LIVING TO CODE PART III: MY CODE

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” -Barack Obama

At this point, you’ve read Part I of The Code, and were interested enough to read Part II. You may be on your way to creating your own code, or you are unsure of how to continue and need some inspiration or examples. As a disclaimer, there is going to be a limit to how personal I get here. This blog is not about my personal life, it is merely about the style by which I live. Also, you will learn that I am not a pro at this. I am still learning, tweaking, and improving. The creation of this Code was a way to see what a better me might look like, and to strive to live up to that image, always.. To that end, I am a work in progress. I did not write this code to arrogantly display how well I live. I have no shame in disclosing that I fail in the execution of my own code, a lot. That’s precisely why I wrote it, to improve. Though this Code has allowed me to grow substantially, I have work that remains, and I hope it’s never done.

1. Live to Code

Iteration is the magical process by which we get to try again and again, having learned from our mistakes. We can say “if I knew then what I know now…”, and with iteration, we DO know! When we improve upon something we’ve already improved upon previously, growth becomes exponential.

Now that my Code has been created, I simply execute it. There is no real trick there. I just live it, then I live it again. If I see an area of The Code that needs a tweak I make a change. If I see an area of myself that needs improvement, I do the work, and if necessary, add it to the code so I can be sure that work is being tended to regularly.

I use the phrase “Live to Code” as a mantra. When I find my mindself saying; ”I can do that tomorrow”, I respond with, “Live to Code.” It’s easy to justify putting something off, especially if I’ve been working hard and I’m tired. I deserve a break. When I repeat the mantra, it elevates the urgency of the matter. It’s no longer a simple, justifiable procrastination. It is now me breaking my oath. Being disappointed in myself is a far greater punishment than a pile of delayed chores as a result of laziness.

2. The Temple

As far as “keeping things picked up”, I’d like to say I’ve got this one figured out. However, my mom will read this and beg to differ. I do struggle with tidiness, but not anywhere near as bad as I did. Like I said, I’m a work in progress. Living in a camper has required my improvement here. I have a way to go yet, but this Code is changing “picking up” from a chore, into a simple, mundane part of daily life that requires less and less thought or effort. Minimalism helps me solve this problem before it even starts. It’s harder to engage in the game of clutter if you have fewer players.

Before I give any item a home in the camper, it has to pass some tests. Do I need it? Really? No, really? If I’m honest, the answer is sometimes no. I just “want” it. I have to carefully ponder each purchase. Even if I already own it, does it need to live inisde the camper? Luckily, I have some storage options that make items less accessible, but still available.

Items that come into the camper have to “audition”. They have 30 days to prove their worth. If they don’t prove to be as useful or necessary as anticipated during this probationary period, they go away. If I feel they haven’t had a real chance to shine, I can extend the probation for another 30 days. I believe in patience and a fair shot, so under rare circumstances, I can extend the period once more (especially if the delay is my own fault). If I don’t find a real use for something in 90 days, I don’t need it enough to keep it around.

Finally, I try to make sure the things in my life serve more than one purpose. If it serves only one, it better be a damn important one.

3. Be A Good Citizen

If I have any one shining quality that I exhibit without much thought or effort, it’s being kind. I almost can’t write about how I participate in this aspect of The Code, because it is simply my nature. I don’t actively execute any skill or process. I simply engage in the philosophy of right action. I try to determine what the next right thing is, I weigh the consequences of my actions on myself and others, and I act as appropriate. I always concern myself with the feelings of those around me, even strangers.

In fact, I have often been described as “too nice”, or “nice to a fault”. I have a co-dependent nature. I am a people pleaser. I often make sacrifices to please others, when I really should take a stand and communicate my own needs. But being a man of few needs, that actually causes very few and very rare problems.

4. Work, Work, Work

I used to transfer my clean clothes out of the dryer and into my hamper. Then I lived out of the hamper. Dirty clothes went on the floor, on account of the hamper being full of clean clothes. When the hamper was empty, it was laundry day. The dirty clothes on the floor went into the now empty hamper for transport to the washer. Today, I fold my clothes as they come out of the dryer. That might seem inconsequential to you, but to me it means that every atom of my being has been affected by this Code. I was the undisputed champion of half done things.

Today, I don’t start the task until there is some sort of plan, and that plan has to include finishing. If the finish is not the end (i.e. there is more work to do on that task another day) I need to decide which tools/materials get put away, and which stay out for a quick start next time. I also HAVE to have a Plan B, ALWAYS. Plan A is not complete, without Plan B. My best plans can and will get derailed by situations out of my control. If I have a plan B, I just shift gears and move on. If I don’t, I get frustrated by the unforeseen issue, I feel lost in my day, and I lose all motivation. Plan B need not be elaborate. Often, plan B is simply the next task on the list, or the first task of the next project.

5. Self Care

To avoid getting too personal, I’m not going to get into a lot of detail here. For me, I have a hard time slowing down. The “what’s next” attitude leads to productivity, but next is exhaustion, then overload, then turning off and tuning out. I try build down time into my plans. When I do this, down time is not being lazy and giving up, it’s just another chore on the list. As I go through the day, I have that down time to look forward to. If I have followed my Code, then the day will have gone as good as possible. It may not have been a great day, but if I honestly tried my best, then that is OK with me. I can wind down happy.

A LOT of my self care plan revolves around my dietary choices. It would take too much space to get into the details here, so I will merely summarize. I eat no meat. I eat very little dairy. It has been a year since I made that choice. I had to severely change my snacking choices. Snacking is a very sneaky game that catches you off guard. I try to avoid processed foods and GMOs. I try to buy organic, but I’m not a stickler about it.

I no longer buy “food”, so much as “ingredients”. I can get a range and abundance of vegetables for cheap, but that means that I HAVE TO COOK. With no microwave, and only “ingredients”, I’m forced to spend time in the kitchen. Of course in my tiny camper, the whole place is basically the kitchen (my counter space is literally 5 inches x 24 inches). With practice and a plan, it takes VERY LITTLE time to do this. The cost; I watch ONE less episode of some show I’m streaming. The benefit; priceless. People who complain about the time it takes to cook should reevaluate that. At first, it does take time, until you develop your menu and process. Healthy eating is not expensive if you’re willing to spend time cooking. My diet is my health care plan, so it is far more valuable than almost anything else I might do with that time. Plus, my simplified groceries save me a lot of money. I also like to grow my own food, but you already knew that.

I don’t exercise. Some of my endeavors are a bit physical, and in the summer I hike, that’s about it. I do some Tai Chi, and I’m gearing up for some Yoga, but those are very low impact. Still, my diet and limited activity has already shed 40 pounds, with hiking season yet to come.

Diet and exercise are often the bane of a person’s existence, but I have tried to flip the script and find something that works for me, avoiding much of the sensational and junk science. It’s no longer a chore, or a necessary torture to eat healthy. It has taken me a long time to find the food that really works for me, but with patience and curiosity, I got it pinned down. It still shifts often, but not drastically. It would have been a quicker process if I had previously taken better notes (see number 7).

6. Be Curious and Playful

I love to mess around with stuff. I love to make things. I love to hack or tweak pre-made things to better serve my needs. I love to learn new things. When I understand it just a little, I like to throw in bizarre variables, just to see the results. I like to try things even before I really know what I’m doing. I’m going to learn more from a premature and failed attempt then I would spending that same amount of time reading about it. I EXPECT to fail. I EMBRACE it. I sometimes fail ON PURPOSE. With failure built into my process, I am not afraid of it. Without that fear, I am free to cash in on the reward that risk often brings. 

I was always very shy. I still am, except in situations where I have been around people long enough to become comfortable. It makes an active social life difficult for me, but The Code has helped there as well. Some months ago, I had a talk with a friend. He had his knee replaced, and he healed very quickly. He credited having quit smoking with aiding his recovery. I asked him how long it had been since he quit. In my mind, it had been about 6 months. He replied, “A year and a half.” To me, that meant the last 6 months of my life had actually been a year and a half. It was passing by, and quickly. “Enough is enough,” I said. Avoiding details I’ll say that there is this “social thing” that I NEVER do, but the next day, I took a risk and did it. It basically failed. But that’s OK. I was proud to have done it. It was The Code in action. I was curious and playful, I embraced the failure, and I moved to the next thing to the best of my ability.

7. Keep a List

I absolutely have to write things down to remember them. It’s strange, because I have a great memory. I have some sort of semi-eidetic or photographic memory. When I take a test, I can often see, somewhat clearly, text or charts from a book. It’s very flawed and unreliable, but it got me a 4.0 in college without a lot of effort. Despite that, if you tell me to get three things at the store, I might remember one of them if I remember to go to the store at all. My brain spins too erratically to retain that type of information. 

Despite my “geek” blood, I’m not a big fan of productivity apps. I have wasted more time playing with apps than I can to recount. They are often very feature rich and complex, which means there is a learning curve. Those apps are amazing if you need those features. I don’t. I like to keep it simple, and that’s often a struggle. I work too organically to be a slave to software. I DO use apps, I just don’t rely on them for everything. I use an app called Trello for a big picture view of my life, and my day to day affairs play out in analog on small pieces of scrap paper.

What’s important is that I log all of the data my life generates. Data is the poetry of a process. Logging it means I can repeat that process (and success) rather than start from square one over and over. I have a notebook for all of the data I gather (except for data from my garden or thermostat, which is digitally created and automatically logged via software). The book is called The Camper Empirical. It’s sectioned off for different data. Categories include; propane purchases, recipes, spending on food/gas/etc…, dietary thoughts and experiments, etc… It’s important to keep this data collected, not scattered.

8. Accountability

We all play the victim sometimes. We like people to come rescue us. It’s comforting. But it gets us nowhere. It solves nothing. And it gets old. Fast. People around us will stop coming to our aid when it’s the only card we have to play. I truly believe that we play a role in EVERYTHING that happens to us. Even if we played no role in creating a scenario, we control how we react, or if we even react at all. Regardless of fault, I am ALWAYS accountable for my response. The world judges us on our actions, not our thoughts or intentions. Our thoughts will gain us no ground if our actions are not congruent. On a daily basis, I look at my actions and the role I played in the days events. If I performed poorly, I try to do better, and apologize to someone if need be. If I can honestly say I tried my best, than the day really could not have gone any better. I just have to recognize that “my best” is not a constant. It’s a variable.  Life is an algebra problem. The solution is found by balancing the equation. If the variable of my performance throws the balance off, I can try to balance it out somewhere else or try better the next day. The trick is to actually try. I can always say “I’ll do better tomorrow”, but if I never actually try, I’m just using it as a scapegoat to get away with another bad day.

9. Spirituality

I was taught to keep the details of my spirituality to myself. If I divulge the details, especially to the uninitiated, it arouses their skepticism. I hold the belief that we are all connected, so any skepticism you feel about my beliefs, I feel as well. But I can still walk you through what my path has looked like over the years.

At 19, on the streets of Boston, I met a “missionary” of sorts. This gentleman was traveling the country on bicycle, spreading a message of religion. I was curious how such a journey was funded, and he said that the Lord provided for him. I didn’t believe any of that. Of course, what he meant was that the Lord put people in his path that fed him and gave him places to stay. Still, I didn’t buy it. All of this is irrelevant, except that it got me thinking about what I believed or didn’t believe. I spent a lot of time in the Boston Public Library, with a table full of books on everything from Atheism to Eastern philosophies. I knew pretty quickly that I was not an atheist, but the Christian ideology didn’t speak to me either. I stumbled upon a translation of the Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching. It described an outlook on life that I already had, so I went with it. I can’t say I began “practicing” Taoism then, but I enjoyed it’s teachings and aspired to live up to it’s ideals. A few years later, I saw fit to get the Chinese characters “Wu” and “Wei” tattooed on me (Wu Wei being the primary Taoist philosophy of “inaction” or “without action” or “right action” or “effortless action”). It would be many years until I truly engaged with Taosim in any serious way, when I found myself newly sober and thirsting for a connection. I quickly found that Taoism left something to be desired for me. I learned a lot from Buddhist thought, it was very practical and digestible. But Buddhism proved to be only a stepping stone to the Hindu teachings that provide the majority of my spiritual life today. The Hindu teachings are in keeping with almost any religion you can imagine, it has a very universal quality. I used to get worked up over a lot of things. Hinduism teaches me to slow down, and just be. It teaches me to laugh at myself, even when everything seems to be going wrong. Especially when everything is going wrong. It keeps me open to lessons at every turn.

This thing we call “self” is like a box containing a collection of life experiences. We are but spiritual beings experiencing the world through that self, and realizing this, we get to choose what experiences we collect in that box.   

10. Persistence

Iteration, iteration, iteration. Do it again, then do it better, then do it better still. There is a phrase “fake it ‘till you make it”. If you do something enough times, you WILL get results. Even if you don’t mean it at first. Even if you’re full of shit. Even if you don’t believe it. I cannot truly engage in the process of life without being changed by it. So long as I engage in a process that is positive, so will the change be. I just keep doing it.

All 10 pieces of The Code play together. If I use the other 9 parts of the code, the persistence pays off right away, all the time. I make a plan, I write it down, I work toward goals and keep notes on my process and the results. I take playful but calculated risks. I take care of myself and my space as best I can. I try to adhere to my spiritual principles in the process. I remain accountable and teachable. I do this over and over.

Notice the bookends here. Step One is to “Live to Code”, a repeated commitment to the ideals you have set forth. Step Ten is “Persistence”, a repeated commitment to the ideals you have set forth with a slant toward always improving. The Code begins and ends with iteration.

Further reading:

Adam Savage: 10 Ground Rules for Success: WatchRead

Essential: Essays by The Minimalists – Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus

The Four Agreements – Don Miguel Ruiz

Zen to Done – Leo Babuata

LIVING TO CODE PART II: THE FRAMEWORK

“Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist”  – Pablo Picasso

We have a choice. We can accept the life that’s handed to us, consuming whatever is most cleverly thrown in our face. Or, we can “make” our own life (get used to the phrase “make your life”, I’ll be using it a lot). That can mean simply making more informed and educated choices, and becoming aware of the impact of those choices (on ourselves, the community, the world). It can also mean literally learning how to make the things we need, or hacking the things we buy to better suit us. Either option takes time and effort. The goal of The Code really has nothing to do with that effort on it’s own. It has to do with everything else that supports those efforts. Living to Code solves so many of my basic life needs, that I have time to thoroughly engage in things I truly love (which, for me, happens to include making stuff).

Here in Part II, I will explain the details of the basic framework I posted in Part I. You may find that you have a different philosophy to some of these ideas. You may find that some of these ideas don’t really apply to you. You may even flat out disagree with it all. You can tweak this anyway you see fit. My only hope it that you find this inspiring for “making your life.”

1. Live to Code

“It is what it is, but it will become what you make it.”  – Abraham Lincoln

Perhaps it seems strange that the first step in Living to Code, is to Live to Code. As you get started, you won’t yet have a code to live by, but this is an iterative process. First you create your code, then you live it, over and over, ad infinitum. A code is nothing if you don’t live it. Without action, thoughts are useless. Imagine if heroes like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. thought about civil rights, but never acted on them? This step is about action, and continually reminding you to take it. Saying the phrase “live to code” reminds me of how important my code is to the bigger picture, and the commitment I’ve made to living by it. I often use this when I’m facing something I don’t want to do. I simply say “live to code”, and realize that I need to do whatever it is in order to stay on track.

2. The Temple

“The best things in life aren’t things”.  – Art Buchwald

The spaces we occupy ought to be sacred to us. They are our temples. Keeping them picked up (as subjective as “picked up” can be), tending to chores, organizing our belongings, and keeping up with repairs/maintenance are essential here. If we neglect these things, they grow into bigger problems that overwhelm us, and shut us down. I like to think of my space as an analogy for my mind. Physical mimicking mental. When it’s cluttered, my mind is cluttered. When there is order, so it is with my mind. This part of the code has implications regarding our “things”. All humans seem to have a need to fill a void. Modern society promotes the idea that buying “stuff” will do the trick, and despite constant disappointment, we try this approach over and over. The things we fill our space with should be as sacred as the space itself. Do we really need it? Does it enhance our lives? This isn’t necessarily about becoming a minimalist, though I highly approve of such endeavors. If you love something, keep it. If you think you’ll love it, buy it. But, if you decide you don’t love it, stop hanging on to it “just in case”. It is often noted that “the body is a temple,” and we’ll be discussing matters of body and mind later in The Code.

3. Be a Good Citizen

“Arriving late was a way of saying that your own time was more valuable than the time of the person who waited for you.”  -Karen Kay Fowler

We are not islands, sitting alone in an expansive and empty sea. We are a part of a world with which we interact constantly. How we behave not only affects how the world sees us, but how we feel about ourselves as well. Do good, feel good. Do bad, feel bad (unless you’re a narcissist who can be an asshole and not feel bad about it. Good luck with that). Be respectful of others in all manner of interactions. Try to be on time (whether for work, appointments or other engagements). Treat others with respect, even if they don’t deserve it. Disrespect breeds disrespect, so just take the high road, always. Being a good citizen has a way of attracting like minded folks, while the detritus floats away. The weeds die and flowers bloom.

We’re all just people, so forget about differences in status or lifestyle and treat people as equals. If you feel like you’re “above” someone, that’s ego, and you should probably work on your humility.  But even if you suffer from an inflated ego, you need not let it effect how you treat other people. We never know what’s going on in the lives of the people we cross paths with throughout the day. Just be kind. To everyone. Always. Just because someone doesn’t have something to offer us now, doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. They will rememberer how you treated them, good or bad.

Communication often plays a big role here, especially if you live with roommates or loved ones. Communicate honestly and clearly regarding your thoughts, intentions, expectations, or boundaries. No matter how reasonable or obvious your expectations may seem to you, if you don’t communicate them, the only expectation you can have is to be disappointed.

4. Work, Work, Work

“A little at a time, until less becomes more, and more becomes less on the other side.”  – Johnnie Dent Jr.

This is not just about getting and staying busy, it’s about how well we do it. It comes into play before, during, and after everything we do. Before starting any task, we should have a clear plan. This ensures we remember everything the task entails, so we can move from one step to the next with little thought. We make the most efficient plan we can, and even have backup plans for when things don’t go as expected (which is always). During the process, we stick to the plan, and work diligently to complete it efficiently. We strive for 100% completion, unless something out of our control blocks our progress. Our backup plans will hopefully have contingencies for this.

Try not to over plan the tasks. I call that “choking the plan”. Choking the plan is when you plan every small detail, without leaving any breathing room. The plan will always change. Over planning means you’ve wasted your time creating a plan that is unrealistic, and when it changes, you have to waste more time tweaking your meticulous plan. You spend most of your time on detailed planning, and little time on execution. Just have a clear idea of what’s first, what’s next, and what each step entails.

While simply getting started is important (and often difficult), it’s equally important to know when to end. Sometimes, once we get started, motivation takes over, and it’s easy to get to a point where we start to overthink or overdo a task.  We can become obsessed and it becomes difficult to stop. When we work beyond our usefulness, our work begins to suffer. It’s best to move on the next thing. Try to have a plan for a natural stopping point. And remember, just because we’ve “completed” a task, does not necessarily mean we’re done. We still might have some clean-up to do (i.e. doing dishes after cooking, putting away items used in our task, putting away laundry, etc…). We’re not really “done” until these “finishing steps” are done as well.

5. Self Care

“There’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.”  -Aldous Huxley

This is a big one, and it’s one area where codes will differ drastically from person to person. It includes such items as your diet, your physical fitness or lack thereof, hygiene protocols, posture, emotional needs, etc… This is a good place to point out that the concept of Living to Code is not about the solutions, it’s about sticking to solutions once you find them. When you have a plan, the code is supposed to encourage you to keep at it. Self care is far too subjective for me to posit any particular approach for you. In my mind, there is no space (or temple) more sacred than our mind/body/soul. The best advice I can give here is to be patient as you devise the best plan for yourself. If the plan seems to not be working as expected, make some changes/corrections/additions and keep trying. But, be honest with yourself before making any changes. How hard have you really tried? Is the failure the fault of a bad plan, or poor execution? Is the progress just very slow? Also, I recommend the scientific approach of changing only one thing at a time. If you change multiple variables at a time, you’re never really certain which change caused the success, and which change was unnecessary.  Make a small change, and be patient. Then, make a different change if needed. Finally, remember that just because we call it “self” care does not mean you’re alone. Most everyone is trying to be “better” in one way or another. Surround yourself with positive, like minded people on a similar path to decrease the likelihood of losing your motivation.

6. Be Curious and Playful

“Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing”  -Helen Keller

On the surface, this is just about having fun with life. Isn’t that the point? But underneath, there are more profound implications. This is the spot in The Code where creativity lives. Being creative is simultaneously the most satisfying and terrifying feeling available. Creating is joy. But the idea of our creation being seen and judged is gut wrenching. It doesn’t matter if you’re creatively challenged or if you’re an artist. All people feel this way about their work at some point. Don’t be afraid of it, be curious about it. Being curious about life opens us up to experiences we would never have otherwise. Being curious teaches us that it’s OK to be a little uncomfortable, and with practice, it can even be a bit fun (in a strange pseudo-masochistic sorta way). Learning to be uncomfortable is a courageous endeavor with enormous benefits. (Some examples: Go take a class. Say “yes” when you’re first instinct is to say “no”. Do something creative and then show it to someone!).

7. Write It Down

“The only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.”  -Adam Savage/Alex Jason (on Mythbusters);

Keeping track of everything going on is a daunting task, but if we can find ways to efficiently notate our lives, the rewards are unfathomable. This is another area where everyone’s code will differ greatly. In its most basic form, this can be simply a piece of scrap paper that has your days plan on it. That list begins as a document of your immediate future. As that future sequentially morphs into the past, the list becomes a record of what you’ve accomplished. Seeing a list of your crossed off items can provide a comforting satisfaction. I highly recommend you expand your notes beyond simple to-do lists. If you take notes on your actions and their results, the results become repeatable. Imagine you’re messing around in the kitchen with a teaspoon of this and a tablespoon of that. Sometimes the results are worthy only of the trash. Other times, “edible” is about as gourmet as it gets. But sometimes you surprise yourself, only to realize that you don’t remember how much of anything you used. Finding an efficient and convenient place to take and keep notes is a great way to send your productivity skyrocketing. For most modern folks, this involves the use of apps for their to-do lists, grocery lists, reminders, etc… Many people use a combination of analog and digital approaches. Be mindful to not over do it with the lists. Be realistic. It has been said (and studied) that people with less on their to do list actually get more done.

This idea also encompasses journals and diaries. Any writing that helps prepare you for the future, process the past, or make sense of the present, can have an incalculable value in your life and progress. Journaling, even just a few minutes a day, is possibly the most important factor in any change we want to make. I would even argue that it is more important than the goal itself, at first. Even if you fail in everything else, just write about it. Writing about our failures is the best way to learn from them. It forces us to face them, process them, understand them. It is not possible to write about failure everyday without it eventually steering us toward success (even if our success is only because we’re sick of writing about failure).

8. Accountability

“When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realize that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn both peace and joy”  -His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

We need to hold ourselves accountable for our actions. If we can do this honestly, our failures themselves are our punishment, because we strive to do better. But, if we aren’t honest with ourselves, then we often refuse to hold ourselves accountable. Instead, we make excuses, blame others, and play the victim. In this case there is no personal consequence for failure, because the failure is never ours. What remains is anger and self pity. If you’re the type that embraces accountability, then The Code simply requires that you maintain that. If you are more likely to play victim, you’ll have some work to do here. That work is outside the scope of this post, but will likely be examined as I continue to write about The Code. The simplest action you can take immediately, is to start always (and honestly) asking yourself what role you played in any given scenario. If you have a hard time figuring out who the asshole is, it’s probably you. Don’t sweat it. Own it. Apologize. The end game of The Code is to be a better person. Better to ourselves, and better to others. That process necessarily requires change that is often uncomfortable. The change begins with taking an honest look at ourselves which is equally uncomfortable. We are rewarded with the opportunity to grow immeasurably if we muster the courage to navigate such discomfort.

9. Spirituality

“Spirituality does not come from religion, it comes from our soul.” -Anthony Douglas Williams

If there is any part of this framework I expect may get completely left out of someone else’s version, this is it. I urge you to think twice. The most common reason for people to struggle with spirituality, is because they struggle with religion. Spirituality is NOT religion, I cannot stress that enough. This is another area of The Code that will be EXTREMELY personal, so I wouldn’t dream of even hinting at what you need. If you already have spirituality, run with it. If you dislike spiritual thought, I urge you to a least think about becoming willing to open your mind to the concept. If you are open to it but uncertain, there are countless ways to get started. I am not a Buddhist per se, but I find that Buddhist thought is often presented in a very practical manner. It has a structure and universal quality that is applicable to anyone, regardless of lifestyle or religious affiliations. There are many books of Buddhist origin that are written for the non-Buddhist (you needn’t become one). Something as ubiquitous as the Wikipedia page on Buddhism can get you started. To delve deeper, almost any book by Thich Nhat Hanh (such as No Mud, No Lotus) should serve you well.

10. Persistence

“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

– FB Silverwood

That’s all there is to say about that. There is nothing I can write here that will sum up persistence any better than that quote. Press on.

In Conclusion

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind. ”  – Dr. Seuss

I suppose I can summarize The Code as “a definition of our values”. Since I think our values are merely an expression of ourselves, Living to Code is simply being ourselves. Of course, knowing The Code is just the beginning. Next, you have to create yours. Once created, that’s just the beginning. Next, you have to live it. Once you’re living it, that just the beginning… Are you sensing the theme here?

“The finish line is just the beginning of a whole new race.  “– unknown

Part III is now live!

LIVING TO CODE PART I: AN INTRODUCTION

Over the next few days, I want to present something that I have been working on for a while, and subsequently practicing with great results. I call it Living to Code, and it has had a profound enough effect on my life that I’ve decided to share it with you. Of course, everybody lives differently. I don’t expect (or want) everyone to live like I do. That’s why I’ve sterilized MY code into a framework that you can use to create YOUR code. Living to Code is less about deciding how to live, and more about the motivation to accomplish and maintain those decisions. This introduction will serve to present the idea of The Code. Part II will define the framework of The Code, and Part III will present MY code as an example of this in action.

Get fed up, change EVERYTHING at once, burn out, repeat…

In our daily lives, we set and give up on many goals. Some go away as quickly as they are dreamt up. In moments of great motivation, we set very complicated, rigid, and all encompassing guidelines designed to make drastic changes in how we live. Here’s a common scenario; We decide we are not “healthy” enough. All at once we cut ALL bad food from our diet, we start eating ALL healthy things that we don’t even like, and we make a plan to workout incessantly. We’ve decided that we are suffering, so we make a big plan for big change. The enormity of that change will inadvertently cause us to suffer even more, because it’s “torture”, as though it were punishment for “letting ourselves go”.  Owing to this “torturous” plan, it’s usually something we put off to a tomorrow that never comes. The small changes seem too inconsequential to have any real, lasting, positive effect, and the big changes are so overwhelming as to render us feeling incapable of achieving them. We torture ourselves at both ends of the spectrum.

Living to Code is an idea that has the potential to challenge these notions. There is no change too small to be worthless, and BIG change is nothing more than a series of smaller changes. It’s only when we look at all of the little changes as one huge effort that we get overwhelmed. To paraphrase some old adages; the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, and all long journeys begin with a single step. Even after that first single step, subsequent steps are simply one at a time. If we break our goals into manageable pieces, they cease to overwhelm us. It does not matter how small we make the pieces. As long as they are manageable, we will see success, which breeds more success. We have to stop thinking of progress from a “Point A to Point B” mentality. We too often make “point B” a faraway and final goal, and calling it “A to B” makes it seem like it is to be accomplished in a single step. What if we called it “A to Z”? Set Z as the lofty goal, and realize there are 25 smaller steps in between. It’s a purely mental game, but isn’t everything?

Sometimes we get lucky. We set a goal, we put a plan in action, and we begin to see results. These results drive us to keep working for even more results. But often, either or both of two things happens; 1. We experience setbacks. In these moments, all of our progress seems for nought. We feel defeated, we get derailed, and we give up. Or 2. Our progress plateaus, so our efforts seem to have a reduced reward. While the initial changes had a marked effect on our lives and attitudes, the later change seems to come slowly or not at all. We can go for a while with what seems like zero results. We begin to question our approach and our motivation for change in the first place. Eventually, we decide that we have failed, or that it’s just pointless to try, so why bother.

What is Living to Code?

To be clear, Living to Code is NOT a system of achieving goals. It is a way of designing how we want to live, and a means to keep living that way. If we do it with diligence, attaining goals is the natural result. The Code is a set of guidelines that dictate how we navigate our lives. It is a code that we create for ourselves. What I have come up with is merely a framework to use as a starting point. I will walk you through the framework, and use my own Code as an example, but your Code may be drastically different. This is not me telling you how you should live, this is you telling yourself how you want to live, or perhaps how you need to live. I hope you take these ideas and run with them, and I really hope you share your Code and your results so that others can do the same.

Where did Living to Code come from?

Huge inspiration and some of The Codes basic ideas come from the Tom Sachs’ short film, “10 Bullets”. Tom Sachs is an artist, and working in his studio requires a certain level of work ethic that is laid out in this short film. The film is part of series called “Working to Code”. The film discusses 10 bullet points that, if explicitly adhered to, are conducive to a highly functional work environment. I was moved by the simple, yet full featured approach. I wanted to apply a similar philosophy to my own life, but his code is designed for a group of people sharing a workspace. For the arena of a personal life, it had to be torn down and rebuilt, while retaining the spirit and a few core tenets of it’s predecessor. I highly encourage you to watch the film (and others in the series) to understand the genesis of this idea.

So, how about this Code already?

Here is the basic framework for The Code. To reiterate; though your code will certainly be different from mine, your whole framework might be as well. These are merely suggestions. I took the ideas that are working for me, and boiled them down to their essence here. I will share my personal code in Part III as an example. Below is a very basic outline to hopefully whet your appetite. I will expand on these in Part II (which is available now):

1. Live to Code – The act of consistently living by the code you set forth.

2. The Temple – Controlling and taking care of the spaces you occupy.

3. Be a Good Citizen – Work/social ethics.

4. Work, Work, Work – Get busy, stay busy, don’t leave tasks half done.

5. Self Care – Diet, exercise, hygiene, mental health, etc…

6. Be Curious and Playful – What is living without fun?

7. Keep a List –  Productivity tools.

8. Accountability – Take responsibility, and stop playing the victim.

9. Spirituality – The big (bigger/biggest) picture.

10. Persistence – Don’t give up.

Thermostat Update Version 3.2

I suppose it’s about time to let you know about the multitude of changes in my thermostat. If you’ve been following along, you might be surprised that I’ve jumped all the way from Version 2.0 to Version 3.2, but that’s just how drastic the updates have been. You can read about version 1 here, and the version 2 update here, if you want the backstory.

Is that a Photon in your pocket?

Yes (and I’m happy to see you). The Particle Photon is a programmable wifi microcontroller. The version 2 update included the Photon, but it only served as a link to the internet for basic control and minimal monitoring. The system still ran on the Arduino platform. Now, the Photon runs 100% of the system, and the Arduino has been phased out. This gives me full control, and full monitoring capabilities.

Don’t Blynk, you may miss it.

Blynk is an app that allows you to communicate with your microcontroller projects. It works with a number of popular platforms. You can read data from your hardware to keep tabs on it, or you can write data to the hardware to control it. It is very simple to set up, and has proven quite flawless. As you can see in the pic, I am monitoring temperature, humidity, and furnace runtime. This data is also being graphed. The graphed data can be output to a csv file as well.

I’m also using Thingspeak as a primary means to log data for analysis later. There is a graph at the end of this post. It it one of the live feeds from the system to Thingspeak. You can see the whole public feed here.

Alexa, I’m freezing my testicles off.

I have incorporated an Amazon Echo Dot into the equation, using the IFTTT service to link everything together. I can tell the Echo to turn the furnace on or off, and trigger it to certain temperatures. You can’t use IFFFT to send variables, so I can’t pick any random temperature, the control has to be pre-defined. I had to write a function for 65°F, and one for 70°F.

Look, Ma, no hands!

Between the Blynk app, and the Echo/IFTTT integration, the system runs without me ever actually interacting with it. I rarely ever use the buttons on the physical interface. The delay function I added in V2.0 was recently incorporated into the app. I also added indicators for the temperature setting and the standby status, which makes it more clear that the system has responded to my remote commands.

This is crazy, but here’s my number. Text me, maybe?

The IFTTT service is also set up for texting. I can text it an ON command, or a specific temperature. It will respond to confirm the action. The system will also text me if the temperature drops below 38°F, because that means that my propane tank has run empty (Yes, that has happened when I was gone overnight. Yes everything froze. Luckily, nothing was lost. My water system thawed out and worked fine). The IFTTT service limits you to 100 texts per month, so you have to be mindful of when you use that type of notification. My 38° notifications (being high priority) are quite incessant, and come in waves that will quickly trip that threshold.

A day in the life.

So here’s what a typical day might look like. Before bed, I will determine what time I plan to wake, and set my delay for one hour earlier. Then I tell the system to turn off and crawl into my sleeping bag. The temperature is allowed to drop to 40°F overnight. When I wake up, the system will have been on for an hour, and it will be close to 60°F. I tell it to turn off before iI leave for work. If I forget, the motion sensor will do it for me after an hour. Before I leave work for the day, I’ll will check in. The system will be in standby mode (40°F) since there has been no motion for over an hour. When I hit the ON button, I can clearly see the system come out of standby mode, set itself to 60°F, and turn on. I can also set a specific temperature, if required. When I get home, it’s nice and toasty. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Thanks for reading. As a parting gift, enjoy this live graph of the temperature in the camper. It updates every 2 hours.

The RoboGarden or, “Do Android Cukes Dream of Electric Salads?”

Garden Brain
This is Carver, the brain.

I’ve been so busy DOING this project that keeping updates here has eluded me. I had previously written about the Food Computer concept being deployed by the MIT Media Labs Open Agriculture Initiative. I was keeping an eye on the progress over there, intending to build one of their systems. I decided to temporarily “do my own thing” for a couple of reasons. For starters, their system is in development, and jumping in now requires a level of knowledge that escapes me. I’m just not up to speed on the level of software development required to use their approach right now. Second, I have decided that building my own setup based on a traditional hydroponic system has more value and efficiency for me at this juncture. I eventually hope to have a system that is 100% compliant with the MIT approach, so I can contribute to the data gathering, educational, and community based initiatives they are so gallantly spearheading.

So, why go your own route? 

As I mentioned, my software development abilities drift far behind my hardware abilities. I am a bit lost looking upon the sea of code that MIT has out there. I have already put a number of the pieces together in preparation, but I knew my own approach would be a less frustrating way to actually get results. Reason number two is cost. By some estimates, the food computers can quickly run between $2,000 and $3,000 (depending on who you talk to and what materials you source). I have a currently running system that has cost me $1000 to date, and is just about to produce food. A third reason is the systems footprint. My system has about 4 times the grow area of a standard food computer (in fact, my system is almost better described as a “food server” in some regards). This means I can grow an actual useable crop. The standard food computer is a great opportunity to experiment, but the actual output would be pretty low as far as trying to feed myself. And thats my fourth reason, feeding myself. I have a lofty goal that someday I will grow 100% of my own food, so this is a step toward that goal (especially in the winter). I don’t eat meat, so veggies are the only thing I need to produce. Those of you that follow this blog will say “Hey, didn’t you write about eating the squirrels that plagued your camper?“, and you’d be right! Well, that was then, this is now, get over it (smiley face). Of course, going my own way has some disadvantages.

What are these disadvantages of which you speak?

Well, many of the problems have yet to surface, I’m sure. I’m on my first crop, so I have no idea what the final results will be. Will I get fruit at all? Will it taste like cat food? Who knows. A big problem is that my system is just one large system with one climate, one light cycle, and one nutrient spread. I have to be cautious what array of seeds I plant. If they require different nutrients or lighting,  or have vastly different timing of growth stages, or different tolerances of heat, humidity and pH, it just won’t work. My idea of a constantly rotating crop (eating one crop while starting a new one) is likely to be impossible. I may have to do one crop, can/freeze/preserve it, and move to the next. Perhaps I will reserve its use to crops that cannot grow in my difficult climate, and stick to soil for others. It’s a lot of question marks that will only be answered with time and results.

The most important disadvantage is that my system limits the data and knowledge I can contribute back to the MIT project, which is open source. Wanting to support their open source initiative is my motivation to push myself to build a proper food computer ASAP.

Blynk App
Remote monitor and control courtesy of the Blynk App

Cool story, just tell us about your setup already.

So it’s built with the Particle’s Photon microcontroller. It uses a temperature/humidity sensor (an AM2315), and a simple LDR to sense light levels. There is a propane furnace keeping it warm in our sub-zero temperatures. The brain (pictured above) uses a bank of relays to control two dual gang outlet boxes. The left 4 outlets are individually switchable, while the right are switched in pairs. This controls all of the pumps and lights and fans.

My code tells everything when to turn on and off. It can be overridden and manually controlled using an app called Blynk that talks to the system remotely and also allows me to monitor from afar. It texts me when the temperature drops low, alerting me to change the propane tank. That’s all setup using IFTTT.

In terms of hydroponic style, it’s a flood and drain system. The pump runs long enough to fill my tray, which then drains back to the holding tank. This keeps the roots wet and oxygenated. The water has a nutrient solution balanced for the needs of the plants. The water is oxygenated with a pump, much like a fish tank is. The pH is controlled via application of acids/bases depending on careful readings from a meter. I’m using a Hannah 98129 Combo meter that tests pH, Conductivity (EC), and Total Dissolved Solids (TDS). My grow light is an 8 tube, 40,000 lumen, T5 fluorescent unit by Agrobrite.

Transpalnt
Operation Transplant

I started seeds on 1/20/17. By 1/31/17, I had seedlings ready to transplant. The seeds were started in rockwool cubes. The seedlings (cube and all) were then transplanted into net pots filled with an inert clay substrate. Every hour, the tray floods and drains. The light initially stayed on for 18 hours a day. Today, that changed to 12 hours a day. This is interpreted by the plants as the days getting shorter. It’s their cue to start flowering and producing fruit.

growth progress
Salad O’clock?

When my cucumbers began to reach out vines, I set dowels out to catch them, but today I switched that to a net trellis. I also switched my nutrients to a flower/bloom friendly variety. As you can see by the picture, I have come a long way from seedlings.

As always, anyone who would like to build something like this is welcome to my code, which I will probably place on GitHub at some point. Just email me from the contact page. I’ll write more when I start seeing fruit.

Nerdfarmers unite!

 

Keeping Warm Part II

At the end of last winter, I wrote the first of a two part series on how I keep warm. As I enter the grips of winter once more, I thought it was time for part II. The first part was all about my thermostat.  If you’ve been following along, you know the thermostat has changed a lot since that post, and it continues to be refined. Today, I will talk about the hardware (furnace and other heaters) and “software” (clothing), and other techniques I employ.

CAMPER EXTERIOR
plastic
Plastic banking installed.
snow-bank
The Igloo Cometh.

The first line of defense is the camper exterior. Like any home, it’s a battle to keep the cold air out and the warm air in, but to also maintain some ventilation to keep humidity at bay. For me it begins with banking the camper with plastic sheeting. This keeps wind from rushing under the floor. When the snow comes I can bank snow against the plastic. Show is a phenomenal insulator. I line all exterior compartments with standard 3.5 inch loft pink roll insulation (pics below). The camper is covered with tarps. The snow can accumulate above without directly contacting the roof. Keeping the roof dry is preferable. If the snow collected on the exposed roof, and then melted on a warm day, the resulting water will find is way into small spaces. When the cold re-freezes the water, it expands. Suddenly those small spaces become cracks and water leaks.

CAMPER INTERIOR
carpet
Reflectix used for carpet pads.

On the inside, I fill vents with pink roll insulation, and then cap that off with 1 inch blue foam board. I also covered the large rear window with blue foam, as well as the windows around the bed. They would be an enormous loss of heat, and I get plenty of light from the two remaining windows. The remaining windows get the standard shrink plastic on the interior. The larger dining area window also gets a custom exterior storm window made from plexiglass against a rubber gasket. I have runner carpets on the floor year round, but for the winter, I place Reflectix insulation under them. This is sold under a number of brand names and styles, but it is basically bubble wrap between two sheets of heat reflective mylar (think space blanket). It adds a level of protection from the cold floor. Finally, a wool blanket hangs in front of the door to help mitigate drafts.

cab-wall-guitar
Behind this guitar is the drivers seat.
camp-pad
The blue closed cell foam provides a cold barrier for my self-inflating camping pad bed.

The cab of the camper is a standard van cab. It is not really insulated at all. Rather than try to insulate around such a compound shape, I walled the whole cab off with blue foam board. I do lose that space for interior storage, but I can still access it from outside. The wall does make the space a bit cozier. There’s something about having a steering wheel in your living quarters that doesn’t exactly scream “home”, so I was glad to have it out of sight. The downside here, it that the bed is over the cab. That means that the area under the bed gets VERY cold. I combat this with closed cell foam. The camping section of any decent department store will have closed cell foam camping mats for quite cheap. I have a partial layer of that foam under where my torso lays. I should layer the whole surface, but I’m doing this as cheap as possible. On top of that is a self inflating camping pad that serves as my mattress.

HARDWARE

The interior space of the camper is heated by a propane furnace controlled by my custom built thermostat. I try live as “green” as I can, but a camper is just not an efficient habitat to occupy in such a harsh climate. I do plan on building a very green and efficient small home some day, but until then I do my best with what I have. To make up for the lack of thermal efficiency, I keep the temperature low to save on propane. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but I’ll recap it here. My base temperature is 40°F. This temperature was chosen a bit arbitrarily as a temperature that would protect against freezing. So it stays 40°F when I am away, if I forget to turn it down before I leave, the motion sensor will do it automatically after an hour without motion. I also set it to 40°F when I go to bed. I sleep quite well there, of course, I have an appropriate sleeping bag. Getting up in the morning in the cold was pretty tough last year, so this year I programmed a delay function into the thermostat. Now, the heat comes on before I wake up. When I’m home, I keep it to 60°F. I splurge on 65°F once in a while.

SOFTWARE
poncho
Laugh not, for thy poncho conceals fatal weaponry.

Some people find 60°F to be pretty chilly for an indoor temp. You may agree, and you’d be right. But since each of our bodies is a personal microclimate, it’s easy to rectify with clothing. I always wear a thermal base layer (we call ‘em “Long Johns”). I wear warm fleece sleeping pants, and either a sweater or a hoodie. I also wear a hat and gloves inside. I tend to favor light weight touchscreen gloves so I can interact with utensils, mobile devices, and my Apple Magic Mouse, which is touch based. My hat is one of the ugliest I’ve seen, but it’s made of thick fleece, which has unbeatable heat retention. A fleece throw blanket comes in handy often. One of my most effective garments is a DIY poncho (or serape depending on who you ask). I took a thick fleece blanket, and cut a head hole in the middle.  Draped over me, it keeps me warm while retaining the use of my hands. It is WAY more effective than draping a blanket over you. In addition to warming you front and back, the covering of the shoulders makes a great difference in holding body heat. I’m not going to win any fashion awards here. I bet I’d look more stylish in clogs and Hammer pants. In fact, in a mash up of two Clint Eastwood  characters, I’ve named this look “The Hobo Josey Wales”.  Hey it works. Function over fashion, always!

OTHER STUFF
ceramic
An effective toe warmer.

I’ve just begun experimenting with a small personal ceramic heater. I have avoided using electric heat as a primary source because I currently only have about 15 amps I can safely use, and a heater would take most of that. This small heater uses only 250 watts, and cost me $10. It has zero ability to affect the temperature in the camper as a whole, but is has a purpose in warming hands or feet that tend to get cold easy. I can take the temperature down to 50°F and this heater takes the edge off the cold, as long as I’m mostly stationary.

I also have a portable “Buddy” from Mr. Heater as a back up. It uses 1 pound propane canisters, and I can deploy it in a pinch if need be. It’s not suitable for long periods as it puts a lot of moisture in the air. It’s also old, and it doesn’t seem to want to run for long periods, anyway. It’s nice to know it’s there in an emergency, though.

There are a couple of challenges I face. One is convection. As the camper loses heat to outside it creates a movement of air that feels almost like a draft. This makes it feel colder than it actually is. I also have small humidity issues. Since I have buttoned up the camper as much as I can, I have affected the ventilation. With less ventilation, I lose less heat, but I retain moisture. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough. Cold spots can condense the moisture (sometimes into frost on the metal door and window frames). If I don’t pay attention, the moisture can create black mold. The answer would be a ventilation system that retained my heat (like an energy recovery ventilator), but those systems are beyond my scope and price at the present time. I do plan on incorporating such devices when I build my own place.

CONCLUSION

At the end of the day, the biggest step in overcoming the cold (or anything) is our mind. I believe comfort is largely an illusion (I’ll be writing a post about that). We can choose to adjust our comfort levels, and learn to be comfortable in situations that were previously not so. As long as the condition is not life threatening, comfort is largely subjective. Once we learn to take our perception of comfort down a notch, our perception of luxury falls with it, and we can really begin to appreciate the little things.

Additional Pics:

storm-window
Plexi against a rubber gasket. Decent storm window.
fridge-cab
Insulated fridge cabinet.
rear-storage
Insulated rear storage.
cab-wall-post
Completed cab wall.
bed-pink
Extra insulation around the bed walls.

My First Garden

sod
Nothing to see here.

The idea of growing a garden had crossed my mind on and off for a quite few years. It was always something I would “get around to” someday. It was always, “maybe next year”. This year, I finally took the plunge. I didn’t get started until late in the season. It was almost the end of July when I finally got my seeds in the ground. I figured I would just get what I could out of it. Even with total failure, at least the hard work of prepping the land would be done for next year.

My late start ended up being a bit of a blessing. We got an impressive amount of rain early in the summer, and a lot of my friends lost their early plants as a result of drowning in puddles or being washed away. I picked a spot near the camper, but far enough away to avoid the shade of some tall spruce trees. My crop selection was as follows; corn, carrots, beans, romaine lettuce, basil, and cucumber. I decided it was too late to attempt tomatoes or peppers.

I thought about just tilling the grass into the soil, but decided I would have a cleaner, less weed riddled plot if I removed the sod. This was a back breaking process. You may notice a tractor in the background of the pictures, but this is not my tractor. It belongs to my aunt next door, and I certainly could have used it, but I guess I wanted the whole “frontier living” experience. At one point, my dad drove by on the tractor while I was lifting sod. “You know we have a tractor?”, he asked, as though it had slipped my mind. “Well, I have a shovel.” I answered. I felt like I might never get all that sod out, and I had to stop for a week when my back had had more than enough. I let him try to help with the tractor, but the attempt to lift the sod with the forks was making more of a mess than helping. This is not a farm tractor, and they own no farming attachments. So, back to lifting it out one square at a time.

tilled
Tilled and waiting for seeds.

Eventually, I was ready to move on, and my neighbor, Dale, came over with his tiller. I fixed his recoil in exchange for use of the machine. I had let the sod chunks dry out so I could shake the usable soil from them before carting them away to compost. I even sifted out an impressive rocks, crawling on my hands and knees with a screen. I figured this was worth doing right, as failure meant waiting until next year to try again. The planting was a fast and simple process, though the carrot seeds were so tiny and difficult to handle that I worried they were planted too dense.

growth-1
And then there was food.

Next was the waiting game. I have worked on my patience a lot, and this was proof that the work has paid off. But once I started to see life, it took off quickly. It was an impressive display of earths majesty to watch this unfold. The amount of growth from one day to the next was impressive. On days that I pulled out weeds and churned the earth a bit, the growth was just astonishing!

It wasn’t long before I was enjoying lettuce, with cucumbers shortly thereafter. The basil took quite a while to show up, and it was a small leaf variety that was difficult to work with in cooking. Eventually, the carrots were getting to an edible size, and I was impressed that the overcrowding wasn’t more of a problem. I’m sure they would have done better spaced out more, but I had a high percentage of good size carrots that grew deep into the soil. The beans were struggling, with no signs of flowering, and the few corn seed that took were having trouble standing in the winds I was getting. I’m pretty sure crows go to some of the corn seeds.

I did some pest control. We had a family of ground hogs next door, and raccoons are common. I set out a large live trap, eventually catching both groundhog parents and the child. All of them were driven away and reunited elsewhere. I got one raccoon as well.

I learned a lesson about beans. There are pole beans, and bush beans, and I did not know there was a difference. I figured the pole was a personal choice, allowing you to grow vertically and therefore tighter, much like a trellis for cucumbers. I eventually came to this realization, and installed poles. At the end of the season, the beans had climbed the poles and started to produce beans, but it was a bit too late.

carrots-picked
What’s up, Doc?

So the beans were a wash, the basil was not a good variety for my purpose, the corn didn’t have enough time to grow, and only half of my cucumbers took. But, the cucumbers that took were EXCELLENT! The lettuce was a huge success, I was eating lettuce for weeks, even after a few frosts.

carrots-clean
16lbs in total.

The true triumph was the carrots! I was picking a few here and there as they were ready. I brought quite a few into work to share with coworkers. Finally, at the end of the season, I pulled the rest up. The last harvest was 16 pounds worth. I canned 8 pounds. I would have done more, but I ran out of mason jars, as did the grocery store. The remaining 8 pounds I ate and shared. They lasted for weeks in the the fridge. And now I have jars of carrots that could last me for most of the winter, though I plan on giving many out for Christmas.

carrots-canned
My own grocery store.

Now that there’s about 3 feet of snow on the ground, I’m shifting my attention to a new endeavor – an indoor hydroponic operation, that will eventually include a food computer. What is a food computer? Well, you’ll have to keep coming back here to find out…

Enter, The Food Computer

 

openaglogowhite_small2The coolest part of my trip to the White House was the discovery of the Food Computer. This device is the small scale prototype for a much larger project taking place a the MIT Media Lab. It’s the work of Caleb Harper who is behind MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative. The project has several aims. Ranging from educating kids about food (where it comes from, how it grows, etc…), researching how to grow better food, and of course, feeding people.

 

pfc_2
Caleb’s PFC hardware guts

Enter, the Food Computer

The PFC (Personal Food Computer) is the open source hardware and software system being developed to help change our food future. In layman’s terms, it is a system that controls all aspects of the plants environment over its whole lifespan. Since different plants have different requirements, the system uses a “climate recipe” (which is simply a series of instruction for the computer) designed the plant in question. Basically, you plant a seed (or a started seedling), select the climate recipe, and press play. The machine will maintain the right temperature and humidity, it will provide the proper nutrients, it will cycle the lighting, it will do everything the plant needs. Then you eat it.

pfc-parts
My Raspberry Pi and Arduino getting set up for growing.

How does it work?

So, as you might expect, it’s a bit more complicated. There is quite a lot going on under the hood. Here’s bit of geek-speak; It uses a Raspberry Pi as it’s brain, and an Ardunio Mega for the heavy lifting. The Arduino controls the mechanical bits like pumps, and relays, and monitors the array of sensors. The sensor data is passed to the Pi where the climate recipe can tell the Arduino when to perform necessary functions. For example, a pH sensor tells the system when to raise or lower the pH, and a peristaltic pump can supply a solution to make that change. It also does this with the nutrient solutions electro-conductivity, among other things. You can control CO2, Dissolved Oxygen, and nutrient solution temperature. So, the pant receives everything it needs, precisely when it needs it, (ideally) without human intervention.

pfc_1
Caleb’s PFC at SXSL growing basil

As we speak (December 2016), the PFC V.2.0 is being released. The original version was more difficult and expensive to build. V2.0 is working to change that. It’s an alpha release right now, so there is still work to be done to make it as cheap/easy/accessible as possible. Being open source, anybody can download the plans and the software to build one. You can contribute your ideas to make it better. The release of the plans is an ongoing process, so don’t expect a simple plug and play approach just yet.

So where is this headed?

As the PFC becomes more accessible, more people will build them (including schools, some are already doing so). The plan is to make kits available for purchase to simplify the part sourcing. As the user base increases, a database of climate recipes will amass. You can download a recipe that suits your needs, or you can experiment and upload your own results for others to use.

Whats really exciting is the opportunity for knowledge. Caleb described to me how his team freeze dries the resulting plants and places them in a spectrometer to see the nutrient/chemical break down. They can change growing variables and see the direct results of those variables on the plants chemistry. They can stress the plant in very specific ways (light or nutrient starvation, bacteria introduction, pH/EC shifts) to see what chemical defenses it puts up, and how that changes the nutrient/chemical properties. These things affect the flavor, the nutrition, the shelf life, etc… The best part is, IT’S ALL REPEATABLE. A good result can be downloaded and recreated by anyone, anywhere, with a PFC.

Food Servers and Beyond

The PFC is admittedly small. You aren’t going to feed your family with it. It’s footprint is about 3 feet wide by a foot and a half deep, and it stands maybe 3 feet tall. It could fit on a counter or a small table, and can grow about 4 small plants at a time. But the PFC is simply the home version of what MIT is really building at OpenAg. The PFC is like a test platform to get us geeks involved and improve the system. The lessons learned in the small scale are being put to use in Food Servers. The servers are built in shipping containers, using the same hardware and software. This is all happening now, in the new lab that OpenAg has just opened. The next phase is the Food Datacenter, which scales the project to warehouse size. The scalability is built into the project, so it’s instantly scalable without having to be reimagined.

Servers and Datacenters can be deployed in various ways. They have a home in climates that don’t support standard agriculture, they have a home where food is scarce and people are hungry. In America, they have a home in the city. According to the census bureau (in early 2015), 62.7% of our population lived in the city, and cities make up 3.5% of our land. The food to feed our population often travels an enormous distance. The urban agriculture push seeks to change that. We see more city gardens and roof gardens, but it’s not enough. There is talk of entire floors of skyscrapers becoming farms. This is where food computers can play a role.

So what is my plan?

I am WAY into the whole food computer concept, and I hope to contribute to the initiative ASAP, but I am financially challenged. They are working hard to make a system that is affordable to build, but obviously this system will presumably lack some of the higher tech solutions that MIT is deploying in their own systems. I’m keeping my eye on their progress, and buying what I can, when I can, in order to deploy a PFC. But I’m not spending my time idly, I’m building my own hydroponic system.

Armed with a prime directive of feeding myself, the PFC is taking a necessarily secondary position, but I’m keeping it’s spirit nearby. The systems I’m designing to control my growing environment are taking their cues from the PFC. I’m trying to keep my equipment selection to PFC compatible options. Eventually, I hope my system will run on the food computer software. In that sense, I’m skipping the PFC and going straight to the food server, though I do plan on having a dedicated PFC as well.

I already have about 80% of my hydroponic operation setup, and hope to be starting seeds by the end of the year. Naturally, I will be writing about the journey as it unfolds.

Keep making stuff (and remember, growing food counts as making stuff!)

 

 

 


SXSL – Mr. Dubs Goes to the White House

white_houseIf you’ll allow me to brag for a moment, I’ll tell you about my trip to the White House. During the first week of October 2016, I had the honor of spending a few days in and around the historic establishment. Now, I’m no journalist, and I prefer to keep this blogs focus on my lifestyle not my life. The details of my day to day personal life will rarely grace these pages. But, the impact of this experience has helped shape my future, and I need to share this in order to tell you what comes next. And so I present my White House adventure…

The occasion was a festival called South By South Lawn (SXSL). Most people have likely heard of the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival, which is a longstanding hotbed of great music and films. But, it also features panel discussions on some of the most important topics for the culture of today, and of tomorrow. After President Obama’s visit to SXSW in 2016, the White House team decided to capture that spirit on the South Lawn.

I’ll refrain from “reporting” on the event, you can read about it straight from the White House website. There is also a great photo spread on the White House Medium channel. (shameless plug: I’m in the last picture, preparing close out the day by watching the premier of Before the Flood).

signThe day began with a bang, as I got to help the one and only Adam Savage (MythBusters, Tested.com) set up a SXSL sign he had helped create with a team of Makers from Baltimore. You can watch his build video here! And, here is a time lapse video the White House crew made of us setting it up.

adam_selfieIn my previous life, I had the pleasure of meeting an incredible number of famous folks, but none more gracious than Adam. Our conversation covered topics from difficulties in making 100% whole wheat bread to similarities between tempering steel and conching chocolate.

The event was graced with a number of exhibitors, many of whom were involved in food based initiatives. These were of particular interest to me, as I had just harvested my first successful garden (more on that later), and was keen on growing as close to 100% of my own food as possible.

Among the attendees was Green Bronx Machine and Kitchen Garden Laboratory. In a world where a staggering number of children don’t know where food comes from, these two initiatives are teaching students about food and nutrition, even in an urban agriculture setting. Together, they were preparing incredible food picked straight from tower gardens.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves had an incredible selection of stoves on display. Solar stoves, solar ovens, alternative fuel options, and stoves that can charge electronic devices while they cook. In less fortunate parts of the world, many are forced to cook with wood indoors, causing millions of deaths from smoke inhalation. These stoves offer safe and efficient options for the 3rd and 1st world alike.

pfc_1But perhaps the most inspiring part of the day was my visit to the tent of the Food + Future CoLab, a joint venture between IDEO, Target, and the MIT Media Lab. I met Caleb Harper, who introduced me to his Food Computer. Caleb runs MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative out of the Media Lab.

You can expect dedicated writing about the food computer, but here is the gist. It is essentially controlled climate growing. This is not new in and of itself. Greenhouses and hydroponic growers have long since employed such techniques. You can even buy commercial machines much like Caleb’s food computer right now, but you will spend thousands to grow very little food, and be subject to proprietary technology in a “black box”.

pfc_2

In traditional MIT spirit, the food computer is open source, so there is a much bigger community picture at play here. The computer uses a “climate recipe” to control all of the variables. If you devise a successful climate recipe, you can share it with the community. Likewise, you can search the database to see what recipes are available, and download one that suits your needs. Plant a seed, press play, wait for food. All of this community effort will enhance the hardware design, software design, and climate recipe database. The result is a system that gets easier and cheaper to build and operate, and most importantly can be scaled up. There are already Food Servers (shipping container sized food computers) and plans for warehouse sized Food Data Centers. These systems can be deployed in cities to provide a local food source, or in areas/climates where food is scarce. I’ll be writing more details about this as I engage in this initiative myself.
pressSo my trip yielded some much needed inspiration and direction, and my tour of the underbelly of the White House machine was unprecedented. I’m not sure if the experience is a testament to how cool I am, or how cool my friends are, but I’m quite certain it’s the latter.

The Water Whisperer

shurflo_boxIf you use a 12 Volt RV style pump for your water, you need to install one of these RIGHT NOW!

It’s called an Accumulator tank, and it is much like the bladder tank you’ll find in a typical residential water system that is fed from a well. It’s purpose it to maintain pressure in the system, and it provides a number of wonderful benefits.

I have described my water system before, in case you want to get up to speed. I use a demand water system. The pump has a pressure switch that turns on when the water pressure drops. So basically, when I turn on the faucet, the pressure drops causing the pump to turn on and supply water. When I turn the faucet off, the pressure quickly builds back up, and the pump turns off. Thats simple on paper, but in practice it has some drawbacks. Chiefly, you cannot turn the water on a little. The faucet has to be wide open, if at all. Otherwise, the pump suffers from pulsation. It’s reminiscent of “water hammer”, but its different. When the water flow is restricted by a semi-open faucet, the pump turns on and off rapidly as the pressure rises and falls over and over again. It’s annoying, and its bad for the pump. It also makes using a sprayer difficult. My sprayer caused pulsation until I modified the mesh outlet. With this tank, that would not have been necessary. Having to run the water wide open means a lot of water gets wasted while rinsing dishes or washing hands. Not to mention the mess of water around the sink that results from the impetuous flow.

Enter the accumulator. It is a accumulatorpressure vessel that contains a bladder that is filled with air to 30 PSI. When water is pumped in, it compresses that bladder, increasing the pressure to a point that tells the pump to turn off. When I open the faucet, the initial water pressure comes from the ACCUMULATOR, not the pump. This means that I can turn the faucet on as little or as much as I need to. As the water leaves the accumulator, the pressure eventually drops until the pump turns on to maintain the flow of water. When the faucet is turned off, the pump will continue to run, filling the accumulator until the bladder provides enough pressure to turn the pump off. It’s a lot like a capacitor, but it stores hydraulic energy as opposed to electrical. And, much like a capacitor will filter or “smooth” out a signal, this smooths out the water flow.  It took a moment to get used to, as the pump does not turn on right away with the faucet, and it runs for a few seconds after you turn it off.

It comes pre-charged to 30 PSI. It has a standard air valve, should you need more pressure for your particular pump, or if you need to replenish pressure lost over time. It came with a coupler, so installing it right next to the pump required no additional fittings or hardware. They are commonly available for $40-50. In my humble opinion, this is a must have item. I wish I had done this sooner.