I beat Wal-Mart to Xmas by a month.

I finally finished and tested my Raspberry Pi Christmas lightshow box. Its a little wonky, but I was never the great woodworker. It’s also a little bigger than it needs to be, simply because I like to have plenty of space. I’m going to be using LED light strings, which are low enough wattage that I can use all eight plugs without overloading the circuit.

From top to bottom:

Black box with the old style grey ribbon cable coming out is the computer controller, the Raspberry Pi. Its powered by the 5 volt phone charger in the plug to the right. The charger also supplies 5 volts to the relay board.

Below the plug mounted to the board is a clear/black terminal bus for the hot side of the 120v supply. It splits the hot voltage from the extension cord so that each relay gets its own source wire. The fat white wires are neutral and the fat greens are grounds.

 

r pi lightshow

On the left side, the multicolored wire spaghetti soup on the beige platform is the eight channel divider board. It’s more complex than it needed to be, because I wanted to keep all the LED lights from the prototype. The LED lights help diagnose problems with the relay board. There are eight channels of music, from Bass to Treble. Basically it is like an old school stereo Spectrum Analyzer (the display with the jumping lights on full size stereos and high end car stereos).

Bottom left is the relay board. It’s job it to turn the information from the LED board into mechanical switching motions. They turn the lights on and off based on the signals from the LED board. The black wires go to the plugs.

What you can’t see inside the big blue plug box is a daisy chain of wires. The plugs share grounds and neutrals. Each plug has its own hot wire from the relays. Although there are only 4 double outlets, I’ve broken the jumper on each set so I have 8 individually controlled outlets. You may have a similar setup in your own house, where the bottom outlet is always hot, but the top outlet is controlled by a light switch on the other side of the room.

Here’s the really cool thing:

The raspberry Pi is a neat little single board computer, capable of being used just like any desktop or laptop. You plug a monitor into the side of it, plug in a wireless mouse and keyboard (I like the combo keyboard from logitech with a keyboard and touchpad in one). BUT – if this box of stuff is on the front porch, how do you tell it to start the lightshow?

Raspberry uses Linux, and you can remote into it using SSH (on a mac) or PuTTY (windows). I’ve never used them until now, but basically you get a command line interface to the Pi, through a terminal window on another computer. So I can plug in the lightshow box, wait about 10 seconds for the Pi to boot, and then log into it through my Mac and tell it what to do.

The only thing this whole trainwreck is missing right now is a little amplifier and speaker for the music, but I’m thinking of doing one of two things: Using a cable output to my stereo speakers, OR using low power AM to transmit the signal to anyone driving by a few hundred yards. That way only the lights will disturb people, and not the music.

I painted the whole box red to protect it from the weather, and plan on screwing it down directly to the porch to keep someone from stealing it. There’s probably $100 worth of parts in it, but I’d hate to lose the Raspberry. I’m going to image the whole disc before putting it out there. For $35 I could get a new one and make it a dedicated Pi for the lightshow. Thats the nice thing about these, they are cheap!

Mr. Data, make it Sew!

Way back when I was in college and most of the monitors were either amber or green text on a plain background (we’re talking windows 3.0 was new and the world wide web wasn’t invented yet), there were Bulletin Board Systems you could sign onto if you had the right phone number for your 4800baud modem. This was one of the first pictures I ever downloaded, and it took probably 30 minutes to get it.

Okay, that was a little off tangent, but true, and leads into what I really came to talk about. Seeing as how this is sort of my “off season” and I won’t be hiking much because:

  1. Heat
  2. Itching and stinging plants
  3. stinging and biting insects
  4. heat
  5. thru-hikers

I have decided to turn my attention to other pursuits that may involve hiking later on. We are going to the beach in a few weeks, and one of the problems with the beach is the sun. It is relentless and hot, and so we take a pop-up tent, of the kind usually reserved for tailgating and the like, and which Myrtle Beach banned because they’d rather you rent their umbrellas. That’s one reason why Florida is better than Myrtle Beach. Also thong bikinis are legal in Florida and not at Myrtle Beach… but that’s off topic again.

Anyhow, the problem with the tent is: The SUN MOVES. It is unfortunate, but whether you’re a round-earther or a flat-earther, the incontrovertible truth is, the Sun moves around quite a bit. Thus you’re all the time having to adjust where you’re sitting under the tent. SO – I decided to make a zip-on set of walls for the tent, which should cover two sides. I’m never out there long enough to need to cover three sides, and if you need to cover FOUR sides, well then you might as well stay inside, right?

As Captain Picard would say: There. Are. Four. Sides!

No Captain, there are only two.

So I’m zipping along sewing my zipper to the tent top and my piece of fabric and thinking, “Jeez it would sure be nice to be making something to hike with!” And I got to thinking about my ultimate project, something that would require all my skills with needle, thread, and construction, and started musing about making my own backpack.

My first backpack was way too large and heavy, see. I got into the whole hiking thing rather uninformed. When I started shopping around for a second one, I almost bought this one: 

The videos made it look really nice, with easy-to-use pockets and all that. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure if I could fit all my crap into it, and I went with the 65 Liter Deuter ACT Lite. It’s a great pack, and it’s taken me on great journeys and has a LOT of life left in it. BUT! It suffers from an issue that the Gregory above looks to have solved.

It appears to have side pockets that are actually useful. See, most backpacks have side pockets, but they’re pretty useless. By the time you fill the pack and put it on, getting a water bottle out and back in becomes a struggle, so you either don’t’ drink enough OR you resort to a bladder, and the side pockets are only used when you stop for some reason. So why have them at all, other than for additional space?

The pack above was only sold for a short while, and it must not have worked out well for Gregory, because it was discontinued. Strange, because I looked up why it was discontinued and saw nothing but positives about it.

So, in addition to side pockets that are actually useful, and plenty of space, what am I seeking from a backpack?

  1. A challenge. I’ve made hammock chairs, hammocks, even a complete hammock and bug net. I made a rain fly (which we will NOT discuss). I’ve yet to try to make clothes other than a rain kilt.
  2. A lighter pack. By making it myself I may be able to shave some weight here and there, by leaving off some things.
  3. A pack that fits my particular set of needs.

What are my particular needs?

  1. Pockets that work, damn it! My Deuter has hip belt pockets that are too small for most anything. Sure you can store a wadded map, a bottle of eye drops and a 2 inch knife in there, but that’s about all. Forget an iphone 6 or a point and shoot camera. As for water bottles, forget that, too. The mesh pockets are nice but they are too far back and too high to be useful for water bottles.
  2. A built in holster. Right now if I carry my gun it’s over my head in the top section. I have to reach way over my head and hope I can get the zipper open and the gun hasn’t shifted all the way to the back. How about a nice space between the padded back and the interior of the pack for a small automatic? pull the zipper down, reach in and there it is.
  3. Built in raincover holder. My first pack had that, a little double layer of fabric on the bottom with a slot for holding the raincover. Pull it out to use it and stuff it back when you’re done. It made life simple.
  4. Tie-Dye. Let’s face it, everything else I make is Tie-Dyed, why shouldn’t my pack be that way? I’m thinking red and black, but a purple and black mix might be nice too.
  5. Expansion and shrinkage areas that really work. On my deuter pack pulling in the side straps to change the shape of the pack don’t really seem to do anything. So whether you are carrying a full load or a light summer load, the pack seems to always be the same shape.
  6. Drain holes under the bladder area. Why has no one thought of this? My pack has a separate sleeve area inside for the water bladder. Its all good until the bladder breaks, then where is the water going? Yeah, into your pack. What about a water bag sleeve area made of water repellant fabric, with a series of narrow slots at the bottom of the pack. If the bladder breaks, sure your ass is wet, but you know it immediately and your sleeping bag stays dry.
  7. Loops, loops everywhere. Deuter had a great series of daisy chains on the ACT pack. They don’t have them on the ACT lite but they have a few paracord loops in strategic places. I’m thinking if they had a few more of those, the pack would be even more useful for holding stuff on the outside. Say, a rainfly that got soaked and you don’t want it inside the pack.

And that’s about all of that for now. Incidentally I priced a few backpack parts like fabric and tubing, and it seems you can buy a pack cheaper than you can buy parts. I guess that’s why all the companies shifted production to Asia: Buying in bulk saves lots of money, and 12 year olds sew pretty cheaply.

I’m on Amazon! Kindle Version, at least…

For some reason the Amazon store takes forever, but if you want to read me on Kindle, here I am:

Yes, that’s me on the cover. You may recognize the picture if you have been a long term follower of me. That was one of my favorite hikes, the one Uncle Johnny (Of Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel, Erwin TN fame) called the most beautiful section of the Appalachian Trail. Its taken from Big Hump Mountain, near Roan High Knob I think, and we spent the night at Doll Flats. I wasn’t prepared to spend most of the day in the sun and wound up a little red, but it was still a gorgeous hike.

I made it free on “Kindle Unlimited” so it won’t cost you anything if you are part of that service, and I turned on the “lend” mode so you can lend to your friends for two weeks. I figured that’s the least I could do, after all with paper versions you can pass them around.

So far it’s only available on Kindle, but they tell me next week some time the “Dead tree” version will be out. I was happy with it when I finished it, but I keep thinking of little things I should have added here and there. Maybe I’ll do a volume 2 a few years from now… Also, the Kindle Store tells me I made a few spelling errors (which Pages didn’t catch while I was writing. Seriously?) so you’ll have to watch out for those. I didn’t pay the $200 for professional design and editing. I’ll only make about 30 cents off each Kindle book, and slightly more than that on each paper one, so I figured $200 was pushing the budget.

But: maybe if they send me a tax form for my income at the end of the year, I can claim some hiking food and a new kilt as a “business expense” and come out negative? So, help a fellow hiker at least get a tax break and buy a copy. I know what my family will be getting for Christmas – autographed copies!

In the meantime I’m pretty much done for the summer for hiking. I might try to squeeze in a day hike here and there. I REALLY wanted to close the Sams Gap to Erwin TN hole that I have left, before fall. When that’s done I’ll have an unbroken line from Davenport Gap NC to Damascus, VA. Otherwise I’m taking a hiking Hiatus while the bugs and plants are at their worst.

I recently had a terrible allergic rash to something. I think I accidentally weed-whacked some poison ivy near the tree line in the back yard, and it played havoc with me for weeks. Three doctor visits and enough antihistamines and prednisone to choke a horse, and it’s mostly gone. I’m really surprised I haven’t contracted it in the woods. Generally when I’m hiking I do a good job of pushing anything green out of the way, with the exception of the odd Stinging Nettles which tend to pop me in the legs. But at least Nettles are over with in around 30 minutes. Poison Ivy (if that’s what it was) goes on forever.

The rash and it’s accompanying itch and general malaise from all the meds made me miss two hiking days. So, now I’m considering other avenues of outdoor expression. Maybe it’s time to consider building that backpack I’ve wanted to design.

It’s finally happened… almost. maybe.

A couple of years ago I started writing a hiking/backpacking book, based on my initial forays into the wilderness. Mainly it was a chance to tell other people “hey, dumbass, don’t do _____”. Most hiking books seem to be full of helpful hints about what you should do, things that the author  found worked for him/her.

I took a different approach, saying “Hey, here’s where I screwed up”, and giving several options that I didn’t know about. I intended on trying to get it published, but that is the part of writing that sucks. It doesn’t take much to write a book.

It takes a lot to find someone to say, “This book isn’t total shit and we might take a chance on you”. Which is why Blogs are so popular… blogs give regular people the opportunity to be authors, even though if you put most blogs in front of publishers, we’d get rejection letters and be sent home to drown our sorrows in alcohol.

BUT – thanks to Amazon and CreateSpace, my hiking book will soon see the light of day. CreateSpace and Kindle seem to be about as big a pain in the butt as anything else. First you have to upload your book, then there are a LOT of preview steps, then you proof your book. I ordered a printed copy and marked it all up with a pen. It’s amazing what you see in print that you gloss over on the screen. The I re-typed it, re-submitted it, and finally, boom, it was done.

For some damn reason though, Kindle is a separate system and you have to re-do a bunch of steps to go from “dead tree version” to “electronic version”. I’m not sure why, but you do.

So, I’m waiting on “How Not to Backpack” to be approved, but once it is, you’ll be able to buy my stuff in the Amazon and Kindle e-store.

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.

 

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.

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-3-10-15-pm

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:

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-4-08-18-pm

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.

img_6425

 

The Taco Wrap

Most hikers that spend a lot of time with the same group, or hike long distances on the AT, have a trail name of some sort. My hiking friends gave me the name Taco because I sleep in a hammock. Some people call hammocks “Bear Tacos”. There was even a Kickstarter project at one point called exactly that: The Bear Taco hammock.

It’s not the best trail name, I agree. It sounds like I really love Mexican food or something. I heard an awesome trail name this weekend. They named a guy Crime Scene, because he uses a little wood-burning stove, gets sooty, and leaves little black fingerprints all over everything. His gear looks like the Crime Scene guys have been dusting for prints, evidently.

But – I digress. This past weekend I was camping along the Foothills Trail in South Carolina down by a river. It was a bit cold, but nothing terrible. I wasn’t sure about the weather and how cold it might be, and if there would be bugs. Normally I take my open top, netless hammock in the winter. Laying in it at night though, I was quite surprised by how well the bug net cut down on the cold breeze. Evidently there is a lot of drag created by the little net holes. I unzipped the net just a bit at one point to adjust my under quilt, and a cold breeze blew in like I opened a window. This got me thinking – how could I better insulate my hammock for the cold, while still letting out nasty condensation and breathing.

Hennessy Hammock sells something they call the Over Cover. Its basically a cloth top with portholes that clips over the bug net.

Hennessy Over Cover
Hennessy Over Cover

It looks pretty interesting, and much like what I’ve tried to do in the past using various clothing items on my ridge line. But, instead of an extra piece of cloth to carry and rig, it would be nice to have something completely attached. I already have to string up a tarp, then a hammock, then a Grizz Beak on the end if it’s cold/wet. Now I’m looking at yet another thing to put up. To keep camp simple and fast (especially in the cold) it would be nice to have something fully integrated.

My last hammock came from Hammeck, a company that has since gone out of business temporarily while the family concentrates on other things. But, they sold something called the Envy S, that’s exactly what I’m looking for. I found a video online and took a screenshot.

Envy S top with door
Envy S top with door

In this hammock, (hammeck) you climb in and zip it closed. Then, If you want a lot of air moving through, you unzip it from the inside and there’s still a bug net. But if it’s cold outside, you can zip the thing completely closed if you want. So, bug protection, wind protection, and still in hammock form. Perfect! But, since they’re shut down, I have to make my own.

The Taco Wrap. Something to completely wrap up Taco.

The first step in making this thing was to put together a hammock blank. Those are REALLY easy. I’ve gotten to the point where I can cut and hem a single-piece hammock in an hour. It’s really not that hard. It took me just as long to make the ridge line and loops for the ends. I’m getting to the point that I don’t much like working with the amsteel rope. It’s just a pain in the ass making loops and such.

By the end of the night I had made a hammock and ridge line, ready for suspension testing. OF course, I have to take it apart and tie dye it… it wouldn’t be a Taco Hammock without Tie Dye!

The next step will be preparing the top cover and deciding how much of a window I want. After that’s done, I ‘ll tie-dye the top as well, then begin cutting windows and installing top fabric.