Saturday, May 30, 2009

Scenes from the garden

Thai basil surprised me with a pretty flower this morning.



Remember those herbs I planted from seed way back when? I finally have some sprouts!





Our poor rosemary bush got crapped on by those evil neighborhood birds. Those things just won't leave us alone. I don't know what I did to piss them off so much, but you should see my car.



The peas have gotten huge:



... and they've finally reached their creepy phase. Why creepy, you ask? When peas get to a certain height, they develop these long, skinny vines that act like fingers, grabbing anything around them for support.

Like the fence:



Or each other:



A blade of grass:



Or even mystery plant:



It's creepy because it happens so fast. Normally I bring in some trellis at this point in the growing season, and usually within hours of placing the trellis, the peas have wrapped their vines around it multiple times. I didn't know plants moved that fast! I wonder what would happen if I fell asleep in the pea garden...


(scene taken from an episode of He-Man called "Evilseed")

And on that note, I'm off to Home Depot to buy some trellis. Happy gardening!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Where the magic happens

I thought I'd share a current pic of my desk area now that I have my recently painted mirror hanging over it. Not bad for a $10 mirror and a can of 99 cent spray paint! I painted the shelf as well (it was originally brown). Can't you just envision me sitting at this desk blogging away, occasionally checking for boogies in the mirror?



Still haven't had time to paint this room, but I did purchase paint a couple days ago (hey - it's a start). Remember how I had my heart set on the blue Misty Surf shade? Once I taped swatches to the wall, I immediately changed my mind. I'm learning that shades look totally different in real life as opposed to on a computer screen. I ended up buying a gallon of Sandstone Cove, which is much prettier in real life than on the computer screen.

In other office/studio related news, I have the best husband in the world. What does that have to do with the office, you ask? Well last week after a particular bad couple of days (dog ER trip, flooded basement, graduate school woes), he surprised me with the IKEA Solsta sofa that I was coveting. And the craziest part? He used his fun money to buy it for me! Seriously, what a sweetheart.

Doesn't my new sofa bed look nice in its new home?


Pillows and throws from Target and Walmart
Cat hair courtesy of Embree and Clyde




That brings my task list for the office/studio to only two items:

  1. Paint walls (Sandstone Cove) and trim (Ultra Pure White)
  2. Find the perfect natural-textured rug.
More updates to come as this room nears completion.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Things that make life easier: Easy Walk dog harness review

Our dog is large. Our dog is strong. Sometimes walking our dog is not a pleasant experience.

Our dog trainer friend Laura has taught us some good tips for training your dog to walk nicely. The goal is to have your dog walk at your pace with a loose leash, not pulling and straining to get ahead. One technique: You basically stop whenever the dog starts pulling at the leash (act like a tree). You don't start walking again until the dog is behaving. Another technique: When your dog is pulling toward something, you turn around and make him walk the other direction (penalty steps). The dog is supposed to be annoyed by these things and figure out that he has to walk nicely in order to avoid the irritation.

These techniques require some patience, which we would be ok with, except our dog is silly. Though we've practiced and practiced, Murphy just thinks everything is a really fun game. And if he does something to make his walk last longer, he's even happier. So acting like a tree or giving penalty steps only actually makes him more energetic and he seems to pull even more. Quite a predicament.

Then our friend Melissa told us about an amazing product she recently discovered. It's called the Easy Walk harness, and it's made by the people who make the Gentle Leader.

Here's some blurry photos of Murph sporting his new harness right after we got it:





The Easy Walk is different from other dog harnesses because the leash clips on it in the front, near the dog's chest, rather than on the top of his back. When the dog tries to pull or get ahead of you, the leash gently turns him around so he's partially facing you.

We tried it out last night and today, and all I can say is this thing is a Godsend. We had two of the most pleasant walks since we've had Murphy. At first, he seemed confused and thought we were the ones pulling the leash and forcing him to partially turn around. But he quickly figured out that the way to avoid this was to keep an eye on us and our pace and stay within that range of motion. When he would get excited or forget, the harness would gently remind him to look at us and slow down.

Here's Murphy starting to pull:



And here is the Easy Walk harness turning him slightly to face us:



And eventually he understood and started walking next to us:



I don't think this is a replacement for actually training your dog to walk nicely, but it is definitely a nice training tool. This thing has made an amazing difference in our daily walks. We still follow Laura's advice and stop when he pulls or tugs. Our plan is to use this to teach Murphy to watch us and stay at our pace When he has that down pat, we'll try hooking the leash to his collar instead of the harness. When he's fine with that, we'll remove the harness altogether.

Review:

Easy Walk Dog Harness
$29.99 at Pet Co, $16-20 on Amazon


Pros:

  • Comes in a variety of sizes (including in-between sizes like medium-large)
  • Doesn't hurt the dog's delicate throat area like a choke collar
  • Doesn't irritate our dog like the Gentle Leader
  • Reinforces behaviors that we want to encourage (dog making eye contact with us during walks, matching our pace, not pulling or tugging on the leash)
  • Harness is comfortable and doesn't seem to bother the dog
Cons:
  • Only comes in two colors (red and black) - This really isn't a big deal to us.
  • Should be combined with other training techniques so your dog doesn't learn that he only has to walk nice when he's wearing the harness (and can act like a maniac at all other times)

The daily Murph: Just a happy guy



This is the face that greets me each morning.

Cool website alert: Super Cook

Thanks to my friend Jordana for showing me this site, SuperCook.com. It's essentially a recipe site, but with a very cool feature. You can enter ingredients you already have, and it will search for recipes you can make with them. I tried it out with rice, and it came back with lots of nice options. Good stuff.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The joys of home ownership: how to fix a clogged pipe

When your basement floods due to a clogged drain, you don't have to spend an arm and a leg on Roto Router service. Just follow our easy (and photo illustrated) steps for fixing the clogged drain.

Step 1: Assess the situation
. "Oh crap, the basement is flooding!"
(no picture available as I was too busy freaking out)

Step 2: Stop the water flow. In our case, we had to stop the washing machine.

Step 3: Get rid of the water (thank you, $20 Shop Vac).



Step 4: Find the clogged pipe
Water was coming up through the floor drain but it was actually the main line from the sink that was clogged. We discovered this through some trial and error that involved dumping water in various areas and seeing where it came out.

Step 5: Purchase an auger (also called a plumber's snake). We got ours (which attaches to a drill for more power) at Harbor Freight for $11. Actually it was on the website for $11 and in stores for $15. You better believe Rob argued with the manager until they gave us the $4 discount. Booyah.



Step 6: Shove the auger down the drain. Repeat as many times as necessary. Complain to your spouse about the horrible smell.



Step 7: Pose triumphantly with your plumbing snake tommy gun.



Related links:

How to be frugal (but not cheap): Part II

I'm back with more tips. If you're sick of hearing me ramble on about this stuff, blame Dan (and check out his blog while you're at it). Every time I talk to him, we end up going on and on about budgeting and saving. Ok, let's do this.

How to... save money on groceries


It's sometimes hard to save money on groceries. We all need food, but we do have some choices to help save the pennies. My tips:

  • Buy frozen veggies. They are delicious, cheap, and won't go bad.
  • Buy some frozen fruit while you're at it. Though a little less firm than fresh fruit, they are still great in smoothies or used as toppings.
  • Our greatest super market discovery: buy frozen chicken breasts instead of fresh. The ones glazed in ice are particularly good as the glaze prevents freezer burn.
  • Cut coupons. Yeah, I know. It's kind of a pain, but it pays off. Rob and I have saved $40 on a single grocery store total by just cutting coupons and buying things on sale.
  • Stock up when things are on sale. Kind of a no-brainer, but if it's an item you eat regularly, why not take advantage of the temporary price drop and fill your freezer or cupboard?
  • Do you tend to buy more than you need and end up tossing out the uneaten food that's gone bad? Avoid this by planning out your meals for the week, making a list, and limiting your shopping to only the items on the list.I'm not organized enough to do this myself, but SparkPeople.com has a nice tool that does it for you (you can even input your personal preferences like vegetarian, no seafood, etc.).



Related links:
Save money on clothes
I just read in Real Simple Magazine that the average American spends $749 a year on clothes. Does that seem outrageous to anyone else? Here's my advice:
  • Simplify and maximize your wardrobe. Buy basics (tees, tanks, cardigans, button-up shirts) in solid colors that can be mixed and matched. You can find great basics at Target, Old Navy, or the Gap.
  • Update your look with accessories. If looking modern is important to you, instead invest in a few inexpensive accessories. Ex: you can buy a scarf or two at Wet Seal or a skinny belt (or whatever else is in style at the time) at Forever 21 to make your basics a little more trendy.
  • Avoid the "it's only $20" trap. Those small purchases (often impulse purchases) add up big time. Make one $20 impulse purchase per week, and that adds up to $1040 a year. If you already have a decently sized wardrobe, I would bet that most of those purchases were quickly forgotten or the item might even sit unused in your closet. You could spend that money on a larger purchase or something you really want but didn't think you could afford.
  • Finally, think about what you have and if you really need any more clothes. I believe most people have way more clothing than they need, yet continue to buy new things regularly. If you're brave, take an inventory of your clothing collection. Divide it by category and function (ex: 5 pairs work pants, 4 casual sweaters, and so on). I'm betting you have more clothes than you realize. Seeing the numbers on paper can really motivate you to stop buying more things you don't need.

Related links:

How to... save money on gas and car costs

Driving an older car (or at least one that isn't brand new) can save you a boatload of money. Insurance and payments are less, and you don't have to feel guilty about your new car's immediate drop in value as soon as you drive it home. Here's an excerpt from a great article that sums up on my feelings on new cars:

"Cars are terrible investments. In their most basic form, they are merely a tool to get us from A to B. In their most elaborate form they can be a “shiny” tool that gets us from A to B, but with more luxuries. But either way, they are not likely to be much of a financial benefit. Everyone has heard that a brand new car goes down hundreds or even thousands of dollars the minute you drive it off the dealer’s lot. This is just the beginning. Over the first year some cars depreciate at a rate as high as 35%. KBB.com says that the average car loses 65% of its value in the first 5 years. Add on maintenance, repairs, interest on the loan, and insurance and you can quickly see that automobiles can have quite a large negative effect on our finances. We dump all this money into our cars and what do we have to show for it? An asset that just continues to go down in value and still becomes LESS reliable."

If you're buying a car and care about your financial situation, a used auto is the way to go.

There are many other ways to save money on your auto bills. You can save 50% easily on oil changes by taking your car to a regular auto shop (I mean places like Tires Plus and Goodrich) by appointment rather than one of the quick-change type places like Jiffy Lube or Express Oil. Why pay twice as much for the same service? If you do insist on going to Jiffy Lube, at least print out one of these coupons for $5 off. (Always checks the Internet for coupons before purchasing.)

Rob and I are big believers of lifetime warranties. If you have work done on your car, consider paying a little more to get the parts with the lifetime warranties. It can buy off bigtime if you drive your car for 10+ years (like we do).

If you have the choice of where you live, I highly recommend living close to work. I'm only about 6 miles from work, and Rob is around 7 miles from his. The short commute means less gas purchases and less mileage put on the cars (extending time between oil changes, routine maintenance, and new tires).

Of course, if you have the option of public transit, you can potentially save even more by not shelling out dough for parking (which is a big deal in Minneapolis).

Related links:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Free decorating magazine

Click here to read or download Quick and Easy Decorating (PDF file format).

Basic digital enhancement

I'll be honest; you can do a lot with digital enhancement. I'll start out with some really basic functions in this post and get more advanced as we go along.

Adjusting levels

You can turn a crappy photo into a decent one, or a good shot into an amazing one by simply tweaking the levels. How do you do this? Read on.

For my first example, I'll use this photo that I recently took in San Francisco:



It's a pretty good shot to begin with. Good lighting, clarity, and a nice visual line. But it's very easy to make this photo truly pop. After opening your photo in your design software of choice, this is what you do:

In Photoshop, click on the Image tab in the top navigation. Select Adjustment > Levels.
In GIMP, click on Colors > Levels
On Pixlr.com, click Adjustment > Levels

You will see a histogram similar to this:



The graph above is pretty good - it sort of resembles a bell curve. There are some definite high points and the far right and left points are very low values. You ideally want something similar for your starting point.

If your photo is overexposed, your levels may look like this:



And if it's underexposed, it may look like this:



Going back to our original photo, you want to grab the triangle ends and drag them in from the far right and left sides. You want your end points to be closer to the main black area (the bell part of the curve) of the histogram.

It goes from this:



... to this:



Meanwhile your photo went from this:



... to this:



Quite a difference. Essentially you made your dark colors a bit darker, and your light colors a bit lighter. Your photo quickly comes brighter and more contrasty without compromising the original tones of the shot.

Ok so what if you are working with a more over or under-exposed photo, and your starting point is not quite as nice?

Here's a photo that is under-exposed and therefore too dark.



I'll be honest; this photo would never be an award-winner, but we can do some tricks to make it look a lighter and brighter. Here's the original levels:



In this case, you want to leave the left arrow where it is (since you don't want any more dark tones in the photo). You can't simply drag the right arrow over to the area (like we did above). It would look like this:



It doesn't look natural at all, as you can see from the greenish hues in the cat's fur.

So instead we are going to adjust the middle arrow, which represents mid tones (see red arrow in photo below). This is something you'll have to play around with for each individual photo, but we mainly want to get some natural looking tones in our photo. I went with this setting:



So my photo now looks like this:



Cute, but needs one more tweak.
Go to Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast
We are going to bump up the contrast until it looks more normal.



And that's all we need. Here's the before again:



... and after:


Adjusting the curves is another way to tweak your photos. I find the results are a bit more subtle (and sometimes more realistic) than playing with the levels.

Image > Adjustment > Curves

Here's our starting photo:



And here's the curves (this will look the same for all unedited images):



Basically you want to find the point that is one square up and over from the bottom left hand corner and move that point down 5-10 units. Then go to the point that is one square down and over from the right hand corner and move that point up 5-10 units. Like this:



One again, here's the before:



... and the after:



Very subtle difference, but the objects (the bird, boat, clouds) are more clear and seem to pop more.

I hope all of this makes sense. It takes practice, and a lot of playing around with the levels and curves settings.

In future posts, I will get to some more advanced functions like burning/dodging, extraction tool, and fixing blemishes or spots on the lens.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

C25K update

I figure I'm due for an update on my C25K progress. I'm currently on week 3 of the program (should be on week 4, but I lost a couple days during finals week and Rob's surgery). Here's what I've learned about running and myself:

  1. Cute workout clothes motivate me to exercise more. Isn't that silly? Even so, I don't question anything that keeps me hopping on that treadmill. Favorite places to buy inexpensive but cute workout clothes: Target, Kohl's, Gap, Old Navy.
  2. The biggest advantage to running on the treadmill at home as opposed to outside? Hulu.com. I watch an episode of 30 Rock or The Office while running, and the time just flies by.
  3. I tried running barefoot after reading this article that my friend Belinda showed me. It pretty much rocked, except the skin on my feet was a little raw from the treadmill. Now I run in socks, and it's awesome. No more sore calves, interestingly enough.
  4. Worry about speed later. For now, just work on stamina.
  5. Taking two minutes to stretch beforehand makes a huge difference. Seriously.
    (Link to a great running stretch routine.)
Otherwise, just plugging away. I'll be ready for that 5k in no time.

Cool website alert: LifeOrganizers.com

I'm an organizational junkie. I almost peed my pants when I found this site (and no, not because of the gallon of Lipton Green Tea I drank). LifeOrganizers.com is amazing! It has information on organizing your home (room by room), managing clutter, organizing your finances, and keeping your office tidy and efficient. Plus an organizational tip of the day! I just watched a video about organizing the area under your bathroom sink. You had me at hello...

someone else's words

"Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others." - Buddha



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