Archive for December, 2008

Don’t buy new XC skis, and don’t buy waxless

December 31, 2008

It’s been a snowy December here in New Hampshire, and one of the cool things about Lebanon is that there is a rail trail that runs maybe 25 miles southeast, with nice mellow grades and pleasant scenery, first through town, then along the shores of Mascoma river and Mascoma lake.  When 16″ of snow fell a week or two ago, Alexis and I set off on the trail with our friend Emily to enjoy the tail end of the storm, picture perfect with the snow on the rocks in the river and lights sparkling on the houses.

At the end of the trip just for fun I swapped skis with Alexis, and discovered immediately how much waxless skis suck.  She has a set of fairly modern waxless skis from LL Bean, that she got secondhand somewhere.  I’ve always had wax skis, first wooden ones, then a set of old “modern” composite MT53s that I got as hand-me-downs from my dad, and I never tried the waxless type.  I was amazed that they have almost no glide at all, and they make an annoying vibration (not loud, but you feel it in your feet).  The skis in question were almost as long as my regular ones, and by the sliding paper method I confirmed that they weren’t too soft for me or anything.  They just suck – in retrospect it’s amazing that Alexis assented to go skiing given their performance.  She tried mine in turn and declared the difference remarkable.

Since it was just before Christmas, I went in to Beans in West Leb and then to a ski shop over by Home Despot, and discovered that with the exception of skimpy skating gear (and burly on-piste tele stuff) nobody seems to even sell an old fashioned plain wax cross country ski.  They pretty much only sell these fishscale marvels, and for ~200 bucks, skis only, no boots/poles/bindings.  The friendly salesman said that they didn’t have any used gear and it’s really hard to find.  Skeptical, I stopped in on the way home at the Listen thrift store in Lebanon, and looked in their rack.  And Lo, while the majority of equipment was scaly, there was one solid pair of Beans’ wax skis in used but not worn condition; by the color maybe 10-15 years vintage.   Normal price for used xc skis at Listen is apparently $12, but these were on clearance for $4, indicating no apparent shortage of used equipment.  They had funny bindings on them (SNS or NNN or some modern stuff, not sure which type), but I was happy to find that the screw pattern on the 3 pin bindings of her old skis matched that of the new skis, and resulted in approximately the same toe position.

Things are crusty here as a result of several warm days and some rain, but I can’t wait for the next snow to come so we can try them out.  Now, maybe I’m not being perfectly fair; maybe that particular model of ski that she got was a dud; maybe she needs some glide wax (though I haven’t applied glide wax in a decade and haven’t felt the lack of it); surely in sloping terrain that was constantly at the limit of grip one might wish for more grip at the expense of glide.  And to hear it from the internet makes it seem as if waxing requires a Nobel prize or something – maybe for racers it does.  But for everyday rail trail/golf course/state park type conditions, I can’t see why anybody would want waxless skis, and in any case I can’t see why the casual XC skier would ever buy new, when there’s such a profusion of decent gear in the thrift shops.  I subsequently talked to my dad in Maine, who confirmed that good quality XC gear shows up constantly at the Georgetown “Mall” (transfer station), and that he has a heap of it in the corner of his barn.

I don’t know how to categorize this post – I haven’t created a category for “indignant rant” so maybe I should, but that seems too blog-ish somehow.  Mostly it started me thinking about how much marginally useful stuff is purchased, constantly and especially around the end of each year, and wondering what kind of economy we could have if people at once found themselves unable to afford it and realized that often it’s unnecessary, and in many other cases can be had for pennies on the dollar.  At what point does it become true that more stuff is not the most efficient way to more happiness?  And if circumstances dictate that at least temporarily more stuff is not in the cards for most of us, what sorts of optimizations are possible?

To give an example I’ve been cogitating on for years, it has always seemed ridiculous that most canoes sit idle 363 days of each year, and many casual outdoorspeople own canoes despite their infrequent use.  Most outdoor gear (though certainly not climbing ropes and the like) fall into this mold.  Why not have an online arrangement (similar to zipcar or web carpooling sites) that facilitates friends and neighbors borrowing or renting gear from one another, such that each of us doesn’t need to own a road bike AND a mountain bike AND XC skis AND alpine skis AND snowboards AND snowshoes AND canoes AND kayaks AND yadda yadda.  Of course there are damage and liability issues, but given the massive personal savings involved, it seems likely that these could be integrated and made affordable in the aggregate so that users come out way ahead.


Double-barreled counterpressure bottle filler

December 20, 2008

This morning I tried out a new gizmo that I’ve been thinking about since last fall – a two-station counterpressure bottling rig.  I’m pleased to report that it works really nicely, and if I get a chance I’ll post pictures and maybe plans.

First of all, a counterpressure bottling setup is a piece of specialized plumbing that allows bottling of home-brewed carbonated beverages without losing most of the gas.  If you just use a tube with a valve on the end to dispense pressurized cider from a keg, most of the gas comes out as it passes through the valve, so the beverage comes out really foamy, you have to fill really slowly, and the end result turns out almost flat.

The solution is a counterpressure filler.  The basic concept is to fill the bottle with CO2 before introducing beverage, and then vent the gas from the headspace of the bottle slowly so as to keep most of the gas in solution.  Holly built one a few years back using swagelok fittings and a two-way valve from McMaster-Carr, and we’ve done all our bottling with it, but it has significant limitations.  You have to manually force it downward on the top of the bottle and sit there applying constant pressure while it fills.  If you get distracted and let it pop out of the mouth of the bottle, you get a minor cider volcano and a mess all over the table.  And, you can’t do anything else for the minute or so that it takes each bottle to fill.

So, this year I made two counterpressure filler units, mounted them on wooden arms that slide up and down and clamp onto two pieces of 3/4″ copper pipe arranged vertically about a foot apart and attached to a baseplate, and plumbed them in parallel to a keg of cider and a small CO2 cylinder.  In operation, one of the units is slid down in place over a bottle until its rubber stopper seats in the mouth of the bottle, and a handle is tightened to lock the unit firmly in place.  then the valve is turned one way to charge the bottle with gas, then the other way to start the flow of cider.  A needle valve controls the rate at which gas escapes from the top of the bottle between the central tube and the stopper, which in turn controls the filling rate.  While the bottle is filling, the operator is free to rinse and sanitize empties, cap full bottles, or prepare the next keg for dispensing.

Even in crude prototype form the double-barreled counterpressure bottling rig was a dramatic improvement over previous manual filler.  The wood-on-copper linear bearings leave a bit to be desired, but they did the job, and I was able to bottle two and a half cases in very short order before I ran out of gas, shortly after the welding shop closed for the weekend.  If I neaten up the plumbing and make a nicer base plate and slider arms, I think I will end up with a truly elegant system.

The Ghost of Tom Joad

December 9, 2008

When I was in Five Islands a couple weeks back I got digital copies of some old pictures of my parents before I was born. The photos below show them, newly married and a good bit younger than I am now, departing southern California in caravan with all their worldly possessions and a terrier, setting out to make a new life on the coast of Maine. The images seem somehow relevant in this time of constant 1930s references, with the two battered automobiles crammed full of dented pots and pails and all things mundane, though the Olympic-class racing dinghy makes sort of an odd note. It puts me in mind also of the time not many months distant when Alexis and I will likely depart Lebanon residency-bound and make our own new life somewhere.