Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Grinding coffee

A few years ago, when thinking of things we could do to reduce power usage, I decided to try to find a hand powered coffee grinder. (Yes, we are becoming coffee snobs, fresh ground, organic fair trade, the whole bit) Grinding coffee is in reality a small part of our electricity use, but sometimes, a change like this can be kind of fun,  and keeps the idea of reduced electricity use in the forefront of our thinking.

There are plenty of modern designs on the market, but why not find a used on or an antique, and avoid consumption of new materials? When I began the search, we would stop in antique shops every once in a while while traveling, but many of these antique grinders were no longer functional, merely nostalgic decoration.

Finally found one that was in good working order, and have been using it for the last six years. This particular grinder is over 100 years old, and build of cast iron and very rugged gearing. The design is simple, and once the grind adjustment is set how you like it, no more worries. Grinds fine every time.

Our wall mounted Universal #24 coffee grinder.

This is but one example of designing for the long term, or, as I like to think of it, for the low energy future. There are very few household items built today that have long term durability and low or no electrical energy use as part of their design criteria.

The next possible question is, how can I justify buying coffee, which is an imported luxury? Happily I can afford it, but for now, I feel ok as buying fair trade coffee gives better support to farmers, and coffee is not a commodity that ships by air, so the shipping impact is (relatively) low. However, it is a luxury, and not local, so at some point I will experiment with chicory root as a substitute, and see if I can adjust to that, as chicory grows all over the place here in Wisconsin. I would miss the caffeine though.

What other small, incremental steps can we take to reduce consumption, reduce reliance on fossil fuels? There are dozens, and all it takes is some imagination and being more aware of our daily routines, and thinking about how we could modify them to be more simple and human powered. A bit of research on how things were done in the past also helps.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Beyond our ken

My last post was about tapping trees for sap, to make syrup.  It was a good productive year, with good weather , but what else might account for it? It got me to thinking about nature's patterns, and how out of tune we are to noticing all the harbingers and cause and effect relationships all around us. Some are easy, and we still recognize them, but how many others are more subtle, or of a time scale we aren't able to follow?

An example: I know that the mast crop trees ( nuts, acorns) have an odd cycle, some years with lots of crop, others not so much. It seems like weather is not the only variable affecting the output, but even scientists aren't sure, thought they have some theories.

Are there some signs for the cycle that we just haven't picked up on yet?

Layman speculation alert: someone probably already knows this, but here are my thoughts on how we got here.

Our big homo sapiens brains have the ability to store a lot of memories, and maybe that was our Darwinian tradeoff for loss of keen senses. Maybe our compulsion to find patterns, coupled with the big memory, enables our forebears to remember locations and timing of food, anticipate fruiting, and in general survive even better than if they still had the ears of a deer, or eyes of a hawk. I know the big brains are also thought to have evolved to enable managing complex tribal relationships, but you still have to eat!

In fact, we got so good at it, we figured out the life cycle of certain plants, patterns of a few animals, and ended up doing agriculture, complete with seed saving and animal selective breeding. So recognizing many of the natural patterns in the "wild" became less important.

I usually attempt to keep science front and center,  so I think we need to distinguish between harbingers and causative agents. There is folk lore that wooly worm's color can indicate how severe the coming winter can be. While I don't think this is a real correlation, it would be considered a harbinger, as I doubt wooly worm color can make the polar vortex shift south! Other things would be more like a cause and effect, if we can only notice the patterns that repeat and hopefully understand the mechanism involved.

The Fox Fire series of books collected lore from pioneers and settlers in the Appalachian mountains, and much lore like that of the wooly worm sign existed, but how much of it was based on real cause and effect, and how much was coincidence or bunk?

Maybe there really are deeper senses, other species tune to a vibration we will never sense, or have grown deaf to. We now know that some birds and insects actually navigate for their migrations by sensing the earth's magnetic field. Wow. What other signals are we blind to?

One challenge for us is that some patterns are long in playing out. Long time span pattern recognition would really require good memory and patience. We know that some cicadas go 17 years between emerging. Good to know if you like to eat them and can count ( and don't starve in the mean time). What other long term or multi step patterns are there that we haven't recognized yet?

What might the application to sustainable food production be? Well, if we are to try use less fossil fuels, to work more in concert with natural systems, then tuning in to the various cause and effect patterns will be very useful.

This past year, a large ( I thought) healthy black cherry tree died. Over the course of several months, I saw where woodpeckers began to chip off the bark, obviously going after insects. Was there an earlier sign of disease that I didn't notice or even recognize? Did the insects infest and kill the tree, or were they opportunists, bypassing the normal defenses that waned after a disease was already killing the tree? If I had the habit of actually looking at all the trees and plants around me as part of my daily routine, might I be able over time to catch the patterns, the signs of disease, of changes important to me and my farm?

I think I need to pay more attention.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The amateur tapper

We have a couple maple trees near the house, but they are red maples, not sugar maples. We also have a few box elder trees of middling size. Our wooded area just doesn't have any maples to speak of, but I still wanted to try tapping and making syrup, so three years ago, tried it for the first time, with ok results. I'm strictly an amateur, and small scale, but it is fun to boil down and make your own syrup. One more thing to add to our self reliance.

So many of the commercial maple tappers in the area have switched to these tubing systems spiderwebbing up the hillsides and gravity flow down to their collection tank. Much less work. With only six trees, I'm using buckets.

Weather this year was ideal for tapping. Best weather is when it gets above freezing and sunny during the day, and drops down below freezing at night. We've had that pattern more or less for two weeks, and I just stopped collecting day before yesterday.

Box elder syrup is sweet and mild, pretty similar to maple, and my blended syrup tastes just fine on pancakes or waffles.

BUT, since I'm only making small batches, I really have to watch the pot, as it doesn't take very long to complete the boil down. This year unfortunately, one time I got distracted, and let the batch go. I use an outdoor propane burner, and it gets hot. Here is what happened with that batch.

You can see a shiny little projection at he base of the pot. That is Aluminum (or aluminium)

Stainless pot with aluminum laminated to the bottom for even heat distribution. Aluminum melts at 1220F (660C). I had no idea the burner got that hot. So this pot is shot. Good thing I wasn't using my wife's good pot, or you wouldn't be reading this entry.

I am told that syrup is done when it passes the sheeting test, or when it reaches 219F (104C). I haven't seen the sheeting test done, and don't bother with a thermometer for such small batches, so sort of eyeball it by the bubbling at the end. Some of my batches go a bit long, with some crystallization happening, and some are on the thin side, but it's just for us, so no big deal. I also don't bother filtering out the sugar sand, so the jars below look a bit cloudy or vary in color. I'll be leaving them in the fridge to avoid spoiling, since I didn't sterilize the jars either. I plan to try harder this year to identify and eat more foraged wild foods, but this one is so easy, it doesn't count.

Maple syrup tapping- another key sign of spring. On recent sunny days, we haven't even started a fire, and our sunroom is getting warm enough on sunny days, we open the door and let it warm the house.

Monday, February 19, 2018

seven generations

The Great Law of the Iroquois is said to be the origin of the admonition to think of seven future generations in any decision made now. More generally, deliberations of the leaders are to consider the whole community, the whole nation, and not be swayed by relatives or other personal benefit. To a rough approximation, this was considered 140 years. Seven generations might be a bit longer here in the developed world right now, as people are waiting a bit longer to start families. Let's say 150 years.

When political and economic policy discussions circle around to "sustainable" these days, I think we have become too lax in confirming that we all have a common definition of "sustainable". When you start trying to pin it down, lots of assumptions have to be made. The devil is in the details, as always. But what if we used 150 years for a thought experiment.

All the infrastructure, all the manufactured goods, all the energy sources, all aspects of our busy, comfortable lives would need to be fully replaceable ( and presumably with no reduction in ability to continue replenishment)  over 150 years if we were to try to meet this criteria.

Does anyone think we are on track to meet this target? Of course, we aren't even on a stable, level track of population, consumption, or average consumption. In my estimation, if we ( it ain't going to happen, but IF we did) stopped growth right now, and merely projected current population, resource use and impact on our planet, could we make it 150 years? The answer is no, in case you were not sure. Forget fossil fuels, which draw the most attention. Many other key inputs in to our economy are nonrenewable resources, with dwindling easily obtained stores. Many metrics on the state of the ecological health of the planet are trending down, and some are close to collapse.

For those thinking that raised costs will bring newly economic resources to market, this only works to a point. Demand for some items is inelastic, and there are some resources that don't react to the substitution effect like the economic alchemists and philosophers would like to think.

So current lifestyle in the developed world, and especially the U.S., is not sustainable by this seven generations definition. Probably by any definition. To reach that level would be the end of the world as we know it. And yet, Some cultures in the past lasted for centuries, though they eventually declined. Life would not have to be nasty, brutish and short, but would be quite a bit different. We have the germ theory of disease now! Maybe we could figure out a way that was not so bad?

Nah, probably not going to happen. Not sure if it is too late to change course, though many are sounding the alarms and trying to do so. I wish them luck in grabbing the wheel and pulling a hard u-turn.

My personal response to the dilemma we face is to plant trees. Trees can be used for building materials, stabilize soils and moderate microclimates, they suck CO2 from the air, produce food for humans, as well being the backbone of a system that provides food and habitat for a complete ecological community. All for free!

Here is a Handy list of average tree lifespans. It's for Virginia, so my neighborhood in Wisconsin would be a bit different, but close enough.

The white oaks I'm planting live an average of 300 years, and as much as 600. The chestnuts live 100 years, and as much as 300 years. Sugar maples ( next year's project) live from 300-400 years.(lifespans are probably a bit shorter here in the north)

Plant trees. Your great, great, great, great great grandkids will appreciate it.

Some of the oaks I planted in tree tubes last year. Without the tubes, the deer will kill them all.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

horatio alger, social mobility, and gini indexes

Horatio Alger is famous for the many novels he wrote that conveyed the idea that hard work  and moxie would result in a rags to riches ( or at least middle class) success, that is, a slice of the American Dream. 

Unfortunately, while many Americans believe we are still the land of opportunity, and are exceptional, it is not the case.

We have become as class stratified as many other countries we think ourselves superior to, and data confirms this.

When  combined with the fact that America has a poor gini index, I see the potential for troubled times ahead. Gini index is a calculation of how evenly, or equitably income is distributed through the population. A zero index mean everyone has exactly the same income, and a one would be all income to one person, and nothing to everyone one else. Obviously, there are no ones, but comparisons and trends still can tell us how GNP is being shared.

Gini index does not tell the whole story, as a nation could be desperately poor, but very equitable about it, for  zero score, but that isn't a situation to strive for.

You can see the run up in the late 20s and 30s, till speculation and overreach caused the great depression( OK, it was a bit more complicated than that at which point things remained more equal with help from the New Deal and WW2, but took off again in the 80s. 

That chart shows the evolution of the U.S. gini index over time, but how does the U.S. compare to the rest of the world? Well, it turns out from my brief study, it is complicated. Data from many countries is suspect, or calculated differently, or spotty and out of date, so it's hard to do comparisons. Just generally, from the sites I did find, the U.S. is rather high compared to the developed countries, but I saw several different results. Here is one. 

So what made me look in to this?

I was traveling a while ago, and picked up a Wall Street Journal for the first time in several years. It still is the paper of record for the wealthy and the elite. After I skimmed through the headlines and main section, I found a section headed "Mansion". I thought, weird, some sort of special edition? No, it turns out that this is now the header for the WSJ real estate section. And it's just what you would think, a real estate section focussed on only the very top of the housing market, and the woes of trying to find that perfect mansion.

Most intriguing and maybe telling for what is on the minds of the wealthy, there was an article titled "Luxury for the Apocalypse". It described a large planned community going in in Texas that was comprised of underground condos, with a secure perimeter and many self reliance features. There are similar ones in development in other states as well. 

In the past, and not just here in the U.S., when there is too much inequity in society, revolt, violence, and rebellion can occur. At some point, it doesn't take gini comparisons, or other data crunching, it is in the wind. Sometimes you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  The wealthy are aware of this, even as they continue to work the system. 

So, what's a poor working stiff to do? Pay attention to history, and plan accordingly.

out with the old, in with the new

A while back ( Dec 2016) I posted about the demographics of farmers, and the possibility that we might be seeing the early stages of a resettling of Americas rural areas. The article at the link seems to indicate others are seeing the same thing. 

One point I did not make before, is that in addition to relearning farming with low input, sustainable techniques, many of these new urban to rural migrants were not raised on farms, so have even more to learn and will unfortunately have higher failure rates than if they had started from conventional farming.

On top of that, access to land, capital to buy land, are both hard to get. Even back in the 70s, my dad said that to be a farmer, you had to either be born to a farm family, or marry in to a farm family. 

We haven't reached that point where fossil energy is cost prohibitive and human and animal labor move to the fore yet,  and it may be quite a ways off, but it is inevitable. Once this trend is further along, many more farmers will be needed. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Resource misallocation

Recently read about the new sky scraper being built in Chicago. It will be the third highest structure there, and will be done in a couple of years. And here I thought Chicago was in deep financial trouble, had plenty of available office space, and generally was over the ego driven need to build these phallic monuments. The last big one was topped out in 2009 (A trump tower no less!).

Turns out this one is for very high end condos and a hotel. A Chinese company is making it happen. I guess there are still a lot of millionaires in the Chicago area that would go for a nice view of Lake Michigan. (Or millionaires looking to move some assets out of China and invest in a "stable" location).

And there are also a lot (54!) of other, shorter buildings being built, but still very tall and elaborate.

Skyscrapers are very complex structures, use huge amounts of materials, and are very dependent on a fully functioning economy, stable utility costs, and paying tenants. There have been a few articles in the past pointing out how the ultra high sky scraper craze has taken off and given the host countries some sort of ego boost.

China alone built 84 skyscrapers in 2016!!

And it appears that here is a weird correlation between skyscraper frenzy and imminent economic collapse:
if this correlation holds, then rough times are ahead.

Regardless if economic collapse follows, skyscrapers are, I would argue, a vast resource misallocation. While they improve city density, density is not an automatic good thing. A downtown that is too vertical can be sterile and uninviting, and large buildings can mean lots more long distance commuters.  Instead of walkable cities or neighborhoods, we get harried train riders.

I have no expertise in city planning, but from a purely resilience viewpoint, skyscrapers seem vulnerable and brittle in response to changed conditions. Makes you wonder why mayors, city councils, zoning and permitting departments encourage them. A single story building, or even one that is walkable can be designed to be habitable without power, but not skyscrapers. They do not function without large amounts of electricity.

It's one thing to tear down a three story building or a big box store that has become obsolete, but tearing down a scraper that no one wants would be a formidable task, and a real waste of resources.

Where should a city, or a country be investing in infrastructure, housing stock, utilities, and so on? A look in to the future is needed, and a frank assessment of the available funds to do any chosen plans.

With the remaining "cheap" energy and resources left to us, I would argue that we as a minimum stop building infrastructure that is highly grid dependent and can't be repurposed. The wider question is, what should we be building, or not building?

Here are a few principles I will throw out, which COULD be used as a checklist to wisely build, but won't be. They assume vastly less energy and materials available in the coming decades to continue building like we have up to now.

The majority of transportation infrastructure spending should be shifted to rail and mass transit, instead of adding new roads. NO NEW ROADS.

Any existing transportation infrastructure should be repaired and modified so that it either is very cheap to maintain (gravel roads) or built like the Romans, with a design life in centuries. Obviously, only a few main arteries would justify the later approach. There are already a lot of  rural local government units choosing to transition paved roads to gravel because of tight budgets. This trend will increase.

Overall, transportation infrastructure will need to transition ( over ~50 years?)  to facilitate local transport, with minimal regional or national traffic assumed.

Any new housing infrastructure should be built with nears zero energy needs, like the passive haus movement out of Germany.

All existing housing should be evaluated to be either recycled at the end of its useful life, or upgraded to as near to passive house standards as possible.

All new structures should be designed to beyond LEED certification, such that they have very low life cycle environmental impact. This can be done either through completely renewable materials and simple construction, or very long life span design, measured in centuries. and designed to be easily maintained.

Yeah, these pie in the sky goals are not politically or culturally viable here in the states, but the funny thing is, as we continue to transition to a low energy society, ( fossil EROEI continues to decline) at some point we will be stuck with the built infrastructure we have.

Here is an example of resource allocation I have chosen. This apple grinder and press will last for decades if stored and taken care of properly, and needs no electricity, no further fossil fuels than were used to create it, and just needs friendly neighbors to come help during harvest time.