May 31, 2014

Camp gear update

Sleeping bag and Thermarest pad arrived today, both look excellent - although the mummy bag is a bit more snug than I'm used to. Still, it's light and that's the point.

I decided to go on a completely different tack on the stove. I still want an MSR WhisperLite International. AND a Kelly Kettle. But I decided that for this trip I didn't want to worry about finding fuel for the Kelly, and the MSR is more than I wanted to spend right now.

I just ordered an Optimus Crux along with the Terra Weekender Cookset (ordered from Campmor, for about $75 for the whole kit). I need to add a couple cans of fuel, but the "light" and "nests" factors are huge.

Waiting for stuff to arrive, of course, but once it's all here and I pick a date... :-)

May 29, 2014

Camp stoves

Alright kids, I'm planning a short solo camping/backpacking trip in the near future, and starting to acquire the gear I need - most of what I own is more suited to car-camping than backpacking. I'll make do with my two-man Eureka! tent instead of coughing up for a one-man bivy for now. I've ordered a new North Face "Wasatch" 30-degree bag and a Thermarest pad. Lights? I've got those covered. Knives, guns, radios? Yep, those too.

I've ordered an area-specific map from MyTopo - who I have ordered from before. Instead of buying (and carrying) four USGS quads for the area I'm going to be in, I ordered a custom map at USGS scale (1:24,000) centered on the area I need. It's printed on water- and tear-resistant "paper" - kind of plasticky stuff - at a convenient 24x36 size. $22 to my door in a week or so. (They have other options available, including satellite imagery, at varying prices.)

I've got water purification covered, in the form of a Katadyn pump and a MiOx pen.

I still need to pick up a decent compass... and a stove.

There are two major contenders right now:

The Kelly Kettle "Trekker" kit, and the MSR Whisperlite. They're both solid choices, and each has advantages and disadvantages. I'm hoping for direct input from people who have actually used them in the field/on the trail and not just on their back stoop. I've read plenty of reviews from various places... but I want to know what YOU think.

Please chime in.

(I'll be posting a complete gear list with weights sometime around my trip.)

May 26, 2014

June ePostal match...

Is being handled by Brigid and Partner this month, as Mr. Completely is down with some medical issues.

Participating has long been on my "I need to do that" list. I still need to. Mayhaps I'll give this one a whirl - although my range has holders at 7 and 15 yards instead of the recommended 10. Doesn't matter; any range time is good range time. :)

Ammo is dear these days, but it's a ten-shot match. I suspect most of us could dump out the change tray or center console in the car and find ten rounds of something...

May 19, 2014

Car hunting

As mentioned in my last post, we're now on the hunt for a new car for MrsZ. We sold her CR-V back in NY before she moved out here, for various reasons. With three adults and two cars in the house, we were doing pretty well. Since GfZ is going to be away for most of a week at a time, and MrsZ is going to be going back to work, it's time to find her a set of wheels.

This is not proving as easy as I'd hoped.

My wish list is relatively short:
- reliable
- fuel efficient
- non-salvage title
- reasonable condition
- as far under $10,000 as possible, and preferably under $5,000

Franchise car dealerships (So-and-so $BigBrand) don't do a lot of business in this price range. When I was in the business in '99-'00, we didn't do a lot under the $6,000 mark - the margins get thin and the cars tend to need more work than it's worth for a business to make them sale-ready. Usually it's not even big work, but it adds up in a hurry.

For example:

A ten-year-old compact sedan with 130,000 miles, taken in on trade for $4,000. On average it's going to need new tires ($500), maybe a new set of brake pads ($150), an oil change ($20), alignment ($75), inspection ($15), wiper blades ($20), and a good detailing ($100). About $850 of work all told. So the work gets started, and while it's on the alignment rack it's found to have a worn control-arm bushing. Another couple hours of labor and fifty bucks in parts.. before you know it you've put $1,500 into the car and the break-even point (on paper) is now $5,500. That's not making a dent in overhead, or making up the shop time "lost" on paying customer cars. No profit yet, just breaking even. It goes on the lot with a sticker of $7,500 (and book value* is, say, $8,000).

Joe Customer comes in looking for a car for his daughter, on her way to college. She loves this car, and it's in dad's budget. But he wants another opinion. So he takes it to his mechanic, who throws it on the rack and pronounces the suspension worn, the brake rotors borderline, the exhaust is almost rusted through, and the transmission shifts too hard. He can fix these things for $900. Joe comes back with the car and the list, and asks for $1,400 off: $500 because no one ever pays list, and $900 to fix the items on the inspection report.

Negotiation ensues. The dealership agrees to fix the items on the report before delivery - internal cost about $600, but Joe doesn't need to know that. They'll take another $300 off, but can't do the full $500 Joe wants. Dickering continues, and they finally settle on $400. Done. Joe brings in a check for $7,100 (and tax, and fees, etc) and daughter drives off to college in her new used car.

The dealership has a gross profit of $1,000 in the car. ($7,100 sale less $600 additional repairs, less $5,500 purchase and initial repairs.) From that, they have to pay the salesman ($75-250, depending on the pay arrangement) and the rest of the overhead costs - which are not small. For the sake of round numbers, another $700 covers overhead and salaries etc. Owner nets $300. Not bad, not bad at all.

Except a month later, Joe's daughter hits a pothole hard enough to crack something. She won't admit that to dad, so he assumes it was a defect the dealership knew about and hid - and starts badmouthing them to anyone who will listen. Is the loss of business worth $300? Debatable.

Back to the topic at hand, though: we kept a couple sub-$5,000 cars tucked in a corner. Not advertised, but around. Most of the list started in the $8-10k range (this was in 1999, remember). Dealerships have apparently continued this approach.

Used car lots are an even dicier proposition than a franchise - they have less to lose, often fly under the radar, and will change names, owners, and DBA/LLC to avoid bad reps. If I see a "BUY HERE - PAY HERE" sign I keep driving. Dodgy cars will get bare-minimums done to pass a state inspection, then flip off the lot. Warranty service? Fuhgeddaboutit. And unfortunately, the folks who tend to frequent that type of lot are either not informed about or not able/willing to take advantage of consumer protections that are out there.

I've been trolling Craigslist trying to find a suitable car. I've had a couple good leads, and we were all set to go look at one today. Twelve-year-old Honda Civic, 125k, pictures looked good, price was fair if a little high. MrsZ called Friday night and got the address and set up a time to meet on Saturday afternoon - and we'll call when we're on the way.

We went to the bank and withdrew enough cash to pay for the car. I put together all the bits and pieces I needed to give it a thorough once-over. I asked a few people who knew the area about the neighborhood we were going to. General consensus was, "a little rough but not really bad; just keep your head up." Fair enough. I added a NY reload to the normal carry, and we headed out.

We called when we headed out and they'd forgotten us. Can we reschedule for tomorrow morning? Sure. Picked a time. And then we threw the curve ball. Would you mind meeting us in the police station parking lot? It's two miles away and we'd feel better in a public place. They promptly declined, because they "didn't want to bother driving the car somewhere for a maybe". Game over. MrsZ said, "Oh. Okay. Thanks anyways, we're not interested then. Bye."

A few years ago I wrote a post about using your head when buying stuff online. Nothing has changed, especially this line: "if things sound hinky, don't be afraid to back out of the deal beforehand."

The car we were going to look at was listed for a few thousand dollars. The sellers obviously knew that, and someone who was serious about it was going to bring about that much money. People have been killed for far less. Trust the lizard brain. Walk away if something isn't right.

All that said ... anyone have a line on a used car? We're still looking. :-)

* - "book value" is a crock of shit. It's improved slightly from when the book was the NADA Guide, but the only real measure of used car values is what they're running at the auctions right now. The Book may say your used Yugo is worth five thousand, but The Book ain't writing the check. It's a good starting point at best.

May 18, 2014

Life Changes

There's been a whole hell of a lot of upheaval in the Z world lately. A lot of downers, truth be told.

GfZ was let go from her new job with no notice. "You're not a good fit for us." Well ... shit. Until a week later, when GfZ got a call from NY that her grandfather had a stroke and was in the ER. Immediate flight back, a week of keeping Grandpa company and comfortable, then a week or so of funeral and estate stuff. Suddenly losing the job looked pretty insignificant. On the upside, he's back with Grandma, and not suffering.

About five hours after my last post I went in to work for a scheduled mandatory staff meeting. The top brass and the union board were all present. Not a good sign. Short form: due to budget constraints, the department is closing the comm center and contracting out those services to another agency. There may be jobs for some of you but it's not in concrete yet. Estimated time frame: 90-120 days. Well ... shit.

MrsZ is fighting back and forth with an orthopod and an imaging center to get an MRI done on her shoulder, which has been bothering her for months - sometimes to the point of non-function. She's still trying to find a job out here and getting frustrated by the lack of response.

Now, to turn it around...
GfZ has a new "temp" job lined up. Starts next week. Unfortunately, it's three hours away. We went and scouted the area last weekend and checked out a room she's renting from a young soldier. He's squared away, the house is squared away, the commute from there to work is tolerable. She should be home with us for a day or two every week, although schedule changes may sometimes prevent that.

I will have a severance package and I'm cautiously optimistic about being hired on by the new agency. There are some speed bumps and it will likely be a pay cut, but it's a job with benefits. If that's the case, I can stuff the severance check in the bank and not worry about it.

In parallel with that, I'm starting to seriously consider going back to school. I'm hoping to take at least one class in fall semester, with an eye towards going back full-time in a year or so. The flavor of the week ... is nursing.

Don't get me wrong. I (usually) love dispatching. I'm a damn good dispatcher. But one point was driven home to me over the last eighteen months of job hunting and moving: the skillset is eminently portable... and the pay generally sucks. I read dozens if not hundreds of openings for dispatchers when I was looking last year. Most agencies were paying in the low-teens per hour or less. I was making the same money working for BBHIS, with far less responsibility.

But that's a rant for a whole different post.

Right now, we're addressing a few expenses we'd been putting off, while we know we have an income to handle them. We're making a few conscious splurges - nothing extravagant, but important to us. We plan to spend a day on a rental boat this week. My suppressor is still in the works. And, unfortunately, we're car shopping. (More on that in another post, soon.) The belts are being tightened, because we don't know what's coming ... but we'll get through it together.

May 6, 2014

Review: Radarscope

Warning: weather geekery below.

I first heard about RadarScope when I went to the National Weather Service's Spotter class a couple months ago. It was mentioned almost as an aside by the instructor - for those who wanted more and/or better radar info, particularly for mobile spotting/chasing.

It's an app available for Android, iOS, and MacOS... and their site is not terribly informative. A few screen shots, some buzzwords, but not a lot of meat. Not particularly encouraging, and the app is ten bucks. No, not a lot in the scheme of things, but ten bucks on an unknown is... well, a bit of a gamble.

Before we went chasing a couple weeks ago, I decided to bite the bullet and get the app. I figured if a meteorologist from NOAA/NWS had recommended it, there must be something to it.

Worth. Every. Penny.

Fingertip panning, standard pinch-to-zoom, access to most weather radars in the country, and a lot of the features you won't see on your local news.

Most of us are used to the standard weather radar, showing reflectivity (precipitation) and the standard color scale:

How about the same image, but available in hi-res:

When you're looking at hazardous weather, being able to see finer details matters.

Other imaging info available includes "HCA", or "Hydrometeor classification". In English, "what's actually falling". Tap-and-hold on the scale on the bottom shows what each color signifies (and this works in all modes). This shows graupel/gropple as a pinkish tan:

A simple tap on the "sweep" icon changes the map from radar sites to city names, and back:

(That image, by the by, is "storm base velocity". Green indicates flow towards the radar site and red is moving away from the radar site. This is particularly useful for identifying rotation...)

Storm warnings are shown in yellow, tornado warnings are shown in red, and flood warnings are green. The little red number-in-an-oval in the top right indicates the total number of watches/warnings across the country. This is unedited, straight from the iPhone. Radarscope will draw the predicted storm path (white line), outline warning areas, and so forth. Below is a classic example of a tornado "hook echo" near Knoxville, TN on 4/29/14:

And here's the storm base velocity for the same storm. See the little swirl-blob just northeast of Rockford? That's the vortex signature; the change in coloring (to red) shows there is "something" moving against the flow of everything else.

Other radar modes (that I haven't taken screen caps of) include rainfall totals, Vertical Integrated Liquid (another chaser favorite; great for identifying hail cores), Echo Tops (how tall is the storm?), and some dual-polarization stuff that I don't pretend to understand yet.

Location services work beautifully and will automagically select the closest radar, and will even show a triangle depicting what your approximate field of view is:

Data usage is VERY frugal - a solid day of chasing and constantly referring to the radar for storm info only used about 40MB of data.

If you're a weather geek, or spotter, or chaser, this is absolutely worth having on your mobile device. Yes, it's one of the more expensive things in the app store, but honestly? Ten bucks is a couple of mocha-frappa-froo-froos, or a box of 5.56.

May 5, 2014

White truck of happy...

Normally it's the brown truck, but this box came USPS.

I've got a few things I need to do quick write-ups on and get posted here.

And I need to order some AR tools... I've got the start of an upper to build!


When I first got in touch with the dealer about the can I was looking for, he had them in stock. That changed between then (admittedly a couple months back) and yesterday when I went to his shop to buy one.

So, I have ordered and paid for a Silencerco Sparrow. He has placed the order with his distributor (or with Silencerco direct? Not sure.), who will have to Form-3 it to him, and then I can do the Form 4 and send the ATF $200 and begin to wait.

If eForms aren't back up by the time it's here, I'm going to paper file and be prepared to wait. If they come back up after I've paper-filed, I'll either consider another can (unlikely) or start a Form 1 to "manufacture" an SBR or two.

For those keeping track at home, the timeline and costs thus far have been:
- Forming an NFA Trust (so MrsZ and GfZ can take the cans out without me): $350, 2 weeks
- Sparrow: $485 inc. sales tax

ATF has announced they have doubled the number of examiners doing NFA stuff, and temp-dutied people from other offices in the agency to help clear the backlog. I'm cautiously optimistic that I may see this suppressor by the new year - eight months away.

May 3, 2014


My NFA trust is complete. I'm going to the pusher on Sunday to pay and do paperwork for my first item, a .22 suppressor. Unfortunately, eForms are still down. Such is life. 

I see this being a danger to my wallet. I plan on the can ASAP, and I'm already looking at SBR stuff. I'm strongly considering doing a Form 1 on the 15-22 and then threading it. Because damn that'd be sweet.