2009-01-28

Bad Bike Racks


The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto proposes installing bike racks with advertisements on city parking meters. Since I'm not a city resident, I can't complain to my Councilman, so I'll rant here instead.

This arrangement seems to make a lot of sense, from the city's perspective. We get more bike racks, which was an issue already on the agenda. And, the city doesn't have to pay for anything. Everyone wins!

However, from a cyclist's perspective, this makes no sense at all. Cyclists can already lock their bicycles to parking meters, so they do not stand to gain anything through the installation of these racks. In fact, the racks are bolted onto the parking meter poles, and are smaller than a bicycle, which creates a new point of failure that didn't previously exist.

The racks do provide a small advantage to cyclists who use a cable lock. A cable lock can be slipped over the top of a parking meter, but it can be locked safely to the loop on the auxiliary rack. However, anyone with a cable lock can already attach their bicycle to something larger such as a telephone pole.

These racks provide little benefit to the cyclist, while plastering our urban environment with even more advertisements. I would prefer new bicycle racks in locations where bicycle parking is not already available, instead of this waste of energy and resources for the sole purpose of increasing commercial billboard space.

2009-01-27

Spammer Jokes

Today I realized that there are plenty of funny non-PC jokes out there, which could very easily be turned into funny jokes which target a group no one will be offended by: Spammers.

Lawyer jokes are particularly appropriate:

Q: What do you call 1000 spammers at the bottom of the ocean?
A: A good start!

Q: Mom, can you get pregnant from anal sex?
A: Of course, where do you think spammers come from?

2009-01-25

Epic Bench


In case you haven't figured it out yet, "Epic" refers to a project which went on far longer than it should have, and/or is not finished yet.

Around 1998, when we moved into our house, I started building a woodworking bench. I built the base in the tiny workshop in Marla's mother's house, using mortise and tenon joints on some dimensional 4x4' lumber. I was inspired around this time, from attending Michael Dunbar's Windsor Institute and building a Windsor chair in October 1998.

Some time after that, I bought some hard maple for the bench top; a few years later, I pieced the top together. Unfortunately, due to some miscalulation and/or overzealous jointing, I ended up with the top about an inch too narrow for the base. Around this time, I also received a very nice Record woodworking vise for Christmas, before Record went out of business. (Thanks, Dad!) I cleaned the glue joints and trimmed the ends, but with inspiration from the chair class waning, I didn't make any further progress.

Since it was a vaguely horizontal surface, it was fine for most of my general handyman tasks, even though it was inadequate for woodworking. It served this purpose well for many years, while I worked on a variety of non-woodworking projects.

Then, in 2007, I attended another Windsor chair making class, this time taught by Brian Cunfer near Lancaster, PA. I built a side chair, including turning the legs (which we didn't do at Dunbar's class).

With my newfound inspiration, I decided to continue work on my bench so I could build a windsor style stool. I flattened the top, fit it to the base, and bought a lathe to turn some legs and stretchers. After turning the spindles, I started turning wooden boxes. But woodturning doesn't require much of a bench, and certainly doesn't require a vise. And the top was still too narrow for the base...

Soon the newly flattened bench top was covered with spindles, broken boxes, box blanks, and other various bits of turned wood. After giving away a few dozen wooden boxes for Christmas, woodworking and turning once again ceased to be my primary hobby.

When my parents decided to visit after Christmas in 2008, Dad asked "What projects do you have?" I added "finish the bench" to the top of the list.

When he was here, we made some great progress. He brought some hard maple to widen the top enough to fit the base. We widened the top, trimmed the ends, re-flattened the top, and added a spacer block to mount the vise. Finally, after a few bolts to hold the top down, and wooden vise jaws, it's starting to really look like a bench.

It's now finished enough to use for woodworking, so I can build the stool seat and assemble it. Thanks!

The remaining tasks include smoothing the top and ends a bit more, and applying a finish. I'll wait for the warmer months before finishing it, so I can ventilate the basement while the finish dries.

Anyone who has seen many woodworking benches will probably notice that this bench is fairly sparse, and that the base and top are attached in a somewhat odd position. I'll provide an explanation, but no excuses. There's no way I could've made a substantially better bench, without any bench to work with. The odd proportions are purely due to a series of changed plans combined with no desire to redo any work already done.

On the bench, you can see I've started the stool seat. I'll post more about that as it progresses.

2009-01-24

Beer Batch #19: Epic Gruit

I've decided to write blog entries for particularly interesting batches of beer I've brewed, including recipes and notes. This entry documents my 19th batch of homebrew since 1995 when I first started brewing.

After a long "off" period, I started brewing again in early 2008. I quickly learned that I was in the midst of a global hops shortage. To compensate for the high price and low availability of hops, I became interested in gruit, a traditional style of beer which uses various dried herbs for bittering and preservation, instead of hops.

Gruit is essentially obsolete, and not a lot of useful information is available regarding specific recipes for use by homebrewers. The typical recommendation is to just experiment, and see what happens. That's all well and good, but what do you do with 5 gallons of failed experiment?

I gave it a try anyway. This is what I came up with.

Epic Gruit

Brew date: April 13, 2008

Ingredients for a 5 gallon batch:

  • 1/2 lb Crystal malt, 120L
  • 1/2 lb Chocolate malt, 338L
  • 8.5 lb M+F Light dry malt extract
  • 1 oz dried Yarrow
  • 1 oz dried Mugwort
  • 1/2 oz dried Licorice root
  • 2g dried Sweet Gale
  • 1 tsp Irish Moss (for clarity)
  • Wyeast 3787 Trappist Ale Yeast

Process:
  1. Steep grains in 2.5-3 gallons of water, 155F for 30 min.
  2. Add malt extract
  3. Boil for 60 minutes total
    • add herbs at 30 minutes
    • add irish moss at 45 minutes
    • add wort chiller at 45 minutes
  4. Chill wort, targetting 78-80F for the wort
  5. Add to water in fermentation bucket, to reach 5 gallons
  6. Pitch yeast starter
Original Gravity: 1.063

Notes:
  • I started the Wyeast several days earlier, and it started just fine.
  • After 24 hours, there was no activity in the fermenter, so I dumped in a vial of 2nd generation White Labs European Ale Yeast (without a starter)
  • Very active after 48 hours
  • April 25: Gravity = 1.021, racked to secondary. Tastes herbal, somewhat sour, with an odd bitter aftertaste. If it wasn't supposed to be weird, I'd call it bad.
  • May 10: Gravity = 1.021, tastes bad still.
  • May 24: Gravity = 1.020/21. Sour, odd bitterness, but somewhat less foul tasting. Racked off.
  • June 29: Gravity = 1.020. Sour, but not as much odd herbal bitterness. Not entirely drinkable.
  • August 4: Gravity = 1.019. Better yet, less sour. Still oddly herbal, this isn't likely to change.
  • September 13: Gravity = 1.012
  • November 22: Bottled.
  • Jan 13, 2009: This is starting to taste good. Maybe I finally tasted it enough times, but it's drinkable and interesting. I had no hope for a drinkable batch of beer until recently. It might be an experiment worth repeating, but I might want to try something slightly different.

Taste Summary

This beer has some of the interesting flavor that I'd expect from a sour Belgian beer, but also an odd herbal flavor. No one other than me likes it very much, but I'd be satisfied drinking the whole batch. One commentor compared it to the soda Moxie, which is also known for a serious herbal aftertaste.

I usually keg my beer, but I was confident I wouldn't drink this batch fast enough to bother kegging it. I lost all hope for quite a while, and wondered why I was even bothering to spend the effort putting it into bottles. But now, I enjoy it and I'm glad I saved it.

They generally say that cellaring beer for more than a few months is not useful unless you have a cold cellar or it's high gravity. But this beer definitely improved with age. I would not be surprised if some of the character of the beer came from some bugs other than the yeast getting into it, but it seems they weren't bad bugs in the long run.

Lego Batman: Toys vs. Games

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood recently released their nominations for the 2009 TOADY award for Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young children. Kotaku.com, an excellent video game news site, pointed out that LEGO Batman: The Videogame is among this year's contenders for the TOADY award.

I agree with the CCFC's general intent, and the other four nominees seem entirely appropriate for this award. However, I think CCFC has missed the mark in a fundamental way, when nominating LEGO Batman for this "award."

The problem is, LEGO Batman: The Videogame isn't a toy. It's a game.

Good toys provide a platform which inspires play, without limiting a child's freedom. A good game provides a strict framework which restricts allowable actions, while providing goals which must be accomplished while following those restrictions. Both toys and games are valuable tools for learning and playing, but they are valuable in different ways, and for different reasons.

Saying that LEGO Batman is an oppressive version of a LEGO building kit is like saying Go (the board game) is an oppressive bowl of rocks. While true, it completely misses the point: a game is a game as opposed to a toy exactly because it has rules and structure that good toys lack.

I will admit that the branding and marketing of LEGO Batman is somewhat heavy-handed compared to the average hand-carved wooden toy car. But unlike almost all other video games launched along with a movie, the LEGO video games are not primarily cobranded "shovelware." The marketing may not be ideal, but the games themselves can easily stand on their own merits even in the absence of the movies they were launched with. LEGO Star Wars is a far better game than the abysmal Star Wars movie it was originally launched with.

All of the LEGO video games (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Batman) share some very positive qualities that are hard to find in other video games marketed for children:
  • Cooperation: Multiplayer Lego games are cooperative, not competetive. Players must cooperate to make progress in the game. Cooperation, compromise, and civil conversation between children, or even between a parent and child, can be difficult, and games are a good place to practice these skills.
  • Creative problem solving: These are primarily physical puzzle games, not fighting games. Some of the puzzles are quite difficult to solve, and repeat play provides useful practice with remembering and executing a multi-step process.
  • Exploration: These games have fairly large worlds to explore, and many hidden surprises to find.
  • Money management: In the Lego games, you collect "Studs" which you can use to buy additional characters or other gameplay elements. This progressive mechanic teaches that you can't have everything for free right now, but that you must "work" for it. Using money instead of a typical simpler "unlocking" mechanic forces kids to choose between alternate rewards, when using their limited resources.
It is unfortunate that an excellent game like Lego Batman has to suffer the wrath of proxy parenting groups, when even within the realm of video games, there are much more worthy candidates for the TOADY. Lego Batman seems to be singled out for defiling the long-beloved LEGO name. Instead, I am glad that products with the LEGO name on them still have high quality in comparison to their direct peers.