Category Archives: project

Electricity from a Toy Windmill

Electricity and energy are such abstract concepts.  We just plug things in and they work.  One day, my daughter brought home a toy windmill from school, and I guess I thought I could take that understanding a little bit further.  So I told her: “We can make electricity with that”.

I did a little reading beforehand, and found a few people who had made wind generators online, so I had a rough idea of what I was going to build, and what parts I needed.  We took the subway to Active Surplus, picked up a couple of electric motors, some flashlight-sized light bulbs, some LED lights, and some diodes.

Toy Windmill with Generator
Toy Windmill with Generator

First, I connected the windmill to the motor, and the motor to a flashlight bulb.  I didn’t do any math.  It may come as no surprise to some of you that we couldn’t get enough power from the windmill to drive the bulb.

Toy Windmill Generator Circuit
Toy Windmill Generator Circuit

Plan B.  I built a bridge rectifier with the diodes I picked up, to get DC power from the motor, and connected it to an LED light.  It worked!  I was able to illustrate that we could convert wind energy to light: harness energy from the wind, make a little electricity, and generate light.  Every toy windmill needs this built in!

Fun with Kites

I’ve been wanting to take aerial photos for a while now.  Suspending a camera from a kite seemed like the best way of doing this.

I picked up an inexpensive camera on craigslist.  I modified it with custom firmware from http://chdk.wikia.com/wiki/CHDK , which allowed me to trigger the shutter at pre-programmed intervals.  I picked up a kite that was recommended for this sort of task, a “Sutton Flow Form”, which has a parachute-like design and has 16 square feet of surface area for plenty of lift.  Finally, I cobbled together a mounting bracket with some screws and random stationary supplies from Staples.

Camera Rig
Camera Rig

We spent our Canada Day weekend in Guelph with our friends Craig and Jan, whom have a farm just north of the city, which seemed like a great opportunity to fly a kite.

Google Satellite View Of Areas Photographed
Google Satellite View Of Areas Photographed

I am really, really glad I attempted to do this in a wide open space first for my first attempt – there were a few times I was concerned the rig was going to smash into the ground, and there’s a much greater probability of this hitting someone in my neighbourhood.  Together with Craig and his son Ben, we managed to get some great photos.

My kite, in stock form, is a little unstable in gusty winds (the instructions recommend adding tails to address this), and did not provide great photos on our first attempt.  This was addressed on our 2nd attempt with the addition of another kite. Craig happened to have a super-stable delta-style kite with a 6 ft wingspan.  We launched my kite into the air about 30 ft, and then tied the rope
to his delta kite, launched the delta kite, and then once it was 20 ft in the air, suspended the camera rig to the line.

Camera Rig With Both Kites
Camera Rig With Both Kites

The amount of lift was incredible.  We had to wear gloves to prevent rope burn.  The camera periodically took photos for about 10 minutes.  We stopped for lunch.

Richard, Ben And Craig
Richard, Ben And Craig
Kite Photo 3
Kite Photo 3
Kite Photo 2
Kite Photo 2
Kite Photo 1
Kite Photo 1

We tried again after lunch.  I only had 300 ft of kite line, but Craig had a huge bag of hay bale twine – an essentially unlimited supply of rope.  We programmed the camera to take photos every 20 seconds for 30 minutes.  We took a photo from the ground early on, and an airplane passed by.

Plane Passing By
Plane Passing By

We continued to let the line out for about half an hour.  The kites and camera rig were impossibly high – it was unbelievable.

It came time to reel the kites back in.  It was impossible.  It took incredible strength to pull the kites in.  After about 10 minutes of pulling, the line snapped, and we watched the kites drift away.  Jan and I hopped into my car to chase them down.  Fortunately, the crops were still only about a foot high, and we actually saw the kites land in a neighbouring field about 3 km away.  We recovered the kites and camera, intact.

First Kite Recovery
First Kite Recovery

Unfortunately, my craigslist-special camera didn’t capture any photos of this round.

The kites, and cameras, were subsequently re-launched.  However, they ended up caught in a very tall tree.  We are all anxiously awaiting a strong wind to pull them down…

Great times were had by all –

Fragile Media

Am I the only one who worries about data?

Wordperfect-5.1-dos-300x225

In grade 5 (this was in the 80s), I was one of perhaps two kids that typed up my projects in a word processor.  Night before a project was due, WordPerfect 4.2 froze on me, and the 286 I was running it on wouldn’t boot again, and my work was lost.  I had actually printed it, and handed in a marked up draft.  But an important lesson was learned, very early – keep backups.  Note here how resilient the daisy-wheel printed draft was, and how fragile the PC was.

Flash forward to current day.  Most of the work I produce belongs to my employer – I see that data as their responsibility – what they lose costs them, they can back up the work I produce as they choose.

But of interest to me in my personal life is MY data.  And I have lots.  I have lost my fair share of hard drives, floppies, and CD/DVDs over the years.  But I’ve been lucky – apart from:
1) MS Basic 2 games written as a primary school student on a C64
2) email from pre-2001, lost due to silly University data retention policies (and they were silly – I bet that Alumni department wishes they could reach me by email now)
I haven’t lost anything due to reasonable backups.  But I’ve never dealt with fire, loss, or theft.

I have little use for physical media.  I live in an apartment and have little use or physical storage space for prints.  So I’ve prioritized – I have little work or correspondence to back up – all of the physical stuff sits in the top drawer of a small filing cabinet.  I hope for the best for important documents.

Photos of events are shared online – not much use for prints.  Or is there?  I had been copying camera flash cards to a hard drive and optical media.  The optical media is brand name and stored in a dark place, but I still don’t trust it.  I’ve seen photos of myself as a child – I think my daughter deserves the same.  “Oh, Nameless Manufacturer put out a bunch of drives with buggy firmware in 2009 which ate your first step photos” isn’t going to cut it for me as an excuse.

What about music?  I’m still pretty old school – the indie record store across the street shut its doors last year – but I still buy CDs.  Prior to a 2009 hard drive crash, I never backed up my MP3s thinking, “I’ve got the original on CD”.  But I don’t have the time I did as a student – ripping 100s of CDs takes A LOT OF TIME.  As for iTunes – I had fun as a teen flipping thru my dad’s LPs – I don’t think any child born in 2010 will get the chance to hear the music of their parent’s youth (I can imagine “I bought that album BEFORE Apple removed DRM” or “the Avril Lavigne hard drive must have crashed in 2005”).

Hard drives are pretty cheap these days – the last time I bought a drive, I bought two, and set one up to copy over to the other once a week.  The stuff on the 2nd drive never gets deleted – so if I accidentally delete a folder on my working drive, I can get it back on the the 2nd (point in time back ups).  I run Linux at home, and use a little app called Back In Time to accomplish this task.  The last time I looked at this from the Windows side, there was an application called “Dantz Retrospect” that seemed to get a lot of these things right – it seemed like the perfect solution for a small office (I think they’ve since been bought out by EMC).

Of course, as important as making backups is making sure you can restore them.  I have to say, I’m not that forward thinking.  I think I need my own IT employee at home to think this thru.

Backups is actually something I think Apple does best for home users (but, perhaps, still not well) – I think Time Machine is probably the best thing to happen to the masses who don’t really have the time or interest in worrying about this stuff.

This still doesn’t cover loss due to fire or theft.  Fortunately, online storage is pretty inexpensive these days – cheap enough for the data I create, still too expensive and slow for the music and video I consume.  With Linux, I use s3fs to backup my work to Amazon’s S3 online storage service – it costs me a couple dollars a month.  On the Windows side, I haven’t tried either of these solutions but did come across JungleDisk for Amazon S3 backups and mozy.com in previous searches.

What I don’t understand is why this is still a problem?  Thirty years of personal computing and no one has fixed this.  We’ve got a long way to go.  Anyone think the “cloud” will solve this 🙂