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Low-Tech Magazine and No-Tech Magazine
January 2, 2010 3:14 PM   Subscribe

Low-Tech Magazine and No-Tech Magazine have some fairly well written/illustrated articles about old and low technologies. The concept being, in a sustainable future due to environmental constraints, carbon taxes, Peak Oil, etc.. these old-school technologies might be used - in some places, in some form - instead of more energy intensive modern high technology. Trolly Canal Boats, Timbrel Vaulting (vs. steel and concrete), Bring Back the Horses (and the bicycle), Tile Stoves, Wind Powered Factories, Sneakernet, more.
posted by stbalbach (23 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

What are you, some kind of a communist?

(Not that there's anything wrong with that...)

Seriously, though, thanks.
posted by lodurr at 3:48 PM on January 2, 2010

... also, interesting to note that they seem to omit privacy as a motivator for revival of the sneakernet. I suppose it's probably a matter of that being OT.
posted by lodurr at 3:51 PM on January 2, 2010

Best viewed with Foxfire.
posted by hal9k at 4:42 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Okay sure, if you need to transmit a very large quantity of data a fairly short distance and you don't have a gigabit ethernet connection or better between source and destination then maybe sneakernetting a drive across town or whatever might make sense. But most of the time latency is at least kind of important and when you're talking about competing with network speeds in excess of ~200Mbps, then you have to consider the fact that just copying the files to an external drive, walking across a room and then copying the files back off will likely take LONGER than transmitting the files over a network, because you're going to be limited by the bus speed of your external enclosure.

Anyway, my analysis of that piece was mostly that they don't really know what the hell they're talking about. I mean, talking about dial-up in 2009? Are they from the past?
posted by signalnine at 4:57 PM on January 2, 2010

Is this something I'd need a telegraph to understand?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:22 PM on January 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

From the horse piece:

Large tractors have engines of up to 500 horsepower, which makes them consume up to twice as much fuel as a large SUV.

There are good ways to discuss petroleum consumption by farming. Comparing mpg with an SUV isn't one of them, unless you consider how many gallons of gas that SUV will use to plow a 300 acre field.

There were a bunch of reasons my great-grandparents were so happy to switch from horses to tractors, and the article misses many of them. Aside from the economics of it (and trust me, no one is as cheap as a farmer), managing and caring for teams of horses was effectively a second job, on top of the farming itself. Tractors need maintenance, but they don't die if you leave them in a locked barn for a week while you go on vacation. (You know, vacation -- that thing you can't go on when you are taking care of livestock.)

And in the tile stove piece:

Thanks to the high output, a modest masonry heater or tile stove (heating a room of 60 square meters) only needs 6 cubic meters of wood per year: one tree.

Wow, only six cubic meters -- that sounds great! But actually that's just under two cords of wood, which sounds about right for heating a small space in a moderate climate with a metal high-efficiency wood stove, especially if you are willing to let the house get cold, European style, rather than keeping it warm all the time, US central heating style. So, not so amazing, really.

These articles strike me as well-intentioned, and contain kernels of good ideas, but they don't seem to be grounded in real-world experience. Quite a few small organic/permaculture farms have been experimenting with animal power -- what do those experiences have to say about scaling up to industrial agriculture? What does the overall carbon footprint of a one-ton stone stove, hauled from Vermont, do to the efficiency calculations?
posted by Forktine at 5:24 PM on January 2, 2010 [6 favorites]

I love horses, but there a dismayingly large number of ways for them to get sick and injured; they are also not smart about eating themselves to death on grain and getting tangled in barbed wire fences. I think most farmers would much rather deal with a tractor that needs a new transmission than a horse with diarrhea or infected hooves. And you don't have to agonize about putting a tractor down when it gets too old.

I'd be much more excited about promoting the use of solar-powered stoves than about tree-burning, carbon-emitting ones.
posted by emjaybee at 5:38 PM on January 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Aga oven stove that was in our current house used about $30 of propane a week, and didn't heat this particular space very well at all. I do think a wood-fired version could be interesting, which if you had more than a couple of acres you could conceivably fire from wood you harvest yourself.

It was neat looking, but it wasn't a good stove and it wasn't a good heating device. It did both jobs in a mediocre fashion.
posted by maxwelton at 6:36 PM on January 2, 2010

On preview, exactly what Forktine says. They've got some neat stuff in here, but they have a vision and so, like that your dog uses more energy than an SUV article of a while back, they end up making some pretty shaky claims.

I found one on science that basically said that it takes more effort now to maintain the rate of progress now than it did in the past and citing Mendel's work and genetic engineering. I can argue this is true if your measuring stick is how hard it is, for example, to describe the human genome project vs. Mendel's work with peas.

If you actually look at the useful data from each, Mendel's work can be summed up in, oh, let's call it twenty pages. The human genome is 100,000 times bigger. Also, a lot of the cost of the human genome project was development of better sequencing technology. So now we're sitting on more than 1000 complete genomes with about 5000 others being worked on. I'm not sure how many scientists have worked on this or how much it costs, but that's like 300,000,000 times Mendel's output. If you assume 1% of the world population is a scientist () then they're producing data at a rate 4.5 times that of Mendel and that's if you only consider the genomic data we've resolved in the last 20 years.

I'd say drawing a circle around all of human knowledge and valuing that circles radius over it's area is exactly what's wrong with our education system. That the counter culture seems to be all over that idea is the sort of thing that keeps me awake at night.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:47 PM on January 2, 2010 [5 favorites]

() = doesn't seem likely. Not sure what happened there.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:49 PM on January 2, 2010

I was trying to find a way to make a post about their canal boats series just recently. This is one of my favorite blogs of last year, not because they're always right [as many people have pointed out] but because they have a vision which they forward without being total assholes about it. This is sadly rare in the age of the internet. Then again, lots of people still have dial-up here so maybe I'm in some alternate universe.
posted by jessamyn at 9:16 PM on January 2, 2010

They may have an agenda, but that No-Tech Magazine sure has some fascinating links. Right on the first page I learned about timbrel vaults and the strangely fascinating Roadtown. Thanks, stbalbach!
posted by Kevin Street at 10:56 PM on January 2, 2010

Yeah, I don't think I'm going to agree with all their conclusions and enthusiasms, but there's a lot of interesting links and content there.

Also, there's a lot of places just barely getting dial-up connections now. Not everyone lives in urban USA.
posted by harriet vane at 12:08 AM on January 3, 2010

Well-researched though the wind article may be, it's a bit fanciful, and seems to view the old wind mills as some kind of magical wonder of efficiency. They're not, as the recently recreated Noletmolen shows. Neat siting aside, it uses tonnes of brickwork and a 30m rotor to generate a maximum of 150kW. Using current wind turbine technology, machines of that size are rated at 230-300kW.
posted by scruss at 6:06 AM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Right on the first page I learned about timbrel vaults

Yeah that one is cool. Imagine if timbrel vaults really had become the building method of the future, instead of our steel beam and concrete boxen.
posted by stbalbach at 7:18 AM on January 3, 2010

Imagine if timbrel vaults really had become the building method of the future, instead of our steel beam and concrete boxen.

Yeah! I want a oven stove and timbrel vaults in the next place I live...

...and faster internet.
posted by fuq at 8:45 AM on January 3, 2010

Questions about oven stoves:

1. The big thing about them, it seems, is that "complete combustion" means cleaner burning and more energy. What I don't get is, what is so special about them that they can burn at these higher and more efficient temperatures? It seems like it is just a fireplace with a lot of brick around it and a wiggly chimney - so what's the trick that allows them to burn at "1100 to 1200 degrees Celsius"?

2. Wouldn't the convoluted squiggly chimney / exhaust path mean that they would not properly vent? If I wanted to build one is there some special formula as to how / where / when the airway can twist and turn, or is it freestyle?

Please advice, anyone? Much obliged.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:21 PM on January 3, 2010

A recent New Yorker article (that I'm surprised wasn't made into an FPP) discusses the design and testing process of attempting to make a "perfect" stove for the third world -- cheap, reliable, easy to use, and keeps the indoor air clean. (The link goes to a blog entry about it, with the article link in the first sentence, because it has some details that aren't in the full article.) Anyway, for cooking purposes (which are not the same as heating purposes), lightweight metal and ceramic ovens are much more efficient than ye olde hippy mud and brick pizza ovens, because of all that thermal mass.

What does this say about heating your house? Just that thermal mass can be good or bad, and it can be in your stove or not. The FPP stove article is super one-sided; there is more to the stove issue (including local requirements for catalytic converters, say, or huge differences in building materials from one place to another) that change what stove design is actual more "efficient."
posted by Forktine at 2:16 PM on January 3, 2010

A recent New Yorker article (that I'm surprised wasn't made into an FPP)

Ah, answered my own question -- full text seems to need a subscription. That's shitty -- I found it to be a fascinating article about the real-world issues of solving complex engineering problems in a human context. (As in, it doesn't matter how "perfect" a stove is if people can't cook their favorite foods on it, for example.)
posted by Forktine at 2:19 PM on January 3, 2010

It's important not to lose sight of the forest for the trees with stuff like this.

Nobody's ever gone sideways from a high-tech civilization into one that's still high-tech but much less energy intensive before. (No civilization ever got a massive oil addiction before.) So while -not all the ideas make sense-, the main idea is to consider options and -move in the right direction-. Less intensive, less congestive, more cooperative, more effective.

Clearly powering with renewables is cleaner. Possibly living in houses that are partly buried in earth is less energy intensive (depending on whether you do it right). Probably not a good idea to go back to doing farming with yaks, gnus or oxen ... but depending on what one can manage with solar, wind, water ...

There's no *vision* suited to everyone ... no utopian perfection. Getting smarter is slowing down and messing around and making mistakes and learning.
posted by Twang at 4:52 PM on January 3, 2010

If your exhaust is hot, a wiggly chimney won't matter. When I was learning black smithing, when we started the room would invariably wind up full of smoke, even if we turned on the blower on the exhaust system. Once we got a big fire going, the smoke would clear even though we were burning a lot more fuel (hence, producing a lot more exhaust).

What this furnace is doing is keeping heat from going up the chimney by creating a huge mass of warm bricks. At first, it's probably pretty awful, but since it's a you're going to need heat all winter long sort of thing, once it gets hot convection moves the air through the chimney and it's convolutions act as a heat exchanger so that there is more heat radiating into the house and less going away with the exhaust.

The this oven burns at X° is a crappy metric because you don't care so much about temperature. The electrons hitting the back of the screen in your monitor - well, your old monitor, the one in the basement that you keep meaning to take to a recycler - are hotter than the surface of the sun. But electrons are pretty light so there is more heat in a fresh cup of coffee and no one is trying to heat their house with old CRT monitors.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:54 PM on January 3, 2010

I have a wood pellet stove with accordion shaped heat exchangers and fans that run cold air over them. There is a computer that monitors temperature and adjusts the fan speed to the perfect rate to extract the best amount of heat - it's very efficient, I don't think much hot air is going up the chimney. Of course it relies on electricity for the computer and fans and auger (and pellet creation), so overall energy efficiency is reduced. Then again, I get wind power from my power company..

BTW the more common name is masonry heater (or stove). Tulikivi is one of the leading mfg's. They can be installed in existing homes.
posted by stbalbach at 5:45 PM on January 3, 2010

Yeah, but if I was looking for poster children for lost site of the forest for the trees, these guys would certainly be in the running.

It's like they find a nit to pick with everything they don't like and everything they do like is perfect in every way. Take the oven stove article - I'm pretty sure oven stoves don't offer complete combustion in much the same way that I'm not going to buy one of these. These things may be efficient, but superlatives meaning perfect paired with any sort of technology is a harbingers of bullshit.

Looking at their algae biofuel page, I see a couple things that just make me put my face in my hands and shake my head.

Here's one: "But, in deserts, and in very sunny places in general, there is not much water to find."

Well, sure, unless you count Southern California, Florida, Texas, and all those countries that touch the Mediterranean, Red or Persian seas. Or most of Oceana and South East Asia. Really anywhere near the ocean and between 35°N and 35°S would probably do. They say that these rare sunny places near the ocean are covered in tourists and luxury hotels, but I'm just not seeing a lot of those in this 3000 square mile stretch.

(Damn - someone is stealing my idea!)

Here's another: "If we switch to solar energy, where will the algal fuel producers get their CO2 from?" Only what they're doing here is cherry picking one idea, back applying it to all of algae based biofuels and then declaring the entire concept ill conceived. I mean where are all the other plants going to get their CO2 from if we switch to solar power?

It's like they have a department of cool old technology and DIY techniques and a department of luddites who are going way out of their way to be a parody of my well loved copy of The Next Whole Earth Catalog.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:55 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

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