Archive for the ‘Technobabble’ Category

SORRY, Internet Closed! NOW WHAT?

February 3, 2011

Who pulled the plug?

(Geekspeak Alert! Multiple occurrences of Information Technology jargon and abbreviations follow. Approach at your own risk.)

What if, what if, what if…? The recent discussion of the Egyptians’ reliance on the Internet for communication in their uprising, and of the “Internet Kill Switch” legislation in our own Congress, led me to thinking about preparedness in general, and emergency communication in particular.

The Internet has gone from an obscure fad to a virtual communication spinal cord in a couple of decades. It’s “the network of networks.” It’s “the cloud,” and the “information superhighway.” To some, it’s a free-flowing gutter; to others, it’s a lifeline to information, communication and entertainment they can’t imagine being without.

You are “plugged in,” to one degree or another, to that “cloud,” or you wouldn’t be reading this.

What if it went away?

Egypt did its best to shut off public access to the Internet when the rioting in Cairo began to turn into a revolt.

According to a TIME online story, what the Mubarak regime did was order the Internet Service Providers that serve Egypt to shut down their Domain Name Service (DNS servers). The article offers a capsule explanation of DNS:

When you open up your web browser and type a domain name into the address bar—say Time.com, for instance—your service provider sends a lightning-quick request to whichever service provider Time.com uses to make its web pages publicly available on the internet.

The computer that holds all of Time.com’s web pages sends a response back through its internet service provider basically saying, “Yes, we’re online. Here’s the web page you requested.”

That’s part of the story. The critical part of the DNS process is address translation. The Internet doesn’t know from www.yoursite.com. The DNS server converts the Universal Resource label (URL), the “human-friendly” name for the site you want to see, into an Internet Protocol (IP) address, which, for now, is a series of numbers and periods in the format ###.###.###. That is what really travels across town or around the world, to arrive at “www.yoursite.com.”

There’s a lesson, for you. If DNS service is down, you need a list of Internet Protocol addresses you can put into the address field of your browser to get to sites directly.

To get to my favorite Internet news site, World Net Daily, in the absence of DNS service, I simply put “70.85.95.100”(without the quotation marks) into my address field, and go there.

How did I find that out? I opened a command line window (I speak Windows; sorry, Apple and Linux speakers – you’re on your own) and ran the PING command using several of my most frequent browsing destinations.

Here’s an example of the PING command and its output, from my IP address gathering process:

C:\Documents and Settings\Tom Cox>ping drudgereport.com
 Pinging drudgereport.com [209.234.251.93] with 32 bytes of data:
Reply from 209.234.251.93: bytes=32 time=105ms TTL=46
Reply from 209.234.251.93: bytes=32 time=113ms TTL=46
Reply from 209.234.251.93: bytes=32 time=112ms TTL=46
Reply from 209.234.251.93: bytes=32 time=111ms TTL=46 
Ping statistics for 209.234.251.93:
Packets: Sent = 4, Received = 4, Lost = 0 (0% loss),
Approximate round trip times in milli-seconds:
 Minimum = 105ms, Maximum = 113ms, Average = 110ms

The important information here isn’t the lousy ping times I get from my ISP, but the fact that when I enter the domain name — drudgereport.com in this case – (note the omission of “www” and the like), PING gives me the IP address, (209.234.251.93) it got from the DNS server I am currently connected to, which it uses to find the right server at the other end and measure the time required to get an acknowledgment.

Obviously, taking down the DNS service will impede access for those who don’t know how to get around it, but just as obviously, that is a porous barrier to the Internet. Not only can people who have stored their most-used IP addresses locally get through, but satellite-based ISPs, as well as any ISP who can be reached by dial-up, even in another hemisphere, can provide access, however slow and filtered that access may be. Any regime or force that wants to cut off Internet service completely, or at least much more completely than the Egyptian government did, has to take down wireline phone service, as well as cellular service, and jam satellite downlink frequencies.

The Internet is designed with “robustness” in mind, with multiple paths among connected nodes, and that makes an “Internet Kill Switch”more of a challenge than it may appear to be from a user’s perspective. (Thanks to Bruce Schneier, long-time Internet security and encryption expert)

If it were possible to take down the Internet in a given region, the results may be a classic, “be careful what you wish for” scenario. Governments that want to clamp down on the Internet may discover too late how dependent their own activities are on it. Will they be able to use government debit cards to refuel military vehicles? Will their air traffic control system’s communication network collapse? How about the electrical grid, public transportation, metropolitan traffic control systems, for starters – will a government that wants to enhance its grip on its population deliberately blind and deafen itself, just to silence social networks and news outlets?

Government suppression of the Internet may be the least of our concerns, in fact. We don’t even need our government to put the Internet at risk. Two other “actors” may be a lot more likely to succeed where governments fail: terrorists, and the sun.

All it will take is a little, tiny episode of solar flatulence, known scientifically as a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). The sun, notorious for its stubborn inclination to ignore and flaunt government regulations and environmentalist lobbying, is about due for another of its periodic episodes of instability. This instability includes a tendency to fling huge clouds of high-energy particles out from its nearly-endless supply of such materials.

A solar corona hole, February 3, 2011, courtesy http://www.spaceweather.com

 

Should our planet happen to be in the way of one of these clouds, the results will be spectacular and calamitous, but not unprecedented. As it passes through the cloud, the energy in the cloud will induce electric currents in any conductor, such as a power line or radio antenna, and the currents induced may be much greater than the conductor, and any connected equipment, can tolerate.

The earth itself will rattle with the shock of this blast of energy. A geomagnetic storm is a secondary effect of the CME. The earth’s magnetic field will ring like a bell, with effects on life and technology both known and unknown.

The history of these storms shows but a hint of the potential impact on the whole energy-transportation-communication-security-economy infrastructure.

This impact would not be an overnight phenomenon, but could bathe the earth in strong energy clouds for weeks or months. The associated Aurora displays might be spectacularly beautiful, but most of us will be too busy trying to survive the other effects to have much time top enjoy the show.

Aurora, courtesy Wikipedia

Aurora Borealis, courtesy Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Polarlicht_2.jpg

Ole’ Mom Nature and government shutdowns are not the only way uncontrollable forces can have a huge impact on the Internet and the rest of the infrastructure.  A small, but well-funded group of terrorists, or “axis of evil” agents, armed with a small nuclear weapon and a “SCUD” class, intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) can blind and cripple us, too.

SCUD on semi-trailer launcher, courtesy Wklipedia

 

A nondescript container ship could pull up off the Atlantic coast a hundred miles out from Washington DC, and launch a missile sold or donated by Russia, North Korea, Iran, or a non-state entity with lots of money. If the missile has a warhead consisting of, say, a refurbished Russian tactical nuclear warhead, furnished by the same thoughtful donor or another, or sold by some organized crime venture, the goal would be to detonate the missile not on or near the ground, as in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks, but a hundred miles or so above Washington, or nearby.

The nuclear detonation, even resulting from a very small, “suitcase”-style weapon, would have the expected blast effects from heat and sudden pressure – although they would be diminished on the ground due to the high altitude of the detonation — but it would also create a huge, sharp electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Before discounting the possibly existence of nuclear warheads small enough to launch above a SCUD-sized IRBM, recall that both the Russians and Americans developed and built thousands of nuclear artillery shells, one of which was successfully test-fired and detonated.

The upper atmosphere would interact with the pulse to create a huge, secondary pulse that would spread over an area of hundreds, or thousands, of square miles. There would be instant and dramatic effects on anything electrical for hundreds or thousands of miles in any direction. The impulse would be far stronger than a CME-induced surge, but lasting only a fraction of a second. The effect, though, would last for months, or years, in terms of its effect on the nation.

The effect on a society as dependent on electricity and electronics as ours, would be devastating, and that is not just the apocalyptic fantasy of a few catastrophe freaks and post-apocalypse survival enthusiasts. Credible groups have testified before Congress on the potential effects of such an attack, but with little apparent impact on our national priorities.

Nightmarish scenarios exist, such as a novel by a historian named William Forstchen, One Second After.

There is considerable disagreement as to the scientific and technical accuracy of the novel’s predictions, as one can see in the extended discussion of the book on Amazon, but not much disagreement that the effects will be severe and long-lasting. As long as the Internet stays up, you can learn more about EMP in its various forms at EMPact America, http://www.empactamerica.org/

Whether the cause of the outage is government action, terrorism or solar storms, doing without the Internet is

What’s a communication-dependent technophile to do? Do you carry a spare tire in your car? Why? The odds of a flat in the middle of nowhere are low, but the repercussions are severe – what disaster prep strategists refer to as a “low probability, high consequences event.”

Technophiles are smart to be ready with multiple options for communications, to fit the circumstances. Dead cell phone battery? Where’s your crank-up charger? Power out for an extended period? Cable system, wireline phone system, and cell service down? Where’s your CB radio, your GMRS/FRS portable radio set, your crystal radio, complete with rolled-up, ready-to-launch wire antenna, your HF ham radio and accessories, your fire starting kit, your wood stove, your bottled water, your toilet paper, your emergency food, your maps, your compass, your handgun, your rifle, your ammunition…

From a dead DNS server to the collapse of civil society and enemy attack – you can be a victim, or you can be prepared.

WHERE’S WIKILEAKS (AS OF THIS MOMENT)?

December 3, 2010

WHERE’S WIKILEAKS?

Whose couch is WikiLeaks sleeping on, today? The “.org” domain is no more, thanks to Fox News Radio on WLAC for that info! It’s now (or most recently, anyway) “.ch” in Sweden.

C:\Documents and Settings\Tom Cox>tracert wikileaks.ch

Tracing route to wikileaks.ch [88.80.13.160] over a maximum of 30 hops:

1 <1 ms <1 ms <1 ms 192.168.0.1
[local ISP hops] –
9 83 ms 86 ms 85 ms TenGigE0-0-0-0.GW4.ATL5.ALTER.NET [63.122.230.125]
10 116 ms 93 ms 91 ms 0.ge-1-1-0.XT1.ATL5.ALTER.NET [152.63.82.253]
11 82 ms 93 ms 93 ms 0.so-5-1-0.XT1.ATL4.ALTER.NET [152.63.0.85]
12 82 ms 91 ms 96 ms TenGigE0-6-1-0.GW7.ATL4.ALTER.NET [152.63.80.133]
13 94 ms 91 ms 94 ms teliasonera-gw.customer.alter.net [157.130.90.238]
14 100 ms 109 ms 109 ms ash-bb1-link.telia.net [80.91.247.172]
15 110 ms 110 ms 104 ms 80.91.248.201
16 200 ms 226 ms 201 ms kbn-bb1-link.telia.net [80.91.247.114]
17 204 ms 208 ms 230 ms s-bb2-link.telia.net [80.91.248.50]
18 210 ms 224 ms 216 ms s-b3-link.telia.net [80.91.249.220]
19 210 ms 214 ms 319 ms tsic-206.kn1.sth.portlane.net [213.248.66.206]
20 215 ms 238 ms 228 ms i2b-154.kn1.sth.portlane.net [80.67.0.154]
21 227 ms 225 ms 213 ms sth-sod1-crdn-1-ge-1-2-801.i2b.se [178.16.212.10]
22 247 ms 227 ms 221 ms sth-sln1-crdn-1-ge-2-3-800.i2b.se [178.16.212.5]
23 216 ms 207 ms 213 ms cust-prq-nt.i2b.se [178.16.212.2]
24 210 ms 247 ms 203 ms mail.wikileaks.org [88.80.13.160]

Trace complete.

WHOIS search:

[Querying whois.ripe.net]
[whois.ripe.net]
% This is the RIPE Database query service.
% The objects are in RPSL format.
%
% The RIPE Database is subject to Terms and Conditions.
% See http://www.ripe.net/db/support/db-terms-conditions.pdf

% Note: This output has been filtered.
% To receive output for a database update, use the “-B” flag.

% Information related to ‘88.80.12.0 – 88.80.13.255’

inetnum: 88.80.12.0 – 88.80.13.255
netname: PRQ-NET-INT
descr: prq Inet – Access
descr: Customer / link addresses
country: SE
admin-c: pIN7-RIPE
tech-c: pIN7-RIPE
status: ASSIGNED PA
mnt-by: MNT-PRQ
source: RIPE # Filtered

role: prq Inet NOC
address: PRQ AB
address: Box 1206
address: SE 11479 Stockholm
address: Sweden
remarks: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
remarks: !! Abuse reports should ONLY be sent to abuse@prq.se !!
remarks: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
abuse-mailbox: abuse@prq.se
admin-c: PW1115-RIPE
tech-c: PW1115-RIPE
nic-hdl: PIN7-RIPE
mnt-by: MNT-PRQ
source: RIPE # Filtered

% Information related to ‘88.80.0.0/19AS33837’

route: 88.80.0.0/19
descr: Periquito aggregated route
origin: AS33837
mnt-by: MNT-PRQ
source: RIPE # Filtered

On the Trail of Wikileaks — Some Low-Rent IT Detective Work

December 2, 2010

All the noise about WikiLeaks and the illusive nature of alleged terrorist/rapist/spy and convicted pencil-neck Julian Assange, prompted me to do a little online snooping.

Assange may be resting his pencil-neck on a couch in a relatively-secure, so-far undisclosed apartment location, but his WikiLeaks site has to be hosted on one or more servers, somewhere, with Internet access, or it can’t be spewing forth embarrassing (and probably lethal) secrets.

I started with a “traceroute,” which is a command-line process that lays out the path to a target site — in this case, “wikileaks.org.”

The result is below, with some early hops deleted in a nod to IT paranoia. This was effective about 10:15 AM, CST, December 2, 2010.

C:\Documents and Settings\Tom Cox>tracert wikileaks.org
Tracing route to wikileaks.org [91.121.133.41] over a maximum of 30 hops:
1    <1 ms    <1 ms    <1 ms  192.168.0.1
[...]
9    79 ms   106 ms   104 ms  te-1-2.car2.Nashville1.Level3.net [4.59.200.37]
10   239 ms   101 ms   106 ms  ae-11-11.car1.Nashville1.Level3.net [4.69.140.226]
11   109 ms   138 ms   113 ms  ae-8-8.ebr2.Atlanta2.Level3.net [4.69.140.230]
12   110 ms   127 ms   101 ms  ae-12-51.car2.Atlanta1.Level3.net [4.68.103.3]
13   124 ms   126 ms   133 ms  francetelecom-level3-ge.Atlanta1.Level3.net [4.68.110.162] 
14   122 ms   144 ms   149 ms  xe-2-1-2-0.ashtr1.Ashburn.opentransit.net [193.251.243.25]
15   196 ms   213 ms   203 ms  pos0-1-5-0.pastr1.Paris.opentransit.net [193.251.243.150]
16   207 ms   323 ms   200 ms  gigabitethernet11-1-0.auvcr2.Aubervilliers.opentransit.net
[193.251.132.117]
17   212 ms   206 ms   214 ms  te2-3.parse3.Paris.opentransit.net [193.251.129.13]
18   202 ms     *      215 ms  th1-1-6k.fr.eu [213.251.128.57]
19   203 ms     *        *     rbx-1-6k.fr.eu [213.186.32.194]
20   211 ms   201 ms   222 ms  rbx-41-m1.fr.eu [213.251.191.119]
21   292 ms   248 ms   206 ms  ns201695.ovh.net [91.121.133.41]
Trace complete.

To flesh out the search, I went to WHOIS and entered the last IP address, 91.121.133.41.

Here’s the result:

[Querying whois.ripe.net]
[whois.ripe.net]
% This is the RIPE Database query service.
% The objects are in RPSL format.
% The RIPE Database is subject to Terms and Conditions.
% See http://www.ripe.net/db/support/db-terms-conditions.pdf
% Note: This output has been filtered.
% To receive output for a database update, use the "-B" flag.
% Information related to '91.121.132.0 - 91.121.135.255'
inetnum: 91.121.132.0 - 91.121.135.255
netname: OVH
descr: OVH SAS
descr: Dedicated Servers
descr: http://www.ovh.com
country: FR
admin-c: OK217-RIPE
tech-c: OTC2-RIPE
status: ASSIGNED PA
mnt-by: OVH-MNT
source: RIPE # Filtered
role: OVH Technical Contact
address: OVH SAS
address: 2 rue Kellermann
address: 59100 Roubaix
address: France
admin-c: OK217-RIPE
tech-c: GM84-RIPE
nic-hdl: OTC2-RIPE
abuse-mailbox: abuse@ovh.net
mnt-by: OVH-MNT
source: RIPE # Filtered
person: Octave Klaba
address: OVH SAS
address: 2 rue Kellermann
address: 59100 Roubaix
address: France
phone: +33 9 74 53 13 23
nic-hdl: OK217-RIPE
abuse-mailbox: abuse@ovh.net
mnt-by: OVH-MNT
source: RIPE # Filtered
% Information related to '91.121.0.0/16AS16276'
route: 91.121.0.0/16
descr: OVH ISP
descr: Paris,  France
origin: AS16276
mnt-by: OVH-MNT
source: RIPE # Filtered

Seems like only yesterday that some Amazon servers were hosting the site. Apparently the pressure on Amazon caused an eviction noticed to be served, and WikiLeaks moved on, its virtual couch no longer a place of welcome.

Is anyone surprised that the cheese-eating surrender monkeys are hosting the pencil-neck’s site? How long before it is moved, again?

Open a DOS window, enter tracert wikileaks.org and follow it!

Trailer Trash Adventures

July 3, 2010

Proto-Mobile-Home, minus a hundred years -- OK, it's an RV, but I love the photo. Thanks to CollectivePic.com

What is it about mobile homes, anyway? They get trashed in the movies, the press and in tornadoes, and the people who live in them are “trailer trash.”

We who live in these little boxes do so for the most part, not because we prefer them, but because we can afford them.

If we “trailer trash” could afford airtight, green-weenie, artsy-fartsy, “net zero energy,” computer-controlled living spaces, lighted with creepy, AlGore curly-bulbs, heated and cooled with sunlight and geothermal, roofed with photovoltaic arrays and sprouting wind farms – or, at least, wind gardens — out back, with the power company sending us monthly checks for the electricity we produce in excess of what we use… most of us would have them.

We here on Danley Road can’t afford to build such a house, so we are doing our best to modify our existing mobile to make it more comfortable, affordable, and – forgive me for borrowing a PC term – sustainable. That’s why I put in a wood stove last winter.

When the electricity goes off in the wintertime, I don’t want to be frozen out of my own home and evacuated to some Red Cross shelter in a nearby town, while my rescued dogs and cats fend for themselves, and the opportunists among us rifle my belongings for things to take to the pawn shop and turn into meth money. I want to be home, managing my own heat, keeping my pets fed and watered, and protecting my own property with my 12-gauge. That’s what I mean by “sustainable.”

Of course, even if we could afford it, we wouldn’t buy some politically-correct, Department of Energy and Sierra Club-blessed box in some crowded, little “sustainable community,” because we don’t want one. We want to live where we want, not in the Obama-era descendant of the Stalin-era concrete wedding cake apartment monolith.

We want to provide our own heat, to the extent possible, grow (and catch) our own food, to a similar extent, and we absolutely don’t want the Secretary of Energy able to turn off any of our electrical outlets by remote control in a bow to the colossal fraud and power grab that is Carbon Dioxide-driven Global Warming. Barry can stick his “Smart Grid” where the solar cells definitely will not work.

We understand that the Stalinists in our government and around the world want us all lumped together in collective housing — not because they give a damn about the environment — but because we will be easier to spy on and control in those settings. It only takes one party stooge to keep track of several families of Kulaks, that way. Very efficient and sustainable, comrades!

Just as we recoil at handing our medical care over to faceless, government bureaucrats, we find the thought of leaving our rural homestead to live in a government-controlled, UN-approved “sustainable community” repugnant.

So, where does that leave us? It leaves us trying our best to make our rickety mobile home into a sound, efficient, comfortable structure, while confined to a tight budget and a desire to maintain a low profile with the various regulatory bodies that would love to be looking over our shoulders and calling every shot.

Where do we start? Logically, we start with the roof. The sheet metal “lid” (I hate to dignify it with a term like, “roof”) over this place reminds me of baking a turkey in the oven. When I was a kid, Mom put the turkey in the oven with a “tent” of aluminum foil (Reynolds Wrap!) over it to recapture the heat and moisture that would otherwise be lost in the oven.

TrailerTrashTurkeyTent

My own turkey tent. As lovely as it is effective!

With record summer heat in progress as I write this, we are finding out what it was like for the turkey. The galvanized sheet metal is thin enough to be subject to damage by any object that hits the roof in a storm, and walking on it is out of the question. It must be about 29 gauge, if that thick, which is about like the metal on the roof of a car. In theory, there’s insulation between it and the flat ceilings in the rooms at both ends of the trailer, but in the middle, we get “cathedral ceilings,” which means there is next to nothing in the way of insulation between us and the Tennessee sky.

The insulation above the flat ceilings can’t amount to much, because there isn’t enough space between the ceiling and roof for more than a couple of inches of any kind of insulation, and that’s right in the middle, under the ridge.

As I understand, it’s glass fiber, which is only good for about R-3 per inch, and then, only if it is maintained in its ideal “state of loft,” or fluffiness. Since it is between a vapor-permeable drywall ceiling and a metal roof, it has undoubtedly gotten damp long ago from moisture penetration from below, and can’t even remember what its ideal “state of loft” was like. As nesting material for mice, it’s great, but for insulation, it’s mostly an empty gesture.

Over about the middle third of the trailer, the cathedral ceiling consists mostly of textured drywall under the sheet metal, which is visually pleasant, but of no insulating value to speak of.

A couple of businesses serve the middle Tennessee area with systematized, fast and effective “roofovers.” (One I have had some correspondence with is Southern Builders, which sells the “PermaRoof” product line . These places will bring a kit of materials and a crew to your mobile, apply a support framework, and slap on a foam-insulated roof – a real roof – over your sheet metal turkey tent. I have no doubt that any of the reputable dealers I have seen would do a creditable job, and greatly improve the quality of life in the mobile, as well as making a quantifiable improvement in the heating and cooling of same.

What I wonder is, where is the outfit that will do the same for my mobile’s walls, doors and windows?

I’ve been reading  lately about the newest craze (actually, the idea is decades old, but the building industry is slow to adopt new ideas) in the building industry: SIPs. Structural Insulated Panels, according to the Structural Insulated Panel Association,  are a sandwich of sheath and insulation, bonded permanently into a panel that is not only a barrier to heat loss and air movement, but also strong enough (the significance of the “Structural” part of the term) to serve as a load-bearing section of wall without framing.

Recently, the market for SIPs has become more competitive, and the manufacturing processes have been streamlined, reducing the cost to a point where it is a realistic alternative. When the “supply” and “demand” curves both rise, wonderful things happen. Someone please explain this to the simple-minded, “Capitalism is EEE-VILL” crowd.

SIPs are now available using OSB plywood sheaths and a couple of types of insulation in the middle. They are also made with sheet metal as the sheath material, which makes them lighter for the same structural strength and insulation value.

SIP panels resist bending, twisting or crushing better than the same size “stick built” wall, when properly installed. Perhaps more importantly, they also provide much higher levels of insulation and sealing against air movement (infiltration) than studs and sheath.

Part of the reason for this superior weather-tightness is the use of plastic foam, most versions of which offer much more insulation for a given thickness than either glass fiber or cellulose fiber. Of course, the fiber insulation is overrated anyway, since its ratings are based on an ideal set of conditions that is as rare in the real world as a cold day in Tennessee in this month of June.

The insulating value of glass fiber and cellulose are based on laboratory-controlled measurements under ideal conditions, including 70 degrees F and no air movement. Moisture, settling and nesting by insects and animals all furnish the less-than-ideal, but far from uncommon conditions in the real world that lower the actual insulating power of fiber batts.

In the real world, the fibers are stuffed into a wall panel – a space with a lot more room in the vertical, than in the horizontal axis. The pull of gravity is relentless and patient, and the result is inevitable – insulation piled in the bottom of a cavity, with heat leaking like mad across the upper, uninsulated space.

Heat loss in this scenario is due to three mechanisms, in no particular order:

Convection (air movement, AKA infiltration), happens because the fiber is no longer dividing the wall space into lots of smaller spaces. Warmer air rises and comes into contact with cooler air or cooler surfaces, gives up its heat to them, regains its density and drops. Rinse and repeat.

Conduction is the way heat gets from a burner on the stove, through the handle of a skillet and into your hand, and that’s how warm air loses its heat. Every point at which a stud or rafter makes contact between the inner and outer surfaces of a wall, and there are many, since typical stud spacing is 16 inches center to center, is a bridge from hot to cold. Heat is conducted across this “thermal bridge” with the ease with which illegal aliens cross our southern border, and with similarly negative results. The R-value of the best insulation in the world does absolutely nothing to prevent a thermal bridge.

Radiation is the third path from hot to cold, and the one you feel on bare skin when you are out in bright sunshine on a cool day. Radiation is an important form of heat gain on a roof in the summer, and two ways to head off radiation-born heat are shade, as in shade trees, and reflection, which bounces the radiant heat back into space, where it belongs. Reflective foil on the surface of a batt or board of insulation under a wood or metal roof has the effect of bouncing the heat back before it can get deep enough to be dealt with as hot air in the structural cavity.

If you want to be as wonky as a physics major, all three methods of heat exchange – convection, conduction and radiation – are just special cases of radiation. When heat passes up the handle of the frying pan, it’s really just radiating from one atom of iron to the next, because the space between atoms is, on their relative scale, as vast as the space between the earth and the sun. Electromagnetic radiation, in the form of heat, travels through the space between atoms with the same ease with which it travels from the sun to the seat of your car. Convection is just a case of heat energy passing from one air molecule to another, and making the cooler molecules denser, causing them to settle and displace the warmer ones, squeezing them up to the top of the wall cavity.

As the physics wonks will say, heat, and all forms of energy in the universe, goes from where there is more of it, to where there is less of it. The same process lets heat into the house in summer, and squeezes it out in the winter. It’s just the way of things. If this process is allowed to complete, the universe will wind up as a cold, dark lump. Just don’t mark your calendar for it, because it will be a while.

A SIP is another story. The insulating quality of the foam is unbroken edge to edge across the surface of the panel, and the standard means of attachment of the panel to the building doesn’t provide any of those pesky thermal bridges. Individual panels are joined by various methods, according to the manufacturer. Some use dovetail joints formed into the edges of the panels, and others are connected via a wood timber called a spline that the crew drives screws into from the inside and outside. Each panel is joined to the building by being fitted at the top and bottom into tracks or channels that are attached firmly to the framework of the building. The result is a strong, weather-tight wall.

Of course, this practice makes retrofitting to a trailer nearly impossible, because there are so few suitable places more substantial than a cardboard box to anchor the channels that hold the panels top and bottom. That’s ironic, since I wanted to USE SIPs to add some structural integrity to this otherwise low-hanging-fruit for a toy tornado.

I began to suspect SIPs and the DIY/retrofit market was not a good marriage early, while searching for other people’s experience with them. There is none. Yes, my privacy-respecting search engine, Ixquick, did return a few hits with search terms like, “SIPS and retrofit,” and “SIPS and mobile homes,” but they never resulted in finding me one, single instance of somebody using SIPs to make a mobile home a little less mobile in a high wind. In fact, I was hard-pressed to find SIPs used in any retrofit situations, even in conventional houses.

This could be attributed by an optimist in my position to the newness of the products, and the lack of “generic SIPs” at places like Lowes and Home Depot. Most of the SIPs projects I saw were shipped to the site in kit form, complete with cuts for windows and doors, although the marketing people are always quick to say that any such openings can be cut on site, as needed. After all, one of the appeals of SIPs is the relative lack of waste, as one sees filling the Dumpster at the typical home construction site. Since ideally, every piece you need for every foot of outside wall is pre-cut and stacked on the truck, I can see why that would be.

So, anyway, I scaled back my aspirations of applying this technology to tightening up and fortifying my mobile. My earliest impulse for tightening up this trailer and making it safer was getting a “real” roof put on, and then, maybe, adding insulation and siding to the outside walls, and, finally, windows and doors that are worth a damn.

The roof turns out to have been much less of a chore than I expected. I found what I believe to be the best deal from Southern Builders, referenced earlier, and they had a crew close by between two other jobs in the region. They showed up WHEN THEY SAID THEY WOULD (Contractors, take note; you should try this!) and we went from ratty old roof to snazzy new, sturdy, well-insulated roof in a little over four hours. I recorded the whole process on camera, complete with before and after shots, and will be posting the whole, exciting tale shortly.

Sneak-peek at the new roof -- painful detail to follow

Seen on the Natchez Trace Parkway: the “Aerobic Cruiser” Human/Electric Hybrid Bicycle

April 14, 2010

We didn’t expect our tour of a portion of the Natchez Trace Trail in Tennessee to include a sneak preview of a new product, but we got one, Sunday, April 11th.

Sherry and I were celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary with a Sunday drive over a nearby portion of the scenic Natchez Trace Trail. We had just left a stop at the intersection of the Natchez Trace Parkway with Tennessee 96, where we gawked at a spectacular and unusual concrete bridge with graceful arches and soaring columns.

Natchez Trace parkway Bridge

Couldn't get it all in one shot, without a wide-angle lens, but here's most of it. Nice!

While we were looking at the bridge, one of the dozens of bicyclists who passed the parking area escaped our notice. We left that stopover and headed for the first rest area to the north, so we could stop and eat the chicken dinner picnic Sherry had packed for us. On a long uphill grade just minutes from the bridge, we caught up with and passed a cyclist who seemed to be expending a little less effort than the rest, considering the grade.

His bike seemed a little unusual, as well. It was a sort-of recumbent, with a comfortable-looking seat with a backrest, and a double-tube frame, with smaller-diameter wheels than the typical road bike. There was no obvious brand name on it anywhere that I could see.

In the middle of the frame was an enclosed area, the function of which I couldn’t readily identify. When we passed him, I was struck by how little effort he was putting into pedaling, compared to other cyclists, as he reached the top of the grade.  Without any obvious evidence, I suspected he was getting a boost from an electric motor hidden somewhere in that unusual frame.

Sherry, my lovely wife of 30 years 4/11/2010, at the picnic table

Sherry, my lovely wife of 30 years 4/11/2010, at the picnic table

I didn’t think any more about it, because I didn’t have any spare brain capacity left over from looking forward to chicken, potato salad and dessert. While I sat at a picnic table at the rest stop, with my back to the parking area, the cyclist I had spotted pulled in, along with a companion on a similar bike. They pulled in behind a fairly fancy bus-style RV that was pulling a trailer decorated with elaborate, colorful graphics.

Support vehicle and bikes

My view as I crossed the big parking lot in search of more info.

I hurried to finish a second piece of chicken, my curiosity having gotten the better of me, and I grabbed the camera and walked across the large parking area to find out more. Two men from the RV and the riders looked my way, and seemed to talk a bit, and the riders started off away from me. No waves, no hellos; just showing me their backs as they rode off.

riding off

"No time to talk..." apparently. But, I already had good pictures.

However, my Canon S3 IS has a 12X optical zoom, and I was able to catch some detailed views before I was close enough to run them off, if the team didn’t want much exposure.

Aerobic Cruiser, left side

Close-up of the shy celeb -- the AC before it was ridden away.

The guys at the RV seemed in less of a hurry to get back on the road, and when I approached, they were cordial but appeared to be busy closing up the trailer with the intent to get underway. One had just rolled up and stowed a set of red and black charging cables with alligator clips on the ends.

The cables were longer than the typical set of jumper cables, but not quite as thick, and other end disappeared into the trailer. I surmised that they were for juicing up the batteries in one or both bikes. The bus and trailer appeared to be a support vehicle for the bikes, and the whole operation was certainly more than a casual bike tour of the Trace.

The artwork on the trailer showed some classy color graphics of the bikes, and the words, “Aerobic Cruiser Hybrid Cycles,” “Make exercise fun,” and a Web URL, “aerobiccruiser.com.”

trailer rear graphic

Snazzy artwork on the back of the support team's trailer

The whole support team vehicle -- very classy.

The RV crew smiled and bantered a bit as they closed up the trailer, asking me if I had seen the model I wanted, or words to that effect. I said I wanted one, all right, but didn’t expect it would be available at a price I could afford. They seemed to be busy packing up, and I was inexplicably reluctant to ask prying questions, so they got underway without spilling any more information. I did get enough pictures to prove it happened, though, and enough info from those to do some research when we got home.

After finishing our tour and stopping off at home to freshen up and refrigerate the leftovers, we went to dinner in Ashland City with Sherry’s niece and nephew and their kids, who are like kids and grandkids to us. They brought us a cake and a funny card, and bought our dinner, so that was extra fun.

When we got back home, I set out on Firefox for “aerobiccruiser.com.” The site is there, but there is a message on the top page reminding the owner that he hasn’t put up any content, yet. Oops. I hope the marketing catches up with the product.

Nice trailer, nice product, but no content on the URL. They need to get busy on that. A dead end? Hardly. I searched using Ixquick (I left Google long ago) for “aerobic cruiser,” and got several threads to pull. One of the first I tried yielded pay dirt: Runabout Cycles

This appeared to be the origin of the bikes I had seen.  There was also the story of the development of a tricycle, powered by an electric booster motor. According to the site, the two-wheeler venture had found some good investors, and was moving from its birthplace in Massachusetts to near Memphis.

I sent an email to one of the contact addresses on Runabout Cycles, for Josh Kerson, asking if he was associated with the bike, and included a couple of pictures. He replied fairly quickly that he was. According to the email, he was involved in the development and design, and the project had been taken from his shop to Tennessee, where it would find “bicycle-friendly” weather and demographics that would help with marketing.

Josh said I was holding one of the few pictures of the bike, and (if I read his email right), he was unable to release any photos himself. Maybe he was embargoed from going public while the marketing effort was ramping up. The developers thought the ride on the Trace was a necessary “shakedown cruise” before going public. I agree. If the bike (and rider!) could survive those hills, or if it can be made ready to do so after fixing whatever shortcomings are discovered on that tour, it’s probably ready for prime time.

I’d certainly like to try the bike out, since I live on a dead-end, county road with about 3.5 miles of curvy, hilly terrain with little traffic. This road is quite a challenge for me on my Trek, although it is a very efficient machine. Of course, there is no boost to be had when I twist that handgrip… and the seat, although about as good as it gets in an upright bike, is only a little better than straddling a sawhorse. OK, it’s not that bad, but it still gets old for this Baby Boomer, after even a short ride.

Among the details I caught in that zoomed-in side view was that comfortable-looking seat. Nice! No sawhorse beam, and a backrest that holds one’s torso at a comfortable angle, but without the “butt dragging the ground” look of the usual recumbent, and eye level that allows good visibility ahead.

Seat looks pretty ergonomically-sound. Good hip flexion angle for prolonged pedaling.

Is this the battery pack? If so, they must have come up with some of the high-power-density batteries that are evolving to meet the appetites of the electric car market. This feature will only get better as the battery R&D people refine their products to beat their competitors.

battery pack?

If this is the battery pack, they have found a high-power-density pack, indeed.

A close look at the rear of the bike shows a lot of attention to comfort – note the coil spring (and shock absorber?) between the rear fork and the upper frame. Also, the large hub is probably where the motor is, if this example from another electric bike site is any indication. (See below for this and other sites of interest.) That rectangular box with a heat sink in front of the spring might be a voltage regulator or speed control, or both. Also, is that a disc brake on our side of the motor housing? That would make sense, since this is a lot more weight to stop than a wispy, delicate touring or racing bike, and on a downhill, pedaling with the motor adding torque, it can probably get going pretty fast.

rear wheel

Rear wheel -- note the hub (probably houses the motor), what may be a disc brake, and the shock absorber for rider comfort

Altogether, the Aerobic Cruiser looks like a serious attempt to marry pedal power with electric power in a practical, functional, comfortable package. I don’t know what they will sell for, but I’d love to have one. Given the four-digit prices for high-end, non-electrified bicycles, I don’t know that I could ever afford one, though. On the other hand, if gas prices do what any reasonable individual can expect them to do in the wake of a carbon tax, anything’s possible.

REFERENCES and links of interest

For some technology background and some idea of the competition for the electric-assist bike market, check out the following links:

Aerobic CruiserUPDATE (4/14/10) — New Web home, showing a base page with a graphic like the one on the rear of the trailer. NO LONGER  “Currently unavailable.” Maybe it will get live soon.

Home-made electric bikevideo from a Nashville TV local news feature

E-BikeKitElectric Bike Conversion System

Electric BikesAll sorts of electric vehicles – “Practical transportation for errands and short commutes”

Electric Bikes -N- Electric Scooters

Aerobic Cruiser’s Yahoo Local Directory Listingin Cordova, TN

A Wood Stove — Getting That Warm Feeling

February 2, 2010

We love wood heat. We’ve had wood stoves for most of the last twenty years, in four different houses. The mobile home we live in now is old and leaky, and takes two or three electric space heaters running most of the time on cold nights here in Middle Tennessee to keep it in the low 60s, if the outside temp drops much below 40. Fortunately, we are comfortable in the low 60s.

BREAK FOR IMPORTANT DISCLOSURE:

I am NOT a professional wood stove installer, a lawyer, a fire inspector, an insurance underwriter or any other kind of wood heat expert – just a smart-ass blogger. This is not, no way, no how, presented as a how-to or a recommendation on the following project; rather, it is simply an account of the way I did what I did, and is presented for entertainment purposes only. Got that? Entertainment. Okay, then.

This article will not cure cancer, shrink hemorrhoids with or without surgery, will not get you out of filing income taxes, and it will not make you more attractive to the opposite (or the same) sex, or make you smarter. Well, maybe you’ll get smarter, but no guarantees. As to the rest, forget it. Ain’t happenin’. Just read on, and enjoy it.

I’m glad we had this talk.

END OF DISCLOSURE

Trailers are apparently not supposed to have wood stoves in them, according to The Powers That Be. At least, they are not supposed to have stoves we can afford. We were able to afford a Vogelzang Frontiersman,

Vogelsang Frontiersman

especially after it went on sale last spring.

I thought we could install this stove in such a way as to avoid the hazards inherent in a trailer install, and I went about it with that in mind.

This is a little stove, and one of the few small enough that it would not continuously overheat our small living space (it is specified for “up to 1,000 square feet”).  The instructions that came with it explicitly state in several places that it is not to be installed in mobile homes. Of course, we installed it in a mobile home.

The rationale for the prohibition is apparently twofold: The stoves that are OK to put in a mobile provide for getting their combustion air from outdoors, via a discrete duct and connection between the outdoors and the firebox. Those stoves are all pretty pricey; certainly a lot more expensive than ours.

The Frontiersman has no such provision, but our mobile has plenty of infiltration leaks, including forced-air heat ductwork that is uninsulated, cracked and separated in several places. I have plugged many of the heating vents, but not all, and I still can feel cool air leaking up from most of them. This is definitely not one of those airtight, super-insulated mobiles from the last few years.

It’s a bit more “vintage,” than that. It also has inadequate windows, some of which are cracked or broken, and all of which need to be replaced. They are another source of fresh air, whether we want it or not. I’m not too worried about using up my oxygen, in other words.

The other concern is that this mobile would burn like a cardboard box if a heat source got close enough to a wall. Well, that’s certainly a reasonable concern, and one I share.

To reduce our odds of becoming flaming human sacrifices to the gods of global warming, we put the stove on a ceramic tile floor. In the spirit of over-engineering with which I approach most projects, I put a layer of ¼-inch cement board down over the existing ceramic tiles, and cemented and grouted in another layer of ceramic tiles over that. I covered an area much larger than the one specified in the instructions that came with the stove, as well. A sandwich of ceramic tiles around cement board seemed reasonable to keep heat from the bottom of the stove away from the sub-floor. Ceramic tile is obviously resistant to fire, and “cement board” is fiber-reinforced concrete, with high flame-resistance characteristics and good insulation.

Stove platform detail -- existing tile, below, cement board (not visible), new tile on top

Platform covers more floor area than required; also serves as entryway

To keep the walls of our live-in cardboard box from burning, I put over-engineered, home-built heat shields on the wall behind the stove, and between the stove and the living room where any furniture might go. The rear heat shield consists of a layer of Hardiboard cement board, same as the platform, up more than four feet from the floor, completely covering the existing wall, and a sheet of roofing metal mounted on galvanized steel, “Unistrut” channels, and four vertical runs of ¾” metal conduit.

The sheet metal screws into the conduit, and the conduit is clamped against the Unistrut. The cement-board-covered wall surface is separated from the sheet metal by about a 3 & ¾-inch air space. The upper and side edges of the shield are supported with galvanized steel angle with two-inch legs, about 1/8-inch thick. The steel hardware between the sheet metal and the cement-board-covered wall is intended to be massive enough to dissipate heat from the sheet metal that might otherwise be conducted to the wall.

The Unistrut and two-inch angle were surplus, salvaged from an old antenna tower. The roofing sheet metal was a gift from our nephew, who had it left over from a chicken house project.

Cement board (L), air space (C) and sheet metal (R)

Unistrut detail, rear heat shield

The heat shield between the stove and the living room space is another piece of roofing metal, bolted to cement board, and supported by more, 2-inch angle.

Side heat shield, inner view

Side heat shield, outer view

Both heat shields, early in installation

This morning I over-fired the stove, in the process of learning its preferences, and the stove top got to just above 500 degrees F, which is hotter than it needs to be, but (based on experience with previous woodburners), is not dangerously high. I closed the damper completely, and watched the stove for about two hours. The stove and stove pipe never got hot enough to glow, even in low light, but I kept the fire extinguisher and cell phone handy, being something of a pessimist. The curing stove paint and chimney sealant set off the smoke detector a few times, which is a normal part of stove burn-in. Otherwise, it was a non-event. The stove soon cooled back into the efficient operating range, according to the thermometer.

At the peak of the heat, the sheet metal on the side shield was just a little too hot to touch; on the opposite side, the cement board was just warm. The rear shield, which has the air gap behind it, stayed cool enough to touch throughout, and the cement board on the wall behind it was only slightly warm. The drywall above the heat shield was slightly cool. As I said, the stove temperature dropped back into the normal operating range in about 45 minutes, and stayed there for about two hours, warming the place up enough I had to open a window and a door.

The connection between the stove and the world is single-wall chimney pipe from the top of the stove to the wall, where it connects to a Simpson Dura Plus through-the-wall chimney kit.

The Simpson kit is a very conservative design, consisting of triple-wall pipe, and a thimble (the transition from the single-wall to triple wall, and also the means of penetrating a wall made from flammable materials safely) that offers a lot of thermal isolation between the stack and the wall materials.

The inner wall of this pipe is stainless steel. It is wrapped in high-temperature insulation, and another layer of sheet metal, surrounded by an air space and another wall of pipe. The piece of this pipe that passes the exhaust through the wall thimble is 9 inches long. There is no, single-wall pipe inside the wall. It stops at the inside portion of the thimble, seen below. The single-wall pipe comes from the stove on the left, and seals and is screwed into the transition piece from the kit. From there, it connects to the triple-wall section, and then to the tee, seen in the exterior shot. By the way, the sealant around the outside of the thimble is high-temperature silicone caulk, made for this purpose by Rutland.

Inside portion of "thimble," showing sealing materials

The black material at the joints between the single-wall tubing sections, and between the tubing and thimble, is Rutland stove cement.

It is applied inside and out at each joint, and along the seams of the tubing.

Simpson tee connector, on outside wall. Note un-melted snow in braces and base

This connects outside to a “tee” section (above) that, like all the chimney parts from here up to the storm cap, is also triple-wall. This is an important part of a kit by Simpson made for putting a chimney through a structural wall safely. What would be the vertical leg of the tee, if it were oriented upright, connects to the through-the-wall segment. At the end of the downward-facing (as installed, now, not as a letter “T”) end of the tee is a stainless steel cap, which is secured with screws. This acts as a cleanout access, since there is a straight shot up the tee to the storm cap from there. A piece of galvanized sheet slides into the bottom of the tee support, and serves as a barrier between this cap and anything flammable enough to be a concern if it came into direct contact with the cap. The flange of this sheet is visible at the bottom of the tee assembly in the picture. A chimney brush on ten feet of Fiberglass rod sections will reach all the way to the storm cap from ground level, eliminating the need for a scary, vaudeville ladder act.

The triple-wall chimney keeps the exhaust hot all the way to the top, reducing the condensation that becomes creosote, and also provides maximum draft, which improves the efficiency of the stove.

The triple-wall actually penetrates the building wall, and it passes through the thimble, which provides more layers of sheet metal and air gap between the hot exhaust gases and the wall materials. A note on the picture of the tee installed: The snow seen at the bottom of the tee support – un-melted by running the stove for twelve hours or so — is a good indicator of how effective the insulation is in the triple-wall kit. If it won’t melt snow that close to the exhaust, it probably won’t set the wall on fire.

Triple-wall chimney, standing proudly

The triple-wall stack, seen above, consists of three, 36-inch sections atop the 12-inch leg of the Tee. These sections, by the way, use a “bayonet-style” connection that twist-locks in place, tightly mating all three walls, the insulation and the air space without needing sealant.

I did not trust the screw-in connections of the tee and lower mounting bracket to hold the stress imposed on it when the wind blows on the chimney. Not that the brackets didn’t look to be up to the job, but I wasn’t sure the wall would hold the lag bolts I used to fasten the lower supports. I used the second (also included in the kit) bracket as an anchor point for the guys seen above. Sloping toward the camera, into the lower, right-hand corner of the picture, is a section of ¾-inch electrical conduit, of the same type I used on the rear, interior heat shield.

The other end of the conduit is clamped to a piece of steel angle which is bolted to a porch rafter. This serves as a “dead-man” guy, since it is rigid, and would tend to prevent the chimney from tilting toward or away from the wall. The wire guys are galvanized guy wire that is plastic-coated, and threaded through the holes drilled in the bracket for screws. The wire guys are a little slack, because pulling them tight would only increase the stress downward on the chimney pipe, without a useful increase in support to either side.

Rigid, "dead-man" guy, clamped to porch roof at right

Storm cap/spark arrestor

Between the dead-man and the wires, the chimney is supported in four directions. Sure, a strong-enough wind would still blow the chimney over, but a strong-enough wind would blow the trailer over, too. That’s just a fact of life in tornado country, and I can live with it. My objective was to make the chimney reasonably secure in most conditions.

You will have noticed the top of this stack has a cap, called a storm cap. It keeps rain from falling directly into the chimney, and a wire screen around the opening is supposed to keep burning cinders large enough to start a fire from getting out, as well as birds and other creatures from getting in. This is not a frill or an optional accessory, and it is included in the kit. Like the Dura-Plus sections, it uses a twist-lock means of attachment.

Carbon Monoxide detector -- cheap protection against a silent killer

Besides the wood stove accessories I’ve already mentioned or shown in photos – fireplace tools, fire extinguishers, etc. — there is another one, and it is required: a Carbon Monoxide (CO) detector. A subtle defect in the stove or chimney could let CO leak into the living space, which could be deadly. This detector is inexpensive, and runs on batteries, which is important, since one of the times when such a stove would get the heaviest use is during a cold-weather power outage. Along with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers, no wood stove install is complete without at least one CO detector. CO is odorless, invisible, silent and an insidious threat. Don’t leave yourself, your family or your pets exposed to that risk.

The point of this article is to relate my adventure in wood stove installation. I hope you have been entertained, but have resisted the impulse to be informed, per the “IMPORTANT DISCLOSURE,” above. Should you undertake to install a wood stove in your death trap of a mobile home (and I’m not recommending that! God forbid!), I hope you will do it safely, and that you will experience the same “warm feeling” I have.

May you know that, even if Mom Nature and Uncle Sam get in the way of furnishing the outside sources of energy that keep you warm in good times, you will have the means to do it for yourself. Safely!

The Woodstove Channel -- My favorite program!

When Old Tech Rules: Learning to Use a Scythe

July 6, 2009
The Marugg Company, Tracy City, TN

The Marugg Company, Tracy City, TN

This article is about buying and using a scythe.

Yes, a scythe.

I am an IT guy, a radio amateur, and a fan of technology in general, but I do not limit myself to the technology of modern day — leading edge, bleeding edge, or otherwise. In fact, some “paleotechnology” beats the modern stuff, in the right context. A brace and bit beats a rechargeable drill with a dead battery ten times out of ten, and a crystal radio will get you the local radio stations when an ice storm has the power off and the double-A in your Walkman breathes its last.

Don’t mistake me for a victim of romantic nostalgia.  I have no desire to go back to the time before the Salk Vaccine, or when getting the horse manure off the streets was a major issue, or before indoor plumbing and air conditioning. A Luddite, I am not. Where old tech works, however, it’s just plain stupid not to know how to use it.

Nor am I an environmental zealot. I think man-caused global warming is a fraud, and a pretext for taking away individual rights that have not already been taken in the name of saving the children lucky enough to avoid an appointment with the abortionist. And those rights not stolen in the process of giving welfare to illegal aliens, protecting the public against violent attacks by roving gangs of Christians and Constitutionalists, and preserving the habitats of spotted owls and snail darters, are not in danger from me.

It’s simpler than that. I need to cut some grass and weeds on a slope that is too steep and creepy to cut with the mower deck on my little diesel tractor, and I don’t want to use a gas-powered string trimmer. I hate the damn things. A gas string trimmer is a back-breaking, expensive stick, with a debris-spewing, hissing, whirling dervish on one end, a hot, stinking, noisy, temperamental motor and a tank of highly-flammable liquid at the other; and an exhausted, nearly-deaf, weed-juice-spattered dummy in the middle. Politics and environmentalist feelgood-ism played no part in this decision.

I have not been the weed-juice-spattered dummy since the end of May, 2009, when I brought home my “European-style” scythe, bought in-person at the Marugg Company [www.themaruggcompany.com], in Tracy City, Tennessee. My gas string trimmer is in the long-term custody of my nephew, who will probably continue to store it in his garage.

I have been on my tractor, the classy little Kubota BX1500, cutting a wide, smooth swath through grass and weeds on open areas that, from a transplanted Middle Tennessean’s perspective, are close enough to level to avoid the feeling that one is risking life and limb. I don’t regret a single molecule of Carbon Dioxide the tractor or I exhaled in that process. That is guilt-free CO2, and Al Gore can get over it.

I researched the subject of the scythe extensively – well, as extensively as one can without leaving one’s chair in front of one’s Internet-connected computer – before I settled on the Marugg scythe. Indeed, I was surprised to discover considerable scythe-related content can be dug up with some judicious use of Ixquick, my Google replacement, privacy-protecting meta-search engine.

Not only is there a lot of content, there is even a bit of controversy among the scythe-using community. Yes, controversy! Not about the difference between American-style scythes and their European counterparts, but among those who agree that the lighter, sportier European models are better than the clunky, heavy American models.

Some Canadians, such as the members of the Vido family, as represented by Scythe Works  and Scythe Connection  approach the subject of scythes with more than a little of the ardor of the evangelist. In fact, their ardor puts me off a bit, as they give the impression that people with questions or concerns about scythes should be treated with some disdain and impatience, and maybe even some arrogance.

I coined a term for this rather zealous branch of the scythe fraternity: Scythentologists. They are impatient with the stubborn, unenlightened masses who prefer to see the scythe as a tool for which there may be quite appropriate uses, but don’t find themselves able to treat it as an object of worship, a tool for artistic expression, or as a focus for an entire school of metaphysical contemplation.

To get a taste of the fervor, self-righteousness and near-contempt with which the unenlightened are treated by Scythentologists, I offer you some email correspondence between your humble blogger and Peter Vido, from the early stages of my research into scythes.

First, my note to Scythe Connection, (which apparently was the wrong place to address my questions anyway, as Mr. Vido takes pains to point out)… Well, see for yourself.

On 18-May-09, at 9:45 PM, Tom Cox wrote:

First, my sizing info: Height: 70 in.; Ground to shoulder: 60 in.; Ground to core of hip joint: 34 in.; “Cubit”: 19 in.

Second, my contact info:

Tom Cox

[contact info]

Background:

I am 60 years old, in relatively good physical condition (able to do most of my own odd jobs and grounds keeping chores), and dealing with a hilly, rural acre that is so steep in places that it makes me nervous to try to mow on my Kubota BX1500 tractor. There are also places where the ground stays wet all spring, and, even though it has turf tires, the tractor will strip or rut the turf, even on near-level ground.

I would like to be able to get some mowing work done early on summer days, without stalling until the dew is off. I understand that dew-wet grass is easier to cut with a scythe, which is good for me. By the time the dew is gone, the temp and humidity are into the range where just being outdoors is work, let alone doing anything strenuous.

I have some areas on the slopes where the grass has gotten long (2 – 3 feet), because of heavy rain and my reluctance to tackle it on the tractor. The gas weed eater is slow, noisy, messy and really hard on my lower back due to the asymmetry of the stress of using it, especially while walking the slopes. I get tired of coming in from trimming with a green paste of “yard salad” all over me, with my ears ringing from the noise, and overheated from wearing the chain saw helmet or goggles.

Another area of concern is a steep slope that has become overgrown with blackberries and sapling trees. I can attack it in small doses, downhill-only, with the tractor, but it is a little nerve-wracking and may be somewhat risky due to the hazards of rollover and hitting hidden rocks and stumps with the mower deck that I don’t see from the seat. I don’t want to belt a rock through the window or wall of my mobile home like a line-drive homer.

I doubt that [it is] realistic to expect one blade to do a good job on both the grassy slopes and the berries, so I am focusing on the grass, which I may be able to give to my nephew to feed his goats. In any case, the grass will be gone before it can become a fire hazard, and leaves a less friendly habitat for ticks, which are plentiful here. Goat fodder or garden mulch — at least it’s put to use and out of my way.

If I can mow the tender grass and weeds between patches of berries, I may be able to conquer the latter with the tractor, or, as a last resort, the Woodman’s Pal. With the surrounding grass and weeds out of the way, either method will be easier and safer.

I want a peening set, because the idea of working the metal appeals to my aesthetic sense, as well as to my frugality. I might graduate to a hammer and anvil at some point. I also want to get a suitable stone and holster.

I assume I would be best off with the shortest snath, given my height and the prevalence of sloped terrain. The #0 blade looks like a good one to start with, since I am a learner, and it is inexpensive compared to the average. I can come back for another blade when I know more. Am I on the right track with these choices?

Am I missing anything major? Assuming I get the items listed, what would the price be in US dollars (such as they are, these days), and the shipping to Tennessee (37036)?

Thanks for your time and the benefit of your expertise.

Best Regards,

Tom Cox

I thought that was a fairly uncontroversial approach — conversational, not confrontational, asking questions that would lead me to choose the right combination of products for my application, with (at the time) the intention of spending money with them upon getting my questions answered. Well, silly me. Mr. Vido replies:

Tom,
I tried to call you last night to respond more comprehensively to your scythe inquiry than I have time for in writing — but reached only your answering machine. (Our phone is far from the house, I’m there once or twice a day at irregular hours and thus there is little point of you trying to call back.)

So instead I suggest you contact Alexander at http://scytheworks.ca/ (which, if you read our catalogue introduction carefully, is where you would have sent your e-mail.) Just two quick pointers: Firstly, I think that given your terrain (and experience) an 80cm blade may be too long. Secondly: Totally regardless of  my involvement in scythe retail (but knowing what I do about the scythe’s potential) if I were you I’d give away (or sell cheaply) both of your machines and obtain suitable scythes to replace them. Your machines have no future to speak of; the scythe does! To help you understand what I’m saying here read (carefully) more information on our website — none of which was inspired by business considerations.

Sincerely,

Peter Vido

After scolding me for addressing my questions to the “wrong” party (he is a marketing genius, obviously), Mr. Vido offers me the unsolicited and un-useful advice to “give away (or sell cheaply)” my equipment, including my cherished Kubota tractor, and “obtain suitable scythes to replace them.” Uh-huh.

Gosh, Mr. Vido, which scythe model will carry 400 pounds of dirt or firewood in the loader bucket, grade my gravel driveway with the rear blade, or re-position a 26-foot camper trailer with a 2-inch receiver adapter on the three-point hitch, all the while sipping diesel as if it were expensive champagne?

I am so glad I held off on spending my allotted scythe money until I had taken another look at the Marugg folks’ site and product line. Their small, friendly shop and store are in Tracy City, Tennessee, a cool little town at the end of a pleasant, two-hour drive from our home in the northeast corner of Dickson County, about twenty miles west of downtown Nashville.

Although I had already communicated with Amy Wilson, owner of Marugg with her husband, Allen, by email and phone, we had not met until our arrival in Tracy City around midday on May 26th. Amy made my wife, her sister and me feel welcome immediately, and proceeded to give us a tour of their facility – an unassuming, single-story building with a plaque on the front door that says that “The Marugg Company has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior – 1873.”IMG_1792r1

I am a fan of the history of technology, including that of manufacturing. As a former resident of Muncie, Indiana, I have become somewhat familiar with the late, lamented era of American history in which our country was the manufacturing heart of the world.

Remember when we made stuff? Muncie was home to General Motors plants (well before it became Federal Motors) in the middle and latter parts of the last century, but Muncie’s involvement with manufacturing predates that period, thanks to the plentiful fields of natural gas that permeated that part of the country. Muncie also was the manufacturing site for giant, stationary internal combustion engines that powered manufacturing plants all over the world between the times when steam and water powered factories, and the advent of plentiful electricity. Muncie Oil Engine was a premier manufacturer of huge, slow-turning but very high-torque engines that powered a whole generation of factories for decades before cheap electricity made them obsolete.

Factory buildings of that era had a long, skinny form factor, because the power to operate the heavy machinery that made the goods the world bought was distributed through the plants not by wires, but on implausibly long, rotating spindles, driven at one end by the enormous, slow-moving but powerful engines of the type manufactured in Muncie. Every drill press, trip hammer and bending brake derived its power through belts and pulleys connected to this central spindle.

A model for a manufacturing plant, dating at least from the earliest days of the 19th century, was the Springfield Amory. The armory, which pioneered many of the principles of modern manufacturing, made rifles for the US military. The wooden stocks for those rifles were turned on the Blanchard lathe, which received its power from just such a central spindle. Early photos and drawings of plants like the Armory show the unmistakable signature of the central spindle, connected to surrounding machines by long, serpentine belts and pulleys, whether the power on the business end was from a water wheel, a steam engine, or a Muncie Oil Engine or its kin.

All of the above is meant to explain why I was pleased to recognize the remnants of such a power distribution system in the Marugg plant. Amy didn’t know how the original plant’s power was produced before the electric era (probably brought to Tracy City by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the years after World War I), but I would bet that, in 1873, when the plant was owned by the Swiss family for which it is named, it was powered by coal-fired or even wood-fired steam, and maybe later by a diesel stationary engine.

From bygone days: Knob-and-tube wiring (top), and pulleys from the old spindle power distribution system, both replaced with modern electric power

From bygone days: Knob-and-tube wiring (top), and pulleys from the old spindle power distribution system, both replaced with modern electric power

SpindleDriveMotor

The electric motor in the background was used to power the spindle system, at some point in the past. Before electricity, power was from steam engines, and then from large, stationary internal combustion engines like the one show herehttp://ralph.lafayette.la.us/stationary-engines/muncie.oil.engine/

In any case, some pulleys and spindles were still in evidence in several places around the building. That power system had long been replaced with “knob and tube” electrical wiring, which was modernized by subsequent owners up through the acquisition by Allen and Amy Wilson. Such a tangible connection to history is a pleasure to discover in the midst of modern life.

As Amy gave us a tour and lecture, she was picking up the parts of the scythe that would be going home with me. She measured my height, my “cubit” (yes, cubit – length from the elbow to the tip of the longest finger) and the height from my shoulder to the ground, so I would leave with the right length “snath” (sounds like a made-up name for a Muppet character, but it’s the term for a scythe handle, dating at least from the English of Shakespeare).

As mentioned, there are two main styles of scythes, including both blades and snaths. The American style snaths are heavy; some of them even made from aluminum or steel, and the blades are heavier, too. American blades are made from stamped steel, and seem to rely more on brute strength and momentum to cut, while European blades are hammered from more malleable steels, and can take a very sharp edge, if that is desired.

A European blade whistles through grass or wheat stalks like a breeze, cutting like a sharp knife (not an imitation hacksaw blade, like some cheap steak knife, but a real, smooth-bladed knife), striking the grass at a shallow tangent to the axis of motion, and slicing through a narrow band of vegetation with each swing, but with little more effort than that required just to move the blade through the arc.

An American blade is apparently intended to cut more like an ax or a cleaver, striking the grass nearly perpendicular to the axis of motion, and requiring considerably more effort with each stroke to carry it through the cut material. To appreciate the difference, try cutting a ripe tomato with a very sharp knife, and then try cutting it with a meat cleaver.

If these snath dimensions had been wrong, or if I had bought just any snath from eBay, I’d be hacking and swishing my way through the weeds like a demented golfer, wasting time and energy, and thinking dark thoughts of going across the road to liberate my gas string trimmer from my nephew’s clutches.

Marugg imports scythe blades from European manufacturers, but it makes its own snaths. Amy chose a curved snath for my use, and although I don’t really understand the functional difference between a curved snath and a straight one, mine works well.

Amy Wilson, onwner with husband Allen of the Marugg Company, does some drill press work on my scythe snath.

Amy Wilson, owner with husband Allen of the Marugg Company, does some drill press work on my scythe snath.

Amy takes a phone order from a customer in texas, while I roam and shoot.

Amy takes a phone order from a customer in Texas, while I roam and shoot.

The Marugg people hand-pick their snath material from Tennessee hickory.  Candidates for that role are stacked all over the plant. To get that sporty, Euro curve, they steam a batch of snaths in a tub to soften them, and strap them down to one of the original  pieces of equipment unique to the Marugg shop: a snath bending rig. It looks a bit like a medieval torture device, but I heard no complaints from the couple dozen steamed hickory sticks that were getting their bend fixed in place. They looked comfortable. Maybe they thought it was more like a spa treatment; getting a massage after a soak in the hot tub.

Snath bending rack, overseen by Marugg quality control inspector/mouser

Snath bending rack, overseen by Marugg quality control inspector/mouser

Snath bath -- the hot tub where snaths get steamed before bending

Snath bath — the hot tub where snaths get steamed before bending

The next crucial choice was that of the right blade for my usual mowing jobs. Of course, it had to be a light, sporty, Euro-style blade, but there are hundreds of different styles of scythe blade just in that category.

A scything virtuoso – perhaps an accomplished Scythentologist – who would be cutting wheat or grass in a cultivated field, would want a long, light grass blade that can be made sharp, to cut a wide swath (another Middle English word first associated with scything, apparently). Such a user will not subject this blade to the indignity and abuse of trying to cut coarse weeds, sapling trees, or (shudder) hitting rocks.

Scythe blade inventory, imported from (mostly) Austria -- to match the tool to the job

Scythe blade inventory, imported from (mostly) Austria — to match the tool to the job. Using the wrong blade for the cutting job would be like using the wrong bit in a drill.

I, on the other hand, being of the unwashed and uninitiated, scythe-wise, could be expected to abuse the blade somewhat, in the process of learning the swing, and to satisfy my curiosity as to exactly how thick a sapling or berry cane I could cut with it. Also, as I said in my email to (Professor? Father? Bishop?) Vido, above, my mowing will not be in a level, cultivated field, but in land that has never seen a plow, is constantly prey to encroaching brush, and includes the need to trim close to fences and buildings.

Amy recommended a “brush blade,” which is shorter than a “grass blade,” and with a deeper and slightly thicker back, putting a little more metal between me and whatever I attack with my scythe. I went with her recommendation, and I was not disappointed. I have subjected this scythe to considerable abuse, both accidentally and in the process of learning its limits, and it is holding up well, with some maintenance.

Maintenance is another way the European blades differ from their American counterparts. To sharpen an American blade, the preferred method is either filing or grinding. Filing is slower, but doesn’t heat the blade the way grinding does, changing the character of the metal in ways that affect its hardness and wear resistance, and using up metal at a high rate. One does not approach a European blade with a file, and — Heaven forbid — with a grinding wheel. These methods are simply too rough and unrefined. A bit of filing may be called for to repair a damaged blade, but grinding — never.

Sharpening European blades take a kinder, gentler approach. The metallurgy of European style blades calls for frequent sharpening, even in the field, but with much less metal removed at a time, and a sharper edge attained with less effort. The doctrinaire method of field sharpening is with a whetstone that the user carries in a container that holds the stone(s) in water. The stone soaks up water and stays cleaner, that way, keeping its pores from clogging with metal particles that would reduce its effectiveness.

Sporty, Euro stone holster, complete with belt clip -- holds two stones in water.

Sporty, Euro stone holsters, complete with belt clip — holds two stones in water.

After the removal of metal near the edge with several sharpenings with the stone, however, the cutting edge recedes to the thicker region of the blade, requiring more metal to be removed to arrive at a sharp edge. To thin or draw out the edge, the European blade is peened gently with a hammer and anvil designed for that purpose, or with a combination of tools called variously a peening jig, or a peening apparatus. The latter device, used correctly, allows the novice to thin the blade with calibrated hammer blows that compact the metal, making it stronger, while thinning the edge to allow it to be honed with the whetstone to a thin, sharp cutting edge.  The apparatus comes in two pieces – a fixture, and two cylindrical pieces that are struck against the fixture with a hammer, with the edge of the blade between them.

The fixture is a machined cylinder of tough steel with a central body about two inches thick and six inches long, turned down on a lathe at one end to a spike, and at the other, to a column about the diameter of a finger. The fixture’s spike is driven into a piloted hole in a section of tree trunk or a stout workbench, to keep it steady and to absorb the impact of the peening hammer. The other pieces are cylinders with their centers bored out to fit smoothly over the column in the fixture, but with a face at the opening that is beveled to the angle desired for the blade edge.

The blade fits between the pieces, with the cutting edge resting lightly against the smaller column, just to insure that it is compressed the proper distance toward the back with each stroke of the hammer. One cylinder is beveled for preliminary shaping – usually marked with a single groove around the outside diameter, and the other for the final contour, is marked with two grooves.

The first cylinder puts the initial contour on the edge, or repairs a major dent or crack. The second one puts on the final contour, and is most often used for maintaining the working edge at the proper thickness after a few sharpenings.

Foreground: hammer and anvil combo; far side of front stump: Peening apparatus.

Foreground: hammer and anvil combo; far side of front stump: Peening apparatus.

SharpeningToolsCloseUp

Various scythe sharpening tools, close up

My scythe budget only allowed for the hammer and anvil combo, which is about half as much as the peening apparatus from Marugg. I have peened the blade a couple of times to what I imagine to be a “good” thickness, but I will be getting an apparatus as soon as I can afford it, to take the guesswork out of that part of the maintenance routine.

I want to go back to Tracy City again as soon as we can afford it, and take more pictures of the Marugg facility. I enjoy being in the company of people who understand that the virtues of technology extend to whatever works, whether it is today’s, or yesterday’s. I also like to be around people who can be enthusiastic about a subject they know well, without being self-righteous about it. There is no hint of Scythentological fervor at Marugg — just friendly enthusiasm.

My next “wish list” will include the peening apparatus, and possibly another scythe blade, or maybe a “scythe sickle” – a short-handled sickle with a scaled-down scythe blade, for close-in trimming around landscape plants and garden beds, and an old-style weeding hoe that looks a lot more effective than the modern ones.

I also want to go back to a superb little restaurant in Tracy City, The Dutch Maid Bakery, It’s only a short walk from the Marugg shop to the restaurant, and you’d be foolish to plan a trip to Marugg that didn’t include lunch there, and some baked goods to go, and maybe a souvenir or two from their gift shop.

So goes my experiment with the centuries-old technology of the scythe. Unless circumstances force other, older ways of doing things on me, I’ll probably stick with factory-made clothes, indoor plumbing, networked computers and the Kubota tractor.

MaruggIcon

Marugg Trademark

But the scythe is here to stay.

Gratuitous, artsy shot of old machinery in the Marugg plant.

Gratuitous, artsy shot of old machinery in the Marugg plant. Looks like an idler pulley, meant to keep tension on the drive belt, but to allow it to slip if a piece of wood jams the tool.

My new scythe, sized for me and wrapped to travel.

My new scythe, sized for me and wrapped to travel.