Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

We got rain today. I woke to the sound of great big sheets of rain drumming down on the roof of the house early this morning, and although the clouds are done dumping heavy rain on us, there’s still a steady fall of light rain this morning, so my plans to take my kayak out for a paddle around the lake are sunk, so to speak. I mean, I could still go. I’ve got foul-weather gear I could wear, and I could stop every so often to bail water from the bottom of the boat, but that’s not really the kind of experience I’m looking for when I go paddling, you know? I like to have the sun and clear skies above me and a gentle swell below, and I don’t necessarily shy away from a headwind but I’d rather not have to exert myself too much. One of the truly beautiful things I’ve discovered about paddling is there really isn’t any need for me to over-exert myself. The natural buoyancy of the boat does almost all the work; I just show up for the ride, and provide an occasional push. I’m not exaggerating here; I admit I oftentimes do that but honestly, if you knew how little upper-body strength I have, you’d believe me when I say paddling is not a pastime that requires great big guns of steel. I do not have those. My guns fire Minie balls. *rimshot* Sorry, gun nerd joke. Had to be done.

sunken plans | 9:04 am CST
Category: daily drivel, hobby, kayaking, play, weather
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Monday, August 7th, 2017

I made my first road trip with the kayak on Saturday, to take it for a paddle on Mirror Lake near Wisconsin Dells. It’s only about an hour away from Our Humble O’Bode if you take the interstate, which I did on the way up, an experience I wouldn’t care to repeat. All three lanes were virtually bumper-to-bumper with every kind of recreational vehicle, as well as cars and trucks piled high with bicycles, canoes, kayaks, and camping supplies, all fighting for the honor of the front of the line like it was a Nascar race. If I ever go anywhere with a kayak strapped to the roof of my car again, and I’m pretty sure I will, I’m going on state highways. They may be narrow and some are in bad repair, but I won’t have to fight the constant backwash of one big-bodied vehicle after another blowing past me at eighty miles an hour.

Mirror Lake is beautiful, if maybe just a tad too popular. There’s a pretty little state park right next to it with two neat little campgrounds that I might have to check into one of these days. The park rents kayaks, canoes and those stand-up paddle boards that are so popular right now even though they don’t go anywhere at a speed faster than a lazy amble no matter how hard you paddle, so the south end of the lake by the campground is absolutely lousy with campers having fun splashing and tipping each other over. The farther I went from the campground, though, the quieter it got, so I kept to the shore and paddled off into every inlet and river I could find.

And there were a few of them. None of them were much longer than a hundred yards or so, but there was something to see in every one of them: muskrats, log cabins, a fawn wading in the weeds along the shore. The last one I went down turned out to be a river that connected to another lake after meandering for about a quarter mile through a picturesque sandstone gorge where the rock walls towered over my head. I didn’t have enough time to go further than about halfway down the river, though, so I’ll have to find another weekend to go back and get a better look.

After packing up and hitting the road, I made a wrong turn and my one-hour trip home turned into three hours because I thought highway 113 went straight through to Madison, and it does, sort of, but there’s a significant gap in it that I missed the first time I looked at the map. The gap first made its presence known to me when I got to Merrimac and turned south as the road signs directed. The road went directly into the lake. That can’t be right, I thought as I turned around and consulted my map. I went all the way through Merrimac looking for the highway before I noticed my map mentioned something about a ferry. Going back to the road that went down to the lake, I saw many cars lined up, and signs that also mentioned a ferry.

Ordinarily I would be totally down with a ride on a ferry, but this one could only take fifteen cars at a time, and there were at least thirty cars in front of me. My stomach was growling and I was already going to be late getting home, so I pored over the map for an alternate route. From what I could tell, though, the options for getting around the lake were limited. Essentially, I would’ve had to drive almost all the way back to Wisconsin Dells. Bowing to the inevitable, I got in line and waited.

As a consolation prize, there’s an ice cream stand on the Merrimac side of the crossing, and as I had to wait at least ten minutes for the ferry to cross over and come back, I took the opportunity to ask them to dish up a scoop of butter pecan for me. No more growling stomach after that.

When I finally drove aboard, thirty minutes or so later, the trip across was quick, maybe a little more than five minutes, and I was headed south again as fast as a county highway would let me go. Forty or fifty miles an hour, mostly, slowing down for the tight turns and to pass through the little burgs along the way. Didn’t pull into the driveway at home until just after seven o’clock where the rest of the O-Folk were patiently waiting for me to light the barbeque and grill the pork tenderloins we had for dinner that night.

Mirror Lake | 12:01 am CST
Category: kayaking
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Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Did I tell you about the juicy cobra? No? I didn’t? I CAN’T BELIEVE I FORGOT TO TELL YOU ABOUT THE JUICY COBRA!

It’s a yoga pose, sort of. Try to contain your disappointment. The pose we were doing was really a baby cobra, and that’s what the instructor called it the first couple times we did it, but after we were warmed up and started working the flow a little faster, she said something like, “Plant your hands, step back into plank, lower all the way to the ground and then get that big juicy cobra.”

I almost choked on my tongue.

After that, she wouldn’t stop saying it. “Big, juicy cobra,” over and over again. Nobody else seemed to think this was unusual, so after class when it was just B and I in the car, I said to her, “Big Juicy Cobra is my porn name.”

“I knew you were thinking that!” she said. “I half-expected you to say something like that in class!”

So I wasn’t the only one thinking it.

juicy cobra | 9:38 pm CST
Category: yoga | Tags: ,
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Monday, January 16th, 2017

Fair winds and following seas, Eugene Cernan.

Gene Cernan | 6:16 pm CST
Category: space geekery | Tags: ,
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Saturday, January 7th, 2017

The yoga studio where we had a membership for more than a year closed a month or two ago, so now we’re trying out a new place. Nice place, lots of different classes, like the owner. We keep going back.

One very different thing about this studio than any other studio we’ve been to is that it has floor-to-ceiling mirrors along one wall, like a dance studio. In most of the classes we’ve been to, the mirrors were curtained off, which I thought was a good idea, because I don’t want to be staring into my own butt while I’m bent over in downward dog.

But in the class we went to this morning, the instructor asked us to line up along the blank wall so we could see ourselves in the mirror. “It’ll be good,” she said. “You’ll be able to check your alignment.”

I’ve been practicing yoga for almost three years now, long enough that I could dare to say I felt pretty good about the way I was aligning most of my poses, but after watching myself in the mirror today, I can say with confidence that I look like a bumpkin from Hicksville doing yoga for the first time. And I know it was probably a good thing for me to see what I was doing wrong so I could realign my poses, but deep down in the atomic bomb shelter of my soul I hope we don’t face those mirrors again any time soon.

reflection | 4:48 pm CST
Category: yoga
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Monday, September 5th, 2016

Dammit, I did that thing again where I find a typewriter in a thrift shop, and then I buy it. I was getting pretty good at not doing that second part. And this was less than a week after I bought a typewriter from Goodwill. “I think there may be something wrong with you,” My Darling B observed as I tucked the typewriter in the back seat of the car, and she may not necessarily be wrong.

57 Royal Quiet De Luxe

There’s a resale shop next to the studio where we go for yoga on the weekends. It was open on Saturday morning after our class was finished and I haven’t been there in ages, so I told B, “I’ve just got to duck in here a minute, just to check things out,” and in I went. I don’t think she believed for a second that I was going to “just check things out,” but she went along with it anyway.

The shop sells stuff gathered at estate sales: furniture, china, books, tools for the work shop or the yard. They almost never have any typewriters, although a month ago, maybe two, I spotted an unusual Remington electric and wanted to see if it was still there. It was so broken that it would at best be a research project I would dissect and eventually throw away, so it would have to be marked down quite a bit for me to take it home, but I figured if it was still there, they might accept any offer, no matter how low, for me to take it off their hands.

As it turned out, they still had the Remington, but behind it was a greenish fiberglass carrying case that could only be holding a Royal portable. I cracked it open and, sure enough, I found a Royal Quiet De Luxe. It had a tan paint job and white key caps, the first one I’ve seen like that.

It was a bit dark in the corner of the shop where I found it, so I took it to the counter where there was some daylight, hauled it out of the case and got a good look. The poor thing was a mess. For one thing, it looked at first as though all the key caps had been painted white, or maybe all the letters had been rubbed off from heavy use, because they were all blank, but after I tapped one of the keys three or four times to see if the type bars moved freely, I could just make out the letter “G” on the key cap, and there was a gritty white residue on my finger. Every key had such a thick coating of this residue that they appeared to be blank.

The bail was sat cockeyed across the platen and I couldn’t straighten it out because a screw was missing and someone had rather flimsily repaired it by pushing a paper clip through the hole and bending it over to hold it together. It was not a repair that could have resulted in an enjoyable typing experience.

I already have two Royal QDLs at home: a 1951 QDL that appears to be the same model that my dad had on his desk, and a 1950, when they still put glass tops on the key caps. I didn’t need another typewriter. When you’re talking about need, one is the limit, two if you must have an emergency backup. I have more than two. In point of fact, the exact number of typewriters in my possession is not known, but it’s more than fifteen. So “need” is not a thing with me. I crossed the line into obsession long ago.

The typer was priced at twenty-five bucks. I offered the shop keeper ten, hoping he would counter with fifteen. Instead, he offered it to me for eighteen, still a pretty good deal. I took it home, spread newspapers on the dining room table, got some cleaning solvents from the basement and a pile of rags from the hall closet, and set to work.

rubbing the residue off the key caps

The white residue came off the keys very easily. I remember there was a similar-looking residue, although not as thick, on the keys of the Royal QDL that I’m going to call “Dad’s typewriter” from now on. I also read about it in the “My Old Typewriter” blog, where the blogger suggested removing it with Goo Gone. I used mineral spirits on half the keys, Goo Gone on the other half, and I have to say I think the Goo Gone worked a bit better. It also smells nicer. I don’t remember what I used to get the residue off the other QDL, but whatever I used, it hasn’t come back yet.

Almost all the type bars moved freely except for the “B” and the “K,” which wouldn’t fall back after striking the platen. I used a toothbrush to flush the segment with lots of mineral spirits while banging away at the keys, rapping out Quick Brown Fox and We, The People over and over until all the type bars rose and fell back freely.

While I was banging away at the keybank, I noticed that the ribbon failed to advance. I tried switching the ribbon direction, but it still wouldn’t advance and I couldn’t turn the spool with my finger in either direction. The mechanism seemed to be frozen. I lifted the Royal up so I could see it from underneath, shined a flashlight into the works so I could see what I was doing, and with a little experimentation learned that a piece of steel that was part of the bracket holding the advance wheel had been bent out of shape so it pressed against the wheel. I gently squeezed it with a needle nose pliers until I could turn the wheel with my finger. Presto! The ribbon advanced automatically once again.

After putting a new ribbon in the typer and rapping out a few more quick brown foxes, I could see that the key slugs needed a good cleaning. No matter how vigorously I scrubbed the slugs with a toothbrush or slathered them with mineral spirits, though, they remained stubbornly crudded up.

crudded-up type face

Turned out the filth clogging the key slugs was so old that I had to use a dental pick to get it out. The mineral spirits helped soften the collected crud, but the bristles of my toothbrush just weren’t stuff enough to dig it out of the tiny nooks and crannies in the type face. (Must remember to buy a brush with extra-hard bristles next time I’m in the store.) The dental pick was especially good at this, however. It was tedious work, but returning this crisp type face to the printed page was worth it.

type face on 57 Royal QDL

One of the last things I had to do before I called it a day was fix the bail. I could type on the machine all right, even with half the bail hanging at a wonky angle, but that bent paper clip was bugging the hell out of me. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a hardware store in town that had screws in stock that were small enough to do the job, so I had to “borrow” a screw that was holding down the cover of a junker Smith-Corona I haven’t gotten around to cleaning up yet. The screw was not quite as long as the one it replaced, but it was just long enough to do the job until I can source a replacement.

I haven’t cleaned the cover of the Royal QDL yet; that’ll be a project for another weekend.

57 Royal QDL | 9:02 am CST
Category: hobby, typewriters
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Monday, January 25th, 2016

No weekend would be complete without a home improvement project, and no home improvement project would be complete until there was blood.

The spigot in the kitchen sink has been dripping for weeks. Okay, more like months, but it was a drip we could put up with when it started because it would drip for a little while, then stop. Then it would drip for a while longer, but it would still stop. Then we would have to jiggle the handle to get it to stop. And then finally, about a week ago, it wouldn’t stop dripping no matter what we did to it.

And it didn’t just drip from the end of the spigot. Somewhere in the innards of the valve, water leaked out the back and down through the bottom. I had to put a bucket in the cabinet under the sink to catch it. When you have buckets in your house to catch falling water, it’s time for a home improvement project.

So yesterday morning, after I’d had my coffee, I drove to the local Menard’s to save big money on a kitchen faucet. There is a long, long aisle for kitchen faucets, but they were arranged so that the most expensive were at one end and the cheapest were at the other end. I went to the other end. They had a pretty good replacement for our kitchen faucet that wasn’t the cheapest plastic spigot ever made.

To swap out the faucet, I had to dismount the garbage disposal, then twist myself into a pretzel to climb into the cabinet and wedge my head between the back of the sink and the wall, so all the yoga I’ve been doing finally came in handy.

Taking out old, leaky plumbing is just about the grossest thing a grown man will ever have to do. The joints are all crusted over with minerals, mold and corrosion, and when it’s above your head like this one was, all that crap runs down your hands and arms into your armpits, thanks to the leak. Changing diapers isn’t this bad. At least baby poop stays in the diaper. Well, most of the time it does.

Then there’s the blood. The gods of home improvement require a blood offering, else the repair won’t hold. I usually try to keep it to skinned knuckles, but for this job I guess the gods wanted more, so I sliced the end of my thumb open with a screwdriver. The pain was blinding and the blood ran in rivers, so this repair should last for decades.

there will be blood | 7:00 am CST
Category: adventures in plumbing, Our Humble O'Bode, yoga
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Monday, November 2nd, 2015

New favorite moonshot find on the internet: recordings of the intercom chatter between flight director Gene Kranz and the members of the “White Team” that were on duty when an oxygen tank blew up on Apollo 13.

The cool of these guys is jaw-dropping, especially Sy Liebergot, the guy who eventually noodled out what had gone wrong. The pressure on him to come up with an answer for Kranz must have been colossal, doubly so when it turned out to be the answer nobody wanted to hear. “I’ve got a feeling we’ve lost two fuel cells,” he tells Kranz about twenty-six minutes after the accident. Up to that point, they had been working as if they might be able to fix the problem, even though Kranz already suggested they could use the lander to get home if they needed to.

This is a recording of the closed loop the flight director (Kranz) used to talk with the rest of the team, so the only time you can hear the astronauts is when the team members are not talking, and then only distantly, because they’re on another loop. But you can hear Lovell report about fourteen minutes after the accident that they’re venting something into space. I guarantee that chills will run down your spine.

chills | 8:00 am CST
Category: space geekery
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Sunday, August 16th, 2015

I’ve passed some time these last two weeks reading the Apollo Flight Journal, an annotated transcript of the transmissions from the astronauts who went to the moon. This is some pretty geeky stuff. The transmissions themselves would be nerdtastic all by themselves, but the annotations are so packed full of detailed moon-shot minutia that I may never stop getting my geek on.

But even if you’re not a space nerd, I thought you might enjoy this line of traffic from an astronaut to mission control about three hours into the flight:

002:56:10 Unidentified Speaker (onboard): [Garble] SECO [garble] gimbal [garble].

Speaking as someone who’s had to transcribe recorded conversations, I can empathize with a desire to get it all down in words, even when it gets crossed up with a frustration at not being able to make out all the actual, you know, words.

garble | 5:18 pm CST
Category: hobby, space geekery | Tags:
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Sunday, June 14th, 2015

After our weekly visit to the farmer’s market on Madison’s west side, My Darling B and I crossed the street to the Hilldale Mall where B had to shop for a dress to wear to a wedding. B hates shopping with the blazing white intensity of a thousand exploding suns, but the wedding is just two weeks away, so, even though there was still some time left to procrastinate, she decided it was time to get it over with. As luck would have it, she fell in love with the very first dress she found, but it’s fire-engine red and apparently there’s some rule about wearing a dress to a wedding that would upstage the bride. She put it on hold and kept shopping, eventually ending up with what she called “the granny dress,” a cream-colored, knee-length dress with lots of sparklies. B loves sparklies.

While she was trying on dresses, I wandered down the street a few blocks to a garage sale on Midvale Avenue that I spotted as we drove past. There wasn’t much that interested me, and the only thing I eventually bought was a book published by the Associated Press to commemorate the 1969 moon landing. Titled “Footprints On The Moon,” it was a coffee table book chock full of familiar photographs of the space race, starting as usual with Sputnik and ending with lots of lofty prose about how Neil & Buzz walking on the moon had ushered the world into a new era, yada yada yada.

When I picked up the book I had no intention of putting it down again. I’ll buy almost any book or commemorative nick-knack that came out of the space race. I’d never seen this book before and as I opened the cover I thought, Oh nice, something new for my collection, but I didn’t think it was anything extraordinary at first. Then the book fell open to the middle where the folded newspaper pages were tucked away. My heart sped up. It was the first four pages torn out of the Wisconsin State Journal dated July 21, 1969. “ON THE MOON!” the headline on the front page blared in block capital letters over a full-color photo of Armstrong and Aldrin in a training scenario, using tongs to pick up rocks in their space suits. An inside page ran a snapshot of the video feed from the moon, unfocused and about as black-and-white as any photograph could be. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you might not realize what was going on.

I tucked the pages back in the book and carried it reverently to the front of the garage where a quartet of old friends were bantering with some customers about one of the items for sale. When one of them turned to me and offered to help, I handed over the book, which he opened to the inside cover to read the price: two dollars. “Footprints on the moon,” he said conversationally, flipping through the first couple pages before it fell open to the middle where he found the newspaper pages. I was sure when he saw those that he would either take them out because they weren’t part of the book, or at least charge me for them separately. He barely looked at them before he snapped the book closed. I held my breath. “Two dollars, please,” he said. I dug two singles from my wallet and handed them over; he thanked me, and I walked away with a tiny piece of history.

Shopping for dresses took a lot out of B, so we headed straight home where she planned to spend time in her garden to decompress. It had been raining for the past two days so the ground was probably too wet for her to plant anything. Even so, she figured she could at least pull weeds, but when we got home she wasn’t up for that any more. “A new bar opened in town with fifty-zillion taps,” she informed me, and she wanted to go there to see what that was about.

The bar was Mr. Brews Taphouse, a Wisconsin chain of bars that specializes in craft beers and features loads of local brews as well as national craft beers. I don’t know how many taps there were; it was too way many for me to bother counting them. We settled in at a hightop table next to the beer menu chalked on the wall, where I studied the options long and hard. I spotted a specialty brew called Sixty-One from Dogfish Head that a friend had raved about; I wish I could say it was as good as the hype, but I couldn’t be bothered to finish it. B ordered a delicious barrel-aged porter called Barrel Aged Brrrbon with Vanilla from Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland OR. She let me taste it, then she let me taste it again, and then I tasted it some more. Eventually she just said to hell with tasting and we called it sharing.

After the first draughts were out of the way, we ordered a flight of four beers: Dynamo Copper Lager from Metropolitan Brewing in Chicago; Bean Me Up Scotchy from St. Francis Brewing in St. Francis WI; Shake Chocolate Porter from Boulder Beer Company in Boulder CO; and Quinannan Falls Lager from Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo MI.

We’ve been to Chicago on our own, but we have to go back soon on a proper beer tour because there’s some really good brews coming out of there. If Dynamo’s any indication, I could probably spend all day in the taproom of Metropolitan Brewing, sampling their beers.

St. Francis is just north of Milwaukee and we’ve enjoyed their beer before. Bean Me Up Scotchy is a barrel-aged version of their scotch ale, known as Pride, and I would guess they’ve added vanilla beans to the recipe to boot. Very smooth, and yummy enough to make me want more.

I don’t remember drinking any brews from Boulder Beer before, so that’s something I’m working on correcting, starting with this excellent porter.

Bell’s has been one of my favorite breweries ever since I tried Two-Hearted Ale, a very hoppy beer. I’m not so much into hoppy beers any more, but fortunately Bell’s has produced plenty of other styles that are ever so tasty, and this lager, I’m happy to report, is no exception. Plus, it comes from Kalamazoo, which gives me an opportunity to say Kalamazoo. I love to say Kalamazoo. Who doesn’t love saying Kalamazoo? Boring people, that’s who.

I can’t remember whether or not we visited Widmer Brothers when we were in Portland. Looking photos of the place and where it is on the map, I’m pretty sure we didn’t. If we didn’t, we were stupid. It looks like a pretty great place to visit. Plus, the vanilla porter we sampled was scrumptuous. Getting some right from the source would’ve been a treat.

Our sufficiencies well and truly serensified, we retired back to Our Little Red House to pass the rest of a quiet afternoon reading and napping until supper time. And that is a satisfying way to pass a Saturday afternoon.

walking on the moon | 9:04 am CST
Category: beer, books, entertainment, food & drink, hobby, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, space geekery
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Monday, May 25th, 2015

I just finished doing the almost unthinkable: I poured twenty-four pints of beer down the drain. That’s three gallons of beer, in case you’re trying to do the math in your head.

To explain: They were all home brews, and not particularly good ones. The vast majority of it came from a batch of brown ale that I screwed up and should’ve dumped out as soon as I tasted it. I’d made a vanilla extract for a batch of porter that was still fermenting, then suffered a major brain cramp as I was getting ready to bottle the brown ale and dumped the extract into it, instead. Didn’t taste awful, but didn’t taste very good, either. I was keeping it in the hopes that it would mellow a bit in the bottles and get better. It didn’t.

After dumping all that, I started looking around to see what else I had that should have been cleaned up. Turned out I still had about a half-dozen pints from the very first batch of all-grain brew that I made almost two years ago. If I hadn’t felt the need to drink that before, and I didn’t have a hankering to drink it now, which I didn’t, then I figured it was past its prime, and out it went.

And I had two big twenty-four ounce bombers of the second all-grain batch, which was a total clusterfuck from beginning to end. I kept it around only so I could perform various experiments on it. I’m all experimented out now, so it followed the rest down the drain.

Freed up a lot of bottles. Guess it’s time to brew more beer.

drainage | 11:16 am CST
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Saturday, April 18th, 2015

Phrases about working in the garden that sound normal when My Darling B says them but sound dirty when I say them:

  • pruning the sage
  • plowing the potato bed
  • weeding the patch
  • sowing the sweet peas
  • is that a dibble in your pocket?
is that a dibble in your pocket? | 11:06 am CST
Category: garden, random idiocy, yard work
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Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Re-hung a door in the basement. This didn’t end well when I tried it once before. It didn’t end entirely well this time, either.

I know, in theory, how to hang a door. I don’t have much in the way of practical experience, though. If I’d kept track of the number of doors I’ve hung, I could probably count them on both hands.

And, as it turns out, the hinge at the top of door I was trying to hang is not attached the way it should be, so the door hangs just cockeyed enough that it grinds against the jamb opposite the hinges when I close it. I’ll have to take the door down again, remove the top hinge, rev up the router and grind down the spot where the hinge goes, so it won’t stick the way it does now.

But not today. Today, I hung the door. I’m done.

hanging offense | 2:16 pm CST
Category: carpentry, housekeeping, Our Humble O'Bode
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Saturday, December 27th, 2014

Gah! The new motor I bought for this Bowser locomotive was supposed to be a plug-and-play installation: Unscrew the old motor, screw in the new motor, solder a few wires to complete the electrical connection, done! But no, that’s not going to happen with this particular locomotive because the holes where the screws go don’t line up. I’ll have to drill at least one new hole and hope that Baldwin, the patron saint of steam locomotion, smiles down upon us modelers, too, and will keep the gears on the motor tightly meshed together with the gears on the wheels. Yah, I don’t think they will, either.

model steam locomotive

praise Baldwin | 4:34 am CST
Category: hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Sunday, December 21st, 2014

I spent a couple hours yesterday afternoon picking teensy-tiny little pieces of a model train engine out of the dust and dirt on the floor under the work bench, and when I say “teensy-tiny,” I’m talking about pieces as small or smaller than fingernail clippings. And just to complicate things, the dust and dirt was littered with little splashes of solder that froze when they hit the floor into odd shapes that looked a lot like pieces of a model train engine, so just to be safe I picked up all those up, too, and sorted through them after arranging them under the light on the work bench. This is how I relax.

The bad news is that I discovered one of the side rods broke when it hit the floor. Side rods are the long iron arms that connect the driving wheels of steam locomotives together. If you’re a Buster Keaton fan and have seen The General (and if you haven’t, HOW CAN YOU CALL YOURSELF A BUSTER KEATON FAN?), he sat down on the side rod and rode it up and down, up and down as the locomotive began to roll away in the first reel. Love that scene.

The good news is that I managed to find a shop on the internet that sold me a new set of side rods. They didn’t, however, sell valve gear (can’t explain, too nerdy), so I’ll have to figure out how to cobble those together myself, probably many years from now in retirement when I have oodles of free time and a lathe.

side rods | 10:10 am CST
Category: hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Sunday, December 7th, 2014

I wasn’t sure why at first, but this photo of Christmas stockings hanging over a doorway (next to an upside-down Christmas tree) on the International Space Station warmed my heart:

Christmas stockings on the ISS

The photo was posted by Samantha Christoferetti in the on-line journal she’s been keeping while serving on Expedition 42 to the ISS. One of the comments left by a visitor to her journal noted that it was little things like this that made the difference between surviving in space and living in it. There it is; there’s the heartwarming connection.

stockings | 9:52 am CST
Category: space geekery | Tags:
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Thursday, December 4th, 2014

We came this close to skipping out of yoga class last night. Neither of us got much sleep the night before and shambled through the day like a couple of zombies, so when quitting time came we wanted nothing more than to go home and blob out on the sofa watching YouTube videos of kittens.

But I knew I would probably sleep better if I spent just an hour stretching the kinks out of myself, so I went anyway, and My Darling B apparently felt too guilty not to tag along. Nothing better for a good night’s sleep than guilt yoga.

guilt yoga | 6:27 am CST
Category: yoga
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Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

In July, right after I started brewing beer using all-grain recipes, I made a batch of what was supposed to be a light blonde ale using a recipe I’d found on the internet. I don’t usually tweak the recipes I find; if they’re good, I keep brewing them, but if I don’t like a recipe, I look for something else, so I didn’t think much about the amount of grain this recipe called for until I had finished boiling the batch and started to pump it into a fermenter. Why’s it look so dark? I wondered. This was supposed to be a blonde ale. I re-checked the recipe and noticed, somehow for the first time, that it was enough to make a ten-gallon batch! I brew five-gallon batches! To say this was a high-gravity brew is, well, a bit of an understatement.

I bottled it a couple weeks later, but apparently didn’t wait long enough for fermentation to have finished, because the dimples in the caps on the bottles turned into bumps and every cap I pried off gave way with a POW! instead of the usual pffft! And the beer wasn’t all that good. Cloyingly sweet and, I don’t know, just off. But I hated to pour it down the sink without trying to save it.

For the sake of experiment, I thought I’d see how much further fermentation might go by pouring a couple bottles into a half-gallon growler and leave it for a month or two. I made the mistake of opening the first bottle without chilling it, which must make one hell of a difference to how fast the carbon dioxide outgasses from the beer. Instead of the usual POW! this one opened with a cannon-like BOOM! and nearly every drop of beer erupted from the bottle in a geyser that nearly reached the ceiling. Luckily, I set the bottle in a sink before opening it, so the beer went down the drain instead of all over the floor, countertop or wherever.

I put two 22-ounce bottles in the fridge and left them there overnight, so they were well and truly chilled when I popped the tops off them the next evening. This time I got most of the beer into the growler, sealed it up and left it on the back of a dark shelf in the basement.

Last week, I finally brought that growler out, left it in the garage to chill and opened it the day after Thanksgiving while we were playing Boggle. At first, I wasn’t sure I liked it, but I have to admit it grew on me. I downed a couple glasses while we played. Sean asked for a refill on his first glass, too, so it must not have been too bad. I’m not sure what it’s like; I wouldn’t exactly call it beer, but it’s not all that bad. I probably won’t be making any more, though.

bottle rocket fuel | 6:12 am CST
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Friday, November 28th, 2014

Bottling Day! About four weeks ago, I brewed up a recipe for scotch ale that I found on the internet. Four weeks is about as long as you need to ferment any batch of beer, even one that started out with a gravity as high as 1068. I considered leaving it until next week, but after a quick after-lunch nap today I changed my mind, headed down to the basement and started washing bottles. I could easily do without that part of the hobby; there’s so much washing and cleaning that I end up with dishpan hands on brew day or bottling day. But the beer I end up with is so goooooooood! And I made it! So until it’s no fun any more, I clean and boil and bottle and BEER!

This is the first batch of scotch ale I’ve tried to make. There’s a brewing forum I visit online that has an enormous library of recipes I keep going back to because I haven’t been disappointed with any of them yet. The high-gravity brews have been especially tasty so I’ve been tending toward those. Kind of odd that it’s taken so long for me to try a scotch ale. From what I can tell, it turned out pretty good. It’s a little flat right now and won’t have the nicely crisp bite that a few weeks of bottle conditioning will give it, but I like the flavor it’s got right now, and it can only get better from here.

I need a name for it, and I’m open to suggestions. Any suggestions.

scotch ale | 3:47 pm CST
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing
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Thursday, November 27th, 2014

We played Bourbon Jenga last night, which is like regular Jenga but with cherry-infused bourbon. You can use regular bourbon if you like; it doesn’t have to be infused with cherries. It doesn’t have to be bourbon, either, but then it probably wouldn’t make sense to call it Bourbon Jenga. You still could call it that, I’m not going to stop you. It’s a free country, theoretically.

Anyway, Tim came over last night, thinking that he was going to have dinner with us but finding out as he came through the door that B & I were just on our way out to yoga class. Our instructor was recovering from a sinus infection that knocked her out for last Monday’s class but she was feeling well enough again to talk us through some restorative yoga exercises that mostly involved very heavy breathing and trying turn all the way around to face the same way as my butt. Couldn’t do either very well. I’m not a huffer-and-puffer kind of yoga guy; I think I get the importance of controlling my breath, but I don’t see why it’s important to make a big production out of it. Maybe that understanding will come later. And I’m not flexible enough yet to turn all the way around like an owl. I’m not sure that’ll ever come to a guy with a back as tired and crooked as mine, not that I won’t keep on trying. Our instructor can fold herself all the way over so she can stick her head between her knees, so I can see with my own eyes that it’s possible. I just can’t comprehend doing it myself yet.

By the time we got back home from yoga it was almost eight o’clock. Sean announced almost as we came through the door that they had been too hungry to wait for us, so Sean fed himself from the kitchen and Tim ordered take-out from the Indian place up the road. And kudos to him; that’s some of the best Indian take-away anywhere in the city. B & I were mighty hungry, though, so we sat down and tucked into the sloppy joes that B made earlier and left warming in the oven. When Sean caught the aroma, his face lit up and he took a seat at the table to devour a sloppy joe, too.

Then came the Jenga. I’ve wanted to play Jenga for weeks now. Can’t say where I got the hankering, but it’s been there long enough that I mentioned it to B a week or two ago and she put in an order with Amazon last week. I think it came in the mail the next morning. Same thing happened to the cook book I ordered and wanted to give to B for Christmas. I thought it would come maybe a couple days later and I would be able to fish it out of the mail before B would see it, but no, it came the very next day and was in a big bag with all the other stuff that she ordered from Amazon, so naturally she opened it. I didn’t even know it was in there until I heard her say, “What the hell?” and turned around to see her holding the cook book with a look on her face that went from puzzled to shocked realization to Oh Shit I’ve Opened My Christmas Present Early. I kissed her and wished her a Merry Christmas.

Okay, so back to Jenga, which became Bourbon Jenga when B got out the jar of infused bourbon and ladled out a shot for everybody while I set up the Jenga tower. We didn’t make it a drinking game; there weren’t forty-two overly-complicated rules about when you had to drink, it was just Jenga with drinks. Play the game, enjoy the bourbon, have a good time. Those were the only rules. We had a little trouble with the first one because I just wanted to play the game but B wanted to follow the instructions. Who reads the instructions for Jenga? But eventually we sorted that out and the game was played, the bourbon was enjoyed and I think everybody had a good time.

bourbon jenga | 9:53 am CST
Category: booze, entertainment, food & drink, games, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, Seanster, T-Dawg, yoga | Tags: , , ,
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Monday, October 20th, 2014

Brewed a batch of beer yesterday and it kicked my ass. Brewing it, not drinking it. It won’t be ready to drink for weeks. Fortunately, I’m a patient man. And I’m in shape to do all the twelve-ounce curls there are in the world. But brewing it was like calisthenics and yoga and weight lifting all rolled into one.

I’ve got a process down now so that I don’t miss any steps or spill beer all over my shoes, but it still takes about six hours from beginning to end, I’m on my feet all the time, and I have to do more than a little bit of heavy lifting, starting with climbing up a step-stool with a five-gallon glass bottle filled with water cradled in my arms. Weighs about forty-five pounds. I climb each step very deliberately, pausing at the top to check my balance, because one false move and I would end up in the emergency room. Gotta invest in plastic water bottles some day.

After the brew was over and I finished cleaning up, I tramped up the stairs, went straight to the bedroom and rested my eyes for about thirty minutes, stretching out across the entire bed. Felt sooo good.

 

ass kicked | 8:49 pm CST
Category: hobby, homebrewing, play
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Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

I am officially a dumbshit. You knew that. Shut up.

Some time ago I built what is basically a very big homemade refrigerator for two reasons: First, so I could control how my beer fermented. For that reason, this kind of very big homemade refrigerator is known among home brewers as a ferm chamber. Second, home brewers seem to be gadget freaks who like to knock together a lot of their own brewing equipment out of found objects. They most often turn beer kegs into kettles to boil beer in, for instance.

I made my ferm chamber by lining the space under a work bench with foam insulation, then using a chilling coil salvaged from a dehumidifier to keep it cool. It used to work pretty well, until it didn’t. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it, other than it didn’t get cold any more. The compressor kicked in, I could hear something circulating, but when I came back to it later it wouldn’t be cold. I read that sometimes the coolant leaks out and you have to take it in to get it recharged. I would rather pay to replace it with an all-new cooling unit, so I started hunting around for a small fridge.

I finally found one today, but while I was sizing up the job of tearing out the old unit and replacing it, I plugged it in one last time to confirm that it didn’t work. Nothing happened. Nothing at all. I thought that was unusual, so I plugged a fan into the outlet, and it didn’t work, either. That’s when I realized that I am officially a dumbshit.

The outlet is wired to a circuit that I ran directly from the breaker panel when I was putting up fluorescent lights in the corner of the basement that I rather grandly refer to as the brewery. They were ordinary workshop lights with pull-chains to turn them on and off. Eventually I got tired of stumbling into the dark corner, flailing in the dark for the ends of those pull chains, so I wired up a switch at the foot of the stairs. Presto! No more stumbling around in the dark.

I don’t remember if I built the ferm chamber before or after I cut the switch into the circuit. Doesn’t matter. The only important thing is, I wired the chiller to the same circuit that the lights are on, so whenever I turn the lights off, the chiller is turned off, too. And that’s why the ferm chamber hasn’t been keeping my fermenting beer cool. Dumb.

Dumb dumb dumb.

dumbshit | 3:27 pm CST
Category: hobby, homebrewing
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Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

It’s brew day! I wasn’t sure I’d be ready to brew again so soon after I thought I blew a circuit breaker in the control panel of my electric brew kettle. A new one came in the mail last Thursday and I replaced it the same night, but it still wouldn’t work so that wasn’t the problem. I had to dig the schematic diagram of the control panel out of a box and trace all the lines to find out it was a wire I replaced wrongly the night I thought I blew the circuit breaker. The wire pulled free, as they do with annoying frequency when I open the door to cool off the controllers, and I thought I stuck it back where it should have gone but no, turned out I connected it to a switch that I wasn’t using for anything. Talk about a facepalm moment.

With everything functioning perfectly once again, I geared up to brew another batch. Didn’t even have to think about what I wanted to make; the last batch of vanilla porter turned out to be so tasty that I knew it would all be gone sooner than I’d be comfortable with. The grain bill is sixteen pounds of malted barley but if I can get this batch to taste like the last one, it will be well worth the expense.

brew me | 1:33 pm CST
Category: hobby, homebrewing, play
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Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

I can stop wondering if biking around Lake Mendota is interesting enough to make it worth the trip. It’s not. It’s about five miles from my house to the point where the bike trail splits off and heads north, and I thought the next mile or so along the path was about as interesting as it got until I hit Middleton several hours later.

Most of the ride is along roads that are nowhere near the lake. I was within eyeshot of open water maybe twice: Once as I cycled past the marina at the northernmost point of the lake, and later when I stopped at the Memorial Union on campus for some orange juice and a Pop Tart. Otherwise I was either on a suburban street or on a back road through the country with nothing but potato fields to look at.

Finally, at thirty-four miles round trip from my front door, it’s a lot farther than I thought it was.

But now I can say, been there, done that. No t-shirt, though.

Mendota | 6:28 am CST
Category: bicycling, hobby, play
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Monday, May 12th, 2014

The Lost Continent Railway had its first visitors last Saturday, my cousin Carrie’s three boys, who are possibly into trains more than I am. Every one of them was wearing a train-themed t-shirt, and the oldest boy had an engineer’s cap (gotta get me one of those, no matter how dorky it makes me look). 

Their visit was the most fun I’ve had so far with the LoCo. I get a great big smile each time I can make the trains do what I want them to do, but this was the first time I’ve gotten a belly laugh making the trains go when someone else wanted. “Make the yellow one go!” “Now make the Polar Express go!” 

For the big finish, I crashed the train. Not on purpose, although if I’d known a crash would be as well-received as it was, I would have prepared for one in advance.

crash | 12:29 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Saturday, April 12th, 2014

immersion heaterLeak check!

A replacement heating element arrived here at Our Humble O’Bode this morning. Sometimes I just gotta love Amazon. Ordered the element Thursday morning & got confirmation within 90 minutes that the element had shipped. I was in my basement lair this morning writing drivel when My Darling B called down, “Package!”

I installed it early this afternoon when my other chores were done, then filled the kettle with 7 gallons of water and let it sit for an hour or so to check for leaks – None! A first step toward success!

Next step: I plugged the burner in and, holding my breath, fired it up. The water began to simmer right away and, after five or ten minutes of tinkering around with the controls, I brought the temp up from 68 to 150.

Final step: Brew. That won’t be until next weekend at the earliest. Watch this space!

immersed | 2:11 pm CST
Category: hobby, homebrewing, play
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cheater's witte beerThis is the batch I was sure I’d ruined last week by mashing it with water that was too hot. When I measured the temp of the mash just before I drained the sweet wort, it was about 170 degrees, maybe a little less. It was the first time I’d seen mash temps that high and I was pretty sure the batch was ruined, but I’d already put all that time and effort into brewing the batch, so I pitched the yeast into it anyway to see what would happen.

When I checked it the next day it was fermenting so vigorously that the air lock was full of foam and I had to replace it with a blow-off tube! So maybe not the complete failure I thought it was after all! Remains to be seen how it will taste, though, and I won’t know that for at least five, maybe six weeks.

Cheater’s Witte | 8:33 am CST
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Friday, April 11th, 2014

My Darling B has a whole new attitude about mice since she opened her garden shed and discovered they’d pooped and peed on just about everything in there. Before she was on Mother Nature’s side, making me trap them live so we could release them in a nearby city park, but now that she has to hose down everything that was in the shed and throw out all her gardening gloves, her ideology has gone from bunny-hugger to “Kill Every Stinking One Of Those Little Poop-Machines!”

I knew she’d come around eventually.

changeup | 1:59 pm CST
Category: garden, hobby, housekeeping, My Darling B, O'Folks, Our Humble O'Bode, play, yard work, yet another rant | Tags:
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Thursday, April 10th, 2014

burnt out heating elementThe moment I heard the pop of the circuit breaker, I saw in my mind’s eye exactly what had happened:

I had stepped away from the brew kettle for just a moment, but I’d left the drain open and forgotten that the heating element was on. The kettle drains fast, so the water had probably dropped low enough to uncover the heating element as soon as I’d walked away from it. I was away for maybe fifteen or twenty seconds, tops, but that was long enough for the heating element to get red hot. It was still glowing when I ran back to it.

I waited about five minutes for it to cool off, then filled the kettle up with enough water to cover the element, reset the breakers, and switched on the control panel.

POP! 

Dammit. Well and truly fried.

Well, this has not been the best brew day ever.

Lucky Number Homebrewing is a pretty nifty setup. I’ve seen much fancier setups with a lot more gadgets, but what I’ve got works pretty well for me. There’s an electric-fired hot liquor tank that provides 9.5 gallons of hot water and another electric-fired kettle to boil the sweet wort. The only part of the setup that’s not an expensive gadget is the picnic cooler I converted to a mash tun by pulling out the drain plug and installing a ball valve with a connector that I can snap a hose on.

A lot of home brewers use picnic coolers for mash tuns because they hold the temperature of the hot mash more or less constant; just heat the water to the temperature you want and you’re usually good. And that’s the way it’s worked for me.

Over the winter months, though, I had a little trouble getting used to the colder temperatures in the basement. A colder basement means of course that everything in the basement is colder, including the picnic cooler itself. During the summer months, I poured 185-degree water into the cooler and it cooled down to about 155 degrees, which was where I wanted it, but in the winter months it got down to about 150 degrees. Mashing takes place between 149 and 165 degrees; at the high end, the beer comes out sweet, while at the low end it’s dry. To get the temp back up where I’d like it to be, I’d been experimenting with warming the mash tun with hot tap water, wrapping the cooler in a blanket, and raising the temp in the hot liquor tank.

For this brew session, I tried all three. When I checked the temp just before I drained the mash, it was about 170 degrees! Crap Crap CRAP!

After draining the sweet wort into a fermenter and rinsing out the kettle, I started cleaning up by filling the kettle with water and adding a scoop of cleanser called PBW. It works best when it’s hot, so I fired up the heating element and brought the temp up to about 180 degrees. After letting it soak for a couple hours I cracked open the drain while I rinsed down the sides of the kettle with hot water. I’ve cleaned out the kettle this way several times; the clean rinse water washes all the gunk down to the bottom of the kettle where the drain sucks it out.

All was going well. I splashed some water on my good shoes, though, and that’s when I decided to step away so I could change into my scuzzy shoes, forgetting that the heat was still on.

This happened to me once before with the heating element in the hot liquor tank, but it switched it off right after I saw the telltale puff of steam that warned me it was firing dry. I was in the next room this time, so I didn’t realize what I’d done until I heard the circuit breaker pop.

The element cost just twelve bucks to replace but, man, it took just that one moment to go from feeling pretty good to feeling pretty stupid.

fried | 9:44 am CST
Category: hobby, homebrewing, play
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Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

brewing a batch of beerI cribbed the grain bill for this latest batch of beer from the menu of Next Door Brewing, a brew they call Wilbur because of the oats they add to the mash. My Darling B says it’s her favorite of all the beers they brew, so I’m going to see if I can make some for her, too.

No worries, Next Door. We’ll keep coming back!

Wilbur | 9:34 pm CST
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

track switch controlsThe awesome power in these little wooden knobs is hard to overstate. Honestly. I wouldn’t bullshit you about something as serious as that. Or about the fact that I wouldn’t bullshit you. Which is bullshit, and I’m sure you know it.

Hmmm. Kind of wandered just a little bit. Didn’t take long, either, did it?

Back to the photo and the little wooden knobs. Each knob is connected to a track switch on the train tracks of the Lost Continent Railway. Until I installed these babies, I had to run from the throttle to the farthest corners of the layout, throwing those switches by hand, which is a huge pain in the ass on a layout that’s twelve feet long and six feet wide.

I have to bend and duck under a lot of the tracks, too, because the layout is butted up against the walls in a cramped corner of the basement. When I started to build the Lost Continent, I didn’t think duck-unders were going to be a problem, but after my fiftieth birthday came and went, I changed my tune real quick. I really should have paid attention to all those geezers whose very first rule of model railroad building is: “1. No Duckunders!

So if I can stand at the throttle and control everything on the layout, that’s a big plus. I always intended to install track switch controls but never made a firm decision on the kind I would eventually use, even though I have used Blue Point switch machines from the very start. The first one I bought as a test worked so well that I immediately bought five more and installed them at the most-used track switches where they very satisfyingly click-clacked left and right, holding the points of the track switches solidly open or closed.

Then about two weeks ago, after I finally figured out how to wire the crossover and could move trains freely around the layout without having to work out a detour around the gaping hole that the crossover filled, I broke down and bought a five-pack of the knobs and red tubes and connectors so I wouldn’t have to do all that running around and ducking and banging my head on the underside of the thick, unmoving wooden crossbeams of the track bench. I spent the last week or so installing them, and I’m happy to report that they work so well I’m giddily writing 500 words of drivel about them. Doesn’t take much to make me giddy, does it?

knobs | 9:19 pm CST
Category: hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Sunday, March 9th, 2014

soldering ironMy soldering iron gave up the ghost yesterday and, as it turns out, it’s just about impossible to find a good soldering iron within walking distance of my house, in spite of the fact that there’s a Menard’s and a Radio Shack so close by that I could just about spit on them from where I’m sitting as I type these words.

A good soldering iron would be an Antex, the kind of soldering iron that I’ve been using for the past fifteen years. It was very slender and light-weight, very easy to handle. It was a 15-watt iron but I wouldn’t mind upgrading to a hotter 25-watt iron or even an iron in the 15- to 25-watt range with a controller to vary the heat. Sometimes that 15-watt iron would take forever to get a rail hot enough to solder a lead to. Finally, I really need an Antex so I can keep on using the interchangeable tips I’ve collected.

A bad soldering iron would, as it turns out, be anything available within walking distance of my house.

Okay, that’s just a little unfair. I brought home a 25-watt iron from Radio Shack that I can make do with until my on-line order goes through. “If you order from Amazon,” My Darling B pointed out, “it should be here in about ten minutes.” She’s not that far off. We have gotten next-day delivery of orders we placed with Amazon. It was a little creepy, as if they were waiting outside our door like teenaged boys with a gift for their favorite crush. “I thought you might like this so I bought it for you three weeks ago and I just happened to be in the neighborhood so here it is, do you like it?” But they can’t do a 10-minute delivery. They can’t even do the 1-hour delivery Jeff Bezos hinted at until they get clearance from the Feds for drone delivery, which should be happening any day now, but not soon enough to fill my soldering needs.

Before I went to Radio Shack, I stopped by Menard’s on my morning walk to see what they had. Searched the tools section for about twenty minutes before I gave up and wandered over to the section where the electrical stuff was. Couldn’t find it there, either, so I badgered a couple of the blue-vested drones stocking the aisles until I found one who seemed to know what a soldering iron was. I followed him to an aisle where there were just two kinds of soldering iron I might be able to use: a cheap, made-in-China off-brand 15-watt iron that I would probably use a couple weeks before I threw it in the trash, and a slightly better 40-watt iron that was, surprisingly, made in the USA. 40 watts was way too hot for the work I was doing, though, so that wasn’t an option. All the rest of the soldering irons that Menard’s had to offer were actually blow torches which put out enough heat to solder copper pipe. Which was not what I wanted to do. And I’ve already got one of those. So, no.

Radio shack had a much wider selection, as far as wattage goes, but they were all house brand irons made in China. The problem with the Chinese knock-offs is not that they’re made in China, it’s that they’ve all got the same clunky tip, thick as my pinky and ground to a rough, conical point like a pencil. Some have tips you can unscrew and change for another tip, but the optional tips I’ve seen don’t offer much. The Antex I’ve been using had a wonderfully delicate tip as slender as a pencil lead with a beveled end. It turned out to be perfect for the work I did soldering electrical connections. I’m making do with the clunky Radio Shack iron until my new Antex is dropped off at my door step in three … two … one …

solder | 8:35 am CST
Category: hobby, play
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Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

crossover at Overcoat JunctionIt’s been a good day here on the Lost Continent Railway. The track gang has put in a solid two days of work this weekend, finishing up the crossover at Overcoat Junction ahead of schedule. Honestly, the chief engineer was sure this was going to take all week to complete, but he was poking around through the inventory and found a prefabricated crossover that, with a little jiggering of the original track plan, he could fit into the spot where it was needed. When he discovered it could solve a problem that had been plaguing him all winter, the poor guy didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. He had Dominic Book, boss of the track gang, round up the boys, load the crossover onto a flat car and haul it out to the junction where they’ve been working on it since Friday. When the boys finished up early Sunday morning, the chief was so well chuffed that he put a ten-dollar gold coin in the till at The Draw Bar and told the boys to come get him if they could drink that all up before the sun set. They went pounding on the door of Round The Bend, the chief’s business car, with a couple hours to spare, so he tossed them another ten dollars and sent them on their way.

crossover | 12:53 pm CST
Category: hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

“Bottle Bomb” is a term in the homebrewing hobby that refers to beer so enthusiastically carbonated that it blows the cap right off the bottle, and sometimes even bursts the bottle itself. I haven’t brewed a batch yet that produced a bottle bomb, but I came pretty close with a batch I brewed last July.

It was my second all-grain batch that I brewed from a recipe I found in an on-line forum, but I didn’t notice until after I’d finished that the grain bill was for a ten-gallon batch. I brew five-gallon batches, so I should’ve halved the recipe. It was supposed to be a light, refreshing summer beer but ended up being a high-gravity cauldron of too-sweet witches’ brew, something close to barleywine but not as tasty.

Seven months later, it’s still way too sweet to drink but home brewers as a rule don’t pour any of their creations down the drain if there’s any chance of saving it. Trouble was, the brew was not only too sweet, it was way over-carbonated. I’m pretty sure now that I bottled it before fermentation was complete because every bottle I opened erupted like a volcano, spewing foam from its neck for several minutes, and after I poured it into a glass it had a head several inches thick that wouldn’t go away. The bottle I opened a couple nights ago sounded like a small cannon and foam jumped several inches straight up from the neck. These were bottle bombs just waiting to go off! I didn’t want to dump them but I had to come up with some way of saving them to avoid a big mess in the corner of the brewery where I stockpile bottled beer.

Beer isn’t quite as explosive when it’s cold as it is when it’s warm, so I chilled three twenty-two-ounce bombers, then opened them and let them stand in the sink for about five minutes so they could outgas a bit. All three bottles barfed up a lot of foam, one vigorously enough to bring up the sediment from the bottom of the bottle. After five minutes there was still enough beer left to fill a swing-top growler I had on hand, pouring it carefully down the side to avoid making any more foam. The idea is to leave it for at least another month before opening it again. If I bottled it before fermentation was done, this should give it more than enough room to finish conditioning in the bottle so it’s something drinkable in the end.

foamy | 9:10 am CST
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

The thermometer said it was twenty degrees outside but it was such a bright and sunny morning that I wrapped up in several layers and went for a walk anyway. There haven’t been a lot of opportunities in the past few weeks to take a leisurely walk, not without being forced to take into consideration the very real possibility of freezing to death. I hate being cold, but I absolutely loathe freezing to death, so I haven’t done a lot of strolling lately.

Turned out I was being wildly optimistic about being able to stay warm in twenty degree weather, even under all the layers I was wearing. There was a biting wind behind the sub-freezing temps that went right through my clothes and chilled me even though I was trotting along at a respectably quick pace. Even so, I took a 1.5 mile route around the neighborhood that kept me on the move for twenty-five minutes, not a bad pace considering the snow and slush I had to hoof through.

hoofing it | 1:25 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, hobby, walking
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Monday, January 20th, 2014

What I did with my Sunday:

Well, first I made a big, steaming pot o’ joe, same as I always do. Always. The day doesn’t start without a pot o’ joe. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that. If you have, and you’ve been wondering why your day didn’t start as early as every other day, it was because I got up late. Now you know.

Then, I ate some oatmeal and drank my coffee while I read the morning news. Took me hours. Because Sunday.

At about ten o’clock, My Darling B reminded me that we had a date for eleven o’clock at a restaurant on Park Street called Inka Heritage, our first meal to kick off Madison Restaurant Week, one of our very favoritest festivals. I may be remembering this wrong, but I think Inka was the first restaurant we visited when we started going to Restaurant Week many moons ago, and I think we’ve been starting the winter version of Restaurant Week every year by going to Inka. Even if I’m not remembering that right, I’m pretty sure this is the third time we’ve been there and I know I haven’t been disappointed by the food yet. I don’t know why we don’t go more often. Probably because it’s not in the neighborhoods we usually visit. We should get out more.

We both had the fish, by the way. Scrumptious.

Then I spent all afternoon in the basement throwing crap out, putting away the stuff I couldn’t make myself throw out, and finally knocking together a work bench where I could work on choo-choo trains. I used to make a temporary work bench by throwing a board across an open stretch of the layout, but there aren’t any open stretches any more, and I still needed a place to solder track together or whatever.

I had an old pine shelf that came out of one of our closets, and a dozen or so sawn-off ends of two-by-fours I could knock together into brackets. Took me a little longer than I thought it would to knock them together, but then it always does. Once the braces were up, all I had to do was cut the pine shelf to length and screw it down. The shelf was too long to cut it with the table saw, so I clamped it down to my Black & Decker WorkMate 200, with a board across the top to act as a guide, grabbed my circular saw and got ready to make some serious noise.

The clamp was in the way. It usually is. I don’t use the circular saw very often, so I usually make this mistake. As I was repositioning the clamp it seemed there was something about the way I’d set up the cut that wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t quite figure out what was bothering me about it until I was just about to pull the trigger on the saw, and then I saw it: The line I’d planned to cut was laying right across the middle of my WorkMate. If I’d gone and made the cut, I would’ve sawn the WorkMate in half.

It wouldn’t have been the first time I’ve abused it that way. One end of the WorkMate’s front jaw has been shorter than the back jaw (the top opens like a vise) ever since I sawed it off the same year I got it as a Christmas present, and the tops of the jaws are pockmarked with holes where I’ve drilled through work that I was sure was too thick for the drill bit to get all the way through. I’ve known for years that I’m probably going to saw it in half eventually; it’s pretty surprising, really, that I haven’t done it already. And yet somehow I avoided doing it yesterday.

With the shelf cut to length, all that was left to do was screw it down and cover it with a whole bunch of crap. And done.

setting up shop | 7:53 am CST
Category: entertainment, festivals, food & drink, hobby, LoCo Rwy, Madison Restaurant Week, play, restaurants | Tags:
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Monday, December 30th, 2013

Could it be the control board for the Lost Continent Railway?

control board of the LoCo Rwy

It could be. It could.

i’m so board | 10:26 pm CST
Category: hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

From high atop the tallest stepstool I own, I took this aerial view snapshot of the Lost Continent Railway:

aerial view of the Lost Continent Rwy

My phone camera can also do panoramas. Nifty keen neato, right?

The latest addition to the LoCo is the benchwork along the backside of the layout. The eastern terminal, yet to be named (although it’s rumored that “Gertrude” is still holding tight to first place), will be erected near the upper right corner, with five tracks and attending passenger platforms running underneath it. The five tracks will combine in a kind of spaghetti-bowl tangle through a series of switches to be laid on the narrowing strip of plywood in the center of the photo, until they connect to the three tracks in the horseshoe curve to the left. Two more tracks where great big chuffing steam engines will wait for their cue to join with the passenger trains will branch off toward the control panel.

So far, this is all in my mind. Oh, wait, no it’s not. It’s all been carefully drawn out by John Armstrong, master track planner extraordinaire!

Even though there’s still a shocking amount of hammering and sawing to do, it’s starting to feel a lot like I’m nearing the home stretch. The track to the station will be the last of the mainline track to be laid on the Lost Continent. There are a couple of short line tracks that curl outward from the crossing in the center of the layout, but I won’t be fiddling around with them much until I get the mainline done. The major challenge of this layout has always been piecing together the switches that make up the approach to the station so that cars can move through them smoothly, and there will be a lot of switches. It’s not going to happen this month, or even next month, but it’s just possible that trains could be pulling into the station before the winter’s over.

loopty-loop | 6:18 am CST
Category: hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Saturday, November 30th, 2013

toolsThis is how I end up with so many tools. When my Mom was preparing to move out of the ancestral manse, she lead me to the bottom of the basement stairs where Dad had built a work bench, waved her hand at the piles of tools he had accumulated over the years and said something like, “All this can be yours.” When I picked out only two or three things, she added the caveat that she was just going to throw what I didn’t take with me into the garbage. I picked out an armload of stuff; she gave me an old basket to carry it away. It wasn’t quite full, so I grabbed even more. And that’s why I’ve got forty-two dozen screwdrivers.

basketfull | 12:46 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, hobby, play
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Saturday, October 26th, 2013

motive power on the LoCo RwyMotive power on the Lost Continent Railway is a hash of electric, diesel and steam. Until I started building the layout in its current incarnation I wasn’t sure what era I wanted my railroad to look like, so for the longest time I collected just about anything that came along at the right price. Later I realized that the locomotives I most loved watching were steam engines and the passenger cars that were most interesting were the old heavyweights, and that’s what I’ve gravitated towards these past years. Yet I still have all sorts of motive power in the engine shed and so far haven’t been able to bring myself to part with any of it.

The steam locomotive in this photo is one of a pair I bought on sale almost fifteen years ago. Dressed in the colors of the New York Central, it’s meant to represent a Niagra class 4-8-4. I haven’t painted it in the livery of the Lost Continent yet. A smooth runner, it’s way too large for the Lost Continent, a railroad that I have always envisioned as a regional line that spanned no more than a couple states, but this steamer looks so good that I know I won’t be able to leave it out of the regularly scheduled lineup. It’ll always be one of the two flagship locos in the fleet. In case you’re wondering, the second one’s still in the box, although I’ve brought it out once or twice to let it get some air and stretch its legs, just to make sure it’s still working.

I bought the electric just five years ago when I was planning a shelf layout that was going to be nothing more than a passenger station in the modern era. I’ve always been just as fascinated by electric locos asI have with steam engines, and this AEM-7, a small electric, felt just right for a small layout. I kept it even after my shelf layout metamorphosed into J-shaped round-the-room layout because it’s such a smooth, strong runner and is easy to set down on the rails with just one hand. I use it all the time to try out newly-laid stretches of track.

The diesel, an E-8, has been on the Lost Continent’s roster less than two years, I think. I bought it at the same time I snatched up the rake of sleek streamline cars behind it. Streamlined passenger cars didn’t come along until the 40s and the E-8s were built in the early 50s, so it doesn’t fit the late-20s era of the Lost Continent, but I love streamline passenger cars, especially the ones with domes, and when I saw a stack of them on sale at a cut-rate price I couldn’t keep walking. After narrowing my choices down to a half-dozen I thought, Now what I really need is an engine to pull these, and that’s how I ended up with a train that really doesn’t fit my railroad but which I love just as much as the big steamer pulling the old heavyweight passenger cars.

horsepower | 9:21 pm CST
Category: hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Sunday, October 20th, 2013

beerBeer’s ready!

It’s been at least four weeks since I’ve cooked up a batch of home brew, so I wanted something special. A porter seemed just about right for the cold days coming up, and I found a recipe that seemed to be not only very popular, but easy to tweak as well. Several people who tried it added their suggestions for turning it into a vanilla porter, which sounded like just what the doctor ordered. So here it is, a batch of porter, rather darker-looking than I thought it would be, and I’ve got a couple vanilla beans in a bottle filled with 8 ounces of vodka, an infusion that I’ll add to the porter three weeks from now when I’m getting it ready for bottling.


fillerup | 5:58 pm CST
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Sunday, September 15th, 2013

RRbookshelvesThe Lost Continent Railway occupies a lot of real estate, most of it at chest level. I wanted to stand alongside the right of way instead of looking down at it. That left quite a lot of room underneath the bench that the layout’s built on, room that I had barely begun to make use of until this afternoon when I knocked together some shelves that would hold the couple hundred pounds of books I’ve collected. Until now, they’ve been gradually bowing the shelves of a chipboard book case that I desperately need to get out of the basement to give it a little more breathing space. The three-quarter inch plywood shelves in this corner of the layout holds all the books and has a little room left over. The shelves also do double-duty as a rock-solid anchor for the bench. Not bad for a couple hours’ work.


splinters | 10:04 pm CST
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Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

image of MHTG brew schoolOn Wednesday nights, the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild usually meets at the Wil-Mar Community Center to, y’know, learn more about beer. Last night, though, they met on the premises of Madison’s newest brew pub, Next Door Brewing Co, to learn about their beer. Next Door is so new that all of their beer was still fermenting, but Keith Symonds, Next Door’s brewmaster, was happy to talk about the beer he’s making as the MHTG members crowd into his kitchen to listen.

Brew School – Next Door Brewing | 5:53 am CST
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Monday, August 19th, 2013

image of hopsRiding my bike to work this morning, I spotted this towering pillar of hops growing in the community gardens just off Atwood Avenue. Some enterprising homebrewer is making the most of his garden plot! Wish I knew who he was so I could ask him how to tend a hop plant as successful as this one is.

I rode the 6.5 mile commute in just under 30 minutes and only three bikers passed me along the way. Of course, I saw only five or six other bikers the whole trip, but still.

I pedaled like a maniac on the way home trying to better my time but the best I could manage was 27 minutes. Got home before B did, though.


Tower of hops | 6:53 pm CST
Category: beer, food & drink, garden, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Sunday, August 18th, 2013

image of home-brewed beerAnother brewing day. This time I’m trying to brew an ESB, which stands for either extra-special bitter or extra-strong beer, depending on who you ask. I’m going to go with extra-strong, but only because I was careful to cut back on the bitterness. My Darling B doesn’t like bitter beers and I want her to like this one.

She surprised the hell out of me by liking the last one I brewed, a heffeweizen that I bottled yesterday. There’s always a little left over in the bottom of the pail that I pour into a glass and drink. It’s flat and it’s warm, but it’s beer and I don’t like to waste good beer. And I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was, actually, pretty good beer. When B brought some veggies into the basement from her garden to lay on the drying racks, I offered her a sip.

“What’ve you got here?” she asked, and after I told her I was trying to make a heffeweizen, she got her nose in the glass and gave it a good sniff. Her eyebrows shot up. “You know, it smells like a heffe.” Holding it up to the light, she said, “It even looks like a heffe.” Then she took a sip, sloshed it around in her mouth a bit and said, “I think you might have done it, dear. I think you may have made a heffe.” She won’t bullshit about how beer tastes, so I felt well-chuffed about that.

brewing up an ESB | 5:02 pm CST
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Monday, August 5th, 2013

This evening I found the batch of beer I brewed yesterday standing in a puddle of its own puke. Sometimes even beer itself has trouble keeping beer down.

I’d loaded the beer – wannabe beer, really – into a great big glass bottle that should have had enough room in the neck to hold every burp, belch and backwash that the gurgling brew could have thrown up it, or so I thought, but at some point during the day it suffered a case of reflux that a dump truck full of Zanax wouldn’t have been able to control.

Cleanup required a hose, a pre-soak and a green scrubbie. That beer had better taste good.

splooey | 9:03 pm CST
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Saturday, July 20th, 2013

filling bottles with beerBottling Day! The second all-grain batch of beer is in bottles: six bombers and twenty pints, a respectable haul.

Still not sure what to all this batch. I’m not very good with names. It’s the batch that was supposed to be Centennial Blonde ale but I forgot to halve the recipe, so it’s a little sweeter and a lot more potent than it was supposed to be. Maybe Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster?


PGGB? | 2:36 pm CST
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Saturday, July 13th, 2013

Brewing Day!

brewdayThis will be my second try at brewing a light ale called Centennial Blonde. I brewed a batch of this about a week ago but forgot to halve the recipe (I was making a five-gallon batch versus the ten-gallon batch the recipe was written for), ending up with a powerfully strong soup that will I fear will be a lot more like barleywine than beer, not that that’s a bad thing. I fully intend to drink every drop of it, but I had my heart set on a batch of that blond ale so I stopped by the store on Wednesday and filled out my grain bill, half of it this time. Started in brewing this morning after coming one from the farmer’s market and finished up just in time to fire up the grill for dinner!

Centennial Blonde take two | 4:14 pm CST
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Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

fermentation chamberMonday night we went to a concert in the park and didn’t get home until around about nine-thirty, so I didn’t have time to work on my newest beer-making gadget until last night.

Harmonious Wail came to Monona to play a free gig in the park. If you ever get the opportunity to see them, even if you have to pay for it, I’d recommend that you go. They were a lot of fun. There’s Jeffo, the guy who plays bass – a bass guitar or a bass fiddle, depending on the mood I guess – and Sims, the other guy who plays either a mandolin or a guitar of one kind or another. Then there’s Maggie, who sings and plays just about anything she can lay her hands on. “Is she playing a cardboard box?” My Darling B asked me as the concert began. Yep, that’s what she was playing.

But anyway, back to the beer.

After dinner I made a trip to the store to bring home some foam insulation. I swear, the people they hire at that store are getting dumber every time I go there. The big four-by-eight sheets of pink extruded foam used to be inside the store where they keep the pre-cut plywood but apparently when they made the store bigger there wasn’t any room inside for the foam any longer, so they moved it. “Where do you keep the extruded foam?” I asked a guy at the service counter. “Uh,” he answered. “I”ll have to ask.” And he went to get somebody. Or you could look it up, I wanted to say. You’ve got a computer RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!

To get the foam home I had to cut it into two-by-four-foot pieces because that’s what fits inside the car. I’m not one of those guys that goes tootling down the road with four-by-eight sheets of plywood and other building materials laid on the roof of my car, holding on to it with one hand through the driver-side window. So with each sheet on the floor of the barn I marked off each two-foot length, scored it with a craft knife, then stood it up and snapped off the pieces while every single mosquito in Dane County zeroed in on my exposed legs. It was a close thing toward the end there whether I would be able to finish before they drained me of my last pint.

Back home I began to slice up the foam into pieces that would fill the odd-sized space under the bench. I cobbled the bench together from wood that was left over after I knocked apart an old home-made bar that came with the house and, as a consequence of trying to make the most out of a limited amount of wood, it’s sort of an odd length. I cut two pieces to double-insulate the end where the coil will be mounted, but only one layer for the back because the bench is standing against a cement wall that never gets very warm anyway. There’s just one layer on the bottom and I’ll cut just one layer for the top, too, because if I installed two layers there wouldn’t be enough space inside for the carboys to stand up.

And that’s about as far as I got last night because I forgot to buy glue when I went to the store. *facepalm*

foamy | 4:42 am CST
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Sunday, July 7th, 2013

Cleaning crap out of the basement today, “crap” being stuff that I’ve been hanging on to because I thought it might come in handy one day. It becomes “crap” the day I trip over it or have to move it out of the way one too many times.

Today, one of the items that became crap was a defunct dehumidifier that’s been taking up space in a corner of the basement. Not only did I have to move it out of the way one too many times, I also came within one wildly swinging arm of tripping over the damned thing and nearly killing myself. So really it became crap times two. Double crap. Crap with no chance at all of ever redeeming itself.

I shoved it over toward the stairs where it waited while I piled up other crap to take upstairs to the trash can. And then, just before I hauled it up to get it out of my life forever, a light bulb went on over my head, and that light illuminated this basic fact: A dehumidifier is basically a refrigerator without an insulated box to put beer in. (Everything comes back to beer. Trust me on this.) Instead of keeping beer cool, the refrigeration coils are exposed to the air so that humidity may condense on them, drip off and collect in a bucket. And as it so happened, I was in need of refrigeration.

It’s very important to control the temperature of fermenting beer if you want to make consistently good beer, which I do. Many home brewers do this by building an insulated plywood box big enough to hold the great big bottles or pails they ferment beer in. One side of the box has a hole cut in it that’s the same size as the front of a dorm fridge. Then then take the door off a dorm fridge, jam it up against the opening in the side of the insulated plywood box, and duct tape the fridge to the box. I’m not kidding. Here’s a photo of one. Here’s a photo of another one where the builder didn’t even bother using plywood.

I was going to get a dorm fridge someday after I saved up enough lunch money to spring for one, but here I had a dehumidifier that could do the same job. It was sort of on the fritz, but all I would have to do is figure out what’s wrong with it and I could save myself maybe fifty bucks. So I dragged it down to my basement lair to take it apart, a very important first step. Every guy knows this. To learn what is possible in the DIY world, you must take things apart.

It was a great idea but, unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. I took apart all the pieces that I could possibly take apart, but a lot of them turned out to be circuit boards and microprocessors. I don’t know jack about those. The best I could do for this machine was clean everything up, put it all back together, cross my fingers and switch it on. The compressor made noise like a compressor is supposed to and the fan blew hard as a fan knows how, but the coils didn’t get cold. And that’s what I really needed. Without cold coils, I don’t gots refrigeration; not for beer, not for dehumidifying. So out to the trash it went.

olddehumidifierBut wait! I had another broken-down dehumidifier! No, really. I keep crap like this forever. The second one had been parked out in the garage for years. I couldn’t use it because the fan didn’t work and it’s so old that I couldn’t find a replacement fan for it, so I was going to throw it out the next time I went to the dump. Only I never went to the dump. I can procrastinate like that forever.

I honestly never thought I’d have a use for it ever again. I wasn’t even sure the compressor still worked, so I dragged it over to an electrical outlet, plugged it in and put my hand on the coils. They frosted over in less than thirty seconds. *bliss!*

So I dragged it down to my basement lair to take it apart, and I learned that this was a dehumidifier built back in the day when they built them to last forever. It had a compressor as big as a wrecking ball, stainless-steel chilling coils and a robust electrical system so simple even I could understand it: two wires in, a switch to turn it on, and that’s all she wrote.

The biggest challenge I could see was separating the chilling coils from the radiator. The coils would have to go inside the fermentation chamber, while the radiator would have to stay outside. If I couldn’t make that happen, then the dehumidifier was not going to be lucky enough to be reincarnated as a beer-making gadget. As luck would have it, though, the copper tubing the makers used to connect the chilling coils to the compressor was just flexible enough that I could separate them from the radiator by more than a foot, plenty of room to get them inside a thickly-insulated fermentation chamber while still leaving the radiator outside.

The next step was building a fermentation chamber.

As I mentioned earlier, most guys just build a plywood box. That would’ve required me to go buy some plywood and build a box. As it happened, though, I already had a box: The space underneath the work bench in the corner of the basement that I rather grandly refer to as the brewery. I’d built shelves under the counter top where I could stash my beer-making gadgets and store bottled beer, but that could all be removed and stored in other places. I had to keep my priorities straight. The space under the bench was the perfect size to convert into a fermentation chamber, almost as if I’d had it in mind when I cobbled it together more than a year ago. And so the gadgets and the bottled beer were moved to other places, leaving all sorts of room.

I decided to install the compressor and radiator on the right-hand end of what would be the ferm chamber, which wouldn’t be easy. I’d have to cut a hole in some drywall in order to sneak the coils under the bench into the chamber, but I thought that was a better option than having the compressor and electrical wiring at the other end of the bench, which would require me to install it underneath the sink where water would inevitably end up dripping all over it. Bad idea, I thought. The other end will always be much drier. So I found my drywall saw and started hacking away, eventually stopping when I had a hole big enough to get the coils through.

And that’s about where it stands for the time being. I had to stop when it got a bit too late and the dust and dirt were starting to get to me. The next step is getting the coils through the hole into the ferm chamber, then working out how to insulate the box, which really presents no problem. All I would have to do is make a trip to a local building supply store and come back with sheets of extruded foam insulation, cut it into appropriately-sized chunks, then slide the chunks into place. But that’s for another day. I was bushed. It was time to shower, pop open a frosty cold one, and settle down for dinner. My Darling B prepared quinoa, and there was still some leftover hamburger from the July 4th burger burn.

ferm chamber? | 8:27 pm CST
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