Thursday, February 21, 2008

Our New Maginot Line In Space!

And, Thank You, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for making your allegiances crystal clear, at last.  It's to Big Money.  Not to actual security for anyone.

What the heck am I doing writing about the satellite shoot?  Well.  Apart from the fact that it DOES have to do with how safe we are, living here on Earth- I've been writing letters to scientific journals  pointing out problems with "Star Wars" kinds of things since Reagan first started selling it.  It might stem from my days as a fencer - attack and defense is part of that.  You learn principles; like the fact that there IS NO SUCH THING as a "purely defensive" weapon or strategy.  Ain't.  It doesn't work that way.

Think for a minute.  You have a spear; and I have a spear.  We'd both better be careful, and polite.  Then- I invent- the shield.  Buffalo hide over wood.  Now then.  I think I can clobber you, any time I want- and you can't reach me.  So I can be just as agressive as I'm in the mood for.

It goes on- forever.

Just real quick here- "Star Wars", and its illegitimate offspring our "missile defense" are possibly the largest direct theft of public money in history.

And the perpetrators KNOW it's theft.  Find me, please ONE genuine - INDEPENDENT physicist who thinks it can be made to work.  Just ONE.  So far as I know- there are none, only a few who are wholly owned by the companies raking in the dough.  Sorry; they don't count.

For those of you not familiar with the Maginot Line - it's fabulous history.  Basically a bunch of thieves in pre- WWII France sold them on the idea of an impenetrable line of fortresses facing Germany to keep the Germans out.  Total defense!  Impenetrable!  Billions and billions of francs spent on concrete, railroads, bunkers and guns.  Absolute safety!

So what did the Germans do?  Uh.  Went around, through Belgium and the Netherlands; which had no fortresses facing them, because the French weren't scared of them.  Took the Germans- 5 days.

Gosh, that was hard to see coming.  You needed like... a map of Europe, to see it.

The "missile defense" is exactly the same thing.  It CANNOT be made to work, and provide "safety."  CANNOT.  Physics.

So; you're going to shoot down a missile; with another one.  First thing the opponent does is; for every missile YOU have- he launches- two.  You add more- he adds more.  You can shoot down only half of what's coming in - he wins, you lose.

This is an un-winnable proposition.  And, worse- the other guy doesn't even have to build two missiles to your one- turns out, all you need to do is launch DECOYS.  The attacking missile can "split" after launch, into multiple supposed warheads.  So they put 10 POSSIBLE missiles up for every one defensive missile.


Physicists have been pointing this out forever.  It's bloody obvious.  It makes no difference- because the "defense" contractors want your money, and there are too many people in Congress who can't follow the physics.

Bush has been spending $10 Billion/year on this nonsense, since he got in.  Clinton could have killed it- and didn't.  What could we do with $10 Billion a year- for - jeez, pick anything.

Now- read my comment here on DotEarth: comment #20.  Note the time.

Then; read this from the BBC- 8 hours later.... Missile Defence Works, Says Gates..  

"This operation speaks for itself" - he says.

Thanks for making that clear, Mr. Gates.  Now we know who you really are.

Something else for us to scream at our Congresspersons.  You can cite the Union of Concerned Scientists, if they don't find ME totally convincing.  

sigh.  hang in there.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

re-cycled headlines

We're still dealing with winter here.  Real winter for a change, which basically I like.  I'll take 0°F temperatures and 30 mph winds anytime over snow-mud-snow-mud.  

But it's taking a bunch of time right now, due to our low firewood stocks, and having to haul water from the greenhouse - by sled much of the time, because I can't start the tractor when it's below 10°F, because the diesel tank is full of #2 diesel, because the heavy rains that kept me from doing firewood last fall also kept me from doing fall tractor work, so the tank didn't get emptied out so I could put #1 diesel in...

And it keeps snowing.  Our porch has 3 steps up to the deck- only one of them is still above the snow right now, in spite of that snow being well packed.

Today is a gotta plow, gotta get wood and water, and go to town day.  Kinda busy.  So I'm going to re-cycle an old post-

We're going through another college-shooting spasm at the moment.  I did write about that previously - here.

If you don't want to read it, I'll understand.  It's depressing, of course.

Doubly so to me, because the CAUSE is so totally obvious- and so is the response.

But we're not doing it.  The reality is, it's become another purely American form of entertainment.  Weeks of orgies of orgasmic analysis, in ALL the media; hours and hours- of immortality for the shooter.  This garbage now survives forever on the internet of course; any unbalanced person can spend days reading about the past events- and dwelling on it-

Our stupidity, and blindness here, is depressing.  How many voices are there calling for careful self censorship here?  Very very few.  So- the shootings will continue.

Off to hew and haul; less depressing stuff tomorrow, I hope.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Because: Yes.

Today is Smidgen's 3rd birthday.  Do I have time to be doing this post?  Of course not.  But I'm doing it anyway.  Why?

Because- yes.

That's Smidgen's straightforward answer, when I ask HER "why?" 

 I'm a strong believer in turning the tables on your children, as soon and as often as possible.  Since she's well into the age of "why?' - she gets it right back.  "Don't tickle me!"  "Why not?  It makes you laugh and wiggle.  You like to laugh and wiggle, you do it all the time, all by yourself.  Why not?"  

"Because: don't!"

Strikes me as quite wise- and generally irrefutable.  I hope to use it often.

It has happened a few times that I have been asked "why"- why are you doing "this"- meaning living this way?  My answer is simple.  For the children.  Mine, yes; but all of them, really.  We need to leave our children a world that has a future to offer them.  And it seems obvious to me, that if your children are desperate- my children will suffer.  So yes- for all of them (whether you actually have any, or not.)

So I'm taking the time today to put these self-indulgent bits regarding the journey so far together.  Smidgen does get a kick out of seeing herself on the web, of course- hope you enjoy these too.

Because: yes.  

This is where we started- Smidgen, age 1 day. 
(all these photos can be clicked on for larger versions.)

Smidgen, age 3-days.  My hands, and hers.

Death by carrots.  The Way is not smooth.

First ocean experience- well before dawn, due to jet-lag.

Ocean-shmocean, now THIS is really interesting.  (with big brother Beelar)

Ok, yes, waves are cool.

So are big brothers, and tree roots.
(you really need to see the bigger version of this one)

Some tourist attractions can be interesting...


Enough tom-foolery.  This is the plan.

(Bigger version recommended.  Note how precisely I hold the stylus, 
and ignore that bit of chocolate at the corner of my mouth.) 

Happy Birthday, Smidge.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

In Defense of Excellence

Sometimes, when the universe presents me with a confluence of concepts, I am unable to resist responding.  Hopefully this post won't suck too much time out of my life- or yours.

This morning, La Crunch posted a guide to a greener Valentine's Day- which included a suggestion that rather than go out to a fancy restaurant and CONSUME, you might stay home and celebrate there.

My response basically pointed out that restaurants have to make a living, too- and they're in some trouble at the moment, as lots of folks cut back.  (And, full disclosure- I make part of my living selling fancy food to fancy restaurants...)

Then, cosmic synchronicity-wise, Frank Bruni, the NYT food writer, has an article entitled "In Defense of Decadence" - and opens, bless him, with Michael Pollan's brilliant distillation "Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants."  Then goes on to describe an eating experience on the other end of the spectrum.

I doubt that Pollan intended for us to abandon fine cuisine, and genius chefs and restaurateurs.  Besides the value of occasionally cutting loose in celebration, there is another side to this problem, one we need to remember.

I did not discover that food could be ASTONISHING until I was 19, I think.  My epiphany came in Munich, Germany- in the form of Ochsenschwanz Suppe.  Ox-tail soup.

I ordered it because I'd heard of ox-tail soup for years, it sounded weird and exotic to me, and I was in the exploratory mode that summer- try whatever shows up, if it doesn't look dangerous.

One spoonful did it.

I was astonished.  I'd never, in my life, realized  or imagined  that soup- or food- could be such an intense, gripping, focused, DELICIOUS, amazing-  experience.  

Soup, for crying out loud.  It's soup- and I'm sitting here paralyzed.

My mother was a good cook; very good, and very conscientious.  Every meal she cooked, she thought about, worked on; it was part of her work, her contribution.

Inevitably, though; cooking day in, day out, for the same audience, her efforts usually ended up reaching for - "good", and "ok".   And those of us on the receiving end of her generosity surely did not pay enough attention to it.

The effort required to strive for astonishing excellence was usually just beyond her reach.  One place she did spend the effort was on birthday cakes- she could have gone pro.

So.  Why are so many of us willing to just constantly stuff our faces with MacDonald's burgers and fries?  And put up with all the consequences?

I think a big part of the answer is WE JUST DON'T KNOW ANY BETTER.

I didn't- until that spoonful of ox-tail soup.  I just plain didn't know what was possible.

Teaching children, at a young age, to pay attention to the quality of their food- just might be one of the most important things we could do to move the world in a sustainable direction.

And it takes excellence to break through the vast mountains of salty-crunchy-sweet-cheesy-chocolate-grease they are used to.  Mom is either tired most days- or feeds them packaged stuff to save time.  Sad, but very common.

I've had fantasies for several years of 4th Grade field trips.  The school bus takes a load of kids to the Farmers Market- they get to taste a fresh apple; fantastic cheese- then they go to the nearby 4 Star restaurant, where the top chef does his absolute best for them, for lunch; and their lives are changed.  Now- they KNOW- what food is; and can be.

And cooks and chefs capable of excellence need somewhere to live, and grow.  Their habitat is fine restaurants.  And WE are the only ones who can prevent their extinction.

Somewhere- we need places where we can learn, and be reminded, of what is possible.


Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.  And splurge, occasionally.

My own opinion.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Peak Patsies - is here-

Sorry, got another one of those "I can't help it, the news is driving me crazy" posts today-

Everybody is commenting on "the economy" these days. It ain't looking good, as everybody knows. Oodles of people blame it on- oodles of things. I need to add an oodle.

We know about Peak Oil - in spades. Yep, sooner or later, we DO have to hit the end of oil- because we do, after all, have just one planet we can stripmine. Lots of quibbles are possible - oh, we'll find another Prudhoe Bay soon - probably under the Greenland icecap, or the Ross Ice Shelf. Ha ha.

Today, though, we have clear evidence of an unreported, unrecognized "peak" - the actual cause of all the credit collapses going on. And you heard it here first.

We have hit the peak on readily available - fools. Idiots. Patsies. Dupes. Consumers.

Take a look here; NYT- end of spending. Basically - in the USA, in 1989, most of us were "saving" around 10% of our income. The rate is currently - negative.

There are no more savings to stripmine- which is what the credit guys have been doing for decades ("hey, borrow a little more-cheap!- you can always pay it off if you get in a crunch...")

And, to everyone's astonishment- people are reacting. By - not using their credit cards anymore. Living within their income.

The ramifications, for "business as usual" are HUGE.

Even the analysts are starting to get it.

Also today - NYT Markets fall... did you know something like 2/3 of our economy is in the "services" sector? That means stuff where no physical goods are made, or change hands - it's things like the barber, your accountant, the dry cleaner, restaurants- where someone is doing something for you that you COULD do for yourself. Guess what? More people are doing stuff for themselves. (Because they have no money- you think Exxon Record Profits of $40BILLION AGAIN could have anything to do with that? We've talked about their record profits in this blog before- here.)

I've always suspected there was a limit to the "taking in each other's laundry" economy. Something very much like Doug Adams "Shoe Event Horizon." Doug was not dumb.

What it truly amounts to - is a catastrophe for the business world that has so long relied on sales of hyper-inflated real-estate with only imaginary value; SUV's which fill a need -oh, that NO ONE has; and plastic gizmos (thanks Colin) with a) no concept of physics, and b) no concept of human behavior - it's the loss of the target market. Suckers. Ok, not the loss-

But quite possibly the Peak. Sooner, and more certain, than Peak Oil - and with no imaginary new resources under ice waiting to be exploited-

Peak Patsies - is upon us. The end of constant growth; the end of expansion.

Peak Fools. Peak Chumps. Peak Suckers. After decades of uncontrolled strip-mining of this limited resource- the veins have finally given out. The great Patsy Mines are in trouble.

Peak Consumption - perhaps is a phrase that will fly, in the long run. Or Peak Gullibility, if we're feeling cranky.

Wow. Buckle your seat belts.

SGL's comment made a point I'd intended to put in here, and forgot in my hurry to zip off to a chore-

The Patsy Pool has long been considered infinite. We'll never run out of fools - is a favorite saying of pundits across the ages.

Ah, but you see- that's exactly what we've always said about... oil....... North America........ oceans..... and the atmosphere. They're too big to ever be affected by our tiny actions.

It's one more "infinite" resource where we've hit the end; and the ramifications are huge.

And- we need to differentiate between "stupid" - and "fool". I ain't dumb; but I've for sure been a fool, and been fooled; more than once. :-)

Friday, February 1, 2008

Picking the right path...

Billy M left a comment on an earlier post asking for some basic opinions/advice- 

"The research I've done on heating for food has only resulted in seemingly balanced arguments from the two options I have at my hands. I have an old propane grill ($5 at a garage sale), as well as an electric stove that came with the place I am renting. The most convincing information I read said that propane actually releases a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere, since it is a natural gas, and that the methods of obtaining electricity have become efficient enough to surpass the carbon emissions of propane. However, other readings have said that propane may just be slightly more efficient than electricity, although the fact that it is a natural gas does in fact bring down the resourcefulness of the energy source.
I don't own any type of device that would allow me to burn wood...

So I guess what I'm wondering is if you have any facts/opinions straight out of how someone should go about heating food (if they did in fact have all three options -- wood, propane and electricity)

Billy, you're not alone in wanting to know "the right answer" for a question- I'd love to be able to give it.

What struck me immediately here though was the missing component- Billy, basically.

What kind of cooking do you do?  What kinds do you LIKE to do?  Are you allergic to woodsmoke?  Do you enjoy cutting, splitting, handling firewood, or are you really too busy?  How much "extra" time do you have- either to wrangle wood, or propane containers?-

Etc.  Hopefully you get the idea.  Who you are- what you need- and even what makes you happy- all these considerations are genuinely IMPORTANT to the answer.

You are important.  We need to remember that.

"Sustainable" practices WON'T be- if they make people miserable, and they won't stick to them.

  Which seems obvious, but quite a few enthusiasts will, in the excitement of the moment, adopt practices that they can't/won't - uh, sustain.  Because in their enthusiasm for the greater good, and the benefit to the planet, they forgot- WE are part of the planet we're trying to save here- and we matter, too.

The whole decision- what kind of fuel SHOULD I cook with - can get pretty crazy complex if you keep picking at it.

Propane is a fossil fuel- bad carbon.  It's mostly delivered on trucks- diesel fuel; more fossil carbon. Where does your local propane actually come from?  Natural gas is often moved in pipelines/pipes- pretty efficient, if available- but still fossil carbon.

Electricity is mostly coal (bad), and nuclear (BAD); with minor bits of natural gas (badish) wind (ok) and hydro (okish) - depending on where you live.  If you've got the option as some do to essentially purchase straight renewable electricity- that could make a difference in your decision.  

Wood is "current budget" carbon- good carbon; and it CAN be renewable, though like everything else wood can be done badly.  If you live in a city - it may not be legal- most available wood-burning stoves are much dirtier than they have to be, and wood smoke is pretty irritating for the neighbors.  Do you have a good supply?  The space to store it, the time?
As an aside here- firewood is kind of dominating my life at the moment- because of the floods last fall, and global warming.  I cut and gather it myself; the floods made harvest much more difficult/much more time consuming- so I wasn't able to do my normal autumn wood cutting.

  And- the firewood we had cut from our own plantings; stacked, curing/drying - got soaked thoroughly by the 14" of rain in August/Sept- and is unburnable.  Given normalish weather- it wouldn't be nearly so wet, and we'd have had days of low-humidity sunny windy weather in Sept/Oct that would have dried it very well.   So in fact I'm cutting firewood every other day- and burning it fast, since it's cold this winter; lots of below 0 F nights.

There are a LOT of other things I need to be doing- but here I am.  The Little House has no backup heating system- it's firewood only (with a little passive solar boost- not useful at 1 AM).

Will rainy autumns happen more often?  Don't know.  This wet autumn, though, may be the thing that pushes me over the edge into adding a layer to my firewood process- a drying/storage shed.

There have been many years where a rainy week in November got my wood a little wet- making me aware that if all the winter stacks had been under a roof, I'd be burning less wood; doing less hauling- but- it's always been a fairly minor factor.  And every time that happened, I've done mental calculations- what would it cost me- money, time, and new habits- to design and build a wood drying shed?  A bunch.  How big would the benefits be?  Considerable.  Balance?  Kind of six of one, half a dozen of the other.

This year is the first where all the stacked wood is so wet it's nearly useless.  I can make it burn, but it gives little heat, and clogs the chimney fast.  The balance may have shifted- instead of being a minor improvement, the shed may now be a necessity, up-front costs or not.  

It strikes me that this kind of shift may be another major aspect to global warming- tiny local processes/technologies may no longer be reliable.  Pushing people over all kinds of edges.

Maybe the best I can do for an answer to Billy M's very sensible question is to describe my own answers.  More than one answer, since I've changed, over time.

When I first moved to the Little House, a major factor in the calculation was money- we didn't have any.  We DID have wood- 40 acres of hardwoods.

With that in mind, I designed the Little House to use wood both for heating and cooking- all year.  Including our sultry hot continental summers.  (It's a huge advantage to be able to design a dwelling from the ground up- with all the integration factors being considered.  I still missed a few, of course.)

The House can essentially be tweaked to function like a big chimney/cooling tower in the summer - the downstairs has big windows in all 4 walls; the upstairs/loft has one huge window (floor to ceiling) on the north, and a normalish window on the south.    All the windows but the small one upstairs open on a hinge- so unlike a sash-window, where the actual opening can only equal half the window area at best, the hinged windows when open make holes equal to the entire window area- huge, in our case.

And- there's a BIG opening between upstairs and down- so if all the windows are open, any heat from the stove is quite free to rapidly move up, and out.

It works fine, too- we did all our cooking with wood for probably the first 5 years or so.  
Then several things changed- we had children (available time and energy vanished), we got involved in other projects that were important too; and we got a little money coming in.

  Suddenly it became more sensible to use propane for cooking in the summer.

And that's what we still do.  The stove that heats the house is a modern Canadian stove designed for both heating and cooking.  If we need heat- it's on, and we cook with wood.  If we don't need heat- we cook with propane.  The time required for the propane is a small fraction of time needed to cook with wood in the summer- and no question, July and August are a little more comfy if we don't have to crank up the woodstove to make a cup of coffee, or soup for lunch.

One departure from that practice can be canning- if we're canning tomatoes or whatnot- we will usually use wood- canning takes a lot of heat; and ergo a lot of money.


One more aside- cooking in China.  As part of my work, I've hiked well up into the mountains in a number of places there, out into nearly untouched countryside.  These are ancient communities, long in "balance" with their environment.  Chances are, this clan has lived here since these people were Homo erectus, not Homo sapiens.  That long.  

They long ago hit the limits of their environment; and adapted, in many ways.  Only the rich can afford to burn wood- there's just not enough of it, and mostly it's needed for other uses, tools, furniture, housing.  They burn- rice straw, and pine needles.  Under a wok.  That's exactly what a wok is for- cooking over a very quick, hot fire.  Their whole cuisine is adapted in that direction- because of the primordial shortage of fuel.

I'll bet you could cook entirely on - junk mail.  If you had the will, and someplace outdoors for the smoke to go away.  :-)  You'd need something like a ventilated 5 or 10 gallon steel can for the fire to burn it, and the wok to sit on- (I'm kidding- mostly... probably too many toxins in junk mail smoke to be good cooking fuel...)

So.  Answers to questions like this are going to be highly variable, I think.  Forever.  Because one of the most important components in the decision making algorithm is always going to be personal.  How does this fit your life, your finances, your region?

If it makes you miserable- in the long run, it's not a good answer -

The good answers should leave you - solvent, not overworked, and satisfied.