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User Testing Review: Validately

Recently, in order to make a few extra dollars, I have begun looking into different apps/websites that allow the user to earn money by reviewing or testing a website or product. There are many of these sites, but today I am just going to focus on one; Validately. This website allows you to submit your website to be analyzed. You choose the parameters, and they match you up with real people to provide real feedback.

That’s where you step in.  Once you register as a tester with Validately, they may contact you wanting you to review a website.  Tests are available to take on smartphones, tablets, and PCs.  You will need to invest in a webcam, as the testing is live.  The moderators will ask you questions, and your responses are recorded.  They may ask you your opinion, or ask you to click on a certain area. You might be asked to try to go through a sample transaction, so they can get feedback on how usable the site is. Payment from Validately is through Paypal. Payment amounts vary, and some tests may be short, say 15 minutes, and some may be longer, an hour or more.

user testing validately

THE TEST

So far I have only done one test, but it was remarkably easy.  You will get an email when a test is available, or like this one, they even gave me options as to when I could do it. They tell you up front how much your test will pay, and they pay through Paypal. If you can’t do it, they just try someone else.  Since I am just doing this on the side, I unfortunately have had to turn a few tests down. Communications with Validately are great, and they send  several emails to remind me of the appointment.  I was asked several questions, some about the product itself, and some about the functionality of the website. It took almost an hour, exactly as they said.

For this review I received a payout of $50.00.  Not bad for an hours work!   The test was administered in the late afternoon, and my account had been credited before noon the next day. I was pleasantly surprised by the quick payment. I found this test fun, and they made me feel like my input was really valuable. Just think how many websites you check out every day. Now imagine someone is paying you to do it!

I am looking forward to more tests from Validately. Their communications are great, the testing is fun, and payment is prompt.  In the future I will check out other user testing websites, and I will review those as well.

Thanks for reading!

Matt

 

Blogging After Hiatus

I have not been blogging recently due to personal loss.  Blogging just has not seemed all that important to me.  I find myself not really knowing where to jump back in.  So what happens next after a blogging hiatus?  Do I pretend that nothing is wrong? Do my readers really care about what is going on, or do they just want to come to the site like always?  How personal do I want to be, or do I continue with my blog as is?  There are many questions I find that I am asking myself.

During this hiatus, I used this as an opportunity to clean up my blog a little bit.  I had too many popups from too many plugins.  I changed the theme.  This blog has not taken off the way I wanted, and time off to reflect has not necessarily been a bad thing.  I know I need to post more and better ‘content’.  I have checked out tons of blogs to get ideas.  The other issue I think about is are there too many blogs now? Is there a saturation of blogs? So many people seem to keep having success though, so maybe that isn’t an issue.  I’m trying to stay active on Twitter and Pinterest to keep interest up on social media.  Some days it seems ideas fill my head so fast that I can’t write them down fast enough, and on other days I picture my mind as a barren desert.

I guess my point is, I’m going to keep plugging away at blogging for a while.  I’m going to keep researching ways to make my blog better.  Like the tortoise and the hare, blogging is a long run, not a sprint. Maybe every blog needs a little hiatus from time to time.  I hope to have a new blog post up soon.  I’m still not sure what topic it will be, but stay tuned!

 

 

To Blog or Not to Blog

Just a note to my followers that I have had a rough month.  I haven’t given up on blogging, but honestly, I’ve thought about it.  I am not having the success I thought I would by now, and its not because I haven’t tried.  Then the Holidays have come along, and now there are some things going on personally that have just made blogging seem not very important at the time being.

Blog

I hope to get back in the swing of things soon, but I don’t know when that might be.   And I’m still just not completely sure what it is I want to continue to blog about.  I tried engineering topics, but that did not seem to garner a lot of interest.  How to save money?  Well there are THOUSANDS of blogs doing that.  I just can’t seem to fit in.  Or stand out maybe is a better term.  Why is my blog better than anyone else’s? Or more importantly, why is it worse?? Do I not do enough SEO?  And if I hear the word CONTENT one more time, I’ll explode.  I’ve read plenty of blogs and seen plenty of content.  Do you know what content really is? It’s a bunch of words that don’t mean anything that people use to fill space to try to get a good SEO rating.  Just my opinion there.  Everyone says you need quality content.  But hardly anyone explains just WHAT that content is!

I thought I was pretty highly advanced in the technology sector unitil I started my blog.  I thought, I’ll type what I know about, inject some stupid humor, and people will come flocking.  I had no idea that you had to artificially create interest in your blog (isn’t that what SEO is? Tricking search engines into thinking you are important??)  I check out websites because I like what they say or have to offer.  I could really care less about a free newsletter that gets me spam email for the rest of my life.  I would rather actually learn something, or get a real review on a product.  Like lets say Product X.  I would love to know if Product X actually works.  I don’t care if you got paid to try it out.  Does it work???  Not ‘I’ll tell you if it works if you join my 37 step plan on why it might work if you just subscribe to my newsletter, which ironically will contain NO news whatsoever.’   Or endless linking to outside sites that have nothing to do with whatever it is that you were there for in the first place.

Yes, I would LOVE to make some money on my blog.  I’ve set up a few ads.  I’m an affiliate.  Yay.  But apparently, I haven’t tricked Google and Bing into thinking I’m important.  And if I read one more ‘See how I made $300 after just  weeks of blogging!!’, I’ll puke.  I’ve saved pins, tweeted, facebooked, stumbled, you name it.

And I’ll keep trying.  Maybe I’ll start a new blog ‘TheIrritibleEngineer’, where I make like Frank Costanza and just air my grievances.  I’m 43 but I feel like shaking my cane at the world and giving it my best ‘EHHHH!’  I’m going to try and possibly redesign things.  Maybe have my kids help.  I never thought I’d be at that point where I was thinking ‘I’m too old for this.’  But there are things about blogging and web design that I just don’t understand.

At any rate, I hope everyone is patient with me as I sort things out.

 

The Dad Blog

So I’m branching out a bit, and thought I’d get a little into the ‘Dad Blog’ niche. First a disclaimer: Yes, I’m a dad, but in NO WAY do I think I know everything about parenting. I have two teenagers, and our house hasn’t burned down, so maybe I’m doing something right. I just thought every now and again I’d throw some advice out there, or share a story that might be helpful to other dads and parents out there.  For instance; how many dads have had to carry an ugly flowerdy diaper bag.  I mean, you didn’t pick it out, but there you are walking into Applebees with that silly looking bag.  I saw a guy a while back walk in with his family, and behold!  He was using a backpack as a diaper bag! Brilliant!  Why hadn’t I thought of that?! See, by letting you in on this nugget, you will now be the cool dad instead of ‘look at that poor sap carrying that ugly paisley diaper bag’.

Dad Blog Blogging

Every parent thinks their kids are the greatest. I’m no different. Little things that may seem like no big deal to anyone else are a huge deal to me. But that’s one of the things that makes being a parent so great, the little unpredictable things. I’d like this part of my blog to be a place where a dad, or any other parent, grandparent, guardian, whoever, to be able to visit and maybe even share a laugh. What makes your kid the greatest? What funny, touching, or just plain out absurd thing have they done that’s worth sharing?

First Dad Blog Father Blogging

And not only kids, but I want this site to be open to whatever you want to share. Got some advice on saving some coin? Let’s hear about it. Did you get your child the new and improved best toy ever? I wanna hear how that thing REALLY works.  Frustrating story of the latest appliance blow up? Share it, and maybe others can follow your example of what (or what NOT) to do to fix it. There is almost no greater feeling than Youtubing ‘how to fix a washing machine agitator that won’t agitate’, buying the parts yourself and fixing it. Well, there are all kinds of greater feelings, like watching your child walk the first time, but fixing a major appliance yourself feels pretty dang good.

I know there are already a ton of Dad Blogs out there, but there are so many stories and so much advice that I thought I would include the topic here on my blog.   Thanks for stopping by my blog, and don’t hesitate to drop a comment, suggestion, or story of your own.

Saving Money at Christmas

Most people want a deal.  Saving a few bucks is always important, but  when it comes to Christmas shopping, we all want to feel like we made an effort to get the best price.  And anymore with Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Cyber WEEK, there are plenty of savings to be had.  But how do you know you got the best deal?  There are TONS of articles and apps out there if you have time to sift through them all.  You may find yourself searching so much for a deal, that your forgot what it is you were shopping for in the first place.  But one thing is certain; we all want to save some money.

Apps Articles to Save Money Christmas

I have tried to put together some articles and apps on saving money at Christmas.  There are tons of deals to be had, but you have to find them first.

This article from PC Mag has some great apps.   I personally use the Walmart Savings Catcher, and in about two years time I have saved about $115.

Swagbucks is a great site/app to save money.  For instance, as I write this, by shopping through their app, you can get up to 7% cash back at Macy’s.  There are TONS of stores that have cash back when you shop through the Swagbucks site.

Ebates is another fantastic site/app.  Just since Thanksgiving I have saved over $14.  Right now Under Armour is offering up to 8% cash back.  Amazon, which has its own great app and deals is offering up to 10% cash back right now on certain items through Ebates.  Ebates will also show you all of the deals that are going on at the participating retailers as well.

This article from The Penny Hoarder has 10 weird ways to save money by Christmas.  Very interesting read!

CBS news had an article a few days ago that listed four apps that can save you money while shopping.  The article explains how the Amazon app, Cartwheel from Target, Flipp, and RetailMeNot apps can all save you money.

One other important thing to remember while holiday shopping.  Just because you can get a deal on it, doesn’t mean you need it!  It’s not a deal if you weren’t really looking for it anyway.  10% off of something you don’t need is still 90% more than you should pay for it!

Saving Money

I hope these articles and tips can save you a few dollars this Christmas season.  Maybe put those savings to good use as an investment, donate to charity, or save them until NEXT year’s shopping season!

Stumbleupon Referrals

The Blogger's Pit Stop

One of the first things I learned as a blogger was how important it is to put your blog out there on every social media platform that is feasible.   Stumbleupon was on that list, and quite frankly, I had never heard of it before I started blogging.  But after learning a few tricks here and there, and learning how to check the analytics of my site,  I saw just how important Stumbleupon can be in creating referrals to my blog.

6

For one thing, Stumbleupon is SO easy to use.  Just set up your profile, pick some interests, and start stumbling.  When setting up your interests, set up things that are most relevant to your blog first, then things that are relevant to your niche in general.  Thumbs up if you like what pops up, thumbs down if you don’t.  You can link your profile to your Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ profiles.  And Stumbleupon is one of the many social media buttons that can be added to your blog to generate traffic.  You can follow people just like on other social media platforms.  I try to  follow back the people who follow me, and  follow friends when I find them.

Even if you aren’t adding new content, Stumbleupon can be great when you have a few minutes here and there.  You can pop on, stumble and move on.  I like the fact that you can stumble very generally, or be more specific and stumble just within one of your interests.  It is important to stumble in relation to YOUR content, so generate solid traffic to your blog.  You can share articles you like with others as well.   A Stumbleupon button can even be added to your browser, so that you can stumble as you surf, not just stumbling within the site itself.

I add similar content when I stumble, not just my own.  In fact, if you promote ONLY your content, you may be locked out.  You can even check out if others are liking what you have added to be stumbled. That way you can see what is interesting to others, and drive your focus.  I have not done it yet, but you can use their ‘Paid Discovery’ service, which will send users directly to your site.

I have been very happy with the traffic generated so far, with a few minor complaints.  I notice a LOT of articles that come up are old; for some reason, articles from 2009-2011 pop up quite a bit.  I’m not really sure why, and maybe it is just a coincidence within my interests.  Also, when I stumble using the app, after a few minutes it seems to lock up or start behaving slowly.  Again, this could be specific to me as my phone is two years old today (yeah, ancient I know, I might as well be using an abacus, right??) although I do regular maintenance to make sure its operating correctly.

Thanks for checking out my article.  Hey, maybe even stumble it for practice, then check out my Stumbleupon profile at http://www.stumbleupon.com/stumbler/mtheengineersadv

By adding Stumbleupon to your social media strategy, you should be able to generate many more hits to your blog.

Let’s hear how Stumbleupon drives traffic to YOUR blog!

Rant of Rants-GE microwave handle replacement

First, let me apologize for this post not being on topic of my typical blog posts.  But I have been served a great injustice that I thought this rant really needed an audience.  Ok, so in the grand scheme of all that is wrong in the world, it is probably no big deal.  But in the smaller scheme of ‘C’mon are you kidding me???,’ it’s a real big deal.

So…picture this..my son is making popcorn in the microwave.   He opens the door; mind you, he is not hanging on or otherwise doing acrobatics on this door.  The handle breaks.  Well, not even the handle.  The ‘handle support’.  (WHY not just make the handle one piece???).  So at the thought of an appliance breaking, my engineering instincts come in to play.   Locate the problem.  Done.  Its a broken handle-support.  Next, how can we alleviate this problem most efficiently?   By doing what most people do.  Google it, see if someone else has already done this, and copy what they have done.

 

The Culprit

The Culprit

 

Temporary Solution

Temporary Solution

Well the search turns up a short 3 minute video about replacing it.  Minimal tools, level one repair.  I am feeling great at all the money I am going to save by doing this myself.  (Engineers are VERY cheap by the way, hence the roll upon roll of duct tape around any engineer’s house.)

The next series of events was like a bad dream.  How much will this broken piece be? $5? $10 at the most?  Its not even the handle, its a thumb-sized piece of plastic.  Imagine my horror and shock when I find the handle-which is $123.50!! Then I take a breath, and say to myself, its not even the handle, its the handle SUPPORT.  Whew.  Then disbelief sets in.  And denial.  The handle SUPPORT…this thumb sized piece of plastic.  Is $50.25!!! A piece!! After I woke up from hitting the floor, my engineering economics kicked in.  Lets see…I paid roughly $200 for this microwave; The support is $50.25.  That means this PIECE OF PLASTIC is 1/4 the cost of the microwave!! If I had to replace both pieces plus the handle we are talking almost $175, or 88% the cost of a NEW microwave!!!  What bizzaro world are we living in?!?

What in the heck is this thing made of??!

What in the heck is this thing made of??!

Diabolical!! I KNEW I should have been a mechanical engineer.

Diabolical!! I KNEW I should have been a mechanical engineer.

Ok, so for the purpose of shock value, I have used the highest prices I could find.  Even so, the cheapest piece I have found is $27, or 14% the cost of the microwave.  Diabolical.  I really wished at this point I had invested in thumb sized pieces of plastic.  Since I am a civil engineer, I have no idea the parts it takes to make a microwave, but I know not to put metal in it, and that it has some sort of nuclear device in there.  But apparently these insignificant parts cannot hold a candle to the importance of this handle assembly!!!

So, anyway, I guess my rant is over.  I’ll be out $27  (before tax, and shipping and handling), and there will be $27 less dollars to spend on Black Friday.   I don’t really have a point to this story, but I hope maybe some of you found it entertaining in your break from pre-holiday preparations.  Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Vacate of Public Roads by Abandonment in Illinois

abandonment

Abandonment vs. Vacate

A fairly common question/concern that our office faces is what to do with a road that has been ‘abandoned’.  Some landowners want roads that are no longer being used to be permanently vacated to restrict access to their property.  Sometimes these old rights-of-way can become an issue of a property dispute when accessing private property.  Some people put gates on the road.  The road may be totally grown over with trees and brush.  In some instances, the road was platted out, but never actually built.  In Illinois, a road is considered public until it goes through the legal vacate process. Illinois does not consider ‘non-use’ to be a sufficient enough reason to consider a road vacated.

Anyone contesting that a road  is not open to public travel because it has been abandoned by non-use, has to have the issue resolved either through the local highway authorities or in the courts.   The simpler process is to go through the local highway authorities and proceed with a formal vacate process.  If it goes to court, the court is the entity that determines whether a roadway has been abandoned. The Illinois Department of Transportation has no policy or guidance in this area.  Issues of this nature are referred to the county engineer and the county state’s attorney.  IDOT would not be involved in any legal proceedings regarding this matter, since this is handled between the highway authority, the public, and the courts.  The courts would then consider three factors in determining if a road has been abandoned by non-use.

1. Non-use of the road for a period of time (the length of time is not defined; it is up to the court to decide that based on each case);

2. Whether or not the public acquired the legal right to use another route, either new or existing, for access;

3. Whether the necessity for the road has ceased to exist.  When a court finds that a highway has indeed been abandoned, the highway reverts to the original property owners.

The Vacate Process

For the complete process, please visit the Illinois Department of Transportation’s website.  This link will take you to the document that outlines the process of formally vacating a road.   The vacate process can be found in Chapters 10 through 20.

An important thing to remember is that the vacate process shall not deny anyone access to their property.  Even if the road is not being used, if it provides the only way of access to a property, then it cannot be vacated.  Once the road is vacated, the property should go back to the original owner if possible.  If this is not possible, then the property should be split equally and given to the owners on each side of the road.  This property should then be added to the tax rolls.   In a ruling that was passed in 2005, if the property owners refuse the rights, then the highway authority may sell the vacated property to a third party at fair market value.

So as a reminder, at least in the state of Illinois, abandonment or non-use of a public road does not mean it has been vacated.  Check with your local highway authorities, County Engineer, and possibly with your county’s mapping office on the ownership of a property before deciding if you wish to have a road vacated.

 

 

Ameren Power Smart Pricing

power-smart-pricing

I just wanted to post today to talk about a money-saving program that is available to those electric customers in Illinois that have Ameren as their service provider.  Ameren offers a program called “Power Smart Pricing“.  This program allows a customer to pay electric rates per hour based on actual rates, instead of an average hourly rate.

Speaking from experience, this program could possibly save the consumer a lot of money.  I just got my notification today, and I saved $3.95 last month.  Not whopping, but better than nothing.  I see most savings in the winter when the air conditioner is not running.  I have been a member of the program for 103 months now, and have saved a total of $2,546.80.  On average, I have saved 20.3% than if I was using the standard average hourly rate.

Another benefit to the program besides just saving money is that consumers tend to shift their peak electricity usage to lower priced hours.  This can help reduce peak electricity demand, which may ease stress on the power distribution system.

The electricity rates can be checked by phone or online.  This is helpful to find peak rates when determining if you wish to shift some of your peak usage.    Setting your thermostat higher during the day can help with the electrical consumption as well.   In addition to shifting usage, I have found that replacing lights with compact fluorescent bulbs or LED bulbs has also had a significant effect on my bill.

The best way to find out if you are eligible or if changing to Power Smart Pricing is feasible, is to check their website, or give them a call.  Once you join the program, you do have to stay enrolled for 12 consecutive months.  If you wish to remain in the program, you will be re-enrolled automatically.  There is a $2.25 a month participation charge, but to me it has definitely been worth it.

I hope others are able to take advantage of this program, and I hope that there are similar programs available in other states.

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Bridge Load Rating Checklist

In the state of Illinois on April 15, 2016 Circular Letter 2016-10 was sent to all agencies concerning Load Ratings for bridges.  New truck configurations are being allowed, causing there to be more load per axle.  This letter stated that new load ratings are to be assigned for ALL bridges.  Engineering judgement is no long an acceptable form of bridge rating, and new ratings are to be assigned based on actual calculations.

bridge-load-rating-checklist

To help identify the structures that need in-depth analysis, a checklist has been established for all structures.   In response to changes in the AASHTO Manual for Bridge Evaluation (MBE), a September 29, 2011 FHWA memo allowed assigned load ratings so long as the following conditions are met.  The checklist is due for all identified structures by December 31, 2016.  IDOT has set up an Inspection Date Notification System in which the following checklist may be answered.

1. The bridge was designed and checked using either the AASHTO Load and Resistance Factor Design (LRFD) or Load Factor Design (LFD) methods to at least HL-93 or HS-20 live loads, respectively; and

2. The bridge was built in accordance with the design plans; and

3. No changes to the loading conditions or the structure condition have occurred that could reduce the inventory rating below the design load level; and

4. An evaluation has been completed and documented, determining that the force effects from State legal loads or permit loads do not exceed those from the design load; and

5. The checked design calculations, and relevant computer input and output information, must be accessible and referenced or included in the individual bridge records.

Question Number 4 was done by IDOT and results complete on October 5, 2016.   Our county alone has almost 200 structures that need the checklist submitted.  If all 5 conditions cannot be met, bridge plans MUST be electronically submitted to IDOT.   Item 5 is very difficult for our agency in general to locate because most of our bridges were built using IDOT’s standard bridge plans which have since been retired, or by using consultants.  Access to calculations which may be 40-50 years old in some cases just isn’t feasible.  That leaves the only option of submitting bridge plans.  The main issue will be FINDING the existing bridge plans.  This could potentially be a logistical nightmare.    Some of the older plans were large-format (24″x36″), and access to a copier/scanner that large may not be an option for some agencies.  And some agencies plain and simple may not have bridge plans for older structures.  There will be THOUSANDS of sets of bridge plans that will be submitted.  I cannot imagine who will be responsible for sifting through all of these, not to mention the space it will take to electronically store them.

There are approximately 26,000 bridges in Illinois.  Lets guess that half of them have the information available.  That leaves 13,000 bridges that must have plans submitted.  The bulk of that will be up to local agencies that may not have the personnel or equipment to make copies of everything.  My point of view is this:  Isn’t every set of bridge plans submitted to IDOT? Why don’t they already have copies?

I have sent a couple of e-mails to the IDOT Bureau of Bridges and Structures with questions about this last item.  So far no one has returned my message, but when I find something out for certain, I will update this post.

UPDATE 10/17/2016

The IDOT Bureau of Bridges and Structures has responded to my email.  They say if plans identify the loads as HS-20 or HL-93 and have the stamp of a Licensed Structural Engineer (Licensed Professional Engineer before 1989), then conditions One and Five are met.  If Standard Plans were used, they are considered signed by a Structural Engineer.