Sunday, July 30, 2006

And now the dangers of proper lawn maintenance

Everywhere I've lived, I've always imagined certain neighbors hating me. Paranoia? Well, maybe, but I think it's just the fact that I will never have the perfect looking property. I will find the boundary of what is acceptable, and trample along it. In suburbia, I was that guy with dandelions and clover and brownish grass in the hottest part of summer. Out here I'm the guy with the weedy lawn, weedy ditches, and weedy pasture.

Finally today I decided it was time to chop down the small forest that was establishing itself at the end of our driveway. Weeds as tall as me. It's just a tough spot to cut with anything I have, and I just don't care that much. But even I have my limits.

In my previous existance, I bought a string trimmer - a higher-end four stroke model, because it had lower emmissions and more power. And I figured I'd better spend the extra for the nicer one since we were hoping to move to a large property. I didn't used to be this radical, ranting nut. I was "green" when it wasn't too inconvenient, which wasn't all that often. I was working my way down that path, but at a pretty lazy pace.

If only I had been wiser...

Lacking any more appropriate tool, I dragged the trimmer down to the end of the driveway and cleared the overgrown mess. I did a little extra trimming since I had the stupid thing out. All told, I probably spent about half an hour.

Now, here it is two hours later. My right arm is still quivering from the combination of engine vibration and awkward weighting. Both hands are still tingling a little bit. The trimmer is pretty well balanced - if there's no fuel in it. Nice job guys. My legs are literally covered with tiny red marks and cuts from the flying debris, because I refuse to wear long pants when the heat index is over 100. I ask you: Who designs a tool that is to be used in the summer time, and that essentially requires that the user wear long pants?

(You might be asking why I picked today to do it in the first place. Short answer: Because I am dumb. Long answer - I had to go out there anyway to fix the broken mailbox so we can actually receive mail. I thought I'd just stick a screwdriver in my pocket, grab the trimmer, and kill two birds with one stone. Like I said, I am dumb.)

For what I paid to get this godawful trimmer, I could have gotten a top-of-the-line, custom fit scythe, with all the trimmings, and still had money left over. I wouldn't have shrapnel wounds on my legs, I wouldn't feel like I was coming down with some horrible neurological condition in my arms, I wouldn't have burned an ounce of gasoline, I wouldn't have produced an ounce of emmissions, and I probably would have gotten the job done quicker, and I probably would have done it a long time ago, because I wouldn't have been dreading it so much...

Like I said, if only I'd been a little wiser. I'll tell you this: I am now. I hope next time I learn the lesson beforehand instead of after.

Soooo.... Anybody looking for a really nice string trimmer?

The Dangers of Improper Lawn Maintenance

Here's an illustration of what can go wrong
if you don't keep your grass in perfect,
carpetlike uniformity at all times...

Meadows happen.
You have been warned!

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Local food

While we haven't actually participated in the Eat Local Challenge, we took a step in that direction tonight. I found a "neighbor" about 7 miles away selling fresh eggs, so I went over to pick some up. She was very nice, and had quite a little hobby farm going. She had maybe a dozen cattle, a couple plump turkeys, two different kinds of geese, two different kinds of ducks, and I don't know how many types of chickens. We talked for a while, and I bought a couple dozen eggs from her for two bucks.

So flush with eggs, we decided to waste no time in eating them. Dinner consisted of the afforementioned eggs, toast made from homemade bread (ingredients from parts unknown, but we're getting there), and milk from our front yard. Nothing fancy, but quite good.

The eggs reminded me of my childhood for some reason. We didn't raise chickens, and didn't live near anyone who did, but best I can figure, the quality of store-bought eggs - even cage free, veg fed - has declined dramatically over the course of my life.

At any rate, I'm enjoying finding the occasional local food source. I've discovered you have to pay attention at certain farm markets, because in some cases, they have the exact same packaged stuff you find in the "Natural" section of the grocery store. And it's still slightly odd to me when the farm market sells food from several states away. But I've had great success with some of them. I'm addicted to one particular market's potato chips, and I've had unbelievably good strawberries and musk melons already this year.

Hopefully someday we can eat many meals produced in their entirety, right here on the property. In the meantime, tonight was a nice preview of what we hope is to come...

The Wilds

Last weekend we went to The Wilds, a 10,000 acre park that claims to be the largest nature preserve in North America. They have bus tours through a variety of pastures featuring Asian, African, and North American wildlife, from the mundane to the exotic.

With the extra high, high voltage, double fencing around the perimeter, it definitely had a Jurassic Park feel to it. It was a lot of fun for us, and for the kids. Well, E5 anyway. Amelia was less impressed. She's a tough audience.

Sadly, my camera is on the blink. (I'm blaming the black helicopters!) I was able to cajole it into taking a few decent pictures, but most either came out badly overexposed, or not at all.

At any rate, here are a few that did come out...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Sour Dough

For some reason, I've been getting a bit philosophical lately. I feel a non-deep post coming soon. But not yet.

Two previous posts touched on a subject that our society is very good at obsessing over: Money. I thought I'd follow up with a few more thoughts.

In one post, I discussed how we are bombarded by ways to "save money" by spending it. Buying more is cheaper. But as goods have gotten cheaper, we as a culture have paradoxically gone deeper in debt.

In another post, I discussed the theoretical economics of spinach seeds.

Now as a point of clarification, the idea of the spinach story wasn't a foreshadowing of my becoming a market gardener or a seed merchant. Maybe it's my non-salemanlike nature, but on some level I'd rather give away surplus than go to the trouble of trying to sell it. Ideally, we'd use it all ourselves, but that'll take some fine-tuning of our skillsets.

I mentioned theoretical values for bags of spinach leaves and packets of seeds, but it wasnt's not about selling the extra. It was about not buying spinach or spinach seeds. Rather than about money that could (theoretically) be earned, it was about money that was never spent, resources never consumed. Not only that, but how little effort it took (if it can be called "effort"). To me, this path to self-sufficiency is not really about producing enough to pay for stuff. To me, true self-sufficiency is about getting to the point of producing all that we need so we don't have to pay for stuff. It's about never buying spinach again.

There's more than one way to balance the books. One is to bring more money in. That's hard work, and it usually takes a good bit of time. The other is to keep money from going out. That can be hard too, but a lot of it the work is within our own heads. The rest of it I have a hard time calling work. One of the most important lessons I learned from Gene Logsdon was to treat time spent doing something you enjoy as income rather than expense.

Much of our spending is due to bad habits, and constant bombardment from advertisers and others telling us how happy we'll be if we buy their product. Buy! Buy now! You don't even have to pay now. You just need this one more thing to be happier, make life easier. You deserve it!

But who among us is happier and more secure than those rare people who are debt free?

For most of us, our lifestyle expands (or contracts) to fit our budget. But from the richest to the poorest, many of us are still checking that calendar for payday.

I heard somebody say that saving money is like losing weight. None of us really need to be told how to do it. It's obvious.

We just want to find that elusive method that is easiest or most convenient to our lifestyle. The thinking is that different approaches work for different people, and it's all about finding the "right" one. But to some extent, I think that's an illusion. One way or another, it boils down to the difference between how much you're bringing in and how much you're using.

I went to an interesting debt reduction seminar. It was a pay-by-the-honor system thing, and the guy is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist church, so there was a certain spiritual component to it, but the technique could be used by anybody.

His whole system was based on the fact that you can only get so far into debt before financial institutions start telling you "no". Your maximum debt load is pretty much a percentage of your income.

Because it's proportional to income, this means that even those people who are at that maximum point can still pay off all debts, including your mortgage within about nine years. On average, it's more like five years. If you're in decent financial shape, or just getting started down that well-worn path of debt accumulation, it might be just a few years. It's hard to believe, but out of a roomful of about 50 people from all walks of life, we all filled out the worksheet, and we all fell somewhere between 3 and 9 years.

But it takes commitment and discipline. How bad do you want to be out of debt? Conversely, how bad you want a cell phone, and cable TV, and internet access? How often do you want to eat fast food? How often do you want some new clothes? Which would make you happier, no debts or a bunch of stuff?

Another book I've read talks about spending money as trading your life energy for things. How many things do you have that really make your life better? How many were for a quick fix? How many things do you have that just fill up your shelves, cupboards, and closets, and get in the way when you try to clean up?

I won't bore you with the debt seminar details. (If you really want to know, I can do a rough outline in the comments.) The power was not in the method itself. The power was in seeing that it's within anybody's capabilities to stop worrying about money, in relatively short order.

The spinach is optional.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Lunatic fringe

A little self-intervention from my fellow loonies...

"What people need to hear loud and clear is that we're running out of energy in America."

George W. Bush
U.S. President

"We may be at a point of peak oil production ... I can only tell you that I have studied this data seriously. I consider it an existential threat to your future."

Bill Clinton
Former U.S. President

"By some estimates, there will be an average of two-percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a three-percent natural decline in production from existing reserves."

Dick Cheney
U.S. Vice President

"We almost certainly are at or near what they call peak oil"

Al Gore
Former U.S. Vice President

"Currently, there is no viable substitute for petroleum."

U.S. Army report: Energy Trends and Their Implications for U.S. Army Installations

"The best Saudi oil is gone... Middle East production will go down by one third by 2012."

Matthew R. Simmons
Energy industry investment banker, energy advisor for the Bush administration
Chairman, Simmons & Company International

"...we're depleting our reserves four times faster than the rest of the world. America needs a national energy policy and a program on a scale of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II to prevent or mitigate the consequences of global peak oil. Doing nothing or doing too little too late will lead to a global economic and geopolitical tsunami with potentially devastating ramifications."

Roscoe G. Bartlett
U.S. Senator (Maryland)

"Global oil [production] is 84 million barrels (a day). I don't believe you can get it any more than 84 million barrels. I don't care what [Saudi Crown Prince] Abdullah, [Russian Premier Vladimir] Putin or anybody else says about oil reserves or production."

T. Boone Pickens
Legendary oil baron and
Chairman, BP Captial Management

"One thing is clear: the age of easy oil is over"

David J. O'Reilly
Chairman and CEO, Chevron Corporation

"World oil production has now ceased to grow. Decline is the next step. The picnic's over."

Kenneth S. Deffeyes
Petroleum geologist formerly with Shell Oil, professor, and author

"The days of inexpensive, convenient, abundant energy sources are quickly drawing to a close"

U.S. Army report: Energy Trends and Their Implications for U.S. Army Installations

"Realistically, we're probably at peak now. If not, production will fall faster later."

Matthew R. Simmons
Energy industry investment banker, energy advisor for the Bush administration
Chairman, Simmons & Company International

"Oil prices may well remain high for a prolonged period of time... Further rises - if they materialise - may have more severe consequences than currently anticipated."

Statement from The Bank of International Settlements
(Often referred to as, "the central banker's central bank.")

"Alternatives like biofuels, ethanol or biomass can play a marginal supportive role but nowhere near on the scale required. When the oil runs out the economic and social dislocation will be unprecedented."

Michael Meacher
Former U.K. Environment Minister

"...the top-10 oil groups spent about $8bn combined on exploration last year, but this only led to commercial discoveries with a net present value of slightly less than $4bn. The previous two years show similar, though less dramatic, shortfalls."

Wood Mackenzie
Energy Consultant

"Peak oil is at hand with low availability growth for the next 5 to 10 years. Once worldwide petroleum production peaks, geopolitics and market economics will result in even more significant price increases and security risks."

U.S. Army report: Energy Trends and Their Implications for U.S. Army Installations

"My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet airplane. His son will ride a camel."

Popular saying in Saudi Arabia

Once more, with feeling!

I often feel like a nut. You know, like the kooky guy with the rainbow hair and the "John 3:16" sign who shows up at every sporting event on the planet. Or the guy at the bus stop downtown with "The End is Near" painted on a sandwich board. Or the folks that built reinforced underground shelters and stocked endless supplies for Y2K. I feel like I've snapped and become one of "those" people.

There's mounting evidence that the flow of oil is going to start to slow down very soon. The second and third largest oil fields in the world (Burgan in Kuwait and Catarell in Mexico) have already gone into sharp decline, and the largest, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia is delivering ten barrels of water for every barrel of oil, which means it's probably about to take a nosedive as well. After those three, there's nothing even close in size. As evidenced by previous peaks in individual oil fields and individual nations, after you peak, decline is esseitially permanenet, and possibly fast. And you can't tell for sure that it's happened until it's in the rearview mirror.

What's worse is that OPEC countries have apparently been cooking their books since the 1970's, greatly overstating their reserves for economic advantage. Things that used to cause price ripples now cause major waves. We're at an all time high, and there aren't even any supply disruptions right now. It appears there's just no spare capacity any more.

And there's more at stake than petroleum. Currently, all oil transactions between any two countries must be done in US dollars. There's a move afoot within OPEC to change that to Euros. What's that mean? In short, the value of the dollar would plummet. Remember how the US did away with the gold standard back in the early 1970's?

Why we don't hear more about all this, I have no idea. ABC Australia did a piece on it, but it doesn't turn up in mainstream media very often.

I've linked to this before, but I'll recommend it again: A History of Oil. It's a brilliant bit about some of this by comedian Robert Newman.

I can see silver linings with the best of them. But this whole thing scares me more than global warming, bird flu, terrorists, war, tsunamis, and clowns, combined.

I've always, always been an optimist. And I still try. But some days it's very hard to shake the fey mood. Today, I'm afflicted with Cassandra Syndrome. It feels like the best we can do is go off the cliff at 45 miles per hour instead of 70. I feel like alternatives don't have time to ramp up, and the planet has more people than it can feed without huge petroleum inputs.

I feel like that kid in "The Sixth Sense".

Why us? Why now? Just lucky I guess. Somebody's generation had to live through the fall of the Roman Empire, the Great Depression, the Spanish Flu, the Black Plague... I think this problem was inevitable. If oil is cheap, somebody's going to use it. I just read that in some cases, cotton is grown in the US, shipped to China to be spun, shipped back to the US to be dyed, shipped back to China to be made into clothing, and shipped back to the US to be sold. Why? Because it's cheaper than other methods.

"Action is the antidote." Yes, to some extent. Which is why we are feverishly doing so much. And why I'm seriously considering ways to take a big hit and cash out my 401k retirement savings. And why I created this web site.

I'll keep trying, keep doing. I'll keep putting one foot in front of the other. Tomorrow, motivation will be up again. Maybe even later today. But how to kick this habit? How do you quit oil? I have no idea. I'm a junkie, just like a few billion other people...

Hi, my name is Edson, and I'm addicted to oil.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The New Math

Since my old math was faulty, I thought I'd try again with a different problem.

I'm experimenting with Square Foot Gardening this year. I had success with it in a tiny garden at our previous house, so I expanded it this year. I don't think it applies to every situation, but I like it.

But one of the tenets of this method is that you don't scatter your seeds and then come back and thin them out later. It's an extra step and a waste of perfectly good seeds. You actually plant individual seeds, spaced appropriately to start with. (It's not that hard.)

I grew eight spinach plants this year. That's eight seeds.

Those eight seeds gave us more spinach than we could keep up with, and I ended up giving more away than we ate. (Note to self: Learn how to preserve spinach. It couldn't possibly be hard. Blanch it and freeze it? Just freeze it? Dry it?)

But that's not the end of the story. Of those eight plants, I let three of them go to seed. Most people pull their greens when they bolt, and sometimes plant a new crop in it's place. I'm trying to learn seed saving. (Again, can't be that hard, right?)

Spinach is especially easy to save seeds from.

(Oops, I ended a sentence with a preposition. In the words of Winston Churchill (supposedly), "That is something up with which I will not put.")

It is especially easy to save seeds from spinach.

(There, don't you feel better?)

So from the three plants that I let go to seed, I got over 40 grams of spinach seeds.

Ok, you're thinking, "Wow, 40 whole grams? How can he lift that much?"

But 40 grams amounts to about 1,500 seeds. Think of that. 3 seeds to 1,500 seeds.

So let's review. If a packet of 100 spinach seeds costs $2.00, that's about $0.02 per seed. So we planted $0.16 worth of seeds. We probably got the equivalent of one of those bags of spinach greens you see in the grocery store from each individual plant. Let's say those bags go for $2.50.

That $0.16 got us $20 worth of spinach.

Then tonight, my son and I collected about 1,500 seeds, in 10 minutes, while sitting on the front porch, enjoying the summer breeze. At $0.02 per seed, that's another $30.00.

Where else can you turn sixteen cents into fifty bucks in two months? Gives new meaning to the term "greens", huh?

I'll go one better.... Where else can a three-year-old turn sixteen cents into fifty bucks in two months? He didn't do all the work, but he helped with every stage. His rate of return is essentially the same as mine.

And they say you can't make money with agriculture. It just depends on how you look at it...

Doing the Math: Redux

In an earlier post titled "Doing the Math," I attempted to calculate the theoretical amount of ethanol that could be produced from all the corn grown worldwide in one year. Then I calculated how much of our petroleum consumption it could replace. The answer was frightening.

And wrong.

It started like this....
[insert cheesy wavy fade effect for flashback sequence]
According to this link, there were 598 million metric tons of corn produced globally in 2002. (That was the first year I came across. Let's assume it's typical.)

598 million metric tons * (2204.6 lbs/metric ton)
...converts to 1.3 billion lbs of corn.
Someone recently pointed out that that should have read:
...converts to 1.3 trillion lbs of corn.

Yeah, I was never any good at math. So the ending changes from this:
So if we can stop using corn for livestock feed, corn starch, corn syrup, corn oil, corn chips, corn stoves, corn bread, popcorn, candy corn**, corn on the cob, corn dogs, creamed corn... er... sorry, I was channeling Forrest Gump for a second...

If we use all of the corn grown in one year for making ethanol, and production is still propped up by using current (petroleum-heavy) farming practices, it would keep the U.S. running for just under four hours.

To this: would keep the U.S. running for about five and a half months.

So I was off by a few orders of magnitude? Cut me some slack!

Now what I didn't take into account was that 1 gallon of gasoline is really equivalent to 0.6 to 0.8 gallons of ethanol, which would cut that five and a half months to less than four. And corn production is artificially high right now as herbicides and pesticides are becoming increasingly ineffective, and rising fuel costs are making large scale production less and less practical. Without any intervention, I think corn yeilds drop by about 30-50 percent. So accounting for that would bring it down another month. A far cry from the four hours.


Obviously this is a thought exercise. Would we (could we?) really give up every other use of corn? No. There are a lot of uses of corn I'd like to see eliminated, like feedlot use for all manner of livestock. But then again, I don't think ethanol is the right use for it either. The energy return on energy invested is just not worth it.

The bottom line for me is that biofuels are not a complete waste of time, as I had thought before. And corn is a terrible starting point. But clearly, if petroleum becomes too expensive to be of much practical use, significant conservation is still the only real answer.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Jevons Paradox

This post is not about oil, despite the opening paragraph. It is about the application of a theory from the world of economics, as applied to other areas of life. The Jevons paradox states that an increase in resource efficiency will not decrease consumption, but rather increase it. Thus, all things being equal, widespread use of hybrid cars, for example, would not mean less oil burned, but more miles driven. Stores might consolidate farther away, and commutes might get longer.

As with most laws, axioms, and theorems, this does not come with a moral judgment attached. Murphy's Law, after all, was not an expression of pessimism or cynicism, but an engineering consideration. If you are designing a tool, a machine, or a system, make no assumptions about the likelihood of a particular type of failure, because, given enough time, the failure will occur. If it can happen, it will.

The Jevons Paradox also doesn't indicate that individual efficiency is a bad thing. I know one regular visitor here who has topped 90 miles per gallon in a mass produced vehicle, and I'm quite sure he uses far less fuel than I do. It just indicates that on the whole, society will take advantage of efficiency to increase consumption rather than decrease it.

What other "resources" can this be applied to? I'm thinking about two resources that tend to weigh on us: Time, and Money.

Think of "labor saving" devices. Of course, I put that in quotation marks, because not everything designed to save time actually does. Look around your kitchen. Do you have task-specific appliances that sit in the corner or the back of a cupboard because they're not worth the bother?

But even those that truly do save time don't mean we get more chances to lay in a hammock with a glass of lemonade and a good book.

Last time I checked, the 40-hour work week is still standard. Or is it closer to 50 hours now? The labor saving computer allows us each to do the work of a thousand pencil pushers. Do we work less? No, we work more.

A long debate raged here and elsewhere about, among other things, tractors. For what it's worth, I have come to regret my part in it. Instead of sharing common ground, we exchanged blows over angles and perspectives, communication failing. Like the Jews and Palestinians, fighting over scraps of desolate land they both consider "holy", agreeing only that (as an acquaintance put it) "Thou shalt not kill" expired the moment Moses reached the bottom of Mt. Siani. All this despite the fact that Jews and Palestinians are genetically indestingushable. But I digress.

The tractor was designed to "save the farmer time" because it could do more work than a team of horses. I don't know if the marketing of the day would have stated it this way, but in today's world, it would be sold as a way to "spend more time with your family." Why then, were lights added to the tractor? Because rather than saving time, some farmers used it to increase capacity. The more efficient farmers were getting more done. Higher production meant higher supply at the market, which meant more income... at first. But a supply increase ultimately means lower prices. Lower prices meant farmers who didn't adopt the longer hours saw their income drop. Adding lights allowed farmers to work after dusk, thus increasing productivity even more. Again, those who didn't follow suit fell behind. Work load was increased rather than decreased by the labor saving tractor.

Let's switch from time to money. How often do we buy more because something is on sale? "25% off? We should get two!" Say it with me: "We're saving money!"

"Biggie size that? For only 25 cents more you get a bigger fry and bigger drink!" I suspect that the average American eats more lavishly than the richest kings of only a century ago.

When goods are cheap, we don't keep more money in our pockets, we spend more money. Goods have gotten cheaper and more plentiful year after year, and yet the average credit card debt in the U.S. has more than doubled in a decade, from $4,300 in 1994 to $9,300(!) in 2004.

We tend to think, if only we made a little more money, our problems would be solved. But rather than a bigger savings account, a raise more often means we just get more stuff... and a little more stuff... maybe new car... perhaps a bigger house (with a bigger garage) to hold it all. Mortgages used to be 15 years. Now the standard is 30. Oh, with an adjustable rate and balloon payments. Banks in California are introducing 50 year mortgages now.

The Jevons paradox shows that perceived gains do not always play out how we expect. And the problem that arises is that if the resource is limited, and it's being used up faster and faster, it's all the more painful to go backwards when the limit is reached, because of our inflated expectations. At that point we're more dependent than ever on the resource. What would you do if your pay wer to decrease? Or if your available time were shortened due to illness or other unforseen circumstances? If we have a 10-minute outage at my place of employment, it might cost the company tens of thousands of dollars, because so much "whatever" can be cranked out in 10 minutes.

I haven't seen this expressed elsewhere, so I humbly submit Freeman's Corrolary to the Jevons Paradox: The greater the efficiency in using a resource, the greater the difficulty in giving up the resource.

I guess we just need to consider that if we intend to "save" something - time, money, fuel, the planet, whatever - we should truly save the resource, rather than squandering the gain by consuming even more. And before we "save" we should consider whether the savings is an actual savings, or a means to squeeze ever more life out of life.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Playing Games

Is there anything more fun than sitting together with friends and family, playing a really good game? Well, I can think of a few things, but still... No phone, no lights, no motorcars. Just a board and some bits, or a stack of cards, or sometimes none of the above.

It's amazing what a standard 52 card deck can do. There must be thousands upon thousands of games, each with a half dozen variants. I couldn't even scratch the surface on this topic. And the beauty of card games is that they are essentially free.

Board games and other packaged games, though usually far less versatile than a deck of cards, can offer tremendous depth, interest, and fun.

Now, when I say board games, you probably think of the "roll the dice, move your mice" classics. Can I be honest here? Monopoly is not a very good game, despite it's infintely re-branded popularity. I almost wonder if it sours people on board games. It's a classic, so it must be good, right? Risk is another one that I want to like, but I just can't quite get there. Like Monopoly, you just have to get an early advantage, and then all the breaks go to you.

Then there are those games that I lovingly refer to as "shouting" games - chaotic affairs meant to be played at parties and gatherings. These are what you usually see in big box stores, and I usually find them a bit unsatisfying.

So now, dear readers, I will now take you on a journey to (possibly) unfamiliar lands. There are "classic" games out there that you've probably never have heard of. You won't find most of them anywhere but the occasional specialty store, or, of course, online.

Some are simple, some are not. Some are cheap, some are not. (Cheap being a relative term here. I mean, how much did you pay for Star Wars on video, and then again on DVD, and then again for the "enhanced" versions. And how many times have you actually watched them? Uh huh. I thought so. If you give George Lucas one more dollar, I'm gonna come over there and smack you!)

Here are some of my favorite classics that you've never heard of:

Kill Dr. Lucky
I love this game for two reasons. First, it's like a twisted version of Clue. Instead of trying to solve a murder, you are trying to commit one. You're chasing Dr. Lucky through his house, trying to do him in. Of course, attempts often result in him responding with, "Mmmm, rat poison. I love rat poison," or something similar. Second, this game comes from an outfit called "Cheapass Games". The games are paper or cardboard, and you have to supply your own tokens, dice, etc. Some of their games are offered completely free, and those that aren't generally run about five bucks. I discovered this site not long before our kids were born, and I haven't been back to try any of their other games, but I hope to.

Apples to Apples
This is the one you're most likely to have seen in the stores. It's a relatively simple game, based on creatively pairing unrelated ideas. Sort of a free-association card game. It takes just a few minutes to explain, and anybody can participate. I've never seen it played without multiple fits of laughter.

This is another one that shows up in "regular" stores from time to time. It's fairly simple, at least in concept. With examples, you can learn it in about five minutes. Cards with varying numbers of shapes, colors and patterns are laid out on the table. Everyone playing is trying to find "sets" of cards. I won't try to explain what makes a set, but you can read about it by clicking the link above. Finding the sets is often deceptively hard.

Settlers of Cataan
Considering it's complexity, this game is not hard to learn. You and your opponents are trying to establish colonies by building roads, trading for resources, and relying on a great balance of skill and chance. It is probably unlike any game you've played before. And I mean that in a good way.

Princes of Florence
This is the most complex game on this list. As an Italian aristocrat, you're trying to gain prestige by acting as patron to scholars and artists, constructing buildings, and creating parks. It's part balancing act, part Tetris, part auctioneering, part resource management, and a few other parts just for good measure. But the complexity pays off in a fun and challenging way.

So there you have it. Anybody want to come over and play?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The heat is on

...or, more accurately, the A/C is off. It is HOT. I think most of this continent is baking right now. Things are getting hot in the Middle East. People are hot over gas prices. And it's hot on the comment section of my previous entry.

So let's lighten up a bit. Here are some crazy things my kids have been up to...

E5, while watching Fantasia 2000, turns to me and says, "Do whales have belly buttons?"

Ummmm.... Yes?

Amelia has developed the endearing habit of waking up every night at 2:00am and staying up until dawn. I'm pretty sure she went two weeks straight without more than 8 hours of sleep per 24, and keeps one or both of us awake for most of it. She is apparently unaware of what the Geneva Convention has to say about sleep depravation. Or maybe she just considers us "enemy combatants."

E5 spent yesterday asking a repair man unintelligible questions about what he was doing. The repair man eventually replied, "I think you'll find that some things in life are just very complicated."

Amelia managed to climb up into a tall laundry basket next to the washer. From there, she apparently opened the lid, and splashed for a while. Then, she climbed into the washer and splashed for a while. Lori found her just as the aggitator cycle kicked in. She was turning back and forth, soaking wet, and whimpering. One more creative way to try to hurt herself.

E5 found a firefly on the window, but couldn't remember the name. "Look, Dad! It's a... light up beetle!"

Amelia has discovered light switches. She is now sending Morse code signals to the neighbors. Or maybe to the black helicopters.

E5 remembers who gave him every gift he's ever received. "Can I have the Grammy blanket? No, not the Grandma Ruth blanket!" (Yes, he wants blankets on, despite the heat. He wants to wear his "footie jammies" to bed too. You know the kind that are designed for cold winter nights? And he wants to snuggle up against you. We need to get some meat on that kid's bones.)

Also, his hair has turned curly.

Amelia's developing her own communication system. Grabbing your hand and pulling down, toward the floor means "Get up! I want to lead you to something that I want." At least I think that's what it means. The Morse code signals might fill in the details, but I don't know Morse code. She's also discovered yelling (as opposed to crying), which is fun

E5 is fascinated with where things come from. "Plums come from trees and apples come from trees. Pears are like apples. Carrots grow in the ground, like 'tatoes."


Keep cool...

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Six Great Things About Moving to the Country

1. Better nutrition.

Since we've spent all of our money and then some trying to get this operation up and running, we have very nearly empty bank account. (Actually it was below empty a week ago. Yikes.) So to reduce our grocery bill, we're eating quite frugally now. Beans and grains and sprouts are healthy!

2. Better food.

Thanks to an amazingly good cookbook (The More With Less Cookbook), it's actually kind of nice to eat the simple, homey foods. It's cool to eat potato soup rather than "Potato Soup," oatmeal cookies instead of "Oatmeal Cookies." Not to mention the fact that we ate a very tasty dinner the other night that had a total cost of about $1.50. Not per person or per serving. Total.

3. Better fitness.

Carrying 60 lbs. of thrashing goat flesh, tossing cattle panels, driving fence posts, dragging livestock shelters, and unloading bale after bale of hay has a way of getting you in shape, whether you intend it or not. And it's a lot more fun and more fulfilling to me than the drudgery of a stationary bike or stair machine. There's a reason you don't see fitness clubs in rural areas. My beloved spouse bought the 80 lb. bags of water softener salt instead of the 40 lb. bags, and didn't notice. (I sure did!) My weight has been holding steady for a while, and yet my belt is on the last notch. They say muscle weighs more than fat...

4. Better mental health.

I see the sunrise and sunset practially every day. I see and hear so much wildlife, it sounds weird when it's not there. I drink milk that was produced the same day, not 30 yards from my front door. On clear nights, I can walk outside and see a few million stars, and the Milky Way is vivid. (It had been several years since I'd been able to make it out prior to moving here.) There are a thousand things to do, almost all of them rewarding. And as long as the horse boarding facility up the road isn't cleaning out their barn, I can breathe in actual oxygen.

5. Better stories.

It gives me endless fodder for this blog. When I started this back in March, I had a lot of ideas of things to write about, but I figured they'd fizzle out after a while. Even now, I have several things written already and several more in my head. Secondly, people who know me in the real world (that really big room with the sky-blue ceiling) are forever asking me for updates and status reports on our crazy little farmlet. And finally, since I'm forever covered in scraches, cuts, and bruises of unknown origin, I'm free to make up whatever stories I like about them.

6. Better finances.

Okay, not really. It's expensive to live out here! Especially if you're starting from scratch (and don't quite know what you're doing). You can't mow by the acre with a push mower. Cha-ching. Hay doesn't cut or bale itself. Cha-ching. Everything is 20 minutes away or more, and you're always outside of anybody's delivery area. Double cha-ching. Cattle panels, lumber, and large quantities of hay don't fit in the back of a minivan. Cha-ching. A snowblower's not gonna work on your 400-foot gravel driveway in January. Cha-ching. Propane needs to be trucked in and stored. Cha-ching. Fences need to be built. Animals need housing, feed, equipment, and medicine. And occasioanl farm calls from the vet. Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching.

But after you overdraw your checking account a time or two, you really start paying attention to your finances. Oh sure, you always like to think you don't mindlessly spend your money on impulse buys, ("actually, we need this!") but once you really use up your available funds and then some, you realize that despite your desires and intentions, you were still a bit of a consumer zombie...

So I guess it really is a good thing.

I think the biggest difference is that it feels like life, rather than "life". Stop by and sample the oatmeal cookies - if there are any left...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Watching X-Files with no lights on...

I've had an odd year, from an aviation standpoint. Not that I've even set foot on an airplane.

It's just that when we moved up from Cincinnati, we had a temporary apartment near a small regional airport. Cessnas and traffic copters and little pleasure craft were always flying overhead. And Ohio State football game days, all the planes dragging advertising banners would come and go right over our apartment.

Then I'd drive across town to my job, which was separated from Port Columbus International Airport by just a swath of interstate. I'd be sitting in some godawful meeting, staring out the window and seeing an alarmingly large 767 filling the sky, noisily disrupting my daydream.

So when we moved from the apartment to our house in a rural area, I figured my close encounters with flying machines would be fewer and farther between.

They probably are, but my new aviation encounters are much more intriguing. There is a small airstrip a couple miles from my house. When I say small, I mean, not much bigger than our own property. It's tucked into a low spot between a small river and a small hillside. It's right next to a very old metal bridge, on a road that virtually nobody drives on. The grass "runway" has a clump of trees near one end, and corn growing along one side. You'd never realize it was an airstrip if you were standing in the middle of it.

But what makes this airstrip interesting is that it frequenly hosts black helicopters. Not for very long, mind you. They fly in, they land, they disappear again. But they are there.

Yes, I said black helicopters. And no I'm not wearing a tinfoil hat. (I have a fitting next week.)

These are not the big bubble-headed traffic copters. These are lean, angular machines without any obvious markings.

Sometimes, they fly around with large objects dangling below them. Sometimes they take off two or three at a time. Other times they fly in at night, with spotlights pointing at the ground as they find their way in.

As I sit at my desk in my "home office" (a.k.a. the bedroom) I see them rise up out of the trees and fly off over our house. The frequency varies. Sometimes I'll go several weeks without seeing any. Other times, I'll see them three or four times a week. Today, one flew right over our house at fairly low altitude.

And that's not all. We're also not too far from an old military base that was converted to a commercial freight hub. In theory anyway. I figure the helicopters are coming from there. But the other thing that comes from there are these big, low-flying, slow-moving, four-engine jets. They are solid gray, again with no obvious markings. We don't see them as often as the helicopters, but there was a stretch of about a week and a half where they were flying low over our area about three or four times a night, every night. Or maybe it was one plane circling the area three or four times. It's hard to tell.

It would be interesting to plot the activity levels, and see if there is any corresponding military activity overseas some months later. But doing that would probably get me on some list that I don't want to be on. Then again, maybe this post will get me on a list. I think Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton is within 50 miles. That base was included in a variety of alien rumors back when aliens and UFO's were still in vogue.

If you don't see any new posts for a while, please call the FBI and ask for Agent Mulder or Agent Skully. And get fitted for a tinfoil hat.

Random interesting photo

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

More than you ever wanted to know about sunflowers

I think Beo shares my interest in the versatility of sunflowers. They are attractive and easy to grow, they have edible seeds, they can be used to make oil, the leaves make decent livestock feed, and in some types (like sunchokes), the root system forms edible, starchy tubers that taste something like water chestnuts or potatoes.

I developed a particular interest when I found out that sunflower seed hulls can be used as fuel for my biomass stove. I had this wacky idea to find or develop perennial sunflowers that produced seeds comparable to the big annuals we're all familiar with. Then we could eat the seeds (or make oil from them), burn the hulls for winter heat, and feed the rest to the goats. And perennial means I don't have to replant every year!

So excuse me while I nerd out on sunflowers for a few thousand words...

I did some googling on crossing sunflower species. I ran across a forum posting from a man by the name of Walter Pickett. It turns out Mr. Pickett used to work on hybridizing perennial sunflowers for a living, at the venerable Land Institute. On a whim, I emailed him. I told him I was interested in finding out about perennial sunflowers with high seed yeilds. He was kind enough to write an extensive reply to my very brief query. Here is what I learned:

The Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximillianii) is a commonly available perennial sunflower. It produces 900 lbs of small seeds per acre, as well as edible rhizomes (similar to sunchokes, though lower yield).

By crossing H. maximillianii with another perennial sunflower, H. salicifolius, the yield dropped to 300 lbs per acre, but the seeds were much larger. He said they were about the size of apple seeds, and still with edible rhizomes underground.

He experimented with various other crosses (H. mollis, H. grosseseratus, H. giganteus), but wasn't impressed with the results. Crossing annual sunflowers with perennials was pretty shaky, due to different numbers of chromosomes. Few seeds were produced from the cross, and even fewer were viable.

He did not cross with Jerusalem artichokes (he was going for seed yeild), but he said he's interested in doing some more work along those lines at some point.

He also told me that the Land Institute did some research a while back using the named Maximillian variety 'Prairie Gold'. They found through simple selective seed saving, they achieved these desirable results:
  • Seed dormancy decreased. Without vernalizing the seed (storing under cool moist conditions to simulate winter in the soil) germination in the first generation was about 5%, second generation about 15%, third generation about 25%, fourth generation about 35%. This obviously was due to only growing plants from seeds that germinated, which selected strongly for lack of a need for vernalization.

  • Seed shatter (seeds falling from the heads at maturity) decreased, due to the fact that the heads that shattered most had the least seed in the next generation.

  • Seed size and weight increased. His seed cleaner was set to blow all unfilled and partially filled seeds away. Only filled seeds were part of the next generation.

  • Seeds got darker. He didn't know why. There were some plants with lighter seeds, gray or brown (all seeds from a plant were about the same color), and striped and speckled. But the percentage of black seeds increased in each generation. He thought maybe the black pigment gave some resistance to weevil or seed moth damage.

  • Yeild was directly correlated with branching and therefore number of heads.

  • Flowering got earlier. In the original variety Prairie Gold, the bloom was very late and only half the heads might be filled when a hard freeze killed the immature plants. Selection for survivors gave earlier flowering, so the seeds matured before hard freeze.

  • Flowering became more uniform in time. Date of first bloom changed less than date of last bloom.
That was all from my first brief email. I sent him some followup questions, and he generously responded again, and said he didn't mind my sharing his experience.

Here's the Q&A:
Q: Are the seeds on the perennials edible?

A: They are edible. They taste just like domestic sunflower seeds. But they are small. Fresh squeezed sunflower oil is a good cooking oil or salad oil. Even lamp oil, though not the best, and it can be converted to biodiesel. It has been a while since I have figured how much oil per acre. At
900 poounds per acre of seed, and about 1/3 oil by weight (very optomistic), that would be 300 pound of oil per acre. And at less than 8 pounds per gallon (it is lighter than water, which is 8 pounds per gallon) That would be around 40 gallons per acre, plus a high-protein meal left over from the squeezing.
Q: I guess I should say, are they practical as a (human) food source? (I'm thinking of the big annual sunflower seeds.) Maybe treat them more as a grain? Or are they better used for oil?

A: They are about 1/3 oil, 1/3 protein, and 1/3 fiber. But the hulls are like small sunflower seed hulls. If the hulls could be removed, sunflower butter, like peanut butter, would be the result. but removing the hulls is a problem. And bear in mind that the yield is way down in their second year, in most experiments.
Q: Are the rhizomes a useful food souce (for humans)? Interesting to know that mice and other critters dig them up. I just recently realized that Jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke) was a relative.

A: The rhizomes are similar in taste to Jerusalem artichokes, but thinner. Think of asparagus, only thinner, maybe half as thick as well-grown asparagus.
Q: I'm in Zone 5 (Central Ohio), so it does sound like maximilianii - salicifolius cross is the best starting point, based on your experience and my climate. Do they require supplemental nitrogen or any other fertilizers or nutrients?

A: An advantage to having mollis also in the population would be earlier bloom. Although using a maximiliani native to your area might give earlier bloom than the one I used. Sunflowers love nitrogen. Not as much as corn, but more than many seed crops. And perennial sunflowers spread if they are at the optimum plant density in their seedling year, they will be too thick their second year, and yield will be way down.

And something to bear in mind. Sunflowers are allopathic. That means they give off an herbicide from their roots. It doesn't kill everything, but it does kill cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum and B. Japonicum) and several mustards that are weeds here. And they will kill some other weeds by sucking the water out of the soil, and it gets up quick and shades other weeds. Experiments at the Land Institute showed that interplanting perennial sunflowers with Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoenses) improved sunflower seed yeilds. Bundleflower is a native perennial nitrogen-fixing legume. And it also has edible seeds, sort of. They taste terrible, but I guess they are good for you. They make good chicken feed. Bundleflower, unlike perennial sunflowers, can hold their yield for years. they are a taprooted perennial, so the number of plants gradually reduce over the years, instead of going up rapidly.

So now I have another interesting long-term project. I guess I've got some seed shopping to do if we're ever not broke again.

Animals love the rich, meaty taste of E4

To nearly every member of the animal kingdom, there is no treat more savory, no delicacy more sought after, than yours truly. Mosquitoes choose me over every other person within a mile radius, and the chiggers line up as though I were a half-price Sunday buffet at Ponderosa. My brother-in-law used to have a dog named Buster who would lick my hands and arms by the hour if I'd let him, and our old cat Nene used to do the same (though his sandpaper tongue usually shortened his opportunities, as I'd rather keep my skin the usual thickness). Our donkey lets me scratch his head for a few seconds, but then has to taste my hand, as does the horse next door. The goats nibble my fingers, arms, knees, and earlobes any time they have access to them. (At least I know I'm not alone in this one, as my wife can attest.) Even the last petting zoo we visited, I had a strange urge to pet a deer, and the deer promptly began licking my hand.

Okay, I have to stop for a second. As I was writing this, I felt something on my arm, near my elbow. A tick! A tick that had not yet attached itself, but was eagerly trying to do so. I am not making this up!

I was glad to learn that for some unknown reason, goats don't get ticks, and in fact, they deter them from the pasture. And despite our pond and marsh, and a generally low-lying property, Mother Nature is doing a fine job taking care of the mosquito population for us.

Nevertheless, I'm kind of afraid to go to the zoo now, or to The Wilds as is our plan in a couple weeks. I think they have mostly herbivores at The Wilds, but still, I don't want to get tangled up in a two-foot long giraffe tongue, or have a rhino chase me down just to see if everything they've heard is true.

I can't explain it. It just is.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Halloween, corporate style

So here's a scary story...

Once upon a time, I took a job in Cincinnati. I liked it a lot. I had one of the best bosses ever, and it was a fun place to work.

A few years went by. The company got bought by a bigger company. I voluntarily tranferred back to the Columbus office, so we could move back to central Ohio. I became part of the parent company.

It was a total nightmare. I was told to lie to my former co-workers more than once, and told not to talk to them more than once. Red tape, politics, back-stabbing, more red tape, lying, long hours, lots of late nights, flesh-eating zombies, avian flu, bad coffee... Just not good.

So bad, in fact, that the Cincinnati office decided to essentially withdraw from the parent company's technical services as much as possible, and go back to doing things themselves.

I talked to my old boss - the one back in Cincinnati - to see if there was any way I could transfer back without moving back. It took a while, but we worked something out so that I could work from home four days a week and drive down to Cincinnati once a week.

That's where I am now with it, and I absolutely love it.

Meanwhile, there's another company that was acquired by the parent that does work very similar to the Cincinnati folks. They're based out of Dallas (as is the parent company). They decided to merge the two similar subsidiaries. Not physically - they still intended to keep both offices up and running. They've actually already got another office in Boston as well. (They're also setting up an office in Bombay, but I'm not even going to discuss the implications of that just now...)

Not only did they have a similar type of business, but they had similar cultures too. A small number of redundant positions were eliminated - to nobody's surprise - but all in all, the transition has been smooth...

...until Friday.

We had a "Town Hall" meeting. Everybody gets together and they tell us all about how much money we're making (or not making), what clients we've added, what clients we might add, what clients are going away, new hires, new policies, etc.

It started well. The Cincinnati office is still treated like a stand-alone business from a financial standpoint. If they are profitable, all is well. If not, changes start happening. Since being acquired by the parent, they've been hovering around $20 million a year in revenue. Last year was $22, but with a profit of only $100,000. Hence the merger with the subsidiary in Dallas. This year, because of a huge new client, the Cincinnati office is on target for $30 million in revenue already, with the possibility of going even higher. Profits look great. Everything is finally moving up.

At this point in the meeting, we're all feeling pretty good. Well most of us. About 35 people got the bad news 30 minutes early. Bad news? What about the great numbers? What about that big client that was responsible for the huge jump in earnings? The next PowerPoint slide went up. Right across the top, it said, "[Client X] team moving to Dallas."

Wait, what? I read it again. The VP is still up their talking, but somehow my brain is lost for a second. I read it one more time. What does that mean, moving to Dallas? Turns out, just what it sounds like. The reason given was that because it's such a big account, they want "executive level attention" on it.


So now about a quarter of the people in Cincinnati are being given a choice. If they move to Dallas, they have a job. If they don't, well, we'll see what we can do. I'm not on the list, which is good, because there's no way I'm moving to Dallas. My old boss, and a lot of my favorite people are on the list. They have ten days to decide.

The VP goes on to say that, minus this big account, we're still on target for $19 million in revenue, which is right where we usually are, so it's all okay.

He asks if there are any questions, but conveniently, lunch is served at that exact moment. He gives a half-hearted attempt to take questions again once everybody's eating, but nobody notices over the din.

So here's what nobody asked: Why did Dallas just get the cream of the crop? Are we supposed to go out and make more cream for them now? And if we are merging, why are we still talking about our numbers separate from Dallas? What business problem are they solving with this? How will this make that team perform better?

What a nice reward for all that hard work and dedication.

And the big question on everybody else's minds: Who's next?

Note to Self: Update resumé, watch Office Space.


Due to a series of unfortunate events, we came to find ourselves in posession of a rather broken down old truck, and another even more broken down old truck. We also had a car in desparate need of some brake work, and our "nice" car just crossed the 100,000 mile mark. Actually, all told, our sad fleet of vehicles have logged a combined 661,000 miles. And yes, our driveway looks like a very bad used car lot. If only I had a plaid jacket and some brylcreem...

Since money is tight, we decided to get creative. Obviously we don't need two trucks, particularly if they're not usable. We were thinking of selling the little Honda, since we could use the cash a lot more than the extra wheels. But a lot of buyers are going to turn away from a car with brake problems that's pushing 200k on the odometer, even if it is a Honda. So many repairs were beyond my meager abilities, my available time, and our funds, and my one mechanically savvy friend is in an entirely different hemisphere. There's only so much you can convey about auto repairs by email.

I knew that one of the neighbors up the road periodically had old vehicles for sale in front of his house. I could only guess that he was fixing them up and selling them. I stopped by to ask him about helping me out. He and his son both worked on cars, and his son worked at a local scrapyard.

After discussing the situation, we came up with a solution: good old fashioned barter.

In exchange for doing a series of repairs on one of the trucks, and taking care of the brakes on our Honda, and paying for all the new parts, he could have the other truck. I couldn't get more than a couple hundred dollars for a truck that wouldn't run, and there was no way we could repair everything. But if my neighbor's son could get some parts from the junkyard and put some time into it, he could probably sell it for a bit more, and make a few bucks to support his brand new baby girl. Everybody wins.

Less than a week after coming to an agreement, we are officially rid of that stinking, unreliable, smoke-spewing, diesel guzzling, broken down nightmare. (No hard feelings.) We have a quick-starting, smooth-running, non-stinking stuff-hauler with warrantied parts, and a car with working brakes (which we can now sell). Plus I now know a mechanic who lives a few doors down and won't charge me $70 an hour for any new gremlins that will inevitably show up. Maybe I can even learn a thing or two from him at the same time.

At this point, I couldn't ask for much more...