Monday, December 23, 2013

Good glass is ageless.

That's a hell of a blanket statement, isn't it?  I find it to be true, in at least one circumstance - namely, Nikon camera lenses.  They've been making some pretty darned good lenses for many, many years.  What's neat is that any Nikon autofocus lens from 1986 forward will work perfectly in newer Nikon DSLR cameras that have their focus motor in the camera body. Those older autofocus lenses, intended for use in Nikon's AF film cameras, are known as "screw-drive" lenses, since the camera body engages and adjusts the lens focus by means of a small slotted screw head attached to the lens internal focus gearing. 

To be honest, these particular lenses have been pushed to the sidelines by the arrival of Nikon's newer IF series of autofocus lenses.  The latter have internal focus motors in the lens body, enabling the cheaper Nikon DSLRs like the D40, D3000, and D5000 to have autofocus without having dedicated focus motors inside the camera body.  If you have one of these cameras, you can still use the older film lenses, but you'll be forced to focus your images manually via the lens focus ring. 

My usual DSLR is a 2008-vintage Nikon D300.  It's technically obsolete, but the camera's ability to produce awesome images with a minimum of fuss endears it to me.  I also have a Nikon D200 as a backup, with a Nikon D70 owned by other family members floating around somewhere in the house.  All 3 of these cameras have the internal focus motors, so when it's time to find optics, I gravitate to those older screw-drive lenses.

Film-era Nikon autofocus lenses




These are all orphans.  They were donated to Goodwill, and subsequently grabbed by Yours Truly to continue their service attached to a DSLR. From left to right, there's an AF Nikkor 50mm F1.8 prime, an AF Nikkor 35-70mm F3.3-4.5 zoom, an AF Nikkor 35-105 f3.5-4.5 D zoom, an AF Nikkor 28-85mm f3.5-4.5 zoom, an AF Nikkor 70-210mm f4-5.6 D zoom, an AF Nikkor 70-210mm f4 fixed aperture zoom, and an AF Nikkor 75-300mm f4.5-5.6 zoom.  The oldest dates to 1986, while the newest dates to 1992. 

Were one to compare these older film-era lenses with their new digital counterparts, you'd find some obvious differences, both in appearance and construction.  These are heavy, metal and glass lenses, with metal bayonet mounts.  You'll know that immediately.  You'll see aperture rings, and depth of field scales on a few of the above older lenses.  The manual focus ring is also quite prominent on these older lenses, ostensibly because autofocus was a new concept to many photographers of the time, and probably not trusted 100% back then. 

Newer Nikon AF lenses dispense with the aperture ring, are mostly plastic in body construction, have no depth of field scales, are much lighter in weight, and some even sport plastic bayonet mounts.  Depending on the version, the newer lenses may also have internal focus (IF) motors built in, so they can be used on Nikon DSLR bodies sans that function.

While Nikon's engineers have designed these new lightweight, internal-focus lenses to have optical qualities as good as or better than their older film-era predecessors, they come with a price - especially if they have VR (Vibration Reduction) or a fast maximum aperture like f2.8 or larger.  I actually own a couple of the IF lenses, and they work just fine, albeit you have to be very careful with those plastic lens mounts.  I bought these at Goodwill, where they were donated as parts lenses with broken lens mounts.  (Something you can fix with replacement parts at home for just a few dollars, thankfully...) 

Late-model Nikon IF lenses in back row

The AF-S Nikkor DX lenses seen above in the back row are an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6G VR zoom, and a 55-200mm f4-5.6G VR zoom.  They're lightweight, fast-focusing, quiet, and both have Vibration Reduction to minimize the effects of camera shake.  As dedicated Nikon DX lenses, they have a smaller image circle compared to their film and FX counterparts. Had I not purchased them as broken salvage lenses, they would have commanded fairly high prices.  While the image quality produced by these lenses is good, they seem lackluster compared to my older film-era lenses.  Maybe it's my bias, maybe there's actual data that shows why.  Not that I discriminate against them, because I'll use them for those instances when I need the VR or wide-angle view of the 18-55mm lens. 

My catalog of Nikon lenses is by no means complete, and is conspicuous in the absence of high-end models.  Unfortunately, lenses like the Nikkor 80-200 f2.8 zoom and the Nikkor 105mm f2.8 prime don't show up too often at Goodwill, although I do keep an eye open for them.  Maybe someday I'll get lucky, but in the meantime I'll enjoy what I've found so far.  Stay tuned, I'll post about these useful "relics" as we enter 2014.  




Sunday, November 10, 2013

My faithful old friend and companion, also known as the wheelgun...

As family and close friends already know, I had a bit of a bad (ok, totally stupid) accident a few weeks ago.

Long story short, I slid barefoot on wet concrete one rainy morning, went down hard while trying to stop my noggin from hitting the floor with extended left hand, and simultaneously dislocated and (avulsion) fractured my left shoulder.

My own successful garage door frame relocation of the upper humerus back into the socket further compounded the soft tissue injuries, but there was no way in hell I was gonna go to the hospital with the shoulder still dislocated. The relocation effort took little thought on my part, because my USAF aircrew survival medicine training kicked in automatically, just like the school's commandant said it would.

The pain was humbling, and still jabs sharply even with the current Vicodin prescription if I don't keep the elbow tucked into my ribs. 

The cool thing is that the VA doctors here think I can completely recover as long as I don't dislocate/fracture again, and I continue to make progress in the next 3 months of physical therapy.

However, simple tasks that one doesn't think about normally hurt like hell.  Turning the steering wheel while shifting a 5-speed truck, for example.  Picking up a bucket of wheel weights, oddly enough, wasn't too bad.  

Other mundane examples include rolling over onto my left side at bedtime (scaring my wife when I yip after doing so), or reaching up to put clean dishes in the kitchen cupboards. 

Or, for that matter, racking the slide on my Caspian Officer's ACP, my 5" 1911 Bancroft Special, or even my little Kahr K9. 

The VA doc and charge nurse said to wear an issued sling when things got sore, and that the appearance of the sling would signal a "buffer zone" for people to give me a wide berth.

That doesn't do it for me.  It's hard to drive around in a sling, and if that sling telegraphs anything, it's "EASY TARGET!"  The sling gets worn at home, period.

I'm optimistic that I can regain 100% function, but there's that nagging CCW aspect.  While I carry my 1911 variants and K9 with one in the chamber, it's still difficult for me to rack those slides.  Slapping a magazine home ain't a whole lot of fun, either.

What to do?





 It's getting down into the freezing temps at night here.  My winter coat can cover something a smidgen wider, as long as it's not too excessive.

There's this cool cellphone pocket near the zipper, which I can open and retrieve spare ammo with the right hand.

Gotta be able to reload right-handed.  Hmmm...


 I don't need to rack a slide that's not there to jam, and there's no magazine to ram home.  Were it summer, I'd go with my S&W Model 36 Chief's Special.

Since it's fall/winter clothing time, and I've always been a fan of calibers that start with ".4", my decision was made just a wee bit easier.


 I practiced reloads. Pop cylinder release with right thumb while left hand swings cylinder open from underneath.  Left thumb ejects rounds.  Right hand inserts speed loader and loads cylinder.  Left thumb snaps cylinder shut.  5+5 rounds of Federal 200 grain Lead Semi-Wad Cutter Hollow Point goodness, ready to rock & roll. Hell, I might even pack a second speedloader for giggles!

I'm good. I can do this until I've recovered.  Screw the sling while I'm not home, but even one-winged I'm not defenseless. Thank you for being my faithful little companion, Mr. S&W 696!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

11 September, 2001

We all have ways of remembering that day in American history, and how it may have changed our lives.

Mine changed, but not for the obvious reasons.

I was on leave, doing paperwork to accept a 15-year retirement option that the Air Force was offering to get their manpower numbers down.  (This was during a drawdown phase)

My leave was cancelled, and I was recalled to base, which by the time I arrived was in FPCON Delta per the installation commander.  He chose Delta because of the base's primary role as HQ for the USAF Space Program and Shuttle support, and also because the biggest and most sensitive tenant unit was within feet of the Atlantic Ocean and US Highway A1A.

I was assigned to that tenant unit, but we also did everything by the FPCON Delta book.  24 hour security operations (for an organization that was already TS/SCI) became the norm, with lookouts doing patrols, and others stationed on the roof with NVGs. I pulled NVG duty a few nights, it was fun, especially when we spotted an amorous couple sans clothing on the beach and sent a Humvee with .50 caliber turret to investigate.  A1A was completely closed, and huge sand-filled barricades were positioned between the highway and the building in the event an explosives-laden semi truck managed to get close enough.

The building eventually got a kevlar/composite false wall constructed on the ocean and highway facing side, and Highway A1A reopened.  The lack of customer access killed a few businesses down the highway in the process, but things returned to normal for the most part.

I got Stop-Lossed, twice.  I wasn't released from Stop Loss until well into my 16th year of military service.  The early retirement option went away, as the DoD ramped up to fight terrorism.  I retired nearly 5 (very busy) years later, while the Global War on Terrorism continued.  I don't know if it will ever end, truthfully. 


Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Italians call it "Nocino", but it predates them by quite a bit.

Back in the days of the Celts and Druids, many seasonal rituals were observed, coinciding with various solstices and equinoxes.  One special day in their calendar was the Summer Solstice on or about the 21st of June, the longest day of the year.  As part of the festivities they would harvest unripe green walnuts, and steep them in spirits with select spices to transform over time.  Transform it did, oxidizing to a dark greenish-black color as the oils in the green walnuts interacted with the liquid for the next several months.  I don't know how a given enterprising Druid figured out that sticky and pungent green walnuts were something worth mucking about with, but muck they did, and the recipe carried forward to this day.

When I say "carried forward", I mean that those nosy Roman types developed a taste for Celtic Walnut Liquor, and took the finished product and recipe back to Rome.  The tradition in the Italian peninsula took root, and now the concoction is produced and sold there as "Nocino".  You can buy the stuff, but it ain't particularly cheap.  You can also make it yourself, which is what I attempted about 14 months ago.

A ckeaver is a good idea!

Assuming you have a source of unripe walnuts, you should be in good shape.  You'll also need a stout cleaver, cutting board, neutral spirits (Vodka, Moonshine, Everclear), a vanilla bean or two, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and the zest of one orange or lemon.  The quartering of the unripe walnuts is the biggest physical challenge - wear gloves, or be prepared to have walnut oil on your person as you cleave them forcefully.  You'll want to pack your quart or larger Mason/Bell/Kerr jar to about the shoulder with quartered unripe walnuts, at which point you'll shift gears.  (See the photo below of today's fresh batch in the Kerr jar)

With the small bit of space left in the jar, add a cinnamon stick, and one or two whole vanilla beans.  Toss in 10-12 whole dried cloves, and the cut-up rind of an orange or lemon. Then you get to add the solvent.  I used 190-proof Everclear, which guarantees that all the components will release their goodness to the mix in delightful fashion.  Top the jar right up to the brim, then secure it all with a new lid and ring.  Give it a good shake, then let it sit for a bit to allow bubbles work their way to the top.  If there's a lot of new air space under the lid, go ahead and top it off.  Otherwise, every day or so give the jar some sunlight, and if you can, open the lid to allow oxygen to interact with the mix for better color.

After just a few months, you'll have something that looks like SAE30 - it's that dark.  This is a desired transformation, as all the flavors do their thing in that alcohol.  You can sample, but remember that it's 190-proof high octane, so be careful.  When the day comes that you want to complete the process, strain the walnuts, cinnamon, vanilla, cloves, and orange peel pieces out of the mix, then run the liquid through a coffee filter or paper towel to get the remaining small bits out.  You'll have a greenish-black high octane liquid that will require cutting to a drinkable proof, and some sweetening with either honey or sugar to taste.  I cut mine to 80-proof, and use just enough sugar to leave a slightly bitter finish.

Congratulations - you've made Celtic Walnut Liquor, also known as Nocino!  While the origins don't look particularly appealing, you will be absolutely delighted with the results.  I liken it to a coffee liqueur, with a very prominent holiday nose.  I suggest serving your ancient concotion as an aperitif or digestif.  Enjoy!

Bottled, with a fresh batch in between awaiting transformation...

Monday, June 24, 2013

When taking advanced digital photography classes, the more educated you get, the more frustrated you can become!

One of my self-improvement goals is to be a better photographer.  I never had an SLR or DSLR back when I was flying missions around the world, and I kick myself now for not getting better photos in those days. I wouldn't call this current phase of education I'm going through a bucket list checkbox, but the classes are affordable and the homework is definitely a lot of fun.
Woof!
 My instructors haven't really touched too much on pairing lenses to subject matter, save for the arbitrary action/landscape/wide angle/telephoto stuff.  I've got that pretty much down, and know how to get my exposures centered in the viewfinder's meter.  In fact, I never use Auto, Shutter Priority, or Aperture Priority on my Nikon D200 anymore - just Manual.  I'm getting pretty adept at spinning both front and rear command dials on the Nikon to adjust the aperture and shutter for the perfect exposure.
I see you!
 I love the Nikon's rich, saturated colors as I set them up in the camera's menu. I'm emulating Fuji Velvia for nearly all the images I capture, although that's only in the saved JPEGs - the RAW files that are captured simultaneously are more subdued.  I'm also a big fan of finding older Nikkor AF film lenses, particularly those that are made of real metal and glass, and attaching them to the newer D200.  These lenses are heavy as hell compared to the newer plastic DX lenses, but more than make up for the weight with the image quality. I'm not the only one who does this of course, because one of my favorite lenses, the older Nikkor AF 70-210mm 4-5.6D, has rebounded in price on the used lens market.  Part of this is because of Ken Rockwell's review, but I have to believe the other part is because this old film lens does so well when paired with a modern Nikon DSLR.   
Tranquility
Although a Nikon D200 or D300 body still commands a few Benjamins in outlay, that doesn't mean decent glass has to be expensive.  I've got about 1/2 dozen AF Nikkor lenses from 18 to 300mm in focal length, and they came from an unusual source - Goodwill!  That's right, Goodwill has an online auction site, where all the donated primo stuff is auctioned off.  Most of the items you see at Goodwill's retail stores have been picked through by their staff, and those items that would garner more shekels go to their auction.  You still bid against others for a camera lens or body, but the prices at Goodwill are still well below those found on eBay or online camera shops. I paid around $70.00 for that 70-210mm f4-5.6D, and a whopping $25.00 for the 35-105mm f3.5-4.5D seen mounted on the D200 below.  Both lenses are push-pull in operation, which is actually quite nice.
The D200's usual repository
It's not all moonlight and roses, however. For the most part, I'm pleased with the images I take, especially when I've taken the time to compose them and spin the wheels the right way.  I'm particularly keen on outdoor shots here in my native Wisconsin, because nature has provided an awesome palette of colors and contrasts. When collecting elderberries in an out-of-the-way location, these echinacea flowers caught my eye.  ISO is 200, pull the 35-105mm zoom lens out to 105mm, open the aperture wide, set the shutter to center the exposure meter, and let 'er rip!
Medicinal Flowers
 Ok, that's a nice photo. By nice I mean that the foreground subjects are sharp, the colors are vivid, and the out-of-focus objects in the background (Bokeh) have soft edges - they don't distract you from the main subjects up front.  All in all, it's pretty well balanced for a DSLR image.  Contrast that with this photo: 
Busy Bokeh!
 The same lens was used for both of the above photos - this is what frustrates me. While the foreground subjects in the latter photo are sharp with nice colors, look at that background!  It's busy, distracting, and totally uncharacteristic of the lens, which I know can do better. My 500mm mirror lens gives better bokeh than this! The exposures between both photos above are very similar, with maybe a single f-stop between them.  That may have been the cause of the difference, but it's something I'll have to research myself, or ask my instructors about. Arrrrgh!  Here's another quandry:
Color-Shifted Spring Thaw
This was the spring thaw across the street from my house, illustrating the snow melt.  But wait, what's going on with that water?  The sun's reflection in the background has turned green, while in the foreground it's gone magenta! I'm using that wonderful Nikkor 70-210 f4-5.6D lens, this time at ISO 200, with a 116mm focal length, f4.2 aperture, and 1/2500 second exposure.  As I look through all the images I captured that day, I paid particular attention to any reflections on rippling water.  Sure enough, they all showed the same phenomenon. My school instructors didn't teach this, so I had to dig deeply to get my answer. It's called "color bokeh" or spherochromatism, and happens with fast telephoto lenses when shot wide open.  Stopping down the aperture one or two numbers usually fixes it.  It's not considered a defect, or a problem, just something you have to keep in mind. The RAW images in the camera don't show this effect to such a pronounced extent, so it could also be amplified by the Nikon's internal image processing for Fuji Velvia emulation.  I plan on bringing this up in class to see what their response will be. I don't mind vivid colors, as long as they were there to begin with.
Real colors - from an arriving storm
These colors were actually present when I snapped the shutter at the maple trees in front of my house on May 14th of this year.  The National Weather Service called it a "heat burst event".  I just know the sky turned everything these vivid orange colors, and then the winds came within seconds of me clicking this photo, snapping trees and blowing in excess of 70 mph - no funnel cloud, no siren, nothing other than it being a hot day and those unearthly colors. This is a case of everything working right for the photographer - and as I continue my formal education, I hope to have many more of these. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

It's almost like magic meets science! (Or, "Better Living Through Chemistry")

Because you can kind of see how it works, but there's a part which you can't see that changes the nature of the finished product over time.  (That's the magic)

This article (?) is the product of my brainchild that I've been tinkering with over the last few years.  In a different era, when I ran a forensics laboratory for a relatively unknown military unit, I had to recycle some really expensive (and fairly volatile) solvents. I ended up writing the SOP for the filtration and distillation unit, and it's become etched in my grey matter ever since. I mean, c'mon, just because I retired doesn't mean my brain shuts down, folks! So when the idea is gnawing at you...

As an amateur vintner, I had a 6-gallon batch of apple wine go bad a while back - within a couple weeks of bottling.  I think it was cork taint, but the results were unsightly and definitely less than appetizing.  I could dump the whole 6 gallons down the sink, or do something to salvage all that labor.  I chose the latter approach, but most certainly had my work cut out for me. NOTE: The standard disclaimers apply, all we can do legally in these United States is distill water and fragrances, anything else is verboten without a license and plenty of excise tax being paid. 

Great.  Now that I have that legalese out of the way, let's talk about a hypothetical way to refine a given solution's composition, shall we?  Having that old USAF SOP in hand, with vivid photographic memories of the setup and operation, I proceeded to find assorted parts and pieces.  Some were used, some new, some off-the-shelf, others kitbashed. I've actually got hose clamps, picture wire, and duct tape in there for good measure. As for sources, the local state university has a retail surplus store, and of course, there's always eBay.  The system I've assembled is currently at Version 4.0, if only because I've learned over time to improve things, either by studying up on the process, or by simple trial and error.  I'll illustrate the earlier versions in another blog post - the current system warrants discussion in the here and now. Ready?  Here goes the illustration of the Model 188 Batch Rectifier...

The Boiler
To the untrained eye, the photo reveals what appears to be a power controller, an ancient laboratory stirring hotplate (850 watts, to be specific), and a 4 liter borosilicate boiling flask. There's some kind of sweet corn and barley derived liquid in there, too, along with a white teflon stirring magnet. This is the "boiler" section, and the stirring magnet is one of only two moving parts in this system. In a different blog installment, I'll discuss where that liquid began life, too. 

Boiling a liquid mixture of mostly ethanol and water is kind of a running compromise, because as you boil out the more volatile component, you run the risk of sending the stuff you don't want out the top into your collection as the former dwindles in concentration.  There are different peaks on the temperature curve where stuff comes out of solution, and you have to pay attention to the timing and characteristics to make proper "cuts".  This allows you to discard stuff you don't want, and keep the stuff you do. Learning how to make those cuts is a major part of making something worthwhile vs. something just plain awful.

Once the vapor you're looking for is heading northwards out of the boiler, you've got a couple of options.  You can collect it and condense it right away, which is called "pot still" mode.  That guarantees more of the parent liquid's flavor will remain, but also makes for a much lower proof for a given run. To bump the proof higher, you have to re-distill the output of a previous run, and keep doing that until you reach the target proof. Pot stills are the favorite of the whiskey and bourbon industry, hence the "Double Distilled" and "Triple Distilled" labels on your favorite bottle of hooch. They're looking to retain the grain flavors in the finished product, be they corn, barley, or rye.

If you want to take things a step further, another option is to introduce some quality control to the process, by way of packing the column above the boiler and returning the majority of the vapor back to the boiler through that packing.  This is called "reflux still" mode, because it refluxes the vapors continually, letting the purified vapor escape out the top, while sending the impurities back down the column for another go at it.  This provides a much higher proof (188 proof, or 94% ABV in the case of this particular setup), but also a more neutral spirit, very clean and with minimal residual flavor.

The Column
How does this work? The packing in the distillation column is porous to a degree, and provides a huge amount of surface area for the ascending vapors to transfer their heat, condense, boil again, and generally interact with the condensed vapors coming from above as they head back down to the boiler below. (Google "Theoretical Plates") In a glass Hempel column like the one above, that packing can be glass beads, Raschig rings, or a metal mesh of some type.  For the metal mesh, the most popular materials are stainless steel and copper.  Stainless steel is popular because it's inert, doesn't corrode, and lasts virtually forever. Copper usually wins because of the unique chemical capability of the sulfur-bearing compounds in the vapor to bind with the metal, making for a considerably better finished product.  That's also why one sees so much copper in the construction of the professional grade units found deep in the Appalachian hills.  This particular column in the photo above is packed with pure copper kitchen cleaning pads - cheap, yet very efficient.

The Dephlegmator (aka, cold finger)
   The column packing does a good job of cleaning and purifying vapors, but works considerably better if there's a bit of a temperature difference between the bottom and top of the stack, with the cooler portion on top.  This forces a certain percentage of the rising vapor to condense into liquid and drip down on the column packing, preferably traveling all the way back down into the boiler. This is where it gets ticklish, because if you send too much back down, you won't collect anything on the output.  Likewise, if you allow too much out the top, you won't be in reflux mode - you'll be in pot still mode and your quality will suffer. The answer is actually pretty elegant - a "Dephlegmator", or reflux condenser (It's also why I've graduated to Version 4.0 now). The dephlegmator can be tuned to introduce the precise amount of vapor cooling required to get a good reflux cycle going, without killing either output or letting everything just blow by.  I used a laboratory cold finger condenser, with a needle valve for precise adjustment of cold water flow to regulate things.  Done properly, you'll see vapor condensing and dripping from the cold finger's tip into the copper packing, and also a trickle of condensate heading back into the boiler. In the distilling world, this design is known as the "CM", or "Cooling Management" mode of operation.  There's also "VM" (Vapor Management), and "LM" (Liquid Management), but I'll leave the reader to research those on their own nickel.
Reflux heading back down into boiler
 Unfortunately, as the run commences from start to finish, the ratios of ethanol vs. water and other volatile products change.  This means you can't just start things and let it run to the end unattended, or you'll have something in the collection flask which you really aren't going to enjoy.  So you carefully manage the flow of cold water to the dephlegmator upstairs, watching the drip rate of the condensate going back down the column, and looking for the rivulets seen above as they head into the boiler.  By way of comparison, when running the dephlegmator at 100% reflux (everything going back down, no collection), it'll look something like this:
Sending it all back down the column!
That's the other part of the equation - keeping the hot side hot, and the cold side cold.  The good ol' boys in Tennessee usually park their contraptions not too far from a cold stream, and divert the water to their condensers.  I use gallon milk jugs full of water, which reside in the freezer portion of my garage refrigerator.  When completely frozen several of them fit nicely into a wooden patio cooler 1/2 filled with water, and when done I just dry them off and re-freeze them. Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest. With as small a setup as I've assembled here, I don't need more than about 4 gallon jugs of ice per given 4 liter run - well within the capabilities of my freezer to sustain.  There's no mountain stream required, and I don't need to continually run cold tap water down the drain!
Ice-cold mountain stream, micro version... 
This cold water has to move from the cooler to the parts of the still that need cooling and back again. It doesn't have to be a fire hose, but it does have to extract heat and send it back to the cooler to get chilled by those frozen milk jugs.  To keep things simple, I found a smallish Japanese koi pond pump, rated at 100 volts AC, that I simply rewired to 115 volts AC.  The little impeller pump could care less about the 15 volt difference.  It moves a LOT of ice water, doing a wonderful job at cooling things down and staying quiet in the process.  It's activated by the "water" switch on the power controller.
How do you keep that ice water moving?
Great - we have plenty of cold water, and have used some of it to increase the efficiency of the reflux column.  What about the rest of the cold water and vapor path?  This is where we get into the "cold side" of the system.  Up to the dephlegmator, we were trying to manage heated vapor, with a given amount being allowed to condense and drip down only to be re-heated back in the boiler for the continual reflux purification cycle.  Once the dephlegmator is dialed in via needle valve for an optimum reflux ratio, the purified portion of the hot vapor that's allowed to escape the top of the stack continues on as vapor through an elbow into a bigger cold water "product" condenser, as seen here:
Both condensers and their plumbing...
Earlier iterations of this system used a Graham-type 300mm spiral condenser, which worked great but really took up a lot of space.  The main condenser seen on the left here is a very compact version that has an inverted double-wall envelope "cup" that is directly in the path of the incoming vapor.  As the hot vapor travels under the vapor pressure of the boiler, it impacts that condenser envelope, which has been chilled by ice water.  It immediately condenses into liquid ethanol, which then rains down inside to be collected underneath.  In the photo above, you can see the upper needle valve that controls the ice water flow to the dephlegmator/cold finger, and the return water line to the cooler. The lower green fitting on the product condenser is the cold water feed as controlled by another needle valve.  The upper green fitting and tubing is the return water line to the cooler.  Both feed water and return water lines are combined into their respective tee fittings to keep the total number of water lines to and from the cooler minimized.  You'll see some stainless steel braided wires in these photos - they prevent the still from getting knocked over accidentally, and also let the top end of the still hang safely when I remove the boiler and column for cleaning and refilling after each run.
It's raining in there!
Here's another view of the product condenser, showing the condensate dripping from the double-walled envelope inside. Note how the ice water flow has formed condensation on the tubing both entering and leaving the condenser - the little koi pump does such a great job maintaining high flow that even the water leaving the condenser is cold! It takes no time at all for the hot vapor at around 180 degrees to condense and rain into the collection flask underneath, at a temperature not much above that of the ice water's.  Now, for collection's sake...
The whole system in operation, small footprint...
Save for the water cooler and pump, this is the entire system. Seriously, that's it!  This is on the smaller end of a still, with the column only 1" in diameter.  Couple that with a 4 Liter boiler, and you're looking at a whopping pint or so of output each run.  That ain't much, but it's enough for the hobbyist. When in operation, the boiler is covered in water heater insulation to maintain better heating. There's a gooseneck CFL lamp for observing the whole thing during a run, and the collection flask sits high enough for a proofing parrot's beak to fit underneath when you're checking the proof of the output.  The collection flask is valved at the bottom, but if you look closely enough, you'll see a pressure equalization tube on the near side running from top to bottom.  That's very important - the vapor pressure from the boiler would pressurize and eventually explode the still if there wasn't a vent of sorts built into the system somewhere.  Having the pressure equalization tube on the collection flask allows the liquid ethanol to be captured, while allowing the boiler to continue pushing hot expanding vapor through the system towards the product condenser. It pushes at a brisk pace, too.
One drop at a time. 
 When running a distillation from fermented vegetation, it's always a good idea to discard a small portion of what boils off first.  This is because methanol, or wood alcohol, boils at a lower temperature than ethanol.  If your mash or wine was heavy on stems, seeds, pits, stones, or skins, then you'll have a higher percentage of methanol produced during fermentation.  The first 25 ml of each run in my system gets discarded for safety's sake.  When I say "discard", I mean it gets repurposed into my truck's windshield washer tank, or used to start burning whatever's in my fire pit, etc.  JUST DON'T DRINK IT - EVER!  There's more than enough to drink once you hit the ethanol peak in the distillation temperature curve, so do yourself a favor and make appropriate cuts.  Once you're firmly in ethanol territory, you can keep the still's output.  You can also measure the proof, understanding that it may in fact be too high to drink right away, so do be careful on the "sampling" thereof:
That's right - 188 proof!
The Model 188 Batch Rectifier is very consistent, producing 188 proof distillate (94% ABV) every time.  This is both good and bad.  Good because, well, it's 188 proof ethanol.  Bad because, well, it's also 188 proof ethanol.  Granted, it's very pure, lacks any bad flavors, and extracts the most out of a given batch of mash.  However, it must be cut way down to 110-120 proof (cask strength) for aging, and if you're looking for corn, barley, or rye flavors, they just aren't there.  Therein lies the rub - you have to rely on the cask to provide basically everything, as you've just distilled a very neutral spirit, aka white whiskey or moonshine. Neither IMHO are very palatable, so they need some help. Here's where you depart the world of laboratory science, and delve into the magic that is cask aging...
It takes patience, a lot of patience!
For those who don't already know, charred or toasted white oak is wonderful stuff.  When you construct a cask or barrel out of white oak, then fire it inside to the right color and depth, you've got a perfect receptacle to age your new cask-strength young whiskey within.  The solvent qualities of the young whiskey will immediately start extracting color and flavor from the oak, and over time you'll see and taste the transformation.  A longer stay in that cask is usually better, but not always - you can actually over-oak a whiskey if you're not careful.  It's best to rotate the cask a bit each month or so for even breathing of the whiskey into and out of the wood's pores, and of course don't forget to sample now and again. The whiskey will extract a nice caramel color, as well as flavors like vanilla, chocolate, pepper, etc.  This all happens sight unseen, and benefits from both the cask rotation and the temperature changes that occur each day and night.  You will lose a small fraction of the whiskey to evaporation due to the open pores of the oak staves, but this is known as the "Angel's Share", and is considered paid tribute for the wonderful results later.  I use smaller casks with a different surface-to-volume ratio, and they mature whiskey a bit sooner than their bigger cousins.  After about one year, I temper the whiskey down to 80 proof with charcoal-filtered rain water (No flourine, chlorine, or dissolved minerals).  It's a lot of work, but once bottled, the results to me are well worth the effort.
How do you do?
I wouldn't even want to hazard a guess at what the cost of labor, materials, and equipment is to produce even one pint of finished whiskey.  Truthfully, I don't care.  I made it myself, and in a recent tasting amongst friends, it's been likened to some of the finer Lowland Scotch Whiskies out there on the market.  That says more than enough to me - I must've done something right. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Looks like the goofy Czech VZ-52 rifle is still out there!

I just saw this on the Windows 8 Bing news feed tonight:

I'm going to assume the Syrian rebel in the photo is holding a VZ-52/57 in 7.62x39, unless they've got a stash of 7.62x45 over there. It appears the bayonet is better served in the fixed, vs. stowed, position.

This little guy has one, too.

My understanding is that Syria took delivery of a bunch of these circa 1954.  It all goes to show that in a civil war, all sorts of toys will show up at the party...

New post up on the other side.

Got kinda busy today. 

See here:


Thursday, June 13, 2013

I sold my soul to Microsoft - again.

Last fall, Microsoft offered a Windows 8 upgrade for $39.99.  "Great!", said I, because one of the IBM quad-core workstations in the house was getting rather long in the tooth with Windows XP, and I could either buy Windows 7 for a bunch of money, or simply jump to Windows 8 cheaply and be good for a while.

Yeah, right.  The DVD arrives, and I discover that the hardware of the IBM 6221 isn't going to cut it with Windows 8, because of BIOS, CPU, and IDE controller obsolescence. So that computer will get Windows 7, which has no such pretenses. In the meantime, what to do with this Windows 8 DVD?

My own workstation is an 8-core, water-cooled IBM 9228 with a couple SSDs and a huge spinning-platter HD for file storage.  It runs Windows 7 Ultimate 64-Bit perfectly, and does everything I could ask of it, lightning-quick.  That includes Adobe Creative Suite 6, SolidWorks, Fallout New Vegas, NOAA Weather Research Forecast models, anything I can throw at it. It would be silly to mess with it, no?

Silly, but I did, anyway.  That's me - if it ain't broken, keep fixing it until it is well and truly broken. Still smarting from the hardware issues that thwarted me from installing Windows 8 on the other IBM, I ran the Upgrade Compatibility Checker and found no issues.  That was a good sign.  I diligently backed up everything that meant something to my basement file server, then stuck the Windows 8 DVD in the big IBM, waiting for upgrade hell to break loose.  It didn't.

The upgrade went on without so much as a hiccup.  Since I really didn't want to spend a ton of money replacing my 28" LCD monitor with a touch-screen version of the same, I bought the Logitech T650 glass touchpad for the Windows 8 touch experience.  That was a good choice, considering the new Start Screen of Windows 8.

All my applications made the move ok.  All of my hardware made the move ok, from the HD TV tuner, to the USB Bluetooth dongle, and even the FireWire recording and audio interface.  Windows 8 attempted to create another pagefile on the main SSD drive, but I quickly relocated that to the second SSD drive where it belongs, no problem.

The old Windows Start Button and Start Menu is gone.  You have to use the pretty Start Screen to run things, or bring up the Desktop and use the old Taskbar icon trick to stash your favorite programs.  I'm getting better at all the touch gestures needed to run the system, and can actually do everything from the touchpad, including a touch keyboard.  I do still have my Microsoft Natural Keyboard and Logitech Trackball, because carpal tunnel.  Otherwise, the transition really isn't as bad as I though it would be.  Everything works, and Windows 8 does a better job of utilizing system resources, with
much lower CPU idle numbers than Windows 7.  Oh, and it's a lot more colorful!

    
Kinda pretty, ain't it?

 Microsoft is trying to force the PC world into adopting a tablet/smartphone mentality in how one accomplishes things.  My desktop display looks like a spitting image of my Windows smartphone, that much is certain.  How this desktop OS pans out for them is still up for debate.  Microsoft recently announced they're coming out with Windows 8.1 later this year, and it will be bringing back the Start Button, among other things. I questioned the wisdom of removing it in the first place, but chalked it up to Microsoft creating a paradigm shift in an all-or-nothing effort to transform personal computing. To me, it's basically a Windows 7 pickup truck with a spiffy new paint job. I upgraded because I didn't know what to do with the upgrade DVD.  If you have and like Windows 7, I'd recommend staying with it.  If you're adventurous and want to try something new and different, give Windows 8 a shot.  My 2009-vintage IBM is happy with it, purring (gurgling?) right along with nary a hiccup.
32 Degrees Celsius on a warm summer day - Nice!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Flying is inherently dangerous - or so I've been told.

I retired from Uncle Sam's Air Force in 2006.  I had more than a couple thousand hours logged in WC-135, B-52, P-3, and Beech King Air platforms before I decided to call it quits.  Why an Air Force guy managed to hop amongst all those platforms is a story that can't be written yet, but through it all, I was NEVER intercepted by hostiles.  We planned for it, practiced for it, and landed with relief each time it didn't happen. That doesn't mean we weren't looking for trouble - we were just really good at avoiding it and getting the hell out of Dodge when we saw it.

Fast-forward to 2013.  I decide that the winds are calm enough and weather nice enough to send Mr. Orville Wright out for a few lazy Figure 8s over the field across the road from my front yard.  When I say field I mean several square acres, bordered by a retention pond to the south, the street to the north, and a few big maple trees to the east.  Perfect, or so I thought.  The plane's batteries were fully charged, off we go, into the wild blue yonder!





The launch went smoothly, I managed to get a couple of box patterns in and was working the Figure 8s pretty well when all hell broke loose.  Unbeknownst to me, there was a Starling Interceptor Squadron stationed in the nearest maple tree, and Orville had penetrated both their Outer and Inner ADIZ something fierce.  (It wasn't on the local GNC or ONC charts, my bad...)

They came out in a flight of 3, basically a flight lead and two wingbirds.  Since I wasn't expecting them and was staying focused on keeping things airborne with the remote, I didn't even see them until they were on top of the plane.  Flight lead starling lit the burners and bounced the Wright Flyer's top wing, sending it into a shallow right spiraling dive. That's when I actually saw the three birds for the first time, and couldn't believe my eyes.  Friggin' songbirds are attacking a Wright Flyer - the audacity!

I had enough altitude to throw in some opposite rudder and throttle to regain straight and level flight. As I was climbing out of that little situation, wingbird #2 decided he was gonna biff the airplane's upper horizontal stabilizer.  That was enough to totally discombobulate the plane, and down it went, although I was able to bring the nose up near-level just as it pancaked into the tall grass, preventing an awkward F-16 Lawn Dart moment for my watching neighbors (Whom I hadn't noticed until the mishap, either).

All 3 birds overflew the crash site, then returned to home branch for debriefing and logging of a confirmed kill.  With my pride shattered, no thanks to the neighbors' laughter, I walked over to see if Orville and his flyer were damaged.  Luckily, besides aforementioned pride and a slightly creased lower horizontal stabilizer, all was intact.  I pulled hay out of the landing skids and Orville's face, and glared towards the maple tree as I walked home.

I'll be back across the street soon.  With my 400-size helicopter.  After I sharpen the leading edges of the main rotor, you little bastards!

 

It's that time of year again!

My basil plants started late, but have gone absolutely nuts. I figure it's all thanks to the mix of Miracle Gro, sterilized cow manure, and top soil that they're planted in.  The plants have some leaves that are the size of tea saucers, so I couldn't wait any longer.  I mean, just look at 'em!

 It's no surprise that Wisconsin has an abundance of mozzarella cheese.  My tomatoes aren't quite ready yet, but I found some nice heirloom varieties at the local Piggly Wiggly.  A little garlic, some extra virgin olive oil, and I had a Caprese Salad fit for a king!

I will at some point add a balsamic vinegar reduction to the mix.  That will happen later, because I'm not exactly suffering with what I have already.  Well, that, and I already eated it...

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Frog legs are delicious!

But I'm gonna have to wait a few months before I can gig a batch.  While definitely a bumper crop, these are a tad small right now. 





The Wisconsin DNR says I don't need a license, and can catch up to 5 frogs per species each day.
I just want the big bullfrogs.  The little peepers, green, and tree frogs just don't have enough meat on their bones, know what I mean? 

Saturday, May 25, 2013