and I don't want something that slow. The most expensive is comparable to an ULV Core2Duo, except with a higher bus speed that supports DDR3. Check this out:
AMD Neo:
MV-40 - Single core. Passmark benchmark: 388 Supported RAM: DDR2
K125 - Dual core. Passmark benchmark: 475 Supported RAM: DDR2
K325 - Dual core. Passmark benchmark: 760 Supported RAM: DDR3
L325 - Dual core. Passmark benchmark: 804 Supported RAM: DDR2
L335 - Dual core. Passmark benchmark: 871 Supported RAM: DDR2
L625 - Dual core. Passmark benchmark: 839 Supported RAM: DDR2
K625 - Dual core. Passmark benchmark: 942 Supported RAM: DDR3

These were all released in the course of about a year. Most common by far in consumer laptops is the MV-40, which is just plain slow. Consumers will associate the Neo name with the Atom name, despite the fact that there are other options which are over twice as fast. This may have been AMD's biggest marketing failure since ... well, since killing the ATI name.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Full-House Audio ... Using Landlines?

I'd held off on posting this for a long time, and I'm not really sure why. To everyone who asked for random posts, this one's for you.

Whether it's so you can move room to room without fumbling with an mp3 player, so you can host awesome parties, or just to up your nerd cred, increasing numbers of people are interested in whole-home audio solutions. The problem is, they are very expensive. If your home is wired with phone jacks and you do not use your landline, there is a cheap and easy solution to deliver surprisingly high quality stereo to every room.

First, let's talk about the wires. A landline uses a 2-pin or 4-pin RJ-11 connector. The center 2 pins carry the voice signal. The outer pins carry the signal for "special" features such as caller ID. Though the plug on most telephones only carries the 2 center pins, the wiring in your walls will have all 4 wires. You need one pair of wires for each audio channel, so this works for stereo but not for true surround sound.

The first step is to locate the telephone junction box. It is probably on an outer wall of the basement. You are looking for a small box, maybe 3" by 6", that has a rat's nest of wires jammed in. For the techies out there, think of this like a network hub. On a residential scale, it works in roughly the same manner. For the electrical engineers and telco's out there, please do not flame me for that analogy. I know it's technically incorrect. Point is, there is one set of 4 wires coming from outside the house, and one set of 4 wires for each phone jack in your house. Find the wires coming from outside the house, label them so you can reconnect them again if needed someday, and disconnect them. This is to take your landline completely off the telco's grid so your audio doesn't accidentally interfere with their switching system.

Now, drag up all your unused phone cords. If you can't find any, stop by any surplus store or ask at Goodwill. Sort through them, picking only the ones with 4 pins in the connector.

What you need to do is cut one end off each of the phone cords. Strip the end of the cord, and you will find four wires. The green and red ones are the inner pair; the yellow and black ones are the outer pair. If you get a goofy cable, then the blue ones are the inner pair and the orange ones are the outer pair.

Plug one pair of wires into the left speaker out on your stereo, and the other pair of wires into the right speaker out. It doesn't matter which pair is left or right as long as you're consistent.
Now, gather up all your speakers or go buy yourself some speakers. For each set of speakers you will need another phone cable. Cut off one end and strip it, plugging it into the speakers exactly like you did to the stereo. Plug the other end into the phone jack.

If you're lucky, you can turn on the stereo and it will just work. If you're unlucky, sound will only come out of one channel. In this case you're going to have to go through the house taking the phone jacks out of the wall, one by one, and making sure all the wires are connected. In old houses you might find that the outer pair of wires is not always hooked up to the phone jack.

There are two points to make to answer questions you might already be wondering: First, if you use powered speakers in each room you will be able to turn the speakers on and off and adjust the volume on a room by room basis. Secondly, you will not be stuck with telephone quality sound.

To explain the last point: The reason for telephone quality sound is audio compression to cut off certain audio frequencies so the telephone companies can cram more conversations onto their lines and switches. The wiring in your house is capable of transmitting a much larger frequency range, and when you are using stereo equipment instead of telephones it can take advantage of it.

If anyone tries this, let me know how it goes. I have only done it once, and had great results, but I'd be interested to know how it works for you. Good luck!

Friday, September 24, 2010

We're Growing!

Thanks to my new followers, especially those who are getting involved and commenting. I'm trying to get this blog to take off, but I suspect it might have to take a fresh turn or two so I can keep attracting followers.

So, faithful readers, I have three choices for you:
  1. I keep posting on all kinds of random topics.
  2. Stick exclusively to the personal finance & investing theme that is generating attention.
  3. Focus the blog on personal finance & investing, but continue to throw in the random anecdote for variety.
Yes, I'm trying to expand, and I plan to do this by paying attention to my followers. So, what would you prefer? Leave your comments, I promise to read them all and follow up on them.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Prey - Free laptop security

So, looking back through the blog, I had promised reviews of a number of Linux games. I had installed a ton of (mostly free) games on my laptop, and was spending some time playing them and noting the good, bad, and ugly.
My laptop was stolen. I'll spare the details here, largely in the interest of not jeopardizing the court case (yep, they caught the perps!), but point is ... I strongly recommend everyone check out Prey.

It is completely free, they seem to respect your privacy, and it works for Windows, OSX, Linux, and even Android. Also, if anyone finds a way to get it working on the Nokia N900 please let me know.

[Edit:] Apparently I was so eager to fire off a quick blog post that I forgot the Prey address. Check out preyproject.com for details. If you find that the site is in Russian and has nothing to do with laptop security, you have the wrong site (btw, I do believe that statement generalizes nicely).

Penny Stocks

I have quite the finance string going, why break it?
In the interest of trying to beat the interest rate the bank gives me, I have a stock portfolio. Most of my investments are sensible, and I said I would never put money in anything other than a large, stable company. Somehow I ended up with a few thousand dollars in penny stocks anyway. At the risk of sounding like a pump and dump, I will not tell you which stocks I hold.

My advice? Don't even try it. Putting money on the pink sheets has the potential to net you enormous gains. However, the pink sheets are not subject to SEC regulations, and the companies on the pink sheets mostly just want to find ways to make themselves money. Unannounced 1000 to 1 reverse splits, bribes paid to penny stock blogs to pump their company, and other tricks are not only legal here, but quite common. These firms are looking out for #1, and they have nothing left to lose.

If you do end up in penny stock land, though, I have one piece of advice that has been a very expensive lesson for me: Spend the time, and lots of time, to look for companies that seem completely sincere about efforts to make money, pay off their debt, and become financially viable. Trust me, there are not nearly as many of these as you would think.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Time for interest rates to rise?

You have probably noticed the interest rates on your bank accounts drop below 1%. They are probably closer to 0.25%, and have been for a long time. Want to make more money by buying a CD? If you are very lucky, that will push you over 1%. If you for some reason bought a long-term CD, you might even get 2%.

Though some would readily debate this, it looks like the recession is coming to an end. A couple of days ago, U.S.A. Today reported that travel spending over Memorial Day weekend has finally risen. Entertainment venues such as Six Flags are finally seeing profits on the rise. This means one thing: People are spending money again. I can't decide whether this is a good thing; we certainly don't need individual debt levels to rise. However, it means unemployment will soon be dropping. The past  year and a half on Wall Street saw significant gains.

Interest rates can only rise when the economy is strong. Whether the economy can yet be classified as "strong" is still a matter of debate. However, inflation is on the rise, and the fastest way to check inflation is to raise the interest rates. I obviously cannot speak for the federal reserve committee, but it seems the time to raise the rates is coming soon.

What does this mean for your finances? If you have short-term investments coming due and plan to re-invest your money, or you are considering moving money to a CD or money market account, consider putting it in funds with a maturity date of 18 months or less. Though the interest will be nominal, it will position you to reinvest at a higher rate in 6 - 18 months. Yes, the short term gains are small, but if you are lucky it will help in the long run.