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.

Primitive Grain Storage Technique

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When thinking about technology, I like to play with the idea of what is the absolute minimum you need to get the job done.  This may be because I’m not very handy at building things, but yet have survivalist tendencies. So while I’m pretty sure I’ll never actually have any need for these skills, it’s fun to think about how I’d get by in a DIY world.

So I was delighted when I ran across this minimalist grain storage technique on the BBC documentary series, A History of Celtic Britain (2011), hosted by Neil Oliver of the Delicious Scottish Accent. (I am watching it on YouTube. Fingers crossed the BBC will not take it down before I finish it!)  I love this technique because while it is simple, it is far from stupid.

The technique is described by the Dave Freeman of the Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, where they’ve been experimenting with grain storage iron-age style (c. 400 BCE.).  Turns out all you need to do is dig a pit in the soil. The pits they dug are circular, and look to be 2 or 3 feet in diameter, and maybe 3 or 4 feet deep.

So you may ask, how can you pour grain into a hole in the ground and expect it to keep? The secret is a clay cap on the top. In the screen grab below you can see the cap and some feet for scale:

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If you go to YouTube,  you can watch this sequence starting around 52:36, but what Freemen says is that when the grain goes in the pit and is sealed with a clay cap, the clay blocks out moisture, air and light. Moisture is still available at the sides and bottom of the pit, of course, especially as they are in green Hampshire.

The grain touching the sides of the pit sucks the moisture out of the soil at the edges, and uses it to attempt to germinate. The germination process sucks up oxygen and releases carbon dioxide, effectively clearing the chamber of oxygen. At that point, as Neil puts it, “Time stops.” Nothing can grow, nothing changes. The grain cache keeps for at least a year, perhaps two years, and provided a very handy safety backup for hard working iron age farmers. And some very basic appropriate tech for modern armchair survivalists to ponder.

DIY Solar Space Heating

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Photo: Build It Solar.

Mrs. Homegrown, who spent her formative years in the mountains of Colorado, made fun of me this morning as I noted the “cold” temperature . . . 60°F. It was the first ironic “brrrrrr” out of her mouth, letting me know that we’ve transitioned from the hot smoggy season to the the less hot smoggy season here in Los Angeles.

In the northern hemisphere it’s time to consider heating. The always useful Build-It Solar blog has a detailed link to a DIY solar space heating system in Virginia (pdf).

Collector panels mounted on the roof heat a reservoir which is circulated through a floor-based radiant heating system. It even has an Arduino based data acquisition component that tracks performance. There should be a DIY Nobel Prize for this project!

If you live in a place that’s both cold and sunny in the winter, solar heating has a lot of potential. In fact, I’m much more intrigued with solar space and water heating then I am with photo-voltaic panels.

Greywater 101

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Survival Podcast intern Josiah Wallingford has started up a blog, Brink of Freedom, that I’m going to contribute to periodically. In my first post, Laundry to Landscape: How to Reuse Laundry Greywater, I discuss my own greywater system as well as the setup I installed at neighbor Lora’s house. Greywater has been one of the simplest and most rewarding projects at our homestead. And I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation over at the Brink of Freedom.

Incandescent, Compact Fluorescent or LED?

Thomas Edison shows off a big-ass light bulb.

Thomas Edison shows off a big-ass light bulb.

What kind of light bulb to buy, as it turns out, is not easy question to answer. Energy consultant and off grid expert Dan Fink has an informative story in this month’s issue of Home Power Magazine, “Choosing the Right Light” that takes a look at the bewildering array of choices and what bulbs might be best in terms of cost, energy conservation and aesthetics.

Some takeaways:

  • The current way of comparing bulbs–lumens per watt–does not take into account how the eye responds to color. Incandescent bulbs give off a wide spectrum of light. Fluorescents and, to a lesser extent, LEDs do not give off as wide a spectrum of light which can make a room lit with them seem dimmer. In some situations incandescents can be a better choice.
  • LEDs are good for task lighting due to the directional quality of LED light. They are not so good for lighting an entire room.
  • Many compact florescents (CFL) will have short lifespans if you put them in sealed, enclosed or recessed lighting fixtures. You also have to check the label and perhaps even call the manufacturer to figure out if a CFL will work in a horizontal, base-up or base-down fixture.
  • CFLs perform poorly if turned on and off without at least 15 to 30 minutes to warm up.
  • CFLs contain mercury and other toxins and must be disposed of responsibly.
  • Stick to major brands. Avoid non-UL-listed cheap import bulbs.

A trip to the light bulb aisle at the hardware store is likely to stay confusing for some time. Manufactures are coming out with many new bulbs including more efficient incandescents as well as game changing LEDs and CFLs. And, according the article, the government may consider other factors such as color frequency in its light bulb ratings. Fink quotes Mark Rea, a lighting expert at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “It’s still the wild, wild West out there with residential lighting and consumers still have to choose by trial and error.”

Farm Hack

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Farm Hack is an innovative blog that synthesizes high tech and low tech in the service of growing food and community. The blog is run by the National Young Farmers Coalition. While geared towards agriculture, many of the posts will be of interest to backyard gardeners. Recent subjects include a project to develop an infrared camera to monitor plant health, smartphone tools for farmers and open source appropriate technology resources. It’s exactly this kind of innovation that gives me great hope for the future.

Thanks to Tommy Berbas for the tip.

Bushcraft Video

Now that we’re car-free, we may be spending even more time together then we already do. How will we keep succumbing to cabin fever, prairie style? (Prairie style means “with axes.”)

Well, while Erik obsesses on those pernicious skunks and even more heinous texting-while-driving music video producers, I’ll be laying low, watching bushcraft videos on YouTube.

We may as well give up our Netflix subscription because this YouHole is bottomless. I’ve discovered there are hundreds of men roaming about the woods with their video cameras in one hand and their survival knives in the other, ready to share their knowledge with you. And they are almost all men. I’ve only found a couple of women who put their adventures on video.

I’m not sure why this is such a male dominated field, except that it is greatly fueled by the love of pointy implements and the display and discussion of such implements–which seems a very masculine past time. But that’s generalizing, because I can attest that around our house, I’m the one with the fetish for sharp blades. And fire. And making things out of tin cans.

Anyway, there are many bushcrafters on video, but only a few rise to the top. Many–many–are hampered by poor sound quality and camera work. Their info may be good, but if I can’t hear them, or see them, I’m clicking on down the road.

In my journey of a thousand clicks, I’ve discovered many nice surprises, and I’ve learned things, too. These video makers are spread all over the world, so it’s a really nice opportunity to see different natural landscapes, and learn how people work in them. Winter survival skills may not do me a lot of good here in LA, but I do love watching video of the snowy Alps.

If you fall down this YouHole, you may find yourself gravitating toward a bushcrafter who lives in your climate zone, or one who shares your world outlook. As for myself, I’m pretty much all about watchability–yes, that’s a word–and that leads me to a couple of recs.

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