Photos Of This Morning’s Lunar Eclipse

I got up way too early this morning, so I could witness the total eclipse of the moon. Despite my not-yet-caffeinated state, I managed to capture a few photos of the event to share with you.

In the first photo, taken at 6:48 Arizona time, the sky is still dark and the moon is about 40 percent eclipsed.

In the next photo, taken 25 minutes later at 7:13 the sky is already getting light and  Earth’s shadow is covering about 75 percent of the visible lunar surface.

In this last photo, taken only five minutes later at 7:18, coverage is almost full at about 90 percent.

Had I had a vantage point with an unobstructed view of the horizon, I’d have been able to see both the totally eclipsed moon to the west and the fully risen sun to the east a few minutes later.

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Cool Holiday Music!

I’ve always loved Christmas music. Not just the traditional tunes, but also (especially?) the offbeat and non-mainstream variety. One of my favorite online radio sites, SomaFM, has a couple of fantastic holiday music channels this year.

SomaFM Christmas Lounge: Chilled holiday grooves and classic winter lounge tracks. Work, Kid and Parent safe!

SomaFM Xmas in Frisko: Irreverent, wacky and eclectic holiday mix. Not for the easily offended and often NSFW.

If you have any favorite streaming holiday music sites, please share them below in the comments.

Invisible Shoes: Minimalist Footwear Review And Comparison

Invisible Shoes vs. Vibram FiveFingers

When I first tried Vibram FiveFingers shoes a few years ago, I really liked them. They soon became my everyday shoes – at least when I’m not barefoot. One big drawback they have, especially in the summer, is the fact that they hug your foot like a glove. Despite the thin top and side fabric, they don’t breathe very well, and my feet get hot and sweaty. Maybe not so much compared to regular shoes, but for someone who prefers nothing, the Vibrams, while providing the barefoot ergonomics, still feel like wearing shoes.

I thought I would see what I could find that was open like a sandal while keeping a barefoot feel. I looked at the Teva Zilch, but I didn’t like the big toe loop nor the cross strap over the little toe.

Eureka!

Then I discovered Invisible Shoes. They are basically just a piece of sole material and a string to hold it onto your foot. Invisible Shoes are as close as you can get to barefoot while still offering the bottoms of your feet a bit of protection. My feet stay cooler and drier. No more white stripes from sandal straps or white toes from FiveFingers to mar my all-over tan. They also go great with my usual wardrobe, or, shall I say, my lack thereof.

Invisible Shoe

Okay, so I like the look and feel. How about the actual wearing? Well, once I got them tied right, which takes a bit of patience and careful following of directions, I took a test-walk.

Walk, Don’t Run

I should probably mention right here that I am not a runner. Minimalist footwear has created quite a stir in the running community, but it’s my opinion that going barefoot, or as close as possible, is best for everyone no matter their level of activity. While I can’t remember the last time I ran that I wasn’t being chased, I usually walk a mile or more each day. Most of that is on rocky desert terrain.

Been There, Done That

Since these are not my first minimalist footwear, and since much has already been written elsewhere about the advantages of barefoot walking and running, as well as transitioning to minimalist shoes, I’ll be noting what I have observed to be unique about the Invisible Shoes as well as how they compare, in my opinion, with the Vibram FiveFingers Classic for a walker and hiker.

Breaking The Habit

The first thing I had to learn to do was stop clenching my toes. Having worn flip-flops for years, the sensation of the lace between my toes make me reflexively clench, as is necessary with thong footwear to hold on to them. With the Invisible Shoe, however, this is not necessary, as the lace also goes around the back of the foot. They aren’t going  anywhere no matter how swiftly or vigorously I move my feet. Once I broke myself of the toe-clenching and let my foot relax, the walking was great.

Feel The Earth And Air

They felt comfortable and secure over most terrain. The open design means that the rare tiny pebble might get between the shoe and the sole of the foot, but is easily dislodged, usually by simply shaking the foot. I found the complete lack of anything, save for the thin lace, on top of my foot to result in a wonderfully free feeling. On most surfaces the tactile feedback was very similar to the Vibrams. The Invisible Shoes come in different sole thicknesses; I chose the thinnest, 4mm, which is, incidentally, the same thickness as the FiveFingers Classic soles. The Invisible Shoes are actually more flexible, however, as the result of two significant differences. First of all, the 4mm thickness includes the raised tread pattern, so the flexibility is actually equal to a 3mm sole. In spite of their razor-siped soles, the Vibrams retain the stiffer feel of their 4mm thickness. Also, the Invisible Shoes are essentially flat, while the Vibrams have raised edges, especially at the heel, toes, and balls of the feet, further reducing flexibility.

Bottoms Up!

While the Vibrams, with their mostly smooth soles, offer ever-so-slightly better feeling of tiny terrain details, it doesn’t make much noticeable difference in actual use. Possibly more significant is the lack of sides on the Invisible Shoes. This allows for better feeling near the edges of the foot. While I’d already learned the importance of careful foot placement wearing the FiveFingers, I found that with the Invisible Shoes I had to be even more careful because of the more flexible soles and unprotected sides and toes. Still, it becomes second nature and is mostly a subconscious attention that causes little distraction.

Nothing’s Perfect

If I had to find a fault with the Invisible Shoes, it would be that they are probably not well suited for especially steep terrain or climbing. They offer plenty of traction for normal walking and running, but they just don’t feel especially secure in situations involving extreme lateral forces.

Conclusion

I think I’ve found my new favorite footwear. I won’t be getting rid of my FiveFingers — they still have the edge for cold weather and steep terrain. Overall, though, I’ve found the Invisible Shoes to be closer to my ideal of being barefoot, and about as minimalist as a shoe can get. They never stink and are easy to keep clean. They are thin and light, making them easy to carry and store. Invisible Shoes are inexpensive at under $30 for a pair (even free, if you’re handy and resourceful – DIY instructions are on their website).

Do you have experience with minimalist footwear? Have questions about mine? Comments are open!

Exploring RV Living – That’s Entertainment!

(This post is part of a series. If you’re new to my blog or this is the first you’ve seen of this series, you might look at the introduction first.)

I’ll be mostly talking about in-home entertainment, and the options that exist for occupants of RVs and other small dwellings.  For outside-the-home entertainment, the options are the same as anybody else has, and depends on where you live and what is available. Living in an RV can arguably add to the options, though, because you can easily move your house to be near the entertainment.

Reading

The book is the original portable entertainment system. It’s compact, goes anywhere, uses no energy, and requires nothing more than enough light to read by. Its biggest drawback for RV living is size and weight. While a single book isn’t especially big nor especially heavy, things can quickly get out of control if you are an avid reader. Unlike a regular house, an RV doesn’t have enough space for a very big library so you will be limited in the number of books you can carry on board.

In And Out

You’ll have to decide how many books you can comfortably carry, and stick to a strict “one in, one out” plan. Each time you get a new book, you must gift or donate one. Friends, neighbors, and fellow campers might enjoy reading some of the books you are finished with. Some RV parks and campgrounds have informal exchange libraries where you can leave some extras and maybe find something new, too.  If you want to make a fun game out of giving away extra books, try Book Crossing.

Library

If you plan to stay long enough in one spot, find the local public library and see if you can get a library card, or if they will honor the card from your hometown. Even if you can’t do either, you can always sit and read right there in the library. Many libraries also lend CDs and DVDs – great for music and movie lovers.

E-Books

Some consider e-books to be the future of publishing. While blog readers are certainly familiar with self-published e-books written by bloggers and other independent authors, most mainstream “big-name” authors and publishers offer their works electronically, too. Amazon recently announced that e-books are outselling physical books on their site. E-books are ideal for RVers with space at a premium since they take up no physical space at all. Some people like to use an e-reader to mimic the ergonomics of reading a traditional book, but that’s not necessary. You can read e-books on many devices now, including whatever you are using to read this blog.

Music

Music was one of the earliest entertainment media to go digital. This is wonderful for the music lover and collector who wants to live small and portably. What would have once been a room-sized library of LPs, or a full-length bookcase full of CDs, now fits in the palm of your hand.  Your existing media can be “ripped” to digital files, and in the future you need never visit a record store again (if you can find one – I actually liked going to the record store back in the day). As long as you have internet access, you can get all your music digitally, either buying and downloading files or merely streaming the music.

Movies And More

Movies and other video content can also be digitized and stored on a hard drive, but there are potential legal issues. While many people rip their own DVDs that they have purchased, the DMCA has technically made that illegal. In spite of “fair use” allowances, the law is worded such that merely breaking the encryption on a DVD (necessary to copy it) is illegal, even if copying it would otherwise be permissible for personal use. My advice, and it’s worth what you’re paying for it, is to let your conscience be your guide. In reality, I doubt anybody is going to come beating down your door because you ripped your DVD to watch on your computer or streaming media server. They are interested in people pirating and distributing copyrighted material – not the average user doing format conversion for his or her own convenience.

That said, you can still easily store quite a large movie library on DVD or Blue-Ray discs in a small space if you are willing to give up the inefficient packaging they come in. One of the large binder-style disc albums, about a foot square and six inches thick, will hold 300 or more discs and can easily be tucked away in a corner somewhere.

Of course if you have fast internet, you can always download or stream movies and TV shows. If you are staying in one place long enough, you can do rent-by-mail, and if you are close enough to civilization, you can do Redbox or a video store (are they still around?) for rentals.

Making Music

Do you play an instrument? That’s a great way to entertain yourself as well as neighbors and friends. You might have to think a bit outside the box, and not all instruments are RV-friendly. You won’t likely be carrying a piano or organ, but a portable electronic keyboard instrument, why not? Guitars, violins, and similar stringed acoustic instruments as well as most brass and woodwinds are small and easy enough to carry on board, and, as a bonus, need no power to play. How about a harmonica? an accordion? Maybe you like to sing. Many DVD players will play karaoke discs – no special machine needed. Or, if you’re really good, you could sing a capella.

I’m sure I’ve just scratched the surface, but as you can see, there’s no want for entertainment when living in an RV. Feel free to share your own experience and ideas in the comments.

Simplifying Email Saves Time

It is amazing how much time email can take up. I recently made some changes in the way I work with email and it really surprised me how much time it saves me each day. There are a number of ways you can streamline your email process.

Reduce Volume

The first step should be reducing the volume of incoming mail. Unsubscribe from mailing lists you’ve lost interest in (don’t forget Yahoo, Google, and similar “Groups”). Same thing with Usenet Newsgroups. Are you getting unwanted mail from e-commerce sites? If it is a site you do business with, log on to your account with them and check your communication options. Many have an option to only send you mail regarding actual orders (status, shipping notices, etc.) but no marketing mail. If it’s a site you don’t do business with, but is a reputable site, follow the unsubscribe instructions they give at the bottom of each email. If all else fails, blacklist the sender via your spam or other blocking filter.

Fewer Accounts

Many of us have multiple email accounts. One for business, one for e-commerce, one for family and friends and even one for blogging. If you have to go to different websites or use different programs to check each one, a lot of time is wasted logging in and out checking each one. Multiply that by how many times each day you make the rounds of all your email accounts. If you don’t really need that many, you might be able to drop one or more of them. If possible, migrate all your correspondence to one email address. If you can’t do that, then you should try to get all your email in one inbox. There are a few ways to accomplish this.

Forward

One way would be to set up all but your favorite account to forward your mail to the favorite one, or perhaps a new one you create for just this purpose. This also works as a great first step toward  reducing the number of email accounts you maintain. The downside of this method is that you will be handling all mail through a single account, and all your replies will come from the account you are using. This may confuse some recipients. You can mitigate this confusion by placing a note in your signature line explaining what you are doing and suggesting that everyone please start using your preferred address.

Fetch

Some email providers will retrieve your mail from other accounts, allowing you to manage all your mail in one place.  This gets all your mail into one inbox, while allowing each email address to keep its own identity. This is one option if you plan to keep separate email accounts for different functions.

Use A Local Email Client

Back in “The Old Days” everyone used a local program to manage their email. While many people still use an email client, especially with ISP or workplace provided email accounts, web-based email has become much more common, especially among the free email providers. The advantages to the user are virtually no setup, ease-of-use, and the ability to do mail anywhere, on any device with a web browser. The advantages to the provider are a drastic reduction in need for tech support as well as the ability to tightly control the user experience (read “advertise”).

There’s A Better Way

If you are willing to make a one-time investment in time and effort, and possibly enlist the help of a techie friend if you are not so inclined, then you can set up an email client. Using an email client will do several things for you. It will allow you to collect all your email in one place, with a single look and feel. No more bouncing around to different websites and systems. It will give you an ad-free email experience. No more distracting links to your email provider’s other properties, nor ads for products and services you don’t want and don’t need. It will give you total control over your email experience. Size and place windows so they are easier for you to work with. Manage all your contacts in one place, and share them among all your email accounts. Share email easily among accounts, too, even replying and forwarding across account borders.

Time-saving Features

Better filters with more sophisticated rules. Spam protection, blacklisting, and whitelisting to remove distractions from unwanted mail. Download mail in the background so you don’t waste time waiting for each email to load. Specify whether or not to display embedded images. Download all your mail and work offline – great for slower connections and dialup (free up your line for calls while you’re reading and answering email) , as well as for working on the go when there’s no WiFi or 3G connection.

More Time-saving Tips

Receiving and displaying your email as efficiently as possible speeds up email handling tremendously. Streamlining the way you work with email helps, too.

FIFO Handling

Once you’ve got all of your email coming in to a single in-box, you can deal with it in a linear, first-in, first-out fashion. Open the first piece of new mail. Deal with it right now. If an action is required, like a reply, do it immediately. Once you are done, but not before, move on to the next piece of mail. Doing this helps you fully focus on each piece of mail. Unimportant items are quickly discarded. Important items receive your undivided attention and are promptly handled.

Avoid Procrastination Enablers

I used to like to sort my email into different folders based on mailing list, sender, and other criteria. I had filters set up to do the sorting automatically. I was pretty proud of myself, thinking how efficient I was. In reality, I’d just been making it easier to procrastinate. Sure, it all looked organized, but I wasn’t reading and replying in a timely manner. The folders gave the illusion of having done something, and enabled me to empty the in-box faster, but left lots of unread mail. Experience has taught me that the best plan is as I described, handling all mail in the order it is received. No flagging, filing, or other procrastinating. If I don’t deal with it now, chances are it will sit until It ends up being too old to matter and gets deleted.

Your Ideas?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions on handling email in a simple and efficient manner. Comments are open!

Exploring RV Living – Staying Connected

(This post is part of a series. If you’re new to my blog or this is the first you’ve seen of this series, you might look at the introduction first.)

As humans, most of us are social creatures by nature. We also need to stay on top of business communications, both personal and professional. While it remains a challenge to live a location-independent lifestyle, recent advances in technology have made it much less so, at least when it comes to communication.

Trip Down Memory Lane

Thirty years ago, mobile phones were an expensive toy for those who could afford it, or couldn’t afford to be without, and the internet was just getting its start. Twenty years ago, mobile phones were starting to be almost affordable for average people, and the internet was becoming popular with 56k dialup modems. Mobile internet was possible, but excruciatingly slow and prohibitively expensive.  Ten years ago, WiFi became popular, and cell-based mobile internet was just beginning to become faster and more affordable. Today, almost everybody has a cellphone, and wireless internet, while still slower and more expensive than wired, is affordable and tolerably fast.

Cutting The Cord

My cellphone is my only phone, and it was my only phone even when I lived in a regular house. It just made sense to me. For about the same price as a wired phone, which only works in my house, I can have a wireless phone, which works in my house as well as almost everywhere else. To me it was a no-brainer.  When I was ready to move from house to RV, the telephone was a non-issue, since I’d already made the transition to wireless.

Internet Options

There are a number of options for internet access. If internet isn’t a part of your daily routine, or you expect to only stay where there is WiFi available or nearby, then that’s a great option, and inexpensive or even free. Some people go with satellite. It gives decent speeds, and will work anywhere you have a view of the southern sky.  It is also expensive, both for the hardware and the monthly service. Setup and aiming of the dish can be finicky, but systems are made that automatically track the birds, even while in motion — for a price. Some people use cell-based internet by tethering their phone to their computer, or they use a dedicated device.

What I Use

For me, cellular was the best balance between cost and usability.  I have a cellular modem and router that gives me ethernet and WiFi connectivity whenever I’m within range of a cellphone tower. I have an outdoor high gain antenna and an amplifier to stretch that range and make sure I have the fastest connection possible (speed is directly related to signal strength). Speeds can range from slow-as-dialup in rural areas, to a respectable, if not blazing, one or two megabits per second.

Hello Radio!

The cellular system does a good enough job with phone and internet, but sometimes it goes down, and there are also plenty of places with poor or no coverage. That’s when amateur radio becomes more than a hobby. It becomes my only communication link. HF (shortwave) bands offer the ability to communicate with stations all over the country and even around the world. It offers true point-to-point communication that doesn’t rely on cellphone towers nor other infrastructure. One of the earliest uses of radio was to maintain contact with ships at sea, and it still serves that function today. There are also groups of RVing hams who keep in touch daily not only to keep track of friends’ travels, but also as a means of checking welfare and relaying messages when necessary. Formal message handling isn’t as common as it once was, but it is indispensable as a means of getting an important message to or from a traveler who is out of range of other communication methods. Ham radio also gives me the security of knowing if there was ever an emergency, be it on the road or at a remote campsite, I would be able to summon help. Amateur radio can even be used to send and receive email.

Neither Rain Nor Snow…

What about the mail? Even with email and the internet, and despite the decline in use of postal mail, there’s still a need for snail mail. But how? There are a number of options. If you tend to stay mostly in one general area, or frequently return to a particular town, you could get a post office box. While the US Postal Service offers the best rates, a third-party mailbox store offers the ability to receive packages from any carrier as well as an actual street address.

Follow Me

If you expect to be roaming far and wide, with no plans to regularly return to any “home” location, you’ll need your mail forwarded. You could get a trusted friend or family member to do it for you. This probably offers the best flexibility. They would be able to recognize potentially important mail and alert you to its presence. They could recognize and discard junk mail. If they follow your travels and know your habits, they’d be better equipped to anticipate your needs than a stranger at a commercial establishment.

There are a number of mail forwarding businesses that can do this for you. They will receive and save your mail for you, and, on your request, will send it on to the address of your choice — often General Delivery in the town you are staying in. These companies specialize in mail forwarding and offer many services (sometimes at an extra charge). You can call them and ask them to tell you what mail you have waiting, or look for a particular piece you may be waiting for. Some will even open and read you your mail to you at your request.

Mail-To-Email

There is a variation on the mail forwarding service. These services open all of your mail, scan it, and email you the scanned images. You can then instruct them, on a piece by piece basis, to shred, save, or forward the original.  There are varying options you can specify as to default actions for different types of mail, and pricing varies with features offered and options selected. This is a good plan for someone who has good internet or email access, wants the ability to read their mail as quickly as possible, and isn’t bothered by the thought that somebody else is opening and handling their mail.

Reduction Strategies

Along with forwarding, you’ll want to practice mail reduction, too, to save on the cost and frequency of re-mailing.  In fact, everyone should seek to reduce their paper mail to the absolute minimum as that will help reduce your ecological footprint. Cancel any catalogs and junk mail that you can. Even if you like reading catalogs, you can do that online. If you subscribe to any magazines, see if they are available on the web (sometimes as a PDF-like electronic version that attempts to mimic the print edition). Check with creditors and service providers to see if they offer electronic billing (online or email) — most do. You can even take that to the next step and do electronic bill pay to save yourself a stamp, a check, and a trip to the post office. You can even have predictable recurring bills paid automatically so you don’t have to worry about forgetting them.

As you can see, even though the government and many businesses would prefer you to have a fixed address so they know how to find you, it isn’t too hard to meet all your communication needs while maintaining freedom from location.

Your Turn!

Please feel free to ask questions or share your experience in the comments.

Why Do We Encourage Breeding?

This has been a long-standing pet peeve of mine, along with disproportionate emphasis on families (as opposed to individuals, people, humans, citizens), particularly by government and politicians.

Don’t Hate Me Now

I suppose I should start with a disclaimer,  lest I be thought of as some evil child-hater or something. I don’t hate children. I often like them, in fact. Of course that’s irrelevant because like them or not, if people stopped having children, it would mean the end of the human race. Nor do I hate parents. While I can’t understand what motivates some to want to have five, ten, twenty, or more children, I think everybody should have the right to raise children if they so chose, provided they are physically, emotionally, and financially up to the task.

Once Upon A Time

What I object to, however, is the encouragement we give, as a society, to reproduction. There might have been a time in history when it made some sort of sense to attempt to “go forth and multiply,” making as many of “your own kind” as possible to populate the earth. That’s probably why governments and religions alike originally got into the business of encouraging  breeding as well as frowning upon recreational and other non-procreative sex.

Biological Programming, Or Social Conditioning?

Now, however, we have plenty of humans on this planet. Some might say we are on the way to having too many, or are even there already. All the while, the world’s population continues to grow at an exponential rate. Yet we’ve been socially conditioned to ooh and ahh and coo and congratulate people for simply doing what most humans have been biologically programmed to do. Those of us with different programming and those who intentionally don’t have or don’t want children are looked upon like there is something wrong or we are somehow shirking our duty as humans.

Governmental Encouragement

While some governments actually attempt to control the birthrate by limiting their citizens’ reproductive rights, we here in the US do the absolute opposite. We offer financial incentives for breeding, in the form of tax deductions. We all subsidize babysitting (“child care”), education, and medical care for children.We have laws that favor breeding (or even just potentially breeding) families over single individuals or non-traditional family units. We even have laws that attempt to limit birth control, making it more difficult for responsible citizens to plan if, when, and how many children they’d like to have. Perhaps it is time for the human race to start practicing minimalism with regard to reproductive habits.

Am I Alone?

Am I the only one who thinks this way? Or am I just the only one willing to actually say so? With all the financial difficulties our government has, why has nobody suggested eliminating all child-related tax deductions? How much money would that save? Are they afraid that people only have kids for the tax write-off, and once we stop subsidizing breeding, nobody will want to anymore? Should I start looking over my shoulder from now on because I’ve spoken out against America’s sacred cow of incentivized breeding?

What’s Your Take?

Where do you stand on this issue? Should government stop rewarding people just for proving their fertility? Should we encourage responsible parenthood and smaller families? What would you do if you got to make the rules?