Friday, September 29, 2006

Return of Soccer Dad

Jacob won his first soccer game this past weekend. It was a nice change. We'd already dropped the first two of the season and I was not looking forward to another semester of futility. Its funny, I almost typed "year" there instead of semester. I'm used to a sports season lasting its time and then ending for a year. But of course youth sports often run year-round, so "last season" really means "a couple of months ago".

But they won, which was good. It’s a completely different team this year. His old coach and all of the girls from last season's team elected to move into the all-girls league. So a new team. And really, a very different sort of game. At this age level, you now have actual positions (including goalkeeper), as opposed to having every kid out there chasing the ball. The field is much much larger. And they are enforcing more rules, like "offsides", which I looked up but still don't really understand.

Another change, and I don’t know if this is league-wide but I think that it is, is that parents and spectators have to be on the opposite side of the field from the players. Last season we all hung out together. I'm not sure why, though maybe coaches didn't like parents coaching their kids (I never did that ), or something happened last time around that

He and this team were completely new to each other. They aren’t a bad bunch. Some are in fact awfully good, including the two girls, a guy who seems destined to becoming a goalkeeper, another defender, Jacob of course, who loves being mid-midfielder, and another kid who would be pretty scary if he had longer legs. Most of the rest seem average to me, but I have seen another guy making some moves at practice, which if he can do that in a game, will make some noise.

I like the coach too, so I don’t think I'll have the same sort of troubles I had last time around when I felt like the coach was missing some important nuances. Now all I have to do is restrain myself when the other team scores a goal because a couple of defenders are standing around, paying no attention to the ball and talking about whatever 8-year-olds talk about in the middle of the game.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Doorbell of Doom

So the pixels weren't really dry on my last post when I finished up a little project that turned out to be a lot more trouble that I had thought, something that required a bit of Tool Man chutzpah, and partially restored my faith in my own abilities.

Yep, I replaced our doorbell button.

This was not my first foray into the world of announcement devices. I had attached a knocker to the door of our old house. Here, I had replaced the old chime mechanism with a new, louder one, and added a wireless extension to it to boot. But these matters were small beer.

The doorbell proper was a serviceable bit of white plastic. When you depressed the button the chimes would sound and when you let up they would stop, which is pretty much the least you can ask of a doorbell. But for reasons unknown to me, I grew to detest the thing. It was, frankly, far too utilitarian.

I like to think of myself as immensely practical, and sometimes I am, but not here. Here I was a slave to appearances. Here we had this gorgeous door and cool hardware for it, and the device people used to signal they needed us to come to this door was a hunk of ancient Bakelite.

So I looked around and nowhere in the regular hardware stores did I find a suitable replacement. Eventually I returned to the place where we got the door and the locks/knobs etc that went with it and it turned out that the lock manufacturer had a nice doorbell that went with our lockset. But they didn't keep that in stock, I would have to have them order it. So I did.

After a week or two it arrived. So then I got ready to install it. I gathered up my cordless screwdriver and drill, and set them down next to the front door. Then I went to the electrical box to see about shutting off the power to that part of the house, something you generally should do when working with electrical stuff. Only I couldn't figure out which breaker might do the trick. I could have eventually managed the feat, if only by trial and error, but I was frankly afraid to. The folks who did the electrical work on our remodel had kindly labeled all the breakers (yep, when we bought the house, the breaker box was a veritable tabula rasa), but none were marked "doorbell", and it was clear to me that, like much else that had been done to the house in the past, the layout of the electrical circuits could only charitably described as "eccentric". It was entirely possible that killing the power to the doorbell might also shut down the refrigerator, or even SAC/NORAD.

I knew though, that doorbells run on a low power circuit, stepped down by means of a transformer (which for some reason was installed in the HVAC closet). It was highly unlikely that it could injure me, though it would probably sting a bit if I shorted the circuit. So I decided I would simply have to be careful. After all, I wasn't rewiring a power station, all I would need to do was attach a couple of leads to some posts and tighten the screws. Nevertheless, I stopped by the tool room for some gloves. Don't try this at home, kids.

I picked up my screwdriver to remove the screws of the old button only to discover that the head of my cordless driver was too large. The screws holding the old button in place were tiny little guys. I went back into the house and pulled my jewelry screwdrivers out of my desk. I had never used them for jewelry repair, nor so far as I knew, had my dad (they had originally been his), but they were useful to have at times like these. With some effort (the screws were tight and screwdrivers small) I got the doorbell housing free of the wall. I then used the same screwdriver to loosen the post screws and detach the thin electrical wires from it. Halfway home, I thought.

Not so. I couldn't pull much of the old wire out of the hole in the wall, which meant it was going to be hard to attach the wires to the new bell; there wasn't much slack to play around with. The old wires were also stiff and a bit brittle, a bad combination.

That was bad enough. But the posts of the new doorbell were also small, and the screws for them did not come out very far before coming off. The wires were thin, all right, but not compared to these small screws. There wasn't much space for me to squeeze the wires in. There was also the issue of my trying to avoid getting an unpleasant shock.

Well, there was a simple trick for getting wire onto a screw post, and was to shape the end into a hook, and wrap it around the screw. So back to the tool room for some needle-nosed pliers. I made my hooks, and then spent a good ten minutes trying to get the old wires wrapped around the new screws, and then tightened down into place. It was maddening. I could get one on, but then struggle with the other. The wires were tight, as I said, so there was little slack. The screws were small, so I had to use the jewelry screwdriver, which allowed little leverage. And I was wearing gloves to avoid shocks.

At one pint, I managed to get both wires on and screws tightened. As I tried to ease the new doorbell into place, I discovered that its innards were not flush with its edges. They stuck out a bit, and the small cylinder that was doing the sticking was just a tad bigger than the hole in the wood from which my wires came from. And then the second wire fell off again.

At this point, I was beginning to get a little bit crazed. Without thinking, I grabbed my drill and stuck in the largest bit I had at hand, intending to drill out the hole so the doorbell would fit properly. I stuck the bit in, pulled the trigger, and watched as it spun slowly, then slower and slower.

The battery had gone dead. And since I had pulled the drill off the charging cord on my way out of the tool room, that meant it was really dead not just mostly dead.

It was at this point I decided I had better take a break for lunch in order to clear my head. I returned about half-an-hour later to try again.

With the benefit of food and some rest I could see that the drill option for enlarging the hole was a real bad idea. The risk of tearing up the wires I needed was simply too great. I was fortunate to my drill battery go dead when it did. The call to an electrician to fix my mess would have been more than a little embarrassing.

Not that I was out of the woods yet. I did need to enlarge the hole. So, back to the tool room, where I was able to find some woodworking gear I had picked up when Jacob was doing a science project on atlatls. With these carving gadgets, the names of which I don't even know, I was able to dig out enough wood without slicing the bloody wires.

Ah yes, those wires, the bane of my project so far. I needed another solution here as well. And with some time to think, it was actually pretty obvious. If the problem was not enough wire that was just a bit too stiff and thick, I should splice on some more, not so thick or stiff.

It took me a while to locate some wire suitable for splicing. I ended using some bits that were left over from a failed attempt to set up a pair of wireless speakers. Of course, even so basic an operation as this had its complications. For some reason, I was using my dad's old hunting knife. I was able to strip the protective covering off the wire okay. But when I went to cut off a small piece of electrical tape, the blade tip scraped across the underside of the middle joint of my left middle finger.

I stopped and looked at my finger. At first, I thought it had just been a literal scrape; the blade had hurt but not actually cut the skin. But when I pressed on it, a thin line appeared, outlined in blood. I sighed. It wasn't bad, but it was irritating. So cleaned off the wound and stuck a bandaid on it.

I finished the splicing job, being a bit more careful with the knife. And the thinner, more flexible wires were the answer I had been looking for. They wrapped nicely around the small post screws, and tightened down firmly. I eased them back into the hole, and held the doorbell up to its spot. I pressed the button and heard the chines ring inside the house.

One handed, holding the doorbell in place, I reached over and grabbed my cordless screwdriver, pulled a screw out of my mouth (where I had placed it just before finishing up the splice), and managed to get it started and in on the first attempt. I then inserted the second screw, tried the bell again, and I was done.

My fifteen minute project had ballooned to almost an hour and a half. But it worked! I had "adapted and overcame" as Clint Eastwood said in Heartbreak Ridge.

And, may I say, the new doorbell looks pretty darn spiffy.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Requiem for a Geek?

For years now, I have gradually gotten more and more adept at taking care of the physical parts of my computers. I had a computer in high school, and I got another while in grad school. It was, of course, a gradual thing. I learned about adding memory, then swapping out video cards. Then I graduated to installing CD-ROM drives, then hard drives.

For a long time I wasn't quite ready to put everything together myself, but when the time came to change out everything instead of a part or two, I would spend weeks going over part reviews and pricing, trying to get the most bang for my buck and be placed so I could upgrade easily (for you non-hardware geeks, hardware upgradeability is the single trickiest part of building a PC). Then I would order from the outfit that could provide most of the gear I wanted, and I'd put the finishing touches on myself. I stayed at that level for a while, but a year or two ago I bought the parts and put together my current machine myself. It took a lot of fussing but in the end I was pretty proud of myself for pulling it off. I was sure I had a machine that I could just slot parts into as needed for years to come. Hah.

What got me was this: I was playing the recent RPG release Oblivion (not a bad game, BTW. It was technically very proficient, but ultimately a bit of a let-down) and decided I really needed to get a better videocard. I don’t mind running newer games with some of the visual bells and whistles turned down, but this time it was really bad.

So I start checking on newer mid-range cards only to discover Something Awful.

Pretty much none of the better mid-ranges would fit in my machine. In the two years since I built my current box, a new interface had arrived and pretty much taken over in the video world, an interface that as far as I can tell had not even been on the radar when I made my choices. Sure, I had read about the new interface as it came out, but what I was unaware of was the degree to which it had pushed the old one out. And yeah, I know two years can be an eternity in the computer world, but trust me when I tell you that interface changes don’t usually go that fast.

I eventually managed to find a video card that would serve, but it was still quite a shock to me, and I couldn't help but wonder if it was something similar to what my Dad felt as car engine technology advanced and got all fuel-injected and computery in the 80's. Dad had been a mechanic in the Army, as a teenager he used to soup up his cars to the limit, and he remained a fair shade-tree mechanic for a long time. But I noted as the 70's petered out and the 80's wore on he spent less time doing repair work himself, eventually stopping altogether.

I don't think I've quite reached that pass. And maybe this is more just one of those things, like buying a Betamax VCR, or a laserdisc player. You know, just a bad move. Still, it was startling, and not in a fun way.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Lets Have A Round of Applause...

This is something I meant to write quite some time ago. Long time readers will know that we suffered long in searching for a new place to live, and then, having found it, spent another long while waiting for it to be fixed up the way we wanted it. Despite the struggles and frustrations that are part and parcel of those types of endeavors, I have to say that we were really very lucky, and that by and large things went about as smoothly as one could expect.

That sort of thing does not happen unless you have good people to help you out. And I have to say that we were blessed in our choices from beginning to end. This post is to name the names of the people that helped us out, and the recommend them to others who might be in a place to use them. Mostly then, this is a post that will apply to folks in the Austin, Texas area. But not entirely. You shall see.

I suppose one should start at the beginning. With the internet, you generally no longer really need a realtor to search the MLS listings for you. But a good one can give you information that no MLS will have on it, and can point out things about a prospective house you would never notice -- both good and bad. They can help you through the legal part of the process, plus do legwork on things like pricing that you could do yourself -- if you had hours and hours to spend looking at other houses in the area like yours. Save yourself some time and let a pro handle it. Better yet, let Barbara Hilliard handle it. She's also very patient, a good thing when on extended searches that go into double-overtime, like ours did…

Having bought the house with Barbara's help, we were then faced with the task of remodeling it. Replacing carpet with tile, repainting all the rooms, converting the garage, that sort of thing. In stepped Trish's sister Leslie Hamilton (not to be confused with Terminator star Linda Hamilton's twin sister). She flew in from Los Angeles, and we schlepped all over Austin looking at paint, tile, and other knicknacks. And she was a huge help. As goofy as it can sound sometimes, there really are a couple of million different colors of white paint, and the wrong one will look awful. She helped us get the right one, plus the floor tile, and for good measure painted our hall bathroom with a cool underwater scene.

Another thing she did was help us pick out a contractor. It's possible that we could have pieced the jobs out ourselves, but with all the back and forth going on, it seemed to make sense to have someone else who did this for a living handle the scheduling. We had talked with 3-4 different possibilities, and she pointed out one of them had some serious issues with the bid, and things to look for in the others.

We chose Bobby Zirkel of Shelter Design and Construction, a certified Green Builder. Bobby was not the cheapest, but his subcontractors were solid and he worked with us to get what we wanted within a reasonable cost and time frame. Here and there he also steered us away from boondoggles and towards things we might not have considered on our own.

The major subcontractors were Jan's Solar Heating and Electric, Forte (pronounced fortee) Rodriguez (tile), and Marvin Allen (paint and drywall). Jon Shannon of Concrete by Design did some concrete staining for us, and Mike Dunn sealed and stained our grout lines.

Ryan Gossen, a certified arborist, trims our trees and has provided much useful advice on taking care of them. Colleen Dieter of Red Wheelbarrow also gave us landscaping advice and improved the soil of a really dead area. Steve Nelson of Nelson Engineering provided a lot of useful information about foundations and foundation repair relevant to Central Texas. The folks at All Year Heating and Cooling provided suggestions on improving energy efficiency and installed our spiffy little one room AC unit for the study. Jaye Starke of Austin Mason Man took apart my grandad's old petrified wood fireplace hearth and jigsaw puzzled it back together again in our dining room, where it looks smashing.

Yep, all in all, we had some spectacular good fortune in the folks who made our house what it is now. I linked to those I know have web pages. For the others, if you can't find them in the phone book, drop me an email and I'll send you their contact information.