Saturday, April 28, 2012

Climate Joke

I heard this joke on the Science Friday podcast (dork!). It was one listener's response to the challenge: "A climate scientist and climate change denier walk into a bar..."

A climate scientist and climate change denier walk into the bar. The Denier says to the bartender, "What is your strongest whiskey?" The bartender pulls a bottle from the shelf and shows it to him. The bartender says, "This here bottle of whiskey is my strongest - over 50% alcohol." The Denier slaps the bar in obvious frustration and walks off in a huff. The climate scientist shrugs and says, "That's the problem with those folks: you show them the proof and they still won't buy it."

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Attic Renovations

In a prior post I alluded to the fact that our attic is undergoing major renovations. The attic was already finished space when we bought the house: it was divided into two bedrooms, in which were two (three?) of the five children. It was sparsely insulated and not particularly nice. There is also a chimney in the exact middle. This chimney goes no higher than the third attic ceiling, and no lower than the 2nd floor. Once upon a time it went from basement through the roof, and was the means by which the house was heated. For a good long while it's been used as an electrical chase, in blatant violation of fire codes.

We used the attic as storage space. More correctly, we used it as a dumping ground for all the stuff we couldn't get around to properly unpacking when we moved in...two years ago. It aspired to so much more. It will become something more along the lines of master suite, with a full bath and kitchenette. Get your sledgehammers ready!

Of course, that was decided well over a year ago. In the meantime, there was the laborious process of completely emptying the attic. This was mostly accomplished by hauling boxes down three flights of stairs and stacking them in the basement. There was also the process of coming up with a new floorplan. Due to quirks of how the home is sited, where the windows and stairs are, and other details, it actually proved rather difficult to figure out where to put things. Hours were spent, pencil and ruler in hand, hunched over pages seeking a solution. A few months ago, we thought we had a solution that would make floor-planning much easier and provide ample lighting: blow out the west-side gable and turn it into a full-width dormer. More hours were spent facing down the tyranny of the resulting blank page of newfound space and freedom. We got a plan we could be happy with. More than happy: it was going to be outstanding. Then we learned that changing the roofline would, all by itself, cost $17,000. More hours were spent over paper with pencil and ruler and much erasing. We detailed a floorplan within the confines of the existing envelope. Through out contractor, demolition got started a little while back. Some of it actually took place while we were in St John. When we returned, we found the remains of the interior walls and carpeting piled in the center of the floor. A week later I gave up my driveway for a 20 cu-yd dumpster it all got tossed into. (The remains of the collapsed fence found there way into the dumpster, too). An insulation guy came and sucked out the 18-month old cellulose and reinjected it into the (thoroughly non-insulated) second floor walls.

So now our attic is stripped down to bare wood.

As it turns out, in addition to the real vent stack, there was this oddball hidden behind the kneewall.

You can see where the chimney used to be.

Another nifty discovery: our house once had a serious fire. Instead of the simple gable it has now, it once had a hipped roof (sloped on all four sides, coming to a peak). Up in smoke, then rebuilt, at some unknown point in the past. Here you can see where the old charred rafters leading out to one corner have been sistered to new wood.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Mighty Baguette

I fancy myself a decent baker, but nothing fancy. Cookies, scones, pies: I get no complaints from friends, family, and neighbors. My breads tend to be pretty good, too - they hold up well to soups and stews - but they do not have the crispy, twisty, chewy goodness of a fresh baguette. I look longingly at the seemingly effortlessly good and consistent results from the local Bread and Chocolate bakery or, failing at that, Panera. Part of the problem could be that I lack an oven that can hit 500 degrees and inject supercharged steam. I've pored over my cookbooks, but I think that my results have plateaued in the last few years.

For Christmas 2010, my dear sister gave me a gift certificate to the King Arthur Baking Education Center. This is a fancy word for the bake school in King Arthur's flour headquarters in Norwich, VT. It sat around for a while. The better part of a year, actually, before I realized that this is stupid, and I really need to get my act together. In my defense, the class schedule is not entirely made for us 8-5 working stiffs (not a lot of weekends), and it tends to be booked a few months out. Picking some weekend when I might be available several months out is does not come easy.

Procrastinate no more! I went to their "Taming the Baguette" class today. Good move! The results speak for themselves.

Like most cooking shows, it helps that there was a lot of stuff prepped ahead of time. The poolish, or semi-fermented starter, was made by our instructor at 3 that morning. Finished dough was available for us to work on our baguette-forming techniques. It explains how we were able to get a decent baguette education in a four-hour class.

Ah yes: the super awesome oven. They have an awesome 20-foot long gurney-type work surface that they use for loading the bread in place of a peel. The surface of the gurney is a long loop of canvas that they roll out from underneath the loaves to deposit them in the oven. Their oven can accommodate six such loads in a single go, well over 100 baguettes at at time.

Here are the baguettes made by the class from the pre-made materials. All in all, not bad. We also went through the process of making the dough and forming loaves from that, too. All of this came home with us: five baguettes apiece.

The teacher showed off a bit and made this fancy focaccia with the same materials.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

And down she comes...

Today was the day we took down the big tree. A sad occasion. I say "we" but actually it was an arborist, in his 45' bucket truck, with a 60' boom crane, and one or two other folks besides. They made quick work of it: from arrival on site to cleaning up in just about four hours. I figured I might have had some time, if I ducked out of work early, to get some pictures of them in action. Alas, no. If I've had some more forethought, I'd have set up my phone to do a time-lapse video capture from a window.

As it turns out, it is pretty difficult to get someone to take a tree out in a hurry. This became an acute situation over ten days ago, a Friday. In the following few days I called seven local companies, had it seen by five, and had three express a serious interest in the job. That was the state of things Monday afternoon. I didn't hear anything from anybody for nearly three more days: a combination of sickness and death kept people from returning my calls. In the end, I only ever got one proposal in my hands that I could seriously consider. One other gave me a quote over the phone, promising a follow-up email with insurance info, which I am still waiting for. The third said he could maybe get around to it in 2-3 weeks. Overall I'm satisfied with the work, but at $2500, it was not cheap.

Yup, it was a big tree.

Click to embiggen. Don't try to count rings in the picture; it's not really possible with the chainsaw marks. As this and the next image show, the tree's time had most definitely come. All the dark area in this image is wet and rotten wood. There are a couple of obvious cracks, and radiating out at 3 o'clock are pencil-sized bore holes from goodness knows what. Are those roots coming up through the middle?

What you see here is what remains of the main trunk. The picture shows the bottom end. See how it's in two pieces? Yup, that's because it split on its own when they set it down with the crane. There was essentially nothing holding the two halves together save for a network of roots that sprouted deep within the split and cascaded downward. The split clearly got started ages ago, and the tree's been trying to back-fill ever since. My arborist informed me that the tree probably shouldn't have been able to stay up as long as it did.

Another view across the main trunk. More rooty goodness. With everything sprouting out the middle there, it is interesting to consider what it would look like if you took these trunks to a sawmill and made heavy planks of them.

As it turns out, some neighbors were happy to take the wood off my hands. Lacking experience in these matters, I would estimate it would make two face cord, once it's sawn and stacked.

Now gazing across the back yard all you see if a lot of open sky. It just doesn't seem right. But to fill in that horizon will be a decadal task. For now, the only certain thing is that our lawn will get thoroughly baked this summer!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Things Fall Apart

Apologies to Chinua Achebe who, when he was talking about Things Fall Apart, was discussing problems of a much deeper and existential nature than my own petty bumps in the road.

Nevertheless, I have been confronted in recent weeks with plenty of examples of things falling apart.

Exhibit A: the enormous and beautiful silver maple in our back yard:

For all I know, this tree has stood watch over this house for most of the last century. Alas, its days are numbered. Ever since the freak snowstorm last October, when the tree lost a few moderately sized limbs, I have had a wary eye on the main trunk, just below the fork. I have known for at least a year that it has a sizable split in it. I thought it mostly superficial, but it is visible on both sides of the trunk. I'd been meaning for a few months now to bring in an arborist to have a look at it, and see if it might be possible to reinforce the tree with some cables joining the two trunks together. This past Friday, while out walking his dog, our neighbor heard a distinctive pop coming from back there. The crack hasn't gotten a whole lot larger, but it seems a lot more threatening now. Using you hand to span the gap, you can feel the two halves moving separately when the wind blows.

I spent a decent amount of time on Friday calling local tree services. I've now had five come out to look at it, and all have concluded that it cannot be saved; it must be taken down. Two of them, after giving me this judgment, subsequently bowed out; too big and complicated a job without a good crew and a crane. The other three I am awaiting written proposals from. One says he can do it in two weeks, the others will shuffle things to get to it in the next 2-3 days. All have ballparked it at somewhere between $2000 and $3000.

It is a sad thing: the death of a mighty old tree. Its shade and presence will be sorely missed. Although we'll plant anew, a tree of that stature won't grace this house for decades. But it cannot be meaningfully saved, and I do not love it enough to risk having it crush my garage, my neighbor's, the back fence, or the cars in the parking lot on the other side. I'd be happier if we had a fireplace, and could at least turn it into firewood. I've considered having the larger sections sawn into planks for subsequent woodworking. But, considering I've got about 50 board-feet of rough-sawn lumber in the garage already, with little prospect of using it anytime soon, adding to the collection a stack of green boards probably isn't worthwhile.

Next exhibit: the backyard fence. I haven't ever liked it. There is something to be said for the lichen-covered, greying look of weathered wood. But when it is combined with rotting posts and gates than can only be opened by lifting and setting aside, charm counts for very little. Let us be honest: it was cheaply constructed years ago and poorly maintained ever since. It spent the winter reinforced with stakes and ropes, awaiting the inevitable...

This section flopped unceremoniously to the ground the other day.

Not too surprising: the posts had rotted clean through at ground level. And not those two: all of the posts of the fence are exhibiting a lot of wobble. It does not inspire confidence.

The gate section is missing two pickets and one hinge. In the time we've owned this house, it has never swung freely or latched. The rest would fall over with one solid kick. So, off to the dumpster with it. I'll put in some sweat equity on a replacement in the coming weeks. In the meantime, Jasper has an unimpeded escape route from the back yard. But no worries, he only escapes to go run up and wait on the front porch. At least that is in good repair.

Next: our attic renovations. This hasn't shown up on the blog yet, but it will: we are gutting the attic to the studs and renovating it to be a master suite. Well, it would be a master suite for any other home owner; for us it will be an elaborate guest room. More on that later. In the meantime, this is what it looks like:

In the past few days the big pile of debris piled into the middle has been tossed out the window, gradually filling a 20-cu.yd dumpster. Just today we had a guy come in to suck out the 2-year old blown cellulose from the pitch and the ceiling, and inject it down through the balloon-constructed exterior walls to the second floor. It's a haphazard job, but salvages some good material and puts to better use than filling a dumpster. The 2nd floor walls can definitely use a little help: an energy audit last winter revealed that they have no insulation in them. The studs have a greater R-value than the rest of the walls!

Final exhibit: my car will roll over to 100,000 miles in the next few days. I've had that car since the winter of 2004, when I bought it off-lease for a bargain price of $8500. It had less than 30,000 miles on it then. It had a couple of easy years in Minnesota, where Hilary and I had walking commutes. Since our return to New Hampshire, I've been putting over 1000 miles per month on it. It still runs well, and hasn't been too expensive to maintain. I think I can reasonably expect another 2-3 years from it (I hope: it'll take that long to finish paying off Hilary's Subaru!).

Still, scheduled maintenance at the dealer is never cheap. Replacing the timing belt (and associated claptrap like the water pump, tensioner, and serpentine) is recommended by now. That can get done by a local guy, but is still hundreds of dollars. And the car is due for state inspection. All of this on a volkswagon means I should probably just hand over my wallet and be done.

Coming soon: our street is getting torn up and redone in the coming weeks. On the plus side, it'll mean the sewer, water, and natural gas connections will get some upgrades, not to mention a smooth surface for B's continuing adventures with pedal-bicycling. On the downside, the local utility will need to punch a hole in the side of the house for the new gas line, and possibly trench our driveway.

It's probably best if we leave the crumbling retaining wall and front steps out of the conversation. And don't get me started on the 2nd floor bathroom. Is that kitchen faucet still dripping? I wonder if I'll ever see my garage workshop again. Anyone got some gasoline and a match?

At the moment, I'm feeling (and no doubt sounding) like a tired old curmudgeon.