Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The virtuous cycle of organics

organic carrots
Organic farming and the consumption of organic food creates a positive feedback cycle – healthier food, cleaner planet, happier people. The cycle goes something like this:
  • Organic farming techniques result in improved soil quality and fewer chemicals entering into the environment.
  • Improved soil quality results in better water retention, reduced run–off and a higher nutrient content.
  • Reduced run–off along with reduced chemical usage results in cleaner water systems.
  • Reduced pesticide usage results in an increase in biodiversity and strengthened eco–systems.
  • The reduced chemical input means less energy is being spent to product petro–chemical based fertilizers.
  • Reduced energy and fossil fuel consumption means reduced emissions and therefore cleaner air.
  • We get healthier food, cleaner water and cleaner air resulting in healthier, happier people.
  • When people choose organic products over the alternatives it encourages farmers to choose organic methods, therefore strengthening the positive cycle.
Compare this with genetically modified crops:
  • GM crops encourage the use of herbicides (like Monsanto's Round–up ready crops).
  • Farmers cannot propogate their crops (which hands over food security to large corporations) or develop seed varieties suited to their soil and environment.
  • Conventional methods require the addition of chemical fertilisers to maintain soil quaility.
  • Exclusive use of chemical fertilisers results in a narrow spectrum of nutrients in the soil.
  • Fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides run–off and pollute the water system.
  • Pesticides result in the death of beneficial birds and bugs.
  • More energy and fossil fuels are spent on the production of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, resulting in more emmissions and dirtier air.
  • Potential health concerns exist.
  • Lower quality food as well as dirtier air and water – more unhealthy and unhappy people.
There are two main arguments that I have encountered against organic farming techniques: yield and cost. Many people believe that yields are lower with organic techniques while they actually average out to be the same as, or higher than conventional farming over the long term. In some cases, particularly in Africa, organic farming yields are much higher than conventional farming (this is partially due to the reduced input costs).

Cost is a factor of supply and demand, but is also influenced by organic certification costs which are high and ongoing. Small organic farmers are often unable to afford full organic certification, but their non–certified organic goods may be available at better prices through farmers markets, co–ops and CSAs. If costs is an issue, but you want to reduce your pesticide intake, then you can focus on choosing organic varieties of the top offending foods on this list.

If you are in Cape Town or the surrounding areas you can get reasonably priced organic produce from fully certified, as well as non–certified, organic farmers via The Ethical Co–Op.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Dickert, licensed under a creative commons license.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Take action. Be a leader

film clapperWhat you do matters. What you do each day matters. The decisions that you make are important.

Sometimes we forget that our role, our decisions and our actions play an important part in the world around us. It is especially easy to forget when we are faced with overwhelming circumstances or events. Many people who care about the environment feel overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges we face. In that same way many businesses and households are reeling in the face of a global financial crisis.

It is so easy to go into a state of stasis – doing nothing, or just reacting to our immediate challenges. The worst thing to do is nothing. Reacting may mean reducing your budget and cutting out excess spending. It may be reducing your environmental impact by buying less stuff. The problem is that reacting is defensive, like pulling your hand away from a hot stove. If you are always defending you are never going anywhere and standing still is a bad idea in a rapidly changing world.

Responding is better, initiating is best. When we respond we take positive actions, actions which improve our lives rather than deprive them. Environmentalists often go wrong by focussing on what we need to take away rather than on how we can improve and benefit our lives right now, but we know from dieting that deprivation is a temporary solution which leads to overindulgence. Respond by adding positive actions.

When we initiate we go beyond ourselves. We push beyond our own personal boundaries and lead people to new places. Creating new innovative products or processes in a slow market is initiating. Starting a recycling programme within your community (your street or neighbourhood) is initiating. Everyone has the opportunity to be a leader, whether you are a young engineer trying to push new ideas into a big company, or a housewife who wants to create a better life for your family. You may lead just a few people, or many – what matters is that you take action. We need you to lead.

Taking action is difficult and requires consistency and effort, so I would like to leave you with this story about Jerry Seinfeld.

Jerry says that to be a better comic you have to create better jokes, and to create better jokes you have to write everyday. He puts a big calendar on a prominent wall and every day that he fulfills his task of writing a new joke he gets to put a big red cross on the calendar. After a few days of doing this consitently you will have a chain. Jerry says, "Your only job is to not break the chain. Don't break the chain."

Innovate, be consistent, keep taking action, what you do matters. We need you to lead.

Kudos to Seth Godin and his book Tribes which inspired this post. You can get a free audio version of Tribes. Read the book or listen to the audio version – it is a valuable investment of your time and effort.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Open Source EDA

Electronic design automation tools like OrCAD, PADS and Altium Designer are part of an electronic engineer's day–to–day life. We need these tools to tell the story of our designs – to lay out the concepts in a symbolic form in the schematics and a physical representation in the PCB files (and much more).

Most companies use expensive commercial tools (like those mentioned above) which offer many features and benefits, but these do have some disadvantages. The biggest hurdle for smaller companies is cost, which makes it difficult to get going – you cannot earn money to pay for the tools without using the tools, which is a vicious circle. Another big disadvantage of commercial tools is their closed nature – file structures are closed and it is difficult to add custom features to the tools. Further to this, if you need improvements or bug fixes you may have to wait a long time before these become available, especially if you are a small customer. In some cases companies are bought out, forcing you to change software and go through a whole new learning curve. To phrase it differently: small users have little say in the direction of the development of the tools.

The big advantages of commercial tools are the multitude of features (if you need them), and commercial support.

gEDA logo
When I had to choose an EDA tool suite my (non–existent) budget was the biggest deciding factor and I decided to start using an open source set of EDA tools, gEDA. I have been using gEDA since the middle of 2007, and have completed a number of projects with it. At first I just did my schematic layout with gschem and outsourced the PCB layout which was done in PCAD. Recently I completed some PCBs for a project which where done with gEDA's PCB programme (this was my first entirely gEDA project).

I initially made my choice based on the free price of gEDA, but as I used it and learned more about how the suite works as a whole I discovered that there are far more compelling reasons to choose an open source EDA suite over a closed one.

The open nature of both the file structure and the source code is an incredibly powerful tool for productivity. Think about this simple example: the creation of PCB footprints (or land patterns). Creating footprints is often a long and arduous process which involves graphically drawing out exactly what it should look like and vetting the details. Each subtle variation on the footprint requires more time drawing and checking. The well documented open file format and excellent documentation on the creation of footprints for PCB allows scripts to be written to automate the creation of footprints resulting in a significant time saving. Similar scripts are also available for schematic symbol creation. These are really simple examples of what can be accomplished when the file structure and code is open and documented – far more exciting things can be done, just about anything you can think of!

gEDA is also blessed with a very active support and development community, which operates mainly through the gEDA mailing lists and the gEDA wiki (which provides excellent documentation). I have asked many questions and received quick and helpful responses. How long did your last support request with a commercial company take to be resolved?

Using an open source EDA suite provides more stability and control over the future of your tool chain. If a large commercial tool set is either bought out, or decides to change how it works significantly you have little choice but to embrace that change, whatever the cost or learning implications are. An open source EDA tool provides you with a never ending upgrade path for the future, as well as access to the direction the tool takes. This stability comes with a responsibility to be a part of a community, rather than just a consumer. By becoming a part of the community you create a mutualistic relationship where everyone benefits.

gEDA (or other open source EDA tools) may not be suitable for everyone, or for every project, but there are a large number of projects that can be supported by these flexible tools. Using gEDA does require a shift in the way you work, but so does any other change to your EDA tool chain. Putting in the effort to learn how to use gEDA is certainly worth it and offers the opportunity for large productivity leaps. These productivity leaps are important, as they ensure that engineers spend more time creating, designing and solving problems, rather than wasting hours on repetitive tasks. I am using it exclusively to provide solutions to my customers, and you should take a closer look at it too.

Here is a list of open projects created with gEDA. One of the most impressive open hardware projects that I have seen which uses gEDA is the Free Telephony Project, which not only shows the quality of these tools, but also the magnitude of what can be achieved with open hardware development.

Please note that files and projects created by you are entirely yours and can be used for commercial purposes without any ramifications. The projects noted above have chosen to share their work under open licenses.

There are no up–to–date Windows binaries available for gschem and I found that the PCB binaries were really slow. I run the entire suite on Cygwin. Here are the install instructions for gEDA on Cygwin. I also recommend compiling PCB on Cygwin for significantly improved performance.

I posted my thoughts on creating my first PCB with PCB to the gEDA mailing list – this may give you some ideas of initial hurdles and ideas that you will need to get through.