Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Puppies and Mailing Lists

Since there's been some talk about newsletters lately, I thought I'd mention again that we have one too.

Unlike this blog (which combines family and work life), there's a bit more focus.
It's mostly rocket-mass-heater-related updates, especially workshops and events we're involved with, but I do share other things we're particularly excited about including boat stuff, appropriate technology, and permaculture.
So far the newsletter has been sporadic, but we just crossed into pay-as-you-go numbers (we had been hosted for free until now).
So we hope to get up to once-a-month posting or so, maybe even more in the coming months when we launch our Rocket Mass Heater Builder's Guide on Kickstarter. 
Here's the link to sign up for our newsletter if you're interested: ErnieAndErica Mailing List Signup

If you'd rather just browse our past updates at your convenience, we have a blog called "Ernie and Erica's Joint Adventure" at  We post here more often than we release the newsletter.
Our general schedule is at: 
I was quoted this week on a cool architecture blog called "Misfits," which inspired me with visions of ancient Persia.  The middle east contains working examples of utterly amazing pre-industrial civilizations, or maybe early industrial depending on whether you define it by repetitive specialized processing, or by the use of fossil fuels. They made full use of solar and wind and radiant cooling and gravity-fall power, to the point where they had "passive solar" (actively human-managed) ice houses in the desert.  Fuels were scarce and therefore not widely used to solve problems that could be handled with other methods.

So if mud fences, plus bubbling fountains, plus ice cream on 100-degree-days, plus waterproofing with edible materials is your idea of permaculture, take a look at these "It's Not Rocket Science" topics.

Further Puppy Updates

This puppy we found east of Omak is a remarkably good dog, with potential for farm or family jobs.  We hope that it's just a question of finding the farmer who was starting his training a little early.  I'm coming to understand that puppy-dumping is all too common around here, despite the free availability of spay/neuter assistance through the cat shelter.
Ernie and I have travel commitments for at least 2 plane trips this year, so even though we appreciate this dog's excellence, we could not responsibly care for a dog without help.  Please me know if you might want to be a second home (or the primary home) for a smart puppy with good small-stock-dog or family-dog potential. 
My best case is that his owners call in about a week, after we've had a chance to enjoy him but before he interferes with other work. 

My next-best case is that someone we know adopts him, and we can visit; I'd like to see him settled with a regular family or some farm work to keep him useful.  I think I'd keep him if I can figure out how to do it without seriously stunting his lovely personality, nor shirking our work.

Puppy Profile:

Ernie guesses he is about 6 weeks old, currently 8 or 10 lbs - about like a big cat. We plan to give the owners a couple of weeks to claim him before finding him a permanent home. 

Puppy might do very well with some work to do, small animals to herd, other pets or kids to play with.  He's remarkably easy on car trips (falls asleep, or cuddles), and likes to lie near but not under my feet.

Behavior so far suggests a "beta" personality - smart, good at taking orders, a nice balance of curious and mellow.  Sociable with strangers, but knows who he's with.  He romps a little and sleeps a lot, I guess that's a puppy for you.  Time will tell whether he needs active challenges, or if he's content to become a sleeps-at-the-feet office dog.

So far he has not shown the hyper-OCD personality of some full-blood border collies, he's just alert and observant when he's not asleep.  But he does seem to pick up on "the rules" pretty quickly for a crittur who still doesn't know what his tail is.  Our cats have taken an interest in his training (by means of the velvet-gloved fist), and he learns quick.  Everyone is getting along pretty well. 

My only concern would be what he has learned from his first adventure on the highway.  The venture has brought access to Ernie's cooking and a seemingly-inexhaustible supply of dust bunnies to play with.  
He might not learn his lesson, and be prone to go exploring.
He's very good at fishing out odds and ends from 3-year-old Christmas crafts from among the baseboards.

My floor has not been this clean in years.  ;-)
p.s. Anyone who knows just how much we travel for work can see our dilemma. 
This little guy has already handled meeting strange people, about 8 hours in the car without complaint or accident, cats as big as he is, a change of diet, snow-camping toilet conditions, and sleeping through the night by himself in a strange place. 

And while we're far from puppy-proof he is batting over 500 on playing with appropriate stuff.  Which, in a 6-week-old puppy, seems a minor miracle. 

I do think he has some Border Collie in him.  He seems to have an instinct for rules.  While he doesn't follow them 100%, he tends to pick things we've approved for play in the past, like sticks and orange peels, over things we've disapproved, like electrical cords.  It's a challenge to me to be consistent, to think through what rules I need him to learn if he were to stay with us.  He'd need to get along well on farms, or with a family, given that our travels involve both.
So if we were ever going to get a dog, this may be the ultimate candidate.

To train a good dog into an excellent one, we'd need more than dog-sitting - we'd need some time-share puppy buddies, who could continue with training and care while we're gone on any trip that can't accommodate a puppy.  Or a new, permanent home where he can be loved and useful, and we can visit. 
If he is Border Collie, he might need some small livestock to herd around, or a similar job to do, to be as happy as a smart dog deserves to be.  All we have for small livestock around here are cats and ageing biddy hens, and one horse.  But he seems more mellow, with shorter hair than the Internet's border collie puppy pictures.
Same cute nose, though.

I'm hoping his original owners get ahold of us, because it's going to be a tough decision otherwise.


"I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make
it shorter."
- Blaise Pascal, 1657

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bad Hobbits

A friend is contemplating how to make a real, working version of the round hobbit-doors shown in the Lord of the Rings movies:

In order to post pictures to that forum, I need them up somewhere on the Interwebs first.  So here they are:

Monday, January 12, 2015

Kickstarter Dreams Meet "Real" Life

Since I started watching Kickstarter projects (see previous post), I've seen some amazing stuff.

This one is fascinating.

It doesn't meet some of the criteria I've come to judge campaigns on: the video is a little longer (over 4 minutes instead of about 2), and instead of getting one of a guaranteed run of widgets, you are getting some bonus rewards in order to support a single, expensive prototype.

The concept, a fog-collector as a clean-water solution for the Ethiopian highlands, is fascinating.

Is it a practical answer to a desperate humanitarian crisis? 

Or is it a dreamer, design-school, overly-ambitious project that is only going to work in climates where it is unnecessary?
(Note the grassy-green backdrop behind the prototypes, very different from the dry African farm country in the project destination photos.)

They have put some real time into it already, and while they don't report the performance of the previous prototypes, the fact that they have done at least two desert-climate prototypes lends credibility.

I'm backing it at a low level and keeping an eye on it for further documentation.

I also think that a dew-harvester made with something as simple as pine boughs could be a real possibility for our arid montane West, where we do see a lot of fog in season.  Ideas to play with!

Here's the project link: Warka Water,

Also, talking to Debbi Cornell today, I was remembering some other ancient desert-climate technology that I have been admiring lately.

Yakhchal, qanat, wind-catcher towers, and Persian courtyard-and-fountain design, all expounded on the "It's Not Rocket Science" portion of the architectural blog "Misfits."

English: Yakhchal of Yazd province
Picture from the above blog, credit: Wikipedia
If nothing else, they're excellent Scrabble words.

If you live in arid climates, these may be life-saving technologies to investigate.  Certainly worth understanding the concepts behind them: wind-catchers use circulation, evaporative cooling, both wind and solar-chimney draft principles; yakhchal use radiant cooling, heat stratification, insulation, ventilation, and possibly an element of human labor to conserve coolth in a desert climate.

One of the hallmarks of ancient, sophisticated, persistent civilizations (hey, that sounds a lot like "permaculture") is using locally-abundant elements to "power" seemingly-impossible achievements (water collection without rain, ice storage without refrigeration in deserts that dip below freezing only a few nights per year).   
I'd definitely look into these before designing a single additional structure for your arid-climate homestead, village, or metropolis.

For temperate and coastal climates, I might suggest the recent National Geographic article on the stone temples of the Orkney Islands (northern Scotland), the Norse turf homes at Hurstwic, and cedar-plank longhouses.

Pay special attention to the relationship between stone (thermal mass), insulation, ventilation, and the home's central hearth; and to the difference between structures designed for centuries of infrequent use (Orkney) vs. occupant survival over a winter, years, or decades (Hurstwic).   The oldest surviving structures are often optimally designed for permanence (undressed stone), not comfort.  The oldest continually-occupied homes in an area can be quite informative.

Homes designed for occupation can decay surprisingly fast when unoccupied; their ventilation (which prevents mold and rot) may depend on routine occupant activities like cooking, heating, and so on.  Likewise, clothing that is worn every day rarely gets infested with moths, but stored clothing may grow moth or mildew unless very carefully cleaned and stored in optimal conditions.

Buildings not well-designed for occupation can last for centuries or only years.  They may be comfortable only seasonally, and may collect condensation unintentionally when occupied in ordinary local weather conditions.

Ahhh, winter food for thought.

In nearly-unrelated news, I am very much enjoying my new hat.
The hat was hand-knit and felted (fulled) by Debbi Cornell of Triple C Permaculture Farms, and the flower is a hair ornament I got a couple years back from felt artist Leaha Passaro of Leaping Sheep Farms.  Leaha almost didn't recognize her flower because it looked so at home on the hat!

Yours as always,

Friday, January 2, 2015

Kickstarter Research

So we're getting ready to publish this book, the Builder's Guide.

Current plan is to do a Kickstarter right after our friend with the big website gets done with his next one, probably end of Feb / early March.

We are doing some research on what makes a good Kickstarter campaign.
 Here are some examples we've liked:

Charming crafts - one with a solid video and rewards structure, the other just fun to look at the craft itself even though not a great sales presentation.

Lovely, professional-quality video and a very successful campaign.

 We also saw a bunch of successful projects that had very snappy video, good pacing, fabulous interesting content.  Sometimes funny, sometimes just entertaining in a more dramatic or points-made kind of way.  The better ones included motion. 

For the filming-myself-with-no-help category, there are a few ways to do it OK, but a lot of ways to make it lame.  I think we will get as much video with motion in it as possible - including some shots tomorrow with the Wheaton Labs folks, and as much workshop video as we can get our hands on.

One bad example gave us the lesson: Boring is bad. Preachy boring is worse.  Watching the video should not remind you of DMV paperwork in any way.

Video projects have a distinct advantage when it comes to using great video footage and editing skills.  Not sure how well this translates to a book project, but we have some friendly advisors who are pretty confident it can work.

Our current preview page is a work in progress. The video is boring, and I made it without a script on a not-so-great day.  So we already have plans for a much better video.  Comments on the rewards, and whether this is

We are considering what pitch to make.
Do we go with 'save the world' - pollution and energy-related shots followed by the no-smoke out of a rocket chimney?
Do we go more conservative, to avoid alienating the folks who have no problem with gas-guzzling they just can't afford to heat their house that way, and emphasize saving money and chore time?  (Those folks are probably not on the Internet as much as the younger change-the-world set, but they may have more money and more interest in this particular book.)
Do we just make it an entertaining video that makes some nice sounds and pictures, maybe a pajama party and some flickering fires, and a simple pitch to accompany the detail in the text?  Here's us, it's a book, join the fun!

Making something that works for both strangers and the in-crowd, and packs a little bit of relevant punch without offending the intelligent folks in any of our support categories, would be a coup.

We would like to ask some friends about contributing good video clips (we're looking at you, and

We'd also like to ask about video content, and reward levels, that would really excite you or make you want to rope in your friends.  Not fond of chain letters - so we're looking for ways to deliver more value and cool-factor that makes this a joy to participate in, with minimal strings attached.

Some great ideas for rewards so far (think cheap to deliver, no mailing-label parties for low-level rewards, but very fun to get and enjoy).

- how-to diagrams for fun projects that you can show off at a backyard bonfire or barbecue
- recipes for yummy things that cook beautifully on a rocket stove
- existing digital plans and booklets, up to and including chapters of the new book

 The book itself is the mid-level reward, of course, and $20 to $30 is the target range for most serious supporters.
- Autographed copies are a nice slight upgrade.
- We also have the option to offer physical copies of the existing DVDs featuring us, for a mid to high-level reward.

For higher-end rewards, we saw things like:
- Skype consultation (another permaculture guru offered 1 hour consultations plus a nice bundle of the mid-level rewards for $250).
- Opportunities to attend workshops, or other events (usually $500 and up, but we saw one craft project that offered a class for something like $60 which seemed very reasonable... no reason we couldn't do a handful of local evening presentations in Tonasket, Portland, and Montana, or something like that.  Maybe even one in NY.  We can limit the numbers to what our event hosts can handle.  Worth contemplating.)
- Getting your name in the acknowledgements, credits, etc.  For some reason this one makes me nervous - maybe I'm not sure if it's falsifying or pandering or something - but  the most likely supporters at the higher levels would be people who are very committed and may have already done interesting work of their own, so it's not a bad option if we get final discretion on things like business names.

Also, realistically, how do we get the best results for the book?
We know we'd like a good editor, distribution, etc, which suggests a conventional printing house if one is willing to pick up the book.  It would be nice to know before finalizing the reward timeline estimates.  (Not interested in more offers from vanity presses that only do print-on-demand; we are not confident in the editorial quality that would be delivered by a press that makes its money primarily off the authors rather than by sales of books, and if you leave aside those services the printing starts to look like a poor deal.)

We had some nibbles a year ago from two legitimate printing houses with a good position in the relevant market - "Alternative Living," which includes everything from prepper shelters to homemade pickles to strawbale homes.

If you have good video of rocket mass heater projects, especially the 8" brick-firebox designs we've been making since about 2009, or anything recent, this would be a great time to find out how to get some of that from you. 
Editing help very welcome, simple animation could also be useful.

We would love a little family help with copyright-free music.  Especially something pleasant with an up-tempo beat that would energize you for steady work (dance, march, sea chantey, Irish reel, even campfire songs are good but must be copyright-free classics or original work).
If you want to make my dreams come true and compose that catchy cob-stomping song I've always wanted, I will write you into the budget.
(but i do need something in the next few weeks for the introductory video.).

We have a good collection of rocket mass heater photos, but if you have never sent us that finished baby-picture of your project, or an adorable shot you got at a workshop that has us in it, this would be a great time.

Reviewers for Kickstarter advice:
If you hang out on Kickstarter a lot and would be willing to preview videos or rewards and offer your review, it would be helpful.  Links to good examples of projects you loved are good - or projects that seemed good but failed for some reason that seems obvious in hindsight.
The most useful reviews, I imagine, will come from people who are:
- kinda interested in rocket stoves  (know what we should be saying about them)
- have friends who aren't already in the choir, but could be (can guess what one or two things would interest them).
That kind of feedback would be super-helpful.
Video makers who know where to get genuinely royalty-free content for music or  entertaining filler (this would be commercial use), that would be great as well.

Publishing connections:
We can do self-publishing, and have some good connections in this field.  But this book is bigger, more 'serious,' and it might be useful to distribute through mainstream channels.  This is our last month to consider publishing deals before finalizing the self-publishing plans.
If you have personal connections with publishers, agents, or editors who work in the how-to, alternative living, or even just generally in nonfiction (non-autobiographical), we'd love to hear from them THIS MONTH. Even if they are not ready to make a decision yet, 15 minutes of their time to help us set realistic delivery timeline goals that could potentially be met after further contract discussions would be incredibly helpful.  (A Kickstarter doesn't have to deliver 100% on schedule, but it's good to have realistic goals and meet them unless the delay is truly unforseeable and unpreventable.)

Other things I'm not thinking about....
now's the time.

Here's what we've got so far (the preview of the page).  Hope to have the improved video up within a couple of weeks.

Comments are welcome on the Kickstarter preview page itself. 

If you have longer comments, or want to indicate your intentions and get some reminder emails once the kickstarter goes live, you could use this thread:

You're also welcome to email me privately if you prefer.

Thanks for all your encouragement.