Happy Halloween!

I hope you all had a great Halloween!  I didn’t do too much, and didn’t even get too many trick-or-treaters, but I did carve a pumpkin:

One thing to note for next year, though is to be careful of the tools.  I picked up one of those carving kits.  I would avoid this particular kit in the future, though, as the saw broke:

The scoop was very nice, though.

I didn’t use any of the patterns, just made something up.  After the breakage I ended up going out and picking up a steak knife for working on a smaller pumpkin, which was fine.

On a more serious note, if you or a loved one was caught in Hurricane Sandy, I wish you all the best.  I wasn’t really hit beyond some wind and rain, but I know that there is still damage being repaired.  So be careful, and hang in there!

Quick Environmental Thing

A lot of us rely on coffee.  I certainly do, and will tomorrow, as I probably should be asleep by now.  So I will make this quick: if you’re the type that likes cream in your coffee, try pouring the cream in first, before you add the coffee.  This way, you don’t need a stirring stick.  Depending on where you get your caffeine fix said stick may be wood, or it may be plastic.  Either way, this is something you can do to slightly minimize the amount of waste created.  And as an added bonus it’s not too much to think about, and is even a little faster.

Of course, it is just a small amount of waste…  And you really should make sure to use a thermos or something else reusable as opposed to say a styrofoam cup.  But a little can go a long way, and eliminating most of the need for stirring sticks ain’t bad.  Further research is needed to determine if this method can be adequate for sugar as well, though this is not a priority for me as I don’t normally add sugar to my coffee.

DIY

If you’ve flipped through my previous posts here, you’ve probably seen that I am a bit of a renewable energy buff.  I like messing with solar power, for a variety of reasons.  I like the idea of not blatantly stabbing the environment and contributing to global climate change*, but I also like the idea of making your own power and being independent – electricity is something most people in this country are addicted to without realizing it.  There’s the idea of a quiet, easy source of portable power for fun and for emergencies, and then there’s just the fact that it’s cool.

(*Note: Please don’t start a holy war in the comments over the climate change thing.  There are plenty of places on the Internet you can go to debate/argue/flame for and against this, and so it does not need to happen here.)

Now, some time ago I came upon a magazine called Home Power – I think I may have been in middle school.  This magazine is a journal dedicated to small scale renewable energy, mostly residential.  Its founders purchased land off the grid in the 70s, and turned to solar as a way to not have to run a lawn mower engine to power the car tail light bulbs they used for light.  Because the small-scale renewable energy (RE) industry (responsible for the sale and production of photovoltaic panels, wind generators, control electronics, etc.) was in its infancy when they started publishing the magazine (late 80s), a lot of the articles focused on DIY.  Sure, small operations started creeping up where people offered installation and consultation for RE, but nothing like what you can find now.  A fair amount of progress was made by people playing around with the equipment on their own, sometimes even building their own.  And the Home Power articles often reflected this.

I thought this period in the magazine’s history was awesome.  I loved learning about the various problems these early pioneers had, and how they went about solving them.  I liked seeing what some people did with small systems, and the big systems others built.  It was awesome to see these people working toward solutions to some of the problems faced in the world (and which we still face).

Sometime in the early 2000s the magazine’s tone changed, however.  It was focusing less on the DIY aspect, and more on the ‘turn-key’ aspect – more and more of the systems showcased were belonging to people who didn’t fully understand the technology nor have the desire to.  Rather, due to factors such the cost (and reliability) of electricity in their area, environmental benefits, and maybe the presence of tax incentives, they paid a professional to design and install a system on their homes.  (Note that the last factor I mentioned may also provoke flames; see my climate change note above.)  Not much of a DIY aspect is present anymore.  In fact, it seems that quite a few articles in recent issues are not written by the system owners themselves, but by the system installers/designers, or even third parties.

Now, the truth is that I don’t have anything against people who simply want to make use of RE and don’t want to worry about designing and wiring their system, hoisting panels onto their roof, etc.  Honestly, it would be hypocritical of me.  I mean, I’m a Linux user, and even use Gentoo on my desktop.  And yet I also love Ubuntu for the fact that it presents GNU/Linux as an alternative for normal computer users who don’t care about recompiling their kernel.  (I’m actually typing this on an Ubuntu laptop right now.)  I guess I just miss the old format of the magazine, the one I kind of, well, grew up with.

Now, Home Power is still a good magazine; it’s not like you won’t learn about renewable energy from reading it.  In fact, it’s usually pretty descriptive even if it doesn’t discuss all sorts of homebrew solutions.  You’ll learn about solar power, and if you don’t get as in depth as you’d like you’ll have a good jump-off point for learning more.  They’ll respond to your letters if you have questions, too.  And, their magazine is just well-produced: it’s easy to read, no advertisements in the middle of articles, etc.

What I do encourage you to do, however, is go the extra step.  Yes, you don’t need to be an electrical engineer to use renewable energy, or do anything with electricity.  But there is value in going the extra step and being aware of what is going on with your renewable energy system, or anything.  And guess what: most of the information is out there.  If you’re curious, just go Google-crazy.  Buy some parts or system components, and experiment.  You never know what you might learn.

Oil

Right now, there is a pipe sticking out of the seabed in the Gulf of Mexico, from which oil is billowing.  It is a huge environmental disaster, and most certainly a historical event if there ever was one.  But there is a hidden meaning there.  That pipe, with it’s relentless oil plume is a sign of the times.  Yes, it’s a sign that we’re too dependent on oil, etc.  But there’s more.

Think about it like this: we drilled a well 5000 feet below the surface of the ocean.  Lots of them, actually.  Sure, we’re not very good at it, as this whole disaster shows.  But from a technological standpoint there has been progress.  I’m not trying to excuse BP here, nor our sluggish lust for black gold (yes, I’m guilty of it, and you are too, what with cars and such).  But it’s still an accomplishment, and who knows where we’ll go from here?  Maybe it’ll only be a matter of time before we’re drilling on moons, other planets (cue Armageddon reference).

Again, I don’t mean to make light of the disaster.  I only want to try to stay optimistic about our civilization, and who knows, maybe whatever we can learn from this will help us out somehow later on.  Welcome to the future.

Fun with Solar Power

I normally charge an 18 AH sealed lead-acid battery to run small things like lights, and to charge my cell phone, radio, etc.  Well a couple months ago this battery died.  It was old, and sulfation had set in. I decided to upgrade to an AGM battery (the old one was a gel cell), and picked out the 49 AH version.  Since I am away at school most of the time, and don’t have the space to take the battery and set up a solar panel I had to wait until this week to go and start solar charging it.  So, here is my temporary setup:

This is just temporary.  I eventually want to get the panel mounted somewhere, and the battery inside.  But this is great for the time being.  The battery does well in cold temperatures (I’ll bring it in at night, of course), and should be able to hold enough that I can rely on the system a little more heavily once it’s more permanent.  This is just one 32 watt panel too, with the other one added it will be even better.

Spring and Optimism

It’s coming up on mid-February, and the weather is beautiful.  Not only is it warm out but we’re also getting plenty of sun.  Well, it is a little cloudy right now, but it’s been beautiful.  I really don’t even need a coat going outside.  Of course this won’t last forever; already it’s supposed to drop into the 20’s come the weekend.  But I’ll enjoy it while it’s here.  Soon it will be March, then April…  And soon it’ll be too warm.  But whatever.

Well, all the quirks of Rochester weather aside this has made me feel good, despite hard times in classes and such.  The whole seasonal affective disorder (SAD) thing never really got to me much (I don’t think), but the sun definitely uplifts me.  So, despite not knowing what I am going to end up doing over the summer I can say that I’m quite happy right now.

So I’m feeling optimistic.  I know that doesn’t necessarily jive with some people, but for me a positive angle on things is healthy.  Now, there’s a difference between being optimistic and delusional, and it’s something every optimist (and pessimist) should watch out for.  But, at least for me, if I am to get through life I have to try at least to be happy about it.

And you know what?  Ask me when the weather’s crappy, or when I’ve just had a bad day, and I may very well feel otherwise.  Bad days do that to everyone.  I guess overall I would say I’m 51 % optimistic.  Well, whatever, take it how you will.  But at least join me in taking pleasure in the fact that it will be spring soon.

Solar Powered Web Server

As you have probably noted from past entries I like to run my own servers.  I’m not running a big enterprise here, so they don’t have to be extremely reliable (though they have been very reliable).  Mostly, I like the control that I have, and the flexibility.

But I find myself running into a few brick walls here.  Mainly, electricity.  Now, it’s relatively cheap, particularly if I run a server at school where I don’t pay for electricity.  But, there’s also the wastefulness factor.  Global climate change or not, I’m not a fan of the idea of wasting energy.  Or at least grid produced energy that could result in carbon emissions.

Alright, if I really wanted to reduce my footprint I suppose I could walk a lot more instead of drive, maybe get a more efficient car, you get the idea.  But there are a lot of servers running out there, and someday it would be nice to be able to keep them all going with an alternative source of power.  Or maybe keep them going out in a remote location, or during a prolonged blackout.

Hence, my idea for a solar powered Web server project.  I have some of the parts for this project already, so but I’d still need to make a few more purchases.  The big thing is design, and here are my thoughts: If I can get some kind of embedded, single-board computer that draws say 3 watts at most and runs 24/7, that is 72 watt-hours per day.  (Just in case anyone is unsure, to get watt-hours you multiply watts by hours.  So 3 watts for 24 hours is 72 watt-hours.)  I will bump that figure up to say 90 watt-hours a day, just to compensate for losses in the battery.  After all, we do want to be able to serve Web pages at night, right?  So 90 watt-hours per day is not too bad.  Supposing that, in sunny Buffalo, NY we get an average of 3.5 sun hours per day, you would need about 25 watts of solar.

My solar arsenal right now consists of one 32 watt panel mounted on the side of my house, plus another 32 watt I have not yet installed, as well as a 21 watt flexible panel and a couple smaller ones.  (There’s also a big 100 watt panel in the garage, but that’s a different story for another day.)  So I have more than enough to make this work in terms of producing power; in theory one 32 watt panel should be enough, but having a second one in case of shade or low light from clouds would be good.

Now, we want some battery backup as well, as I mentioned before.  To do this we probably want to be able to run the server for say two days without sun.  (This isn’t mission critical.)  So, 90 watt-hours at 12 volts is 7 amp hours (90/12), so for two days that’s 14 amp hours.  Not too unreasonable; I have a 18 amp hour gel cell battery that should be able to handle that, without drawing it all the way down (which is bad for the battery).  Although I may consider getting a bigger battery.

Now, this will be a simple server, probably not something I’d install the standard LAMP stack on.  My main thought for this would be that it would also log data from the system via shunts and some analog-to-digital converters, and then present the data in a nice looking Web page.  Maybe if I felt like it some day I could even add some AJAX stuff to it, but whatever.

So this would really be proof of concept.  It would also be great for backup power; if there was a bad power failure I could of course turn the server off and use the power for other things, like charging cell phones and running lights and a ham radio.  So it would be a good thing to have.  I will soon be looking around for a nice single board computer to use as the server, and then maybe a better battery and solar panel location.  With a little luck I will be able to pull something together.  Stay tuned.

Winter Without Christmas

I believe that today is the Nativity, or the last day of Christmas or whatever.  It is also the day I am heading back to school, back to the daily grind…  Actually, I shouldn’t complain.  My quarter is relatively light, and I’m used to the schedule and the campus.  All and all it will be great, even if I do have to get up and think each day of the week.  (Well, think about school, not that I don’t think otherwise…  You get the idea.)

Well, as anyone who reads this blog regularly has probably figured out I like to talk about the weather.  And I must say it is looking great outside, snowy, and sunny.  Not too snowy, but it looks like winter.  Now that the first set of Winter holidays are wrapping up it is becoming quite clear that it is really only the beginning of winter.  Yes, we’ve got a ways to go, at least up here.

Now, the funny thing is, a lot of people complain about winter.  And rightfully so; I hate digging my car out and the like.  But I also love the snow, and I think more appreciation needs to be paid to it.  I mean, if you live in an are in which a huge snow storm is pretty much the worst disaster you would expect to occur somewhat regularly, consider yourself lucky, I say!  Because after all is said and done, it melts.

So I am looking forward to some nice days this winter.  The sun is there; the days have been getting longer since the Solstice, and they will continue to get longer until the summer.  Admittedly it’s harder to like winter without Christmas (at least I could see that), but it’s another season, and I say that as long as there’s sun out to keep the spirits high be happy.  Gray days suck, but they don’t last forever.

Well, on a different note I would just like to point out that this place actually gets a ton of comment spam.  You wouldn’t notice it thanks to the Askimet plugin I installed, which intelligently detects spam and marks it for me to look at and delete en masse.  Now, it’s not perfect, so I do check it over, but I will appologize now if I missed a legit comment.  If it was something basic, like “Thanks, great post” then it may get marked as spam and I might very well just delete it.  But I will do my best to look for intelligent thoughts.

A Pacifist in the War on Christmas

Christmas is not far away, and I’m excited.  The family being together, good food, gifts, and the prospect of going home for two weeks are all nice things I’m looking forward to.  Hopefully we’ll get some snow, and our Christmas lights will look nice.

And then of course someone, usually somewhere on a cable news network brings up the age old dilemma of the War on Christmas.  You hear about things like people being outraged about the manger scene in a government building, or about how stores tell their employees to say ‘Happy Holidays’.  And of course there are the extrememe views that this country is a ‘Christion nation’ or about how the government should stay out of this sort of thing completely.  (Well, you hear more about the former view it seems to me.)

To me, this whole issue is another thing that satisfies people’s collective need to be pissed off at something.  I’m not extremely religious, but I do celebrate Christmas, and I do say ‘Merry Christmas’ to friends and family.  It does not bother me to hear ‘Happy Holidays’, and in fact I may even have said it a few times to people just in passing.  I’m not sure I like the idea of government (tax) money going to something like a manger scene in a public building, which is obviously linked to Christianity, at least more so than a Christmas tree necessarily is, but unless it’s absolutely huge I generally don’t care.

It doesn’t really matter what religion you are, or if you even fallow one.  There are so many things in this world that take your mind off of your family and other loved ones.  Now, sometimes in small doses that is a good thing.  But every so often we get opportunities, like Christmas time, to cast that aside and be happy.  Decorations and gifts are nice too, and I’m not saying we should give it all up.  I just think we let controversy take too much control over ourselves sometimes.  After all, having someone say ‘Happy Holidays’ to you won’t kill Christmas, unless you make it.