Malacandra.me

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Earthquake!

I remember my first earthquake like it was yesterday, although it was over 25 years ago. I was born and raised in upstate New York and had never felt the earth so much as twitch, so when I was in a meeting room discussing a software project with my bosses and representatives of a potential business partner, I did not want to be the first one to dive under the heavy wooden conference table when the room started to shake. I was not alone in this: no one wanted to be the first person to show what I thought, given the circumstances, would have only been prudent concern for their lives. But the tremor was actually of short duration, and it turns out that it wasn't that powerful at all.  But I had nothing to compare it to, and it was pretty scary to me, this whole business of the freaking ground shaking me and everything that approximated human scale as if we were fleas on the back of a wet dog.

On the trip back to the office after the meeting, I was given some perspective by  seasoned California-native colleagues who could each recount stories of bigger and more striking temblors. I was pretty sure that if what I had just experienced was 'nothing much', I didn't particularly care to see a Big One.

Today, years later, I'm resigned to the fact that I probably will. 

I already have - kind of.  Over the next few years I had occasion to feel quite a few quakes of varying power (and distance).  Most of them were like that first one, fairly short and not causing any visible damage anywhere close to me.  They weren't common occurrances, but happened frequently enough that I recall waking up one morning to my room shaking, thinking "Oh, it's just an earthquake" and falling back to sleep. At some point I had apparently become a Californian. 

When I woke up later to another, stronger jolt - and realized "Dude, you're on the first floor of a 10 story hotel!", I took more appropriate steps - based on my best understanding at the time - by moving into a door-jam… preparing to exit the building after the shaking had subsided.  Which it did, again fairly soon.  There were a few more small quakes that day as I studied a programming course at UC Santa Cruz a week before Loma Prieta.  In retrospect, those were foreshocks. 

Loma Prieta, which was a 6.9 quake, was something else.  I felt it up in Sonoma County, 108 miles away from the epicenter, and it was a completely different experience. It didn't feel like something shaking - it felt like something rolling - it was a series of waves.  I could see lampposts swaying like they were bobbing on the surface of the ocean. It created a feeling in the pit of my gut that I'd just as soon never experience again. It was scary on a very visceral level. 

And we were over 100 miles away.  But we were in a valley that has soil that liquefies.  Because of soil that liquefies, some of the worst damage of the Loma Prieta earthquake was seen in landfill areas of San Francisco, many miles away from the center.  Because of the liquifaction properties of the soil that my city is built upon, back in 1906 the San Francisco Earthquake completely destroyed our downtown 50 miles away. 

As luck would have it, my home lies just a few blocks away from a Bay Area fault that is considered overdue to shake.  Currently, it's thought that the Rogers Creek Fault should have a quake of about 7.1 sometime quite soon. At right is a map of the area that they expect should be affected by a Rogers Creek Quake. You can click on it for a larger version. That little red pin near the top left?  That's me. In the "black zone". 

Here's another map of where the worst damage is likely to be, based on soil and proximity to the fault.  Once again, I'm at the little "A" marker. 

We're lucky in that we've got a house that was built when "they really knew how to build them". Stucco walls permeated with chicken wire. And we've taken the precautions that we've been told we ought to: our house is bolted down to its foundation. We've got most of our heavy furniture bolted to the walls.  And we keep a shed full of water, canned food, and other emergency supplies. We've networked with our neighbors about emergency preparedness.

While it's scary to contemplate a big earthquake here, we're fortunate because we live in a state where we have (and enforce) building codes and have a population and a civic infrastructure that expects this kind of thing to happen. Although we know that should disaster strike, we shouldn't expect to see much of an emergency assistance from a city or county that will have its hands full - so we have to have our own first aid materials and supplies.

Disasters can happen anywhere. Here in California they can take the form of earthquakes or wildfires or mudslides. Elsewhere they can be severe ice storms or hurricanes or tornadoes. Or floods.  Or droughts. 

The thing is that what we regard as normal life is very likely, at times, to be punctuated with events that are unpredictable in the particular, but very predictable in the aggregate. So learn what your local risks are, stock up and be prepared to whatever extent is possible!

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Home Solar Project Blogging: Let The Inspections Begin

Now that we're finished getting our solar panels to the roof and have wired them all together and to the house, you might think that we can sit back while sweet, sweet sunshine whiles away the kilowatt hours powering our home.

Not so fast, pardner… now we need to pass a series of inspections before the Master Switch is pulled and we get the system online.

First, the fire department's inspector needs to make sure that we've adhered to their requirements, which include sufficient roof access (in case of emergency) and proper labeling of high voltage components so that no firefighter would ever be tempted to put an axe to a high voltage circuit. As it happens, we are using micro-inverters that turn each panel's power into standard A/C house current right at the panel, rather than wiring them together in series and routing dangerous high-voltage D/C current across our roof to a central inverter, as many solar installations do.  Still, we apparently need to conform to the same requirements that the more hazardous method warrants, and we do.  Although, of course, that's what the inspector will decide.

Next, once the fire inspector gives us their stamp of approval, the city's building inspector takes a look to make sure that what we've done is structurally sound in accordance with the building permits we were issued.

And finally, only after the first two have signed off,  PG&E has to come by and give the appropriate blessings to allow us to throw the master switch and be Assimilated into the Power Grid.

And then we'll be cooking with photons.

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Home Solar Project: It’s all over but the blogging. And the Inspections.

Today was the day of the Big Lift: the installation of the solar panels to our roof. There will be more details forthcoming, but right now I'm too exhausted to say much of anything except that it went really smoothly because of George's exquisite planning and the participation of two Neighbors of Unusual Awesomeness, Scott and Jorge. 

The weather was finally cooperative and the electrical connections that had been on the roof during the recent storm had plenty of time to fully dry out before being snapped together within the weather-proof connectors that would have hermetically preserved any residual moisture within our power plant forever. So that was a break.

Our jury-rig ladder hoist worked like a charm. I had earlier remarked that it would either save my back or make me a Darwin Award recipient. Well, I'm still here, and the panels are on the roof.

By the time we were finished, there was no sun to speak of left, so doing functional testing of the system will have to wait 'til another day.  Today, though, much got done.

Excelsior!

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Home Solar Project Blogging: The Revenge of the Geeks

If you read my last installment of this saga we had been daunted by the physical challange of us amateur DIY guys actually figuring out how to get the damn solar panels onto our roof.

It turns out that the Real Men who carry solar panels up a ladder on their backs (something we wimpy nerds couldn't manage) may be strong, but they're also dumb:  The California Department of Public Health says unequivically: "Never climb ladders while carrying solar panels."

In other words, we are physically inadequate to do something that we shouldn't be doing.  OK, then.

So, George built a wooden frame to set a panel on, which fits over an aluminum ladder, attached to a a set of pulleys and ropes - and it was still difficult to lift a panel.  I envisioned the rope slipping out of my hands, and a $400+ solar panel crashing 14 feet to the ground. 

That was Rev. 1.0.  For the second attempt, George tried elimiating a bunch of sources of friction. Rather than just having the wood frame sliding directly on the aluminum ladder, how about if there were wheels?  You don't really want to "grease the skids" - lubrication on a ladder will definitely be a hazard if you ever want to ever climb up that ladder again… so that was right out.   Teflon tape on the wood - that's the ticket. Maybe another set of pulleys? For each pair of pullys, the apparent weight being lifted diminishes.

Whatever we tried, it still took a lot of effort and grip to hoist our test load (a 50 lb. bucket of sand) to the roof.

It'd be one thing if we were going to be doing this 5 or 6 times - even 10, OK, I'd suck it up - but this was going to have to be done more like 30 times within the span of an afternoon.  Even if I didn't screw up and drop any panels (not likely), breaking something on myself seemed a pretty predicable outcome.

Maybe it'd be less of an issue if instead of gripping a nylon rope, I could hold onto the handle on a wheel that the rope wound up on?  That'd be a lot easier.  I might even be able to mount a gear on the side of the wheel with a ratchet that would keep the wheel from backsliding.  Isn't there a name for something like that?  Yeah... a winch!

But for a winch to work, it needs to be bolted down solidly. And what could we affix it to that would be sufficiently heavy so that I could spin the thing around without it coming loose… and once again, causing an expensive solar panel to come crashing to the ground?

The answer is obvious in retrospect, but it took us a little while to think of it: you bolt the winch to the ladder.  The ladder is being held in place by the weight of the panel and the frame - it's not going anywhere.

But there's another problem, which is that we're running out of space around the ladder, and if the drum that the rope winds around isn't large enough, you're going to need to turn the handle about a hundred zillion times to get any real vertical movement up the ladder.  Which would be funny in a slapstick sort of way, but not very practical.

The real answer would be an electrical winch.  And we were able to pick one up at a local hardware store for a fraction of the price of a solar panel (not to mention an osteopath or chiropractor) and we've just finished testing it under load.  It bolts to the bottom of our ladder. There's a single pully that that the winch's wire is threaded through at the top of the ladder, and the wire comes down and clips to the wooden frame that the panel sits in.  It's actually far simpler and less Rube Goldbergesque than the multi-pulley manual solutions we'd been trying.  And simpler is good.  We like simpler. We just finished testing it under load - first a bucket of sand, and then an actual panel, and it works like a dream. Look ma, no sweat!

So now we're ready. We have everything we need to get panels on the roof… except good weather.  We're looking at a coastal storm system that's going to be flooding us with rain until Tuesday.   So, Tuesday is slated as the day of the Big Lift.  Our panels go onto the roof, get bolted to the rails - and with any luck, we get to plug 'em in and test 'em out.

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Home Solar Project Blogging: Strength

So here we are, on the verge of completion of The Great Big DIY Project to put solar panels on our roof.  And look at how far we've come. And by "we", I'm mostly talking about my housemate and best friend George.

  • First we established that, given our copious electrical needs (and commensurate electrical bills), it's economically sound.
  • We determined our requirements in terms of solar generation capacity given our geography and the topology of our roof surfaces.  The number of panels, and their wattage. Their placement on our roof, avoiding the skylight, the many vents and other impediments – in keeping with new fire codes that place restrictions on where panels can be located on a residential roof.
  • We removed a tree and privet that shaded parts of the roof. OK, we hired a guy. But still, it got done.
  • We assessed the available technology, selected appropriate hardware, found sources and evaluated competetive bids.
  • We secured financing.
  • We developed detailed plans to submit for permitting, including engineering diagrams of the installation plans and elevation diagrams of our home.  We secured the permits.
  • With the help of a Professional Electrician (Hi Emmett!) we replaced the circuit breaker box on our house, supplanting it with one that can handle the new circuits that our solar panels will require.  And with his help, installed new grounding, conduits to run wires (and grounding) to two circuits on the roof.
  • After finding the rafters - largely by echolocation - we bolted mounts to the roof, with flashing to keep them watertight. And fastened aluminum rails to those rafters. And mounted upon those rails a series of Enphase micro-inverters that will convert the DC output of the solar panels into AC  power that'll be usable by our household wiring.
  • And all those inverters and rails have been electrically grounded. And the inverters are wired together.

All they are waiting for… are the panels. 
And we have them ready, stacked up in our garage, a series of lovely lapis monoliths.

There's just one problem: we have to get them onto the roof. 

What do you suppose is the likelihood that a couple of nerds capable of all of the engineering required above have the upper body strength to loft close to 1500 lbs. of solar panels onto the roof?

I've seen YouTube™ video of Real Men who can climb a ladder with one hand, holding a panel across their back with the other.  We are not those men.

So, that's the problem.  Right now, we're about to go into the third round of production and testing of a frame that is meant to coast over an aluminum ladder, using it as a rail to slide these goddamn panels up.  The top rung of the ladder will have brackets holding several pulleys with rope threaded up and down from a wooden frame that'll hold a panel - and back up and down - and back up and down again. There'll be another pully with a rope and a counterweight to largely eliminate the added weight of the frame itself.  All in the interest of making it possible for me to pull those panels up to the roof high enough so that someone can grab them, without leaning over and losing his own center of gravity.

A lot of thought and energy is going into just building this contraption that we'll only use for a single day – with any luck.

Right now, the prevailing opinion is that we're going to continue experimenting with levers and pullies and wheels and such for about a week, at which time we have a few stout-hearted neighbors who have volunteered to help us.  We figure we need at least a couple of people on the roof and a couple on the ground to make this happen.

Stay tuned.

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Welcome to my Blog

It seems like something of a throwback in this age of Twitter and Facebook, which empowers time-crunched persons like myself the ability to send little blipvert gems into the noösphere and be done with it, rather than committing to the long form of writing something with, oh, paragraphs in it.

This isn't to say that I'm not down with the social media thing.  It's just that I sometimes have something to say that is a little more nuanced than I can fit into an SMS packet, and a whole lot of Facebook and Twitter posts consists of links… so I figured I should build something to link to.

Because, after all, just what the world was crying out for was another damn blog, right?

You didn't have enough aggregation in your life already?

Here's the thing…  I'm neither likely to be prolific enough (nor am I sufficiently conceited to think that I'm fascinating enough) to have people beating a path to a blog if all it consisted of was my own musings and dazzling insights.

However, one thing I do on an ongoing basis is to source information from the torrential river that is the web - and pan through those murky waters to find nuggets that I prize - and which I notice that others also seem to value.

So, this is what I'm going to do - I'm going to take a bunch of my favorite streams of information, and cull the most fun, fascinating and shiniest bits - and post them here.  I'm doing that anyways for myself, and rather than clog up my friends' Facebook walls and Twitter feeds, I'm archiving what I find here.

I custom-built the site to facilitate that process, and I'll probably keep tweaking it to optimize it as I go along.

So… what you're doing is stealing other people's content?

Most of the material I'm posting here is syndicated from other sites using RSS feeds that they offer for just that purpose… and I'm providing attribution and links to the original sources: there's nothing surrepetitious about it.

Hell, the Huffington Post does a ton of aggregation of content to their site… the only difference is that I don't give a damn about the personal lives of media celebs, so that's not the kind of stuff I'll be hosting here.

Which begs the question… what will be hosted here?

Well, there will be personal missives… and I'm passionate and opinionated about my interests: technology, science, web development, media and politics.  Lately, what's been up for me has been a DIY project to put solar panels on my roof.  This is going to be fully documented by my housemate George in a series of posts and videos at Solaricious (which will also be syndicated here), but I'll post my own take on this as well. 

As for the politics: I'm an unapologetic liberal (or progressive - however you want to put it).  If you don't like that, there are plenty of other blogs for you. Enjoy them in good health. 

I do both programming and graphic design, so those interest me, and news of web technology will be featured, as well as innovations in hardware and software. But a large amount of the information found on sites like Engadget and Gizmodo consists of news and speculation about every new gadget that comes down the pike, and it's easy to drown in that - so I'm going to largely focus on what's innovative or truly novel, rather than flooding the page with articles about every new generation of laptop, tablet or cell phone.

And of course, what would the internet be without the LOLz?

Who are you, anyways?

I'm a web developer living in Northern California, and I've had my own little consulting buisiness for more than a dozen years, and before that I had an even longer career as a software engineer. Remember AOL?  I developed the prototype for that at a little company called PlayNet (check this jaw-dropping video out). 

I spent a number of years developing graphics and multimedia authoring software at Time Arts and Macromedia, as well as data visualization tools.

Currently I mostly develop sites for political campaigns and advocacy organizations.

And what's the deal with 'Malacandra'?

I've been using the name "Malacandra" online for close to a decade.  It's based on the name of the planet Mars in C.S. Lewis' space trilogy - which I loved as a teen.  I reread it a few years ago and realized it was a stinging indictment of secular humanism, which is something I've grown rather fond of.  Oh, well.

Also, it sounds a bit like my real name as said by somone very inebriated.

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