Thursday, September 22, 2016

In which I am sent to Thailand to be a short term missionary as a punishment for getting drunk and waking up in the hospital.

So, this is approximately late August or early September in Idaho- I honestly don't remember the date.  I am a fat delusional 19-year-old who's spending his waking hours reading books, lifting weights, and playing video games, going to his first ever house party where I am served alcohol.

Needless to say, I went a little nuts.

So the party goes off, the guy who brought me disappears- apparently out into the hills to get drunker and fight with whoever wanted a go, but I can only vouch for the guy ever getting drunk in my presence. I, unaware of what being drunk feels like, continue to drink well after that point.  In the course of an evening, a large bottle of vodka mostly disappears, and one of my last clear memories is of taking a large swig toward the bottom of that bottle, having done my share to help put away most of it, and some whisky, everclear, gin, kalua, bourbon, and probably other things that were lost on me at the time.

After that, the next thing I remember is coming to in the hospital and apologizing profusely to the nurses and saying "you guys should really be helping people, not dealing with this shit".  Shortly thereafter, the humiliation intensifies as my dad shows up with his friend, who was at the time my jujitsu instructor, and who was coaching me in physical fitness, and he's this brilliant engineer with a ton of patents and all this shit.  I didn't put such words to it at the time, and it was certainly nobody's intention to do this, but part of the cringe factor of looking back on an event like this comes from being at your lowest and most humiliating low- the drunk underage idiot evicted by ambulance from a friend's house party, and my dad shows up with this guy who's a huge role model really made me painfully aware of how badly I'd fucked up.

One of those situations. But I was really surprised by how quiet the guy was. Looking back I suspect he has his own perspective on benders, but he's a boisterous, rambunctious gregarious guy, and so his quietness seemed odd that day.

Anyway, that day wound up being the 24 hours to sober up my dad gave me- I think I sarcastically counted out the 30 hours it took for an actual conversation to happen- and then my Dad sat me down in the living room, and I think my mother was also there but my memory isn't perfect, and he said "OK, so this was a cry for help".  And he proceeded to explain how my Aunt, his sister, could take me on for a year if I were going to art school there, which seemed like a good option at the time, as I'd just, in a few months, been fired from a lucrative industrial photo editing job I had1, and had given up on the degree I'd pursued for a few semesters at a local college- game design2

So, on the basis of moving further away, I chose Thailand. Which entailed being a missionary- and I, as a frustrated "athiest", said "fuck it" and decided it was better to be an atheist missionary than a 19 year old living in his parent's back yard shed. One of the amazingly frustrating and condescending shitty things that drove that was being banned from a forum where I was admittedly an ass, but partly on the basis that the people there took me to be a Christian troll, when I was genuinely- if stupidly- an atheist and on their side and just not up to speed. Because my upbringing had left with lots of really severe science denialist bullshit, which in retrospect seems more the result of the environment my parents chose for me, rather than anything to do with the views of my parents themselves.

Why a missionary? why that? Well, it was something my parents came up with as what they thought was a good opportunity, because my mom's younger brother, of course, had married a Thai nurse who was going to the Laotian church he attended near his house, her younger rabidly Christian brother wanted a white person to come help his missionary friends3 teach English.

This point bears examining for some people; Thailand is a country that is a study in contradictions, and one of those contradictions is the idea that while Thailand, that is, the Thai people culturally, as I interacted with them, would utterly reject the notion of justifying anything on the basis of race, but still point to the darkness of the skin of criminals (never mind that it is the same darkness of skin as the majority of the Thai population!)- the correlation is not so much that anybody is better by birth, but that if you are less educated, less looked after, your skin gets darker because you work in the sun more.  This bias is leveraged by their culture, in their famous hospitality, as a more or less universal "benefit of a doubt" that is more easily granted to lighter foreigners than darker ones- Thai people have had no shortage of interactions between all of civilization between the pacific and Indian oceans, as Thailand, for approximately the last 700 years4.

In practice, this means that Thailand is, or at least can be, an easy place to integrate for lighter skinned people, and indeed, historically and today this has been and continues to be borne out- there are more Thai-Chinese families, where Chinese men5 have married Thai women, than there are in neighboring countries like Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Burma, and so on.  

White people end up with a similar bias- maybe it has to do with the history of colonialism in southeast asia, and the resistance to it by Thailand6,  Whatever the origin of it is, the generic stereotypical perception, by Thais of westerners, is that they are, or at least have the chance to be, well educated, fabulously wealthy, and that for all this we tend to be a bit oafish and clumsy with the expected social niceties, and so charity must be granted to us for our differences in order to properly accommodate a relationship that might become beneficial.

 But nonetheless, we speak English natively, and being able to communicate with us is a solid cachet of points in the pecking order of Thai society, and so there is always a demand for white native English speakers.  Particularly, since Thai society is rather sexually conservative, and the appetites of foreign men have led to an entirely different reputation abroad, for white native English speaking women, who won't try to fuck all the teachers and janitors at a given school that hires them quite so often as the white native English speaking men seem to.

As a white guy, ostensibly a missionary- I was, again, an atheist, but not "out" to my family, I wasn't quite a white woman, but being a missionary- as long as you're relatively straightforward about that, and I was- is considered a pretty good second best, at least by the sort of people without better options, who don't know better, or who are otherwise Christian themselves already.

And so my adventure began, about a month after that hangover, with a 30 hour plane ride to no bed, no air conditioning, no heated showers, no toilet paper, no sitting toilets, and no food that was available to be had in any language I spoke. I promptly enrolled in a Thai language school and began rapidly acquiring Thai, getting my bearings, and learning my way around. two weeks after I landed, I was told by that missionary family I was supposed to teach English with that "We don't want you, you speak too fast."

And I was cut loose to do nothing and find my own way. 

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been if I'd left those idiots and done something besides study theology.
1 - - - - In the course of processing hundreds of images, I processed things faster than anybody they'd ever seen, but with an error rate that was unacceptable
2 - - - - Because the coding, in Visual Basic 6 and in preparation for Visual Basic.Net, was too painful.  I have never quite forgiven Microsoft for what it did to Basic as a result, and that debacle itself turned into one of my earliest sequential forrays into the discipline of programming- but that's a story for another day.  Suffice it to say,

there once was a language called Basic, 

It was a marvelous script to write pong <sic>,
When in Microsoft trucked,

and the other scripts ducked,
And Basic was Basically  fucked.
3 - - - - a North Korean-American family, and literal cousins to the Kim dynasty there.  Fitting, kind of. It sheds a lot of light on the country when you learn that the leading monarch/godhead was a protestant preacher's kid, and that there's still a continuing successions of preachers kids with their own cult outside those borders.
4 - - - -  Perspective, is about the age of the kingdom AND the time that one of it's dynasties- at the time, I think it was siriyothai- first established formal relations with Korea, a years-long nautical voyage away. Formal relationships ended during the warring states period in Japan, because neither country could get ships around what was the Japanese pirates on one side, and the Mongolian and Chinese on the other, but this perspective has led me to ask the question: Is kimchi the Korean recreation of Som Tam, as it would be after a years-long nautical journey to a foreign land during the iron age? Is it, in fact, a faithful korean recreation of a highly esteemed but perishable foreign delicacy?  It fucking isn't, but now all the white people reading this are googling both those things, all the Thai people are laughing and all the Koreans are saying "What the fuck is Som Tam?"
 5 - - - - This one is a weird historical detail, particularly, since Imperial China didn't allow women to travel, in order to anchor its male citizens to China by family, which is why Chinese men being able to marry outside of China at all was a big deal- just think about how unpopular they were in your country at the time, and then ask how many of them were getting laid.
6 - - - - Really, the use, by France and England, of Thailand as a 'buffer state' between French Indochina and the British Indian Territories, which at the time, extended East into Burma, making Thailand a natural border between the two colonial empires, and sparing Thailand an ugly share of the most disgraceful histories of those two states

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What is an Earthship, and why should I give a shit?

So, what is an Earthship?

An Earthship is a house.

It's a house that requires no power to run, which produces food, heats and cools itself, collects rain water for drinking water, and treats the sewage that is the byproduct of human use of that water and food.  In this way, above and beyond merely being houses, Earthships are highly engineered passive human-sustaining habitats.

But houses already exist! All of these problems already have solutions, most or all of which are still accessible! Why does this matter at all?

Because Earthships can be made to do this in any environment on earth, using locally sourced materials that are normally considered garbage, such as discarded cans, bottles, and tires. Thus, they not only represent an emerging technology set that can and will outcompete our current house building technology, they are a sustainable solution, and one that is deliverable as humanitarian aid, for maximum benefit, with minimum investment.

Earthships are beautiul state-of-the-art homes which require little or no infrastructure and have little or no overhead. Made of garbage.

So, the above portion is largely rhetoric, and not actionable or useful, so here I'll describe a 'basic' earthship and list examples of this set of technology in action and explain some of the points about it.

What does an earthship look like?  Any house can look like an earthship, but there is a 'classic' model that most draw elements from.  Earthships are always oriented to use the sun, and so in the northern hemisphere face south, and in the southern, north.  The sun-facing sides are usually built as green houses with solid stone or rammed earth floors to catch the heat from the sun in a deliberately warmed portion of the house. At the top of these green houses are vent windows that allow hot air to blow out.  Behind the greenhouse portion is the house proper- these are typically long linear structures built into the side of a hill, with tire walls forming the outer boundary and smaller dividing walls inside to allocate the space into rooms.  Over the top is a typically shallowly sloped roof, also typically covered in sheet metal painted a single coherent color (as a cheap, efficient, durable, light, and non-contaminating way to funnel the rain water into the collection system), which are typically on the north (in the northern hemisphere) side of the house, but which can be located just about anywhere. Typically, to keep them out of sight and mind, the water tanks that the rain water is stored in are under ground, although this is not always the case.

The Waybee earthship in Taos, NM, draws on the local Spanish and Adobe influences.

Beyond this, there aren't any real features to conclusively identify a building as an earthship or not. I say, your house can probably be turned into one, and figuring out how to make that happen is one direction of my research into these.

Tire walls being built.

Why tires?  Because tires are steel-reinforced hoops of rubber casing that never decays, or for all practical purposes will never decay in the span of a human life.  Because of this, they are a special challenge for our waste disposal infrastructure, or else new uses need to be found for them.

In earthships, tires are used to make large rammed-earth 'bricks' to build heavy foundations and structural components.  A piece of cardboard is put in the tire to initially keep the dirt from falling out of the bottom, and then the tire is filled with dirt.  When it is filled as full as can be, a sledge hammer is used to pack the dirt into the walls of the tire, and more dirt is added and then packed until the tire wall bulges on all sides equally. At this point, the pressure of the tire squeezing the dirt is sufficient to render it a single solid building block- for a normal (26 inch) tire, these will typically weigh 300 to 500 pounds.

A field of discarded tires, Kuwait.

Why is this good?  First, tires are cheap, even free- and in many cases, you can even make money by charging some small amount for people to dispose of them with you, although this depends on the environment and part of the world you find yourself in.  Second, because they are so wide, they do not legally require a concrete slab foundation under them, and so they can be used as a building material and meet building codes, even if some more antiquated building code systems may not have specific named provisions for these (which will change, eventually).  Third, because these tires and dirt together have a lot of mass crammed very densely together, they absorb and retain heat very well- an effect which is capitalized on to passively drive convective heating and cooling to provide climate control in earthships- which, admittedly, can be done many ways with many materials besides tires, but of the available set of materials used in this sort of construction, tires represent an extremely cheap, convenient, accessible, and useful way to implement this.

One final note about tires: I can't make extravagant claims yet, but I am examining the potential of rammed earth tires as structural components for large scale civil engineering applications, and the future here seems bright. I suspect properly buttressed tire structures that use rebar to distribute load across all of the structure could see tire arches (as in, weight-bearing bridges made from tires), sky scrapers, dams and levies, and so on. There are great possibilities.

Bottles... as bricks? WTF?  Well, first, that needs to be qalified- no, you don't just slap some concrete on a bottle and call it a brick. What actually happens to make these is that the neck and shoulder of two matching bottles are cut off, the resulting 'cups' of the bottom of the bottle are washed and dried, and then they are put top-to-top and the seam between them is wrapped in duct tape, creating a hollow cylindrical 'brick'.

The way these 'bottle bricks' get used is NOT as a structural component, but rather as a weight-reducing component.  By adding a bottle to a cob, adobe, or cement wall, you are reducing the amount of mass required to make that wall, and reducing the weight of the wall at the same time.  By using bottle bricks to do this, you can arrange them in patterns, constellations, and even make what look like mosaics of stained glass.   The effect of sunlight on a brown bottle such as a beer bottle is to render them a red-orange; green glass becomes a more brilliant shade of emerald. And so, even though these are sourced from discarded materials, they result is an easy to make and aesthetically pleasing little jewel of a window that can let additional light into your house while making it lighter and more structurally sound.  These are particularly popular in bathrooms, where more light but less outside visibility is usually desirable.

Plastic bottle bricks being laid in Kenya.

Then what about can walls? what about plastic bottles?  These are essentially the same idea- reducing the total input of building material, reducing the total weight of the wall- and by dint of using disposable garbage to take up the space that various sorts of mud might otherwise have to occupy. Aluminium drink cans, particularly, tend to have solid uniform bottoms and tops, and these make for very good building materials that it is possible to make very interesting geometric patterns, while plastic bottles have the advantage of being very easy to work with using even simply a knife, and some of the more environmentally conscious earthshippers have taken to filling these plastic bottles with additional volumes of plastic garbage to use it up, dispose of it, and create denser filling material all in one go.

Collecting Rainwater is the next concept to understand. In an Earthship, rain water is harvested via the gutters funnelling the rain that lands on the roof into a filtration and storage system that stores a finite portion of all rain that lands on the house.  If the system fills to capacity, it simply does not store any more and the rain flows off the house and over the collection onto the ground and into the water table as it normally would, without interruption.

Once rain water is collected, there are four primary uses for it.  First, it is filtered and made available to the primary treated water plumbing of the house, to be available for drinking, cooking, etc.  Second, the water that goes down the drain from this is fed into the green house at the south side of the house.  Third, once it has fed the botanical cell there (which removes the solids and organic compounds from the water), it is used as the water to flush the toilet for the house septic system. Fourth, once it has been flushed, it is put into a septic digester to first sterilize and break the amonia compounds down into nitrates and nitrites, and then this resulting nutrient mixture is pumped into a botanical cell outside the house, where it can be used to drive landscaping or can be used for further gardening, from a contained cell that will not pollute the water table or lose moisture content too rapidly if the water table is too low, such as in especially arid regions.

Food Production, and what the heck is a "Botanical Cell"?  So, in the green house, the premise is that a deliberately engineered human ecosystem can passively do the work that would otherwise require machines, investment, and human labor: they can clean shit out of water, for given values of 'clean' and 'shit'.

What does this mean? It means that, in the area that is the entrance to these houses, no matter what the climate or weather might be outside, there is usually a garden that is established around the time the house is built which continues to produce indefinitely.  I have seen banana trees, fig trees, tomatoes, strawberries, all manners of herb and spice, and many other things grown in such settings.  Because the green house is the portion of the house which collects and accumulates heat to drive the passive heating (and cooling) systems, keeping plants- even tropical plants- at temperatures which they will produce fruit requires no action to be taken after planting.  Since it is an indoor environment, there isn't weeding to do; as long as there is somebody at the location occasionally using the sink and flushing the toilet, there will be water delivered to these botanical cells- no manual watering is ever required.

The outdoor botanical cells are essentially the same idea, but are separated because the source of the water is from the black water / septic system.  It isn't that there is no capacity to clean this to the point that it couldn't be used indoors, but as a way of meeting code, preventing problems associated with clogs and backups, even though these work essentially the same way, the one inside the earth ship is usually just cleaning soap and tooth paste out of the water, rather than less savory components.

This is the tip of a very large iceberg.

To illustrate what urban food production looks like, lets take tomato plants. In an environment that supports them in doing so, they will grow indefinitely. A well established year-old tomato plant, producing beef steak tomatoes, will produce them in bunches of what look, at first glance, exactly like cherry tomato bunches, with each tomato being 10 times the size of a cherry tomato.  Here's one that's 50 weeks old (two weeks short of a year), 24 feet long, still producing fruit, and still growing, pointed out about halfway through this video. Check it out.

Further Data:
  • Garbage Warrior, a documentary that was made to comprehensively explain this topic by the actual Earthship people. On Yootoob here.
  • A house tour, to give some context to what a conventional function-first earthship would look something like 
  • Here is an excellent look at some of the features, design principles, and operating constraints of the building methods described here.