News from Serenity Valley – Episode 2

I got back to Serenity Valley on Friday afternoon, and finished winching up the trailer on Saturday. This video was mostly shot on Sunday the 27th. (If you don’t see the embed below, or want to see a higher quality version, here’s the YouTube link).

Update from the SV Dept. of Energy

Due to the energy shortage, Serenity Valley remains dark and deserted. The power plant, erm, 1kW generator, is still at a mechanic’s in Redding for repairs. The reason du jour is “waiting for parts” which I guess hints at potential progress over yesterday’s “our mechanic called in sick”. In any case, pages are flying off the calendar, and I need to get to Serenity Valley. And I want power, damn it.

As all critical energy crises demand, the Serenity Valley Department of Energy launched an independent investigation into this current outage. As the independent investigator on the case, I would like to share with you a portion of the preliminary report, that covers the evolution of our electrical system.

  1. The origin of our electrical problems can be traced all the way back to the planning stage. In a report published on the 15th of August, the Department of Planning recommended the acquisition of a single Honeywell 1000i generator to fulfill our electrical needs. This recommendation was flawed for a number of reasons, the least of which was the fact that our electrical system was designed by our less-than-knowledgeable colleagues at the Department of Planning. The primary flaws in their recommendation are as follows:
    1. Firstly, the report stated that the recommended charge controller would “replenish a day’s usage in 2-3 hours”. This assertion clearly ignored the fact that charge controllers significantly reduce the charge current as the battery’s charge level increases, and thus, the charge time is not as simple as dividing the amp-hours used by the charge controller’s maximum charge current (e.g. 80aH / 40 amps). This oversight is significant because generators are not suitable for producing small amounts of current for prolonged periods; solar panels are much better for that.
    2. Secondly, the report recommended the use of a single electricity generating device to fulfill all of our electrical needs. It does not take a rocket scientist, or even an electrician, to realize that depending on a single device for such a critical piece of infrastructure would leave us dangerously vulnerable to prolonged outages.
    3. Thirdly, the Department of Planning, perhaps under pressure from the Department of Finance (understandably so, given our current budget crisis), recommended the acquisition of a Honeywell generator of questionable repute, as opposed to the more reputable, albeit costly, equivalent manufactured by Honda. The author of this report would like to point out that this decision exemplifies futile cost-cutting measures that, not only turn out to be more costly, but also leads to crises such as the one we currently experience, as we will see shortly.
  2. Many of these issues became apparent during our week-long trials at the Black Rock City Testing Grounds. The generator broke down after only 5 or 6 hours of usage, over 3 days. We then switched to our emergency back-up power aboard the Ryomobile, but that power source was also quickly depleted, likely causing permanent damage to that battery.
  3. In the aftermath of the disastrous trials, the Planning Department hastily revised its recommendation, urging for the immediate acquisition of solar panels to augment and back-up our (still unavailable) generator. Under time-pressure, the Planning Department recommended the immediate purchase of a 60 Watt solar array, available from a Costco warehouse located some 200 miles away. At roughly $5/Watt, this was a costly acquisition. From other sources, solar panels would have cost almost half as much, but the delays would have been unacceptable under the circumstances.
  4. In order to compensate for the loss of the generator, another ill advised plan was arranged. The plan called for a low cost inverter hooked up to the Ryomobile’s battery, which then provided power to our 105aH battery through the charge controller. This plan failed spectacularly, likely because the charge controller requires clean power, and not questionable power provided by a modified sine-wave inverter of questionable quality.
  5. With our generator still out of commission, our latest plan, currently being implemented, is to purchase yet another deep-cycle battery, and charging it by connecting it to the Ryomobile’s battery in parallel, while running the engine. This method of charging can harm the battery, however, the supplier of said battery (Costco) has a free-replacement policy on batteries returned within a year, thus making potential damages acceptable. While on the topic of batteries, the author of this report would also like to point out another ill advised acquisition. The AGM battery originally purchased at a cost of nearly $300, despite being state of the art and certified for military use, was over-spec’d for use on Serenity Valley. A deep cycle battery at a third of the cost from Costco would have been adequate, especially when considering the free-replacement policy.

On final count, the current electrical system has cost roughly $1170 dollars (AGM 105 aH battery – $300, generator – $400, charge controller – $100, 60 Watt solar array – $300, 85aH Costco battery – $70). For less than that, I could’ve instead purchased three 130 Watts solar panels (about $850), a 115 aH Costco battery ($90) and a 30 Amp solar charge controller ($160). In addition to being slightly cheaper, the latter option would’ve been cleaner, and with no moving parts, also more reliable. Another lesson learned.

Serenity Valley Department of Planning

My parents flew back to Japan today (Ed: I started writing this post yesterday), and I’m back in Staging Area Chico, enjoying the company and kittens of Camp Adams. I’m heading north to Redding tomorrow, and if my generator is fixed, head on to my land. Otherwise, I’ll stay in the Redding area until my generator is fixed.

I was talking to Josh earlier, and he asked what my plans were for my land. I have a bunch of projects in mind, so I thought I’ll make a blog post out of that. Here’s my list, more or less in order of urgency in no particular order:

  • Set up camp – I need to finish towing my trailer to its final resting place, and set up camp. I’m thinking of building a shelf/cot to go inside the trailer, and a wall with a window to cover up the back. Outside, I’ll set up a shade structure, build a table, and set up a food prep area where I’ll install my rocket stove.
  • Solar tracker – The sun moves, almost a 180 degrees throughout a day of light, every day. The frame that came with the solar panels that I’m using right now is a pain to move, so I need something easier to work with. Eventually, I might try and build an automated tracker, but I’ll probably start with a simple single-axis frame that I can tilt the panels around by hand.
  • Solar water distiller – Water is a scarce resource. Hauling in drinking water isn’t a problem, but I’d also like to take a shower occasionally, and that takes up a lot of water. So, to recycle the run-off from my shower, I’m thinking of designing and building a solar water distiller. Basically, it’ll be a solar oven (a box, black on the inside, with a clear top) that evaporates water, then the hot moist air gets sent through a cooling unit (kept cool by ice made in my freezer) and then the condensation is collected. I’m still in early design phase, so we’ll see if I manage to pull it off, but I think it’ll be cool. I prefer a distiller over filtration because filtration requires filters which will have to be bought or made, and then discarded. A distiller, in theory, should produce cleaner water reliably, unless there are microbes capable of being transported in vapor, or the water is contaminated with something with a low boiling point (like alcohol).
  • Mark borders – Right now, the borders of my property are defined by 5 surveyor’s markers (1″ pipes) set into the ground in 1970, and by a mound of stone erected by the General Land Office in 1880. That’s it, for the entire 7000ft+ perimeter. There is a barbed wire fence put up by the National Forest Service (I think) to the North and West, but they’re not exactly on my border. I also need to put up “No trespassing” signs. I think I got 140 signs, so I should be able to space them roughly 50 feet apart. I’m also thinking of putting up a crude fence made of fallen trees and branches, mostly to symbolically inform humans of the border, not so much to physically keep them out.
  • Setup my shooting range – I still haven’t quite figured out where to shoot. There’s sort of a ravine that cuts across the middle of my property that offers a nice inclined backstop from an area near where I want to set up camp. But if I put up targets on the far side of the ravine, I’ll have hike across the ravine and back to post or check the targets. I could put up targets closer, such that bullets would still impact the far side of the ravine, but there are some issues with that too. Where ever the back-stop ends up being, I’ll need to clear rocks to prevent ricochet, and clear brush to make sure nothing catches fire if bullets spark on impact (which shouldn’t happen since I don’t use steel-core bullets). I also might want to think about lead contamination… For shooting my .22 target rifle and hand guns, a make-shift backstop might be good enough (I hear a steel plate angled down to deflect bullets into a sand pit works fine).
  • Make videos – I bought a Flip UltraHD camcorder so I can take HD video! To be honest, I don’t care about HD (since my video will be consumed online in low-res) but Final Cut Express only does HD and it’s a pain to wait for it to “render” 640×480 res video that my point-and-shoot takes.

These are some of the bigger projects. I’m sure there will be many more smaller ones, many of which I don’t know about yet. Also, I hear the Serenity Valley Department of Tourism is planning something, so if you want to come visit and do some physical labor chillaxin’, keep an eye out for that too.


When you lose someone, sometimes you think you’re okay, but then something happens and suddenly the loss hits you like an oncoming truck, threatening to overwhelm you with grief, regret, and sadness. Some of you might know what it’s like. For me, it’s like a big, deep void opening up in my soul, threatening to suck me in. I’ve fallen into that swirling vortex of emotional doom many times in the past. But recently, after Burning Man, I figured out some things that have kept me from falling into the vortex since, despite losing Nikki as my girlfriend and close friend (something that would’ve surely drop-kicked me deep into the vortex before). But yesterday, the void appeared, and I felt like I was getting sucked in. I fell deeper into it than I have in recent months. There I was, sitting in a cafe in Mountain View, amongst strangers, having lost my one close friend, far away from my few other close friends. Grasping at straws, I tweeted a call for hugs.

Within 30 minutes, I was ok. Not only ok, but happy. But it wasn’t because of the virtual hugs (as grateful as I am for them). I was happy because I had an epiphany. Or a series of realizations.

When I’m in the city, around people, I feel incredibly lonely. Yesterday, as I was teetering on the edge of the vortex, I was IMing a friend, and told her “I need a friend, or two.” When I said that, an alarm went off in my head. Whenever you think you need something to be happy, it is almost certainly false, unless, maybe, that something is necessary for survival. So I thought about that statement some more, and realized how ludicrous that was. I’m a guy who goes off into the woods alone, winches a 1300lb trailer up a hill alone, and loves every inch of the way. I’m a guy who drove 3500 miles over 10 days alone, and loved ever mile and every day of it. I’m a guy who found peace and happiness at Burning Man, on the one day in which I hardly saw any of my “friends.” If there’s one person I know who can be happy completely alone and isolated from other people, its me. If I think I need a friend to be happy in the city, I’m deluding myself.

So I undeluded myself, and felt a lot better.

Later, I started thinking about why it is that I feel so isolated and frustrated in the city, around people, but feel at peace in the woods. And I figured it out.

When I’m in the woods, I accept the world as it is. Nothing phases me, because I don’t expect anything beyond what is. A tree is a tree, a rock a rock, the sun is or isn’t, and the weather simply is. I’ve faced many set-backs, just trying to get my stuff to where I want it on my property, and haven’t been phased in the slightest. Plan A failed when I found the dirt road to be too rough for the Ryomobile. Plan B failed when the truck couldn’t turn a corner with the trailer. Plan C failed when my pulley system failed. Plan D got me close, but still didn’t get the job done because, once I got to the edge of the clearing, I couldn’t find a tree close enough to anchor my winch to. Not once did I get frustrated, or mad. I know it’s silly to get mad at a dirt road for being rough, or at a tree for creating a tight corner, or at a clearing for not having a tree in a convenient location. My land is. And I accept it as it is.

But people. Oh people. People are deceiving. People aren’t inanimate objects. People can communicate. People can be persuaded. People can be won over. People can change. Or so I thought. I had high expectations from people. I wanted things from people. I wanted to be acknowledged, to be liked, to be loved. I had notions of what one should be able to expect from a friend, or a girlfriend. Expectations so lofty that few people have hardly ever met, at least not completely. So I felt unfulfilled, frustrated, and betrayed.

But then, I realized. Of course I felt frustrated and unfulfilled. What I was doing was like going to my land and wishing that a certain tree were located farther north by 10 yards, and this sapling were 30 feet tall, and this clearing had more trees, and that grove didn’t block the light. It’s silly, and pointless. The trees are where they are, or aren’t. They are what they are. And so are people. People are who they are, and do what they do. Just the same way an occasional tree on my property helps me winch up a trailer, an occasional person might help me, befriend me, or love me. But as most trees on my property don’t care I exist, most people don’t either. People simply exist. Independent of who I am, and what my needs and wishes are. Like trees in the forest.

The world looks like a different place to me now. I no longer look at people and feel unfulfilled and alienated. They’re not ignoring me, at least not any more than a tree ignores me. They don’t hate me, any more than a tree hates me. They don’t find me unlovable, any more than a tree finds me unlovable. They simply are. I simply am. The world, simply is.

Hi. Who are you? Where are you from?

Blog Stats... see the rocket launch?

Blog Stats... see the rocket launch?

So, what you see above is my blog’s stats as shown to me by WordPress. See how that line goes up steeply and sharply starting around the 17th (the day I posted News From Serenity Valley)? That’s what we in our biz call an organic viral growth pattern. You get that kind of curve when people come check out your site, then tell other people about it, causing, on average, more than one person to visit and the cycle continues. So. If you’re here on this blog for the first time, leave a comment and let me know how and where you learned about this site. I’m just curious. I won’t bite. Thanks!

In other news, I’ve been chillin’ in Tahoe with my parents. I’m eager to get back to Serenity Valley, but my parents are visiting from Japan and I only get to see them a few times a year (if even that), and seeing how they’re getting old and all, I should spend time with them when I can. Serenity Valley will be there for a while.

I’m currently planning on getting back out there on the 23rd (assuming my generator gets repaired) and then you should get a steady stream of updates every few days (or however often I decide to go to town to get internet access). I’m hoping the weather will stay clear and warm enough for me to stay there for at least a few weeks, which should be enough time to set up camp, know if I have everything I need to sustain life, and start working on improvements. Stay tuned, or add this blog to your feed reader or something.

News from Serenity Valley

Welcome to the new original reality show, “News from Serenity Valley”.

Huh? Where’s Serenity Valley. Well, I won’t tell you where it is, but that’s what I decided to call my land. It’s not the most original, but it’s the best I can do, and besides, I like it so… there.

I decided to call my land Serenity Valley for a couple of reasons. First of all, it really is peaceful and quiet out there, and my land is vaguely valley-like, so it’s fitting in a literal sense. Secondly, the place has a real calming and soothing effect on me, and I imagine it’s a place I will always want to retreat to when life outside gets a little too hectic or overwhelming. And lastly, there’s the Firefly reference. As fellow Firefly fans may recall, Serenity Valley (the namesake of Serenity, the Firefly-class ship) was one of the decisive battles between the independence-loving Browncoats and the meddlesome and oppressive Alliance. I don’t intend to fight any battles on my land, and I certainly don’t intend on being defeated as the Browncoats did, but symbolically, I find the reference to be appropriate as I hope to establish and protect my independence and freedom on my land, in an increasingly meddlesome and oppressive society.

In any case, as I chronicle my land adventures, I’d like to document what I’m doing, and produce something. This blog is one output, but I like working with visual media, so I will try to produce some video every now and then. The quality will be mixed at best, and who knows if I’ll even get around to making more. The first episode is 11 minutes long and has taken me the better part of two evenings to edit. I’ll probably try and keep future episodes under 5 minutes, and be less nit-picky about the editing.

So, I hope you enjoy this episode, and I’d appreciate any feedback about it (positive or negative). (If you don’t see the embed below, here’s the link.)