Saturday, March 25, 2006

Hooray for Geometry!

Last Saturday we did a training session for the youth group going on the Mexico mission trip. Since we had a bunch of youth graduate last year, the group is smaller than it's been for a while, so we're allowing 8th graders to go on the trip, too. We've got a bigger group going to Mexico than last year, but overall younger and less experienced. As always, should be fun but interesting. And tiring for me, both physically and mentally. It's only a 6 day trip, 2 of those days traveling, and we build the house in 3 1/2. It's a lot simpler than houses here: slab foundation, roll roofing, no electrical, plumbing, wall sheathing, insulation or drywall. But it's all by hand, including mixing the concrete. One of the most tiring parts for me is that I'm with people all the time -- tough for an introvert.

This week I've been working on the electrical and siding. The electrical is pretty simple, though 3-way switches are a bit tricky, and a 3-way switch with 2 lights between and the fewest wires is like spaghetti. I can't imagine what 3 lights would be like (which would be required for the lights in the lofts...) Fortunately there's an easier way to do it, by wiring it as you would for a single light between two 3-way switches, and then connecting the lights together with a normal 2-wire cable. It 'wastes' a wire, but it's a whole lot easier to do and be confident of no mistakes.

The other challenge this week was putting siding on the west wall. I finished up the east wall with its gable end, and moved to the east wall when I had a full day of good weather. The west wall has a gable above (5:12 pitch roof), a gable below (5:12 on one side, 3:12 or so on the other) and a round window. I was trying to figure out how to mark the curve on each board to match the window. I could measure the distance of the top and bottom from the other end of the board, but how to mark the curve? I knew I could cut a big piece of cardboard the radius of the window and use that, but I didn't have any big pieces of cardboard I could cut up. So I remembered something from geometry class lo those many (many) years ago. Given two points on a circle and the radius, you can find the center of the circle. From there, it's easy to draw an arc along part of the circle as needed:

Thursday, March 16, 2006


It hasn't been all trips to and from Home Depot this week. I've been making progress on the siding as the weather permits, and working on the electrical and plumbing when it doesn't. I've got siding on the south wall (with hecka windows) and 3/4ths the east wall (gable end). I'd like to think the north and west walls will go faster, but I know better. They both have round windows in them, and the west wall has gables to match above and below (for the cricket on the existing house). The different color boards are because I painted a few for my test of 1x6+1x10 vs. 1x6+1x12 for the siding. And of course there's still trim around the windows and on the corners to do, but it's looking pretty good so far.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Truth in Advertising?

I returned to Home Depot today after my biweekly trip to the Red Cross for apheresis. And I now have proof that customer service is a foreign concept there. I went to the services desk (my other choices being a regular register, the returns desk, or contractor services). I first asked how I should handle the unpaid-for item (take another up to the register, which is what I figured.) I then said I'd like to make a complaint. After listening to me, the woman said "well, they have to restock." I repeated the part about "but they don't need to make part of the store inaccessible for 45 minutes or more to do it." Ponder. "There's an 800 customer service number. I'll write it down for you." Uh-huh. I guess they don't have any customer service here.

Taking another service panel to a register caused some confusion. I explained about it not being scanned yesterday, the security guard not noticing (a 2 square foot cardboard box?!?) and that I wanted to pay for it. OK. Scan the UPC, swipe the credit card, fail to check ID (whoops!) to make sure I was the owner of the card, and I'm out of there, right? "Don't forget your item!" Huh? I thought at first she was joking. So I explained again, finishing with "I got one yesterday, but they didn't charge for it. This balances things. Thanks!" I still think she thought I was from another planet or something.

Maybe the honesty was disorienting. Given the state of things in Washington, D.C., and corporate boardrooms around the world, I can understand that confusion. The whole thing made me think of the movie Paper Moon, where Ryan O'Neal runs a little scam swapping ones and fives and tens with a rapid patter about getting change and ending up with more money than he started. Tatum O'Neal catches on quickly and does the same thing herself when given a chance. Great movie, by the way. If you've got Netflix (which does have good customer service, in my experience), add it to your queue. And no, while I could have, I did not bring home the second breaker panel.

The good news is I finally found out where they have breakers on display and for sale in the store. At the newly constructed merchandise pickup window near the registers. Oh, there are a few attached to a display back near the breaker panels (and behind a sign, so you have to be 20 feet back to see them) where you might expect to find them, but the rest are mysteriously at the pickup window at the front of the store. If there's a sign indicating that back in the electrical section, it's well-hidden, too.

Monday, March 13, 2006


I dropped Kat off at the MacArthur BART station this morning, and headed over to Home Depot for one of my frequent visits. I have, how shall I put it, "limited expectations" for shopping at Home Depot. Large stores; relatively few employees with limited training and expertise (and not that well paid to boot); the demands of a board of directors and shareholders that comes with being a public company to keep costs down and keep profitability as high as possible. It all adds up to limited expectations. I've done a lot of my buying at Economy Lumber (most of the framing materials) and Piedmont Lumber (drywall, house wrap, etc.), but for plumbing, electrical, and various tools, Home Depot is frequently the best bet for combination of selection and low price.

So I've been to various SF Bay Area Home Depots a lot. I'm used to searches for the right sized cart for whatever I need to get that trip (note to corporate HQ: the Home Depot in Pleasanton has all the carts). I'm used to no help available if I need it (I've even been asked for help by other people shopping there, and sometimes know more about the products they have than some of the employees). I'm used to waiting in the checkout line. I haven't always been, but these days I'm a fairly patient person.

But today they found a new way to lower my expectations further and severely test my patience. The main item I wanted to get today was a shower drain. As part of the rough plumbing inspection, I need to have the shower pan completed and the drain installed. So I was perusing the options available in one of the plumbing aisles and an employee told me they needed to close the aisle to bring a forklift in. As I was going to be a while deciding, I figured I could wait 5 minutes and come back.

I came back in 5 minutes. Still closed. I perused the kitchen cabinets and came back. Still closed. I perused the shower heads and handles available and came back. Still closed. I waited for a bit with some others, figuring they'd have to be done soon, or at least take a break for customers to get to the products in that aisle, but no luck. I perused the tile saws (between the shower, bathroom floor, thermal mass for solar, and probably the kitchen, there will be a lot of tile in the addition and remodel, though area-wise most of the flooring will be bamboo) and came back. Still closed. I watched (and listened to; and I quote: "$#!*@%!!") other customers leave. I watched another customer go in and get what they needed while the forklift was making another run down to the end of the aisle.

I finally gave up, and the next time the forklift was gone, I went in to get what I needed. An employee made a dismissive gesture, and I almost lost it. I pointed out that I'd been there all morning, and he said "so have I!" (um, yeah, but you, well, work here). His co-worker recognized my simmering anger and let me get what I needed. I was almost ready to sit down in the aisle and ask to talk to the manager.

I understand they need to restock the shelves or get a large item, and that means closing an aisle temporarily. But God help any pros who are in buying stuff all the time, and get stuck waiting to get to the plumbing aisle. Or anybody who expected to run in and get an item or two in 15 minutes or less.

To keep things interesting, I got in a line near the end of the aisle; it looked about the same as the line at any of the other aisles. Turns out it was a new cashier. I mean new. I was her second customer, and her sort-of-trainer had some problem with the first register she was at, and moved her to another. So checkout didn't go particularly quickly, especially since her sort-of-trainer got her signed in to the new register and then promptly disappeared. I didn't mind that part, though. It certainly wasn't this woman's fault that she'd been given almost no training and set adrift to fend for herself. But it did add a certain je ne sais quoi to the experience.

Apparently my low expectations aren't unique. There's even a website, A lot of that site is about their policies regarding some of the wood they sell (i.e., old growth, rain forest species, etc.), but a quick Google search on that lovely phrase turns up 677,000 hits. Eek! I imagine most large corporations have a or the like these days -- it's far too cheap and easy for people to create a website and register a domain name, and that includes people with a grudge (In case you're wondering, isn't registered, nor the obvious misspelling,

The final straw was when I got home. It was two hours since I'd left home with Kat, and I looked at the receipt for an exchange item from the beginning of the morning (I decided to get a larger electrical panel, since code means I'll have at least 8 circuits in the new sub-panel) to see just how long I'd waited in the plumbing aisle. It was 48 minutes. But (drumroll please!) ... I noticed the new cashier hadn't included the new electrical panel in the total. I may have inadvertently helped with that, as she'd gotten stuck on one screen during the checkout, and I helpfully got her out of it. And at the Emeryville and Oakland Home Depots, they have security guards to check your receipt against what you carry out the door, and they didn't notice the large cardboard box in my cart that wasn't listed on the receipt. Those of you who know me probably are realizing that as tempting as it was to just say nothing, the mistake meant a return trip to Home Depot to straighten it out.

I couldn't face it today. So I had lunch with my good friend Jim "Grampa" Kirkpatrick at Pyramid Brewhouse ('I liked the beer so much, I bought the company!' Well, a small part of it in the form of stock) and went and bought some new XLR microphone cables for church from my friend Paul (no, not in the diamond business, he's in the sound business), and got nothing done on the house today. I'll straighten out the mess tomorrow after my apheresis donation at the Red Cross. But thanks Jim and Paul, for listening to me vent and reminding me there's more important stuff in life than worrying about an experience like this. And thank God for beer.

"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." -- Benjamin Franklin.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

After a stretch of particularly mild weather, we've been having rather unusual weather for the SF Bay Area. It's not unheard of to get some snow on the local peaks (the peak of Mt. Diablo is 3849 feet; Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose is over 4200 feet) every once in a while. We've even gotten snow here a couple times at about 1100 feet over the 12 years I've lived in Oakland. But this set of storms has had thunder and lightning, hail, and snow as low as 500 feet (resulting in a nasty accident over in Marin). Weird stuff. We've gotten mostly rain, but some hail and snow and freezing rain, too. Sonny Eliot probably would call it snail, or maybe freezing snail. Sleet, really ("neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor dark of night..."). But sleet isn't a word you hear much in California. It just doesn't do that very often here.

Sonny Eliot was a TV weatherman back in Michigan when I was growing up, and used to scrawl smooshed-together words on his blue and green chalkboard of Michigan as part of the weather report. Snow + hail = snail. I'm not sure how accurate his forecasts were back then, before Doppler radar and sophisticated computer models, but he certainly entertained folks. I Googled for him, expecting he'd passed away, but apparently he's still doing weather reports on the radio back in Detroit. What I didn't know back then is that he was a B-24 pilot during WWII, was shot down, and spent time in a POW camp. Funny the things you never know about people.

Like one of our neighbors. He's house- and cat-sitting for one our neighbors, and we've talked a few times. Very interesting guy, I thought. Polish emigrant, raised in Uruguay, well travelled, diverse background and interests. He even skied as a youth in Bariloche, an odd resort town in the Argentine Andes. (Amazingly beautiful area, by the way, but Bariloche is very touristy these days.) Katarina and I visited there during our trip to Argentina a number of years back, but most people have never heard of it. During our most recent conversation, I found out he spent several years bicycling around the world. He showed me a scrapbook with newspaper articles from all over about his trip. Part of his claim to fame was that he was a pioneer in mobile computing. He had a bunch of free gear from companies, including an HP 100LX, a modem, one of the first civilian hand-held GPS units, and kept connected even in parts of the world that hadn't seen the Internet yet. All that plus camping and cycling gear, strapped to a bike.

The topic came up during a conversation about our backgrounds. I hate the question "what do you do?", as if people were defined solely by their job. I probably hate the question in part because I can't easily answer it. I create media for our church. I run audio for the worship team on Sundays. I volunteer with a number of different non-profits, mostly doing tech stuff and some photography. I spend much of my week working on the addition to the house. But I don't have a "job" per se. But even if I did, it wouldn't be who I am, any more than Katarina is a technical writer. But Roberto can't easily answer the question either (and with a non-U.S. background, finds the question odd as people in much of the rest of the world do), which is probably why we're getting along so well.

Back when he was cycling around the globe with gadgets in the early 1990's, I was working at Geoworks helping create some of them (the Casio Zoomer, the HP Omnigo, and similar products from Toshiba, Nokia, and others). Back then I was largely defined by my job. Driven by it. I throughly loved what I did for most of the 9 years I was at Geoworks, but as the company was changing, so was I. Which is why I went from a high-paying profession to working in a brew pub (actually a brew-on-premises + brew pub, which is sadly out of business, so my time there was pretty short -- great job benefits though!), and spending most of my time working with non-profits. I felt there were better ways to spend my time and energy than "making toys for rich people" and trying to acquire more money and more stuff and more titles...

Oh, right. The addition. It's coming along nicely. During breaks in the weather, I've been putting on the siding. It goes pretty quickly except around windows, and I designed the addition with a lot of them. So overall it doesn't really go that quickly. When it's raining I work on the rough electrical and plumbing indoors. I figure another couple weeks and I'll be ready for the next inspections (rough electrical, rough plumbing, and final framing). Once I pass those, I'm in the home stretch -- insulation, drywall, flooring, plumbing fixtures. Still a lot of work to do, but it looks and feels like a house now.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Glass Block and Escutcheons

Since the last post, I've been installing the glass block by the front door and in the shower, running wires and placing boxes for the rough electrical, and today Kat helped me move the massive new back door down from the carport and install it.

The glass block was more of pain (no, not pane, you punsters) to install than I figured, because as with a lot of things, the edges are more difficult. Well, in a narrow window (1x8 blocks on either side of the front door) or a small window (3x3 blocks for the shower window), almost everything is an edge. The last row is the hardest, because there's not much clearance, and you need to get the last block in without scraping off the mortar from the top of the row below. But I managed. And it looks pretty good, I think.

Installing the rough electrical has been going pretty smoothly. But with a fair number of lights and switches, and NEC code requiring an outlet every 6' in a bedroom, there's a lot of boxes and a lot of segments of wire. And then there's the whole 3-way switch thing...

Today was fun, though. The current back door is a pair of 5-light French doors, strangely installed (they open outward, so the hinges are on the outside, and they're not recessed but flush with the siding), and in bad shape. But they do fit the overall design of the house. When I changed one of the windows in Kat's office into a door, I got a 5-light door of basically the same design.

So when I originally designed the new back door, I chose another 5-light door of the same design. It seemed like it would be a tight fit for opening and not hitting a wall, but would work. When I got around to actually framing things, it became clear that even if a swinging would fit, it would be a tight enough fit that it would be less than ideal. So I found some sliding doors that would fit, and ordered them with the same 5-light design. Being custom, they cost a bundle, and with a solid wood frame, dual-pane, and a metal covering on the outside, they weigh a ton. I figured I'd have to get a bunch of people, and do something like I did with the roof trusses -- take them next door, and instead of passing them over to the roof, ease them down the hill to the back of the house.

Instead, at Kat's suggestion I removed the sliding part of the door and carried it down, then Kat helped me move the rest down the steps (with several stops to rest) and through the addition to the back. Then we moved the siding which I've been stacking in the entry and dining room area, and installed the new back door.

It looks beautiful. It matches the existing one quite well, though is more functional, since it slides so we can have a screen, and not use up space next to it inside or out. And with more glass area than the original design of a single swinging door, it lets more light hit the thermal mass for passive solar.

The existing back door will become a wall, but with 3 large casement windows that overlook the deck and include some of our SF Bay view. Not a million-dollar 3-bridge view, but it'll be nice enough for us and then some.