Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Nuclear threats making a comeback

As the US and the UN seem unable to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, we have to prepare ourselves for an unsettling future. Unlike the Soviets and Chinese, we can't count on the Iranians or other Islamic fundies to whom they might pass a nuclear device to behave rationally. MAD is not a viable strategy when your enemy welcomes death as the way to be with God.

Domestically, a nuclear Iran and proliferation in the Muslim world may politically destroy the left wing of the Democrat party, especially if a nuke gets used.

There's some excellent discussion of the issue here. I think I'll order a copy of this, as well.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Diamond MR77 Mag Mount Antenna Review

Awhile ago I bought an MFJ Powergain mag mount antenna to connect to my Yaesu VX-5RS 2M/440MHz/6M HT while in my truck. Unfortunately, it didn't work well for me in that role, vibrating itself to uselessness in short order. So, a couple of weeks ago I ordered from Gigaparts a Diamond MR77 as a replacement.

My first impression of the Diamond upon opening the package was favorable. It seemed better made than the MFJ. E.g., where the coax goes into the base it's reinforced with one of those flexiible rubber things like you see on some power cords. When I screwed the antenna on it seemed more solid than the MFJ.

One thing I did the night before putting the Diamond on my truck was to seal anywhere it looked like water might be able to get in. Based on my prior experience with mag mount antennas like the MFJ and a couple for my CB, water can get in through joints and then you get rust, causing performance to deteriorate. The sealant should also help keep the antenna itself screwed down tight to the mount. I used liquid electrical tape as the sealant.

Yesterday I finally got to try the MR77 and I am very pleased. I was able to hit the MARC repeater in Paoli, PA from near Willow Grove, a distance of about 20 miles, using 5W. I had a QSO with another MARC member on my drive home and while it wasn't full quieting, the audio was perfectly intelligible.

Aside from vehicular use, mag mount antennas can be used at home or in the field if you put them on top of a metal object to act as a counterpoise. For example, you can place it on top of a metal cabinet, an ammo can, a steel garbage can lid, or a cookie sheet.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Firesteel Scout

Over the weekend I picked up a Light My Fire Firesteel Scout at REI and tested it with several different kinds of tinder. It is basic “flint” and steel system for generating sparks to start fires. The striker is a small piece of flat steel, while the “flint” is a ferrocerium rod or something similar (REI's site says it's magnesium but I think that's wrong) with a small plastic handle. The flint is like those found in the magnesium fire starter blocks. It requires two hands to use, unlike a Blastmatch. The striker and flint are connected with a piece of nylon cord.

The Firesteel Scout throws a good shower of sparks. Among the different kinds of tinder I tried to catch those sparks and start fire with, were dryer lint, a pinecone oozing resin, a used dryer sheet, jute twine, and a cotton ball impregnated with Vaseline.

Any of these items would've worked fine with a match or butane lighter. However, using a flint and steel system requires tinder that's easier to ignite. The dryer lint worked OK but burned too fast. The dryer sheet worked well once I rubbed some resin from the pinecone onto it. Without the resin it didn’t work at all. The pinecone wouldn’t ignite from just sparks. Unraveled jute twine with pinecone resin rubbed on worked very well. The cotton ball with Vaseline worked into it and then teased out worked extremely well.

I also tested jute twine which had been soaked in the melted wax from a citronella candle bucket. Once unraveled it caught sparks well and burned long enough to ignite other items, like a pinecone. I cut a bunch of 2” – 4” lengths of the twine and soaked them in the melted wax, and have them stored inside a small aluminum canister.

Soaking in the citronella wax is also an easy way to waterproof matches, instead of setting up a double boiler to safely melt paraffin. Just do it outside so you don’t stink up your house. Aside from waterproofing the matches, the wax melts when you light the match and if you're careful, will drip into the tinder you're tying to light, making a bigger flame.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Thoughts on Electrical Power

Last night I attended the monthly members' meeting of the Mid Atlantic Amateur Radio Club. Rather than a presentation on some radio-related topic, last night's speaker talked about how electrical power is generated in the Greater Philadelphia area. The presenter was member who's an employee of PECO Excelon.

Interestingly, a bit over 50% of our power in this area comes from nukes: Limerick, Peach Bottom, and Three Mile Island. Most of the rest comes from hydro (e.g., Conowingo Damn) and coal (e.g., Eddystone).

The nuclear plants are run to capacity most of the time. Their cost per kilowatt hour is the cheapest, and they are the cleanest. For example, Peach Bottom has been in operation for over 30 years and all of the spent fuel is still kept onsite. It's also extremely hard on nuclear plants to bring them back up to full power after being slowed. The coal plants, being the dirtiest, are spun down during off-peak hours.

Part of the presentation discussed deregulation in the power industry. A more accurate description would be reregulation. What's been deregulated has been the ability to open a power generation plant. Distribution of power and the price it sells at is still heavily regulated. The result of this is that although some other companies got into the power generation business the market is not allowed to go through its natural cycles due to the regulations covering how power is sold. So, the barriers to entry remain very, very high.

One tidbit caused me a bit of concern. During our most recent heatwave, PECO's reserve capacity fell to about 10%. I.e., peak usage hit about 8800 megawatts and there was only another 10% capacity to back it up in case it went higher. Fifteen percent is considered the comfort zone. Conserve all you want but society's power demands never drop, they only go up over time.

Natural gas fired plants aren't economically viable for picking up more of the load due to the spikes in natural gas prices over the past year or so. Same for oil. Wind isn't a real option in PA because it's just not that windy and it's very inefficient. Solar is so prohibitively expensive and inefficient that it's not worth considering. That leaves coal and nukes.

If Pennsylvania has one thing in abundance (besides crappy pro sports teams) it's coal. The downside to using coal is that it's dirty. There are designs on the drawing boards which employ coal gasification to extract the volatiles from coal before it's burned. The coal gas is then further processed to remove pollutants like sulfur -- which can be sold -- until what's finally burned is basically hydrogen. This sort of a plant is more a chemical processing facility with a power generation plant attached to it than a pure power plant. Still, it may be a way to wean us off some of the foreign oil we're so dependent upon.

Nuclear plants are clean and safe, rantings of enviroweenies to the contrary. Spent fuel can be safely stored onsite for a long time, as at Peach Bottom, or buried in Yucca Mountain. Or, as Jerry Pournelle has pointed out, the spent fuel can be disposed of by dropping it into a subduction zone where it can be returned to the Earth's crust. This is one area where France is getting it right, as is Japan.

There hasn't been a nuclear plant built in the USA in 30 years, largely due to all the bureaucratic red tape imposed by the Feds. Plenty of nukes are being built in France, Japan, Finland, and other countries, however. Apparently, some power companies have gotten together with the intention of pooling their resources to build new nuclear plants.

My concern is that since it takes anywhere from six to ten years from the inception of a plan to build a power plant until it starts generating, we may see power shortages spread beyond California to other parts of the country before they are online. There are some things you can do in your home in the meantime to help you get past brownouts or blackouts:

  1. Better insulate your house.
  2. Replace drafty windows with modern two or three pane windows.
  3. Replace incandescent lights with compact flourescent bulbs.
  4. Install an attic fan and/or ridge vent if you live in an area where it gets hot in the summer.
  5. Get a secondary heat source in case outages occur during cold weather. E.g., a wood stove or a kerosene heater.
  6. If you have things that must be kept refrigerated, invest in a generator and/or backup batteries that can get you through a blackout.
  7. Place household electronics on line conditioners or better yet, uninterruptable power supplies.
  8. If you have a two way radio for emergency communications, get some kind of alternate power system (solar, batteries, genset, etc.) for when the power goes out.
Doing 1 - 4 will start saving you money now. At our home we've done 2 and 4, and made progress on 1, 3 and 7. I don't currently have anywhere to store a generator so that's going to have to wait. I'm currently looking into different options for number 8.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Gamo Viper Express Combo

I ran across the Gamo Viper Express combination air rifle and shotgun on another list. I've long thought that a quality precision air gun would make a good addition to a survival gun battery for use in taking small game and pest control around dwellings. Something like this Gamo has extra versatiliy by vitue of being able to shoot a small load of shot. This could aid in controlling small, fast moving critters like rats or mice.

It would be interesting to see what it could do with a 9mm round ball at close range.

Edit: I misread the specs. It's not a 9mm shotgun, it's .22 caliber. It still looks interesting.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Muscial Scopes

In my opinion, optics make a good compliment for emergency rifles, especially for those of us with poor eyesight, myself included. Recent US military experience in the WOT has shown that with the use of good red dots and scopes, hit ratios go way up.

Last year I got a Hakko 4x21mm scope for my Colt AR-15. This is a pretty good scope for the money; Hakko was the OEM for the Colt carry handle mount scopes. They have good optics but after I got a flat top adapter for it I never got around to rezeroing.

Recently, CDNN has started selling the Hakkos, including the versions with the illuminated reticles. This makes them a lot more useful for survival/SHTF rifles, because much of the time you'll need a rifle is when it's dark or nearly so, and black crosshairs don't exactly stand out. CDNN's prices are excellent -- last year I paid about $150 for the non-illuminated from the sole vendor I could find selling them, while CDNN has the illuminated ones for $149.99 and the non-illuminated models for $79.99. Today, I ordered one of the illuminated scopes. Based on my prior orders with CDNN I expect it'll take about a week.

I plan to mount the new Hakko on my Colt using the Leaper's adapter mount, which will allow me to put it right on the upper receiver rail. The Hakko's seem sufficiently rugged that I feel OK without an immediately available BUIS. (If I was tromping around Iraq or Afghanistan I might feel differently.) The non-illiminated Hakko I currently have will probably get moved to my Ruger 10/22, which will allow me to move the Nikon ProStaff 4x32 to my .22 Magnum.

Monday, August 07, 2006

BP: Pipeline Shutdown Could Last Months

This morning's news was bad enough. Now this:

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - BP PLC said Monday it will replace 73 percent of the pipelines from the nation's largest oil field and that production could be closed for weeks or months, crimping the nation's oil supplies at a time of peak demand.

BP, the world's second-largest oil company, began shutting down the pipelines on Monday and said it would replace 16 miles of the 22 miles of transit pipeline it operates in the Prudhoe Bay field following a leak discovered Sunday.


If this is prolonged, look for an inflationary impact, so now might be a good time to take care of preps you've been putting off.

BP Shuts Down Largest US Oil Field

I heard about this on the radio while driving to the train station this morning. It was a definite "Oh shit" moment."

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Oil company BP scrambled Monday to assess suspected pipeline corrosion that will shut shipments from the nation's biggest oilfield, removing about 8 percent of daily U.S. crude production and driving oil prices sharply higher.

BP, which is already facing a criminal investigation over a large spill in March at the same Prudhoe Bay oilfield, said it did not know how long the field would be offline. "I don't even know how long it's going to take to shut it down," said Tom Williams, BP's senior tax and royalty counsel.


That's a significant chunk of domestic production. According to an expert quoted in the article current stores of crude oil are high, but Americans have an insatiable appetite for petroleum products for not just fuel, but plastics and everything else that uses oil as the raw material. A prolonged shutdown will cause prices on everything to go up.

Friday, August 04, 2006

SKYWARN Weather Monitoring

One of the better uses of my tax dollars by the Federal Government (IMO) is the National Weather Service, part of NOAA. The most dangerous hazard most of us will have to prepare for is severe weather, and you don't need to be in Hurricane Alley to be a victim, witness the spring rains we had this year in New England.

Among the programs run by the NWS is SKYWARN. Unlike many Federal programs which embrace a very top-down approach, the SKYWARN program relies of local volunteers to report dangerous weather. From the official description:

The effects of severe weather are felt every year by many Americans. To obtain critical weather information, NOAA's National Weather Service (NWS), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, established SKYWARN with partner organizations. SKYWARN is a volunteer program with over 230,000 trained severe weather spotters. These volunteers help keep their local communities safe by providing timely and accurate reports of severe weather to the National Weather Service.

Although SKYWARN spotters provide essential information for all types of weather hazards, the main responsibility of a SKYWARN spotter is to identify and describe severe local storms. In the average year, 10,000 severe thunderstorms, 5,000 floods and more than 1,000 tornadoes occur across the United States. These events threatened lives and property.

Since the program started in the 1970s, the information provided by SKYWARN spotters, coupled with Doppler radar technology, improved satellite and other data, has enabled NWS to issue more timely and accurate warnings for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods.

SKYWARN storm spotters are part of the ranks of citizens who form the Nation's first line of defense against severe weather. There can be no finer reward than to know that their efforts have given communities the precious gift of time--seconds and minutes that can help save lives.

Part of your survival kit should be a radio which can receive the NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts. Although you can buy dedicated weather radios that strikes me as an inefficient use of your money. Rather, at a minimum get an AM/FM radio which can also receive the NWS broadcasts. Better yet, get some form of two-way radio with wide-band recieve which includes the ability to receive them. For example, the Midland CD Radio in my truck, and my Yaesu VX-5RS and FT-7800R ham radios can all receive the NWS channels. The Yaesus can also be setup to alert you if they receive a NOAA All Hazards Alert. If you're not a ham, some makers of FRS/GMRS radios offer models which incorporate weather radio reception.

Aside from listening to NOAA Weather Radio, you can also monitor SKYWARN radio nets conducted by volunteering hams. Local contact information for SKYWARN is available here, or a few minutes on Google will get you a link to information about your local net.

Edit 8/6/06: I updated the SKYWARN links above to more direct ones.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Importance of Antenna Height for Emcomm

Last night I was doing some monitoring in the 2M band when I came across a net in progress on one of the frequencies I have programmed into my Yaesu FT-7800R. It's for a repeater located in Camden, NJ. I tried to check into the net but they couldn't hear me. After listening for a little while longer I realized that the net wasn't on the Camden repeater, but one located up in Schuylkill County, northwest of Allentown! The distance had to be at least 75 miles as the crow flies.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find out which repeater the net was on, so I don't know what the offset and PL are. But I was amazed that I was able to pick up 2M FM signals so clearly from that far away in PA, which is pretty hilly. Before getting my antenna up on the roof I was not able to pick up signals from far away stations.

This goes to show you that getting a good antenna up high will greatly extend the reach of your comms. (As mentioned on my other blog, on Sunday I got a Comet GP-3 up on the roof on a 5 foot mast.) It gives me confidence that in the event of an local emergency I'll be able to communicate with unaffected areas.