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September 28, 2009

Opossum in a Fig Tree

I've had a lot of opossum activity lately. A few weeks ago at night, I let the dogs out and they were barking which they don't do unless they've got something. So I rushed outside and they were barking at a tree. I used the flashlight to scan the tree and there were two faces looking back at me. Opossums about five feet apart in the branches. I thought it wouldn't be good to take a picture because that might force them to play dead and they would fall out of the tree. Then just the other night we were taking a walk and the dogs perked up about something, but it was near a house where there are outdoor cats. I turned on my flashlight on low to look around and there was something scurrying towards us. It turned and came straight down the sidewalk towards us at a fairly casual walking pace, a opossum. I held the dogs back and it stopped as if it was just noticing us, thought better of its current path and turned to cross the street and away from us. The dogs loved this.

Then tonight I let the dogs out and they went bolting into the backyard. They don't do this unless they are on to something. I grabbed the flashlight again (I keep one hanging right next to the back door for this kind of thing) and looked all around. Directly under the fig tree I could see out towards all of the canopy, but I didn't see anything. I got out and went to the side and there was a opossum hanging on and watching us. I went back in and the dogs followed (amazingly) and got the camera. With the dogs shut inside I was able to snap this photo.


September 26, 2009

Yard Man, Meet Lawn Boy

When I first bought my house, Mr. Deckbar donated his old Lawn Boy mower to me. It was just like the one we used to have and I used it for several years but each Spring it was harder to get started. Norm turned me on to Starting Fluid which will bring just about any engine to life (it is pure octane, actually ether I think) but even with that it was sluggish. So I checked out Consumer Reports in 2003 and they had a Yard Man mower that they liked and said did a good job of mulching. With the old mower I would bag and compost the clippings sometimes, but mulching is better because it just recycles the clippings into the ground where they help the grass grow.


This week after the floods and a day of sun on Tuesday to dry things out, I was mowing my front yard and got too close to the water meter. The blade hit the meter and, although the engine kept going, it sounded bad. After that row I stopped to take a look and the end of the blade was twisted pretty badly and the mower made a clicking noise as the blade went around even thought he blade wasn't hitting anything. Also it was leaking oil pretty bad. Time for a new mower, I figure. The Yard Man was only $200 at Walmart and it had lasted me 7 summers. Just replacing the blade probably would have been $25 and if the engine was fixable it would have been more. I kind of doubt the engine is fixable.


So back to Consumer Reports and while Lawn Boy had some rough times in the past, it is now owned by Toro (actually the takeover was in 1989, so that has nothing to do with anything) and CR ranks the Lawn Boy 10640 very highly. It has 6.5 hp Briggs and Stratton engine (Yard Man had a 6.5 hp Tecumsah engine). I went to my Home Depot, but they didn't have that model (or very many others; most people aren't buying mowers in September so while I was hoping for an off season sale, instead the selection was just bad). The one out by Mom had one though and so now it is sitting in my car in a box, waiting for it to stop raining.

September 20, 2009

JP1 Still Kicking

Five years ago, I got a JP1 cable to connect my computer and JP1-compatible remote control. That remote stopped working (some of the buttons wore out, but I was able to remap those functions to other buttons for a while). I was at Mom's house recently and wanted to help her JP1 remote learn to run her new iPod boom box. The easiest way is just to learn the signals from the device's remote into the universal remote by pointing them at each other and pressing some buttons. But because I had done this to learn everything for her HDTV to analog converter box, there wasn't any memory left for the boom box.

So I knew the best solution was to program an upgrade from scratch. It was nice having my instructions, but I also used the instructions at the JP1 Forums. I took her HDTV box and remote home along with the boom box and its remote. Unfortunately I forgot her universal remote, but I was able to come up with an upgrade using my remote at my house, test it out on the HDTV box and boom box and then bring the software and cable over to her house to install the upgrade.

Doing the upgrades is like figuring out a puzzle. You read the original remote and then download those learned signals which should all fit into a pattern. If they don't then the remote probably didn't read the original correctly and you do it again until you get all of the buttons. You don't have to get all the functions at once (in fact you can't because of the limited learning memory), so it takes a few iterations.

Sadly, the days of the cheap and simple JP1 remote is over. The company changed the design and now a differnt cable is required ($29), but the newer remotes can still be found for less than $20. Because I don't need another remote yet, I haven't looked into it much, but one of the remotes all these JP1 people are using now is a cable set-top box remote called Atlas made by UEI, the same company that makes all of the JP1 remotes. These can be bought on eBay, but aren't available in stores since they are distributed through cable companies. They control 5 devices.

Anyway, the upgrades worked great except for the volume on the boom box. So I had the remote learn those functions into those buttons. Then I had it learn the fan functions, so Mom is now controlling all of these things with one remote: TV, HDTV converter, DVD player, VCR, boom box, and fan.

AJC Discount

I recently let my subscription to the newspaper lapse. They wanted a lot more than I had been paying in the past to resubscribe and their discounts were lousy. Mom showed me a flyer today with a 50% off discount, so I have re-upped. It is for new subscribers, but they had an ominous warning that they would charge for amounts past due (which I have because they always keep delivering the paper after it lapses), so we'll see what happens with that.

These are 13-week prices, but you can also get 26 weeks for a little less:

7-day: $2.49/wk
Thu-Sun: $2.25/wk
Sunday: $1.47/wk

Just go to ajc.com/discount. You don't seem to need an offer code, but the one I got from Mom was 2130.

September 19, 2009

Portable Hard Drive

After ending up with a couple of extra notebook computer hard drives when I did the Archos upgrade, I ordered some cheap ($4.90) cases from China on eBay that would let me convert the hard drives to portable drives. They arrived this morning. I got a blue one and a black one. One will hold the 40 GB drive and the other the 20 GB drive (the blue 40 GB drive is for Nicole).


To set it up, you just take the end off of the case, plug the hard drive into it, slide it back in place, and screw two tiny little screws into the sides to hold it securely (they include a small philips head screwdriver). They even threw in a cheap looking leather sleeve for it. My computer had no problem recognizing it and I didn't need the extra USB plug that can provide extra power (the only thing kind of non-standard is that they used the wide USB A end instead of a mini USB or USB B plug for the drive). The connection is USB 2.0, so data transferred very quickly. I moved 3.81 GB of videos over in 3 minutes 39 seconds, so 17.4 MB per second. That is at least a few times faster than the tests I did on my flash drives and way faster than when I connect the USB 1.1 Archos where 3 GB of data would take 20 minutes or so. USB 2.0 will allow faster speeds than that, so the limiting factor might be the hard drive itself or my computer. It is noticeably snappy when opening folders on it, similar to folders on the computer's hard drive.

Anyway, this is pretty neat and a good use for a hard drive from an old laptop computer.

September 12, 2009

New Dishwasher

When I moved into my house about 12 years ago, the Frigidaire dishwasher was pretty new. It worked fine for the most part, but the soap tray wouldn't stay closed, or if it did, it would never open during the cycle and would still have soggy soap in it when the cycle was done. At one point it wouldn't come on at all and I had to call a repair man. I watched him take it apart and he showed me that the handle that you turn to lock it down wasn't pressing down hard enough on the safety switch. He said I would need a new handle for $120. I said don't worry about it and when he left I took it back apart like he had done and put a piece of cardboard underneath the switch so it would sit up higher and now the handle would trigger the switch. So either a $120 handle or a piece of cardboard would have fixed it. It's worked for years after that.

The other problem was that the rack had developed rust spots on the ends and sometimes at the base of the tines, leaving rust spots where the dishes would touch those. I learned how to avoid those tines and eventually most of the rust spots on the dishes went away. Lately the dishwasher has started smelling bad and getting black stuff in the bottom, which can't be good.

Jenny from work asked me what I thought about a Samsung refrigerator she was thinking about getting and that Sears was having a 20% off sale on all Energy Star appliances (the sale ended Thursday, but now they are having a sale with 20% off all Kenmore and Whirlpool appliances). Consumer Reports rated that one pretty well and she was getting it for less than the price they had listed (which CR calls the price you can expect to pay, rather than retail). So it got my blessing, but then I started thinking it was a good time to get a dishwasher.

Meanwhile, there are two different discounts coming up, one is a state tax holiday on Energy Star appliances, and the other is a federally sponsored stimulus program where the state will give you a rebate on Energy Star appliances (thought to be about $50 for dishwashers). Since Georgia's sales tax holiday was set many months ago for October 1-4 and the federal rebate won't go into effect until late October, they won't overlap. Also, I figure there will be a lot of hype so the sales won't be as good at that time or I won't be able to get what I want. So I thought I'd take the 20% discount now instead of possibly a 7% to 12% discount later. Plus they are also rebating delivery right now. They are rebating the $10 haul away fee too, except that the maximum value of the rebate is $75 and that's how much delivery of a dishwasher or refrigerator is, so even though they say they are rebating the haul away fee, they aren't. But I didn't realize that until the day the dishwasher was to be delivered. I also paid an extra $10 for Saturday delivery.

So on to the new dishwasher. You can spend a lot on a dishwasher. Some are over $1,000. You can also spend just a few hundred on a dishwasher too. So I figured a reasonable amount to spend was $300-$500. At the higher end of the range you get quieter dishwashers that get good reviews on Consumer Reports, so I looked at a Kenmore and a Whirlpool that got about equal reviews and were both less than $500 at Sears on sale. Originally the Whirlpool cost a little more and Whirlpool has a slightly better repair history than Kenmore (8 instead of 9). So I decided on the Whirlpool Gold 2300XTVQ. The salesperson at Sears tried to upsize me to a Kenmore with a stainless steel tub, but that model hadn't been rated by Consumer Reports and I didn't want to take any chances (not crazy about the stainless steel tubs since they make the inside of the dishwasher seem dark, plus CR says they might be overrated). I put it on my credit card to double the warranty and turned down the service contract. When I installed a new disposal I had re-wired the old dishwasher and re-routed it's drain line, so I figure I had mostly installed the old dishwasher already and it shouldn't be that bad doing the new one.

It showed up at about 10:15 this morning. It took until 12:25 to get it running, but most of that was because I realized I had left a 90º elbow connected to the old dishwasher (now gone; a problem with the haul away option) that I could have used. So I had to take a shower, drive to Ace, get the part, realize it was the wrong size, go back to Ace, get the right size, and return. Actual installation was probably around 30 minutes. It is running empty now on a "Glass Xpress" mode that is a short cycle. It is probably quieter than the old one, but not by all that much. And the inside of the tub is kind of a gray so that it looks about the shade of stainless and therefore is just as dark inside.

September 11, 2009

Shuttle Carrier Aircraft

Tonight the space shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California after being waved off two days in a row from Florida. This got me thinking about the 747 that carries the space shuttle. Wikipedia points out that there are two Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Both were originally flown by airlines, the first by American Airlines, and the second by a Japanese airline. The engines had to be upgraded and all extra weight was stripped from the plane, but there are still a few seats left in the first class section in the front of the plane. There have only been these two and the first one was the one that launched the unpowered shuttle prototype Enterprise back in 1977. The shuttle has landed at Edwards 54 times.

One funny thing in the Wikipedia article is the following picture of one of the mounts on top of the 747 where the shuttle connects to the plane:


September 10, 2009

Freestyle Coke Fountain

Today, like all Thursdays, we went to lunch at Firehouse Subs. But unlike all previous Thursdays, today they had a new coke fountain installed. I had heard about these before, but had not actually seen one. This soda fountain can deliver over 100 different beverages. I was hoping it would be like the World of Coke's room where they have flavors from around the world, but really a lot of the combinations seem to come from mixing pretty standard flavors. So you can get Coke, but you can also get lime Coke, vanilla Coke, cherry Coke, orange Coke, and raspberry Coke. I got an orange coke and you could see it running orange, so it is probably just mixing Coke and Fanta Orange.


There are a number of flavors of Fanta (including Peach which is supposed to be pretty good) and Sprite, but also Vault and Powerade in addition to Dasani flavored water. I don't even want most of this stuff. There are also a number of different Zero flavors, so I had a Pibb Zero first which tasted kind of flat to me.


You use a touchscreen which has the basic flavors. When you click one of those you go to a screen of flavors based on that first choice. I didn't want to spend too long checking everything out because there were people in line behind me, so I couldn't play around with it much. Two people I ate with tried raspberry Cokes and agreed that it wasn't very good. The orange Coke was okay, I thought, but I could have probably made one at their old fountain too.

The downside is the machine also makes ice and Firehouse used to have really good ice (the little crushed ice pellets) and now it is just regular ice.

Craftsman Tool

Last night I was at Sears shopping for a dishwasher. Because of where I parked I had to walk past the hardware section, so I thought I would look and see what kind of Torx screwdriver sets they had, even though now I am reasonably happy with the set I got from Home Depot. While looking around (I didn't find quite what I was looking for) I came across this tool, which made me laugh.


I'm not a Craftsman nut and already have plenty of bottle openers, but I liked the idea. In searching for a picture of it online, I also found out that Sears makes a Craftsman set of grilling tools.

September 9, 2009

New iPods

I've been waiting and waiting and waiting for a high capacity widescreen iPod. The rumor was the new iPod touch would include a video camera. I wasn't that crazy about a video camera, but hoped for GPS. Instead Apple just delivered higher capacities with the 32 GB touch now $299 and a 64 GB touch for $399. A little disappointing. The only other thing that was added was a faster processor, although the low-end touch with 8 GB ($199) still has the old one.

The nanos got nice updates though. The price went down a little on the high end (8 GB $149, 16 GB $179), but they added a video camera, microphone, speaker, a little bit larger screen, and for the first time ever on an iPod: FM radio (including pausing radio, which I would rather have on my car since that's the only time I usually listen to radio). So it's a good time to get a nano, though just about everyone in our family already has one (it's amazing how many nanos are in our family, see the timeline).


I was thinking I would get a touch, but I feel like Apple will add the camera and maybe the FM radio to the touch in January for the same price. Given that, I think if I buy now I will get the 32 GB touch instead of going "all in" on the 64 GB. 32 GB will still hold all of my music plus a decent selection of video (most of which I think I would have to re-encode from DivX .avi files to something Apple supports; even 64 GB wouldn't hold all of my video) and plenty of apps.

September 5, 2009

Cleaning Up Playlist Files

I'm loading up the Archos now that it has a super big hard drive and can hold all of my music. I keep singles in a file called @Downloads. The @ is so that it sorts to the top of the list. But the Archos doesn't automatically play everything in a folder (I think Rockbox has a preference where it will do that, but that's not what I want to do anywhere else). So I opened a song in Windows Media Player which is my default MP3 player on my laptop. Then I drag all of the songs in the folder into that window. Now I have a list of all the songs. Then there is a Now Playing drop-down list where I can choose "Shuffle List Now". Then from that same list I can choose "Save List As" and then change the type to m3u instead of WMP's default.

Now I have a shuffled playlist. This is better than just regular shuffling because regular shuffling will repeat songs. The playlist it creates has all of these extra lines in it that start with #EXTINF. I'm not sure exactly what those do, but I think they help generate all of the song info faster. WinAmp playlists are the same way.

I did a search for how to strip out the EXTINF lines and found a guy who knows way too much about DOS. He said that you should start a command window (Start:Run and type cmd is the fastest) then navigate to the folder you want to go to and type in the following magical line where +clean.m3u is the name of the playlist without the extra lines in it:

findstr /i /b /V "#EXTINF" "+downloads.m3u" > "+clean.m3u"

This is pretty good, but I still had a bunch of blank lines (I could probably get rid of them by modifying the command above, but I don't know how to do that). So I opened the new file in Notepad, copied everything, pasted it into a blank Word document, and searched for ^p^p and replaced it with ^p. Then I selected all, copied, and pasted it back into the Notepad file. Finally, just delete the downloads.m3u file and rename clean.m3u.

Here is what the switches mean:

/i Case insensitive
/b Match text at the beginning of the line
/V Print only lines that do not match the pattern

Then you do the file name to look in and then type > and the output file, otherwise it will just print it to the screen.

Later I found out how to strip blank lines from a text file:

findstr /v "^$" "+clean.m3u" > "+downloads.m3u"

Now all you have to do is delete +clean.m3u since the original +downloads.m3u will be overwritten by this second command. Apparently ^ is the shortcut for beginning of line and $ is a shortcut for the end of a line, so an entire blank line is ^$.