Resurrecting the Vespa (again)

The Vespa scooter (a 1955 Vespa VL1, if you’re not familiar) has been parked in the hangar for several years now. I don’t really remember how long, exactly, but the license plate expired in 2018 so it was around then. I’d ridden it a couple of times around the airport, but several years ago it refused to start and I hadn’t figured out why. I knew it was ignition related, and I was holding off until I could find the CDI ignition kit I knew I’d bought and install that. In August of 2021 I cleaned out the gas tank (the gas had gone very bad) and carb, and got it running — but it refused to start more than once without taking the flywheel off. I eventually put it more-or-less back together and there it’s sat since.

Well, the day came when we got a letter from the airport authority demanding that we get a bunch of stuff out of the hangar – including the scooter. In the process I managed to find the CDI kit. Unfortunately, I then discovered that it’s a complete pile of shit from a horrible now-defunct Vietnamese supplier. They couldn’t even drill four holes in a square to fit the fan. I don’t think I’ll be using it.

On the bright side, I did discover the cause of the ignition problems — a broken wire on the condenser. A lot has changed in the marketplace since the last time I needed to buy scooter parts for this rare old scoot, and I ended up ordering a bunch of parts from Germany to fix the ignition as well as a bunch of other things that needed fixing. When the parts arrived, I replaced the points and condenser, but didn’t even bother to set timing or point gap before seeing if that made a difference. Miraculously, the gas was not bad enough to cause problems. I squirted a bit into the carb and the old gal started and ran on the first kick. There is a Santa Claus!

Now I’m going through doing some post-restoration work that has been deferred for far too long. I’ve installed new shift cables (the old ones were too short and hit the legshield when turning). I removed the grips, cleaned everything up, lubed and re-installed. I put in a new clutch inner cable and put on the new spare tire carrier I finally found (these didn’t exist a few years ago). I’m replacing the rubber bits that I bought from various places back when I first finished up the restoration; they were made from some horrible shitty rubber that either just dried out and crumbled, or turned into a mess of stuff that looked like someone had hit it with a torch. Some of the wiring has proven inadequate; I’m replacing the wires to the headlamp assembly. Along the way I also cleaned up the carb and fuel system again, replaced the gearbox oil (and the oil seal), and I’m about to see why the steering stops don’t appear to be working on either side.

SIP Scootershop has proven to be my new go-to source for a lot of things, though Scooter Mercato has some good stuff as well. Some of the old places I’ve used either don’t exist any more or have far less inventory available for the old widebody Vespas. I get it; there are a lot more 60s and 70s and later scoots out there than the ’46-’55 models. I’m just glad there are places picking up the slack, even if they are nearly all in Europe.

A cruise line comparison

As we fly home from our first cruise on Norwegian, I’m reflecting on the differences – good and otherwise – between them and Carnival, with whom we’ve cruised a few times before.

Overall TL/DR summary: they’re different, not better, it just depends on what you like.

We liked the unlimited bar option that was pretty reasonably priced. While neither of us are heavy drinkers, it’s nice to know you can enjoy whatever you like (aside from some premium drinks that never were an issue) without worrying about the bar tab. I have no idea what Carnival charges for that, if they even offer it.

We did enjoy the option of eating on a dining room, rather than a buffet, whenever we wanted as long as they were open – typically 5 to 9 for dinner. That said, there were occasions when we were turned away from the main dining room or there were long lines for the smaller ones. We also missed the Carnival large tables with people we’d see nightly to swap stories and compare notes. On previous cruises we made friends that we kept in touch with for years afterward… not so much this cruise.

Buffet and dining room food seemed just slightly lower quality than what I recall from Carnival. I’ll temper that by saying it’s been several years since we sailed with them, so that may have changed. I’d love to have seen crab legs some time during the week. You could get lobster, but it was a $25 up charge even with the “free” dining nights in the extra-cost restaurants. The food overall was good, just not great. With over 4,000 passengers and another 1,700 plus crew to feed, one can’t really expect gourmet.

It’s not a big deal, and I’ll say the cabin steward did a stellar job of keeping the room clean and all, but the Carnival style evening turndown and the little towel animals were missed.

On Carnival we’d wake up, slip on our thick cushy robes, and enjoy our bagels with cream cheese and lox on the balcony – delivered with coffee and juice for either no charge or a very small tip. Norwegian charges $9.95, and you are limited to a pretty sparse room service menu. We missed Carnival in the morning, for sure.

I may be working from defective memories, but it seems like there were more entertainment options on Norwegian.

I think pretty much any cruise is going to be a pretty constant upsell. As a shareholder in both NCLH and CCL, I get that. These companies are awash with debt from keeping largely unoccupied ships afloat for a couple of years, and it’s going to be a long road back to profitability. o didn’t find the upsell irritating or distracting on Norwegian. We haven’t sailed with Carnival post-COVID, so I can’t speak to that.

I think we may actually try Disney next, depending on the cost. We got a glowing recommendation from our youngest after he, his wife, and their two kids took a cruise with them. He claims we wouldn’t to suffer little kids running around all the time. I don’t mind kids, just not 24 hours a day, please.

Borkum Riff Bourbon Whiskey, yet again

I did a review of this about a year ago. I almost never – OK, never – throw out tobacco. Even if I don’t like it, I’ll stick it in a jar and let it sit. Sometimes I find that my tastes or my technique change, and I like it better later on. Sometimes I find that some age really improves the blend. And honestly, some I tried early on I just didn’t really know how to smoke yet. So last night I broke out the jar of Borkum Riff and tried it again.

Once again, it started out innocuously enough. As I’ve changed my smoking habits quite a bit, I took it easier this time around and paid attention to keeping it burning relatively cool and slow. I’m still not a fan. I checked to see what’s in this blend; they say Virginia and Cavendish, but it used to contain Burley as well. I would believe that. I’m really finding that I’m not a big fan of Burley, and this seems to have some in it. I don’t know. What I do know is why it scores less than 2 stars on that site, and about the same on It really isn’t very good. I’m down to the last 3/4 ounce or so. It may just get dumped into the scraps jar, or I may try mixing it with some VA flake or something to see if it’s got anything at all to offer.

Overall, I think it may at its core just be some fairly decent tobacco ruined by heavy-handed topping.

Bye-Bye, Bimmer

After a couple years of BMW ownership I parted ways with my ’18 540i XDrive last Friday. Its replacement is a 2020 F150 Platinum.

The G30 BMW was a nice enough car. It never was the equal of the Mercedes in sound suppression, comfort, or speed. It was however perfectly reliable, with none of the increasingly irritating shortcomings of the much older Mercedes. Everything worked; the cruise didn’t panic at random times, the radio and nav worked well, and it did get about 30 MPG at highway speeds. I never spent a single day fixing anything; it just worked. Of course it was an 11 year newer car that had been properly maintained, so that was certainly to be expected. So the ownership experience was much better, even if the car was not quite in the same class – rightly so, since the S-class is a full on luxury sedan and the 5-series is an executive sedan.

The F150 is a mix of pure utility and unabashed opulence. The cabin is big enough to pitch a tent. The electronics are pretty much up to date — not perfect, but quite good. It’s remarkably quiet in the cabin. I can of course use it as a pickup, which is really one of the two things that made me pull the trigger on swapping out the BMW for the truck. The other was ride comfort on long trips. While the BMW was quite comfortable (as was the Mercedes before it), that comfort was good for about 2-3 hours at most. After that I’d start to get some pain in my right hip, and by the time we hit the 4 hour mark it was on fire. A 14 hour day driving the old F150 (which needs a new home still) had no such discomfort.

The climate controls in the Ford are a welcome change, too. Both of the German cars had rather anemic air conditioning that struggled with full sun and hot days. The F150 will just about freeze you out if that’s what you want, and it’s the very first vehicle in which the seat cooling/ventilation actually works well enough that you can feel it. I’ve also got little things that American car makers include almost as stock items and for inexplicable reasons the Germans either refuse to allow at all, or charge stupid amounts of money to enable – like remote start and Apple Car Play.

Yes, I’ll miss the acceleration of the V-12 and the I-6; even the 375 HP Ecoboost doesn’t haul the huge bulk of the pickup all that fast. It’s plenty quick for a pickup, of course, and I’m OK with trading some of the neck-snapping capability that was so seldom used, for the cargo space that is frequently required. I even get to do some towing tomorrow.

Tobacco harvest, 2023

Yesterday (10/6/23) I harvested all of my remaining tobacco plants, as there were frost warnings for overnight and this morning. I cut most of the VA leaves off the stalks and bundled them until I can get my curing kiln finished and get them in there. I leaf harvested some of the Turkish, then stalk harvested the rest – whether I hang the stalks or cut the leaves ff remains to be seen. I am keeping the VA and Samsun separate, though I haven’t kept the bright VA separate from the TN Red Leaf or Ontario Bold.

Hearth & Home White Knight

This has become one of my favorite tobaccos. It’s a Balkan of substance; not overpowering with Latakia or Oriental, but a good blend that just ticks all the boxes for me. It’s got that unique flavor from the Oriental tobacco that I find I really enjoy. The tin note is a delight as well, at least if you’re into smoky, English and Balkan style mixtures..

It’s very close in its flavor to Sutliff’s Balkan Sobranie Original Mix Match. The differences between the two are subtle but do exist. I’ll digress for just a moment and talk about both of these. White Knight is a tinned tobacco, sold under the Hearth & Home brand. It’s a consistent, high quality ribbon cut product that is perfect (other than needing a bit of drying time) right out of the tin.

The bulk product (which I’ll refer to as BSOMM from here out, just to save a few electrons) is sold by Sutliff. Sutliff also makes Hearth & Home blends. The two tobaccos come from the same manufacturer. It’s been argued that BSOMM and White Knight are one and the same; I disagree. While the two have very similar flavor profiles, White Knight seems to be a little higher quality product. It’s usually cut better and more consistently, and its flavor is more fully developed. BSOMM seems e bit less carefully produced; the last bag I opened had a huge clump of uncut leaf in it. I’ve found chunks of stem (well, OK, not a stem; more likely a chunk of vein or midrib) and other inconsistencies that I don’t find nearly as often in White Knight. The flavor is also just a little bit milder; it may do well after a couple of months in a jar.

As I write this, I’ve been working my way through a couple ounces of BSOMM and a tin of White Knight, both received a couple of months back from I’ve been alternating the two for comparison. Why do that? Well, in the quantities I would order for long term use, White Knight costs roughly three times as much per ounce. The question is whether the savings is worth the differences between the two. Honestly, I can find so little difference between them that I’ll probably keep a jar full of BSOMM on hand after the White Knight is gone.

Using Nomorobo to block calls in Asterisk

Nomorobo is a fantastic service. It’s not perfect; plenty of illegal phone spammers are using throwaway numbers and/or illegally spoofing caller ID numbers to make calls that appear to be from random numbers — usually in your own area code. Short of using a strict whitelist, I don’t see a real way to get rid of those. Using Nomorobo, though, will dramatically cut down on the number of junk calls you will receive.

There’s a little problem, though… while many phone providers offer the service (we’ve been using Ooma), they don’t appear to offer the service to individuals or small businesses who run their own phones.

I ran my own Asterisk PBX for several years, supporting our home phones as well as a separate line I used for work, and even a toll-free number for my side business. Life was good for quite a while, but eventually it got to be quite a hassle trying to keep up with all the junk calls. Then my VOIP carrier changed their pricing to make them much less attractive from a cost standpoint. Eventually we switched to Ooma. They’ve been good, but not without issues. The Telo Air occasionally loses communication with the mothership, and if you don’t see the red light you won’t know that your phones aren’t working. The cost has gone up, now running over $20 per month for the Ooma Premier, which includes what I consider to be some pretty basic features — like call blocking, for example.

Now we have some family members who need a home phone, but I just can’t bear to see them get roped into paying really stupid monthly costs for a simple phone line. That, and our Ooma service is getting more expensive and (it seems) less reliable by the year. Time to switch back. But how can I keep Nomorobo? It would be a tough sell to do without that!

Well, Twilio to the rescue! They offer a Nomorobo lookup API that costs a tiny amount per lookup — $.003, or 0.3 cents per incoming call lookup. Conversely, that’s 333 lookups per dollar. Not bad, I’ll gladly pay that to avoid taking telemarketing or scam robocalls. Now, if only we could get Nomorobo to list all of the numbers used by political “push polls”, recorded messages, and other political campaign silliness!

Twilio’s call rates are not outrageously high either, and their monthly costs for DIDs (phone numbers) are pretty reasonable. The only thing I’ll fault them on is too much hassle to set up CNAM for your outbound calls, so unless you go through that process everything shows up as the number only with no CID name. Flowroute is MUCH better for this, so I route most of my outbound calls through them.

So — how to get Asterisk to do the lookup? After several hours of playing around with this, I found that it’s pretty easy to do. While it wouldn’t be terribly helpful (or smart) for me to post my entire dialplan here, I’ll include enough to get you going. I put this very near the top of the context I use for incoming calls from PSTN trunks. There’s no sense in burning CPU cycles on a call if you’re just going to drop it anyway.

First, you’ll need a Twilio account. They’re even nice enough to give you some credit on your account if you’re new, and it’s enough for quite a bit of learning and development work. I funded my account so I can use them for international calls — they’re ridiculously cheap for most destinations. They’re also a good solution if you want to get DIDs in countries outside the US.

Once you have a Twilio account established, use your account SID and auth token to set CURLOPT() with your username and password. This will be used in the next line to make the curl call to the API:

same = n,Set(CURLOPT(userpwd)=username:password)

Now, make the call to Twilio’s API to get the spam score. The result is a block of JSON that gets saved as TWILIO_RESULT:

same = n,Set(TWILIO_RESULT=${CURL("${CALLERID(num)}?AddOns=nomorobo_spamscore")})

Since we’ve got a block of JSON, we’ll need to extract the one wee bit we need. Fortunately Asterisk has a solution for that as well, so we don’t need to resort to anything drastic like a shell command:

same = n,Set(SPAMSCORE=${JSON_DECODE(TWILIO_RESULT,add_ons.results.nomorobo_spamscore.result.score)})

Now we use that result to drop the call if it’s spam. A simple Hangup(2) tells the caller that their call was rejected:

same = n,GotoIf($[ ${SPAMSCORE} = 1]?dropcall)

Later in the dialplan, after we’ve done the whole “call the user, drop to voicemail if they don’t answer, yadda yadda yadda” we have this:

same = n(dropcall),Hangup(21)

The Hangup(21) tells that their call was rejected. There are other, even more creative codes to use… like these (list courtesy of

  • 1 – Unallocated number
  • 22 – Number changed
  • 27 – Destination out of order
  • 38 – Network out of order

Kramer’s Father Dempsey

I’ve tried a number of English and Balkan blends over the past several months. For those who don’t know, different types of tobacco each have their own unique flavor profile. Virginia is quite different from Burley; Latakia is quite distinct, and Turkish or Oriental leaves are different still. There are differences in the leaves themselves, then there are differences in how the leaves are dried, cured, and so on.

An English blend is typically Virginia tobacco blended with Latakia, which is a smoke cured leaf that comes from Cyprus. It was at one time produced mainly in Syria, but due to decades of war and other factors Syrian Latakia hasn’t been available in quite a while, and quite likely never will be again. The tobacco leaves are cured by hanging them in a shed with a fire pit burning various types of resinous, fragrant wood native to the region where the tobacco is grown. This produces a very distinct, rich, smoky aroma that carries over to the flavor of the tobacco when smoked. If you’re a fan of Islay Scotch (or even Johnny Walker Black Label), you’ll like Latakia.

If you add some Oriental or Turkish to it, you’ve got a Balkan blend. Orientals are small leaf, sun cured tobaccos and are quite fragrant. They tend to have a slight note of what I can only describe as an “incense” like flavor. That flavor is present to varying degrees in different blends, and when it’s there’ it’s quite distinct. My favorites have a hint of it, not an overpowering amount.

I ordered an ounce* of Father Dempsey to try just based on having seen quite a few favorable reviews in various places. Based on the descriptions I was reading, it seemed like it might be a blend I’d enjoy. It’s typically described as a full bodied English blend. One of the more raved about English blends is called Squadron Leader, which I’ve tried. It’s nice, but honestly I find it a bit too mild. I’m not a fan of overly strong tobacco, especially those blends with high nicotine content, but I do smoke English blends for the flavor. Father Dempsey is a notch or two more full bodied, and I find that it really holds its own.

I do love my Balkan blends; there are times when I really want that unique, slightly incense-y flavor of the Oriental leaf. Then there are times when I’m just in the mood for something with a little different character. That’s when Father Dempsey, or Squadron Leader, or some Navy flake or even an aromatic like 1-Q is nice to have on hand. I have to say, though, that I may end up keeping a good stock of Father Dempsey on hand. I could see it being something I’d reach for pretty regularly. I really enjoy an assertive Balkan like White Knight when I’ve got the time to relax and enjoy it. There are times, however, when something a little less “forward” is called for, and Father Dempsey seems to be a blend that just fits in perfectly. I can see why people tend to rave about it.

* If you’re not a pipe smoker, the idea of ordering an ounce may not mean much to you. Pipe tobacco is generally available in either tins or pouches, or in bulk. Tins and pouches are generally 50 grams (1.75 oz), with some exceptions. 100g and larger tins and tubs are not uncommon. Bulk tobacco can be ordered by the ounce, or even by the pound. An ounce is pretty much a sample size. At a bit over 28 grams, and roughly 3-5 grams per bowl, an ounce bag will give you enough tobacco for roughly six to maybe ten or twelve average sized pipe bowls.

Hearth & Home Black House

I tried this tobacco based on some reviews and suggestions from r/PipeTobacco Reddit users. It’s supposed to be a close match for the original Balkan Sobranie, though most people think White Knight (also from Hearth & Home) is better. From what I’ve read, H&H developed two different blends to try to match the old Sobranie blend. One was wildly popular with pipe smokers, the other won an award from other tobacco blenders. Or so the story goes.

It’s a ribbon cut mixture, with a good smoky tin note. I’ve smoked about half the tin now. I like it fine, but I really do like White Knight better. This seems to me to be more of a straight English blend; it’s got more “substance” to it than, say, Squadron Leader, but lacks that little hint of incense (for lack of a better word) that I get from a more Oriental forward blend like White Knight or Sutliff’s Sobranie match. I’m not sorry I tried it; it’s a good solid blend and I do enjoy it. That said, it’s not high on my re-order list. Tinned tobaccos are generally more expensive than bulk blends – usually double the cost or more. This one is no exception, and there are bulk blends I like as much or better.

Lessons learned: Maple syrup

Here’s a quick recap of the lessons I learned during our first year of maple tree tapping and maple syrup production. It’s my to-do list for next January.

  • Be prepared. I need to make sure I have everything I’ll need lined up ahead of time, cleaned, sanitized, and ready to go early. I’m pretty sure we missed a week, possibly two, of the sap run this year. Better to be ready in January.
  • I need to have two or three dedicated maple sap buckets, with airtight lids and at least 1/2 gallon markings, to hold at least a couple days worth of sap.
  • A hydrometer is a must. Trying to accurately measure the temperature of a small quantity of maple syrup is hard. The temperatures also seem to be a terrible way to estimate sugar content. I bought a hydrometer this year, and for next year I’ll have a testing cup on hand as well.
  • For the sap, a refractometer would be helpful to know the sugar content so I know what to expect when boiling it. Not essential, but they’re cheap so I’ll probably buy one.
  • Have plenty of propane; make sure there are at least two full tanks on hand.
  • Have bottles and labels on hand for the finished product.
  • More spiles and bags, unless I switch to plastic drip lines and containers on the ground (which would probably be better anyway).
  • A boiling pan with more surface area would be better. I’ve got a year to explore better evaporating options. I don’t want to go overboard, but maybe there’s a better option.
  • I may set up a small RO system. It would cost some to set up, but would greatly reduce the boiling time and save on propane. I’ve got time to investigate and decide whether I want to set one up. Next year I’ll have at least 6 taps going in 6 trees — four here, two at a rental house we own.