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Updated: 8 hours 52 min ago

Prototype of a Hydro-Pneumatic Human Power Plant

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 15:11

The Human Power Plant is a working prototype of a muscular power generator, manned by a group of people. It is an all-round off-the-grid solution, which can supply energy in the form of electricity, water under pressure, and compressed air. It is built from simple and durable parts.

These days, we have automated and motorised even the smallest physical efforts. At the same time, we go to the gym to keep in shape, generating energy that’s wasted. The Human Power Plant restores the connection between physical exercise and energy use.

See and read more: The Hydro-Pneumatic Human Power Plant: How it Works. Drawing: Melle Smets.

Restore the Night Trains in Europe

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 14:57

The French passenger association “Oui au train de nuit” (“Night trains yes!”) has compiled a report about European night trains: “Put the night trains back on track“. During the last five years, most of Europe’s night trains have disappeared, although they are popular with travelers and the only alternative to the airplane.

* The report was brought to our attention by Back on Track, a European coalition that supports cross-border rail and brings the latest news about international passenger travel in Europe. * Previously: High speed trains are killing the European railway network. * Picture taken from the back window of the night train Madrid – PortBou in 2013.

Non-Electric Hearing Aids Outperform Modern Devices

Thu, 08/24/2017 - 19:36

Most people with hearing problems are not using hearing aids, mainly because the electronic devices often do not provide enough benefit. Research shows that non-electric hearing aids from earlier centuries are performing significantly better.

Digital Hearing Aids

Roughly 40% of people between the ages of 55 to 74 suffer hearing loss. Eighty percent of them do not wear a hearing aid, even though their disability often has a negative impact on their quality of life as well as others around them. According to a 2013 research paper, the main reason is the limited performance of the devices.

Interestingly, these results are in line with those of studies performed at the end of the twentieth century, meaning that the introduction of digital hearing aids has had no positive effect on the popularity of the technology. Electric hearing aids consist of a battery, a microphone, an amplifier and a speaker. The more compact electronic hearing aids also contain a microchip.

An additional obstacle in poorer countries is the cost of the technology, which concerns the device as well as the batteries, which need to be replaced regularly. Worldwide, roughly 1 billion people suffer from hearing loss. According to the World Health Organisation, only one fifth of them wears a hearing aid.

Ear Trumpets & Speaking Tubes

From the seventeenth century onwards, several types of non-electric hearing aids were developed, based on different acoustical principles. The most important devices were ear trumpets and speaking tubes.

An ear trumpet

In the ear trumpet, sound from a funnel-shaped metal tube was conducted to a small opening that was inserted in the listener’s ear. Ear trumpets were often slighty curved at one end so that they could be aimed at the sound source more easily. Some models were collapsible for easy carrying.

The speaking tube consisted of a flexible tube with a funnel-shaped opening on one end through which the speaker could talk, while the other end of the tube was put in the ear of the listener.

Stationary Hearing Aids

Speaking tubes and ear trumpets were also combined, especially in stationary hearing aids such as the acoustical chair. This seating had a pair of large trumpets on each side, which amplified the sound and led it through flexible tubes to the listener’s ears.

Similar technology could also be hidden in objects like vases. This was meant for several speakers and listeners gathering around a table. In the days before the telephone, speaking tubes were also used by people with normal hearing to communicate between floors of a building or a ship.

Sound Amplification

Measurements from the late twentieth century show that these devices perform better than today’s high-tech hearing aids. Ear trumpets and speaking tubes not only yielded a sound amplification of 10 to 25 decibels, they also suppressed sounds that came from other directions, further improving their workings. The speaking tube also reduced the noise reduction between speaker and listener.

A speaking tube

Another important advantage was that both devices were very visible and thus encouraged the speaker to talk slower and more clearly. However, this visibility was also considered to be a problem: well-functioning, non-electric hearing aids are laughable.

From the nineteenth century onwards, the development of hearing aids took another direction: much smaller ear trumpets and speaking tubes were now hidden in clothing and accessories.

Vanity

The most popular models were worn as a kind of headband, with small trumpets hidden behind the ears, in hats, wigs, beards or scarfs. An extra advantage was that these devices could be operated hands free. Unfortunately, these hearing aids had poor performance compared to earlier models, and sometimes even impaired hearing.

However, a new trend was set. Since the nineteenth century, the main criterium for a hearing aid is no longer its effectivity but its discretion and compactness. Nevertheless, those who can overcome their vanity can revert to technology that has proven to work.

A large collection of images showing non-electric hearing aids can be found at the Bernard Becker Medical Library Image Gallery.

Sources:

Digital Colonialism

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 11:28

Free Basics, Facebook’s free, limited internet service for developing markets, is neither serving local needs nor achieving its objective of bringing people online for the first time.

“Facebook is not introducing people to open internet where you can learn, create and build things,” said Ellery Biddle, advocacy director of Global Voices. “It’s building this little web that turns the user into a mostly passive consumer of mostly western corporate content. That’s digital colonialism.”

Read more: How Facebook’s free internet service has failed its users.
Previously: How to build a low-tech internet.

Dealing with Human Wastes in Uncertain Urban Environments

Fri, 06/02/2017 - 23:53

After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti nearly 1.5 million people in the capitol were living in camps without access to sanitation. In response to the crisis, international agencies installed thousands of toilets within weeks. However, the absence of waste treatment facilities in the country further complicated the sanitation response.

The first treatment facility constructed post – earthquake was a thermophilic composting site designed to treat the wastes from 20,000 earthquake victims living in camps. Despite multiple hurricanes, a cholera epidemic, and political unrest, the SOIL composting facilities have treated over 500,000 gallons of human waste in the past three years, converting it to pathogen free compost, over 10,000 gallons of which has been sold for use in agriculture and reforestation projects.

The experience of thermophilic composting in Haiti is unique in scale and duration and can have global implications for waste treatment in both emergency and development contexts. The simple infrastructure requirements relative to more advanced technological approaches allow for rapid implementation in the wake of a disaster. The infrastructure itself is not dependent on an energy source and materials for construction can be sourced locally. Additionally, the straightforward operation and maintenance facilitate locally managed repairs and on-going service provision.

Thermophilic composting of human wastes in uncertain urban environments: a case study from Haiti (PDF), SOIL Haiti.

The Energy Performance Gap

Sun, 05/28/2017 - 16:59

The energy performance gap refers to the failure of energy improvements, often undertaken at great expense, to deliver some (or occasionally all) of the promised savings. A study last year of refurbished apartment buildings in Germany, for instance, found that they missed the predicted energy savings by anywhere from 5 to 28 percent. In Britain, an evaluation of 50 “leading-edge modern buildings,” from supermarkets to health care centers, reported that they “were routinely using up to 3.5 times more energy than their design had allowed for” — and producing on average 3.8 times the predicted carbon emissions.

Researchers have generally blamed the performance gap on careless work by builders, overly complicated energy-saving technology, or the bad behaviors of the eventual occupants of a building. But a new study puts much of the blame on inept energy modeling. The title of the study asks the provocative question “Are Modelers Literate?” Even more provocatively, a press release from the University of Bath likens the misleading claims about building energy performance to the Volkswagen emissions scandal, in which actual emissions from diesel engine cars were up to 40 times higher than “the performance promised by the car manufacturer.”

Read more: Why Don’t Green Buildings Live Up to Hype on Energy Efficiency?

The Most Sustainable Power Source on Earth

Fri, 05/19/2017 - 14:58

A human powered student room. Image: Golnar Abbasi.

  • A human can generate at least as much power as a 1m2 solar panel on a sunny day.
  • Unlike solar and wind energy, human power is always available, no matter the season or time of day. There’s little need for energy storage.
  • Unlike fossil fuels, human power can be a clean power source.
  • Unlike solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, humans don’t need to be manufactured in a factory.
  • Unlike all other power sources, human power increases as the human population grows.
  • Human power is an all-round power source. Humans not only supply muscle power that can be converted into mechanical energy or electricity, they also produce thermal energy, especially during exercise. Finally, human waste can be converted to biogas and fertiliser.

Human power is the most sustainable power source on Earth.

Quoted from Human Power Plant, a work-in-progress by Low-tech Magazine and Melle Smets. More about the project later.

The Screenless Office

Tue, 05/16/2017 - 02:14

Current interface culture is dominated by a few large corporatate players: google/Alphabet, Apple, Microsoft. For many of us who spend countless hours working, socializing and amusing ourselves while using technical media, these powerful players have a huge influence on our experience of everyday life. Our perception of the world around us and how we see ourselves in, it is mediated by the decisions of a few privileged managers, programmers and designers, mostly male and white on the west coast of the United States. To suggest any other way of living in a networked society is to risk being percieved as blasphemous, uncool, out-of-touch, escapist or simply absurd. These interfaces have become so embedded in our conception of reality that we now have a crisis of the imagination, where it is difficult to even think of anything different.

Removing the screen is a radical gesture denying conformity to the dominating forces of contemporary interface culture. By getting rid of the display, we force digital text and images back into the old conventions of print culture. While this might have a superficial, nostalgic appeal, more importantly, it puts us into the role of acting like amateur media archeologists, investigating the history of modern visual, literary and bureaucratic systems both technical and social. At the same time, by taking newer forms of digital media and packing it into the old container of print, we open up a new experimental field of analog-digital hybrid forms. Our goal is to discover and invent novel ways of living in the digital world which might be more informal, expressive and embodied.

The Screenless Office is a system for working with media and networks without using a pixel-based display. It is an artistic operating system. The office presents a radically alternative form of everyday human interaction with media. It is constructed using free/libre/open hard- and software components, especially for print, databases, web-scraping and tangible interaction. Currently, it exists as a working prototype with software “bureaus” which allow a user to read and navigate news, web sites and social media entirely with the use of various printers for output and a barcode scanner for input. While our existing software allows for interesting new ways of consuming media, we are currently working to expand the system to make it capable of publishing content and thereby, enabling a provocative possibility for active participation in contemporary social life.

Quoted from: The Screenless Office. Via Jeu de paume espace virtuel, May 2017.

Gin Poles

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 14:09

“A gin pole is a simple and traditional method for raising a timber frame by hand, and straightforward solution to a site with little crane access. It’s constructed from a long, straight pole with a block and tackle hanging from the top, and two guy lines (in our case, come-alongs) that help to counter the weight of the pole and the timbers, and locate the posts in their mortises.”

“Sometimes the oldest technologies provide the best solution for the job at hand. From wedges and ramps to pulleys, I am surprised at how right my physics teachers were about the ubiquity of simple machines. When applied purposefully, with careful consideration, these approaches can be safer, simpler and cheaper. While I appreciate the romance associated with historic contraptions, ultimately, romance is not the reason we employ them.”

Read more: I’ll take a gin pole, straight up, Preservation Timber Farming.

Craftsmanship in Greece Today

Mon, 04/03/2017 - 19:26

For centuries craftsmanship, the predecessor of industry, has shaped culture and everyday life. Crafted products show region-specific, social, political and economic conditions as well as cultural and religious characteristics. During several trips cultural worker and artist curator Laura Bernhardt, and photographer Benjamin Tafel have undertaken a search for traces of the still active craft workshops in Greece.

In dialogue with a selection of protagonists the project examines their situation, their emotional relationship with their profession and their prospects. The result is a series of portraits that show the artisan in relation to his or her profession and the current situation of upheaval. How important is the traditional value that is passed on from generation to generation, from hand to hand? How is the artisan connected to his or her profession in these times of crisis?

The authors are less interested in a nostalgic view but rather focus on the rediscovery of crafted products, their appreciation and the artisans’ emotional relationship to their profession. What is the meaning of low-tech in times of economic crisis and how can small businesses survive with few orders? The different views of the artisans’ stories created a portrait of an era that can point to the past as well as to the future.

Read more: From Hand to Hand: Stories about Craftsmanship in Greece Today. Via DAMN. Thanks to Sara Dandois.

Bicycle Powered Thresher

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 14:36

Farmhack has complete instructions for making a bicycle powered thresher. It works on various crops including dry beans, wheat, rice, rye, einkorn, and lupine, and threshes about one pound per minute.

This is the first of three tools for small scale grain processing. The other two tools are the bicycle powered fanning mill and the bicycle powered de-huller/flour mill.

Unlike some “hacks” for small farmers, the Grain Bikes don’t solve an acknowledged problem so much as create new opportunities for small farmers. Dry beans and grains are non-perishable, can be sold, eaten, or planted to avoid seed costs (such as rye for cover crops), and, the labor for processing them can be shunted to the winter when more time is available.

Find the manual at Farmhack.

 

The Sustainability Problem of Digital Currencies

Fri, 03/10/2017 - 15:32

Bitcoin is back in the spotlight these days thanks to some wild price movements and central bank meetings. The decentralized currency has recently been trading over its all-time high of $1200 on some exchanges. But the higher the price goes, the more it exacerbates bitcoin’s dark side: shocking levels of electricity consumption.

In 2015, I wrote that bitcoin had a big sustainability problem. Back then, each bitcoin transaction represented roughly enough electricity to power 1.57 American households for a day— approximately 5,000 times more energy-intensive than a credit card transaction. Since it’s been two years, it’s time for an update.

Updated calculations with optimistic assumptions show that in a best-case hypothetical, each bitcoin transaction is backed by approximately 90 percent of an American household’s daily average electricity consumption. So even though that’s still about 3,994 times as energy-intensive as a credit card transaction, things could be getting better since 2015.

Unfortunately, it’s more likely that things are getting worse. A new index has recently modeled potential energy costs per transaction as high as 94 kWh, or enough electricity to power 3.17 households for a day. To put it another way, that’s almost enough energy to fully charge the battery of a Tesla Model S P100D, the world’s quickest production car, and drive it over 300 miles.

Read more: A Single Bitcoin Transaction Takes Thousands of Times More Energy Than a Credit Card Swipe, Christopher Malmo. Thanks to Renaud d’Avout d’Auerstaedt.

Hacking Consumer Electronics: The Low-tech Way

Wed, 03/08/2017 - 23:16

The paragraphs below are taken from “100 Deadly Skills: The SEAL Operative’s Guide to Eluding Pursuers, Evading Capture, and Surviving Any Dangerous Situation“, a book that’s not available on WikiLeaks but on Amazon. Written by a retired Navy Seal, Clint Emerson, the book describes skills “which all rely on low-tech or no-tech tools, because complicated instructions are the last thing you need when facing imminent peril”.

Skill No.55: TURN A SPEAKER INTO A MICROPHONE

“Stashing a voice-activated recording device in a target’s room or vehicle is relatively simple, but without sound amplification, such a setup is unlikely to result in audible intelligence — a proper audio-surveillance system requires amplification via microphone. In the absence of dedicated tools, however, the Nomad can leverage a cell phone, an audio jack, and a pair of headphones into an effective listening device.”

“Because microphones and speakers are essentially the same instrument, any speaker — from the earbuds on a pair of headphones to the stereo system on a television — can be turned into a microphone in a matter of minutes. The simple difference between the two is that their functions are reversed. While a speaker turns electronic signals into sound, a mic turns sound into electronic signals to be manipulated and amplified…”

“Any small recording device can be employed, but using a phone set to silent and auto answer as a listening device has two advantages: It captures intelligence in real time and does so without the operative having to execute a potentially dangerous return trip on target to collect the device…”

From: “100 Deadly Skills: The SEAL Operative’s Guide to Eluding Pursuers, Evading Capture, and Surviving Any Dangerous Situation“, Clint Emerson, 2015.

In Defense of Degrowth

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 15:34

“The idea of degrowth is contentious, often misunderstood, and (perhaps paradoxically) growing in popularity. In this book, Giorgos Kallis, one of the movement’s leading thinkers, presents an accessible, inspiring, and enjoyable defense. The book’s chapters—a compilation of his opinion essays, newspaper articles, blog posts, and ‘minifestos’—range from topics such as eco-modernism, the history of economics, science fiction, the Greek crisis, and Hollywood films.

The book also features debates and exchanges between Kallis and degrowth detractors. In defense of degrowth is intended as an introduction for the curious, a defense against the skeptics, and an intellectually stimulating conversation for those already convinced but willing to learn more.”

In Defense of Degrowth can be downloaded as a free e-book.

Rebooting Energy Demand: Automatic Software Upgrades

Wed, 03/01/2017 - 20:08

When and how we upgrade our computer software used to be in large part our own decision. Today, it’s increasingly decided by software vendors themselves, who have automated this process through downloads. Automated software upgrades can increase energy use in different and unexpected ways, without any action from the user.

Before the advance of networked devices and automated software upgrades, the energy use of an appliance was rather predictable, because the features of such devices were static. Now, manufacturers can unilaterally decide to send out an upgrade that increases data and also energy use for all devices.

More and more consumer products are controlled by networked software: what does this mean for energy demand, and exactly who is responsible for increasing consumption? Although increased energy demand will be attributed to consumers, in fact they have little control over it.

Read more: Rebooting Energy Demand: Automatic Software Upgrades, an article I wrote for the UK’s DEMAND Centre. Picture: eBay.

Medieval Heating System Lives on in Spain

Wed, 02/08/2017 - 14:51

The Meseta Central is a vast plateau in the heart of Spain with long, cold winters and short, scorching summers. The locals say that there’s “nine months of winter” and “three months of hell”. The region has little trees, so heating (and cooling) has always been a challenge.

In the early middle ages, the Castillians developed a subterranean heating system that’s a descendent of the Roman hypocaust: the “gloria”. Due to its slow rate of combustion, the gloria allowed people to use smaller fuels such as hay and twigs instead of firewood.

The Gloria

Remarkably, the gloria is alive and kicking. Several villages, especially in the wider region around Burgos, still have houses with subterranean fireplaces of which some are in working order.

In January, my friend Pedro took me to his uncle’s house in Hontangas, a tiny village at some 100 km from Burgos. The uncle, now in his late sixties, fires the gloria once every morning during the “nine months of winter”.

A gloria heats one or at most two different rooms, usually kitchen and/or living room. The firebox is located outside the house, often in a courtyard but sometimes on the street. The wall above it is black from soot. The chimney is on the other side of the heated room.

The warm exhaust gases from the combustion heat are led through one or more ducts  that run under the floor of the heated room(s), and then rise through the chimney. The floor and the walls slowly radiate this heat into the room. In summer, a natural air current in the gloria cools the room(s).

The expression “estar en la gloria” (to be inside the gloria), meaning that someone feels happy and comfortable, refers to this medieval heating system.

The obvious downside of the gloria is that you have to get outside in the cold to “turn on” the heating, first thing in the morning. This takes about 20 minutes. Vine cuttings are added first, followed by some firewood.

When the fire is burning well, the firebox is covered with a some metal plates to slow the combustion rate and keep the heat inside. One firing suffices for a day of warmth.

The gloria is related not only to the hypocaust but also to the Korean ondol and the American “crimean oven“.

Low-tech Baby Care

Tue, 02/07/2017 - 14:50

Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) is the brainchild of Colombian pediatrician Edgar Rey, who introduced it to the Instituto Materno Infantil in 1978. It was an idea born out of desperation. The institute served the city’s poorest—those who lived crammed in the rickety makeshift dwellings in the foothills of the surrounding mountains. At the time, this was the biggest neonatal unit in all of Colombia, responsible for delivering 30,000 babies a year.

Overcrowding was so bad that three babies would have to share an incubator at a time and the rate of cross-infection was high. Death rates were spiraling, and so too was the level of abandonment. Many young, impoverished mothers who never even got to touch their babies found it easier just to take off.

Scouting around for a solution to these problems, Rey happened upon a paper on the physiology of the kangaroo. It mentioned how at birth, kangaroos are bald and roughly the size of a peanut—very immature, just like a human pre-term baby. Once in its mother’s pouch, the kangaroo receives thermal regulation from the direct skin-to-skin contact afforded by its lack of hair. It then latches onto its mother’s nipple, where it remains until it has grown to roughly a quarter of its mother’s weight, when it is finally ready to emerge into the world.

This struck a chord with Rey. He went back to the institute and decided to test it out. He trained mothers of premature babies to carry them just as kangaroos do. Working alongside his colleague Hector Martinez, he taught them the importance of breastfeeding and discharged them just as soon as their babies were able. The results were remarkable. Death rates and infection levels dropped immediately. Overcrowding was reduced because hospital stays were much shorter, incubators were freed up, and the number of abandoned babies fell.

Read more: Kangaroo care—why keeping baby close is better for everyone, Ars Technica. Thanks to Tim Miller.

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