Jan 22, 2008

Grid Alternatives - The solar version of Habitat for Humanity

Last week I attended a training session for a group known as Grid Alternatives. What they do, basically, is to get volunteers and donations to install solar panels on homes of low income families in the bay area.

All the labor is free (volunteers) and the panels are heavily discounted in CA due to various federal, state, and city rebates offered. They claim for every $1 donated they are able to achieve nearly $3 in construction value. If I read that correctly, their cost for constructing a solar install is 1/3 a commercial install, due to the rebates and free labor. They are also actually achieving this, claiming to have installed 70 homes worth of panels in the last year alone.

The training I went to was about 2.5 hours, required no advanced knowledge, and while I don't feel like I could go install a set of panels tomorrow, I do feel like I learned a bit about the process and am comfortable enough to want to volunteer some weekend in the future. It sounds like their bottleneck is not labor or leadership, but rather money to buy raw materials. As a person who wishes to put some panels on my home but is unable to because I live in an apartment, I am going to be donating some of my normal donations to these guys this year instead of some of the alternatives. I like charities like this which are local, make visible, real, understandable changes, and of course it hits upon two of my favorite causes: green power(climate change) and poverty. If you live in the bay area or even if not, I would highly recommend checking them out. Well worth a look. Also definitely get on their one-mailing-per-month mailing list and/or donate a few bucks. www.GridAlternatives.Org

Update: Feb 17, 2010:

I asked some questions recently to the team at Grid Alternatives about their financials.  Non-profits have to file a tax form, Form 990, every year detailing how they spend their money.  Anyone can read these on guidestar.org, so you can verify much of this stuff yourself.  In 2010, they plan on installing 338 solar projects, with an average cost per project of only $7,890.  This is after government rebates and includes overhead.  Obviously some of the projects are bigger and some are smaller, but the average install is around 2.25 kW.    This translates to $22,614 of energy bills saved over the life of the install, a roughly 3x return on the investment, not to mention the additional 90 tons of CO2 not put into the atmosphere (depending on grid mix).  Even ignoring the environmental aspect, the economics work out surprisingly well.  Thanks to Zach Franklin for the detailed numbers.

Best Prize Evar: Dinner at Google

Late last year the Mountain View Google Chefs put together a fun "contest". In short one had to eat once at every cafe on campus (there are 17 of them) within a 1 week (5 day) period and the prize was a private dinner with the chef of your choice on campus. To steal a great line from my officemate Johannes, "I'll do alot of things for great food, and eating is one of those things", although I generally only each lunch on campus. No matter. 3.4 lunches a day later I succeeded.

Last Thursday was the private dinner. There were 9 of us winners at Plymouth Cafe, about to be spoiled rotten by executive chef Jeff Freburg previously of Kuleto's in San Francisco and Sous Chef Armando Litiatco previously of the Nectar Wine Lounge. Johannes took some photos of our meal, and I've reproduced the menu below. I am not a food critic and couldn't do the food justice by attempting to describe it, other than to say that was one of, if not the best, meal I have ever eaten. I also never expect to be able to eat a meal that nice again wearing jeans and a t-shirt.



Creamy Mushroom Cappuccino Soup
Land: Saffron Quinoa Mushroom Caviar and Grilled Broccolini
Sea: Smoked Salmon Wrapped Diver Scallop Beluga Lentils Caulifower Puree
Air: Seared Squab, Mushroom Risotto and Red Wine Reduction
Intermezzo: Yuzu and Citrus Granita Rasberry Compote
Sweet: Chocolate Lava Cake, Espresso Ice Cream and Nut Brittle.

All paired with a great wine that I forgot to note the name of. Yum.

Jan 15, 2008

Canon TS-E 90 Tilt-Shift Lens



I haven't posted in a little while. A couple years back Cristin got herself a Digital Rebel XT camera body. She had some Canon lenses from an older film SLR. Last week, she picked up the Canon TS-E 90 Tilt-Shift-Rotate lens and we got to play around with this thing last weekend. Its kind of a rare lens, not commonly found, also pretty expensive.



All camera lenses generate a "field of focus" which is an area in space where the objects are in focus on the image. Most point-and-shoots use a wide angle lens to maximize the area within the field of focus so that everything more or less is in focus. But interesting photos can be taken by having some parts of the image out of focus and hence blurry. Almost all camera lenses have a field of focus forming a prism with two of the prism's planes (front and back) parallel to the film plate. Tilt-Shift-Rotate lenses allow you to hange that prism in interesting ways. You can tilt, shift, and rotate the field distorting it in interesting ways to change the image. This leads to some cool photo effects, such as making things look like miniatures, creating interesting focus on small objects, or taking photos of buildings so that parallel lines remain parallel in the photo.

Well, Cristin and I went down to the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and took some flower photos, Some were head on, and due to lack of practice, many of those came out well with less effort. Others like the one on this post show some of the depth of field characteristics of the lens. Click on the flower to see more.

Jan 4, 2008

Record Snowfall

From NOAA's weather report (emphasis mine):

000
SXUS72 KMLB 032201
RERDAB

RECORD EVENT REPORT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE MELBOURNE
455 PM EST THU JAN 03 2008

...BELIEVE IT OR NOT...
...RECORD DAILY MAXIMUM SNOWFALL SET AT DAYTONA BEACH...

A FEW SNOW FLURRIES WERE REPORTED ALONG THE VOLUSIA COUNTY COAST
FROM AROUND 7 AM TO 930 AM THIS MORNING. A BRIEF FLURRY OCCURRED AT
THE OFFICAL CLIMATE SITE...THE DAYTONA BEACH INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT.
THE RESULT OF THIS FLURRY IS A RECORD SNOWFALL OF A TRACE. THIS OF
COURSE PILED HIGHER THAN THE OLD RECORD FOR THIS DATE OF NONE.

2001.


$$
FXD

Jan 3, 2008

Iowa Caucusing = batshit crazy?

Ok, I'm not really that terribly interested in the Presidential Race this time around. I probably won't even vote, primarily because I fail to live in a swing state. Today, I know, was the day of the much-anticipated Iowa Caucus.

What I didn't know was how that caucus goes down. The republicans do something sane, something like what I would expect: collect a bunch of votes, most popular wins. The democrats on the other hand are batshit crazy. I hope this image sticks around for awhile, click on it for a larger version.



Let me try to get this straight. Instead of marking my chads I would need to:

  • Show up at my neighbor's house (caucusing center) with 30 or so other people.

  • Find and "cluster" with people who want to vote the same way as me.

  • Learn that my top choice isn't acceptable.

  • Pick a new second-best choice and go sit with those folks who I didn't initially agree with.

  • If there are enough of us, we get a county "delegate" to vote on our clump's behalf.



Take the worst parts of the electoral college system, the worst parts of a non-private faux democratic country's voting system, and the worst parts of a house party and combine them. Seriously, this process sounds alot like one of corporate team-building games. All you need is for the participants to have to wear blindfolds and be completely silent while clustering.

I took a completely scientific poll of a coworker, my wife, and my sister. None of them knew how this process apparently works, so I figured I would share it with you my faithful reader.