Saturday, 15 May 2010

Hig Tech and Low Tech

My practical skills are improving all the time. So are my improvisation skills - think 'MacGyver' improvising, not 'standing in front of a brick wall telling jokes' improvising. I can fix pretty much anything around here with a leatherman, which is like a pair of pliers married to a swiss army knife. I have to improvise because stuff breaks all the time and we haven't got much of a tool kit. But there is such a feeling of success when it works, which is surprisingly more often than you would think.

I would like to say that this is because I'm technically gifted. It's not. It's because our life is, for the most part, low-tech. Relatively speaking. We have electricity and central heating. I have a car, a mobile phone, a refrigerator. I have a computer and the interweb. We're not exactly living off the grid here.

But we are trying to keep it simple. Old machines, reconditioned appliances, basic technology (is that an oxymoron?) that can be repaired. I think it's an appropriate choice for our lifestyle because we haven't got time to be fiddling with complex things. There's only two of us. So much time is lost when machines break down. Complicated machines have more parts to break down and are less easy to fix with, say, baler twine or a limited knowledge of electronics.

Mike acquired an old microscope from a lab at Cambridge University (I didn't ask how). It needed a domestic plug fitted so we could use it at home, for looking at microorganisms causing diseases in the pheasants. I googled a wiring diagram, cannabalised a plug from a broken lamp, and used my leatherman to strip the wires and put on the new plug:

Caution: Genius at Work

I couldn't have felt more MacGyver-y if I was fixing it with a ballpoint pen, a chewing gum wrapper and a piece of string (Actually I think he used that combo to effect a jailbreak, not fix a microscope). I plugged it in and there was a godawful BANG which blew the bulb and tripped the fuse.

That never happens to MacGyver.

A neighbor who happens to design complex electrical systems for a living was happy to take a look at it for us. Seems my re-wiring was spot-on (WooHOO!) but there was only a 6 volt bulb in it. And I plugged it into a 240 volt socket (D'OH!). Lesson learned.

On a daily basis I depend on the very low-tech. For example, the weather pinecone -

Along with the outdoor min/max thermometer, the pinecone makes up my "weather station". When the pinecone is open, as in the picture, we can expect dry weather. When the scales on the pinecone are shut tight, rain is coming. It doesn't matter what the TV says, or BBC weather on-line, my pinecone is never wrong. They've been predicting rain for the last two days. My pinecone stayed open so I planned outdoor chores. Not a drop of rain.

The secret of the pinecone was taught to me by Gilbert, the octagenarian farmer I lived next door to in rural France. Neither of us spoke the other's language, but between the ten French words I knew and some elaborate mime (wasn't Marcel Marceau French?), Gilbert explained the concept of the pinecone.

He also taught me to cut rose branches to a point and put them in mole holes. The point would 'pique le taupe' - poke the mole in his sensitive nose - and deter him from making mounds in my already pathetic looking vegetable patch. I figured you don't get to 80 without learning a few things so I took his word on both weather prediction and mole control. Gilbert was also missing some fingers on both hands, so he likely learned some things himself the hard way. Though he never could learn my name and called me Janette for as long as I knew him. It sounded so much more glamorous than Jennifer that I prefered it anyway.

So we have the technical and the low-tech, but we also have just pure ignorance. We've owned our truck for nearly two years now. Mike had a puncture and the guys down at the garage chaged it for him. When they put the back seat down to get the tire iron Mike took the opportunity to ask them what that silver box was behind the seat. "Mike, That's your CD player. You can put 6 CDs in it and play it through your radio. Didn't you know you had that?"

Neither of us did. Neither of us had ever seen a CD car changer box thing before. Between us we don't even own 6 CDs. I have exactly one CD: John Denver's Greatest Hits (Thanks Seester!). That's the upgrade from the eight-track tape version we listened to as kids.

But I did get one of those cassette tapes that you can plug your iPod into so it plays in the car. I bought Mike one too, for his work truck. He gives me his iPod shuffle when it "stops working" (ie needs recharging) or with the request "Can you put AC/DC songs on it for me?". Of course I can, I totally know how to do that. If only I could do that with just a ballpoint pen, a chewing gum wrapper and a piece of string - THAT would be something!


Poppy Cottage said...

Best I copy you five CD's then!!

Paula said...

Great post! I'm going to have to find the right pine cone for that, because although I'm way up in the Pacific Northwest where they invented pine cones, I can't recall having seen any that look like that one. Do you know if it works with other conifers or just pines? I have three pines out front, but they have little, bitty cones. Does size matter in this case?

I'm also going to have to try the rose stick trick as soon as I have some rose prunings. All my raised veg beds have hardware cloth underneath them because I don't want anything snagging my babies, so of course this darn mole is chunneling through my only flower border. Years ago I read that sticking an unwrapped piece of Juicy Fruit gum down a mole hole will do the trick because they can't resist the gum and eat it, and then they basically....seize.

Jennifer Montero said...

Colette - Can you send someone over with the CDs to show me how to use it??

Paula - If I were you, I would collect a few different types of pinecones and hang them up and see which ones are the most accurate and responsive. But that's because I love experiments! It definitely works with other conifers, but bigger cones are better.

I was told the Juicy Fruit gum trick at Gardening School but I've never tried it. The rose thing didn't get rid of the moles from the garden but did stop them making mounds where I couldn't tolerate them.

I use scissor traps now since our local mole catcher taught me how to use them effectively. There is a real artform to catching moles.

Gamekeeper's wives used to make an extra income skinning the mole and selling their prepared skins. They were made into wristwarmers, or waistcoats which took a lot of skins and a year to complete.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I love the pinecone trick! I've noticed that the bazillion pine cones lying around our property open when it's dry and shut when it's wet, but did it ever occur to me to use it as a weather gauge? Noooo.

We're planning (some day) to run electricity to the garage, and you are SO inivited.

Kate said...

Hot damn! I am SO on that pine cone trick. I'm going to have to keep an eye out for various kinds. The only ones I know for sure how to lay my hands on (white pine and teeny-tiny hemlock) probably aren't going to be the good kinds. So how far in advance does your pine cone warn you of rain? And does it work for snow too (i.e when temps are below freezing)?

People used to skin mole and cure mole skins?!? That sounds like dedication, or extreme boredom. Unless of course they were worth a LOT of money. I'll try the rose bush trick too.

Thanks for the tips!

Paula said...

Mole fur is actually pretty cool, the way it stands straight up so they can easily move forwards and backwards in their tunnel.

All the same, I'm glad that when we unearthed one in the compost pile (boy- THAT must have been hog heaven for that little dude) a few weeks ago that I closed him up in my gloved hands and took him over to the ravine around the corner from our house.

Thanks for the info on the pine cone- I'll keep an eye out for a likely specimen (or two).

Jennifer Montero said...

Tamar - Next time you have friends visit from the city, when you're out for a walk look at the ground and say "Huh, looks like rain (or good weather..)". Your friends will inevitably wonder how you can tell by looking at the ground. Then you astound them with your knowledge of reading pinecones. You will become know in Manhattan circles as Tamar Survivorman.

Jennifer Montero said...

Kate - I don't know how long it takes the pinecone to react, just that when it feels like the weather's on the change I look at it and it's telling me what I need to know.

I think it's pretty quick to react as it's really the result of its seed distribution method responding to the right conditions for letting its seed drop. It works anytime there's enough moisture in the air so I suspect it predicts snow too.

I forgot to say with the rose stem trick cut the point so that when you put it in the ground, the thorns are facing away from the cut. This way when the mole pushes into it, the thorns dig into the soil and create resistance.

Jennifer Montero said...

Paula - I didn't know that about mole fur! That's really interesting.

I bet the mole you found in your compost was fat from all the worms. We get slow worms (a type of legless lizard) and hedgehogs in our compost but I've never come across a mole. They don't know what they're missing here!