When the going gets tough, send in the Chief Diversity Officer

This summer we stayed in a hotel that was hosting a Knanaya Catholic Congress of North America convention. There were some very fine people attending the KCCNA convention, but others couldn’t resist partying until 4 or 5 am in the hallway outside our room and there were elevator issues. I decided to see if there was a way to contact Marriott’s “unhappy customer” line. Here’s the “Customer Care” section of the Bonvoy app:

What is the #1 concern of a hotel guest who requests “care”? “Where Can I Find Information on Diversity & Inclusion?”

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Why is COVID-19 still a valid excuse for poor customer service?

In addition to six wall-mounted TVs, the previous owners of our house left with us a $2,000 Wine Enthusiast wine cooler (there is a compressor inside, not a Peltier cooler). Since this isn’t made by LG or Samsung, of course it quickly failed (it looks brand new, but is presumably at least a year old). An email to the company’s customer service department yielded no response. So I called the company and the robot said that due to COVID-19, people were working from home and therefore wouldn’t be able to answer the phone quickly. I recognize that we’re still in Year 3 of our state of emergency, but how much longer will consumers fail to consider that it is just as easy for someone at home to answer the phone as it is for someone in an office?

Separately, I think this shows what a great business it is to sell stuff to people who drink a lot of wine. The sticker on the back says it is 6 cubic feet in volume and “Made in China”. Home Depot will sell you a 7.3 cu. ft. fridge, not designed for winos, for $275. Maybe the answer is to buy Wine Enthusiast products from Costco and get support from Costco? From the Costco site:

How did the Costco customers enjoy their Wine Enthusiast fridge combined with Costco support?

  • Nice looking but temperature controls and lights don’t work…out of the box!! Tried calling their warranty number but on hold for over an hour and cutoff twice.
  • we ordered one and we couldn’t get it to hold the temps and the blue back lights we not working / we figured well maybe it’s defective we will order a 2nd one. The 2nd one was more trouble than the first!
  • A beautiful, quiet wine refrigerator; however, the controls do not work and the lights do not work. Very disappointed.
  • Beyond junk. Can’t control temperature
  • Very disappointed to get this all set up in the location but then it didn’t cool and neither side got below 66 degrees. Called the manufacturer and after 2-3 minutes on the phone, they said that it was broken beyond repair.
  • Stopped working after 2 weeks.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I need to give a shout-out to Baldwin Hardware. Our front door came with a 19-year-old Baldwin Prestige Pistoria handleset. The latch wasn’t working perfectly anymore so I called them up to see if I could buy a new latch mechanism. Baldwin answered the phone quickly, did not mention their inability to get off their sofas and put down their Xbox controllers due to COVID-19, and decided that the issue would be covered under their lifetime warranty. They sent out a brand new replacement that arrived within a few days of the call.

On the third hand, maybe I should be inspired by companies like Wine Enthusiast. I can say that COVID-19 is responsible for the low quality of my blog ideas!

[What ultimately happened once I got through to Wine Enthusiast (by phone; they never did answer the email)? They said that they couldn’t look up any information regarding the refrigerator based on the serial number. There was no way for them to determine whether the fridge was within warranty, for example, so they would refuse to honor their 1-year warranty. They gave me the name of a local appliance repair service. That company came out, said that the problem was “probably with the sealed system” and that it would cost $500 to do a test of the system, which would take about two hours, and after that another $1,000+ to perform a repair. The ultimate cost to fix the $2,000 fridge would therefore be about $1,700 and they recommended against it. I called Wine Enthusiast and they suggested buying a new one from them at full retail price, plus shipping… $2,200 (no cheaper than switching to a name brand such as LG or Samsung; who sticks with Wine Enthusiast after experiencing a failure like this one?) The good news is that we will be able to free up some space in the living room because we were not passionate about wine to begin with. Because of our Massachusetts heritage, we consider (“essential” during lockdown) cannabis to be far more important. And that raises the question of when we will be able to buy a $2,000+ stainless steel refrigerator to keep cannabis at the ideal temperature for consumption.]

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Fix for a Bosch dishwasher bottom rack that falls off its track

Department of How I Became the World’s Most Boring Person by Buying a House…

Our middle-class mansion in Abacoa came with a 3-year-old Bosch dishwasher. The bottom rack was constantly falling off the rails built into the interior. The KitchenAid repair guy said “I can’t help you with Bosch, but call them because they may have a fix.” Sure enough, I called Bosch and they eventually answered the phone after the obligatory excuses for how COVID-19 made it impossible for anyone sitting at home to pick up the phone.

How do they describe their engineering failure to product a rack that is the correct width for the stainless steel interior, resulting in plaintive queries all over the Internet for how to fix the problem? “In some rare cases, the lower rack may disengage from the tub rails when the rack is heavily loaded.”

To their credit, they will send out an “extended lower rack wheel kit”, part number 10016657, at no charge. You snap in these wider wheels and the problem goes away.

I’m leaving this here so that people can find the solution with search engines.

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Fix for a door that wants to close itself

Department of How I Became the World’s Most Boring Person by Buying a House…

A couple of the doors in our 20-year-old Spanish Colonial tract house were not framed precisely vertical. Therefore, they tend to fall closed, which is more annoying than you’d expect. Our team of Czech carpenters said that fixing this would be as simple as ripping out the door frame, putting it back in, re-hanging the door, repainting, etc. Perhaps $2,000 per door.

The Internet is packed with products designed for “self-closing” of doors, but there is almost nothing available to fix a door that you want to hold open. After calling a few hinge companies, I found a Band-Aid that works well: a spring that goes through the existing hinge pin. The seller hasn’t updated his pricing for the Age of Biden so these are $6 each. A single spring was sufficient to render one door more or less neutral and two springs cleaned up a tougher case.

Hidden advantages of homeownership: While renters were learning Mandarin, writing the Great American Novel, and perfecting their golf and tennis games, I embarked on a self-education program on gravity, friction, hinges, and springs.

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Ductless mini-split HVAC is much more attractive in a country without skilled labor?

We still own our condo in Harvard Square (rented out on AirBnB; will sell once coronapanic ends in Maskachusetts and people realize that living in the suburbs while working in the city is intolerable due to traffic (but maybe coronapanic will never end?)). It has a traditional HVAC system with air handler, ducts, and a condenser outside. The contractors in the Boston area that are qualified to do basic maintenance on the system are all too busy to do maintenance (they’re happy to do a $20,000 installation project). But these types of systems need annual maintenance to avoid the risk of a drain backup and massive water leak inside the house.

A contractor here in Florida, where A/C maintenance is much more available, said that he’s never seen a mini-split suffer from a clogged drain. For some reason they don’t build up gunk inside the lines the way that traditional systems do. As the U.S. population grows while the population of skilled laborers stays constant or shrinks (we are growing our population via low-skill labor and/or asylum-seekers who don’t work at all (babies, parents of young kids, the elderly), not with migrants who have HVAC training), the problem of finding qualified service people will only get worse. I wonder if this is a good argument for ductless mini-split heat pumps. As long as there are factories in Japan and China, replacement components will be available and the overall system complexity and annual maintenance needs are much reduced compared to a traditional HVAC system.

(The Florida contractor’s favorite brand is GREE, founded 1991 in Guangdong.)

Readers: What is the argument for installing a traditional HVAC system? Easier to filter and humidify the air if desired? Lower fan noise in the interior?

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Buying a pool table

We’re in the middle of the South Florida season that is analogous to the Northeast’s winter, i.e., a period when it is often more pleasant to be inside rather than out. Thus, it seemed like a good time to try to duplicate, at tremendous expense, the convenient availability of the pool table that we received rolled into our old apartment lease via the landlord’s “clubhouse”. This post is to record what I learned.

First, it seems that there is no standard size for a pool table. There are tournaments in various parts of the country in which people play on 7-foot tables, but you can also find regions where 8-foot tables or 9-foot tables are conventional. Make sure that you have 58 inches from the table (rail edge, not playfield edge) to the walls on all sides so that the butt of the cue doesn’t hit. The cue should clear low furniture, e.g., another game table or a sofa, but you’ll want 50″ all around (from the outer dimension, i.e., the rail edge) to accommodate your posterior when crouched.

There are only a handful of billiards stores in South Florida, perhaps because so many sales of new tables have moved online. The waiting time for a new high-quality American-made table, which could be customized in various ways, was approximately 3 months. Prices would be $6,000-$15,000 depending on the elaborateness of the decoration. Delivery would be another $500. The favored in-production brands seem to be A.E. Schmidt, Connelly, and Olhausen. The most serious players like Diamond (a one-piece slate; super ugly; made in the U.S.) and Brunswick Gold Crown (also ugly; made in Brazil (the rest of the Brunswick line may be made in Indonesia)). Local dealers also sell used tables and it seems that pool tables are so cumbersome to move that the geographical price variations are enormous. A used pool table in South Florida is worth twice as much as one in the Midwest, just as a house in South Florida is worth twice as much. One dealer here quoted $3,500 for a pristine used “American Heritage” Camden table. Plus $500 for delivery and a month of waiting because all of the delivery crews were busy. Of course, “American Heritage” means “made in Malaysia” and the importer says that the list price on the table, brand new, was… $3,500 (the company shut down in mid-2020).

I described the shopping excursion to our next-door neighbor, a mechanical engineer who designs electric vehicle powertrains. “You can always get a pool table for free on Craigslist,” he said, “from someone who needs the space. I got mine from a lady who wanted to use the space for a dining table and she cut the price to $0 on condition that I get it out of there.”

Inspired by the smart neighbor, I found an Olhausen that was perhaps 20 years old in our neighborhood. The guy had sold his house and was moving to Europe so that his teenage son could get elite soccer training (he’s a little too old to play against the U.S. Women’s team). It was only about 10 days before the house needed to be cleared out and he was still asking $900 for the table below:

The Olhausen cushions are supposed to last forever and a good table is supposed to support 4 bounces off the cushions if you throw a ball with your arm on the short dimension, but there were only 3 bounces for this table. The owner had the contact info for Fred Bost, the guy who installed it 10 years previously (the table might have been 10 years old at that point). We called him up and he said that the rails (wood on the sides of the table) were likely loose after years of play and that slowed things down. If the felt and balls weren’t pristine that also slowed things down. The balls were old and yellow and the wisdom of the Web is that billiard balls need to be replaced every few years (example).

What about the damaged finish on the rails? Fred said that he could refinish the rails for about $1,000. The felt was a mess, but could be replaced for $350 at the time of a move and that good-condition felt could be put back on the slates. The cues were also shot on this Olhausen table, e.g., missing tips. Replacing the cues and balls would have cost $400. The owner offered to reduce the price to $600, but I wasn’t sure that the table was a great deal even at $0 given that it looked like it was sitting on Home Depot 8×8 posts.

(What if the slate is cracked? It is possible to get new slate for as little as $400. This makes me wonder why a new table can cost $8,000+ if all of the components are cheap-ish. Maybe the answer is that the exterior cabinet is where all of the cost is.)

A $2,000 Connelly 30 minutes away seemed to have some potential. My main concern was that it had been living in a garage for 4 years. Fred told me not to worry about that and, in fact, that pool tables in semi-outdoor spaces were common in Florida and the heat and humidity did not damage the tables. The owner ran a pizza restaurant with his middle-school sweetheart-turned-wife. They were young and fit and doing well financially because they’d been showered with Federal funds for their restaurant that hadn’t been closed even for one day by the Florida version of coronapanic. The pool table, however, had to go because it wasn’t getting enough use and the wife wanted a gym in the garage. The owner explained to me that he kept the balls in their original Aramith box because leaving them in the pockets causes the leather to sag (a new set of pockets is under $300, but these ones stamped “Connelly” cannot be purchased separate from a new table). He had everyone play with special gloves so that they didn’t need to use “hand chalk” to make the cue slide on the bridge hand. He would put an extra piece of felt down before breaking because the acceleration of the cue ball during a break can leave a burn mark on the felt (Fred Bost later explained that this was true only for some high-end Simonis fabrics (made in Belgium) and not for the less expensive Teflon-coated Championship fabrics (from Mexico) that he prefers; he uses Invitational with Teflon for his customers).

The one-piece “house cues” were in good condition and the balls were only about a year old. It was easy to get 4 bounces out of a hand-launched ball and the table played noticeably well. The owner accepted $1800. Fred Bost had a cancelation the next morning and the table was in our house less than 24 hours after purchase (compare to 3-4 months if we’d bought at retail; this Connelly table seems to list for $9,000 and sells for $7,000 new). Moving cost $500 plus I tipped 100 Bidies for Fred and Freddie’s lunch.

Installation is an impressive operation. Heavy straight edges and levels are used and shims the thickness of a business card may be employed. Connelly is unusual for having four bolts to secure each rail rather than the industry-standard three. It may thus be possible to have longer intervals between tightening.

Here is Fred and his assistant (Freddie!) re-covering the 1.25″ slate with the old felt:

“I’ve installed exactly 1.5 brown felts in 30 years,” Fred said. What was the 0.5? “I was halfway through putting the brown felt on a guy’s table when the wife came out and shook her head.” Fred explained how to rough up the leather cue tips with sandpaper.

I’m glad that we didn’t wait 4 months to spend $8,000 for a pool table. All of the experienced players who have tried this table out say that it is great. I’m also glad that we didn’t get an imported table, much as I love the idea of everything being made in an economically efficient manner. Fred says that the imported tables can be set up to play well, but he doesn’t like any of them.

Our next step was to visit the Professional Billiard Instructors Association web site and find a teacher. Ed Kiess came over and tried to correct decades of bad habits. From him we learned that one of the world’s leading pool cue makers is in Wellington, Florida: Dennis Searing. The average cue sold by Searing is $5,000, but it is possible to go glitzy and spend $40,000. It is a 12-year wait for a Searing cue! Ed was horrified at the idea of using sandpaper to rough up the tips. A specialized tool with pins and a scuffer is the correct device. Every year or so, one should pay $20 to get new tips put on the cues (Triangle is the preferred brand for house cues; Searing’s own multi-layer tip is the best). Ed is a huge fan of Simonis 860 cloth (Belgian), which is supposedly super fast. Fred likes Championship Invitational Teflon (made in Mexico; less expensive).

Perhaps because of an introduction from Ed, we had the honor of getting our crummy house cues tuned up and re-tipped by Dennis Searing himself!

We learned that it takes at least 10 months for Searing to make a cue, mostly because the wood has to age. This is not so that the wood can dry out but so that the “stress” can come out of the wood. Searing is not disdainful of the ignorant and incompetent, as you might expect, but generous about sharing his knowledge and love of craftsmanship. Searing explained to us that if you happened to find a big piece of wood without flaws you could make an excellent one-piece cue. An expert pool player thus might be able to get a very good cue by trying out 25 house cues and picking the best one that just happened to be fabricated from a great piece of wood. The two-piece cues that Searing makes offer some additional options for balance and are easier to transport, but Searing didn’t tell us to throw out the Nick Varner house cues that had come with our table.


Instructional materials recommended by Ed:

Interesting-looking instructional materials that Ed did not mention:

August 16, 2022 update: Proving my neighbor correct, Facebook alerts me to a Peter Vitalie pool table that would cost $15,000 new (if the company were still in business). $500 to the person who can arrange same-day removal!

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What to do with a bunch of wall boxes that are wired for 12V power?

Our new house has a fancy ADT alarm system that will shout out, if you want it to, when anyone opens a door. Presumably before this went in, the house also was equipped with an elaborate door alarm system for all of the doors leading to the back yard and pool. This would alert people in the house that, for example, a toddler was in danger of falling into the pool.

I’m not sure that the door sensors work anymore and, given that we have the elaborate ADT system, I don’t know why we would ever need these door/pool alarms.

We have four of these cluttering the walls of the house. Does anyone have a brilliant idea for what to do with a network of 1-gang boxes that are fed with 12V? There is no CAT 5 wire to the boxes.

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What’s a good PoE security camera?

We are soon to have an exciting power-over-Ethernet (PoE) switch. I need to run a Cat 5e wire (the punchdown block is Cat 5e so we’re sticking with old tech) out to the edge of the back yard to support a TP-Link Omada outdoor wireless access point (example). We have a Synology NAS, which can support IP cameras. I was thinking that it would make sense to run a second Cat 5e wire to support an IP camera to keep watch over the back yard.

In the unusual event that an actual bad person shows up (not to say “bad guy” because criminals may come in a rainbow of gender IDs), a camera that moves to follow them and turns on some little spotlights might scare them away. The Reolink RCL-823A seems to do all of this and Reolink cameras are purportedly compatible with Synology. The Amazon reviews are mixed, especially with respect to the auto tracking.

What else is there that might work, other than leaving a ferocious golden retriever to patrol the yard at night?

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The amazing survival story of an immigrant from Tijuana

The previous owners of our house didn’t want to bother taking the TVs off the walls so they left us with 6 TVs, one of which is actually outdoors under an overhang. It is a Samsung UN55D6000 made in Tijuana, Mexico in March 2011. Someone had cut a hole in the exterior concrete wall and wired a $5 extension cord down to an outlet in the hallway. The TV and cable box were plugged into this extension cord. I had an electrician clean up the situation recently and we found that the following still worked:

  • the TV part of the TV
  • the speakers
  • an HDMI input
  • a USB power output (keeping a Chromecast running)

After 11 years in the Florida heat and humidity and occasionally getting splashed by rain (only in very high winds), the immigrant is apparently thriving!

(It is conceivable that this 1080p soldier did not spent its entire career in the outdoor killing field. Perhaps this TV first served inside the house and was pushed out when the 65-inch 4K TV arrived in the family room.)


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Audio Pro, the Swedish alternative to Sonos for whole-house music

Whole-house music is great. Buying things from our Swedish brothers, sisters, and binary-resisters is great as a way of showing support for their courageous decision not to order lockdowns, masks, etc. These principles intersect in Audio Pro, a well-established Swedish company that transitioned from powered speakers to multi-room music in 2017.

At $129, the Audio Pro no-amp no-speaker Link 1 node is much cheaper than the Sonos Port ($449). Audio Pro seems not to make any direct competitor to the $699 Sonos Amp (the Wi-Fi node plus a 125W/channel stereo power amp to drive speakers; back-ordered until mid-August!). So you couldn’t have quite as clean an installation with Audio Pro because you’d have to add a small Class D amp to get comparable capability. I guess this makes sense because Audio Pro is all about powered speakers. Why would they want to make a box for fools who still own passive speakers?

Has anyone tried Audio Pro? The British magazine What HiFi? top-rates Audio Pro among Sonos competitors.

Sonos is winding down support for previous generation gear like what we own and we don’t have quite enough nodes for the current house so we need to eBay all of our Sonos stuff soon. Do we buy the latest Sonos products, showing our support for the Science-followers of Santa Barbara (they also have offices in Science-following Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco)? Or do we buy Audio Pro, saving some $$ and giving money to unmasked Fauci-deniers?

The reviews on Amazon suggest that Audio Pro’s multi-room system got off to a rocky start, but now works for most people. The reviews for Sonos are nearly all five stars.

One thing that is strange about Audio Pro is that the no-amp Link 1 device doesn’t have any inputs. Some of their speakers have RCA and 3.5mm inputs, but if you were trying to pull sound out of a legacy stereo system, there would already be speakers in that room. The Sonos Port is 3X the price, but it does have the line input that you’d expect.

Another area where the Sonos Amp and Port lead: buttons on the device to play/pause and adjust volume. Some of the Audio Pro speakers have a big array of buttons (including presets for radio stations), but the Link 1 lacks the basics that Sonos always includes. I don’t know why Audio Pro can’t just copy Sonos and make a clone of the Sonos Amp. The company knows how to make the streaming hardware and they know how to make power amps (or how to ask people in China to make them!).

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