Monday, March 30, 2009

The Earth Hour has no clothes

Recently I received an email extolling me to participate in Earth Hour. It included an article that started like this:
Lights out in 84 countries for Earth Hour 2009

CHICAGO — The lights are going down from the Great Pyramids to the Acropolis, the Eiffel Tower to Sears Tower, as more than 2,800 municipalities in 84 countries plan Saturday to mark the second worldwide Earth Hour ... the time zone-by-time zone plan to dim nonessential lights between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. to highlight global climate change.
The first thing I though of when I read this was: Do the Eiffel Tower, the Sears Tower, the Acropolis, or the Great Pyramids really need much if any lighting at that hour anyway? I mean I'm pretty sure the Pyramids did just fine without any lights at all for the first forty-five centuries.

If promoters of this event had been pushing even a day without lights, I'd be a tiny bit impressed. But an hour? For everyone to sit around and ponder what a great thing they're doing while burning petroleum based candles? One eight-thousandth of a year? And only lights - a small fraction of energy consumption. Nothing about heat or air conditioning or water heating or driving or flying or...

I guess I'd like it better if it were a more meaningful gesture. Turning your lights off doesn't save much energy, especially if you have energy-efficient bulbs. It doesn't even lead to a repeatable habit. People who turned their lights off for Earth Hour aren't likely to think, "Hey, that was easy. Let's do that every night!" And even if they did, it wouldn't make much difference in electricity usage.

If somebody's going to go to all the trouble to organize a worldwide symbolic campaign, couldn't they find something more substantial or useful?

We could all unplug our fridges for an hour (and clean the dust off the coils). Or turn off our computers. Or skip meat. Inflate our tires. Stay out of our cars for a day. Or adjust our thermostats by 5 degrees. Close our curtains on a hot summer day. Start a compost pile. Plant a garden. In other words, do something that could both have a noticeable short-term impact (a big dip in power usage) and show the way toward a long-term big impact.

Is it better to get a large number of people to make a tiny blip, or a smaller number of people learning how to take bigger steps?

No they're not mutually exclusive. And yes, some people will be sparked to make bigger changes as a result. But to me, it's the "green" equivalent of those "We Support Our Troops" magnets on the backs of people's cars - mostly harmless and largely symbolic.

Maybe I'm wrong. If electricity consumption starts a downward trend because of Earth Hour, I will shout it from the rooftops and dance a jig. In the meantime, I just wish that whoever organized it had come up with something a little more substantive.



Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Approaching a crossroads?

I've documented my tractor struggles here on numerous occasions. I just don't get along that well with internal combustion engines, or many other mechanical devices: Bolts in awkward places that are rusty and hard to get off; Parts that are expensive and/or have to be mail-ordered; Parts that are clearly inferior to the original because the original is no longer made; Tasks that require specialized tools; lubricants that need refreshing... I could go on.

Some people like working on tractors, old cars, lawnmowers, and other such things, and come away with a great deal of satisfaction from getting and keeping them running. Me, I generally come away filthy, scuffed, scratched, sore, frustrated, and feeling like I did more harm than good. And that's when I succeed!

But a tractor can be a tremendously useful tool in the right hands. It can move and lift heavy things. It can help plow and disk soil. It can help with making hay or clearing brush. There must be hundreds of things a tractor can do around a farm. But most of those things require tractor implements. The tractor itself is just the power source.

I have two problems in this regard: 1) an unreliable power source (the tractor), and 2) a shortage of useful implements. The implements aren't cheap, and switching from one to another is not a five minute task. It always seems like it should be, but it never is. They are invariably heavy, and often almost as cantankerous as the tractor itself.

So I have a tool that should be useful but isn't. In someone else's hands, it almost certainly would be. In mine, it's a chew toy for livestock. After yet another bout of troubleshooting, getting help, spending money, and not being at all confident of results, I'm starting to reconsider. Maybe there's another solution.

Short of getting into draft animals (which I admit would be appealing, but for a variety of reasons, just isn't plausible at this point), I'm kicking around a different approach.

In a perfect world, what would I use the tractor for?

1. Mowing. We have a good bit of land, and other than the pond, it's pretty much all grass and/or brush. As much as I'm not a fan of the Oversized Lawn, I don't forsee a day in the near future when there won't be a good bit of grass. A certain portion of it is not suitable for making hay, which leads to...

2. Making hay. We need hay. Unfortunately, there's not really much equipment out there for making hay on our scale. It'd cost many thousands to get equipment for cutting, raking, and baling. And maybe I'm a wuss, but I do believe it's too much to tackle with a scythe and a rake.

3. "Sod-busting." As in, plowing, disking, and general seedbed prep. You see, I'd love to grow grains on a small to medium scale. Maybe sunflowers or root crops too. I'm not talking about acres and acres, but bigger than "garden scale."

...and surprisingly, that's about it. There are plenty of other things a tractor might be useful for, but none important enough to include in this equation. Our truck can generally serve the "pulling and moving heavy things" category.

The hay-making I could hire out. We need alfalfa hay for our picky cow, and the old-timers around here are telling me alfalfa would be a real pain for me to try to grow anyway. My soil would need ammending, the bugs would eat half of it, and it wouldn't be that great anyway. Better to plant a mixed pasture, have a neighbor cut it, bale it, and pay me for it, and then use that money to buy good alfalfa hay from somebody who's already growing it successfully.

The downsides of this approach are that we'd need to widen our pasture gates so that either of my local hay cutting neighbors could get their equipment in, and it would mean we'd be depending on somebody else. But as we wouldn't be using the hay, it would keep me from worrying about the quality, whether it was cut at the best time, etc. And we already depend on outside sources of hay anyway, but without the income from our own pastures.

That leaves the mowing of non-hay areas, and prep work for growing crops on a slightly larger scale.

If I sold the tractor, I could get a halfway decent mowing machine of some sort, and have plenty of money left over.

And with the extra, I could buy a nice walk-behind tractor, like a Grillo, or more likely, and old Gravely. It could be used for many of the same things as it's four-wheeled uncle, just on a much smaller scale. It could till more ground than a tiller. It could clear more brush than a mower. And it would be smaller and so hopefully, easier and cheaper to maintain.

Or maybe I just spend it all on really good two-wheel tractor, and make sure it's a capable mower and tiller.

Is this a good idea, or would I just be trading one set of problems for another. The devil you know or the devil you don't?

I don't know the answer. I'm just thinking...


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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Latest arrival

Some people might look at our overgrown pastures and unkempt pond as the product of negligence and incompetence.

Well, technically, they'd be right. If I could keep our tractor running and teach the kids to occupy themselves more, I'd probably be a little better at keeping the brush under control. But I'm never going to be one of those land owners who's land looks like the Wrigley Field outfield.

The advantage though, is that we get a fair amount of wildlife, all things considered. I mean, there are no woodlands, nature preserves, or significant bodies of water for miles around. In fact, there's really just mostly big swaths of conventional farmland - not exactly wildlife friendly.

It's always cool to spot a new critter hanging around though. And it's even more fun when it's something showy and unusual. Our latest addition is the ring-necked pheasant. Maybe some local conservation / hunting club released them into the area, but these guys seem to be hanging around our pond quite a bit. At first I thought it was just our Buckeye chickens foraging, but they don't have ringed necks or long tails.

If you're interested in more wildlife and biodiversity in your own back yard, I encourage you to check out the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Habitat program. I dropped my membership after a year or two because of all the mail they liked to send, but their web site has a lot of tips for increasing biodiversity even in a small suburban back yard. It worked for us when we were in suburbia...


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Willie Smits: A 20-year tale of hope: How we re-grew a rainforest

This is pretty cool....

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Late breaking story

We're coming to you live this morning from the local hospital... which incidentally is not as exciting as it sounds. Poor Amelia didn't get along with the latest virus that came calling. She stopped eating in favor of an all-day nap on Thursday. She'd only get up to move from the recliner to the couch or from the couch to the big pillow on the floor. She'd spend her few waking minutes staring vacantly into the middle distance. Friday afternoon she went to the doctor and got some antibiotics for a probable double ear infection. Saturday she decided to give up on drinking too, and when her breath started to smell like nail polish remover, we called her doc, who had us do some checks for dehydration and sent us packing for the ER, sometime around 4:30 yesterday afternoon.

They did a chest x-ray to check for pneumonia (negagtive) and ran some blood work. After what seemed like a very long time, they finally got an IV started. Then she thrashed at the last moment and knocked it out, so we had to do it again on the other side. She didn't even like the blood pressure cuff, the stethoscope, or the thermometer under her arm, so you can imagine how thrilled she was with three different needle sticks. It took three of us to make it happen.

After getting her lab work back and consulting with her pediatrician, they decided to admit her, so I stayed the night with her. She napped for a while once we got back to the room, and then woke up raring to go. As in, "go somewhere other than this godforsaken bed." It's tough when you can't explain to her the necessity of staying put.

Then one of the nurses came by and suggested we unplug the IV stand and take a walk.


So we embarked on the inaugural Amelia 500, walking round and round the third floor - presumably looking for the exit. It was the most activity I've seen from her in about 72 hours. After half a dozen laps, it was time for a pit stop back at the room. She was much less upset having checked out her surroundings. They brought us a TV on a stand with a VCR and some decades old children's movies. She stared vaguely in the direction of The Land Before Time II for a while before finally going to sleep sometime after midnight.

And now we sit (well, I sit and Amelia sprawls), uncertain about whether we're going to get to go home later this morning or not. Daylight savings kicked in last night, which I'm choosing to look at as one hour less in the hospital rather than a lost hour of sleep. You lose hours of sleep in the hospital anyway, what with the narrow bed not really built for more than one person, the air mattress that reinflates and readjusts itself every time you move (or breathe too deeply), the occasional beeping machines or medical personnel appearing out of nowhere like ghosts in the night. (In an odd twist, our next-door-neighbor's mom works on this floor. It's always strange to see a familiar face in an unfamiliar context.)

At least they've got free wifi here, even if they do block half the sites on the internet. YouTube? Facebook? Really? Well, maybe it's to keep the staff from wasting too much time online or something. But trust me, even the tiniest opening can be used to waste time. You put me on a cruise ship with a balcony room I'll use it, but if you stick me in steerage with a tiny porthole, I'm still going to stare out it every chance I get...

I mean, let's be honest. I'm not telling this story because it's all that interesting. I'm just trying to pass the time by subjecting you to my boredom.


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Friday, March 06, 2009

A couple quick links...

So, what does a trillion dollars look like?

Like this.

Well, unless you're in Zimbabwe.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Update on cherry pits as heating fuel

At last, we're on the downhill side of winter. Or is it the uphill side? Anyway... it's finally warming up a bit, but over the course of this somewhat grueling winter, we've had plenty of opportunity to experiment with heating our house with cherry pits.

It's really interesting to see the differences in the various fuels. Well, okay, maybe not to everybody. But just in case others are in a similar position, I'll share what our experience has been....

Cherry pits don't produce the same grainy ash that corn does, nor the light fluffy ash of the wood pellets. They're somewhere in between. You don't get very much ash falling down into the ash pan, but you get quite a bit floating around and sticking to the walls of the burn chamber, and the exhaust vent. It varies from a grayish tan to a sooty black. A poor burn (i.e. not enough airflow) gets you something akin to creosote coating everything.

While mixing corn and wood pellets gets you the best of both worlds, mixing cherry pits and wood pellets gets you the worst of both worlds. (I didn't have a chance to try mixing cherry pits and corn.) The pellets plus cherry pits initially looked good, since there was almost no ash in the ash pan. I thought we were getting a more complete burn, amounting to higher efficiency. What was actually happening was that there wasn't less ash, it was just more airborne ash. More ash collected on the heat exchanges, in the air intake and exhaust ducts - basically in a lot of nooks and crannies, which meant the airflow was poor, which meant the efficiency was getting worse and worse over time.

It got bad enough that the air intake fan wouldn't turn any more (though I'm sure some of it was from the previous two winters). I had a service tech out to help troubleshoot. He showed me some new tricks for cleaning & maintaining the stove. But even with good airflow, I have to knock ash out of the exhaust duct about once every couple days to keep it from building up again. And it still builds up in hard to reach spots that are more suited for a spring cleaning project than a weekly maintenance task.

The other problem is that - contrary to what I'd heard - the cherry pits burn a little more slowly than pellets or corn, which, without getting into too much detail, means that we can't set our stove to it's highest setting. We can run wood pellets on 5 (the highest setting). We can run corn on 4 and get more heat than pellets on 5. If we run cherry pits on anything higher than 3, it will work for a while, but get worse over time. By the time 8 hours is up, the burn pot has filled up, the fire is partially smothered, the heat output is down, and there's smoke coming out of the exhaust vent - something that never, ever happens with corn, and rarely with pellets.

I wanted to like the cherry pits. And they were usable. Our heat stove just doesn't cope with them all that well. They don't produce noticeably more heat than wood pellets (unlike corn, which does produce noticeably more heat). They do produce noticeably more ash in the least convenient places.

Our first winter with this heat stove, we burned primarily corn. Last year we used about a 3:1 mixture of corn & pellets, but then straight pellets at the end of winter when the corn ran out. This year, we didn't use any corn. After bad experiments mixing corn & cherry pits, we went back to either/or. Next year, I'm going to say it's back to the corn/pellet mix. Each fuel has it's good and bad points, but the corn/pellet mix seems to result in the cleanest, hottest burn while staying on the low end in terms of cost and hassles.



Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Things that suck

The last post was sort of playful misery - taking something mildly unpleasant and turning it into an amusing story.

This post is about things that really do kind of suck.

The other day our basement flooded. We got an inch or two of water. I always thought it could happen, given a variety of factors, so most things were up and out of harm's way. But there's still a lot of soggy cardboard boxes and the occasional ruined photo album or waterlogged memento to deal with. And the dampness. One of the casualties was the dehumidifier. Did you know that dehumidifiers are hard to come by in March?

Then E5 came home from school yesterday very subdued - almost lethargic. Very uncharacteristic for him. I asked him if he was ok, and he said he was fine. A bit later he complained of being really cold. And achy.

How about a fever of 105F...

Ibuprofen brought it down to a more manageable 101, but I do feel bad for the little guy. And I dread the idea of either me or Lori coming down with it. We struggle many days when we're both able-bodied and healthy. The constant illnesses this winter have really been rough. A note from the school yesterday said strep is going around. Awesome.

Then I find out that the meeting I missed out on at work at the end of the day yesterday - the one they told us to drop everything and attend, but then couldn't get the phone lines working for us remote folks to listen in - was to announce an across-the-board 5% pay cut. Add in the additional 2% city income tax we have to pay since we moved to a new building last week, and the ever-increasing health care costs, and our home budget will certainly need another look.

Excuse me while I wallow in self-pity for a bit.

I know, it could be worse. I still have a job and a house and all that.

But "it could be worse" isn't all that comforting sometimes. I need to get some wallowing out of the way now, before the necessary penny pinching and impending illness sets in.

I'll be hiding under the bed if anybody needs me.