Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Happy Birthday Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó


In 1966, Mao swam the Yangtze River with thousands of people, burnishing his image which age and error had tarnished. My friend Neil said all the swimmers were in formation spelling out an insult (you guess which one a teenage weisenheimer would have used) in Chinese. So the Fourth of July comes on September 30, in the Chinese calendar, and today is the sixtieth one, the anniversary of the rebirth of non-colonial China. The leader of the revolution that formed the People’s Republic of China was Mao Zedong.

Mao was an educated man, although he never became fluent in Mandarin, born about the same time as Georgia O’Keefe, Humphrey Bogart, and my maternal grandparents. He became a Communist around 1920, and rose and consolidated power, not scrupling at murder or torture, within the party, warring for control of the China with the Nationalist or Kuomintang Party, led by Chiang Kai-Shek even while fighting to expel the Japanese during World War II. He was an autocrat and tyrant, but must have believed in the rights of common people on some level.

Mao’s naivete and recklessness manifested itself most violently in two events that each lingered over several years, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.

The Great Leap Forward was a period from 1958 to 1961, in which the People’s Republic tried to increase steel and grain production to world class levels, using backyard smelters to recycle tools into pig iron, and experimental, mistaken farming techniques to boost agricultural yield. In the course of the Great Leap, non-engineers and non-agronomists like Mao made planning decisions, farmers were diverted from fields to steel mills that had no hope of turning out good steel, sparrows populations were exterminated, allowing locusts to devastate crops, officials lied about yields, China exported what it needed to eat to save Mao’s face, and ten to twenty-five million died.

Mao originated the Cultural Revolution in a political struggle with Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. After the disastrous Great Leap Forward, Liu, the Republic’s Chairman, and Deng, the General Secretary of the government bureaucracy, instituted pragmatic reforms, and put Mao out to pasture. Mao’s comeback was directed at Liu and Deng, and was a real thought-police kind of operation, aimed at purity in politics, economics, ideas, and organization. Reformers and intellectuals were portrayed as capitalists and bourgeois. Even in his forced retirement, Mao was a political figurehead, and a popular character. While the baby boom generation in places like France, Czechoslovakia, and the United States followed its own rebellious and independent noses, Mao was able to harness the Chinese manifestation to his ends.

The Red Guards were young civilians who dedicated themselves to preserving the Communist Revolution. They meant to root out old capitalism, religion, Confucianism, and old ideas customs habits and culture. If you were educated, and the Revolution was new, you were educated in what they wanted to root. They smashed antiquities, and sent intellectuals to the country to hoe turnips and get re-educated.

Mao was an evil doofus.

The fact that someone’s attempts at righting a wrong is cruel perverse or corrupt, does not mean there’s no problem, or discredit other tries at fixing things.

It wasn’t only Mao’s face that was at stake with the Great Leap, China was alternately vilified and condescended to by the capitalist world. Millions had died by famine less than twenty years before the Great Leap. China had been victimized by colonists including the British -- who had used military force to open Chinese markets to opium within living memory -- and the Japanese. Mao believed that it would be necessary to establish a certain level of wealth before true reform would be possible. The Great Leap Forward can also be seen as the beginning of women’s rights in China, bringing an end to child marriage and foot binding as well as allowing women to sue for divorce. How meaningful and inspiring it would have been to be one of the team of amateurs who levered a peasant backwater to world prominence. Would that the plan came from somebody with a clue, but we're familiar here with people who try to enforce what they'd like to be true.

The Cultural Revolution raised at least one question that still lingers: “How many peasant years does it take to educate one intellectual?” China needed educated people, engineers, doctors, even lawyers, in order to industrialize. Coming out of poverty and colonization, a huge population concentrated on scant productive land, China bought the professionals' educations with toil. Sweat equity. The perspirers and their supporters naturally saw any sense of entitlement among the educated as a foreshortened view of the arrangement.

For our part, anti-Communism, xenophobia, and knee-jerk libertarianism blinded the children of capitalism to anything but China's failure and provincialism. Americans who waved Mao's little red book around were branded as nuts, and often were. What we -- or our parents -- missed were China's just refusal of foreign exploitation, the real physical and social problems it was trying to solve, and the kernel of wisdom that the insanity hid.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Planting A Contender

This is the new Contender peach, outlined against the post hole digger, ready to be planted. There were a couple of Reliance peaches, planted a year ago in May. Now there’s one. The mice girdled them last winter, and one died. We ordered the Contender to replace it.

We thought we’d lost the other. Then a new shoot sprouted below the gnaw marks. It’s close to, but above the graft between the Reliance and the rootstock. These are dwarf trees, and the way that the nurseries dwarf them is to take a branch from the tree they want, and graft it to the roots of some small, decorative tree, an undistinguished crabapple, say, that grows to the size they want. If the new shoot were coming from the roots , we wouldn’t be interested, but it is coming out of the wood of the tree we want. I spent the summer looking at it and saying things like, “It looks like it’s coming out of the peach, but I don’t know.”

The tree was shipped potted and live. It came surrounded by polystyrene peanuts in a cardboard box. It was a relief to see the leaves and know the resurrected Reliance is really a peach. It was raining gently while I planted, but I gave the roots a good soaking with the hose, and mulched with cardboard and wood chips the next day.

Behind the tree and its Blackeyed Susan friends, are -- left to right -- rhubarb, asparagus planted with clover, basil, pole beans, the tops of the tomato stakes, carrots, hops, dinosaur kale, Beacon apple branches, compost, marigolds, shell beans, more compost. The hanging pot is a weed we originally thought was a strawberry, and let grow to see what would happen.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mazda 323 & The Mad Max Body Shop


1991 Mazda 323 Pictures









Turn Signal Part 2: text and more pictures






Replacing a front turn-signal assembly on a 1991 Mazda 323 with a badly damaged front end.

We drive a 1991 Mazda 323. We’ve had it since 2004, and as you can see, it’s a subcompact, and somewhat distressed. It had been in a collision, and we bought it for five hundred dollars from the driver who had been in the collision. We have purchased tires, CV joint replacement, and brake and muffler work.

I’d always heard cars like this called “beaters,” but around Minneapolis, they’re called “winter beaters.” I don’t know whether that means winter’s all the longer they’re supposed to last, or that you buy them to get you through the months when waiting at bus stops is painful. Cars like this are expedients, and we have found it cheaper to drive ours locally, and rent or take public transportation when we travel.

We lost the driver’s side turn-signal assembly a week ago on Olson Memorial Highway

Picture #1 -- This is the car. It ain't quite Mad Max’s Pursuit Special, but some of his neighbors would be proud. So would the Joads’ neighbors, or the Yokums’, or the Clampetts’. Note the damage, the tools and foil tape on top, and the new assembly. (The assembly, a single molded bubble that includes the lens and the reflector was used -- about ninety bucks at O’Reilly’s. If I’d been thinking, I would have toured the salvage yards around here and saved half of that, or taped on some clear amber plastic and saved even more. Another possibility would have been to screw entirely new fixtures onto the bumper, making the car look even more post-apocalyptic.).

Picture #2 -- The corner in question and the assembly. Note the tape, still sticking, from an earlier repair of mine, and the hanging turn-signal bulb. The gadget with the socket was broken, so it won’t just latch on to the opening in the assembly.

Picture #3 -- This is a repair by the earlier owner. He used sheet-metal screws to fasten a metal strap between the plastic headlamp assembly and the bumper. The grille in front of the bumper was lost in the wreck.

Picture #4 -- This is the kit I put together to install the assembly. Not much to it: the part itself, wire, foil tape, needle-nose pliers with side cutters, small Phillips-head screwdriver. The foil tape is something I learned about when I was specing weatherization for the DOE fifteen years ago. It’s from the Venture Tape company, and called “Foil Insulation Tape,” just foil and adhesive, the same width as duct tape, but longer-sticking, and able to stand up to cold and heat better. It’d be nice if it were a composite instead of foil. That way it would tear less easily and stick longer than duct tape.

Picture #5 -- Note the two flat, extruded hooks near the painted numbers on the right, and the tubes for the screws on the left. The previous assembly was screwed down, but the collision destroyed the complemetary part for the hooks. I had tried to compensate for that absence with tape, before, but eventually the tape tore. The two loose items at the bottom are the screws still in the tubes torn from the old assembly.

Picture #6 -- Here’s the whole lamp dangling. You can see the bulb in the assembly. I tore several narrow strips of foil tape and used them to fasten bulb and assembly.

Picture #7 -- I’m pointing to one of two vinyl receptacles for the screws. If I couldn’t use the screws, I would have threaded wire through the screw tubes in the assembly and the holes where the square vinyl gadgets are.

Picture #8 -- Looking at the hook-end of the screwed-in assembly. Since there are no tabs for the hooks, I’ve threaded a loop of wire to the bottom hook from the nearest thing I could use as an achor. Next, I’ll thread one to the upper hook.

Picture #9 -- The other end of the wire. This threaded stud was originally part of what held the headlamp. Any anchor in a storm.

Picture #10 -- The working turn signal.

So what’s the Blue Book price for this prestigious automobile, ten cents? The other side of the argument is that there’s an energy cost to manufacturing as well as running a car, and this is a piece of working capital. Bumper sticker slogans: “What the Heck, It Runs,” and “Don’t Laugh, It’s Paid For.” We use it as a mini-truck, keeping the back seat folded down and throwing woodchips, tools, and our farmers’ market stand in through the rear hatch.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Violence Abroad And In America

Lots of influences brewing at breakfast today. Barbara made an out-of-character, uncharitable comment about some congressional blowhard on the radio. I turned the radio off, because I’d rather listen to her anyway. No comment about my calling Republicans names yesterday, but she did quote me to myself, something I don’t remember writing, but I’ll take credit anyway: “I’d like to think my government's got my back.” (Translation: The libertarian point of view is that government’s role should be limited to protecting citizens so we can build wealth. If that is the case, we should recognize that there are complexities of biological, ecological, chemical, and thermal cycles that weren’t known to our eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ancestors, and that modern systems understanding of world economy and polity reveal aggressions and thefts that governments don’t protect genuine wealth makers against.)

Influence: Milwaukee urban farmer, and MacArthur Foundation Genius Award winner, Will Allen appeared in an interview in Thursday’s Star Tribune. Allen, of Growing Power, was in town at the behest of the Women’s Environmental Institute and Little Earth of United Tribes, to organize a training institute.

Influence: Review, in the August Harper’s Magazine, of Richard J. Evans’ The Third Reich at War. Everything you know about Nazis? Square it -- cube it -- and you might get some idea of how completely and violently nuts an educated, cultured, modern society can get. (And this was on the good side of peak oil [go to the link and scroll down to the M. King Hubbert quote just below the ad for the cookbook].)

Influence: Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville. A big, third-ring-suburban, supermarket-style food co-op, but with ambitions of providing healthy food, cultivating community and diversity, and building a sustainable economy. By the way, we know them because Barsy’s Almonds has been pursuing them, and they have begun to carry Smokies.

Influence: The Life After, an article by Phillip Gourevitch in the May 4 New Yorker, about Rwanda’s enforced and bitter recovery from the 1994 genocide of around eight hundred thousand Tutsis by members of the Hutu tribe (Rwandan population is estimated to be just shy of ten million).

Influence: Latin American “death squads.”

Influence: Part-time census worker, Bill Sparkman, found hanged near a cemetery in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest. Somebody had scrawled the word “fed” on Sparkman’s chest. (Comment: Plural, non-standard name for cowards as well as women’s genitals, modified by vulgar gerund.)

Influence: The violence in Darfur, between farmers and nomadic herders who had coexisted prior to the current, ostensibly carbon-related, drought.

I said that the important factor in reactionary violence is relative wealth, rather than absolute wealth. Envy, reduced means, or perceived threat precipitates violence in situations short of starvation’s desperation.

Barbara said that objectifying women was the important factor, that if you oppress half your population, you acquire the habit of seeing people as less than human, therefore fair game. I had a hard time catching on, thinking that she was somehow saying that the Rwandan violence had been against women, maybe because she knew -- say -- that the Hutus are patriarchal and the Tutsis matriarchal (not the case, as far as we know, but she’s always turning up weird little nuggets of trivia, and I’m saying, “How did you know that?”). I think what she was doing was recognizing African machismo and connecting it to the Latin version. But would Germany’s Dagwood and Blondie version of sexism, seventy years ago, have been enough to allow the Holocaust?

And are we objectifying women, here and now, to the extent that it hanged Bill Sparkman (or killed Matthew Shepard)? And is that enough to bring about the violence that Barbara and I were implicitly speculating still waits in our wings? The Third Reich shows that widespread political violence is not limited to less absolutely privileged societies.

Or to non-Aryans, but sweet reason doesn’t seem to be highly valued among the reactionary. That’s why Will Allen and Valley Natural Foods made it into the conversation. Allen’s Growing Power demonstrates a strategy for creating wealth in an era of declining resources, and he’s spreading it among the urban poor, in Milwaukee, here, and in Chicago. Valley Natural Foods is planting the seed among privileged suburbanites, people who don’t recognize their privilege, or display an understanding of the complex phenomena and “men behind the curtain” that truly are threatening their wealth. Beyond some threshold of diminished circumstance, there will be blood.

Once again, Buckminster Fuller wrote to a young admirer, “The things to do are: the things that need doing: that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done.” People go to the developing world to help them feed themselves and grow economies. It’s being done, but two thirds of the world's population is poorer than the poorest Americans. Will Allen is taking very advanced food production to America’s forgotten. There should be more of him. Next stop: appropriate technology to the people who don’t know it but are waiting to be forgotten. That's probably the key to helping the rest as well as keeping the privileged peaceful.

I stole today's illustration from Beto Hernandez from Chapter Two of his story, Poison River, in the July, 1989, Love & Rockets. The Hernandez Brothers got me reading comics, late in my fourth decade.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

& The State's Wannabe #1 Global Warming Denier

One of the rules I’ve given myself in beginning this blog is “no profanity, blasphemy, etc.” No cussing. I’ve bent that rule at least once in a quote, but today going to break it.

I wonder if we could use frequency of four-letter words -- when there are better words -- as a kind of index of social danger. As peril approaches, and we find ourselves trapped, contributing to the peril, or at least unable to do the things that would let us avoid it, maybe we reflexively use offensive language to signal a need for change. And it may be that our ideas about the peril and its etiology are nuanced beyond the ability of our everyday vocabularies to describe them quickly. Rough language becomes a kind of shorthand, and its vague connection with our real meaning lets it take on the nuance we can’t communicate otherwise. You know what I mean.

I’m not going to actually call anybody a pussy. My best friends -- not just some of my best friends, my best friends -- have pussies, and I’ve watched one of them give birth. The notion that there’s a connection between female Homo sapiens and deficiencies of courage, strength, and moral will is almost one hundred eighty degrees mistaken.

I might use the word chicken. If there’s a thesaurus of non-standard American English, the two, and yellow, are listed as synonyms, but synonyms often have different nuances or harmonics. A chicken, or somebody who’s yellow, is merely timid. I’m talking about useless, preening people whose fear makes them behave perversely, who have a reckless disregard for the truth, who corrupt themselves rather than face the work of understanding and wrestling with difficulty, people with vague identities, but a lot of fussy self interest.

Of course I’m talking about Minnesota’s Republican gubernatorial candidates.

According to a 9/16, Tim Pugmire story on Minnesota Public Radio, eight of nine declared Republican candidates for governor said “they view global warming science as an unproven theory that should no longer drive state policy.” (Odd man out was perennial candidate, Leslie Davies, but why is he a Republican?).

State Sen. Mike Jungbauer of East Bethel claimed to be the number-one global warming denier in Minnesota. He said, "Global Warming and Climate Change in Minnesota, this is pure unadulterated B.S. It's time somebody spoke out."

What a person deficient in courage, strength, and moral will.

My favorite, though less confrontational, was House Minority Leader, and former Majority whip, Marty Seifert. Sifert is a former teacher and academic administrator, and confirms prejudices I’ve held about those profession since grade school. Seifert said, "I mean the weather changes certainly, but at the end of the day I don't believe that there's this man-made global warming that's destroying the planet and the like," Seifert said. "I've read the research and so forth, and I think people are going to have various opinions on it.”

What a person of... Wait, let’s take a closer look at a pronouncement of one of our more prominent and ambitious elected representatives.

“I mean the weather changes certainly...” Like the wind, Marty?

“...I don’t believe there’s this man-made global warming that’s destroying the planet and the like.” He’s answering questions at the State Fair, and thinking on his feet, so we could Marty a little slack if we were so disposed, but I’m not. Are you? Is he saying doesn’t believe in global warming, or in human influence on the weather, or that it’s dangerous? Saying “that’s destroying the planet” is putting words in environmentalists’ mouths. The world will continue in spite of our worst efforts. We will continue, but the less congenially (and honorably). Which I guess is what he means by “the like.” “The like” is already a fact, what with desertification, resource and chaos wars, extinctions, melting glaciers, intensified drought and monsoons, etcetera, etcetera.

“I’ve read the research and so forth...” All of it? Imagine Representative Seifert burning the midnight oil, making sure that even the most hare-brained of notions gets a fair hearing in the Minnesota legislature. And so forth.

“...I think people are going to have various opinions on it.” Who cares, Marty? What’s the truth?

Now we can say it. What a person deficient in courage, strength, and moral will.

Interestingly, current, Republican, Minnesota governor, Tim Pawlenty, who would like to succeed Barack Obama to the White House in 2012, has back-pedaled from his previous concern about climate change, since MPR story aired.

You can’t prove anything, even gravity, but here’s the argument for a connection between climate change and human effect on the atmosphere.

The idea is that energy comes into the atmosphere as ultraviolet light (UV). It warms the stuff the Earth is made of by making molecules move. The Earth then radiates some of the energy as infrared light (IR). Longer-wave IR can’t get out of the atmosphere, and warms the planet. If there were no atmosphere, everything would get out and the temperature would range hundreds of degrees as the world turned. If there were a very dense atmosphere, the temperature would always be very hot. Carbon dioxide thickens the atmosphere, making the atmosphere hold onto more energy.

Carbon dioxide only makes up a fraction of one percent of the atmosphere, a tiny enough part that human industry can change it significantly. Researchers in Hawaii -- a place remote from large concentrations of industry -- measured an increase from 315 parts per million (PPM) to 330 PPM between 1958 and 1970, or five percent. Other researchers established a link between industrial combustion and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, going back to the mid-nineteenth century. Measurements at the Hawaiian site are now at 387 PPM, or twenty-three percent. Pre-industrial levels varied, but it would be fair to say they were around 280 PPM. That means an increase of thirty-eight percent.

Meanwhile, temperatures have risen. We can observe events like ice melting, seasons’ changing at unexpected times, catastrophic storms. What would have happened if we hadn’t been here to build factories power plants and cars? Wallace Broecker of the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory used ice cores from Greenland glaciers to chart historical temperature cycles going back eight hundred years. extending the trends he found in the ice, the world should have warmed until about 1940, then cooled quickly. What happened was the described warming to 1940, a slight temperature drop until 1970, then the rise we argue about.

One objection has been that we have not measured a change in the temperature of the atmosphere. Researchers early in this century predicted that the energy that we would expect to heat the atmosphere would, instead, expand it. They found their expected increase in the height of the tropause, and published the results in the July 25, 2003 issue of Science.

Theoretically there’s a link between carbon in the atmosphere and global climate change. Jean-Baptiste Fourier described the relationship and called it the “greenhouse effect” in 1827. In the 1850s John Tundall measured carbon dioxide’s absorption of IR, and hypothesized a relation between lowered carbon dioxide levels and ice ages. Ice cores, and sediment samples from the ocean floor have told us that there is a geological-historical connection between carbon dioxide and climate.

There are other explanations for the fact of climate change. Change in solar activity is related geologically-historically to climate change, as well as changes in carbon dioxide. This could be because of more energy getting to us from the sun, or because solar radiation reduces the amount of cosmic radiation entering the atmosphere (cosmic radiation’s promoting the production of clouds, which would screen out some of the UV).

What it comes down to for me is this: It is reasonable to suppose that six billion people’s burning coal and oil, and churning out who-knows-what other carbon gases could affect the climate in unexpected and dangerous ways. What it would take to stop further damage, if this is the case, is exactly what we should be doing as stewards of the world’s natural capital.

Economist, E. F. Schumacher wrote, in Small Is Beautiful, “The illusion of unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production. The latter illusion is based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most. Every economist and businessman is familiar with the distinction, and applies it conscientiously and with considerable subtlety to all economic matters -- except where it really matters: namely, the irreplaceable capital which man has not made, but has simply found, and without which he can do nothing.”

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Flubs, Fibs, Microbrew, And Permacommerce

Monday I mis-quoted a friend, Scott, about the business of brewing. Saturday Sam had given me a taste of very promising ale between fermentations, and, in my enthusiasm, I misunderstood Scott's conversation. I wrote:

“A commercial brewing start-up, even for micro-brewing is prohibitively expensive. Scott has been researching ways of making it happen. According to my understanding...farmers, even urban farmers, can make things like beer cider and mead, without all of the government-mandated investment required of stand-alone breweries. One small batch used all of Sam’s 2009 hops, but Scott says you get to import to fill the holes in your own production.”

Later I got to thinking that saying that without talking to Scott myself put me out on a limb. I asked Scott to comment, and he wrote me”

“That's pretty close. To be very precise, the only change would be ‘...,can make things like...’ to ‘...may be able to make things like mead, wine and possibly even cider and beer without...’ “The general idea being that I'm still not certain. The Minnesota Farm Wineries Act appears to be pretty simply worded and certainly appears to allow for urban farm wineries (at least by omission)...”

Scott goes on to say that sales in the city would be a problem because a farm winery’s sales happen mostly on site, and an urban business would have more licensing and zoning restrictions than a place in the country.

Scott writes, “...I'm not quite as optimistic that it could apply to beer. I'm fairly confident about wine. Mead is usually not distinguished from wine so I'm pretty confident about that too.”

I don’t even know what mead tastes like. I wonder how it would go with seasoned almonds. Gotta get a bottle.

“My understanding is that cider is already regulated fairly minimally, and since it is made directly from a minimally processed ag product, I think it's also pretty likely. Beer, though, is a bit different, so I'm not quite as optimistic.

“One other clarification, my understanding of the Act is that importation of ingredients from other states is only allowed to cover shortfalls in production due to natural agricultural variability. I don't think it applies to shortfalls due to production constraints that are implicit to your operation (like urban micro-acreage).”

All this means that I let my enthusiasm get the better of me. I've changed the original post. I think that it’s probably possible for a permaculture operation like Barbara’s and mine to feed us, create some beauty, and take pressure off the city’s storm sewers. What I was searching for in my brewing discussion was ways to live in the cash economy, without helping steer it toward destruction.

Barsy’s Almonds are a beginning. There’s an infant upper-midwest hazelnut industry that might eventually make a marriage with Barsy’s. It seems like very good beer would be another transition product. (Sam's Christmas beer received an honorable mention at the 2008 State Fair.)
Link
Buckminster Fuller wrote to a young admirer, “The things to do are: the things that need doing: that you see need to be done, that no one else seems to see need to be done.”

One of the things that I see needs to be done that no one else seems to see needs doing is building a transitional economy. The old economy is adapted to conditions that will not continue, abundant cheap fuel, and an unsaturated world as sink for waste (familiar explanations of current economic problems consider proximate causes, with little consideration of the sand where our foundations wiggle their toes). Beer and flavored nuts, as well perhaps as art, are cash products which might weather disruptions to the oil-and-waste-dependent economy, while we reduce our personal dependences.

I drew the accompanying illustration at a week-long permaculture design course in the newly built cidery at Mark Shepard’s New Forest Farm, near Viola, Wisconsin.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Phillipe Petit

High On Wire

We watched Man on Wire, the 2008 documentary about Phillipe Petit’s 1974 World Trade Center highwire walk. Petit (born 1949) was a Parisian street performer who had been arrested in Paris for walking a wire between Notre Dame’s bell towers, and in Sydney for a similar stunt above the Sydney Harbor Bridge. How could the INS have let this arch-acrobat into the United States?

The award-winning film features middle-aged Petit and co-conspirators, particularly girlfriend, Annie, and childhood sidekick Jean-Louis, speaking to the camera. These rainettes shot a lot of film at the time -- of other stunts, preparation, skylarking -- and the archival footage is pretty good. The documentary also includes staged dramatizations: murky black-and-white passages of furtive figures hauling equipment and silhouetted policemen playing cat-and-mouse with the conspirators.

Given the history of the Center, which did not survive three decades, the events of 9/11/2001 are never far from mind (Maus author, Art Spiegelman has a book called In the Shadow of No Towers). The closest Wire comes to noting the Towers’ end is in a single black-and-white still, taken from the pavement, of a speck that’s barely recognizable as a tightrope walker, dwarfed by a looming airliner.

Both Annie and Jean-Louis choke up on camera, ostensibly because they were part of a great moment. The forty-five-minute event was an accomplishment of enormous skill, planning, and nerve. Petit could have died; the sky was misty, skyscrapers sway, and the hour was seven in the morning, following a long night of work, frustration, and hiding. The accomplices might have been abetting their friend’s suicide.

But it was a moment of no great consequence. Who cares that someone did this? Annie says that Phillipe pulled her into his obsession, not recognizing her as someone with her own destiny. Arrested, and having suffered a sentence that was almost a reward (community service, entertaining children) Petit emerged from the courtroom to have a stranger from the crowd invite him back to her apartment for a sexual American howdy. Petit had painted his masterpiece at twenty-five, and he went on to cozy artistic residence at Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. On to to writing his memoirs. On to duplicating nineteenth century aerialist Blondin’s walk over Niagara Falls. Annie and Jean-Louis were the ones left behind.

And why were the French surprised that the Americans they picked up to help with the breaking and entering and wire rigging -- roustabouts for an outlaw circus, in 1974, on the cusp between the doors of perception and disco -- pot smokers?

Monday, September 21, 2009

How Green Was My Weekend






There were four farmers’ markets over the weekend, and I worked two, New Hope and Uptown. Sam helped at Uptown. I’d asked if he would because I wanted to see if anybody at the cool-neighborhood market would be interested in my drawings. Selling Barsy’s Almonds is a constant performance, and I figured one of us could take care of business, while the other minded the art.

It turned out that only a handful of people checked out the drawings, and were entirely capable of flipping through the stack by themselves, so I could have handled themarket alone. It was nice to have Sam along, though, and he was a natural with the customers.

Sam opened his bucket of Mad Scientist India Pale Ale over the weekend, siphoning the brew out for the second fermentation. We had a little suspense when he tasted it. There’d been a little clumsiness with the yeast and the equipment sanitizer when he’d mixed the batch, and he said the beer might taste foul. It was great, though: not carbonated yet, but a nice combination of sweet and very bitter. Sam pointed out a faint floral note, and the slight sting from the alcohol. His first original recipe is a success. The used hops went back into the garden, via the compost pile, along with the yeast.

Barbara talked to Scott, a forward thinker and another urban farmer and brewer, at the Kingfield Market on Sunday. A commercial brewing start-up, even for micro-brewing is prohibitively expensive. Scott has plans for small-scale mead production, and believes that can be done with a conceivable amount of capital.

Saturday, at New Hope, I talked to a Princeton farmer who was selling Haralson apples. Taking a hint from somebody who knows more than I do, we picked Haralsons when we got home. Now they get juiced or sliced and frozen.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Barack Obama, Jean-Paul Marat, And Grace Lee Boggs

Last Saturday, I made the mistake of driving through downtown on my way from Northeast to South Minneapolis. The president was at the Target Center, promoting health care reform. It took me a few blocks to remember why I was stuck in a traffic jam, so I wound up turning at the police barricades. There were demonstrators with signs, chanting, but I couldn’t read or hear what about. Later, I bumped into someone who had been there representing Planned Parenthood. She told me that somebody representing just about any contemporary point of view was on hand, Interesting, because that was the feeling I had from seeing and hearing what I did.

It seems like everybody’s expecting disaster, but not agreeing what disaster will be. Lots of bruise-pressing. I drove home, singing,

Marat we’re poor

And the poor stay poor.

Marat don’t make us wait anymore.

We want our rights

And we don’t care how.

We want a revolution now.”

Grace Lee Boggs was on Democracy Now today, while I cleaned the kitchen. Boggs was born in 1915 in Rhode Island, to parents who had immigrated from China. She has a PhD from Bryn Mawr, was married for forty years to James Boggs, an African-American labor organizer, and has organized youth programs, and other community groups in Detroit.

Boggs said that we are in a revolutionary and counter-revolutionary period. Revolution, for Boggs, amounts to favoring human relations over economic growth. For Americans, it means redefining what it means for us to be human, and begins with growing our own food.

Amen and hallelujah!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Script For A Short Film

We are in a large, high-ceilinged bedroom in the middle of a moonlit night. It is summer and shear draperies and the round crocheted pulls for roll-up window shades pulse delicately in the breeze. A chorus of crickets emphasizes the absence of human sound. Colors are the pale blue-grays of strong moonlight, with deep shadows. The wallpaper has a pattern of large floral figures. The furnishings are heavy and good, made of dark wood and polished marble. The dresser mirror has a beveled margin, and hangs on an axle from two carved columns. In it we first glimpse the sleeper. Besides the dresser and the bed, there are a rocker, table with a copy of Spoon River Anthology, wardrobe, kerosene lamps, lace doilies, china pitcher and basin, and a rug braided from worn-out clothing. The sleeper is under a single sheet, and there is a complicated quilt folded at the foot of the bed.

The effect would be of late nineteenth century comfort, except for two paintings on the walls: Thomas Hart Benton’s July Hay, and a large spatter painting that could be by Jackson Pollock.

We hear a diesel locomotive’s air horn in the distance, and see that the sleeper’s eyes are open. He is a young man, bearded without mustache, and with long hair. He throws back the sheet and rises. He is naked, and will remain unremarkedly so.

He goes to the window and looks out, over the roof of the front porch. Nearby houses are large, well-made, and plain. One is brick, the rest frame. There are dwarf fruit trees in the front yards. We look at the moon overhead. There is no one on the brick sidewalks or street, and no vehicles, moving or parked. An ostrich walks slowly down the middle of the street.

We move outside. The camera examines the house’s porch. It covers the width of the house, supported by brick columns. There are two large windows, symmetrically flanking the front door, which contains a full-length light. There are a hanging porch glider, sanseveria in brass pots, a wicker display with more house plants, and a low table, covered by a mosaic picture of a lion. A live cat hops onto the mosaic and cleans its whiskers. A cigarette burns in an ashtray on the brick parapet. There is no one in the scene.

The front door opens and the sleeper emerges. He descends the porch steps, and walks to the street. We hear the clicking of a reel mower, then the pealing of a church bell. The sleeper takes a piece of fruit from one of the trees, and tastes it. He looks up and down the street. The camera looks too. It remains empty. The shadows are stark.

The sleeper steps into the street. The curb is a slab of sandstone, on edge and almost as high as his knees. He turns and walks. We see owls, raccoons, bats.

The sleeper wanders through a small-town business district. It is apparent that the shops are vacant. There is an ornate brass bed on the sidewalk, broken and tilted. A mattress droops from the bed onto the sidewalk. Another cat rests on the mattress. The sleeper scratches the cat’s ears. Windows are broken, signs askew. Debris litters the pavement. There is a modest, but handsome courthouse. A possum scuttles along the bottom of a wall. The sleeper puts his face to a window, shielding his eyes to try to see inside. The camera pulls back far enough to let us see the reflection of a Conestoga wagon, pulled through the moonlight by oxen.

Woman’s Voice: Dill!

The sleeper turns. Cut to an approaching female couple. They have their arms around each other’s waists. One has long blond hair, high cheekbones, wide mouth, etc., and a wispy goatee. She wears fringed buckskin and a distressed cowboy hat. The other is darker, petite, heartbreakingly pretty. She is dressed in a tight tailored jacket, very short cutoff jeans, and cowboy boots.

Sleeper/Dill: Well, Jem, Scout. It is a pleasure.

The three embrace.

Scout (the shorter woman): We were at the party, but we had to leave.

Jem: There’s going to be a seppuku.

Scout: It’s horrible. I don’t see how people can watch.

Dill: People have suffered -- died -- because of people like that. Look at all the ruined businesses.

Scout: I understand that. I just don’t want anybody to suffer.

Jem: It’s your cousin Charlie, Dill.

Dill: I thought my cousin was Jack.

Jem: You should stop it, Dill.

Dill walks toward a brightly lit park. It occupies a city block and is strung with lanterns. We see crowds of people, but still from a distance. The Conestoga wagon is tethered to a parking meter. There are other eccentric vehicles: wagons, saddle horses, a sailboat on wheels, various kinds of bicycle, a Rolls Royce chopped to serve as a pickup, a tiller-steered antique with photovoltaics and batteries, a university-built solar racer, etc.

This is a small-town memorial park, with cannon, playground, GAR statue, and bandstand. There are popcorn and lemonade vendors. The crowd includes babes-in-arms, children, young folk, parents, grandparents, gay couples, men and women in drag. There is an old man in a wicker wheelchair, pushed by a giant in a turban and silk. Costumes are anachronistic: pioneer, military, white-tie formal. There are facial tattoos, a deep-sea diving outfit, first-communion dresses, floral headdresses, top hats. People dance to a hoe-down band that features a Fender Stratocaster. Children dance in rings and play snap-the-whip. We see the moon again, filling the screen, and looking very three-dimensional. A cloud passes before it, and the music changes to a minor key.

A European man in a beautiful kimono solemnly mounts the bandstand steps. The music stops, but the band remains, standing respectfully. The kimonoed man kneels, facing the crowd, at the top of the steps. Four witnesses file up the stairs, two on either side of the kneeling man. They are dressed in late nineteenth century funeral clothes. One of the musicians steps out of rank, and hands something to the kneeler. The kneeler nods, gravely.

He unfolds a sheet of rice paper to reveal a Japanese dagger. We see a close up of the blade, on which there is a vague landscape pattern. The kneeler places the knife carefully on the floor before him.

The Kneeler: This town has been devastated because of me and others like me. Lives have been ruined, and people have starved because of my selfishness. My greed and ostentation, my craving for comfort and sensation, my fear of deprivation, all led me to horde wealth that should have flowed freely. My wealth meant impoverishment for my brothers and sisters. Further, I used it to put my competitors out of business, then move production elsewhere, so that we lacked the means to take care of ourselves when crisis came. I polluted air water and soil, used fuel as though it were endless, and persuaded my fellows to copy my improvidence, then enforced their improvidence by making it requisite to their remaining here. I accept the blame for all that has happened, and to atone, to demonstrate my belated recognition of the commonweal, I will disembowel myself.

The Kneeler removes his arms from the kimono sleeves, and tucks the sleeves under his knees. He lifts the dagger and gazes at it sorrowfully, but with an almost hypnotized resolve. He prepares to stab himself.

We see the faces of the crowd. All are fearful, horrified, wishing that this could stop.

Dill: Wait!

The crowd’s faces are confused, hopeful. The Kneeler rouses a little from his trance. The witnesses exchange glances, not hostile or even suspicious, but confused, unsure of what they should do.

Dill: This offends me. Your destruction of commerce offends me, but this demonstration is no less destructive. You tried to make a separate deal with existence, and now you plan to end your existence. There’s no difference. It’s all destruction. Are you brave enough to live on the same terms as the rest of us?

There is doubt in the Kneeler’s face. An eight-year old boy in a too-short, patched suit climbs the steps and takes the dagger, awe on his face. Two witnesses pull the Kneeler to his feet. The crowd disperses, relieved. There are handshakes and pats on the back, quiet words of affection exchanged in a murmur of peace. It isn’t a moment of jubilation, more like the mood of Presbyterians leaving church.

There is a pale smear of red at the end of the street as the motley vehicles pull away.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

E. F. Schumacher And Buddhist Economics

David Morris of the Institute for Local Self Reliance introduced me to E. F. Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful in the mid-nineties. I said that I hadn’t read it because the title made me think it was probably smarmy.

It isn’t, and Schumacher was not a smarmy guy. He made tough choices in his life. He left his native Germany in the thirties because he objected to the Third Reich. He was an agnostic who converted to Catholicism. You try telling all your snobby free-thinking friends you’re becoming a mackerel snapper.

Schumacher’s economics is contrarian, and tough-minded. The bottom line is that people are more important than goods. People need food, shelter, meaning, and a hospitable natural environment. Western economics subordinates people to goods, using indices that measure total activity, ignoring moral judgement, to diagnose an economy’s robustness. Subordinating people to goods means tolerating less than complete employment and temporary layoffs, to say nothing of worker stress, and occupations that use only a fraction of a worker’s capabilities. A fraction of the workforce, a fraction of each worker. An economy in which production is paramount tries to minimize human labor, but is promiscuous in its use of fuel, material, and machinery. What do we make things for, though? Why do we have economies?

The truth is, and Schumacher would say, that production and commerce should be means to providing humans with "a becoming existence" -- a nice phrase of Schumacher's. If we need to feed and shelter ourselves, we should discover the most elegant way to do so, the way that uses the least material or capital, the way that uses machinery to enhances our skills instead of replacing them. Providing for ourselves in that elegant way will, in Schumacher’s description of the function of work, “give a man (sic) a chance to utilize and develop his faculties (and) enable him to overcome his egocenteredness by joining with other people in a common task.”

An economy like that would ultimately solve problems of pollution and fuel shortage, and avoid exacerbating damages we’ve already caused. Most attractively, we would realize finally what it really means to be this extravagantly intelligent ape.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Blocked

I caught a squirrel rooting around one of the prairie clovers I planted yesterday, so I got on the stick and made eleven little cylinders from hardware cloth, plus some staples from stiff wire to fasten them to the ground, and enclosed each of the little plants. I’d broken one of the plants yesterday, and saw tiny leaves at the end of the broken stem today. File that info under the question: Does pruning by grazers help prairie clover thrive? With the squirrels, I was more worried about their uprooting a plant in their mindless digging.

Yesterday evening, Barbara and I took the plastic bamboo from around the potato towers and harvested about fifteen pounds. This seems pretty good for less than ten square feet of garden, but we think we can do better next year, by planting earlier, and deeper in the towers.

The grape harvest continueth. Would that a herd of Disney centaurs arrived to perform it to the tune of famous Beethoven's famous Pastoral Symphony.

There’s a new addition in the basement, a soccer ball-sized wad of straw and oyster mushroom mycelium. Instructions say to spray it daily, and more frequently once the first ‘shrooms show.

I’m feeling a little writer’s block, not really being sure what to say. No great thoughts, so one word follows another. George Leonard in Mastery says that goals are a device to keep you practicing, practice being the important thing. So I write when I’m dry, but not too much.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Prairie Clover: Roots In The Ground

This truly is a case of “Can’t learn less,” because I don’t know nuthin’.

The photograph is a baby prairie clover. Barbara and I had been nursing this one and ten others in pots, out of reach of the bunnies.

“What do you want to do with them over the winter?”

“I don’t know. What do you want to do with them over the winter?”

“We should decide where we want them. What do you think?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

And so on.

Finally I decided to put them in the weed patch/rain garden, the swale that I’d dug and mulched with cardboard and wood chips. I put them there in spite of not knowing how prairie clover likes getting its roots wet intermittently. Something needed to go in that spot, but it’s pretty close to the bottom of Barbara’s and my personal watershed, so we might want the clovers’ nitrogen-fixing benefit in some other place. This raises the issues of how easy are they to move, and how readily they propagate.

Other permaculture questions are, how many prairie clovers do I need, and what can I do to make life better for them. Herbaceous perennials are part of my campaign to turn my urban lawn into a bonsai ecology.

I planted, thinking about a Wendell Berry essay I wanted to review. It’s in the September issue of the Progressive. Berry is in his mid-seventies, a prolific writer about place and ecology, an emeritus university professor, and a farmer who works his northeastern Kentucky land with horses. The Progressive essay was “Inverting the Economic Order.” He writes, “In ordering the economy of a household or community or nation, I would put nature first, the economies of land use second, the manufacturing economy third, and the consumer economy fourth.”

I kept balking as I read the essay, thinking “Nobody’s going to understand this. It’s too strange.” It’s not that it’s illogical -- it’s very logical -- but it is foreign to us, and that’s disturbing.

I may write about Berry’s essay, or I may decide it’s too tough to tackle, but here’s an idea: Every human eneterprise occur somewhere on a continuum from “degrading to humans in the short term and guaranteed to impoverish us in the long run,” through “necessary to short-term welfare, but ultimately degrading to human welfare,” to “vital to both short- and long-term welfare.” Berry says human wealth derives from our environment and human virtue; the bulk of our enterprise reduces our real wealth.

Friday, September 11, 2009

911 Anniversary

Today is the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I’d forgotten until I turned on the radio to find there’d been a false-alarm, Coast Guard operation on the Potomac River with reports of shots fired. Given political revelations in Tom Ridge’s memoir of his time heading das Amt von Sicherheit von Heimat, there’s that little flicker of doubt: “Is somebody jerking my chain?”

And that raises the ugly specter of conspiracy: black-flag operations, thermite in the towers, how fast can a twelve hundred-foot tall building fall, how hot is does jet fuel burn, etc. You know there was incompetence. FBI agent Coleen Rowley has written that the agency ignored information from its Minneapolis office the month before the attacks, concerning Zacarias Mousaoui, the so-called “twentieth hijacker.” President Chad-Boy’s famously dismissed an agent who believed an attack was imminent with the comment, “Okay, you’ve covered your ass.” Subsequently the Bush Administration made hay by stampeding the virgin American public into a suspect war in Afghanistan, and an out-and-out blitzkreig in Iraq. More insidiously, the government used the attacks as a pretext for warrantless wiretaps, peaks at citizen e-mails, ignoring habeas corpus, and violations of non-citizens’ various Creator-endowed, unalienable rights. A stand-up comic whose name I’ve forgotten put it plainly in a routine in which subordinates awaken then-Attorney General John Ashcroft with the news of the attacks. Ashcroft rubs his hands and exclaims, “Alright!”

It’s been decades since I cracked a math or physics book, and it would be easy for either conspiracy theorists or deniers to fool me, but I don’t believe any part of the American government was complicit with the attackers. I don’t believe that the jets that crashed into either the Twin Towers or the Pentagon had help on the ground. Jihadist and neo-con villainies were both real, but separate.

Regarding delays in reacting to news of the hijackers and their plans -- or in digesting earlier intelligence -- I think it was incredulity not complicity that stayed administration and military hands. There was a crisis of imagination in the face of disaster. Responsible people could neither believe what was happening, think of what to do, nor bring themselves to scramble the jets that would shoot hundreds of Americans out of the sky.

If someone couldn’t believe that the airliners could do the damage to the buildings, and engineers explained falsely how they could have, the error would have become part of the American engineering curriculum. There are thousands of engineers today who didn’t have their driver’s licenses on September 11, 2001, and thousands more minted every year. We can’t afford to have them building skyscrapers with falsified notions of how buildings work, and their educations and careers would be experiments for testing the corrupted curriculum. Young American-educated engineers would also have the opportunity to compare notes with uncorrupted engineers from other parts of the world.

Theorists versus Debunkers

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Grapes Of Glam

Barbara and I were talking about the grape harvest. There are four vines in the garden, two of them mature, and yielding a lot. I take a pair of big stainless bowls and some pruning shears out to the grape vines, and fill one bowl with bunches of grapes. I rinse them with the garden hose and chase the spiders away, then pull the individual grapes from the stems, and put those into the other bowl. The grapes go into the kitchen, and through the Acme juicer. The juice is good stuff, and I’m sure Wile E. Coyote has one waiting for the time he catches the Road Runner.

Barbara told me to keep some grapes for grape pies. She calls these grapes “slip-skin” grapes. They’re about half an inch in diameter, and you can squeeze the flesh out of the skins with your thumb and one finger. Pop the grapes, put the flesh here and the skins here, crank the flesh through a food mill to separate the seeds, put the skins and grape sludge back together in a yogurt tub, and pop ‘em in the freezer. Juicing takes a long time. This takes forever.

I was saying the process was a bad time-versus-calories bargain, but Barbara pointed out that it was a pretty good calories versus calories bargain.

We need to eat and drink. We need protection from exposure. We need to use our prodigious nervous systems. What do we need to fulfill the third need? I was listening to the New York DollsThe Glam Rock Hits, and complaining about the time I was spending processing grapes.

And one of the immature grapes, the one we're trellising on the Beacon apple tree, is a Somerset, as far as I know, the only seedless grape grown in Minnesota. If you follow the link, you'll see that it isn't a perfect solution, but we'll see.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Author Of Random Acts Of Kindness

“Practice random acts of beauty and senseless acts of kindness.” It was a bumper sticker on the car next to mine in the co-op parking lot, a rusty Volvo with a kid seat in back. My car doesn’t carry any bumper stickers. Barbara refuses to let me put them on, and I’m grateful to her because I wouldn’t know when to stop. A bumper’s credibility is inversely proportional to the number of its messages. Multiple bumper stickers say, "I guess I’m not what you’d call a critical thinker. In fact, I’m a crank." Maybe you can get to some critical mass where you’re saying, "I want everything to be different," and give a complacent corporate buccaneer or one of his fearful dupes an epiphany. Art-car territory. The car at the co-op only had the one.

I don’t think of bumper stickers as having authors, but somebody has to have imagined the messages. Some of them are banal enough to have occurred to more than one thinker: “Peace is patriotic,” “Co-exist,” “Lick Bush.” The slogan on the car next to me was unusual enough, and put in a unique enough voice, that someone, somewhere knows, “I wrote that. It was pretty good.” She might have said, “Practice random acts of kindness,” and left it at that. It might have been “senseless kindness,” and “random beauty,” or she might have gone for “Guerrilla beauty and kindness!” “Kindness and beauty make a better world,” or “Mean people suck.” Anne Herbert wrote it.

Anne Herbert was Stewart Brand’s first Assistant Editor at Co-Evolution Quarterly. Who knows what she does now. If she were a man, she’d have a string of bestsellers behind her or be fronting a jam band. She’s part of the Vietnam generation, and Barbara and I always enjoyed the things she wrote in Co-Ev or its successor, Whole Earth Review. They were brief, good-humored, and insightful about important things.
Link
I’ve mentioned before that she wrote that God kicked us out of the Garden because we started keeping score. In an surprising piece of detournement, Herbert changed the Freak Brothers’ slogan from “Dope will...” to “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.” On Co-Evolution’s twentieth anniversary, she wondered, “If there is a God, why are there crummy little jobs? If we made up God, why can’t we make up something better than an interlocking network of crummy little jobs?” In 1995, Anne Herbert wrote one of the most chilling and pessimistic things I’ve ever read, Handy Tips On How To Behave At The Death Of The World. Mistaken in its premise, but not in its recommendations.

My favorite Anne Herbert idea came from her growing up a parson’s daughter. She was allowed to choose Sunday's hymns, and that led to her realization that somebody chooses everything we do. We design the world.

Sometimes we do a better job than others, and sometimes (now) we need to do a better job than others.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Boom And Bust At The Farmers' Market

Saturday before Labor Day was busy at the Midtown Farmer’s Market. This was in spite of record-setting attendance at the State Fair, nine miles away (four as the crow flies). We talked with people who had never shopped at the Market before, and Barsy’s sales were up more than a third.

Shopping neighborhood farmer’s markets is the way to go. The produce is local, the atmosphere is great, and the price is right. Tom of MarthaandTom.com comparison shopped Midtown, The Wedge -- a big local co-op, and Rainbow -- an upper-midwest grocery chain. He bought seventeen pounds of fruits and vegetables. Midtown prices should embarrass the Wedge. The bottom line at Midtown was marginally better than Rainbow’s, although a few items were a little cheaper at Rainbow. You can see a table comparing prices, and read Tom’s discussion at the link.

As sensible as shopping The Market is, the real reason for our heavy traffic was probably Gail Rosenblum’s story, Small potatoes, yes, but Midtown Market vies for No. 1, in Thursday’s Star Tribune.

A sad note was the news that our friends, Jill and Jeff and sons Jeremy and Justin, of Chase Brook Farm are calling it quits and moving back to Ohio. The Merkels have raised beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and eggs since 2001. They have farmed four thousand acres, and pastured their animals or fed them feed milled from their own grain, forswearing hormones, antibiotics, recycled animal products, ethanol byproducts, feedlots, and mass-production slaughter. It’s hard to compete with the mass producers.

And it’s hard to compete with somebody who’s letting society pick up the tab for his operation. When you have an infection, and your doctor gives you an antibiotic, the doc will be emphatic that you take all the pills, according to the prescribed schedule. The idea is that, if you let some of the bugs that are making you sick survive, you’re choosing bugs to survive that can stand up to antibiotics. When a strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria develops, it’s because we’ve killed off the majority of its normal cousins. There’s more of a chance of this happening when millions of pigs, cattle, and angora rabbits chow down on grain-flavored amoxycillin every day of their brief lives. Society picks up the tab when it has to develop new drugs, or the drugs don’t work. Society picks up the tab for feedlot pollution, as well, and by losing more flexible and entrepreneurial family operations.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mad Scientist India Pale Ale

Sam and Marissa are here tonight brewing. The beer is his Mad Scientist India Pale Ale. Sam says it’s entirely experimental and he doesn’t plan to make it again. He plans to test it on his friends this Halloween. Mwahaha!

When he started, the house smelled pleasantly like downtown Peoria. Or St. Louis near the Ralston plant. (I haven’t been in either city since the sixties, and for all I know both are now entirely sweet-smelling.) There’s a lot of malt in this brew, and the beer should be strong. After it came to a boil, and he had explained the proteins’ unwinding and rewinding, Sam added baskets of hops from the garden. Now the house has a perfumey-citrusy smell. Boy, you got the place smellin’ like a Kansas City fancy house.

The three gallons of water, malt, and hops will boil for an hour, with occasional stirring. Toward the end of the boil, Sam will add more hops. At the end of the hour, he’ll take the kettle outside, and dunk a copper coil into it. Running water from the garden hose through the coil will cool the liquid, which is called “wort,” and pronounced “wert.” Like a good permaculturist, Sam will water plants with the runoff. Yeast goes into the cooled wort, and the whole mess goes into a seven-gallon bucket, with enough additional water to make five gallons, and a little gadget on top that lets air out but doesn’t let air in.

Two weeks from now, he’ll siphon the liquid off, leaving a layer of yeast behind, add some more water, and let the proposed beer sit for four more weeks. (The water at this step wouldn’t be necessary, if he had used dried hops instead of what he’d just found by the alley. It’s a matter of volume.) More yeast settles out, and the beer and some corn sugar go into a keg to grow bubbles.

Sam already has his costume, a white lab coat. He plans to smudge it with charcoal, blacken his face, and make his hair stick out wildly with gel. Marissa is keeping her costume a secret.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Objects In Your Mental Model Are Larger Than They Appear

The cars are actually larger than the fire hydrant. You didn’t need me to tell you that.

The distance from one thousand to ten thousand is much greater than the distance from one to ten. You didn’t need me to tell you that either, but in my own mental model of counting, they’re about the same size. As far as I know, I don’t have any kind of numerical disability. Barbara is quicker at mental arithmetic than I am, but I get along. I think my distorted model is my own version of scientific notation. You know: how you write ten with the little bitty nine in its upper-right corner instead of one comma zero zero zero comma zero zero zero comma zero zero zero. You gotta admit “ten to the ninth” is smaller.

New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg hit on the same thing geographically when he mapped the US as seen from over an anonymous Manhattan street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The Hudson River and New Jersey are a pair of stripes (The Hudson's broader than Jersey's) between New York City and the rest of America, which, in turn, is only a little larger than the distance between Ninth and the River.

There’s a lot of psychological and economic literature about how we’re more generous to “identifiable victims” than we are to “statistical victims,” even if there are more statistical victims, or if the statistical victims suffer more than the identifiable victims. The World Food Program dubbed hunger the “Silent Tsunami,” after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed a quarter million people. A quarter of a million people seem like they must be a statistic -- as are the ten million that were impoverished by the wave -- but they were “identifiable” because of the dramatic event that killed or dispossessed them. The tens of millions of people who are hungry become more like background. As do the species extinguished by the “Sixth Great Extinction.” As does the atmosphere.

Our ability to foreshorten distant, huge, or complex things is probably a permanent way of operating for most of us, but being aware of it, and learning to override it is too.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Retirement An Option For Baby Boomers?

“Do we have a moral responsibility to retire?” Minnesota Public Radio blogger Bob Collins asks the question on his September 3 News Cut blog. He’s responding to a September 2, New York Times story, “A Reluctance to Retire Means Fewer Openings,” by Catherine Rampell and Mathew Saltmarsh.

Geezers took a major hit to our savings in last fall's economic correction. That's keeping poeple in the workplace who might otherwise have taken our shoulders from the wheel, and made room for young people.

Collins gives us a yes-or-no gadget for voting on a question where our opinion will have approximately zero influence, and which begs for nuance. Collins may or may not have a dog in the fight, but you might answer one way or the other because of what you think work means, here in the developed world, at this moment in history.

Our dependence on fossil fuels means we live in less than a zero-sum economy: With few exceptions, what you do reduces human wealth, and you get paid in what amount to chits for your share of the remaining oil wealth your team manages to claim. If you think that’s okay, or just the human condition, vote yes so somebody else gets a chance. If you think it means trouble for Homo s., vote no and get to work.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Life Drawing Group


Tuesday night is drawing co-op. Ten or so middle-aged artists hire a model each week and take turns hosting, with wine and snacks. It’s sort of like a book club, only with nudes instead of literature.

My degree, such as it is, is in art, and I’ve been part of similar drawing groups before. My drawing is pretty good, although my hand isn’t super-steady. I’ve always had a kinesthetic sense of which direction my line is going --not just right and left, and up and down, but in and out. I like a sense of space and volume. Besides having a good sense of space, in the last couple of years I’ve gotten pretty good at proportion.

Making pictures is fun, but it’s always in the back of my mind that my art is subordinate to something else, describing a better way we could live. For a while I was drawing from a model three times a week, all day on Wednesdays, and wishing I could find two more sessions. I was working mostly in charcoal, trying to develop a style similar to Henry Yan’s. I was also interested in a Russian-New Mexico contemporary of Hopper’s and O’Keefe’s, Nicolai Fechin. I kept doing the same things, not making progress, and forgetting that I was learning this skill to communicate. Stony, a friend from another co-op was pretty skeptical of art’s being able to influence history, but that’s another discussion.

Tuesday is my only group now. I enjoy my friends’ company -- they came to my birthday party -- and a weekly workout helps me remember how to draw. It ain’t exactly like riding a bike.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Answering Stewart Brand's Four Environmental Heresies

It was so startling a contradiction of how I would make the world, that I watched the video four times, practically transcribing it the third. For someone to take the problems of population, hunger, and climate change as seriously as I do, then concoct this paradoxical way of fixing them, seemed so important that I put a hold on one of the five copies of the book the library has on order.

We are at a dangerous moment in history. There are too many of us, and the things we do to get by degrade the world’s ability to keep us -- and to sustain other living things. We are altering the Earth’s climate. We concentrate wealth to the point of extravagance so as to avoid the deprivation we see in our wake. Somebody claimed this species uses forty percent of the planet’s photosynthetic capacity. We are in peril of extinction, and in denial of the peril. We have acquired god-like powers in a mickeymouse way, well in advance of getting the understanding needed to wield them.

Along comes Stewart Brand, the creator of The Whole Earth Catalog, and now Whole Earth Disciplines. In a sixteen-minute presentation, “Four Environmental Heresies,” given to TED, Brand claims that overpopulation and industrially driven climate change demand:

* Concentration of the developing world’s poor into cities (this is already a fact, and the longest and strongest part of Brand’s presentation documents it);

* Nuclear power;

* Genetic engineering;

* Geo-engineering (introduction of steam and gases such as sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to mitigate climate change).

Brand reminds us before he begins of his environmentalist credentials, which are genuine. Brand studied biology at Stanford, particularly ecology and evolution. He is famous for conceiving and editing The Whole Earth Catalog, and its many later incarnations. As part of California Governor Jerry Brown’s administration, Brand helped to increase Californian energy efficiency and reduce the state’s carbon emissions with incredible foresight. He is serious, knowledgeable, and sincere.

Brand is a thinker who understands how systems grow, change, and decay. He reminds us that climate is a “profoundly complex, non-linear system full of runaway positive feedbacks, hidden thresholds, and irrevocable tipping points.” (This means that climate has many parts which influence each other. Changes can make more of the same bad thing happen. Once changes reach certain levels they can make other systems change (permafrost thaws and releases more carbon dioxide; higher levels of freshwater enter the oceans, braking the existing currents). Systems will reach levels that make fixing them impossible.

Brand says to expect surprises, few of them good. The “heresies” are his prescription for curing a sickness that will end civilization.

My own prescription is to mimic nature and integrate with it. Human beings should accept it that we are part of the web of life, and find fulfillment by fully participating in the flow of energy from species to species. Our problem so far has been that we have tried to cut a separate deal with existence, using technology to funnel and store energy in novel ways. Humanity has improved its survival and comfort by force, force to expand its range, force to grow food, and force to exert dominance within the species. An organism does what an organism has to do, but it seems as though the same ingenuity that invented bulldozers and automatic rifles could discover how to become one among a community of species.

I’m least interested in disputing Brand’s developing-world urbanization. It’s a fact that one sixth of humanity now lives in squatter cities. Brand shows us what look like vital, outlaw neighborhoods in places like Bangkok, Mumbai, and Sao Paulo. Their residents chose to go to these places, and Brand calls them “population sinks,” saying that population growth quickly drops to replacement levels there. Short of forced repatriation to the countryside, it’s a done deal. (What Brand wants from us industrial democrats for the squatters is water, electricity, sanitation, and protection from crime. The squatters should be connected to the countryside by good roads, cell phone service, and grid electricity.)

Still, it seems like a mistake. It seems like most people should be producing food. Here’s E. F. Schumacher, in Small Is Beautiful:

"The cities with all their wealth, are merely secondary producers, while primary production, the precondition of all economic life, takes place in the countryside. The prevailing lack of balance, based on the age-old exploitation of the countryman and raw material producer, today threatens all countries throughout the world, the rich even more than the poor. To restore a proper balance between city and rural life is perhaps the greatest task in front of modern man. It is not simply a matter of raising agricultural yields so as to avoid world hunger. There is no answer to the evils of mass unemployment and mass migration into cities unless the whole level of rural life can be raised, and this requires the development of an agro-industrial culture, so that each district, each community, can offer a colorful variety of occupations to its members."

Schumacher was writing in the early seventies. Maybe nobody was listening, and we’re going to be looking at some of that runaway positive feedback in the population system soon.

Objections to nuclear power include poor reliability, high capital costs, damage to the environment from uranium mining and from cooling-water discharge, unknown decommissioning costs, unknown cost for storing spent fuel, radioactive wastes’ remaining dangerous for longer than we could expect continuity of supervision, plant safety and public health concerns, vulnerability to attack, utility as part of national military nuclear strategies, wastes a components in “dirty bombs.” Brand scores points by showing that the volume and mass of nuclear waste is dwarfed by the waste from coal, and contained, while coal's waste is dispersed throughout the atmosphere.

The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island happened in 1979. There were no deaths at the time of the Three Mile Island meltdown, with disputed claims of increased cancer incidence subsequently. The explosion at Chernobyl happened in 1986, resulting in fifty-seven deaths at the time, and four thousand thyroid cancers among children and adolescents exposed at the time. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Radiation reports no cancers from ongoing exposure. Nuclear power proponents will excuse the Chernobyl disaster as the result of poor design, and a corrupt political system, but can the world restrict nuclear power to countries of high competence and moral character, and can we expect governments and businesses to persist for the half life of plutonium which ranges from eighty-eight to 81 million years?

You have to wonder, too, how many of these things do we need, and how quickly can we build them. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar plant was the last nuclear power plant to come online in this country. Begun in 1973, it opened in 1996. Twenty-three years in the making. Brand dismisses wind and solar (although he hints at orbiting solar) because it’s diffuse and intermittent. We don’t have the renewable technology now to replace coal -- and, in fairness to Brand he is talking about widely distributed plants as small as one forty-eighth the size of existing nukes -- but Brand’s timetable can’t be brief. We want to be warm, have light, and keep our food cool. The techs I know who are still in the conservation business are still finding ways to save megawatts.

Beyond a list of objections to nuclear power, there’s the question of how does radioactive stuff integrate with the ecology of this planet. What’s this stuff got to do with life? If I want to come into my own as Homo sapiens, be everything and exactly what I’m able, do I want to fool around with nuclear power? Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, says “When you look at the natural world you see that organisms do not use high heats or high pressures or toxic chemicals to achieve their ends.” I want conservation and high-level human innovation.

In genetic engineering, genes are transferred from one organism to another. Some modified organisms are transgenic -- genes come from other species -- and some are cisgenic -- genes come from other members of the same species. We’re worried about the transgenic organism, I think, because we could probably breed something similar to the cisgenic ones, or they might even happen spontaneously.

Why are we worried? Health, economics, and the integrity of existing populations are three reasons, with the third affecting the other two.

If you are allergic to a one food but not to another you could have a reaction while enjoying the supposedly safe food that was grown with DNA from the allergen. Given the frequency of people with severe food allergies, genetically engineered foods complicate too many people’s lives.

And the strange genes don’t just find new homes under human auspices. Researchers have found DNA from engineered strains of corn in ancient Mexican varieties of maize. The corn’s jumping the fence is more than a curiosity. Contaminating the antique plants denies us information from the past, crowding out unknown useful traits.

Canadian canola grower Percy Schmeiser ran up a four hundred thousand dollar legal tab, when Monsanto’s Roundup Ready variety of canola contaminated the variety Schmeiser had bred over fifty years. The Canadian Supreme Court found that Schmeiser had infringed Monsanto’s patent by planting seed he’d gathered from the contaminated crop. The Court didn’t do more than spank Schmeiser’s hand, but it set precedent, and four hundred thousand dollars in legal fees stings. On legal advice, Schmeiser destroyed his entire stock of seed, losing the result of a fifty-year breeding program. Interestingly, the question the case decided, can a life form be patented, has been decided differently in other countries, including the United States, but we can expect Monsanto and others to argue that it can be in all venues where it operates. The big objection has to be the way this concentrates wealth, turning any serious farmer, whether in the developed or developing world, into a Monsanto franchisee.

Genetic engineering is redundant for Brand’s purposes. Brand’s concern, a very real one, is preserving the soil. Standard agriculture wastes soil, a limited if not finite resource. Eroded into streams and ocean, it’s pollution. Besides that, soil stores carbon, and turning it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Genetic engineers introduce genes into crops that allow the crops to survive herbicides. This lets farmers eliminate competing weeds without disturbing the soil.
But “no-till” farming isn’t necessarily chemically intensive. Planting trees and other perennials together, and grazing animals in the same area -- planting what permaculturists call “guilds” builds and preserves the integrity of the soil without using engineered crops. Researchers, most famously at Kansas’ Land Institute have and are developing perennial strains of wheat, sorghum, and sunflowers. The Rodale Institute has developed equipment to mulch a cover crop and plant a cash crop in one pass, building the soil and preventing weeds organically, and without genetically engineered seeds.

Timothy LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute writes, “Why spend the time, money and scientific ingenuity manipulating a handful of genetic materials to end up with a specific new attribute when we should, and could, be rigorously advancing regionally adapted varieties and building up soils organically to achieve enduring nutrient content cycling and resistance to drought, flood and disease resistance.”

When it comes to adding sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere or atomizing seawater to make the planet shinier, it’s so hard to take the scheme seriously, that part of me thinks it must be one of those so-crazy-it has-to-work ideas. I don’t know how to evaluate it, except by doing it and seeing what happens. Probably nobody else does either. Brand shows a photograph of the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, which put twenty million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and cooled the planet by half a degree in 1991. This improved polar bear habitat to the extent that there was a bumper crop of cubs, dubbed the “Pinatubo Cubs.” Brand shows a slide of two cute bear cubs.

If the only unintended consequence of geo-engineering were an ursine population explosion, I’d probably vote yes, but this seems like a definite time to exercise the precautionary principle. Nature puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, too, but look what our adding to those has brought us.

Brand mentions that any medium-sized economy could geo-engineer, so maybe the genie will come out of the bottle, will we, nil we. And, to quote Brand, we are all down-wind. He says that nations would consider each other’s unilateral attempts to alter climate acts of war, which is probably appropriate. The diplomacy that would allow concerted geo-engineering might be healthy, in that it would demand nations and their citizens to recognize the fact that Earth is a single system. But let’s not tell North Korea about it.

I owe my exposure to a lot of what’s inspired me to Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth. I learned about the first book that I ever read energetically, Paolo Soleri’s City in the Image of Man in the Whole Earth Catalog. There’s a long list of books and ideas that moved me that either came to me via Whole Earth, or which Whole Earth encouraged me give a second look. Buckminster Fuller, Ayn Rand, permaculture, Kimon Nicolaides’ The Natural Way to Draw, Gregory Bateson, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, the Hernandez Brothers’ comic Love and Rockets, one crude little cartoon by Michael Phillips concerning the relationship between income and ecological footprint. My guess is that Brand is smarter than I am, not necessarily by a lot but some, and I know he’s more disciplined.

Then what’s the deal here? I remember reading a comment of Brand's to the effect that if cancer were ever cured, it would be by a kid with a Gilbert chemistry set. The unlicensed, untaxed cities devised by third world squatters must appeal to him in the same way that the spontaneous hippie solar and geodesic communes of the late sixties did. Certainly Brand knows all the objections and alternatives I’ve mustered. His friends invented the ideas I've built my world from. Why does Brand propose the heresies?

Brand’s a libertarian, a point of view I don’t understand. Still, it seems strange that I can’t do the math that must connect libertarianism and an authoritarian program. My feeling, instead, is that Brand’s heresy comes from his idea of what is possible. There are fortunes to be made and power to be claimed in building a nuclear, genetic and geo-engineered world. These solutions are proprietary, and belong to the already powerful. While solar tinkerers, permaculturists, and farm-equipment improvisers are disorganized and dispersed, nuclear power plant builders and big ag companies have the means to promote their interests and grease the political wheels to make change happen, then find the big credit necessary to ramp up production in a hurry. The "heretical" solutions also have the benefit of demanding the least from the complacent. So we solve the problem of global warming at the cost of other environmental problems. And at the cost of indenturing ourselves more deeply to concentrated wealth.

It’s a devil’s bargain, and Brand tries to enlist us, reminding us that the tragedy of Darfur is a climate change war, and that it is the world’s poor, not we, who will suffer most. He says that we “are as gods, and we need to get good at it.” Yes, we are at a critical moment in history, but that makes it all the more important that we leave certain fruit on the tree.