Shallow Thoughts : : misc

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 05 Sep 2016

The Taos Earthships (and a lovely sunset)

We drove up to Taos today to see the Earthships.

[Taos Earthships] Earthships are sustainable, completely off-the-grid houses built of adobe and recycled materials. That was pretty much all I knew about them, except that they were weird looking; I'd driven by on the highway a few times (they're on highway 64 just west of the beautiful Rio Grande Gorge Bridge) but never stopped and paid the $7 admission for the self-guided tour.

[Earthship construction] Seeing them up close was fun. The walls are made of old tires packed with dirt, then covered with adobe. The result is quite strong, though like all adobe structures it requires regular maintenance if you don't want it to melt away. For non load bearing walls, they pack adobe around old recycled bottles or cans.

The houses have a passive solar design, with big windows along one side that make a greenhouse for growing food and freshening the air, as well as collecting warmth in cold weather. Solar panels provide power -- supposedly along with windmills, but I didn't see any windmills in operation, and the ones they showed in photos looked too tiny to offer much help. To help make the most of the solar power, the house is wired for DC, and all the lighting, water pumps and so forth run off low voltage DC. There's even a special DC refrigerator. They do include an AC inverter for appliances like televisions and computer equipment that can't run directly off DC.

Water is supposedly self sustaining too, though I don't see how that could work in drought years. As long as there's enough rainfall, water runs off the roof into a cistern and is used for drinking, bathing etc., after which it's run through filters and then pumped into the greenhouse. Waste water from the greenhouse is used for flushing toilets, after which it finally goes to the septic tank.

All very cool. We're in a house now that makes us very happy (and has excellent passive solar, though we do plan to add solar panels and a greywater system some day) but if I was building a house, I'd be all over this.

We also discovered an excellent way to get there without getting stuck in traffic-clogged Taos (it's a lovely town, but you really don't want to go near there on a holiday, or a weekend ... or any other time when people might be visiting). There's a road from Pilar that crosses the Rio Grande then ascends up to the mesa high above the river, continuing up to highway 64 right near the earthships. We'd been a little way up that road once, on a petroglyph-viewing hike, but never all the way through. The map said it was dirt from the Rio all the way up to 64, and we were in the Corolla, since the Rav4's battery started misbehaving a few days ago and we haven't replaced it yet.

So we were hesitant. But the nice folks at the Rio Grande Gorge visitor center at Pilar assured us that the dirt section ended at the top of the mesa and any car could make it ("it gets bumpy -- a New Mexico massage! You'll get to the top very relaxed"). They were right: the Corolla made it with no difficulty and it was a much faster route than going through Taos.

[Nice sunset clouds in White Rock] We got home just in time for the rouladen I'd left cooking in the crockpot, and then finished dinner just in time for a great sunset sky.

A few more photos: Earthships (and a great sunset).

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Fri, 03 Jun 2016

Walking your Goat at the Summer Concert

I love this place. We just got back from this week's free Friday concert at Ashley Pond. Not a great band this time (the previous two were both excellent). But that's okay -- it's still fun to sit on the grass on a summer evening and watch the swallows wheeling over the pond and the old folks dancing up near the stage and the little kids and dogs dashing pell-mell through the crowd, while Dave, dredging up his rock-star past, explains why this band's sound is so muddy (too many stacked effects pedals).

And then on the way out, I'm watching appreciatively as the teen group, who were earlier walking a slack line strung between two trees, has now switched to juggling clubs. (I know old people are supposed to complain about "kids today", but honestly, the kids here seem smart and fit and into all kinds of cool activities.) One of the jugglers has just thrown three clubs and a ball, and is mostly keeping them all in the air, when I hear a bleat to my right -- it's a girl walking by with a goat on a leash.

Just another ordinary Friday evening in Los Alamos.

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Wed, 13 Jan 2016

Snow hiking

[Akk on snowshoes crossing the Jemez East Fork]

It's been snowing quite a bit! Radical, and fun, for a California ex-pat. But it doesn't slow down the weekly hiking group I'm in. When the weather turns white, the group switches to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

A few weeks ago, I tried cross-country skiing for the first time. (I've downhill skied a handful of times, so I know how, more or less, but never got very good at it. Ski areas are way too far away and way too expensive in Californian.) It was fun, but I have a chronic rotator cuff problem, probably left over from an old motorcycle injury, and found my shoulder didn't deal well with skiing. Well, the skiing was probably fine. It was probably more the falling and trying to get back up again that it didn't like.

So for the past two weeks I've tried snowshoes instead. That went just fine. It doesn't take much learning: it's just like hiking, except a little bit harder work remembering not to step on your own big feet. "Bozo goes hiking!" Dave called it, but it isn't nearly as Bozo-esque as I thought it would be.

Last week we snowshoed from a campground out to the edge of Frijoles Canyon, in a snowstorm most of the way, and ice fog -- sounds harsh when described like that, but it was lovely, and we were plenty warm when we were moving. This week, we followed the prettiest trail in the area, the East Fork of the Jemez River. In summer, it's a vibrantly green meadow with the sparkling creek snaking through it. In winter, it turns into a green and sparkling white forest. Someone took a photo of me snowshoeing across one of the many log bridges spanning the East Fork. You can't see any hint of the river itself -- it's buried in snow.

But if you hike in far enough, there's a warm spring: we're on the edge of the Valles Caldera, an old supervolcano that still has plenty of low-level geothermal activity left. The river is warm enough here that it's still running even in midwinter ... and there was a dipper there. American dippers are little birds that dive into creeks and fly under the water in search of food. They're in constant motion, diving, re-emerging, bathing, shaking off, and this dipper went about its business fifteen feet from where we were standing watching it. Someone had told me that he saw two dippers at this spot yesterday, but we were happy to get such a good look at even one.

We had lunch in a sunny spot downstream from the dipper, then headed back to the trailhead. A lovely way to spend a winter day.

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Sat, 14 Feb 2015

The Sangre de Cristos wish you a Happy Valentine's Day

[Snow hearts on the Sangre de Cristo mountains]

The snow is melting fast in the lovely sunny weather we've been having; but there's still enough snow on the Sangre de Cristos to see the dual snow hearts on the slopes of Thompson Peak above Santa Fe, wishing everyone for miles around a happy Valentine's Day.

Dave and I are celebrating for a different reason: yesterday was our 1-year anniversary of moving to New Mexico. No regrets yet! Even after a tough dirty work session clearing dead sage from the yard.

So Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! Even if you don't put much stock in commercial Hallmark holidays. As I heard someone say yesterday, "Valentine's day is coming up, and you know what that means. That's right: absolutely nothing!"

But never mind what you may think about the holiday -- you just go ahead and have a happy day anyway, y'hear? Look at whatever pretty scenery you have near you; and be sure to enjoy some good chocolate.

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Sat, 31 Jan 2015

Snow day!

We're having a series of snow days here. On Friday, they closed the lab and all the schools; the ski hill people are rejoicing at getting some real snow at last.

[Snow-fog coming up from the Rio Grande] It's so beautiful out there. Dave and I had been worried about this business of living in snow, being wimpy Californians. But how cool (literally!) is it to wake up, look out your window and see a wintry landscape with snow-fog curling up from the Rio Grande in White Rock Canyon?

The first time we saw it, we wondered how fog can exist when the temperature is below freezing. (Though just barely below -- as I write this the nearest LANL weather station is reporting 30.9°F. But we've seen this in temperatures as low as 12°F.) I tweeted the question, and Mike Alexander found a reference that explains that freezing fog consists of supercooled droplets -- they haven't encountered a surface to freeze upon yet. Another phenomenon, ice fog, consists of floating ice crystals and only occurs below 14°F.

['Glacier' moving down the roof] It's also fun to watch the snow off the roof.

It doesn't just sit there until it gets warm enough to melt and run off as water. Instead, the whole mass of snow moves together, gradually, down the metal roof, like a glacier.

When it gets to the edge, it still doesn't fall; it somehow stays intact, curling over and inward, until the mass is too great and it loses cohesion and a clump falls with a Clunk!

[Mysterious tracks in the snow] When we do go outside, the snow has wonderful collections of tracks to try to identify. This might be a coyote who trotted past our house on the way over to the neighbors.

We see lots of rabbit tracks and a fair amount of raccoon, coyote and deer, but some are hard to identify: a tiny carnivore-type pad that might be a weasel; some straight lines that might be some kind of bird; a tail-dragging swish that could be anything. It's all new to us, and it'll be great fun learning about all these tracks as we live here longer.

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Thu, 12 Jun 2014

Comcast actually installed a cable! Or say they did.

The doorbell rings at 10:40. It's a Comcast contractor.

They want to dig across the driveway. They say the first installer didn't know anything, he was wrong about not being able to use the box that's already on this side of the road. They say they can run a cable from the other side of the road through an existing conduit to the box by the neighbor's driveway, then dig a trench across the driveway to run the cable to the old location next to the garage.

They don't need to dig across the road since there's an existing conduit; they don't even need to park in the road. So no need for a permit.

We warn them we're planning to have driveway work done, so the driveway is going to be dug up at some point, and they need to put it as deep as possible. We even admit that we've signed a contract with CenturyLink for DSL. No problem, they say, they're being paid by Comcast to run this cable, so they'll go ahead and do it.

We shrug and say fine, go for it. We figure we'll mark the trench across the driveway afterward, and when we finally have the driveway graded, we'll make sure the graders know about the buried cable. They do the job, which takes less than an hour.

If they're right that this setup works, that means, of course, that this could have been done back in February or any time since then. There was no need to wait for a permit, let alone a need to wait for someone to get around to applying for a permit.

So now, almost exactly 4 months after the first installer came out, we may have a working cable installed. No way to know for sure, since we've been happily using DSL for over a month. But perhaps we'll find out some day.

The back story, in case you missed it: Getting cable at the house: a Comcast Odyssey.

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Wed, 21 May 2014

Comcast contractors showed up! but wouldn't do the actual job

There's a new wrinkle in our ongoing Comcast Odyssey.

I was getting ready to be picked up to carpool to a meeting when the doorbell rang. It was Comcast's contractor!

Dave and I went out and showed them the flags marking the route the cable was supposed to take. They nodded, then asked, in broken English, "Okay to dig under driveway?"

"Whaa-aa?" we said? "The cable goes from there" (indicating the box across the street) "to here" (indicating the line of flags across from the box, same side of the driveway.

They went over and pointed to the box on our side of the street, on the neighbor's property -- the box the Comcast installer had explicitly told us could in no way be used for our cable service. No, we don't know why, we told them, but every Comcast person who's been here has been insistent that we can't use that box, we have to use the one across the street.

We pointed to the painted lines on the street, the ones that have been there for a month or more, the ones that the county people left after inspecting the area and determining it safe to dig. We point out that digging across the street is the reason they had to get a traffic permit. We tell them that the cable under the driveway is why the cable was torn up in the first place, and that we're expecting to have our driveway graded some time soon, so they put a new cable there, it will probably just get torn up again. Not that any of that matters since Comcast says we can't use that box anyway.

They look at us blankly and say "We dig across driveway?"

My ride arrives. I have to leave. Dave tries for another five or ten minutes, but he has to leave too. So he finally gives up, tells them no, don't put the cable across the driveway, go back and confirm with their supervisor about the job they're here to do because that isn't it.

I guess they left. There were no signs of digging when we got back.

Later, I checked the dates. It's been 18 days since they applied for a permit. I'm pretty sure the county told me a permit is only good for 11 days, or was it two weeks? Any, less than 18 days. So they probably didn't have a permit any more to dig across the street anyway ... not that that necessarily has any bearing on whether they'd dig.

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Sun, 04 May 2014

Getting internet at the new house: a Comcast Odyssey

We finally have internet at the house!

Not through any success on the Comcast front, mind you. They're still stalling and dithering. We finally did what we should have done the very first time they failed to install, and ordered DSL.

I've been keeping track of the progress on the Comcast debacle, though, with the intention of blogging it. But as I updated it last week, I realized that it was up to nearly 400 lines already -- at least triple my usual maximum for a blog post -- and though we're over ten weeks in, it's still nowhere near over.

So I've decided to post what I have, as a running web page that I can add to as the odyssey continues, and just post a link to it here. It's a tale of woe, lies, misleading information, crossed wires, chopped-up wires, and about every other problem you could imagine.

If you're thinking of signing up with Comcast but you have any other options, it'll definitely convince you to look elsewhere.

Here's the tale so far: Getting internet at the new house: a Comcast Odyssey.

Now excuse me while I go enjoy my DSL some more.

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