Sunshine?

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Sunny Rock RoseThere hasn’t been a lot of sunshine in northwestern Washington for the past several days. In fact, it’s been one of the coolest springs on record around here, with very few days when the temperature even got above 60 degrees F. Plants are running about 2-3 weeks behind normal in their spring growth. This Helianthemum nummularium added a bit of sunny yellow to the garden at Tennant Lake Fragrance Garden in Ferndale late this afternoon. That’s about the only sun we saw today.

I went out to Tennant Lake late in the afternoon after spending much of the day optimizing scans and preparing files for customers. I also worked on our phone lines to solve a recurring problem that turned out to be chewed or frayed insulation on several of the wires going to individual jacks.  I spliced new ends on a couple of the lines and put everything back together and now our phones should be more reliable again.

The Tennant Lake Fragrance Garden has a nice collection of herbs, but is really a mid- and late-summer garden. This early in the season there wasn’t a whole lot blooming yet and some of the plants were still fairly small. I made a few images and came home.

Earlier in the afternoon I visited Big Rock Garden Park in Bellingham, which is a sculpture garden set among Rhododendrons, Japanese Maples, and a variety of northwest natives. I hadn’t photographed in the garden for many years and the trees and shrubs have definitely gotten bigger in the intervening time. Many of the Rhodies were in full bloom so the garden was near its peak. There are both permanent and seasonal collections of sculpture in the park, which is one of Bellingham’s hidden cultural gems.

It was one month ago that we turned on our new rooftop solar array. For a while, we were generating twice as much electricity as we were using. Then it got cloudy and cold again. We turned the furnace back on with its attendant fan and raised our power consumption. Overall, in the last 31 days we generated 503 KW of power and used 271 KW. That’s about 86% more generated than we used. Many people seem to think that solar doesn’t generate power on cloudy days, but even with no sun breaks today our panels put out about 7.5 KW.

Value of Backups

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I’ve been working this week to prepare optimized high-res files for delivery toGarden Picture Library, one of the stock agencies that represents some of my work. These are garden photos from 2006 (I’m a bit behind) that are stored on an external Netgear NV+ Raid 5 storage device. In the process of working with the files, using Adobe Bridge and Photoshop CS3, a handful of the image files have been corrupted. I don’t know quite why it’s happening, or when, or whether it’s related to the software or the external storage or the network. And since it only affects a few of the files it’s very hard to track down.

Fortunately, I have backup DVDs of all the images and I knew where to find them. I was able to restore the backup of each affected file, put the metadata back in (the backups were made before the images were captioned and keyworded), and resume working. It was frustrating and tedious but at least I didn’t lose anything but a few minutes time. However, I’ve been relying on the RAID to provide some measure of file security and it’s obvious I really need to have it backed up to other storage as well. The box holds 1.5 terabytes so backing it up is not going to be trivial.

Hooker’s Balsamroot on the Wild Horse Wind Farm

I’m pretty sure there’s a high level of redundancy in the operational and control systems for our power company’s generation facilities, including the new Wild Horse Wind Project east of Ellensburg where this photo was made last month. That redundancy helps assure reliability, which is important whether your business is big or small.

New Wildflowers Website

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Websites need redesign and updating periodically to keep them fresh. It’s a good time to improve functionality, too. In my case, I’ve been posting large groups of wildflower photos to Turner Photographics since I started work on the book, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest. They were organized by year and then by season. Not the easiest way to find anything. Time for a redesign. Time also to split out the wildflowers into their own site.

Pacific Northwest Wildflowers splash screen

After several weeks of work by my talented son, Ian, the new Pacific Northwest Wildflowers went live in early May. It’s user friendly, easy to update, and driven by a powerful database. The old functionality of browsing groups of photos based on where and when they were taken is still available, but better organized. New is the addition of all the text and distribution maps for the 1220 plants in the print edition of Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest. You can browse these entries by plant family, genus, flower color, and flower type, essentially the same way the book is organized.

The powerful feature of the site is its search capabilities. Every page has a ‘Quick Search’ box so you can look for particular plants by Latin or common name or by photo location. Partial words are accepted, i.e. ‘trill’ will find trilliums. There’s also an ‘Advanced Search’ page where you can specify several key search parameters, such as finding all the yellow flowers in the aster family that grow in Crater Lake National Park.

Once you’ve found what you’re looking for you can build your own selection of favorite photos using the lightbox. Just click the little green plus symbol next to a photo to add it to the working lightbox. Click ‘Lightbox’ on the menu to see the contents and from there you can save your selection. When you save you get a URL you can e-mail to a friend or colleague that can be pasted directly in a browser window to quickly display the contents of your lightbox. It’s pretty slick, and doesn’t require logging into the site to use.

For the technically inclined, Ian built the site using PHP, mySQL, and Smarty templates. We’ll put much of the same design and functionality to work rebuilding Turner Photographics in the coming weeks.

Gone Solar

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Distributed electric power production has a number of advantages over the current big power plant and long lines model. Solar power, mounted on rooftops everywhere, can be a significant contributor to living more lightly on our planet. The downside is that the upfront cost is expensive.

Rooftop photovoltaic array

But once a solar electric system is installed it just sits there and quietly turns sunlight into electricity. The photo shows a portion of the array we put on our roof earlier this month and got final approval to turn on yesterday. It’s a grid-tie system, which means that we have no batteries to maintain and that when our panels generate more power than we are using we sell the excess to our electric utility. When it’s dark or our load is high, we buy power back. Net metering results in us selling at the same price we buy.

We first considered installing solar panels back in 2003 but choked on the price and upgraded our inefficient gas furnace instead. The price hasn’t really come down that much in the last five years, but there are more choices on the market, more qualified installers, and it just seemed like the right time to jump in. Like computers and other things silicon, I think the price will come down further as manufacturing capacity goes up. It’s hard to predict the “sweet spot” in the curve, so we went ahead and helped stimulate the market.

I did a fair amount of research into the hardware and got estimates from five installation firms before we committed to our system. We ended up with 24 Sanyo HIP-190BA3 panels and a SMA Sunny Boy 5000US inverter, installed by Fire Mountain Solar from Mount Vernon, Washington. Links and photos of the installation are at Solar Electric in the Nature & Environment section of my website. [edit 1/6/2011: website reorganized and photos taken down]

The final step in activating the system was an inspection by our utility, Puget Sound Energy, and installation of a pair of new meters. The PSE guy came by Monday morning on about 10 minutes notice. He approved the electrical work, swapped out our old meter for one that accommodates net metering and put in the new solar production meter. Then we turned the system on and immediately started selling power.

We expect to sell power any time the sun is shining and then buy some back when it’s heavily cloudy or dark. Overall our system should produce about 75% of our annual electric load. That includes all the computer power and file servers required for a digital photography business and our resident web programmer and computer guru.

It doesn’t have to be super bright to generate power.  In photographic terms, an incident meter reading under this morning’s dark and overcast sky of 1/125 at f/4, ISO 100 corresponds to 125 watts at 120 volts output from our system. My trusty old Gossen Luna-Pro says that translates to about 5500 lux or 500 foot-candles of  light hitting our roof. In full direct sun the output should be about 4,000 watts.

Awash in a Sea of Data

I finished backing up the last week’s camera raw files this afternoon.  It’s a process that takes the better part of a day to make DVDs.  In this case, twelve nearly-full disks of data.  Then after I edit and caption the photos I need to back them up again.  That’s one of the downsides of the digital photography revolution.

I’ve also completely filled two 200GB hard drives with raw images in 2007. I think it’s time to shop for bigger replacement drives so I can keep working.  At least with increasing drive capacities and falling costs per megabyte of storage it’s not an unreasonable prospect.

When I was shooting film I began running out of shelf space to store notebooks full of slides.  Every wall of my office that doesn’t have a window or a door is covered with shelving. I don’t know where I would have expanded my slide storage if I hadn’t gone digital.

In the last 30 days I’ve been shooting more days than not and now have over 5,000 frames to edit and caption. That means looking forward to a lot of hours in front of the computer screen in the coming weeks.

Repair or Replace

We live in a throw-away society, but it doesn’t have to be that way. A while back my 1970s vintage stereo receiver starting losing one channel intermittently, mostly on the ‘B’ outputs that power the speakers in my office. Eventually Natalie and Ian commented on it and I mentioned that maybe it was time to replace it. It’s fun to shop for new electronic toys (is this a guy thing?) so I basically got permission to go shopping.

I visited the big box electronics places and came away unimpressed with the offerings. They’re happy to sell you 5- or 7-channel home theater receivers but the 2-channel stereo receiver offerings were meager at best. I then visited a couple of independent audio/video stores in Bellevue, where at least there were more choices. Anything I would be satisfied with was several hundred dollars and the nice stuff was considerably more. I came home and did some web research and in the course of visiting several sites decided that I should just get my old Tandberg serviced. I tracked down a service manual for it from Stereo Manuals and a few days later had a copy of the book and schematics. Given the behavior of my unit I decided the problem must be in the output switch so I opened the box up and squirted a little contact cleaner into the switch. When that didn’t fix the problem I took it into a local repair shop. It turns out that over time the heating and cooling of the circuit board from the power amp cracks solder joints. The 4k tech touched up a bunch of solder connections and I picked up my receiver today and hooked everything back up. To my chagrin I still had a missing channel. The very simple solution was to reattach a wire that was loose inside the DIN speaker connector. Maybe that’s all I needed in the first place, but now I have at least some assurance that the whole receiver has been checked out professionally.

I’ve got my music back and that’s good. By servicing my old receiver I saved hundred of dollars and have a unit that’s probably built better than most of what’s on the market today. I also kept electronic trash out of the landfill.

So what did I do with the money I saved? I bought a Slim Devices Squeezebox so I can stream my favorite internet radio stations to my stereo.

The next stereo repair job is to refoam my Large Advent speakers. I’ve got the kit and just need to make the time to do the work. Then I’ll tackle my turntable, which probably just needs a good cleaning and lube job, as well as a new belt.