Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Grill Me

One of the nice things about Indiana in the spring is that there are approximately two weekends between the freezing cold of winter and the mosquito infested swamp of summer where you can actually grill out without it being at least a partially miserable experience. Since we're in that two week period and our poor old kettle grill has pretty much rusted away, we decided that it was time to get a grill.

To provide a little background on this adventure, one of the first projects that Erin and I undertook during our engagement was the assembling of our beloved charcoal grill. We have two distinct ways of working on such a project. I, as an engineer and detail specialist, read the directions thoroughly from end to end and work through each step of the project per the instructions. Erin's approach, as a creative thinker and risk taker, is to open the box, open up the baggie with all the little parts, and start bolting things together in what appears to be the shape of a grill, at least in her mind. I can remember sitting on the floor at about 10pm the night we purchased the charcoal grill, and by 11pm, the engagement was nearly off. Tears were shed. Methods clashed. But in the end, the grill and our relationship turned out just fine.

Recently the difficulty has been with actually cooking on our charcoal grill. I've had a hard time maintaining enough heat to cook at an acceptable speed, which has led to various insults being thrown about regarding whether it's the grill or the griller who is to blame. Since the grill has pretty much disintegrated in the elements, this seemed like an opportune time to cut our losses and move to a gas grill, which in my opinion, does not provide the flavor of the charcoal grill but does provide for a much more expedient grilling experience, and much less marital dischord over our burgers.

The assembly of the new grill, pictured above, proved to be only somewhat less of a marital crowbar than the previous grill assembly experience. I partially fault the company for it's misleading directions. This grill explicitly stated that the assembly time would be 15 minutes. You couldn't install this grill in under 90 minutes if you had a gun (or a wife with a sharp kitchen utensil) to your head. But almost four years into marriage, we made it through with only minor disagreements, and in the end, we're excited to use our new grill. Hopefully we'll get to do so this weekend, before you need a mosquito net and beekeeper's mask to step out onto our deck.

Monday, May 22, 2006


This weekend we took a quick trip to Madison, Indiana to see the "Madison In Bloom" show. Basically this entails paying $13 to trapse through the backyards of private citizens, occasionally stomping on their fine gardening handywork along the way. Erin and I have gone to this for a couple of years now, and both times we've found it to be a very relaxing way to spend a day. Madison has a very different feel than most Indiana small towns. There are lots of Civil War era homes, and you can sit and watch the boats float up the Ohio River. This show gives you the opportunity to look at some lovely gardens and say to yourself "If I were unemployed or retired, I could have a garden that looks just like this." Well, this isn't actually true. There weren't any gardens featuring "Chickweed" or "Grasses Chewed By Grubs" which would be more likely found in my backyard.

In keeping with our other vacations, we had a delightful lunch at The Downtowner. Great sandwiches and these really huge cookies that I enjoyed. We took a drive through Clifty Falls State Park, made a stop at the outlets in Edinburgh, ate dinner at Pizzeria Uno and called it a day. Quite relaxing... If you're ever trying to escape from Kentucky, I highly recommend Madison as a nearby haven of rest.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I Believe in Miracles

Now, this might not be comparable with making the blind to see or the lame to walk, but for my purposes, it's as close to a real live miracle as I can imagine. You see, Max "The Fish" Hawkins is alive. Just when I was about to flush him down the toilet, I saw his small beta fin move. I thought it was an optical illusion, so you can imagine the shock and awe of it all when his one fin move turned into ferral swimming. Just to prove to you miracles do exist, I have attached a video of Max "The Fish" Hawkins. Sometimes, seeing is believing.

Take A Moment For Max

Max "The Fish" Hawkins died sometime during the late evening or early morning of May 16, 2006 at (or around) the age of 3 in a tank ventilation accident at his home in Brownsburg, Indiana. Max was purchased by Bret and Erin Hawkins and is preceded in death by his loving tank-mate, Erma. Max was a colorful, spritely blue beta who touched the hearts of everyone he came into contact with (although when you came into contact with Max, he was generally flipping and thrashing wasn't necessarily enjoyable for Max). He lived his entire life in Brownsburg, even choosing to vacation at the home of Erin's parents on occasion. Max was a a good friend to the Hawkins family, and he served as a much needed distraction while we await our adopted daughter. He will be missed. Services will be held this afternoon approximately two feet over the bowl in the blue bathroom downstairs. Service will be open only to Max's mother, Erin, who is gravely distraught at his passing.

Max, we'll miss ya...

Monday, May 15, 2006

Happy Mothers Day! / Who Gives A Rip

This weekend Erin and I celebrated Mother's Day with our two favorite mothers. Saturday night was dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory with my mom (it's one of her favorites), followed by some intense competition at Pop-A-Shot and Skee Ball with my sister and brother-in-law at Jillian's. Let it be declared that despite her collegiate basketball skills, I can still take my wife on any day at Pop-A-Shot. For Mother's Day, we got my mom an assortment of things for her kitchen, including some sponges and dish towels. My, what great gift givers, you're probably thinking -- every mother longs for a new sponge on their designated holiday! This gift was born out of my mom's love of old sponges and towels. When I was growing up, we moved more frequently than my mom replaced the sponge at our kitchen sink. If you went to wipe down the countertop with it, it would try to crawl away from you. Now in her defense, she did run it through the dishwasher frequently (on second thought, I'm not really sure that's in her defense) so it wasn't quite the petri-sponge that it might have been otherwise. Last week Erin saw something on the TV talking about how you'd be wiser to dine off the seat of the toilets in your house rather than keep a sponge at your kitchen sink for more than a week, so we got her sponges. Similarly, dish towels in our house were only tossed once you could count the number of threads left in the towel, so we got her some towels, too. I love you, mom, and we fully expect you to use those sponges before the end of the summer.

Yesterday we celebrated with Erin's parents, sister, and nieces by going to church with them and then heading to the Original Pancake House. While similarly named, this restaruant bares little resemblence to a traditional IHOP. For one thing, you never have to say things like, "I'll have the 'Two Moons Over My Hammy' with a side of 'Rooti Tooti Fresh and Fruity.'" Man does that place annoy me. In any case, this pancake place serves pretty much massive quantities of food, including these weird egg-dome omelettes. Afterward we went to Costco with Erin's folks, and since we were all so full from lunch, we only tried one of each sample offered. It was a delightful trip. Happy Mother's Day, Deb and Deanna! And also, Happy Mother's Day-to-be to my lovely wife Erin whose child is being surrogately carried by the Chinese government. Touching.

The other big achievement this weekend was the completion of my massive iTunes CD ripping project. I started ripping all of my CDs into iTunes sometime around Thanksgiving, and I'm finally finished (I'm actually a handful of discs from being finished, and I haven't touched Erin's collection, but it still feels like I'm finished). In the end, I have ended up with about 70 GB of MP3s, which covers about 1400 CDs. I have more than a month of continuous music available now. Wee! Based on the final song counts, it would appear that my favorite groups are the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, the Kinks, R.E.M., and XTC. Sounds about right. A few people have asked, so here are some of the technical details of the project. (In other words, most of you can stop reading here and skip to the last paragraph.)

First off, I realize that I could easily just toss the CD in the drive and let iTunes import it. This has a couple of issues for me. First off, ripping this way on my PC leaves lots of little pops and clicks in the resulting tracks, which drive me batty. So I decided early on that I would use Exact Audio Copy in Secure Mode to insure that the resulting track would be identical to the original. I configured EAC per this website, which was very helpful. The only downside of using this method is that the ripping is at approximately 1/3 the speed of a normal rip, so the project immediately takes much longer than normal. Next, I considered whether to use iTunes to encode the resulting WAV files into a compressed format, such as MP3. Since I was already ripping outside of iTunes, I shopped around for external compressors and decided after much reading at HydrogenAudio that I would use the free MP3 encoder called LAME. (LAME is available for download here. I used the 3.97 beta 2 version.) I wanted to stick to MP3s because we own another older RCA LYRA that really only works with MP3, and I wanted to be able to use the resulting files on this player or my new iPod. Once I decided to use LAME, I made a couple of test discs with various tracks at various quality levels. My goal was to find a compression level where I couldn't hear a difference from the original track, yet the tracks were small enough to use on my older LYRA as well. I ended up using the "V 4" setting in LAME. I couldn't hear any difference using my burnt up ears between "V 2" which is the standard mode for LAME and "V 4" which is the medium mode. The resulting files using "V 4" are significantly smaller, so that's the mode I used. Here's a link to a page discussing LAME and all it's options. My command line for LAME within EAC was as follows:

-V 4 --vbr-new --add-id3v2 --ignore-tag-errors --pad-id3v2 --ta "%a" --tt "%t" --tl "%g" --ty "%y" --tn "%n" %s %d

This pretty much boils down to "rip it in V4 quality and tag the MP3 with the artist, track title, album name, album year, and track number." I ripped to a temp directory, then imported the resulting files into iTunes, allowing it to manage my library, so it copied the tracks in, and I deleted my original file. Once the file was in iTunes, I used this little iTunes Art Importer to add the album art to each file. Basically this program looks the CD up at and grabs the art from their listing. Very slick. For anyone that's looking, I used a version of the program available at this link, which is not listed on the website. This version is much newer and contains many features that the advertised version does not. It doesn't appear that the author is supporting this thing any more, which is a shame since it's such a cool piece of software. In any case, once the album art was inserted, the process is pretty much complete. I'm going to make a full backup of the library to DVD (I've been making incremental backups all along following my little hard drive disaster, but I still want to make a full backup as well.) Additionally I've been backing everything up to a second hard drive (the replacement drive from said disaster). All this backing up (actually the whole project) has my wife thinking I'm looney, but after six months of work, I'm not about to lose any of this because of a hard drive crash. I'd lose my mind (or what's left of it).

After it's all said and done, the resulting tracks sound great, and I can't imagine needing any other electronic copy of all my music. I realize that purists would have ripped everything to a non-compressed format, just in case something better than MP3 comes along later, but I just didn't have the space to do this, and buying a bunch of hard drives wasn't really an option (I love you, dear.) The beauty of this project is that now my lovely wife will be able to enjoy all her favorite Hüsker Dü and Pavement records while driving to Hilton Head in a couple of weeks. That Erin sure does love her post-punk college rock.


Monday, May 08, 2006

Say Cheese!!

I thought everyone might enjoy this picture of my cousin's son, Aidan. Erin was delighted when she saw this picture, as it displays her ability to connect with children at a remarkable level. She has developed this skill mostly since we got married. I do not understand the connection.

In other news, Erin is trying to get me to go camping. She's taking a group of students on a big camping trip this summer, and I think she wants to take me out on a practice run. I have a number of problems with camping, mostly revolving around the lack of proper, er, facilities. Add bugs, heat, and sleeping outside to that equation, and in my mind, the Westin is looking better all the time. In actuality, Indiana has some great places to go camping, so we may give it a run sometime in the next couple of weeks.

I really think my problem lies in that camping reminds me a lot of my lone week at summer camp in the 5th grade. On the very first night, we ate dinner at around 8pm. The dinner option? Hotdogs. Coney dogs, to be exact. Now I'm never one to pass on food, and as a hungry 5th grader, I didn't pass on the dogs. Unfortunately, as a kid, my stomach acted pretty much like a dinner catapult, so anything eaten after about 6pm ran a high risk of being deposited at about 11pm into the nearest port-o-let. As a 5th grader, all alone at camp, terrified of the bugs, animals, and high school aged Christian counselors, I didn't have the good sense when my stomach called at 11pm to get out of bed and run like, well, hell to the nearest tree or port-o-let. Instead I rolled over and unloaded my coney dogs onto a large portion of the clothing stored in the dufflebag at my bed side. You'd be amazed at how many 3rd through 5th graders will awaken when they hear a fellow man getting sick. Needless to say, they don't come running to your aid.

So I say, you try being the "pukey kid" at summer camp. My guess is that you won't go racing out to go camping any time soon either.