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Biking Miscellany

That time of year

So, in the past week, central Maryland has weathered an earthquake and a hurricane.  Now we get to weather the first week of fall classes at UMBC, which is always exciting, and almost never in a good way.  We’ll see what this year has in store for us.

Took my first post-Irene bike ride to work today.  The goal was to scout out Patapsco State Park, to see if there were any downed trees or debris to block my passage.  Today I rode into the park on the Howard County side via River Rd., past the Avalon day use area, out to the swinging bridge, and back via the Grist Mill Trail.  Figuring there’d be lots of debris to negotiate, I took my mountain bike.  This part of the park turned out to be in great shape.  There was definitely evidence of recent trail maintenance, which must have taken place yesterday or Sunday.  There were no fallen trees blocking the road or trail, and no more debris than you’d expect after any average summer storm.  Tomorrow, I’ll ride the upper section of the Grist Mill Trail out to Ilchester Rd., and check out how River Rd. fared in the storm.

Howard County schools are back in session starting today (one day late, again thanks to Irene) which means that for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to avoid riding on Montgomery Rd. in the mornings.  I’ll start my rides by going down Lawyers Hill Rd., and then vary the routes from there.  If I’m feeling adventurous, maybe I’ll even attempt a few climbs up the notorious Ilchester Rd.

It seems like the biggest fallout from Hurricane Irene has been the power outages.  Apparently it’s going to take until the weekend to get power restored to everybody.  Irene’s track was very similar to Hurricane Floyd back in 1999, and I remember Floyd causing a lot of power outages.  It seems worse this time around.  It might just be because the area has gotten so much denser and built out in the 12 years since Floyd.  The more electrical infrastructure you build, the more you have to support, and the more vulnerable it is to storms like Floyd and Irene.

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Biking Miscellany

Mid-life crisis?

My latest kick these days is getting rid of stuff.  The junk accumulation phase of my life is over, and it’s time to downsize.  My new best friends are the recycle bin, the dump, the paper shredder, eBay, and the Salvation Army.  I’d like the house to eventually be neat and organized.  I’d like us eventually to move to a smaller house that’s less of a money pit.  When that happens, I don’t want to have a lot of junk to move, so I’m getting a head start on things now.

There have been a couple of recent exceptions.  I recently repaired my old electric guitar, a ’79 Peavey T-60 which I bought in the mid-1980s.  These are versatile, well-made guitars that can produce a wide variety of different sounds, due to a unique “coil tapping” circuit that uses the tone control to dial in variable amounts of resistance across the pickup coils.  However, on mine, the neck pickup never worked.  I found an OEM replacement on eBay and soldered it in, and now it’s good as new and I’m having lots of fun with it, after it sat neglected for 20-odd years.  (Incidentally, when I first picked it up, it was still in tune.)

Next up is my old mountain bike, a ’93 Specialized Rockhopper.  It’s been mostly neglected for around 10 years. The old front suspension fork is shot, making it unrideable.  My plan is to replace it with a rigid fork, upgrade the headset and stem, and use it for winter commuting and some occasional single track.  If it works out, I’ll replace the old cantilever brakes with v-brakes, and possibly convert it to single speed.  It’s got a well-built frame, and if I can fix it up for $250 or so, then there’s no need to shell out big bucks for a new mountain or cross bike.

It’s a bit nostalgic fixing up the guitar I had as a teenager and the bike which I rode in my 20s.  If this my mid-life crisis, I guess it beats buying a sports car or a boat.

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Biking Miscellany

State Bird

I think I’m going to start a petition to change Maryland’s official State Bird.  I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a Baltimore Oriole, in the wild, in Maryland.  Wouldn’t it be better to use a bird that is much more commonplace?  I’m thinking that a more appropriate choice would be the Canada Goose, or perhaps the Bell Jet Ranger.

Speaking of geese, I ran into a particularly cantankerous gaggle in Patapsco State Park this morning, on my ride to work.  They had a big group of goslings in tow, and the adults gave me a nice chorus of hisses as I rode by.  I laughed, thinking, these guys are not unlike the average driver in Maryland!  (Take it easy folks..  just kidding!  Sort of.)

Unfriendly geese aside, the weather is definitely looking nice for the end of the week.  The clouds are gone and the temperatures are warming up.  I took Landing Rd out to Ilchester Rd today and then rode through the park.  Tomorrow is Bike-to-Work Day, so I was thinking about riding out to Ellicott City and Catonsville, to see if I can catch up with some other riders heading to UMBC.  It’s nice to finally shed the rain gear.

Enjoy the weather and don’t forget to ride in tomorrow.

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Miscellany Pool

This and That

So..  another summer is upon us.  Howard County schools finally let out at the end of this week.  I remember when I was a kid, summer vacation was almost 3 months long, and now it’s down to barely two.  Instead, there are tons more random days off during the school year, for “professional teacher work days” and the like.  Not sure if it’s a step forward or back, but I think if I was a kid I’d feel a bit gypped.

Three weeks after uncovering, the pool is finally clear, clean and up to a reasonable swimming temperature.  It was more of a swamp than usual this spring.  Over 3 weeks I’d say it took 20 gallons of 12.5% sodium hypochlorite, 10 pounds of dry acid, 15 pounds of baking soda, and 3 pounds of aluminum sulfate (a flocculent) to get it cleared up.  I had to vacuum to waste 4 times, compared to twice on an average year.  Not sure what the deal was this year, but I’m sure the April heat wave didn’t help.  It also didn’t help that the pool was already starting an algae bloom when we covered it in late September.  Didn’t feel like dealing with it then, knew at the time it was going to give me headaches come spring, covered it anyway.  Lesson for the day:  Never put off fixing pool water problems..  they never go away, they just become bigger problems over time.

The big new thing for the pool this summer is the salt water generator.  I installed it over the winter and early spring, in the hopes that it would cut down on work and help prevent water problems.  One of the problems with manual chlorination is that during the summer, you can’t neglect it, even for a single day, or you will end up with algae.  Automatic chlorine feeders are a step up, but you still have to buy, store and handle the chlorine, and you have to remember to keep the feeder full.  With the SWG, you dump an initial amount of salt into the pool, then you set the SWG and forget it.  Obviously they still require maintenance, but they eliminate the day-to-day drugdery of manual chlorination and eliminate the need to handle and store lots of chlorine.  Now, I keep a little bit on hand for “shocking,” but that’s it.  The jury will be out on the SWG until I’ve had it for a whole season, but up to now, it’s lived up to the hype and seems like the best thing to come along for pools since automatic cleaners.

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Miscellany

A tale of two web sites

I’m a frequent shopper at my local big-box home improvement warehouse chains.  I’ve got my pick of them, too — at last count there were 3 Lowes and around 8 Home Depots within 30 minutes drive of my house.  Welcome to the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

I’m also a web surfer.  I like to plan projects at home and then look for the stuff I need online before I actually get in the car.  I’m sure there are many more like me.  And for the longest time, neither of these two retailers seemed to “get” this.  Searching for stuff on their web sites was mostly an exercise in futility.  In most cases, the search results I got back were either incomplete or totally unrelated to what I was looking for.

Lowes has made some improvements to their web site in recent years.  Case in point: recently I was looking for some PVC electrical conduit and fittings.  Both Home Depot and Lowes carry a fairly complete line of PVC conduit manufactured by Carlon.  I went to both retailers’ web sites and searched for “carlon.”  Lowes’ site worked great, returning several pages of relevant results.  Home Depot’s site “helpfully” corrected my search term to “gallon,” and returned several pages of shop-vacs and pressure washers.  Guess where I ended up going?

I guess the moral here is that retailers need to start realizing that their web sites are extensions of their store fronts.  Online catalogs should be easy to search and results should reflect what’s actually on the shelves in the stores.  I’m sure that’s much easier said than done, but ultimately, modern consumers are going to be driven to the stores that have the best web sites.

Disclaimer:  I am a Home Depot shareholder.

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Miscellany

Snowblower

It’s actually snowing here in the mid-atlantic, although I’m predicting another non-event similar to so many others we’ve had in the past 3 winters.  I think that when all is said and done, we’ll end up with maybe an inch and a half of snow, not quite enough to cover the grass, topped with a light glaze of ice – A typical Maryland “wintry mix”.  Of course, the local news media has been in high gear since last night, leading off their 11pm broadcasts with radar maps, reporters standing in front of salt trucks, and dire predictions of rush-hour road catastrophes.  But for the most part, snowstorms in these parts rarely live up to the hype.

I have a snowblower that I bought back in late 2002, just in time for the big blizzard of 2003 (one of the rare storms that did live up to the hype).  It last saw action in February 2006, and since then it’s sat in my garage collecting dust.  I used to store it with the gas tank empty, but it would be an absolute bear to start that way..  so a couple years ago I started storing it with a full tank and a healthy dose of gas stabilizer.  That seems to keep it happy, providing I drain and replace the gas at least once a year.   Twice a year or so I’ll start it up to make sure it still runs.  I hadn’t done it for awhile, so I figured I’d fire it up this morning in case this latest round of wintry weather actually yields any “blow”able amount of snow.  And indeed, the snowblower started up pretty easily on its 9-month-old tank of stabilized gas.  The winning formula seems to be:

  1. Insert starter key.
  2. Check spark plug.
  3. Plug in electric starter.
  4. Close choke.
  5. Set throttle to full.
  6. Pump primer bulb 10-15 times.
  7. Crank electric starter until engine fires.
  8. Unplug starter.
  9. Slowly open choke as engine warms up.

I always feel sad starting up the snowblower, only to shut it off after 5 minutes or so of idling and return it to its resting place to collect more dust.  This morning, we had a slight powdering of snow on the driveway, just enough that the blower was able to pick a bit of it up and eject it through the chute.  So, I spent a minute or so blowing the powder off the driveway near the garage, which I could just as easily have done with a broom (or probably my mouth for that matter).  It was the first time the snowblower actually touched snow in almost 3 years.

Can’t wait to drive home this evening, when the roads will undoubtedly look like salt mines and the talking heads will be crowing about how we “dodged that bullet” yet again.

Welcome to Winter in Maryland..

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Miscellany

Sony Universal Remotes

I just bought a pair of Sony Model RM-VL600 universal remote controls (or “remote commanders” as Sony likes to call them), and figured I’d post my first impressions.

First, a little bit of background.  All of our TV comes over the air — no cable, sattelite, or FiOS.  Upstairs we have an old analog TV with an Apex DTV converter box.  Downstairs we have an LCD flat panel with a surround sound system.  We have 2 directional dipole-type antennas in the attic, and there are two antenna feeds to each TV.  To switch between antennas, each TV has a Radio Shack model 15-1968 remote control antenna switch.  All this gear, plus the requisite DVD players, VCRs etc, means lots and lots of remote controls.  Downstairs, we have never had a universal remote before, and have been juggling 4+ remotes for pretty much forever.  Upstairs, we started out with a cheapie preprogrammed universal remote made by Philips.  It worked great, until we added the DTV converter box.  The problem here is that DTV converters are still relatively new, and most of the preprogrammed universal remotes have not yet caught up with them.  I was able to get the Philips remote to “sort of” work with the Apex converter box, using the code for a Hughes cable box.  But certain essential buttons did not work, for example, the period button used for tuning ATSC “sub channels.”  Also, the preprogrammed remote didn’t have any codes that worked with the Radio Shack A/B switch.  So sadly, I had to retire the Philips remote (I did really like its layout and ergonomics).

What I really wanted was a remote that works similarly to the Philips, but includes a “learning” feature.  The Sony fit the bill perfectly.  It’s preprogrammed with a lot of codes, and buttons can be remapped arbitrarily using the learning feature.  And unlike many other learning remotes, it’s reasonably priced.  That’s important, because our house, with its two young children, is not what you would call the friendliest environment for remotes.  My youngest son broke our DVD remote in half.  Our old TV remote was dropped enough times that the battery door broke and we had to use tape to hold the batteries in.  Others have been lost, dropped, kicked, stepped on, had stuff spilled on them, etc.  The point is, I have no interest in spending megabucks on a fancy remote.  The Sony weighs in at just under $25, which is not a terrible loss should it meet some kind of untimely demise.  So, I figured I’d give it a shot.

I set the first remote up to work with our downstairs equipment.  The general trick to setting these remotes up is to first find the preprogrammed codes that work best with the equipment, then use the learning feature to fine-tune buttons until everything works the way you want.  As shipped, the remotes are configured to work with Sony equipment.  Our downstairs TV and DVD player are both made by Sony, and sure enough, the remote worked with them out of the box.  I also found codes that worked with my 10-year old Denon A/V Receiver and 12-year old Toshiba VCR.  The Receiver required a bit of “teaching” for individual buttons, as the preprogrammed code only worked with volume and a few of the inputs.  I finished up by programming two buttons to work the A/B antenna switch.  The entire process only took around 10 minutes.  We’ll see how things go after a couple weeks of regular use, but so far, I’m impressed.

Next up was the upstairs gear, including the DTV converter.  Similar to the Philips remote, the DTV box worked with a Hughes code, and certain buttons like the period didn’t work.  With this remote, though, I was able to use the learning feature to program all the missing buttons.  I found codes that worked with all the other (rather old) upstairs equipment, including a Mitsubishi TV and a GE VCR.  The remote also includes a “macro” feature, which I took advantage of by programming a button to turn the TV and DTV converter on and off at the same time.  Very nice.

As you’ve probably figured out, I’m impressed with these remotes.  They’re extremely versatile at an exceptionally reasonable price.  So what’s wrong with them?  Just a couple things that I’ve found so far.  I’m not crazy about the ergonomics.  The remotes are wider at the bottom than at the top, which seems kind of unnatural to me.  The remotes feel a little too big in my hands.  This may be something I get used to over time; we’ll have to see.  The only other thing (and this is really nitpicking) is a problem that I’ve seen with just about every universal remote I’ve tried:  button labels.  There are two opposing forces at work here.  On one hand, we want one remote to control as much equipment as possible.  On the other hand, we want the remote to have as few buttons as possible.  No one likes a cluttered remote with a zillion buttons, but at the same time we need to be able to access all the features of a given piece of equipment.  That means that, depending on the equipment, a single button on the remote might end up doing 3 or 4 completely different things.  So how do we accurately label the button?  The answer is we can’t, unless we use fancy LCD displays, or messy stickers, or overlays, or whatever.  So instead, we compromise.  In my case that means (among other things) I have to press the “twin view” button to turn closed captioning on on my DTV converter box.  It’s confusing at first, but you get used to it.  It’s just the way things are with inexpensive universal remotes.  All told though, these are among the best inexpensive universal remotes I’ve tried.

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Miscellany

They warned me

Everyone warned me the time would fly by, and they were right.

Today was my oldest son’s first day of kindergarten.  In what seems like the blink of an eye, he’s gone from infant, to toddler, to preschooler, to kindergartener.  Kind of scary how the time flies.  Next thing I know he’ll be in high school, then college.  I’m doing my best to enjoy his childhood while I can.  One of the rewards of age and wisdom is the ability to recognize life’s significant moments while they’re still happening.  Nothing drives this home like parenthood.  Our own childhoods are gone, but we can relive them vicariously through our children.

There’s an awful lot of advice about parenting floating around out there.  But I think a happy childhood is the single greatest gift a parent can give a child.  Hopefully my own kids will grow up to be well adjusted adults with happy memories of childhood.

And with that bit of late-summer sentimentality, we now return you to our regular bevy of posts about geeky stuff and swimming pool maintenance 🙂

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House Miscellany

Weekend update

Kind of a lazy weekend so far. It’s too cold to really want to go out and do anything, so everyone is just puttering around the house. Yesterday I drained the pool water back down below the tile line. First time doing that so far this winter. Since closing, the water had crept back up several inches. Before that, we hit Macaroni Grill for an early lunch to celebrate my b-day, and I picked up some telecom equipment at Home Depot so I can work on rewiring the phone jack in the master bedroom. I have never wired a 66 punchdown block before, so this is going to be a learning experience. I think I am going to use the 66 block to replace the existing screw-terminal phone junction in the boiler room, which is a bit of a bird’s nest. It’s going to take a little planning. I will probably end up taking a day off work to do it, on a day when I can have the house to myself.

Today I have mainly been working on spackling and sanding the trim in the master bedroom, in preparation for painting. Most of the prep work has been concentrated on the trim. Years ago, someone decided to mount a phone jack near the entrance to the bathroom, so they tapped into an existing jack behind the bed and ran phone wire along the trim to the new jack. The wire was meticulously tacked along the baseboard, up one door opening, over three doors, back down, across more baseboard, up and over the bathroom door, and finally back down to the jack. It was really quite impressive, especially considering they could have run it through the basement, which would have taken about half the time, used about half the wire, and resulted in a nice, concealed wiring job instead of a massive eyesore. But, I digress. Anyhow, I pulled out all the wire, which was (of course) covered with several layers of paint, leaving me with a big patch and spackle job. But it’s almost done now, and soon we’ll be painting. Can’t wait.

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Homebrewing Miscellany To-Do

Back to the grind

The holidaze are now in the rear-view mirror, I’m back at work, the kids are back in school, and we’re back to our normal, boring day-in day-out routine.  For me, unlike the previous two years, the break didn’t feel too long.  That may have been because it was only two weeks as opposed to 16-18 days in past years.  Or, it may be because this year’s break was punctuated by a nice, whole-house case of the stomach bug.  Mmm, fun…  pass the Immodium, please.

Measured against past holiday breaks, this one was fairly productive, which I know is not saying much.  Got the tractor more-or-less winterized, the leaves more-or-less cleared, the house more-or-less grounded, and the master bathroom sink drain more-or-less fixed, and started prepping the master bedroom for painting.  All in all, not too bad.

I cracked a bottle of homebrew on Christmas Eve, 8 days after bottling, and it was pretty good, although still in need of a bit more conditioning/carbonating.  It compared favorably to the 2007 Anchor “Special” Holiday Ale I drank around the same time.  I imagine by now it’ll be fully carbonated and really good.  Will probably try another bottle this weekend at some point.  Need to get my taste for beer back first 🙂
Painting the master bedroom is the next big project on the docket.  There’s a bit more prep work to do (sanding, spackling, relocating a phone jack) but all in all, it’s about ready to paint.  Just need to come up with a good day to do it, and put it on the calendar.  Once that’s done there’s the laundry station.  These two should take us up to late winter or early spring, at which point we need to do something about the basement walk-out steps.

All of which brings us to…  this weekend’s to-do list.  This weekend is kinda booked up, so this is an accordingly brief list:

  • Install new fill valve in toilet in kids’ bathroom (never got around to this over the break)
  • Sanding and other prep work in master bedroom
  • Retirement portfolio rebalancing & 2008 tax planning