Mar 29, 2014

Ice cream machine got unplugged this week - I spent the whole week in a federally-designed training class. Death By Powerpoint section 437.

It was mostly good material, though. I survived and passed, and now have a rather thick booklet of tasks to get signed off in order to move from "trained" to "qualified".

There is a "tech" parallel to this class ("leader") which looks far more interesting. If I can find one to attend.

Mar 21, 2014

Ham grab-box

At least part of the attraction of ham radio for me is the "shit done gone sideways" resilience of it. It's a (relatively) grid-independent way to communicate over a variety of distances when all else fails. I haven't looked into the longer-distance stuff yet - 10m and lower bands - but it will happen as time, funding, and space allow.

There are plenty of hams out there who build elaborate (and large) emergency communications boxes, that take up half the volume of their van and allow them to talk to God on simplex. Bully for them, but it's not something I'm interested in just yet.

A co-worker is a weather geek and goes stormchasing every spring and summer - without radio communications. While it's certainly possible to get a lot of the info via scanner, weather radio, and now smart phones, being able to tap directly into and participate in the SKYWarn 'nets is huge - especially if a storm starts taking down cell towers.

I'm planning to go chasing with him this year when our schedules line up, and wanted a VHF/UHF kit I could easily move from car to car. Beyond that, I wanted to be able to operate (at least briefly) without an external power source.

I already had a Yaesu FT-90R, Tram 1185 magnetic mount antenna, and a Vault VC-12 dry box. The next step? Adding a battery, some kind of external power, and shoehorning it all together. The VC-12 has internal dimensions of 11.75"W x 8.5"L x 4"D.

I did some digging for batteries, and ended up buying a 10Ah SLA via Gruber Power Services. It should be enough to run the radio for a couple hours of receive with minimal transmitting, can be installed in any direction, and most importantly will fit in the case.

But how to charge the battery? There is a West Mountain PG40 Powergate, which is a UPS circuit for 12V applications. It is, unfortunately, quite expensive ($140ish) and large. Reading through some forum posts, I found mention of the KI0BK Low-loss Powergate, which is much less expensive ($50), about half the size, and generally simpler. Done. Ordered. Add a cigar-plug cord and... steady power plus auto-swap to the battery if power is lost.

A fair number of hams will insist that an emergency box needs to be able to take power from an AC outlet... and I don't entirely disagree. But it wasn't in the cards for this particular setup; it would have added weight and complexity to the situation and seen very little use.

Next, how to connect the antenna? The radio is small but still cozy in the box. Much easier if the antenna just plugs in to the side of the case... so add a short patch cord and a bulkhead fitting, a bit of work with a 5/8" drill, and voila!

But that heavy battery ... that'll slide around if I'm not careful. So... I'll add a small L-bracket or two and some velcro, and I think that'll be set.

And the obligatory pictures:

 I've got a bit of work left to do - I need to fab a bracket for the radio, a mic hanger, and get the battery strapped down. I'm sort of considering swapping the FT-90 for the FT-7800 I also have, which has a detachable faceplate and is a bit easier to navigate through (and program), but is slightly larger. We shall see.

Mar 20, 2014

Base antenna: installed

Stopped at Home Despot this morning and picked up a few needfuls to finish the antenna:
- a 1-1/4" flexible coupler (1-1/4x1 would have been preferable, but none were to be found at HD)
- a 1x36" black iron nipple
- a bag of zip ties

This afternoon I climbed my ass back up on the roof, and checked fit. The coupler is a darn-near perfect fit for the Dish mast, requiring only a few turns on the pipe clamp to be solid. I wrapped a dozen turns of duct tape around the base of the iron pipe and slipped that into the mast, then tightened down the coupler as much as possible. There is a little play but it's in no danger of coming out.

With that done, I slipped the antenna clamp over the top and cranked it down... then looked at orientation and realized I'd put KC directly in the shadow of the iron pipe. It might not matter, but then again, it might - so I loosened the clamp up and spun the antenna around 90 degrees to put the 70cm stub facing roughly north, hopefully giving me good coverage of the metro area repeaters. (Yes, I can slide the antenna up a few inches to the very end of the mast, and may need to - but I'll test this first.)

I tossed the coil of coax over the side and started zip-tying things together...

and together ...

and together ...

I put in a pair of drip loops at the bottom, tucked it through the top corner of the garage door, and made it in to the basement... then ran out of time and had to get ready for work.

But the antenna? That's up. I should be done on the roof for the foreseeable future.

I did consider a longer piece of pipe, but this was heavy enough and got the ground radials well clear of the roof. When I'm no longer renting, I'll look at a true mast.

Mar 19, 2014

It's (still) the economy, stupid

I've been gently harping here about precious metals and hedging. Both Bayou Renaissance Man and The Silicon Graybeard are more eloquent in their writing on the same topics... but I'll keep doing it anyway.

TSG just posted a good one on what has happened to the dollar thanks to inflation and the lack of a standard.

When I opened a savings account with a new bank out here they offered some promotion that would double my interest rate... to 0.08% APY. That's not a typo. The (promotional!) savings interest rate is under a tenth of a percent annually. I actually had to ask the bank rep to write it down for me, to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding.

I found an online bank (Barclays US) that offers 0.9% APY on savings. More than ten times better but still not even close to keeping up with inflation.

You can buy US Government Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, which are adjusted against the Consumer Price Index... but since the CPI has half a dozen different methodologies, including ones that exclude the price fluctuations in food and fuel ... well. Good luck. The CPI over the past ten years has shown a 2-4% annual increase. Money sitting in the bank is effectively losing 3% of its purchasing power each year.

In the past people used to say overpaying one's taxes in order to get a refund in the spring was giving the government an interest-free loan, and robbing oneself of the interest-earning power of that income. I suppose that's still true, but there sure isn't much interest to be had.

Especially in light of the "bail-ins" that occurred in Europe last year, I'd be hesitant about just how many eggs I'd put in any basket. One of the silver forums I read uses the catchphrase, "If you don't hold it, you don't own it." Words of wisdom, but the logistics and safety of storage become an issue.

An ounce (troy) of silver is a hair under 3cc actual volume, or in coin form about 41mm diameter and 3mm thick. At current spot price, it's worth about $21. (The preceding, by the by, is why paper currency became prevalent. Carrying a thousand dollars in paper is simple; 50oz of silver is doable but awkward.) An ounce of gold is about half the size - 33mm diameter and 3mm thick - and worth 65x as much ($1330 as I type this). So - easy to carry, but also harder to work with for small exchanges. Even a 1/10oz gold Eagle is trading around $150 right now, so if you're going to "make change" from that it's going to be a handful of silver ounces. Paper bills make sense - given the condition that they are not fiat currency.

But going back to storage... it's easy to stack a few thousand (or a few tens of thousands) of dollars in a shoebox at home. It's easy to put a few dozen ounces of silver or gold away in the same way... but experienced burglars know where things are likely to be stored, and will check those places first. Stuffing it into a corner of the gun safe works to a point - if your safe is really safe. Even so - see above re: eggs/baskets. So where to keep it?

A safe deposit box? If the banks are "bailing-in", expect to have difficulty accessing that box for a bit.
Friends and family? I know a lot of people I'd happily loan twenty bucks, but asking them to hold a thousand or two? Iffy.
Hidden in the walls? Possible, but make sure you don't forget it when you sell the house... not to mention the loss if there's a fire.
Buried in the back yard? I hope you've got a REAL good map.

I can't tell you how to store your valuables - it's for you to decide what level of risk vs. accessibility you're willing to accept. I will, however, make the following suggestion:

Have CASH on hand. Enough to pay your rent or mortgage for at least a couple months. Not just big bills, either. If the bank is closed for the next two months, be able to pay your rent and utilities and eat and put gas in the car without swiping a card. If you need to use that cash (for groceries, or gas, or new tires, or whatever), don't hesitate to do so - but replace it immediately. With a "penalty" if possible. I dig into my stash once in a while if I need to get dinner at work but don't have time for an ATM stop. Then I stop at the ATM on the way home and replace what I took, plus a $20 penalty.

After that...

Put some cash into tangibles. I don't care what you buy - silver, gold, brass and lead, walnut and steel - but have something that has a value beyond what the government thinks it's worth.

And it should go without saying, buying tangibles is dependent on being OUT of "bad" debt. No credit cards hanging over your head. If you have a car payment, pay it down and be done as soon as you can.

DON'T put off building up an emergency cash stash, though. Seriously. It's a comfort that's hard to describe.

Brown truck of- GORRAMMIT

Brown truck brought the remainder of the kit I needed for a base antenna AND to finish my portable box.

I stuck the antenna together, climbed up to the roof, and put the antenna on the mas- ... wait, what?

Much expletives ensued.

Arrow Antennas apparently have a 1.5" max clamping diameter.

DISH masts are 1.675" outer diameter.

I climbed back down with the antenna in hand, and I'll be stopping at the Orange store tomorrow to accumulate the pieces I need... a 1.25x1 reducer, a 3-foot piece of 1" galv, some zip ties, etc.

Tomorrow afternoon, back to the roof to attempt assembly again, and hopefully get my ham desk set up a bit more permanently. Look for pictures in the near future.

Mar 16, 2014

Ham update

I haven't been doing a lot with the radios lately. Worked a lot of overtime, got MrsZ moved out here permanently, closed on the old house, etc. I've finally started making efforts to correct this.

Our duplex has a DirecTV dish up on the roof that we don't use - and have no intention of doing so. I'm going to remove the dish from its little mast, and put an antenna up there. I've ordered a smallish (in the scheme of things) Arrow GP antenna to use, along with the necessary cabling and seals.

In the same vein, a co-worker does stormchasing but doesn't have a communications guy to go with him... so I'm putting together a portable mobile kit. I've got a Yaesu FT-90, which is one of the smallest VHF/UHF mobiles ever made - smaller than a VHS tape. I've got a little faux-Pelican case to mount it in, and a magnetic antenna to stick on a roof. I've ordered a small battery and a 12V cigar plug to add into the case...

Stay tuned. (Pun fully intended.)

Mar 14, 2014

Pretty silver!

I won't lie - I have a thing for the "America the Beautiful" silver coins. They're 5oz coins with a face value of a quarter (thanks to a bit of Congressional doofidity), and feature various scenes from around the country. I'm keeping an eye out for a few that I don't have yet (Acadia Nat'l Park in particular), but not eager to pay the premium many of them are pulling.

The mint just announced the designs and release dates for 2014.

Great Smoky Mountains Nat'l Park (April 7)
Shenandoah Nat'l Park (May 15)
Arches Nat'l Park (June 12)
Great Sand Dunes Nat'l Park (August)
Everglades Nat'l Park (November)

Absolutely beautiful.

If you're planning to collect them, the mint has a subscription plan available that'll save 10% from list price, and they'll just appear in your mailbox. Yes, I did. There's a limited mintage planned, the coins are gorgeous, and values only seem to be increasing. Highly recommended.

Mar 13, 2014

New silver cards available

New silver cards are available:

All prices are plus shipping, USPS First Class in a padded mailer with delivery confirmation, about $3.50.
Description - Quantity Avail - Price each
Mercury Cards - 6 - $4.25
MiniMercs - 9 -$4.00
1/20 Libertad MiniCards - 9 - $6.00
1g Minicards, misc designs - 11 - $3.00
1/10 Mercury Minicard - 1 - $6.00
5 grain Minicard - 2 triangle, 2 bar - $2.50
Payment by paypal F&F/gift or merchandise +4%. I will consider trades.

I have supplies for plenty more of the dimes, 1g, and 5-grain cards, but don't want to take orders on things I haven't completed - knowing my luck the laminator would take a crap. Those will be up in the near future as time allows me to complete them.

Mar 7, 2014

Storm Ready

... except I'm really not. I've lived most of my life in the northeast, where being ready for a storm meant a few extra days of food and an extra snow shovel stashed in the garage. Storm cellar? What's that?

It's time to make space in the basement and put away a few necessities.

Mar 6, 2014

Provident Metals: No longer recommended

In the past year, I've suggested a few different sources for precious metals to readers here. Among them were APMEX, Provident Metals, Montana Rarities, and Monarch Precious Metals.

You'll note that Provident is not made hot above. I can't recommend them anymore, thanks to a business decision they made which I find incredibly distasteful. Late last summer they released the first of their "Zombucks" silver rounds, with the promise that each coin would be a limited-run item, minted only to fill orders, and never minted again. I ordered a few extra of the first two designs in the vague hopes that they may maintain some collectible value in the future.

Well, they broke that promise last month and are re-striking the rounds in "proof" versions with a higher price tag.

To hell with that. If you need silver, gold, or other precious metals, look to one of the hot links above. APMEX has a phenomenal selection but tends to run a slightly higher premium - with the customer service to match. Highly recommended. Montana Rarities has a wide selection in smaller quantities and is friendly as heck. Monarch has some beautiful unique items. There's also Silvertowne, which is great for onesie-twosie buying with their free-shipping promos.

I just emailed them and let them know they've lost a customer permanently; there are plenty of other dealers who are more than happy to take my money and provide beautiful shiny things. Below is a copy of the letter I sent:
Dear Provident:

I've ordered several times from you over the past year. I was excited by the Zombucks series and had every intention of completing a set of silver and set of copper tubes... until you released the new "proof" after initially advertising the rounds as limited-run never-to-be-struck-again items. I'm a regular over on /r/silverbugs - which I know your company has a presence on - and the bad taste you've created there is tremendous.

I'm sure you can look at my order history (all were placed using this email address) and note that I'm not a large-volume customer - perhaps the loss of that business means nothing to you. I'm also sure you know that word-of-mouth referrals are often a company's best source of new customers, and I've referred several friends to your company over the past year. I've made several references to your site on my blog, which doesn't have a huge following but does tend to bring 30-50 unique views daily.

No more. No more orders, no more referrals. I'll be spending my money with APMEX, Monarch, and NWT Mint. I'll be copying this letter verbatim to my blog.
  (real name)