Covered Topics

Please see the list of the topics I've covered. It's located near the bottom of the page. Thanks for stopping in!!

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Communications Options in This Era of Civil Disasters and Internet Censorship

A couple years ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about the use of MESH networks as a means of circumventing communications blackouts resulting from a shutdown of conventional networks by natural disasters or the deliberate actions of ISPs, governments, etc. Tornadoes and earthquakes play havoc with most communications systems other than amateur (HAM) or CB radio, or MESH networks. Furthermore, the problem of governments shutting off or severely restricting Internet access to their citizens for political reasons has NOT gone away since I wrote that earlier piece on MESH networks; if anything, it has become more prevalent. But there ARE workarounds for both the above mentioned situations.

While reading the news tonight, I stumbled across the following article:
Internet Shutdowns Don't Make Anyone Safer

Anyone concerned about emergency communications, freedom and security should seriously research MESH networks, amateur radio, MURS(Multi-Use Radio Service) radio, or any other options that may suit their specific purposes.

MESH networks are a form of distributed network that can run on cell phones, tablets, PCs and other wireless-enabled devices - independently of an ISP or other central control. Each device, or node in the network, communicates with multiple neighboring units within its range, allowing for a network that can dynamically reconfigure itself in the event of the failure of a node or nodes. Thus, all the devices in a neighborhood could be configured with the appropriate software to discretely communicate with one another. MESH networks can be confined to a single block or, given enough nodes, can expand to the size of a small town to provide relatively large area communications. If one or more nodes can still access the Internet, it (or they) can share that connection with all the others via the MESH network : )

Such a network can help facilitate emergency communications. Using this technology, news and alerts could be "pushed" to all devices in the network. In the immediate wake of a civil disaster such as a tornado or earthquake, when cell towers and other networks are out of commission, a MESH network could be rapidly deployed among a group of wireless-enabled devices with the appropriate software installed. If the MESH network extends to areas unaffected by the disaster, then access to the Internet is a simple matter, as mentioned above.

If wireless options are 'off the table', there's always the old trusty "sneaker net" - whereby people carried and passed files to one another on floppy discs or CD ROMS. Nowadays, this is easier than ever using thumb drives that have tens of gigabytes of storage capacity, are cheap, are reliable, rugged, and are easily stuffed in a pocket. When I was in graduate school, I sometimes used thumb drives to store and transport educational or other home videos I had created - thus saving time uploading or downloading on slow networks. I also didn't have to worry about whether or not I had network access when I wanted to play the video; keeping it on a thumb drive saved laptop hard disc space and/or allowed them to be played on someone else's computer.

If one is using radio, discrete communications are certainly possible. Despite the legal prohibitions against using any form of encryption on HAM and other radio services, one can easily prearrange certain phrases to convey sensitive information without compromising it. This is done regularly on open radio channels to address privacy or security issues in situations involving EMS, search and rescue operations, CERT volunteer deployments, etc.

Amateur (HAM) radio also supports a number of digital communications modes that can allow one to transmit text or even pictures via amateur radio to another station equipped to receive them. During an emergency, snapping a picture on one's tablet or phone and then transmitting it over the radio would be a fantastic way to rapidly SHOW others the actual conditions one is experiencing. The old adage "a picture is worth a thousand words" certainly applies here. A computer with a sound card (or a tablet) and the appropriate software are all you need - besides the radio - for some of the digital modes available.


Friday, September 14, 2018

A Serious Question for Android and Apple iPad Developers

This is a serious question and I'd like a serious, straight answer from someone directly involved in development of Apple iPad/iPhone and Android platforms.

I've owned Android phones for several years. I've owned an iPad for a little over a year. I love them both, albeit for different functions. And I use them productively every day. But I also have a major beef with both systems: NEITHER device has a DECENT file manager app for sorting one's photos or other files into folders for organization and quick retrieval. ANY other platform I have ever used - Windows, Mac OX_X, LINUX ALL have decent file manager apps whereby one can create a folder and stuff it with whatever files you need/want in it. That way you do NOT simply have a HUGE folder with every file you have ever created in one huge mess that you have to sort through whenever you want to find a particular file. On my laptop I have folders such as "Lake Cabin Summer 2016", or "Industrial Rectifiers", … that I stored photos to so I can rapidly find them. [Who wants photos taken at your friend's lake house mixed in with industrial rectifiers?] But not so with my Android phone or my iPad. They are all in one HUGE PILE that I have to sort through whenever I want to find one picture. I use the camera on my Android phone on a daily basis at work to document how something is wired or assembled before I tear it down for repair - or for that matter, how it looks when I'm done. I also have pictures on that phone I have taken on family holidays, as well as of stuff I'm doing in my home lab or the work I'm doing restoring an old Chevy truck I recently acquired.

What has happened though is that when I want to show somebody a picture of something I did a couple years ago in my home lab, or if I need to pull up something I did weeks or months ago at work, or I want to show a buddy at a social gathering what I've done on my Chevy, I have to thumb through DOZENS or even HUNDREDS of photos I've taken since then to find it. For such an otherwise useful device, this aspect is a royal PAIN to deal with.

WHY CAN'T you folks give us a simple and usable FILE MANAGER so we can organize the photos we take on our mobile devices???? A simple drag and drop of the photo [or any other file] to a folder of one's own making would help so much. Heck, I'd PAY a few dollars EXTRA for my devices to have this functionality!

Inquiring minds wanna know.

Two Major Windows 10 Annoyances

In December of 2016, I bought a HP laptop with Windows 10 on it. One of the things I quickly found out about Windows 10 is that they have removed many of the adjustments or tweaks I used to be able to make. One of these is being able to schedule WHEN or IF an update was applied. This was useful to me for several reasons: One was that I'd usually wait a couple weeks to be sure that whatever update being pushed didn't cause major issues - if it did, at least the "early adopters" found out the hard way rather than me. Another reason I liked being able to set my own schedule is that when I need my computer for writing a major paper for school or doing a report for work, it's awfully nice to NOT have the computer tied up installing an update when I need it. Alas, with this latest version of Windows, Micro$oft decided it knows better than I do when and how I should use my PC.

Tonight, I planned to work on some online homework for a college class I am taking. When I opened the laptop, instead of being greeted by my desktop photo and a functioning computer ready to work, I found a green screen with a circle of dots spinning around and the message "Working on Updates 45% Don't turn off your PC. This will take a while". NOT what I needed to see when I'm working on a deadline!!

The second thing that I found very annoying is that when I bought this laptop, it was fast - NOT blindingly super fast, but nice. But within 6 months - after a couple minor software updates from Micro$oft, the thing had slowed down A BUNCH. Adding more RAM helped some, as did installing and using a free app called "CC Cleaner". One can do a Google search for this and find it easily. But it still is a pale shadow of what it was when I brought it home that first evening.

I originally got this because I needed something less expensive than a $1500 MacBook Air, but I'm thinking I'd sooner make payments on a credit card bill for a MacBook than put up with this nonsense. Even if I forked up $800+ for a better laptop, if it isn't an Apple I'll STILL be putting up with Windows and Micro$oft.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Retrofitting New Window Screens On Restored 'Retro' RV Camper

RV camping is currently enjoying a resurgence in America. Among the thousands of people taking to America's highways in trailers and motor homes in recent times, there is a growing segment of folks who are restoring older units. This is often done for nostalgic reasons and/or to beat the high cost of a new RV. Recently, I got my hands on an online bargain. The camper shown in the photo dates to the early 1970s and was near completely restored by the previous owner. He sold it to me because he has a child and large dog, and now needs a larger RV. There was one issue with this camper: The restoration job did NOT include screens on the windows. And anyone who has been camping knows how troublesome mosquitoes and flies can be. Also, anyone who has camped in an RV knows that if one is camping in an area where power for the air conditioner is not available, it quickly becomes a "sweat box" unless one can open windows for cross ventilation. So window screens are a MUST.

This RV presented a unique problem due to the design and construction of its windows. Most RVs I have owned or traveled in have a crank that operates the window. On some, this crank is intelligently positioned into the window frame; in others, there is a small, discrete hole in the screen through which the shaft for the window crank protrudes. In the case of this particular camper, the latches which hold the window glass closed are located directly behind where a window screen would be. Thus, it would be impossible to open and close the window when using a conventional window screen. The next photos show this problem:

I came up with my own novel engineering solution. I'm not saying this is necessarily the best or only solution, but it is what I came up with and it works. My approach was to have an immovable section of screen in the middle of the window, between the bottom latches, with movable screens resembling shutters on either side to allow access to the window latches. The next photo shows my completed installation:
When I first installed this, I realized that despite considerable care in minimizing the gap between the movable and fixed screens, that gap was still wide enough to potentially allow mosquitoes and other "no-seeum"type insects to get in. So I used an outdoor-rated duct tape to seal this opening. This can be seen in the next three photos:

To some folks, the tape scheme might seem a bit "hillbilly", but it was inexpensive; I had it lying around, and it is certainly easy enough to fix if/when needed. And finally, the next two pictures show how it operates:

I hope this helps someone restoring an older RV or at least gives them ideas for a workaround.

Monday, July 16, 2018

This Is The Stuff Nightmares Are Made Of

An article came out today in the Idaho Statesman that enumerates various incidents where the US government has LOST weapons grade nuclear materials. According to the article, "since the cold war ... 6 TONS of bomb materials have gone MUF", meaning "material unaccounted for". The article goes on to say that some of this "may be stuck in pipes at processing facilities, etc." so just because it is unaccounted for does NOT necessarily mean that 6 tons were stolen.

That said, the article starts off mentioning some samples of material that WERE recently stolen from a rented SUV that was being used by "two security experts from the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory." While these samples were NOT sufficient quantity to make a nuclear weapon, it bespeaks of a lack of security in the handling of such materials.

Idaho Statesman Article

But knowing that there are 6 TONS of nuclear material - much of it weapons grade - that are MISSING or unaccounted for, does NOT leave one feeling "warm and fuzzy". This is theoretically enough to "make hundreds of nuclear explosives', according to the article. Also, according to the article, an amount of plutonium the size of a grapefruit is sufficient to produce a bomb.

Think terrorist bomb, 'dirty bomb', possible EMP weapon, etc. SCARY!!!