Monday, December 31, 2007

The Year in Review

Happy New Year! The last year has been a busy one. Not especially productive on the house, but we've gone from having to go on to the deck to get to the bedroom to having another 0.5 bath. (The other half of the new bath will happen at some point after I replace the old galvanized plumbing so we can get a decent amount of pressure on the cold water side to the addition. It's a daunting task, to say the least.)

The addition got gutters. Far too many people died, including Katarina's dad. I survived a back-to-back mission trip to Mexico and Habitat Build-a-thon (with the Random Acts fundraiser and creating a memorial video squeezed in for good measure). I was in an article in the SF Chronicle. The Thrivent Builds-sponsored house at Habitat for Humanity East Bay was completed. We got a new neighbor. The new bathroom got radiant heat. And now we have another 0.5 bath, which is especially nice for those early-morning ablutions in these cold months.

Here's hoping 2008 will be a happy, peaceful, productive new year.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Cavalcade of Shmë

The plumbing in this house is in sad shape. Not the parts that have been replaced, like the water heater, or the new stuff in the addition, but pretty much everything else is in need of replacement. I've known I was going to have to redo the plumbing to the sink in the old bathroom for a long while. Over two years ago a leaky faucet led to a sizable project replacing things there, and the discovery that the hot water side was completely full of corrosion. Fortunately my good friend Jim had convinced me to replace the plumbing to the shower with copper back when I had that ripped up, but I'd left the sink and toilet supply alone since I hadn't opened that part of the wall.

Since the last blog post, I've finished painting the new bathroom, tiled the floor, installed the vanity, toilet, associated plumbing, and all those little details (minus window trim) that go into a bathroom, and basically got us up to a 1.5 bathroom house. The new toilet is a wonderful thing, a Toto Aquia that has two buttons, one that uses 0.9 gallons for a flush, and the other that uses a full 1.6 gallons. More expensive than the cheapo ones at Home Depot, but it does a better job with 0.9 gallons than many of them do with 1.6 gallons or more. And if we'd been replacing an old 3.5 gallon one, we could have gotten a nice rebate from EBMUD. It was a bit more complicated to install because of the streamlined design, but it looks nice and works great.

After I'd installed the vanity, the drain pipe, and the supply lines, with much fanfare I turned on the hot water faucet. Sploosh! as expected. After some adjusting of the pipes in the trap, I turned on the cold water faucet. Dribble...not as expected. We've had low water pressure on the cold side in the kitchen for quite some time, but I hadn't worried about it too much since the kitchen plumbing will be redone in the remodel. But I'd tapped into the water lines near the kitchen, and it turns out the cause of the low pressure is further up stream than I thought. D'oh!

The plumbing in the old part of the house is a mishmash of galvanized and copper, with dielectric unions and bronze fittings scattered about to connect the two. I really need to replace the galvanized all the way out, or I'm going to hit this problem again in the future. Sweating dielectric unions is a royal pain, so I decided I didn't want to just replace a little of it to start, but the water pressure in the kitchen and new bathroom is low enough that there's no point in finishing the shower until I do something about it.

So this morning I took Katarina to the BART station (our friend Tess is borrowing the Golf for a while, since her car died) and headed on over to Home Depot. A long time and several hundred dollars later, I left with a bunch of new copper pipe and fittings, came home, and went into the basement to get started. And realized that more work and more parts would be needed. I'd missed counting one of the branches (ironically, the cold water supply for the old bathroom that I've known for years I was going to need to replace). But I also noticed that the pressure regulation valve is badly corroded on one end. So before I pick up Katarina this evening, it'll be another trip to Home Depot...

Friday, November 30, 2007


I put a second coat of paint on the bathroom ceiling and walls this morning, and figured out the layout for the tile floor. While the paint was drying, I rolled out the grid for the radiant heat, and started hooking it up. I was listening to music ("Master of the House" from Les Misérables) and happily working away. (*cue the suspenseful music as the protagonist realizes something may be amiss*). When I went to strip the end of a wire, I got that little tingle that reminded me that this junction box is not switched, just the ones for the lights and fan are. But the it's now safely installed, and I'm ready to start tiling the bathroom floor. And yes, I'm generally more careful with electrical stuff, and doubly so with 240V circuits.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


I've been working away on the bathroom. Wiring for the radiant heating, taping and mudding the drywall, wet sanding and more mud, etc. Doing a smooth coat instead of texture (recommended for bathrooms and kitchens, because it's easier to keep clean) is a lot less forgiving of irregularities.

We spent a lovely Thanksgiving weekend with Katarina's mom up in the mountains where she lives, so not much got done last week. I got back to things today, and primed the ceiling and walls. Priming is my least favorite painting, because it's hard to see what you're doing, with white primer on white drywall compound. But it's very important, particularly in a high humidity environment like a bathroom, so it must be done.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Green Enough?

An interesting article over at Rolling Stone, a discussion with James Lovelock, the guy who came up with the Gaia concept (the earth as a single 'organism' that adjusts and regulates itself over time) as well as a number of brilliant things like the Electron Capture Detector (ECD) that helped figure out the hole in the ozone. He thinks the effects of global warming will be worse and come sooner than most of the current predictions, to the point of most of the current 'green' movement stuff being irrelevant in the long term.

He's the first to admit he might be wrong, but part of me fears he's at least partly right, or closer to right than most, even if it's not quite as dire as "The Day After Tomorrow" (or as dire and silly as "Waterworld", though Dennis Hopper is definitely fun to watch in that.) Some of Lovelock's critics are upset because they're afraid it will cause some people to give up and do nothing about global warming. There are already enough people who are quite willing, nay eager, to dismiss global warming and the whole green movement as some left-wing conspiracy.

So what are we to do? Do the best we can, I guess. And pray that's enough.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy All Hallows' Eve

I came across these gory but excellent costumes via that some DIY's put together for a party. What's really scary is the article in the Wall Street Journal that inspired the costumes. In fairness to the people referenced in the article, not all of them were at alcohol-involved events. This blogger, for example, had her picture used out of context and was lied to by the WSJ reporter.

I would never want to use a Sawzall, for example, after drinking. They're dangerous enough sober, because of the "all" part combined with the "sawz" part. And heaven help you if you've got an inexperienced and tipsy friend wielding one at a demolition party. Beer is good ("Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." - Benjamin Franklin), but alcohol plus power tools or house demolition sounds like a plain ol' bad idea.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Curiosity and Cats

The other day I when I was putting up drywall, I left the room for a few minutes. I came back to see Star peering down at me, meowing plaintively. True to form ("Wuss in Boots"), she'd climbed up the ladder and into the dining room ceiling below the bedroom loft, but was then afraid to come down. If you've ever tried to pick up a cat that doesn't want to be picked up, you know how difficult it can be. Put the cat into a small enclosed space so you can only approach the cat from the front, and the danger from claws goes up significantly. After puzzling over it for a moment, I finally climbed up the ladder, let her climb onto my shoulders, and then climbed down. So no cats (or me) were harmed in the making of this picture.

Friday, October 12, 2007

It's Alive!

Well, OK, it's not. But the lift is very handy for putting drywall on ceilings. Lately I've been putting drywall and backer board in the new bathroom. I also put some drywall up in the entry hall (it's had drywall on the ceiling, but been bare studs and insulation in the walls forever), and after using up my 1/2" drywall supply moved on to part of the dining room ceiling. It's funny how much more like a 'room' the bathroom looks with drywall on the walls instead of just bare studs and insulation.

I've got a line on the radiant heating system for the bathroom. Katarina is quite excited about it. It should be pretty easy to install. Lay it on the subfloor, bury it in thinset, et voilà -- ready to lay tile over it. It's relatively expensive since we're doing a small area (12 sq. ft.), so the thermostat/controller is going to cost more than the wire grid. But I think it'll be well worth it, especially once we get solar panels for some of our electrical needs.

Friday, August 31, 2007

A Sad Day

It's a sad day for two of my favorite vices. No, not this kind. The "they're not necessarily good for you but you like them anyways" kind.

First I heard that Alfred Peet, the founder of Peet's Coffee had died. Coffee is an acquired taste. Made properly, it has a powerful taste, whether a bit more sweet or a bit more bitter depending on the beans and the roast. I learned to drink it in a predecessor to today's fru fru coffee drinks, the mocha (basically 1/3 espresso, 2/3 steamed milk, plus chocolate; if you were feeling thin as I was at the time, you could get it topped with whipped cream). But going to college in Berkeley where Peet's was founded, I learned the difference between good coffee and the crud that gets served many places, and learned to appreciate a good cup of coffee black -- no sugar, no milk. Now that I'm addicted to the taste, the process of waking up with a hot drink, and particularly the caffeine, I can tolerate lesser coffee if that's all there is. But Peet's still has the best coffee. Not that Starbucks serves a bad cup of joe, but I think Peet's will always be my favorite. And Peet's was the inspiration for Starbucks, so it might not even exist if it hadn't been for Alfred.

Now I've learned that Michael Jackson (no, not that one) passed away. He was known as "The Beer Hunter", and hosted a TV series as well as authored a book by the name. Beer is also an acquired taste, and I admittedly acquired it well before I acquired a taste for coffee in college. I even worked in a brew pub / brew on premises for a while after I left Geoworks.

If I had to choose between giving up beer or giving up coffee,'d be a hard choice. But both the world of coffee and the world of beer have lost something.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

It's Good Stuff

I realized I haven't given any updates in a while. I haven't been getting tons done on the house, partly because of other tasks, but largely because of lack of energy. Much of what Kat and I have done recently is cleaning up the yard. The Oakland FD came around the other month to give the friendly reminder that we live in a high risk fire area. The yard was horribly behind in maintenance, so we've been weed-whacking, raking, pulling vines, chopping stumps, etc. to get things in line. Three big green yard waste bins filled, and at least three more to go. Probably four since I've almost filled the bin again today. But it's good stuff, that needs to be done.

I have done some work on the house. I installed an additional light on the front of the addition to help light the pathway at night. And I installed reading lights over the bed. Kat and I read a lot. Even more of late because the TV died. It died a couple years ago, the power supply or a nearby capacitor, or both, and I got it repaired. Given the cost of TVs these days, we decided it was time to finally replace it, as it was pushing 20 years old. The new TV has a gorgeous picture, at least when watching the amazing photography in Planet Earth. It's a 4 disc series narrated by David Attenborough, and has some breath-taking images from around the world. I highly recommend checking it out.

Somewhat less breath-taking, but still lovely, is the view in our bedroom showing the new reading lights. Alas, the one on my side of the bed has a bad switch, but they'll be sending a new one along shortly.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


We watched the Uruguay vs. Brazil match last night from the semi-finals of Copa America (yes, the U.S. took part, but went 0-3 and out). It was an exciting match, with Uruguay scoring a late goal to end regulation at a 2-2 tie. And then we got a reminder of why a few years back they introduced overtime in the World Cup instead of going to a shootout. A shootout can be exciting, but when it's done, it's about as satisfying as watching a game end in a 0-0 tie. The players bust their butts for 90+ minutes, and then, barring spastic kicks that miss outright or hit the goal post, it all comes down to how well each goalie can guess where 5 players are going to kick the ball. Last night's match ended the first shootout tied, so they went to a second, sudden death shootout. And just like that, an exciting match was over, Brazil advancing to the finals. Hopefully tonight's Mexico vs. Argentina match will end in a more satisfying manner.

Progress on the house has been less than satisfying of late. I had a nasty cold that lingered in my chest and got no work done for several weeks. I've had a hard time getting back up to speed. I have done some work on the outside electrical. A new GFCI outlet by the back door, another switched one for eventual low voltage lights on the deck, a new back porch light, wire for a new front light for the path, and with Kat's help I ran 3-wire Romex to move the 3-way switch for the carport from the old front hall to the new. And Katarina has been doing some work on the outside of the house, too. She installed trim around the front windows, and has begun installing the trim on the inside corners around the front door recess. I think she's getting tired of seeing the unfinished front of the house every day when she gets home.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Eek! I'm Famous(er)!

I was interviewed for a possible article on DIY home improvements a while back. As busy as I've been the last couple months, I declined to have pictures taken, and I just kind of forgot about it. But lo and behold, in today's SF Chronicle is the article: "So you want to be your own contractor".

I happily put in a plug for Habitat for Humanity, because they've taught me 95% of what I know, and gave me the confidence to do the work myself.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Oy Vey

In very exciting news, I worked on the house yesterday. In even more exciting news, I worked on it again today! Though neither was what you'd call a full work day, it felt awfully good to do some work on the house.

But I realized just how long it's been since I did any work on it. I made a list of stuff to do before demolishing the kitchen back in February, and I haven't done any of it yet, and I realized that I forgot some things on the list, too. The last real day of work on the house before yesterday was all the way back to March 12th, almost two months ago.

Oy vey.

But yesterday I cleaned out the dining room, which had become a storage area and staging area for the Mexico mission trip, Habitat / Thrivent Builds workdays, etc., tidied the basement, and weed-whacked the backyard. Today I cut a little of the old subfloor and a little of the new subfloor in the dining room so I could insulate the odd little gap between the ledger board and what passes as a rim joist and put new subflooring down.

I also installed the post that ties the HBB to the foundation. Lest the cantilever section of the loft cause the far end of the beam to lift up, the city engineer specified the HBB had to be tied to the foundation with a 4x4 post. Originally I was going to have to put a 16x16 footing under it, too, but I got him to sign off on a 12x12 instead since that already existed. I still have to drill into the foundation for a bolt for an earthquake holddown to connect it to the foundation, but it was a nice chunk of work to get it into place. I used a 4x6 instead of a 4x4 to account for the existing wall being a little off the foundation. It hadn't shifted -- they'd actually notched a 2x4 to hang over the outside to make things line up.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Lighter Shade of Green

Habitat for Humanity East Bay uses a lot of green building techniques and materials, proving that affordable housing can be built green, too. I've incorporated green things into our addition and remodel, and continue to learn more as I go along.

Some of it is absolutely, completely 100% free. Proper placement of windows and roof overhangs, for example, costs nothing. Put them mostly on the south side (in the northern hemisphere) and arrange them so you get direct sun in the winter and not in the summer, and you've got free solar heating that didn't cost you any more than putting the windows somewhere else. It's also green -- there's no question of where the materials came from, what went into making them, how long they'll last, etc., compared with putting the windows somewhere else (which windows you buy does bring up those questions, of course.)

But it's harder to figure out the 'greenness' of a lot of other stuff. Take flooring. There are a lot of green options these days: bamboo, stained concrete, natural linoleum, tile, cork and more. But they're not all equally green. Bamboo is a very renewable resource, as it grows to maturity in only 5 to 8 years. It's also very durable, as hard as red oak and lasts a long time, and it's beautiful. But the bamboo used in flooring is grown in China. Even ignoring socio-political questions of labor practices, it means the bamboo has to be shipped halfway around the world before it gets to your house... not the most efficient use of fuel. (Note: yep, I installed bamboo flooring in the bedroom in the addition. Based on what I know now, I'm not sure if I'd do it again unless there were a bamboo source closer to the U.S.) Cork flooring isn't nearly as durable, and comes from halfway around the world the other direction, from Portugal.

Or stained concrete. Concrete is somewhat recyclable, extremely durable, and it can be beautiful. With a high fly ash content, it's using what would otherwise be a waste product. It also makes for a wonderful heat sink for storing passive solar energy and releasing it at night. But it's not a very kid-friendly flooring surface. And concrete takes a lot of energy to produce and transport. Of course, you can't build a modern house that's up to building codes in many areas without some concrete, but it does bear thinking about just how much you use.

Or natural linoleum. Not to be confused with vinyl flooring (which took over in the 1950's, and was frequently infused with asbestos, and being made of PVC it outgasses nasty stuff), it's made from natural products. It can be dyed into a rainbow of colors and patterns. It's flexible and water resistant. But it only has a life expectancy of 30 to 40 years, which while better than vinyl at 10 to 20 years, is still a long ways short of hardwood flooring that can last 100 years.

That brings us around to tile. It's durable, beautiful, waterproof and doesn't necessarily use eco-unfriendly materials. It even works nicely with radiant heat and can supplement concrete for storing passive solar energy. But it's not particularly kid-friendly, and without radiant heat can feel cold in winter. And it's very heavy compared with bamboo, linoleum or wood, so if it gets shipped any distance, it's not a very efficient use of fuel, either.

So what's the right answer? I think "it depends". I'm still not sure what we'll put in the kitchen, but what I've learned since I started this project means I'm going to put a lot more thought into it.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Eek! I'm Famous!

Well, OK, not really famous. But I am volunteer of the month at Habitat for Humanity East Bay. I guess I'm doing OK on my Thrivent Builds support, as we had a good turn out by Lutherans at the build-a-thon. Overall the 2007 build-a-thon was a big success. There were 420 volunteer days over 4 days (31 volunteer days by Lutherans) and it's raised over $95,000 (still counting).

My sister-in-law, my pastor and I worked at the building site again last Friday. It's a very different pace than during the build-a-thon -- pretty relaxed in comparison. I'll be volunteering at the building site on a regular basis again (for a number of years I went out every week), and working to encourage my fellow Lutherans to do the same.

Now I just need to get back to work on our house.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Habitat for Humanity Build-a-Thon

I survived. The last couple of months have been hecka busy, and the last couple of weeks particularly so. But the Mexico mission trip, the Habitat for Humanity Build-a-Thon, and the Oakland Firefighters Random Acts Dinner Dance fundraiser were all successful, and I managed to complete all the other stuff I needed to, as well.

OK, sure, I'm taking an extra week between apheresis appointments (last year they had me take an extra week after Mexico anyways), there were a couple of messages waiting for me that still need answering, and it's going to take me a while to catch up on my sleep (last night I got 12 hours, and would have gotten more if the cats hadn't woken me for breakfast) but for the first time in too long I've got spaces on my calendar.

I haven't been completely idle today (the cats took care of that department after breakfast was served). I started a blog to update people on the progress of the Thrivent Builds house with Habitat for Humanity East Bay. The Build-a-Thon finished yesterday, and 8 houses went from foundation slab to roof trusses in 4 short days. Pretty darn amazing. You can read more about it on the HEBTB blog.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


I feel like I've barely got room to. Breathe, that is. We got back from Mexico Saturday evening, short a vehicle (dead transmission; it was the one towing the equipment trailer) and I did a hurried job prepping the media for Sunday morning. After church I spent a wonderful afternoon with Katarina, talking, reading, playing with the cats, and generally relaxing. Deep breath.

I knew this week was going to be busy. Thursday through Sunday is Habitat for Humanity East Bay's big fundraising and building event, the annual Earth Day build-a-thon. I've missed it for a couple of years because it was the same week as the Mexico trip, but it's a great event and I've missed doing it.

This year I'm the chapter specialist for Thrivent Builds, helping to coordinate things between Habitat, Thrivent, and local Lutheran churches. Thrivent is now the biggest sponsor of Habitat ever, but the catch is that local Lutherans need to raise money and volunteer. So I knew I was going to participate, even if that meant *gasp* skipping the Mexico trip. Even though they didn't fall on the same week this year, as busy as I've been the last several months, I was seriously thinking about skipping the Mexico trip. But I looked at the calendar and figured three days of rest would be enough, and decided to do both.

Of course there were the little matters of prepping the media for Sunday (including a video slideshow of the Mexico trip) even though I won't be there, Oakland Firefighters Random Acts having their big fundraising event on Saturday (I'll be ducking out of the build-a-thon early to help), and the host of mundane details that fill up every day life.

Then Sunday night I got an email from Random Acts that a young man I knew named Irving had died. He'd been battling cancer for years, and had been near death a couple of times, so Random Acts, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Children's Hospital, etc. knew him quite well. A wonderful kid, always smiling and cracking jokes, and just wanting to be a normal kid, not a depilated pincushion. Miraculously he was doing a bit better and had gone home from Children's for a while, so this was a punch in the gut for all who knew him. I can't even begin to imagine what his parents and brother must be going through.

So it's time to fire up ProShow Gold and make YAMV (Yet Another Memorial Video) for the funeral on Thursday. I got a break from them a while back to do a video for my sister-in-law's 40th birthday, but I feel I'm getting entirely too much practice at the memorial kind. Say a little prayer for strength for me, and a whole bunch of prayers for Irving's family and friends. Vaya con Dios, Irving.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

186 MPH

Sunday we hosted a steel drum concert at Resurrection Lutheran. A member of the CSM Panhandlers is part of our worship team, and arranged to have the band come and perform a concert to raise money for our annual mission trip to Mexico. We take the youth group down to the barrios of Tijuana to build a house for a family in need. The houses are very simple (we build them in 3.5 days), but a vast improvement over what the families are living in. Most common is a square made from four old garage doors, with two more for a roof, and a door cut into one side. And yes, that means a dirt floor and no windows. So a concrete slab floor, two windows and a real door, stucco walls, and a roof that doesn't leak is a big improvement.
As simple as the houses are, they still cost money to build, and it costs money to get us down there. That's where the fundraising concert came in. I built some extensions to the stage area so we could fit them all in, and so I could see the bass players (the "6 bass" players have six full-size steel drums, which takes some room), and borrowed a video camera so I could do a little IMAG (image magnification) and put the band on the big screen. We got a great turn out, and raised a big chunk of the money for the trip. Thanks, Panhandlers!

The band is a blast to watch and listen to. As the director said in introducing one of the songs, the tenor players move about 186 MPH and manage to get all the notes. They're amazing to watch. Here's a taste:

"Wow" doesn't even cover it. It looks even better when viewed directly on YouTube's site.

Monday, March 12, 2007

No Man is an Island

...but some kitchens are, namely ours. Today, for the first time in too long, I put in a full day working on the house. And work on the house I did. Not even peripheral stuff like organizing the basement so I can store stuff, get to the table saw, etc., but actual work on the actual house.

I finished removing the trim and paneling in the old entry hall (preserving the larger pieces of paneling for future re-use), removed the weird insulation (using my spiffy new 6.5hp shop vac to suck up the stray bits and pieces along with the mouse droppings), and started removing the trim and siding around the outside of the old door.

The result is that the kitchen is now completely cut off from any semblance of an unchanged house. One side has the old window opening that looks into new entry hall. Another is into the dining room, which is stripped down to studs and subfloor. And now the last open side is the hall, which is similarly denuded of finish materials.

I still have a lot to do before I demolish the kitchen, and numerous interruptions in the weeks to come (apheresis tomorrow, for starters), but it felt good to get some progress done on the house.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Go in Peace

Katarina's dad finally succumbed to Parkinson's. It's been a death by inches, so it's a relief to see him finally at peace. Katarina wrote a song originally for her aunt Marjorie when she was near the end of her battle with cancer. She recently rewrote "Go in Peace" to be more general. You can listen to the song on her music page here.

Go in peace, Erik. You are loved.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Big Red Success

Sunday the Big Red Truck came to town. It's a rolling multi-media exhibit to inform people about Thrivent Builds and Habitat for Humanity, and to educate them about poverty housing and the need for decent, affordable housing for all.

Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Fremont hosted the event, and provided many of the volunteers to help staff the truck. We had around 250 people go through the exhibits on the truck, take part in the nailing contest, get more information about Habitat, sign up to volunteer...we even got a donation on the spot.

Thanks to the good folks at Prince of Peace, and to the crew of the Big Red Truck. Be sure to check it out if it's in a town near you (they're headed towards Oregon and Washington next).

Friday, March 02, 2007

Life Goes On

I seem to be writing more about other stuff than about the addition and remodel these days. I knew when I started that there would be interruptions and periods when I couldn't work as much on the house as I'd planned, but I had no idea there would be so many of them.

And when you get enough interruptions, you lose focus and get less efficient. Back when I was in the software industry and starting to do more management and less programming, I read various books on managing people, because I didn't have the slightest idea how to do it. I read somewhere that it takes almost 10 minutes when you're interrupted at a task to get back to the level you were at before the interruption. Sitting in a cube writing a document or bit of code, and then the phone rings. Boom...10 minutes before you're back up to speed. It doesn't take a mathematician to see that a half dozen interruptions per day would seriously cut into your productivity, and half a dozen would be fairly few, unless you work alone, turn off email, and unplug your phone. And people still think they can "multi-task" and be just as efficient. Yeah, right.

Well, it turns out to be true on a larger scale, too. If you work at something regularly, say, building a house, you get into a groove. You get used to doing the different tasks involved, you get used to thinking about the types of problems that arise. But if you get regularly interrupted in that, you lose focus and get less efficient.

Lately there have been more interruptions than house building. And stress has come along with some of those interruptions. So I find myself incredibly unfocused and unproductive. Some progress is being made, nothing that's particularly photo-worthy.

But there are certainly things in my life that are photo-worthy, so I share one of them with you now. I call it "Still Life with Flowers":
It took her a while to find, but once I opened the window a bit, Star spent the entire afternoon there. As part of the re-organization in the basement, and to give me a place to work once I start wreaking havoc on the kitchen, I moved an old workbench into the dining room (it was my friend Donald's desk when we were in college at Berkeley; he and his dad built it.) Where there was space for it was near the new dining room windows, which happen to get a lot of afternoon sun this time of year. Sun, fresh warm air, and a comfy bed...irresistible to a cat.

P.S. Fundraising for the Habitat for Humanity build-a-thon is going along nicely. I'm at 13.5% of my goal, and Katarina is at nearly 22% of hers. Thank you to all who have donated!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

We Have Monkeys!

With a new router, some help from some friendly folks over at and another visit over to Camron-Stanford House, the upstairs office there now has a reliable (and speedy) network connection. Faster than what we've got here, in fact. Packets were a-flyin'. I even got the old computer in the CSH house office hooked up to the Internet, and retrieved some data off the HDD of a dying laptop (dead battery, dead cooling fan, flakey memory, and runs Windows 98) that belongs to one of the office tenants. Some good technology mojo going.

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, so I had the day off media-wise even though there was a service. But I went over to RLC to do one of my new-found favorite activities, cutting holes in walls. A member of the church is married to a guy who designs speakers for a living and he designed and helped us build some subwoofers for the sanctuary. (Apparently he even designed and built custom speakers for their wedding reception...this is someone who's serious about sound.) These bad boys aren't pretty to look at, but can communicate with elephants, and are going to give us some real low end, both for the organ in the traditional service and the bass in the contemporary service.

The intended location for the new subwoofers is in the loft above the cryroom. There's plenty of room to fit them...or would be, if I hadn't been stuffing unused pews and other stuff up there for the last year or two. So I cut a hole in the wall to loft above the choir room, so we can move the pews and other stuff over there to make room for the subwoofers. I still have some work to do like putting trim around the opening, but we'll have even more room for storage even once the subwoofers are in place. All in all, a good day of cutting holes in things.

Despite all that, raising money for the Habitat build-a-thon, working on stuff for Thrivent Builds, and a plateful of other stuff, I have managed to get some stuff done on the house. The short-term goals are all working towards demolishing the kitchen, and minimizing the amount of time we're without a working kitchen. But because of the required order of operations, some of the stuff seems odd to be working on. That said, I now have space in the basement to set up both the table saw and the chop saw, and I can once again walk past the dryer. There's still a lot of work to do to straighten things out, and once I can easily move around down there I'll be adding a new sub-panel so I can rewire various things, but progress is being made.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Pass the Boot

Last weekend they had 'firefighter appreciation day' at the Cal basketball game. They had a working fire engine plus the Random Acts fire engine (a 1967 open cab Van Pelt, used for parades and events like this). Kids of all ages seem to love fire engines. Besides the rigs, there were firefighters from Oakland, Berkeley and Contra Costa County, giveaways of t-shirts from various stations, a half-time contest, and a Berkeley firefighter rapelling down with the game ball to start things off.

But it was also a fundraising event for the daughter of the Oakland firefighter who died a couple weeks ago. I created a short video of Kevin (30 seconds to show a lifetime is not enough; I could do a nice 3 minute show of just his visits to kids at Childrens Hospital), and firefighters 'passed the boot' to collect donations during halftime. I don't know how much was raised, but lots of people gave, and gave enthusiastically.

Well, now I'm passing the boot. The cause is less personal (the recipients haven't even been selected yet), but no less noble. I'm raising money for my local Habitat for Humanity. Habitat works world-wide to eliminate poverty housing, and there's plenty of that right here in the good ol' U.S. of A.

Habitat East Bay's build-a-thon is a fund-raising event that's also fun. The goal is to raise money, but also to frame 8 houses in 4 days. Build-a-thons are hard work, but ton of fun. Think barn-raising times 8. If you want to contribute or just to learn more, check out my fund-raising page.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

How Not to Design A House

Most of yesterday was spent at a Thrivent training session. It was mostly for regular Thrivent board members, not ne'er-do-wells like me who are just there in advisory roles. (I'm the 'chapter specialist' for coordinating between Habitat for Humanity, Thrivent, and Lutheran churches in a project called Thrivent Builds. Thrivent is giving over $100 million to Habitat around the country, the catch being that Lutherans and Thrivent members in particular need to volunteer and donate some money, too.)

The fun part was that we met at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. There were Thrivent chapters from around the SF Bay Area and as far away as Santa Cruz, so it was a reasonably central place to meet. Not having grown up in the Bay Area, I had never been to it, though I'd certainly heard of it. With ticket prices over $20 for the tour, I wasn't likely to go on my own anytime soon, either. So I took advantage of the meeting to go on the tour. It's a well-built house, incorporated a variety of state-of-the-art building materials and features, and has some gorgeous leaded glass windows, tile, wood floors, and other features that modern home builders could never match without spending a small fortune.

Well, Sarah Pardee married into the Winchester family, and became heir to a large fortune. Her income was something like $1,000 a day, and she poured large amounts of it into building and rebuilding parts of her house.

But while well-built, it's beyond poorly designed. It's not designed. It's like a Halloween funhouse or drug-induced hallucination. Doorways that open on nothing. Stairways that stop at the ceiling. Other stairs that were modified to 2-inch risers, and twisted around multiple times, to accomodate Mrs. Winchester's short stature and arthritis. Rooms rebuilt multiple times. Before the 1906 earthquake, it had reached 7 stories tall. The earthquake brought the tower crashing down, trapped Mrs. Winchester alone in her bedroom for an extended period, and caused her to have the entire front of the house boarded up so she could concentrate on construction in the apparently neglected rear areas.

There are different theories about why she felt called to have builders working 24 hours a day for 38 years, but they all boil down to JPN -- she was just plain nuts.

Friday, February 09, 2007

To Do (and do, and do...)

I've been continuing to work on removing stuff in the old entryway and the kitchen in preparation for the big day, when we cease to have a functioning kitchen. But I've started to realize just how much stuff I still have to do in order to get to where I can gut the kitchen:
  • finishing re-organizing the basement storage
  • replace the galvanized plumbing in the old bathroom
  • finish the new bathroom
  • finalize design and measurements on the cabinets
  • rewire the light on the carport
  • clean up the living room and organize a "kitchen" space
  • move out of the kitchen
Some of these things, like re-wiring the carport light have to be done before the new kitchen, since the existing switch is in a wall that's going away. (And it needs to be rewired anyways, since they didn't do a very good job with it in the first place, and the conduit is rusting.) But a lot of this is easier to do before demolishing the kitchen, so I can minimize the time we're without it.

Someone on the That Home Site! forums suggested that if you've got two or more bathrooms, that during a kitchen remodel you should temporarily make one of the bathrooms into part of your kitchen space (shared duty between kitchen and bath doesn't bear thinking upon...yrrch!) But in order to do that, the new bathroom needs to be finished. And it would be helpful if the old bathroom had hot water in the sink.

A couple years back I remodeled the area around the shower in the old bathroom, and replaced the galvanized plumbing to the shower with copper. But the sink and toilet still have galvanized pipes, and the hot water to the sink stopped completely last year. Since the bathroom shares a wall with the kitchen nee entryway, it's much easier to deal with that while things are ripped up, but before the kitchen is completely redone.

Fortunately, the unknown insulation in the wall between is paper. Paper pulp insulation, to be exact. So while it's still going to be messy to remove, it means I can do it myself and not hire a licensed hazmat removal company. I'm still baffled at the uselessness of it, though. And what a buffet for silverfish, termites and other creepycrawlies.

Historical Artifacts

"No touching the historical artifacts!"
- Mrs. MacReady, The Chronicles of Narnia
So pulling them apart and drilling holes in them is probably out, too, I guess. Good thing Edmund didn't have access to power tools.

The Cat5 was successfully pulled at CSH...and there was much rejoicing. What took me a long time was getting the network card on the PC in question to work. The PC was on its second wireless card (actually an external USB widget), but it wasn't clear when the built-in NIC had last been used, if ever. Windows didn't even see it (BIOS had it enabled, but was otherwise mum on the subject), so it was kind of hard to configure. Updated drivers didn't help. I finally ended up re-flashing the BIOS with the latest version, and lo and behold, Windows finally saw it. A new router for the CSH house office is on order, and soon the packets will be a-flyin' like the monkeys in Oz.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Another Day...

No work on the house today, and still no word on exactly what that insulation I found yesterday is. I worked on church media and other bits and pieces this morning, and donated blood platelets this afternoon.

Tomorrow I'm off to Camron-Stanford House to pull some more Cat5 cable. The other cable I pulled has been a major blessing -- I haven't had a single call about connection problems since then. So I'll be spreading more joy in the form of TCP/IP packets, this time to reach one of the upstairs offices.

Yesterday I cut open the new doorway from the center hallway to the living room, and stuck a stud in the old doorway from the center hallway to the entry hall (which will now be part of the kitchen). It's going to take Katarina and I a while to get used to the change, even though it only moved the door 3' or less. But it's going to have some much bigger impacts in light and air moving through the house. With the change, it's possible to see from the kitchen all the way across the house out my office window, and from Katarina's office out the living room windows. More light, and nice cross ventilation for summertime.

Monday, February 05, 2007

What the...?

Most of my house experience is new construction with Habitat for Humanity and building the addition. I've done some work on the house before, and on other people's houses, but I haven't ripped open many walls.

So I was flummoxed when I found this material in the wall when I was working on the kitchen remodel. It's light and fluffy, and incredibly fragile -- the slightest puff of air, and pieces blow away. It's settled into the bottom of the wall cavities, so what insulating value it had is long gone. It had ties around it, as if it were in batts like modern fiberglass insulation.

And I have no idea what it is. I'm going to ask around on-line, but I've never seen anything quite like it. What's curious is that the only place I've found this in the house is in this wall near the bathroom -- and most of this wall is an internal wall, so it's clearly not for insulating against the elements. None of the external walls have any insulation anyways.

The large black pipe is the vent stack for the bathroom. It's a 4" cast iron pipe like the main sewer line.

Friday, February 02, 2007

And So It Goes

I began work on moving the doorway into the center of the house from the entryway (which will be part of the kitchen) to the living room, a grand total of about 3'. I knew there was electrical there (a switch for the hall light that can stay, and an outlet that's where the door will be), and based on work in the dining room (where cutting power to the dining room light ended up cutting power to the basement and the carport), I knew there were likely to be, um, complications.

So this time I checked which side the power was coming from, disconnected it, and tested everything that seemed like it might be down circuit from there. Expected casualties: an old outlet in my office (no big deal since I added multiple outlets on a new 20A circuit for my computer gear), an outlet in the living room on the other side of the wall from that, but no major losses. So I turned off the power, removed the outlet, covered the end of the wire with power (it'll eventually get pulled up into the attic and removed), and Bob's your uncle, right? Well...after turning the power back on we noticed that the phone which plugs into an outlet in Katarina's office was off, and a floor lamp was, too. Oops. Seems this particular circuit ran down from the attic to the hall outlet, around my entire office, then around Katarina's entire office. Fortunately the lights still work, but I kind of wonder about the outlet in the bathroom...

I also noticed that the people doing the framing again had a limited understanding of what holds a house up. As I've previous blogged about, the doorway between the dining room and living room had a couple of 2x4s stacked (not on edge) for a header. That's a large doorway, almost 6' wide, and a load-bearing wall that holds up the ceiling joists and the roof. So in a little 32" doorway in a non-load bearing wall, what do we find? A proper 4x4 header. And so it goes.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Dark Side of the Rainbow

It exists. I recently borrowed a copy of The Wizard of Oz to do a little spoof for Kevin's family of him as the munchkin on the right (He really did look kind of like him. Of course, we also noticed that our friend Larry looks a lot like the cowardly lion. Who knew?)

So after finishing that up, I told Katarina about the Dark Side of the Rainbow phenomenon: that by playing Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album in time to The Wizard of Oz, there's an unusually high correlation of the lyrics and tone of the music to the action on screen. I'd heard about it before, but in the 33 years of the existence of Dark Side of the Moon, I'd never experienced it.

So given the unusual presence of The Wizard of Oz DVD in the house (Dark Side of the Moon has been in my CD collection as long as I've had a CD player), we decided it was worth watching at least a little of it. We don't have a separate CD player in the living room, just a combo DVD/CD player, so I wasn't sure how easily we could pull it off. But then I remembered my aging PC has a CD drive and a DVD drive, so pop went the disks into the respective drives, and after a little fiddling to get the audio on the DVD off, we were off to see the wizard.

And it really does exist. It's not 100% (well, maybe if you consumed enough controlled substances it might be), but there is enough correlation to be interesting, and it's surreal enough to be entertaining. (But you'd have to consume a lot of controlled substances to think there's anything to the suicidal munchkin story. It's a crane wandering around the set, along with the peacock, toucan, and other birds.)

All that to say, I have actually gotten to work on the house some this week. I've begun disassembling the old front hallway in preparation for making that and the old entryway part of the kitchen. But given my adventures in Oz, cleaning up photos of the memorial for presentation to Kevin's family, and other media work, I haven't done as much as I'd like.

But darn, it feels good to be working on the house again.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Death, Take a Holiday

Progress on the house in the last couple weeks has been limited to about 15 minutes of disassembling the old French doors from the dining room, plus the new gutters that LeafGuard installed. It's been a variety of things keeping me from the house, but the most recent was a sad one. I volunteer with Oakland Firefighters Random Acts of Kindness, doing a variety of things (tech support, photography, media creation, home repairs, valet parking, etc.)

Last week, an Oakland firefighter fought a house fire on Friday night, and went to the gym to "work the smoke out" when he went off-shift Saturday morning. He collapsed, and despite efforts of the gym staff and then the fire department, he died. He was only 47, which no matter how you slice it, was too young for such a great guy. At least 999 other people agree, since the church filled up with family, friends and firefighters from all over the state, and hundreds had to listen to the overflow speakers outside. Kevin Reed was a big volunteer with Random Acts, too. He was at Station 8, a few blocks from Children's Hospital, and was a regular visitor to the kids -- he was scheduled for another visit the following Monday.

So I photographed my first funeral on Friday, including fire engine procession, color guard, honor guard, etc. It's not a skill I want to get any practice at. I took almost the identical picture to the one the Oakland Tribune ran (not surprising since the Trib photographer was standing next to me at the time). Rather than repeat it, I'll show a picture that my friend Cindy from Random Acts took, which captures Kevin's spirit far better than any words I could write will:
That's Kevin with Father Jason, the Oakland Fire Department chaplain and Kevin's classmate back in high school, after a whipped cream fight during a Random Acts fundraiser at Fenton's Creamery.

You're with God now, Kevin. God, be with Kevin's family, especially his wife and daughter, his friends and co-workers. And when a boisterous guy who looks kind of like the munchkin on the right greets you at the pearly gates when it's your turn, you'll get to meet Kevin, too.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Passing the Savings Along to You

I've blogged about the 'joys' of shopping at Home Depot and the like before. To their credit, I actually encountered a friendly, helpful person, who came into the next department to show me where to find something (a faucet for a laundry sink, for my friend Cindy's mom's house; I've been working there the last several days to replace the burst water heater, repair leaky faucets and toilets, fix the new back door that was a replacement for the one kicked in by a SWAT team, etc.) A nice woman in the appliance department at the Oakland Home Depot asked me if I needed any assistance, and I asked about the laundry faucet. She not only told me approximately where to find them amongst the zillions of kitchen and bath faucets, but walked over with me to help find them. All too often questions are met with a surly "that's not my department", so this was a very refreshing change. Of course, since Home Depot's departing CEO got a $210 million severance package, I imagine I'd be a little surly if I were an underpaid, undertrained employee there, too. $210 million for not doing your job? That's the kind of job I want to get fired from.

Anyways, at a different home improvement store yesterday I bought a 10' piece of copper pipe to finish up the aforementioned water heater install. The sticker with the barcode was damaged, so the cashier had to go look at the display to get the price. She came back and quoted what I think was the right price (for copper pipe these days, a 10' section of 1/2" pipe is hecka expensive, whether for type L or the slightly thinner type M). Then said such-and-such per foot (which would be a higher total for 10 feet than what she'd just quoted). She rang things up, and Katarina noticed the grand total and said, "that doesn't seem like enough" (for either amount the cashier quoted), and the woman said "well, if you want me to charge you more...". She was in a hurry (more customers in line behind us), and seemed nervous and kind of jittery, so we left it at that. Later I looked more carefully at the receipt, I think she charged the higher price per foot, but for only one foot of it. I'll be passing the savings along to Cindy's mom, because the difference isn't worth a separate trip back to the other store.

If Home Depot, et al, would spend a little of the absurd amounts paid to execs and spread it around in more more training and more pay for their employees, they'd doubtless have better employee retention, not to mention happier employees and happier customers. I just ask for the opportunity to try this plan once, then whether it works or not, it's OK to fire me, with say, 20% of the former CEO's severance package.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

They Came, They Measured, They Extruded

Today the first LeafGuard guy showed up to fabricate the gutters. In theory the install crew will be here tomorrow to put them up along with the downspouts. Given we've already got them on the existing house and are just getting them for the addition, it's a pretty small job, so it didn't take him long. I helped a bit, just so I could watch the process. And watching the process reminded me of part of why I don't do the gutters myself. Extruding seamless gutters takes some specialized equipment, and some practice using it.

Of course, tomorrow's crew will remind me of the other reason I don't do it myself. It's a pain in the posterior to install gutters and downspouts, even more of a pain than painting. Getting ladders in the right places so you can reach the gutters but not get in the way of putting up the gutters is not an easy task. So this is one of the few jobs I'm happy to pay someone else to do.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

It's Not Easy Being Green

Kermit the Frog had it right. There are a lot of 'green' things that are hard. It's hard to get out of your car and ride a bike or take mass transit (even if those are a generally a lot cheaper). It's hard to find truly green building materials; there's not as much variety yet, and in some cases they're more expensive (though in most cases those things pay for the difference over time).

But a really easy green thing to do is use compact fluorescent lights instead of incandescent lights. It's hard to spell, so call them CFLs and say floor-ess-uhnt. And you don't have to spell it when you grab a package of them at your local hardware store. Recently, Seth Godin challenged bloggers to push the benefits of CFLs, as only 6% of the households in the U.S. are using them.

They take less energy than incandescents. Despite having a small amount of mecury in them, they put less mercury into the environment because burning coal for power (which is where large amounts of the power in the U.S. comes from) puts out (literally) tons of mercury. They give off less heat (not a big deal in winter, but no sense making your A/C or fans work harder than they have to in summer). They last longer so you don't have to get that step ladder out so often. Unlike fluorescent lights of old (though the long tube ones are still this way), they come on immediately and don't flicker.

And despite a higher up-front cost, over their lifetime they'll save an average of $66 each. We have a fairly small house, and I can think of 30 bulbs -- $1,980 of savings.

What's not to like? (OK, those annoying plastic blister packs they come in, for one.) But it can be easy to be green.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Let There be Heat!

L.J. Kruse sent Patrick the giant mouse (as our cats know him, because he makes interesting noises under the floor) out this morning to cut into the plenum and hook up the duct to the bedroom in the addition. It happened sooner than expected, because we were lower on the priority list than people who have no heat at all. Given some of the cold weather we've been having, it's quite understandable. Nothing like the plains or back East, but some sub-freezing temps at night in the valley areas. Patrick did great work, as always. He was the one who installed the forced air furnace a couple of years ago. So now we have heat (besides passive solar, that is) in the bedroom!

And thanks to the good folks at the Healthy Heating site, I've figured out more of what I need to do for radiant heating in the bathroom and kitchen. Katarina's excited about the idea of a warm bathroom on those early mornings. The kitties would be excited if they knew the implications, and would probably demand it for the entire house (Star is sleeping on my monitor as I type this) as they're real "heatonists".