Bram, there are several problems with your solar energy proposal. The most fundamental is that you're trying to drive a steam turbine with the pressure generated by the boiling water. If the only reason it's boiling is that you've pumping on it, there's no postive pressure differential with the ambient air you can use to turn the turbine. All your steam will out out through the vacuum pump, and the only way the turbine will turn is if you pull outside air through it backward with the vacuum pump: a classic perpetual motion design. Pumping air out of the enclosure also isn't free, and would likely cost too much for the system to run even if the boiling magically worked.
Using enough mirrors that the water boils on its own does work fine however. It's called Solar Thermal generation, and there are a number of plants in operation based on that principle. I've driven by the ones in California a number of times. They're kind of pretty.
One drawback of the whole boiler-turbine-condenser loop is that the machinery and pressure vessels tend to be large and heavy, so they're more cost effective at the MW scale than as something you'd want for household generation. Which is why most building-scale solar thermal systems just produce hot water, not electricity, and people use photovoltaic panels instead if they want power. It's possible something like a 2m dish solar stirling engine would work for that, at least until we get cheap, quantum-efficient solar electric materials. Plants, after all, do it everyday.
I hate computers
Ok, not really, but it's been ridiculous. Last week I bought a DVD-R drive. This is actually my first burner: I kept waiting for CD-R drives to get cheaper (and could usually borrow from friend and office when I needed one) and when they were finally cheap enough for me, well, I was waiting for DVD-R drives to get cheaper. :)
But it's been hard to make backups since we moved to London, and I was starting to run out of disk space, so when I saw one for £140 I bought it. Yay, at last! I hooked it up, installed cdrecord, picked a likely looking 4 GB of backups, and started a burn.
First hitch. It turns out cdrecord doesn't support burning dvds; that's a payware add-on. Except it's still freeware for personal/academic use. So there's a binary you can download. Which I do. Except it doesn't burn more than 1 GB. Oh, there's a 'license key' you have to set in an environment variable. Ok, we write a script to do that, which looks just like the script they suggest you use further down the README page.
Yay, my first complete burn of...a coaster. Huh. Ok, we'll try again, this time at half the speed. I bought cheap media, so maybe this is the problem. 2x takes awhile...Let's just check this in the drive itself instead of the laptop. Nice, mount locks the machine! That's not good.
So I hard reset the machine. I check the disk on the laptop, and yes, another coaster. Not having gotten a clue yet, I try again at 1x after the fsck completes. That really takes awhile, and this time I eject the disk before trying to mount it, having vaguely remembered that resets broken drives. Coaster number three. This is not the shiny toy experience I was hoping for.
I give up and go back to work. A little while later the machine locks, independent of mount. This time, as I reset, I notice the hard drive light is on solid. Uh-oh. I reboot, and this time it wants a manual fsck. (yes, my root partion was still ext2). It finds a lot of problems. With a sinking feeling I try reboot, and the kernel load fails. So do all the backup kernels. Did I mention I'd not made a backup in way too long? And my rescue cd's are all from over a debian version ago, and can't even mount my reiserfs partitions. Oh, the irony.
Anyway, near as I can tell, turning DMA on for the DVD-R drive (a Pioneer A06) causes disk corruption on the other controller. At least with my motherboard and recent 2.4 linux. What? Is this 1997? It's not like DMA is this fancy new technology we're just figuring out how to support.
I borrowed a rh8 cd to use for rescue, made backups of what data I could, managed to burn a debian netinst image, and did a fresh install from there. Fortunately, all the home directories seem to have escaped damage, so it was just the system config I lost. As usual after a fire, there's been refreshing new growth: things run better now that I don't have so much cruft installed, I'm trying Gnome again, and I was finally motivated to clean up the partitioning and, for example, consolidate my two home directories--legacy of when what used to be two computers became this one. And I can burn discs fine now. But what a frustrating experience! Also turns out that dvd+rw-tools includes a program that will burn CD- and DVD-R, despite the name. Of course, we're all still using iso9660 instead of UDF, but that's a problem for another day.
Back in London for a few weeks now. It's good to be home. Strangely, I'm finally coming to like living here, now that we're almost ready to leave. I think maybe it just takes a while (like more than a year) for me to get comfortable in a place; until then I don't know if I like it or not.
Sandra and I had a really nice time on the california coast. We especially liked Morro Bay, and had an authentic surfer dude encounter in Santa Cruz. I've always found that area really relaxing, so it was an effective vacation.
After Sandra when back to the UK, I spent a week visiting jack in Albuquerque. We had a great time and it was good to see him again. They've got a nice set-up there, which I got to see finally, and we did geek-tourism things like visiting the VLA. It's a pity we don't want to live in the US; I hope we can do as well in Vancouver.