Furniture as Revolution.

This is Part 3 of Built to Last: A Reflection on Environmentally Conscientious Woodworking.


Small-scale DIY solar arrays are neat. Vigilance in chemical exposure risk is a valuable habit to develop. Selecting local materials and responsibly-sourced wood can ease your environmental burden while bolstering creativity. But these are not particularly paradigm-breaking expressions of an environmental ethic. It is the furniture itself that is the most profound manifestation of that ethic.

Creating a piece of functional, practical art that can last for generations is a radical departure from the current trend of disposable fast furniture made of particle board and held together with camming nuts, cheap dowels, and that one textbook that you can never read lest your bookcase collapses under its own precarious weight. Stores like Ikea have done an impressive job making attractive, modern furniture accessible and affordable, but it has done so at significant environmental costs.

Although fast furniture stores, and especially Ikea, have made huge strides in environmental compliance and sustainable production, their core business model is centered on the idea that furniture is disposable, that people want to “refresh” their living spaces every few years, and that the transience of fast furniture is part of its appeal. People want to go furniture shopping. Ikea gives you a reason to. 

The life-cycle of fast furniture is grim. By design. 

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Getting a handle on workworking chemicals, or sometimes we all need to vent.

This is Part 2 of Built to Last: A Reflection on Environmentally Conscientious Woodworking.


Walk into any woodshop and you find a shelf full of chemicals. Solvents, paints, varnishes, lacquers, oils, glues, and a host of other exotic and not so exotic solutions are a staple of the craft. These compounds are used to join, clean, prepare, and finish most woodworking projects, as well as maintain your tools. Do any amount of woodworking, and you’ll almost certainly accumulate a shelf of assorted, half-used, chemicals of your own. 

What’s almost certainly not present in most woodshops, especially hobbyist woodshops, are the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for these chemicals. MSDSs tell you everything you could possibly want to know about the hazards associated with commercial chemical compounds. For many common woodworking products, the MSDSs are pretty intense. 

I’ll be completely honest here. I have never had MSDSs in my workshop. It was only while doing the background research for this article that I realized I needed to pay more attention to the assorted chemicals involved in the craft, and started compiling all the potential hazards. I suspect that the vast majority of hobbyist woodworkers are the same. 

Woodworking chemicals contain irritants, release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are cut with heavy metals, and are often just plastic. They can be bad for your skin, bad for your lungs, and bad for your brain. When produced, disposed of, accidentally discharged, or as they break down through regular wear, they can release harmful compounds into the environment. If not disposed of correctly, some of these products will spontaneously burst into flames.

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A shed with solar panels

I turned my woodshop into a personal solar farm.

This is Part 1 of Built to Last: A Reflection on Environmentally Conscientious Woodworking.


For almost a decade, I’ve dreamed of building an off-grid solar system to power my woodworking, provide reliable back-up power for my home, and reduce the number of 2-stroke engines in my life. This was finally the year where I had the time and resources to do it. 

My workshop isn’t big. The 12-foot by 16-foot shed houses not just my tools and workbenches, but also all our yard and gardening supplies, storage for assorted seasonal gear and decorations, and a pile of robot parts. So I needed a compact system that still delivered the amps. 

Building a small off-grid solar system is simpler than you might think. Building a small off-grid solar system that can run power tools is a bit more complicated. 

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Built to Last: A Reflection on Environmentally Conscientious Woodworking

I make things. I make weird electronic things. I make scientific instrument things. And I make things out of wood. I make a lot of things out of wood

When I’m not working on marine conservation technology, educational programming, or high seas policy, I’m usually out back in the woodshop, building furniture, functional art, and other woodcrafts. This probably isn’t a surprise. For the last eleven years, one of the most popular articles at Southern Fried Science has been How to build a canoe from scratch on a graduate student stipend

Every few years, I turn an analytical eye on my hobbies, assessing the lifecycle of the materials I use, the sources of inefficiency, and, most importantly, how the practice of the craft aligns with or deviates from my personal environmental ethic. In other words, I do a sustainability audit on my recreational activities. For the last year, I’ve focused on understanding and improving the environmental impacts of my woodworking.

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The day they arrived: a story of Bitcoin, terraforming, and invasion.

The day they arrived, atmospheric CO2 held steady at 1600 parts per million and the coin traded at #75,236,808.

The coin had surged in the years after the Majority War, when a single miner locked down enough processing power to strip the supply cap from the Core. The Battle for Hard Fork was the bloodiest day in the long history of cryptocurrency. But we won, and the minority nodes now burn endlessly, hashing memes in obscurity while we determined the financial future of the human race.

At least, that’s what I thought.

I awoke in a haze. Still a little drunk from the night before. Sweating in the heat of from the midnight sun. Greenland-3 was the largest mining campus in the Northern Hemisphere and we knew how to keep the evenings lively. Once again, my past self had betrayed my present by signing me up for first shift. 

I crawled down the shaft into the main hub and checked my servers. Everything looked fine. A few GPUs were burned but we had plenty to spare. They were older and power hungry, anyway. The new batch would get us twice the hashes per joule.

I grabbed a few GPUs off the rack and climbed down into the bowels of the machine.

It was hot. Hotter than it should be for 15:15 Beijing time. Someone, somewhere, is having a very good day. I crawled through the server racks, scanning for the dead cards. They were clustered, in the back corner, on the same control board. Must’ve been a local surge.

As I swapped out the old cards, I felt someone behind me. I turned, expecting one of the techs from last shift on their way out.

It wasn’t.

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A sea turtle robot looking fearsome on a blue background.

I built a horrifying cyborg sea turtle hatchling so you can learn a little bit about behavioral ecology

Sea turtles, in case you didn’t know, are pretty great. These giant marine reptiles have been chilling out in the ocean for over 100 million years, largely unchanged. But their evolutionary foray onto land along with the rest of the tetrapods (a move largely regarded as a mistake by most extant species) left them with one one critical vulnerability: they have to return to land to lay their eggs, and their hatchlings must survive a grueling march to the sea within minutes of emerging into the world.

To find their way back to the sea, sea turtle hatchlings emerge from their nests in the darkness and track light cues on the horizon, tracking the glow of starlight on waves. This becomes a huge problem when the beach is littered with the pollution of artificial lights, leading hatchlings away from the sea and towards streets, resorts, and beachfront bars. Light pollution is such a serious problem for sea turtle survival, that many municipalities which host turtle nesting beaches ban the use of superfluous lighting during nesting season. 

Protecting sea turtle nests and nesting sea turtles, particularly the massive, primordial leatherback sea turtle, is a core mission of the Dominica Sea Turtle Conservation Organization (DomSetCO). Leatherbacks are exceptionally sensitive to light. On the top of their heads is a translucent patch of skin directly above the pineal gland. This window to the turtle’s brain serves as a rudimentary third eye which can sense how light changes.

You can help support DomSetCO by donating to our campaign to build the Rosalie Conservation Center, a hybrid rum distillery, fish hatchery, and conservation center in Dominica. Drink rum, save turtles. 

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The most massive ‘massive sardine’ discovered in the deep waters of Japan

This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of the Deep-sea Mining Observer. It is reprinted here with permission. For the latest news and analysis about the development of the deep-sea mining industry, subscribe to DSM Observer here: http://dsmobserver.com/subscribe/

Featured image: Colossal Slickhead, from Fujiwara et al. 2021

Even with the intense research focus of the last twenty years, the deep sea is still almost entirely unexplored. New species are par for the course every time a fresh sample is recovered from the abyssal plain. The vast biodiversity of the deep seafloor is offset by a biomass deficit; the denizens of the deep sea, with a few notable exceptions, are few and far between, their size often limited by the paucity of food available to them. While giants like the Japanese King Crab or the Giant Deep-sea Isopod do occur, the vast majority of deep-sea species are relatively small. 

The discovery of new species in the deep ocean is common, but the discovery of new giants in the deep sea is extremely rare. 

Last month, a research team from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) led by Dr. Yoshihiro Fujiwara and the Deep-sea Biodiversity Research Group announced the discovery of a new species of slickhead from the deep waters around Suruga Bay. Weighing in at 25 kilograms and measuring 140 centimeters, the Colossal Slickhead, described from four specimens recovered from depths greater than 2000 meters, is the largest species of slickhead (a group of deep-sea fishes found in waters deeper than 1,000 meters) yet described

In Japan, slickheads are commonly called sekitori iwashi–’massive sardines’. In recognition of its immense size, the researchers gave this most massive of massive sardines the common name yokozuna iwashi, after the title given to champion sumo wrestlers. 

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Saving sea turtles in Dominica with a conservation-first Rum Distillery

In the hours before dawn on one mid-October morning, I climbed into the jumpseat of a C-131 cargo plane, and began a long, complicated journey to the island of Dominica. It was 2017 and Hurricane Maria had cut a swath of destruction across much of the Caribbean, but it was Dominica that first bore the full force of the storm as it roared into the Americas.

When I began working with Jake Levenson (Oceans Forward) early the year before, we were developing a marine conservation and robotics program to bring to students on the Island, but the storm changed everything. Though my first trip to Dominica was far different from what we had planned, it was the beginning of a long partnership with Levenson, the Dominica Sea Turtle Conservation Organization, and friends and colleagues from Dominica and around the world committed to marine conservation and answering the big question: can a small island create a model for financially sustainable marine conservation that is resilient to both the changing climate and the ever-shifting winds of ecotourism?

From that question, and over many conversations with stakeholders, experts, funders, and community leaders, the Rosalie Conservation Center–a center of learning and research as well as a fish hatchery and a rum distillery–was born.

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Build Your Own 3D-printed Ring Light to Upgrade Your Remote Meetings

We are entering year two of pandemic lockdowns and remote meetings, teach from home classes, and teleconferences are hear to stay. Early last year we addressed some of the basics of perfecting a decent space for teaching from home: The true, essential, and definitive guide to looking like a professional while teaching from home.

But some folks want a little extra edge, a little something that dramatically improves how you look in the camera while teaching your class, giving a talk, or holding a meeting. And not just because of vanity. The better and clearer your camera image, the easier it is for your audience to see and understand you (though vanity is a perfectly fine reason too, we have all spent far too much time this year staring at ourselves in the little Zoom box).

You could buy a ring light to provide the best possible light source for looking good on a webcam, but why buy something when you can spend several hours soldering and coding your own custom, addressable, RGBW ring light.

The good nerds at Southern Fried Science are here for you. I spent the last month polishing up my coding, soldering, design, and 3D-printing skills to bring you a 3D-printed, DIY ring light that you can build and code yourself.

Is it cheaper than a commercial ring light? No.

Does it work better than a ring light designed and manufactured by a professional team of engineers? Also no.

Can you independently control each color channel so it looks like you’re in the Matrix, under water, of cosplaying the This Is Fine dog via a large, bulky box that sits on you desk? Yes.

Does it come with a panic button that lets you bail out of Zoom calls by pretending that you’re being pulled over by the police? You better believe it does.

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What Johnny Mnemonic got right about 2021: we keep trying to build housing out of old shipping containers.

Internet 2021 from Johnny Mnemonic

From a global pandemic to information overload to out-of-control drug prices, 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic made a lot of bold predictions about 2021 that landed a bit too hard. Among the hits that landed hardest? The rise of containerized housing and a chaotic kludge of weird construction welded together in a way that doesn’t exactly scream stability and permanence.

The year is 2021. Can we put to rest the idea that a shipping container home is anything but an aesthetic choice?

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