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Author: Dave Nelson

2021 iPad Pro

I found myself using my 1st generation iPod Pro 12.9” from 2015 and 5th generation iPad from 2017 a lot and decided it was about time to upgrade.

I am using the iPad for:

  • Read books from Amazon using the Kindle app and technical books with the O’Reilly app
  • Write notes and manage tasks with Obsidian
  • Read comic books with ComiXology, the Marvel app, YAC Reader, and Smart Comics
  • Web Surfing with Chrome
  • Email with Fastmail
  • Reading Reddit
  • Watching videos using various streaming services
  • A game here and there, primarily Pinball, Chess, Solitaire, and Soduku
  • And other Internet “stuff”

None of these require a “Pro” iPad, but I have learned from my experience with the 1st generation iPad Pro that in an Apple product, a Pro device will be useful longer than the non-Pro version. We go through an iPad about every 2 years with our son, he doesn’t abuse them, but they get used 18 hours or so a day which really stresses out the battery causing it to begin to fail after about 2 years.

I’m not sure that the battery in the Pro devices is any better than those in the non-pro devices and I don’t use my iPads as much as Eli but I do no the 6-year old iPad Pro is still running strong where the 4 year old iPad only works for a couple of hours before needing charged.

Here are the other features that made me want the Pro over the non-Pro iPad:

  • Better screen
  • Better sound
  • USB-C charging and accessories
  • M1 processor which will hopefully mean that its usefulness will be 5 or more years
  • A good keyboard so it can be used to easily take notes

I picked the 11-inch iPad Pro over the 12.9-inch due to weight and bulkiness. The larger one is amazing for reading comics and watching movies, but the extra bulk and weight make it harder to use. I really like the idea of the larger screen, but I spend a lot of time holding the iPad and taking it from room-to-room, and the increased weight and bulkiness is enough to cause me to leave it behind. With the smaller one I find myself taking it everywhere.

Combined with a keybooard it is delivering on the promise of a lightweight portable with long battery life that NetBooks and the MacBook Air made, although it feels like it weighs more than the MacBook Air.

I’ve had the 2021 11-inch iPad Pro for a couple of weeks now and absolutely love it. With the right software and keyboard it is an amazing productivity and entertainment tool.

ComputersHappy

VCV Rack 2 and The Signal State

Eurorack Modular Synthesizer

What is a Modular Synth

From Thomann.de:

Simply put, a modular synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument that consists of a multitude of different components (modules) that are used and combined to create electronic sounds. The individual modules are connected via cables (patch cables), switches, sliders and patch panels. In this way, a large number of connection options and permutations are possible. It is important to know that the parameters of analog synthesizer modules can be controlled by Control Voltage (CV).

Modular Synthesizers are EXPENSIVE! Like $1,300 for a very modest system. You can start with a Behringer Neutron for $330 or so and another $100 for a MIDI controller to play it, but I think you’ll quickly want many more modules which add up quick, in fact the case and power supply you’ll want to use will cost more than the Neutron.

ModularGrid

ModularGrid is a database and planner for modular synthesizers”

ModularGrid is a great site to build up a synth before you start buying things, it will quickly show you how easy it is to spend $4,000 or more for a modular synth.

Another problem for me was the lack of availability in the Atlanta area for any modular synthesizer equipment. Some of that is due to supply chain, but there are no music stores with a synthesizer department. And the online options are sparse at the moment, even the DIY kits that are available are few and far between.

Then I found VCV Rack 2 and a game on Steam called The Signal State and a whole new world opened up to me!

VCV Rack 2

VCV Rack 2 ScreenshotVCV Rack 2 is a free standalone modular synth application for Mac and Windows with a lot of available modules! As I am writing this there are 1,950 FREE modules and another 311 premium modules you can buy.

For $149 you can buy VCV Rack Pro and get a VST plugin that you can use in your Digital Audio Workflow (DAW), what makes this special is that you can use any modules in VCV Rack as effects, that means you can do things like use Valley’s Plateau reverb module on your tacks.

Omri Cohen has videos on YouTube to walk you through using VCV Rack including how to use it with Ableton, Reaper, and Bitwig.

The Signal State

The Signal State game screenshot

Set in a post-apocalyptic future, The Signal State puts your logic skills to the test with complex puzzles inspired by modular synthesizers. Repair machines, rebuild an abandoned farm, and be part of a revolution that will change the fate of agriculture once and for all.

Learning how the different modules in a synth work is a large part of the fun, but starting from nothing can be really hard. The Signal State game will teach how all of the basic and some of the advanced modules work and ways you may use them. It rewards you for creating the most efficient system to complete the puzzle.

I’m having a lot of fun learning about synthesis and how to use modular synthesizers to create cool sounds and music.

Music

The Roach by Rhett C. Bruno

The Roach is another superhero story by Rhett C. Bruno and I really like this one.

The Roach is a likable character with all kinds of flaws and the characters around him are interesting and add a lot to the story.

Publisher’s Summary

A string of killings. An identity stolen. Only he can find the truth.
Reese Roberts was the guardian of Iron City. Its fearless protector. The only one willing to do whatever it takes…until he was shot on the streets and left paralyzed from the waist down. Now, the vigilante known as the Roach has disappeared. Faded into legend. 
It’s been years since Reese could take on crime and clean up the streets. He’s a shriveled old drunk, living like a hermit and waiting for his life to end. All that’s left to do is wallow in the mistakes that led him here. To wonder if he went too far. 
But when a copycat steals his suit and takes justice into his own hands, a new killer emerges, leaving brutal messages behind. He wants to eliminate the Roach for good this time. 
It’s time for Reese to re-emerge from his shell and fight back. Who else can stop the flurry of killings? Definitely not the corrupt police department. Iron City needs the Roach again. Only, this time, he’ll need to save it without his legs.

©2020 Aethon Books (P)2020 Podium Audio

I rate The Roach an 8 out 10 and recommend it to anyone looking for a good superhero story.

AudioBooksFiction

Baron Steele by Rhett C. Bruno and Jaime Castle

Baron Steele is a very short listen at 47 minutes and I believe it is an introduction to the Raptors series of books.

I didn’t especially like the book and probably wont be listening to the Raptors series anytime soon. The humor just didn’t work for me.

About This Audible Original

Paul Steele, known to the world as Baron Steele, isn’t your average masked crimefighter. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t even wear a mask. And he doesn’t even fight crime anymore. That’s for the guys with too much brawn and not enough brain.
No, Steele works in consulting. After having his license revoked by the Guild of Masked Crimefighters, he decided he would scout talent instead. Match up heroes with their villainous counterparts, help the young bucks and buckettes discover their talents and abilities. That sort of thing.
It’s all going fine and well until Steele gets a bad cup of coffee. No. Seriously. Day after day, the same little twerp gets his order wrong. From there, it’s a downhill spiral into chaos, and Steele finds himself fighting for his freedom in a court of law. Did he really kill a barista over a cup of joe?
Don’t miss this hilarious spin on the superhero genre from the number one Audible best-selling duo of Rhett C. Bruno and Jaime Castle.
©2020 Aethon Books (P)2020 Aethon Books

I rate Baron Steele a 4 out 10 and don’t recommend it.

AudioBooksFiction

Operation Brushfire by Rhett C. Bruno and James Wolanyk

Operation Brushfire Cover ImageOperation Brushfire is a solid mystery novel and Lou Diamond Phillips does a good job bringing it to life.

Publisher’s Summary

He’ll do anything for the truth. They’ll do anything to bury it.

Henry Stasik, an Internal Affairs agent for the globe-spanning Coalition, is no stranger to crooked agents or scandals. He’s a truth-junkie. An addict. But when international celebrity Anastasia Danicheva specifically demands his presence at a police station, everything changes. The Coalition, which has brought peace through uniting the world under a single banner, wants her dead. But none of their case against her adds up.

Stasik can’t help but need to know why.

Hours after taking her under his department’s protection, a cybernetically enhanced hitman nips at Stasik’s heels. Witnesses disappear or turn up in pools of blood. And lurking above it all, guarded by a genocidal AI construct, is a secret that threatens to dismantle a perfect world and–Stasik himself.

Man in the High Castle meets Blade Runner with a dash of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in this breakneck sci-fi spy thriller set in a drug-fueled alternate history from the number one Audible best-selling author of Titanborn, Rhett C. Bruno, and James Wolanyk. Performed by award-winning actor Lou Diamond Phillips, star of Prodigal Son, Young Guns, and La Bamba.

©2021 Rhett C. Bruno, James Wolanyk (P)2021 Podium Audio

I rate Operation Brushfire a 6 out of 10, meh.

AudioBooksFiction

One Good Dragon Deserves Another: Heartstrikers, Book 2 by Rachel Aaron

Another Heartstrikers dragon book by Rachel Aaron, who’d a thunk?

I’m working my way through the series and have to say that I am enjoying them. They are not great and amazing works of art, but they are good solid modern fantasy and I look forward to more of them.

Publisher’s Summary

After barely escaping the machinations of his terrifying mother, two all-knowing seers, and countless bloodthirsty siblings, the last thing Julius wants to see is another dragon. Unfortunately for him, the only thing more dangerous than being a useless Heartstriker is being a useful one. Now that he’s got an in with the Three Sisters, Julius has become a key pawn in Bethesda the Heartstriker’s gamble to put her clan on top. Refusal to play along with his mother’s plans means death, but there’s more going on than even Bethesda knows. Heartstriker futures are disappearing, and Algonquin’s dragon hunter is closing in. Now, with his most powerful family members dropping like flies, it’s up to Julius to save the family that never respected him and prove once and for all that the world’s worst dragon is the very best one to have on your side.

©2015 Rachel Aaron (P)2015 Audible, Inc.

I rate One Good Dragon Deserves Another 8 out of 10 and recommend it to anyone who is looking for modern fantasy with dragons.

AudioBooksFiction

The Werewolf’s 15 Minutes by Jonathan Maberry

The Werewolf's 15 MinutesI bought The Werewolf’s 15 Minutes from Audible and listened to it using the Audible app.

Good contemporary werewolf stories are hard to find, but I think this is one of them. It’s a modern day take on what could happen when a YouTube generation kid decides to go public about his lycanthropy.

At only 1 hour and 42 minutes in length it is short but tells an engaging story that I enjoyed.

From the publisher:

Gary Bruce is a slacker of epic loserness. Can’t keep a job. His friends are as bad as he is. No girlfriend. No direction.

Gary Bruce is also a werewolf.

Desperate for any kind of success, Gary decides to out himself on YouTube. The moment this ordinary guy goes full-on fur, fangs, and claws, the world can’t get enough of him. He’s the biggest thing on social media, he’s on every talk show, book and movie deals fall in his lap, and for the first time in his life he gets invited to all the best parties.

But celebrity is a special kind of voracious monster. And when Gary’s star begins to lose its luster, he has to decide how far he’ll go to stay relevant in a world that discards has-beens in favor of the next big thing.

Fortunately, Gary has a plan….

The Werewolf’s 15 Minutes is a brand-new short story by New York Times best-seller and five-time Bram Stoker Award winner Jonathan Maberry, author of Bewilderness and V-Wars (Netflix).

©2021 Jonathan Maberry Productions, LLC (P)2021 Audible Originals, LLC.

I enjoyed The Werewolf’s 15 Minutes and rate it an 8 out of 10.

AudioBooksFiction

Nice Dragons Finish Last by Rachel Aaron

Nice Dragons Finish Last

I got Nice Dragons Finish Last from Audible and listened using the Audible App.

It is not as fantastical as the Detroit Free Zone books and not as much humor, but still a good story and great narration by Vikas Adam.

From the publisher:

As the smallest dragon in the Heartstriker clan, Julius survives by a simple code: keep quiet, don’t cause trouble, and stay out of the way of bigger dragons. But this meek behavior doesn’t fly in a family of ambitious magical predators, and his mother, Bethesda the Heartstriker, has finally reached the end of her patience. Now, sealed in human form and banished to the DFZ – a vertical metropolis built on the ruins of Old Detroit – Julius has one month to prove he can be a ruthless dragon or kiss his true shape goodbye forever. But in a city of modern mages and vengeful spirits where dragons are considered monsters to be exterminated, he’s going to need some serious help to survive this test. He only hopes humans are more trustworthy than dragons….

©2014 Rachel Aaron (P)2014 Audible Inc.

I rate Nice Dragons Finish Last a 7 out of 10 and look forward to listening to more stories of the Heartstrikers clan.

AudioBooksFiction

The Movie Going Experience in 2021

I went to 2 movies this week at a local AMC Theatre, the first one in a standard theater and the second in IMAX. The theater is understaffed and the employees appear to be undertrained and unmanaged.

Unlike many newer theaters the first movie uncomfortable seats that did not recline and were in a very upright position that I found uncomfortable. The sound was mediocre and the picture was small. I don’t understand why the picture was so small, there was a lot more screen available, but the curtains were not pulled back and only three-quarters of the available screen was being used.

The second movie’s was much larger, being IMAX it should be. In this case the picture was too large, everything had the Screen Door Effect to a distracting degree. All of the text and where there was a hard line of strong contrast the ant-aliasing stair-stepping was extreme.

The audio before the movie began measured 82dB on my Apple watch, well into the “Loud” zone, it was uncomfortable enough that I had to put in my earbuds to block out some of it.

I won’t be going back to that theater. I may not be going back to any theater. With all of the streaming options and my home theater, the “Big Screen” doesn’t offer anything for me anymore.

MoviesSad

Lost Planet Homicide by Larry Correia

Lost Planet Homicide by Larry Correia

I bought Lost Planet Homicide from Audible and listened to it using the Audible app.

Larry Correia always gets my attention and Gun Runners has a good start with Lost Planet Homicide. His world building skills shine here with a gritty crime riddled world settled long ago by people hoping to live in paradise, instead they end up barely being able to survive on hostile world where the air will kill them.

I enjoyed the story and characters, but it is not in the same class as the Grimnoir Chronicles or Monster Hunter books, but it is a good book and I look forward to more.

From the publisher:

A lost colony planet, a perplexing murder, and a dogged homicide cop in this Audible Original story from best-selling author Larry Correia.

When the biggest colony ship in human history was sent to settle a paradise world, an accident hurtled it deep into uncharted space. A thousand light years from Earth, with no way home and no way to call for help, the colonists’ only hope for survival was the one barely habitable planet in range, a nightmare world they named Croatoan. Landing on the only five mountain peaks tall enough to rise above the lethal acid clouds, the settlers carved a civilization from the rock.

A hundred years later, Five Points has grown into a city of corruption and violence. With powerful corporations ruling the surface domes and criminal syndicates running the caverns below, murder is just the cost of doing business.

So when a Special Magistrate is found dissolving in a protein vat, it barely registers – until DCI Lutero Cade, the last honest cop in Five Points, catches the case. What he finds could threaten the colony’s very existence.
Or, at the very least, Cade himself.

©2021 Larry Correia (P)2021 Audible Originals, LLC.Z

I enjoyed Lost Planet Homicide and rate it a 6 out of 10.

AudioBooksFiction

Privateer Tales by Jamie McFarlane

Rookie PrivateerAfter reading Jamie McFarlane’s Junkyard Pirate series I went looking for more and found Rookie Privateer the first in his Privateer Tales series. Like the others, I read these on a Kindle Paperwhite.

I made it through the first 12 books in the series one after another during March, April, and May and stalled out on number 13. I plan on getting back into them later. Amazingly there are now 19 books in the series.

This series is pure space adventure following Nick, Liam, and Tabith from humble beginnings on a space station to traveling across the universe confronting hostile aliens and violent pirates.

I hihgly recommend the series to anyone who loves a good sci-fi adventure and rate it a 9 out of 10.

BooksFictionHappy

Ham Radio Morse Code Oscillators

4 oscillators
My 4 Oscillators

In my efforts to learn and use Morse Code I bought a straight key and an iambic paddle. The straight key is an MFJ-553 https://mfjenterprises.com/products/mfj-553 , in my opinion it’s an inexpensive choice without being “junk”, I doubt I will ever use it on the air. The iambic paddle I chose is an HA8KF magnetic paddle, unlike the MFJ key this one is a work of art and will be the key I use the most until something different comes along.

Oscillators like the ones below are used with keys to produce the sounds that we know as Morse Code, the keys only create electrical contacts and maybe some clicking sounds, the oscillators make the dits and dahs for you without using a radio. They are great for training and practice by yourself or with a group.

Oscillators for Straight Keys

NFARL Oscillator
North Fulton Amateur Radio League Morse Code Practice Kit

NFARL Morse Code Practice Oscillator – a very simple practice oscillator with a built-in touch module that acts as a straight key so you can practice without an external key. This oscillator is about as basic as an oscillator can be, it includes a mono input for a straight key, a buzzer for tone, and 2 CR2032 batteries which will power it for a very long time.

The best thing about the NFARL Morse Code Practice Oscillator is it is very easy to assemble and can be used without an external key so it makes a great “learn how to solder” project.


Nightfire Electronics CPO – it appears that the one I have is no longer sold, the version being sold now, “Rev C”, does not include a speaker. This another simple oscillator that uses a 9v battery for power and a 1.5” speaker for output.

For a simple oscillator I really like this one, once assembled and put into an Altoids tin it works great and is very loud.

Oscillators that Support Iambic


Hamgadgets Ultra PicoKeyer – the PicoKeyer is so much more than an oscillator or code practice tool. It comes in a great molded case with 3d-printed front and back panels, much nicer than putting it into an Altoids tin. You can listen to it through the built-in speaker or plug in an external speaker. It can even be plugged into a radio as a keyer. It includes a QSO counter for contesting… and so much more. As a beginner who doesn’t have all of the letters down I find changing the settings of the Ultra PicoKeyer challenging as it’s only method of telling you what setting you are changing is through Morse Code.

I really like all the features of the Ultra PicoKeyer and expect that I may find a use for them as I become more proficient in Morse Code.


QRPGuys Code Trainer – a very straight-forward code trainer oscillator with the added feature of “sending” practice codes. I haven’t used the sending feature yet as I am still learning the individual characters. I really like that all of the components are through-hole components that were easy to solder, it was a little more challenging than the NFARL CPO, but not much harder.

The QRPGuys Code Trainer is currently my favorite oscillator. When plugged into my paddles and external speakers it sounds great, much better than the other oscillators, and it is what I am using for Long Island CW Club classes on Zoom.

I think all of these oscillators are pretty great and that as I learn Morse Code and my skills improve, I will find uses for all of them. I am keeping an eye out for a Morserino-32, it seems like it is a great tool for learning Morse Code.

HamHam RadioHappy

Synology DiskStation DS1621+

My Drobo died…

<sigh>

I tried everything, replaced drives, cleaned it out, banged on it, everything I could think of and every idea I could find online. But it’s dead. It did last 7 years, but it sure feels like it should have lasted longer.

Drobo has not had any devices for sale for a long time now, and in fact they don’t even have anyone answering the phones anymore. So time to look for an alternative.

After a lot of research I narrowed my choices down to a Synology device and more research drove me to picking a DS1621+ for the following reasons.

  1. 6 Drive Bays
  2. 4 bondable Ethernet ports
  3. Up to 32 GB of RAM
  4. SSD Read and Write Caches
  5. The ability to run VMs and Docker containers

Coming from the 5-bay Drobo I was excited about having 6 bays, if I was buying it now I would have bought the 8-bay as it is not much more expensive. But 6 bays is pretty good and gives me plenty of space with Synology’s SHR single disk redundancy.

Bonding Ethernet ports can be a really big deal, it doesn’t make copying or writing any faster, but it allows multiple machines to be able to read and write to the NAS at faster speeds which in the real world can be a huge performance boost. If you have Plex running the performance can take a big hit with a single Ethernet connection and multiple devices watching movies and uploading/downloading files, but with 4 bonded ports the performance hit is noticeably less.

If your going to run Virtual Machines more RAM is always better and 32 GB is overkill for most home uses, but why not?

Having read and write caches can really boost the performance of a NAS, I saw that with the Drobo so I made sure to put them in my Synology. The only concern is the longevity of the cache drives, they have a limited lifespan with the number of writes, so in a high-use environment you may be better off without a write cache.

I want the flexibility to run a Windows Virtual Machine to reduce the number of physical machines I have in my office, but I am still reluctant to use a NAS for it. I am pretty old-school in the way I think about computers, I prefer my NAS just be Network Attached Storage and not a jack-of-all-trades with a lot of software running on it that could cause a problem later on, so I have yet to set any VMs up. But I might. One day. Maybe.

I am running Plex and it is working great, even better than when I had it running on an iMac. We have 3 TVs in the house and are regularly streaming from Plex to 2 of them at once with no problems.

I am also running Synology’s Photos app, it is kind of terrible, so I may remove it at some point.

It is not a quiet machine, especially once there are 6 Seagate IronWolf Pro hard drives in it. The machine sits in the corner of my office surrounded by sound proofing squares and I can still hear it whirring and clicking all day long. Its not really loud, but loud enough to be distracting.

Overall I am very happy with the Synology DS1621+ and after 3 months of using it I recommend you consider it as an alternative to a Drobo, QNAP, or building your own NAS.

P.S. A NAS is not a backup solution unless you have 2 of them backing up to each other. One is none, two is one, and three is adequate. You should always have at least 3 findable and proven good copies of any important data. At least one of them should be off-site at a location other than your home or business.

Computers

How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

I am getting organized, like in-general organized. I am creating to-do lists, setting goals, and closely tracking my progress. I am learning some new tools and working on building new habits and I am hoping that they will help facilitate some changes for the better.

I am starting with collecting all of the notes that I have scattered across many different hard drives and the Internet, so I thought learning how to take better notes would be a good idea.

I learned about the Hoe to Take Smart Notes book while learning how to use a note taking tool called Obsidian, many of the blog posts and videos I watched referred to it and made it sound like a great book.

I bought it from Amazon to read on the Kindle and read it in a day.

The title is “How to Take Smart Notes,” but I think it would have been better served with the title, “Why Take Smart Notes and How to Use Them.” Although it does cover the “How” of smart note taking, the majority of its pages are about the “Why.”

I found the why of it interesting, but very dry.

The references throughout the book may be the best thing about it, I highlighted and saved many quotes and references for future exploring, the bibliography is a great resource.

I plan on using what I learned and applying it to my daily note taking, task management, and other writing projects.

Form the author’s website:

This is the step-by-step guide on how to set up and understand the principle behind the note-taking system that enabled Luhmann to become one of the most productive and systematic scholars of all time. But most importantly, it enabled him to do it with ease. He famously said: “I never force myself to do anything I don’t feel like.” Luhmann’s system is often misunderstood and rarely well explained (especially in English). This book aims to make this powerful tool accessible to everyone with an interest in reading, thinking and writing. It is especially helpful for students and academics of the social sciences and humanities and nonfiction writers.

I rate How to Take Smart Notes a 6 out of 10 and recommend it to anyone looking to build a solid system of note taking, but be ready for the book to be a slog.

BooksNon-Fiction

Dice Throne

I discovered Dice Throne through their Marvel Kickstarter and after backing it decided to get the other Dice Throne games to go along with it.

The big pitch for Dice Throne and the mechanic that makes it a bit different from other games is that there are characters to play that are very simple and ones that are very complex with a nice mixture in between. Between Season One and Season Two there are 16 characters to choose from with a complexity rating between 1 and 6. But don’t be fooled, complexity does not translate to simple and hard to play, with some combinations of characters the simple characters are a lot harder to play well and win with than the more complex characters.

Most importantly, the gameplay is very well balanced as long as the players are equally good/bad at playing the game. Since it is a dice game with the Yahtzee mechanic of being able to re-roll your dice up to 3 times (unless something changes that) there is also a good amount of luck involved.

A 2 player game can take anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours depending upon the how fast the players make choices. Sadly, the base game does not include a solo game… but I got around that by playing a 2-handed solo game, which doesn’t work great, but it let me get an idea of what playing 2 of the characters is like.

Enter Dice Throne Adventures, it is a totally different game that allows for a solo or multi-player game where the Dice Thrown characters are used to battle bad guys, monsters, and bosses… but it is on back order and I have no idea when it will be delivered.

We’ve played a couple of games so far and I am really enjoying it and I am looking forward to playing all 16 of the characters.

I rate Season 1 and Season 2 of Dice Throne an 8 out of 10 and recommend it to anyone with access to at least one other person to play it with.

GamesHappy

Junkyard Pirate Books by Jamie McFarlane

Book Cover of Junkyard PirateAfter finishing the Nikki and Bob Series by Jerry Boyd I dug around in the Kindle Unlimited store and found the Junkyard Pirate Books by Jamie McFarlane.

The 3 books in the Junkyard Pirate series have a lot of tropes from other books I have read, but they definitely tell a different story. I enjoyed reading them enough that once I finished them, I moved right on to the Privateer series also written by Jamie McFarlane.

Overall, I rate the series a 9 out of 10 and recommend them to anyone looking for some fun sci-fi.

BooksFictionHappy

Surface Mount Soldering Kits

Evil Mad Scientist The 741SE Discrete 741 Op-Amp
Assemble and ready to go

In my previous post I wrote about the QRP-Labs QCX-mini amateur radio kit which only has through-the-hole components to be soldered by the enthusiast but had problems with some of the surface mounted op-amps and my desire to learn how to remove those surface mounted devices (SMD) and install new ones. To learn how to do that I bought a handful of kits to practice on.

First up is the Gikfun DIY SMD SMT Welding Practice Soldering Skill Training Board Ek7028 which was a pretty great kit to assemble, when finished it isn’t much to share as it just blinks some lights in the middle of the circuit board, but it comes with 124 LEDs, capacitors, and resistors and 2 ICs to solder to the board. I even practiced correcting “tombstoning” and removing then replacing components. The 1206 and 805 sized components were pretty easy, I did those with my Hakko 888 fine tipped soldering iron, but the 603 and 402 components I used the hot-air rework station.

The Gikfun kit was a challenge but it also gave me a lot of confidence to get the fancier SMD kits assembled.

I purchased 2 kits from Evil Mad Scientist, The 555SE Discrete 555 Timer and The 741SE Discrete 741 Op-Amp which when finished make great desk toys/conversation starters and can even be used to make working circuits.

I actually assembled the 555 Timer first, I followed the provided instructions by installing components as they were stored in their packaging a few at a time. I applied a dab of Chip Quik SMD291AX REWORK SOLDER PASTE 5CC 63/37 NO CLEAN SOLDER on each pad and then used the hot-air rework station to melt the solder. It worked really well and by the end of the kit I was full of confidence.

At the top of the page is the completed Op-Amp and below you can follow along with the steps I used to assemble it. Unlike with the 555 Timer I applied paste to the entire board by hand, a solder mask is not supplied with the kit.

solder paste on a circuit board
Solder Paste Applied

Then I placed each component. The solder paste did a decent job holding the components in place, I developed a rhythm of getting the component onto the board with a bit of it stuck in the paste then maneuvering it into its correct position followed by a tap on the top to set it down into the paste.

components in paste
Components in the Paste

And finally, I moved the hot-air rework station’s wand across the entire board moving quickly at first to warm up the entire board then more slowly and finally concentrating on each component until the solder flowed.

soldered components
Soldered Components

The finished kit puts a big smile on my face, I am very excited to do more SMD kits.

Soldered Components Close-Up
Soldered Components Close-Up

The only thing that bothers me about using the hot-air rework station and soldering paste is that the soldering paste has an expiration date. I have been told that it is good for about 6 months and if refrigerated can be used up to a year, but after that it doesn’t work as expected. I have solder wire that is 30 plus years old and works as well today as it did the day I bought, that won’t be the case with solder paste.

ElectronicsHappy

QRP Labs QCX-mini

QRP-Labs QCX-mini
Assembled QRP-Labs QCX-mini with dummy load and replacement op-amps.

The QCX-mini is a continuous wave (CW), think Morse Code, ham radio kit that transmits and receives on one band only at around 5 watts. I had been waiting for the release of the QCX-mini kits for a while and was able to order one as soon as it was released. I also bought the aluminum case and the 50-ohm dummy load.

The kit was pretty straight-forward to assemble, I am very proud of my soldering on this kit, it is the best I have ever done, but…

When I was done and went through the alignment process it didn’t work. I went off to the QCX forums to see what I could do. Turns out there is an issue with the pre-installed surface mount op-amps used in some of the early kits. The solution is to check the voltages of each op-amp, there are quite a few of them, and then replace the ones that aren’t working as designed. Also using an oscilloscope is recommended to collect more troubleshooting information.

I bought a 10 pack of op-amps directly from China on eBay, they arrived a lot faster than I expected.

I bought an inexpensive scope for Ali Express, the DSO FNIRSI-150 Digital Oscilloscope full assembled with P6020 BNC standard probe, along with an extra probe. I’ve turned it on but haven’t learned how to use it yet. I am hesitant to use the scope as some members of the forums have shorted out their radios breaking a lot of components in the process, the surface mount components are so small I can see myself doing that.

This also led me to buy a hot air rework station. After a lot of research I bought the Sparkfun Hot-Air Rework Station – 303D. I chose this unit because I trust Sparkfun and they stock replacement heating elements for it.

But I have never soldered surface mount components or used a hot-air rework station so I bought a handful of SMD kits to practice on, there will be blog posts in the future about those.

As of right now I have a non-working QCX-mini which I am pretty bummed about. QRP-Labs is in the process of making some design changes to the radio and my plan is to buy one of the new kits when they are available instead of trying to fix the one I have. Even though the radio doesn’t work I am not upset about it, I believe they are pushing limits and doing their best to create a great kit experience and a great radio for us.

I look forward to getting my hands on the next version of the QCX-mini and using it to make a lot of contacts with it.

ElectronicsHamHam Radio

Nikki and Bob Series by Jerry Boyd

After finishing all of the books Nathan Lowell has written so far I tried some books recommended by my Kindle, or more correctly “Advertised” on my Kindle, and what a total waste of time. I find it hard to describe just how BAD those books were. But then I found Bob’s Saucer Repair by Jerry Boyd.

There are currently 14 books in the series, I am on book 9 and reading through a book every other day or so. These stories are science-fiction light with lots of humor, a fast pace, not a lot of depth, and a ton of characters.

I highly recommend these books to anyone looking for some fun and light science fiction.

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Nathan Lowell, Author

I have now read every novel available from Nathan Lowell and I am eagerly awaiting more.

Nathan Lowell’s superpower is being able to write about “normal” people in a way that draws me in. Most of his characters are everyday people living ordinary lives, right up until they are not. Their motivations and desires are easy to understand and usually uncomplicated. But his stories are not straight-forward. They have twists and turns that keep me guessing and wanting more.

I plan on listening to the podcasts of his books, that will take some time as I have a lot of podcasts and audiobooks in my playlist to get through but am happy to have Nathan’s to add to the mix.

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The Wizard’s Butler by Nathan Lowell

Book Cover of The Wizard’s Butler by Nathan LowellMy favorite Nathan Lowell book yet! This is the first Nathan Lowell book set in modern time but is a fantasy novel through and through.

It took me a little longer to read this one than the others as I savored every bit of it. It does follow some tropes that I have seen and read before, mainly the “muggle surrounded by magic but is ok with it” one but done in a way that I found very engaging.

I really hope there are more in this series soon.

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Tanyth Fairport Adventures by Nathan Lowell

Book Cover of Ravenwood by Nathan LowellAnother series by Nathan Lowell, but instead of Science Fiction, these are Fantasy. Tanyth Fairport is an old lady who has been traveling the last 20 years collecting information about herbalism from the old woman of Korlay.

We follow along with Tanyth for a couple of years as she grows into… well I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s pretty cool.

If you like fantasy that isn’t full of spell casting and dragons, then this series is for you.

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Shaman’s Tales by Nathan Lowell

Book Cover for South Coast by Nathan LowellMore fiction from Nathan Lowell set in the same universe as Trader’s Tales, Smuggler’s Tales, and Seeker’s Tales but this time we are dirtside on St. Cloud. We follow along with the Kruggs, Piranos, and a cast of others who are trying to find themselves and happiness.

I really appreciate the chance to explore the shamans of St. Cloud and these books really pay off. They span a much longer period of time than the Solar Clipper books and delve deeper into the emotions of many characters.

The Shaman’s Tales series includes South Coast, Finwell Bay, and Cape Grace.

This series can be read out of order, they may be a great starting point for someone just starting to read Nathan’s books.

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Seeker’s Tales by Nathan Lowell

Book Cover for In Ashes Born by Nathan LowellI am continuing my reading of Nathan Lowell’s novels with the Seeker’s Tales series using Kindle Unlimited and a Kindle Paperwhite. In Seeker’s Tales we continue along with Ishmael Wang and Phillip Carstairs on a new adventure in a “new” ship.

I am still in awe of Nathan Lowell’s ability to weave a story and effortlessly create characters with so much depth and life in them. These books are really about the characters, the plot is secondary, in a good way.

Seeker’s Tales includes, In Ashes Born, To Fire Called, and By Darkness Forged.

I recommend Nathan Lowell’s books to anybody looking for something to read, give them a try, they may not be for you, but I love them.

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QSL Cards

QSL Cards
QSL Cards

I really enjoy receiving QSL cards. During the COVID event I am only sending cards to US addresses, but look forward to sending them around the world in the future.

Here are some of the cards I have received in the last few months.

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