Thursday, August 17, 2017

Makes Me Wonder What They're Looking At

Most the time I can't figure it out.

Then they end up looking at me; with pity in their big doe-eyes; wondering just how the hell I manage to survive with such poor senses. . .

Monday, August 14, 2017

Technology On The Road

In case the title wasn't clear enough, this post is about the technologies I use when on the road, at least some of them, but first up the scientist in me wants to define technology.

Of course, when on the road I use, among hundreds of other things, the wheel, internal combustion engine, and modern clothing, all technologies, but to keep this post relevant and at least somewhat timely, what I'm talking about here is more recent technologies, otherwise known these days as high-tech.

But even this is a moving target as the 'high' in high-tech usually only applies briefly.

Back when hominoids, along with our very close brethren the chimpanzee, discovered that they could pick up a femur left over from yesterday's scavenged kill and increase their power and reach by using it as a club, that was the high-tech of the day. But then us hominoids figured out how to split the end of a stick and wedge a heavy stone in there to make the club even more efficient, and the lowly wielded femur lost its 'high', and over time its 'tech' too.

Despite my career in computers and other such stuff, compared to some I'm not much of a technogeek,(Gasp!! I can't even open my garage door from another country with my phone, how archaic am I??) and being a somewhat aged troglodyte myself, I'm sure some of the technology I use has also aged well past its 'high', but just like the lowly club that I still regularly use today in the form of a hammer, the technologies I do use have relevance for me.

If I had to pick the one single piece of high-tech equipment I think I use most it would be my laptop, shown here on my stand-up desk/workstation/library/puzzle storage/keyboard stand/plant-starter/ - well, you get the idea - out in the barn where it lives when I'm not actually on the road.

With it I do the research, research, and more research that defines and enhances most every one of my trips. In addition to using it as a research platform, and for logging fuel mileage and repairs, and tracking trip costs, for the past 15 years I have used the holy crap out of the Delorme Topo mapping software I have installed on it.

Unfortunately Garmin has bought out Delorme and scraped all of its electronic products while keeping only the line of paper maps, (In the world of business, stuffing your competition into the trash is good, in the world of the consumer it sucks!) so Topo, along with the Earthmate GPS devices, two of which I also use, are no longer available. One of these days I'll have to look into reasonable substitutes but for now what I have works so I'll stick with it.

Notice that I didn't mention using my laptop for banking or other asset management. That's because, though I do use it for those things over the secured network at the house, when I hit the road I turn off the laptop's WIFI transmitter/receiver and leave it off until back home again. There are more secure ways to conduct business on the road. (Not only is our home network firewall secured and encrypted but because of our remote location which precludes people getting close enough to tap into the WIFI signal anyway, you can also think of it as air-gaped)

The sharp-eyed may have noticed that on the left side of my laptop is a Sunpak high-speed card reader plugged into a USB 3 port. That's there because, like me, my laptop is no spring chicken and through extensive use the contacts of laptop's SD card reader port have worn to the point where it will no longer read the SD cards from my camera, so I use the Sunpak to read them instead.

As a bonus the Sunpak can also read all sorts of other things such as SIM's, Micro SD's and other, more obscure things most of us never come in contact with.

The sharper-eyed may have also noticed a bit of red-orange hash over on the laptop's right side near the joint between keyboard and display. That's a mil-spec, rubber encased 16 GB USB memory stick. Because of my past life I have a bag fill of these things.

So what? Well some of y'all may have noticed that I'm not the most trusting person and for that reason you will find no personal files, photos, spreadsheets, nothing, on my laptop. All my files, even the temp files and auto-saves created in the background by the various apps, are on one or another of these memory sticks.

Now, if my laptop is stolen, not only will the thief have a hell of a time cracking my device password, if they do there's nothing on there they can use to hurt me. (Just out of malicious humor, when working I kept a 45 character, very complex password with only a few actual letters in it taped to the bottom of the keyboard in my office. Of course it was fake but can you imagine the frustration of someone thinking they had hit the jackpot and trying to use it to get into my system?!!)

Using a USB drive might seem counter-intuitive from a security standpoint since a stick can be plugged into any USB port on any computer and the files read. Well that's true, but only sort of. I do three things to offset that risk.

1) When the stick is not plugged into my laptop, which means anytime I'm not actually accessing a file on it, it's stored in a secure/obscure/non-intuitive location which, for obvious reasons, I'm not going to go into detail about here.

2) If someone with nefarious tendencies, or even just a snoop, does get ahold of one of my drives they will find that it is encrypted and password protected. So without the proper password the worst they can do is throw the drive in the trash. (But of course I've got copies. . .)

3) And if all that fails, any sensitive files on the stick are individually password protected.

All these passwords are unique to each device/drive/file so cracking one only gets you into that one layer or access to that one file.

Yes that's a lot of passwords to keep track of!! But I have a fairly simple way of making each one unique  yet re-callable without resorting to a spreadsheet or a password-vault. Again, for obvious reasons, I'm not going to go into details here.

If my laptop crashes, or is stolen, I have all my working data available on a memory stick that I can plug into any computer, including a replacement right from the store.  In addition I make a fresh backup frequently, sometimes daily if I'm doing a lot of computer work, that is encrypted and protected by yet another password, and yes, I have more than one copy of my backups secured in various, well protected places, to improve my odds of being able to get to at least one of them. (though none are on the cloud because a) everybody has access to the cloud, b) the cloud is managed and secured by fallible humans, c) the cloud is forever!) I should also note that all my backups are made with a commonly available backup app so I can unpack them just about anywhere.

For maximum security I always use a 30 to 35 character password, or at least the longest one a device, app or web-site will allow. Each extra character added to a password increases the difficulty of cracking it by a whole bunch! (Think exponentially.) and if you avoid dictionary words it gets even harder to crack. (Crackers like dictionary words because they are easy.  Even though the English language alone has over 1 million words, to a computer 1 million is not all that many.)

Not to get into a long-winded tirade here, (you can go do your own research if you want, maybe starting here) despite what the idiots in charge of security at many web sites that force the use of complex passwords but limit you to 10 digits would have you believe, I can create a 15 character password using only lower-case letters that will be more secure than any 10 character complex password. And if I can get in one of my 30+ character, non-dictionary-words passwords I'll be dead by the time a cracker gets through it! (To come up with a re-callable non-dictionary password try using the first letter of every word, along with the case and punctuation, of a sentence that means something to you: "My Aunt Mary makes the best cherry pies in the world! But, if I sneak just 1 piece she makes me sit in the corner for 30 minutes!" would make a good strong password (Except I know it now so don't use that!) Don't use popular lines from movies for a password!! It's astounding how many passwords out there right now are a variation of "My name is Groot" and "Attention, all beings within the Vega system. Your freedom to cause pain and suffering has been revoked" is very popular with many of the SyFy fan, 'first letter' crowd, but the good crackers are updated frequently to check for popular things like this!)

OK, I'm getting off subject here but one more thing before I get back to the technology.

All this may seem overkill; password protected devices, physically secured files, no files available at all, encrypted disks, additional password protection on individual files, etc.; but the holy grail of security is layers. Make each layer difficult and by the time the bad guys are through one or two they will either have given up or been spotted.

I'm so security paranoid I even changed the destination path for this screen capture to protect my actual path. . . sick huh??

Now back to the original point of this post:

One of the apps I use on my laptop quite a bit is Photoshop Elements 9 which came packaged with one of my cameras.

With it I can clean up the bluish haze of long telephoto shots taken with my relatively inexpensive lens, I can brighten up shadows to bring out details if necessary, (I shoot most photos with the exposure setting down anywhere from 1/3 to a full step because blown-out highlights are forever but detail in deep shadows can still be brought out.) but one of the most common uses I have for it is to batch-process the photos destined for this blog.

There are two of us using our limited bandwidth out here in the sticks and uploading full 4000 x 3000 pixel photos that run in the 3+ MB size range wouldn't help, so I use Photoshop's batch-processing to cut them down to 1600 x 1200 which gets them down to the 1 MB range.

When actually on the road my laptop has two primary functions.

As shown here, it acts as my GPS using Delorme Topo in conjunction with an Earthmate USB GPS puck.

Topo has the usual routing feature with  that squirrely "3D" view and the talking head telling you when to turn and all, but I started reading paper maps about the time I started school so am very comfortable with them and use the GPS strictly in overhead, north-to-the-top mode with no routing. It keeps me informed of where I am while I make all the decisions about where I go.

Topo allows me to split the screen, the nice big laptop screen not the typical puny little portable GPS screen, into two different views. Each screen stays centered on my location. One, the one on the left is a high altitude view that gives me a picture of where I am relative to whats in a roughly 30 mile radius around me. The other view, the one on the right, is a close-up view that lets me see every road and most driveways within a mile radius of where I am. I can also adjust both these views to a higher or lower zoom level if I want. (I can actually track myself to a particular pump in a gas station at the highest zoom level if I ever needed that kind of accuracy. . .)

As you might be able to see in the photo, I usually leave all my map pins, those markers pointing out places I've heard, read, or been told about that I might want to visit someday, active while I'm traveling just in case I spot something coming up that I want to check out.

The second major function of the laptop when on the road is as my entertainment center. Since I don't have a sound system or TV in The Van, when I'm tired of reading I turn to my collection of DVD's played through the laptop's reader. (No tablets for me because I need the reader and don't want to have to mess with a separate device.)

I'm not much of a movie-on-DVD kind of guy but I do have a collection of TV shows, everything from early adulthood (Rockford Files, The Bob Newhart Show) to more modern stuff, (China Beach, Northern Exposure) at least modern to me. I've never counted them up but I probably have hundreds of half and one-hour episodes with quite a variety to choose from, and at one or two a night it's going to take me a long time to get through them all. (And by then I'll have forgotten so can start over again!)

OK, enough with the laptop. On to the smart-phone.

Along with the obvious functions of phone and email (nobody texts me so it isn't even in my plan) there's actually quite a bit of stuff I can do with the phone that the disconnected laptop can't touch.

In the photo above I have my phone mounted right on the laptop making it easy to glance at as I'm driving (Combat strips are another bit of high-tech that I use!) because I happen to be making a long trip here, using major roads in order to cover a lot of ground quickly, Google Maps real-time traffic is a great tool for spotting those snarled up construction zones in time to seek out an alternative route,
such as one of Arkansas infamous multi-mile construction backups I recently avoided on I30 just east of Texarkana by taking to the parallel US 67, or this (pictured above) on-going mess on I70 at Terre Haute that I was also able to slip around because I was forewarned.

Of course this won't work when I'm out of service, but that's pretty rare anymore along major roads so it's no big deal.

To make this feature even more useful, instead of Google Maps I usually run the Allstays app, which uses Google Maps, including the live traffic feature, as a base layer, but also has some additional useful information that can be overlayed. In this case, since it was mid-day and I wasn't looking for a campground at the time, I cleaned up the clutter by using Allstays filter to only show me rest areas, fuel stations/truckstops and Walmarts.

Why Walmart?? Because with a quick tap of a finger I can see if a particular Walmart has gas, in other words a Murphy's station. True, Murphy's diesel is anemic crap that gives noticeably lower miles per gallon, probably because it's mixed closer to the 20% mark than the 5% mark with ethanol, but combine the already low price with saving another 3 cents per gallon by using a Walmart gift card, which I carry just for this reason, and it's still worth it, especially if the alternative is a name-brand truckstop that could be 20 or even 30 cents higher.

Any app that relies on tracking your location while you are on the move sucks a huge amount of power so I keep the phone plugged into a charger when using it like this.

Another phone-app I use quite a bit on the road is Weatherbug.

Here I've forced it to look at Cloudcroft New Mexico since I'm writing this from the house and I'm not about to let you see where that is, but normally when I want a weather update on the road I turn location on and then the app shows me the local weather.

In addition to the current conditions, I can look at an hourly forecast if I want to see how soon it will cool down to comfortable sleeping levels tonight, or a 10-day forecast for longer-range planning purposes. If I want to see the weather someplace else, maybe a spot I'm thinking about heading to, I just type in the location and Weatherbug takes me there.

While northbound on a recent trip  I stopped at a rest area south of Fort Wayne Indiana because I could see a large afternoon storm complex out there in front of me. The radar map on Weatherbug told me that if I just sat tight for a half hour or so and had dinner, the storm would blow off to the east and I would miss it. By waiting a few minutes I not only stayed out of the rain, I also stayed clear of the 4 or 5 vehicles I passed that didn't wait, or slow down, and hydroplaned right off the road, in at least one case, taking out an innocent vehicle in the process. (What is the matter with us that we are so damn stupid we don't slow down on wet roads?!! At this rate we deserve to go extinct.)

In addition to using the phone's browser for on-the-fly research, I also use a few other apps. Nothing fancy, just couple that make finding information about certain places, and making reservations while on the go, simpler.

So while I'm not what most would consider a heavy user of my phone, (I have never even come close to using up my 2G's of data.) it certainly simplifies certain things when I'm on the road.

Even so, I treat my phone with a degree of skepticism.

For one thing, since I'm the kind of person that thrives on seeking out remote places most likely to not have any signal, I need to be prepared to do without, for another, it's hardly a secure device. (And if you are a Verizon user, as I am, apparently your provider is rated as the most likely to roll over and spread it's legs when the Feds come knocking on the door for info!!)

How many of y'all secure your smartphone with a 4 digit code? (Oh crap! Again with the security? Oh, and if you are one of those that doesn't secure your phone at all, it's not just your info, clearly you are content with exposing it to the world, but what about all your friend's, work-colleague's, and business associate's contact info, birthdays, addresses, meetings, appointments, etc. that you are putting at risk? ) Did you know that most phones allow you to use an 8, 12, or even longer passcode??

But that's still not really good enough since I'm only allowed to use 0 through 9 or a limited variety of 'slides' even long passcodes on phones are far more vulnerable than those on full-keyboard devices, so I keep no full names, addresses, photos, banking URL's, schedules or other personal info on my phone because not only is it more likely to get lost or stolen than my laptop, it's more easily cracked.

One final note about my cell; any phone outside of a service area, which is where I seem to be quite a bit of the time, uses up a whole bunch of power trying to find that non-existent signal so I turn the phone to airplane mode. That way I still have a clock/alarm/timer (Usually the only one I have with me on a hike or when The Van is parked and the dash is dark.) as well as access to the photo I took as a backup to my paper map, but I'm not burning through the battery.

Speaking of trails and trail-maps, I really like my Earthmate PN-60 hand-held GPS. I carry it when hiking, kayaking, biking, or anything else that's more than a casual lunch-break stroll around the park.

I primarily use it to keep track of where I am, and as a mostly solo excursionist it gives me just that much more confidence and peace of mind when I'm out there alone. But I also find it useful as a mid-excursion planning tool. I can check on how far I've come, how long I've been out there, when sunset is, the moon's state tonight, and what the terrain around me is like, (The base layer is Delorme Topo so I've got all that terrain and features info at my fingertips.) all of which is helpful when deciding where to go next and when I need to turn around and head back.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't rely on the thing exclusively for finding my way, after all, it is a fallible bit of equipment, so I always have a hardcopy map of the area in my pocket as well as a digital copy on my camera and phone. When I'm out there I'm constantly looking around, especially back the way I've come, to keep myself oriented, aware of my surroundings, and what the return trip is going to look like, (Who knows, if the hiker that stepped off the Appalachian trail in 2013 for a bio-break had looked back and noted a couple landmarks maybe she wouldn't have gotten lost and died a few weeks later of starvation and exposure.) but it sure is comforting to be able to confirm my observations with the GPS.

For instance, I was once hiking one of the few mainland trails of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore when I was stopped by a swollen and fast-moving creek I didn't want to risk crossing on my own. Not ready to just turn around and go back, I knew Lake Superior was off to my west and if I could get there I could walk the lakeshore back to the trailhead since I already knew I hadn't crossed any major waterways that could stop me. What I didn't know was just how far away the lakeshore was and what the terrain between here and there was like. After consulting the GPS to help decide if it was feasible, I did some bushwacking and shore-walking, salvaging what could have been a busted hike.

Another fun thing I do with the GPS is record my tracks then upload them into my laptop-based Topo so I can see all my excursions at a glance, like the one above of a 7.5 mile hike in Caprock Canyons. There at the yellow arrow is where I came across a solitary, shorts-and-tennis-shoe hiker that had run out of water and wasn't sure where he was. At the red arrow is where I started bushwacking a more interesting route back to the campsite but ran into a herd of Bison so retreated back to the main trail before I pissed them off.

Back in the day, the CB was the tool for keeping tabs on road conditions; and Smoky if you were into speeding, which I never saw the point of since the reward of arriving a few minutes earlier never out-weighs the risk (which is not just excessive wear on your vehicle and tickets but- well - you know, death, either your's or someone else's) but as technologies improved all the professional drivers moved over to the new and improved, leaving mostly the foul-mouthed and angry behind there on channel 19.

Even so, you can see by the deteriorating hand-cord in the photo above, that I've had my CB a long time and it's still there in The Van. That's because of another fact about technology:

It will fail!

One of the greatest dangers of technology, besides following Suzy Talkinghead down the boatramp and driving right into the lake, is becoming dependent on it.

I keep my CB because it receives the 10 NOAA weather channels for those times I'm out of cell service, or maybe I've dropped my precious phone into a creek somewhere (WooHoo! Now I have an excuse to go get the latest new-and-improved model!!) and can't get to my Weatherbug app.

If I can't get to Delorme Topo because my laptop has failed, I can fall back to Google Maps on my phone, if that isn't working I still have my handheld GPS.

If my GPS fails out there on the trail I have my paper map in my pocket as well as a digital copy on the camera and phone.

I could go on since there's still plenty of other technologies I use on the road, but this has hit the high-points of the ones I use, and frankly, even I'm getting a little bored with the subject by now.

Technologies come and go, so will always be a moving target, you have to decide for yourself just how much effort you want to put into chasing that target.

The main point is, technologies have certainly enhanced my on-the-road experience, but I'm careful not to become reliant on any one device or app because after all, it's not about the technology, but rather about being out there and experiencing some of what this earth has to offer in the short time available to us.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Wall of Shame: I DON’T Want to Look At Your Wipe!!

We don’t like to talk about it much, but the inescapable fact is we are biological creatures, and like all biological creatures we leak and ooze and excrete. Every single one of us! Even the prettiest of us discharge on a regular basis. (Although I have to admit that I know this based on empirical evidence and not through direct experience because I’ve never been called pretty in my life. Oh don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind being called pretty, but the reality is, that’s just not going to happen. . .)

Unfortunately our squeamishness about the realities of being biological, combined with our apparently natural instinct (Otherwise it wouldn’t be so common would it?) to trash our environment with castoffs, means that many of us are more inclined to walk away from the evidence of our biologicality than we are to bag it up and dispose of it properly.

And the above has become an increasingly common sight along trails and riverbanks and campsites and - well - just about everywhere else a human can go. In fact, in more heavily visited 'wilderness' areas it's getting to where these little white flags are scattered around like some crazed surveyor has run amuck.

Call them what you will, disposable (Well hell! When you get down to it everything is disposable.) or flushable, (Again; socks, teddy-bears, plastic solders  restraining orders and a whole long list of other things are ‘flushable’, but that doesn’t mean they should be flushed!) the sight of these flapping banners is becoming an everyday thing anymore, despite the high level of disrespect and ignorance required of those participating in this disgraceful practice.

And frankly ladies, even though I know you don't care, I’m not happy about it!!

Now don’t get me wrong, men are pigs too.  We have as least as much inclination to leave behind a trail of cigarette butts, candy wrappers, beer cans, water bottles, and the other detritus of an over-indulgent lifestyle as women do. If our hands are a little dirty we just give them a quick swipe on the seat of our pants. When done eating beans out of the can around the campfire we fart, jam the spoon into the sand a few times, and call it clean. And we pee on bushes, on the ground, on walls, on tires, and even on our shoes, (Hey, I just said men are pigs too!) but when we're done we just shake and stuff; (Yep, still pigs.) we don’t pat. 

Now I’ve got nothing against patting, but just what the hell is going through your mind when you leave your patting materials behind to wave brave and proud in the breeze for all that follow to suffer???

Monday, August 7, 2017

Well This is New?!

We've been on this property since around 2004 and this is the first time I've seen this!

That's a Black Vulture, which is about the size of a large cat, standing ankle deep in the water at the edge of the pond.

They do cool off by radiating heat from the shallow blood-vessels under the featherless skin of their legs and the thermometer beside me is reading a few tenths over 100 degrees at the moment, (about 3PM July 30 in real time.) but we've had more than our share of 100-plus days around here over the years and I've never seen any of the plentiful vultures down in the pond before.

Usually, when not ghosting along on the air-currents overhead, they are perched high in the trees keeping an eye on me. I figure they're hoping I'll fall to the ground and become carrion. . .
Once when a group of us (Mom, dad, aunt, uncle and me in three different rigs.) were camped in Big Bend NP twenty or thirty vultures picked a single tree above my Uncle's trailer and sat there looking down all hunch-shouldered, naked-headed, and beady-eyed. It made my uncle very nervous!!

Not only did this one stand still long enough for me to get several shots of it, but apparently I wasn't scary enough to stop it from drinking out of the pond either.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Mechanically Inept Calls This Project Done!

Of course the title of this post could imply either success, or unconditional surrender.

At this moment it could go either way!

The final stage of this project should have, but didn't quite get started one morning as we were getting ready to make a run into town. Which town depends on several things, what supplies we need to buy, where we want to eat out, and whether we need to hit the post office. (Because the post office refuses to deliver to our address we have to use a PO Box.)

 I checked the tracking number that Circle G Tractor had given me for the parts I ordered and discovered that they had been delivered to the post office at 0732 that morning, so now we knew which direction we were going. (That particular town is 15 miles to the southeast.)

It was after 10 by the time we hit the post office but the parts were not in our box, (They guarantee your day’s mail will be in the box by 0900. No, seriously, it says so right there on that poster hung on the wall!) nor was there a yellow pickup slip waiting for me, only a couple of catalogs and other scrap crap. I went to the counter anyway, pulling up their own web-site site on my phone showing my package had been delivered as I waited in line so they couldn't feed me any lies when I finally got to the head of the line.

Remember a couple posts ago I mentioned that though storms may not stop them, our particular post office is highly allergic to anything that smells like customer service? Well the excuse today was that they were too busy to deal with packages. I pointed out that it wasn’t a package but rather a Priority Mail envelope that I had paid extra for so as to ensure timely delivery (OK, so it was the least expensive option offered by Circle G Tractor but what the hell, I paid for it!) and it was probably sitting right there in a bin just on the other side of the wall and I’d wait while they went and got it. Well the thought of doing something so sensible and customer friendly had about the same effect as turning on the lights in a roach infested kitchen. They scurried frantically for the dark corners and I walked out without my parts.

It was several days later before The Wife made a special trip to go collect my rightful parts held hostage so un-rightfully, driving the shipping costs up by 1 gallon worth of fuel.

But anyway, I now had my parts. They came with no instructions, drawing, nothing like that, but they were in a nice, neat, professional looking little sealed bag so I did, presumably, have everything needed to rebuild my cylinder except for the knowledge.

So the next morning I bravely collected all the bits and pieces I thought I was going to need to finish this project off and laid them out neatly on a fresh chunk of clean craft-paper.

Then I opened up my hard-won little package and laid all the bits out next to where I thought they should go. Fortunately I had resisted the temptation to get over-exuberant a few days ago when disassembling the cylinder and all the components still had their bits and pieces in place so I could make careful visual checks on where everything went.

Having had one other experience with seals before, on one of the 4-wheel drive tractor’s  front wheel drive-steer units, I already knew that getting the old seals out and the new ones in was not going to be a walk in the park, so I chose to start with the most difficult component first, the gland.

Now some would argue that I should start with something easy in order to get a little experience. But I would argue that if I’m going to fail it will probably be on the hardest part and then I would just be wasting the effort I put into the easy parts if I did them first.

Anyway, after checking things out one last time to make sure I knew where and, which way, each of the two new gland-seals went

I used a fresh #11 blade to carefully cut through the old seals and remove them.

Then I cleaned up the inside bore of the gland, including the seal-seats, while the two new seals simmered in a pot on a camp stove (Which is actually The Van’s main stove.)

Just before I pulled the first seal out of the pot, presumably soft and pliable now, (More like less hard and not quite so stiff) I wiped the inside of the gland’s bore and seats with fresh hydraulic oil.

Then using a combination of slightly burned fingers and carefully sanded and cleaned wooden push-sticks, I worked the seals into place.

Now taken at face value that sentence makes it sound pretty straightforward. Well it wasn’t. . . I think that first seal, the one furthest away in the photo, went back into the simmering water three or four times before I finally figured out the right combination of finger and stick moves to get it to pop into its seat, which has to be done without damaging the seal or letting it flip around the wrong way.

As far as the gland goes, the hard part was done!!  All I had to do now was toss the outer O-ring and its hard-plastic backer into the pot for a few minutes while I checked a previously taken photo to verify which order they went on,

wipe the area down with more hydraulic oil, then slip them into place like fitting a too-small condom onto a - well - you know. . .

In case any readers are starting to get the impression I know what I’m doing, when I took this photo I deliberately turned one of the gland’s ‘flats’ towards the camera so the consequences of my less-than-competent use of a grossly-wrong-for-the-job pipe-wrench to remove the gland from the cylinder would be evident.

I’m sure to real mechanics this is blasphemy, or at least just plain wrong, but being a fake mechanic it seems pretty normal to me. . .

With the gland finished and set aside it was time to tackle the piston.

Actually the piston’s original seals, shown here, don’t look bad at all and there was some temptation to just leave them alone, but since I’d already come this far. . .

Again, the old seals were cut through with a #11 blade, being careful not to mar the piston itself. Once the old seals were off I cleaned up the piston and seal-seats, wiped everything down with hydraulic oil,

and worked the well simmered new seals into place, being doubly careful to make sure they were oriented the right way (If you look close you can see that each one has one edge that protrudes more than the other. This edge is supposed to face the nearest piston face so hydraulic pressure forces it deeper into its seat while pushing the protruding lip tight against the bore of the cylinder.)

Again, it took me several tries to figure out the secret of getting these way-too-small seals over the way-to-big piston and into the seat without damage. It took many trips back into the simmering pot and I definitely could have used three burned thumbs instead of just the two I had available, but eventually I managed.

By contrast the O-ring that seals between the piston and the shaft is hardly worth mentioning, except to say that after sliding the gland onto the cleaned and oiled shaft, making sure it faced the right way, and just as I was getting ready to slide the piston back on the shaft I figured out it would be less wear and tear getting that new O-ring over the threads on the end of the shaft if I slipped it on first by itself then put the piston on.

Now it was time for another of those infamous trips down to the tractor-barn where I temporarily pinned the end of the shaft in place to hold it while I tighten the new nyloc-nut down to keep the piston in place on the shaft. (Just imagine the disaster if that were to come loose!! On second though, I'd rather not. . .)

It’s pretty dirty down there in the tractor-barn so I was careful to keep the rebuilt assembly clean and as soon as the nut was tight I brought the shaft assembly back up to the clean(er) main barn.

Where I swabbed the cylinder bore down with hydraulic oil using my rag-zip-tied-on-a-stick trick, then, after one final wipe-down of the shaft assembly, slid it into the bore, careful to ease the piston seals and gland O-ring over the bore’s threads without damaging them, the seals I mean, the threads are pretty tough.

I tightened the gland as far as I could by hand then it was back down to the tractor-barn with the assembled cylinder, and yes, my big honking pipe-wrench, where I once again pinned the cylinder in place temporarily so I could seat the gland into place.

Now I was ready to pin the cylinder back where it belonged for good, so I greased up the pins and slots before bolting them in place then, for good luck, and perhaps to delay the inevitable,I hit the zerk-fitings with a couple of shots from the grease gun.

All that was left to do now was to screw the hydraulic hoses back on and test it.

I have to admit that it crossed my mind to just walk away once I tightened the hoses in place.  I mean things had been going so well up to this point, why risk screwing up an otherwise great day by actually testing my work??

Even though there was a certain seductive logic to that thought, I climbed up and started the tractor anyway.  Then, leaning way over to the other side so the bulk of the engine was between me and the cylinder, you know, just in case I had done something spectacularly wrong, I very slowly eased the loader bucket off the ground.

It came up a couple inches without doing anything funny or making any weird noises, so I eased it up a little more. Eventually I was at full extension and no longer trying to keep the engine between me and the cylinder.

In fact I lowered the bucket and raised it again several times, starting very slowly then getting faster as nothing disastrous seemed to be happening and my confidence started to recover.

In the photo above I’ve left the bucket at full extension for several minutes

while I carefully checked for hydraulic oil where it didn’t belong.

Nope, everything was staying dry!

But the truth is, in this configuration the high pressure is on the far side of the piston and not against the back of the gland, which is where the original leak was in the first place.

So I lowered the bucket to the ground, then, with more than a little trepidation, used the bucket to lift the front tires. This put the pressure between the piston and the back-side of the gland and is what I was doing when I first saw the initial leak weeks ago now.

I left the tractor like that, propped up on the bucket, and watched for drips. Eventually I started breathing again as the hydraulic oil seemed to be staying where it was supposed to.

By now I was cocky enough to lower then lift the tractor with the bucket several times, even going so far as to up the RPM’s (The hydraulic pump is direct drive.) and push past the limits of the preset max-pressure-bypass in the valve-body, the last chance for things to go horribly wrong.

But they didn’t!

I was so stoked by my success that I even considered dropping the steering cylinder (To get it out from behind the battery box so I could reach it) to see if I could stop the leak there where the one hose attaches to the cylinder; but why risk ruining an otherwise glorious day??

That can wait for another time. . .

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Mechanically Inept Is Still Working on the Rebuild of a Hyd. Cylinder

OK, once I verified the size and ordered a rebuild kit I thought I was done messing with this hydraulic cylinder until the USPS delivers my parts.

I was wrong.

After shining a headlamp down into the cylinder and seeing stuff I didn’t much like, I checked in with The Brother, the real mechanic in the family. When he finally stopped laughing at my misguided efforts, he advised that before I start messing around with the rebuild kit I better take a Scotch-bright to the inside of the cylinder to clean it up as best I can.

And here I was thinking that I could take a break while those neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night people did their thing (OK, full disclosure here, they may be pretty good about delivering mail in bad weather, but what stops our local Post Office in its tracks is anything that smacks of decent customer service. The very thought of it horrifies them!!)

So instead of moving on to less stressful things, I found myself still standing there at the bench confronted with the scattered bits (My bench looked a whole lot like a big-city emergency room floor at the end of a long Saturday night.) that once used to be my hydraulic cylinder; my expensive hydraulic cylinder. 

Since I can only get in through one end of this cylinder in order to 'Scotch-pad' it, I went and fetched a short length of pipe from the scrap bin, then had second thoughts about the advisability of banging around inside what is supposed to be a highly polished and flaw-free bore with something as hard as a metal pipe, so I put the pipe away and found a wooden stick in another scrap pile.

Going my brother one better, (because - well - that's in the how to be a brother rule book.) I decided to swab out the cylinder with a rag soaked in mineral spirits first, just in case there were any little bits of hard particles lurking inside that might score the bore in combination with a Scotch-bright.

I don’t know for a fact that it actually did any good, but seeing the gunk that came out made me feel better anyway.

Now it was time for the Scotch-bright

Although it wasn’t an exact match, all that stroking and turning and stroking reminded me of a favorite teenage-boy activity, probably because my arm soon got tired in pretty much the same way.

While that memory was entertaining, I realized cleaning up the bore like this was going to take forever,

so I came up with an alternative solution.

Once the exposed screw-head was chucked into my drill things went much faster.

While I never did make the ring in the bore where the outer O-ring of the gland rests disappear completely, it did get a whole lot smoother and I figured that was good enough since that O-ring is not where the leak was anyway. (It was leaking where the shaft comes through the gland.)

So with one final swipe of a clean rag down the bore, I sealed up the end

And was finally able to set all the bits aside

to wait for the new parts to arrive. Which probably won’t be long since within an hour of placing my order with Circle G Tractor Parts they had pulled my order, packaged it up, got it out the door and emailed me a tracking number.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Rebuild of a Hyd. Cylinder by the Mechanically Inept

Doesn’t matter how many into-the-sun glamor shots I take, nothing is going to change the fact that this cylinder on our tractor is dribbling hydraulic fluid all over the front tire at an ever increasing rate.

I’ve managed to go 63 years without having to rebuild a hydraulic cylinder, which, given my general mechanical ineptitude is a good thing, but life has caught up to me and now I have no choice.  At least no fiscally responsible choice since a new cylinder costs 7 times what a rebuild kit does. (Yep, I checked.)

So after going on-line and reading up on rebuilding hydraulic cylinders (I avoid the YouTube stuff because of our limited monthly data allowance out here in the sticks.) I stuffed one pocket full of rags, tucked a headlamp in the other, grabbed my ‘mechanics box’ (That's what Chanel Lock calls it and I figure they should know, though I've owned this set for over 30 years and it has done little to improve my mechanical aptitude. . . Maybe that's revenge for running over it with the tractor once.) and, rather cleverly I thought, a set of Chanel locks for grabbing the ends of the cylinder pins to pull them out, then set off down the hill to the tractor-barn.

That was about the end of things going smoothly.

First I needed an adjustable wrench (I played that smart by bringing two down with me) then I needed a magnetic pickup (I’ll get to that in a moment) then it was a screwdriver to pry the pins out far enough so I could get ahold of them with the Chanel locks, then it was – well, you get the idea.

All and all I made the trip from tractor-barn, past the well-house, and up to the main barn and back a good dozen times before I was finished (Finished with this stage, not finished with rebuilding the cylinder, not by a long shot!!)

First step was to remove the hydraulic hoses from the cylinder

I’m assuming keeping things clean is somehow important when messing with hydraulics, but since I don’t have any fancy caps laying around I improvised. Crude and maybe not all that effective, but it makes me feel better anyway. . .

Next step is to remove the bolts that hold the pins that hold the cylinder.

Here’s where I found I needed a screwdriver to pry on the far end of the pins to slide them out far enough to grab with the Chanel locks. One pin was easy to reach but the back-side of the other pin is butted up against some quarter-inch steel structure that keeps the front-end loader from crumbling to the ground, or worse, onto the operator, under load and that one was a bit more difficult to finagle out.

And remember that comment about keeping things clean?? At this point that went all to hell when I dropped one of the pins on the sandy floor of the tractor-barn. (easy to find but very gritty because of all the grease on it.)  Then I promptly turned around and dropped one of the nuts for the bolt that retains the pin!

That sand floor is not anywhere near a hard-packed surface, in fact it’s more like a fine beach just above the high-tide mark, and that nut buried itself in the sand faster than a flounder in mud, so the wages for that little screw-up was to tramp all the way up to the main barn and back to fetch my magnetic dumb-ass saver.

Hopefully I’m done dropping things, but – well – probably not. . .

Eventually I got the cylinder removed, went back up to the main barn to fetch a bucket to carry all the crap I had brought down on my various trips, and finally got the cylinder onto the workbench up in the main barn.

It was right about now that I noticed the two pins that hold the cylinder in place are different lengths and I didn’t make note of which was which. Oh well, I’ll figure that out when I get there, probably by discovering that the pin I just finished installing and bolting in place actually goes on the other end. . .

Here’s where I gloved up, grabbed some mineral oil, rags and pipe cleaners, and cleaned up the outside of the cylinder, the pins and the threads of the hose nipples and pin-retaining nuts and bolts.

It’s also where I discovered that I had no fixed and only one adjustable wrench in all my shop that would fit the gland, and it was totally the wrong kind of wrench for this job!

But what the hell! Work with what you have. That’s my impatient and penny-pinching philosophy!

So back down to the tractor-barn with the cleaned-up cylinder and my oh-so-wrong wrench to temporarily mount the cylinder end back in the tractor, (Fair warning!! Those mechanics out there that are sensitive and easily upset should skip the next photo!!!!)

so I could slap my big-honking pipe-wrench on the flats of the gland and twist it out of the cylinder far enough to turn by hand. (Hey, I gave you fair warning!)

Then it was cart everything back up to the main barn where I pulled the gland the rest of the way out and let the cylinder drain for a while. (If you noticed several photos back, my waste-oil pan is busy hanging out under the steering cylinder of the tractor which has a slow drip (One every 10 minutes or so) at one of the hose connections, hence the tiny little catch-pan here.)

With the cylinder (mostly) drained I could finally pull the shaft and piston out of it.

The thrill of victory was short lived once I saw all that gunk piled up there on the piston. I’m pretty sure that’s not right!!

But there’s no turning back now!

So I cleaned up the shaft/piston assembly and made the hike back down to the tractor-barn so I could remove the piston retention nut. Although I don’t have a 15/16’s socket, or open-end wrench for that matter, in my tool arsenal, at least this time I had a proper adjustable wrench that would fit.

I was a little leery of this step after reading about thread-lock, torches and impact wrenches to get this nut loose, but in actuality the nut only took about ¾ effort to break loose.


Back up at the main barn I finished removing the nut and pulled the piston off the shaft.

Clearly the O-ring has seen better days.

With the piston out of the way I was now able to slide the gland off the shaft.

And it immediately became clear why the dang thing was leaking.

You can see here that the second seal is crumbling away, big time,

leaving all sorts of debris hanging around.

I’m trying hard not to think about the fact that I’ve got three more identical cylinders on this tractor, all the same age, all with the same work and load history. Right now I’m just trying to get through this first cylinder with all of us in one piece and functioning!

Anyway – now that I have been able to verify the dimensions of my cylinder to confirm I was ordering the proper rebuild kit, it’s on its way and the saga will continue once the USPS does its thing.