Minecraft, Programming and the Real World …

I have spent some time over the last couple of years trying to teach the kids programming … for the most part my attempts have been unsuccessful … I was simply not able to interest them.

Recently, my youngest daughter has been (very independently of me)  showing an interest in these kinds of things.  She recently convinced me to help her build a 3D Printer (I will admit she did not have to bend my arm TOO hard) and she has also been asking me the best programming language for a beginner to learn.   (You can see some of our progress with the 3D Printer at this link.)

While helping Helen evaluate a programming language to learn I stumbled across a pretty exciting programming development for Minecraft.  If your kids are at all like two of mine you will already have heard of Minecraft.  If you have not heard about it Minecraft is a real-time game server that allows multiple players to interact together in a virtual world; it is wildly popular.  What I discovered is that the makers of Minecraft have written an interface that allows you to code Python (or Java) to interact with a Minecraft world with scripts that you have written.  They apparently did this specifically to encourage young kids already hooked on Minecraft to learn how to code.

What is really neat is that you can set up this Minecraft/Python programming environment on a Raspberry Pi (a single-board computer) … how cool is that?!  In fact, somebody has already written an introductory, free Python programming ebook that uses this Raspberry Pi/Minecraft combo (called Minecraft Pi) that teaches you how to do things like automatically create a building in minecraft from a python program.

Now, for a totally mind-blowing experience you can take all of this a step further and connect your Minecraft virtual world to the real world.  The beauty of being able to program on a Raspberry Pi is that it is fairly simple to connect the Pi to interface electronics; inputs such as buttons, switches and sensors, and outputs such as LED’s and displays.  Once you’ve mastered some more python programming skills you can cause an action in Minecraft (like moving to a specific location) to do something in the real world (like flash an LED or open your garage door) … or better yet toggling a switch in the real world could cause your Minecraft nemesis to be teleported over a large body of water … your imagination really is the limit.

Sadly, we do not own a Raspberry Pi so I was unable to try some of this out.  However,  you can (and Helen and I did on my Mac and her Windows 7 laptop):

Our really simple first script was:

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 6.47.03 AM


It was pretty simple and the free ebook I mentioned earlier looks like a pretty good introduction to programming in Python.  The book is written on the assumption that you are going to use a Raspberry Pi but as I just described you can set this up on any computer and use the book … just ignore the Raspberry Pi stuff.

Getting slightly more complicated I then took a look at talking to an Arduino from a python script (another popular single-board computer used to make things … we are using one in our 3D printer).  It turns out this is pretty straight forward too … I was able to easily blink the lights on an Arduino Uno connected to my computer with a USB cable from a Python script.  This means I could pretty quickly use Python to talk to mine craft and the Arduino (think the real world) at the same time.  I was a little stunned by this … it is fairly easy to put together a Minecraft/Python/single-board computer environment that lets you do a lot of neat things.

There are some amazing possibilities here:

  • Being chased by an angry Minecraft monster?  Run a python script to build your fortress of solitude (in microseconds),
  • Flip a switch in the floor plan of your house that you modelled in Minecraft and watch the light come on in your real house,
  • Press the planetary destruct button you’ve wired to your computer and watch a mine craft world turn completely to water … or disappear.

I am kind-of excited … I feel like I am relating to my kids … sort-of.

We are new Earthship Dwellers…

We’ve just spent our first night as a family in the earthship a few nights ago. It has been a crazy, exhausting eight months as we made our final push to get moved in.

We are getting cozy.
We are getting cozy.

We aren’t finished yet; far from it. But we have all the amenities to keep ourselves warm and comfortable while we find the time to re-group and keep going.

What does not finished mean? Well, we have all our electrical finished. However, we’ve installed used and basic fixtures. We will, over time, find light fixtures that hang down below the beams. The lights we have now don’t completely clear our wonderful 12” round beams and because of this, they cast some shadows. Although we have all our DC wiring in place and have a sub panel for these circuits, we are currently running everything on AC power.

The Nutshell kitchen transported.
The Nutshell kitchen transported.

We have been asked why we aren’t off-grid yet. This is simple. We are building without a mortgage and some systems cost more than we can afford right now. Also, we are only a few metres from the grid so trying to accomplish our goal of moving in was a lot easier by tying to the grid for the time being. The third reason we haven’t gone off-grid yet is we are still not sure what that will mean for us. We certainly will have some solar but it’s clear to us that we can’t depend on this over the winter. Our valley gets very little sunlight in December and January. Wind is also undependable. Chris is halfway through building a gasifier. With a gasifier we could generate power and even contribute heat to the earthship. But like everything these past 8 months, we’ve been focused on getting moved in. I’ve been asked if we’re worried that we will never get to “off-grid”. No, I’m not. I used to get asked if I was worried we’d never move in. The process and potential degree of our future “off grid-ness” is a work in progress, just like building the structure of the earthship was, and is.

More kitchen.
More kitchen.

Our walls do not have a finish plaster on them. If you’ve been looking at pictures on our FB page, you will see that they are still clay-coloured. This is a job we wanted to take a bit of time on. We did finish our floors and while this is kind of backwards (it’s better to do floors last) we felt we needed to have finished floors to move in to limit the dirt we tracked around. The walls will be a project for the warmer months of spring.

Our kitchen is not complete, either. Because our cupboards in the Nutshell were built as modules, we simply tore them out and brought them over. They are functional but not pretty. We have designed the kitchen to have more cupboards which don’t exist yet, and the U housing the kitchen is meant to be divided with a pantry at the back. This wall is absent at the moment.

The kids' bedroom.
The kids’ bedroom.

The kids are sleeping in the big U, without dividing walls. Again, this was a job that we felt we could put off until after we moved in. They are fairly delighted to have so much more room that I think we can safely schedule their walls about mid-way down our to-do list!

Only one bathroom is functional and that one barely so. We just pulled a door out of the Nutshell and built a frame for it. Until now when we need to use the lav, we announced ourselves and everyone moved from the living room to the kitchen. It was quite funny, but not funny enough apparently that we could let that job go unfinished for long.

Repurposed bathroom door.
Repurposed bathroom door.

Our utility room is still not divided. The front half is destined as a library/seating area. I suspect this will be one of our last projects.

As of a few days ago, our plumbing permit has been cleared. There will be a notation that one bathroom has been roughed in enough to satisfy the permit, while the other one is complete. The rocket stove permit (Solid Fuel Burning) has been passed. This is the site built stove project for which Chris, as the engineer, submitted stamped drawings.

The building permit has not passed. In the new year we will have the inspector back to provide us with a complete list of outstanding items. We know this list includes: protecting the insulation and poly on the inside front wall, finishing some exterior faces (I believe we are going to have to replace the small poly covered window openings on the east and west ends). These windows will be stained glass and we were hoping to make these ourselves as a family project. I don’t think the building jurisdiction considers the exposed tires on the east and west entrances as “finished” although I may argue they are and I may argue the double insulated pop can wall on the exterior is also finished. It’s not that we won’t do something to them; we are trying to limit the work we have to do during winter to clear the permit. Our radiant floor heating system is also not connected. I believe this will be required to pass the permit.

Our old pantry...brought over to the Earthship.
Our old pantry…brought over to the Earthship.

A few thoughts about the permit process on our earthship as much is discussed about this on our FB page and on other Facebook pages that are dedicated to earthships. As an engineer Chris is obligated to adhere to ethical and professional standards so building without a permit was never an option. That doesn’t mean that we don’t think that current building code practices are outdated for alternative green building…but I think-and here I speak entirely for myself- that one can follow the rules and still not agree with them. It teaches the builder, the building jurisdiction and others, the reasons we have codes and the reasons we need to change them faster.

Has having a permit process in place slowed us down? Only partially. We were building slowly so having to wait for inspections didn’t hamper our speed. In some ways having a permit had the potential to slow us down, and in fact, it did in a minor way. There were things we had to do to we may not have wanted to do that cost us time. In the very beginning we were told we had to have a septic system, even though we didn’t intend to use one. This would have cost us $15,000 and certainly slowed us down. We were lucky here as our other option was to have a septic installer certify our very old current system. We also spent a few weeks documenting precedent in other jurisdictions about burying electrical wire in cob…that did slow us down, but in the end it saved us $1500 as the electrical inspector originally wanted us to put the wire in conduit everywhere on the walls. In fairness, he was excellent and was open to being convinced of proven methods in jurisdictions on Vancouver Island, where several of our friends/fellow alternative builders supplied us with information and pictures and contact information to supply to ours. I personally was delighted with this process…if only every alternative building issue could be resolved as seamlessly…


I keep telling people that we are the first known fully permitted earthship in B.C. Chris is always hesitant to say so, but certainly until recently I believe we were the only one as well. Our interaction with our building department was fairly low key, as Chris was already known to them through our work designing log homes. There are now a few other earthships being built in BC under permits and I think these earthships will be higher profile within their building jurisdictions than we were, and it is our hope that great strides will be made in the comfort level of those upholding code requrement through future builds in the province of BC. I would have loved to have been the flagship earthship in BC that changed the way jurisdictions viewed these wonderful homes, but I believe others will carry that torch. I look forward to watching it and contributing our experiences if needed.

For us, though, the plan in the new year is to complete the work necessary to clear the final permit. After that we will prioritize finishing work to make our earthship a really beautiful, finished home. We will also begin to look at systems to take us off-grid. In the meantime, we are going to spend Christmas sleeping a lot, skiing a bit, and spending some fun times with our children and extended families.

We haven’t spent much time blogging in the last few months. Facebook has been easier and more in line with our time constraints.  There are over 900 pictures of our earthship construction at The Darfield Earthship page.  In the new year we will be re-designing this website to better reflect our life AFTER earthship building. Although we will continue to post about the finishing projects, we will also be branching out in other directions as we move from Earthship builders to Earthship dwellers.

Sneaking back here for an update…

We’ve both been ignoring the blog for a while.  Every free moment for the last few weeks has been dedicated to wall packout.  We are currently on the fourth of five rooms and hope to be done this layer in a few days (we are on our third layer of packout). We do have to complete a fourth layer before we can start plastering.  This is because our tire placement was a bit irregular so some areas need that extra build-out to ensure a smooth wall.

We’re also re-vamping the website.  Don’t worry, we’ll still provide updates and decisions about all the steps of the earthship building on our new site. That won’t change. But the look will change slightly and the content will broaden.

We felt that while we have a loyal following for the earthship progress, our lives are more than the house itself.  We are also passionate about alternative fuel, alternative power, frugality, travel, living deliberately, and living debt-free.

Although we’ve blogged occasionally about these topics, both Chris and I would like to explore them further and we want to connect with others who are passionate about these areas.

We’ll continue to offer our experience, advice and thoughts on all these topics completely free, as we always have. It has always been our intent to increase the base knowledge of all the things that interest us, and as we’ve been blessed by the knowledge of others, we will continue to share as well.

We do sell an e-book on this site called “How to Build a Rocket Mass Heater”, and a set of associated plans in PDF format.  We’ve been terrible at marketing it; you kind of have to mean to find it to get to the store and purchase it.  Other than a youtube video and occasional mentions of the book, we haven’t made it front and centre.

Part of this is time…too much going on!  Part of it is that we are not natural salespeople. Despite having a successful log home business we mainly made it that way by serving up a quality product and being grateful that satisfied customers kept recommending us.

Despite our lack of sales know-how, sales of the e-book and plans have been decent. Decent means that a year after launching it we are selling about three books or plan sets a week.  Most of the feedback has been primarily praise for taking the project step by step and prividing practical detail not found elsewhere.

Our 60-page e-book encompasses all the things we discovered by researching rocket mass heaters and provides links to all the other sites and folks who’ve built one (that we know of). We also document our process and explain step by step how we built ours and why. We point out our errors, too, so that you won’t make them!  We hadn’t seen this done in any one resource before and that motivated us to get a book together.

We will probably offer more e-books or other products for sale in the future.  We totally underestimate how much knowledge we have stored in our brains from having simply done things that very few others have embarked upon.

But always, along the way, we will be sharing our experiences raising a family debt-free, home-schooled, green-as-we-can-be-and-getting-greener with the same honesty and humour we always have.  You can continue to count on Chris’ thoughtful, and sometimes self-depracating appraisals of technical information and building arguments and I hope to begin writing again about more controversial topics like dumpster diving and unschooling.

We will always try to answer all your questions here on the blog or by email.  Please continue to ask us whatever you’d really like to know!  We appreciate feedback and we will continue to host free visits and tours of the earthship while it’s being built. We love to show it off and I’ve gotten over how my hair looks after 8 hours of working in the clay and cement! (If you are interested in seeing the earthship, please email us in the contact us section).

We are looking forward to our new format in the coming weeks. It should be fun as we try to fit it in with our house building schedule!

For the next few weeks for pics and vids of what we are up to right now, please visit our FB page,  http://www.facebook.com/?ref=tn_tnmn#!/pages/The-Darfield-Earthship/144283802260961