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“Five Elements” light sculpture

After months of work, “Five Elements”, my first full light sculpture debuted this weekend at a private event.  This quick video shows a short clip of each ‘element’; the actual five-element cycle is 12 minutes long, repeating each of the five elements five times each hour.  As with any “version 1.0”, I have a dozen ways I’d like to polish and keep improving it, but I’m happy with it as is, too.

It’s illuminated by 150 RGB LEDs and controlled by an Arduino Uno using the FastSPI_LED library and my own custom code.
The installation at the debut event used a very different diffuser which made the LEDs more visible.  While both were good, I think I prefer this diffuser overall.

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Small Scale Solar power presentation

I gave a “learning lunch” presentation on Small Scale Solar power today.  We had a great audience, got great questions, and had fun doing it — despite the definite lack of sunshine to play with today.

The Short Version is this:

  1. Hook a solar panel to a charge controller to a battery.  (There are starter kits with everything.)
  2. Presto: 12 Volt DC power!
  3. Use your newfound power as-is, or step down to 5v USB, or up to 120VAC using an inverter.

60 Watts of solar panels

The slides don’t tell the whole story by themselves; that requires my own personal song and dance routine.  Nevertheless, here they are, with “lite” graphics for fast download: PDF.


Ice cream no longer requires adult supervision

On the sunny afternoon of Sunday, April 29, 2012, Eleanor, Abby, and a friend, all age 9, walked half a mile to The Chilly Cow for ice cream, and then back again (with a stop at the library, of course) without adult supervision or accompaniment. Total round-trip time was slightly more than an hour, well under the contractually pre-negotiated 90 minutes.

The adventurers’ parents spent the intervening time in various degrees of distraction, ranging from mindful confidence to … less meditative states.  Overall the experience was deemed a great success all around, and at least two of the parents in question got a little choked up for a moment over the “our kids are growing up” factor.

The trip itself was a little less than a half-mile each way, as the crow walks. If you’re a grownup, or driving, or both, you might think of this particular half-mile trip something sort of like this:

Chilly Cow by car

But if you’re walking, it’s more like this (please do click the image to get the full experience) :

Chill Cow on foot

But actually, I think that if you’re 9 years old, and you’re doing this by yourself for the very first time ever, it has nothing to do with time, or space, or distance, or any kind of map at all.  It’s just pure, undiluted awesome.  And that is exactly how it was reported afterwards.


Rejuvenating solar garden lights — with nail polish!

Solar LED garden lights are everywhere these days, and by ‘everywhere’ I mean ‘in our yard.’  We’ve had some for a few years now, and simply through exposure to the elements, the plastic that covers the solar cells becomes so opaque that only a small amount of light gets to them any more.  With the solar cells deprived of even that meager light that we get in Massachusetts in the winter, the solar cells don’t recharge the battery, the battery doesn’t power the LED, the LED doesn’t light up, and our yard has a serious bling deficiency.  Eleanor and I took our solar garden lights inside to see if we could make them bright again somehow.

My first thought when confronting the frosted-over plastic was to try to ‘polish’ it with a fine-grit sandpaper.  I had 400-grit handy and tried it on one cell, the bottom one in this picture.  The top shows how weathered the cells were to start.

Solar garden lights, all 'frosted' over

The sanding helped a little.  Then I rinsed the sanded plastic dust off with water in the sink, and while it was wet it looked great, but as it dried it became frosted and opaque again.  Thinking that perhaps we could use a mild plastic solvent to ‘polish’ the rough surface, I dabbed the solar cells with acetone, but again, as soon as it dried, the surface went from clear to cloudy again.  “We need some way to keep it ‘looking wet’ even when it’s dry,” I mused.  Eleanor got a wide-eyed LIGHTBULB! look in her eyes, and grabbed a bottle of clear nail polish!  She applied a few test swatches.

Nail polish on solar cells?

The nail polish made the weathered old solar cells crystal clear again!  I held the lights while Eleanor applied an even coat of nail polish to all the solar cells.  It really didn’t matter whether the cells had been sanded or not, so we didn’t bother.

Using nail polish to rejuvinate solar cells

A few minutes later, the polish was dry, and we planted the lights outside again.  You can see how completely clear the solar cells are.  Our only concern was that the nail polish might block the UV light that provides a good portion of the solar energy to the cells.

Rejuvinated solar cells soaking up sunlight

We waited for twilight to fall, and when we checked the lights: success!

Fully-recharged solar light glowing brightly!

Even though it was mid-February the solar cells were now getting enough light to make the LEDs glow brightly!  The solar cell rejuvenation project was a total success, and once we figured out how to make the cells ‘clear’ again, it was a quick and easy.

So what did we learn? We learned that ‘frosted’ plastic reflects precious light away from the solar cells; clean, clear solar cells can capture much more light.  Clear nail polish is perfect for rejuvenating plastic-covered solar cells that have become weathered and dull. Some of the solar garden lights they sell have glass covers, and we speculated that they probably (1) are much more resistant to weathering, and (2) probably should be ‘cleaned’ differently from the plastic ones.  Sometimes you need to try one thing to find out what you need to try next.  Sometimes restating the problem out loud to someone else can give them new ideas.  During the dim, dark Massachusetts winter, having bright, cheery little lights in the yard is great.


Remixed cookie cutters

This past weekend E and I went out to the Berkshires to visit some longtime friends.  Since St. Patrick’s Day fell on Saturday, E suggested that we all make St. Patrick’s Day cookies, and decorate them.

While the dough was being assembled, we started looking through the house cookie cutter collection for  shamrocks or four-leaf clovers, but no luck.  There were all kinds of other shapes, though, and twenty minutes and a pair of needle-nose pliers later, I had remixed one small cookie cutter into a shamrock, and one large cookie cutter into a four-leaf clover.

When the dough was ready, I cut a test cookie

Looking good (enough!), we baked and then decorated the cookies.  The shamrock was a little bit on the small side, but the four-leaf clover came out respectably well!

That totally worked!

So What Did We Learn? We learned that metal cookie cutters can remixed and remade into new shapes.  We learned that the best overall shape for a cookie is “blob”, and that “blob with minor details” is the second best shape.  Fine detail doesn’t work, and remember: you’re not making stamps that will be inked and pressed onto paper: spindly tendrils of design – skinny peninsulas- don’t work.  Filigree is right out.  If you’re going to make a new shape out of an old one, pick an old one with roughly the same length perimeter.  Small old cookie cutters make for (too) small new cookie shapes.  When you start with an old cookie cutter, bend it out into a flat circle first, then work into the desired target shape.  Cookies are dangerously tasty.

-Mark