02 May 2016

The Teachings of Christ

This is an analysis I did two years ago as I was seeking a new path in my life. I'm posting this now, because every so often it comes up in conversation, and I want this to be more easily accessible.

The teachings of Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ is the one Christians look to for the basis of their faith. We've all seen the WWJD jewelry to remind us to behave like Jesus, or for Mormons, the CTR jewelry, reminding us to Choose the Right like Jesus would want us to. The whole of western religion is built upon this deified man who lived two thousand years ago, yet there are only three small books in scripture that deal exclusively with the life of Jesus-- and much of that on deifying him. The life of this man has influenced countless lives, yet most boil it down to being "good" and loving each other. Is this all there is to it, or is there something more? Since I couldn't think of anything beyond that, I decided to go through the new testament and see what I could find from what Jesus taught. Here are my findings:

These are good things I believe can we learn from Jesus:

Love yourself.
  • Education is important (Matthew 4:4)
  • Don't do stupid things (self-harm), even if you believe you are invincible. (Matthew 4:5-7, Luke 4:9-12)
  • Be true to yourself. Don't sell your convictions for money, treasure, or power. (Matthew 4: 8-10, Luke 4:6-8)
  • Have empathy, kindness, and seek to be better. (Matthew 5:3-11)
  • Don't hide the good that is in you. It brings variety and joy to the lives of those around you. (Matthew 5:13-16; Matthew 25:14-28)
  • Be questioning. Search for answers. (Matthew 7:7-8)
  • Don't dwell in the past. (Matthew 8:18-22)
  • Be teachable. (Matthew 13:1-9; Mark 4:2-8; Luke 8:4-8)
Love others
  • Don't be angry with people. If you have a disagreement, make up quickly before there are bad consequences. (Matthew 5:21-26)
  • Don't judge others. (Matthew 7:1-6; Luke 6:37)
  • Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Matthew 7:9-12)
  • Relationships with other humans can be stronger than family ties. (Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 3:33-34)
  • Watch what you say! Only good things should come out of your mouth. (Matthew 15:11, Mark 7:15)
  •  Forgive always. (Matthew 18:21-22) [It is good for the peace of your being to not hold grudges. This does not mean you should let people abuse you or take advantage of you. It is possible to forgive without allowing situations to repeat.] 
  • Divorce is bad. (Matthew 19:1-12, Mark 10:1-12) [Ok, so in general, divorce is certainly not ideal, but there are many reasons it can be right for a couple. I think the point here is not to take your marriage covenants lightly.]
  • Don't dwell on what others get. Life is not fair. (Matthew 20:1-16)
  • Importance is gained by what you give others. Serve others. (Matthew 20:24-28)
  • Take care of the people around you. (Matthew 25:31-45) [This should not mean to give to others to the point of your own impoverishment.]
Hate hypocrisy.
  • Don't brag about being good. (Matthew 6:1-18)
  • Don't believe flatterers. Observe their "fruit" to know if they are good people. (Matthew 7:15-20, Luke 6:43-45)
  • Tell the truth. Do what you say you will do. (Matthew 21:28-31)
  • Only teach what you, yourself, live. (Matthew 23:1-12)
 Teachings of Jesus I cannot agree with:

  • Thoughts are as bad as actions. (Matthew 5:27-30) [Actually murdering somebody or committing adultery are way worse than just thinking about it. That said, however, it's probably a good thing to not let our thoughts/fantasies get the better of us. A stray thought isn't bad. Dwelling on certain thoughts can be bad for you psychologically, though, and might lead to the committing into action of those thoughts.]
  • Let people take advantage of you. (Matthew 5:38-42; Luke 6:34) [What? No. Not good. Being a doormat only makes you a target for people without scruples. Bad advice.]
  • Love your enemies. (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36) [How about, "don't hold grudges"? Loving enemies would entail double think and cognitive dissonance. No, thank you!]
  • Don't save money or dwell on its existence. In fact get rid of any material thing you have accumulated. God will take care of you. (Matthew 6:19-34; Matthew 19:16-30; Mark: 12:41-44; Luke 12:13-34) [This is just stupid. Save for a rainy day. Enjoy wealth, if you have it. Help others with your money, if you desire. If you don't have money, well sure, don't spend your strength worrying about it when you can (or can't) do something about it. Maybe this is just Jesus' way of trying to dispel worry and take a jab at rich people at the same time.]
  • Love God with your whole might, soul, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 37-40, Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:27) [I give love to those who are worthy of my love. It is a waste of energy and heart to do otherwise. I cannot love a God who I do not know even exists, and if he does exist, does not manifest himself to me. Also, as far as loving my neighbor as myself, sorry, but that is just not feasible. It would entail all sorts of psychological intricacies I cannot begin to deal with. I can, however, accept being kind to those around me.] 
  • Be a pacifist. (Matthew 26:52) [I believe you should defend yourself and your loved ones even unto death.] 
  • Be like a child. (Mark 10:13-16) [I can understand how people interpret this to mean " be humble" and "be teachable" and "be forgiving". I believe we should always be advancing. We are constantly growing in our understanding, and that is a good thing. We should not be gullible and always believing as a child is. We learn as we develop, and that should never be discarded. It is best to be ourselves and not childish.] 
  • You can do anything if you just believe. (recurrent theme) [While having positive thoughts can be important, you can NOT do anything just by believing.]
  • The "kingdom of heaven" is worth giving up everything for. (recurrent theme) [Not for me.]

09 April 2014

Kathryn Schulz on feeling right and being wrong

This talk was a real eye-opener. It's eerie how accurately this describes my conversations with people in the last six months! In my recent uh, "experiences", I have been through EXACTLY the sort of communications problem that she describes -- on both sides. In case you don't want to watch the whole thing, I have pasted the relevant excerpt below.

"Think for a moment about what it means to feel right. It means that you think that your beliefs just perfectly reflect reality. ...And when you feel that way, you've got a problem to solve, which is, how are you going to explain all of those people who disagree with you? It turns out, most of us explain those people the same way, by resorting to a series of unfortunate assumptions.

"The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they're ignorant. They don't have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they're going to see the light and come on over to our team.

"When that doesn't work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they're idiots. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly.

"And when that doesn't work, when it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes."


05 March 2014

My journey continued...

The last few months have been quite a turmoil for me. Losing faith in a religion I have held since childhood has thrown me for a loop. There are several things I've had to reconcile in my brain in order for it to be at peace with the situation. I needed to know what makes humans behave the way we do, what makes something morally right, and where spirituality and spiritual experiences fit into the picture.

I have researched on the internet, read blogs and forums to see what other people believe and why. I've thumbed through books, read parts of others, and read all the way through a couple. Two of the books that made the most difference are The World's Religions by Huston Smith and The “God” Part of the Brain by Matthew Alper (there is a video on youtube on this subject that I find equally interesting). From my studies I have reached some conclusions that have brought me peace.

Spirituality is universal to humankind. I find joy and wonder in this truth. Not everybody is the same, and some people seem not to have profound spiritual experiences, but overall humans are very spiritual beings. This spirituality inspires, guides, helps and warns. It comes in the form of feelings, thoughts, a voice, and visions. Some of these avenues are shaped by the world around us as to what we expect, but overall are very similar across the board. It creates within us peace, hope, and empathy.

Sometimes spiritual experiences prompt us to do things we wouldn't otherwise do. They give us courage and reason to do something that we are afraid of. I've read of people who uproot their family for a move across country, because a spiritual experience told them it was the right thing to do. Most of the time, everything works out just fine. It probably would have without the spiritual prompt, but the person wouldn't have done it otherwise, thus a prompt was needed. It find it amazing that we humans are wired this way.

I love how the human mind works, constantly filtering and gathering information from our surroundings. There is so much at play that we are not aware of, and I find it fascinating. I can see how a person can pray for somebody, give a blessing, or deliver a message that is exactly what that person needs at a given time. I believe this is possible from subtle clues our bodies pick up on and our minds process subconsciously. Now, I'm not saying there isn't some outside entity that watches over us and gives us what we need through spiritual sources, I'm saying that there doesn't need to be. We humans are wondrous, and though we have found and proven a lot about ourselves, we don't know everything.

As much as I want there to be a God and an afterlife, it doesn't matter if those things are made up in our minds. The thought can give us comfort and peace, and it serves its purpose. I don't know if we can ever truly know.. Probably the biggest thing besides hope and peace these thoughts give is the difference in how we might live our lives. It may take away some of the fear of dying or the despair when we lose a loved one. It might also encourage us to not try harder to do something, to not stand out, to not explore ourselves or the world around us. We might think it would be OK, because we can do it in the afterlife, that we have eternity to become more fully who we truly are. The belief in an afterlife may give us peace, but it may also hinder our development of ourselves. When we know how our thought processes affect us, we can change our behavior to counter the negative and be better people now.

Religion is the interpretation of spiritual experiences for understanding and deeper meaning. Promptings, warnings, visions, and voices are given names and deeper meanings. Stories are told and rituals held in the hopes of encouraging these experiences. Drugs, meditation, music and prayer are all used as avenues to understand the will of God and encourage communication. Religion is so closely tied with spirituality that it is difficult to separate the two in the minds of most people. Doing so causes great distress. This is the reason the challenge to any religion causes extreme emotions. People feel their personally spirituality is challenged with any challenge to their religion. I have to admit this has puzzled me, and as such, in my ignorance, I have stirred up some unpleasant emotions in others. This is also probably, what has caused and continues to cause many wars and conflicts in the world. It is sad to me, and at times distressing. I don't mind discussing spirituality and/or religion, but for the mental sanity of the people around me, I am going to attempt to keep all discussion of religion out of the public forum in the future. I think it is OK to discuss spirituality publicly, because it is so universal, but discussion of religion seems to breed monsters. Again, I don't mind discussing religion and how I have come to my views and conclusions, but it seems for a civil discussion to ensue, it needs to be done privately.

I feel I have come to the end of a journey. There is, of course, always more to learn. This journey was a course for me to find peace in the world around me. I feel that I have the knowledge and tools necessary for that now to happen. At times, I may be angry at what I see as injustices, manipulation and control. My mind fights against such things as extremely, morally wrong. This is in all my human dealings and not limited to religion. I find that humans mostly want to good in the world. It fosters healthy, loving relationships with those around us. I don't believe we need religion to tell us the right things to do. We are spiritual beings. There is something inside each of us that directs us to do what is right, even without an outward somebody telling us what to do. We naturally seek after honesty, beauty, and goodness.

08 February 2014

Musings on Life, the Universe, and Everything

I just got through watching "Star Trek: First Contact". It's interesting how things can effect me differently at different times in my life: the first time (or two) I watched it, it was just a movie. Yes, some good Moby Dick references, but nothing special there.

On the other hand, consider "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan". Yes, more Moby Dick references, but Khan "spoke" to me on several levels. Kirk deals with growing older, Spock sacrifices himself (that's not a spoiler, the movie's been out for decades!), and Kirk has to deal with an estranged son. I've watched that movie pretty much every birthday since I was a teenager, which means I've watched it about 20 times. Every year, I "renewed" some feelings and reconsidered how I approach life as a whole.

It's hard to examine ourselves. There's no good mental or emotional mirror available. We catch only glimpses, like looking at the reflection of your own car in the chrome bumper on the truck in front of you -- you might notice that your headlight is burned out, but it's hard to tell how exactly many bugs are splattered on your paint.

One way I can look at myself, a little, is disconnecting myself from my reality for a short time -- like watching a movie. I can take a little breather from my own life and when I come back, notice a few things about myself that maybe I didn't notice before. It's like going outside to take the trash out, and when you come back in the house, you realize it smells like the last meal in there. You didn't notice it before, because you were smelling it all the time and became desensitized. You have to step out of it and come back in to see what you were missing.

Today, watching First Contact, I had a little more empathy for Captain Picard / Captain Ahab. I wondered if I had a white whale of my own. The words "And he piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it" struck something of a chord with me this time.

Picard and Ahab each had something taken from them. Picard had his humanity taken. Ahab had his leg taken. I've had things taken from me. These losses hurt. They wound deeply. They cannot be ignored, nor forgotten. Nor, I think, should they. We should not be doormats. We deserve better than that.

But there's the question of how to react to loss. Melville seems to be saying Ahab should have just left well enough alone and led a happy, albeit legless, life. If we are to "learn Ahab's lesson", and treat every big problem like a soul-swallowing white whale, we as individuals and humanity as a whole would never accomplish anything though! What if the Founding Fathers figured fighting for independence was their white whale, and just gave up and led quiet lives as obedient subjects? What if Britain figured Hitler was their white whale, and just let the Nazis roll in?

The heros of our world are people that fought against overwhelming odds -- Gandhi, Mandela, Luther (both the white one and the black one). So what separates them from Ahab... the fact that they were successful, and Ahab was not? Or is there more to it?

This is the question that "troubles" me now. I don't know if "trouble" is the right word. I'm chewing on it, experimentally, like I chew on the first bite of a steak. I've had a lot of bad steak in my life, but every once in a while I get a really good one. Thus, it's mostly trepidation... tinged with a little bit of hope.

So: how does one separate the worthy goals from the white whales? Chew, chew. Hmm.

I think it may have something to do with emotion. Ahab let his anger fill him; there was no room for anything else. His world shrunk until it contained only him, and the white whale -- his ship and his crew be damned.

I don't want to live in a small world. There are too many good things out there, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. Anger and other blind emotions shrink my world, and I resent that. Sometimes my world shrinks pretty small before I realize what's happening, though I think perhaps I'm getting better at recognizing it (at least, I hope). Making my world larger again is more difficult, but I'm working on it.

And yet, the things taken from me still hurt. And, I don't want that cursed white whale to go on hurting others. How to choose whether to go whale hunting, or stay on shore?

There's a problem with the human brain; we all see the world around us through our own lens, but the vexing thing is we can't turn that lens upon ourselves. What's worse, and what has become so painfully brought to my attention now, is that most people don't realize they have a lens at all. (At least I didn't.) They assume that what they see is reality (at least, I did). But sometimes, reality is something else entirely.

I think my new birthday movie will be The Matrix. Neo thought he lived in the real world, just as I once thought I did. We were both forced to have our eyes opened, and not of our own choosing. But, eventually we were both grateful for it. For me, it (painfully) called attention to the fact that I have lens. And as we learned from Frank Herber's Dune, "the first step in avoiding a trap is knowing of its existence".

In First Contact, Picard is brought back from the brink of insanity by Lily. Lily was not afraid to tell Picard exactly what she thought. She had the guts to hold a mirror up to Picard, and he didn't like what he saw in that mirror. Picard needed someone, or something, outside of himself to get a new perspective on his own actions. Perhaps we all need a Lily to hold the mirror up to ourselves -- we might not like what we see, at first. And that mirror may itself be distorted and untrustworthy. But I think it is folly to refuse to look in any mirrors.

Perhaps that's where Ahab went wrong -- he dismissed out of hand the pleas of his officers and crew. But by the same token, we also can't be pushed around by the other people in our lives. We should not abdicate (and I use that word advisedly -- we are each masters of our own destiny) our own free will. So I'm still at square one: how to decide if I have before me a worthy foe to defeat, or a bloody white whale.

I think it's part of growing up. We learn to speak, but then we mature and learn when to be silent. We learn to make the right choices, but then we mature and realize that we also have to chose what is right. Not only does black and white give way to shades of gray, but then we find there's color too!

I guess I'm gray man feeling a little lost in a color world. I'm glad for the color though; I didn't realize what I was missing. I may not find the right color; there may not be a right color. But I know I don't want to go back.

So. It may take me a long time to distinguish white whales from stepping stones. I may never figure it out. How do you keep your eye on the prize without getting tunnel vision?

These questions are tough, just like a lot of steaks. I'll keep chewing on them.

06 February 2014

Dear Uncle Bob

This is in response to my uncle's reply from the previous blog post. I am creating a new post because my intended reply is much too long to post as a comment. My uncle said,

"Sorry, that you have to continue to attack the church. The charges were not filed by a judge. The charges were filed by an apostate such as yourself. The judge just allowed them to be filed. If you want to quit the church, just do so. No one is forcing you to stay. However, the fact that you like other apostates continue to attack the church indicates that it is more than just that you no longer believe. You have some under lying hatred for the church leading you to attack it. I believe you are being led by Satan to do this. If it was just a matter of unbelief, you would go your separate way from the church and be happy ever after instead of letting this hatred eat away at you. We will pray that you find joy in life. Anger against others belief will destroy you physically and mentally. Uncle Bob"

 Uncle Bob,
I am sorry this is causing you pain. I feel compelled to give you a full reply. You deserve to know how deep this affects me.

The Church took things from me, so, yes, I am angry. I am downright mad at its lying, hiding, hurtful teachings. I am mad!

However, I have not expressed that to you. I have pointed to a few things I find interesting as I probe the depth of my pain.

There is a popular saying within the church, "People leave the church, but can't leave the church alone". I have not said all I thought and feel to you about this or anybody else besides my spouse  for fear of hurting you as you find out that you have been fed a pack of lies. Would you expect somebody who has been abused not speak about it? To never mention the abuse again? To not help those who are currently abused and not see it, because they think it's normal or "their fault". I'm sorry you feel uncomfortable about the (very) few things I have said in, I felt, a very gentle manner.

I gave my all to the church. I served for 38 years in a church that I believed was God's. I was a true believer.  I "knew" it was true. I served a mission for the church becuse I wanted to share the happy news that families could be forever, even when my family couldn't. I blamed my good dad for his weaknesses. I married in the temple, excluding loved ones because I thought that was the right thing to do.

Except the church is not true. The real truth hurts. I am torn between helping people see the real truth in the real world or leaving them alone in their delusions (because they think they are happy and life is explained). Truth means a lot to me. Personally, I cannot live a lie. Still, I am torn, so I haven't said much.

Here are a few things I have found out, and there is a ton more:

I have found out "the church" puts forth a history that is not supported by historical documents. Doctrines have been changed, not by revelation, but by convenience. Apostles have lied, and called it "lying for the Lord". They have thrown previous "prophets" under the bus by saying what they preached wasn't inspired (many of Brigham Young's doctrinal teachings). Quotes are taken out of context. Quotes are truncated to change meaning. Unchangeable church doctrine changes on a whim. In fact there are now undated essays recently put up on the church's website that denies they ever taught certain doctrines--- that skin color changed because of a curse from God, that the Book of Abraham was ever in fact a translation from the Egyptian papyri that Joseph Smith had in his possession (they now claim the papyri was a catalyst for inspiration-- this because the original papyri was found to be common Egyptian funeral texts), that we were never taught we could become Gods or that God was once a man, that Joseph Smith even translated the actual Golden Plates (the plates were not in the room when he put his face in a hat with a rock and "read" what he saw written there), that the urim & thummim was involved in the translation process, and many other things that were taught and we all thought we knew.

Also, the Doctrine and Covenant have been substantially changed and added upon. The Book of Mormon has been changed as well-- and not just for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

I am still finding ways to explain why I thought I knew something was true when there is overwhelming evidence that it is a load of crap. Sure, there are some good teachings in the church, but it is so mired in feces that I'm still trying to sort it all out. I do not believe those good teachings are unique to mormonism. This is a process for me, and will continue to be. Because once in a while, I am focused on this process, it will spill into my public life a little bit. I am not and cannot be anyone other than myself. My public face is not much different than my private face. The only real difference is I do not say as much publicly as I think privately, but the two match up. I cannot be something I am not. For you or anybody else.

You are very offended by my very carefully chosen and hesitant public posts of things that may hint that what you believe may not be completely true. I am still amazed at what I find, like the whole history of tithing thing. I had no idea tithing wasn't what I had been told it was all my life. I shared that. I think people should know. I have been very careful not to link to or quote anti-mormon websites and sources. Yet you are still offended. Maybe you should explore the reasons you take such an offense to such benign information instead of accusing me of being led by Satan. I have not said anything that you can't research yourself and find the truth of. I am not, and have never been somebody who would purposely lead people into darkness. I am appalled that you would even think that of me.

You will not change how I express myself-- by trying to make me feel guilty (I'm not sure why you would think I would feel guilty for expressing the truth) or by any other means. I will continue to post things that I feel are important to think about. I have not, to date, posted any true anti-mormon content. I don't see that changing in the near future, even as you take offense where offense is not intended.

----Your Niece.

Thomas S Monson's criminal charges

The Salt Lake Tribune is running an article about the criminal charges filed against Thomas S Monson by a UK magistrate judge:
It's not illegal for a church to preach whatever it wants, and it's not illegal for a church to accept money from it's followers. However, the UK's Fraud Act (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fraud_Act_2006) criminalizes coercing money from people on the basis of false representation.
This is not a religious matter. Neither the LDS nor any other church need to fear lawsuits for preaching that Jesus is the Christ nor any other religious belief. These charges have to do with members allegedly being coerced into paying tithing on the basis of six factual historical claims (not beliefs) that can potentially be disproven in a court of law. (These six claims are listed in the sidebar of the SLTrib article.)
I know this is a potentially contentious topic, so I don't expect a response to this. But I look forward to getting answers to some of the questions I have, either way.

14 November 2013

It walks!


13 November 2013

Chicken door and robot update

The chicken door is pretty much done! (I will have to get pics later, because it's always dark now when I get home from work.) I installed the board, the battery, and the solar cell in the coop and hooked it up to the hacked up cordless drill motor we had already mounted. And... it works! Had to flash the firmware a few times after it was installed (ok, so my debugging skills need work), but I think we've about got it. One more change we might make is to make the door open half an hour before sunrise (currently it opens right at sunrise), since it gets fairly light before the sun actually rises.

In other news, I built (most of) the hexapod (6-legged) robot mentioned in the last post! It came together surprisingly fast. Which is good, because the Boise Robotics Club meets this weekend and I will actually have something to show them. The firmware is 98% written and the hardware runs!

I found a new program called BlackBoard. It's designed for my circuit board technology of choice, perfboard. (A lot of electronics hobbyists do surface mounted parts these days, but, yuck. Long live through-hole!) It was really nice to spend a few days tweaking my design, moving wires and components around until I was satisfied it wouldn't smoke the first time I plugged it in -- see, it's a lot easier to change things on the screen than with a desoldering tool (which I did end up using a couple times anyway, but not as much as I would have). One super nice feature is hitting a key to show the backside of the board. As you solder something together with perfboard, you place components on the front side and then flip it over to solder on the backside. So being able to see the properly flipped view means you make fewer soldering mistakes as the layout is flipped left-to-right when working on the back.

I still  have more debugging to do -- I did my prototype on my breadboard at a nice standard 5 volts, but my battery is 3.4 ~ 4.2 volts so my sensors and things need recalibrated -- I didn't use the commercially packaged sensors the Pololu project lists, I just rolled my own (cheaper and more fun!). Fortunately, in my board design I placed the pins necessary for reprogramming so I don't have to pull the chip to download new firmware -- just plug in a few wires and program the chip while it's still mounted to the robot. Same as the chicken door actually.

And I still need to make legs. Minor detail.


31 October 2013

Chicken door, and separately, lipo charger

Here's the bottom of the chicken door board before the tape is applied. The solder-side tracks are wires harvested from Cat5 Ethernet cable.

On another note, I bought a cheap little Lipo charger and a cheap little Lipo cell to make a 6-legged insectiod walking robot similar to this: http://www.pololu.com/docs/0J42/all (be sure to watch the video, it's cute). The Lipo is smaller, lighter, and cheaper than the NiMH pack Pololu used, though slightly more prone to burst into flames so I shall need to add a voltage monitor circuit to ensure I don't over-discharge it.

The charger had the wrong connector, so I desoldered it, and unfortunately, ripped off the positive voltage track in the process. No matter, a bit more Cat5 wire replaced it. Now I have a standard male header I can connect to the battery to charge it.

21 October 2013


So, I got the chicken door circuit board all soldered together and all wired up and had it on the kitchen table testing it. It worked great! Then I touched the circuit board and it never worked again. :(

Apparently I shorted something that ought not to be shorted and fried my Atmega chip. Since the chip at this stage was solidly soldered to the board, I decided to start over and do it "right".

I now have some 28-pin DIP (no, not a dip as in an idiot, but a DIP as in Dual Inline Pins) sockets and some more Atmega chips on the way. The sockets let me easily replace the chip just by pulling it out, should it get fried again. In the meantime, I'm laying out the board better. This is what I have:

On the left is the dead board after I depopulated it. On the right is the new layout with a new blue clock board. This new board, instead of having soldered wires, has header pins for everything. Also on order are some connectors to er, connect wires to the header pins, and a crimper tool to attach the connectors to wires. The connectors cost 3¢ each, but they make things far neater than the rats nest of 16 or so soldered wires that were coming off the old board in a snarl.

On the new board I'm also leaving 8 digital pins and 1 analog pin available for future expansion (Lemontree wants to add a feeder at some point).

I'm also applying electrical tape to exposed conductors to prevent any more face-palm mistakes.

25 September 2013

Arduino chicken door project taking shape in hardware

You may recall last year we built a chicken coop. Well, since then it's been a daily chore to open and close it dawn and dusk to keep the chickens in and other critters out. I mentioned last October that I was using a microcontroller to automate this task, so now I'm finally soldering it together:


As I mentioned earlier in this blog, I'm also making a smart swamp cooler controller, but as winter approaches getting up to let the chickens out in the snow makes this project a little more urgent though.

Some people like to etch their own printed circuit boards. I've never tried it, but I understand the acid used is nasty stuff. So, I just bought some "perfboard" which is basically a universal circuit board. Connections are made on the bottom side by globs of solder or in the case of my +5VDC rail, a random chunk of wire (a clipped lead from a resistor, I like things that are free). Topside, I made connections with little bits of 24AWG Cat5 wires. (Cat5 is cheap and I had some laying around.)

The project consists of the Atmel Atmega328 AVR microcontroller (the rectangle on the bottom right of the brown board), a ChronoDot real-time clock (blue circle top left), a voltage regulator (green sticky uppy thing top middle), and a twin relay module (off to the right, connected by wires). Not shown are a red and a green LED that I'll aim at the (human) house so we can see if the door is open (red) or closed (green) by looking out the window. Also not shown is the $10 thrift store cordless drill that will actually raise and lower the door by turning a threaded rod like a screw drive garage door opener.

The blue rectangle sitting separately and with the green and white wires coming off it is an Arduino Nano, which is used to download my program from my PC and into the Atmega microcontroller.

The whole thing will be powered by a solar cell (the kind sold to keep your car's battery from going dead) and a little 12V motorcycle battery. To save on battery power, the microcontroller actually spends most of it's time asleep -- only waking once per second to get the date and the time of day from the ChronoDot, calculate the current position of the sun for my latitude and longitude using the TimeLord library, and based on that information activate the relay module to run the motor and raise or lower the door if appropriate. Whew!

The brass brillo pad you see in the pic is something new to me, a waterless soldering iron tip cleaner. It works as well as a wet sponge, and doesn't turn my soldering iron's tip black as much as water does. I also purchased a "sal ammoniac" block to clean built-up black stuff of the iron tip. Makes a lot of smoke and actually works (if the iron is hot enough); these two items should save me some money on buying new iron tips all the time.

10 September 2013

Swamp cooler review

Well, it seems summer has ended and autumn has begun. I've waited this long to mention how our swamp cooler was working, to make sure I could objectively review it's performance.

The verdict?

The swamp cooler has one flaw: it's too cold.

If you think that sounds like a glowing endorsement, that's because it is. I've read many opinions on swamp coolers online, and many of them are quite negative. They make your house soggy, some say. It can't compare to the performance of refrigerated central A/C, say others.

Now, I am admittedly biased since I spent many hours and dollars installing mine, so I'm liable to suffer from "sour grapes" syndrome -- I have a lot invested in my swamp cooler, so I would look foolish if it turned out to suck, and I don't want to look foolish. So, I offer the following objective observations:

The performance of a swamp cooler is directly related to outdoor humidity.

The relative humidity in Idaho is typically too high for good swamp cooler performance at night and in the morning. A swamper might only achieve a 5-10° drop in air temperature. But, outside air temperatures -- even in the peak of summer in of July/August -- often fall to 60-65° at night.

The relative humidity in Idaho is typically low enough for an evaporative 20 to 25° air temperature drop the afternoon and evening, when outside temperatures are around 90°.

When outside temperatures rise above 90°, relative humidity drops proportionally and the swamper achieves a 30 to 32° temperature drop.

What does all this mean, qualitatively? When it's cool outside at night, you only need a 10° temperature drop to make the house downright chilly. When it's 90-95° out, you only need a 20-25° degree drop to make the house a lovely 70°. And when it passes 100°, you still get 70° air coming out of the swamper.

In short, it works, and works well.

In fact, on many occasions, it works too well, outputting 65° air and anyone in the family room has to put on a blanket. We could turn the cooler off when this happens, but it's a hassle to go turn the cooler on and off all the time. A thermostat would solve this, but more on that later.

How about humidity?

Well, as I mentioned, Idaho is very dry ("semi-arid", whatever. Locals call it a desert). Many of our family members suffer from dry skin (elbows, knees) so the added humidity is very welcome. Our house has never gotten soggy because we open a few windows halfway, on the far side of the house. Exhaust air is essential for swamp cooler effectiveness! If you keep the windows shut, all you get is wet with no cooling.

Table salt does not clump. Doors do not stick. Furniture does not warp.

Ah, but what about the smell? My answer: what smell?

When our pads were new, they smelled wonderful (I love the smell of aspen). Sadly, this only lasted a month or so. After that, nothing. I have installed a "bleed kit" that constantly removes a trickle of water from the cooler whenever it is running, which brings in fresh water. This means the water is not in the cooler long enough to spawn life forms. Also, each night I run the cooler on "vent only" (the water pump is shut off) which allows the pads to dry. Bacteria and mold have a real hard time growing on dry pads.

But you say, the window thing is an issue: can't leave it running when you're not home (open windows being an invitation to burglars) and it's a pain to keep opening and closing them all the time. Well, this is true.

The solution is up-ducts in the ceiling of each room. These automatically open when you switch the swamp cooler on and exhaust air into the attic (thus cooling the hottest part of the house, killing two cooling birds with one stone). I have some up-ducts, but haven't installed them yet. Maybe next year.

The great thing about up-ducts is you can put a thermostat on your cooler and at that point, it's just like central refrigerated A/C -- set it and forget it, it takes care of itself. I should have that ready to go by next summer too, soon as the up-ducts go in.

At this point, I'm laughing all the way to the bank. At the peak of summer this year, our electric bill was less than $70 (and that includes a lot of irrigation water pumping). Electricity is cheap in Idaho, but from what I understand, most Idahoans pay $100-$150 a month to cool a 1,700sqft house. So the savings are definitely significant.

And while the cooler cost quite a bit more than I expected -- closer to $1,500 -- that's still a fraction of the price of central refrigerated A/C, and I can fix it myself with a screwdriver if it ever breaks. Try asking an A/C tech how much it costs to replace a coil or compressor, and get ready for sticker shock. Even the diagnosis for A/C is typically $100, whereas I can fix pretty much any part on my swamper for less than $100. And I can do it the same day and not wait weeks for the tech to fit me into his schedule.

Swamp coolers are useless in humid environments -- so they are, admittedly, pointless in much of the US. But, in the arid parts of California, east Oregon, east Washington, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico... they rock.

02 September 2013

Lumberjack, part II

What do you do when 40 years ago someone planted a row of pine trees spaced about 5 feet apart and now they're all scraggly and shading each other? And what if one of those trees is leaning towards the house? Well, a smart person would call a tree removal service.

I'm not smart.

I cut off the lower limbs and tied a couple of ropes to the trunk up as high as I could.


Then I tied the other ends of those ropes to the bumper of my little car. Yay for 1980's bumpers.

Then I cut most of the way, but not quite all of the way, through the trunk just below my ropes. That's probably a good 15 feet off the ground. You don't want to actually cut all the way through, because that trunk could go anywhere and if you're on a ladder, your only escape route is straight down. Your choices then become limited and all of them painful.


With the tree structurally weakened, I climbed in the car, revved the little 52HP diesel engine and popped the clutch! My car only weighs 2,200lb but it won the tug-of-war:

Once the top is removed, the lower section can be cut conventionally because it's too short to fall on the house.

I definitely do NOT recommend this. However, nobody died today (except the tree) so I guess it worked out ok.

We actually cut down three more trees today. The biggest was right in front of our living room window. I didn't have to do anything special there, because it was naturally leaning away from the house. It was a textbook cut, fell right where I aimed it. Here's the new view:

27 August 2013

Advanced digital smart control of a... stone age technology swamp cooler?

Sure, why not?

This is just a breadboard prototype. The finished project will be mounted inside the wall in my hallway, with just the display and some buttons visible.