bike-powered movies and the greening of ypsilanti

Our friend Homeless Dave left a comment yesterday in response to my last post about the prospect of a people-powered movie series in Ypsilanti’s Riverside Park. He not only had some great ideas for us to consider, but he even pushed the Manhattan Project metaphor a little further along. Here’s what Dave had to say:

Re: Ypsi’s Manhattan Project (YMP)

Question: What’s the YMP equivalent of Fat Man and Little Boy?

Background: Directly powering an electrical device by pedaling a generator still requires something in the circuit to smooth out the voltage delivered to the device and to accommodate the variation in the voltage required by the device. There are at least two ways to do this: (i) capacitor (ii) battery. The 58-Farad ultra-capacitor I have costs around $150, and was shipped wrapped inside 6 inches of bubble wrap with CAUTION labels and language suggesting to me it might as well be nuclear waste. As I understand it, the virtue of an ultra-capacitor lies in its ability to very quickly charge up and discharge its voltage on demand, say for example, in applications like accelerating an automobile. So apparently there’s lots of ultra-capacitors involved in getting decent performance out of electric cars like the Tesla Roadster. By comparison, the battery I have from BatteriesPlus on Packard Street cost maybe $25 and is no more dangerous than any lead-acid car battery … which is still plenty dangerous, I suppose.

Based on cost and availability, batteries are probably the way you want to go for YMP. You’ll be charging the battery as it’s simultaneously discharging into the device. So it doesn’t have to be a huge battery, if your goal is to directly power some device by pedaling a generator. It just has to be big enough to perform its voltage-smoothing function. But as long as batteries are a part of the equation, it’s worth thinking about a battery as something more than just a way to smooth out the voltage delivered by pedaling. I mean, what people typically use batteries for is storage.

Answer: Two large (200-300 pound) batteries (consisting possibly of smaller batteries linked together). They should be the largest batteries that are still portable on some sort of human-powered cart.

Question: What’s the point of these huge fuckin batteries?

Answer: Once charged up, they will supply the already-stored power necessary for the ‘show’ without any pedaling effort during the event itself. The communal pedaling effort to charge up Fat Man and Little Boy could be distributed over several days, weeks, even months prior to the event to be powered by these batteries. And because the pedaling activity can be distributed over a longer time, there is a reduced need to construct a multitude of pedal-powered generators. A couple of them would probably be sufficient. So you could focus on making those couple of pedaling units really efficient and nice (adjustable seat-posts for different size riders, adjustable handlebar stems, clipless pedals and adapters for non-cleated shoes, whatever), instead of trying to make lots and lots of them. Even though the number of units would be way smaller, the number of pedalers participating in the enterprise is potentially way larger.

Local non-profits that are willing and able to provide a publicly accessible space could act as stewards of the pedaling units and batteries during the charging. The idea is that folks who wanted to help charge the batteries by pedaling would go and do that pretty much at their convenience–by themselves or with a group of friends taking turns–at whatever non-profit the units were housed.

Ideally what you’d want is a realtime update on the web indicating progress towards a full charge–something along the lines of one of those United Way giving thermometer-type deals where the level of giving is reflected in an upward-creeping red column–perhaps some image more evocative of Ypsi than a thermometer, like the water tower … um, yeah, okay, maybe a giant phallus growing redder with each pedal stroke is not exactly what you want. But the idea is that people could check in on the web and see where things stood at any time.

Getting the batteries charged up for some upcoming ‘show’ is certainly an impetus to participate in the pedaling project. But charging up the batteries could be an ongoing project that, in principle, never needs to end, even if there’s no ‘show’ scheduled. When fully charged, the batteries would then be an impetus to schedule a ‘show’, because Fat Man and Little Boy would need to have all that pent-up charge released.

Question: Isn’t it more like a community activity to have the activity of group pedaling during the show, instead of individual efforts prior to the event? It sounds boring to just go pedal by myself.

Answer: Maybe, I dunno. I think the potential for wider participation in the pedaling (if it’s done prior to the show) means that you have the easy conversational gambit among strangers of, “Did you do any pedaling for this?”, or “So, how many watt-hours did you do?” or “So where did you do your pedaling?” So the event itself could be an opportunity to build community by sharing individual histories, whereas group pedaling at the event would emphasize building community through a history shared directly as a group. You wouldn’t have to pedal by yourself–you could go with a friend and take turns. It’s worth mentioning that pedaling a stationary pedaling device is a pretty brutal way to spend even modest chunks of time, no matter what the context. You might well want to be alone in your physical and mental agony.

Question: This one movie we want to watch in the park runs for 2 hours, so what makes you think it’s possible to put together batteries that weigh 300 pounds or less that will deliver the roughly 4kWh we need for that?

Answer: That’s a good, empirical question. Someone with more expertise than I’ve got should analyze it. It’s worth considering though, how long you can power a ‘show’ with the equipment you think you need, given just the power of a couple of 200-300 pound batteries–whatever that capacity turns out to be. And then you consider what kind of ‘show’ can be put on within that constraint. One example of a concept that could be a shrunk or expanded to fit would be a SlideLuck PotShow type event, where the material to be displayed consists of several short sets of images selected from artist submissions. If you’ve got enough power for 30 minutes, well, then you only select 15 of the two-minute sets, instead of 50. In fact, asking the SlideLuck Potshow itself to consider Ypsilanti as a venue wouldn’t be a bad idea. (Detroit and Ann Arbor are already slated for 2008, I think, and a key organizer has local ties–Casey Kelbaugh is the son of the UM School of Architecture’s Dean, Doug Kelbaugh, who is among other things … a cycling enthusiast.) Or perhaps there will be a repeat of ArbCamp, which Fat Man and Little Boy could allow to happen in a real camp-like setting, say in Nichols Arboretum–now that would be a real ArbCamp worthy of the name (what’s the power requirement beyond a bunch of laptops–I dunno)

Question: Why is it necessary to push this metaphor of Manhattan Project all the way to needing an equivalent of Fat Man and Little Boy? This seems more like just a rhetorical ploy to make us think about using stored charge instead of pedal-powering directly. Why do you want to associate this enterprise with death and destruction? Fat Man and Little Boy were BOMBS, remember?

Answer: Granted, it’s a rhetorical ploy. But there’s a promotional and marketing advantage to having a reduced set of items to focus on–like just two big-ass batteries. If you’re pitching a prospective donor, you can say, “Your money is being spent on Fat Man, a big-ass battery. Period.” That’s easy to parse in two seconds, or about the average modern attention span. In the physical form of these two big-ass batteries, you also have two very focused and readily apparent places to sell sponsorship space. Shoot, Tesla Motorworks might be happy to donate the batteries themselves (they have a dealership in Detroit somewhere, I think) … but I’m not sure that the association they want with their product is bicycle power–they’re trying to target the sportscar market. And yes, there’s the death and destruction aspect. That could be tackled head-on with a slogan/motto something like: Ypsi’s Fat Man and Little Boy–they’re batteries, not bombs.

As revolutionary as a nuclear bomb? Many not. But I think if we could pull this off, we could really kick-start something… Speaking of which, I just heard a piece on NPR about Greensburgh, Kansas and their plans to come back “green” in the wake of a devastating tornado. More and more towns are going to jump on this bandwagon. If Ypsi were smart, it would be one of the first to really embrace alternative energy and sustainability, and not one of the last. The nation’s first people-powered film series may not be a huge step toward that end, but at least it would put us on the map, and for not very much money. If we were smart, we’d not only go for it, but we’d make sure that our city had all the policy and tax incentive pieces in place to take advantage of any press which might result… I’m still recovering from Christmas, but if people are interested in discussing this, let’s get together for a beer early in the new year.

[And I probably won’t have time to blog about it tonight, but I wanted to at least mention briefly that my thoughts right now are with the people of Pakistan. One hopes that, somehow, today’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto can lead to positive change.]

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  1. mark
    Posted December 29, 2007 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    So, I guess I’ll be drinking by myself.

  2. Ol' E Cross
    Posted December 29, 2007 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    Dave makes a lot of sense but it just doesn’t sound as fun as people peddling as the movie plays.

    Kinda like drinking alone.

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