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Heaven or High Water – Popula

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“Sunny day flooding” is flooding where water comes right up from the ground, hence the name, and yes, it can certainly rain during sunny day flooding, and yes, that makes it worse. Sunny day flooding happens in many parts of Miami, but it is especially bad in Sunset Harbour, the low-lying area on Miami Beach’s west side.

The sea level in Miami has risen ten inches since 1900; in the 2000 years prior, it did not really change. The consensus among informed observers is that the sea will rise in Miami Beach somewhere between 13 and 34 inches by 2050. By 2100, it is extremely likely to be closer to six feet, which means, unless you own a yacht and a helicopter, sayonara. Sunset Harbour is expected to fare slightly worse, and to do so more quickly.

Thus, I felt the Sunset Harbour area was a good place to start pretending to buy a home here. Amazingly, in the face of these incontrovertible facts about the climate the business of luxury real estate is chugging along just fine, and I wanted to see the cognitive dissonance up close.

Lying is not my favorite, but when it’s called for the only thing to do is jump in with both feet.

So when the first agent—tall, fair, polite bordering on stern, possibly Swiss, possibly Swedish—asked, “Do you live in Miami now? Do you know what kind of place you’re looking to buy?” I said, “I live in San Francisco and my husband is in tech.” I gave a coy twist to the wedding ring I’d put on in my hotel room. “We’re looking for—a place to hang out when it gets really rainy (lol) and then to retire to (roflmao).”

He either believed me or did not give a shit.

The decor was beige and white or stainless steel except for the books on the nightstand, which were jewel-toned; one of them was written by someone I dislike. I walked around the apartment as if I already owned it, as if within my lifetime the lobby beneath us would not be decorated with kelp.

We rendezvoused again on the balcony. He gestured at the unusual rainy day, for this time of year, late March. “Usually at night, you will be looking at the best spectacle of a sunset here,” he said. He was framed by Biscayne Bay, and made me think of expensive butter sitting on a blue ceramic dish. I ooohed and ahhed over the view, quite genuinely, because if you don’t think about the fact that it’s filled with thousands of pounds of post-Hot Pilates ceviche poops, Biscayne Bay is breathtaking.

I asked how the flooding was.

“There are pump stations everywhere, and the roads were raised,” he said. “So that’s all been fixed.”

“Fixed,” I said. “Wow. Amazing.”

I asked how the hurricanes were.

He said that because the hurricanes came from the tropics, from the south and this was the west side of Miami Beach, they were not that bad in this neighborhood. “Oh, right,” I said, as if that made any sense.

I asked him if he liked it here. “I love it,” he said. “It is one of the most thriving cities in the country, it’s growing rapidly.” He pointed to a row of buildings in a neighborhood called Edgewater that were all just three years old. “That skyline was all built in the last three years.”

Wow, I said, just in the last three years . . . “They’re not worried about sea level rise?”

“It’s definitely something the city is trying to combat. They are fighting it, by raising everything. But so far, it hasn’t been an issue.”

I couldn’t wait to steal this line, slightly altered. “I am afraid of dying, sure, but so far, it hasn’t been an issue.”

Later, I texted Kristina Hill, an associate professor of urban ecology at the University of California, Berkeley, whose main work is helping coastal communities adapt to climate change. I told her that a real estate agent had just told me hurricanes were weaker near Sunset Harbour, because it was in the east side of Miami, and hurricanes come from the south. She wrote back, “That’s ridiculous!”

The next open house was not far and I decided to get lunch beforehand in Sunset Harbour. I popped into a store where the sidewalk had been raised. “There used to be flooding here,” the owner said, as she folded a soft sweater. She had long dark hair and, as seemed to be de rigueur in Miami Beach, lash extensions. “But they put in pumps and it’s been fixed.”

“So I hear,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

“I don’t know if I understand this,” I said. “The sidewalk is raised, but—where does the water go?”

“Into the drain,” she said. “Well. Except for one time. One time the store was flooded. But it’s fixed.”

“Great!” I said.

“Yeah, it’s fixed,” she said. She put her hand over her heart in an expression of extreme gratitude.

The next real estate agent was much more charming than the first. She was in her mid-forties, in heels and slacks so perfectly tailored she looked like she’d been sewn into them. Her tan ring finger was graced with some bright gem, surrounded by diamonds, and big enough to plate a filet mignon.

I walked around this property—it also had a water view—in the slow, pensive way of the rich shopper, cultivating an opaque expression which could suggest equally the taking in of beauty, or polite condemnation. The place was lovely, but it was also like everything in Miami, beige, beige, beige, pink, white, beige, blue, beige, beige, white. The Zen-like bedrooms all looked like ideal places for thinking about not looking at screens at night, while looking at a screen.

The rhythm of these things is as follows: greeting, walk around, short chat, good bye. This short chat was longer. We talked about shoes and jewelry and the intense beauty of Miami, which I meant every word of. I felt bad lying to her and with no good segue for my true mission, I was worried that when I came out with my questions, her demeanor would change. But just as charmingly as she received my greetings and compliments on the layout of the kitchen and, on her shoes, she said sure, there was a problem, but if anything was going to happen, she thought it would be more like in fifty years than thirty.

It’s amazing that people in these situations tell you what they think. I think bread actually takes twenty minutes to bake, she said, removing the doughy mass from the oven. I think I can drive a car after I’ve run out of gas, he said, as he rolled silently into the breakdown lane.

I did not say this; I said nothing, because I did not have to, because—fiddling attractively with a circular gold pendant at her tan throat all the while—she continued to talk. “The scientists, economists, and environmentalists that are saying this stuff, they don’t realize what a wealthy area this is.” She said that she lived here and wasn’t leaving, and that the people selling Miami were confident, and all working on the same goal as a community to maintain this place, with the pumps and the zoning and raising the streets. There were just too many millionaires and billionaires here for a disaster on a great scale to be allowed to take place.

I thought about the moment in Us when the family has been taken hostage, and, in exchange for their freedom, the father offers his wallet, his car, his boat. His daughter, understanding that the threat here is not material, but existential, says in a trembling voice, Nobody wants our boat, dad.

“Anyway, people are working really hard to prevent anything from happening,” she continued.

Another agent came in to look at the apartment and joined our conversation. She was young. If indeed we are talking thirty years before Miami Beachpocolypse, the first realtor and I will very possibly be dead, or close to it, when the shit really hits the fan here, but this woman will still be relatively young. Still, she did not seem to be losing a great deal of sleep over sunny day flooding, sea level rise, any of it.

“From what I understand,” she said as she took in a turn in the apartment, her heels clacking across the pale floors, “Everybody has done these, like, research, and they have these like—like…” she was back, posed behind the kitchen island, her pastel nails splayed out on the varnished counter top. “I can’t think of the word now.”

“Studies?” said the first realtor helpfully.

“Yeah,” the younger woman. She said she knew about a guy that had “paid for like, a study. And basically it said, we shouldn’t be concerned . . . because it’s being figured out, and we shouldn’t be concerned. Unless you have a family, and you’re planning on staying here.”

The ideal buyer for this place was someone who was okay with the street and lobby being full of water for the next twenty years at which point they might actually have to leave, unless it all got “figured out,” but if it didn’t that would be fine, because they’d never been concerned. And apparently those people exist, lots of them. “A lot of people just buy something here, they keep it for five years, and then they sell it,” she explained.

I had a bit of trouble finding the next property. I felt like an idiot until several phone calls determined that indeed, the place did not exist yet. When I got to the showroom, there was a receptionist and the woman showing the model (as well as two other women whose roles were not clear to me), and they were all in a mild state of what I might characterize as amused agitation because a news crew had arrived to speak to the famous architect of this new building and there had been a water main break in front of it.

The woman wore rubber boots with her fancy real estate lady outfit. The building she showed me was so luxurious, literally every inch of it designed so that residents would be able to spend every single minute of their time there actually arrested by visual spectacle, that I almost could not listen. I tuned in when she said that the building had been built several feet above the zoning requirements. This was a big deal as a selling point, it seemed. I thought about a line from Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come (2017), specifically about walls but applicable here, and “the risk that Mother Nature won’t respect the design specifications.”

I did not ask if Mother Nature would respect the zoning requirements, but I did say it was amazing to me that such a famous architect was taking the time to build in a city so threatened by climate change. (I do not think that, by the way. I think he is getting paid a lot and he will get to see what he created and in a world where people tell you with a straight face that no, this city will be wiped off the map in fifty years, not thirty, and you’re supposed to be like “Oh, I feel so much better now,” I am not at all surprised by an architect building an enormous luxury apartment building here.)

She said the main thing is just that Miami was being very forward thinking. She mentioned Amsterdam, and how they were making it work, and how the Dutch were just the poster child for how this worked, and that they were sorting out a way to make this work. “I think the takeaway is just that Miami is doing something about it.”

There are several problems with comparing Miami to the Netherlands. One of these is that Amsterdam has spent billions of dollars on climate change and Miami has spent millions. The Dutch strategy is holistic, looking at how this thing will affect that thing, etc., whereas in Miami they have just installed some pumps and raised roads and buildings, which kind of neglects to consider that a place to live is really only useful insofar as nearby goods and services, and roads, are not underwater.

I kind of thought that I was crazy, listening to these people tell me these streets were raised, the buildings were raised, there were pumps, it was all good. I spoke to Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist with the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. According to their projections, by 2030, there will be fifty days of sunny day flooding per year. By 2045, there will be 250 per year. She then confirmed my suspicion that while the raising of buildings was good for the buildings, it didn’t do much for the well-being of those living inside. “Yes, you do need to be able to get out of the building to get medicine and groceries,” she said. “If all the streets are flooded, what then?”

I talked to Amy Clement, a Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, who said, re: pumps and raised buildings, “No, you’re not crazy. That alone is not coordinated planning, and it’s not a comprehensive solution.” She told me about a legal battle between homeowners and county government in St. Johns County, near Jacksonville. The homeowners said the county was depriving them of access to their land, the county said they would no longer foot the bill for the millions of dollars it took to maintain a road continually ravaged by storms and erosion. “People are just assuming the government will maintain their roads and that may not always be the case,” Clement said.

Then there is the problem of walls. The Big Plan in the Netherlands depends on walls. Since Miami is built on limestone, which soaks up water like a sponge, walls are not very useful. In Miami, sea water will just go under a wall, like a salty ghost. It will come up through the pipes and seep up around the manholes. It will soak into the sand and find its way into caves and get under the water table and push the ground water up. So while walls might keep the clogs of Holland dry, they cannot offer similar protection to the stilettos of Miami Beach.

Miami Beach is not the only threatened part of Miami. There are plenty of neighborhoods with equally bad or worse flooding, and worse prognoses from sea level rise. But while Miami Beach is fussed over, every scrap of attention or money these lower-income areas receive, they must beg for.

When I mentioned the pumps to Kristina Hill, she gave a skeptical snort. “Yeah, in Miami, those pumps, and those raised roads, that’s like their big move,” she said. “But it’s just kind of cosmetic.” She acknowledged they help with flooding. But what about when the sea begins to rise significantly, or when there’s a big event? A big event would not just flood everything and cause damage and then retreat. It could unearth septic systems, which could lead to terrible disease, or industrial waste, which could poison people. “That’s the situation that really concerns me, and is, as I see it, the canary in the coalmine,” Hill said.

People say Miami is douchey, but really, I loved almost everything about it, the symmetry of the blue umbrellas on the beach, riding a bike under a canopy of trees, sitting on a wall watching the sunset, definitely not thinking about how sea water might be infiltrating the septic systems behind me. The whole time I was there I was like, yeah, I could see why no one wants to admit how fucked this place is.

That night I went out to dinner with a friend who grew up in Miami, and left for college twenty years ago, never expecting to return. He was in elementary school when Hurricane Andrew hit. He realized that Miami was not going to last forever.

He moved back last year, after years away, and saw that the party was still on, even though perhaps it shouldn’t have been. That said, it was perhaps on for this night, for here we were at Niu Kitchen, downtown, drinking a really good wine from the Languedoc, surrounded by extremely good-looking people, enjoying luxury while discussing the horrors that luxury has visited on the world.

My friend is active in the local civic but says he’s skeptical even of the activist discourse around sea level rise. “There’s all this talk about ‘sustainability’ and ‘resilience,’ he said, “and it kind of sounds to me like “what’s the least we can do in order to keep the party going?”

I told him about someone I knew who had gone to a meeting about climate change where Miami officials had talked about how they had to demonstrate to the world that they were all about resilience, and how she had been amazed that they thought this was actually their job.

This is the neoliberal notion, that the reasonable and mature way to think about this stuff is: Get more efficient and find the right incentives to encourage the right kinds of enterprise. But my friend wondered, what if the mature thing to do is to mourn – and then retreat?

On the way back, we looked at the pumps. I had expected something truly enormous. I wanted to look at these things and be like “Wow I knew about Jaws, but those are The Meg of pumps.” But they were the size of maybe the world’s largest Airedale.

The next day I went out to see houses was a very beautiful day. The streets were dry. Cranes swung about in the blue sky. It was a great day to think Miami was going to last forever. And on the beach side of town, just a few feet higher than the bay side, they do have a few more years. My first property I was looking at over here was asking $4.1 million.

“Frankly, this is a little much for me,” I said to the agent, “But I’m just getting a sense of the neighborhood.” If a young Robert Redford ever fantasized about giving up a few degrees of handsomeness just to be tall, it was this man that he pictured.

“Happy to see west coast coming east,” he said.

I walked upstairs. I did my thing, which was to take in the spectacle of concrete sinks, colorful books contrasted with a gray duvet cover, guest soaps onto which had been delicately set a sprig of dried greenery. Then there was the round of compliments about the space, the small talk, the sea level question put forth with my guileless naiveté.

“You know, they’re picking on Miami because we don’t have our heads in the sand,” Robert Redford’s tall cousin said. “We’re actually being proactive about it.” He pointed out to me that as I arrived I had actually stepped up several feet. “That helps a lot,” he said. I nodded and did not say, yes, it helps the house, but houses don’t have to go outside, houses don’t get cholera?

“You feel like Miami is getting more attention because it’s trying harder?” I asked.

“Yeah, because all our elected officials are like, yeah, we’re gonna deal with this.” He talked about the Zika thing—he called it “the Zika news cycle,” and how that had come and gone.

“Oh,” I said. “So you think sea level rise is kind of like Zika?”

He made a face, indicating he understood that it wasn’t. Then he told me how they were raising everything. He told me I could get a great one-bedroom condo over in Sunset Harbour for $900,000, that they were planning a lot of new construction over there. Then he talked about the pumps, that they were hitting all the problem areas first, but then they were going to do the whole city. “They raised the streets and it fixed the problem. It probably gives us another fifty years. It’s all being taken care of,” he said. “And Miami is really taking off,” he said, making an airplane gesture with his hand.

I believed him. You could not look up in this town without seeing a crane.

It sounds obnoxious, but I have to say, I kind of liked this guy. I liked all of them. They were a charming bunch. They had been born this way. That’s how they’d gotten jobs on the front lines of capitalist hypocrisy, while those of us who sucked at lying were hiding in the trenches, smoking cigarettes, writing letters home about how miserable we were. They just said the stuff that we all lived. Who of us behaves as if we were in immediate trouble? We work, and at the end of the day, if we think at all, all we have time to think about is that we are cowards, or, before the thought comes, to escape it. Raise your hand if you have never hoped you will die before you have to thoroughly disrupt your own life for the lives of those who will live after you are dead. I do not mean to yell at anyone. Every day, I ask myself, what are you willing to do? And sometimes I feel righteous and strong, but mostly what I feel is fear, and a drive towards self preservation. I can laugh at the prettily arranged soap, or the privately-viewed sunsets, or the Jet Skis, because those are not my drugs, but Niu Kitchen, and all that goes with it, will be dragged from my fake wedding-ring-adorned cold dead hands.

And you know, this might actually happen! How do we think this is all going to end? With the election of a better candidate? With the passing of a law?

Full disclosure: I live in a town in rural Northern California that could burn down to the ground literally any day, and I’m thinking about buying a house here.

I rented a Citi Bike to ride to the next property. This was by far the most fun thing I did in Miami Beach. In this part of town, a lot of the streets were shaded under a canopy of the most beautiful trees, with big oval-shaped glossy leaves. I asked five or six people what they were, and no one knew. The streets weren’t filled with people, but people were around, going to work, walking dogs, smoking stealthily on their stoops, real live Miami Beach residents whose apartments were nestled up against each other’s, but also against the other half of them owned by the LLCs.

The real estate agents had been getting better and better looking everywhere I went. This woman looked like the Botticelli Venus, I shit you not. Again with the 10 million dollar slacks, tailored to perfection.

This time I didn’t bother being shy about my questions. “So I mean, like, even with sea level rise, I mean with a 30-year mortgage,” I said. “You’d still be fine.”

“Of course!” said this beautiful woman.

“I mean, if you had an 80-year mortgage…” I ventured, trying to get into the “fuck 80 years from now” spirit of things. We laughed at the hilarity of an 80-year mortgage.

“I mean, it’s not like, you’re going to wake up one day and the ocean is outside your window!” We laughed again. “I think you know, maybe, something – if something is gonna happen it’s like, I think, it’s like, 100, 200 years.”

This is what she thought.

She showed me the upstairs. We admired the large closets. She said she had a lot of family in Italy, and began to talk about Venice, where she had been many times. “And yes, at high tide the water from the sea comes into the city, right into the Piazza San Marco. And it’s horrible.” Her enormous green eyes widened, reflecting the horribleness.

“They are going to have to get something for the people to walk on, for the tourists. They’re going to have to put something so the people can walk on top. But every year they say the same thing about Venice, that it’s going to go down.” She made a face like, how do those idiots say this?

The bathroom tiles were the color of Biscayne Bay. I said so.

“Yes!” she said. Her eyes were full of real, deep love for blueness. “Beautiful, no?”

As we walked down the stairs to the first floor, she turned to look at me. She was very earnest, standing very close. I felt her beauty soak into me. “It’s Miami,” she said. “We are surrounded by water! There’s not a solution. But nothing is going to happen!”

Popula is 100% ad-free, reader-supported journalism accountable only to you. Every dollar of your subscription goes straight to our work. Thank you for supporting Popula.

Sarah Miller

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1927 days ago
Brooklyn, NY
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Chinese Firewood Carrier


Ever since Peter Follansbee wrote about the Chinese firewood carrier that Daniel O’Hagan adapted from Rudolf Hommel’s China at Work (great book), I’ve been itching to make one for myself. With the heating season now full on and my nine-year-old hauling firewood into the house most days, I decided it was time to finally knock one of these together.

The Original from Hommel's Book

Long time readers here might have picked up that some of my favorite historic artifacts are rural utilitarian objects made with function as a top priority. Although these items are often coarsely made, they always bear the evidence of many generations of use which testifies to the integrity of their design and construction. And, I must admit, the roughness develops patina beautifully.

When I set out to make one of these wood carriers the other day, I decided to make one as rough but rugged as possible. I decided to try making one from mostly green wood and without any planing. The stock for the base was riven and joined with through tenons.

Instead of planing the base pieces flat, I simply oriented the convex side up so that the carrier ended up with four feet. Also, because of the irregularity in thickness, rived the proud bits off with the joint assembled by setting the edge my hatchet to each protrusion and splitting them off in one whack each. The tenons were drawbored with three pins each. Everything came together rock solid. Some of the drawbore offsets were quite extreme – nothing like the workmanship of risk to get the blood flowing!


The uprights were rived from mostly dried stock I had kicking around my wood pile. I shaved them to size with a drawknife and bent them around a maul and clamped them over the weekend. The uprights were tenoned into the green base and top piece at an angle to encourage the bend to remain. The round through tenons were then wedged and the wedges pinned in place.


This lightweight little carrier was banged out of less than spectacular material in only a few hours but it is super rugged and will only get more so as it continues to dry. And the carrier makes hauling a decent size load of wood a snap. My nine-year-old’s chore just got a lot easier.

Guess I need to make one for myself… It’d be awfully handy to have one hanging around the shop.

- Joshua


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2043 days ago
Bend, Oregon
2043 days ago
Brooklyn, NY
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How to Build a Low-tech Website?

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Low-tech Magazine was born in 2007 and has seen minimal changes ever since. Because a website redesign was long overdue — and because we try to practice what we preach — we decided to build a low-tech, self-hosted, and solar-powered version of Low-tech Magazine. The new blog is designed to radically reduce the energy use associated with accessing our content.


First prototype of the solar powered server that runs the new website.

Read this article on the solar powered website.

Why a Low-tech Website?

We were told that the Internet would “dematerialise” society and decrease energy use. Contrary to this projection, it has become a large and rapidly growing consumer of energy itself. According to the latest estimates, the entire network already consumes 10% of global electricity production, with data traffic doubling roughly every two years.

In order to offset the negative consequences associated with high energy consumption, renewable energy has been proposed as a means to lower emissions from powering data centers. For example, Greenpeace's yearly ClickClean report ranks major Internet companies based on their use of renewable power sources.

However, running data centers on renewable power sources is not enough to address the growing energy use of the Internet. To start with, the Internet already uses three times more energy than all wind and solar power sources worldwide can provide. Furthermore,  manufacturing, and regularly replacing, renewable power plants also requires energy, meaning that if data traffic keeps growing, so will the use of fossil fuels. 

Running data centers on renewable power sources is not enough to address the growing energy use of the Internet.

Finally, solar and wind power are not always available, which means that an Internet running on renewable power sources would require infrastructure for energy storage and/or transmission that is also dependent on fossil fuels for its manufacture and replacement. Powering websites with renewable energy is not a bad idea, however the trend towards growing energy use must also be addressed.

"Fatter" Websites

To start with, content is becoming increasingly resource-intensive. This has a lot to do with the growing importance of video, but a similar trend can be observed among websites.

The size of the average web page (defined as the average page size of the 500,000 most popular domains) increased from 0.45 megabytes (MB) in 2010 to 1.7 megabytes in June 2018. For mobile websites, the average “page weight” rose tenfold from 0.15 MB in 2011 to 1.6 MB in 2018. Using different measurement methods, other sources report average page sizes of up to 2.9 MB in 2018.

The growth in data traffic surpasses the advances in energy efficiency (the energy required to transfer 1 megabyte of data over the Internet), resulting in more and more energy use. “Heavier” or “larger” websites not only increase energy use in the network infrastructure, but they also shorten the lifetime of computers — larger websites require more powerful computers to access them. This means that more computers need to be manufactured, which is a very energy-intensive process.

Being always online doesn't combine well with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, which are not always available.

A second reason for growing Internet energy consumption is that we spend more and more time on-line. Before the arrival of portable computing devices and wireless network access, we were only connected to the network when we had access to a desktop computer in the office, at home, or in the library. We now live in a world in which no matter where we are, we are always on-line, including, at times, via more than one device simultaneously.

“Always-on” Internet access is accompanied by a cloud computing model – allowing more energy efficient user devices at the expense of increased energy use in data centers. Increasingly, activities that could perfectly happen off-line – such as writing a document, filling in a spreadsheet, or storing data – are now requiring continuous network access. This does not combine well with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, which are not always available.

Low-tech Web Design

Our new web design addresses both these issues. Thanks to a low-tech web design, we managed to decrease the average page size of the blog by a factor of five compared to the old design – all while making the website visually more attractive (and mobile-friendly). Secondly, our new website runs 100% on solar power, not just in words, but in reality: it has its own energy storage and will go off-line during longer periods of cloudy weather.

The Internet is not an autonomous being. Its growing energy use is the consequence of actual decisions made by software developers, web designers, marketing departments, publishers and internet users. With a lightweight, off-the-grid solar-powered website, we want to show that other decisions can be made.

With 36 of roughly 100 articles now online, the average page weight on the solar powered website is roughly five times below that of the previous design.

To start with, the new website design reverses the trend towards increasingly larger page sizes. With 36 of roughly 100 articles now online, the average page weight on the solar powered website is 0.77 MB — roughly five times below that of the previous design, and less than half the average page size of the 500,000 most popular blogs in June 2018. 

A web page speed test from the old and the new Low-tech Magazine. Page size has decreased more than sixfold, number of requests has decreased fivefold, and download speed has increased tenfold. Note that we did not design the website for speed, but for low energy use. It would be faster still if the server would be placed in a data center and/or in a more central location in the Internet infrastructure.



Source: Pingdom.

Static Site

One of the fundamental choices we made was to build a static website. Most of today’s websites use server side programming languages that generate the website on the fly by querying a database. This means that every time someone visits a web page, it is generated on demand.

On the other hand, a static website is generated once and exists as a simple set of documents on the server’s hard disc. It's always there -- not just when someone visits the page. Static websites are thus based on file storage whereas dynamic websites depend on recurrent computation. Static websites consequently require less processing power and thus less energy.

The choice for a static site enables the possibility of serving the site in an economic manner from our home office in Barcelona. Doing the same with a database-driven website would be nearly impossible, because it would require too much energy. It would also be a big security risk. Although a web server with a static site can be hacked, there are significantly less attack routes and the damage is more easily repaired.


Dithered Images

The main challenge was to reduce page size without making the website less attractive. Because images take up most of the bandwidth, it would be easy to obtain very small page sizes and lower energy use by eliminating images, reducing their number, or making them much smaller. However, visuals are an important part of Low-tech Magazine’s appeal, and the website would not be the same without them.

By dithering, we can make images ten times less resource-intensive, even though they are displayed much larger than on the old website.

Instead, we chose to apply an obsolete image compression technique called “dithering”. The number of colours in an image, combined with its file format and resolution, contributes to the size of an image. Thus, instead of using full-colour high-resolution images, we chose to convert all images to black and white, with four levels of grey in-between.

These black-and-white images are then coloured according to the pertaining content category via the browser’s native image manipulation capacities. Compressed through this dithering plugin, images featured in the articles add much less load to the content: compared to the old website, the images are roughly ten times less resource-intensive.

Default typeface / No logo

All resources loaded, including typefaces and logos, are an additional request to the server, requiring storage space and energy use. Therefore, our new website does not load a custom typeface and removes the font-family declaration, meaning that visitors will see the default typeface of their browser. 


We use a similar approach for the logo. In fact, Low-tech Magazine never had a real logo, just a banner image of a spear held as a low-tech weapon against prevailing high-tech claims.

Instead of a designed logotype, which would require the production and distribution of custom typefaces and imagery, Low-tech Magazine’s new identity consists of a single typographic move: to use the left-facing arrow in place of the hypen in the blog’s name: LOW←TECH MAGAZINE.

No Third-Party Tracking, No Advertising Services, No Cookies

Web analysis software such as Google Analytics records what happens on a website — which pages are most viewed, where visitors come from, and so on. These services are popular because few people host their own website. However, exchanging these data between the server and the computer of the webmaster generates extra data traffic and thus energy use.

With a self-hosted server, we can make and view these measurements on the same machine: every web server generates logs of what happens on the computer. These (anonymous) logs are only viewed by us and are not used to profile visitors.

With a self-hosted server, there is no need for third-party tracking and cookies.

Low-tech Magazine has been running Google Adsense advertisements since the beginning in 2007. Although these are an important financial resource to maintain the blog, they have two important downsides. The first is energy use: advertising services raise data traffic and thus energy use.

Secondly, Google collects information from the blog’s visitors, which forces us to craft extensive privacy statements and cookie warnings — which also consume data, and annoy visitors. Therefore, we replace Adsense by other financing options (read more below). We use no cookies at all.

How often will the website be off-line?

Quite a few web hosting companies claim that their servers are running on renewable energy. However, even when they actually generate solar power on-site, and do not merely “offset” fossil fuel power use by planting trees or the like, their websites are always on-line.

This means that either they have a giant battery storage system on-site (which makes their power system unsustainable), or that they are relying on grid power when there is a shortage of solar power (which means that they do not really run on 100% solar power).


The 50W solar PV panel. On top of it is a 10W panel powering a lighting system.

In contrast, this website runs on an off-the-grid solar power system with its own energy storage, and will go off-line during longer periods of cloudy weather. Less than 100% reliability is essential for the sustainability of an off-the-grid solar system, because above a certain threshold the fossil fuel energy used for producing and replacing the batteries is higher than the fossil fuel energy saved by the solar panels.

How often the website will be off-line remains to be seen. The web server is now powered by a new 50 Wp solar panel and a two year old 12V 7Ah lead-acid battery. Because the solar panel is shaded during the morning, it receives direct sunlight for only 4 to 6 hours per day. Under optimal conditions, the solar panel thus generates 6 hours x 50 watt = 300 Wh of electricity.

The web server uses between 1 and 2.5 watts of power (depending on the number of visitors), meaning that it requires between 24 Wh and 60 Wh of electricity per day. Under optimal conditions, we should thus have sufficient energy to keep the web server running for 24 hours per day. Excess energy production can be used for household applications.

We expect to keep the website on-line during one or two days of bad weather, after which it will go off-line.

However, during cloudy days, especially in winter, daily energy production could be as low as 4 hours x 10 watts = 40 watt-hours per day, while the server requires beteen 24 and 60 Wh per day. The battery storage is roughly 40 Wh, taking into account 30% of charging and discharging losses and 33% depth-or-discharge (the solar charge controller shuts the system down when battery voltage drops to 12V).

Consequently, the solar powered server will remain on-line during one or two days of bad weather, but not for longer. However, these are estimations, and we may add a second 7 Ah battery in autumn if this is necessary. We aim for an "uptime" of 90%, meaning that the website will be off-line for an average of 35 days per year. 


First prototype with lead-acid battery (12V 7Ah) on the left, and Li-Po UPS battery (3,7V 6600mA) on the right. The lead-acid battery provides the bulk of the energy storage, while the Li-Po battery allows the server to shut down without damaging the hardware (it will be replaced by a much smaller Li-Po battery).

When is the best time to visit?

The accessibility of this website depends on the weather in Barcelona, Spain, where the solar-powered web server is located. To help visitors “plan” their visits to Low-tech Magazine, we provide them with several clues.

A battery meter provides crucial information because it may tell the visitor that the blog is about to go down -- or that it's "safe" to read it. The design features a background colour that indicates the capacity of the solar-charged battery that powers the website server. A decreasing height indicates that night has fallen or that the weather is bad.


In addition to the battery level, other information about the website server is visible with a statistics dashboard. This includes contextual information of the server’s location: time, current sky conditions, upcoming forecast, and the duration since the server last shut down due to insufficient power.

Computer Hardware

SERVER. The website runs on an Olimex A20 computer. This machine has 2 Ghz of processing power, 1 GB of RAM, and 16 GB of storage. The server draws 1 - 2.5 watts of power.

INTERNET CONNECTION. The server is connected to a 100 MBps fibre internet connection. For now, the router is powered by grid electricity and requires 10 watts of power. We are investigating how to replace the energy-hungry router with a more efficient one that can be solar-powered, too.

SOLAR PV SYSTEM. The server runs on a 50 Wp solar panel and one 12V 7Ah lead-acid battery (energy storage capacity will be doubled at the end of this month). The system is managed by a 20A solar charge controller.


What happens to the old website?

The solar powered Low-tech Magazine is a work in progress. For now, the grid-powered Low-tech Magazine remains on-line. Readers will be encouraged to visit the solar powered website if it is available. What happens later, is not yet clear. There are several possibilities, but much will depend on the experience with the solar powered server.

Until we decide how to integrate the old and the new website, making and reading comments will only be possible on the grid-powered Low-tech Magazine, which is still hosted at TypePad. If you want to send a comment related to the solar powered web server itself, you can do so by commenting on this page or by sending an e-mail to solar (at) lowtechmagazine (dot) com.

Can I help?

Yes, you can.

On the one hand, we're looking for ideas and feedback to further improve the website and reduce its energy use. We will document the project extensively so that others can build low-tech websites too.

On the other hand, we're hoping for people to support this project with a financial contribution. Advertising services, which have maintained Low-tech Magazine since its start in 2007, are not compatible with our lightweight web design. Therefore, we are searching for other ways to finance the website:

  1. We will soon offer print-on-demand copies of the blog. These publications will allow you to read Low-tech Magazine on paper, on the beach, in the sun, or whenever and where ever you want.

  2. You can support us through PayPalPatreon and LiberaPay.

  3. We remain open to advertisements, but these can only take the form of a static banner image that links to the website of the advertiser. We do not accept advertisers who are incompatible with our mission.

The solar powered server is a project by Kris De DeckerRoel Roscam Abbing, and Marie Otsuka.

Related article: How to build a low-tech internet.

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Jennie Alexander (1930-2018)

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Editor’s note; This morning we received word from Peter Follansbee that Jennie Alexander has died. Her health has been in decline for some time, but her enthusiasm and spirit was intact. Just last week she called to give me a rash of crap about something I had written. Classic Jennie.

It’s impossible to overstate Jennie’s influence on the craft (and woodworking publishing). Her book “Make a Chair From a Tree” launched the book-publishing program at The Taunton Press and influenced and inspired thousands of woodworkers to pick up the tools and become chairmakers or green woodworkers.

I encourage you to read this profile of Jennie that Kara Gebhart published that covers the entire scope of Jennie’s life, from jazz musician to attorney to green woodworker. There is, of course, way more to the story of Jennie’s life, but this is as good as it gets.

Below I’ve reprinted an article I wrote on Jennie several years ago with photos from my first visit to her shop in Baltimore.

— Christopher Schwarz


Built in Baltimore. While many people associate Jennie Alexander’s chairs with country woodcraft, she lives in urban Baltimore, where she developed the design for her chair.


Make a Revolution from a Tree

A curious attorney helped kick-start ‘green woodworking’ with a single chair & a book.

Of all the unusual twists and turns in the life of Jennie (formerly John) Alexander, surely the most incredible has been to be pronounced dead in the media while being very much alive.

When her second woodworking book was released, some reviewers said she was deceased; others assumed “Jennie” was John’s widow.

So let’s set that fact aside – John is now Jennie – because it has nothing to do with Alexander’s incredible woodworking career, the iconic chair she designed or her profound influence on woodworking during the last 36 years.

Alexander’s first book, “Make a Chair from a Tree” (Taunton Press and later Astragal Press), was the 1978 lightning bolt that ignited the woodworking passions of thousands of woodworkers and brought “green woodworking” out of the forest and into the modern workshop. Even after the book went out of print, the chair continued to inspire through a DVD of the same name published by ALP Productions.

The chair that is featured in the book and DVD is both old and new. While it is based on traditional ladderbacks and deep-lignin science, Alexander’s chair is not tied to a particular period or style. Its parts are shaved instead of turned. It looks at home in a log cabin or an urban loft. It weighs almost nothing but is as strong as a suspension bridge. And it is definitely the most comfortable chair I have ever sat in.

There is something about the back that is simply incredible. The two slats hit you in the right place, and the back legs are curved in a way that pleases your eye and your muscular system.

As soon as I sat in one of her chairs, I knew I had to make one.

I’m not alone. Thousands of chairmakers have been smitten with the design. And many of them, such as chairmaker Brian Boggs, went on to become professionals. So if you are one of the tens of thousands of people who now build chairs from green wood or carve spoons or bowls, you are almost certainly part of the lineage that began – in part – with a Baltimore boy who was handy around the house.

Obey Snowball
Born in December 1930, Alexander was the son of a mother who was a secretary to the president of an insurance company. She would leave a to-do list for Alexander to tackle after he came back at night. She arranged for Boulevard Hardware to provide tools from the store’s extensive stock of Stanley tools. Jerry and Miss Irma at Boulevard filled the bill.

The owner also gave Alexander handouts on tool use that were printed by Stanley Tools, which Alexander kept in a three-ring binder, including a guide to sharpening and using hand tools.

“That,” she says, “was my bible.”

Another important part of the home picture was that Alexander’s mother, a former Sloyd student in Massachusetts, had collected some old furniture, including a post-and-rung chair with a fiber seat. “It had always been there,” Alexander says about the chair. “I liked that chair. It was comfortable, low and stocky but had an elevated air to it.”

Alexander attended Baltimore City Polytechnic Institute, a four-year high school that specialized in engineering – graduating there would give her a year’s head start at university. In high school she studied engineering with extensive shop work, from combustion to electricity to woodworking – things that stuck in her scientific mind and would come in handy later on when bending chair parts with heat and moisture.

After graduating, Alexander enrolled at Johns Hopkins University as a sophomore to study engineering. But she was shocked to learn the school was teaching the same material from high school, but to to four decimal points of precision instead of two.

“I was bored,” she says. “I was interested in music,” she says.

And she founded a repertory jazz trio and played around Baltimore, playing piano in bars instead of studying. She left Johns Hopkins and went to night school to study mathematics. Then she quit that, got a job as a draughtsman and then at the War Plant – all while singing and playing jazz piano with the Southland Trio.

But one morning, Alexander was lying in bed unable to sleep and heard a voice from her childhood speaking to her. It was the voice of Snowball, a voice on the radio show “Uncle Bill and Snowball,” which featured a blind banjo player who would sing in the high falsetto voice of Snowball.

“Go to law school,” Snowball says. Alexander takes the disembodied advice and by 3:15 that afternoon is enrolled in law school at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

Alexander graduates law school in four years instead of three because she decides to attend night classes to prevent her from playing jazz on weeknights. After coming in first on the bar exam, Alexander married “a wonderful girl” named Joyce, now deceased, and starts a traditional law career. Which might have been the end of the story if it weren’t for meeting Charles Hummel at Winterthur Museum.


Broken chairs. Alexander’s research has been informed by many bits of research, including looking at bits of chairs that have broken to learn why they failed.

Shaker Chairs
Like many young people, Alexander and his wife fixed up an old house and Alexander  starts reading English books on traditional trade, including chairmaking. She fixes up a fishing boat (which later became a pond for storing wet wood for chairmaking), starts making stools and decides to make some chairs.

“I called a firewood man and said I want a hickory log so long and so straight,” Alexander says. Later on, “I hear a great sound at the back. He’s dropping off hickory logs. Don’t ask me how I broke those down to get them on the lathe. But it’s time to make a chair. I got those legs up on the lathe, and the lathe was jumping across the room.

“When the rough, split spindle finally turned round, 6’-long sopping-wet strands of hickory traveled up the gouge and hung themselves up on my right ear. I said, ‘I will never go to the lumberyard again.’ ”

And she never has.


Almost homemade. Alexander enjoys making effective tools from inexpensive raw materials. Here she made an useful side hatchet from a standard double-bevel hatchet.

Alexander and Joyce are fascinated by the Shakers. They make several trips to the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community, where Sister Mildred there becomes Joyce’s “spiritual guide.” Alexander decides to make a Shaker chair with a one-slat back.

“So I made some very clunky Shaker chairs with one slat and we used fake twisted paper (instead of rush or tape for the woven seat),” she says.


Boring the joints. Alexander demonstrates boring the mortises in a leg using a benchtop fixture that simplifies the process.


In the meantime, Alexander joins the Early American Industries Association and meets Charles Hummel, the author of the book “With Hammer in Hand” (University Press of Virginia) and a curator at Winterthur.

With Hummel’s guidance, Alexander becomes an expert on antique chairs made by the Dominy family on Long Island, including one interesting chair in the study collection that could be disassembled when the humidity is low (she was permitted by the museum to disassemble the chair, by the way).

All of this leads Alexander to experiment with wet wood. To test theory after theory on joinery, moisture content and how wood behaves. Some of the chairs work fine. Some do not. At some point Alexander decides to write a book about her chairs and travels to New England in 1977 at the suggestion of fellow craftsman Richard Starr. Alexander says she and Starr visited John Kelsey, the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, at his home with a draft of the manuscript for “Make a Chair from a Tree” (Alexander says she “just happened to have the draft in hand”). Kelsey stayed up the night to read the draft.

“Kelsey read the draft overnight and hired me in the morning,” Alexander says. “Kelsey also hired Bruce Hoadley to read the text. Hoadley advised Kelsey, and I listened to every word.”

Make a Chair From a Tree
“Make a Chair from a Tree” was the first woodworking book published by Taunton Press, Alexander says. At the time, the new magazine was just getting started working on books with Tage Frid and Bruce Hoadley, but Alexander was ready to go, says Kelsey, the then-editor.

“I remember thinking it was a perfect topic for the then-new Fine Woodworking audience, the concept was so elemental and fundamental, and so unlike anything then in print; it cut to the very core of what we were trying to do,” Kelsey says. “At the same time, the publisher, Paul Roman, had a more conventional view of our woody audience and judged it a risky proposition, perhaps a very hard sell. But we didn’t know, and it wasn’t going to be a huge investment of time or money, so we agreed to jump and find out.”

Kelsey and Starr traveled to Baltimore to work on the book with Alexander. Roman, the magazine’s publisher, shot the photos, Alexander says. The team worked to shape up the manuscript for its 1978 release. (Upon reflecting on the process, Alexander says she was “eternally grateful” for Starr’s help in particular.)

Meanwhile, Alexander continued to investigate on the chair technology and offered huge changes right up until the moment the book went to press – an unconventional way to make a book (or a chair for that matter).

One of the biggest last-minute changes was in how the parts were shaped. Alexander had been using a lathe to turn the components. But right before an Early American Industries meeting, Alexander was told she couldn’t use a lathe because it was too dangerous to the audience if something flew loose.

“I was down in the shop kicking stuff. I didn’t know what to do,” Alexander says. “Joyce gives me a cup of tea. She says, ‘You shave stuff eight-sided to put it on the lathe don’t you? Well keep going.’ ” Alexander went to the meeting and returned with a shaved chair.

Alexander switched to shaving the chairs instead of turning them. Kelsey then had to re-write the book, Alexander says.

“But we wanted a great little gem of a book and we didn’t want to be issuing revised editions within a year or two, so we rode the pony right to the ground,” Kelsey says.

“Make a Chair from a Tree” hit the market in 1978 with multiple advertisements in the magazine that were supported by articles from Drew Langsner and Alexander on green-wood techniques and technology. Kelsey says the book  – 128 pages in an unusual 9” x 9” format – was a hard sell with most readers. But it was aimed right between the eyes of Peter Follansbee in Massachusetts.


Chair in use. While Peter Follansbee was the joiner at Plimoth he would use this chair made by Alexander to explain some aspects of joinery and chair technology.


“I was in my shop with a table saw and a drill press,” Follansbee says. “I think I was trying to make a bookcase. With those two articles I was just captured.”

Follansbee bought the book, started making chairs and in 1980 saw that Alexander was teaching a class at Country Workshops in North Carolina. Though Follansbee didn’t drive a car, he found a way to the school via an airplane, two buses and 25 miles of hitchhiking and walking. In time he became a regular at the school, and he and Alexander became friends through a love for green woodworking and a twisted sense of humor.

At the time, Alexander was exploring theories of how case pieces had been made using 17th-century green-woodworking techniques such as riving stock, and joinery techniques including drawboring that Benno Foreman, Robert Trent and Hummel at Winterthur were also researching. They helped open the door for Alexander’s research in giving her access to old pieces.

“He (Alexander) was looking for someone to test his theories,” Follansbee says. “He was practicing law and didn’t have time to build a complex piece. So I ended up saying, ‘I’ll go fart around with some of this.’ I had given up all my power tools. I had found a good-sized log. He (drew out) the joint on the junk mail on his table. I rose to the bait.”


In the country. Jennie, Peter and Theodore during their early days at Country Workshops.


That moment launched a long correspondence between Alexander and Follansbee, who would swap letters and photographs from their homes in Baltimore and Massachusetts. And eventually the letters led to the book “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” (Lost Art Press), which explored 17th-century joinery and stock preparation.

This dunking into the world of green woodworking led Follansbee to become the joiner at Plimoth Plantation for more than 20 years, where he continued to explore 17th-century furniture.

“All in all, (Alexander) has been a huge part of my life,” Follansbee says.

Country Workshops
Follansbee was similar to many woodworkers who discovered green woodworking through “Make a Chair from a Tree.” They started with the book and ended up studying it deeply under the direct tutelage of Alexander at Country Workshops in rural North Carolina.

Drew and Louise Langsner founded Country Workshops in 1978 shortly after the couple had written a book titled “Handmade,” and Drew had just finished a book called “Country Woodcraft.”

“Almost as soon as that book comes out I get a letter from John who was very excited about the book,” Drew says. The two resolve to meet when Drew traveled to New England to speak at the Woodcraft Supply store.

During the visit, Drew invited Alexander to Country Workshops to teach a class on building a simple stool. That class soon evolved into a class on building a simple chair with one slat and finally the chair that appeared on the cover of “Make a Chair from a Tree.”

And Country Workshops became the flash point for woodworkers who wanted to explore traditional woodworking in a deep way that was rooted both in tradition and science.


Sitting pretty. Alexander’s chair (background) with a simple antique ladderback in front. You can see both the similarities in form but the vast differences in style.

Even today, people come from all over the world to study chairmaking at Country Workshops, many of them inspired by Alexander’s incredibly lightweight chair.

“In fact, some students (from Australia) were here last week were sent here by Jennie,” Louise says. “She is always encouraging people. I think that is a special thing about her – generosity.

“Woodworking is such a special part of her life and she wants to share.”

So what is it about Alexander’s chair that still continues to inspire people to build it? Drew says it’s interesting to him because Alexander’s chair is essentially a historical ladderback design that appears over and over.

But Alexander was not content to just build a reproduction and call it done. Alexander, a jazz singer, likes to explore variations on a theme.

“The Appalachian chairs were a little clunky,” Drew says. “John’s are really slender and elegant. How he came up with that look I don’t know. But the look changed everything. He refined the chair just perfectly.”

In fact, Drew says he’s about to start making a set of them for their house and daughter. And they were going to be exactly the same chair shown on the cover of “Make a Chair from a Tree.”

“It’s like Alexander took an old piece of music,” Drew says. “She’s following all the 300-year-old notes and making it new again.”

— Christopher Schwarz

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