Menu

Transient Spike

A non-technical blog by a tech blogger

The Suburban Farmer: September 12, 2014 — All done for the season

Yesterday we were getting weather alerts that we might be getting … wait for it … a freeze or snow. Now before you go off on some climate change tangent, let’s just say that we’ve had snow much earlier (September 3) and much later (not until October). Anyway, the garden has been slowly winding down so I thought it was the perfect time to harvest the remaining crops and I’ll just call it quits for the year. Yes, we do have a short growing season here.

First on my agenda was picking the tomatoes, which have so far refused to ripen on the vine. I ended up picking 72 tomatoes, popping them into a big box, and tossing a ripening banana in there — they produce a lot of ethylene, which is required for ripening the tomatoes. 24 hours later, the three tomatoes that had a slight amount of color are starting to run a bit deeper color.

Next were the cucumbers, which really disappointed me. The plant was huge and I thought I was going to get a lot of cukes, but I ended up picking only about five all year. Three were on the vine yesterday, and they’re pretty good sized.

The rest of the crop remaining was herbal in nature: oregano and basil. Both smelled VERY good while I was picking them, and the leaves are now ready to dry.

All I have left to do with the garden is to pull the remaining plants and then cover the VegTrug for the winter. Next year I will definitely plant earlier — say April instead of May — and hopefully that will extend my growing season by a month.

The Suburban Farmer: September 4, 2014 — Harvest

IMG_0622.JPG
Wow, it’s been a couple of weeks since an update of any sort. Of course, in the interim I had the high school reunion (went well, I’ll have to post embarrassing photos), went to Vegas for four days, and did a lot of other stuff.

The garden went through some changes in the interim. I spent some time yesterday cleaning it up — the last of the lettuce had gone to seed, so I yanked it. I pulled all of the carrots and green onions as well, leaving just the two tomato plants, the basil and oregano, and the humongo cucumber plant.

After cleaning up the veggies, I took the photo you see above. Some of the carrots were good sized — thick, but not super long due to the shallowness of the VegTrug. I’d really like to take some of the carrots, cucumbers, and green onions and pickle them. That’s a good way to preserve them for a little bit longer, and I happen to like pickles anyway.

The tomatoes are starting to get a little bit of yellowish color, so I’m hoping that soon they’ll all turn red and ripen up so I can pick ‘em. Pretty soon I’ll have to clear out the rest of the garden, and make my plans for getting things ready to go for 2015.

Reunions and other silliness

Steve Sande circa 1974

Most of the friends and followers who read this site know that I am officially “older than dirt”, but they’d probably be shocked to know that I’ve been out of high school for a whopping 40 years. When I was attending William C. Hinkley High School in the early 1970s, Nixon was still president, we were still sending men to the moon and to Skylab, and personal computers were still a dream.

That photo over there is my 1974 senior picture, showing that yes, at one time I did actually have nice thick hair and was actually kind of skinny. I’m sure that the picture or something like it will surface at my reunion, which occurs this upcoming Friday and Saturday nights. The Friday night get-together is always … interesting, since it seems like more people attend since they don’t have to pay for a lousy meal, and everyone’s inhibitions are down. That latter statement means that people are likely to drink way too much. This year’s event, befitting the Class of ’74, is being held at some dive bar out on Arapahoe Road.

On Saturday, the more formal event is held. Hopefully by the time dinner rolls around, all of the people who participated in the previous evening’s revelries are sober or at least over the vomiting stage of their hangovers. Our event is going to be at a golf clubhouse on the south side of town, so the drive won’t be too ridiculous.

As with all High School reunions (this will be my fifth, having gone to the 5, 10, 20, and 30th reunions before), I’m attending with a mixture of anticipation and dread. The anticipation is for getting together with old friends who I only seem to see every ten years. So far, I also know that two people who have never attended a previous reunion will be at this one, so I get to see them for the first time in 40 years. One thing that’s quite different this time around is that I know what a lot of these people are up to, thanks to Facebook.

Now, the dread… No, I don’t care about the fact that I look a lot older — all of us do! But the same open world that Facebook has provided has also given me cause to dread seeing some of these people thanks to arguments that we’ve had online. Frankly, I am willing to forgive and forget for two nights, but if anyone brings up politics, religion, or something that we said to each other on Facebook in the heat of an argument, I’m walking away. Life is too short for that kind of crap.

The picture below is what my old high school kinda looked like back when I was there, although the “totem pole” and little shed building weren’t there. Now the school looks completely different after a massive renovation, part of which I got to see a few years ago.

Hinkley High School as it looked after I graduated

I enjoyed high school much more than I did my college experiences — the university life was too stressful, and most of my fellow college students scattered around the globe after graduation, so there was no reason to really even think about going to a reunion. High school is where I learned how to write, where I got my public speaking skills, where I learned to talk in front of a large group without fear. It’s also where I met my future wife, who went to the other high school in town. So yeah, I have a lot of fond memories of those years.

I can’t wait to see my buddies this weekend, and be sure to come back to the site next week to see if I have any pictures or stories to tell.

The Suburban Farmer: August 17, 2014 — The fruits (or Vegetables) of my labor

IMG_0581.JPG

The tomato plants have taken over most of the West end of the VegTrug, and the stems are full of small green tomatoes. I couldn’t wait, so today I wandered out and did some harvesting for a salad. That bounty included some carrots, green onions, a cucumber, and a handful of those little green tomatoes.

Those went into a nice salad along with some spring greens and store-bought cherry tomatoes, with grated Parmagiano Reggiano mixed in. Damn, was that good! The green onions are crisp, spicy and pungent, the carrots are sweet and tasty, the cucumber was … well, crisp and with a taste unlike any store-bought cuke I’ve had. Those little tomatoes were a bit on the hard side, but still quite tasty.

All of this went beautifully with a dry-aged grass fed rib eye steak grilled to perfection and served with Colorado-grown Olathe Sweet corn. The corn was also thrown on the grill, and served with a lime-pepper butter that was awesome on the steak as well.

Something I’ve learned for next year’s garden — get plants that are advertised as “compact”, as those tomato plants are huuuuge and taking over. I will definitely get a second VegTrug, and I’m also going to set up an automatic watering system.

Like I told Barb, all we need to do next is get a couple of chickens! ACC, where I teach community ed classes, has a guy doing a class on how to raise chickens as a backyard farmer and I am so tempted to take the class.

Sure, in the long run these vegetables are probably quite a bit more expensive than anything I could buy at the grocery store, but they are also much tastier, completely fresh, and fully organic. I just love the satisfaction of watching things that I planted and nurtured growing, and then being able to harvest them. It’s something that most of us ignore nowadays in favor of convenience, but I have found this garden to be a great lesson in what it takes to bring food to the table. It ain’t easy, and the farmers who do this for a living are to be commended.

Photo by Steven Sande

Radio Silence

Yaesu VX-8DR handheld transceiver

Yaesu VX-8DR transceiver, image from www.ka1mzy.com

On previous personal blogs, I’ve written about my love/hate relationship with amateur radio (AKA “ham” radio). I’ve had a FCC amateur radio license (KC0EZH) since the late 1990’s, and during that time I’ve done some fun things like contact the space shuttle. I used to talk to my Dad on my morning commute to downtown Denver back in those days, and that was a fun way to get comfortable with talking on the radio while keeping in touch with the folks. But now I find that I’m using ham radio less and less, and I’m not alone.

This morning I turned on my little handheld transceiver (a Yaesu VX-8DR) and guess what I heard? Absolutely nothing, except the required automated messages from the repeater every ten minutes or so. No conversations, nobody asking about traffic conditions, not even the local pundits talking politics.

Why do I bring this up? Back at the end of the 20th Century, I could turn on a ham radio on the 2m or 70cm bands and here chatter all day long. Most of it wasn’t worth listening to, but at least people were using their radios.

What’s killed the VHF/UHF radio bands? It’s easy — when you can buy an iPhone 5s for $199 that is basically a friggin’ supercomputer in your palm, with a user interface that’s simple to understand, a wealth of available apps, and the capability to do much more than a much more expensive VHF/UHF radio can do, why the hell does someone what to buy the more expensive, less capable device?

For example, back in the early 2000s I used a handheld transceiver and a GPS unit to enable APRS (Automatic Position Reporting System) and let my wife track my position on a computer while I was bike riding. Now? I do the same thing with Glympse on my iPhone, and it doesn’t take a computer for Barb to see where I am.

The user interfaces on most modern ham radios are awful. With the exception of some software-defined radios that unfortunately usually require running Windows, what you can expect is to push a bunch of tiny buttons and roll little scroll wheels to go through a list of almost indecipherable menu choices. And that’s usually on a tiny monochrome LCD display, at least for the handheld devices.

I have to admit that I haven’t gotten into the really cool part of ham radio — using the longer wavelength bands to communicate over long distances. There’s a very good reason for that: my neighborhood has restrictive covenants that prohibit large antenna arrays on houses. I suppose I could be stealthy about it — there are a number of websites that have specific articles about how to hide long and big antennas from sight — but I’ve just never had the desire to do that.

If I want to talk to someone overseas, I can use my Mac, iPad or iPhone, pull up Skype, and make a free video call. I don’t have to use Morse Code (yes, a lot of hams still love this low-power way of communicating), nor do I have to put a big freakin’ antenna outside my house. I’ve made a number of friends overseas through the wonders of Skype and other free audio and video streaming systems.

By this point you’re probably wondering why anyone would even participate in the amateur radio hobby. There are people who love doing low-power distance work (called QRP) to see how far they can communicate with as little power as possible. There are others who find that they like to help out emergency services and weather spotters through ARES (the Amateur Radio Emergency Service), and still more hams who like to contact people through amateur satellite communications. For me, though, it’s a lack of time that keeps me from trying things like these — and that’s why the hobby seems to be so skewed towards retired people…

There is one little thing I’d like to try, though. It requires a ham license and a Raspberry Pi single-board computer, and consists of setting up a beacon that can be used by other hams to determine listening conditions on various bands. Called WSPR, this could be a fun way to use my Raspberry Pi and hopefully do some long-distance ham radio without having to actually go through a lot of work.

The weather station, bad design, and the brain of an engineer

IMG_0574.JPG

Hokay. That picture you see is that of my Rainwise Mark III weather station, which beams continuously updated information about the wind velocity and direction, temperature, humidity, and — until the rain gauge clogged up — precipitation.

I bring up the last point because we’ve had a surprising amount of rain here over the past week or so. It’s been a nice, wet summer — my Rachio internet-savvy sprinkler timer has actually skipped many a planned watering, saving me money — and relatively cool.

But a few weeks ago I noticed after a particularly monsoonish rainstorm that my Weather Underground Personal Weather Station page wasn’t showing that any rain had fallen. LIAR! I KNOW IT RAINED! So, doing the right thing I grabbed a stepladder and looked into that black cylinder that is the precipitation collector. Gasp! It was full to the brim with rainwater.

So, I sent a support email off to the guys at Rainwise, who were kind enough to quickly answer that a) it was probably clogged and b) I’d have to clean it out, and here are directions on how to do so. Well, I didn’t have any time to actually do that until today.

After yet another torrential downpour today, I grabbed the stepladder one more time and ventured out to the weather station with screwdriver in hand. As noted in the email response from Rainwise, loosening four screws made it possible to rotate and remove the big black cylinder, revealing the tipping-bucket measuring device!

Well, that got cleaned off, too — it had a bit of sludge on it — but sure enough I couldn’t see through the drain hole in the bottom of the cylinder that feeds the tipping bucket. Now, to remove the little grating over the drain, I had to reach under and remove a cotter pin. For those of you who are mechanically disinclined, a cotter pin is a little metal pin that has two arms that go through a hole and are then split to hold whatever in place… Check Wikipedia — I have issues describing hardware like this.

Anyway, I straightened the legs of the cotter pin with a pair of needle-nosed pliers (not to be confused with Needle-Nose Ned Ryerson … Bing!) and pulled of the drain cover. Sure enough, there was gunk aplenty in the little drain tube… most of which had built up because of the cotter pin that went through there to hold the drain cover in place.

Now, I have to admit that I love, I LOOOOVE and ADORE this weather station, but this is an example of someone being drunk while designing a key piece of a device. Put a cotter pin in the main drain leading to the tipping bucket counter so that it can accumulate all of the sludge that falls into the cylinder? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?

A better design would have been to have designed a simple mechanical lock for the drain cover into the plastic cylinder. In other words, put a slot in the top of the drain cover that you turn with a screwdriver or a coin if you need to clean the drain tube. It would have been less expensive, since you’d eliminate one more piece — the cotter pin, which is going to break after a few cleanings and force me to go buy another one.

Now, in case you’re wondering why I’m going on like this… This is the type of thing that goes on in the head of an engineer. Even an engineer who hasn’t done any solid engineering work in about thirty years. We are trained to see failures like this and figure out why things don’t work, and also find better ways to do things. That’s why successive iterations of our mobile devices keep getting better — we the users figure out what is stupid about the designs, we complain, and then things get redesigned to fix the stupid.

In the case of this weather station — which probably isn’t produced in quantities large enough to really justify a redesign of a component — I’ll probably just have to go buy a box of cotter pins and clean the damned thing every few months. Sigh.

The Suburban Farmer: August 1, 2014 — Attack of the Tomatoes

20140801-181728-65848144.jpg

The last time I talked about THE GARDEN things were doing well thanks to the heat we were getting. Over the past week, however, Colorado has been blessed with cooler weather and for some reason the tomato plants have gone crazy. See that image above? Yeah – they’re taking over.

We still haven’t seen a damned tomato, but with the number of little flowers I’ve seen I think we’re going to be inundated with the bastards. We did some lamb burgers tonight with feta cheese, kalamata olives, and fresh oregano, and the oregano was out of the garden. We’ve now used two types of lettuce, basil, oregano, green onions, carrots and peas from the garden. Can’t wait for the tomatoes and cucumbers. Speaking of the cukes:

20140801-182025-66025188.jpg

Yep, lots of flowers in there, too. And what’s nice is that I honestly don’t feel like I’ve been spending too much time tending to the garden — literally minutes a day are all it has taken. If we do end up getting a good crop of cucumbers and tomatoes, I’ll probably expand the garden next year.

Ennui

A cat looking bored.

Yep. I feel like this.

Ennui (noun) : a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement

Yep. I’ve got it.

I have felt bored, bored, bored with things lately. Sure, the kittens are fun to watch, and I’m enjoying the gardening, but overall I just feel bored to death.

It’s not as if I don’t have a lot of things to keep me busy. My job is fun, but familiar. But I don’t have anything that’s really exciting me right now. It seems like everything I would like to do is either forbidden by some local rule or turns into a total pain in the ass to do.

AR.Drone 2.0

AR.Drone 2.0, courtesy of Parrot

Example: I have an AR.Drone that I’d love to learn how to fly, but I’m loath to do that for several reasons; the growing fear of the public of drones and the inability to fly it in most of the public areas of my neighborhood thanks to bans on flying “model airplanes.” Sigh.

RANS V-Rex Recumbent Bike like I own... and no longer ride

RANS V-Rex Recumbent Bike like I own… and no longer ride

I used to do a lot of bike riding, and would almost like to start doing that again, but we live in a very hilly neighborhood. So what I used to do is pop my bike into a van that we used to own, drive down to the local big bike path, and take off on long rides from there. What’s stopping me now? Let’s see: my bike is no longer in rideable condition and I’d have to fix it first, we no longer own the van (although I could probably fit the bike in the back of my car), and I would have to ride late in the day after dinner … at which point I’d probably have no desire to go riding.

Ham radio is another thing that I’d love to get more into. My dad has been a radio amateur since the 1950s, I got my license back in the late 1990s and I now have a General license (KCØEZH). But I’ve been stuck on just using low power handheld transceivers thanks to restrictive covenants in my neighborhood that ban antennas. And practically nobody is on the local repeaters now thanks to the expansion of cellphone use. At one point I owned a low-power transceiver capable of working some of the longer bands, but I hated the UI of the device and couldn’t figure out what to do antenna-wise, so I sold it. Sigh again.

I have to admit that there are some things that also keep me from doing a lot after work hours. For one, I love good wines and my wife and I often split a bottle during dinner. Talk about something that ruins your ability to get things done! After a couple of glasses, it’s common for me to fall into the trap of just plopping my ass into the recliner in front of the TV (which bores me) with my iPad in hand.

What do I do to break the ennui? I think one of the best things might be to just stop drinking wine with dinner and wait until later in the evening to have a glass. That would give me the energy to actually try doing something “productive” in the evenings, like take a walk or bike ride, see if I could figure out a way to build a “stealth antenna” for ham radio work and actually talk to others around the world, etc…

Maybe I learn a new tool, like Photoshop or Lightroom, and start getting up to speed on improving my photography skills. Or each day, figure out something to do after work that does not involve sitting on my ass in front of the TV. Set a goal and do it.

Whatever. I just need to get rid of this ennui. It’s SO boring.

Why I obsess about local weather

20140720-181606-65766599.jpg

Right off the bat, I should tell you that I have a weather station in my yard. No, it’s not a cheap little station — it’s a Rainwise MK III that provides updates to Weather Underground and the world every few seconds.

So, why did I install a professional grade weather station in my back yard? It all started when I was a kid and actually had the thought of being a meteorologist for a while. That dream lasted for a few years and never really went away. I’ve always watched the clouds, marveled at the downpours that we sometimes get in the midst of this arid region, and I love a good violent thunderstorm.

Weather has fascinated me for decades, especially in Colorado where it’s common in spring and fall to have temperatures in the high 70s in the afternoon and snow at night. We have the world’s most impressive record of damaging hailstorms, and there are parts of the state that get record low temperatures every winter.

But it’s not that history of regional weather flukes that has captured my full attention — it’s the idea of very local weather, AKA microclimates.

Vineyards are usually placed in a specific microclimate that provides optimum conditions for the growing and harvesting of grapes. For example, we love the wines from the California Central Coast, in particular the areas east of Lompoc and Santa Maria. They get cold, wet fog in the mornings and blazing heat in the afternoons. The result is conditions that make for some of the best Pinot Noir grapes in the world.

What does that have to do with my local weather? I mean, I don’t grow grapes, and my garden is tiny. Well, I still find it fascinating that when I go for a walk in the morning down in our local greenbelt, I can drop fifty feet in altitude and feel the temperature in the gulch dropping ten degrees. It never ceases to amaze me that it can be pouring rain at my house, yet two blocks away the residents are just getting a light sprinkle.

It is those variations within a few hundred feet that are amazing to me. In a perfect world, we’d have weather stations at every house, pouring a wealth of weather data into some vast model that might actually be accurate for once. That’s part of the reasoning behind Weather Underground’s Personal Weather Station (PWS) network, which is a network of over 30,000 stations that send in data for a particular locale. It’s giving Weather Underground an edge, basically by tapping into the feeds from weather nuts like myself.

For me, I love being able to feel hot, take a look at the readings from my weather station, and say “Aha, it’s precisely 94.8°F right now, with no wind, and 15% humidity.” In the winter, it’s nice to know that when I’m freezing my arse off in the house that it’s probably the fact that it is -18°F outside.

What I’m really looking forward to is downloading and analyzing my weather data each and every year, showing the minute by minute changes at my location over the course of twelve months. Is this a record hot day, or does it just feel warm? And I’ve already been able to look at the traces of my readings and do a pretty good job of forecasting when it’s going to start raining.

You don’t need to spend an arm and a leg to set up your own weather station. Companies like AcuRite and NetAtmo sell reasonably-priced stations that can provide enough information to start you on the path to true weather geekdom.

Maybe you’re content to just let the local weather talking heads tell you how they think the conditions will be tomorrow, or perhaps you’ve upgraded to the online weather forecasts from a number of sites. For me, doing a bit of my own forecasting from data captured less than a hundred feet away from my computer is an excellent way to learn more about weather and the planet I live on.

The Suburban Farmer: In praise of square foot gardening

Chadwick / Camp Joy Tomatoes

Chadwick Cherry or Camp Joy Tomatoes (Rareseeds.com)

When I last wrote about my little garden plot ten days ago, I had no idea that it was going to flourish even more in just that short period of time. My snow peas are going crazy (perfect for a stir fry I’m making tomorrow), I’ve had one of the tasty heirloom carrots (sweet and crunchy), the tomato plants are getting huge, my basil is getting to the point that I can start using it, and the cucumber plant is nuts. Green onions will be ready to start using this week, and I’m still getting lovely salads from the green leaf and red romaine lettuce. The only plants that have failed me? Jalapeño and green bell peppers.

What’s surprising me is that all of this is happening in about ten square feet. I decided when I bought the VegTrug that I would try some of the precepts found in a book called Square Foot Gardening. The idea behind that book is that you build small beds, turn them into square foot plots, and plant one crop per plot. With no traditional rows, there’s less space to weed and all of the space is full of plants going wild.

I’ve ended up with the best of both worlds: a garden that is dense with crops and that has required little or no weeding — I think the only items that I’ve actually pulled out of the garden have been volunteer plants from where I dropped a seed.

I’m not seeing many bugs, although I fear the dreaded tomato worm once the tomato plants get to the point that they’re bearing fruit. There were a few little creepy-crawlies on some of the lettuce, but they seemed to be just wandering around, not eating the lettuce at all.

I’m also using heirloom seeds from a company called Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. The specific plants I have planted are as follows: “Emily” basil, Danvers 126 half-long carrot, Marketmore 76 cucumber, Red Romaine Lettuce, Gentilina Lettuce, Ishikura Onion, Vulgare Oregano, Sugar Snap Pea, California Wonder Pepper, Tam Jalapeño Pepper, and the Camp Joy Tomato. A great company to order from online — the seeds arrived in about three days after I ordered them.

What am I going to do differently next year? Probably three things:

  1. Get a second VegTrug and try some other crops
  2. Set up automatic watering
  3. Start some of my plants inside in April

The auto-watering is pretty much a necessity, since there will be a period where I’ll be out of town for a while and still want the plants to thrive. Of course, if it hails I won’t be able to do anything about that, but I certainly want to make sure that I have a way of knowing just how wet or dry the soil is and that I can keep it perfectly damp.

Older Posts