Archive for the ‘simple technology’ Category

This morning, I received an email from Afrigadget, a blog dedicated to showcasing how Africans solve everyday problems with incredible ingenuity.

This afternoon, I read a selection from “Why I Am Not a Pacificist” by C.S. Lewis. To me, the morning’s email and the afternoon’s reading felt very connected.

The email spotlighted an initiative which transformed a dump in a Nairobi, Kenya slum, into a community farm. Beyond such obvious obstacles as clearing the trash,


there were other less obvious difficulties such as what to do about the high levels of lead, copper, zinc and boron.


Part of the solution was to plant sunflowers, which leach the toxins out of the soil, in between the ordinary vegetables.  Check out this handy, made from recycled materials, planting tool:


It is made from a hollow pipe with a stick tied onto the bottom of it for digging the hole and a yogurt container attached to the top for dropping the seeds down into. No stooping, no bending, no hard work digging.

And here’s an earthworm farm/composting pile for fertilizer:


And the final product, three months after clearing the dump:


And then, this from C.S. Lewis:

It may be asked whether, faint as the hope is of abolishing war by Pacifism, there is any other hope. But the question belongs to a mode of thought which I find quite alien to me. It consists in assuming that the great permanent miseries in human life must be curable if only we can find the right cure; and it then proceeds by elimination and concludes that whatever is left, however unlikely to prove a cure, must nevertheless do so. Hence the fanaticism of Marxists, Freudians, Eugenists, Spiritualists, Douglasites, Federal Unionists, Vegetarians, and all the rest. But I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering.

I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace.

I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terrible by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made; just as the dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.

I have come to no great conclusions, based on either the photo essay or the writings of C.S. Lewis. Both, however, have left me with much to ponder. Both challenge me to consider and ask questions about my own life.

What do you think? Do you know people who are making a difference in these kinds of ways (feel free to add your stories here)? Where are you in your thinking and acting? How do you interact with suffering and misery in the world around you? Do you get to work? Grieve? Turn away because it seems too overwhelming? Feel guilty? Or something else?

What direction does the Lewis quote send your mind in? Do you agree? Or disagree? Or some of both?


For more information about  Kibera slum in which this field was planted, BBC has a four part article about it. The link is to the last selection, because it contains links to the other three parts as well.

Photos come from “Farming Innovations in a Slum” at Afrigadget and from the website Green Dreams Organic Farming in East Africa. This website follows the development of the farm in great detail.

The C. S. Lewis quote is from A Year with C.S. Lewis, October 19]


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rock and a hard place

This was the best visual I could find for expressing where I’m at emotionally today. Quitting is too costly. Keeping on going seems, well, pretty near impossible.

I thank God for the perspective of a friend who listened to me wail about being stuck today. Having a friend around when you’re stuck doesn’t necessarily mean you can or will get unstuck. It doesn’t automatically make the impossible seem possible. But a friend can bring perspective to the situation, even if it is just by stating the obvious so obviously that (1) I realize I really do have good reason to despair (i.e. I’m not crazy to be feeling overwhelmed) and (2) I can actually even laugh a little about it (I find it nearly impossible to laugh, alone, when I’m stuck. I have many good and funny friends, though, and I appreciate every little laugh they can eke out of me when I’m down).

It’s amazing how being able to lament with someone else about how hard things are can infuse a desperate situation with a ray of hope. A friend’s very presence reminds me that I’m not alone. One friend can be a tangible reminder of the many other people still in my life. And although I cannot defend or explain exactly how it works, a friend’s listening to my cries (and sometimes crying them with me) gives me courage to keep crying out to God and trusting Him, even in between a rock and a hard place.

Don’t ever underestimate the strength and courage you can give to someone who is stuck, by sitting with them, sharing in their grief and lamenting with them. You may or may not be able to help them see another solution to getting through or even out of their problems. But you honor their suffering by listening. You pass on courage and strength by grieving with them.

Okay, that’s enough philosophizing about pain and suffering and feeling stuck and wanting to quit and the importance of friends being there with you even if they can’t do any better than you can at getting yourself unstuck.

All that’s well and good, and I’m really grateful it’s true.



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nets-are-nicea FREE downloadable book for children about malaria and the role of mosquito nets in prevention.

This book by Gary Edson, with a forward by First Lady Laura Bush, is published by Malaria No More, in conjunction with Scholastic.

The Malaria No More campaign also has an informative ten minute video about malaria, its history and current initiatives to do something about malaria. (And here is my usual disclaimer that I am not promoting or endorsing any specific program or campaign. My hope, today is to bring attention to this disease and make space for a moment of preoccupation on others and this specific, prevalent and preventable disease which impacts so many people in the world.)

Whatever your opinion on the Malaria No More campaign (and I hope you’ll visit the website and think about the subject enough to form an opinion) I think this free book is a beautiful way to help American children think outside their little world to the bigger world. The photos are stunning, and the text is simple. There is a malaria fact sheet at the back of the book.

There is also a malaria knowledge quiz at the Malaria No More website.

If World Malaria Day seems irrelevant to you, or just one more world problem to think about when you are bombarded every day with world problems, I understand. I’m not into asking you to do something specific or predetermined about malaria. (Heaven forbid that I, who am so skeptical of campaigns, would start one of my own 🙂 ).

On this, my third post of the day (that’s got to be some kind of record for me!), focusing on malaria, I’d like to leave you only with the suggestion of printing and reading this lovely little book and taking a few minutes to stop and recognize–to make space for thinking about–one particular type of suffering that affects a great many people in our world today, every day.

(Follow these links for Part One and Part Two of this three post focus for World Malaria day)

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I am sort of interested in environmentalism. Meaning, I care about the environment, but I’m not very good at making that concern a top priority in the midst of all the other things I care about. To a true environmentalist, I probably look totally uncaring and unconcerned.

At the same time, some of my relatives are convinced I’m a bona fide tree hugger because I will hardly ever use a paper towel. (My dad used to buy a roll eveytime he came to my house, because he couldn’t survive without them. Then someone else gave me two 12 packs of paper towels. At least they were the rolls with each towel being half size. I kept one of the packs because I figure they won’t go bad in the 12 years of visits from my dad it will take me to use them 🙂 and exchanged the other for a more necessary paper product to have on hand for a family of five. )

The areas I am environmentally conscientious don’t seem like anything profound, more like I’m slowing down my impact on the environment just the teeniest bit. I enjoy hanging out some of my laundry. I still use my dryer, but when I hang clothes on the line, I always feel a little thrill. Because there is all that sunshine, doing its thing, and I’m making some of it work for ME. And it isn’t costing anything, and no energy is being wasted, because, well, the sun and heat and wind are already doing their thing, and I’m just tapping into it.

When I was looking at houses a couple of years ago, the realtor said he had never seen anyone so concerned about ventilation. But, if you live in a warm place, ventilation can make a huge difference. Older homes in Florida, built before the advent of air conditioning, were designed to make the environment work for them–excellent cross ventilation and sometimes a peak in the middle with vents for the air to escape out of. When the heat rises, and then goes out the vent, the resulting movement can make a house feel a few degrees cooler. Now that is REALLY cool! The house I am currently living in was built in 1920. The layout and resultant cross ventilation is great. It has an upstairs which gets really toasty in summer, but the downstairs temperature can get to 82 and only feel like 78 in someone else’s home. And, it also takes longer to get to 82 in our home than in some of my friend’s homes with different orientation and lower ceilings.

Part of what keeps me from being more green is laziness. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true. It’s just way easier, for example, to buy food from the grocery store instead of growing it in a garden (and I manage to kill just about everything I grow anyway).

But, another thing that keeps some of my green tendencies in check is, well, a shortage of the other type of green, the money kind. If I had more of that kind of green, here are green things I’d love to do or have:

Solar cell phone charger (this one is really rather inexpensive)

Push reel mower (probably the most surprising thing on my Amazon wish list) and European scythe (my son, who mows our lawn with a gas mower we got from the trash, is glad we’re not that rich.) European scythes are very different from American ones, and from what they say, are very easy to use.

I’d buy HEAT YOUR HOME FOR FREE E-BOOK and pay somebody to help me understand and implement some of the ideas.

And if I had even more money, I’d buy THE SOLAR HOUSE: PASSIVE HEATING AND COOLING and build (well, have someone else build) a house that makes the Florida environment work for me.

I’d drive a Prius. Codepoke’s story of his experience driving one in California, made me think this would be my dream car.

An exercise bike that generates electricity (I’m not very good at talking about energy in correct terms. Perhaps such a bike is capturing energy rather than generating it?).

A solar oven that really works. (I’ve tried to build one with my kids, but obviously my design and building skills aren’t too great, since the problem is definitely not the lack of sun here; actually, now that I think of it, I was trying it in the autumn. I should try again in the summer)

Obviously, I’m not a sold out environmentalist. But some of these things just make sense. If the sun is shining, why not make it work for me? If you’re pushing the lawnmower anyway and exerting that energy, why burn gasoline, too?

Mainly, I love reading, learning and dreaming about stuff like this. So, perhaps it’s more a personal entertainment thing for me rather than noble conscientiousness. Here are two of the more entertaining articles I’ve read on the topic lately:

The Top 5 Weirdest Ways to Power Your Home


Generating Energy with Revolving Doors

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…those who can count
and those who can’t.

(That’s my second favorite bumper sticker ever. But, since I won’t put more than one at a time on my car, I’m posting it here instead of on my bumper.)

Along that lines, there was a funny little interchange between Henry Neufield and a reader who had pointed out that the date on one of Henry’s posts was a month behind. Henry replied that here in Florida we can’t count votes, either. He’s right, of course (although every cloud has a silver lining–Dave Barry’s reporting on that fiasco kept me laughing hard during some of my darkest, most depressing days, as a result of circumstances unrelated to the elections.)

As a Floridian who loves this state in spite of hurricanes, mosquitos and some pretty intense heat and humidity, all I can say is that the sun probably gets to our brains after a while. Surely too much vitamin D garbles numbers up in our brains. As for the month mistake, it’s easy to understand once you realize that all of our months look the same.  Looking outside my window right now, it could be November, or is it March, or maybe July?

From our earliest days, our educational experienced is compromised by the sun. You know those weather charts that are so important in kindergarten for teaching, um, well, for teaching something?  While the rest of the country’s children get to make decisions and actually think about the weather, noticing differences, etc., our kids, day after day, just keep putting up the sun. A couple of times a year they can put the cloud up (yes, we have a rainy season here, but the sun still shines for most of the day, before and after the rain). And, sure they COULD put the wind picture up, except that we don’t actually go to school when there is a hurricane. This must  have some effect on our pre-math skills. (But we may never discover what it is, because the state government stays so busy grappling with really important issues, like what the state pie should be. Unfortunately, this is not a joke or spoof.)

But my  theory that too much sun may affect our math skills, had some serious holes punched in it when I read about a recent “math in the news” report from England, where they certainly can’t blame math incompetency on too much sun.

A lottery  game was recently withdrawn from the market in England, because the math was getting a bit complicated for some of the lottery players. A temperature was written at the top of each lottery ticket. When you scraped off the silver squares, you would win if you uncovered a number that was lower then the temperature at the top. The problem was, it was a winter game. So, most of the temperatures were below zero.

And figuring out which numbers were lower than a given negative number proved to be too much for several people. One person was adamant that -6 and -7 were both lower numbers than -8. The store clerk was also stumped as to why the machine wouldn’t accept the card as a winner. So the person who bought the card called the company to complain. Despite repeated explanations, she didn’t get it:

…they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher – not lower – than -8 but I’m not having it.

Here’s a “benefit of the doubt” explanation from a representative of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics:

The concept of smaller numbers is something that some people do seem to struggle with. Seven is clearly smaller than eight, so they focus on that and don’t really see the minus sign. There is also a subtle difference in language between smaller – or lower – and colder. The number zero feels lower.

Now, I’m all for making more space for feelings. I, after all, have made the statement that I reason emotionally. And it is also true that unless I “feel” a math concept, I probably won’t remember it. HOWEVER, let me emphatically say that the statement “the number zero feels lower” is not a good justification for not being able to identify whether a given number is lower or higher than -6.

I decided to test my two oldest children with their sun-fried brains to see if they could do this math (they were at a distinct disadvantage, I might add, as their math experience to date has occurred entirely in temperatures above zero). Both looked at me a little strangely, probably wondering why on earth I was asking such a ridiculous question out of nowhere.  Fortunately, they both answered correctly.

My kids are used to my turning any situation into a learning experience, fitting with my philosophy that all of life is school. In hindsight, though, I should  go back and verify what lesson they thought I was trying to get across. As I was writing this, I realized that they might have gone away thinking, “Wow, Mom thinks we’re smart enough to play the lottery!”

(Thanks to Conversational Theology for pointing me to the lottery story.)

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…rather than “because of” food.

I enjoy reading the website, Afrigadget. This morning I received an update on the pressure irrigation pump above, made by KickStart.

The pump “uses the stepping motion you see in a work-out gym to move water hundreds of feet to irrigate land.” How amazing is that?!  I read articles like this with a mixture of fascination and shame.

My 10-year-old got right to the heart of the shame when I showed her the above picture and explained what it did. Her one comment was, “We’re lazy–we don’t have to do that.” Ouch. I’m glad to be regularly and uncomfortably reminded that my comfortable lifestyle is not an option for lots of people. My daily concerns are pretty small compared to subsistence farmers who literally work to eat, and then hope that too many or too few rains don’t destroy that year’s total food supply. No Plan B. No backup supply of food.

I have a closet fascination with simple-life technology. But I can’t seem to break away from my addiction to doing things the easy way, except in my dreams. It’s bizarre to think how complicated adapting to simplicity seems.

I mean, it is fun to think about designing a passive solar home that works with the environment to keep itself cool or warm, to study pit latrines in detail (the science behind creating one that doesn’t stink AND can work for you is so interesting), and to have a push reel mower sitting in my Amazon wish list. But when I actually think about switching to any of these technologies, the bottom line is, I just don’t need to badly enough to justify the money or inconvenience.  That is embarrassing for me to admit. 

What an irony that I go to the gym as a luxury (to work off all that “medical chocolate” I take), when the same stepping technology is being used so that growing this year’s food can be a little easier and a little more certain for people in Africa.

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