mon, 23-may-2011, 17:55
Buddy, McSweeney’s 37

Buddy, McSweeney’s 37

I took some time out from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King to read the latest McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 37, packaged as a hardcover book which has been decorated and trimmed to give the illusion of, yep, a hardcover book. Leave it to McSweeney’s to produce yet another cool, well-produced (sewn binding, actual cloth cover) object containing some great writing.

Favorites in this issue include Jess Walter’s Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington, John Hyduk’s great story (essay?) about being unemployed (which has the great image of a warehouse building at night: “It’s dark and raining, but the building glows like a birthday cake”), and Joe Meno’s Lion’s Jaws. I didn’t really get into the five stories from Kenya, but I guess they were interesting from the standpoint of reading within a totally different place and culture.

sun, 22-may-2011, 08:06
Arduino temperature display

Arduino temperature display

I’ve had an Arduino-based weather station since June 2009, but one problem with it has been that there hasn’t been any easy way to display the data in real time without going to the database (or the raw import files) to see what the latest observations were. I wrote a quick web page for this (home display), and this is convenient if I want to see what the temperatures are around the house when I’m not at home. But sitting in the living room, it’d be nice to know what the temperatures are just by looking.

The choices for displays aren’t all that great. Arduino can drive the classic seven segment LED displays (like old calculators, for those who remember what a calculator is), which are big and bright, but it requires a lot of pins, and even more power to light enough of them to display the amount of data I need (at least four temperatures, and possibly other sensor values like pressure or light). There are graphical LCD panels, which you control pixel by pixel but are expensive and aren’t all that large. And then there are text LCD displays that use the Hitachi HD44780 controller (or one based on it). These are more like old terminal screens where you can write to each character position on the screen. Common sizes are 16 characters across x 2 rows and 20 x 4 displays.

I chose a white on black, 16 x 2 display (SparkFun LCD-00709). It requires 5 volts to power the display and the LED backlight, and uses six of the digital pins on the Arduino board. The Arduino Uno (and earlier Duemilanove) have fourteen digital pins (two of which are the serial TX/RX pins), so one could hook up two of these displays to a single Arduino. The hookup for a single display, and the code I’m using follows. The Arduino Cookbook was invaluable for getting the everything working.

LCD / Arduino circuit diagram

The Arduino code reads four comma-delimited numbers from the serial port. They’re formatted as integer values representing the temperature in Fahrenheit multiplied by ten (50.2°F = 502). If the value is negative, the minus sign appears at the end of the number (-40.0°F = 400-). Here’s the Arduino code that displays the incoming data to the LCD:

#include <LiquidCrystal.h>

const int numRows = 2;
const int numCols = 16;
const int NUMBER_OF_FIELDS = 4; // t_west, t_back, t_up, t_down
int fieldIndex = 0;
int values[NUMBER_OF_FIELDS]; // temp * 10

LiquidCrystal lcd(12, 11, 5, 4, 3, 2);

void setup() {
  lcd.begin(numCols, numRows);

void displayVal(int val) {
  int ival;
  int dval;
  if (val >= 0) {
    ival = floor(val / 10.0);
    dval = val - (ival * 10);
  } else {
    ival = ceil(val / 10.0);
    dval = -1 * (val - (ival * 10));
  if (ival >= 0) {
    lcd.print(" ");

void loop() {
  if (Serial.available()) { // Read message
    while (Serial.available()) {
      char ch =;
      if (ch >= '0' && ch <= '9') {
        values[fieldIndex] = (values[fieldIndex] * 10) + (ch - '0');
      } else if (ch == ',') {
        if (fieldIndex < NUMBER_OF_FIELDS - 1) {
      } else if (ch == '-') {
        values[fieldIndex] = values[fieldIndex] * -1;
      } else {
        lcd.setCursor(0, 0);
        lcd.print("W "); // West outdoor sensor
        values[0] = 0;
        lcd.setCursor(9, 0);
        lcd.print("B "); // Back outdoor
        values[1] = 0;
        lcd.setCursor(0, 1);
        lcd.print("U "); // Upstairs
        values[2] = 0;
        lcd.setCursor(9, 1);
        lcd.print("D "); // Downstairs
        values[3] = 0;
        fieldIndex = 0;

To make this work, I need a program on the computer the Arduino is plugged into that will read the weather data from the database and dump it to the serial port that the display Arduino is plugged into. Here’s that code:

#! /usr/bin/env python

import serial, time, shutil, os
import psycopg2

connection = psycopg2.connect(host='HOSTNAME', database='DB')
cursor = connection.cursor()
ser = serial.Serial('/dev/ttyACM0', timeout=1)

def make_arduino_str(value):
    integer = int(round(value * 10))
    if value < 0:
        return "{0}-".format(integer * -1)
        return "{0}".format(integer)

while 1:
    query = "SELECT west, back, down, up FROM arduino_view;"
    params = ()
    cursor.execute(query, params)
    if cursor.rowcount:
        rows = cursor.fetchall()
        for row in rows:
            (west, back, down, up) = row
        (west, back, down, up) = map(make_arduino_str,
                (west, back, down, up))
        message = "{0},{1},{2},{3}\n".format(west, back, up, down)

Each minute, it reads the temperatures from a database view that consolidates the latest readings from the weather sensors (arduino_view), formats them in the manner the Arduino display code expects, and sends them to the serial port for display.

It works really well, and looks good. I wish the display itself were larger, however. I’ll probably get a second LCD panel so I can display more data, but if someone would make a 20 x 4 display that was twice as large as the one I’ve got now, I’d buy it. The 16 x 2 is easy to read from the couch (five feet away), but isn’t readable from the kitchen.

tags: Arduino  lcd  weather 
sat, 21-may-2011, 07:29
Back cabin, high water

Back cabin, high water

I started measuring the depth of Goldstream Creek a little over a year ago this week. Each morning I measure down from a particular spot on the bridge over the Creek to the top of the water or ice and report this (plus daily high and low temperature, precipitation, snowfall and snow depth) to the Weather Service. The following plot (if nothing shows up, click the following links to view a PNG or PDF version) shows the depth of the Creek at our swimming hole on the top, and the daily high and low temperatures on the bottom. The dark cyan line on the top plot is the height of the bridge (about six feet below the entrance to our house), and the dark cyan line on the lower plot is the freezing point.

At it’s highest, the Creek was just over two feet from the bottom of the bridge, the slough flooded into the dog yard about two thirds of the way across the lowest point, and the Creek seemed dangerously close to topping the banks. The photo at the top shows the back cabin during the high water event.

This year’s breakup was similar to last year: ground and meltwater from the surrounding area started flooding on top of the ice and over the course of a couple weeks, it eroded the ice below until the water level rapidly dropped to more normal summertime depths. One interesting note is that we seem to get a large pulse of water (the rise starting around March 11th) before the snow has started melting, which would seem to indicate that the first pulse is coming from groundwater sources. We don’t start getting afternoon temperatures above freezing until the beginning of April, and this is when snowmelt starts bringing the level up even higher.

When the level begins to drop, it’s pretty dramatic as we go from bankfull conditions to almost nothing in a week. This year we’ve still got wide shelves of ice hanging on the banks six feet above the level of the water.

The plot also shows the brief ice storm in late November where we got a couple inches of rain that froze on the roads and brought the Creek up slightly.

In the past, we’ve had more dramatic breakups where the initial springtime pulse of ground and meltwater breaks up all the ice in a couple days and sends it past our house crashing and grinding, but even the more gradual melting pattern of the last two years is impressive in how quickly the Creek rises and falls.

fri, 20-may-2011, 20:51
Fire from the back 5

We’ve got a pretty good view of the fire from behind the house.

And here’s one from a little later (10 PM). At this point it looks like the fire has burned out the hillside we can see and has moved off to the right.

Fire, 10 PM
fri, 20-may-2011, 18:43
Murphy Dome fire

The photo above was taken just before the intersection of Sheep Creek / Goldstream Roads and Murphy Dome Road, less than half a mile from where I work, and about four miles from our house as the crow flies. I’ve spent the last three hours backing up data, and getting our servers ready for possible evacuation. We’re both downwind (currently) and downhill from the fire, but it’s dangerously dry in Fairbanks right now, and if the wind shifts, we find ourselves evacuating our offices.

More as it happens…

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