The Polar Express

I’ve spent the last six months remodeling our family room. You can see the progression in my photo album. But the culmination of all of that work is a model train that runs around the perimeter of the room. Here’s a quick video showing the final product.

 Using All Of The Space

Butler's PantryIf your house has more than one floor, chances are good that there is a lot of wasted space above and below your stairs that is just crying out to be filled with stuff. Shelves underneath the stairs are easy, and something that I added when we first moved in. But after years of climbing up and down the steps and staring at all of that empty white space up there, I finally had to do something with it, so as a side project to my current family room remodel, I’ve conjured up an entirely new room right off the kitchen that I’m calling a butler’s pantry.

floorThe floor is a piece of 3/4″ plywood made just a bit beefier with some 1x4s, connected with some heavy duty hinges to a 2×4 attached to the wall with lag screws into the studs. It rests on a matching 2×4 on the opposite wall, and I cut a notch out of the wood to allow room for the handrail. This was designed to hold a single person, but we’ve already tested it with two adults (300+ pounds) and it had no trouble holding us.

stairwellOnce the floor is in place, you can assemble whatever kind of shelves or hanging storage containers you like. I used 3/4″ pine boards that will easily hold 50-100 pounds on each shelf. Add a few hooks to the underside of the shelves and you have a place to hang pots and pans, or dry herbs from your herb garden. Mmmm… smell the rosemary. For just a couple hundred bucks in lumber and hardware, maybe you should add a new pantry to your house too? Eat your heart out Pinterest!

 Great Stories

I’m taking something of a sabbatical from Facebook – I’ve only posted there a handful of times this year.  I don’t check it obsessively,  like I once did.  In fact, sometimes an entire 24-hour period will go by without me even logging in (gasp!).  But this post isn’t about Facebook.  It’s about what I do now when I find something interesting that I deem worthy of sharing with others.  It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then, I come across a great story and I feel compelled to talk about it.   This is one of those times.

I read a fascinating account by a American newspaper editor living in Brazil who met an elderly couple who represented the last vestiges of a population of expatriated Americans who fled the South immediately following the Civil War.  Some 7000 people who were actively courted to bring their knowledge of cotton farming to Brazil at a time when it was struggling to grow its own population.  The most striking part of the story was that they maintained a separate and distinct culture, resisting assimilation for a century, right down to their quirky southern drawl.  Simply amazing.  You can read the whole story here.

Great stories like this should be shared. But not on Facebook.  It can’t do a story like this justice.  And yes, I realize that you are probably reading this on Facebook (because I’m still mirroring my blog there, but not for much longer), but if you got this far, it means your attention span hasn’t been permanently damaged.  And if you actually clicked the link above, and read the story, big bonus points for you!

Because if we can’t share great stories, then what is the point of this internet thing, anyway?

 Coming ‘Round The Mountain

I’m pretty proud of our little boy. His skills on the piano are getting better and better, and he nailed his rendition of the classic American folk song at his recital. Good job, Noah!

 Synology DiskStation DS412+

Synology DiskStation

Synology DiskStation

I think I’ve solved my storage problems once and for all. It’s taken me a while to pull the trigger on this purchase, but my previous NAS and its 2TB drive was almost full. The Synology unit is obviously way more expensive, but it does so much more, it’s not even fair to call it a NAS. It really is a full-blown linux server, and when you consider all of the software that comes pre-installed, and all of the software packages developed by members of the Synology community, there is really no comparison to any other product available. This particular model may not be for everyone, but if you are like me and have a lot of media (and are planning to have a lot more in the future), and have a number of devices you want to play it on, you can’t go wrong with Synology. Also, a 4-bay unit does a good job of future-proofing.

One of its features that I like the most is the web-based GUI. It’s a lot more convenient (and less overhead) than running VNC, and they have done a fantastic job of recreating a Linux desktop environment in the browser window. After you’ve used it, you’ll wonder why every server doesn’t have one.

Here I’m going to include some of my notes from when I set this up for anyone else out there who might run into the same issues I did:

  1. Permissions – First, if you follow the printed instructions that come with the unit for the Quick Setup, do not allow the autorun from the CD. Run the setup.exe maually and make sure to run it as admin (in Windows 7). Otherwise, it will appear to run and go off and do something, but unless you are running as admin it won’t have the permissions to install Synology Assistant, and it won’t do anything at all.
  2. Network Backup – I used the Synology to get around the restrictions that Windows 7 Home has on backing up your data to a network drive. Microsoft wants you to upgrade to Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate to enable this feature, but with the Synology you can easily set up an iSCSI drive in Windows and use it as the destination for your backup. You will need to run the Storage Manager from the Synology GUI and create separate iSCSI LUNs for each virtual drive, and separate iSCSI Targets for each PC on your network that you want to backup. Then you will need to run something called the iSCSI Initiator in Windows (from the Start menu just search for “iSCSI” to find it) on each PC, and point it to the iSCSI Target. Remember to size the individual LUNs to match the size of the hard drive you are backing up.
  3. Media Server – I have a first generation Roku that we use primarily for streaming music in the kitchen, and the Synology unit has made everything so much simpler. Previously, We were using Roksbox to play the music, which was okay, but it involved setting up a web server to stream the content, and installing MediaMonkey to create playlists. It was a hassle. With the Synology, you just install the Media Server package and it will automatically create folders for music, photos, and video. Put your content in these folders and they will be available to any DLNA media player on your network. Then install Roku Media Player and you’re done. You can also install the Audio Station package on the DiskStation and use it to create playlists. Simply go to your Library, right-click on a folder and add it to your Playing Queue, then go to your Queue and right-click on a song to create a shared playlist. The playlist will then show up under playlists on the Roku Media Player. If you have a USB speakers plugged into the Synology, you can also use it as a jukebox and use Audio Station to control it.
  4. Stress Test – Right after I got things set up, I wanted to see what this little server was capable of, so I started music streaming on the Roku, and had two ripped DVDs streaming on two different TVs, all at the same time. I left it running for a good ten minutes to see if there would be any buffering or other performance issues, and had no problems at all. I also tested simultaneous disk accesses after I got the iSCSI set up – I had backups running on both PCs over the network while also copying media from an external USB drive plugged into the back of the of Synology unit and had no issues there either.
  5. Cloud Backup – I haven’t fully explored all of the options available here, but one of the pre-installed packages is for Amazon’s Glacier backup service. I did notice a performance hit while this service was actively uploading files to the cloud, and when we suffered a power failure at the house, the backup did not automatically resume. Glacier seems geared for small businesses, but I wanted to try it to see if it worked as well as Carbonite because for the amount of data I backup, Glacier (at a penny per GB per month) would be significantly cheaper. For now, I will stick with Carbonite.
  6. Perl – I have installed the Perl package and set up a scheduled task to run a Perl script on a daily basis. This was pretty simple, and works very well. The only issue I ran into was that the Perl script itself must use absolute paths when accessing the file system. I couldn’t get any relative path references to work correctly, even when the output file was in the same directory with the script.
  7. Lastly, because we’re a Minecraft family, I did install the Minecraft package that is available for Synology. The DS412 seems to have the horsepower to run it fine (although I never tried with more than one user at a time), but I wasn’t able to copy my existing world over onto the DiskStation and have it load correctly. So until someone comes up with a solution for this, I guess we’ll stick with our current Minecraft server.

 The Family That Crafts Together

What started out as an impulsive addition to my son’s list of Christmas presents, has morphed into an addictive and all-consuming passion for crafting.  I’m of course talking about the insanely popular video game for the PC called Minecraft.  I must admit I didn’t fully grasp what the game was all about before I bought it. But after watching my son play it for a couple of hours (while I read the wiki and gave him pointers), I realized why the virtual world of the game is so compelling. I started having flashbacks to my college days, and the countless hours wasted in “deathmatches” in the early days of games like Doom and Duke Nukem.

But despite the similarities of its deliberately crude bitmaps, which give the graphics an odd retro feel, Minecraft is so much more than a first-person shooter. (In fact, we have chosen to play with the monsters turned off, and the game is no less compelling.) At its core, the game celebrates the creative rather than the destructive, and being able to easily mine the raw materials, and carry large quantities around with you, inspires no end of creativity. Want to build a castle on top of a mountain? That feat can be accomplished in an hour or two. And then it’s time to move onto the next challenge.

It is also, dare I say it, educational. It is a lesson in engineering, chemistry, and economics, disguised as a game. There are also some valuable moral lessons hidden there. For example, when my son decided he would loot one of the neighboring villages, and attack its inhabitants, the consequential hit to his own individual popularity meant that he could not trade with them when he later discovered that there were things he needed.

After just a few hours of solitary gameplay, I decided to up the ante a bit, and set up my own server so the two of us could play in a world that we could shape together. This is where the real addiction begins, as we collaborate on certain tasks, like planting a garden or raising livestock, while at the same time choosing our own projects to tackle, periodically sharing our progress with each other.

After a couple of days, a new rule emerged at the dinner table: no talk of Minecraft. Our incessant discussions of what we accomplished “in the mines” each day were leaving little sister (and mommy) feeling left out, and it wasn’t long before I was cobbling another PC together from spare parts, so the entire family could join in the fun.

Our daughter is just starting to read, and hasn’t had a need to write. Until now. We have been amazed at how well she is able to string together sentences when using the chat function to talk to rest of us playing in the next room or downstairs.

So, in the end, while this new hobby can be a bit obsessive at times, it does provide some unique opportunities for learning, and bonding as a family.

 Merry Christmas 2013

This is our eighth annual Pipes Family Christmas card! Can you believe it? We let the kids take over this year, and they want to wish you the merriest of Christmases and the happiest of New Years!

 Great Britain

We just got back from two weeks in Great Britain. We took a Trafalgar tour that took us from London, through southern England, northern Wales, the Lake District, and finally to Edinburgh, Scotland. We saw some amazing sights and some truly beautiful scenery. The weather was perfect and the people we met on tour were great. It was an awesome trip. Here is a short video showing some of the highlights. I also have a number of pictures in my photo album.

 Birthday Girl Grabs Magic Ticket

There’s only one magic ticket swirling around in the booth — and it’s worth 1,000 tickets — but Josie made it look easy, snatching it within seconds. She was so thrilled, and just as surprised as the rest of us!

 More Basement Woodworking

Earlier this year, I started building a cabinet in my basement on the wall opposite my new bar. As usual, I used Sketchup to draw up my plans, and I neglected to post these at the outset of the project. Sketchup is a powerful tool, and fairly easy to learn. Using it to create models of things you want to build is a great way to save time and money. If you take care to make precise measurements when you draw your model, you can use it to figure out the cost of materials, and later as a blueprint to verify your measurements are accurate. I am currently working on some new plans for a major project in 2013 — stay tuned for more on that.

I did post a couple of photos back in June when the cabinet was nearing completion, but I had to take a break for a few months to work on other things. Its main purpose was to replace the hideous drywall box the previous owners had built to hide the water meter on the wall. It now serves as some extra storage space, and a decorative place for Sir-Drinks-A-Lot to stand. I am happy to announce that the cabinet is now complete!

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