Friday, December 24, 2010

Yup. I'm a Homeowner

Have had the house for more than a year, but I'm still having those little "homeowner" moments.  The sort of things that I just wasn't willing or able to do back when I first bought a condo.  And today it was, "If you're not willing to stand on a ladder and clean your gutters with a plastic serving spoon, you're not ready to be a homeowner."

I do intend to hire someone to clean my gutters -- it is definitely the type of thing I'd rather pay someone to do.  This was more a question of emergency maintenance -- I just wanted to get up there and clean the gutters surrounding the skylight over the front entryway, in the hopes that this would prevent the next rain from spilling in my front door.  After all, when it rained heavily, the rain poured down from this thing right in front of my door, when the gutters are supposed to prevent that and carry the water harmlessly away to the corner of my driveway.

I figured the right tool for this job was a trowel.  As I do not garden, however, I went with the big plastic serving spoon.  (It was actually the ideal size.)  Armed with my spoon, some work gloves, my "yard waste" bin, and a ladder, I investigated the gutter right under the skylight.

"Well, there's your problem," (as Adam Savage would say).  The gutter was full of mud, dry leaves, twigs, and standing water.  It was completely clogged in the corners right by the door.  Look, I don't want to say it was bad, but I found two little green plants growing there -- with leaves and everything.  I had me a pretty big spoon and I must've scooped several dozen spoonfuls of muck out of there.  I scooped so much my arms got tired.  (And I asked myself, for the umpteenth time, "Why didn't I hire someone to do this before the rains?") 

Of course, from my perch on the ladder, wedged in between the gutters under the skylight, there wasn't a whole lot of maneuverability, so I didn't always nail the waste bin with my spoon.  Resulting in me covering my walkway, my clothes and my ladder with gutter goop.  (And, every once in a while, I'd turn and brush the back of my head against the gutter, so I'm pretty sure it's in my hair, too.)  But, like a good little homeowner, I just said, "oh well," (after saying, "ick") and hosed down the ladder and the walkway when I was done.

Although the gutters are not what I'd call "clean," they are in fact, "cleaner," and may well prevent further unfortunate incidents the next time the heavens open up above my house (round about Sunday, I think).  And I can now say that I am, in fact, capable of clearing my gutters.

Wednesday's Rain

OK, so, a couple weeks ago, I put my neighborhood-sanctioned plywood reindeer ("Pokey") out by the curb.  I had purchased an outdoor light for him, and duck taped the extension cord for it across the driveway.

I didn't expect the duck tape to survive the rains, actually.  Although the stuff I bought was actual "duck tape" brand, it didn't have the stickiness I usually associate with the stuff.  (I got a roll of the "colored" stuff, rather than the standard grey, and it seems somewhat below par.)  So, yeah, the extension cord was no longer taped where it should have been.  

But I didn't quite know why the light went out.

To be clear, setting the light up in the first instance wasn't the easiest thing ever.  Apparently, what makes it an "outdoor" light is that the little holder comes with a rubber gasket which sits around the base of the bulb and prevents water from leaking in.  That may be true for standard bulbs, but I had me a nice CF job, and the base of that thing was too broad to get through the gasket.  I ended up having to remove the gasket from its little attachments and put it directly on the bulb like a little skirt.  Screwed the bulb in there nice and tight (the gasket seemed well pressed against the edges of the holder) and figured it would survive anything but a direct onslaught of rain.

Which is, as previously mentioned, what came from the sky on Wednesday.

So, after testing the electrical outlet, checking the fuse, and testing the timer, I walked all the way over to the light to see if I could figure out what the problem was.

I could.

There was about a quarter cup of water inside the light bulb.  Not inside the holder, mind (although, yes, that was a bit damp as well, notwithstanding the gasket), but trapped inside the bulb itself.

Removed bulb (for recycling).  Dried out socket.  Applied gasket to new bulb (lot of good that'll do) and screwed new bulb in nice and tight.

Until I heard the snap.  Now I've broken the base of the damn thing.  Not the bulb, the holder.  The metal part of the holder is now attached to the bulb in my right hand, while the rest of the holder is in my left.  Well, no, now the holder is in the trash bin.

Went to the hardware store and acquired a new holder.  Purchased a new bulb for it, which was both:  (1) specifically identified as for outdoor use; and (2) not a CF bulb -- the new base looked a little narrower and might actually make it into the gasket as designed.

Can't put it out yet, though.  The driveway is still quite damp, and it won't take the duck tape.  Hopefully, things will dry out enough in the next few days that I'll get a shot at being a good neighbor again.  For now, Pokey's in the dark.  And I'm really pretty glad that I didn't set him on fire the other night, with the whole water/electricity combination that was going out on there.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Glad I'm Working at Home Today

There's rain.  Lots of rain.  Don't want to be outside in it.

Don't really want to be inside in it, either.

To properly understand the strength and quantity of rain falling from the sky, you have to understand my house.  To get to the front door, you walk down a little walkway.  On one side of the walkway is the (outside) wall of one of the bedrooms; on the other is the outside wall of the family room.  It's a narrow walkway (about the size of a hallway) and there's a skylight sort of thing over it, to protect you from the rain when you come to my door.

The door itself has a little sweep on the bottom, and the gap underneath the sweep is a bit too big -- sometimes, a leaf will get in there if the wind blows it just right.  I've been meaning to fix this.  But, usually, rain won't get in.  The rain would have to be pretty enthusiastic to get past the whole covered walkway and then pool enough outside the door to come in.

We have, in fact, that kind of enthusiasm.

The skylight thing has pretty much given up.  It has a few cracks in it (which are probably larger now) and, when the rain is strong (which it is) I can hear (and see) the water streaming down from it right next to my door.  So much for the walkway remaining dry.

The doormat INSIDE my house, in front of the door, is officially soaked.

It's so soaked, there is puddling beyond the doormat.  Turning the corner.  And running into the family room.

(The legs of various bits of furniture are now sitting in water.  So, apparently, is the surge protector with all my TV/satellite dish/component cables in it.  It dawned on me that I should probably turn all that stuff off.)

I've got about a half dozen towels dealing with the pooling.  I can't be positive it's all coming from the door (and not working its way through the outer walls at floor level) although, from the location of the water (near the end of the family room nearest the door and spreading away) that does seem likely.

I am also troubled by the quantity of rain on the inside of my door.  Yeah, you read that right.  The inside of my front door is streaked with rain.  Things are dry above my door -- this isn't a roof issue.  Best guess is that some of the water pouring down from the skylighty thing is making its way in via the not-water-tight opening at the top of my door, causing it to rain inside.

But, um, yeah.  This is a lot of rain.  I'm nearly out of towels.  Sort of wish I hadn't given away that wet/dry vac, as it would be the best way to get at all that water behind the TV cabinet.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Jon Stewart

I've read a bunch of stuff (to which I'm too tired to link) which talks about how Jon Stewart is testing the wall between comedic satire and actual political participant.  And I really have to say that if he keeps doing it the way he's doing it now, it's about damn time.

A moment on the "Rally to Restore Sanity."  I remember the day Stewart announced it and I had a little twinge of excitement.  This could really be good, I thought.  A little grass roots action of our own.  Because while I do disagree with many of my fellow Americans, I think the quality of the dialogue we've had lately has gone down (while the volume has gone up), and I would totally get behind holding hands with sane individuals of any political viewpoint, under the "Take it down a notch, America" banner.  And I had that momentary thought that maybe if people really did come out in force for such a simple proposition, it might make some people on both sides of the aisle maybe, just maybe, start thinking about appealing more to the center than the extremes on the sides.

And the moment of excitement died shortly thereafter, when Stephen Colbert announced his competing "March to Restore Fear."  Don't get me wrong, I dig me some Colbert.  Nine times out of ten, I prefer him to Stewart (and generally don't get why Stewart keeps winning the Emmy over him).  But Colbert's "March to Restore Fear" said, "Hey, guys -- Stewart's rally isn't a real rally; it's comedy."  I thought there was a real golden opportunity here for the "Daily Show demographic" -- the people who really don't dig the extremists -- to stop sitting in front of their TVs and take a stand, even if it was for something as innocuous as changing the tone of the dialogue -- and they just blew it by making it a comedy show rather than a real rally.

In actuality, it turned out to be something of both, but not entirely enough of either.

But yesterday... damn, yesterday Stewart raised the bar.  He's been making a case for the Zadroga bill for a couple of days now -- but it's been a case grounded in the comedy that The Daily Show does best:  largely pointing out the hypocrisy of elected officials who appear to be praising the 9/11 first responders one day, and then pissing all over them the next.  But yesterday, Stewart went a step further, devoting an entire show to the bill.  He interviewed four 9/11 first responders who are all suffering adverse health effects from working in the rubble, and asked them to comment on the excuses given by certain Republican Senators for not considering the bill.  This is Advocacy 101 -- Put a Face on the Issue.  Jon Stewart did the closest thing he could to asking the Senate to tell these people to their faces why the Bill isn't being passed; he asked the first responders what they thought of Senators who didn't want to work through the week after Christmas in order to pass the Bill.  He didn't have to ask us to be disgusted along with them; we already were.

If Stewart were looking for an issue -- a real issue -- to actually pursue, he couldn't have found a better one.  You can't challenge his New Yorker cred; and even the people who are against the Zadroga bill can't be against the idea of getting health care for these folks.  There may well be some legitimate reasons to not like the current language of this bill, but nobody is going to say these folks don't deserve to have their medical treatment covered.  They're cancer-stricken 9/11 First Responders for crying out loud.  Is there a more sympathetic group to rally around?  (I mean, strictly in terms of poster value, they're better than veterans, because you don't have any of that uncomfortable "unpopular war" baggage associated with them.  They're freakin' perfect.)  So what I'm saying here is, were I to assume that Jon Stewart had a political consultant behind him trying to find the world's safest issue for him to stake out a political position on, this would be the one.

And he did with elegance, respect, the combined wisdom of a Daily Show team that has slickly been skewering politicians for a dozen years, and the helpful support of a high-profile Republican with a show on Fox News.

My first thought was that, with this one, he earned the Emmy.

My second thought was, he really can't submit this one for it, because he's gone way beyond Comedy or Variety program.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Aside to the idiot at the Mobil station

I stop for gas on the way home.  As is my usual custom, I pull my cell phone from its car dock (I don't want a nice pretty cell phone sitting in my empty car screaming "steal me") and put it in my pocket.  Once I start fueling, I retrieve it from my pocket and start scanning Google Maps to check traffic and determine the fastest way home.

Enter the idiot ... who looks at me with shocking disapproval and says, "Tell me you're not using your cell phone."

(Yeah, Merry Christmas to you too.)

I look up, puzzled.  I give her the "What does my using my GPS have to do with you?" face.

"They're dangerous!" she says.  She's so petrified, she can't even get the words out.  "They can.... the gas fumes!"

Oh.  Got it.  "No," I politely respond.  "That's an urban legend.  They have nothing to do with it."

I'm tempted to offer to Google it right then and there for her, but she clearly won't come within 20 feet of me and my About-To-Explode Droid.

"No!" she says, stepping backwards, "You're wrong!"  She jumps in her car and speeds off, apparently hoping to outrun the explosion which will happen Any Minute Now.

(I hope she paid first.)

Hey, Lady:   Snopes.  Hell:  Mythbusters.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

So Many Targets, So Little Time


Update on the Ireland VAT scam.  I finally got an email back from the bastards at FeXco with their Horizon Card thing.  They said they never got my first email and they're sending me a new .pdf form.  I imagine the former is false; I know the latter is as I still don't have the form.  The jerk who wrote me also said that:  (1) It wouldn't have mattered if she got my first email (of 11/24), because they charged my account on 11/28, so I never could've gotten the form back on time; (2) If they get the form back late, they'll reverse the charges; and (3) She's out of the office until December 14.  Interesting.  This means that the charge on my credit card was NOT from the other Tax Free refund place, but from them.  In response to her email, I: (a) forwarded my first email of 11/24; (b) pointed out that, since she can only charge me 60 days after I left the EU, her charge on 11/28 was totally without legal basis (even if they had sent me the form, which they hadn't); (c) demanded that she send the damn .pdf; and (d) called my bank to dispute the charge.  That last took about an hour and a half on the phone (Capital One is not tops in customer service) and that amount of time is probably not worth the $16.45, but I'm fighting this one totally on principle now.

The next target of my wrath is the contractor who installed the whole recirculation pump system, as things have gone from bad to laughable there.  I now have a shiny new indoor/outdoor circulation pump (with timer).  For the low, low price of about $700 installed.  I'm not using it, however.  When we plugged it in and cranked it up, we did not get hot water as fast as we should.  The new plumber did some research and discovered something interesting.  When you turn on the hot water faucet in the guest bathroom, you don't get hot water.  Even if you get hot water out of every other faucet in the house -- no hot water here.  BUT, when you turn off the circulation pump system, THEN you get hot water.  Conclusion:  The genius contractor who set up the circulation pump, has the COLD water line going back into it (at this faucet) rather than the hot.  This is why it takes so long to get hot water normally -- it's fighting the cold that keeps getting fed back into the system.  Other Conclusion:  There is a hole in my guest bathroom wall in future.  OTHER Conclusion:  There is another nasty letter, a complaint to the licensing board, a report to the better business bureau, and possibly a small claims lawsuit in the future of my idiot contractor.

I'm so pissed at both of these people, I actually had trouble getting to sleep last night.  (Which might bode well for idiot contractor -- as I'm more likely to just let it go than cause myself the added stress that full litigation would bring.)

On the bright side, I have a shiny new row of bricks in my driveway where the trip hazard used to be; I put "Pokey" out by the curb ("Pokey" is the name I've given to my plywood cartoon reindeer playing the fiddle.  Everyone on my street has a plywood cartoon reindeer playing some sort of instrument, and yesterday was the start of our Annual Holiday Light-Up, so we all got our members of the reindeer band out in front of our homes and aimed lights at them); and my friend came over and helped string holiday lights along my roof line.  This year, we put up three additional strands (covering the garage and a tree, as well as the front of the house) -- I'm really starting to see how easy it is go bigger and bigger every year.  I'm not at the Giant Inflatable Santa stage or anything, but I understand how you can get there.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Ireland Traveller Alert: Scam, Scam, Scamity Scam

So, if you find yourself going to Ireland...

Most of the stuff you'll buy will include a charge for VAT (Value Added Tax).

Shops (generally those that cater to tourists) will ask if you're a tourist and would like them to remove the VAT at the point of sale.  They'll tell you that you just have to drop off a form (printed on a second register receipt) at the airport and all will be well.

Yeah, what they don't tell you is that they're not taking off ALL the VAT -- because you're not dealing with the government but a private operation in the Tax Free Refund business, which charges an administrative fee (in my case 42% of the VAT) so they're really only taking off just over half of the VAT.

The fine print (about which you won't learn until you hit the airport) is that if you're not immediately departing the EU (as I was not), you can't turn in the form at the airport.  Instead, you've got to get the damn thing officially signed (by a customs agent, notary, or police officer) in your home country before mailing it back (at your expense).  If you don't, your credit card will be backcharged the entire amount of the VAT.

In other words -- unless you get the form officially approved, you'll end up paying the VAT and the administrative fee.  Lovely. 

That's not the scam, though.  The scam is from some bastards called FeXco, who claim to make your Tax Free Shopping easier with something called the Horizon card.  The idea is simple enough -- rather than collecting all those damn VAT receipts, you get a Horizon card the first time you buy something, and then they scan the card at every other shop, keeping track of all your VAT.  Same deal -- turn it in at the airport.  Same not telling you that you can't turn it in at the airport if you're not leaving the EU.  But, hey, no problem, when you get back to your home country, you can just log on to the internet, register your card, print out a pdf, get the form signed (notarized or signed by a cop) and send it back to them.  And if you don't do it within 60 days of leaving the EU, they, too, will backcharge your card the VAT.  Plus an administrative fee for the trouble.

OK, here's where the Horizon card is a scam:

If you register your card on the internet, they never send you the pdf form.

I shit you not, people.  I registered my card, and their website says that after you do that, "You will then be e-mailed a PDF Transaction Form, containing details of Tax Free purchases."  Three days pass:  no form.  I emailed them, noting that I was coming up on my 60-days-after-leaving-the-EU deadline, so I needed the damn form.  That was November 24.  Still no form (or any correspondence at all).

Here's another reason why the Horizon card is a scam:

When I told their agents at Dublin airport that I didn't want to go to the expense of paying a notary to approve a refund that cost less than the cost of the notary, they told me that the form could be approved by any lawyer.

This would be convenient as I know lots of lawyers.  Of course, their website is pretty clear that this is bullshit, and that they will only accept form approved by a notary, justice of the peace, or police officer.

Bottom line is that the bastards will lie to you to get you to leave the country without doing anything to process the transaction and then refuse to send you the form to enable you to send it back once you've left the country.

Now, I actually had two VAT-refund transactions when in Ireland -- one without the Horizon card and one with.  I had planned to print out the damn Horizon form and then take that, and my other tax free receipt, to a police officer to get them both signed.  While waiting for the Horizon form that never came, I missed the deadline on the other receipt, resulting in a $16 backcharge to my credit card.  I'm actually OK with this, as it was my own stupid fault for not processing that one separately.  So far, I have not been backcharged on the Horizon card transaction yet.  I just sent them a second email indicating that I will dispute any such charge since the weasels didn't send me the form in time to timely complete and return it -- and I therefore consider the matter closed.

And I am now doing the internet equivalent of shouting from the rooftops that the bastards at FeXco Tax Free and their Horizon card scheme is -- at best -- run in a wholly incompetent manner and -- at worst -- a great big rip-off-the-tourists scam.

Fell off the wagon

I remember talking to people in various in various "[Whatever] Anonymous" organizations, who speak of an abstinence of a very long period of time.  And then they'd generally add, "It hasn't been a perfect abstinence."  I didn't quite understand that when I first heard it.  I mean, if you fall off the wagon, don't you have to give back your five-year chip and start again with the old one-day chip?

Apparently not.  Because there's falling, and then there's falling.  I guess it's the difference between partaking in a champagne toast, and lying in the gutter in a pile of your own vomit with an empty bottle in a brown paper bag clutched in your hand.  And even in the empty bottle situation, there still may be some wiggle room, if you get up off your ass, crawl to a meeting, and get back on track.  The point being:  we all slip and fall, the issue is whether you choose to wallow in it, or get up and move on.

I fell off the "get to bed at a reasonable hour and get up on time and put in a good day's work and repeat" wagon.  I was doing pretty well with things until Wednesday night, when I went to the theatre.  The show didn't get out until 11:00; I didn't get home until after 11:30.  And then it was the (generally necessary) unwind/sit with cat/eat snacks/play on the internet part of the day that killed me.  I was up until after 1:00, which threw me off for the rest of the week, and the weekend, when you get right down to it.  Not entirely my fault (with certain shows, when the opening night is on a Wednesday, that's pretty much my one shot at going), but I need to figure out a better way to recover when that happens.

Still, I'm not giving up.  I might have to set my imaginary one-week chip to the side for a bit, until I've proven to myself that this was a small slip and not an entire backslide -- but I'm going to remain positive about my progress to this point.

Eagle-eyed readers may notice that it's 9:30 now, so wtf am I doing blogging?  I'm working at home today and tomorrow (contractors!  doing work!) which enables me to adjust my working hours safely to 10-6 (or even 10:30-6:30) without ending up getting home late and falling back into the bad pattern.  So, it's off to the elliptical machine for a bit of morning exercise, and then work, while I wait for the plumber.

(And perhaps the handyman.  The freakin' doorbell broke.  If it isn't one thing....)