Jan 012017


guinness_smells-3I have never been much into beer. I had tried it a number of times but it never made sense to me. This all changed few years ago (2014) we decided to travel to Ireland. I was not about to go to Ireland and not sit in a pub and have a Guinness. Sorry if that sounds a bit chiche, but I was going to have that experience. So… I started em… training my tastebuds (at least that’s what I told my wife). I brought some Guinness home to get an idea what I might be in for. To my surprise, it wasn’t bad. When we got to Ireland, we went to the Guinness brewery. This was the eye opening thing I needed. It’s an excellent tour. They cover all aspects of the beer making process, but they go deeper. My ah Ha! moment came in their “smelling” room. It was a white room which had no apparent light source. It had various stations… tubes which were emitting what looked like smoke. Each tube had a scent, a different aspect of the various smells and flavors in the beer. I got it. Ohhh this is what I am tasting.


northern_brewerSince then, Guinness has still been a favorite. I have found that it’s not that I didn’t like beer so much as I didn’t like the crap at the grocery store. I like darker and more complex flavors. This makes sense as I like to cook and have a propensity towards layers and depth of flavor. I seem to have settled into Stouts, Porters, and some IPAs. About a half year ago I came across Northern Brewer. A place to buy kits to make craft beers at home. They had a great set of videos explaining in great detail how to brew their beers. I was sold. I asked for the White House Honey Porter kit for Christmas, and my wife was kind enough to get it for me. My son-in-law got me a book called “How to Brew” (which I am still reading (good book btw)).

I watched the Northern Brewer videos as well as read through the instructions several times. There is always a huge difference between book knowledge and doing knowledge. At some point, you just have to step off the ledge and give a go.


The Experience…
Similar to my Guinness experience, I wanted to get the full understanding of each character in play, so I took the time and smell and give some thought about what was going on. The specialty grains were nice. They smell sort of like a natural foods store… sort of a sweet hay with hints of chocolate. My mother-in-law said it smelled like peanut butter (which I could smell once she said it). I put the grains in the muslin bag. This was then placed in the cool water. I started heating the water on full heading towards a boil. The warm water and grain smells a little bit like vegetable barley soup. It’s actually quite nice.


beer_making_101_04The water was getting warm and I was a couple minutes away from needing to remove the grains. I started prepping my next step which was the first layer of hops, and the malt. The initial hops “Chinook” had a crazy strong scent. It was strong, like an ipa on steroids. The malt didn’t have much of a smell at all. After the 10 minutes was up I pulled the grain bag and strained it (putting the drippings back into the boil pot). I reduced the heat and added the hops and malt. This made the mixture very thick for a few minutes until I got it all mixed together. I brought the mixture back up to a boil watching to make sure it did not boil over (which was warned about in the instructions). It came close to boiling over, but reducing the heat settled everything out. The hops smell was very intense for a couple minutes, at which point it relaxed into a sort of chocolate milkshake(ish) smell. I’m thinking the milkshake vibe comes from the malt. After roughly 5 minutes I reduced the heat to keep it at a boil, but not be so intense as to lose too much water (I do want some beer at the end of all of this).


beer_making_101_12I let it perk along for 40 minutes at which point the instructions had me remove the heat add the honey and a second hopping. This next batch of hops was a “German Hallertau”. It was very pleasant smell. Sort of like a more delicate hops decorated with a Christmas tree.


beer_making_101_13As I have been reading, one topic of which there has been a huge amount of emphasis, is sanitization, and it is the point where I nearly tripped up. The process of beer making is actually a war of micro organisms and their food supplies. You want certain things to grow but not others. I poured the honey into the boil pot, I then used some of the hot “wart” water to get the rest of the honey out. This would be fine in standard cooking, but the jar was not sanitized and some of the liquid touched the outside of the jar. I am sure it’s pretty clear at this point… I am not an experienced brewer, and it’s possible this little of a slip may have been perfectly fine, but I didn’t want to take any chances and brought the wart back to a boil. I let it go for a couple of minutes, and then I put the pot into an ice water bath.

From this point I have no pictures of the transfer process and it requires a person with at least 4 or 5 hands. Having only 2 hands, I used both hands to pump the syphon, but I needed one hand to keep the hose in place, and another hand to keep the syphon roughly an inch off the bottom of liquid and out of the “trub” (all the beer makings which have settled to the bottom). The hose leads down to a “bubbler” (the vessel where the fermentation takes place). This sits on a chair in front of the counter top, so the gravity of the liquid forces the flow of the syphon. The length of the hose quickly became a problem. When I pumped the syphon, the hose lifted out of the bubbler sending liquid onto the chair and floor. I grabbed a cardboard box as it was the only thing sitting close enough to help with my… ‘emergency’. This helped but didn’t solve it completely. I had to keep a close eye on the hose so it wouldn’t hop out again. The other issue was the tip of the syphon dipping into the trub. Once a good portion of the wart was in the bubbler, it’s hard to get enough depth to keep everything flowing. If you lift up, you get air which means the flow stops. If you have to pump to get it to flow again, you bounce the tip around a lot which means you are getting the trub nastiness in the beer… it’s a fight at best.

Once all the wart was in the bubbler, I added half the yeast package as per the instructions. It was a guestimate as there’s not really a good way to measure it (as you could potentially add contaminants). You have to eyeball it. I am not too worried as this is what Norther Brewer does in their videos as well. I gave it a good shake. This adds a little extra oxygen to the wart as yeast needs oxygen to thrive. I then I put the lid and airlock on the bubbler and set it in the corner of our kitchen.
The next morning, I checked it and sure enough, it was bubbling. Now it’s a waiting game. This is not an easy thing for me as I am a tweaker by nature. Hands off is… not… well I am keeping my hands off. I will write more once I get into bottling.

 Posted by at 11:00 pm
Nov 102016

If there was an emergency and for some reason the cell system and internet went down, how would you contact those you loved, and more, how would you find out what was going on? Most of the modern world’s population is connected in these 2 ways. Yet time and time again these systems are failing. It seems crucial to have a method of communication which does not rely upon these services.

Ever since I introduced the concept to my son’s cub scout den (several years back), I have had the itch to dig a little deeper into HAM radio and get licensed. Last year, I made a commitment to myself to get licensed by the end of 2016. I made this decision for multiple reasons. Of course one reason, and the main reason was listed in the opening paragraph, but it also seemed to be a perfect addition as it aligns with many of my current interests. I have been involved in media my whole life. I started playing with sound when I was very young, and have been expanding ever sense. Sound is all about frequency, energy, and the manipulation thereof. I have also always been a tinkerer and tweaker. Modern language seems to have shifted, and I suppose I could also call myself a hacker, although on most days, perhaps just hack. But my interest in building things, both electronics and widgets here and there all involve a a mind which can take things apart, examine them, and get a pretty good idea about how they work. As I have been reading, this is exactly the mentality of a ham.

If you don’t know what ham radio is,  it is a activity which, when licensed, gives one a massive swath of the electromagnetic spectrum to play in. You are given the ability to communicate with people a few hundred feet away up to several thousand miles away with fairly simple equipment. Ham radio does not rely upon massive amounts of infrastructure. It relies upon a piece of equipment you own (a radio) being manipulated in such a way as to direct radio waves to where you need them to go. Yes, this is a fairly simplistic description, and there’s a lot involved (hence why one needs to be licensed), but it’s within reach for all people.

Every year we have a Ham Festival at a near by fairground. They offer what is called VE testing at these fairs, so I decided that I would make this my target date. As always, life gets busy. Life, work, family start to fill in all the gaps in your time. Towards the middle of October I realized that I had a little over 2 weeks to get my head wrapped around this stuff. What I have now learned, is that you will first learn the test, then you will fill in the gaps once you are licensed and can actually put hands upon the gear. I really dug in and started studying my butt off. I found a number of very helpful videos, books, and study aids (which I will link to at the end of this post). I had seen it mentioned several times that if you pass your test for “Technician”(the first level of ham operator), you could immediately take higher tests as long as you had a passing score. After about 8 days, I started to feel fairly comfortable with the material, so I decided to dive into the material for the “General” license. As a second level, of course this was far more intense. The math was harder, and the concepts weren’t so… general. While I knew most of the electronics portion in technicians, I was in very new territory in the general. This was a fantastic chance to flex and scoop up a new layer of knowledge. It wasn’t so foreign that it didn’t make sense, yet it was hard enough that I had to really fight to get it in my head.

Then after a couple mind numbing weeks, test day had arrived. I walked in and registered. They were very organized. Eventually a gentleman called my name and led me back to the testing area. I could only have a calculator and a pencil in hand. I opened the book and found that I knew this stuff. While I was feeling confident, I took my time and made sure that I colored the correct bubbles. I then went back through and made sure I entered what I thought I had entered. I had. Once I was finished, I had to wait outside while someone checked my test. This was a long wait. Not so much in time, but more because your head starts to wonder if I answered this or that correctly. 18 hours later… or 5 minutes, depending on which side of the test you were on, a man came out and shook my hand and said congratulations. I passed my HAM test.

I took the Technicians and only missed 1. I was then offered to take the General test. It was the same process… I took it and only missed 5.. YES! Finally they offered to let me take the extra test. This is the highest level one can go, but there was no way I could even begin to prepare for that. I was honest with and told them that I had not even the foggiest of an idea what might be in there. They said it was fine and I could try it if I wanted. Having nothing to loose, as I had already succeeded in what I went there to do, I took it. It was pretty severe. Deepest and darkest end of the pool sort of stuff. I went very slowly trying to find anything that might give me a clue as to what might be a correct answer, but this stuff was way over my head. I went out and waited again. Finally the man came back out. How did I do? He grinned and said I missed half the questions. Ha. Not good. But he said that General was something to be proud of, especially given my study time, and two tests in one day. He didn’t have to tell me this, but I was glad he did. I was pretty happy about it, but I think I am going to go for that Extra license soon.


 Posted by at 10:39 am
Sep 182016

Every so often we have to update our videos at work. This could be for a myriad of reasons… updating titles on some of the people speaking, updating stats, or even just to update the copyright which we have to do every couple of years. Unfortunately this means that this content is out of the reach of the general public. It’s part of the biz. If you want to talk about my work, or have a question about something, please don’t hesitate to ask. Hopefully this is only a temporary pull.

 Posted by at 9:49 pm
Sep 122016

Sometimes a tragic event happens in life which rocks your world to the point where everyday existence seems like chaos. Eventually, no matter what, you have to get back going and start living again. You can’t let this ‘thing’ become an excuse to stop, or said tragedy event becomes even greater.


Photo shot by Chad Dennis of Chad Dennis Photography http://chaddennisphoto.com/

January 2015 was one of the hardest months in my life. My brother (sibling, co-conspirator, best friend) took his life. I never saw this coming, and I am still, in some ways, coming to grips with it. I am told, “You will never get over it. You will just learn how to deal with it and move on”. I hated those words at first, but now, I get it (sort of). Btw, this is a really harsh thing to say to a person who is waking through this… consider your words.

The number of people who attended my brother’s funeral was staggering. I only knew him as my brother, in the relationship that brothers share, but living in separate states, and different circles of friends, you don’t necessarily know the whole… ‘them’. I got to meet the person he was, through the stories of his friends, many of which have become good friends to me.

Needless to say, last year I was pretty well wrecked. Fortunatly I have a solid family, and I love what I do for a living (editing, graphics animation, sound, photography…). So, I really focused on my family, my work, and not much else.

My brother was a good guy. We loved many of the same things. We both have a love films which made you think a little. We loved a lot of the same music. He wrote and directed many short films, several of which won awards. He was part of a fantastic community of film buffs as well. He was a musician, and played with an Irish band in a legit Irish pubs, and music festivals. While we don’t have much Irish in us by blood, but we make up for it in heart. Like most sibling relationships, we always pissed each other off, but that’s how brothers are, right? That said, I really miss him a lot. Sláinte bro!

Most of the things I did for fun were put aside as nothing seemed like much fun (this blog included). The day he died, I was working on a new circuit board for the CNC. I was within a half hour from finishing soldering up the prototype when the call came. I have not touched the board since. I have not been able to listen to the music that was playing at the time either. There’s a lot of things like that which I haven’t been able to go near. While I am not a writer by nature, I do enjoy writing on here when I get the chance. I have done a few projects here and there, but nothing like my usual self. The past few months I have been trying to get myself back up to speed again. I can not and will not let his decision take the life out of me. It’s been hard to get to the point to say that without guilt.

While I enjoy writing, I enjoy ‘doing’ even more, and while I don’t update regularly, it’s generally because I am out and doing… well… ‘stuff’. I usually try to write in the slower times, or during long drives. One thing I have never really done on the blog, is write about any of my deeper projects while I am actually working on them. I usually wait till the end of the project, and then document it. But I have read a few other blogs where they were documenting their project as they went. I really liked this as you see the whole process, mistakes and all. If you have read anything on this blog, you know I am not afraid of mistakes, they are a part of creating. Well, I am a little afraid of mistakes. Mistakes suck… But important none the less. I have several huge projects which have been bubbling for many years which don’t have the first thing written about them, and they are really cool. If I don’t put it down somewhere, I’ll loose it, and I don’t want to loose these experiences. So… while perhaps they might be smaller posts, hopefully I will get more out there in the way of updates. I am also going to try to document several of these older larger projects (the ongoing type) and place them where they belong in the timeline of the blog, but I will link to them from the current time. My earlier life was full of thoughts that there will be time for this or that later. This has been shaken to the core, and the understanding that anyone can be gone in an instant it loud and clear in my mind. So, there’s no time to loose. Time to get busy.

Along these thoughts… To anyone dealing with depression, I am sorry. I never knew the depths of which my brother was going through. I wish I did. I still don’t understand how reaching out to your own brother, or anyone for help, is harder than taking your life, yet here we are. So… please hear me. If you are fighting this same thing. Talk to someone. You might feel like you are alone, but I assure you, you’re not. I know, or better said, -I have learned- that what you face is nearly impossible some days. It’s okay to have bad days. But even a bad day here is better than a day without you here. I’ll say this too… If you think that suicide is a way of ending the pain, it’s not. To be blunt, it just takes the pain, amplifies it, and distributes it across everyone who ever loved you. More, it instills the nagging questions of ‘why?’. There are no good answers which make things better. It’s just learning how to live with the missing life long companion. So… Please. Talk to someone.

 Posted by at 4:18 pm
Sep 112016

Accidents happen, and sometimes you just end up with egg on your face, but for completely innocent reasons.

Last night we went to the Atlanta Symphony doing John Williams music.  Most notably, Star Wars would dominate the second half of the concert (I know… nice, right?). It was an outdoors concert with people dressed up as every imaginable Star Wars… ‘thing’ you could imagine. Most of the costumes were very nicely constructed. So many little details. The kinds of things I geek out on.

Of course we were people watching… Commenting on this person and that droid… About 10 minutes before the concert began, an Asian man dressed in a long flowing robe thing with black pants, a black shirt, a really long black waist worn tie comes walking along (in sandals with black socks no less). I think to myself, that’s a really nice looking costume, but… what is it? Then is struck me, it was Chirrut Imwe from the new Rogue One movie which hasn’t even come out yet. He sat down on the blanket next to us, so… I have to talk to him, right? I said, “man that’s really cool”. He looked surprised and asked what was cool. I said, “you, wearing a costume for a movie which has not even been released. How incredibly on the leading edge”. He looked puzzled and responded… “I am a priest”. Stunned… I am then sitting there adding up all the variables completely realized what I had done. Given the situation, and all the costumes, and the characters, and and and… I sat there laughing, and explained where I made my error. I apologized. I pulled the Rogue One trailer up on my phone so he could see the costume. He got it and though it was funny as he had never seen the trailer and had never seen the character(yeah… the force is strong with this one). It was a mistake, but it led to some enjoyable conversation through the night.

 Posted by at 9:51 pm
Nov 162014

Getting the precious home was one thing. Getting it to work was the next. I wanted to see these things light up. While the internet is one of my favorite things, trying find the right words to search when stepping into a completely new subject can be tricky. This one fortunately came together rather quickly. These signals are called (wait for it…) “Colored Light Signals“. More, mine are “R2” 3 Light Colored Light Signals. Some places throw a ‘vertical’ in the title somewhere too. The details start to fall off quickly and get somewhat vague. While there are many people who collect train items, or “Railroadiana” as I have just learned, not many people write about it, or more to the point, restoring it. Don’t get me wrong, I found a few sites, but the real juicy details run a little thin. I decided that it was time to pull out the multimeter and figure out the wiring myself.

I got the first signal flipped around so I could get at it’s innards. The CSX guy had taken the lock off of this unit when I was talking to him, so there were no issues getting into it. When I opened it up, I found years, and years of bugs, dirt, and all sorts of other miscellaneous debris that had accumulated. They have a seal that appears to be a heavy cotton weave that was dipped in perhaps oil, or tar. But these seals have dried out long ago and started to fall apart, giving all sorts of creatures free access to come and go as they please. Lady bugs seem to be especially popular. I spent a few minuted with a brush and a vacuum getting it cleaned out.

I am impressed with how tough they built these things to be. All the wiring is thick and heavy. All connections are double bolted to assure nothing would come apart. In the information I found, it looks like these run on 12 volts, but it’s a little odd, the bulbs are spec’d at 10v. There were only 4 wires and 3 lights, so this was going to be somewhat easy. For the un-electronically minded, in order to light a bulb, you need to make a circuit that spans from the voltage source, to what we call ground. If there is a break anywhere along the way, the electricity can not flow from point a to z. If you test a system like this, and all the bulbs are in good condition, it would seem as if all these wires were connected. And technically, they are. This is because a the light bulb filament is nothing more than a coiled wire with high resistance. The resistance causes this wire to heat up and glow. In order to sort out which wires go to which lights, and which one is ground, we need to break the circuit. The easy solution here is to remove the lightbulbs. Once the bulbs were out, I was able to identify the red, yellow, and green lights. The green is actually almost blue. I labeled, the wires with colored electrical tape for easy identification at a later point.

It was time to test the signal. I have a fairly intense 12 volt power supply I picked up from the Hamfest last year. I put the bulbs back into their sockets. Being that ground is always ground, I alligator clipped ground to the power supply. Then I was able to go through each bulb. These signals have been through a lot of abuse as of late. They were removed from God knows where and tossed on some sort of vehicle. There were clearly dumped where we found them. Given the scars, and bends in the metal, they have been bashed a few times. All 3 bulbs lit without issue. Impressive. While I was in and amongst the lenses, I figured that they probably had not been washed… ever. I removed the lens retainer rims and pulled out each of the 8.5 inch lenses. I gave them a good scrub in some hot soapy water as the gunk that they were covered in just would not come off. After a bit of work, they started to sparkle. There was a residual black substance on the lenses that looked like spray paint overspray. I went after this with some acetone which took it right off.

I then worked on the shrouds. The shrouds were seriously banged up. I unscrewed these from the main body. Sadly some of the screws heads were snapped off in the rough handling. I still need to sort out how to back those out. But the rest were removed and replaced. The old ones were getting old and quite rusty. I was able to sort out the screw type with the sweet little screw board they have at our local ACE. They are 10-32 in case you are looking for sizes (or placed here in case I forget). Once they were off, I used a flat headed hammer and started the somewhat lengthy process of banging these things back into shape. After a while, these things started to look quite proper. I screwed them back onto the signal and lit the whole thing up. Alive… IT’S ALIVE!!! Muahh ahh ahhhh.

Getting into the second signal was not as easy. Being that this was a ‘late offering’, it came intact and with a lock. It was clear that this lock meant business, and it was not going to be bypassed with a simple wire cutter. More, I did not want to break the thing as it was pretty cool. It was time to dust off my lock picks and see if I could get in. The lock was pretty rusty, so I drenched it with WD-40 and let it sit for a while. After some time, I gave it a go. It became clear somewhat quickly that this needed a lot of tension. There were wafers on both top and bottom which was a little challenging as I had to off set the tension so I could get at both sides. Once I figured that out, I got the keyway to turn in no time. The keyway might have turned, but the shackle did not budge. Not even a little. This was somewhat puzzling. If the keyway turned, that thing should have popped. I started reading up on these locks. If it were a newer lock this would have been a feature of the lock, it would have gone into a failure mode if opened incorrectly, but this was not the case. The 3 digit code is a manufacturer code which states when the lock was made.. This lock was made in November of 1990. I started to really look at the whole lock. One thing that struck me is how much paint was on it. It looks like the signs would get an occasional coating of paint. The coating is not handled with care, nor precision, rather it is just sort of slathered on and whatever gets hit, gets hit, and it just gets caked on. I started wondering if the lock had gotten paint inside of the shackle casing. Feeling a little silly, and knowing that there was no way that I would be able to hurt the signal, nor the lock, I re-picked the lock. Once I got it to turn, I placed my feet on both sides of the signal and gave the lock a pretty good yank. POP. It came right open. So paint was the culprit here.

Once inside of this one, again I found years of critter collection. This signal had something a little different inside. The bulb behind the red lens had been replaced with a 12 volt LED module. It is like everything else, heavy duty, and all metal. Quickly getting the wiring sorted out again, I proceeded to testing. Again all 3 lit up without issue. Awesome. Next up is to pound out the shrouds for this unit but I was out of time.

If you are interested in historical insider train reference materials, I found this great page of all sorts of great books and documents.

 Posted by at 3:56 am