Monday, August 31, 2009

Why you should care about open source software!

Occasionally people ask me why I use Ubuntu?

The simple and fairly complete answer is choice. The thing that really appeals to me about the open source software movement is the fact that if I don't like the direction my distribution is moving, I can change to another without loosing out on much functionality. If you don't like the way your IM app works, try another one, or write your own. If you don't like something you are free to change it.

I was reading a posting on the infamous slash dot on a comparison between Snow Leopard, Windows 7, and Ubuntu 9.10 ( and came across a great comment from user KingSkippus ( which nails the issue for me, I've posted the whole comment because finding it over there might be challenging, and it really is a great post from that site.

99.997% of the people using these computers don't care.

First of all, I think that number is way too high. While it may seem that way sometimes, people do care. Maybe not even a majority of them, but enough that it does make a difference.

Second of all, those who in theory don't care, when explained why it's important, start to care. When you add up the cost of upgrading from Windows 95 to Windows XP to Windows Vista to Windows 7, along with all of its associated applications (I'm looking at you, Microsoft Office), versus the cost of upgrading through the various versions of Ubuntu or any of the other popular distributions and their associated applications, people really start to notice. One of my favorite things to do when I'm showing off Ubuntu to people is to open the package manager application. I tell them it's like the "Add or Remove Programs" applet, except that you can actually add programs. "All this stuff is available to you for no cost. Just click it, and you're good to go."

When you explain to these people how there is absolutely zero technical reason why they can't have a movie or song play on the DVD player in their living room, their iPod, their computer, and anywhere else (and anyway else) they want to play it, but that thanks to DRM systems incorporated into Windows 7 and Mac OS X, they are artificially restricted from doing so because some third party has decided to "manage their digital rights" for them, it definitely gets their attention.

When you explain to these people how honest competition from really smart people doing really smart things just because they can and because they feel that others should benefit from their collective knowledge is one of the reasons why a lot of commercial closed-source software these days that might otherwise cost hundreds or thousands of dollars is sold for really low cost or given away for free because of how hard it is to compete with volunteer work, it also gets their attention.

When I show people my web browser (Firefox with AdBlock) and how I don't see particularly onerous ads on web sites because the person who wrote my browser isn't beholden to financial interest or corporate mandates, it has raised a lot of eyebrows.

I could go on, but hopefully you see my point. Free and open source software benefits everyone, even people who don't otherwise care, even people who shun it in favor of commercial and/or closed-source options. And sitting back and saying that people don't care isn't very productive. It's in our best interest to actually educate people so that they will care.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I have worm fever!

Worms! Who would have known?

I can't even remember how it started now, but somehow the spark ignited and all of a sudden I had to be composting ASAP. I did some preliminary research and it was actually pretty easy to start something like this up in a small home or apartment. I have no yard, so it would have to be something that I could do easily on my patio or in a small space near the kitchen. This seemed to be pretty easy.

As someone who has ideals about DIY I looked for a way that I could build such a device for cheap, and on my own. First a little bit about worms. Keep in mind that this is from my own textual research on the internet (it never lies right?) not from experience or any kind of scientific research.

Worms are one of the worlds great garbage disposals. Some worms in particular are exceptionally good at turning food type wastes (salad leftovers, tea bags, coffee grounds, fruit rinds) into what amounts to the best thing you can do for your plants. There are 2 basic by products of worms doing what worms do:
  • Castings: This looks a lot like dirt, and it is kind of like that in its applications and uses, but it is very nutrient dense and works great as something to add to soil as a great nutrient boost

  • Tea: This is a liquid that is a byproduct of the activity of the worms. It is great as a source of plant food (read natural fertilizer) and can be used diluted as such

In my sittuation, apart from a few basic house plants I actually have very little use for either compost or tea. Why, praytel, would I want to go to all the hassle of setting up a composting system when I can't reap the benefits directly? Quite simply it is the right thing to do. While the city of Seattle does offer yard waste/compost collection they do not offer it for my apartment complex. So my food scraps go into a land fill where they benefit no one. In addition I know of several people who CAN take advantage of the wonderful work that my worms will be doing and they would likely share any veggie bounty that they have with me :).

There are a ton of great resources around on the net (see resources below) on getting started with your own Worm Bin for composting. Stuff as simple as getting a Tupperware container and drilling a few holes, to things much more elaborate. I chose to go with a simple Tupperware container system that should allow me to collect both Castings and Tea from my little buddies. I found the directions for this system at the Seattle Tilth resources page about compost. The system from that page I decided to build was the Off-the-Shelf Worm Bin. This looked pretty simple and something I could do pretty quickly.

So I printed off the plans and set out to build my bin.

Shopping List

  • 2x medium sized Rubbermaid storage containers with lids. Make sure they are dark in color. Also there is no need to go more then about 24" deep or so, shallow is better then deep.

  • 10x 1" Louvre vents

  • 2x 2" Louvre vents

  • 1x Male Garden Hose adaptor

  • 1x Female Garden Hose adaptor with some type of shut off valve

  • 1x Washer for sealing the garden hose adaptor where it penetrates the Rubermaid tubs

  • 1x Teflon thread tape

Pretty simple right? It was for the most part.

I had trouble finding 1" Louvre vents, and the 2" vents that I found came in packs of 6. I purchased 2 packs of 6 and installed them all into the bin.

Also The Home Depot has a really poor selection of the fittings required for this job, which I discovered pretty quickly. Lowes has a much better selection I found, and so bought all my supplies there.


So the construction of these bins is dead simple, I'll give some basic instructions but your best bet is to print off the very good documentation from the Seattle Tilth website (Download Here).

For the purposes of these instructions I will use the terms Bin 1 and Bin 2. There is no difference starting out, just be sure to keep them straight.

  1. Bin 1: Flip the bin over and drill 20 or so evenly spaced holes using a 1/4" drill bit. This is important for ventilation in your bin. Proper circulation prevents anaerobic zones which can bread some pretty nasty stuff.

  2. Bin 1: On the long sides drill 2" holes evenly spaced apart. I used a hole saw and put 4 holes on each side.

  3. Lid of Bin 1: Drill 4x 2" holes evenly spaced around the lid.

  4. Bin 1, and Lid of Bin 1: install the 2" Louvre vents into the 12 holes you just drilled. On the vents located on the side of the bin, there is an up direction that should be marked on the vents. Be sure to install them according to that marking.

  5. Bin 2: Close to the bottom, on one of the sizes drill a 1" hole. I used a spade bit for this. Be Careful, I had my drill spinning at very high RPM's and ended up damaging the bin (the hole was much larger then it should have been). I had to get a 2nd bin and drill much slower. This Worked much better for me.

  6. Bin 2: Attach the garden hose adapter to the bin. The male end goes on the inside with the washer between the male piece and the bin (this is what seals in the tea, so it should be water tight). Don't forget to put 3-4 wraps of Teflon tape to keep the threads nice and tight.

Now make sure that your valve is closed and drop Bin 1 into Bin 2. The vents on the side should clear the edge of the bottom bin (for ventilation). Now you are ready to put in the material.


I used a combination of shreded newspaper and cardboard. I was a bit unsure as to how big I should shred the paper and so I ended up making it about 1/4 the size of one full newspaper size. I crumpled these up a bit and put them in a 5 gallon bucket and put in some water. The trick is to put in enough water to soak your paper and get it good and wet. Then squeeze out most of the water and put it into your bin. The paper should be about as wet as a wet sponge, if that helps (it didn't really help me much). I filled my bin up about 1/2 full of paper and cardboard.

They say you should let your bin settle for a week or so to make sure it is good and redy for worms.


There are a few different kinds of worms, not all of which are great at being your leftover disposals. The worms you want fall into the Manure or compost worms category. By far the most popular variety of worms for composting are the Red Wiggler worms. Unless you have a need to use your worms as bait in addition to composting then I would stick with the Red Wigglers, otherwise you could try the European Night crawlers, which serve both purposes.

Now what

We have a problem

OK I have my worms and they are in the bin, and they have some veg to rock out to, now what? Well for some that is about the end of the line, they happily collect the food scraps and offer them to the worms. For whatever reason I have some fundamental issue that prevents me from leaving well enough alone. The main problem I have with the worm bin that I finished building a few days ago, is that I worry my compost will not be aerated enough. The bins fit in very tight with each other, they create pretty much an air tight seal. So while there are air holes in the bottom of Bin 1 they are not able to breathe properly because they are set into Bin 2. I'm afraid my worms are going to be very unhappy. Of course I don't know this to be true, and the plans supposedly produce a very good worm bin, but like I said I have an issue. So I needed another solution.

Almost, but not quite

I did what every self respecting nerd does when he is feeling light on information, I went to the internet. What I found was several sites that offered different, slightly more complicated DIY systems that seem to deal with this issue specifically.

One such system put ABS drain piping through the side of the tub and wrapped it in landscape fabric. This provided a tube circulating air that seems like it would offer pretty good ventilation and a mostly easy hack to what I had already.

Another system is what is called a pass-through system where you put the material into the top of a big barrel and at the bottom you access the end product. This had the benefit of cutting down the hassle of harvesting your castings (you literally just scoop them out with a shovel). That was appealing because removing material from my system seemed like a real PITA. The down side here is that it was a lot bigger (think 55 gallon drum) and required me to do some creative scavenging for the barrel in the first place. Which I'm not opposed to, but given the size issue it didn't seem to work for my apartment.


Then I came across some videos on YouTube going over the process of setting up a drop in solution called Can-of-Worms. The first of the videos can be found here: In addition to having great information about setting up a Wormery the videos are pretty entertaining, which is nice. Anyway, the videos got me thinking about other solutions such as the Can-o-Worms and I eventually came across the Worm Factory line of products. Of which I purchased the 360 version of. You can see the manufactuers website here: I really liked that they are a Bellingham company. When I purchased I went with a great company out of Lake Stevens who sells a bunch of great Vermiculture supplies as well as worms. They are called Northwest Wigglers ( and buying from them was great, I'll definitely consider them again for worm related purchases.

The idea with these systems is that you have a series of four trays and one sump. The sump goes on the bottom and catches the precious worm tea, and you put one tray on top of it. In the bottom of that tray you put your worms, and then a layer of nice tasty snacks for them. As the first tray gets full you simply put another tray on the top and start filling it with food for your worms. The worms eventually will move up through the trays into the food they want to eat and leave you with what you want in the bottom trays. The trays keep rotating from the top to the bottom of the system. They provide good air circulation and process quite a lot of scraps (7-14 lbs per day). A lot more then we can produce I'm expecting.

I've not used this yet, but I think it will assay my fears about me becoming an worm murderer in the near future.

That is all for now, I'll try and keep you updated as my Vermiculture progress'


  • Seattle Tilth:

  • Cascade Manufacturing Sales, Inc.:

  • Yelm Worms:

  • Northwest Wigglers:

  • Sky Nursery: (closes place near me that sells some supplies)

Diesel Hybrid?

This has been bothering me for quite a while. Where are all the Diesel Hybrid vehicles?

I know that there are applications of this technology in practice. Many of the buses operated by King County Metro are Diesel Electric vehicles. Train Locomotives use this technology to move rail cars across the country. Where is the Hybrid version of this technology in our Prius and Insight passenger cars?

I know the technologies are not exactly the same, the trains/buses use a different type of hybrid (series) then the Passenger cars I mentioned. However, there is nothing stopping auto manufactures from producing this type of hybrid for passenger cars (See the Chevy Volt as an example).

You may say, "What is the big deal, you are just trading one fuel type for another fuel type?" which is true, but when you consider why many people concerned with carbon emissions are choosing Diesel (Biodiesel technology, lower emissions, etc) and see how that would intersect with the same set of goals in a Hybrid vehicle (lower emissions, better fuel economy, etc) it seems like a complete no brainier. Lets make a hybrid diesel system that can take advantage of the environmental positives of both systems, the technology exists NOW!

I have been thinking about this specific issue for several years now, and it has been compounded by the fact that I need to start thinking about my next vehicle in a year or so. I would really like to take advantage of these two technologies together, but there are no plans as far as I know to produce such a vehicle.

Well someone has given the automakers a big middle finger and did just that, created a diesel hybrid that after preliminary testing seems like it could be possible of near 100 MPG efficiency. The article came up on Slashdot ( this morning and I just had to write about it.

I've not read the site detailing the process because it has been brought down by the traffic that has been pushed onto it, but here is the link: apparently the process is documented for those who want to attempt something like this on their own.

For my own auto purchase I will have to be satisfied with choosing one or the other. At this point it is looking like a VW, because it offers what I am looking for in a wagon (never thought I would WANT a wagon, but here I am). Now to start thinking about how to get one LOL.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Open Source Textbooks in California

The state of California is making a push to provide public schools with free, open source digital text books. I think this is a great idea, the ideas taught in K-12 are fundamental to life long learning. What is more is that the information taught is not proprietary (mathematics, biology, earth sciences) it belongs to EVERYONE!. So why should a school fork out $100 per book per student?

Instead provide a set of books that are freely available, and do not require printing (read unnecessary environmental impact). Gone would be the days of textbooks vandalized by students writing on them. Gone would be the day of using outdated information (get a new version for every class). Gone would be the common practice of schools writing big checks to publishing companies to provide text books to students.

This just seems like a win win win.

Ironically, in the investigation that the state of California did the Open Source books were the ones who came out on top pretty much across the board.

Monday, August 10, 2009

1 year of Lex.

I really like this idea. I think this is the exact kind of thing that people are trying to capture when they take photos of their children, but few have the consistent perseverance to stick with it.

I'm not a huge baby person, but this makes me happy!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fun UI innovations from the SIGGRAPH 09 conference

An interactive, tactile hologram? SWEEET!

Keep Reading for more super cool interfaces.

This interface is pretty amazing. It uses a HUD kind of system to overlay information and provide some basic interactive elements that really enhance this game. Some minor bugs to work out, but TONS of potential.

Augmented Reality Toys.v2 (Work in progress) from Frantz Lasorne on Vimeo.

This is a fantastic interface. Imagine using the walls in your house as an input method to controll your home stereo or your entire desk surface to send basic commands to your computer. Very Cool.