Archive for the ‘Tech’ Category


Saturday, December 21st, 2013

Curse this blasted WordPress iPhone app!

It replaced the final version of my ice skating blog post from December 18, which took me 90 minutes to craft, with the 4-line draft from the night before.


* * *
My thanks to Baba Jean, Gram Nancy, and Auntie Em’ for each checking your browser caches to see if you could rescue the original version. I appreciate it!

Now, a week later, the girls are in the midst of a good, long nap which has given me an hour to rewrite and post a new variation of Downtown on ice!. Enjoy!

Server downtime

Friday, August 30th, 2013

A few days ago, our friend Amy observed that while we’ve been posting here regularly, there haven’t been any photos of girls since May.

May? No girl photos or videos in 90 days? Oops!

Not to worry. We’ve got lots of photos: girls eating popsicles on the porch, girls splashing in mud puddles on my birthday, girls climbing on bikes at Bike Barn, girls in shiny new helmets, girls playing in front loader and excavator buckets, etc.

However, our home server blew a hard drive. It looks now like Bill will be able to recover all of our photo and video archives. But having the server offline threw a wrench in my workflow.

I aspire to get a bunch of recent photos up on the blog, and soon. But until then, you’ll just have to enjoy Cate and Sam in person. :-D

ModHome: Backstory and Alternate Universes

Sunday, July 21st, 2013

I’ve used Visio for years for various job-related tasks. It’s a good tool that is much more sophisticated than PowerPoint, and much less intimidating than AutoCAD. As part of the research into our new house, I discovered a while back that Visio had the ability to create floorplans. This was largely targeted toward business users doing space planning in an office environment (or a server farm, with a different plug-in), but it did have some light options for doing residential work.

I went through a few dozen iterations of a ‘dream’ home to learn about what we wanted and how it might be laid out. Then, every time we got vaguely interested in an area, I would try to knock up a few layouts to see what a particular site and jurisdiction would allow us to build.

For those interested in our journey, attached is a subset of ideas we’ve examined for our site in Bellaire. Notably absent are the East-facing courtyard ideas. I’ll post those later.

Home Design – 5223 Locust

Where did our blog go?!?

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

One day last week, Bill went looking for our blog and found this:

not our blog

While that *is* our web domain, that obviously is *not* our blog.


One possibility is our blog got hacked. Another possibility is our webhost migrated our content to a different server and missed. We don’t know. Fortunately, our webhost was able to recover all of our domain content from automatic backup files, and we’re back.

All’s well that ends well, right?

Window shopping: Houston solar home tour

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

Being the Greenies that we are, we’re fans of solar energy. Half of our roof faces due south, and Bill and I fantasize about adding photovoltaic (PV) panels to our tech repertoire. Up to now, we’ve deemed solar too expensive, but new tax credits may bring solar within our reach. We’re also in need of a new roof, which could present an opportune time to do something.

So last Saturday, with all this in mind, Bill and Sharon and I decided to check out a handful of homes on the Houston Solar Home Tour.

Our first stop was a LEED-H Gold certified town house in Rice Military designed by my colleague, Camillo Parra. The homeowner selected a 3.2 kW grid-tied PV array designed and installed by Houston-based Alternative Power Solutions. The founder of APS, Ralph Parrott, was on site to show us the system and he was super!

I was surprised to learn that most basic solar systems are wired such that they cannot function when grid power is out. But by including a swanky inverter and a battery back-up, this system will provide power anytime. And they wired the house so that the solar backup only has to power the refrigerator, washer/dryer, master bedroom, and a few emergency lights, which would be perfect after a major storm. At $37,000 this project was steep, but it was the coolest of the lot.

Parra townhouse with solar
Big batteries make this solar system useful anytime

The second house we saw is the new home of Rice poli-sci prof Rick Wilson, which was designed by my colleague Laverne Williams. Shaded on all sides by a wooded lot, the “wareloft” is designed for passive cooling and ventilation, insulated with Icynene, and was comfortable without AC.

Rick Wilson's passive house
Laverne Williams designed Rick Wilson’s very-green house

The third house we visited was a prototypical Houston ranch-style house with an unremarkable 2.8 kW PV system from Standard Renewable Energy. They seem to know what they’re doing, but having fallen into their aggressive sales-and-marketing process once and clawed my way out, I’m reluctant to recommend them.

Standard's basic PV install
Sales weasel showed us Standard Renewable’s basic PV install

We were so underwhelmed by the third house that we decided to tackle one more. LEED architect Kathleen Reardon‘s roof was damaged by hurricane Ike, so she replaced it with a standing-seam steel roof from Berridge. She also selected a 3.2 kW PV solar system designed and installed by APS.

Reardon solar on steel
Architect Reardon installed solar on her new recycled-steel roof

Kathleen was on hand to field questions about her house, and I asked her if she had considered adding a battery system. She explained that while she was tempted, she could live with flashlights and candles after the occasional storm in order to save the ~$7,000 incremental cost, which seemed seemed imminently reasonable to me. I also asked her how she likes her new metal roof, and she said she loves it, in large part because it stays so much cooler than the old black composition shingles. I can imagine!

So, we haven’t come to any conclusions about solar for us. But I do plan to talk to Berridge about our roof options.

Laptops and water shouldn’t mix: the sequel

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

After doing the same thing a year ago, you might expect me to have stopped keeping a glass of water on my desk by my laptop. But no.

I was looking up a reference in a book. Meanwhile, a certain feline seized the opportunity of my distraction to stalk my yogurt, by my water, by my laptop, on my desk. When I looked up and caught him, furry feet flew and so did my water. Into my laptop. Again. At least this time I had help!

Fortunately, I didn’t panic. My mistake last time was in immediately picking up my drowning laptop and attempting to pour the water out of it, succeeding only in sloshing the water further inside and shorting several circuits. Pfft.

This time, I calmly took the time to save my data, close my applications, close Windows, and shut down the machine. Then without moving it, I used paper towels to blot up the water. By inserting squares of towel between the keys, I was able to wick out the water. Once a square became soggy I replaced it with a new one and wicked some more. Soon the towels were all dry. I waited 24 hours just to be sure, but when I turned my laptop back on the next day, everything was fine. Woo hoo!

I then backed up my data for the first time in six months. It seemed like a good idea.

cats, laptops, and water don't mix well
While Tibbs remains a menace, Bounty really is the quicker sucker upper!

Have I finally “learned this lesson”? Nope. I really like drinking water and I spend a lot of time at my desk, and Tibbs remains Tibbs, so… my laptop will continue to work in harm’s way. But I’ll consider offering it danger pay going forward. And I’ll try back up my data more often.

Great new gadget: Raytek MiniTemp!

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

You have probably noticed that my husband is a technophile. I like techno-toys, too. However, Bill’s ability to appreciate the ways a new tool might fit into our lives dramatically exceeds my own. That can make gift exchanges in our household entertaining*.

*By “entertaining,” I mean awkward or hard to watch.

One Christmas, Bill bought me a super-powerful Palm Vx PDA. But I couldn’t think of anything important/desirable it would do that I couldn’t already do with my trusty old Palm III, so we sold it to a friend. Another Christmas, Bill bought me one of the very first iPods. While I agreed that it was stylish, I couldn’t imagine needing an MP3 player that would hold more than an hour’s worth of tunes, which my Nomad already did, so Bill returned it for a refund.

Bill fared better in 2007 when he tried again with an iPod nano, either because six years later I finally recognized its utility, or because he had it engraved. It’s hard to say.

Some husbands would have given up on technology gifts altogether. But Bill figured out that he just needs to paint his unimaginative wife a better picture of how I might use a new toy. Enter my favorite new gadget: the Raytek MT6 MiniTemp!

Raytek MT6 MiniTemp

If you’re unfamiliar with them, Raytek makes infrared, noncontact, industrial temperature measurement instruments. We first encountered them in June 2003. We added insulation to the walls of our bungalow, and a contractor let us borrow his infrared thermometer to assess the thermal improvements. Getting instantaneous heat readings off the walls, windows, kitty, etc. was a LOT of fun, but I couldn’t justify owning one.

But in 2008, Bill got me one for Christmas. At first I was puzzled: we spend a fraction of the time we used to on home improvement. But then Bill explained: where can temperature make a big difference day-to-day? In the kitchen!

Raytek french toast

Now I know that 330°F is the perfect temperature for cooking eggs, that hot tea is drinkable at 125°F but not at 130°F, and so much more. And while I obviously don’t need to know any of this, my french toast is getting pretty fantastic in the meantime!

Furminator demonstration video!

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

In case you’re wondering whether the Furminator is right for you, Tibbs agreed to participate in a demonstration:

The Kitty will tolerate most anything to stay in the Daddy Lap. :-)

However, the real point of this post was to figure out how to include video in our blog. I know several of our readers (who have grandparents to satisfy) are already adept at blog video, but it’s new to us.

Rather than uploading and linking to our content at a third-party site like You Tube or Vimeo, we decided to play with our webhost’s native tools. DreamHost supports a flash media player by Jeroen Wijering and we’re giving it a go.

The FLV filesize is a tiny 4 mb compared to the original 53 mb MOV file, and conversion was easy. And the player seems to run seamlessly here in Firefox. My only complaint is that it displays a black box until you hit play, rather than a still of the first image. Other than that, it seems ok.

Now we’re interested in how it works at your end. Does it play in your browser (e.g. IE, Safari)? Does it play instantaneously? Does it stream fluidly without interruptions? Is this size big enough or should we go bigger? Please let us know what you think.

Also, if you have a favorite application for editing digital video, ideally one that’s low-cost or free, we’d love to hear about that, too. Thanks!

So DirecTV apparently does want us back

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

We used to subscribe to DirecTV back when they had the uber-cool HD TiVo. However, when Rupert Murdoch finally got control of DirecTV, he consolidated their hardware with a company he owns that also makes the boxes for Sky Broadcasting (his other major satellite television holding). As a result, when DirecTV said “good bye” to TiVo, we said “good bye” to DirecTV.

Well, time has passed, and John Malone got control of DirecTV from Rupert in an entertaining “raid on a raider” type story. For TiVo’s sake, one hoped that the DirecTV decision would be re-considered so that TiVo can keep cranking out a groovy little DVR that we’ve come to enjoy (after you swap the anemic internal hard drive for a 750GB+ one, of course!). Apparently, today was that day where DirecTV realized that without TiVo, their DVR sucks ass. From the folks at the Wall Street Journal:

TiVo Inc. on Wednesday said it has extended its distribution agreement with DirecTV Inc. by five years to Feb. 15, 2015, and the companies said they plan to develop a new high-definition TiVo offering.

Under terms of the agreement, TiVo said it will develop a new version of its service for DirecTV’s broadband-enabled high definition digital video recorder, or DVR, platform. DirecTV will pay a substantially higher monthly fee for households using the new high-definition DVRs with TiVo, compared with fees it paid for previously deployed DVRs with TiVo service, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.[..]

¬†Hmmm… 90+ channels of HD, inluding Sci Fi, for assuredly less than we pay to Comcast now. It may take a year, but this definitely bears watching. Who knows, I may even go pull down the creeping vine that has shimmied up the ground cable to our “old” DirecTV dish that’s mounted on our chimney.

Caveat Emptor: Fry’s Open Box Items

Monday, September 1st, 2008

In many of the tech magazines, Fry’s Electronics had historically gotten praise for their wide selection of computer parts for hobbyists. When they finally came to town a few years ago, I was pretty excited since it gave me a much bigger selection of PC-related parts to look at and touch prior to purchasing. I’m over it.

I bought a motherboard from them to go into the resurrection project for my main desktop, but the one I bought had some of the oddest issues. I would plug a hard drive into physical port 1, but it would show-up in the BIOS as port 2 the first time I booted the PC, and then would randomly jump around after that. Needless to say, Windows did not like that, so back it went as defective. Fry’s took the return and slapped one of their open box discount stickers on it right in front of me as I am trying to tell them it was defective.

While it’s never a good idea, in general, to buy open box electronics under the best of circumstances from a reputable merchant, Fry’s just got labeled “disreputable” as a result of this transaction. I’ve had enough questions about some of the condition of their “new” inventory at times, so this merely was the final straw. They are now “on notice” as Stephen Colbert would say!