Friday, January 12, 2018

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

I've never seen the movie "Four Rooms." If I had, I wouldn't be such a latecomer to the weird, neo-lounge genius that is Combustible Edison. Their contributions to the "Four Rooms" soundtrack, "Vertigogo," is a catchy, scat-inspired piece of audible attitude. The interspersed movie clips are as dull as one would expect, but the original video sequence by the band is nicely off-kilter and suitably trippy.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Kinks.

Now Playing: Martin Denny Exotica
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, January 08, 2018

Winter variations

The extremes of climate can really be madness-inducing. The area I live has long been classified as in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 8b, but over the past decade I've seen new maps that place me just within the borders of Zone 9a, due to progressively warmer temperatures. For those of you confused by this "Zone" talk, let me offer this summation: Some fruiting plants need specific amounts of cold weather in which to go dormant and build up energy reserves to flower and produce fruit. Other types of plants cannot tolerate temperatures that drop below a certain point. Hardiness zones are a general attempt to classify the temperature environment of a region to aid in selecting appropriate plants to grow. It's not perfect, as it doesn't take into account annual rainfall, maximum summer temperatures, etc., but it's a good starting place. Got that? Good.

Several years ago, we moved from the south side of New Braunfels to the north side. The move was approximately 10 miles north, as the crow (or grackle, around here) flies. It also involved an increase in elevation of close to 100 feet, as we went from Blackland Prairie to the edge of the Texas Hill Country. That doesn't seem like much of a change on a global scale, but I've noticed that during the winter, our lows are consistently 4-5F degrees lower than those predicted for New Braunfels once the mercury dips below 40F or so. That means predictions of 38F or thereabouts can result in freezes for us. What's more, predictions for hard freezes can mean we're in store for some seriously cold weather. Case in point--last week, January 1-2, our overnight low was predicted to drop to 23F. When I woke up, the actual temperature was 16F! That is the lowest temperature I've recorded at the new house in the three-plus years we've lived here.

It also offers an opportunity to contrast this winter with last year's. The 2016-17 winter was unusually warm for us. We had one hard freeze in December and a bare handful of light freezes the rest of the season. We ended up recording in the neighborhood of 390 chill hours, that is, 390 hours in which the recorded winter temperature was below 45F. By any measure, that's a very low number, sufficient only for extremely low-chill cultivars of peaches and other fruit to produce. That kind of winter is more common to the Rio Grande Valley or Florida than Central Texas. Contrast that to this winter, where I've already logged 514 chill hours, with the traditional heart of winter--January and February--still to come (at this rate, we could easily exceed 1,000 chill hours, which is plenty more than any plant I grow needs in order to fruit). Needless to say, I'm hoping for some nice plum, pear and even apple production this spring.

But the overall amount of cold isn't the whole story--it's how the cold is delivered that has an equally powerful impact. Last year, after an unusually warm autumn, an arctic blast hit us, driving temperatures down to 22F. That cold weather killed all the fronds on the mature Mexican fan palm out front, killed the satsumas in my backyard down almost to the roots (despite their being covered by frost cloth), killed an Austin pomegranate down to the roots, killed a fig tree down to the roots, froze the buds and fruits off my Loquats, etc. My banana plants survived, but I'd wrapped them in C9 lights and frost blankets. That cold just hammered everything I had. Because of the damage done by 22F, one might expect this year's 16F to be much worse, right? Wrong. I know--I'm surprised myself. The Mexican fan palm took no damage. My pomegranates lost their leaves, but had no stem die-back. Ditto the figs. The re-grown satsumas are fine. I even had in-ground Bird-of-Paradise and plumeria survive unscathed (with cover and lights). What gives? Acclimation, that's what. The run-up to that 16F plunge consisted of a week of 40F weather, then another week of light freezes progressing to generally harder freezes. Essentially, the plants had plenty of time to adapt and prepare themselves for the cold, and weathered the low temperatures surprisingly well. The previous year, the hard freeze came out of nowhere--the weather was warm and mild, and as far as the plants were concerned, they were still enjoying the last days of summer (we were swimming in the pool until mid-October, it was so unusually warm).

The takeaway is that while plants may not have intelligence, they've still evolved ways to prepare for extremes of weather. The catch is that they need environmental signals to trigger those protective, physiological changes. The trouble is that climate change fosters more extreme weather--higher highs, lower lows, and unpredictability in between. That wreaks havoc on plants that've evolved over the centuries to thrive in a particular type of climate, or been bred for high cold or heat tolerances. If low-chill peaches are breaking bud in early February because temperatures have hit 80F for the previous two weeks, a sudden freeze in March is devastating to that year's crop. This kind of wild weather has manifested occasionally in the past, but I fear it's now well on its way to becoming the new norm.

Now Playing: Hilo Hawaiians Honeymoon on Hawaii
Chicken Ranch Central

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Tiki build-along, pt. 16

The holiday break resulted in my tackling a couple tiki-related projects I'd been putting off for a while. First up was a task of necessity. We've got a dog run/kennel on the side of the house, adjacent to the pool. It was kind of hastily improvised when we moved in, and not updated since. One of our beagles, Polkadots, has become something of a Houdini, escaping from the back yard on a regular basis, and the kennel has been the only thing keeping him in check. Until recently, when he discovered how to climb over the kennel gate (which, admittedly, was pretty low). Stopgap measures proved futile, so I bit the bullet and built a 5-foot bamboo gate to (hopefully) keep him contained. I harvested and torched all the bamboo myself, which was exceptionally time-consuming. On the other hand, commercially-available bamboo fence runs upwards of $90 for an 8' roll of 6' high fence, so yeah, I guess the sweat equity was worth it.

Traditional Japanese bamboo fencing is tied onto the support structure, but that didn't look viable for this job. Instead, I laid out the bamboo and drilled pilot holes through each culm, then used tan deck screws to attach them to the gate frame, which is just a basic kit available at Lowe's, Home Depot or other lumber yard. I used scrap 2x4s coated with Flood weather sealant to complete the frame, keeping costs down.

I need to point out that while I flame-treated the bamboo, I did not have the time to age it as long as I should have. Despite storing it in my heated garage with a dehumidifier running, the bamboo isn't anywhere nearly as dried out as it should be. It's pretty heavy still, and I anticipate a good deal of shrinkage in the months to come as it sheds that water weight.

To preserve its longevity, I needed to seal up the top so it didn't absorb additional water and rot. Most sections I was able to cut close to the node, which I capped with outdoor-rated wood putty, and then sealed with spar urethane once the putty was dried and sanded. Some sections weren't cut close to the node, however, so I used a can of "Good Stuff" foam sealant to fill in the space (that stuff expands a lot!) then, after trimming away the cured excess, capped with wood putty and a coat of urethane. The result is a bamboo gate that's waterproof from the top, at least. I filled the bamboo hollows on the bottom with the foam and then added a coat of urethane, but didn't go the wood putty route. There won't be any setting water at that end, so that should be sufficient to keep out splash and insects.

Once everything was dried, I installed the gate, setting two steel posts in fast-setting concrete. Doing this necessitated removing the rusting steel garden arbor the previous owners had left behind. Did you know rusting steel garden arbors harbor massive amounts of foul-smelling black water? I didn't either, but now I do. Digging post holes of sufficient depth through my predominantly clay soil was a good deal of work. Then I moved some stone slabs around to prevent the dogs from tunneling under. The gate latch, for now, is a chain-and-hook setup, but that will change once I replace the rest of the fence. There've been two escapes since the gate went in, but both those times were the result of my poorly-attaching the existing fence to the gate posts, which I have (hopefully) since rectified. We shall see how permanent the containment is from here on out.

Next up, a project I actually began way back in the spring. In fact, you can see the basic box-frame on top of the back bar in this post. When I realized I was going to add a back bar to my tiki paradise, I knew I wanted a rum shelf as a part of it. So I built a frame using scrap plywood and a chopped up 2x4 to craft a shelf roughly 42" long and 6" deep. The outside I would clad in bamboo sections roughly 6" tall--1" taller than the shelf itself.

I'm not sure how others would attach the bamboo, but I decided to wire it. To get everything to line up, I traced a guide line along the shelf roughly 4" up, then marked each of the bamboo sections at the same height. From there, I drilled two holes in both the shelf and the bamboo sections that, if my measurements were correct, lined up more or less accurately.

Then I fished 22 gauge jewelry wire through the bamboo. This Took some trial-and-error to perfect, but eventually I settled on a system where I fed in enough wire to reach through the end of the bamboo, at which point I bent it into a hook that slipped through the second hole. Then I pulled it through with a pair of needle-nose pliers.

Simply tying it off after slipping the wires through the holes drilled in the plywood did not offer anywhere near the stability I wanted. So I cut a wooden dowel to size and tied the wires over this. That helped considerably. Thicker wire would've helped as well. I started out with 24 gauge wire, but that snapped too often as I tied it. 22 gauge worked better, but I still had some breaks. 20 gauge might've offered better strength, but was more expensive for shorter lengths. Pick your poison.

Cutting all those sections of bamboo on the band saw took a lot of time. As did the drilling and the tying. Why are all my projects so time-consuming?

Once I got all those little boogers into place, I ran Titebond II glue down along the intersection of the bamboo and plywood, to add stability. It's not going to ever be rock solid, but as long as it isn't loose, I'm good. It's not like the bamboo should be subjected to a lot of stress. Then there was the open ends of the bamboo to deal with--I didn't want dirt and insects in there, this being an outside bar, after all. If it ain't broke, don't fix it is good advice, so I fell back on the process that served me well for the gate above--Good Stuff foam to fill the gaps, then a layer of outdoor wood putty finished with a sealing coat of spar urethane. Note that I didn't coat the entire piece of bamboo--the heat treatment gave them a resinous coating that is pretty much waterproof already, and paint, stain, sealants don't adhere well, either. In a few years, it may wear off sufficiently that a urethane coating will be necessary. Until then, it's only the ends I'm worried about sealing.

Then I attached the rum shelf to the back bar using a couple of galvanized mending plates. Simple and straightforward, plus it doesn't mar the back bar surface if, for some reason, the rum shelf ever needs to be removed. Note the grooves I have routered into the shelf supports. The reason is that, as originally conceived, the actual shelf would be comprised of translucent plexiglass, with a color-changing LED light strip strung along those grooves, illuminating the bottles of liquor from below. Alas, plexiglass isn't cheap--which I learned when building my tiki mug cabinets--and the thickness I needed for the rum shelf was even less cheap than normal. Rather than delay the implementation of the rum shelf whilst I waited for sufficient expendable funds to accrue, I simply cut a section of the laminate flooring from my office--the same stuff making up the bar top--to serve as the shelf. Quick and easy on the wallet. On top of that, it matches the bar and looks darn good, even if it doesn't light up from below.

And here is the rum shelf in action, playing host to a selection of tasty rums along with assorted liqueurs and the odd interloping vodka, bourbon and cognac. Now, the final project remaining to complete my back bar is installing the sink and running water. Which will be an undertaking best left for 2018. Regardless, I'm happy with the way it's shaping up as of now.

Here's wishing you a safe and happy 2018. Happy new year!

Now Playing: London Philharmonic Orchestra Symphonic Pink Floyd
Chicken Ranch Central

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Tiki build-along, pt. 15

This is not so much a home bar build installment per se, but more of a tangential detour of the Christmas type. The Wife's favorite movie ever is "Joe vs. the Volcano," an early Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy that is ambitious, weird, funny and downright surreal at times. I don't think it quite achieves what it's going for, but I appreciate the effort, and it's The Wife's favorite movie, so who am I to argue?

If you've seen the film, you'll remember early on that Joe, working in a fluorescent green hell hole of a job, has a brightly-colored hula lamp on his desk. This is the only color in an otherwise drab, soul-numbing environment. The lamp shade rotates and plays a song, "Joe's Lullaby." The lamp doesn't exist in reality--the prop department made it up specifically for the film. That hasn't stopped fans from investing tremendous effort to craft their own. There are lengthy threads devoted to it on various online forums. Having stumbled across one last year on Tiki Central, I realized I'd have to craft one as a Christmas gift to The Wife.

Easier said than done. I learned that the hula figure was a statuette originally produced by Treasure Craft back in the 1950s. The only way to get one was to scour Ebay. Which I did. Finding them wasn't a problem. Unfortunately, finding them at a reasonable price was. I finally lucked upon a set that was mis-labled on the auction site, which cut down on the competing bidders. I won. But when the package arrived in the mail, I learned just how fleeting my victory was. Here is the male statuette:

The hula girl survived, though, which was the important thing. I started the project before I thought to document it with photos, so here's a quick recap: That problematic oak plywood that gave me so much trouble on the porthole? The scrap was perfectly-suited for this project. I cut two squares of 9" and 8", then sanded, stained and glued them together. I used my router to cut out a cavity to hold a music box, then drilled a hole through for the winding key (after carefully measuring everything). I returned to Ebay to get a Reuge music box movement. I looked in vain for one that played "Joe's Lullaby" and briefly flirted with the idea of using a digital audio recorder to capture that song and play it back, but that would've added several layers of complication to an already challenging project. In the end, I settled for a music box movement that played "Lovely Hula Hands," which I thought an apropos substitute. Then I cut, stained and glued on molding trim to finish out the base before adding plastic furniture footers for the lamp base to stand upon.

Rather than attempt to cannibalize an existing lamp, I picked up a lamp kit from Lowes that included a long, threaded central rod I cut to the length I needed. This past year, I'd been harvesting and scorching quite a bit of bamboo. One piece in particular stood out--it had a series of bulbous nodes packed closely together so that it resembled a sword grip or somesuch. In fact, my son used it as a ninja sword on more than one occasion. The piece of bamboo was too narrow to effectively use in the tiki bar, but it was the perfect size for the lamp. I cut it to length, knocked out the interior nodes then threaded the rod up through it. After that, I bolted it to the base and attached the socket. All pretty straightforward.

Next, I placed the hula girl on the base and traced along her base. Then I routered out a depression for her to sit in for increased stability. Note: Somewhere along the line I coated everything with a good application of polyurethane, but I forget exactly where. Feel free to insert that step wherever you think most likely.

The bamboo and statue wanted to overlap and occupy the same space, which wasn't acceptable. Rather than notch the statue, as I've seen others do, I opted to shave out an appropriate crescent from the bamboo using my band saw. Worked out pretty well.

The next step was a bit nervous-making. To solidly, securely attach the statue to the base, I decided to use epoxy. Once epoxy sets, it's set. It won't let go. There's a window of opportunity to get everything matched up correctly, but if you're not settled by about 6 minutes in, you're out of luck and going to have to start over, which is a pain, because there's all that hardened, resinous epoxy to clean away. I'm happy to report that things went well. The epoxy stayed where it was supposed to and didn't get all over everything or go awry. The statue was firmly anchored and not going anywhere.

Next, the lamp shade. This was, beyond a doubt, the biggest pain-in-the-ass of the whole affair. One person online reportedly tracked down the original artist who designed the lamp, and got a copy of the lampshade artwork directly from them. But when people started asking if he could share the art, said poster abruptly went silent. An online posted by the handle of Jintosh cobbled together a pretty good reproduction of the shade by using screen captures from the film and faking the rest. Unfortunately (I use that word a lot) the most common custom lampshade printing source--Zazzle--only had shades of a significantly different aspect ratio than that of the shade from the film. To make it fit, the users online simply adjusted the dimensions of Jintosh's artwork, which resulted in horizontally squashed, vertically elongated images. I have OCD that manifests in different ways, and that distorted aspect pushed all the wrong buttons for me. What I ended up doing was taking Jintosh's original, uncompressed image and slicing it apart in Photoshop, so that I could recomposite the three scenes more closely together. The distinctive ocean waves simply would not line up when I did this, so ended up replacing it with actual ocean. Ditto the sailboat and storm cloud. I rebuilt the moon and clouds and dramatically enhanced the torchlight procession up the side of the Big Wu volcano. The beach scene was the most challenging, carving out plants and sand and sunset for space without it appearing chopped up and reassembled in a haphazard manner. In the end, I think I managed a convincing job, although anyone comparing it to the original artwork might be shocked at how many liberties I took.

When the shade arrived, my heart sank. The print job was gorgeous, but the shade itself was of the uno fitting type, which is a ring that sets around a socket designed for such. Every lamp I've ever had--and the lamp kit I built my lamp out of--was of the harp-and-spider type, where the lamp shade is threaded onto the top of the harp and held in place by a filial. I'd even tracked down a decorative pineapple filial like the lamp in the movie. Needless to say, the Zazzle site did not indicate anywhere that this particular lamp shade was of the uno type, and they were very slow in responding to my emails and pretty defensive at that. To make matters worse, it appears that at one time brass uno-to-harp adapter rings were common, but haven't been produced for a long time and now are either completely unavailable or outrageously expensive. In the end, I cobbled together a makeshift adapter using a steel reducing washer as a base and a PVC pipe reducing bushing (or something similar--I didn't pay close attention when I bought it) that I ran through the bandsaw to shave it down to the proper depth. Sandwiched between the washer and bushing on top of the harp, the uno fitting stays pretty much in place. It's perfect, but I was running out of time and couldn't be picky.

To finish out the lamp shade, I used the rubbery glue "Goo" to attach a length of manila rope along the top of the lamp shade, holding it in place with plastic clamps until it dried. This was a pain, because the rope kept wanting to coil and smeared the glue around before I got everything secured. Once that dried, I repeated the process with a piece of raffia table skirting I'd cut to size. And yes, the raffia behaved just as badly as the manila rope. But I finished it in time for Christmas, which was no small feat.

The Wife, I'm happy to report, seemed suitably surprised. "No way," she said upon opening the package. "These don't exist!" At first she thought I had ordered one from someone who custom made them to order. When she found out that I'd built it myself in the garage over the previous month, she said, "But weren't you afraid of me walking in on you?" To which I answered, "You did! Over and over again. It wasn't easy to disguise what I was working on. Plus, you weren't really paying attention."

So, while this lamp is definitely tiki-esque, it's pretty doubtful that it will ever spend much time in my tiki bar.

Now Playing: Pink Floyd Ummagumma
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, December 22, 2017

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

It's December 22, so that means it must be time for the Kinks' "Father Christmas," one of the greatest, most subversive, Christmas songs ever. Enjoy!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Charlie Byrd.

Now Playing:
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Friday, December 15, 2017

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

I've long been vaguely aware of Charlie Byrd, but to be honest, he's an artist I've never paid much attention to. I just never came across his work, really. A month or so back, though, there was an estate sale near me and although they didn't have much of interest, there were quite a few old vinyl LPs dirt cheap. I picked up a few, one of which was Charlie Byrd's Bossa Nova Pelos Passaros, which I didn't get around to listening to until last night. Holy moly, but this is a mighty fine example of instrumental guitar bossa nova. I feel cooler just listening to it. "Meditacao (Meditation)" was a big hit for him back in 1962, and it holds up impressively today. Check out his finger work in the video!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... John Prine.

Now Playing: Charlie Byrd Bossa Nova Pelos Passaros
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, December 08, 2017

The Great Blizzard of '17

Growing up in central-ish Texas, a White Christmas was never in the cards for me. A white anything was never in the cards. Television and movies insisted on lying to me, and I thought our snow-free holidays merely an troubling aberration we suffered through whilst the rest of the world had snowball fights. Every year, I asked for a sled. Santa, wisely, did not deliver on that request.

Don't think Texas is all desert and heat, thought. I'm fond of saying I tolerate August here so that I may wear shorts in January (true) it does get cold here. It freezes here, although cold spells lasting more than a week are uncommon. We get ice storms. We get frost. We get sleet. But snow? Not so much. Growing up in tiny Columbus, the only real snowfall I ever experienced came around 1973, with a big front that blew in and chilled things for the better part of a week. We got around 6" on the ground, and neighbors and friends came from all around to sled down a big hill at our house in cardboard boxes. There were snowmen, snowball fights and grainy Super 8 film footage to document the occasion. I've never experienced anything like that since. Sure, around 1976 there was a modest snowfall--maybe 1"--but not enough to make more than a tiny snowman. In 1987 during the day at high school we had a wave of sleet followed by about an hour of modest snow flurries, enough for accumulations to build up on the cars in the parking lot, prompting a snowball fight during lunch. In 1995, there was a serious ice storm in Temple, but no snow. In 2003 there was a super-cold ice storm that shut I-35 down, but no snow. The next year (of the year after) a front skipped over us and dropped a lot of snow on the coast, so the next day we took the kids to Cuero to visit my grandmother and play in the pockets of snow that survived in the shadows of buildings.

Last night, defying predictions, we experienced an honest-to-goodness snowfall. The Wife and girls had gone to Wassailfest in New Braunfels. I stayed home trying to cover my banana plants to protect them from the rapidly falling temperatures. During all this, big, puffy white flakes began falling. I called Bug out. He went nuts with excitement. To make a long story short, the snow came down so fast and so thick that it stuck. It couldn't melt fast enough. Bug made a snowman so large that he needed help lifting the pieces atop one another. Then he made a snow cat so the snowman could have a pet. He did a pretty good job, considering he started with zero experience. Not too many snowmen I've ever seen use chunks of palm tree bark for buttons and sections of bamboo for arms and nose. He challenged me to a snowball fight, then decided snowball fights weren't his thing when he learned how fast his dad could make and throw snowballs.

This morning, reality had retaken control. The roads and driveways and sidewalks and other impervious surfaces had all melted clear. The snow on the ground and in the trees had compacted and turned icy. It still looked impressive, for the most part, but wasn't much fun anymore. Still, there's something about snow on palm trees that just demands to be photographed.

Upon arriving at work this morning, I saw that the Texas State students had just as much fun on campus as we'd had at home. Snowmen--or at least their remains--abounded, as did evidence of snowball fights. And I encountered my first-ever snow angel in the wild. All in all, it was a fun 24 hours.

And despite two C9 light strands shorting out on me, I did manage to get all the banana plants wrapped and protected. So that's a win as well.

Now Playing: Antônio Carlos Jobim Wave
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