24 August 2014

Over 15,000 Flood Victims Displaced in Zimbabwe - Shelterbox Disaster Relief

Earlier this year, Zimbabwe was hit with devastating flooding in the districts of Chivi, Masvingo and Tsholotsho (see Figure 1). In January and February, 850 mm of rain hit the Masvingo and Matabeleland North provinces. This is nearly twice the average these regions receive annually. Fears of the Tokwe-Mukosi Dam not withstanding the volume of water were dissipated and on 11 Feb, the Zimbabwean Government launched an international plea for $20 million in assistance to help the approximately 15,000 people displaced (OHCA, 28 Feb 2014)

Figure 1: Map of Zimbabwe showing Masvingo (Southeast) and Matabeleland North (West) Provinces. Source: NationsOnline.org
Although it withstood the pressure, water levels came within 5 metres of surpassing capacity of the Tokwe-Mukosi Dam. Because of this, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe  declared the situation in the basin a state of national disaster. Communities downstream from the dam were instructed to  take necessary precautions to avoid danger. Over 3,000 households were moved to the Chingwizi Resettlement Camp. Official estimates point that over 700 tons of potential harvest will be lost compromising food security until the next harvest season which isn't until 2015. This is due to over 1,000 hectares of inundated food crops. Thankfully, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) has made generous contributions allowing the World Food Program to begin providing food for the next four months. There is great difficulty in rationing nutrition for over an estimated 15,625 displaced people. (Reliefweb.int, 1 Aug 2014)

Figure 2: 600 stranded during floods in Zimbabwe Source: voazimbabwe.com
Although the disaster declaration expired on 9 May, humanitarian assistance continues three months after the onset of the emergency. There are still over 15,000 people displaced people living at Chingwizi and new issues are developing such as the need for recovery and supporting the community to rely less on aid as they resume their lives. 
One organisation providing such disaster relief is Shelterbox International. Shelterbox provides emergency shelter and vital supplies to support communities around the world overwhelmed by disaster and humanitarian crisis. It is a Rotary Club partner and as such it is dedicated to providing humanitarian services, encouraging high ethical standards and building goodwill and peace throughout the world regardless of race, religion, creed, colour, gender or political preference. 

Shelterboxes are exactly what they sound like by name. They are emergency packs designed to provide essentials for security to those most in need of shelter. Here is an excerpt from their About Us page:

We deliver the essentials people need to begin rebuilding their lives in the aftermath of a disaster. When we send boxes, each one is tailored to a disaster but typically contains a disaster relief tent for a family, thermal blankets and groundsheets, water storage and purification equipment, solar lamps, cooking utensils, a basic tool kit, mosquito nets and a children’s activity pack. 
For colder countries, we can deliver winterised aid that includes more blankets and groundsheets and a thermal liner that fits between the inner and outer layers of the tent retaining more heat.
Sometimes our aid is not packed in boxes but sent in bulk. It is essential that we always support the needs of those who have survived disasters and this can vary enormously based on the type and scale of a disaster. We also do this to maximise donors’ money ensuring that we only send what is really needed and appropriate for the situation and culture.
Figure 3: An example of a Shelterbox. Source: jetsongreen.com
What stands out about their mission is the intention to create tailored packs depending on the nature of the disaster, location and circumstances of those seeking relief. One of the more admirable aspects of their work is shown when they send thank you letters for donations. These explain that it may be be some time until they are able to indicate where the box is going. The idea is that as an organisation, rather than highlighting a specific group of people or location -- or even a purpose, they are most concerned in the most efficient means of using funding to provide the most substantial aid as possible. This reflects the truly chaotic situations many people around the world are in and rather than dedicate assistance to favoured groups, the help goes to where it is needed most given the circumstances of the victims of that particular time. Once a box is created and dispatched, notification is sent of where it went and why it was so crucial that this specific box went there. The basis of charity and humanitarian aid being decided upon based on who needs it most rather than any other personal, cultural or political criteria is top priority and rightfully so . 

Below is the background and latest updates from volunteers in Zimbabwe. For more information on the work Shelterbox is doing, or to contribute to one yourself, please visit http://www.shelterbox.org/.

18 August 2014

Paper made from stone - Seriously, it's paper, made from stone.

A few weeks ago I found myself in a very strange conversation with a co-worker about the paper production process. Long story short, this gentleman explained to me how making paper from trees was one of the worst ideas of the industrial age. His point was that the process of extracting wood by way of destroying trees is a terribly inefficient use of resources given how ubiquitous and disposable paper needs to be. In other words, chopping down trees, grinding them up, turning them into mush and then spinning this mush into dry paper incurs many more costs than is necessary -- air quality, wildlife habitat, energy usage in the process, dedicated transport and required infrastructure. This is especially so since paper is needed in such large amounts (despite technology creating a paper-less world), and the associated necessity of it all being of low cost to the consumer. For those that may not be in the know, below is a simple diagram explaining the paper process, minus the first step -- cutting down a lot of trees.

I love good diagrams, and this is the cleanest and simplest one I could find. Kuda Bengi Gencer (courtesy of a Google Image Search and Flickr page I could not access)
If you were to ask me, I would like to think that I have a pretty conscious and deliberate ethical focus on living sustainably and the conservation of natural resources. However, this is the very first time I have ever thought to question whether or not it makes sense to use trees to make paper. After some discussion and a few hours of reading I have to say I agree with my coworker. Using wood for paper doesn't make much sense outside of it being of historic industry similar to coal power or corn syrup. I don't think wood is an efficient resource for making paper. Agriculture, building materials,  and land-clearing for certain types of development  all seem like much more substantial societal moves and thus, I think, are more worth while causes for destroying the acres of forestry necessary compared to simply making paper. And such was the gist of the conversation. How about that. 

Coincidentally enough, a few days later I was picking up some supplied from the local stationery store and in the notebooks aisle found this:
The store only has A5 in both flip-top and normal side bound varieties, and the tiny pocket sized sets. There are no full A4 or letter sized products, though they do exist online. 
On the lower shelves there had these "Nu:World" branded "Tough Paper" books available in various sizes. I was immediately drawn by the very tradesmen (which I am not) inspired design so I picked it up to have a look. How could a notebook be especially made to be tougher? Water, oil and tear resistant? How? Paper made from stone? What?

Nu: World Stone Paper
Above you can see the information page which bullets through the main features of Nu World Stone PaperHere is a link to Nuco-International website for the full breakdown. In short, this is a notebook with special paper. The paper isn't made from wood, but instead, a combination of ground limestone and polyethylene (a type of plastic). Because of this, the main benefits are:
- 100% water proof
- Tear resistant
- Tree Free
- Less energy consumptive
- Recyclable
- Water is not needed in production
- Feels awesome. 

Overall, as weird as it is to talk so highly, and so much, about paper, I have to say that all of this is very true. It feels really smooth to write with. Pens glide across the pages as oppose to scratch and there's much less chance of indentation. The need for less pressure is quite obvious, so those with a tendency to press hard with their pens may actually feel the paper is too soft.

Stone paper is definitely much more difficult to tear. You can see the paper stretch (like plastic) before it actually tears, and when when it does it's more of split than a tear. I don't imagine frayed edges or accidentally ripped corners would be a problem here. 

The most impressive characteristic for me is that it actually is water proof. I would be lying if I said I wasn't excited to test this feature and am happy to say it's true. I was able to wipe the paper clean and write immediately after. The paper wasn't soaked through at all. I don't think I've ever found myself writing in wet conditions, so it's not really applicable to my life, but it's still pretty handy. Realistically I could imagine plenty of workers that have to take write notes in wet environments and how frustrating that might be. Below are a few photos of my experiment. 

If this happened by accident when I was actually working, I, like most anyone, would be fairly upset.  
Obviously, you can't forget that the ink isn't waterproof. 
Again, I know it's just paper, but I've found myself talking about this product for weeks. I'm just so fascinated by the concept. That being said, discussion has lead to a decent amount of reservation regarding the "environmentally friendly" side of the marketing campaign Nuco is pushing. For the record, Nuco seems to be focused on notebooks and papers of various uses and sorts. There are leather bound professional notebooks and bright-coloured variations geared to younger students, all with normal paper. Stone paper is just one of these products, so it is not as if Nuco has a specific environmental focus behind their business model. In any case, With any new product or idea, especially one which claims to be a solution to serious large scale problems (like the environment), it's important to do the due diligence and examine all aspects of the issue. 

First, limestone comes from mines, and mining does a terrible amount of damage to a lot of things. The danger it puts the workers in aside, mining is as responsible for habitat loss and air pollution as anything can be. Now, the "calcium carbonate-chalk" stone paper is made from may be "the world's 4th most plentiful material" (if my understanding of science is accurate, silicon, aluminium and iron are the top 3), but it's still a product of mining which means natural materials are being dug up and ripped out of the ground in gigantic amounts. To it's benefit, the limestone is taken as a by-product from quarries, which means mines aren't specifically opened for it, but it's taken from the pile of refuse. Either way, I'm sure you would have a hard time finding someone specialising in environmental conservation happy with anything having to do with mining. 

Also, it's made from plastic and although plastic can be treated to be made biodegradable, it doesn't really break down by nature. What this means is that waste which is not recycled build up more than regular paper would, and what to do with high deposits of non-degradable plastic waste is another issue altogether. I have tried burning it. It burns similar to normal paper but a bit more slowly and with less smoke. I still needed to run it under the tap to stop it. I'm not sure why this is relevant, I suppose I was hoping it would melt and change shape like a plastic grocery bag. Oh well. This is why there is no photo. I don't think a burnt corner of a piece of paper would be that interesting. 

I wouldn't mind a different, non-tradie design. I can't say I'm a fan. I am currently deciding if a care enough to customise this with some fabric or paint. 
At the end of the day, paper made from stone seems like it's the real deal. I definitely love the material and have told anyone whenever the opportunity arose. The reality is that although it may not be the solution mother Earth has been waiting for, it absolutely has it's benefits. No trees will be killed for it's sake and plenty of water and electricity will be saved, yet landfills may be at further risk. Either way, given these books fit well within the market standards for notebooks (definitely not the cheapest at $4 per, but much more affordable than premium leather-bound varieties), I'm a definite fan. At the very least, it will give you some pretty interesting, albeit very nerdy, conversations to have about the environment, technology and industrial creativity.

12 August 2014

Phone Dressing: dBrand Skin Review

One of the most bizarre traits among people these days is how they dress their phones. Some people use cases, some people don't. Some use screen protectors others don't. Some use both, some use neither and the strangest of all (to me at least) are those that use wallets. Seriously, what is up with phone wallet/cases? How are you comfortable pulling out and opening your wallet, exposing your cash and cards for everyone to see, usually with these items dangling on a flap while you take a photo or check your messages? How are you not concerned that the all of the most important items you have are all bundled together in one package and could very easily be stolen, dropped or lost? I don't understand you.

Either way, regardless of which camp you're in, odds are you feel pretty strongly about where you're standing: You need to have protection around your phone because it could so easily explode if you drop it. Cases are stupid and make the phone gigantic. Just don't drop the thing. Why would you want to cover up such beautiful looking technology?

I'm not different. I'm not a case person. They always just added heft and bulk to a device and I've always thought they took away from the phone's aesthetics.

I've been told it's ironic, but I've always loved skins. To me, they're the perfect balance between keeping original form, but still adding just a small amount of protection. Over the last few years I've owned the following:

Nokia e71
Samsung Galaxy S
Samsung Galaxy SII
Samsung Galaxy Nexus
LG Nexus 4 (Current).

The plastic backing of the Samsung phones were great for durability. Plastic doesn't really scratch, and if it does, who cares. It's plastic! But, I still had a trusty $2 Starry Night skin courtesy of eBay. I loved that it added just a small bit of personality.

With the Nexus 4, the skin became crucial. For those that may not know, it has a (gorilla) glass back. A beautiful sparkly glass back. It feels very strong and sturdy, but it's glass. I loved the look, but hated it's fragility. I hear gorilla glass is strong, and tried to go without it because just how beautiful it was. The problem was, I would be terrified to just place the phone down on surfaces. A dirty park bench, the street while tying my shoes, or the roof of my car if my hands were full of shopping bags all may have well been lava to me. I couldn't handle it.

So I went back to skins. I did some searching for the best quality skins and found dBrand Inc. A Canadian company that makes them in house and frankly, does an incredible job and making well design, quality feeling and perfectly cut skins for mobile phones (smart watches and tablets). Compared to the cheap eBay variety, these look and feel so much better. They are more expensive, but $9 really isn't much considering how obvious the improvement in quality is. Their textured to match the design (leather, metal, carbon fibre, etc) where my Starry Night was just a printed image on a vinyl sticker. This adds in both form and function. The textures just feel higher quality but add to the grip and control of the device in hand.

I've also noticed that they're much easier to place. With previous vinyl skins, my first attempt was the only. There was no way of readjusting. WIth dBrand, not only can I apply and reapply until the placement is perfect, but I've been able to save used skins by peeling them off and sticking them back on to clean backing paper.

Look at the photos above. It's such a simple product, but if you ask me the design is just incredible. I'm currently on the mahogany wood grain. The sheen of the metallic gold really made my phone stand out. Because of the solid glass behind it it felt like cool brushed metal. I love how the light catches the brushed pattern. The red powder is the simplest, yet boldest of the bunch. The colour really pops, so much so that it makes what is really just a red sticker, a lot more than that. If you have a Nexus 4 you may agree with me. The flat back and distinct edges make it perfect for a skin. I've actually held off on upgrading my phone because I'm not sure backings of newer devices will look as clean.

Click on the image of Popular Devices to check out their website.