Hut 2.0 Roof Progress

The weather cooperated this week and gave me a few beautiful warm days, which I took advantage of to continue work on the roof. I got all the sheathing up, the ridge sealed up, and rigid insulation boards laid down on one side. I need a couple more purlins and then Ondura roofing panels will be ready to go up. I kind of screwed up with the measurements, so the gap between the roofing panels at the ridge might be a couple inches too wide for the ridge caps. Annoying, but I think I know how to fix the problem.

Also, I got a little worried about falling off the roof, so I decided to start tying myself in while working up there. I wanted to get my climbing harness out of storage, but never got around to it. So, instead, I improvised a harness out of a length of nylon strapping I bought at WalMart. I learned this trick from my dad when I was a teenager and went rock climbing with him one time. You basically take a loop of nylon tape, wrap it around your butt, then reach down and grab one of the lengths forward from between your legs. Put a carabiner through all 3 loops, and you have yourself a harness. Every time I climb onto the roof, I clip myself into a rope that’s tied off on the other end with enough slack to get me down to the scaffolding, but not all the way to the ground. At least, that’s the theory…

(I have more photos over on Flickr.)

Fork in the Road

The day of reckoning came sooner than expected. I ran out of money. My checking account was practically empty, and my credit cards maxed out. It was a day I knew was coming, but it happened a little sooner than I’d anticipated due to some sudden and unexpected expenditures. So, I activated my backup plan, which was to jail-break some funds I’d locked away in a CD, but things got complicated when the banker gave me misleading information, then flat-out wrong information, then explained that to get my money, I’d have to run around in a circle eleven times, bark thrice, do a 350 degree back flip, and cough up $6000 first.

Anyway, with the help of some friends, it looks like I’m going to be able to get my money out, but only enough to last me a couple of months. Which is to say, I got a two month extension on my day of reckoning. But it’ll come back, and hopefully I’ll have a better plan the next time I come to this juncture.

It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about this problem. In fact, I’ve put a lot of thought into my next steps, but I simply haven’t been able to make a decision. This is a new phenomenon for me. My life has always been guided one way or another, and whenever I came to a fork in the road, I somehow always knew what the next step should be. Sure, I’ve had some tough decisions to make, like in 2005 when I had those two enticing job offers, one from this big company called Yahoo, and another from this pimple-faced Harvard dropout named Mark Zuckerburg who wanted me to come work on this little website called But, as difficult as that was, I knew in my heart which option I wanted to take.

Now, I’ve got options, and I’m not entirely sure where my heart is. So, let’s turn my life into a little Choose-Your-Adventure game, shall we? What, dear readers, do you think should happen next in my life, and by extension, to this blog?

Here are the options (in no particular order):

  • Adventure A: Go back to work full time. Part of the problem right now is that my expenses are way too high. I’m still making monthly payments on my land, as well as my car, then there’s health insurance, car insurance, phone bills, credit card bills, etc, etc. All told, I need over $1200 per month just to keep up with my bills, and that’s not including food and gas. Yes, it’s a sad state of affairs, especially for someone living a fairly frugal lifestyle in the woods, but that is the truth. However, I could make enough as a software engineer, so that if I went back to work full-time, I’d be able to pay off all my debt and save up some, in just a year or two. Once my recurring expenditures have come down to something more reasonable, I can come back to the woods, and spend a year or two without worrying about money. Of course, that would still only be a temporary option. Though not impossible in Silicon Valley, it’s highly unlikely that I’d be able to make enough money to last me a life time, which means I’d eventually need to find some way to make money again. I also left Silicon Valley cube farms for a reason, and I don’t know if I can stand going back for a year or two of office life without losing my soul.
  • Adventure B: Stay on my property for the winter. When I first started thinking about my land-ventures, my plan was to buy land, spend a year on it, then write a book about my experiences. I’ve been up here now for the better part of this year since late-Spring. If I could stay the winter, that would constitute more or less a year, and I might have enough material for a book. At the very least, I’ll have more material for this blog, which I won’t have if I left again for the winter.

    As far as adventures go, staying here for the winter seems like a pretty good one. It’ll be quite a challenge, and it seems like the odds are pretty good that I’ll be miserable for the better part of the colder months, but it’ll be an interesting experience nonetheless. Besides, it’s the only way to get a realistic view of conditions during the winter, and unquestionably, there is much to be learned. There’s also the satisfaction of being able to say “I live on my property for a year.” As it stands, I can only claim to have spent the nice warmer months here, and that’s pretty lame.

    The problem, of course, is that I’m out of money. Or will be out of money again probably around December. Additionally, I’d need to buy more gear to survive the winter reasonably comfortably, so I’d need even more money. One option is to try and find some contract work that I can do while on my property, but that’s a little iffy. While I can get decent internet up here through Verizon’s wireless network, I’m not sure how much power I’ll have over the winter. The days will be short and sunny days will be far and few between, so I won’t be able to generate as much solar power. I’d probably also get a wind generator, but those obviously only work if there’s good wind. Most contract jobs also require some face-time with the clients, but I could conceivably get snowed in for weeks at a time. The paved road will be kept plowed, but I have no idea what kind of condition the dirt road that leads from my camp to the paved road will be in.

    One possibility is to do some contract work full-time for a month or two. With the rates I get, I can probably earn enough to last me several months that way, and if the timing works out, I can still spend most of the colder months here. Naturally, this option depends on finding the right gig, and has the same problem as Adventure A, in that I’ll come back to where I am now in a matter of months. While I may be able to write a book, it would be foolish of me to assume that I’d find a publisher, much less that I’d make any money off of it.

  • Adventure C: Enlist in the Air National Guard, followed by career change. Now for something completely different, as Monty Python would say. I started looking into the Air Guard a year ago, when I was in a somewhat similar situation as I find myself in now, and saw a recruitment billboard for the 129th Rescue Wing while driving up Highway 101. I must’ve driven past that billboard hundreds of times when I lived and worked in Silicon Valley. In fact, I’d noticed the sign before, too, though I’d always been happily and gainfully employed, and so never gave it much attention. This time, it was different.

    Having never outgrown my boyish fascination with things military, I’ve always been interested in the armed forces. But being something of a pacifist, I’d never considered a career in uniform, especially not with an organization embroiled in two conflicts I don’t agree with. Besides, I was massively obese for most of my adolescent years, then I became a computer nerd and spent a decade sitting on my ass in front of the computer screen, and it just didn’t seem like I’d have the brawn to get through military training. But as I passed that sign, one late Autumn day last year, something felt different.

    For starters, the billboard depicts an HH-60G PaveHawk helicopter plucking someone out of the water. Rescue. Rescue is good, even for pacifists. Then another part of my brain piped up saying “You always did love helicopters.” I drove on in silence. “Wasn’t doing aircraft maintenance one of your childhood dreams?” Quipped my brain, suggestively. “You just spent months in the woods. You’re pretty fit. Probably about as fit as you’d ever be.” My brain had a point. I was intrigued.

    I did a little research online, and learned that the Air Guard works very differently to the regular Air Force. For starters, National Guard units belong to individual states, unless loaned to the federal government. With the Air Guard, you get to choose your unit and occupation when enlisting, so I’d be reasonably sure that I wouldn’t end up a door gunner in Alabama, for instance. Guardsmen (and -women) serve one weekend a month, plus two weeks a year, and can lead mostly normal civilian lives the rest of the time. The 129th had an opening in helicopter maintenance. The job came with a $20k bonus.

    So one warm day in December last year, I walked into their nondescript recruitment office located just a couple of blocks from the restaurants and cafes in downtown Mountain View bustling with Silicon Valley tech workers on lunch break. The recruiters were happy to see me. For starters, I wasn’t obese (“it’s rare these days” they explained), I had a college degree (two pay-ranks’ promotion off the bat), and no known medical conditions (they suggested I keep quiet about the braces behind my lower teeth). But, ultimately, I didn’t continue with the process then because the helicopter maintenance job I’d wanted had just been filled. They had an opening in engine maintenance, and though I find aircraft engines to be fascinating and can explain the difference between turbojet, turbofan and turboshaft engines, I ultimately didn’t want to be an engine geek; I like helicopters, and I want to learn all about them, not just the engines.

    Over the past year, I’ve continued to think about this option. It’s compelling in a lot of ways. If nothing else, it’s something completely different, and I think it could be a challenging but interesting experience. If I time things right, I could let Uncle Sam feed, shelter and clothe me during the colder months while I’m in training. If they’re still giving $20k bonuses, that’d go a long ways towards paying off my debt, and once I’m out of training I’d also secure 4 days pay a month (they pay double-time) thereafter. I could also use the education benefits to go back to school, and retrain for a career change in my civilian life. Military training might also teach me skills that could help me get a job as a seasonal firefighter near my property, since that’s basically the only well paying job around here (besides, who wouldn’t want to be a firefighter?).

    So, why haven’t I enlisted yet? The short answer is, fear. And it’s not the fear of being deployed, which is what my friends seem to worry about. Rather, it’s fear of the unknown. The fear of being thrust into a foreign culture. The fear of commitment. There’s also the fear of losing my individual freedom, especially during the 5-6 months of training. Then there’s the fear of failure and ridicule — that I’d show up and they’d laugh at me and say I’m too short, old and weak… and worse, that they’d be right. But then, I hate the feeling of succumbing to my fears, of letting my unfounded worries prevent me from living. And while less of a consideration, the thought that enlisting would be looked upon unfavorably by those around me also weighs on me. I don’t generally let my friends and family tell me how to live, but it still takes an extra ounce of conviction to do something without the support of the people who are important to me. And on this one, I’m not sure I have that extra ounce.

When I quit my job at Google a year and a half ago, I thought, or wanted to think, that I’d return after a break. But as the months ticked by, it’s become clear to me that, as a software engineer, I’m like a racehorse with a broken leg; I may never race again. Sure, I can run in short stints, but a full-blown comeback with any chance of success is starting to seem less and less likely. Ironically, that makes any plan that involves making money as a software engineer unsustainable in the long run. Of the three options above, the one that may seem the most brash –enlisting– seems like the best option in the long run because, in addition to providing short term employment, it also has the potential to fund, or otherwise prepare me for, what I probably need: a career change. But, no doubt, it’s also the scariest and most controversial option, hence the indecision.

Any thoughts?

Hut Finishin’ 2.0: Oct 28 – Nov 1

Attention all hut builders! If you missed out on Hut Raising 2.0, this is your last chance to get some hut building action in Serenity Valley before the season ends! Hut Finishing 2.0 will be Oct 28 through Nov 1st.

If you’d like to come, drop me an email, or post a comment below (and be sure to fill in the email address field).

Note: It’s been pretty rainy lately up on Serenity Valley, and with temperatures dropping, conditions can get miserable if the weather is uncooperative. Hut Raising 2.0 may be cancelled if inclement weather is forecasted.

Journal: October 1st, 2010

I just had a delicious meal of turkey burgers with a side of corn on the cob fresh off the garden. The burger, a turkey cheese burger to be precise, was quite epic. I used smoked gouda cheese, and for fixin’s, had cucumber fresh off the vine, onions, and avocado. Mmmm.

A few years ago, I stopped eating beef (save for the occasional lapses) for environmental reasons, and started making turkey burgers whenever I felt like having a burger. Rather than buy pre-made burger patties, I make them from scratch, since it’s so easy (and much cheaper). The basic “recipe” I use is as follows:

  • 1 ~ 1.5lb ground turkey
  • 1 ~ 2 slices of bread
  • a bit of milk (dairy, or soy/almond/donkey milk)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 – 1/2 finely chopped onion
  • seasoning to taste
  • a bit of oil

I first tear up the bread in a little bowl, and pour in just enough milk to soak the bread and make it soft. The bread-milk mush then gets mixed into the ground turkey and all the other ingredients in a bowl. Make patties, then cook in a pan or grill. When grilling, it helps to make the patties before hand and freeze them. The frozen patties will retain their shape longer, while raw patties might ooze through the grills before they’ve had a chance to cook and harden. Ground turkey by itself tends to be leaner than ground beef, so you need binding to keep it from falling apart, hence the bread, egg and onion. I’m sure there are other bindings that could be used, and if you could find fatty ground turkey, that might not be necessary either.


In other news, I’ve resumed work on Hut 2.0 after a 3 week hiatus which was spent mostly in San Francisco. Now, I’m back, and the weather’s cleared up nicely, so I’m making slow but steady progress again. I’m still working on the roof, and over the last couple of days, got some OSB sheets up. Before I could get to the roof, I had to put up some scaffolding, which consists of four 2x4x16s nailed onto my 4×4 posts about 3 feet below the eaves, with a 2x6x16 laid across the 2x4s parallel to the eaves about 2 ft off the wall. The hardest part of it all is getting the OSB up there. Each sheet weighs probably 40lb, is 4 feet wide and is longer than I am tall, so it’s a bit unwieldy to say the least. I got one sheet up by brute forcing it up the ladder and tossing it onto the rafters. But that required me to go up the ladder without my hands, the board resting partially on my head and shoulder, then heave it with all my might over the eaves onto the rafters (I’d attached stoppers to the ends of a couple of rafters to keep the sheet from sliding off, once I got it up there). I did it once, but didn’t think I could do that again, much less 7 more times. Fortunately, once I had the scaffolding up, I found that I could toss the boards onto the scaffolding, and avoid the part where I climb a ladder practically blind and handless. Unfortunately, due to the size of the boards and the height of the scaffolding (over 8ft from the ground), I can’t exactly see the scaffolding when I’m behind the board and trying to lift it up. So I just have to toss it up with a heavy oompf, then step away in case the board fails to land on the scaffolding and decides to come back to earth.

Yup. I’m having fun.

In related news, I decided to change the location of my door, based on something I read in an architecture book. According to my original plan, my hut was supposed to look something like this (looking down from above):

  \                 |    \ = door
  |                +|    + = ladder to loft
  |                 |

The problem with this layout is that, if I wanted to keep a clear path between the door and the ladder (so that I could get down from the loft and out the door in a hurry, if I had to), that path would traverse the length of the hut and kill a lot of space.

Instead, I decided to do something like this:

  |                 |    \ = door
  |                +|    + = ladder to loft
  |                 |
  ---------------- \

The door is now right next to the ladder, which solves the oh-shit-get-out-quick problem, and also leaves the rest of the space completely open.

Speaking of emergency egress, the loft is actually open on both ends. While the ladder will only be on one end, I could in theory also climb off the loft on the other end, and go out a window, if, for instance, a big bad wolf was blocking the door.


I’ve run into power issues. Again.

My 100W solar panel, mounted on the solar tracker, is generating enough power to more than cover my needs. But, this time, it’s not that I don’t have enough power, but rather, I don’t have enough AC power to recharge the 18V batteries that run my circular saw. I’ve been plugging the 18V wall charger into a 200W inverter, which in turn was plugged into one of my 12V batteries (which in turn were charged from solar panels). But my 200W inverter inexplicably stopped working recently, leaving me only with a 150W inverter. The 150W inverter will run the 18V wall charger if it’s plugged into my car with the engine running (probably because my 40 Amp alternator provides more than enough 13 Volt power), but not off my 12V battery even when it’s full AND my solar panel is pumping in an additional 5 Amps at 13 Volts (seeing how the charger is rated at 2 Amps @ 120 Volts, or 240 Watts, I guess that’s not surprising). So, basically, I can’t recharge my saw batteries unless I run my car engine for the hour or so it takes, and that’s not an acceptable solution.

My 18V batteries should be good for another day or two, but after that, I’m going to have to go to town and buy either a car charger, or another inverter. Last time I checked, a car charger for the DeWalt 18V batteries cost over $100, so an inverter would actually be cheaper, and in some ways, more versatile. The car charger would be more efficient, since it would eliminate any inefficiencies incurred by the inverter, but then, I have a surplus of power right now (and a shortage of money), so I think I’ll just get a cheap inverter.