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A Coder and a YouTuber Provide DIY Power for Puerto Rico

Energy

By Tom Cassauwers

Before the hurricane came, I was a software engineer. I'd graduated with a bachelor's degree in graphic design and animation, but here in Puerto Rico there weren't many jobs in that field, so I taught myself how to code. When I began, I didn't even know how to make "hello world" appear. After a while, I was building full-blown apps.


In May 2017, I had to quit my job—my employer stopped paying us, which left me little choice. I then started working full-time on my DIY project: a full-body 3D scanner. I built the scanner myself, and to this day it's probably the only one in Puerto Rico, or even Latin America.

Then the 2017 hurricane season hit. My house was knocked off the grid for a week. I didn't even notice it at first because my house partly ran on solar power. After Hurricane Maria, though, I knew I had to push harder to keep the lights on.

I started looking up information online and buying gear from Amazon. I researched how to build batteries and store energy—I even found examples from the Philippines and Africa. While I was putting things together, all around me people were suffering, and I was trying to teach them about solar energy. There are still tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans without power. Many of them are poor, often elderly, and they live in remote communities. Some have to choose between paying for power and paying for water.

At that time, I found Jehu Garcia's YouTube channel. He's a California-based professional YouTuber who builds all kinds of contraptions based on batteries. He has a self-built Volkswagen electric van and a rebuilt Tesla Powerwall, which he did by himself. He mentioned Puerto Rico in an interview he did around then, and it just hit me—I knew we could do this.

From there on out, things moved fast. I started building solar installations for people without energy, based on Jehu's instructions, and he called on his followers to donate equipment. He even came over to Puerto Rico to help.

Essentially, we use trash to turn on the lights. We use recycled batteries from dead laptops and other electronic devices to build solar generators. Oftentimes people discard batteries even though they are still working; they simply have a circuit board that went bad. So we give them a second, third or even fourth life. They're adapted, attached to solar panels, and used to store the energy the panels generate.

I've worked on 44 projects of various scales. In one of my latest, I worked with three amazing women who live on top of a mountain near Arecibo. To get there, you need to walk a dirt road next to a cliff. They don't have power, because of the location. I had to walk up that hill four times, but last week one of the women sent me a message saying that her little nephew is able to watch TV at their house.

Right now, we are working together with Sirenas Taínas, an organization that helps poor people rebuild their houses. They go knocking on doors, and when they find people who are without electricity, they call us.

There are a lot of big companies coming to Puerto Rico now and investing in renewables. I love it, but I keep wondering if this is really a solution. They build their solar parks and windmills next to the coast and plug them into the centralized grid. But there are a lot of poor people who—certainly during a catastrophe—will not be able to rely on that grid. That's why I'm transitioning from donating solar installations to helping people make low-cost solar systems. I want to make sure they know how it works. We should not just be given fish; we need to learn how to fish.

Puerto Rico is just a little dot, but around the world more than 1 billion live without electricity. The things we develop here have great potential for all those people. The Bible says to take care of your neighbor. If people actually did that, imagine what an awesome world we would live in.

This article appeared in the July/August 2018 edition with the headline "Empowering Puerto Rico."

This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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