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Build a Boat

OK, brace yourself for this one– I considered making this a “6 straight jacket” project, but I figured that would just put me on a slippery slope because I would then be tempted to crank it up to “11.”  The Foothills Mall in Fort Collins, Colorado, is a fairly typical indoor mall in decline.  In recent years it has lost two of the four anchors, and the smaller stores have a vacancy rate of around 30% with more stores leaving at a faster rate than new ones are coming.  Located in the center of Fort Collins, this piece of real estate is a prime candidate for redevelopment.  But what to build?  A large new commercial development on the south side of town has brought in many of the stores that would otherwise be interested in overhauling the Foothills Mall.

An interesting fact about Fort Collins is it’s close proximity to the Continental Pole of Inaccessibility in North America.  Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.  First of all, you are probably thinking, “WTF is the Continental Pole of Inaccessibility in North America?”  It is the location in North America farthest from any of the oceans, and technically it is located in the far southwest corner of South Dakota.  Fort Collins is arguably the closest major town to this point. Sorry Cheyenne, I don’t consider you a major town.  Don’t take it personally.

So what, right?  Well, anyone who is interested in going on a cruise in Fort Collins has a long way to go before they take their first step on a boat.  This can be quite a deterrent for many people when making vacation plans.  The latest cruise ships have so many attractions aboard they have literally become a destination in themselves.  This kind of brings up the question, “If there is so much to do on the ship, does it need to go anywhere for people to have a good time?”  And if the answer to that question is NO, then the next question becomes, “Why don’t we just start building the ships on land and save the costs of making it float, driving it around all over the place, and cleaning barnacles off the hull every few weeks?”  So let’s build a luxury cruise ship right on top of the Foothills Mall.  Sears and Macy’s can stay where they are now (being anchors and all), but everything in between will look and feel exactly like a luxury cruise ship.  The first floor would be rebuilt as a traditional mall that is open to the general public.  The upper floors would be accessible only to the people who have booked a cruise.  The entire experience of being on a luxury cruise ship would be duplicated– from the compact sleeping arrangements to the elaborate dining halls to the continuous party atmosphere.  And being the first land based cruise ship, people from all over the country would travel to Fort Collins to experience the novel type of vacation.

I see this as a win-win-win situation.  The city gets a ton of new construction and service jobs, the cruise ship company that builds it gets to show off their fleet to a whole new demographic, and the mall gets a face lift.  I’m sure there will be some issues getting permits, financing, and few random people saying, “Let’s just do exactly the same thing we’ve been doing for the last ten years and just hope, for reasons that are not clearly evident, the mall and the surrounding area will suddenly recover through our blindly loyal inaction,” but the everyone else can rally around the new slogan I just thought of: “Let’s Get Our Ship Together!”

World Racing Interface

As we approach the Autumnal Solstice, new automobile models are being released along with a seemingly equal number of automobile racing video games.  Every title these days is infinitely better than last year’s version:  more tracks, more cars, and new forced feedback so realistic that serious crashes WILL give you full body bruising, internal organ damage, and life threatening concussions.  Don’t get me wrong– all of this is great, but the next advance, in my humble opinion, will be when Google introduces their new World Racing Interface.

You see, Google has been busy photographing every square inch of the planet for the past few years.  It started out with satellite images free for public viewing.  Then they started driving around specially equipped vehicles that take high definition images every three feet and magically stitch them together so it actually feels like you are standing in front of your ex-girlfriend’s house for hours on end without police officers asking you to please remove your night vision goggles and produce a valid form of identification.

So in the near future, Google will use some type of wizard’s spell to access this four (insert made up word to represent some really really big number)-byte and counting map of the world.  So now instead of just being able to race on a few tracks, you can go anywhere in the world– literally.  Wait– maybe not exactly literally, but more of a symbolic literal manner.  Sure, racing through the streets of downtown Seattle is fun for a while, but how about building your own race track through your own part of town?  Wouldn’t that just kick some ass?  Bond with your neighbors with a networked racing league.  Just don’t take that last corner too fast or you could end up running into your own living room.  And we all know if that happens you die in real life.  No, that’s the Matrix.

The possibilities are endless.  Who wants to recreate “Cannonball Run”?  Or even “Cannonball Run 2”?  How about “Smokey and the Bandit 2”?    Just make sure you go to the bathroom before the race starts.  And, for those who lack direction AND ambition you can just drive around with no particular destination.  Enjoy the scenery of driving I-80 across Nebraska.  The world is your oyster.  Oyster has no cash value.

So, Google, you have your orders:  get this new project up and running.  I’m all ready to stay home and see the world.  (while I’m drinking soda and eating nacho favored corn chips, of course.)

And Google, I know you Google yourself, and since I’ve used the world Google almost a dozen times now, I’m sure someone is going to see this on their Google Alert, so don’t pretend like you didn’t hear about it.  I would like to see a beta version by the end of the year.

Inexpensive Solar Collector

stirling-sun-catcher-story-1108

I was reading an article in Popular Mechanics about solar energy when I came up with this idea.   Solar panels are generally made out of relatively rare and expensive materials and have other drawbacks that, given our current technology, keep solar panels from being economically competitive with other methods of generating electricity such as coal and natural gas.  While it is possible that improvements in solar panel technology may change this in the future, a more cost effective method of converting sunlight to electricity would reduce our toll on the environment.  This is where solar collectors come into the equation.  Is it possible to gather sunlight in such a way that could be used to generate electricity and be cheaper than current methods?

A company in New Mexico is working on reducing the cost of creating energy from sunlight. reflecting light onto a small area.  The energy harnessed in turn powers a Stirling Engine which then creates electricity  (pictured on the left).  As I read the article I was impressed with this different approach to the problem.  Honestly, I didn’t even know how a Stirling Engine worked.  They could really be onto something here.  The article mentioned the company has worked out all the technological issues, now they are focusing on reducing the cost of building these devices.   The article noted that each of these dishes can power roughly 12 houses with electricity.

So I thought about it for a while, and I think there is a much less expensive way to achieve the same results.  Here is how I would build a cheaper solar collector:

Step one: Acquire an OLD satellite dish.  Not one of the 18 inch models that are currently in use.  You need an old school dish that is several feet in diameter.  Here is a good example:

Step Two: Acquire/buy several hundred blank CDs.  Back in the day you could ask AOL for as many as you wanted, but I’m not sure that would fly today.

Step Three: Line the entire inside of the dish with CDs, with the exception of the very center, making sure the sure the most reflective side is facing up.  This will allow for the sunlight to be concentrated at the focal point.  Attach the CDs to the dish with bolts (in case they need to be replaced in the future), or Lee press on nails (if that’s all you have in your purse).

Step Four: Place a large sized convex mirror, maybe one from a truck side mirror, at the focal point of the dish.  This is made easier by using the existing support structure of the dish.  The purpose of the mirror is to focus the light back onto the exact center of the dish.  (This will be where the engine is eventually placed).  Finding a mirror with the correct curvature could take some work.

Step Five: Build a level circular base out of concrete.  The diameter should be at least as large as the diameter of the top edge of the dish.

Step Six: Place the Sterling Engine in the center of the base.

Step Seven: Build a support structure for the dish.  When finished, the base needs to be able to rotate freely in two dimensions in order to track the sun.  It also must be able to accommodate the engine in the center of the dish that keeps the top of the engine at the center of the dish.

Step Eight: Build a mechanism for tracking the sun.

So how is this method better than what has already been built?  The main improvement is moving the engine from the focal point of the dish to a stationary position underneath the dish.  This reduces overall center of gravity and complexity since only the dish itself is moving.  It also shades most of the engine, which relies on temperature differentials to produce energy.  Also, the smaller scale would allow individual homeowners to build this device from a kit to provide some or all of their home’s energy needs.

Building Better Townhomes

This idea has several sub-thoughts that are loosely related.  I’ve lived in a townhouse for more than five years now, and here are some things that I think could be improved.

Basement/Garage

I’ve lived in a townhouse for the past five years, and, in general, I’m quite happy with the layout of my unit and the development as a whole.  One problem in the area is parking.  Despite each unit having a two car garage, there is always a shortage of parking space around some of the buildings.  I soon realized that one cause of this problem is that many people have a bunch of crap in their garage, or have more than two vehicles that need to be parked.  So I would like to see townhouses developed where the entire garage and basement is combined into a single uninterrupted space that is two car lengths deep.  This way people could more easily store their garage related items while still parking two vehicles in the garage.  This large space would also allow four cars to be parked in the garage– in a two by two configuration.  OK, so maybe it couldn’t “officially” be called a four car garage, but people looking at buying a unit could see the possibilities.  Can someone get on that?  Thanks!

Radiant Heating

This has been around for a while now where deep wells are dug near a building and loops of plastic tubes are placed in the holes.  The holes are filled back up and a mixture of water and antifreeze is pumped down the wells and back up.  The constant temperature of the ground can be used to cool or heat building through more tubes running beneath the upper floors.  This is a really good system requiring minimal electricity to move the liquid, but digging the wells can cost tens of thousands of dollars.  Would it be possible to build a house with tubes running in the concrete foundation and connecting to the tubes in the floors?  If there is enough thermal mass in the floor of the basement it could cut the cost of radiant heating by an order of magnitude by eliminating the expensive drilling step.

Keeping Houses Cool

In the summer time a lot of houses can get hot, and people spend a lot of time and money to keep this from happening.  Houses get hot inside in part because the sun is shining on the outside part of the house.  (That’s not exactly rocket science there)  Making houses that reflect most of that light instead of absorbing it would result in a much cooler house.  How about taking a few thousand blank CDs, tying them together to create a flat, hexagonal pattern, and sticking it to the roof during the summer.  This would reflect most of the energy off the roof and lower the temperature of the house.  If that works, someone could manufacture inexpensive interlocking reflective plastic squares to make the process even easier.  I would try this myself, but I would like to avoid a lengthy legal dispute with my homeowner’s association.

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Speaking of Escher

Now that I finished my Escher plan for my family room, I remembered a photograph I took back when I lived in a small apartment in Boulder, CO.  I stood on my kitchen table and held the camera up to the reflective cover of the light hanging from the ceiling.  The picture is a bit old because I have a whole lot of hair.