Rustic Cyberpunk

Coffee & Cabins

Durable Technology

7 min read

It was still windy in New York as I was thinking of writing this. Last week, a storm passed though most of New England, including New York, and my area saw quite some damage. Since I live in an apartment some floors up, I was mostly spared, with the exception of a bit of lights flickering and Internet pauses.

My biggest concern was the windows blowing in during high winds or debris strikes. A worry that was more acute during Hurricane Sandy. Naturally, I wanted to experience the winds first hand because of my weird proclivities so I had one of the windows open the whole time. I didn't step outside this time since I'm not totally mad yet.

While the wind was raging, I was reviewing the technology that supports my lifestyle.

The largest power drain at my place is the fridge. In hot months, the AC is on par. Apartment life is largely impossible without AC, especially in upper floors when bombarded by the Sun, due to the way buildings are usually constructed here. Likewise, a cold fridge is hardly a luxury since most of the food we get is perishable and only economical when purchased in bulk.

While heating in winter isn't so much a concern for me due to concrete being a fairly consistent thermal mass and rising heat from lower floors, it's a huge concern to my neighbors close to the ground floor. There isn't much direct sunlight there to make use of the thermal mass. My fridge has a microcontroller that's a mystery to me since I don't want to take it apart. Likewise, there's one in the AC that keeps a timer and temperature sensors going.

A lot of the technology we rely on to stay connected and comfortable is also extremely fragile. Our quality of life depends on so much of it working flawlessly that I fear we're largely spoiled to some degree. I won't miss the era of struggling to find clean water and food or not being able to reach friends and family any time of day. But I'm sure there's a happy middle to self-sufficiency where we're less reliant on the infrastructure we take for granted.

It's ironic that I have a significantly smaller buffer to survive in civilization than when I'm out camping.

I enjoy mild discomfort in small doses while outdoors. I consider it an acceptable trade for peace of mind in solitude, but I also enjoy being comfortable most of the time. I'm used to a certain living standard that I don't really want to lose. I also don't want to pay a high price for it, moral nor fiat.

I also enjoy meeting and chatting with friends, much more than I used to back when I was younger. The Internet gifted and robbed the joy of detached communication, but I still want to keep that option.

While brainstorming all manner of connectivity and sustainability ideas can be fun, at some point, I really do need to put my foot down and decide what I actually need vs what's just nice to have. I do know at at least some of the structures I'm planning to build will have power, but maybe not all. At least one will have running water. All will have sensors to give me status on temperature and any potential damage during bad weather and such to ensure I can intervene in time.

I had already decided that I'd like to have some manner of mesh connectivity, but I realized that this is ripe for over-complexity and so I must be careful about the time I devote to this versus the rewards I'll actually reap.

I remembered the story of the ancient Commodore Amiga, first released in 1985, running a school AC and heating systems for more than 30 years.

While hardly perfect and prone to some failures owing to its age, I view this as a remarkable triumph in simplicity and durability. The weak parts have all been moving components, such as the mouse and hard drive. And the monitor, which is prone to EMF sensitivity and requires high voltage flyback transformer for the electron gun in the CRT. These components notwithstanding, the rest of the system is vastly more resilient than I would have expected. It's also a testament to the skill of the programmer who initially wrote all this software.

The systems and processes that enable my comfort should probably be left in the "low-tech" side in lieu of better features and speed. What I've noticed repeatedly is the benefit of engineering for loose tolerances, both in signals and user handling. And the benefit of designing for harsh environments. It's not unusual to see ancient computers running industrial control processes for decades. We seem to have sacrificed durability for features somewhere along the way and I'd like to get it back.

I've briefly toyed with the idea of a "smart cabin", but immediately dreaded the thought of coupling technology too tightly to my lifestyle again. I think the best kind of technology disappears into the background while performing its duties. There are also the privacy issues of smart-as-a-service and I distrust anything from a connected company. Not just because I don't know what information they collect and sell, but also what information will be walled off at a future date with built-in obsolescence.

An alternative, along the same lines as my DIY writing computer, is to make my own durable technology as best I can. While there are varying definitions of "durable", I'd like to start by reducing my reliance on things that are hard to repair with rudimentary tools, require some specialized technical knowledge

that is also hard to obtain. And I'd like to avoid things that need such high tolerances that conducting repairs in the middle of the woods in a cabin is out of the question.

So I'll need to practice welding some more and try to improve my carpentry skills. I'll also need to brush up on practical electronics. In terms of material, I'd like to limit plastics to the essentials that can't do without them while returning to wood and recycled metal whenever possible. I'd like to make all my constructs last as long as possible with minimal maintenance and replacement.

It's highly unlikely that I can make my own fridge, but I'm sure I can enable monitoring. Likewise, temperature control could probably be managed with off-the-shelf components, especially for the structure that has running water. The last thing I need is burst pipes due to freezing temperatures. If I go the wood heating route, manual intervention will be absolutely necessary, but I'd like to know when temperatures drop so I'll be ready to start a fire and keep it monitored so I don't burn the thing down. If I go the solar heating route, I'd like the vanes connected to thermal mass to open at the right time. These need not be mutually exclusive.

I'd also like to keep tabs on the composting toilet since I'm the forgetful type.

I think I would like to build my own durable technology going forward with simple electronics and replaceable, easily sourced, components. I absolutely do not foresee DIY semiconductor manufacturing in my immediate future, but I do see a path to some general purpose, simple computer that can be programmed for specific tasks and run on little power and oversight. On that subject, my favorite video series is by Ben Eater, in which he goes over each component of a simple 8-bit CPU built with discreet logic chips and hand wiring.

The series is quite long, but it's quite possibly the best visual explanation of any CPU on the Internet.

This is a custom architecture with its own instruction set that's specifically geared toward teaching computing and operations. It's a great starting point to build on, but I'd like to make something more capable which can be programmed to handle additional hardware. I've been looking at the RISC-V instruction set as a possible starting point for a durable, general purpose computer that can handle most automation tasks that I'm likely to need.

To that end, there's another video series I've been watching by Robert Baruch which specifically is a RISC-V computer with DIY registers made from RAM chips and such.

Although, he takes a different direction than I expected, this is a great introduction to RISC-V and how it may be implemented. The true value of the series to me is learning the intricacies of the instruction set, which I feel will be far more prominent in the future. I found the ALU design video showing the operation of the Arithmetic and Logic Unit very illuminating.

I think I'm confident that this is the path to a general purpose computer to handle my day-to-day tasks in limited automation that I don't feel needs much fiddling once programmed and can be left alone. Possibly for years on end.

I don't see myself abusing any technology I'll utilize for the heck of it or leaving it all at the mercy of the elements, but living in solitude is bound to let the things I make encounter some harsh conditions from time-to-time. I'd like to start down a path of reasonable comfort and maintain my lifestyle choices in the future as I withdraw into the woods. To me, this is the essence of "Rustic Cyberpunk".

Farming à la Cyberpunk

5 min read

Nature is beautiful. That's only true when looking at it from the safety of a window or briefly exposed to flesh in relatively clean areas. When you get up close, especially to grow things, there are all manner of critters that can wreak havoc on your immune system. Especially since we're far more sheltered now than we used to be. It's one thing to want to be demolished by weather, but quite another to experience starvation or food poisoning.

I'd like to grow a few things in addition to some basic gardening, but I'd also like to try my hand at introducing a level of automation into it. I don't think I'll have an actual "farm" in the sense of producting enough to sell, but I like the idea of supplementing what I need with a little extra as a buffer. I'll be extra careful not to lose perspective along the way.

This video is a few years old, but it is a great example of something I'd like to try eventually.

That's a beautiful illustration of what's possible with experimentation and drive. I wish Eryk Maundu and Kijani Grows all their well deserved success.

Hobbyist tech has improved quite a bit since that video was made and the Kijani Grows approach to aquaponics might be the way to try things small-scale. Especially for someone like me who lives in an apartment. Until I can actually secure land to try more expansive things, I'd like to experiment as much as I can in miniature.

While I like the idea of getting a pre-made "kit" to start gardening, I like starting from scratch even more. Plus, it's a great opportunity to learn what I can do with most of these components and experience more about the approaches I can take versus what actually works in the real world.

In that original project, they were using an Arduino Uno as the core with several relay boards and communication shields. This approach works for the most part, but also introduces several points of failure. In later revisions, it seems they have already replaced a lot of the disparate systems with a more integrated controller board that runs OpenWrt. That's a very sensible move.

I think a balance of passive tech and active electronics might be the way to go.

Water levels are probably best left up to passive balancing as much as possible, while moisture and temperature monitoring, fan control(s), and notifications should probably be automated. In that regard, I think there can be two main components; A core device which handles status reports and maybe notifications over the Internet and lower power devices that handle triggering relays and such. This also decopules the smaller relay controlling devices from the Big Bad Internet. Safety first!

A similar approach to that phone booth idea might work here as well. Leaving notifications to a central, hardened, device while the rest keep running their own tasks adds a degree of decentralization and resilience. This decoupling also makes it easier to power each gardening "unit" independently via solar panels and batteries (relays and controllers don't need a lot of power, but pumps and fans do). So if a single board and its independent system goes down, it won't take the whole farm with it. And replacing a single controller board should be less expensive than a bigger device.

A farming "unit" might just be a single greenhouse the same size as my cabin design. If I can build several on one plot of land, I can also diversify what I grow. I don't know if my first attempt should be aquaponics, but it's an option. It will obviously be much more involved than a typical herb garden.

Arudino boards are more capable now than the models available 8 years ago, but another option might be the ESP32; The same one I was originally planning to use for my DIY word processor. It may be a tad too underpowered for that task, but handling relays should be far more simple and straightforward.

ESP32
It also has Bluetooth, but I probably won't need that.

And it comes with built-in WiFi (with WPA2), which gets rid of yet another another physical connection to a control source and obviates the additional shield board if I went with an Arduino.

As in the Kijani Grows project, the control and notification source should probably be something that runs OpenWrt. Router software should be easier to harden if I actually do decide to let it send me notifications over the Internet. This way, I can independently update the notification system from all the myriad controllers too. A simple router that already runs OpenWrt I was looking at was the GL-MT300N.

GL-MT300N
Ironically, it also has Tor capability so it might be interesting to run an automated farm over Tor for the full Cyberpunk experience.

What really caught my attention in the new V2 are the two IPEX connectors for external antennas and the power requirements. The original package doesn't come with external antennas at all, but there's no reason to keep it in the original package if I plan to give it some margin of weather resistance anyway. It might be interesting to see if I can put all the ESP32 controllers on a dedicated WiFi LAN. The router board itself can connect upstream via ethernet and run on solar too if needed since it needs 5V at 1 amp and only uses 2.75 watts at most.

I'll need to check out what Aruduino IDE projects are available for the ESP32 before I can truly explore what's possible.

The entire concept of aquaponics is fascinating to me since it mimics a food cycle at least part way. There are extra bits and bobs for sure, but it also makes food variety possible, which I think is overlooked too often when it comes to distributed, sustainable tech.

Bringing Back Phone Booths

8 min read

I've mostly gone back to using my phone for calls and text messages. I do sometimes still browse the internet on it, but I fire up the laptop more often for that these days. The larger screen is kinder to my eyes as well. Public transport is usually a respite for me so I try to turn off the rest of the world while on the road, internet included. Silence is a rare commodity in modern civilization, with an exponentially increasing value.

I remember in high school, I got my first mobile flip phone for emergency use. Most other kids with some form of remote communication had beepers. Again, for emergencies, and the school payphones were in high demand.

Communication is a lot cheaper now, but that has come with the cheapening of conversations. There's a noticeable lack of warmth in the smiles I see every day. More people greet each other by bumping into them while looking down on their phone. I don't think we've faced a period in time where people are so connected and yet be so alone. The immediacy of feedback rarely carries the weight of longing and so most conversations, even across continents, feel trivial.

While it's naive to think that having more phone booths will prevent people from accessing their personal supercomputers as long as they have them in their pockets, I think there's still a need for a dedicated, permanent access point for communication.

Phone batteries die all the time. Connection can still be spotty. Privacy is harder on a device that stays with you and sometimes, you really do need to use a screen at least the size of a tablet. Not carrying any sort of complex electronics that can track you might also come into fashion at some point in the future.

When I think of "booths", I usually envision the classic, red phone booths in the UK and the colonies.

K6 Red Telephone Box
Photo by Christoph Braun

But let's be more practical here. These are going to be expensive to recreate and, in an age of lax moral discretion, far more likely to be vandalized. An alternative is to create a monolithic pillar with few protrusions and a simple screen for interaction. While it can serve primarily as a contact point, it can double as a browsing screen with a bigger view. In that regard, it would make more sense to call these "nodes" instead.

The idea for this is of course derived from Blade Runner. Users Staar and Toa Quarax posted these on a PropSummit forum thread a while ago.

Hero phone

Hero phone

Phone side view

Isn't it beautiful?

These are apparently operated by a fictional version of Ma Bell, back when AT&T held on to its roots as the Bell Telephone Company, noted by the conspicuous bell logo. And they're called "Vid Phon".

Phone closeup

Phone front view

This being a "Vid Phon", there is a camera next to the speaker. I think that's a speaker, but it could also be a futuristic "depth thing" a-la Microsoft Kinect.

Camera closeup
From this angle, it looks like a speaker to the left of the camera
Camera closeup
That is most definitely the old Bell System logo

Monopolies belong in cyberpunk fiction, but the real world breakup of Ma Bell was obviously unforeseen. AT&T is now a monopoly again, but that's another topic.

On the same thread, user nickdaring posted this possible concept version.

Video phone concept
Video phone concept with privacy wings

Unlike the concept, they've minimized the final design to be more streamlined. While that makes it less inviting for privacy, it's also less prone to damage outdoors and "in the wild". The front interface is much wider and the keypad is more prominent in the final design as well.

Phone keypad

The screen appears worse for wear. Being the most obvious focual point, it remains as the last vandal magnet on the entire device.

Screen closeup

Writing on screen
Writing on screen on an angle

It seems to be a little over 79cm tall, which actually is within the range of a typical payphone.

Phone height at 79cm+

Note, the back of this is actually made of wood. Being a prop, it doesn't actually need to be vandal-resistant.

Phone back
Back of the phone showing exposed wiring harness and wood structure

I think we can dispense with the phone handset altogether and instead try to use speaker tricks to converge sound to a single point directly in front. This will give some privacy while eliminating yet another potential vandal magnet.

Phone side
Note how the sides offer some privacy while protecting the front as well. I think this is a brilliant design, the more I look at it.

What I especially like about them is the appearence of near-bullet-proof construction. Almost like a bollard turned into a node; Which itself may not be a bad idea. Instead of a row of bollards which do nothing but prevent cars from jumping the curb, why not extend upper portion into an access point.

That's not to say, the rest of the device won't face some damage. The care gone into the detail here shows that the cover is meant to resemble a detatchable part whereas the inner core is another "metallic" object. This would make refurbishment easier on an actual device by simply replacing the cover.

Side damage
Although wall-mounted in the movie, it may be just as at home on top of a bollard
Phone labels 1
I have no idea what this says, but it looks beautiful
Phone labels 2
I love the detail on the labels for this

I mentioned earlier about not carrying complex electronics which can track you. Disposable phone cards are one place where this might be viable, provided the cards can still be purchased with cash. The Vid Phone cards are gorgeous as well.

Card closeup
This design is beautiful too
Card in phone
Card inserted into phone

I've also been thinking about a potential technology stack to make this work; The set of features for a communications platform that can be left unattended for long periods of time. Instead of a typical desktop computer, I was thinking of single-board computers which can easily be solar powered and run on batteries with comparatively little maintenance. Most can be configured to run fanless, which makes them quiet, and they're designed for industrial enviornments which aren't friendly to delicate electronics in general. That also makes them more resilient to bad weather. Many have ample GPIO (General Purpose Input Output) pins which enable environmental monitoring, with appropriate sensors, at the node location as well.

The Pine64 series of single-board computers seems the most viable for availability, cost, and foreseeable long-term support. There are many others out there, but this seems the most cost-effective while being supported by the Operating System I've also been thinking of for this: OpenBSD. The current arm64 port does support the Rockchip RK3399 platform so the main board will likely be a ROCKPro64. Even though it's the most power-hungry of the lot, it can run fanless with a tall heatsink and should have enough processor power and memory capacity to function as a decent kiosk. At the time of this post, it costs $80.

ROCKPro64 board

The other option is the newly released Raspberry Pi 3 with its dual monitor support and more attractive price. The down side is that there are some USB-C issues caused by an implementation that didn't follow the spec. Besides this, the board is barely a few weeks old and I don't know how well it will perform in the long run. It hasn't been proven in the field yet.

The ROCKPro64 could also potentially be coupled with an ESP32 for nearby Wifi and Bluetooth as a 1-2 user hotspot. This too is a very cheap component.

ESP32

I'd like to implement these in pairs of computers. One functioning as the node out in the field, which connects to a "handler" at a central location.

The "handler" will likely be the Sopine compute modules, which can sit on a clusterboard, with seven modules per cluster. Making one Sopine compute board responsible for one node makes running the system more efficient in terms of resources instead of dealing with one big server handling many nodes. Both the node and handler location can be solar powered since there aren't any severe cooling requirements with a cluster of Sopine boards besides a fan or two per cluster.

Sopine compute module

Sopine cluster board

The nodes out in the field are are essentially "fat clients", the opposite of "thin clients" usually seen on kiosk duty. Fat clients have more resources to deal with the applications they're currently running, and they do run them locally most of the time with only data saving and communications sent back.

The "handler" only dispatches the boot image, provides application copies, system updates etc... This allows only a minimal system to be installed on the nodes, making updating the whole thing easier. If there's any problem with a node, try sending a reboot command while swapping out the Sopine compute board. It also gives a degree of resiliency and decentralization since there isn't a single server responsible for a whole swath of nodes. And since each clusterboard can be on its own ethernet connection, only a single cluster with seven nodes will go down if the port fails. This also enables the handlers and nodes to be independently updated in staggered rollouts without taking down the entire node system.

Speaking of the network, media converters can be used to maintain Ethernet connectivity over much longer distances. There are media converters with 2km to 20km range at reasonable prices now and most don't consume much power, keeping that solar power option open. Using fiber out to the field also makes it less attractive to copper thieves while maintaining high bandwidth. The whole package for the node - case (bulk of the cost), mainboard, media converter, batteries, solar panel - will probably be around $1000. Adding it on top of a bollard will make installation simpler so that's an additional reduction in cost.

There are still a great number of details to work out in this project, the least of which is the software configuration. OpenBSD makes for a very simple desktop, especially when coupled with Xfce in kiosk mode.

A lot to digest, but I've been thinking strongly about all of this for some time. All of this will have to come after my cabin project, of course.