Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sustainable development and the video Ipod revolution: takin' it to the streets!

(Photo: A picture from Adham's cell phone showing Mahmoud and Hanna viewing pictures and watching little videos on a mobile device to help them build their do it yourself hot water systems. Here they are preparing styrofoam pieces to insulate the hot water tank on Adham's roof and debating the best way to do it.)

(Another photo from Adham's cell phone, of Adham foam-gluing the styrofoam strips to the plastic hot water tank -- they are experimenting to see which is more labor intensive or more efficient, building a styrofoam box, which uses less foam spray (35 LE or 7 dollars a can!) and is therefore less expensive, or making a round insulation of strips which makes maintenance of the tank easier.)

Photo: A still image from a video taken on Adham's cell phone that Mahmoud took of Adham and Hana explaining their experience dealing with the goats on the roof, now on my Ipod so I can share it with people who can't visit Adham's roof and so I can review the issues they are facing when I'm on the plane.)

I don't know how many of you out there in development who work in remote places or infrastructurally challenged urban environments also use your Ipods or palmtop computers or Iphones or media-friendly cell phones as effective participatory development communication devices, but I have to share with those who don't that these mobile technologies are a Godsend!

Back at the turn of the century (almost a decade ago!), when I was working for the L.A. Zoo, I had an HP Ipac palmtop computer and a foldable pocket sized QWERTY keyboard that I took with me to the bush in South Africa. It enabled me to climb steep rock faces to get to places where the baboons I was observing lived, and then quickly take my field notes; I could also use the convenient presence of Windows Media Player to show local people pictures or video of the plants I was interested in finding.

These days, having switched from my Master's studies in what could be considered Rural Agro-forestry to a Ph.D. ostensibly in a form of Urban Ecology, I am using an Ipod.

My Ipac's battery is stone dead and (maddeningly) irreplaceable. I thus rely on my Apple Ipod -- At least until its battery dies -- shame on these companies for forcing us to pay through the nose for "technical service" to do something as simple as change a battery! I took apart the Ipac and found that the battery is a lithium pouch -- not a removable battery. The pouch is soldered to the board -- impossible for most of us to fix even if we could find a replacement -- these battery pouches aren't sold off the shelf! Aargh!)

Fortunately, I had a Video Ipod and learned you could use it to do far more than merely listen to ITunes and watch Britney Spear's vapid Music Videos...

The fact that the Apple Ipod (I have the 30 GB version) can be used as a portable external hard drive is one reason why it comes in so handy for people in the field. The other is that I can use it to show videos and photographs of the technical issues I want to communicate wherever I go and despite language barriers.

In many meetings throughout the Middle East, from urban ghettoes to small villages, I have been able to make my point by pulling the Ipod from my pocket and simply saying "tafaddal, take a look". This came in very handy when doing my household demand survey for hot water systems -- I could show pictures of all the possible systems and simply ask people to point to the one's they use or prefer. Then I could show the alternatives. Seeing is believing.

The problem with the Ipod, as those of you who own them must concurr, is its slavish devotion to Itunes and the single computer (that sounds like a good name for a sitcom about a romance between cybernetic organisms in some future robotic big city: "Don't miss 'Itunes and the Single Computer', Wednesdays at 8 Eastern 7 Central time!)

The biggest problem in my work is that almost all of my colleagues in the poor areas of Cairo (Adham Fawzy, whose pictures accompany this article, is the best example) have invested in media-ready cell phones with cameras, and they frequently take little videos or photographs of the problems they are facing when building solar hot water systems to give to me, and while I can download them on a PC computer, I have to then put them on a USB stick and wait until I get home to put them in my ITunes library on My Macintosh and only THEN load them up on my Ipod so I can share them with others in the field who might have ideas or solutions.

Well, I'm blogging here today to tell those of you with similar frustrations that there ARE solutions. There are ways to use your Ipod without succumbing to the tyranny of Apple and Big Media's bid for monopolistic control over file sharing. They are listed here.

The very best of them in my opinion is called Sharepod. It allows easily file transfers from your PC to your Ipod and back. After hours and hours of frustration with some of the alternatives I have settled on Sharepod as my very favorite. It is easy to use and doesn't conflict with ITunes in any way that I've discovered. If it has a limitation it would seem to be that it works with the PC only.

A cross platform solution is called "Floola".

Floola, like Sharepod, is a program that you put on your Ipod that allows the Ipod to then talk to many different computers and hard drives, NOT just the Itunes Library folder on your main disk (which is always overfull anyway). Floola also lets you use your Ipod with both a PC and a Mac.

The concept is simple. You download Floola's free program or Sharepod's free program (Please make a donation to the friendly developers if you are financially solvent and able, so they can continue to make it freely available for those who aren't!) Then you make sure your Ipod is enabled as an external disk. Ideally you format your Ipod as a PC disk, because then you can use it with both Macs and PCs (I had to reformat my Ipod to do all this, but there may be ways to do it without that).

Next, you launch Itunes ONCE and let it restore the program on the IPod. Then you add at least one song to the Itunes library and add it to the Ipod (make sure you are using manual sync!). Then quit Itunes.

In the case of Floola, you then open your Ipod from the finder as an external disk drive and copy the Floola.exe file onto the Ipod itself.

Launch Floola.exe and tell it what kind of Ipod you have if it doesn't automatically recognize it (mine is a30 GB Video Ipod "5G", meaning 5th generation. It wasn't written on the device so I had to look it up on the web. You might have to also)

From there Floola will display a window familiar enough to those who use ITunes, and just as functional for playing media, but with very important differences: You can now simply click "Add" and literally drag media for ANY source into your Ipod.

You can even download files and videos directly from the web. Within Floola you simply click on "Add from Web" and paste the URL into the window and all your favorite Youtube videos can now be taken with you to those remote locations (with a solar powered backpack you don't have to worry about finding an outlet to recharge your iPod either!)

(here is a video of how to set up Floola).

Mac users: Note that you can install both the mac and Pc (and Linux) versions of Floola on your ipod and it can then talk to and import files from literally any computer! But do be careful -- when I updated my ITunes software on my mac, Floola stopped working with it -- perhaps those crafty monopolists at Itunes don't appreciate our attempts to use these technologies in non-consumerist ways and are fighting back... so make sure you use an older version of Itunes to start your Floola experience. Then you won't need to use Itunes any more after that.

FLOOLA 2.7, the latest version, is very buggy and doesn't work reliably with my Ipod 30 GB 5th gen device. Every time I launch it and add songs and videos everything checks out well on the computer but when I disconnect the ipod everything has disappeared -- all playlists, songs, videos, everything! Apparently they are still on the ipod itself, but hidden and inaccessible. When Itunes is started again it says I must restore my Ipod, and I lose everything. The Floola site talks about changing the FWID number, which identifies your ipod and can be obtained by looking in the device manager. But though they say you can enter it into Floola by restarting Floola holding the alt and control keys and potentially resolve the problem, it didn't work for me. And version 2.6 is no longer available. So I have given up on Floola, as good as it seems to be, until they make a better release that is stable. To save you hours of frustration, I'm saying "Go with Sharepod!" It doesn't let you easily download videos from the web as Floola does, but you can put the videos on your hard drive and then bring them on to your ipod.

Using Sharepod, I was able to load my Ipod Marcel Lenormand's animation of using heliostats for partially shaded roofs and my own Sketchup animation of tilting solar panels 1 degree and installing a pipe from the cold water to the hot water tank (see the two previous posts for those) as well as James Dean Conklin and Elisa Zazzera's music video about the Zabaleen from my song "Talkin' Trash" (also in an earlier post) and a bunch of YouTube videos that Marcel and Andy Posner and Rebecca Tobias and Byron DeLear and Ted Stern and so many others of our friends and supporters have suggested would help our project.

For those of you privileged enough to have a computer with internet access it is probably hard to appreciate the impact multi-media presentation has in areas where so many people are not only illiterate, but have no access to DVD players or computers or the world wide web. Our study has shown that many poor families DO have a television (in fact more people have televisions than hot water appliances -- reasoning that, as Hana's aunt, Um Romani told me, "being connected to the outside world is more important to us than comfort or convenience") but what they DO see on television is mostly State Controlled information. Not very informative. Even those who have satellite dishes and thus access to the "free world" are being fed a pablum of corporation controlled advertising, which is usually useless for finding a way out of poverty (soap operas are the sopium of the masses, Karl Marx might have said!).

So what about all those great little YouTube vids -- the one's you find on sites like, on rural projects using "human poop and urine to provide cheap biogas in Uganda" and on urban rooftop biogas projects using garbage (like this one at ARTI in India); what about the one's on do-it-yourself solar projects, and better ways to compost, on how to convert you car to run on vegetable oil, and Michael Rains' neat videos on how to make hydrogen from water with Stainless Steel Arrays, or those news reports that those who don't watch American TV didn't get to see on how a group of MIT students built a solar concentrator on the roof that generated electricity using used car parts ?

Most of us in the "developed countries" take them for granted and routinely share them with one another.

But WHO is taking these things into the field, into the streets, into the homes that have no electricity, much less computers with fast internet connections and decent bandwidth? How are the people who really really desparately NEED to see these little miracles of multi-media interconnectedness and the "you-ness" empowerment of self-production "of the people by the people for the people" supposed to get access across the digital divide?

It will have to be those of us who are a little bit tech savvy and willing and interested toin sharing our love of our toys, interested in tranferring tech-knowledge as much as technology, enthusiastic about teaching others how to use the intuitive software and hardware we enjoy playing with so much, and idealistic enough to take our vacations in places where we can combine our joy of technology and the satisfaction of helping others. The great thing is that so many of the disadvantaged on this planet, of all ages, are really hungry to learn (not like the bored students we find in many industrialized nation's schools) and really appreciative of the gifts we can bestow (and equally willing to bestow the gifts of their knowledge and perspectives with us!)

Open source software, freeware, shareware and the 100 dollar laptop give us a chance to get the needed intellectual materials out there and into the hands of those who need it most.

I ask everyone I work with to try and honor the cyberpunk motto: "Information Longs to Be Free"...

...At least until we kick the oil habit, decommission all the nukes, reverse climate change, clean the carcinogens out of our environment, preserve biodiversity and our natural heritage and fully deploy the technologies that can guarantee at least the minimum subsistence rights and resources to ALL humanity. Then we can continue bickering about "intellectual property" and whether "I want to have more than you have even when I have more than I need" is a viable philosophic position.


Marcel said...

T.H. said:
"until we kick the oil habit, decommission all the nukes, reverse climate change, clean the carcinogens out of our environment, preserve biodiversity and our natural heritage and fully deploy the technologies that can guarantee at least the minimum subsistence rights and resources to ALL humanity"

I say:
"Jesus is the answer, what's the question?" :D

Thinking about "who's going to take this multimedia information to the rest of the world?"

— (I've seen the same thing in Zambia... hoards of children crowding a shop in a rural town because they've got a TV on. And what are they showing?? Wrestling!! Wrestling for goodness sake! I walked by heavy hearted thinking "Is this the best that we can offer them!?")

— how about collecting these web videos and projecting them on a street wall somewhere - maybe at a cafĂ©/bar where people can come to check this stuff out. If it can be a regular thing, say each week, you add in some new content so that people who want to see something again get a chance to see it for maybe a couple of weeks running but there's new content coming in all the time and older stuff being retired likewise.

Or, if you own an oil well or two, set up a satellite channel dedicated to showing this sort of development/aid content. :D

Another thing I came across in Zambia was a lack of awareness that there are a one or two other places in the world where there is poverty. Some folks had only been presented with the idea that Africa is poor. So now there is the realisation that their problems are shared, and that means that the solutions could be shared also.


T.H. Culhane said...

Great comments and so true!
The "golden rule" philosophy of Jesus(whom the Zabaleen call "Yesua") that revolutionized the Middle East and then the world: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (variously translated from the Aramaic into its admonitive congener "Don't do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you") is, in my mind and spirit, the ultimate and most important approach we need to take toward development. I think one must apply it in both its St. Paulian positive missionary sense and its more empathetic protective sense at the same time, kind of like looking at a Necker Cube. Either way, I believe strongly that whether one takes such commandments from Matt 7:12, Luke 6:31, Matt 22:36-40 or Mk 12:28-31, the conflation the supreme commandments of "loving God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength" and "loving your neighbor as yourself" imply a responsibility to apply the Golden Rule in all things, and thus, will the global awareness you have pointed out, we MUST share solutions.
If not, we truly are the problem.
There is a movement in Africa to set up computer kiosks where people can get information. In our communities (interestingly in places where Jesus actually walked as a child) many small internet cafes are beginning to spring up for the children, though the computers are old and slow and resources few, and the telephone lines for the modems are atrociously slow. I like your idea of a kind of "Augusto Boal" street theatre for this -- the Zabaleen school we work with is already a deliberately "informal education" space for this, though we lack internet access and a datashow projector. But once we get a datashow projector donated we can immediately implement your idea. And if we can get a couple of Photovoltaic panels donated with a small inverter and deep cycle batteries, we can literally "take it to the streets" themselves! Thanks for the suggestions and comments!
By the way, you might enjoy this blog I found on the Importance of the Golden Rule:
God bless!