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Home Theater Hell

Posted: February 11, 2009 in House & Garden | Add Comment

A few months ago my wife decided that we should have a new flatscreen TV to go in our newly remodeled basement. We're not huge AV aficionados, so I wasn't after the biggest and best thing on the block. I ended up getting a killer deal on a Panasonic 50" plasma TV that can do 720p. Since our receiver (circa 1991) had a busted volume control (you had to get up and walk over to it and turn it up/down manually) I also picked up a decent Sony receiver, which I also got a pretty good deal on.

The back of the receiver is mess of wires, because however the signal comes into the thing, it has to go out the same way (so if we do component video in for the DVD, it has to be component out to the TV). So we had a mix of HDMI, optical audio, RCA, etc.

We always had a crappy DVD player. It's a "Shinsonic", which is a cheapo Canadian brand that my wife bought years ago. It has problems playing DVDs that aren't perfect, and the remote for it is pretty horrid. A few days ago, I picked up a nice new Oppo 980H, and it arrived on my B-day (what timing!). You'd thing a simple DVD player would be easy to hook up, right? Hah!

Since all the components we use now have HDMI, I stripped the mess of wires off the back of the receiver and just went HDMI for everything, since it can handle video and audio. Once done, I was surprised to have no audio. After 30 minutes of pouring through all the manuals, I finally got online. Guess what. Our receiver only does "pass through", meaning that it'll carry the HDMI signal from one device to another, but it won't process it. So we need to feed it audio in some other way.

This leads to another problem. On the back of the receiver, we have HDMI for "DVD" and "BD" (BlueRay Disc). We have optical audio for "SAT" and "BD". So, I can use the "BD connection for our Oppo DVD player, no problem. But what about the DVR? If I want to use the "SAT" optical audio connection for that, I'm reduced to component video, which is analog and not digital. A better way is probably to use the "DVD" HDMI connection for the DVR, which leaves me with something called "coaxial digital audio". I've never heard of this, but it sounds better than RCA jacks. I'd need to get a cable for that.

The only other option I thought of was to bypass the receiver altogether. The TV has 2 HDMI inputs, and an optical audio output. If I ran both the DRV and the Oppo to HDMI 1 and 2 on the TV, that would get the audio and video to the TV. I could then run a single optical audio cable back down to the receiver for sound, and just never change the device the receiver is set to. Then to switch between devices, I would use the "input" button on the TV remote instead of the receiver.

Oy vey!!

Maybe by tonight I'll figure something out and have sound.

Landscaping, before and after

Posted: June 30, 2008 in House & Garden | Add Comment

Finally got the landscaping done. The plants look small now, but they'll grown and fill in over time. The house already looks better, but will look even better once the plants fill in. We still need a new post lamp and an address sign for the front. Those are coming.


Landscaping, before

Landscaping, before

Landscaping, before

Landscaping, before

Landscaping, before


Landscaping, during

Landscaping, during

Landscaping, during

Landscaping, during


Landscaping, after

Landscaping, after

Landscaping, after

Landscaping, after

Landscaping, after

So, that's done, and now the house has some curb appeal. We're getting some more done next summer, but this is it for now. The contractors did really good work, were very professional, and got everything done in a day. I'd definitely recommend them.

We even have some room to plant annuals. The place is shaping up!!

It's time to start firing contractors

Posted: June 29, 2008 in House & Garden | Add Comment

Jessica and I are having lots of stuff done to the house this summer, but we're also having a lot of guests. Since we didn't want the house to be under construction all year (like it pretty much was last year), especially while guests are here, we took out a line of credit so that we could get all the stuff done up front. What we never counted on was the house being under construction all year anyway, because the effing contractors won't show up when they say they will.

We hired one guy back in April to remodel both bathrooms. He finally showed up on Thursday, gutted the hallway bathroom (the one that the guests will need to use), installed a tub (the wrong one) and hasn't been back since.

We need a door (a flippin door!) installed in the basement, to separate the storage area from the media room, and that guy has now stood us up two weekends in a row (with no calls).

This is the same guy who redid the media room, which was a weeks worth of work, that he took 2 months to do because he missed so many weekends. The door is all that's left.

One part of the basement remodel was installing two heating vents off of the main supply duct. Ever since this was done, I've noticed it significantly warmer in the rest of the house, and the AC seems to be working more. Last weekend I decided to raise the light bulbs in the fixtures to cut down on glare, and notice a ton of air gushing out from around the lights. I pulled one of the vents off to find that he never connected the vent to the duct. He just cut a huge, gaping hole in the supply duct (one for each vent) and the vent just sits 2" below it. So I basically have two 6x10 holes in the main supply duct that just blow cold air into the basement ceiling where it does... NOTHING. I'm fixing that today with some sheet metal and some duct tape.

So yeah, I think this guy is fired, and if the bathroom guys don't get on the move soon, I think they're fired too.

Extreme Home Makeover - in our town!

Posted: June 24, 2008 in House & Garden | Add Comment

They're filming an episode of this in my town this week. yes

I guess it's some lady with 14 kids and her husband died and her house is getting ready to fall over or something, so they have six days to tear it down and build a new one.

This morning on the way to the train station I noticed those variable message signs around town, announcing parking for "makeover fans". Heh.

I'll try to get some pics of the progress.

So like, we have no electricity

Posted: June 05, 2008 in House & Garden | Add Comment

Yesterday was the worst day of the year so far. In the morning, my commuter train was canceled, and the next train takes forever because it stops at every single stop (my usual train skips the smaller stops).

I went outside at lunch, and it was gorgeous, but that didn't last long. We had a killer thunderstorm that screwed up the whole area. All the commuter trains were canceled due to trees across the tracks, so I took the subway, followed by the bus to get home.

When I got home, the power was on, BUT the stupid garage door wouldn't accept my code. It kept flashing the "error" signal. I tried and tried, but nothing. The sky grew very dark, and I could tell another big storm was coming, so I went around back and used my office ID badge to jimmy the screen door latch so I'd have a roof over my head.

It started pouring again, so I spent the next half hour trying to jimmy the french doors into the family room without damaging them. SUCCESS! But the minute I got in, another bright flash of lightning instantly followed by a loud clap of thunder put the power out.

So I did what anyone would do and ordered pizza.

I'm going to have a heck of a mess to clean up this weekend. The lawn was covered with debris from trees, and our Silver Maple out front lost a couple of huge branches off the top. Fortunately they missed the house, but they'll still be a bear to clean. One of them is around 10" around.

This morning, all the commuter trains were still out of service, so it was the subway again. Ugh. Hopefully the power will be restored by tonight before all our food goes bad.

The rear patio is coming along nicely

Posted: May 19, 2008 in House & Garden | Add Comment

Jessica and I have decided (after much insistence by me) to add a small patio out back for the bbq grill to sit on. Originally this area was just grass, but rain water would tend to accumulate, making a soggy place for the grill to sit. The addition of a patio would not only provide a clean, dry place for the grill to sit, but also connect the rear basement door with the stairs leading down from the deck.

We settled on brick pavers both because of cost and appearance (less than half the price of flagstone). The paving crew arrived this morning and went at it with abandon. They've got a lot done in a short time. Here are a few pics:.

A bit of grass seed and it'll look really good. We're also having them redo the front walk as well. Pics pending job completion.

So it's bathroom remodeling time

Posted: February 19, 2008 in House & Garden | Add Comment

Ever since we moved into the new house, the bathrooms have been on the list for things that need remodeling. The powder room got the treatment instantly, because it was the worst - cheesy 70's etched glass light fixture, almond toilet, and white vanity with gold swirls on the faux marble sink. The powder room looks great now, and we get lots of compliments, but we've fallen behind on the other two bathrooms, other than a coat of paint in each.

While I prefer showers, Jessica is a bath person, and likes spending time soaking in a tub of hot soapy water. The problem is, the tub in the upstairs bathroom is too shallow for her to immerse all the way, so she complains about it whenever she has a bath. Last week I finally got a wild hair up my ass and called Bathfitters to come out for an estimate, figuring it would be good to go with a place that would do everything so we wouldn't have to hire separate contractors for plumbing, tile, etc.

On the phone, I didn't get a great feeling. It sounded more like a call center, but hey, they're a big outfit, so maybe they need to have that to stay organized. But then I got a red flag - both husband and wife have to be present for the estimate. They usually do this to prevent the "I need to run this by my wife" excuse for not wanting to sign on the line right then and there. Because of this, I expected some pressure to commit right after the estimate. I was right.

They came in and looked at both bathrooms. For Jess's bathroom we were doing a new tub, backing, fixtures (aka faucets, etc), and sliding door. For mine we were doing a new shower stall, fixtures, and a swinging door. Total price: $12,000 and change. This was not for hand-laid tile, mind you, but for a pre-fabricated acrylic insert, mass-produced at one of their two factories. I thought it was a little steep, but more than that I was worried that the style of their product would not fit in with the style of the rest of our house, as all their samples and photos looked quite contemporary. I asked if there was some way we could see a "live" product, like at a showroom or something. They have no such thing, but they directed us to a local mall that was around 35 minutes away. Later in the evening, we made the trip, but it was for nothing, since the Bathfitter display had been gone for over a year.

At the end of our estimate/sales pitch, we were told that since this is the "off" time of the season for them, we qualified for a $350 per bathroom discount. We would also get a 5% promotional discount, as well as $200 off for some reason I can't remember. This was all well and good, but on a $12,000+ price tag, it was peanuts. Then I got red flag #2. If we didn't sign on the line right then, we'd lose all those discounts. How typical.

This is usually where I cut off the sales pitch and show the person the door. The only reason they pull stunts like this is because they're afraid you'll shop around and find a better price. If they were confident in their product or their price, they wouldn't make it "more expensive" if you don't sign right now. So this was a clue that I'd better shop around before signing.

I will say that the salesperson was very nice, and you could tell she believed in the product 100%. But those sales tactics just don't sit well with me. Never have. There's no way I'm going to sign on the line for a $12,000 anything without thinking about it, comparing prices, or at least seeing what the finished product looks like.

Already making a difference

Posted: August 02, 2007 in House & Garden | Add Comment

When we bought our house, I called the power company to see what the electricity bills were like so we'd know what to expect when bills started rolling in. I was aghast to learn that the previous owners burned over 32,000 kwhs last year - to the tune of around $200/month. I'm pretty sure that's around triple the average for homes in the US.

Needless to say, the thought of giving $200 every month to the power company - soon to be more like $500/month after the upcoming rate increases - was something that didn't sit very well with either of us. So, we set out to see what we could do to cut down our bill.

The first item that needed attention was our constantly running hot tub. After some research, I discovered that hot tubs (including ours) have timers, and after a close inspection of ours, I found the timer, and sure enough, it was bad. So I replaced it, and turned the thermostat down to "off". It only takes a few hours to heat up when we want to use it, and that's surely cheaper than running it 24/7, on top of the fact that the pump cycles twice a day now instead of running constantly.

The second order of business was to put compact fluorescent light bulbs wherever we could stand them. This ended up meaning the replacement of around 30 bulbs, which should be a significant savings.

Installing ceiling fans where we spent the most time has made those spaces more comfortable without lowering the thermostat, and they look nice too.

We also gave some attention to the 30-year-old electric furnace, which I mentioned in a previous post. That will be getting torn out this Friday in favor of a top-of-the-line heat pump. A very expensive item, but after some conservative calculations, it looks like it will pay for itself in less than four years, and I figure I'd rather spend that money on the house than just piss it away to the utility.

Next will be the attic fans. We already have one, but the motor is dead. I'll be pulling it out to take it to Grainger for a replacement, so that should help some. I'm also installing a gable fan in the crawl space over the garage, so that should pull some of the hot air out from above the garage and home office. The garage can be like a sauna on a hot day, and the office is around 10 degrees warmer than the rest of the house due to no HVAC (it's an addition).

The huge thing that will make a difference in our usage will be the addition of solar panels sometime in 2008. While we won't be completely off the grid, we should be able to cover most of our usage and have a minimal bill from the power company.

I'm very excited about all the changes, and it'll be fun to see just how small we can make our footprint. But the changes we've made so far are already making a difference. Our June electricity bill was only $63, which is a fraction of what it was last June with the old owners.

Just wait til all the changes are made!

Time for a new heat pump?

Posted: June 29, 2007 in House & Garden | Add Comment

After moving in, and having a preview of how much power this place uses, we've decided to see what could be done to limit our power consumption. One of the areas that obviously needed attention was the continuously running hot tub. After a visit to a spa dealer, and speaking to an expert (who really was an expert), we discovered that our hot tub was most likely equipped with a timer. Once I got home, I did a little digging, found the access panel, and sure enough, there was not one but two timers, and both were set to "continuous operation". I switched the filter pump over to timer, and had it run twice a day. Much more efficient than running it 24/7. I left the temp timer off, and allowed it to run via the thermostat setting, which we keep on the lowest setting unless we're going to be using the tub.

Anyway, on to the heat pump.

One of the areas of the house that I immediately focused on was the fact that the house has a straight electric furnace. This is basically like a huge hair dryer, and it's definitely NOT cheap to operate. I called a well respected local HVAC shop and had a tech come out to check things out. After a thorough walk-through, he gave us several options. Basically, we would be pulling the 30+ year old furnace, and the builders-grade central AC unit and installing a top-end, high-efficiency heat pump that has a variable-speed fan, central humidity control, and a completely new main duct trunk.

The new unit would be about 60% more efficient on the AC side than our current AC unit, and three times more efficient on the heating side than our old furnace. This, coupled with other changes in the house, would seriously cut back on our power consumption (and resulting bill). Plus, if we decided to install solar panels (which we're also seriously looking into) the reduction in power consumption of the new system would give us a much better chance of the solar panels being able to cover 100% of our usage.

We have until the end of July to decide, and to explore other options (like wood pellet stoves, etc) before the $1000 mfgr's rebate expires.

Work, work, and more work

Posted: June 12, 2007 in House & Garden | Add Comment

So far, things are coming along smoothly with the new house. There's still tons of stuff to do, but the items completed since last entry are:

  • Upstairs painting is 90% done, leaving only the two bathrooms still left to do.
  • Upstairs carpet is 100% done.
  • Porcelain tile in kitchen is done.
  • Bamboo flooring is done, though I need to get new baseboard molding (long story).
  • Powder Room From Hell ™ is finally done. More on that later.
  • Home office is pretty much set up.
  • Master bedroom and guest bedroom are furnished. The other two are a disaster.
  • New range hood over stove.

Priority items on the agenda:

  • Fix the plugged drain in the basement, so we can finally do some laundry.
  • Baseboard molding on 1st floor.
  • Unboxing all the crap and putting it where it belongs.
  • Sort the crossed-up phone lines.

So far the most annoying project was the 1st floor powder room. We had stripped it bare to lay the floor tile, and took that opportunity to paint it. Since we hated the old vanity that was in there, we decided to toss it and install a pedestal sink. This decision facilitated the need for a new toilet, because the old almond-colored one did not match the new sinks we liked. Plus, it was a 5-gallon model, and we wanted to save water.

Installing the new toilet was a cinch, and it I was flushing in no time. The sink however was a different story (and I've installed many in my time). The new drain was 2" farther away from the wall than the original one, and I simply could not come up with a combination of parts to get the dang thing lined up. After 6 trips to the hardware store, and having at least 3 people look at it, I was finally let in on a town secret - a plumbing shop is one block over.

So I hop over to the plumber's shop and explained my plight. He immediately walked to a box he had on a shelf, and it had EXACTLY what I needed. $10 and 30 seconds later, the drain was all fixed up. So I finished up the sink, and turned the tap on and watched the water flow.

Then I turned the tap off, and watched the water... flow. Bad faucet.

Finally by 10pm last night, I had a new faucet in, and was able to call the job done. Complete list of changes:

  • New floor
  • New paint
  • New faucet and sink
  • New toilet
  • New mirror
  • New light fixture
  • New towel rack and TP holder.

I call that a complete overhaul. Now it's just about my favorite room in the house. And since it's the only bathroom on the first floor, I'll have many opportunities to admire my handiwork.

Can't wait to get the rest of the house done, so I can relax and get back to riding my bike.

We love our new place

Posted: June 03, 2007 in House & Garden | Add Comment

We've been in the new place since Monday, and while it's a total mess (boxes still everywhere, tools scattered about, and nearly 800 sq' of hardwood floor sitting boxed up in the family room), we already love the place and the town. The town is small and quiet, around half the size of the last town we lived in, and everyone seems to know everyone. I've already been to the supermarket, the hardware store, and the local dining establishments. Today I got a pic of a Heron (I think) that was feeding across the pond. Once I get the computer room set up 100% (in a week or two) I'll upload the pics.

So far we've painted around 80% of the upstairs. I've installed:

  • A kitchen faucet
  • Two ceiling fans
  • Two sets of track lighting
  • Dining room lighting

Lots of stuff left to do.

On Monday the kitchen tile goes in, as well as the upstairs carpet. That'll take a few days. On Friday the bamboo flooring goes in, and once all the flooring is finished, we can start getting organized and having the new furniture delivered. After a week of sleeping on a mattress and box springs sitting on the floor, I'll be really happy to sprawl out on that new king-sized pillow-top mattress.

Two of the toilets in here are water-saving units, and I just bought a third one for the powder room to replace the old 5-gallon model. I'm thinking I can sell the 5-gal unit on craigslist or something - a while ago there was a black market on those things.

Once the interior gets finished (finished, heh) I'll get some "after" pics to go with the "before" ones I took. Then it's off to the garage, where I plan to throw up some drywall and do some painting. The floor will get some type of epoxy coating. Gotta have a nice, clean, bright place to work on the cars and bikes.

That's it for now.

Soooo tired

Posted: May 27, 2007 in House & Garden | Add Comment

This is our last weekend in our old house. We're now officially renting it. But we finally (FINALLY) own the new place.

I walked around and took a bunch of "before" pics, because the place is not going to remain the way it is for long.

We're painting pretty much every room.
We're putting bamboo flooring on 2/3 of the first floor.
We're putting porcelain tile on the remaining 1/3 of the first floor.
We're putting new carpet on the entire second floor and the stairway.

Only the basement will remain untouched... for now.

Yesterday was exhausting. I had to pick up materials, so it was off to Rentals Unlimited to pick up an Econoline Van. Then it was off to Lumber Liquidators (70 miles). On the way back, I picked up a mattress & box spring at my Realtor's house. Dropped those off at the house, then it was off to Va (90 miles) to get a china cabinet. Dropped that off, and it was up to Frederick (40 miles) to get a new dining room table from our friends (it was too big for their house).

Total driving: 238 miles @ $0.33 /mile, + $48 worth of gas. Couple that with loading and unloading all that crap = tired me.

Poor Jess was left to paint on her own (well, we hired a painter to help her, but that's still a lot of painting for 2 people) so she was exhausted too. I came home from the last trip to find her sprawled out, asleep, across some hardwood floor boxes. We still have a TON of painting to do, so we'll probably be painting all week.

But the place is going to look awesome. I can't wait til everything is done.

Picking our flooring

Posted: May 20, 2007 in House & Garden | Add Comment

Jess and I took a trip to the hardwood flooring place today. There were lots of gorgeous choices, from different oaks to many exotic woods from Brazil to Australia. I could see the wheels turning in Jess's head when she started looking at all the exotic woods. Worried that wood for our floor would come from some rainforest somewhere, or worse, that some rainforest had been chopped down to grow trees for hardwood floors, we asked about how sustainable some of the woods are. Of course, no one there had any idea.

We checked the brochure to see what it had to say, and found that Bamboo (of all things) is pretty much the most eco-friendly option. We looked at the bamboo displays, and were surprised to find that it was actually cheaper than most of the hardwoods. So we took a few samples, but for the price, it's going to be tough to beat.

Here's a pic of a bamboo floor.

Pretty nice. Tomorrow the guy is going to take some measurements, and give us a quote for labor. Same for the carpets.

I think we're going to have a pretty nice place in the end.

We're moving

Posted: May 04, 2007 in House & Garden | Add Comment

A few months ago, Jessica and I decided to check the housing market. Our commute to work from our current home has been getting pretty bad, so we decided that we either needed an improved commute, or if we were stuck with this crappy commute, we were at least going to have a nice house. After looking at things closer in, and what we could afford, we quickly ruled out the better commute and started looking at single-family detached homes out in our cycling area.

After a few weeks of looking at homes, we found one that we both really liked - a 4-bedroom colonial with a 2-car garage, screened-in deck, overlooking a park w/ pond. Really nice place. After a bit of discussion with out Realtor, we decided to make an offer, and after a counter-offer and more discussion, it was ours. Then we were tasked with selling our current home. After some fresh paint, new floor tiles, new interior doors, and new carpet in the basement, we put it on the market. There were/are a lot of homes in our area for sale, so we were a little worried about selling it, but after just 6 days on the market, we had an offer - a testament to the hard work of out Realtor.

So, at the end of the month, we'll be moving. I have lots of plans for the new place, especially the garage. An air compressor, and possibly a lift, not to mention a workshop for the bikes. It's going to be lots of fun, and it'll be nice being able to just ride out the front door, rather than loading up the car every weekend. It'll also be nice to be able to entertain a group of guests and not have them packed in on couches and in sleeping bags.

I think the biggest challenge for me will be the landscaping. I'm no landscaper, and there are a few places that need some attention. Learning is half the fun, I suppose, as long as I don't make too much of a mess out of the yard.

So Jess and I have begun house shopping.

Posted: February 20, 2007 in House & Garden | Add Comment

Jess and I have a hellish commute. A 40 minute drive on an over-crowded, two-lane road, with bumper-to-bumper traffic that gets worse every year, and will continue to get worse over time. Following this slog is an hour-long subway ride (DC Metro) that can easily run 30-40 minutes longer, like it did this morning. The subway is quite expensive ($4.00 each way, for each of us, plus $4.00 to park the car) and they keep talking about raising that already astronomical fare. The subway trains are old and unreliable, and delays are frequent. On top of all that, you're often packed in like sardines because there aren't many other ways into DC, so the trains are over-crowded.

So the best case scenario for me: 1 hr 30 min. For Jess: 1 he 45 min. Typical though is 1:45 for me, and 2 hrs even for Jess. Work 8 hrs, commute for 4. That's a 12-hour day, and a bit of a pain in the ass. I'm sure some of you have worse, or have had worse in the past, but that doesn't make our commute any more enjoyable.

So we've been exploring alternative living arrangements. Either closer to the subway station, or closer to some other form of transit. Maryland has something called the MARC Train (Maryland Rail Commuter service) that while more expensive than the subway, does offer an alternate. Jess recently rode the MARC Train back from a conference in Baltimore, and found it quite comfy. Unlike the Metro, the MARC train only makes several stops during a trip, and instead of being in underground tunnels, runs on the surface. That makes a nicer ride, but it also offers points of failure from snow, ice, or things blocking the tracks. You can also eat on the MARC, which you can't do on the Metro.

So Jess has started researching homes near MARC stations, and we were quickly drawn to the western portion of our county, most of which has been designated as an agricultural reserve, and being such has severe limits on development. So this means older houses on large parcels, which sounds good to both of us. The development caps also mean that traffic won't double every year, like it's been doing where we live now.

After some Internet searching, we found a pair of houses to look at, so we got ahold of my Best Man/real estate agent/friend Nick, who arranged for a visit. The one we like best so far is a quaint little cape cod in the northwest portion of the county - an area where we're constantly riding our bikes. It's around 2200 square feet, has three floors (one of which is a finished basement), 4 bedrooms, and is on a little under 3 acres of land. It's exactly 3 minutes from the nearest MARC station, and 6 minutes from another station in the opposite direction.

Commute-wise, this would help in a few ways. First and foremost, we'd lose the 40-minute drive to the subway. Second, even thought the MARC train costs more, you don't have to pay the $4.00 for parking, so that offsets some of the cost. Figure in the gas you use up sitting in traffic for 40-50 minutes, and it's probably a wash. Second, the train ride into DC is approx 45 minutes, so we'd be ahead of the game time-wise. Unfortunately, the MARC stops at Union Station in DC, so a short subway ride would still be needed, but only about 15 minutes worth. So my 1:45 typical commute would become 1 hr even.

But the main thing would be getting out of the town house and into a detached, single-family home, on a good chunk of land. We still have more places to look at, but Jess really likes this one. Nice, open, well-lit places, and hardwood floors throughout. We'll have to crunch some numbers and see how things work out.

So our furnace died yesterday

Posted: December 07, 2006 in House & Garden | Add Comment

Gotta love getting dressed in 50 degree temps in the morning.

Got a service person coming to look at it tomorrow. I think it's the blower motor. Hope it won't be too expensive. Until then, we've been getting by on the fireplace and a space heater.

In other news, the Ford Focus I bought to be our second car turned out to have a water leak. As in, the whole passenger compartment fills up with water when it rains. After an unsatisfsctory conversation with the dealership, I contacted a lawyer. They dealership wanted to charge me to fix the leak, but I may end up charging them for a whole new carpet, on top of the repairs.

I don't understand why these businesses can never seem to do the right thing.

First Anniversary

Posted: October 24, 2006 in House & Garden | Add Comment

Yesterday Jess and I celebrated our one year wedding anniversary. We decided to go to Ruth's Chris Steak House, because we've both always wanted to try it, if for no other reason than to compare it to the usual chains like Outback, etc. Since she had to go into work, I drove up and met her at the restaurant, making sure to arrive ahead of her. On the way up, I stopped and bought her a diamond bracelet made of white gold that will match her wedding ring. When I got to the restaurant, I scoped out our seat, and placed her gift and a card on the table, so she'd find them when we were seated.

Well, I have to say, the steak was quite good, but honestly, the prices were a bit outrageous. Steaks were in the $30-$40 range, with other "specialty" steaks being even higher. They had a Kobe steak for $64, and even a Porterhouse for $80 (!), although it was said to feed two. Salads were $6.50+ and side dishes (sides are ala carte and don't come with the steaks) were $8.50, though they are big enough for two. We each had a salad, and chose sides of creamed spinach and potatoes au gratin.

The staff was very pleasant, and they knew it was our anniversary. The "Front of House" manager came and greeted us, wishing us a happy anniversary, and made some small talk, and they gave us a complimentary desert item (which was also fantastic). We ended up around $120 for the night, not counting tip. Something we definitaly cannot afford to do very often.

Overall, the weekend was nice. On Saturday, I took Jess up to the Catoctin Mountains to see some fall foliage. She even got to drive the Mini!

We spend Sunday at the movies. We saw "The Queen" (B+) and "Last King of Scotland (A). We enjoyed both. After the movies, we had dinner at B&D's Mongolian BBQ, which is a place where you load a bowl up on a buffet line with whatever combo of meat, veggies, and condoments you want, pick a sauce and some seasoning, and they fry everything up right in front of you.

It was yummy, but I went a little overboard on my 2nd bowl. It was a chicken dish with some snap peas, water chestnuts, and broccoli, but the sauce was where I got carried away. Garlic chili sauce, with 2 scoops of cayenne pepper, a scoop of black pepper, a scoop of garlic powder, a scoop of chili powder, half a scoop of curry powder, half a scoop of jerk chicken seasoning, and a dash of kung pao sauce. It was like flaming battery acid. But it was yummy! I ended up chasing it with a salad so I could get my taste buds back to normal.

Overall, it was a very good weekend. I just can't believe it's been a year already.

Vacation #1 on the books

Posted: July 10, 2006 in House & Garden | Add Comment

Jessica and I spent the last week (plus both weekends) on vacation, at her parents' island on Lake Temagami in northern Ontario Canada. Due to the astronomical cost of airfare, we decided to drive the new Mini rather than fly. Our trip took us from MD to Guelph, ON CA for her niece's birthday, and then to Temagami. The return trip saw us stop over in Toronto, where we caught an Elevation gig, and then back home. Total driving time was something like 30 hrs altogether. I think I've had it for driving for a while, but unfortunately we're planning a trip to Syracuse next weekend, and that's another 6-1/2 hrs each way. Sheesh!

Temagami was nice. Very nice. Like it always is. For me, it was a rough time to go, because 1) I'd be losing 2 weekends (three if you count next weekend) of prime cycling season, and 2) the Tour de France started on the first, and there's a HUGE shamozzle over doping, and thus almost all of the front-runners will not be competing. The latter wasn't as big of a deal, because the cottage has some limited Internet access. Or at least it did. More on that later.

The drive up was pretty nice, and the Mini actually turned out to be a great road car. We pulled over 30mpg with mixed driving, some traffic, and the AC blasting. The mileage will go up as the engine breaks in, according to everyone on the Mini forums. I used the "Plus" grade gas, and the car was fine with that. The amazing part was that we were able to fit all of our luggage for a the trip, plus sleeping bags for both of us, PLUS groceries for the whole trip (for us and Jess's parents) with plenty of room left. The car is like a bottomless pit when it comes to holding stuff. You'd never know it by looking at it either. I picked up an FM radio adapter for Jess's iPod, so we had a wide musical selection available.

When we got to the cottage, we got to see (and ride in) Jess's parents' new boat. They used to just have an outboard, steel-hulled boat that was totally open, so each trip on the lake meant getting at least a little wet. Not so anymore, as the new boat is not only much larger, it's also completely covered.

It's also a LOT faster, and the ride out to the island took around 10-15 minutes less than it used to.

Here are a few pics from the trip:

The lake

The cottage

Merganser duck with chics

All in all the trip was very relaxing. We did some canoeing, and Jess did some swimming. We also played various card games, Monopoly, Chinese checkers, and I played my first ever game of Scrabble. I thought I'd hate it, but it actually wasn't bad. Jess pretty much hated it, period.

As far as the Tour de France went, I had to resort to going into town and getting a newspaper, because Jess's parent's have an iMac, which promptly crashed and was rendered useless. A stupid blinking folder with a giant "?" on it was all we could get out of it, and of course there are NO Mac repair people within 100 miles of the cottage. What a useless piece of iCrap. And of course, the manual was absolutely useless. We'll probably take Jess's old Dell PC up the next time we go up. At least if that crashed there'll be something that can be done about it.

Other than the iMac, the only really bad thing about the cottage was the mosquitos, which were out in force after dark. While the mosquitos were to be expected, the huge plague of Deer flies were not. They were apparently a month early. In fact, according to Jess and her parents, a LOT of things were early (and they've been at the cottage every summer for the past 42 years), which just lends more weight to the whole global warming thing. The ideal time to visit the cottage used to be mid-July. At the rate things are going, it'll be mid-April soon.

But despite the bugs and dead computers, the cottage really is a relaxing place to be. At night it's dead quiet, except for the occasional Loon, and you can see a bazillion stars, with no "light pollution" to obscure your view. It's even quiet in the day time, and the water is so clean, you can reach down and scoop some out of the lake and drink it as-is. It's one of the most relaxing ways to spend a week that I can think of.

Here's a pic of the Mini after the trip down the dusty mine road that leads to the boat dock.

Filthy Mini

That's all for now.

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