Christmas Pi

A couple of years ago at Lowes my wife and I were poking around at the Christmas stuff in September (Lowe’s really takes advantage of the Holiday season). One of the things they had was a Christmas light show setup for the house. Basically it was several preprogrammed lighting sequences and some outlets that you plugged your extension cords into. It ran about $200 or so. I forgot about it, but the idea interested me nonetheless. I’m not a big Christmas decorator, a few strands of lights across the front porch is about all I can stand to to in an afternoon, and I’m done for the season.

But – Recently I ran across this in my Facebook Raspberry Pi feed.

http://lightshowpi.org

Talk about an interesting project! Finally something I could use the Pi for in the real world, besides playing music and old DOS games, which pretty much any computer will do. The hardest part is always loading the software and figuring it out. Most of the stuff I find has to be run from the command prompt, instead of clicked on like we are all used to these days. Thankfully the helpful people at LightshowPi have some step by step instructions, since I know very little Linux.

After the software was installed, I followed the steps to hook up some LEDs in a test circuit, before plugging in the relays. I had to order a $10 relay board from Amazon, with 8 channels. I fired up the test music and was relieved that all the LEDs lit up. Once my Relay board and electronics kit came in, I set to work plugging in the relays. At this point everything was getting really messy, little wires everywhere. 

Unfortunately the relays are sort of wired backwards. In order for them to trip, they need to be shorted to ground, so the signal from the Pi has to trigger a transistor which shorts the relay to ground, so everything gets a lot more complex. In the end, however, I won’t need the separate LED Board, just the Pi interface and the transistor board. On the white board above, I have a separate 5v supply coming from a USB plug I modified a while back for another purpose.

The first thing I did was wired up the LEDs and used their included software to flash each light separately.

So, when I finally followed the directions and got 5 of the 8 relays working (I only had 5 of the pn2222 transistors in my little Pi kit), I plugged the Pi into my computer speakers and fired up one of their sample songs. The nice thing about this whole deal is you don’t have to program the lights. There are other programs out there where you basically have to play both an MP3 and a MIDI file together and the MIDI file triggers the lights.

On the version I’m using, the Pi acts like a spectrum analyzer – the old square box of bouncing light points you used to see on stereos in the 1980s. Each of the 8 channels responds to a certain set of frequencies in the music. So any old MP3 file will work with the system. I have found that some files are very quiet and dont trigger the LEDs. Changing the playback volume on the Pi doesn’t affect the LED response, HOWEVER – Audacity is a free program that you can load on the Pi to edit music, and you can use it to amplify or decrease the volume in your MP3 files, to get more or less response from the LEDs.

I made a second recording once the relays were active on five channels. These things get pretty loud, as the are NOT solid state. These are good old fashioned mechanical relays.

Once all the relays are working, I can start constructing a box to hold this stuff. I ordered 4 double outlets from Amazon (just like your home wall outlets with two plugs per receptacle, and will wire them so each of the outlets is a separate channel. The long blue board of screws on the right side of the relay board is for wall voltage (120-240v), and its separated from the rest of the system by optoisolators (basically a light and a light sensitive element inside those little black cubes next to the big blue clicking cubes).

I’ll have 8 channels of lights, and if I use LED Christmas lights, one string per channel, a single outlet will be more than enough to power the whole works. If it’s not, I’ll split it and run it to two different circuits. I don’t have my light strings yet so I’m not sure how much current they draw.

My biggest worry is moving all the wires from those breadboards over to permanently soldered boards. I know I’m going to screw something up, and I HATE desoldering stuff.

The funniest thing about this whole thing was my daughter was watching me sort resistors and I was trying to use the old engineer’s resistor memory aid: “Bad Boys Rape Our Young Girls But Violet Gives Willingly”. Which stands for colors and numbers:

Black=0 Brown=1 Red=2 Orange=3 Yellow=4 and so on.

So I’m counting off: “Bad Boys (1), Bad Boys Rape (2), Bad Boys Rape (12 x 100 = 1.2k Ohms) and she’s saying “What are you doing?”

So I explain about the colors and she says, “That’s just awful”. I told her the card chart was probably easier but I learned memory aid and it sticks with you, as terrible as it is. There is another memory aid, but I never knew it.

 

 

In other works for my non-nerd hiking pals, I’m editing my backpacking book. I sent my stuff off and got a publishers proof, and reading on paper is a lot different than reading online. I am changing a lot and adding stuff. Hopefully my take on “what not to do when you backpack” will be on Amazon and Kindle in a few months.

 

A Carnival Magic Cruise Review

On our last cruise, somewhere in the Caribbean, the wife and I met with the Future Cruise guy, and signed up to sail on the Carnival Magic during Spring Break in 2017, from April 8-15th. If you were on that one, write a comment.

So on Friday the 7th we began our arduous journey to Port Canaveral. The first thing you have to know about driving from South Carolina to Florida during spring break is, it sucks. There’s just no way around it. Our state pays the lowest gas tax in the nation (so I’ve heard) and as such there is little money to fix and improve roads. Although I-95 in Georgia and Florida are three lanes the whole way, in South Carolina: they’re only 2. It’s not a terrible route until you get south of the I-95/I-26 intersection, then it slows down sometimes to a crawl. We made it through, even after the WAZE app tried to get me to get off and go around, and, like water through a fire hose, got squirted out into the relatively wide open space that is Georgia.

Georgia is pretty, but boring. You’re almost within sight of the ocean for a lot of the drive, and it’s all marshland and lazy rivers, with few opportunities to get off the interstate for food and gas. But finally you go over one last bridge and you’re in Florida. We stopped in Jacksonville for the night and stayed with some relatives, then it was up the next day for the 2.5 hour drive to Port Canaveral.

Port Canaveral is my absolute favorite of all the ports I’ve been to. Charleston is convenient, but because it’s downtown you have to deal with traffic. Miami sucks. There’s no organization at the port, it’s like a free-for-all, and I-95 ends in downtown Miami, so you have to deal with confusing directions and getting across traffic through 4 or 5 lanes to make right and left turns several times before hopefully getting the right terminal, because Miami terminal is huge. Plus there’s the depressing GPS that says, “Take I-95 south for 500 miles, then keep right.” NO! Port Lauderdale is just about as bad distance-wise, but at least it’s organized.

But Canaveral is a thing of beauty. First it is out in the middle of no-damn-where. Since apparently space isn’t important anymore there’s not a lot of traffic around the cape. You get off I-95 and go east along a 4 lane causeway, get to the terminal which only holds two or three ships, and they have actual traffic cops to get you a spot with the porters right by the door. Then you park across the street using pre-paid parking, and walk right in. We always try to get to the port an hour after they start letting you on. Usually the lines are down a bit and there’s not much of a wait. This time there was a huge line to get into the building, but it went pretty quickly. I think half the problem was people not knowing what to do with passports and health forms.

Before they let you on the boat you have to produce your passport (or license and birth certificate), your boarding pass, and your health form. They spell all this out on the web site and even let you download and print everything before you go. Yet there’s always someone that’s missing stuff, or it’s in their bag they just gave the porter, or they have to put down everything they are carrying (because they’re trying to carry on 6 suitcases small enough to fit in the X-Ray). The most common forgotten item seems to be the Health Form.

If you’ve never cruised before, they make you promise that you’re not sick, feverish, have the runs, or are past 24 weeks pregnant. Since you probably paid $3,000 or so to get there, probably don’t have trip insurance, and if you did start feeling sick its only in the last day or two, you’re probably going to lie on the form. So we take loads of hand sanitizer. They give you the forms to print out, but there’s always a line of people at the health form table filling out their lies.

Finally through the third stage (passport check, x-ray, health forms/door keys), you’re shoved off past the photo guys and up a ramp to get onboard. This is when I start feeling good. Up until now, anything could happen. I have HUGE cruise day anxiety. From the ride there (where I could have a flat, an accident, or even some total catastrophic engine failure), to the port issues (like parking, porters, forgotten luggage), to the check-in process (did I remember the passports, the health forms, the boarding passes, and did getting gas in Florida trigger the bank to lock out my credit/debit card?), I’m always worried something bad will happen to keep me off the boat. But the moment they wave you through check-in over to the photographers, there’s a sigh of relief. It keeps getting more relaxing the whole way up the ramp, and then when you step across onto the deck, it’s all good. You’re on.

The first thing we do is check our room. It’s nice to see where you’ll be spending 7 or 8 days, drop your carry on bags, and maybe use the bathroom (especially if you just lied on the health form and you’ve got the runs). This trip, I had a surprise for the wife (not the runs). Our last cruise was on Carnival Sunshine. Every night after they finished the shows, they turned the lounge into a sort of night club by removing the tables and pushing the chairs to the side. Then they club it up until like 2am.

When I initially booked this cruise, we have a room way far forward, under the lounge. I was scared there would be a noise issue, and paid for a different room midship with a surprise – a Cove Balcony. We weren’t under the lounge, instead we were under the galley. A move we would come to regret. But the wife didn’t know about the balcony, because I kept it secret. So I opened the curtain and she was like, “whaaaaat?” Then we went upstairs to eat. Because on a cruise you have to eat at least five times a day.

The first thing we noticed over the Sunshine was this boat was a lot wider, and a deck taller. I kept trying to go to deck 9 for food during the first three days of the cruise, but on this ship Deck 10 was where they slopped us hogs. They had divided the food areas into three separate areas. Outside by the pool (yes there were already drunks and people in bikinis even though the boat hadn’t moved) was Guy’s Burger Joint and the bars. At the rear pool there was pizza and another bar. In the middle of all this was a forward buffet line and stir-fry hibachi place. Then there was a separate aft buffet line with different stuff and the Italian place. I’m not sure what it is with Carnival, but the Italian place is always staffed by Russians.

Before we left it was time for the Muster Drill. This is where they usually force you onto the utilitarian area of the deck and group you into lifeboat groups in case the boat sinks or burns up. They give you a safety demonstration with life jackets and talk about what to do in an emergency. Usually by now the alcoholics on board are already half inebriated, and some even bring drinks to the drill itself. I know it’s Carnival, sort of the Wal-Mart of cruise lines, but people, please: Try to stay reasonably sober until the drill is done. On the magic it was a bit nicer, they grouped us inside and the Cruise Director read the instructions over the intercom in a variety of vocal impressions. It was our first meeting of “Dr. E”.

He sucked. I still remember my first cruise director, a rather large stout Englishman who told some hilarious stories. Then there was a more recent one, Jamie D., who was really funny and attractive. She was American (I know right, an American staff member?). On our most recent cruise, the CD was some English or Australian woman who wasn’t great, but still memorable. This guy just sucked. He LOVED to hear himself talk and would come on the intercom and jabber on for ten minutes, not only telling you what was going on around the ship, but pushing sales of stuff in the stores, photo places, and bars. It was sort of like being trapped watching an irritating car commercial where they scream at you.

So, finally underway. I was able to locate a section on the front of the ship as near to the Titanic “King of the World” scene as they allow you to get these days. SO, If you’re on the Magic – go to deck 10 and go all the way forward until you’re looking at stateroom doors. At the end of the hall turn left or right and go out the little unmarked door with the porthole. Theres a second door at the end of the short hallway that leads to a curved balcony that anyone can use, but there’s almost NO ONE there. It runs around the entire front of the ship so if you want to look out either side you can. You can also go down a deck to 9, and stand on the roof of the bridge, on the little wings that stick out the side of the ship. Again, it’s another balcony that almost no one uses except in port. You can get some great pictures there looking off the front of the ship.

While I’m standing there looking out with a few other people, they blast the horn and we’re off. I got to watch us leave port, which was fun, and within ten minutes the pilot boat was gone and we were out in the ocean. There’s a beach right next to the terminal, and people were screaming and waving at us. It was impressive, more like the “Old Movie Feel” of old cruises, than the modern utilitarian Airport feeling most departures give you.

That evening, we met our tablemates. For the last three cruises we’ve wound up at tables alone. I HATE shared tables. I guess I know why the tradition persists. Boats get full, so instead of sticking three parties of three at three tables for four and having 3 empty seats total, you put the nine people together. I get that. But I hate it. I don’t like forced social situations and would prefer not to have to interact with others in that setting. The people were really nice, though. The other families were from Conway, SC and from Lexington, SC, so at least they didn’t dump us in with a bunch of foreigners or yankees or weird eaters. No one at the table was vegan or part of the gluten-free fad or anti-GMO crowd. We all liked our meat, bread and sweet tea. And even though they were from the South, no one seemed overtly religious and asked to join hands and pray or anything. I was REALLY glad for that.

Overnight, we learned the hazards of being under the galley. I noticed in the lounge that the seats and tables were bolted to the floor, so there would be no moving stuff around for a nightclub like on the Sunshine. At 2am we learned that apparently in the galley there’s a crew bowling tournament where they use beer kegs and water jugs. I also think they were forging swords on anvils up there. I can’t explain the noise any other way. I complained to the steward the next morning, but the noise continued the whole week. The future cruise guy told me the rooms under the galley are the worst on the ship for noise, and to avoid it if possible.

Our following day was a Day At Sea. Days at sea mean different things to different people. For some people it means laying out by the pool and drinking. My family is quite pale. In mid-winter we give Snow White a run for “Who’s the Fairest of them all”. For white people, we are REALLY white. We burn quite easily and thus use lots of SPF 8000 sunscreen, which keeps us white instead of red. Unfortunately it keeps us white instead of tan. But that’s okay, because I’ve “Lobsterized” myself before, and it’s no fun sleeping on your stomach on the floor with a wet towel on your back, and having someone peel crackling skin off of you. So we tend to stay inside with our whiteness for the most part, an play trivia and other games that old pale white people enjoy. We learned the “Thriller” dance from Michael Jackson’s video, but we’ve done this on three cruises now and the steps are always a bit different.

Day 2 – Dominican Republic. The wife and I had never been to the Dominican Republic. I found it interesting and pretty, and she didn’t. The first thing about the DR was it was supposed to rain. They loaded us on these Outback Adventures open-air trucks and took us to a plantation of sorts where they make chocolate and coffee, as well as grow things like plantains. It rained the whole time and we drove through a few rushing creeks to get there. The phrase “Turn Around, Don’t Drown” is apparently unknown in the Dominican Republic. Our tour guide, Yoki (pronounced like the English word “Jockey”) was very down to Earth and even said the word “shit” like 5 times. After surviving the creek crossings (made worse because of the downpour, I guess), they took us to their outpost and fed us while some ladies in Carnival (the party, not the cruise line) outfits danced for us in traditional styles. After that it was off to the beach.

I wasn’t a big fan of the beach in Dominica. It was on the Atlantic Side, in the middle of nowhere with no bathrooms. The beach was narrow, without much room. They provided Boogie Boards and the tour guides acted as lifeguards because apparently the currents there could get bad, and they didn’t want you going past the breakers, since the next stop on your trip would be Cuba. But Yoki showed Kaylee how to boogie-board. When it was over we went back to the boat. The countryside was interesting but typical of Caribbean islands, there was a lot of poor mixed in with the beauty. The traffic was crazy and I was convinced we were going to kill a motorbike rider before the day was done.

While in Dominica I bought a bottle of wine and a bottle of Pineapple Liqueur. When we got back to the boat, of course we had to go through x-ray and they pointed me towards the Liquor Nazi. Cruise ships don’t want you bringing liquor on board, because they way overcharge for drinks and they want to profit off of that. They also want to control how much you can drink, so they like knowing if you’re acting like a drunken fool, they can cut you off. They will confiscate your booze and then return it to you the last night of the voyage. So, I have come up with a few ways of sneaking my booze past the booze Nazi. They involve subterfuge and misdirection, much in the same way a magician pulls a quarter from behind your ear. No, I won’t reveal my methods here. I’m sorry, but I need to keep them to myself in case they become enough of a practice that the booze nazis figure it out. It was a relief to get past the crew and hide my liquor in the stateroom. If you do sneak liquor on board, hide it in a closed suitcase or backpack. If you leave it in the open, they WILL take it. But, if it disappears from a closed suitcase, you know the steward has been going through your stuff instead of just cleaning, and you’ve got a heck of a complaint on them.

It’s always a bit of a relief to get back on the boat after an excursion. I have a fear of something happening and the boat leaving us behind. I went out to the balcony when it was time to leave. A young woman about six balconies aft of me stuck her head out as the thrusters came on and we started moving. She looked at me and yelled, “Are we LEAVING?” in a very frightened voice. I said yes and she ducked back in saying “Oh my GOD!” I really would like to know the story behind that. I’m assuming maybe she had a cabin for one after we left Dominica?

That night was “Formal Night”. Formal night is optional, but if you want to eat the the main dining room, you are supposed to dress up. Despite my protestations to the contrary, my wife strongly urged me to wear a suit jacket. A lot of men have dumped the jacket and just wear a button up shirt and tie with some slacks. Formal today just doesn’t mean what it used to, thank goodness. I tried to get the wife to save some packing room and dump the suit for a nice button up shirt, tie, and slacks, but she would have none of that. We took a few awful pictures after dinner, and went straight to one of the shows. I REALLY like the Magic’s theater over the Sunshine’s. It’s a large theater, and unlike on the Sunshine, you don’t have to show up 30 minutes early just to get a seat. Even during the show I noticed a lot of empty seats.

The next day, we rolled into St. Thomas. We’ve been there a few times, and it’s always nice. We lined up right on the pier and got on a ship to St. John. The wife hated it. This trip was pretty turbulent on the water, and the little boat was no exception. She wound up moving to the back of the boat at the Captain’s suggestion, and felt much better back there. St. Thomas was also considered a US territory, and AT&T worked there, so I got to catch up on both e-mails from work AND facebook. Time to send pictures and make the people at home jealous.

Once on St. John, they took us to Trunk Bay, considered one of the top ten beaches in the world. I’m not sure why. Yes, it was pretty, but the beach was also sort of narrow without a lot of shade unless you went into the trees off the beach. The facilities were okay (it had a small beach bar and place to get a drink), but not overwhelming. I liked it, and would go back, but I’m not sure why it’s one of the top 10 in the world. We snorkled a bit but the current kept pushing us to one side, between a small island and the main island. The small island was only 100 yards away or so, but they didn’t want anyone going to it and kept fussing at people.

When it was time to go I put on my purple shirt with the Flying Spaghetti Monster logo on it, and while I was turning my snorkel in, a man said, “May you be blessed by His Noodly Appendage”. I was shocked and felt relief that I had met a like-minded soul. R’amen.

The trip back to St. Thomas was uneventful as well, although the seats in the back filled up and the wife had to sit by herself again. We walked right off the little boat, across the pier and onto the big boat. Safe onboard, it was time to eat. No formal night tonight, just unlimited bread in a box.

The following morning we rolled into San Juan, and I really do mean rolled. The waves were pretty steady at 4-5 feet. Every now and then the boat would shudder as we hit one just right. The wife would ask “What was that?” and I’d say, “We hit another whale”. We were late getting into San Juan and parked at a difference place than normal, because apparently someone climbed the fence and was messing around at the main terminal overnight, so they had to move us. We parked right next to the Norwegian Gem, which was pretty impressive. The piers look pretty wide most of the time, but with that other boat parked next to us, it looked like a narrow back alley.

We filed out of the ship after the main crowd got off, and walked around old San Juan on our own. San Juan is somewhere you really don’t need to pay for exorbitant excursions. Everything to see in Old Town is within walking distance of the ship. Theres an old fort (San Christobal), although El Morro on the point is nicer, you can get a taxi and do a walking tour in about an hour. Colon’ plaza is right up the hill from the boat, as well as old city hall, some really old church, and if you walk the other way (east) there’s the capitol building and a long display of bronze statues of US Presidents. There’s plenty of vendors selling counterfeit merchandise and lots of little places to eat. There’s also Starbucks.

The rain was coming, so we didn’t stay in San Juan very long. I’ve been here five times and haven’t gotten a geocache yet. Next time, damnit. Next time. We were back on the boat before the mad rush and watched the rain roll in while we played trivia.

Our last stop was Grand Turk. We were late getting there because some idiot decided to sink their sailboat in 7-8 foot seas, and had washed up on a little island in shallow water. Our boat had to head that way in case they needed rescuing, but the water was too shallow for the cruise ship and we just hung out until the Coast Guard arrived to help them out. Grand Turk is a nice place, Carnival owns the port and there’s only room for two ships. When we arrived there was a Norwegian CL ship next to us, but they were going to leave first. We got off the boat and looked around in the little shops. They have a fenced-off area with chain stores like Del Sol, Margaritaville, Diamonds International, and all the standard big name cruise shops that they try and get you to hit up in ports. The locals can’t go in this area and harass the cruise ship passenger to buy crafts and hock tours and hair braiding, so it’s nice. There are two beaches with free umbrellas and chairs and such. They have greatly increased the amount of stuff available.

Once we had looked at the overpriced cruise wares in the shops, we went back to the boat, changed, and went back out to the beaches. We tried the area to the right of the pier first because it was less crowded. We found out why really quickly. There is a rocky reef that’s hard to walk over, and keeps you from getting to the swimming area. If you just want to lay in the sun or under an umbrella, this is the side you want. So we moved to the other side where there are few rocks and you can actually swim. After about an hour in the semi-cool water, we were ready to get out, tired and hungry. We boarded the ship quickly because we didn’t wait until the last minute, and watched Grand Turk disappear into the distance.

The last Sea Day is always both relaxing and disappointing. There are no more islands to look forward to, just getting home. Then there is the repacking and all the last evening. It was very bumpy and windy. They shut down the ropes course, so the daughter and I never got to do that. Rain and wind killed the pool deck, so everyone came inside. The biggest indoor game draw of the week seemed to be the Friends and Harry Potter trivia games, we had the whole deck 5 plaza full of people. There was a side door that people kept coming in, and with 40mph winds blowing across the plaza inside the ship every time it happened, the crew finally turned the door off and blocked it. We played a little of the slots in the “Cancer Club Casino”. I’m sort of glad they allow smoking in there, because I might spend more money if I didn’t worry so much about hacking up a lung on the trip home. I lost $10.

We have learned to pack light and carry off our own stuff. On our first cruise we have about five bags for me and the wife. Now we are down to a bag each for the wife, daughter and I, plus a backpack for me and the wife.  That’s pretty much it. The schedule on the paper they gave us said our “zone” would be released about 1030am. BUT if we wanted to carry off our own stuff, we could leave at about 8:00. They were even faster than they estimated, and we were off the boat in the car before 8:00am. It was a whizz getting through customs and out the terminal.

My only concern was the coffee. You’re not supposed to bring back plant and animal products without declaring them. There’s some huge fine and penalties if you don’t, and there are certain things you can’t bring back at all. I bought the wife Roses once on an anniversary cruise. Even though they put them on the ship in Florida, and they never left the ship, I couldn’t bring them back into the US and we had to dump them in the trash. So here I am bringing foreign coffee into the country. The customs guy didn’t even look twice at the declaration form. He took it from me, put it in a pile, and looked at our passports. That was it. You used to have to meet with the customs agents before getting off the ship, but they don’t do that any more.

The worst part of the trip? The drive home. If you thought driving SOUTH on 95 was bad, drive north into South Carolina during the end of spring break. Not only do you have all the cruise and Disney people going home. All the old people and northerners wintering in Florida are clogging the freeway since Spring has sprung. I swear every other license plate was new york/new jersey. We got near the Georgia/South Carolina border and WAZE told me to get off. We took a scenic tour of the SC Low Country and passed a Welcome to South Carolina sign in the middle of a swamp, but we skipped a lot of the worst part of the interstate. We got home two hours later than WAZE predicted, but we did skip traffic and stop to eat at Tijuana Flats.

If you don’t have the WAZE app – get it. WAZE is a user-fed GPS/Traffic program. It works like a normal GPS, telling you how to get places. But it knows where other users are along the route and how the traffic is moving. It uses that information, as well as user-inputs like construction zones, accidents, and stopped traffic, to automatically reroute you. You can add stuff as you go along, such as police (hidden or visible), objects in the road, vehicles on the shoulder, roadkill, bad potholes, etc., all with safety in mind. The app will warn you when you are approaching these things, and you can confirm they are there or you can say they are gone. It’s a really helpful and fun app, just don’t try putting in roadkill while you’re doing 80 on someone’s bumper.

Oh and here’s our cruise movie:

I apologize for the bad resolution but since I use the Vimeo free side, I’m limited to 500mb movie uploads at any one time.

Rainy days in Roan Mountain.

Our hike on the weekend of March 31 to April 2 was indeed sort of an “April Fools” hike. It started with the weather. Three of our intrepid adventurers headed to Mountain Harbor Hostel on 19E late Thursday, and spent the night. Because of work and family stuff, I got 2 hours of sleep and drove up for four hours on Friday morning, getting there at 8:30am. And I missed breakfast. Thankfully, although I drove through a lot of rain and lightning on the way up, Mountain Harbor Hostel was in the clear. Our shuttle driver picked us up and we headed over to US321 at Watauga Lake.

On the way over, we found the rain. By the time we hit our dropoff point, most of us had fished out the raincoats and were ready. A friendly Sheriff’s Deputy sitting along the road at the dropoff took our picture, and we headed up into the woods, Southbound towards the hostel. We immediately missed a turn and the mailman who was driving by pointed out the AT and we headed up the hill. Our first hill was a doozy, up almost 2000 feet for half the day, then back down the other side. We followed a river down to Laurel Fork Falls where, thankfully, it was too cold to swim, because apparently people have drowned there. We had a nice leisurely snack and took 87 pictures, including a group pic, before moving on. From Laurel Fork it was a straight up climb along rocks piled into stairs, and then along the river corridor. The highlight of this section was the cliffside walk along the trail where we had to hold onto the rocks to keep from falling into the cold swift water. I forgot to unsnap my hip belt, which is a prudent thing to do is you fall into the water, so you can dump your pack instead of being dragged down to the Appalachian equivalent of Davey Jone’s Locker. (Billy Joe Jim Bob’s Holler?)

My original plan was to just find a campsite somewhere, but Dorothy had other ideas. Before we left, she said she wanted to go spend the night inside somewhere, mainly due to the likelihood of rain. Putting up tents in the rain sucks, taking down tents in the rain sucks, and carrying around wet stuff sucks too. We aren’t thru-hikers, we have options and the opportunity to “wimp out” in the weather. So, she had arranged for us to stay at Black Bear Resort, just half a mile off the trail down a paved road. We were assigned the “turtle box”, a sort of garden shed style building with four beds (two bunks of two). We took advantage of the dial-up speed internet (it was Hughes Net satellite, but I think the satellite they were using was Sputnik), the communal TV room (we watched “the rat race” with a group of thru-hikers), and their vast selection of frozen foods. I had a root beer and a frozen pizza. We talked with one of the caretakers, who had intended on moving through, and wound up staying and working there with his son, for the season.

I was asleep by 9pm, and up at 6, where I took advantage of the shower and real toilet, and thoroughly enjoyed getting ready, despite the rain. We were trucked up to the trail crossing and hit the road, ready for a LONG 15.5 mile day. It was still cold and on and off misting rain, and soon we spread out; Thomas was in front by himself, with me, Jim and Dorothy alternately meeting and leaving each other. At one point we were notified of some “Trail Magic”. Hoping for maybe some burgers and hot dogs for lunch, we took off at a pace the could be described as “desperate for food not boiled in a bag”. It turns out the Trail Magic was a cooler full of snacks and drinks, but they were appreciated. I had a Coke (but don’t tell Jim, because he’s really health-conscious, while I’m the realist of the group). At some point right before the trail magic, I got out in front of Jim and Dorothy somehow. Normally I’m way in the back, so I don’t really know what happened, but it might explain not being able to move well between Tuesday and Friday of the following week.

About a mile before the stop for the night, which was supposed to be Mountaineer Shelter, I found a large campsite right on the creek. An older couple were setting up camp for the night, and I told them I was just stopping for water and food. It was about 4:30, and I was close to empty on water, and fully empty on my stomach. I was exhausted and had begun asking northbound hikers if the cabin was filling up. They had all said no so far, but I was worried about a crowd forming around the shelter. I pulled out my food bag after getting some water, and figured I would go ahead and cook dinner, which would leave me time to get to the shelter and set up without having to make food again. While my stuff was heating and rehydrating (I used a chicken/rice Knorr Side), Jim and Dorothy came by. They asked if I was stopping for the night. I told them no, I was just eating. They came down off the trail and started poking around. The decision was quickly made to abandon the shelter and just stay where we were.

At first we weren’t going to make fire, but it was getting cool and everything was wet from days of rain. Jim and Dorothy gathered what dry twigs they could find (they did a REALLY good job of it), and I built the fire. I was really surprised how well we got it to burn, considering how wet everything was. The older couple joined us, and talked about their thru-hike. They were “Granny Legs” and “Willie Makeit”. A skin cancer surgery delayed Willie’s hike, so they started farther north than Springer, intending on going back to finish after getting to Maine. After seeing so many young college-age people trying to thru-hike, the courage and determination of the retired husband/wife was incredible. They took a real interest in the hammocks, and everyone sort of compared tents. About 8:30 we all drifted off to our shelters and called it a night, while I watched the fire burn down from my hammock.

Sunday morning was the “April Fools”, a day late. See, Friday we had a hell of an up followed by a heck of a down. Saturday, although long, was mainly gradual ups and downs punctuated by a few short steep ups/downs. Sunday looked a little challenging on paper. In practice though, it was tougher than Monday. Two days and a marathon’s worth of hiking later, and we were worn out. I packed and left early, while Jim and Dorothy revived the campfire and took it slower. When I reached the shelter, I asked about Thomas, and the guys inside said he left already. A short way from the shelter was Mountaineer Falls, and just uphill from the shelter was a flat tentsite, but I was glad we camped where we did, because of easy access to water. The rest of Sunday was some ups and down followed mid morning by a never-ending uphill climb that seemed worse than Friday’s climb. Every time I check the Guthook AT Hiker App, it depressed me. I started telling Northbounders to say hello to Jim and Dorothy, as I had left them behind at camp and knew they had to be close. Cell serivce was spotty most of the time, but I was able to find a few spots at the tops of hills to text my hiking friends and let them know where I was. Unfortunately, the time stamps were all screwy because of the receive delays.

Right before the big climb, the trail followed a river for quite a ways, and it was noisy and beautiful. The meadow next to the river was at least a quarter mile long and over a hundred yards wide, with a few trees but mainly wide open space. It would be a beautiful place to camp. At the end of the meadow the trail took a sharp turn and headed up 1500 feet.

Finally I reached the top of the big climb, came out onto a meadow and started down. There was another short climb or two but it was mainly down out of the mountains towards Mountain Harbor. Along the way were two falls (one I can’t remember, that crossed the trail – the other was Jones Falls), both worth stopping and seeing. When I crossed Buck Mountain road, I was supposed to go up another couple of hundred feet then right back down onto 19E, which I could see from the road. I made an executive decision to cheat and lop off about 3/4 mile of trail and head down the road. I walked into Mountain Harbor an hour behind schedule and 90 minutes behind Thomas (who hikes like a BEAST). We had lunch right there from the concession stand at the hostel. It’s not often you get a french dip in the mountains, but paired with beer-battered Sidewinder fries, it was damn good. Jim and Dorothy found us within half an hour, and we cleaned up, piled into the cars, and off we went.

Chill: Gorilla post hike review.

Before my February 7 degree hike I reviewed the Chill Gorilla tarp – the replacement for my older Hennessy Hex tarp. I was pleased with it in general.

First, the Chill Gorilla is a bulky tarp. The same bulk as the older hennessy hex tarp, about twice as bulky as their smaller silnylon tarp, but it has more coverage and the fabric is heavier. It packed well for its size.

The first night I put the tarp up I had some issues with my lines. Not Chill Gorilla’s fault at all, but the tarp has some weight to it, and if you’re using a continuous ridgeline, just throwing some lines around the tree and pulling doesn’t work the best. The solution would have been some Dutchware Tarp Flies, which I had on my other tarp and didn’t want to move. So, my bad, but know that hanging the thing can be an issue.

Unlike the Hennessy tarp, the Chill Gorilla has no pockets for the tie-out lines. This was sort of a pain in the butt during my trip, as I was fighting lines when hanging the tarp.

Once hung, the tarp was large enough to offer plenty of protection from the elements, and I was using a 10’6″ hammock with a ridgeline. Because of wind and cold, I put a Grizz Beak door on each end. the beaks worked very nicely on the Chill Gorilla, providing coverage all the way around and leaving me with no way in, so I crawled under one side on all fours. The tarp is black, and although it doesn’t keep out all light, it does a nice job at darkening your sleep experience if there’s a full moon or something.

I used 4 tie-out stakes. I just wrap the line around my MSR Mini-Groundhogs. I really want to put some line locks on the end though. I have them on my silnylon tarp and love them. Just tie off the stake and pull. You have a weight penalty of maybe 5 grams for 4 of them, but you get much easier setup when it counts, like in rain or snow.

Packing up was as easy as putting up. I had to shake off the ice (it was 7 degrees) from the inside from condensation, but the ice wiped right off. I didnt really worry about the lines, just tried to stuff them in before my hands froze.

Yet more Trailtertainment. It’s movie time!

Since I haven’t been hiking recently and I don’t have any new gear to make, I’m kind of stuck with nothing to talk about. I’m going back to a previous post I made on putting movies on your iPhone. I’ve run into some… issues.

AnyDVD was, for YEARS, the Go-To movie decryption and copying software. It ran in the background, stripped the copy protection from discs, and allowed you control over your movies. Region coding? Gone. Forced previews? Gone. Unskippable sections? Gone. Put movie in drive, play movie. The best part was, with a single click, you could copy that movie onto your hard drive. With free software like Handbrake, you could turn those 5gb (or 32gb blu ray!) files into 1 or 2gb files, perfect for itunes and your phone on the trail.

Here’s the problem: AnyDVD shut down last year because of legal issues in Antigua. So they’ve moved to…well, no one really knows, but some think Russia. But – they have a new name called “RedFox” and are selling the same software. Here’s the kicker: Have you ever tried to convince your credit card company to let you buy a license for software from Russia using a Chinese payment processing company? No? Well, give up now. It’s all but freaking impossible.

BUT – RedFox will accept BitCoin, the preferred digital currency of shady transactions around the world. BitCoin has legit uses too, but it’s not popular yet because of it’s volatility. Its a bit like trying to buy something with a stock. Bitcoin trades like securities instead of money, so its value fluctuates. That $100 you had last week? Well it’s worth $85 this week, but next week it could be worth $105. Which is the reason it will remain a fringe currency probably for a while.

Bitcoin is actually easier to use than I thought it would be. You set up an account with an exchange, buy your coin and store them in an online or offline “wallet”, and then send them to the merchant. The problem, much like paying for Russian software with a Chinese payment processor, is getting your bank to let you pay for the damn things. There are some frustrated people online that say their credit card companies won’t even let them buy bitcoin because of chargebacks.

So, in order to buy your DVD copying software, you’re going to have to jump through a few hoops. Interestingly enough, although AnyDVD is strongly linked to DVD Piracy, the people running the company don’t like to be associated with it. A company statement was basically saying they want people to be able to copy movies that they own, in order to back them up or play them on different systems.

So, I started poking around on the net. It seems there may be an alternative… MakeMKV and Handbrake.

MakeMKV is a software that seems to strip DVD files without the need for a separate copy-protection breaking system, unlike cloneDVD or Handbrake. The problem is, it becomes a two-step operation. MakeMKV strips the files into single file packages, but iTunes won’t play it. You have to use something like VLC player or HandBrake (both free) to convert the file (again) into something iTunes will be happy with. I have been using HandBrake for several months with no problems. It works pretty well for free stuff.

 

I tried it with the DVD movie “Up” since I own it, and I know Disney encrypts the heck out of their stuff. For brevity’s sake, it is also a shorter film, only 96 minutes.

It took a few minutes, but it finally spit out a series of files, 10 in total, containing various versions of the movies and previews. I opened Title 00 in Handbrake, since it was the largest and I figured it had to be the movie and not something else.

It opened the Title 00 file just fine, and with a few clicks I told it what size I wanted it, and where to put it. After about 40 minutes of processing, it produced a nicely done 1.5GB file for the movie “Up”. Very satisfactory, although a bit clunky.

Now – onto something a bit harder: Game of Thrones. GoT is an Episodic disc, with some forced closed captions. Each disc has 2 episodes on it, and when people are speaking foreign languages, the English captions are displayed for those of us that don’t speak Dothraki or Volantian.

MakeMKV opened the files easily enough.

Now, on to HandBrake for processing and adding the forced captions for English languages. That took the longest to figure out when I used it the first time. There is a “Foreign Language” option, which you would assume applies to things like Klingon and whatever. But you want to pick English and “Forced Captions Only”, as well as “Burn In”. You want the translated captions saved as part of the film so they are always on.

Handbrake handled opening the files well enough, with no issues. After about an hour, it finished. Success.

So yes, the freebie method works. Why do I still suggest AnyDVD if you can get it? They have regular updates to try and make sure you can always copy your DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. When companies come out with new methods to try and keep you from doing what you want with your property, the team at AnyDVD tries hard to fix it so you can do the conversions.

As always, only copy and convert movies you OWN. Copying movies you don’t own (like netflix and redbox) is obviously a copyright violation and can get you into trouble.

Netflix is now allowing certain movies to be downloaded and played later on your device, so all this may be moot for netflix rentals. BUT – if you own a big collection of discs, and want to back them up or take them with you on vacation or into the woods, this is the way to do it. You will lose a little quality converting movies, but you’re watching on a phone, so its obvious you’re not looking for cinematic quality anyway.

Trail Entertainment… old school style.

I wrote a month or so back about converting DVDs to phone size for in-tent entertainment on cold winter nights. When you’re spending 12 or 13 hours in a tent, you need something to do besides look at the ceiling.

Someone on one of the facebook groups mentioned weather radios the other day. The question was something like, “What do you guys use for a weather app?”

My typical smart-ass response was: “I look up”. Of course, I try to follow smartass responses with actual information, so I said, “I generally don’t worry about the weather, because there’s not much you can do to change it. If it rains, put on the raincoat. If it’s cold, put on more stuff.”

That’s really about all you can do. For weekenders you generally know what the weather will do, because you checked it before you left home. You have already determined if there is a chance for snow or thunderstorms or hot weather. If you’re really good, you’ll check the weather around each shelter for the night you’re supposed to be there, and you can kind of figure out based on elevation what you will be facing.

But for the long distance hiker, it get more difficult. 20 days from now, there’s no way to know if there will be severe thunderstorms. The Weather Channel App is great if you’re in cell service range, but you also have to know about where you are in relation to the closest town that the app will show you.

Another response to the same thread was, “I carry a small radio”. That made sense to me. They make little FM radios that fit in the palm of your hand and are slightly larger than the AAA battery that goes in them. I have read that cell phones have FM receivers built in, but some companies won’t turn them on. Apple doesn’t have one or won’t turn it on… a pity, because listening to FM on your phone would be nice in a pinch if you needed local news.

I also remembered reading a thru-hiker’s story. He had a little shortwave morse code transmitter he made himself. His goal was to talk to someone over it, from every state he walked through. At night he would toss a little weighted bag over a limb, with his antenna, and try to talk to people.

Shortwave is pretty cool. Where else (okay, the internet) can you listen to people from around the world. Shortwave was the international news before there was cable, before their was even TV. I’ve even used it to talk to people over seas using only 8 watts of power, back when I had a converted CB radio. It’s a fun medium but can require a lot of fiddling. It’s nowhere near just picking up a phone and hitting “play”, or even scanning a few seconds to find your favorite FM station. The shortwave band is between the AM dial and somewhere around 26mhz (your car radio ranges from 88-108mhz. If you could turn your car radio down to between 2 and 15… thats the range of most international shortwave stuff). I listened to Radio Croatia the other night. Now, it’s bad AM radio, so yeah, that’s what it’s like listening to. Music comes across pretty poorly, and voice sometimes isnt much better, but it can be interesting.

So, I happened to find this online:

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It weighs 6 ounces, has shortwave, AM, FM, and scans the weather band. It runs off 2 AA batteries OR your USB phone battery pack. Pretty cool for in-hammock entertainment or just weather stuff.

The only problem these little radios suffer from is bad antennas. The antenna length should be around 1/4 of the meter band you’re listening to. Something to do with the speed of light vs. the frequency of the signal… but if you’re listening to a station around 7mhz, that’s the 40 Meter band. at 1/4 that, your antenna should be 10 meters, or 30 FEET long for best reception (actually, a 40 meter antenna would be perfect, but no way anyone is putting up one of those).

In my old listening days, I would just stretch a long wire out of the window and clip an alligator clip onto the end of the built-in antenna. That still works today, if you cared to haul around a little loop of wire and turn your tent into the biggest lightning rod in the woods. But of course, the weather channels should tell you all that, if you can’t be bothered to look up. Interestingly, Winter is the best time for shortwave listening. Something to do with the atmosphere and the position of the sun affecting it. I don’t remember it all, but it’s kind of nice that the time you’re huddled in the tent the longest makes for the best time for in-tent entertainment via the oldest form of electronic voice communication.

Hike Your Own Hike…. dumbass.

“Hike Your Own Hike” is a philosophy of sorts. It originally meant “do it the way you like”, or something like that. Plenty of hikers on facebook will use it to say that, usually at the end of threads that begin, “Hey what’s the best _____” (stove/camera/pack/sleeping bag/etc.)

Often there is a serious debate and then someone will say, “Well I use ___, because it seems to work the best for me, but Hike your own hike”. All well and good, because after all, gear choices are pretty varied and personal. Some people like the speed of a JetBoil stove, whereas some people prefer the weight savings but sometimes more finicky behavior of an alcohol stove. Some like hammocks, some like tents.

But there’s always a post or to where you know the “dumbass” is implied. Much like a southern woman saying “bless your heart”, sometimes there’s an unspoken “bitch” at the end. Or when you don’t share someone’s beliefs and they scream “I’ll pray for you”, you know there’s a “to burn in hell forever” muttered under their breath. So, Hike Your Own Hike can sometimes have a negative connotation to it.

One of the most common HYOH(D), or, “Hike Your Own Hike (Dumbass)” posts I see, are the ones about GPS or GPS apps. Someone will post something to the effect of “Hey which GPS do you recommend?” or “Which app seems to have the best GPS features?”. It’s a lousy topic for a post anyway, as most people will recommend the GPS that they have, and most people haven’t tried more than one or two. I’ve been using GPS units since 2002 or so. My first one didn’t have maps. My second had a limited 4mb of memory and very basic maps with a black and white screen. My most recent one has an SD slot and up to 32GB of memory with colored maps and aerial photos. Hmmm…which would I recommend?

But there’s always someone who interjects something completely away from the original topic.

“Which GPS do you use and is it a good one?”

reply: “GPS can fail! Only use a map and compass!”

OR something like:

“Which is more useful for keeping a phone charged, a solar panel or a battery pack?”

reply: “Unplug! Leave all the gadgets at home.”

Invariably there’s the HYOH(D) post in there somewhere, the post that implies you should do it your own way, but if you don’t do it MY way, you’re an idiot.

“What do you recommend, hiking boots or shoes?”

reply: “Well Boots are totally out. Most people are moving away from shoes. Only a masochist would still wear shoes when trail runners are lighter, breathe better, and still wear well in camp, so you don’t need camp shoes like flip flops. But if you still want to wear heavy shoes instead of brand Y trail runners like me, then HYOH”. And there it is, the “Dumbass” is implied.

The problem is, some people can get really offended if you call them on it. It’s best to leave well enough alone. Typical of the GPS posts: screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-3-12-19-pm

A well composed, easy to understand post. What GPS do you use? Also a typical reply, with decent information. Doesn’t answer the question, but doesn’t get asshole-ish about it. Presents an alternative HYOH without the  implied Dumbass.

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Unfortunately I made the mistake of calling out a different response. Typical of the “Do it my way or you’re an idiot” crowd. I made a reply about “Why do people feel the need to inject completely irrelevant information or opposite opinions into a post asking for information. A couple of people replied similarly, and the thread disappeared. Then I get a private message:

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So… when someone posts a HYOH(D) post, realize that they may get really upset when they are called out. Best to let the (D) HYOH people just spout off their stuff and go about their business. Otherwise the admins get in on the whole thing. And everyone knows how facebook group admins behave.

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