Hagfish, chill Puffins, swamp monsters, the mining boat floats, and more! Monday Morning Salvage: April 2, 2018

Foghorn (A Call to Action!)

  • Want to help stem the tide of misinformation online and off? Do you have it all figured out and just need resources to implement your world-saving solution? The Rita Allen Foundation is looking for Solutions to Curb the Spread of Misinformation.

Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)

The Levee (A featured project that emerged from Oceandotcomm)

Beware the Feu Follet, by Russell Arnott

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Dear John: Farming and technology in the near future.

I wrote this story a couple of years ago and have been trying to find a home for it ever since. As the issue of proprietary software’s relationship to agricultural technology is back in the news, I figure it’s time to stop shopping this short science fiction story around and put it in front of a real audience. For some real-world background reading, see:


DEAR JOHN.

It started with the tractor. Or, rather, it stopped with the tractor. John Willis climbed down from the cabin of his dead machine and removed the cowling. Everything looked fine. The diesel engine shined, its green accents still brilliant.

After years trading his skill with a wrench and a soldering iron for access to his neighbors’ equipment, he finally owned a tractor of his own. The latest model, too. Not ostentatious, but with just enough comforts to make up for the last ten years. The tractor was new, bought debt-free through the Farm Act and a decade of careful planning and backbreaking labor. Expensive, but built to last.

Except it didn’t last. For the third time in an hour, the engine seized, the wheels locked, the console went dead. Willis sighed. He had acres to till and he wasn’t in the mood to spend a day stripping the engine, hunting for some tiny defect. He could send it to the service yard, but he couldn’t afford to wait for an authorized repair. The quote alone would set him back a week.

He couldn’t afford another late planting. Not this year.

He started the tractor. It roared back to life, the engine purred but the console beeped and flashed with panic, a thousand different alarms. The manual, a massive, multi-gigabyte document, was sitting on his work computer, back in the barn. For whatever reason, he couldn’t get it to download to his field tablet. He put the tractor in gear and continued down the field.

Fifteen minutes later, the tractor was dead again.

Well, he thought to himself, at least there’s a rhythm to it. He limped down the rows in quarter-hour bursts.

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Building the future with open hardware. Monday Morning Salvage: March 27, 2017

Flotsam (what we’re obsessed with right now)

I spent the last week at the annual Gathering for Open Science Hardware in Santiago, Chile exploring the future of science and the open-source movement with one of the most impressive hardware developers, hackers, makers, and artists in the world. It’s my travel day, so this will necessarily be a short one.

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Open-Acess Science for the Masses

The oceans belong to all of us. With this simple statement in mind, the Oceanography for Everyone (OfE) project was launched with the goal of making ocean science more accessible. One of the biggest hurdles in conducting ocean science is instrumentation costs, and 4 years ago the OfE team began trying to make one of the most basic ocean science tools, the CTD (a water quality sensor that measures Conductivity-Temperature-Depth), cheaper… much, much cheaper!

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Open source. Open science. Open Ocean. Oceanography for Everyone and the OpenCTD

Andrew compares the OpenCTD readout to a hand refractometer, because apparently he's a hipster ecologist.

Andrew compares the OpenCTD readout to a hand refractometer, because apparently he’s a hipster ecologist.

Nearly four years ago, Kersey Sturdivant and I launched a bold, ambitious, and, frankly, naive crowdfunding initiative to build the first low-cost, open-source CTD, a core scientific instrument that measures salinity, temperature, and depth in a water column. It was a dream born from the frustration of declining science funding, the expense of scientific equipment, and the promise of the Maker movement. After thousands of hours spent learning the skills necessary to build these devices, hundreds of conversations with experts, collaborators, and potential users around the world, dozens of iterations (some transformed into full prototypes, others that exist solely as software), and one research cruise on Lake Superior to test the housing and depth and temperature probes, the OpenCTD has arrived.

Kersey strike a pose while deploying an OpenCTD in our local estuary.

Kersey strikes a pose while deploying an OpenCTD in our local estuary.

Over the last week, Kersey and I have been hard at work building a battery of CTDs while methodically documenting the construction process. You can watch the event unfurl on the #HackTheOcean hashtag. We now have three new CTDs ready to be distributed to collaborators at various institutions for more field tests and, in particular, to assess the precision of three different conductivity probes, all of which have been calibrated and validated here, in Virginia.

OpenCTD versus commercial CTD temperature and depth test. Conductivity test are occurring this summer, but initial surveys indicated no significant deviation from commercial instruments (indeed, we’re even using a commercial conductivity circuit that has been thoroughly tested in other environmental monitoring contexts.)

Now, finally, after 4 years of challenges and opportunities, of redesigns, re-education, and re-development, it’s time for you to join our open-source community of Citizen Oceanographers and build your own OpenCTD!

We’ve hosted the entire build guide, as well as the software, 3D printer files, support documentation, and raw data from our first research cruise in the Oceanography for Everyone GitHub repository, where you can also find guides and designs for the BeagleBox field computer and the Niskin3D 3D-printable Niskin bottle. 3D print files are also available on Thingiverse, if you’re more comfortable with that platform. We’ve also gone out of our way to make the build as simple as possible. You’ll need to learn basic programming and electronics, but the technical aspects of building your own CTD shouldn’t be a barrier to entry.

Over these four years, the OpenCTD has grown from a single project to a community of citizen oceanographers committed to making the tools needed to study the oceans as accessible as possible. As my friend and colleague Eric Stackpole said upon launching the first OpenROV kickstarter:

“Ocean exploration shouldn’t require a research grant, it should require curiosity.”


Since launching, numerous people have asked us if we can build an OpenCTD for them. We are not really set up to be a manufacturer of CTDs, however, get in touch with either me ([email protected]) or Kersey ([email protected]) and we can talk about holding an OpenCTD training workshop with your institution or organization.

Dive the Wreck of the Steamship Tahoe with OpenROV!

OpenROVOne-hundred-fifty meters hardly seems like anything at all.

Standing in the parking lot of OpenROV, I pace out 150 meters. The small sign, hanging against the wall of the battered warehouse, pointing visitors towards the entrance, is clear.

One-hundred fifty meters is less than half a lap around a standard running track. It’s the height of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, the tallest building in the world, 700 years ago. The fastest man in the world could cover 150 meters in 14 seconds.

On land, 150 meters is barely noteworthy. Plunge into the sea and 150 meters is the wine dark deep. It is the edge of the photic zone, a world of eternal twilight. It is three times deeper than most SCUBA divers will ever venture. At 150 meters, the water pushes down with the weight of 16 atmospheres.

And, if you climb high into the Sierra Mountains and descend into the frigid alpine waters of Lake Tahoe, just off the coast of Glenbrook, Nevada, lying on a steep glacial slope at 150 meters depth is the wreck of the Steamship Tahoe.

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Arduino Project Log: Building the Sea Leveler Part 1 – Hardware

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The Sea Leveler.

The Sea Leveler.

Two weeks ago, I announced my latest Hacking the Ocean project, an open-source, Arduino-powered water level meter that monitors the frequency of tweets containing the hashtag #sealevelrise. Since launch, the Sea Leveler has had some bugs and received some good press.  Now that I’ve had some time to monitor its performance and work the bugs out of its code, it is finally time for the promised “how to build the Sea Leveler” post.

This project was much more involved than my Arduino build and significantly more rewarding. The Sea Leveler was a challenge on multiple fronts, from learning to make the Arduino talk to twitter to physically modifying the water level meter. As I noted in my first project log, I have very little programming experience, and the major goal of this build was to level up my C++ skills. I’m very happy with the results, both technical and aesthetic.

For simplicity, I’m going to break this into two posts, one for hardware and one for software.

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Meet Sea Leveler: the open source water level gauge that wants you to talk about #sealevelrise

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The Sea Leveler, an open source water level gauge that measures activity on twitter.

The Sea Leveler, an open source, arduino-powered, water level gauge that measures activity on twitter.

Two weeks ago, a machine was left on the “free” table at my lab that surprised me–a beautiful stainless steel mechanical water level gauge, on of those old ones with a flywheel in the back that drives the mechanism. Seeing this made me realize that there must be thousands of old scientific devices rusting away in laboratories across the country, obsolete but too well-build to just be thrown out. Then, I thought, there must be some way to take these old tools, some of them elegant, hand crafted works of industrial art, and give them a second life. For Science Online Oceans, I proposed a section on “Hacking the Ocean” developing low-cost, DIY instrumentation to make oceanography accessible to a broader community, but could that work the other way? Can we harness that same maker mentality to take abandoned scientific instrumentation and turn them into tools for education and outreach, or create art through instrumentation?

So I built the Sea Leveler.

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