Archive for March, 2010

A no technology life is no fun

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 by

I struggled with this challenge. Not because I couldn’t bear to part with a gadget but because I couldn’t find one I was strongly attached enough to make a day’s abstinence a suitably harrowing affair.

It’s not that I dislike modern technology. Far from it – at work I am firmly embedded in a sea of e-mail, communicator conversations and a brilliant phone system which follows me around wherever in the world I am. Take any part of that away from me and I’d be completely lost (as was ironically proven last week when a glitch with our firewall cut us off for 36 hours from e-mail communication with all of our seven overseas offices and had the phone system going on and off like a belisha beacon).

But this was a weekend challenge, so giving up work-related technology gizmos that didn’t count. And at home, although I am a great admirer of modern technology, I don’t actually get to use it that much. The iPod Touch gets played perhaps once a week when I have a quiet moment to fill (it would be twice, but the first time I try it the kids have inevitably flattened the battery and it has to be charged). The iMac (yes I am a lover of Apple technology) sits beguilingly in the corner of the lounge, but the kids are only allowed internet time at the weekend and if I want to use it I have to book weeks in advance. And my HTC touch screen phone (which I love principally for its ability to provide instant access to my office diary wherever I am), in honesty doesn’t get much use as a mobile phone (just checked my call log – a typical week is 8 calls out and 2 calls in). Giving up any of these for a day would be too easy. 

As I said, I struggled and in fact ultimately failed to find a gadget I am so hooked to on a weekend I couldn’t easily give it up for a day. So I thought I’d mention another technology I had to give up at home, involuntarily and for just 12 hours recently. A few weeks ago the water mains burst at the bottom of our road. Thames Water was out quickly to affect a repair, but to do that they had to close down the mains. The first I knew of this was when I went to make a cup of coffee and the tap was dry. We have a combi boiler and so no cold water tank, so there’s no back up storage in the house. Once the mains is closed that’s it. I rang Thames Water to find out what the problem was. They told me of the burst main. I asked them how long it was going to take to fix. They said several hours. I asked if they were going to provide a tanker in the meantime so that people in the street would still have water. I surprised myself at how upset I was with their answer – “we only provide tankers if the water has to be cut off for more than 12 hours at a time”. 12 hours! But I needed a coffee! And I hadn’t had a shower. And what about cooking lunch and dinner? And (horror of horrors) how were we going to flush the loo?

A quick trip to the corner shop and the purchase of 10 large bottles of mineral water solved the first couple of problems and I was planning a family trip to the local Sainsbury’s to use the loo there when, much ahead of the “several hours” estimate by Thames Water for supply to be restored, a gushing sound was heard from the kitchen as water started streaming out of the tap I had accidently left open.

I’ve enjoyed reading the ‘no technology’ day blogs and hearing about the struggle to survive without this or that gadget. But in reality we would all really start to struggle seriously if one of the technologies that fundamentally underwrites our daily existence was taken away from us. We struggled in our house to come to terms with living without clean, safe, piped water in our house for just a few hours. But the reality in the developing world is that there are still something like 1.2 billion people without access to safe water at all. We would really struggle with a power cut after a couple of hours, but there are still 1.5 billion people in the world without any form of electricity and around 3 billion people still have to cook their food over an open fire because they don’t have access to a modern and clean source of energy in the kitchen.

That’s not a no-technology day, It’s a no technology life. And it’s not fun.

Easy peasy?

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 by

So I thought I had an easy option for no tech day.

I was off in my caravan for the weekend with the kids. Which meant no tv, no PC, all I had to do was turn my phone off.

But as we trundled along the A45 (at 50mph – deliberately irritating Jeremy Clarkson if he was near by) my mind went through how this was hardly going to be a low tech day. First of all I need mechanical power and technology (a car!) to get the caravan to where we were going. On arrival the first thing I did was to switch on the gas so we could cook. Then I plugged into mains electric to power the water pump, microwave and halogen lights (caravanning isn’t what it was when I was a kid!)

Even away from electricity I was struck by the technologies I had on my side. The carbon fibre poles which hold up the awning are only one example. It’s amazing to think that people have spent thousands, if not millions of pounds developing technologies to make my caravanning (a “sport” which admittedly only appeals to a minority) a slightly better experience, and to make my awning more affordable. What would the world be like if similar resources were dedicated to the technology challenges faced by people in the developing world? Probably a lot better…..

Technologies for good … and bad

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 by
For No Tech Day, a Saturday when most of us are not at work, the suggestion was to put aside for 24 hours the tech we use for leisure. So, what to do instead of watching DVDs or iPlayer? Parlour games? Board games? I opted for reading a book – admittedly something I might have done anyway. And the book I started reading a week before seemed appropriate to the occasion: Robert Winston’s Bad Ideas: An Arresting History of Our Inventions.
On Saturday I didn’t get to the part where Winston writes about the tech I’d substituted him for. But I did learn that the capacity of the human brain limits us to a maximum of 150 friends. So all of you with several hundred, if not thousand, ‘friends’ on Facebook and other social networks, take note – either you’re kidding yourself or you’re just point scoring.
In his book Lord Winston is making a general point that for every invention by humankind there are both potential good and bad effects. His first example is one of the earliest technologies ever – the use of flint stone blades, which can be weapons as well as domestic knives. This example also highlights that almost everything we do involves the use of some form of technology. (And Winston notes that human beings are not the only species to use simple tools.)

In a couple of chapters on innovations in agricultural production, Bad Ideas suggests that many of the negative effects of technologies are unintended. The perils of industrial agriculture are well described, and derive from the time when agriculture became a business and driven by commercial imperatives. When food producers and sellers are distanced, physically and socially, from food consumers the checks and balances from interaction with 150 trusted people are lost. More complex social institutions become necessary – and that takes us from innovation and technology straight to politics.

Getting the family to give up their mobile phones for the day

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 by

I had asked my family to try and give up our mobiles for the day. 

Initially, I thought it would be extremely difficult as we cannot function without our mobiles and especially as I was planning a weekend away from my children.  My daughter had run out of credit and asked for a top up so my response was that “it was no tech day so I wouldn’t be topping up for her”. 

Normally when I spend time away from my children, my daughter would be texting/calling me constantly though out my time away (from a very early age!) so this is something that I had got use to so it felt really strange not hearing from my daughter all weekend !!!…

 It was nice not to hear from her as her usual calls/texts are about making me feel guilty for not taking her !

Motorcycle diaries

Monday, March 29th, 2010 by

Today we followed in the trackmarks of Che Guevara (albeit 60 years later), crossing the High Andes of Peru by motorcycle.

It’s likely that living conditions in this region haven’t changed much since Che saw them, many decades ago.

At 4,800m above sea level, families live in harsh, desolate and unforgiving terrain.

Why? For their Alpacas.

At high altitudes, Alpacas produce more quality wool and live better lives – even if their owners don’t.

We are introducing simple technologies to help meet families’ basic needs:

  • ‘Eco-san’ toilets – Locally-made, ‘dry’ latrines are perfect for families like Victoria’s. She can even use their waste as fertiliser to improve her crops.
  • Solar power systems – after 50 years of living in the dark, Fransisco now has 2 lights and a radio (and no longer has to pay for, or be harmed by, Kerosene)
  • Improved stoves – Benito and Linda’s new stove uses 50% less fuel (Alpaca dung) and their lungs, just like their walls are no longer coated in soot.

Great work!

Helen Marsh

No Tech Day in pictures

Saturday, March 27th, 2010 by

I have to say I found it a huge struggle to give up my home computer for the day – but it did make me think!

Evo, Evo, Evo!

Friday, March 26th, 2010 by

In the first 5 minutes of our journey through La Paz I counted 27 pieces of graffiti dedicated to President Evo Morales.

You can feel the politics in Bolivia: in the streets, the mountains and the hearts of its people.

Here, none of the apathy that Brown, Cameron and Clegg have to contend with in the run-up to our General Election on May 6th.

Since being elected in 2005, as Bolivia’s first ever indigenous President, Evo Morales has been determined to bring about a ‘democratic revolution’.

For the Aymara people I have met over the past few days, Evo represents the right and opportunity to preserve their culture and create a better future for their grandchildren.

And Evo is fighting for the rights of his people on the world stage too.

Bolivia produces just 0.1% of the world’s CO2 but, as I have seen, its families are being hit first and hardest by the effects of our emissions. Following the failure of the Copenhagen negotiations, Evo is launching an alternative: ‘the People’s World Conference on Climate Change’.

It’s taking place in Bolivia, 19 – 21 April.

I for one will be watching (and hoping for a more just outcome for the families who I can’t shake from my mind).

Helen Marsh

Dying from climate change

Thursday, March 25th, 2010 by

People living in the Andes mountains of Bolivia are among the lowest contributors to climate change and yet they are suffering some of the most severe effects. Instead of blaming others they are learning to adapt to the changes in their environment through the help of Practical Action.

Sara-Jane Brown from our communications team is travelling across Peru and Bolivia to see examples of how Practical Action’s work is making a difference to poor communities. Follow my trip live on Twitter: #sarainperu

Reaching new heights in Bolivia

Thursday, March 25th, 2010 by

Walking miles to visit your nearest neighbour and to get rare water supplies is common practice for those living in Colquencha, high above the Bolivian city of La Paz.  Helping them gain access to water and use it more effectively, is one way in which Practical Action is helping them.

Sara-Jane Brown from our communications team is travelling across Peru and Bolivia to see examples of how Practical Action’s work is making a difference to poor communities. Follow my trip live on Twitter: #sarainperu

“Never before in my life have I seen so much water”

Thursday, March 25th, 2010 by

Roberto Castro Mallku and his wife Andrea are the ‘mother and father’ of the community of Micaya. Here, in one of the poorest areas of the poorest country in Latin America (Bolivia), they have spent all 71 years of their lives.

But now they live alone. All 5 of their children have moved to Brazil. They couldn’t see a future for their families in the highlands of Bolivia – which essentially means no long-term future for the Aymara culture.

Practical Action is working with the families of Micaya, and other communities across this vast, challenging landscape to improve their lives and maintain their heritage. Roberto was passionate in declaring love for his lands; life may be hard but these families are fighters.

Here, the main challenge is water (the dry season is becoming more severe, the rainy season is shorter and the glaciers are disappearing).

We are helping families to cope with this change; a simple water reservoir, to capture and store any available water. Built in October 2009, this system holds 17,000 cubic m of water and is already making a  real difference for crops, cattle and the community.

Knowing that Roberto, Andrea and the other 125 families of Micaya carried each rock for the reservoir 20kms is humbling. But it’s also hugely inspiring – this community may be poor and marginalised, but, wow, do they have strength and spirit.

Helen Marsh