Ode to the Milkweed

Who knew how beautiful a plain old milkweed could be?

A couple years ago I recall wondering “where have all the Monarch butterflies gone?”  We used to see them quite often growing up, but I cannot recall now the last time I’ve seen one.  Research led me to the milkweed.  Apparently, the Monarch caterpillar only eat the leaves of the milkweed plant.  Supposedly, with increased usage of broad spectrum herbicides like glyphosate (aka Monsanto’s Round-Up), combined with bioengineered crops that are glyphosate proof, the milkweeds that used to grow in amongst crops are being killed off.  There are probably other reasons as well.  But the end result is hardly any milkweeds means hardly any Monarch butterflies.  We live in an arid place, and a most of the land here that grows anything around here is irrigated crop circles.  I see some milkweed growing along the edges of our local rivers, but not that many. Since the Monarch are migratory, coming up from Central America, they will seek out what remaining areas have the food for their young.   Which is not our area!

Last year, apparently some milkweed seeds blew in from the Yakima river, which is a few hundred meters from my house.  They began sprouting this spring amongst my lavender plants, and also in my dad’s garden where I grow my hot pepper plants.  Rather than pull them up, I let them grow this time, hoping maybe some Monarchs would stop by.  While I was disappointed in this, I did grow to appreciate the beauty of this plant, especially its compound inflorescence.  It is so incredibly beautiful up close, and even from a distance.  And it smells amazing with a spicy sweet fragrance.

I let these milkweeds grow all summer.  I even staked them up to help support them.  And when the seed pods started bursting open, I took them and scattered seeds in the wind.

Milkweed compound inflorescence

Milkweed’s Compound Inflorescence (Nikon D300)

If you come across milkweeds growing on your land, think twice about pulling them out.  They are a treat to see and hopefully may one day bring back more of the Monarch butterfly.

Back into Photography!

Recently I gave a nephew my Nikon D3200 digital SLR camera to use for a high school photography class.  Was kind of hard parting with it at first.  But he’s got such a knack for bringing out good poses in portraits that I figured it was at least getting put to very good use.

Being pretty old-school, having taken film photograph in high school which included darkroom work, I missed having a DSLR around.  Even having the great photo capabilities of modern iPhone at my disposal, it’s not the same.  Also figured it was time to graduate from consumer grade DSLRs like the D3200 into more professional gear.

Whilst researching newer cameras, I stumbled across Ken Rockwell’s incredibly thorough and long-lived website.  He provides so much good information about cameras, lenses, technology, technique, and even life skills!

After many days of reading reviews on Ken’s site and others, I eventually settled on a 45 megapixel Nikon D850.  It is one step below the uber-professional flagship camera, the Nikon D6, but certainly leaps and bounds better my old D3200.  And it is on sale now for $500 the orignal MSRP.  Bought it from B&H Photo using one of Ken’s affiliate links, so hopefully he got some reward for all his website work.  No doubt, this D850 is an absolutely stellar camera in terms of features, build quality, and image quality.

Nikon D850

Nikon D850

Since I’m also a collector at heart, I could not resist the urge to get a “backup” camera! Back to Ken’s site to pore over reviews of “legacy” DSLRs, all the while crusing eBay for good deals.  Since the “mirrorless” cameras are all the rage now, there are a LOT of DSLR cameras and lenses on the used market.

To my surprise I found a very gently used 12 megapixel Nikon D2x, with only 8,000 shutter actuations.  This was the flagship professional grade camera almost twenty years ago, and cost over $5000 new.  Many of the flagship D2, D3, D4, etc. series cameras on eBay have over 400k shutter actuations, and are still running fine.  What a find!  It had no bids and was ending soon, so I offered the seller $200 and they accepted.  Sometimes it really pays to buy from individual sellers who don’t feel pressured to add mark-ups to used gear like the brick-and-mortar resellers akin to Robert’s Camera.

This D2x seems to be 100% functional and looks mint.  Takes great photos, too.  I am finding that often the lens is what makes the shot anyway.  Like Ken has said quite a few times, one really doesn’t need much more than 6 megapixels.  You would have to print your photos on a giant piece of paper to see the difference between a 6MP and 12MP sensor.  The autofocus and shooting speed of this D2x is absolutely phenomenal.  One of the reasons I am staying with DSLR technology is because the compact point-and-shoot cameras just cannot keep up with my shooting pace.  I have a couple of the Canon SureShot ilk, and they are slow and poky; the iPhone will outdo them easily.

Nikon D2x

Nikon D2x

I will post some photos in follow-up articles.  Right now I’m spending a fair bit of time just learning the features of these more advanced cameras!  And I have a long way to go to learn better artistic photo techniques.

Rucking Your Way to Better Health

You should really try rucking.  What is rucking?  Why hauling a weighted rucksack around on your back for fun and exercise, of course!  I highly recommend starting out with a GoRuck Rucker, and a 30 pound ruck plate.  At first, your shoulders will probably kill you.  But after a few weeks of rucking, you won’t even notice it is there.  And then you can start adding more weight!

At one point I was rucking almost daily with 70 pounds – a 50 pound plate and a 20 pound plate.  I even did 100 pounds once or twice.  However, at those weights, my thoracic vertebrae started to grumble and the pressure from the shoulder straps would cut off some circulation in my axillary veins and/or arteries.  I decided to try 40 pounds as my “normal” ruck load: a 30 pound ruck plate plus 6 liters of water in a DromLite bladder.  I will add in a “heavy” day every week.

I believe that rucking is the perfect blend of resistance and cardio. It also seems to be the best exercise for boosting the bellwether indicator of overall health, the libido.  I don’t go very far, usually only a few miles at a time.  But I find that a consistent and regular amount of moderate exercise is far better for me than periodic bouts of Herculean workouts.

Chromebook – Final Update

Today I get this notification after updating my Acer Chromebook. “Final Software Update” meaning it will no longer receive feature or security updates. Google, what the literal Hell?? This machine is not even five years old yet and is still plenty capable of running your lightweight Linux-based operating system.

This is every bit as bad as Apple’s planned obsolescence. From now on, I won’t be buying any hardware from these two companies except a new iPhone. No more Macbooks, no more Chromebooks. What a crock of shit.

Move over, Outback!

My 2014 Outback was just over a year and 9600 miles old when the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) started to go out.  It was replaced under warranty, thank heavens.  But after I got the vehicle back from the dealer, it was still having weird issues like shuddering when making tight turns, etc.  I dropped it back off at the dealer the next day.  I was starting to wonder if I had a lemon on my hands.  But the thing about lemon laws is usually it has to be the same issue that’s unsuccessfully fixed three or more time before you can invoke the law and get any joy.  I didn’t want to have to deal with that on a brand new car, anyway.

For better or for worse, I decided to take advantage of the still decent trade-in value and get a different Subaru.  At first I was thinking maybe a Forester would be good, as I’ve driven the 2015 and liked it.  More peppy than the Outback, even with the same 2.5 liter engine and CVT.  Odd, I know.  But when I was on the dealer’s site checking out their inventory, I noticed they had two 2016 WRX’s in stock.  Around these parts, a new WRX is pretty rare.  In fact, last year when I bought my Outback, I was originally looking for a WRX but they weren’t available at all in the Northwest at the time.  Plus the Outback was “more practical” I told myself, and settled on that.  Turns out I really haven’t taken advantage of the Outback’s practicality, and since I also have a real Jeep Cherokee, I don’t really need another off-roady vehicle anyway.

I test drove both of the WRX’s: a red one with CVT, and a silver manual.  I liked the CVT but I don’t like red.  And I am still a little doubtful of the CVT’s durability in light of my experience with the Outback, despite the claim that the WRX’s CVT is “high torque” to handle more power, etc.  Plus, manual transmissions are funner to drive, and I really missed not having one for 10 years or more.  So I traded in the “old” Outback for a new WRX Limited!!

I gotta say, this is by far the funnest car I’ve ever owned or driven.  It just sticks to the road like glue, even going fast on a 270 degree off-ramp.  And when the turbo kicks in, it likes to slam you back into your seat.  The first couple of days I was literally scared of this car, fearing I had bitten off more than I could chew.  Fortunately, the human mind is pretty adaptable and now it doesn’t feel fast enough!  To be fair, I’m still driving it pretty easy for the first 1000 miles to break it in.  But I just love driving this machine.  It is so precise, fast, stops quickly, has a great touchscreen head unit, nice alloy wheels, moonroof, heated leather seats, etc.

Plans for the near future are window tinting and paint protection film, probably Xpel brand?  After the warranty runs out in 7 years, I may mod it with a bigger turbo and better exhaust.  But this thing is great just like it is!

More Chromebooks?

It seems that when I find something I like, I never get just one.  Especially when it comes to shoes and clothes.  You just never know if the same offering is going to be available when your current shoes are worn out and you want to replace them.  Hence the reason I have so many pairs of shoes, backpacks, kilts, etc.

Usually, this philosophy does not hold up in the computer technology realm due to the rapid rate of obsolescence.  You wait until your current hardware can’t keep up anymore, and get a new one.  However, in the case of the Acer Chromebook C2720, it is somewhat applicable.  Why?  The newer Chromebooks are all slimming down and that means no upgrades of any components.  And since they are generally skimpy on local storage, that’s unfortunate.  Enter the Acer C720, which has an upgrade-able SSD card.  Sure it voids the warranty to upgrade it, but who cares with something this cheap?  Also, you can get a C720 with the more powerful quad-core Core i3 CPU and 4GB of RAM.  Couple that with an upgraded 256GB SSD and you have a hell of a Chromebook.

And yes, I should have bought an Acer C720 first instead of getting the Samsung.  But the Samsung was on sale locally and I could play around with it, and fell in love with it!!  I still love it.  But I also like to tinker and tweak.  So I ordered a slightly used gray Core i3 C720 on eBay.  Well, I say I ordered one, but I did not receive it.  Rather, I got a white C720P with a Celeron and 2GB of RAM.  Apparently the seller is completely computer illiterate and had no idea what they were selling.  But for the price I paid at $240 or so, a like-new C720P is still a good machine.  It’s faster than the Samsung Chromebook 2, and has a nice touch screen.  So I went easy on them and just decided to keep it, giving them neutral feedback instead of negative.  Worked out well in the end for everyone.  And I think I finally learned my lesson to not buy computer equipment on eBay.

I upgraded the white C720P with a 128GB MyDigitalSSD SuperCache 2 42mm M.2 SSD.  It’s great now!

But still, I really wanted that Core i3 C720.  And I finally found a really good deal on a new one at Tiger Direct.  I even got a $20 off coupon when shopping for it, so out the door including 2nd Day Air shipping – $319 I think?  Much better price new than anywhere else.  I also upgrade its SSD with a MyDigitalSSD Super Boot Drive 42mm M.2 unit, and it rocks.  Fast, good battery life, and lots of local storage.

So yes, now I have three little Chromebooks.  But I don’t have to worry about synchronizing settings, etc. across the three — Google does it for me.  Even newly downloaded apps and my wallpaper follow me around from Chromebook to Chromebook.  Guess that’s one of the reasons why so many schools have switched to this platform.  I really hope Google keeps it around, even if that means folding it into some kind of laptop version of Android with ChromeOS features sometime down the line.

Finally bit the bullet on a Chromebook

Chromebooks — been hemming and hawing about getting one of these for a couple of years.  The idea really intrigued me, and I even tried to get a custom build of ChromeOS to work on a couple of my laptops, to no avail.  So far, nothing really struck my fancy in terms of price/performance ratio until I saw this little 11 inch Samsung Chromebook 2 with the Intel processor at Fred Meyer last night.  It was on sale for $219, and after playing with it in the store for about 30 minutes, I was hooked.  I checked review online while I was in the store, and also compared prices to the higher performance Chromebook offerings.  But for my needs, this just couldn’t be beat for the price.

What I like about it:

  • Great quality LCD screen
  • Perfect size – fits perfectly in my Maxpedition Narrow Look bag
  • Very lightweight
  • Long battery life (9+ hours)
  • Inexpensive
  • Solid build/finish
  • Plenty good performance for everything I do
  • Stays cool without the need for a (noisy) fan

What I would like different:

  • More RAM.  These Chromebooks usually only have the option of 2GB or 4GB soldered on the motherboard.  Would be great to have an 8GB option just for fun.
  • Larger SSD than 16GB, and the ability to upgrade it, too.  A few other Chromebooks have the ability to upgrade the mSATA SSD.  However, this is not a huge issue because there is a nice recessed and covered Micro SD card slot, and this allowed me to easily boost the effective local storage by 128GB.

I love my El Kommando Kilt

Even though I’m only a fraction Scottish by heritage, I have grown to love wearing kilts.  How did this come to be, you ask?  A couple years ago, while discussing exercise apparel, one of my co-workers told me about “modern” kilts such as the Utilikilt.  As a (formerly) avid hiker, my curiosity was piqued.  So I checked out the Utilikilt website, and while their stuff looks pretty good, the $250-300 price tag was a deal breaker for my initial foray into kiltedness.  I mean who wants to pay that much money to try something out for the first time?  But I was not going to give up that easily, so I kept searching online.

Enter the Mountain Hardwear Elkommando kilt.  At 75 USD MSRP, it’s is a fraction of the cost of a Utilikilt!  Chalk it up to good timing or whatever, but I was able to score one of these on REI’s online store for about $50 on sale back in 2012.  I think I even got the last one available in my size.  By the way, the Elkommando name is a tongue-in-cheek jab at “going commando” (slang for no underwear), as is the tradition when wearing a kilt.  Leave it up to the “edgy” crowd at Mountain Hardwear to come up with such a cool name!  And yes, it does feel really good to go commando in a kilt.  It’s a whole other dimension of comfort wearing one of these vs. underwear and trousers.

The Elkommando is designed for hiking, which means it differs from “traditional” tartan Scottish kilts in several ways.  Indeed, I’ve seen it noised about on web forums that it’s not “truly” a kilt, nor are any of the “modern” solid color non-wool un-bifurcated male garments (UMG’s).  But purists often let the perfect become the enemy of the good, as it were, so we won’t pay them much heed in this article.  They can keep their heavy expensive tartan wool kilts, tall-ass kilt hose (socks), and sporran fanny packs for all I care.  Anyway, I digress.  Like I was saying, the Elkommando is a hiking kilt, which means:

  • Lighter weight synthetic material in solid earth tone colors.
  • Slim internal cinch belt which will not interfere (much) with the hipbelt of a backpack.
  • Snap at the center of the bottom hem so you can opt for some modesty if you don’t want to expose yourself around females.  I remember an article written by a woman hiker of the Applachian Trail wherein she bemoaned how much “junk” she had been exposed to by kilted male hikers on the trail who were squatting down around their cookstoves.  I personally never plan to use this feature.  Deal with it, people!
  • Nice big side pockets to carry stuff.

The Mountain Hardwear design team certainly put a lot of thought into this, and it shows.  They are also evidently pretty popular, as they are usually sold out soon after the seasonal production run has been released for sale.  If you are interested in getting one and see one in stock somewhere, GET IT NOW.  Don’t wait, or it will be be gone before you get around to thinking about it again.  This spring, I bought four more of them, two at Mountain Hardwear’s website last week, and then two more from REI again today.  Soon after I bought mine from the manufacturer, that size was listed as “sold out” on their website.  Looks like I grabbed them just in the nick of time.  Yes, these kilts are that good that I want several extra in case they stop making them.  Hopefully, they will grown in popularity, and the increased demand will ensure their continual supply, but you never know.

Now the Elkommando was my first kilt and is still my favorite for hiking, but I have other kilts as well.  The second kilt I got is a SportKilt solid olive green.  It’s super simple and while not “fancy” enough for wearing out on the town, or good enough for hiking, it serves as my “house kilt” for bumming around at home.  I also have close to a dozen “modern utility kilts” from Brice at UTKilts.Com.  These are super values at 65 USD, and while not perfect in quality or design, they are pretty darn good!  I also recently discovered the Damn Near Kilt ‘Em (DNKE) brand being sold on Amazon.Com.  Theirs are a slight cut above UT Kilt quality but do not cost much more, at least for their Sport Utility Kilt or “SUK” (but they do not suck).  There are probably dozens more kilt brands out there, but I am pretty happy with what I have so far.

Bark River Pro Scalpel 3V

Ah, I just ordered a Bark River Pro Scalpel 3V knife with natural canvas micarta handle scales.  Little by little, my collection is growing.  I hope some day to have one of each of the Bark River knife models.  They make such fantastic knives at pretty reasonable prices (considering they are still completely made in the USA).

The Pro Scalpel is a small knife, but it’s made from CPM 3V steel, which imbues it with enough strength for it to handle larger tasks.  I have a few of the pretty large Bark River knives like the Golock, Grasso Bolo I, Magnum Fox River, Bravo 1.5, etc. but I really find that their small to medium sized knives are the most useful.  I debated getting the newer “improved” Pro Scalpel II, but it’s “mere” A-2 tool steel and also cost $30-40 more.

Also, most of their knives are convex ground, which makes for very easy edge maintenance with a simple leather strop impregnated with the gray and green abrasives.  It took me a while to get the “feel” for sharpening with a strop, but I am now good enough that I can get and keep all my convex knives super razor sharp.  The trick is to obtain a feel for meeting the knife edge to the strop, and not applying too much pressure.  I wasted a lot of time “sharpening” my knives at too shallow of an angle, trying to avoid “rounding” off the edge.  However, this merely just polishes the “shoulder” of the blade, and doesn’t sharpen the knife at all.  I eventually learned how to feel when the edge is contacting the strop at just the right angle.  That skill combined with ever resisting the urge to apply too much pressure is what you need to be a good convex blade sharpener.  You can watch all the YouTube videos you want, but you still have to put in the “time” actually using the strop to get the feel and become good at sharpening.