Thursday, November 14, 2019

Low Tech

While I'm a fairly tech-savvy person and use a couple of different digital formats to read books, I still enjoy sitting down with an actual, printed paper book. Certain reference books and maps are better in physical form than in digital; it's much easier to flip to the correct section than trying to scroll through pages on a small screen.

Printed books are also less dependent on electricity and the format is well-defined and stable. Digital media standards change, and without the proper hardware/firmware/software the data is unavailable. I have several boxes of floppy disks that I had to transfer data from a few years ago, and the CDs and DVDs that I moved the information to are rapidly becoming obsolete.

Archiving digital information is difficult without a lot of equipment and constant electrical power. 
  • Magnetic storage media like floppy disks, magnetic tapes, and hard drives will reliably hold data for about 10-20 years at best. The mechanisms for reading that data may not last as long, which is another thing to consider.
  • Optical storage like CDs and DVDs are highly variable, depending on the properties of the disc. Recordable disks use a dye that changes color when exposed to a laser of the correct frequency; this dye has a 5-10 year shelf-life under good conditions and heat, humidity, and UV light will shorten that life rapidly. Manufactured, or “pressed”, disks have a metal layer that is physically changed as the data is stored. They are sturdier than the recordable disks, but still have a shelf-life of only 20-30 years.
  • Digital e-books are handy if you have a reader, as you can carry a library around in your bag, but the formats (.mobi, .pdf, etc.) aren't stable yet and you need electricity to be able to access the data. There have also been cases where the publisher remotely deleted books from users' machines -- sort of a modern-day book burning. I use my tablet/e-book apps for ephemeral titles; fiction and news mostly, nothing I actually need to save for later.
  • Books, if printed on good paper and given decent care, can last for centuries. I own several reference books that are more than 100 years old and the information is still readable. Daylight or a good candle or two is all you need to be able to retrieve the data in a book.

All of the above has been covered here before, but I ran across a service last month that brought it to the front of my attention. One of my frequently visited sites on the Internet is Low-Tech Magazine. The entire website is designed to use as little electricity as possible, from the choice of fonts and picture quality to the static page design and the lack of animation (and ads). The webmaster has even managed to build a website that is 100% solar-powered and located in his home. High-tech but with a small footprint, and he's keeping the site online over 90% of the time.

I can ignore the low-level politics and climate-change rhetoric on the site because it covers old and new technology from a unique perspective. Some of the links in the header take you to “no-tech” and obsolete technologies pages, which may prompt some thought about projects you have in mind.

Since the web-pages are small and don't have any dynamic links or animations, the owner decided to publishthe last six years of articles in book form. He uses Lulu, a print-on-demand service, so he doesn't have to stock or ship anything, which is handy since he's based in Spain. Lulu works with printers around the world, so your book will be printed and shipped from the source closest to you. I ordered a copy and it was printed and shipped via the cheapest carrier in about two weeks. The total cost was about $30 for a 710 page book printed on heavy, acid-free paper, which is a fair price. I was actually surprised at the heavy paper, as I was expecting something similar to paperback or photocopy paper.

The topics covered in the 37 articles originally published between 2012 and 2018 are mostly old tech and are based on minimizing power consumption, a topic that might be of interest to any of us planning or building a more self-reliant home. Here's the table of contents, but remember that you can look the articles up online and read them to see if it is something you want to have a print copy of.

  • How to Build a Low-tech Website?
  • We Can't Do It Ourselves
  • Ditch the Batteries: Off-grid Compressed Air Energy Storage
  • History and Future of the Compressed Air Economy
  • How Much Energy Do We Need?
  • Bedazzled by Energy Efficiency
  • How to Run the Economy on the Weather
  • How (Not) to Run a Modern Society on Solar and Wind Power Alone
  • Could We Run Modern Society on Human Power Alone?
  • Heat Storage Hypocausts: Air Heating in the Middle Ages
  • Why the Office Needs a Typewriter Revolution
  • The Curse of the Modern Office
  • How to Get Your Apartment Off the Grid
  • Slow Electricity: The Return of DC Power?
  • Power Water Networks
  • Fruit Walls: Urban Farming in the 1600s
  • Reinventing the Greenhouse
  • How to Build a Low-tech Internet
  • The 4G Mobile Internet that's Already There
  • Why We Need a Speed Limit for the Internet
  • How Sustainable is Stored Sunlight?
  • How Sustainable is PV Solar Power?
  • Restoring the Old Way of Warming: Heating People, not Places
  • The Revenge of the Circulating Fan
  • If We Insulate Our Houses, Why Not Our Cooking Pots?
  • Well-Tended Fires Outperform Modern Cooking Stoves
  • Modular Cargo Cycles
  • High Speed Trains are Killing the European Railway Network
  • Power from the Tap: Water Motors
  • Back to Basics: Direct Hydropower
  • The Mechanical Transmission of Power (3): Endless Rope Drives
  • The Mechanical Transmission of Power (2): Jerker Line Systems
  • The Mechanical Transmission of Power (1): Stangenkunst
  • How to make everything ourselves: open modular hardware
  • Electric velomobiles: as fast and comfortable as automobiles, but 80 times more efficient
  • Cargo cyclists replace truck drivers on European city streets
  • The solar envelope: how to heat and cool cities without fossil fuels

There is a decidedly urban European slant to the articles, but the information is useful anywhere. I suggest that you at least give the website a look and check out the archives, as they're planning on putting out a second book with older articles in the near future.

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