Saturday, March 29, 2008

Rice goes into the handbasket-

From the sublime (Peeps) to the ridiculous (global collapse...) - rice; the mainstay food for half of the Earth- has nearly doubled in price over the last year.  The New York Times has a nice, calm, even-handed report today.

They casually report that food riots have already been taking place, around the world- and the military in some countries are now hunting out "hoarders" (ie. powerless people with food they can take- not big corporations with mountains of grain waiting for the price to go up).

Etc. etc.  As Kurt Vonnegut was fond of repeating, "And so it goes."

The rather calm approach is typical, I think, of our current world.  Sharon, who is more outspoken about impending doom than I am, has a recent post enumerating a few of the current disasters and their interactions- #4 is "Failure to respond..." in this case to global warming.  

We are unable to act on many fronts, these days though- we are also failing to act on population growth- and...  well, add your own.  Paralysis.

As I put it on somebody else's blog a few weeks ago (DotEarth, I think); 

"So this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends; 
not with a bang nor a whimper; but in statistical gridlock."

My apologies, of course, to T.S. Eliot, and yes, I realize it doesn't exactly scan.

It was Benjamin Disraeli; England's Prime Minister for some of Queen Victoria's reign, who said "There are three kinds of lies.  Lies; damned lies; and statistics."  Even then; all that was necessary to bring about paralysis was to hire some expert to produce "statistics" pointing in the opposite direction - from whatever needs doing.  Tons of that, these days.

To some extent, I also speculate that our ability to be calm spectators at our own catastrophes might derive from our total addiction these days to electronic media- the incessant TV, cable, iPod, and cellphone video- perhaps we see ourselves purely as consumers of entertainment.

So when the latest new Reality TV show comes on line- food riots in Mexico and Egypt and Thailand- all of us, including our "leadership" - tends to just turn up the volume on CNN, and wait to see what happens next.

Gosh.  Terrible.  Is there better coverage on ABC?  Click.  Click.  I mean; this isn't real- it's just on the screen, right?

(Those who DO act, like Crunchy- can pretty quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the needs.)

Man, these damn icebergs are stubborn.  And some days it's tempting to let it get depressing.

Ok.  I'm better now.  I'm off to push on a couple of my bergs.

I highly recommend you pick one or two and - push.  If we don't- nobody will.

One other little quirk- I just read Voltaire's "Candide" a couple nights ago.  For the first time; I'd somehow managed to avoid it in college.  It made darn interesting reading right now.  The basic lesson being- not much has changed.  All the injustices and horrors he writes so "humorously" about - are still with us.  All of them.  Including, alas, the ability of the mass of humanity to just be onlookers, as horrors unfold in front of them.  Hard to blame TV.

Two things- it's perhaps a little comforting to know that we, specifically, are not doing a worse job of running the world than our great grandparents did.  They did a horrible job.  And- maybe it's time to think about trying to do things differently.  Really differently.  Because this isn't working- and hasn't been- since before Voltaire.
April 4; update on rice: the Washington Post is not so calm; Developing World Panics...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

It makes no sense.

Happy Easter, or Spring, or Bunny, or Chocolate Day.  Whichever.

We're weird enough here that I never thought it would be good to be even weirder; so we tend to observe the standard holidays.  Smidgen found her Easter basket this morning, and I have video tape of her - eating a hardboiled EGG, which she colored and peeled herself- with the basket full of standard candy stuff right in front of her.  Her choice.  Of course, once she'd been shown how to peel them, she wanted to peel ALL of them, right now.

In keeping with today's world- where so little makes sense, to anyone- the Washington Post has been running an annual event focused on... Peeps.  The ultimate sense-devoid object.

They had 800 entries in their contest this year, the best 37 of which are here:  Peeps Show II.  I'll try and keep that link working, though the WP has this nasty habit of shifting their URL's.

Just in case THAT isn't a sufficient overload of distilled silliness for you, it turns out the Chicago Tribune is also running their own Peeps contest...

Be peepared for university-strength silliness.  And just what DOES it all mean?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Slow it.

Thanks, everybody, for the great comments and additions to the last post.  Lovely stories.

We do read at bedtime, too. Smidgen is a high-energy kid, and takes a lot of winding-down; so we entice her with a story (ok, or 2) first, then songs. She's listened her way all through Charlotte's Web, Redwall, and the first 3 Little House Books now.  Took a few tries to get her past the point of wanting to flip to the next picture, but she's there.

It's a big chunk of time, every day. And every once in a while, I find myself nudging myself about some chore that's still waiting - "hurry this up, for crying out loud; it's taking forever, and X is bloody urgent, and you know it..."

X IS bloody urgent. But this is where this sleep ritual turns into training for the parent; of a particularly forceful and valuable kind.

Most times, it's relatively easy to look at the almost sleeping child and see- what's REALLY the most important thing here.  And the most ephemeral.

I'm blessed to have 2 grown sons with whom I get along very well; they were best men at my wedding, for crying out loud.  My head knows, and remembers, the joy I had in their babyhood; the snuggles, tears, discoveries, bandaids and songs.

Oh, but- my body does not remember, not really.  Until - I feel the small warm fingers of this present Smidgen in my hand, and listen to her breathing quiet, and hear her very small yawn.

Then, I can physically flash back- and fully recapture; I had this same moment, with both boys, at one time or another.  It was so precious, and so fleeting.  It makes me try harder to fix this current moment in memory- to hang on to it.  It makes me KNOW- in the deepest philosophical sense- this is what's most important.  And most urgent.

And it sinks in.  This takes time; requires time; demands time.  My time.  Now.  The rewards, in this case, are immediate, and powerful.  There is nothing else I could be doing that could reward me like this.

If I'm not too sleepy by this point, the progression of thought is pretty straightforward.  Essentially- everything worth doing takes - time.  Slow, thoughtful, mindful time.  

Almost everything on your list of "green" or "sustainable" actions will have that requirement.  You need to be "present" - beginning to end- and I fear it will never be "like falling off a log".  

I'm inclined to think that's a good thing, though.  It just takes some getting used to.


On a very different note; I got a good pat from Andy Revkin today, at DotEarth- comment #41, in case the link doesn't land you there...  DC, and Crunch, I see movie posters...  :-)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Cheer up, Brian!

Doom and gloom is, like, so depressing!  And Cheery Chicken has to go and talk about murdering horsies today!  sigh.

In an attempt to not drive all my readers away permanently, by sheer weight of the world's burdens, I'm going to write about something a little more palatable.

Singing your children to sleep.

I sang my boys to sleep until the younger was what- 4? or 5.  A long time.  And every night, with very few exceptions.  Spouse and Spice share(d) the chore sometimes; but frankly I like doing it, and kind of stole this job when I could.

It started with my first child- when I was youngish and raring to go forth and prove that education is useful.  As far as I know, I just thought this up- by using what I knew-

People expect singing to soothe the child; but I set out to intentionally CONDITION the baby to fall asleep when I sang.

Babies, and children, sometimes are at odds with their parents regarding the timing of sleep.  This probably comes as a shock to the non-parents out there, but alas, it's true.  Sometimes, when you are dead tired and want sleep- the little stinkers won't.  And won't let you, either.

It would be SO wonderful to be able to wave a magic wand, say "sleep, beautiful child", and have the little boogers just conk out.  PLEASE.

So.  I tried singing.  Guess what?  The dirty so-and-so WAKES up to listen.  Hey, new, interesting!  I can wave my feet in time!

Back to the alleged thought processes.  What do we know about triggering desirable behaviors?

Pavlov comes to mind, though it's not more drool I want, it's SLEEP.

With somnolence aforethought then, I made an EFFORT.  I made it a point to be there, when the durn critter was already falling asleep because of sheer exhaustion.

DON'T start to sing- until the child is nine-tenths gone.  Sing softly.  Continue singing for a good minute after the creature is clearly asleep.

Then do it again.  And again.  Then start singing when the kiddle is HALF asleep.  Repeat.

Then start singing just as they're getting sleepy.

You should be getting the idea by now.  You are getting sleepy...  drowsy... so warm and comfortable, it's hard to keep your eyes open...  you will send me money, lots and lots of  money...

While just the sound of your voice is a big part of it, having one particular song for the exact transition works even better.  When the child is actually conditioned, singing in the accustomed way can MAKE the child sleepy, and put them to sleep; ready or not.

We started this process with Smidgen way back there.  Now that she's 3, it's a major part of nightly ritual.  Sure, it takes time, but it's a treasured bit of the day, for all concerned.  It takes precedence over any other urgency- the kid needs to go to bed NOW- I have to be there, to sing.

Have to.

At this point, Smidgen is highly aware of it all- and puts pressure on for...  MORE.  Don't wanna go to sleep yet, sing me another song.

Ok, smarty... here's one... in French.  Ha.  Slipping a little education in, and you don't even know it.  Now I get "sing me porkwa"  on a regular basis.  I do provide a translation, too- this is "Dites moi", from "South Pacific".  

So you can expand your repertoire, and the child's.  There's an awful lot of songs that have lessons in them one way or another.  You get to choose.  And you can make up your own- sticking in bits of things from today's events- or tomorrow's.

And you can play, always.  Sometimes I sing "Raindrops on roses" - and sometimes I sing "Raindrops on noses".  Keeps her on her toeses.  Mostly I get a little wriggle and grin and a "nooooo.  Start over."

But the conditioning still holds.  When it's really TIME; I start to sing "All the pretty little horses" - and on the second line- Smidgen will yawn.  95% certainty.  The second time I sing it- she's dropping off fast.  The third time- which is hummed- she's out; sinking down into deep stable sleep.

At the end of that- ha!  she's putty in my hands.  :-)  I can slip my arm out from under; straighten her out, even move her to another bed- and she will not wake.

This is useful in sickness, too; when the child is waked up off schedule, miserable, can't sleep- a little cuddling, and the song- and they'll relax, and sleep.  Also in strange places; traveling...

Thank you, Pavlov.

I haven't ever tried to calculate the hours out of my life spent singing to my children.  It has to be many hundreds, by now.   

Thanks, kids.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

World Carelessness

"Green with a gun" commented on the previous post:

"We grow far more grain than we need to feed the world, so we can afford a big drop in production.

Around 2,100 million tonnes is produced each year. This is 318kg per person on the planet, enough for 3,050kcal and 87g of protein per person daily, which is about 50% more than the average adult doing moderate physical work needs.

But we don't eat it all directly. 750Mt grain goes to livestock and about 350Mt to biofuels.

And so rather than 318kg grain each, we get then 152kg grain, 43kg meat and 102kg milk products per person annually. This makes 2,150kcal and 66g protein for every person daily. About 7.5% more calories and 120% more protein than needed.

But the world also produces about 160kg of vegetables, 80kg of fruit, 25kg of sugar and 25kg of vegetable oils per person annually. These adds another 1,490kcal, 5g or so of protein, and lots of vitamins and minerals.

In all, 3,640kcal and 71g of protein daily.

Thus, the world provides already about 80% more food than is needed; we could feed 12 billion people without increasing food production, or taking any grain from biofuels or livestock.

The problem is distribution; there are 1,000 million overweight people in the West, and 800 million suffering from hunger in the Third World; these numbers are probably not a wild coincidence.

In the West, we also throw away around 25% of our food.

Were one of the major crops to lose in production, we could simply divert grain away from livestock and biofuels, or even waste less.

For example, wheat production is about 630Mt annually. Let's imagine the deadly fungus wipes out 90% of it - it's an absurd and impossible figure, but let's imagine it anyway.

If that happens, and all the loss is taken from grain eaten directly, total daily food comes to 2,816kcal and 50g protein daily. Still much more than enough.

If the grain is taken from livestock instead, we get 3,155kcal and 51g protein daily.

And so on. Nobody is going hungry because there's not enough food in the world to feed them. They go hungry because we choose for them to go hungry, because we waste a quarter of our food, and because they live in countries with civil wars and/or despotic regimes.

Even if 90% of the world's wheat crop is destroyed this year - which is not likely - there's still more than enough to feed everyone if we choose to, and if their country does not deliberately starve them by civil war and despotism."

And here is my response; posted here for better exposure-

Your numbers and relationships are 90% correct- an absurd and impossible number, but ... :-)

I don't know if I've said it in this blog before (don't think so) but the way I usually put it is:

Nobody on the planet starves because the world doesn't have enough food. 

We have so much food, we burn it.

People starve- because the world is mean.

And you can quote me. Lots of individual humans are very tender hearted- but our governmental actions, and inactions- speak clearly. We don't care.


Three bits I didn't quite get from your very good summary-

1). It's not only distribution that is horrifically bad- it's STORAGE.  Most of "world hunger" is in the tropics, and a major contributor is spoilage due to inadequate storage capability. Some years back (1998?), according to FAO stats, Nigeria (I think it was) and some of its neighbors had 80% of their maize crop- rot, after harvest.  Heavy rains.

2). You're 100% correct about how much food the world produces, and how it should be plenty for twice the people we have now.  In fact, I'd bet there's more food produced, and more waste, than you point out here.

But this changes nothing for the people who are hungry, now. Nobody is going to change anything that matters to them- except to raise the price of the bits already filtering down.

Any significant drop in the world wheat crop will mean- a rise in the price of cake and baguettes.  Which we the wealthy will pay without noticing.  Then our wonderful "free market" system kicks in; you know, the one that benevolently gets goods universally distributed to those that need them?  If you'll just not regulate it?  So this small- and impoverished- wheat producer, down at the end of the road system, can either sell his wheat locally; or put it on a truck and make money for the first time in his life.  Guess what happens?

So the amount of wheat available to the poor will- drop even further. "Let them eat barley!" some will say- except the roads aren't there- nor fuel for trucks- etc.

Some people WILL starve because of the crisis in wheat, because of who and where they are.

3). OK, we know all this; then governments, NGO's, and academics clearly must all be working hard on fixing roads and storage capabilities, right? When so much food is just lost, wasted, every year?

Wrong. Gosh, there just doesn't seem to be any MONEY in it for investors, if you put in roads that let people move food during the flood season; or build a grain storage facility that actually keeps rats, beetles, and mold out. And no big banquets and prestigious prizes for "500 secure storage facilities built!"

You get headlines and money from "Peanut butter engineered to provide vitamin A!  Tropical blindess cured at last!" - while the oil palms in the background - with 1000x as much vitamin A in the raw oil- are harvested for candy and frosting, soap and biodiesel in the first world.

And stuff like: "genetically improved millet (produced benignantly by our University!) will result in 10% increase in production!" - while 40% is rotting every year.  We're so proud.

We don't need to stamp out world hunger. 

We need to stamp out world apathy and ignorance.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Wheat Goes In the Handbasket!

Boy, it's just a doom-sayer's holiday out there these days.  Pick your imminent global disaster, there's evidence galore.

Increasingly, it's hard to find any "expert" who is not whispering "I think it's going to get worse, before it gets better..." - on any subject.

The cock-eyed optimists are being reduced to "well, but it WILL get better, one of these years, I just know it."  Sounds kind of lame, though, at the moment.

Ha.  You know what I just noticed??  Guess what the acronym for "cock-eyed optimist" turns out to be?!

There has to be some cosmic irony intended there!

So that's why the CEO's get the big bucks!!

One of my personal favorite pending disasters at the moment is... wheat.  Things are not looking good, if you really depend on it.  (Another fave is the price of diesel; but that's another day.)

Prices are up all over the world; very painfully, if you're poor, or feeding the poor.

The drought in Australia has hurt bigtime.

And, a story that has not really hit all the headlines yet- a major disease is hitting wheat; and this time, the researchers are not ready.

For a hundred years, at least, scientists, policy types, philosophers, and even regular people have been warning that it's really a bad idea for the world to depend so heavily on so few crops.  Wheat, rice, and maize account for far too much of far too many peoples' basic diets.

We knew.  We know.  Here we are, anyway.

To my amazement, the BBC even put up a serious article on "Growing your own wheat" last week.

I'm afraid most of this- like most of ALL news these days- is just good for more headshaking.

What can we do about it?  See?  You're shaking your head, aren't you.  

Me too.

I hope you like rye.

Maybe somebody will finally be able to sell all that lovely amaranth.

Friday, March 7, 2008

It's all Sharon's fault.

Well.  Partly

In her post a while back on child rearing she gave the penultimate nudge that caused this:

This is our brand new black hole for time and energy; Bruce.

He's a little hard to photograph on snow; his points- face, legs and tail, are very black; quite striking.

Bruce is 10 weeks old, acquired from the local shelter- he's a Chocolate Lab/ Collie/ Newfoundland, with maybe a little Husky.  Our very good Amish friend Joe was hearing all about him from Smidgen, in the grocery store where we were after puppy chow, and commented deadpan; "Oh, you mean he's a Farm Dog."  Judging from his huge feet and loose skin, he's heading towards somewhere between 70-100 lbs.

We haven't had canine livestock here before; never really needed one; but we'd been thinking about it now for a year or so.  Lots of reasons; we could use a dog to chase wildlife out of the crops just a bit.  Having the truck stolen made us a little nervous about midnight visitors, out here in the boonies.

Two things tipped the balance.  Sharon was the first, her point #8 in that post pointing out the value of a good dog in helping keep an eye on children that are likely to stray.  And the Smidgen is 3 now; entirely mobile; totally fearless; and already was undertaking long unaccompanied journeys last year.

The second - was coyotes.  When I first moved here, in the mid 70's; the locals had never seen one.  This was originally wolf territory- and the two almost never overlap.  A few years later, coyotes started moving in- killing almost all the foxes.  20 years later, a few red foxes are showing up again- but I never hear the distinctive bark of the grey foxes, that used to be a standard part of summer evenings.  I miss them.

I don't resent the coyotes; change is inevitable, and I really enjoy hearing them chorus from time to time.  But.  Smidgen is 3- and yes, coyotes have been known to attack children, in places where the coyotes get too abundant, and too familiar with people.  (Google "coyote attacks" if you don't believe me- or look here- one of these 3 kids was 10.)

But, last week, for the first time ever here, we saw coyotes; near the house, in broad daylight.  Twice.  

Thanks to Sharon, we were already veeeery close to the puppy edge; the coyotes finished the job.  When my first crop kids were small, coyotes were very rare- and you never saw one.  But just like everywhere else; they're moving closer and closer to people, even here in farm country. Basically, I'm delighted to have the coyotes on the farm; they eat loads of rodents, the occasional fawn- fine. But watching us in daylight- no thank you. They knew we saw them- and didn't run.

"Eventually" - we expect Bruce to be a highly valued and valuable member of the family; pulling his share of the load.  At the moment, of course.....  it's way too cold to keep him outside (below zero again last night) - he's too young to be reliably house trained; and this is a tiny house...

On the up side; it looks like we were incredibly lucky at the shelter- he's a total sweety pie; absolutely snuggly, quiet, unspoiled, already retrieves things, very playful, willing to listen, and seems very smart.  Highly promising, I think.

On the other hand; this is our passive-agressive tom cat, who previously had us, and the house, to himself-

He's sitting right smack on the puppy's bed- after the puppy slept on it for hours, so the cat certainly knows it- and giving the pup the evil eye whenever he comes close.  Pup's had his nose scratched just once by the cat; now the cat only has to hiss a little, and the pup yelps.

Never a dull moment.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

A superabundance of plethoras

Sorry to be gone so long; a combination of barriers kept me from getting up the steam needed to write here.  Chief among them- A) This is getting to be a really busy time of year; we're planting stuff in the greenhouse, every day; which means the greenhouse needs tending, every day.  In case you ever thought about running a greenhouse business- it's as much work as milking 50 cows.  Crazy.  B) I had to head off an attack by barbarians on my business last week; exhausting; but the hearing at the state senate went in my favor.  C) Every time I'd think I was ready to do the next post here; I'd get distracted by another topic.

The news is just crammed full of great stuff to write about.  Over-crammed.  Plethorical.  It's been kind of hard to focus on a target, when so many float by.

Like this one: Still No Aliens? My own answer there is- if the aliens are INTELLIGENT - why, on Earth, would they want to talk to US???  No, really.  I could elaborate.  I'm seriously tempted.  But I won't.  Today.

Time, I think, for a "green living" post.  A few back there, Segwyne, who is working on a house someday, asked "What are some of the things that maybe wouldn't immediately come to mind to someone who has lived in apartments for the last 20 years? "

When I first read that, I pretty much grinned - thinking "sure, in my spare time... write another book...";  which is exactly what it would take.  And it wouldn't be enough.

The list of ways to screw up is pretty much endless; and wildly variable by latitude, longitude, taste, and microhabitat.

But- it made me think, and nagged away at me, for a long time.  What could I communicate that would be generally useful there; that wasn't just a list of "don'ts".  And, something finally occurred to me.  So, here we go-

A) I'm tremendously flattered, but I can't be your building consultant- too much time, too many unknowns, too many differences in my experiences and your needs.  It's really not possible for me to give you good specific advice.    Can't do it.  But- 

B)  I can give you a few specific examples of my own stupidities and regrets (not going to get encyclopedic about it, though), which might help point the way.  And-

C)  (We'll get to C after B.  C is the biggie.)
So; some specific stupidities-  

Now, you'll probably think it's stupid that my solar panels are up on the top of the roof, and I have to climb up there periodically to sweep snow off.  (Incidentally, that's not smoke; it's steam coming out of the chimney; it's cold.)

But that's not the dumb part.  It's not fun, or easy; but it's not dumb.  You REALLY need to put your solar panels in THE place where they will provide you with the most power.  That means TWO major considerations; sun; and distance from the batteries.

All the neighbors thought we were crazy when we built the Little House - um, in the woods.  At the end of a 1/3 mile long sod road.  The local culture wants you to put your house as close to the blacktop as you can get it; then plant trees for windbreaks.

I WANTED the distance from the roads, as I've mentioned here; because I'm lazy...; and by putting the house 100 yards into the woods, we already had a great windbreak (that's a big deal out here on the edge of the prairie).  And I had other reasons for wanting the house where it is; it has a fabulous view in the winter of the nearby bluffs; I like trees; and, I wanted the house to have its footings on bedrock.  100 yards away, uphill and out of the woods- the bedrock is 20-30 feet down.  Long, expensive piles/footings.  Here on the edge of the bluff, in the woods, the bedrock is 2-4' down; easy to put piles down.  A log cabin without firm feet can settle and float and wander all over the place.

So the house is in the woods- and solar power was not an option, nor a thought, when it was built.   Could we put the panels out in a field; where there's better sun?  Yeah, but it's a hundred yards away.  12vDC power hates long distances like that; basically you'd rather not have to run 12v much further than about 15 feet.  And that's pushing it.  You can compensate by using bigger wires- gets expensive.  To cut the transmission losses over 100 yards, you're looking at copper cables about 2" thick.  :-)  Riiiiiight.  Thousands of dollars.   

Another real option- put the batteries out by the solar panels.  And, an inverter; so the wires going to the house are carrying 120vAC.  Possible.  But we'd have to build a freeze-proof battery box here; because sometimes your batteries are going to be discharged, yes?  Then they freeze, and burst, in good Minnesota winters.  And, running the wires through the woods- expensive, no matter what- aboveground- cheap, but branches will fall and take them out; belowground, way more expensive....

And on, and on.  Yeah, I thought about the options a LOT.  (There's a good rule, Segwyne...)

Decision was, can't afford the fancy stuff; put the panels up high on the roof; more sun there, and the wire run to the batteries is only about 12'.  (The batteries are inside the house- they can't freeze there, and the worry about hydrogen exploding from an array this small is WAY over rated- it's only a little hydrogen, and it dissipates very fast- pretty hard to ignite it even if you tried.  FAR more likely we'll burn the house down with a chimney fire.   :-) )

So.  Panels on the roof.  Kind of fun, in a warped way, to have to climb up there and sweep them - oh, 8 times a winter, or so.  Many days, the snow comes off on its own, anyway.  If it's VERY cold, the snow will blow or slip off; if it's sunny and warm, it'll melt off quickly.  It's only a few days when conditions are just wrong that I have to sweep.

Here's the problem:

In good cold weather, the snow brushed off the panels causes an avalanche on the roof; and clears the snow off the roof, too.

This is a problem?  Oh, yeah.  That lovely couple inches of snow on the roof almost doubles the insulation there.  It makes a HUGE difference in how much wood we're burning to keep warm, and how comfy it is inside at night.  (We put 8 inches of fiberglas batting in the roof, which was above standard at the time.  It's not really enough.)

I wish- I REALLY wish I'd built the roof at a much different angle; one that didn't shed the snow so easily.  It's cost me hours and hours of work to cut more firewood; and will cost more.  And many nights where it gets pretty darn cold inside.  In below zero weather, it's common for the cat's waterdish to freeze on the floor.  Unless there's snow on the roof.

How did I wind up with this very steep roof?  Partly chance; but partly conscious (and wrong) decisions.

The chance part is; when Spouse and I started building, we intended this to be a weekend retreat; strictly one story.  With a relatively low angle roof.  But as we got further into the process, we were also realizing we didn't really want those PhDs.  And we had to alter the house with much of the bottom already built.  We knew we were going to need more space, and the best way to go was up; so we added a sleeping loft to the picture.  Basically; we wound up plopping an "A-frame" cabin on top of our log cabin base.  Relatively inexpensive in terms of materials and time, relatively a lot of usable space.

And- I did think it would be a good idea here to have a roof that shed snow.
Talking to the old-timers here; yep, the snow gets deep in these parts.  And it does, too.

But- even in the early years here, there have been like 2 or 3 times when it was so deep that I might have wanted to go scrape some off the roof.  Over 30 odd (ha) years.  That means times when the snow on the roof might have been over 2 feet deep.  There have been far, far, far, far, far, far, far more times when a not-so-steep roof would have retained snow, and saved work.  Way far.

Basically, my grasp of the climate here was superficial.  I relied on hearsay (oh, yah, ve got deep snow most vinterss) - failed to discount the foibles of human memories (as Dylan Thomas put it "I can never remember whether if snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights, when I was six.")  People LOVE to exaggerate their winters, all around the world.  There ARE records on snow cover; I could have dug them out.  But I didn't.

It would have been considerably more expensive to build the second story with straight walls, and a flatter roof; quite a bit more material needed.  But I really wish I had.

Meanwhile; back at the THWASPCO - I made exactly the opposite mistake.

The potty house roof doesn't shed snow worth a darn, and I wish it did.  Thing is, it's clear fiberglas, and is supposed to help heat the thing with solar gain.  I have to stand behind it and try to sweep the snow off, all winter, if it's cold.  This year, we've had real winter; basically we haven't had more than a couple moments of thaw weather since November 15 or so.

It's not a huge deal; but it's annoying to know that the potty house would be uniformly more comfortable if I'd put a steeper roof on it.  That steeper roof would collect winter sunlight better, too.  And the glass roof is not nearly as strong as the house- deeper snow would need to be removed much more often.  (except we don't get it much anymore.)

This boo boo was mostly a matter of not thinking it all through.  Well, and kind of expecting the solar gain through the south wall to MELT the snow off the roof more often.  It doesn't.  Extra materials cost here would not have been much; benefits would have been considerable, including less damage to the fiberglas roof from dropping acorns and branches- which have punctured the roof occasionally.  A steeper roof would have bounced them off better, too.

I'm not sure anyone could have foreseen this one- this is such a unusual building, in such an unusual place- visitors mostly just goggle at it, and don't really understand how it works.  (It works great, for those not initiated.)

I could go on.  Gosh, yeah, I've made more mistakes than these.  But a catalog won't really help you that much.

Which brings us, FINALLY to:

C.)  Ask the local folk; particularly the OLD-timers.  Get them to come, and look at your plans, walk over your ground with you, and ASK them- "how would this work?"

As an old friend of mine used to say, "you just put your nickel in, and they'll talk on and on..."  And they're priceless.  No book can ever come close.

No, they're not always right; they gave me misleading advice on the house roof; but I really count that as my fault; I wasn't thinking about what they were saying; nor WHO was saying it.

Some of my other mistakes have to do with drainage from rainstorms.  Any good thoughtful local builder would have seen those coming immediately.  I didn't (I would now.)

My best example is a local practice I've never seen discussed anywhere.  When the Little House was partly built, the word got out that "a couple hippies from the city are building a log cabin in the woods!" (no, we weren't ever hippies; we were grad students- but the locals hadn't ever seen either) - and, a couple REAL old-timers came to see.  They'd built log buildings when they were young, and were feeling nostalgic.  The only information available at the time on how to build was in the Foxfire Books- not exactly Minnesota.

These two old Norwegian bachelor farmers hung around, and looked, and commented.  It was delightful, really.  And eventually, out popped 3 pieces of information that were priceless.

"How ya gonna chink it?"  "Well, haven't really decided.  Some kind of mortar I think.  Don't know much about it.  How'd you do it?"

And we got a) their recipe for log cabin chinking mortar (mason's mortar with a quarter-to-third of the mason's cement replaced by portland cement; makes it sticky.)  b) the information that the oldtimers would hammer bent junk nails into the cracks- where the mortar would hide them- as anchors for the chinking.  

And c) the information that "oh, they'd never chink inside and outside the first year.  Soon's you get heat in there, them logs'll shrink.  What they always useta do was chink just the OUTSIDE the first year.  Let the building dry and settle over the winter.  Then if ya can, chink the inside - and repair the outside - long about freeze-up the next fall, after you've been heating for another month or so.  Cuts the work way down."

Totally true; I've really never had to patch the inside chinking; and rarely the outside after the first year.  (The chinking does NOT go all the way through; there's an airspace in the middle, packed with loose fiberglas insulation- to cut heat conduction.  Not an oldtime practice; but a good one.)

The minutia of construction are absolutely critical.  And so is the local expertise.  So, seriously- ask the local oldtimers to come to your site, and talk about it; at length.

And DO make an effort to find the SMART and experienced oldtimers.  There ARE dumb ones out there, too.  :-)


A couple days after the post, this showed up in the NYT: Roofs Collapse-
So, I wasn't SO silly to worry about too much snow.  Still!  Some middle ground would be great.