Monday, December 22, 2008

Ice Dam Nation

It happens every ten years or so. We had at least a foot of snow this past weekend, and now it is bitterly cold. It barely made it out of the teens (degrees F) today and we may see single digits tonight. These are perfect conditions for ice dams.

An ice dam is a phenomenon that occurs on the roof of a house after a deep snow in cold temperatures. Heat escaping from the house melts snow on the roof surface. This water then flows downhill under the insulating blanket of snow until it hits cold surfaces at the eaves or gutters (eaves troughs, for my Canadian friends) where it refreezes. This freezing water builds up until a dam of ice forms. When the dam gets high enough, a puddle of water forms behind it. When this puddle gets deep enough, the water may back up under the roof shingles and leak into the house. The problem is often worse on flatter roofs because the water doesn't have to be very deep before it gets under the shingles. This water may show up inside windows or dripping from ceilings near exterior walls. Sometimes it runs down inside walls and shows up downstairs. In some cases the damage can be extensive and expensive with damaged drywall, paint, plaster and woodwork.

Ice dams are a symptom and not a disease. The disease is heat loss. Warmth from the house escapes into the attic or the space above a cathedral ceiling because of poor insulation and/or air leaks. The effect can be exacerbated by inadequate ventilation of the attic or cathedral ceiling system. A house that is well insulated and ventilated will not have ice dams. A roof should be cold.

It is easy to spot the houses that are likely to have ice dam problems. As I drive and walk around town I always notice the homes with the prettiest and most dramatic icicles. Those are the houses that are wasting energy and probably having leaks inside. As a comparison, one can look at an unheated shed or garage and see no ice at all.

You have plenty of insulation, you say, but still get ice dams? In that case, there may be other sources of heat in the attic. These might be uninsulated recessed lights or leaky HVAC ducts. The worst situation is where the actual hot air furnace is located in the attic. All of these things represent poor design and unfortunate energy waste.

What to do when confronted with ice dams? Well, when water is actively leaking into the house, there's only one thing that can be done, and that is to get the snow off the roof. If the water source is eliminated, the leaks will stop. The best way, if the house is not too high, is to use a roof rake. A roof rake is a wide blade on a long pole that is used to pull snow off the roof while standing safely on the ground. If the roof is not too steep, it might be possible to get up there with a snow shovel. I've also had some luck with chipping channels through the dams with a hatchet to allow the water to escape, but this must be done carefully to avoid damaging the roof and gutters. Needless to say, climbing around on icy ladders and roofs is dangerous business, so Kids, don't try this at home.

Longer term, there are other ways to treat the symptom without curing the disease. These include heat cables to melt channels through the dams (That's a favorite American solution because its' just throwing more wasted energy at the problem.), rubberized membranes under the roof shingles, and strips of sheet metal along the edge of the roof.

But really, especially in this age of climate change, dwindling energy supplies and global conflict over fossil fuels, we just need to make our houses better. Install as much insulation as practical, seal air leaks, and eliminate heat sources in the attic. You'll save energy, be more comfortable and avoid unnecessary damage to your home.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

First Juncos, Bad Cats, Dead Squirrels

I noticed the first few juncos in the yard today. (I can't remember, what are we calling them these days, dark-eyed or slate-colored?) When I see these handsome little birds, I know winter will soon be upon us, but they always help to lift the mood a bit.

In other news from the yard, I've been enjoying the antics of a few young red squirrels in the back yard. They've been scampering up and down the big Norway maples and eating maple seeds from the driveway. I have mixed feelings about these rodents. Just as I feel I'm turning the tide in my war with the many generations gray squirrels that have been chewing holes in my house, I'm pretty sure these reds are getting into the eaves as well. I haven't issued any war declarations yet because they're pretty discreet in their comings and goings and they're awfully cute. I also like they spunky way they chase the gray squirrels who must be twice their mass.

Just the other day, I was sitting at the kitchen table, looking out at the falling leaves and the gamboling squirrels when an orange cat who frequents the yard streaked a good 30 or 40 feet from under the deck across the yard to the base of the maple by the garage to nail one of my little reds. By the time I jumped up and ran outside the cat was already trotting away with the squirrel hanging limply from its jaws.

The very next day, as I walked by the back door, I heard some thumping out by the deck. I looked out to see the same cat struggling to subdue yet another red squirrel. I ran out, but was too late again.

I assume these were young squirrels that didn't get a second chance at their survival lessons, but this cat certainly does seem an efficient predator. I must confess to having some mixed feelings. As they say, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Although these little guys are fun to watch, I don't relish the prospect of spending more hours repairing the exterior trim on the house. On the other hand, red squirrels are not that common here and for every red, there must be 20 grays. I appreciate a little diversity in the yard.

I know that predation by house cats is a real problem that takes a heavy toll on native wildlife populations. If I saw this one cat kill two animals in two days, I shudder to imagine how many he and all the other cats I see around here kill in the course of a year. There are those who say cats will be cats and hunting is instinctive. But these cats are not native to this area, and they have the advantage of warm homes, regular meals and veterinary care, so they are healthy, strong and more numerous than they would be in a natural system. Their killing seems recreational rather than for food.

I saw the cat again today and noticed it had a collar. It turns out Hobbes is a friendly (to humans) cat and it was a simple matter to approach him and read his name tag. I discovered he lives with neighbors I know quite well, and, in fact, the man of the house is quite an environmentalist, so I figured he would receive my phone call in the spirit in which it was intended. I called tonight, told my story, and suggested that a larger bell might help to warn potential victims. I'm happy to report "Calvin" seemed quite understanding and I feel sure he'll get a new bell. I could tell he wouldn't have been as receptive to a suggestion to confine his pet to the house and I didn't push that point.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bill Nye, Science Guy

Back in mid-October we were at our son's parents' weekend at the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York. We've attended the so-called Brick City Festival for each of the five years he's been there. No, we're not helicopter parents, we just like Central New York in October, the crisp days stimulating fond memories of college days in Syracuse so many years ago.

Among the many fun activities at the festival is an annual keynote speaker. Over the years we've heard from people like Robert Redford and Erin Brockovich. This year the speaker was Bill Nye, the Science Guy. I'd certainly heard of Bill and his famous TV show, but I don't think I ever actually watched it. His talk was entertaining and thought-provoking. He touched on many of the sort of things that have been on my mind lately, particularly alternative energy sources and wise use of resources. Knowing he was at a tech school, he exhorted (in a funny way) the hundreds of students in the audience to come up with solutions to many of the problems he discussed, telling them if they did, they would "GET RICH!". I'd like to touch on a few of the topics he discussed.

He talked at length about transportation and how we need to find ways to free ourselves of fossil-fuel powered vehicles. It will take some time to wean us off oil, but it is foolish not to use the technology we have NOW to slow the depletion of our oil reserves. Eventually, however, he sees us moving increasingly to electric vehicles and had an interesting idea. One of the problems of renewable energy is storage. How do we run things when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining? He imagines a day when we will all have plug-in electric cars with big batteries. When we're not driving, we'll plug the cars in and SHARE the power. When renewable energy is flowing, all the batteries will charge. When power is low, cars with full batteries will loan some electricity to those who need it. We'll all be part of a decentralized, mobile power company. You can imagine how we'd need plenty of techies to engineer a system like that.

He spent a bit of time on vehicle efficiency, talking about, say, the relative efficiency of his Prius and his neighbors Suburban. He also talked about the HKEV, the "highest-known-efficiency vehicle" - the bicycle. "One bowl of oatmeal - thirty miles!" For what we spend on a typical road engineered to bear 18-wheelers, we could build covered bikeways with big wind scoops so the cyclists would always have a tailwind.

Nanotechnology was another area he encouraged his young hosts to explore. He described how buckytubes of carbon might one day be used as super-low-resistance conductors that might vastly improve the efficiency of photovoltaic cells and all manner of electronic devices.

Regarding nuclear power, he was less optimistic. He pointed out that it is the most expensive source of electricity and that the waste problem remains unresolved. He acknowledged that France gets most of its power from nuclear plants, but got a chuckle from the crowd when he said they haven't solved the waste problem either. They just store it in caves in the mountains. Over near Germany.

I like it when people think about turning big problems into big opportunities. He described how huge quantities of fossil fuel are used to produce the nitrogen fertilizers we need to grow our food. Then he talked about the tremendous pollution that comes from huge pig farms in the South and how one farm can produce as much waste as a small city. Rather than view hog farm runoff as waste to be treated, why not collect it as a valuable resource to feed our crops? He didn't come right out and say it, but I think he meant us to understand that the same could be said of human waste. Why dump all that treated sewage into our waterways when it could be recycled onto farmland?

Now I'm not one who believes technology will solve all our problems, especially when that belief is used as an excuse to perpetuate old bad habits while we wait for high-tech salvation. But I do have some faith that visionary and courageous political leadership that supports scientific innovation can help us build a better world and a brighter future. I'm glad there are guys like Bill Nye out there spreading the word.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Back to the Future

We were returning from a run to the summit of Moose Hill this morning when I spotted something not seen in this neighborhood for quite some time: chickens! There were about six of them in a small coop and pen in a driveway a couple of streets down from our house.

Now, we live in a suburban community where just about everyone commutes to somewhere else for work and the yards are landscaped and manicured - mostly by professional yard maintenance companies with lots of power equipment - and virtually all of our food comes from supermarkets. So, when a flock of chickens appears, it's something worth noting. Once upon a time, it might have been commonplace to have a few hens in the back yard. In fact, I have an old chicken coop behind my garage. It was here when we moved in 20-plus years ago along with a few old fence posts and scraps of rusty old chicken wire. It looked like it hadn't been used for poultry for many years before we arrived, and it now serves as my woodshed.

The new chickens in the neighborhood raise some interesting questions. How will the neighbors react when the wind is blowing just so on a hot summer day? Will these birds be used to produce just eggs, or meat too? Will the chicken scratch be strictly store-bought and, if so, what are the economic and ecological implications of that compared to growing feed on-site? Will we soon have a rooster crowing at dawn?

This could be a sign of things to come. If our economic system does indeed collapse around us, many more of us may be looking for new ways to get our food. Even if we avoid another depression, maybe distrust of food from places like China and the increasing cost of transporting agricultural products across the continent will promote more home-grown farming.

I like to think and hope that there are silver linings in the financial storm clouds swirling around us. If we start getting real about our connection to the land and stop pouring so much energy into growing bluegrass and pansies, that will be a good thing. Maybe the chickens are finally coming home to roost.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Thinking Alternative Energy

I've been thinking about solar energy lately. I'm giving serious consideration to putting a small photovoltaic panel on the roof of the house. I don't have any plans to power the whole household or sell power to the electric company. I just want to get a little experience with what I believe will be an increasingly important part of our lives as we move into the 21st century.

I started off thinking about collecting enough solar energy to do something simple like charging cell phones during a power outage. Then, I started thinking about what else could be powered in an emergency situation, and I started thinking about the house phones and heating system. (All the news about blackouts in Houston after the hurricane make such daydreams seem more practical.)

Our phone service now comes through the cable service and this requires a cable modem. It has a battery backup, but I'm not sure how long that would last. We mostly use portable phones, but these won't work without power. We still have one hard-wired phone that we almost never use but it comes in handy when the power goes out. Our heating system is gas-fired steam, but it has electric controls, so if we lose electricity, we freeze.

Okay, but I don't want to invest several hundred bucks just to sit around waiting for the power to go out, so I started wondering what I could power with my solar system on a regular basis. Since my steam boiler and cable modem are in the basement, I'd have to deliver my solar-derived electricity down there from the roof. My little home office is down there, too, so I started wondering how much power I would need to power my desktop computer. I figured if I could power that, I could satisfy my other emergency needs if we have a blackout.

Now, I needed a way to estimate how much power that might be. Thanks to high school hiking buddy Chris, I ordered a P3 International Kill A Watt Electricity Usage Monitor. This is a cool little device that costs less than 20 bucks that measures electricity use. It arrived today and I've just started checking various devices around the house to see how many watts they use.

Here are some examples:

Charging Cell Phone: 4 watts.
TV/Cable Box/VCR: When on, 100 watts. When off (!) 26 watts.
Old Clock Radio: 1 watt low volume, 2 watts loud. (Surprisingly low.)
Desktop Computer and Monitor (Old CRT type.): 130 watts. (I thought it would be higher.)

Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, I found a bunch of videos of homebrew solar systems. So far, it looks like I'll need a panel on the roof, a solar charge controller, a deep-cycle marine battery and a DC-to-AC power inverter. Now, I need to fine-tune the power ratings for the various components and start learning about prices and availability of these parts. Stay tuned.

I'd love to hear from readers who have dabbled in solar power!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

From the Ironic Foot-In-Mouth Department

I was on a bicycle ride with one of the large regional bike clubs today. This is an annual event (The Flattest Century in the East) that attracts hundreds of riders to routes ranging from 25 to 100 miles through beautiful countryside in southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island.

A small group of us from our local club rode together (We did a 68-mile route.) including three tandems (Bicycles built for two.). Someone asked if my wife and I ever rode a tandem (My wife is an excellent cyclist.), and I said: "No, she can't even let me drive the car without constant comment , I can only imagine how she'd be on the back of a tandem. Maybe it would work if I rode in back because I'm better at biting my tongue." (Hey, I'm a pretty good driver, but then, I guess I'd be the last to know.)

We then had a discussion about how it's almost always the male partner that's the pilot (Rides up front and does the steering, braking and shifting.) while the female half of the team is the stoker (Rides in back and mostly just pedals, but can also ride hands-free to help with maps, cell phones, etc.). Just then, we passed a tandem that did, indeed, have a woman as pilot, and as we went by, I yelled out "Hey, there's a woman on the front!"

Later in the day after we finished riding and were enjoying a little tailgate party, my riding buddy that pilots the bike he and his wife share looked out over the parking lot where other riders were streaming in. He said, "You know that guy that was on the back of that tandem? He's blind."

Monday, September 1, 2008

Mower Update

My good friend and most loyal blog reader Wayne saw my post about the crummy push mower I gave up on and gave me one of his to try. (Thanks, Wayne!) This is an American (brand name) mower and it seems to work much better than the imported toy I threw away. This one is heavier, wider and has larger diameter wheels. The reel and cutting bar seem much more solid.

I used it for the first time today and, while not as clean-cutting as my power rotary mower, it does a pretty good job. This time of year, when it's warm and dry, the lawn doesn't grow much and tends to get spotty as different weeds respond differently to the weather and the lawn grasses slow in growth. So, even the most effective mower won't make the lawn look great. I'm finding these manual mowers have a tendency to push some grass blades over without cutting them, leaving an unsightly stubble that make the effort feel a little futile. Also, since I'm low on the learning curve, I don't know how sharp or dull this used mower is. A quick search on the web yielded a couple of sites that provide instructions on how to sharpen a manual reel mower. It seems fairly easy to do, so I'll give it a shot, probably before next mowing season.

This exploration of alternative lawn care may be suffering from artificially elevated expectations. Decades of high-input industrial lawn care has altered our view about what a lawn should look like. Thanks to advertising and social pressure, we all have come desire lawns that look like the Fenway Park outfield. Maybe even the best I can hope for with a push mower, no watering and minimal chemical inputs will look a little ragged. Maybe I should just fence in the yard and get a goat.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Godspeed My Little Friends

The chimney swifts are gone. Every year, they arrive from the south on about May 1st and they leave about September 1st. They spend the summer patrolling the sky over our house, mostly to the west, swooping and zooming, usually in formations of two or three. I love to sit on the deck and watch their joyful flight.

This year, I remembered to start watching the sky in late August, trying to mark their final day. On August 28th I saw a lone swift fly over and I haven't seen one since.

I wish them a safe journey and look forward to their return next spring. I'll watch their northbound progress on

It's with a little sadness that I see them go. It's just one more reminder that the summer is slipping away.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Trying To Do The Right Thing

Does this happen to anyone but me? I come up with great ideas and noble intentions all the time, but being an inveterate procrastinator, my great plans often fall by the wayside, unrealized. In spite of myself, every once in a while, I actually get my act together long enough to follow through on one of my brainstorms, only to have my effort thwarted by some unforeseen roadblock. At times, it feels like the story of my life.

We have a pretty small in-town suburban lot and only a fraction of that is in lawn. I often ponder the wasteful folly of big suburban lawns with the inputs of energy, water and chemicals they demand. Wanting my actions to be more consistent with my beliefs, if I have to have a lawn at all, I thought it would be appropriate and sensible to get a manual push mower.

I used a $100 gift certificate to a garden supply catalog store from my generous sister to buy a Ginge Comfort 38 mower. To be blunt, it's a piece of crap. It simply would not neatly cut the grass. Even after three or four passes, the lawn looked ragged and unkempt. Now, I'm pretty handy and not afraid of a little physical effort, but no amount of tinkering with blade settings or vigorous pushing would cut the grass neatly and efficiently.

The mower sat unused in my shed for a couple of years, a constant reminder of yet another personal failure. Last week, I took it out for one last try, only to find two different plastic parts on the mower broken. I unceremoniously tossed it on my pile of scrap metal. At least it felt good to bring closure to another failed enterprise.

I'd love to hear from a reader that can recommend a quality, satisfying push mower.

On the bright side, one of my little plans is literally bearing fruit. I had an interest in gardening years ago, but the yield never seemed worth the investment. This year, I dipped my toe back in. I filled four 5-gallon buckets with compost, planted Sweet 100 tomato seedlings and put the buckets on the deck. Now, in mid-August, we have a nice cupful of ripe, sweet, cherry tomatoes for every salad.

Every once in a while, even a blind hog finds an acorn.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Greetings from the Green Mountain State

This week I find myself in Burlington, Vermont. My wife is at a conference, so I sit alone in a motel room with a slow internet connection drinking cheap zin from a plastic cup.

This trip is bittersweet. The last time I was here was about 32 years ago. It was my first summer of research for my masters in forest soil science. I spent several weeks here digging soil pits and measuring trees along the Winooski River. I think back on those days and just shake my head. So much energy, work and enthusiasm; so little guidance and support. I know what it is to carry disappointment around.

While I on the subject of disappointment, when I first learned that we would be spending a few days at the University of Vermont, among the fist things that popped into my head were memories of the wonderful dairy bar at UVM. During that summer in 1976, I found every excuse possible to visit campus so I could get ice cream at the shop that, as I recall, was a mini-enterprise run by dairy science students. They milked the cows, made the ice cream and other wonderful dairy products, and ran the store. (At least in my idealized memory students did all those things, learning valuable skills along the way.) When I searched the web for direction to the shop, I learned instead that the shop was closed in 1995 when the building that housed it was torn down. It seems, the dairy bar was never reopened in a new location.

In my cynical, conspiracy-theory-prone brain, I saw local heroes Ben and Jerry giving a big donation to support the establishment of one of their shops in the new student center on the condition that the dairy bar not be reopened. More likely, no one on the staff wanted the hassle of running the store when it was easier to let a mega-corporation do it in return for some profits that could be exported to headquarters. Students don't want to learn that stuff any more anyway.

A little mild melancholy aside, we're having a great time. Burlington has a reputation of being a green, livable, walkable, bikeable city, and that seems true enough. The downtown is a fun mix of local color and national chain stores. Walkers and bikes are everywhere and a significant shopping street is for pedestrians only. From many places one can enjoy views of sea-like Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west.

But then, this is August. Biking probably isn't quite so much fun in January. I've also been reminded of another little problem that plagued me three decades ago: mosquitoes. With the lake, the river and it's wetlands and all kinds of ponds, puddles, swamps and bogs everywhere, this place has more mosquitoes than any place I've been - with the possible exception of Wisconsin. (I've never been to the arctic.) I recall how, when I was studying my floodplain soil pits so many years ago, one of the primary tasks of my assistant was to constantly swat my back with fern fronds to keep the bugs at bay.

So far, we've taken two wonderful bike rides. The first went in a big loop up north along Lake Champlain and a few of the big bays. We even crossed the river within sight of one of my old research areas. There are some great bike paths and a local cycling club (Local Motion) even runs a bicycle ferry service to shuttle cyclists across a cut in an old railroad causeway that now serves as a bike path. It looks like the old causeway was built on waste from marble quarries and a couple of artists have used the white rock as a stony medium; one painting a landscape and the other carving a huge jumping salmon.

Our other ride took us south to Shelburne Farms. This is a 1400-acre farm, historic site and environmental education center. For a few bucks, tourists can walk the grounds and imagine what the landscape used to look like. It's certainly beautiful, but obviously few working farms from the 19th century had the benefit of Frederick Law Olmsted doing the landscaping and Robert H. Robertson doing the building. This farm is more a museum than a working agricultural enterprise. I imagine more of its income comes from the exclusive inn on the property, tourist dollars and donations than comes from the delicious cheddar cheese they produce on site.

It's a good thing there are museums like this because the fabled Vermont landscape is fast disappearing under the blades of bulldozers. As we pedaled south of Burlington, we saw parcel after parcel of recently-farmed land being turned into subdivisions, condos and apartment complexes. I can't help but smirk and sneer as I see how often these developments are named after the things they have destroyed, with names like "Lakeview Farms." Of course now, the only farmer is the Orkin Man, and soon enough the only view will be of the three garage doors of the new mini-mansion across the street.

I can't help but think that the day will come when we wish that we could have those farms back and that a few more kids had worked at the dairy bar.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Even Starbux

No, it was not a nightmare. I was walking along Route 17 in Paramus, New Jersey. This is what a world looks like when people can imagine no life not totally ruled by the automobile. There are no sidewalks. This is not a limited access highway, but Jersey barriers separate northbound from southbound lanes and a pedestrian would literally risk life and limb to cross the road. To get to the other side, there is no choice but to get in the car and drive who-knows-how-far to the next overpass to reverse direction and then drive back.

On a short morning stroll to see what was around, what should I find but a Starbucks. A couple of doors down from the "Romantic Depot" porn shop and next to the plumbing supply warehouse was a recent incarnation of the once-thought-to-be-hip Seattle coffee cafe. Other than the sign outside and a hint of slightly nicer than average fixtures inside, there was nothing to differentiate this coffee outlet from a Dunkin Donuts or a McDonalds.

We have a Starbucks back home in Sharon, Massachusetts. It has become the focal point of our little town center. Friends rendezvous there and bicyclists begin and end rides there. Would-be high school hipsters hang out there. Business people meet there. Naturally, I would prefer some kind of funky locally-owned cafe, but for our struggling town center, a Starbucks is pretty cool.

Now, after about seven years, we get the news that the bean counters at headquarters are closing our Starbucks. There are two newer outlets nearby down on Route 1 (Our version of Route 17) that apparently get more business because automobile access is much better that will remain open.

Maybe I'm prone to romantic notions (In addition to those catered to by the likes of places like the Romantic Depot.), but I liked to think of Starbucks as the kind of place that would help build a community, a place for people who cared about their hometowns, a place for people to discuss the important issues of the day and form warm personal relationships. In my heart, I knew better. Starbucks is just another mega-corporation selling an illusion and focusing on the bottom line. If that means drive-up windows in Paramus, so be it.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Damned if you do...

A front-page article in today's Wall Street Journal tells us that Americans are driving less for the first time in about forever. That's the good news. Because the federal gas tax is a fixed price per gallon (18.4 cents a gallon) and not a percentage, as we drive less, money flowing into the Highway Trust Fund decreases. This means we have less money to repair our existing roads and bridges, to build new ones and to invest in public transit.

Naturally, as with everything in America, the Highway Trust Fund is running at a huge deficit. Any money spent from the fund on sensible public transportation would further decrease resources available for more public transportation, so this system has a built-in disincentive to conserve.

No politician without self-destruction fantasies would propose or endorse an increase in the gas tax. Indeed, John McCain got behind the push for a gas tax holiday. At least Barack Obama had enough sense and courage to point out the folly of that idea.

Watch as out wizards in Washington look for new sources of funding for our highways. They will raise taxes on other things so even more of our dwindling wealth goes into propping up the Happy Motoring lifestyle.

Not long after 9/11 when all those cute magnetic decals were appearing on cars I saw a wonderful political cartoon in the paper. An SUV owner was pumping gas. A magnetic ribbon on the vehicle said "Support Our Troops." Another on the gas pump said "Fund Our Enemies."

The gas tax should reflect the true cost of driving and be structured in a way that encourages conservation and transportation innovation. We have to stop sending more and more of our wealth to those who hate us. We must not further drain the life blood from America to prop up a lifestyle that has no future.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Pathetic Irony

I was watching the opening stage of the Tour de France bicycle race on the cable sports network "Versus" today. One of the ads was for "Auto Zone" car parts stores. It shows a young teenager riding down a dusty road on his bicycle. He comes upon an old junk car by the side of the road that has a cardboard sign stating "If you can fix her, she's yours." He spends the rest of the summer riding his bike back and forth to the Auto Zone store to gets parts for this shitbox. Finally, at the end of the ad he has the junker running and he states, "At least now when I have to go to Auto Zone, it won't be on my bicycle!"

This commercial makes me so sad for two reasons. First, who the heck at this channel matches up commercials with the programming? I mean, come on, people are tuning in specifically to watch the greatest bicycle race in the world (You can be pretty darn sure not many of us will stick around to watch "Tap Out" cage fighting and PBR bull riding!) and they play an ad with the punch line: "At least I won't be on a bike." I wonder if anyone at Versus or Auto Zone saw the ironic disconnect in that.

Obviously, the second reason this makes me sad is the way they perpetuate the typical American attitude that only kids and losers get stuck riding bicycles. It's better to cruise around in a broken-down, worn-out, junky gas hog than it is to ride a bike. Hello! Gas is at four bucks a gallon and heading up. People are dying in Iraq. We're getting ready to drill in National Wildlife Refuges. We're all getting fat, sick and lazy. Can you idiots on Madison Avenue wake up, please?

Friday, July 4, 2008

This Could Get Nasty

I was riding my bicycle on a bunch of work-related errands yesterday. I was in a small shopping plaza, riding down the strip of stores along the edge of the fire lane out front. A guy in a dirty Mercedes SUV zoomed up and drove right behind me getting closer and closer. He was approaching so rapidly and closely that I felt compelled to put out my left hand to signal my intention to pull to the sidewalk in from of the stores. As he passed within just a few feet of me he yelled something at me about "Why didn't you tell me what you were doing?" I yelled back "That's what the hand signal was for!" Now this was a quiet little parking lot on a bright sunny morning. There was plenty of room for him to drive around me or simply slow down. As he pulled over to park (illegally in the fire lane) I heard him squabbling with a woman in the car and saying something about "I'll wrap that damn bicycle around his neck." This guy was clearly just fundamentally annoyed that a bicycle should in any way disrupt his happy motoring.

This is the sort of thing that would have upset me when I was younger, but now I just find it amazing. Every now and then I encounter behavior that is irrational and bewildering. It would be amusing if it wasn't so troubling. This episode got me to thinking. I fear that, as times get harder, we will see more and more selfish and anti-social behavior as people squabble over the scraps.

Just yesterday, I heard a story about people stealing manhole covers (Below-the-street utility worker access hole covers, if you prefer.) for their value as scrap metal. Can you imagine, opening a hole in the road that could lead to serious damage and even death for a couple of bucks? Stories about thieves stripping copper pipes from basements and copper roofs from churches are common. In some places, motorists are puncturing the gas tanks of their neighbor's cars to let the fuel drain into cans.

As more people start feeling angry, confused, cheated, fearful or neglected as they witness their American dreams crumbling around them, I worry that we will see more and more bad behavior.

Let's stick together people! We're all in this together.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Two Ways To End the War

Here's another letter I sent to the Globe. It was prompted by columns by two of their regular columnists:

In his response to Alex’s mom in (“Answering Alex’s Mom”, June 25), Jeff Jacoby’s “John McCain” answered as only a politician running for national office could. He said how the war is actually going quite well and he didn’t mean that Americans would by actually fighting and dying there for a hundred years, but only babysitting the fledgling democracy.

What he couldn’t tell Alex’s mom is the truth. The truth is that if we were drafting the kids of white, affluent, upwardly-mobile, educated parents like Alex’s mom, this war would be over in about a week. Most of us go through the day without giving the war a thought. Why? Because the burden is inequitably borne by the children of those with little voice and few options. The rest of us get to worry about getting our kids into the very best schools and whether or not high fuel prices will affect our summer vacation plans.

Speaking of fuel prices, Derrick Jackson (“Big Oil and the War in Iraq,” June 24) tells us that, thanks to the sacrifice of those brave American kids, Iraq is finally safe enough for big oil companies to line up to get their hands on Iraqi oil. We whine about four dollar gasoline, but if the price at the pump included that portion of our military budget that is aimed at securing current and future oil supplies for all those crude oil cronies, the uproar to end this war would be deafening.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Malthus Was Only Postponed

Here's a letter I sent to the Boston Globe in response to an opinion piece stating that a global decline in birth rates will lead to woe for future generations. I think we're in for a world of trouble, but too few people is not at the top of my list of concerns. It was published in the June 21, 2008 Boston Globe.

Jeff Jacoby refers to a Malthusian fallacy (The coming population bust, Boston Globe, June 18) and suggests that the world is not overpopulated by humans. The crises of starvation, disease and a destroyed environment that Malthus predicted have not been canceled but merely postponed by the unforeseen discovery of fossil fuel. By using oil and natural gas to power machines, pump water and manufacture fertilizer, we have expanded food production way beyond what we could produce by organic, muscle-powered agriculture alone. When the oil runs out - as it inevitably must - we may well discover that there are, indeed, too many people on this small globe.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Praise For ZBA

Here's a letter I wrote to our little town newspaper about a proposed shopping mall in town that will destroy many acres of mature forest adjacent to a cranberry bog. I just e-mailed it in and, just as letters to my local representatives go unanswered, I suspect this will go unprinted, so I put it here:

I applaud the ZBA for sticking to its guns on requiring the developer of Sharon Commons to provide an irrevocable letter of credit before denuding many acres of forest in Sharon. We only have to look at a recent project on North Main Street to see what we are left with after the bulldozers scrape away thousands of years of natural and human history for yet another ill-conceived project.

Look around. Walpole Mall is expanding. Patriot Place in Foxboro is building a moonscape of asphalt and big-box stores. A new mall just opened in Mansfield. There are plans for a mega-development in Westwood. Store after store have just opened in Stoughton and Avon. Who on Earth is going to patronize all these malls? The chances of another mall in Sharon thriving are slim indeed.

The age of happy motoring to the mall is OVER. Gas just hit four bucks a gallon and the price of all energy has nowhere to go but up. We need developers with a new vision for a new century. We need communities where people can live, work and shop without constantly hopping into the car. We need architecture that lifts the spirit and is built for the ages, not just more flat-topped boxes with fake stucco exteriors and high fossil fuel inputs. We need community-based businesses, not just more giant corporate parasites who suck wealth from our home town by selling more of the same imported junk.

Sweeping changes to the "non-negotiable" American lifestyle are being negotiated right now by forces largely beyond our control. We'd better take a place at the table before it's too late.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Unfettered Polygamy

I walked by a TV today and a story about the recent raid on a polygamist community in Texas was on. It made me think how in the Long Emergency, after gasoline has become very scarce, there will likely be lots of communities doing odd things out in the boondocks. Law enforcement authorities will no longer have the resources to patrol and investigate out in the vast backcountry of places like West Texas and Utah. Charismatic leaders of all kinds will be able to establish compounds and communities and no one will bother them. Lets hope there is more good than evil among these leaders.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Glowing in the Dark

Signs of the impending Long Emergency are everywhere I look. In the Boston Globe this morning, two articles caught my eye.

In one story it was reported that mining claims for uranium have increased exponentially in the past few years as the price of uranium has skyrocketed. Most claims are in the western U.S., particularly around the Grand Canyon National Park. Needless to say, environmentalists are concerned, but as threats to the American Lifestyle increase quaint notions like environmental protection will be brushed aside. (Watch as they authorize drilling in ANWR in the next few years.) As the oil runs out, our reliance on nuclear power can only increase.

In another piece, we learn that Amish salvage stores are doing a booming business. These little shops in Amish communities in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana sell items such as packaged food and medicines that have been discarded by big stores because of damage or expired use-by dates. Americans from all walks of life are looking for ways to tighten their belts as energy prices go up and home values fall. Heaven knows, we throw away enough stuff in this society and I like to think that some of it is getting used by somebody. It has also occurred to me that cultures such as the Amish and Mennonites may have a lot to teach the rest of us about how to survive and thrive in a world without fossil fuel. Come to think of it, when the stuff really hits the fan, it might not be a bad idea to settle near some of these folks and watch how they tie their shoes.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

They're Baaaack!

The chimney swifts have returned to the skies over my house. Every year, they arrive on about May 1st and can be seen every day swooping and zooming in formation, happily chattering all the while. They were a little late this year, and I wonder if they were delayed by bad weather this past weekend. All summer, they are the background music on my backyard soundtrack and then, just as suddenly as they arrived, the disappear on about September 1st. I worry that all the chimney caps that are getting installed around here these days may reduce the number of potential nesting sites, but so far, I can almost set my calendar by their comings and goings.

Check out ChineySwifts.Org to see an interactive map of the swifts' northward migration. Submit the date of your first swift sighting . Be sure to look for the mark in eastern Massachusetts!

I stole an hour to have breakfast on Moose Hill this morning. It was a perfect clear, warm, calm May morning and I wanted to see and hear some new arrivals. I heard my first ovenbird and saw catbirds, tree swallows, a pair of blackburnian warblers and a black and white warbler. A couple of other birders with the same idea were kind enough to help me spot and identify some of the tiny creatures so high up in tall trees. The orioles are back, too. I saw my first one yesterday and heard and saw a few more today.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

More Pandering

A few weeks ago, John McCain proposed a gas-tax holiday for the summer driving (read voting) season. It didn't take long for the desperate Hillary Clinton to jump on the bandwagon to prove just how in touch with the common people she is. Barack Obama had the political courage to to call the proposal a "gimmick."

Meanwhile, back at the White House, George Bush proudly proclaimed that he's always been an "ethanol man." What a surprise. Of course a scheme that won't work (All the energy inputs to produce ethanol would be nearly as great as - or greater than - the energy produced.) and that has all kinds of nasty unintended consequences (Like escalating food prices.) would be favored by this twisted man as long as it makes him look tough and decisive and it provides big tax subsidies for his big-corporation buddies. Gee, that sounds a lot like the Iraq war.

We are in deeps weeds, people. The oil is running out and there are no technological fixes on the horizon. Extreme conservation is the only measure within our grasp that will lessen the blow. The American people will not see the wisdom and necessity of this on their own and very few public figures will have the spine to provide the needed leadership. Rather than a tax holiday, we need HIGHER gas taxes to stimulate price-driven conservation efforts with the revenue committed to developing alternative energy systems and further conservation.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Blink And Miss It

We returned from our annual trip to Arizona on Monday. I was gone most of the last half of April and was not happy about missing the transition into full-blown Spring. I returned to find flowers in bloom and leaves busting their buds. Work and weather have conspired to keep me from spending any significant time on Moose Hill, but I did get to drive over a couple of times, taking the scenic route while running errands. This morning, I parked in the visitor center lot long enough to take a short walk down the Vernal Pool Trail beyond the old home site, through the old wall and into the white pine forest. The weather was cool and drizmy and the light was bad, but I wanted to see just one bird of the forest.

I was a little surprised at how quiet the forest was on the second of May and I heard and saw little for the first five minutes. Finally a blue jay broke the ice and a hairy woodpecker joined in with a healthy tapping high in the trees. Then, off through the oaks, a movement near the forest floor caught my eye and a hermit thrush, complete with rufous tail, was moving through the undergrowth. The bird was silent but I hope to hear its song soon so I can contrast it with the well-known wood thrush ee-o-lay flute-like call. Seeing a hermit thrush after only a few minutes in the woods was enough to brighten even a dreary morning so I headed back to the car.

Back at the little field by the parking lot I got a good look at a few chipping sparrows. It looks like it may be a good year for them. I've been seeing and hearing them everywhere since I've been home.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Democracy Is Dead

Democracy is dead. In the past few weeks, I've written e-mails to some of my reps. I don't expect detailed replies, but I don't get any kind of acknowledgment, even from my local state senator or representative. As individual voters, all we can hope for is ridiculous, simple-minded pandering, but without big bucks to buy politicians our voices will never be heard. The revolution will come, but too late.

Pathetic Pandering

So, John McCain wants to give us a gas tax holiday from Memorial Day to Labor day, the so-called 'driving season.' Brilliant. It will cost $10 billion to a budget that is already putting us into debt for the rest of our lives and will encourage even more squandering of irreplaceable fossil fuel; fuel that could ease the lives of our children and grandchildren. I'm inclined to believe that gas prices need to be higher, not lower.

Oil imports fund or worst enemies (How come no one ever talks about the fact that most of the 9-11 hijackers were Saudi?). We need to get real about fossil fuel. It is running out, probably sooner than we imagine, and we need to use it as wisely as possible. That means no more SUVs, no more 100-mile commutes and no more NASCAR. Only higher prices will get clueless Americans to conserve. A higher gas tax will raise the price and the proceeds should be used to develop further energy conservation and alternatives.

First Thrush

I saw my first thrush of the year today. I went for a morning jog up Moose Hill with a friend. I've found that jogging on trails is easier on the old joints, so we took the Vernal Pool Trail to the old Everett Street and ran along the power line. Soon after we ducted into the woods I spotted a thrush, possibly a hermit thrush. I look forward to hearing thier sweet melodies in the forest soon.

But, Why?

What the heck is this? Another blog? Well, no, not exactly.

My main blog is the Moose Hill Journal, but I thought it would be fun and helpful to have a place where I can record brief notes, observations, thoughts and even rants that don't really fit the format that has evolved at the Journal. In part, this will serve as a notebook where I can post items I want to remember or let marinate until I can assemble a full-fledged Journal post.

I anticipate that posts here will tend to be short and more frequent than in the Journal. Some of the items or thoughts here may well work their way into Journal posts, but many will not. Many of these posts will be observations about nature, others will be ruminations on news items, politics or social trends. As always, comments and e-mails are welcome.