Archive for December, 2009

All-Grain Brewing Station

This is getting way ahead of myself, since my first brew is only 46hrs into primary fermentation, but that has never stopped me before. Anyhow, I ultimately want to be able to do all-grain brews. There’s nothing that would keep me from doing extract brews in an all-grain setup, I’d just use less of the equipment on the bench. Sounds like a deal to me.

After reading countless threads over at HomeBrewTalk.com, I came up with an idea or three for my own setup. Gravity is cheapest to construct, since no pumps are involved. Probably easier to sanitize too. The problem I see is vertical height. I’d like to be able to do everything without a ladder, or having several gallons of very hot water above my head. A single tier system looks awesome, but requires a few pumps and valves. These are not cheap, and present some hurdles in the sanitizing realm. I’m sure sanitizing is not all that difficult, since a ton of people brew a ton of beer in their very own single tier systems, so I am not too concerned about introducing a pump, or valves, to my setup. Money is the big issue here.

What I’ve come up with is a two tier system, with the HLT (hot liquor tank) and MLT (Mash/Lauter Tun) on the upper tier, and the brew kettle on the lower tier. I plan to use one pump, with a manifold on the intake and output to let me switch between input/output destinations. One input will pump from the HLT and output to the MLT. I’ll valve the HLT input shut, and open the MLT input to circulate until sparging time. Gravity will feed the post-sparge sweet wort into the brew kettle, which will input into the pump again for a trip through a crossflow cooler and into a carboy for the yeast pitch and primary fermentation.

I’ve not yet made enough progress in Google Sketchup, a few of its features are driving me batty, to show all the components just yet. What I do have, is below.

Sketchup rough draft

Rough Draft

Sketchup rough draft

Rough Draft

Any feedback from folks that have done this before is definitely welcome.

A new hobby is born

Most everyone that reads this even semi-regularly is fully aware that I like beer, a lot. My digital beer wall is rather incomplete right now; I have more than 15 new beers to add to the collection, I just have not made my way to setting up the lightbox and taking more photos. Eventually, I will re-shoot everything anyway.

So, now that we have established that I enjoy beer I’ll introduce the new hobby. Brewing my own beer. Countless hours inside The Ginger Man in Austin, Texas, put me in contact with brewers and other beer enthusiasts in Central Texas. When I moved to Houston, one of the first beer-related events I attended was a release-party of sorts for the Saint Arnold Divine Reserve 8. I was surrounded by home-brewing beer fiends. The creator of the Divine Reserve 8 was seated directly behind me. Hearing the men that made the recipes for, and brewed, the beers I loved sparked something inside me.

For months, I did not really do anything about this spark. The fuel was added when I stumbled into a thread on my favorite motorcycling forum about brewing one’s own beer. Fuel plus spark equals a full blown fire. Fortunately for me, my parents took note of all the talk about brewing my own beer and got me a Mr. Beer kit. At this very moment, I have a 2.5 gallon batch of their West Coast Pale Ale fermenting in my closet.

Something tells me as I read, and learn, more about brewing beer I will end up with an inordinate amount of equipment. My goal? Creating my own Belgian Tripel ale.

Kawasaki Ninja EX250 – “Death Rattle”

My friend Colby bought a barely-running EX250 to tinker with, and ultimately turn into a bike for care-free track days. Since I have absolutely nothing else to do right now, I invited him over to spin some wrenches. Spin them we did. For many hours. In vain.

Long story short, something screwy was going on with the spark plugs. They’d been changed already, but apparently they needed to be changed again. A new set I picked up today, fired the bike right up. The noises coming out of the engine are not supposed to come out of an engine, unless you just put a round of .50BMG through it.

Looks to me like Bumblebee needs a new engine.

Unresolved, the Post-9/11 GI Bill saga (Updated, x3. Scroll down – issue resolved!)

Somewhere on the fringe of your memory, you may recall a post I made about the utter failure of the Department of Veteran Affairs to competently roll out the Post-9/11 GI BIll. My story is not unique in any way. My story is shared by, literally, hundreds of thousands of veterans of our ongoing armed conflicts. Veterans who promised something to their country, and upheld that promise. A promise, in the form of the Post-9/11 GI Bill (Ch33 hereafter), was made to us and has not been honored to a degree anyone could consider acceptable.

Four months. That is how long it took the VA to figure out I was eligible for Ch33. Keep in mind I had already been in the VA’s system for education benefits for a year under the Montgomery GI Bill, and am also in the VA’s system for disability and compensation. The requirements for Ch33 eligibility are simply not that hard to vet, especially not for veterans of an active-duty component. Did the veteran have 36 or more months of continuous active-duty service after September 11, 2001, and receive an honorable discharge? One sheet of paper contains all of this information, and the VA has this sheet of paper with my name on it in at least triplicate. Even the laziest of unskilled work could make it through literally thousands of these claims in a single day if motivated by a bacon double-cheeseburger. I will stop trying to understand how the VA failed to do this, because it defies all logic and I’m not sure even Socrates could come up with an explanation.

Roughly two more months have passed, and my Fall 2009 claim is still incomplete. When the VA found someone able to muster the will to read my DD214 and determine that my honorable discharge after 4 years, 11 months, and 26 days of continuous active-duty service did in fact mean I was eligible for Ch33, they fumbled the ball again. The University of Houston submitted my tuition and fees to the VA correctly, the VA turned around and certified me for a full $1000 less than I was owed. Immediately, I contacted the VA and informed them of their mistake. As far as they were concerned, it must have been my mistake. I got the school to call, and explain exactly what the mistake was and the VA agreed with them. “We will get this fixed,” they said. My account summary at UH still shows a $1000 debt owed. I have already taken half of my finals, and registered for Spring 2010 courses.

If you think that is pitiful, hold on to your chair, it gets worse. Remember the $3000 emergency advance payment the VA so graciously offered when they had veterans dropping out of college, because of the mountains of debt they built up, because the VA failed to deliver BAH payments as promised? I took one of these checks and was informed shortly thereafter the debt would be settled by withholding BAH payments when my claim was finally processed. When I finally got my money in early November, there was $3000 too much money. In early December, I got a full BAH payment for the month of November. The VA still isn’t withholding the money. That’s great, right? Free money! All my problems are, surely, gone! Wrong. Even if the overpayment is entirely the fault of the VA, you will pay it back. This has happened to me before. I have no desire to deal with the same sort of insanity again; I put away $3000 somewhere I wouldn’t touch it until either the VA withholds from my future BAH payments, or sends me a another debt-collection notice. Fool me once…

A contact within the Department of Veteran Affairs got me this response to an inquiry about settling the debt from the GI Bill head-honcho Keith Wilson:

“VA is currently developing the process to collect the amount of advance payments received. When the process is developed, VA will provide notification to all students that received an advance payment to ensure they understand the process and their questions are answered.”

If anyone else feels like that is the non-answer of the century, I am glad I have company. Why call veterans, and explain to them that the debt would be settled by withholding from BAH payments if that was not actually the plan?

As the semester draws to an end, I cannot say I look forward to Spring 2010. Allegedly, claims have yet to begin processing for the new semester and that is just another disaster waiting to happen. Ch33 was meant to afford veterans of our most recent wars the ability to go to school and focus only on school. We would not need to work, because we would get a housing allowance. We would not need to worry about how many hours we were taking, because our tuition and fees would be covered. Instead, we were not paid either on time. Instead, fighting to get what we were owed before we had to drop out, or risk drowning in a pool of debt, became a full-time job that robbed us of many hours that could have been spent studying.

This has been said many times, but is worth repeating again. Failing to plan, is planning to fail. The VA failed to plan, and failed us all.

For more information on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and some of the ways you can fight back against the VA when they fail to do their jobs, go visit newgibill.org.

Update:
Finals are over, my grades have been posted, and the VA has still not paid for their $1000 mistake in my fees. I have tried to call, every single day, for several days and still cannot get anyone on the phone at the VA. This is absolutely maddening. I shudder to think of how the veterans even less fortunate than myself are taking things, especially this close to Christmas.

People ask me what I want for Christmas. Now I know. Give me a competently run GI Bill, and an effective Department of Veteran Affairs. That is all I want, and it will last me a lifetime.

Update #2:
Christmas has come and gone, and I had a good one. What I did not have, however, was resolution of my ongoing issues with the VA. In fact, things have become even more interesting.

The VA apparently uses Twitter now. Personally, I think they might want to master the technology they already use before they branch out too far into social media. Below is what the VA sent me regarding one of my tweets about underpayment of fees.

From @VAVetBenefits: @anthonymartinez Check w/ your certifying official to see what amounts your school submitted to VA for payment as that is what we pay.

Is that so? I have two documents, which I have scanned (with my personal information redacted) and uploaded here, proving otherwise. In addition to those documents, the VA’s own question system has an open and unresolved entry under my account about the underpayment of my fees started by a VA employee. Since a picture is worth 1000 words, and I have already exceeded 1000 words in this post, look below (click the photo for a larger view). I got lazy with my redaction of personal information, but note the areas highlighted by neon-green arrows.

VA fail

VA Fail

Update #3 – Resolved

From @VAVetBenefits: @anthonymartinez Resolved. Thanks for the info and good luck!

This tweet appeared on my TweetDeck on December 30, 2009. Last night, on my way to my younger brother’s wedding, I got mail from the VA office in Muskogee dated December 29, 2009, that acknowledged the underpayment and informed me they had sent the appropriate $1000 payment to my university.

Big thanks to @DeptVetAffairs and @VAVetBenefits on Twitter for working hard to get my issue resolved. Without them, I’m not sure I’d have ever been paid. Another thanks goes out to Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afganistan Veterans of America for his retweets of my updates here on the blog and the work his organization does to help other veterans in positions even worse than my own.

I’d like to say it was close…

… but it really wasn’t. The studying didn’t really pay off as much as I’d have liked it to. Equilibrium concentrations and hybridization orbitals killed me. I had a six question pad, to keep me where I needed to be. I missed 11. B- in the course, but that won’t be good enough.

Time for Plan B.

Chem Final

I’ve studied my ass off for the final I will take in about two and a half hours. Right now, I’m doubting that makes too much of an impact. I need to knock this thing out of the park if I want to stay in the running for admission into the engineering college. A bit more stressful than I would like.

Either way, I will not fail the course. I already have enough points to pass, but I need to get as many as I can out of this final to stay in my chosen major. If I fall short, I will make some appeals to the heads of the department and see what they have to say. If the answer is not a good one, I’m pretty sure I’m just going to find a program that will get me a degree as quickly as possible. I’m not getting any younger, and I’m not going to stay in school forever.

Saint Arnold Divine Reserve 9

Lately I’ve been feeling as though I should probably use my blog a little more often, but struggling to come up with things to share that might be of interest to others. A few folks suggested I blog about something I enjoy a lot, as I have in the past. If you’ve read my blog much, you know I blog about my guns, music, photography, and motorcycles pretty often. Now, we’ll add beer to the list. Hopefully, as I do more blogging about beer I actually increase my knowledge of my favorite thing to drink (next to water).

To kick off December, Saint Arnold Brewing Company released their Divine Reserve 9 – an Imperial Pumpkin Stout. The mad rush to find a six pack, or a keg on tap to fill a growler, was on. Quite a few of the folks I follow on Twitter are also beer fans, and #DR9 filled my feed. For release day in Houston, I drove my truck (a rare event in itself) all over town in search of a store with Divine Reserve 9 in stock. I found none.

A day passed, and snow paid a visit to Houston. If you know me, you know this was the last thing I wanted to happen. Cold and I do not get along, at all. A friend visited, and we made our way to the local grocery store. As I always do, I made my way to the surprisingly well-stocked beer section. For the first time ever, I was greeted by one of the beer and wine associates. Sarcastically, I said “Divine Reserve 9″ when he asked if I needed help finding anything. He responded by bringing me the store’s limit of two six-packs! Best. Surprise. Ever. Finding the Divine Reserve 9 was awesome enough to make me forget the miserable weather. I ran into my parents in the store, and got my Mom to buy another six -pack to bring my total to three (one will be a graduation gift for my long-time friend Joseph).

On to the relevant beer bits.

Color: Dark, very.
Head: Thick and dark tan
Major flavors: Chocolate Malt and Pumpkin spices
Aroma: Pumpkin spices all the way.

The beer drinks smoothly, as one would expect from an Imperial Stout (pumpkin or otherwise). I was too eager to drink the beer, so I did not let my first one warm to 50°F as the brewery recommends. Chocolate malt dominated the flavor of the first beer, but the second had a more pronounced pumpkin finish. The 11% ABV will definitely lets you know you’ve finished your beer. The spices and the alcohol finish together for a pretty warming effect, which was quite welcome given the freakishly cold weather.

If you can find this on tap anywhere, or know someone with a six pack, it would be well worth your while to try it out.

Saint Arnold Divine Reserve 9

Saint Arnold Divine Reserve 9

38-32, ECU.

Worst passing decision ever. That sums up Keenum’s play on 1st and 10 at the ECU 39 with 47 seconds left in the game.

Prior to that pass, this was probably the best game UH had played all season. There were some hard breaks – including letting an interception stand when ECU had 12 men on the field – but all in all that was one hard fought conference championship game. UH had come from behind several times this season, against tougher teams, and was poised to do it again to bring home the trophy. In the final set of plays at the usual UH pace, Keenum decided to go long to a receiver that was not open. This would be his final interception of the season, and the play that lost the game.

The Cougars are a young team, and hopefully learned from their (many) mistakes this year. Next year, if they put what they’ve learned to proper use, they’ll be unstoppable.

Obama Administration Still Mistreating Alaskan WW2 Veterans

In early October I was made aware, by a fellow member of All American VFW Post 9182, that the Obama Administration has elected to throw 26 Alaskan WW2 veterans under the proverbial bus. I have followed the story since then, as have a few members of the media, and am most displeased by the lack of positive action on the part of the Obama Administrating in correcting this despicable act. Since this absolutely makes my blood boil, I will leave the fine art of crafting an appropriate statement to those better able to do so.

Click here to read the All American VFW Post 9182 Press Release regarding this matter, and learn what you can do to help restore the pensions of 26 elderly veterans who fought for American interests, and their homelands, long before I would ever wear the uniform of an American soldier.

Hutto Pie Run

Wet Motorcycles

Wet Motorcycles

Another of my better late than never posts. Back on November 21 members of the excellent Texas motorcycling forum Two Wheeled Texans saddled up and rode from all corners of Texas for a monthly event that revolves around two things: motorcycling and pie. Though I have been a member of TWT for quite some time, I have only managed to make it to two such events. Hurricane Ike was kind enough to be very near landfall for the first, and cut my enjoyment short. This time was not without its trials either.

The morning started bright and early, with the group from Katy intending to be kick-stands up no later than 0800. As the meeting place is but a few short miles from my house, I figured leaving around 0740 would make for plenty of time. I fed my dog and let him out to handle his business before heading out to the garage to get the FJR on the road. I would be riding on to Arlington after the pie run, to enjoy a Dallas Cowboys game at the new stadium, so my cases were loaded down appropriately.

As I always do, I thumbed the starter while I finished getting my gear on and the FJR buzzed to life. All was well so far. A lunge forward from the rider’s seat brought the warp-drive powered beast down off its center stand, and I started to walk the bike out of the garage. Something was not right. At more than 600 pounds wet, the FJR requires more effort to move than my old SV – but not so much I ever had to strain. I was straining. Back up on the center stand she went, and I discovered the reason for my struggle – a flat rear tire. My inspection revealed no nails, or obvious holes so I inflated the tire and went about my merry way.

My arrival to the meeting place was a few minutes late, but the rainfall made everyone want to wait a little longer. After maybe half an hour, we decided the pie was getting no closer and the rain did not seem to want to go away. Off we went. It rained basically the entire way. Where there was no rain, there was still plenty of road spray. Cold and wet, every motorcyclist’s dream ride.

When we finally arrived in Hutto, most of the other TWT folk had consumed their main course and moved on to the pie. Cold and hungry, the Katy group sat down for some good, hot, food. We were not disappointed. One of the Dallas area TWT members (Chuck), whom I met when I flew home on R&R in 2007, picked up my tab and offered to hold up the Dallas group so I wouldn’t have to ride alone on a suspect tire all the way to Arlington.

The ride to Arlington was longer than I’d anticipated, but the backroads proved fun. This ride, while colder, was dry. No more problems graced me that day, and I made it to my friend’s hotel room in Arlington just in time for a late dinner and some pre-game drinking of the official beer of the Dallas Cowboys (one I generally never consume, Miller Lite).

A good day, all in all, for some pie.

Return top