Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The 'Stealth Hitch' Really Is Stealthy

When I donated the SAAB, I took off the Yakima roof rack and sold it on Craigslist.  I really like the rack when I used it, but it wasn't really too often that I did actually use it: if it was just me, I would fold down the back seat and put the whole bike inside the car (safer than locked to the roof rack, and protected from the elements).  I usually used the rack if Jen and I were going mountain biking, allowing me to easily throw both bikes on the roof.  Sometimes I'd throw my own bike on the roof by itself if the back of the car was full for some reason.

With the 335, I don't have a fold down back seat.  The car is available with a fold down back seat as an option...but the one I purchased doesn't have it (one of the few things that still bugs me about it; everything else has been pretty great).  Without the ability to put the bike inside the car, I definitely need some sort of external rack.  At first, I thought I'd get one of the ubiquitous Saris Bones 2 or 3 bike racks:

Saris released a new one, the Bones RS, that is a bit more secure than the basic one:
With both of these, though...I am pretty paranoid about where it touches with the car.  The Yakima rack didn't do anything bad to the roof of the SAAB, as its touch points were clamped in place, totally fixed.  When I took the rack off, after almost 10 years on there...there was zero damage to the roof (once I cleaned off some goo from the blackened decay of the rubber pads where the rack met the roof).  Looking at the Saris' touch pads where it meets the car...I was a bit leery of it damaging the paint.  Unlike the roof rack, there would be a little bit of movement with a rack like this (probably less so with the Bones RS, as it ratchets down a bit more securely).

I don't know anyone who personally has reported any paint damage from a Bones (but then again, I don't know all that many people with trunk racks), but more than a handful of people reporting that in online reviews ended up being enough to drive me to a hitch rack.  Hitches are all over the place on trucks here, but it's not too common to find them on passenger cars, and even less so on sportier ones.  Searching around, I found a hitch manufacturer, Valley Industries, that makes a hitch specifically targeted at the 2009 335: the Stealth Hitch Receiver.

It's pretty sweet: it has a vertical down tube that is pretty much flush with the underside of the bumper:  There is a separate receiver adapter that mates with the down tube when you actually want to hook up something:

This way, it's not even visible that the car has a hitch when nothing is hooked up.  This is the car from behind, after the hitch was installed:

Getting up close and underneath a bit, the vertical tube can be seen:

To actually hook something up, the adapter would be slotted in (and yes, it's upside down):

I had all of this done at Spillar Hitches' SoCo location.  I'm glad I had them do it in the shop there: it took probably 1.5 hours, and requires dropping the exhaust and trimming the inside of the bumper fascia a bit...not exactly something I would have had much luck with at home.  Now I just need to figure out what rack to mate with it.  I think the varieties that do avoid contact with the frame and clamp onto the wheels would allow super fast and easy loading, while avoiding any danger of paint damage (of particular worry with the overly-delicate paint on my has several spots of bare carbon now).

It's Here: The 7D

I had long planned to order my first 'real' camera in time for the honeymoon trip. The little Canon SD700 IS I've had for a few years has served me well (although its meeting with Patrick's driveway during a St. Patrick's Day party has left it a bit banged up), as did the S400 prior to that.

A few months ago, I bought a Canon S90. This camera is a level beyond the normal point and click Canons: far more control, very fast, and great low light performance for a compact. We'll bring it on the trip for sure -- this will be what Jen has with her the whole time.

I ended up settling on a Canon 7D (the 28-135mm kit version) for my first 'real' camera for this trip. Several friends are Canon people, and their lenses (and expertise) will surely come in handy. This baby arrived earlier today:

I picked up several other gadgets in the same order (Adorama, this time) that will be of use to me:

  1. The Canon EF-S 17-55mm 2.8 lens
  2. Lens hoods for the kit and the above lens
  3. A little Joby Gorillapod SLR-Zoom mini (travel, in my case) tripod
  4. A remote shutter release for use with the tripod
  5. A B+W UV multi-coated filter for the 17-55
  6. A SanDisk 16GB Extreme CF card
  7. Both Blue Crane instructional DVDs for the 7D, to help me suck less
  8. The Canon 9500mk2 wide (13"x19" capable) inkjet. Normally I'd have a hard time rationalizing this one, but Canon was running a crazy rebate when purchased with a 5Dmk2/7D/1D
I'll probably borrow a 70-200mm and bring the 17-55 on the trip. I've planned on carrying a day pack when Jen and I are out during the day on the trip, and so I'm likely to get one that is also very photography-targeted, but ideally without screaming "I have expensive photo gear within, please mug me". I think it is between the Tenba Shootout Backpack (in a medium), or one of the brand new Kata backpacks (Bumblebee 220, 222, or Beetle 282...not very well differentiated from one another). A friend's fiancée has the Tenba and loves it, whereas I don't know anyone with any of these particular Kata bags: they just went on sale March 1, and would have to be ordered (nobody in town sells them). After getting back from the trip, I'll probably take out the photography packing innards (they are removable with both bags) and use it as a regular daypack, putting the gear packing grid back in on the rare occasions I was taking a lot of gear on a hike of some sort. For 'normal' usage, I think I'd probably just carry some sort of messenger type of bag.

Spring/Summer Experiment: The Garden

I am not sure why I decided to make a garden this year, but something I read or saw a few months ago must have hooked me on the idea.  Rather than digging up and tilling a section of the yard, I decided to build a raised container garden.  I've seen some container garden kits in, and they have even had some on display at my local Lowe's.  Costco was even stocking a kit (more elaborate than normal, even)!

Not really being sure how large it should be, how deep it should be, if I should buy a kit or build...I went in search of  a book to to provide some baseline knowledge.  I came across Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening book:

As far as I can tell, this seems to be the bible of raised gardening.  I've seen many references to the book on various online forums, and there is even a  Mel lists his preferred soil mix to use in the garden, and the local hippie (and extremely legit) nursery, The Natural Gardener (you might have heard the owner's weekend radio show on KLBJ), sells soil conforming to this mix.  For some reason (maybe because these gardens tend to be small), The Natural Gardener does not sell the SFG mix in bulk; they only sell it prebagged.  It turns out to be far cheaper to buy soil in bulk than prebagged.  There is actually a nearly-as-cheap-as-bulk option at The Natural Gardener: bagging it yourself.  Check out the per-yard cost of buying Hill Country Garden Soil (what I ended up using):

  1. Delivered, by the yard: $41.50 / yard
  2. Bagging yourself: $3.50 per 10 gallon bag (bags are $0.50 each): (1 cubic yard = 202 gallons) ~$70
  3. Buying bags: 2 cubic feet per bag, I think $7 / bag.  (1 cubic yard = 27 cubic feet) ~$95
Laura and I had to rent a Home Depot truck to get the materials for the box (more on that later) to the house, and so stopped by the nursery on the way home and bagged up the soil we needed.

As for the box: the 'standard' box in the SFG book is a 4'x4' box, 6" deep.  That is the most basic configuration.  You can build it larger and/or deeper.  The idea is to subdivide it using a grid on top into 16 individual square foot parcels, each potentially having a different thing growing in it.  Going deeper than 6" allows for some additional possibilities (some vegetables need more depth, and all will apparently grow more vigorously in more soil).  Mel's standard boxes are just cedar 4' boards, nailed together at the corners.  He details several ways to trick out the box:

  1. Lining the bottom with chicken wire (to keep out burrowing rodents)
  2. Lining the bottom with landscape cloth (to keep out weeds)
  3. Covering the top with a chicken wire cap (to keep out birds, deer, dogs, cats, etc.)
  4. Building a PVC pipe 'covered wagon' top (to provide support for insulating cloth or netting)
  5. Building a rebar-anchored metal conduit pipe frame to anchor trellis netting (to provide support for vine plants, like tomatoes)
I needed some of these: some sort of netting or cap (to keep out Lucy & Ethel, as well as all of the birds that ate every one of the tomatoes I grew last summer in a Topsy Turvy) and the landscape cloth (to keep weeds in the lawn underneath from getting into the garden from beneath).  I also wanted it to be more than 6" deep to give versatility on what could be planted.  I thought I would go somewhat larger than the standard 4'x4': perhaps 4'x8'.  I thought that I'd go through the effort of assembling/building this once, and so I'd rather build big and potentially leave some lie fallow, rather than build a box that I wished was larger.

As far as buying a kit versus building my own: a quick look at the listings revealed that nearly all kits (and definitely all of the ones I saw at Lowe's, and most of the Costco kit) were 6" deep.  Going taller quickly ramped the cost such that it seemed building it myself would surely be cheaper.  My favorite kit during my research was this one from Naturalyards.  It is pretty nice: easy assembly via pins at the corners,  stackable to reach great depths (up to 33"), and with precut Port Orford Cedar boards.  It seems that 'Port Orford Cedar' is a bit of a misnomer: Port Orford Cedar is not cedar at all, but actually a type of cypress.  It seems that this would be even more rot and water tolerant than the standard Western Red Cedar boards that most everything else is made of.  However, a 4'x8'x11" offering is $265...and that's just for the box (wood and corner pins).

In the end, I decided to build, but fancy it up a bit (and make construction easier) by buying aluminum box corners from 12" Raised Bed Corners.  I was then able to go to Lowe's and buy lumber to slot right into the corners' sleeves.  Some kits use composite lumber (like the Trex decking composite lumber) to avoid rot issues entirely, but this turned out to cost a lot more than I stuck with cedar.  Because a box full of soil weighs a lot (the Hill Country Garden Soil I use was listed as ~1400 lbs / yard, and I had ~1.2 cubic yards in my box, so ~1700 lbs of soil), the information on the raised bed corners suggested using in-line connectors to build a crossbar to keep the box edges from bowing out.  I bought a pair of these 12" connectors to go with the 2 sets of 12" corners.  I went to Lowe's and bought 7 2" (thick) x8' (long) x 6" (wide) cedar boards, and had them cut (they will do this in the store) all three boards in half: 4 segments to make the 8' runs on the long side of each box, and 3 to make the short ends of the box and the middle connector...and all of this times 2, as I need all of this over again (stacked) to make the box 12" deep.  So: 14 4' segments in total, which we can get by cutting 7 8' boards in half.

I screwed all this together in the garage, building the overall box.  It is possible to stain the wood to provide an additional measure of water resistance (and forestall the eventual decay of the wood by a bit longer...especially in a backyard with a sprinkler system like mine), but people generally just stain the outward-facing wood: it is what people see, and the (mostly-crunchy) people who build these boxes don't want any 'chemicals' on the inner (garden) facing wood (which would be in contact with their surely-organically-managed garden).  The Naturalyards site actually lists several stain options that are known to be non-toxic in their FAQ.  I didn't stain mine at all.  After assembling the box, I unrolled landscape fabric and had Jen and and Laura hold it in place while I stapled it to the frame, with a regular PowerShot stapler.  We then carried it to the back yard and put it in its resting spot: somewhere with full sun and in close proximity to the water faucet.

After building it and filling it with soil:

I actually needed slightly more than 4'x8'x1' (1.18 cubic feet, ~24 10 gallon bags), as the aluminum connectors made the overall length a few inches more than 8' (and the width a bit more than 4').  I ended up topping it off by buying three SFG mix bags at the store.

I bought the narrowest cedar boards that I could find and cut them to make the permanent square foot grid on the top.  This is what happens when you are and idiot and don't drill a pilot hole first:

If you drill pilot holes, everything looks nice and clean, like this:

A closer look at the aluminum corners:

I used regular coated deck screws for all of the assembly.  After finishing the grid, I started to lay out what plants would go where (with some help from Ethel).  Most of the 32 squares were stocked with seedlings I purchased at The Natural Gardener or at Lowes, although a few (about 10 squares) were started from seed.  Those are the 4 tomato plants I'm starting with:

After planting everything, it looked like this:

Now, to protect these things, I build a covered wagon style canopy.  I bought 1/2" 10 foot long PVC pipe.  It's quite flexible: I just put one end in a corner and bent it to the opposite corner.  I did this for each end, and then one along the crossbar.  I cut one additional 10' run of pipe and trimmed it so as to run along the top, lengthwise, joining the 3 curved pipes.  I drilled small holes in each pipe to allow me to join the lengthwise pipe to the curve pipes with a short stainless steel bolt and stainless steel wing nut.

With the canopy in place, I needed to actually drape it with some sort of protective netting.  I found a 14'x14' plastic web netting marketed as bird netting at Lowe's for about $5.  I couldn't just drape it across the canopy and expect it to stay, so I bought several small stainless steel screw eyes.  I put 2 per 4' segment along the perimeter.  The screw eye almost completely circles back onto itself, but not quite: a small gap is left.  I used this to hook the netting through the screw eyes, securing the net to the box's perimeter in this way.  It is pretty easy to hook and unhook, which really is a must: I had to be able to get back into the garden later to harvest vegetables or weed squares without destroying the net.  The net is pretty cheap and fragile, though, so I bought an extra.  If enough squares on this one end up breaking so as to make it hard to keep it hooked on, I will just swap to a new net.  After several weeks, it's holding tight.  With the netting (which is hard to see, being very thin and black) on, the garden looks like this:

Here is a closer shot of one of the screw eyes:

That is pretty much how things stand as of today.  Since the garden was planted early this month, the items (which I will probably detail in a later post) are definitely growing.  I really wanted to plant mint (mojitos and such), but I'd heard it grows like crazy and might take over adjacent squares.  I ended up buying a self-watering pot and planted Kentucky Colonel Mint:

I later bought another of the exact same pot and planted a serrano (Jen loves her spice!).

I'm not done just yet: I also purchased a drip irrigation kit and associated timer to allow me to automate the watering of the garden.  I picked up a starter kit at Home Depot for pretty cheap (~$25), and then purchased a few extras a la carte (I needed more drip nozzles to handle all 32 squares).  I hope to install it soon; if not this week, next.  I'll have a post about that experience for certain!  I'm hoping that once I get that set up and totally dialed in as far as the dripper positioning and the timer settings, I will be able to worry much less about watering (especially when traveling for work) and spend any garden time focused on the actual vegetables and herbs.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Overdue Post: San Juan

I hadn't posted since my late November trip to Helsinki. I should have have posted during last month's trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico. As for where in San Juan, we (I was with several coworkers) were here:

View Larger Map

The customer was a 15 minute drive inland, in Guaynabo:

View Larger Map

It was a pretty good week, and the first time I've really been to San Juan. I'd been once before, but it doesn't really count: it was riding in a cab from the airport to the pier to leave on a cruise in 2001.

I've posted Puerto Rico pictures at the gallery. I should really put a few of them here and add commentary...but I'm behind the ball. Most of the pictures were taken during a several mile walk that I took with Mary (a coworker) from the hotel to El Morro, an old (San Juan is the oldest continually inhabited city in the hemisphere, I believe) castle/fort at the northwest corner of Old San Juan. We then walked into Old San Juan for dinner, and then took a cab back home. This Google Map shows the path between the hotel and El Morro, although we walked literally along the northern coast on sidewalks along PR-25 (rather than slightly inland):
There is an upcoming work trip to Zurich in early April -- I'll try to be more complete with that post.