August 29, 2007

Web 2.0 Moment

Filed under: Personal Blog, Software Blog — marcstober @ 11:11 am

I have to comment on this: I’ve been sitting in the house working on a document on my laptop for the past couple hours, when I went to check my e-mail, and learned that a package I’ve been expecting was delivered by FedEx an hour ago. If not for the e-mail  I still wouldn’t have opened the front door yet, but there is was, right outside.

Announcing Marc’s Indispensable Computer Tools List

Filed under: Blogging, Software Blog — marcstober @ 8:53 am

I’ve started a list of useful computer tools I call Marc’s Indispensable Computer Tools List. It’s not much yet, but you can check it out; I hope to add more later.

I’ve set this up as a “page” in WordPress (as opposed to as a blog post, like this one) because, conceptually, it doesn’t belong at a certain point in time; but I’m hardly a WordPress master so we’ll see how that works out.

August 27, 2007

Is a gallon of paint worth $54? And other notes on painting the office

Filed under: Consumer, House Blog — marcstober @ 7:32 am

Over the past week or so I’ve been spending my evenings and weekends prepping and painting our home office, a task that involved a lot of prep work, a new high-tech paint, and being mistaken for a pro.

The office is a unique little room, separated from the living room by French doors with lots of windows. A lot of houses in the area built around the same time have a “sun room” that projects out of the house, with windows on three sides, and maybe not heated well, but this room is a little different because it’s a regular room, not projecting out. Whatever the original purpose was, we use it a lot like the first-floor home offices present in a lot of better homes built within the last ten years, for paying bills, holding papers and computers, and we are even hoping it can be a place for grandmothers to stay once the baby comes. It’s one of those “old is new” things we really like about this house.

Another thing we like about the house is that, except in the bathroom and kitchen, it has its original plaster walls and ceilings. On the first floor the walls are textured. But, like any active octogenarian, it has some wrinkles, or more precisely cracks, and this room also had some water stains on the ceiling from what must have been a leak in the roof. Actually, the walls are in very good shape for their age, while the house has settled such the nothing is level the old plaster coming loose from the lathe is really cosmetic and worth saving both for its character and because replacing it with drywall would just be unneccessary. So, this is not really just a painting project but a mini-renovation and redecorating project to get the room in better shape, including patching the walls. Patching plaster is something I’m not very good at, though I get a little better every time. The basic plan is to widen cracks and remove the crumbly bits (down the lath in a couple areas) and fill with setting-type joint compound (“setting” in that it doesn’t dry per se but hardens from within after mixed with water, like concrete or, well, plaster), then sand smooth or until I can’t stand the dust even with a dust mask. Actually, next time I may try web going over the partly-cured plaster with a wet sponge, a technique I gave up on once in my last house before I knew to use the setting-type compound. I will say that I’ve gotten the mixing of the compound down, about 4 parts powder to one part water, which is a prerequisite skill as well. Fortunately the texture on the walls is rather random so it hides the patch work, rather than highlight it as some textured finished would, and this room was a good one to get practice on.

The leak in the roof scares me but it seems to be old, we haven’t see any evidence of an active leak and from what we know the house got a new roof a few years ago. The best home improvement advice I read once was to first try the simplest and least expensive thing that will work, which in this case meant painting over the stains with an oil-based primer. Then paint the ceiling. I love the look of a fresh, white, velvety-soft-looking ceiling.

It’s a small room and we wanted a deep color that would “pop” the room off of the living room, making it feel like a separate, cozy area and work well with the reddish gumwood molding and French door. We chose a pumpkin-like orange called “buttered yam” (second choice was “pumpkin pie”) and the color really feels like comfort food; it reminds me of being in my grandparents’ den (orange naugahyde sofabed and manufactured wood paneling on the walls, circa 1970). Our last experience with dramatic color was not good: red paint that didn’t cover and dripped off the walls like ketchup (Cheryl said like blood), and people though we’d attempted some decorative painting technique. This time I was prepared to use a special primer and as many coats as it takes. At first I’d dismissed Benjamin Moore’s new Aura line of paint as overpriced, but then I did the math: I’d need a least two $36 gallons (paint plus tinted primer) of regular paint, maybe I could get by with one $54 gallon of Aura for less? It might actually save money. I’ve found Benjamin Moore paints better than Home Depot’s Behr paints that I used to buy, and the fact that in this house there’s a store five minutes away with better service makes it the obvious choice in terms of getting things done. They paint salesman gave me the advice that, contrary to usual good painting practice, I should let the paint dry after cutting in the edges when using this paint. This worked well, and really shows the best part of the Aura paint which is the synergy between fewer coats and a fast drying time, allowing recoat in as little as an hour. We did need two coats but no more, resulting in four “batches” of painting and drying (cut in, dry, roll, dry, cut in second coat, dry, roll second coat) within about six hours. With other paint it would have taken at least ten hours (three coats with four-hour drying times) which means I would have been in painting mode all weekend and less time for the rest of family life; this is the biggest difference, plus I didn’t need that second gallon so I saved money, too.

Because of the woodwork, I also did a lot of masking with this job, using that plastic film with masking tape along one edge. In rooms where I’ve painted moldings, too, I’ve sometimes tried to “freehand” the edges, because all the masking takes more time than the painting and isn’t always perfect anyways, but in this case I resigned myself to spending more time prepping than painting and the results turned out pretty well.

Finally, I put a couple coats of Holloway House floor polish, as-seen-on-TV, on the floor. It’s not a substitute for refinishing, but at least it doesn’t just look neglected.

The best part of the whole experience? Going in to National Lumber in jeans, a t-shirt, and boots, the cashier at National Lumber asked me if I had an account, like I was a contractor. At least it looks like I know what I’m doing. 🙂

August 16, 2007

The Hidden Cost of Doing Little Things to Save the Planet

Filed under: House Blog, Politics — marcstober @ 1:29 pm

My father always made a big deal about turning off certain appliances when we weren’t using them; now I’m the dad and it’s my job. Recently I’ve seen a lot of articles (even a new book on the topic) about how doing little things–like unplugging cell phone chargers (I’ve seen this in a few places recently) and turning off or unplugging other appliances that draw small amounts of current (I like the term “flea” power)–can save a lot of energy.

I just came across an article in the Wall Street Journal (an news outlet which, like PBS, I find worth paying for to get a perspective that differs from the rest of the media herd) that confirms what I’d thought all along: devices that don’t do much generally don’t use a lot of energy.

This is important because efforts to encourage people to do things that are easy, like unplugging a cell phone charger or reusing a plastic bag, are likely to consume our psychic energy and make us feel good without doing things that, from a scientific basis, could really make a difference. It’s the unbreakable laws of thermodynamics from basic physics: things that create a lot of light, heat, and/or movement consume a lot of energy. A light bulb that could burn your hand while illuminating the room is a lot bigger problem than some device with a little LED that gets just a little warmer than room temperature.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to do the big stuff: either it’s expensive and hard to know if it’s worthwhile, or it would require unacceptable changes in life. Right now I’m trying to find someone to insulate my attic, which I’ve decided, even at a cost of more than a thousand dollars, is the biggest difference I can make; even getting someone to come give me an estimate is a hassle. But keeping my house uncomfortably cold, or not using the car, are not realistic options. Newer houses are better insulated than mine will ever be, but tend to be bigger—according the WSJ article above, they have more than 45% more space to light and heat than those built a generation ago.

I’m not going to lose sleep worrying if I’ve done enough little things to save the planet; I’m going to lose sleep over the big ones.