The Blog


November 27, 2011

The vanishing garbage

Is it really garbage if it vanishes before the garbage truck gets there? More and more I’m noticing this happen. Could it be possible that more people are starting to have a reuse mentality? Or is the reason financial, saving money by reusing rather than spending money by buying new?

In the DIY forums, for a source for cheap glazing for solar heaters Habitat for Humanity ReStores are often pointed out. Along with new materials they also have much that is donated and used. Many cities too have programs for giving away or selling at a low price collected construction materials.

In my own case, I unwittingly participated in making a rear projection TV that had been left derelict by the side of a road slowly dwindle to just some electronics and a portion of the case.

Derelict rear projection TV with speakers and front panel gone.

Another example of excellent reuse I came across was presented in the TED talk in the video below. Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez founded Back to the Roots, a company that grows gourmet mushrooms on discarded coffee grounds. They started out collecting the coffee grounds from Peet’s Coffee shops, who would otherwise have had to pay to get rid of them.

But they then had the spent coffee grounds left over after harvesting the mushrooms. They quickly realised that there was a demand for this “waste” as a premium soil amendment product.

They’ve also put together and sell mushroom growing kits so that anyone can do this with their used coffee grounds.

The Back to the Roots better way
Back to the Roots waste reuse cycle - before and after.

Recently someone in my apartment building had thrown out a baby carriage, bicycle frame and other bits and pieces. This was at the curb two days before garbage collection day. The next morning I’d noticed that the baby carriage was gone. Later that day I happened to be near the window when I heard a noise out front. Looking down I saw that a van towing a trailer had pulled up and a man had thrown the bicycle frame onto the trailer and was now picking through the rest of the pile. He was collecting metal, presumably for selling to a scrap yard. It was clear from the contents of his trailer that he’d already been to a few other places. By the time the garbage truck arrived, little of the original pile was left.

So if you’re throwing something out that others may find a use for, consider putting it at the curb a few days early. Leave a sign on it saying “Free” and it may never make it to the landfill.

If you have any reuse suggestions or stories of garbage that is no longer garbage, leave a comment below. The more people that do this the better off we’ll all be.

July 3, 2011

The world in 2050

Category: General

The book, The World in 2050 – Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future by Laurence C. Smith is about the future of all land and oceans lying north of 45° north latitude belonging to the United States (i.e. Alaska), Canada, Iceland, Greenland (which is a part of Denmark), Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. These countries all border the Arctic Ocean and the author coins the term NORC countries for referring to them, Northern Rim Countries.

The subtitle for this book is “Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future”. Those four forces are:

  • Demography (basically about the changing populations)
  • Growing demand on natural resources, services and gene pool
  • Globalization
  • Climate change

I borrowed this book from the library but as I read it I found it was so rich in information that I wanted to own a copy for future reference. So rich is this book that I’ll focus only on a little of what I learned about the last of the four forces, climate change.

Climate models

The book talks about many of the things happening now regarding climate change and its effect on the north, some of this is mentioned below, but for the future the predictions are left to climate models.

A main point is that “climate” models are not “weather” models. A weather model makes a short term prediction, what the weather will probably be like this coming week. A climate model predicts for decades ahead. Over that period of time there will be variations and not everywhere will experience the same changes.

An analogy is made with the stock market. Anyone who gambles in the stock market knows that if you buy a stock and intend to hold onto it for a while, you ignore the daily ups and downs and pay attention only to the long term trend. The mean global temperature experiences the same thing. The problem is that people don’t realize this and on a cool year they change their mind about climate change and say it’s not happening. This year to year variation can be seen below while the overall trend is clearly rising.

Source: NOAA

The book also points out the common mistake people make in judging whether or not climate is happening based on their local climate. Climate change models predict climate on a regional or larger scale.

How can a climate model be tested if it’s a prediction of a future that hasn’t happened yet? It’s tested against past data to see if it can reliably predict the present. If it can’t then the model is either modified and tested again or it’s discarded. If it can then it’s used to predict the future climate while tweaking one parameter, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

Changes in precipitation

Worldwide precipitation (rainfall) changes are expected to happen as a result of climate change. In fact this is a thing that the different climate models agree on very well.

The following is taken from the International Panel on Climate Change Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report page 47. The caption under it in the report says “Relative changes in precipitation (in percent) for the period 2090-2099, relative to 1980-1999. Values are multi-model averages based on the SRES A1B scenario for December to February (left) and June to August (right). White areas are where less than 66% of the models agree in the sign of the change and stippled areas are where more than 90% of the models agree in the sign of the change. {WGI Figure 10.9, SPM}”.

Notice that the northern countries, the south and the band straddling the equator are expected to get more precipitation while the areas in between are expected to get less.

Permafrost changes and the resulting problems

I’ve long known that the permafrost in the north is melting. I was reassured to learn from this book that it will never completely melt. But enough will melt to cause problems and already is.

I recall seeing photos of pipelines run along areas of permafrost. The pipes were raised up off the ground and I never knew why. It turns out that’s to keep the pipes from heating up the ground and melting the permafrost near the top. If that permafrost melts then the soil becomes loose, even swampy, and the pipe no longer has a solid ground to support it. Joints may then break. But if the permafrost is melting anyway as a result of climate change then raising the pipe up no longer helps.

I’ve also long known that that permafrost contains methane but what I didn’t know was where that methane comes from. The methane is in the form of frozen dead organic matter. When the permafrost melts, that organic matter decays just as food taken out of your freezer and left too long on a table decays. That decay is a result of microbes eating away at it and methane is released as a byproduct. Methane is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Shortening ice road seasons

It’s become common knowledge that for many northern communities, the only roads to them are temporary roads across frozen lakes that are frozen for only so many months of the year. One side effect of climate change that’s pointed out in this book is that the period of time for which those lakes are frozen is getting shorter and shorter. This also affects some mining concerns in the north that require the ice roads to be available for a minimum length of time for their businesses to be viable.

Melting arctic ice

You’ve probably heard that the arctic ice is melting more and more each year. Some of the ice never melts and never will melt but the amount of that permanent ice has been lessening at an alarming rate over the past decades. The non-permanent ice actually refreezes each winter but the thickness and extent of it is lessening. The following diagram shows the minimum extent of sea ice during selected years.

Source: NASA

One key thing the ice does is reflect sunlight back to space. With less ice there is less of this reflecting area. The exposed ocean water is dark and absorbs the sunlight, converting it to heat. That’s why the ice is vanishing at an alarming rate, it’s a feedback effect. The more ice that melts, the more dark area there is to create heat, and the more heat there is, the more ice melts.

You’ve probably also heard that there’s oil and other resources under that melting ice and that countries are vying for it. This is true but what’s not true is that there’s any military buildup or future conflicts that will result. In 2007 two Russian subs were lowered under the North Polar ice and planted a flag but this was just a stunt performed by private companies.

In fact there is a UN agreement and process called UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) which all NORC countries adhere to and are using to determine which areas fall under their respective jurisdictions. This process is not yet complete but is a peaceful one that will be completed conflict free.

The other change brought about by the melting ice is that the northwest passage, the route from east to west just over mainland Canada, will be open water for longer periods of time. However, as this book points out, it will still never be navigable 100% of the year. The traffic that will pass through it will not be traffic bringing goods from Europe to Asia, for example. It will be traffic that has business in the north: mining, research, delivering supplies to northern communities and so on.


The above is a quick synopsis of a small subset of what’s in this book, and even then, only the climate change subset. I would definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in what the future may look like.

June 13, 2011

Doers ruin preditions

Category: General

The Coming Dark Age by Roberto Vacca

Recently I read a book called “The Coming Dark Age” by Roberto Vacca, copyright 1971. In it he talks of how our world is filled with increasingly complex and congested systems, systems so complex that if one breaks down it causes other complex systems to break down, and so on until the damage is so bad that we enter a dark age. Examples of some of these systems are our land line telephone networks (the book predates cell phones), road, train and air traffic networks, electrical grids, postal systems and military defence systems.

The sample scenario he gives is of the death of New York city. It all starts with gridlock on roads and trains. As a result, shifts of air traffic controllers can’t get to work. The already tired shifts waiting to be relieved make mistakes resulting in two planes colliding and damaging electrical transmission lines. The electrical load is immediately transferred to other parts of the electrical grid, but they are already near being overloaded themselves. A cascade of failures occur resulting in a blackout throughout several states.

Meanwhile it’s January and sub-freezing temperatures and snow cause automobile drivers to be gridlocked but with the vehicles running for heat. Many vehicles soon run out of gas so their drivers leave them abandoned, further worsening the problem. Since the trains are also not running, many workers end up having to camp out in their offices, lighting fires for warmth. Several buildings catch fire. The next day brings no relief and stranded without supplies, people panic. They all try to phone out and jam the phone network. The firearms come out and looting and begins. Of course the military is brought in with helicopters but the scale is too large to handle. Soon diseases being to play a part.

So why hasn’t this happened? Airplanes have crashed. In 2003 large parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern US and Ontario, Canada experienced a long lasting electrical blackout. Enduring subfreezing cold spells frequently occur.

The simple answer is when these things happen, people don’t just sit around and do nothing. They don’t panic. In fact they pull together and help each other, taking care of those in need, working to solve the problem. We’ve seen this time and again with tsunamis, earthquakes, ice storms, fires, … If the problems are too great locally then national and international aid rushes in.

The result is that Roberto Vacca’s predictions of a dark age never happened. Doers do things that ruin such predictions.

My father is a good one for making predictions of dire events only to have them never occur. In those cases he is usually right about the prediction. The problem is, if he is aware of it so are others who would be affected. Those others then act to prevent the things from happening. His perfectly reasonable predictions end up not coming true.

This reminds me of a short story I once read along those very lines. I haven’t been able to find it again and don’t remember either the name of the author or the story so if someone knows, please leave a comment below. The following is a summary of the story to the best of my recollection.

The story has two characters, a young man and his neighbor, a young woman. At the beginning of the story the man thinks that the world is in dire need of an abundant, cheap, clean energy source without which civilization will likely cease to exist as we know it. And so he works in his workshop to try and solve this problem. The woman thinks that there is no danger and no reason for him to be wasting his time. Instead he should relax and take life easy.

One day he manages to build the required energy production machine out of very simple materials: cardboard, wood, some wire. He’s not so naive to think he can just release it to the world and it’ll be readily accepted and spread widely, nor does he necessarily think it would be wise to do so. Instead he enrols in a university to get an electrical degree followed by a business degree. So simple is his machine that the electrical degree is not needed but it gives him respectability. After graduation he forms a manufacturing company. For added respectability he becomes active in religion and does volunteer work. After a few years he starts slowly introducing his energy machine into the devices he manufacturers, at first marketing them as high efficiency machines. Gradually he increases the efficiency and starts spreading the technology as subsystems in other companies products, until eventually it’s everywhere and the world energy need is vastly reduced. By the time he’s in his 60s, through his lifelong efforts the impending worldwide disaster has been averted.

It’s around this time that he runs into the woman again, herself in her 60s. In catching up he tells her of his very active life, his studies, his community work, his businesses, though not of his involvement with solving the energy problem. To this she responds that he should have lived a more simple, sedate life. After all, his dire predictions never came through so it was all a waste of his time.

When I think of climate change and climate change deniers I hope the above story becomes reality. A great hope of mine is that doers, one of whom I try to be, solve the climate change problem. I hope that in my old age I’m sitting in a green park beside a clean water lake breathing clean air at a comfortable temperature and am sitting beside someone who turns to me and says “See, climate change never happened. All the predictions were wrong.” If that happens then that means we doers will have succeeded in ruining yet another prediction.

May 15, 2011

Redefining normal

A few weeks ago I started doing solar cooking. When I told my mother this over the phone she asked “Are you trying to save electricity?”. Yes, I was and that’s a good enough reason on its own, but it wasn’t the only reason. It also makes sense to me. On sunny days when I have time to periodically run outside and check on the cooking progress, there’s no way I can justify a cooking system that uses electricity, transmitted at great loss over a great distance from a mix of generation means that includes climate change inducing burning of coal and 10,000 year lifetime radioactive waste producing nuclear. That would be just plain silly.

And yet that’s what’s defined as normal. It’s abnormal to do solar cooking when you can cook indoors on an electric or gas stove. From her tone I know that’s what my mother was really accusing me of – being silly because I was doing something in a way that wasn’t normal.

Why do people do only normal things? Because, for whatever reason, they fail to ask that very question, why. If they ask why more often then they’d realize how silly it is to always do what’s normal. Instead they leave that definition to the Joneses and just blindly follow their lead.

In an online forum a few years ago we were discussing passive solar houses, and one method of cooling being to open windows on either side of the house to set up a cross breeze, basically causing air to flow in from one side of the house and flow out the other thereby providing a cooling effect. A response to this from one member was that he wouldn’t do this because he “didn’t want to live like Mexicans”. Instead he would use this technique only if it were automated.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. The only way I could reconcile his refusal to incorporate such a simple thing into his life, a thing considered normal for millennia was that in his world someone had redefined normal to be a fully automated lifestyle and the programmed response to anything to the contrary was that it would be “living like Mexicans”.

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with redefining normal. I do it all the time and don’t think people do it enough or at all. On a day that isn’t suitable for solar cooking long grain brown rice I cook it using heat retention cooking, a behaviour I made normal for me only a few months ago when I first learned of it.

But what’s normal is getting us, and the generations to follow us into trouble with climate change and ecology misuse resulting in food scarcity, fresh water scarcity and health issues. So if you are going to redefine normal, at least do it with these things in mind. By all means, redefine normal and do it often. Maybe with enough redefinitions we’ll one day end up with a sustainable society.

Have you redefined normal lately?

April 21, 2011

Live without a washing machine?

Would you like to live without a washing machine? Would you like spend hours each week hand washing your clothes, bedsheets, and towels? Just how green would you really be willing to go? It isn’t until you’re asked to give up some key things that you realize your limits.

But the truth is you can be green and have your washing machine too. There are people who live off-grid and have a washing machine, clothes drier, microwave oven, and even a jacuzzi.

As individuals we want to live in a technologically advanced civilization. To continue to do so we need to be smart about it, to do it in a sustainable fashion. We need to make use of renewable energy and efficiency and conservation.

But there are other things that technology brings you that you wouldn’t want to do without. What about vaccines, antibiotics, MRI machines, defibrillators, ambulances and fire trucks to name just a few? These are all the results of technology.

That means the whole pipeline has to be sustainable, and that turns out to be the trickiest part. The washing machine has to be shipped to your door, and before that it has to has to be manufactured, and before that the raw materials need to be shipped to the factory, and before that the raw materials needs to be mined.

Large chunks of civilizations no longer vanish due to regional crop failures, tsunamis and volcanoes. Why? Food and aid can be brought from great distances, sent by nations filled with compassionate people, compassionate because of a feeling of empathy brought on largely by a connectedness due to video and audio communication. How many people daily twitter, email or chat with distant peoples who are considered close friends? How many people have travelled to distant countries? How much easier is it to identify with a person living in a distant city having seen them on television, online or in person than it was three hundred years ago when your only connection to them would have been through paintings such as the one below.

Brazilian Indians during a ritual, by Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768–1848).

So while being individually sustainable is entirely doable with some knowledge and effort, making the entire system sustainable is trickier. The reason such a massive system works now is because of cheap oil and abundant coal. It’s no coincidence that our current technological civilization got its start with coal driven steam engines in the 1800s and truly exploded with the utilization of oil at the start of the 1900s.

But with climate change, pollution and cheap oil running low the system really needs to run on something else. That’s where the search for non-conventional energy sources such as through the conversion of quantum vacuum energy to electrical energy on a macro scale comes into play, however pie in the sky it may be. Alternatively, the pipeline would have to be tweeked at every step, even shortened where possible. That’s where local foods and products can play a part, saving the oil for the things that are inherently remote.

And in case that fails, we can try to have an off-world civilization as a stand-by. And that definitely requires technology.

December 9, 2010

Can 100 Miles of Mirrors solar thermal power the US?

Category: Renewable energy

In the SimplySolar Yahoo Group someone recently asked if the claim that 100 by 100 miles, 10,000 square miles, of concentrated solar thermal power could provide enough electricity to power all of the US. The claim was made at under the banner 100 Miles of Mirrors. To verify the feasibility of the claim I did the research and calculations given below.

A brief intro to solar thermal

Briefly, as the following diagram shows, concentrated solar thermal power involves concentrating the suns energy using parabolic mirrors. For 10,000 square feet of this there would be many, many such rows of mirrors. The mirrors focus all that energy onto a pipe that contains oil, heating the oil. Using a heat exchanger, the heat from the oil turns water into steam. The steam is run through a steam turbine which turns a generator and produces electricity. The steam is next run through a condensor to turn it back into water for use again. The heated oil can also be used to heat salt until it’s molten. This stores the heat for when the sun isn’t shining, at which time the heat in the molten salt acts as the heat source to heat the oil which is then used to turn water to steam to spin the turbine and run the generator.

How solar thermal/concentrated solar power (csp) works.

The calculations

To do calculations I first needed to find a solar thermal field in Arizona to act as a baseline for calculations. I found this announcement that Albiasa Solar of Spain is building a 200 MW (megawatts, or million watts) concentrated solar themal power field in Arizona and further digging found that the field was 1,400 acres in size.

Step 1. The proposed 100 miles of mirrors is really 100 miles by 100 miles which is a 10,000 square mile solar thermal field (100 multiplied by 100.)

Step 2. 10,000 square miles divided by 0.0015625 square miles per acre means that the field is 6,400,000 acres (1 acre is 0.0015625 square miles.)

Step 3. In 6,400,000 acres you can fit 4,571 solar thermal fields the size of the Albiasa Solar field being built in Arizona (6,400,000 acres divided by 1,400 acres.)

Step 4. Since the Albiasa Solar field produces 200 MW of electricity, that means the production of the 100 miles or mirrors field would be 914,200 MW (4,571 * 200 MW.) That’s 914 GW (gigawatts, or billion watts.)

Step 5. According to Wikipedia in 2007, US summer demand for electricity was 783 GW. That means at any one time the peak demand for solar in the US in 2007 was 783 GW.

Step 6. The 100 miles or mirrors of solar thermal plan would produce 914 GW while the US needs at most 783 GW at any one time. So it looks like the plan is reasonable.

Of course it’s often pointed out that the sun doesn’t always shine. But as said above, the concentrated solar thermal systems store heat in molten salt so that this heat can be used to continue generating power while the sun is no longer shining.

Then there’s the issue of transmission losses. When transmitting electricity over large distances much of that power is lost. Given that the 783 GW is peak demand in the US, that means that at other times the demand is less. So for those non-peak times, enough power may be generated. During peak demand, when 783 GW is needed, it may be necessary to draw on some of the stored energy to add to the 914 GW being produced in order to meet the demand plus make up for transmission losses.

One last thing. 100 miles of mirrors doesn’t sound like a big deal. But remember, it’s 100 miles by 100 miles, or 10,000 square miles. Here’s what that looks like overlaid on a map of Arizona.

100 miles of mirrors overlayed on a map of Arizona.

But don’t let that scare you. If all the farm land in the US were highlighted instead, the area would be larger. And none of that farm land needs the desert.


In conclusion, from my quick calculations the 100 Miles of Mirrors concentrated solar thermal power plan could generate enough power to meet the needs of the US.

November 24, 2010

What is

Category: Uncategorized

A few months ago I was using a tool provided by Google to look at what keywords people were using when they found and I noticed this one: “what is”. I assumed the searcher wanted to know the meaning of the term “rimstar”. So it now seems only suitable that this, my first blog post, answer that question and the broader one, what is all about.

Firstly, “rimstar” is short for a star on the rim of the galaxy. Now, our star, called Sol, is not actually on the rim but is a fair way out from the center on one of the spiral arms. So rimstar is meant to be a reference to our star and basically gives license to this website to cover any topic “under the sun”.

But it doesn’t in fact cover just any old topic, which brings me to the second question, what is all about? It is about keeping the lights on, just as it’s current motto says. And by lights, I mean electric lights. The goal of is to aid in the maintenance of our technological civilization; to do so by giving out information and by reaching out to like-minded individuals who work with on that pursuit.

Rather than give the usual cliche speech about the threats to our civilization and what we must all to do save it, I’ll give the rational by giving history of this website, exposing the thought process in that way.

This website started life back in 1999 as In other words, a website under my user account of the time. I’d been experimenting with non-conventional propulsion technology, looking for a better way off-planet than rockets. Like many people, and more and more every day, I figured that we humans had to spread to other worlds in order to ensure our continued existence as a species. And not only in case we fade out here on Earth, but also as a means of rescue for those on Earth.

So to reach out for other like-minded individuals, or at least other seekers of the same technology, I created and populated it with details of my experiments thus far. Keep in mind that Google had only just been born and started to make its way into the world. The primary search engines at the time were and and social networking in its current form didn’t exist. Instead the web had something called eGroups, which later was bought out by Yahoo to become Yahoo Groups. Someone in a group there found my website and asked me to join and I was off.

At first I had only a section for my Non-Conventional Propulsion Experiments. Off of there I had some pages for the Equipment I’d built, such as power supplies and high voltage probes, and the Materials I’d worked with along the way and these later grew into sections of their own.

Then I had an epiphany, possibly because I was approaching middle age. I realized two things. Firstly, that living off-planet required more than the modern equivalent of wooden ships or covered wagons. Surviving in a tin can in the vacuum of space just isn’t that simple nor is it that simple on a planet barren of breathable atmosphere and nutrient filled soil. Such endeavours need the backing of a technological civilization. It’s no accident that governments made the first manned space programs. Even the yet to be proven, upcoming, game-changing commercial ventures such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Robert Bigelow’s inflatable space habitats didn’t start from scratch and won’t be using stone knives and bearskins. And the second thing I realized was that we were likely going to be in trouble sooner rather than later with climate change and that a technological civilization capable of truly spreading out to the rest of our solar system, never mind other star systems, may never get a chance to spawn. The best solution I could think of for that was to find better ways of producing usable energy.

And so I began my Non-conventional Energy Experiments and of course shared my work with a section on my website. My reasoning there was that if we could find a way to convert the abundant energy of the quantum vacuum to electrical energy on a macro scale then many problems could be solved quickly: large scale water desalinization, the end of carbon emissions for electricity production and transportation, heating and air conditioning, … Of course that was a long shot, possibly requiring a different physics model than the standard one, and likely not even doable. But worth a shot.

But not being one to put all my eggs in the same basket I also pursued conventional renewable energy. This was done by becoming a solar contractor, working for a local company installing PV, solar pool heating, solar domestic hot water and solar air heating systems. At the same time I worked on solar DIY projects too. Thus was born the Renewable Energy section on the website.

Sustainability was also a necessary part of the equation, as we can no longer go on consuming our resources as if they were infinite. In my own life I did all the usual electricity conservation things such as switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs and getting rid of phantom loads thereby reducing my electricity consumption by 18%. I also switched to a low flow shower head to conserve water. To reduce garbage going to the landfill to almost nil (we already recycle paper and plastics) I started worm composting and documented my success in a Worm Composting section. The worm castings (worm poop) was then used as fertilizer for my summer food garden which lead to another section, food.

And, always having enjoyed writing, I added a section with some of my short stories about these very energy, sustainability and species survival issues.

Over the years, others have also shared their efforts with me to make available to everyone through and I hope more do so in the future (hint, hint.)

But I’ve recently realized that much that get’s done never ends up on simply because I always publish only substantial accomplishments, leaving many of the smaller things not known. So I’ve now added this blog as a way to fill in the gaps, to include things that don’t merit a full blown, standalone webpage.

I have plans for many other sections too, as well as providing more links to gems on other websites. I hope that you’ve found the information you’ve found here useful in the past and if you’re new here, I hope this website will give you at least a part of what you’re looking for.

Stay awhile, and drop by anytime. You’re more than welcome.

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