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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Survival Radio

A while ago I wrote an article about my thoughts on putting a tablet in your emergency bug out gear. There are many benefits to having a little tablet to keep books on and use for navigation with GPS and offline maps.

Now, what if you could plug a 13 dollar USB dongle into that tablet, and be able to receive most of the usable radio spectrum: emergency broadcasts, weather, police / fire / medical, Citizen's Band, Family Radio, FM radio, etc?

Thanks to the wonders of Chinese manufacturing, cheap chipsets and a quirk found by a researcher in a common USB TV dongle that no longer receives TV since the world went to digital, all the stars have aligned to make that happen.

It's called Software Defined Radio or SDR for short, and all these USB TV dongle-widget-thingies based on the RTL2832U chipset can receive most transmissions you would be listening for in an emergency. This device does not transmit, but hey, you can't have everything for this price.

This little wonder weighs very little even with the included antenna. I know people who pack receive-only emergency radios in their gear, and this could potentially replace that. I've played with it more on the PC than my tablets, but I have tried a couple Android apps and they work. All you need is an adapter to connect regular USB devices to your tablet or phone.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

My Cabin Kitchen

This little cabin has no sink and no running water. Previous occupants lived out of ice chests and decades before that, the thriving property strictly used its two outdoor kitchens. But I moved in here during winter, and the people in the warmer climates couldn't understand why I wasn't gung ho about cooking outdoors in the cold. Whatever quaint stereotype of sitting outside with the grill doesn't work as well at 34 degrees Fahrenheit, and it's only now starting to get warm here in Kalama, Washington.



Since my last place was a huge house and the kitchen was the heart of it, I wanted the kitchen to the heart of this cabin as well, so yep, you guessed it, I placed what I thought was a modest order for kitchen utensils from Amazon. At first I was sad to realize that I gave up all my high end All-Clad pots and pans and other nice gear, but then I got really excited to see how good I could do on a budget.

The counter tops here have a storied history and the little cupboard says "high explosives" on it. My sister put a slab of fake granite counter top material between two saw horses to make another counter, where my high efficiency fridge and little oven go.

I'm scavenging my silverware because I'm finding this old vintage silverware all over the property, and some of it I think is real silver!

So with a little oven, fridge and the propane burner I hauled away and changed my mind and took back, this little kitchen is starting to come together. The hot plate was awesome but one time I overdid my appliance usage and it melted the romex and left me without power for 5 days. So now I'm back to propane and just fixed the troublesome stove so it's not leaking propane, which can be really bad.

This isn't a review, but I wanted to give a shout out to this awesome little set of pots and pans and the knife set as well. I never heard of this brand before. I wanted to be frugal but not lose the feeling of cooking with my old set, but I didn't want to be so frugal that I got a cheap, crappy set that fell apart. My sister pointed out this $50 Cook N Home set and I said "nope" and she said "check the reviews" and I did.

The pots and pans are impressive for the price. The handles aren't as sturdy as I would like (as pointed out by the reviews) but they are plenty fine for normal use. The kids are grown and they were my number one destroyer of everything, so this set will serve me well until I upgrade someday. Hell, they probably belong to the cabin at this point. So the walls on the pans are much thicker than I thought they would be, and the handles are a little thin.



The knife set is equally impressive, and I'd like to think that I know a thing or two about knives. Chinese steel is just fine for a knife set done right, which this one is. Every knife in the set is full tang and has molded resin scales held on by rivets. All fairly standard stuff except the build quality is a little higher than expected and the fit and finish are a lot higher than expected. They all came dull though, and with no sharpener.



My frugal sister once again gives me proper advice about downsizing my empire. I was ready to go out and blow $150 on just cheap stainless set from Costco and that didn't include the knives, so I'm super stoked to be cranking out some of my signature dishes in what's basically a camp kitchen, and most of it came in under $200 for the whole thing! I haven't tried the bakeware, but it looks nice. The well water is ridiculously clean, but there is a little sediment, so the Brita takes care of that and gives me the best tap water I've had in my life.




"WOW" ~ The UPS guy upon seeing this many boxes. Zoey was impressed, too.


"Why are you pointing that little box at me, and is it food?"


But what about the food?

So far, so good. Forgot the mixing bowls from Amazon and found a nice set at Fred Meyer's.



Baked penne with minced garlic and Italian sausage from a camp kitchen!



Monday, April 20, 2015

Living Off The Grid: Getting Internet Access

Introduction


There are some die-hard folks in this area who have lived off the grid for decades and they don't understand how the Internet could be central to someone's life. Of course these same people all seem to have Internet access, even if all they use it for is bejeweled.

Moving to this remote cabin was quite a shock. No cell service and no Internet. The neighbors have a slow DSL connection with a Wi-Fi router, but the router is 'old as dirt' in the phone company's own words. Oh, and the ancient router has one broken antenna, so they didn't even get good Wi-Fi coverage in the next room, not to mention poor me who had to stand in a certain spot on the trail on my tippy toes while I hoped my tablet would connect and check my email.

Most folks living in a rural area have limited options for Internet access, which I will go through here. I ended up getting Internet by putting a router at the neighbor's house on their patio facing the little valley I live in, and another router inside the cabin to form a wireless-to-wireless Wi-Fi bridge. It's not a solution I'm doing back-flips for, but every device in my abode can now connect to the Internet and update apps, check email, etc.

My router in the loft of the cabin, forming a bridge with the router at the neighbor's house


Cable / DSL


It is possible to push the envelope on traditional technologies, but it's usually very expensive and a huge hassle even if you have the money. No company wants to roll a truck with a crew full of guys to spend the day installing expensive equipment just for one customer.

Cable is easier to push farther distances, and it never hurts to ask...

Fixed Wireless


This is a specialized service that you will mainly only find in rural areas. The way it works is that a provider puts some antennas high up in the surrounding area, and the customers use a special modem that uses the wireless signal.

These types of services are almost always from a smaller provider, and sometimes you can end up with a fast, low-latency connection at least in the ballpark with something like cable.

Fixed wireless is usually area and provider specific so it pays to do your homework.

Line of Sight


There are LOS types of Internet service which use focused beams of light or even high frequency microwave energy to give you a wireline-quality connection to the Internet. When all the stars line up that is. Bump the equipment and bye bye connection. Bad weather and bye bye connection. Like fixed wireless, it's usually a local 'boutique' provider. But in some situations it can give you a high quality connection to a remote area.

3G / 4G Internet


If your area gets a strong cellular signal, that is often your best bet for Internet access, although keep in mind that most providers like Verizon and AT&T have low data caps with ridiculous fees for going over.

But for just surfing the web, this is not a bad technology. Most phones can "tether" to act as a portable Wi-Fi hots pot to give Internet access to all your other devices. These tethered phones will also track your usage and help you manage the artificially-scarce bandwidth the carriers give you in the hopes of gouging you with overage fees.

There are also dedicated devices that will take a 3G or 4G signal and create a hotspot, making sure that your Wi-Fi is always available in a certain area even if you are not there.

Satellite Internet


When all else fails, there's always satellite Internet. Modern satellite connections have almost the bandwidth of Cable with slightly better data caps than the cellular providers. There's just one little catch. Every bit of data (packet) has to go to space and back. Now, even travelling the speed of light, that's about a half second each way.

What this all means is when you click on a link, it takes a full second before the page comes up in your browser. This doesn't seem like a lot, but most people are used to a 10-100 millisecond latency,which is thousandths of a second.

The high latency isn't a big deal for streaming media like music or videos. There's a one second delay and then from that point forward, your stream is the same as it would be on a cable connection.

This type of connection pretty much makes online gaming impossible due to the high latency.

Other


In my little cabin in the woods, I was hoping to do some gaming. The neighbor is about 1/4 mile way on a road, but only 500-600 feet across a gully as the crow flies. I thought strongly about running Ethernet, but it only goes 300 feet without a repeater. There is a strand of romex giving me power, and it would be possible to splice the romex at the point where it would need a repeater. Sounds like a nightmare, right?

So what I did was plug a dual-band, nice shiny new router into their existing DSL modem/router and run the new router onto their back patio, with all three of its antennas facing the gully. Then I put a router in the cabin and set it to wireless extender/repeater mode.

This configuration I have acts as a wireless-to-wireless bridge, and now every device in my cabin sees a full five bars of Wi-Fi from the cabin router.

Unfortunately my Wi-Fi connection is only as good as the neighbor's DSL connection, which is flaky at best. I'm surprised the neighbors even have DSL and aren't on satellite. Given that the neighbors pay something like 30 bucks a month for their lowest tier DSL service, and that high latency satellite is 80 a month for the lowest plans, I think I'm getting a pretty good deal at zero dollars a month to leech off the neighbor's Internet.

Of course, I give them lots of swag from my blog, and they could decide one day they don't like me and power off my router, but for now I have free Internet just from thinking outside the box cabin.

Good Karma


My solution not only scored me free Internet access for my little cabin, but it also gave the neighbors drastically increased Wi-Fi coverage for their property and the surrounding area. Their ancient phone company router barely covered their own house, and now there are three Wi-Fi hot spots covering almost a quarter mile square area.

I only half-joked about them using their connection just for browser games. In areas they have service in, they will often look up local plant and wildlife. They have been in this area 50 years and still encounter things they have never seen before, and of course they can pull up a picture of some weird rat to amaze visitors like me.

My Wireless Bridge

For the neighbor's house, I bought a fairly expensive dual band ASUS RT-N66U router which is shiny and fast and awesome, but I'm not sure how much that extra money got me. It doesn't really need the dual band for the 768k class DSL connection, but I guess it leaves some room to grow.

On the cabin side I have a $20 TP-LINK TL-WR841N router with the high gain antennas, which you can see in the photo above. It's a SUPERB router not counting the several hours it took to figure out how to configure it for what I wanted to do. If I had it to do over again, I probably would've tried the $20 router on both ends, though I've always liked Asus routers. I am still surprised by how good a $20 router can be.

I even bought a Medialink Range Extender in the same order for the cabin side, but it didn't get as good of a connection as the TP-LINK did, so it's sitting as a backup in a box in the loft. It was easy to setup, though, giving the cabin it's first Internet ever with less than 5 minutes of setup time. But it doesn't have those high gain antennas I needed from the TP-LINK.

I may still use it to extend the Wi-Fi further up the property, but it should be noted that every wireless bridge you add introduces latency and lowers the connection speed. 



Friday, April 17, 2015

Back From Hiatus

It's been a rough time for me lately. But things have improved a bit, and now I'm living in a cabin in the woods on my sister's property. The last couple months have been making this area livable, with power, water, internet, etc., and it's almost there. I have a GSM signal repeater waiting from Amazon, which I'm going to hook up this Monday, and finally (hopefully) have a reliable cell signal from the local AT&T tower.

As a lifelong outdoor enthusiast, I had the knowledge to test and evaluate my favorite gear. But now I'm basically living off the grid, and the products I'm reviewing are more a part of my daily existence.

Right now is an exciting but scary time for me losing what I lost and transitioning to self employment. I have a bunch of reviews and posts for this blog in the works, and lots of other irons in the fire like hiremarkwing.com and redcollie.com which I built for my sister but she just gave me. She makes these great survival kits, and I have a large stock of them to sell ... once I can get the mailbox installed. And just a reminder, I build web sites and any software you can think of!

Mostly I've done a bunch of reviews and random posts about the outdoors without engaging my readers much, but that's because I was working really long hours, where now I have the time to devote to the outdoor blog, especially since I'm living in the outdoors now!

So look for lots of steady posts coming from this blog, and as always, feel free to drop me an email at markwing@theoutdoornerd.com

Monday, March 30, 2015

Measuring The Watts

Recently I've downsized my empire and split with the wife. No more mansion, but no more endless bills and things to clean and fix. Sometimes my electricity and other city services would run close to a thousand dollars per month. And that was just to keep my house 55 degrees in the winter because I liked the cold.

Now here I am a bachelor living in a cabin in the woods with 4 dogs. There's a 500 foot piece of romex wire supplying power to the cabin most of the time. It's going a long distance, and there's a 10 amp breaker on the other end.

The genny is a last resort. A very loud, last resort.


And a couple times the electrical connection has just gone out, and the last time it was down almost a week.

Because I may be running a generator, an inverter or the strand of romex, I need to know what methods of power can run what devices, and to do that, I need to know how much power each device draws.

It turns out there are lots of these types of gadgets that help you measure you electricity usage. Below is a listing of some common household items that I have informally measured. Many devices, such as desktop computers can have wide swings in the amount of current they draw.

All measurements below in watts.

Above you see I'm running my desktop, a wireless router and a 65 watt light


Device Low High
Hot Plate 700 1400
60 Watt CFL Bulb 12 -
Desktop Computer With Monitor and Wireless Router 147 265
Small "Bachelor" Fridge 125 155
Laptop, 60 Watt CFL Bulb and Wireless Router 35 65
2.5 HP Canister Vacuum 700 -
Small Space Heater (Standard) 600 900
Small Space Heater (Ceramic) 300 600
Large 12 Amp Upright Vacuum Cleaner 1400 -
3.1 cubic feet ultra-efficient fridge w/ freezer 40 300
Small Steam Cleaner 75 225
Table Top Oven 900 -

As time goes on and I test more devices, I will add to this list.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cabin In The Woods Part 1

The stars just kind of aligned right to bring me to this little cabin in the woods. I have lots of options. Maybe I could hop on the first plane and take the first job offer and work in some place I don't want to live, working an uninspiring job. Or I could probably just spend the next several years couch surfing with my 4 Chihuahuas.

What I'm starting to lean towards is just taking a year or two off and rehab this property in the woods, with all its many, many projects. I'm down about 70 pounds total with probably 10 of that being just the last week at the cabin from all the walking around and hiking in the area.

But I can't be The Outdoor Nerd without some form of Internet, so next week I am going to try to run a 500 foot Cat5 cable to the neighbor's house. If it works, then I will monopolize his connection and pay his whole bill, and the funny thing is that he won't notice the difference.

Now I'm glad I did all that work on my truck
I wonder what the story behind the wheelchair in the woods is

Selfie at the top of the mountain

The bridge is a little scary!

Spot hears things in the woods

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Amber's Becker BK14

My sister the survival expert liked the Ka-Bar Becker BK14 'Eskabar' I gave her for her birthday a couple years ago. She recently bought the Tek-Lok belt clip for it and asked me to put it on. Hers has the safety orange scales on it. I liked hers so much that I got my own, although I never got around to getting the Tek-Lok for it. But I was happy to break out the tripod and snap some photos after I got it mounted.

I don't like that they nickel and dime you for all the separate parts like the scales and the clip, but I have to say that it's very nice and seems good quality. I will follow up with her to see how it holds up.