Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fermented Pears, Mathematical Drapes, and Computerised Trains

As predicted, I woke up this morning to a drizzle, which quickly became a steady rain, and has been alternating between a light pattering and an all-out downpour for the rest of the day (and now evening), with a few gusts of wind every now and then for good measure. As Howard and Rosemarie are kind, humane people, my tasks today were all indoors (or at least, undercover).

We started the morning by peeling d'Anjou pears for winemaking; Rosemarie and I peeled and sliced the pears (removing a good deal of mushy rotting brown centres; the pears were overripe), placing them in bowls filled with water and a sterilizing agent to prevent them from turning brown, while Howard decanted some boysenberry wine he had started making earlier to ready the equipment to accommodate ten kilograms of pears. (Well, they were 10kg when we bought them, for a rockin' $4; by the time one removes the skins, the cores, and all the mushy bits, the total weight was something like 6kg.)

The peelings, mushy bits, and cores all went into a nifty composting system promoted by the local county called Bokashi, which is a Japanese word meaning "fermented organic matter". The basic idea of the system is to pickle the compost using anaerobic bacteria, rather than letting it decay putrefactively with aerobic bacteria, as in a normal compost. The main advantages for this are a) the unit is sealed, so there is no smell, which makes it ideal for indoor use; b) the fermentation is complete in four weeks, which can be much faster than traditional composting; and c) the nutrients contained in the produced juices are readily collected and can be fed back to living plants. The home-sized system promoted here in New Zealand consists of two 15L square pails, one with small holes drilled in the bottom sitting inside the other. Organic matter to be composted is placed in one-inch layers in the inner pail, interspersed with "Compost-Zing", which is a brand name for what is essentially sawdust, treacle (molasses), and EM, a "beneficial microbical culture" (this is what encourages fermentation, rather than putrefaction, to take place). The inner bucket has a tight-fitting lid, so as little air as possible can enter the system. The nutrient-rich juices from the fermenting process seep out of the holes and into the bottom bucket, and can be collected every few days and mixed with water and fed to plants, as can the pickled compost once the fermentation process is complete. I thought it was a pretty nifty little system, and perfectly suited for indoor environments; I have some friends who live in apartments who would probably love to start a Bokashi compost.

The pears squared and pared away (haha, I'm so droll... but I just realised that only sounds funny if one reads it aloud), I pasted labels on jars of boysenberry jam, tomato salsa, and pumpkin and feijoa chutney to be put in the pantry. That finished, Rosemarie directed me outside to the veranda, where I sat in the loveswing, safely protected from the rain, and peeled the labels off of empty commercial wine bottles so they could be used for housing hommeade wines. Some came off easily, and some had be sitting there gritting my teeth as I pulled one tiny strip of of sticky gum off at a time.

After a mid-morning tea break of mince tarts and (guess what) sliced pear, the three of us tackled the other box of pears (yea, the house is now pear-free), and then I set to work helping to hang new drapes in the living room and kitchen/dining room. The fun part of this task was counting the number of hook-rings (and thus the number of hooks to be used), then counting the number of potential hook mounts on the drapes and doing the math to figure out how many spaces should exist between each hook on the drapes so as to acheive aestetcially-pleasing and even bunching. While it wasn't such a bad job for me to do because a) my arms are longer than Rosemarie's, so I was better able to reach up high and hang the curtains, and b) I don't mind doing a little math, the fussiness of the bunching to get it all even reminded me of why my brother and I disappear every time my mom takes down the fabric skirts from above the windows for washing and then spends two hours getting them all back on their runners and neatly bunched up again.

After lunch I had free time, and Howard and I had a nice talk about the first Macintosh computer, and he offered to show me his N-scale train layout. Of course never being one to turn down an invitation to play with trains, I readily accepted. I was expecting a nicely-modelled railway, perhaps half-built, but featuring some stations, houses, perhaps a factory, interspersed with forest, pasture, and maybe even a river or lake if Howard had been feeling particuarly ambitious. What I saw instead was nowhere near as visually impressive, but once I understood what was going on, it was ten times cooler. (To Howard's credit, the model railroad has only been set up here for two years, and for most of that time he and Rosemarie have been concentraing on the garden, so he hasn't had a lot of time to do scenery.)

Howard's railway consists of a large square-shaped track with two main loops (outer running counter-clockwise, inner running clockwise) and plenty of passing loops, sidings, and one long section of track looping out from the lower left corner that will one day join up with the main outer loop again. What makes his system so fascinating is it is entirely controlled by a computer. While I was picturing a control box like my brother's model trainset used to have, Howard has written a program containing 70 000 lines of code to control his train layout. The software (so far) can handle multiple trains of varying priority and type, automatically switch the points, send trains to stations and to sidings, and perform automatic decoupling (but not yet coupling) of cars. Separate sections of track are all monitored and controlled by their own circuit boards, and then everything feeds back into the main computer running the software on the Windows 2000 platform (the program is written in Java, however, so it could work on other platforms as well). It was absolutely fascinating to watch six trains whiz around the tracks, pausing on passing loops to let higher-priority trains go through, backing onto sidings, and waiting their turns until main lines were clear so they could continue on to their prescribed destinations. Also amusing as watching Howard troubleshoot bugs, of which there were many; there was a lot of dust on the track system, as Howard hasn't had much time of late to play with his trains, so the engines kept losing electrical contact with the rails and causing red "trouble" lines to appear on the digital map of the layout on the computer screen, alerting us to a track continuity problem. As Howard said, "A lot of model railroaders don't want computer-controlled train sets because they figure there'd never be anything to do. There's always something to do!"

Incidentally, Howard has made the source code of his "Train Control Centre" software freely available online; you can download it and read all about it here. Howard belongs to MERG: the Model Electronic Railway Group, which is an international (but based in the UK) collection of model railroaders who mix their passion for trains with a passion for circuitry and computer programming.

As we were making dinner Howard and I were discussing books, and Dune came up; turns out he and Rosemarie own several copies of the movie (on VHS and DVD), and we ended up watching the first fifteen minutes after dinner; I wouldn't watch any more because I don't want it to spoil my reading of the book, and I didn't think Rosemarie was keen to sit through a three-hour movie; she looked pretty tired. I'm feeling pretty tired myself; I just had a shower, and since sitting down to write this blog entry I've been yawning and feeling my eyelids droop lower and lower.

One last train-related thing before I go to bed: Howard has a little set-up on the Christmas tree (yes, their Christmas tree is still up) where a circuar piece of track is braced by diagonal stays against the trunk, and a two-car electric train goes round and round the tree about three feet up in the air. You know you're a serious train nut when...

I best be off to bed... if the rain and wind let up I imagine I'll be out in the garden tomorrow. Night!


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