RIP Tiko?

Kickstarter is a great adventure in the democratization of business finance.  Not everything on Kickstarter succeeds, to say the least.  I’ve backed a couple of projects over the years, and actually received my rewards.  There’s one project I was watching over the last year, that I did not invest in, the Tiko 3D printer.

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It was fun watching this story unfold.  They ended up being a year late with their delivery, went through many trials and tribulations, and essentially failed to deliver in the end.

Looking at this picture now, in retrospect, we can assume that it was a complete fabrication.  Having printed such an engine block on my very commercially available printer, I know that they could not have possibly generated those pieces given the state their printer was in.  Without a cooling fan, they would not have been able to generate the intricate detail, and with their components overheating, they would not have lasted through a print.

But, that’s retrospective.  When you’re watching the train wreck happening, you’re rooting for them, giving them the benefit, and hoping they’re actually doing as well as their arrogance would lead you to believe.
For those few thousand who received their units, I’m betting it will turn out to be their MakerBot Cupcake.  A first printer, not many good prints out of it, then they’ll move on to a real printer, and this becomes salvage in a couple of years.

The saving grace is it was only around $200, so from that perspective, anyone who backed the project was only out a fairly small investment.  That amount of money is probably easily spent on getting coffee every morning for half a year.

They did show that you can come out with stylish looking things.  I’m sure someone else will attempt something similar, having benefitted from Tiko’s mistakes.  They’ll come up with a better solution for cooling the internals, they’ll add a door, they’ll put the filament outside the box, they’ll make it bigger, they’ll add a parts cooling fan, and it will come from AliExpress still for $200.  It will support Simplify3D, Cura, and Slic3r instead of their custom slicer, and the world will move on.

Tiko as a company has not thrown in the towel and said “we’re out of business”, but they have essentially put everything on hold as they’ve run out of money.

And so it goes.

Another project I’ve been following is the GlowForge 3D laser “printer”.  That machine is similarly way overdue, and they have a similar vibe of secrecy about them.  This time I am holding out hope that they do in fact deliver.  You can actually cancel your order up to the last moment before it’s delivered, but again, while you’re watching the train wreck, you’re hopeful that they’ll pull it out in the end and everything will be alright.

So, come on GlowForge!  I’m rooting for you.

It’s kind of like watching the Truman Show.

 


Decommissioning Makerbot Cupcake

This was the first 3D printer I ever had

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This picture shows the machine after its last Frankenstein operation circa 2011.  I purchased it as a kit in the first place so that I could ultimately create some simple objects like this: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:11255 to connect drinking straws so that my daughter and I could construct objects like geodesic domes.

Well, this machine never printed more than one or two objects in it wacky storied life until it was replaced with the original Up! machine, which just worked out of the box.

Those were heady days in the 3D printing industry.  RepRap, and the notion of printers printing parts for themselves was still an ideal, and the likes of Ultimaker, Zortrax, and even Prusa, were just glimmers in their creators eyes.

The hotend for this thing (that mass of acrylic and steel sitting on the 5″x5″ platform in the middle there, probably weighed nearly a pound, consumed 3mm plastic, and just didn’t really work.

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All those nuts and bolts, tons of acrylic, funky resistors, an even a piece of delrin.  It was all well intentioned, and all very experiemental, and it all just didn’t quite work for me.  Compared to a new modern extruder/hotend combo, this might seem relatively stone age, but it did have all the basics that we take for granite today.

I’m happy we built this machine.  It was a great bonding experience, and it was then that my daughter and I cemented ourselves as ‘makers’.  We went to a MakerFaire, played with electronics, sewed leds into a dress, and generally carried ourselves into the modern age of making.

I have since purchased an original Up!, an early prusa mendel, original ultimaker.  Then I jumped into another realm with a ZCorp 650, ZCorp 660, then back down to earth with an Afinia Up Box, and lately Type A Machines Hub, and Prusa i3 MK2.  That’s a lot of plastic, powder, glue and frustration right there in all that madness.

I purchased the first kit to make a little something for me and the daughter to play with.  I’ve since explored the various ways in which these devices may or may not be utilized in the real of custom on-demand manufacturing.  That journey continues.

This cupcake was both fun and frustrating as all heck.  I’m a bit nostalgic to see it go, but now that it’s real value is in the various M3 screws and nuts, I’m happy to have let this particular nightmare in our printing history go.

RIP cupcake.  You served us well.

 


Home Automation – Choosing Bulbs

With a New Year’s resolution to replace all incandescent bulbs in the house with LEDs, I actually started the process back in December.  I purchased a ton of these:

Sylvania Ultra LED Light Bulb

These bulbs were already cheap at the local Lowe’s Home Improvement store.  But, for Christmas, they were $2.20 each!  Well, I only needed 7 more to finish up the job I started, in terms of flood light replacement, so I got them.  At this rate, they’re cheaper than incandescents, by a long shot, so why not?

For my particular house, the vast majority of bulbs in common areas, are these floods, so replacing them all will make us feel good about the environment.

In most cases, these bulbs are in sets of at least three or more, so there’s a question of the light switch that goes with them.  In two cases, the family room and kitchen, there are mechanical dimmer switches.  Those are older Lutron dimmers, which were good for the older floods, but not tuned to the all new LED floods just installed.  They work, but in a kind of clunky way.  When you dim really low, the lights might start to flicker, becoming unbearable to be under.  So, some new dimmers are required.

There’s a whole story on dimmers waiting to be written, but there are basically two ways to go.  Either stick with another simple mechanical dimmer, with no automation capability, but at least LED savvy, or go with an automation capable dimmer.

This is as much a cost concern as anything.  I went with both depending.

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This is a typical mechanical dimmer.  I chose Lutron models that are pretty much the same as the old ones, except they handle CFLs and LEDs much better.  This is a good choice when you’re not going to do any automation in the area, you just want to slap that switch on or off when you enter and exit the room, simple and sweet.  So, in my kitchen nook, which has 3 lights, I put this one in.  I also put it in for the 9 lights in the kitchen, but after some thought, I decided I want to do some automation for the kitchen, so I need an automatable switch instead.

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In this case, it’s a dimmer that works with the Lutron Caseta automation system.  There are myriad automation systems from all sorts of companies.  I went with Lutron because that’s what was already in the house previously, and I’ve known the name for at least 40 years, and the reviews on them seem to be fairly decent, and they work with the Alexa thing.

These are great because they work with the LEDs, they’re automatable, and you can still just use them locally by pushing the buttons for brighter, dimmer, on, off.

So, that covers most of the lights.  But what about all those others, like the bathrooms, bedrooms, entry way, porch, etc?

Well, in most cases, you can just replace a typical 60 watt bulb with the equivalent 9-11w LED equivalent.  Choosing a color temperature (2700 – 3000K probably the best).  These can still work with standard light switches, so nothing more to be done.  Probably not worth installing a $50 automated dimmer on each one of these lights, but you could if you wanted to.

Now, there are some spots where you actually want to do a little something with color.  In my house, perhaps on the balcony (3 lights), or a play room, or prayer nook.  In these cases, you can install something like the Philips Hue.

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This is a bulb that is individually addressable.  It requires yet another Hub device, this time from Philips.  What you get though is the ability to set the color to a wide range of colors, as well as the general dimness.  You can set scenes, and if you want to write a little code, you can even hook up a Raspberry Pi to change the color to match the natural daylight.

At $50 a bulb, this is a very spendy option ranking up there with the choice between mechanical and automation ready dimmer switches.  In this case, you get the automation without having to install an automation dimmer, but you pay the automation cost for every single light you buy.  So, for my balcony, it would cost $150 for three lights, or I could go the standard LED and dimmer route for more like $60, assuming I already have the appropriate hub in either case.  What you lose with the standard bulb/dimmer approach is the ability to change the color.  For my balcony, I don’t need to change the color.

So, these automated colored lights make more sense for something like a bathroom, or an office space, or somewhere else where you spend time and care about what the lighting color is doing.

And there you have it.  No matter what you choose, they MUST be LEDs.  At least that’s the mantra of this day.  then you are free to choose a mix of automated dimmers/switches, and automated color changing lights.  In the future, for new homes, all the lighting will be LED at least, because it’s becoming the cheaper choice for builders.  For higher end homes, I’d expect there to be hubs, with automated dimmers and colored lights as a standard set of choices the homeowner can choose, just like carpet, paint color, and cabinetry.

 

 

 


The Annoyance of Today’s Personal Computing – Amazon Echo Dot

Before escaping the dreariness of a Seattle winter for a few days, I ordered some holiday presents, so we’d have something to play with on our return.  Having just watched the first Iron Man recently, I was curious as to the state of the ‘Jarvis’ form of personal computing.  Then I read the article by Mark Zuckerberg and I thought, well, alright then, I’ve got to give this a go.

Full disclaimer as usual; I’m a Microsoft employee and have been for 18 years, but I’m not company apologist.

So, I placed the order and off we went.  Upon arriving home, there was a package (not stolen from the porch oddly enough), and I thought, “what might that be?”.  It was tiny.  I opened it up, and sure enough, it was the Amazon Echo Dot.

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I purchased it on a sale of $40.  It’s since gone up by $10.  I was really surprised how small it is.  It fits in the palm of my hand roughly.  At this price point, it’s almost an impulse buy for a tech enthusiast.  Roughly the same price as a functional Raspberry Pi, even cheaper considering the Pi need a power supply, uSD card, monitor, keyboard and mouse.

Setup was a relative breeze, with the help of an app, which required the iPad, or other non-Windows tablet, to setup.  Press and hold a button for about 5 seconds, tell it your home network’s wifi password, and you’re all set.

Then you start talking.  Right out of the box, the easiest things to test are playing of music and asking about the weather:  Alexa, what’s the weather like?  Of course, we just came in from outside, so we already know, but it was fun.

My wife got into it by asking to play some Hindi songs: Alexa, play hindi songs.

Alexa obliged, and started playing from some random play list of hindi songs.  Then we tried to get specific:  Alexa, play Chammak Challo…

That one took awhile with several miscues, and offering up things we’d never heard of.  It did finally figure it out, but I don’t know if we’ll have to go through a whole series of phrases to get it to play again.

After doing the whole: Alexa, play… for a while, our 3 year old figured out what was going on.  He’s starts shouting “Alexa, play…”.  For some reason, Alexa doesn’t respond to his implorings.  I don’t know if that’s a blessing or bad design.  I’m sure there’s a way to train it to recognize his voice.  I’ll wait and see if I want to give it that particular skill.

The echo system comes with things called ‘skills’.  These are various phrases tied to various actions.  There’s a whole marketplace of free skills.  So, you can do something like “Alexa, tell Uber to order me a car”, or whatever the phraseology is.  You ‘tell’ another skill to do something on your behalf, as if each skill was it’s own AI.  Meh.

What I like about it is the ease with which you can quickly integrate this into your home life.  We stuck it in the kitchen, which is central to our daily activities.  I also purchased a couple of wifi controllable lights, so that we’d have those to play with.  I have the intention of installing them in one of the rooms, perhaps downstairs, just so we can say things like “Alexa, set some action lighting in the play room”.  That and some other home automation might be interesting.

The annoyances…

Sitting around the kitchen, saying “Alexa” all the time is really annoying.  I not a natural flow of conversation to say a thing’s name every time you want to address it.  Try this at home, every time you want to say something to someone, say their name first, even if they’re standing right next to you and you’ve been talking to them for the past hour.  It’s really annoying.

We yell at Alexa.  Not quite knowing what volume is best, we shout “Alexa” all the time.

We want a different wake word.  I don’t think this is possible, maybe you have a couple of choices.  But, I’d much rather say “dufus” than alexa.  And of course I’d like to get the cool Jarvis voice, or Majel Roddenberry, or a selection of voice actors to interact with.

So far, the major annoyance is the constant talking, and the inability to do simple things like ‘save this song to my favorites’.  The latter doesn’t necessarily work unless you have Amazon Music, or whatever.  Some cryptic message, and lack of instructions on what to do right away to save the song I’m listening to is just annoying.  I just wanted to say “Alexa, I like this”, as the instructions said, but couldn’t quite make it happen.

Of course this is an Amazon product, so there is purchasing involved.  It’s tied to my Amazon account, and I can order a $20 loaf of bread easily enough.  I’m sure this particular feature (shopping) is well tuned, but I haven’t tried it out yet.

The other aspect that’s interesting is the license.  I actually bothered to read it to see just what kind of shenanigans they were up to.  Of course, saving your utterances is in the mix.  Saving your orders, music choices, preferences, all of that stuff.  And passing it along to the appropriate partners at the appropriate times is fully available to Amazon.  What strikes me is how easily I’m willing to give away my personal space to a company.  Not only am I dropping a bugging device into a central location in my home (besides the cell phone I carry with me at all times), I’m giving them the right to save everything I say and use it against me in targeted advertising.  At least I turned off the notifications portion of the app, so hopefully Alexa won’t be whispering subliminal advertisement as I eat my morning cereal.

The other aspect is how easily I give up control of my home.  I’m willing to let a cloud attached device sit on my home network (what an effective spy tool), and talk to my lights, security system, garage door, HVAC…  I’m setup, even better than the nest, to get my home hacked from abroad with ease.  I can imagine the scenario.  Alexa knows when everyone’s out of the house for extended periods of time, either through observation, or because I’m actually using the calendar function.  Alexa/Amazon knows everything I’ve purchased in the last year.  Alexa controls the electronic locks on my doors as well as garage opener.  The hacker sitting in a non-US expeditable jurisdiction hacks the echo dot, passes information along to a local actor, and opens up the doors at the appropriate time for my home to be swept clean.

This scenario will surely play out with the appropriate apologies from Amazon, or whomever first gets hacked in this scenario.

Why I’m not worried.  Although I have a security system, I won’t be hooking it up to Alexa, or any other cloud attached thing that I don’t control.  I won’t give Alexa access to the garage, and I prefer good old fashioned lock and key.  But, this brings up another point, and kind of the crux of the state of personal computing.

Who’s data is it anyway?

In this modern cloud rage fueled economy, the likes of Google and Amazon have claimed our personal data for themselves and their own purposes.
The Echo Dot is simply the ultimate in personal data collection devices.  Never before has a company (besides Nielsen) had a device in your home collecting so much, and possibly controlling it as well.  This is where the personal computing thing breaks down right now.  If it’s going to be personal, I think I need to be in control of the data.  I can believe this whole voice activated thing needs to be cloud based for the moment, because you can leverage the collective phrases of the entire planet to figure out what’s being uttered, and what action to be taken.  But, come one, give the hardware another couple of years and you’ve got to believe that the device itself will be strong enough to do that all on it’s own.  I’ve got a few terabytes of storage, and more MIPS sitting idle that an entire data center of a small company.  Surely I’ve got enough capability to figure out “dufus, play ‘what is love'”.

So, a single Echo Dot has made its way into our home.  It performs about as well as I expected.  The audio coming out of the device itself is actually better than I expected from the reviews.  It’s not Jarvis level personal computing, but I can certainly see the makings.

Microsoft has a ton of voice recognition, and Cortana, and ‘skills’ bot stuff as well.  Microsoft does not have a $40 piece of hardware to pull it all together.  After looking at the drool worthy Surface Studio announcement a couple months back, I’m hopeful that my company can come up with a simple device to pull all our tech craft together and play in this space.  It’s going to be huuugee, and I don’t want to miss it.

My data is my own, and the first company that fully embraces that perspective gets my money, and respect, big time!

 


Building a Tower PC – The Furniture

This is what home computing should look like…

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Reminiscent of a Memorex commercial (for those who can remember that iconic commercial with the fellow sitting in his lounger and being blown away).

There’s no point in building out a kick ass liquid cooled blinky light PC if you’re not going to show off your work.  So, I got to thinking about the piece of furniture that was going to showcase the build, and I came up with this design.  It’s built out of 2×4 lumber and MDF, because that’s the stock I had in the garage, and I needed to get rid of it to make room for more…

My design goal was a workbench like thing whose sole purpose would be to act as a computer work table/cabinet thing.  I don’t need a ton of drawers, I can simply stack plastic bins in there, or outside, if I feel I really need them.  I wanted an ample keyboard/mouse surface, because sometimes I need to place another laptop on the surface, or write stuff, and it’s nice to have the room to just push the keyboard back and use the worktop as a worktop.

I started out with a fairly standard looking garage workbench carcass.

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I put that power strip in there because it’s totally hidden when the workbench top is on, and it provides enough outlets, spaced far enough apart, that I can plug in the computer, 2 or three monitors, extra lights, speakers, and other stuff that might so happen to be sitting on the work top.

The thing is roughly 36″ on a side, with the worktop being 36″x33″ if memory serves correctly.

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This is in my ‘home office’ room, so there is carpet.  I had the dilemma of how to cart the thing around, because fully loaded, it’s quite heavy, and unwieldy.  I had a package of those furniture moving pads in a drawer, so I whipped those out, and they work a treat!  Each pad has a vinyl plate bottom, with a rubber top.  The 2×4 lumber sits nicely in the rubber, and I can easily move this thing all over my office all by myself.

With the demands of family, this took roughly two days to assemble.  Now that it all works, I can think about actually finishing it.  The things I want to do are to make it more like furniture, and less like something you’d find in the garage.  That means, doing some sanding, mahogany staining, varnish, and the like.  I’ll top the 3/4″ MDF top with an 1/8″ piece of hard board, and put some trim around the edge, to act as a buffer, and to hide the seam between the hardboard and MDF.  This makes for a nice durable surface that I can tape paper to every once in a while if I so happen to do any gluing or other craft work.

I’ve added the speaker system to the workbench, but right now it’s just kind of there, with the wires hanging all over.  I’ll have to drill a couple of circular holes for wire pass through.  To further make it kid proof, I’ll add some plexiglass siding, to keep their delicate little fingers out of the silently whirring fans.

Putting the computer in the corner as it is, is a pretty good thing.  It’s not taking up main floor space like the desk I was using.  That gives me a ton of space to do other stuff, like setup a mini 3D printer farm.  There’s a corner over by the window ready for exactly that.

In a fit of inspiration, I also removed the couch and chairs, which more often than not were collection places for junk.  Now I have an entirely open wall, ready for yet another workbench something or other.  Oddly enough, the wall on that side of the room is totally bare, and would be a perfect place to receive a 150″ micro projected image, as a large book case is on the opposite wall.  Perhaps that would be good for video conferencing in the large?

At any rate, the killer PC is getting a custom built piece of furniture.  I’m getting a new perspective on my home work space, and life is grand.


Building a Tower PC – one month on

The tower PC has found itself sidled up next to the desk in my office.  It’s not actually the best placement of the beast as you can’t really admire the innards from that position.  It’s really cool though because it’s fairly silent, causing a faint rumbling in the floor from the cooling reservoir.  You don’t really notice it until you turn it off.

As this thing is fairly quiet, even the occasional click click noise of the disk actual spinning rust disk drive becomes noticeable, and slightly annoying.  So, I decided to make my first mod to this beast.  I took out the Western digital 2TB drive, and put in a Samsung SSD 850 EVO 1TB.  There are a couple reasons for this replacement.  SSD drives are great for speed and silent, and low energy usage.  All good things.  They’re still a bit spendy though.  The 2TB version would have been twice as much, and then some.  So, 1TB is fine for now, as this machine is not intended to be a storage power house, just enough to handle local stuff fairly fast.

It may not seem like much of a change, but how has it worked out?  Well, when I had the spinning rust in there, I put all my repos on the D: drive, so downloading things from GitHub had a noticeable lag.  So too, compiling stuff with Visual Studio felt a bit sluggish.  My thinking was, why on earth would my laptop (all SSD all the time) be much faster at fairly simple compilation tasks, when this desktop beast is so much more powerful.  We’ll, I’ve just done a totally subjective test of compilation after installing the SSD and putting my repos on it.  Conclusion:  The snappiness level now meets my expectations.  I conclude that SSDs truly are a beneficial thing.

Now that I’ve got the snappy beast humming along, I’ll need to reconfigure my home office, build some new worktops, so that I can better display it, and have a much better work surface than my currently crowded desk.  One thing leads to another…


Not all media is good – climate trumped

During the mid 1980s through the 1990s, Apple was very interesting.  Going through swings of almost bankruptcy, to launching the all new Macintosh, to losing their illustrious CEO, and the birth of NeXT Computers.  During that time I was closely affiliated, either because I was selling a lot of those Macs, or because I was writing software on NeXT Computers.  The one thread that ran through the era was Steve Jobs, and the always present news story.  Steve had a way, and Apple has kind of gotten away from this a bit, of being in the news.  Whether it was because of tantrums in the engineering org, or his stylistic choices in architecture, Steve, and thus his companies, were always in the news for good or bad.  As such, Steve Jobs is a world renown name, and Apple is Apple.

Dare I say, the modern day Steve Jobs is Donald Trump.  This is how a modern political campaign is won.  He was always in the news, and everyone, especially his opponents, was always reacting to whatever he said or did.  That’s just the way it is, and now he’s about to be in the White House.

As humans, we are often afflicted by a fascination of all things human, and sometimes that leads us to believe we are all important, powerful, or penultimate if not on this planet alone, then in the entirety of the universe.  Then things start to happen that are far beyond our control.  Mt Pinatubo erupts, and suddenly atomic bombs look smallish.

While I was running on the treadmill this morning, I was watching some video “Earth in 1000 Years”.  It’s basically a 45 minute expose on what’s happening with the polar ice caps and iceland.  I found it to be just factual.  Satellite photos, x-rays, ice core samples, and the like.  Explanations of what ocean currents are doing, what happens with tons of fresh water sliding into the oceans, how carbon is trapped and released, and how it all correlates to climate change, ice ages, thaws, and the like.  Nothing political, no exhortations to drive an electric car, no brow beating about how environmental accords need to be agreed to.  Just cold hard facts of what’s happening to our planet today, and what it will likely mean over the next couple hundred years.

Then, I read this story about how Miami Beach is losing its sand.  Once again, this is a cold hard fact.  The people who live their and manage the beaches know full well what’s going on, and the risk associated with a sea that is rising by .24″ per year.  It’s not the actual rise that’s killer at the moment, but that the surge is upward, so the sand is getting washed away.

And this got me thinking on the Trump connection.  There are any number of stories on Donald Trump’s beliefs when it comes to climate change, like this one.  Basically “ah phooey, that stuff is a bunch of bunk…”.  Yep, heard it before.  Perhaps the only debatable point is the level to which human activities have any affect on the climate, but changing it is.  But, here’s Donald Trump, in the media, saying anything to stay in the minds of the masses.  It doesn’t really matter what he say.  Facts, half-truth, made up reality.  As long as he says it, and people are listening, it will get spread, and we’ll all react.

I understand why people say “there’s no climate change”.  Because, invariably, they think the restrictions we impose on ourselves to deal with it are taking jobs away, suppressing profits, and generally just a bunch of governmental overreach.  Yah, ok, I can understand the sentiment.

So, at least for the next 4 years, the US govt. might not be a world player when it comes to driving climate change initiatives.  But what does that mean to me the average schmoe.  Do I have to return all my newly installed LED lights and reinstall wasteful incandescent bulbs?  Do I have to purchase an American made muscle car that gets 15 mpg instead of an electric?  Do I have to invest in coal mines to ensure that my electricity comes from the good old fashioned “when America was great” method of electical generation, or can I go ahead and install those solar panels and battery pack at my house?

At some point, we all think, “this is a big problem, what difference does it make what I do?”, but these problems are all actually locally modifiable.  If everyone on the planet could ditch their incandescent bulbs in favor of LEDs, at the very least we’d be using that much less power, which leaves more for other uses.  If companies like Tesla make great looking cars at affordable prices, then we can buy them, and reduce by that much.  These are tiny things, but they do in fact add up.

Politicians are so important when it comes to setting an agenda, and driving in a particular direction.  We as individuals and societies outlast them, and operate on a personal level every day.  No matter what is said in the media about climate change, I’m going to continue to purchase LED lighting, because it’s a fairly economical thing to do, and it just makes sense.  I’m desperate to make my next car an electric one.  I’m going to ride my bike to work more, when it’s not quite so rainy and dark.  I’m going to try and support companies that are like minded and creating products that are friendly to the environment, not because they were forced to by government regulations, but because it seems like a good idea to take care of the place we call home.

Donald Trump is in the news a lot, for all sorts of things.  He’s a media hound, and thrives off the attention, and ultimately it will suit his needs, whatever they may be.  He is no oracle when it comes to understanding climate change.  He’s just another human.  I’m not going to get trumped by his view on climate, and I’m going to do the best that I can as a human to try and make our planet a better place.