Lonesome Lake Hut

Another lovely weekend hiking in the white mountains.  This time we went up to Lonesome Lake Hut, which is located just south and west of Cannon Mountain.  The hike up Cascade Brook Trail on Saturday was magnificent – some of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve seen in ages (If you hike this, don’t forget to visit the Basin at the beginning of the trail!).

I also decided to take along a small point and shoot camera I had – a GE A1050.  It’s a 10MP, 5x optical zoom, lightweight camera, about 6 years old, but had the win of never needing to be recharged, was small enough to fit in my backpack waist pocket, and was very light.  The shots I got were pretty good.  I wasn’t worried about it getting wet or having to make a huge effort to haul it out to take some pics.  This one’ll stay with me.

(I did have the sticker-shock moment this morning of going “Hmm, what are new modern point and shoots going for?”.  Short answer?  OMG TOO MUCH. $800-ish.  Think I’ll stick with this little guy for a while.)


Anti-Intellectualism is Killing America

This article on Psychology Today cuts through the current easily derailed conversation about race, gun control, and the lack of informed, civil discourse today…

America is killing itself through its embrace and exaltation of ignorance, and the evidence is all around us. Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter who used race as a basis for hate and mass murder, is just the latest horrific example. Many will correctly blame Roof’s actions on America’s culture of racism and gun violence, but it’s time to realize that such phenomena are directly tied to the nation’s culture of ignorance.

In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are“lies straight from the pit of hell,” where the chairman of a Senate environmental panelbrought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president, it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. Our failure as a society to connect the dots, to see that such anti-intellectualism comes with a huge price, could eventually be our downfall.

Anti-Intellectualism is Killing America

Zealand Falls Hut

pic of zealand pond
Click through to see the entire photo gallery.

Finally made an overnight hike to one of the AMC backcountry huts. These huts are maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club along the Appalachian trail for hikers to visit, either on their way along the trail or as a destination all their own.  The huts are 100% off the grid, and  Zealand Falls has that added benefit of being off any cell phone service at all. I was truly ‘cut off’ from the rest of the world.

The hut crew (or ‘croo’ as they call themselves) was wonderful. They apparently are ‘on’ for 11 days out of 14, preparing meals and helping travellers as they come through. That doesn’t mean it’s a 24hr a day job. A lot of the time for them is spent on the trails themselves. Not much to do between breakfast and dinner!

This hike was the longest one I’ve done so far. 18 miles over 3 days, staying one night at Zealand Falls, and two nights at Highland Lodge. It was also my first ‘backpacking’ trip (in that I was carrying a decent pack. No cooking or overnight gear, but I had all the required bits for backcountry travel).  It’s the next logical progression for me learning how to handle myself camping and backpacking again.  My first trip to Crawford Notch did not involve overnighting away from the lodge.

So, what did I learn?  Well, a couple interesting things.

  • That whole thing about “cotton kills” and “use only synthetics?”  I’m a believer.  I didn’t get actively rained on, but I sweated a bunch and on Saturday morning had to hike through some wet brush.  I was wearing all synthetic fabrics, and never got chilled, even though I was pretty damp.
  • Never. Ever. forget the bugspray.  I brought it, wondering if I’d need it.  2 mosquito bites inside 4 minutes of hitting the trailhead had me hosing myself down with Cutter bugspray.
  • Bring something to relax with.  I didn’t have a book with me, and my cell phone was useless (as well as having poor battery life.  Remember, no power at the huts other than 2-3 hrs of light in the early evening).  I own a solar charger, so I could have worked on charging up the phone, but solar chargers / external batteries are heavy.
  • Gear needs to be good.  In this day and age where you can buy anything ‘on the cheap’ or ‘stupidly expensive because it has some famous persons name on it’, buy things that are high quality and dependable.  My waterbag (which fit into my pack) broke on the second day.  It was a cheapo knockoff.  I fortunately had a spare stainless steel bottle, but that was irritating.
  • Hiking socks are gods gift to feet.
  • When they say ‘bring earplugs’ for sleeping in the huts, they ain’t kidding.  One guy in my area was like the sleep apnea poster child.  *shudder*
  • I continue to be impressed at the quality of AMC’s food and offerings.  Breakfast and dinner were excellent.
  • Chocolate chip Clif bars are the best lunchtime backpacking food ever.
  • Hiking / Trekking poles.  First time I’ve used them for any extended period of time.  I sort of surprised myself finding that carrying them both in one hand during the flat / open trails worked just fine (and I saw several other hikers do this).  But having them for the clambering up and down climbs, as well as crossing water and mud?  Totally worth it.  I also had NONE of the ‘numb / bloated hands’ problems I’ve had in the past.  Worth it.
  • I wrestled hard about whether to bring my Canon camera with me, and in the end decided against it.  If things got super-wet, I couldn’t guarantee I’d keep it dry, and it was just too much weight.  I took photos with my cell phone while on the trail, and then hauled out the SLR when I got back on Saturday.

I’m ready to go back.  There’s a few more hut trips planned with friends through the summer.  I’m really looking forward to it.


From Youtube to Pilot – My Journey Into the World of FPV Drone Racing (Part 2)

This is part 2 of 2.  To see part 1, click here.

In part 1, I described the new sport of FPV Drone Racing.  In this posting, I’ll tell what it’s like to try and take those Youtube videos and star-eyed ideas and make them real – IE, build and fly my own drone.

Once I understood the details of what a 250mm racing drone was, I had to buy one. Getting parts and pieces and assembling the entire series from scratch was daunting. What sort of ESC’s, what sort of flight controller, etc etc.

I found an eBay posting for a configuration that seemed right. Motors, props, ESC’s, frame, flight controller, all the pieces were there, for $108, delivered.  Win!  I’m in. I hit purchase.

Drone parts laid out
Drone parts laid out

That was March 14th. Little did I realize, I had made a classic blunder that’s all too common in this new sport. The frame I ordered was from China, and would take at least 3 weeks to arrive. Agony! Oh well. Lets make the best of it. I spent the intervening time building out my secondary parts inventory. A transmitter and receiver. Batteries. A carrying case to hold it all. Charger. I would be ready.

Finally, the frame arrived, and it was time to get to work. I unpacked the (small) box and laid out all the parts. Have to admit, the box looked less than promising. After driving myself bonkers looking at FPV videos, talking with folks online, etc, this sure didn’t look like what I had hoped it would be.

Opening it up and sorting through parts, things started looking better. Everything was there, and it even looked pretty good. Machining was good, parts were as expected, all I needed to do now was put it together. I had chalked off the evening to do the assembly, and it took all of that to get from “piles of parts” to something that started to look like an actual drone.

Anyone who has ever built an RC model knows what comes next. Doesn’t matter that this thing you’ve dreamed about sorta looks like what you imagined, you have a long road between “Looks done” and “it’s in the air”. The first trick was wiring the power harness so all of the ESC’s would have power to drive the motors. Some drones use a Power Distribution Board (or PDB), but this particular configuration didn’t have one, so I needed to wire up my own. Lots of soldering later, I realized the power connectors on my batteries didn’t match anything I had, nor did they match the charger I was using. Arrrgh. I suppose this is what happens when you build something from scratch, on a platform that really hasn’t solidified.

Somewhere around here I joined up with the MakeIt Labs folks up in Nashua, NH. They have a pretty rabid drone group there, and these guys were unbelieveably helpful in guiding me up this steep learning curve. I learned that most folks use XT60 power connectors, so I ordered up a handful of those.

My drone with a 3000mAh battery

So, ready to go, right? Yeah, not so much. My FC (Flight Controller – a CC3D from the OpenPilot) needed to be programmed and calibrated with my motors and ESC’s. This is not a trivial process, and I was getting frustrated that my motors were not spinning up appropriately. Turns out, I had a blown ESC. ANOTHER BLOCKER. After much hand-wringing about ‘can you mix different kinds of ESC’s on a single quadcopter’, I took the plunge, ordered 4 more ESC’s, and after they came in, installed one onto the drone. More calibration, and… okay, now the motors are spinning under test, but are not responding to radio control at all. On the other hand, it LOOKED like a drone, smelled like a drone, it just… wouldn’t fly like one. (BTW, after sharing this picture, the folks at the lab were like “That’s a STUPIDLY large battery. You know most folks fly with a 1300mAh battery, right? You’ll save weight and space using a more appropriately sized battery). So, 2 new batteries ordered.

Here I have to give a bit of a shout out to the OpenPilot peeps.  I understand there’s a little back and forth in the community about who owns the software, who owns the boards, and the like, but the OpenPilot GCS (ground control station) software is outstanding – running flawlessly on my Mac and giving me enormous control and detailed information about my flight controller.  The CC3D controller itself can be had for around $25, and, as a geek who has seen some pretty complex little controller boards, what this thing can do is nothing short of amazing, for such a low cost.  Very fast signal processing, control, and durned good communication / feedback to the groundstation software.  The CC3D flight controller is being slowly replaced by the Revolution board, but that’ll be an upgrade for the future.  Right now, I love my little flight controller, and am so grateful to the developers and community that made it possible.

Eventually I got all the factors aligned, and my drone took to the air.  Flying Line Of Sight (or “LOS”) is the normal way people expect RC planes to fly.  Watch the craft in the air, learn the controls, and fly around.  My first few flights were just this… zipping around, feeling what it could do.  I quickly learned what most pilots learn – it’s easy to fly your craft when it’s oriented directly away from you.  Where left is left, right is right, forward is forward, etc.  But once that vehicle turns and is coming toward you, all the controls are reversed.  Thing flying toward you too fast?  You pull back on the pitch stick (pull it toward you) to slow it down and pitch up.  That’s not intuitive!  I still have not worked this out – and in talking with other new pilots, I’m not alone here.

Eventually though it was time for the next step.  First Person View, or FPV flying.  In a nutshell, my drone has a small digital camera mounted on the front, and that is in turn wired to what amounts to a television transmitter.  This signal can be sent back to a ‘groundstation’, or a set of goggles with a receiver and antenna.  After some back and forth determining how to use goggles with my glasses (I ended up removing my glasses and wearing the goggles in a way that puts the screens a half inch further away from my eyes than normal.  This works) – I was ready to fly.

This video is pretty much what happened.  Did I fly?  Yep.  Was I able to be ‘on board’ and see what the drone sees?  Sure enough.  Was it the leaping, “Lo, I have slipped the bonds of earth” experience I was hoping for?  Not even remotely. Next big lesson:  Flying FPV is REALLY REALLY HARD.  A drone doesn’t fly like an airplane – it doesn’t bank and swoop.  In a wind, it behaves erratically and unintuitively.  So naturally I crashed.  A lot.  Dozens of times.  And each time, something would come off, something would break, things needed to be tuned… it was… exhausting.

That video was made around 6 weeks ago.  Since then I’ve replaced all my motors, rebuilt the camera mount,installed a new camera and video transmitter, heck I’ve remounted virtually every component on the frame.

The result?  I’m… starting to enjoy it!  Flight times are up, crashes are down, maneuverability is comfortable – we’re not yet ready to go tearing through concrete tunnels, but I can make loops around the field and mostly not crash into trees now.  My drone is still tuned to a very basic level of responsiveness.  I’m not doing crazy flips and the like – and frankly, ain’t gonna do that anytime soon.  But… well, take a look at how I’m flying now.  This was in the same field as the first video.  Check it:

Am I super-pilot? Not even remotely. Am I starting to feel like this is fun, and lets me experience, in a weird way, what it means to fly? It comes close… and I’ll keep trying.

You Should Be Standing At Your Desk 2-4 Hours a Day

standup desk
My standup desk

Hah!  I am vindicated!!!

Experts now say you should start standing up at work for at least two hours a day — and work your way toward four.

That’s a long-awaited answer for a growing number of workers who may have heard of the terrible health effects of prolonged sitting and been wondering whether they should buy standing desks or treadmill desks.

Today, the average office worker sits for about 10 hours, first all those hours in front of the computer, plowing through e-mails, making calls or writing proposals — and eating lunch. And then all those hours of sitting in front of the TV or surfing the Web at home.

My normal schedule has me standing 4-5 hours a day, interspersed with meetings, lunch, things like that.  But I’ll try and get an hour, maybe 2 hours of sit down time in the late afternoon.

Dear @Evernote – This was a bad decision.

skitch screenshot
Skitch gives an ‘upload’ warning

I’m a rabid user of Evernote and it’s associated screen capture tool, Skitch. I use it for just about everything, and regularly snap screenshots to share what I’m seeing with coworkers.

I’m aware that my screenshots are stored in my Evernote account, and there’s a disk space limit there. I’m okay with that, free services have to put limits on things. If I start running low on space, I go into my notebooks and start deleting things.

Yesterday though, I was suddenly stopped from being able to share screenshots via an alert from Evernote that I was over my monthly upload limit, which would reset in 9 days. There is absolutely nothing to do to fix this except wait, or pay money to release it.

This smacks of ransomware. My service has been interrupted unless I pay up, a service that up until now has been free. I have no way of ‘getting out of jail’ unless I cough up some dough, or wait over a week – and if I just wait, it may happen again next month.  In addition, everytime Evernote tries to sync now, I get a modal dialog box that says “Cannot sync [Learn More]” – you can’t dismiss this box, you must click on Learn More, and get their little ad asking for money.   Thanks guys.

I’ve been considering paying for my Evernote Pro license, because I find the service quite valuable, but this… come on guys, this was a bad decision. You’re already limiting how much data I can store with the free version. Now you’re limiting how many I can upload, even though I have plenty of storage space? Ung.