The Return of the Monocle?

Joseph Chamberlain, monocle enthusiast.

Joseph Chamberlain, monocle enthusiast.

While Mr. Peanut still sports one, I thought the monocle would die out with the passing of eccentric British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore. But, apparently, we’re in the midst of a monocle revival.

I had planned to write about the monocle for years, but the New York Times out-scooped me on this story. The article notes that rappers and hipsters have brought back the monocle as a fashion accessory. There’s even an online monocle dealer based in San Francisco.

But what about the monocle as appropriate technology? It’s pretty much the same, after all, as wearing one contact. I have decent distance vision, so I could wear a monocle for closeup vision in my non-dominant eye. If you use glasses try looking through them with just your non-dominant eye to understand how a monocle would allow you to see both close up and distance at the same time. Monocles weren’t an affectation in the old days. I’m sure it would take some time to adjust to, but wouldn’t it be better than having to remember to carry around the hideous reading drug store glasses I currently use?

Kelly considers a monocle grounds for divorce and, I have to admit, she has a point. It’s hard to pull off a monocle these days without also donning a top hat and spats. Contemporary monocle use puts you in the same eccentric sartorial territory as the Monopoly Man and the aforementioned, Mr. Peanut (both of whom, it should be noted, are cartoon characters).

Then again, aren’t we all engaged in unintentional cosplay? Despite getting called “cowboy,” I like the broad brimmed cowboy hat that shades me from the blazing Los Angeles sun. Perhaps tweed and a monocle will become my winter blogging uniform . . .

Return of the Walkman?

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Spotted on Figueroa  street last month: a smashed Sony Walkman (Sport WM-FS397, to be exact).  Here’s an “exploded” view:

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The BBC, back in 2010, gave a 13 year-old a Walkman to review. Here’s what the kid said:

It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape. That was not the only naive mistake that I made; I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.

Another notable feature that the iPod has and the Walkman doesn’t is “shuffle”, where the player selects random tracks to play. Its a function that, on the face of it, the Walkman lacks. But I managed to create an impromptu shuffle feature simply by holding down “rewind” and releasing it randomly – effective, if a little laboured.

Any holdouts amongst you, our dear readers? Some of us still seem to have dial phones, so I thought I’d ask. I gave my portable cassette player up long ago and the household now has no cassette tape capabilities. Kelly can no longer listen to her 80s mix tapes!

Is it safe to use cinder blocks or red bricks in stoves and ovens?

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Source: Capturing Heat.

As how-to book and blog authors we face many questions that begin, “Is it safe to . . . ?” And, for some reason, any post of ours involving rocket stoves sets off a firestorm of incoming Google hits.

An old blog post on a “Redneck Rocket Stove” made out of cinder blocks prompted many to suggest that the cinder blocks would explode due to heat. Leon, of the blog Survival Common Sense, does a good job of refuting this notion in a blog post, “Build a brick rocket stove: Is it safe to use concrete blocks?” The short answer is that those concrete blocks are not going to explode. But if you want something permanent you should use fire bricks and fire clay as mortar so it won’t crack.

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Related to this issue is our use of regular bricks in the hearth of our adobe oven. Most sources suggest using fire bricks or kiln bricks. Kurt Gardella, the adobe master who led the workshop where we built our adobe oven, is a fan of recycling materials and saving money. We happened to have a pile of ordinary red bricks and he said it would be fine to use them for the oven floor. He was right. We have fired the oven many times and none of the floor bricks have cracked. If I had not had the red bricks on hand and I was at the brick yard buying materials for an oven, I probably would have bought fire bricks. But having just paid for sand and straw gives me cheapskate bragging rights.

Opinions? Have you faced this issue?

Adobe in Action Interior and Exterior Plastering Online Course Begins on Monday, Sept. 1st

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Adobe master Kurt Gardella, the man behind our backyard oven, is teaching an online adobe plastering class. Here’s the 411:

Dear adobe friends,

The next online class I am teaching for Adobe in ActionInterior and Exterior Plastering – begins on Monday, September 1, 2014. Earthen plasters are a great way to finish just about any wall substrate in the home. They create a soft, breathable final plaster layer which regulates humidity, odors and sounds like no other wall finish can. Plastering is a great way to get a feeling for building with earthen materials because the thin plaster surfaces give us direct and immediate feedback on how well we’ve selected and mixed our clay and aggregate materials. Also, you can practice your earthen plastering skills over existing conventional walls if you wish. We’ll show you how!

Here is the direct registration link if you are interested in joining us:

http://adobeinaction.bigcartel.com/product/interior-and-exterior-plastering-8-week-online-class-from-september-1-to-october-26-2014

And here is some info about topics covered in the class:

About the Course

This course covers the fundamentals of finishing interior and exterior adobe brick walls with natural plasters and paints. Our hands-on projects for this course focus on the mixing and application of earthen plasters, lime plasters and lime/casein paints.

Topic Overview

  • historical overview of interior and exterior finishes for adobe structures in New Mexico
  • importance of respiratory and eye safety when preparing and mixing plasters
  • overview of mud plaster characteristics and why earthen plasters make sense on adobe walls
  • summary of tools and materials needed for plastering
  • window and door opening reinforcement using reed mat
  • adobe wall preparation for maximum earthen plaster adhesion
  • locating and testing clay for earthen plasters
  • locating and testing aggregates for earthen plasters and lime plasters
  • preparing lime putty 10 importance of work site and material organization for plaster work
  • fiber (straw) preparation and chopping techniques
  • sifting & preparing & mixing soil and aggregates for earthen plasters
  • wheat paste production for strengthening mud plasters
  • casein production for lime paints
  • natural exterior earthen plaster stabilization techniques (lime, cactus juice)
  • hand application techniques of earthen plasters (base coats, patching)
  • hawk & trowel application of earthen and lime plasters (leveling and finish coats)
  • basic earthen plaster ingredients and recipes
  • basic lime plaster ingredients and recipes
  • calculating surface area to be finished and materials needed
  • troubleshooting earthen and lime plasters (cracking, adhesion problems, etc.)

Let me know if you have any questions. It would be great if you joined us for this next class!

Best,
Kurt Gardella
www.kurtgardella.com

P.S. For more information about how Adobe in Action’s online classes work see:
http://www.adobeinaction.org/how-the-online-classes-work/

A More Graceful Dome

Image: Adobe Alliance.

Image: Adobe Alliance.

Kurt Gardella, the gifted adobe builder and instructor who built our backyard earth oven, left a comment on our geodesic dome post pointing out that earth is a better material for dome building.

The problem with wooden domes is that plywood and other sheet-based building materials, in the US, come in 4 by 8 foot sections. You end up wasting a lot of wood to make a dome. Building with earth solves this problem.

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It’s also beautiful. Earth building offers the opportunity to do more graceful forms than can be accomplished with sheets of plywood. The example Kurt linked to is a house built by Simone Swan. You can see more photos of Swan’s house at the Adobe Alliance.

Journal of the New Alchemists

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“Six-Pack” Backyard Solar Greenhouse, 1975. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

After reading an article by Paul Ehrlich, “Eco-Catastrophe!,” Nancy Todd turned to her husband John and said, “We must do something.” The year was 1969 and the Todds along with Bill McLarney went on to found the New Alchemy Institute.

History repeats itself. What the New Alchemists did, in response to the 1970s era energy crisis and political instability, sounds a lot like what people have been up to since the 2008 economic bubble: aquaculture, organic gardening, earth building, market gardens, no-till agriculture, old timey music, wind power, four season growing, permaculture, non-hierarchical leadership and goats. Only the 1980s era of appropriate technology amnesia separates current efforts from the work of the New Alchemists.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

By accident I discovered the Journal of the New Alchemists deep in the closed stacks of the Los Angeles Central Library. As revealed by their journal, what distinguishes the New Alchemists from other efforts of the time is the Todd’s science background. The Journal has a refreshing research-based approach to its subject matter. The period I reviewed (their last decade of publication) covers mostly their agricultural experiments, but occasionally dips into urban planning and other subjects.

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Biodome. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

It’s interesting to look back at their work to see what ideas went mainstream and what faded away. What didn’t stick is what Nassim Taleb would call “top-down” approaches to design epitomized by the 70s fixation on geodesic domes and self contained ecosystems (though we’re starting to see a resurgence of the latter via a renewed interest in aquaponics). The more bottom-up work of refining conventional organic agriculture through no-till farming and integrated pest management had more long lasting influence. One could make a good argument that you need the domes and aquaculture schemes to inspire people to work on the more prosaic stuff. But another criticism of the appropriate technology movement of the 70s is that it focused on technology rather than social and political problems (see economist Richard S. Eckaus article “Appropriate Technology: The Movement Has Only A Few Clothes On“). We may be in the midst of repeating that mistake.

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Aquaponic system. Image: Journal of the New Alchemy.

One does not need to wander the closed stacks of the library to find the amazing Journal of the New Alchemy. Thanks to the internet you can download the New Alchemist’s publications as pdfs. Aquaponic enthusiasts will find much information. The Journals are a fascinating read and gave me a great deal of respect for the founders of the New Alchemy and their many contributors (one issue features a young Gary Paul Nabhan). They went far beyond talking the talk and walked the walk. They did something.

Bread Ovens of Quebec Free e-book

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North American has two regions famous for oven building: New Mexico and Quebec. The design of the ovens of Quebec have their origin in much older French ovens. The Canadian Museum of History has posted an amazing, out of print book, Lise Boily and Jean-François Blanchette’s 1979 book The Bread Ovens of Quebec, in its entirety online. The book includes the history of the Quebec oven, how to build an oven, bread recipes and even “popular beliefs, spells, incantations, and omens” associated with ovens.

I’m really happy with the adobe oven we have in our backyard–it has produced many a tasty pizza and I look forward to having people over to give me an excuse to fire it up. Ovens, in Quebec households were associated with life itself and I understand why.

If you’re interested in more information on DIY ovens, I’d recommend The Bread Ovens of Quebec along with Kiko Denzer’s Earth Ovens and Alan Scott’s The Bread Builders (brick ovens).

If you’d like to see an oven built in the Quebec style, these folks have posted their experience of building one.

Learn to Build with Adobe

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Kurt Gardella made me an adobe convert and helped us build an oven in our backyard that is responsible for many delicious pizzas. I’ve taken a few classes he’s taught, both in person and online. If you want to learn adobe, Kurt’s your man. Here’s some info on upcoming classes he’s teaching:

Are you looking for college credit for your adobe construction coursework? I am teaching the following spring 2014 semester classes through Santa Fe Community College’s Adobe Construction Department:

Class: ADOB 113 – Passive Solar Adobe Design
Format: 8-Week Online Class
Dates: January 21 to March 15, 2014
Credits: 2
Course #: 31660

Class: ADOB 111 – Adobe Construction Basics
Format: 8-Week Online Class
Dates: March 24 to May 17, 2014
Credits: 3
Course #: 31268

Class: ADOB 112 – Adobe Wall Construction
Format: Web-Blended (4 Weeks Online + 2 Days of Intensive Live Instruction)
Dates: April 19 to May 17, 2014 (class meets on campus Saturday, April 19 and Sunday, April 20, 2014 9am to 5pm)

Location: Trades and Applied Technology 815
Credits: 3
Course #: 31661

For more information on course fees and registration see:

www.sfcc.edu/registration/tuition_and_fees
www.sfcc.edu/registration/first_time_students

Please e-mail me directly at [email protected] if you have any questions or need further information about any of the above classes.

For more info visit: www.kurtgardella.com

Extreme Low-Tech Communication

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This has to be the ultimate achievement in low-powered long-distance communication. Ham radio operator Michael Rainey, AA1TJ, transmitted a message over a distance of over 1,000 miles by yelling Morse code with his own voice into this primitive home-made transmitter, nicknamed “El Silbo.” No power was used other than that generated by his own voice vibrating the microphone (which was a re-purposed speaker).

If you want to build your own here’s the circuit schematic and more details.

And here’s Rainey, back in 2009, using El Silbo:

On a side note, can we please apply Ham radio’s level of detail and open source spirit to the world of backyard vegetable gardening?

It’s official: I’m a Ham

How blog posts will be issued from now on. Image: Library of Congress.

How blog posts will be issued from now on. Image: Library of Congress.

It’s been on my to-do list for years–get my ham radio licence. I took a six week class offered by the Pasadena Radio Club to study for the technician class licence and on a whim crammed for the general class. I passed both tests and as of yesterday am now also known as KK6HUF.

Many thanks to W6MES, who volunteered his time to teach the class and to the major memory system for helping with all those numbers. It was a lot of fun to review basic math and electronics.

So why do this in an age of Skype and cellphones? I find the DIY ethos of ham radio empowering. We are surrounded by electronic devices and it’s good to know a little something about what’s going on “under the hood.” I wish I had discovered amateur radio when I was younger–I might have struggled with math less had I had a hobby to motivate studying.

My interest in appropriate technology was another reason. There is a ham I met online who is constructing a website that will be of interest to readers of this blog–he was inspired by John Michael Greer’s writing on ham radio. I’ll share that website when it’s ready to go public.

Passing the test was easy, but I’ve got a lot of work to do. I have no radio, nor do I have any experience using one. And I’d like to learn morse code. I’m all ears if any of you have advice.