Saturday, May 31, 2008

Everybody Stop What You're Doing...(Nevermind, resume what you where doing)

....and help me find my bluetooth headset.

I cannot find it. And this is making me insane. Absolutely fucking insane.

It's connected to my phone. I've walked in a circle at the perimeter of where it automatically connects and disconnects from my phone. I've computed the center of that circle. I know exactly where it has to be, but I cannot find it.

I've called my cell, with the cell phone itself set to silent, hoping to hear the headset ringing or see the blue light on the back of it blinking. No dice.

I've looked for the damned thing for over an hour now and I may just starting shooting things at random if it doesn't turn up very, very soon.
Found it.

As the battery slowly faded in the headset, its bluetooth signal got weaker and weaker. Which meant the range to disconnect kept getting smaller, which allowed me to triangulate a tighter and tighter posit. My house is three stories, and the signal definitely pointed to the main/middle floor, fading both upstairs and on the lower level.

The fix remained centered roughly around my computer desk in the den, plus or minus about twenty feet or so. But there's a lot in that twenty feet. Eventually as the signal weakened it seemed to indicate the attached garage which is just on the other side of the computer desk. I'd looked in there repeatedly both yesterday and today. But I went back out there again - this time I left all the lights off and kept hitting the 'voice command' button on the phone, which should cause the headset light to blink. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

Then I remembered that I'd put some winter clothes in the seasonal clothes locker yesterday morning. Hmmm, I opened that and didn't see anything at first, but I kept pushing the 'voice command' button and eventually noticed a faint blue glow from the top shelf - where I'd stuffed a bunch of winter hats and gloves yesterday. Sure enough, there it was, under all that stuff.

Not exactly sure how it got off my ear and under a pile of hats, but I'm just grateful to find it.

So, anyway, crisis is averted. Thanks for the advice, sarcasm, humor, and help.

Beastly Update

Well, Beastly just called from Tok, so he's in Central Alaska.

That's about 300 miles from here. The road between here and there is some of the most spectacular on the Alcan, and some of the most treacherous. I expect it'll take him at least five hours.

Updates to follow.

Friday, May 30, 2008

It's always something

I may not get around to posting anything interesting this morning, I've got a bunch of crap going on.

First, somehow I thought it was Thursday, so I'm a day behind. Argh! I hate that. I stopped wearing a watch after I retired, and sometimes that bites me right on the ass. Like today, when I thought I'd have time to take care of a number of little jobs, so I could start production work tomorrow. And I will be starting production work tomorrow, on the weekend dammit. Because I have deadlines and it has to be done.

Second, the sump pump for the integrated humidifier in the basement furnace room is kicking on and off for some strange reason. I've got to go troubleshoot that and figure out what the problem is. It shouldn't be running at all, it's spring in Alaska, trust me, it's plenty humid enough in the house without the humidifier. Something has gone pear shaped down there, and I need to fix it before it becomes a major issue.

And third, I have to pull the oil pan on the mustang. When I replaced the valve cover gaskets two weeks ago, I also replaced the PCV filter. This upped the pressure in the engine crankcase back to proper specification. That's the good news. The bad news is that the increased pressure has caused the saddle gaskets between the rear mainseal and the oil pan to start leaking. Seriously leaking. I hate oil leaks, or leaks of any kind in a car engine. And in this case the leak is significant enough that the car is dripping about a quart of oil a week. Not only does that make a mess on the garage floor, it's costing me money - oil, $140 per barrel = $5qt Syntec, and etc. So I've got to pull the oil pan. Now in order to pull the oil pan I have to do the following, pull the air cleaner box in order to access certain bolts, remove the starter, remove the exhaust system crossover H-frame, unbolt the engine mounts and loosen the transmission mount, jack the engine up two inches, and swear in the proper sequence of profanity in order to appease the automotive gods. Replacing the actual gasket is the work of about fifteen minutes - but to get to the dammed thing is a two day job. I swear there is a special place in hell for automobile designers and engineers.

So, I'm busy today. And not happy about it. I hate working on cars, but it has to be done. And so I'm off to the shop. More later, maybe.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

That kind of Day

Feels like a Rolling Stones day, doesn't it?

Yeah, definitely I need me some Stones today.

And speaking of rolling stones, Beastly should be somewhere north of Dawson Creek, British Columbia today. Heading north on the Alcan into the vastness of the Canadian northwest, his RV loaded with woodworking tools and $6CD per gallon gas. I'm anticipating his arrival here at Stonekettle Station sometime this coming weekend. Woohoo! I've got about 500sqft of the shop cleared, power boxes wired and new ports on the dust collector mainline for his equipment and use. It'll be great to have him as a guest for the summer.

Now, speaking of the shop - I've got to head in that direction momentarily. But before I go, a question:

Years from now, when you've passed on in a mysterious manner, your body never found, despite the largest air, sea, and land search in history (though years later a fuzzy picture of you in the market of Marrakesh surfaces, maybe you didn't die after all...) after a long and very, very successful life - Hollywood decides to make a movie of your incredible adventures. The flick opens with you behind the wheel of an amazingly restored '72 Chevy Impala convertible, black cherry red paintjob and custom chrome exterior, red and white leather interior. You're blazing down a remote highway somewhere (maybe it's the Pacific Coast Highway, or maybe it's Route 66, or even a dusty unknown track in the no man's land of the North African Toreq. who knows? Watch the movie and find out), top down, and radio blaring. You're alone, but the audience knows you won't be for long. Soon, very soon there will be explosions, beautiful women, rugged men, gun play, and maybe pirates.

Here's the thing, the song on the radio is the opening theme of the movie. What's the song?

Note: all you lurkers feel free to join in. Delurk, do it. Today's the day.

Me? Oh, it would probably be this:

Yeah, I know you were expecting something from Dire Straits - try to pay attention, I told you it felt like a Stones day, didn't I?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Job Review and Notice of Unsatisfactory Performance

Statement of Written Counseling, Federal Employee, General Incident for the Record

(Note: May be used in employment termination proceedings).

Dear Federal Employee:

George W. Bush, President, United States of America,

As a citizen of the United States, henceforth to be referred to as Your Employer, it has come to my attention that your job performance is unsatisfactory in a number of areas. You have received numerous verbal counseling statements from management, henceforth to be referred to as My Elected Representatives. Since this verbal counseling appears to have been ineffective in correcting the situation, I am forced to take a direct hand in the matter.

After careful review of your employment record, I have come to the conclusion that the distressingly large number of well documented and numerous failings in your recent job performance stem from a single common misperception on your part. The purpose of this written counseling statement is to correct that misperception. Failure to adhere to the directions contained in this review may result in disciplinary action or even early termination of your employment.

I understand that this may be an uncomfortable situation for you, but as your employer I must place the needs of the corporation, henceforth referred to as The United States of America or The Country, ahead of your personal feelings. As such, I feel that it is best to state things bluntly:

You are not a king.

You are also not: a dictator, an emperor, Caesar, the Tsar, El Supremo, Leona Hemsley, or other such autocratic ruler.

I know this will come as something of a shock to you, and I'm sorry to be the one to have to point it out.

As your employer, I am sensitive to your special needs. I want you to know that I can understand how you might have arrived at this misconception given your tragic personal background of wealth and privilege and your abused childhood as a pampered and protected son of power. I understand and sympathize with the fact that you were brutalized in an elite educational system which instilled in you a sense of superiority and divine destiny, without requiring actual work, emphasis on results, or critical thinking. And lastly I can also understand how your current position in our organization surrounded as it is by ass-kissing toadies, fools and jesters, fops, pseudo patriotic nationalists, yes-men, creationists, tea-leaf readers, fortune tellers, the haunting Ghost of Ronald Reagan, and other such courtly accoutrements - henceforth to be referred to as the Republican Party and Neo-Conservatives et al - might reinforce this misperception. However, The Country has done everything in its power to make allowances for the above noted handicaps in full compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. And while we are sensitive to the special needs of each of our employees, and try to make reasonable accommodations in accordance with the law, your continuing arrogant and autocratic attitude has created a hostile work environment for your fellow employees. I have received numerous complains, from both within and from outside our organization, and have myself personally witnessed a number of incidents that gravely concern me.

Each of us have our crosses to bear, but you must overcome your difficult upbringing and accept personal responsibility for your situation. Failure to do so will result in disciplinary action, and may result in legal action following termination of your contract.


You may feel that this statement of counseling is unfair. You will be given a chance to make a statement at the end of this document if you so desire. However, before you do so please take the following into account:

1) You were hired for your current position over other qualified applicants, based on your previous employment record in the Texas Division of our organization. You were required to complete a background check, urinalysis, and oath of office prior to employment. If examination of those criteria uncovers incorrect or undisclosed disqualifying information, The Country at its discretion may chose to pursue legal action against you. Your statement, should you choose to make one, may be used against you in such a case.

2) All employees are required to be fully cognizant of the rules and guidelines contained in our employee handbook, henceforth referred to as The Constitution. These rules and guidelines are in place for a good reason and directly provide for a safe, effective, and protected working environment for all employees within our organization. These guidelines have provided for the growth and prosperity of The Country for over two centuries, and your repeated disregard for the rules has demonstratively damaged the reputation and standing of our organization. Willful failure to comply with these guidelines is grounds for dismissal as clearly stated in the guidelines themselves. The organizational rules contained within The Constitution clearly outline the responsibilities of your current position and your obligations to the organization. It is clear that you are not as familiar with our organizational guidelines as you should be. For example your Veto threat for the recent GI Bill overwhelmingly approved by our Board of Directors shows that you do not understand your position within our organization.

3) Your employee record shows a repeated disrespect for your fellow employees and the well being of The Country. As noted, we are willing to make allowances for the differently-abled and the mentally challenged, however your record clearly shows that you regard your personal handicaps as a divine right to do as you please without regard for our organizational rules or the needs of your fellow employees. This is an unacceptable attitude and you have been repeatedly counseled regarding this situation.


You are required to correct the issues noted above. Failure to do so will result in scorn, sarcasm, public ridicule, and the pointing out of your many inadequacies as a both a man and as a carbon based life-form.

You may avoid the awkward situation described in the previous paragraph, at least in some regards, in one of two ways.

1) Change your attitude and take immediate responsibility for your actions and the failings of your Division. Comply fully with the rules specified in The Constitution and demonstrate detailed knowledge of such. Show respect for the needs and concerns of your fellow employees and the goals of our organization as specified by Management. Quietly complete your contract without fucking up anything else.


2) Take immediate advantage of our organization's early retirement option and generous severance package (Note: this offer requires that Federal Employee Richard "Dick" Cheney retires at the same time. This is a package deal, non refundable, non returnable. Green stamps and parking validation not included.)

Counselor: Jim Wright, Stonekettle Station, Citizen and Shareholder

Counselee: George W. Bush, President, (make your mark here):___

(Counselee Statement may be attached to back if desired, use number #2 [black] standard issue government crayon. Help with big words is available upon request to the Human Resources Division):

Copies to:

(1) Employee's Permanent Record

(2-420,000,000) Concerned Citizens

(420,000,001) Federal Employee's Local, Shop Steward, White House

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day Weekend

I usually avoid military related events on memorial day weekend.

I tend to stay away from the parades and the flag waving crowds and solemn services and the cemeteries. If you want to call me unpatriotic, well, go right ahead. I don't care. It's a rare day indeed where I don't remember my own military service, and that of my comrades in arms - so when it comes to Veteran's Day and Memorial Day and the 4th of July - well, I usually use those days to go off and have fun with my family. And yesterday was no different.

We love the out of doors, which is of course one of the reasons we live in Alaska, and we love to camp - but we hate crowds and idiots. So we usually avoid camping on Memorial Day and 4th of July weekend when the campsites are full of drunken rednecks hopped up on patriotism and boxed wine. Instead we tend to go off down less traveled roads, and that's exactly what we did yesterday.

We loaded up our day packs and headed up to Hatcher's Pass. There's still at lot of snow above 2000 feet and we weren't sure what the trails would look like. We wanted to try and reach the end of the old Archangel Mine road, but that's well above 4500 feet and at the base of a glacier. If you have the equipment and the nerve, you can cross the glacier, about a mile over unmarked rugged ice, and reach the far side where you'll find the wreckage of an B-26 that crashed during WWII. We figured that was a little much for one day, but we were hoping to reach the old Independence Mine dam at the base of the glacier and do some poking around the Talkeetna and Fern Mine sites which are near the end of the trail. There are a couple of difficult Geocaches in the area and we thought we'd try our luck.

Like I said, we weren't sure what the conditions on Archangel road where, so I loaded backup GPS grids for Gold Mint trail, which is much lower down in the valley and closer to the Little Susitna River and therefore should have been clear, if a little muddy, this time of year.

However, when we arrived at the Archangel trailhead the path looked clear and dry. There were a few cars in the lot and a middle-aged couple saddling up horses, but other than that the place was mostly deserted. Just the way we like it. The weather was pretty good, a little cloudy and a little cool, perfect for hiking - so we locked up the truck and headed out.

Now, at this point I should mention a minor issue - see, as usual I was wearing very good waterproof hiking boots and good wool socks. My wife was wearing very good waterproof hiking shoes and good synthetic hiking socks. The dog was wearing what she usually wears, which is to say she is naturally equipped for the environment. My son, however, had somehow managed to forget his hiking boots, and was wearing a pair of ratty old sneakers. Why didn't he put the hiking boots on before leaving home? Why wear the sneakers at all? What, Jim, is the point of putting on sneakers, then changing into hiking boots at the trailhead, then changing back into the damned sneakers after the hike - especially since the trailhead is only a twenty minute drive from home? Why, Jim, why? I hear you ask. Well, see, you have to understand the logic of the eleven year old mind: e.g. the boots are not cool. The ratty, dirty black sneakers, those are cool. Somebody might see him (in the truck on the way to the trailhead), what if he didn't have the cool shoes on? So, somehow despite being reminded at least three times by both his mother and myself to bring his hiking shoes (I know, Dad! You don't have to keep reminding me!), he managed to forget them.

So, we were faced with a 40 minute round trip to get the shoes.

Well, crap. He did have two pair of socks on and we all carry first aid kits and moleskin in our packs in case of blisters. And the trail looked reasonably dry - the wife and I looked at each other and said, "Just this once." We'd have to write off any thought of crossing the glacier or climbing up to one of the geocaches, which is located in a cave about 500 feet above the valley floor. But we figured as long as we stuck to the trail, he'd be OK without the hiking boots.

You see where this is going, right?

For the first mile or so, the trail was reasonable dry. We had to cross a few streams swollen from the spring melt, but it wasn't too bad and there were plenty of stepping stones so the kid could make it across without getting his feet wet. The horse people from the parking lot passed us at the first mile marker, two saddle horses leading a pack horse. The pack horse was equipped with a custom carrier bag, from which glared a small pug dog who watched us with beady eyes as they went past. He looked exactly like the alien disguised as a dog from Men in Black, riding on a horse. Damnedest thing you ever saw.

During the second mile we began to see patches of snow and ice. And by the time we reached the beaver ponds at Reed Valley the trail was getting muddy and the snow patches were getting bigger and starting to run together.

Archangel Road 004

We crossed the bridge at Gold Bullion Stream and headed into mile three. We passed the horse people coming back the other way. I asked them about the trail, and they said it was okay, but they'd only gone a little further up. So they didn't know the conditions beyond another half mile or so. Well, only one way to find out, and we kept going - dodging piles of fresh horse manure as we went. There is an old miner's cabin at about the three and half mile point and we bushwacked off the road a quarter mile through scrub and muskeg to reach it, during which I managed to step in a hole and dump freezing ice water down the inside of my boot. We stopped at the cabin and had our lunch - trail mix for the people, dried kibble for the dog.

Archangel Road 023

The trail started to climb after that, and the snow cover became continuous:

Archangel Road 028

We should have turned back there, but we were within spitting distance of the dam and the mines and the going didn't seem too bad. I asked my son repeatedly, "How are your feet?" "It's OK, Dad, sheesh, stop asking already, will you?"


I should have known better. I did know better, but we kept going anyway.

The snow kept getting deeper and wetter. And finally at the four mile mark we realized we just weren't going to make it any further without snow shoes or cross country skies. Going uphill in the snow was beginning to affect me, badly, my knees and hips were stiffening up and it was getting on in the day. Dark clouds where gathering behind us near the peak of Skyscraper Mountain.

Yeah, time to go.

At which point, my son suddenly decided that his feet were indeed wet and cold. Very wet and cold, as a matter of fact. Numb, even. And as usual for an eleven year old, he didn't bother to mention it until it was a crisis.

Argh! My fault. We should have turned back at the three mile mark. I should have checked his feet instead of taking him at his word. Fuck, I should have made sure his boots were in the truck in the first place, then we wouldn't be in this situation.

Too late now. We had a mile downhill through the snow and slush before we'd reach dry ground. Nothing for it but to hurry. About halfway down, we found a patch of dry earth surrounding a nice warm rock. We got his shoes and socks off and wrung out the soaking wet socks as best we could. Then my wife swapped shoes with him. Not the best idea, because now we have two people in the party with wet feet, but hey, what you gonna do right? The kid comes first, and my boots sure as hell wouldn't fit him.

There's a camp site for backpackers near the bridge, I figured we'd reach that and I'd build a fire. Everybody could warm up and we'd dry the socks and shoes out. But, by the time we got there, the kid's feet had warmed up sufficiently in his mom's boots though they were still wet. My wife's feet were wet from being in the kid's sneakers but she said she was warm enough - so we pushed onto to dry ground and kept going. In fact at this point, the only member of the party dragging behind was the dog, who I think was sick of tramping through the mud and snow.

Another hour and we were back at the truck, exactly eight miles from from start to finish.

My son learned a valuable lesson - at least I hope he did. We were never in any real danger, I could have always stopped and built a fire. We each carry emergency blankets, first aid kits, jackets, rain gear and emergency radios. Each of our packs is equipped with map, compass, fire starters, plenty of water, and a power bar or two. I carry climbing line in my pack, and various other survival tools. I could have built a camp, taken a GPS fix, and then gone to get a ranger and an ATV if necessary. We could have easily spent the night in the mountains without hardship, even if the weather turned bad. But still, there's always that moment when you've done something stupid as a parent...

Anyway, it turned out to be a good day, a great day in fact. Though this morning I'm so damned stiff I can hardly move. I took a couple of Aleve and it ought to get better soon.

Also this weekend, we saw the new Indiana Jones movie - I won't spoil it for you, but I will say that I liked it. A lot. Screw the critics, it's a blast. Not as good as the original, but a damned sight better than Temple of Doom (but, you know, what isn't? Anything without Kate Capshaw is an improvement, if you ask me).

Anyway, that was my Memorial Day Weekend - sorry for going off-line for three days, but hey, that's just the way the cookie crumbled this weekend. So, what did you do with your time? Learn any valuable lessons?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Alaskan Birch Bowls

In between production jobs, I managed to work in a little turning this month.

Alaskan Birch Bowl #61


Status: Sold.

Description: This is a green turned Alaskan Birch heartwood bowl. The wood was harvested in the Matanuska Valley, South Central Alaska. The piece contains extensive heartwood veining in rich golden yellow. After turning, the piece was dried for several months, then sculpted and filigreed to emphasize the grain pattern. Finished in Danish Oil and yellowed antique marine spar varnish.

Full high resolution gallery is here.

Dimensions: 10" x 5"

Price: $150


Alaskan Birch Bowl #62


Status: Available.

Description: This is a hollow-form, turned from spalted Alaskan Birch burl. The wood was harvested in the Matanuska Valley region of South Central Alaska and dried for two years prior to turning. The wood is dense and heavy with the complex irregular grain common to burled wood. This piece contains many beautiful natural features, such as opalescent ray patterns and eagle wing spalt lines. Finished in Tung Oil and a tough, clear polyacrylic and hard wax.

Full high resolution gallery is here.

Dimensions: 9" x 5"

Price: $150


Alaskan Birch Bowl #63


Status: Sold. This piece went to Stonekettle Station regular, Jeri.

Description: This is a natural edge bowl, turned from Alaskan Birch burl. The wood was harvested in Matanuska Valley region of South Central Alaska, near the Big Lake area, and allowed to dry outside for two years prior to turning, which resulted in a dense and tight grain. This piece contains a number of fantastic natural features such as extensive small birdseyes, rich golden ray patterns, and spalting along one side. It was turned in an inverted manner, i.e. the rounded outer part of the burr became the top of the bowl, vice the bottom which is the more common way of turning burl. I turned it inverted in order to emphasize the natural features of the burl and to give the piece an organic, sculpted rim. Finished in Danish Oil with a touch of medium walnut added, and antique boiled marine spar varnish.

Full high resolution gallery is here.

Dimensions: 8" x 6"


Alaskan Birch Bowl #64


Status: Available.

Description: This is a embedded-rim bowl, turned from Alaskan Birch sapwood burl. This is a rather unusual style, the piece was turned from a small oval shaped burl. I left a ledge around bowl in the shape of the original burr, giving the bowl an appearance of being embedded in a concave shield-like ledge. I did this in order to leave as much of the original wood as possible, working within the natural confines of the burr shape. The ledge itself contains beautiful opalescence rays normally found only in clear birch sapwood. I left a natural edge of inner-bark around the rim of the ledge which emphasizes the lighter wood of the ledge. The wood of the bowl itself contains swirling grain patterns that reminds me of rain falling from thunder clouds on a stormy day.

Full high resolution gallery is here.

Dimensions: 9" (across the long dimension) x 4"

Price: $50


Alaskan Birch Bowl #65


Status: Available.

Description: This piece is turned from dried Alaska Birch heartwood. The wood is naturally much darker than usual for Alaskan birch because the wood grew in a dark, iron-rich peat swamp. The sides of the bowl contain checking (cracks across the grain), the checks have been sealed and I consider them a feature rather than a defect. The rim of the bowl was highlighted by friction charring at high speed on the lathe using a leather saddle cinch strap. Finished in Danish Oils and spar varnish.

To be perfectly honest, there is nothing particularly spectacular or unusual about this bowl. It's a small piece probably best suited as a candy dish or something similar.

Full high resolution gallery is here.

Dimensions: 6" x 3"

Price: $35


Alaskan Birch Bowl #66


Status: Available.

Description: This piece was turned from Alaskan Birch burl. The wood was harvested in the Matanuska Valley region of South Central Alaska, and allowed to dry outside for about a year, the wood was still slightly wet at the time it was turned. This piece contains swirling grain patterns and yellow-gold rippled areas and some minor spalting. There is a curved bark line along the lower part of one side. I added some speckles of metal fleck to the bark line, giving it the appearance of a gold ore seam in stone. Finished in Danish Oil and antique boiled marine spar varnish.

Full high resolution gallery is here.

Dimensions: 8" x 6"


And last, purely to show off, this is a piece I've posted before:

Ironwood Bowl #60


Status: Reserved.

Description: this is a piece of hophornbeam, more commonly known as ironwood, burl. The wood came from South Carolina, courtesy of my cousin Dona. A pictorial of it's creation can be found here. I finally managed to find the time to upload detailed images to Flickr, which can be found here.


Well, that's it for today.

As always, if you're interested in a piece, so note in the comments, followed up with an email to jlwright@gci.net, put the words "Birch Bowl" in the subject line. Shipping and handling for all pieces: $20USD, except for #65 - that one is $10USD. First come, first served. No pushing, whining, or throwing of panties onto the stages.


I've got a number of jobs waiting in the shop, including a boat transom I need to complete today (the boat's owner is being very patient, but the King's are starting to run on the Kenai, and a stray or two has been spotted in the Little Su - so I need to finish this job and get that boat in the water). So, if you'll excuse me, I need to get to work.

Enjoy your long weekend.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Gone to anchorage to drop off some work.

Stop it, stop that whining and wailing right now. You'll be OK until I get back. You will.

In the mean time, have a laugh at the stupidity of others. Go on, do it. It'll make you feel better.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Coffee (updated with pictures)

Just came back from Wasilla, where I met UCFer Jeri for coffee.

She's a charming and funny person and we had a very nice conversation. Oh, and she purchased one of my bowls, so woohoo and so on and so forth.

We took a picture with her camera (since I'd forgotten to bring mine along). When she emails it to me I'll post it here, because I know how you people are with the whole proof thing and all.

------------------- update -------------------------

Here we are. I think we did reasonably well, considering that we were staring directly into the sun and the person taking the picture kept saying "don't squint, don't squint."

Note: Tall women, tall, read my blog. Just saying. Either that or I'm losing bone mass in my dotterage.

Here's the bowl Jeri bought:

That's an Alaskan Birch burl. It is an extremely cool piece, with birdseyes (those swirling features on the lower right side), spalting (the black lines), and fire-like yellow rays up the inside. It's a natural edge turning, leaving some barkwood along the irregular, scalloped rim.


I will post several pieces that I have for sale tomorrow, some are nearly as cool as this one. Nearly.


So, how's your day going?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Signs of the times

Remember that show from the 70's 80's, V?

Based on the shambling zombie of an old scifi cliche, bipedal evil lizardpeople disguised as human beings (cloaked in clever Hollywood latex no doubt) come to Earth in giant flying saucers. Their world was dying due to - wait for it - lack of water. So they invaded Earth to steal ours. Using giant vacuum cleaners they sucked all the water up to their spaceships in order to transport it a gazillion billion miles back to lizardworld - presumably to fill swimming pools and keep their golf courses green.

Even as a kid I knew just how utterly stupid this concept was. No matter what technology they possessed, it would have been impossible for the aliens to move the sheer volume of water necessary to refresh their world. And more to the point, if the lizard civilization commanded the fantastically enormous resources and energy implicit their plan, they'd have been far better served to bend that technology towards finding, or creating, the resources they needed closer to home. Instead, they embarked on an ill-fated long range military conquest in order to maintain their flawed and failing lifestyle. Stupid, idiotic, and inevitably doomed to failure.

Thirty years later I wonder if the producers of that ridiculous show aren't slapping each other on the back for their foresight and prophetic vision. Because we're living that scenario right now - only we are the stupid lizard people.

Oil prices have hit record highs every morning for the last month, continuing a dizzying climb that's been going on for over two years. There are many causes for this. Increasing desperation and panic, war and conflict, uncontrolled population growth, short-sighted and self-serving leadership, idiotic energy policies, Gordian-knot regulations and taxation that continues to drive up energy costs without paying any tangibles dividends, the uncontrolled greed and avarice of those who control the assets - both those who produce energy and the parasites who trade it on the open market, an entrenched technology and industrial complex that smothers innovation and steadfastly refuses to invest in real alternatives in any significant way, our throwaway economy, and our own arrogant refusal to economize or demand a change in our infrastructure. Ultimately though, it comes down to one thing and one thing only - simple supply and demand.

Demand exceeds supply, it's really just that simple. There are too many thirsty lizards in the pond. Either we need a bigger pond, or we need less lizards or we need to get off our scaly asses and find a better way to do business.

There isn't enough oil. Oh sure, there's enough in the ground - for the moment. But it's getting harder and harder to get it out, it's either in war zones or unfriendly countries, or it's in remote and difficult to reach terrain and unless we find vast and heretofore unknown reserves beneath our oil refineries that isn't going to change. Despite advances in technology, it's getting harder to get the oil out of the ground in sufficient quantities. It's getting harder to move oil in high enough volume to where it can be refined. It's getting harder to process it in sufficient bulk to meet demand and in sufficient diversity to meet hundreds of self-serving federal, state, and local blend requirements. And it's getting harder to move the final product to where it can be used. And the end user, far from reducing need, continues to demand greater and greater volume in order to support some idealized wish fulfillment fantasy of the American Dream. Every single step of the process contributes to increasing scarcity and cost. Every single step.

As a result it costs more, a lot more. And it's only going to get worse. There may be brief respites from increasing energy costs, but unless significant changes are made, those respites are going to be further apart and fewer in number and increasingly less significant. Eventually, we will reach a point of no return - the point where we simply do not have the resources and innovation to do something about it, even if it means the demise of our civilization. History is rife with such examples, from Rome to the British Empire to the Soviet Union.

The signs have been all around us for over forty years, but up until recently we've had enough reserve in our economy to allow most Americans to go blithely on fiddling while the city burns. But oil powers everything in our economy, everything, and the cracks are getting wider, and no amount of patching is going to cover them up.

In addition to the obvious things such as the gleeful pronouncement by the news organizations every morning of record prices, and the blustering and grandstanding of the politicians, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth by my fellow citizens, some significant indicators I've noticed are:

- Car companies are starting to promote smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. TV advertisements are shifting away from the monster SUV's. However, if you look a bit deeper, you'll see that this situation is merely clever marketing. American car companies haven't stopped building monster SUV's and not one has committed to building strictly fuel efficient or alternative fuel vehicles. GM has a test Hybrid pickup available only in California, and only because it was mandated by law, they're not making it available elsewhere and neither are other manufacturers. They don't want you to buy it. The reason for this is that manufactures are betting that the current oil situation is only temporary, and as soon as the storm passes they'll go right back to the massive eight cylinder, 350 cubic inch, four-barreled, Hemi-carbureted, Viagra induced wet-dream they've been promoting for the last two decades. Is this their fault? Not entirely. While they may have put the idea in our heads, we bought it. And continue to buy it and refuse to demand a change.

- Truckers are up in arms. They've marched, er driven, on Washington to demand relief from impossible fuels costs. They haven't yet marched on Peterbilt, Ford, or Volvo to demand development of more efficient or alternative fueled tractors though, and they haven't removed those giant king-sized sleeper cabs that add tons weight to a significant number of long haul rigs. There is little innovation in the shipping industry and every year sees an increase in the volume of long haul over-road transportation, rather than a shift to more efficient container-based rail transportation between regional distribution hubs. And before anybody gets up in arms over my apparent targeting of the heroic truckers, you should know that I have a commercial driver's license and extensive experience driving tractor/trailer rigs for the military, and my wife works in the shipping industry - I'm familiar with the process, thanks.

- The collapse of the home mortgage industry, which was driven directly by a slowing economy and inflation, caused by soaring oil prices. All the little things are adding up, and increasingly people simply can't meet their monthly payments. This hasn't stopped them from taking out loans with insanely compounding interest rates however. And once you have the house, you have to have the boat to put in the driveway, and the monster truck to pull it. Americans still live with the idea that it just can't happen to them, but it does and is and it's happening more and more frequently now.

- As a direct result of the mortgage collapse, the homeless population is reaching new highs. In addition to the drunks and the addicts and the mentally ill, it's becoming a way of life for a significant number of the middle class here in America and there's not much sympathy, or aid, to go around. Cities, such as Santa Barbara, California have given up trying and have simply resigned themselves to the fact.

- The number of gas station drive-offs is up geometrically. There is some indication that thieves are stealing credit cards and license plates specifically to facilitate drive-off theft; it's becoming an sub-industry of the criminal underworld. In some cases, thieves will jack a large truck or SUV, fill the tank at a local station and drive off without paying, siphon out the gas and sell it - and abandon the worthless vehicle. Police increasingly are not following up on reported drive-offs, even if the perpetrator is caught on camera, because the shear volume of gasoline thefts is overwhelming their available manpower. There has been a significant increase in outright volume theft, i.e. thieves forcing the locks on storage tanks at gas stations, school bus depots, and other such storage facilities and taking hundreds of gallons. Gas stations and bulk storage facilities are having to implement round the clock security, driving costs up even higher. Additionally, gasoline theft from parked vehicles, both private vehicles and agricultural and commercial equipment, has doubled or even tripled in some areas. Exact figures vary depending on source and region, and not not every supplier is willing to provide precise data, fearing that it will make them an easier target - i.e. some franchise gas stations are not allowed by their parent companies to implement a pre-pay option, because the company does not want to invest in the equipment necessary. The sale of locking gas caps is up significantly.

- I've noticed that people are driving a bit slower on the highways. I've always driven the speed limit and I notice lately that others are too. There's been no real talk of returning to the widely unpopular, and widely flouted, 55mph national speed limit imposed by Nixon during the OPEC embargo of the 70's, but then again it's an election year.

- I've notice that there are less folks in the grocery store and a lot more in the bulk food stores.

- The cost of a 12-pack of Killian's Irish Red has gone from $10.95 to $18.59 in less than a year. People are switching to cheaper beer.

- A new form of energy related spam has appeared in my inbox. While the government and industry may be mired in their ways, grifters and scam artists are nothing if not innovative. Lately I've gotten daily messages advertising suppressed technology that purports to turn water into gasoline - a reemergence of the old Brown's Gas (Oxyhydrogen and/or Aquagas) scam from the 70's. I get spam for 'magnetic molecular fuel alignment systems' (magnetism, is there nothing it can't do?) and Tesla technology that will give me 100 plus miles per gallon, or even free me completely from oil's greasy shackles. I've seen ads in recent additions of reputable magazines for bio-diesel reactors and a home ethanol distiller that purports to make all your gasoline from sugar and grass clippings. Somebody is buying this crap. And the scams come in all sizes from the small to the large, from the single slick con artist selling magic herbal fuel additives to an entire bogus medicine show that is doing its level best to sell us rubes on the idiotic assumption that converting highly efficient food producing cropland into inefficient ethanol snake oil is a really, really good idea.

I could go on, the signs are all around us, but I won't. Should we be afraid? Yes. Should we be pissed? Yes. Should we be depressed? No. We have the technology, the resources, and the innovation to do something about it. We're not lizards, we don't have to go the way of the dinosaurs. Far from spelling our doom, this crisis can lead to real innovation and force a change to our civilization that is long, long overdue.

It's an opportunity, and the time to take advantage of it is now, while we still can.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Cool new gadget, continued

We took the new Delorme GPS unit out for a test drive this weekend.

My son was over at a friend's house for the day, so my wife and I got a rare afternoon of hiking and exploring by ourselves. We went down to the Matanuska River and spent a couple of hours - and it was nice to be able to poke along the water without having to constantly keep an eye on the kid.

We left the truck at the Palmer River Park, and followed the trails through the campground down to the river bed, just above the bridge on the Old Glenn Highway.

Palmer Park 001

It was sunny and warm in the valley and we wandered along the river plain looking for cool rocks and driftwood as is our habit. And as always in Alaska, even the mundane scenery was fantastic.

Palmer Park 012

I have high resolution topographic maps of the entire region loaded in the PN-20, and before we left home I downloaded a bunch of geocache locations into it from the links on Google Earth. While my wife hunted for interesting rocks for the rock polisher, I wandered up and down the river bank playing with the GPS unit. It worked better than advertised and I was routinely locking onto a minimum of ten satellites and getting position fixes good to within a couple of feet.

Palmer Park 015

We walked a couple of miles up the river before getting to the first cache - which we couldn't find. Someone has either taken it, or its hiding place was too obscure for us. But the second one was right where the Delorme said it should be, and after a second or two of poking around my wife found it under a log. We noted our find in the log, took nothing and left nothing, and went inland following a trail. The path was a little, uh, damp in places from the spring runoff. Note: if you go hiking in Alaska, you're going to want good, waterproof hiking boots, just saying.

Palmer Park 017

We somehow ended up behind the Palmer Municipal ball park, where a bunch of kids were playing Saturday afternoon little league. While working our way back down the hill, following the GPS back towards where we'd left the truck, I came across an old cottonwood tree stump. It's hard to tell from the picture, but that burl is about 6 feet in diameter. If only there had been some way for me to cut it off and haul all two tons of it back to the truck, imagine the bowls it would make.

All in all we walked about four miles and explored parts of our neighborhood that we hadn't seen before. It was a pretty good day.

Now, in the old days, especially back when I used wet-film cameras, I kept a notebook in my pocket and wrote down where and when I took each picture, but the Delorme PN-20 and TopoUSA 7.0 software package has a unique feature which I wanted to take advantage of. First I needed to make sure the camera's clock was set to the correct time and date in order to ensure the time stamp on each picture was correct. I normally use a Sony professional model D770, but for this hike I didn't want to lug it along and instead used my little Pentax Optio S4. The clock was way off, so I synced it to the GPS before taking any pictures. After the hike I downloaded the GPS track data to the TopoUSA software and then downloaded the Pentax's SD chip to the computer using the Vista media downloader. Then, using the GeoTagger function in TopoUSA, I synced the pictures to our recorded route on the map. Since the GPS unit records our position about once a second, it is easy for the software to determine exactly where I was standing when each picture was taken (providing that both the GPS and camera clocks are synced, hence the need for setting the camera's clock correctly. The GPS unit syncs its clock automatically to the global standard via the satellites). TopoUSA will then insert a thumbnail, an icon, or a hyperlink to the picture file at the correct position on the map. I tried it all three ways, and decided that I like the icon option best.


In the screenshot, the red track on the map is our route, and each camera icon is where I took a picture. Clicking on the icon opens the picture in the default viewer. Additionally, you can add notes to each picture on the map or in the picture's data file, or both. Since both my Pentax and the Sony record detailed information about each picture (e.g. the camera settings at the time of capture), I get far more information about each picture than I ever did with the old method of recording each photo by hand in a log book. Additionally, since I use Corel Photo Paint X2, if the pictures are photoshopped X2 will record any changes and stamp the photo with its version and program information - allowing me to look back years later and determine if any changes were made to the photo and be able to reconstruct the original exposure if necessary.

This is an extremely cool ability. A couple of years ago, I scanned into digital format hundreds of old Ektachrome slides and negatives from the 40's, 50's, and 60's that my mom had. After thousands of hours of photoshopping to correct for redshift, scratches, and general damage to the film, my mom spent hours trying to remember where and when each picture was taken, and who exactly those funny looking people were. With this system, I have all that data recorded almost automatically and a hundred years from now, or a thousand, somebody will be able to reconstruct exactly where and when my pictures were taken. Will anybody give a damn? I don't know, but it's there if they want it.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a hundred uses for this capability (I sure wish that I had it when I was on scouting missions in Iraq). As I said elsewhere, if you're looking for a really cool gadget, or you're a photographer, or you just want to be able to remember where the hell you were when you snapped those pictures on that family vacation, or you're engaged in an occupation that requires you to record details of a specific location and then be able to find it later (Nathan, I'm talking to you here), you couldn't ask for a better tool than the Delorme PN-20 and TopoUSA 7.0.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hoary Old SciFi Tropes...


...are the best tropes.  Iron Sky:







I love the concept behind this, both the hoary old 50's scifi trope of Nazi's escaping to the moon at the end of WWII and the independent, studio-free movie making idea.  Sure, this kind of thing leads to a lot of crap let loose in the world, but it also leads to the creation of some truly cool things that no studio in their right mind would touch.


And I love both of those banners, I do.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Free Friday

I wanted to talk about the California Supreme Court's decision yesterday striking down two state laws and paving the way for life, liberty, and happiness for all of its citizens.  And I probably will sometime this weekend, but it's sunny and warm out for the first time in a long while. 


There's still snow on the mountains and Pioneer Peak looks fantastic out my sunroom window:

Pioneer Peak

It's just an absolute beautiful day here in the Matanuska Susitna Valley and I've managed to knock out all of my production work for the next two weeks. I've finished a chapter of Iyes of the Dead and reviewed the two previous chapters and I'm extremely happy with it.

And I actually feel good this morning, nothing hurts, and that's just so unusual for me that I'm not going to waste it sitting in front of the computer.

As such, I'm taking the day off and going out to the shop to turn bowls, play with my dog, swat at mosquitos and generally enjoy the sun. Later I may run the tractor around the yard and sweep up the winter's debris, just because I can.


Something of note: Yesterday Stonekettle Station pulled in just over 1100 visitors.  The vast majority surfed in to read this post due to links in a number of backpacking and GPS related forums.  As the regular readers know, I don't give much thought to stats, but seriously, wow! For those of you who arrived here via that route, thanks for coming by, I hope you enjoyed the article.  Feel free to stick around. You can expect a number of hiking and geocaching posts from the wilds of Alaska this summer - and if the weather holds, this weekend.


Now, I'm going out to do what I enjoy most, and I hope you all do too. 

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Various and Sundry

- Off to Anchorage today, have to deliver a load of finished work to a customer and drop by the VA.

- Gas prices here are well over $4.00 per gallon and likely to stay that way.  I'm going to have to raise my prices for bowls and woodwork to compensate.  It costs me significantly more to harvest the wood because I need gas for the chainsaws and ATV's.  And unless I want to lug several tons of green wood a couple of miles out of the swamp on foot, I don't really have another option than the ATV's - the 700 Polaris in 4x4 mode, loaded down in low gear drinks a lot of gas.  And stock from the local saw mills is up significantly, because their saws run on diesel - and it costs me more to go get it, and to deliver products. Congress of course is looking into the matter - led by Arlen Spector who seems to feel that a congressional investigation into professional football is the answer.

- The polar bear is officially an endangered species. Don't expect drilling ANWR or point Thompson any time soon.  I actually don't know if this is a good thing or not, and I doubt it will have any affect whatsoever on polar bear decline or climate change.  I find both sides of the larger argument on climate change idiotic.

- Reader Sheila called my attention to this site: Subscriptions for Service Members, and a related site: Subscriptions for Soldiers.  I did some checking around, Better Business Bureau and Charity Watch wise and found both operations have good reputations - in fact, a BBB site in Kentucky has a link to both on its webpage and a favorable recommendation.  This is a good thing, there's not much you can do to make life in the meatgrinder a joy, but the little things like magazines from home really, really help.  I'm not asking anyone to donate, but should you feel the urge to make a small gesture of support, this would be money much better spent than buying one of those stupid yellow ribbon magnets.  If you do or don't, I don't want to know. I'm just putting it out there. Thanks, Sheila.

Now I have to go load up the truck, and replace a burned out brake light. Then I'm off to Anchorage, see you later.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Cool New Gadget (updated)

(updates at the end of the post)

I like to know where I'm at, especially when I'm hiking in the wilds of Alaska.

I've got an extremely well developed sense of direction. My dad taught me how to use a map and compass at a young age, and I've been an expert at orienteering for most of my life. The Navy taught me stellar navigation and I'm fairly good at it; I even own a decent sextant. Given rise and set tables, compass, sextant, and a decent chronometer I can usually plot a fix and chart a course home without too much sweat. Hell, I can even build a reasonably accurate solar compass in the field, if it really becomes necessary.

But, I'm also a gadget freak. Can't help it, I love technology.

So, for me there's nothing cooler than the US GPS satellite navigation system. I've been using GPS since since the first satellites went up - first in the military, and later when civilian receivers became available to the general public. Naturally, a number of years ago we got into geocaching, which combines our love of hiking and the out of doors with treasure hunting, puzzles, and land navigation. Geocaching, for those of you not familiar with the game, is based on the century-old European sport of letterbox treasure hunting. Basically the way it works is that geocachers hide small treasure 'caches' in interesting places, the caches (usually an ammo can or other such durable weatherproof container) are usually filled with interesting items, some have themes such as a dog friendly trove or child related items, and some are just collections of random stuff. Some are large and some are tiny. All caches contain a log book. Some are placed in easy locations, such as city parks or even sidewalk planters. And some caches are placed in remote and difficult to reach locations. All are well hidden and not apparent unless you are looking specifically for them. There are literally millions of such caches hidden on all seven continents all around the world. Once hidden, the location is recorded using a GPS unit and then posted on Geocaching.com, each post contains the coordinates, a description of the cache, it's difficulty, it's type (the are several types of caches), a map, and clues. Additionally, each post contains comments from those who went seeking the cache). A geocacher logs into the site and searches the database for caches in his or her area, loads the coordinates into their GPS, and goes treasure hunting. When you find a cache, you sign the log book, take one item, and put something back of equal or higher value. It's fun for the whole family and it has taken us to many strange and interesting places that we would never have visited otherwise. I'm a paid member of the game, though you don't have to be. There are advantages to a paid subscription, including special caches and a secret handshake. Being me, I also have a paid Google Earth Plus account, and the Geocaching plugin which allows me to plot caches onto Google Earth - Yeah, I was one of those kids who poured over maps and national geographic for hours on end. For me Google Earth is like heroin.

Anyway, like I said above I've owned GPS units for a long time, starting with one of the very first models, the Motorola TRAXAR, an enormous beast of hideously expensive 80's technology. It took 6 AA batteries and sucked the life out of them in about two hours. It weighed a ton and was like lugging around a brick. It had six receiver channels and took about an hour to plot a position when cold - and it was accurate within, oh, about 300 yards on a good day.

In the early 90's I bought a Magellan GPS350. Much smaller and lighter. It ran on a pair of AA's and lasted about 6 hours or so, depending on a number of factors. It had eight receiver channels (more channels = faster and more accurate fix) and a whole megabyte of RAM. It cost in the hundreds, vice the thousands, of dollars and was reasonably accurate, down to a hundred yards usually. In those days, the Pentagon was afraid the Evil Empire would use our GPS to fly cruise missiles through the windows of the White House and so they implemented something called 'selective availability,' basically a wobble in the satellite timing pulses which induced a margin of error into a receiver's fix datum - therefore the best you could do with a civilian receiver was about a hundred yards, and your fixes tended to move around a bit as the elements of the GPS constellation rose and set. Still that was good enough for geocaching, and the sport was born around that time. The military, or course, had encrypted receivers which filtered out the SA error and were accurate to a gnat's ass.

Somewhere along the line, a couple of smart guys - geophysicists building instruments to measure the slip of tectonic plates - wrote a simple software program to average out the errors induced by SA, and published it to the web. They didn't know that the position errors they were seeing in their receivers were there on purpose, they assumed that the folks in charge of the GPS system were just lousy engineers. They published their program as freeware, and from then on anybody with a laptop and a crappy Garmin receiver could plot fixes accurate within a few feet. It took a couple years, but eventually the Pentagon figured out there wasn't much point in SA anymore, so they turned it off. Along with the lofting of the new WAAS satellites (which broadcast a special signal to WAAS enabled receivers to correct for the natural attenuation and signal bias inherent in atmospheric transmission) this ushered in a whole new era of GPS usage. Cheap, reliable, and very, very accurate receivers became widely available. As such I upgraded to the Magellan Sporttrak Pro around 2001. WAAS capable, water proof, small and light, it was extremely accurate - and it included maps! It had a whole eight megabytes of Ram and could interface with my PC via serial cable and download maps and track data. Very, very cool and I used it not only for geocaching, but for just about every other navigation chore as well. It could find street addresses, show roads, map the boundaries of my property - hell it could even find where I'd left the car in the Disney parking lot in Anaheim.

Last week, though, it crapped out. It's tiny little electronic brain frizzed and the display died a pixilated death. I nearly panicked - not because I'm afraid of getting lost, but because I've gotten so dependent on GPS that I don't want to be without it. So I immediately looked to see what Magellan had to offer in their latest product line - and was seriously disappointed. The company has, uh, declined. They are no longer innovators, and seem to be mired in the past. Here's the thing though, there are two major manufacturers of civilian GPS units in North America, Magellan and Garmin. And for those of us who are GPS nuts, it's a lot like the difference between Macs and PC's. I've always used Magellan and I was seriously reluctant to go over to the dark side of Garmin - yeah, that moral dilemma lasted just long enough for me to read through the abysmal product reviews of Magellan's latest Triton line. So, I headed up to Sportsman's Warehouse to look at Garmin units. I knew exactly how much I wanted to spend and exactly what features I wanted - and unfortunately couldn't find that in any of Garmin's products.

Then I spotted something I'd never heard of - the Delorme Earthmate PN-20. I'm familiar with Delorme, they make some of the best Topographic maps in the world, but I didn't know they'd branched out into GPS. The unit looked like everything I wanted, and then some. I went home and did some research online, and immediately went back and bought it.

I've been playing with it for a week and I've come to the following conclusion: It rocks. Seriously.

It's small and lightweight, water proof and it floats. The case is high visibility yellow (don't think that's important? Try dropping your black Sporttrak in thick Alaskan brush sometime), it runs on a pair of AA's and has very good battery life, and you can use Li-Ion rechargables which the unit will charge from the USB cable or optional power cord. It's got 75MB's of internal memory and takes 2gig SD chips in an integrated card slot located in the battery compartment. It has a high-resolution color display and extremely simple controls and intuitive system navigation. Like most high end modern GPS units, it has an integrated electronic compass, sun and moon tables, fishing and hunting predictors, and can store far more waypoints, routes, and POI's than you'll ever use. And it does something I've never seen in any handheld GPS unit, military or civilian, in addition to detailed topographic and street maps, it can also download and display satellite imagery of the ground you're walking over. That is just so cool, that I can hardly contain myself. But wait there's more - Delorme has included one of the absolute best software mapping packages I've ever seen, and I'm including military software here. Delorme Topo USA 7.0 is PC based (I don't know if they are planning a Mac version or not) and is worth the price of admission all by itself - hell, If I was a Mac user, I'd buy a PC just to run this software. It's a professional level package, not one of those cheap atlas program you can buy at Wal-Mart, or view on the net. When Delorme transferred their high resolution topo maps to electronic format, they lost nothing in detail and not only can you display the maps in normal flat 2D mode, you can also show them in 3D mapping mode with realtime control. In fact you can split the screen and show both displays at the same time. You can add layers to the maps, adding your own information and points of interest. You can upload data recorded in the Earthmate via the included USB cable or the Bluetooth add-on, and plot it in layers over the topo maps. If you load the software on a laptop, you can plug the Earthmate into it and track your GPS position on Topo USA in realtime - this is a powerful tool for people on the road or on the water, for surveyors, for property managers, and the like. The software has a significant learning curve, but there is extensive help both integrated and online, and Delorme includes a tutorial DVD in the package. Overall I've got no complaints about either the software or the hardware. This is an excellent unit at an extremely reasonable price - the nearest comparable Garmin unit is about $300USD more, and doesn't include mapping software, that's a separate purchase. Magellan doesn't have anything to compare and I suspect they'll be out of business sooner or later. The Earthmate retails for around $419, but you can usually find it for about $350. For the next month Delorme is offering an interesting rebate. If you purchase the package for over $299 (up to $420), they'll send you a rebate check for the difference - making the purchase price $299. Period. That's an exceptionally good deal.

GPS Evolution

From the left: Mid-80's Motorola Traxar, early 90's Magellan GPS350, early oo's Magellan Sporttrak Pro, and finally the Delorme Earthmate PN-20. On the computer screen is the split-display 2D/3D Topo USA 7.0 topographic map display showing the Government Peak area of Hatcher Pass, Alaska.

So, bottom line: If you're looking for a really cool gadget or you need a dependable, affordable, and exceptionally advanced handheld navigation system - you're not going to do much better than the Delorne Earthmate PN-20, in any price range.

Get one, and give geocaching a try.


- I mentioned above that the Delorme PN-20 took 2Gig SD chips. And it does - as shipped. However, I neglected to mention that Delorme pushes out regular firmware updates and that if you update the PN-20, the 2Gig limitation is no longer an issue. An updated PN-20 will take all capacity SD cards on up to the new 32Gig SDHC chips. This update massively increases the PN-20's capability to download and store highly detailed regional maps and satellite imagery. There's a couple of ways to do this, if you've got several hours you can download large files via the USB connection, or a much faster method is to plug the SD card into the computer and download directly to that. One minor issue - not all computers, especially older models, can read high-capacity SD cards. You might need to update a driver or two. Just saying.

- Several GPS and outdoor forums and websites linked to this post. For those of you surfing from those links, Howdy and thanks for coming by. So far today there's been almost 600 of you. Feel free to comment. A poster on one forum mentioned that he thought my dating on the beginning of Geocaching was a little off - i.e. he thought that caching began after Selective Availability was turned off. He's right, sort of. Geocaching was around during the SA period, however it was not nearly the phenomenon it is nowadays. Both the world wide web and civilian use of GPS were in their infancy - a bunch of us goofy bastards used to email around caching info, or post it on BBS's such as CompuServe (remember them?). Caching was a whole lot more primitive and had a variety of names and methods back there in the dark ages. GPS would maybe get you within 100 yards of the cache, on a really good day, then you'd have to follow clues in the post to zero in on the treasure. Eventually both the web and the technology improved, SA was turned off, and things merged and formalized and evolved into the sport you see today. And it's still evolving - which is cool. Really, try it, you'll like it.

- Some folks have complained about the PN-20's battery life. I don't know about them, but I've been running this unit on and off since last Sunday, I just drove into Anchorage and back running the unit the whole time - about 4 hours. Figure so far I've got roughly 12 hours on the original Duracell Copper Tops and I'm still showing 1/4 charge left - this is equivalent to what I was getting with the Sporttrak Pro. Battery life though is highly variable, depending on usage. Running the backlit screen all the time will suck significantly more amps than unlit usage.


Follow-up Post: Delorme Test Drive and syncing pictures to Topo USA 7.0.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

You've got to be kidding me

Aaagh! Aagh! Head. Full of teh stupids. Feels. Like. My. Eyes. Are. Bulging. Out. Of. My. Head! Must not make fist of death.

Every single time I think that the leader of the free world can't possibly say anything more idiotic, more puerile, more revolting, or more deluded - he goes right ahead and says something so profoundly stupid that I think my head will explode. I swear to God, this guy is a complete and total fucking moron.

Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable.

Honestly I thought this was a joke, I had to look and see if I was reading The Onion by accident. No, he meant it, every word. Seriously, this guy needs a handler - or a muzzle and a padded room.

Why McCain is not getting my vote (updated x2)

Two and half decades ago I joined the US Navy as a Seaman Recruit, the lowest of the low.

My story was fairly typical for those who joined in the early '80's, the economy sucked in western Michigan and I didn't want to spend the rest of my life working in some factory or some restaurant. I had taken a few classes at the local community college, but couldn't decide what I really wanted to do with my life, and I couldn't afford to go to a real college - even if I had had the grades or the inclination to go. I wanted adventure and to see the world, so I joined the Navy.

I liked it, a lot, loved it in point of fact. Over the years I worked my way up through the ranks. My career path was not exactly normal or recommended, but eventually I made it just about as far as it's possible to go and retired as a commissioned officer. I owe a lot to those senior experienced folks who went before me, those that helped me along the way (even when I neither recognized their help nor wanted it). When I put on the anchors of a Chief Petty Officer, I was strongly admonished to never forget where I had come from; it was pounded into my head by the Chief's Mess to always, always, help and look out for the Sailors below me, to help them exactly as I had been helped, to always pay it forward to the next generation - even if it meant putting my own career on the line. That lesson was driven home repeatedly and forcefully. Years later, when I put on the blue and gold bars of a Chief Warrant Officer, the lessons of the Chief's Mess were so deeply ingrained that they had become habit and I found myself teaching those same principles of honor, courage, duty, humility, and concern for the welfare of my people on a daily basis, in every action and word.

Today, that lesson remains a core part of my makeup: You never forget where you come from, You look out for your shipmates and you do it no matter the cost.

Which brings me to another Naval Officer, retired Captain and presidential candidate John McCain. On the face of things, McCain appears to be an admirable man, a graduate of the US Naval Academy, a POW who spent five and half years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton enduring severe torture and refusing release if those captured with him were not also repatriated. When he went into politics he quickly earned a reputation for his passion, temper and, outspokenness, characteristics he and I share - and I admire. He headed the investigation into the public perception of POW/MIAs remaining in Southeast Asia and despite popular belief and popular media (Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone not withstanding) he found there was no credibility to those rumors. He earned widespread derision from Vietnam veterans for his conclusions but held firm to his conviction and pushed for normalization of relations with our former enemies - something that has benefited both nations. He appears to be a man of courage and honor and strength of character. In the 2000 presidential elections, when I was still a registered Republican, I preferred him far more than his rival, George W.Bush. Today, on the face of things, McCain would appear to be the ideal candidate for a veteran like me.

Not so.

As I said above, those of us who served as Navy Chiefs and Mustang officers (former Chiefs, commissioned to LDO or Warrant) are taught to never forget our origins in the lower ranks. And while McCain was never a Mustang, it is apparent to me that he also was taught this lesson somewhere along the line, unfortunately for McCain it means something entirely different. See, McCain is, at his core, the son of wealth and privilege. Both his father and grandfather were 4-star admirals, senior Naval officers, and as such McCain was given an appointment to the Naval Academy. He did well there, and was obviously worthy of the appointment, and later his naval commission. It is certainly true that he endured unfathomable hardship as a POW, and when he first appeared on the political stage I admit that I admired him for his in-your-face reminder of that fact. I deeply appreciated his slap-down of a reporter who in 1982 accused him of being a carpetbagger in the Arizona elections, to which McCain responded, "Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. My father was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi." It sounded good at the time, and it still does, but over the years I began to realize that McCain regards his status as a former POW as the ultimate trump card. His origins are anything but humble, and he consistently throws his weight behind power, privilege, and wealth using that trump card to give his actions weight and leverage. From his involvement in the Keating Five scandal to his whole hearted support of the Patriot Act and his stanch support of the current fiasco of a war, his actions consistently show a disregard for those less privileged.

But for me, the final nail in the coffin is his opposition to an updated and expanded GI bill. McCain never had to pay for his education - it was his birthright and entitlement.

He had no problem accepting a full-ride education paid for with tax dollars, but as for the rest of us in uniform - well, we're not worthy of such expense, no matter what our service or sacrifice - because see, John McCain was a POW in the Hanoi Hilton and the son of admirals and the rest of us, well, emphatically are not.


Update: something I want to point out here, McCain's very expensive education was granted before he ever served one day on active duty. He was given his education without proving his worth in any way - simply because his father and grandfather were admirals and he had the ear of his congressman. Those of us who would benefit from the expanded GI bill, have already proven our worth, we've already paid the bill. I myself served for over 20 years, I served in two wars, on six continents, and was decorated 13 times. I wrote US Navy warfighting doctrine that is still in use today, and has demonstratively saved lives and tax dollars. But, according to McCain, I and my shipmates are not worthy of the same education he was.

And McCain was, and is, no exception - many, not all but many, of those who 'win' appointments to the service academies are those who have similar backgrounds to John McCain, i.e. those who could have paid their own way through college without hardship, and don't.

Don't get me wrong here - some of the finest officers I have ever known are graduates of the US Naval academy, and McCain himself served admirably and honorably, but he could have afforded his own education. Sadly he seems to think that the rest of us can too.


McCain's chief beef seems to be that that the proposed GI Bill will cost, a lot. $25 billion over the next ten years. Let's put that in perspective, shall we? That's about $2.5 billion a year, or the cost of one, one, B-2 Spirit bomber - a super-dooper secret invisible stealth bomber designed to penetrate deep into the Soviet Union in the event that the Cold War ever returns. Unless the clock magically rolls back to the Reagan years, those planes have absolutely no purpose in the modern world (and yes, I am aware that they were used in Iraq, flying 36 hour long, round trip missions from the central United States because they are too highly sensitive to be based anywhere else. We used them because the Air Force thought they were really cool, not because we actually had a compelling need for them. By the time they showed up, Saddam's air defense grid was a smoking ruin and a grandmother in a Piper Cub could have made it to Baghdad and back. They had zero impact on our operations, other than to divert funds and resources that could have been better used elsewhere). But if you really want to put $2.5 billion a year in perspective, take a look at oil company subsidies. Between low to no cost leasing of public lands (which basically pays the public nothing for the loss of natural assets); to direct funding for exploration, extraction, and production (think you're only paying $4 per gallon? Think again); to the indirect subsidies for research, health, and transportation - and we're looking at federal layout of anywhere between $600 Billion and nearly $2 trillion per year (depending on who's figures you go with and what you categorize as a subsidy). Want to guess which way McCain voted on oil leasing reform or reduction of subsidies?

Quick question? What's going to pay a better return in the long run? Bombers with no missions and oil company subsidies? Or advanced education for a large segment of our population, who will then be able to get better jobs, earn higher wages, and pay more back in taxes? What will serve our country better? Padding the expense accounts of Exxon executives or creating a new generation educated veterans?

McCain is also concerned that if the GI Bill passes, well, military folks might actually, you know, take advantage of it. They might only do a single enlistment, then get out to pursue an education. McCain is afraid that retention will suffer as a result. Strangely though, he spent 22 years on active duty - after he got his taxpayer funded education. I paid for my education out my own pocket, but I stayed on active duty for a full decade after earning my degree and I can name hundreds of others who have done the same thing. But here's my question - say people do join up, serve the minimum time required and then get out to take advantage of the GI Bill, so what? Where's the downside of this? They did their time, the public got its pound of flesh out of them (and nowadays, likely a whole lot more). Look, hundreds of thousands of returning vets took advantage of the GI bill when they returned from WWII, and in those days it paid for nearly their whole education, and we call them 'The Greatest Generation.' They became doctors, and lawyers and teachers and scientists and engineers and they went on to much better lives than their parents. That's the beauty of education, it almost always pays far greater returns than the original investment. Education increases wealth, not decreases it. Education might end wars, or at least reduce them, instead of keeping us in Iraq for the next hundred years.

No, McCain has not forgotten where he came from. He remembers it every day. And he wants to make dammed sure those vets who weren't born into an academy education remember where they came from too - and he want's to make sure they stay there.

No John McCain will not be getting my vote.


Update x2: Guess who wasn't present for the Strategic Oil Reserve vote today?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Busy today

No posts this morning. So sorry.

Because I spent Saturday hiking, and yesterday fooling around with my new GPS unit and doing various and sundry other things, I'm behind in the shop. I've got a large order due on Wednesday and I've got to get cracking this morning.

Depending on my progress in the shop today, I may get around to posting why I will not be voting for John 'Two-Face' McCain under any circumstances later today. Really, if both Clinton and Obama get hit by a campaign bus and drop out - I'll do a write in vote for Cannibal Hitler's Head In a Jar before I vote for this asshole. Seriously.

More, maybe, later.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Lazy Mountain

We had intended to go geocaching, yesterday - but it would appear that my Magellan Sporttrak Pro GPS unit has gone to electronic heaven. It worked just fine last week, but yesterday the display turned to vertical lines and little squares - this pisses me off, as the Sporttrak is an expensive unit and I expect better quality and longevity out of Magellan. I don't know why, the company has been going downhill for a number years, making one bone-headed decision after another, (example: their PC interfaces are still based on a serial cable), their website stinks, and their customer service is practically non-existent.

I'll be looking at Garmin units today.

Anyway, since we were geared up, we went hiking anyway. Up Lazy Mountain outside of Palmer.

Lazy Mountain

The trail was a little muddy in spots.

Lazy Mountain 2

It's pretty much straight up, and we're seriously out of shape after a long winter. Well, I'm out of shape anyway, Becky and Jimmy were doing fine and had to keep stopping to wait for me and the dog.

The view was spectacular. That's the MatSu Valley and our little town of Palmer below. You're looking down on some of the original colonial farms and the Matanuska River. Those are the Chugach mountains across the valley, Mount Eklutna is dead ahead, and Pioneer Peak is to the left just out of frame.

Lazy Mountain 3

The mosquitos pretty much left us alone and it was sunny and warm. So despite the GPS unit failure we had a good day.

What did you do with your weekend? I hope you didn't waste it.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Another Note on Procedure

Attention news people:

, wrong, wrong: "Tornado's wrath caught on tape."
Correct: "Tornado's [pick one: power, force, might, energy, intensity, etc] caught on tape."

Tornados and other natural events are not capable of wrath. Your job is journalism, try to do it professionally, please.