Friday, July 31, 2009

Summer project

Every year we tackle a major home project. This year we decided to remodel our bathrooms. Countless weekends later, faucet testing, tile sampling and granite scratching later, we're done.

When we purchased our house it had been a rental property. As a result, the inside of the house was serving a utilitarian purpose and wasn't kept up very nicely. Similarly, our bathrooms were basic bathrooms with plastic tub sides and a cheap vanity. It has done the job since we moved in, but it was time to redo them.

How did we start tackling the remodel?
First we shortcircuited the contractor finding process. We had a great recommendation through some friends: Royal Kitchen and Bath and got a decent quote. A little higher than competitive quotes, but I wanted somebody who was going to see the job through. Some companies were horrible unprofessional, already during the bidding process. You would think that in these though times they would behave like sheep hungry for a design win.

Where did we shop for material?
It is worthwhile to be intimately involved in the material selection and go shop around. Don't just take what the contractor offers. A good contractor will recommend you quality places to visit. We spent many weekends checking out faucets, granite, or vanities. Here's a short list of places in the South Bay we selected from:

Shower and bath material: American Custom Marble, San Jose, CA
Bath tub:
Shower doors: Blossom Hill Showers
Toilets: and Home Depot
Faucets: Lowe's
Vanities (Jensen Cabinets): Southern lumber, San Jose, CA
Tiles: Tileshop, Brokaw, San Jose, CA
Molding: The Molding Store, Brokaw, San Jose, CA

What material choices did we make?
  • Steel vs Cast iron vs Acrylic bath tub: the difference is price, comfort and quality. Steel are cheaper. Cast irons are heavy as hell to install and take time to warm up. Plus if they scratch you have a tough time to fix. Acrylic tubs sometimes require a concrete base to be installed to avoid flexing. We selected a solid acrylic tub: Kohler Archer 19" high which is taller than most tubs. But with great back support.
  • Faucet brands range from $30 to $900. We selected a brushed nickel finish and a decent price quality faucet from Delta. If you select the Lowe's or Home Depot model you get a good price. The shower set allows you adjust the temperature, as well as the water flow through two different handles.
  • Tile or wooden baseboards: The joint of tile baseboards with the floor tile might break as a wooden house flexes. We opted for a wooden/MDF baseboard.

What lessons have we learned?
A key lesson we learned is not to order big ceramic items via the internet. We purchased one toilet (Toto Drake) through The shipment was arranged through UPS. First of all, two days before the toilet was to arrive, an email update informs me that only part will arrive in time and that the toilet base is delayed 1 week. If I knew this at purchase time I would not have gone this route. Worse was that the toilet base shipment then arrived one week later but damaged and needed to be reshipped. It had broken in pieces due to poor packaging and rought UPS shipment. As a result, the toilet was delayed for 2-3 weeks.

And one more item. As a a geek and Google fan-boy, we managed the project entirely on the net: we planned it via Google Docs and maintained a Bill of Materials in Google Spreadsheets. It was great to do competitive price check and updates from my phone while being in the store. We took pictures and shared them via Picasaweb.

Now we take a break and get ready later this year for our next project.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Le Tour est arrivé

LinkThis picture on the flanks of the Mont Ventoux summarizes the tour for me: Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Andy and Frank Schleck.
  • Contador was simply the best. Excellent in the mountains. Great in the time trails. And with an excellent team Astana, lead by @johanbruyneel.
  • The Schleck brothers made it exciting. They kept attacking in the mountains. Were they better in the time trails, it would have been a different Tour.
  • Lance provided an interesting back story to the tour via Twitter: @lancearmstrong. He also showed a lot of heart. I admit I was rooting for Lance this year, unlike other years. The little video posts from the Giro, and the tweets changed my view on the boss.
  • Surprise: Jurgen Van den Broek (pic - wiki) - hopefully he won't be promoted (yet) to the lead in a small team. Put him as number two in a big team so he can grow. As he did this year when Cadel Evans failed.
  • The course of the Tour also contributed to the excitement. I was exciting until the second to last stage to the Mont Ventoux. Sure perhaps the second week was somewhat boring, when the debate about the radio earpieces was raging. But the slow couple of days provided the needed anticipation for the big days.
  • Disappointments? The brouhaha about Tom Boonen turned out to be a storm in a glass of water and of no consequence. I am glad I did not Yell for Cadel. And where was Sastre? (Didn't think Menchov would do much unless he really felt good. He already sleeps in pink sheets.)
  • How did I follow it all, early in the morning California?
    • is my landing page to find out what's going on where.
    • Most often I ended up at Versus for the video feed in the US.
    • Sporza Radio provided the excellent commentary in Dutch. The (video) interviews on the Sporza website were also interesting.
For the first time in many years did I watch and follow the Tour again. It was fun waking up early and following it on via internet radio. Now summer really starts as there is nothing going on. Counting down to the Classics and the Tour of next year.

(Picture courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald)

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Not so long ago, the check engine light of my 11 year old Honda Civic turned on again. I didn't flash, so it was not urgent to have it checked out. Yet the light is right in your face and you can not escape it.

Taking it to a mechanic costs you quickly $90, just to read the computer error code and do an analysis. Last time the diagnosis was: "nothing to worry about, carry on". Cha-ching $90. The time before that the diagnosis was: "your catalyst converter has a misreading. Let me clear the light, if it comes back on, we'll need to probe again. Carry on." Cha-ching $90.

Since many years now, all car computers have a standard connector and a standard protocol to communicate with the car computer. It is called ODB-II.One thing my car lacks is a simple: reset-check-engine-light button. This would allow me to reset the light to verify if it were a temporary event, or whether the failure persists. Honda are you reading this? (likely not)

Your next bet is to purchase an OBB-II reader. These OBD-II readers are available at Kragen and Wallmart and cost you from $60 to a couple of hundred dollars. After reading out the code (indeed, again the catalytic converter), the light hasn't come on again. Saved $90.

Many gas stations provide water and air. How about adding an ODB-II reader?

Friday, July 24, 2009


I am more and more paranoia about cyber security in public areas or when using public networks. I like to think that using using 3G on my Android phone is more secure although I haven't done much research of whether it is indeed more secure using 3G than using Wifi. I suspect that the tools to snif and gather data over Wifi are more common, as are computers equiped with Wifi.

I don't have anything much to hide, and think my data isn't worth that much (unlike e.g. when your office computer is compromised - just read the anatomy of the twitter attack to get an idea the damage it can do). However, I don't want to have others installing programs on my computer or using it.

Recently at a coffeeshop/internet cafe, I was (naively) surprised to see a couple of people sniffing the network using Wireshark. Now, I use Wireshark professionally, since debugging network middleware is part of my job. But I don't think any Data Distribution Service debugging was going on right there.

Time to burn a Live Linux CD. Rather than booting the computer from a hard drive, a Live CD boots the OS from a CD. It is read-only and thus I can be sure that my programs are clean and that nothing is added behind my back. It still doesn't address the issue when passwords are sent in the clear, but it is at least one worry less.

I looked at a couple of Live CDs: both Linux and Solaris based. I settled on Slax, as the interface to configure and customize the image was very simple. And thus I created a Linux Live CD which of course includes handy dandy network debugging tools, including Wireshark. I am ready and armed to snif around the internet cafe.

PS - If booting from USB was supported by most BIOS, I would put it all on a USB stick.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Gmail tasks' missing features

I've been a big fan of Bob the Monkey or the Cow, depending how you look at it. All my to-do items are tracked withing remember the milk, nicely organized in lists, shared among people, and tagged with something meaningful. The user interface has been the same for a while and can be improved upon.

A recent blog post about Gmail tasks triggered reexamining this feature. While promising, it falls short because it lacks the following features I am used to (correct me if I overlooked how it works with Gmail tasks):
  1. ability to specify a due time and an estimate how long a task will take.
  2. ability to specify recurring tasks: e.g. pay PG&E every 12th of the month
  3. ability to share tasks with others
  4. ability to add a location and map to a task
  5. ability to add a priority to a task
  6. ability to add tags to a task
  7. ability to add contacts to a task
  8. smart lists : e.g. show all work related (tag=work) items due this week
  9. should provide a great user interface to sort, rearrange and do bulk operations on tasks

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Academy of Sciences

At last, we made it to the new Calafornia Academy of Sciences museum in San Francisco. We criss-crossed the entire museum in about five hours, including two shows. You do need to pick up passes in advance if you want to attend either show or presentation. (plan your visit)

The first show was a 3D movie about bugs. And no, there was no Hollywood happy ending. The movie takes you through the young lives of caterpillar turning butterfly and a praying mantis. At the end, one becomes the dinner of the other.

The second presentation was 30 minutes visit into space within the planetarium.

Further, the four story rainforest exhibition is impressive, as well as the big aquaria. The kids loved the funny looking frogs, the geckos, the huge catfish and piranhas. The picture above taken on top of the living roof of the museum building.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Summer visit to Gold Country

Last December, during the cold winter break, we escaped the Bay Area for three days to the California Gold Country. The two highlights of the trip were the Columbia Historic Park and the Railtown 1897 in Jamestown.

The first one is a traditional eighteen hundreds mining town, including a stage coach. During the fourth of July weekend there are a lot of old fashioned games and traditions. We missed the parade but did enjoy greased pole contest and five way tug-o-war. Many also fashion traditional clothing.

We did pan again for gold, but were not as lucky as last time and came home only with fool's gold or pyrite.

The second highlight of our winter trip was Railtown 1897. This historic state park houses various steam engines. While during our winter visit no trains were running, we were able to freely roam the grounds and explore are the areas.

This time steam engine 2 did run between Jamestown and the rock quary. This was a Shay locomotive (geared engine). The geek in me did waste a couple of hours last night browsing wikipedia and steam engine websites on the details about the locomotive. I also came across a transcript of the cannon ball express ride (pdf).

The last stop of the trip is adult only: a sampling of the many wineries in Calaveras county (map). Over the last two days we samples wines from Ironstone, Solomon, Twisted Oak, Frog's Tooth, Broll and Bodega del Sur. The wineries of the Sierra Foothills use different grapes and produces wines uncommon to the Napa or Sonoma valleys: grenache, verdelho, roussanne, mourvedre and tempranillo. I favored the taste of the wines of Broll most.