Having to find multiple levels of internet access — oh, fun!

Disclaimer: I am musing on the challenges I faced while trying to secure reliable internet I required during a recent set of business trips, and the process of developing various solutions to these challenges. These challenges are, in a general fashion, typical of the routine logistical challenges I face when in-the-field, and no doubt of other field technicians. In no way am I trying to reflect negatively on my employer, who for the purposes of this entry shall remain nameless.

I was recently on a couple of business trips, depending on an iPad as a critical part of the execution of the contract. This trip was to a small city of 25,656 (according to Wikipedia), big enough to have plenty of internet access points, cell phones, and cell phone data. As far as I was concerned, in fact, I was in a mini-mini version of Montreal, home for me, to those who haven’t figured it out yet.

The way the iPad is set up, wifi internet access is required to transfer building plans needed to do the work to the iPad, and transfer back files and data collected from my field work. I have made no bones mentioning to some key people heading the overall project that this is a potential Achilles’ Heel to the execution of the project, since, at least in the overall project’s fringe locations sufficiently beyond population centres, internet access would be a spotty luxury at best. My trips were at least symbolically close enough to the edges, underlining the potential problem.

One of the first challenges I found was that the iPad didn’t seem to play well with the internet supplied in the motel (DataValet); although I did manage to get it to work once, it proved a bit too frustrating to get working reliably. A colleague confirmed that he’d had similar problems getting Apple products to connect to DataValet. I had no trouble getting my personal computer running Fedora 21 Workstation to work with DataValet: In fact, besides not recalling having trouble over the years connecting to wifi that wasn’t specific to Linux or Fedora, I would actually say that the experience was even easier than in the past, since the daily leases seemed to automatically renew, although it seemed to insinuate itself by an “convenient” automatic popup window. In parallel, my work Windows-based machine also worked flawlessly throughout with DataValet, although if I remember correctly, I may have had to occasionally open up a browser in order to renew the leases.

Add to this challenge, my employer’s local office didn’t seem to have wifi, or at least, assuming that it *was* there as a hidden network, my work computer didn’t automatically connect to the corporate wifi when not plugged in to the corporate network, which it normally does at my home office.

My first solution was to fulfill a purpose of my having asked for a company smart phone in 2014: Create a hot spot using the data plan on my work phone to do data transfers when not in a wifi zone that works well for the iPad. However, it seemed, between the picture-heavy data and the fact that the iPad seems to do automatic background backups when hooked up to internet — a feature to which I initially had a (negative) knee-jerk reaction that nonetheless actually was useful at one point and since — my phone appeared to run out of my data plan for the month, as evidenced by the sudden stop of internet connection through the phone while still operating just fine as a phone. Having quickly checked the phone’s data usage logs and determining that I’d certainly gotten to the neighbourhood of the limit I believed I had (2 gigs), I assumed that the phone’s contract had a limit set by my employer to turn off the data plans until the month rolls over in order to avoid overage charges. I later learned, upon my return home and standing in front of the IT tech responsible for the corporate cell phones, that the problem was presumed to be an unusual set of settings probably set by some esoteric app (of which I have have very few, esoteric or otherwise, on my work phone), or possibly a SIM card problem, which turned on off the phone’s data capabilities, and that in any case the company has no such policy to ask the cell service provider to turn off a phone’s data access when it reaches the limit of “included data” in the plan, until the rollover date. The lack of internet on the phone is “solved” by resetting the phone to factory settings; I should get instructions on how to do it in the future should I be faced with the problem again. 🙂

This led to a second solution: I used my personal phone to create a hotspot and consumed a bit of my personal data plan, which didn’t bother me too much, at least until it were to involve overage charges. Not that I checked, but based on the little amount of time I used it, I’m sure I never got into that area.

The next solution also created another challenge due to a flub on my part: My client finally gave wifi access to the iPad at her various locations; however, I should have requested that she also enable my work computer, since I had a secondary need for internet given that I developed a need to produce or modify extra plans several times once arriving at some sites, and as such a need to transfer the plans off the computer and onto the iPad.

Finally, I realized that when I have wired access, I had yet another solution available to me: I could set up my linux laptop to create a wifi hotspot. This was rather easy, at least under the current gnome version in Fedora 21 and I believe has been for quite a while under the gnome 3.0 series, and probably before too. Unfortunately, this was wasn’t a solution at the motel since it only had wifi and no wired access, and I didn’t have an external wifi receiver with a cord to provide the wired internet and free up the wifi card.

Here are some screenshots of how easy it is to setup a wifi hotspot under Gnome 3:

step 1

step 2

step 3

step 4

step 5

Feeling a bit curious along the lines of “shouldn’t this be relatively easy under Windows, too?”, I checked on my work computer, and while it seemed possible, and indeed my brother once did it for me with his Windows computer, it was not obvious at all; in fact, I gave up after about four or five click-throughs with little end in sight.

Hence, at the local office and having set up my laptop to create a local wifi hotspot, I’d created a mildly-amusing-to-me setup on my temporary desk, plugging in my personal laptop to the corporate network, running a hotspot using its wifi card, and using my work computer normally over wifi as well as doing data transfers from the iPad.

Back at home and at my home office, I mention my difficulties in getting internet access to my supervisor (who isn’t a computer techie type), who thought that creating a hotspot under Windows couldn’t be done, or at least he didn’t realize it could be.

Further discussing this with him, I explained the situation saying “I don’t mind trying to find other solutions — that *is* my job — but after not having two A Plans (the motel internet not working for the iPad, nor having wifi at the office), then suddenly not having a plan B (the company cell phone internet not working), having to depend on my personal phone’s data plan, then having to depend on the client’s internet access but not having enough access for all devices, and finally coming up with a part-time solution to replace one of the A-plans — using a second of my personal resources in the form of my personal laptop — there’s a problem here,” to which he agreed.

Jovially, he did however suggest that “in the next leg of your travels, I happen to know that if you can go to the local library, they have free wifi”. This made me realize that if necessary and if possible, I could also try the free wifi at the local Tim Hortons (a popular Canadian chain of coffee and doughnut shops), assuming that there is one in the remote town where I’ll be visiting next.

Which has me really thinking about the problem:

– not all the field techs in the company have smart phones with data plans, and as such not able to create a needed hotspot in order to enable the execution of a project;
– not all the field techs have personal smart phones with a data plan, nor should field techs in general be required to use their personal data plans, let alone go into overage charges, in order to enable the execution of a project;
– at least at first glance, it doesn’t seem to be a quick and easy thing to turn a windows machine into a hotspot in order to enable such work — and I don’t want to hear from the peanut gallery on this one, since I *know* that it *can* be done; my point is that at first glance, even a moderately savvy user such as myself shouldn’t have to say “It’s easy under Gnome 3, why isn’t it about as easy under Windows? Boy it’s a good thing that I had my personal laptop with me!” (On a side note, usually the stereotype is that “Windows is easy, and Mac easier, but isn’t Linux hard?” 🙂 )
– and, only a limited number of computer users are using Gnome 3, where it is easy to set up a hotspot if you either have a wired connection to the internet, or two wifi cards on your computer. (I’ll have to check with my brother, who uses XFCE on one of his laptops, which is on a technical level identical to mine, to see how easy it is under that desktop; obviously, it’s technically possible; I imagine it’s just a question of how easily different desktops enable the functionality.)

Which leads me back to the above-mentioned problem of “what do you do in remote, small villages where you don’t have a corporate office with wifi, motel / B&B internet access is spotty at best, there’s no cell phone coverage, and there are few if any public wifi spots like a restaurant or a public library?”

I just hope that the library’s free wifi isn’t provided by DataValet. 🙂

I’d say that Fedora has arrived!

Almost five years ago in March 2010, I stated “Ubuntu and Fedora LiveCDs — Ubuntu a clear winner!”

I’d burned two live CD’s — one of the current Fedora of the day, and one of the current Ubuntu of the day. I had wanted a group I belonged to to use one to reformat a virus-infected computer to use it again. Incidentally, they declined the honour, however that’s beyond my point: I didn’t want to give them (or anyone) the Fedora CD, while I thought that the Ubuntu CD was great out of the box, specifically including OpenOffice.org (now LibreOffice) and a cute little directory including a short video, a sample mortgage calculator, and two or three other little gems which really put the CD over the top for its immediate usefulness.

Well, I haven’t really used Live CD’s much since I’m not all that worried about having linux on the run, but at this point Fedora 21 seems to only be available by Live CD’s. But to wit, the experience with Fedora 21 seems to be quite the improvement in experience, according to at least two of my somewhere between the stated and implicit standards of comparison: The inclusion of (now) LibreOffice, what I considered a killer omission, and the ability to quickly and easily install many “productive” pieces of software through the new software installer. To be fair, at the time Fedora limited itself to CD’s and in its efforts to include as wide a base as possible for supposed widest mass appeal, Fedora was unable to include OpenOffice.org (or, as possible, any usable subset thereof) due to space restrictions, although it was able to include AbiWord.

Now, Fedora Workstation includes LibreOffice, and by typing into the seach box in the “Activities Overview” (click on “Activities” on the upper left hand corner of the screen, or invoke it using the “hot corner” by bringing your cursor up there), the installed software that may help you, as well as a number of other pieces of software in the repositories which may help you, as indicated by a little shopping bag to the left of the proposed piece of software.

screenshot of proposed software

Well, I guess now I just need to find someone who needs to have their computer saved from viruses and spyware. 🙂

Installing Fedora 21 — Part I

Well, well, Fedora 21 Workstation came out in early December, 2014 to (at least my) great anticipation. It works great, and it’s a nice evolution in the Fedora desktop.

Initially, one of the biggest things that had me confused about it was wrapping my head around the hoopla: What’s the improvement? What’s the big deal? What has really come about to fill up the time between the release of Fedora 20 in December, 2013, and the release of Fedora 21 in December, 2014? Ok, tell me. “Uhhhh …” And so on.

Eventually I understood, or at least presumed, rightly or wrongly, that the biggest improvements for me would be under the hood and I wouldn’t really notice much, although I’d see the better and more intuitive software installation manager on the gui, and the polish, which I have. Apparently — for (one of) the main (now) Products, the Workstation — improvements would show up in the clearing of many bugs, general issues, and polish issues, and as well as choosing “best of breed” components (and in some cases, working with or even creating some upstream projects expressly to make desired components into the “best of their breed”, at least toward Fedora’s new vision). This would be instead of Fedora giving the impression (again, rightly or wrongly) of just “throwing together a bunch of packages and compiling them into a distribution” (admittedly, that worked rather well, and by working with upstream projects directly to fix bugs and contribute desired new functionality.) And finally, the dimensions of the windows have been changed such that in many places, the gray space and borders are smaller and thinner.

So after downloading and burning the 64-bit ISO (and concurrently, the 32-bit iso, the subject of Part II), and doing a full backup of my /home directory (including the hidden directories), I dived into the installation.

I had no trouble at all installing F21 on my NEW NEW NEW Dell Inspiron Dell i3847-5387BK PC (Intel Core i5-4460 / 1TB HDD / 8GB RAM / Intel HD Graphics / Windows 8.1). Firstly, nuking the Windows install was a great pleasure after having been pestered into first installing the Windows 8.1 which came with the computer. And that’s not including all the really annoying and really invasive questions the install asks, like full names, areas, and connecting to your (or signing up for) Windows Live or whatever account (which of course I don’t have).

The install was fairly easy (I suppose I’m not saying much given the several, several dozen linux installs I’ve done over the past eight plus years). In fact, the liveDVD — only because Fedora gave up on the size restrictions of CD’s for the live versions a few years ago, the image size was the order of 1.4 gigs (ok almost twice the size of a regular CD) — booted up rather quickly (faster than I’m accustomed to with the usually low-powered P4 single cores), and the first thing I saw was an option to either try out F21 Workstation or go directly to installation, all on top of Gnome Shell. I of course hotly jumped onto the install option, egged on by the annoying Windows install I’d just done (which, BTW, went flawlessly beyond the nuisances mentioned above, and fairly quickly.)

The biggest thing that was a bit confusing was discerning in Anaconda the checkbox that allowed me to free up all space on the hard drive, given that it seemed to be slightly below the screen and I needed to scroll down to it.

In the part of Anaconda that asks for location in order to set the time zone (and possibly / probably) set other regional default settings, Montreal — where I live — isn’t available. To me this is “a (minor) thing” since Montreal *used* to be available in the Anaconda locations list. The main cities in my time zone and “nearby” were Toronto and New York. I suppose that setting “New York” is generic enough, but in the presence of a long list of city names around the world spanning multiple time zones and with multiple redundancies per time zone, requiring someone from Montreal to indicate that their location is Toronto is downright near insulting — no Maple Laughs here! 🙂 Heck, I couldn’t even choose Ottawa had I wanted to, or choose to be equally insulted to indicate Quebec City — Go Habs Go! 🙂

Once the basic information was input, the installation was great and quick; so quick, in fact, I neglected to enter a computer name — easily fixed with a “hostname (addnamehere)” and “nano /etc/sysconfig/network” as root and editing things appropriately.

Interestingly, UEFI was not even a non-issue (ok so I do think that tin-foil hats are a legitimate fashion statement. 🙂 ) A quick check afterwards of the pre-boot menu options listed the following:

Boot Mode is to: UEFI
Secure Boot: ON
UEFI Boot: Fedora UEFI OS

How pleasing to see that Windows *isn’t* listed.

Now, beyond assuming that most linux distros pay the UEFI tax, err, registration fee, I wonder if Oracle pays it for Solaris, IBM for z/OS — I assume as much based on a cursory search for “IBM zos uefi” — or just about any other os developer working on intel architecture.

After that, the computer ran (and of course still runs) great. I even described it as “frighteningly fast”. The new software installer in F21 is quite helpful in suggesting software I want if it’s not already installed, and installs it quickly. The best part is that it’s seamlessly integrated with the activities screen where I can enter software I want to use in the search line, and most of the uninstalled software that I’d want is listed.

A few other command line installs were necessary though, to install (what my brother calls “your linux kung-fu”) some things like DenyHosts, some codecs, and so on.

However a there was one little problem with the settings. For one of the settings surrounding locations, I entered the likes of GB or UK for Great Britain / United Kingdom, so as to get settings with British spellings (again, Canadian English settings weren’t available). This had the result of setting the calendar applet at the top center of the screen to start weeks on Mondays. Now, I know that around the world this is gaining a certain traction for a variety of reasons, including ISO reasons, but this is incredibly confusing to one who is accustomed to calendars using Sundays as the first day of the week. (Yes, I know that this same argument, appropriately centred on Mondays, applies to those who use Mondays as the first day of the week.) This was finally fixed by setting the locales setting in /etc/default/locale to:

ANG=”en_CA.UTF-8″
LC_TIME=”en_CA.UTF-8″
LC_PAPER=”en_CA.UTF-8″
LC_MEASUREMENT=”en_CA.UTF-8″

Well this solution didn’t seem to be persistent, even if the file is. I ended up going into the “settings” / “region and language” option of the gui and setting both the language and region to, surprise, surprise, Canada.

Well this system is up and running, and works just like Fedora, surprise, surprise. My /home directory was restored with no trouble at all. And, while I was happy to have used Fedora 19 for a year and a half (as far as I’m concerned, Fedora heaven for me, getting an extra six months of system stability) I’m also glad to have updated to Fedora 21.

Upcoming: Part II — Installing Fedora 21, 32-bits at a time

I now have a Fedora Friend Finder!

In early 2011, I decided to go to a FudCon in Tempe, Arizona (here’s my archive). And here’s my blog summarizing my participation.

One of the things in the list of items to bring was a Fedora Friend Finder (archive), in other words an extension cord with multiple outlets / a power bar. This of course makes sense when you have a bunch of computer people gathering together, face to face: We still bring computers and as such we want to plug them in.

As you can see if you followed the link or checked my archive, the page featured a long power bar with 12 outlets, like the following:

12 outlet power strip

I of course had considered the power bar shown to be quite fanciful and even comical to the point of farce, and as such I assumed that someone had played around with GIMP to produce the image. However, the message was clear: I brought a four outlet power bar with a roll-up extension cord to FudCon Tempe, like the following:

cord caddy

During FudCon Tempe, I was mildly popular during the various “unconference” sessions and certainly made friends as a result of my power bar. In fact, during the “Lightning Talks” at the end of the “unconference” part, I was so popular that I had to turn people away who wanted to plug in, even after several other power bars had been plugged into mine.

Fast forward to this past week in 2014, and I’m shopping for supplies at a Canadian Tire for a job site I’m starting up, including electrical extension cords and power bars. What do I find? To my amazement, a 12 outlet power bar just like I’d seen on the Fedora Friend Finder web page. The person I was with was a bit bewildered by my fascination with it; to him, it was just a big power bar. It may have been odd, but it was just another power bar.

I wasn’t just fascinated; I was practically beside myself. Here I was in front of a real live example of the farcical prop I’d seen on a web page. Of course, I had to buy one.

Here’s a pic of it with eight personal pumps and one DryCal calibrator hooked up, charging the internal batteries:

my Fedora Friend Finder

I think it’s cool. It will probably eventually be used at home where I have my multiple computers and a big wide screen TV and PVR, where things are currently lit up like a Christmas tree, so to speak, with multiple power bars which are nonetheless underused given the multiple oversized adapters.

However, the temptation will be there to bring it out to any events at which not only would such a power bar be useful, but also to just brag on an “over the top” level and get incredulous looks along with a “may I plug in ?!?!?”

Tux seems to be moonlighting for the CIBC

It seems that Tux, the Linux mascot, is now moonlighting for the CIBC, a Canadian bank.

The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, also known as “CIBC”, is currently running a campaign surrounding its travel rewards programme, with a tagline of “So good even penguins can fly(tm)”. There have been some TV commercials with penguin families humorously “talking” about their not always succesful trip planning experiences. All of the penguins in the live TV commercials appear to be close approximations of some variety of real penguins, and of course, the digital renderings / puppets / whatever are digitally or otherwise manipulated in an anthropomorphic fashion with human voice-overs in order to appear to be like regular people.

On the CIBC website, the cartoonish penguins look sufficiently different from the “live penguins” on TV and look like they’re straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. While I suppose that the “live” penguins and the cartoons may look vaguely similar, it’s in the fashion that the Flinstones or the Jetsons look like you and me.

CIBC website

But wait, folks, as the screenshot above shows, the cartoon penguins don’t resemble our hero.

So, while I was passing through the Vancouver, BC (Canada) airport, one of the kiosks trying to get people to sign up for a credit card (obviously, the CIBC) was giving out little penguin keychains as part of the promotion. Even from a bit of a distance, I could clearly tell that they were Tux the Linux mascot, albeit with a CIBC logo and the travel rewards programme logo on its belly. I got up the nerve to go to the counter and say that I wasn’t interested in the sales pitch, but that I just wished to look at the keychains since they’d attracted my attention. Immediately the lady gave me one and let me go on my merry way, hoping that the keychain would garner some of the marketing attention it was designed for. How little the nice lady knew. 🙂

Tux is moonlighting advertising for CIBC!

Once at home, I of course checked Larry Ewing’s website. I figured that there must be some kind of copyright or license infringement. However, according to Larry Ewing’s page titled Linux 2.0 Penguins at http://www.isc.tamu.edu/~lewing/linux/ , it says “Permission to use and/or modify this image is granted provided you acknowledge me lewing@isc.tamu.edu and The GIMP if someone asks.”

Larry Ewing's Tux Page

So: At first glance it seems that, depending on how you interpret Mr. Ewing’s licensing condition(s), anyone can use the image for any purpose, and unless someone asks, you don’t need to credit anyone or anything or put a copyright notice or “used with permission” or whatever. Unless he’s saying “acknowledge me always, but only bother acknowledging The GIMP if someone asks.”

So, as I said, it seems that Tux is moonlighting.

Backwoods Washing Machine

I used to be rather involved in Scouting and camping, so it was no surprise when my brother recently sent me a link to “41 Camping Hacks That Are Borderline Genius“. (Here is my archive of the page in case it disappears ) The idea was to present a list of camping tips that, while often easy once you’ve looked at them, seem to elude many of us. The tips ranged from the small to large, from the really backwoods to mostly the car camping with a family crowd variety, from the simple to the involved. I read the list and found some tips interesting, some I’d done before, some I’d never thought of, and enough of which I thought were downright gratuitous in their inclusion in the list (in my mind — although this itself isn’t listed — along the lines of “if you’re going for more than an hour you’ll want some food”.)

This post is about one of the tips that I found useful.

The “hillbilly washing machine” was a gem for me: Someone else would no doubt list it as mundane, impractical, or on some level conceptually obvious. According to the proponent, this backwoods washing machine could be made for about $6. (Here is my archive of the page.) This person was a blogging mom telling about her participation in the Second Annual Flats and Handwashing Challenge (again here’s my archive), trying to involve other parents in a challenge to use reusable cotton diapers for a week instead of expensive store-bought disposable diapers. One of the challenge’s rules suggests that buying / making / securing a sufficient quantity of reusable diapers in order to last the week without having to wash them seemed to defeat the purpose of the challenge, and as such the challenge suggests the washing machine as one of the ways to make participation (both short and long term) practical.

By the way, here is their survey results page (and of course my archive) which I find interesting just from a simple numbers perspective, but also in how it seems to at least moderately promote the hillbilly washing machine as practical.

The concept is really simple: Take a five gallon bucket with a hole in the lid and use an old fashioned toilet plunger to simulate the function of a washing machine agitator. Add water, soap and clothes to be washed, and voilà , you have a functional washing machine.

backwoods washing machine
I found the idea intriguing: Having a three-season cottage that lacks the space and appropriate place for a washing machine (read it lacks a heated space during the winter to avoid freezing), this seemed to fit the bill, regardless of the time of year. Over the years I’d gotten mildly tired of always making sure that I’d be bringing clothes up from the city for the weekend, let alone enough. As such I had stocked my wardrobe and drawers there with old shirts, pants and the like that were perfectly serviceable but of course not exactly appropriate for showing up to work, let alone the likes of a wedding. I’d even gone so far as to buy a dedicated set of socks and underwear in sufficient quantity for the usual longest stint of two weeks that I would spend up there. I of course had backup plans that I could hand wash some small items in the sink or bathtub, drive to one of the towns about 45 minutes away and use a laundromat, or in an extreme emergency ask one of the neighbours if I may draw on their goodwill and use their washing machine, a plan I hope I never have to use. (This goodwill capital is reserved for “it’s the middle of the winter, I don’t have running water, and I desperately need a shower because such-and-such occurred; a sponge bath just won’t do.”)

So for the next couple of weeks, I kept my eye out for a five gallon bucket on the side of the road on garbage days, having a 16 litre square bucket in reserve just in case I was unsuccessful. Fortunately, my “nice” square bucket did not have to be sacrificed. The “new” bucket was in a previous life apparently used to hold kitty litter, based on the kitty litter dust on the bottom and its proximity to a cat box being thrown out. Its original function was to hold commercial hamburger pickles for a restaurant — and the brine smell permanently permeates the plastic, but, even for one who does not care for pickles, only to a pleasantly low level.

As a side note: I don’t know about how the geometry would have worked out, but based on my experience, the size absolutely does matter — a full 20 to 23 litre bucket is absolutely necessary.

The first part of the job was a general cleaning of the bucket — removing a commercial label, a general washing, and the like.

The next part was to cut out four of the eight sections along the side of the lid that holds the lid to the bucket — I obviously would want the lid to hold to the bucket during usage, but as many people familiar with buckets intended to be water-tight and resealable after opening know, these lids can be a pain to secure properly onto the bucket, and then remove from the bucket. Removing four of the eight sections changed this dynamic from a bucket that was frustrating to open and close to a bucket that is easily opened and closed, while of course maintaining reasonable water tightness during operation.

trim the lid
trim the lid
Then there was the hole to cut in the centre of the lid, large enough to freely allow the plunger to come up and down. It’s about two inches in diameter and was easily cut with a pocket knife.

hole in the lid
Then for the most expensive part of the machine: The plunger. Firstly, just finding an old-fashioned plunger that is full sized does not seem to be the easiest thing to do; they seem to be going the way of the dodo bird. Even the now-almost-old-fashioned plunger with a flexible extension that is meant to fit more snugly into the bottom of a toilet and increase performance and effective pressure seems to have competition with new-fangled, ergonomic and style conscious designs. However, I found one of the plungers with the flexible extensions for a whopping $1.97 plus applicable sales taxes. Following some advice I’d seen on some of the pages describing how to make this project, I trimmed off the extension while maintaining the structural integrity of the bottom part where it would have flexed, and I cut out three triangular holes in the cupped part so as to allow for less water resistance when using the plunger.

modified plunger
And voilà! Backwoods washing machine for a paltry sum of about $2.27 or thereabouts, plus of course a (very) little bit of effort.

At this point, I tested it a couple of times; see below.

Hence, having used it a couple of times, the notion of getting a wringer of some sort seemed useful, and this was my “target item” a couple of weeks later when I went to a flea market. I found a mop bucket with a couple of wooden dowels integrated into it which act as a wringer when you put the mop between them and use foot to create pressure between the dowels, which squeezes out the water. $10 later, and I’d thought I’d really gotten a good deal; I later decided wasn’t worth more than “It was nice to have an objective for the flea market, but in retrospect it wasn’t worth the money at any price.” I tried to use the wringer, but decided that it wasn’t of much use. It not only added extra work to the process, but it wasn’t particularly effective for wringing out clothing, at least given that I was still able to easily wring out more water with hand pressure afterwards. (sigh …)

Now that I’ve used the washing machine a few times, I’ve decided a few things about how to use it and get acceptable results:

1) it’s only good for about one or two days’ worth of clothing for one person, or equivalent; hence you’ll want to divide up equal piles for more days’ worth of clothing, or if you’re washing for more than one person, or also want to wash up all the linen, towels and rags from yesterday evening’s dinner party and associated cleanup. Interestingly, the original blogger suggested that she’d used it for only a day’s worth of diapers at a time.

This was explicit in the original blog entry regarding the cotton baby diapers: In my experiences, it became obvious that the point (and the capacity) of the unit was tailored and ideally (and only) suited to washing one or two days’ worth of diapers at a time to avoid having to store increasingly smelly items for wash day at the end of the week. The point of the challenge was, beyond using cloth diapers (especially for those who can’t afford disposable diapers), to hand wash the diapers while avoiding the use of automatic washing machines (again in a context of affordability.) It also seemed to come across that perhaps it was intended more as a pre-wash system for such items so that you don’t have to wash them at their dirtiest with your delicates and your picky teenager’s latest styles in jeans, although in re-reading the original posts, it became clear that this obviously was a creation of my imagination, however true it might be.

2a) It seems ideally suited to small items such as socks, underwear, small hand towels, and wash cloths. The occasional polo shirt works too but they seem to be nearing the limit of what the unit can handle — hence the mention above about the importance of the sizing of the bucket being in the 20 to 23 litre area.

2b) It really isn’t suited for bulky items. For instance, during my recent two weeks of holidays, I was glad that I’d had enough pants to not “need” to wash them; for fear that jeans were just to heavy and bulky and would require far too much effort, I never even tried to wash a pair, let alone several.

2c) It seems that washing large items and/or large quantities and/or both would require a larger bucket, and would require something more appropriate for agitation that a simple hand plunger. Some other such items seen on the internet suggest reducing the size of a 55 gallon drum and adapting an old bicycle to agitate the load.

3) For the whole operation, I’ve found that for me, what works best is as follows:
a) put in clothes as above
b) add about a tablespoon or two of wash powder
c) fill with water
d) use plunger action, using two hands — with one you’ll tire out really quickly — for up to about five minutes
e) take out and wring the items individually — as mentioned above, hand wringing seems to be the most effective short of having a proper (old style) wringer or a restaurant-grade vegetable spinner (which I wouldn’t seriously consider buying since I know its cost would defeat the project’s “on a budget” and “let’s keep this simple” themes)
f) hang the laundry on a clothesline or other similar support reasonably securely — outside! Otherwise, you’ll have to go through a rinse cycle or two by repeating a) to e)
g) thoroughly rinse all the items with a garden hose, and allow to drip dry. Hand wringing of items at their bottoms will of course significantly reduce drying time. Obviously, if you rinse as in f), (say, if you do everything inside) then don’t do this!

Overall, despite its limitations, I like the idea. I’d like to think that it’s one of those “why didn’t I do this years ago” ideas. I might not have “wasted” money buying as many new socks just for the cottage.

The “but” part is that it is a useful item that definitely has its limits. Operating it does require a certain amount of manual labour, and is really only useful for a portion of items that need to be washed. I was a bit disappointed that after my two weeks of vacation and despite having kept up with just about all the shirts, socks and underwear I’d worn as well as a few hand towels and wash cloths I’d used, I still had about three loads of laundry to do once the bedsheets, pants, large towels and a few other items were taken into account.

Yes, it was fun. Yes, I recommend it.

Happy washing!

UPDATE September, 2014:

I have used the washing machine since during this year’s holidays at the cottage and a couple of other times. Having formed some opinions last year about its limits, this year I decided not to depend on it for washing or reducing the washload at the end of my holidays, and, surprise, surprise, I found it to be a wonderful and useful tool.

I used it for the predictable small items such as my socks, some underwear, hand towels and wash cloths, for which it is ideally suited.

But I found something else for which it is suited, to my surprise to boot: Much of the bed sheets for a double bed and the pillow cases. Last year I assumed that such items would be too bulky for the washing machine. This year, mid-vacation they needed to be done. They were easy to wash one sheet at a time plus another time for the pillow cases, and to my surprise they were easy to wash, to the point that I have since washed them again in it, “saving me” from having to bring them home to wash and dry in a standard electric washing machine back home in the city.

So two more points for the washing machine and it having continued to demonstrate its usefulness as well as having redeemed itself a bit: Next time going up to the cottage, I won’t have to remake my bed upon arrival, possibly, for all I know, late in the evening and after the proverbial long tiring day at work.

Snow Beer

Beyond its inherent value, my post about the Katadyn Pocket water filter back in March was meant to be a precursor to this post.

One of my Christmas gifts (ie. what I not only requested but actually went out to acquire myself 🙂 ) was a Belgian ale beer kit. The homebrew shop apparently acquired from one of my previous homebrew shops when it went out of business back in 1999 a large fridge and apparently whatever trademarks and (I presume) recipes for a line of beer kits they produced called “SuperBatch”. Basically, the concept is (for them) to create in-store full, ready to add water beer kits using custom recipes, building the kits with various malt extracts in proportions according to given recipes and adding packets of hops and / or other spices (again in varieties and quantities according to the given recipes), as well as the usual yeast packet.

Having a personal preference for Belgian beers, I have been hoping for years to stumble upon a Belgian beer kit, and was finally pleased to find one when I decided to investigate another homebrew shop given that for the past year or two I’d been very slowly been getting frustrated by my up-to-then current homebrew shop over decreasing selection of, and generally decreasing availability of product. The imp that pushed me over the cliff came from somewhere between having found the Belgian kit on the new-to-me shop’s website and having observed that the up-to-then current homebrew shop had also changed distributors, not only not carrying the beer kits I had been using and finding acceptable, but also changing the brand of wine kits I normally (although now rarely) use; I’ve tried a couple of other brands, I don’t like them.

Back on track, I had a beer kit in hand. And, I was up at the cottage over the Christmas holidays, melting a *lot* of snow and filtering the water using my water filter in order to supply my water needs. Having planned this next part in advance, at one point I took out my water container I keep for wine-making and brewing purposes and, instead of filling my drinking water containers with filtered water for my drinking and cleanup needs, I started filling my brewing water container and brought it home at the end of my holiday.

Shortly after coming home, I made beer. The instructions were a little different from the commercial kits in cans out there (ok, stop rolling your eyes). They were vaguely reminiscent of brewing from grain, at least so far as I had to boil the malt extract with about an equal amount of water, and having to add the packet of (in my case, given that it was a Belgian ale) dried fruit and spices. Having added the rest of the water, which was also its bulk, there was little issue with having to chill the wort. I pitched the yeast, covered the bucket with a plastic sheet, and waited and watched.

A week later, I racked the bubbling beer into a secondary fermenter and added an air lock, and waited and watched.

Three weeks later, after the secondary fermentation and then settling, I bottled the beer, priming with my usual approximately 1oz of honey per gallon. For the inquisitive, the kind of honey I used was the type that Costco sells 1kg at a time, not some esoteric organic variety bought from some road-side stand in front of a farmer’s field a couple of hours out of the city. Typically, it takes about two weeks just to get the carbonation completed.

But, it doesn’t stop there: It took another month after the bare minimum (in my books) of six weeks, or in the general area of 10-12 weeks at this point in late March, for the wonderful chocolate tones and other fuller flavours to start coming out. In between, the beer seemed to be a bit disappointingly dull and flat (not carbonation-wise, but taste-wise.)

And … there are two endings to this story:

First, whaddya think, it isn’t any good? Of course it’s good. In a little while when my supplies begin to dwindle, I’ll be getting another Belgian Ale kit from my new-to-me shop.

Secondly, does the fact that it’s made from melted snow filtered to drinking water quality make it taste any better? Well I guess I’d have to have made separate parallel batches with tap water and distilled water to really know the difference, or even try to determine whether there actually is one; certainly, I can’t particularly tell. Of course the beer is good and doesn’t have any off tastes, and fermented well.

But … I expect that the real difference lies in that I have a bit of a story to tell regarding the water source I used for the beer I’m serving, and not much more.

And, back in April before all the snow in the city had melted away, I melted some and filtered it; it’s now patiently waiting for the next time I make some beer for myself (I had no intention of using it for the beer I’ve made for Canada Day. 🙂 )

Katadyn Pocket Water Filter

During the summer of 2012, I bought a Katadyn Pocket water filter. It took a bit of research, but in short order the decision to buy this model over just about any other was clear: Most water filters seemed to have a capacity of a few hundred gallons or maybe up to 1,500 gallons; the Katadyn Pocket filter has a capacity of up to 13,000 gallons, or 50,000 litres. Given the price difference — anywhere from $75 to $250 for most of the rest, and $300 to $350 for the Katadyn Pocket, there was little to decide.

The unit has a 0.2 micron ceramic filter with silver impregnated in it in order to act as a bacteriostatic agent, although you have to be careful about that (see below).

The only thing that bugs me a very little bit about it is that it’s a filter only (albeit very good), not a purifier. Unfortunately, the purifiers don’t have the capacity that this filter has. This works out to the fact that the unit can effectively remove all bacteria and cysts — and of course cloudiness — in water, but theoretically it can’t remove viruses due to their being far smaller than the pore size (unless they electrostatically attach themselves to a particle which can be filtered out by the unit). It also means that it doesn’t remove any other contaminants smaller than 0.2 microns, including the usual nasties one might think of such as dissolved heavy metals, pesticides and other such nasty contaminants, and the more benign but nonetheless undesirable tastes, odours and colours that aren’t due to cloudiness.

There are two ways of dealing with these issues:

1) Choose a clear water source — that you might be tempted to drink without treating it at all (your natural “yuck” factor will help you out with this) — and this will reduce the likelihood that these are problems to begin with. By itself, most people — including myself, a trained water techie — can’t just look at clear water and tell whether it’s contaminated with the poop of 30 deer 100 feet upstream, or the dumpings from some illegal leather tanning shop 200 feet upstream. But, generally, you can tell the difference between clear, running water in the middle of the woods far away from just about anything and that doesn’t have any smells to it, and stagnant, cloudy and smelly water in the ditch surrounding a garage.

2) Bring around a small bottle filled with bleach and an eye dropper (*). I find that depending on the water source and the strength of the bleach (typically 4% to 6% sodium hypochlorite), 1 to 3 drops per imperial gallon (4.5 litres) has worked well on the filtered water. Melted snow from my cottage could do with 1/2 drop per imperial gallon, given that the bleach taste still often comes through quite distinctly on such (presumably) relatively pure water. As a reference, the USEPA (here’s my archive) recommends to use two drops per quart when using bleach to disinfect untreated water, or about 8 drops per US gallon (3.78 litres), or about 9 drops per imperial gallon (4.5 litres).

(*) This won’t deal with a bunch of dissolved metals, and can’t completely deal with tough contaminants, so choose your water source carefully!

Now, putting aside that I’m a water techie, why would I, who stopped being involved in Scouting and most forms of camping and hiking in 1999, need such a device?

The family cottage doesn’t have running water in the winter, and I usually spend a week over Christmas and typically a weekend a month at the cottage over winter, when the water is off. I’ve been starting to get tired of carrying up big jugs filled with water. I’ve been getting tired of running out of water or at least having to be careful about how I use water. And, particularly, I’ve been getting tired of depending on a few neighbours for their goodwill. The operative notion here is “depending”; a lack of goodwill is not the issue, although the variability of whether or not two of the immediate neighbours would be around all the time is a concern alongside the inconvenience of having to go out to get clean drinking water in the middle of washing dishes.

One of the first things I had to figure out the hard way is the importance of keeping the unit clean (go figure, a water techie needing to be reminded of the importance of keeping drinking water treatment equipment clean): Over almost two weeks in the summer, I’d used it three times, and ended up with a good case of diarrhea which took a couple of weeks to clear up. So note to myself, and those considering buying any camping water filter: Keep the unit and the outlet hose in particular clean — it can get contaminated easily — and when you’re going to leave it sitting around for more than a day or two or pack it away for a while, run a bleach solution through it first and dry it out.

So, does the filter work? And do I get the runs any more?

Of course, and of course not.

This year over Christmas, I found it quite useful, although I did bring up a good supply of water anyway to begin with, given that I was coming up for a week and the long-awaited testing grounds had finally arrived. I needed some kind of starting point, in case I found out that “making” water was a lot more work than I’d bargained for, especially given all the freezer cooking (and therefore dish washing) I do over that period.

I also confirmed what I had begun observing for years while melting snow for things that didn’t require drinking-quality water: You’d be surprised how much dirt and debris comes through when melting “pristine” snow in the middle of cottage country, far away from the city. It’s but a little more appetizing for drinking, cooking or rinsing the dishes than dishwater — so of course I don’t bother filtering the melted snow for my “put the dirty dishes in hot soapy dishwater” part, but of course I use filtered water for rinsing the dishes.

Regarding the amount of bleach to use, I have found that the filtered water from melting snow needs about a drop per imperial gallon, while the filtered lake water can handle about two drops per imperial gallon, before a distinct bleach taste comes through. This is a little testing based on working with the filtered water and after having first consulted some tables on how many drops of bleach per litre to use for treating water (here’s my archive) (instead of just calculating it myself). As a reference, the USEPA (here’s my archive) recommends to use two drops per quart when using bleach to disinfect untreated water, or about 8 drops per US gallon (3.78 litres), or about 9 drops per imperial gallon (4.5 litres).

Regarding the “one litre per minute” claim, it mostly works out to that, sort of, I guess — which means, not really. In practice, though, I suspect that that’s based on filling up one litre or one quart water bottles commonly used, especially in camping and hiking circles. For larger amounts of water, it takes longer. The best test I’ve had — since filtering water while being distracted by the TV at the cottage isn’t much of a test — was when I recently filtered about 23 litres of melted snow undistracted for a future batch of beer, and it took me about 40 to 45 minutes. This admittedly but importantly included a stop about halfway through to open up the filter and clean the ceramic filter, which had become sufficiently dirty from the dirt in the “clean” snow that I’d melted, making filtering the water difficult. A comparison between the 100 metre race and the 3,000 metre race in the Olympics would be apt: You sprint in the former race, but you pace yourself at a somewhat slower running speed in the latter in order not to get too tired right away and be able to make it to the end of the race.

Anyway, I like the filter, and it should get several years’ worth of use before I have to start thinking about buying a replacement filter cartridge.

Update 08 June 2016: Katadyn water filter capacity — update

Installing, then removing, the Mate desktop

Back in mid-January, 2013, I switched to the Mate Desktop. I can’t figure out if I changed because I was getting tired of Gnome 3 and all the complaints surrounding it, including my own, and fell over a cliff when an imp pushed me in the form of my brother wanting me to install Fedora 18 with Mate on it, or the other way around.

I went through a lot to get the desktop to a level at which I had become accustomed under Fedora 14. I took a lot of notes; I would need them in the next few days for my brother’s system. Indeed, they were useful; the install went rather well, in no small part due to my notes. Incidentally, it all felt like a fresh reinstall. Yet, the whole transition was smooth, and I hadn’t forgotten anything. (Having a CentOS box with a Gnome 2 desktop helped. 🙂 )

Two things presented themselves as relative problems, one right away, and one that took several weeks to develop.

The first problem was a general set of issues: I was hoping for what amounted to the Gnome 2 desktop, having reached its apex (for me) in Fedora 14. The general environment and look and feel of Gnome 2 were there, but a number of packages, some might call secondary, weren’t there. Most notably, PackageKit, a gui application for adding and removing software, and xsane for scanners, and hplip — removing the ability to use my scanner before reinstalling hplip — but there were others. These were trivial absences since installing them is trivially easy, but curiously, PackageKit still wouldn’t show up in the menus. This was still a trivial absence since I rarely use PackageKit, normally preferring command-line installations and updates; but this was still a mild nuisance since I occasionally like to see what is available in the repositories, as well as some descriptions. And, I found that the themes were different from that to which I’d become accustomed, such as buttons, most notable for me in LibreOffice, were different. I was struggling to remember how much of that to which I was accustomed was that to which I had been accustomed for a long time, and how much was a case of much having changed however many times since I started using Fedora with F8 such that I was numb to any such changes.

But the other was a bit more insidious in its latency: After but a few weeks, it felt old. I daresay stale. And, it felt unloved. I suppose that in having used Gnome 3 for a year and a half, the familiarity it did have with Gnome 2, and the extensions having smoothed out many complaints, I had become a convert.

So, what did I do?

yum groupinstall gnome-desktop
yum groupremove mate-desktop
yum groupinstall gnome-desktop (to reinstall that which was removed by the previous command)
yum install gnome-shell-extensions*
yum install gnome-tweak-tool
yum remove xscreensaver*
reboot

… and here I am. Happy again. No, I’m not sure I want to say that. 🙂

Installing Fedora 18

This past week I installed Fedora 18 on a Frankenputer for my brother, yes, *that* brother who is my linux expert, because, well, I’ve been exclusively using a linux desktop since 2006 at home and at the same time he had gravitated away from using a linux desktop back to “another” system.

After having swiftly changed my own Gnome 3 desktop to Mate this past week in order to work out the kinks, I was ready to install his system. I expected or at least hoped that this setup would be a bit easier than my experiences under Fedora 17 since at least under F18 Mate is an officially supported desktop, while under Fedora 17, Mate is merely fully available (and functional) from the Fedora repositories. Interestingly, it was an identical experience — besides the parts about doing a “yum groupinstall mate-desktop” on my system and installing it under anaconda under F18; I still had to add a bunch of packages, tweak here, adjust there, etc. in the same ways. A quick look at versions numbers between the two systems suggests that many of the packages are the same version number, just recompilations for each version of Fedora.

So after his having spent hours going through four junkers, interestingly all having come from me over time, including one on which we had installed Fedora 14 a couple of years ago, and not being able to get any of them to work, we managed at the last minute to secure two more junkers — essentially, stripped carcasses which were cast offs from a local guy who does a lot of business doing virus & spyware removals, “reinstalls”, selling good-quality used laptops, and dealing in spare parts both to locals (such as myself and my brother) and over the internet through the likes of eBay, we start working on the install. Spare parts from other junkers as well as a new 2T drive are inserted into “Door #1”.

“Door #1” appears to be an Intel Core 2 Duo or some such, so this is so far the most advanced processor with which I’ve ever knowing worked at least up close. To me it seems clear that it’s a 64bit machine; I’ve caught the 64-bit religion, which is pretty gratuitous under linux, since just about *everything* is available under 64 bit. A 64bit Fedora Net Install ISO is downloaded and burned.

Frustratingly, “door #1” proves to be a doorstop: it powers up, rather loudly, but being able to do little else beyond turn on and make a lot of noise in the process, and not even boot through the BIOS. At this first glance it seems to be little wonder that our local tinkerer had stripped out the parts he thought he could sell on eBay or otherwise use to build his own Frankenputers in a reverse “2 for 1” deal. Time is running out on closing time for the local stores, so we move on to “Door #2”.

“Door #2” again appears to be a dual core or some such, so this is so far the most advanced processor with which I’ve ever knowing worked at least up close. To me it seems clear that it’s a 64bit machine; I’ve caught the 64-bit religion, which is pretty gratuitous under linux, since just about *everything* is available under 64 bit. The aforementioned CD is thrown in and things boot up until it hangs a few times at the point that the graphical part of Anaconda is supposed to kick in. After a few stalled attempts, we download and burn the 32-bit version, and everything works. Phew, just under the wire.

The visual changes in Anaconda made things seem more direct. Setup goes through cleanly.

Then I go through my list of things to install and remove, some of which date back to my install of Fedora 12 — yes, I still have some notes from then (paper works!) — while others dating back to the past week or so when I installed Mate on my machine and learned about what I wanted, needed, didn’t want, and so on.

The whole process took about 6 to 7 hours.

And, apparently, my brother, the master surpassed by his student, tries things out and loves it, after a few years of not having a linux desktop. Maybe there’s a renewed hope for him.

Go figure.