Archive for the 'Home improvement' Category

And now, the kitchen

Posted in Home improvement at 18:18

This year will be my sixth in my apartment. It’s been slow going to fix it up, but every time I tackle a new project and photograph it, I’m reminded by my home improvement photoset that it has come a very long way. The bedroom, living room and entry are only recognizable by their shapes now. It’s also nice encouragement: whenever I feel like it’s just never going to be done, I can see proof that, with time and dedication, a place can change a great deal.

This was the dining and kitchen area (behind the corner on the left) from the 2006 real estate ad. (I purchased the apartment in 2007, after it had been on the market for a year.) If you look closely, you can also see a former feline resident:

Real estate photo of dining and kitchen area

I removed the yellow-brown tile in the living room, and restored the original tomettes, as well as having to remove an extra layer of linoleum in the entryway, where the original floor is marble aggregate. I stopped at the kitchen after two years of work on floors in the other rooms. After the kitchen water damage this autumn, and with holidays now, I finally started on it today.

I had removed a line of tile adhesive and uncovered what I thought were more tomettes, due to dark red I could see through it. As chance would have it, what I had actually uncovered was the dark red underside of a piece of laminate flooring. Yes, the previous owners laid tile over cheap laminate, without glue. It was held in place by filler between the pieces of laminate. Due being stuck between tile and a ground floor, the laminate had also rotted over time. It stank when I reached it.

The upside is that it made removing the tile much easier. I’m about a quarter of the way finished with my kitchen floor already, and discovered the original:


In the photo on the left, with Sir Furry-Britches, you can see the lone piece of laminate flooring turned upside down that fooled me into thinking I would find tomettes. In the photo on the right, I had removed more tile, taken out the rotten laminate, and uncovered a bit of the linoleum beneath the tile and laminate layers. The dark spot shows the original floor: marble aggregate, like the entryway! It’s relatively easy to restore, and should be a great kitchen floor. I just hope it’s undamaged.

Minimalist media center

Posted in Home improvement at 19:19

Minimalist media center

I do still geek around the house! After 13 years of mediocre sound systems, I finally treated myself to a new amplifier, a Pioneer A-20-S. As my apartment is rather small, I don’t need anything more powerful than 50W, and once I plugged it in – to the same old speakers I’d had for 6 years – the clarity and range brought tears to my eyes. I grew up with a nice old amp, and studied music for decades, so hearing detail I hadn’t in my favorite songs, was wonderful.

The only drawback was that with just an amp, I had to play music through my PC, which, as quiet as it is, is not silent. I started out trying to see if the multimedia element of my Freebox V5 would work as a media center, but it truly is meant as a TV receiver: sound would only go out one port, and it required the remote control to work via on-screen menus. In other words, if I had it hooked up to my monitor, sound would go out the HDMI port, not any others. If I hooked it up to my stereo, I wasn’t able to use the box, since I couldn’t see what the remote was doing. So I packed it back up and began pondering how I could create a small, silent, economical media center.

Finally I remembered the Raspberry Pi, a minimal, yet powerful, board built for educational purposes. Sure enough, there were a few options for turning one into a media center. All I needed was a USB external hard drive, which after all these years, I still hadn’t bought. As luck would have it, the Fnac (a big home electronics, photography and book store here) had a “flash” sale on a very nice LaCie drive, so I picked it up and started planning the media center.

In the end, I have the setup you see here! Elements I already had were:
– A monitor. Mine can use multiple inputs, so I have my PC hooked up to its DVI port and the Raspberry Pi to its HDMI port. (The graphics on the little Pi are very impressive.)
– The Pioneer amp, and speakers. Since the amp can also use multiple inputs, I have my PC hooked up to its AUX and the Pi hooked up to its Network inputs.
– An Archos 43 internet tablet running Android. I hoped to be able to use it as a network interface so that I could play music without necessarily having to turn on the monitor, for instance.
– The Freebox, which has a WiFi transmitter (my Archos could connect to that) and 4 Ethernet ports. My PC is hooked up to one, the Pi to another, my laptop uses a third, and the fourth is still free.
– The USB 3.0 external hard drive, to hold my music library (FLAC files ripped from my CDs)
– Ethernet, HDMI, USB and micro-USB cables

Elements I purchased, downloaded, and set up:
– Raspberry Pi model B + basic white case + SD card with the Pi Debian port on it, just in case.
– USB 3.0 hub with its own power supply, since the Pi isn’t powerful enough to run the hard drive. This cost nearly as much as the Pi, since it’s a newer standard. It’s much faster than USB 2.0, however, so I didn’t mind – and we’re only talking twenty-odd euros!
OpenELEC for the Raspberry Pi, on a separate SD card. This is the Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Center that runs XBMC, a clean, UPnP-enabled (networked) media center. Free. Took ten minutes to install, another fifteen to set up. Works like a charm.
Yatse XBMC remote for my Android tablet.

You can see everything in the photo up at top! Clicking through to the Flickr photo will let you mouse over the photo and see specific notes, if curious. I’m delighted with it. The Yatse remote was as easy as knowing the XBMC instance’s IP address, and I can even turn my monitor off and view my music library from its interface. The Pi is completely silent, its sound very nearly as good as my PC’s. My PC has a nice Behringer USB interface that’s crystal clear, whereas the Pi is putting sound through its 3.5mm analog jack. I only have an old 3.5mm – RCA cable, so probably all I need to do is replace it with a better, gold-plated one and I’ll be fine. The Behringer interface doesn’t work on the Pi, unfortunately, but it’s nice to be able to switch sound inputs easily with the Pioneer amp’s remote, rather than having to plug in the PC or the Pi each time I change.

So there you have it! A minimalist media center, responsive and silent, as well as ecological since it uses very little power, all for 80-odd euros (Raspberry Pi + case + SD card + USB hub).

Living room metamorphoses

Posted in Home improvement, Journal at 11:33

Four years ago, the living room in my newly-purchased apartment was empty and floored with cheap tile.
Living room looking south (before)

I set up what little furniture I had.
Living room, couch nook, after organizing

In December, I was delighted to discover traditional terracotta tomettes beneath the tiles, and started the long floor restoration project.
Uncovering the living room

Once finished with the living room the following June, I had a little more furniture.
Living room looking towards sofa nook

Early 2010, I created a reading nook, repainting the recessed area.
Reading nook, mostly finished

Near the end of 2010 I had finished repainting the main wall, and had the lovely Art Deco couch and chairs set.
Living room from kitchen (1)

I never photographed the PC area, planning for it to be temporary. I wanted to find a nice, good-quality, yet affordable multimedia center that could bring disparate elements together. I browsed every store I could think of, but nothing worked. So it was that I ended up living with a multimedia area looking like this for almost three years.

Then, this April, one of my favorite stores, Habitat, had a big sale on furniture. As always, I checked it out… and this time, found two pieces I liked. The first was a long black multimedia center with three drawers. I put it in the shopping cart, went to check out, and was told it was out of stock. So I went for my second choice, a similarly wide, but taller and, I thought, somewhat clunkier, solid oak piece with straight, squared lines, two doors, and an open shelf. It was half off, making it less expensive than similarly-sized Ikea pieces. Once I had finished putting it together and settled on the best reorganization of elements (I had wanted to put my PC on the shelf, but it was just too large, so I stood it to the side), I could hardly believe how well its color and simple styling went with the rest of the living room. It looks like it was meant to be there.
Living room, May 2012

No more need to hide this side of the living room! You may have noticed that these two recent photos have different coloring than all the previous pictures – before, I used a flash with the kit lens on my Nikon D40 camera. Recently I started using my 30-year-old prime lenses, without flash. Thus the colors are warmer, since there’s no blue flash to override the yellower ambient light.
Living room with new cabinet


Posted in Home improvement at 15:54

Living room from kitchen
It’s taken me two and a half years, but as of today, thanks in part to the long Toussaint (All Saints Day) weekend, my living room is finally in a presentable, almost finished state. The ceiling could definitely use a coat of white paint, and two small walls still need scraped, primed and repainted, but with the main wall done, I was able to move furniture and redecorate as I’ve wanted for a while.

Following is a photo timeline of my living room’s metamorphosis (each small photo is linked to its larger size):

Read the rest of this entry »

Class cat

Posted in Cats, Education, Home improvement at 19:09


Yesterday, after I’d fi-nal-ly finished painting my big living room wall, was preparing to go to school twelve hours later, and wanted to mention how well Patches is doing with us now, I wondered how to bring it all together in a post.

Today I went to school, sat in a Bauhaus building classroom with gorgeous views of the hills of Nice, and in my second course, which is titled “Imagologie et ethnologie”, was greeted by Mister Smarty-Furry-Pants, as you can see above. So there you have it. Style, classes, and a cat.

Student desk on a budget

Posted in Education, Home improvement at 15:43

The free desk

Because the commission that validated my Masters application was held after classes began, I can’t say that “classes start this Wednesday” — they started nearly a month ago! I can, however, say that “I’ll be starting classes this Wednesday.” For the second year of the comp lit Masters, we take three courses: one is a required research seminar, the second is another research seminar that the student chooses, and the third is called a unité d’enseignement or UE, academic subject, which is also at the student’s choice. All are held one day a week, over a two-hour session. The second seminar I want to take is held on the same day as the required one, which is nice! I’ll be able to take that one day a week off work, and do the third course half electronically, half in person, since it’s held in the evenings (I would have to leave work early to get there on time).

I’ve spent the last few days hurriedly organizing things so that I have as much logistical support, so to speak, as possible. As always, I have a very limited budget, but I enjoy the challenge it brings, and often find that it helps streamline where you might not have otherwise.

First, I wanted a cheap, reliable way to keep on top of work, school, and personal emails, since a lot of my coursework will be done electronically. While a good solution might have been a netbook, which also could have been used for homework, I didn’t want one for two reasons: even a small, light one would be a pain to haul around on buses every day, and I couldn’t afford one anyway. I decided to upgrade my phone instead, and got a Nokia E71. It can use 3G and WiFi networks (among others), which is perfect since I’ll have free WiFi coverage at the university and at home. I got a barebone subscription with unlimited internet for 22 euros a month — that’s quite cheap for France, which has the most expensive 3G subscriptions in the world. You might be wondering why I’m happy to have free WiFi since I get unlimited 3G coverage… while it is unlimited, the connection is downgraded (slower) once you’ve used more than 500Mb of traffic in a month. That’s a healthy amount of traffic for a smartphone, but I’ll still be happy to use the free WiFi spots when I can, since they may well be faster.

Second, I wanted a dedicated study area. Growing older has further ingrained the importance of separating relaxation from work/school, so, if possible, I didn’t want to use my nice PC for studying. I’ve kept the laptop I got six years ago, and recently resurrected it with another stick of RAM and an installation of Xubuntu. With that, it runs nearly as fast as my more modern PC, and does everything I need it to do: word processing, email, and web browsing. The only thing missing was a permanent network connection for it — I’d been borrowing my PC’s Ethernet cable until now. I finally ordered a WiFi card for my Freebox, and soon will have my own home WiFi network. But I also wanted a desk to put my laptop on!

Above you can see the result of my repurposing. The desk itself isn’t very pretty, but it was free, as was the chair. I found the trestles and chair on the street, and the tabletop was hanging around in a cupboard when I moved into my apartment a couple of years ago. I’m happy with how everything turned out: I’ll be able to sync my calendar and email on the phone, laptop, and PC, back up documents over the home network I’ll set up, and take notes by hand (I prefer it) on my sunny little desk by the patio window. Bonus: when not in use, the laptop doubles as a bed for Kanoko.

Watering cats and growing pumpkins

Posted in Cats, Gardening, Home improvement at 15:53

Two weeks ago, I removed the glass shower door in my bathroom. The surrounding floor and walls were starting to rot, and I knew the door blocked much of the airflow needed to dry out the rest of the shower properly, so I decided to just take it out myself and put in a shower curtain and rod. While taking out the door, I discovered that the previous owners hadn’t waterproofed any of the seams… which is mainly why things had been rotting. However, it did make it much easier to remove the door, since all I had to do was unscrew it from one wall and pull it out of the other (it hadn’t been bolted in on both sides). As a reminder, they hadn’t waterproofed the floor beneath the tile shower they installed either. Every time I discover something like this, I’m glad I bargained down the price on my place — I had been very hard-nosed about it since some of the electrical work they’d done was borderline dangerous, which I suspected meant the rest of their “improvements” might be similar. Score one for intuition.

Putting in a curtain really improved the airflow, along with letting in a good deal more light… and a certain water-loving Maine Coon mutt! The video above shows Kanoko playing with the falling water this morning. I could keep him out by shutting the bathroom door, but his never-ending delight brings a lot of joy into my day, and so some old hand towels have now become Kanoko’s shower towels, and he’s happy as pie with the arrangement. When we finish showering, he saunters out alongside me, purrs while being towelled, then contentedly preens while I get ready for the day.

I mentioned some surprise seeds all sprouting in the last post — my pumpkin patch is growing well. All four are still healthy, those two are the largest. And they’re still just young’uns!

Reading nook

Posted in Home improvement, La France at 17:53

Reading nook, mostly finished
I’ve been working on my living room for a year and a half, since finding tomettes beneath the cheap brownish-yellow tile that the previous owners had put down. Not long after I finished renovating the floor, my upstairs neighbor’s pipes burst and flooded my couch nook in July last year. Ever since then, I’ve been working around the damaged nook, painstakingly scraping off the textured paint, something I had wanted to do anyway.

Yesterday I finally finished painting the nook, and was able to move in furniture today, shown above. I chose this blue because it has some depth to it, and it goes well with the burgundy tomettes floor and red touches. I also wanted it to be darker than the rest of the living room, in order to bring it closer visually. For comparison, the nook two years ago, when I bought the apartment. As you can see, the blue also helps the lighting immensely: before, everything had a yellowish tinge to it, but now the area has “truer” colors. Eventually, once I scrape the textured paint off the rest of the living room walls (ugh!), I’ll paint them in a nearly neutral lavender (it’s closer to grey than to purple/pink).

I’m delighted with my art deco chairs and this color scheme. I had considered reupholstering the chairs, but their deep brown goes beautifully with everything. As they say in France, le hasard fait bien les choses ! (“Chance does things well!”)

The AMS Pigeon Dual CatCore

Posted in Home improvement, Journal at 15:31

Dual kittehs
About four and a half years ago, I built a PC to take over from my aging laptop. That PC served me faithfully until December 2009, when I got myself a 24″ monitor for Christmas and upgraded Ubuntu to 9.10 (Karmic Koala). My four-year-old graphics card, with just 128 megabytes of memory, could barely handle my monitor, meaning I couldn’t watch DVDs full size. Furthermore, two weeks ago, while playing a complex Flash game, Ubuntu… crashed. Yes. The almighty Linux operating system crashed, for the first time in the three years I’ve been running it.

It was time to upgrade core hardware (motherboard, processor, graphics card). It was a bit disorienting to see how far things had come since building my PC in 2005! After getting up to speed on modern developments, I opted for a smaller-format motherboard (Micro ATX), a decent dual-core AMD processor, and a cheap but fast graphics card. I reused my old PC case, hard drives, CD/DVD drive, multi-card reader (mainly for SD cards), and no-name 7.1 surround sound card that I got for 15 euros a year ago and that works great. I don’t demand much of my system, so I always focus on the best quality I can find in the lower price ranges, making sure everything is compatible. Spending the time to research components really pays off in the end. I did also spend a bit of money to replace the old power supply that came with my computer case, since I wanted something more ecological. The components arrived today:
– ASRock N68-S micro ATX motherboard (this has great reviews)
– AMD Athlon II X2 245 (2.9Ghz) dual-core processor
– Gigabyte NVIDIA GeForce 8400 GS graphics card (512Mb of memory)
– 1Gb DDR2 RAM
– Antec EarthWatts 380W Green power supply, rated 80Plus Bronze

My PC innards looked like this before, and now look like this. Time from start to finish: two hours. Zero problems, and excellent performance. I didn’t even have to reinstall my operating system! I just turned off the computer, unplugged it, changed around the innards, plugged it back in, turned it on, and it worked. Vive Ubuntu! I did need to remove some tweaks to Ubuntu for my old graphics card, but that was it. DVDs play smoothly at full resolution now, and I’m delighted with how fast Gimp opens and edits my photos. My old setup (AMD Sempron 2800+ 1.6Ghz processor, 128Mb graphics card, and 1Gb of RAM) had a rough time with Gimp, taking nearly a minute to open; the new setup opens Gimp in less than three seconds. I’m happy!

A new home

Posted in Home improvement, La France, Nice at 17:25

Art Deco lines
This will come as a bit of a surprise to readers, since I never mentioned it before, wanting to keep quiet until I knew for certain. This morning I had an interview for obtaining French citizenship at the préfecture in Nice. It went very well, and the préfet’s representative told me that there was no valid reason to refuse my application. In legal French, and in the context of the naturalisation for which I’d applied, this means it will be accepted by the Ministry in charge of naturalisations. That will take about a year, as the representative also told me.

Of his own accord, he also pointed out that the process had gone surprisingly fast. Indeed, I had applied around the start of November last year, and received notice of my interview at the end of January. The préfet’s representative explained that it was because the police investigation had gone quickly. “I can’t remember the last time I got a police report so soon after requesting one,” he laughed, then he asked me, “did the police ever contact you or visit you?” I answered “no, but I’m often in contact with them, ha! I have a dangerous neighbor, so I call them a lot.” Continuing with the joke, the man pulled out the police report and chuckled, “well, they say they have no idea who you are!” In French legalese, “ne pas être connu”, “to not be known” by the police means that you have no criminal record. The man interviewing me even added another layer of word play when he saw that I’d understood the joke, saying “et bien, on peut rajouter que le français ne vous est pas étranger !” In English, “well, I can add that French isn’t foreign to you!” It was nice to have met with someone easy-going.

That said, I’ve almost always dealt with easy-going public employees in France. At the tax office, train station (SNCF), post office (which is where I’ve met the grumpy ones), prefecture, city police, national police — they’ve nearly all been helpful and even funny. I’ll never forget the towering gendarme (national policeman) in my living room who, after he’d recognized my violent neighbor was indeed a danger to others, and after I’d showed photos of excrement she kept putting on my patio, said in his booming, authoritative voice, totally deadpan, “En effet. Mademoiselle, on peut dire que vous êtes dans la merde.” “Indeed. Miss, it could be said that you’re in a shitty situation.”

In addition to having a new home country, my home apartment became much more welcoming this weekend, with the addition of a sofa and two matching chairs, shown in this entry’s photo. On Saturday, I went to my favorite brocante, secondhand shop, to look for a small end table. In the window was a gorgeous forest green leather Chesterfield, but well out of my budget range. Further inside, I noticed a sofa and chairs set with oddly-styled arms; curved wood over an upholstered arm, but the wood “floated” over the upholstery. I love clean, curved lines on furniture. Furthermore, it looked like the pieces were narrow enough to fit through my living room door frame, which is just 75cm/30 inches wide. I checked their price, expecting something in the 300-500 euro range. 50 euros — fifty! “Oh dear, something must be terribly wrong with them,” I thought, and so I looked around the rest of the store. Finding no end tables I liked, I returned to the living room set. “At that price, I might as well try them out and check them over,” I told myself. They were in perfect condition, and incredibly comfortable, with firm springs. They were in such good condition, in fact, that I had no idea what period they could possibly be from, since they obviously weren’t contemporary, but not antique, either. I measured their depth: 70 centimeters (27″). Perfect. I bought them. Delivery cost as much as they did, and in another stroke of luck, I’d bought them ten minutes before the delivery van arrived for its afternoon round — they kindly delivered them the very same day!

Once home, I photographed the sofa and the two chairs, and submitted a question to one of my favorite sites, ApartmentTherapy. “What style are these chairs and sofa? Commenters all agreed: 1940s French Art Deco! My apartment building is Art Deco too, and was built in 1953. My living area truly is d’époque, period, and I didn’t even do it on purpose! I am very glad to finally have a couch after two years without, and the kitties are happy too.