Sunday, July 25, 2010

Getting ready to make a mess!

So this weekend I've started looking into what's involved in this learn-to-make-stuff thing.

Something I've been wanting to do for some time now is to build some bicimaquinas. The word is Spanish and was coined by a group called Mayapedal in Guatemala. They take donated bicycles and carve them up, modify them and put them back together to make stationary pedal-powered machines. So far they've designed and built a blender, a corn grinder, a water pump and a number of other useful devices that make life a hell of a lot easier when you live somewhere without a reliable, affordable electricity supply.

Depending on who you ask, that might include a lot of us in the next few decades.

Even if you're not of an apocalyptic bent, there's a lot to love about these things. We're surrounded by clever technology that lets us imagine we're really in charge of the universe, but an awful lot of it doesn't work at all unless we keep feeding it some form of concentrated fossil sunlight.

Bicycles are sort of different; they take the power output of a human being (up to 300-400 watts in short bursts, more like 75 watts over long periods of time) and strip away as much friction as possible, allowing us to get the most work done with the least effort. It's a truly clever invention, an elegant solution to a persistent problem that dogs every animal on the planet, i.e. moving around without blowing your calorie budget. It's an honest invention that doesn't rely on a geological trust fund to work its apparent magic. In this respect it's a much bigger achievement than a car or an airplane or a moon shot.

(Let's leave aside for the moment that making replacement parts for bicycles itself depends on an industrial system that may or may not be able to function, even at a drastically reduced level, on the available renewable energy sources. Someday even bicimaquinas might not be viable. But in the meantime...)

What I also like about the bicimaquina concept is that, even for us pudgy and comfortable first-worlders, it deals with some of our current problems as well as our future ones. Leave aside the whole issue of reducing energy consumption for environmental reasons. Right now we've got labour-saving machines doing a lot of our physical work for us, while we go to gyms to work out on different machines whose purpose is to help us burn off extra calories while doing no useful work.

The Dutch cheapskate in me finds this objectionable.

So I'm gonna start with bicimaquinas because, of all the greasy, dirty, hands-onny get-stuff-doney crafts, bike repair is the one at which I am least inept. I've actually got a decent grasp of how bicycles work, though I haven't actually worked on one in years. So there's something to start with.

I think eventually I'd like to build a pedal-powered washing machine. Something like that would give you a good workout over the course of half an hour or so and get something done that, frankly, I tend to avoid. (Of course I tend to avoid exercise too...)

But for now I think the first project will be a stationary stand to mount a bike frame on--the power plant for whatever other devices I then decide to hook up to it.

Gonna have to learn how to weld...


  1. Hmmm. . .

    So, do you have in place the infrastructure that "welding" requires? Oxy-Acetylene tanks? Electric Arc welding? Maybe a bunch of propane torches and silver solder for brazing.

    Perhaps the best approach is to get a hold of some sub-machine guns so that you can take over a rivershed with water power potential. And steal a bunch of electric motors you can convert into generators to power your electric arc welder. More simply, use the sub-machine guns to "acquire" enough lead-acid batteries, aptly wired by combinations of parallel and series circuits, to create a do-it-yourself arc welder (your uncle did that).

    You're kicking around "end of the world" scenarios. . . when we've seen the doomsday clock set and reset a whole bunch of times in the last 50 years.

    The "disaster" of the recent PB oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, in my opinion, is not the "oil on the beaches". . . that's just a CNN rant opportunity. To me, it's the loss of all those kilojoules of potential energy. But then, that's balanced by the "news" from fairly well-informed sources that there is a "1/2 PB" oil-equivalent of natural seepage from the Gulf of Mexico's sea floor, nicely taken care of by the bottom level of the food chain in that part of the ocean -- microbes.

    Which again indicates that there's a lot more oil out there than we've been led to believe.

    You'll be an old, old man before we run out of that stuff.

    The Old Man.

  2. For PB, read BP. My Personal Bad.

  3. Actually, I’m going to buy an arc welder and set it up at your place. Canadian Tire has a 120V model that’s fine for welding bike frames and light angle iron. Thought you’d be interested in working on some of this stuff with me on weekends this winter.

    Your point about the infrastructure required to run welders or any other kind of industrial infrastructure is of course valid. No electricity to run an arc welder makes it hard to build a pedal-powered machine that will replace your electric appliance. But there's a big gap between today--where electricity is so reliable and cheap there's no compelling reason for the consumer not to use as much as he wants--and the opposite extreme where it isn't available, period.

    Somewhere in between there's a situation where it starts to make sense to invest energy in devices that reduce your need for the stuff.

    It’s worth remembering, while we’re on the subject of end-of-the-world scenarios, that worlds don’t end all at once. I think one of the things that may surprise people is that the world doesn’t just chug along, tickety-boo, until one day it all falls apart and the next day we’re in The Road Warrior. That would be nice and tidy and in some ways easier to deal with, because you would get a very clear signal that it is now necessary and acceptable to get a pink mohawk and some chainsaws and go marauding.

    But it doesn’t work that way. We look back at the Roman Empire and say, “The Roman Empire ended in 476 AD” but it wasn’t anything like that sudden, or that clear, to the people living at the time. “Shit, on Friday we were Romans and today I come in to work at the Coliseum and now we’re medieval peasants? That’ll teach me to leave town for the weekend!”

    So it is or will be for our civilization, probably.

    One of the things that happens as civilizations fall, slowly, is that bit by bit people whose roles were well-defined and secure, start to find that those roles are not so secure anymore. After Communism bit the dust in the former Soviet Union, the subways were full of university professors and scientists who were no longer getting paid, or anyway whose paychecks stopped being worth anything. This would have come as a very big surprise to people who, by the rules that prevailed up until then, had done exactly the right thing by specializing in abstract knowledge, symbol manipulation, and thinking about stuff. The world didn’t end but a lot of personal worlds as they knew them ended.

    One could make a very defensible argument that our own collapse is well along. There’s a whole generation of people on this side of the old iron curtain who also did the right thing by going to university. Many of them are now financially ruined, with massive debts that won’t go away even through bankruptcy, and with relatively few jobs out there that call for a general-purpose university graduate. Today we consider that so normal as to be not worth commenting upon, but if you told someone thirty years ago that a university degree wouldn’t necessarily get you into a job with a five-figure salary, they’d have laughed in your face. A civilization that punishes people for going to school has serious problems indeed.

  4. Post pics of your machines