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?

broken walkman

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


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?

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.

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

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:

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!

Kurt Gardella

P.S. For more information about how Adobe in Action’s online classes work see:

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.


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.