« September 2007 | Main | November 2007 »

October 31, 2007


I left work a little early today to get ready for trick or treaters. Though I had bought a pumpkin, I hadn't carved it yet. It was kind of small, so I was thinking about just putting an eye on it, like the Eye of Sauron. Then I thought maybe two eyes. Then I thought I could make them look angry by adding eyebrows. As I was standing at the kitchen counter carving the pumpkin, Austin was very interested. But he's always interested when I'm in the kitchen. The cutouts from the eyes were kind of ear shaped so I used some matchsticks to hold them onto the side of the pumpkin and drilled 9/16" earholes. Eventually I added a triangle nose. It turned out okay. The ears made it a lot more interesting.


Then I went outside to sweep off my walkway. When I came back, one of the ears was gone. At first I thought it must have fallen off and the matchstick was left sticking out of the pumpkin. But then I found it half-eaten in my dining room (where else?). I bent down to pick it up and Austin sped in to get it just before me. I wound up getting it back and sticking it on the pumpkin.

Then I got the nose cutout to see if Austin really likes pumpkin or if he was just playing around. He liked it! He also ate an eyebrow and then I decided he had had enough pumpkin. I should have named him Peter.

Even with the damaged ear, one kid said he liked the carving and I saw one girl take a picture of it with her cellphone.

This year wasn't as crazy as years past. With the time change coming after Halloween I wasn't sure when they would cut off Halloween in Avondale (it used to be a 8 PM sharp, but it would get dark at 6). I had about 8 kids that showed up without costumes and got no candy. One kid tried to stare me down or something. Like he was going to intimidate a Snickers bar out of me. For the first time I had candy left over, but I did close down at about 8:30 so I could get to Petsmart and get food for the dogs (no, I wasn't out yet, if you're wondering if Austin was just starving for anything).

October 29, 2007

Tankless Water Heater

Since I moved in 10 years ago my water heater has been old (it was made in 1980). And yet it continues to last and get older. For a while I considered a solar water heater. I have a south-facing roof right above where the water heater is. But solar systems are very expensive and complicated. Years ago I priced out a system that was $2000 including two solar panels, pump, and a heat exchanger to heat water using hot antifreeze from the solar collector (you can heat the water directly but have to remember to drain the solar collectors any night it will go below freezing). You also need an 80-gallon water tank, which was not included. That would never pay for itself and, on top of that, there was no guarantee you would always have hot water. And the time you really need it, in the morning, is the time you have the least of it. So you still end up buying a backup system.

So I ruled that out. Now my water heater is older and I'm thinking about replacements again. Getting the new very efficient refrigerator made me think about what I could accomplish with a really efficient water heater.

I looked for Energy Star water heaters, but they don't seem to make such a thing. However, I did find out about a federal tax credit of $300 if you purchase a super-efficient tankless water heater. Tankless systems heat water as you need it (they are also called on demand water heaters). They can be electric, but they have high-powered gas ones that use tons of heat to heat the water as you need it rather than slowly heating water over time and storing it for later. Since about the only hot water I use all day is in the morning when I take a shower, I thought I should be the perfect user for such a system. That way I wouldn't have 40 gallons of hot water sitting around all day just going cold. One advantage of tankless systems is you never run out of hot water.

I save energy by setting my water heater very low. When I take a shower, I am using just a little or even no cold water and all the rest hot. Heat loss from the tank is proportional to the difference in temperature between the outside and the inside of the tank. If it is 75 degrees outside the tank and 110 degrees inside the tank, then delta T is 35 degrees. I lose half as much heat as if I kept the water at 145 degrees. I think the low temperature has also made the water heater last longer, plus the low use.

Anyway, I use about 10 therms of natural gas a month in the summer (almost all for hot water since I don't do that much cooking) and gas is costing me about $1.00 per therm. So my water heating bill is $10 per month. This is why I could never make the economics of the solar water heater work out. And the tankless system isn't much different. A system costs about $1000 plus at least $500 for installation (the tankless system requires a larger gas supply line and exhaust vent too) vs. a conventional water heater which would run about $400 and can be installed by myself. Even after the tax break and saving half of my gas (only $5 per month) it would take about 20 years to pay itself off.

In fact, I found a website where a guy had installed a very expensive system consisting of 4 different heaters (two gas and two smaller electric ones). He has a calculator that I used to determine that a tankless system would take 38 years to pay itself off. I'm not sure if he included the cost of 3 water heater tanks you would go through in that time or not, but the tankless systems themselves only last 20 years. So 38 is no go.

My water heater still has the original Energy Guide sticker which indicates it would use 319 a year in normal use (obviously I'm using a lot less). This compares with a very efficient new model which uses 238 therms per year. I think if I flushed the water heater (which I've never done), I could make it last even longer.

October 28, 2007

New Fridge

Yesterday I went to Sears to check out the refrigerators I had been researching all week. I had narrowed my choices down substantially by picking 1. Energy Star 2. Top Freezer 3. Icemaker 4. 18 cubic feet and 5. White. Sears narrowed my choices down substantially further by offering something that fit all of those criteria and selling it for only $500 with free delivery. Nobody else could come close. Lowes had a Whirlpool, which I would have rather gotten, but it was a hundred dollars more and they would have charged for delivery.

New Fridge

I looked at a few higher-end refrigerators to see what I was missing. Better refrigerators have shelves that are much easier to slide and allow smaller adjustments on shelf height. For all intents and purposes, the shelves on my fridge don't slide, but if you pull hard enough they will move. So I decided I would take it. The salesman got everything ready, but when he checked his computer, the model I wanted, the 77882, was not available for Sunday delivery. So he changed it to the "identical" 77872. When I got home I checked the two models. The 82 is 10 higher than the 72, so you have to figure it is 10 better. But right now the 72 is $70 more so he manually overrode that price and sold it to me at the same $500. The only differences in features were the 82 has "ice storage" and a beverage rack. I think the ice storage is bogus. It's not like the icemaker just dumps ice into the freezer. The big difference were the reviews on Sears' website. The 72 had 8 reviews with an average of 3.9 stars out of 5. Most people complained about the noise despite Sears saying there was a special noise-reducing compressor. The 82 had 8 reviews as well, but its average score was 4.7 stars (a couple of people complained about noise). I called up to ask for them to change the order. I got the same salesman who said the two fridges were exactly the same except for the beverage rack and he would put one of those in the mail to me. He said they have the different models so they can put one on sale and the other at regular price (which is what they did). So I stuck with the order.


I spent all day cleaning up the old brown refrigerator in case it would eventually be used by someone again and cleaning up the kitchen so the delivery people wouldn't think they were putting the new fridge in a bad home. They were to arrive between 4 and 6 PM and call one hour ahead of time. They never did call, but at 5:58 PM they were here. And they were gone in no time too.

There is no question, it is noisy. It makes about as much noise as fan. I could hear it when I walked in the front door. But it's still pretty nice. There is a shelf in the freezer to hold things. And the bins on the door are pretty neat: They are about half the width of the door and can be put just about anywhere. Other than that, it is pretty much just a refrigerator.

The icemaker makes the little crescents that most icemakers make. My old fridge made round pellets, about the size of a stack of 10 quarters. The crescents are bad because that circumference matches up perfectly with most glasses and invariably blocks the flow when you want to take a sip. Maybe I'll get square glasses.

As I finished writing this at 8:00, I heard the first batch of ice hit the storage bin. It is the dirtiest ice ever. The ice is yellow and you can see dirt in the cubes. They said don't use the first 24-hours worth of ice.

October 25, 2007

799 Refrigerators

I have been thinking about replacing my old brown refrigerator for a long time. But, because it works fine (even the icemaker), I haven't been in a hurry. I read something about refrigerators using more electricity than anything else in the kitchen and I knew that the era of brown refrigerators couldn't have been that interested in efficiency. I found a website run by Energy Star that can calculate what your old refrigerator really costs you compared to a current Energy Star model. Mine is so old that I didn't think they would have my model, and they didn't (at first), so I entered the cubic feet and guessed at the year as being before 1980. It said I could save $250 a year. That didn't seem possible. Later when I entered the model of my refrigerator without hypens, I found some similar sounding refrigerators made by GE from 1980 to 1984 and guessed I could save more like $100 per year. Still, not bad.

One thing I knew was that I wanted a very efficient refrigerator. This past weekend I visited Best Buy and looked at a few they had there. There were a number of Energy Star side-by-sides. I like the side-by-sides because they have water and ice through the door, meaning I wouldn't have to open the refrigerator door for that. But even the most efficient side-by-sides use more electricity than a normal old top-freezer. That pushed me towards a top-freezer, with even more efficiency coming from its being an Energy Star model. The top-freezers are cheaper to buy too. Though they make models with water dispensers, I dispensed with that idea once I saw that some had water filters that had to be replaced every 6 months and were $40. I can open the refrigerator door for that. I think filters are becoming to refrigerators what toner and cartridges have become to printers.

I went to Lowe's website to see what they had. If you go to their main page for refrigerators, it says "799 Refrigerators - viewing 1-12". It blows me away how many variations they can have on a box that keeps things cool. And on websites the differences are that much less obvious. It's just picture after picture of white rectangles. When Susan bought hers, even after we narrowed it down to a side-by-side refrigerator that could be no larger than a certain size, there were still a ton of options. It seems like Lowes primarily wants to sell high-priced fridges and mostly side-by-sides and newer french door fridges.

Sears has better prices, especially on their Kenmore brand refrigerators. I found a couple that seemed reasonably priced and will probably get one this weekend. It's funny comparing the descriptions. I think the marketing people feel like they have to mention some feature and then they are required to tell you how that feature benefits you. I think the writers struggled at times. For instance, one has a shelf in the freezer, so they said "Full-width freezer shelf will hold your items until they are needed." I think I understand how a shelf works. Another mentioned an ice-storage bin (not an ice-maker, just a bin): "Ice storage lets you enjoy the ultimate in cold beverages." I am also familiar with the concept of ice.

If I had gotten one for $700 when I moved in to my house it would have more than paid itself off by now.

Happy Birthday, Dad!

October 22, 2007

Movie Review Database

I had thought about converting my movie reviews, currently a bunch of HTML web pages, to a database using MySQL and php. Then I thought I could just use Microsoft Access which I'm pretty familiar with to create HTML pages. I had done something similar at work where we had a database of companies and I was able to create an index page and then separate pages for each company. Then we would move the pages generated to our website. That site has since been replaced by a dynamic web-based application under a (very expensive) contract.

Right now I have an archive of every movie review by the year the movie was released. I am also using frames to navigate by using two frames: one with a drop down list of years and another frame with a list of movies for that year. To make it easy, I just have a separate HTML file for each year that consists of a drop-down list and is loaded when a year is selected. One other thing I do at the end of each year is generate a ranked list of all the movies I saw that year. That's easy in HTML, but the tricky part is that I break ties and sometimes rank independently of whatever grade I originally gave the movie (so I might have a B- ahead of a B movie once I think about it). On that ranking page I give a short summary of my review for each movie. Using an ordered list, it is easy for me to insert a movie, since I am not coming up with the ranking numbers, but letting the HTML do it based on where the movie falls in the list. The HTML assigns the numbers, not me. This makes it really easy to add a movie to the list or change places of a movie.

To deal with that in the Access database I went through and gave each movie a ranking score. So that I would have room in the future to add movies, I multiplied the rank by 10. Therefore the top ranked movie gets a 10, the second a 20, and so on. If I see a fantastic movie in that year later on, I can give it a 5 so that it will be ranked at the top.

I wanted a couple of additional ways to list movies. One would be an alphabetical list of all movies I have ever reviewed, instead of them being divided by year like they are now. The problem with this is movies that start with "A," "An," or "The." In my query I created a new field based on the title of the movie but with some If formulas that would strip off the initial articles as appropriate. I had not done this on the project at work and certain companies that started with "The" would just appear under "T". When the contractors re-created the database, they duplicated this bug. As with my old database I set up a list of letter links at the top of the page that would navigate to any letter heading in the list. Each letter represented has its own heading. The only problem with this is that I don't have a movie starting with "X" so the X at the top doesn't link to anything. Also movies that start with a number filter to the top and each number gets its own heading. So "8 Mile" is listed under the heading "8" all by itself.

Another neat thing I could do with the new system was have Top 10 lists for each year. I had this page generated at the same time as I generate the Year in Review pages for each individual year but the Top 10 page would skip all but the first 10 movies in a year. Access has no problem writing to two different files at once, so I am writing to the page with Top 10's at the same time I am generating (and opening and closing) the Year in Review pages for each year.

One other thing I wanted was a list of all the movies separated not by year, but by the grade I originally gave the movie. That way all the A's would be together, the A-'s, etc. This was a little tricky because alphabetically, A comes before A- and A+, but it would be bad to have that be the order. Instead I made a query that would take the ASCII value of the leftmost letter of a grade, multiply it by 10, and then add 3 if the rightmost letter is a + and add 9 if it is a -. Otherwise it adds 6 (which is good because for a single-letter grade like "B" the rightmost character is "B"). For instance the ASCII code for B is 660, so a B+ gets a code of 6603, a B is 6606, and a B- is 6609. These are all higher than the A's which are based on 650. Once again, while reading through the sorted list, a header is generated for each different grade so that the A's are separated from the A-'s. At the top of the page I wanted to generate a row of the different grades for easy navigation (for years or letters it was easy to set up a loop from 1998 to 2007 or A to Z that would generate each link). Rather than a loop, I just wrote a line of code for each letter grade, but it was easy to copy and paste the other grades after A.

Writing the code in Access is very tedious which made me realize that php has an advantage in being able to use templates. With php, you basically write up a web page, reference the database, and have it insert data wherever you want into your web page. But with what I'm doing, I actually generate every piece of HTML by using PRINT functions in my VB code. So each piece of HTML is coded in. I'm not sure how Movable Type works, but it has templates and when you click "Build" it generates static HTML pages for the whole blog. I think that takes a lot of the load off of the database server since the database isn't used to generate pages for each visitor, the pages are already made in advance by the time a visitor drops by.

I still don't have everything quite like I want, but I did go ahead and transfer some of the different lists to my movie review website. 254 reviews!

October 13, 2007

Amazon MP3 Service

I have bought 194 songs from iTunes now. I thought Apple did a great thing in providing a simple pricing scheme and software that made it easy and fun. They also offer a very good selection of songs. And now they have video, movies, and TV shows. The only downside was that the songs could only be played using iTunes on the computer or on an iPod. amazon-mp3.gif However you could still burn the songs to a CD and play them wherever you wanted. Governments in Europe have insisted that Apple stop selling a proprietary format, wanting to avoid another Microsoft type of monopoly. Some music labels now sell high quality songs (MP3's are generally have less sound quality than CD's) on iTunes without any restrictions on how the songs are played (and charge an extra 30 cents). Other music companies have said they will stop partnering with Apple altogether because they do not like Apple's terms.

So it was kind of interesting when, a couple of months ago, Amazon introduced a new digital music store. The pricing scheme wasn't as simple, but was similar: some songs would be 99 cents, like on iTunes, but some would be less and others more. Albums, instead of being $9.99 like on iTunes, would vary in price as well. There were no monthly fees. And the songs had no protection on them, recorded in a format (MP3) that could be played on any MP3 player and any computer, even on my Palm.

I figured that, like eMusic, the selection would be pretty bad. I hadn't bought any songs in a while so I didn't look into it any further. But some people on iLounge said it was a good service, so this weekend I tried it out. I was able to find a handful of songs to buy. Most were only 89 cents and none more than 99. The quality of the songs is very good: 256 kbps (variable) instead of the usual 128 at iTunes, or even the 160 that I used to convert my CD's to MP3's. But they still really need help on the checkout process. On iTunes I can click "Add to Cart". In fact, I can do that on Amazon just about anywhere else but the music store. In the music store you can only choose to buy the song, which then walks you through the whole Amazon checkout process: enter password, choose a credit card, choose a shipping address, etc. It's not terrible, but unnecessarily complicated when I have 6 songs picked out and had to step through the process six times. (Amazon support said there is no cart option and the best way to download songs is using 1click, which I had disabled. I have since enabled 1click shopping.) Once the downloads were complete, I received 6 different receipts and I imagine they will show up separately on my credit card statement. That just bothers me.

I also had to download a helper program from Amazon and install it, but it is a very small program (less than a megabyte), nowhere close to the massive 54 MB download for iTunes. The songs seem to download fairly reasonably, but since I have dialup internet, I paused the downloads until I could get everything in a queue. However, each time I bought another song, the queue started downloading again and I had to pause it again before continuing. Again, kind of a pain, though I know dialup users are the exception.

I only downloaded one song right away and received a receipt notice from Amazon for 89 cents a few hours later. I kept the queue on pause for the other songs until later. That night when I resumed the downloads, I got a message that one song was no longer available for download and that I should contact customer service. I don't know what happened there (another song from the same album downloaded fine), but customer service was able to re-enable that song for download. On iTunes you can re-download any song you have purchased, even if you delete it later (I guess unless it isn't available anymore).

The neat part is that the helper program automatically installs the song into my iTunes library, complete with cover artwork. Or it does if iTunes is running anyway. When one song was done, I had iTunes closed and then got a Windows error report message saying the song couldn't be added to the iTunes library. Good idea, but they don't seem to be quite there yet. However Amazon is still being pretty smart here by cooperating with iPod owners rather than trying to beat them. After all, iPod owners are the ones buying music online in the biggest numbers. Alternatively, you can have songs added to your Windows Media Player library.

The flexibility of owning high-quality highly compatible MP3's makes all the trouble of purchasing the songs worth it to me. I would think Amazon will eventually work the kinks out of the process (they are still saying the service is "beta" which means they are still testing it out). I really don't understand why the music companies would be so agreeable to what Amazon is doing and not Apple, but for now I will be checking Amazon for songs I want to buy before going to iTunes.

October 12, 2007

Water Use Down by One Third

With the bathroom renovations complete I was able to eliminate leaky faucets and toilets. Also the new toilets are low flow (2 gallons compared to probably 5) and the new showerhead is also lower flow (I used to have a great showerhead, so good that when I had to stop using the one shower due to leaks, I moved the showerhead to the other bathroom; I forgot to ask for it back during the makeover).

Anyway, my water consumption dropped from a 3-year average of 1650 gallons per month to only 1050 gallons per month on my last statement. I wasn't sure if that would hold up over time, but I got my new statement today and it was 1150 gallons, so the savings seem to be holding up. However, that only amounts to about $5 per month in savings.

October 9, 2007

FOPAB Q4 Update

I think my e-mail system blocked this when I sent it to John on September 23 and I didn't make it in to FOPAB. But here is what I wrote:

After many years of telling Susan "I wish you could be here" when we went on family vacations, she finally got to go. She found a house sitter to take care of all her animals, plus my Katie while we were gone. Austin (who doesn't get along with Susan's cats) stayed with a friend who pampers him beyond belief (scrambled eggs and cheese for breakfast and her two sons take him for walks almost all day long). The trip was a lot of fun and it was great spending time with everyone in the house, at the beach, and by the pool. Susan and I went to Busch Gardens and enjoyed the roller coasters there despite our first try being rained out. Susan even said she'd be willing to vacation with us again!

It was also great to see everyone in Augusta this month. It had really been a long time and I'm sorry if I didn't get a chance to talk to everyone. I thought it was just a fantastic turnout for FOPAB #1.

Remembering Edward . . .

Edward and I had something very personal in common: our names. As a kid this pretty much meant getting some special attention from Edward. Instead of saying "You've grown so much," he would say "Hello, Edward Joseph Cashin!" Of course he kept me in check by making sure I knew I was an EJC II. In my baby book are two letters from Uncle Edward (Brother Edward at the time) where he gives me advice for later on. He gave me a first day of issue stamp and said I should be a stamp collector (I was a few months old at the time; even when I started a stamp collection later on, I never realized I had that). He also sent me a book of matches from FDR's desk at the Little White House in Warm Springs. He said I could use some of the rest of the presidential matches for special occasions like lighting a cigar when my Uncle Harry came over. I had no way of appreciating this sense of humor, but 40 years later it is still pretty funny.

I got to know Edward better when we went on the Windjammer cruise. Before we went he got everybody t-shirts that said "Red Clay Sailors". I always knew he was an interesting guy but didn't realize how much fun it was to watch him cause trouble. He would throw some kind of comment out intended to get a reaction from his brothers and sisters and look over at me with a gleam in his eye as if to say "Now watch this!" It would be like lighting off a firecracker. When I could, I would try to get over to my parents house if he and Mary Ann were in town. They would travel so much and have good stories about where they had gone. After the Lake Hartwell reunion in 1993, Uncle Bob got canoes and a group of us got to paddle down the Augusta Canal with one of its foremost experts. What a great experience.

October 3, 2007

Wearing a nano

One of the first problems I noticed when I started using my new nano was when I put it in my pocket or take it out, it is likely to change the volume or skip forwards or backwards as the buttons are accidentally pushed. There is a switch on the bottom that locks the controls, but that means if you want to skip a song, you have to unswitch, skip, and switch again. Not terrible. Kind of inconvenient though, plus I usually already have stuff in my pockets.

One popular case is an armband that goes around your upper arm and the iPod slides in there. That's fine for running, but a little overly sporty for me and it seems like you couldn't see the screen clearly without taking it out of the case. So I was looking for something that would give me quick and easy access to the controls and let me see the screen. Putting it on a necklace or lanyard would work pretty well.

Apple makes lanyard headphones where a necklace and headphones are incorporated, but I like my Sennheiser earbuds. Still, that is most of the concept. The lanyard plugs securely into the dock connector on the bottom (some say the Apple lanyard isn't all that secure, but if it snaps in you shouldn't be able to remove the connector without squeezing the buttons on the side) and hangs upside-down, but that is right-side up when you pick it up to look at it. I found a do-it-yourself version of a lanyard made from an old iPod cable which I have a couple of. But I can still use those cables for charging from an AC adapter and in the car (the 3G nano charges via a firewire cable just like all previous iPods) while my new cable charges from the USB port on the computer. One nice thing about the wider 3G nano is that the dock connector is in the middle of the bottom instead of off to one side like with the earlier ones, so it hangs straight down.

Off to E-bay. I found a user there that sells just the thing sold by E-bay user ipod-accessories-deals, who it turns out is in North Carolina, and not surprisingly with cheap electronic-related items like this, seems to be from China (based on the name I sent the funds to via PayPal). Because they make a lot of their money on postage and he (she?) offered free shipping on a second item, I ordered one in iPod white and the other in black (also available in pink with a white dock connector). It arrived two days later and I had two lanyards for less than $10.

It meets all of my requirements: the iPod is readily accessible, held securely, no case (this nano is too small to put in a case so I have put screen protectors over the screen and the easily scratched and finger-printed chrome back), and it looks decent. It might be nice to get one of those cord wrap things the DIY guy uses since this introduces a lot of slack in my headphone cord (though I think I could make my own).

October 1, 2007

Digital Camera for Mom

Mom asked for advice on digital cameras. Consumer Reports had just published an article on them, so I used it as a starting place and checked some stuff on Amazon. Because she likes her Canon SD100, she is leaning towards the SD800IS, which I guess is what I would choose too.

Hi Mom,

Amazon seems to have the best prices. For very small cameras you probably want a Panasonic, Sony, or Canon. All of these are 7 megapixel cameras with 3X optical zoom. Because they are so small, none of them take AA batteries. All but the Sony use SD memory cards.

The article likes the Sony Cyber-shot DSCW80 for $207, but you would need to spend $30 or so for a new memory card since it doesn't use SD. It has an image stabilizer that helps avoid shaky pictures. (in black, silver, white, or pink). It has very good picture quality. The rest are good. 3X zoom.

They also like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX30, which is $232. It should be similar to the Sony (includes image stabilizer). Panasonic digital cameras have the fewest repairs (in black, silver, blue, or taupe). Like the Canons, it takes SD cards. It can take wide angle pictures. It is the only one without a real viewfinder, so you have to use the LCD screen (which may not be visible outside). The zoom is actually 3.6X.

Also rated highly is a Canon PowerShot SD800IS Elph for $288 that includes image stabilization. Canons come in silver or black. This and the Panasonic are the only ones with wide angle. It has a 3.8X zoom.

The Canon PowerShot SD1000 Elph does not have image stabilization and is $213. It is probably similar to what you had. It has good picture quality, but has more shutter lag than the others (time from when you press the button to the time the picture is actually taken). Some reviewers on Amazon say the picture quality is as good or better than the Sony. 3X zoom.