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.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

People Know You Are Prepared

At the church Halloween party last weekend one of the sisters came up and asked if I had a screwdriver or Swiss Army Knife because she needed a tiny screw tightened. Loose glasses.

I am the preparedness nerd so it is not surprising that I had what she needed, but it is still odd to have someone come up in the middle of a party to ask for something. I think people know when someone is prepared or not, just by the way we act.

When we are prepared we are more confident and at ease with life. I believe that shows.

I can't tell you how often some random person asks me for advice on buying something or other when I am shopping for something. The week before last it was someone asking where the copy machine was in the supermarket (next to Customer Service is always a good bet). The guy asking for help with a suit was a little out of my league, I was just wandering around waiting for my wife to try a new dress on, what do I know about suits?

This will freak some survivalist out because they would prefer to be invisible. That no one knows about their stash at all. They may even have done things to disguise their preparations.

I don't think it works that way. They may not know what you have but they know you have something mainly because you are not freaking out.

I think that it is actually much more important to develop a community of people around us to support each other. Our nation would not be in the shape it is in if people were just a bit more prepared. Not everyone needs a year's supply of food in the basement, but everyone should have a 72 hour kit and 2 weeks of food in the pantry. Then hardly anyone would ever freak out.

Monday, November 2, 2009

No Room For a Panini Press, No Problem

Our apartment has a tiny kitchen so everything has to be a multitasker.
I love cast iron cookware, it is versatile, properly seasoned non-stick and virtually indestructible.  We have a 11" round griddle pan and a 12" frying pan.
The griddle pan is ideal for anything you need to flip and doesn't need much oil to fry in, like pancakes, and eggs. It's also fun for fajitas but not as limited as the small fajita pans and a pizza peel works great as a serving platform.
The big fry pan is great for fried chicken (yum) and searing meat and doing stir fries.

My favorite trick, one that I got from Alton Brown, is to use them together to make pressed sandwiches: panini, croque monsieur and grilled cheese.

After church we wanted something fast, so I created a new twist on the old trick and did quesadillas. Get the pans hot over high heat for about 5 minutes or when they begin to smoke. Remove from the heat and place a tortilla down on the griddle (work fast), drop some grated cheese all over, some thawed chopped spinach and a pinch of salt, top with another tortilla and top with the frying pan. Let sit for 5 minutes or until you hear the cheese oozing out of the sides and sizzling. Carefully scrape off with a spatula and enjoy.

If you really want panini with the grill marks just use a grill pan with the ridges and serve marked side up.