Monday, March 28, 2011

Fiction: Two Blocks

I slowed slightly to catch a deep breath or two and heard a slow thumm-thumm of the green car's bass pulsing louder to my right.

"Shit!" I blurted. The gangers had somehow whipped a tight U on the crowded street and were about to turn onto Hickory. I picked up the pace, separating myself from the street by a couple of backyards.

"Yeah, yeah, keep runnin' Guero. You know what they say? You only gonna die tired!" shouted the ganger from the alley near my place. He had seen too many movies, but  I could hear his footfalls as he jogged towards me. Old Lady White's place was only four houses up, so I dug harder at the broken asphalt of the alleyway. The thumm-thumm of the street racer's stereo was booming reverberating in my chest.

"Hey!" came a different voice from the street. "Aye!" The car was at the foot of the alley!

"Hah-huh!" I laughed, realizing why they weren't following me into the alley; the lowered street racer was not able to easily navigate the dip between the street and the alley. Finally, a stroke of luck! A second bit of luck graced my path a heartbeat later. The gnarled trunks of the old trees that peppered the sides of the alleyway jutted deeply into the narrow road. I ducked to the right and kept running, hoping the venerable tree trunks hid my path.

"Chaaarlieee," the voice called--was that Roberto in the car? "Where are you going? We live here too, you know, man."

Only one more more backyard separated me from my path to Broadway. I tried to listen while I ran to Old Lady White's back gate. I could hear two sets of feet jogging toward me as the exhaust of the street racer whined its way quickly to my my right and started up Fourth. They were working hard to catch me... almost too hard. Another grizzled tree trunk provided some concealment ahead and I ducked out and around it and, catching a familiar branch, vaulted over the picket fence and into Mrs. White's yard.

I landed somewhat hard, grabbing at the rotting leaves and branches as I pushed myself up. I had mowed this yard several times as a kid, so I was hoping to grasp one of those branches that had often kicked out at my shins. "Oh, score!" I stood up, carrying a thick twig toward the gate's latch. Jamming it into the padlock hole, I spun back toward the front gate I knew was there.

I hurdled the gate--just like I did in high school while practicing for track--and continued running toward the sidewalk. I could hear the thumm-thumm of the car's bass somewhere near Ivy. I had to move quickly.

Sprinting across the street, I veered back towards Hickory and kept running in the direction of Badger's place.

My lungs were burning as I got back to Hickory and turned left towards Broadway. The traffic on Second Avenue was blocking my path. Thank goodness for old city blocks, as they were much smaller than the ones I'd seen in the new housing tracts in the suburbs, but I still had to get the liquor store. I squeezed through a break in traffic and continued on my path.

I couldn't hear the gangers behind me anymore, but that didn't mean they weren't looking for me. I found a burst of energy to get me through a small break in traffic on Second, generating only one irritated honk before I landed on the opposite curb. I ran down the block within sight of Broadway and paused to listen. I could faintly hear the thumming bass of the ganger's car behind me--almost directly behind me. If I could get this far this fast, they could do it in half the time if they figured out where I went.

I found a new source of energy and bolted across Broadway, looking to the alleyway beyond. From the edges of my vision, I could see the neon traced name of "Broadway Liquor" lighting up the street. I needed to find the fire escape behind Badger's place before I knew if I was going to make it tonight.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Steampunk Speaker Stands

One of the things I like to do in the studio is listen to music. I have created a space dedicated to listening to music while sitting comfortably in recliners. Prior to this weekend, I had the speakers perched on whatever I could find to coax the speakers to ear-level. "Whatever I could find" didn't always sit well with me.

However, in an effort to trim down the project list, I sought to create and complete something this weeked. I nearly achieved my goal... you'll see what I mean at the end.

I have the Onkyo 7.1 system wired up to various components, including my computer (on the other side of the old gray desk, destined to be refinished... yet another project on the list). I found this ordinary ladder shelf at Lowe's and repurposed it to be a stereo component shelf. I'll add an isolation box for my turntable after I have knocked out some of the projects in my list. I have seen various designs for stereo racks online, but I think this one works rather well. I was able to buy it for just over $100. Assembly and installation took about one hour. I still need to create some cable management to route component and speaker cables through, but that can be a quick task one of these nights. I will then add the additional DVD changer and cassette player to the rack. After all this, a question still remains: How do I get the sound into the room without resorting to speaker mounting that seems out of place with the steampunk motif I am nurturing and without sacrificing sound quality?.

I had a burst of inspiration: Why not use wrought iron stair ballisters as speaker mounts? I went to the metal supply company that happens to have a "sister" store in the front which specializes in ornate metalwork. The idea grew from there. I could get all the parts needed to mount speakers to a post and I found some other parts that triggered further ideas. What about using the spare white oak 4x6 posts I had? That could work.

So this weekend I decided to complete something. I took a couple 4x6s and cut them down to create seven blocks of roughly the same size.

I drilled 1/2" holes at a "strategic point" (hopefully somewhere close to the ideal balance point). If you have a drill press, I recommend using it as your holes will be at 90 degrees to the base.
Take a 1/2" chisel and mark the corners of the hole you need to mortise. I do happen to have a mortising jig, but the density of this oak made its use impractical. I removed the wood with a chisel, occassionally needing the help of a hammer.

Here's a photo of the additional parts I found while wandering the metal supply store. Wooden base, steel post with decorations, and finally the simple rod mounts (not yet hammered into place by a ball peen hammer and then glued.)
i drilled two holes to accept some 3 inch rods to strategicly hold the speaker on the post..

After assembling everything, here's what they look like. They are simple for now, but they don't sacrifice too much to get a good look. Now if I can only figure out what color I'm painting the iron and what kind of stain I want to use on the base. Maybe I will even find some acoustically transparent cloth to keep the Victorian flair going.

The Studio, pt 1

Above the garage we have this room I like to call "the studio". It's a space about 24ft wide by 22ft deep. I think it was listed as a "game room" when we bought the house. When a friend needed a place to stay after his divorce, it was known as “Josh’s place”. When my wife was pregnant with our son, it became known as "the junk room", the dumping ground for everything that was in the room formerly known as "our office" and now known as our "son's bedroom". During his toddler years, it was all but lost to us. I'd brave the dust and piles of random stuff to escape into a book or drink a beer and listen to music undisturbed. Slowly but surely I reclaimed the room, chipping away at the junk that was put up here (95% of it mine admittedly), donating some things, throwing away others, or simply finding a decent home for the rest. My wife surrendered her claim to the space and started calling it my "man cave" (she's getting her own office in our home impending remodel).

About five years ago, I started thinking over the space.

I am not one to have a "man cave" in the grunting, crotch-scratching, poker-playing, football-watching, beer-guzzling sense. That image actually bothers me. I needed something else… something that had the Victorian feel of the rest of the house, but allowed for technology in a complimentary sense… something that reflected my "jack of all trades" tinkering mindset… and something that looked like it had been here for 115 years… or more.

With that thought in mind, I recalled the feeling of awe I experienced when my wife and I were touring the various rooms of Hearst Castle. A few of the rooms, Hearst purchased in Europe, had them meticulously disassembled, and then reassembled them inside of a newly built room in his mansion. Most of his other rooms were “gathered together”… this is my definition, but essentially, what they all had in common was a feeling of age. Permanence. History. It was as if the rooms were built in the twelfth century and had been lived in ever since, it’s inhabitants gathering things on their travels and bringing them together in these rooms over generations. I felt I was walking into rooms that were a few hundred years old, not ones that were less than a hundred. There was something to be learned here.

I also had been introduced to the term "steampunk" by a friend of mine. Shawn said "What? You've never heard of 'steampunk'? Holy crap, Bryon!! You of all people I know should know what steampunk is! You are one and you don't know about it? Wow!" He was flummoxed. Shawn was one of a handful of people who had known me since childhood and he was completely right. I have been a steampunk my entire life and I didn’t even know it.

So I toured some more houses and museums, took and reviewed photos, searched online, and looked into this “steampunk” thing seeking a design for “the studio”. I did some sketches and gathered ideas together as photos and notes in my computer. I did a lot of this. Heck, I still am.

As some of you know, I was fortunate enough to come into some free lumber. Not a lot, mind you, but I stumbled upon enough weathered lumber to use in the studio and give it that sense of age and weight. There were several white oak 4x6s chunks around 2.5 feet long and three 2x6s at 5.5 feet long. There were also some large pieces of mahogany, 3x16 and 5.5 feet long inches long. I got lucky. To me, these were the components necessary to build my bar.

My grandfather gave me his 1960’s vintage Shopsmith about nine years ago to help me fabricate the parts necessary to maintain an old house. (Thanks, Grandpa!) This tool, above the others I have acquired, is invaluable.

My ideas started making the leap from my brain to paper and even into physical shape... but I wasn't content with simply buying things at the local hardware and furniture stores.

Hardly. I started building.

First, I tore out the closet and built a cellar (aka “cold box”). Then I installed beer faucets and started building a bar. Embarrassingly enough, that was about a year ago. I’ve tweaked some designs, cut some lumber, and re-tweaked some designs. Along the way, I have made a few strategic purchases at hardware stores and antique shops, getting this bit of hardware or that interesting piece of furniture, all the while taking reference photos when something “spoke to me”.

Now I find myself staring at a "meta-project", a project of projects: "The Studio". It has become a collection of projects that will not be complete until all of the sub-projects are they themselves complete. I have become more aware of my incomplete project workload recently, so this realization bugs me. I have added this new project to the nigh infinite list in an effort to start whittling away at it.

Hence, "The Studio pt 1" begins.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fiction: The Alley

Turning right down the alley, I jogged toward Hickory Street, trying to keep as quiet as I could.

"Hey! Guero! Going somewhere?" said a voice behind me to my right

"Yeah," I replied, not turning my head to look at the source of the voice, "Some guy is following me. Jump him instead."

"You think you're funny, Homes?" the voice replied, somewhat irritated. "Micky, stop this punk!"

A hulk of a man stepped into my path at the end of the alley--Miguel McDonnell.

I picked up my pace, figuring I could fake to one side and get past him on the other. Remembering I had watched this guy play a few years of high school football, I wasn't very sure of my plan.

Miguel's face was coming into focus, a fleshy moon pocked by acne scars and freckles. He puckered his face in anger, puffy wrinkles enveloping his eyes.

I started sprinting right at Miguel, edging slightly to the left. He lifted his arms, sighed heavily, and dropped into a slight crouch, matching my leftward drift and getting ready to absorb my impact.

Just before colliding, I swerved to the right. He had anticipated my feint, and grunted loudly as he lunged at me, his arms reaching for my torso. Still running as fast as I could, I whipped my hiking staff in a downward arc at his head. He must not have seen the staff as a threat because the impact hit solidly, nearly knocking me over. I stumbled sideways, and saw him slumping over backwards out of the corner of my eye.

The lack of a noise from Miguel told me he would not be chasing me. I might be in the clear if I could keep away from his friends. I did, however, hear his friend start talking in unintelligible quick phrases, so my luck was starting to turn.

Rather than running out onto my street and drawing more attention to myself, I crossed Hickory and continued parallel to it down the alley toward Grape Street. My new route would take me an extra block out of my way, but the alley was dark and their car was facing the wrong way on a narrow street; they would have to circle around the block to cut me off. I also figured I could cut through Old Lady White's yard if things got more complicated.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fiction: Packing Up

[here's a quick writing exercise to get the synapses firing on the other side of my brain.]

I knew I had to visit Badger next, but I also knew I would regret it in more ways than one. For starters, Badger wasn’t just his nickname, it was his personality. He seemed to be perpetually angry with any person who entered into his lair. Second, he shared his lair with Tiffany, an ex-girlfriend of mine. Once we had been going out for a while, she realized I was set in my ways and wasn't going to fall for her manipulations. She said she had to go, though I didn’t know she would go two blocks over and wind up with the guy who runs the liquor store. Personally, I think she discovered Badger was all settled in, made decent money, and wasn’t going anywhere. Finally, there were the guys I saw sitting in their cars.

I ran upstairs and, without turning on the bedroom light, pulled aside the curtain to get a better look down at the cars on the street. By the looks of the black sedan, it was an unmarked police car of some kind. The cops--or maybe even federal agents--were still sitting there watching and waiting. I couldn’t see much of the other car, but I knew what little I saw earlier well enough; a green street racer with a few of the gang bangers I had pissed off still probably sitting inside. "Damn!" I didn’t hear its tuned exhaust or booming bass echoing off the old buildings down the street, so it had to be a couple doors down still. If the cops didn’t believe me and the gangers were still after me, I had to move.

I carefully eased the curtain into place, pulled my backpack from the bedroom closet and stuffed some clothes and my hiking boots in it. Good thing I had repacked my gear after the last trip with the guys. I flicked on the light switch and closed the door. At the base of the stairs, I grabbed the aluminum bat from the coat closet and shoved it in the pack too. My hiking prep routine kicked in and I grabbed some energy bars and started filling the water bladder in my pack.

“Dammit! I’m taking too long.” I don’t know how I looked when I walked down the sidewalk and entered my condo—I tried not to look across the street at the cops and pretended not to notice the gangers down the street—but my panic was starting to manifest now. My hands were shaking when I turned off the water and sealed up the water reservoir.

“Laptop! What did I do…?” I spun back toward the front door and grabbed the bag I dropped there on my way in. My backpack and laptop bag were too much to carry, but I didn’t know where I was going or when I would be coming back here. A shadowy form, silhouetted by the light filtering from windows across the street, was slowly opening the gate. Hustling back to the kitchen, I shouldered my pack, picked up my hiking staff, and carefully opened the door.

Slipping outside, I locked the door and carefully pulled it closed. I tried to listen for the guy at the front door but all I could hear was my pulse pounding in my ears. I ran to the back gate and opened it into the alley. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t be caught dead in the alley this time of night, but if I didn’t risk it, I’d probably be found dead here anyway.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Living in the Future, pt 1

Do you ever sit back from whatever you're doing at a particular moment in time and observe what you were doing? You know, from a perspective removed from the here and now? Like some outside observer looking in on your own life? Every once in a while I do and it sort of amazes me, not what I'm doing, but the things themselves.

Looking at the gadgets around me, I find it really staggering that my phone probably has more computing power than my PC ten years ago (I may still have that PC!). For that matter, I remember how cool I thought it was to get my first cellular phone. Do you know what it could do? It could make phone calls! ::gasp:: Come to think of it, I think it also made the opposite ear warm with its radio emissions and could sterilize a rabbit at ten yards! (I know, I know, cheap jokes.) What else is around me? Hmm...

This laptop I am working on is pushing 18 months old and people usually remark "that's a big laptop" in shock upon seeing it. I smile and assure them "it's not just a laptop, it's a desktop replacement. This thing's got horsepower, a BluRay and a widescreen!" They just look at me and say "Oh." before finding somewhere else to be. While they may not be impressed, I sure as hell am. I can watch a 1080p movie while on a trip. I can crunch some numbers in seriously big spreadsheets. I can render fractal graphics and export animated video sequences in moments. Just try to do that in a few hours with your ol' Pentium... 486... 386... 286... XT/AT. XT/AT? Whoa! That's a blast from the past. Heck, my XT/AT had an actual selector switch to run in accellerated mode. You think I ever turn that switch off? You're right. I never did. NEH-EH-VUR! Oh... speaking of that XT/AT, I upgraded the video card in that sucker eventually, so I could display multiple shades of green! In hindsight, I think it was just dithering... like I am now... back to my point. Living in the future is so freakin' cool.

I have an iPad to my left, opposite my Windows Phone 7 HTC phone to the right of my laptop. I enjoy using the iPad as a reading platform, and plan to make better use of some new(-ish) apps. Yet, even as a glorified book and/or newspaper, it's great. Plus, if I get too tired to really focus on something and viola, I can zoom in for a closer look. (ewe, I feel that creeping on.). The phone is pretty good as a phone, but the other functions seem somewhat hobbled when compared to my "old" HTC Tilt2 Windows 6.5 phone. Even so, both devices provide me with access to enormous amounts of information and data. Data that I can't live without. At least, I think I can't live without it.

In contrast, my upbringing was grounded in some basic tenets that many people my age probably didn't get to experience. For starters "my upbrining was grounded" is a somewhat humorous choice of words... mostly due to my idiocy combined with somewhat strict parents. (I digress. Again.) I learned some valuable hands on skills from my parents and both sets of grandparents. Basic carpentry, woodworking, metalworking, machining, cooking, camping, drafting, and other hands-on skills. Hah! Hands-on. I had a vivid memory this morning of splitting wood with a sledgehammer and steel splitting wedges! It's not the work that shapes the boy into a man, it's the endless frustrations experienced while splitting eucalyptus firewood. (Eucalyptus is a pain in the ass to split.) I still lean back on some of those skills as a bit of therapy. A cathartic release. Also, when I'm done using whatever skill I have engaged on a project, there's usually something tangible to show for it. I can look at the bench seat to my left and know I built it with my own hands... and some power tools.

Spending my days working within the digital realm is a little less rewarding. Sure, I take pride in the work I (and my team) generate, but when the computer is turned off, or I'm talking to someone less technologically inclined, the accomplishments amount to little more than an oversized paperweight, some cheap parlour tricks, or a punchline to a weak joke. Yet I stubbornly keep at it because I love working in the Information Technology realm. Working in the brewing industry makes it that much better.

Having grown up in the '70s and '80s, I grew up around home computers, and as an adult, it seems that my life around computers makes dealing with today's technology that much more like second-nature. I "ask" it for something and I get what I wanted.

Now if I can only remember where I put it.

* This entry ended up being more negative that I was intending when I started, but I am going to let it stand. Perhaps, when I get around to writing "pt 2", I can steer the story back into a positive light. For now, it stands as is.

** Also, this was written as I really started to fade towards sleep... must go now... zzzz.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tasting Notes: Mikkeller Single Hop IPAs, pt 1

Since Steven asked for it, I'll deliver a mini review of the beers for the night.

Before I get started, I should probably explain the concept of  Mikkeller's Single Hop IPAs... or at least my understanding of why they were made. Hops make an IPA, and there are many different kinds of hops out there for the brewers of the world to experiment with. Mikkel took the experimentation to its natural conclusion: create a base IPA beer recipe then change out the hops to showcase the unique characteristics of a particular hop. Pretty damn cool if you ask me. (I've done a similar experiment with yeast strains in a couple of carboys of the same homebrewed stout, and I was pleased with the results.) Anyway, on to the tasting notes...

First up was the beer I had with dinner tonight: Mikkeller Tomahawk Single Hop IPA. I forgot that Tomahawk is another name for Columbus, which has a higher alpha acid percentage ("bitterness" to make it easy). That bitterness carried through past the other flavors on my palate... meaning it blew away my palate, makng everything else harder to taste. Pairing it with the somewhat bitter Lacinato kale—the veggie in tonight's dinner—was probably a mistake, as the nuances of bitterness and flavor were mostly lost. As I like to drink my beers on the "warmer" side, I should have let it warm up to about 40 degrees F. Also, I think the "best by" date is exaggerated for the international market, which further exacerbates the lost subtleties of the hop characteristics of this beer. I know better... drink IPAs fresh, slightly warmer than the 'fridge temp, and in a good tulip glass to accentuate the hop aromas. Sorry Mikkel, I know this beer is good, but I didn't treat it properly. [ 98 pts]

Tonight's second beer is Mikkeller East Kent Golding Single Hop IPA. I'll start by saying I made the same mistakes with all six of the Mikkeller Single Hop IPAs I have left (drank a few back in late December). Now that I gotten the "baggage" out of the way, I can say that I really enjoyed this beer. I can taste "through" the age to what this beer was when it was fresh: another fine beer. The bitterness was less than the Tomahawk (duh!), with a subtle fruity-hop sweetness still present. There is a bit of grassy hop flavor present, but I'm struggling to get the rest of the flavors quantified from my "flavor-memory" of an hour ago. [ 90 pts]

Since I decided to indulge the tasting notes request, I figured I should add a third beer to tonight's list to round it out. Normally I stop at two beers on weeknights, sometimes having just one, but tonight, well, what the heck! The third beer is Mikkeller Nelson Sauvin Single Hop IPA and... uh... Wow! Nice, especially given the "baggage" that I know is dragging down this beer. I'm tasting... grapefruit and... hmm... something tropical in the hop flavors. The malts, like the other beers listed above, are present but not overpowering or massive like in an Imperial IPA. I am glad I'm drinking this now, as the beer is on the downward slope of its flavor peak. Among the three beers tonight, this is the best in my opinion. [ 98]

Tonight's Tasting Notes soundtrack (highlights):
  • Ramasutra - Daisy
  • Enigma - Seven Lives
  • Nikkfurie de la Caution - Thé à la menthe
  • Nine Inch Nails - The Good Soldier (instrumental version)
  • Add N to (X) - Poke 'er 'ole
  • Crystal Castles - Alice Practice
  • Oingo Boingo - Ain't This the Life (from the vinyl "Urgh! A Music War")
Lesson Learned: Drink IPAs fresh, dammit! (I already knew that, but ignored it with these beers for some reason. Feh!)

Just a Note

I am blocking out Monday evenings as my time to write. Maybe I'll even write on alternating Friday evenings too. It's barely a start, but it's something. I listened to a podcast from "Writing Excuses" on the author's responsibility to the reader and it motivated me. Then Kevin politely nudged me and some other friends. I have also gotten involved in a new writing project with Steven and Ed (more on that later) and it has further motivated me. Let's see if I can stick to the plan and have more than 40 posts in 2011.