Bill’s Blog

Just sharing my thoughts (which are my own and not those of my employer)

More efficient solar power

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Once I got the solar powered webcam working, I started thinking about how to make it more power efficient.  Looking at the specs of the inverter, I found it consumers 3W all the time.  That’s a lot of power wasted.  To make things more power efficient, I replaced the inverter with a circuit I built.  It is a highly efficient 12v to 5v switcher.  The picture below shows the near finished product.  It all fit in a box slightly smaller than the inverter.  Now that it is installed, the battery lasts about twice as long.


September 30th, 2009 at 11:31 am

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How to build a Solar Powered Webcam

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About six months ago I got this crazy idea.  What if I put a webcam up on our hill?  There was no power up there, so I thought of the options.  I settled on the idea of building a solar powered webcam.  Having never done this before, I set out to learn about solar panels, batteries, and webcams.  I’ve tried to capture the important parts here so you can learn from what I’ve done and build your own solar powered webcam.

First, select the camera.  There are hundreds of webcams to choose from.  I was looking for an inexpensive camera that could be mounted outdoors and that was wireless.  I was not running any wires up to the hill.  I decided to skip the PTZ cameras (the ones with pan, tilt, and zoom) since I knew I’d be running on battery power.  I choose an indoor camera with a matching outdoor housing rather than the outdoor cameras.  The main factor was cost.  My Trendnet IP-TV110W was $74.46 on Amazon.  Outdoor cameras are much more expensive.  Trendnet also makes an outdoor housing with a mount designed for the camera.  The other thing to worry about with a solar powered setup is how much power the camera draws.  This one says it draws 6 watts max.

The next thing to consider was how much solar power I would need to power the camera.  I assumed six watts max meant 2.5-3 watts nominal, or 60-72 watts each day.  At 12 volts, that’s six amp hours each day.  Since solar panel installations run off of batteries, they end up being just as important as the panel.  You need a battery that will hold enough power to run the camera all day.  The panel needs to provide enough power to charge the batteries each day with the limited amount of sunlight available.  According to Solar Oregon, Portland gets about 4 hours of peak sun on average each day.  To test my assumptions about the power bring drawn from the camera, I bought a Kill a Watt meter and plugged the camera into it for a week.  The power consumption was so small that it never registered on the meter.  Armed with this info I decided on the 15 Watt Sunforce 50032 Solar Panel.  The panel shoudl generate about 60 watts of power each day to the battery.  I ended up buying a 33 Amp Hour battery from Batteries Plus locally.  While I could have used a smaller battery, I wanted the extra power available for those winter days when there isn’t much sun.

To connect the panel to the battery, you use a device called a charge controller.  One side connects to the panel.  The other side connects to the battery.  Basically, it keeps the panel from overcharging the battery.  I chose the Sunforce 7 Amp model.

Once I had chosen the camera, panel, and battery, the next step was putting it all together.  I started by mounting the panel on a pole at the top of the hill in my backyard.  I fretted quite a bit over how to mount it to the pole.  In the end I used three 12 inch 2x4s, a metal L bracket, and a 4×4 post.  The top and bottom 2x4s are bolted onto the panel through the mounting holes provided.  The middle 2×4 is attached to the metal L bracket and resting on the panel mounts.

Solar panels work best when mounted facing South at roughly 45 degrees.  To accomplish this, I bolted the L-bracket to the side of a 4×4.  The 4×4 was concreted into the ground for stability.

Once the panel was in place, I connected the charge controlled and batter.  To keep the charge controller dry, I mounted a small (6x6x4) plastic sealed box to the 4×4.  Wires go in and out of the box through a small hole drilled in the bottom.  I chose the size of the box so it was large enough to fit the chrage controller, an inverter, and the power adapter for the camera.  I could have also just built or bought something to convert the batteries 12 volts to the fix volts used by the camera.  In this case, the Charge Controller is connected to the battery.  This is how the battery is charged.  The inverter is also connected to the battery.  The inverter has a cigarette lighter style input on it, so I bought a cigarette lighter style jack at a local auto parts store.  I used heavy duty velcro to hold the charge controller and cigarette lighter adapter to the back of the case.

At this point, there is power to the inverter.  I first plugged in an LED nightlight to test it.  Instead of a webcam, I could power lights. a radio, or other small electronic devices.  A solar setup like this can be used in many situations.

Once I had power it was time to mount the camera.  When I say the camera, I actually mean the camera, the camera housing, the arrestor, and the external antenna.  That’s a lot of stuff!  The first thing I bought was the camera.  I tested it out to get it working as I wanted, then ordered the housing.  Once it got here, I realized I needed an external wifi antenna.  I choose the smallest outdoor antenna from this manufacturer.  It is still almost 2 feet tall!  The reason for an antenna is twofold.  First, the camera is in a metal box.  Its wifi reception is going to be hampered by this fact.  Second, the camera is a ways away from the wifi router, which is inside and at the other end of the house.  I tested the signal first by walking around on the hill with my ipod touch.  It worked fine and so does the camera.  The arrestor has two functions.  The first is to convert the cable from an SMA to N-type connector.  This connects the antenna to the camera.  The second and most important function is to protect the camera from a lightening strike.  Finally, I had to plug the camera into the inverter in the box mounted to the 4×4.  I had to cut the power adapter at both ends.  The DC plug doesn’t physically fit through the holes in the camera enclosure, so the manufacturer recommends cutting the wire.  I had to do the same at the other end.  This was both to lengthen the wire and to fit the wire through the hole in the bottom of the plastic box mounted to the pole.

The next result is a solar powered webcam that broadcasts live video 24×7.  The total cost for the project was $564.60.  This is less than many of the outdoor cameras I looked at.  It is also less than what it would cost to hire an electrician to run 110V to my hill.  I thoroughly enjoyed building this and am now thinking of all kinds of things I could power with my solar panel.

May 2nd, 2009 at 10:22 pm

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Trip to Stanford

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I had a great opportunity that fell in my lap a few weeks ago.  I was invited to speak at Stanford about the value of foreign education and experience.  The event was yesterday.  For my part, I was on a panel with three other folks.  Two of us spoke about our experiences hiring and working with engineers from outside the US.  The other two folks represented big Indian outsourcing companies and spoke mostly about their hiring process built for volume (~25k people a year).

It was cool to be invited and I was thrilled to go.  The attendees were a mix of academics and industry folks.  May were professors studying similar topics.  A few folks from the GAO were there.  Several attendees came from far flung places like India and New Jersey.  There were ~30 people all in all.

The meeting was in an ornately decorated room on campus.  I don’t think I’ve seen so much wood paneling ever.  There was a massive fireplace at one end.  But they had a great sound system, a dedicated AV guy, and comfortable chairs.  The whole time I kept wondering if anyone there twittered?  I still don’t know :(

For lunch they had arranged for lunch at Google.  It was my first time there, so I jumped at the opportunity.

The day was a nice change of pace for me and I enjoyed every part of it except for getting up at 4:30 to catch the flight down there.

March 14th, 2009 at 9:30 pm

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Innovation at Google

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This past week I attended the Society of Information Management’s monthly get together at the invitation of my friend Aaron.  The featured speakers were a couple of guys from Google, Brian Kemler and Steve Benson.  Their topic was innovation.  I found the discussion interesting and took a few notes.  Read on if you’re interested.

– True innovation means both technical innovaton and business model innovation.  They said Page Rank was an example of technology innovation while Text Ads on search pages was business model innovation.

– 50% of the employees at Google are engineers.  From what they said I could also add “and doing engineering work”.  I don’t know what the percentage is elsewhere, but I thought this was a great formula for success.

– When they talked about resources, they talked about people and machines.  I found it interesting that they didn’t talk about money.

– Google uses a 70-20-10 model for where they focus.  70% of their resources focus on core businesses like search, ads, and apps.  20% focus on adjencies or related businesses, and 10% of their resources are focused on exploratory type work.

– Flat management structure.  8 layers from bottom to top. (this is flat?)

– Hire for culture fit (one person I spoke with later in the week said he had 24 interviews when he was hired.  I also learned that Larry Page still reviews every single hire before an offer is made.)

– Dedicate time for inovation.  All engineers can spend 20% of their time on anything they want.  Though this guy did say that that 20% time usually means 120% time meaning that a lot of the innovation work is done after hours.  I asked him how they manage the 20% time.  I was met with a blank stare.  He eventually said that they hire smart, passionate people who want to work on interesting things, so the 20% wasn’t a problem.

– Experiment and realize that some things won’t work.  He gave an example of the electrical substation in The Dalles data center.  The power company was going to take a couple years to build it so Google decided to do it themselves.

– Encourage people to act on new ideas

– Big Award culture.  Their founders awards are in the millions (wow!).  They have Executive awards in the several hundred thousand dollar range.  Smaller awards are ~$1500.  They also have spot awards that anyone can give.  These are $175 or so.  One thing he said about the big awards was that they provided good incentive for people to not leave and work for Facebook or Twitter.

– locate engineering centers near the International Colleagic Award Contest Winners (or something like that – think very smart people)

– managers have up to 50 people reporting to them.  They don’t have staff meetings, but instead do weekly snippets.  They are stored in an internal, public db (as is everything at Google).

– TGIF meetings Friday at 4.  The execs answer employee questions.  When the company got too big for this to be done in person, they started a system where employee questions are submitted electronically and voted on.  They most popular wind up at the top of the list.  He said that isn’t always comfortable, as some of the questions can be difficult to answer.

– iterative design, constant improvement.  They release early and release often.  They must have metioned cloud computing and its advantages 100 times during the presentation.  This was one of them.  Cloud computing allows them to add or remove features anytime they want.

– crazy “org” chart.  not top down, expect people to do the right thing.  don’t dictate technology.  can use macs or pcs, ppt or google docs.

– Internally they use search for everything.  They don’t bother to organize information.

– External sites all run gubuntu, GFS, and Big Table (their DB).  This horizonal platform, purpose built hw, and their massive scale is used by all google apps.  Also, there are UI guidelines but no hard and fast rules.

– They talked about customers not being locked in.  They felt they had to earn people’s trust and their business.  They view competition as a good thing.

– Internal tool called Ideas.  New ideas are entered into the system.  Peopl vote on their favorites.  Engineers work on the top ideas.  Many thigns at google seem to work this way.

– budget time not money

– “cool” projects get the engineers

– when they kill projects they kep them alive for the existing users

– they turn features off if users don’t use them

Since you’ve read this far, I’ll give you a bonus.  Later in the week I had lunch at the Google campus in Mountain View.  I was in a small group meeting with Ivan Ernest, the Head of Global HR, Engineering and Operations. There were a few additional things he shared.

– you can put yourself in for a promotion anytime you want, even if your boss doesn’t agree with it.  They build a “package” of peer reviews of your work and have peers who don’t know you make the decision.

– new hires are often brought in as “MTS” – Members of Technical Staff.  After a year or so their peers provide reviews about them.  Then peers who don’t know them decide what level they should be.  It’s a strange culture for sure, though it seems to be working for them.

– Seems like many many things are voted on, or managed by peer reviews.  An example are their quarterly objectives and key results.  They are done bottoms up with very little tops down input.  Ivan said that Google’s approach was to hire the smartest people they could and then ask them what they should be doing.

A final note.  I had lunch in the Google cafeteria.  It is free for everyone, including me.  The food was great, there was plenty of variety, but there was a certain sense of disorganization to it all.  It was a wonderful trip.

March 14th, 2009 at 9:14 pm

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Solar Powered Webcam Project

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I’ve been thinking about a solar powered webcam project.  I’d like to put a webcam up on a hill where there is no power nearby.  When I looked into the project, it doesn’t seem that difficult.  I’d need a few things.

My thought is to have the solar panel mounted to the top of the pole, and the camera enclosure mounted to the same pole.  I’d put the battery and inverter in a waterproof enclosure mounted to a fence nearby.

What’s holding me up at the moment is how to mount the panel, what enclosure to use, and what battery to use.  Any input on this is appreciated.

February 12th, 2009 at 11:41 pm

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Two great quotes

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I was in need of a quote recently. I found two that resonated with me.

1. Troubles are often the tools by which God fashions us for better things – Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher is an interesting figure. He was a popular pastor in the 1800’s. He also had a bit of controversy surrounding his life. It doesn’t appear to have been resolved, but must have been frustrating for him and everyone else involved.

2. You are only as strong as your purpose, there fore let us choose reasons to act that are big, bold, righteous, and eternal – Barry Munro

While this is a very motivating quote, I have no idea who Barry Munro is. It would be great if we all lived our life this way.

January 7th, 2008 at 11:06 pm

Discovering Aphorisms

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After slogging through Wikinomics, I decided to treat myself to some lighter reading.  I started with “Lafcadio: The Lion who Shot Back” by Shel Silverstein.  It was a birthday present from my parents.  They probably knew the time would come when I’d seek it’s light hearted nature after a laborious journey through another opus.  In any event, it was a perfect fit.  It made me laugh.

Tonight I looked at my bookshelves and pondered which book to pick up next.  Rather than “Blue Ocean Strategy” I found myself picking up “The World in a Phrase” by James Geary.  It’s a brief history of the aphorism.  In case you aren’t familiar with aphorisms, I’ll give you the quick definition.

  • They are brief
  • They are definitive
  • They are personal
  • They have a twist
  • They are philosophical

Some examples of aphorisms are:

  • Knowledge may have its purposes,  but guessing is always more fun than knowing
  • There are certain mistakes we enjoy so much we are always willing to repeat them
  • The difference between a rut and a grave is the depth
  • Love decreases when it ceases to increase
  • One can only become a philosopher, not be one.  As soon as one thinks one is a philosopher, one stops becoming one.

I first heard about aphorisms on an NPR podcast several months back.  For some reason the idea stuck with me.  I ordered the book that was being discussed on the podcast and the rest is history.  I’ve just finished the first chapter, but hope to read several more before bed tonight.

If you’re familiar with the aphorism, or if the quick definition was enough, leave one here for me.

November 5th, 2007 at 10:12 pm

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San Francisco Online Community Roundtable

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Bill Johnston invited me to the Online Community Rountable held last night at Autodesk in San Francisco. Since I was in the city attending the Web 2.0 Summit, I decided to stop by. I’m glad I did. This turned out to be a great place to meet fellow online community managers. There were people form big companies like Microsoft and Apple, as well as people from smaller companies like The Well and an online fantasy sports site.

The key topics we discussed were

  • Who in the organization should own community?
  • How to get the rest of the organization involved with community?
  • Community identify and branding

Who in the organization should own community?

There were a variety of opinions. Some thought that marketing should own community, since talking with customers is ultimately a marketing function. There were certainly a lot of people who disagreed with that opinion. Most people agreed that many marketing departments just don’t get community. They still view marketing as telling, rather than viewing markets as conversations.

One interesting idea was to have marketing report to customer support. Not a bad idea if you ask me.

How do you get the rest of the organization involved?

This one was an important topic to me. It was the question I raised to the group. There were some great ideas that came out of our discussion. Here are a few:

  • get them involved with reading the community posts (start slow)
  • add a banner that displays for internal people only telling them who to contact to participate in the community
  • create a structured project and set aside community time. This sounds more complicated than it is. One person said they set aside two hours where engineers answered forum questions. After that time several really liked it and continued to participate.
  • Put your documents in a wiki. The idea was that people throughout the org would be inclined to edit the wiki or to read comments from those who did

Community Identify and Branding

What do you do when the community loves you and your brand so much they start using it in other venues? If you let them, you risk loss of control or worse. If you are a hard nose about it, you’ll upset the community and lose some of that magic fairy dust you’ve worked so hard to get. There were lots of opinions, but everyone agreed this was a hard one.

One very smart company said they asked their community to help them create a logo just for the community to use. What a great idea!

I had such a great time with these folks. I’m definitely up for doing this again the next time I’m in San Francisco.

October 19th, 2007 at 2:56 pm

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The Value of a Good Editor

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I’ve been thinking about this for a while, yet I must admit that I’m still learning about the concept. I have some great pictures hanging on my wall. I took them and I sometimes share that with guests. They often ask how I take such good pictures. The answer is that I shoot a lot. There are plenty of bad shots, but there are usually a few good ones as well. Of course, the more I shoot the better I get at both shooting and choosing which ones to keep and which ones to throw away. I still have a long way to go, but you get the idea.

The same is true for writing. It’s difficult to write a note that conveys exactly what you want to say. Most of our communication (like this post) is written of the cuff and in a hurry. It takes a lot of thinking to draft a proper article, blog, email, whatever.

Thus the point – there’s value in a good editor. Whether you edit for yourself or hire it out, discerning what to keep and what to throw away is critical. I noticed that Thomas Hawk usually posts only a single photo each day. They’re always great photos. He talks about shooting lots of pictures, but we only see a few. Good editing!

I once wrote an article for work. A friend of mine is a good editor, so I asked her to take a look at it. I’ve had my fair share of schooling, so I was sure she’s look at it and send it right back. Instead she edited it. What came back was much better than what I had written. The content was still mine, but the result was more clear and conveyed my point much more clearly than my first draft. Good editing!

The big lesson for me is to look for oportunities to edit and refine my work, or get someone else to help me. Either way, I need an editor. I’m sure you could use one too.

October 16th, 2007 at 4:22 pm

Why I like competition

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Take a look at Amazon’s MP3 site.  It’s the first real competition to iTunes.  Why is it so good?

  1. They have a downloader that puts the songs into your iTunes folder.
  2. The songs are priced at 89 cents or less.
  3. There is no DRM.
  4. They’re high quality.  My Bon Jovi album is at 160kbps.

I can’t wait to see how iTunes responds.  No matter what happens, I now have a choice where to buy music!

September 25th, 2007 at 10:16 pm

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