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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Peru Vacation Day 8: From Puno To Cusco By Bus

You can find the quick update of this day of our Peru vacation here. As mentioned in that update, the bus trip back to Cusco was an addition to our original itinerary. Since we took the train down to Puno, and missed all the sights the bus stops at, we wanted to make sure we got a chance to see them some other time. So, we decided to take the bus back up to Cusco rather than flying. We paid $70 to add the bus trip to our tour.

We were taken from our hotel in Puno to the bus station at about 7 in the morning. The bus left Puno at 7:35 AM. There were only about 10 people in the bus that normally seats about 40 people, so it was very uncrowded. It was a large, luxury bus with aircraft-style reclining seats arranged 2x2, and large picture windows. The bus had small overhead racks for hand luggage, but most larger luggage, had to be loaded below the passenger compartment in the cargo storage area. The bus also had a doorway in the middle which was never used, and a small restroom that the conductor/guide warned us was only for emergency use and liquid wastes!

The bus's speedometer and odometer did not work, so distances are based on kilometer markers along the route (the route had a marker every kilometer). The bus also had air vents and reading lights that did not work. Ventilation and cooling were provided by open windows and openable vents on the roof of the bus. The bus had a manual transmission with 1 reverse speed and 6 forward speeds. There was also a small knob under the steering wheel which seemed to control the level of engine braking. The driver used this to control the bus's speed around curves, etc., rather than using the brakes.

The route we took was labeled 3S, and seemed to be a toll route at least part of the way. The road was at least 2 lanes wide at all places, with clear yellow-line markings for the center, and had a paved shoulder. Our bus was faster than most other vehicles on the road, so sometimes we were stuck behind slower vehicles in no-overtaking zones for short stretches of time. Around urban areas, I saw a lot of trash by the side of the road. Small roadside shrines (probably marking victims of road accidents) were also very common all along the route.

Puno to Cusco orientation mapOrientation map showing the locations of our stops along the way from Puno (in the South) to Cusco (in the North). Pukara is located approximately where the mouse cursor is positioned on the map. B is La Raya, C is Sicuani, D is San Pablo, E is Raqchi, F is Andahuaylillas, and G is Cusco itself. Notice that the route is along the 3S highway.

The bus had 6 stops on this trip. They were Pukara (108 km from Puno, elevation of 3860 meters), La Raya (93 km from Pukara, elevation of 4338 meters, which is the highest point on this trip), Sicuani (37 km from La Raya, elevation of 3550 meters), San Pablo (15 km from Sicuani, elevation of 3460 meters), Raqchi (6 km from San Pablo, elevation of 3460 meters), and Andahuaylillas (89 km from Raqchi, elevation of 3198 meters). Cusco, the final destination of the bus, is 41 km from Andahuaylillas.

Even though the bus is definitely far cheaper than the train for the trip between Cusco and Puno, the train is by far the superior alternative. The view from the open air observation deck of the train was beyond compare, especially in relation to the view from behind the tinted picture windows on the bus. Being able to catch the views all around rather than just in one direction is definitely an advantage too. If one is interested in taking photographs during the trip, the train is the only alternative worth considering. We had the best of both worlds by taking the train one way and the bus the other way so that we could enjoy the scenery, but also not miss out on visits to Raqchi and Andahuaylillas, which are possible only by bus.

Here are some photographs from this trip for your enjoyment!

Puno to Cusco bus interiorA photo of the interior of the bus showing the 2x2 seating, large windows and the huge windshield.

Puno to Cusco bus exteriorA look at our bus from the outside. This photograph was taken at La Raya. Notice the oversized side mirrors and the middle door on the side of the bus, just before the rear wheel. This door was never used. The bus's restroom is located beside that door, on the inside. Notice that the bus stop is crowded with several other buses. Lots of buses run between Cusco and Puno on a daily basis. Some of them are double-decked too like the red one in the background.

Puno from bus's tinted windowsA picture of Puno from inside the bus. Notice the unrealistic tinting of the photo caused by the tinted windows of the bus, and the reflections caused by the thick double-pane of glass on the window.

Roadside shrine along 3S in PeruA roadside shrine we passed on 3S. These are quite numerous along all the roads throughout Peru, except inside urban areas. We also passed a couple of roadside cemeteries, but they were rarer and harder to photograph.

Pukara sculpturesSome ancient sculptures at Pukara. In the background is the colonial-era church that is the centerpiece of the main square of Pukara. These carvings are located in the courtyard of a museum that houses other pieces and exhibits in rooms where photography is not allowed.

Pukara main square and churchPukara church as seen from the main square of Pukara. All around the main square are many vendor stalls selling all kinds of handicrafts.

Mountains near La RayaSnow-covered mountains on approach to La Raya.

Vilcanota Knot seen from La RayaA vendor stall forms the foreground for a view of the Vilcanota knot from La Raya. The bus stop is a few feet higher than the train station.

La Raya signSign at La Raya, advertising the height of the point as 4338 meters above sea level.

Buffet at SicuaniWe had lunch at Sicuani. A view of the buffet at the restaurant where we had lunch. Behind me was a courtyard where a live music band entertained eaters.

Llamas and alpaca at San PabloLlamas and alpaca at San Pablo. Our bus stopped here just to allow passengers to get up close and personal with these animals (and some guinea pigs).

Llama closeupA closeup of a llama, with its friendly face and large eyes framed by long eyelashes. These animals were very docile and allowed tourists to pet them, and stood quite still for photographs!

Guinea PigsThese guinea pigs are grown for food in Peru. Guinea pigs are quite skittish and did not allow tourists to handle them. But they did not make any attempt to run away either, even though they were in an open room with ample opportunity to run away if they wanted to!

Baby llama
Baby llama drinking from feeding bottleA couple of views of a baby llama that captured all the attention of the tourists, for obvious reasons! We took turns feeding the llama milk with a feeding bottle. A close-up of the baby llama's face shows droplets of milk around its mouth from the feeding session!

AlpacaA view of the alpaca. This animal was also quite friendly, but not as photogenic as the white llamas. With a little practice you can distinguish between llamas and alpacas, but I wasn't able to differentiate between them, so I relied on our guide to tell me which was which!

RaqchiRaqchi is an Inca archaeological site known for the Temple of Wiracocha, an enormous rectangular two-story roofed structure that measures 92 metres long by 25.5 metres wide by 18 to 20 metres high along the center line. Prior to its destruction by the Spaniards, the temple had what is believed to be the largest single roof in the Incan Empire, having its peak at the central wall, then stretching over the columns and some 25 metres beyond on each side. We also some several circular granaries at Raqchi. Raqchi has a thriving marketplace and is very famous for ceramics and pottery (in fact, Raqchi means ceramics in Qechua).

Andahuaylillas main squareThe main square of Andahuaylillas. The approach to this place was along a narrow cobble-stoned alley. Andahuaylillas is practically a suburb of Cusco, so traffic became quite heavy as we neared Andahuaylillas, and remained that way until we reached Cusco itself.

Andahuaylillas churchThe famed Andahuaylillas church. It is considered the most beautiful church in Peru, and the Sistine Chapel of Latin America because of its roof paintings. The church was under renovation when we visited it. There were no photographs allowed inside. The gold-leaf coverings of all the sculptures was quite impressive, but the Sistine Chapel claim was, I felt, a little overblown. The ceiling was simply covered in a repeating pattern rather than real paintings. It was colorful and ornate, but not a valid comparison to the real Sistine Chapel. No photographs are allowed inside the church.

While we were in Andahuaylillas, the world cup finals was taking place in South Africa. Some people were crowded around a television set inside the office just inside the church. I watched for a few minutes, and about 2 minutes after I left to walk around the square and take some photos, Spain scored the winning goal against the Netherlands! The whole square exploded in whoops and cheers as tourists poured out of the church to spread the news.

We reached Cusco around 5 PM on this day. If you take out the stops, the bus journey is about 6 hours long, making it about 4 hours faster than the train. This being the last day of our vacation on the ground, the evening was spent packing up and making sure everything was all set for our departure from Peru the next day.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Get An Expert On Your Side To Navigate The Dallas Real Estate Market

Thanks to guest writer, Virginia W. Forster, for this post.

When I moved recently from Chicago to Dallas to follow my dream job, I did not realize how difficult it would be to replace my dream home too. Dallas has a lot of neighborhoods, each with their own unique characteristics and features. I realized I needed an experienced real estate company to help me narrow down my choices, and find my family a dream home in short order.

USA Realty Services has been just the real estate company I was looking for. They have extensive experience in the North Texas real estate market. And they are willing to put this experience to good use helping out their clients. And believe me, you need someone experienced to hold your hand as you navigate the Dallas real estate market.

Once I got in touch with my helpful agent, she got right down to work for me. She mailed me lists of Dallas homes for sale even before we met each other. She also introduced me to their website that enabled me to conduct my own searches based on price, number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, etc. This helped me narrow down the Dallas homes for sale list to something that was easy to discuss with my family to get a better idea of what we like and what we did not.

Once we met and discussed our needs in more detail, she helped me negotiate the market skillfully, and helped me find a home that not only suited my tastes, but the tastes of everyone in my family. And these tastes are not easy to satisfy. But my agent was very patient, and was able to take everything into account in finding just the right piece of real estate for us.

And all this happened quite quickly too, enabling us to move into the new home directly after our move rather than having to spend weeks or months in temporary housing. Any real estate agent can find you a house. But to find your dream home, trust the professionals at USA Realty Services. You won't regret it!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Week Of No Breakages, For A Change!

Well, the title says it all: this last week, no expensive appliances at home broke. No expensive part of my house needed repair or replacement. My cars did not make any mysterious noises that needed expensive fixes. My lawnmower still works, and my plumbing did not spring any leaks or breaks.

It is not as if I am complaining! I am quite glad. It was not very fun having these unexpected expenses blowing my budget out of the water. A little peace and quiet on the repair and replacement front was well-deserved!

The week turned out to be uneventful all around. We were supposed to have a progress meeting on the status of my big project with directors of my department, IT and the user group, but people got held up and some of them couldn't make it to the meeting. So, the meeting got moved to the middle of this week. Maybe it will happen this week. Maybe it won't. I don't care much for this new emphasis that all the management types are placing on project management rather than getting any real work done. All I ever do, it seems, is create project plans, detailed time lines, project update presentations, and status update meetings in which everyone looks at the time lines and says we are on track. Of course, we are on track! There is actual work to be done only once every 3 months it looks like, the rest of the time line is simply project updates anyways!!

I did a little better on the blogging front this week than I did last week. I put together a post on Monday about how my hot water problem got solved without having to get the hot water heater replaced. Then, on Tuesday, I published a review of the Admiral gas dryer I got to replace the one that broke the week before last.

I have been walking around the past 10 days or so with a pedometer clipped to my belt. It was provided to me free of charge by my employer as part of an employee wellness program aimed at encouraging employees to be more active and exercise more. I wrote and published a review of this pedometer on Friday. I have been walking a little more than usual because I have been conscious of its presence, and have wanted to push it to higher and higher totals. My maximum still stands at just below 18,000 steps, but I have exceeded 14,000 steps on several days now.

But my blog did worse than it did last week in terms of attracting visitors from new countries. This week, I got no visitors from any new countries. So, my flag count stands at 146 countries and waiting.

I did more loads of laundry on the washer and dryer this week. Having a dryer that actually dries clothes in about an hour instead of having to switch it on repeatedly over a 3-hour period before a load of clothes is dry was quite liberating. I wonder how much longer I would have put up with my previous dryer (that barely got clothes lukewarm) if it hadn't quit completely.

I know I haven't quite finished my series of posts on my Peru vacation yet. So, I will probably work on a couple of posts to finish that up this week. After that, I hope I will have enough discipline to go back to putting together posts about Microsoft Access, Vedic Mathematics and other topics that I haven't blogged about in several weeks now. Gotta go now . . .

Friday, August 27, 2010

First Impression Review Of The Omron HJ-720ITC Pocket Pedometer

A pedometer or step counter is a device, usually portable and electronic or electromechanical, that counts each step a person takes by detecting the motion of the person's hips. Pedometers are handy and convenient motivators to help people set exercise goals and achieve them.

Pedometers have become quite inexpensive nowadays, so their use has spread from exercise enthusiasts and trainers to common people. You can get pedometers at most sports stores and sometimes gyms and health food stores sell them too.

My company recently gave out these Omron HJ-720ITC pedometers to employees who wanted them as part of an overall push towards making people more fit. Several employees signed up, and I got my pedometer last Thursday. I have been wearing it on my hip every waking minute since then, and the novelty has not yet worn off fully.

The pedometer did not cost me any money because my company gave it away for free, but you can buy this from Amazon.com and other stores also. This pedometer is somewhat unique in that it comes with a USB port that allows results from the pedometer to be uploaded to your computer. It also comes with software that allows the computer to interface with the pedometer, and to analyze the data uploaded from the pedometer to the computer.

Omron HJ-720ITC PedometerThe pedometer itself is quite small. It comes with a couple of straps that you can use to hang the pedometer around your neck or wrist. It also comes with a belt clip that allows the pedometer to be worn at your hip, either attached to a belt or to the top of your pants or shorts. The package also includes a software disk, standard USB cable, a user's manual, an exercise log, a watch battery and a small metal "screwdriver". It put that in quotes because the user manual refers to it as a screwdriver, but it is just a small piece of metal with one end narrowed down so that it fits in a screw head. It does not have a plastic handle like most "normal" screwdrivers do.

The pedometer does not come with the battery installed. So, the first thing you have to do is open up the battery compartment at the back of the pedometer, and install the battery. The user manual has instructions for this, and it is quite simple and straightforward. The display then comes to life, and the next step is to set the pedometer up for use.

This involves setting the time first. This is an important step because the pedometer stores the number of steps taken on a daily basis. At midnight of each day, the display resets to zero steps taken for that day, and the previous day's steps are stored in memory. The next step is to enter your weight. This is used to calculate the calories burned. The third and final step is to measure your stride length and enter it in. You take 10 or 20 steps, measure the distance covered, divide that by the number of steps, and enter the result into the pedometer in feet and inches. The pedometer allows you to set stride lengths all the way from 1 foot to 4 feet, and it is difficult to imagine anyone having a normal stride length outside this range.

The stride length is used by the pedometer to calculate approximately the distance you have walked. This measurement is obviously quite inaccurate because you don't always walk with your normal stride. If you run, your stride length increases. If you are in a crowded place, you may take shorter steps. There are lots of things that change your stride length from what you have entered into the pedometer. So, take the distance calculation with a large grain of salt.

Using the pedometer with the belt clip is trivial. You just slip the pedometer into the clip housing, and then attach the clip to your belt or trousers. You can also clip it onto the front of a shirt pocket if you prefer. The clip, however, is not very large, so even though I wear a pretty narrow belt, the clip does not go all the way to the bottom of the belt. Several users have complained about the insecurity of the belt clip because of its inadequate length and grip. It is possible for the clip to slip off your belt or clothes and fall off if you are not careful, so you might want to look for third-party clips or carry the pedometer in a cell-phone pouch if you want to be extra careful.

The user manual has some pictures of how to attach the straps to the pedometer if you want to use it with the straps rather than the belt clip. However, the pictures looked quite confusing to me, and did not help me in any way. Since I was not planning on using the straps, I did not pay much attention to them anyways.

The pedometer is a 2-axis pedometer. This means that there are sensors inside that can detect steps in two of three planes with respect to the pedometer, but not in the third plane. The third plane in which this pedometer can not count steps is when the pedometer is horizontal with respect to the ground. So, to use this pedometer, it has to be vertical with respect to the ground. It can be on its bottom, sides or top, but it can not be flat on its back. This makes the pedometer capable of being used with the wrist straps or hooked to your clothes with the belt clip (these methods make sure the pedometer stays vertical with respect to the ground). But it will not work if you put the pedometer into a large bag because the bag can not prevent the pedometer from lying flat with respect to the ground. And when the pedometer is lying flat, it can not count steps.

The user manual has a section devoted to various factors that can cause the pedometer to not count steps correctly. In addition to the pedometer being flat on its back or front, the pedometer will not count accurately if you take inconsistent steps, when you climb up or down vertically on steps, ladders, etc., or when your steps are very slow. In practice, I have found the unit reasonably sensitive and has counted my steps in most circumstances, including when I am climbing up and down normal staircases that are not too steep. The pedometer can not count when you bicycle either.

The pedometer has 3 buttons on it below the display. The left-most of these is the "Set" button which is used during set up of the unit, but rarely after that. If you give away your pedometer to somebody else, they can use that button to reset the time, their weight, their stride length, etc. If you accidentally press it, just press it a few more times until you get the normal display back (the old settings are preserved). No data stored in memory is erased when you set the pedometer.

The middle button is the "Mode" button. When you press this button, the display cycles between 4 modes: total number of steps, the number of aerobic steps along with the number of minutes of aerobic walking, number of calories with amount of fat burned, and distance walked. All these displays pertain to your activity for the current day.

The user manual defines aerobic walking as walking more than 60 steps a minute, and walking more than 10 minutes at that pace continuously (breaks of up to 1 minute are ignored). So, the second display mode displays the number of steps you took in aerobic mode during the day.

The number of calories, as mentioned earlier, is calculated using your weight and the number of steps taken. There are inaccuracies in this calculation and the user manual has a table that allows you to adjust the numbers based on your age. However, everybody's body and metabolism are different, so counting calories is not going to be super-accurate under most circumstances.

The distance walked is calculated from the number of steps and the stride length. If your walking involved steps of different lengths (which is not only possible, but also quite probable), then this measurement will be off. As mentioned earlier, running can throw this measure off quite significantly.

The third button is labeled "Memo" and has a an upward facing arrow next to it. It allows you to scroll back in history through 7 days worth of stored data. The pedometer has enough memory for 42 days worth of data storage. The last 7 days are accessible directly from the pedometer through this history scroll button. The historical display pertains to the display mode you have the pedometer on before you start scrolling through history (thus, if your display mode is not the number of steps, but the distance walked, then as you scroll through history, the pedometer will show you the distances walked in the last 7 days). You press the "Mode" button to exit history mode, back to seeing today's data.

The middle button also has an "Event" mode which I don't understand fully. You can press the middle button for 2 seconds and it will put in an event for you at that time. I am guessing that you can can somehow use the event mode to set the start and stop times of some important activities you did during the day or something like that. But the functionality is very unclear, and the user manual is completely useless in explaining this.

The back of the pedometer contains a small reset button in addition to the battery compartment cover. The user manual advises users to press this button in case the display starts showing garbage and other unrecognizable characters. You lose that hour's data when you do this, but the rest of your data is not affected by resetting the pedometer using this "Reset" switch.

The software that comes with the pedometer is Omron's Health Management Software that can be used with either this pedometer or with Omron's Blood Pressure Monitors. The software gives you the ability to analyze the data uploaded from the pedometer to your computer. The software is only compatible with Windows PC's, so if you have a Mac, you can not upload the data to the computer or analyze it using this software. If you lose the software disc, you can download the software directly from the Omron website.

Omron Health Management Software ScreenshotThe software enables you to set up goals and track your progress against these goals. In addition to daily data, the software enables you to track the number of steps on an hourly basis within the day, which the pedometer itself can not display. I have not played around too much with the software, but it is decent and reasonably intuitive. You can export data from the software in CSV format for import into a spreadsheet, but you can not import data into it from a CSV file. The pedometer itself keeps track of data that has been downloaded, and if you do not download data for more than 35 days in a row, the pedometer display shows you an icon to remind you to download the data.

There are many complaints out there from people who find that the data upload suddenly starts failing for no reason, with seemingly no solution. The problem seems to be that the data stored in the pedometer can sometimes get corrupted. When this happens, the software does not know how to download the data, and the data transfer fails. If this happens, you have two options. You can wait for the corrupt data to leave the memory as the days roll on since only 41 days' worth of data are stored in the pedometer. After the corrupt data leaves the pedometer memory, and is replaced with good data, the transfer should work again.

The other option is to hasten the memory clearing process by repeatedly setting the time to 11:59 PM and letting the pedometer roll over midnight, thus forcing it to store several dummy data points repeatedly. Do this 41 times, and you would have cleared out your pedometer's memory completely, and the data transfer should start working perfectly again (until some corruption happens again).

What is good about the pedometer? First of all, it is quite accurate. I counted my steps in my head and checked it against the counts produced by the pedometer several times in the last few days, and the counts have been mostly dead-on, especially if I walk normally. If I walk irregularly, the count is thrown off slightly, but the pedometer is remarkably good at catching on and counting correctly. That is pretty much the most important aspect of judging the quality of a pedometer, and this one comes out with flying colors.

The availability of many attachment options, and the fact that it came packaged with straps, belt clips, etc., rather than these being sold as optional accessories is another point in favor of this pedometer. It is light and compact, and you hardly notice it when you are wearing it. This can be both good and bad, because if the clip comes off, and the pedometer falls off your clothing, you may not notice it right away either!

And that tops the list of what is not so good about this pedometer. The belt clip is not as secure as it could be. It is designed more like a clothes clip rather than a true belt clip, and as such, it would fit better over a wire or line than over a flat object like a belt or the waistband of your sweatpants.

Secondly, the pedometer lacks separate walking and running modes. Many advanced pedometers have multiple modes, and you can set different stride lengths for each mode. You can then press buttons on the pedometer to tell it whether you are going to run or walk, and the pedometer uses the different stride lengths to keep track of distances more accurately. Since this pedometer only has one stride length, the distances are often off since I run a couple of miles on most days. Even better would be an automatic detection of whether you are running or walking based on how your hips are moving, or the number of steps you take per minute.

The battery life of the pedometer is very poor. The user manual says the battery should last for about 6 months. After that, you have to buy and install a new watch battery. It is not expensive or complicated, but it is a hassle to have to do this so frequently. The main reason for this is that the screen is constantly lit. The pedometer display never goes to sleep so to speak. A better solution would have been to wake the screen up only when a button is pressed. Or at least, have the screen come alive only when steps are being taken. Having the screen on all the time when the battery is installed is just plain wasteful.

The software that comes with the pedometer is quite basic, and could be made more useful. I don't want to pass judgment on the software since I have not used it extensively, but the data upload failures because of minor corruptions in the pedometer memory are an inexcusable shortcoming. The software should have been designed to be more robust about ignoring and overcoming data defects rather than assuming that everything will be perfect all the time.

Last but not least, the pedometer is not as useful as it could be in motivating you to exercise. I would have liked to see some feature that, for instance, would remind you to take a break and walk around a few steps when the pedometer has not sensed any steps in some time interval. For example, you could program it to remind you to walk around if you have been sedentary for more than 2 hours between the times of 10 AM and 10 PM, or something like that. This pedometer lacks any such feature even though it should be trivial to include something like that given that the pedometer has all the data it needs to do the reminding if necessary.

The pedometer is capable of counting up to 99,999 steps and aerobic steps each day, and can keep track of up to 999.99 miles per day, 199.99 grams of fat burned per day and 99,999 calories burned per day. It is difficult to imagine anyone exercising such that these limits come into play. My best day so far has been just under 18,000 steps walked. Most days, I exceed 10,000 steps (which is recommended as the standard of fitness), usually concluding the day with between 12,000 and 14,000 steps.

I have not used other pedometers to compare the accuracy of this pedometer against others. In general, I have heard that some pedometers have very poor accuracy and can miscount by as much as 40 to 50%. The user manual for this pedometer claims an accuracy of within 5%, which is excellent. And I can vouch for the fact that it has been very accurate whenever I have tested it myself. I would be enthusiastic about recommending this if it did not have the flaws I mention above, or the flaws are corrected in a newer version of this product. As it stands, I would take away a few points for these flaws, and give this pedometer a 7.5 out of 10.0. Definitely worth having if you don't have one, and you need a motivator to get you to walk around instead of being sedentary.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Kitchen Is Not Complete Without Good Pot Racks!

Well, I did not say that, but my wife is saying that to me. I think she is trying to send me a message here! Shelf and counter space in our kitchen has always been a little tight, and my wife thinks we should get some pot racks to relieve the congestion in the cabinets.

She also sent me a link to a website that has Enclume pot racks for sale. I had never heard of Enclume before, but the more I read about them, the more I like them. Enclume is supposed to be the brand for pot racks. They are made of heavy duty materials in many pleasing styles to add a touch of class to any kitchen.

There are many features that make Enclume the standard to which all other pot racks aspire to. Enclume potracks are made of hammered steel that is twice as thick as competitors' products. Instead of featuring thin chains to hold up the rims of the racks, Enclume uses hanging arms that give the rack a lot more stability and strength. In fact, these hanging arms are a signature Enclume feature that is found in no other pot rack brands.

An Enclume pot rack enables a discerning cook (like my wife) to organize all her pots and pans in one place that is easy to reach and convenient. She does not have to bend and stoop constantly to get her cookware out of her cabinets. The Enclume potrack would also give her a ready-made showcase for her collection of high-quality cookware, advertising her credentials as a discriminating cook!

Enclume pot racks are meant to last more than a life time. They are passed on from generation to generation as heirlooms. Once you buy one, you don't have to worry about replacing it ever again. And combined with the 100% satisfaction guarantee offered by potrackixchange.com, and the sale prices they have on these pot racks, it makes sense to jump on this before it is too late. And I don't have to pay for shipping and handling on these puppies either. Sweet deal!

Water Conservation Is Easy With Rain Barrels

If you have a large yard, and you water it on a regular basis, you know that it can be quite an expensive proposition. Water is a valuable resource, and calls for water conservation are becoming more and more urgent and loud as cities and other water suppliers find themselves rationing out dwindling supplies among larger and larger populations.

One easy way to save money, but continue to water your yard is to harvest rain water and use it for yard work rather than using tap water for this. Nowadays, this has become quite popular, and there are lots of solutions on the market for people who want to do this. One of the most economical ways to accomplish this is by purchasing rain barrels from a company such as SimplyRainBarrels.com.

Rain water barrels are large containers that can be placed at the end of gutter downspouts and other places where rain water tends to come together in large quantities. The container stores the rain water instead of allowing it to run off the yard into storm drains. The barrels usually have taps at the bottom that allow you to use the water for watering your yard. Alternatively, some rain barrels have drip irrigation systems that can be used to continuously hydrate the yard using the stored rain water.

SimplyRainBarrels.com is one of the premier suppliers of rain barrels. They have a huge selection of rain barrels for sale in all kinds shapes, sizes, finishes, materials, etc. They also have several exclusive products not available anywhere else. All of their rain barrels and other rain harvesting products and accessories such as rain tank systems, downspout adapters, rain barrel stands, etc. come with a full satisfaction guarantee and a 30-day money-back guarantee. And there is no shipping charge for any of the products you purchase from SimplyRainBarrels.com.

Maintaining a green yard can be expensive in hot and dry summer weather. Rain water harvesting using rain barrels is a simple, inexpensive and eco-friendly alternative to using tap water for watering your yard and its plants. No wonder more and more people are turning to sites like SimplyRainBarrels.com to put their rain water harvesting systems in place so that they can have a yard they can be proud of instead of a water bill they can not afford!

Give Your Kids A Leg Up In School With Online Tutoring

The world is becoming more and more competitive nowadays. It is not enough to be good anymore. One has to be the best to stand out in a crowd of "good" students. It is easy for kids to become discouraged because of the high pressure and competition. One way to build up their confidence and help them compete for the top spots in the academic rat race is online tutoring.

TutorNext is a reputed online tutoring site that uses advanced technology to make sure that students stay engaged with their tutors. Because the site brings together tutors with different expertise and backgrounds, it is easy for students to rely on the online tutoring service for help with all subjects.

TutorNext's tutors work one-on-one with their students over the internet. Because of the one-on-one personalized nature of the lessons, students get the full attention of the tutor and can learn at their own convenience and pace. TutorNext also utilizes advanced technology that enables students and tutors to interact with each other over the internet using a virtual whiteboard and chat capabilities.

TutorNext offers tutoring in a large variety of subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology, English, college essay-writing, math, etc. Even within each subject, the level of specialization and the variety of subject areas covered is vast. Math is one of the most important subjects a student has to master for success in later studies and life in general.

TutorNext has separate sections within their math tutoring for grade levels such as 4th grade math, 5th grade math, etc. Each of these grade areas covers all the mathematical concepts that students in those grades are supposed to know and master.

In addition to these, TutorNext also has specialized tutoring in specific subject areas in which a student may be weak. An example would be in the area of adding fractions, for instance. Another area where many students have problems is in solving algebra word problems. So, TutorNext has a separate area set aside for an algebra solver. Obviously, to take full advantage of any kind of algebra, one first has to develop expertise in solving equations. So, there is an area that coaches students in that skill also.

But TutorNext does not stop there. Even advanced subjects are dealt with in some detail, to expose students to the power of advanced math, and its applications in all aspects of our lives. Take data analysis, for instance. TutorNext has a section devoted to line plot, that can be used to make sense of complicated data. Even more impressively, they even have tutoring in college-level subjects like linear programming. Given my profession and my consequent immersion in linear programming and derivative areas, their attempt to expose K-12 students to the power of such advanced math is commendable.

Most parents nowadays did not go through the same math curriculum their students are going through. Math curricula in schools have expanded significantly in the past years, making it difficult for parents to coach their children in advanced mathematics. TutorNext provides a convenient solution to such parents who are looking for outside help to assist their children with their math homework, assignments and overall mathematical understanding and learning.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

First Impression Review Of Admiral AGD4475TQ Gas Dryer

This is the matching dryer for the Admiral ATW4475VQ top-load washer which I have reviewed earlier here. This is a 6.5 cubic foot super-capacity gas dryer made in the Admiral brand, which is owned by Whirlpool.

The dryer looks quite similar to the washer. It has an all-steel, all-white body, with a powder-blue instrument panel on top with two dials. The interior of the dryer is also all-white (which can make your white socks go missing from time to time). The drum does not have a light, so you have to put this dryer in a lighted place. The door of the dryer is reversible, and can be set up to either open from left to right or right to left.

Home Depot charged me $60 to install the dryer in my home. Out of this $60, $40 is for various parts required in the installation (they are not supposed to use the old gas inlet pipes, vent pipes, etc., so you have to buy all new ones for Home Depot to install the dryer), $20 is for the actual hook-up. If you buy an electric dryer, it costs nothing to hook up.

Admiral AGD4475TQ Gas DryerFront view of the dryer. Note the powder-blue background of the instrument panel, just like on the matching washer.

The drum is quite roomy, as the super-capacity moniker would suggest. A full washer-load from the 3.2 cubic foot washer fits quite easily in the dryer. The rear of the drum has an inlet for the hot dry air, and outlet for the humid air to be vented to the outside of the house.

The big control knob on the left of the instrument panel has 4 separate quadrants. Three of them are time-controlled dry cycles. You can choose either high heat, low heat or no-heat (a fluff setting). Each of these cycles can go up to 30 minutes, with about 10 minutes of that set aside for a cool-down.

Admiral Dryer control knobThe knob on the left hand side of the instrument panel, with the 3 timed cycles and the one automatic drying cycle.

The fourth quadrant is for automatic drying (what the dryer calls "auto sense drying"). The dryer is supposed to sense the level of humidity in the exhaust air and adjust the drying time and temperature accordingly. The markings on this quadrant go from less dry all the way to very dry, and the user manual recommends using the "energy preferred" setting in the middle. The spring-loaded knob on the right hand side simply needs to be pushed in to start the dryer. It has no other purpose.

The dryer does its job pretty well. The three loads I dried all came out completely dry within about an hour each. Two of these loads were full washer loads, and the third was about three-quarters of a washer load. The top of the dryer gets toasty when it runs, but there is no appreciable noise from the rotation of the drum. I opened the dryer in the middle of a dry cycle, and was assaulted by billows of steam from the inside, as if I had opened a pressure cooker.

I dried one load at the energy-preferred setting, and at the end of the cycle, some of the heavier clothes in the load, and places like the elastic bands of sweat pants in the load, were a little damp. So, I used the timed dry on the high-heat setting for about 15 minutes to finish off the drying. The other two loads were dried using the automatic dryer setting of "very dry", and they came out completely dry. I have never tried the no-heat and low-heat settings of the dryer.

I do have some gripes about this dryer though. The first is the absence of a drum light to light up the interior of the dryer. The 15-year old dryer which this replaced had such a light. I have gotten so used to it that the first couple of times, I would walk into the laundry room without the light on, open the dryer, then realize I was not going to be able to see anything, walk back to the light switch and switch on the room light. It is an annoyance, for sure.

The second and more substantial gripe is the placement and design of the lint screen. My old dryer had a lint screen just below the door of the dryer. When I opened the dryer door to load it, I would clear the lint screen before loading it. I didn't have to remove the lint screen from the dryer to clean it up in most cases.

Admiral dryer lint screenA look at the enormous lint screen, after being pulled out from the dryer. Before every load, you are supposed to pull this out, clean it up and put it back in.

In the new dryer, the lint screen is located in the back of the dryer, not in the door. You get to the screen by pulling it out from inside the dryer through an opening on top of the dryer. It is a pretty large lint screen, and it fits quite tightly where it does. As you pull up the lint screen, there is a good possibility lint will fall of the screen back into the vent which is supposed to be protected from lint by the screen. Moreover, even if you get all the lint out, stuck to the lint screen without any of it falling off, the entire top of the dryer gets very dusty from all the lint and it has to be cleaned off every time. It is a royal pain in the neck.

Admiral dryer lint screen handleThe lint screen handle at the back of the top of the dryer. You can not be shy about pulling on this handle if you want to get the screen out for cleaning. I am glad the dryer is somewhat heavy, otherwise it might require two people to clean the lint screen, one to pull this handle, and the other hold the dryer in place while the first one is pulling on it! The knob above it is the one you push in to start the dryer.

Putting the lint screen back into the dryer is somewhat tricky too because of the tight fit, and more than once I have stopped half-way through thinking that it wasn't going in smoothly because I was doing something wrong. Turns out, I was doing nothing wrong. But some idiot at Whirlpool sure did something wrong, designing a dryer with a lint screen like this!

I would be happy to recommend this dryer to prospective buyers if not for the design of the lint screen. I am quite unhappy with the effort required to clean the lint filter before every load, and the effort required to then clean up the dryer and surrounding areas because of the inability to collect the lint cleanly off the filter without pulling it out, vibrating it, and causing lots of lint to fall all over the place. And any lint that falls into the vent, that does not come out through the vent outside the house is stuck somewhere in the vent line until you clean it out. The manual does encourage you to clean out the entire vent line every two years. It would be quite unnecessary if they had designed it correctly instead of cheaply.

Unfortunately, it looks like dryer-top lint screens are quite popular nowadays, and lots of low-end dryers have them. If you are in the market for a cheap, high-capacity dryer, you may not be able to avoid dryers with this bad lint screen design. In that case, this dryer is no worse than the other choices, and may in fact be the best choice, given that most dryers in this price range are the much smaller 5.8 cubic foot variety. The extra capacity makes it possible to dry larger loads and also dry smaller loads in less time than they would take in a smaller dryer. And the dryer does work well, drying a full load in about an hour or so. Given these considerations, I would give this dryer one thumb up rather than an unqualified two thumbs up!

Monday, August 23, 2010

I Got Hit By A Small Bullet Yesterday - But I Dodged A Big One!

Yes, nowadays in my life, dodging big bullets (even if I get hit by smaller ones) is cause for celebration! As I wrote yesterday, my hot water heater was acting up and I was waiting anxiously for the plumber to arrive and deliver the bad news.

The plumbers did arrive finally around 10 PM last night. They were quite mystified as to what was going on too, and I had to demonstrate the symptoms of my problem to them. Then they started formulating their theories as to what could be going on.

It turns out that hot water heater connections include a couple of backflow prevention valves. Most sites on the internet about hot water heaters and their problems do not mention anything about these valves at all. They are not inside the hot water heater, but are installed on the piping that leads in and out of the hot water heater.

There is one backflow prevention valve on the hot water side that prevents hot water that has exited the heater from flowing back into it. There is another such valve on the cold water inlet pipe that prevents hot water from inside the heater from flowing back out through the cold water inlet.

The plumbers wanted to check these two valves first based on my symptoms. If neither of them was the culprit, then the hot water heater would have to be replaced because the clog would then be in the heater, and the plumbers said they couldn't fix anything that involved disassembling the hot water heater!

Even before we started, the plumber noted that my hot water heater was not installed to building code standards. It used a flexible gas line and a flexible hot water line, both of which are no-no's supposedly. Moreover, the pipes used to hook everything up did not have the right combination of metals touching each other. In fact, the plumber was amazed at the mix of copper, galvanized steel, brass and bronze fittings making up the plumbing of the hot water heater. Apparently, mixing metals at random in the piping causes corrosion and oxidation, and that could also have something to do with my problem.

Given all these caveats, I could see the big bullet of hot water replacement coming straight at me, and I was in a trance-like state, unable to move or get out of the way! I told the plumber that my water heater had been replaced under a home warranty service when we initially moved into the house, and I could not remember if a licensed plumber had installed it or just a general contractor.

My plumber was quite dismissive of the technical knowledge of general contractors and others who did not go to school to study how to do plumbing properly and professionally. He said general contractors know how to put things together, but they don't know what the code says, nor do they know or care about the long-term consequences of how they put stuff together. So, the water heater will work if installed by a general contractor, but eventually might get clogged and corroded out because of the technical problems the installation included.

The plumber was particularly harsh on Home Depot and other appliance sales stores. They usually use very cheap labor to install the products they sell, and he said he sees disasters all the time caused by illegal and improper hook-ups of appliances like garbage disposals, hot water heaters etc., all the time. I could relate to that based on how the Home Depot installers made a mess of my laundry room floor installing my washer and dryer, and how they used existing hoses to hook them up after forcing me to buy new ones!

In any case, we started with the hot water side of my heater. We shut off the water supply to the house and unhooked the hot water outlet from the heater. This involved some mighty effort on the part of the plumber because the whole thing was frozen solid. He had to use a combination of wrenches, hammers, etc., to loosen the thing and get it moving. He finally managed to disconnect the hot water line from the heater, and then the backflow prevention valve from the hot water line. The valve looked good and clean, so we had struck out on that side.

hot water heater plumbing diagramGeneral plumbing diagram of a hot water heater installation. In the case of my hot water heater, I did not have a thermal expansion tank installed on my system. I had a backflow prevention valve and shutoff valve installed on the hot water outlet side of the heater also.

Next, he tackled the cold water side. This was an even bigger problem because there were a lot more joints, and since they were many different metals mixed in, they had corroded and frozen up the joints making it very tricky to get the thing off. The corrosion also caused deposits to grow on the cold water shutoff valve, so he could not turn off water supply to the water heater without turning off water supply to the whole house. By this time everybody else had gone to bed, so it did not really matter much.

After much hammering and straining, the plumber managed to get all the pieces of the cold water side separated out. And this is where we hit pay dirt. The backflow prevention valve on the cold water side was a metal tube with a ball inside that is supposed to open up when water flows in one direction, but jams the ball up against the inlet side if water tries to flow backwards, preventing backflow.

back flow prevention valveA backflow preventer valve. Inside this section of pipe is a small ball that can shut off water flow completely when it is forced up against the inlet side of the pipe.

The problem was that this piece was very corroded inside, and the ball had gotten stuck to the inlet side jamming it shut. There were white deposits on the inside of the pipe as well as the ball, and they were causing the ball to stick to the inlet side and shut off water flow. The clanging noises I heard earlier were caused by the ball getting separated from the inlet side forcibly by the negative pressure created by the hot water heater. But apparently, in the last couple of days, the stickiness of the deposits could not be overcome by the negative pressure, so the ball had taken up residence in the closed position, shutting off my hot water supply.

Obviously, I was very relieved that we had found the problem outside the heater, and did not require a replacement of the heater itself. That would have cost me over $1,000. That bullet was dodged, but it sent off a smaller bullet my way, which was still quite painful. The plumber spent another hour after the problem was found, fixing the piping with new pipes and hardware that were up to codes and standards. The final bill was $250, and the plumber left around 12:30 AM today.

If you are having symptoms similar to mine (no water coming from the hot water faucets, cold water running abundantly without any problems), see if you can check the backflow preventers yourself. In most cases, these connections are soldered, so you may not be able to disassemble these pieces without special tools or the assistance of a plumber. But before you sign up for a hot water heater replacement under these conditions, ask the plumber to specifically check the backflow prevention valves and replace them if they are bad. That will save you a lot of money and your water heater may be good to keep going for several years after that!

I had a hot shower today morning for the first time in 2 days! There is hot water coming out of every faucet in the house without any unnecessary noises. I am happy! The plumber was happy too because if I had required a hot water heater replacement, that would have required him to come out again today and do a 4 or 5 hour job at my place. Now, he could go home, satisfied that he had solved my problem without any need for a return visit. Now, I hope the fix works for a few more years. I would be very happy, in fact, if everything in the house worked fine for the next few months without breaking or causing other problems! That is probably a lot to hope for, but you have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, as they say!!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Waiting For Godot - I Mean, The Plumber

The series of unfortunate events that has led to the budget overruns I talked about last week continues on this week also. It has been quite hectic dealing with the problems and their aftermath. As I feared in my last update, the breakages continue to happen at home, leaving me in quite a bad mood!

The lastest thing to take a break on me is my water heater. For the past few weeks, my water heater has been acting weird. When I open any hot water faucet in the house, sometimes, no water comes out. No hot water, no cold water, just no water at all. Then after a while I would hear a big clanging noise like that of a big valve suddenly opening up, and the hot water would start coming out.

And when I close the hot water faucet, unless I am very slow and deliberate, I would hear a clunk after the faucet was closed, and I would get no hot water when I opened the faucet again until the big clanging opening of the valve again. This has been bothersome, but we have managed to get the hot water going whenever we wanted it, so I have been postponing having somebody take a look at it. All my online research never revealed any problem like this or a solution to it. It was as if my hot water heater was refusing to release hot water by clamming down on some valve, and opening up the valve required some effort, only for the valve to jam shut again soon after. And part of my hesitation about calling someone to complain about the problem has been that the problem has been so hard to explain to anybody!

But finally, yesterday evening, the valve (wherever it is, and whatever it is supposed to do), clanged shut for seemingly the final time, and will not open up. I have tried every trick I know (including opening the drain valve on the hot water heater) to try and get some water flowing through the water heater, all to no avail. So, I had to call the plumber. And I have been waiting for the plumber ever since. It has been 10 hours since I called the plumber, and I am given excuse after excuse about major emergencies that they are attending to. I am supposed to be the next customer on their list, but no plumber has shown up at my doorstep so far.

I will probably have to get my hot water heater replaced when the plumber does arrive and take a look at the problem. And who knows how much of a blow that will be to my budget? I have to wait and see!

This is on top of the tension caused by the roof job at the house. Instead of leaving well enough alone, I decided to replace the powered vent fan with a solar-powered fan, and that caused all kinds of problems because the technology is new and nobody knows how to use these new devices. I spent a couple of days and evenings reading up about attic vent fans, mostly only adding to my confusion rather than clearing up any. Ultimately, I made the call to go ahead with the replacement, and I sure hope I made the right call.

Because of all these tensions about various things happening in the house, and all the research I have been doing on these various problems, I lost track of my blogging and added almost nothing to my blog since last week. I did publish a post about the attic vent fan conundrum on Wednesday. Then on Friday, the washer and dryer got delivered and installed at home. Since it happened when I was at work, I was a little tense until I got home and tested them to make sure they worked fine. They did, but you can never be sure until you see it with your own eyes. On Saturday, I wrote up a review of the washer for my blog.

I still have not completed my series of posts on my Peru vacation, and it is stuck at day 7 still. I only have a couple of days to go, but it has been difficult to focus on blogging with so much else going on in life. I now also have to write up and publish a review of the dryer I bought.

Yesterday, I sat down and assembled two laptop/writing desks my daughters insisted I buy for them for the new school year. The furniture was from Value City Furniture, and cost me only $100 per desk, but they were quite solidly made. Moreover, the assembly was easier than I expected because large parts of the desk came preassembled. All I had to do was attach the legs to the top of the desk and that was it. But that still took me about an hour and a half per desk.

Then today morning, the handyman working on my yard helped me unhook and dispose of a very old range and over-the-range exhaust fan from my laundry room. It took us about 2 hours to get the whole job done, and the cleanup fo the nook where the range sat for god-knows-how-long took about an hour! I donated blood yesterday, and combined with all this hard work, I was quite beat up today.

I guess I should not complain too much about waiting for the plumber because all I have done during this time has been to walk back and forth thinking about various things. In the meantime, my wife took my kids to the library, then to the swimming pool, then finished grocery shopping and is now picking the kids up from the swimming pool. If the plumber hadn't kept me waiting, I might have had to do all that!

My blog did get visited by one new country this week also, and that was Guyana. That makes it 146 countries from which I have had visitors to my blog!

Will I get anything useful done this coming week or will I be spouting more excuses next week about how I did not have any time to put up more than a couple of posts in my blog? Well, you never know. You will have to come back tomorrow to check on what happens!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

First Impression Review Of Admiral ATW4475VQ Top-Load Washer

After doing some research online to replace my dryer that broke last week, I decided upon the Admiral ATW4475VQ 3.2 cubic foot super-capacity top-load washer, and the matching gas dryer, Admiral AGD4475TQ 6.5 cubic foot super-capacity gas dryer as replacements.

Now, admiral is not a well-known name, but it is actually a brand name used by Whirlpool appliances. Whirlpool uses a bunch of other brand names including Roper, Danby, Kenmore, Estate, etc. My theory is that by selling under different brand names at different stores, they avoid price-matching claims because the names do not match even though the underlying appliances are the same. Thus, as far as I know, only Home Depot sells Admiral appliances in the US.

All my research for this purchase was done online. I visited the websites of Home Depot, Lowes, Abt Appliances, Best Buy and Amazon.com for comparison shopping. I found the cheapest washer, the model I bought, at Home Depot, for $298 + taxes. The cheapest dryer was at Abt (about $40 cheaper), but I decided to go with the matching dryer from Home Depot for $380 + taxes. The dryer at Abt was also a Whirlpool brand (Roper), but because of the brand name difference, I could not ask Home Depot to match Abt's price. Very clever! Most other stores were more expensive by at least $50 or so.

Actually, if I had had the time to do actual store to store shopping, I could have saved a little bit of money on each of the appliances, because Menards had the equivalent Roper-branded products in the store for $285 (washer) and $340 (gas dryer). Unfortunately, Menards does not have a good website that allows you to look at prices of all their store products. Their website only allows you to look at their weekly sale sheets. Oh well, they lost a sale because they couldn't be bothered to be part of the 21st century!

The washer is quite highly rated at Home Depot (4.4 out of 5 stars with 162 ratings), but that was not the only reason I went with that washer. My laundry room is somewhat cramped and the corner in which my old washer was placed can only take a top-loading washer. I can not buy one of these new-fangled front-loading washers even if they had been available at a good price. I have never been a big fan of front-loading washers, so it turned out to be just as well.

The washer and dryer were delivered and installed in my house on Friday, and I have now done 3 loads of laundry on them. In this review I will concentrate on the washer, and I will post a separate review of the dryer later.

Home Depot did not charge anything for delivery or installation of the washer. They made me buy a new set of water hoses because they said they will not use old water hoses for the installation, but ultimately, they just gave me the hoses, new in their packaging, and used the old hoses for the installation. It was a wasted $20 purchase!

The delivery and installation were quite quick, but they made a little bit of a mess in the laundry room because they did not drain the hoses properly before they disconnected the old washer. Some water in the hoses spilled on the ground, but it has now drained and dried off, and there are no new leaks, so the rest of the installation seems to have been done properly.

Admiral ATW4475VQ Top-Load WasherThe washer is all white except for the instrument panel. The powder blue background of the instrument panel really does not do anything for me, but I did not get a choice on the issue, so I have to live with it!

The washer is all white with three knobs placed on a powder-blue instrument panel on top of the washer. The tub is made of porcelain enamel. The inside of the tub is speckled with white, black and gray. One knob controls the size of the laundry load (small, medium, large or super). It has 4 positions, and is not continuously adjustable. The other knob controls the water temperature during the wash. It can either be hot, warm, cool or cold. Cold means that no hot water is used during the wash. The other three temperatures are a mixture of hot and cold waters, with hot using the most hot water and least cold water (yes, even hot means a little bit of cold water mixed in, according to the user manual). The rinse temperature is always cold, so I don't see the point in repeating it in the knob's settings, but I guess they want to be consistent.

Admiral washer load size and temperature control knobsThe load size and temperature controls knobs. The repetition of the rinse temperature as "cold" on all four positions of the temperature control knob is a little redundant, but some interface design consultant probably got paid big bucks to come up with that idea!

The third and biggest knob, on the right hand side of the instrument panel, is the cycle control knob. There are 3 cycles possible: normal, permanent press, and gentle. You can set wash times of up to 18 minutes if you choose a normal wash, wash times of up to 10 minutes if you choose permanent press and wash times of up to 6 minutes if you choose gentle. The spin cycle time is also different between the three options, with normal getting a longer spin time than permanent press, which in turn is longer than that of gentle.

Admiral washer cycle control knobThe cycle control knob looks complicated, but is jut three separate cycles around a single knob. The wash times and spin times are different between the different cycles.

The cycle control knob is the standard "push to adjust and then pull to start" kind of knob. It is very smooth and can be turned in both clockwise and anti-clockwise direction when pushed in. The other two knobs are simple selector knobs and snap to the different presets on the instrument panel. The user manual mentioned an extra knob that enables you to turn on or off an extra rinse cycle, but it must be a cut-and-paste error, or the user manual covers another washer that has that feature. In any case, if I want an extra rinse, I have to do it manually with this washer.

The agitator is a large white plastic tower in the middle of the tub with "propellers". The tub also has a liquid bleach dispenser. The user manual mentions that in some models, the top of the agitator has room for liquid fabric softener. My washer does not. I don't use liquid bleach or fabric softener, so it did not matter much to me.

Admiral washer tub and agitatorThe inside of the washer. The agitator is somewhat large and the overall opening of the tub is narrow in relation to it, so sometimes it is difficult to get large handfuls of clothes out of the tub without getting them snagged on the agitator.

Once the washer fills with the appropriate amount of water, it starts running if the lid is closed. There is obviously a switch that senses the state of the lid, and does not start the washer if it the lid is open. The switch is not located obviously (my old washer had an arrangement where a small protrusion on the lid pressed down on a switch on the body of the washer, signaling the washer to run. I could press the switch down with a finger and keep the lid open to see what was going on if I wanted to), so I could not look too clearly into the washer while it was running. You could still open the lid about 2 inches and peek in, but I could not open the lid any wider.

The washer is not super quiet or silent, but it is not overly loud either. Since I have a separate laundry room and it is in the basement of the house, I don't really care, but even if you have an apartment, the noise should not be objectionable. Before the rinse cycle (as well as before the final spin cycle), the water is drained from the tub. During this draining, the tub does not spin, so the clothes in the tub tend to settle down in the bottom of the tub just before the tub starts spinning. I think the spin would be more efficient if the spin started during the drain so that the clothes are deposited in all parts of the tub instead of just the bottom, but in spite of this inefficiency, the clothes came out of the final spin quite dry.

The tub uses some kind of active braking system at the end of the spin cycle to stop the tub because the tub does stop quite suddenly and somewhat noisily at the end of the spin cycle or if the spin is interrupted by the opening of the lid. This could cause some problems as the washer ages since I am sure a normal spin-down of the tub without any artificial slow-down will lead to less wear and tear on the washer overall.

The loads I did in the washer all came out quite clean. I did two loads of colored clothes (at a wash temperature of cold), and a load of whites (at a wash temperature of hot). I also adjusted the sizes of the loads, and all the controls seemed to work fine.

The washer comes with an installation manual, a user manual and a product registration card. You have to return the product registration card to be notified of recalls, etc. You get a one-year limited warranty on the washer, and the store you buy it from will be happy to sell you extended warranties if you want them. The user manual is quite basic, and is in both English and French. I did not even open the installation manual.

Would I recommend this washer to others? Based on my limited experience with it so far, absolutely. It is really a basic washer with not a lot of fancy features (which probably never get used), and the price is unbeatable. Obviously, its durability is an unknown at this point, and that really can not be determined for the next few years. If you are in the market for a basic top-load washer that seems to get the job done and is economical, I think you should give this one some serious consideration.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Add Charm To Your Yard With Stone Benches

My wife and I were walking through the park the other day when we found an artistic arrangement of park benches on the grass next to a walkway. We found it very relaxing to sit on these benches, remove our sandals and wiggle our toes in the moist, cool grass. When we got back home, I wondered aloud whether it was possible to create such an area in our own backyard. After all, we had enough grass in our backyard, all we lacked was the benches to sit on!

It turns out, it is possible - and quite easy to do too. StoneBenches.com is a site dedicated to selling beautiful stone benches in various styles, shapes, sizes, and materials direct to the public. The benches are shipped for free, and you can put them up in patios, grassy areas, along walkways or wherever else in your house you want to add some charm.

Pretty much all of these benches can be used as garden benches. They are ideally suited for placement under shade trees in gardens and yards so that you can relax on them. Some of these stone garden benches also come in sets and ensembles that include the bench and other elements like tables, planters, etc. This can add to the elegance and utility of these benches.

All these benches are made of natural materials like granite, basalt, sandstone, limestone, etc. They have beautiful carvings that evoke an old-world charm and elegance rather than the tackiness often evoked by fading, chipping and cracked benches made of plastic of other artificial materials. The benches require practically no maintenance, and can withstand outside weather for years with no visible aging.

StoneBenches.com also makes themed stone benches that can be used to commemorate events like weddings. They also make inspirational and religious stone benches that can provide more relaxation than what you get just by sitting on a bench in the serenity of your yard. And if you have a loved one or a pet that you want to remember fondly on an objet d'art that will endure the ravages of time, take a look at the memorial benches offered by StoneBenches.com.

We have a large, shady maple tree in our front yard, and my wife and I agree that its shade will provide an ideal setting for a great-looking, rustic stone bench. The question that is likely to take a little longer to resolve is which exact bench to get, given the large variety. We have to agree on a material, a style, a size and whether we want a single bench or a complete ensemble. Maybe I should make the selection process much quicker and less stressful by just asking my wife to pick one without discussing it with me. After all, she will ultimately get her way anyways, why delay the process and inject stress into it?!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

If You Gamble Online, Let OnlineCasinoSpotlight Show You The Ropes

Whenever the subject of online gambling comes up, the issues surrounding its legality in the US are sure to come up also. Many people believe that online gambling in the US is illegal. They point to legislation passed in 2006 (called the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act or UIGEA) as prohibiting internet gambling.

However, the law is not as clearcut as that. Opinions on its legal ramifications abound. Not only does the law not explicitly outlaw internet gambling, it has also been challenged as a restriction of trade in the WTO. As a result of the inconsistencies in the law and its enforcement, online gambling is still available throughout most of the US.

Given its availability, many US citizens have taken up internet gambling for fun, and continue to indulge in it. If you are one of those people, you need a good online guide to show you the ropes. OnlineCasinoSpotlight is a website dedicated to guiding gamblers and would-be gamblers about all aspects of online gambling.

The site not only features a ranking of the best online casinos, but also has various sections devoted to various gambling games, casino software, laws and regulations, state rules, etc., etc. The site is updated regularly with posts like a blog, that cover various aspects of online gaming. There is also a section of the site devoted exclusively to news coverage regarding online gambling and casinos.

Whether you are already gambling online, or just considering whether to get involved, you owe it to yourself to check OnlineCasinoSpotlight for guidance on the best casinos to pick, the best games to play, the best strategies to employ, etc. And if there is news in the world of online gaming, it is sure to be reported and analyzed at this site first, so you can always stay abreast of the latest in this area. Playing against the house is always risky whether you walk into a casino in person in Las Vegas or click your way to one on your computer! Given the sums of money involved in the activity, you need this trusty partner on your side when you play against the house!!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Doing The Right Thing Is Harder Than It Sounds!

The roofers are at my house today, busy tearing down the existing roof shingles and putting up a new roof. My insurance company is going to pick up most of the tab for this, except for the deductible. Initially, I had thought of replacing my roof with a certified one that would qualify for the tax credits for energy efficient construction the government is offering.

Unfortunately, my contractor did not know much about these tax credits. So, I had to do a whole lot of research to find out all the information I needed about these tax credits. After all that research, it turns out that I will not qualify for any of the credits because the credits for insulation, roofs, water heaters, heating and air conditioning, etc., are just one pool of money. This pool of money is limited to $1,500 per home, for tax years 2009 and 2010 together. In 2009, I had taken the full credit amount of $1,500 for replacement windows. So, whatever I do to my roof, I can't get any more tax credits since my $1,500 credit is already used up.

But, all hope was not lost yet. The government also offers a credit of up to 30% of cost for all solar panel, fuel cell, geothermal heat pump and wind turbine installations (cost of materials + cost of installation) with no upper limit on the tax credit that can be claimed for each home. This tax credit program runs until 2016. So, my contractor suggested a solar-powered attic vent fan. It would take the attic fan off the electric grid, saving me some money on my electric bill, and it would run the attic fan off solar energy. And I would be doing the environment a favor by switching something in the house to alternative energy.

Sounds like a good idea, and the right thing to do, right? And I thought so too. Without doing exhaustive research, I told the contractor to make it so. And then as an afterthought, I started doing the research I should have done earlier. Basically, attic ventilation is quite important to keep the attic from getting too hot and humid. If the attic, roof, and house are well-designed and your feng-shui is just so, then you can get away with not installing a powered attic vent fan at all. The external breezes are enough to keep the attic cool and dry.

Most houses don't have perfect feng-shui. Moreover, building codes do not care about feng-shui. So, most buildings, and the building code itself, do require powered attic vent fans to blow air through the attic and keep it from getting too hot and humid. The fans are linked to a thermostat so that they switch on when it gets above a certain temperature and switch off below that temperature. This is not only to make sure the fan does not operate when it is not needed, but also to save some energy because running the fan continuously is a sure-fire recipe for a fat electricity bill. The fan also lasts longer because it runs only when needed.

Now, solar-powered attic vent fans get around the problem by running directly off solar power. The fans are completely off the grid, so they never draw power from your house's wiring. Solar fans are usually standalone units that mount on the roof and require no wiring (and precious little maintenance) whatsoever. The solar panel generates electricity for the fan when the sun is shining on the panel, and there is not electricity supplied to the fan when the solar panel is in the dark (like at night). Only very high-end models have battery backups and advanced stuff like that. But since the attic gets hot only when the sun is shining on the roof, you only need the attic fan to operate when the sun is shining down on the solar panel and the solar panel is generating electricity. So far, so good.

The problem is that the fan runs whenever the solar panel gets sunlight and generates any electricity. It does not really matter what the temperature in the attic is. And here, the opinion is decidedly mixed as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Some sites say this is a problem because you don't want the fan running in the middle of winter, sucking up warm air from the house and venting it out. This can obviously lead to higher heating bills. In fact, some sites claim that the increase in heating costs during winter can negate the lower costs during summer in places that have long, cold winters.

Other websites say that if your attic is well-insulated and there are no obvious ways for air from your house to get into the attic, it should not matter because the attic fan is just going to vent out cold air that is sucked in through the soffit vents. In fact, these websites claim that good ventilation is very important in the winter to prevent ice build-up on the roof during the winter, and in preventing a resultant "bad" thing called ice-damming, which can damage your roof.

I was quite torn by all this conflicting advice. My powered attic fan probably had a thermostat, and therefore, rarely kicked on during the winter. And my house and its roof did fine under those conditions. I don't want to change things by having the attic vent fan operate during the days in the winter and possibly increase my heating bills.

Now, many solar-powered attic fans do have what is called a thermal switch that limits when the fan operates. Even when the solar panel is generating electricity, if the thermal switch does not close, the fan gets no power, and therefore does not operate. And the thermal switch closes only when the temperature in the attic is above a certain point. This, I thought would be the ideal solution because I can take the fan off the grid in the summer, and still have it operating like it does right now in the winter (basically staying off all the time).

Today morning, when the contractor arrived and unloaded all the material for my roof replacement, I saw that the solar-powered attic fan he had bought was a model called Solar Star made by Solatube. I asked the contractor about the fan, but he admitted that this was the first time he was installing one, and he had no knowledge about them at all. We unpacked the box and found a single-piece solar panel hard-wired to a fan. When I turned the solar panel towards the sun, the fan started running.
Solar-powered attic vent fan
I asked the contractor about a thermal switch, and he had never heard of one! He knew that regular attic fans come with one, but he thought the only purpose of one was to save electricity. He was under the impression that if you could run the fan continuously without shelling out any money from your pocket, all the better! He did not know anything about the effects of continuous running on the durability of the fan or my heating bills.

Solatube's website does mention that all their attic fans come with an optional thermal switch. But optional is the operational term here. Unfortunately, we both searched all over the unit we had in our hands and could not locate anything remotely resembling a thermal switch. Not that we knew what a thermal switch would look like necessarily, but anything resembling a switch of some sort. Nothing. And the fan was running quite impressively even though I was holding the whole thing in my hand and the temperature was probably less than 70 degrees!

So, on my insistence, he got on the phone with his supplier and tried to get in touch with some person at the supplier who would know whether this model had a thermal switch or not. If it did not, I suggested he return this and get a model that did. And if it did, maybe someone would know how to set it.

Unfortunately, he is unable to get in touch with anyone who knows anything about these products. These products got a huge boost because of the government tax credit, and they started appearing en masse only late last year. Now, there are hundreds of companies putting them together, but nobody seems to know exactly how to use them, what their features are, what their advantages and disadvantages are, etc.

The rest of the roof installation is coming along fine, and the contractor needs to figure out whether to put up this fan or get a regular one before too long. I am still in two minds, and there are no experts to weigh in on this debate of whether a thermal switch is necessary or not. In fact, we don't even know whether this fan has one or not, leave alone whether it is needed or not!

I have to make a decision and tell my contractor one way or the other whether to go ahead with installing this. And if my contractor is so ignorant about these new-fangled devices, how do I trust him to even install it correctly so that it does what it is supposed to do? And will I even know if the thing does not do its job correctly? Or if it does its job too well and starts raising my heating bills through the roof (literally)? Who knew that something that sounded like such a no-brainer would end up hurting my brain so badly?!

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