Miniature Cars: Losi XXX-SCB

To anybody who thought this was only a miniature wargaming blog: sorry! It’s a blog about whatever interesting things I’m doing at the time, and that has meant miniatures for a long time, but it is not exclusively about gaming.

“And now, for something completely different.” — Monty Python’s Flying Circus

A while back, my parents brought me my old RC10 gold pan remote control buggy, almost 30 years old.  I stuck it in the basement and forgot about it for a while.  But in June, I decided to go to a local hobby store to get some parts to put it back into action.


After a bit of discussion with the local RC car expert, I decide it made more sense to get a new car instead of fixing the old one, at least until I had more clue.  I settled on a Losi XXX-SCB short course buggy, ready to run. My decision was based primarily on what it looked like: many of the modern RC offroad cars look pretty horrible, but this one reminds me of a 1930’s open-wheel racer.

Out of the box, this is a really fast car compared to my antique RC10.   I really like it, and highly recommend it, with one caveat: don’t expect the motor to last very long.  It has a cheap but fast brushed motor with a built in fan, that sucks dust into the brushes and wears them down very quickly.  The motor isn’t serviceable, so it needs to be replaced quickly if you drive outdoors.

In my case, my replacement motor was defective and blew up the speed controller as well, so now I have a new Duratrax Element (by Castle) brushless motor system.  It is completely sealed against the environment, and it has already lasted a lot longer than the original motor did.

With such a nice offroad car, where do you drive it?  It quickly became apparent that in order to maintain interest, I needed to have goals.  Simply driving around aimlessly to see how fast it is didn’t stay fun for long.  I started by convincing Frank he also needed one, so at least we could drive together.

Backyard RC track, first layout

But the real keep to keeping things interesting was driving it on a track, so I could try for incremental improvements in performance.

I got a bunch of flexible 4″ irrigation pipe and 60d nails, cut the pipe in half the long way, and laid out a track in the back yard.  It’s very small: the whole yard is as wide as a single lane of a ROAR compliant off-road track.  But it’s a lot more fun to drive with the track than without it.

We’ve been changing up the layout, and encroaching onto the neighbor’s yard as well.  More recently we added a jump to the long straight.

There is a nearby indoor carpet track, but I don’t think they’re doing any off-road racing in the summer.  That will be a good way to drive in the winter, though I may want to try it out when the population is lower.

After playing with these cars for a while, my interest has increased instead of decreasing, so expect more posts soon.

Old Bedford Village: Drums in the Forest

Last weekend we went to Old Bedford Village.  This is a historical reenactment village in central PA, similar to places such as Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village, or Strawbery Banke.  This weekend was Drums in the Forest: a reenactment of Braddock’s Defeat held every 5 years in the forest just outside the village.

We arrived in the midst of the reenactment.  As with most publicly viewable reenactments I’ve seen, this one seemed heavy on the show and light on accuracy (or, maybe I’m just an eternal critic who doesn’t know what he’s talking about).  It seems that when you’re reenacting a specific event, it’s hard to find enough properly uniformed troops, these days.  There were plenty of irregulars, but there didn’t seem to be enough properly uniformed British.  Truthfully, if I were tromping through these woods I’d leave my bright red coat at home too.

There was lots of smoke and plenty of muzzle flashes, but I had a hard time avoiding the image of a bunch of boys running around in the woods yelling “Bang!” (and this is coming from a “grown man” who plays with toy soldiers as a hobby).

Although I found the reenactment a bit disappointing, I consider that to be my fault and not theirs.  The whole family thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the village, and I was able to have fun once I managed to put things into perspective.  The permanent installations provided many good demonstrations of period industry and craft, and all of the reenactors looked and acted wonderful as long as I ignored the context of the massacre they attempted to demonstrate.  The reenactor’s tent encampment would have been a lot more interesting to me than the reenactment itself, but since they were actually living there (for the night), it felt like a big invasion of their limited privacy even though they probably expected it.  I expect the reenactors probably call us all “muggles” and complain about us behind our backs.

Personally, I find the individual demonstrations of professions such as leatherworking, weaving, cooperage, candle making, tinsmithing, and basketmaking in the context of the homes or shops where they were done a lot more interesting than presenters talking to an audience about what was done and why.  Orating about period Colonial dress is not as compelling to me as seeing the place someone lived, and experiencing the limitations of their life that inspired the solutions they implemented in their industry. 

The buildings at Bedford have interesting stories as well.  Some of them were moved, log by log and stone by stone, from other locations to this site.  I’m reminded of the family who tore out their new house’s “modernized” drywall to find a log cabin underneath… and they were wondering why it was so hard to run wires through the walls?

Fort Ligonier Day 2009

In August, we visited Pam and Bob in Ligonier for the weekend. While I was there, I learned there was a reconstructed French and Indian War fort there: Fort Ligonier. Who knew!

Every year, they have a weekend long celebration in Ligonier called Fort Ligonier Days. We went down last weekend, and went to Fort Ligonier Days on Sunday. There were a variety of arts and craft vendors around town, as well as special events at the fort itself.

Most of the craft vendors were’t my thing. Some of the artists with shops in town have much better work than the people they invited for the weekend. They did have an interesting blacksmith doing demonstrations, though.

I was more interested in the events at the fort itself. Besides reconstructing the entire fort in its exact original location, the owners have also crafted reproduction cannons, wagons, and other buildings on site. They held an artillery demonstration twice each day during the weekend, when they fired the reproduction Big Guns. They fired a wall gun, a swivel gun, a 6 pounder cannon (shown in the picture above) and a 12 pounder. I wouldn’t have wanted to be driving by during the demonstration: the guns are set up in “SUV hunter” positions on the highway side of the fort, and they’re loud!

Later, they held a small reenactment of a French and Indian attack on the British-held fort. During the war, the fort was attacked twice but the British held it both times. In the fort there were British and provincial troops, and the attack was made by a group of French who were camped outside the fort (as shown in the image to the right).

The French grenadiers threw grenades over the wall to get the defenders away, scaled the wall with ladders, and then blew up the gate to open it for the rest of the troops to enter. They then demonstrated standard European style combat with two firing lines. They fired their muskets (with blanks) but didn’t simulate casualties.

The fort is quite interesting. It’s located literally across the street from Bob and Pam’s house, right in the middle of town. It is completely unrelated to the government: privately owned, privately funded, and not a park of any sort. They allow tours through the reconstructed buildings on the premises (for an entrance fee), and have reenactments by volunteers several times per year.

Just before Fort Ligonier Days, I learned a bit more about the French and Indian War. Have you ever heard of “Braddock’s Last Stand,” aka the Battle of the Monongahela? Neither had I. But it happened only a few miles away from our house! Unfortunately the “battlefield” (it was woods, not a field, at the time) is now under a hundred years of city and steel mill, near the appropriately named Braddock, PA.

General Braddock was marching from Fort Necessity towards Fort Duquesne. Just after crossing the Monongahela, his slow-moving column was attacked by French and Indians. They were decimated because they maintained their European line formation and tactics during a wilderness skirmish. Braddock was wounded, and died shortly afterward outside Fort Necessity. A little-known officer named George Washington led the retreat, and learned from the mistakes made that day.

I’m not sure if I learned more about the American Revolution as I was growing up, or if I just remember more of it; in either case I’m sure it’s because New England seems to have a much greater affinity for the Revolutionary war than the French and Indian war.

Live Music

The Internet Archive project is an online library dedicated to archiving media in digital form. One large collection they host is a Live Music Archive, which currently has over 67000 concert recordings available for free, legally, for you to download and listen to. Most of them have an in-browser music player available. All of them have documentation of the artists’ permission to host the shows in the Archive.

There are some obvious selections: over 10% of the concerts are by The Grateful Dead. There are also some surprising omissions. Apparently Phish hasn’t given permission for their shows to be hosted.

Besides these big names, I’ve found shows by many other artists I’m already familiar with, and discovered some new ones I wasn’t familiar with. Here are some suggestions:

  • Yonder Mountain String Band played for free at Hartwood Acres last year, and also seem to have a large following on the road
  • Donna the Buffalo is another bluegrass band that appears every year at the Grassroots Music Festival
  • The Horse Flies are a somewhat more neurotic bluegrass band
  • Rusted Root is a local Pittsburgh band I listened to a lot in college, who have recently started touring again.
  • The Ditty Bops are a singer songwriter duet who did a cross-country US tour by bicycle a few years back
  • Soul Coughing is an excellent band, whose lead singer Mike Doughty is also on the archive
  • The first CD I ever owned was by Camper Van Beethoven. Some of their members went on to form Cracker and the Monks of Doom before CVB finally got back together again.
  • Mogwai is an interesting indie band which I always expect to be noisier when I listen to them.
  • I discovered Godspeed You… Black Emperor on the Archive, and I really enjoy their apocalyptic instrumental music.
  • Listening to GYBE led me to Explosions in the Sky
  • There aren’t many Jim’s Big Ego shows available, so if you have more, post them!

I’ve probably forgotten some other bands I’ve listened to there, and I’m sure there are others I know but haven’t thought to look for yet.

What good live music have you found on the archive?

Pack Monadnock

Martine hiking on the Wapack Trail

Shortly after I bought a new bicycle in New Hampshire, I decided to go on a bike ride. I think it was still the 4th of July, the same day the bike shop was inexplicably open for me to buy the bike. A few miles later as I climbed up a hill, I had a flat tire. Bah.

Luckily I found dad’s patch kit, and hacked the pump into working well enough for Presta valve stems instead of Schrader valve stems. It was enough to get me home, but not enough to inspire confidence for a longer ride. A close examination determined that I needed a new rim liner: the one that came with the bike was unsuitable for double walled rims.

After the stores opened up and I got the needed supplies, I set out again on Wednesday. This time, I was bound for the top of Pack Monadnock, a small peak nearby.

This whole “peak” thing may require a bit of explanation for those of you who live way out West in the Pittsburgh area. Unlike here, New England has peaks instead of just ridges. Even where there are a lot of hills in Pittsburgh, none of them lead to a distinct high point with a scenic view in all directions, topped by Big Sky. Peaks provide a much greater sense of accompishment than ridges and rolling hills.

And so it was that I set off towards Pack Monadnock, south summit. My route took me primarily on back roads, and I very quickly realized another difference between cycling in New Hampshire and cycling in Pittsburgh. In the city, I need to go on long rides just to find a little bit of “middle of nowhere.” Even then, I’m really just riding through specially zoned suburbs and not the True middle of nowhere. In New Hampshire, I hit the edge of Nowhere within a few miles. If I lived in New Hampshire I’d probably get lazy, because I wouldn’t have to ride nearly as far to find a nice winding, hilly forest road.

Wait a minute. Where’s my pump? I forgot it! Oops, I probably won’t need it, right?

The day was warm, but the ride was cool and shady under the trees. When I got to Chase Rd. it looked a bit more like an overgrown grassy entrance road to a 200 year old cemetary. Luckily there were a few summer employees there. “This is a through road, right?” “Yep. A bit rocky though, be careful.” Soon it changed from grass to gravel, and then a proper dirt road through the woods.

Next came the first challenging hill. I pretty quickly wished I had my wimpy Pittsburgh gearing, but the Nishiki’s lowest gear was the bike boom standard 40/28. This hill was too soon, I wasn’t warmed up. Or maybe I was out of shape already? Whatever the case may be, I had to rest. Already? How would I ever get up to the top of Pack Monadnock? What a wuss.

The rest of the ride to Miller State Park was uneventful but enjoyable. There were more sections of dirt road, and almost the whole ride was through forests. Just before the park entrance there were a few miles of 8% grade, but that wasn’t too steep. That’s good at least.

Once I entered the park, the road was closed. This was half expected. But bicycles are small, so I decided to see if there was any good reason for the road to be closed or not. It turns out there wasn’t: people were hiking on the road, and a car even came up and passed me on the way.

The last 1.25 miles had about 800 feet of elevation gain, and wasn’t a constant slope. That’s an average grade of around 12%, which is nothing to scoff at. It was hard, and I had to stop several times. Most of the time it didn’t feel as steep as the Dirty Dozen hills I’ve done around here, but it was longer than most of them, and I had a much higher low gear.

I got to the top, looked around, and then went back down. I continued on Route 101 for a while, down the 9% grade on the other side, and missed my intended turn onto Mountain Rd. That turned out to be a good thing, because Mountain Road was another tiny dirt road which was much hillier than the route I ended up taking, and I was basically out of water at this point.

The first store I hit was in Temple, where I got some liquid and energy, and continued on. Eventually it started raining a bit. It was enough to earn me a skunk stripe and remind me why all my bikes have fenders, but not enough to soak me through from the top.

In the end I rode about 40 miles, and had a great time. I didn’t need the pump, which is good because I didn’t have tire levers either. I did have a cell phone, but I’m not sure I had any coverage where I was riding. The only technical problem I had was easy to fix: the clamp-on downtube shifters were apparently a bit loose and slid down the downtube.

A few days later, we drove out and hiked to the top with Grandpa and the kids. This time I wasn’t riding a bike, but I was on very rocky trails with Ezra on my back. We took the steeper, rocky Wapack trail on the way up, and the tamer Marion Davis trail on the way down. As usual, we came across several stone walls. Even way out here in the middle of nowhere, halfway up a difficult rocky forested slope, the land was once cleared and used for the grazing of cattle. The trees have grown back across much of New Hampshire over the last few hundred years, but I bet the originals were much larger.

This was also a very good trip, and I’m glad we did it. It was good to get Martine out in the woods, that’s usually difficult. She did a good job of keeping up with us on the hike, and then she was full of energy for the rest of the afternoon when we got back.

Mount Monadnock, from the summit of South Pack Monadnock

Going up Pack Monadnock stood out as one of the most enjoyable parts of our trip to New Hampshire, I’m glad we decided to do it. Maybe next time we go out, the kids will be old enough to get up Mount Monadnock, which has several miles more hiking along its shortest route. Both of these are small mountains compared to the presidential range in the North, but they’re accessible and very scenic, and that counts for a lot when we have kids in tow.

Higgins Armory

There is a hidden treasure in Worcester, MA: the Higgins Armory Museum [Update: Now closed; bummer]. I’ve wanted to go here the last few times I’ve visisted my parents in New Hampshire, but never got around to it. This time around, we made it a priority.

The Higgins Armory holds the second largest largest collection of Medieval/Renaissance arms and armor in North America, and it’s the only museum here which is dedicated to these arms and armor.

Mister Higgins was obsessed with steel fabrication, and founded a pressed steel manufacturing company. This venture made him rich enough to start buying up suits of armor. Eventually he had enough pieces to dedicate a building to their preservation, and the museum was born.

The museum has a great collection of arms and armor, primarily from the “Knights in Shining Armor” period. Interpreters are quick to point out that the period when full plate armor was used was relatively brief: a few centuries in the late Medieval period and beginning of the Renaissance, in Europe.

They have examples of several main categories of plate armor. Field armor is articulated, and provides full coverage without hampering movement during battles. Tournament armor was used for sporting events such as jousting. It was much heavier, and provided superior protection but only the minimum mobility required. Parade armor was light weight and provided almost no real protection. It was used mainly for decorative purposes and bragging rights. They also have a variety of weapons used by fighters wearing plate armor, and weapons used against fully armored combatants.

The Higgins Armory’s strength also reveals its weakness. Plate armor was used during a very short period in a very small part of the world, and the museum mostly ignores weapons and armor used in other periods of time and/or outside europe. They have a few samples of ancient and pre-medieval arms and armor, but nothing substantial. They have only one suit of Japanese samurai armor, but they do have a very interesting helmet patterned after a seashell.

Even in Europe during the late Medieval period, full plate armor was reserved for the rich elite troops. Most combatants were extremely lucky if they got brigandine coats or mail armor. There were a few token pieces of brigandine and mail, but it was obvious that Higgins was most interested in armor which might be reproduced using his pressed steel construction techniques.

Overall, I’m glad I went to the Higgins Armory. Unfortunately I expect “all the rest of the armor” is much less well preserved, even traditional Samurai armor. It’s probably best to live with reconstructions and illustrations for older types of armor, and to go to Higgins if you’re interested in full plate armor.

Tour Des Sharps: 2009

On Sunday, five friends and I made our most ambitious attempt yet at the Tour des Sharps. This long bike ride visits all four Sharp Edge locations before returning home. Of course, you can’t stop at Sharp Edge without having a beer, so it’s a bit of an epic “pub crawl.” We planned the ride for Father’s day: the longest day of the year, and a good day for us all to get the “day off.”

Disclaimer: despite any appearances, this wasn’t a group ride, and I didn’t organize it. Because I don’t organize events when I’m not being paid, and I don’t go on group rides.

Our plan was to leave in time to reach the Peters Township location when it opened: noon, so we couldn’t really start before 10am. From there, the route would take us to the Creek House in Crafton, the Bistro in Sewickley, and the Beer Emporium in Friendship. We’d meet all our families in Friendship, have dinner, and then make the short 5 mile ride home. Our route planning on suggested it would be around 65 miles. There should be plenty of time to fit that in daylight hours, along with a few meals and beers. Right?

The first wrench in our works came in the form of a scheduling conflict: YAPC scheduled its arrival dinner for the exact time and location of our last planned stop: Sharp Edge beer emporium, at 6pm. Although me and one other rider were attending this conference, neither of us wanted to attend the arrival dinner. And, they booked the entire back dining room, which wouldn’t leave enough room for our party of 15 in the front. So, we reluctantly made alternate plans which didn’t include the Friendship Sharp Edge location.

The rest of our wrenches came in the form of Reality, which has a tendency to foil best-laid plans (let alone the rest of them).

We met and finally left at about 10:30am from Regent Square. The first leg of about 22 miles to the Peters Township location was not that difficult, but it did include a few long, if not steep, climbs. That’s pretty much par for the course in Pittsburgh, though.

Mom can skip this paragraph: Close to our first destination on a corner into a parking lot, I hit a patch of gravel, slid and fell down. Luckily I had gloves on, and wasn’t going very fast: it could’ve been much worse. I bumped my left shoulder, hip, leg, and hand, and somehow scratched my right arm, but there was no blood. I had to tweak my rear fender back into position, but there was otherwise no damage to my bike. It made the impending stop very timely.

I had a Grimbergen, a somewhat lower alcohol content Belgian beer (6.5%) because they were out of De Koninck on tap (closer to 5%). When I’m at the Sharp Edge, I usually only get Belgian beers on tap, since none of the locations have fewer than 20 different Belgian varieties on tap. I always remember liking Grimbergen, but unfortuantely I forget that when I actually taste it, it’s a lot plainer and less complex than I expect. It has a very clean, unsurprising taste, which is not often what I’m looking for.

This stop signalled an unfortunate trend for the day: although the bar had almost no customers, it was excruciatingly slow because they had no incentive to kick us out of our seats. It took far too long to be served and settle our bill.

The next leg to Crafton was shorter, maybe 13-15 miles? The pace of all riders was fairly well matched, but one of us was riding a single speed. With one gear they could keep pace on the hills, but “spun out” on the flats and couldn’t keep up with the geared riders… not that there were many flats anyway. None of our riding so far was particularly scenic: it was mostly suburban. I quickly decided I prefer urban riding over suburban, though rural is even better. We hoped to get some back road riding in when we left Sewickley up into the hills.

At the creek house, I had a De Koninck. My experience with this beer is the opposite of how I feel about Grimbergen: it is always better than I expect it to be. I’m not sure what gave me my long-standing idea that I don’t like it very much. Soon we noticed it was 4pm: this is when we expected to arrive at Sewickley, but we were far behind schedule. I called Marla and we tentatively rescheduled our family dinner, though it was seeming like we might not make it before the kids’ bedtime at all.

After a seemingly interminable wait we left for Sewickley, another 13-15 miles. But Wait: does anyone know the address? No? I thought you had it. A call to Marla and a GPS consultation got us back on the right track.

The day had really warmed up on the last leg, and this slowed us down a lot. We hit some long but not horribly steep hills, and the group really started to stretch out: some riders were starting to run out of steam.

We got to Sewickley at the 50 mile mark. None of us had been to this location before. Unfortunately, this hoity-toity “bistro” met all of my expectations: they really didn’t want a group of smelly cyclists in there. Having been to 2 other Sharp Edge locations that day made it really obvious that the prices for identical items were higher, the menu was smaller, and the beer selection more limited. The space was cleaner, but lacked the character of the older locations in Crafton and Friendship. We were all unimpressed by the bartenders/servers, and overall I wasn’t that interested in returning.

It was already almost 6pm. One of us decided to bail and call for a sag wagon, and the rest of us thought it would be best to eat dinner here. So, we cancelled the family dinner plans, and decided we’d tentatively stop at the Friendship location on the way home, since we could probably fit 5 of us at the bar even with the crowds.

Since I was also having food, I splurged and had a Karmeliet Triple, which I always really enjoy. It’s fairly sweet, but has a nice complex flavor. After that I tried Zotten, a “Belgian style pale ale” by Weyerbacher in Easton PA, and on tap exclusively at Sharp Edge. It was fairly good for an Amerian craft brewed Belgian style beer, but it’d be hard to mistake it for a true Belgian. It was sweet, but had “too much high end.” (I tend to use sound-related terms to describe the flavors or spices in food and drink: in my mind a good audio mix is comparable to well balanced flavors in a dish or beer. Sometimes I wonder if this is what synaesthesia feels like?)

By the time the remaining 5 riders set off, it was already a bit after 7pm! It was almost 9 hours since we started, and according to our plans we still had over 20 miles of riding and one more stop.

At this point, we started cutting corners. We decided to go back across the river and take Rt 51 back to town, instead of finding our way through Sewickley’s hills to the North. None of us were familiar with the back roads, and we weren’t that interested in getting lost up there with limited daylight left.

We could’ve gone across Neville Island for a flatter, straighter route home, but it was only after we failed to do this that we remembered 51 didn’t stay next to the river. More hills! We all managed to get up the hills in a fairly close group: we were keeping a good pace. What goes up must come down, so we had some really excellent descents. On one hill my GPS caught a maximum speed of 42mph as we pulled away from the cars which were following us. That record was soon bested by 43.8mph on a subsequent hill. If I were more familiar with the roads I would’ve known I didn’t need to brake for those curves, but unfortuantely that hindsight will likely go wasted.

The next corner to be cut was any illusion of making another stop. Even without a stop, we’d be pushing the limits of daylight, and the fathers in the group thought it prudent to try to see their kids before bedtime. So we took the most direct route back to our starting poing. When we got close to town, we entered the Station Square parking lot, met up with the South Side trail (smooth, flat) and headed towards South Side Works. Two of the riders left there, sore and badly in need of beer, after 66.7 miles of riding.

The rest of the ride was easy: basically my daily commute home. The last two riders other than me got to Regent Square at 73 miles, and I made it home at 74.4 miles and almost exactly 9pm.

According to my GPS, our meaningless numbers for this trip were:

  • 74.4 miles travelled, my second highest mileage day ever
  • 5823 ft of elevation gain
  • moving time of 6:02 hours
  • average moving speed of 12.3mph
  • max speed 43.8mph (maybe that’s the part Mom shouldn’t read?)

Overall, I have mixed feelings, and a few lessons learned.

Make no mistake: I really enjoyed the ride!

But it didn’t go according to plan, and it’s unfortunate we couldn’t all finish. I’m glad we had no mechanical problems, and that we all ended up riding well together though we hadn’t all ridden with each other before.

We were out for ten and a half hours, but my GPS said we were only riding for 6. I planned for our 6 hour riding time, but for only 2 hours of stops before reaching the family dinner. What the heck? Since we didn’t originally plan to eat at Sewickley, it only would’ve taken about an hour less waiting to get to the family dinner on time and complete the trip as planned.

A lesson learned: Sunday is Slow Day. The roads are empty, traffic is wonderful, and you’ll get a table with no waiting at almost any place you care to go. But since no one is in line behind you, and since they don’t pay high-end staff for low-end days, you wait. A lot.

For me, this was about a week’s worth of riding in a day. But we got a lot more than an average week’s worth of jerky drivers on the trip, especially considering the low traffic density. I expect it’s because there were 6 of us. The most common exclamation heard from seemingly friendly people is “Lance!” so I’m sure the jerks also found us indistinguishable from the average pack of racer-wannabes, despite the motley, unconventional appearance any “roadie” would see from a mile away.

The only other minor complaint I have for the Tour des Sharps in general, is that the most direct routes possible are also pretty bad. They mostly stay in the suburbs, riding on what would ordinarily be busy commercial streets. If I could choose any 75 mile loop starting from my house, this route would definitely not be it.

A day after the ride, I basically don’t feel any soreness as long as I’m sitting still, and I had no problem riding to and from YAPC today. It’s only when I try to be active that my muscles quietly say “please don’t do that.”

At this point, I’m still interested in doing at least one or two more 60-100 mile rides this year. However, it’ll probably be at least next year before another Tour des Sharps is in the cards. Beer and cycling are both very enjoyable, but I think I enjoy them more separately rather than simultaneously.


I saw a bottle of absinthe at the PA state liquor store, and thought… That can’t be real absinthe; absinthe isn’t legal. I did just enough research to discover I was wrong: in 2007, the US laws which prohibited sale and/or distribution of Absinthe were relaxed. When we were in Ohio, I found a much prettier bottle of Absinthe than they had in the PA store, so I thought “I’m on vacation, why not?” and bought it. (See? Marketing works.)

You all know about Absinthe. It’s green. This “green fairy” causes hallucinations, general depravity, and drives men crazy. If you drink it you’ll start painting like Van Gogh or Picasso, and writing like Poe or Hemingway. The oil of wormwood is poisonous and will liquify your kidney in short order. It’s evil, and they made it illegal for good reason.

It turns out that in reality, most Absinthe is green, but not all of it is. Everything else is pretty much bad PR. Absinthe is no more toxic than any other alcohol in the 100-140 proof range. The levels of wormwood are regulated, and low enough not to be poisonous. The drink is not hallucinogenic, whether you like it or not. Drinking absinthe doesn’t make you crazy, but I expect most people who taste it would say that only a crazy person would drink it.

But what does it taste like?

I wasn’t familiar with the traditional technique for preparing absinthe, so I followed the alternate instructions on the bottle: “serve it on ice.” My first reaction to Mata Hari Absinthe Bohemian was that it tasted similar to Jäegermeister or Zwack, but it was far more alcoholic and not at all sweet. It had a very strong anise smell, and an herbal taste.

Then I read the bottle, which described it as being comparatively light in the Anise department. After sitting in my glass for a while, I noticed the drink changed from a bright transparent green color, to a cloudy greenish-white. That’s odd. Eventually, I started reading about Absinthe in general, and learned some very interesting things.

Absinthe is a spirit, not a liquor: it has no sugar added after it is distilled. It’s one of the only spirits which is typically watered down before drinking. The traditional method of preparation is to hold a sugar cube with a slotted spoon over your portion of absinthe, and drip cold water over it until the sugar dissolves into the drink. The addition of cold water causes herbal oils to precipitate out of the absinthe, turning it cloudy (as I had observed). This cloudiness is called “the louche” and the addition of water is called “louching.”

Drinking absinthe became associated with artists, bohemians, and other ne’er-do-wells, and eventually got a bad reputation. Of course, those who drank it were fine being associated with this reputation, which only made it worse. In the early 20th century, absinthe was made illegal to make, to own, or to sell, depending on what country you were in at the time.

I’m glad that in the end, “we” came to our senses and viewed absinthe objectively instead of through the cultural filters of the time period when it was made illegal, and finally recognized the relative harmlessness of this particular flavor of alcohol. One can only hope that this good sense and good policy is eventually extended to other equally vilified, but less toxic substances which are currently illegal in this and other countries.

I enjoy experiencing interesting beverages, and I’m glad to have tasted absinthe. However, it’s expensive enough that I’m unlikely to buy it regularly.

Oh yeah, also it isn’t hallucinogenic 🙂

Washington DC vs. Pittsburgh

Going back to Washington DC reminded me that Pittsburgh is a small city. That’s one of the reasons I like it here. I really enjoyed some aspects of DC and wish we had them here, but Pittsburgh is also better in some ways.

Here’s a bit of a comparison.

Public Transportation: DC Wins

The Metro just kicks butt. It’s convenient, goes “everywhere” (it seems), it runs regularly and tells you when to expect trains to come, and it’s very clean compared to most subways I’ve been on. There are also buses to get you where the train doesn’t.

Pittsburgh’s mass transit, on the other hand, is primarily bus-based. The buses are slow, usually late but always unpredictable, they drive poorly, and they almost never go where I want to go without transferring in downtown first. Believe it or not, we do have a few actual subway stops downtown, but most of the light rail is above ground and used for a few distant routes, instead of covering a wider area within the city. I won’t even get into the funding issues and periodic strikes.

Museums: DC Wins

DC wins primarily because all of the Smithsonian institute museums are free. It’s difficult to compare different collections of unique items, so for the most part I won’t try. But having the ability to walk into any museum any time is quite nice.

Pittsburgh has great museums with great collections, but apparently Andrew Carnegie was more interested in letting everyone into libraries for free, than museums.

Dinosaurs: Pittsburgh Wins

I said for the most part I wouldn’t compare museum collections, but in some areas there is a difference worth noting. DC has a much better collection of spacecraft and aircraft, for example. But the National Museum of Natural History’s collection of dinosaur fossils isn’t as large or well presented as the collection at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. DC has more mammal and non-dino fossils, but Pittsburgh wins in the dinosaur category.

We just opened a brand new dinosaur wing within the last few years, with some really nice, large displays. It’s a lot better than I remember from 15 or so years ago. We have at least 3 T-Rex’s, including one juvenile, and several huge plant eaters. The dinosaurs are displayed in appropriate chronology, not predators eating prey that’s been extinct for 10 million years. There’s also a large window into the actual fossil lab in the museum, where you can watch the technicians accidentally destroy irreplaceable specimens.


Ha, just kidding! Same with newspapers.

Beer bars: Pittsburgh wins

See also my review of the Brickskeller. Maybe I just didn’t find the right place to buy beer in Washington DC, in which case I’d definitely accept a rematch. However, Sharp Edge is world class when it comes to Belgian beers on tap: I haven’t found anywhere else in any city with as many different good Belgians on tap.

Zoos: DC wins

The National Zoo is also free! You can walk in off the sidewalk like you’re entering Frick Park. Frick Park with Pandas, that is. People go to the zoo to jog or just generally hang out as you might do in any public park, it’s not just a trip destination. This would be a lot more convenient than the Pittsburgh Zoo, where you have to spend the whole day there just to make it worth the price of admission.

I generally don’t like zoos, but both the National Zoo and Pittsburgh Zoo are a lot better now than I remember zoos being when I was a kid. From outside appearances, at least, the old school “stark concrete enclosure” look is gone. Now they’re all “well-landscaped concrete enclosures.”

Transportation Bicycling: DC wins?

I seemed to see a lot more bicycles ridden and parked on the streets in DC, than I generally see in Pittsburgh. This seems to suggest more people in DC are riding for utility/transportation purposes instead of just recreationally. However, I really didn’t see enough to be sure, and I’m not sure how their cycling infrastructure (lanes, signage, driver awareness etc) is. They seemed to have a bike sharing/rental type program there, but I didn’t get any info on it.

Recreational Bicycling: Pittsburgh wins?

Okay, so maybe I wasn’t kidding about the sports.

Pittsburgh might win in the recreational department, for the same reason that DC might win in the Transportation department: Pittsburgh has more hills and is a smaller city. It’s a lot easier to get around in DC, but I’d expect it to be harder to find a long scenic route (meaning “all trees, no buildings”) in DC than in Pittsburgh. I’m not even sure where to start looking for a winding, hilly road in DC.

Both Pittsburgh and DC seem to have a lot of rail-trails down by the rivers. I’m not sure how DC’s in-city mountain biking opportunities are. We’re each on one end of the Great Allegheny Passage trail, but I’d guess DC wins for trail access due to our sections of missing trail before the Boston Bridge. DC also seems to have a larger, more visible tourist bike rental trade as well.

I’d really like to spend more time cycling around DC, because I think I’d get a much better idea of the place. We were only there on a weekend, but the traffic didn’t look that bad (except at the circles) and the streets seemed pretty wide.

Review: The Brickskeller, Washington DC

I’m generally an easy going sort of diner, and never really understood the motivations of complaining restaurant reviewers who don’t have anything positive to say about the places they ate, but would rather nit-pick at the tiniest flaws they can find. Half of me wants to say “…Until Now,” but the other half is holding on to the notion that this post isn’t going to be a typical annoying restaurant review.

The Brickskeller (“Brick Cellar”) is an old beer bar in Washington DC. They’re proud of having been in business since October 7, 1957: long before there were any major national beer festivals, before home brewing was made legal, and before Michael Jackson (no, not that one) had his first sip of beer.

Well, I wasn’t born until 1971, and didn’t make it to the Brickskeller until 37 years later. While I appreciate everything The Brickskeller may have done to promote the cause of good beer in America over the years, they’re no longer the only game in town(s). Unfortunately, being the first is not the same as being the best, and I don’t think the Brickskeller is the best anymore. That said, they do have a great selection of beer, and it’s definitely worth going if you want to try something you’ve never had before.

The Brickskeller has decades more character than the beer bars I’m used to going to in Pittsburgh, in both the good and the bad sense. The overall feeling was, as you might expect, of a brick cellar. It seemed to have several smaller separate rooms. Apparently there is also an upstairs, where the taps are: it wasn’t open until 7:30pm, so we were limited to their large selection of bottles.

They have a large collection of beer cans on display, from the days when even good beer came in cans. Some of them looked like old oil cans: metal quarts with a screw-off cap. There was a nice model sailing ship behind glass next to our table.

Unfortunately the chairs and tippy tables also looked like they were circa 1957, but hadn’t been reupholstered frequently enough. A speaker from some remote juke box over our table was too loud for conversation, but only played music sporadically. The menus were flimsy photocopied paper, but far messier and more worn out than their disposable nature should suggest. There were many pages dedicated to their list of beer in bottles, but the list was not updated recently. Several more pages were dedicated to the history of the bar and their importance in the American beer scene. My overall impression was of a place heavy on character but light on charm.

Their beer list was impressive, numbering around a thousand different bottles. I limited my time to the Belgian selections, because they had several choices I haven’t found in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, it took me four tries before I found a beer on the list they actually had: Caracole’s Saxo. I enjoyed it, I’d get it again. Marla wasn’t driving either, so she had a Kasteel Rouge. For my second beer, I gave him a first and second choice of two more Belgians I hadn’t had before, and ended up with my second choice: Floreffe Triple. This one was also good, with a curiously different sweetness. The beer was slightly but not exceedingly more expensive than bottles in my normal haunts in Pittsburgh, which wasn’t entirely unexpected.

The menu was mostly very basic bar food. It wasn’t very expensive, but our meals also weren’t spectacular. The pizza was quite bad, actually. My sandwich and the fries were fine, and the cheese board and bread were very good.

Part of my problem might be my high expectations. Pittsburgh is a only small city: bigger cities like DC and Chicago must have better places than we do, right? I expected the Brickskeller to be better than Sharp Edge’s selection of taps, food and decor, and better than D’s selection of bottles. Unfortunately I was wrong. The beer selection was comparable to D’s, but you weren’t allowed to go pick up your own bottle. The food was worse than D’s, the decor was worse than Sharp Edge, and I never even got to see a tap list.

I’m sure I sound nit-picky and unhappy with my experience, but I’m glad I went, and I’d consider going back again (for the beer, but not for the food). I think I would’ve liked it better with more beer and fewer kids. But the biggest reason I enjoyed it was to remind me of what I have back home. I’m glad I enjoy my regular haunts better than a place I can’t go very often, and I’m glad I no longer have to wonder whether that’s the case or not.