Thursday, November 18, 2010

Metal-workers blues

My eternal DIY quest has, in the past, largely been confined to carpentry, electricity/electronics, cooking, gardening and the like. When it comes to woodworking, I considered myself pretty competent - at the level of the serious amateur, and I have some nice furniture pieces to show for it. Wood is comfortable to me, but I have to admit that I've always been fascinated and impressed by those who can work with metal.

Not being one to respect confinement, or the division of labor, I've recently been trying to make useful things out of metal. I decided on a project - a universal coil winder designed by the imminent late genius David Gingery. I really can't rave about Mr. Gingery enough. The was a man who knew how to make things, as I understand it, he was a high school shop teacher, and he wrote several books - many of which can be found at Lindsay's Technical Books. Lindsay's, by the way, is a Luddite's paradise, and really has to be experienced to be believed.

Gingery considers this contraption to be easy to make, and a good introduction to working with metal. Everything you need to make it can be obtained at your local hardware store, as can all of the tools needed, if you don't have them already. I have a lot of tools, and I had a lot of the materials needed, so I got to work.

I learned a couple of hard lessons really fast. First, when Gingery says that this is an easy project, you have to remember that this is coming from a man who casts metal in his back yard, and writes books on how to build lathes from scrap metal. Second, while a background in wood working is useful, metal is a very different material from wood, and things like, say, the ability to cut a straight line along a mark to with less than 1/8" of variance don't necessarily translate directly. Third, the metal equivalent to a plane is a file, and getting rid of that 1/8" of variance is a lot more difficult when you're working with steel.

As a woodworker, I pride myself on being competent with un-powered tools. When I use a powertool, it's usually to avoid tedium rather than reliance. I've found that I get far more accurate results with hand-tools than I do with power tools, particularly when doing joinery. Initially, I took this stance with metal as well. When I needed to make a cut on a piece of 1 1/2" x 1 1'2" angle iron, I got out my hacksaw, set ip my miter box, and got to work. Just getting a clean starting kerf turned out to be a major chore, and the final result was less than satisfying. Disappointed, I took my stock to work, where we have a metal cutting bandsaw, and found the results to be equally, if differently disappointing and accuracy to be just as elusive. So out came the file, and what seemed like an eternity of trying to true up my cut.

I'm sure that accuracy comes with practice, but man is it hard, tedious work. I'm going to keep at it, even if I have to buy more angle iron, but until then, I'll be singing the metal workers blues.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The smell of rotting cabbage

I'm talking Kimchi, the staple of Korean cuisine.

My father-in-law, who doesn't claim to be a luddite, but who is a great environmentalist - greater than I can ever hope to be has been experimenting with fermented vegetables. On a recent visit, he brought me a jar of his more recent efforts - home made Kimchi. removing the lid, one is greeted by a stench that has to be experienced to be believed. If you can get past that, however, and put the stuff in your mouth, the experience is wonderful. Vegetables, packed with salt, and fermented in the brine of their own juices take on an amazing flavor, retain a crunchiness only dreamed of in store-bought pickled vegetables, and have amazing health benefits. My wife, who doesn't like anything with a strong smell to it said, "I don't know if I like it or not, but I can't stop eating it"

Kimchi isn't the only tradition of fermented vegetables by any means. The Japanese have tsukemono, and mother-in-law recently gave me this book as a gift with all the instructions on how to get started. I can't wait to start. Most of you are probably familiar with the German tradition of sauerkraut, and most other cultures have some similar tradition. Sandor Katz has also been preaching the virtues of naturally fermented foods, most notably in his book Wild Fermentation, and at his website of the same name.

All pickled vegetables are not created equally however. In the US, most of the pickles we consume are the quick pickled variety. These vegetables are not fermented in the traditional sense, and do not confer the same health benefits as those wwhich are naturally fermented. My parents-in-law, for example, report that since they've added fermented pickles to their diet on a regular basis, they no longer need antacids to be able to get a decent night's sleep. I can attest to similar benefits, although I attribute most of my success to reducing my intake of refined sugar to almost nothing.

Unplanned Time Away

I didn't plan this latest absence.

As a self-proclaimed Luddite, I have a great respect for Mother Nature, but sometimes she can be a real bitch. She exposed this side of herself to me in a big way lately, reminding me in dramatic fashion that I am not 18 anymore (my wife, who can also be bitchy at times, likes to point out that I'm not even 38 anymore).

I have a neuroligical condition that's been hanging over my head for ten years now, and while I thought I had beat it into submission, it recently reared it's ugly head again to let me know that the war isn't over, and left me to live as a pile of immobile goo for a couple days, and forced me back into the care of a neuroligist and a pharmaceutical regime to manage things.

Needless to say, I don't like it one little bit. I'm back though, and even if I'm a little slower, I'm taking up the mantle again, and pursuing the sustainable life. While I was laying in the hospital, I took great pride in the fact that if I was never able to pick up another tool, the last job I did - the job I was doing when I was laid low, was building a compost bin out of reclaimed lumber. It's a heck of a compost bin too.

So, I have a bit of a back log on posts, several essays that are half-written, projects that need documenting, and other things to report. I'll be getting them out as fast as I can.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Luddite Technology – Crystal Radios

Listen to the radio without using any electricity, including electricity stored in a battery!

That sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not only possible, but relatively easy to do and can even be done with no special parts (although using some special parts can definitely improve the performance). There is a catch of course, namely that without having a source of electricity, the signal you use won’t be very loud, and you’ll have to listen via ear phones (and a particular type at that – more later).

The simplest of radios can be built with simple wire, a crystal or equivalent, and an earphone. I’ve built this kind of radio, and while it works – which seems miraculous enough – its performance is less than spectacular. It only picks up the very strongest of AM stations, and it picks them all up at once. Fortunately, we can do much better by adding more wire in the correct configuration, a tunable capacitor or two, and a handful of other innovations.

Simplest Possible Radio
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

More specific and detailed construction information can be found on the Internet , and in the interest of space, I won’t go into the details here – at least not yet. My daughter and I are about to start working on building our own crystal sets, and I’ll post the results and pictures of the results (I have built crystal radios in the past, but none of them have survived the frequent moves I’ve made, so I can attest to the fact that they do work). What makes this topic of interest, and of importance to Luddites, is that absolutely everything needed to establish contact with the outside world can be made at home, with little knowledge – with the exception of the earphone (this could also be made at home, but would require a little more knowledge and skill), and without using any external power.

Now don’t get me wrong. A crystal radio is a poor substitute for even the cheapest modern AM/FM radio in terms of ease of use, portability, and sound fidelity. If you have one, I wouldn’t throw it away simply because you can now make you own. I would however, still build one, simply because you can. Why? Because doing so is a step toward independence. It’s one less chain binding you to the culture of external dependence.

It’s also a good example to show that technology itself isn’t the enemy. In its proper place, technology can be liberating and empowering. As I’ve said many times, technology is supposed to work for human, humans aren’t supposed to work for technology and that includes the self and externally imposed slavery of having to work to acquire it. The crystal radio is enabling because it provides a path for those who actually need a radio to acquire one without undue expense of resources.

A historical example of the utility of the crystal radio can be found in World War II. GI’s in the European Theater listened to radios for both news and morale. Clever German scientists and engineers discovered a way to detect the presence of US troops by the signal generated in the local oscillator of their portable radios. The radios were consequently banned; leaving the GI’s to do without a vital link to the outside world. Clever soldiers began building crystal radios with materials they had on hand, restoring the link. The radios they built were crystal sets, which don’t have a local oscillator, and thus did not give away their position.

Part of what makes the foxhole radios so amazing from a technical perspective, is that they didn’t actually have a crystal. The detector (the role the crystal plays) was created by holding a razorblade to a flame and using the scorch-mark as a primitive semi-conductor – in effect, a diode. That is sheer, liberating genius, and even if it didn’t play a major role, anything that kept the morale of our soldiers up certainly helped the Allies win the war.

There is a fly in the ointment to all of this, however. These crystal radios are restricted to analog signals. The current push toward digital broadcast will make them obsolete. This, strictly speaking, doesn’t mean that you can’t still build your own radios, but it does mean that you must have an external power source because the electronics needed to decode a digital signal consume power.

I work in the field of technology and communications, and although it hasn’t really been a career enhancing position, I’ve long been opposed to the digitalization of media and communications. My opposition is based on the principle of accessibility. An analog signal is accessible in a much wider array of circumstances than a digital signal, albeit at the expense of quality. The human ear (and eye) can listen or see around a great deal of noise such as static, artifacts, or other interference. A digital signal is either perfect or unavailable, due to the nature of the decoding the ones and zeros that make up a digital signal, and in marginal conditions digital signals fail long before analog systems. They are also far more dependent on stable power conditions. (There are a few exceptions to this statement, predominantly found in the world of HAM radio, which I’ll discuss in future posts, but these aren’t actually ‘digital’ modes of communications – a CW signal (morse code) for example, is either ‘on’ or ‘off’, but the actual information isn’t directly contained in the ‘on’ or ‘off’ state, and the human ear can decode weak CW signals through a process of inference).

The move to digital communications and media is driven by the pursuit of money. Manufacturers want to sell you the equipment needed to decode the equipment, and thus the encoding schemes are often proprietary for the express purpose of limiting access to customers. Media content providers encrypt their products to limit the ways in which you use your purchases. In principle this is fair enough, and everyone deserves to be rewarded fairly for the fruits of their labors. In practice though, they are accomplishing these goals through the use of the common airwaves, which they hold only through public trust – part of that trust is that they provide critical information and make it freely available. The transition of the public airwaves to proprietary formats is, in my opinion, a violation of that trust.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Food Culture

“Eat food or die,” a guy I know once said. This seems beyond obvious, but history has shown us many instances where people, both collectively and individually, have chosen to die rather than to eat. It would be easy to dismiss these instances as proof that the gene-pool is self-chlorinating, but I think that to do so is to ignore a valuable lesson.

A good example of this phenomenon – of people choosing to die rather than to eat – can be found in the Viking culture of Greenland. The Vikings settled in Greenland during an uncharacteristically warm climatic period which enabled them to bring with them the agricultural and culinary practices of their homeland. Eventually, the climate swung back to normal and their agricultural and culinary practices could no longer be maintained. The Viking culture of Greenland waned to virtual non-existence, with a dramatic increase in deaths due to mal-nutrition, and an emigration of Vikings back to their homelands.

One of the curious aspects of the Greenland Viking culture to anthropologists and historians is that they didn’t eat fish. I don’t like fish either, but then I don’t live in Greenland. The Inuit people – the closest thing Greenland has to a native people – survived the same period that did the Vikings in by subsisting on fish and other marine life as they have for millennia. Food, perfectly normal and acceptable food, was literally swimming all around the Vikings, but rather than change their diets they instead chose to starve and leave. No one is really sure why the Greenland Vikings refused to eat fish. It seems an odd thing for a sea-faring people, especially when their Nordic parent culture includes sea food. Whatever the reason though, for several generations, they simply refused to acknowledge that fish were food, and this led to their demise.

The point of this brief history lesson is that what we consider to be food isn’t solely dependent on what’s available, on edibility, nutrition, or anything scientific. As members of a culture, we subscribe to a particular set of rules that informs us what is ‘food’ and what isn’t. This is something I touched on in my last post dealing with weeds – perfectly edible and nutritious foods are growing wild in our yards and green spaces, but most people not only refuse to eat them, but are completely oblivious to the fact they are actually food. Furthermore, those brave souls who are willing to buck tradition and harvest this bounty and thought of as strange.

This is the difference between food and food culture. ‘Food’ is merely an edible substance. ‘Food Culture’ is a set of rules, generally tied to a place and a group of people, which specify food as acceptable, how food is gathered or produced, the proper methods of preparation, when to eat, how to eat, and how much to eat. Traditional food culture is tied to a place and to a people and is thus a local or regional phenomenon as well as an ethnic one. It is in fact a part of how ethnicity and regionality are determined. Even in our modern world, there is a food culture, in spite of the fact that in its current state, it is focused on eliminating regional and ethnic variations to develop a kind of culinary hegemony.

The verbalized principle of modern food culture is that anyone should be able to eat whatever they want whenever they want it, so long as they can afford it. This is accomplished through market economics – producing foodstuffs where it is cheap to do so, and transporting them to a place where they can fetch the best prices, thereby enriching the producers as the window of season shifts around the world, and theoretically at least, ensuring that everyone has a rich and varied diet. This is a laudable goal, but ultimately rests on flawed assumptions about the nature of food, productivity, economics, culture, and human nature.

Obviously, as the case of the Greenland Vikings illustrates, traditional food cultures can fail, although one could make the argument that it was a failure on the part of the Vikings to realize that food culture is tied to a place as well as a people. The sum total of food culture however, is meant to educate the people in a particular place on how to best, most effectively, and safely utilize the food resources of their area in a sustainable manner. In a similar way, the modern food culture has potential flaws in that it see that food culture is tied to either a people or a place. This creates a systemic vulnerability and a dependence which represents a danger to everyone.

Danger? Yes, Danger! If you’re like most people in this country, your food comes from somewhere other than where you live. Chances are that you actually eat very little that comes from where you live. Implicitly this means that your life depends on someone delivering one of the basic requirements for life. What happens if they stop doing it? What are YOU going to eat, and where are YOU going to get it from, and how are YOU going to get it?

These questions are neither rhetorical nor trivial. They aren’t necessarily even meant to prompt you into trying to grow and produce all of your own food. The point of asking them is point out that food has to come from somewhere, and if it isn’t coming from somewhere else, it has to come from where you are. There’s a pretty good chance that food is growing and being produced somewhere pretty close to you, but if you don’t know where that is, or what forms it takes, it isn’t going to do you much good.

That, ultimately, is what this post is about. It’s a question I’ve started asking myself, my friends, and my neighbors. How is your food culture defined? What are you doing to ensure that your food culture is sustainable and viable? If all external inputs were removed, would you eat food or die?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Enough with the salad already…..

I know it seems like I’m fixated or something, but this will be the last one for a while:

My latest salad creation:

Bowl full of mixed baby arugula and lemon grass (ideally, cut fresh from your salad bowl)

1 thinly sliced red onion

½ thinly sliced cucumber

Vinegar, salt, pepper, grated cheese (if desired)

Place sliced onions in a sieve and soak in cold water for half hour. Throw away water. Add sliced cucumber to sieve. Add ½ cup of vinegar to a bowl, and add cucumbers and onions add salt and pepper to taste. Fill bowl with cold water until vegetables are covered. Let soak for a half hour.

Drain onions and cucumbers and add to bowl of greens. Toss and dress with a light vinaigrette. Top with grated hard cheese like Parmesan or Romano (or whatever else you have and/or like)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Salad under Foot

In my last post I wrote about growing salad greens in a bowl or pot, and what a wonderful source of fresh organic leaves it is. In my exuberance, I nearly forgot about the other source of greens I’ve been exploring this summer – the weeds growing like gangbusters while my grass dies due to drought. In general usage, weeds are a nuisance and not given much attention, and they’re usually found growing where you don’t want them to grow (or are trying to grow something else. On closer examination however, some of these weeds have uses.

The most common weeds in my area are dandelion, plantago (plantain), and burdock. All three of these plants are edible, at least in part, and also medicinal. Dandelion and Plantain provide greens for salads. Burdock leaves can be harvested in the spring, but this plant is usually valued for its roots, which are eaten like a vegetable. All parts of the dandelion are edible and have various uses, including the famous wine made from its flowers.

What makes these plants special is that they grow on their own. They require no effort on your part – in fact, just the opposite is true, as anyone who has ever tried to maintain a lawn knows, effort is required to keep them from growing. They are literally free food, there for the taking – well, there is a small cost – one has to get over the idea of harvesting weeds from their lawn or other public green spaces; one has to prepare themselves to eat something they’ve been taught to despise all their lives; and one has to be willing to accept the questioning looks and possible scorn of those who believe that food can only come from stores.

If it helps, many of these so called weeds used to be cultivated as crops, and in some places still are. Plantago, for example, is still widely grown in gardens around the world. Another ‘weed’, chicory, is widely grown in some places, and is somewhat famous as an additive or substitute for coffee in New Orleans. Here where I live, it simply grows wild, any place and every place it can, and it’s flowers are a scenic staple along the sides of roads. It should also be noted that in many upscale restaurants, salads of ‘wild greens’ are a featured item on the menu, and examining these expensive little piles a green that dandelions, rocket, chicory, and other ‘weeds’ are prominently present. Our ancestors used and relied on these crops, but now that knowledge has been largely, but not entirely lost.

If you’re interested, as a Luddite Apprentice, or simply looking for a free meal, the place to start is with a good field guide to edible and medicinal plants. Then spend some time outside comparing your weeds to what you find in the book. Remember that details are important here. There are many plants or radically different species that look very similar during various parts of the growth cycle, and the only way to distinguish a friendly plant from a dangerous one may be small things like the way the leaves grow from the stem. If you have any doubt, you should consult an expert, in person.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Salad Bowls

I like salad. I’m a firm believer that eating raw vegetables has health benefits that exceed the value of those same vegetables (or similar one) cooked. There’s some science behind my belief, but when it comes down to it, really, I eat them because I like them. Most of the salads I eat are based on a bed of greens – sometimes they’re nothing but a bed of greens, and if you like salad greens you’re probably aware that the younger they are, the better they taste.

Over this past winter, I experimented with sprouting. Sprouting is quick and easy, and I tried all different kinds, and subsequently bought a lot of seeds. As soon as spring kicked in though, and it did so early and with a vengeance this year, my thought and appetite returned to greens and for the most part I gave up sprouting. This, in spite of the fact that I don’t have a proper garden this year. I confess, I was buying those little plastic tubs of organic baby greens from the local grocery store, as well as some from my local farmer’s market when they were available.

Then I had one of those head –slapper moment. Why on earth was I buying greens that I could just as easily grow myself? Most of those sprouting seeds I’d bought were for greens and salad herbs. So I got out a large pot, filled it with dirt, some home-made compost (which I continue to make even though I don’t have a proper garden yet) and seeded it with sprouting seeds, added water, and about three weeks later, harvested a nice crop of mixed baby salad greens large enough to provide a dinner salad for three adults and two children.

After harvesting my first salad, I hand tilled the soil in the pot, and started a new batch. Also, because it was so good and so popular, I started two more pots, staggered by a couple days. Homegrown salad greens are now becoming a staple of our household diet. More pots and we could have fresh, organic salad everyday, with exactly the mix of greens we want.

The news just gets better and better though. First, there’s the cost: A bag of mixed green sprouting seeds costs about the same as one plastic tub of organic greens from the grocery store – I’ve grown seven salads from the first bag so far, and have at least enough for three more. Next there’s the environmental impact: no plastic tubs, no driving to the store, no importing our greens from California. This isn’t the 100-mile diet – this is the 100-foot diet. With seed-saving (by allowing a pot to grow, bolt, and grow to seed), the price and environmental impact could be reduced even further – to almost nothing. Finally, there’s the fact that by growing the salad in pots, once the weather turns cold, the bowls can be moved inside and continue to grow fresh greens through the winter (albeit a little more slowly. You can trick mother nature, but only within certain limits).

The grocery store owners probably disagree, but for my family and me, this is a win-win.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Luddite Music

In an age of runaway consumerism, the patenting and copyrighting of absolutely everything, and a near total dependence on high technology, one might be excused for assuming that the Luddite lifestyle consist of nothing but grueling, oppressive, backbreaking labor. This simply isn’t true, there’s plenty of time for leisure and recreation, and one of my favorite pastimes is homemade music.

I grew up in the age of rock-and-roll, and was especially keen on progressive ‘art-rock’. Most of my rock-and-roll fantasies involved me behind a rack of keyboards and synthesizers. Trying to morph these fantasies into reality, I soon learned, however, that I couldn’t make that kind of music on the meager amount of money I had to spend in pursuit of my dream. About the same time I discovered this, I discovered folk music – in my case, Irish and Scottish folk music, and it was a revelation. Here were people creating complex, listenable music wherever they were, whenever they felt like it, and doing it without truckloads of expensive equipment, and in most cases without even electricity.

There are of course, several traditions of acoustic and traditional music. I have my preferences and if you don’t already, you’ll have yours too. When it comes down to it though, you don’t even have to choose a tradition – there’s plenty of modern and contemporary music available to choose from as well. There are a couple of reasons I like traditional music though:

  • It’s freely available – no copyrights to worry about
  • There’s a lot of it – more than you can imagine, thousands and thousands of songs available, and of every type imaginable.
  • It’s ‘people’ music – it was made by people for people to enjoy, sing, play, eat, grieve, celebrate, live, work and dance to.
  • There’s a kind of synergy between the music and the instruments: The instruments influenced the music and the music influenced the instruments.
  • It’s as simple and easy or as complex and demanding as you want it to be. The level of entry is where ever you are right now – whether you’ve played and instrument or sang your whole life, or whether you’re simply dreaming about it and have never made anything resembling music in your life.

    Now I’m not a great, good, or even competent musician. I can bang a bit on a piano or a guitar, and I can read music. The instrument I find myself playing most often though is the Irish Tin Whistle. What I like about the tin whistle is that it’s rugged, small, easy, and cheap. My current favorite whistle (I have 6 or so) cost me 12 bucks – my first one cost me about 6 bucks. There are dozens of options though, such as the before mentioned piano, guitar, as well as the harmonica, mandolin, fiddle, various percussion instruments, autoharps, dulcimers, accordions, brass, woodwinds, and who knows what else. The key to a Luddite though, is that it be relatively simple, and require minimal inputs (The Luddite Code says that we’re willing to substitute skill for technology, and that the technology we use should work for us rather than us working for it).

    I said above that the level of entry into music was wherever you are right now. This is definitely true, but you need to beware the pitfall of all new musicians. You can start playing music from day one, but it will be a while before you’re playing anything and everything you want to play and playing it as well as you want. Like everything Luddite, there’s some work involved. It’s fun work though, and it’s building a useful skill. The payoff though, is a new kind of independence – being able to create your own music, when, where, and how you want. You’ll make friends and entertain the kids, and for me that’s the best part. It’s a great feeling blowing on my whistle and having the kids dance around, be silly, goofy, and happy as a result of blowing a simple tune.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Luddite Guild

Over at The Archdruid Report John Michael Greer has issued a challenge for followers to become ‘Green Wizards’ – that is masters of appropriate technology. While I don’t disbelieve in magic or even druidery, I am a Christian and more pragmatic – I believe that hard work, properly applied, is more important than magic, so while I am pursuing his course of study (which has nothing to do with magic, necessarily), I’m putting my own stamp on it, borrowing a page from the past, and organizing a guild – The Guild of Luddite Practitioners.

Mr. Greer’s timing is impeccable, and reflects a train of thought I’ve been pursuing recently that was recently brought to relevance by starting to read Slow Food Nation by Carlo Petrini. Where Greer has his Wizards, and I have my Luddites, Mr. Petrini has developed the concept of the ‘gastronome’. Like myself, and presumably Mr. Greer, Mr. Petrini has discovered that any solution to the world’s problems requires going back to our roots, and to extend the metaphor of the tree, the roots are deep, elaborate, and complex, touching every area of human knowledge and wisdom. The tree cannot live without the roots, and understanding the roots is a daunting task. ‘Where do I start?’ is no small question, and like many great questions, it has no single ‘best’ answer.

What I’ve come to realize is that where you start isn’t so important as the fact that you do start, and that you keep some basic tenets in mind. One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s even easier to start with a problem that has a known solution and work backwards that it is to start with an unsolved problem and work forward. An example of this that I recently faced was removing rust from old tools. The most immediate solution available was to use Naval Jelly (phosphoric acid), but me being me, I wondered how they used to do it, and how would I do it if couldn’t just run to the store and by a tub of Naval Jelly. I found a plethora of solutions – from sanding and abrasives, to chemicals, to electrolysis. Eventually I settled on electrolysis because it meant that I didn’t have to buy anything at all. (I plan to write a future column on the process).

In the Guild of Luddite Practitioners, most of us are just Apprentices, those some of us might qualify as Journeymen in particular aspects, and true Masters are as rare as hen’s teeth. In normal guild operations, Apprentices must train under Masters, and only a Master is considered worthy of recruiting Apprentices. In these times however, until such time as a new tradition can be restored, we as Apprentices must recruit our fellows and introduce them to the work of the Masters and Journeymen. The barriers against entrance are high – taking up this work means voluntarily forgoing some of the creature comforts that our society believe it is due, it means working hard, often failing and learning lessons the hard way, but the benefits are true freedom and independence and hopefully someday, becoming Masters ourselves, and passing on our knowledge to a future generation.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Luddite Heroes - Dennis Shelly

You won’t find his name in Wikipedia or any reference book. I’m not even sure you’ll find his name in the phone book, but if you ever meet him you won’t forget him, and with only a few minutes of conversation, you’ll realize that he is no ordinary man. I had the honor of working with Dennis for four years before my career took me elsewhere and I truly miss his presence.

Dennis is a man of many talents and true principles – a lover of animals and plants, of old machines, open land and simple solutions. He is a mechanic, an electrician, a carpenter, a plumber, a painter, and who knows what else. If it’s broke, Dennis can fix it. If there’s a problem, Dennis can solve it, and if he has his way, he’ll solve it with a minimum of technology and expense.

I learned many things from Dennis in our time as colleagues. Things like ‘If it’s worth making, it’s worth fixing’ and I was always impressed with his solutions. Although I was his supervisor, I frequently had to admit that his solutions were better than anything I would have come up with.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Coming Soon!

As early as next week, I'll be introducing a new series of posts called 'Luddite Technology' in which I undertake a project and document with pictures, data, drawings, and other information of interest. It was never my intention that this blog would simply be a political exposition, but that it would include practical information on how to live an independent life. These columns will be the first step in accomplishing that goal.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Luddite Politics

I’ve been watching the development of the Tea Party with a mixture of emotions for several months now, and I’ve been trying to figure out why it has no appeal to me, despite the fact that the apparent premise seems so much like I would. I finally figured it out.

This morning I was watching coverage of the Boston Tea Party (2010, not 1773) and one of the attendees made a remark about purging the Republican Party of ‘RINO’s, that is ‘Republicans In Name Only’. That’s when it occurred to me, that despite their ardent claims to the contrary, the Tea Partiers are ‘Independents In Name Only’. Any theoretical readers of this blog who identify with the Tea Party are probably pretty ticked off about now, but wait, let me explain, and I’ll show you what I think a real independent is.

The essence of the Tea Party world view, as it appears from the outside, is that the United States should rightfully dominate the world. They see this as a benign domination of course, one that ensures all people are free (especially Americans), that global trade and economics flourish on a level playing field, and that every entity, be it corporation or individual prospers or perishes by its own merit. That all sounds pretty good in principle, but it falls apart on closer inspection.

The first faulty premise is that the world view is based on the economics of money rather than the economics of wealth. By definition, as explained in previous posts, this means dependence – money is only an abstraction of wealth and the production of money, be it fiat or specie, is regulated and controlled by the powers-that-be and restricted from the individual to the benefit of said powers.

This leads to the second faulty premise, which is that the status quo is inherently fair, to the extent that governments, including, and maybe especially, our own are not involved. I reject this premise on several grounds. First, the status quo is undeniably skewed to the benefit of Americans, and can hardly be considered fair for the individuals on the other side of the trade. This is the flip side of any political philosophy built on the foundation of US superiority, no matter how benign its intent. What the Tea Party wants to preserve is a political and economic imbalance where in the American people are not required to change their lifestyle, can continue to consume the majority of the world’s resources, implicitly at the expense of everyone else.

The third faulty premise is based on ignoring the role of debt in the perceived prosperity of the American people. The dirty secret of capitalism is that it inherently relies on debt. The development of wealth in complex societies requires currency. Currency accumulates in the hands of those exercising political power and those who have successfully developed wealth in the past. To expand and create new wealth, currency must usually be borrowed, in one form or another, by those with access to some means of production but no currency, from those who have currency, for a fee of course, ensuring that those who control the accumulation of currency maintain that control. America has succeeded in the past several decades by controlling the accumulation of currency by controlling the creation of the currency that serves as the medium of global trade (the US Dollar) and financed itself and its expansion by borrowing against those dollars. Because the expansion has been focused on the flow of currency rather than the production of real worth, the result is a tremendous deficit, both foreign and domestic.

The Tea Party seems to believe that the deficit can be solved by eliminating welfare spending, lowering taxes, and easing regulations. It’s interesting though that for all their talk of limiting government to the confines of strictly-interpreted constitutionalism, they are dead set against touching the single greatest line item in the budget, and if fact would rather expand it, in spite of the fact that the US spends more on it that most other countries in the world combined – that is, of course, Defense. They would go a long way toward building credibility in my book if they began advocating a reduction in size and expense of the Defense department to levels sufficient to carry out the mission implied by its name, rather than the expeditionary force that it actually is. After all, if the US is truly the messenger of good will and fairness that it claims to be, why should the rest of the world be so dead set on destroying us?

To be truly independent, as individuals and as a nation, we must learn to produce our own needs and finance our wants with the surplus. A truly wealthy and independent people produce more wealth than they consume – anything else is only the illusion of wealth, and they must be capable of distinguishing their own needs from their wants. A nation of independent and autonomous individuals does not rely on its credit-worthiness to maintain its lifestyle, and no nation of such individuals can consider itself to be wealthy until all of its citizens are capable of sustaining themselves in an adequate and sustainable way by the fruits of their own labor with a little surplus left over for ‘economic stimulus’.

In my opinion, the vision endorsed by the Tea Party fails to meet the criteria of ‘independent’, nor does it represent a long-term, sustainable solution. The only surplus it produces is cheap symbolism, and a siren song luring its victims toward the image of a non-existent past, ignoring the economics of real wealth.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Probably no one noticed, but I haven't posted for a few months. This was mostly due to time restraints, but primarily due to a loss of inspiration. Having taken a couple months off, I've got my groove back and I'm working on several new essays. In addition to the essays, I'm also working on some technical articles explaining how to actually do things to enhance the Luddite experience.