Trader’s Tales by Nathan Lowell

quarter share by nathan lowell

This is the first series of book that I read on my new Kindle Paperwhite. These books are available to purchase from Amazon as ebook, audiobook, and paperback versions. Instead of buying each book individually I subscribed to Kindle Unlimited to read them all.

Trader’s Tales includes the books

  • Quarter Share
  • Half Share
  • Full Share
  • Double Share
  • Captain’s Share
  • Owner’s Share

These books follow the life of Ismael Wang and his antics between the stars. I REALLY like these books; they are exactly what I was needing when I found them. They are not full of action, violence, fantasy, war, or death. They do not make up a sprawling space opera that spans centuries nor do they contain deep technical details about how people are able to live in space.

To me these books are a window into a world where cities in space are the way things have been for a long time. Where people work hard to be the people they want to be or need to be but struggle with all of the things that get in their way and either rise to the occasion, try to ignore them, or get crushed by them. The characters are all very believable and I have fallen for Ishmael and his friends. I look forward to reading more about the lives they lead and where they end up.

Don’t get these books if your looking for a ton of action, but if you are in the mood for a good adventure story this may be the story you are looking for.

Kindle Paperwhite

amazon kindle paperwhite book reader

While studying for the Amateur Radio license exams I decided I wanted a new Kindle to read them on. Looking at the different versions of Kindle’s available I chose the Paperwhite for its price, size, backlighting, and water resistance. We have an original Kindle Keyboard and it still works, but it is larger and heavier than the Paperwhite, is not water resistant, does not have a backlight, does not have a touchscreen, and is awkward to hold. I was hesitant to buy a new Kindle as I had not been using the old one very often until I started studying for the license exams which is what got me to use the old one a lot.

Now that I have the Paperwhite Kindle, I use it a lot. It is small enough to fit the pocket of my hoodies, light enough that with a Pop-Socket installed on the back of it I can hold it for hours, when there is enough light the screen without backlighting is easy to read and when there isn’t much light the backlight does a great job making it readable. It would be great if the color of the backlighting was something other than blue, I would prefer an amber color, but that would probably require more power from the battery than the blue.

I like to boost the font size up pretty large, that allows me to read much faster than when I am straining to read smaller text. I have mostly read technical manuals and fiction novels with it, I have tried to use it to read PDF files, but with PDFs you cannot adjust the font size, so I mostly stick to Kindle formatted documents.

The battery lasts a good while for me, I usually charge it one a week or so when using it for a couple of hours a day. Yesterday I read on it for about 10 hours, finished an entire book, and that used around 30% of the battery. The brighter you have the light and the more you use Bluetooth and Wi-Fi functionality the shorter the battery life will be.

I am now also subscribe to Kindle Unlimited and am using that subscription to read a lot of different science-fiction books. Its really cool having so many books available at my fingertips, but I think the $9.99 a month price will probably make me cancel it after a couple of months.

Here are my 3 favorite things about Kindle

  • I can read the books I get from Amazon for the Kindle on iOS or Android phones and tablets along with Kindle devices
  • The waterproof Kindle Paperwhite can be used while in the bathtub or at the pool without wrapping it up to keep it dry
  • I don’t have to find space to store or go through the process of selling all of the books that I have read

Devices

I live in a house with multiple tablets, phones, and even Kindles. I really appreciate that I can pick any of them up and continue where I left off for any book that I have been reading. It is not perfect, there are times when a device will screw up and send me to the wrong place in the book, when that happens with an audio book it is really annoying to find my place again, but with an ebook, it is not so bad.

Waterproof

I like to soak in water… a lot. I regularly sit in our bathtub for 3 hours at a time. With most of my devices I have to put them in a Ziploc bag before taking them into the bath with me, but with the current iPhone and Kindle Paperwhite I don’t have to do that anymore. I am careful with them and haven’t submerged them yet, but Apple and Amazon claim that they would be find if they took a plunge into the bath.

Storage

We have 8 bookshelves in our house and a couple in the garage and they are all full. The large “Science Fiction” bookshelf and the “Travel” bookshelf are so full that the shelves are 2 deep in books. This is after we have gone through the books multiple times giving, trading, and donating hundreds of books. Buying more physical books to fill the house really doesn’t interest me. Using the Kindle and big iPad Pro to read has been a fantastic experience for me. But of course there are physical books I just have to have, usually the big electronics or other technical reference books, because I do love spending time pouring over them and turning to random pages and learning something new.

Amazing Ham Radio Results

Here is a map of the contacts I have made so far, a couple were using RemoteHamRadio.com but the bulk were from my home using FT-8 over 20, 40, and 80 meters. I really blows me away that I have been able to reach so far with a bit of wire strung up in the trees.

Map of the world with ham radio contacts marked

W6NEL Ham Radio Contacts

The State of My Radio Shack

In ham radio the place where you keep the bulk of your radios is known as your shack. I currently have 2 radios and 2 antennas set up in my shack.

Icom IC-9700

The IC-9700 is an all mode, tri-band transceiver covering 2 meter (144MHz), 70cm (430/440MHz) as well as 23cm (1200MHz). In my area there is not much traffic on the 70cm or 23cm bands. There are plenty of repeaters on 70cm, but they are rarely used.

I have the radio connected to a Comet GP-95N which works with all of the bands the radio supports. I have the antenna at the top of 1 and a half fence rale toppers which has it up around 27 feet high. Due to local terrain, both natural and mand-made, I struggle to get signals from the West, but am able to hit repeaters 60+ miles away to the North East 30 miles away to the South.

I primarily use the radio to check into local nets and to ragchew with people on the 2-meter repeaters. The North Fulton Amateur Radio League NF4GA repeater on 145.47Mhz is where I hang out the most, but I also regularly scan all of the repeaters I have in memory and drop into conversations every now and then.

I hope to get an antenna(s) at some point so I can work satellites and do Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) with the 9700, but that is probably a couple of years away due to cost and limited space to put antennas.

Icom IC-7300

The IC-7300 is a High Frequency (HF) plus 50MHz radio that covers the 6 to 160 meter bands.

It is connected to an MFJ-2010 Off-Center Fed Dipole covering the 6, 10, 20, and 40-meter bands. With the space that I have available I don’t think this antenna can be beat. I have it running from a tree in the front yard to a tree in the back yard with one end around 25 feet high and the other over 40 feet high.

With atmospheric conditions being what they are, I have decided to contrate on 20- and 40-meter bands using the FT-8 digital mode. I have been able to reach California, Washington State, North Eastern Canada, Belize, Ecuador, London, Spain, Hungary, and others. I am really amazed at how well such and inexpensive antenna is working for me.

With an LDG IT-100 Autotuner between the radio and antenna I am able to use the 80-meter band, but even with the tuner the Standing Wave Ratio (SWR) is high enough to cause my transmissions to be very weak.

Other Bits and Pieces

I also have HamClock set-up on a Raspberry Pi with the official 7 inch touchscreen so I can keep track of UTC time, solar activity, satellite positions, and sun/moon position. It is really handy.

I also have a Raspberry Pi set up with HamPi, but have not put it to use yet. The IC-9700 can be worked remotely without a separate computer, but the IC-7300 requires a local computer that you VNC into to control the radio.

Plans

I don’t plan on adding much more to the shack, but I do plan on setting up remote control of both radios, I think it would be really cool to be able to use them while traveling or even from another location in the house.

My next project will be adding a radio to the car along with studying for the Extra exam, learning Morse Code (CW), and other digital modes.

Studying for the Amateur Extra Exam

I found myself floundering a bit after passing the General exam. I had been in “study” mode for a few weeks and not having anything to study left me feeling… odder than usual. So I decided to start studying for the Amateur Extra exam, why not?

So far I have read the ARRL Extra Class License Manual cover to cover. I found it much harder to read than the Technician or General manuals, not because the content is more complicated or detailed, but because the writing and editing are not up to the same quality as those other manuals. There are many errors and many passages that are written in ways that confused me.

Now I am on to reading and listening to the The Fast Track to Your Extra Class Ham Radio License by Michael and Kerry Burnette. You may recognize the title and authors from the book I used to study for the General exam, but this is for the Extra. I really enjoyed the General book, both on the Kindle and on Audible so decided to stick with them for the Extra.

This time I have also purchased The Fast Track to Mastering Extra Class Ham Radio Math  along with the recommended Texas Instruments TI-30XS. Statistically, memorizing all of the formulas and being able to do all of the calculations is not necessary to pass the test, but I have decided it is something I would like to learn. There was a time in my life that I really enjoyed math, let’s see if I can rekindle that flame.

The Fast Track Ham website https://fasttrackham.com/ is also a great help with a handful of videos to help explain some more of the math and practice exams for each chapter of the books. I really like the way the “by chapter” practice exams build upon the previous chapters. That works well for me.

And to round out my studies I am also using HamStudy.org website by SignalStuff to do even more practice exams. I really appreciate how HamStudy allows you to work through all of the exam pool and use flash cards to find your weaknesses and concentrate study time on them.

My plan is to take it slowly and learn the material well and hopefully take the test sometime in November. Wish me luck.

General License Exam

As I said in a previous post, I got my Technician License to fly drones (quadcopters) and didn’t really learn much in the process, I just memorized the answers. But once I decided to get a General License I decided I really wanted to learn something.

I started with the ARRL General Class License Manual and read it cover-to-cover. While doing that I attended the QSO Today Virtual Ham Expo where I met Michael Burnette, AF7KB in a chat room who wrote The Fastrack to Your General Class Ham Radio License and he recommended his book to me which I immediately bought on Audible!

Yes! A technical book in audio book format! Michael is a great author and a great narrator. The audio book is fantastic and I highly recommend it to hams that listen to audio books. I was able to listen to it at 2 times speed to speed up the process, it takes more concentration to follow at that speed, but I think I actually learned more because I had to concentrate to follow him. I also bought the Kindle version of the book so I could see the figures, photos, and illustrations as they were being described in the audiobook. I ended up also reading the Kindle version cover-to-cover.

I also bought the Patrick Maloney LLC Ham Study app for iOS and used that to take many practice tests.

Between the practice tests in the Ham Study app and on the Fast Track to Your Ham Radio License website I got my average score up to 80% or so and completed around 20 tests without failing (I failed plenty before I got to that point.)

I used the Find an Amateur Radio License Exam Session search to find a local test in my area, right now there are many “in-person” testing sites listed that are not actually open, but I found one about 45 minutes from my house in Dallas Georgia hosted by the Silver Comet Amateur Radio Society.

We tested on Tuesday night in a picnic pavilion at the Dallas Chamber of Commerce. It was a great location, with COVID I really like that we did the testing outside. John, W4TXA, the president of the society and his team, did a great job of overseeing the testing and kept everything on track.

I passed the General Exam and then took a shot at the Extra Exam which I did not pass, but that’s OK, I am very excited to now be able to talk on the HF bands.

Ham Radio

In 2015 I earned my technician ham radio license so that I could legally fly my drones via a First-Person View (FPV) camera that used the ham radio bands to transmit. I bought a study aid for my iPhone and spent a week or two doing practice tests until I was passing them pretty easy. I didn’t read any books, go to a class, or even talk to anyone else about it at the time.

I took the test locally and passed. I spent a couple of years drone racing and goofing off in parks and a couple of flying fields, but I spent a lot more time fixing than I did flying, so I don’t really fly anymore. I bought a Baofeng UV-5R and upgraded its antenna, but did not make any contacts with it, so it just sat on a bookshelf collecting dust.

Now, 5 years later, I have decided I want to really dive into ham radio, get my general license and maybe even an extra license. But this time I am actually going to learn something!

I have bought the ARRL General Class License Manual, the Ham Test Prep: General appThe Fast Track to Your General Class Ham Radio License audio and Kindle books, joined ARRL, and am listening to a lot of podcasts and watching a lot of YouTube videos. More importantly I am taking my time and digesting the information and learning more than just the test answers.

It has been a lot of fun so far, there is so much to learn and it brings together a lot of geeky things that I really like. I am spending a lot of time on local VHF repeaters listening to advice and rag chewing, I have even taken part in a handful of local Nets where ham radio clubs meet to check-in and discuss various topics.

My plan is to take the General test in late September or early October, I won’t have the money to buy an HF radio and antenna until then, so no need to rush.

Sleeving Gaming Cards

I have recently gotten deep into card games, not collectable card games like Magic the Gathering, although I have done that in the past, but games like Legendary and Munchkin, and Dresden Files where there are a lot of cards, a lot of shuffling, and generally the potential for rough handling.

With my Legendary game there are a handful of cards that get used at the beginning of every game, so they see a lot more use than any other cards in the game. After just 5 solo games I could already see those cards taking a beating and showing signs of wear. A big part of the fun of these card games is not knowing what card is coming up next, so having cards that stand out is not a good thing.

With some of my existing games I have used the Ultra Pro Deck Protector Sleeves, they work well. They provide plenty of protection, shuffle well, and handling is ok. They are a bit too slippery for my taste and are quite a bit larger than the card which contributes to a large stack of cards not staying stacked very well. Also, they get expensive when you want to protect thousands of cards. Ultra Pro also has more expensive sleeves that address the slipperiness issue, but the price is well out of the range I would spend for anything other than the most valuable of cards.

Then there are “penny” sleeves. I have never tried these, after reading a lot of reviews I decided that they weren’t worth the trouble.

My research brought me to Board Game Geek (BGG) and the Card Sleeve Sizes for Games post. Wow, so much information to digest. After reading many, many, comments there I decided on KMC Perfect Fit Sleeves.

For my Legendary Marvel collection, I needed around 5,000 sleeves. I ordered the KMC Perfect Fit Sleeves from Amazon and they arrived in a couple of days. A $120 just for sleeves, are you kidding me? I could have bought 5 expansion sets with that money! (Ultra Pro Matte Sleeves would have cost over $250.)

I love these sleeves so much. The cards slide into them easily, they fit perfectly with very little extra space, have just the right amount of slipperiness for shuffling and stickiness for large stacks to stay together, they are very clear and when a card is sitting on a table it is hard to tell it even has a sleeve on it.

As an added bonus, for cards that are super valuable or will be used by someone who is abusive with their cards you can use the KMC Perfect Fit Sleeves as inner sleeves and Ultra Pro sleeves as outer sleeves to double protect your cards.

If you have decided to sleeve your cards I highly recommend KMC Perfect Fit Sleeves.

Legendary Leagues

I have really gotten into Upper Deck’s Legendary Marvel card game, as previous posts have shown, and a big part of that are the challenges provided by Legendary Leagues.

Here is the description from their website:
“The Legendary League Series are unofficial leagues for competitive solo play of Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game and Legendary: Villains. It was started on BoardGameGeek.com with the Marvel Legendary base set by Jesse Olivier in 2013, DarthEd has run the hero league since season 2, and Travelsized has run the leagues that feature the Villains sets as well as the Starter Leagues. In each league, individuals will be competing against each other in solo play in multiple scoring categories in order to see who is the most Legendary!”

What I get from Legendary Leagues is new challenges every month to play solo but with other people playing the same challenge. Then we discuss the challenges on the Board Gaming Geek forums. In one of my early games I mis-understood the rules of one of the cards and the guys in the forums were great in explaining the correct way to play. Overall the people on BGG are great, but the folks in the Legendary League forums are fantastic and always there to help.

I have yet to come out in first place in one of the challenges, but I recently came in 5th out of 20+ which made me very happy as I tend to choose heroes based on how much I like the character instead of based on optimizing my chance to win.

A Legendary Storage Solution

Legendary Cases

Hobby Lobby Art Cases full of Legendary Marvel cards


Storing around 5000 sleeved cards that you want to be able to easily get at and play with is a bigger problem than I thought it would be. I found some people using the medium size expansion boxes and some cutting and gluing to make some really cool cases, but I don’t want to cut up my boxes. I found a 3d-printed storage solution, but it added a lot of weight to the original box and didn’t come close to holding all of the cards.

Then I found out Broken Token makes inserts for “All Media Artist’s Supply Sketch Box” sold by Hobby Lobby and I already really like Broken Token inserts. With a couple of online coupons, I got 2 cases for half-off and bought the inserts which all arrived in a week or so.

The art cases are well made, the handle is strong, the hinges keep the lid from flopping open, and the locks are sufficient. The insert fits very tightly, even requiring a little bit of sanding, and even without gluing it into the case I don’t feel like it would slide out unintentionally.

I chose to stain both the cases and inserts with a Cherry colored Min-Wax stain, it took two coats to get the color I wanted, actually they are still a little pinker than I would like, but I think they look a lot better than the natural wood they were originally.

Each case weighs around 25 pounds with both the original version and Villains along with all of the expansions up to New Mutants. Pretty soon I will be buying a third case to hold the coming 2020 and 2021 expansions that Upper Deck has planned.

closed art case

Closed art case

Open art case

Open art case with Broken Token Insert

Planck Keyboard Build

Planck Keyboard

Finished Planck Keyboard

After building the macro pad I jumped right into building a Planck. The Planck is a 40% ortholinear keyboard and there are files available on Thingiverse to print your own case and plate to build one.

I used a case from mesohuannny and a plate from furfoxsake. They were both easy to print, but I had to increase the height of the case a bit to accommodate my messy bundle of wires.

For switches I used all of the random switches I had from a couple of switch testers I already owned. My only thought when picking switches was not placing similar switches close together and I did not want clicky switches, but one of them sneaked in.

Wiring Planck Keyboard

Wiring Planck Keyboard

Wiring and programming were exactly the same as the macro pad, just more of it. I did not give myself enough extra wire to route it well inside the case which caused the first case I printed not to fit, so I made the case taller and printed it again. That one fit everything but the keyboard only worked intermittently. After a lot of frustration, I realized the reset button on the Arduino was being depressed by the case. A little bit of Dremel tool work later and the keyboard now works great.

I spent an hour or so typing on it and realized that I don’t like ortholinear layout so much. I think it is something I could learn, but then it would be harder to type on standard keyboards, I have a hard time making mental shifts like that. But if I could get a 75% keyboard with a split spacebar and 1u keys on the bottom row… I would jump at that. I may have to build that myself at some point.

I have decided that building the Planck was a great experience and it is a fun conversation piece, but not something I would regularly use.

Mechanical Keyboard Macro Pad

Macro Pad Open

Handwired 2×5 Macro Pad with 3D-Printed case

While on lockdown for COVID-19 I decided it was the perfect time to build my first hand-wired mechanical keyboard and that starting small was the right way to begin. After much searching and thinking I chose a 2×5 case that I found on ThingiVerse by Jacob Jaeggli (jakebot) and with Kailh BOX Heavy Burnt Orange Switches and a quick trip to Microcenter for a Teensy 2.0 Arduino board and diodes I got started.

What I am going to document here is not the process I went through, as I got a lot of things wrong, made a lot of mistakes, and had to start over a couple of times. Here is what I think is the correct way to put your hand wired keyboard together.

There are a lot of hand wiring a keyboard guides out there now, but my favorite, and the one I aspire to is Kentlam0203’s Handwired Preonic Build Log, it is so clean. For the brains of the operation I chose the Teensy 2.0 which is a common choice for a hand wired keyboard, it is small, has plenty of inputs, and a sturdy USB-mini plug.

I started on the Keyboard Layout Editor website where I laid out the buttons, added legends, and copied the “Raw Data” for use in the Keyboard Firmware Builder. On the Keyboard Firmware Builder website I got the wiring diagram, pins on the Teensy to use, created a keymap, and compiled the firmware. It is hard to believe how easy this was.

It took a couple of hours for the case to print, then the switches go into the plate and tested with a multimeter to ensure they are all working correctly and get hot-glued into place, then the diodes get soldered to the switches, then the row wires (yellow) with more testing, followed by the columns (green) and a final round of testing.

I then use the Teesnsyduino software to make sure the Teensy is working correctly by uploading the Blink test script to it and changing values in the code to verify. With that done I use the Teesnsyduino to flash the firmware downloaded from Keyboard Firmware Builder. Then I solder the rows and columns to the pins and hot glue the board down to the case so plugging and unplugging the USB cable will be solid.

Then I plugged it in and used the MacOS Keyboard Viewer app to verify that it all works. I don’t have a lot of use for this macro pad as my mouse has more buttons and is already in my hand, but as a learning experience, this has been great.

Macro Pad 2x5

Next up is building a Planck 40% keyboard.

Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne

Iron Druid Chronicles at Audible

This was my third or fourth listen to the Iron Druid Chronicles on Audible and my first time to listen to the entire series in one go. All 9 novels as I have not gotten the 10 short stories available but may get them at some point.

In general, I do not recommend listening to so many books in a series one-after-another, it can lead to burnout and reduce the enjoyment from a series of stories. But I really enjoyed this listen all the way to the new book Scourged.

Luke Daniels is just as great in the last book as he was in the first book. His ability to create a strong audible differentiation between the different characters really brings them to life and highlights their different personalities.

Kevin Hearne does an amazing job creating characters that have different drives, goals, and personalities. From the gentleness and anger of Granuelle, the gruffness of Owen, and the lustful scariness that is the Morrigan, they are all wonderful characters. Atticus and Oberon are my favorite characters of the stories, but Owen and Orla are close seconds.

The book Scourged, the 9th, is meant as the last in the series (there is already a short story being touted as book 9.5). It is a good ending to the series and well worth your time.

I highly recommend the entire Iron Druid Chronicles series, although you may not want to listen to them one-after-another, maybe takes some breaks in between.