Archive for January 2018

Several years ago, the company I worked for had a big Halloween celebration. One of my coworkers decided that a group of us needed to dress up as the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. So she worked for days sewing costumes for all of us, and even brought in plastic pig noses for us to wear. For an authentic touch, she asked that we also decorate our desks with the building materials featured in the story. I got the short straw (so to speak) and ended up making a pathetic mess by scattering straw all around my desk, and the “pig” who used sticks didn’t fare much better. But our colleague with the brick “house” simply printed out a huge brick pattern on a large-format color printer and wrapped it around his desk. In life as in the story, his design was clearly the best.

It is difficult to set aside the bias that straw is an inappropriate building material, even knowing that wolves lack the lung capacity to blow down a straw house. And yet people have been building sturdy, comfortable houses out of straw bales for more than a century. This building technique has been, shall we say, a bit slow to catch on—and is not without its limitations. But using straw as a building material turns out to have some interesting merits.

If You Can’t Eat ‘Em…
Straw is what’s left over when grains like wheat, barley, or rice are harvested—basically the hollow stalks. Unlike hay, which can be used to feed animals, straw is a nearly useless agricultural byproduct. Millions of tons of straw must be burned or otherwise disposed of each year. Inconveniently, it doesn’t even decompose rapidly. Automated baling machines, invented in the 1890s, compact straw into tightly compressed blocks, so that they will at least occupy as little space as possible. Faced with a surplus of straw bales, a lack of trees, and a cold winter approaching, some settler long ago decided to stack up the bales and use them as the walls of a house. This worked surprisingly well, and after years of refinement, straw bale construction is beginning to gain respect as a mainstream technique.

Walls made of straw bales are held together and reinforced with rebar (or sometimes, wooden or bamboo stakes). In some designs, walls made entirely of straw bales support a roof; in others, a conventional wooden frame is used as the load-bearing structure while the straw bales form the exterior shell. Straw will rot if exposed to moisture, so to keep it dry, both interior and exterior surfaces are sealed with plaster, stucco, or adobe. The net effect is that walls of a finished straw bale building look just like any other wall, only a bit thicker.

The Last Straw
One of the strongest arguments for using straw as a building material is that it saves lumber. Even if wood is readily available, straw is invariably much cheaper. It’s a rapidly renewable resource, and one that usually goes to waste. A wall made of straw bales also has dramatically higher insulating properties than a standard wooden wall, making buildings that use them very energy-efficient. Straw bale houses are also easier to build than wooden frames, even by people with little experience.

Studies performed by various universities and government organizations have shown that a properly constructed straw bale house, sealed well with plaster, is actually less susceptible to damage by fire than a wooden building. Although you wouldn’t build a high-rise condo out of straw bales, a carefully designed one-story building is also quite safe in an earthquake. Owners must be careful to keep all cracks sealed, though, because once infiltrated by moisture, bugs, or rodents, a straw bale wall will rapidly lose its integrity. Last but not least, straw bale buildings are extremely resistant to damage by wind. So much for the Big Bad Wolf. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Straw Bale Houses…

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For a good book on straw bale buildings, see The Straw Bale House by Athena Swentzell Steen, Bill Steen, David Bainbridge, and David Eisenberg.

Other straw bale resources:

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Like many people, I endured four years of high-school French only to find that I lacked the ability to order a croissant in a Paris bakery without making a fool of myself. I eventually got the hang of basic conversation in French, but then found myself traveling to places where Spanish, German, or Italian (for example) were spoken, and having to start all over again with the basics (“Where’s the bathroom?” “How much does this cost?” “Where have you sent my luggage?”). As much as I enjoy and appreciate linguistic diversity, it can make travel, trade, and diplomacy challenging at times.

In some heavily multilingual areas of the world, most people learn a lingua franca—a regional trade language—in addition to their mother tongue. It stands to reason, then, that this notion could be expanded more broadly. But when someone proposes English or French, say, as a trade language, objections inevitably arise. These languages are notoriously difficult to learn, with strange spellings and lots of grammatical rules and exceptions. But more importantly, they’re loaded with historical and cultural baggage. If your country—not mentioning any names—has been a rival of English- or French-speaking nations, you will likely not jump at the chance to spend long years learning a language with such unpleasant associations. The only hope for a truly universal language would seem to be an artificial one—a language that is designed to be free from cultural biases and easy to learn. This was precisely the goal of Esperanto.

Hoping for a New Language
L. L. Zamenhof grew up in the late 1800s in Warsaw (part of Russia at that time). While still in high school he set out to design a universal artificial language that would facilitate communication within his linguistically diverse community. By the time he finished this side project ten years later, Zamenhof was a practicing ophthalmologist. In 1887, he published the first guide (in Russian) to the new language, which he called “Lingvo Internacia” (international language). Zamenhof wrote the textbook under the pseudonym “Esperanto,” meaning “a person who is hoping” in Lingvo Internacia. Fans of the language decided that “Esperanto” had a nicer ring to it, and they soon adopted it as the informal name of the language.

Esperanto was designed to be both easy to learn and culturally neutral. According to some sources, an English speaker can learn Esperanto up to five times faster than Spanish. For starters, Esperanto uses strictly phonetic spelling—a given letter always makes exactly the same sound. Second, the structure of Esperanto is very simple, with only sixteen basic grammatical rules that need to be learned—and no exceptions to the rules (such as irregular verbs). And third, Esperanto has a very small core vocabulary; new words are constructed by combining words and adding prefixes and suffixes. (Esperanto is thus an agglutinative polysynthetic language, for those who need to have such things spelled out…)

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed
The vocabulary of Esperanto will have a familiar ring to anyone who knows a European language, as roots were borrowed from French, German, and Spanish, among other languages. (A few examples: bona means “good”; porko means “pig”; filo means “son”; hundo means “dog.”) One could argue that this selection represents not so much cultural neutrality as Euro-neutrality, but this hasn’t prevented Esperanto from becoming popular in China and some other parts of Asia.

For all its merits, Esperanto has not reached the level of acceptance its creator foresaw more than a century ago. There may be as many as two million people who speak Esperanto with at least a moderate level of proficiency, but probably no more than a few hundred who learned Esperanto at home as their first language—and no known speakers (over the age of three or so) who speak only Esperanto. Ironically, the cultural neutrality that is touted as such a benefit of the language also serves to limit its growth, because languages tend to spread along with the cultures that gave rise to them. Alas, unless or until the number of Esperanto speakers reaches a larger critical mass, it will be of little value as a trade language, and without a clear value, it will be difficult to convince people to learn it. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Esperanto…

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If you’re interested in learning Esperanto, a good resource is Teach Yourself Esperanto by John Cresswell and John Hartley.

Other Esperanto resources:

There are also several interesting articles comparing Esperanto and Klingon, such as Klingon and Esperanto: The Odd Couple? by Glen Proechel and Dejpu’bogh Hov rur qablli! by Gavin Edwards in Wired 4.08.

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A geodesic dome

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past half century, you have probably encountered a geodesic dome at one time or another. They can be found on playgrounds, at amusement parks, and in museums; and any number of homes and public buildings are constructed using some variation of this structure. Depending on your tastes and disposition, you may think geodesic domes look cool, endearingly retro, or woefully unfashionable. But you may not know the story (and the logic) behind this sometimes-controversial design.

Bucky-ing Trends
R. Buckminster Fuller was one of the most prolific thinkers and inventors of the 20th century. He wrote numerous books, received dozens of patents, and worked tirelessly for decades to solve some of the world’s most vexing problems using the tools of engineering and common sense. For all his innovations, Fuller was a very practical man, and like most engineers he saw a great beauty in elegantly logical solutions—even if they defied tradition, aesthetics, or conventional wisdom. So when a housing crisis arose in the years following World War II, he set out to find the simplest and most effective solution, no matter how unusual it may be.

Fuller loved geometry, and he was particularly impressed by the triangle, the most stable geometrical shape. Many of his building designs involve triangles, because they provide the greatest structural integrity. He also knew that the sphere was the most efficient three-dimensional shape, enclosing the largest possible volume with the smallest surface area—meaning a dome (a partial sphere) should be a logical shape for a building. But dome-shaped buildings are notoriously awkward to construct. Fuller’s innovation was a way to create a sphere (or partial sphere) out of triangles, providing the best of both worlds. He called this shape a geodesic dome, because the pattern of triangles forms an interlocking web of geodesics. A geodesic is the shortest path between two points. This is, of course, a line in two-dimensional geometry, but on the surface of a sphere, the shortest distance between two points is an arc defined by a great circle—a circle with the same diameter as the sphere (like the equator).

The Miracle Building
If all that geometry is too much to wrap your brain around, consider the main advantage Fuller cited in his 1954 patent application for the geodesic dome: this shape, because it is self-reinforcing, requires far less building material than any other design. Conventional buildings, according to Fuller, weigh about 50 pounds (22.7kg) for each square foot (0.09 sq meter) of floor space. A geodesic dome can weigh less than 1 pound (0.5kg) for each square foot of floor space. (One of Fuller’s original geodesic domes was a metal framework lined with a sheet of heavy, flexible plastic.) The upshot of this is that you can create buildings very inexpensively, and with a minimum of equipment and labor. Geodesic domes are also stronger than conventional buildings, highly resistant to earthquakes and wind, and more energy-efficient too. What’s not to like?

Well, that’s a circular question. The main problem with a dome-shaped building is that although it encloses a large volume of space, a lot of that space is not easily usable by humans. The slope of the walls means the floor space is effectively limited (more so, the taller you are), and most furniture, having been designed for flat walls and corners, doesn’t fit well. There’s also the fact that you need a fairly large lot for a dome of any reasonable height; in urban areas, such real estate may be hard to come by. And banks are generally hesitant to provide home loans for dome builders; they’re seen as a risky investment, because there’s no way to gauge their resale value.

All these issues in no way diminish my enthusiasm for Fuller’s design, because, as he did, I feel that logic and elegance count for a lot. Plus—let’s not beat around the sphere—I think geodesic domes look very impressive, and I imagine it would be interesting to live in a space without right angles. If fortune ever smiles upon me broadly enough that I can afford to build my own home, you can be certain a dome will find its way into the design somewhere. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Geodesic Domes…

This article was featured in Carnival of the Green #40.

If you would like to learn more about geodesic domes, visit:

Want to build you own dome home? Check out these resources:

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In a sociolinguistics class years ago, each of the students had to complete a major project on the topic of their choice, and the professor met with each of us to discuss what sorts of things we were thinking of researching. I described some areas of interest, and my professor said, “You should read J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. I think it’s exactly the kind of thing you’re talking about.” I read the book, and although it was not at all relevant to the project I had in mind, it was quite interesting. The entire book was a treatise on performative verbs, which is to say, verbs whose action is accomplished merely by saying them.

I Speak, Therefore I Act
Performatives sound a bit mystical at first, like a spell or incantation. But in fact such verbs are quite commonplace. If you’ve ever said, “I promise” or “I apologize,” you have performed those actions by the simple act of saying them. You’re not talking about doing these things or stating that you’re doing them; you’re actually doing them. The same is true when you say, “I bet,” “I invite,” “I request,” or “I protest,” for example. There are countless other examples, such as:

  • I now pronounce you husband and wife.
  • I’m warning you, don’t go in there.
  • I thank you for your kind attention.
  • You’re fired!
  • I must ask you to leave now.
  • I christen this ship The Daydream.
  • I claim this land in the name of the king of England.

Among Austin’s points in his discussion of performative verbs is that they look exactly like declarative statements, yet they aren’t. “I run this meeting” has the same grammatical form as “I adjourn this meeting,” but the first one is declarative while the second is performative. One of the consequences of this peculiarity is that unlike regular declaratives, performatives cannot be evaluated for truth or falseness. The sentence “You’re happy” can be true or false, but “You’re fired,” if uttered as a performative, is neither true nor false. And yet, there must be some way of evaluating the meaning of such a sentence. After all, if I walked up to a politician I didn’t like and said, “You’re fired,” my doing so would not in fact terminate that person’s employment, whereas it would if I said it to someone who worked for me. Austin used the terms felicitous and infelicitous to describe whether a performative utterance is effective—whether it works. If social conventions are followed and my intentions are sincere, a performative utterance will be felicitous. If I do not have the authority to use a certain verb performatively in a certain context—or if I’m joking, or acting, for example—the very same utterance will be infelicitous.

I Hereby Insult You
There are several other curious facts about performative verbs. For one thing, you can nearly always perform the action specified by a performative verb without actually using the verb. For instance, you can promise to do something by saying, “As surely as the sun rises each morning, I will repay you the cost of lunch.” Or you can apologize by saying, “I’m sorry.” Conversely, you can make a statement that sounds just like a performative, but is simply an ordinary declarative. For example, the expression “I apologize” could be a statement about what I habitually do. (“What happens when I step on someone’s toe?” “I apologize.”) In addition, some activities that seem like good candidates for performative verbs turn out not to fit the pattern. If you said, “I insult you,” that would not constitute an insult; saying “I swear at you” doesn’t mean you have done so. (On the other hand, “I swear to tell the truth” is a performative utterance.)

Ever since I read Austin’s book more than a decade ago, I’ve been more aware of the use of performative verbs, and more likely to use them myself. In some strange way, using words to perform actions feels both elegant and powerful. But don’t take my word for it—try it yourself. I insist. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Performative Verbs…

This article was featured in the About Freelance Writing Blog Carnival – August 10, 2006.

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To learn more about performative verbs, read How to Do Things with Words by J.L. Austin (1962), Performatives by Kent Bach in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or Austin’s Speech Act Theory at The Kerman Khaje-Nasir Higher Education Center in Iran.

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An Ice Hotel

When I first heard about an “ice hotel,” I thought it must be a joke. I’ve heard of igloos, of course, but that’s not really the image that comes to mind when I think hotel. Sure, there was the Bad Guy’s ice lair in the James Bond film “Die Another Day,” but that’s just fantasy, right? The thought that someone might really construct an entire hotel out of ice, rent rooms, and then repeat the process each year was almost too wacky to believe. Believe it—not only does it happen, it has now become the trendiest way to spend a winter vacation.

They’ve Got It Down Cold
The first ice hotel was built in 1989 in a village called Jukkasjärvi in northern Lapland, Sweden. That first year it was a modest, 60-square-meter igloo; this year, the structure measures over 4,000 square meters and has 85 rooms. Construction begins each year in October, and the hotel is open for guests from December through April (weather permitting). By summer the hotel has melted, but plans are already underway for next year’s bigger, better ice structure.

Ice hotels are built, naturally, entirely out of frozen water in the form of ice blocks and hard-packed snow. In some cases, blocks of ice are sawed from a river; for other parts of the building snow is compressed into wooden forms to create building blocks. The guest rooms contain beds made of a block of ice and topped with a foam mattress. You sleep in high-tech mummy-style sleeping bags covered with animal pelts; although the air temperature in the room is below freezing, your body remains toasty warm. If nature calls in the middle of the night, you can head to an adjoining heated building with conventional facilities. Outhouses would not be much fun, as the exterior temperature frequently reaches –40°.

Put It on Ice
But a classy hotel is much more than a place to sleep, and at the prices of these rooms, you’d better get much more than a sleeping bag. Although the design changes from year to year, Sweden’s Icehotel invariably includes an ice bar for vodka-based drinks (beer would freeze); even the glasses and plates are made of ice. There’s also an ice chapel for “white” weddings, an ice cinema, an ice sauna (I have yet to figure that one out), ice art galleries, and even—I am not making this up—a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre built of ice. Most guests stay only one night in an ice room; ordinary heated hotel rooms are available nearby for longer stays. Even so, the hotel has a waiting list several years long.

Sweden’s Icehotel was the first, but imitators are appearing all across the Arctic Circle. In Kangerlussuaq, Greenland you can find the more modest Hotel Igloo Village, with six adjoining igloos (four of which serve as guest rooms). If you want the igloo experience in Greenland during the summer, you can also stay at the Hotel Arctic in the town of Ilulissat, where guests enjoy all the comforts of home in melt-proof aluminum igloos. For the past five years, Québec has had its own Ice Hotel, modeled on the original Swedish Icehotel and rivaling it in size and luxury.

In 2004, the United States saw its first ice hotel—the Aurora Ice Hotel at the Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks, Alaska. During its construction, state officials cited the hotel’s owner for fire code violations and did not permit the building to open until smoke detectors and fire extinguishers had been installed in each room. (I’m not kidding. Only in America.) Although the initial structure melted in the spring of 2004, it was rebuilt for the 2005 season, this time inside a larger, refrigerated structure—with the goal of keeping it frozen and habitable year-round.

As far as I know, I’m not personally acquainted with anyone who has stayed at an ice hotel. I rather suspect—marketing hype and high prices notwithstanding—that it would be a decidedly uncomfortable experience. But then, many uncomfortable experiences are worth having, and it’s not every night you get to drink vodka out of an ice glass while watching the Northern Lights, and then sleep on a slab of ice. Sign me up! —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Ice Hotels…

To learn more about ice hotels in various parts of the world, follow these links.




For information about the ice hotel in Fairbanks, Alaska, see Aurora Ice Hotel at Chena Hot Springs Resort.

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The ice hotel in Die Another Day, while based on the Icehotel in Sweden, was really made out of plastic. Ice doesn’t hold up well under hot studio lights.

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