Thursday, November 6, 2014

For The Love Of Dogs

I'm a dog lover.
When I say that, I don't mean that I have some teen girl relationship with dogs w
here I feel the need to collect them like porcelain dolls. I don't have a sweate
r with my dogs likeness lovingly stitched into it. I don't have a coffee cup with a witty quip about dogs. I don't even own anything that would indicate I have a dog other than the necessities of dog ownership, e.g., bowl, leash, brush, dog food storage bin.
What I mean by saying I'm a dog lover is that I think there is something in the relationship with a dog that can bring on a symbiosis of spirit. There is a raw connection with the animal that goes beyond words. We have co-evolved to have, use and love dogs as part of our family. When our rudimentary ancestors needed to survive cold winters and hunt game beyond the limits of their tools they turned to their dogs and vise verse the dogs looked to us for their provision. Even today looking into our primate relatives this connection lives on. This video shows baboons capturing feral dog puppies and raising them as part of their family to protect their group in African trash heaps. They lovingly groom them as part of their bond as one of the family.

I've had dogs my entire life. I love nothing more than taking my relationship with my dogs to a level where neither of us is ever in doubt as to what is needed from each other. We both enjoy doing things together and we feel no stress over being apart. It's not just me wanting to be confident in my dog I want him to be confident in with me. If you knew the dog I have now then you would know how enjoyable a perfectly behaved and loving dog can be. He is envied by just about everyone. Not just because of his calm demeanor or the fact that he almost never shows signs of stress or distrust, but also because he is big, fluffy and loveable. He treats everyone with the same affection as he shows me.

Can I take credit for all that my dog is? of course not! We are a partnership, I have a responsibility to be a good companion in equal measure to his. Dogs should not be chosen based on how cute you think they are alone. They should not be bred to have a certain look to them. Breeds that are nothing more than an intriguing experiment into humans abilities to push genetics to their limit, in my opinion, represent a complete failure in the humans role regarding the relationship with dogs.  I have a particular lifestyle and my dog should reflects that. Breeds should be chosen based on their ability to fit in and adapt to the lifestyle of my family not because I think they are the cutest. I recently watched a TED talk and what struck me first is that most of the dogs that have this "Separation Anxiety" are from breeds originally developed to be livestock guardian dogs. It is in their soul to protect their flock an
d in the absence of livestock you become their surrogate. You leaving for work means they have failed in being able to protect you and they are driven to compulsion by their genetics. I feel it's unfair to have these breeds outside of their breeding.

We once owned a very neurotic Weimaraner who I never really related to and wasn't able to train. In retrospect I can see that there was no real failing on his part, I can firmly put any failings in our relationship on myself. He was bred to be a hunting dog, specifically water foul and I, not being a hunter, didn't relate to his compulsion. When we took him to ponds I would at first laugh, then get annoyed and then get angry that all he wanted to do was swim and chase ducks and geese. At the time I don't think I understood the connection there since I wasn't very familiar with the breed. In retrospect I should have altered my life to include his instincts instead of avoiding ponds so I didn't have to deal with him not wanting to get out when I was ready. In his mind this might be his only chance at being truly happy and he would do anything to stay as long as possible. His world was dominated by a life he didn't fit into and people who didn't understand him. I'm sure there is a very deep allegory here to parents who have disabled children but I don't think I'm qualified to make it. Maybe someone else could comment on it.

Like most things in our modern world that make me crazy is I think we spend too much time forcing things to exist out of the environment they need to thrive. We do it with our livestock, we do it with our pets and we certainly do it with ourselves. In this case I would encourage everyone to pick breeds or mixes of breeds that fit our lifestyle and if we end up with a breed that isn't a great fit trying our hardest to accommodate them. I encourage this because when the relationship is right, it's one of the most rewarding experiences a human can have. There might be a few :"bad" dogs, but there are many more bad owners, MANY MORE, and more bad situations. Let's do our best to address all the issues, not just one.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How I'm So Damned Productive

This could prove to be an epic blog post so if it's a TLDR I understand, but if you've ever wondered what tools other people use to keep organized then this is the post for you!

This post is about all the tools I use to crush tons of data and keep productive without losing my mind.

Tool #1 - Google Calendar:

Everyone needs a calendar and I've been using Google's offering since it's beta. There are a number of reasons I've stuck with it over the years.
  1. Shared calendar's: I share my calendar with my wife and daughter, and they share theirs with me. Since we all use Android phones it makes it much easier to keep everyone in sync with such busy schedules.
  2. "Interesting Calendars": There are curated calendars that can be added allowing me to automatically keep up with holidays and sports teams. I love this feature and I never miss a Bronco game as a result.
  3. Inviting People to Events: I've used this for years to organize podcast schedules to make sure everyone is there to podcast at the right time.
  4. Integration with Other Google Services: I love "Google Now" and if it's in my Google Calendar it's in Google Now giving me reminders and if I've included and address it let's me pull up one handed navigation. Also, when adding addresses it integrates with Google Maps make setting appointments up to specific places much easier. The other handy integration is with contacts, if the contact has a birthday entry it shows up on the calendar.
  5. Like any other cloud service, being able to edit my calendar on any device I have in my hot little hands means I actually use it and keep it up to date.
Tips for getting the most out of a calendar:
  1.  Calendars aren't just for future events. Put important events on the calendar after they've happened so you can find it later with a simple search.
  2. Put reminders to do maintenance type items so you get a simple reminder to winterize the lawn mower, clean out the gutters, change the oil in your car, etc. This saves a lot of headache and is a simple way to make sure you do your less regular chores.
  3. Want to eat out less? Make a weekly meals calendar so you can keep track of what meals you planned for what day and you have a record of previous meals you've eaten to keep everyone from getting bored. With multiple people cooking in the house with crazy schedules this helps make sure everyone is eating healthy inexpensive meals instead of fast food on busy nights.

Tool #2 - Google Keep:

This is the most recent addition to my organizational repertoire and I've been making full use of it. It's basically Google's answer to Evernote, something I've never personally used. If some of these other tools are howitzers this tool is more of a scalpel. I use it as a staging area for things that need to be filed into other tools. It's main usefulness is for quick notes, check lists and lists like virtual sticky notes. Also, since it's a Google product it's synced with all my devices all the time helping make better use of my other organizational tools. I mostly use it like you would a note pad to jot quick notes down. Don't overuse it for detailed info or it gets overwhelming quick.

Tips of getting the most out of Keep:
  1. Great for meeting notes to jot down things you need to follow up on.
  2. You can set reminders on the desktop that will pop up on your phone or tablet.
  3. It's great for check lists.
  4. Archive done items so you can search them later but they don't show up in the main view.
  5. You can attach pictures to things to help remind you of what it is you need.

Tool #3 - and Greader:

I do tons of research from a large variety of web sources and keeping track of everything requires a powerful tool.....RSS. I was in the private beta on Google Reader and was heart broken when it closed down. offered importing of the OML file from Google Reader and it strived to emulate the original Google Reader interface. It looked a little touch and go for a while whether it was going to stick around but it seems to have stabilized and now offers premium memberships, $3 a month that I happily pay, that ensure it's long term success.

What is an RSS reader? It's a place that checks for updates to some of your favorite sites on the net and puts them all into one nice interface. Blogs, podcasts (although I use another tool for those), Craigslist searches, the list goes on and on and you can keep up to date on things by just adding the RSS feed URL into the Reader client and read it, archive it, tag it and share it all at your leisure, it's what the web promised to be. There seems to be waning interest in RSS but I assure you, if you invest a very small amount of time into it, it's a very rewarding experience. I won't provide a step by step guide to RSS but you can Google it and find plenty of great info on how to make use of it.

Also, TOR includes integration with another of my favorite tools "Pocket", see below. That makes it easier to save things you are going to want later.

Greader is the Android client that I use to actually read on. It is a pretty nice way to read my favorite sites all in a nice dark theme that lets me read after dark without making the wife too angry at me.

Tips for getting the most out of Theoldreader:
  1. If you visit a site more than once a year, find it's RSS feed and get it into the RSS Reader.
  2. Follow news sites, but use the "Mark Items Older Than a Week" or the "Older than a Day" tools to keep from getting overwhelmed by old news.
  3. Find funny things to follow to give you a relief from the stress of being so darn organized.
  4. In Greader use the Text to Speach(TTS) to turn long articles into books on tape.
  5. Learn to let old items go, if you haven't got to them in a month or two, mark it as read, move on and breath easier.

Tool #4 - Pocket(formerly Read It Later):

I've been a heavy user of bookmarks over the years and they fall short in a number of ways. The biggest is that they are managed in the old folder structure paradigm and that creates a problem for finding things that may have made sense to live in multiple locations. Also, links break over time and the data is lost with just a bookmark, unless of course you can find it on Pocket bests bookmarks for single web items. First it compliments TOR/Greader for sites you don't want all their stuff just a specific article but would like a nice easy to read layout with a dark theme. It has a nice browser plugin that gives a single place to click to add it to pocket for later consumption. It also includes a TTS engine for making long articles digestible on the go. Pocket has it's own Android App that is very robust and easy to use.

Tips for getting the most out of Pocket:
  1. Archive articles when you are done reading them.
  2. Use TTS on long articles.
  3. Use tags to sort items and make them easier to find later.
  4. Again, use a dark theme to keep the wife happy with late night reading.
  5. Consider Pocket premium, a bit pricey but worth it if you are crushing large amounts of research, for a permanent archive of important info and sources.

Tool #5 - Gmail:

 O.K., this isn't an organizational tool by itself, in fact I'd bet your inbox is a nightmare, but using some advanced tools inside Gmail it can be a way of keeping organized. I won't go into a ton of detail on these, you can Google if any catch your eye, but I'll list my tips for crushing the deluge of Email.

Tips for getting the most out of Gmail:
  1. Make heavy use of labels, they are a powerful tool.
  2. Use the "Filter Messages Like This" feature to automatically put labels on e-mails from sources.
  3. Archive things that have labels on them.
  4. Delete advertisements older than a day.
  5. Turn on all the "Tabs" in "Configure Inbox" and drag items in the wrong folder to the right one to teach Google where they go. This will help you divide an conquer e-mail.
  6. Turn on two factor authentication to make your email safer. Remember almost all your passwords can be reset with access to your email account. Keep it safe people!

Tool #6 -  BeyondPod:

 If you aren't listening to Podcasts then you are seriously missing out. Podcasts are to talk radio what .MP3s where to music. There is a podcast out there to meet any taste and more likely 1000s for every taste. I listen to massive amounts of podcasts, in fact I listen to them at 3x speed. Why? it helps me get through the huge amount of great shows I want to listen to. How? Beyondpod. It's a fantastic app and worth paying the nominal fee for the pro version. I've used it for years now, everyday, all day, and I can honestly say it's my favorite app.

Tips for getting the most out of Beyondpod:

  1. Organize your podcast from the start, the better organized the easier to find what you want.
  2. Setup an update schedule to download new Podcasts when on wifi at home. This saves your data and keeps you stocked up. I set mine to download while I sleep.
  3. Lock episodes you want to re-listen to so they don't get deleted.
  4. Crank up the speed to get more listening in, seriously there is so much great content out there.
  5. Have video Podcasts you don't really need to watch to enjoy? Use the "Play Video as Audio" feature to just listen to the audio track.
  6. Use a bluetooth headset so you can pause it on the headset instead of digging in a pocket for your phone. Also great for activities like running and riding a bike so your device can stay in a nice safe place instead of in your hand.
  7. Make your fist subscription my Podcast Alpha Geeks!

Tool #7 - Keypass:

There are scores of reasons to use a password keeper not least of which is security, but it also helps you be more productive. Instead of reusing insecure passwords that put you at risk of losing data, time and money, let the password keeper do the work so you don't have to. It will create a safe and secure password and store it with top notch encrypted security. Stop forgetting what crappy half effort password you used on a site by storing it somewhere safe and sound. It's very handy for seldom used but important accounts. Stop putting yourself at risk and wasting time resetting accounts because you can't remember a password that was insecure in the first place. Also, this is a free and open source tool!

Tips for getting the most out of Keypass:

  1. Use the Android App to keep your passwords with you everywhere you go.
  2. Use one great password to secure you database and let it be the only tough one you have to remember.
  3. Sync it with Dropbox (see below) to always have an up to date database.
  4. Don't be tempted to skip using it and throwing a crappy password at it, the more you use it the less of a pain it is, the safer you data is.
  5. Store credit card info in the database so you have the numbers in case your card gets stolen.
  6. Save you bike lock and combo locks in it so you don't forget it when you are taking a break from the gym.
  7. Save your code to a security system with instructions in the notes so the three or four times a year you go into work when no else is there you don't look like an idiot or a thief.

Tool #8 - Dropbox:

Stop messing around with thumb drives to get data around. Stop losing family photos when you lose your phone. Stop sending massive attachments in your emails. Using Dropbox will save you from worrying about computer crashes because all your data is synced to the cloud. Just remember to not sync sensitive data to it unless you've used trust no one encryption.

Tips for getting the most out of Dropbox:
  1. Set up accounts for everyone in the family so documents can be shared around. It helps with the older kids homework or if you, like me, only use the printer at work because your kids burn through ink like we used to go through crayons.
  2. Use selective sync to only sync certain folders to certain devices. I only sync my school folders to my school computer.
  3. Use the public folder to host simple static webpages and media for things like lessons plans for classes you teach.
  4. Turn on the automatic photo backup so you never lose those important family memories. Your kids will thank you when they are older.

Tool #9 - Pinterest:

This is my newest tool and I almost hate to say how handy it is. I find lots of interesting things to try and articles to read and it's pretty damn easy to organize it all for later consumption, plus the social part of it is well designed. It's also the easiest tool to share cool things with other people you know even if it's on another social media site. It's to stuff what facebook is to people.

Tips for getting the most out of Pinterest:
  1. It has the ability to pin things to different boards for a reason, use them.
  2. There are tons of keywords that aggregate pretty much anything you could be interested in use them to find cool things that fit your interest.
  3. Recipes might be one of the strongest features. You could learn to cook with just recipes on here. Pin the recipes to boards like, "Things to Cook" and after you've made them move them to "Things I loved" or delete them if you didn't like them. This makes the weekly groceries easier.

Tool #10 - Amazon Wishlists:

I know it sounds strange but if you are like me, don't use credit cards at all, you need to only buy things when funds are available and sometimes its hard to keep track of everything you've heard about and though you wanted to buy at some point. I stick to a strict weekly budget and this helps me find the things I want at a later time, even if I don't buy it on Amazon.

Tips for getting the most out of Amazon Wishlists:
  1. Make different lists for different interests and use them.
  2. Use it as a reading list for books you come across. I'd go broke if I just bought every book I want to read but if they are on my book wishlist I can find them later.
  3. Share the list with friends or family so you can actually get relevant Birthday and Christmas gifts.

Tool #11 - Bookmarks:

I used to use this as my main way of keeping track of things on the internet but as better tools have come along I try to stay away from them if I can, but they still have their place.

Tips for getting the most out of Bookmarks:
  1. Use Google Chrome's or Firefox's sync features to keep them up to date on all your devices and at your fingertips when you need them.
  2. Make heavy use of folders and nested folders.
  3. Do an annual purge, I use this as a staging area for other tools sometimes when I don't have a better place to put things but if I don't purge it gets overwhelming quick.

Tool #12 - Orgmode and Emacs:

This is my last but most useful tool for keeping organized. It's also has the steepest learning curve. It's not intuitive at all and requires some honest investment in learning to be useful. Once you get over the hump with it though it's staggering how powerful a tool it is. It's basically a text editor(emacs) with some tools for organizing things (Orgmode) but that doesn't really do it justice. It has time tracking, todo lists, agendas, calendars, tags, you can do in line spread sheets including calculations. Also, moving things around as things get more complicated is where I fell in love with it. At the start of projects things make sense in one order but as things progress things need shuffled around and the rigidity of other solutions mean that upkeep with the data is more work than it is useful. With Orgmode however, you can move things up and down, tuck them in sub-trees, ad data to them, sort them, mark them done, hide them and crush large amounts of data.

Tips for getting the most out of Orgmode:
  1.  Use Orgmode as the final destination for research so everything is available when you need it.
  2. Track your time on specific tasks to cover your butt or get paid for out of scope work.
  3. Keep record of the time and date of things like emails so you can back things up when needed. 
  4. Keep track of verbal agreements so you can follow them up with emails for backup if things get hairy.
  5. Put notes on projects you are researching, make lists of materials, make todo lists of each step and execute the hell out of things.
  6. Store data on things that give you that competitive edge.
  7. Export notes to html, put them in your Dropbox and share the link with your team to keep everyone's productivity high. I use this a lot and to Great Effect. I even do this with my school assignments for my students.
  8. Learn the markdown language so you can include images in the HTML export.

To wrap things up, productivity tools only work if you use them, and most of the time it just takes practice to actually make use of them. Don't use tools you see zero benefit in off the bat but invest the time to learn them if it can help. Each tool is a stepping stone to getting more done and being less stressed. Trust me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Spoons! A Love Affair with Wood.

I've loved wood since I was a child. I got my first pocket knife when I was 7 and for the following years I spent a lot of time carving wood. There is a zen in it for me. It's an interesting combination of the freedom of thought and intense focus that draws me in. I love the smell of wood, I love the texture of wood, I love the feel of wood in my hands.

Spoon at the
end of the class
Since I was very young I've loved watching "The Woodright's Shop" with Roy Underhill on PBS. It's the longest running PBS show and is all about traditional woodworking, the kind of thing that is 100% devoid of electrically powered tools. There is a romanticism in traditional woodworking. You can see in the traditional tools the evolution of man's relationship with it's environment. The burst of activity in the Industrial Revolution changed the landscape of our relationship with the forests. In many ways we turned our back on them. We tore forests down to make room for other enterprises and insulated ourselves from that connection with our ecosystem even further.

Finished Spoon
 from the class
Like many things in life, the struggle of a young family and developing a paying career led me to put aside my love affair with wood and focus on keeping a roof over my head and food on my table. Now, however, good fortune has allowed me to dip my toe back into the waters.

My Second Spoon
There is a very talented woodworker and teacher who has been featured on a number of episodes of the "The Woodright's Shop" named Peter Follansbee who did an episode on traditional Swedish spoon carving and I was very intrigued by them. I started following Mr. Follansbee's blog and keeping an eye on his spoon work. It seemed a cheap and easy way to get back into woodworking without too much expense. I didn't take the plunge till I saw a meetup posted on the Greater Denver Urban Homesteaders page about a spoon carving class taught by Drover through the Sarquit Outdoor Living School. The class was fun and gave me the bug to give it a try. Drover was a great guy to learn from and very enthusiastic in his work. When I got home, I decided to order a hook knife for carving the bowl of the spoon and finished the knife. The bug for carving is strong for me so I ordered two more knives a short bladed and a long bladed strait knife. I also grabbed a cheap hatchet for doing rough out and splitting chores.

The Third Spoon
I needed wood for more spoons and when driving by a nearby location I saw what I though was an apple tree, saw a brush pile of wind fallen branches and hiked up with my middle daughter holding a hand saw to see if I could get some good carving wood. Turns out it was a pear tree and we had fun picking some fruit and collecting some branches.

The first spoon that came out of the wood ended up a little more utilitarian looking than I'd hoped but I really enjoyed how easy green pear is to work with. I timed my first 3 spoons to see how long it took to completer using an android app, like a true geek and found it takes around 4 hours to produce one.
Baby Spoon Traded
 for More Wood

My next spoon still didn't turn out to be what I wanted but it was better than the first. With this spoon I really started figuring out more of the techniques and rebuilding the muscle memory for carving. By the third spoon I'd gotten most of the technique down and was really starting to enjoy the art of it all.

The "Haul" and
 My Handsome Nephew
After finishing the third spoon I had a mishap with the hatchet splitting out the blank for the fourth and did some pretty decent damage to my left hand, in fact I couldn't close my thumb across my hand for almost 2 weeks afterwards. By this time I was pretty much out of wood to work with and needed to source some more. I put out a call on social media but didn't turn up anything. So a quick Google search turned up the nearest tree trimmer to my house and I sent as concise and polite an e-mail as I could. Sure enough a few days later I got a response saying he'd trade all the wood I could handle for a spoon for his soon to be born first granddaughter. I set to work with some of the last of the pear wood making my first baby spoon. After marking it out and showing it to my wife, the expert in all things baby, she suggested some changes to the size and shape of the bowl and I went ahead with carving it out. I think it turned out fantastic, in fact maybe the best thing I've ever carved. After a few phone converstions setting up a meet time we got together at a time I could bring my nephew along. He was a great help loading up all the wood and when we got it all back home we both worked on some spoons.

I'm having a great time carving and I think cute baby spoons might be my current muse for carving. I can't wait to crank out a few more to give to new or soon to be parents in my life.
My Latest Spoon

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sour Dough

I've tried baking sour dough before and it wasn't very successful. Without a doubt it came down to not know how to build a good starter. Recently I started listening to the Stella Culinary School Podcast and following his instructions to make sour dough bread.
All I can say is that:
My first loaf
  1. Sour Dough requires more knowledge than most cooking techniques and can't just be done with a recipe.
  2. Once you understand some of the science it isn't all that hard though.
  3. It is super rewarding to make home made sour dough from local wild yeast.

With an Egg Wash

Small business.

Saw this coffee van at my daughter's cross country meet and loved the black board doors.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The 500 Year Farm Manifesto Part 5

Human created climate change is a reality and we are all ready facing the consequences of it. I'm not going to lay down the arguments for it's voracity. I accept this reality even if dear reader doesn't. I feel we have postponed action to reduce carbon emissions in the hopes that some magic technological bullet would be developed to keep us from having to face the reality of using dead dinosaurs to make our modern lives possible.

The modern food systems uses carbon from oil to operate the machines that plow the ground, plant the seeds, harvest, process and ship it to your super market. More carbon is used in the store and by the consumer to purchase and transport it home. Oil derived chemical fertilizers are sprayed on the crops and machinery uses more to spray chemical pesticides and herbicides on the crops. The list seems almost never ending. All to deliver food of dubious quality.

The local food movement is a good start to helping short cut many of the steps involved. By eating local and in-season people are drastically reducing the amount of carbon required to deliver food to their plate. The goal of the 500 Year Farm is to directly market it's food to local consumers and restaurants and to provide nursery stock of locally adapted species of plants and animals to urban homesteaders. This not only reduces carbon usage but insures a more stable and resilient food economy.

Reduction isn't the solution to all the carbon problems, we've gone too far down the road for that. We now need to put carbon back into the ground in order reverse the effects of modern society on the earth. Using the ground breaking work of Alan Savory and his development of holistic pasture management techniques, 500 Year Farm will put more carbon into the ground, doing it's part in preventing and reversing man made desertification, helping restore the lungs of the planet.

Also, taking advantage of technologies that use resources efficiently, like rocket mass heaters, and low carbon building techniques will be employed to ensure the farms long term resiliency.      


I've had a number of friends that have made home brewed beer, everything from one small batch to try it out, to people who brew all the beer they drink and have for years. It's something that I've wanted to try personally for a really long time. For one, it involves science and cooking, two things I've all ready incorporated into my life in many ways. Another reason it interests me is that it uses agricultural products that are possible to grow in my area to make a value added product and that is always something that can help a small farm stay profitable. Even if I don't brew for sale on the farm, partnering with local breweries to make special brews would even be a good idea and with all things the best producers are those that understand the process and appreciate and strive for a quality end product.

Recently a fellow Ingress player helped push me over the edge into trying it out and this post is about my first attempt, and success, at brewing beer.

I started out, at the urging of the aforementioned Ingress player, talking to the guys at Beer@home, a local brewing supply store that is a very short walk away from my work. They were very friendly and helpful. I was very impressed by their knowledge and selection. They had a few different options for brewing gear kits and went over each pro and con without showing signs of getting weary of my endless questions. So I picked the package I wanted and, having some overtime dollars, bought it. The only thing not included in the package was the brew kettle as there are different sizes, I wanted one big enough to do an entire 5 gallon batch so I also bought that.

The kit came with a copy of the book "How to Brew" by John J Palmer. The book is concise and informative and you don't have to read the entire thing to make your first batch. It has a primer section that has just enough info to get your head around the process. If you want to get super in depth on all the techniques and science of brewing it's in there too as well as trouble shooting and other reference materials.

The kit also included a choice of beer kits that include just about everything that is needed to make your first batch. The store had a large selection and after talking with the staff about the types of beer I like to drink I ended up selecting their "Foreman" kit. It's a brown English style brown ale.

I picked a Sunday, the day I keep free for my "projects" or whatever else I want to do, to brew my beer. After getting out all the equipment out and reading the recipe I realized there are two other items that were not included in the kit that I needed. The first was a thermometer and they did mention to me that I would need one but I forgot to grab it the day I bought everything. The second was a muslin bag for the steeping grains. I think this is an over-site of their kits to not include it with them. They also never mentioned it would be needed. After all, this was a partial grain kit so I don't know how you would make it without it. So I drove back down to the store, thankfully open on Sundays, and grabbed the missing items.

The directions where clear for the kit without being overly wordy or intimidating. To start, I boiled 1 gallon of water, per the instructions, put the grains in the steeping bag and added them to the boiling water that was then turned down to a low simmer. The only issue I had was the bag wanting to stick to the bottom of the pan, an issue likely brought about by the sugars wanting to caramelize. In hind sight I should have added enough water to submerge the grains while still holding off the bottom by suspending the bag off bakers twine.

After steeping the grains, I added the full volume of water recommended and brought it up to a nice rolling boil. Because of the volume of water it took close to an hour on the stove top for this to happen. I've seen people use turkey fryers to heat the pot and I suspect that would greatly reduce the time but also increases the all ready expensive costs of equipment. I see the stove top as livable but recommend you allow for this time in your day.

Once boiling, you start with your hop additions at the given intervals. This beer had four different types of hops added at four different times. I use the Ovo timer app on my android phone to time out the intervals. Just after the last hop addition, I added the malt extract that provides most of the ferment-able sugars for the beer. At this point it is called Wort and needs to be cooled as soon as possible to yeast pitching temperature.

Some people use an immersion chiller, a coil of copper tube, to run tap water through and cool the Wort. This was an added expense to an all ready expensive hobby and I opted for the alternative of an ice bath. I filled glass food storage containers with water and froze them to make large blocks of ice. I filled the bath tub with cold water, enough to go within 5 or so inches of the top of the kettle, and added the ice and set the brew kettle in the tub. Then I left it alone till the temp was under 80 degrees. This likely took longer than is ideal, almost an hour, and makes a firm argument as to why an immersion chiller is a good idea.

From this point on anything that comes into contact with the beer needs to be sanitized. The kit includes a product called Starsan that you mix with water to make an acid basted sanitizing solution. In the picture you can see the bucket filled with the sanitizer and all the equipment for siphoning the wort into the fermenter. I drained the the sanitizer from the bucket into the glass carboy, fermenter, and sanitized it. then I drained the sanitizer and siphoned the wort out of the brew kettle into the fermenter. After that I pitched the yeast and set the carboy in the basement to start the fermentation process.
After 24 hours I wasn't seeing much action in the fermenter and was worried I'd messed something up. The worry was for not however, because 24 hours after the the yeast erupted with activity and beer bubbled up into action and was left to sit in quiet, dark silence for two weeks. At this point I'd invested not only quite a bit of money, but quite a bit of time in the process and it was hard not to roll over in my head all the things I wasn't 100% sure I did right. We had a long cold snap that kept the fermentation temperature low, around 59 degrees, most the time. A little online research came back with the same answers time after time. A line from the book that came with the kit, "Relax, don't worry and have a homebrew". So I left it alone.

So, at this point the sugars have been converted into alcohol and it's time to put it in the bottle. A process that is pretty strait forward, sterialize everything again, put it in the bottling bucket, stir in some corn sugar and use the racking cane, a plastic tube with a push valve on the end of it, to fill up sanitized bottle with beer. Then cap it. The added sugar gives the yeast a boost to let it make CO2 and carbonate the beer. It takes about two weeks for this to happen after which the beer is ready to drink.

So...........what are the results?!

AMAZING, it's really good beer. It has a very nice head, a smooth drink with a firmly bitter finish. The bitterness isn't long lasting and is very refreshing. It has a solid mouth feel and honestly I couldn't have asked for a better first beer.

 I can't wait to try my next one! If you've been thinking about trying it and can afford the equipment required, I say go for it. I had a blast doing it and couldn't be more pleased with the results.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The 500 Year Farm Manifesto Part 4

Time to address ethics and how they apply to my philosophy of food production.
Ethics can be a strange beast to cover, especially as they apply to food and food production. Some think ethics are subjective, others think they are part of greater belief systems up to and including formalized beliefs in the form of an organized religion. I want, dear reader, to be assured, that my view of food ethics lay much more in scientific understanding than in a higher power. My own personal ethics stem from how I perceive life and the world around me through the lens of scientific reasoning.
The most ethical food systems, at least in my opinion, are the ones that originated out of our evolutionary history. We didn't appear on the earth out of no where. We are not, as some believe, aliens to this world, who's lot is to throw natural systems into chaos and destruction. We evolved as a part of an ecosystem. We, at least at some point in our history, where as important to a natural ecosystems survival as the grasslands and savannas we evolved out of. Where we went astray, as I see it, was when we stopped participating in the ecosystem and started dominating it with technology. Now, I'm certainly not saying that we need to go back to living in small villages in the subtropical regions of the world, far from it in fact What I'm saying is that we can use our scientific understanding of ecology and biology to create constructed ecosystems that feed humans in as close to balance with nature as possible.
So, if we are to start constructing an ecosystem around humans, we first must identify our role in it. Looking at the conclusions drawn by anthropology and paleontology we see that humans have likely been omnivorous for around 3.5 million years. This means that humans have evolved over that time to eat both plants, mostly succulents and fruits, as well as meat. I have heard some argue that humans began eating meat around the same time we discovered how to create and manage fire for cooking the meat. However, there is no current evidence of this speculation. As far a science is concerned, there is nothing to prove we cooked our meat until around 800,000 years ago. Our eating of meat seems rather to coincide with our use of tools, namely flinted stone knives. To me, this makes our role in our ecosystem as an omnivorous alpha predator and that as far as science is concerned it is part of our evolutionary history, and there for ethical, to eat meat. What I would call the line between ethically eating meat and unethically eating meat is by judging if the animals being preyed upon are living a life cycle that is at least as humane as their natural, wild one would be or, more ideally, better.
Now ecosystems rarely have one predator in them, but rather a few that compete for resources and occasionally prey on each other. Where I would put non scientifically based ethics into my constructed ecosystem would be to say that one rule is that, no humans should die or come to harm in any way from it. That is of course unnatural to evolutionary history but one I don't find much objection to from pretty much anyone. One way we can simulate a more balanced ecosystem, however, is by using domesticated predators, the most common of whom we likely convolved in a symbiotic relationship with, e.g. the domesticated dog. I also see a valuable role for the domesticated cat in this ecosystem. The dogs role is to provide protection for this protected ecosystem from outside predator pressure who's role belongs in a totally natural environment and not this constructed one. The cats role is to prey on non-predatory animals who humans would not themselves view as food. Together these predators round out the closest approximations we can make for a full compliment of predatory animals.
If we are to have prey for our predators, or for the sake of lessening confusion, livestock, we need to also provide, through as natural a means as possible, the sources for their diet as well. An ethical ecosystem as I see it can not rely on inputs from outside sources indefinably otherwise we can never achieve a balance that allows the ecosystem to survive during our hypothetical goal of 500 years.
We do have to make some concessions in order to achieve our goal, there are compromises to be made in order to be realistic but the fewer compromises we make the more resilient and less vulnerable this constructed ecosystems is as a whole.
To summarize this writing, ethical food is one that exists in some sort of balance with it's ecosystem and barring catastrophic outside forces will survive indefinitely.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The 500 Year Farm Manifesto Part 2

In this post I intend to cover the selfish reasons for wanting a farm.
The first and foremost, I want to do something where I can be in complete control of what is going on. I loved that about gardening as a child. I used to take care of most of my parents large suburban yard that included many fruit trees as well as rose gardens and a small vegetable garden. I also did some work with a friend of the family that had goats. I loved the sense of accomplishment and rewarded for hard work.
When I started as a pipefitter I loved he feeling of reward I got from accomplishing something with my two hands and hard work. As my career has progressed I got farther away from that and the sense of accomplishment. As I've grown older I've wanted to do something more for myself, a "be my own boss" sort of thing. I've always though at some point I'd become an entrepreneur and I've looked int o many paths for this. I've always come back to wanting to do the more basic things I love. I love working hard and the feeling of accomplishment just about as much as I like the reward of growing and raising my own food. So, I do view the farm as a selfish act. If we are to dream, why shouldn't we be selfish? After all, happiness is a choice and we can choose to do the things that make us happy.
I wouldn't change anything related to my life up to now, it has giving me loads of useful skill I wouldn't have gotten otherwise and it fed my family. I'm always pushing to learn how to do more and to challenge and refine my world view. I appreciate the people I've met, worked with and learned from very much. I don't think 18 year old me, given all the necessary resources, could have handled all the things required to make a farm successful. I needed to be pushed to learn the things I did in the way I did. What I hope more than anything is that use what I've learned to achieve my ultimate dreams. Namely building 500 Year Farm.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The 500 Year Farm Manifesto Part 3

Now it's time to address the second issue I brought up in the first post. A lack of access to healthy foods.
Now I wouldn't say that I live in a food desert, in fact, in many respects I'm quite lucky. We have access to the cheap stuff, the better stuff and the good stuff, also we do have a local farmers market. What I've found so unsatisfying with the food supply is that I don't know how the food is produced. Sure, you can put an "Organic" sticker on something and I at least know something about the food. I still have questions, I still have concerns and while this sticker might be enough for some people, for me it more than falls short. I don't agree that organic is the bar our food should work towards, at best for me it's more of a "better than nothing" proposition. There is a miss-association of the word sustainable and organic. There is nothing about organic food that makes it sustainable in any way. It is better than corporate chemical agriculture, but let's be honest that isn't saying much. Our local farmers market doesn't have anything that bares the "Organic" monicker and when asked they simply say no and aren't real interested in talking about their farming practices.
Our first world society has lost touch with producers of food. There isn't an actual free market in food and that is because we lack choice. The corporate take over of the food supply chain has been so effective and complete that it effectively created a single way of doing things and left consumers with no other options. There isn't pressure with regards to food production to allow consumers to make reasonable decisions on what they eat. I have one non organic farmers market with one producer selling vegetables. My only other options are the same sources that are everywhere. Yes there are a few CSA programs that can deliver near me, but you have to pick up on their schedule, the prices are fixed no matter what is in season, you don't get any choice, they don't provide food year round and are easily 4 times more expensive than even the most expensive organic brands. Even if those where not these issues, a CSA doesn't mean that I can feel any better about how the food was grown because I don't have enough competing choices to pick the one that best align with my values when it comes to food. Not to mention, so far, I'm only talking about vegetables. I think I'll save protein production for the post about ethically produced food.
The only solution to this for me is, instead of complaining about the lack of choice, create it. I'd rather be a producer than a whiner. I'm really trying to live my ethics and be the change I want to see in the world and while I'm not there yet, I'm working every day towards making it a reality.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The 500 Year Farm Manifesto Part 1

I think when I say to most people that I want to have a farm, their eyes glaze and they think of corn farmers and assume I'm simply out of my mind. If I explain something about holistic pasture management, they assume I really meant I was going to be a cattle rancher, or a pig farmer, or a sheep herder or what ever animal I've used to illustrate a point. If I happen to talk about food forestry, they assume I'm going to run an orchard. The issue is that I've never given a complete vision of what it means to me to have a farm.

I hope to complete a series of blog posts that address this issue for those that are interested, and I will call this 'The 500 Year Farm Manifesto'.

This, the first post in the series, will be about the problems that I see and wish to solve with my farm.

The first problem I have is that, while I do enjoy my career in the piping industry, I don't see it as ultimately fulfilling. I've always dreamed of self sufficiency; I've always loved nature and I've always had a very close relationship with animals. All things that are not completely fulfilled in my current life. I listened to a podcast recently where they introduced me to a person that asked people at the end of their life what their biggest regret was and the top two where 'living the life others wanted me to lead instead of the life I wanted.' and 'realizing that happiness is a choice.'
These have stuck with me and have been a sentiment driving my thoughts as of late. Therefore, I'll call problem #1 'not living my life as I've always wanted to'.

The second problem as I see it is a lack of access to a healthy diet, in my area and generally all over the world. When I originally started trying to eat healthy, I did a ton of research on what eating healthy means. This is a very hard topic to cover and I'm not sure anyone really agrees on it at all. I won't dive into how I came to these conclusions but I will give my conclusion, it is almost impossible to get the level of quality food I would like to eat in the quantity that I can feed my family for a price that I can afford without producing the food myself. Therefore, I'll call problem #2 'lack of access to healthy food.'

The third problem, in my opinion, is how ethicaly produced our available food has been. This of course is probably the most subjective of all the issues I'm listing but I can't discount the emotions that drive this for me. We have gotten so far away from natural ecosystems that modern agriculture and meat production could now only be describes as abusive. Abusive to the planet, abusive to the species we use, abusive to our bodies and abusive to our economy. I will likely expand on this at some point but lets call this one 'lack of ethical food.'

To continue, the fourth problem, in my opinion, is the overuse of dead dinosaurs. That is specifically oil and oil based products. From the chemical fertilizer that is spread on the fields, to the fuel burned to ship and truck our food from all over the world, plus that to get the food, and cook the food, the amount of carbon involved in the modern food system is staggering. We are putting more carbon in the air than we are in our soil and bodies. This is one of the most distructive problems I see. Thus it is 'too much carbon being used.'

In the follwing posts I will be expanding on these concepts.