Friday, February 26, 2010

Bonkey, The Backup Monkey for Automatic Backup to Amazon S3


If you got through the mouthful of a title for this post, then you've pretty much got the idea of my automatic syncing solution for for my home computer.

To sum up my current situation, I have 6-7 GB of files that I would like to backup off site, on the cloud. I chose to use Amazon's cloud service, S3. At .15 a GB per month, that's a very cost effective solution for my situation. After much looking around, I choose to use Firefox's S3 Fox plug in to upload and organize my files on my S3 account. Bonkey (F-R-E-E, that spells free) is the program I choose to use to help me sync my files automatically.

At this point, Bonkey (still in the development stage, see blog) isn't completely user-friendly, but it is certainly a viable program for the user who is willing to learn. Bonkey runs on a Java platform, so you do have to have Java (free) in order to use Bonkey. All backups run in the computer's background, which is nice because I can just keep doing my thing on the computer without being hassled by the program.

I am running Windows XP and downloaded and installed Bonkey without a hitch. In order to get started, I had to setup my S3 account on Bonkey by supplying the security credentials from my S3 account. Bonkey has some nice built-in directions that assisted in this. Next, I had to set up backup groups. This is where I had a bit of confusion. I first made a backup group for my pictures. Naming the backup group was easy, but figuring out how to tell Bonkey which files to backup was a bit confusing and I couldn't find much documentation on this. But, I finally got smart and figured out that I needed to locate the files I wanted backed up and drag them to my "pictures backup group." Enabling synchronization is pretty straight forward. Just click on the backup group and you get to customize synchronization options. Full backup or just sync? Zip files or keep the original size? You can choose your backup target to be S3 or some other place like an external hard drive or another drive on the computer. Additionally, you can also choose how often and what time of day you would like the backups to run.

I've been using Bonkey for 2 weeks now. It has handled scheduled backups on time without problems. I have checked the files backed up to my S3 account to make sure that they indeed are the most recent ones and they are! Do you know how happy this made me?

Final thoughts: Isn't the Bonkey, the Backup Monkey, well, cute?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Amazon S3 For Home Computer Backup

I've been working over the last month, trying to get a very inexpensive online backup solution for my home computer. I settled on using Amazon S3 to store my files. That was the easy part. Then I had to pick which S3 browser/client I would use to upload, organize and move my files to S3. There are quite a few free S3 clients to choose from. They all have their pros and cons, so let me say that I think it's mostly just a matter of opinion what one my choose to use.

I started out using Cloudberry explorer's free edition and the s3 Fox plugin for Firefox. I used them both to upload files to S3. There was a bit of a problem with this when it came to syncing files. Sometimes Cloudberry didn't recognize the files uploaded through S3 Fox and sometimes S3 Fox didn't notice files uploaded by Cloudberry. So, at this point, I knew I needed to pick one S3 client. I chose S3 Fox. Here's why: It's just a plug-in, so it takes up very little space on the computer. Plus, Cloudberry's free edition expires every 18 or so days (see comments below for clarification on this), and I didn't like the idea of having to download the new edition every few days. Those are the reasons I chose S3 Fox.

I did use Cloudberry Backup (free trial) for a bit, but it didn't really serve the purpose I had. I just wanted it to sync the files I already had on S3, but it just made a whole new backup of all my files. So, I had two copies of everything. Not what I was going for. Although, I did find that this was an easy to use program and for someone is looking for automatic backups rather than syncing of files, this might be a viable option.

So, once I chose to use S3 Fox, I had to delete all I had uploaded on my S3 account and start over again, uploading everything. I have about 6-7 gig of data I want to store online. This took about 4 days, since I didn't really baby-sit each upload. It's wise not to upload more than, say 2-3 gig at a time, since uploads did get tripped on occasion. S3 Fox has two syncing options: up to S3 or down to your computer (Cloudberry has more). You can create sync folders of the stuff you want to sync. I found it easiest to group things that needed syncing often together and things that didn't need syncing often in another group. I figured I could just sync my files manually every month or so... that was better than the once a year backup I had been doing!

But, I still wanted more. I wanted the syncing to be automatic. So, I'll tell you more about my free solution next post.

Monday, February 22, 2010

CitiBank Resurrects Annual Fee: Bye-Bye CitiBank Card

I've carried a citibank credit card for almost ten years. I'm a very conservative credit card user. I pay my balances off in full each statement. I like the ease of credit cards, but when I got a letter in the mail informing me (a perfectly loyal customer with no late payments ever) that they would be charging me an annual fee of $60 from now on (that would be reimbursed if I charged $2400 in that calendar year), I decided carrying a Citibank credit card would no longer provide that ease. I called to opt out and cancel my card immediately. It was a simple, quick call. I'm sure they are getting a lot of them.

So why the annual fee? It has something to do with the new credit card legislation. Here's a news article that explains how the recent credit card legislation (which was intended to help consumers) backfired... at least for many Citibank customers.

Oh well, no loss to me. I don't care much for Citibank as a company anyway...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tylenol and Ipuprofen Dosing Chart

I've had some sick babies. We ran out of the infants concentrated Ibuprofen and Tylenol rather quickly. I hate going to the store when babies are sick. The Children's Tylenol and Ibuprofen meds I had in the medicine cabinet read to "ask a doctor" for children under 2. I asked the internet instead because it's not always easy to get a doctor on the phone. Here's a nice dosing chart for both Tylenol and Ibuprofen: http://www.allaboutkidspediatrics.com/parents/dosage.html

Monday, February 15, 2010

Aldoshoes.com Review

What follows is a long, boring, detailed experience I had with Aldoshoes.com. Don't read it unless you are bored or were thinking about ordering something from Aldo shoes.

I would like to detail an online shopping experience I had with aldoshoes.com. First let it be understood that I'm a pretty avid online shopper and that this was my first (and last) experience with Aldo shoes.

Just after Christmas Aldo shoes was having an 80% off sale on a lot of their shoes, rendering $100 shoes actually worth their new $20 (give or take) price tag. While shopping, I chose some very cute shoes listed $20.99. Stuck them in the shopping cart and the price bumped up to $29.98. Took the shoes out of the cart, went back to shopping, made sure the shoes were actually listed for $20.99. They were. Stuck them back in the cart and up the price went again to $29.98. Blast! But, I wanted the shoes and figured I could contact customer service about it and get a refund. This was not a naive thought. Most online retailers will happily credit customers for problems like this. I added a couple of other shoes to the order for $9.99 each. Good deal, all in all, I thought. I sent an email to customer service about the price discrepancy in the shopping cart as soon as I received an order confirmation. I received an email a back within 3 days stating that I should call customer service about this. I tried and the automated message said they were experiencing a "high volume of calls..." so I just hung up because I didn't have time to wait at the moment.

Next, the waiting. Aldoshoes.com is based in Canada, so I figured it would take a while for my package to arrive. Sure enough, it did. About a week and a half after ordering, I received one package with two shoes (shipped from the US) . The shoes ended up not fitting. They were too small. This surprised me since Aldo shoes doesn't sell half sizes (I'm a 7.5), I ordered an 8 and was actually worried they would be too big. I waited for my last package to arrive to make sure that the shoes in there fit before I sent back my returns. Nearly a week later I received my last package. To my surprise, these shoes fit well enough, a tad on the big side, but well enough since I was pretty sure if I ordered a size down they would be too small. These shoes were the ones that gave me price issues in the shopping cart. I decided to keep them.

So, now I tried to call customer service. I got to wait on the phone for 10 minutes. Then I gave up. I called again a few days later. I waited for 10 minutes again. Couldn't wait any longer. I hung up and sent an email again to Aldo explaining that I had tried to call and couldn't wait on the phone for so long, adding that I would love to receive some service via email. A whole week later I received an email response saying that Aldo was no longer experiencing "a high volume of calls" and that I should try to call again. I did few days. I had to wait again for 10 minutes. I hung up. (As you can see, ten minutes is my limit.) I went ahead and tried to take care of at least returning the two pair of shoes that didn't fit via the internet. This was a relatively simple process... although I had hoped to exchange the shoes for a different size, I found that Aldo doesn't do exchanges for online purchases, only returns. LAME.

Okay, to put this into perspective, it's been a month now since I made the order and two weeks since I have received the shoes. The shoes I kept, I have worn and discarded my packing slip because I wasn't planning on returning them. Makes sense, right?

At this point I'm starting to give up the $10 price discrepancy on the shoes because I've already wasted a total of 30 minutes waiting on the phone. 30 minutes is already worth at least $10 to me.

Next, I'm at a month since I returned the two pair of shoes and still have not seen a refund on my credit card. So, I call Aldo and figure I'll bring up the measly $10 as well. I call, wait for 7 minutes and finally get though to someone. She's not particularly friendly, but I'm nice and just try to explain my two separate issues. I get hung up on! I have never been hung up on. I wasn't being mean, just detailing my situation and I guess she didn't want to listen. So, I just dial their number and call Aldo again. This time I get a friendlier person on the line (I didn't even tell her I was just hung up on) and tell her about my experience. She told me they were experiencing a lag in the returns department and that I should be refunded in the next 10 days. About the $10, she said she would look into it and if I was indeed charged $10 more than what they were selling the shoes for on that day, I would be given a refund if I had the original receipt. I told her that I no longer had the original receipt since It's been a few weeks since I've been wearing them and no one told me in all my other attempts to correspond that I would need it. She said it shouldn't be a problem. The Aldo rep. told me she'd call me within 3-5 days about it.

True to her word, she called me about 4 days later. Unfortunately, I was out so she left a message on my machine. I tried to call back. Waited 10 mintues, and hung up. Sounding familiar? I called again, waited 7 minutes and got through. The rep. I talked with said that I could not receive a refund, even though I was due one because I no longer had the original receipt. I told her I had a copy of the order from my email, but she said since it wasn't the original, it wouldn't work. I asked why this mattered since they knew that I ordered the shoes. She said that if they gave me a refund without the receipt, and I actually had one I could go to the nearest Aldo store (for me, it's 3 hours away) and receive a refund from them. Okay, so am I getting that Aldo operates on the premise that customers are naturally dishonest and thieving? Sure seemed like it. I told her that I live three hours away from an Aldo store and that I'd never be going to one, that I wasn't that dishonest, and that I would have kept my receipt if someone would have told me that I would need it for a credit way back when I sent my first email about the issue. To no avail. I said thanks anyway and that I was not planning on doing business with Aldo again because of this sour experience which wasted my time and money. We hung up.

I called again, hoping to get an in with someone else, but long call short, I got nowhere. I could not believe it. I felt utterly helpless because it really seemed like no one would listen to my case.

The Sad Ending: Aldo shoes charged me $10 extra for a pair of shoes and would not refund it because I didn't have the original receipt (that's the one they sent with the actual shoes). At the time of writing this, I still have not been refunded for the two pairs of shoes I sent back to Aldo over a month ago. Can you see why I'm not keen on buying ANYTHING from Aldo again?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tax Time Begins


By now we all should have the stuff (W-2's, interest statements, etc.) mailed to us that we need to do our taxes. Yippee! I'm a tax junkie. I'm not sure why. I usually have it filed and get my return by late Feb or early March.

Here's how I handle the tax season. I use TaxAct for my federal Return. It's free and quite accurate. Over the years, I have sized TaxAct up to other tax services like Turbo Tax and they all do a good job on federal returns. I settled on TaxAct, as a matter of personal preference. Like with all free online tax services, you have the opportunity to upgrade your account to get more help, in the end paying for your "what-began-as-a-free-return." With TaxAct, I learned that you shouldn't upgrade unless you really, really want to. Once you have upgraded, you can't change your mind and "down-grade." Instead, you have to set up a whole new account and input all your info again. I learned the hard way a few years ago.

As soon as I get the first tax form in the mail, I get on my TaxAct account and input the info and logout. I continue to do this each day I get new info and by the time I get the last tax document, I'm pretty much done. I print off the return and go over it on my own to check for errors.

I don't use TaxAct for filing my state return. Why? For one, because it costs. For another, I have found that online commercial tax preparation services don't always have very accurate state returns. For state returns I found that I am better off going straight through the state. Most states have efile options on their web page that are free to use. I've had the best luck with this in all three states that I have done taxes in, as opposed to using commercial filing services.

FYI: TaxAct's free version (free, no matter your adjusted gross income) can handle a variety of tax forms/situations. For example, handling moving expenses, independent contract work, tuition deductions... etc. Happy filing.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Taking the Plunge with Mint.com

I've mostly been a proponent of using technology to make my life easier. But I haven't embraced technology when it comes to personal finance very fully. I have enjoyed online banking for quite some years now, but I had always managed my accounts and budgets with Splash Money Desktop on my computer (sans the online account syncing option because of my paranoia). I guess after years of manually inputting all our paychecks and receipts into Splash Money, I decided I have had enough fun and would rather let a computer do it.

Enter mint.com. Why did I choose them? Mostly because I have read good things about the site and didn't want to spend oodles of time looking into other alternatives. I just need a basic financial picture. Plus, it's free. I hate paying for something if I can get it for free.

I set up my own account and it really was surprisingly simple. It took probably 20 minutes to grab all my account info from other institutions and my account was up and running. It's nice to see the whole financial picture in one place. And it's really nice that I don't have to input all the receipts anymore.

One thing, mint.com can only grab info from accounts that you use online that also work with mint.com. So, if you have a mortgage or other loan through an institution that mint.com doesn't work with, you can't "see" that account on mint.com. (You can send a request to mint.com to let you know when they do start working with that institution.)

If you're worried about security like I was, read here. And to learn more about the pros and cons of mint.com, to find out if it's right for you, read here.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Therapy After Trigger Thumb Surgery

Painted clothespin puppets, with felt details (glued with Tacky glue) have disguised the thumb exercise involved in this play.

I wrote about how my daughter's doctor told me that in most cases children didn't need therapy after trigger thumb surgery. I had my doubts since I know that she hasn't been able to use scissors properly, even before the surgery. So, I did some of my own digging for information on how I can help her strengthen those muscles that she hasn't really ever used since her thumbs have been in a locked position for at least a couple of years... perhaps since she was born. I figure I can do some play therapy with her and if that doesn't work, then we will go to an occupational therapist.

In the three weeks since my daughter has had her cast removed, we have seen improvement. For the first couple of days with her casts off, my daughter continued to use her fingers to play, leaving her thumbs out of the game (just as she did when she had her casts on). My husband and I explained to my daughter that it was necessary to use her thumbs to help them continue to heal. She was receptive to this. By the week's end she was holding crayons correctly and starting to pull apart duplo legos.

Here's a link to some info I found on helping a child learn to use scissors. Now, with my daughter, I'm not sure if the challenges she's faced with trigger thumb are the "trigger" (heheh) for her difficulty with using scissors, or if it is only slightly related. (She doesn't seem to have strong enough hands to open scissors.) At any rate, I have decided to do some intense therapy in this area with her. I do preschool with her at home, so we just use a bit of preschool time to practice exercising those muscles in her thumbs and forearms. The picture above is of our latest activity: clothespin puppets.

Here are some other things we have done:
  • Ripping paper. (Funny that I have to teach my daughter to do this when it has come so naturally for the others!)
  • Picking up cotton balls with salad tongs and dropping them in a bowl. (Opening the tongs was difficult for her. )
  • Using a bulb syringe. I have started letting my daughter play with a bulb syringe while in the bath tub. She can't do this with one hand, but with two she can. Hopefully she'll get to the point where she can do it with one hand.
  • Play OPERATION. Bought the board game OPERATION for some fine motor skill practice, but my daughter is afraid of the sounds the game makes.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Home Organization

I few days ago I wrote about a video I saw at Monkeysee.com on home organization and how it inspired me to get to work on organizing a place in my house that has needed it for a long time: our family message center, as professional organizer Janet Schiesl calls it. According to the video, a family message center includes a place to write messages for family members, a family calendar, phone list, and a family file. I have a small kitchen (limited counter space) so I wanted everything to be accessible, but hidden. Here's what I came up with:

The calendar is held by the those nifty 3M Command clips. The phone list is taped underneath, at a level that is accessible to my kids since it has emergency numbers. The pull out drawer has our family file (Office Depot purchase) and the phone books and other reference materials are in a magazine holder. On the counter we have the phone, next to it we have a container for writing utensils and scissors... and there is some scratch paper (that isn't visible) for taking messages.

The other day my husband was using the phone list to make a call and commented, "This is pretty handy." I second that. It was worth the trouble. I should have taken a "before" picture to compare to this... but it might have been too embarrassing anyway.