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November 28, 2009

Black Friday

Some of the best deals on electronics always come on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. So I looked forward to seeing the ads on Thursday and planning my shopping. Usually I can pick up some DVD's and electronic trinkets. I still bought stuff, but I think I did better for what I didn't buy.

Since I didn't know much about flashlights last year, this year was a new experience. A lot of the online flashlight dealers do Black Friday specials. My issue right now is that I have learned enough about flashlights to know what I want, and I also know that nobody makes exactly what I want (a 1xAA or 14500 2- or 3-mode light with one or two programmable modes, last mode memory, with modes controlled by a forward clicky on the tail with momentary on and projecting a neutral white beam of around 180 lumens). That still leaves me tempted when there is a good sale on things that do most of what I want. So I came close to buying a JETBeam III-M (which would have also meant buying some new batteries since I don't have one of the size 18650 lithium ion batteries it uses) even though it was 20% off of its marked down price with a coupon code. So a $90 light would have been $60. Then I was reading about Lowe's having a deal on LED Maglites: $11 for the minimags, $15 for full-size 2D or 3D Maglites (not just the regular ones, but much brighter LED ones). This was an amazing deal, since usually the minimags cost $21. People rave about these, but I know the Minimag isn't as bright as my Fenix and I don't think the big Mags are either (and I'd have to buy some D cell batteries). So I don't even need one! But I still came close to going to Lowe's to look at them.

The Fry's ads didn't have anything particularly good in them nor did Best Buy, Target, Office Depot, Walmart, etc. I did end up going to Micro Center and picking up an 8GB USB flash drive for $7 after rebate, a 4GB flash drive for free, and a very pretty and slim 320 GB external drive. That last one was a subject of serious internal debate. I had wanted to spring for a full terabyte hard drive, either external or as a second hard drive in my desktop computer. I can get either of those for less than $100, as low as $79. But I have put it off because really the only reason I need the extra space is to free up space that is being taken up by TV shows I have put on my desktop and laptop hard drives. This week I accidentally deleted all of the shows on my laptop's hard drive (didn't have backups) and didn't figure out until it was largely too late how to undelete them (they don't fit in the recycle bin, so they are just gone . . . but not really). I was using the 20 GB hard drive enclosure (my old Archos hard drive) but that hard drive really isn't all that big (a show is 180-320 MB, so a season of shows would be 5-10 GB) and it can be really slow (it works sporadically, copying a ton of data and then not).

Okay so then I had the great idea that I could replace my laptop's 250 GB hard drive with one that is 500 GB. Then I could buy an enclosure to put the old 250 GB drive in, killing two birds with one stone (today Fry's even had hard drive enclosures for free afer a $10 rebate): getting an external drive and upgrading my laptop. But then that would bring up the whole issue of reinstalling everything on my laptop and maybe not being able to install Office 2007 to a different hard drive.

So Micro Center came to the rescue with a 320 GB Simpletech Signature Mini hard drive in dark cherry (my other choice was cayenne) for only $49.99. The 500 GB (in espresso) was $69.99, but I figured it wasn't worth the extra $20 (the next day Fry's had the 500 GB model for only $59.99, which would have been worth it, but oh well). The 320 GB drive will hold about 40 seasons worth of shows (I have maybe 30 and certainly don't need all of them on a hard drive) plus whatever else I need to back up. Plus it is pretty slim (based on a laptop hard drive instead of a full-size one like the terabyte external drive) so I could bring it in to work or wherever else if I need to without carrying power cords.


Then I was looking at stuff on Amazon tonight and I wound up getting a few things that were on sale: $5 for the Charlie Wilson's War DVD, $12 for the Blu-ray version of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and $11 for a 6" digital caliper so I can finally measure things to the hundredth of an inch. But I didn't buy Iron Man for $9 or West Wing Season 4 for $18 or any seasons of The Office for $13 or the Blu-ray of V for Vendetta for $8, though all of them were in my cart for a little while at least.

November 15, 2009

First Blu-ray Movie Purchase

Last year I bought a Blu-ray DVD player by Panasonic. It is a good player, but unlike later players, it does not support an internet connection (lately I've started seeing Blu-ray players for around $129, so they are finally dropping in price). After I got it, I joined Netflix and was able to pay an extra $1 per month to get Blu-ray DVD's (later they increased this to $3 per month for the 2-at-a-time plan that I usually do, so I didn't do it). So I have seen some Blu-ray movies and they are impressive-looking on my big TV. But I have never bought a Blu-ray movie, mostly because they are just too expensive. Most of the DVD's I buy are less than $10 after they have been out a while and I will get entire seasons of TV shows I like for less than $20, but Blu-ray movies have been around $25, even for older movies.

This summer, the Pixar/Disney movie, Up, came out. It got good reviews and I kept meaning to see it, but never got around to it. The DVD came out the day before my birthday, so I thought it would make a good birthday present to myself, and Walmart had it for only $20.

The Blu-ray version of the movie has 4 disks. One disk is the Blu-ray version of the movie with some extras. Disk 2 is also Blu-ray with some additional extras about making the movie. The third disk is a regular DVD version of the first disk, which is pretty neat in case I want to lend the movie to someone who doesn't have a Blu-ray player. The 4th disk is a "digital copy" of the movie that can be unlocked and imported in to iTunes. That's a pretty neat idea, though I don't know if my nano would play a movie (I don't see why not, but it would be awfully tiny, so I think I'll wait until I get a Touch).

One of the extras that is included on the main disk is a set of calibration screens that help you set up your TV and home theater system to get the most out of watching the DVD. There are screens for setting brightness, contrast, balancing the surround speakers, etc. There are some games, but I think I need an internet connection for those.

The movie itself was good. Not really a silly movie like Toy Story or The Incredibles. It seemed almost a little too serious, but it gives the movie some emotional depth. The DVD extras really add a lot to the movie as you get to see the real place the movie was set in and the Pixar animator that the little boy is based on. They also point out things about the characters that I had missed. Also there was a featurette with Dug, a goofy talking dog from the movie, showing a side story about him that happened concurrently with the movie. I thought it was better than the sort of sad Pixar short with the stork (also included) that I am guessing they showed at the beginning of the theatrical release.

November 6, 2009

The Consent Agenda

There are a number of tax credits available right now for installing energy-saving things in your house. You can get 30% of the price of energy-efficient windows and doors as a tax credit up to $1500 in 2009 and 2010. I started researching window replacements and when I got serious, I called Mom so that she would make it happen. She quickly found a window installer who came by to give an estimate and talk about windows. I knew the specifications for the qualifying windows were very high, possibly so high that the price of those windows would be more than $1500 above normal windows. But the installer also pointed out that the tax credit only applies to full window replacements, but I could replace just the sashes (the part that moves up and down) for a lot less money that would also be very efficient. That seemed to be the way to go.

I told Mom we needed two more estimates and I wound up finding a local guy and Mom found another guy, both of whom showed up but never gave me an actual estimate. Mom's guys said we needed to run the whole plan by the city because there are a lot of rules (only because it is a city, these are called "laws") about getting approval of projects in the historic district.

One morning while walking the dogs I saw a lady with a CODE ENFORCEMENT jacket on and asked her what she thought about the window project. She said as long as I didn't use vinyl I should be okay and could submit an application with a couple of pictures. She said I should call to be sure, but that I should hurry because that Friday was the deadline for the next meeting. I called City Hall later that day and they said that yes, I should submit an application to the Historic Preservation Committee. Here's a general rule: If you ask whether you need permission, they will say yes.

I took a couple of pictures of the windows I would be replacing, downloaded an application, converted it to Word so I could fill in the answers, printed out 8 copies, went to Walmart and printed 8 sets of photos, and delivered my application that Friday. Within a day or so I got a call that they needed more pictures, but that I could e-mail them, so I did that. Also a sign showed up in my yard saying a public meeting would be held regarding changes to my house at 7 PM on November 2.

I went to the meeting this past Monday. There were a handful of people sitting in chairs and four guys around a table. I saw they had a printed agenda. Item 1 was Meeting Called to Order, 2 was Approval of Minutes, 3 was Consent Agenda. Here were listed 3 addresses and names with a few words about what they were doing. My project wasn't there. Next was Old Business which included another address and name. Then there were 4 more projects under Item 5, New Business. This included my project.

I start thinking about this. "Old Business" must be the people rejected from the last meeting. "New Business" is probably the people that are going to be rejected from this meeting and become "Old Business" next month. "Consent Agenda" sounded like the place to be, and I wasn't on it.

My fears were soon realized as the meeting started and the guys at the table were all smiles as they called everyone on the Consent Agenda at once and told them they were approved and would be getting a form in the mail saying so. Then they said they had mistakenly included one project on the New Business that was supposed to be on the Consent Agenda, so they passed a motion to move that person to the list and let them go. This person was adding a second floor and a garage to their house. Pretty major work! Anyway, I'm thinking that person's check for the bribes didn't clear as quickly as the others.

About this time a guy comes walking in asking for the Architectural Review Board meeting. They said it was held after this meeting (it was printed on the back of the agenda I had). But then, because he was the only project on that agenda and he was on the Consent Agenda, they temporarily adjourned my meeting and convened the Architectural Board (same four guys). At this point the guy pulls out pictures and pieces of paper and says these are the changes he is proposing. So they start talking about this and that and what kind of material he will use and on and on. I think they realized pretty quickly they had made a mistake in adjourning the other meeting even though there was only a handful of people left from the first meeting. So eventually they decide they will approve only what he has already submitted and he can submit his changes for next month's meeting.

Getting back on track, they go to the Old Business, ask him a few questions and give him an approval. It's like getting across Monty Python's Bridge of Death. Then they move on to the first of the New Business which happens to be a window replacement project as well. They ask questions about why the windows need to be replaced and tell him they don't usually allow this or that, but they are going to go ahead and give him an approval with a few stipulations and also explain why they are giving him some exceptions for his special case, and off he goes. This is interesting. He won't be Old Business. Now I have some hope.

They do the second person for what seems like a while, but eventually get to me (dead last). They say that my house isn't historic and really all they want is for the front of my house to look like it did before by using SDL or TDL windows. I knew this meant Simulated Divided Light or True Divided Light. Thermal windows are two big pieces of glass, unlike the little panes I have now, so SDL adds wood that looks like dividers. The first window man actually gave me estimates for this, but I decided it wasn't worth the extra money. TDL are actually divided (and way more expensive). I had decided at some point that on the street-facing windows I would put dividers on the inside where I could get the look of divided windows, but the removable grids wouldn't be exposed to the weather. This seemed like the best low-maintenance solution. Anyway, I agreed they would be SDL. Then they pointed out that SDL meant there would be dividers on the outside of the glass. So I said okay. And they said they would give me an approval with that stipulation. And I was done. It seemed like it had been a while, but actually the whole meeting only lasted 45 minutes.

November 4, 2009

Kill a Watt Results

I got my Kill a Watt device today and results are pouring in. It plugs in to the wall and the display shows how many watts are being used while something is plugged in to it. It also tracks kilowatt-hours that have been used since it was plugged in which could help when measuring electricity use by a refrigerator whose compressor only comes on every now and then. I should also note that just plugged in to the wall the device itself reads 3 watts, so I have subtracted 3 watts from all the results I'm showing below.

The first thing I tested was my HDTV receiver, which came in at 15 watts. On or off, it is the same. Then I tested my other home entertainment electronics. The VCR (which I haven't used in years) measured 2 watts, but the receiver and DVD player didn't even register when they were off. The VCR is pretty old whereas the DVD and receiver are newer and I think newer devices are better about not being vampires. The Dish satellite receiver uses 25 watts while it is on and only drops down to 19 watts when it has been off for a few minutes.

I figure that Georgia Power charges about 10 cents per kilowatt hour. So something that is on for 24 hours a day for 365 days per year (8,760 hours) costs 87.6 cents per watt. A 100-watt light bulb would cost $87.60 to run all year long. So that HDTV receiver costs me $13.14 per year to run. If I make good use of my remote control surge protector, it can pay for itself in 3 years. That's not a great payoff, but I'll take it.

I measured a lamp I have that uses a 23-watt compact fluorescent bulb in it and it came out at 22 watts. The timer I have that lamp plugged in to has a motor that turns the clock, so I have always worried that the timer uses more electricity than the lamp would if I just left it running all the time. But the timer only uses 2 watts, so that is a good deal (plugged in 24 hours a day it uses as much electricity as the light does in 2 hours; not great).

I moved on to the computer. I leave my DSL modem and wi-fi network running all the time. I also leave my Tivoli Model Two speakers on all the time as my computer speakers, even when the computer is off. I also have a charging station that has its own surge protector inside and plugged in to that are chargers for my Palm, iPod, and cell phone. All of that stuff plugs in to a surge protector and when I measured the consumption with the computer turned off, I got 17 watts. That's not all that bad, I don't think. Turn the computer and a monitor on and it bumps up to 151 (so the computer and monitor together are 134), but when starting a program like iTunes with the hard drive going full blast and the processor blazing, it bumps up to 184. I have a second monitor I only turn on when I need a bigger desktop and it uses 22 watts. My primary monitor uses 29 watts, but it is a nicer monitor and goes to standby if I'm not there.

My laptop measures about 20 watts when plugged in with a full battery, though it briefly spiked to 37 when I started iTunes. That's still way less than the desktop. Asleep, after a couple of minutes, it dropped down to 1 watt. That's pretty minimal. Just the AC adapter without the laptop plugged in, but the green LED lit, it registers 0. Want to save a lot of energy? Don't use a desktop computer: a desktop uses about 6 times as much energy.

I tested my coffee maker as I made a cup of coffee. Once you flip the switch to start brewing, it spikes up quickly to 610 watts. I knew anything with a heating element would use a lot of watts. It did cut off completely once it was done brewing, though the heater would probably kick in every now and then to keep the coffee in the pot hot. The good thing is even though it uses a lot of watts, it doesn't use them for long, so the total kilowatt-hours for a cup of coffee is 0.20. That's only 2 cents, which is a price I'm willing to pay for hot fresh-brewed coffee.

I'll post more results in a couple of days as I test everything else around the house. After that I won't really have any use for the Kill a Watt, so I will lend it out if you are interested.

November 2, 2009

Hard Drives Gone Bad

Jenny at work has a laptop she bought in 2007 from Gateway. This thing is huge, maybe 17 inches. While it was under warranty the hard drive failed so she took it back to Best Buy and they put a new one in. She lost all of the data (they said they could recover the data for $1200) and started doing backups more regularly. It may have failed again under warranty, putting her on her third hard drive. Now it is no longer under warranty and the hard drive has failed again. I took a look at it this weekend to see if there was anything I could do. Well, it wouldn't boot up. So I tried to start it from the Vista installation CD (or DVD, not sure), bypassing the hard drive. But even this didn't work. It would start, but as part of the boot sequence it would look for any hard drives and it would hang while it was identifying the hard drive (I think; it would hang on the screen with the status bar that says © Microsoft Corporation).

Eventually I downloaded the latest copy of Ubuntu and made a boot disk. This worked out fine, but the Ubuntu warned me right away that the hard drive was about to fail. The hard drive report said it had 300 bad sectors on it. I ran some kind of test on it, but it would never finish. I couldn't see the hard drive in Ubuntu's equivalent of Explorer. So I took the hard drive out and tried to boot up with the Vista disk and this worked fine, but I couldn't run disk tools on a hard drive that wasn't connected, so I would connect it after the boot up, during the boot up, whatever it wouldn't recognize it. Booted again into Ubuntu and now it has 400 bad sectors. Just to make sure it was the hard drive itself and not the cable, I even took the hard drive out of my laptop and stuck it in there to see if I could boot off of the Vista disk with my hard drive in my place (didn't even want to try to boot from my Dell hard drive in a Gateway laptop) and that went fine. So bad hard drive.

I don't know what is destroying these hard drives. It looks to me that the processor is water cooled (it has some copper-covered pipe-looking thing going from the fan to the processor), so I think it gets pretty hot and I wonder if the heat is getting to the hard drive? Jenny says she uses the laptop to watch DVD's because it has a nice big screen. I said she needs to use a DVD player and TV for that and also to make sure that she doesn't block the fan inlet on the bottom and maybe puts the computer on a board so that the feet keep a gap open along the bottom. The hard drive itself is made by Western Digital who give a 3-year warranty, so she is going to see if she can get a replacement that way. This will be her third or fourth hard drive in two years.