A Day of House Work [In and Out]

Gardening is hard work – especially when you find some kind of rock under the topsoil. Digging around it, we found that it could be broken into pieces. Not easily, but it could be done. So, for the last hour or so, we’ve been digging through it just to get holes deep enough for some flowers. Of course, we had to borrow a shovel to do this work, so that’s now on the list of stuff we have to buy.

The barbeque is going well – I think I have the temperature down where it needs to be. It takes a lot of work just to check on it during the day. I’m glad I have nowhere else to be!

I’m also working on the new web site, or rather, redirecting the old website to the new domain name. This is the web site for our new photography business name: Phillips Photographik. It’s the same site for now that the old one pointed to, but now I’ve changed some of the language to reflect that it’s Laura and I, and updated the contact emails. I still have to update the banner.

It will take some time for us to finalize a logo, but we’ll get it done. At least this gives us a start!

We’ve been stagnant for so long, but things are going to change soon.

Smokin’!

Well, not exactly “smoking” but the charcoal is. We’re heatin’ up the ole grill and using it to grill some burgers and a kabob this time. We have some new metal grills to replace the old “well used” ones, so I’m really firing it up to season them. But, why waste a fire, yes?

Let’s cook!

Soon, it will be ready to grill and the meat will be sizzlin’.

It’s sure good to be home, now!

What? No TV???

This afternoon, I sat down on my couch to watch a little TV and relax only to find to my chagrin, that the rather new Samsung LN46A750 turns itself on and off continuously! This is way not good.

A quick search online tells me that this is a known problem and that there is a fix for it by flashing the TV. Awesome.

Now if I can only keep the TV from turning off so that I can flash it…

That would be a “no”. Now, I have to have someone come and fix it. Grr.

I’m so glad this happened while it is under warranty!

Feel The Heat

Today, I went on a ride with my motorcycle club from South Riding to Frederick, MD. It’s not that long of a ride, but doing it with a group of 35 or so people takes quite a bit of time. In fact, the round trip plus lunch took over 6 hours.

That wouldn’t have been so bad except for one thing: it was over 90 degrees outside today! Ouch! It’s not so bad when you’re moving, but once you stop, the heat gets very uncomfortable.

Anyway, it was all in all a great ride except for the heat. Then I got home. Seems that even though our HVAC has been repaired, that I forgot to reset the thermostat and put it on Auto instead of Heat. Well, it’s over 80 in the house now and it’s still uncomfortable for me to move around.

Maybe I’ll just go lay on the tile floor… too bad it’s fake tile. Won’t really be cool enough.

Cherry Blossoms and Other Things

Okay, so I don’t post nearly as regularly as I should, but at least I do post and I try to do it at least once a month.

So the AC is now finally fixed and operating as it’s supposed to.

And I’m sore like I haven’t been since high-school spring football [and not recovering near as fast] due to some increased workout activity. I’ve been doing a little of that P90X workout once per week and it really tears me up. Maybe one day I’ll be able to do it 5 days per week.

So, we went out and got great pictures of cherry blossoms.

Now, all we need to do is post the thousands of remaining pictures…

HVAC Issues

Over the last couple of days, we’ve noticed that our heating and air-conditioning system was not functioning correctly. On the one hot day, we couldn’t get it to cool [luckily, it wasn’t that hot – only high 70s] and the rest of the days, it seemed like it just wouldn’t get warm.

After playing with it a little bit and smelling some strange electronic burning smell, we discovered that while the main furnace/AC was functioning, the fan system was not blowing. It was getting hot inside the furnace, but nowhere else. We had someone look at it today.

Sure enough, it was a bad circuit board – the one that switched the fan to “on” was broken. The technician bypassed the board for today and ordered the part. It should be in next week.

For now, we have heat – which is great since it got below 60 in the house this morning. I think we might be up to 68 or so by now. All this means that I had to work at the house today [since Laura had been called on to work an emergency shift due to someone’s illness I think and wasn’t able to be home] and sit freezing in the basement most of the morning. Hence my ability to take 5 and blog…

Maybe I’ll even get some of my work administration done. Status reports, research, etc. Stuff that normally doesn’t get done in a timely fashion when I have to sit with the customer all day.

Is Winter Really Over?

It’s probably not, but it certainly feels like it. After the post below, many of you outside of our area might be thinking it’s still cold up here. Not so! In fact, it’s now 73 and a warm Spring day, even though it’s not really Spring yet. Not only that, we already have our US tax return sitting in the bank!

On that note, Laura and I will be heading out to go shopping! Well, to buy a couple of new lamps for the bedroom. Not that big of a purchase, but something we need.

With Spring knocking on the door, Laura has been moving furniture around and thinking about what our next home improvement project should be. I’ve hijacked that thought and decided that we’re going to wire the living room for surround sound speakers. I finally figured out a way to make it work with a minimum of effort and cost.

—- UPDATE —

I forgot to hit “publish”, but we’ve just gotten back from a nice shopping day. We have a pair of lamps now that look to fit the bill.

Fun With Windows Media Center – An Epic Journey

It may not be quite "epic", but it has been quite a journey.

First, let me explain what Windows Media Center [let’s just say WMC from now on] is. WMC is an application that runs on Windows [for the sake of discussion, let’s keep it Vista specific] and allows you to host music, pictures, videos, TV, DVDs, radio, etc. on a computer which is connected to you home entertainment system [TV & stereo system usually].

As a small point of history, Laura and I have moved around a little in this area discovering the good/bad/ugly of the local cable systems and DirecTV. Not that DirecTV in and of itself is bad, but the outages during high winds and storms was unacceptable. We tried local cable: Comcast first and now Cox. Verizon Fios is out but not yet at our house. In the course of trying out the different cable systems and DVRs, we fast discovered that both cable system boxes are VERY bad. The Comcast box was better, but the guide was awful and had advertisements all over it. It was slow and never quite worked for On-Demand videos. The Cox  box works just fine – if  you like slow and non-responsive at times. However, the DVR portion of this box is absolutely horrible. There’s no "series priority" setting that the Comcast box had – in other words, you couldn’t program 3 shows to record at once [of course, since there are only 2 tuners] and have it chose the top 2 in case of a conflict in time. I can’t even view the list and settings of my scheduled recordings. I have to guess. Also: I can’t record a series with the settings: "all new shows on all channels". Even recording "all shows on this channel" isn’t smart enough to know that it has already recorded that episode – it records it anyway and fills up the disk.

So I thought I’d remedy the problem by using Laura’s "old" computer as a WMC station. By "old" I mean only a year old. The only newer computers in this house are the server and my work laptops – only 1 of them, actually. So it’s not really that old. It came with a tuner and has a 300GB hard drive which at first glance is enough to be a basic media center.

Configuring the basics of the WMC and connecting it to the TV/stereo was a joy: everything worked great. I had digital audio connections and a VGA jack right into the TV. It would have been better with HDMI I’m sure, but that would have been an upgrade at a later date when I found out if it worked like I wanted it to. The only initial problem was WiFi signal strength [don’t do this, by the way – go for wired connections] which I have now solved by using an Ethernet over power line adapter. The great thing about this is that I could now [once the network problems were solved] listen to all of our music CDs which I painstakingly ripped to MP3 over a series of months and stored on the server. Now, there is no need to dig through a box of disks searching for the right one. I just load up the music library and Boom! Tons of music. Success!

It also worked great for some downloaded episodes from Amazon Unbox – some NCIS or CSI episodes we missed and needed to catch up on played very well. DVDs played wonderfully as well, even transmitting digital surround signals to the amplifier [I don’t have all the speakers mounted yet, but will soon… I hope…].

Then came the big problem. The whole reason I started this journey [not the "whole" reason really – I did want to play our music and videos from the server as well…] was to eliminate both the extra cost and evil [yes, I mean "evil"] interface of the cable guide and DVR. If you’ve ever seen the interface of WMC, it’s really slick. I’m not just saying that out of loyalty, but out of experience. The WMC interface is quick, intuitive, and very pretty. It makes the cable box interfaces look like 80s video games… like "pong" or "Space Invaders" instead of "Halo".

So – what’s the problem with that, you ask? Well, the tuner. Yes. The tuner. The system itself ROCKS. As far as analog cable shows go, it’s the system to have… if you have only analog cable. Digital cable is another story altogether. I found that my tuner would only work with analog signals and over-the-air HDTV signals. Anyone who lives in a hilly or mountainous area will immediately recognize the flaws with that. Right – over the air in Virginia? Not. In Houston, I know this is not only possible but works quite well. It just doesn’t work for me. So I tried another tack: many cable companies will send digital channels over "clear QAM" or unencrypted digital signals over the cable. My card didn’t support this, so I picked up one at a nearby store and tried it out.

Success! I could now view digital channels… but… wait… only 13? I thought I was paying for 150 or so. Where’s all the other channels? It seems that only local broadcast channels are sent in the "clear". All the others are encrypted. What should I do? After some research, I discovered that there is a system that will support this called CableCard. This is a method by which encrypted signals are decoded and able to be played by a media system or even TV which has this capability. I thought I’d found the solution.

The more I read, though, the more disappointed I became. CableCard tuners only seemed to work on pre-configured systems with special BIOS that would support them. What this means in English is that in order for me to get the channels that I wanted on my WMC PC, I would need to spend about $1500 or more on a new computer just to escape the ugly interface and clunky DVR. I wasn’t ready to do that. I am glad I didn’t buy the tuners – returning them would have been a pain. So I was stuck. Well, not only stuck, but I found out that Cable Labs who makes these "standards" for the cable industry keeps changing things. There’s now a new standard for bi-direction digital cable encryption/decryption that cable companies will be utilizing, thereby obsoleting any system that I would have purchased or configured.

The conclusion of this story is that I have relocated Laura’s computer back to the basement, created a virtual desktop running Vista, installed WMC, created a local copy [which is synchronized via Live Sync] of all of our music, and connected a Media Center Extender to the stereo and TV which now lets us play our music and videos on the main entertainment system.

Oh – and that now includes a Blu-Ray player which I had intended to add into the WMC computer.

I’m not giving up, though. Verizon Fios will be coming soon and their DVR system and cable box is based on Windows CE and a custom version of what looks a lot like WMC.

Maybe one day, cable companies will do something smart… or helpful… or maybe not.

One can hope, yes?

Time For A Re-Fi?

What with rates as low as they are, we are looking into a refinance of our home loan. Yes, I know: we just bought the house not six months ago. But, I assure you that the lock we put in at 5% is such that we will be saving almost $300 per month on our house payment without significant cost. In fact, it’s almost a wash with the costs of the loan being the same as a month’s payment, which we’d get to skip. The only thing "bad" is that our loan length will be 6 months longer. But, with diligence, we can decrease the total loan time – and the total payoff amount, which will be over $100,000 less than the old loan even if we only pay the minimum payment.

What we’ll have to decide, though, is if we divert the additional savings to a savings account or just keep it going to the principal to pay it off early.

Probably a little of both.

Close to Finished…

After finishing the bar and the closet, we are now finished with two more mini-projects. I say “mini” because the work that we did was not remodeling work, but shopping & designing.

The first project that took us a long time to complete was finding an entertainment center. It took us longer than one might imagine because we wanted a few specific things, including lots of storage space for our DVDs, solid wood construction, and a nice mahogany color. What we settled on is this:

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A few weeks ago, we ordered some wood blinds for the room as well. Today, they were installed and we love them. They really bring some additional warmth to the room. The valence will not stay, but it was here when we moved in and we’re going to use it until we decide what we really want to put there. Here’s a before picture [with my new fish-eye lens]:

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Here’s the after picture:

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And a wide-angle of the whole room:

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And, yes: eventually, we’re going to ditch the rug and get one that matches better – and will stay cleaner! [Never buy a white area rug if you can help it… trust me!] That’s why we’re not completely finished yet.

Oh – and we have a better ottoman on order to replace our found-on-side-of-road coffee table.