I shared some info on this on Facebook. Last year Kim and I decided we wanted to do solar photovoltaic on our home. We knew we had a nice, south-facing open roof, it seemed big enough, and we all see fairly frequently articles on how cost of solar is dropping, so we took the plunge and started looking at options.
In our town there are many people with solar; I can see 1 such home from my back porch, and SF writer acquaintance of mine Jeff Carver also has a solar system. Asking about online I saw that there were two active solar installers used by people in Arlington, one of which is Sunbug Solar. Anyway I contacted Sunbug, the other outfit, and yet a 3rd, state-wide installer I found online. The other outfit never got back to me, and bachelor #3 seemed technically not very savvy, so I went with Sunbug.
What do I mean by “technically not very savvy”? I’m no expert in solar systems, but I can use Google, and I know that there are different grades of panel with different efficiencies, and that there are different ways of gathering the DC output of the panels and turning it into AC, which is what your house needs. The non-savvy solar people could not answer a single question, they had a set system they were pitching me, take it or leave it. Meanwhile the folks at Sunbug seemed to like talking about this stuff – were excited, even – and that made the decision to go with them very easy.
The system I arrived at with Sunbug has 24 SunPower 327W panels. This means that under ideal conditions the system can deliver 7.85 kW of power. Of course conditions are never perfect, and the sun don’t shine 24 x 7. Here’s what production looks like on a day of typical sun:
Power generation reaches close to peak at about 10 am and stays there 3:30 pm or so, then drops. The highest output I yet have achieved is 7 kW.
Anyway the system makes more electricity than I use – thus my negative electric bill for last 3 months. I may not stay negative all through the summer – in the hot months I run dehumidifiers in my basement and they draw considerable power.
Of course all this is not free. The system, fully installed, cost just under $39,000. But right off the bat you get a Massachusetts rebate of $1,250, and a federal tax credit (not deduction) of 30% of your costs, plus a $1,000 Mass State tax credit. All this put the upfront cost at about $25k. But there’s more! Massachusetts supports SRECs or Solar Renewable Energy Credits. In brief outline, SRECs work this way: Different states want to encourage use of solar. They therefore require utilities to show a proportion of their output comes from solar. Utilities can do the generation on their own and meet the regulatory requirement that way, or they can buy from me the right to put forth my solar generation as credit towards their obligations. SRECs are traded in a market like commodities and their prices will fluctuate based on plain ‘ol supply and demand. Essentially utilities pay me to generate my own electricity by solar.
Bottom-line: Even with the minimum forecast prices for SRECs, my capital costs for the solar system will be recouped in 6 years. For the 24 forecast years of system life after that, it is free electricity, no electric bills, and maybe even a small surplus.
Certainly this won’t be for everyone. 6 years seems like a short time to me but it may be an eternity to you. And as fun as is is to gloat over a $0 electricity bill, you may have other more pressing needs for your money. Finally be aware there’s other ways to get into solar than owning the whole show, like leasing the system.
In the end, panels or no, we all need sunshine, sometime. I’ll leave you with The Soggy Bottom Boys, till next time …
Way back in ‘06 I setup a home DVR based on BeyondTV, a pretty nicely done Windows DVR app. That was long, long ago, but frankly we had no reason to change, so we just kept on time-shifting by doing recordings through a tuner card and our ancient Comcast cable box.
But for all things there is a time and for the old DVR, that time has come. I wanted to do streaming, and I wanted to cut my costs with Comcast, so I set out to build a new rig to replace the old. A few hours on trusty newegg.com and I had the right list of components:
- MSI A78M-E35 Motherboard
- AMD A8-5500 Trinity Quad-Core 3.2GHz FM2 65W Desktop APU with DirectX 11 Graphics
- SILVERSTONE Black Aluminum / Steel ML04B Micro ATX Media Center / HTPC Case
- SILVERSTONE Strider Plus ST50F-P 500W ATX PS
- Scythe SCSK-1100 100mm Shuriken Rev. B 3 Heat Pipes CPU Cooler
- Rosewill RHRC-11002 Windows 7 Certified MCE IR Remote Controller
- Seagate Hybrid Drive ST1000DX001 1TB MLC/8GB 64MB Cache SATA 6.0Gb/s
- ASUS Black Blu-ray Drive SATA Model BC-12B1ST
- SiliconDust HDHR3-CC HDHomeRun PRIME digital tuner
Neat things … first of all these AMD combined CPU/GPU chips seem cool to me, literally and figuratively. No graphics card needed, the CPU has one built in. With 65W power, the whole thing draws little power. The Scythe Shuriken cooler is a low-profile unit, fits just right in the case and is extremely quiet. The Seagate drive … 1 TB and close to SSD speeds, for $80; what’s not to like?
Case and power supply are from Silverstone. I wanted to get a fairly small case to fit in my TV stand and the Silverstone fits that bill. The inside setup is tight, though, so make sure you get a PS as small as the Strider.
The thing that makes it all work is the HDHomeRun PRIME from SiliconDust. It was with some trepidation I took my 2 old Comcast cable boxes and headed for their service center. Expecting an interrogation, instead in 5 mins and with no hassle I had traded in the boxes for a cable card, a way to get authenticated content from your cable provider. Back at home, plugged the HDHomeRun onto my home network, plugged the cable card into the HDHomeRun and, after a few short calls to Comcast activation, voila! I now have 3 – count ‘em, 3! – digital TV tuners on my network.
The DVR app is Windows Media Center, which is a “free” part of Win 7 Ultimate. This of course is what put BeyondTV out of the personal DVR business. Still doing the setup to WMC, like making our recording rules. And while I can watch all our old shows in WMC, the UI for searching through them frankly sucks. One thing that was built in to BeyondTV was compression and commercial-skips. Now with WMC I need an add on like DVRMSToolbox.
Lastly, with this new box I finally have a Blu-ray player. First disk to get: Blade Runner 30th Anniversary Collectors Edition. DVRs: Like any other machine, either a benefit, or a hazard …
2014 is nearly gone and while the champagne is chilling (Champagne Aubry this year) I thought I’d look back on the year-that-was, tech-wise …
This story broke in 2013, but has only deepened in 2014 as new documents have been released. We found that the NSA has active efforts in place to hack cell networks worldwide, can read a lot of SSL/TLS traffic, and most recently is able to listen in on any Skype call. President Obama proposed reforms for the NSA, that Snowden assessed as “incomplete”.
The discussion on amnesty for Snowden has already begun. For my part I hope that happens in 2015.
Privacy & Security
One unsettling thing about the Snowden revelations is that we always knew, at some level, that the NSA was doing lots of stuff, but we chose to ignore it. Movies like Enemy of the State and The Simpsons Movie showed NSA capabilities in futuristic and/or tongue in cheek ways, so the actual (and mostly unintended) warnings in these films were easy to dismiss.
In the private sphere we had no such excuses. In August, nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence were published online, together with photos of 24 other celebrities. Apparently this was accomplished with a simple brute force password attack, combined with an Apple “find my phone” bug. Of course we faceless masses have some safety, in that the return – in money or in prestige – in attacking a single one of us is much less than the return in attacking a public figure. But it is only a matter of time before peoples’ online bank accounts and other financial resources get targeted in a systematic way.
If you don’t know by now, your password is not secure. It hardly matters how clever you are in devising multi-word mnemonics, tools like WordHound will crack it. The main method I use for passwords I care about is the Schneier Scheme, by worldwide security alpha-dog Bruce Schneier. Better still are 2-factor authentication systems, like RSA SecurID – if your online financial institution supports them, get it fast as you can.
While it may be that, on the internet no one knows you’re a dog, Gamergate showed us how many of these dog-indeterminate creatures are totally determinant jerks. It all started with some painfully obvious observations about sexism in gaming – I mean we have sexism in politics, in entertainment, and in business, why not in gaming? But, it turns out these sexist gamers have Reddit accounts and they’re not afraid to use them. The backlash against women game developers and culture critics went beyond typical trollish/crude commentary to include threats of violence. Amazingly there are those who contend this was a real debate about ethics in the gaming industry.
I feel this sad episode achieved resonance because it is the application of attack politics to an everyday thing. Even if the US Supreme Court rules that violent threats on Facebook are are criminal offenses, I’m afraid that is just the start of the civility journey for 2015.
Satya Nadella & Microsoft Reborn
In February Microsoft got a new CEO when Satya Nadella replaced monkey-boy Steve Ballmer. Since then Microsoft stock, long a moribund performer, has gone up about 26%, compared to increases of 15% and 9% for NASDAQ and the Dow, respectively. How did this happen?
One factor is that Microsoft’s cloud business, started under Ballmer, is growing extremely fast, doubling in the past year to a total of $4.4B. Next, despite rumors of selling the XBox business, that segment also did very well, selling double the number of units in fiscal 2014. Finally the company made shrewd moves that unite the consumer and enterprise spaces, like offering a free version of Office for tablets, and announcing Skype for Business which unites the enterprise Lync business with the consumer-oriented Skype business.
Unifying all this is a vision Nadella articulated in a memo to employees:
At our core, Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. We will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.
Nadella talks a lot about the “dual user”, someone who uses technology for work but also for their personal life. A simple observation, but a powerful one. There is probably no company better positioned than Microsoft to surf this wave.
Apple & iPhone 6
Apple’s market-cap hit $700B in November, making it far and away the most valuable company in the world. Despite the doom and gloom of Tim Cook’s early days as CEO, today there is little doubt CEO Cook is a worthy and effective successor to Steve Jobs. The iPhone 6 launch in September was a huge success, with Apple selling over 10 million units of the new models in the first 3 days of availability. Cook has also diversified the product line with items like the iPad Mini and iPhone 5c, cheaper ways for customers to get into the Apple fold.
On the strategy front, Cook has spent some long-hoarded cash on acquisitions, like Beats Music & Electronics, and mobile podcast streaming app Swell. In fact since acquiring the Cue personal productivity app in Oct. 2013, Apple has acquired 13 companies, all over the tech and consumer space. In a ground breaking move, Cook closed a deal with China Mobile to sell the iPhone in the biggest market in the world. Finally on the enterprise front, Apple created a partnership with IBM to bring a full spectrum of “made for business” apps to the #1 consumer platform in the world.
All is not perfect in the Apple universe. Reports persist of supply-chain partners exploiting workers. The long-anticipated Apple Watch is not a runaway hit. Apple Pay is a solution in search of a problem. And, the company does not have the advantages of a content-based part of its business like a Facebook or a Microsoft; Apple is a platform where you access non-Apple content.
Lots of people have bet against Apple and lost. I expect those people will still be losing in 2015.
Energy prices dropped like crazy in 2014. Oil is $59 a barrel, down from the $100 price that persisted since around 2010, and well down from the $140 peak price in 2008. The cost of solar is plummeting even faster, with the cost of panels now less than the average cost of retail electricity. Here at the Salazar household we are in the midst of putting in a 7.85 kW system that on many days, I expect, will completely cover our power needs.
This energy glut is certainly an old-fashioned economic shot in the arm, but more importantly I think it will catalyze massive innovation in storage, monitoring and optimization. Bill Gates is investing in liquid metal battery technology, that enables storage of power close to the consumers, new SaaS solutions are emerging that allow building operators to optimize energy use, while the internet of things – broadly-realized telemetry of any device – will enable energy management of just about anything.
This is economically counter-intuitive – usually when the price of something drops the incentive to manage and conserve that thing also drops. I think everyone is acting on future expectations that energy prices, and the costs of “externalities” like pollution and global warming, will all go up.
Uber, the “sharing economy” & Big Data
Transportation-booking app Uber seemed to live by the rule that any publicity is good publicity. Some of the items in the Uber-feed: An Uber exec threatened to “dox” a journalist who wrote a negative article; Uber drivers across the globe have been implicated in rapes; taxi drivers worldwide have protested against it; and, the company is reputed to have booked thousands of fake rides on rival service Lyft. Yet, the valuation of the company is an astonishing $40B – for a company with assets that are almost entirely intangible, that is extra-amazing. I guess that is good publicity, people figure this app must be worth using, since they company does at least $10M per week revenue in just its top 5 USA cities.
Uber, like room-renting service AirBNB, came up on the notion of the “sharing economy” – a business model where through coordination services that enable anyone to be a service provider, we all benefit. I have an extra room, why shouldn’t I rent it? I have time (goodness knows how) to give people rides, why shouldn’t I get paid for it? What makes this possible is born on the web big-data technologies like MongoDB, Python, Node.js and others – with these, any team of 5-6 reasonably talented developers can build a perfectly good Uber. Now, Uber has 550 employees. My guess is the vast majority are customer service or other logistics roles. There are probably no more than 50 people in all engineering and technical operations for the company – 50 engineers for a $40B company.
I believe (and hope) that these disproportionate valuations and expectations will level out in 2015. Uber is a good idea. However this year I used similar services in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Beijing that were every bit as nice, and got me rides in accredited taxis, not with a “sharer” of unknown skills and motivations.
Silicon Valley – Let’s Not Go There, It Is A Silly Place
Uber is an example of 21st century Silicon Valley, where there’s an app for everything and business models rule. “Disruption” is the must-have word in every pitch – if you are not disrupting something, why bother? I think it is hard to see something like Uber as anything but exploitative – the “disruption” doesn’t create anything new, it just shifts it from the current owners to the disrupters. But isn’t this innovation the engine that drives our economy and makes our lives better?
No, it makes the VC’s lives better, as Andrew Leonard writing in Salon points out. A key paragraph:
The reality of our current situation is that the rich are getting richer while the rest of us flounder. Some of the “sharing” economy companies that Andreessen invests in offer a perfect demonstration of this thesis. The founders and investors in Airbnb and Lyft stand to become millionaires while the consumers of these services stretch their dollars by giving each other rides or renting out their spare rooms. That’s a business mode that not only perpetuates growing inequality but actually profits from the desperation of people having a harder and harder time making ends meet.
Ok, they are in business and the need/urge to make a buck is understandable. But some of these guys are just plain wacky. Look at Bitcoin. Tons of Silicon Valley insiders are buying in to the “cryptocurrency”, apparently unaware that logically speaking Bitcoin as a currency is worse even than gold.
The real thing about Bitcoin and why the Valley-types love it is the Libertarian connection. As a synthetic currency Bitcoin is not tied to any government or physical place. This is exactly what you need if you plan to move yourself to a government-less Libertarian artificial island.
Finally, I came across a great article in the latest issue of Harpers: Come With Us If You Want To Live (Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley), by Sam Frank. (paywall link). I can’t give you the whole thing, suffice to say if you read it you will come across vegans and Crossfit-ers arguing about hedons vs. utilons, debating the pros & cons of DAOs (distributed autonomous organizations) and still others doing Bayesian optimizations of their personal thought processes. One such visionary informs us about the imminent cataclysms faced by our society:
“There are all of these different countdowns going on … There’s the countdown to the broad postmodern memeplex undermining our civilization and causing everything to break down, there’s the countdown to the broad modernist memeplex destroying our environment or killing everyone in a nuclear war, and there’s the countdown to the modernist civilization learning to critique itself fully and creating an artificial intelligence it can’t control. There are so many different … ways in which the self-modifying intelligent processes that we are embedded in undermine themselves.”
Note to self: Great idea for an app, “MemeplexID”, a single photo taken by cell-phone identifies for you which destructive memeplex you are confronted with.
And that’s it.
All I can think of right now about 2014. Soon will be moot anyway, as 2015 will soon be here with its own new memes, streams and themes. Here’s hoping they all play nice, in the real world as well as in the memeplex. Peace.
Beneath, what, you might ask? In this case it is metal, made dull and uncommunicative through time and poor handling.
Collecting and appreciating Japanese swords (nihonto) is a hobby of mine, though more of an aspiration-hobby than one I consistently pursue. More than two years ago I posted on a sword I had bought on eBay, where I described getting the sword fitted with new koshirae – scabbard, hilts, etc.
Now, I had this work done because I had liked this sword. It seemed “healthy” – with a lot of original metal, few nicks or other damage – and I liked the feel of it. The next step in bringing this sword back to what it was like when first made would be to have it “polished”. Now, “polishing” sounds like a jeweler’s term and in fact many unknowing people attempt to improve Japanese swords using buffing wheels and jeweler’s rouge. This is in fact one of the worst possible things that can be done to a sword.
The proper thing is to take the sword to a togishi, a traditional sword polisher. The sense of what a togishi actually does I would say is closer to “sharpener” or “shaper” than polisher. Many people know that Japanese swords are constructed using folded steel, similar in some ways to Damascus steel, but refined and molded by the needs and conventions of Japanese warfare – for example Damascus swords do not have the differentially tempered edge of a nihonto. But in additional to the raw construction, a Japanese sword gets its famous cutting ability from its cross-section. The sides of the blade are convex, not concave like a hollow-ground Western knife. This makes the sword stronger in battle, it can receive the strike of another blade with much less chance of severe damage. And when cutting, the bowed sides force aside the material being cut; without this the sword would get, well, stuck in its target. To get this shape, and the proper edge, you need a togishi, who will work by hand using stones of varying fineness to remove metal, shape the blade, and create the edge.
It has of course been 100s of years since these swords were used primarily for battle. But even in ancient times the utilitarian aspect of the togishi’s work was complemented by an aesthetic one. A side-effect of this work is that the grain of the metal – the hada – and the extent of the temper line – the hamon – become visible and throughout history warriors and connoisseurs both have had appreciation of a properly polished weapon.
My sword was much in need of this treatment. Whoever had it before me clearly had used mechanical tools to buff the steel to matte finish. It looked like a sword, but any details of temper line or grain were almost entirely obscured. I oftentimes would stare it, trying to angle the light in different ways, searching for a temper line. This sword has a signature on the tang and my amateur’s judgment was it was made in the late 19th century, but it could well have been a 20th century sword, many 1000s of which were made by hand in WW2, though using inferior steel and methods. Such swords are generally much less interesting than those from earlier eras. The only way to find out what was really there was to enlist a togishi and ask their help.
Nowadays on the web it is easy to find lots of people advertising this service. Anyone thinking of having a sword worked on should be aware there are many weak practitioners out there, and also some out and out dishonest ones. The togishi I quickly settled upon was David Hofhine (http://www.swordpolisher.com/, https://www.facebook.com/swordpolish). His website had impressive examples of his work and when I inquired via email about my sword he gave very knowledgeable and thoughtful responses. Be prepared, if you have a sword to be worked on, the waiting time will be long, two years or more. Beware the togishi who says he can take your sword right away! In all likelihood it means they are not very good, or are using artificial methods to quickly treat swords.
Enough of the background. I got on David’s list in 2012 and when I returned from India in 2014 my turn had come. When I sent the sword in July and David received it, he was skeptical, thinking there was in fact a chance the sword was a low-quality 20th century blade. He offered to do an “exploration” – meaning he would work on some small part of the blade to see what was there. This was an example of David’s professionalism, which I much appreciate – polishing a sword is not cheap and David wanted to give me a chance to see if that investment would be worth it.
The exploration returned good news – this was a “real” folded blade with grain and temper line. I asked David to do a “foundation polish”, roughly comparable to what a working samurai would have done to his sword. A further step, at additional cost, is a “finish polish”, but that is really only appropriate for more valuable swords, or swords where there’s expectation of special aesthetic features.
The result in you can see in the headline photo and in the shots below:
For now the terminology is beside the point. Just having this artifact, in the condition much like it was in when first made, is very satisfying for me.
What is next for the sword? I can only say: tameshigiri or no tameshigiri, that is the question …
Past few weeks I’ve been posting various quotes on Facebook. Here’s the story on the source of these bits of ephemera.
Two weeks ago Kim and I took a ride out to Shelburne, Mass. Purpose of this trip was to get some grass-fed beef from Wheel-View Farm, a great place where John and Carolyn Wheeler raise Belted Galloway cattle just on grass, free from antibiotics, corn or hormones. It is just beef that tastes great and is great for you.
On the way back we passed an antiques store – can’t recall if it was in Turner’s Falls or Miller’s Falls, but around there. New Englanders will instantly be familiar with this kind of place: aisles and aisles and shelves and shelves of old junk, from keys to tableware to brushes and razors to aged toys to old signs and more. We were in no hurry to get back and you never know what you will find, so we stopped and browsed around.
The was a section of old books and out of the yellowed issues of Life and Time the title shown here to the left instantly leapt out at me: Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook. I snatched it up and without even opening it made my way to the checkout, where I parted with all of $4.50.
I know Hubbard, at least a bit. He was one of the great progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a printer and businessman, and founder of Roycroft, an Arts and Crafts movement that lives on to this day in East Aurora, NY, not far from my own hometown. (He is also the uncle (adopted) of L Ron Hubbard of Scientology and Battlefield Earth fame.) On Hubbard’s wikiPedia page you’ll find he was a socialist and anarchist, but his was a uniquely American version of those ideologies, melding a deep reverence for personal responsibility and productivity with a desire for social justice. If Hubbard is known for anything today it is for the essay, Message to Garcia. The message in this story of initiative, self-reliance and devotion to duty has made this work required reading in US military academies for decades; not many socialists nor anarchists are so revered.
The scrapbook is not Hubbard’s own writing, but writings of others that he prized. In it you will find quotes from over 500 authors: Twain, Wordsworth, Solon, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Savonarola, Blake, Bronte, Buddha, Charles Darwin, Eugene Debs, Cato, and Cicero, just to name a few pulled at random from the index.
Isn’t this amazing? I consider myself a well-read person, and having access to the information resources of the modern age, I should easily excel someone like Hubbard – who, as Mr. Spock remarked lived in a “stone knives and beaksins” culture – in exposure to great thoughts. Yet it is not so. My own scrapbook would be a thin volume indeed, compared to Hubbard’s.
We can debate the reasons for this, but it hardly matters. To skim through the Scrapbook is to quickly see how the progressive movement was born in words, wed to action, much as the independence of America was born in the works of thinkers like John Locke and later John Stuart Mill.
I suppose people today would find much of the Scrapbook maudlin, or naïve. In my sampling of it I have found to be energizing and optimistic. I’ll leave you with this quote:
EVIL is unnatural – goodness is the natural state of man. Earth has no hopeless islands or continents. We live in a redemptive world. Poverty will end; sin will die; love will triumph and hope will plant flowers on every grave.
– David Swing
I imagine this was Hubbard’s belief as well – provided of course enough men and women are willing to take the message to Garcia …