Dec 262013

Princess Juliana International Airport SXM (aka Sint Maarten International Airport) has a runway which approaches over the ocean. The end of the runway is several feet from a short and steep beach, Maho. This combination leads to a lot of plane watching as the lumbering giants pass very close to the beach before touching down. We spent a few hours here at Sunset, where in between caribbean music sets from a local band they play air traffic controller traffic. The above photos and video are from my phone, I’ll update later with ones taken from my SLR.

Dec 262013


We have been here for less than a day but I thought I would write some first impressions to look back and likely see how wrong I was. Like most nations in the area, development has been a it ramshackle – beautiful in some spots and seeming lacking proper sewer lines in others. The weather has been lovely thus far, a nice temperature and humidity.

We were eaten up by mosquitoes at dinner last night, which makes one worry about chickungunya – apparently making the rounds. Time will tell how large a threat it is, for now we will stay vigilant with insect repellent.

Dec 042013

I’ve enjoyed touring Scottish distilleries as well as wineries around the world, but had never visited any American distilleries. We thought that this needed to change and found ourselves in Kentucky late September 2013 to visit some parts of the Bourbon Trail. We based ourselves in Louisville and visited five distilleries over the course of a few days – here are my thoughts on each of them.

Buffalo Trace

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Buffalo Trace makes a wide variety of bourbon with several different lines represented. Their budget Buffalo Trace is excellent value, typically close to $20/bottle. Things get a bit more expensive from there, with Eagle Rare and Blanton’s being the more premium versions, and then quickly escalate into ridiculous collector prices with their antique collections of Sazerac, Wller, Eagle Rare, Staggg, and Handy Sazerac.  However, even those can’t touch the ultra ridiculous frenzy over the ever elusive Pappy Van Winkle.

Located in Frankfort, the small capitol of Kentucky, the Buffalo Trace distillery is somewhat off on its own from some of the other large distilleries. Distilling began on the grounds sometime before 1773, so in addition to being picturesque, the area has a lot of history.  Buffalo Trace’s tours are all free, which is pretty amazing when one considers each of their many tours per day finish with generous pours of their white dog, base bourbon lines, and sweets.  Our tour guide was a second generation worker and had a genuine love for the company and its history. The only negative thing I could cite them for was a video included on the tour which was a little too long & marketing heavy. Note that the default tour does not go behind the scenes to the mash or other areas – in order to see those areas one has to sign up with those specific tours in advance, which is highly recommended. This was one of my favorite spots to visit, as the grounds were lovely to walk around and the staff extremely friendly.

Woodford Reserve

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Though Woodford Reserve releases limited editions they are mostly known for their base bourbon, Woodford Reserve, or the more premium version, Master’s Collection.  Woodford is a relatively new brand (1996) on a very old site. Located just south of Versailles, distilling started on site around 1780 and the main stone distillery building was built in 1838.  Though a well known brand I was surprised to see just how small these facilities were – the fermenters, bottling and storage is all housed within the older historic stone buildings.  Woodfords tour was the most organized we went on – a bus ride down and headsets to hear the guide, however the tour also costs $7.  Disappointingly the tour only includes a taste of their main line – Woodford Reserve. Though one can can talk up some of the gift shop folks for a taste of the double oaked if they display enough interest and seem like buyers, it would have been nice to try some of their other items not easily available, like their recent foray into malt whiskys.  This site is one of the prettiest that we visited, and is a worth a visit to see the landscape and distillery alone.

Four Roses

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Four Roses has been around as a brand since 1888 and the mission style distillery building was completed in 1910.  Four Roses has had a bit of a roller coaster ride over the years – very popular the 1930s-1950s, the brand and product diminished in quality up until being revitalized over the last decade or so.   I was excited to visit the Four Roses distillery as their single barrel bourbon holds a special place in my heart.  Though the tour was free, and the pours (almost too) generous, unfortunately this didn’t keep a special spot in my heart.  Their use of multiple yeast strains is interesting, but the the Four Roses facilities are industrial feeling and the tour started with a marketing video.  The experience simply wasn’t able to full compete with some of the others we visited.

Willett Distillery

Kentucky Bourbon Trail Kentucky Bourbon Trail

Willett Distillery reminded me of a winery in Napa valley – aesthetically pleasing, artisanal, and focused on visitors a key driver of sales.  Home to a gorgeous pot-still and a pretty view, the distillery has plans to open a B&B on site and I’m sure they will do well for themselves.  The tour has a small fee associated with it, but I thought it was well done and worth the fee.  The tour finishes with a taste of their standard bourbon (which I’m not the biggest fan of, though their bottle is very pretty), in addition to what ever other lines they have available.  I tried several different kinds and brought home two bottles of their 4 year old rye which I was very impressed with.  Note that their facilities are fairly new here – if you see the Bourbon family tree you will notice that their line is associated with other producers for the older varieties.  Time will tell what older spirits from their wonderful new pot-still actually taste like.

Heaven Hill

Kentucky Bourbon Trail

We had a short visit to the new Bourbon Heritage Center at Heaven Hill Distilleries.  I wasn’t particularly impressed, but I can’t say I gave them a full chance either as we did not take the full tour.  It seemed a bit overly commercial for my liking, kind of like a booze Disneyland.  The prison style metal warehouses surrounding the facility did little to encourage any generous thoughts of craftsmanship, though I’m sure that is completely unfair and unjustified on my part.  While I’m not a huge fan of many of their brands, Josh tried a number of their older releases of Elijah Craig and came away impressed enough to buy a bottle.  Long story short, don’t just take my word for it.

Final Thoughts on the Bourbon Trail

I didn’t know quite what to expect for our tour of bourbon country, but I came away quite satisfied with the trip.  It seems that even though plenty of cash has flowed into the industry it has not significantly corrupted it; the bulk of the people working that we met are genuinely passionate about their craft, and they enjoy sharing that passion with visitors.  If you are in the area and have even the slightest interest in spirits, I highly recommend taking at least one tour.

Nov 132013
Bourbon Family Tree from GQ

Bourbon Family Tree from GQ

Compared to something like the number of Scotch producers, there are relatively few producers of bourbon – most are related by production lines and distilleries. GQ published a nice info-graphic which has been excerpted from The Kings County Distillery’s Guide to Urban Moonshining. It doesn’t have some of the other brands, like Hudson, but it does a great job of showing how most of the different brands and makes of bourbon and rye are related.

Nov 072013

two harbors and cactus Diver in kelp starfish and kelp California Spiny Lobster

Last weekend we went to Two Harbors on the isthmus of Catalina Island with the PowerScuba group. We had gorgeous weather and the diving was great. More photos can be found here: More photos of diving and hiking at Two Harbors, Catalina Island

It has been a number of years since I’ve been out, so I was surprised to learn that the dive boat which was dedicated for the site (the Garibaldi) had been dry-docked for a while. This means that any diving happening here is from boats coming from Long Beach/San Pedro area on the mainland, or coming up from Avalon area. This makes it much more difficult to organize dive trips with Two Harbors as a base as there is no local boat to help service divers. One never knows the whims of the CIC, who dictates what happens for much of the island.

Two Harbors always feels like a quiet rustic getaway, but that is partially because of the time of year that we show up – in late fall. By this time of year most of the moorings are empty, a far cry from the 4th of July when almost every harbor on the island is pushed into overflow and the island is packed with people. This time of year we are able to stay in the overflow temporary staff housing, which has a bit of a trailer park/work camp feel to it. The cabins are all close together and offer a meeting area for cooking and gathering, so it feels a bit like going back to camp as a grown up. This is one of my favorite places to visit, and my favorite time of year. Needless to say I really enjoyed the trip and meeting folks from PowerScuba. I can’t wait to go back!

Nov 042013

I’ve been using a diving backplate and harness from Deep Sea Supply for my scuba diving for a number of years now. The harness I use is somewhat Hogarthian, which in simple terms means it is a single piece of webbing and does not include any pockets or weight system integration. With this configuration the best method for using weights with a backplate is to use a weight belt, since it allows for separate ditching. However, weight belts and I don’t get along well unless I use suspenders, which then interferes with the harness and introduces entanglement scenarios I’d rather avoid.

I started by using a combination of bolt on weight plates from DSS (which work great) and small weight pockets on the belt webbing near the base of the backplate. This works well but it means that I have a lot of weight on me which is not quickly ditch-able (weights can be removed from the small pockets, but not quickly). In an effort to avoid this issue I looked at a number of different options for adding ditchable weights to a backplate setup.

I settled on the DiveRite 16LB QB Weight Pocket (#AC3216) as a ditchable weight system for my backplate setup:

Backplate with DiveRite 16LB QB Weight Pocket

The first complaint I had about the system for my usage is the webbing mount point when connected horizontally (the system supports both methods). In the horizontal scenario the webbing connection to the 2″ waist belt is quite loose and will side over standard weight keepers (as seen in the photo below).

16LB QB Weight Pocket

I had to purchase plastic weight keepers with extended D rings in order to keep the pockets in place and secured up against the backplate (as seen in photo below).

16LB QB Weight Pocket attached with belt D ring

The system loads easily and feels secure. The quick release pull works with an expected level of force, but I’ve found the extra velcro stabilizer strap requires a second expenditure of force to release, which could be confusing if a third party is doing the pulling in a rescue scenario.

DSS backplate with DiveRite 16LB QB Weight Pocket

The product is priced well (nothing in diving is cheap) and feels quite well made. The manufacture says each weight pocket is able to accommodate 8 lb of weight for a total of 16lb, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you could double that. I’m using single plastic coated weights in each pocket, and it handles that with only 50% of the weight capacity used. If you are looking for a ditch-able weight system for a backplate harness (or any 2″ webbing harness system) I recommend giving this product a look.

Oct 272013

When we purchased our house a couple of years back I took the time to put in Z-wave switches around the house. I’ve dabbled in a few forms of home automation during that time (I’ll write more on that at some point), but the one I’ve stuck with is MiCasaVerde’s VERA system. It is awkward and occasionally very frustrating, but it is also one of the most powerful and cost effective systems on the market with a lot of community support.

VERA motion sensor scene needs

One of the more frustrating aspects of building scenes I’ve found over the years is when multiple points of automation are touching the same switches or sensors. Take the following example:

  • An outdoor z-wave motion sensor used which can’t detect light levels (Everspring SP103)
  • Z-wave light switch is already used for some scenes (turn on at dusk, off at 10:30 PM)
  • After 10:30 PM, motion sensor should turn light on for 5 minutes on motion trigger
  • Light should not trigger during the day

With the above example it is relatively easy to create a scene to turn the light on if motion is detected – the tricky bit is turning it off after certain periods of inactivity, but only between specific hours of the day.  Thankfully the community has found a workflow option – the VERA Countdown Timer.  Per the app description: “Make custom timers and control them with scenes. Timers can be started and cancelled on an event; timers generate their own event when they expire, and can trigger any other action.”

VERA Device configuration

Using the VERA Countdown timer plugin, create a countdown and set it for the idle time to turn off the light:

vera 5 minute motion timer

VERA Scenes


This scene is scheduled at sunset, and turns the light on, regardless of motion.
vera motion start light

10:30 PM

This scene turns the light off, then arms the motion sensor.

vera timer light off scene 1 vera arm motion sensor

Motion activated light

This scene will start the 5 minute motion timer, and activate the light on any motion – but only when the sensor is armed:

vera motion start light vera motion start timer

Motion sensor tripped while device is armed

Turn off motion activated light

This scene will turn the motion activated light off once the timer has completed (no motion for 5 minutes in this case):

vera timer light off scene 1

timer completes while not muted


This scene will be scheduled for sunrise and will disarm (bypass in VERA terminology) the motion sensor:

vera bypass motion sensor

The arm/disarm functionality of the motion sensor allows for layers of control which are not available on many z-wave devices.  The addition of the timer allows setting further runtimes for events when it isn’t supported within the scene or device itself.  As I said earlier the VERA system can be very frustrating with awkward sequences and Rube Goldberg-like logic flows, but the benefit of the system is that there is usually a way to get what you want in the end.