Monday, January 31, 2011

Danger, Danger Will Robinson!

First of all, I have to explain that one of my nephews is both very creative and artistic, but has also been showing a very technical side. I thought of purchasing the book shown above for him this past Christmas, (Which my DW purchased for me the year before...) but thought the better of it.


Well, my brother told me that my nephew has been making crossbows, bows and arrows and potato cannons - basically nearly anything that is capable of casting a projectile. As they have been cautiously indulging him in this line of thinking, I opted to get him a series of books by William Gurstelle. Mr. Gurstelle writes for Make Magazine among other outlets and topics involve, well, projectiles and other fun stuff such as trebuchets, ballistas, catapults and cannons of various sorts. He has been described as a cross between MacGyver and a (slightly more) grown-up Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame.

I'm not certain if my brother's wife appreciated the gift...

At any rate, I received a nice thank-you letter from my nephew which I will treasure and most likely frame. How many thank-you notes to you get which mention 10' pneumatic cannons and pulse jets?

Awesome. Just awesome.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

Serious Frigidare

(Pun intended)

Yeah, it's been cold here. Seriously cold. Bitterly finger-freezing cold. This morning we had temperatures in the range of -10°F to -22°F in the area before wind chills were added. I think the temperature here at the house was supposed to be -17°F. I took these pictures of windows in our house this morning after opening the insulated blinds to try to see if the birds were at the feeders or just frozen to the branches. Mind you, those windows are relatively new double-pane glass and that's not just frost, that's ICE!

DS opened the front door and the moisture that was in the air in the house was visibly flashing off as vapor both inside and out - the moisture outside appeared to be precipitating on the front porch as a fine snow!

When we got out to the car, my normally rock-solid and dependable Honda Civic refused to start on the first try, started and then quit on the second try and finally started on the third try. I did complain quite a bit and the fan didn't sound quite right for a while.

DW decided to try an experiment this morning. We'd seen a YouTube video of people throwing a cup full of boiling water into the air at -30°F and it basically just evaporates as the air is so dry with nothing hitting the ground. It appears that she succeeded.

At work today, I spent a fair amount of my time outdoors. While my co-workers originally laughed at my choice of foot wear (Sorel winter boots rated to -50°F) they began to warm up to the idea of these ludicrous-looking boots the longer we spent outside. Oh yeah - propane-fired heat-shrink guns RULE for melting ice!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Some Assembly Required

Recently, we needed to get a desk for DD to be able study in peace. As a woodworker myself, I would have liked to build her a desk, but it would have taken me too long to have been a practical solution. (I'm good, but I'm not necessarily quick - I've got some other projects to finish up before I can think of more furniture.) We'd looked around at a few different options and finally decided that a trip to IKEA would not be a bad idea. To be honest, I've read a few blogs about IKEA and had some misgivings about the experience. The places are pretty big and are 90% some-assembly-required. Besides - do I really want meatballs? One male blogger had said that IKEA was actually Swedish for "bring a lunch".

I'd read the IKEA catalog and been to their website to see what was available. I had a hard time imagining that all of these items could be in their store. Then again, I'd passed by a few IKEA stores and had been impressed by their size.

Perhaps I should pack a lunch...

The other thing that you should know is that DW and I have distinctly different styles, She likes clean modern and I like more classic styles. For most of our house, we've trended towards Shaker-style furniture with relatively little disagreement. Amazingly, we were actually able to settle on some desks from the website that we liked and felt would fit the space.

We settled on a trip to one of our nearest IKEA stores as a day trip - they're not really, really close, so we had to make an all-day event out of it. Part of the reason was that some of the items that we wanted could not be mail-ordered. You have to go get them at the stores. We packed the children in to one vehicle and took the other one empty so that we'd be able to put flat-packed furniture into that one. We left early in the morning and arrived not long after the store opened. DW charged ahead up the stairs before I'd had a chance to get my bearings and we were immediately in the showroom portion of the store. As we began to wander through the displays of "model" rooms, I began to think about IKEA stores as being like Dr. Who's TARDIS - larger on the inside than on the outside.

The map of the store was disturbingly like an alimentary system. I had the unnerving feeling that I was being digested by this Swedish-designed behemoth. There were even arrows on the floor to show you where to go to be digested:

To be quite honest, they've done a great deal to make the shopping experience very clear and easy. All of the product information is in well marked tags on every piece in the store. Things are reasonably logically grouped and there are paper measuring tapes, pencils and store map/shopping lists scattered around the store to make your shopping experience painless. They do, however want you to take their contorted path through the store, even if you don't have an interest in everything - there are shortcuts, but they are discretely hidden away.

Still, they do try to make the shopping experience fun, and they don't seem to take themselves too seriously - as evidenced by the waiter's corkscrew:

As you read more of the tags, you cannot help but be impressed by what a logistical wonder that IKEA is. They are a company with corporate headquarters in Denmark, design work done in Sweden and production done all over the world and shipped to their franchises - your local store.

After we were finally digested by the store's showroom, I was getting hungry and DD and DS were getting fractious. We were deposited (conveniently) in front of the bathrooms and the cafe.

We had a very nice lunch for the four of us with entrees, drinks, and dessert for about thirty dollars. Yes, I did actually go for the meatballs... Not gourmet, but not shabby, either - particularly for the price of what we ate.

Both relieved and refreshed, we left the cafe and realized that we hadn't actually picked up anything other than part numbers and inventory locations. We also discovered that we didn't really think that the desk we'd picked out before visiting the store was going to work. We also discovered other things that we wanted - like living room tables - that we hadn't thought of purchasing before, but that the price was just too reasonable to pass up. We went back through the showroom - albeit a bit more quickly and made final decisions about the furniture we did want to buy.

I didn't realize that the adventure was only half over.

We took an elevator downstairs to find ourselves in the "market". The market is a half-warehouse-half-showroom area that is easily as big as the "showroom" and is where you actually pick up the merchandise. More decisions. I do not exaggerate when I say you could furnish an entire home from the bare walls out in an IKEA store. Plates, silverware, cookware, lights, bedding, rugs, artwork - whatever you can think of.

Here's where our downfall was - we went to the warehouse to pick up the furniture that we had chosen. Literally none of the furniture we'd finally chosen was what we'd seen and liked online and we had no idea what the stock levels were like. When we got to the warehouse locations for various items, we were upset to find that about half of the items we wanted were out of stock. They did, however, have an ample supply of the world's most expensive $10 chairs that I have ever seen. (This will require another blog-post in future. Trust me.)

Slightly disappointed with the missing inventory items, we checked out, loaded our goodies and left.

When we got home, I passed the IKEA job interview:

The instructions were clear and concise and even if there were quite a few parts, the furniture went together quickly and looked decent. The only damage was some small dents in the coffee table. Being an engineer, I was probably a little OCD on the assembly technique, gluing dowel alignment pins and checking for square and parallel. I also did a bit of minor customizing to mount some LED lights on the underside of a wall shelf that we'd purchased to go over DD's desk. IKEA isn't Swedish for"bring a lunch" - IKEA is Swedish for "some assembly required".

After I was done building the furniture, I was more than relieved not to have the following situation:

Still, I was short some of the critical pieces of furniture - a chair, a table and a roll-away file unit. I watched the inventory at the store like a hawk online and when the inventory levels looked OK, I zipped down after work to get these final items and got them assembled. While I'm pleased with the way things look now, I have concerns about the long-term durability of the furniture - most is composite with veneers or pine (If you've got pine furniture all you need to do is to turn a 3 year-old loose in your house with a spoon and the kid will "antique" it all for you.) Time will tell.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Faith-Based Navigation

For most of my driving life, I've found my way around using gas-station maps (a thing of the past) and the old faithful from Rand McNally. (current version pictured above) I've even done without. I took a short vacation when I was single and living in Vermont that I referred to as my "turn left" vaction - when in doubt, I'd simply turn left. It was an interesting way to see the area and I'm sure that I saw some things that I never would have found otherwise. It wasn't always an effective way to find my way around, but it was fun and I really didn't care where I was.

Since we've gotten married, DW and I have tended to go on vacation in the UK to go visit family and to see some of the tourist sites. Because we're on a relatively tight schedule, we need good maps to be able to get to the places we want to go to. More importantly, we need to be able to get to the places "on time" so that we can make the best use of our limited time. For the last few visits, we've used either borrowed UK road atlases or used our Ordinance Survey Maps. For finding specific attractions, we've downloaded directions from online mapping services like Google or Mapquest - a big change from the past.

On our visit to the UK this summer, we seemed to have more difficulty than usual navigating by map. Two things seemed to contribute to this - one was probably the age of the maps, the other was the resolution of the maps - it wasn't good enough for us to actually navigate in the city of Bath. Ironically, before we left my BIL's house, he had offered us the use of his GPS. We had turned down the offer based on our previous (successful) experience navigating with our maps. Instead, we carried on the family tradition of disagreeing on how to get there and the navigator's competence.

When we got to my MIL and FIL's house, we navigated based on DW's knowledge of the immediate area. One day we were planning to head to North Wales and my FIL offered us the use of his GPS. We accepted his kind offer and used it to good effect. It got us out of a few missed turns and in difficult streets around Caernarfon. The only issue that we seemed to have with the GPS was on our trip back to my MIL and FIL's house - there was a long stretch of stone wall on the left and the GPS kept insisting, "TURN LEFT. TURN LEFT NOW."

I think not.

We were planning to visit family in Southeastern, Pennsylvania at a new house. I know from a visit we took to the area that navigating there was fairly difficult. Roads are narrow and bend up, down and sideways. There also isn't much of a view to let you see where you're going, where you've been or to get landmarks. This fact along with an outstanding sale at a local electronics retailer led me to purchase a TomTom XL350T GPS.

The GPS is pretty neat - it will allow you to find gas stations, restaurants and the like along your way and has traffic updates to help you avoid back-ups. It does way more than I really need it to and will let me load UK maps for future travel.

We left early in the morning with a plan to visit a friend of DW and her family in New Jersey on our way to Pennsylvania for a lunchtime stop. Along the way, we studiously ignored the directions provided by the GPS because "she" wanted to take us though New York City on Route 95 - where we didn't want to go. When we finally left DW's friend's house, it was about 3 PM. We figured it would be another 2 hours to our final destination.

The New Jersey Turnpike had other ideas.

There was a significant traffic back-up on the Turnpike that delayed us for about 45 minutes or more. For whatever reason (probably pay-back for ignoring "her" earlier), we didn't get a warning about the back-up or didn't know how to interpret what we were seeing on the GPS display at the time. For us, the problem was that it was going to get dark before we reached our destination. We finally got out of the back-up and on to the Pennsylvania Turnpike and it was looking like things were going to be fine. When we were nearly at the exit we wanted, the GPS warned us that there was a delay on the planned route and suggested an alternate. We took it.

This was the beginning of the faith-based navigation. It was dark and we were on unfamiliar roads - we followed "her" instructions as they came. It felt like we were careening through the dark on some strange GPS driven roller-coaster as the roads we were on had few signs and fewer indications that we were on the correct path. The GPS told us that there was only 3 miles to our destination, but until we actually made the turn into my family's development, we had no clue that we were anywhere close.

Ain't technology wonderful?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

There's a fungus amongus...

Well, there is, and strange as that may sound - we like it a lot. As many of you who are regular readers know in addition to paddling and boat-building, one of my 'things' is food.

Just before Christmas, some family members dropped by with a few gifts that they told us we needed to open - now. One of the bags was contained dried mushrooms. Ok. I took one out and as I did, the aroma of garlic seemed to just come curling out of the bag. They were crispy and, well, yummy. They were dried mushroom 'chips' called Snack N Shrooms (tm) from a place called The Mushroom Cap in Kennett Square, PA. Tasty, crispy, low fat - what more could you want?

With Christmas rolling around, I'd purchased a butt tenderloin of beef for Christmas lunch and some lean bacon (is that an oxymoron?) to wrap the beef with. I thought is sounded a bit plain, so I had the inspiration to stick a knife through the center of the tenderloin and stuff it with the garlic Snack N Shrooms. I then cooked the beef the way I normally would and the mushrooms rehydrated as the beef cooked. It was very nice and infused the beef around the mushrooms with the garlic flavor.

After Christmas, we went to visit the family members I referred to earlier. We stopped in at the Mushroom Cap one morning we were there to discover that they offered several different versions of the Snack N Shrooms - the garlic, original, low salt and spicy. The original and low salt have some garlic, sugar, basil and a few other spices added to the dried mushrooms - the spicy adds some pepper flakes to the mix. All very, very good. We also discovered that they offer powdered seasoning made from the Snack N Shrooms that we've started to call "magic dust" and have now tried it on pasta and grilled pork with good results. I'm looking forward to trying it in a soup recipe that I like to make.

They're well worth a look for snacking on or cooking with!