Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Biking on Mars

Remember how last week I'd mentioned a video about biking through Chile's Atacama Desert?  Funny how when you mention something once it keeps popping up.  Latest today is an article about using the hyperarid environment of the Atacama as a proxy for Mars conditions.  Article.  Formal Paper.

Not really Mars, but if I'm going to pedal it'll do.  Take out the two people in the mid-ground and paint the blue sky a dull red, and it'd be convincing.

Well that's pretty cool.  Who'd have thought that essentially bikepacking on Mars would be just a plane ride plus a little jeep travel away?  Don't even need a pressure suit, though I suppose if you really wanted to get the full experience you could find a mock-up at a reasonable cost.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Monday, February 26, 2018

Backpacking Gear: Marmot NanoWave 55 & 25 Sleeping Bags

After a recent backpacking trip it was clear that the .mil patrol bag just wasn't going to cut it.  The nights got down to 57 degrees (if the NWS is to be believed), and that was about that bag's limit.  Being used, the insulation was clumpy and thin in spots, and the zipper is a lead anchor.  Still for $19 it's not bad.  (and I see that they're now down to $12.50, which very reasonable for a mild weather bag)  However... when I got home there was a sale flyer email from Massey's, so you know that I had to bite.  Picked up a couple of Marmot bags at bargain prices – essentially the cheaper bag was free.

The two models I settled on are NanoWaves 55 and 25, which are their nominal temperature ratings.  Their claimed comfort temperatures are 60 and 38 degrees F respectively, while the corresponding "emergency get you through the night" ratings are 33 and -1 degrees F.  I suspect that for me, the working minimums will be close to the nominal ratings.  That pretty well covers anything I'm going to attempt while on foot.  Might throw in a space blanket to boost things by 10 degrees on the unforeseen extra-cold night for a safety margin, but don't generally plan on using it.  If you're intending to regularly camp down at freezing though, the similar Trestle 15 model may be more suitable.

The stuffing is Marmot's proprietary "Spirafil," a synthetic approximation of goose down.  I'm sure it's not quite as good in climates with normal humidity and fungus levels, but in the damp and mold of Coastal Mississippi synthetics are the only way to go.  As a side benefit this chops 1/3 to 1/2 off the price of similar down offerings.  Sometimes things just work out, and this is one of them.

On to fit, they're identical and on the trim side.  If I put my hands along my sides all is well, but if I cross my arms over my chest there's just a hint a snugness.  Wouldn't want things any smaller, but this is just right to minimize material and pack weight.  If your shoulders or mid-section run mid-to-broad, be sure to try before you buy.  The .mil bag is cavernous in comparison.  They both have the same basic system of mummy zips and drawstrings to snug up around your head, neck, and face comfortably, boosting their warmth considerably.  There's also a lower zip to let air around your legs on warmer nights.  Of course, the .mil bag has none of these refinements.

The bags both come with compression sacks which reduce their pack sizes to roughly the lower 2/3 of a 2 liter bottle for the NW 55, and slightly smaller than a soccer ball for the NW 25.  Despite some reviews claiming otherwise, they're roomy enough to re-pack the bags.  Don't try being neat with rolling things here, just stuff and keep on stuffing, it'll all go.  Once in, yank on the compression straps to get them to do their magic and there you are.  This might relieve some of the crowding in my 50 liter pack, which was just starting to strain at its volume limit for a weekend of ham radio operations.  (As always, store them un-stuffed.  I use an old pillowcase to keep things neat and dust-free.)

Finally, weight is somewhat helped by these packs, though they are by no means ultralight.  Here are some comparisons, including the .mil bag: 1.82 (NW55), 2.42 (.mil), and 2.82 (NW25).  Include their respective bags and these become 2.00, 2.62, and 3.08 lbs.  OK, that's either 0.6 pound saved for a slightly better cold rating, or nearly 0.5 pound gained for a much better cold rating.  Options, options; either way and depending upon the weather, it's better.

Can't wait to try one or the other of these, depending on the weather forecast the next backpacking trip.
ps: No, don't bring a space blanket for that extra-cold unforeseen 10 degrees.  Bring a woobie, tie off one end to make a foot box, and wrap it around like a hiker's quilt.  (There's not really space inside this bag.)  Ten extra degrees for 1.24 pounds, without the condensation problems a space blanket brings to the table.  Probably good to 65 degrees all on its own.  So simple.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Academic Winter Olympic Sports

Just back off the road from FL, so all you get today is a referral to PhD Comics:

Expect more bone-crunching computational physics action combined with long-travel downhill backpack technical equipment reviews tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Weather Straight off the Gulf

A front's stalled out between eastern Texas and western PA, and it's pulling hot muggy air straight up off the Gulf across us: 80 degree days, 70 degree nights, 90%+ humidity; it's like a bad week in early May.  Bleh.  Looks like relief is a week away, when we return to late winter/early spring patterns.  In the meantime, there's not much else to do but hunker down and enjoy the thoroughly mediocre weather and its accompanying gnats.

OTOH it's not actively raining.  Well, only a small part of the day.

More inspiration later.  It may take a while in this case.  Oh wait, here's some: a video travelogue about Bikepacking in the Atacama Desert.  At least it's dry there.

Monday, February 19, 2018

QRP Radio – Everyone's Doin' It!

And not exactly by choice.  Even if they're transmitting the usual 100 Watts, at least for the next 5 years until the Sun pulls out of this latest solar minimum, we're all struggling to make contacts harder than someone running 5 Watts just a few years ago.  Last night I was talking with a relatively new ham who was having these troubles, and so I recommended the book Minimum QRP and two of its chapters, Propagation and Activity and Operating QRP for advice on how to rustle up a few contacts.  Meh, it's better than cursing Fate and selling your gear.  Anyway, it's a pretty good read and at $5 it's cheap on kindle.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Backpacking the Tuxachanie Trail – Finally!

It finally stopped raining on weekends long enough to get out on the Tuxachanie Trail and backpack from Airey Lake to the POW Camp.  On this map, it's the the right hand part, the eight mile section between Airey and Bethel Roads:

The first six miles were pretty easy woods trail with a few muddy stream crossings.  The last two miles, where the trail closely follows Tuxachanie Creek though, those were a challenge.  Lots of bridges out, and while there was always a way across or through, at times it was like crossing playground monkey bars made of trees and roots.  Good stuff!

Lots of lessons learned along the way.  Here are the main ones:
- The 50 liter Osprey Atmos pack has plenty of room.  I had it completely loaded – gear, water, radios and all it came to 43.7 pounds.  That's pretty much my limit.  I'd been wishing I'd gone with the larger 65 liter version, but now all that extra room just seems like excess space that'd tempt me to pack too much.
- The Jurassic Duck Mk II antenna performed well on the trail, allowing me to stay in touch via the W5SGL Biloxi repeater in most places easily.  The exceptions were down in the creek bottom, where there just isn't a LOS to the repeater antenna.  However... it probably wasn't worth it.  Operating off the FT-60R hand-held radio, the entire rig adds two pounds weight.  Also, it was a raging pain to get through some of the tight trees and vines in those last two miles along the creek.  Next time, just take a roll-up slim JIM and operate off the FT-817nd after making camp.
- Tents and RVs camping at the same site go together like lobster tail and chocolate sauce.  Little things like generators that aren't any big noise deal when you're in an insulated aluminum shell are a problem for the folks in tents.  Nobody wants to be the campsite scold though, and so it's just better to pick a slightly more remote site.  Luckily, maintaining radio contact is pretty easy.
- When unpacking take notes.  I use a 6-1/2 x 4-1/2 bound journal I picked up at Downtown Books back in December.  It's just the right size to take along, big enough to write in, small enough to bring, and it even says "Principia Mathematica" on the cover.  Anyway, as you unpack each item it'll likely jog a memory from the trip.  If there's some lesson to be learned, make a note of it.  This blog post is pretty much straight from my notebook, and there are also plenty more smaller items I'd scratched down.  Three pages' worth in fact!  But I think I see some ways to shave some pack weight pounds here.

OK, enough jibber-jabber.  Here, have some pics.

Lots of these little low bridges over boggy spots.

Ah, good to be in camp and put the feet up.  Notice the poncho tent for gear just outside.

Time to play radio.

A little rushing water on one of the side creeks that had to be waded.

Not all the bridges made it through some recent storms.

Well, that's all for now.  Time to go roll up and re-pack some gear that's been drying out in the living room since last night.

ps: I've gotten a few questions about what antenna I was packing.  It's an LNR EFT-10/20/40 Trail Friendly.


You may have noticed that three out of the last five posts have featured maps.  Obviously I've got something on my mind here, but I am too tired to blog about it tonight.  Expect something tomorrow.

Friday, February 16, 2018

River Level Gauge Maps

Ever want to go do outdoors but you're not sure if Unpronounceable Creek is currently overflowing its banks and getting all up onto your good-times trail?  Well brother, your tax dollars are now coming to your service, by way of NOAA/NWS's Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service's online real-time maps.  The screen capture image you see below is just a still, but on the real one at their site all of the little green-yellow-orange-red dots are live links.  Mouse over dots or click to open up full pages of info at particular gauges.  Some locations even have water level forecasts.  It's pretty good.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

St. Vincent NWR Turns 50

Just glad it's been preserved.  Full article at The Times.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Over the Hills and Far Away...

In ...Yellowstone?  Wait, that's a real place, right?

Um, yeah.  But it doesn't keep some guy from drawing Tolkenesque maps of real places.  He'll draw you one too for $108 (current exchange rate, prices will vary), or sell you an existing print for somewhat less.  Article at Backpacker, and his web site here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


South African Lions Eat 'Poacher," leaving just his head, over at the BBC.


Remember, this is was a poacher, not a hunter.  If you need the difference spelled out, once again the BBC can fill you in.  Personally, I'm glad that ducks (1) are not quite the threat as a lion and (2) have very short memories.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Uptown Parades

Parade-went pretty much all day yesterday and it was great fun.  Okeanos, Mid-City, Thoth, and Bacchus, it was nine hours of slam-jammed parade action with a good crowd.  As for the weather, just one of those February days that a rational person would call dreary, but there's no way it could be dreary with all this stuff going on!  Approximately we were located across the street from the big Thoth head symbol on St. Charles on this map:

Well, that's some idea of where we were.  It was a good spot with the right mix of families and partying 20-something semi-locals.  Here's about what it all looked like without my glasses:

Beyond those two images it defies description for my poor writing skills.  

Saturday, February 10, 2018

This Future is Weird

This future is too weird and useless.  I want the Jetsons one, you know, where they had flying ca... oh wait, never mind.

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download
 the highest resolution version available.

Picture from over at NASA's APOD.

That was one impressive launch the other day, and it was good to see some humor and imagination go into a new-booster test payload mass beyond the usual tank of water or chunk of iron.  This Falcon Heavy is a serious rocket for getting back into space in a serious way.  Can't wait to see what comes next!

Friday, February 9, 2018

The 60,000 Year Old Cypress Forest Under the Gulf

It's off the coast of Mobile.  You can read the story at NPR, or watch the half-hour documentary at youtube.  Either way, it's informative.  There's equally weird stuff all along the Gulf shelf.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Here's an Interesting Travel Option

There's an extensive selection from England's Secret Historic Hotel Network over at Messy Nessy.  Go have a look.  The prices are, well, suspiciously reasonable, so do your homework before getting too excited and booking a flight over.  Take for example a stay at this castle, at the bargain rate of $22.42 per person per night at current exchange rates.  Now that assumes a party of eight staying for four nights, but even so that's still a give-away price.  Anyway, here's a panoramic shot of the castle overlooking its bay:

Nice, but my heart's kind of set on the last place listed.  Looks comfortable, even familiar.  Scroll down, you'll get it.

Annihilation Trailer: Scenes from Back Home

Here's the latest:

Hm, looks pretty good, if quite different than the novel.  It also seems to include elements from the two sequels, so perhaps it condenses all three into a single movie.  That'd likely be for the best.  It'll be out in a couple of weeks, expect a full review here then.

Makes me just a little bit homesick.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

WWV, Frequency Display Alignment, and You

Ugh, spent a good chunk of last weekend trying to get the data-mode front panel display on a new ham radio to line up with what the actual receiver was doing.  I'm sure that there are excellent historical reasons for this display offset from reality (probably involving a 1940's standard held over to the "new" ASR 33 tty), but when crossed up with a Yaesu user interface, well, let's say there's a reason some of these new transceivers are going at fire sale prices.

WWV and the NIST to the rescue.  They pump out time signals in AM on 5 & 10 MHz and a few other frequencies.  From there, it was just a matter of setting offsets down in the menus so that the time interval signals all lined up on a waterfall display in AM (reference), then USB, and finally data modes – kind of like balancing your checkbook while hanging upside down from a doorframe while having a neighbor practice keeping a steady beat on his new drum set.  Just keep a clear head, take a few notes, and it all works out fine.  Aspirin afterwards.

Anyway, it's a useful trick in the unlikely even you need to sort out display frequency alignment.  Couldn't have taken more than two hours total time, though I was sacked out by 9:30 Sunday night.

Until Sunday evening, there was every chance I was going to flip that radio after less than a month and move on.  Really would have been a shame, since it is otherwise excellent equipment and (as mentioned above) it came new at a fire sale price.  However it does perform, once the UI idiocy was sorted out.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Case for One Bike

Over at Dirt Rag there's a recent opinion piece: The cases for the one-bike stable.  It's short, so go read.  I've got a fresh cup of coffee so I'll wait right here.

OK, you're back.  Funny thing, I've been thinking along these lines myself, and when a friend and colleague stopped by my office last week and saw my CX bike, he started in on how he was thinking of this too.  True, nobody's winning a road crit or a mountain bike race on a do-all "one" bike, but how many of us are really serious about racing anyway?  It does simplify life, and of course it reduces costs considerably.

Everyone's got their own take on the matter of what should be "the one," as it should be.  The author of the the Dirt Rag editorial has his (flat bars? oh really?), and the commentators have theirs.  I think though if you want mine, just type "CX" in the search window at the top of this page.  You'll find all kinds of things: trips to the coffee shop, mountain biking, a double metric road century, even a VHF antenna mount.  Here are some nice recycled pictures:

So what'd be your one bike, if you had to cull it down to just one?

Thursday, February 1, 2018