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 CDT
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 CDT
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 CDT
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 CDT
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 CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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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 CDT
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Brewing the last batch with the new brewing equipment went much more smoothly than the first time. If nothing else, I spilled a lot less beer, thanks to an afternoon I spent the weekend before with a guy named Charley. I watched him connect a hose from the mash tun to the pump, then connect another hose from the pump but wait until he let some brew drain down through the hoses to prime the pump before he connected it to the brew kettle. Well, dammit, I thought. Why wasn’t I able to figure that out on my own?

Charley brews beer with his dad in his parents’ garage. He also works at The Wine and Hop Shop, a store on the west side of town that sells supplies for making, well, wine and beer. If it were on my side of town I’d shop there all the time, but as they’re so far from where I live, I get over there only every once in a while, or shop their store through the internet. Luckily, I happened to check out the web site a couple weeks before they offered an all-grain brewing class, and because I was just about to start doing that, I signed up.

Eight other guys showed up at noon in Charley’s dad’s garage to watch Charley and Charley’s dad brew beer, listen to Charley give some pointers and ask a lot of questions. I asked a lot of questions that I hope weren’t too obnoxious, but I really wanted to know what was going on and I think what I took away helped quite a lot when I brewed this last batch. It certainly made me feel a lot more comfortable about the process. Brewing beer feels like magic to me, an art that can be truly known by only the few. I may or may not be one of the few, I don’t know, but each time I do it I learn a little bit more and the process becomes a little less daunting than I thought it was before.

Centennial Blonde Ale | 7:20 am CDT
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Friday, July 5th, 2013

brewing beerGuess what I brewed a batch of today?

Still trying to figure out what I’m doing. The gadgets work fine, it’s the process I’m still trying to get hold of in my brain. I got nearly everything right today, except for one small mishap with the hose connections. What a mess that was.

The one big thing I got wrong was the grain bill. I bought enough grain for a 10-gallon batch, then mashed it as if it were a 5-gallon batch. And the thing of it is, if I’d realized what I’d done before I drained it all out of the mash tun and started boiling it, I could’ve fixed my mistake by simply brewing a 10-gallon batch. *facepalm*

I need a beer. Oh, wait. What’s this?

brew day! | 3:46 pm CDT
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img of washing bottlesIf you asked me, Is there at least one thing about brewing beer that you dislike, kimo sabe? I would not hesitate a moment to answer: Washing the bottles, no question. A necessary task but a giant pain in the ass. There has got to be a robot out there to do this for me.

It’s time to bottle the hot mess that I brewed two weeks ago to find out what it tastes like. I really have no idea. I followed a recipe, sort of, but so many things went wrong that the final outcome is going to be nearly a complete surprise. It’s going to be beer, that’s all I’m sure of. Whether or not anybody besides me will want to drink it remains to be seen.

Updates to follow.

washed up | 9:22 am CDT
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Thursday, July 4th, 2013

I am officially too tired to type, so this would of course be the perfect time to blog because why would I want this to make sense? See if you can follow me all the way to the last full stop.

My exhaustion stems from waking up sometime shortly after three o’clock this morning. There was a pot luck at work yesterday with so much good food that I have to admit that I overindulged a tad, leading to an after-midnight bout of indigestion. I sat up for a little more than an hour drinking glass after glass of water which eventually cleared my stomach and quieted my gut, but when I crawled back into I couldn’t get back to sleep. Also, I had developed a case of positively toxic gas that I had to release, but I didn’t think it was fair to do that to My Darling B, even with the ceiling fan going, so I got out of bed again just before five o’clock and put the kettle on to make a pot o’ joe.

After a cup of coffee I hopped on my bike and had a ride over to Save Big Money At Mendard’s. They opened the store as normal at six o’clock this morning but will be closing early at eight o’clock tonight due to the holiday so their employees can spend quality time with their families. I may have been the only customer in the store. I didn’t see anybody but employees, but it’s a big store, so there may have been one or two other customers hiding out in a far corner, several miles away.

My mission at Menard’s was to find brass fittings for my wort chiller. What’s a wort chiller? It’s anything you can use to bring the temperature of boiling wort down to room temp so you don’t kill the yeast that turn wort into beer. When I brewed on the stove top in the kitchen, I simply filled the kitchen sink up with water and ice and plopped the kettle in it. Later, I made a wort chiller out of 25 feet of copper pipe by wrapping the pipe around a paint can and running cold water through it.

I’ve still got that wort chiller and it still works great, but I made it for a kettle that’s just ten, maybe twelve inches deep. The electric brew kettle I use now is at least twenty inches deep, so I had to straighten some of the pipe to make a neck long enough to stick out of the top of the kettle. And it leaked, which was not a problem before because all the water dripped outside the kettle, but I didn’t want to count on that kind of luck after I re-engineered it. Hence, the search for proper brass fittings to make a leak-free connection.

I’ve complained before about how hard it is to find anything in Menard’s after they expanded the store to make it approximately as large as Montana so they could fill it with aisles and aisles of snack food and toilet paper. I wandered around for about ten minutes before I found what I was looking for. Mind you, that’s ten minutes of wandering around in the plumbing section. I wasn’t randomly wandering the aisles over in gardening, or electrical.

fittingsWhen I finally found the brass fittings, I had to figure out what I needed, which was a compression fitting that would screw into a hose barb. A compression fitting is a ring of brass that slips over the copper pipe and gets compressed by a nut that you can tighten over it. After everything’s screwed together, the pipe doesn’t leak. It’s a kind of plumbing magic that I don’t question. I’m just happy it works.

A hose barb is a brass tube that fits inside a hose on one end, and on the other end screws into a compression fitting. Or it should. Funny thing about compression fittings: The hose barbs aren’t made to screw directly into the nut. They’re made to screw into an adapter, which is made to screw into the nut, so hand over an additional two ninety-five, please. I’m sure there’s a good reason for doing it that way, other than to screw me out of a couple extra bucks. Maybe someday I’ll find out what it is.

Back at home I put everything together, hooked it up to the spigot and ran cold water through it full-blast to see how much leakage I would get. Result: None! Much happiness and joy followed. I will be even happier after I brew beer tomorrow and can dunk a drip-free wort chiller into the brew kettle.

I was finished with that before eight o’clock this morning. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so productive on a day off. But it was way too early in the day to take a nap, so I hopped on my bike again and headed north through Monona to see what kind of goodies were on sale at Batch Bakehouse. They had lots, but I had to go with my favorite, a raspberry oat bar, which I ate at one of the tables out front and washed down with a cup of freshly-squeezed orange juice before I got back on my bike and headed home.

I hadn’t intended on riding all the way around Lake Monona, but I was already halfway there so why not? Instead if turning around and heading back I went on up Williamson Street into town, around Monona Terrace and down John Nolan Drive to go home through the Waunona neighborhood. There’s a lot of places around here named with what appear to be random vowel strings.

Got home at nine-thirty. Mowed the lawn. Nothing much to tell you about there. Bet you’re relieved as hell to hear that.

After a few more chores around the house, I finally laid down around noon to see if I could get a nap. Nothing doing. How can that be? I’m dead on my feet and I can’t get some shuteye?

I laid there for an hour or so before I gave up, rolled out of bed and banged out this drivel. You’re welcome. How’d I do?

limping along | 3:24 pm CDT
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Monday, June 24th, 2013

amwheat004This is one of the most active batches of beer I’ve brewed in a long time! It came to life within just a few hours of pitching, and the air lock was full of foam the next morning. I cleaned it out but it just filled up again, so I replaced it with a blow-off tube that I had to watch carefully to make sure it wouldn’t get jammed full of foam, too!

Fermentation settled down by the next morning and I could replace the air lock.

bubbling away | 9:29 am CDT
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Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

amwheat001Just pulled the switch on my first-ever all-grain brew, an American wheat beer for the hot, hot days of July that are almost here already!

Wait, half the summer is gone? What the hell?

Whatever. I got the recipe from an on-line forum and from all reports it’s eminently drinkable. Well, duh. It’s beer. But more important than that, it’s simple. Mash the grain, boil the wort, add the hops, done. Leaving me plenty of time to pat myself on the back for doing it right but also, as I so often do, to fret over what I may be doing wrong.

The first thing I did wrong, for instance, was that I didn’t crack open a brew to properly inaugurate my basement brewery. I’m probably never gonna forgive myself for that.

Anyway, wish me luck. Updates when I can make them.

amwheat002Update #1 – Lessons Learned:

1. With 5500 watts of blistering electric heat, this kettle can BOIL! THE! SNOT! out of any wort I can put into it! So it’s very important not to position it beneath the air conditioning ducts where condensed water will rain down on the kettle and all that yummy beer cooking inside. Yeah. Remember that. If I’m going to keep on doing this in the basement, and I certainly aim to, then I’ll have to find an exhaust fan that can move a shit-ton of very humid air out the window very quickly.

2. Keep track of your hops. I dropped a hop sock with 1/3 ounce Magnum hops into the boil kettle, my usual practice back in extract-brewing days, and never saw it again. When I was boiling in a two-gallon kettle, I had no problem finding a lost hop sock with my stir spoon. In a 10-gallon keggle, very big problem. Insurmountable problem, really. I was a little worried it would get hung up on the heating element and burn, but I kept checking and never found it there, so fingers crossed it didn’t hurt anything.

3. Find another way to estimate the amount of water I need. I used a calculation I found on-line to figure that I needed 10 gallons of water due to grain absorption, boil-off and so on. I didn’t need anywhere near that amount. I ended up with 8.5 gal in the keggle so I ended up needing to boil the wort one hell of a lot longer than the 1 hour that the recipe called for.

amwheat003Update #2 – Lessons Learned:

4. When walking through all the steps to make beer, don’t forget the one that goes, “Then cool the wort down from boiling to 70 degrees F, because BOILING wort kills yeast, and dead yeast don’t make beer!” How did I forget that? Or, to put the question more accurately, how did I forget to make sure I’d be able to do that step? Because I have a wort chiller, and I knew I would have to use it, but I neglected to see if it would fit inside my boil kettle, which it does, and still stick out the top, which it does NOT. If the hoses don’t stick out the top, it doesn’t work. (There’s a more technical explanation that involves melting vinyl and off-flavors in your beer, but I’m trying to keep it simple here.) So when I got to the part about cooling down the wort I had to kind of wing it, draining it into the fermentation bucket, then plunging the wort chiller into the bucket and hoping like hell it would work that way. It did. But my nerves won’t be able to take winging it no more, so I’ll have to find some other way.

And then, the cleanup. I could do without that part. Haven’t figured out how to talk somebody else into doing it for me, though.

American wheat | 9:36 am CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

dryrunWhat’s a dry run called when it’s all about moving lots of wet stuff around? “Wet run” sounds messy.

Which is apt, now that I think about it a little bit, because I made one hell of a mess the first time I tried to go through all the steps of moving water from one pot to the other in my newly-equipped basement brewery. Two of the pots, it turned out, were in very bad locations, and I also found out very quickly that the clip-on hose connections I thought were so nifty and easy to use will dump one hell of a lot of water on the floor if I’m not paying attention.

I was paying attention, most of the time, just not to the right things. Like, I know how to start a siphon, but I forgot that a siphon will start itself if you give it a chance. I gave it all kinds of chances. More water on the floor.

After mopping up the mess from the first dry run … wet run, whatever … I shuffled the pots around and tried again. I got almost no water on the floor the second time around. Yay, me.

Time to make some beer.

dry run or wet | 12:38 pm CDT
Category: hobby, homebrewing, play
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Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Biking home from work I got stuck behind a guy who was showing off to anyone who would watch by leaning way back in his saddle and riding no-hands down the trail. We all felt so insignificant that we would never been as cool as he was.

I would’ve passed him but, just as I approached, he wagged his butt and his bike waggled back and forth across the trail with him. Not wanting to become part of his wish to crash spectacularly, I avoided passing him until I could more completely assess his intentions.

His intentions were apparently to dare gravity to grab him and dash him to the ground. Not only did he waggle his butt again, but he went on to dance a hoochy-koo in his saddle, shaking his ass so vigorously that his chain slapped a back-beat against the frame of his bike.

I watched and waited for what I thought had to be the inevitable jackknifing that would end with his chin shoveling up dirt, but no joy. He remained defiantly upright until he grabbed his handlebars to turn, something even he was not cool enough to do no-hands.

shake ya ass | 8:00 pm CDT
Category: bicycling, commuting, entertainment, hobby, play, work
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There is an unresolved argument in academic circles about whether the invention of beer was the primary reason that people in Mesopotamia, considered the birthplace of Western civilization about 10,000 years ago, first became agriculturalists.

By about 3200 BC, around the time the Sumerians invented the written word, beer had already held a significant role in the region’s customs and myths. But for all the notes that Sumerians took about the ingredients and the distribution of their libations, no precise recipes have ever been found. Left behind were only cuneiform texts that vaguely hint at the brewing process, perhaps none more poetically than the Hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer.

– For Its Latest Beer, a Craft Brewer Chooses an Unlikely Pairing: Archeology, NY Times, 6/18/2013

The Sumerians worshiped a goddess of beer? Clearly this is a civilization I must learn more about.

the reason we’re here | 6:39 pm CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

trialboilFiring up the electric brew kettle with the newly-live control panel!

Brew buddy Scott came over last night to facilitate the last step of bringing the control panel on line, which was literally bringing it on line – connecting it to the main circuit breaker panel. He’s done this before; I haven’t, so I took him up on his gracious offer to step in and wire it up.

With 240 volts from the main, I flipped the switch on the control panel and got a very satisfying green light. *bliss!*

Scott wanted to show me how to hook up the temp sensor on the hot liquor tank and when I started to take it down off the shelf and he said it would work fine up there I said, “Hell with that, I wanna boil some water!” So the first trial run happened last night. I did another trial boil in the brew kettle this morning to confirm that the Number Two Circuit worked and to do an autotune on the little computer that controls the temperature. Yeah. I did that. Right after I got out of the shower. Yeah. I’m that geeked out about it. Well, don’t you have any toys? I’ll bet you do.

trial boil | 6:21 am CDT
Category: hobby, homebrewing, play
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Friday, May 31st, 2013

I needed a picnic cooler with a drain hole. That was my biggest requirement. And I found several different models that had drain holes, with and without wheels, but they were all big enough to hold a dozen clowns. I didn’t need one that big. I needed a normal-sized picnic cooler, the kind that holds maybe two six-packs and a big bag of ice.

That size picnic cooler doesn’t come with a drain hole any more, sad to say. I couldn’t find one at Menard’s or at Bain’s Farm And Fleet. They didn’t have any at Shopko. I checked both of the Ace Hardware stores on our side of town, but no joy. All the coolers I found were big enough to live in, or they were normal-sized but didn’t have drain holes.

I had a hot tip that such a cooler was on sale at Wal-Mart, but I was trying to hold off going there until I had exhausted all other possibilities. Well, last night I was exhausted. I was ready to end the chase. Hanging my pride up on a peg in the garage, I climbed into the O-Mobile and drove just down the road a piece to our friendly neighborhood Wal-Mart.

I’d forgotten how dauntingly huge Wal-Mart is. I used to think that Menard’s was too big, but Wal-Mart could swallow up a Menard’s without getting so much as a belly bump. Our town’s Wal-Mart, in fact, has several Wal-Mart stores inside it. I wandered from the clothing store into the grocery store, for instance, before I realized what was happening to me.

How does anybody even know where to start looking for things in there? The place is as big as Nebraska, and about as well-signed. I walked almost all the way around the store before I happened to blunder into the section where they sold camping and outdoor sports stuff. Didn’t find any picnic coolers there, though. I did finally find a Wal-Mart employee there who said I should be able to find a picnic cooler if I went (pointing) way over there! Like a sucker, I went. I’ll bet he’s still in the break room telling the story about how he suckered the noob.

That sounds kinda dirty, doesn’t it?

Anyway, I finally found the picnic cooler I was looking for, but only by accident. I’d been wandering around Wal-Mart for almost twenty minutes without finding what I was looking for and decided, Screw this, I’m outta here, so I headed for the door. Halfway there, in I Don’t Know What Department, I blundered into a shelf loaded up with cast-off remnants from other departments, on sale for half price, and there, in the middle of the shelf, was just one normal-sized picnic cooler with a drain. Paydirt!

As soon as I got it home, I unscrewed the drain from it. The hole left behind, it turned out, was exactly the right size for a continuously-threaded nipple. Now that sounds dirty. But it isn’t. More on that later.

picnic cooler | 9:29 pm CDT
Category: hobby, homebrewing, play
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Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

The beer-making machine I’ve been steadily putting together for the past four weeks needs a lot of wire for its guts. The instructions tell me I need wire in three different sizes but don’t say how much, so I have to guess, and guessing means I have to keep going back to the hardware store when I don’t guess right.

On my first visit I asked for six feet of three different colors in various sizes. I really had no idea then how much I was going to need. I barely had enough to get started. When I went back, I asked for twelve feet of almost every color and size. That was almost enough to get all the big chunks of hardware wired together, but not enough to connect them to the switches that would turn things on. Kind of a problem, there. I had to go back for another twelve feet of red in two different sizes.

Today I needed six feet of 14-gauge red and black wire to finish wiring the switches. A guy I hadn’t seen before offered to cut it for me.

“You know this is low-voltage wire,” he said, pausing before he cut it.

“Uh, okay,” I answered, waiting for him to explain why he was telling me this.

But he didn’t. He just went back to measuring and cutting, handed me the wire I asked for and then rang me up. So the first thing I did when I got home was googled the shit out of “low-voltage wire” and “14-gauge wire” and other electrical stuff to see if I could figure out whether or not my control panel was going to melt down or explode in a shower of sparks the first time I switched it on, because this control panel is very definitely not low-voltage. The circuit I was going to complete with the red and black wire I bought today, for instance, would be 240 volts. If I tried to run that through teeny-tiny 22-gauge wire, just for instance, it would go *poof!*

From what I’ve been able to find, though, 14-gauge wire is 14-gauge wire. There’s no such thing as “low-voltage” 14-gauge wire. The cord dangling from the lamp right next to me is 14-gauge wire, for instance, and there’s 120 volts coursing through it right now but it’s not on fire. I think that guy was messing with me.

low voltage | 5:22 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Monday, May 27th, 2013

mountedpanelAll it’s waiting for is thirty amps of scalding electric current!

I got the control panel all but finished this weekend. All the important wiring is done – I ran out of 14 gauge wire before I got a couple of the lights hooked up, but it’ll work without them – and I even managed to hang the monster from the wall all by myself in spite of the fact that it weighs more than I do. It tried to kill me twice, once by falling on me and once by giving me a heart attack, but I beat it both times!

When My Darling B laid eyes on it she rolled them higher than the sky and said, “Oh, come on! That is way overkill!” And she’s right again, of course. This control panel literally has all the bells and whistles. If I ever have to rebuild it (to brew bigger batches of beer, for instance), I’ll make it a lot simpler, now that I know how it works. I’ll leave out the alarm and at least half the lights, for instance.

All that’s left is to connect it to the main breaker panel through a GFCI, which stands for “use one of these or DIE!” It’s a special circuit breaker that gets between you and water so that any electric short won’t kill you. I don’t know how it works. All I know is it’s better to have one than not, so next weekend after the paycheck comes in I’ll be traipsing my little fanny down to Menard’s to bring one home and then, some time shortly after that, I’ll be brewing again.

And a good thing, too. My stock of homebrew’s getting a little low.

mounted panel | 2:54 pm CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Saturday, May 25th, 2013

cab1I’ve spent the afternoon wiring the control panel that I will someday plug my electric beer-brewing kettles into, if and when I ever complete it. The wiring’s not complicated – if it were, I would have given up before I started and gone back to extract brewing, boiling beer in my garage the way I’ve been doing it for many moons. But there is a lot more wiring than I thought there would be. The schematic diagram made it look so simple. The spaghetti-bowl reality of it is a completely different matter. Let’s take a look, shall we?

cab2Making beer probably should not be this insanely technological, and in all actuality I’ve learned since I bought the kit to build this contraption that a control panel doesn’t have to have all the lights and buzzers that this one has in order to make a good batch of beer, but I’m a complete noob when it comes to all-grain brewing in electric kettles and, not incidentally, a bit of a gadget freak, so the bling looked real good.

Out of all the stuff that’s mounted on the door, probably the only things that are absolutely necessary are the square-looking things called PIDs, which stands for “beer-making computer thingies,” and the switch that turns on the whole shebang. Oh, and the switch that selects which outlet to send power to, but that one’s necessary only because there are two outlets. I could’ve easily gone with just one outlet because I don’t plan on firing both kettles up, and in fact the way the switch works I wouldn’t be able to even if I wanted, but there has to be a way to do it, so there it is. A three-dollar double-throw, double-pole toggle switch would’ve done the same thing that the switch and four LED lights are doing in this kit build. Little bit of overkill going on there.

Almost all the stuff inside is needed, or at least I think it is. I’ll probably find out someday it’s not and kick myself around the block, but until then we’ll just pretend, shall we?

wiry | 9:09 pm CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Friday, May 24th, 2013

thismakesbeerThis machine makes beer.

I was up way past my bed time working on it last night. I was so absolutely bushed after finishing up that, when I finally came upstairs, I took each of the cats aside and explained to them that anybody who woke me up before five o’clock in the morning was going to be crated and shipped to the medical lab for scientific experimentation. They waited until exactly 5:02 am to wake me up today. Good kitties.

The last thing I needed to finish my beer-making machine was a drill bit that could cut holes big enough for the electrical outlets on the bottom of the cabinet. The guy who sold me a couple of electrically-heated kettles and started this whole adventure also loaned me some tools that would cut holes through sheet steel, but not big enough for these outlets, so I traipsed my little fanny down to Menard’s last night after dinner to save big money and came back with the tools I needed.

One of the tools was a hole saw. It fits in the end of a drill and cuts really big holes. It also makes one hell of a racket, and it damn near broke my arm when it went through the hole at an angle, wedging itself in tight enough to send the drill spinning in circles at three million rpm. Actually, that should’ve given me a bloody nose, too. I was wearing safety glasses and hearing protection, but the hardware store doesn’t sell anything that keeps runaway power tools from breaking your nose. That I know of.

The most challenging holes to cut out were the square holes for the PIDs, which stands for “beer-making blackbox computers.” These little gems are what sold me on the idea of trying all-grain brewing. Well, these and the rest of the gadgets, but beer-making computers sealed the deal. And these aren’t even the most sophisticated computers that make beer, but for a noob like me they’ll do the job nicely.

I had to cut the holes out with a jigsaw, then spend about a half-hour filing the rough edges off, straightening up the sides and squaring the corners until each PID slipped into place. This part was without question the noisiest phase of the whole operation, and it went on forever. I sure hope the cats were trying to sleep while I was doing that.

Now that all the hardware’s in place, I only have to wire the parts together to make them work, which should take only seventy million hours. *heavy sigh*

this makes beer | 5:54 am CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

It’s raining again. I don’t ride my bike to work in the rain because I bike to work in my work clothes and I want my clothes to be dry when I get there. Therefore, no bike ride today. Bummer.

drizzle drivel | 6:40 am CDT
Category: bicycling, commuting, hobby, play, work
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Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

panelSpent the evening playing doll house with a handful of electric switches and LEDs. This will be the control panel for my electric brewing setup. It’s just about time to start cutting holes, I think.

control panel | 5:51 am CDT
Category: hobby, homebrewing, play
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Sunday, May 12th, 2013

ebreweryBefore I tell you what I’ve been doing with wire and a sharp knife, here’s a disclaimer that I like to share as often as possible: Always cut away from you.

You will not take this advice, of course. I don’t know anybody who ever did. I never did. I used my sharp knives any damn way I pleased until the day the knife cut through the insulation just a leeetle bit faster than I thought it would and I made such a deep cut in my finger that it reminded me of an especially tender cut of juicy red meat. And the first thought that went through my mind was, Man! I wish I’d LISTENED!

I had to learn this lesson not once, but twice, because I’m a special kind of stupid.

I’ve been stripping lots of wire in order to piece together a control panel that will fire up the electric kettles I got for brewing beer. It took me the better part of two weeks to figure out where to put all the pieces so I could run wires between them without making it look like a bowl of tangled spaghetti. Actually, it took the better part of a week just to figure out what the pieces were. I’d never heard of a ‘contactor’ before and didn’t know why I needed one until I started working on this project. After digging that secret out of teh intarwebs and a few false starts that resulted in a lot of cussing while I took everything apart so I could start over, I finally laid out all the parts in a way that, as of yesterday evening, hasn’t resulted in violent disassembly or very much cussing at all. And I haven’t cut myself once.

Even so, I’m not very close to brewing beer yet. After the control panel is put together I have to wire it into the house’s main breaker panel. That’ll require datamining teh intarwebs for information again, stripping more wire and, of course, cussing. Can’t get these things done without cussing. It’s as essential to any toolbox as duct tape.

electric brewery | 10:39 am CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Friday, May 3rd, 2013

I like to ride my bike to work, but I’ve always been a little skittish about it. I’m a fair-weather cyclist. I’ll ride when it’s sunny and warm out, but when the sky’s overcast, or the weatherman’s calling for more than a thirty percent chance of rain, I opt for the dry, warm safety of the O-Mobile.

The thing I’ve noticed on the days I pick the safe option is that, nine times out of ten it ended up not raining that day. I’d feel pretty good about my choice as I was driving in, but on the way home when everyone else was walking around in their shirt sleeves enjoying what turned out to be a beautifully sunny day, I’d be kicking myself. Figuratively speaking, of course. Pretty hard to kick yourself when you’re sitting in a car.

And that’s why I chucked the safest option yesterday morning and rode my bike to work, even though the forecast was calling for rain. I believed the forecast, by the way. The sky was thickly overcast with clouds the color of iron, it was cold and I had no doubt that rain would fall at some time during the day, but I was determined to believe that it would not fall during the crucial hour that I rode to work and the hour after work when I was heading home.

I made it to work just fine. Not even a sprinkle to dampen my clothes. And that’s the most critical thing, really. Could there be a a more effective way than getting soaked through with rain to make office work more miserable than it already is? Somehow, I don’t think so.

I thought I was going to be just fine on the way home, too. I had to pick up a few things, but the bakery and the grocer’s were on the way, and I was less than five minutes in each. By the time I got to Olbrich Park, though, it had started to sprinkle, and not the sprinkle of a passing cloud. More the sprinkle of a cloud that is warning you there is much, much more to come. As indeed there was.

By the time I reached Cottage Grove Road, the clouds had finished their throat-clearing and were belting out a bitchen blues tune that made me wail right along with them. The words to the song are not suitable for mixed company and I don’t remember all of them now that I’m warm and comfortable, but I remember that it was mostly just one word repeated again and again. I stuck a pronoun in occasionally just to emphasize that it was my own situation I was very unhappy with.

There was an especially heavy downpour just after I crossed the line into Monona and started down the home stretch, because when the universe flips you off, it figures Go Big Or Go Home. This was about when the river of ice water that was running down my back and damming up behind my belt finally broke through. Some say the devil rules a land of fire, some say ice. I’ve felt the icy cold hand of the devil reach down the back of my pants and grab my man-parts, so I can confirm that he’s not about fire.

I’d been pedaling so furiously through the rain and the wind that when I finally reached the shelter of Our Humble O’Bode only forty minutes had passed, and that included the two stops I made to pick up dinner. I peeled out of my wringing-wet clothes just inside the front door and left them there in a sodden heap until after I took a hot, hot shower.

Could’ve been worse, as it turned out. B said she went through hail on the way home.

great big cosmic f u | 6:23 am CDT
Category: bicycling, commuting, daily drivel, hobby, story time, work
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Saturday, April 27th, 2013

To find out just how out-of-shape I’d become over the winter, I set out on my bike to ride around Lake Monona this morning. After being shut inside, slouched in a chair for so many months, my body feels more like a non-Newtonian fluid than flesh and bone, a puddle of slop that rears up and pretends to be alive when the need arises.

So I wasn’t too optimistic that I would even be able to finish a ride all the way around the lake, a distance of about twelve miles, but I didn’t set out with the goal in mind of finishing, just seeing how far I could get. And no time limit. I wasn’t trying to set any speed records. I don’t think I ever once used anything higher than 3rd gear. I had the whole morning to waste, a gentle breeze, and the sun was shining. Off we go.

I set off down Bridge Street, heading for the bike path that makes a short run along the south shore of the lake and connects to Waunona Way, a road through an upscale neighborhood. I like to imagine that Waunona used to be a thickly-wooded hillside before all the Yups took over and built their oversized, ostentatious mansionettes along the lake shore, blocking the view more or less completely. I thought it would be best to start the ride here, though, because it’s the hilliest leg of the journey, so I could get that over with first and then, if I didn’t feel I had enough gas to keep going, I could turn around and head back. I could even walk it, if I was a lot more out of shape than I thought I was, which could have easily been the case.

I felt just fine, though, when I came out the other side of the Waunona neighborhood and crossed the railroad tracks, so I decided to press on at least as far as Olin-Turville Park, where the Great Taste of the Midwest is held every year (tickets go on sale next Sunday!). The route was flat as piss on a plate all the way there and I never pedaled hard enough to feel winded so I had a pretty good idea by the time I got to the park that I could keep going and I’d be okay, at least as far as Willy Street, where I could stop at a coffee house and sit for a while if I felt the need.

I should’ve worn a sweat shirt, though. Even though the sun was still out, it was not as warm as I thought it would be.

A long, long train came up from the south and crossed John Nolan Drive just about the time I rolled through the park. He was going pretty fast until he got to the crossing, where he throttled way back. There must be a speed limit of about ten miles per hour after that, because I easily kept up with it all the way across the causeway and even through town. The bike path and the train tracks diverge at Monona Terrace but meet up again at the top of Willy Street and run hip to hip all the way to Ingersoll St where the tracks gradually curve away to the north. I pressed on alone.

Willy Street becomes Winnebago Street after it crosses the Yahara River, the same spot where the bike path crosses the road and runs about a thousand yards along an old railroad right-of-way to the intersection of Eastwood Ave and Atwood Ave, where it crosses the street again and ducks behind the row of buildings along Atwood Ave. I’d been thinking about stopping for a cup of coffee and maybe a danish ever since starting north through town, and there’s a great little cafe with tables set up right on the bike path to temp passing cyclists. I even slowed down as I passed by, giving it serious thought, but kept going anyway. I suppose I wanted to see if I could make it all the way around without a rest.

The trail runs between the Goodman Community Center and the Madison-Kipp Corporation, where a sign posted at the entrance of the back lot of the Madison-Kipp Corporation reads, “Absolutely no Goodman Center parking at any time.” Every time I see this sign, my brain reads it as, “Absolutely no Goddamn parking at any time.” Every. Single. Time.

After passing the Goodman Center, the trail doglegs to the southeast and runs past the back lots of the Olbrich Botanical Garden, where the remains of the old sugar factory are waiting for somebody to shoot a really scary movie about ghosts or zombies. With the pile of headstones out front, that place looks scary in the daytime.

A drainage ditch running along the bike trail must have needed some dredging this spring. It’s normally hidden from view by thick bushes which were all cut down, and the trail itself had been crushed beneath the wheels of some very heavy machinery, making it look weirdly as if a small battle had taken place in this one teensy-tiny little part of the park. I had to gear all the way down and pick my way slowly through the rutted clay laid left behind where the asphalt used to be.

I was practically in the home stretch after that. I came out at the top of Monona Drive, slowly climbed the hill to the point where the never-ending road construction began, ducked into the neighborhood behind Rubin’s Furniture and slowly pedaled home along quiet residential streets. An hour and a half after I started, I pulled into the driveway of Our Humble O’Bode, tired, but in a good way.

first ride of the 2013 season | 12:46 pm CDT
Category: bicycling, hobby, play
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Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

a pile of electronicsI got a call this morning from the fraud detection unit at my friendly neighborhood bank. “We detected some unusual activity on your debit card,” the agent on the other end of the line explained to me. “Did you place an order for a pile of electronic parts and blinky lights, and pay way too much money for it?”

“Why, yes, in fact, I did,” I confirmed.

“Well, okay then,” she said. “It’s your money, I guess.”

“That’s right, it’s my money, and if I want to spend it on a pile of blinky lights, that’s what I’ll do with it. But thanks for checking.”

“It’s for your protection, sir,” she explained. “Good-bye.”

She really did say that last part. The rest of the conversation I kind of made up, but it’s “based on a true story,” as they say. I really did use my debit card to buy a pile of electronic parts and blinky lights from an internet vendor, but I thought that’s what a debit card was for.

I didn’t think it was too much money, though. The parts will eventually be assembled in a way that will control the temperature of the electric kettles I’ll use to make beer in the basement. Some people might think that’s not worth the expense, but they’re people who don’t drink beer, so they don’t count.

blinky lights | 6:00 am CDT
Category: hobby, homebrewing, play
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Sunday, April 7th, 2013

Spent the afternoon cleaning up the space under the basement stairs where I’d been storing a whole bunch of flat cast-off wooden paneling, gypsum board and backer board against the eventuality that I might find a use for it someday. Well, guess what? I’ve been hauling that crap around for ages and I’ve never touched it, so I hauled it up the stairs and out to the driveway where I hacked it all to pieces with a circular saw and chucked it in the trash. If I haven’t done anything with that junk in twenty years, chances are good that I’ll never miss it.

That left me plenty of room under the stairs to erect a set of steel shelves ($41.95 from Menard’s – they keep saying I’ll save big money, but all I ever do when I’m there is spend, spend, spend) where I will be able to store the many pails, bottles and hardware I use to brew beer which, previous to this, had been cluttering up the workbench or taking up space on the floor. I didn’t realize until today that I was in possession of FIVE glass carboys!

After being cooped up all winter getting zero exercise, followed by all that clean-up, I had to have a nap. Actually, two naps. Okay, three. It was a lot of work.

clean-up | 7:19 pm CDT
Category: hobby, homebrewing, play
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Saturday, April 6th, 2013

HLT3I bought it. It’s mine. I took that hot liquor tank off his hands. This is it, the gateway to grain brewing.

When I got started brewing beer I didn’t think I’d ever be interested in brewing from scratch, but after reading up on it all week long I have to admit it sounds very cool. And also, the guy who sold me the HLT gave me some of his beer. After tasting that, I really wanted to learn to make beer that tasted that good.

I’ll have to build a control panel for the HLT so I can plug it in and make beer with it. Lucky for me the guy I bought this from said he’d help me with that, because I’ve had a look at the schematic for the kit and although I’m not a total slouch at reading schematics, it would be challenging enough to make me think twice about trying it alone.

I’ll also have to do a little scratchbuilding to transform a plastic picnic cooler into a mash tun, and the same guy who sold me the HLT will let me have his brew kettle when he’s done with it. That’ll be all I need to brew my own beer in the basement.

movin on up | 5:03 pm CDT
Category: beer, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

electric hot liquor tankI think I have to buy this.

It’s a hot liquor tank, it’s used for brewing beer and – this is what really blows my mind – it’s electric, which would give me the amazing super-power of being able to brew beer in my basement where the rest of my brewing equipment is, instead of having to brew it in the garage, then carry a pot of boiling brew through the kitchen and down the stairs while silently chanting a prayer to the gods to protect me from tripping on something and transforming into a burn victim.

The guy who’s selling this little electric miracle, Scott, built it himself from parts. He also built an electronic controller for it so he could control how hot it got and, being a self-confessed gadget geek, he said he’d love to help me build my own controller.

Scott’s an all-grain brewer, meaning that he doesn’t use the gooey extract that I use to make beer. Nothing wrong with extract, but Scott gave me a sample of his beer and it’s way better than anything I’ve made. I would love to learn how to make beer like that, so I asked him to describe the process. He pulled out all his equipment: showed me his new hot liquor tank, hauled out the mash tun he made himself out of a bright orange plastic Igloo picnic cooler (I could do that!), but the brew kettle he had wasn’t big enough any more so he said he’d be making a bigger one and would be putting the one he showed me up for sale. I told him not to bother; I’d take it off his hands. We shook on the deal and I said I’d be back on Saturday with the money for the hot liquor tank. We’re going to work out the rest of the deal and the plan to build the controller then.

electric brewing | 6:04 am CDT
Category: beer, daily drivel, food & drink, hobby, homebrewing, play
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Saturday, March 16th, 2013

I made my weekly trip to Madison Hobby Stop a day early this week, heading over in the morning as soon as I could. I had to be back by noon so that My Darling B and I could buy tickets to the Wisconsin Film Festival, and I had several other errands to run besides poking around on the shelves looking for toy train stuff.

I was looking for a particular bit of gadgetry but they didn’t have it in stock this week. No problem, the very nice lady at the counter said, they’ll order it for me, and straight from the factory, too! She even took my name and number so she could call me when they got it. Those guys are the best.

| 7:23 am CDT
Category: hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Friday, March 15th, 2013

horny1Visiting a train show a couple years back, I spotted a big stack of boxes from across the aisle that made my spider-sense tingle. They turned out to be passenger cars, dozens of them, at rock-bottom prices. I picked out two dome cars, two or three sleepers, a coach and an observation car for the tail end. There weren’t any baggage cars in the bunch or I would have snagged one of those, too. I felt pretty good about my discovery for about twenty minutes, then wanted to go back and buy all the rest of them. I still don’t know how I didn’t.

The cars were all made by Rivarossi, an Italian company that made some affordable yet still rather good-looking passenger cars. By ‘affordable’ I mean they’re on the cheap end of the spectrum without going quite all the way into the shabby shit you can expect when you pay no more than five dollars per car. The paint job is plain without being sloppy. The grab irons are molded on without looking like turds stuck to the sides of the car. They’re about as good-looking as you could expect to get without feeling like your wallet’s been raped.

They didn’t spend a lot of money on the couplers, that’s for sure. Admittedly, horn-hook couplers were the industry standard back in the day, and they work well enough but they don’t look a thing like real couplers, or anything else you would expect to see on a passenger car. Might as well have great big white-gloved Mickey Mouse hands sticking out from underneath the ends of the cars. I’m not a rivet-counting stickler for realism, but I cannot abide horn-hook couplers.

horny3Luckily, there’s something I can do about that. Namely, rip the old couplers off the cars and install new ones. An American company called Kadee makes nothing but miniature couplers that look like the full-size couplers on real train cars, and while I was visiting my favorite hobby store not long ago I found some Kadee couplers that I thought would work perfectly on my Rivarossi passenger cars, so I bought them all, took them home and, over the past several nights, have been trying to figure out how to mount them to the cars in a way that would look almost like I knew what I was doing instead of like I had no clue and wasn’t going to get one any time soon.

The first thing to do, it seemed to me, was to pull off the frames that the wheels were mounted in. Model rail geeks call these trucks, because trucks. I don’t know why, they just do, okay? The horn-hook couplers stuck out from one end of each truck and they got in the way. Taking off the trucks cleared the decks, so to speak, and made it easier to figure out how to remove the horn-hook couplers. They were clipped in place with a thin, circular spring that was almost as hard to unclip as a bra strap, but after I figured it out I could take off a coupler in two shakes, no waiting. Again, sort of like a bra strap.

horny5Then I had to figure out where to drill the holes so the replacement coupler would stick out far enough to grab the coupler of another car, but not so far that it would look like a great big moldy pumpkin on the end of a broom stick. This seemed like a simple matter of measurement, and I did carefully measure it out, check my measurements, and measured it again before I drilled that first hole, but I still got the moldy pumpkin. Can it be that the universe has evolved up to this point just so I could experience that moment?

After a little experimentation, I got the coupler in the right place and it was time to put all the pieces together. Kadee couplers are sold as kits, each set in a little brown envelope filled with tiny screws and springs that roll all the way across your work bench and right off the edge if you’re not smart enough to dump them into a dish. Not a single one of the pieces is big enough to make it easy to handle with your fingers. You have to use tweezers a lot. I’m no good with tweezers. When I try to pick up a teensy-tiny little screw with a pair of tweezers, chances are about fifty-fifty that, just as I’m guiding the screw into the hole where it’s supposed to go, I’ll squeeze a little too hard and the screw will go sailing through the air and I’ll never see it again.

And don’t even get me started on springs. One moment, I’m trying to gently push one into a slot with the flat of a screwdriver, the next moment it’s not there. Didn’t see it take off, didn’t even see what I might have done wrong to make it go flying. It was just time to leave, so it left. After the last cuss word had cleared the air and my breathing levels off, I have to wonder sometimes that this is what I do to relax after work.

horny6After everything’s put together and the couplers are finally mounted to the car body in the right place, though, I have to admit that all that cussing is worth it. And it was fun to finally put these cars on the track and hook them up to an engine so I could take them for a spin around the track. All my engines have knuckle couplers, so until I could replace the old horn-hook couplers, the only way I could move them around the track was with the end of my finger. I made choo-choo sounds with my mouth while I did it, but it just wasn’t the same and cranking the throttle open and watching an engine drag them down the line.

coupled | 6:06 am CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Monday, March 11th, 2013

main control boardI spent just about the whole weekend up to my elbows in an extra-large helping of copper-wire spaghetti, not because I was involved in yet another home improvement project, like fixing the garage door opener that’s still spread out in pieces across my work bench, but because I was playing with my choo-choo trains. A man’s gotta have his priorities.

Some of it, like the stuff behind the control board of the Lost Continent Railway, was easy to get at because I attached the board to the bench with hinges so it flips out and all the guts of the thing are exposed. Easy-peasy.

Some of the wiring, though, snakes around through the spaces between the track and the bench and seem to be all but impossible to get to, but really it’s not impossible. All I have to do is crawl under the bench on my aching knees, scrape my bleeding knuckles across the rough edges of the plywood as I thread the wire to the right place, then crawl almost all the way back out and try to stand up while I’m still underneath the bench so I bang my head. Every. Single. Time.

So maybe you can see it’s with no small sense of relief that I can finally say the trains of the Lost Continent Railway can finally run from one end of the track to the other.

Well, after just a little troubleshooting, they do. The first train I tried to send around the west loop wouldn’t move much faster than a slow crawl no matter how far I cranked the throttle open. That usually indicates a short circuit, which I have to sheepishly admit took me most of an afternoon to find. The west loop itself was the short. Duh. I think that’s in chapter two of Model Railroading For Dummies.

Here’s a short video of one of the first trips around the Lost Continent Railway made by a long, sleek, streamlined passenger car (all the trains on the LoCo are passenger trains – I got a great big thing for passenger trains) and, because you’re my favorite visitor, I’ve even thrown in a train crash at the end. You’re welcome.

spaghetti | 6:16 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Thursday, March 7th, 2013

Seriously, how does Radio Shack stay in business? I go there pretty regularly to buy solder and micro-switches and geeky stuff like that, but nobody else does, from what I can tell. For all the times I’ve been there, just once have I seen anyone else in the store, shopping for a phone. I wanted to walk up to him and ask, “Really? You needed a phone and the first store that popped into your head was Radio Shack? How?”

Every other time I’ve been there, I was the only customer in the store. Which has its up side. The clerks always say “Hi” when I walk in the door, and they very nearly demand to show me to the very spot where I can find what I’m looking for. On the rare occasions when I don’t already know where it is and take them up on their offer, they’ll take me up the correct aisle, pull open a drawer and take out several examples of, say, terminal lugs, describing each type and finishing up by letting me know that, if these are exactly the right kind of terminal lugs I’m looking for, they’ll be happy to call the other Radio Shack stores to see if they can find what I want.

I took one of the clerks up on that offer, too, when I was looking for a big spool of wire. Unfortunately, I have to report that her call did not start with, “You’ll never believe who’s here! A customer!

howzat | 6:00 am CDT
Category: daily drivel, hobby, play | Tags: ,
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Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

I stopped at Radio Shack at eight o’clock this evening to pick up some wire and terminal lugs. I was the only guy there; I’m always the only guy there. How does Radio Shack stay in business?

There were two guys behind the counter. They had the radio on loud, playing their favorite tunes. They both said “Hi” to me, then went back to texting their girlfriends on their phones while they let me do my shopping.

I need that job.

dream job | 9:11 pm CDT
Category: daily drivel, hobby, play, work | Tags:
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Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

Hours spent burning my fingertips with a soldering iron have finally paid off: Locomotives can finally move under their own power through the switches at the center of the layout.


They can move through two of the switches, anyway. The two that matter. After my fingers heal, I’ll have to wire two more switches to get the locos to go up the outside tracks. Right now they can only go up the middle track under their own power and I have to push them with a finger to the outside tracks. Even so, I’m geeking out watching one locomotive, and then the other make their way almost all the way around the layout as I man the throttle.

progress again | 6:16 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Friday, February 15th, 2013

Meteors: Nature’s way of asking, “How’s that space program coming along?”

Bam! | 5:49 am CDT
Category: current events, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery | Tags:
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Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Trains moving along the LoCo RwyAfter spending a good three hours wiring the control board, trains are finally moving under their own power along the Lost Continent Railway!

I ran a steamer up the inside stretch of track first, then the diesel. The steamer seemed to slip a lot, even though it was pulling only a tender and three short cars. Not sure there’s anything I can do about that. The diesel is a good puller, easily dragging a rake of five cars all the way around two curves and through the crossings.

I can’t run trains along the outside stretch of track until I fix the crossover on the low end. It’s shorting out the circuit and I can’t isolate it without simply cutting it out, which I’ll do anyway when a replacement crossing arrives in the mail some time next week, so I’ll just wait. I can push a string of cars up the outside track with my finger, though, to make for a slightly more interesting photo.

Action along the LoCo Rwy | 5:58 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy, play
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Monday, February 4th, 2013

Aw, hell yes!

Aw Hell Yes!

hell yes | 6:09 pm CDT
Category: beer, entertainment, food & drink, hobby, play, space geekery
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Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

We had to shovel the driveway. I’m pooped. Here’s an awesome video. G’night.


pooped | 8:59 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery | Tags:
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Sunday, January 20th, 2013

ironI went to plug in my fifteen-watt soldering iron yesterday and found that it was already plugged in.

Hmmm. The last time I used it was, um … hmmmm.

hot iron | 10:01 pm CDT
Category: daily drivel, hobby
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120120trackI couldn’t wait until another day to finish laying the rest of the track through the crossings and past the switches that led to the horseshoe curve back to the terminal platform. I thought I could wait until next week, but it turned out I’m a weaker man than that. I had to finish up so I could push a string of cars through it with my index finger while making ‘choo-choo-choo’ noises and imagining what it will be like when someday soon the tracks will be wired and I’ll be able to open the throttle on a big steam locomotive that will stomp its way through this stretch of track.


a little more | 9:38 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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Saturday, January 19th, 2013

track120119Track boss Dominic Book rounded up the track gang this morning. He had to pound on the doors of every whore house and tavern on the low side of town to do it, but Dominic’s not a man to shirk from his job, nor is he a man that people say no to. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s a regular customer of all those business establishments, where they met him at the door with hot coffee and gave him enough time to drink it while they rolled the gang out of whatever corners or closets they were sleeping off last night’s revelry.

When they were all in tow, Dominic marched the gang down to the kitchen cars in the yards at Dog Water to be fed, then put them on a special train that took them out to the crossings at Pistol where a pile of ties and rail were waiting for them. While the boys set to work, Dominic conferred with the Chief Engineer over plans to lay four switches through the crossings. The weather was good for trackwork: The skies were clear and sunny and the temperature, moderate. The gang worked through the day into the evening and were doing so well that Dominic didn’t blow the whistle until an hour past dinner time, but the gang didn’t complain, because they knew before they climbed aboard the special to take them back to Dog Water that there were iced buckets of beer waiting to refresh them on the trip back.

a good day’s work | 9:35 pm CDT
Category: entertainment, hobby, LoCo Rwy
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