Design Nomadics

I think I first heard of Steven Roberts in 1995, in Popular Mechanics, a magazine I loved as a kid.  For awhile, I got Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and Outside every month, then stored them in chronological order in cardboard file boxes in my bedroom.  Once my family got the internet, I started to follow Steve's adventures across the country on his computerized bicycle, B.E.H.E.M.O.T.H., pursuing what he christened technomadics.

Basically, he took a long-wheelbase recumbent bicycle and added solar panels, batteries, a CD player, a heads-up display, handlebar keyboard, and a system that circulated ice water through tubes embedded in his helmet.  He had been on a perpetual journey since 1983, cris-crossing North America.  To support himself, he worked as a freelance writer.  In an era before wi-fi, and even cellphones, he connected to the internet via ham radio and pay phones, clipping rubber cups to the receiver to transmit articles to his editors.  Nights, he stayed with friends, camped, or booked cheap motels.  Nowadays, you could more or less do everything he did with an iPhone; he traveled with a solid quarter-ton of equipment to achieve the same connectivity in a more primitive era.  

Roberts hacked, engineered, designed, and built the bikes from the ground up, integrating technology into a platform that afforded him ultimate freedom.  As time went on, he left the bicycles behind, and is now in the midst of a thirteen (and counting) year-long quest to build a technomadic boat.  It has gone through many iterations, from kayak to trimaran, but seems to have settled on a steel-hulled sailboat.

Steven Roberts, and B.E.H.E.M.O.T.H., circa 1991.  Courtesy of his site.  


Sunday in the Shop

Sunday, I took advantage of a rare free day in the ReBuilding Exchange shop to work on a new project and photograph some old ones.  My Scrap Armchair came together pretty well, but, as usual, there are a number of problems with it.  One, I didn't get the ergonomics right, so the back is too vertical, and hits the spine at a less-than-ideal location.  Two, the maple floorboards I used for the back and seat are flat, failing to conform to the body.  Three, the frame is really bulkier than it needs to be, strength-wise.  Four, I thought I could make the exposed fasteners look attractive, but I should've used dowels, or at least plugged over them.  

As modeled by chair impresario Blake Sloane.  


The Craftsman Experience

Well, dear reader, my usual posts are kind of long, a little dense, and perhaps, dare I say, boring from time to time.  So, in the interest of both brevity and self-promotion, I am going to break the habit and bring you a short, intense burst of information about immediate news.  

Tomorrow, Friday, November 18th, from 6-9 pm, I will be steadfastly manning a folding table loaded with the fresh road sign bowls at the Instructables Show n' Tell, hosted by the Craftsman Experience Chicago.  At some point, the folks down there will be interviewing me for their web series, which will be streamed live starting at 7 pm, CST.  It's free, live, and gonna be one hell of a good time.  Come on out and join me!

Some other things that have been on my mind this week:

Fascinating perspective on the millenial generation.  

Amanda Buck makes another great graphic for GOOD.  

Sweet blog about social design practice and theory from some friends of mine in Alabama.  

Documentary about eating local from my friend Andy Grace is in the can.  

Another g(ue)orilla stalks the web, tiny-house dweller and renegade urbanist in Germany.

Someone finally calls out Phoenix, an hour south of my former home, as the world's least sustainable city, pointing out how politics, culture, architecture, land use, economics, and design intersect.  Design is a political act.  

My sister hit the streets in NYC to shut down Wall Street today.  She is a brave woman.  Listened to a disturbing podcast today that outlined how inequitable tax policy has deeply damaged America in the last thirty years.  


IKEA and the Culture of Disposability

In the October 3rd, 2011 issue of the New Yorker, Lauren Collins wrote a great article, entitled House Perfect: Is IKEA Comfy or Creepy?  She starts by discussing her own history, particularly the way IKEA furniture has become a rite of passage in America for a certain class of young people making their way through the machinations of adolescence, college, first jobs, and frequent moves between small apartments.  The idea that furniture is a disposable fashion accessory is a marked generational shift from our parents and grandparents, for whom furniture was a permanent fixture of the home.

Collins writes "Choosing a piece of furniture was once a serious decision, because of the expectation that it was permanent.  It is said that Americans keep sofas longer than they keep cars, and change dining-room tables about as often as they trade spouses.  IKEA has made interiors ephemeral.  Its furniture is placeholder furniture, the prelude to an always imminent upgrade.  It works until it breaks, or until its owners break up.  It carries no traces.  The ease of self-invention that IKEA enables is liberating, but it can be sad to make a life, or to dispose of it, so cheaply."



I recently came across an article in the Washington Post about the demolition of foreclosed houses in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.  It is cheaper for the banks to tear down houses, at $7,500 each, then it is to take care of vacant properties that won't sell.  The accompanying pictures show backhoes clawing down the walls into neat piles of rubble.  A few photos show folks trying to salvage good material, collecting, tiles, woodwork, and scrap metal from the houses.

Back in Baltimore, my hometown, the same thing has been going on for years.  The issue of vacant row homes has been perennial, mentioned in mayoral races as far back as 1987.  Looking through the Baltimore Sun archives, the estimated number of abandoned houses varies widely, from 20-40,000.  Census data indicates that Baltimore has shed approximately 320,000 residents since a peak in 1950, an average of 5,333 people annually.  Assuming each row home housed four people, and half of the population loss was staying in row homes, that averages out to roughly 27,500 vacants -- right in the middle of the various estimates.  Over the years, programs have been initiated to try and cut down on the stock of empty homes, including loan programs, selling them at auction, and demolishing them.  

The Post article concentrates on the recent foreclosure phenomenon; Baltimore's issue is more complicated, with a much longer history.  Much of Baltimore's population decline has been classic white flight, as folks moved to the suburbs in search of better schools and jobs.  The decline and eventual failure of Bethlehem Steel, as well as a long-term decline in shipping, destroyed a lot of working-class jobs in the city.  People moved out.  Many of these issues come up in The Wire, the fascinating, novelistic HBO crime drama, set in Baltimore.  In season two, the main story line concerns trouble at the longshoreman's union, struggling for air in an era of globalized trade that requires deep-water ports.  In season four, vacant houses become burial grounds for victims of the drug war.  Throughout the series, cops, junkies, and hustlers use empty row homes to perform surveillance, shoot up, and hide drugs.

Some quality demolition a few blocks from my apartment.


LEED and the Tyranny of Statistics

Since I started this blog, not too long ago, I've been a rather compulsive checker of my page views, referring links, and other relevant numbers neatly displayed under the "stats" toolbar.  Blogger, as an interface, integrates the stats rather well, although this is a recent phenomenon.  Before the advent of Google Analytics, and, to some extent, Facebook, you would just put up a webpage and sail blindly across the seas of cyberspace without really knowing who was looking at your site unless someone actually reached out and emailed you.  Now, the internet is broken down, codifying exactly who is looking after you. 

I maintain a broad spectrum web presence:  I have an Etsy site, a Flickr page, a Facebook account, a personal website, an Instructables setup, a Ponoko storefront, an eBay account, and this very blog.  These are just my personal sites that are publicly consumable; this list doesn't take into account my private accounts at my bank, Amazon, iTunes, and so forth.  Every single one of these sites spits stats back at me in some form.  All of them track page views, as a basic metric of traffic.  Some, like Facebook and Etsy, track likes of some sort, where someone has to actively make a decision to publicly declare their affection for something.  Storefronts, like Etsy, eBay, and Ponoko, measure sales, which is a different, and perhaps weightier, form of like.  Google Analytics adds many other layers of information, like referring sites, country of origin, and time spent on the site.  Statistics like these extend far beyond the web.  Historically, people have always been keeping track of their money -- only now a statement arrives in the mail every month detailing the flow in and out, listing the purchases, and doing the math for you.  Phone bills, first landlines and now mobiles, tell you how much time you spent in conversation, which is inherently strange and immeasurable.  

The questions raised by this murky swamp of data are many, and hard to answer.  On some level, all of these accumulated likes and page views are a form of validation for ourselves, a way to reach out to the world and feel like someone is reaching back.  However, burying your head in this stream of numbers can distract you from real life, the analog things happening out in the world while you're obsessively checking page views.  The majority of the statistics don't say anything meaningful, and it gets difficult to sort out important trends from the things that merely occurred.