Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thought For the Day

"An incinerator is a writer's best friend."

-- Thornton Wilder

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Few Words About Solar Energy

A reader requested that I say something about solar energy and its applicability here in the Southwest. I’ll break it down into its main subcategories, and talk a little about my personal experience with each type of solar energy.

First, high-tech solar applications. These all convert solar energy into electricity with the aid of photovoltaic panels. These panels wear out over time, and have to be replaced every 20 years or so. Unfortunately, this requires an industrial civilization – the very civilization we’re trying to evolve away from. Talk about a conflict of interest! Also, I’m assuming that ultimately there will no longer be an industrial civilization capable of building photovoltaic panels.

The primary photovoltaic application is creating electricity for household use. There are two main ways of doing this: stand-alone, and grid-tie.

Stand-alone systems require batteries to store electricity for nighttime use. These batteries – which are essentially 19th Century technology – are expensive, very heavy, have to be replaced every few years, and have to be carefully tended by the owner. For this reason I have never considered installing such a system for myself.

A grid-tie system dispenses with the batteries by tying into the electrical grid. During the daytime, household needs are supplied by the solar array, and excess power is fed into the grid, reducing your electric bill. At night and during cloudy weather, the household runs on grid power.

One inhibiting factor of photovoltaic is the high cost of the panels. I’ve been following solar energy in a casual way for 40 years now. Invariably, there is always news of the latest technological breakthrough, which promises to offer solar energy at a revolutionary low price. Yet the cost of solar panels always remains high. When you consider that even a modest solar electric system can cost $30,000 or more, it’s no wonder they are so rare.

There is, however, one excellent application for photoelectric panels – pumping water. It’s an elegant strategy: during daylight hours when the sun is shining, water is pumped into an elevated storage tank. Water then flows into the household system, on demand, whenever you need it. No moving parts are required, because gravity does all the work. Except for the solar panel and electric pump, the system is elegantly cheap and simple. I used such a system for about 10 years starting in 1983, and liked it a lot. The system I used was already obsolete at the time I installed it, requiring a heavy flywheel and ancient windmill technology inside the well. This setup could now be replaced by a pump you could easily hold in one hand... which I’m now doing.

Moving onward to my favorite use of solar energy: providing heat. You can heat air, which can be used to heat your home, or a solar oven, or an herb drier, or whatever you need hot air for. (Solar-powered politicians, why not?) The other application is hot water, to supply your household’s hot water needs. These applications are both wonderfully low-tech, which is why I like them so much.

For hot air, the concept is simple: Take a surface, any surface. Paint it black, and aim it south. Voila, the black surface heats up! Then you cover the black surface with a transparent membrane -- such a glass – creating an air space. The glass simultaneously lets the sunlight through while trapping the heat in the form of hot air. This hot air can be blown anywhere you want via ductwork, or can heat your home using no moving parts – by putting a greenhouse on the south end of your house, for example.

This has always been my favorite use of solar energy. It’s so cheap, so easy, so obvious... yet I get to feel clever whenever I build a greenhouse or solar heat collector. I’ve built a couple of greenhouses, and half a dozen collectors since 1973. Also a couple of passive solar houses. One thing I’ve learned: use glass if you can afford it. Protect it from hail and kids throwing rocks, and it should last for a long, long time. Transparent fiberglass is quick and easy, but only lasts about 20 years, even if it contain a UV inhibitor.

The most elegant way to heat a home with solar is to design it properly in the first place. Consider the house to be a huge solar oven: put lots of glass on the south wall, and aim it south. This is called “passive solar” because no moving parts are required. No fans, no blowers, no ductwork, just the silent whisper of hot air warming your home. What could be simpler? Yet... at this late date, how many passive solar homes do you see? Very, very few.

Moving onward to hot water. Again, a very simple concept. Build an insulated box, with a glass wall aiming south to let in the sunlight. Paint a water tank black, and stick it in the box. Voila, hot water! The next time you’re driving around, keep your eyes peeled and let me know how many of these you see. I’ve built two of these during my solar career. The main thing I learned was in winter, to take a bath or shower during late afternoon when the water is hottest. But even after sitting overnight, the water is still hot enough for doing dishes.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sea Level Rise

From Reuters:  U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said earlier this month global warming, blamed mainly on burning fossil fuels, could raise sea levels by 50 cm to 2 meters (20 inches to 6 ft 6 in) this century -- higher than most experts have predicted.

But, but, but...

The projections are always low, and have to be updated every couple of years!  So the sea level rise will probably be much more than presently projected. 

My personal guess is 10 meters, maybe 20.  Check back in 91 years and we'll see who's right. 

Monday, September 21, 2009

Historical Perspectives on "Back to the Land"

For quite some time I've been asking myself the question "Why did the bright promise of the 60s turn out so terribly wrong?"  As one of the rare back to the landers who stayed on the land, I'm reading several books about the subject to try to satisfy my curiosity.  I've read Arthur Kopecky's New Buffalo:  Journal of a Taos Commune, and am most of the way through the sequel, in which he ends up getting kicked out by an insurgent faction within the commune.  I've got several more books still to read.  This is all apropos of not much, because we're already past the point of no return on a planetary level.  But at least this gives me something to do with my ever-active mind.

I'll just meander along here.  First, time scale.  As far as back to the land goes, 1967 is early.  Anything earlier than that is archaic.  1972-75 is peak, post-1976 is late.  1980 onward is empty husk.  I would put the peak as 1975; this is borne out in the pages of Mother Earth News.  BTW, Mother Earth News started out as a vital, happenin' thing, very unlike the concoction it turned into.

Every time somebody organizes a sustainability conference or whatever, it makes me laugh in a sad sort of way.  Because the sustainability "movement" has remained at entry level for the past 40+ years, while the condition of the planet has deteriorated at an ever-increasing rate.  "Living in harmony with the Earth" never really caught on.  I'm supposed to get all enthused at this late date?  Clearly, the people now promoting sustainability are either deficient in some way (particularly in historical perspective), or have a cynical motivation (trying to make money off it somehow... good luck!). 

Back to the land never caught on because of several factors:

* Too much hard work.  "Physical labor?  You gotta be kidding me!  My skin is white!"

* Not enough money.  People prefer having a "real job" with a regular paycheck with benefits.

* Too much isolation.  Living in the country might be beautiful, but you're surrounded by teabaggin' rednecks, and there's no entertainment.  "I mean yeah, you can listen to the coyotes howl and the wind blow and all that, but, like, where's the ACTION, y'know?"

* Lack of social support.  Working for an organization, you're part of the hive.  You have your place, you know your role.  Grubbing in the dirt back on the land, most people feel cast adrift as soon as the drugs wear off.

There are probably more factors at work, but those four cover a lot of ground.

One thing that struck me about New Buffalo is how hard they worked.  They were working fools (at least, the ones who worked), but never had enough money.  They never had a consistent membership, except for Kopecky (from 1971-79) and a handful of others.  His book is in journal form, not an overview written after the fact.  Kopecky, like all of us, didn't really know what was happening at the time.  (In an earlier, Uncle Gordon incarnation, I used to say, "You never know what's happening until afterwards."  Which is to say, you need time to consolidate the data, analyze the information, and draw some conclusions.  In the moment, we're all just winging it.)

Kopecky kept asking, "Where are all the quality people that will surely be drawn to our quality scene?"  New Buffalo never had any trouble attracting parasites and losers.  But hardworking, consistent people you could depend on?  Pretty rare, and they seldom stayed for long.  Looking back, the dynamics are obvious:  the more intelligent ones quickly said "This sucks" and went back to school so they could get a good job and make lots of money.  I'd say that most people who went back to the land lasted anywhere between 2 months and 2 years, with 6 months being typical. 

I'm supposed to harvest honey today.  The weather forecast says clear with a high of 90 degrees, perfect harvesting weather.  It's now raining outside.  Go figure.

Thus endeth today's episode.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Seedlings Gone Wild

After 2 1/2 weeks, the coldframe seedlings are growing very well.  The sunrise lighting shows how well the seedlings outside the coldframes are doing, also.  The weeds are mostly arugula and grass.  I'll have to till the strips on either side of the coldframes in about a week.

Here's the kale coldframe.  Upper left, Siberian; upper right, Red Russian; lower left, Vates; lower right, Squire.  Each quadrant has room for maybe 4-6 mature plants, so we've got a lot of thinning to do.  Fortunately, the thinnings are edible.

Here's the collard coldframe.  From left:  Champion, Georgia, and Vates.  Vates isn't doing so hot so far.  Each section will hold 3-4 mature plants, so I wouldn't give up on Vates until the plants are mature.  But so far, Georgia is the champion.

The left section has Detroit beets, the middle has Chiogga beets, and the right section has potatoes, top and mizuna, bottom. 

Stay tuned for further exciting developments on the coldframe front!

The Nature of the Beast

As we near the equinox, the daylight hours are rapidly shrinking, and the hours of darkness are rapidly increasing.  What this means is I once again have leisure time when I first awaken, time in which I can stir the old sludge bucket of my brain and see what rises to the top.

The problem with writing for print media in the internet age is, the work is already getting obsolete by the time it gets printed.  But no problem; I can always spew online in real time.  So maybe I'll be doing this more frequently now that I can't stumble outside in the darkness and try to start working.

I've always been fascinated by the undercurrent of fear and madness that infects the white working class-cracker-redneck culture in this country.  People who in the past would go to church on Sunday and lynch them a nigger on Monday.  People who can be outwardly gracious (if you're a fellow white person), but are inwardly pinched and hard-bitten.  People who virtually annihilated the American Indians, kept slaves, and -- particularly after World War 2 -- exploited an entire planet for their benefit.

I know these people well because that's where I came from.  On my mother's side of the family, I'm the grandson of a Texas oilfield worker who became a foreman in due time and eventually got his gold watch from Texaco.  Staunch Baptists, all.

Joe Bageant specializes in these people.  He's on my internet must-read list.  Check him out: .

Getting to the point of this little essay:  Do the Republicans have a strategy, or are they just expressing inchoate white people rage, slinging shit around to see what sticks?  They are definitely nihilists, that's for sure.  On the face of it they're in a pitiful position.  Their de-facto leader is now TV ranter "crazy Glenn Beck."  Their only secure power base is the South plus a few low-population strongholds like Utah and Alaska.  If it weren't for the pathetically undemocratic nature of our archaic and fossilized political institutions (specifically, the U.S. Senate), they would have no power on the national level at all.

Yet they remain a potent political force, and all they have to do is say "no."  Of course it helps that the corporate media amplifies their every word, while ignoring the libruls whenever possible.  Corporate TV is filled with has-been Republican politicians -- Newt Gingrich, John McCain, Tom Delay -- whose opinions, remarkably enough, are taken seriously.

The number bandied about is that 30% of Americans self-identify as Republicans-conservatives-teabaggers.  This may seem like a low percentage, but consider -- one out of three people you meet at random is, in some compartment of their personality, completely off their rocker.  And these people overwhelmingly have the civilian guns and ammo.  And they have radio and TV hosts, from crazy Glenn Beck on down, actively fomenting revolution.

I'm assuming that when the economy finally starts to tank in a serious way (what we've encountered so far is just the beginning), the Republicans will make their move.  People will be fearful, angry, and betrayed.  "We're WHITE people, goddam it!"  I've always assumed that all those guns would be used against libruls, not against the gummint, which has unmatched firepower.  But them libruls, they gonna sling cups of latte at you, or what?  Buncha pussies.  Thirty percent is plenty to do a revolution with.  The Republicans have an unmatched propaganda machine; the corporate media supports their pro-corporate agenda; they have a base of many millions who've been successfully indoctrinated with an alternative narrative.  For all intents and purposes they're living in an alternative reality, and they intend to impose it on all of us.

I think the Republicans are biding their time, keeping their base riled up, never cooperating with the hated libruls.  When the economic stability we've taken for granted finally turns into chaos, then WHAM, checkmate, our fascist overlords finally manage to get rid of this pesky democracy nonsense.  Or so goes the theory.

But who really knows?  These are just morning speculations with my second cup of tea.  We'll follow the trendlines for the next month, six months, year, five years, and see where all this seems to lead.  In the meantime dawn is breaking (that was the crashing sound you might have heard a couple of minutes ago), so it's time for me to get dressed and meet the day.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Stranglehold of the Status Quo: The Breakdown Begins

This is my column for the October-November issue of Grassroots Press:

I haven’t said anything about Barack Obama in these pages since the January-February issue, when I said: “Obama is an agent of the Empire; otherwise he would never have gotten this far. He’ll be bold, but only up to a point... His ‘bipartisan’ strategy is guaranteed to limit meaningful change; the Dems seem to have spinelessness embedded into their DNA; and the Republicans are always master obstructionists. It will be a fascinating spectacle to watch, that’s for sure.”

Speaking of fascinating spectacles, this past summer was really something, wasn’t it? The sour smell of revolution is in the air; you can almost taste the madness. Sales of guns and ammo are at an all-time high. The lunatic fringe gets all the TV time it wants, while progressives and other members of the sober-minded demographic are routinely ignored by the corporate media. Unruly mobs shout down the “libruls” at town hall meetings. Assault rifles are flaunted outside Presidential gatherings. Ridiculous lies, spread by hate radio and TV, go unanswered. Liberal socialist fascist communist Obama, manifestation of all things black and evil, receives 30 death threats every day. Our country has always featured a healthy helping of craziness, but this past summer the mentally and morally deficient, with the amplification of the corporate media, have managed to set the tone for the entire country. Such a delicious, sick-to-the-stomach irony this all is – the entire planet is literally dying as we speak, yet the only response seems to be idiocy compounded upon idiocy. And we can rest assured that this is only the beginning.

In response, Obama and the Dems have been playing to lose. (The technical term for their behavior is “lame-ass.”) Is this intentional? Or even worse, are they really so clueless that they don’t know how to respond to the bullshit being pumped down on us from on high? They remind me of a basketball team that’s been bribed to blow the big game. When they should be going in for the kill, they inexplicably hold back. They miss the critical free throws. They flub the easy layups. They make stupid turnovers. The crowd grows silent as time expires. How could a team that was leading by 30 points at the half end up losing the game?

But that’s what happens when we’re reduced to always voting for the lesser of two evils. And make no mistake: if there was ever a lesser of two evils, it’s Barack Obama. He’s cautious, conciliatory, and utterly conventional -- which is to say, uncreative. Our dire situation cries out for creative solutions, but all Obama provides are the same tired old tricks that only make things worse. Under Obama, we’ve got Wall Street running the Treasury Department, deficits even more astronomical than those Bush created, a quagmire in Afghanistan, and no meaningful action on the energy shortages and climate catastrophes that will be destroying our civilization before long. And this is just the short list. Obama simply isn’t up to the task. He’s just a standard-brand politician, whose only selling point was his electability. I do like his family, their garden, and beehives. They’re way cool people, but so what? At the end of the day, Obama is just a figurehead, like any other President, and the Congress he has to work with has already been bought and paid for. Once again, we’ve been sold a dog and pony show instead of the change we thought we could believe in.

It all goes to show you: when we vote for the lesser of two evils, we still get screwed. Maybe not screwed quite as bad, but we’re still screwed. And on the national level, voting for the lesser of two evils is all that’s allowed by the powers-that-be. They win either way. Isn’t American-style “democracy” wonderful? I can hardly wait to make my next campaign contribution!

The important thing to remember about the health care “debate” is that our most important bargaining chip – single payer – was never allowed on the table. Single payer is an elegant solution because it would remove the parasitical insurance industry from the equation, resulting in enormous cost savings and liberation from one of the most oppressive institutions in our country. (The private insurance industry is far more oppressive than the government.) But doing away with the insurance industry would be a revolutionary act – far more revolutionary than the attack of any wingnut assault rifle brigade -- and as such is simply not allowed by our oligarchy. “Too bad about single payer, kids,” they say, patting us condescendingly on the head, “but we have this bright shiny new public option that maybe... just maybe... we can bestow upon you if you work hard enough.”

The trouble is, the “public option” we’ve been working for all these months is just a shadow of what we think it is. It’s too small and feeble to be any kind of replacement for single payer. We’ve been baited and switched yet again. The only sure thing is the mandate, which will at long last force healthy young Americans to buy health insurance they don’t really need. What a financial bonanza for the insurance companies! Our politicians are nothing if not slick. They advise us to accept “half a loaf,” but we’ll end up with just a slice, or maybe a crust. But the situation is still in flux, Obama can give a great speech, and it remains to be seen how all this turns out.

Americans are such a credulous lot for the most part. So many Americans will believe anything that’s marketed slickly enough. I need to write a column outlining the origins of American credulity: Christianity, American exceptionalism, Hollywood fantasy, the commodification of information, corporate-based “news” as entertainment... there are many factors which contribute to America’s la-la orientation.

There’s the old saying, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck.” Evidently, a critical mass of Americans aren’t capable of making the deduction that a duck is really a duck. To give a real-world example: an emergency (pick any from the long list available) is really an emergency, not an “opportunity” that we can ignore until the most politically-expedient time.

For the most part, Americans insist that a duck is really a golden unicorn, or maybe a bag of tater tots. They insist on viewing reality through a set of pre-programmed fantasy filters. For example, a majority of Americans believe that global warming is no big deal. They also believe that the economy is going to recover! Imagine that! No doubt pigs will be flying soon.

With such a deluded population, it’s no wonder that representative government is failing us. The entire 18th Century paradigm of making intelligent decisions based on Reason is breaking down. In earlier, simpler times representative government worked well enough (though just barely), but now it’s proving unable to even address our problems, much less attempt to actually solve them. Papering things over in a politically-realistic way simply doesn’t cut it on a planet whose life-support system is rapidly failing. Barack Obama will be known as the last president of the post World War 2 era of prosperity, stability, and Earth murder. As for what is to come, we can only see through a glass darkly. The details are murky, but the overall trend is obvious: Big Shit a-coming.

The breakdown has now begun in earnest. The fraying around the edges is cutting closer to the heart. The Republicans are like children playing with hand grenades. The Democrats are fatally compromised by their corporate connections and their inherent conventionality and timidity. The Green Party, which at one time might have provided a measure of intelligence to the proceedings, barely exists anymore. The corporate media -- the de facto propaganda organ for the Empire -- successfully keeps the populace pitifully ill-informed. Only 39% of Americans believe in evolution, and at least 30% have lost their grip on reality altogether. The coming crisis will involve far more than the contradictions of the funny-money economy. It will be a perfect storm of overpopulation, resource depletion, economic chaos, pollution, energy scarcity, and climate catastrophe.

I’m inclined to take everything at face value at this point. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein: “A duck is a duck is a duck.” I’m inclined to believe that there’s no particular solution to the “human situation.” The status quo has us all in a death grip. We’re trapped on the same planet together – rich and poor, ants and grasshoppers alike. There are far too many of us, and we’ve created far too much damage to expect to escape lightly. Karma bites. What goes around comes around, and boy howdy will it ever.

(Have a nice day! My blog is still low-key for the most part, with pretty pictures, whimsical captions, homestead happenings, and signs of the seasons. )

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Farmer's Market Apron

They handed out aprons for the Farmer's Market vendors a couple of weeks ago, probably as a sop for putting us through the inconvenience of moving.  In this photo I model the apron for the camera.  Actually, I wouldn't be caught dead wearing such a dorky costume.  Oh wait...

BTW Laura is thinking about making an apron that says, "It's a Sweet Life."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Cold Frames

It's plantin' time again on the old homestead. After tilling in four bales of hay earlier in the summer, and tilling the weed seedlings several times as the summer progressed, Laura and I set the coldframes into position and planted them on Sept. 3. The brush pile we talked about the other day smolders in the background.

Here's a close-up of the emerged seedlings. I sow thickly to compensate for the seedling-destroying pillbugs. The nearest coldframe contains 4 kinds of kale. The next one has 3 kinds of collards; the next one has 2 kinds of beets, mizuna, and a couple of potato plants; and the last one has spinach and lettuce. I'm in the process of building another coldframe at the bottom of the Ark, that I'll report about later.
BTW I'm trying out potatoes as a winter crop for the first time as an experiment. I want to see if I can harvest new potatoes continuously all winter long. Probably not, but it's worth a try.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

At Farmer's Market

Here's our new Farmer's Market stand, with our custom-made EZ-Up. "The Honey Lady," as Laura is known, smiles from behind her wares.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Huge Hibiscus

At Guzman's Nursery in Las Cruces.

Young Hippie, Old Hippie

Everett and Gordon take a break from burning a brush pile.

Friday, September 04, 2009


Proposal: an eight day week which provides for a 3 day weekend.

Plan: Create an eight day week, the days being called respectively starting from the beginning: Drab, Better, Peak, Come-back, Bearable, Fun, Fun2, and an eighth day to be named "Funday." The first seven days corresponding with what are now modestly called Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Author's note of explanation: Assuming at this time that the proposed calendar is still regulated and according to the earth's revolution about the sun and its subsequent eclipse being joined at one point by December 31 and January 1, we see a problem created by the addition of one extra day to every week. Assuming also that the period of time being labelled "day" is regulated and according to the earth's revolution about its axis and its subsequent eclipse being joined at one point by 11:59 and 59 seconds and 12 o'clock midnight and one second, I proceed with my proposal and explanation.

To work this calendar, the need becomes apparent to obtain 52 extra days; one for each of the 52 weeks in a year. March, being a practically useless and inconsequential month, the new calendar will remove said month from its schedule. However, to consider the wishes and feelings of all those people with birthdays occurring in March, I propose the following:

The new calendar utilizes the days taken from March, as the extra day for each week. This will distribute March around and give the new calendar 31 of the 52 days it needs. After the deletion of March and its four weeks, the new calendar will have only 48 weeks which also cuts down its need for days to only 48, 31 of which are taken care of by March.

Next, we must cut into February for the remaining 17 days. The removal of 17 days leaves 11 days remaining--or one complete week and one shorter group containing only 4days. However by removing two weeks of February shortens our week count and day need to 46 which means the removal of only 15 days. This gives one week to February plus another shorter 6 day week.

The days of March and those removed from February will be added consecutively on the end of each of the 46 weeks of the year, but will still retain their names of March and February and their own numbers. Hence the first week of the new calendar year will be:

Monday Jan. 1, Tuesday Jan 2, Wednesday Jan 3, Thursday Jan 4, Friday Jan 5, Saturday Jan 6, Sunday Jan 7, and Funday March 1.

The second week follows the same pattern but with Funday of this week being March 2. On the third week March 3 and so on until all of March is used up which will be approximately the beginning of October. The week following Funday, March 31 will end with Funday, February 14, that being the first of the 18 days in February that were needed for the calendar. The year will continue in this manner until February 28, which is New Year's Eve, and January 1 which will start the calendar over on a Monday.

This new calendar, like the old calendar, has one minor flaw. That is what is known as leap year. At the end of every year there is an extra 1/4 of a day left over. The old calendar chooses to save this 1/4 of a day for four years until it has collected enough time for one whole day which it tacks on at the end of February. This creates a problem for people who happened to be born on this extra day. The question arises if they were really born completely on that day or merely born in fourths the four preceding years, sections of which make up their birthday. They also wonder when to celebrate--on the wrong day every year or only once every 4 years.
I have handled this complicated situation in a way I feel will try to satisfy these people.

I propose that a shorter 6 hour day be recognized every year whenever it is and that this new day be called February 29/4 because it is one fourth of February 29. After all, six hours every year is better than nothing at all.

I feel the proposed new calendar is way superior to the old one in the singular fact that it allows for a three day weekend which is extremely beneficial and agreeable to all. It does this without cutting into the weekdays for it still provides for a five day work week with 3 days off each weekend.

-Laura Cash Solberg, age 16-

I wrote this when I was in high school.