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.


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:


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]:


Here’s the after picture:


And a wide-angle of the whole room:


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.

Yet Another Project Completed… Almost…

So, now that we’ve done the bar, we started working on the master closet. There are two, actually. One “His” and one “Hers”. We’re re-doing the “Hers” closet. We painted all but one wall a light tan and the one wall a pale blue. After that, we put up an entirely new closet system using Elfa. It ROCKS and is very easy to install and assemble. We’ve gotten all the pieces up now, so Laura can move her clothes back in.

Only one thing remains: Laura wants to paint a design on the blue wall. We’ll work on that later, I think.

Oh – and we even installed a new light with a motion sensor switch… cool, eh?

End Results [With Pictures!]

I promised pictures and now you have them! Introducing our kitchen bar before renovation. Notice the large gray overhang. It was so cumbersome and we kept running into it. It also took up a couple of feet of the sitting room next to the kitchen.


Next, you’ll see the work in progress:


So we ripped the ugly gray top off and replaced it with a nice piece of wood.


Now that the painting’s done, this is the final result. It’s much easier to walk around and doesn’t feel so bulky. We love it!

We owe a special thanks to John Elliott for helping us get started [well, for doing most of the work on the construction part, but the painting was hard too!]. Many coats of paint later, we are finally finished.

Painting Madness

We are coming to the end of our home remodeling projects… Note I said “projects” – yes, we started another one before finishing the first. We ripped out Laura’s closet and have spackled and primed the closet. Next, we will paint it and hang up new custom shelving.

As for the bar area, I’ve decided I’m going to finish priming and painting it the original dull color and we’ll chose another color for accent purposes later.

It’s off to paint now!


That’s us. Well, not really, but it’s taken longer that I like for us to come close to finishing the bar. We’ve now got the structure in place, the bar and wall fully plastered and primed, and even have some first coats of paint on the trim parts. We’re not really satisfied with the texture of the finish of the top, but I think that a couple more coats should solve the problem with that.

Then, of course, is the problem of the wall. It seems that the wall-colored paint we have that the previous owners stored in the basement is a few shades off from what the walls actually look like. We will not only have to paint the areas that have been plastered, but also the entire wall to all the seams. It’s quite an obvious difference, so we have to go floor-to-ceiling with it and corner-to-corner. With all that painting to be done, we might as well change the color. Once that’s all done, I’ll take a “final” picture and post it up here.

I’m really just a slacker for not blogging anything in the last couple of weeks, but I truly have been busy.

No! Really!


We’ve ripped out our bar counter top. Yep. Not even in the house two months and we’ve destroyed a surface. What we’ve done, though, is make the kitchen area feel so much larger. We’re just going to cap off the knee wall with a flat board and make “mini bar” of only 11″ inches wide or so. It’s our first remodeling project. The new sink doesn’t count…

Right now, though, it’s not done – just demolished. We couldn’t find the right lumber to finish the job. Hopefully, we’ll be done by Monday night and I’ll get some good pictures of the finished project.

Hopefully, I won’t be like Mike and not post ANY of the final result pictures of our kitchen remodel.. hint, hint!