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Monday, September 21, 2009

How To: Start a Backyard Pool Construction Project

Putting a pool in your backyard?

That's something we have been thinking about the past few years. It had not been an easy choice for us given the volatility in the real estate market and a sense for us that with the investment that would would be making -- would make us commit to living in our current place for the next 5 years. We have been flip-flopping back and forth. Recently though, after looking at some properties we decided to move forward with an entire new backyard project. Plus, the timing seems right.

For us, living in sunny southern California -- a pool is a very nice thing to have, especially given that with the appropriate setup you can extend your swim season from April to October with relatively little ongoing investment. In addition, we had been neglecting our backyard for a few years, remaining in our indecisive state.

A Photo of our backyard before kicking off our Pool Construction ProjectOur backyard with existing patio that we're going to be putting a pool in.

You said the timing looks right?

Yes, appears to be pretty good timing for an economy and opportunity standpoint. For example, if we looked back at 2007, there were close to 4,000 permits filed for to build pools in the greater Los Angeles area. This year, here in 2009 -- that number is closer to a total of 700. That means that there are a lot fewer companies and jobs to go around, weeding out some of the weaker players and making the market that much more competitive.

Those along with a few other opportunities should make for a better price, with higher quality. Jobs are more scarce, labor is cheaper, bids are more competitive, steel is cheaper, and concrete is cheaper. From the initial conversations I have had, the prices may be as much as 20% lower than just 2 years ago -- to me, that sounds like great timing.

This will also be larger than just a "simple" in-ground pool project. Due to the relative size of our patio above, we'll be likely replacing that, adding outdoor lighting, a patio cover, as well as an outdoor bbq area. Altogether, it is a complete redesign of our backyard which should be a lot of fun, and include a few problems that will need to be solved. :-)

Which brings me to another important point, I do not want to be my own general contractor on this project. I do not want to have to worry about coordinating all the various people and places...because I do not feel like I have time to do that. So, the company that I choose will need to be able to provide minimally the coordination between the pool, the backyard hardscaping, patio cover, lighting, and landscaping. Selecting a company that can handle all of these aspects will be a critical factor.

So, to the point of the article title...where do you start?

For me, it starts with researching and interviewing the top 8 pool construction companies in my area. I know of some, have looked at the yellow pages for others, and looked at recommendation and rating services still for others. The purpose of the first conversations is to get a feel for the companies themselves, and if what styles and constructions they are good at are a fit for what we are looking for.

Rather than telling them specifically what we're looking for, I will ask them for their ideas, thoughts, and recommendations for what they would do with our backyard if they had the opportunity. Based on that, as well as recommendations on the types of pool equipments, salt water vs. chlorine vs. bromine, solar heating and others -- we'll make our first round of decision.

After those initial 8 conversations, I will then narrow that down to 4 and go through the design and bidding process. I plan on the process taking 4-6 weeks total to make the selection.

Please join me as I go through the process of researching, selecting, and construction over the next 12-16 weeks. As I have been doing my research on the internet, it is hard to find any experience based articles or other types of information. What I am finding is a lot of articles and boards that are either advertisements for a particular pool company or equipment brand.

What I will post here is my week by week experiences and what I learn (both good and bad) as I interview potential contractors, choose and negotiate the price, and finally go through the construction process. By the time we're finished here, there should be a good how-to guide on what to and what not to do when building a pool.

Next up, results of the first round of conversation and some of the decision making criteria I will be using.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

iPhoto 09: I Think I'll Keep It

Recently, I have received a number of emails based on my experiences with iPhoto. They generally went something like this:

Ken,

I have seen your posts on the various problems that you have experienced with iPhoto. Now that some time has passed and you have not reported any problems with iPhoto 09, what's your opinion? Do you think it is a good photo management application or have you really just lost interest and moved on.

Thanks in advance,
A Reader


And it of course made me realize that I have not updated my blog with an opinion on whether iPhoto 09 is a decent photo management tool -- once all of the kinks were worked out. So, here we go -- this is my final(?) general review on iPhoto 09.

iPhoto 09 final review from iLife 09 by Apple Software

Overall, my opinion has dramatically improved since I first started with iPhoto 09 as a part of the iLife 09 back in February of this year. It's been quite a journey, bolstered by some fixes by Apple, as well as some major upgrades to my Mac Mini.

Here were some of the highlights:
Which brings me to where we are today...

That I am generally satisfied with the features, performance, and stability of the iPhoto application. It took me six months and some significant hardware upgrades to my Mac Mini, but we're there now -- I am a pretty happy camper, with the 7,000 photos, 200 events, and 100+ faces in my iPhoto library -- it performs as expected.

Which means you can look at it two ways, either I needed to spend $200 to get the performance to make iPhoto work in a way I wanted it to perform...or, my experience dramatically improved as a side benefit from the upgrades. I tend to look at it as the latter as from my perspective I was not specifically solving for iLife / iPhoto.

Though I am generally happy, there are key features which are great, while a couple of areas I would like to see improved in future versions of iPhoto.

Features I like:
  • Faces feature with facial recognition, great way to find photos of folks.
  • Organization of photos with events and easy grouping.
  • Built-in locations for geo-tagged photos.
  • General usability moving between photots, events, and modes.
  • Ability to create calendars, photo albums, and photo books (more on that in the next couple of days.


Features that need to be improved:
  • File organization of photos and events. No rhyme or reason to the organization of the library, when combining multiple events, the photos are spread all over the disk.
  • Photo editing. Make it easier, something like the "I'm Feeling Lucky" feature in Google's Picasa photo software where a combination of tune-ups without needing to fine-tune every aspect of the picture.
  • Ability to run more effectively from a network. Running iPhoto 09 off a networked drive like a NAS runs too slowly.
Overall, iPhoto 09 is a good piece of software that, when considering the less than $100 price tag as part of iLife 09 (or my $10 upgrade price) -- is a great value.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Snow Leopard: Not So Smooth Upgrade

I arrived home from my business trip last Friday evening to find my longly awaited OS X upgrade to 10.6 (Snow Leopard) waiting at my front door in a box. Having just completed a successful hard drive upgrade last weekend (link here), I was ready to take on a new challenge.

In addition to the new challenge, I had done some previou reading on Snow Leopard upgrades. Pretty much everyone I read had a great experience with their upgrade process and in most cases noticed some significant improvements. In my case, I was hoping for the same and really waiting the outcome of that 1GB of RAM in my 4GB Mac Mini that was not being recognized by the system. I figured this would really be an easy, no issues upgrade for me.

My Mac Mini said not so quick...

I popped in the new Snow Leopard Installation DVD into my DVD-ROM player and I was ready to get started. I started to proceed with the installation and then when I went to choose the disk where I was to install Mac OS X, apparently there was a problem accentuated by the big yellow triangle with an exclamation point in it.

Cannot install Mac OS X Snow Leopard to a hard drive with an Apple Partition scheme rather than a GUID partition scheme

And it was not just a little problem, I couldn't move forward. Basically, I received the message that my newly upgraded hard drive, the Macintosh 320GB HD can't be used because it doesn't use the GUID Partition Table scheme. I had no idea what it really meant, but the message made it sound like it was easy. You know, just use the disk utility to change the partition scheme...select the disk, choose the Partition tab, select the Volume Scheme and then click options. Piece of cake, right?

No way. If you run into a partition issue, namely that you have the wrong partition scheme, the solution is simply. Start over. After an amount of research, I figured that I had to reformat my 320GB disk to get it over to the GUID Partition Table scheme from the Apple Partition Table scheme. There is no other way around it.

No way to change the partition volume scheme from the Apple Partition Scheme to the GUID Partition Scheme in the Disk Utility unfortunately you need to repartition the entire drive and format

However, it's not that big of a deal really -- it only ended up costing me three hours of time waiting. Why? Because, the easiest way you can do it is to make a fresh backup via Time Machine. I hooked up my old 80GB drive via USB, and started backing up the entire system (~60GB) via Time Machine so it could be freshly restored using the built-in Migration Assistant in OS X -- Snow Leopard. And some good news is that you will end up with a very clean hard drive.

After the backup completed, I rebooted and used the Disk Utility from the Snow Leopard OS X DVD and then I was ready to install Snow Leopard. The rest of the installation went smoothly, with OS X 10.6 being ready in about 30 minutes after I had to setup some basic things about the machine since I was not upgrading including a new user.

Then the scary part came. Would I be able to restore all of the system's data using Migration Assistant from the Time Machine backup I had taken previously? I went to the Migration Assistant to find out.

Migration Assistant for OS X Snow Leopard 10.6 to restore time machine backup to new installation on hard drive

In just a couple of minutes, after walking through the wizard...Migration Assistant found my full Time Machine backup and started to restoring. The process would take a little more than an hour to find out.

Once the process finished, I rebooted -- call it a habit from Windows Vista -- and hoped for the best. When the system loaded, Snow Leopard was in it's full glory -- and all of my files and settings restored. What a great experience, aside from the self-inflicted pain I caused myself from the upgrade a week earlier. Which, while the upgrade ended up spanning 6 hours instead of 1 hour -- it was good it happened. Luckily my drive size was still small enough for an easy backup to the external 80GB drive I have. A few month later, who knows what I would have done.

And initial impressions with Snow Leopard are positive. A few of the disk and system intensive programs like iPhoto seem to be performing better. All-in-all, a pretty good upgrade from an experience and a value add perspective.

On an ending note -- with the Mac Mini, Snow Leopard still does not enable the recognition of 4GB of RAM for those of us that have completed that upgrade. The problem as it ends up is with the limitations of the Intel chipset for this version of the Mac Mini. Regardless of firmware, software, or OS upgrades -- the system is only able to address 3GB of RAM, so there will always be approximately 1GB of RAM not being used. But, at least you can get some minor graphics benefits (about 15%) from the dual-channel, matched 2GB memory chips.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

iPhone: How to Sync Multiple Calendars and Computers Easily

Need to sync your iPhone with different computers and multiple calendars, but still want to keep them separate?

Ashley was struggling to get this working properly with her iPhone 3GS 32GB and it was consistently frustrating her. She would plug in here iPhone at work through iTunes, and all of her work appointments would sync correctly. Then she would come home and plug here iPhone in and iTunes would sync all the calendar events, appointments, and recurring items over from her home computer and iTunes would rewrite them.

She tried renaming the calendars, no luck. Tried flagging and saving the events differently, no luck. All she wanted to do was be able to keep here personal and professional life separate on the computers (no work appointments on the home calendar, and no personal appointments on her work calendar) -- was it so hard?

Well, apparently it is...because iTunes won't be able to help you out.

And Apple's MobileMe might be able to help, but it's $99/year pricing does not make it real cost effective.

Isn't there an easier and better yet, free way to do it?

Yes, of course there is. With just a little bit of help from Google and Idea Excursion, I was able to get the calendars to sync properly with the iPhone 3GS for free! All it takes is a quick installation, and about 15 minutes of your time to get it setup and working properly.

Here's how you can do it.

1. Head to Google and make sure you have a Google Calendar account.

2. Download the Google Calendar Sync Application by clicking here.

3. Now, configure Google Sync to work with your Microsoft Outlook by entering your Google Account information; being sure to select 1-way: Microsoft Outlook Calendar to Google Calendar. This will make sure your computer and Outlook files will remain separate, and specify how often you want to update your Google Calendar via the sync program. Just follow the picture below. (Of course, there is the alternative to use the two-way if you want to keep all the machines in sync with one total calendar.)

Sync iPhone with multiple outlook calendars computers google sync

4. Now all you need to do if configure your iPhone to use the CalDAV protocol settings to sync the Google Calendar to your iPhone Calendar.

5. Open up the Settings menu on your iPhone from the main screen.

6. Scroll down and select the option for “Mail, Contacts, Calendars”.

7. Scroll down to the bottom of your lists and and select “Add Account...”

8. CalDAV calendars are not under any of the built-in accounts, so choose “Other”.

9. Scroll down to the bottom of the Other type screen and select “Add CalDAV Account”.

10. Now, enter the credentials for your Google Calendar, which include:

Server: www.google.com
Username:
Password:
Description:

11. The iPhone will now verify your account and auto-discover any additional settings and then start synchronizing your calendar information.

12. Head back to your settings menu, and click on "Mail, Contacts, and Calendars".

13. Click on the "Fetch New Data".

14. Under Fetch, select the "Every 15 Minutes" option to make sure your data stay up to date, or a similar frequency to what you choose with Google's Calendar Sync.

Repeat the process for the Google Calendar Sync (steps 2 & 3) for any additional calendars you want to sync to your iPhone. That's it, it is easy!

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Monday, September 07, 2009

Terrible Together: AT&T 3G Network & Blackberry Bold

Terrible...that's the way this post is going to be summarized. Just be prepared.

A few months ago, I upgraded to the "new" Blackberry Bold from my previous 8800 series. The Bold, also known as the Blackberry 9000 series was supposed to be the best thing sliced bread. Let's just say I am less than thrilled with the Bold, it seriously under delivers.

Blackberry Bold Product Image Blackberry 9000 Series Phone Mobile Picture

In my opinion, it's for a few key reasons.

The biggest problem as I see it, is the terrible battery life. Most days, I am lucky to make it through business hours with more than 20% battery left. And I do not even talk on it that much. To make matters worse, the USB charging is relatively ineffective -- charging at an undetectable slow rate. You need to use the wall charger or a car charge to generate an effective charge rate.

Just in case you're wondering -- I leave the Wi-Fi radio off and the Bluetooth radio off unless I am using it. I do leave the GPS radio on, but make sure I exit location service based applications like Google Maps whenever I am done. Using a similar pattern of usage on my 8800 would have easily lasted 2 full days and in many cases 3 days. Very disappointing.

Another huge miss is the woefully inadequate built-in Blackberry browser. I cannot tell you how sick I am of the HTTP Error 413 - Request Entity Too Large. This occurs even on the simplest of sites like My Yahoo! This problem plagued the previous version of Blackberry and with a platform as revolutionary as Blackberry v4.6 -- this should not be happening. One should not have to rely upon a 3rd party browser like the Opera Mini (a lifesaver). Apparently RIM doesn't get it.

Lastly, the Blackberry App World is a poor attempt at copying Apple's own App Store. Looking through the applications, there are too many misses to mention. Consistently over-priced applications, riddled with trial versions, many major applications or free offerings missing. The list goes on and on.

Yes, there are some nice features...the brighter screen is pretty good, the added camera (my 8800 didn't have one) is nice, too. However, it is not enough to overlook the gaping holes in the capabilities of the Blackberry Bold.

At the same time I turned in my Blackberry 88000, the Blackberry Bold also forced me to upgrade to the AT&T 3G network. It feels like my wireless provider (at least in Los Angeles, the Silicon Valley, and Washington, DC) has gone back to 1997.

AT&T ATT 3G Network Logo EDGE

Why?

Call drop more often and relatively frequently.

Data performance is ok, but not much better than EDGE.

Lots of data only dead spots. Los Angeles International Airport, Hollywood Bowl, list goes on and on.

No smart switching or manual switching to the EDGE network, GPRS, and 3G. The 3G network thinks it is always there an available.

Can I please have the network known as EDGE back? It was much superior to the current performance of the AT&T 3G network.

Is it only me? That's what I thought -- maybe somehow I have a defective Blackberry unit and no one else has the same problems. But, Ashley has had a similar performance issue with her iPhone 3GS 32GB, which...you guessed it, it uses the same AT&T 3G network. More dropped calls, questionable access, and more -- ever since she upgraded from her iPhone first generation.

Where's my Blackberry 8800 again? I may switch back for a better device and a better Mobile network.

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Sunday, September 06, 2009

How to: Upgrade Mac Mini Hard Drive to a 320GB 7200RPM Replacement

At this point, it feels like I've upgraded most of the Mac Mini that I purchased back in January of this year from my local Apple Store at the Thousand Oaks Mall. In each case, the upgrades that I performed made a dramatic difference in the overall performance and usability of my Mac Mini. I first started with the RAM memory upgrade back in April and the results were tremendous. While the Operating System only used 3GB of the RAM, the 4GB memory upgrade from 1GB upgrade was worth every penny in terms of increased peformance.

This time, the Hard Drive was the target of my performance upgrade. As I mentioned earlier this week, I was really looking forward to both the Snow Leopard upgrade and the new 320GB 7200-RPM SATA Drive. The hard drive came from Amazon quicker than the Snow Leopard upgrade that took Apple 4 days to get out the door. (Had I known that, I would have just driven to the Apple Store)

I could not wait to do the upgrade, especially since my Mac Mini was feeling pretty sluggish in iPhoto creating some picture books with 130+ 12 megapixel photos. All of which appeared to be I/O related rather than memory or CPU. In addition, with less than 5GB remaining and still needing to put together the video from our Balloon Ride in Spain -- I needed more space on the Mac.

So, why upgrade the hard drive?

For me, two reasons. Capacity and Performance. The Mac Mini 80GB version ships with a no-surprise-here 80GB Hitachi Travelstar 5K250 80 model which is a SATA-150, 5400RPM, and 8MB cache 2.5"-sized notebook hard drive. Decent performance yes, but when you need high I/O during video or picture editing...it can feel pretty sluggish. Plus, very quickly you can eat up that 80GB of hard drive space. For my choice, I picked the 320GB 7200-RPM SATA Drive from Western Digital. The Scorpio Black drive include a SATA-II at 3GB/s with 7200RPM and 16MB cache is a much better performing option -- and only $78 at Amazon (link here) is a much better deal than what you might find at Fry's ($99 when I visited) -- no tax and free shipping in most cases.

But whichever drive you choose, make sure it is a notebook drive, and a 2.5" form factor. If not, it will not work and unfortunately, you'll be disappointed and have to return it.

Now with the reason and the drive in hand it's time to get started. The process for me was two steps, 1. Clone the hard drive, and 2. Open up the Mac Mini and replace it.

First for cloning the hard drive. In the end, this was much easier than I had initially anticipated. There's a great software out there called SuperDuper! than enables you to make a clone of your Mac OS X (Snow Leopard compatible!) for free for life. All I needed in my case, was an 2.5" Hard Drive enclosure with USB connecitivty which was only $14 at Fry's. I plugged in the new 320GB 7200RPM drive fired up the software, and hoped for the best after selecting some key options including setting the new hard drive as the startup disk.

Upgrade Mac Mini to a 7200 RPM 320GB Hard Drive drive clone replacement

67GB, 750,000 files, and 2 hours later, the drive cloning was successfully completed. Now it was time to swap out the hard drives inside the Mac Mini. I've included one of the videos I used to initally learn how to take the Mac Mini apart below. You can replace your hard drive in less than 15 minutes!

My key tips based on experience:
1. Spattula works better than a putty knife to release the case.
2. Magnetic screwdrivers are helpful here because of the location of the 4 screws needed to release the bottom of the case.
3. Don't forget about the fan sensor cable, it is easy to overlook.
4. 4 additional screws hold the hard drive in, it can be a little tricky to connect the new drive.
5. Carefully remove the plastic / foam padding from the old drive, it should still stick fine to the new drive.



Once I finished the replacement of the drive, I was ready to go. I turned on the Mac Mini and there was the famous start-up sound. A couple of minutes later, I was loaded into the Operating System and ready to go. At first, I was alarmed that the date set back to 2001 -- but then realized that the PRAM battery likely reset due to the amount of time the Mac Mini was unplugged. From there everything loaded up and ran perfectly, with a lot more usable space available on the hard drive.

When I went into applications like iPhoto and iMovie, the difference was clearly visibly when watching Activity Monitor as well as the general response time. Now peaking at 30MB/s the data was really flying off the hard drive quickly and time to render and update pictues and videos were more seamless and a lot quicker.

Definitlely an upgrade well worth the time and enegery in terms of the performance upgrade. Highly recommended.

The only difficult I found was that my networked version of Time Machine backup (well documented here) was having problems connecting to the old sparse-bundle file.

Time Machine had a problem with the network backup after the hard drive upgrade/replacement, but I fixed it.

With my old hard drive in hand, I did not have much hesitation to replace the sparse bundle backup image with the empty copy I kept. Once I did that, and restarted Time Machine -- it backed up the full 67GB in a matter of a couple of hours and Time Machine has been running smoothly ever since.

Overall, an extremely successful upgrade with unexpected ease given the quality with which SuperDuper! cloned the hard drive and made it easy to upgrade. Now I just have to wait for the Snow Leopard upgrade to get here. Hopefully, that will provide some additional boost!

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