Germany Trip Report

Posted by: pat 2 weeks, 6 days ago

With over a year of advanced planning, four different lodgings, and taxis, trains, subways, cable cars, and a rented van as transportation modalities, our trip to Germany to join in the celebration of a friend's birthday was probably the most complicated trip we've undertaken as a family.  I am happy to report it was worth every penny and every hour of planning!

It all began about 16 months ago when a good friend announced that his 60th birthday would be celebrated at Oktoberfest in Munich in late September 2017.  We were the first group to commit outside of his family.  I'll admit to having experienced moments of second-guessing the decision between then and now and having a few premonitions of concern over the actual Oktoberfest event, but it turned out to be such a great trip that we are already trying to figure out what future event we could use as an excuse to return.

We spent 5 nights in Munich, including 2 days at the Oktoberfest fairgrounds at the Theresienwiese.  This was followed by 3 nights at Hopfen am See where our hotel apartment had views of castles from every window.  We closed the trip with one night at the world's largest thermal bath / spa / waterpark, Therme Erding.

I relished the opportunity to dust off my diminished but not forgotten German skills.  I was transported right back to 1984 the first time a waiter said “nehmen Sie Platz!” (take a seat), the phrase that seemed to start every class in high school.

Munich

We took the train and subway from the airport to our centrally located VRBO lodgings in Munich.  This apartment came with a price premium at Oktoberfest, but we value being in walking distance of sights and good food.  It was quite spacious and had a huge tiled shower room and a lighting system and appliances we never quite figured out.  My German skills were immediately put to the test as the charming and elegant cleaning lady Litza, who spoke no English, walked us through the place.  When it came to the light switches she just seemed to say try the switch here, try it there, until you get them to work.

Light switches.  These were everywhere in the apartment, unlabeled, and many were 3-way switches linked to other switches

Lighting control system

Our first night out featured perhaps our worst meal of the trip, currywurst from a nearby restaurant.  Maybe it was because my constitution and appetite were all out of whack from jet lag, but the too-sweet sauce and the big dollop of mayo made me a tiny bit nauseous.  But currywurst was on my checklist for the trip, so at least that was resolved.  After dinner I led the family on a walk through our neighborhood, passing through the lovely Gärtnerplatz circle, the Viktualienmarkt food market (where we saw all kinds of great food we could have had rather than currywurst), the Marienplatz plaza, and finally a tour through the ever-lively Hofbräuhaus.

Kim woke early due to the jet lag and by the time I got up she warned me the coffee should be warmed up in the microwave.  OK I thought and went to do so only to have to inform her "That's no microwave!" but rather it is some kind of Miele steam oven with metal trays and a water reservoir.

On Friday we rented bikes from Mike's Bikes and rode through Englischer Garten.  Didn’t see any nude sunbathers, probably due to the cooling weather.  We stopped to watch the surfers.  When I pointed out a nearby rope swing over the river our eldest proclaimed we should go back for our swimsuits.  After a pause she added "or we could just strip naked and go now, because that's a thing here, right?"

We hit the Chinese Tower Biergarten just in time for lunch.  I had to explain to the girls how a Chinese Tower in Germany is not racist, and that political correctness and cultural appropriation are concepts you generally leave behind in the US.  We had a lovely afternoon sitting outside enjoying a Maß of helles bier for me, a radler (half helles, half sprite, and much better tasting than that might sound!), ribs, bratwurst, sauerkraut, schnitzel, cabbage salad, and other snacks.  That made for an interesting ride back as we proceeded to get a little lost, but luckily Kim got us going in the right direction and we recovered in time to hit our 3 hour rental return window.  We then overextended ourselves by taking on a visit to through The Residenz, the former royal palace of the Wittelsbach family.  The relics were particularly interesting, but overall we were a bit weary and cranky by the time we got through it.  And all of the signage indicating “this area was destroyed during the war and later recreated” kind of took the wind out of the sails for the whole historical authenticity thing.

Betty enjoying her first radler

Saturday the plan was to meet up with our friends at the Theresienwiese, the permanent site of Oktoberfest, to try to "casually” do Oktoberfest.  We weren't planning to try to squeeze into any of the big tents on a busy Saturday, just check out the rides and visit some of the small tents.  We got an earlier start and our friends got a later start, so we didn't end up seeing any of them until we met for dinner that evening.  We did a bunch of the rides starting with the Ferris wheel.  The girls were excited to have heard there would be almost 200 rides and were not disappointed.  The fun house rides were more my speed, providing inspiration for new Halloween decorations.  The girls finished by riding the Höhenrausch ride with some inebriated young men who spent most of the ride flipping each other off.  When it looked like the ride was all over, they all chanted ONE MORE TIME, ONE MORE TIME and unbelievably they were obliged with a second round.  This ride really did a number on the girls.  Afterwards we got into a table that was open for an hour in a small tent and had a light lunch of salad and chicken noodle soup, and I of course enjoyed a Maß of the Wiesn fest bier.  Went back to the apartment and crashed for naptime so the girls could recover from their ride.

The crowds are building on the main drag through the tent area

Nymphenberg Sekt is the huge wine tent on site.  That's right, Oktoberfest isn't just about bier

That evening we dined with the whole birthday group at the Paulaner Bräuhaus.  My friend has a nephew who lives in Munich and was just recently married.  He had made the arrangements.  As we entered we witnessed some skilled handling of a jolly but very drunk patron who needed to be ejected into a waiting taxi.  It was good to meet the folks with whom we would be spending Monday afternoon in the Lowenbrau tent.  I had my best meal of the trip, a crisp roasted ham hock or as they say auf Deutsch, a schweinshaxe or pork knuckle.  It was very crispy on the outside and juicy tender on the inside, and came with two different dumplings.  One was some kind of stuffing dumpling and the other a springy potato dumpling, which I didn't really care for.  We closed out with the first of many delicious apple strudels to be sampled on this trip.  The girls ordered the creme brulee which was the worst example of this dish I've ever encountered, so bad it could not be finished.  Imagine a creme brulee that is about 1/3 inch deep and 10 inches wide and dark brown in color where it should be creamy yellow.  

Sunday we took a day trip to tour Dachau.  It was very crowded as it was a weekend during Oktoberfest, but we did get into an English language tour.  I had visited Dachau on a trip in high school so it wasn't all new to me, but some of it was.  I had not recalled how many of the prisoners were Jehovah's Witnesses and that there were over 3,000 Catholic priests there.  And that there is no very little photographic evidence of the atrocities there:  just cleaned up propaganda photos from the Nazis and then the photos taken when it was liberated.  There was also quite a bit of discussion among the tour group regarding the brothel that operated briefly at Dachau, with one visitor making the leap to draw parallels to modern scandals of sex trafficking by UN security forces.

Sunday night we ate at Der Pschorr, a spot across from the Viktualienmarkt food market near our apartment.  They serve an Edelhell which is poured by gravity feed from wood casks.  You can see the cold storage room in the cellar where they keep the kegs cool with blocks of ice.  We saw them tap a new cask with a massive wood mallet that just drives the big tap spigot into the cask, ejecting the bung into the beer inside the keg.  Then the beer comes gushing out to fill, fill, fill a constant stream of glasses.  Kim had a goulash that she declared to be one of the best restaurant meals of her life, and we closed the evening with some fine apfel strudel.

Wood casks chilling in Der Pschorr's Holzfasskeller (literally, "wood keg celler")  Note the use of ice blocks

Oktoberfest at the Löwenbräu Tent

Monday was the big day.  We had to shift lodgings to the Arthotel near the train station for our last night in Munich.  We checked out of the VRBO and schlepped our bags through the subway to the main train station and then to drop them in the hotel's baggage storage room.  Then it was a short walk back to the Theresienwiese grounds where we met up with the group and marched into the tent for our 12:00 - 4:30 shift.  We had two tables for a total of 20 seats, and each seat came with vouchers for two liters of bier and a half roast chicken.

It turned out you can use these vouchers for any other food or drink of equal or lesser value.  Some pooled their vouchers and got a massive mixed meat tray with pork knuckles, various sausages, and duck.  Cathy used a bier voucher for a liter of soda.  I stuck with the chicken, which was delicious but not really much different from a good grocery store rotisserie chicken.  Like most dishes in Germany it was literally what it said it was:  half a chicken, no more and no less.  No veg or garnish or anything on that plate but half a chicken.  We spent the whole trip a bit under-vegged in our diet and had to start ordering salads with everything in order to get some balance.

I had some apprehensions about this whole fest tent affair.  I am not a fan of crowds in general, and especially jam packed tight crowds.  I feared it was going to be butts to nuts packed in there and you would have to plan 20 minutes ahead of time to pee, and then they might give your seat away while you were doing so.  I also had an expectation that there were going to be a bunch of songs the audience sings along with and does hand motions to such as the Airplane Song, and that not wearing lederhosen would be a big mistake.  And I had 16 months for these anxieties to stew between committing to the trip and sitting down in that tent.  Looking back, it is a little unbelievable to recall part of me was thinking "it is just 4 hours, you can get through anything for 4 hours."  I guess I am a bit of a worry wart but anyone who knows me could tell you that.

All those concerns evaporated within about 10 minutes of entering the tent.  What a great time.  Being a Monday afternoon, it wasn't really crowded.  It did get full but never felt overwhelmingly so.

Same hair stylist?

Adjacent to our group was a table with 10 young ladies all in festive attire.  At one point I noticed them passing around a small glass vial from which they poured white powder onto the backs of their hands and snorted.  It all seemed a bit too out in the open to be anything illicit, but what could it be?  After it made the rounds you could see their eyes were watering and they were all a bit energized.  Snuff seemed an obvious answer except for the color.  Apparently one of our group chatted with them and confirmed it was snuff.  And after searching the internet I see that white snuff exists.  Who knew?

I bought two official Oktoberfest fidget spinners, thinking they might make cool prizes to give my students.  What a dumb idea.  They have little beer steins on them which pretty much makes them inappropriate to give to 12 year students.  Later I redeemed myself by purchasing one of the wonderful new-this-year robotic chicken hats.  Again, I justified my purchase by envisioning its use to inspire my robotics students.

 

Happy owner of a new chicken hat!

I particularly enjoyed my conversations with the locals who were part of our group, including a strong validation of our choice to end the trip at Therme Erding, and some nuanced discussion of the German election and the strains refugees are putting on the economy and German society.

Watch the video.  It's a good one.

It seems like now is a good time to comment on the beer.  I loved how the beer in Munich was integral to the culture, with the ubiquitous biergartens, and without any fussiness, pretension, or ceremony. The actual beer served in the tents and brew houses as the festival beer was quite different from what I had expected.  In the US when we think of an Oktoberfest beer we think of the amber Märzen style which features significant darker roasted malted barley than a Helles or most lagers.  In Munich the Helles style reigns, and I didn't find the Oktoberfest Wiesn or Festival beer in Munich to be terribly distinguished from the Helles also served there.  The Wiesn is perhaps a little breadier than the Helles.  Granted I don't have a very sensitive palate, but it was far lighter in body than any Märzen I've had.  Apparently the Märzen brewed by German breweries today is primarily for export and is more of a historical style out of favor in the modern domestic market, which is why it is what we think of for an Oktoberfest beer.  Well it turns out times have changed and we should revise our expectations of what the Oktoberfest style means, or maybe I was just ignorant and everyone else knows a modern Wiesn from a Märzen.  It was a bit of a personal epiphany.  I should also say that it was all delicious -- this is all just observation and not criticism.

We were very efficiently ejected promptly at 4:30. Once outside away from the din of the crowd I was delighted to discover that the chicken hat plays the chicken dance song and that the leg motions are in time with the song.  What a great hat!  We made our way to the Oide Wiesn or old-fashioned Oktoberfest, a separate area with a 3 euro admission charge.  This is the area focusing on family activities, folk dancing, and historic rides some of which are almost 100 years old.  It is so traditional that I was forbidden to wear my new chicken hat in the traditional fest tent.

This is the point at which the accounting for bier consumption gets a little fuzzy.  I am confident I ended up over 3 liters but probably less than 5.  There was also another round of traditional Bavarian meat dishes in there (sausages, pork knuckle, and duck).  I made friends with some neighbors at the next table, a group of musicians from Bamberg who have been attending every year for 15 years.  They offered me some snuff, and out of curioisity and a general sense of social manners I accepted a few taps on the back of my hand.  It woke me up with a bit of a jolt but that was about it.

I really enjoyed the music in both tents.  These are clearly skilled and hard-working musicians in tune with the crowd and venue.  There were no American pop hits in the traditional tent.  Our seats gave us a great view of the whole band including a woman who played trumpet and also sang duets with the band leader.  The birthday boy even got to take his daughter for a few spins on the folk dancing floor.

I took my leave of the group maybe around 9:30 or so, the last non-family-member to depart.  The lights of the rides at night were a great show, and I saw several casualties being handled around the exits from the fest, but no problems or sense of safety concerns at any time.  I did experience quite a bit of difficulty finding my way back to the hotel, partly because we had just moved there that day and I had only walked the route once coming in that day, but mostly due to my dead flat cell phone battery and reliance on its powers of navigation.  Oh, and my judgment may have been slightly impaired as well.  I spent about 45 minutes on what should have been a 15-minute journey, during which I had the opportunity to use my high school German skills a half dozen times to ask directions. I finally swallowed my pride, admitted defeat, and took a 5 euro taxi to the hotel.

That hotel room at the Arthotel confirmed every reason why we prefer to book apartments.  The cleanliness and quality were all great, as was the breakfast buffet, but there was barely room to turn around in this "quad" room.  For one night it was tolerable and the location was great for our requirements.

The next day I was amazed to hear that after I left, the few remaining members of our group went back to the Löwenbräu Tent, where apparently the whole tent was raucously dancing on the table tops, and then rode the Skyfall high altitude free fall ride.

Hopfen am See

Tuesday was to be a travel and recovery day.  We hopped in a nine-passenger rented van with our friends and took off south to our next hotel, Hartung’s Hotel Dorf at Hopfen am See, near Füssen and the famous castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau.

We had a nice big two-bedroom apartment with great views across to the castles in the distance, framed by the alps.  It was a bit of a hike up and down the hill to the town and was very nice having the van available for our day trips.

We visited the castles one day, and the next day went to the nearby Tegelbahn where we rode the cable car up, hiked around, enjoyed lunch, bier, and strudel, and came back down to the bottom to do the summer luge ride.

On our last night in Hopfen am See we took a break from the typical Bavarian fare and visited an Italian restaurant.  Nothing too memorable except for our dessert order.  Kim and I both ordered the Kaiserschmarrn, the most expensive dessert on the menu, on a bit of a flyer.  I could decipher that there was going to be some apple sauce involved, and the use of the word “Kaiser” implied it must be something special, so why not take a chance?  This elicited an arched eyebrow and incredulous request for clarification from our server as he asked “Zwei Kaiserschmarrn?!?” as if to say “Madness!  who do you people think you are?!?”.  It was quite large and we were grateful for the opportunity to reduce our order to just one plate of diced up sweet bready pancake bits for dipping in apple sauce.

I'm just here to do my part for the Landwirtschaft!

View from our bedroom window

 

That white speck is a cat stalking rodentia.  Many fields featured resident feline guardians.

Help, we are feigning peril!

"the funny thing about regret is, it's better to regret something you have done, than to regret something you haven't done."  -Gibby Haynes

Our hotel had a bit of a spa / wellness focus with a pool, steam room, and two different saunas.  The girls were shocked to discover the pool has a “no playing” policy and were shushed for being too exuberant in their use.  They also developed a youthful attitude of scorn for the pool and spa habits of the elderly, and had their first exposure to a little mixed-gender nudity around the sauna area.  European adventure!

Therme Erding

Speaking of nudity…on our final day we were on the 8:00 AM train back to Munich and our last hotel, the Hotel Victory at Therme ErdingTherme Erding is a hot spring mineral baths / waterpark.  It claims to be the largest such spa facility IN THE WORLD!  No vacation is complete for us without a bit of swimming, and this place is within a 20 minute drive of the airport, so it seemed a perfect place to spend our last day before flying home in the morning.

We took the train to the airport and then a taxi to the hotel.  As we were making our way through the airport train station, some guy approached me and asked if we had just come from the city, and if so were we on a transit day pass and could he have it?  I suspect he is running a hustle where he gets these day passes from departing travelers and turns around and sells them for cash to arriving travelers.

When you check in to the hotel at Therme Erding they let you get your swimsuit out of your bag then they take your bags to your room and just issue you with bathrobes, towels, and a bracelet with an RFID chip for all access control and payments.  You can use the whole resort including the restaurants in your robe and swimsuit, and everything is cashless.

It is a huge complex.  I am guessing we only saw about 75% of it at most, and used less than 25%.  There was just too much for our short visit and much of it was a little intimidating.  There are few concessions to non-German speakers here, and we ended up feeling we stuck out a bit already with our hotel-issued bathrobes when 90% of the folks there were clearly locals with their own robes and towels.  Then there was the whole issue of grappling with the nude areas.

We hopped right into the wave pool before seeking out lunch.  As we ate lunch in our robes, Elizabeth complained about all of the music being too American just as a decidedly non-American song was played.  It was to become the girls' anthem for the trip, "Last Dance" by Swedish pop performer Rhys.  The chorus of "we gave it every godamned chance" sung in a saccharine cheery voice awkwardly spoke to it being a song by someone whose first language is not English.  Reminiscent of Bjork, ABBA, or a-ha.  It might be grammatically correct, but there is something quite dissonant with this turn of phrase.  Anyways the girls loved it and continued to employ this phrase at every godamned chance.

The girls loved the slide area which had over a dozen fun water slides, including some in the dark, some with floaty tubes to ride, and some extreme drops only for those over 15 (we didn’t try…they looked pretty intense).  We enjoyed drinks from the swim-up bars and floating through the crazy river with its soaking nooks, most of which were occupied by canoodling teen couples.

Kim and I visited the nude area where most of the 26 saunas are.  It also features the better restaurants, full of happy couples dining in just their robes and towels.  I’m not sure what the point is for having 26 different saunas.  To me a sauna is about having a decent wood bench to sit on and enjoy a specific temperature and humidity, and then the cooldown.  Many of the saunas were a bit too cool for me with temps under 70c.  We preferred the 80c Finnish sauna, one of about 8 saunas that are ringed around a cascading shower room of cold water falling from 20 foot high sculpted calla lilies.

There is also a Celtic Stonehenge sauna and the Russian Banya.  The saunas are not really that different from one another.  The differentiator seemed to be the cold water shower or plunge options that were paired with the sauna, the temperature of the sauna (too many were not really hot enough), and in some cases the addition of some scent or performance.  For example, in the Stonehenge area the sauna is pretty bog standard but when you want to cool off you have to wade through a rushing river in a dark rocky cave before standing under free falling gushes of cold water from a simulated subterranean waterfall.

People were naked in the pools and saunas, but very few just strolled around in their birthday suits.  Almost everyone was covered with a towel or robe except when entering or exiting whatever water or spa feature they had selected.

There is also yet another large pool area with swim-up bar and a nice recreation of a Roman villa with general naked lounging.  Oh, and there is a warm nap room too!

The whole cashless RFID badge system was just slightly evocative of another German badge system we learned of on this trip, intended to manage groups of people in a confined and highly managed locale.  Yeah I just went there, but if the analogy fits…  There was a different colored badge for men vs. women, and a different color again for children.  At first, we thought it was cute and quaint, but it didn’t take long to realize that the 12 year old (who can pass for 16 on casual inspection) was not going to get into the 16 and over area as her badge would make her stand out like a sore thumb, which I am sure was part of the intention.  And then there was the alcohol policy posted in several places stating that for safety purposes, there is a maximum of three drinks per person.  It did allow that after five hours you would be granted permission to purchase a fourth beverage.  I thought again, how sweet they are thinking of our safety.  Then I realized that with the badges they know exactly how many drinks have been purchased, at which locations and time intervals, and by whom, so this is not an idle unenforced policy but rather one where big brother is watching and ready to cut you off.

Conclusion

Things I learned on this trip which surprised me at least a little:

Most people pay the extra $35 per seat for pre-assigned seating on Lufthansa.  The spendthrift in me figured this was just for suckers who didn’t have the organizational ability to get online and claim a seat when the online check-in window opened.  I was sure glad that this plan freaked Kim out to the point that I actually checked the seat availability map a few weeks prior to the trip and discovered our only option to avoid middle seats was to book the very last row of the plane on the flight to Munich.  Gulp!  I guess that was $280 well spent after all.

If you aren’t in a tent at Oktoberfest, there is no place to sit down or take a break.  On a crowded day like Saturday, this can pose a challenge.

There are very few garbage cans to speak of at Oktoberfest.  I assume this is for security reasons.  Again it can catch you by surprise holding a soiled napkin after eating a bratwurst and having no place to discard it.

Every bottle at Oktoberfest has a 1 euro deposit.  Chug your water and take the bottle back to get your money back.

For how green and enviro-conscious it seems to be, waste management seems to lag in Germany in general, at least compared to Seattle.  Recycling and composting options are very few and far between.

Cigarettes remain surprisingly popular, and are available everywhere including sidewalk vending machines.

Snuff is a popular pick-me-upper to keep the fest going!

Kim declared this to be the best family trip ever.  We are already scheming for an excuse to return, hopefully with a big group of friends and family, to celebrate a future milestone.  Perhaps our 30th wedding anniversary in 2023!

 

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Deck Maintenance, 2017

Posted by: pat 1 month, 1 week ago

After a stunner of a summer with really no rain to speak of, I finally got on my deferred deck maintenance.  Although the photographic and blog evidence doesn't lie, I am astounded to realize that the last time I stained the deck was just about exactly two years ago.

I had let it go a little too long.  Scratch that, at two years it is way past due.  Really I think I need to put at least one coat on every year, and two would be better.  I surely paid the price this time, basically starting over from scratch.  It had been too long and it needed the full scrub down.  I figure I've got at least 20 hours of hard laborious work into it this month, over 3/4 of which are purely scrubbing.  My prep routine goes something like:

  1. Sweep
  2. A light hand with the pressure washer, just to get all the cracks cleaned out.  Especially where a crack is on top of a joist.
  3. Light detergent scrub with the brush on the pole
  4. Approximately 3 successive rounds of hard scrubbing with detergent, on my hands and knees
  5. Brightener.  This part is no work at all really, compared to the rest.  Apply, slight agitation, rinse.

The above was accomplished over a period of about a week, taking 2 - 4 hours out of hard work every day.  I swear this is the last time I'm going to do all of that myself.  Scrubbing seems like a perfect unskilled labor task to hire out.  Good exercise though, and the weather was perfect for it.

My detergent mix is..well I try different things.  Usually it is Oxyclean, TSP, and a little Dawn mixed up hot in a 1-gallon batch and applied by garden sprayer.  I have also used Restore-A-Deck which works well, but maybe not much better than the OxyClean mix.  The RAD product seamed to foam up a bit more on its own, but I'm not convinced it cleans better.  OxyClean is dirt cheap at Costco, and I get good TSP from Fisheries Supply.  Ultimately, the hard pressure of a hand scrub is needed to get the mold and algae to break free.

 

This photo attempts to capture the greenish brown slurry that comes up with a little scrubbing

The coat went on great as usual.  It took all of a gallon and about 4 hours to get it applied.  This is the most gratifying part, the big payoff for all of that work.  Now I've got the full beauty of the deck...for about a month!  It is a Sisyphean task.

Here we see the line between clean and dirty.  Boards are wet at this point.

My goal is to keep up with it.  I'd love to get into whatever maintenance cycle is required to keep it clean and recoat as needed without going through the hard laborious scrubbing again.  The key I guess is to not let the mold get a toehold.  I am considering the Wet and Forget treatment as well to fight the mold between Penofin coats.  

Application underway

Stain completed.  Beauty restored.

It is all very ephemeral.  A windy morning and the deck is coated with my nemesis, the cruddly.

In closing, I just have to say, "A pox on the Seattleites of a prior generation who thought my neighbors' lots would be improved by planting birch trees!"

 

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Red Skeleton gets a brain transplant

Posted by: pat 1 year, 11 months ago

I think this is Red Skeleton's fourth year.  Last year I grew more and more dissatisfied with Red's performance and vowed to make some updates.  My three goals were:

  1. Make the lip synch of the jaw movements more closely match the audio
  2. Replace moving parts in the electronics that might be contributing to instability
  3. Reduce the noise from the servo motor driving Red's jaw

This year I pulled Red into the workshop for a little refresh, which turned into a brain transplant.

Out With the Wave Shield, in with the Audio FX

In the past Red ran on an Arduino Duemilanove and an Adafruit Wave Shield.  The Wave Shield is getting pretty long in the tooth.  Frankly the only reason one would select it today is that the sd card gives you practically no limit on how much audio you can access.  I noticed some flakiness in Red last year, especially on clear afternoons when the sunlight through the plexiglas panel at the front of Red's enclosure would turn it into a greenhouse.  I never really liked the SD card and potentiometer volume dial on the Wave shield.  I've had it get fussy about the SD card, and it can be staticy when adjusting the volume potentiometer.  Right or wrong, I felt this was not a great solution for the harsh outdoor environment where Red makes his annual command performance.  And there are better options now.

I ended up replacing the Arduino and Adafruit Wave Shield with an Adafruit Metro Mini and Audio FX board.  The Metro Mini has a pretty anemic 5v supply so I wired up a 7805 to supply the servo, PIR sensor, and Audio FX board with power.  I mounted and wired up the whole mess on a small piece of stripboard with terminals for the PIR sensor, LEDs in the eyes, and the servo.

Improved Audio Measurement

In the past I simply piped the audio + into an analog pin on the Arduino to detect loud vs. quiet bits in Red's speech and move the jaw accordingly.  I've learned this is not a great solution.  Audio is AC current that alternates + and - and only swings millivolts.  The Arduino's analog input pins only read 0 to 5 volts DC.  So not only was I clipping all of the negative values but I was also only basing my logic on very small swings of current.  After learning all of this I also learned how to shunt the AC to ground to make the audio a DC signal, use a voltage divider to bias shift it up to be centered on + or - 2.5v rather than 0v (putting all values into the positive range), and amplify it with an operational amplifier so I can measure over a wider range.  I also tweaked the reading of the analog pin to use a rolling average to smooth the spikes out.

In addition to these software and circuitry changes, I also got some threaded rod and itty bitty fittings for the servo horn that eliminate a lot of the slop I had in the linkage between the jaw and the servo.

Silencing the Servo

The audible servo whine whine noise whenever it moved the jaw was annoying and distracting.  It compromised the illusion that you are standing in front of an actual zombie skeleton buccaneer with a razor sharp wit.

I put the servo into a plywood box with all inner surfaces covered with 1/2" wool felt, and the space filled with poly batting.  There is just one hole for the threaded rod that drives the jaw.  Hopefully the servo doesn't combust in this enclosed space.

Conclusion

So far so good.  I am very happy with the improved lip synch and silent servo.  We'll see how the new brain holds up over the next few years.  I've got a great idea for a new spider prop I'm planning for next year, in which I hope to add some EL wire lighting effects and go "bare metal" with just an AVR and no Arduino.

 

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DIY Speakers

Posted by: pat 2 years ago

Fair warning:  this is going to be a long read.  It's my blog and I'll be verbose if I want to, and I am known to fly off on tangents.  Executive summary:

  • I'm building some speakers.  Later I plan to build a tube amp to pair with them.
  • The design is for a full range single driver, the Fostex FF165WK.  The enclosure is a 17 liter trapezoidal miniOnken designed by planet_10 hifi out of Victoria.
  • It has been a fun and rewarding project, but was not without its pitfalls.  See the lessons learned section at the end for traps to avoid and tips.

Here beginneth the tale.  Warning: the tale is not yet done, and will be updated as the speakers are completed and auditioned.  Currently speaker #1 of 2 is fully complete and is undergoing a gentle breakin period with a bit of the old Ludwig van.

Prologue

My latest hobby project is building a pair of full range single driver loudspeakers.  When I explain this project to friends and family, inevitably the question "and why exactly are you doing this?" comes up.  My response generally includes the following points in no particular order:

I enjoy music, and I value high fidelity.  I also believe that the commercial high fidelity audio industry generally extracts a very high margin from their customers, and price is only sometimes a signal for the level of quality: while I value high fidelity, I would never pay $5,000 for an amplifier or pair of speakers.

I believe in the hypothesis that just as high quality custom DIY electronics projects are now both very affordable and eminently do-able for the home hobbyist (e.g. Arduino, Raspberry Pi, etc. etc.), a hobbyist should also be able to build their own high fidelity audio components at home.

There are thriving communities on the internet where like-minded individuals share their knowledge and experience doing this kind of thing.  I am interested in building something from scratch, from base components, but do not want to design it myself.  I want to build something that has some level of grass roots community validation of its value proposition and quality.  This blog post is a kind of thankful contribution back to the community, partly motivated by the hope that someone else can learn from my experience as I have from others'.

I am curious and intrigued by the following hypothesis:  high fidelity DIY audio components may be built at home at a small fraction of what an equivalent commercial product would cost.  With the subjective and personal nature of audio quality assessments, the only way to test this is to do it myself.

This project intersects with three distinct hobby interests: woodworking, electronics, and music.  I have a decent home woodworking shop.  Lately it has been used mostly for home maintenance and not really building interesting things from scratch.  This project used most of my tools, including several that hadn't had an electron flowing through them for a few years.

I look forward to auditioning these speakers in blind A/B tests in the homes of my music loving friends.  If the improvement from my current speakers is not evident I will reject the hypothesis.  I hope to have my socks knocked off.  Even if the speakers end up failing to deliver a superior experience with my current sources, they are a necessary first step towards my long term home audio vision which includes a DIY tube amp.  And it has made for many pleasant hours of solitude in the workshop, which is its own reward.

Research and Design Selection

I backed into doing a speaker project.  This whole odyssey started with a desire to build a tube amp.  Same motivations, different project.  The problem is you usually need to have very high efficiency speakers for a tube amp.  To do things in the proper order, it made sense to make speakers first.  Speakers also have a wider application.  If they are truly as awesome as I hope they will be, I'll proceed to replace all of the wall-mounted bookshelf speakers in my home theater with DIY speakers.

I want a design I can build myself, but I had no desire to design it myself...that would reek of hubris given my total lack of experience and knowledge of speaker design, something that became even more apparent as I started seeing the maze-like convolutions hidden in the interior of many speakers.  Ideally I wanted something in the large bookshelf size range.  As I dug into my research I ended up spending a lot of time on the diyAudio site, where I learned from proponents of a specific type of speaker design, the full range single driver loudspeaker.  The simplicity of the design was appealing for a first timer like myself.  And the idea that technology has advanced such that separate midrange, woofer, and tweeter drivers might be unnecessary and indeed come with a cost in the form of the crossover, which some argued had a deleterious impact on the resulting audio quality, seemed to fit into my whole hypothesis around the value of using simple high quality materials.  A part of the thinking behind the hypothesis is that a craftsman can hand-tailor a project around materials of a much higher quality and with more attention to detail than a commercial manufacturer would use.  It is the same ethos that drives me to hand build computers, selecting best of breed individual components and assembling them with the care that no manufacturer would ever devote to a product sold at retail.  My hope is that a $100 driver available to a hobbyist might surpass the driver quality in a $1000 commercial product.

There were other reasons behind going full range single driver.  If the low frequencies just aren't there to the degree I want, boom, I've got the motive for building a new DIY subwoofer.  I'm also not too worried about the high frequency end of things, as a lifetime of occasional poor choices about environment and hearing protection (as well as age!) has rendered my body incapable of hearing frequencies beyond around 14k.  Try some of the various test tones yourself, and do it together with a 10 year old to be humbled.  Why spend money and introduce the unintended consequences of a tweeter and its accompanying crossover if I can't even hear what they produce?  Because to hell with everyone else's ability to hear a cymbal ringing at 17k, this is all about ME!

I was thinking these speakers could live in our living room, where I have a couple of two driver bookshelf speakers I built from a speakerlab kit back in the 80's, and/or they could end up in the home theater where I currently have bookshelf speakers from Ascend Acoustics.  You can tell I've always been a value conscious buyer.  Someday I might see if I can build a sub to surpass the M&K in the home theater.  Anyhoo, point being I initially saw this project as a bookshelf size.

At this point I maybe got carried away with the research and ended up gravitating to a driver that would push me to pretty much the far extreme of what anyone might call a bookshelf.  The Fostex FF165WK.  In hindsight maybe that was a mistake.  Perhaps I was over-sold by the promise in the specs for this driver, stuff like "For the surface layer, the bincho charcoal powder is blended with a short-fibered (high freeness) kenaf, which allows to accelerate the propagation speed on the cone paper surface."  It's all about the kenaf!  OK I understand about as much of that as you do.

The increased size does open the possibility to just go without a supplemental subwoofer however.  Some folks say I will be pleased and surprised by the bass extension.

My short list of plans were to build a Karlsonator 6, purchase a plan from Brines Acoustics, or build a mini Fonken design from David at planet_10 hifi.  I can see how one can easily get sucked into analysis paralysis, and also how one could end up trying to build and compare all of these.  I ended up going with a trapezoidal mini Fonken.  I remain intrigued by the Karlsonator and curious how the complex trapezoidal mini Fonken would compare to the simpler classic golden ratio design.

I do have some regret still about the size.  At almost 22" tall these are probably more appropriate on a stand than a bookshelf, and they very well may end up on stands.  And if you are going to build a speaker that needs a stand, why not go whole hog and build a full size floorstanding Fonken for the benefit of more bass extension?  Well that's hindsight for you.

Materials

One of the appealing aspects of the planet_10 hifi plans was that it uses a single sheet of 3/4" 5x5 Baltic birch plywood with little waste.  It also neatly allows for getting the sheet cut twice at the lumber yard into three pieces 20" by 60", making transport a snap.  I ended up making enough mistakes that a second sheet was required anyways.  All of those bevels...I ended up gluing up one of the side assemblies with the inner side panel reversed.  And then I cut the tops and bottoms just based on the plan drawings without accounting for the fact that I omitted the optional cosmetic cuts from the side panels.  

I purchased the drivers and some terminal cups from Madisound.  

The 1/2" high wool content felt was a challenge to find at a reasonable price.  McMaster has it, but shipping is exorbitant.  Gardico, a local industrial materials supplier just a few blocks from my home, is one of only two places on the west coast that actually stock the stuff.  But at about $15 per square foot...ouch!  The felt shouldn't cost more than the wood, or at least that was my pro-wood biased judgment.  I ended up buying a 4x6 1/2" wool felt rug pad from rugpadusa.com.  It arrived in a tight roll and I was disappointed with the actual thickness measuring about 3/8" of an inch.  As it relaxed it did loft up a bit, but 1/2" is pushing it.  At least the price was right.

For finishing I used Zinsser canned shellac, every one they've got:  unwaxed SealCoat, Clear, Clear in an aerosol can, and Amber.  I also used TransFast powdered mission dark brown aniline dye dissolved in alchohol, and a final treament with Behlen paste wax.

Construction

What fun to turn large pieces of wood into smaller ones and piles of sawdust and shavings.

This project calls for many unusual bevels.  I am so glad I bought this little guy to nail the angles.  Everything came together perfectly thanks to the precise cuts this enabled.

Always nice to get some hand planing in.  I left the 9mm poplar vent spaces slightly proud and planed them flush.  I'll sand out the table saw blade burn marks later.

Test fitting those complex bevels.  You can see the vent spacers go all the way back because...I don't know!  I am just following the plans...

The big glueup!  It worked pretty well.  The top ended up just slightly caddywampus which I corrected the best I could with a light touch from the belt sander.  Other than that it is all square and tight.  I tested the driver fit against the brace and then glued the top and bottom on.  Some would screw the back on for any required maintenance or possibly adding more fill I guess, but I figure the driver hole will accommodate that need just fine.  I left the top and bottom proud of the sided and trimmed with a flush trim bit with a bearing on the router table.  Nice and clean!

Finishing

I have a love/hate relationship with finishing.  It is usually a humbling experience that leaves me concluding that either my skills have a long way to go, or I need to bite the bullet and get an HVLP spray rig.  "Yet we all keep trying, like fools!"

Birch is a problematic wood.  Kinda boring, not as pretty as maple, and prone to splotchiness when staining or dying if you don't seal it properly first.  Many would just veneer this project with a more reasonable wood like cherry, walnut, oak, padauk, zebrawood, ebony etc.  Not me, I decided I would honor the integrity of the materials in the true spirit of the arts and crafts movement, or some such BS.  This project is about function not form!  I did some test panels and solicited input from my design focus group (also known as the wife) to settle on a relatively dark brown mission dye with shellac top coats.

I enjoy working with shellac.  It is non-toxic, dries very fast, and looks nice.  It isn't the most durable finish, but it is definitely a classic look.

I am not happy with how the finishing has gone so far.  I think I've managed to salvage things, but boy howdy did I make some mistakes.  See the lessons learned section for more on how I would do this again...which I will need to do on speaker #2 and my god will it be a challenge to make it match the contortions this speaker has gone through on the finishing table!

Here we are with three coats of 1 lb cut unwaxed clear SealCoat shellac.  Looking good!  I brushed it on with a china bristle brush and it went pretty darn well.  Too bad it would all be for naught as I ended up stripping all of it off after making some unrecoverable errors.

At this point I made up the test panels and decided to use the TransFast dark mission brown dye.  I considered going pure shellac, no dye, which I was definitely confident in my ability to execute.  Feedback from the focus group was that clear shellac was "too Ikea" (agreed) and amber was too orange.  So the mission dark brown dye it was to be.  I bought this stuff a long time ago, and I guess since then they've ceased recommending dissolving it in alcohol due to so many problems.  I have a tendency to want to use stuff just because I have it in my cabinet, sometimes when that's not really the best decision.  My economics training tells me I should approach things more rationally, considering the $10 I spent on that dye 15 years ago as a sunk cost irrelevant at the margin of today's decision.  Throwing rational thought to the wind, I vowed I would get my money's worth out of that $10 expenditure and use the dye I have on hand!  Anyways, this stuff was tough to work with in combination with the alcohol-based shellac.  You have to really nail laying it down smoothly and evenly.  There really is no fixing little uneven areas later with any touchups or blending.  I tried and ended up just dissolving through the layers and making matters worse, ultimately ending up with a little patch of completely bare wood that would never match its surroundings.  I learned this the hard way and stripping the whole thing down to bare wood and starting over.  That was frustrating, but don't we all learn best from the experience of our own personal mistakes?  The only saving grace was that since it was all alcohol-based, with about 8 ounces of DNA and a bunch of paper towels I got the whole thing back to bare wood in about 15 minutes.

When I put it all back on for the second time, I did my best to get it looking as perfect as I could while it was still wet.  Get it right, and then try not to screw it up as I apply the shellac.  I padded the dye on just like you would pad shellac on.  It went pretty well this time.  Not perfect, but good.  A little uneven in tone in some places, but definitely without the problem spots I tried and failed to rub and blend out on attempt #1.  

My troubleshooting research gave me a tip:  seal off the dye coat with a series of light coats of clear shellac from an aerosol can.  Yes!  A solution!  Well I ended up screwing that up too, getting too eager and laying the first coat on too thick.  Imagine my horror as I see it dissolving the dye into little spots right before my eyes!  I ended up stripping the front panel for a second time to correct this, but the sides and top were not impacted quite so badly and I left them.  Time to move on.  Fortunately, the subsequent shellac coats evened out some of the lifting/pooling of the dye.  I could see the dye coming off on the shellac pad, so it wasn't totally sealed off, maybe for the best.

I started shifting my background conversation to a narrative about how this will be a one of a kind piece with a lot of character...maybe not something to go in a museum but a true original beauty.  There are certainly less generous ways to describe it while simultaneously pointing out improvements required in the application technique, but what's done is done and better to look on the bright side.  As the creator, sadly I can only see the defects.  To the uninitiated it probably looks fine.  

Above is how it looked after a few coats of amber shellac.  I ended up with 4 coats of amber.

Above is building up the clear coats.  It is getting pretty dark and glossy.  I can see my reflection in it.

I'm glad I shifted from my initial plan of brushing the shellac on to using a pad instead.  I aspire to be much better at brushing on both shellac and varnish than I presently am.  I have a boat and while it has been updated to minimize the brightwork maintenance requirements, there is enough still there that I've had to get pretty comfortable working with varnish.  That is a pain compared to shellac -- shellac lets you recoat in one hour and it doesn't matter too much if you go longer.  With varnish, you have to hit it again in 12 hours, every 12 hours.  I've got some nice brushes, including high quality natural bristle brushes, with separate brushes dedicated just to varnish vs. shellac.  And I've got a brush comb and a spinner.  Point is, I want to be a smooth-brushing craftsman but I'm not as facile with a brush as I am with a pad, at least right now.  I always end up with some lap marks or other visible variations with a brush.  I'm very satisfied with the quality of my pad application, so I set aside the $40 brushes and reverted to a simple pad made of 25 cents worth of rags.  I charge the pad while I am using it with shellac in a 4 oz squeeze bottle.  I can get a full pass, recharge, and another full pass before it starts dragging and I move on.  No drips or runs ever, and with good raking light source you can easily control coverage quality.

Here is the full finish regimen:

  1. Royally screw up a first attempt and strip it bare with denatured alcohol (DNA)
  2. Single sealing washcoat of 1 pound cut Sealcoat unwaxed clear shellac
  3. Pad on one coat of transfast mission dark brown dye.  1 tsp dye powder dissolved in 5.5 oz DNA, dissolved overnight and strained.
  4. Many of the lightest possible coats of aerosol spray clear shellac.  Maybe 8 or 10 dustings.  Don't let it run or pool in any fashion or it will dissolve the dye and you will be stripping again.
  5. 4 coats padded 1 pound cut amber shellac
  6. 1 coat 1.5 pound cut clear shellac
  7. 4 coats 2.25 pound cut clear shellac
  8. 2 coats 1 pound cut clear shellac
  9. 1 coat Behlen's paste wax

And that's where things stand today!  The speaker is plugged in and undergoing its breakin period.  After 50 hours or so I'll test it out at higher volume levels.  More updates will come as I build speaker #2 which will hopefully go faster, and perform some exacting but totally subjective evaluations.  But it will be October soon and I must shift gears to getting my DIY robotic Halloween props ready, so that might slow down speaker construction.  Patience, grasshoppers.

Lessons Learned

I built the speakers one at a time so I could apply any lessons learned while building the second one.  Once I got into the finishing stage I realized this will make it a bit of a challenge to match their appearance.  As a mitigation against this risk I kept notes of the exact finishing steps.

I think I would try the allegedly higher quality Apply Ply next time.  With the exposed end grain, any defects or variations in the plys inside the plywood are visually distracting.  Or veneer it I guess.  I was interested to discover in my plywood research that Apple Ply has nothing to do with the apple wood species.  It is manufactured in America as a domestic alternative to cheap imported Russian or Baltic birch.  The naming is supposed to evoke a jingoistic patriotic response as this plywood is as American as apple pie.  Apple pie.  Apple ply.  Get it?  Har.  Strange but true.

The magnetic digital blade angle measurement doohicky I bought was invaluable for achieving consistent and precise bevel cuts on the table saw.

Cut the backs and top/bottom slightly oversize.  Trim them flush with the router and a flush trim bit.  This gives you a little wiggle room during glueup.  I used this as an excuse to buy a new Whiteside solid carbide downcut double bearing flush trim bit.  Arggh!

Glue up the sides first.  Glue up the vent spacers slightly proud of the plywood.  Hand plane flush after they dry.

I glued up the side assemblies, front, back, and brace as one assembly.  Then I fine tuned the brace to driver fit and glued on the top and bottom last.  I would do it this way again.

Would I use the same finish protocol?  Yes...I do like the results, and I always enjoy working with shellac, but I would only do it again with some hard earned knowledge of how to manage a dye in alcohol solvent layered with shellac, also in alcohol of course.  You absolutely can't work over or rub hard any trouble areas or you will dissolve right through everything to the bare wood again.  I found padding the dye on, just as I pad on shellac, with smooth decisive strokes, gave the best results.  If there are lap marks or any other irregularities, do your best to work them out while keeping it all wet.  After the dye dried I sprayed it with many...maybe 8...extremely light coats of aerosol spray clear shellac.  This is the part I messed up:  it is very easy to put too much on and it will dissolve the dye in odd spotty patterns.  I did bare mistings, which dried in minutes allowing many coats in a few hours.  And of course one of the silver linings to making any mistakes with this regimen is that a good sloshing and wiping of denatured alcohol will take any mistakes back to bare wood in a matter of minutes, so if you aren't happy with it you can get a do-over.

It Ain't Over Til The Fat Lady Sings

As I mentioned way up at the top of this post, I'm not done!  Come back for updates as I build speaker #2 and evaluate the results.

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Summer of the deck

Posted by: pat 2 years, 1 month ago

As we close out the summer, I realize that if this summer was to have a theme for me it would be "the summer of the deck."

We had an ipe deck built for our 10th wedding anniversary present to ourselves.  That was 12 years ago.  "You can just let it weather to a beautfiul gray" everyone will tell you.  Maybe that works in places like Arizona, but the northwest hammers the horizontal surfaces with relatively warm rain all year round, which forms a volatile soup with the molds, spores, and pollens that fall from the sky and form great drifts on the deck.  Yes it weathers to a nice gray.  But that rapidly transitions to green as the slime takes hold.  Not only is this aesthtically displeasing, but it is also a safety hazard as it becomes quite slippery when wet.

I've always shied away from the crushing burden of a disciplined deck maintenance program, giving the deck the occasional scrub and pressure wash to alleviate the safety issue.  But then I thought if maybe I did just a little more work and was disciplined about it, maybe, just maybe, I could create a hostile work environment that defies the PNW mold/mildew/spore brigade.  And it might look a lot nicer to boot.

After much study and research of everything on the internet, I decided to make a commitment to Penofin.  Penofin for Hardwood, to be more specific.  This is the begininng of a new long term relationship with this PENotrating Oil FINish.  I know I am getting into a recurring cycle of maintenance to keep it up, with an initial application followed by a maintenance coat at 3 - 6 months, followed by an annual maintenance coat.  That still sounds like less work than I was doing with the pressure washer though.

Overall the work has been worth it.  This was a great summer for the deck, especially with the shade awning deployed and the optional sunset shade ready to roll down.  We catch a nice breeze on the deck, and with the hot sunny summer we just had it was an oasis in which to read, listen to music, dine al fresco, enjoy a beer or a glass of rose, and we even hosted a big crab feed for a bunch of friends.  Good times.  On the deck.

So anyhoo, let's check out some photos documenting my journey with Penofin thus far!

Original deck surface, June 7 2015:

Note the green hue. 

 

 In the above photo, there are about 4 cleaned boards next to the filthy ones with the full winter's acculumation of growth.

After maybe half a dozen rounds of pressure wash, scrub, scrub more, scrub with different mixes of oxy clean, dish detergent, and specialized deck cleaning products, and a final round with a wood brightener, here we have the restored deck ready for its first encounter with Penofin. 

 

And here we are June 24 with the full first coat complete, wiped down, and cured. 

 

You can see the penetration is a bit uneven.  They say ipe is more of a marketing label and not really a specific tree species, and here we see the varying boards taking up the finish differently. 

 

 Fast forward to September, the end of the summer, and here is what it looks like after a very cursory scrub down in preparation for the first maintenance coat.

 

Et voila!  First maintenenace coat is on and the finish seems very even so far.  We'll see how it looks in the morning.

 

 

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