Home Brew Beginnings #1: The Big White Bucket

December 12, 2011

I’d been thinking about getting into home brewing for awhile and for wine specifically.  This is not because I thought I could create something better than what you’d buy from a wine shop.  This is because I like projects — given my will to embrace hobbies.  That is to say I am hardly an expert home brewer.  I just started, but I am also really enjoy it, so sharing what I can here.


I turned 40 in September 2011 and my wife suggested to my sister that she get me a starter kit for home brewing.  The best part about this kit was all the moving parts.  The worst part of this kit was the serious lack of instructions; yes, it came with a couple of books (one for instructions, the second filled with recipes, but there was a skew in the equipment they showed in the first book versus what I actually had in the kit).  After I unpacked the kit and made sure that nothing was broken, I hit the internet for information about creating a “shiraz-zinfandel” from the 4.5-gallon juice pack that was included with the kit — hopefully without having a total disaster.

Lessons Learned: At work I write many, many things down.  At home I could definitely stand to take better notes; home brew is a prime example of this, in particular if you follow a recipe that sucks or if you fabricate your own recipe that doesn’t.  Either way you’ll want to write these details down.  As a result of what I’ve learned (in this short time) about what goes into the wine making process, I’d like to write about my experiences here every now and again.

I ended up finding someone doing a near-identical thing on YouTube (making wine from a prefab juice pack), took some notes, read some more about wine creation in general, then got everything going in late October or early November.  We just bottled the wine on Saturday that had been created from the shiraz-zinfandel kit.  Results of this shortly.

This entry is partly about the process of making wine from a juice kit, how the wine tasted 6 weeks in, and what I’m doing with home brewing going forward.

The Home Brew Kit

As I learned more about the kit I realized that it contained everything I would need to fabricate a shiraz-zinfandel, including 36 bottles, corks, and a stand-up corking machine.  Or did it?  Of all the items that shipped with the kit I didn’t see any yeast or whatever else would be part of the wine making process.  I didn’t want to open the juice pack until I was ready to go but at the same time had an internal dialog about whether or not I should go to a brew shop and piece the rest of the chemicals together.  Result?  Rookie fail!

When you buy a juice kit, it contains all the yeast and so forth you’ll need to create your wine; all you need to do is to open the package.  You just have to know what to do with the ingredients, how to test what was what, what to look for during the fermentation process, how long to wait, and so forth.  Ultimately, my only real concern was not fucking up 5 gallons of wine on my first try.  A passable wine would be OK, but waiting so long for the process to complete only to pour everything down the drain seemed like a major waste to me.

Ready, Set, Ferment!

This is kind of true, you know, that you can chuck a bunch of stuff in a bucket and call it a day, but the first thing that most (if not all) home brewers have stressed is sanitizing everything.  This is done because fermentation is a critical process in any alcohol creation and you don’t want any outside sources (i.e. bacteria) causing the scripted process of fermentation to go off message in any way.

The kit came with a cleanser that I mixed into spray bottles at the ratio specified.  This cleanser has been fabricated to be taste and odor free, non toxic, and non-detrimental to your wine.

I took everything downstairs and opened the box that contained the juice pack.  I separated out the packets that would be used for primary fermentation (bentonite, a clay used for clarifying the wine and bringing out juice particles for fermentation, and a specialized wine yeast, a packet of oak chips that owe nothing to the fermentation process but are used to impart that oak-y taste into the wine) and set them aside.  I put the rest of the stuff in a plastic bag and moved it away from my work area.

We have a utility sink in the basement with a sprayer so I started to clean the primary fermentation device (i.e. the “big white bucket”) in there.  First I used the cleanser in the sink and rinsed that down.  Then I did the same with the outside and inside of the big white bucket, my stirring spoon, the lid of the big white bucket, and all parts of the airlock that would be used to release gases during the fermentation process.  Now we could proceed with starting our primary fermentation.

Lessons Learned: I happened to have gotten a “real” big white bucket that has been designed for fermentation with my kit.  It is the correct size for making 5 gallons of wine (6.5 gals total, from base to rim) but more importantly it’s been designed to be able to deal with the acidity and (obviously) the fermentation factor of the wine making process.   You can buy a 5-gallon bucket from Lowe’s or Home Depot and ferment your wine in there (as has been described to me by other people I know who home brew) but if your fermentation is not done in food-grade containers, you never know if you’ll end up fermenting your bucket into your wine if the bucket starts to disintegrate during the process of fermentation.  Granted, I am tempted to do all of my fermentation using stuff I’ve found at Lowe’s or Home Depot because it’s way cheaper and I can do more at once, but I am also very much a novice when it comes to home brewing so I’d like to have a better history of results before I throw something completely uncontrolled into the mix.

I added a gallon of tap water (room temperature — as will be the case for all additions of water in this posting) to the big white bucket and set it in motion with my stirring spoon.  When you add the bentonite, it was described to me to “keep the water in motion when you add it; else you will end up with bentonite chunks”.  Definitely true and it did take a little bit of effort (gradual pouring of bentonite powder from the pouch) to get it mixed in properly with the water.  Had stirring failed, I would have sterilized my stick blender and use that to rev up the bentonite in the water.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Use spring water.  Always.  In Portland, Maine we have pretty good (public) water, but you never know when even the slightest variance in water quality could totally shaft your fermentation process in some way.  I’m going to buy spring water by the gallon in the future and use that always.  That’s strictly my opinion.  You should do what you will.
  2. The metal spoon that was shipped with the kit was lousy for consistent stirring like this.  I ended up buying an oak dowel, .75″ diameter, 3′ long, from Home Depot to use instead of the metal spoon.  I sterilize this oak dowel — top to bottom and on both ends — every time I use it and it’s much preferred over using a spoon.

Once you’ve gotten the bentonite mixed together, open the juice pack and add it to the big white bucket immediately.  To get all the juice out of the box you might want to rinse the plastic bag out with 1/4-1/2 cup of water then adding these contents to your big white bucket.  Note: There is no harm in doing this.  You’ll end up adding more water to your big white bucket in a moment.

Open the packet of oak chips and pour them into the big white bucket.

Now add enough water to take you to the 6-gallon marker on your big white bucket.  Give everything a nice stir for a couple of minutes.  No need to make the juice and oak chips go 400 miles per hour.  Just do enough stirring where you don’t see separation anywhere.  You may see some froth on the top of the liquid but that’s OK.  Just leave it be.

Finally, add the yeast.  Open the packet and sprinkle it over the top of the liquid.  That’s the way I did it initially, at least.

Lessons learned: Read the directions on the yeast packet.  This statement should be self evident, but clearly it wasn’t for me.  Yes, my yeast activated, and yes everything seems to have worked out, but some yeasts might prefer to be activated with warm water or so forth.  In addition, some yeasts might be mixed with water and added separately or stored in with your fruit mixture completely

Once the yeast was added to the top of the liquid, I gave the lid another spray of disinfectant and attempted to seat the airlock in the “bunghole” in the lid.  Fail!  Grommet that is attached to bunghole promptly fell into the big white bucket.  I chose not to reach my arm in to the big white bucket to retrieve the grommet.

Lessons learned: Attach airlock to lid before snapping lid down to big white bucket.  Keep an assortment of grommets on hand.  I ended up buying a bunch from Lowe’s for a couple of bucks, but still, a degree of care up front would’ve avoided this need entirely.  I ended up lifting the lid and inserting the grommet, then adding the airlock and sterilizing the lid, grommet, airlock, and opening of big white bucket again before reseating lid.

At this point I began to get concerned about opening the lid after I’d seated it, compromising the bacterial environment, whether I had handled the yeasts in the right way, and ruining the wine in general, but time would tell.

Lessons learned: Neither on my first nor my second seating of the lid did I use my hydrometer to check specific gravity  (i.e. “are we boozy?”, “how boozy are we?”, or alcohol/liquid density you might call it).  My guess is that it would be at 1.000 or a little bit above 1.000, maybe 1.010 or something like that.  Going forward, it would be good to know what one’s starting state is in comparison to what you see once you have told your beverage to stop fermenting.

Once the big white bucket had been sealed, I pushed it under the staircase in the basement and waited 12 hours to check it again.  I was hoping to see some action (bubbles) in the airlock to let me know that gases were escaping the big white bucket.  Bubbles would let me know my fermentation was starting to take and that the wine wasn’t totally screwed.  I saw some bubbles, maybe once every couple of minutes and there was clearly a lot of gas built up under the lid of the big white bucket since it had developed a significant curve since the previous day.  By the end of the first day of fermentation, bubbles were exiting the airlock closer to once every minute.

Within about a week, I was seeing bubbles happening less than every minute.  Awesome!  Maybe things weren’t as bad as I’d thought initially?  It was getting close to when I’d have to transfer (“rack”) the wine from the big white bucket to the carboy so I’d find out soon enough.

Customer Disservice II – or – When the Customer is Angry on Day 1 Only to Become Confused (and Slightly Surprised and Pleased) on Day 2

January 24, 2011

The day after Bank of America deducted approximately $70 from our checking account to reclaim the first part of the temporary credit they’d given us while they investigated the Great NewEgg Debacle of 2010, we received another piece of snail mail from Bank of America that indicated, well, we had won the second part of our grievance with NewEgg and that Bank of America would not be taking back the other $80 from our checking account as a result.

My first response was to blink a few times, re-read the snail mail, then to stare into space for a bit, trying to let it all sink in.  “How could this possibly have happened?“, I asked myself.  Considering that the two packages from NewEgg came as part of the same order and were handled by the same shipper, I found it nearly impossible to believe that under practically identical circumstances the two claims with Bank of America were resolved in exactly different ways.  Did NewEgg decide to throw us a bone here?  Did Bank of America decide to throw us a bone here?  Was there really some mistake that would either end up in our favor or to our dissatisfaction if we called Bank of America to find out how the matter ended up being resolved in this fashion?  Or would there just be more confusion or malaise?

I’m kinda thinking that I’ll just let this one be because my guess is that digging deeper here will only make things worse.

Customer Disservice -or- When the Customer is Spurned and is Never to Return

January 19, 2011

I work for a major retailer who ensures customer satisfaction by allowing returns for any previously purchased goods, opened or not and broken/used or not, that a customer purchased at any time in the history of the company.  This is to say that the company I work for will accept returns for anything you purchased from them ever, for whatever reason, no questions asked.  Seriously, I know of cases where someone bought something years ago that they smashed up (i.e. the customer’s fault) and returned to my company only to receive a replacement item or at very least a repaired item.  In my opinion, this is a fantastic policy, and likely the single-most reason why the company has been in business and successful for as long as it has.

As a consumer, I prefer a shopping experience to be transparent.  Whether I buy online or at a (physical) retail store, I am looking for easy to find merchandise followed by an equally easy way to complete the transcaction(s).  And when things go wrong somewhere in the process — and I won’t deny this for a second — I expect a certain amount of ego stroking.  In the retail world, ego stroking is better described with the euphemism: “customer service”.

Increasingly, I have noticed that firms seem to be less interested in providing customer service, or when they provide some level of customer service it’s not satisfactory.  To be clear, I’m not that picky of a person, but when something goes wrong I expect it to be resolved to my satisfaction.  I expect to see a value for my dollar and this not limited to the price tag(s) of whatever I’ve purchased.

An ongoing situation with NewEgg and to a lesser extent with Bank of America illustrates this observation.

I ordered a new hard drive and some memory from NewEgg for a MacBook in early November 2010.  Before checking out, I updated my credit card and address information as we had recently moved.  I had been buying computer stuff from NewEgg since 2003 or 2004, so this seemed like old hat to me.  I finally submitted the order and a couple of days later I got a shipping confirmation.  Oh no!  NewEgg was shipping my items to the old address!  Arggh!  How did this happen?!

Unluckily for me, I had asked for 3-5 day UPS shipping so I didn’t have much time to act.  I called NewEgg customer service on the phone, and I waited on hold for a seemingly endless amount of time.  Waiting on hold and automated phone systems reminds me of that exchange between Willy Mays Hayes and Rick Vaughn from the movie Major League:

Willie Mays Hayes: Call the stewardess, Vaughn. I need one of those bags.
Rick Vaughn: There aren’t any stewardesses.
Willie Mays Hayes: I wonder if there are any pilots.

Suffice it to say, that long waiting (outside of the holiday season) does not a good customer service experience make.  Eventually a NewEgg customer service representative picked up the phone and I told them my spiel.  The NewEgg customer service representative went on to tell me that I “changed my address wrong” and was basically telling me there was nothing NewEgg could/would do about it and how I should “change my address correctly the next time”.  I was having none of this, so I pressed.  Mind you, I was still being somewhat affable at this point, or assuming that I wasn’t being totally affable, at very least I was being marginally reasonable.  Finally, after further pressing, I was basically told by the NewEgg customer service representative that I had to call UPS to have them recall the package.  After wasting another hour or so on hold with UPS, UPS told me that I could not authorize them to recall the package and that only the sender (NewEgg) could do so.

I called NewEgg once again and got into the phone hold queue for another hour.  In parallel, I went to the customer service / chat section of the NewEgg website and started a chat session over there.  I waited for half hour for a NewEgg customer service representative while the phone remained on hold in the background.  Finally, a NewEgg representative picked up the chat session and I gave them my complaint ID.  They reiterated how I should “change my address correctly next time”, and that there was “nothing they could do to reclaim the packages” since apparently UPS had ended up delivering them (to the old address) a day early.  I explained that NewEgg had told me to call UPS and that UPS had redirected me back to NewEgg and that this incorrect advice had taken us several hours off course — during which UPS had delivered a package to the wrong address — and that this was beyond my control.  I further explained that UPS had told me a package could be retrieved from the address, but they needed permission from the shipper to be able to try this.  I asked NewEgg if they would try this, even explaining that I would be happy to pay any fees from UPS for the extra pickup, and they said they would not.  Note that in the background my phone session with NewEgg was still on hold!

I asked to speak with a NewEgg manager and they pretty much told me the same thing(s) as the last customer representative had, except they added this gem:

“The only way the package can be retrieved at this point is if you go to the address and pick it up.”

I explained to the NewEgg manager that I no longer lived at old address, wasn’t sure if the new owner had moved in yet, and that the old address was 100 miles away.  This was pretty much what I told the last customer service representative and it was of no use, although this time I added that I was requesting a refund for the merchandise unless NewEgg was willing to ship a new set out free of charge.  She was having none of this and suggested that NewEgg would give me a refund only if I sent back the merchandise, even though they were well aware that the merchandise was not in my possession.  She went on to lecture me about how this was my fault and how better management of this event on my part would’ve caused this not to have happened.  At this point I think I started bleeding from my eyes and I was trying to keep my bile duct sealed but was having an impossible time doing that.  I decided my tack wasn’t working, so I tried another approach: to just be totally blunt.

“Does NewEgg really believe in customer service, in that the customer is always right?  Because that’s not what I’m seeing now.”, I remarked.

The manager changed her tune suddenly, and said that she was going to call UPS personally and that she would call me on my cell (she took down the number).  This never materialized of course, so I tried to call NewEgg one last time and was rebuffed.

Oh, and since I forgot to mention it, we were talking about $150 worth of merchandise here.  $150 is annoying to lose (it’s annoying to lose any amount of money, to be frank), but for a retailer as large as NewEgg I found it impossible to believe that they would take issue with $150 in the grand scheme of things.  Regardless, it was clear that I was going to get no relief from NewEgg, so I figured that I needed a more muscular approach to solving the problem of the missing items and loss of $150.  On top of that I had ordered a new hard drive and memory from Amazon for less than $150, so getting the money back was what I was after at this point.

Bank of America is a huge financial institution.  They manage our checking accounts, savings, and mortgage.  While we are hardly Donald Trumps or Thurston Howell, III, we have a long banking “relationship” (silly word to describe being a patron of a bank, but I digress) with Bank of America, and as part of our tenure and business with Bank of America I felt that we probably had some kind of purchase protection built into anything we bought with a Bank of America card, even a debit card.

I gave Bank of America a call and lo and behold, one is able to dispute a charge with a merchant.  I spoke to a Bank of America representative who was very courteous and took down all of my information about the situation with NewEgg.  In the end, Bank of America credited my account for $150 until they could resolve the matter with NewEgg.  I was very pleased about this, with the understanding that things might not work out between Bank of America and NewEgg.  Since Bank of America was large, we were solid Bank of America customers and Bank of America was looking out for our best interests (their claim — as they told me on the phone), I thought results would be imminent and they would be in our favor.  Right?  Wait for it!

Three weeks ago, our REALTOR (yes, he of house-selling infamy) dropped us an email where he noted that the people who had bought the house were going to ship us a few packages that had accidentally been sent there.  I was kind of shocked that this even came up (especially since he got in touch with us exactly two months after we’d sold the house in New Hampshire), and wasn’t holding my breath when it came to our REALTOR and his follow through with this kind of stuff (well, about practically anything, in actuality), but decidedly if the packages were returned to us, we could ship them back to NewEgg, get a refund from NewEgg, pay $150 back to Bank of America, and close the lid on this extremely ridiculous matter once and for all.

Two days ago, Bank of America denied our claim and took their $150 back, citing the same lame reasons as NewEgg for why the claim was denied.  We still don’t have the merchandise from our REALTOR and I am not hopeful.  Now I’m re-pissed with NewEgg and am freshly pissed with Bank of America.  Unfortunately, we all know what the only alternative is when one is dissatisfied with their bank!  Should I play the “we’re taking all of our money out of your bank over a $150 dispute” card with Bank of America?  The only positive that would come out of this would be a good blog posting.  Everything else would totally suck.

As for NewEgg, I will never do business with them again: EVER.  Once this matter is resolved, if I can still get a refund (minus the 15% “restocking fee”), I will return the items and wait for a refund.  Then I will cancel my account, with extreme prejudice.

LaTeX: Unicode -or- Fear and Loathing in FontLand

December 7, 2010

It occurred to me that I didn’t bother to tell you in my last rant how I actually got Unicode characters to appear in my LaTeX documents and DVI, PostScript, and PDF renderings of same — or why I even bothered to go this route in the first place.

When I first ran into the, umm, unfortunate situation with “missing” Apple symbols in my manuscript, I decided to implement a “workaround” where I referenced jpeg or png images that contained the Apple symbols in question.  The problem with my “workaround” was that text and image alignment in LaTeX sucks a lot of sack so while my images rendered correctly, the corresponding text was off by as many as 10pts and this caused little glitches, like all of my page breaks in the entire manuscript falling off the page and needing to be recreated.  Obviously I had to go back to the drawing board with these Apple symbols.

So, obviously the “let’s write it in XML and convert it to LaTeX with a stylesheet — so we never have to touch LaTeX directly” mantra I’d employed for writing the manuscript in XML was flawed to the core.  Giving into ennui, I had to remind myself that we were living in a post-Unicode world, and as a result both LaTeX and Unicode characters would require my attention no matter how much I’d wanted to ignore the both of them.

Unluckily for me, my LaTeX book didn’t cover Unicode at all.  I used Google a bit to see what my options for wide (Unicode) characters would be, and I ended up giving XeTeX a try.  XeTeX, as it was described, was designed to support Unicode natively and I should just be able to pop a Unicode character into my document.  After finding some XeTeX examples, I ended up making a simple test document that essentially contained:

\someLaTexCommand someText someUnicodeCharacter

Then I tried to build the document with XeLaTeX.  Result?  EPIC FAIL.  I gave it a few more whirls and after wasting about an hour trying to make XeTeX render Unicode by doing basically the same thing in slightly different ways, I revisited how it was explained that LaTeX could render Unicode characters.  It basically amounted to:

Test here: [\char"2318]

Then I tried to build my document with LaTeX.  Result?  FAIL.  Why?  Because the LaTeX T1 font class (and apparently the built-in Unicode classes) didn’t include a Unicode character that mapped to decimal number 8984 or character 2318.

Seriously, thinking about crap like this makes me blink and roll my eyes.  Repeatedly.  Then it makes my eyes water.

Why oh why — since i seemingly always have a million other things to do — should I need to think about crap like THIS?!  And, again, why does software behave this way?!  Just render my Unicode character already, you motherfucker!

This really sucked, but I guess it could’ve been worse.  It’s not like no Unicode character was rendered.  It’s just that when you’re looking for a ⌘ but instead your Unicode character is rendered as a(n) Ö, and you don’t happen to be assembling a brochure for a heavy metal band from Norway, this kind of leaves you disappointed.  When you try a series of workarounds to this problem and all of them come up empty, you feel like that poor kid in nursery school who you always watched trying to use a plastic mallet to pound the square block through the round hole only to discover that one doesn’t fit cleanly in the other — although with a herculean enough effort you can certainly soundly wedge one inside of the other (to less than desirable results).

Oh, you mean I actually have to make my own font if I want my Unicode character to render the way I want it to?!  What a fantastic idea!  I cannot wait to do this!

I ended up looking around for a font that contained the Bowen knot character (that’s also known as a propellor or command depending on the font you were using).  Linux, not surprisingly, didn’t seem to have a font that met my needs.  (Actually, in the font world, a “character” in a font is actually called a “glyph” I believe.)  OS X “texLive” or “TeXShop” definitely had access to the character in question, but to my thinking this broke compatibility between TeX/LaTeX on OS X and TeX/LaTeX on Linux or Windows.  I needed my document to render the same way on all platforms, or at least the two main ones where I’d be doing all my work.

After further examination, it appeared that I needed to have some kind of “Lucida Grande” font that contained a “propellor” glyph.  I thought I was being really clever when I found a Lucide Grande font that had been shipped with my Safari browser under Windows and attempted to copy the font over to a place on my Linux VM where I felt that TeX/LaTeX would find the font.  Oh sure, TeX/LaTeX found the font alright, but rendered the same Ö as it did last time.  FÜCK!

As it turns out, after a little bit more reading on Google, LaTeX doesn’t support TrueType fonts at all.  The only way to use a custom font in LaTeX is to convert your TrueType font into something that LaTeX understands, like TFM, PFB, or some other gibberish.  I did some more reading and converted my TrueType font into TFM and then I tried to render my document again.  Result?  Ö, I don’t know, maybe it worked out correctly this time?  Ö, no, BjØrk, I guess not!  Let’s listen to some Norwegian heavy metal and nap for a bit until our feeling to render this Unicode character just gÖes away!

After some more reading and examination of the TFM and font metrics files I’d created, it became apparent that maybe, just maybe, my font had too many characters (glyphs) for LaTeX to handle.  For grins, I whizzed \char”0000 through LaTex with my current document and it rendered fine.  The same held true for \char”0255.  It seemed that every character after \char”0256 was, let’s call it, “impaired” in some way.

With this in mind, the only way I could think to solve this problem was with more trickery.  I tried to coerce the propeller character into my font map at a different position, in this case I placed it solidly in slot 1 (I didn’t use slot 0 because I was somewhat convinced that LaTeX might consider slot 0 as NULL or unused in some way).  Ö say can you see?  This didn’t work either.

It seemed like the only recourse here was to make a new font.  Or, maybe I could just convert my LaTeX into a Word document and be done with it?

I reviewed what it would take to convert my document into a Word document, immediately became really concerned and panicked given the seemingly endless amount of hardship I’d bring upon myself by going down this road, and started reading about fonts and LaTeX again.

I ended up using a tool called FontForge to extract only the characters (glyphs, yeah yeah, I know) I needed from my existing Lucida Grande font and created a new AppleSymbols font from the 4-6 characters that I’d found useful in Lucida Grande.  I started at slot 1 of course, and once all of the characters had been copied, pasted, and named appropriately, I told FontForge to export my font both as a TFM and with a font metrics file.  There was absolutely no way I was going to try and write these files by hand… AGAIN.

I tried to use my AppleSymbols font straight in LaTeX.  It couldn’t find the font.  When I coerced it to find the font, it still didn’t like the Unicode characters.  I tried to tickle its chin and coo a bit, rotating the spoon in a circular motion, making engine noises, telling LaTeX all the while that an airplane was going to land in its mouth — but my AppleSymbols font still didn’t work and no matter what I tried I still kept seeing the ubiquitous Ö character.

After more Google attempts, I determined that I had to subclass (?) my AppleSymbols font under an existing font.  I chose T1.  Bear in mind that I have no recollection as to how I came to this conclusion, and was certain that I was not high or hallucinating.  I also checked all of my desk drawers and didn’t find a plastic mallet in any of them.  For whatever reason, I just created a font description file called t1applesymbols.fd that contained a mapping for each of my Unicode characters:

 [2010/12/03 Fontinst v1.933 font definitions for T1/AppleSymbols.]


\DeclareFontShape{T1}{AppleSymbols}{m}{n}{ <-> AppleSymbols }{}


Musing to myself, I wonder if this is how Glenn Beck comes up with his crazy ruminations in real life?  Was he really spending his younger days seeking a missing or incorrectly rendered glyph only to become distracted and frustrated — and ended up channeling his anxiety and frustration towards  a country he perceives as hell bent on socialism, godlessness, literacy, fairness, Judaism, and sometimes malaise — because being a crackpot is way easier than trying to gain an understanding of LaTeX, arcane file formats, and other mind-blowing topics that supermodels or beauty queens might refer to as “hard” before taking another drag from their Marlboro Light and/or a sipping from their Diet Coke then thinking about something “easier”?

Wake up, America!  It’s time to restore our country’s font!  One glyph at a time!  And hurray for an admission of “liberal bias”!

And then I tried to build my document again.  Ö, well maybe it will work this time?  Well, nÖ, but at least the LaTeX log file indicated that it had tried to render the Unicode character but just didn’t find anything to map it to.  More Google.  This time it came to light that you actually needed to tell TeX/LaTeX that you’ve installed a new font metrics file and fonts so that it would know to use them.  Oh, really?  Seriously, you couldn’t just find all these goodies in my current working directory and just use them?  No?  Fine.

I added the following to /etc/texmf/upmap.d/10local.cfg (and really, when you think even a little bit hard about this, going through all these gyrations is ridiculous and more than a bit sad):

Map AppleSymbols.map

And I wrote an AppleSymbols.map file that contained:

AppleSymbols AppleSymbol-Regular "T1Encoding ReEncodeFont" <AppleSymbols.enc <AppleSymbols.tfm

Then I installed AppleSymbols.map where it was supposed to go and ran updmap and (from what I’d read) updmap-sys, for good measure, to tell LaTeX to rebuild its configuration and ran texhash for the same reasons.  I rewrote my LaTeX document a bit so that it would use my AppleSymbols font, well at least hopefully it would:




Default font here?

Now show me the motherload of Apple symbols, or maybe?
} ?


I tried to build my document again, and sweet, glorious, fÜcking Ö, I had my very first ⌘ followed by the other Apple characters I’d installed in my font.  I was unclear if I could convert my DVI file into PostScript or PDF, so I tried.  Result?  FAIL.  Apparently Ghostscript didn’t like my font, couldn’t find my font, didn’t like me personally, wasn’t at the correct patch level, or just didn’t work.  You never know.  After wasting even more time, it became apparent that I could generate a PDF file directly from my LaTeX document, but PostScript was the broken link here.  I definitely needed PostScript, so after wasting more time to regroup, curse, and regroup some more, I realized that Ghostscript itself was missing a mapping for AppleSymbols.  Oh, you mean, all this updating of LaTeX maps didn’t fix this for me?  I added the following to Ghostscript’s Fontmap:

/AppleSymbols (/usr/share/texmf/fonts/type1/public/AppleSymbol/AppleSymbols.pfb) ;

Then I ran Ghostscript again.  I couldn’t believe that suddenly everything was fine in the world of PostScript.  I was able to convert DVI->PS and PS->PDF.

I decided to add my font to Windows and try to use the same Unicode character under Word.  It took me 5 minutes.

Now I really need to give serious consideration to moving the entire manuscript over to Windows and writing it in Word.

Thanks a lot, LaTeX, you fÜckÏμg ÄsshØΛ∑!

The Byproduct of Chaos is Undoubtedly Chaos -or- How Linux Slowly Turned Me Into a One Man Party of No

December 6, 2010

(This is yet another  posting where the back story is extremely long and finally the last half dozen or so sentences unfurl the punchline.  Somehow my writing style reinvented itself where every blog entry is almost like a telling of “The Aristocrats”.  I cannot say when this happened, but it did.  But think about it.  Tell the story like: “so one second I was an innocent bystander, typing a bunch of characters into my text editor, next thing you know I black out, and when I come to it’s two weeks later I’m lying in my psychiatrist’s chair trying to explain this whole course of events and finally he interrupts me and asks: “So what do you call your document preparation system?” and I say, “LaTeX!”.  It kinda fits.  Anyhow.)

I found a lot of great stuff while packing and unpacking our possessions during the move.  One of these gems was a manuscript of an OS X book (a “cookbook”) that was written (in first draft) by us and was reviewed by a third party but never published.  If I remember the situation correctly, a friend and I signed a contract to write an OS X book with a well-respected publisher in late 2002.  550 pages, a round of corporate restructuring at the publisher, a “lost” contract for our book with the publisher, and two acquisitions editors later, the publisher terminated our contract, and reassigned the rights of the book ownership to us.  The book was never published and has been sitting in the same state since early 2003.

I’ve thumbed through the draft a few times and in the course of doing so realized that I’d like to complete the book and maybe sell it online.  A number of updates will have to be done and this includes adding a suitable typeset to the manuscript, designing a cover, generating an index, and adding a bunch of Apple-specific symbols that never made it into the draft (that’s part of the book production process with one’s publisher in any case).  Oh yeah, and the manuscript hasn’t been touched since 2003, so it needs about 10 years’ worth of updates that involve current functionality in OS X (in relative terms to the following paragraphs, the content updates themselves would be trivial).

Since this manuscript was originally connected with a publisher, we were limited in our choice of tools that we’d used to write the book — that our publisher would support to facilitate the production process.  If I recall, we were allowed to write the book in either Microsoft Word or in TeX/LaTeX; both choices had their own set of templates and sample style guides that were provided by the publisher.  We chose TeX/LaTeX and even then I degraded the whole process to writing the manuscript in (our) dialect of XML then applying a (XSLT) stylesheet to convert the XML into TeX/LaTeX.  We produced PDF proofs and printed manuscripts from there.

After reviewing the manuscript, the first thing that I really wanted to fix was the missing Apple symbols (in particular, missing instances of Apple’s Open Apple, Option, and Command characters).  The problem with just plopping these characters in place in the manuscript was that, well… mitigating chaos involved a certain degree of engineering.  A certain degree of engineering to add instances of three missing characters itself was chaotic.  LaTeX, while extremely configurable, proved to be arcane and counter-intuitive.  The Apple characters that I needed weren’t included in any font on my Linux system, I couldn’t find a comparable (free) font that included these characters, and making matters worse these Apple characters were Unicode characters.  Unicode characters have a special encoding which means that they don’t play well with a word processor that usually supports “normal” character encoding.  Yes, there is much more to what Unicode is and does, but screw it, I think it’s sufficient to say that TeX/LaTeX Proper don’t support Unicode — to the extent that you can’t just dump a series of Unicode characters into your LaTeX document, compile your document into some other format, and see these special characters come to life.

The end result of this is that it took me bits and pieces of 5 days to perform the simple act of adding 3 Unicode characters into a LaTeX-based document then successfully producing documents in DVI, PostScript, and PDF formats.  That’s over 1 day per character!  How could this possibly have happened?

Because TeX/LaTeX, while infinitely configurable, is a heinous, malicious, vile, contentious  piece of awful software: that’s why.  Digging deeper, the reason why TeX/LaTeX make simple things (add a font, add a Unicode character) hard is because TeX/LaTeX are fractured.  LaTeX is a document markup language or “document preparation system” that’s built on top of a typesetting program called TeX.  There is not a single implementation of LaTeX.  Depending on what you hope to accomplish, you might use a variant of LaTeX, set of document classes, or TeX distribution such as amsTeX, mikTex, texLive, pdfTeX, bibTeX, XeTeX, or a metric ton of other TeX/LaTeX implementations or options.  Each of these implementations has its own “special feature(s)” and there is no guarantee — or none that I can tell — that there is cross-compatibility between document classes or libraries between these various implementations.  If your TeX/LaTeX implementation doesn’t support what you want, you can customize it to taste, but even so you should be aware that you’re doing so at your own peril.  Making matters as confusing as possible, there is not a single person responsible for TeX/LaTeX anymore (Knuth hasn’t been directly involved for many years) and the committee behind TeX/LaTeX isn’t what I’d consider responsible for reigning in the chaos.  Sure, TUG funds TeX-related projects, and sure they both publish documentation and provide access to a few ready-to-run TeX distributions, but at the end of the day there are enough TeX implementations out there (and new ones still being built) that I still don’t have a level of comfort that a document I create with TeX/LaTeX on system A will do the same thing with TeX/LaTeX on system B.  This was my experience as recently as yesterday at least.

Given how absurd this whole model works, you’d think that nobody would bother with TeX/LaTeX anymore, but strangely there remains a strong following for TeX/LaTeX and its derivatives even though intuition would make me think that almost everybody in the entire universe should prefer to roll over and go back to sleep until the typesetting system behind the bad dream just went away!

Given all this chaos, all these incompatibilities, all this “freedom of choice” has actually caused me to be less flexible in my approach to these viewpoints, to these situations.  If LaTeX cannot easily and handily produce a ⌘, I say “no”.  “I think private industry should blah blah blah?”  No.  “But Sarah Palin…”  No.  “Punishes wealth blah blah blah”  NO.  No, no, and no.

TeX/LaTeX, like Linux, offers a million different ways to do things and often times with a glaring lack of compatibility.  I’d accuse these developers of reinventing the wheel, except I’ve always thought that regardless of its inventor — a wheel would always be round.

REALTOR: And then it was Done.

November 5, 2010

After the house sale fell through in late August 2010, as you recall moments before we were to start our vacation up the coast in Maine, we decided to move forward with buying a home in Portland after all.  While we had a house in Portland under agreement during the time when we were on vacation, that too was not without its issues; a couple of days before the sale of the NH house fell through we’d had an exhaustive and unpleasant inspection of the house in Portland that we’d had under agreement.  We were kind of conflicted about going through with the purchase of the house in Portland because not only would a slew of repairs need to be done, we would have to fund the repairs ourselves since the sellers of the house in Portland were going through a divorce and on top of that were completely inflexible.  We were not happy buyers and not necessarily comfortable with the process; seeing that the house sale in NH fell through, I know exactly what those buyers must have been thinking as well.  Buyers who are not happy or comfortable usually won’t follow through.

We ended up backing out of the purchase of the house in Portland.  The sellers got a backup offer that was deemed as “competitive” and we lost our leverage to get them to pay for $10-15k of repairs as a result.  Truth be told, we were relieved.  The only thing that was eating at me, outside of the NH house going unsold, was that as buyers we were losing out on absolutely fantastic interest rates for mortgages.  The mortgage broker I was dealing with in Maine shared a lot with me about trends in the market, and was stressing the point that if we find something we like, we should buy — even if we carry two mortgages for the short term.  There was a lot of wisdom to this, because our current living situation involved owning a house in NH and renting an apartment in Portland.  If we could afford to do both, why not just spend a couple hundred dollars more per month on a house instead of throwing money away for rent?

Like some kind of miracle, and over the course of 24 hours from the day we got back from vacation, we found a house in Portland that we absolutely loved (my wife even more than I — and I was thrilled that she was enamored with the house), in exactly the price point we were looking for.  We had competition for the property, so we gave a full price offer and after it was accepted, we moved forward.  Inspection for a house of this age was surprisingly clean.  Getting a letter of commitment from our lender and having everything ready to close went smoother than I could have imagined.

Within a few days of having the house in Portland under agreement, our REALTOR in NH said that he would “probably” have an offer for our house in NH “soon”.  Apparently he’d been showing houses to these folks and they happened to like our NH house; while they were working with him to buy the house, he would still be our agent not their’s (yeah right, whatever).  They were fine with the radon situation so long as we installed the mitigation unit.  They seemed fine with everything else.  I’m actually kind of surprised that there was so little drama surrounding the sale of the NH house.  In fact, I remain shocked that our REALTOR was able to pull it off.  If not for this sale coming through, we’d have parted company with him in early October.

Seventeen thousand dollars in commission later, I don’t feel like writing about REALTORs anymore.


REALTOR: New Hope, Radon Ahoy, and Lucky for Our REALTOR that the Safety is Still Engaged

September 14, 2010

These blog postings are starting to have titles reminiscent of recent songs by Neil Young.  Anyhow.  Towards the end of our vacation, we decided that we’d set a deadline by which we’d like the house to be sold.  If that failed, we would likely take the house off the market until next spring and hire another REALTOR at that time since we’d no longer be under contract with the same firm we are now.

We decided to go in this direction based on an earlier observation of Kim’s:

“Our REALTOR takes even the simplest thing and turns it into shit.”

As part of our last gasp effort to sell the NH house this fall, we elected to install the radon mitigation system but only if we had action on the house — which up until two weeks ago we’d not had since August 20th when the first sale fell through.  We conveyed this to our REALTOR:

“We are totally willing to install the radon mitigation system but only if we start seeing showings and action at the open houses again.  Since it will cost at least $1000 to install the radon mitigation system, and it’s not likely that we’ll sell the house this season, we’d just assume take the property off the market if we haven’t had any action by the end of this October.  Since we will likely need to remedy a few things for a total of several thousand dollars, we would prefer to take the house off the market in October and spread the expenses out between this October and when we put the house back on the market next spring.”

Imagine our surprise when after having this conversation we had a sudden burst of activity with the house sale.  Within a week we had three separate showings of the house, two interested buyers, and got an offer the following Monday.

Strangely, the people who ended up putting the most recent offer on our home do not have their own REALTOR.  Our REALTOR is our REALTOR who advises us (or so our REALTOR says, if our REALTOR is to be believed, since our REALTOR is the same person who also “facilitated” for another couple and used our home to leverage a sale for them on another home that they preferred), so it’s more than a little bit strange that the people who put an offer to buy our home seem to be going along with our REALTOR willingly.  And the buyers apparently know about the radon issue and how — according to our REALTOR — the remedy mitigation system has been installed as of today.

So, what do we mean the safety is still set?  Our REALTOR is either going to sell this house under this most recent offer or they will be fired.  We have grown weary of their uncanny ability to turn everything into shit and, no matter how lousy the housing market is (in theory, two years after the crash, with insanely low interest rates and lots of buyers who’ve seen the house, there is no excuse), it’s reprehensible that:

  1. we’ve had one set of buyers walk away without explanation (May 2010).
  2. we’ve lost a month of peak market sales time while our REALTOR disappeared, nobody from their firm seems to have stepped in to handle the sale of the house, and the end result was our REALTOR playing the Death Card (June 2010).
  3. we’ve taken $50K in price reductions per recommendation of our REALTOR (July 2010 – August 2010).
  4. we’ve had another set of buyers be redirected to another property by our REALTOR who we’d hired to sell our home (July 2010).
  5. we’ve had an offer/sale that fell through seemingly without any negotiation on his part (August 2010).
  6. we were not informed about the most recent offer on the house until we called him and asked if the buyer had extended an offer (September 2010).
  7. our REALTOR doesn’t seem to know how to negotiate or sell.  We got a lousy price for our house with the first offer.  We got a lousier price for our house with the second offer.  Since we didn’t trust our REALTOR’s ability to negotiate or sell, we had to take what we could get.  Making matters worse, we can no longer negotiate the price any further down; if something egregious comes out of the inspection, even after the radon mitigation, either the buyer has to accept that we cannot negotiate further (and goes forward with the purchase), or the buyer has to walk away since we cannot/will not compensate them, in particular not at this price.
  8. we were told that he’d let us know who’d be installing the radon mitigation system, their contact information, and how we could pay the bill for the system — but still don’t know who did the work, who to pay, what the final costs were, or if the radon issue has been mitigated at all (September 2010).
  9. we will have paid $17,400 for this?!

The offer we have on the table, then, is like a safety on a firearm.  What happens if you disengage the safety and pull the trigger?  There will be a firing.  Given what we’ve seen thus far, I would be really surprised if we sold the house to these buyers and with the same REALTOR some time in the future from now.

REALTOR: Radon, it’s Not Obama’s Fault After All!

September 1, 2010

Well, shoot, after having evaluated a real study of the harms of Radon gas, I guess it’s a total crock of crap (at least in the context of radon mitigation systems in most homes) after all!

Here it is: http://www.physics.umaine.edu/radiation/radon.htm .

I can’t help it if you don’t believe in the US Department of the Interior, but the study really puts the notion of installing home radon mitigation systems –  as a matter of course — in perspective.

REALTOR: And then it was Time for a Vacation

August 30, 2010

At first I was really peeved about the course of events that led to the sale of our home in NH falling through.  Making matters worse, our REALTOR had been pushing us to buy a radon remediation kit ASAP — for $2300+.  On top of that we were not happy with the terms of the offer we’d put on a house in Portland, ME.  The real issue is that we were trying to make something positive out of a series of events that up to this point had been almost completely negative.

Kim and I decided to take our vacation w/family as planned.  As it turns out I got to discuss some of these issues with my parents during the early part of the vacation and this meant I ended up spending most of the vacation having a good time instead of worrying about all of these home issues.

A couple of days into our vacation we got a call from the REALTOR who was managing our purchase of the home in Portland, ME.  She sounded very unhappy.

“They got a second offer on the house”, she said.

Indeed this was a problem since having another offer on the house in Portland — which we’d determined would require some negotiations for repairs in the range of $5000 — kind of killed our leverage to ask the seller to compensate us for the repairs.  We decided to ask for $5000 anyhow, and see how it went.

The sellers were having none of this, and we backed out of the deal.  Immediately we felt better about things.  It had been a real shit deal for the house in Portland anyhow.  We’re both really glad we’re done with it now.

Kim and I also talked a bit about how we should proceed with installing a radon system and our consensus was that we’d wait to install anything until we started to having showings and/or interest again.  As of yesterday we hadn’t had any showings of the house for two weeks so we believe the selling season is pretty much done at this point.

REALTOR: And then it was Time to Radon Our Parade

August 21, 2010

As mentioned in the last entry, our house in New Hampshire went under agreement last Thursday.  Don’t ask me why (specifically) I had a knot in my stomach about things, because while I was relieved that we finally got and accepted an offer on the house, I had a nagging feeling that the same buyers who’d placed the offer wouldn’t be sitting across from us at the closing table six weeks from now.

As always seems to be the case with trying to sell our home, things moved forward quickly.  We had a radon kit deployed to our basement last Saturday evening and a home inspection took place this past Tuesday.

Our REALTOR called us during the home inspection last week and let us know that the home inspector had punctured one of the underground hoses for the sprinkler system when he was poking the ground to find the opening for the septic system.  Wonderful.  The home inspector said that he’d get someone to fix the busted hose and affixed a note to the front door of our home — claiming that the hose has both been fixed and he also left us his business card “in case we ever need anything”.

As a result of our home in New Hampshire being under agreement, with assurances from our REALTOR that completing the sale of our home was virtually a slam dunk (our REALTOR had said that if this house sale fell through he would be “seeking another line of work” — I kid you not, these are his exact words — “because failing to sell a house this easily would mean that I [he] didn’t understand the realty business at all”), we put in an offer on a house in Portland, ME.  Eventually, pending the results of an inspection, the house in Portland went under agreement.  I also had a meeting with a mortgage broker on Friday to finalize the details of our mortgage application so we could get a letter of commitment from a lender by mid-September.

Funny thing happened on the drive over to the offices of our mortgage broker.

Our REALTOR called — he was supposed to have called yesterday (Thursday) after completion of the “slam dunk” phase of our home sale — to let me know that inspection was all set and that everybody was moving forward.  The fact that our REALTOR was calling us a day late had to be an indication that something was wrong.  You see, when there is a good news or there is money to be made, our REALTOR calls us early and often.  When there is bad news, family tragedy, or other forms of malaise, there are foot dragging, delays, and radio silence.

He let me know that the inspection results were in and that there were “concerns”.  First of all, we had a radon problem.  Second of all, we had potential structural issues.  Structural issues?!  But the house is only 8 years old!  This cannot be!  I decided to just come out and ask.

“Do you think that the house sale is going to fall through?”

Our REALTOR is not a man of a few words.  After him saying multiple words that really told me nothing, he said,

“Well, it’s certainly possible that the sale will fall through, but you should propose that you will pay for a radon mitigation system to be installed.  It’ll cost between $800-$2000 to remedy this problem.  Also, the buyers want more time and I’m not really willing to entertain that.”

I asked him to clarify the nature of the structural issues and he explained that the cracks in the basement floor were “probably nothing” and “part of the house settling”.  But wait, didn’t he just say the buyers were citing structural issues as a concern?  How is it suddenly “probably nothing”?  And why do the buyers need “more time” today if two days ago they had the pedal to the metal?

Kim and I decided that we would offer to pay for a radon system and conveyed this to our REALTOR.  At this point, we really needed to get this deal done.

I still believed that the sale would fall through, but at least we were trying to negotiate in good faith.

At 3:30pm, the REALTOR called to confirm what I’d already suspected.  We were toast.  The buyers were unwilling to buy a house with radon issues, whether a mitigation system would be installed or not.  Our REALTOR had just put the house back on the market.  The buyer’s REALTOR liked the house enough to want to bring more people through it.  (I don’t give a crap about the latter thing, by the way, but at least somebody likes the house and thinks it can be sold so I guess the more the merrier.)

Obviously, this course of events really fucked with our days.  We had family coming into town for a week’s vacation up the coast in Maine, and it was going to be tough to decouple our angst about the home situation from our will to have a great and drama-free vacation.  Last night we met up with family for dinner and while I’d primed my parents with information regarding the failed house sale, and discussed possible remedies to correct the issue, and other possible financial workarounds, we all decided to keep this discussion quiet during vacation week.  Having a few glasses of wine over dinner didn’t hurt either.

Kim and I ended up sleeping lousy last night and this morning while drinking coffee, she read the New Yorker.  I read about radon.  First, I read all the details I could about acceptable radon levels, variance of radon levels by day/season/whatever, and mitigating radon problems.  And my initial conclusion was:

“This all sounds like bullshit to me.”

So I decided to Google for “radon hoax” to satisfy my curiosity.  I mean, really, given how pervasive radon testing is and given how the same person who is a home inspector might also own a “radon mitigation” business on the side (and thus try to sell radon mitigation services to the same seller who just flunked a radon test during their home inspection), I thought that maybe I’d find some compelling, rational ideas to fortify my newly-found notion that radon testing was a racket.  I admit it; I wanted to be placated and I wanted to believe.  And just this once I really wanted something to be me-first.

Make no mistake; I got my money’s worth when I Googled for “radon hoax”.  But I didn’t get much more than a Beckian Discourse written by libertarians, separatists, and other ‘net kooks who argued that radon testing was an invasive tactic by the government, unsubstantiated arguments that radon science was invalid, comparisons of radon gas to the falsehood of global warming or acid rain, likening of stigma of radon (safe) to stigma of DDT (also safe), and every other conspiracy theory about radon available.  In other words, reviewing “radon hoax” sentiments left us exactly where we were before; we could install a radon mitigation system that would cause the radon test to go from 7 (above threshold of 4) to 1.5 or less than 1 or we could stubbornly insist that there was no radon issue and as a result would never sell the house.

We’re waiting to get the inspection report from the buyer’s agent.

And then we’ll probably have to see what these “structural” issues entail as well.


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