Volcanos, National Parks & world-class cities – a 16-day camping road trip

map trip

85 hours in a vehicle isn’t everyone’s idea of a great vacation.  I spent 15 days driving from Calgary to San Francisco this summer and saw some amazing sights, several national parks and forests, climbed a volcano, ate amazing food in San Fran, hung out with hipsters and saw some baseball. Plus we survived having the sprinklers turned on at our campsite in a local city campground in Washington, and saw stars and the milky way in a night sky devoid of and light bleed from big cities.

Watch the blog for stories about some of these amazing places and experiences over the next weeks; there are some stunningly beautiful, fascinating and interesting places across the US northwest and Canada.

Why is my tech broken? Why do my devices crash? Why is technology unreliable? How can I fix it?

pixellated tvI’ve tested a LOT of technology, gadgets and devices as a tech writer, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that most gadgets will require regular maintenance to keep working well.

Just like your car, the fluids need to be topped up, and when you hear a rattle you need to take it to a mechanic and get it looked at to prevent a bigger problem down the road. It’s the same thing with all the high tech gadgets we buy; you’ve got to do your part to keep them in good working order.

Why is my tech not working?

In the last few months alone, I’ve had home automation devices stop working, smart light bulbs cease to function, headphones that crashed constantly, and many other devices where they’ve just stopped working altogether, or only function intermittently.  Here’s a few common reasons why your devices may not be performing as they should.

1. Software/Firmware Updates Need to be Done

What’s the difference – Firmware vs Software

For starters, what’s the difference between firmware and software? Software is a program you run, often designed to run on a computer’s hard drive.  Usually software is something you, the user, adds to your arsenal of programs by choice. Firmware is software that’s embedded my a manufacturer into a device, that’s absolutely essential to it running. Firmware often lives inside a tiny chip deep within your device.

With that said, some products bring in constant firmware or software updates, like every couple of weeks. Others far less frequently. The key is, when your device gives you those push messages that say it’s time to update, don’t ignore them.  Updates are designed to remove bugs, patch security flaws and keep things running smoothly.  That’s why when you call a tech support hotline for help, the first thing they’ll ask is if your device is up to date.

2. Integration with your phone is not quite perfect yet

Have you ever tried to write a program for an app or device?  Yeah, me either.  It’s frikking hard, time consuming and expensive. That’s why a lot of companies will start by writing a program for just one smartphone OS, and bring in the second one later.

Why is there only an Apple App for that?

Often the development team has a preference for one device or operating system over others.  Why? This article from The Guardian explains it pretty well: “Developing iOS apps means ensuring they work nicely on a small range of iPhones and/or iPads: generally 6-8 different devices depending how far back the developer wants to go. On Android, it’s a different story: nearly 12,000 different devices out there in the hands of people, with a wider range of screen sizes, processors and versions of the Android software still in use. Many developers’ lack of enthusiasm for Android is down to concerns not just about the costs of making and testing their apps for it, but also the resources required to support them once they’re launched, if emails flood in about unspotted bugs on particular models.”

So to that point, keeping every single device out there running smoothly with your software or firmware is no easy feat. So that means if you’re having troubles you can try waiting it out until the next batch of updates, and hope that helps.

3. The product wasn’t quite ready for market, but they released it anyway

I’ve tested numerous products this year where it feels like the company’s gadget was definitely not ready for public release, but they started shipping devices anyway. Selling units helps get cash flowing in, which in turn helps pay for customer and tech support, which is one reason companies might release a not-quite-ready gadget or device.  The other reason a product might hit the market too soon?  There’s no better way to beta test something than to put it in the hands of thousands of users and see what happens.  At that point, you need to hope they have really good customer service and fast developers to get things working well quickly.

Did I get a bum device or a dud gadget?

4. It’s a dud.

There’s another reason your gadget or device may be causing you to pull your hair out. It’s a bad apple.  From where I’m sitting right now, I can see four smart gadgets/devices that have had to be replaced within hours, or weeks of getting them, because they were duds.

How do you know if they’re duds?  I’d say these days, if you’re spending any more than an hour on set up or installation and it’s not working properly, you may have a did. Today, most quality, well-made devices are set up and ready to go in less than 15 minutes.  Any longer than that and you might have a problem.  If you’ve been fighting with a gadget for more than an hour, or repeating the set up process over and over and getting nowhere, contact your company’s help line.  They can — and will —tell you if you have a bad device. And in 100% of the cases where this has happened to me, they’ve replaced it within days, at no cost to me, and the new one has worked smoothly.

How can I fix my malfunctioning tech?

So to get back to the original question: what can you do to keep your stuff running smoothly?

  1. Plan to update your device.  When an update is ready, do it.  That will decrease the liklihood of problems.
  2. Don’t ignore problems, especially early. If a device keeps crashing your computer, performing poorly or otherwise driving you crazy, call tech support and get it dealt with. If it requires a replacement device, that’s easier done a month in, rather than leaving it three or four months because you’re just too frustrated to deal with it.
  3. Keep your receipts/order numbers. All my receipts and manuals for major purchases go in one drawer, so they’re always easy to find. You’ll likely need some kind of proof of purchase to get help or a replacement.  If it’s a gift, you can always redact (black out) the price and make a copy of the invoice or receipt for the recipient.
  4. Don’t take no for an answer. If you have your receipt, and are having legitimate troubles with a device and tech support can’t help you, don’t accept that.  I recently dealt with a company that basically told me of its malfunctioning gadget, “we don’t know what to do.. soo..”. That’s not good enough.  Ask to speak to a supervisor, who often has more experience, and the authority to do something for you.

Having specific problems with your smart light bulbs?  Try a reset.  Read my blog on How to reset Your Smart Light Bulbs here.

Do you have tips or advice for people dealing with glitchy tech?  Share your wisdom in comments.

Home Automation with WeMo! Review

wemo-img-overview-3Home automation used to be the stuff of mansions, tycoons and futuristic films and cartoons.  No more.  Now it’s easy and relatively inexpensive to adopt easy home automation features into your house.

What can you do with home automation ?
From controlling your thermostat, door locks, light bulbs, light switches, sockets or plugs and even a power bar, manipulating the devices in your home for security, convenience or money savings has never been more possible.

Testing out Belkin WeMo
Enter the WeMo system by Belkin, just one of several home automation hubs.  I recently had a chance to review and test several products in the WeMo line, from lights to plugs.wemo kit

Set Up
WeMo was easy to use right out of the box.  I started my testing with the Lighting Starter Kit ($99), which comes with two LED light bulbs and a hub or the “Link”. Getting things going was as simple as downloading the WeMo app (for smartphones or tablets), plugging the Link into a wall outlet, and screwing in the bulbs.  The Link connects to your homes existing wifi, and uses that signal to control your bulbs.  Once the bulbs were installed and turned on, the app found them immediately by doing a scan. Once they’re set up, they’re set up for good, even if you remove them for a time.
The app walks you through the set up, making it foolproof.

One plus of this system for me is the Link hub is tiny compared to other hubs I’ve tested; it fits in the palm of your hand, and easily blends into the wall so you don’t notice it.  It’s important to note that while you need the Link hub for the bulbs, other WeMo devices connect on their own, and need no external hub or Link.  In fact a WeMo staffer pointed out to me, “most of the existing WeMo product line doesn’t need a hub at all: the WeMo Switch, Insight Switch, Light Switch, Netcam, and Crock Pot connect directly to Wi-Fi.”
IMG_1109So why do the bulbs need one?  Simply put, the technology to connect to the wifi takes up space.  Some bulbs I’ve tested, like the LIFX system, are much larger and heavier than the average bulb.  So while those bulbs do not need an external wifi link, they do not fit in every fixture.  The WeMo bulbs do, but the tradeoff is the small Link.

The WeMo bulbs are white light bulbs only.  I’ve written before about the fun of colored LED bulbs that you can change, but for now, the WeMo bulbs are traditional.  Maybe that will change soon; having a colour option is really fun and allows you to really customize your home.

IMG_1107
Don’t use “WeMo Setup” to set up, click on “Add WeMo link Devices”

Setting up the WeMo plugs or outlets was a bit harder.  There are essentially two set up screens within the app, and for the first few attempts I was apparently using the wrong one.  I kept connecting to “WeMo Set Up Instructions”, but I needed to be using “Add WeMo Link Device”, as seen in the screen grab.  It seems like an easy mistake to make, and I figured out the error quickly enough, but I could see this being confusing and frustrating for others too.

Additionally, I found the set up screen getting locked, and having to force-quit the app in order to try again.  Then, somehow, mysteriously, the device would be connected and working.
Now, while this was frustrating for me, a person who likes to understand what’s happening each step of the way, it wasn’t a deal-breaker for me. After a few tries, the WeMo system took care of itself and from then on worked just fine.  Since then, I’ve had absolutely no trouble to glitches with the system; it works reliably and flawlessly.
There have been rather frequent firmware updates required; not that it’s a problem.  In fact, I like companies who are constantly trying to keep software up to date.  But it’s good to be aware you may actually need to do the firmware upgrades before the app and devices will work properly.

wemo set up screen

Easy to Use Timers, Away Function, Auto-On
One of the easiest aspects of the WeMo system is how easy it is to set up what WeMo calls Rules.  It allows you to turn your bulbs, plugs or switches on or off at appointed times, which is great if you’re going away, or frequently get up before sunrise or get home before dark.
I’ve made some rules which turn on a light in my living room, softly at 50% brightness at 3am when I get up to go to work.  I also have the same lap set to come on at sundown, and turn off later at night.  Similar rule and timer functionality is also available on the plugs/outlets. More on that below.

IMG_1110
WeMo Switch.

Testing the WeMo Switch
One of the things I like about the WeMo Switch ($49) I tested is that it’s powerful enough for me to plug in a fan or heater. Some wifi-enabled plugs only have enough juice for a lamp, so it’s good to check the packaging or details before you buy and make sure the appliance you want to plug in to the switch (from any company you buy from) is safe to use. During my testing, I plugged a small space heater in, and set a timer rule to turn on about 30 minutes before bed so the room was warm.  I also set it to shut off automatically after an hour.  Another rule setting turns it on about 15 minutes before I wake up, and off again 30 minutes after that.  That’s it; it’s ‘set it and forget it’! I have all these items functioning for me, on the schedule I decide, and the best part is that it’s easy, so very easy to program with the free WeMo app.

The WeMo Insight – It gives you data
I tested another WeMo plug; the Insight ($59).  The WeMo Insight Switch will send notifications to your smartphone or tablet showing how much energy your electronics are using. Of course, you also have the ability to turn your electronics on and off and monitor their behaviour via the app.

WeMo-Insight-Wall-Plug-In
WeMo Insight

One of the limits of home automation systems has been that you need to be at home, on your wifi network to control your devices.  But now many companies, WeMo included, are adding internet connectivity or Remote Access to the mix, allowing you to access your bulbs and switches online, meaning if you forget to turn off a light, or the heater, you can do it from the office, or from the resort in Mexico.

Other WeMo Products
While I didn’t test these below, it’s worth mentioning some other neat peripherals in the WeMo lineup.  The Crock-Pot® Smart Slow Cooker with WeMo™ works with the app to adjust cook settings. WeMo says, “if you’re stuck at work or running late, you don’t have to worry. You can turn it on and off, change the cooking temperature, set timers and watch its status all with the simple, intuitive and free WeMo App for your smartphone or tablet. WeMo works over Wi-Fi and 3G/4G, so you can easily adjust your dinner schedule whenever you like, from wherever you are.”
The Belkin NetCam works with the WeMo collection of products so you can program home automation triggers like turning on your lights when you walk through the door.  WeMo is also adding to its home automation arsenal, announcing partnerships with OSRAM, the parent company of OSRAM SYLVANIA, and Jarden Corporation, maker of
Crock-Pot®, Mr. Coffee® and more, to bring home automation to more  products.

WeMo also makes a wifi-enabled Light Switch.  The company says it ‘allows you to turn lights on and off from anywhere–from across the house, from the backyard, or from the other side of the world. WeMo Light Switch replaces a standard light switch in your home and can be controlled remotely with an Android smartphone or tablet, iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. It works with your existing Wi-Fi® network and anywhere your smartphone or tablet has an Internet connection (3G or 4G LTE). Easy for most Do It Yourselfers.”

The Bottom LineIMG_1915
I thoroughly enjoyed the Belkin WeMo experience and I recommend it to others who may be looking to get started on home automation.  The system is easy to use and trouble free once it’s up and running.  Make sure to set up via the “Add WeMo Link Device” screen, and not the “WeMo Set Up Instructions”.  I’ll be watching to see when WeMo adds coloured light bulbs to its arsenal, as I’ve gotten addicted to those of late. And I’m interested to try the other products in the lineup too to see just how useful they are.
It’s worth noting that the prices I posted for these products above are recommended retail, but at the time of posting this (mid-February), there was a good deal on the devices on the Belkin website that may give you extra incentive to pick some up.  In Canada, WeMo is also available from Future Shop.

What the Modelling Industry Taught Me

erin modelling 7.jpg 7Sitting in an office beside my mother, I was nervous.  I’d been called in by my small town local modelling agency to meet a big city scout. A steady stream of girls were going in and coming out of the office she’d comandeered to pore over us and judge our fitness in the “real world” of modelling.  She flipped quickly through my book of photographs, aka The Portfolio, then peered over her glasses at me, apprising my value.

“Stand up please”. I stood.

“Turn around.” I complied.

“You’re very attractive.  You have a good look. Your height is excellent for your age. But..” and here she turned to my mother, “She needs to lose about 10-15 pounds.”

Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was one of those turning points in my life.

erin modelling floorboard

My mother pursed her lips into a smile and stood up. “Thank you.  We’ll think about that.”

In the car afterwards, my mind swirled.  Was I fat? She liked me, but I needed to lose weight? 10-15 pounds?  I was 5’8″ and 125 pounds.  By today’s body mass index indicator that borders on underweight, though I didn’t know that then. I thought I looked fine, and certainly had no idea how I’d begin to lose so much weight.  But didn’t this woman from Toronto with the fancy glasses and the pencil, and the stack of hopeful girls’ comp cards know better?

“Mom, what do you think?”

“I think that woman is out to lunch.  Lose weight?!  You?  No way.  If they don’t like you as you are now, they’ll never be happy with you.  And I think you look perfect.”

comp card back

In my 14 year old mind, that made sense, and looking back, I can see I was relieved at my mothers response.  Of course I was struggling with body issues, as every teen girl does. I knew I was skinny, but looking myself over later that night, I had no idea where my body would even begin to shed that much weight from. I could already see my abs and ribs; I had hips and a butt, but Toronto thought I needed to be skinnier?  I rolled my eyes: no thanks.

Weeks later when my agency asked if they should schedule a follow up with the bespectacled fancy-lady from the big city, I told them no.  I know plenty of other girls who would have started eating carrot sticks the moment it was suggested, but that wasn’t for me.erin modelling hair

SMART PARENTS

I can thank smart, reasonable and supportive parents for steering me out of what could have been a potentially bad situation. They raised me to eat food; real food.  Meat, potatoes, vegetables.  Pop (or soda for my American cousins) was had ONCE a week.  Cookies only occasionally. (In fact cookies were so rare and coveted on our house, me and my three siblings would tear open the package, count out the cookies, divide by 4 and write it down so we knew exactly who got how much.)  Our family ate healthy, and cooked at home. Dinners out happened only once a month, max. And far from the Honey Boo Boo mammas out there, my parents were not desperate for fame, stardom, money or the ability to brag to the neighbours that their daughter was a top model.

erin modelling goodlife ad 2I took a different route in modelling instead; I worked locally, and often.  I helped put myself through school doing local newspaper spreads, fitness ads, and fashion shows at all the local malls. I was even a “fit model” for the ol’ Kettle Creek Clothing Company (remember that, Ontario?), and all their Size 8 clothing was based on MY figure. Again, I didn’t know it at the time, but that was a big thumbs-up for me and my decisions about modelling, my weight, and my self esteem. erin modelling wedding fashion show-newspaper

GROWING CONFIDENCE

I learned by getting those small jobs that my body was just fine.  And with every fashion show I booked, I gained confidence.  A shy teenager, I learned with real-world experience, that all I had to do was pretend to be confident when I didn’t yet feel it, and people believed I was.  And when people believe in your confidence, it boosts you even further, and eventually that faux-confidence becomes the real deal.

I learned poise; and how to look graceful.  I learned how to apply makeup to look both theatrical for the runway, and professional when posing in photos that would eventually be used in the business world.erin modelling long hair yello background Those skills would help me later in life as a budding TV reporter and anchor.

I also learned accounting; I had to bill my agency, and keep records about what work I’d been paid for and what was still owed.  I had to do my taxes as a self-employed individual. That knowledge is still helping me today.

So I may not have my own TV show; a multi-million dollar contract .. but…I’d like to think I’m a normal human being, with normal habits, a good level of confidence and a sense of adventure.  I don’t even wonder what kind of person I might have become had I started on those carrot sticks…