Aurora Borealis in my Backyard!

I mean, it was there, but super hard to see. After a large solar storm, Earth got hit with an unusual number of charged particles that lit up the night sky. When it had reached its peak overhead, I could barely see it and decided to go outside of town to find a less polluted place to witness. After going North for a few miles, I could easily see it, so I pulled off into a field just outside of DeForest and got out my phone. What you don’t expect about the aurora when seeing it in person is how unimpressive it is. It’s definitely cool. I was glad I got to see it. But the vibrant photos on the internet are not what one sees in real life. In fact, the photos I took with my camera right there turned out way better than what I could see. The timelapse of the camera was way better at picking up the light than my stupid eyes, so it had a better experience than I did. Here’s an example of what I saw:

And here’s what the camera saw:

This sounds a bit complainy, and I suppose it is. For something I’ve been so excited to see in person, and more importantly to help Danielle cross off her bucket list, I was a bit disappointed. It’s like walking through an art museum with sunglasses on. You can take pictures that turn out awesome, but your experience in the moment is muted and less exciting. Looking back on the photos, I’m satisfied. I captured brilliant colors, and my eyes witnessed the photons (not the exact ones, but close) that the camera captured, so I can claim success. Of course, here are the photos:

Real Data on the Solar Eclipse

As the 2024 solar eclipse dimmed the United States on April 8, 2024, every solar installation in its path experienced a dip in production. For me, the most exciting part of the eclipse wasn’t the actual eclipse, but rather watching the energy output on my solar panels dip and then rise, not only EXACTLY when NASA said it would, but even by the exact amount NASA predicted.

On the morning of the eclipse, I checked the NASA Eclipse Explorer for what to expect for my location. It gave me the following:

(https://eclipse-explorer.smce.nasa.gov)

It would start at 12:51pm, peak at 2:06pm, and end at 3:19pm, and cover at most 87% of the sun. Shortly before totality, I went over to the local hackerspace Sector67, where Chris had a telescope hooked up, some viewing goggles, and welding helmet glass. This was the view from the welding glass; basically a green crescent.

The small green crescent is the sun through the welding glass.
Chris set up a telescope, and the image is projected onto a screen.

While we were there, Air Force One left Madison and flew directly overhead, so we got to see that as well.

It wasn’t until after it got dark that I could collect the coolest graphic out of all of them; the solar panel output.

The small spikes are the occasional wispy cloud going overhead. Typically the graph looks very round, and it never has a beautiful dip like that in the middle of the day. So how did it match NASA’s prediction? For times, I picked the point where output started dropping for the start time, the lowest power output for the peak time, and the highest point where it ended. For % coverage, I first compared the power output value at the peak time against the power output at the start time. It’s clear that power output was already falling in the afternoon once the eclipse was over since it never recovered to the same level as before the eclipse started, so that’s not perfect, and it gave me the overestimate of 90%. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the power output WOULD have been at 2:06pm, but we can approximate it to somewhere around 2.4-2.5 on the graph. That gives us an approximate decrease in power output of… 87%.

NASASolar Panels
Start Time12:5112:53
Peak Time2:062:06
End Time3:193:15
% Coverage87%87%

Isn’t that amazing?

The Multiverse of Future Bobs

I have a problem. I spend a lot of time on projects, whether it’s house projects, electronics projects, hobbies, cooking, even in preparation for social events. I research the heck out of everything. And I do it because I’m taking care of the multiverse of future Bobs. It’s exhausting, and I need to stop and take care of present Bob more than all the future Bobs I’ll never be. Let me ‘splain.

We’re all familiar with the idea that any decision leads to a branch in the multiverse, where each choice is made in the different branches. Each branch is a different multiverse, and each one of them (hopefully) has a future Bob in it. Present Bob is the one who is making decisions that branch off. Past Bob is the only possible branch that could lead to Present Bob. Pretty simple, but here’s a diagram:

Now, here’s where the problem lies. Present Bob is working on a project, and is in the planning phase. Say he’s working on preparing for a solar panel installation on top of his house. There are a lot of decisions to make, such as how many panels, what kind, whether to do the work or hire a contractor. If he decides to do the work, that opens up lots of new decisions involved in the specifics of the installation, like which exact electrical components to purchase, how to acquire the tools, how to do the wiring, etc. That one decision was a huge branch that had lots of additional decisions to make. But Present Bob is also thinking about decisions he doesn’t have to make now, but may make in the future, such as additional solar power needs or getting an electric vehicle. Now, Present Bob would like to make sure that the Future Bob that decides to get an electric car will have the infrastructure in place to make that easy. After all, it would suck to install solar, only to have to make significant changes down the road to support that new decision. So Present Bob starts to research electric vehicle power consumption and charging and what’s needed, to satisfy the needs of a Future Bob that doesn’t exist yet.

But there are a lot of Future Bobs, so Present Bob is going down lots of rabbit holes thinking about future plans and making sure that decisions made in the present will be compatible with future decisions. Essentially, he’s future-proofing as much as he can. And this is a problem because it’s too much research. It’s too much planning. It takes away from Present Bob’s enjoyment of life. And it’s inefficient because there are decisions in the future that will have new information and new options that I can’t predict now. For example, what if solar cells get way more efficient and I can upgrade merely by replacing the panels to generate enough power for an electric vehicle? What if we never get an electric vehicle and never need to upgrade? It doesn’t make sense to try to consider and plan for every possible option.

My experience doesn’t agree with this assessment, though. Present Bob has thanked Past Bob countless times for considering something in advance and preparing for it. Past Bob has done a great job of taking care of Present Bob because Present Bob takes great care of all the Future Bobs. But the question is; is the amount of effort Present Bob puts into taking care of Future Bobs worth it? Present Bob doesn’t enjoy it very much, and he’s only ever going to be one of the Future Bobs.

The answer is to limit the amount of time Present Bob is willing to spend for Future Bobs, to make decisions based on information available at the time without thinking excessively about decisions Future Bob will have to make. I’m not sure how to do that yet, but I’m hoping to figure it out. I need to take care of Present Bob a lot more and worry about Future Bobs a lot less. If Present Bob is taken care of, he’ll become a Future Bob that’s taken care of.

Installing Solar

I installed a 4kW solar array.

In an effort to address my eco-anxiety, and reduce our carbon footprint and save money long-term, I installed solar panels on our roof. This was an extensive project, though. The first step was replacing the old roof. We didn’t know how old it was, and it was showing plenty of signs of wear, so we hired a contractor to install a standing-seam metal roof, which minimizes penetrations, is much more energy efficient, lasts a super long time, is recyclable, and since the old shingles were left in place it added much less landfill waste. The installers were able to do it in a day, and a month later there was a hail storm with 1″ stones that damaged every house in the neighborhood except ours. That was a fortuitous decision for us. We have also already seen a reduction in our energy costs because of the better heat management and venting of the roof. The second floor is a lot more livable now.

The newly installed blue metal roof. Looks great!
A panorama of the top of the roof on the back side. This is the south facing side and has a much lower pitch.

With the roof complete, I ordered the solar panels from a wholesale company that put together the plans for us to submit. There were some challenges with that, and they shipped the parts before I had city approval, which was an issue because the city rejected the plans immediately. It turns out that the plans didn’t include structural drawings, and the wholesale company wanted a lot of money to generate them. After talking to some people, it turns out that our existing roof was woefully undersupported. We found out from our neighbors that when the neighborhood was built, many of the houses were designed with expansion in mind, and that the basic floorplan could have a low pitch roof and be only 1 story, a high pitch roof and have a small second floor, or a mixed pitch roof and have a larger second floor. It turned out that the rafters for our house had been for the high pitched roof, but then shifted to a low pitch to make room for the second floor. HOWEVER, this made them overspanned (too much load on a 2×6 across a long horizontal area), AND because they were originally cut to 45 degrees at the end, and moved up to 12 degrees, there was a huge gap between the rafter and the top ridge board. The whole top of the roof was sortof unsupported. Whether or not solar was going to happen, I needed to fix this problem, and we had JUST gotten the new metal roof installed.

A view up into the attic. The left side of the ridge board is the 45 degree front pitch with rafters flush against the ridge board, and supported by a knee wall in the middle. The right side is improperly cut 2×6 rafters that span far longer than they are rated, with 1×8 boards scabbed on for some reason. This shouldn’t be standing.

After a lot of research and calculations, I managed to come up with a plan to sister new rafters to the old ones using fancy MSR2400 rated 2×6 boards, which are much stronger than the older ones and rated for the span I needed. I had to special order them, but the plan was approved and I could move forward.

The approved plan I drew up involved sistering new fancy rafters to the old insufficient ones.

For many days I would spend an hour or two up in the rafters. I had to cut them to size outside, then slide them in through the gable vent on the side of the house, then maneuver it into place, jack it up to take on the load, and bolt it to the ridge board and the sister rafter. It was hot and exhausting and difficult to move in a small space, and I had a watertight tyvek suit that was constantly wet and a respirator that made me fear drowning in my own sweat, but I got it done. The inspector was simultaneously impressed that the roof had managed to not cave in before, and impressed that I had been able to do what I did.

Sliding the rafter into place. Each one had to come in through the vent at the far end, then rotate into place.
I inserted new machine graded 2×6 lumber designed to span the correct distance, and sistered them with lag bolts to the previous rafters. These were cut at the correct angle and properly fastened to the ridge board. It took many hours of work to get each board in place, working in very cramped spaces, and the mask was necessary because of the fiberglass insulation.

With the rafters installation complete and the roof secure, I could focus on the actual solar installation. I’d had the parts in the garage for a few weeks, and it was getting colder and colder, so I was anxious to get it all installed. This part went fairly smoothly in comparison to the rafters. The racking went up in a day, the panels in another. I tied a rope to each panel and slid it up the 45 degree side of the roof on top of a blanket, easily pulling each of the 10 panels up to the roof. After that I worked on the wiring.

Sliding the panels up the steeper side of the roof.
Installation of the racking is complete, using a fastener that doesn’t penetrate the metal, allowing for a long-lasting roof. The first few panels are up, too.
All of the panels are on, and we’re ready for the electrical work.

It was my first time doing EMT conduit, and it was somewhat obvious in places, but I got it done. Everything was in place, and the inspector came to check it out. Unfortunately, I failed the first inspection, for some pretty minor things. I ordered some parts that afternoon, they arrived the next day, I installed them the day after, and then she came back for another inspection two days after that. Then I passed with flying colors, and she told me what a good job I had done. As a gifted millennial, getting that kind of validation and a literal report card from an authority figure, that really hit the spot. I buttoned everything up, set up the last of the web-based portion of the installation, and turned it on!

The plan for the electrical work. It was pretty easy to follow, and the actual implementation looks exactly like the plan.
The side of the house shows the conduit carrying the power down from the solar panels into the basement to the combiner box, then out to the external disconnect, then back in to the main service panel. Lots of conduit bending! In the top left you can see the vent through which all the rafters were inserted, which hasn’t been nailed back in place yet. Ask me how I got the rafters in there!

Conclusions

We’ve had an energy consumption monitor running for a little over a year, which was intentional as I wanted to design an appropriately sized solar installation. As designed, this will offset over 90% of our consumption over the last year. We have net metering, which means in the winter we should use the extra power from what we generated in the summer. Since I just turned it on there’s no immediate metrics worth sharing.

Repairing the rafters was tough but necessary work. Anybody else would probably have taken off the roof and come in from the top, which would likely have taken less time and been more sound, but also cost a lot more and risked damaging the roofing material we had JUST installed. The solar installation itself was pretty easy in comparison, and while the wholesale company I worked with was a bit of a pain in the ass, and they didn’t provide much in terms of instructions needed for the electrical portion, it still came together OK.

The overall cost is outlined here:

Permits$71
Unbound Solar (wholesaler package)$10125.05
Other Parts$794.65
Lumber$468.54
Total$11459.24

Our current consumption is roughly 5475kWH/year, and the PVWatts calculator estimates we will generate 5084kWH/year. With the lower AC needs thanks to the improved roof, we may end up at 100% of our consumption instead of ~90%. Since electricity is currently about $.16/kWH, this amounts to savings of $876/year, putting breakeven at 13 years. OUCH. And that’s a lot lower of a cost than if we had paid someone else to install. It’s very possible that energy prices will increase, lowering our breakeven point. But the big kicker here is the tax incentive we get, which is 30% of the installation cost. That brings our total cost to $6875.54, with a breakeven of 8 years, which is a lot more reasonable, considering the panels are guaranteed for 20.

The Wacky Dancer Army

I’ve always wanted to create an army of Wacky Dancers. I still have quite a bit of inventory left from when we sold them commercially, and a couple of each color, and I thought it’d be amazing to have a bunch of them dancing down the street in a parade. I posted to the Madison, WI subreddit that I was amassing an army and seeking bodies, and the post blew up. I got nearly 30 people expressing interest, and I only had planned on a dozen costumes. I didn’t want to turn people away from being in it, so I spent the next three days putting together every costume I could, going through unsold inventory and leftover unfinished (because they were rejected due to errors) costumes, and repaired them and finished them up. They weren’t good enough to sell, but they were fine for an army.

On the day of the Willy Street Fair, I packed up the car with 28 costumes. It was as many as I could possibly prepare because that was how many frames I had.

As soon as I arrived at the meeting spot people showed up and we handed out the costumes and helped people hem them and put them on. Everyone was having a great time.

I was smiling the whole time. We were right behind the band, and people were really into it. I was able to collect a few photos from people, and there was a followup thread.

I learned the Rubik’s Cube

I’ve always known that it’s a matter of learning the algorithm. It’s not that people who can solve it are geniuses, it’s just portrayed that way on TV. I came into one and really wanted to say I knew how to do it. So I went to a tutorial and practiced. Over and over. There are some basic steps: white face, second row, yellow cross, yellow centers in their place, yellow corners in their place, and finish. Each one of these steps has a set of about 8 moves that you do to get to the next one. It’s just a matter of memorizing those sets of moves.

Once I memorized them through repetition, I practiced even more, taking it with me on my morning walks, doing it during meetings, any time I could just to get the patterns memorized.

It takes about 3 minutes to do it, and I’m using the beginner’s method, but that’s all I ever wanted. I can say I know how to solve a Rubik’s cube, or if I forget the patterns in the future I can say I used to know.

Competitive Jigsaw Puzzling

In December I started doing competitive jigsaw puzzling. This is a sport where people are all given the same puzzle, and none of them know what it is before the competition starts. At the same time, everyone opens the puzzle and it’s a race to be the first to complete it. Categories include individual 500 piece, individual or pairs 1000 piece, and teams of up to 4 doing 2 1000 piece puzzles. I’ve only been doing 500 piece. My first competition I barely made it before the cutoff time and was at the back of the pack, but I hated the image and really struggled through it. I’ve gotten significantly better in the last few months, and now I’m doing a little over an hour in competitions. I practice a lot on the same puzzles over and over, and on some of them have gotten times below 40 minutes. World competition times are typically in the 34ish minutes, so I have a long ways to go.

It’s a fun hobby, and I like that I can start and be done within two hours. It’s a clearly defined project with a definitive end, and if I don’t like it I can bail, too. Too much of my other life projects are ones where it lasts far longer than I want, and bailing isn’t really an option for me, so this is nice.

Building My Bed

Since moving in, I had planned to have a Murphy bed, and style it in the same theme as the rest of the room; spacey without any specific branding. Here are the after photos. Continue on for the full process.

To start, I modeled it in CAD, and here are some renders:

From an angle. While the render shows hollow space, the intent was to put lighting and acrylic in the gaps.
From the bottom. The horizontal pieces will be lit, and the lower one will hold a piece of artwork by my sister.
The bed in its flat position.

When I purchased the materials for doing my basement renovation in 2019, I also purchased four sheets of 1/2″ plywood and stored them at Sector67. They were there for more than two years until I finally got around to doing the project. And it turned out I was one sheet too short. I had to pick up a fifth.

The design involves the bed and the sled, where the bed is 1/2″ plywood 61″x79.5″, with 4″ high walls made out of 1/2″ plywood. While a queen size mattress is 80″, the space where the unit will go is only 80″ tall, and I needed room for the walls. Additionally, it turned out that the space is sloped slightly, so I didn’t even have the full 80″, and my 1/2″ margin was completely eaten up, making sliding it in to the space a little difficult. Fortunately the mattress still fit into the 78.5″ space. The sled part is 4 sheets of 1/2″ plywood stacked together, with the inner pieces having cutouts that are larger to accommodate the LED strips and screws for the acrylic.

The various components.
The CNC panel router at Sector67 made quick work of all the cuts.

I used the CNC panel router at Sector67 to cut out all of the pieces, which gave me very accurate and very smooth edges. After that I sanded and built the bed portion, using screws and wood glue, clamping it together while it dried and I put in the screws, allowing me to re-use the clamps elsewhere. I used 1 1/4″ wood screws, and countersunk the holes pretty deep so that after everything I could use wood filler to cover up the holes. For the sled portion I glued and screwed 3 of the sheets together, leaving the 4th off so that I could install the electronics. I sanded everything to 220 grit and painted using oil-based primer, then sanded everything again. With the sled and the bed separate still, I painted the parts with a alkyd paint with a couple coats. Then I screwed the bed onto the sled, but left the countersunk holes exposed in case the two ever need to be taken apart for transportation. I’m confident that it would not fit out of the basement unless taken apart.

Screwing and gluing three sheets together, leaving the fourth off so I could install electronics.

I experimented with a few options for the acrylic, trying to rough up the surface of clear acrylic, spray painting the back side, and trying out other materials, but it turned out the best option was translucent acrylic. A single 4×8′ sheet was plenty for everything, and I cut everything 1/4″ inset so there would be plenty of space for screwing it in, plus room to get it in around the light strip, and some slop in case I didn’t align it properly. I used the laser cutter at Sector67, which made quick work of it.

For the light strips I used basic 12V RGB light strips, and two WiFi controllers. I wanted to be able to control it from my Alexa or the IR remote, just like the other strip lights in my room. However, I only wanted one outlet, and I wanted it to be a neatly enclosed box, so I took them apart and wired the power supply to deliver to both, then put them in a spare project box I had and mounted that to the sled. The tricky part is that it had to be in a location where it was out of sight and wouldn’t have any problems when up or down. Inside the sled I routed the strips and drilled 1/2″ holes through the small parts. I was able to route a whole side of the sled with one continuous strip, then use some wire to route to the other side through the middle of the sled, then use another single strip to route the other side of the sled. The other controller routes up to the horizontal pieces. I put a piece of translucent plastic in the center of the horizontal pieces to support the large acrylic pieces, especially since one of them could have significant weight on it from the art piece. Finally, since the adhesive of the light strips isn’t that great on wood, I used staples every few inches and especially in the corners to hold the strips in place. This was very difficult, as the staple gun was too wide, so I needed to hammer in each staple individually, and they didn’t like that. Additionally, if you nick the strip even the slightest bit, you risk shorting a section of the strip, so I ended up needing to do some surgeries to replace a few sections.

Once the wiring was done, and the acrylic was attached to the wood, I thoroughly vacuumed the insides, and closed them up, drilling and countersinking holes, then clamping them together while I screwed to minimize any gaps. I painted immediately after to make sure the inside was sealed from dust ingress. After a couple coats, everything was done.

After assembly I did additional coats of paint to hide the lines and screw holes and other blemishes.

The final part of the process was attaching the art piece my sister Betsy had done, and putting a strap in to hold the mattress and prevent it from falling out. The strap was easy enough; I had plenty of leftover webbing and clips from Wacky Dancers, and it’s not even noticeable under the fitted sheet. For the art piece I drilled a hole in one leg, then smoothed a face of a joint that made contact with the bed and drilled and tapped a hole in the face. Then I drilled a hole in the bed and put a bolt into the art piece. This way the art piece would stay in place when the bed was in either orientation, and the sled was designed intentionally so that the art piece would have a little bit of clearance so it wouldn’t slide against the carpet.

The mattress could fall out when upright, so I attached a strap that sits underneath the fitted sheet. You can’t even tell it’s there.

That’s it! After connecting it to my Alexa, everything was complete. The bed sits tucked under the HVAC bulkhead and opens up a lot of floor space in my room. It’s not very light, but I can manage to get it up and down. Springs or pneumatics aren’t really an option because the bed has no extra vertical clearance.

The final product again.

Here’s a breakdown of materials:

ItemCountCostExtended Cost
1/2″ 4’x8′ BCX sanded plywood5~$40$200
1/4″ 4’x8′ white translucent acrylic1$80$80
Dutch Boy Platinum Plus Cabinet, Door & Trim White Satin Paint, 1 Gallon1$48$48
Conco Pro Step One P008 Interior Alkyd White Quick Dry Stainblocking Primer/Sealer1$27$27
#6 1/2″ Flat Head Wood Screw 50ct1$2.17$2.17
#6 1/2″ Zinc Pan Head Construction Screw 50ct2$2.10$4.20
#8 1 1/4″ Phillips Flat Head Wood Screw 100ct1$5.09$5.09
#8 3/4″ Phillips Flat Head Wood Screw 150ct1$5.09$5.09
Heavy Duty Staples1$5.98$5.98
Titebond I Wood Glue 16oz1$4.38$4.38
Smart WiFi LED Controller with 24-key remote for RGB Light strip2$9.99$19.98
RGB LED Strip Lights 5M 300LEDs 12V3$13.99$41.97
Power Supply, 12V, 5A1$12.99$12.99
Total:$456.85
ToolOwner
CNC Panel RouterSector67
Table SawSector67
Belt SanderSector67
Corded DrillSelf
Various ScrewdriversSelf
Paint brushesSelf
SandpaperSelf
N95 RespiratorSelf
EarmuffsSelf
6in Bar ClampsSelf
Painter Drop ClothsSelf

Things Are Looking Brighter! But Not The Stars

Growing up in Montana I remember looking out at night and seeing the Milky Way, reminding me of my insignificance in the universe. Now that I live in a city, such introspection is no longer easy, and like 1/2 of humanity that also lives in urban areas, I must rely on satellites to provide the imagery. Yet satellites are part of the problem. Light pollution has been getting worse for decades, and with the recent steady stream of satellite launches and billionaire joyrides we have a relatively new addition to the sources of interference. So how bad is it, and how much worse will it get?

Looking up at the night sky, you can usually tell the difference between various man-made objects. Planes go fairly slowly across the sky, and you can sometimes see them blinking green and red. Meteors are fast and difficult to see. Geostationary satellites don’t appear to move at all because they are orbiting at the same rate as earth’s rotation, while other orbit types will zip by.

SpaceX has committed to reducing satellite brightness, and some observations have confirmed that new models are a full magnitude darker, right at the threshold of naked-eye observation. Unfortunately, it’s only a step in the right direction, and not enough to satisfy astronomers, who aren’t looking up at the night sky with their naked eyes, naturally.

The satellites aren’t giving off the light themselves. They are merely reflecting the light from the sun back to the earth, exactly the same way the moon is. Thus something that is directly in the shadow of the Earth will not reflect any light, but near the horizon the reflection from the satellites can be significant. It’s not practical to only focus our observatories in the narrow area that is the Earth’s shadow during the night, so we must look closer to the horizon and capture the reflections of the satellites.

Read the full article at Hackaday: Things Are Looking Brighter! But Not The Stars

The Many Ways To Solve Your Enclosure Problems

Most projects around here involve some sort of electronics, and some sort of box to put them in. The same is true of pretty much all commercially available electronic products as well.

Despite that, selecting an enclosure is far from a solved problem. For simple electronics it’s entirely possible to spend more time getting the case just right than working on the circuit itself. But most of the time we need to avoid getting bogged down in what exactly will house our hardware.

The array of options available for your housing is vast, and while many people default to a 3D printer, there are frequently better choices. I’ve been around the block on this issue countless times and wanted to share the options as I see them, and help you decide which is right for you. Let’s talk about enclosures!

Read the full article at Hackaday: The Many Ways To Solve Your Enclosure Problems