Monday, December 12, 2005

After a long break...

It feels good to be back blogging. I do not intend to blog about my work, but work and leisure and everything else is so interconnected that it is hard to keep one from affecting another. I am a grad student and at this point I feel kind of stuck, not going anywhere. I am at a point in my studies where a difficult transition needs to be made and things are a bit stressful. Anyway, I hope to keep a good pace of postings here on.
Last Monday I had the chance to visit Michael Mazgaonkar here at our local A.I.D chapter. He had come to give a talk about his work. Michael has been living with Vasava tribals in Gujarat for last 14 years. Becoming one with their life and culture he and his wife are trying to maintain things that are wholesome and nourishing for their culture and introduce things that will make their life more easier. Sunil has a couple of posts that describes Michaeal's work very well (here and here). This article also summarizes their work very well. The day after the talk, I and another volunteer from our chapter had the chance to accompany Michael to visit a Ted and Kathy Carns. Ted and Kathy live in Laughlintown, PA. For last twenty something years, they have been living completely off the grid. They power their home with wind and solar power. They heat their home with wood. They grow a better portion of their food themselves. They drive their vehicles on ethanol made from maple syrup Ted collects from their trees and some waste sugar they get from a local pie factory. Their home is built from local stone and wood. Ted has a sawmill that he powers with the ethanol too.

Visiting this couple was like visiting another world. The extent to which they refuse to be dependent on things which we kind of take for granted is really amazing. Their whole life is just one big experiment in living in a non-conventional way. Another thing that struck me about them is the amount of creativity that goes in living a life like this. A lot of the things Ted has installed come from things that would otherwise end up as junk. They buy a lot of stuff from flea markets and yard sales. In Ted's words they are living off of the "great American excess". They themselves generate very little waste in their home.

Ted learnt most of his skills from his father while growing up. Without any professional training he has managed to learn just about everything that is necessary to find solutions to problems he has faced. When faced with a problem or when he has a new idea, he pursues it by digging up books and researching the internet for solutions.

I was so stuck in this top-down perspective of education that I found it very difficult to believe how this could be done without having some sort of training first. I felt that there is always a need for a teacher and student, a leader and a follower. Ted believes that it is just a matter of overcoming the fear of doing things on your own. Once you overcome the fear, learning comes naturally. This was such a big change of perspective for me that I can't even begin to describe my thoughts about it.

One aspect of Ted and Kathy's life interests me most as an engineer is the low-cost innovation. Simple innovations which are low cost and which can be easily implemented can have very huge impact. An example from Michael's work is the LED flashlights they have developed which are powered by the windmill. As an engineer I feel there is a lot I can contribute to this. By making these low-cost innovations open-source, there is a possibility to spread them effectively to areas (such as rural India, Africa etc.) where they are really needed. Initiatives like ThinkCycle have been experimenting with this process for a while now and it will be wonderful to see where this "open source design" concept goes.
Talking about open source, I tried Open Office 2.0 and totally loved it. I plan to make a complete switch to it as soon as I can. I am really impressed by all the amazing products the open source movement has brought forth (all the Mozilla applications, Open office and all the the publishing platforms like Wordpress etc. and whole host of other things). I want to try Linux (I am a total dummy in that regard) and some other open source products now.

Anyway, that about sums up a lot of things that happened in the break...

Happy Holidays everyone!