Another Weekend, Another Project

Yes, a usual Bat-Weekend of consulting on friends' home projects. I went over to Judy's (former landlady where Bird, Grendel, Qwidjibo, and I used to live; she also introduced Bird to his now-wife Jen), looking at a few projects. Gave some advice on a concrete front step (you wouldn't think that a graduate-level engineering class in concrete durability would be so useful in day-to-day life, but hey, it is!). Also, some suggestions on installing the screen door; met the new downstairs tenants (another pair of geek roommates, this time from CMU--hey, the cycle continues).

But the big part was helping her install lights over the back patio--very nicely done in flagstone; I had advised her back in 2004 on how to best install it without frost heaving. I spent the afternoon stringing up and tensioning steel overhead cables, that the string of lights hang off of.

Pretty neat, huh? Here's some of the specific handiwork and hardware--turnbuckles, cables, velcro ties for the lights. Note that if you're putting up lights that will be plugged in full-time, you should get an outdoor electrical box that will shed water from the box with the cord plugged into it.

And come evening, it looked like this:

I told her she really needs to throw a party to break in the setup. Since there's an electrical outlet right there, my suggestion was doing blender drinks on the back patio--margaritas, daquaris, etc.

Judy thanked me by taking me out to dinner at Addis Red Sea in Cambridge--a very fun way to wrap up an evening. Although one bit was disappointing--we ordered the raw beef dish, and we must have misordered, because we got the cooked stuff. Ah well.

She also said that I could probably make a good living by billing myself as a super-competent handyman. It sounds tempting--I really enjoy the work. But the last time I tried it, I ended up broke and living at home with my parents.


Brain Transplant

The others at the Academy thought I was mad--mad!--when I said I could transplant a brain. Well, I showed them now, didn't I?! Mwahahahahuahua!!!

Keywords: media PC, CPU, hardware dorkery

My office had a spare unused machine--a Gateway P4 "desktop replacement" laptop with a broken screen. A big brick of a machine--17 inch screen; it's hard to imagine hauling it through airports. But the cracked screen is no impediment for a machine that will be used to spin iTunes and send web videos/media files to a TV screen. My office was glad to give it to me, and to have somebody get use out of it.

I first did my usual maintenance--hard drive cleanup, OS check, upgraded memory. Running it in the living room, I quickly realized how annoying the CPU fan was, cycling on and off every few minutes. A quiet machine is pretty important in this application. Now if I valued my time more, and enjoyed hacking together kluges less, I would just buy a quiet media PC off the shelf and be done with it.

But noooo... instead I decided to start tweaking the machine. Initial exploratory surgery revealed that the machine has a 3 GHz P4 processor.

Unfortunately, this step revealed to me that the bond of heat sink grease to the CPU can be stronger than the socket grip strength. Thus resulting in ripping the CPU out of its socket, and bending some pins. Oops. Some delicate maneuvering with a jeweler's screwdriver fixed it.

But this discovery got me thinking... my desktop machine is a P4 also, albeit slower (2.6 GHz, vs. 3.0). So hey--I have a laptop that I'd like to run cooler and slower. And a desktop that could use an upgraded processor. I wonder if...

One brain transplant later, I powered them up--both of them still worked! All right!

So the CPU temperatures/fan cycling at idle went from this:

To this:

Cool! Bad pun! Sorry.

(To give credit where it is due: this display is from the MobileMeter utility).

Anyway, I think I will try experiments in undervolting the processor next.

But what I really want to try is installing a heatsink large enough that it might cool passively, without running a fan. For instance, imagine one of these hanging out of the bottom of the laptop, like the supercharger out of the hood of a hot rod.

The Scythe Orochi. 10 heat pipes. 1.1 kg. Oh yeah. Check out the headers on that baby...


Busy but Fantastic Weekend

You know that it was a good weekend when you don't actually have time to blog about it until several days later.

I'll admit that I'm an odd duck for thinking that a fun weekend involves doing work on friends' houses. But there you go. The project this time was Bird & Jen's crawl space, which is under their sun porch and master bathroom.

Right now, that space is pretty much outside year round--a dirt floor, and windows to the outside. This means that it gets really cold in the winter--cold enough that they need to leave the windows from the crawl space to the basement open during the winter, to keep the pipes from freezing. Basically, throwing heat away into an uninsulated space.

Current practice recommends building crawl spaces like "short basements"--with insulation on the walls, and a plastic film vapor barrier on the floor. So that was the project Bird & I did--from the inside. Yeah, it's the whole building-a-ship-in-the-bottle problem.

One reason I really wanted to do this project is that this has been our company's standard recommendation for years, but I had never done this job myself. I really prefer to be able to tell clients, "No, this works, and this is how you do it. Or specifically, how I did it. It's not that hard to do. Or do you just suck?"

We accomplished a Home Depot run in the morning for materials; after cleaning up the crawl space of debris, we put down a layer of Tu-Tuf Vapor Barrier on the floor, and attached it to the wall with RCD Duct Mastic and a powder actuated tool (basically, a nailgun that uses gunpowder charges--.22 blanks). I'm always worried when using these that somebody's going to call the cops on us. We used the same tool to attach the foam board insulation to the walls of the crawl space.

A whole lot of crawling around on hands and knees. Incidentally, I read that an ideal way to apply mastic is a plastic glove followed by a cheap cotton glove, and just slathering it on the wall. It works really well, and feels rather primal and theraputic. Hell--who needs a spa day when you have duct mastic?!

As tempting as it was, though, I didn't taste the mastic. But I'd bet it probably tastes like latex paint (thick, and really bitter, in case you were wondering).

This was followed by Jen making a fabulous fancy dinner for her, Bird, me, and JMD. Mashed sweet potatoes, asparagus, and an 8-rib pork roast. And a fantastic pear tart for dessert. A celebration of the new silverware and china. The meal was seriously yummy.

Bird and I had a bourbon tasting afterwards (Michter's--as used at Pegu Club, Vintage 17 Year Old, and Jim Beam Black). Bird and I both liked the Michter's the best--great vanilla notes, and wonderful smoothness. The Jim Beam was included because it received a New York Times "best value" ranking. To be honest, I thought that it had the faintest of mold/mustiness notes. Then again, maybe that was left over from crap packed into my sinuses from the crawl space work.

The following day, I went out on a bike ride from Arlington out to U5 & Rebecca's in Hopkinton. Perfect weather for the first really long ride of the season.

The ride itself kicked my ass--my legs were totally wrecked by the end. A matinee of Iron Man (very fun) and dinner followed. JMD gave me (and my bike) a ride back home. All good.


Dinner at Mary's

After work today, I wandered over to Nerd World (to pick up an S-video cable and a wireless keyboard/trackball--I'll talk about that toy later).

Walking back through Cambridgeport around 8, I was getting pretty hungry. Huh... where to grab dinner in Central Square?

Yeah. Obviously.

The dun dun noodles and spicy eggplant definitely hit the spot.

Eating alone while reading a magazine, you can't help but overhear the conversations at the other tables, and look around at the other customers. I realized was that if you took any two people in the restaurant and played the Six Degrees of Separation game, you'd probably have a match in two or three steps (and likely through MIT in some way). The conversational rhythms, the Simpsons references, the girl with the bright pink hair--"Yeah, I know these kind of people." It provided a bit of subtle amusement.


Another Self-Indulgent Personal Appearance Post

Around New Year's, Jofish and a few other folks had a fun session of "making up New Year's resolutions for other people." The one he chose for me was, "Spend more than $100 on a haircut." Being pretty much a $15 SuperCuts kinda guy, this was pretty intimidating... a salon sounds like a place where I am seriously out of my element. However, I realized that this would probably be a good experience for me.

So I decided I should start taking baby steps, and at least get my hair done somewhere other than SuperCuts. Also, as you can see, I really needed a haircut--I've been putting it off for about three months.

Yeah, as I've said before, "Tell me more about carbon emissions, Dr. Suzuki!"

Based on a recommendation from Guy (of A & Guy), I made an appointment at Salonika in Davis Square. I told them up front, "I've never been to a salon before, so this is pretty much an alien experience to me." The hairdresser put me at ease immediately, saying, "Well, welcome to our world." Made me smile.

First, there was getting my hair washed... I don't think I remember having somebody else wash my hair since... well, since I could wash it myself. But hey... paying a cute woman with a gorgeous Irish accent to run her fingers through my hair... now how is that a bad thing?

I took the opportunity to see if her expertise could provide any insight for a hair style direction. I was figuring this will end up being an iterative experience--I'll probably bring pics on my laptop to say, "more like this, less here," etc. She gave me some pointers on conditioner and using product... pushing me a little away from my standard, "part where it naturally falls," and maybe going a little spiky or something. Huh... so this is a $35 haircut (not including tip):

And from the back/side:

I think that overall it's ok... I don't like having my sideburns cropped that much higher, though. Maybe leaving the front longer could work as well... get a little bit of the animé character thing going on, perhaps? Any thoughts or critiquing would be welcome.


Lookitt my Buuuut!!! Redux

I am just continuing the saga of trying to find dress pants that actually fit me--the backstory, if you're interested, included attempts at quantifying my ass size (Flat/Average/Prominent/Wide).

I have never had pants that fit me, because I am so ridiculously shaped--I'm in the bottom 1% of adult male heights in this country, and borderline overweight/obese according to BMI charts. As a result, my pants are 36 waist/30 inseam, with the bottom six inches lopped off the leg (yes, that's right--a 24 inch inseam). This means the seat of my pants are baggy, and the crotch hangs down well below the normal location.

My Lands End custom khakis came a few weeks ago, and I decided to check how they compare with my current dress casual pants. First, check out the comparison just lying flat:

Yeah, I know, "Sponge Bat Square Pants." To clarify one point--the new pants (khaki) are long, and the old (olive) ones are hemmed too short (ride up above my shoes). Also, my old pants are 38 x 30s, hacked off at the leg. So when I'm walking around, it feels like the legs are flapping around in the breeze--the new ones have a much better fit around the legs.

The thighs seem to "bloom" out pretty badly--albeit not to German SS uniform levels. This might just be initial stiffness of the fabric. The butt is relatively saggy still--hrm, perhaps my ass is not as prominent as I thought it was.

Also, the beltline-to-crotch distance could be reduced... if I fold the beltline down once, the fit is actually pretty decent.

For comparison, here are my previous pants.

I think I might order a new pair, but with a low rise, instead of regular. Also, maybe I should play with the Torso:Legs proportions. Oh yeah... and change the ass setting.


Opened up the Compost Bin and What Did I See?

Huh... for some reason, that sounds like it ought to be a song lyric.

When I emptied out the compost container this morning, I saw a bunch of "volunteer" seedlings trying to make their way towards the sunlight:

Huh... it was a nice thing to see in the spring. I think I might rescue a few of them--more to figure out what seedlings they are--before I turn the pile.


Hardware Modding Geekery! (Computer silencing)

I recently did a few upgrades on my computer to make it run more quietly: this post is probably only useful for those of you who actually use a desktop machine on a regular basis. ("A desk-whaa?" "Oh, it's like a server, but slower." "Ohhh, ok.") But I'm hope that if this improves the computing quality of life for any of my friends, I've done a good thing.

As background, I visited my folks over the holidays, and my mom complained that her desktop computer sounds like a vacuum cleaner whenever it runs. I opened up the machine, and found that the CPU fan was ridiculously loud. When I was down there last month, I installed a replacement fan and power supply--a great improvement.

I bought the parts from EndPCNoise.com--they're a pretty good collection of quiet PC parts. They provide some good information: their basic primer/FAQ points out that the three big sources of noise are the CPU fan, the power supply fan, and the case fan.

When I came home, I realized that despite having an excellent case, power supply, and case fan (an Antec Sonata case), I was still running the stock CPU fan--and it was the single noisiest component. Off went another order for a CPU cooler (Nexus P4 Quiet CPU Fan PHT-3600). As a side note, if you are doing this on a P4, make sure you know what socket type (e.g., 478 or 775). Yeah, oops (one RMA later...).

Fortunately, I work at a company where I can just wander down to the equipment room to grab a decibel meter. Rock. Sound level with nothing on: around 30 dB. Turned on the machine: 40 dB.

Time to install the new CPU fan--check out the fin spacing. And the amount of dust stuck in the stock CPU fan.

Powered it up. 34 dB! All right!

Next, I installed case insulation (Nexus DampTek Noise Absorption Material)--it's basically mass-loaded vinyl adhered to a layer of foam. Fired up the machine again.

Huh. Not much difference. Either by ear, or by the dB meter (still around 35 dB). Ah well. Maybe it didn't have much of an effect because this is a case designed to be quiet (heavy steel walls), plus the fact that it is already filled with quiet components.

Anyway, yes, I know, there are more involved options to buy quieter machines--underclocking, making fans unnecessary with big heat sinks, media machines, etc. I'm just describing steps for working with the machine that I have--pretty cheap and easy solution, if you've up for it.


Economic Darwinism

On my normal walk to the grocery store, I pass by a car dealership--the local Buick-Pontiac-GMC, with a collection of shiny SUVs in the front lot.

Recently, I've wondered to myself how they manage to stay in business, given the state of the economy, and the rising price of gasoline. As well as the fact that whenever I walk by, I don't see any customers inside. When I glanced at what was on their lot, I inwardly thought, "I can't say that I'd ever consider buying anything there," and I imagine many of my cohort think similarly. I remember seeing their various financing and incentive packages on their windows, and thinking, "Um, still nope. Sorry."

As an aside, I was told once that the monthly sales of SUVs closely track the price of gas. Um, monthly? Holy crap... does the American consumer have the memory of a goldfish? (actually, some claim to debunk the goldfish 30-second memory truism). "Oh, gas is cheap now, it must be ok to buy something with crappy mileage." Important note: YOU WILL PROBABLY OWN YOUR VEHICLE FOR MORE THAN ONE MONTH. Ahem. Yes, yes, I know--vehicle purchases are often influenced by many subtle, non-logical hindbrain signals--but still, you'd think some logic might wrest control away when spending tens of thousands of dollars.

Anyway, on a walk to the supermarket last weekend, I saw this on the dealership's door.

Ah well. Just one small local economic indicator.