S.A.T. Kongreso 1947, Århus

While travelling through Scandinavia I’ve popped into a couple of libraries and searched their catalogues for Esperanto literature. Since it originated in Europe my theory is that I’m more likely to find something here than I am in Australia.

That search turned out fruitful at Århus’ very swanky waterfront library DOKK1, after spending some time negotiating with their Danish computer system. Hiding in their archives was the book from Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda’s 1947 Esperanto conference in Århus. Weighing in at 37 pages of Esperanto, it welcomes the delegates, outlines the schedule for the six days and provides various practical information and context about the city.

S.A.T. has held a kongreso every year since 1921 with the only exception being the years of World War II. This made the 1947 event particularly special as it was the first year that they were able to recommence. The opening address notes that there are still difficulties preventing delegates from some countries travelling and emphasises the need for greater international understanding after the atrocities they just witnessed.

SAT Aarhus cover

SAT Aarhus opening

SAT Aarhus city SAT Aarhus schedule

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A visit to the ecovillage

Suderbyn Ekoby from street

On my birthday this year I was living at Suderbyn, a permaculture ecovillage on the Swedish island of Gotland. I chose not to mention my birthday as they were so dang nice I figured they would make a fuss. (Later I learnt that they typically celebrate birthdays together with a fika, i.e., coffee and cake.)

I hadn’t visited an ecovillage before and I only knew a couple of things from their website. I knew that they were around a dozen people who share their food and come together for lunch every day. I also knew that this month they’re building wind turbines and hosting a construction course with an expert in building Piggott turbines.

A tight-knit community with an interest in home-grown renewable energy sounded awesome so I applied to stay as a volunteer, meaning that I contribute work for cheaper board. The expectation is the same as for residents: four hours per day Monday to Friday, plus attendance at meetings. Ideally visitors would come for several weeks or months. I didn’t have that long so happily they made an exception to let me stay for four days.

At the end of that stay moving into an ecovillage isn’t yet on my to-do list. It was lovely and I could live that way for sure but it’s nothing to rush in to. I could stand to be more vegetarian though. I don’t think I would ever avoid meat when it’s available but it’s sensible for all kinds of reasons to get good at eating well without it. Suderbyn has some fine cooks and as a vegetarian community they’re not missing out. As I write this on the ferry I’m eating shitty nachos and really I’d prefer more of today’s vegan lunch.

Suderbyn Biogas Dome

On my first day one of the residents taught me to mix cement and I helped concrete the entryway to their “dome”. It’s a project to build a greenhouse with a small-scale biogas digester inside it. The aim is that plants can be grown inside using the liquid nutrients from the digester and the digester itself can be fed with organic waste, outputting usable methane. The whole thing will be powered by an 800-watt wind turbine outside. Nobody’s sure how well it will work yet but it’s really cool and built entirely by volunteers.

Another day I simply shovelled materials from place to place. The most interesting material was the compost from their toilets. They leave it for a couple of years to decay and I am pleased to report that the end result is fairly pleasant, having the appearance of finely chopped pine bark. That went onto hügelkultur garden beds that will be used next season. All good exercise.

On my last day the construction of wind turbine blades began. I helped as we measured and cut the blades from a rectangular section and proceeded to cut them into blade shapes mostly using a drawknife. Nothing’s changed since high school—I’m still terrible at woodwork.

Välkommen till Suderbyn

The word “permaculture” is in Suderbyn’s full name so even though I’m on roughly the opposite side of the planet it’s not surprising that when I say “I’m from Tasmania” there’s a 50% chance that someone will say “oh like Bill Mollison?” Bill and David’s work on permaculture sure went global. I’m only familiar with the broad outlines but I’m motivated to read more about it.

My understanding of permaculture so far is that you use principles from the natural world as inspiration for sustainable human activities. Suderbyn had many examples. One of their ponds served multiple purposes, both storing water and reflecting more sunlight onto the main house. They closed the loop of human waste by using composting toilets, the compost ultimately being used on the garden. They used crop pairings to deter weeds and rejuvenate the soil without the need for pesticides or fertilisers. (Note that organic gardening like this is a good idea for more sophisticated reasons than “GMO/chemicals are scary”.)

Suderbyn has been around for eight years and they’ve built up extensive communal facilities in that time. I didn’t take many photos. It felt like a strange thing to do, being a visitor in someone else’s home. More interesting to me in any case is the way they maintain a community that means they continuously improve and build their new ideas.

Anyone who’s spoken to me at length in the last year likely knows that I’ve been heavily influenced by John Michael Greer, an American who writes about ecology and the impending end of the industrial age. (Fair warning to link-clickers: some complain that his writing is pompous and verbose. It kind of is, but I don’t mind.) I first learnt about ecovillages through this fellow and frankly he gave me a bum steer. His broad conception of ecovillages is middle-class people hoping to establish an isolated community where they can escape to carry on in more or less the same level of comfort when shit hits the fan. The folly of such a plan is not hard to demonstrate and I didn’t question it.

His saying “collapse now and avoid the rush” sums up the more sensible alternative—if you reduce your needs now, particularly by using fewer resources and by choosing technologies with lower complexity and energy inputs, you will not only reduce your contribution to the problem but also be better prepared for a time when these things are no longer available or are prohibitively expensive.

It turns out that Suderbyn, an ecovillage, is the finest example I have seen of exactly what he proposes. Although they use their own produce where they can their priority is not being cut off from the outside world. They are trying to close the loop on waste cycles, reusing water, recycling voraciously, and sharing living areas such that everybody is using much less energy. They are also eagerly experimenting with new technologies for localised energy production that could be replicated in communities across the world.

These technologies fall under the banner of appropriate technology, a term derived from the intermediate technology espoused by the economist E.F. Schumacher. Originally intended as a solution for helping underdeveloped countries to build local industry, the idea is that people should be able to meet their needs using tools and equipment that individuals can afford without the need for capital-intensive factories. The name is carefully chosen to be different from “the old ways are better”. It’s not so much about how new the technology is but how sustainable it is and how accessible it is to the average person.

When the twin pincers of fossil fuel depletion and climate change bite hard it is reasonable to expect that capital markets and globalised manufacturing may fall in a heap. Should that happen, widespread availability of appropriate technology—technology that can be built, maintained and used by local communities—will be very helpful in cushioning the impact.

When I look at Suderbyn I see a group of people who have collapsed before the rush. They’re not isolationist—they’re very deliberately a part of the wider world and in a positive way, sharing their projects and knowledge. There is still much more that they can do. But by modern standards their needs are modest and their environmental impact is low. They have the skills, tools and resources to transport themselves, produce food and build things. Most importantly they have cultivated a sustainable community of people where members are happy most of the time and have the opportunity to develop themselves and the village. I’m grateful for my time there. It’s an injection of positivity into an otherwise depressing situation.

"Tuly", the small electric dumptruck used for transporting materials around Suderbyn

“Tuly”, the small electric dumptruck used for transporting materials around Suderbyn

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Privacy Implications for OpenStreetView

OSV San Fransisco coverage

I’ve been playing with OpenStreetView in the last couple of days and judging by the responsiveness of their website the word is getting around. Now, having crowds of people recording and uploading their streets obviously presents some privacy issues. I watched the talk they gave at State of the Map US and it is clear that they have particular privacy goals in mind such as blurring faces and licence plates. Their answers to questions indicated that they would like to have a more detailed policy around privacy but they’re not sure what it should be yet. For a project just getting off the ground I think that’s pretty reasonable. However there is a risk of accidentally conducting surveillance and I suspect these issues could become relevant sooner than anyone would like.

Let’s start with something familiar, Google Street View. While they caused their share of anxiety and lawsuits I think it’s fair to say that most people are pretty comfortable with it now. Google has successfully built a product that is really useful while also managing privacy risks effectively.

Here are some reasons I think Google Street View doesn’t make people nervous:

  • Snapshots are a little bit outdated, i.e., internet users can’t see a photo of your house from yesterday.
  • Drivers don’t come past very often and they travel efficient routes. Out of sight, out of mind.
  • Even though Google would have significantly more data internally, the public-facing website only shows a single recent snapshot. (Edit: No longer true, with thanks to the commenter who pointed it out. The intervals appear to be years apart so I suggest it’s still a useful comparison with OSV.)

The end result is a product where you can effectively teleport yourself to any public road, look around and see what’s there. This is no different from what you could do if you travelled there yourself. That’s essentially why I think people are cool with it.

Now OpenStreetView doesn’t have spiffy 360˚ cameras (yet) or Google’s resources but already it has privacy risks that go far beyond what you can do with Google Street View.

Photographic surveying begins to feel more like surveillance when one of two things happens: either you observe the same location again and again, or you observe the same person (in different locations) again and again. The time interval between observations is the important thing. If you take photos of a building every day you’re inevitably going to learn things about the people who live there. This sort of thing makes me nervous about my privacy and I expect it would be the same for others.

The point of OpenStreetView is that there are lots of people doing it. If participants start recording every time they hop in the car it’s possible that there could be one of these cameras zooming down the main roads of San Francisco every hour. As the density of recordings increases it will become increasingly possible to track the activities of people, cars, businesses and homes. In its current form you can look at individual tracks on OSV and access every image if you wish so I expect this would be totally possible.

However, OpenStreetView is specifically dedicated to improving the quality of OSM data. While sometimes it would be useful to get multiple perspectives on a location it seems unnecessary to have an enormous range of pictures. For example they could filter out ones with poor lighting, poor focus, or those that are simply old. The point is they have some options for obscuring or limiting the presented data without compromising the project’s goals.

Then there is the fact that the uploaded images are available basically in realtime. Unless there is a humanitarian need I think it would make sense to block access to tracks for a random time period, maybe up to a month. When the images do become available they could fudge the timestamps by ±1 week so that it’s not easily possible to organise them into a time series.

These are just a couple of examples to demonstrate that their dedication to openness could also be a privacy liability. When you combine the data from a large number of people acting altruistically and legally you can make things possible that were never intended. I look forward to seeing how they go about it, and also the creative alternative uses people come up with for the photographs.

Aside from these wider issues a couple of niggles mean that I’m not going to upload any more tracks for now. So far none of my uploads have had any blurring applied. They seem to be publicly available unblurred, which is a little annoying. This is possibly because they are still in “processing” state, which has persisted for more than a day now. The manual blur tool is also unavailable so I can’t fix them myself. I owe it to the people whose cars I’ve photographed to make sure they’re relatively anonymised before I add more to the data set.

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Ruining the planet with solar power

Lamps

I finally finished wiring together my little solar power system over the weekend, between naps as I tried to recover from a cold. It’s a modest size (1kW, 240Ah @ 24V) and completely separate from the grid. It will take a little while to understand how well it’s performing but it’s already clear that I will have plenty of energy left over after powering my computers. I’ll have more to say about that after I take some measurements.

In houses where you have the option of grid power the payback period of a solar system is how many years it takes before you break even compared with just buying the energy from the grid. The most effective way to reduce the payback period is to use every bit of energy you generate inside your own home.

If you have the option of selling excess power to the grid the amount you earn is nowadays usually very small. If you have a separated system like mine any excess energy simply goes to waste. If you manage to spend that energy on something you were going to do anyway like run the washing machine you avoid having to buy it from the grid.

With this in mind today I purchased a couple of cheap floor-standing lamps. I spend most of my evening time in the study so the theory goes that I can plug these lamps into my inverter and use my nice solar energy to light the room instead of grid power and reduce my payback period. As it turns out this is a stupid decision both financially and environmentally. The most rational decision on either axis is to continue using the grid power.

The financial issue is a simple mathematical matter. The lamps are the cheapest, nastiest lamps available and including globes I spent a total of 28 dollars. While they are running I will be using 2x 42W. If I am using them on average five hours a day that’s 420Wh of energy. If instead I used a single 84W globe and grid power this would have cost me approximately 10 cents per day.

It will take me the better part of a year to pay back the cost of these cheap lamps, not counting globe replacements. The rate at which I will get ahead beyond that point is ludicrously slow. If I’m not in the study for five hours every night it will take longer to get there.

Furthermore I expect my system’s total production to average maybe 3 kWh a day. These lamps will consume one-seventh of the total generating capacity. If I divide the thousands of dollars of setup costs by seven it is clear that I need to use these lamps for a very, very long time before I break even. To be fair that is the fault of the solar system, not the lamps, but it shows that it’s not the cheapest way to solve my lighting problem.

Then there are the environmental impacts. The lamps have been made out of manufactured materials, produced overseas and shipped to Australia. I used a car to go and buy them. How much solar power do I need to use before I make up for all that overhead? What about the manufacturing overhead of one-seventh of my gel cell batteries, inverter and charger?

The environmental outlook is particularly bad for me in Tasmania because we largely use hydro and wind power anyway. If I lived in Victoria I might be getting my power from a brown coal station and perhaps buying lamps would work out to less carbon dioxide emitted within a reasonable time period. That’s all but impossible when most of the grid power comes from hydroelectric dams, one of the lowest-emission sources of electricity available.

I knew all this in advance and decided to buy the lamps anyway. The only possible conclusion is that my dabbling in solar is just another consumptive hobby like motorsports, comic books or yacht racing. Of course if I apply a little perspective it would be silly to beat myself up too much–the amount of consumption tied up in a couple of (large) batteries and some lamps is far less than if I were to own and maintain a yacht–and I’m not yet ready to harass the yachties of the world. But it goes to show that even solar power, so often put forward as a solution to our problems, can very easily cross the line from helping to making matters worse if we’re not paying attention.

Having said all that there are obviously some reasons why I bought the lamps.

  1. It’s fun. It is undeniably satisfying putting together a system to meet some of my own needs in my own house.
  2. I now feel an implicit challenge to try to fit my consumption within my own generating capacity. I am already thinking about how I can use my slow cooker instead of the stove to take advantage of the extra energy during the day. If I have several rainy days in a row I will have the choice of turning on the grid-powered lights or coming up with some other compromise so I don’t need to “cheat”. On the whole I expect my consumption to decrease.
  3. Arguably it’s useful during blackouts. I don’t get many or severe blackouts since I live close to the city so this is verging on prepper mentality, but it’s there. I’ll get to feel a little smug and carry on in some capacity next time the power goes out.
  4. It’s good practice for potentially living off-grid or otherwise energy-constrained in the future. Some writers are dubious that electrical grids will survive in their current form as the limits to growth really start to bite. I’m not so sure but I’m likely to find out within my lifetime so a little prior knowledge can’t hurt.

Are they good reasons? Maybe, maybe not. But I’m going to muddle through somehow.

Posted in energy, home | 2 Comments