Friday, January 20, 2012

The mysterious rash of tree murders sweeping our nation

A rash of tree murders have popped up in my neighborhood. Trees, 6 feet or so tall, primarily of pine ethnicity, cut down in the prime of life, reportedly the corpses are put on display for bizarre rituals while the tree carcasses are still fresh, and then the dead trees are dumped unceremoniously on the street where cleanup crews have to work extra shifts to clean up the carnage.

We hear reports these murders are going on not just in our town, but around the country, and perhaps, if reports are correct, around the world.

Who knows why these tree murders are happening? It's a puzzling mystery that is now several years old. Looking back in the records we see similar flurries of tree murders every year. It's not clear even how long this has happened or even what the real purpose is.

What we do know is that, if our numbers are accurate, and we hope they aren't, the slaughter numbers in the millions every year. How can so many trees be brutally slain every year and nobody says a peep?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Best Rocket Stove Design Ever - UPDATE

Another Rocket Stove video, this time with a little design tweak.

The best rocket stove design just got better! Airflow was an issue with the original #10 can rocket stove design. I cut some two inch wide "flaps" and pushed them over the top of the rocket stove. This helps keep the top on and allows great airflow. Now the rocket stove is really rockin'.

How to Make a 16 Brick Rocket Stove

Here's another Rocket Stove video, this time showing how to make one with bricks rather than used coffee cans.

Dr. Larry Winiarski makes a clean burning rocket stove using 16 adobe bricks at the Rotary International-sponsored Integrated Cooking Workshop in Tlautla, Mexico

How to Build A Rocket Stove, Step-By-Step

I'm not sure what a Rocket Stove is or what is their advantage.  I understand that it has something to do with efficient fuel usage.  In any case the following video is interesting.

Build a Rocket Stove Step-by-Step. Building a rocket stove is quick and easy. You will need one #10 can and four small cans (soup, corn, beans, etc.). Seeing how to build a rocket stove is much easier then explaining the process in writing. I recommend watching the video and commenting if you have any questions. This is a great alternative heat source and cooking option for camping, emergency preparedness and to cook your food storage on. If you can cook it on a stove you can cook it on a rocket stove.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

One way to have a drought resistant lawn

Out here in the Western U.S. we have an issue with little amounts of rain.  In Northern California we kind of ignore the real effect of the lack of rain, and continue growing lawns with grass as if we lived out east where it rains all the time.  Regular grass just doesn't make ecological sense here because we don't get rain for most of the year.  Most years the rain starts around November and ends in March and the rest of the year it's blue skies and no rain, except the last couple years the rain hasn't been starting until February (can you say "global warming"?). 

This morning on my walk I saw this:-

In case it's not clear - this yard is full of rocks.  Specifically the smooth rocks often called "river rock". 

Rocks don't need to be watered, meaning that this part of this family's yard does not require any expenditure of water, meaning that it's drought friendly.  Right?

There are other ways to do "drought friendly" of course.  Such as choosing plants that make sense in the local climate, rather than importing plants that make sense for other climates.  I would rather that this yard have drought friendly plants than rocks, because having more plants in the world helps the atmosphere, but at least they're doing their part to have drought friendly landscaping.

By the way the house across the street had a different take on "drought friendly".  Bare dirt.  No grass or other plants, means the yard doesn't require watering, but it's rather sub-optimal.  The yard next to that one had yet another take -- mulch that suppresses plant growth.  Again, a nice way to avoid having to water the lawn but sub-optimal to the preferential method of planting drought friendly plants.

Who says you have to watch everything on your DVR? Keeping television watching in perspective

Who am I, a guy that hasn't owned a television in over 15 years, to tell y'all how to handle your television watching habits.  eh?  Don't answer that and listen to the story ...

In the most recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts the guy started off by saying that he and his family had "cleared some of the backlog on their DVR" and watched some particular TV show he wanted to talk about on the podcast.  It doesn't matter what show it was or what he had to say, because I stopped at "cleared some of the backlog" from the DVR and had a thought come into my head like a bolt out of the sky.

That's a fallacy .. just because your DVR recorded some TV shows for you doesn't mean you're then obligated to watch those shows.

You can treat the DVR as if it creates obligations for you.  It's similar to how if someone makes you some tea, brings it to you, along with a couple cookies, and even though you don't really want the tea, don't want to eat some cookies, common courtesy has you drink the tea and eat the cookies anyway.  In other words, the DVR dutifully performed a service and recorded some TV shows for you, so is it your common courtesy to watch the TV shows?

Or you can treat the DVR as offering a possibility of things to do, but that it doesn't create any obligations of something you have to do.

Part of the reason I don't even own a television is that I turn into a zombie whenever it's on.  I don't like being zombified by the machines, and my way of keeping from being a television zombie is to simply not have it in my life.

I'm sure that television, when kept at the proper dosage, in proper balance with a healthy lifestyle, can be a positive benefit to your life.  It simply seems to me that someone who "clears backlog" out of their DVR isn't keeping a healthy balance around their television watching in that it sounds like they see the DVR as having created an obligation to watch everything it recorded.  Granted, I could of course be reading too much into what he said, but I'm also certain that this is true for some people in their relationship with their DVR.

Who'd have thought you could reinvent the shovel?

The humble shovel has existed in one form or another for thousands of years.  This means it is a very successful design that you might think cannot be improved upon.  But ...

Does growing plants truly sequester carbon? Or does it just delay the release of carbon?

In the game of decreasing the atmospheric carbon levels thought to be a main culprit in global warming, one effort underway is to grow plants in an effort to sequester the atmospheric carbon.  Basically plants breath in CO2 and breath out O2, meaning the carbon stays in the plant.  Generally speaking there is a harmonic balance between plants and animals where animals breath out CO2, plants breath out O2, and these two chemicals are mutually beneficial for both of us.  In theory then as atmospheric carbon levels are rising, either naturally or on purpose there can or should be an increase in the number of plants, so that the plants can sequester all that carbon for us.

That's what I thought the other day when I came across this in my walk around the block.

This segment of "yard" in front of an apartment complex in the neighborhood had been full of vine-like growth.  I remember it being kind of nice but also unruly, being a bit chaotic in nature.  Recently the owners of that yard can, as you see, cut everything to the ground.  The result is that the plant matter which had grown here went somewhere, so the question is what happened to the carbon that had been sequestered in those plants?

The question is applicable not just to this yard down the street from me, it applies to every yard at every house around the world, and to the tree-planting carbon sequestration projects underway around the world.  By looking at this specific microcosm of an event we can ponder how the same equation is playing out around the world.

For example - companies that want to earn some social responsibility credibility can by "Renewable Energy Credits" from companies that produce some kind of positive benefit.  The REC's are meant to offset whatever harmful thing the company is doing.  It's easy to compare this to Indulgences which were said to be sold to rich people so they could go on with their sinning ways, but perhaps some organizations who create REC's are doing some positive good which those who buy the REC's are supporting with their dollars.

A frequent sort of Renewable Energy Credit enterprise is tree planting.  A group will plant trees, so they can sell REC's.

In other words - the yard down the street grew some viney bushes, sequestering carbon, or the tree planting organizations plant trees, and also sequester carbon.  It's the same sort of activity, just on a different scale.

The goal of these REC producing organizations is to sequester carbon and do good things for the environment, right?  Well, a cynic might say they're just looking to make a buck, hence my analogy to the Indulgences earlier.  So let's consider the life-cycle of a tree for a moment.

A tree can grow pretty darn big, right?  That's a lot of carbon into the body of the tree.  Along the way the tree gathers other values.  It becomes habitat for a variety of animals and bugs and other plants.  Another value is that it's body is made out of wood.  Modern industry has developed a zillion uses for wood and hence desire trees for their wood

The tree grown for the purpose of sequestering carbon will eventually be die, or be cut down.  No tree will last forever, so eventually it will meet up with one of those two ends.  What happens to the carbon that tree sequestered?

Likewise - when you cut the grass in your lawn, what happens to the grass and the carbon sequestered into that grass?  There's a zillion different ways around the world how plants grow and then are cut down or die, releasing their sequestered carbon.

Some plants are food, and its carbon might get fed to a cow and later become a hamburger.  Some plants are wood, and could be processed into paper, or into timber.  Paper often gets used willy-nilly and just thrown away, while timber often goes into making buildings which will stand for a few or a few hundred years.  Some plants are flowers, that a lover might receive, look at for a couple days, then put in the trash when they begin to wilt.  Some plants live in the wilds, they grow, they die, the wilt, in nature, and their remains return directly to nature.  On and on and on.. the varieties of destinations for plants are myriad.

Which of those purposes are the most effective at preserving the sequestration of the carbon?  For example a tree might be grown solely for firewood, and once the firewood is burned its carbon is released directly into the atmosphere.  A tree that's grown to become timber, that's then turned into a house that stands for 500 years, that's carbon that stayed sequestered for a long time.  A tree that's grown for pulp to make toilet paper, it's carbon doesn't stay sequestered for very long, eh?

A concrete example is the corn plant.  The main purpose for growing corn is the fruit, the corn kernels on the corn cob.  This is often thought of as food, but increasingly corn is becoming ethanol.  But what about the rest of the plant, the part that's called 'Stover'?  This is the corn husks, the stalks, and the root system.  What happens to Corn Stover?  Traditionally the Stover would be plowed back into the ground to become a kind of compost and enrich the ground.  However modern agriculture isn't about enriching the ground, meaning Corn Stover is seen as a "waste" and the people pushing for cellulosic ethanol look to sources like Corn Stover as feedstock for processes to create fuel.  Ethanol is thought to be a carbon neutral fuel in that it takes carbon out of the atmosphere, but once the ethanol is burned its carbon goes back into the atmosphere.  Hence it's not terribly effective at reducing atmospheric carbon.

So here we come to the end of this pondering.  A neighbor cuts the vines in their yard and then what do they do with the vines?  I don't know.  Maybe they made a pile to burned them, or maybe they made a compost heap and the vines became next years fertilizer.  The main thing we've learned is that the effectiveness of a carbon sequesteration effort depends a lot with what's done with the plants when they die or are cut down.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Permaculture - a Quiet Revolution

A nice introduction to Permaculture that's also an overview of the Permaculture Congress held in Brazil a few years ago that's also nice examples of Permaculture operations in practice.  For example a tour of collecting the feces from pigs and sheep into a pond, that goes into a biodigester, to produce natural gas, that runs a turbine to generate electricity, and the effluent from the biodigester becomes a pond in which they grow water hyacynth's, that are essentially weeds which can be used as feed for the pigs. 

It starts with a quote from Bill Mollison talking about how teaching people to grow their own food is subversive.  It teaches them independence giving them freedom from the system.  Hence it's a kind of revolution, but a quiet one because it's just people gardening.

Permaculture - A Quiet Revolution from Spread Knowledge on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Genetically licensed crops interfering with farming practices, stealing and privatizing our cultural heritage and threatening food safety

A dream about genetically modified livestock just woke me, and the events in the dream was so haunting I had to come to the computer at 3AM to write.  In the dream some farmers were talking about whether the genetics license agreement under which they bought their pigs would allow them to breed pigs they'd bought, and then sell the pigs they'd bred.  Breeding livestock is a normal every-day occurrence for farmers and to think they'd not be allowed to do this thing they do every day smacks of scary centralized control scenarios.  Its a way of asserting centralized corporatized control over the food we are allowed to eat.  And, perhaps the scariest part of genetically modified organisms is not the potential for a messed up food system that gives us bogus food to eat, but the system of corporatized control over the food system that interferes with traditional farming practices from eons which built whole societies.

In the past whole cultures were born upon the ability of farmers to domesticate wild plants and animals through breeding to create useful genetic modifications leading to the modern crops we grow and eat today.  For example the modern dairy cow that's so completely placid and easily led around, I can't imagine such a creature could have formed organically in nature, and has to have been the result of eons of selective breeding producing useful genetic modifications to support the plant or animal being useful to farmers.  Corn or Potato's or Tomato's, both widely grown and used around the world, are the result of selective breeding to produce useful genetic modifications.

Clearly modern biology says that when you selectively breed plants and animals you're producing genetic modifications.  In some cases the selective breeding is in a laboratory and perhaps is bringing genes from other species or something.  In some cases companies like Monsanto create species in the laboratory to be resistant to horrendous poisons so that farmers can spray the poisons on crops to kill weeds.  The side effect is that weeds naturally select to become resistant to the poisons (a.k.a. superweeds) and there's an ever-escalating battle going on with tougher poisons and genetic modifications to resist the poisons.  In some ways the artificial genetic modifications like this are bad for both the quality of the food (what effect is there on us due to the screwed up genetic content of our food), and the side effect of the poisons being poured upon the land.

The other case of selective breeding is the traditional farming techniques of cross fertilization leading to the modern plant and animal species grown at farms around the world.  By our modern understanding of biology this sort of natural selective breeding also creates genetic modifications. 

There's a bit of disingenuousity in the crowd fighting genetically modified organisms when it's obvious that traditional farming practices also create genetic modifications.  Perhaps there needs to be more specificity between artificial selective breeding or artificial genetic modification, and natural selective breeding, but I suppose that sometimes it'll be hard to draw a sharp distinction.

Unfortunately traditional farming techniques are under attack or already destroyed because of farmers being forced into dependence on buying genetically modified seeds from massive agrigiants.  Seeds coming from agrigiants come with licenses not unlike the license that comes with proprietary software.  The licenses force the farmers to abandon a wide variety of traditional farming techniques such as seed saving, cross breeding, and so on.

One wonders if there will come a day when FDA regulations prevent farmers from selling on the open market foods that aren't grown under license from an agrigiant.  This could happen if the agrigiants work with the FDA to prove their seeds meet certain criteria, and that other seeds not matching the criteria cannot be trusted.  In other words the FDA might develop a policy framework of forcing farmers to only grow seeds that can be trusted to be safe, and any seed from an unknown source (such as the seed variety developed by their grandfather that works excellently on THEIR land) is strictly verboten.
  • Agronomic Field Crop Seed Certification from the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association talks about "seed certification is to preserve the genetic identity and purity of field crop seed varieties".  They draw a distinction between commercial seed where it's plainly obvious where the seed came from, and other sorts of certified seed where the origin is verified by a certification agency.  
  • Great seed robbery is a piece by Vandana Shiva talking about efforts by agrigiant seed companies to "privatize our rich and diverse genetic origins".  She names off several agrigiants who are working on gathering control over seed varieties often starting with traditional seed varieties, and then adding genetic modifications.  The seed companies are cross licensing among each other the genetic traits they've developed, in a way that Vandana Shiva describes as "The giant seed corporations are not competing with each other. They are competing with peasants and farmers over the control of the seed supply. And, in effect, monopolies over seed are being established through mergers and cross-licensing arrangements."
  • Monsanto's corporate history page lists cross licensing agreements with several fellow agrigiants
  • Seed Quality Testing and Certification: Resources Useful in Organic Seed Production - is a list of organizations and information for the U.S. audience
  • - Extensive information on genetically modified organisms

If we get back to our farmers growing pigs and wondering about the genetics license agreement ... it's such a normal scene for farmers to take part in, isn't it?  To breed pigs with each other?  Or cows or whatever?  This sort of scene is what converted our ancestors from hunter-gatherers to farmers.   The oddity of having a "genetic license agreement" attached to a plant or animal is what interferes with the farmers doing this thing they've been doing for millennia.  Namely, through natural genetic modifications (a.k.a. selective breeding) developing strains of plants and animals that are useful and particularly useful in local conditions. 

It puts our food system at risk because of monocropping.  If a disease were to develop which targeted the monocrop, it could do severe damage to food production. 

Another danger is that the seeds are primarily designed by the agrigiants to be non-reproducing.  This turns seeds from a renewable resource (where you get new seeds every time you grow a crop) into a non-renewable resource putting farmers into a dependence arrangement with the agrigiants.

It's a way of recreating serfdom without forcing people into actual slavery.  The agrigiants upon whom the farmers are dependent for seeds could set any price they want for the seeds, and in broad terms the agrigiants have taken a controlling position over food prices and food quality.  They've stolen this position away from the people who developed the food system over millennia, the farmers.

The agrigiants have a big vision for the future of genetically modified organisms that goes way beyond food.  They could start concocting plants and animals that are in effect biochemical laboratories for producing anything. 

In March 2011 a coalition of family farmers, consumers and other critics of corporate agriculture held a town meeting to protest what they see as unfair consolidation of the nation's food system into the hands of a few multinationals. They contend that global biotech seed leader Monsanto controls the U.S. commercial seed market using unfair, and in some cases illegal, practices. They argue that Monsanto, which develops, licenses and markets genetically altered corn, soybeans and other crops, manipulates the seed market by buying up independent seed companies, patenting seed products, and then spiking prices. The group hopes to re-establish farmer rights to save seed from their harvested crops and replant it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

If Greece is going through a Cuba-like meltdown, what will be their chosen route forward?

I'm reading this article on the NY Times website, With Work Scarce in Athens, Greeks Go Back to the Land, and it's making be think of the meltdown in Cuba and as well makes me think of the prediction many are making of a societal collapse from one or more of a variety of causes:  stresses induced from climate change, stresses induced from peak oil, or stresses induced from inability of the financial system to maintain itself.  The thing in Greece is billed as a result of financial system problems, too much debt in Europe causing serious problems in Europe's financial systems.

The NY Times article follows some Grecians who are turning back to agricultural work in order to survive.

The collective inability to remember the past may have caused us to forget what happened in Cuba not too long ago.  Or maybe the way Cuba has been spun in the media, that they're just an evil dictatorial communist country, has made Americans unable to properly understand what happened in Cuba.

Many see the events which unfolded in Cuba as a dress rehearsal of what will happen to the rest of us due to one or more of the causes I listed earlier.

Cuba's meltdown was artificially induced when their patron, the Soviet Union, itself collapsed and was unable to keep propping up Cuba.  Another aspect of Cuba's meltdown was the U.S. led embargo of that country, which prevented many countries (the ones who want to stay on positive terms with the U.S.) to forming any relationship with Cuba.

As a result they lost access to international financial markets, and to supplies of oil.  Under the influence of the Soviet Union they'd developed a dependency on oil-driven machines to drive everything, and having lost access to oil the machines ground to a halt.  In particular this hit the agricultural system hardest because the tractors etc could no longer run.  Also their agriculture was focused on exports and not for local self-reliance, and Cuba was not feeding itself.

Cuba is spun in Western media as a dictatorship but the path Cuba chose to navigate their meltdown was not a top down dictatorial YOU MUST DO THIS sort of response.  Instead the country took a grass roots community centric response, where each village or each neighborhood was organized for local resilience.  Every nook and cranny of Cuba's cities were converted into community gardens growing healthy organic local produce so that Cuba could become self-sufficient.

An excellent documentary movie that shows how Cuba navigated their collapse is "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil".  The problems they faced are clearly described such as how Cubans collectively lost 20-30 lbs or more over a period of a few years.  The country went from being as modern as the Soviet Union allowed them, to literally overnight forcibly reverted to the way our great grandparents lived.  (One of my Great-Grandmothers lived in a dugout in Western Kansas .. Dugouts were, well, a hole in the ground)

I haven't read too much on what's happening in Greece but the NY Times article linked above sounds eerily like the period Cuba survived, and depicted in The Power of Community.

What isn't covered in The Power of Community is that Cuba wasn't the only country to undergo an imposed collapse.  Another prime example is North Korea and it appears that Greece will be a modern example.  Hence what I asked in the title of this piece is, what path will Greece be taking.

North Korea with their imposed collapse took a different path than Cuba did.  They went for the actual top down ruthless dictatorship with a reliance on the iron fist of the military crushing any dissent.  There's been a lot of news coverage about North Korea so I won't go over the details here.

The point is to demonstrate - artificially induced collapse has happened in several countries around the world.  It happened to Cuba, they choose a path of grass roots community oriented self reliance.  It happened in North Korea and they chose a path of iron fisted military dominance.

What will Greece choose?

BTW many of us think that the U.S. is not safe or immune from this sort of thing happening to us.  What will the U.S. choose when(if) it happens here? 

BTW I'm really fond of the Transition Town movement for the reasons just described.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

When businesses are killed by developers plans gone awry

Near where I live in Mountain View is this empty lot surrounded by a chain link fence. It formerly housed a small strip shopping center that had a single business selling specialty ethnic food. Here in Silicon Valley we have lots of ethnicities to serve and by all reports this store was very popular for its community. But the developer wanted to put the land to other uses and razed the building of course killing the business which used to occupy this space.

That was a couple years ago and the lot is still empty and still surrounded by a fence.


This happens all the time. A developer who owns the land often has visions of the correct use of that land which is incompatible with the current use.

In the wake of this the neighborhood lost a local business and has land tied up for nonproductive use.

Because of land ownership policies we cannot even do something useful with this land like create a community garden.

This serves nobody. Well except maybe the mice who run around in this empty field.