Making brandy

I recently purchased a still.  It turns out that New Zealand is practically the only country in the world where it is legal to distill alcohol for personal consumption without a licence.   Below are my notes on the whole process so far...

The still is beautiful.  I did a lot of research and discovered that I needed a pot still as I was trying to retain fruit essence rather than simply producing alcohol.  Apparently most people just want alcohol which they add artificial flavours to.  Go figure...   Anyway I purchased from http://www.alembics.co.nz/products/traditional-alembics/ purely for function but it ended up being a work of art that I'm quite happy to leave out.

It turns out that alcohol isn't the only thing you can make with a still.  You can also distill flowers or other vegetable matter to make essential oils and something called a 'hydrosol'.  The hydrosol is similar to essential oils in that it contains the essence that you've distilled, but is water-based and far weaker which makes it much easier to use.  If I was more into betting then I would bet that there will be a huge business opportunity creating hydrosol over the next couple years.

So far my attempts to make brandy have been largely unsuccessful.  I thought I'd shortcut the process of creating a mash by using wine, and since I was going for a fruity brandy I picked Banrock Station's 'fruit fusion'.  This had the added benefit of being lower in alcohol - the still I was using multiplied the alcohol content by 3.5 and I like my brandy around 37%.

Unfortunately while the result smells reasonably good, it tastes... pretty awful really.  Far worse than anything I've ever bought anyway.  I'm not sure if I started with the wrong raw product or if I did something very wrong in the process. Anyway, next time I'm intending to make pear brandy - I just need to find an affordable source of pears as the ratio is apparently 10kg of fruit for 500mL of brandy.

Corrupt User in OS X 10.12

I recently had my user account stop working properly.  Every time I logged in it would try to reset my login keychain; it repeatedly said 'the application '; I could not launch simple apps like Calculator and lots of other weirdness (e.g. my login did not have a fast user switcher).

Even more strangely, other users on the computer seemed unaffected, and my account on different computers seemed unaffected.  I tried deleting the user and recreating it, but got the same result.  It was like the computer didn't like my name!?

Digging into the error message after an application crash eventually lead to the solution.  The exact error was a problem validating the code signature of /usr/lib/libSystem.B.dylib.  Google showed at least one other person had this problem and was able to recover by replacing the file from another computer.  I didn't really want to do that - I don't like manually overwriting system files, and I had no idea how many other files needed replacing.  An alternative solution I found was to download and install the OS 'cumulative update' as this essentially overwrites all system files. 

 

This worked!  I had to manually rebuild my keychain - setting up dropbox and other apps again... but generally I now have a working computer again.  I have no idea how I managed to corrupt some system libraries, or why it only affected my user (some sort of malware launched on login?) 

Anyway, I'm posting this in the hope it helps someone else with a similar problem.   As of the time of writing the latest cumulative update is https://support.apple.com/kb/dl1897?locale=en_US, but no doubt newer updates will exist whenever people read this that would be more suitable.

The new YNAB

I have been using You Need A Budget (YNAB, www.youneedabudget.com) to sort out personal budgeting.  It is amazing and I would highly recommend it.  I've even written a post about it before: https://corrin-lakeland.squarespace.com/personal/2013/9/you-need-a-budget 

What makes YNAB different is that it is much more than software.  It provides a full budgeting framework that helps you make decisions.  Every time you're thinking about whether to buy something you check your budget and decide if that's how you want to spend your money.  This is incredibly empowering - the budget swaps from nagging you about what you did wrong to a tool that helps you say yes.

YNAB just released a new version of their software.  A major update to software you use everyday is always a bit scary.  In this case YNAB has made a fundamental change from a desktop app to web-based SAAS.  This also means the ongoing cost goes from nothing to $5/month.

A lot of people have criticised this change.  Fundamentally it didn't bother me - I know I get a significant day to day benefit from YNAB so the idea of paying each month didn't particularly bother me.  Also I get regular advice in forums and software updates from YNAB so I'm pretty comfortable with the idea that I have an ongoing relationship and need to pay for it.

Unfortunately I think the new version is a) not quite ready and b) overpriced outside the US.  I'll address both points seperately.

Not ready

YNAB tracks how much money you have in each virtual envelope.  Overspend in a category (e.g. treats) and you have to put a virtual IOU in that category.  You can then either cover that IOU using next month's spending or leave it there to remind you that you've overspent.  

Generally you want to cover the IOU for categories where spending is compulsory (e.g. rates, food) and leave it there if spending is discretionary (to discourage you from going over again).  Unfortunately the ability to keep track where you've overspent didn't make the cut of the first release.  

YNAB Classic was a desktop application which relied on Dropbox for syncing.  This worked well.  Dropbox+YNAB is extremely reliable and the combination means your budget is always available, even without an internet connection.  The new YNAB is planning to add offline mode but for now only works with an internet connection.  

Overpriced

Five bucks a month doesn't sound like a lot.  But two points here: Firstly it was competing with the cost of a software upgrade every three years (approx $20/year)  and so it's a 200% increase in price.  Secondly the big feature which justified this increase is the ability to automatically download your bank transactions.

This is a pretty good new feature.  With it you know that all your transactions are up to date and so any budgeting decisions you make are accurate.  Unfortunately a) the UI assumes that YNAB is up to date and so is harder to use with people that cannot integrate their bank and b) YNAB partnered with a company that only integrates with US banks.  That means YNAB is now considerably worse than the old version and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

That's a big shame - the biggest feature of the new release is unavailable to me.  But these things happen - YNAB's priorities are not set by me and some of the other features (aging your money and budgeting beyond the current month) are very attractive.  Unfortunately YNAB has deiced that they're going to charge me the same amount as people this feature works for since not everyone uses every feature.

WTF? I can either stick to YNAB 4 and have it work well, or spent $5/month for a half-baked internet version.  That's not a hard choice.  I don't think the YNAB team have quite thought this through... YNAB helps me make better decisions with discretionary spending.  What is the average household income outside the US, and what percentage of this is US$5/month?  How about making it free (or half price) for people that haven't linked their bank account.

Anyway, I still think YNAB is awesome, and if I didn't have YNAB 4 then I would personally think $60/year for the new version is worth it for me.  However I'm pretty disappointed that the YNAB team have not seriously thought about how well their offering stacks up for existing customers outside the US.

Privacy and the internet

Privacy is a topic I think about a lot.  My job is to use data to understand behaviour, and often that data is from websites.  So it might seem a little odd that this site contains not only my name but also my email, phone number and address - more than enough information to generally make my life a pain, should you be that way inclined.  I've even had phone calls from friends saying 'did you realise your phone number is on the internet, you should get it off so as to avoid annoying phone calls'.

When I first started using the internet I posted anonymously.  It quickly became clear though that if I wanted my arguments to be taken seriously I had to attach my name to them.  So about twenty years ago I stopped being anonymous and started using the internet in such a way as my posts were easily traceable back to me.

This had some interesting effects - one was that a long time ago I realised everything I wrote would be archived forever, which made me substantially more deliberate about what I wrote.  For instance in this post from 1994 I am writing something which, while I might look back and cringe at my naievity, is at least fairly well written and trying to be helpful.

Similarly posting my email address to the internet means I get a lot of spam.  I've long ago stopped counting for various reasons such as intermediate SMTP servers acting as filters, but I still get around a thousand a day.  However all that's really meant is gmail has had lots of training on blocking spam from my inbox - I only actually see about one spam a week.  Before gmail I used crm114 for the same purpose with a higher accuracy.  
That's the downside of putting your address out there, but what about the upside? Anybody who finds what I say interesting can send me an email and I've had hundreds of great conversations as a result.  I also try to keep the same email address so people can email me using the same contact details I've had for the last 15 years.  That means if someone is visiting the country again or similar they can trivially get in touch.

My phone is the same.  Since putting my phone number on the internet I've had zero nuisance phone calls and three calls from people that wouldn't have been able to find me if it wasn't for the information being easily accessed.

Finally have you ever thought how hard it is to keep that information completely off the internet?  Many people put their CV on the internet somewhere and most CVs have their phone number in them, so a search for "Firstanme Lastname" CV is likely to turn up most people's phone numbers with a bit of effort.  If all you're succeeding at doing is making it a bit harder for people to find your details then think about this:  are automated spam robots going to work harder to search for your details, or old friends that are paying a flying visit to the city you're in?  If you can't win, you may as well get as many benefits as possible from losing.

You Need A Budget

About fifteen years ago my wife and I had a budget that worked.  

We had a very little income yet we managed to pay for my flights down to university and other planned expenses while saving more than we managed in later years on a far higher income.

The reason was the expenses were known and planned for - a flight cost $200 so we set aside $10 every week until we had enough.  If one week we simply couldn't set aside $10 then we either had to set aside more later or delay the flight.  Everything was meticulously tracked in a grid paper excercise book.

The next year we upgraded to using a computer and began coding every purchase yet somehow we ended off in less control.  Over the years we tried many different pieces of software -  Excel, Quicken, Heaps!  GnuCash, KMyMoney, Xero Personal and iBank.  Yet somehow every year we found ourselves saying 'why are these systems worse than what we used to do in Hastings'.

Recently I triad yet another piece of software - YNAB (short for You Need A Budget) and I suddenly realised what we had been doing wrong ever since we converted to computerised budgeting.  Put simply, all the other software is based on expense tracking - after a bit of careful use it will tell you where you've been going wrong.  YNAB is fundamentially different, it tells you in advance whether you have enough money in the budget to buy something.  

The is exactly what we had been doing in Hastings and this little tweak to my personal workflow makes all the difference.  Every time I get paid, I sit down with my wife and agree where the money will go and then do my best to stick to that for the month.  What that means is that instead of finding out at the end of the month that I've say spent too much on groceries, I know in advance of going to the supermarket that we're tracking badly on groceries and I need to be careful.

It has also highlighted that from a business perspective I have been tracking expenses rather than budgeting there too.  Again all transactions are carefully coded to accounts and I monitor how much is spent in each account but I have never sat down and said: "ok, I'm getting $20k on the 12th and I'm going to divide it up like this."

 


 

Resuscitating this blog

This is the first post in about a year.  That's mainly because for that is I've been unbelievably busy since moving to Auckland with a more demanding job, a much longer commute and a baby at home.  The other reason is that the software I had been using - iWeb - only runs on my home computer and has been discontinued by Apple.

I started writing websites in 2004 having taught myself HTML.  This website had its first pages written in HTML using vi while I should probably have been writing research papers.  But as the web got more complex with javascript, and I concentrated on less geeky endeavours, I shifted to easier to use software.  However it is a little bit frustrating that HTML continues to work perfectly but I have to move on from more modern tools because the latest computers can't run them properly.

Anyway I have now got over that and shifted to an online editor (squarescape) which seems pretty easy to use so far and can be updated from anywhere.  The plan is that the ability to post from anywhere will mean I actually get around to doing it. 

ITUNES ON AN EXTERNAL DRIVE

I had hoped to never mention IT on this site, but I’ve run iTunes on an external drive for a number of years with numerous problems and got frustrated by how little help I could find on the internet.  Being a firm believe that complaining without fixing an issue is just whining, I thought I’d post my tips and tricks below.

Firstly, I’ve chosen to store my music on an external hard drive (generally NAS) for quite a few years now.  There’s quite a few benefits to this approach: You don’t have to worry about your music collection growing (since you can just keep adding hard drives); you can access your music from any computer on the LAN; you can easily take your music with you by just picking up the drive.

Like many people, iTunes is my media player of choice.  iTunes supports using a custom folder for music (under Advanced) but unfortunately it has a few very poorly thought out implementation details that mar its effectiveness with a remote music collection.

iTunes stores metadata about its music collection in an XML file, including whether the track is where it is supposed to be.  Should the drive not be available (off the network for instance), iTunes will unhelpfully decide that every track in your music collection is now orphaned.   

Fortunately, it is possible to force iTunes to realise its mistake without manually double clicking on every single file.  Firstly, turn off ‘keep iTunes folder organised’; next turn it on again; and finally choose ‘consolidate library’.  

Another trick is that iTunes sometimes forgets about some of your albums.  I haven’t fully diagnosed what causes this yet except that it happens most regularly with music names containing non English characters (e.g. accents).  My suspicion is that it relates to how Apple implements special characters over NFS differing from how it implements them when the drive is direct-attached, though I’ve also had the issue after iTunes crashes.

The solution is fairly simple.  iTunes has quite good duplicate detection with silent skipping during import, so simply ‘import’ your entire music folder and you should only end up importing the files that iTunes forgot about.

FAMILY

It occurred to me that I have nothing on this site about my family.  This isn’t entirely coincidental, the site is intended to contain information which is of interest to others.  However, the state before this post seemed to be omitting a large chunk of my life.

So, I live half-way up a hill with my wife (Andrea), two year old son (Nathan) and three cats.  I can’t say if we’re a typical family or not as I’m not really sure what typical is.  Nathan does seem a lot more boisterous than other kids his age, but then it’s pretty hard to tell. You can see the jigsaw in the photo, woodworking tools are one of the few things that keep him entertained