Archive for January, 2010

The blinds that we ordered in late Dec. finally arrived.  We’ve been pestering the lady for a while now to get them installed, but apparently the supplier that the material manufacturer used went out of business at the beginning of the year.  It’s taken them a while to find another materials provider, so they had about half of our blinds for several weeks.  Actually, they ultimately only installed the blinds themselves today – we still need to get the valances put in (the board that installs at the top of the blinds which covers lifting mechanism and provides a finished look).

It’s amazing to me that 1) blinds are so expensive, and 2) that there are so many options to choose from.  We initially decided to go with honeycomb blinds, but after visiting a couple different houses with slats we changed our minds.  Honeycomb seem really nice, and they are great energy savers since they can be closed, but still let light through.  The problem is that we wanted to be able to make our rooms super dark, particularly the master and the media room, but the only way to do that is to get light reflecting honeycomb blinds.  It’s possible to get a sort of two layer honeycomb, but they are quite a bit more expensive.  Ultimately we decided that slats were better since we could more easily control the light level in the room; we also tend to be very lazy so being able to turn the slats slightly instead of raising the entire blind appeals to us :-)

After deciding on getting slats we still had to figure out whether we wanted to get normal wood, faux wood, or some combination on different windows.  For anything in an area with moisture you want to get faux wood; wood absorbs moisture and it can easily warp the blinds if they are over a sink or near a shower.  That made two of our choices easy, but for the rest of the windows it was still a question.  We decided we wanted a neutral color for most of our windows, so we went with an off-white.  There are really three differences between faux wood blinds and slat wood blinds (if you don’t care about moisture in the area): 1) faux wood blinds are cheaper, 2) faux wood blinds are heavier, and 3) wood blinds look more natural in wood colors.  The 3rd didn’t apply to us because we were getting white blinds, which narrowed it down to the 2 remaining pivot points.  Since faux wood is heavier it means that the number of ladder points you need is larger, and sometimes you need to get smaller slats for the ladder to support them.  Ultimately we decided to go with the less expensive option and get faux wood everywhere.

Outside of the choice of blinds, shape, color, etc. there are a lot of ‘options’ that you can get to enhance the appearance or operation of the blinds.  I was pretty psyched about trying to get motorized blinds, but after learning that it was $375/window to get a little motor that would simply raise or lower the slats (not even raise and lower the blinds) we decided to pass on motorization for the moment.  We did decide to get valances, because it lets us hide the alarm system detectors at the top of the windows and gives the whole blind a very finished look (oh, and because it was comparatively cheap :-).  The final option that we chose was to get the blinds without holes in the center.  Usually slat blinds have holes that the ladder is threaded through; the only problem with that is when you close the slats you end up with tiny pinpricks of lights shining through the holes; this is exacerbated by faux wood because they are heavier and as such the ladder is thicker… which makes the holes larger.  Anyway, the option we got makes it so none of the slats have holes (the ladder is threaded on the outside of the slat).

DiningRoomBlinds KitchenBlinds

You’ve probably noticed that the kitchen blinds are darker; we decided to match the cabinets for those because we thought the white would stand out given how dark everything else is.  The small area of light at the top will be covered with the valance when it’s installed.  Notice how there are no holes in the kitchen blinds?  You might also notice that we still don’t have a dining room table :-(

The final ‘window covering’ we got is for the back door.  We decided to try something a bit different, and I think it turned out rather nice.  We went with sliding panels instead of sliding slats.  They are super easy to open and shut, and they look very nice (especially shut).  They also don’t clink when they are opened or closed, or when beta decides to smash her head against them.  The downside is that even fully open we lose about 33% of the window since the panels are large.  In the future we might change out the panels for something with a pattern or a different color, we think the white was probably an overkill in this case.

ClosedPanels OpenPanels

A few other quick updates:

  • I finally finished the personal finance book (and the Dresden files #4).  We’re going to start putting to practice all of the things I learned this week.  It’s going to be a long week!
  • Dining room table has been delayed again :-(  We probably won’t see it until mid to late Feb.
  • I finally got some pictures of my car in daylight, so I’ll be writing a post about that soon
  • Rach and I leave for the Bahamas on Friday!!!

Oh, Happy Day!  The nice folks from Tuff Shed came and installed the shed that we had ordered today.  It’s certainly been a long process to figure out exactly what we wanted/needed.  It’s funny, this house is enormous compared to our last house – easily 500sq ft. larger, but ultimately we have fewer corners and crevices for storage. 

We initially considered the crawlspace conversion option, but so many of the people (including contractors) that we talked to said that was a horrible idea because of moisture that we started to look elsewhere.  Our attics have super low ceilings and aren’t suitable for storage.  Our garage is for cars — cars, and we already have about as much junk in there as we can realistically fit.  A shed seemed like a good idea at first but I couldn’t find anywhere on our property to put it.  Our backyard is very small, probably just 10ft. or so between our house and the property line; and the back of the house is lined with windows that we didn’t want to obstruct.  The front yard has all kinds of possibilities, but a large portion of it (easily 60%) is considered a wetland buffer zone which means we can’t develop or alter it in any way. 

The answer came in the form of a conversation that I was having with the city to see whether I could convince them that the skating rink my neighbor’s dad had built when he was a kid shouldn’t really classify as a wetland.  The city planner mentioned that it would be possible for us to build closer than 5ft to the property line if we applied for a buffer zone exemption.  He said that we’d almost certainly be able to get it because of the wetland on the front of our property.  As Rach and I trudged around the house we found that we had about 10ft between one side of our house and the property line; and that particular side of the house has only a single window that looks out over the kitchen sink.  Even better the windowless portion of the wall is easily 15ft on either side of the window, and we have no neighbor on the other side (well, we do, but that neighbor has a ton of land and his house is much closer to the road than ours is).  So we went shed hunting…

This is another one of those projects that I considered doing myself, but after talking to a ton of people I quickly realized that it was 1) almost certainly beyond my skill level w/o help, and 2) likely to cost more than it would to get someone else to do it because I don’t yet have anywhere near the set of tools that I would need to construct it.  We looked around for a while but were most impressed by the sheds that they have at Home Depot.  Every other store we looked at had sheds that were made of seemingly large Tupperware; while, many of Home Depot’s sheds were constructed of stout lumber.  These sheds are built by a company called Tuff Shed and they are assembled right on your property.  We started with the idea that we would get a 6×8 shed, but after looking at the pile of the stuff in our garage I really wanted to get an 8×10.  Ultimately we had to compromise, there simply wasn’t enough room on the side of our house for an 8×10 so we settled on the 6×10 version. 

The site for the shed needed to be leveled which was actually going to be a fair amount of work since our builder had left a sizable hill there and then planted trees on it.  We ended up using the landscaping company that used to mow the lawn at our old place (Smith lawn services) and they did an awesome job.  They suggested putting up a retaining wall of stone to make sure that the dirt stayed in place.  I didn’t realize how important this was until after I saw what it looked like when they cleared the area (they also put down a nice amount of gravel for us).  Below on the left is the original site, and the picture on the right shows the site after it was leveled and cleared.

Site ClearedSite

The picture on the right was taken early this morning before the Tuff Shed folks got here.  They were right on time; I ended up leaving for work right when they got there so I didn’t get to see the next part happen but Rach took a picture every 45 mins or so.  It only took the guys about 4-5 hours to put the entire shed together, paint it, and get all of the extras added.  The shed was basically just pre-cut lumber, there weren’t large sections pre-assembled.  The cool thing about Tuff Shed is that they let you customize their base models pretty significantly.  We ended up getting the SR-600 because Kirkland lets you put up a shed under 120sq ft. in size and less than 8ft tall without a permit.  In addition we had them do paint matching so that we could make it the same color as our house.  We also added roof vents along the ceiling for air flow, a skylight and a window.  Last but not least we got Bluwood flooring which is supposed to be more highly resistant to moisture. 

The over time photos are below!

Shed1 Shed2  Shed4 ShedFinal

You may notice that the door opens towards the house; we asked for that so that it wouldn’t slam into the retaining wall :-)  You can also see that the shed is super strong – look at the guy standing on the roof!   I have to say that I’m really happy with both Tuff Shed and Smith Lawn Services.  They both were extremely responsive, super fast, and appear to have done really high quality work.  The Smith folks even came out to readjust the retaining wall because we were worried that the shed was going to be too close to it.  If you’re thinking of getting a shed a few things I would suggest: 1) get the largest shed that you can reasonably put on your property – you’re always going to be able to use the storage, 2) make sure you build it at least a foot and a half away from your house in case you ever want to repair or repaint the siding, 3) consider investing in wood instead of the plastic sheds, they look nicer and hold up better.  The Tuff Shed folks said that if we ever move they’d be happy to come out and move the shed to our new house for us… something to keep in mind I guess :-)

A few final pictures of the shed from different angles:

Shed5 Shed6 Shed7 Shed8 Shed9

I’d like to retire someday.  Not tomorrow maybe, but say 30 or so years down the road.  It occurred to me recently, after having read story after story of an entire generation who is getting ready to retire and will either live near the poverty line or simply continue working well into their 70s,  that Rach and I really need to sit down and have a coherent plan to save enough of our earnings and invest it reasonably to have a fighting chance at retiring in our 60s.  I doubt the Lottery retirement plan is going to work out (but here’s hoping!).

To that end, I’ve been reading Personal Finance for Dummies.  It seemed like a good place to start.  I’m most of the way through it, and while it hasn’t been earth shattering, it has been a good refresher and I enjoy the pragmatism of the author.  I have several goals for this project including: having a much better organization of our income, to be able to answer seemingly simple questions like “how much do you save per month?”, to keep better tabs on where it is we’re spending our money, to choose better investments for the various ‘buckets’ of money based on the timeframe in which we intend to spend it, and to finalize a retirement plan that we can check in on every once in a while and make sure things are going well.

I thought I was going to spend this weekend putting these pieces together, but I realize now it’s going to take several weekends.  I decided to spend today focused on analyzing our monthly expenses for the last year to see whether they matched my understanding of where we were spending our money.  In the past, I’ve been pretty lax about keeping track of what comes in and out.  I generally know how much money we have in our various accounts and I know whether we’ll be able to afford new expenses, but I have never really looked at how much of that money is going into any particular category.  In fact, had you asked me what the top 5 expenses for us per month were I probably would’ve only gotten three out of 5, and I probably wouldn’t even have gotten those in the correct order.

For the past year our top 5 recurring expenses per month were: our mortgage, groceries, restaurants, energy & gas, and fuel.  The mortgage being the top monthly expense isn’t much of a surprise.  I was pretty staggered by how much money we spend per month of food though.  We do eat out often; though ‘eat out’ usually means ‘order in’, but that made me think our grocery cost would be comparatively low.  That’s just not the case.  We’re averaging $600/mo. in groceries alone.  That number seems shockingly high to me.

The illuminating part about this exercise is that it really helps to understand where to invest time if we’re trying to save money.  It’s pretty clear for us that the number one place to look at it is our food purchases.  We’ll almost certainly stop ordering out as much, but our plan is to spend the next month keeping a cost book for the grocery store.  Basically tracking the items that we buy most frequently, and see what prices we’re paying.  Then we’ll see whether we can do a better job buying those items more cheaply when they are on sale, or perhaps simply selectively changing our menus based on what the discounted meat/fish is for that week. 

It’s worth noting that the groceries number includes items other than food, like cleaning supplies, kitty litter, soap, etc.  Perhaps if we split those things out, and then shopped at a bulk store like Costco, we could lower our costs.  That will depend partly on how much additional storage space we get as a result of installing our shed (it doesn’t make much sense to buy in bulk if you’ve got nowhere to put it!).

I’m curious, do other people spend this much on food per month?

The next step for us in our personal finance journey is figuring out, in broad strokes, what we’re thinking about retirement.  Things like age to retire, how long we plan on living after that :), general lifestyle that we’d like to maintain, etc.  That should give us a solid understanding of how much money we’re likely to need.  More on that when we get to it…

I wish the sun would shine on a weekend, even just for an hour, so I could take some pictures of my car and write a blog post about it.  Alas I haven’t seen the sun in what seems like weeks and for the brief periods when it’s not raining it’s always cloudy.  I generally don’t mind, but I’m a bit worried there will be flooding here.  It turns out the wetland next to our house really does get wet and last week we had to deal with a ‘high water’ alarm installed on the side of our house. 

Oh well, in the absence of some decent pictures I’ll write about what I spent most of the weekend on.  I mentioned in my last post that we put our newer TV into the master bedroom.  The master bedroom doesn’t have cable, so we have an XBox hooked up that lets us watch DVDs, play games, and stream Netflix.  It has been bugging me that we can’t watch recorded TV on it though (particularly shows like House and Fringe that we watch once a week in HD that would look amazing on this TV).  I researched it a bit a few weekends ago and it turns out that the Tivo exposes a REST API for querying the Now Playing list and for downloading the videos to your PC.  The Tivo folks have written some primitive software that lets you do exactly that, but it’s clunky and it doesn’t let you save the files into any other format than .Tivo.  In fact, because of some poor choices that they made the Tivo software doesn’t even let you save to network drives; so I couldn’t use it to save onto the media shares of my Windows Home Server.   I spent another few hours looking around for some automated solution that would let me simply get the files off of the Tivo and into a format Windows Media Center could stream to an XBox.  Sadly I couldn’t find anything that worked the way I wanted it to (the Tivo folks suckered me into paying $25 for the ‘Pro’ version of their software because it is supposed to transcode the video into formats like H.264; it does, but only at a small resolution for mobile devices).  I ultimately decided I was going to just replace the Tivo with a media center with cable card support, until I found out how expensive they were at the moment.

To make a long story short I decided to write something custom that would work the way Rach and I wanted.  I had a couple of goals for it.  First, it needed to be completely automated so that I could run it using the Windows Scheduler at night when we weren’t using the computers.  Second, I wanted it to have a snazzy UI (for no other reason than I wanted to play around with WPF more).  Third, it needed to be smart about what files it copied over so that it would only keep a certain number of any particular series.  Finally I wanted to get it up and running as quickly as possible, so I didn’t want to make it too complicated.  I was originally thinking of using a WPF grid to list the set of shows to be downloaded; but honestly  I couldn’t find a single Grid example which was anything other than hideous (that didn’t include an $800 component anyway).  I gave up on the Grid and decided to go with a very clean basic UI.  I’m pretty happy with the result.  This is a screenshot of the app downloading an episode of House:

TivoToMediaCenter

The app works in the following way.  First, it starts by querying the Now Playing list of the Tivo through the rest API.  The Tivo’s web server is pretty basic, but you can see a simple Web UI by navigating to the following link: https://{0}/nowplaying/index.html where {0} is the ip address of your Tivo.  If you’re using IE it will recommend not browsing to the site because it can’t verify the SSL certificate, you can safely ignore that error.  You’ll also be prompted for a username and password.  In this case the username is always tivo, and the password is your “Media Access Key”.  You can find your Media Access Key on tivo.com under your profile or usually somewhere written on the tivo box or documentation.  You should now see a simple UI of your Now Playing list and download links.  With just that you can choose to individually download the files to your PC, though they will always be .Tivo files which are only playable if you have the correct codec installed.  There is a slightly different URL you use if you want the XML that represents the Now Playing list; it looks like this: https://{0}/TiVoConnect?Command=QueryContainer&Container=%2FNowPlaying&Recurse=Yes.  The XML is fairly detailed, giving you a list of all recordings on the box along with a ton of information about each.  My app currently only uses the Title, EpisodeTitle, Description, SourceSize, EpisodeNumber and DownloadLink.  Regardless, the app downloads the XML for processing.

The app uses an XML configuration file as input.  The configuration file tells the app which series it should download episodes from.  It basically consists of the series name, the total number of episodes to keep on the windows home server at one time, and the algorithm to use to determine which episodes to keep.  At the moment there are two algorithms to select from, either keep the most recently recorded or choose to keep the episodes with the highest episode numbers.  Rach and I generally watch two types of programs; syndicated things like the George Lopez Show or Wings for which we just want to see the most recently recorded (we watch them out of order) and the shows that we watch each week.  For those the Tivo may choose to record an older one during the middle of the week and I don’t want that overwriting the WHS version, hence the second algorithm.  The app reads this configuration file and builds a list of possible episodes to copy over.  It then filters this list based on a cache that it built from its previous run which contains the episodes it has already transferred.  The remaining episodes are the ones that will be processed.  This occasionally requires deleting episodes off of the WHS since there may be N new episodes which delete K old episodes.  The app takes care of that and then starts the processing.

The processing is straight forward.  There is a download link in the XML that can be used to retrieve the .Tivo file.  As usual there was a small complication.  For whatever reason WebClient doesn’t understand the format of the cookie that the Tivo web server returns on a request for this file.  Because of that the WebClient doesn’t include the session id as part of the header when it tries to actually get the bits of the file, which ultimately leads to a ‘bad request’ response from the Tivo.  To fix this I had to do a ‘fake’ request first, get the session id, and then set the cookie container manually.  To add another layer of complexity WebClient doesn’t support setting a cookiecontainer for some reason, so I had create a specialized version that would.  Honestly all that was cake compared to dealing with all of the asynchronous baloney that you need to do to keep a responsive UI.  I ended up using BackgroundWorker pretty extensively with what so far seems to be pretty good results.  I added support for cancelling the background work on exit, and surprisingly that has been working well.  Anyway, the app uses the modified WebClient to download the .Tivo file into a media cache that it keeps on the Media Center PC.  It then shells out to a program called tivodecode which converts the .Tivo file into an .mpg.  The app just directly converts it from the cache to the WHS, and then deletes the cache file.  After it’s all done the app writes out the episodes it has burned into the cache for its next run.

There are several things I need to finish and add, but sadly it’s getting late and I should probably get some sleep.  I want to add: 1) auto-shutdown after it completes after a 10 min wait, 2) finish implementing the algorithms mentioned above, 3) show summary information on completion, 4) log the major info and errors to a file, 5) remove the console window that appears when the app shells out to tivodecode, and 6) set it up to prevent the computer sleeping while it’s copying and make it so the WHS sends a Wake on Lan to the Media Center PC right before the app is scheduled to run.

Here’s a video of the UI: 

 

I’ve been meaning to write about our home network for a while now.  It’s funny, because as with most things getting it 90% set up was 10% of the work.  I’ve still got a ton of changes to make, but things are starting to come together.  I think I’ll keep this post mostly at a high level and then write more later about the specifics of how we set certain things up (like WHS and our multiple routers).  Our network generally looks like this:

Network

We have FIOS for internet and TV which is piped in through coaxial cable into our master bedroom.  We have hard-wired connections between the closet and the living room and the office upstairs.  Unfortunately we don’t have it hard wired into the master proper, though that’s something I’m going to do in the next few weeks.  For the moment we have two routers, one which acts as the DNS server and has a coaxial WAN input and the other which proffers the N access point.

In the master bedroom we have our new TV which I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before.  If not, it’s one of the Samsung LCD LED TVs; it has an amazing picture.  We have an Xbox Elite hooked up to it for gaming, watching DVDs, and streaming content.  In the master closet we have our Windows Home Server which stores all of our media (videos, pictures, movies, etc.).  In the office we have my desktop which currently acts as our Media Center.  We don’t record TV with it at the moment, but it’s what we use to stream movies to our Xboxes.  The printer is also in the office.  Both the computer and the printer are connected to a switch which then connects to the router through the wall wiring.  We also keep the wireless picture frame that I have in the office, though with the changes I made yesterday it will stop working soon.  Finally we have a switch  in the living room with an Xbox and Tivo connected to it.

This configuration enables the following:

Automated backups: The Windows Home Server will back up every configured machine on the network on a daily basis.

Streaming media: From either the living room or master we can stream any of our videos or music by using the Xboxes as extenders (which connects them to the Office computer which then reads the content off of the Windows Home Server).  Our Zunes can auto-sync with the media center PC upstairs so they are always up to date with whatever music we may have downloaded recently. 

This also enables streaming of DVD content, so I have started to take our DVDs and burn them to a folder on our Windows Home Server so that we can easily browse and watch them from either the master, living room, or wherever we happen to have a computer lying around.

Shared devices

Any of the computers on the network have easy access to the printer upstairs.  They also can access each other for shared files.

Remote access

A Windows Home Server gives you the option to set up your network to be publicly accessible (even without a static IP).  If you do that then you’re able to remote desktop into any machine that is active in your house.  I use this every once in a while when I need something I left at home for work.  It’s extremely useful, particularly when paired with addins that let you remotely wake up computers that are on your network.

The interesting posts will come later I think.  I want to write about the best way I’ve found so far of encoding ripped DVDs for playback on XBox, how I’m copying and encoding TV shows off of the Tivo for streaming to the 360, and the best ways I’ve found to use your own router when you have FIOS delivered with coaxial cable.  On the other hand, I’ll probably write about our new car first :-)

Family updates:

1) We got the recording numbers today for our old house.  We’ve officially sold it! Sadly we don’t get the check until Tuesday because Monday is a holiday.

2) I’m busy reading Personal Finance for Dummies on the Kindle app for the PC (on my Acer Aspire tablet) in order to figure out the best way to invest some of what we make off the old house.  If anyone has suggestions please let me know (on either good places to invest or good books about investing to go read).

3) We have most of the furniture we ordered but the dining room table isn’t going to get here until sometime in Feb :(.  As soon as it does we’ll post some updated tours.

4) We have the ground cleared, leveled, and set up for the shed that we want to get.  We’ll be working more on that in the next week or so (finalizing it with the city and actually getting something ordered).  We’re looking at using the Tuff Shed folks from Home Depot.  Here’s what the area looks like (cans represent 6’x10’ which is the size of the shed we want):

FullView

The retaining wall isn’t quite finished in that picture, but it will be soon

5) Our mole problem is slowly getting fixed.  One down, no more than 100 more or so to go.

6) We’re pretty sure we’ve got everything we need for our Bahamas trip next month.  Swimsuits, shorts, sandals, and our wedding outfits.  

More soon…

A few weeks ago Eric and Jane organized a Christmas get together.  It was a ton of fun; we went out for Chinese food and then eventually saw Avatar.  We also had the opportunity to meet and hang out with some friends of Mike and Sharon, and even had a chance to tour their beautiful new house (which, coincidently was basically right next door to our old house).  For Rach and I there were two things that stood out about the tour.  First, they had a Maine Coon Cat.  I’d never seen that particular breed before, but he was a giant pure-bred named Merlin and he was just super cool looking and had a great temperament.  Second, they had replaced their entry deadbolt with an automatic lock that immediately set off my ‘geek-envy’.

It took a bit of time but I was able to find the same brand on Amazon for a ‘decent’ price.  The deadbolt is made by Sunnect and is called the AP501 Advanced Protection Digital Door.  There were several reasons we were interested in getting the lock outside of its coolness factor.  The deadbolt that we had on the front door has had issues since we bought the house.  Its major problem was that the door had to be placed somewhat exactly in order for the throwbolt to slide into place.  On further inspection I found that the deadbolt had a 1 inch throwbolt, but the strikeplate hole was only about a 1/2” deep.  This was annoying as well because it meant that the deadbolt never felt like it really ‘locked’ into place.  Finally the deadbolt unlocked by turning right, but the doorknob unlocks by turning the key left.  I would get that wrong at least once a day.

In addition to fixing the issues above the Sunnect deadbolt has a keypad on the outside, so we can never be accidently locked out.  The second thing Rach and I love about the new deadbolt is that it auto-locks about 3 seconds after the door is closed.  We’re pretty paranoid so we always manually lock the door ourselves and this saves us the effort.  The ‘keys’ are proximity based, you just hold them up to the sensor for a second or so.  They are also programmable, so if we accidently lose one we can just deactivate it on the lock after which it will no longer be able to unlock the door.  Finally, and perhaps most important, it plays happy little musical chimes when the door is locked or unlocked.

I planned to install it myself last weekend.  I think for 95% of houses that have standard doors the installation would be pretty easy.  Unfortunately after I had taken off the existing deadbolt on our front door I realized that it had no recessed area for the plate around the throwbolt, the throwbolt hole wasn’t deep enough, and the new strike plate assembly wouldn’t fit because for some reason the other door (double doors in the entry) is basically ‘hollowed out’ about a 1/2 inch up and down the door.  I think its that way to support the slidable inserts that allow that door to be selectively opened, but what it also meant was that when the old throwbolt was fully extended it actually was encased in only a very tiny bit of wood.  Anyway, and it pains me to admit this, I eventually had to get help to prep the doors so that the deadbolt could be installed.  I did help put the rest of it on after the door was prepped, but I think I need to increase my tool chest to include a chisel for future projects. 

You can see the end result below.  I took a couple of videos showing opening from the inside, auto-lock and how the keypad works.  I don’t show the actual key entry, but if you’re interested I’m pretty sure the Sunnect site has a lot of videos (including shooting the deadbolt with a bullet -  a common problem around here).

I’m happy to say that we’re one step closer to a robot army and sentient house.  In the future the vacuum will probably conspire with the deadbolt to keep us out so that the house will stay clean.  Machines and their cold logic.  Who can blame them though? It would probably work.

Recently, we have been working very hard on improving our house. We spent almost every day of Anson’s winter vacation going to furniture stores, taking pictures, measuring, going home, measuring, going back…you get the idea :)

We have now made all our purchases and are waiting for the deliveries. Yay! The first room that got all its new furniture was the bedroom. It’s a cherry wood  bedroom set that’s a bit oversized, but we love it. In fact, it actually makes our bedroom look normal in size (which is pretty amazing!). We were trying to think of a way to share our new home with our family on the east coast. So, here’s the solution we came up with: photosynth!  It’s a program that combines hundreds of photos (which you provide) and creates a 3-D experience. For our purposes, a tour!

Here is the photosynth of our master bedroom (yes, I know we have no artwork on the walls yet—we’re working on it).

http://photosynth.net/view.aspx?cid=9492ef5f-8a63-4155-82f8-17a363fb5772&m=false&i=0:0:64&c=-1.67393:0.228403:0.0559457&z=781.668635956756&d=2.54313183615198:-2.4273999605061:-2.23419489046379&p=0:0&t=False

 

The photosynth program seems to work pretty well. It’s a bit more work than the video tutorial implies…I had to take about 4x as many pictures as I thought I would. But, overall, it’s a ridiculously simple process. Download photosynth. Take pictures. Put pictures on computer. Open them in photosynth program. Click the synth button. Done!

 

I’ll work on photosynth-ing the other rooms of the house as they get closer to finished. We have recently received the new living room furniture and are just waiting for the dining room stuff…which is on back order. So, it may not be until February. But, it’ll be worth the wait :)

Phones and home security don’t seem like they should be related.  At least, I didn’t think about them being related right up until Rach and I decided to get an alarm system. 

When we moved to our new house we decided that we no longer needed a landline.  We use our cells for 90% of our calls, and the 10% of the time someone called our landline it was because they were trying to sell us something.  The landline was purportedly costing us $18/mo, but that was the pre-tax and fees price.  In reality it was closer to $30/mo.  In the old house it made some sense to keep it since our cell phone reception was spotty in certain areas of the house (</3 AT&T).  Regardless we dumped it when we moved to our new place and have been happily saving our $360/yr.

That was just peachy, right up until we started to seriously consider getting a home security system.  There are a ton of different options when buying a security system but one of the biggest distinctions is whether the system is monitored by a company like ADT or not.  If you do get a monitored system, then you end up paying $30-$40/mo.  I initially had trouble coming to terms with a security system; after all, if everything goes well you pay a ton of money and have nothing to show for it.  Our insurance offers a minimal discount for an installed system, but nowhere near what the monthly costs would be (the total discount amounts to $3/yr).  It’s really the same as insurance; ultimately you’re paying for peace of mind.  In the past several years we’ve had 2 car radios stolen, a couple boxes of checks stolen, our mail stolen, and our credit card number stolen.  We haven’t had the misfortune of anyone breaking into our house, but we have friends who have had to go through that nightmare and it’s no fun at all.  Ultimately I came to terms with the large monthly cost, particularly when I thought of it as basically trading the monthly cost of a local line for the monthly cost of a monitored security system.  That’s when we ran into a bit of a snag…

It turns out that virtually every monitored alarm system on the market today requires a landline.  I would have thought that by now an internet connection would be sufficient, but the models that support that are few and far between, expensive, and not available through the company we had install the system.  So I went back to price out the cheapest possible landline that we could get; hoping that we could find a bundle deal that would let us get it for less than $10/mo.  There is nothing like that in the area unfortunately; the least that we could get was around $25/mo. after taxes and fees.  I was reconsidering the whole thing up until Varun happened to mention the possibility of getting a cell enabled alarm system.  Instead of a landline the system has a small cell phone that it can use the call the monitoring company.  I dug around a bit and found out that it was only $8/mo. more to get the cell option with the model alarm system that we were looking at.  That was good enough for us, but it’s pretty comical that we have a cell phone that can only call a single number.  It turns out a cell system is slightly more secure; any burglar trying to rob the place can’t just cut a landline now, they would have to somehow get into the house and disable the cell communication. 

The long and short is that I’m pretty happy with our current solution (thanks Varun!).  It’s probably worth mentioning that we have run into another snag that I didn’t expect as a result of dumping the landline.  Our new house is big.  When I come home from work, I’ll often dock my cell to recharge it.  If I happen to be upstairs when the cell rings I will often miss the call (that’s after bounding down the stairs, stepping on the cat, and tripping over furniture).  In our old house we could just put phones anywhere there was a jack, so we were set.  I’ve been looking around and it turns out there is a workaround for this in the form of bluetooth enabled phones and handsets.  Basically you get a base station that will connect to your cell with bluetooth.  The base station then connects to any number of handsets which you can place around your house.  After it’s set up you can put your cell in its charger (indeed, locating the charger in the area of your house where your phone gets the best reception) and then use any of the handsets to place calls through your cell.  In fact, you can hook up multiple cells to the same headsets (with different rings) and selectively choose which one to use to call out.  Rach and I are currently considering the VTech Dect 6.0 set.

Okay, okay, so there is one more issue that we’re having since dropping the landline :)  Our landline was pretty much our dedicated spam line.  We never gave out our cell numbers when we were buying goods, registering accounts, etc.; we would hand out our landline instead.  Without a landline we end up giving our cell numbers out, and now my cell has started to get calls from marketing slime.  By the way, one of my all time least favorite things is when an automated machine calls my cell and then asks me to hold for the next available representative.  Seriously?  I can’t think of a single person I know who would hold.  Anyway, Varun (again) introduced me to a solution just the other day.  It turns out that Google offers a service called Google voice.  Google voice is intended to be a one stop shop for managing all of the various numbers that you have (cells, landlines, work numbers, etc.).  Basically you sign up and then choose a new phone number from a list of available numbers across the country.  You can then set it up so that single number will make any of your phones ring when you get incoming calls.  It’s possible to selectively choose which phones ring based on the caller (family rings them all, friends only ring cell, boss goes to work phone, etc.).  You can also block calls.  I’m not a huge fan of their implementation.  The way it works for the caller is that they dial the number and after a ring or two they’ll get asked to say their name by an automated system (identifying itself as Google Voice).  That’s not something that I would want to put family or friends through, it’s just annoying.  However, on the other side my mobile rings and says [Name] is calling, press 1 to accept the call or 2 to send it to voice mail.  I figure this new number is perfect to give out to companies that require a phone number but who you never want to call you (like say, best buy, or the grocery store).  That way if the number ‘accidently’ gets sold to a marketing company you can easily screen your calls.  Better yet, when their automated system calls me, my automated system picks up.  Our two automated systems can have a nice chat and I don’t have to deal with it.

I spent this Sat. morning, as I spend most mornings recently – standing in my lukewarm shower wondering why a 50 gallon hot water tank didn’t seem to have enough heat for a 10 minute shower.  I was further confounded by the fact that when Rach took her shower 15 mins after I was done, the water was nice and toasty.  I figured that while I was trying to figure out what the issue was, I might as well also try to figure out why it takes so long in the master bathroom for hot water to come out of the faucet when you want to wash your hands.

I read several articles about how hot water tanks work and I believe that my first problem has to do with hysteresis.  Basically the thermostat on the water heater only has two states; on and off.  Thermostats are intentionally set so that they don’t turn on and off exactly at the temperature that you set, but instead operate within a range.  This prevents the thermostat from turning on and off constantly, wasting energy and gas.  Different models of hot water heaters have different ranges; some models will actually let the water cool 15-20 degrees below your setting before kicking in.  I believe that my model would let the temperature go down during the night because no one was using hot water and then it would start to heat the water again when I used the top layer of hot water and cold water started to come in from the bottom.  Then if you waited just a bit, the water would be nice and toasty when the next shower was taken.

The simple fix is to turn up the temperature on the thermostat.  That way the ‘low’ temperature, even if it’s 15-20 degrees lower than the set temperature, is still plenty hot enough.  I was worried about doing that because all of the documentation that I had read suggested that keeping the temperature low was a good way to save money.  I expect that’s true.  However, it turns out that in the UK they suggest/require that water heater temperature be set at 140 degrees.  This is because that is the temperature at which Legionella dies instantly.  I further learned, after it was mentioned in an offhand way on some website, that certain dishwashers actually require the incoming water to be a certain heat.  I found my dishwasher manual, and was surprised to find that it required temperatures of at least 120 degrees for incoming water.  

Obviously I turned up the thermostat on my water heater.  I have it set for 120 at the moment, though I will likely up it to 140 soon.  I just wanted to make sure that it wasn’t going to be too hot first.  No more lukewarm showers!  It’s a shame that on one side the recommendation is to keep the temp low to prevent scalds and save energy (the furnace itself is covered in stickers talking about how it only takes seconds to scald people at 120 degrees), and on the other the suggestion is to jack it up to at least 120 for sanitary conditions.  I think in a few years we’ll look at a tankless option if they can improve them enough so that they’d be able to heat the water for our size house.

The length of time it takes hot water to reach the master bathroom seems to be controlled by a large number of factors.  The size and kind of pipes, the insulation of the pipes, the distance the water heater is away from the master, etc.  There are numerous suggestions for possible fixes, though generally people say that, particularly for the master bathroom, it should have been something that your builder/plumber considered when designing that part of the house.  Sadly we weren’t that lucky :(  The most general solution in terms of ‘hot water responsiveness’ seems to be a recirculating system.  Basically you keep hot water constantly flowing through the line and send it back to the hot water heater for reheating at various intervals.  There are many variations of the system, some of which try to minimize the cost/waste.  For example, some are set up so that you press a button when you know you’ll need hot water soon – that starts the system.  That way it’s not constantly on.  Other variations of that include motion trackers in the bathroom which automatically turn it on.  My conclusion is that it’s not enough of a problem to worry about yet.  I’ll check back on it again in 6 months and decide whether it annoys me enough to do something about.

So, one problem solved with a happy result and another deferred, at least until it becomes more annoying.