Garden blog

HPIM5292I have decided to move the garden portion of the blog over to a new blog, The Wet and Cold Northwest Gardener at though I will still make short mention over here of certain projects but a majority of the garden posts will be over there in more detail.


Bag of Devouring

A group of friends and our spouses get together as often as we can (once or twice a month) and gather around the table to play Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, the game is extremely fun, but it really is the social aspect of getting together and having time to talk and catch up one with another that keeps us coming back for more. Anyway as we were playing our party happened upon a bag of devouring (though at the time we thought it was a bag of holding) whose only indication that it was not a bag of holding was that everything placed in it disappeared. Knowing about bags of holding I suggested turning the bag inside out. Thanks to the quick thinking of our DM (Dungeon Master) we found out that if you placed anything near the seam of the bag it would be consumed. Our rouge was overjoyed and now he has a new touch attack to play with. So for those DM wanting to know the attack of an inverted bag of devouring here it is:

(For a Level 4 character wielding a Bag of Devouring)

Touch Attack
Attack +3
Damage: 2d3
Critical: 18-20 x2
Weight: 25 lbs

Note: If you put it in a portable hole it acts the same as if you placed a bag of holding in a portable hole. (IE both items are destroyed) Placing a portable hole in a bag of devouring will kill off the creature and cause the bag of devouring to become a bag of holding.

Building the Northeast box

HPIM5294So I finally got enough good weather to work on making the northeast box flat and better looking. As with all the other boxes, the previous owners had just laid down blocks on the grade, which meant that the beds slanted down moving and eroding the soil down hill. So I got to work making a tiered wall that would be level and also provide the 4×4 box shape that I need for the square foot garden.

The most important part is to get the first row perfectly level. Of course with a wall that goes up a slope you don’t want to waste a lot of bricks being under the dirt where no one would see them. So I would get one row perfectly level and have it end once the block was under the grade and then place on the second row and repeat until I reached the point where I could go completely around the box. One thing to keep in mind is the maximum height for these blocks usually are around 3 or 4 feet tall. To make sure that the wall was straight I used a string that gave me a guide that would be for the top row of blocks. 

HPIM5302Unfortunately the previous owners, in an attempt to hold up the archway, poured concrete around the base which blocked my blocks 2nd level so until I can borrow the rotary hammer from my father I am limited to just the bottom row.

This of course is still a work in progress, as I was only able to complete 50% of the wall before I had to move onto other projects so until this coming Saturday it will be incomplete. The soil that is currently in the box will be relocated to the south “swamp” box for the artichokes and pumpkins this year.

HPIM5316Here is a close up of the concrete. Actually when I was removing the old blocks they were the form and therefore, cemented to the concrete. Of course since they didn’t use bonding glue the concrete just chipped off the blocks after a few hits with the rotary hammer.

Price of Oil and Oil Companies

As the price of oil continues to climb due to unrest in the major oil producers of the world, I happened to glance at a comment a person made about the Oil companies. They said that of course the companies will post record profits and they are being greedy and it is a conspiracy by them to take all of our money. Thinking about that I have to agree with the price of oil dramatically rising yet the cost of production staying level of course they will have record profits as the equation Profit=Sales-Expenses still holds true.

Of course as a consumer we get all riled up about having to pay more for gas and other oil byproducts, but it isn’t the oil company that really determines the price but everyone who buys oil products. Take this example, I have 20 units of product A and am looking for someone to buy it, along comes buyer A and offers $50 per unit for 15 units. As I am thinking over this along comes buyer B who offers $75 per unit for 12 units. Well I sell 12 units to buyer B and 8 units to buyer A at the arraigned prices. Of course buyer A could have come back with a higher offer of $80 for 15 units and the tables would have been reversed.

Notice that I never said how much it cost for me to make the units? Just because it costs me $15 per unit to create it, does not affect the price, although if the highest bid was $14 I would just keep all the units to myself or if I thought that tomorrow people would pay me $150 per unit I might keep the units to myself.

Now returning to the oil companies, they deal in a very volatile commodity that has a long lead time, meaning it can take years before production starts and also the price that it is today could be dramatically different then the price tomorrow, either up or down. Their expenses are pretty much fixed unless they invest in future capacity (new fields, more R&D, etc.) of course if they invest the money they will have to continue paying that money even if the price of oil drops below the sustainable cost. This of course would tick off investors and the people running your 401k/IRA/403b who then dump the stock making the company lose even more money. So when they plan their technology investments they look at what the price of oil will be in the long run, set their expenses accordingly and will pocket the excess of next year’s profit.

Another facet of this equation is that they are writing contracts for potentially far into the future (potential discount to the buyers), so they are filling the orders that were purchased months if not years ago at a set price that might be higher or lower than what they could get for it today. This of course leads to speculation by everyone who buys or doesn’t buy oil for their own products or to hold onto the paper and sell that paper promise of oil at a later date to someone else who will use the oil in their products (like gasoline). So returning to the example if we have buyer C who believes that demand will increase for my units driving the price up to $150 that people would be willing to pay for the units he makes his offer of $100 for all 20 units, I count my lucky stars and give him all 20 units and bank the $1700 profit, which might later be used for researching on how to make more units, make the units even cheaper, make the units better or invest in a new unit that I believe will replace my unit. Now buyer A and B need these units and realize that buyer C now holds them, they of course offer more than $100 for the units and of course pass the cost along to person who purchases their derived products.

Now some might say that the oil companies should just see the offer of $110 per barrel and politely decline and offer $60 instead, people buying oil products would LOVE that but all the investors, employees (who now don’t get raises), R&D deparments, etc. will not be too happy with the sales department as they do not have the resources to expand faster and further that they might have before.

There are of course the bad and the ugly, for example let us say that another supplier comes along with a better product which now buyers A and B can offer lower prices and get what they need. If I was smart I would offer to buy the company before they realized their potential, I then could shelve it (conspiracy theorists usually focus on this) or develop it and sell it making even more profit to research even better. There is a history in all companies for both paths.

Yes the oil companies haven’t had a perfect history and yes oil products are going to cost more as demand increases, but let us not place all the blame on speculators and oil companies as we all are in a way responsable for the increase in price. Let us also hope that they choose to invest these large profits into reasearching a better and cheaper product as that is really the only way to sustain a business for generations to come (and save our pocket books).

The greenhouse controller project

HPIM5289So one problem I had last year during the summer was during vacation there was no one to water the plants in the greenhouse for about a week and a half. That week also happened to be extremely warm and so it cooked all the plants inside and ruined most of the harvest. Not wanting the repeat that this year I dusted off my old Microchip ICD 2 device, pulled out my prototype boards, cleaned off my desk to give myself a work space and started putting together the pieces to have a internet enabled greenhouse controller.

HPIM5290I happened to have a PIC microcontroller and so I started working on a controller that would be able to water the plants is they get too dry, or vent out the greenhouse if it gets too warm and report the temperature, moisture and more through an Ethernet connection. One requirement that I have is that the controller needs to run off of solar energy and those panels can get voltage ranges that are over the limit for PIC microchips and especially for the PIC18LF14K22 microcontroller that I was using for the project. The solution was a large input voltage range step down voltage regulator that could take up to 60 VDC and step it down to 3.3VDC, which is what the microcontroller was expecting. This part is the middle left of the board with the giant capacitor.

HPIM5291So here is a picture where you can see the PIC in the middle, the Ethernet controller (right side) and the voltage regulator (bottom). Since the Microchip ICD 2 has too high a voltage on the Vpp supply to the chip and would damage the chip, I still need to put a voltage limiter on that output before hooking up any more of the wires.

As I continue to work on this project I’ll be posting more and more about the controller and the results of my testing. If you have any suggestions on what might be a good idea to add, please leave a comment below.

Plant Status February

So by the end of February we have all the pepper seeds planted and the the first set of celery sprouting with about a 40% germination rate after 2 weeks. Not bad for 4 year old seeds. Since it snowed and now has been raining I haven’t been able to plant outside yet, but hopefully this week I will get enough of a break to prepare the beds and get the directly sowed seeds into the ground. Since the celery has sprouted I need to bring in the lights.

Cheaper to Build or Buy?

As computer sales come around and ads pop up I look at the prices and see that you can get a computer system for a few hundreds dollars. I remember when just an average disk drive cost that much. Having built my computer myself by purchasing the major pieces (motherboard, video card, processor, etc.) and putting them together, which cost me more than $1000 in 2005, I wanted to see if a person could save money just by buying the preassembled machine instead of building it themselves. So I randomly picked the Dell Inspiron 570 which is on sale for about $400.

  Computer Component Retail Cost
(Fry’s Electronics)

  1. Memory manufacturer not specified using 3x Patriot 1GB sticks
  2. Exact drive not specified so using a Western Digital 300 MB/s SATA 32MB
  3. Integrated means part of the motherboard but I could not find an ATI chipset based motherboard so the price is for the Gigabyte GA-M68MT-D3 with NVidia GeForce 7025 chipset
  4. Best match was a 24X DVD Burner
Processor AMD Athlon™ II X2 245 (2.9 GHz/1 MB) $65.00
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium $109.99
Memory 3GB DDR3 @ 1333MHz1 $69.99
Hard Drive 1TB SATA HD @ 7200RPM2 $69.99
Video Card Integrated ATI HD4200 Radeon™ 3 $49.99
Optical Drive 16x DVD+/-RW4  $22.99
Input Device USB Basic Keyboard and Mouse $10.99
Security Software McAfee 15 month subscription $49.99
Computer Case Raidmax ATX-2000B $29.99
  Total $478.92

So as we see the total for buying all the components and building a system is more expensive than just getting the system from a manufacturer. This of course only applies to main stream systems, as the more you customize the system the less the manufacturer can automate the process of producing these systems and so the more appealing building your system for yourself will be price wise.

Now you might ask, how can these companies that make these machines make a profit at these prices when a person would spend more than the price to build it themselves? It deals with the economies of scale for the part manufacturers. When an individual buys a processor, he will pay the retail price of a single unit because it cost so much to produce that single unit, however the manufacturer will purchase millions of the components which lowers the cost per component. Also the manufacturer will get sheets/stacks of components without any of the packaging that the retail box has.

Now when would it make sense to build your own machine? Well when the economies of scale are reversed. Because computer manufacturers are extremely competitive and most people are looking for the cheapest systems they have designed their line to low end and business end computer setups. When you look outside these bounds for an “Extreme gaming system” these companies will charge a pretty penny to build that machine for you.

Now Dell has an extreme gaming branch called Alienware that tailors to gamers who needs blinding speed graphics, large amounts of memory and disk space, lightning fast processors, etc. So taking another sample I went with the Area-51 ALX Desktop’s specs and after customization it came to $7848.

Computer Component Retail Price
  1. High performance needs great cooling and I like the design of the Cooler Master cases for cooling purposes.
  2. Again memory manufacturer is not given so Patriot PVT312G1333LLHK is used
  3. Dell specific gaming keyboard and mouse, so substituted with Microsoft Sidewinder X6 Keyboard and Microsoft X8 Gaming Mouse.
  4. Fry’s only had Seagate’s 500 GB SSD on the web and for SSD RAID is not as necessary as it is with spinning discs due to lower occurrences of drive failure.
  5. Used two WD 2TB ATA/300 7200 RPM 64 MB cache WD2001FASS drives
  6. Because the monitor is proprietary to Dell I used the comparable ViewSonic VX2450WM LED backlit Monitor
  7. Lite-On 12x Blu-Ray Writer drive
  8. ASUS 24X DVD+/-RW Burner drive
Computer Case Cooler Master HAF X RC-942-KKN11 $199.99
Processor Intel i7 980X Extreme (4.0 GHz, 12MB cache) $1,010.99
Operating System Windows 7 Professional $144.99
Memory 12 GB DDR3 1333 MHz2 $149.90
Video Card Dual 2GB ATI Radeon HD 6950 $309.99
Input Devices Keyboard & Mouse3 $179.90
Hard Drive 2×256 GB SSD Drives (RAID 0)4
2x 2TB SATA-II Drives @ 7200 RPM (RAID 1)5
Monitor 24” UltraSharp U2410 LCD Widescreen6 $199.99
Sound Card Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium $81.57
Optical Drives Blu-Ray Writer (BD/DVD/CD)7
DVD Writer (DVD/CD)8
Motherboard ASUS Rampage III Extreme Intel X58 1366 $364.99
  Total: $3,335.26

So by building the system yourself you save $4512.74 which is more than half the price. So from this I gather that if you want a high end machine you should build it yourself, however if you are looking for a machine for simple tasks and everyday use the best is to just buy it from the manufacturer and just plug it in when it arrives.

Oh and the price of the computer which I built in 2005 for $1500 that I am currently using? According to Dell’s website the closest system costs $1491.97. Not bad to depreciate only $8.03 over 6 years. Smile

A final note, this is for desktops, if you are purchasing a tablet or laptop you have to go with the manufacturer until the computer stores start selling laptop cases and motherboards with the processor being able to be inserted.