Monday, May 25, 2015

A Day in Detroit

I've been to Detroit a few times before.  The Henry Ford Museum.  A quick drive through the downtown on the way to Canada with a stop at GM headquarters for a look. I attended an SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) convention 10 or so years ago which was held downtown.  On all of these trips I'd sort of avoided the 'donut' - the empty inner suburbs that have been in decline since the 70s and 80s.  Over the last few years I'd read various articles about some of the resurgences occurring in some neighborhoods and it sounded intriguing, and so different to our high priced inner city suburbs. Was it the place to visit while traveling with kids 7 months and 3 years old? Worth finding out.

The approach from Toledo is via a long freeway with high voltage power lines stretching into the distance. As the city nears, the freeway rises above an industrial wasteland.  The scale of industry here, past and present, is phenomenal.  As the city came into view, billowing smoke rose from beside it - an exploded semi oil tanker twitter informed me. Detroit was true to the old stereotypes so far.

Our first stop was Michigan Central Station, grand and abandoned since the late 1980s and a trademark of Detroit's decline.  I wasn't really prepared for how quiet it was going to be. This was a recurring theme throughout the day. Quietness. Stillness. Birds singing.  It was Sunday morning on a long weekend so maybe that was part of it? On driving away from the station I spied a coffee shop. Not a typical american coffee shop. This one had definite hipster vibes. Starbucks packs a flat white these days, even in Ohio, but my first REAL flat white since leaving home was truly a delight. This hipster hangout could easily have been West End Brisbane but for the lack of anything for miles around. 


One thing I love about GPS navigation is the ability to be totally random and know that whatever you do, your device will patiently guide you back.  I use this feature a lot to turn down any old street to take a look.  The one I chose after the coffee shop was still within sight of Michigan Central, but had a great little playground and a friendly vibe (albeit devoid of people due to the long weekend). Here we spent possibly the most peaceful, surreal half hour of our trip.  Colorful children's fun under the watchful, ominous gaze of post industrial America.
Driving through suburbs where 90% of the house s have been demolished feels quite rural - despite the city being only a mile or two away. The grass is green and long and the and of birds are everywhere. There's plenty of ruins and the occasional well-kept house.  Then there will be a few beautiful streets that could be straight from  any American movie. How did these few streets maintain their foothold while others faded?

One of our last stops was the Heidelberg Project. A few semi-deserted blocks turned into one huge recycled art project with dozens of people wandering around enjoying the spectacle. Colorful, playful and perfect.

So Detroit definitely has pockets of revival, but the pockets are smaller and further apart than I'd anticipated. It takes real commitment to choose to lay down roots here. There are some awesome communities you may wish to join, but you definitely will not have the walkable amenities of the idyllic inner city haunt we are used to in Australia. And the occasional arson attack is definitely on the cards.

Detroit. What do you think of when you hear the name? Motown music? Big American cars? The Eight Mile, Eminem and gang wars? From now on I'll think of inner city fields of green grass, diverse and resilient people and the only good coffee I've ever tasted in the mid-west.

(Note - I do not for a moment pretend I now 'know' Detroit.  We avoided the 'dangerous' suburbs.  The places where there is the most need and the most character.  We're just a soft family from Brizzy after all.)

Thursday, November 07, 2013

How to avoid having to water your veggie garden

I've been meaning to get into the wicking bed thing for a while.  I also wanted to find a use for our old bathtub since I realised that aquaponics is probably just a little too much commitment for me.

Plenty of great ideas were forthcoming by googling "bathtub wicking bed".  Our bathtub is quite shallow, so I needed to make sure the gravel reservoir part of the wicking bed wasn't too deep.  Around 30cm of soil seems to be good according to blogs etc, but the whole bathtub was 30cm deep in this case.

First I set up the overflow through the plug hole with a small piece of pvc pipe siliconed in.  Then I created a watering pipe / distribution pipe combo with some more PVC pipe.  Once that was siliconed in place I used a couple of bags worth of drainage gravel in the bottom to create the reservoir.  I then used some weed mat on top of that, followed by some sand, and some more weed mat.  I'm not sure if that was all overkill - as I've read in a few places that you can really do the same thing just by filling the whole thing up with soil.

After the second weed mat layer I filled the tub up with mulch and good quality soil, heaping it up in the bathtub to maximise the depth.

The worm pipe was an afterthought.  Again, plenty of info with a bit of googling.  Basically, just drill some holes in a PVC pipe and stick it in the bed.  Add some composting worms and drop some scraps in there once in a while and they will distribute their worm poo goodness all over the garden!

The watering hole (vertical) with distribution pipe coming out of it (horizontal):

Looking down the watering pipe you can see the overflow pipe poking up out of the plug hole:

 A closer shot of the distribution pipe:

A look into the worm pipe:

Photo of the freshly set up wicking bed:

Around 4 weeks later - I've only watered it once!  It rained once and it gets a little bit of overflow from watering the pots above it: 

Finally, a diagram of the whole thing:

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Some RC Plane Fun

I recently got around to fulfilling a childhood dream of learning to fly a radio controlled plane.  I'd always wanted to have some fun with it, but was turned off by the expense, and the ratio of the time required to build the plane vs the instant it would take to destroy it on its maiden flight.  Through a work colleague I became aware of how cheap the bits were for electric planes these days and how the foam aircraft are nearly indestructible.  So, less than $200 later, I had all the bits and I was up in the air with my Bixler.  Briefly.  Then after fixing a few things I was up in the air again.  Briefly again.  Now however, I have the hang of it and last weekend I sent my old Nexus One phone up in the plane so I could enjoy the view.

So here is some of the fun...

Flight #1.  I hit a tree.
Flight #2.  I hit a tree.
The Nexus One setup:
I usually take R with me on an early Sunday morning.  He brings his medieval party tent along.

Some still shots from my Nexus One: 

Finally, video from my Nexus One (it gets more stable at about 3:29 when I cut the engine):

Monday, February 25, 2013

Classic Teen Albums

On Triple J this morning they were talking to Blink 182 and played an old track (Josie).  This is a band I have ignored for about 15 years, but I was taken aback by how, well, taken aback I was when they gave it a spin.

It got me thinking... what are some of my favourite unashamedly teenage albums?  Those albums that bring back the angst.  Those albums that make me want to jump around and cry.  The ones that I had to replace because the CDs got so scratched.  The ones that I ripped as soon as MP3s were invented... that I shared on Napster.  The albums that I played from beginning to end on my bass when I should have been working on a uni assignment.  Yes - most of them represent a single musical genre.  Most aren't the albums I would pick as 'most influential' in my musical history.  Few of them would make my 'greatest albums of all time' list, but  if I hear them now, they hit me in the gut in a uniquely teenage way.

In no particular order:

  • MxPx - Life in General
  • Blink 182 - Cheshire Cat
  • Reel Big Fish - Turn the Radio Off
  • NOFX - Punk in Drublic
  • Rancid - And Out Come the Wolves
  • Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream
  • Greenday - Dookie
  • Ghoti Hook - Sumo Surprise
  • The O.C. Supertones - Adventures of the O.C. Supertones
  • The Porkers - Grunt!!!
  • Ben Lee - Grandpaw Would

That's some of my history.  If you don't know them, don't bother looking them up.  They're sure to sound crap through the ears of a 35+ grown up.

I reserve the right to change this list at any time of my choosing.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

A Present made from Broken Glass

Norah turned 1 the other day and as a belated response to a suggestion from her Mum, I made her a present out of broken glass. A bottle, with a hole drilled very carefully into it, an LED shoved inside, filled with broken glass, then capped. Voila! Night-light for Norah and Mabel!

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Tracking Utilities

Although I'd love to spend hours on end setting up Arduinos to monitor everything at home, lately I've felt that my time has been better spent re-watching The West Wing. But I do check the meters every so often, and I thought I may as well publish the results so the whole world can watch the impact 46 Ross St is having.

These graphs are coming from the Google Docs that I use to track these things...

Water Use
First of all, data from our bills. You can clearly see when we bought the house - October 2009. Before that there were 8 students living here. Since then there have been generally 6 or 7 people (admittedly two of those people are very little) but still, a pretty amazing reduction in water use. We put a tank in October last year - just for watering the garden at the moment. It may have had some impact but it's hard to tell.

The following is water use as logged monthly by reading the meter - I will keep this updated.
Gas Use
Now to natural gas - which runs our hot water (storage type system) and one cooktop. You can see that the bill readings went whacko for a couple of billing cycles - I think they misread the meter as the mistake seemed to correct itself.

Now onto my favourite... however it's just got complicated with the addition of our solar panels. We haven't received a bill yet, but it's looking like we're going to generate about as much electricity as we've consumed, which means our next bill should include a cheque!

Here are the bills so far...

And this one shows readings from the new import/export meter. Will be interesting to see whether import or export wins in the long term. (Import is the electricity we use from the grid when there is no sunshine. Export is the excess electricity we export to the grid during the day when we are generating more than we use).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Beyond Zero Emissions Article - Brisbane Line

I wrote this article for 'The Brisbane Line' at the request of the Brisbane Institute, after they heard about Beyond Zero Emissions and the fact that Engineers Without Borders at UQ were organising a forum which I presented the plan at.

Hope you enjoy it!

By the way - I'm presenting the plan again in a few weeks - details here.