Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Back at it

The house is down to just my lovely wife and I right now. The last of the grandchildren was handed off to her father last night.

Our list of things to do before heading south has gotten longer instead of shorter. Issues that I thought were taken care of have to be revisited. Other things like an extra trip to the dentist have popped up.

Right now too much time and effort is going into just trying to keep warm.

Oh well, this too shall pass.

We had a great visit with friends and family over the Christmas break.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Off to the real world

Greetings loyal readers. I've got a house full of company the next few days so posting might be pretty hit or miss.


Friday, December 26, 2014

Long distance family

Like many Americans, our extended family stretches from coast to coast. It's amazing that any of us mange to get together for the holidays.

Thanks to the miracle of modern high speed communication we can keep in touch. Skype lets us see each other face to face.

It's surprising that so many people still send actual physical Christmas cards. They must have meant so much more back in the day when long distance communication meant writing letters. It is reassuring that the Postal Service still exists, even if it's not the only game in town anymore.

We take our modern travel and communication for granted. If they were suddenly cut off the world would become a much bigger place once more. Our families would be distant, not just in miles, but in time. A half day's airplane flight equals many days of foot travel. Letters take time to get to their destination. In the past, by the time a letter arrived the letter was old news.

Someone would get a letter that “grandma's feeling poorly.” By the time the letter got to its destination grandma died and was buried. Today someone could get a phone call or e-mail, book a flight and be by her side as she passed.

That sad thing is that even with so many fast ways of keeping in touch, so many families drift apart.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Charlie Brown Christmas Trees

Everyone remember the classic animated Charlie Brown Christmas Special? Charlie picked up the saddest looking little Christmas tree. A little decoration and love and it was just fine.

This year that's the tree we've got. I'm not sure how much decoration and love can help it. Charlie might have passed it up.

Since when does a Christmas tree have to be perfect? Tree farms do a pretty good job of growing and preparing some good looking trees. Maybe I'm too cheap, but I have a hard time shelling out good money for a tree. Instead, I put up with a little “character.”

I might have gone too far with this one. In my defense it was getting dark and Christmas waits for no man. This poor tree wasn't long for the world anyway. Sometime in February the tree trimmers are going to clear out around the power lines. This poor little tree was right under the lines.

Might as well have it go in a burst of glory.

Merry Christmas everyone!


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Crunch time

It's funny how some folks think of a financial collapse as if it's the end of the world. It's not.

When a currency fails the economy stops working. Now since most goods and services depend on a functioning financial arrangement that's a very bad thing indeed. However, it's not the end of the world.

In a way, a financial collapse is a weird thing. It's the failure of an idea as much as anything. Currency is only as good as people's faith in it. When no one thinks money has any value, it doesn't.

The weird thing is that there are still factories, workers, supplies, and all the other necessary things are still there. All that's missing is the financial arrangements that allow goods and services to be exchanged.

When the Soviet Union collapsed some factories did elaborate barter agreements to keep functioning. Barter works, but it's not nearly as smooth as a working currency. The workers were often paid in things like big chicken dinners, so at least they didn't starve.

Some countries struggled on when their currency collapsed because they were already using a lot of another country's currency. In the recent past many held onto American dollars for that purpose, but that might not be a good bet these days.

When an economy can't find a way around a failed currency, things go from bad to grim. High unemployment becomes no employment. Services fail, everything from water to lights to Police and Fire.

Many countries, including the United States, have experienced currency failure. It's not pretty. At the very least countries go through a depression. However, a country in depression, while suffering, still sort of mostly functions. Rarely does everything totally fall apart.

Of course, it's been a long long time since the United States has experienced such a financial failure. The world is a different place. We are dependent on a web of global systems working well. It could get interesting.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dystopian Grocery Shopping

My lovely wife asked me to driver her around so she could do some last minute Christmas shopping. This was the sort of shopping where it's best that the husband stay in the car. Rather than hover around in the store impatiently I sat in the van and read a book. Believe me, it was better that way. She wasn't shopping hardware or gun stores so I had no business going in.

Since we made the 50 mile trip to where there's real shopping, we thought we might as well pick up a few groceries. Here's where it got surreal. The novel I was reading was one of those Dystopian collapse of society stories. I'd just finished reading the part where everything is falling apart. People have panicked and are mobbing the grocery store.

I set the book down and then headed into a grocery store. The place was packed. People were in a hurry to do their last bit of holiday food shopping. Tempers were running high.

For just a second there I felt that I'd better load up the shopping cart with anything that I could find while the money was still good and hit the road before the shooting starts. Then I took a deep breath and told myself it only looks like a Dytopian collapse novel. It's just normal holiday stress.

Maybe I should have read a Western or a Fantasy instead.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Boats in the snow

I have got to stop obsessing about winter. It's taken over my mind and I can't seem to write about much else.

Things are looking kinda weird around the house. We've had snow on the ground for quite a few weeks. I'm hoping for a warm day so I can take all the snow off my boat. My porch and mud room are crowded with boat gear, everything from a trolling motor to anchors. It doesn't blend in all that well with the harsh winter conditions.

There's a certain amount of cognitive dissonance caused by preparing for boating while dealing with winter cold and snow. It doesn't matter how many years I've been doing this, it's always a bit strange. One year I had to wear snowshoes to drag my canoe up from the lake. Another year there was so much ice on my sailboat that it didn't all melt until South Carolina.

Last year we left on October 10th. It was much easier to get ready. Temperatures were moderate, no snow on the ground, and it was easy to prepare the van and boat trailer. On the flip side, we came back at the end of March -way way too early. Everything was still buried in deep snow and there were many subzero days. It took a week to get my water supply line thawed.

We hope to come back once the snow is gone and everything is thawed. That might no be until sometime in May. While it's a pain to leave in the winter, coming back in the warm weather should make up for it. That's the plan anyway.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Curse the darkness

Here in the Northern Hemisphere we are experiencing some of the shortest days of the year. Well, that's not exactly true. The days are still 24 hours. What we are missing is sunlight. It hasn't helped that we've had a lot of snowy, rainy, and just plain overcast days. When we do get a sunny day, it doesn't seem to make much of an impact. By the time the sun struggles over the eastern mountains it seems it's almost getting ready to set behind the western ones.

My solar electric system is struggling. There are two factors working against solar electric this time of year. The lack of sun is a major issue, but there is another problem. The battery bank for my house is in a very cold basement. Cold batteries are unable to store as much power as warm batteries. That's one of the reasons your car might not start on a winter's morning.

The batteries are enclosed in a vented box. That retains some heat and keeps the batteries from freezing. I could insulate it better and that would help. As for the solar panels, cutting a few big Hemlocks would give me a small amount of extra sun exposure. However, in the summer those big trees are one of the reasons the house doesn't need air conditioning.

My battery bank can be charged up either from a generator or the grid. Keeping a battery bank charged up prolongs its life. Should there be a major power outage we'd be able to go days just with the stored power in the batteries. That's a huge benefit. Generators are nice, but it's not very efficient to fire up a generator when you just need a light to get to the bathroom. With a battery bank generators can be run under load for short periods of time. That saves fuel and wear and tear on the unit.

It used to be possible to turn the battery bank charger on from the comfort of my kitchen. A heavy duty relay failed so now I have to go down to the basement to manually set the timer on the charger. If I was going to spend the whole winter up north I'd fix it. Since I'm heading south in a few weeks, it's not worth spending the time and money on it right now.

The lack of sun affects people too. Some suffer from Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): depression brought on by the lack of sunlight. Most people in the north have chronically low vitamin D levels. I'll be taking D3 supplements until I get far enough south to run around in shorts. People are solar powered too.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Less Joy out of Driving

Every year driving for me gets just a bit less fun. Now it appears that some states that accept EZ Pass are using the transponders to see if you are speeding. It's already used as a tracking device. Transponder information has also been used in court to prove where a person was located.

I don't have one, but living out here in the woods I'm a long ways from the nearest toll booth. If I had to drive through one every day I might feel differently about it. As it is, when I go through a toll both, I almost always go to the lane with a real live human in it. People like me keep them employed.

Some roads have cameras that scan your license plate and then send your bill in the mail. My only experience with that was outside of Miami. At the time I was driving a high ground clearance pickup truck pulling an empty boat trailer. That must have messed up the system somehow as I never got a bill.

How long will it be before transponders become mandatory? Maybe they won't even bother with transponders and just track everyone using their cell phones?

Remember when people would talk about the freedom of the open road? It's like US freedom in general: for a certain value of free, within certain parameters, and as long as you can pay for it.


Friday, December 19, 2014

International Developments

Two things really caught my attention over the last few days. The economic situation in Russia and the Obama administration shift towards Cuba.

The Russian situation is moving very quickly. The Ruble has been in a long slow slide, but now has gone over a cliff. Attempts to shore it up by raising interest rates have only panicked Russians. People are in a hurry to turn their rapidly depreciating currency into real hard goods. Some retailers have suspended sales because they don't want to take Rubles while they are in free fall. The situation is so bad that Russians are trying to convert their currency into American Dollars.

Instability in Russia is very dangerous, especially with Putin at the helm. He has a record of turning to military action when faced with domestic trouble. In the past, demonstrations of Russian military power greatly increased his popularity.

Then again, Russia might be even more dangerous without Putin. Imagine if Putin died by accidentally stabbing himself in the back with a ski pole or shooting himself eight times in the head. That would cause a huge power struggle on top of the economic chaos. Putin has crushed all effective political resistance. There are no other politicians of sufficient stature to smoothly take over the government. Who knows how it would all shake out?

The Cuban situation is of particular interest to me. Take a marine band VHF radio down to the Florida Keys and listen to the Coast Guard broadcasts. Few days go by when mariners are not advised to keep an eye out for things like people on an over crowded raft. There is still a steady stream of people leaving Cuba by anything that floats. Last winter while we were down there three Cubans attempted the crossing on kite boards. One made it. The others had to be rescued at sea so were sent back to Cuba.

While down to the Keys I talk to a lot of people at marinas. Canadians can legally visit Cuba and bring back tales of how beautiful the beaches are. They say it's like the way Florida was 50 years ago. A number of Americans also make the short crossing to Cuba. Cuba doesn't stamp their passports so they don't leave a record of the visit.

One guy told me he'd be damned if he was going to let the government tell him where he can or cannot go. The US Coast Guard caught him coming back from Cuba once. In the end he paid a $3500 fine. It didn't bother him at all. I met the guy at the little marina on Bahia Honda Key. I suspect he was waiting for a good weather window to go back to Cuba. When the weather cleared he was last seen heading south.

Keep an eye on Russia. Russians have a long history of tolerating immense hardships. However, Russia now has a generation of people who are immersed in consumer culture. Their patience might be much shorter than it used to be. Things are changing daily and remember that Russia has nukes, and not just one or two of them like North Korea.

As for Cuba, well, I won't mind taking a boat there myself someday. It's kinda crazy to ignore the fact that there's this honking big island just off US shores. Now I understand the politics and have talked with Cuban exiles. However, I'm one of those who think more normal relations between countries are a good thing.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Next car

One of the best cars I've owned is a 1982 Mercedes 240D. It had about a 100,000 miles on it when I bought it. My lovely wife was working 50 miles away on the other side of the White Mountains. We also used this car on our extended months long winter trips. During the years we owned it we put on an additional 400,000 miles. That's a lot of hard driving.

It was the test vehicle for my vegetable oil conversion experiments. With a 19 gallon veggie tank in the trunk and 28mpg, the car had good range. One year I had a small utility trailer with jugs of veggie in it. The car went 3000 miles without a single gas station stop. My lovely wife fell in love with that car. They built them solid. It wasn't fast, accelerated like a fat man jogging, but ran and ran and ran.

In the end road salt took its toll on the body. The doors and floors were rusting out, all the brakes and rotors were due for replacement, and the exhaust system was also going. That's a lot of money to invest in a car with a half million miles on it. I just could not justify the expense.

Currently my lovely wife is driving an old Cavalier that we inherited from one of my daughters. My mechanic has already informed me that it won't pass the June safety inspection. Rust takes its toll. So next summer we'll be looking for a replacement.

After careful consideration I think we'll try to find another old diesel Benz from the 80s. There are still quite a few of them around and some are still in good shape. Even if I've got to put some money in one it will be worth it.

In this case, they just don't make them like they used to.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Economic rumblings

There's a lot of economic insatiability in the world right now. We all know about the drastic change in the price of oil. While that certainly feels like a good thing for most of us, for other's it's a disaster. Countries that have come to rely on a high price of oil are in trouble. That's one of the reasons Russia's currency is going down the crapper.

The housing market might be in another downturn. China's overheated economy shows signs of coming down to earth. Japan keeps sliding further and further into recession. Other markets are experiencing downturns of their own. In fact, most of the Eurozone is pretty weak and shaky right now.

So what's going to happen next? Darned if I know. If 2008 and the housing market collapse taught us anything is that the Powers That Be can change the rules to suite them. Bad bank loans were turned into government debt. That's quite the magic trick. By the “rules” of the game those banks should have gone down. A lot of bankers should have gone to jail for blatantly breaking the law. Instead of jail is was cigars and bonuses all around.

So the question comes down to this: what can I do about my unease towards the financial system? Someone at my pay grade will never get the real hard numbers needed to make an informed decision. All I can do is look at past trends and potential threats. With that in mind, I have made a few changes.

I've cleaned up a lot of debt. My house mortgage has been moved to a new bank. The old one seems to be having a slow motion run on the bank. For the past year people have been steadily closing their accounts. Today I just opened a new saving and checking account at a more solid institution.

If I had a lot of money I'd worry about the government possibly doing a Cyprus maneuver and raiding personal savings. As it is, there's not much in the bank to worry about. Right now it's not a bad idea to add more to preps like food storage. Some actual cash money on hand is always handy in the early days of a financial collapse. Most people won't know what to do with gold or silver, but a stack of $20s will grab their attention.

We may continue to bumble along or things might suddenly completely fall apart. Nothing I've done so far will hurt me much either way. Let's just hope that governments don't do what they often do in times of financial turmoil: start a war.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

One in the hand

I love these little guys. Chickadees always cheer me up on a winter's day. This is one of the things I do rather than watch television.

This is a Red Breasted Nuthatch making a quick exit. He's a bossy little bird that demands respect from the Chickadees.

Only wish I had my camera handy the day two Blue Jays and a Squirrel were fighting over the seeds. While they were going at it the little birds were darting in and out and making off with the loot.

Chickadees were landing on my finger even before my wife decided to start feeding them. They are friendly birds. Now I can't do anything outside without putting out a handful of seeds first. If I don't they buzz all around me. Can't even check the mail without them sitting on the mailbox.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Winter: everything takes longer

We have plenty of snow and ice on the ground this time of year in Northern New Hampshire. I can't believe how much of my time has been lost due to winter conditions. There's all that time lost shoveling snow. Come spring it all melts anyway, leaving no trace of all that work.

The new neighbors are doing extensive renovations to their place. They are in the middle of replacing the roof. Everything is wrapped in giant tarps. Massive space heaters are going full blast. In the winter, not only does everything take long, it cost more too.

So why in the heck do people attempt such big jobs in the winter? Well, if you didn't do anything in winter, there won't be enough months in the year to get things done. Still, you won't find me doing a roofing job in the snow.

A friend of mine is in the middle of changing a truck transmission and he's working outside. Imagine lying on your back in the snow while working with parts so cold they become brittle could break. Large heated garages are at a premium around there.

Once I changed a car's water pump when it was 35 below zero. I had to keep running into the house to warm up. When the job was done I discovered the part's store had sold me a defective part. The job had to be done all over again.

It's a darn good thing everything looks like a Currier and Ives winter postcard. I must admit it's darn pretty. Even better is looking a the snow from my daughter's massive hot tub. That's one way to deal with winter. If winter's going to slow everything down, might as well find a good way to relax.


Insurance Disclosure

From time to time I rant about medical insurance. Recently I wrote a blog ranting how none of the insurance packages being offered in my area did me any good. My lovely wife convinced me to take another look. She worries about me.

There was a plan that was affordable, but it didn't cover any of the doctors in my area. Just out of curiosity I gave it another look. Much to my surprise all the local doctors are now covered by that system. Either the web site had a glitch the first time I checked it or the plan just expanded.

A few years ago when I'd dropped insurance coverage my cost had risen to almost $1000/month. That was totally out of reach. The plan I signed up for will cost me less than $350/month. While I hate to spend money on something I might not use, it's not going to break my budget.

I am one of those people who benefits from the new rules about preexisting conditions. Had the old rules been still in place they would not accept me.

It's still a messed up way to run a health care system. A wise man takes care of his own health and only relies on the system for things he can't fix himself. As a disabled firefighter I've learned how to manage my issues with alternative treatments. At least now I'll be covered in case I do something stupid like fall off my roof and break a leg.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire

That's a line from the famous song, “The Christmas Song.” It's only subtitled “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” but that's what most people call it.”

It did get me thinking about Chestnuts. Chestnuts once made up to a quarter of the Appalachian forests, before blight greatly reduced their number. America now imports the vast majority of chestnuts consumed in the country.

Can you imagine what a huge food source those nuts must have been to the Native Americans? They were abundant, energy and nutrient dense, plus easy to collect. Combined with other abundant nuts like oak and beech, it wasn't all that hard to keep from starving. If the hunters came back empty handed, there was always something to eat.

In my local area the only really abundant forest nut is the beech. When I was a kid deer hunting with my dad I used to eat a mess of those. Might have missed a few chances at deer because I was looking more at the ground by my feet than I should. Any nuts missed in the fall are often still edible after the snow melt in the spring.

Our local oaks tend to be mostly the red oak trees. They were were a last resort nut in times of starvation as they contain a high amount of tannin. I read that letting them rinse in stream in a mesh bag overnight was how the tannin was removed. Maybe I didn't do it right because after soaking overnight they were still pretty bitter.

Chestnuts, on the other hand, are pretty tasty. It's funny that the American Chestnuts are gone, but the song remains.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Escaping the Beast

I just love shoveling snow in the rain. Our foot of snow has been followed by two days of freezing rain. Shoveling heavy slush is so much fun that I've been pacing myself so as not to use it all up in one day. With the extra time inside I've been dealing with the beast of modern life: paperwork. There are so many stupid forms that have to be dealt with in modern life.

The strange thing is that I've been doing my best to simplify my life. In spite of that, it seems that every single time one thing is simplified, some other development moves in to take its place. I can't imagine how out of control it would all become if left on its own.

It's been said that dying empires become more rigid and regulated in their last days. What can one do in the face of such powerful historical forces? The less one depends on the system the fewer strings one finds attached. When the great beast gasps its last and good down good it's a fine thing if those strings are too weak to pull you down too.

When I was a kid I thought it'd be easy to go live in a cabin in the woods. As an adult, I fine it sure beats the heck out of city life, but nothing is free. At the very minimum the tax man has to get his pound of flesh. That alone requires a certain amount of engagement with the system. That requires the occasional day of check writing, phone call making, and electronic form filling.

Almost makes me miss shoveling slush in the rain.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Snow isolation

Tuesday evening around 9 p. m. I finally got around to picking up the mail. By then there was a good foot of heavy snow on the ground. The town had yet to plow. Only one car had driven on the road. His vehicle was low enough that the snow between his tire tracks was all churned up from the car's passage. A few more inches and he might not have made it home.

Now imagine there were no snow plows. The roads would soon become impassable until spring. Without modern snow plows distances were a whole lot longer in the old days.

Did you ever wonder how roads were plowed in the horse and buggy days? They weren't. Large heavy wooden rollers would be pulled by a team of horses. The snow would get complicated into a hard layer that people and their animals could travel on. No wonder trips into town back in the old days was a big deal. Some of the old folks in town remember how it was, so it wasn't all that long ago.

Those horse teams are long gone. So how would someone travel any distance in the winter? Snowmobiles work. Unfortunately, they don't work as well as they used to. Newer machines, with a few exceptions, are designed to travel on packed and maintained trails. Few can make their way though fresh deep snow.

Let's assume that the roads are not being plowed because there's either no fuel or an EMP type event has disabled the machines. How can someone travel?

With great difficulty. Skis maybe, but most cross country skis are designed for groomed trails. You'd better have ones designed for virgin snow. Snowshoes would do the job, but they are an awful lot of work. Breaking trail in deep snow is exhausting. This is where it pays to have more in your group. The first person in line has a hard time. The second person finds the going a lot easier. The third and fourth person in line are walking on packed trail. The trick is for the lead person to break trail for a short while, then step aside to let the rest of the group do the hard work. He falls to the back and eventually makes his way to the front again as the others tire.

There is one advantage to snow travel. It's possible to carry a heavy load in a sled. That's good as snowshoe travel is slow and it could take days to get anywhere. That takes a lot of survival gear in the winter.

Then there's dog sleds, but that's a major investment in dogs, training and equipment. It's a great hobby, but no one is going to keep a dog team, “just in case.” However, it is possible to keep a good pair of skis or snowshoes, along with a toboggan. If you live in serious snow country, it's something to consider.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Throw another novel on the fire

At one time my lovely wife ran an on-line used bookstore. We picked up a lot of books in bulk. You never knew what you were going to get, but it didn't matter. It only took a handful of decent books to make the purchase worthwhile.

That's how we ended up with a box of Danielle Steel novels. I've got nothing against her personally. She has a hardcore group of followers that buy her new books. There's almost no market for her old ones. However, mixed in with hardwood scraps they burn nicely in the woodstove.

I was reminded of that scene in the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” where everyone is freezing in a library. They have a big fireplace but can't decided on what books to burn for heat. Finally someone points out they have a whole big room full of tax law books. Nobody had any objection to burning those.

I've never burned books before. The Nazis gave the whole book burning thing a bad name. It should have a bad name. However, an awful lot of books get discarded or sent to the pulper. The fact of the matter is that there is only a limited market for used books these days.

Some markets are more limited than others.

Right now it's snowing pretty hard. Thanks to Danielle Steel I'm saved a trip to the woodpile.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

One issue with wood heat

My lovely wife and I were gone from the house Sunday. Currently we are only heating with woodstoves. That requires someone to be around to keep the home fires burning. Sunday morning I fired up the kitchen stove, but we left before it had a chance to really make the house toasty. My daughter came in during the afternoon and fed the stove.

My lovely wife and I didn't get back home until almost 1 a. m. Monday. The outside temperature had dropped down to -5 Fahrenheit. The part of the house furthest from the woodstove had dropped into the low 40s.

I stoked up the kitchen stove but decided I really had to get some sleep. By morning the outside temperature was down to -11 and it was pretty cold inside the house. That is when I decided to get serious and lit the massive woodstove in the basement. Between that and the kitchen stove it finally started to get warm. Even so, it took all day to get the house really toasty.

If we were going to be staying for the whole winter I'd buy some heating oil and hook up the hot air furnace. That way we could leave the house for a few days without worrying about everything freezing solid.

It's enough to make me miss living in a one room hunting camp. In a couple of hours the woodstove could heat it from subzero to shirtsleeve temperatures. There was no plumbing to worry about freezing. Bathroom facilities were an outhouse. Modern houses have more comforts, but they are a lot less robust. I'm just happy no plumbing froze and burst.

Woodstoves are great, but someone has to take care of them.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Day off

No post today. Catch you all later!


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Dashing through the snow

Saturday we got hit with another snowstorm. It started late Friday night and went well into Saturday evening. Temperatures were such that the snow was mixed with freezing rain. Not the best driving conditions.

In spite of that, my buddy and I hooked up his 16 foot trailer to the veggie van and drove over to VT. There's a furniture mill that sells its hardwood scraps from 7 to 8:30 a. m., Saturday's only. I'd been trying to get out there for weeks, but always something came up.

This Saturday it was snow. I decided that if I could make it up the mountain road my friend lived on, we could probably make the drive from NH to VT.

It was slow going, but we got over there without too much trouble. We found the place and the guy loaded up our trailer with his tractor bucket. It was quite the load and I'm glad the van has new brakes. On the way back we stopped for breakfast and almost got stuck in the restaurant parking lot. With fresh snow on top of ice it's impossible to know exactly where to go.

Fortunately, we made it to the highway. We didn't get stuck again until I stopped on the nearly level ground in front of my house. My road had yet to be plowed and there was about an inch of ice under the snow. After sanding the road we were able to move the van the 40 extra feet we needed. Once it was unloaded, then the plow/sand truck finally came by. I let him pass us and followed him around the lake back to the highway. By the time I got back from dropping off my buddy and his trailer, I was pretty beat.

At least I now get to enjoy the warmth from all that kiln dried hardwood.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Exploding totem poles

NASA's new Orion spacecraft just completed a successful test. I wish I was more excited about it. The space program was pretty cool when I was a kid. The Mercury, Gemini, and then Apollo programs were very exciting for a kid growing up. The Space Shuttle was supposed to make space travel cheap, safe, and ordinary. It did none of those things. That's government for you.

The world has the International Space Station, but we have to hitch a ride with the Russians. They are still flying what's basically upgraded 60s technology.

To be fair, the Orion spacecraft looks pretty much like an upgraded Apollo spacecraft. We are still sitting men on top of exploding totem poles to shoot them into space. It's disappointing that we are back to using rockets. The military has a secret space program that flies what looks like a scaled down space shuttle. Currently it's an unmanned platform, but who knows what it's capabilities really are? However, even if they could launch men, the craft is tiny.

I wonder if people like John Michael Greer are correct claiming that we will never truly be a space faring race. He makes some pretty solid arguments against it. The vast majority of scientific accomplishments rest on a foundation of cheap energy. Once the nonrenewable resources are used up, we'll have to drastically scale back our ambitions.

Now I'd like to argue with Mr. Greer. My heart wants to soar to the stars, but my mind suspects he might be right. The fact that we've slipped back to using Apollo type craft gives some strength to his argument.

The human race is still doing interesting science in space. The Europeans have just landed a robotic spacecraft on an asteroid after all. Commercial satellites for communication, mapping, and navigation will have value for years to come, but those services are being supplied using very mature technology.

Humans may never leave this little dirt ball in space and that would be tragic. Humans have always pressed on to new frontiers. It's clear now that current and planned spacecraft will only be able to carry a select few out of our gravity well, and they won't be able to leave the solar neighborhood.

Space exploration is going to need some serious breakthroughs to change all that. For the good of the human race I hope we do. Wouldn't it be great if space travel could once again capture the imagination of little boys and girls?


Friday, December 5, 2014

Fanatical fighters

We hear so much about how fanatical the fighters of Islamic State are. Well guess what, fanaticism only gets you so far. It's not like the world hasn't seen it all before.

In WWII the war in the Pacific featured such wonders as the kamikaze fighter. A suicide belt hardly compares to a freaking flying bomb. Then there was the fight to the death banzai attack. The island battles were hard fought and no quarter was given.

In the end, disciple, organization, and a much better industrial base carried the day. Fanaticism might carry the day in fair fight, but who in their right mind fights fair?

Ideology can motivate people. In a close fight, it can make all the difference. However, a fanatic with a rifle doesn't do too well against a professional with a tank.

God might be on your side, but I'm still betting on the bigger army, better equipment, deeper pockets and professional training.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Low oil prices

Confession time: I didn't expect ever see gasoline selling for under $3 ever again. My thinking was that if it did, we'd have such seriously bad deflation such that no one could afford it at $3.

Here we are; the US economy is still functioning and yet oil prices have dropped. I'm not quite sure what's going on here, but I'm got some niggling suspicions.

The fracking boom is obviously part of the reason. There's a bump in US production. Here's the thing that bothered me. “Experts” were saying that fracking could only make money at $90/barrel. Then they said it would have be at least $70. Today I heard another “expert” claiming they could make money at $45.

There are existing contracts and production already in the works. Even if they are losing money on paper, they'll keep pumping for at least another 6 months, maybe up to 12.

In many fields it appears that investors have turned fracking into just another investment bubble. When that type of thinking takes hold, the underlying fundamentals are forgotten. There are indicators the bubble is about to burst. Reality votes last. Everything eventually comes down to earth.

Maybe there are some places where costs really are lower than $45/barrel. They'll work those until they die. Places that require $90/barrel will sooner or later shut down -I'm better sooner rather than later. By the way, the Canadian tar sands look to be one of those more costly areas.

The US is benefiting from the economies that are doing much worse. Those countries cannot afford to use as much oil, so there's more on the market, driving down prices.

Producers like Saudi Arabia and Russia can't afford to cut back on production. They need every bit of income they can generate to support their economies.

Take the fracking oil production bump out of the equation and the charts look a lot like the charts the Peak Oil people have been putting out for years. A zig zag effect was predicted. Oil supplies become tight, driving up the price. The high prices encourage people to stop buying petroleum products. That causes the price to drop, once again stimulating demand. Rinse and repeat.

So what's an average Joe supposed to do? Well if you can't trust the oil companies, who can you trust? (Just about anybody else?) I've done a lot of research into oil: the geology, the business models, politics, and everything else. One of the conclusions I've come to is that there are an awful lot of secrets surrounding oil. Without access to privileged sources, it's impossible to really know what's going on.

Which brings me back to trust issues. I don't trust anyone associated with oil and I certainly don't trust the long term viability of low gas prices. Every year my household uses less and less petroleum products. For me, that seems like the best long term bet. Low gas prices are like low illegal drug prices. They want to sucker you in until you are addicted, then the price goes up.

Only a fool would make plans that assume long term low prices.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Adventures at the DMV

Ah yes, the Department of Motor Vehicles. How many people love to visit the friendly folks down to the DMV?

It occurred to me that my driver's license was going to expire when I was going to be about 2000 miles from home. With that in mind, I went into the DMV to see what could be done about it.

My local DMV just moved into a new office so it was my first time at the new location. There were only two people staffing the place. That's fine as I was their only customer. The ladies pleasantly explained to me that I could renew my license up to 6 months early. They gave me a simple one page form to fill out.

$55 and a quick eye test later and I walked out with a new license. No fuss. No muss. Isn't it nice when a government office works the way it's supposed to?

It's usually pretty easy to find fault with government services, so I think it should be noted when they do something right.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Thoughts on car ownership

With all the repairs the van required recently I was beginning to wonder if owning a car was worth it. Had my lovely wife been willing to live full time on a sailboat that would have been the end of my land vehicle days. Alas, for now she's only willing to spend half the year on a boat.

The van is a special category of vehicle. It's a former ambulance converted into a mini camper that's been altered to run on waste vegetable oil. Our other vehicle is an older Chevy Cavalier on its last legs. My mechanic has already warned me that it won't pass the next state inspection in June. We ended up with this car when one of my daughters wanted a new car and the trade in on the Cavalier wasn't worth much of anything.

So by spring we'll have to figure out what to do about transportation. Living out in the woods, public transportation of any sort is not an option. Neither is living in a city an option. We could get by with the van as our daily driver. My lovely wife rarely drives the van now, but is willing to adapt.

I could put my old motorcycle on the road, a 1974 KZ900. That might come under the title of “hobby project” rather than in the reliable transportation category. It would probably make more sense to just put an electric assist motor on my bicycle.

The last thing I'd want to do is to buy a new car. I can't afford to pay cash and I'm allergic to making any more debt.

Buying a used car is an option, but doesn't that sound rather boring? Wouldn't it be more fun to buy a bigger sailboat? Maybe a sailboat big enough to live on for 6 months of the year?

Decisions, decisions.

Maybe we'll just stay home next summer and order everything me need on-line. If anyone wants to see us they'll know where to find us.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Us Travelling Folk

Just about everyone is asking my lovely wife and I when we'll be hitting the road. We are beginning to wonder if they are trying to get rid of us.

Last year we shut down our house and headed south on October 10. No wonder people are surprised to see us still here with the cold winds blowing and snow on the ground.

For the record, our current plan is to leave in early January. The exact date will depend on the weather. There's no sense driving in a blizzard if it can be avoided. Been there, done that. I've a tentative meeting scheduled for January 5 in southern New Hampshire, so that's something to shoot for.

Thanksgiving with family and friends was nice. Once Christmas and New Years holidays are done it'll be time to get our bags packed and ready. It's amazing that with just a few days driving one can leave the frosty north and end up on a sunny beach somewhere.

Until then, I'm one of those fools freezing in the snow. Okay, maybe I've gotten soft, but the cold bothers me more than it used to. Today I woke up to a cold house and never really completely shook the morning chill out of my bones. What I should have done is lit the woodstove, then gone outside and done chores. After some time out in the snow, the house would have felt cozy warm.

Here's the thing. We've been back north for about 8 months and there are still people we've yet to get together with. Some things I'm sure won't happen before we leave -like getting together with people to go sailing. Since the lake is frozen over, the time for that is past. People's lives are so busy that unless special effort is make, nothing out of the ordinary happens. Routines are killers.

It would be nice have friends join us on our travels. However, we can barely get together when 10 miles apart. The chance of doing it at the end of a 2000 mile trip is pretty low. Fortunately, there are plenty of traveling people who we'll meet along the way.