Today was an in-service day at school, so Jeffrey had the day off. We decided to take the day off, too, and thought we’d do something different, so we headed to San Francisco via Caltrain.

Caltrain is slow, but it does take the worry out of parking — I guess that was a good tradeoff. It’d’ve been better if we’d brought something to read on the trip up; Jeffrey finished his book before we got out of Santa Clara County, and the scenery is less than wonderful. But in the end, we got to San Francisco and walked up in the direction of the Sony Metreon to have lunch.

The Metreon has a very nice food court, far better than that in most malls. And the restaurant we went to, Buckhorn Grill, was quite reasonably priced and tasty — I’m surprised the place wasn’t packed.

After lunch, we left the Metreon and went to Zeum, an interactive art and science center for 8-18 year-olds. I’d read a little bit about it and thought it might be worth a visit — it was! Their main attraction is called “Build It!” and offers many ways for visitors to make things — I tried building a house of cards, which didn’t get very far, while Jeffrey zoomed in on the Lego Wall. After a while, we went to look for Diane, who had gotten involved in making a clay character to use in making a stop-motion animation. In the meantime, Jeffrey made a structure in the Megaopolis room (under the direction of Spike and Jeff), then joined us in the Animation studio, where I was helping Diane with her masterpiece. We spent the rest of the afternoon there, making movies, and a good time was had by all (except, perhaps, the characters, who seemed to have a rough life after Jeffrey started to direct).

When we left Zeum, we went in search of a bookstore to stock up for the trip home — that turned out to be a harder task than I would have expected, but we found a small book department in the Virgin Megastore and made do. Dinner was back at the Metreon (Jeffrey and Diane tried the Firewood Restaurant; I hit the Buckhorn again), then we dashed to the station in time to make the 6pm express train south.

Tomorrow, we’ll be back on Caltrain, this time to PacBell Park. We had thought about staying overnight in San Francisco instead of commuting, but the hotel we wanted wasn’t able to guarantee a suitable room (and I had a hard time contemplating paying $35/night for parking, too), so we opted to spend tonight at home instead.

Shabbat Shalom!

Remote Purgatory

I’m still trying to find a reasonable answer to the unreasonable remote control that came with my Yamaha RX-V800.

I took a closer look at the remote control programs for the Palm I mentioned on Tuesday and realized that I would be entering into dangerous territory — the programs aren’t actually tools, they’re toolkits for the hobbyist, and I already have enough hobbies, thank you very much.

So I dashed off to Fry’s and bought the $30 All-For-One Cinema 7, which got good reviews on the web. It’s easy to hold and use, except that it doesn’t seem to know how to turn the receiver on or off, just like the universal remote that came with my TV! But there may still be hope — this remote is supported by lots of folks on the web, and I’ve found instructions which may help me actually use it with my receiver (apparently the receiver has some interesting characteristics which make it difficult to use with normal remotes).

It’ll give me something to do this weekend — which we’re starting early, since there’s no school tomorrow. I can use a four-day weekend, and I bet Jeffrey really feels that way!

[Later:] Success! Most devices treat the power button on the remote control as a toggle — if it was on, pressing “Power” turns it off, and vice-versa. But Yamaha decided it would be better to have separate buttons for “on” and “off”, and they removed the toggle code from their new line of receivers, including the one I bought. So I have to define one key on the remote as “on” and one as “off”, and then I’ll be all set. I think.

But I probably won’t get to it for a while; we’re planning to take the train up to San Francisco tomorrow and poke around, probably taking a look at the Metreon and maybe visiting Chinatown.

Nice kitty

I haven’t quite figured out where to put my ham radio gear, so
right now, I’ve set up a temporary antenna on the back deck, and I bring
my equipment out there to operate in the evenings, taking advantage of
the pleasant weather.

Last night, I had set up a large pile of stuff, including a laptop, so I
could try PSK31, and
was enjoying myself despite the lack of success (I wonder if the fact
that my antenna is just a few feet from power lines has anything to do
with the high noise level?), when I heard an animal wandering through
the yard. At first, I assumed it was one of the neighborhood cats —
but then I took a look. It was furry, black, and had a white stripe
along its back. I decided it needed the back yard more than I did at
that point and closed down in a hurry, so that the skunk wouldn’t be
bothered by odd noises.

I think I’d better plan on setting up indoors.

Catching up on the mail

Commander Dave
out that having the hoses going to your washing machine break can really
your day — especially if you’re on vacation! We had a hose break when
the painters moved our washing machine while painting our utility room
— they turned off
the water very quickly, but it still made a mess. We bought
reinforced hoses after that, and we’re also careful to turn off the
water to the machine if we’re leaving for more than a day or so.

My Mom wants to know more about the stereo gear I bought this
weekend, so here goes.

The speakers are the
Boston Acoustics
CR series
(75’s in front, 65’s on the rear walls, and a CRC as the
center channel). I’m waiting for the subwoofer, a Boston Acoustics
PV600 to be
delivered — in the meantime, I certainly haven’t lost any bass compared
to my previous system.

The receiver is a Yamaha RX-V800, which
seemed to have a good complement of features, including enough inputs to
handle my assortment of gear (besides the normal array of stuff, we also
have a Laser Disc player and a MiniDisc deck), while letting me
relabel the display to show the equipment connected to it (no more
pretending that the DVD player is VCR2!). It also lets me assign
the optical inputs and outputs to any desired components, and it has
plenty of power.

I even thought the remote control was OK when I played
with it
in the store, but after really using it for a couple of days, I’ve
changed my mind; it’s probably the worst remote control I’ve ever owned.
It’s physically very small, so there aren’t many buttons on it —
but that means that some of the buttons change their meaning
depending on which other buttons have been pressed
recently. I can’t count the number
of times I’ve switched input sources when I meant to change DSP effects,
or brought up the setup menu when I meant to skip a track on a disc.

I think I’m going to be in the market for a good universal remote soon
— the Phillips Pronto has
gotten some good reviews, but it’s expensive. I have a PalmIII which
lost the battle of belt space and is sitting idle, so I’ll try some of
the programs which turn it into
a remote control
first, though.

Speaking of idling, I haven’t used my MiniDisc deck for a while — not
since starting to put
MP3s and WMA files on my laptop for trips. But I thought I should try
it to make sure I had connected everything up correctly, only to
discover that
its disk load/eject mechanism seems to be
broken. I’m not sure I really need to get it fixed, since
MiniDiscs are not high on my priority list, and I do have a portable MD
player/recorder, if I can just find it.

But not tonight.

Back-to-school toys

Jeffrey started middle school today. It seems hard to believe…I clearly remember his first day of kindergarden, and that was just last week!

The construction crews are also starting in on his new school this week; they’re tearing down and replacing almost all of the buildings over the next two years. With luck, he’ll have an almost brand-new school for his last year.

I celebrated his return to school by spending the weekend deeply immersed in electronics; on Saturday, I played with my ham radio stuff and eventually proved that it worked by making a contact on HF — true, it was only across town, and true, I did have to call the other guy on the phone to schedule it, but at least I got confirmation that my equipment does work. And I learned that I needed to increase the modulation and talk louder to make my signal better, so it wasn’t entirely an empty effort. On Sunday, I bought a new receiver and speakers for our home theater, and then spent all of Sunday night installing it (with the invaluable help of a friend who survived the process with only a small bruise). I still have to finish the installation and tweaking, then do it again when the subwoofer arrives, but now that the rear speakers are on the wall, it’s all easy stuff — no power tools required.

Back from vacation

Oh we got a new computer but it’s quite a disappointment

‘Cause it always gave this same insane advice:

“Oh you need
Little Teeny Eyes for reading little teeny print

like you need little teeny hands for milking mice.”

Tom Digby

We’ve been back from vacation for a week now, but I haven’t successfully
caught up with life, including the chance to update my blog. I have
many, many pictures to edit, some of which may actually be worth the
effort, but haven’t gotten the round tuit yet — someday….

Vacation words

The Murky Nooz was actually to blame for our choice of vacation destination. Back on April 1, they ran an article in the Travel section whose first sentence really caught my eye: “Have you ever spent six hours at a fruit stand?” The fruit stand in question was
Gatzke’s Fruit Stand in Oyama, British Columbia, but the article was more about the whole Okanagan Valley, and it sounded like it’d be a nice change of pace from our usual urban vacations. And we thought it’d be nice to vacation with Diane’s brother and his wife somewhere other than their place or ours, so we suggested it to them. And they agreed.

We found decent fares to Seattle and decided to drive from there — and also decided that an all-relaxing vacation would be too much of a shock, so we also booked time in Vancouver and Victoria.

Time passed, and suddenly we found ourselves at SFO, waiting for our Shuttle flight to Seattle. And trying to change our seat assignments — United had kindly put us in an exit row, which is slightly illegal if you’re under 15, as Jeffrey is. But they were very disorganized and couldn’t figure out any way to get us out of the exit row and yet keep us together, so Jeffrey wound up a couple of rows ahead of us. He survived, as did we.

I made the mistake of trusting Microsoft’s computer routing from Seattle to Kelowna (a big city in the Okanagan, and the one where we were staying, at the
St. Andrews Bed and Breakfast) and got off of I-5 at least one exit early, so we had an interesting time finding our way, but we eventually persevered. But between arriving in Seattle a couple of hours late (thanks, United!) and getting slightly delayed on the road, we didn’t get to the B&B until 11pm, well after our hosts would normally have been asleep. But we were greeted warmly and shown to our rooms, which were quite comfortable.

The next morning, we set off for the fruit stand, to see if it lived up to its billing. But first, we wanted to see the
O’Keefe Ranch in Vernon, where they just happened to be having the Cowboy Festival and Wild West Show — an interesting experience, at least for us California tenderfeet.

So how was the fruit stand? Well, we didn’t spend six hours there. But we did spend an hour poking around, wandering through the orchard, and enjoying the atmosphere.

Leakage to the Food Bank

This morning, I went out to the garage to get rid of some trash and noticed water on the floor. Fortunately, I’d had my coffee already and realized that Something Had Gone Wrong. And, after just a few seconds of weighing the possibilities, the answer came to me: the water heater had sprung a leak. A slow leak, to be sure, but nonetheless, a leak.

So I followed the instructions on the side telling me how to shut it off, and then called the company which had provided the instructions (and, for that matter, the water heater) to get a new water heater delivered and installed. The old one had lasted just short of 15 years, which isn’t bad, so I was willing to be a repeat customer.

And eventually, the installer showed up, installed a water heater, made all sorts of changes needed to bring it up to code (such as double-strapping it to the wall versus single-strapping 15 years ago), took my credit card number, and went away.

But while I was waiting for the water heater guy, I was forced to work at home instead of going to work (needless to say, he came a bit later than they’d originally told me), and while I was at home, I took a good look at our plum tree. Last year, the tree had given us about six plums, and we were afraid that it was on its last legs, but this year, the crop has been bountiful, and we were beginning to see plums falling down and rotting — not a good thing. So while I was waiting, I picked as many plums as I could reach and bagged them — a dozen produce bags in all (and there were still plenty of plums too high for me to reach).

We like plums, but a dozen bags is far too many for us to use — so I called the Second Harvest Food Bank and asked if they’d be interested in the excess. They said that they were always happy to get fresh fruit, whether from stores, restaurants, or backyard growers, and so I brought the plums to them, and I hope they get put to good use.

We’ve made money donations to Second Harvest for many years, and have donated canned and boxed food via our temple and other food drives, but this was the first time I’ve brought them something in person — not to mention that it was something we’d grown ourselves (even if we do mostly provide benign neglect to the tree). I felt like I’d made a small difference today — it felt good!

Unclear on the concept

While I was on vacation, I checked my answering machine and found a message from my credit card company asking me to call their Fraud Detection department because they had detected unusual usage patterns on my card. Unlike last year, when someone appeared to be trying to use my card at home at the same time I was using it on the road, leading to my getting a new card number, which I haven’t yet memorized, there was no problem, and after a brief chat, I hung up, happy that my bank was ever-vigilant and interested in keeping my credit card number safe.

Today, I got a letter from the credit card company asking me to fill in a brief questionnaire about how well satisfied I was with their service during my recent phone call. No problem — until I looked carefully at the cover letter before tossing it out, and realized that they’d put my full card number on the letter, making it a dangerous item and one that I needed to shred. I answered the questionnaire anyway, but made sure to mention that putting the whole card number on the letter was stupid, especially considering the reason for the call.


Dangerous Web Wanderings

If my writing style in the previous passages seems a bit more convoluted than usual, blame the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest; I’ve just spent the past half-hour reading this year’s winners, runners-up, and dishonorable mentions — and even worse, I followed a pointer from the contest page and, just a few clicks later, found myself reading filksongs; if Jeffrey weren’t in bed, I’d be trying to sing them, but I don’t want to wake him (or scare the neighbors — it’s a dark and coolish night and the windows are open, both at our place and theirs).