Sunday, November 8, 2015

Images from Europe: Burg Eltz

We were fortunate to visit many memorable castles during our travels around Europe, and one of our favorites was Burg Eltz. Although it was located in the Mosel River Valley, it was not situated directly on the river like many of its neighbors. Instead, it is perched in a valley upon a 70-meter-tall rock surrounded on three sides by the Eltzbach, a tributary of the Mosel. Nonetheless, it serves as a classic example of medieval architecture, and is striking from many angles.

It's also significant that the castle has remained a possession of the Eltz family for over 850 years, and it was never destroyed. The structure has grown over the years, and once housed three branches of the Eltz family. More details of the castle's history can be found on the official Burg Eltz website, along with many more photos. We toured part of the castle, but were not allowed to take photos inside, so the interior photos on the official website are helpful in appreciating the beauty of the structure.

What you won't find on the official website are my impressions. The image above was taken from the steep path used to shuttle visitors to the castle from the parking area. Most visitors walk down either this steep path, or a more gradual walking path that takes a longer route through the woods before offering its own dramatic view of the castle. There are several inspiring vantage points along the shuttle route, such that one stops every few feet to capture a slightly different perspective of the fortification, convinced that the latest view might be slightly superior to the prior one.

This is one of our views of the courtyard within the castle where we waited for our tour to begin. While waiting, I studied the features of the buildings around us and marveled at the effort, craftsmanship, and expense that went into the construction. I was particularly amazed by the gothic oriel window on the wall in the left side of the photo as I began to contemplate the extra effort and expense necessary to add that feature compared to the simple windows on the opposite side of the courtyard. Look at the decorative stone supports beneath the window, the stone traceries in the windows, the ornate painting under the roof eaves, and the steep pitch and multiple facets of the roof itself. My first thought was, "Someone must have really loved his wife a lot to go to that much trouble to make her happy!"

On the tour, we learned the real reason why this feature was added to the home. The oriel window houses the private chapel connected to the upper hall or bedchamber of this section of the house. Since it was not deemed appropriate to have any part of your home above the chapel, the oriel window allows the chapel to have its own roof which is not covered by any other roof of the castle. Evidently the importance of having a private chapel attached to your personal chambers was worth the effort apparent in this impressive architectural element.

This view is one of the first we had of the castle as we exited the woods on our approach. First impressions are often significant, and this vantage point impressed us all. Little did we know that the structure would continue to impress us on closer examination. Although Burg Eltz is off the beaten path and an effort to find, we recommend it as a castle worth visiting and touring.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Images from Europe: The Mosel River

One of our earliest impressions of Germany was the Mosel River Valley. This scenic river flows from France, along the border between Germany and Luxembourg, and across the western side of Germany until it joins the Rhine River at Koblenz. This image was taken from the Cochem Castle above the city of Cochem, and is typical of the landscape along the 100 miles of river that we covered during our travels. The valley is dotted with quaint villages and majestic castles, but the most prominent feature is the abundance of vineyards on the steep slopes along the bluffs. The region is well known for the quality of its wines, and we found the local Riesling to be especially tasty. Although the region is a popular tourist destination, we found it quiet and relaxing in most of the spots we visited, and we could easily imagine spending more time exploring the towns along the river in more detail.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Corn in the backyard, 2015 -- Harvest?

Few things are monitored as closely on this blog as the crops that grow in the field behind our house, so I was surprised to see harvesting in that field weeks before I expected it. Although the corn was maturing nicely despite an abundance of rain early in the season, no variety I'm aware of would produce kernels that would be mature and dry enough for selling the grain "as is" after less than 16 weeks. Instead, we've been treated to a show unlike any other we've seen in the backyard over the past 8 years -- harvesting for silage!

August 21

What at first glance appears to be a regular combine that separates the grain from the rest of the plant, is a harvested more like a lawn mower than a combine, since the entire plant is cut down, chopped up, and loaded into the wagon traveling next to the harvester. That plant matter, which is still very green and moist, is stored in big plastic bags to be consumed by cattle later this winter. This field is now managed by a family that has several cows to feed, so about two-thirds of the plants were harvested as silage now, while the remainder of the field will wait for a few more weeks to eventually have grain harvested from those plants.

The view to the west on August 22

August 16

Since I hadn't posted photos of the crop on the 15th week, I've included these photos taken the Sunday before the silage harvest. More stalk drying is evident, and the kernels on the ears are peeking out from between the husks on some of the larger ears. The video below was shot after the silage harvest left a few ears untouched, which gave us a chance to examine the kernels up close.

As I noted in the video, these ears indicate the the harvest could be pretty good on the remainder of the field in a few weeks. The second video below gives a better view of how much corn is left in the field.

We'll continue to watch the rest of the corn until harvest, but since the view from the backyard won't change much, don't expect the typical reports. Thanks for visiting!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Corn in the backyard, 2015 -- weeks 12, 13, & 14

July 26

During the week before July 26, we received about 7% more heating degree days than normal, and the ears continued to fill out. Rain, which was plentiful earlier in the season, was more rare this week which probably contributed to the stalk drying evident in the top photo.

August 2

The week before August 2 was warmer yet, registering 210 heating degree days compared to the normal 177, which is almost 19% more. Rain was very spotty around the area, and it appeared that Farmer Wagenbach's field missed any measurable precipitation this week. Stalk drying continued at a normal pace as the ears continued to increase in size.

August 9

We received our first measurable rainfall in over two weeks on August 9 including a steady shower while I was taking these photos. Temperatures continued above normal, recording 187 heating degree days compared to the historical average of 173. Stalk drying is even evident in the close-up photo, as well as husk drying on the ears.

The cloudiness count is up to nine Sunday mornings this season in which the sun didn't cast a shadow during our photo session versus five in which shadows were visible.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Corn in the backyard, 2015 -- weeks 10 & 11

July 12

The tenth week of growth added another 6 inches to the stalk height bringing the average height of most of the corn to about 112 inches. Growing degree days were over 15% below the historical average, but the ears continued to grow while most them had not yet experienced pollination.

We had plenty of rain the week before these pictures were taken, including over two inches in a couple of downpours on Saturday. This image shows that even the stalks in the wettest part of the field are developing ears, and you can see the standing water still present on Sunday morning.

July 19

Although the plants added a few more inches to reach 116 inches tall this week, the real news is now at the ears. Many ears have grown nicely and dark silks were evident on the majority of the plants. Although temperatures were warmer than normal (217 heating degree days compared to the historical average of 182), they were evidently not too hot to deter pollination, nor was the rain too consistent to interfere either. Despite the challenges this growing season has provided, it appears the corn is progressing at a normal pace.

For those keeping score, we've had seven Sunday mornings in which the clouds hid the sun during our photo session, and four sunny sessions.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Top 5 Blog Posts by Page Views

It's been awhile since we've reported which of the posts on this blog are most popular, and since a trend has established itself over the last four years, it's time for an update. Listed below are the five posts that have been viewed most as recorded by the statistics feature built into Blogger. Although I often have reasons to doubt the data, it's the best record I have to date. In order of popularity, I present the top five blog posts.

When we first reported the most popular posts in May of 2011, this post was only a few months old but still managed to rank #7 against many posts that had been around much longer. This post has been consistently popular since its publication and continues to rank near the top regardless of the time scale: views in the last month, week, or day. Comments left on the post indicate there are other do-it-yourselfers that have referred to my story, which is gratifying, but makes me wonder how they found my page?

Since Google refers more viewers to this blog than any other source, I've assumed most of the visits to this post came from Google searches on radon systems. I think that may be a faulty assumption. My search for "radon mitigation system installation" revealed that my blog post didn't show up in the first 62 pages of results, at which point Google refused to show me any more of the alleged 102,000 results for my search. Evidently some other sources are directing folks here, and at a pretty consistent rate since 2011.

2. Gutter Hanger Testing

This post is a perennial favorite as well, indicating to me that the need for clear answers on gutter hangers has not abated since 2009. This post was at the top of the list when we first reported ratings in 2011, but by the spring of 2013 it had surrendered the top spot to the radon system installation post. While now running far behind the #1 post, this post still has a comfortable lead over the third place post.

3. Freeport McMoRan Morenci Copper Mine

I suspect this post gets most of its views from folks looking for information on the company that runs the mine, but I still hold out some hope that there are a few people out there that appreciate my personal perspective of my tour of the mine in 2010. This post actually passed the gutter hanger post in popularity in early 2012, but conceded the first place position by fall of that year, and was passed by the radon installation post a few months after that.

4. Corn Growth Chart

I think it's appropriate that at least one of my corn posts is popular enough to be in the top five, since it seems every time I meet someone that has visited this blog they mentioned my corn growth posts. This post shows up on the second page of Google search results for "corn growth chart," and even appears near the top of the image search for the same term. If you put the phrase in quotes, it's Google's top result! I suspect that may have driven a lot of the visits over the last six years, but a scarcity of views recently may allow other posts to accumulate views more quickly and knock this one out of the top five.

5. Williamsburg in the Fall: Buildings

Of all our posts on Colonial Williamsburg (36 so far), this one from 2009 has most consistently held a spot in the top 10, although three other CW posts have visited the top ten as well. A Google search for "Williamsburg buildings" (quotes included) finds this post on the seventh page of results, but changing the search terms to "Colonial Williamsburg buildings" moves it up to the third page. Although this post is not far behind the #4 post, its views per day rate is almost identical, which means I don't expect it to move into the #4 slot very soon.

It's probably not surprising that all five of these posts are at least four years old. An older post has more opportunity to attract views, and has an advantage over newer posts on total views count. For that reason I decided to calculate views per day rates for the top ten posts, and others that were close to the top ten, but posted recently enough that their popularity over time has not yet been fully realized. Interestingly enough, the #8 and #6 posts for total page views rank in the top five for views per day.

Honorable Mention:  An Experiment in Greenwich

This post ranks #4 in views per day, but since it's less than three years old, it still only ranks #8 for total views. While writing this post, I finally realized why (Spanish version of TripAdvisor) referred so many visitors to my blog. On this page: the fourth responder included a link to my post on Greenwich, and by doing so, helped boost the ratings of the post. I'm glad at least one person linked to this post, since it's one of my favorites.

Honorable Mention:  Basement Bathroom Project

Although this post gets the fifth most views per day of all my posts, I'm at a loss to explain why. Having lived through the project, the post brings back lots of fond memories, but the pictures only show the ugly stages of the project before the pretty, finished pictures were taken. Nonetheless, it's views per day rate continues to be strong enough that it should move into the top five for total views if its pace continues.

I'll try to remember to report these ratings again before another four years passes, especially if we have a change in the top five posts. In the meantime, you can elevate your favorite post in the standings by visiting it several times each day. Imagine the satisfaction you'll feel! I'll keep trying to post something at least moderately clever, and you keep refreshing your browser, and together we'll shake up the ratings!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Corn in the backyard, 2015 -- week 9

July 5

Even though the growing degree days for the week lagged the historical average 153 to 169, the stalks added two feet of height to reach 106 inches. The big news of the week, however, was the ears that finally made an appearance. The image above shows one of the most mature ears I could find, and probably less than half of the stalks were sporting tassels. Nonetheless, the ears are why this crop was planted in the first place, and we'll watch them closely until harvest.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Does Outside Air Temperature Affect MPG?

Most of us that have driven vehicles in cold weather have recognized that they consume more fuel as the outdoor temperature drops. We might attribute it to letting our cars sit and idle in order to maintain a warm interior, or we might surmise that slippery road conditions reduce fuel efficiency. While both of those factors decrease fuel efficiency, I've gathered some data that indicates the temperature of the ambient air also affects the efficiency of internal combustion engines.

I began collecting data on February 9 this year using my 2013 Volkswagen Passat TDI SE with a diesel engine and manual transmission. My car has a meter that calculates average fuel economy (miles per gallon) for each trip, so I've been recording the fuel economy for my trip to work each morning. My route is identical each day and while my data doesn't represent an entire year, the temperature range is wide enough that I don't expect significant changes in the data over the next seven months. Road construction on my route added a detour beginning April 2, which increased the distance and added more 45 mph zone driving to the trip. I've noted the route change in my data, but what's presented here includes data from both routes.

My Volkswagen owner's manual includes this chart that predicts an increase in miles per gallon as trip length increases and also as temperature increases.  Volkswagen's chart implies that my fuel economy would increase further if my commute were longer than my current 30.8-mile trek. I attribute that effect to the inefficiency of an internal combustion engine at temperatures lower than the normal operating temperature, and to a lesser extent the higher losses in the powertrain due to cold lubricant. I have observed that it takes about 7 minutes for the temperature gauge to settle at the normal operating temperature in the winter, while it only takes about 5 minutes in the summer. Since my data covers nearly the same route every day, my chart doesn't duplicate Volkswagen's, but includes more temperature data than VW's two series.

My data indicates a pretty strong correlation between increasing ambient temperature and increasing fuel economy. The regression curve added to the chart reveals that the correlation is almost linear, but a slightly better fit to a second-degree polynomial with a stronger effect at colder temperatures. Although the coefficient of determination (R²) is relatively high at 0.8172, the scatter in the data convinces me that there are other variables affecting fuel economy besides temperature. Wind, traffic congestion, and speed are all obvious effects that probably contribute to the data scatter above. Some of these are out of the driver's control (wind or road conditions), while driving behavior clearly affects mpg and is clearly in the driver's control.

For my data, I've tried to accelerate consistently from one day to the next, I set the cruise control to the same speeds as much as possible, and fortunately traffic density does not often affect my speed at the time of day I make my commute. To reduce the variables related to air temperature, I drive no differently when the engine is cold in the winter than I do in the summer, i.e. my car doesn't sit stationary while "warming up" in the winter.

I chose one temperature each day based on the temperature recorded by the National Weather Service even though the thermometer in my car leads me to believe the temperature may vary by a few degrees over my route. More complex data gathering and analysis is possible, but is not included in the data I've presented. Since temperature alone does not represent the only effect on fuel economy, I've also collected data on other variables that should prove insightful in understanding fuel economy trends. Those data will be presented in future posts right here. In the meantime, it has been comforting each day to recognize a factor out of my control that can be used to predict fuel consumption for that trip.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Corn in the backyard, 2015 -- weeks 7 & 8

June 21

Although the stalks added about 21 inches of growth in the seventh week to reach 61 inches tall, the crop is beginning to show signs of stress in some areas.  Persistent rain over the last two weeks has resulted in standing water or very wet soil in the lowest spots of most of the fields in our area.  You may have noticed the stalks just right of center in the top image are lagging the other stalks, and have yellow leaves at their base.  That part of Farmer Wagenbach's field appears to be affected more than the rest, but continues to grow.

Even with the rain, the weather was warm enough to record 178 growing degree days versus a historical norm of 152 for the week.  There is no sign yet of tassels or ears, but we'll continue to monitor that closely.

June 28

The stalks added another 21 inches of height in the eighth week, reaching 82 inches.  Growing degree days totaled 174 which was slightly higher than the historical norm of 163 for the week.  More rain over the week gave the soil little chance to dry out, which affected the growth of some of the stalks.  Since there aren't any tassels or ears in the field yet, it's still too early to tell if yield will be affected in the wet portions of the field.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Four Best Things About Homeschooling

I wrote this article last fall for the newsletter of our local homeschool association, and I share it again here for your edification.

I’m Kurt Riggenbach, and I’ve supported my wife, Karen, as she did most of the work in educating our daughters over the past 13 years. Lily finished high school five years ago, and Gretel just finished this spring. They say you can know someone by the things they value, and because homeschooling has changed us so dramatically, I’d like to introduce our family through what I consider to be the four best things about homeschooling.

We set our own schedule. Not only did we decide when to study each day, but we chose which days are “school” days, and when we would take breaks during the year. Our girls both attended the public school for a time (five years for our oldest, and one for our youngest), so we were all familiar with the hassle and anxiety of arriving at the school building in the morning before the bell rang. In contrast, setting our schedule based on the natural morning rhythm of our family was a true blessing that probably added 10 years to my wife’s emotional life. It was a rare day that our school requirements weren’t satisfied by the time the public school let out in the afternoon, even though we usually started later than they did. That wasn’t too surprising, however, since my wife was exposed to the inefficiency of the government system when she served as a room mother in our daughter’s class, and became convinced that even the most incompetent home school could be more efficient than the public school.

We typically scheduled school for Monday through Friday, but we didn’t hesitate for a moment to take vacations when the public school was in session. In fact, we prefer vacationing in the spring and fall now as the weather is more moderate, crowds are smaller at most of the places we visit, and “off peak” discounts sometimes apply. We even occasionally used summer months to catch up on schoolwork or get ahead in a subject area.

Our daughters both took thirteen years to complete their K-12 education, primarily because we didn’t have any goals that required they finish earlier. Now that the State of Illinois is satisfied with their education, they continue to study subjects that interest them, and aren’t afraid of learning in unconventional ways, and on their own schedule.

We choose our own curriculum. I remember well the paper our young daughter brought home from the public school on which she was asked to list a person she wished to meet. Her answer: Monica Lewinsky. I was too embarrassed for her to inquire how she knew that name, or in what context it was presented that would cause a grade-schooler to desire to meet her. I was troubled that at the time she knew few of the names of the current elected leaders of our state or country, but she knew the name of an infamous White House intern. That was probably one of the straws that were quietly piling on the camel’s back of our decision to teach our children at home, and represents the control one relinquishes when their child is part of the public school system. Even though evaluating and choosing books and resources for each child can be daunting, the peace that comes with knowing what they’re learning and what they are not exposed to is immeasurable.

Granted, the State of Illinois requires that we teach certain subjects, but it wasn’t until we began homeschooling that we realized how much latitude one has in satisfying the requirements of the law. The APACHE conference opened our eyes to resources that presented a perspective different from that presented by the public schools my wife and I attended. Books and speakers challenged our paradigms in history, math, science, government, and writing to the extent that I sometimes felt like I couldn’t trust anything I learned in my first 18 years of life! We gladly chose resources that were based on a biblical worldview, and as a result, my children are stronger creationists and better-balanced historians than I am, and that makes me happy.

We’re part of a great culture. Fourteen years ago I would not have guessed that some of our closest friends would be the homeschoolers we met while touring Colonial Williamsburg. We were in the early months of our homeschooling adventure when we realized our friendships with other homeschooling families were the closest friendships we had. Many of those friendships still thrive today, and we continue to add new friends as we travel to attend new conferences, events, or simply sightseeing. More often than not, we recognized common philosophies and values after only a few moments of conversation.

Homeschooling Christians often have so much in common that it’s not difficult to feel like we’ve known each other our entire life when, in reality, we’ve only just met. Shared goals and struggles help bind our homeschool culture together, and they often prove stronger than ethnic, geographic, economic, and even doctrinal differences. Our strongest bond, however, could be that we not only see our method of educating as consistent with scripture, but many of us feel compelled to teach our children at home. It’s not a trivial thing to reject the public school culture of our day, and our common resolution in that effort joins us closer together.

Maybe that’s why it’s not uncommon to find homeschoolers worshipping together in congregations in which they outnumber those that choose other education options. We eventually joined a church composed primarily of homeschoolers several years ago, and we find it a natural fit with many of the convictions God has forced us to face in the last 13 years. In fact, God continues to use His Spirit through many imperfect people in our culture to convict us in areas where we fall short of his will, and we appreciate that aspect of our homeschool culture.

We spend time together. When our oldest daughter was nine years old, the public school consumed all but 2 or 3 of her waking hours each week day. Recognizing then that she might leave our home in as few as nine years, we were startled by the realization that we may never know her very well if we continued at that rate. God opened our eyes then and allowed us to deepen our relationships with our children through something as simple as spending more time with them. My wife benefitted more than I since she did almost all the instruction while I spent a good part of my day working away from home, but our family slowly began acting more like a family and less like individuals living together.

We still have individual interests, individual friends, and times when we do activities individually, but our identity as a family is now as strong as our identity as individuals. Time will tell if we put too much emphasis on being together instead of building independence, but at the moment, we’re all enjoying our time together.

Few decisions in my life have changed as many aspects of my life as our decision to bring our children home for their education. That decision clearly seemed to be a test of our obedience to what we felt the Lord was commanding us to do, and required a good bit of faith at the time. Even so, it was a relief to obey as the conviction was so strong we knew we would be miserable if we didn’t. God has continued to challenge our beliefs or practices in many areas, frequently using people that we would not have met were we not part of the homeschooling culture. We pray God continues to challenge us for the rest of our lives.