Memorial Day at the Farm

Well, it turns out we’re City Folk. This was a conscious decision, but I don’t always remember until I’m out of the city. I was reminded when the whole family went up to Ross and Brigid’s house on Memorial day. They might not call their place “the farm,” but it is from our perspective.

I rode my bike up, and everyone else went in the car. This avoided any problems with my back seat driving, and I got a nice 19 mile ride in.

But before I even got there, I missed all the fun. One of Brigid’s neighbor’s told them a pair of deer were born that morning, so everyone (except Robin) went out for a visit before they left.

The mother was gone, and the babies weren’t very human-shy yet. Ezra asked, “Pick up deers? Pick up deers?” and they would’ve been small enough to pick up (for an adult). They were only a few hours old. One of them was still wet, but the other one could already stand and walk around.

Later, Marla helped paint the nursery, and I went down to the creek with Brigid, Robin, and the kids. Robin enjoyed a little swim on the hot day, and Brigid and the kids caught some crayfish and minnows.

The real excitement started when Brigid showed us how to make “paint rocks.” With the soft sedimentary stones out here, you can rub two wet stones together to make a paint-like paste. We found a good selection of browns, greys, black, orange, and red, but no blue, green, or white. We probably could’ve found a good match for the new nursery walls. The red doesn’t wash out very easily.

After we got back, the kids played around in the pool and visited the chickens. Ezra reenacted Queen’s Bicycle Race video on his tricycle (no pictures, this is the Internet after all). We ate dinner, and before long it ended up late.

I took a different route home, and Marla left 40-50 minutes later. We got home at about the same time, and as usual, the kids would have preferred to stay up late instead of going to bed.

Larry Miller Reports!

Some Point Park College students accosted us when we were at the annual Midwife Center’s Let Them Eat Cake! event. They didn’t tell us they had a camera until it was too late.

Here’s a translation for those of you who can’t understand what I’m saying.

“I like cake.”

“And wine.”

“Please leave me alone now.”

A Project Built for Two… or Three?

How does an adult carry two kids with one bike? I have several bikes, a rear kid seat, a trailer, and a trial-a-bike pedal trailer. The only combinations of kid carriers which will work together with one bike are the trail-a-bike with the trailer behind it, or the rear seat and the trailer.

With Martine on the trail-a-bike, I already use my lowest gear up some of the hills around here. I’m not sure I could handle dragging another 40+ pounds on two more wheels behind her. And I know she has no interest going back to riding in the trailer; she never enjoyed that even when it was her only choice.

The only other options I know of require a two-seater bike of some sort. With a tandem, any of the we have could hold a third passenger easily. Or, Marla and I could carry both the trail-a-bike and trailer behind us as a group of 4.

I’ve been researching this lately, since I don’t think I’ll enjoy staying home all summer whenever Marla takes the cat car. We found several solutions aimed specifically at the kid-adult tandem market.

  • The Love Bike is a compact kid-adult tandem, with the child riding in front. This gives a better view for the child, and takes up less space, but it looks like it’d have horrible handling.
  • The Kidz Tandem is another child-adult tandem with the child in front, but it uses a steering linkage instead of a compact wheelbase and shared steering.

The problem with these child-specific solutions is, not only are they expensive, but they’re only useful for children of an appropriate size. I expect they’d hold their resale value well if taken care of, but it would be better to get longer use out of them.

So I considered a full tandem, suitable for use by adults as well as children. One good option which doesn’t take up a lot of space, and adjusts easily for use both by children and adults is the Bike Friday Family Tandem. This is a small-wheeled folding bike, and the rear seat can adjust for use by very short and very tall riders.

The Bike Friday was my preferred solution, but then I came across another option on craigslist: a used Burley Duet tandem, with a kidback stoker kit. On a tandem, the front rider is the Captain, and the rear rider is the Stoker. A Child Stoker kid or “kidback” converts an adult-sized tandem for use by children otherwise too small to ride it. It adds another set of pedals which are within reach of the seat, but the child can’t put their feet on the ground.

I bought the tandem. It’s a pain to get into the basement, and I haven’t tried getting it back out again yet; we’ll see how that goes. The main problem with it is the space it takes up, and moving it around when we aren’t riding it. It weighs about as much as Marla’s recumbent weighed, but it’s much more unweildy. It uses the same roof rack that we already had, for use with the recumbent.

The tandem doesn’t need a lot of work, but it does need some; and it wants some more. So I get to learn about tandems.

Most aspects of bike hacking and maintenance apply equally to tandems, with a few exceptions. First of all, there are a lot more chains and chainrings to take care of, and some of the chains are longer than a normal bike chain. Cables for rear brake and derailers must also be extra long in order to reach.

I want to reduce the stem length slightly, and increase the height. It turns out this tandem has a 1 1/8″ threaded headset, which is an uncommon enough size that I don’t have anything suitable sitting around. Both seat binder clamps were broken due to misuse; luckily they’re cheap and easy to replace. The front seat post was stuck in the tube, but again very luckily, I was able to loosen it with oil and brute force instead of having to resort to cutting tools.

At this point I basically need to wait for some pars in the mail before I can make much more progress.

An initial short ride tells me this handles very differently than an ordinary bike, or even a bike with a trail-a-bike: it’s going to take getting used to. Martine rode on it a bit, and I think she’s going to really enjoy it. But it’ll be a while before I try two kids at once.

Brew What You Like

My homebrewing experience and skills are limited to extract brewing. It’s easier and faster than all-grain brewing, but it’s more expensive, and places limits on the kind of beer you can brew. I’d like to try all-grain brewing, but I lack the longer blocks of free time it requires. In the mean time I do the best I can within the limits of my techniques. My main goal is brewing beer I like to drink.

Beer is brewed from sugars which are extracted from barley grain. In Extract Brewing, a homebrewer purchases sugar which has already been extracted from the grain, adds other ingredients, and ferments it into beer. In All-grain Brewing, or a “full mash,” a brewer starts with malted barley and other grains, and extracts the sugar in process called mashing.

There are many varieties of malt extract available to the homebrewer: lighter or darker in either liquid or dry form, with different amounts of fermentable and unfermentable sugar, and extracts made from wheat or other grains. Even with all of these options, mashing the grains yourself can provide a much wider variety of results (along with a wider variety of possible mistakes). Using only malt extracts limits the styles of beer you can make accurately.

My equipment also limits what I can do easily. On my stove, I can only boil about 3-3.5 gallons of water: only part of the wort, for a 5 gallon batch of beer. Doing a partial boil with a higher concentration of sugar in the wort makes it more likely to carmelize the sugar in the wort. This darkens the beer, and makes it impossible to create really light, pale colored beers.

If I were to use an all-grain process and boil a full 6 gallons of wort, I could make any style of beer I wanted. But choosing to brew a particular style of beer would be self-imposing a different set of limitations on my process.

So instead of limiting myself with my process and by conforming to the requirements of a particular style of beer, I generally don’t brew beers to a style anymore. Instead, I determine the qualities in a beer that I care about, and try to brew beers which provide those qualities.

It seems to me that beer styles are similar to dog breeds. If you buy a full-breed dog, you pretty much know what to expect. But there are some really beautiful mutts, and they’re one of a kind, which makes them a lot more special when you find a really goodo one.

In the beginning, there was only “beer.” Eventually brewers came up with recipes they liked, so they kept brewing them. These brews were named, often after the places they were made (K├Âlsch, Pilsner, German Wire-Haired Pointer). Once styles had names, it became easier to exclude beers which didn’t conform. Beautiful dogs are easier to reject, when they don’t conform to the breed standard. Similarly, really good beers might not be accepted unless they are labelled with a style, and conform to the standard meaning of that label.

After generations of inbreeding, some dog breeds have become prone to genetic disorders. Similarly, some styles of beer tend to become uninteresting or run-of-the-mill, when so many microbreweries create nearly identical brews just for the purposes of meeting the customer’s expectations.

So, how do you brew what you like? If you like “free beer” then you’re pretty much out of luck. Otherwise, you first need to learn what you like, and learn how to brew; then, you can learn how to brew what you like.

Start by finding specific beers you like. Then try other beers of the same style. If you like other beers in the same style, then that style may provide clues to your tastes. If you don’t like other beers in the same style, then find out what makes the beer you like stand out from other beers of the same style.

At this point, styles can be very useful. The definition of a style and sample recipes can help you determine the important aspects of the beer: what makes it different from other styles, and what makes it a beer you like to drink. Now you’re looking for specific ingredients and flavor components. Give names to the flavors you like. Do you like the beer because it’s sweet, dry, bitter, spicy, fruity, clean, musty, smoky, or hoppy? Look at recipes, and find ingredients or processes used to make this style of beer taste the way it does.

You should also brew beer. You gain valuable experience by following recipes exactly, smelling and tasting the ingredients, and tasting the results as they change over time. One of the biggest mistakes I made in my first round of homebrewing was not taking notes on the way a beer tasted when it was finished. I had complete instructions on how to reproduce any of my past beers, but I had no clue whether I wanted to or not!

Once you know what you like, and are comfortable with general brewing processes, feel free to start experimenting. If you know the parts of the beer that provide the taste you like, maybe try changing some of the ingredients that aren’t as important to that taste. Don’t worry about whether your recipe fits a style, and don’t bother trying to find a style which fits what you want to brew.

Extract brewing is fairly forgiving, because you’re starting with sugar, and sugar is fermentable. As long as you maintain proper hygiene standards, the worst case scenario will still be considered “beer.” It might not end up tasting as you planned, but that’s the risk when you start breeding mutts.

Routine Maintenance

I enjoy riding bikes. I also enjoy hacking on bikes: building them, taking them apart, rebuilding them, and trying new parts and configurations. These are definitely two completely separate activities, and there’s no reason anyone needs to enjoy both of them, if they happen to enjoy one of them.

On the proverbial third hand, I really don’t enjoy bicycle maintenance, and so I tend to ignore it. I may not ignore it as much as some other folks do, since my well stocked basement makes it a lot easier than taking my bike to a shop once per year. But it’s definitely not in the same category as “bike hacking,” as subtle as that may seem: it’s the difference between “maintaining the old” and “creating the new.”

I ride probably between 3500 and 4000 miles per year. My bikes require regular maintenance to maintain their current performance, as well as to avoid future costly problems. This is a summary of what I do with my bike (whether I like it or not) and when.

A few maintenance items are necessary frequently enough that I’m tempted to not mention them: keep air in your tires (but maybe not as much as you think you need), and patch holes in your tubes whenever necessary.

The single most important maintenance I perform (though not the most frequent) is oiling, cleaning, and replacing my chain. If I were willing to thoroughly clean my chain more often, I could replace it less often, but it’s still unlikely I could get more than 2000-3000 miles out of a chain without wearing out other more expensive components. So, I oil my chain when it squeaks, I clean and degrease it when it’s convenient, and I replace it when it has stretched by at least .75% of its total length. This is usually around 1000-2000 miles, or one chain per year on each of my summer and winter bikes.

“Chain lube” is a holy war in bicycle maintenance circles. My summary is: it hardly matters what lubricant you use, as long as you use something. Anything from melted paraffin, to olive oil, or purpose-made chain lubricants will do just fine (but WD-40 won’t! See also: holy war). Apply oil to the entire chain, let it sit, and wipe off the excess (I rarely do that last step, but it keeps your chain from attracting dust and dirt).

Chain cleaning is another holy war, and again, the summary is: you’re better off cleaning your chain than not cleaning it. If you listened to manufacturers’ recommendations, you couldn’t ride five miles without completely disassembling your chain and cleaning and oiling every individual part. But at under $20 per chain, I err on the side of replacement. The only other point worth making is that high quality fenders help keep your chain a lot cleaner.

I use a tool to measure chain stretch, but you can also use a ruler. Two links of chain are one inch in length, measured from the pin center to pin center. If 24 links of chain are more than 1/16″ longer than a foot, then it’s time to replace your chain. If they’re more than 1/8″ longer than a foot, then you’ve probably already worn out your chainwheels and/or rear cogs: even if you replace your chain, you’ll likely continue to have shifting problems. At this point, I generally recommend doing nothing at all, until you can’t stand the crappy shifting anymore. Then, just replace the chain, all chainwheels, and the freewheel or cassette. (Or, donate your bike and get a new one: in some cases, this is the cheaper option.)

A chain is made of flat plates and round pins: the plates rub against the pins, and eventually wear them out. Lubrication and a lack of debris delays this wear, but doesn’t eliminate it. When the pins wear out, the chain increases in length. As a chain “stretches,” it fits the cogs less and less perfectly, and wears them out at a greatly increased rate. Sheldon Brown has an excellent article about chain stretch (with pictures!), but the crux is: clean your chain often, and replace it regularly.

In hilly Pittsburgh, the next most important maintenance I do is replacing brake pads. This is easy: just before they wear down to the metal bits, replace them. I probably replace front pads once every year or so on each bike: 2000 miles or so. The rear pads last a lot longer, because rear brakes are nearly useless. They’re good for slowing down, but you should always use your front brakes (“carefully,” says the seasoned handlebar-diver) if you need to stop quickly. The life you get out of your brake pads depends a lot on how much you use them, what they’re made of, and how thick they were to start with.

I guess I buy durable tires, or I’ve been a bit fickle with choosing a new style of tire before the old ones are worn out, but I haven’t managed to wear through a set of tires even after many thousands of miles. I have a few pairs which are coming close, but they may be more likely to burst from too many glass cuts than from running out of rubber. Although tires seem like the top of the list for replacement items, they last a lot longer than you might expect.

My current favorite tire is the Panaracer Pasela. These are relatively fast and comfortable tires, quite durable, and inexpensive: overall, a very good value. They also come in many sizes: 27″, 700c, and 26″, in a variety of widths. They’re very good for “mostly on-road” riding.

For most other parts, I replace them only when they’re broken or not working as well as I’d hope. When I was young, I went through brake cables like crazy, but I haven’t had to replace any brake or shifting cables due to wear recently.

As for other maintenance, the main topic is bearings and their associated grease. I generally repack all bearings once when I rebuild a bike, but in most cases I haven’t had to repack them again after that. I did recently repack a front hub and replace some of the balls (on a fairly new wheel), because it was making a horrifying grinding noise. I’ve switched to using cartridge bearing bottom brackets, which last a long time but can’t be repacked once they go bad. I haven’t had to replace any bearings, but I’ve had several locking cups/rings break and cause trouble. In general, all of these parts can go thousands of miles and many years without maintenance, unless you dump your bike in the river or ride through sand dunes regularly.

I don’t bother with keeping my wheels straight (truing them) unless I have the wheel off anyway, or I notice a problem: either a wobble when I’m riding, or brakes rubbing. Since I started using higher quality, properly tensioned wheels, this has basically become a non-issue (except when I stick my foot in the spokes or something).

In summary, my experience is that required regular bike maintenance is not very substantial, but it is most necessary where you may least expect it. Keep an eye on your chain, because you can run into costly repairs if you neglect it for too long.

Hops, May 2009

Hops like to grow up to 20 feet high or higher, ideally. Normal farm growing techniques recommend running 1-2 strings from each hops plant, with 1-3 bines running up each string.

Installing a pole 20-25′ high is a huge pain in the butt, and catastrophic failure is a lot worse than with shorter trellises, so I’ve decided to try the “width instead of height” strategy. My poles are about 9′ high, but I’ve strung up 8 vertical lines. I have about 10-11 bines trained up the twine.

Last year, I only got 2 sprouts, which is typical for the first year. It seems likely I’ll get a useful amount of hops this year.

Unfortunately, I accidentally broke off the top of the strongest bine, when training it a week or so ago, so that one’s not getting any taller. Last year, when I broke off a bine, two horizontal shoots grew out of it. This year, I doubt I’ll be that lucky. The plant is putting its strength into other bines already.

These are Ultra hops. I hadn’t used this variety before I planted it. It’s a newer hybrid variety, with relatively low alpha acids, but an aroma similar to Hallertauer. I chose it because it’s hardy and produces a high yield. Hopefully I’ll enjoy the way it tastes, as well.

With home grown hops, you don’t know what the alpha acid content is unless you pay to have it measured, or experiment over the course of multiple batches. This makes them less useful for use as bittering hops, but they’re still useful for finishing.

New Bike Lanes in Pittsburgh: Forbes Ave!

They painted bike lane stripes down Forbes between Squirrel Hill and Braddock Ave.

If you had asked me previously, whether that section of road was wide enough for bike lanes, I’d have said no. But I have ridden down Forbes with the lanes full of traffic, and had plenty of room, so I guess I would’ve been wrong.

In any case, the bike lanes are 4-5′ wide on each side, and they leave plenty of room for cars in the car lanes. This is a road where bike lanes will make it safer for cyclists, but even a small shoulder would make this road safer for bicycles.

I happy to have the bike lanes, but even happier that the’ve repaved the potholes.

Update: Here’s an article in the Bike Pittsburgh forums about the new stripes.

New Bike Lanes in Pittsburgh: Wightman and Beacon

Pittsburgh has added a few new short sections of bike lane on Wightman and Beacon in Squirrel Hill. These were no-brainers: the streets are wide, and it’s not clear whether there was one car lane or two. Now, there’s one car lane and one bike lane.

A rumor on the Facebook page of Scott Bricker (Executive Director of Bike Pittsburgh) suggests that the newly repaved section of Forbes Ave between Squirrel Hill and Braddock Ave will get some kind of bicycle-friendly marking as well. I was happy enough not to dive into a pothole every time I rode down Forbes, but sharrows or a bike lane would make it even better.

Bike lanes aren’t really enough to make a street safer. But they do help get more people cycling on the roads where they belong. More cyclists on the road make all cyclists safer, by teaching motorists to watch for cyclists whenever they’re driving.

Hunting for Gollum

If you haven’t seen this yet, it’s definitely worth watching: The Hunt for Gollum.

This is a 40 minute independent film, styled after the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s apparently based on one of Tolkein’s appendices, and tells the story of Aragorn’s hunt for Gollum, before he fell into the hands of the enemy and gave up the location of the One Ring.

This was made by fans, not for profit, indepentently, and on a very low budget. To be sure, it’s not the Lord of the Rings; but it’s a lot better than the Lord of the Rings would’be been 10 years earlier.

Keeping Score

I try to subscribe to the philosophy “Don’t Keep Score.” Don’t measure your progress and use the numbers as motivation; instead, be motivated because you enjoy what you’re doing. Depending on the endeavor, this doesn’t work for everyone, or even for me. And sometimes, it’s useful to keep score over the long run, without bothering yourself with the details as you go along.

I don’t use an odometer/speedometer (cyclometer) on my bicycle. I’ve had a number of problems when I tried using them. Sometimes they’d stop working, or measure results incorrectly (as much as I’d like to believe it, I don’t go 65mph down the hill through Schenley golf course). But the bigger problem is, if I have the numbers I do look at them: they motivate me too much. I pay attention to the numbers, instead of to enjoying myself.

I’m a very competitive person, but I am not very good at most sports (generally speaking, the ones with teams or dynamic movements). Combining these factors means that in a team or competition environment involving sports (and generally, keeping score), I often try to compete, but fail. Actually, I often hurt myself or make a fool of myself in the process. So, I generally avoid those situations.

This is one reason I don’t prefer organized group bike rides. I already have a hard time pacing myself, but when there’s someone going faster than me, I almost always feel compelled to try to catch up. (Of course the other reason I don’t prefer group rides is the whole “people” issue, but I’ll save that for another day.)

Although I don’t like numbers while I’m on the bike, I do generally like to get an idea of how far I’m riding in the long term. Some people mount their cyclometer in an inconvenient spot: it allows them to track their mileage, without letting them obsess over their current speed, maximum speed, average speed, cadence, heart rate, and/or power output (to name a few). Other folks prefer the good old fashioned Huret mechanical odometer to track their mileage (approximately) but not their speed.

But I don’t even go as far as tracking my annual mileage. At this point, my goal isn’t to increase my bicycle miles, but to decrease my car miles, and a cyclometer won’t help with that. I do have a general idea: at around 70 miles of commuting per week and additional recreational/errand rides on weekends, that gets me into the 3500-4000 mile per year range. I like to think it’s closer to 4000, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a lot more miles than I drive, and enough that I need to consider regular bike maintenance; but not enough to get rid of my beer belly.

At work, we’re keeping store in a different interesting way: we’re participating in the “10,000 step challenge.” Employees wear pedometers to track their steps throughout the day for a period of 12 weeks, with the ultimate goal of increasing their steps to 10,000 per day (around 5 miles of walking) by the end of the 12 weeks. We’re split into teams, and the team with the most steps will win a massage and a free lunch or something like that.

For cyclists, they let us count steps with the pedometer while we’re on the bike. I seem to get around 500 steps or so per mile on the bike, compared to 2000 for walking. I’ve found a relatively good setup for this, but on occasion I get complete failure: if the pedometer opens itself up or shifts into the wrong place, it stops working. So more often than not, if I’m checking my steps, it’s to make sure the darn thing is working, not to motivate myself. (My current average is around 11,000, up from maybe 8000 the first week. The biggest variable is my weekend step count.)

Last year, for my longer bike rides, I started using a handheld GPS device mounted on the handlebars. I can upload complete topographic/road maps for the area I’m riding in, as well as my planned route. Or, I can just ride wherever I want, and when I’m finished, download the route onto the computer. I’ve found this to be really useful for long rides in unfamiliar territory. It’s a lot better than a map or a cue sheet and cyclometer for finding my way. But it does suffer from the “too much information” syndrome you get with cyclometers, so I tend not to use it regularly.

One of my favorite techniques for tracking shorter rides is to use Bikely. This web site provides a Google Maps based interface for exploring and editing cycling routes. You can draw a route manualy on the map, upload a GPS file, or even download someone else’s route and put it on your GPS to follow it. It can also show elevation maps for all routes, and generate cue sheets if the route maker provides turn information.

Often after taking an unplanned recreational route, I draw my route on Bikely when I get home. This lets me see how far I’ve gone, without keeping score while I’m on the road. For example, Sunday we had beautiful weather, so I rode a 30 mile or so loop around Pittsburgh. Although there were a few nice roads, overall the road choices weren’t that great: I should probably spend more time investigating the hills in Fox Chapel and Sewickley instead.

I think cyclometers can be very useful to motivate cyclists to “keep at it” early on, but it is easy to get sucked in and become a slave to the numbers if you aren’t careful. At some point, everybody’s numbers will stop going up, and you’d better hope you’ve stopped looking at them by then: if increasing numbers work as a motivator, then decreasing numbers may be a demotivator. In this case, it’s better to rely on your enjoyment of the activity as motivation, instead of the numbers.