I Hate Pushers

I read this op-ed in the local paper about “local” celebrity, writer, activist, climate change careerist, Bill McKibben that really pissed me off. First, let me attack the article itself. It was basically three columns of some middle aged guy gushing over McKibben and some talk he had given. It all sounded rather snooty to me (both the tone of the piece, and the talk it was describing). No one of any political/social/economic stripe wants to be talked down to. It honestly reminded me of Gerald in the prius South Park episode. But enough of that.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now, and I know I’ll be saying it again in the future: the whole “climate change” discussion frequently sets off so many red flags in my head. I’m not talking about the science. If anything, the science is the ONLY reasonable part of it. I’m talking about the types of people who go off about it, and the ways in which they persistently argue their points. So much of the talk is alarmist. I hate alarmist. I tune it out, and I think a lot of other people do as well. If your message is clear, logical and pure in motive, I’ll listen to you, and there would be no reason for you to be alarmist. Being alarmist (as so many in the climate change discussion are) really makes me think all you want to do is push something (an ethic/agenda/moral code/philosophy/etc). I abhor pushers like that. Probably more than most people, but that’s just my personality. I believe myself and others are inherently reasonable people. We’re all reasonable people (deep down, I really do believe that). If you’ve got a message, show us facts, let us make our own conclusions. Even if you don’t think people will understand something, you have to treat them as if they will. It’s not fair to talk down to people, or ride expensive educational credentials all over their doorsteps.

But that’s the kind of thing people and organizations in the climate change realm do…all the time. It’s like doing that is part of their handbook. That and guilt-tripping people. All I ever read about these people doing are things like organizing rallies, organizing protests, giving talks, writing books, lobbying politicians, etc. You know what, all of those things are great, but they’re absolute bullshit. They’re bullshit because they’re easy to do, and they don’t actually change anything. You think climate change is a major issue? You want to do something about it to change it? Then you’re going to actually need to do some real work. Not talk. Work. One of the best things I ever watched was the documentary “Cool It” by Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg. He never denied there was a problem, and he didn’t just sit around talking about it. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve said he was an engineer. He came at the issue with actual tangible, and more importantly, realistic solutions. Not a lot of pie-in-the-sky talk. Too bad you don’t see his name thrown around as much as “McKibben” or “Gore”.

And now for the last bit. Let’s just assume for argument’s sake that climate change is real, and it really is a problem we need to deal with. What kind of problem is it? Well, there’s a major component of energy usage/transport/creation that appears to be a big player. Ok, so we’ve got this energy problem, where we’re using too much, from a bad source, inefficiently, or whatever. How do you think it’s best to solve this problem? Sounds like something politicians and writers should tackle! Oh wait, that’s asinine! This is a technological problem at heart. Yes, there are tertiary economic and social concerns, but deep down, it’s an issue of technology. You know who solves technical problems? Engineers. They have real solutions. They solve real problems every day. They work extremely hard doing it too. I’ll put my money on them.

But you know something, you don’t have to be an engineer to solve these problems, or take real, tangible steps. Human beings are inherently good problem solvers. Think about steps you could take, things you could build, things that would make a difference. So instead of writing about climate change, and what we “need” to do, how about actually doing something? Oh right, that’s hard.

I’m running energy experiments every single day. At my kitchen table nonetheless. Are they grand in scale? No. Do they help me to evolve my grasp and understanding of the difficulties and problems with energy? Absolutely. I can’t right now, but maybe I’ll be able to use that understanding at some point to make a meaningful contribution. A meaningful change. But even if I never did, and all I ever end up gleaning is a very detailed understanding of energy creation/usage/development (and possibly powering some of my own gizmos), you know what, that’s going further to solve the problem than all the writers, activists and politicians out there.

To close, I’ll say that I’ve got nothing against McKibben. I’m just tired of all the attention being paid to thinkers, instead of the doers.

Booster – – Finally

I don’t really have the time to write an exhaustive post about the latest progress on the thermo generator, but I did finally get the DC-DC booster working. Next time I’ll have to be more careful, as I think I must’ve done something to blow out my first MAX757 chip. They weren’t cheap either, about $5 bucks each, but at least I had the foresight to get two.

Anyway, I was able to get it boosting the thermo generator 1.5-2VDC up to just over 5 (I knew my resistor calculations were right). As expected, the current isn’t too high, and under load of something like my phone, the charge current drops to around 30mA (disappointing).

But it is exciting to see just how amazing that little chip is. Before I tested with the thermo generator, I was using a 2-cell AA NiMH pack that was pretty dead, pushing just over 2V. Ramping that to 5V was no problem. I set up a test bank of LEDs. Some (4) tiny red ones that I know don’t take much to light, 1 yellow, which takes a bit more, and 2 green which take quite a bit of push. The 2-cell pack obviously has no problem lighting them all passing through the MAX757. More impressive however is the single 1.2V fully charged NiMH running them all without any complaint. That is very impressive. The thermo generator can reasonably create 1.5-2V with the current setup sustainably. That’s certainly on the lower side of what I want to see going into the MAX757. I will obviously be trying some rig modifications, but I think it’s pretty good right now. Two candles, or two alcohol lamps and 2 cups of cold water in a reservoir? That should be enough. I don’t think I can get the cold side any colder, and while the alcohol lamps work well, they have some major longevity problems. The metal tends to heat up and any liquid alcohol inside starts to boil. Eventually I get little flames popping out the sides, and spilling over onto the metal base. I will be trying to get all I can out of it, but right now, it’s looking like for reasonable cell phone charging, I’ll need a second 5W TE module.

Thermo Electric Results II

I happened to find a bag of 50 tea lights for 10 cents each yesterday. I got them and set up two as the heat source for my thermo generator. The tea lights probably only put out around half the heat of the bottle cap filled with ethyl alcohol, but they have the advantage of being safer, easier to use (I don’t need to monitor temperature as closely), and most importantly, they last a lot longer. With two lights, I set up the rig outside in the snow. Filled the cooling tray with snow and water and ran the power leads under the door back into the house. After letting it stabilize, I was pulling 1.6V at around 250mA. By itself, that’s pretty lame, but the temperatures were stable, and I let it run for quite a while spinning a large motor. I expect I *might* be able to pull that 1.6 up to somewhere between 1.7 and 2.0 with better cooling techniques. With that kind of voltage and that kind of current, I *might* be able to boost it to 5V for USB power. I’m in the process of building that booster now. If it doesn’t work, I may need another thermoelectric module. That would put me at a very solid 3V, and probably more. At ~30$ a pop though, they aren’t cheap. So I’d like to see what I can do with one first. The other thing to consider is that the module I have is actually rated to 5W (which I find difficult to believe). The temperatures used to get that much power (and the massive cooling involved to keep the differential high) are more than I can reasonably achieve in the package I’m working with, and they’re more than I’m willing to shoot for. The heat source almost has to be candles. They’re easy, safe, long lasting, and they do burn quite hot, but not 5W hot.

Thermo Electric Results

With 3 bottle caps and a few drops of hand sanitizer in each one (65% ethyl alcohol). An altoids tin filled with slush was used as the cooler. Peak output was 3.8V @ ~550mA for a total of 2.09 watts. All that from about 12 drops of hand sanitizer. This peak output only lasted approximately 10 seconds, but more nominal outputs of 2.5V @ ~300mA could probably be sustained for longer. The goal here is to use something that burns longer than a bottle cap of ethyl alcohol in combination with a DC/DC booster to smooth the output to 5VDC. If I can get it to run long enough, I can conceivably use it to charge USB devices.

Extra note:

I think it will also work better with a bigger cooler than an altoids tin. At the temperatures involved, the amount of water in a tin that size is going to heat up way too fast.I’m also considering some kind of passive radiator.


Every now and then I think it might be a good idea to save some money that I indulge on my cell phone plan each month by getting a crappier phone, and substituting the more data functionality with a tablet. Every time I think to do this I’m dissuaded by the same problem: There are virtually no tablets out there with replaceable batteries. That’s bullshit. I’m sorry, but if I’m going to drop $400+ on something, it’s going to have to last more than a year or two. If after 18 months the battery only lasts 60% of the original time, what the hell am I supposed to do? Just junk the whole device for a new one? There’s a bigger problem at work here regarding planned obsolescence of technology. I get that, even though I hate it. But what I don’t get is the reason to spend that kind of money on something you know will be either obsolete or non functional after only 18 months.

I personally categorize various sums of money on a scale. On the lower end of <50 dollars or so are the trivial amounts. These are sums that while they may seem like a lot, end up being trivial in the long run. Next I have the 50-250 dollar range. This range comprises things that are nice to have once in a while. Maybe a few times a year at most. Beyond $250 is what I call “investment class” funds. Anything purchased above $250 needs to have some kind of long term benefit. It’s an “investment”. These are things I buy rarely, and only when there’s a massive long term benefit to be had. Some examples? My computer. I built it a year and a half ago. It came in towards the lower end of the investment class scale at around $500. But my computer is something I use every single day. Not only is it still completely functional after 18 months, but it’s still extremely capable and has the capacity to be expanded or upgraded for relatively little cost. In fact, when I built it, I did so in such a way as future upgrades (for 18 months and beyond) where part of the plan. Another example is my bike. I spent almost a year researching and planning to buy my bike, and at around $1000 it came in pretty high on the investment class scale. But, going on two years now, it’s still completely functional. I perform minor maintenance on it, will be replacing a few components next spring, but the long term usage profile completely justifies the cost.

With all that in mind, how on earth can I justify one of these tablets? $600 for an iPad when it’s likely the battery will be useless in 18 months? To say nothing of the technology. I’m pretty sure even the iPad 2 (which just passed its 18th month) is completely technologically irrelevant (at least according to Apple) at this point. People (hippies) love to talk about being environmentally friendly, being conscious of resource use. Well you know what? How about building shit that lasts. Better yet, let’s build stuff that not only lasts, but can be easily repaired and/or upgraded as well. The amount of resources (both material and energy) that go into the creation of a single iPad are staggering. All those resources for 18 months. The earth doesn’t even know what 18 months is. That would be like you or me noticing that a single alien farted on Neptune. It’s completely immeasurable by our perspective.

So in the grander scheme of things we need to figure this shit out, or I’m pretty sure we’re completely fucked.