"Commentary from the Countryside"
Thoughts on current events,
history, homesteading, preparedness, real food, and anything else I find interesting, from a cranky, middle-aged woman's common-sense perspective.

Monday, April 30, 2012

I Is Smart Now!

Well, probably not, but at least my phone is.  In my quest to cut down on expenses whenever I can, I recently made a major change in my wireless carrier and my phone.  From my research on the internet, it seems a lot of people are doing the same thing and there's a lot of confusing and conflicting information.  I spent about two or three months on this whole process, so I'll share how I worked it out and maybe it will help someone else who is also looking to simplify and save money, while retaining some modern perks.

I started with a 'Go Phone' account from At&T.  I much prefer the month by month system to the contract system, even though I had to buy a phone, rather than get one "free" for signing the contract.  $60.00/month for unlimited talk and text was a bargain at the time I was dumping my old contract.  It's also a nice way to keep personal information personal; instead of having an account and paying by check or debit card, I simply picked up the refill card at Kmart or where ever I happened to be, and used the PIN to recharge my minutes.  So things were going alright, until my phone started to have battery issues, and I realized that AT&T was advertising unlimited talk, text and data for $50.00/month.  Would have been nice if they had notified me about the price change, but no, each  month I loaded $60.00 on the phone and each month they took it all.  Plus they would not honor the unlimited data for anyone using a smartphone; it applies only to dumb phones.  The phone I was using, an LG Xenon, was a nice enough phone but consistently stalled out when trying to use the web and was basically useless for that service.  I'm not into facebook or you tube or minute by minute stock reports, but I did want a phone that was web capable as a back up for checking email and such while traveling.

So I started doing research.  Since I live basically out in nowhere, wireless options are limited, so there was an awful lot of checking and double checking to see what services were available.  Did you know that each carrier has two coverage maps on their websites?  The dark map that shows everywhere plus the moon with great signal is only for contract phones, and the second map (usually hidden) shows much less coverage for pay as you go phones.  I never did figure out why the difference.

Anyways, for sheer price it came down to Straight Talk, which is a fairly new offering from an old company, TracFone, which has partnered up with Wal Mart.  I'm not a big Wal Mart fan, but the price of $45.00/month for unlimited talk, text, and web is hard to beat.  There are only two other carriers that would serve my area, and neither of them could come close to that price.

I watched auctions on eBay and eventually bought an older model iPhone that used the proper frequencies for the Straight Talk system.  The option to use your own phone on the Straight Talk system is very recent, so it took a lot of research and hours of searching the web to figure out how to do it, especially since iPhones were mostly locked to the AT&T system, though it turns out that with some modifications, the AT&T locked phones are compatible with ST.  I finally muddled my way through by following these steps:

Purchased the iPhone 3gs through eBay.
Purchased the larger SIM card  and an airtime card from the Straight Talk website at www.straighttalksim.com.
Called AT&T and obtained my account number and established a PIN.  (But did not turn off my service as I wanted to keep my phone number.)
Put the SIM card in the iPhone, went to the Straight Talk website and activated it; by using the ST airtime card I did not have to give them any credit card information.
My old phone number was activated on the iPhone in about an hour.  I could talk and text right away, but could not access the internet off the cell towers or through my router. 
I emailed ST and they made some changes and instructed me to shut the phone off and then back on.  I was then able to use my home wi-fi.  This model of iPhone  does not allow access to the APN settings so I could not follow Straight Talk's instructions for accessing data.
To fix this, I used the iPhone connection to my wi-fi to go to www.unlockit.co.nz/, downloaded and installed the Straight Talk APN profile.

So now almost everything is up and working, and I have to say I'm enthralled by the whole 'app' world.  There are many that are free, and I found two wonderful programs that I highly recommend:  Plantets 3.2 by Dana Peters has wonderful star charts that are specific to your location and time, including 2-D and 3-D versions, and close ups of all the planets.  The second one is My Radar, a live, location and time specific basic radar that lets me know how much rain is coming in.  Upgrades are available to get National Weather Service warnings as they're issued.  I can see this app coming in handy when I'm planning to get in my kayak. 

The only thing not working is picture messaging, which for some obscure reason is called MMS.  It appears that I will have to 'jailbreak' my phone and install other programs to get it working, but that can wait for another time.

My overall investment for this whole process is tons of time and $205.00 for the phone, SIM card, air time card, shipping, and taxes.  My monthly phone bill (which is not tied to a social security number, physical address, or credit card number) will be just $45.00 plus tax for unlimited talking, texting, and some basic internet use, like checking for thunderstorms.  Not bad considering it's $375.00 for just the iPhone 3g at Apple - and that's the one with half the storage capacity of the one I bought.  I could get a new iPhone for much less by signing up for a two year contract with a service provider, however that involves a credit check and release of personal information, not to mention the commitment to an expensive two year plan.

It's been a couple of weeks now, and so far, so good. Here's hoping the phone keeps working and ST doesn't hike the monthly price!!

I hope my experience helps someone who's been struggling with the same questions.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Making a Grow Station

I'm always looking to do things without spending a lot of money.  This is how I made a seed starting/growing station in my basement with scrap lumber, bits of things I had around, and some old office lights I got off craigslist for around forty dollars.

The lights came with the pigtail in an aluminum conduit from where they had been hard wired into a building electrical circuit.  A couple of them still had the diffuser panels.  I left the original light bulbs in place; I know there's a lot of talk about 'cold' and 'warm' lights, and phenomenally expensive 'full spectrum grow lights', but the seedlings seem to do just fine with the regular issue light bulbs.

The first chore was to remove the aluminum conduit and wire a plug onto each light.  I always have wire nuts, electrical tape, etc., in the tool box, and whenever something dies, like a vacuum cleaner or a sump pump, I cut the power cord off and save it.  So I had enough cords on hand to wire all four lights with a plug without buying any parts.  The wiring is pretty simple - red or black is hot, and white is neutral.  One just has to be careful to keep hot to hot and neutral to neutral to avoid any potential fireworks.
Once I had all the lights wired with plugs and tested, I laid them side by side on a couple of 2x4s.  (True story:  I found a whole bunch of these 2x4s in a roadside ditch where someone was making a burn pile of debris from a home renovation.  They're not perfectly straight, but certainly useful, so they came home with me!)  Using some drywall screws with small washers, I drilled through the metal housing of the lights and secured them to the 2x4s, eight screws for each light.  Then came the fun part, turning the whole apparatus over.  It wasn't graceful but I managed to do it without breaking any of the lights.  Using two more scraps of 2x4, I put cross pieces on to stiffen the light bank and keep it from flexing, then using washers and some eyebolts I made attachment points for the hanging chains.

I put heavy spikes in the overhead joists, and hung lengths of chain, which I connected to the lights with S-hooks.  That way I can adjust the height of the lights above the plants.  This picture is a little hard to make out; but you can see the chains in the top area, the 2x4s, and then how bright the lights are over the seed trays.  I used my outdoor Christmas lights timer to control a fused power strip that all the lights are plugged into, and a small electric heater under the seed trays.  I have it set to give the seedlings about 12 hours of light per day.  The seed flats are supported by a couple of old sawhorses and left over 2x10s and a 2x4.
The above pictures are from last year, when I first set up the whole thing. Here's some pictures I took today; a little better picture of the chain arrangement, and you can see the sheets of styrofoam insulation and cardboard I use to keep the light and heat in by the plants:

Lessons learned from last year's experiment have resulted in better results so far this year:  1. Every single little seed has it's own name tag; one per row results in mass confusion when it's transplant time.   2. Go ahead and buy peat pellet refills and use the premade plastic covers.  Saran wrap is a pain, peat pots are hard to keep covered, and dry out too fast.   3.  Keep mouse traps set or the little pests think the whole thing is a giant salad bar.

I'm already repotting the first flats of tomatoes that I planted, and today I need to start with the pumpkins and squashes.  Once they sprout, they really take off!  In just twelve days or so they've gone from seeds to overwhelming the whole flat.  So far germination has been very good; out of each flat of 72 pellets I've only had a few that didn't sprout.  Several seed packets were bought new this year, and a friend sent me some squash and okra (Okra! What am I supposed to do with that??),  but most of the vegetable seeds I used this year were saved from 2010 and 2011, and almost all of them are heirloom varieties obtained from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com).  This is my third year using their seeds, and I've been happy with the customer service and the quality of the seeds.

So far this little growing station has worked well for me, and cost very little to set up.  I don't really like using electricity and running up that bill, but I don't have an outdoor greenhouse, nor enough south facing window space, and my basement rarely gets above fifty-some degrees, so this is what it is for now.  Using the timer helps to keep the bill down a little, and I am planning to change the heat source.  Even using heavy gauge cords and a GFCI outlet, the electric heater makes me a little nervous.  Can't argue with the results, though, and the whole apparatus is only in use for a month or so out of the year.  As time goes on I hope to build an outdoor greenhouse, but that project is a ways down on the priority list.

Despite the fact that a sharply cold north wind continues to howl around the house, I believe it won't be much longer until I can start setting the seedlings out to harden off.  Then it will be planting time, and hopefully a chance to make a dollar or two selling the extras.

Happy gardening!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

One Foot in Front of the Other

Sometimes it seems like that's all one can do, just keep plugging away.  There's much to do on the homestead these days and it's a struggle to keep up now that I've been called back to work a couple days/week.  The garden seedlings are doing well, the first tomatoes are ready to be transplanted to larger containers, some of the peppers are up, and the squash seedlings seemed to come up in no time.  I'm pleased with the way the peat pellets work, I haven't had near the losses I had last year trying to use other methods.  Of course the weather has decided to repeat early March, and get it right this time - our 80 degree days have disappeared and it's been in the 40s, with wind, rain, and the occasional snowflake, so my baby plants will be staying safely under the grow lights for now.  I also got all my seeds sorted out and plans somewhat finalized as to what is going where in the garden.

Last Monday we had quite a blustery day.  Lots of power outages, trees down, a few buildings damaged.  Woke up Tuesday morning to find a large portion of a tree across my driveway.  Thankfully it missed everything, but there was no getting out until I got a path cut.  I was really happy I had bought that little electric chainsaw!  Finished clearing all that up today and cutting the broken portion off the rest of the tree.  The saw has a 14" blade, and was just about at it's full size and horsepower capacity trying to get through that, but we made it.  Glad I didn't have to struggle with the gas saw!

Kind of looks like it hurt
Got a little side job of tilling up a garden patch for a neighbor - and this time I kept the tiller under control!  Bartered the work for a few needful things, so it was all good.

With all the rain my grass is beginning to look like a hayfield, so it's time to tackle the job of putting new blades on the mower deck and getting it on the tractor.  Though I keep eyeing a certain portion of the back yard, that if it was tilled up would make a dandy pumpkin patch.....

Until next time, take care, my friends.

My poor frozen, wind-swept tulips.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tired of the Media

Things have certainly changed since I was a child, when one could listen to the radio, or watch a grand total of three television stations for an evening news report.  Now we are inundated with news and pseudo-news programs from dozens of channels, day and night.  With satellites and the internet, small local incidents can be publicized around the globe in mere moments.

But how much of it is news?  How much of this constant flow of information is factual and unbiased?  I cannot say if David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite were trustworthy, as I was too young to understand the issues.  But I can say that what I see today is terribly slanted, biased and frequently not even based on facts. 

I had my first education in modern mainstream media when I worked as a firefighter/EMT/dispatcher a couple of decades ago.  I would work an accident or fire incident and then later see a newscast that completely missed all the facts of the case.  At first it seemed a bit of a joke, but as it continued it became a source of cynicism.  I don't know why the reporters bothered to drive out to the site, their stories could easily have been made up in the office.  And the tricks they would use were disgusting, including impersonating doctors to get information about a victim's condition, up to actually crawling into a bloody wrecked car to videotape the body of a teenaged victim.  Nothing was too low for them.

I've learned to listen closely to the words, when watching the news.  If one pays attention, one can easily see the liberal bias, alarmist slant, or self-serving perspective in virtually all of the mainstream media.  It's a shame that they are seen as representative of what's happening in our country, because they focus only on the negative, and what they can sensationalize. Take for example, the recent controversy surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin.  According to the media, the boy was a saint, gunned down in cold blood by a vigilante wannabe only because he was black. Perhaps he was, I don't know, but I doubt that we have all the facts.  The man who allegedly killed him has already been tried and convicted by the media, who conveniently edited the 911 tape so that it supported their position.  They call it a white racist crime, conveniently ignoring the fact that the shooter is hispanic.  The boy's death is a senseless tragedy, to be sure, but why has it become a national cause spawning sweatshirt sales?   Even the current Pretender in the White House jumped on the bandwagon, stating "if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon".  Well, that's a given.  But what about the hundreds of young black men that are murdered every year?  Aren't they equally as tragic?  Would they not look like his son too?  Or are they not worthy of the tremendous attention, because the shooters were also black, so there's no 'racist' story to exploit?

I say this is another case of the irresponsible news media seeing a tragic event as something they can capitalize on in the ongoing effort to be the loudest, most sensationalized, most controversial news show.  Facts won't stand in the way of ratings and the value of a life won't measure up against advertising dollars.  I believe my cynicism is well founded.

Nowadays I tune in the evening news only for the local weather report.  To learn what's going on in the world I read several different sources online, and in local papers, and then make my own decisions and draw my own conclusions.  But then again, I'm just an independent ornery sort of woman, anyways!

Saturday, April 7, 2012


Today was another one of those "interesting" days that I seem to have.  It was supposed to be just a simple day: clean house, take care of my seedlings, bake a cake, do laundry; simple, normal stuff.  Somehow, though, my simple, normal days seem to take a left turn shortly after breakfast, and then it's hold on to your hat the rest of the day.

Remember the home-made ginger ale experiment?  Well after deciding that I didn't care for the taste, I had forgotten about the bottle in the back of the fridge.  Found it this morning while clearing out other, shall we say, "unintended experiments", and decided I should just empty the bottle.  So I carefully hold it over the sink and start to slowly open the cap.

Ever watch a video of the Diet Coke/Mentos combination?  Oh yeah.  As soon as the cap was slightly open, that ginger ale started shooting out, whistling and foaming and blowing the cap right off.  The bottle spun in my hands, bounced off the sink, and shot across the room, spewing a jet of supercharged ginger ale in it's wake.  It slammed into the pantry door, ricocheted under the table, launched off a chair, arced across the ceiling, sprayed down the storage cupboards, and finally came to a spinning, gurgling stop in the center of the floor.  I was still standing at the counter, hands out over the sink cupped around a bottle that was no longer there, with bits of grated ginger dripping down my face and a soaking wet shirt.  The poor ol' dawg had run for cover and was watching cautiously from the other room, one curious brown eye and a perked-up ear visible in the doorway.  All was suddenly very quiet, except for the drip, drip, drip of ginger ale falling from the ceiling, until I started laughing.  Ok, there may have been a bit of hysteria to it, but what else could I do?  I must have looked pretty silly!

I hadn't planned on starting the heavy duty Spring cleaning today, but since the entire kitchen was a sticky, wet, aromatic mess, well, I had no choice.  Not only was the floor covered, I found puddles of ginger ale on the table, the counters, the stove, and in the silverware drawer.  There's a few silver linings to the day though - my kitchen is bright and shiny, I still got the cake done, and I'm not hosting the Easter dinner this year, so the other chores can wait.

Looking forward to the sunrise Easter service tomorrow, to the light, the joy, the great old hymns.  I know that my Redeemer lives!

Happy Easter, my friends.

Friday, April 6, 2012


I have always enjoyed the cycle of the year, the rhythm of the seasons; one of the things I love about Michigan is that we do have all four seasons - sometimes all in one day! - but I revel in the solid differences of each season.  It must be so boring to live somewhere with no changes.   Though as I get older it seems the seasons come and go so much more quickly than when I was a child.  Christmas used to come so slowly, dawdling along like a young boy who doesn't want to get started on his chores.  Now it seems I've hardly washed the Thanksgiving dinner dishes before I fall headlong into Advent, with Christmas suddenly on the doorstep.  I look up again, and here comes Easter!

It is late in the evening now and Jupiter and Venus are filling the western sky, and a brilliant full moon made the road a thin silver ribbon as we made our way home from church.  Today was Good Friday, and tonight was our Tennebrae Service, a part of the Lenten season of the church year.  Based on ancient practices, it is a journey from light into darkness, a sorrowful celebration of our Lord's journey through pain and suffering into death.  It is a humbling and soul-striking reminder of how He paid the ultimate price to redeem all of us from death and sin.  Tomorrow's service will be the Easter Vigil, still quiet and sorrowful; akin to the disciples quietly cowering behind locked doors, still in shock and disbelief that Jesus was dead.  Finally Easter morning will come, with glorious light and joy and song bursting forth like the springtime life we see outside.  From the darkness we move forward with joy and thanksgiving, celebrating our Lord risen from the dead!  The organ will thunder and the trumpets sound as we sing with gusto "I know that my Redeemer lives!"  

Though the unpredictable Michigan weather can just for laughs toss a snowstorm into the middle of April, Easter always seems to be the time when we can say "Spring is here!" and enjoy the tulips, daffodils, and flowering trees as we get ready to plant gardens and chase the winter mustiness out of the house.  The sun's warmth is stronger each day, and daylight lingers long after supper.  My tomato and pepper seeds I planted last week have begun sprouting, and it's time to put them under the grow lights.  The endless rhythm of the seasons has cycled back to Spring and another chance to plant the 'perfect' garden.

A blessed Easter to everyone.  He is risen, He is risen indeed!