The B300 external expansion battery for the AC200Max just arrived an hour ago and dear sweet mother of milk of magnesia that puppy is big! Not only is it physically larger than the AC200Max it’s considerably heavier too. The specifications page pegs it at 80 pounds and after lugging that thing down the basement stairs and into my office/lab/radioshack I can assure you that it is every single ounce of that.
And to make things even more interesting the connector for the massive cable that connects it to the AC200 is, drum roll please, on the wrong side of the damned battery box! The connector on the battery box is on the right. The connector on the AC200 is on the left. And the cable is too short to reach if the two of them are stacked with the front panels towards, well, the front. The only way to connect them is to turn the battery around so the panel and switches are facing the rear.
Right now I’m dumping about about 800+ watts combined solar/grid power into it to fully charge the B300 and it’s sucking it down just fine. It’s already up to near full capacity. Of course I’m also drawing about 250W out of it at the same time to run my office so that’s slowing it down a bit. Yes, you can charge it from two different sources at the same time, and draw power from it at the same time as well.
So, I have good news, and I have good news. Very good for a change.
First, regarding Bluetti customer service: Not only did I get a positive response from the company’s regular customer service department that was actually helpful, this morning I got an email from an actual engineer at the company to discuss specifics about the problems I encountered. As noted before the voltage fluctuation problem went away by itself but they’re concerned about that light flickering and wanted specific information about the brand, model and other details about that light so they could look into it. That’s not a big issue though because I believe the problem is related to that particular model light and that one only. All the others I tested had no problems. I suspect it is an issue with the design of that light fixture.
So that makes me feel a lot better when it comes to customer service.
My solar panels arrived! I ordered 4, 100W panels from a company called HQST mainly because they were very cheap. And it turns out that not only were they very cheap, they’re very good as well. It took me all of about 10 minutes to set them up leaning against the backside of the garage, one of them shaded by that stupid bush out there. And at the moment I’m getting almost 300 watts out of them (hooked in series) If I didn’t have that one panel being partly shaded and had them at the right angle relative to the sun I’d be getting close to the full 400 watts out of them. So I’m enormously pleased with that too.
Right now I’m getting between 250 – 300 watts out of ’em. We have some intermittent high, thin clouds that shade them out a bit which is why there is the fluctuation in output. I’m drawing 190W in the office at the moment running my laptop with 2 monitors, stereo speakers and a few other things, so the panels are making about 100W more than what I’m consuming here in the office.
I tried dual charging the AC200 as well, charging with the AC200Max’s AC charger and the solar panels and it was happily sucking down about 750 – 800 watts from both sources at the same time.
So I am enormously pleased. (Squeals like small child)
Later Edit: Okay, within an hour of me posting this, guess what happened? I got a response back from Bluetti regarding the message I’d sent them last week about the RFI issue. They acknowledged that yes, there are RFI problems but they can’t do much about it at this time and are working to try to improve future models. And they gave me $2,000 Bluetti Bucks, whatever the heck those are. So I changed the headline up there from “do not buy” to Be Cautious.
From what I’ve been seeing on social media, Bluetti’s customer service is allegedly not very good. Scrounging around on places like Reddit, Youtube, and various forums, I’ve been seeing story after story from customers having trouble getting any kind of response from the company’s customer service department.
You can’t sell a very high tech, very complex and extremely expensive product like Bluetti does without a good customer service department to solve customer problems. And it seems that as of right now at least, Bluetti doesn’t have a good record when it comes to service after the sale.
The Bluetti equipment I’ve been working with here has been excellent, well made and it works. But seeing all of the stories about their customer service makes me very, very nervous.
So, does getting a response back from the company make me feel less uncomfortable? That I got a response back that actually addressed the problem, even though they couldn’t do anything about it, and that they tried to make up for it by giving me the “Bluetti Bucks” does help, I must admit. But I’m still nervous about all the issues I’ve been seeing regarding customer service.
So far so good, but there have been some curious issues so I thought I’d throw this out there quick.
I was looking at the thing sitting there the other day and I said to myself, Self, it’s kind of silly having that $2,000 box sitting there doing nothing possibly for months waiting for a power failure. You should do something with it.
So I did. I took my entire radioshack/office/mad scientist lab off-grid with it. Well, sort of off-grid. My solar panels haven’t arrived yet so I still have to charge the AC200MAX off the grid but I wanted to see if it would work, and yes, it did. Quite well, with a couple of glitches.
Making the switch over was simple because all of my sensitive electronics are all plugged into UPS systems that include meters that tell me many things about the power coming into them, brown out protection, surge protection, etc. (I very strongly urge people to always, always keep their electronic equipment plugged into one of these instead of plugging directly into the mains. I lost a very expensive gaming computer due to multiple brownouts/power surges during a storm a couple of years ago. These things aren’t cheap but they can keep you from losing thousands of dollars of equipment.)
So I unplugged the UPSs from the wall and plugged them into the Bluetti and, well, everything just worked just fine.
Then I noticed that the meter on one of the UPSs was showing the voltage coming out of the Bluetti was shifting +- 2 volts, about 118 VAC to 120VAC. That was curious.
Something odd going on with the inverter in the AC200? Bad plug on it maybe?
I switched the flickering UPS to a different plug on the Bluetti. Did the same thing. I plugged it into the wall outlet. It showed a stead 119V.
I got out my meters and started checking things. My Fluke definitely showed that the AC coming out of the Bluetti was shifting +- 2 volts.
Now I should point out that a volt or two fluctuation in the current coming into my house from the grid happens rather often. In fact the electrical service coming into the house can go from a high 0f 122V to a low of 110V during the day.
That bothered me, though. I put the scope on the Bluetti and it showed the AC coming out was at a virtually perfect 60 Hertz sine wave, so that was okay.
I shut everything down. I started up the Bluetti again and the voltage fluctuation was still there. I did a ‘restore to factory defaults’ on the device and restarted it and tried it again. The fluctuation was still there.
And then later it just went away. I ran my entire office/lab/radioshack off it for two days, and the power fluctuations just went away. Why? No idea. Did it just need to, oh, stabilize somehow, to ‘burn in’? No idea. All I know is that all day yesterday the voltage coming out of the Buetti was an almost perfect 119V.
Then there was the light issue. I replaced the overhead fluorescent lights in there with LED versions a year or two ago. They give better light and use a fraction of the energy. I plugged one of those into the Bluetti and it flickered rapidly. Sigh…
I got out the meter again and expected to see the voltage fluctuation had gotten worse, but the meters were showing a solid 119V. I put the scope on it again. A perfect sine wave. Okay, now what was going on?
I plugged in a different LED light. That one worked perfectly. I scrounged up several more LED lights. All of them worked fine. Only my overhead tube lights flickered. As far as I can tell the problem is only with that specific light and no others.
Now let’s talk about radio. I’m an amateur radio operator as you probably know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while. Solar power systems and these battery inverters can be troublesome when it comes to causing RFI (radio frequency interference). So I was anticipating some problems, and I found them. This is what the scope on my Kenwood TS-990 shows when I’m running it off the Bluetti.
See those vertical lines? Those are not supposed to be there. They represent spikes of radio interference that appear at regular intervals throughout almost the entire HF range.
Now if you’re an amateur radio operator and that image up there just sent you into a panic, it isn’t as bad as it looks. At least not in my particular case. Yes, those spikes are nasty, but with my particular AP200Max none of those spikes appear in any of the amateur radio bands. Whether that will be the case with other units I don’t know. But in my case the situation is tolerable.
There is some more or less generic RFI coming off the thing that seems, in my case anyway, to be concentrated on 40 meters. 30M was completely clear, no RFI at all. 20M was decent, 17, 15, 12, 10 meters were all good. On 40 there was some significant RFI but not enough to prevent me from operating. And engaging the noise blanker on the transceiver knocked a lot of that out.
What the RFI situation will be like once I hook in the solar panels, well, we’ll just have to wait and see. But if necessary I could run my whole radioshack off the Bluetti with very few problems.
I did send a complaint in to Bluetti describing the issues I had with the light flickering, the voltage fluctuations and the RFI issues, including that photo up there showing the RFI problem. I got a canned response back that they would respond within 48 hours, so we’ll see.
Overall the test running my office/radioshack was successful. I discovered that I actually use surprisingly little energy in there. Typically less than 300W, which rather surprised me because that’s including a gaming laptop, two monitors, the Kenwood TS-990, big stereo speakers and a few other goodies. I didn’t try running larger loads like my soldering equipment, the 3D printer or the laser engraver. And, of course, when actually transmitting with the TS-990 the wattage went up considerably.
I have 4, 100W solar panels coming that should be here by the end of the month. I picked the cheapest ones I could find and I’m not expecting much out of them, but it should be enough to be able to test charging the Bluetti off solar. Well, if we ever get sunlight, that is. My eventual goal is to get semi-permanent solar panels up on the garage roof, as much of it as I can afford and fit up there. The roof faces straight south and it is already at nearly the perfect angle, and that location should provide me with solar through almost the entire day now that the trees around the garage are gone. I’d like to get at least 800 – 1,200 watts of solar up there this year.
The other thing I did was buy one of the expansion batteries for the AC200Max, the 3,000Wh one. That should be here by the end of the month as well That will push the capacity of the system to up over 5,000 watt hours. So watch for a review of that in the near future.
I want to talk about how to keep the lights on when the grid fails, something a lot of people were thinking about when that major winter storm rolled over much of the United States during the holidays and then when another hammered California and the southern part of the country, leaving millions of people without power, and sometimes even trapped in their homes.
This is going to be a two part series. I’m going to talk about the AC200MAX first because there are several people waiting for the review of this device. The second part is going to talk about these portable power systems in general, why you might want one, and most importantly how to determine how to properly size it to suit your needs without wasting money and, even worse, getting mislead by the advertising.
These things are often mislabeled “solar generators”, but they are neither solar nor generators. If you buy the almost always optional solar panels to recharge these devices you could make the argument they’re solar generators I suppose. But these devices by themselves are really energy storage devices. Basically they’re a big box of batteries.
Bluetti has been around for a few years now and its PPSs (portable power stations) are generally rated well in reviews and so far my experience with the one in the photo above has been completely positive.
The model I picked, the AC200MAX has a capacity of 2048 watt hours, and it can handle a maximum sustained load of 2,000 watts, and can handle brief surges in demand of up to 4,000 watts. It has a built in inverter that converts the batteries DC power to 120VAC. There are four standard 120 VAC plugs on the front. It also has a 30 Amp 120V NEMA TT-30 connector typically seen in RVs that would let it power an entire RV.
It also has a variety of DC power ports including USB-A 5V 3A, two USB A 18W ports, a 100W USB-C port, a DC 12V 10A cigarette lighter type plug in port, a DC 12V 30 Amp port, and as if that wasn’t enough, there are two wireless 15W charging pads for cellphones on the top of the box.
Basically this thing has just about every kind of power plug I’ve ever heard of. All of the outputs have overload and short circuit protection. And no, I did not test that. I’m not about to deliberately short circuit a device that cost me almost two grand just to see if the protection actually works.
On the lower left side of the unit are there are two connectors to hook up optional external battery packs. Up to two optional battery modules, either a 2048Wh ($1,300) or 3072Wh ($2,200) battery packs can be added to the unit to that can give it a total capacity of more than 8,000 Wh. And that, folks, is a hell of a lot of energy to be packed into that small of a space.
Also on the left side of the unit are the charging ports. You have several options here too for charging. The unit can be charged by, well, just about anything. It comes with a 500 watt charger for topping off the AC200 from the grid and it will charge up the unit reasonably quickly. The single AC charger will replenish the AC200MAX in about 5 – 6 hours.
There is also a DC input port intended for use with an optional solar charging system. There is a solar charge controller built into the AC200. That port can also be used to recharge the unit from a car with an optional cable (I’m not sure how long that would take but at least it’s an available option).
If that’s not enough options for you and you need to recharge the AC200 even faster, you can pick up a second 500 watt charger and with an optional cable charge the unit with two chargers at once, one plugged into the solar charging port. Or you can charge it at the same time from a solar panel system and the AC charger.
If you plan on getting solar panels for recharging the device it can handle up to 145V and 15.2 Amps maximum without the need for an external charge controller.
The manual claims you can recharge this thing by plugging a cable into a car’s cigarette lighter. Considering those things only put out about 120 watts, be prepared to wait a while to do a recharge. But still it’s an interesting feature that might be useful.
Physically, this thing is a beast. It is as large and heavy as my Yamaha 2KW gasoline powered inverter. It weighs in at about 60lbs, and the physical dimensions are around 17″ X 11″ X 15″. At 60 pounds you aren’t going to be casually carrying this thing around. If you end up getting the optional expansion battery packs this thing is going to be seriously heavy. But the weight and size is typical for portable power stations with this capacity.
Oh, and I should talk about the batteries. This unit uses LiFePO4 batteries. The manufacturer claims that after 3,500 charge cycles the batteries should still retain about 80% of their original capacity. That means you could recharge this thing every day for 10 years and still have 80% capacity left.
Now we come to the control systems. Just left of the screen is a big ON button. Push that and after a moment it will boot up and the color touch screen turns on. The screen not only displays all of the information you need, it is the primary control system for the unit.
Before you can use it you have to specifically turn on the DC and/or AC power systems to make the plugs “live”. But once you do that it’s ready to go and all you need to do is plug in whatever devices or appliances you need to power.
Other information is also available on various screens including load statistics, the ability to switch the system to handle European or Japanese electrical devices which use a different power system, and a few other goodies.
And there is a free app you can get for your phone that allows you to monitor what the Bluetti is doing. It is Bluetooth only, the device has no WiFi capabilities, so the range is limited. I was able to keep in touch with the Bluetti with my phone anywhere I was in the house, garage and even much of my backyard.
How well does it work?
If you thought all of the above was boring, you’re going to find the actual in-use evaluation of the Bluetti even more dull. It just works exactly as specified by the manufacturer. No drama, no problems, no issues, nothing. It just did everything it was supposed to do without any problems at all.
The primary use for mine is to provide backup power for two essential systems in the house, our gas furnace and our sump pumps. So that’s what I’ve been testing it on.
A gas furnace doesn’t use a lot of electricity, just enough to keep the thermostat system operating, which is minimal, and, of course, the blower fans. The actual heating is done by the combustion of natural gas. A natural gas furnace doesn’t use a great deal of electricity, generally in the 350 – 700 watt range. The electronic igniter that actually lights the gas uses some electricity of course. Rather a lot, in fact, but it works for such a short period of time that it isn’t that important.
My furnace was already set up to be used with our backup generator so I didn’t have to do any additional electrical work to make it possible to power the furnace alone. All I have to do was turn off the furnace, plug in a single electrical cable to switch from grid power to the Bluetti, and turn the furnace back on again.
Sidenote: I am going to give the usual disclaimer here. Consult with a licensed electrician before trying to make any modifications to your house’s electrical systems. Yes, I know house wiring isn’t that difficult to deal with, but unless you know what you’re doing you can end up in serious trouble or even dead if you screw something up. Then there is the legal issues to consider. A lot of jurisdictions require a licensed electrician to make any significant changes to a home’s electrical systems. There are also issues when it comes to your home owner’s insurance. If there is a fire in your home and subsequent investigation reveals that the home had electrical modifications that did not meet building codes or that were not performed by a licensed electrician the insurance company may refuse to cover the damage.
So, how did the Bluetti work while powering the furnace? Exactly as I expected it would. It handled the furnace easily with no issues at all. As my research indicated, the furnace required about 350 – 550 watts during operation. The wide range there is because this model furnace has a variable speed blower fan.
Once you know how much power a device draws, figuring out how long a battery system will run that device is pretty simple. The Bluetti has a bit more than 2,000 watt hour capacity so it should be able to run a device that needs, on average, about 400 watts, for about 5 hours. But that’s assuming that the device will be running all the time, and the furnace isn’t running constantly. The fans only run when the furnace’s burner is actually in use. On the day I did this test after 3 hours of operating the furnace the Bluetti still had 78% capacity, far better than I had anticipated.
So in actual testing, with those particular weather conditions, with the thermostat set at 67F degrees, the Bluetti should have been able to keep the furnace operating for around 12 hours.
Those numbers are under a specific set of conditions that could change quickly, of course. The weather was relatively mild with outdoor temperatures about 30F and very little wind. During colder weather and higher winds the furnace would run more often and for longer periods of time in order to maintain the temperature in the house. That, of course, would deplete the Bluetti more quickly.
The other intended use for the Bluetti is to keep the sump pumps going. We had part of the basement flood because of a sump pump failure here some years ago and we do not want to go through that again. I now have a backup pump on the shelf along with all of the tools and plumbing parts I need, and I changed the whole system so I can swap out a pump in just a few minutes. But in case of a power failure that isn’t going to do me any good. And since power failures often happen during storms when we’re getting heavy rain, they can happen at the worst possible time when we need the pumps the most.
Sump pumps require considerably more power than the furnace. The pumps I have require about 700 watts to run, but they run only intermittently. In addition to that load, there is a significant surge current when the pump first starts up, with can hit 1,300 watts for a few seconds.
I picked the capacity of the Bluetti specifically so it could, hopefully, handle both sump pumps at the same time. It can handle a current demand of up to 2,000 watts, sustained and the pumps together would take about 1,400. The PPS can handle a surge demand of over 4,000 watts. In a worst case scenario the two pumps might start at exactly the same time so there would be a momentary surge demand of about 2,600 watts. So it should be able to handle both pumps, at the same time, even if both pumps start at the same time.
I did test the Bluetti running the pumps. I already knew that because of the surge load and increased power requirements I would get much less actual runtime on the pumps than I would with the furnace. And I was a bit anxious about it being to able to run both pumps at the same time, especially if both started at exactly the same time. I’m pleased to report that it was able to handle both pumps with no problems. The Bluetti’s internal cooling fans did come on while running the pumps, but that was expected and normal.
During an actual rainstorm situation the Bluetti wouldn’t be able to keep both pumps running for more than an hour or so I estimate, but that’s all I need from it. I want it to give me some breathing room, carry the load for a while until I have a chance to get one of the gasoline generators running. My big Generac is cranky and hard to start sometimes, and even my little 2KW Yamaha inverter takes a while to get set up in a good location outside and run a cable down to the basement.
Could it run both of the pumps and the furnace at the same time? Well, maybe? That would be pushing the Bluetti to its full capacity, though. Theoretically it could. Total sustained demand running all three at the same time would be about 1,900 watts, maybe a bit more, really close to it’s top limit of 2,000 watts sustained load, and in a worst case scenario where both pumps and the furnace would start up at exactly the same time the surge load would be pushing the theoretical limits of the device’s maximum surge capacity.
Hopefully that won’t be necessary to deal with. Usually during the heating season the pumps don’t run at all. They’re generally only needed in the spring, summer and fall, and then only when we have a significant rain event.
Now, what about recharging this thing? At the moment I’m using the grid powered 500 watt charger that came with the unit. Bluetti will sell you solar panels that are capable of recharging this unit in a reasonable amount of time, but there are problems with that system. First it’s expensive, Buetti’s system will cost you $800+ for enough capacity. And even worse, these are portable, non-weather proof and not intended to be left outside. They can’t be left up in rain or snow. That’s not what I’m looking for. I want to set up a solar charging system that will be more or less a permanent installation that I don’t need to worry about. I’m still looking into that. I’ll probably set something up this spring when I can get outside to work.
So let’s sum everything up. The Bluetti AC200MAX is a very well made piece of equipment, it works exactly as advertised. I’ve encountered no problems at all with it during testing. It has met and even exceeded my expectations all the way around and I am very pleased with it. Yes, it’s heavy and awkward to lug around but so is any PPS with this capacity. It just plain works, and works well.
This thing ain’t cheap, and this may be a deal breaker for a lot of people. The Bluetti model I’ve been talking about cost me, including taxes, $2,000. That’s a heck of a lot of money, especially when you can get a gasoline powered generator with the same capacity or even more for a quarter of that price. So before you buy one of these you need to consider all of your options and what your needs are.
In our case here, we feel it was worth the money even though we have gasoline powered generators. The Bluetti takes some of the panic out of the situation. If necessary it could keep the essentials, the furnace and pumps, running long enough to give me a chance to get one of the gas generators set up and running. And I was also thinking of MrsGF if I didn’t happen to be home when there was a power failure. There’s no way she could get the big Generac set up and running by herself and there’s a good chance she couldn’t get the little 2KW Yamaha running either. With the Bluetti all she has to do is turn it on and plug in some electrical cords and she has some time to figure out what to do. And she would have some, oh, buffer time, let’s call it, to possibly get out the little Yamaha generator and get it running to take over if the outage lasts more than a couple of hours.
Long Term Plans
I’m looking into a solar panel system to keep it charged but at this point I don’t know what that is going to be. I want something that can be semi-permanently mounted on the roof of the garage where it is out of the way and I don’t need to worry about it. I’m looking for a system that would give me a minimum of 800 – 1,000 watts and that would be easily expandable because I’m seriously considering trying to make at least some of the household independent of the grid, not for any particular reason but just because I want to.
I’m considering getting another PPS, not necessarily another Bluetti, and using that as the primary power source to run my entire combined office, radio shack, electronics work area, charged by solar panels on the roof and/or on the south facing wall of the garage. How far that project will go depends on how ambitious I get and what my budget looks like.
I was promised a lot of things when I was a kid back in the 60s. I was told that I would have my own personal robot to serve me lunch. I was, they told me, going to be able to take a vacation on the moon or maybe even Mars. I was told I would have my very own flying car. I was told I would be able to fly from Chicago to Sydney Australia in an hour. I was told I’d have a talking computer that would understand human speech.
Only one of those things actually came true in my lifetime, the talking/listening computer that is generically called a “personal home assistant”, or specifically the Amazon Echo (often called Alexa after its wake word) and Google’s Assistant (sometimes referred to as Nest). I’m going to focus on the Echo because that’s the one I’m most familiar with.
These things are everywhere. Amazon has sold somewhere around 200+ million of these things. I think they sold about 70 million of them last year alone, and if sales trends continue it’s predicted the company will sell 130 million of them in 2025 alone. I know a lot of people don’t like them and are even suspicious of them. I mean we live in a world now where some poor woman ended up finding a photograph of herself sitting on a toilet that was taken by her vacuum cleaner ending up on the internet. But the fact remains that there are millions of these things out there and millions of people love them and even have come to depend on them for important reasons.
But there is a huge problem with the Echo and the others out there, and that is cost. Amazon sells these things at cost to keep the price down, and they are losing an absolute fortune. The company is losing billions of dollars on the Echo devices. The problem is that they require a massive and extremely expensive behind the scenes infrastructure to work. The devices themselves are, frankly, stupid. What makes them work are massive server farms, huge buildings packed with computers that do the actual work associated with operating these things. And Amazon hasn’t come up with a way to pay for any of it.
When the Echo program was conceived of, it was going to be a marketing tool. The Echo was going to be an advertising device and ordering system. It would remind you to buy coffee or dish soap or laundry detergent and you’d use the Echo to order more and things like that. Only it didn’t work out that way. In order to get people to accept these things into their homes Amazon had to make the a hell of a lot more useful than that. And they did too good of a job of it. They’re used as personal calendars, reminder devices, communications devices, entertainment devices, give reminders to take medication, play cooking videos, play fart noises, tell bad jokes.
And Amazon makes pretty much nothing off any of that.
Amazon makes huge amounts of money, true, but not even that company can afford to keep this going when it is losing literally billions of dollars on the project. The company has been laying off people working on the Echo devices and trying other cost cutting measures, but it’s losing billions and none of that is going to solve that problem.
I suspect Amazon would dearly love to shut down the whole program, but that would be a PR disaster. Despite the fact that a lot of people look at the devices with suspicion, a lot of people love the things, use them every day, and often use them in ways that help improve their health and safety. If Amazon were to just shut the whole thing down it would anger millions of people.
When I start to get bored I start thinking about things and fiddling with things and you never know what I’m going to come up with. Once the weather got colder and I couldn’t get out in the gardens or on the bike I retreated to my little mad scientists laboratory down in the basement and started tinkering and thinking. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it keeps me out of MrsGF’s hair and keeps me from hanging around on street corners selling unlicensed cats. What emerged from this brainstorm was the Wowbagger 2000.
The Wowbagger 2000 is an insulting robot. It will, when fully developed, home in on a specific target, someone who deserves to be insulted, someone like, oh, Elon Musk, for example. I’m thinking of sending him the prototype when it’s finished. It will follow them around and at the most potentially embarrassing time, like when one is on the phone with one’s boss or mother in law or something, make snide, cutting remarks about the person’s physical appearance, mental capacity and/or family history. I figure the world needs something like this very badly. Unfortunately my Kickstarter campaign has resulted in a total investment of twelve cents and something that looks like a bit of fossilized chewing gum from the Milwaukee public transit system, so my budget for this project is severely limited.
I almost immediately ran into problems. Normally with a little project like this I’d reach for a Raspeberry Pi computer. These are very small, rather powerful Linux based computers that are extremely useful for little projects like this. I used to get a RaspPi for about $40. Not any more. When I went looking for one they were going for $250, and there was no way I was going to enrich the profiteering scalpers who trying to scam people. So I looked for a possible alternative and came up with the Arduino.
This is where the “change is good” thing comes in. Arduinos have been around for ages but they always seemed to be a bit limited in their abilities and inconvenient to work with. And they aren’t really computers.
Well, okay so technically they are computers, but I mean they aren’t designed to be used like you would use a desktop, laptop or even a RaspPi. Technically it is a microcontroller. It has lots and lots of addressable pins that can be used to control other things. to read data from sensors and things like that. They’re great for projects like robotics and remote sensing platforms like weather stations and things like that. Including a lot of stuff I used to use the RaspPi computers for.
And did I mention they were cheap? They are very, very cheap. I can pick up an Arduino Mega clone for around $15 and even the genuine Italian made ones aren’t all that much more. The cheapest RaspPi I can find is going for about $130. So, $130 compared to $15? Guess which one I bought.
Yeah, right. Well, bought more than one. I got about 8 of the things laying around now but never mind that.
I am now wishing I’d started tinkering with these things a long, long time ago. Yes, they can be awkward to work with. Yes, they are fairly limited when it comes to things like built in memory, speed and convenience. Yes, I need to write the code on a separate computer and download it. Yes, I have to write code in a variation of C++, a language which is, frankly, an abomination on the face of the Earth.
But my goodness they’re fun to play with.
Oh, and I should mention that because they are very popular, very cheap, and have been around for a very long time, there are a tone of add ons available for them that are very fun indeed. And cheap. Very cheap. I can pick up a full color, 3″ touch screen video display, with an SD card reader, for $15??? Seriously?
So I’ve been locked up in my lab (MrsGF lets me out for lunch) fiddling with these things and breadboarding things and puttering around and keeping the nice delivery companies in business shipping me resistors and capacitors and servomotors and stepper motors and even resorting to actually learning stuff.
And the result is…
Yes, the Wowbagger 2000 lives! With a full color touch screen for the display and user input. And it actually works????
I don’t often talk about computer technology and software here because A) it’s generally pretty boring, and B) there are far better sources for information about this stuff than me. But I want to talk about “artificial intelligence”, or AI as it’s known, because it has some serious implications for all of us as it comes into more widespread use. While I used to be a programmer I’m not so much interested in the technology of AIs as I am in the ethical and social implications of AIs, and that’s what I want to talk about briefly.
Take a look at that painting up there. It isn’t bad, really. Personally I’d like it if it were a bit brighter, but overall it isn’t horrible. It’s sort of a generic winter scene, peaceful, pleasant even.
Or what about this one —
Both of these paintings are originals that I just did in the last few days, but I didn’t make them in the usual way by applying paint to a surface or even a using a stylus on a drawing pad as I usually do. These were done by an app on my cell phone that is available for free on Apple’s app store called Draw Things. And as you can see it is pretty damn good. Well, sometimes. I will admit that about 8 out of 10 of the images it generates are, frankly, a bit, well, surreal. Like this one below.
But that being said, that it works at all is, I think, a bit amazing. What’s even more amazing is that unlike some of the other art AIs out there which actually run on some massive server somewhere out there on the internet, Draw Things runs entirely on the phone, no external processing power required. You can try it yourself although I’ll warn you that your phone will need a lot of free memory (the libraries the software uses are a gigabyte+ in size and you need at least one for the program to work) and using the program frequently will suck up a hell of a lot of battery as well because it really makes that processor work hard.
When you run the program, what you do is type in words and phrases that verbally describe the scene you want painted. Let’s say you type in something like “A white cat sitting on a table with vases of flowers” as an example. What you get is something like this –
MrsGF thinks that image is just creepy but personally I think it’s kind of charming, but everyone’s tastes are different.
But these art AIs have also generated a hell of a lot of controversy as well, and for good reasons.
First of all, artists, actual real world artists who create real world art, are very nervous about all of this and for very good reasons. There are thousands of artists out there who earn their living as graphic artists, illustrators, etc. for advertising agencies, magazines and the like. Publishers and corporations don’t give a fig about things like ‘artistic integrity’ or keeping illustrators gainfully employed. They only care about money. So if it comes down to paying an illustrator money to create a piece of artwork for them, or generating something essentially for free with an AI, guess which option they’re going to take? They’re going to go with the AI everytime.
Another controversy is how these AIs are trained. Before these things will work properly they have to be trained by feeding them literally millions of illustrations. They do this by scraping the internet for every image they can get their hands on, whether those images are protected by copyright or not. Under a strict interpretation of copyright law some claim that this is an illegal use of those copyrighted images. Others claim that this use qualifies as what is known as “fair use” and is legally and ethically acceptable. I’m not a lawyer and I’m not even going to try to figure out whether how these things are trained is legal or ethical or not.
Then there is the question of who “owns” the artwork generated by an AI. That image over there on the right was generated by Draw Things. So who actually owns the rights to that image? You could argue that the image was generated by my phone, using an application that I own, so therefore the image is mine and I own all rights to it.
But it isn’t as simple as that. These days you don’t actually “own” the software you are using. You’re merely licensing it. Basically you’re renting it. That’s been the case for decades now. Under the licensing agreement you agree to, and which you almost certainly haven’t bothered to read because you’d have to hire an attorney to figure it out for you, the maker of the software can set any conditions they like, and it is claimed that your mere use of that software means that you agree to all of the conditions in the license, whether you read them or not. It would be entirely within the realm of possibility for the maker of the AI you’re using to claim any and all rights to any artwork generated by the program. Unless you carefully read the fine print in the license agreement, you have no idea what you are agreeing to.
Some people have started to claim that the AI that generated the image “owns” it. The people who are making this claim either need to find a new hobby or stop taking whatever drugs they’re on because this is just stupid. An AI isn’t an intelligence, it is a computer program. Period. It is no more ‘alive’ than the old Eliza programs people were playing with back in the early days of computing. They’re little more than a complex series of “IF-THEN-ELSE” choices pre-programmed into a computer. Oh, all right it’s a lot more complex than that, but what it boils down to is that an AI is just a computer program like the one I’m using to write this. It is no more “intelligent” or self aware than the calculator you use to figure out your taxes.
The other thing that makes people very nervous is the fact that these things can be used to generate images that mimic specific artists. Want to have your very own original Van Gogh to hang on the wall? You can. These things can easily mimic the artistic style of most well known artists, living or dead. Living artists claim that this reduces the demand for their original artwork. People who like their work don’t need to buy an original or, more likely, an authorized print of the original work, they can use an AI to generate their own in the style of that artist.
I would imagine that the companies that have become wealthy selling stock images for use in publications, companies like Getty, are terrified by this kind of technology because it would very easily put them out of business. Let’s say you’re writing an article about, oh, shopping malls, and you want to put in a photo of a nice looking mall. Instead of going to one of these stock photo companies and buying one, just make your own. Like the one over there on the left. It took Draw Things a little over a minute to generate that. My cost? Zero. So why would anyone ever need to buy generic photos for illustrating articles any more? So let’s just say that investing your pension fund in companies that sell stock images probably isn’t a good idea.
And these things can be used to produce some not so nice images as well. Pornography, s0-called ‘deep fakes’ that portray celebrities, politicians or other well known persons in, oh, compromising positions, let’s call it, can all be generated with nothing but a program like this and a few written descriptions of what you want to see.
Some of the developers of these programs are starting to put filters into the systems to try to prevent or at least limit their capabilities so they can’t be usfed for illicit purposes, but that is ultimately futile. The technology is now out there. A lot of it is open source, meaning anyone can tinker with the underlying code. And there are versions of these programs already out there in the wild, so to speak, tweaked to specifically crank out these types of illicit images. Let’s face it, my friends, that’s what human beings are like. As soon as human beings developed things like writing, painting and drawing, they started using it to make porn.
There are already people out there demanding that something need to be done. Right now. By someone. Somewhere. Congress needs to act now! Act how, though? Ban the software? Sorry, that horse is already out of the barn. Thousands of people are already using it and hundreds are tinkering with the code to make it work even better.
What it all boils down to is that we have a lot of questions, a lot of ethical concerns, a lot of legal issues, and no real answers.
Please feel free to leave comments about this. I’m curious about what other people think of all of this and if anyone has proposed solutions to the problems.
A couple of months back I went through the ordeal of watching administration spox patting themselves on the back over having “fixed” the rail strike threat and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. And it was all a lie because there was no actual agreement. What they had was a proposal thrown together by negotiators, and nothing else. All of the unions, all 12 of them, still had to vote to approve or disapprove the proposal.
It was basically a house of cards that would fall apart almost before they got done announcing their “big win”. If any one of the twelve unions voted against the proposal, the whole deal would fall apart because if one of the unions went on strike, all of them would. If anyone had bothered to talk to the actual union members they would have found out immediately that they were not happy with the proposal. And almost immediately that’s exactly what happened, the proposal was rejected by one of the unions. And as of this week, four unions have now rejected the proposal and we could be looking at a railroad strike by Dec. 5.
So what happened? Why did the deal fall apart? Because the proposal did almost nothing to fix the problems that were causing the employees to consider going on strike in the first place. The problem wasn’t so much salaries, it was was the the railroads arcane and even, according to some, outright sadistic scheduling system and lack of sick leave that caused the problems, and that system was going virtually unchanged under the new proposal. (If you want to see what the employee scheduling system is like, you can read all about it here at Inlander. )
So here we are, nearing the end of November, and there could be a rail strike that could shut down the entire system by Dec. 5. And it’s highly likely that everyone will blame not the railroads which caused the problem in the first place, but the employees. I’ve already seen headlines and news stories laying the blame directly on the employees, and completely ignoring the real cause of the employees’ anger. I just read one headline at CNN that read something like “Unions Reject Lucrative Offer” implying that the union members are just being greedy, and nothing in the following story mentioned what the real grievances were.
So what’s going to happen now? I have no idea. Under a nearly 100 year old law Congress has the authority to force a contract on both parties, and the new contract would almost certainly leave the existing scheduling system in place. The result of that would be a hell of a lot of very angry employees. And, well, let’s put it this way – I know six people who worked for a railroad. Every one of them has quit in the past year because of the scheduling system. If Congress imposes a contract that doesn’t deal with the scheduling system it could result in the railroads losing so many employees it would be almost as bad as a strike.
Dreams are weird things. I’m not sure if anyone has figured out exactly why we dream although it seems to have something to do with the brain sifting through things for some reason and if you aren’t permitted to dream, it can result in some serious problems. But I don’t want to talk about why we dream. I want to talk about what we dream.
I don’t run around asking people what they dream while they’re sleeping because that would be, frankly, odd and a bit creepy. But occasionally people have offered up brief descriptions of their dreams and they are almost universally far, far different from mine.
People seem to often share similar situations in dreams. Finding yourself back in high school, walking down the hallway, and you suddenly realize you aren’t wearing pants seems to be a theme that is fairly popular. Some people have genuine nightmares. They’re being chased by monsters of various interesting types. One fellow told me he dreamt he was being eaten, from the feet up, by a zombie unicorn. I thought that was a bit odd, but I let it go because he’s a rather odd fellow to begin with.
Some people have erotic dreams, sometimes rather intense and realistic ones, involving prominent celebrities and things like chocolate syrup and a very rude banana.
What about me? Certainly I dream as well but… But to be perfectly frank I think there’s something broken. Let me give you some illustrations.
The other night I dreamed I had to go to my wife’s sister’s place to feed her dog, Dash. I didn’t mind because Dash and I are great buddies and he likes nothing better than to sit on my lap and slobber over me. So I got in the car, drove out to her farm, took Dash out to go potty, gave him food and fresh water, and drove home. And…
And that was it. That was the whole dream.
Or there was the time I had a particularly vivid dream of painting the garage. I was out there on a nice Saturday afternoon, dipping the brush in the paint can, applying the paint, repeat and… And that was it. That was the whole dream. Painting the garage. It was so utterly boring that I think I bored myself awake somewhere in the middle of it just as I ran out of paint.
Then there was the dream where I went shopping. (Ooo0, the excitement!) I went down to Walmart, picked up a few things, pushed the cart down through the grocery aisles. They were out of my favorite brand of mustard but that was okay because they had another that I like so I got that instead.
Those are just a few examples of how utterly dull my dreams are. Other people get man eating unicorns, monsters, sex dreams with B list celebrities, etc. Me? I paint the garage.
I’ve stopped telling MrsGF about them because her eyes sort of glaze over and midway through she sort of wanders away. Don’t blame her.
One fellow I know tells me that what’s happening to me is not dreaming at all. He claims that we live in a multiverse, an endlessly repeating series of universes, each one just slightly different from the other. According to his theory, what’s happening is that while I’m sleeping I am really mentally connecting with other versions of me, living in other universes, and that in all possible universes I am just as boring as I am in this one. But since he also picks wild mushrooms that he finds growing near the nuke plant north of Two Rivers I tend to just nod and mumble and then point and cry out “Look! A duck!” and then run away while he’s distracted when he gets like that.
Now I am trying desperately to come up with some pithy, witty conclusion to this rambling nonsense and I’m having problems doing so, so let’s try this…