My 3 Year Bookcase Project

Posted by mitch on May 20, 2015
home, productivity

Back in 2011 over the Thanksgiving break, I was playing with learning how to do things in SketchUp and drew a 3d model of a bookcase idea I had for my office. My office is in the “1/2 story” (the third floor) of my house, which means low ceilings. In my 2008 remodel, I gutted it, rewired it, vaulted the ceiling, and so on.

About 16 months later in early 2013, I drew this picture and sent it to my architect, Carl Oldenburg:


I have a lot of heavy books and wanted short spans to avoid bowing. Carl whipped up this awesome SketchUp rendering:

Haile Bookcase 2013-03-09a

Who could say no to building that? Inspired by Carl’s skills, I spent some time practicing and playing with ideas. I really wanted to know what this was going to be like:



After various distractions, we had the design finalized by December 2013:

Screenshot 2015-05-20 23.44.05

In early 2014, I got in touch with Aaron Honore, who is the most serious, hardcore, and awesome cabinetry carpenter I’ve known (and I’ve known more than one). Aaron was booked for 6 months, but I was willing to wait.

Construction finally happened in September 2014. I worked out of my workshop during this time:


In 2008, before moving into the house, many rooms were gutted, the house was rewired, etc–this is what the front wall of office looked like about 4 months after moving in:


The below picture is what it looked like by the time Aaron was done with it. I think the install took about 2 weeks, I don’t really remember–certainly Aaron took his time and made it perfect:


For such a small project, it was still quite an outlay of time and a bit of stress. But having had the bookcase now for 8 months, I have no regrets. I certainly took my time and thought it through in great detail. There’s a built-in stereo section that connects an amp to the old speaker wire drops I put in during the 2008 remodel, LED lights under the eaves and the wall lights in the ‘A’ are wonderful.

My house is small. I highly recommend built-ins for small living. You can use every bit of space, and there’s no gap between the storage and the wall, which in some cases, saved me 2-3″. By customizing the depth of built-ins to narrower-than-usual in some cases (my living room has a 10″ deep bookcase that is 14 ft long), I’ve saved an effective 5″ of space in a room. If a room is 12 ft across, that’s significant.

What’s the point of this post? Beats me. “Take your time and do it right,” perhaps.



Update: I realized after posting this that I didn’t mention some of the non-obvious features of the bookcase. Sure, you can tell from the photos there are lights and doors. For anyone thinking about doing this, here’s a few things I did that I really like:

1. The deep shelves under the eaves have glass shelf insets to let in light to the back of the lower shelf. I’ve doubled up books on the bottom shelf, and this lets me see what’s back there if my eyes are aligned with the roof angle. The light spilling out above the books below makes the space feel more open that it would if it was dark:



2. The speaker posts, Ethernet ports, and power are in the back of the lower shelves where I thought I might want audio equipment. I also ran a 50 ft TOSlink in the bookcase from one end to the other, just in case I ever wanted it. One thing I did not consider was how difficult it would be to do the wiring because the shelf is fixed and only 10″ high. Having the removable glass panels turned out to be quite handy for that.



3. The light switch for the eave LEDs and the ‘A’ lights is hidden behind one of the shaker panels. It’s a double switch in a 1-gang box.


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Moving AV Gear to the Basement

Posted by mitch on January 04, 2014
audio, home

When I bought my house in Boston, I gutted most of it and did extensive rewiring, including speaker wires in the living room. Recently, I had a large built-in cabinet/bookcase built for the living room and had to move some of those wires and outlets in preparation for it. Since the electricians had to come out anyway, I decided to move all my AV components into the basement. The goal was just to have the TV, speakers, and subwoofer in the living room.

There are now 5 drops down to the basement for the surround speakers. I soldered RCA keystone jacks onto one of the old speaker drops for the subwoofer–the only place I could find solderable keystone RCA jacks was, strangely enough, Radio Shack (for 57 cents each). Behind the TV, I had the electricians pull 8 new Cat6 drops and a single HDMI cable. I also had the electricians run two 15 amp dead runs that go into a 2-gang box and terminate in AC inlets (male connectors) so that the TV and sub in the living room are plugged into the same surge protection system as the basement, thus avoiding any ground loop issues, and also eliminating the need for surge protectors in the living room for this gear.

Four of the Cat6 drops terminate at the AV shelving. I planned to use 2 of these for serial and IR lines and 2 are held for spares in case of future video-over-Cat6 or other needs. The other four Cat6 lines run to the basement patch panel. Of course, some of these could also be patched back to the AV shelves if needed for uses other than Ethernet.

I’m using a cheap IR repeater from Amazon to control the components from my Harmony remote. This works fine with my Onkyo receiver, HDMI switch, Apple TV, and Roku. It doesn’t work with my Oppo bluray player–apparently there’s something different about the IR pulse Oppo uses, and I couldn’t figure out which general repeaters would work from various forum posts. Fortunately, Oppo sells their own IR repeater system for about $25, and I’ve modified it to run over Cat6 as well. This means I have two IR sensors hidden under the TV that plug into 1/8″ mono jacks in the wall using Leviton keystone modules.

The Playstation 4 and Wii use Bluetooth controllers, which work fine through the floor. Nothing fancy was needed to extend these. It turns out that the Wii sensor bar is an “IR flashlight”–the bar itself doesn’t send any data to the Wii. So I bought one with a USB connector on it so it can plug into any USB power supply. (The original Wii bar had weird 3-tooth screws and I didn’t want to tear it up.)

I also finally got around to building a 12v trigger solution for my amplifier–my 7 yr old Onkyo receiver doesn’t have a 12v trigger for the main zone, but a 10v wall wart plugged into the Onkyo does the trick, now that I’ve soldered a 1/8″ mono plug onto the end and plugged it into the Outlaw amp. (My front speakers are 4 ohm and the Onkyo would probably overheat trying to drive them.)

The final missing piece was a volume display. I missed knowing what the volume was on the receiver, the selected input, and the listening mode, so I built a simple serial device that plugs into the Onkyo’s serial port over Cat6 cables. I have a 20×2 large screen display that queries the Onkyo for status a few times a second (powered by Arduino–firmware code is here). Muting, powered off, volume, listening mode (e.g., THX, Stereo, Pure Audio…) are displayed, as well as the input source. My next step is to add a second serial interface to the display so that I can query the Oppo and show time into the disc, playing state, etc. (Many newer receivers support their serial protocols over Ethernet, albeit at a higher standby power usage, and as far as I can tell, Oppo has not opened up their Ethernet protocol, though their serial protocol is well documented.) The enclosure is a rather ugly, but works for the moment until I build something better:

Note that another option is just to buy a receiver/pre-amp that puts the volume out over HDMI. My receiver is older and leaves the HDMI signal unmolested. Most modern gear will just put the volume up on the screen, but my next processor is going to be a big purchase, and this was a lot cheaper for now.

I did make a few mistakes:

  • The quad coming off the inlets should have been a 4-gang (8 outlets).
  • I almost only had 4 Cat6 drops behind the entertainment center, mostly due to the length of Cat6 cable I had on hand. Happily my electrician went and bought another 1000 ft spool and said, “Mitch, what do you really want?”
  • I probably should have run a second HDMI cable, just in case I ever need it.
  • The 8 Cat6 cables, a coax line (in case I ever want another sub or need a coax line), and the HDMI cable all go into a 3-gang box in the living room. This is a bit tight for this many wires, especially when one of the Cat6 lines splits into two 1/8″ connectors.
  • Not really a mistake, but if you’re doing this and buying new shelving for the rack, buy shelves with wheels. I am just using an old shelf I already had, but wheels would be very handy.

If you have a small living room with a basement or closet nearby, this might be a good way to go if you don’t want to get rid of AV components. With more room to keep things organized, more air flow around the electronics, I’m really happy with how this turned out. Since the bluray player is in the basement, the DVD and blurays are now in the basement, and this has freed up ~50 linear feet of shelving upstairs. (I’ve ripped a lot of my movies, but it’s a pain and I haven’t done them all.)

And best of all, there is now a lot less crap in the living room.

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Getting Back Into It

Posted by mitch on March 10, 2013

Over the last 25 weeks, I’ve been trying hard to do very little beyond sleep and goof off. Even though I don’t have a job and have been considering myself on vacation, looking back at my calendar, I still managed to do over 100 business-related meetings and spent 4 weeks on the road. Nevertheless, I’ve been relaxing–I bought a Playstation Vita last March and didn’t start playing it until January.

I’m starting to get going on a few projects and as I fiddle around with possible next directions, and come to realize that I don’t have enough desk space to juggle completely different activities that hit creative road blocks. I was at a stand-still most of last week because my desk was covered with a project that wasn’t going anywhere. I needed another desk to dump it on so I can still look at it, but engage on another project while it percolates. Since I’m doing some other remodeling this year, I started looking at reclaiming my closet (which is just a junk room) to pick up an extra 35 sq ft of “spreading out” surface area.

I’m also finding that I have too little in the way of filing space–despite moving most “archive” files into banker boxes and shredding about 60 gallons of files, I still lack sufficient filing space. So this configuration adds a second linear file cabinet.

Some other remodel considerations for the office:

1. Build a large built-in bookcase at the front of the office. In this configuration, it will hold most of my office-related books. Barely–which would be a big improvement over the current situation. Below is a rendering that my architect created of the bookcase. I also plan to reclaim space under the eave to put the stereo without it taking up floor space in the room where it currently resides.

2. Remove the chimney. I should have done this 5 years ago but felt like I had feature-creeped on the first remodel too much as it was. To finish a software release, you have to stop adding crap to the release and get things fixed. The same applies to a remodel.
3. Finally install a split AC system. I got a quote for this years ago, but could never get the fellow to come out and do the work.

Sadly, remodeling in real life isn’t as fast as a few hours of monkeying around in SketchUp… so until then, piles of stuff it is!

If you came to this post hoping to read about what I’m working on and you weren’t happy to hear about goofing off, come back in 25 weeks!

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USB Wall Outlets Follow-up

Posted by mitch on February 11, 2012
hardware, home

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about USB wall outlets. On January 25th, I stumbled over the Cooper USB Charger that is a Decora-shaped receptacle. This is exactly what I wanted. Some of the other vendors poo-poo the Cooper for only being a 700mA charger vs 1 or 2 amps, but frankly, the smaller mA rating means the Cooper footprint is smaller. I am also not sure I want a 2 amp charger in a wall box.

Since my use case is to plug things in overnight or for long periods of time, I don’t care how long it takes an iPad or iPhone to charge with this (within a reasonable amount of time). I do, however, care a great deal about the cosmetic looks–which is the whole point of a USB wall outlet, right? If you didn’t care about looks and only cared about charging speed, a big mess would suit you fine. The Cooper has the looks right and the standard Decora form factor means that the Cooper can be installed into multi-gang boxes with other outlets, other Coopers, etc. and it will all fit OK.

Today I installed the Cooper next to the side table on my side of the couch. What a difference it makes in the wire clutter. Before I had a “right angle” adapter to fit in the iPad charger, iPhone charger, and a Mac laptop charger. The clutter is vastly reduced, as you can see from the pictures. I also installed another one of these outlets next to my nightstand for iPad & Kindle charging.

Installation is fairly easy and no different than any other device you might install. One thing to note that is there’s one only set of screw terminals, so if you’re replacing an outlet in the middle of a run, you might find yourself adding pigtails–which is another plus for this device having a smaller physical footprint than the competition. If the previous sentence didn’t make sense, you should call your electrician to install this.

I’m very happy with this solution. You “lose” an AC outlet, but if at least one of those outlets was for a USB charger, you are actually losing nothing, and if both outlets had a USB charger, you gain an outlet. The Cooper also looks better than the other options on the market I’ve seen (U-socket, NewerTech, and various wall-plate chargers). Also, despite what some guy on Amazon says, these outlets are UL-listed.

I’ve posted more pictures in this flickr set.

You also might enjoy my post on built-in night lights.

P.S. I had noted in the prior blog post that I had previously bought the U-socket from FastMac–In fact, I spent over $90 on buying four of them, but I never installed them because they are ugly. I think I was so disappointed that I threw them away when I got them. Another big downside was that I ordered them on 6/2/2010 and they were shipped to me on 2/18/2011–that’s 8 months later, with no warning, which if not a violation of credit card rules (30 day pre-order is the limit, right?), certainly was disappointing from a customer service perspective.

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Nest Thermostat Installation

Posted by mitch on December 31, 2011

I finally got around to installing my Nest Thermostat. Even though I had pre-ordered it the day it was announced (Oct 25th) and it was delivered to my home around November 30th, I hadn’t had a week when I knew I’d be home long enough to deal with installing and support. I didn’t want to install a new thermostat during winter and then go on a trip for a week, leaving my girlfriend to deal with it if there were any problems. Somehow I didn’t think she’d find much humor in that, though I could be mistaken.

In any event, installation was easy. I was surprised to find out how much my electrician destroyed the wall when he put the old one in, so patching and painting the wall will prove to be the hardest part. I’m a bit annoyed because this was a brand new wall built in the 2008 remodel–the wall was about 3 days old when the electrician made a mess. I was able to re-use one of the screws from my old thermostat mount (a basic 7-day programmable Honeywell I bought at Home Depot). If you have such a thermostat, you might find yourself painting or repairing the wall because the Nest is smaller and a different shape:

The Nest comes with some tools (screwdrivers) to help the install but I didn’t use them because I forgot they were in the box. There are also some mounting plates if you don’t feel like fixing the wall or if you need to mount the thermostat to a 2-gang electrical box.

My house has only forced air central heating, so it was pretty simple to install–just two wires to R and W. One thing I had to research is that my old thermostat had a jumper from Rc to R; if you have such a jumper as well, rest assured Nest electronically provides this jumper internally. The Nest web site has some very good instructions and a nice compatibility checker based on the wires going into your old thermostat.

Once the thermostat was wired in and I turned the power to the furnace back on, the Nest booted up and I was able to join my WiFi network without issues. The Nest downloaded a software update and I set a few basic configuration parameters–zip code, a few questions about the heating system, and the minimal temperature to drop to when no one is home was the primary. From there, setting the temperature is as simple as turning the dial just like you would on an “old style” thermostat.

I found it a bit odd the “configuration wizard” doesn’t have you set-up a Nest.com account. I had to dig into the settings menu to do that. Once you’ve done that, you can login to the Nest through the Nest.com web site and see the temperature and humidity from anywhere. You can also change the temperature, see the learning schedule, diagnostic information, and so on. It looks like the web site has support for installing the Nest in multiple houses, too. The remote access feature is great and I suspect (and hope) Nest intends to build more home automation products to plug into this framework.

Nest access from a web browser (click for larger)

We have a Mac Mini that we use for most of our TV watching in the living room (with NetFlix, Amazon, and iTunes–we don’t have cable TV service and haven’t had it for 4 years). It would be nice to have a GeekTool widget showing the Nest status on the desktop on the living room TV. I’m not sure if this is something that can work with GeekTool out of the box or if Nest will provide APIs or if it can be scripted with Automator, Safari and GeekTool, but I might play with this later…

One negative about the Nest relates to where it’s mounted in my house. The Nest is configured to turn the screen on when it “sees” you approach it (so that you can see the temperature settings). However, I have some trim to the left of the Nest that might interfere with how it sees a person approaching from the usual direction (from the left). When I approach from the right it lights up perfectly. Perhaps this is something that I will get used to or can be addressed in software later.

Construction of the Nest is pretty solid, although I feel the logo shouldn’t be on the face. The prominence of the logo cheapens the Nest appearance quite a bit. Yes, it’s “good” marketing, but many premium home products speak for themselves in their look. The Eames lounge chair doesn’t have a prominent Eames logo on it. Nor do any of my high-end lamps. Nor does the iPhone. Yes, there are logos on those products, but it’s not front-and-center like it is with the Nest.

You can see more photos of the Nest here. I will report back in a few weeks or months after living with the Nest for a while.

Update Jan 1, 2012: Several people have asked if I think the Nest is a good value at $250. The primary selling point of the Nest is its learning ability. I don’t have any feedback on that yet. However, cheap programmable thermostats at Home Depot or similar stores will run you about $40-$100 depending on what you buy. If you go higher end, you can easily spend $300-$400 on a thermostat with WiFi from Honeywell at Amazon and it’s still a boring white box. Should a wall have an exciting thermostat? I often think of what the Miller brothers said when they were designing Myst on the challenge of creating interesting environments without making them too fancy, “you’re either walking through a room or you’re stopping and staring at everything.” For me, the look of the Nest alone justifies the price. It has a more modern and refined feel than a piece of white plastic. The aluminum sides mirror the wall surface it is placed on, which helps it blend in nicely with the background. But ignoring design and comparing the WiFi/remote access feature alone, I think the Nest is competitively priced.

Update Jan 9, 2012: All the other blogs I’ve seen on Nest installs show a lot of folks are using the included paintable plates that Nest includes to reduce patching the wall. But I felt these plates detract quite a bit from the simple look of the Nest, so I invested in the time of fixing up the wall and painting. I am really happy with the result:

Update Feb 22, 2012: I wrote a post on Nest ROI and the general lack of contrast vs my old thermostat.

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Kitchen Remodel Contemplations

Posted by mitch on December 23, 2011

Recently I have been spending some time planning a kitchen remodel. The kitchen remodel is something that we have been expecting to do since before buying the house. Frankly, there’s just no other way to say it–the kitchen sucks. It’s ugly, the cabinets are hugely inefficient, there are a mere 12 sq ft of built-in counter space, and the layout is ridiculous. Who puts a dishwasher in the corner? Anyone shorter than 6’0″ can’t unload the dishwasher and put dishes into the cabinets above without staging the dishes onto the counter first. The inefficient design is a bit weird because the room is quite large–it’s roughly 14 x 16 ft, with everything on one wall in the back.

Depending on what else is going on, I plan to start construction in either late 2012 or early 2013, so I have had plenty of time to look at kitchen design books, web sites, and make a lot of models in SketchUp. I’ve also spent some time thinking about the kitchen like I would a product. How will the kitchen be used? What are the use cases? What’s the workflow? Here are some of the things I’ve come up with to consider for how we use our kitchen:

1. Food preparation. Where do ingredients come from, both from the fridge and cabinets? What about spices, which are often stored closer to the stove than regular pantry items? If the user needs a mixing bowl, a serving dish, a baking dish, where do those come from? Is there room for ingredient preparation from the fridge and queuing for cooking? Where does trash go?

2. Staging food to the dining room. Is there a logical place to queue prepared dishes to leave the kitchen and be moved to the dining room? Does that space compete with other tasks?

3. Loading the dishwasher. Is there sufficient counter space that is naturally a target for putting dishes in queue for the dishwasher? Is that counter space likely to compete for other tasks, such as a dish drainer or preparation? How is this space positioned against the dining room or eat-in area? Is it natural for one person to queue dirty dishes while another person loads the dishwasher? Where do food scraps go? Where do dishes with leftovers go to queue for putting into the fridge?

4. Unloading the dishwasher. Where are the cabinets for pots and pans, plates and glasses, where are the drawers for flatware and other utensils? How does the design enable the user to move dishes from the dishwasher to those destinations with minimal work (number of steps to take, reaching in awkward ways, etc.)? For our volume of dishes, does there exist sufficient space in those destinations to hold the amount of dishes we want to keep in the kitchen? Is there a place for a dish drainer that doesn’t compete with other tasks?

5. Getting a drink. How efficient is it to enter the kitchen, get a glass, get ice, and a Coke? What about making coffee? Mixing a manhattan? Where are the beverage supplies and glassware? How does the drink preparation flow co-exist or interfere with cooking flow?

6. Number of users. Knowing how we cook as a couple, is there space for each person’s tasks and access to tools and ingredients with minimal cross-over with the other’s tasks? Can two people prepare food and still interact? What if there is just one person preparing food and the other person wants to hang out in the kitchen? Can this be accomplished without physical overlap of space?

When we bought the house, our realtor advised living with the crappy kitchen for a while to get a better understanding of its limitations and give careful consideration to what’s really important in a kitchen. I thought this was pretty strange advice, but since there was so much other remodeling going on, I was happy to go with it. This turned out to be amazing advice. I never would have articulated much of the above without having to consider what makes the current kitchen a disaster.

If you think I’ve missed something in the above ideas, please feel free to tell me. I am not a professional architect of physical spaces, just software.


Motion Detector Light Switches

Posted by mitch on December 03, 2011

I installed a Leviton ODS10-ID Decora Wall Switch Occupancy Sensor in a room in my basement with a cold-start fluorescent tube and an instant-start fluorescent tube (wired in parallel off the same switch) and it works great! I’ve tried some cheaper motion-sensing switches but they can’t control non-incandescent bulbs, especially cold-start fluorescent tubes.

There are some great properties to this switch–the angle of visibility and length of time to run the lights are configurable. The pigtails on the switch are copper, not aluminum, so you don’t need special wire nuts to wire this in properly. There’s no audible click of a relay (not to my ears anyway).

I did run into two small snags while installing this. I was installing this in a standard 2-gang steel electrical box with a GFCI outlet, which was quite tight, but I did manage to make it all fit. If you’re installing this in a cramped box, beware that the unit is quite large–as large as a GFCI–so you may find you need to install a bigger electrical box. Like many installs in steel boxes, I had to snip some of the metal support to make it fit. There’s no scoring on the metal (as there are on outlets), but aviation snips took care of this fine.

The other small issue I ran into was the plastic cover for the settings–this is a small cover on the front of the switch, between the push button at the bottom and the sensor at the top. I left it off, installed the switch into the steel face of the electrical box, and had a heck of a time getting the cover back on. I ended up using an Xacto knife to cut down a bit of the width on one side of the cover to get it back in place.

All in all, it was a great install and I’ve ordered another switch for my workshop lights.

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Built-in Nightlights

Posted by mitch on December 02, 2011

I love lights. Lamps, light fixtures, light bulbs–arranging, window-shopping, actually-shopping, experimenting with–I love lights. In two of the hallways in my house, I had a pair of nightlights plugged into outlets in the hall. I had my electrician put outlets in the halls specifically for the purpose of nightlights when re-wiring the house. However, my house cleaners kept leaving the lights on the floor, or turned off, or on a table in a different room, and so on.

I couldn’t seem to win the battle of the nightlights, so imagine my excitement when I found out about built-in nightlights. (If you’re having trouble relating, let’s just say I was pretty excited.) My local Home Depot only had these in ivory so I had to order them from the Home Depot web site to get white ones. They are made by Pass & Seymour, and unlike some of the competition, they are rated for a full 15 amps (some of the ones on Amazon appear to be rated for 6 amps??).

These are normal Decora-style sockets. You lose a socket, but you gain a nightlight that cannot be moved. There is a photocell and the light comes on and off as you would expect. The look is also very slick and smooth–much better than something hanging out of the wall. The box isn’t very deep and fits well into a standard-size electrical box, even ones with a few wires in them. The entire rear surface is a ground plate. It’s a bit weird the ground screw is at the top of the box vs the usual bottom, but any proper electrical box should have 6″ of length to work with, if it is up to code. Speaking of US electrical code, these are tamper-resistant, which conforms to the 2008 code changes.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with these. They output a good amount of light and the color temperature is in line with other LED nightlight options. But most importantly, it’s a cleaner look–I hadn’t considered it before, but my old nightlights looked cluttered. Now the walls are a little easier on the eye.

Update 11-Feb-2012: Check out my post on built-in USB charging outlets!

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