An Open Letter to Shaun Lamp, CEO of Great Lakes Energy

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Hello Shaun,

A few months back, I got an email from GLE, which announced your new position as CEO (congrats!), along with other updates about service, fiber internet rollout, etc. One of the things I noticed in the email was that Great Lakes Energy doesn’t actually produce electricity, but buys it from a local supplier. I’m sure it’s more complex than that, but nevertheless, it got me thinking.

A couple years ago, Great Lakes Energy started a truly remarkable endeavor to provide fiber-to-the-home for all GLE members. And Truestream was born. It was, and continues to be a huge project, which I’m sure cost many millions of dollars to roll out. And as a business-class fiber customer at my farm in Brutus, I can tell you, the efforts were successful. I’m assuming there were grants and other financial resources available to you in order to help fund the connection of so many folks who otherwise had no decent options for broadband Internet service. I wonder if the same might be true for electricity… A couple days ago I got this email:

And it got me thinking. Again. What if Great Lakes Energy worked with its members, and facilitated the installation of solar and/or wind generation at the individual homes? Many of us are in rural locations, and have the space to install systems that would not only offset carbon emissions, but with grid-tying, you could buy some of the electricity you provide from your own people.

I’m not saying this without understanding many complexities exist. While solar installations would certainly help with the issue presented in the email, solar power is timed very poorly for energy needs in the winter. This is exacerbated by our eventual need to move away from burning fossil fuels to heat our homes. If we all use electric heat pumps (which, we totally should, and almost certainly will eventually), the demand for electricity will increase at night when the sun is not helping produce any power at all.

Good Point, We Should Forget the Whole Thing…

But see that’s where Great Lakes Energy could really help blaze a trail. Who better to solve the issues of energy production, distribution, storage, and independence than an electrical CO/OP who has already proven their ability to think big, and actually follow through? There will always be people like me, who have an off-grid inverter setup, with a battery bank in order to make it through potential downtimes. And less nerdy versions of me who have a standby generator in case things go sideways. But those solutions are very self-focused, and if we want to be leaders, we need to work together as the CO/OP we are. There are so many things individuals like myself can’t do alone. But a huge part of those challenges are just another Tuesday for you. Things like:

  • Testing, approving, and possibly bulk purchasing hardware for grid tied inverters, solar panels, and mounting hardware that will work well, work safely, and provide people with the appropriate hardware for their needs and/or desires.
  • Working with local government entities to provide clear, simple guidelines, and when local governments are unwilling to cooperate, shine light on the issue so that progress doesn’t die in a pile of paperwork.
  • Work with installers, either hiring, contracting, or at the very least facilitating reputable professionals connecting with members.
  • Work with folks like myself, who are passionate about such things, to educate and even help people find the line between DIY and professional installations. What can we do on our own? What should we? What shouldn’t we?

Heh, Yeah, We Already Do That

Well… about that. Yes, you have multiple programs. Three that I’m aware of, kinda. Two of them seem like the same thing worded differently. But they’re not nearly the same level of active participation as the fiber Internet initiative. Let’s talk about them, purposefully from my viewpoint, because I suspect I’m more aware of these things than most folks, and much less aware than you.

Community Solar. This appears to be a partnership with a 3rd party organization, Spartan Solar. You sort of “adopt a panel”, which is installed and maintained in a solar farm by the Spartan Solar folks. You pay for a panel, and get credited by the energy it produces. I’m certain those credits are based on averages and percentages, and are reduced by maintenance cost and financial solvency, etc, etc. On paper, this is very likely the absolute best way to implement solar in the most efficient way possible.

The problem is, it’s just a line item on a piece of paper. And apart from an abstract good feeling, there aren’t any real benefits to the end user. If your power goes out, your adopted solar panel doesn’t know, doesn’t care, and will not keep your cellphone charged so you can watch netflix during the ice storm. I suspect the interest in Community Solar isn’t zero, but also isn’t earth shattering. It’s just moving numbers on a monthly bill. If we’re going to change the world, it needs to feel real.

When you produce power on your roof, and you can see graphs of output and usage, things change. If you want to see someone get radical about energy savings, show them the data. Not abstract kilowatt hours of monthly usage, but daily watts produced and stored vs watts used. The reason people don’t take climate change seriously is they don’t experience it first hand, at least not in a way that feels real and addressable. Am I suggesting we gamify our electrical usage? YES! Members connected reliably to the Internet with fiber only makes that more possible. If people realize it takes a dozen huge solar panels in full sunlight to run their air conditioning, it becomes a tangible reason to add insulation and get better windows.

Net-Metering and Buy-All/Sell-All. From what I can tell by reading the PDF files (which were clearly written by lawyers), this is the ability for a limited number of members to pay extra for a smart meter, and then sell back excess energy they produce. This is great, truly. That said, I have no idea if the 10MW limit specified in the document has been reached, or if the program is still available. I also don’t have any idea how much extra members need to pay for smart meters to facilitate the process. And most importantly, the “how-to” bit is not only confusing, but intimidating and pretty much unattainable without lots of professional investment.

Such things are complicated, and intimidating. I get it. When you add governmental regulations, both local and regional, it’s a non-starter for the vast majority of folks. Even myself. But like I mentioned above, these regulations and interoperability with governments are what you do every day. What if there were a group of local installers, electricians, buying cooperatives (ahem, GLE), and people who know the intricacies of rolling out real community-based initiatives? What if you could show graphs on your website of the percentage of power purchased from members vs from a 3rd party? What if a farmer with a south-facing clearing could install enough solar panels to make a bit of income each month while supplying all their own power/heating/cooling needs?

OK, Sure, But That’s Not a Plan.

Right. My hope is that we can make it easier for people to install things like solar. This will require several things:

  • Education. This is the part I can actually help accomplish. Remember when I was one of the first folks to get fiber Internet installed, and y’all took pictures, etc? (It’s ok if you don’t remember, you weren’t there personally) Let’s expand that idea. Let’s highlight various solar/wind/battery/inverter installations members have in place, or plan to put in place. I’m an educator who is comfortable making video. Let’s show people what’s possible!
  • Easy Access. Most people I know with solar installations got the hardware and labor as part of a contract, which makes their payment and saved electrical usage just about a wash. That requires capital, and I would bet there are governmental grants to help facilitate such things. I’m really nerdy, and really into this stuff. Yet I have no idea how to get something like a solar panel system installed. That’s partially on me, but it points to a bigger problem: No one knows what is possible, much less how to accomplish it.
  • Incentive. It needs to be sexy. There is so much more we need to do than just putting solar panels on houses. But getting people to be active participants in the energy conversation seems like a really good first step. This is mostly marketing, but wouldn’t it be great to have an actionable alternative to the rolling blackouts mentioned in the email above? “Use less power” is an admirable goal, but long term it’s not sustainable. The future will be powered by electricity, and being proactive about scaling our power needs before garages are filled with electric vehicles seems like an even more admirable goal!

I truly can’t think of any other entity more poised to lead the way toward a cleaner, more self-sufficient nation. Once we are more actively involved with producing electricity, and owning the process — things like transitioning away from propane furnaces become a much easier conversation. But the first step is to get people interested in having the conversation. And making everyone an active part of the process seems like a good way to start.

So drop me a line, Shaun. Let’s change the world, starting in one of the most unlikely places — our own backyards.

Significance

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Last night I had the opportunity to speak for Linux Dominicana, which is the Linux Users Group in the Dominican Republic. I was approached several months ago by a man who has since become a good friend, asking if I would give a webinar-based talk. As most people reading this know, I’m currently trying to produce more and more content, and hopefully reach more and more people with it. So even though I had concerns over cultural errors I might make, I agreed to do the talk.

Spoiler: I’m very glad I did.

My whole personal “brand” thing about being kind, assuming the best in others, admitting when I’m wrong, etc., is not so much a “brand” as genuinely who I want to be as a human. And so in the months leading up to the talk, a bunch of the leaders joined me in a group chat so I could ask them an annoying amount of questions. I was not worried about embarrassing myself (clearly, based on most of my public interactions, I have no problem looking silly). But I was very concerned that I would make an offensive comment, or make an assumption out of ignorance that would hurt the feelings those attending. I gave my rough talk outline (it was about Linux as a vehicle to a career), and I asked awkward questions about job opportunities, difficulties with language barriers, salary inequalities, and how things “work” in the Dominican Republic.

This group of folks were so patient, and so kind, my gratitude doesn’t seem like enough payment for all the education they provided me. After a couple months of trying to learn Spanish, it was clear I wouldn’t be anywhere close to capable of conversation in their native language, and still they were nothing but patient with my litany of questions. Honestly, I was probably rather annoying. And even though I learned a lot about Dominican people, and even about Latin America in general — the upcoming talk was more distressing than pretty much any other talk I’ve given. (OK, the Ohio LinuxFest keynote address where I lost my entire presentation the night before was pretty stressful, but this was a different sort of stress.)

See… I wasn’t sure I’d be relatable. Don’t get me wrong, human stories are about humans, and in general we can empathize if we try. But would my life experiences translate (literally and figuratively) to another culture? I normally weave sarcasm and self deprecation into my talks, but sarcasm is often hard to pick up in your native language, so my standard go-to would probably fall flat. Plus, my talk wasn’t really about anything technical. It was a story about how I found my passion, and how those passions helped me in my own career. It was a very “soft” talk for a group of hardened IT professionals.

How did it go? I think the talk went fine. (That link will start the talk when it switches to English) It wasn’t earth-shattering. It was a story-based look at my career, with a few pointers for finding passion of your own. And an awkward section about the unfair importance of speaking English. Again, it wasn’t a bad talk. But it wasn’t amazing by any stretch of the definition.

But it was significant.

What I didn’t mention earlier is that this was the first time they’ve had one of their presentations in English. I was even one of the first (maybe the actual first) presenter without a tie to the Dominican Republic at all. Heck, I’m so white I’m almost clear! They did this on purpose, but I didn’t realize it was that out of the ordinary until I was chatting with the group of leaders the day before the talk. Whether or not my talk went well, they assured me it was ground-breaking. Assuming the attendees enjoyed the talk, it probably means they will have future speakers from other places with different views and different insights. And I got to be the first person to open that door. I’m still so very humbled.

I hope my mediocre talk, where I tried to speak more slowly than normal (I talk fast when I get excited) was enough to tear down a few cultural walls. The kindness of commenters, saying things in English so I could understand it, was really quite touching. This group of Dominicans will always have a special place in my heart. And once winter sets in, I might find out if their offers of helping me get the most out of a trip to the DR were genuine. And to be honest, I already know they were. Because along with being the first English-only speaker to their group, I also made a pretty great group of friends. And that. That is how we change the world.

Star Trek Me This

A while back I posted a poll on Twitter about which Star Trek technology would be the most significant. Usually when I bring the topic up in conversation, people jokingly say the Holodeck, and then say, “But seriously, warp drive is the most significant tech.” I generally argue that the replicator is the most overlooked tech in Star Trek, because its invention would solve world hunger, put manufacturing centuries ahead, and make scarcity a thing of the past. I was pleasantly surprised to see that on Twitter, most folks think along the same lines.

But, I want to elaborate a bit on the items, because sometimes I have more than 280 characters of thought on a topic. 🙂

Holodeck

The holodeck got little love on Twitter, and I understand. It seems the most frivolous of the items listed. In reality, the Holodeck is the one we’re probably the closest to actually having. It’s basically VR to the Nth degree. There are obvious differences, what with actual physical interactions and all, but VR is like a poor man’s Holodeck, and we can try it out today.

The use cases for an actual Holodeck are pretty incredible though, to be honest. The show generally stresses its usage as a vacation simulation, which would be important on interstellar trips. But the training, learning, physical fitness, and full immersion would make life better in so many ways.

That said, I think we all know, most Holodeck use cases would devolve into sexual deviance pretty quickly. Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad, I’m not here to judge. The takeaway though is that a Holodeck could do more than just entertain us. It could level the playing field for everyone such that privilege of wealth and/or location wouldn’t matter as much.

Transporter

There was some discussion on Twitter about whether the transporter was its own tech, or whether the replicator and the transporter were really the same thing, since the technologies are closely related. But since I was specifically referring to the transporter as a “mover of objects and people”, that’s what I’ll focus on here.

Quite frankly, the transporter tech creeps me out the most. The notion of converting mass into energy and then that energy back into mass seems fine for chairs and pepperoni pizzas, but for a living thing — it’s oogy. This is a trope in the Star Trek universe of course, what if people are “recreated” twice. What if the “pattern degrades” in the buffer. But I’m more concerned about what makes a person a person. When an object (or lifeform) is converted into the stream of energy, their existence is nothing more than a record of what they used to be. If you then rebuild them into that same record, are they the same person? Is there a spark of life that is more than matter/energy? Is there a soul?

Deep stuff, I know. But the transporter has always bothered me in Star Trek. And while I don’t want to get into a big philosophical debate about souls and the meat they may or may not inhabit — if the transporter idea for living things doesn’t creep you out, I’m a little worried about you.

Warp Drive

Arguably the most exciting Trek tech, it’s oddly the one that would probably affect humanity the least. Well, at least initially. With things like hunger, inequality, and scarcity eliminated, Warp Drive would allow for exploration without the sole purpose of exploitation. That would be amazing. But as a “first” tech? Yeah, I’ll pass. I don’t want to solve our energy problems by drilling for oil on a remote planet. That’s just putting the cart before the horse.

Obviously cool tech from a scientific standpoint. And not outside of the realm of “maybe someday something like what it sorta implies” — so I’m not anti-WarpDrive. I’m just not in the, “We need Warp Drive first” camp.

I already talked about the replicator, and why I think that would be the most important and civilization changing tech. But something that didn’t even make my list has gotten me thinking a lot lately…

Universal Translator

This is probably the most practical tech from a, “could we ever actually do it” standpoint. Not with the whiz-bang features of learning and deciphering an unknown language in near real-time, but as a way for people to communicate with each other regardless of their native tongue. Language barriers are more than just inconvenient. When we can’t communicate readily with someone, it changes how we see them. Being self aware enough to realize that our differences are insignificant when compared to our similarities helps — but when we can’t communicate, relationships break down.

When someone doesn’t speak our language fluently, we perceive them as less intelligent (even if we don’t speak THEIR language AT ALL). When we can’t express our intentions to each other clearly, it creates a mental us/them separation that bleeds into every other aspect of our relationship. When we can’t understand each other, we can easily dehumanize each other. And that road leads to the darkest of darkness. If we can’t communicate with people, we can’t get to know them. And if we don’t know people who are unlike us, it limits who WE are as a part of humanity.

There’s a much larger topic about diversity, inclusivity, and expanding our views of “us” — but this was just a post about Star Trek technology. So I’ll save the other stuff for another episode. 🙂

Interns, and College, and Certs. Oh My.

I do not have a college degree.

I think it’s important to lead with that, because while I’ve built a fairly successful career, I’ve done it without actually attaining a degree of any sort. I did attend college — a major university for 2 years, and a community college for a year. But in all that time (and all that debt), I never managed to piece together a degree.

Part of the problem is that like most college students, I changed my major multiple times. I started as an Electrical Engineer major. They seemed to make a lot of money, and, if I’m honest, that’s about all the thought I put into it. Then, in Calculus 3, I decided Electrical Engineers did things with numbers that just didn’t need to be done. I was also a Technical Writing major, and English major, and once I shifted to the community college, a “Liberal Arts” major. (I still don’t know what that actually means)

Don’t get me wrong, even though I didn’t get a degree, my college experience did actually help me significantly. I found myself skipping engineering classes at Michigan Tech, and hanging out in the computer labs all day (and night). There was a brand new NeXT computer lab, and it make Unix sexy. In fact, it was probably partially that time in a terminal window when I was supposed to be in engineering classes that made me fall in love with Unix/Linux.

Should I go to College?

This is question I get a lot. A lot a lot. It’s also a question I’m very hesitant to answer. Because the answer is a resounding maybe, and that’s not what anyone wants to hear. Another problem with the question is that the answer keeps changing. For example, back in 2012, I was asked this question at CBT Nuggets, and colleges were just starting to offer more than C++ programming as their only Computer Science class. Here was my response then:

This is still solid advice (well, as solid as advice from me gets anyway), but if anything, the college angle has gotten more attractive. Yes, education lags behind the cutting edge, but if you go into a university computer science program today, you’ll actually get a well rounded education on networking, operating systems, and actual useful programming languages. That still doesn’t mean it’s the right answer for everyone though, because college is very expensive, and you might be served better with a combination of certification programs, internships, and just plain old experience. When I was college-aged, there simply were no computer networking classes. Now there are, but there are also plenty of vocational programs that teach networking as well.

When I was college-aged, there simply were no computer networking classes. Now there are…

Let’s focus on my area of expertise; sourdough bread. No, just kidding, my technical specialty is Linux. And it’s an area that continues to attract more and more employers. Linux Insider posted an article during the pandemic pointing out the need for Linux-savvy workers, even as the industry moves away from traditional servers and hosts everything in the cloud. (Because guess what makes the cloud run? Yep. Linux.) And while colleges certainly offer Linux classes, they’re still lagging way behind current needs when it comes to employable skills. If you get your college degree, you’re still going to need to get certifications to not only prove your worth — but also to fill in the gaps dated college curriculum offers.

So College is a Waste?

Again, maybe. Here’s the thing, college does a couple things really, really well:

  • Teaches foundational knowledge that makes for better equipped professionals
  • Is structured in a way to teach a well-rounded educational base, wider than the specific topic of study
  • Gives students an opportunity to see if they like a variety of subjects (remember my Electrical Engineer “career”?)
  • Looks really good on a resume

And that last one is a real kicker. The current hiring process is largely automated at the early stages. Many employers use a college degree as a litmus test to determine whether or not to even interview a candidate. A college degree shows that a person has the stamina and hard work to achieve a difficult goal. Even if it doesn’t prove they’ll be a good employee, it’s often the first hurdle to even getting an interview. I personally think that’s sad, but I’m sure it’s a statistically viable way to sort the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately, companies miss out on some really good folks who chose a different path.

I won’t lie, having a college degree does open doors, especially when applying for a job. It’s not the only way to get hired, but it’s important to judge if the cost and years spend getting educated at a university is worth it. It might be, especially if someone else is helping pay the bill. But going into $100k of debt will take a lot of years to pay off, even if you land a great job.

So What Else Is There?

This is where it’s much better to do what I say, and not what I did. When I left college, I started a small business. It failed miserably. (Like, really bad. It was ugly.) From there I got a tech support job at the local community college answering phones giving support to dialup Internet users. My experience in the computer labs at Michigan Tech, and my experience as a “small business owner” gave me enough resume fodder to get an interview. From there, after a series of very unfortunate events, I applied at a K12 school district for the technology director position. I shouldn’t have gotten that job, but I wrote a very compelling cover letter, and interviewed well. I also got very lucky. Getting lucky isn’t something you can prepare for, but all is not lost if you don’t go to college.

If you decide not to go to college, or at least not head off to university for a 4 year degree, there are a couple viable alternatives that will make you employable (even if it makes it tough to get past the automated resume filters):

  • Get an Associate’s degree at a community college.
  • Study on your own and get tech certifications from places like CompTIA, LPI, Cisco, Microsoft, etc.
  • Apply for an internship. If you can afford it, unpaid internships are an easy way to get experience.
  • Apply for an internship. Lots of interns get paid, if crappy. More on this later.
  • Get involved with some Open Source projects, especially if development is what you want to do.
  • Create an online presence. Certainly GitHub for developers, but also YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

I know this was the “no college” list, but a couple years at a community college is probably affordable, especially if you can stay home and commute. Having a degree, even an Associate’s degree, will open some doors. Even if your major is Underwater Basket-Weaving — just having the paper will potentially get you an interview.

Internships are incredible. They can be at a college, or a business in the field you’re interested in. They come in two flavors: Regular and crappy. Seriously though, some internships are unpaid. It’s the pre-employment equivalent of doing work for the exposure. It sucks. But, if there aren’t any other options, it’s a viable way to get your foot in the door and get some serious experience on your resume. There are many companies who pay their interns though, so don’t assume you’ll have to work for free. You’ll probably make a pittance, but it might be enough if you can still live at home, or have lots of roommates.

Lastly, the old adage is that nothing beats experience. That’s still true, especially if you can get to the actual interview process. An internship is incredible to put on a resume, but if you contribute to projects on GitHub (even documentation! EVERY project needs documentation!), or have projects of your own, that counts. And if a YouTube channel seems like a silly thing to start in order to get a job — I assure you, if you get to the interview stage, interviewers will check out your YouTube channel before they interview you. Same with blogging, tweeting, facebooking, linked-inning, etc. Put yourself in the hiring committee’s shoes, if they can “see” you before they actually see you, they’ll likely do so. Just be genuine, and it will be like an extended interview that you don’t have to sweat through!

You Avoided the Question Entirely

Yeah, I know. That’s what I meant at the start — it’s all maybe. Rather than a one-size-fits-all answer, hopefully this has given you a bit of insight to help you think through what will work best for you. Some of the ideas are valid regardless of your decision on college. All those bullet points above will make you more employable, and a better tech nerd in general. Getting involved in the community you’re interested in will only help make connections that might get you a job. Most of my “best” jobs have been because I knew someone who knew someone who saw my stuff. Good luck, and whatever your future looks like, I encourage you to seek after something you enjoy. If you don’t like calculus, don’t be an electrical engineer. Trust me.

Unlimited Local Storage for $12 per Month. Really.

I have a 48TB NAS in my basement. Granted, thanks to RAID6 I only (only!) have 36TB of usable space, but still, I assumed that would last me forever. Thanks to ripping DVDs and Blurays, I was so very, very wrong. Rather than spend a few thousand dollars on a new NAS, however, I decided to host my files in the cloud. The storage is unlimited for $12/month, and after 6 months or so, I can tell you it’s a viable alternative to local storage. Plus, it mounts exactly like a local NAS!

The Service

There are plenty of cloud-based storage solutions available, but they are all either very limited in storage space, or very expensive per GB. There is one solution, however, that provides unlimited storage for a set monthly price. Google Drive.

Officially, in order to get unlimited storage, you must get a Business Gsuite with 5 users. Each user is $12/month, and so you’d have to pay $60/month to get unlimited storage. Honestly, $60 a month for that much space is still insanely affordable — but if you open a Business Gsuite account with a single user (so only $12/mo), you still get unlimited storage. It might seem like an error Google would quickly fix, but it’s been that way for years. I’m currently using more than 40TB of space on my Google Drive, and only have a single user on my Gsuite for Business.

The Problem

Google Drive is nice, but let’s be honest, no one wants to use their web interface as bulk storage. It’s clumsy, slow, and as much as I love Google, the organization is confusing at best. Google does provide “Google Drive Stream”, but due to local caching, you still need local storage or you get “not enough space” errors.

Thankfully, Rclone makes direct access to Google Drive seamless. It allows you to create access via keypair (no annoying logging in all the time), and even lets you mount your remote share on your local filesystem. And in true Steve Jobs “one more thing” fashion, it also allows you to encrypt files and directories in real time, so your privacy is protected even if your data is stored on someone else’s hard drive. It’s seriously amazing. And Rclone? Open Source and totally free!

The Process

Rclone is in most Linux distributions, and even has Windows and OSX versions available that all work similarly. In this video, I show you how to quickly set up a share and mount it on the local filesystem. If it seems too good to be true, yeah, I get that. But I’ve been using it for months and I’ve been more than impressed. It’s been reliable, and robust enough to support a handful of users reading and writing at the same time.

You can do a bit of extra work to create your own application API, which will make the performance more robust. It doesn’t cost any extra money, but it’s admittedly a bit of confusing clicking.

The Training?

You probably know I create training for a living. I have more in-depth training on rclone over at CBT Nuggets. If you’re already a subscriber, you can go to https://snar.co/cbt-rclone to get to the skill directly.

If you’re not yet a subscriber at CBT Nuggets, you can see my Everything Linux course overview, which includes my rclone skill and many others. Feel free to sign up for a free trial if you want to view my training. https://snar.co/cbt-everythinglinux

(This isn’t a creepy bait and switch — the free video above really does walk you through the process. There’s just more capability if you’re interested in diving in deeper, and want to check out my professional DayJob training!)