Review: Irwin Self-Adjusting Wire Stripper

Like many people, I like to have the right tool whenever I do household projects. So when I see a tool that may come in handy, I think about purchasing it for my collection. While I might not have a need for it today who knows when it will come in handy in the future.

In December I saw the IRWIN VISE-GRIP Self-Adjusting Wire Stripper on sale and it looked interesting. The theory behind this tool is that you put in any gauge wire and it strips it without nicking the wire. If it worked as advertised, this tool could have saved me countless hours over the last 20 years of being a home owner. I’ve installed outlets, switches, ran Cat 6 cable, installed landscape lighting, ran speaker wire, and numerous other projects that required me to strip wire.

When I received the stripper, I looked for scrap pieces of wire in my random collection of parts. I tried the stripper on different stranded and solid wire. I put the wire in the tool, squeezed the handles and the wire was effortlessly stripped. After I got used to the tool (it didn’t include instructions and I was at first confused as to how it worked), all I wanted to do is find wire to strip! Whatever wire I threw at it, it did a flawless job at taking off the insulation and not touching the wire. I was in awe that the tool worked so well; it was almost too good to be true.

I do have to tug on the side that isn’t getting stripped so that the wire doesn’t move, but other than that the tool is simple to use. I’m working on putting all my HAM radio equipment in a transportable box (more on that another day) and everything I’ve read says to use Anderson Powerpole connectors. Just about every installation video for these connectors uses a tool similar to these self-adjusting wire stripper; I am very excited to actually use the tool in a project and not just testing it!

Pros

  • Easy to use.
  • Fast.
  • Strips wire without nicking the wire.
  • Works on every gauge wire I’ve tried.

Cons

  • Didn’t purchase sooner.

Summary

If you don’t already have this tool or a similar one, I’d recommend purchasing it even if you don’t have a need for it today. The current price is about $20 and after using it, I would gladly pay the current price. Any homeowner that does any type of work with wire will wonder how he or she lived without this.

Review: SyncWire USB-C Ethernet Adapter

Now that I have a MacBook Pro with only USB-C ports and no USB-C peripherals, dongles are the only way to connect devices. I wrote about dongles last year and have been happy with just a USB-C to Thunderbolt and a USB-C to USB-A dongle. I haven’t seen the need for additional dongles, yet, but with the hopes that Apple will release its own display instead of promoting the LG UltraFine display I’ve been revisiting that.

With my current Thunderbolt Display, I have Ethernet, FireWire (I don’t use it), Thunderbolt and 3 USB-A ports. If Apple follows LG’s lead on a new display, the display will only have USB-C ports. If and when I purchase this magical display that doesn’t exist, yet, I’ll have to figure out how to connect my array of devices. Currently I am connected to the network through the Ethernet in the display which would go away with a new monitor. I always prefer wired networking over wireless networking, so when I was offered a SyncWire USB-C to Ethernet Adapter to review, I jumped at the opportunity.

An Ethernet adapter is pretty basic; plug it in and it works. That was definitely the case with the SyncWire adapter. There were no drivers and it was instantly recognized by my Mac.

IMG 0155 3

There are only a few thing that I care about for Ethernet:

  1. Does it work?
  2. Is it reliable?
  3. Is it fast?

For the first two, I’ve been using the adapter for 5 days now and I haven’t seen any hiccups. I disconnected the Ethernet from my display and turned off WiFi. I do regular backups and transfer a decent amount of through it which should put the adapter through its paces. For the last one, the test I used was iperf3 running between my MacBook Pro and my Mac Pro on the same LAN connected via a Ubiquiti UniFi Switch. The result is that the adapter could transfer data at over 900 Mbits/sec. This is definitely not bad. On WiFi, I can get about 360 Mbits/sec. When my MacBook Pro is connected to the Thunderbolt Display, I see about 935 Mbits/sec. I would have expected better throughput with the adapter, but in the real world I’ll likely never see sustained speeds anywhere close to this.

Screen Shot 2018 04 03 at 9 23 58 AM

So far the adapter meets my three basic needs for a network adapter.

Pros

  • Compact size
  • Reasonable price point
  • Appears reliable
  • Decent transfer speeds

Cons

  • Unknown long term reliability

Summary

While I wasn’t looking for a USB-C to Ethernet adapter right now, this would probably have been on my shopping list when I get monitors that only have USB-C ports. When I purchase equipment for my computer, I tend to goto brand names that I have heard of before as I don’t like messing around with shoddy parts just to save a few dollars. I chose SyncWire for a few Lightning cables as they were MFi certified and were on sale. Prior to that, I had never heard of SyncWire and definitely wouldn’t have bought their adapter. Now that I’ve had a chance to try out their USB-C to Ethernet adapter, I’m not sure I can recommend the product. While the price is right and it performs well, the big unknown is how reliable is the adapter in the future. If I was going to spend my money on an adapter, I’d probably look at a more dock like adapter that had USB-A ports in addition to Ethernet.

The purchase price of the adapter was refunded to me in exchange for writing this review. However, it didn’t influence what I wrote.

I was asked to post a review of this product on Amazon, but it is against Amazon guidelines to post incentivized reviews, so I posted this review here.

A year of being self employed

Where has time gone? I meant to write this article in December as it marked a year of me being self employed this time around. Anyone that has browsed my past articles will see that I’ve gone back and forth on being happy working for a company. Will this time being self employed be different? Will I be successful and happy?

I believe that in any professional service work, having good clients is the key. For the most part, I’ve always had good clients and worked with good teams. For the last year, I’ve had a great client.

Being self employed may sound glorious to those working for companies, but I always have concerns about being a one man team. I’m sure that others in the same position share the same concerns:

  • I can only accept as much work as I can do personally. While I could subcontract out my work, I’ve never really felt comfortable doing that as I get my contracts based on my own work and not the work of a team.
  • Having one main client means that if the client goes away, I’m left high and dry and have to immediately find another client.
  • Taking time off is somewhat tricky as I don’t have anyone to back me up and I feel guilty about it.
  • Who is going to help me if I get stuck on a problem? I can search the Internet for solutions, but have you looked at the Internet lately? 😀

With the ability to purchase health insurance on the open market now, I’m not concerned with getting health insurance. This used to be a big concern of mine. The cost of health insurance on the open market is quite high but, I’m lucky that I can afford it.

In the last 15 months, my large client has been great. I’m treated as part of the team and the team is made up of really good people. I don’t feel stressed and manage to get the work done when needed. I do feel guilty about taking time off (I’ve taken a few days off), but no one minds which is a huge relief. Being always reachable is both a blessing and a curse; I can’t be completely disconnected from work but my client can feel comfortable knowing that I can be reached. I really can’t ask for anything more from a client.

People think that being self employed offers a lot of freedom. In reality it offers the perception of flexibility. I still have to get up every morning and work as I have commitments to meet and have to meet with my team. This is no different than working for a company. Given that, why don’t I just work for the company? That’s a good question. I feel that I’m in charge of my own destiny. Is that really true? I have no idea.

Review: PhotoSweeper

Back in December when I was scanning in old photos, I found that I had some of the photos already in digital form leaving me with duplicates. The photos weren’t always of the same quality and I had to manually go through to pick the best one. I knew that there were programs out there to find duplicates, so I started searching. After a little while I stumbled upon PhotoSweeper and gave it a test drive.

The first step in using PhotoSweeper is to select a bunch of photos. In my case, I went ahead and selected all the photos.

PhotoSweeper

You then click Compare and select your options for comparison.

Compare

I selected a pretty loose matching criteria knowing that I would get a lot of matches. After you start, you see the blurred thumbnails of the photos as it goes through and does the comparisons.

Comparing

The number of photos and your matching criteria determines how long the process will take. The first time I ran it, I did a small sample just to see the results. I was amazed at the results as it found matches where the photos were scanned at different times, the color was different in them and sometimes the photos were cropped differently.

Duplicate

You then walk through the groups of photos and select the ones to mark for deletion. The process takes awhile depending on the number of photos you are comparing, but most of the matches really are duplicates or close to being duplicates. Once you hit Trash Marked, PhotoSweeper opens Photos and moves the photos you marked to its own album and gives instructions on how to permanently remove the photos.

Warning

The process is quite simple and straightforward. While the program may seem like a use once application, I’ve run it a few times just to see if I missed anything. The side by side comparison of matches is also quite useful to see if you want to remove photos that are not exact duplicates, but are close enough. In my match example above, the photos are quite close and I’d be fine with keeping just one of them. (If you can’t tell, the photo on the right shows a little bit of the electrical panel in the left side of the photo.)

Pros

  • Integrates with Photos app to read photos.
  • Creates new album for photos marked as deleted.
  • Many options for photo matching.
  • Works on JPEGs and HEIC (new image format used on iPhones).

Cons

  • I’m not a fan of the dark interface. I know this is more the norm in applications today, but I just don’t like it.

Summary

After I tried PhotoSweeper (you can get a trial version from the developer’s website) in a basic test to see if it would work, I immediately went to purchase it on the Mac App Store (I like the ease of use of the App Store and while I know that developers take a hit, the seamless process especially using Touch ID on my MacBook Pro takes the thinking out of the purchase.) Much to my surprise, I had already purchased the application! I’m not quite sure when or why I had purchased it. The $9.99 price tag is a small price to pay for an application that does exactly what it says it will do and does it well. I have no hesitation in recommending this application to anyone that has a photo album. Even if you aren’t scanning in photos, using the side by side comparison tool makes it easy to see if you want to remove similar photos.

One week with the ICOM IC-7100

After deciding on a ham radio to purchase, I bought an ICOM IC-7100 from GigaParts. I could have purchased it locally by going into Ham Radio Outlet, but I didn’t want to leave the house and my first interaction with the store wasn’t very helpful. In addition to purchasing the radio, I knew that I also had to purchase a power supply. I went with a TekPower TP30SWV as it got decent reviews and looked like it would meet my needs.

Last Friday the radio arrived, I opened it up and put it on my desk. Unfortunately Amazon hadn’t delivered the power supply making the radio a nice looking paperweight for awhile! Looking at the connectors on the radio, I knew there was another piece I needed to solve and that was how to connect the radio power cable to the power supply. I went to Home Depot and bought some crimp connectors. Once the power supply arrived and I was able to determine the size of the posts on the back of it, I went ahead and crimped on some lugs.

Power Supply Connectors

Radio and Power Supply

I hooked up my antenna (I have it mounted outside on the deck and fed into the house), turned on the radio (I had already gone through the manual a few times), tuned it to a repeater frequency and waited. Later that evening, I decided to dive into programming some repeater frequencies using the RTSystems software I purchased to go along with the radio (I’m definitely not a Windows fan, but the choices are limited in programming the radio using a computer). After playing around with the radio for awhile, I happened to tune to the national 2m simplex calling frequency and had a nice chat with someone about 10 miles away. While this wasn’t a huge distance, I was pretty impressed as the handheld I had made it hard to basically reach anyone.

Controller

The built in speaker is pretty clear and others have said that I’m clear (depending on the repeater I hit). The controls feel solid and the screen is quite readable. I really like that the controller is small and can sit just behind my keyboard; it doesn’t clutter up my desk and lets me play with it while I’m working.

The radio has far too many controls to understand all of them right now, but I’m trying to learn bit by bit. It is no wonder that a company makes a simplified manual which I’ve put on my “to buy” list.

So far I’ve been playing with 2m and 70cm on both FM and D-Star. I’ve made a few contacts and done a bunch of listening.

Desk and Radio

Pros

  • The separate controller and radio makes it easy to have the controls sit right on my desk without cluttering it.
  • Touchscreen interface with context sensitive buttons helps navigate the large number of features.
  • Microphone feels quite sturdy. Much more of a quality product than the microphone I have for my Baofeng.
  • Ability to change transmit power makes it easy to reach repeaters. Some have said that where I live is a difficult RF area due to the hills.
  • Pre-amplifier helps to bring in somewhat weak signals.
  • Ability to add a name to each memory location is extremely convenient. The Baofeng lets me display a name or the frequency, but not both.
  • Programming repeaters on the radio is straightforward; not as easy as using the programming software, but not really difficult.
  • Ability to easily tune to weather channels.
  • Can adjust various filters, though I’m not quite sure how much use those are in UHF/VHF and repeater use.

Cons

  • D-Star interface (or maybe it is just D-Star) is not very intuitive. I’ll write about this separately.
  • The programming software is a “clone” in that it completely overwrites the radio. So I have to read from the radio, modify it and then write it back otherwise I lose anything I’ve done on the radio.

Summary

I think I’ve made the right choice with this radio. It seems to have everything I need and is performing well. We’ll see what happens when I start getting into HF, but for UHF/VHF I don’t know what else I need or would want. The touchscreen interface is easy to use and while my only other ham radio experience has been a Baofeng, I can see how the interface is more convenient than conventional interfaces that require repeatedly pushing buttons to cycle through options. Seasoned operators might be used to other rigs and could probably tell me the limitations of the IC-7100, but as a starter radio this fits the bill.

There is no comparison between this radio and the cheap Baofeng I have. The Baofeng is almost painful to use while this is fun and easy to use. I’m looking forward to getting a handheld radio and based on my initial impressions of this ICOM radio, the ICOM ID-51A PLUS2 will be the ready for me.

IPv6 on USG

Recently Ubiquiti released version 5.7.20 of its controller software. One of the features it added was GUI control of IPv6 for the UniFi Security Gateway. IPv6 was already available if you were willing to muck with a JSON file and configure it; I already had it setup, but my goal is to keep removing my custom configurations and use the GUI for setup. This will give me a better view of the configuration.

While some tech folks have been pushing for IPv6 support everywhere due to the lack of IPv4 addresses, IPv4 still hasn’t gone away. My provider, Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable), has IPv6 on its network and just for learning about it, I had everything setup and working pretty well. Yesterday I upgraded my controller and started looking at how to setup IPv6 via the GUI. It is actually quite straightforward. I am NOT an IPv6 expert, so please send me corrections.

  1. Find your USG in the devices tab of the controller and click on it.
  2. Click on Config.
  3. Under IPv6, select Using DHCPv6 and set the Prefix Delegation Size according to whatever your ISP uses. Mine is 56.
    USG Configuration
  4. Queue Changes and then wait for the USG to be completely provisioned.
  5. Go into settings, click on Network, and then click Edit next to your LAN.
  6. Locate the Configure IPv6 Network section.
  7. Click on Prefix Delegation next to IPv6 Interface Type (this may differ depending on your ISP).
    LAN IPv6 Configuration
  8. The rest of the defaults seem to work fine.
  9. Under DHCPv6/RDNSS DNS Control, I set it to Manual so that I can override the IPv6 DNS servers that my ISP advertises. This allows me to use Pi-Hole and the USG as DNS servers.
  10. Enter the IPv6 addresses of DNS servers you want to use under DHCPv6/RDNSS Name Server. This can be tricky as the IPv6 address could change (though not likely), I entered the link local prefix of fe80:: instead of the first four groups of hex digits in the hopes that if my IPv6 address changes, I don’t have to reconfigure. This appears to work, but I am not 100% sure it is correct.
  11. Click Save and wait for the USG to provision.
  12. Restart any devices or just wait for them to pick up the IPv6 address. You can goto IPv6 Test and see if everything works.

Why use IPv6 now? I have no idea, but figure I’d learn a little and prepare for the future. I hope this helps someone configure IPv6.

A layered approach to backups

[Update: 08 Mar 2018 – Style updates (thanks, Richard!) and added information about source code backups.]

For the last 20 years I’ve been pretty paranoid about backups. While my approach has changed over the years, one constant is that losing data is disastrous. I started with manual backups to floppy disks, then to Jaz disks where I’d rotate disks and store one at my parents’ house, then moved to burning DVDs that I’d put in a safe deposit box.

These days my routine is more refined: I use a modified 3-2-1 strategy to protect my data. If you’re not familiar with the 3-2-1 strategy, it is to have 3 copies of your data, on 2 different media, with 1 off-site backup.

Hardware

  • 2017 MacBook Pro as my main machine
  • 2012 MacBook Pro for my wife’s machine
  • 2013 Mac Pro
  • Akitio Thunder2 Quad attached to the Mac Pro with four 6 TB drives; 2 are dedicated to backups. The drives are arranged in JBOD.
  • 9 1 TB bare drives
  • Newer Tech Voyager S3 connected to my MacBook Pro for doing backups to the bare drives
  • HighPoint Dual-Bay Thunderbolt Dock that I move between the Mac Pro and my wife’s MacBook Pro for backing up to the bare drives.
  • Carbon Copy Cloner. I used SuperDuper! for many years, but switched last fall because CCC has more features that work in my current strategy. SuperDuper! is a great product for cloning drives and has some features that CCC doesn’t have.

Procedure

  1. My wife and I each have iCloud accounts with extra storage mainly to keep copies of our photos. Not only are the photos in iCloud, but they are synced to our MacBook Pros which are then backed up.
  2. Each of the machines in my house backs up to Time Machine. My MacBook Pro and my wife’s MacBook Pro do this over the network to my Mac Pro acting as a server. The Mac Pro does a local Time Machine backup to the Akitio. I don’t consider a network Time Machine backup to be a primary backup as the disc image that Time Machine creates seems to get corrupted far too often. I have no idea why, but it is a thorn in my side. Time Machine, however, has saved data on more than one occasion.
  3. Every day both of the laptops are set to backup their home directories using Carbon Copy Cloner to a disc image residing on the Mac Pro. The disc image is temporary storage, but an extra copy just in case.
  4. Every day the disc images from the home directories are backed up to a folder on a different drive on the Mac Pro. This takes the files out of the disc image.
  5. Every day my accounting data and my Paperless libraries are copied to iCloud Drive on my MacBook Pro. Since my Mac Pro is also connected to iCloud, this has the advantage of copying the data to the Mac Pro and keeping extra backups.
  6. A full backup of the Mac Pro is done daily using Carbon Copy Cloner to a partition on one of the Akitio’s drives.
  7. Each week I use a bare hard drive and the hard drive dock to make a full copy of each computer. This is a manual process, but easy to do. Carbon Copy Cloner is set to backup on connect.
  8. Each week I take a set of the bare drives to my safe deposit box. I have 3 sets of bare drives and rotate them weekly. The 2 sets that aren’t in the safe deposit box are stored in a First Alert 2037F Fire Safe.
  9. My source code for work and some of my projects is stored on github.com or bitbucket.org.

While my setup isn’t the simplest or least expensive, I don’t worry about losing data. Of course there are failure points in this setup but in general most of my data will be preserved in case of some type of data disaster.

Thinking about emergency power

Recently someone sent me a link to a video about creating a relatively inexpensive battery pack that recharges using solar panels. While I’m not sure I’d trust the way that it was made, in theory it sounds like a great way to deliver emergency power to someone in need. With more and more large scale natural disasters, being able to rapidly deploy emergency power is vital to helping people get back on their feet. While governments and companies are building ways to help a large number of people at once, I think the concept of having personal portable power for any emergency is something worth considering.

I’ve started looking at systems that I could use and GoalZero makes a number of systems that can provide adequate power in an emergency and recharge using solar. The systems, however, are just a tad too expensive for me to purchase right now. I could see myself getting one of the 400W units as it could power vital electronics in an emergency; vital being cell phone (if it even worked), portable radio, recharge flashlights (my flashlights pretty much all recharge via USB), and maybe a laptop to keep in touch. Of course, I’m sure I’ll kick myself if I need it and I was too cheap to purchase it, but for now I’m just going to leave it on the nice to have list.

Picking a HAM radio

Now that I’ve decided to go further with HAM radio, I have to pick a radio. My BaoFeng BF-F8HP is usable, but hard to program and not the best radio. I’ve decided that I want to get a handheld (VHF/UHF) radio as well as a base station radio that does HF/VHF/UHF. The base station radios that do HF/VHF/UHF have been referred to as “shack in the box” and don’t perform as well as standalone HF and VHF/UHF radios, but for starting out I’m fine with the limitations.

My criteria for picking a radio is:

  • HF/VHF/UHF
  • Reasonable cost
  • Made by one of the big 3, Icom, Kenwood or Yaesu
  • Compact as I have limited space on my desk.
  • Has to do a digital mode.

With that list, it helped me narrow down the choices. I’ve asked a few people and I’ve gotten different answers on what to get. All say to check for used equipment which is a great suggestion.

In looking at the Kenwood options, they have one current radio, the TS-2000 to consider. Unfortunately it only meets two criteria and that is made by one of the big 3 and is a HF/VHF/UHF radio. Moving onto Yaesu…Yaesu’s digital mode is System Fusion which seems proprietary to me (more so than D-Star and DMR though some argue that the encoder for D-Star is proprietary) which discounts all their radios. That leaves me with Icom.

I really like the looks of the Icom radios and they have one, the IC-7100 that meets my criteria. The radio was introduced in 2012, so it has been around awhile. Originally it cost about $1600 and now they are about $800 (with rebate). Looking for a used one shows that they are in a similar price range, so there is little reason to get a used one without a warranty.

Picking a radio was a lot easier than I thought even though I have very little knowledge of radios. I figure that the IC-7100 will be a decent entry level radio that won’t break the bank.

If anyone has thoughts about my choice, please drop me a comment!

HAM Radio in today’s world

When I was in middle school, our principal came to talk to the science club about HAM radio (yes, I was in science club). The most interesting part of his talk was when he demonstrated making a phone call via a phone patch. Since it was amateur radio, the phone call could be heard by anyone monitoring the frequency so it wasn’t a replacement for the phone. However, this made an impression on me, but not enough to get licensed.

Eleven years ago I was part of CERT (and still am) and someone offered a course to become licensed as an amateur radio operator. As the FCC had dropped the requirement for morse code for the Technician license and was dropping the requirement for the higher level classes as well, passing the test was less difficult. The question bank for all the classes is published which makes it easy to study. I passed and was issued the call sign KI6FRM. I did nothing with my license until two years ago when I was laid off from work. I had nothing to do so I decided to study for the General Class license. I spent about a month reading and studying the ARRL General Class License Manual. In addition to reading the book, I used an iOS app to take practice test after practice test until I had high confidence that I could pass. I passed and still did nothing with the license. I bought a BaoFeng BF-F8HP radio which is a cheap Chinese radio and figured out how to program it with CHIRP. I listened a bit, but never pushed the transmit button.

Fast forward another year and a half. I’ve been searching for a hobby for awhile and as I approached my 45th birthday, I realized that I’ll be “retiring” in 20 years and will have to find something to do with my time. HAM radio popped into my head and thought that I might as well try to pass the Extra Class test while my brain still worked and I could memorize the answers. I studied the ARRL Extra Class License Manual and used an iOS app by the same author as the other app (the app is functional, but not pretty). I was extremely nervous as there is a lot of material that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. While a lot of the material was familiar (I have an engineering degree and studied electronics), I didn’t know if I would be able to do it. My wife kept telling me that I had nothing to worry about; she was right, I passed on the first try and only missed 5 (you can miss 13 or 50 and pass)!

This time I’m determined to do something with my license. After my license came through the FCC, I decided to get a vanity call sign. The FCC dropped the fee for doing it a few years ago, so what did I have to lose? As an extra class operator, I had a lot more choices for call signs. Many people seem to like keeping their region in their call sign (California is region 6), but I just wanted something that sounded cool. My wife thinks that I’m a dork or a geek and keeps comparing HAM radio to CB by saying “breaker, breaker 1-9”. I’m OK with that, so I applied for and was granted KD0RK. Yup, I’m KD0RK and proud of it.

Now that I’m licensed for all amateur frequencies, I’m trying to put together all the pieces. There is a lot of information out there and a lot of different ways to use amateur radio. I’m particularly interested in emergency communications, so I’m exploring a radio (HT) to purchase and have my eye on the Icom ID-51A Plus2. This radio is a 2m/70cm radio (VHF/UHF) and only requires a technician license. I did purchase a Diamond Original X50A Antenna to help with my radio and am waiting to try it out.

My plan after getting used to local communications (through repeaters and such) is to explore HF. This is what interests me because I’ll be able to communicate without the Internet and talk to people all over the world. I read stories about HAM radio use in Puerto Rico after the hurricane and would potentially like to help out with something like that in the future. However, HF brings another aspect to the hobby that I have to learn including what antenna to get, what radio to buy, what frequencies to use, how does the weather affect propagation (yes, the manual went over this, but until it is used it is just theory), etc.

Back to the title of this article. Does HAM radio have a place in today’s society? I think it definitely has a place in emergency communication when cell phones may not be available or the circuits are simply jammed. In addition, while some think that the Internet has brought people together by always being in touch, I think written communication is less personal than voice communication. People seem to have no problem bullying others in public forums, but would likely never say what they write to someone. Is that true? I have no idea, but I’m willing to give it a try. A lot of aspects of radio communications have been replaced by the Internet, so many people don’t think it has a place. When the Internet comes crumbling down, what are we going to do? 😀

Scott

KD0RK