Friday, September 25, 2009

Freshly Made Apple cider!


"We have learned since September that the present generation of economists has not figured out how the economy works."

-Richard Posner, in The New Republic, 9/23/2009
Ya think???

A Tale of Two Sorghums

For a while I have been planning to brew a couple of experimental projects to satisfy my limitless curiosity about all things fermentable; one of these is a sorghum-based beer, which you may have seen or heard about as a gluten-free alternative for sufferers of celiac disease.

In preparation, I did teh Googlez for a while to see the current state of the art, then made an interesting realization: there are two distinct products which could be considered sorghum-based beer. One is a cloudy, sour product of African origin, similar to a lambic or other sour beer fermented with wild yeasts or bacteria, but based on malted millet (the seed of sorghum) or cooked millet catalyzed by salivary amylase.

Hmm. This, apparently is what is meant by a gluten-free beer; it is brewed entirely from millet with no barley component whatsoever. Sounds scrumptious, but that’s not what I was after.

It turns out what I am looking for is not exactly a 'sorghum beer.' It's more a 'beer with sorghum in it.' I plan a simple ale, lightly hopped, with a small portion of light or amber malt (say, 2 to 3 pounds) augmented with sorghum molasses.

A traditional favorite of the deep south, sorghum molasses is made by crushing sorghum stalks and boiling down the extracted juice in open pans, as you would boil maple sap into maple syrup. More flavorful than cane syrup, less intense than molasses.

Now all I need to do is figure out how much a given amount of sorghum molasses will contribute to the specific gravity. I don’t want to have another debacle where I end up with an absurdly low starting gravity by underestimating the contribution of an adjunct—as so often happens with honey, et al.

I have a little over two quarts of sorghum to play with. For a five gallon batch, that could be as much as 1:10, so I suppose I could test its contribution by dissolving ¼ cup of sorghum in 2-½ cups of water and measuring the gravity. That sounds all science-y.

I like science-y stuff. Stay tuned; I may brew in the morning. If that's the case, look for a test-drive around...Thanksgiving!

Update: Okay, science-y types: It turns out that one part sorghum in 10 parts water yields approximately 1.050; therefore, when I brew, I plan to start with 3 pounds of light/amber malt extract, then add one full quart of sorghum (1:20) and take a gravity reading. That should put me in the ballpark for a decent session ale. Updates as they happen.

Update #2: In Which Your Faithful Brew-Ogger discovers he is, in fact, making green beer: As I read the label of the sorghum, I discover it is:


and is made (THE OLD FASHION WAY) just one state away. So how local and renewable can you get? In any case, so far we've got a pound of crystal malt, two pounds of NB golden malt, gypsum, and—hold onto your OLD FASHION hats—8-½ pounds of sorghum. Yeah, I went all in on the sorghum, based on some more intermediate science-y stuff I did once the brewing was underway. Look for a fairly modest hopping schedule, but I'm very optimistic and enthusiastic about how this stuff will turn out.

Update #3: I did the usual trick of adding gelatine to fine the beer, but it seemed to do absolutely nothing whatsoever. As a result, we bottled "SeptemberFest" as a murky brown ale with an odd yellowish cast. Perhaps it will bottle clear, or simply remain cloudy. Don't recall seeing this effect in any other brews. Oh, and a preliminary taste test suggests two things: One, it has a similar taste profile to the ale I brewed using maple syrup; two, to me it has a pronounced caramel (like Kraft Caramels) flavor, though Mary doesn't notice this. Now we wait.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

An Odd Convergence

Me and Beast took a minor detour on the way home this evening, exploring a side road that bisects a sprawling area of industrial development set amidst the sweeping fields of cedar scrub north of the Big Effer. There is no transitional area between these two modes, old and new; it is as though the industrial complex was deposited—lock, stock and barrel—in the middle of nowhere by an alien spaceship without leaving any traces.

The road looping through this complex meanders a bit, and as Beast and I were heading down this one particularly lovely stretch of straight, rolling road, I saw ahead the flashing lights and descending pikes of a railroad crossing. I assume this sets off the same reaction in everyone that it does in me, which is immediately awakening my inner three-year-old—"Oh boy!! TwainZZZ!!"

I was fortunate in several regards. I was the only vehicle on the road at the time, so I had a front-row seat. I arrived at the barrier barely five seconds before the train. The crossing was small, so the train tracks were just a few yards in front of me.

I began counting the cars after the three locomotives...twenty, thirty, forty, forty-five. Then the strangest thing happened—I heard another loud air horn blast, and there, to my left, was another train approaching. For three full minutes, two trains were passing before me, one northbound, one southbound. Rather than try to count cars, I simply stared directly across the tracks, seeing the world down the road beyond weirdly strobed by the shutter-action of the contra-moving trains. For the life of me, I can't recall ever seeing two trains passing a single crossing at the same time—subway cars in a Metro station, perhaps, but full-blown freight trains, in the middle of nowhere? Never.

While I watched, I tried to figure out where the classic 'clacking' sound came from (welded rails and all, it's a little puzzling). I was able to see the entire rail assembly—rail, plates, spikes, ties—bouncing up and down where the tracks passed onto the road crossing. Each set of wheels slapped the track down as it passed in a steady rhythm, bouncing the track vertically several inches. It was remarkable to see such immense force, and it was a wonder the spikes didn't just work themselves loose in a matter of minutes.

Then, in a flash, it was all over; the last cars passed nearly simultaneously. Two trains disappearing into their respective horizons, sound diminishing as the barriers rose silently to the vertical. I fired Beast up, and we were back on our way in no time. I felt privileged to be witness to such an odd convergence.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Driving Me To Drink, Making Me Walk Back

Nothing to say. Just liked the phrase. Oh, and by the way—Happy birthday Claire!

The Lost Art of Hitchhiking

Everyday on my commute, I cross the Appalachian Trail twice (coming and going). It crosses Zachary Taylor Highway (aka U.S. 522) at the Smithsonian’s Wildlife Conservation Center on the west flank of the Blue Ridge below Chester Gap, before winding its way up into the northern section of Shenandoah National Park. This makes Front Royal the largest town in the closest proximity to a trailhead for…well, let’s see…hell, I don’t know—read Bryson’s book or Garvey’s book if you really care. It’s the closest real town to the trail for days or weeks whether you’re northbound or southbound.

So one evening recently on the way home from work, as I headed up the grade out of Front Royal (or, as I like to call it, "The Big Eff-Err”) I was startled to see a pair of backpackers hitchhiking to the trailhead.

You simply don’t see hitchhikers much anymore; I can probably count the number I have seen in the last decade without taking my shoes off. And frankly, I wouldn’t have given a thought to picking up a single one of them—they all seemed to fit my mental picture of the kind of person you want to steer waaaaay clear of; the kind who is always described by his neighbors, ex post massacre, as “…quiet, kept to himself, never really got to know him…”

Most of the hitchhikers I recall seeing appeared to be 'riding Shank’s Mare' on account of the intervention of some legal authority or another, and they couldn’t master either the capital investment or the requisite motor skills necessary to operate a second-hand department-store bicycle. A sling-blade? Sure. A bicycle? Not so much.

But I digress. These two were clearly serious backpackers, and they were clearly heading back to the AT trailhead (the cardboard sign saying so was a dead giveaway). But as I began slowing down to pick them up, I realized I was on a motorcycle, which poses some logistic awkwardness when trying to carry two passengers avec backpacks but sans helmets. So I swore that the next time I saw similarly vetted hitchhikers, I would stop and give them a lift.

Well I’ll be damned if a few weeks later, there I was driving home through the big Effer and walking around the corner onto the ZTH was a bona-fide backpacker sticking out his thumb.
Well, what could I do? I hit my turn signal and screeched to a stop on the gravel shoulder a hundred yards down the road…and sat there. And sat there.

And sat there. Finally I started honking the horn; the poor sod simply hadn’t expected the first car driving past to stop. When I finally got his attention, he grabbed his pack and bolted up the road with a great big grin on his face.

Did I mention the dog?

Yeah, that’s the other thing. A lot of the hitchhikers I’ve passed by over the years I passed by because they were travelling with a dog—usually a big dog. But this guy was in the company of a big, beautiful husky. And now that I am officially owned by two dogs, I had no choice but to stop and pick them up. So the pack goes into the trunk, the very well-behaved husky—“Icarus,” with his own gear, if I recall correctly—goes in the backseat very politely, and the dude rides shotgun.

So we make trail-chat for the four minutes or so it takes to drive up Chester Gap to the trailhead, and it turns out he’s one of the rare southbound through-hikers who started at Katahdin in the spring and is heading home to Georgia by mid-October. I noted how skinny he was, and how different his gear is from what mine was back in the day, and that he travelled with an iPod (...anathema, to my mind) and that he used two metal walking staffs, which is becoming more common than it ever was when I hiked. At the trailhead, Icarus sniffed around a bit and marked the signpost at the trailhead, while the dude loaded up and got readjusted. We said a cheerful goodbye, and I hope he enjoyed his little bit of trail magick.

Funny that I know the dog's name but not the man's.

Worse things could happen than for hitchhiking to make a comeback; sadly it seems to have all but disappeared from our cultural landscape. It is peculiar that there are two competing archetypes when considering hitchhiking: the deranged, homicidal hitchhiker, deftly concealing an axe beneath his duffel bag, and the psychopathic loner in his beaten-up old car, body parts in the trunk, looking for his next victim. Maybe hitchhiking had gone away because all these avatars found each other and simply annihilated each other like matter and antimatter.

I must admit to having some weird disjointed recollections from my times riding my thumb: catching a ride out of the Northeast Kingdom in an ice truck driven by a French-Canadian from Quebec who couldn’t quite get it that we had just taken four weeks to walk from Massachusetts all the way to Canada. Our packs rode in the back of the truck, on top of the bags of ice. When we finally got out at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere in the middle of July, it felt fantastic to put on an ice-cold backpack.

Or the ride with the man claiming to have been a mercenary in South Africa, who told tales of fly-fishing with his Dad as a kid, and his colorful sotto voce complaints at the time, or the local Veterinarian who worried aloud about the impact of the newcomers to the mountains and the thoughtless development they would bring, or riding with the packs in the open bed of a pickup truck, heading up a winding mountain road while cradling a glass gallon jug of cheap wine and freezing in the cold wind. Or just the generosity of spirit among those who stopped, often going well out of their way to go all the way to a trail crossing or to a particular destination in a town.

And the beer…it seems absolutely unreal to think of a time when people would drive nonchalantly with a cooler of ice-cold beer on the passenger seat, popping one open and taking a long draught from it at a traffic light, and sharing them with a slightly-underage traveler. There were times of absolute loneliness and despair, of fear, of watching night fall or feeling the deathly calm as storm clouds gather, utterly isolated, without recourse and all but invisible. Ironically, some of my least favorite memories of hitching occurred on the ZTH, decades ago. Those were humbling moments, and lent themselves to some deep soul-searching. Hitchhiking certainly provides a complex and rich prism through which to view the human condition—watching people look through you and pass you by, looking through people and passing them by.

Well, it's pretty clear to me upon some reflection: Dog or no dog, the backpackers in or out of the Big Effer got a ride with me, no questions asked.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Work in Progress

Hans was fledged in the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, and died at its turn. From his ashes emerged Michael, so named for the Archangel: “Prince of the Heavenly Host, The Conquerer of Lucifer (…ironically, the Bearer of Light…) and of the Proud, who wage war against God and the Church.”

All that Hans had been, Michael was not. Michael was formed imperfectly, yes; but perfection was his object and goal, where complacency was Hans’ resting place. Michael sprang fully formed from an imperfectly-shaped moon, rising full but not full over a greyly mountaintop, a warm buttery-colored disc pulling through the cold ragged wintry clouds with a mysterious notch eaten from its corner like an eclipse, but not an eclipse. It was full but not full. In the deep dark dead of a winter’s night, that ragged moon said to all who were seeking illumination in that moment “Fear not! The warm sun still shines! See it shine upon my face! Look for it where I look!” That moon rose and fell, and when it was gone, it took Hans away and left Michael behind to take his place.

It was a good trade for all concerned, but especially for those upon whom the moon’s rays shone that February night. The rising of that moon closed the door of time on an era of turbulence and confusion, of cloudiness and misdirection, of prolixity portraying profundity. Indulgence was the word, and the word was made flesh, and that flesh was Hans; and the Lord looked down upon his creation and said:

“What was I thinking?”

And the Lord turned his back on his creation and walked away, leaving him to his own devices. But being that it was The Age of Aquarius, that time of all possibilities and all creations, Hans flourished for a time, because time was mostly what he had. Hans burned through his birthright, and squandered most of it on trivialities, and then went looking for more things of little consequence to satisfy his appetite and amuse himself. And Hans found many others who were in some ways like himself; they too had been created on a whim by a restless and easily distracted God, who set them down somewhere and then forgot all about them. But this is not really about Hans, not so much.

On that night, Michael took shape, mostly as a name in a dream, at least at first. The name kept recurring, floating to the top of consciousness again and again, yet without association; for it was yet unconnected to a person, because of course, at that moment the person that name was meant for did not really exist. There were many, many Michaels around, many known personally to the dreamer of this dream and viewer of this moonrise, and of course countless more known at more degrees of separation. The name did not associate itself until Michael himself was actually formed; and at that instant, the name and the man became one, and this time, there was no God involved in the act of creation to muck it up with his lack of attention to detail and what-not.

And of course, in order for Michael to be formed, Hans must first be made to go away.
The irony was not lost on Michael that he was in fact the bringer of light; the long association of his name with that of Lucifer and the battle in heaven and the fall was a familiar country to him, and he knew its highways and back alleys well. The novelty had long since worn off, and he had heard the joke made too many times to count, had forgotten so many ways to act like it was the first time he had heard it.

But here is the thing: Michael was yin to Hans’ yang, black to his white. In all aspects, Michael was the opposite of Hans. Physically taller; lighter; where Hans had fat, Michael had muscle. Michael was resolutely clean-shaven whilst Hans was matter-of-fact about it, often going days without a shave and weeks without a haircut, though Michael in fact had a full head of hair and Hans’ hair had begun to abandon him some time back.

Hans was second-hand tee shirts with band logos; Michael was crisply-ironed shirts with buttoned-down collars or stays, and always a tastefully appropriate tie. Where Hans was faded jeans with torn knees, Michael was creased khakis with cuffs.

Yet the irony of their differences was that Michael became invisible in his elegance, camouflaged in plain sight, his presence unmistakable yet the details indefinable. Hans, despite his studied casual demeanor, was inevitably conspicuous, and bore with him some indelible and constantly-replenished stain, not unlike the pavement around a diesel pump.

The problem with Hans all goes back to his being misbegotten. Some little error in his initial conditions spun out over countless iterations, some detail left out, some bit of coding done wrong, a zero when it should have been a one—what did it really matter? He was misbegotten. It was built-in; a feature, not a bug, as they say. It wasn’t like he became this way somewhere along the journey. Except for the part about the Age of Aquarius, it was all pretty much set from the get-go. Had he come of age in a different time, the details would have been changed, the extent of his—wrongness—might have varied to one degree or another. But the basic flaw that was Hans was there from the beginning; it defined him.

Hans dragged an anchor behind him for his entire life, barely aware of its presence or even its existence. Without a helpful Marley to point it out to him, he simply went on from day to day, oblivious to the “…weight and length of the strong coil…heavy and as long…a ponderous chain!” He knew something was there, yet he never stopped for a moment in all his years to disentangle himself from its damping embrace. Hans swam like a shark in a sea of self-loathing, in constant self-defeating motion, ever onward towards a new self-destructive end. This was perhaps the primary distinction between Hans and Michael: Michael was utterly free from such pointless distractions, and Hans was utterly enamored of their sour savory tang.

Michael was formed with his eye on the prize, a calm gaze above and across the obstacles in his path, and his gaze never faltered. In contrast, Hans felt fealty to failure, and never stopped at the finish but always one step short. This perhaps most self-destructive behavior was at once reflexive and irresistible; he acted as though his committing completion would close the circuit that initiated Armageddon, and so he reliably steered clear of any final act.

Hans’ meandering life was littered with the nearly-finished hulks of ten-thousand different efforts, most simply needing one last coat of paint, a touch of caulk, a reworded clause, a bit more research, a trim piece refitted just so, another thought. It didn’t matter the scope or scale; what mattered was that they all remained unfinished, with an almost religious devotion and dedication that Hans did not bestow on anything else. It was his mark.

His bedside displayed a score of partially read books, dogeared and flagged with all manner of bookmarks. Somewhere past the halfway point but at a safe remove from the conclusion, Hans’interest inevitably waned and he set off in search of a new topic, in most cases never to return; his personal best might have been Joyce’s Ulysses, the opening chapter of which he must have read two dozen times, with the opening of ‘Moby Dick’ a close second.

Hans lived from day to day with what he believed was a certain ‘carpe-diem’ dedication. But the line between ‘carpe-diem’ exuberance and fin de siècle desperation is a fine one, and in reality, Hans danced the tarantella of despair more frequently than he tripped the ballet of joy. To his growing horror, the future kept arriving at his doorstep one increasingly terrible day at a time, mounting year upon year, in unrelenting defiance of his limited expectations.

In a way, Michael was sent to clean up Hans’ mess and wipe clean the trail of litter stretching back through the decades. In one grand sweep, Michael would be able to tie up all those loose ends without measure, to render complete that which Hans had struggled so mightily to leave undone. Perhaps Michael could ring in the Apocalypse by his actions, and reveal himself to be closer in spirit to Lucifer that he would like to believe.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"...six men who looked as if they'd been taxidermied by Brooks Brothers and one who looked like the Silver Surfer"

This article certainly dredges up some mixed emotions:

In Washington, a Two-Tire Industry Goes Flat

Athletic rebels swathed in Lycra, zipping in and out of traffic to beat the delivery deadline, watch their livelihood evaporate.

By Steve Hendrix Washington Post Staff Writer Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Getting a meticulously prepared legal brief to a courthouse or federal agency on time used to require a bit of comic-book valor. Just before deadline, exhausted lawyers handed off the document to a character in the tight Lycra of a superhero, the shoulder bag of a Pony Express rider and the bulging thighs of an athlete. One of Washington's legions of bicycle messengers would then dart through perilous traffic and any weather to deliver the goods in the nick of time. Now, as the last of the area's courts and agencies begin to allow electronic filings instead of demanding piles of paper, deadline dramas in many law offices are being reduced to little more than hitting the "send" button.

The courier business -- for decades a quirky by-product of Washington's No. 1 industry, paper-pushing -- finds itself in rapid decline. Tighter security restrictions imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have closed off many government office corridors to couriers, and the recession has dampened activity at law firms and lobbying shops, rendering the life of a time-sensitive document in the District a lot more boring. The number of full-time couriers in Washington has fallen from a high of about 400 in the 1990s to about 150, said Andy Zalan, a longtime bike messenger and head of the D.C. Bicycle Couriers Association. "Those of us left are making a lot less money," Zalan said. "This last week, I set a personal best for futility: I sat out here for seven hours and made $25."

The decline is being felt in all cities, according to Michael Gualtieri, president of the Messenger Courier Association of America. In New York, consolidations and business failures have cut the number of courier companies from a high of almost 500 to about 40, he said. But Washington bike messengers have been hit particularly hard because of the recent shrinkage in the government's document stream. "There's just not as much paper being pushed," Gualtieri said. "In the past few years, we've seen quite a few more government agencies go electronic."

The falloff threatens to end what has been for decades a very public aberration from Washington's buttoned-down business culture. Downtown has long been filled with messengers racing the clock -- and sometimes each other -- along the streets (and sometimes sidewalks). On weekdays, the parks at Dupont Circle and Farragut Square were piled with bikes and swarmed with couriers awaiting a call from dispatch. And generations of workers from K Street to Capitol Hill knew the experience of being in an elevator filled with six men who looked as if they'd been taxidermied by Brooks Brothers and one who looked like the Silver Surfer.

"I always took great pride doing deliveries to House and Senate buildings dressed like Boba Fett," the Star Wars bounty hunter, said Matthew Ayers, who worked as a messenger briefly after finishing law school at American University. "Without the messengers, these people might take themselves too seriously and implode." Longtime messengers bond over tales of epic wrecks and glorious rides. Veteran messenger Matt Dwyer (broken middle finger '96, fractured mastoid '98) once took a "super rush" job from Georgetown to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Northeast in less than 10 minutes. "I picked up the filing at 4:51 and made FERC by the 5 o'clock deadline," said Dwyer, 46, a messenger for 13 years who still delivers every day even as he runs his own courier company. His vacation in July was a solo ride from Montana to New York.

Mark Gross, a courier in the 1980s and now the owner of Quick Messenger, remembers the time he and six other riders scrambled to deliver a hot-off-the-Xerox press release to all 535 congressional offices. Elapsed time from getting the panicked call from the public relations firm to dropping off the last envelope: 80 minutes. "You can fax something that fast, but is anyone going to actually look at it?" said Gross.

In their heyday, bike couriers reigned as a kind of sweat-soaked office avenger, helping secretaries avoid deadline catastrophes, facilitating billion-dollar contract negotiations and helping prescription refills and forgotten eyeglasses catch up with their VIP owners...Washington couriers managed to keep riding through the advent of the fax machine and the first several years of e-mail commerce. But the beginning of the end came with the security shocks of 2001, first the attacks and then anthrax.

Messengers were relegated to alley entrances and basement mailrooms. Veteran riders still find ways to get their rushes through; White House staffers, who aren't allowed to accept handoffs through the iron fence, have been known to meet couriers at nearby coffee shops. But gone are the lucrative days of blanketing Capitol Hill with hand-delivered packets...But couriers who were holding on to messenger work felt the ground shift beneath them when the economy gave way last year.

"Almost in one day, we were getting a lot fewer rush jobs," said Marcia Vottero, 28, a rider for Washington Express..."I used to be able to make $1,500 a week, not even working long hours," said Vottero. "Now that's cut in half, and I've got to work all day." Vottero, who has clearance to deliver inside the Department of Justice and the World Bank, is on the high side of earners. More typical now, according to several couriers, is $400 to $500 a week.

Almost all couriers work as contractors, without benefits or much job security. An independent, unruly bunch by nature, they have never been able to organize effectively, Zalan said, allowing companies to keep pay rates low.

Still, he and many of the dwindling number of hardcore messengers ride on, addicted to the adrenaline of the rush job, thrilling to the freedom of life on the roll. At a party recently, someone noted his riding jersey and asked Zalan if he was a professional cyclist. "And I thought, yeah, actually, I am," he said. "The bottom line, dude, you're making money riding a bike. It's the childhood dream."

Well, first of all, Georgetown to the FERC at 4:50 in ten minutes? Puh-LEEZE. What, did he get lost or something? Stop at Starbucks for a latte? Second, odds are I was one of those six guys helping Mark Gross deliver those 535 packages to Congress, and don't get me started about that.

But what this brings to mind are some long-lost recollections of a time when I had pretty much full access to the city. Few folks realize how incredibly open official Washington was, not so very long ago, and the event that triggered the eventual choking of access we've come to accept as normal was the bombing of a washroom in the U.S. Capitol in 1983. And we're all poorer for the loss of that access.

Prior to that, a sweat-soaked bicycle courier in shorts and a tee-shirt could enter the anteroom of the Secretary of State, climb to the top of the tower in the Smithsonian castle, wander the halls of the Department of Energy unescorted. You could enter the door of your choosing and walk from one end of RHOB through LHOB and CHOB, take the tunnel to the house side of the Capitol, freely move throughout the hidden corridors and backways of the Capitol (including to those secret offices actually located in the dome) to the Senate side and continue to RSOB, DSOB and HSOB without ever coming above ground.

The decline of the business began long before 1983; the fax was emblematic of the technological change that gutted the business but was only one part of it. It was a death of a thousand cuts, and decline on the demand side was matched by increasing obstacles on the supply side. The September 11th attacks and the subsequent anthrax attack were simply some of the more recent wounds inflicted on what was once a lively and interesting way to make a modest living.

I was fortunate to have been a part of that scene during the twilight of its 'Golden Years.' For better or worse, it played a part in shaping who I am. I met most of my very favorite people during that time, and through subsequent connections. My kids grew up surrounded by courier culture, and have robust immune systems for that.

And I have to say I laughed out loud when I read the line (..echoing a thought I had countless times over 4-1/2 years):

"...And I thought, yeah, actually, I am," he said. "The bottom line, dude, you're making money riding a bike."


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Flight of Fancy

One of the fringe benefits of living out here in the sticks is the air traffic.

The closest big city to us is Washington, D.C., which combines two attributes: a large and affluent population, and the largest chunk of controlled airspace in the country. The controlled airspace comprises an area from Baltimore southwest beyond Dulles airport; this entire area is either under a TCA (Terminal control area) or is simply restricted.

What this means is that all those affluent and frustrated private pilots must go beyond the suburbs and the exurbs to rural areas like ours to find an accommodating airfield to fly from for business or pleasure. Within thirty miles of us, there are a dozen or so small municipal airports, hosting all manner of small planes, plus a number of private grass-strip fields and even some private helicopter landing areas.

In the past, we have seen small planes performing solo aerobatics in the spacious skies above our property, rolls and loops and stalls and dives and all manner of uninhibited play. We have seen Cessnas and Pipers and Stearmans and Culver Vees and business jets and all kinds of other single-and twin-engine delights. It delights me no end, no matter the time day or night, to hear the sound of an unmuffled engine far above, so slowly carving its way through the endless sky. And nothing focuses your attention so vividly and instantly as having that droning engine sound suddenly disappear—your heart pauses sympathetically and waits for the sound to return before beating again.

But today might just have topped it all. We were sitting outside below the pale grey clouds, a quiet cool late summer day, when a rumbling engine sound slowly massed in the northwest. At first, it sounded like any one of the countless groups of motorcyclists that pass through on any Saturday. But it dawned on me that there was no road nearby to account for the location of the sound and its course.

Shortly after I realized this little puzzle, we saw motion through the canopy of trees.

It was in fact a flight of four biplanes in staggered formation, moving ever so slowly from northwest to southeast with stately grace, followed at a respectful distance by a lone single-engine low-wing monoplane. They were all low enough to make out the detail between the upper and lower wings; the engine sounds of each were distinct. Their progress was regal and ...human-scaled. I felt I could have run along the earth beneath them, shouted and waved to the pilots of each and every craft (had I been in the clear) and would have received a wave of the wings in acknowledgement.

In short order, they disappeared behind the trees, leaving only the dwindling regal buzzing behind. But what a treat for those below, lucky enough to spot their brief and beautiful passing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Penguin Has Landed!

Finally got me a Linux box up and running—Gutsy Gibbon, in case you were wondering.

I know, I know, we've gone through “Hardy Heron,” “Intrepid Ibex,” “Jaunty Jaguar” and are now up to “Karmic Koala.”But hey, the disc I had on hand was GG, and it's painful to download operating systems over the party-line telegraph system we've got back here in the woods. So cut me some slack, at least it's a start.

So far, the only really techly part was getting the available NTFS drives formatted to FAT32 for linux to read, which only took a little bit of magic—and that, I was able to take care of within the XP administrative tools. Imagine that!

Once I get it configured and ready to roll, I'm loading Fog, and turning it into my very own ghosting server for backing up our XP machines. Yippee! (...and maybe a media server, if I can cram another hard drive into the case.)

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Observing—A Learned Behavior

A decade ago this summer, we took a car trip through the northeast to the Maritimes, where we spent the better part of two weeks. We drove through Maine to New Brunswick, took a ferry to Nova Scotia, took another ferry from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland, then retraced our steps. One thing that helped pass the long days on the road was a 'BOLO' list: a checklist of items to 'Be On The Look Out' for. The list included:
A horse-drawn buggy; a rocking chair on a front porch; an old lady with a dog in her lap; an Amish star on a barn; a crustacean over a restaurant; a hot-air balloon; a penguin; a sign saying 'Gotham City;' an antique car; a motorcycle rider wearing goggles; an igloo; a boarded up factory; a guy on a tractor wearing a straw hat; someone wearing a yellow jogging suit; a snowmobile on a porch; a wishing well; a moose; a name of a town put on a hillside; a porcupine; a fire hydrant painted green; a Statue of Liberty; a larger-than-life roadside statue; a musical/singing group performing; an orange car; a four-masted sailing ship; a whale; a house with Christmas lights up; a field of a yellow plant; a tanker ship; a cat on a porch; a classic New England white church with steeple; a biplane in flight, and a Ferris wheel.
None of these items were further qualified—except the orange car, which had the stipulation it 'could not be a taxi'—and everything was subjective: a singing moose in a yellow jogging suit dangling a larger-than-life crustacean from a hot-air balloon would have been a home run. The penguin could have been live, stuffed, on a sign, on the menu, or in a cartoon.

What was truly interesting was how many of these fanciful items we actually scored over the sixteen days—and not always what you might consider the 'easy' ones. Rocking chair, old lady with dog? Not a one in over four thousand miles. The motorcyclist with goggles? A dog, in a sidecar, in a campground on the island of Newfoundland. Boarded up factories? Sadly a dime-a-dozen, no further from home than Baltimore.

By the time we got home, we had added a dozen more new items we had spotted that were so fanciful they demanded inclusion on our list: a covered bridge, a seaplane in flight, lighthouse, submarine, teepee, man in a kilt, monstrous truck, molasses storage tanks...

It was a great exercise, one that kept all of our eyes out the window, focused on the new world we were seeing for the first time. I highly recommend it as a way to keep the road alive. Feel free to crib our list—and please let us know if you ever spot that elusive 'snowmobile on the front porch.'

A Thought Exercise in scale

Here's a way I came up with for appreciating the scale of powers of ten (no pun intended) cubed:

  • One Domino Dot sugar cube is about 6/10 inch on an edge, or about 1/5 cubic inch.
  • Ten (10 to the 1st power) Domino Dot sugar cubes form a line about six inches long.
  • One Hundred (10 to the 2nd power) Domino Dot sugar cubes form a square about six inches on an edge.
  • One Thousand (10 to the 3rd power) Domino Dot sugar cubes form a cube about six inches on an edge, weighing about eight pounds.
  • Eight-thousand (8*10 to the 3rd power) Domino Dot sugar cubes equal about one cubic foot, weighing about sixty-four pounds.
  • One million (10 to the 6th power) Domino Dot sugar cubes form a cube about 5 feet on an edge weighing about four tons.
  • One billion (10 to the 9th power) Domino Dot sugar cubes form a cube about 50 feet on an edge weighing about four thousand tons.
  • One trillion (10 to the 12th power) Domino Dot sugar cubes form a cube about 500 feet on an edge, weighing almost four million tons and containing 15,000,000,000,000 calories.

I really like the mental image of an earth-crushing block of a trillion sugar cubes almost the height of the Washington Monument. Anybody who wants to check my math, feel free. Leave a comment if I'm seriously off. (Mathwise, that is. )

Saturday, September 05, 2009

One of life's great joys

Taking a nap in the middle of a sunny afternoon with the one you love.

My Favorite Summer Fruit Salad Recipe:

This is an all-time favorite family recipe for a great summer-time fruit salad.

For the salad:

1 orange, quartered and sliced, peel intact
1 apple, cored, quartered and sliced, peel intact
1 peach, peeled and stoned, quartered and sliced
1 C. watermelon or canteloupe balls
1 C. fresh raspberries or blackberries
1 lemon, quartered and sliced, peel intact
(Any other seasonal fruit you may have on hand—approximately 4 cups of fruit total)

For the Dressing:

1 C. simple syrup (equal measures sugar and water, boiled and cooled)
Fresh juice of 1 lemon or 1 lime
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of allspice
Pinch of cardamom (optional)
1 C. brandy
1 750 ml. bottle dry red wine, chilled

To Prepare:

Gentle toss fruits to combine. Combine dressing ingredients and pour over fruit; let stand so fruit is immersed in the dressing for at least 30 minutes.

Note: The dressing accumulates all the vitamins, so don't let it go to waste.
Serves 2.