Friday, July 29, 2022

 As our planet is getting warmer, more and more people are considering getting an AC. Those who own a home often opt to get a central AC - a unit that attaches to the houses furnace and channels cold air via the floor vents to cool the entire house, as opposed to installing individual AC devices in each room. 

Keeping the entire house cool 24x7 is cool in both senses of the word, and seems like the sensible thing to do…but it is? Today I'll be making the case for the opposite solution.

The main driver for writing this piece is that my state is going through a major heat wave now, and it is slowly becoming a regular thing. Every time we have one, the central AC systems used by many people and business craps out, as these systems were not designed to handle continuous 100 degree heat for several days. The result is that the people who repair these things are insanely overbooked, and anyone whose unit has stopped working might find themselves waiting for several weeks for a repair. Similarly, anyone who is now baking in this heat and wants to have a unit installed might find themselves waiting until September or even October to book an install. Quite unfortunate.

I, on the other hand, have chosen to adopt a model similar to the RAID concept used in computers. When building servers, it is customary to install a set of simple and cheap hard drives, rather than one large and expensive one. RAID stands for "Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks". The idea is that each drive costs about $100-200 and isn't large, but when you put 8 of them together, you get a lot of space. Not only is this cheaper than a much-larger single drive, but also provides redundancy. The data is programmatically spread across all the drives, so that if one of them fails, the others "step in" and no data is lost. In the case of air conditioning, I also opted to buy three simple window AC units, each costing about $300, and have one in each room of my house. Installing a central AC would have cost at least $6000, and possibly as much as $9000, as my furnace and vents are old from 1961 and would probably need to be replaced or upgraded significantly. And as I noted above, having one central unit also is a risk for it being unable to handle the crazy weather and leaving me stranded with zero cooling for weeks. 

Another advantage of individual units vs central is the fine-grain control, as the cooling can be tuned differently in every room and part of the house. For example, if your house has two floors, then the top floor typically receives more radiation from the sun and gets hotter. The AC will blow the same amount of air into each room, so depending on thermostat settings and where the sensor is located, it might either have the bottom floors nice and cool, but the top floor will be too warm, or it might keep the top floor nice, but the bottom floors uncomfortably cold. Similarly, if grandma is living with you, then the 69-70 degrees most people like might be too cold for her bony ass, putting either all of you at her mercy, or vice versa (I've seen people who literally have a space-heater on in one room at their AC-cooled house!). 

A counter-point that was brought up is the fact that central AC units are designed to be more efficient than individual ones, so it would consume less power than running multiple individual units. In theory, if you were indeed running individual ACs in each room, 24x7, then that's true. However, if there are 2 or 3 people living in a large house, then they don't need all of it cooled, certainly not 24x7. With individual ACs, they can turn each on or off and set different levels of cooling based on their actual needs (and today, with Google Home and Alexa, you can easily control all of that with your voice, as well as timers and "routines"). Rather than waste all that electricity cooling a room you might rarely be-in, or during times when you're mostly not at home, you can set it to be more specific and save a lot on energy. The price for this, of course, is the need to manage all of this, and the fact that if you only remember to turn the AC on when you walk into a room, you might need a few minutes until it cools down. 

Naturally, the bigger one's house is, the more challenging it can be. If you live in a 5000 square-foot house, it can be unreasonable to have to buy 15 AC units, and another factor is noise, as individual units are typically more noisy as well, and can be quite an eye-sore, both from the inside, as they block a big part of the window, and from the outside of the structure (some HOAs may even forbid these). But for smaller places with good room separation (unlike big, open-space), I vote for individual units. Disagree? Comment here and convince me!

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Making a Jurassic Park prehistoric mosquito in Amber

When I visited the Universal Studios theme park last year, their store had a "mosquito in amber" artifact from Jurassic park. I inquired about getting one, and they emailed me saying "due to the possibility of unauthorized Dinosaur recreation, we only offer these as displays in our shop ". Real cute. So this week, after catching a large Crane-fly, I made one myself with resin. I’m quite proud of how real it looks. In case you're wondering, the store "artifact" also had the appearance of a "found" amber piece, rather than a polished egg-shaped cane grip the movie featured, and that's what I was going for.

Here’s how to make this (scroll to the bottom for some history/info on this, if you like)

  1. Find a Crane-Fly that you will put inside the artifact. In most of the world, you can easily find one in certain times of the year and climates. If not, you might be able to find one for sale on eBay or Etsy, though sellers of bugs aren’t very consistent. Naturally, you can use any other insect to do this, if you’d like to just make a DIY insect in “amber”, although many gift stores sell these quite cheaply, so I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. This would be a good idea if you have a pet insect that perished and that you want to preserve.
  2. Find a stone or rock to serve as the shape template. Could be any, but should be 2-3” diameter, depending on the size of your crane fly or other object.
  3. Make or buy a frame for the outside frame. You can construct one out of plastic, wood or thick cardboard. If the stone is is up to 3”, you can get a 4” pipe piece at Home Depot. This is a piece of pipe that’s about 4” wide and long and is perfect for a frame.
  4. Get silicone mold polymer, or some other molding material/kit. Remember the rule with mold – you use a soft mold for hard cast, or vice-versa, so for this, you cannot use plaster or anything else hard. I used this kit: . It cost $20 and I needed about 70% of the amount in it. A difficult choice is how much to get, as you probably want to keep costs down, but not end up stuck without enough material. You can calculate the expected volume by measuring the stone’s volume with water-displacement, and calculate your frame size by simple geometry, but be sure to get at least 20% more for safety.
  5. Get polymer resin of some kind. These can get VERY expensive, so consider whether you want something super high-end. The cheaper stuff might be less clear than the good stuff, and also produce more bubbles or have a very long cure time. My favorite is, though it’s not cheap (I used 3 OZ resin for my stone, and that cost about $2 per ounce). If you get bigger containers of standard resin, prices can be as low as 50 cents per ounce.
  6. Get dye to color the resin. You can use real amber color, if you can find any, or something similar. Keep in mind that in nature, amber comes in different shades and colors (including Red, Blue and even clear), so you can take some license with this. I used green food coloring.
  7. Place the frame on a surface, and use a glue-gun to seal the edges around it.
  8. If your stone is dirty, wash and scrub it well, and dry well.
  9. Place the stone on the bottom of the frame.
  10. Prepare (mix) about 2/3 of the silicone molding material and pour it into the frame. Pour from about 8-12 inch above to minimize bubbles and air-pockets.
  11. Once the silicone has fully cured (typically, 12 hours), remove it from the frame CAREFULLY. Do NOT remove the stone from it.
  12. Cut 2-3 “keys” into the top of the frame. Keys are holes into which the top-part of the mold will fit, to make closing it easier. Make this intentionally a-symmetric.
  13. Take a little Vaseline and rub it on the surface of the mold in a nice, thick layer. Make sure it goes into the keys you cut as well. You can do this with a brush, cotton swap or your fingers, but don’t let it get TOO thick.
  14. Put the piece back in the frame.
  15. Mix the other 1/3 of the mold material and pour into the mold until it covers the stone well (ideally, at least ½” above). Let it cure.
  16. Remove from the frame and separate the mold. Do this carefully and slowly, as the top part might stick to the bottom a little despite the Vaseline. It might require some force, but be careful not to tear it.
  17. Remove the stone from the mold completely, and turn it over (the top of the mold will be the bottom when you cast)
  18. Ideally, the bottom of the mold will have a hole, where the stone was standing-on. If there is none or it’s very small, cut it a little open. You need to have room there to pour-in resin later.
  19. Mix your poly-resin as per the instructions. Most of them are 1:1, but some are 2:3 or other variations. If your stone is like mine, about 3”, mix 1 or 1.5 OZ using a scale…and be ACCURATE.
  20. Add coloring to the mix to make the resin look like amber. I used just ONE drop. Keep close track of the quantifies you used in this step and the previous, as you’ll need to do this TWICE more and you want the proportion of resin to dye to be the same so as to avoid color-bands in the result.
  21. Pour the resin into the bottom (which was the top beforehand) to its brim. Try to avoid spilling, but it’s OK if it’s not all the way to the brim.
  22. Give the resin some time to harden. Doesn’t have to fully harden, just enough so that the bug won’t sink in (most resin will be there in 2-3 hours, some less)
  23. Place the bug in the middle and close the mold above it.
  24. Let it stand for another hour or two to make sure the bug is stuck in place
  25. Prepare another serving of the resin and dye and remember – the proportion of dye needs to be identical. It’s generally better to make a little too-much resin and throw it away then to get stuck without enough in the middle of a step.
  26. Pour the resin into the mold carefully and slowly, so it surrounds the bug and builds around and above it. It should engulf the animal, but doesn’t have to do so fully (we waited earlier so it stays stuck in place and doesn’t float)
  27. Let the resin harden for a bit – doesn’t have to be fully, an hour or two will suffice.
  28. Prepare a final batch of the resin, with the same proportions and pour it in. The idea is to NOT fill the mold all the way to the top but a little below. That will create a flat surface, which will be transparent and let you see into the amber. Just make sure the bug is fully covered.
  29. Leave the resin to harden (typically 12 hours). You can test it with a toothpick, but carefully to not leave dimples in the casting. If you had leftover in your mixing cup, that is a good way to test if it hardened or not.
  30. Demold the result, carefully and slowly. Good chance some resin will have crept between the mold pieces like a film, which you need to cut out and remove carefully. It might leave behind a lip, so grind that down with a nail clipper or with a mini grinding wheel (Dremmel, or similar)
  31. That’s it – it should look nice and pretty!

Now some history lesson:

The mosquito seen in the movie (attached to Dr. Hammond's cane, and depicted as the source of the blood used to recreate dinosaurs) is actually Toxorhynchites, or "elephant mosquito". These aren't "real" mosquito, as they eat other insects, just like the Crane fly, rather than blood. However, the film makers wanted something more impressive than a real mosquito, which is just 0.15-0.4". The elephant mosquito is about an inch, so fits the idea that prehistoric mosquitos were huge, even though it's not true. In reality, prehistoric mosquitos were about the same size as today's. There *were* giant insects, like a prehistoric dragonfly, with a wingspan of 30" (size of a crow), but not mosquitos. The crane fly I used was about an inch, so it's fairly screen-accurate.

BTW, Amazon sells a replica of the cane grip, but it actually contains only a flat graphic of the "prehistoric" mosquito. My piece is fully 3D.

Monday, July 4, 2022

TV Wallpaper

Several friends and guests asked me about the Video wallpaper running on my TV. It's pretty cool - a video of short segments flying over cities around the country. It's actually just one of several I have on my TV, and this is how it's done.

In general, this is a video called "flying over the USA", which you can find on YouTube (BTW, thanks to my darling Raven for cluing me in to it!). If your TV supports YouTube, you can simply play that video, which is 12 hours long (It's actually a 45 minute video, looped 16 times). There are many other "scenery" videos. Many come with soothing music, which might like, or prefer to mute.

If you have a simple TV, like mine, you can use a "stick" PC, like this (*) as I do, running Windows and using VLC as a video player, as well as some custom code I wrote using AutoIT. On the computer, I put 12 videos of different subjects, like an art slideshow, the Matrix code, views of Nebula in space, and more. The custom code (below) shows buttons to select and play any of the videos. 

* This stick is the cheapest Amazon has, and costs $93, and I've seen them "pre-owned" cheaper on eBay. You can also find Android-based ones for as low as $40, but you'll have to write some scripts to make that work nicely (I built such a thing once, but wasn't able to figure out a nice-enough user-interface to pick the movie on-screen).

The code I wrote for AutoIT is below. It simply shows 12 big buttons. Each will launch VLC, adding a parameter for the video file name, and parameters to play it in full-screen, in an endless loop and SILENT (because the TV is in my living room, which is a party space). Here's the code:

#include <ButtonConstants.au3>
#include <GUIConstantSex.au3>
#include <WindowsConstants.au3>
$StartX = 20
$StartY = 20
$ButSizeX = 150
$ButSizeY = 120
$ButInterX = 20
$ButInterY = 20

$Button1Action = "Apple"
$Button2Action = "Art"
$Button3Action = "Earth From Space"
$Button4Action = "Fireplace"
$Button5Action = "LG"
$Button6Action = "The Matrix"
$Button7Action = "Nature"
$Button8Action = "Satisfying"
$Button9Action = "Scenery"
$Button10Action = "Snow Mountains"
$Button11Action = "Space Nebulas"
$Button12Action = "Flying over USA"
$theGUI = GUICreate("formWithButton", 1200, 500, 50, 50)
$button1 = GUICtrlCreateButton($Button1Action, $ButSizeX*1+$ButInterX*1, $StartY+0, $ButSizeX, $ButSizeY)
$button2 = GUICtrlCreateButton($Button2Action, $ButSizeX*2+$ButInterX*2, $StartY+0, $ButSizeX, $ButSizeY)
$button3 = GUICtrlCreateButton($Button3Action, $ButSizeX*3+$ButInterX*3, $StartY+0, $ButSizeX, $ButSizeY)
$button4 = GUICtrlCreateButton($Button4Action, $ButSizeX*4+$ButInterX*4, $StartY+0, $ButSizeX, $ButSizeY)
$button5 = GUICtrlCreateButton($Button5Action, $ButSizeX*1+$ButInterX*1, $StartY+140, $ButSizeX, $ButSizeY)
$button6 = GUICtrlCreateButton($Button6Action, $ButSizeX*2+$ButInterX*2, $StartY+140, $ButSizeX, $ButSizeY)
$button7  = GUICtrlCreateButton($Button7Action,  $ButSizeX*3+$ButInterX*3, $StartY+140, $ButSizeX, $ButSizeY)
$button8  = GUICtrlCreateButton($Button8Action,  $ButSizeX*4+$ButInterX*4, $StartY+140, $ButSizeX, $ButSizeY)
$button9  = GUICtrlCreateButton($Button9Action,  $ButSizeX*1+$ButInterX*1, $StartY+280, $ButSizeX, $ButSizeY)
$button10 = GUICtrlCreateButton($Button10Action, $ButSizeX*2+$ButInterX*2, $StartY+280, $ButSizeX, $ButSizeY) 
$button11 = GUICtrlCreateButton($Button11Action, $ButSizeX*3+$ButInterX*3, $StartY+280, $ButSizeX, $ButSizeY)
$button12 = GUICtrlCreateButton($Button12Action, $ButSizeX*4+$ButInterX*4, $StartY+280, $ButSizeX, $ButSizeY)
While 1
$nMsg = GUIGetMsg()
Switch $nMsg
Case $button1
Run ("c:\Program Files (x86)\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe ""c:\Sync\Videos\TV stick\" & $Button1Action & ".mp4"" -f --loop --no-audio" , "" , @SW_MINIMIZE)
Case $button2
Run ("c:\Program Files (x86)\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe ""c:\Sync\Videos\TV stick\" & $Button2Action & ".mp4"" -f --loop --no-audio" , "" , @SW_MINIMIZE)
Case $button3
Run ("c:\Program Files (x86)\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe ""c:\Sync\Videos\TV stick\" & $Button3Action & ".mp4"" -f --loop --no-audio" , "" , @SW_MINIMIZE)
Case $button4
Run ("c:\Program Files (x86)\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe ""c:\Sync\Videos\TV stick\" & $Button4Action & ".mp4"" -f --loop --no-audio" , "" , @SW_MINIMIZE)
Case $button5
Run ("c:\Program Files (x86)\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe ""c:\Sync\Videos\TV stick\" & $Button5Action & ".mp4"" -f --loop --no-audio" , "" , @SW_MINIMIZE)
Case $button6
Run ("c:\Program Files (x86)\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe ""c:\Sync\Videos\TV stick\" & $Button6Action & ".mp4"" -f --loop --no-audio" , "" , @SW_MINIMIZE)
Case $button7
Run ("c:\Program Files (x86)\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe ""c:\Sync\Videos\TV stick\" & $Button7Action & ".mp4"" -f --loop --no-audio" , "" , @SW_MINIMIZE)
Case $button8
Run ("c:\Program Files (x86)\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe ""c:\Sync\Videos\TV stick\" & $Button8Action & ".mp4"" -f --loop --no-audio" , "" , @SW_MINIMIZE)
Case $button9
Run ("c:\Program Files (x86)\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe ""c:\Sync\Videos\TV stick\" & $Button9Action & ".mp4"" -f --loop --no-audio" , "" , @SW_MINIMIZE)
Case $button10
Run ("c:\Program Files (x86)\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe ""c:\Sync\Videos\TV stick\" & $Button10Action & ".mp4"" -f --loop --no-audio" , "" , @SW_MINIMIZE)
Case $button11
Run ("c:\Program Files (x86)\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe ""c:\Sync\Videos\TV stick\" & $Button11Action & ".mp4"" -f --loop --no-audio" , "" , @SW_MINIMIZE)
Case $button12
Run ("c:\Program Files (x86)\VideoLAN\VLC\vlc.exe ""c:\Sync\Videos\TV stick\" & $Button12Action & ".mp4"" -f --loop --no-audio" , "" , @SW_MINIMIZE)