Thursday, April 22, 2010

To Grow Where no Hops have Grown Before....

I like beer.

I mean, I can enjoy a good glass of wine or a fine scotch as much as the next man, but I really like a good beer. I'm not too much of a snob about it. However, I do have certain things I like about my beer.

1) I like my beer to be plentiful,
2) I like my beer to be enjoyed in the company of good friends, and
3) I like my beer hoppy.

Several years ago, some friends of ours turned us on to the potential of home-brewing. Under their watchful eye, I helped them produce a double batch of some fairly seriously good beer. If memory serves it was an APA. Perhaps my fondest moment of the whole process was passing around a bowl of fresh hops, just breathing in the aroma.

So, fast forward several years, and I am gearing up to get back into brewing, getting my own equipment, etc. After talking with a friend who grows his own hops, and because my garden has been a slight obsession this year, I thought...

"What the heck, I'm going to try to grow some hops."

There's a fairly good possibility that I will look back on this sentence and either laugh or weep uncontrollably.

So I read up on growing hops. I learned about good soil pH...about proper twine and which way the vines should be trained etc etc etc. Hops grow well between 35 and 55 latitude. Houston is at roughly 29.65. Also, hops like lots of space, the vines getting 20 feet+ in length/height. We have a balcony. This was going to be a challenge.

Undeterred I sent away for some hops rhizomes. The "Nugget" and "Cascade" varieties seemed the most idiot proof, and I'm an idiot, so hey, we have a match.

Since we have no actual land, I got the largest containers I could easily find in a 5 minute search of Lowe's. The 5 gallon buckets ($2.24!!) that I had previously converted into tomato containers. I started by drilling several holes in the bottom and low sides of the bucket to ensure drainage.


I then cut out the mesh bottom of a plastic flat from the garden center, to use as a filter/strainer at the bottom.


I put a thin layer of cedar mulch at the bottom to try to avoid mud compacting in the holes.


The soil I chose to go for was a mix of about 2/3 garden soil and 1/3 peat compost. This was based on the scientific principle of "that's what I happened to have on hand". This is my very favorite scientific principle.


I mixed up the soil in another bucket (Did I mention they're 2 bucks each? I bought about 10. You never know when a bucket is going to come in handy. Gardening, painting, zombie apocalypse...etc). It was then added, with some water stirred in, to the prepared bucket planters.


Now it was time to add the hops rhizomes, which already had several small buds on them. (Note to fellow good as fresh hops smell? That's about as bad as rhizomes smell with whatever they were shipped soaked in.)


I spaded out a shallow 2-3 inch depression for each rhizome, and then gently placed the earth over it.


Lastly, I put some more cedar mulch around the sides to help prevent moisture loss, but left an opening along the central axis so as not to present too much of an obstacle for the buds.


Will they grow? Not sure. Hopefully I've gotten them in the ground, so to speak, early enough that they can take hold before the death grip of summer.

Garden Update

So my oft-neglected garden got an upgrade this year in the form of a promise to provide it water other than ambient rainfall and the judicious application of science, or a reasonable approximation thereof, in its care. I expounded on this in a previous post.

This is a quick update, then, on the progress of the balconygarden, about 5 weeks in.


Fruits and Vegetables -
The Tomatoes have gotten ridiculously large compared to previous years. The modified 5 gallon buckets not only provide better drainage and sturdier bases, but were actually cheaper than regular pots (2.25 each at Lowe's). There are baby tomatoes already appearing on the Patio varietal, and all the heirlooms have at the very least put forth blossoms. I fear a lack of pollinators may be at play in getting some fruit from them. Regardless, they're all about about 6' now. The Peppers are doing fairly well, though are a bit stunted due to an aphid infestation. So far only half the peppers are affected, and have been quarantined among the marigolds. The others are starting to produce fruit. The snap peas aren't growing wildly, but are starting to produce peas. The Zucchini is the star of the show, growing fantastically enough to warrant a larger container either this season or next, and already sending out a good sized zucchini, with others on the way. The Strawberries are doing poorly, no matter whether they're kept ultra moist or dry out a little. There is one in a separate pot that's doing ok, but not growing much.

Herbs -
The herbs are doing relatively well also. The mints grew enough to warrant cutting back a little, as did the cilantro , lemon balm and sweet basil. The Lavender is doing well also, sending up several stalks of blossoms, though not especially fragrant yet. The Rosemaries haven't had a lot of growth, but have sent out some new shoots, so they seem to be holding on. The Tarragon seeds have completely failed to sprout. At all. Next year I'll have to try to find some starter plants instead.

So far the only things to completely succomb have been an Ivy, which we just can't seem to grow at all, no matter what we do, and a couple Marigolds. This is pretty much a banner year for Not Killing Things here in the Bower garden. We'll see how the season progresses.

We had our first "harvest" this week, mostly due to cutting back the herbs to encourage new growth and to prevent them from getting too spread out/leggy. I have previously nipped off buds of basil, but this was the first serious going-through of all the garden denizens. It's a bit like being a feudal lord...I give them shelter and occasional sustenance, and they yield up a portion of their bounty.
We got several large handfulls of sweet basil, a couple handfulls of the various mints, and a handfull each of cilantro and lemon balm. I have no idea what to do with most of it, other than maybe some pesto from the basil and maybe a lemon-mint tea from the rest. We also got a good sized zucchini and a single snap pea.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My blog, by any other name, still stinks

In picking an arguably pretentious choice of a Latin phrase [1] for a blog title , I managed to betray exactly how little I had gotten out of four years of Latin (Sorry Ms. Kiechle, you tried your best) by misspelling it as "In Media(sic) Res" (It should be Medias). By the time I caught this, it was too late to change it as both inmediasres and inmediasresblog were already taken.

Given that there is already an active blog called In Medias Res, I have considered changing my blog’s name. This is especially pressing given that my friends, all of whom are geniuses of one manner or another, have suitably creative blog names.

Some potential options:

1) Notes from the Republic – reflecting my exile in Tejas.

2) Field Notes from the Republic – ditto, but with field reflecting the naturalist and/or anthropological bent that the blog tends to delve into from time to time

3) Postcards from the Republic – as above, but more irreverent.

4) Leaving New York – Always liked this REM song, and it is appropriate given my history. Still, I’d really like to not be that guy who names their blog after song lyrics.

5) Find the River – ditto on both counts.

6) A Terrible Beauty – ironically may be both too obscure a reference and too overly utilized a referencee (Yeats). At least it’s better than But it may also raise questions of whether it’s intended as a reference to the blogger, which could lead to all sorts of uncomfortable comparisons.

7) The Widening Gyre – see above.

8) A Terrible Resolve – Not sure why the fixation on terrible. I just like the idea of a terrible resolve.

9) Slouching Toward Bethlehem – again with the Yeats. Sigh. “Why that’s a nice trick, Mr. Pony, do you do another? No? ok.”

10) Zealot Ratio – This is going to be my band name if when I become a rock star. As far as I know it is not taken. I had come up with it when considering the extremes of political/social identification, and what the ratio of zealots to moderates in a society meant….too few and there is potentially a stagnation, too many and there is polarization…so what is the proper zealot ratio? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it goes to 11.

That’s all I could come up with. Which is kinda sad. If anyone has suggestions for names for a blog centered around…well…not really much at all…let me know. I got nothin’.


11) I got nothin’

[1] In Medias Res, roughly translated, means "in the middle of things". Pretension aside, it's pretty fitting for me, and something I've reflected on here several times..feeling like I'm in the middle of my life path, in the middle of skill levels, in the middle of moving from where I was to where I'll be, in the middle of the political spectrum, etc etc etc. So it's not TOTALLY disconnected from the content.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Only in Texas, part 329.

Just a couple slice of life shots from in and around Houston, TX.

Huntin' Stuff.
This is what you get when you have Billy Bob's Purty Sellin'-Place Signs 'n Thingz do your store's shingle. It's kind of like having Betty Lou's Kuntry Kitchen cater your wedding.

The sign and this almost-in-the-water bench are found in very close proximity. That's some fine bench planning, boys.

Utopia, Texas. No comment other than, you'd think in a Utopia, there'd be ample funding for a better sign...

Two Starbucks locations. So what? So, they're directly across the street from one another. NOt down the street a little, or kitty-corner....but DIRECTLY ACROSS THE STREET.The infamous Starbucks-across-the-street-from-another Starbucks in River Oaks, Houston.
(Starbucks shots linked from

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A bit of a byte

Being a not so cleverly veiled discussion of the economics of technology.

In 1999 I bought my first computer. I bought way more machine than I needed, assuming it would be worthwile to spend extra so that it would not need to be replaced as quickly. It was a 90's beige box Dell, and I spent the ludicrous sum of $1500 on it [1].

And last it did, until 2004/2005 when it finally began to get cranky and show its age. It got to the point where it couldn't provide the functionality I needed, so it was time for an upgrade. I shopped around for pre-built computers, but couldn't find what I wanted at a good price point[2].

So, I marshaled the fantastic resources of the internet and delved into the realm of the "PC enthusiast". [3] With the help of some really informative sites, I was able to put myself together a sweet little machine for under $500, (which at the time, was pretty good) by assembling it myself. While there are drawbacks to the massive overload of the information revolution, being able to get great advice from a wide range of people in any given field is not one of them. (see recommended sites following this post) While I did not quite go off the cliff into the case/system pimping of the true enthusiast (I saw multi-colored, neon glowing, water-cooled cases that would have made Xzibit weep with joy), if you're going to DIY, might as well have fun. So I ended up with a nice shiny black case and red, lighted exhaust fans that give the subtle impression of an obsidian megalith spewing hellfire. [4]

The DIY approach is always satisfying, and even in this incredibly geeky pursuit, it was fun to learn more about the PC, and actually assemble one by hand.

Now here's where the economic blathering kicks in...

At about the same time, my wife bought a new Dell for about twice the price of my system, with about the same specifications (slightly better). It was more machine than she needed, but she was operating under the same assumption we all generally do...invest in quality and get more than you need, and you can grow into it. It is my argument here that, while this may be perfectly logical in many durable goods, it does not work with computer purchases (and other related technology).

My bet with her [5] was that by buying what I needed, rather than buying something better than I needed, and then planning to upgrade earlier than she did, I could spend less than she did, and end up with a better computer.

The assumption was that we would start roughly equal, or I would have an inferior system. I would then pursue an aggressive upgrade schedule of 3 years, while she would keep her system for 6 years. Because the rate of tech change is rapid, after the 3 years, I would be able to spend only an incremental amount to upgrade my components to a system that would be generations beyond hers. The difference being that she was paying for having more capacity than she needed on the front end, whereas my system scaled to meet my actual need. Taking advantage of advancing tech, but staying in the moderate end of the market, I would end up with a much better system at the same or less cost. This would not work for durable goods like furniture, but does for tech, because it's not static. A good chair is a good chair. What's a good processor now, will be obsolete in the very near future. [6]

To put it into context, we skip ahead to 2010. I had planned to upgrade sooner, but simply hadn't needed to. [7] However, given an occasional game, and a more frequent need for multi-core processing ability to do photo editing and other more processor/memory intensive tasks, my old system was starting to drag a little. Since I could afford to upgrade, and could afford to do so cheaply, I went ahead with it.

So now I am on the cusp of finishing a new system [8] that is pulled from the moderate range of the market, like the last build. It meets my need for now and the foreseeable future, but doesn't invest too much into the high end or trying to meet my need indefinitely. I spent about $350 in total, by working deals like it was my job. I filled out a rebate for practically every component I bought.

To illustrate the economics point, though, let's look at my system vs. my wife's

Original Systems (2005, start of experiment):
My Wife's - Dell, original cost ~$1100. PIV processor, 512 m RAM, Radeon 7000 video - cost, $1100 (pre-built)
Mine- roughly equivalent, better video, better processor, no service contract, win 2k vs. XP. - cost ~$550.

Current Systems(2010)
My Wife's - same as original, no upgrade.
Mine -upgrade components current gen, with high function video card, quad core processor, etc. - upgrade cost - $350.

Total Cost, Original + Current:
My Wife: ~$1100
Me: $550 + $350 = $900.

So even if you subtract out of my wife's costs the repair contract and her flat screen monitor, we still spent about an equal amount of money over this 5 year period.

HOWEVER, because I started moderate and then upgraded moderate DIY, and she started premium, pre-built, I came out far ahead because:

1) the best tech price point is at the 50-75% percentile range of capacity
2) technology has a steep price decline that negates any value of "growing into" a system.
3) by doing the DIY approach, I didn't need to get a whole new computer, just new "guts". This saved money and meant less electronics waste.

The somewhat dubiously proven lesson here is that if you can DIY, do so. But more importantly, don't "invest" in more of a system than you need. These days, you can almost always get the best deal in the middle to bottom third of the market because capacity has outstripped need, and tech changes so rapidly.

For anyone interested in building your own( it's easy..everything is modular! No wiring/soldering, just plug a into b), I highly recommend the following sites:

) - all around great forums and advice for tech of all kinds
2) - fantastic site of user submitted deals and finds for all things, but especially tech. I don't buy anything until I've checked here first.
3) - great place to get components. Fantastic service, cheap, and great selection.
4) - if you're lucky to have either store nearby, they have ridiculous combo deals all the time. One-stop shop.
5) - free office software clone. Open source, can easily save as office document formats. Free. 100% legal. - in general you don't need to buy any software except your OS. Everything has a freeware clone version these days.

[1]~$1500, back in those days, was the equivelent of like, $40,000 now, or something. Also, we walked uphill both ways to school. While that was not too crazy a price in that day (when computers weren't as cheap as they are now), it was still ludicrous for someone making ~$25,000 a year to spend more than 5% of their income on it.

[2] Some people have called me cheap. I tend to take that in the pejorative sense. I am value-oriented. I am cost-conscious. I like a deal. But not cheap. I have absolutely no problem spending money for quality. My primary philosophy is 1) figure out what you need (and at what point you run into diminsihing returns), 2) find the best match between price and value that meets that need.

I don't pay for the status of having a brand name. I don't pay for the novelty of having the latest thing. Neither do I try to find the absolute cheapest thing I can get. In pretty much all things you pay a premium at either the high or low end of the market, either to have the latest thing, or just to have a thing at all (respectively).

[3]It is a dark and damp realm, smelling vaguely of body odor and despair and parents' basements.

[4] Or, conversely, the impression of having way too much time on my hands.

[5] This was not a bet in the sense that she took me up on it, simply in the sense that I blathered this to her and she nodded and smiled and patted me on the head and went about her business.

[6] At the time I was doing a lot of work with long range water supply planning, which often deals with the balancing of two factors: 1) the desire to not have unused capacity on the ground, costing money but not doing anything, and 2) the desire to upsize capacity such that when you need to upgrade you don't need to retrofit everything. To me, the computer issue was a micro level examination of the same conundrum. How do you find the best value over time to meet a need, without paying a premium for unused capacity? Even more so, how do you do so with a product that isn't static (i.e. a pipe is a pipe. the tech is not changing rapidly, as opposed to , say, a video card.)

[7] the fantastic thing about the modern computer era is that even the lowest capacity computer on the market is way more machine than 90% of us need. Unless one does 1) hardcore 3d gaming, 2) lots of intensive video/photo editing (pro-level) or 3)runs high caliber aps like GIS, CAD, etc, you simply don't need a quad-core processor with 4 gigs of RAM. The only thing that has really scaled over the past five years is our need for storage space. But with 1 terrabyte drives as cheap as $70, that hardly dictates the need for a new machine.

[8] For the techies, Athlon II X4 630 with an MSI 785 GM -E51 motherboard, 4 gig ddr31600 RAM, a nice 512m Radeon 4850 video card, 1 TB Samsung F3 SATA drive, 160 gig hitachi drive, 640 gig external hitachi backup drive, Sony Opticar 22X DVDRW, and a new 500 watt PSU, paired with my existing Antec case and optical drive. All for around $350 for the new components (everything but the case, one optical drive, and the 160 gig and 640 gig hd's).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wildflower Season has Begun

No big words today, just some pictures from the start of wildflower season.
I gave a somewhat extended treatise on wildflowers and Texas art in a previous blog post that may be worth referring to.

Click on the shot to see a larger version, or go here.

unidentified wildflower
Unidentified Wildflower

bluebonnet with unidentified butterfly
Bluebonnet with Unidentified Butterfly

Wildflowers (Fleabane, etc)
Philadelphia Fleabane, Blue-Eyed Grass, etc.

Unidentified wildflower

unidentified wildflowers
Unidentified Wildflowers

Indian Paintbrush and Bluebonnet
Indian Paintbrush and Bluebonnet

Spiderwort with unidentified bug

Evening Primrose, backlit
Backlit Evening Primrose

unidentified wildflowers
(Pink or Violet?) Wood Sorrel

Yellow Flower with Buttercups

Bee on wildflower
Bumblebee on Blue-Eyed (Grass) Blossoms. (alliteration! Awesome!...anyway....,)

Wildflowerscape (Bluebonnets and Crepe Myrtle)

unidentified wildlflower
Another as of yet unidentified wildflower

Red Buckeye
Red Buckeye in Bloom (Not technically a wildflower, but meh.)