Thursday, December 31, 2009

Apple Pie and Potatoes

I almost forgot to post about the amazing Apple Pie we made for Christmas.
One of the big issues with baking up here in Denver is that it is usually so dry, typical humidity is often only around 20%. So instead of 5-7 tablespoons of liquid (near Atlanta) to moisten the crust we ended up using 12 tablespoons, before it would hold together properly.

We got a 8-16 convertible apple corer/slicer from Williams-Sonoma to make eating apples more fun and it also makes for the prefect-sized wedges for pie. Princess Pea Pod helped me make those wedges, which is safer then a knife for her, since it requires the use of both hands and so they are out of the way.

We couldn't find tapioca flour so we just took some small bead tapioca and gave it a spin in the spice grinder. Worked fine.

We also made some scalloped potatoes, but since one of the families we were eating with have to deal with milk allergies, we made it with chicken stock instead.

Milk-less Scalloped Potatoes for a party
5 lbs of red potatoes
3 large yellow onions
salt and pepper
1 quart chicken stock

A deep 9x13 baking pan
Aluminum foil

Preheat oven to 350°F.
Peel the potatoes and onions.
Thinly slice the potatoes and onion.
Wipe a thin layer of oil onto the bottom of the pan so the potatoes don't stick (usually I'd use butter for this, but the food allergy.)
Put down a layer of potatoes followed by a layer of onions, and sprinkle salt and pepper.
Keep layering until you use up all the potatoes and onions.
Pour the stock over the whole thing (I usually put a layer of cheese on top for taste and pretty, but not in this case.)
Cover with the foil and bake until the potatoes are soft when poked with paring knife, about an hour. Remove the foil and broil for a few minutes to brown the top.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009 / Technology - Secret mobile phone code cracked / Technology - Secret mobile phone code cracked: "The hacked GSM code could compromise more than 3bn people in 212 countries. It does not affect 3G phone calls, however, which are protected by a different security code."

Oh, bother.

Survivalism Lite | Print Article |

Survivalism Lite | Print Article | "So for the moment, people like Bedford are reteaching themselves lost skills—and in some cases, learning new ones. Bedford has read up on harvesting an urban garden, and is learning to use a solar oven to bake bread. She is ready with a pointed shot in the event she ever needs to hunt for her own food. And until then, she's got 61 cans of chili, 20 cans of Spam, 24 jars of peanut butter, and much more stocked in her pantry; she estimates she's spent about $4,000 on food supplies, an amount that should keep her family going for at least three months. Now, even if something simple goes wrong, like a paycheck doesn't go through, 'we don't need to worry,' she says."

That's what it comes down too a little preparation brings a lot of peace of mind in case of those little hiccups that come up from time to time.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up | Magazine

Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up | Magazine: "But Dunbar, who had spent all those years watching Stanford scientists struggle and fail, realized that the romantic narrative of the brilliant and perceptive newcomer left something out. After all, most scientific change isn’t abrupt and dramatic; revolutions are rare. Instead, the epiphanies of modern science tend to be subtle and obscure and often come from researchers safely ensconced on the inside. “These aren’t Einstein figures, working from the outside,” Dunbar says. “These are the guys with big NIH grants.” How do they overcome failure-blindness?"

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny ...'
Isaac Asimov
This is far more generally useful to everyone then just scientists.

I think we need more stories about Semmelweiss and Pasteur and Tesla and how they actually looked at what was really happening and did the work to figure out why.

Actually, I think this explains more about politics then is comfortable. No wonder we can't kill any gov't bureaucracy. It also is why companies will death march on a project that is in a death spiral.

This is something to be cognizant about and careful of in our own lives.

Couple stranded 3 days after GPS leads them astray - Yahoo! News

Couple stranded 3 days after GPS leads them astray - Yahoo! News: "A Nevada couple letting their SUV's navigation system guide them through the high desert of Eastern Oregon got stuck in snow for three days when the GPS unit sent them down a remote forest road."

Good thing they were well prepared with food, water and extra clothes, but you are smarter then the machine. Don't just blindly trust it.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Prepared Christmas

We did get a few items this Christmas to round out our Ready Kit.

The number 1 thing is a Katadyn Vario microfilter. This is water one of the most important thing you need. You can live for a long time, a month or more, without food. But lack of water will kill you in days.
Denver is not exactly big on water in any case. Sure, there are a good number of small lakes and rivers nearby, but they are artificial so they would stagnate quickly.
There was a town just south of here that had a problem with their water treatment plant and they had to boil their water for a couple of weeks. This would be helpful even in a case like that.
We'll have to get a few replacement filters and make sure to pack it with a bandana and rubber bands to use as a pre-filter.
This will go in the survival kit.

We upgraded our radio receiver, we had an old Panasonic AM/FM/SW world radio, but it was falling apart and the volume knob was twitchy and it only took D-cell batteries. Now we have a Voyager KA500 which also has the weather bands and solar & hand crank charging systems that you can use for charging cell phones and iPods.
This is a supplement to our handheld Ham Radios mainly for information gathering.
It has a USB charging port I am thinking about making a USB to car adapter so we can charge those things we have car adapters for.
This will go into the Home 72 hr kit

We also received a Solar Battery Charger. It can charge AAA through D cell batteries. I'll have to test how long it will take to charge a set of batteries. We mainly only get afternoon sun which cuts the amount of sunlight it can get but if things get really bad it will give us something.
This will go in the Energy kit.

Oatmeal Challenge Update

I've been doing my Oatmeal Challenge for a week now and I am feeling pretty good even considering all the junk food we've received for the holidays.

I don't feel nearly as hungry during the day. I seem to have a more stable energy level during the day as well, rather then it swinging up and down.

I am using the Good Eats Overnight Oatmeal recipe with whatever dried fruits we can get and it is very nice. It makes enough for a few days and I have to thin it down with some milk after the initial batch, though eggnog works really well.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

European weather deaths pass 100 | World news |

European weather deaths pass 100 |
World news |
: "More than 100 people have been killed in the cold snap across Europe, with temperatures plummeting and snowfall causing chaos from Moscow to Milan."

This is something that I don't understand. Europe is supposed to be so great. I spent a few years living there in the late '80's and I lived through a more severe cold snap, it was a week of -40° temperatures and by the time it was over more then 1000 people had died.

Here in the US under similar conditions only a handful of people die and most of them are from car crashes.

If Europe is so advanced and compassionate, how is it so many homeless are dying? Something is wrong over there, though I have no idea what.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tell us about your Christmas Family Emergency Kit

Tell us about your Christmas Family Emergency Kit for fixing up their computers.

I done my fair share of this. It certainly helps to bring a toolkit along, some canned air, my own laptop, a flash drive, an external drive with a variety of .iso files and some blank CD/DVDs. That way I can deal with most anything.

Leaving everything set to automatically update seems to keep things reasonably safe for most people I've helped. But there is a lot of dust in Colorado so blowing things out helps a lot too.

Doing a yearly backup is often better then no backup at all.

Wonder How To How To Videos & How-To Articles

Wonder How To How To Videos & How-To Articles

This is a cool site for all kinds of great videos. Love the Pizza Throwing vid.

Gold Is the New Tupperware, and You're Invited to the Party -

Gold Is the New Tupperware, and You're Invited to the Party - "The 1950s were big for Tupperware parties. The 1970s were hot for Mary Kay cosmetics. As this decade hobbles to a close, a new kind of social gathering is invading America's living rooms: the gold party."

I haven't heard of these but they certainly seem interesting. It certainly raises the awareness of gold. I have noticed that the jewelry shops and pawn shops are putting out 'We buy gold' signs.
The magnet trick is pretty good to know though.

Monday, December 21, 2009

One bottle of nasal spray per family member! | Parent Hacks

One bottle of nasal spray per family member! | Parent Hacks: "We've already suffered through one round of colds this season and, in the middle of the night, I know I am reaching for a soothing, chemical free, and, if not germ free, at least germ-personalized product."

Nothing like doing bacterial personalization to a product.
This is not the only product I can think of to personalize, Everyone personalizes their toothbrushes and hairbrushes for the same reason.

Friday, December 18, 2009

To True.

TigerHawk: "Senator, we live in a world that has patients, and those patients have to be treated with technology. Who's gonna invent, develop it, and build it? You, Senator Sanders? You, Senator Reid? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for high health care costs, and you curse new medical technology. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That new medical technology, while expensive, saves lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about in front of cameras or in committee hearings, you want me on that production line, you need me on that production line. We use words like innovation, quality, and safety. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent helping injured people. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and walks by virtue of the very medical technology that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a biomedical engineering degree, and get to work inventing better medical devices. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to."

I looked at biomedical engineering while in college and that was an amazing field. You end up learning about material and electronic engineering and at the same time get a medical degree.
Heh, just looking at the course requirements would probably make their brains melt.

Ethiopia's fake central bank gold

How to Make Convincing Fake-Gold Bars | Popular Science: "On Wednesday, the BBC reported that millions of dollars in gold at the central bank of Ethiopia has turned out to be fake: What were supposed to be bars of solid gold turned out to be nothing more than gold-plated steel. They tried to sell the stuff to South Africa and it was sent back when the South Africans noticed this little problem."

But this is not the first big, really big, counterfeiting job just this year. This was only in the millions of dollars.

There was that $134 Billion bond find at the Italian-Swiss border back in June. That is a lot of money, though they appear to be fake.

It takes some real guts to run a scam at the nation-state level. Though I have to wonder if it might not be easier, because who would think anyone is crazy enough to try something like that. A lot of governments don't have a lot of money but taking out a scam on this scale, they surely have money for that.

The world is a little bit crazier.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Simple Dollar : 15 Uses for Incredibly Inexpensive White Vinegar

The Simple Dollar 15 Uses for Incredibly Inexpensive White Vinegar: "One of the best bargains in your local grocery store is plain old white vinegar. You can get a 32 ounce jug of it (half a gallon) for about $1.50 and it has a multitude of uses beyond the edible ones (like pickles and salad dressings). Here are fifteen uses for white vinegar, most of which I use myself."

We use it as fabric softener and general cleaner all the time. I wouldn't use it as an eyeglass cleaner as it can fog some coatings.

The real problem comes in trying to make more, in a post-TEOTWAWKI world it could be a challenge.
Vinegar is made by having a bacterial colony, called a vinegar mother, metabolize the alcohol into an acid. Well, first you need alcohol like wine (red and white wine vinegars) or spirits (distilled) or even beer (malt).
Generally, you need some yeast to convert starch from grain into alcohol and plenty of clean water.
But first you need a lot of excess grain or fruit to create the alcoholic beverage first and that requires lots of land and water and seeds and farming equipment.

A logistical challenge.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Food Preservation: Canning

We used to have a raspberry bush that was very productive. We could usually get a pint of berries a day, even with small animals snitching bites. We made the best raspberry jam with those berries.

What's really interesting bout canning is that it was the result of an X-prize set up by Napoleon who was trying to find a way to feed his army more reliably and less hardship on the local farmers then living off of the land. Armies had become too large to pull that off.

Nicolas Appert won the 12,000 franc prize with a process that not only preserved food but killed off any microorganisms that could spoil the food. That was the start of the water bath canning process. Some competitors canned their foods without the water bath part of the process and a lot of people died from food poisoning. It would be some 50 years until Louis Pasteur would figure out why and how to prevent it.

It was our sad duty not to long ago to help an elderly brother in our ward remove a lot of old home canned goods from his basement. His wife had been an avid canner, and had died a few months before; since he was going to move into a daughters home he was donating it. We did find some very old items way in the back corner that was labeled in the '70s that we just tossed but most was in surprisingly good condition.

Mostly canning is about taking the harvest from summer and fall and preserving it for the cold of winter. It also comes in handy to buy food when it is least expensive and saving it for later. It is a great frugality trick.

Canning is a lot like baking, there is relatively little room for error so following the recipe precisely is important.Now the bible of canning is the Ball Blue Book of Canning. It has been the standard for decades.

Canners come in 2 sizes, quart and pint, we have a pint-sized one and our niece has a quart-sized one and I have come to the conclusion that quart is better since you can do pints in it as well, an aftermarket pint holder is not a big expense.

There are 2 forms of canning, water-bath and pressure canning. Water-bath cooks the food at the boiling point and is good for high acid foods like fruit, pickles and tomato sauce. Pressure canning uses a pressure canner to increase the temperature to 240°F which kills everything so you can can low-acid foods such as meats.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pickling Supplies

My mom had a nice pickling crock. Once she started a batch of pickles and then we went on vacation. When we got home, the house smelled something fierce. It was obviously not gas but we couldn't figure out what it was. Then we remembered the pickles. Ooh, it was nasty.

One of the main ways to preserve food without refrigeration has been pickling or soaking in salt water. Its basically a wet version of salt curing. It is very effective.

Lots of things can be pickled most people are familiar with pickled vegetables. But that's not all sauerbraten is a pickled meat, and so is corned beef and pastrami.

This looks like a great place to get some of these things.

ht Cool Tools

Monday, December 14, 2009

Choosing a Pot

When you have limited space choosing a pot that can serve multiple duties can be a real space saver. Which you should get depends on how you cook and how you want to cook. Here are some of the things we've thought about before getting our current pot.

We cook pasta fairly often and unless you like stirring the pot often to keep the pasta from sticking you want one big enough to hold a gallon of water and since you want some headspace for the water the food is going to displace it should be at least 6 quarts. Now, if you are just boiling water for pasta all the time, going with a lightweight aluminum is great, it heats fast and is light enough even full of water to dump in the sink.

We also like cooking pot roasts using 7-bone roasts. Usually rubbed with salt, pepper and cumin cooked with a mirepoix and some beef stock. It makes great left overs like pot roast sandwiches, shepherd's pie, enchiladas and BBQ sandwiches. These roasts are often 12 inches across so having a pot that is big enough for that is important to us. The big thing for this is you want an oven proof pot that can hold lots of heat to quickly brown the meat. Cast iron is best for that. Virtually indestructible and able to hold lots of heat, as a downside it is rather heavy.

Buying a whole chicken saves us money by doing the portioning ourselves and allows us to customize what we do to it. We often end up with bones, backs, gizzards and like that we freeze for stock making later. We usually save up a chicken or two before cooking it down. There are lots of good gelatins in chicken bones that make for a great tasting and textured chicken soup. With that much chicken parts we often end up needed a stock pot near the 8 quart size and most stock pots are lightweight aluminum.

The last major thing we like making is homemade spaghetti sauce. That is a high acid food cooked for a long time. Tomatoes would be able to leach metallic ions from reactive metals like untreated aluminum and cast iron, impacting taste and perhaps our health.

That requires us to look at stainless steel, anodized aluminum and enameled cast iron. The stainless steal is good but is a not so good conductor so needs special clad bottoms and that can run into money for the good stuff. The anodized aluminum is nice and light but we didn't find anything at the time that was wide enough for the pot roast. The enameled cast iron is heavy and comes in an amazing number of sizes and some great colors.

We finally decided on a 7.25 quart Le Creuset French Oven in a gorgeous Cherry Red. Big enough for a 7-bone roast. Small enough to fit in our cabinets. And looks great too. It also has a 101 year warrantee, I expect to be able to hand this down to our great-grandchildren.

It does take a couple of extra minutes to bring water up to a boil but not enough to be a deal breaker.
It also works great as a deep frier as long is you have a thermometer for keeping an eye on the oil temperature.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Trip To The Zoo

So we went to the Denver Zoo for a field trip and we were generally well prepared. It was cold, the high below freezing, so we dressed in layers, charged up the cellphone and the camera and even made a freeze resistant lunch, Peanut Butter sandwiches. Not sure about how we would end up eating I went light and just stuck everything in a shopping bag.

The focus of the trip was the Tropical Discovery building, which was nice and warm and moist, 80+% humidity makes a big difference. But they don't allow food or drink so we had to leave our bags outside on some shelves. Right inside they had a a couple of very nice curators with a neat display on snakes that the kids just loved. The older lady had a cobra puppet to show how they spread their hoods and and things like that.

So we explored the displays which were very well done: snakes, lizards, fish, monkeys and other topical animals were displayed. In the Komodo Dragon display she found us and asked if any of us had left a shopping bag of food outside. She said they were sorry but a squirrel had made off with one of the sandwiches.

By the time we got there the squirrel had grabbed all the peanut butter sandwiches and run off. We could see him, feasting up in a nearby tree, he was a fat little bugger, I sure he gets lots of food that way.

Oh, well. It was worth laughing about and we continued to have a good time at the zoo. Actually, the zoo is really nice in the wintertime. In the summer it can be packed to the gills but it was pretty quiet even with a few busloads of kids in it.

But it was still weird seeing zebras in the snow.

The tiger was the funniest though. He was lying in the snow in a patch of sunshine looking all the world like he was dead (but we could see him breathing) but as soon as he noticed us he perked up and started posing. Yeah, he knows what gets attention.

Checklists for Safety

Annals of Medicine: The Checklist : The New Yorker is an old article and the ideas in it are hardly new. I have run lots of things in my life on checklists since I was a Boy Scout. Real life is pretty complex and there are a lot of things need to be done but not very often.

For example, winterizing your home. You only do that once a year and there are lot of little steps and places to check. Rather then having to discover them all over again just learn them once and write it down. Several times at work I created or helped people create checklists or procedure files to remind people how to run this or that monthly report.

A really good thing about making a checklist is you can use it to find places to streamline, automate or outsource. At my last place of work we had to combine several piles of information into spreadsheets so we could standardize the information before putting it into a database. By making a checklist of things that needed to be done we could break things up into a assembly line, each person did a few things and passing it on. I also found a few ways to script, macro or otherwise automate an action. We went from 500 rows per day to over 4000.

It works in other ways as well. A first aid course will teach you a checklist of ABC: airway, breathing and circulation. They make it easy to remember the most important things to do which you will only do a few times in your whole life, unless you're a first responder.

You can store 3 things in long term memory pretty well, but it under stress that is about as far as short term memory can handle with everything going on.
If it is anything more then about 7 items it is best to write it down and just use a real checklist.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Houses Are Not Designed to be Lived In

Something I have just come to a realization of, is that the typical house in a typical development wasn't designed to be lived it, it was designed to be easy to build. I guess that is obvious to some people but its new to me.

It only takes a few weeks to build but it is lived in for several decades. That's backwards isn't it.

Not to say that you can design a perfect house. You can't, there are just too many individual family differences. A young family has different needs from a family with teens and different again if you're retired or have health problems or have a larger then average family.

I've known a few families with 11 kids and let me tell you, your average 3 bedroom+2 bath can't handle that. But those are special cases.

It seems like houses are like software, for a while it was all about the feature checklists. If you had some obscure feature you could highlight that a competitor didn't have you could get a writeup in the press, but now we have ended up with word processors so powerful that you only use maybe 5% of the features.

Houses are much the same, the builder will add features like granite countertops or marble bathrooms or big kitchens without thinking about how they work together with the people who'll live in the house.

I like going to Parade of Homes but most of the houses showcased are new very user friendly. dishwashers will be on the far side of the kitchen from the cabinets and the table. I was in one that was light and airy and as I was trying to figure out how they did that I noticed that there were hardly any doors, but the hinges were all in place. The place would be terribly dark with the doors on.

And usually they choose 32" doors to save a little money, now I don't begrudge them making a profit but if you end up hunt and need to use a wheelchair or walker you're stuck since they need 36" doors and it would cost $30,000 to rip everything out just to put in a few wider doors. So it is easier to move into a retirement facility.

We could have some great homes with a little thought put in at the design stage when changes are very cheap. We had a rule-of-thumb in engineering about cost to change, it was usually an order of magnitude at each stage. A change while still working on paper may cost $5, making a change after the blueprints have been drawn up may cost $50, during construction may cost $500, after construction was completed maybe $5000.

Actually this is looking like something I'll have to continue over time. More thoughts later.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Keeping Warm in Good Times

It's really cold. It has been in the teens or lower for days now. The apartment complex put up signs asking everyone to keep the cabinets open and faucets dripping so the water lines don't freeze. Our apartment is doing okay, the furnace comes on only every couple of hours, which I think is good.

There are some cold spots:
The front door but it is lots better after adding some extra weatherstripping. Now it only leaks a little at the top corner.
The balcony door is mostly glass so it has hardly any insulative value whatsoever. It's a double pane but it an aluminum frame so worth maybe an R6, tops. Sadly, all the windows are like that.
There is cold air back-feeding into the drier so the laundry is a little on the cool side. If we don't put the clothes out right away they end up very cold.

What's working for us:
The bedrooms are staying pretty warm, we have heavy curtains and bookcases on the outside walls. The air leaking around the bookcases is quite cold.
Extra weatherstripping on the doors helps as does a heavy curtain.

Other ideas
We have a fire place but not much fuel handy.
In case of a power outage, we could hang blankets around the master bed to make bed curtains. Like the four-poster beds used in Victorian times to stay warm.
We could still add a layer of plastic over the windows and felt on the walls for extra insulation.

Until very recently, most homes have not been very well insulated. Using four-poster beds and wing-back chairs to minimize the effects of drafts were effective but didn't attack the problem. Nowadays we can wrap whole houses in wind resistant material which makes a huge difference. Some people even complain about we are making houses too air tight and there is a problem with indoor air pollution.

Well, if your home is nice and tight we have control, aka open the windows when the days are warm and close them when they are cold like now. We also should make sure the products we bring into our homes don't pollute our own air and we can use plants that clean the air in our homes as well.

A good home design is more then the sum of the checkboxes ticked in MLS. It is how it all works together.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

It so cold it must be global warming

For the longest time I have been wondering about global warming, I haven't seen anything more then what has been in the news and the occasional article. Al Gore annoyed me but he was a politician, not a scientist and they tend toward hyperbole.

I understand scientists being wrong as they try out their hypothesis. I wasn't sure about how they were going about explaining why it was so cold when they were predicting warming but real life is a bit messy that way. 

What I was not expecting ClimateGate: destroying data, fudging data, redefining peer review? 

They are not doing science, they are not scientists, they are money-grubbing charlatans -- no different from those perpetual motion scams. 

When I was in engineering school they pounded into us that our lab books were legal documents to be signed and dated on each page. Point were deducted if they were missing. Did all their classes forget that? I even had a place of work that had a notary public for witnessing and stamping our lab books.

I understand ignoring data that doesn't match expectations, but did they not learn the lesson of Louis Pasteur, he was doing experiments that lots of others were doing but he saw the outliers and asked, "That's funny. Why did that happen?" Which is the start of science not shouting, "Eureka!" and running naked thru town. I guess the lessons from Ignatz Semmilweiss is more the norm then the exception.

Now we have the EPA declaring CO2 a danger to human health. Humans exhale CO2 after breathing in O2, in an unrelated note, trees breathe in CO2 and exhale O2. Destroying the economy and piling on the debt for something that is a lie. 

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Holiday Shipping Deadlines for 2009 -

Dealnews has a wonderful verified list of ship-before-to-get-there-before-Christmas dates.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Cellphone Information Kit

Yesterday I talked about how to charge your cellphone but what about what you should have in your cellphone?

Your address book probably has the names and numbers for your family, friends, and coworkers. But your cellphone can store an effectively infinite amount of useful information, even if all it can do is carry address book information.

If your car breaks down on the way back from work, do you have the number for a tow truck or roadside assistance? How about your car dealer or mechanic to let them know you are coming?

If there is an emergency at your child's school and it goes into lockdown or is evacuated, who do you call?

If you are in an accident emergency workers are trained to look in your wallet and cell phone to find out who you are and if you have any medical conditions, are taking medications or have allergies they need to know about. Put this in a contact called In Case of Emergency or ICE to make saving your life easier for them. If your phone can include a picture even better, then they can match faces to information.

The List (you should print this out for the 72 hour kit):
  • Name
  • Home/Mobile
  • Work/School
  • Manager/Teacher
  • Colleague/Friend
  • Medications/Allergies/Vaccinations
  • Out of State disaster contact
  • Doctor/Pediatrician/Dentist/Pharmacy

* Utilities (with basic account information)

  • Gas
  • Electric
  • Water
  • Sewer
  • Cable
  • Telephone
  • Mobile Phone
  • Internet Service Provider
  • Health Insurance Provider
  • Car Insurance Provider
  • Home/Renters Insurance Provider
  • Bank
  • Mortgage/Apartment
  • Credit Cards

* Local Services

  • Memberships (Gym, Library, Video Store, &etc.)
  • Locksmith
  • Plumber
  • Electrician
  • Car mechanic or Dealer
  • Lawyer
  • Towing Service or Road-side assistance
  • Taxi service
  • Baby sitter
  • Pet sitter
  • Food Delivery (Pizza, Chinese, &etc.)

* Non-emergency numbers for:

  • City Police
  • County Sheriff
  • State Patrol
  • Fire Department
  • Ambulance
  • Hospital
  • Veterinarian
  • After Hours Vet Care
  • Humane Society
  • State Bureau of Investigation
  • Utility finding service (usually found in your billing information)
  • City Government
  • County Government
  • State Government
  • Federal Government

* Car Insurance Claims Hotline

  • Geico:         1-800-861-8380 
  • Allstate: 1-800-ALLSTATE (1-800-255-7828) 
  • Nationwide: 1-800-421-3535 
  • Progressive: 1-800-PROGRESSIVE (1-800-776-4737) 
  • Liberty Mutual: 1-800-2CLAIMS (1-800-225-2467) 
  • State Farm:   Agent Lookup  
  • AIG Direct: 1-888-244-6163 
  • Travelers: 1-800-CLAIM33 (1-800-252-4633) 

* Lost or Stolen Credit Card Hotlines
  • Visa:         1-800-VISA-911 (1-800-847-2911) 
  • MasterCard: 1-800-MC-ASSIST (800-622-7747) 
  • American Express: 1-800-992-3404
  • Discover: 1-800-DISCOVER (1-800-347-2683) 
  • Diners Club: 1-800-2DINERS (1-800-234-6377) 
* Airlines Reservations Hotline (Add the frequent flyer info to these contacts)
  • American Airlines: 1-800-433-7300 
  • Continental:         1-800-525-0280   
  • Delta Airlines: 1-800-221-1212 
  • JetBlue:           1-800-538-2583 
  • Northwest Airlines: 1-800-225-2525 
  • Southwest Airlines: 1-800-435-9792 
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Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Cellphone Kit

Now you are probably thinking, why do I need a cellphone kit, as long as it is charged it is good. Besides in a major disaster the cellphone system comes crashing down anyway and its no good to me then anyway.

Well, it isn't always like that. Not every disaster takes down the cellphone system, a car crash is a often a disaster but the cellphone system is still fine. Even in a big disaster if you can get any signal at all you can usually get a text message out.

Here is the preparedness part, does you out-of-state point of contact have text message capability? If you are below 30 very likely you do, over 30 not so much, then it gives you something to discuss and train on during the family times this holiday season.

There are all kinds of cell phone chargers out there and even if all you carry is a USB to cellphone cable for your phone, you should be able to find someone able to charge it for you at their computer. One of the malls near me even have a pay cellphone charger in the food court.

Leaving a car charger in your car is a pretty good idea or even just a spare wall charger. A good alternative is a USB outlet for the cigarette lighter, with your USB to phone cable it will do the job.

If you want something a little more independent, there are external battery packs that use regular batteries, little solar panel and hand crank charging kits. Sometimes they are combined with radios and flashlights. It will take a while but it will do the job.

Like anything other piece of emergency equipment you'll want to test them a couple of times a year to make sure they still work.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Snow Day

Today, it is snowing. Not bad about 4 inches by us. The stupid thing is that I smashed the scrapper part off of the snow brush when I was closing the trunk, I've got a spare scrapper I keep in the driver's side door, but it is annoying.

Traffic however was terrible. There was a nice layer of ice under the snow so getting out of the neighborhood was slow and I was really paranoid about the other drivers. A 20 minutes drive took nearly an hour.

Its better then in October but there are still people who think that 4 wheel drive also means 4 wheel stop. ABS helps and is will stop you faster then just sliding across the ice but it is not even like dry ground.

Winter driving is just not that hard, but a few reminders.

  • Leave extra car lengths room between you and the car in front of you. I've noticed that people behind me will notice that and open up the distance as well. 
  • Expect your car to slide when turning into a side street. Things will ice over pretty quickly.
  • Be prepared for cars stopping at intersections to slide through their stop sign/light, it's not that they aren't trying to stop it is just that they can't. 
  • Take a camera along in case of an accident and get a picture of the other driver and witnesses not just the cars and damage.
  • Accept the fact that you'll be late anyway no matter which alternate route you use. 
  • Be calm.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What is the Most Important Tool in your 72 Hour Kit?

This was the question in our last Ham Net and it is forces a lot of thought about what goes into your kit.

Is it the food? No, you can last for weeks without food, in this case food is more for comfort then anything else.

Is it the map and compass? No, you've been to your evacuation site plenty of times, so you should have a good idea how to get there, even if there are roadblocks.

Is it water? This was the most popular answer here in Denver, it is very dry here so drinking water is important, but you should be able to live for 3 days without water.

Is it a radio? As Hams that was the next most popular answer. Knowledge is power and a radio is a great way to gather knowledge as all kinds of transmissions are made during an emergency. It can be comforting and even vital, depending on the nature of the emergency but mostly it is a luxury.

Is it a particular tool, such as a knife, cash, flashlight or gun? All of these certainly had their places and uses, and some people certainly think if they have enough of one or the other of these things they can get what they need. And that may be true in some circumstances, but these can also be liabilities in others.

Is it a cellphone or other 2-way communications device? This is looking more like it, since you can summon help, food and contact family and friends with it. Certainly a very useful tool, though it does not help you survive directly.

I don't think there is any one most important tool, the tool we need for any particular emergency may be completely inappropriate for another emergency. That is why we make kits with lots of different tools, to cover the different kinds of emergencies we are preparing for.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Lessons Learned Thanksgiving 2009

We had a great time at my sister-in-laws for Thanksgiving. We had a good plan starting the day before and we ended up having some good breaks between times of food preparation.

We did the pies (Pumpkin, Apple and Chocolate Mousse) the night before.

After the Turkey went into the oven we cooked the neck and stuff into a stock for the gravy and boiled the potatoes and sweet potatoes. The turkey started at 500F for 30 min, it got a little smokey but the skin was George Hamilton brown. An exhaust fan that sends the fumes outside works way better then those that have the little filter on it. Then we dropped the heat to 350F and slapped a heat shield (Al foil) on the breast to keep it from overcooking. We had a nice break while all that cooked. Grownup talk time, yeah.

Then after mashing the potatoes (the food mill worked great for this), and a roux for the gravy we had another nice break.
Finally we blanched the green beans and cooked the bacon. Stir frying the beans in the bacon drippings with salt and pepper turned out great, though some garlic would have put it over the top.

After pulling the turkey, and draining the pan we used the turkey drippings for the dressing. A gravy separator or baster would have been handy but the baster disappeared, one of the kids must have got it, but poring off the fat worked well enough. I threw the rest of the dripping into the gravy with the roux and brought it to a boil to thicken.

Everything back into the oven to get warm, while the turkey rested. Called in the family, disassembled the turkey and served everyone buffet style. The mashed potatoes went more quickly then we expected, there were none left, they made extra so we'd have leftovers but oh, well.

The next day for dinner, I threw together a turkey casserole. Dark meat, dressing, green beans and gravy, with cheese and breadcrumbs on top baked for 20 min at 350F. Bubbling hot and crispy on top, was a big hit.
Usually I go for a turkey Shepherd's pie but without mashed potatoes I needed to improvise.

Lessons learned:
Ideally, I would have a timer for each burner on the stove and for the oven.
A food mill works great for processing lots of potatoes/sweet potatoes.
Using a thermometer for the turkey is way better then time.
A fan that exhausts the smoke outside is much more effective then the typical recirculating ones.
A tile floor is rather hard on my knees and ankles.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Picnic Kit

After Thanksgiving you will have plenty of leftovers you can make plenty of impromptu picnics with a few handy things.

Some little things to add to a car kit would be a few little things to make a picnic more enjoyable.
Camp plates and cups and utensils
Napkins or small towels or old cloth diapers
Hand sanitizer =>60% alcohol
Water bottle
A large folding knife (I like the Victorinox Picknicker for this)
Can opener if not on the knife
A butane stove
A small wok or saucier with lid

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Enjoy Turkey Day!

How not to deep fry turkeys.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Preparing for Evacuation

Parts of Colorado often have wildfires and also flash floods. There are times that the government will call for mandatory evacuations. There are things you can do before hand to increase the chances of your own and your homes survival.

Before a wildfire you need to do some firescaping. There are some pretty common sense things you can do to prepare your home for a wildfire, clear a fire break around the house, trim trees and brush so the fire can't crown easily. Coat the house with fire-resistant materials like Barricade Fire Gel or build it will fire-resistant materials like tile and stucco. Do not use dried out cedar shakes for roofing material. Cover the windows, Glass is not much of an insulator and houses have gone up in flames from the inside as the sofa in front of the window burst into flames.

Something that just makes me sad are the Darwin Award aspirants, they ignore the evacuation order wanting to ride it out. Why? Do they actually think the authorities call for evacuations for fun, hardly, evacuation orders are very expensive as they need to call and visit every house in the zone often more then once. That costs serious money. Sure there have been times that evacuations were ordered and nothing happened to your place but that doesn't make it a false alarm, if the houses down the road got burned, the fire just missed your place for some reason. If you get trapped its your fault not theirs, so don't expect to get a rescue because the fire might just be in the way. There is no Scotty to "beam you out," you will probably die. If you feel the need to leave, leave, no matter what anyone else tells you.

You often have days of warning so backing up your computers and leaving the disk at work or somewhere is a good idea.

Wildfires, hurricanes and volcanos are all of a class of disasters that give warning often days in advance and that you can get away from. If you feel the need to leave, grab your stuff and go. Actually, since you often have hours if not days to get ready you can pack the car with more then your 72 hr kit.
So what should you take
Important documents
evacuation kits
items of value, jewelry, art, &etc.
items of sentimental value: photos, objects
also shut down utilities to the house, if requested. You know where the shutoff points are and have the tools, right?

But where are they all? Well, make a list of all the things you would take if you have to that would fit in the car. List what the item is and where it is, that makes the evacuation process go a lot easier. When you are under the stress of a disaster you'll forget things, if you have a list made up beforehand when times are good you'll get it just fine. Put the list in your BOB and then you're ready.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What Classes Should Your Family Take

There are so many things that they don't teach in school.

The biggest one that makes no sense to me, not to teach, is a First Aid class. The most important thing it teaches is not Airway, Breathing and Circulation but is in how to prepare for and approach a situation and how to improvise. My wife and I did that and it helped a lot in dealing with our car crash even though we were the "victims" I had to direct the zeroth responders what to do.

We also got involved with Ham Radio. We think it is great since it is a reliable backup communications system, and we have met a whole bunch of good, interesting people.

That lead us to Weatherspotting, the weather in Colorado can get pretty bad with thunderstorms and tornados. A lot of Hams are weatherspotters.

And that lead us to CERT which we have to do.

There is also things like sewing, gardening and auto repair.

You need to decide for yourself what to learn and how to split it up in your family.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Important Radio Frequencies

One of the most important tools to have is information. The government has set up the Emergency Alert system. You'll have heard the tones for the weekly test. While most radio and TV stations will relay this information, there is usually a primary and secondary that have additional backup power to relay the emergency message. These will be AM or FM stations, so your car radio will be fine.
The FCC has a site listing the people in charge and how to contact them for more information.

If you have a Weather radio it will alert you to threatening weather and other events. With a radio that can be programmed with a Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) code you can tell the radio to ignore those alerts that don't apply to your county. One of the problems can be a county that is long in the same direction as the weather tend to follow. The county next to ours has that problem so we occasionally we get a lot of alerts for stuff that was past us already.

If you have a Shortwave radio or scanner then you can listen to Amateur Radio frequencies
Amateur Radio National Calling Frequencies: 
52.525 MHz (6m band)
146.520 MHz (2m band)
223.500 MHz (1.25m band)
446.000 MHz (70cm band)
1294.500 MHz (23cm band)
2305.100 MHz  (13cm band)

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Decline: The Geography of a Recession

Can you see your county?
What color did it become?

5 Upgrades for Your Fireplace

A standard open masonry fireplace can suck all the heat out of you home.
Mother Earth News describes 5 upgrades you can do to your fireplace to help that problem.

1. Add a fireback
2. Replace the damper.
3. Add doors.
4. Install a grate heater or radiator.
5. Install a fireplace insert.

I would also suggest retaining the capability to cook in the fireplace, if possible.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Adding Insulation to a rental property

We had a major cold snap hit and as most people do when we moved in we put the head of the bed on the outside wall. It was summertime so we didn't think about it. Well the apartment is kinda old and not very well insulated and I woke up that morning with a very stiff neck and shoulders. After a few days and it not getting better it was getting in the way of work.

I was climbing into bed and tripped and put my hand against the wall to catch myself and the wall was freezing. I slept with a sweatshirt and hat and it was a little better the next day. The next weekend we took our bedroom apart and put the bed on the inside way. We also moved bookcases to the outside wall for insulation and heavy curtains.

But sometimes you can't move everything around. What else can you do? it is important to have near floor to ceiling coverage since if you don't the cold will just fall over the front of the insulation and you'll be back in the same boat as before.

We've all seen the pictures of the homeless sleeping in cardboard boxes. There is a reason they choose them cardboard is a pretty good insulator. Even a few sheets of newspaper will make a big difference. Paper is cellulose and that has been used for insulation for a long time. You can also draw on it to make it look more interesting.

We can also take a lesson from the nomads of the Steppe, they use felt for their yurts. Tacking felt to the walls will make a significant difference in the amount of cold coming in. If you pick a warm color it will seem warmer too.

Finally, you can also use foam board. At its lightest weights it is light and easy to shape, architects use it all the time for making their models. Heavier weight panels with reflective barriers are use to insulate houses under the siding. This can be the most expensive solution but is probably the most effective.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Great Wall of Poverty

For a long time we have seen a stories about people having a hard time getting out of poverty. I have met people who have said getting a better job wasn't worth it. I wondered about that a lot because it didn't make sense.

This graph shows that the gain in pay is not worth the loss of benefits. Look at the graph at some wage levels you need to make nearly 150% of what you are earning to make up of the benefits you are losing.

People are not stupid though they often don't have all the information they need. You are looking at multiple agencies and taxes interacting with each other and you may not know about then in advance. It would be logical to assume you wouldn't end up losing more in benefits then you make you make in money.  The benefits are worth more then the money you make that takes them away.

There is a wall holding the poor in poverty. It is a wall of subsidies and assistance that phase-out due to means testing. It is interesting to see that the "average" American making $42,000/year is smack dab in the middle of all this. Once you clear $50,000 things get much simpler.
"Despite the EITC and child credit, the poverty trap is still very much a reality in the U.S. A woman called me out of the blue last week and told me her self-sufficiency counselor had suggested she get in touch with me. She had moved from a $25,000 a year job to a $35,000 a year job, and suddenly she couldn’t make ends meet any more. I told her I didn’t know what I could do for her, but agreed to meet with her. She showed me all her pay stubs etc. She really did come out behind by several hundred dollars a month. She lost free health insurance and instead had to pay $230 a month for her employer-provided health insurance. Her rent associated with her section 8 voucher went up by 30% of the income gain (which is the rule). She lost the ($280 a month) subsidized child care voucher she had for after-school care for her child. She lost around $1600 a year of the EITC. She paid payroll tax on the additional income. Finally, the new job was in Boston, and she lived in a suburb. So now she has $300 a month of additional gas and parking charges. She asked me if she should go back to earning $25,000. I told her that she should first try to find a $35k job closer to home. Also, she apparently can’t fully reverse her decision to take the higher paying job because she can’t get the child care voucher back (the waiting list is several years long she thinks). She is really stuck. She tried taking an additional weekend job, but the combination of losing 30 percent in increased rent and paying for someone to take care of her child meant it didn’t help much either."
This story is just one example, I've run across it a dozen different ways so don't get caught in the specifics of this one, 'cause you'll miss the forest for the tree. Basically there is a complex system of interaction between various means-tested assistance programs. All are independent and using the same data none are talking to each other.
If it took an economist quite a bit of work to figure this out what chance does a high-school grad have? All they know is that the system is stacked against them so most game it as best they can because they see no way out. Everyone above them is a trust fund baby or have cheated their way around the system. Or at least that is the way it looks from the bottom.

via kottke surf all the links.

How Much Food To Store

The government and most everyone else recommends having 72 hours of food and water on hand in case of an emergency. That is a laughably short amount of time, that is supposed to be how long it takes for rescue services to get through to most places.

In Oct 1997 we had a huge blizzard here in Colorado, it snowed for 2 days, then it took another 2 days for everyone to work together to dig a path out of the neighborhood. That was 4 days. Even when you could get out all the stores were sold out of just about anything useful. Watching the news we saw a report of a lady buying a big crown roast for her and her three kids because it was the last bit of meat left. Even if you could get to the store, it was another 3 days before they got fully stocked again because all the trucks were stuck on the Interstates. So it was an entire week before thing returned to normal.
I was in one store, the bread & milk were gone, the fresh produce was gone, the cereal and Pop Tarts were gone, the sodas were gone, the canned goods were gone except sauerkraut and beets, when they announced that a shipment of produce had arrived so everyone ran over to the produce section to wait for whatever would come. It was lettuce and bell peppers and the like so we had a really nice salad that night.

I would really recommend having at least a 2 week supply for dealing with any sudden emergency say a pandemic quarantine. This can be regular frozen and canned foods, nothing special here. But if you were stuck at home having some other staples on hand like flour and powdered milk would make it much better. This way you can having milk and bread.
Actually, if you pour a can of evaporated milk in a quart of prepared powdered milk it tastes like regular milk. The evaporated milk adds back the fat content most people like in their milk.

There is also a big fear of layouts out there right now and this is another very good reason for storing food. You are in essence pre-paying your grocery bills and can use it later. It also makes a sensible inflation hedge, too. You have greater control over your bills this way too if you have to cut back later.

You can easily store 3 months of food in most homes and even apartments, we have quite a bit behind a bookcase. Though how much you store depends on your circumstances. As a rule of thumb it takes about 1 month per $10,000/year in salary/wages to find an equivalent paying job. Once you get near the 1 year mark it becomes cheaper to look at storing long term storage staples like: wheat, white rice (brown has too much oil in it), beans & peas and pasta.

Water is also very important but is very heavy. A 55 gallon drum will do for a family of 3 but will weigh about 800 pounds. Even if you put it on the floor in the basement it is a good idea to put something under it like a small pallet to protect the barrel. I think it is better to have several smaller more portable containers and a good water purifier, a pitcher filter isn't the same thing. A camping/hunting store is a good place to get those.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Hunting the Wily Wall Wart

One way to save money on your electric bill is to go on a Wall Wart Hunt. Almost all electronic devices nowadays are never really off. With a lot of these in your home it can be a significant drain of electricity and money.

In an effort to save themselves money a manufacturer will buy a cheap external power transformer (the wall wart) which has already passed the FCC and UL tests, which saves them on the costs of those tests. These transformers do just that, they transform AC wall power into DC power the electronics can use.

If the transformer is warm or hot even with nothing is plugged into it, that means it is one of the very cheap ones that is wasting a lot of your power and money. Most of the new ones use a different technology and run cooler and use less power.

Few things annoy me more then finding a wall wart and having no idea what it goes to. I end up wandering around the house pulling everything into it to see if it works or not. Now whenever we get something with one I label it right away. Much more peace of mind for me.

A lot of them go to portable electronics so I have put together a little charging station near the door. Everything is in one place and with all the transformers on a power-strip, I can turn it off when I leave and they no longer cost money to do nothing all day. This is also a good place to keep your Evacuation Kit, you can grab everything as you leave the house.

Wall warts come in all shapes, sizes and orientations. I often find one or more that will block an adjoining plug on a power-strip. Something that I've found that helps a lot are those little 6 inch/15 cm extension cords, they allow you to use all the plugs without the transformers getting in each others way.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Do You Really Need a $300 Flashlight?

Okay, so next March you can buy the mPower Emergency Illuminator which will go for $250-$300. Now the promise of a 20 year storage lifetime on the reserve battery is amazing and it certainly fills an obvious niche, long term kit storage.

On the other hand, that will buy you a lot of Maglites and batteries. They are also built really tough.

It isn't like there aren't other expensive flashlights, SureFire flashlights can be as expensive or even more, but they are designed to be mounted to guns and designing for that kind of shock is a big deal. 

I have an explosion proof flashlight for working in near volatiles. Those aren't cheap either.

I am not wild about fancy batteries, while CR123s are pretty common now, they are not nearly as common as AA/AAAs, which you can get at virtually any convenience or dollar store. Besides you can get lithium primary batteries in regular cell sizes now too. Store those with you emergency flashlights and they will last as long.

Flashlights are like any other kind of tool, you need to get the right one for what you are trying to do.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

What we can Learn From the Brazilian Blackouts

Power restored in Brazil after blackouts - "Electricity returned early Wednesday to a large swath of central and southern Brazil that was plunged into darkness when power from a major hydroelectric dam was lost."

Blackouts are a big problem. Some of the examples they had are people trapped in elevators, traffic lights out, and people on powered medical support devices.

Generally it also means that cell phones towers will run out of powers after a few hours if it has any backup power at all. The landline telephones also use backup power but it tends to last days.

While I don't expect most people to have a total backup power system for their home a few things can be helpful.
A windup alarm clock can be a good idea. Flashlights and batteries are obvious, if you use candles be careful not to get them too close to drapes or other flammables. We live in an apartment and my big fear during a blackout is someone else in the complex burning us all out because they didn't know how to use a candle.

Alternative heat can be provided by using an outdoor grill, you can even use it to heat water to fill hot water bottles to warm the beds.

While a generator or gas grill is a great tool, it needs to be used outside. That means the garage is indoors, many families die very years because they don't want the generator stolen so they use it in the garage. Carbon Monoxide penetrates the walls and they all die. Even if you set it up outside make sure the exhaust points away from the house.

If you have an inverter you can even use you car to charge some electronics but without power you won't be able to fill up. The big thing is to find out how big the blackout is, before you start driving around. The car radio is good for that. If it is a regional blackout it is a good idea to sit tight and wait it out for a few hours.

If the weather is warm you'll want to wrap the frig with a blanket so it stays cool longer. If you have a probe thermometer you can use it to alert you to when the temperature rises above 40 deg. F (the danger zone where bacteria grow more easily) A couple of jugs of water kept in the frig before the blackout would keep it cooler longer.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Asteroid scrapes past Earth just 8,700miles away - with only 15 hours warning | Mail Online

Asteroid scrapes past Earth just 8,700miles away - with only 15 hours warning | Mail Online: "Although no one noticed at the time, the Earth was almost hit by an asteroid last Friday.

The previously undiscovered asteroid came within 8,700miles of Earth but astronomers noticed it only 15 hours before it made its closest approach.

Its orbit brought it 30 times nearer than the Moon, which is 250,000 miles away"

Veteran's Day

Thank you.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Making Fire

Frankly it has been a while since the last time I've made fire but it is something I just want to review and get down somewhere.

There are three things you need to create fire: Oxygen, fuel and heat. If you can breathe you have plenty of oxygen for the fire. Burning is defined as combining with oxygen so it is a very important part of the mix. Technically rusting is burning, but it is not happening at the fast enough rate to give us a useful amount of heat. For fuel, wood is great and so is charcoal, coal, oil and other hydrocarbons; just about anything that is dry and has lots of carbon in it. Heat is important in that what you are trying to do is get the volatile compounds to boil off and begin combining with oxygen.

Starting up some charcoal for the grill can be a real pain. You crumple up a page of newspaper and light it and when you come back the paper is all burned up but the charcoal is still cold. Then you might wad up half the paper and this time not even the paper is burned. There has to be a better way! All you really need is a one sheet but drizzle about a teaspoon of cooking oil on it before crumpling it up. The oil burns but at a lot slower rate then the paper, this allows the  charcoal or even wood to catch fire and in about 15 minutes you'll have a ready to cook fire.

This works even better with a chimney starter. The ones from the store are nice and big but you can make one from a metal #10 can. This is an old trick as well. I first learned it as a Boy Scout, cut the top and bottom lids off and around the bottom punch holes using a church-key can opener, this lets air in to help the charcoal to burn. You'll need some pliers to remove the chimney once the fire is going.

A wood fire is not much harder then a charcoal fire but there are some prerequisites. The wood needs to be seasoned and I am not talking about salting the wood.  Seasoned means the tree was downed some time ago and the wood allowed to dry out a bit. If you are out in the woods and trying to find dry wood you need to look for downed limbs and the like, trees that have fallen down at often rotted on the bottom but usually the limbs sticking up are fine and dry. If it has been raining you need to look for protected places under partially fallen trees, rock outcroppings and the like. Once when we went to summer camp it rained for an entire week before we got there and for days after. There was no dry wood to be found, we even split wood to try and get something sort of dry but it was just raining too much. Finally, on the third day one of the leaders went back to his car and siphoned out some gas, we built a big double-ringed stone firepit, piled in the wood we had collected and after shooing everyone back about 100 feet he poured on the gas, tossed a lit match in and dived for cover. That finally got the fire going and it took a lot of work to keep it going. Wet wood will burn but it needs to sit by the fire for a while to dry out enough for it to catch.

Mastering fire is a great basic skill. A big bonfire is easy, a good cooking fire quickly is different and a long lasting fire is different again. Wood is a different material from charcoal and coal and peat. A bonfire can be as easy a some kindling and small wood surrounded by a teepee of bigger wood. A good cooking fire is best made with hardwoods since they create coals that are easy to cook on and they should be stacked in a log cabin arraignment with the big wood at the top. A long lasting fire that needs to last the night is a lot like the log cabin for the cooking fire but put the small stuff at the top in a lattice arraignment and start the fire at the top and it will burn down to the heavier wood.

One of the fun tricks we did as scouts was to do trick lights, Using some trick or another to start a fire to impress the Tenderfeet on their first campout. These would be things like using a 9V battery to ignite a steelwool pad, after a suitable incantation. My favorite was the 'comet' run a length of magnet wire from the center of the firepit up into a nearby tree. hang a lighter fluid soaked roll of toilet paper and have someone in the tree to light it and it will come roaring in for a spectacular effect. Okay, that one should not be used expect maybe during a drenching rain storm.

Like any fire based application keep a fire extinguisher around.

As important as it is to know how to create fire it is also important to know how to turn a fire off. In this case instead of trying to bring the three requirements of fire together you are trying to separate them. Once on a campout we went on a big hike and some of the other scouts weren't really prepared for that and wanted to make a fire to cook their lunch, they lit up a paper bag to get it started but the wind picked it up and dropped it in a field full of dry grass. We all rushed over and stomped on it and dumped our canteens on it and we got it out in just a few seconds but it is amazing how fast a fire can spread in dry grass.

Throwing water on a fire works because it limits the fuels exposure to oxygen, getting fuel wet tends to make it useless and because water has such a high specific heat it can absorb a huge amount of heat thus keeping things cool. I guess you could also make a good water thrower using soda water and Mentos. Though an Indian pump is what we kept handy.

One of the first fire extinguishers were the ones that produced CO2 to starve the fire of oxygen, and that was easily made with baking soda and vinegar. In the Lord of the Rings documentaries it was fun to see them figure out that to extinguish the torches they used buckets of dry ice. Dry ice is solid CO2 as it sublimates it filled the bucket with CO2 gas and so they could pop the torches in there and they would go out, but they could relight them right away for the next scene without a problem. Water would have worked but it would have taken days to dry and be ready to go again.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Collection of How-to Websites

There are a great number of Do It Youself (DIY) and How-to websites out there.

Here is a small collection to get you started:
How Stuff Works
Make Magazine
Popular Mechanics

Friday, November 6, 2009

Choosing the Best Battery

One of the decisions people tend not to make about the stuff that goes into their 72 hour kits is about the batteries. Some people are optomizers and will get the best flashlight, the best GPS the best radio and and the best batteries. But they all use different sized batteries.
If you are looking at a disaster one of the times you don't know is how long it will last and what will be the most important. For any particular disaster or emergency only about 20% of your stuff will be really important for that disaster. But we don't know beforehand which 20% that is. If you're helping out in a search and rescue it might be the GPS and 2-way radio, if its a blackout the flashlight and radio receiver.
The best thing to do is to have your powered equipment share all the same kind of batteries, that way you can just carry a lot of batteries and use then for which ever equipment you need. If they all use AA cells then you can carry a lot fo them and use them however you need.
You can even get external battery packs for your cell phone that let you pull in AA batteries.
AA cells are the most versitile sizes out there and you can get them just about anywhere. Supermarkets, convenience stores, office stores, dollar stores, truck stops all have them. Exotic batteries like 123A or watch batteries not so much.
While I like my big 3 D cell LED Maglite because it multitasks as a club. It also works really well useing AA to D cell adaptors. They are just plastic holders the size of a D cell with a spot in the middle for a AA. It doesn't last as  long as a D cell but that is a tradeoff I have decided to go with.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Moving Kit

We've moved and helped lots of families move and one thing I have learned is you need to have a few things handy when you finally get everything unloaded, which will be late in the day and you'll be exhausted. These are the things you want packed in the car so they are handy. The idea is to give yourself a little bit of comfort and not have to dig through boxes when you would rather just lay down and sleep.

Have your 72 hr kit handy as bad things happen when they do not on your schedule.
You'll also want a change of clothes, bedding and towels.
Extra sheets and pushpins to cover the windows.
A tool kit for putting things back together.
Cleaning supplies, because who knows how well they cleaned things when they left and how long ago that was.
Toiletries, particularly toilet paper, paper towels and trash bags.
Some plates, glasses and utensils, not all of them, just enough for everyone to have a set. Plastic would be fine until you've found everything.
A pad of sticky notes and a big marker, that way you can mark each room (bedroom 1 &etc.) and the movers can just put things in the right room right way.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Just a Reminder of How Bad East Germany Was

Here is a flickr set of East German designs for everyday items. Remember they only barely worked.

Cracking the Berlin Wall

Cracking the Berlin Wall: "On Nov. 9, 1989, large crowds of German citizens from both East and West Berlin approached the Berlin Wall. At several border crossing points, East Berliners began shouting at the armed communist guards, demanding they open the gates and shove aside barbed wire obstacles."

The Wall Was To Keep People In and Ideas Out

How The Wall Fell - "When the Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago, it did not fall from sheer wear and tear of tyranny. People actively chose to destroy it. They tore down that iconic wall not only with pickaxes, hammers and bare hands, but as a culminating act of decades of sacrifice, courage, determination and a complex, globally contested war of ideas."

I met a guy who was walking down one of the Berlin Wall streets when he said that an old guy can tearing out of the apartments with a hammer and chisel and just started attacking the Wall. After the shock wore off he rushed off thinking it was best as a foreigner not to be right there next to the crazy guy if things got out of control.

He didn't get far before thousands of people came streaming down the streets and started attacking the Wall. Not having any idea what was going on, he ducked into a Gasthaus (tavern) and the people left in there were screaming about freedom and the Wall coming down and the TV was doing the same. It didn't happen all at once and you can go to plenty of other sites to read the history of the events leading up to the final fall.

The President of East Germany, in probably the greatest "... but it looked good on paper" moments ever, read a speech (a typical dry and boring empty thing) to try and calm the people. But something about how he said it made everything change. The people stormed the border stations, the border guards were busy asking themselves, "Did he just say what I thought he said." and calling their leaders and those leaders were calling upstairs as well. The phone lines were jammed and no one dare shoot since he said what he said.

And the Iron Curtain was swept aside. I have some of the Iron Curtain a few little chunks of good steel, we got as we watched them roll it up and carry it away as scrap.

We had crossed that border many times over the years. We still had family there. We visited as often as we could.

The thing I remember most about crossing that border was how dark it was on the other side. It could literally be a hot summer day, yet when crossing that border, like only one other, was like crossing into a cold, dark cave. I could see the sun and feel the warmth of it on my hand but something about that place was cold, dark and grey.

The people were good and all but there was something about the system that just sucked all the hope and life out of all of them. I could understand how those that remembered freedom could pack themselves into suitcase, hide themselves inside the seats and even engines of cars, modify cars to drive under the border gates, or build hot air balloons in secret to fly over the border.

There was something bad about that place. It took me a long time to find out why it was so dark there. It came while passing another border the city limits of Dachau.

What We Can Learn From Swiss Family Robinson

The story of "ordinary" people stranded in an uncivilized place, who turn their superior knowledge and skills to building a civilized life for themselves, is one we still love.
Unfortunately, it is far more of a fantasy today than it was with Defoe wrote Crusoe and Wyss wrote Swiss Family. In that era, even urban people still lived close enough to farming and animals that they had some idea of what a nature-based life might require.
I can picture a modern American Family Robinson dying as they searched for a place to recharge their cellphones.
I like books like this mainly because it helps me think about what I might do in the same circumstances.

Swiss Family Robinson is set in 1812, so let's look at the technology available. Even most city dwellers had family still on the farm, that wouldn't change until the 20th Century.
Heat was supplied by wood or coal fired stoves. The first gas cooker wouldn't be developed until 1826 and gas lights would wait until 1836.

Cities had running water but it was more often coming out of a fountain in the square rather then in your home, and most of the world got their water from a well or river in buckets. Most bathrooms were still outhouses. Thomas Crapper wouldn't start his company until 1861.

Most transportation was still run be muscle power, either by walking or riding. Steam power was available but were massive and just starting to get "portable" by being put on ships the first commercial steamboat began service in 1807 and the first locomotive was created in 1804 but commercial service wouldn't begin until 1825.

Making textiles would have been a big deal too, but they seemed to have plenty of animals for that, and making the looms and other capital devices would have been easy enough to make from wood.

Actually their biggest challenge is metals: finding, mining, refining and working metals is a lot of hard, energy intensive work and even then the quality won't be all that great, but will be good enough. As long as they have axes, saws, and knives they have the major making technologies they needed for that level of technology, because almost all of their things are made of wood.

The thing of it is that the father would have, as an average person, done things like build an outhouse, dug a well, slaughtered an animal for eating, assist in building a structure, make furniture, and so on. Even if he grew up in the city, he probably spend some time on a farm helping out during the summers, doing those things.

So what can we learn from this story that we can apply today?
The main thing is having some good tools and the knowledge to use them. And the tools aren't big fancy things but simple ones, like pots and pans, knives, axes, and saws. Wood is easy to shape into useful things like tables, chairs and shelter and with the proper tools you can make yourself a better and more comfortable life. It just depends on sorting out the vital from the not important.