Losing My Cool

Last fall, my A/C system that is less than two years old stopped cooling.  I called for service and they found a leak in a fitting at the evaporator coil in the garage.  That cost me a little over $200 because of the refrigerant (which is exorbitantly expensive and laden with various and sundry EPA pitfalls for the company).  Fast forward to the first really warm day this spring: I started it up again and it wouldn’t cool.  I called the service company again and they discovered that it was low again and added more refrigerant (to the tune of another $200) and tried, but could not find the leak with the electronic sniffer.  So they recommended a UV dye check (which costs another $250).

The service tech was just here and showed me with the UV light that there is a leak in the evaporator coil, which is not repairable.  It will require a whole new coil.  The good news is that the coil is under warranty.  The bad news is that it will cost $1000 to replace it (that includes labor, miscellaneous parts, and the ever-so-expensive refrigerant), and labor is not covered at this point in the warranty.

It’s absolutely gripes my butt that a 2-year-old unit would have a leak in the coil like that.  I will definitely not consider this brand (Goodman) again, if this is any indicator of their quality.

Update: I guess I should retract that statement about Goodman.  It’s impossible to tell if it’s their fault (faulty unit) or an installation issue.  The tech was here this morning and he is convinced that there is insufficient return air for this unit, based on the small return-air filter opening, which the original installers should have noted at the time.  Insufficient return air flow can cause increased pressure in the system, which can kill a compressor (and possibly lead to a leak in a coil).  The next step will be to investigate adding an additional return air intake and ducting.

FLEXed

I’ve been dithering over what to get to replace the Avalanche since well before I had it paid off.  I was looking for something that could carry at least four people and two dogs and that would be easier for the dogs to get into and out of, particularly since Malcolm (the Collie) is not coordinated enough to climb like Boots can.

I finally got serious about it last week and decided to take a really close look at the Ford Flex.  It’s lower to the ground, has room for 6 or 7 people (depending on the chosen options), and the rear seats can fold down for the dogs.  After checking with my credit union to line up financing, I went to Five Star Ford (NRH) last Friday afternoon and spent about three hours with a lady from their credit union/fleet department test driving a couple of models (the SEL and Limited).  She was very easy to work with and (unlike the ‘regular’ part of the dealership) didn’t try to pressure me into taking what’s on the lot or any particular options.  She took the time to look around the area and find a Flex with the exact options that I wanted.  In particular, I wanted a Flex Limited with the 40-40 second row but without a console (and especially without that silly refrigerator option).  I also wanted the dark blue (what Ford calls “Kona Blue”).  It turned out that there was exactly ONE model within 300 miles, located at a dealership in Houston.  She called them and arranged a dealer trade.

So, as of 6:00pm yesterday, I traded in the Avalanche and I am now the owner of a 2011 Ford Flex Limited in Kona blue with silver roof:

Flexter?  Needs a nickname... Flex from the back.

It’s a little strange to NOT be driving a truck or SUV, since I’ve been driving them since 1993.  But I think this is a good compromise.  It’s got nice upright seating, and you can see fairly well, but you don’t have to climb into and out of it.  Another plus is that the second row seating has a lot of legroom.  I put the driver’s seat all the way back and was still able to easily get in and out of the second row (and had lots of room to stretch out).

Besides, I wasn’t using the capabilities of the Avalanche to its fullest: I haven’t towed anything in many years (since I moved to Keller) and I used the AWD maybe twice in the 7 years I had it.  So I really couldn’t see getting another SUV.  If I need to tow or haul, I can rent a truck or get a hitch fitted to the Flex when the need arises.

Real Info Rather Than Hysterics

While I’m not a nuclear expert I’ve always been interested in physics (and in fact while my degree is in Computer Science and Math, my minor was Physics, although that was back in the mists of time). So when I see the news media trying to report on the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plan in Japan, I get frustrated and start yelling at the TV (or the browser). Aside from scaring the dogs, though, it’s not very effective.

If you’re interested in learning more about the situation from people who know what they’re talking about, the Nuclear Science and Engineering department at MIT has created a blog to specifically address Fukushima Daiichi. It takes a little bit of time to read and digest the info, but it’s far better than what the news media has been giving us.

MythTV FTW!

I have a TV mounted on the wall in the kitchen because I like to watch the local news while I’m in there (and because I kind of like to have some sort of background sound on even if it isn’t the news).  The problem is that there is no cable outlet in there, so I’ve struggled with OTA reception since the beginning.  However, since the introduction of digital TV the problem has gotten worse as digital is ‘all or nothing’ and in many cases the stations have moved to UHF, which tends to have less range than VHF.  The only channels I can receive in that position with even the best indoor antenna are 4 and 11, and even then they’re not reliable.  Any time we had high winds (or ice and snow) it changed the conditions just enough to cause channel 4 to fade in and out in a frustratingly random way (there was no way I could adjust the antenna to fix it).

If I’d wanted to continue to get OTA programming my only choice would be to mount an antenna on the roof and bring a line inside from it to the TV.  I didn’t really want to do that.  The next option would have been to tie into the FIOS service, but that would have required running coax cable to the location, and I also didn’t want to get into that kind of trouble or expense.

What changed the game recently was when I discovered a device called the HDHomeRun from a company called SiliconDust. It’s a network-attached ATSC tuner that will stream either OTA or clear-QAM channels to any computer on your network.  So when I found an older model on sale recently it gave me the idea that I could put a small computer in the kitchen running Linux and  MythTV and wirelessly stream the TV signal from the HDHomeRun.  And since the HDHomeRun could tune clear-QAM signals, it meant that I could tune the 23 non-encrypted channels that Verizon includes in the FIOS “Local” package without need of another cable box or an external antenna.

For those not familiar with it, MythTV is a free, open-source, software DVR.  It has a distributed network architecture and can work with a variety of computer-connected tuner and capture devices.  It can loosely be thought of as a roll-your-own TiVo.  It consists of two main components: a backend, which handles all the video capture duties; and a frontend, which is what displays the available streams.  It also has a pluggable architecture, so you can add additional features like the ability to view videos and photos, listen to music, browse the web, and view local weather forecasts.

Over the weekend I finally went ahead and set the whole thing up.  I installed MySQL and the MythTV backend on my desktop PC (which is a quad-core 3GHz Athlon with 8GB of RAM) and the MythTV frontend on a Foxconn NetBox-nT330i that I happened to have kicking around (it has a 30GB SSD and 2GB of RAM; it’s nearly silent–the only moving part is the processor fan).  Both systems are running Ubuntu 10.04 (LTS). The only glitch was that the version of MythTV included in the Ubuntu 10.04 repositories (v0.23) had issues with locking up when changing channels on the HDHomeRun.  I installed the Mythbuntu repository updater and updated to the latest revision of V0.24 which fixed it.

One of the neat features of the NetBox is that it’s so small that it can be mounted to the back of an LCD monitor using the VESA mounting holes and an included bracket.  For this setup I mounted it to the monitor and put the monitor on the shelf I’d been using for the TV.

So, at this point, whenever I want to watch live TV, the backend takes control of the HDHomeRun’s first tuner (the second is not yet connected to anything), streams the data to a disk buffer and feeds the buffered stream to the frontend.  This allows for pause and rewind of live TV.  An added benefit of all this is that I now have a full program guide as well as the ability to schedule recordings (via the frontend or via web browser), which the backend will handle and make available to the frontend on request.  I also have the ability to browse the web thanks to the MythTV browser plugin, which I think will come in handy for pulling up recipes.

It probably sounds more complicated than it actually is, but it really wasn’t that much effort.  But it’s the sort of thing that appeals to my inner geek.  Further, I already had all the equipment, other than the HDHomeRun, so it didn’t cost too much to set up (the HDHomeRun dual-tuner was on sale for $80 when I bought it; setting up a decent OTA outdoor antenna would likely have cost that much or more).

I still have a few things to do to smooth out the rough edges, though, as it’s not ready for use by non-geeks.  I have an infrared remote control hooked up to the frontend, and while you can do enough with it to tune live TV and watch videos, it still requires a keyboard to do a lot of stuff, so I need to get the IR mapping cleaned up enough to make it intuitive for those used to using a DVR.  I also am planning to take the NetBox off of the monitor and install an arm in place of the current shelf, which was originally installed for a small tube TV.  I’ll also route the wires better and make it a clean installation when I do.

An Odd New Limitation

When I logged into my online bill payment account today I saw a strange new warning:

Screen grab from Chase online bill payment service

(For those who can’t read the tiny print, it says, “The Online Bill Payment service should NOT be used to pay your local, state or federal taxes.”)

It doesn’t immediately make sense to me why this would be the case, since I’ve used this service to send to everything from major corporations to individuals.  They’ve got it set up so that it recognizes payees who can receive payment directly versus those who can’t.  If a payee can’t accept payment directly, the service will print and mail a check on your behalf.

The only thing I can think of is that perhaps some tax entities require additional documentation beyond an account reference number, in which case there might be a problem, since there’s no way for Chase to include anything beyond a memo on the check.  You’d expect people to know better, but I suppose that’s being naive.  In which case it would make sense to include the warning lest Chase get sued when someone’s tax payment goes off into never-never-land.

Happy New Year… Have A Blast!

For once, an SMS text from a cellular provider proved useful:

A “Black Widow” suicide bomber planned a terrorist attack in central Moscow on New Year’s Eve but was killed when an unexpected text message set off her bomb too early, according to Russian security sources.

The unnamed woman, who is thought to be part of the same group that struck Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on Monday, intended to detonate a suicide belt near Red Square on New Year’s Eve in an attack that could have killed hundreds.

Security sources believe a message from her mobile phone operator wishing her a happy new year received just hours before the planned attack triggered her suicide belt, killing her at a safe house.

I can visualize the text: HNY. HV A BLST.  LOL ;-)

The Clench

Is it just me, or is his expression the look of a man whose laxative just kicked in?

Even The Spammers Are Critics

One thing I’m enjoying about using WordPress is the Akismet spam filter.  So far it’s protected me from over 90 spam posts (in just about one month) with a 100% success rate (i.e. no false positives).  Interestingly, all of the spam that it’s caught appears to be entered by humans (or at least a fairly reasonable facsimile thereof).  They all use some fairly stock phrases that attempt to flatter you as to your content but that are completely unrelated to the topic of the post.  It comes across as really stilted and silly.

Anyhow, the spam sweatshops were especially busy last night, since there were 14 new spam comments in the filter awaiting my attention (I last emptied it around 5:00pm yesterday).  This one, in particular, though, caught my eye.  Not only do they have the audacity to try to shove this crap into my comments, but it’s kind of insulting to boot!

Dont acquire this the wrong way, but youre entirely boring me right here. Do not get me wrong, I imagine what you need to say is valid…completely! But, youve received to provide me a thing to believe about that involves pictures. You realize what they say, -A picture is worth a thousand phrases.- You could potentially cut down on the terms if you just gave me a few photographs.

If I’m so boring, then maybe you need to find another site to spam.  In the meantime, your comment is being routed to File 13 for proper consideration.

The Stupid Bowl is Coming!

All you slovenly North Texans need to get your crap together and make sure you polish everything to a bright, shiny finish before the Stupid Bowl comes to town next month.  Also, you need to be on your best behavior.

Or at least that’s the message I’m getting from the various cities involved in this massive boondoggle.  While the level of rhetoric is steadily being ratcheted up to 11 (you can’t watch Fox 4 anymore without a “live” reporter breathlessly intoning on the latest 18-wheeler to arrive or the current status of tent construction), I was somewhat content to just ignore it all (even the creepy Slant 45 initiative), at least until Troy Aikman dropped the final straw on my back at the end of tonight’s 6:30pm news.

I mean it’s bad enough that the City of Arlington has a webpage dedicated to ratting out your messy neighbors (lest we offend any of the delicate sensibilities of the hoity-toity Stupid Bowl visitors as they visit Arlington’s Grand-Theft-Stadium), but now we’ve got Troy Aikman on TV telling us we all need to act appropriately when visitors come to town.

Unfortunately, I was not able to find a copy of this sanctimonious bullshit online, or I’d link it here, but it pissed me right the hell off to be lectured on hospitality and how to act by a guy whose claim to fame is that he could play a game that is more known for the misbehavior of its players than anything else.

Aikman, you can shove your commercial and your Stupid Bowl XLV nonsense up your ass (perhaps the commercial will make nice viewing for you until you get your head out of there).

Improving The Tone?

So… some psycho nutbag shoots a Congresswoman in Tucson and the shell casings haven’t even hit the ground by the time the usual liberal suspects come out of the woodwork to inform us that it was caused by all that nasty right-wing hate-laden eliminationist rhetoric and that we need to “tone it down.”  Way to wait for the facts, there, Sparky!

If you really want to improve the tone of politics, perhaps the first thing you can do is avoid dancing in the blood of the injured and killed to score a political point.

I wonder if I should bother even hoping for an apology from all who blamed the Tucson attack on ‘right wingers,’ ‘tea partiers,’ and Sarah Palin?

I won’t be holding my breath on that one.