Doing our share

This past week was a pretty big one at the Stewart household. Two “environmental” projects came to fruition this past week. First, and most important, is that our photovoltaic array went live, and we are now generating some of our own electricity. We have 28 250 Watt panels distributed among our main roof, dormers, and the garage roof, for a maximum hypothetical power rating of 7 KW. However, the DC-AC conversion isn’t 100% efficient, and by design the sun doesn’t shine on them all equally, so we won’t expect to see that number ever come up. But it is fun to see numbers, and to that end, here is a web site that is publicly accessible that shows some statistics about our power production: Today we produced 35.1 kWh, and had a peak power output of 5.7 kW. Payback of our initial investment in the system is expected to take 5-6 years.

On another front, we also purchased a new vehicle today. Well, more accurately, a used vehicle. Partly because we understand that the best value to be had in cars is in ones that are 1-2 years old, but also because a friend reminded us that buying a new car implies the assumption of the environmental cost of producing a new car. I was enamored of hybrids for a time, but the same friend educated us about the environmental cost of sourcing all the rare earth materials for the batteries. So the conclusion we came to was to find an efficient gasoline powered car. But we couldn’t find one. Perhaps my standards are “too high” but I remember cars from back in the 80’s that would achieve 50 mpg. Many friends have heard me wonder aloud whether this technology was somehow lost.

It seems that there are a couple of big factors at play here. First, people expect their cars to be more powerful that those “econo-boxes” of the time. We expect to be able to get up to highway speed from a standstill in a matter of seconds. Another factor is that people have come to demand/expect many more accoutrements in their vehicles, like power windows, power locks, GPS Navigation, big, honkin’ sound systems with 12 speakers, power seats, etc. Do they still make cars without air conditioning?

I also remember reading an article a while back in an online car magazine (TopGear) about a project where a team was challenged to put together a car for less than $7000 that would get 70 mpg and be able to get from 0-60 in 7 seconds. I think I’m remembering all that correctly, it was a long time ago, and the article was taken offline quite a while ago, unfortunately. All that remains are posts that link to it, and failed to have a copy, unfortunately. Here’s one post that at least references the series, called “Project Sipster.” They took an old diesel VW Rabbit that they got for next to nothing, and put a lot of work into it, including a new engine, and new suspension. I don’t think the $7000 included the weeks of labor. Watch the video, though, and tell me you wouldn’t want to own this car:

In spite of my 13 year old truck running OK, and having no major problems, we didn’t think it would necessarily last through the next 10 years which will include paying for three college educations. And so, inspired somewhat by the above, we bought a 2011 VW Jetta Sportswagen TDI with only 18,000 miles on it. It’s fun to drive, and gets an EPA estimated 30/42, but you hear plenty of reports of people getting better. Really depends on how you drive it. Unfortunately, it is peppy, fun to drive, and encourages acceleration. Hopefully it will last through the kids’ college years. Isn’t it cute?


Happy New Years!

For Christmas, I received an awesome kit clock that I spent a good part of the following day putting together. We have a tradition where we spend New Year’s Eve with another family, and as one of the neat things about this clock is that the software it runs (I know, it’s a weird concept…) can be modified. So I spent parts of the next couple of days modifying the original software to include a countdown to New Year’s mode, which is what you see in the picture.

Unfortunately, this CharlieCard isn’t valid for usage with in the system

The MBTA has for years now had available a “stored value” type of card for subway, buses, commuter rail, etc. All very neat. You can go to a vending machine at subway stations and refill the card with cash or use a debit or credit card. It’s even possible to refill them on the bus, but I always get flustered trying to do it, and the drivers are often impatient about it. More recently, they’ve added a web-based system for refilling your card, which sounds pretty handy. But I’ve tried many times to enroll my ancient CharlieCard, only to get an error back. I assume it was because it was too old, and pre-dated when the started allowing access via the web.

Yesterday, I was on the bus and ran out of money on the card, so I went to refill it. I was asking the bus driver “What do I do next?” but he wasn’t really answering me. I failed to follow the correct sequence, and ended up with a paper ticket with $5 on it, minus the cost of the bus fare. Argh! When we got to Harvard, I picked up a *new* CharlieCard, so I’d be able to enroll it in their system. When we got home, I did try to enroll the card only to get the same error message back. Sheesh!

I emailed the support email address listed on the site, holding out little hope that I’d actually receive an intelligent answer. But less than 10 minutes later, I did get a response: “Unfortunately you would have to grab another card at the station. This error is due to a glitch in the MBTA’s system, and there’s no way to tell in advance which cards are compatible with the online system and which ones are not. I apologize for the inconvenience. Thank You”

So, kudos to the MTBA (or their partner) for providing an “answer” so quickly! Generally, at best I’d expect a response about a day later, telling me that the company had received my inquiry, and telling me how important I am to them, etc., etc. And then I may or may not hear back in a reasonable timeframe. However, the MBTA (and/or their partner) get a failing grade for the content of the response.

Guess I will be picking up a stack of cards next time…

Hell Toupee

There were still patches of snow on the ground from the weekend’s Ocsnowber Nor’easter, but it was a nice night for trick-or-treating, at about 45 degrees. I had our light on from 6-9 but still only served 10 kids, and 6 of them were in one group! I do my best to be a welcoming house: porch light on, jack-o-lantern out, and I always play some “appropriate” music, but very few kids come through our neighborhood for some reason. My “All Hallows Eve” playlist includes:

Bad Moon Rising — CCR
Bela Lugosi’s Dead — Bauhaus
Black Magic Woman — Santana
Bright Yellow Gun — Throwing Muses
Burnin’ For You — Blue Oyster Cult
Culling of the Fold — Decemberists
Don’t Fear the Reaper — Blue Oyster Cult
Everyday is Halloween — Ministry
Gallows Pole — Led Zeppelin
Hell — Squirrel Nut Zippers
Highway to Hell — AC/DC
Institutionalized — Suicidal Tendencies
The Mariner’s Revenge Song — Decemberists
Monster Mash — Bobby Pickett
Monsters in the Bathroom — Bill Harley
One Halloween Night — SteveSongs
People Who Died — Jim Carroll
Prince Nez — Squirrel Nut Zippers
Psycho Killer — Talking Heads
Run Like Hell — Pink Floyd
Shankill Butchers — Decemberists
Werewolf — SteveSongs
Werewolves of London — Warren Zevon
Zombie — Cranberries

In the afterlife
You could be headed for the serious strife
Now you make the scene all day
But tomorrow there’ll be Hell to pay

–Squirrel Nut Zippers, Hell

My Bike

Having largely completed Clara’s bike, I moved on to my bike. This is the bike I bought in High School, early 1980’s, from the bike shop that was at the edge of our neighborhood (The Bike Rack). It cost me about $300 at the time. I rode it all over during my High School year, or at least as far as I ranged back then. I wasn’t allowed to have a driver’s license until I was 18, so there wasn’t much driving for me in High School, though of course I did get rides from friends. Anyway, back to the bike. It got a lot of use in those years, and I brought it up to college with me, though with some trepidation given the reputation Cambridge had for bike theft. I didn’t use it a lot in those years, but when I needed to get off campus on my own, or even to the other end of campus, it was handy. One of my roommates borrowed it once, and the back wheel got stolen. He graciously replaced it, even before bringing the bike back, but that made me even more anxious about riding it. Or more precisely, parking it. I had a Citadel “u-lock” and the idea was you’d remove the front wheel and lock it up along with the back wheel and the frame to something sturdy. But what a pain, and you end up scratching up the fork ends.

After college, the bike saw even less use. And after getting married (or maybe it was just before), Susan and I bought snazzy new Specialized mountain bikes, which meant that the old bike really languished after that, sitting in basements, attics, and other random storage areas. I had a $10 price tag on it at a yard sale once, as it had gotten a little rusty in some parts, and someone offered me $5 for it. I hate yard sales. As if $10 wasn’t enough of a bargain. I couldn’t let it go for that, so it sat in the basement some more, but its presence there began to bug me. So a few years ago, I stripped it of all its parts, and began to strip the paint from the frame. It sat for another year or two, and last summer I got “inspired” to turn it into a single speed/fixed gear bike, and did a lot of research. The trickiest bit was getting a special rear hub that would allow some front-back adjustment of the cog (to tension the chain properly) even though the rear dropout was essentially vertical. I eventually bought a set of wheels on eBay where the rear wheel had this special White Industries Eccentric ENO hub. The pair of wheels, all built up, cost about a third less than the hub alone would have, brand new. Seemed like a good deal. But then it sat some more. Oh, and the new wheels are size 700c, while the old ones were 27″ so the conversion necessitates a longer reach brake.

This summer, we bought Clara an old road bike that she and I fixed up for her. Part of that job was having the frame painted (or more accurately, “powder coated”). I thought I could perhaps get a discount getting more than one frame done, so I got both frames ready. That didn’t turn out to be the case, and it turned out to be quite a bit more expensive than I’d hoped, but I’m very pleased with the end result. After essentially finishing her bike, I started on mine. I bought about half the parts via eBay, and others through a couple of online bike shops, and even some parts/tools from local shops. At this point, there remain but three original parts: the frame, the fork, and the seatpost binder bolt. After that, there are a few things I bought used: the wheels, the seatpost, and the saddle. Beyond that, everything on the bike is new. Which means the project cost more than it was worth, but it has been a fun and interesting project, and I learned a lot doing it. Plus, I still have my old bike and all the sentimental value that carries.

I rode it for the first time last Friday. I had it set up in fixed gear mode, but felt a little freaked out in that mode, so I switched it to single speed (by simply flipping the rear wheel around!) until I could get comfortable with the bike as a whole. Hope to make the switch and get some practice riding “fixie” soon. I expect it will take some time to get used to it.

Here’s a listing of most of the components:

Frame: 1981 Panasonic DX2000
Fork: original Tange
Rims: Mavic Open Sport
Rear Hub: White Industries Eccentric ENO
Front Hub: some Nashbar sealed bearing hub
Headset: Velo Orange Alloy Headset, in JIS size (not many choices in that size!)
Stem: Nitto Pearl 120mm
Handlebar: no-name Bullhorn style
Bar Tape: Arundel cork
Bottom Bracket: Tange sealed cartridge
Crankset: Sugino XD
Pedals: MKS Sylvan Prime Track Pedals
Toe Clips: MKS (NJS Stamped :-))
Brake: Tektro R536 Caliper
Brake Level: Tektro RX 4.1
Cross Lever: Cane Creek
Seatpost: SR Laprade
Saddle: Selle San Marco Island Ponza


Clara’s Bike

Ever since she briefly rode a friend’s road bike on vacation last year, Clara has been wanting a road bike of her own. There are kid-sized road bikes available, but they run $700 and up! So I scoured Craigslist, and eventually came upon a 1977 (I think) Fuji Junior, which is a kid-sized road bike, built on 24″ wheels. Nice. Picked it up for $60. Seemed like it had been garaged for a long time — grease was very dry, but the bike and its parts didn’t seem beat-up or anything. So, Clara and I took the bike completely apart with the intention of getting the frame painted nicely and generally overhauling all the moving parts.

Brought the frame in to the powder coater just before we left for two weeks of vacation, and picked it up shortly after we returned. It looked awesome! It cost more than I expected or hoped, but it was beautiful. Clara picked out a nice teal, which doesn’t seem to be rendered quite accurately in the photos below. We’ve been working together over the past couple of weeks to clean and re-grease all the components and re-install them on the frame. It’s come along very nicely.

The biggest headache, somewhat surprisingly, has been the wheels. The new standard in wheel measurement is from the E.T.R.T.O. and is now an ISO standard. Wheels labelled 24″ may be one of (at least) 4 different sizes: 507, 520, 540, or 547. These numbers represent the “bead seat diameter” in millimeters. Turns out, the version of 24″ on this bike is the 547, which is by far the least common. It seems to also be known as “S-5” a proprietary Schwinn size. After much searching, I came upon one tire that would fit, and ordered a pair plus tubes, even though they are bigger (wider) than I’d like. They are more like “comfort” tires than “road” tires. They are listed as 1 3/8″ where the old, cracked ones on the bike were labelled 1 1/8″.

On the plus side, the tires do fit on the rim properly. On the down side, they are so much bigger, that the rear tire rubs against the brake hardware. I’m currently searching for a better option. Over the long term, I’d hope to upgrade from these heavy, chromed steel rims. Not only are they heavy, but chrome rims are notorious for bad braking performance. Seems that the best option for wheels that offer a better selection of road tires are the 520mm variety. The rear wheel wouldn’t be much trouble — everything is fairly standard on the back, most importantly the hub spacing is 126mm, for which hubs are still available without *too* much trouble. On the front, however, the hub spacing is an odd size — 91mm, which shows up in references as a “low end” hub. No hope of replacement there, which means to replace the front wheel, I’d have to re-lace the current front hub to a new rim. But even putting together all these parts leaves the issue of whether the new wheels would be too small — brake reach is the key issue here, because I’d be losing 13.5mm in radius, thus requiring brakes with 13.5mm more reach, which I suspect will also be tough to find.

So for now, the bike is going back together with all the original hardware, with wear-and-tear items replaced: tires, tubes, brake shoes, cables, housing, handlebar tape, and ball bearings. Probably didn’t have to replace the bearings, but wanted to do a good/complete job. But it’s honestly been a bit hard putting all these old (& often heavy) parts back onto this new-looking frame. I hope, over time, to replace a lot of the components with new, improved, lighter ones. But almost certainly by then, I’ll have spent as much as (if not more than) a new bike would have cost, and Clara will have outgrown it. But perhaps it can be sold at a premium on Craigslist as a small but nice bike for a small woman, or a generous parent…


More Pony Tails than an NFL Game

We’re here at Dilboy Stadium in Somerville to watch the Boston Militia take revenge against the DC Divas. The Divas beat us in our opening game, and gave us our only defeat on the season. Tonight’s game is the last of the season. It’s clear that these are the two most competitive teams in the league. The Divas haven’t lost, and in fact only two teams (the Militia being one) have scored on them at all. And our results are pretty similar. Our most recent win was something like 70-0.

Anyway, good family fun at a reasonable price, and walkable (< 2 miles) from our house! 20110611-062533.jpg


On Thursday (2 days ago) I ordered an electronics prototyping kit based around an Atmel ATmega8U2 microcontroller. The kit is called an Arduino, and I ordered it from Adafruit Industries (funny name, I know), and paid for UPS ground shipping. I’m glad I didn’t pay for 2-day or 3-day “Priority” shipping, because it arrived Friday, the very next day.

The hardware is “open source” and there are many freely available open source tools for programming it. Tyler and I played around a little with it last night, and made it blink an LED. I played a little more after he went to bed and made it light up a series of LEDs in various patterns. Cute. The programming environment is C-based, so it is pretty familiar to an old programmer like me. Today (Saturday), I spend a couple of hours (chopped up into 5, 15 or 30 minute increments) and was able to make something, well, useful. It also uses a separate LCD display that I also purchased (seemed like it could be a fun add-on), and a temperature sensor that came with the kit. Using the display meant also using my nice new soldering station to solder 21 connections! Here it is:

It is a thermometer that displays the temperature when you press a button. It displays for 5 seconds, then the display turns off to conserve the battery.

I was partly inspired by a friend who also bought a kit and has been enjoying it. I had heard of Arduino starting a few years ago from the Make: blog and magazine. It is very popular among hobbyists and artists of a certain bent. It has lots of useful means of interacting with the real world, and a bevy of enthusiasts who have contributed lots of code and made add-on hardware for the platform. We have plans for a much more involved project, but for now, these little steps are still exciting.

We’re An American Brand!

Growing up, my mom always bought me Toughskins. They may have had their own ads, but boy did I lust after Levis. I couldn’t even bother to ask — I knew there wasn’t enough money to buy me “expensive” pants. There did come a point however, maybe it was junior high, when there was perhaps a little more money, and when my desire to fit in outweighed my need to resist asking for non-essentials. There was a store, I don’t think it was actually a Levis store, but that’s about all they sold, at the local strip mall (the Hamden Plaza). At that age, I was given some money and allowed to walk there and buy my own pants. It was honestly something of a relief to be wearing the same pants that most everyone else was. At least the boys. For the girls, as always, there was more freedom. Chic, Jordache, etc. For boys there was Levis, and the occasional Lee or Wrangler, but by and large, it was Levis.

Thus began my relationship with the brand. They had done their marketing well. They presented themselves as American as apple pie, as the saying goes. So aside from dress pants, I wore Levi’s exclusively for decades.

But back in the 1990’s, Levi Strauss and Co. began using offshore manufacturing, while still using the Made in the USA label. Thus began my disillusionment, though I didn’t act on it for a long time. A few years ago, though, I did a little research and came across a web site that listed companies that still made jeans here in the U.S.A. Check out the list if you want to help keep your fellow Americans employed.
I’ve bought jeans from both All American Clothing (including their select Carhartt jeans that are Made in the U.S.A.) and Pointer Brand, and have been happy with all of them. The All American jeans are pretty close in character to the Levis I used to know and love so well (though no rivets). The Carhartts are also Levis-like, and the only black jeans I could find in the crowd. I don’t see them listed on the site any longer. I have 2 pairs of the Pointers, one is the funky Hickory Stripe (think railroad engineer…), and the other are the regular jeans. My only complaint about them is that the pockets aren’t as deep as I am accustomed to, though the smaller (watch?) pocket is quite roomy.