31 may 2019

So, I'm on this "low energy" kick. I've kind of been here before but this time it's more than just a nifty tech experiment. I want to start to be more intentnional with my uses of computer technology. One thing led to another and well, it's also kind of a neat tech experiment, so... more fun for me!

I'll be leaving tomorrow for a week long bike trip. During the treck we won't have a lot of access to the power grid. In preparation for this, I swapped my smart phone's SIM card over to a BLU Zoey II [0] feature phone. In addition to having an outrageously good battery life, it has a very small battery and a very small power input requirement for charging which means I can charge it using a small solar panel during the day if I want.I changed over a few days early because, well, my Google Pixel 2 has been giving me some trouble recently. The battery has been "dying" with 25% left and the phone starts to frequently crash when the battery drops below 70%. I've ordered a replacement LiPo for it and will be replacing it but it kind of got me thinking again about my reliance on the thing. Could I actually stop using it? This was two days ago. I've now been using the "dumb" phone almost exclusively. I've managed to find a workable system that allows me to keep my "smart" device usage to a minimum. The goal is not to totally remove it from my life but to help reduce the mindless use as a distraction from more important things (reading, family, hobbies, work, etc.).

So far I've been able to reduce my reliance on mobile smart devices by about 95%. Due to the nature of my work as a computer systems engineer, I almost always carry my laptop bag with me. In addition to my laptop I have taken to carrying an old Android tablet and my Google Pixel 2 in teh bag, all turned off. This allows the battery life to be greatly expanded and provides a bit of a barrier to usage (allowing time to power up the device before I use it). In time, I think I'll reduce the device count down from three to just two by either removing the tablet or the phone. It will probably be the phone that gets cut. I read ebooks almost exclusively and find reading on small phone screens more difficult than on e-ink or tablet devices. Almost all use of these smart devices is completely optional. There is, however, one exception. My employer requires multi-factor authentication for several online properties including the employee portal, VPN and ssh authentication. I was able to switch most of these over to using a physical token. Four of them, however, require the use of an app and do not support the physical token. This is the 1% use case where I need to power up my Pixel 2, open the app, get a code, and then shut it down again. Thankfully, this only has to happen once or twice a day in most cases.

This long winded story leads me to this final thought. My new side project; My "casual" project, if you will. A personal challenge. How can I be more intentional about my digital life in other areas. Not just with regards to my use of mobile devices but also at home, my use of my desktop computer, my use of the power grid, my use of television, media consumption in general. More generally, how can I LIVE more intentionally. Not in the philosophical, religious sense, but just in the living sense. My time is limited, I should do meaningful things with the time I'm given and the resources I hvae, don't waste time and energy on things that don't being me joy or meaning. I started looking around my life to identify the low hanging fruit I could tackle first.

The next most obvious place was my desktop computer. I have a big, hulking gaming PC. I used to play a lot of video games but in the last year I picked up some new hobbies that take up most of my time and I haven't played anything seriously in over a year. I decided to turn the desktop PC off to save some electricity and heat generation (it's really hot here in the summer). But I still want to have a desktop PC in my office to use for looking up information, listening to music, checking email or watching Youtube tutorials on while I build and paint my models. For this, I said "Ah, a Raspberry Pi is more than enough". I have a couple of Raspberry Pis (ok, a lot of Raspberry Pis) sitting around, once used for this project or that, and I decided to repurpose one for this endeavour. In about 30 minutes I had it up and running and connected to my desktop monitor. I'm still getting the software setup completley but it's already been a more than acceptable solution. My office is now cooler and quieter, but I can still do everything I need to 99% of the time. For that 1% when I do want to play a video game, I can turn the big hulking desktop PC on.

I think my first goal is going to be:

Run my home office off of 99% solar

This goal, in theory, seems achievable. The main energy consumers in that room are the window mounted A/C unit, my homebrew router and my desktop PC. With the desktop PC "solved" (it's "trivial" to run a Raspberry Pi exclusively off solar power with a battery backup system for nights and cloudy days). The router "problem" is solve-able. I will need to potentially buy something that consumes less energy (maybe a Raspberry Pi, who knows!?) but the software stack (PFSense) is fully capable of a "lift and shift" to some other device without much work. The A/C problem may proove to be the most difficult to overcome. The location of the office is not ideal for insulation from the elements. It's located above my garage and has very little insulatable space between the ceiling and the roof of the house. In addition, the windows are old and poorly insulated. The ideal situation would be to completely remove the need for the window mounted A/C unit but the costs involved in doing so may prove prohibitive. Running such a power hungry device off of solar seems impractical as well, likely increasing the power draw on the system by several orders of magnitude requiring larger panels and bigger batteries. This will probably require more thought, but I have confidence I can come up with something.

So, anyway, I've rambled enough for now. I'll try to post one more entry before I leave for my trip tomorrow and, if conditions permit, I'll try to post some trip updates during the week as well.

[0] https://www.pcmag.com/review/336309/blu-zoey-ii-unlocked