Monday, April 30

Something Else that Needs to be Reused: Plastic Bottles

I've started a war on plastic bottles. Basically my strategy is to re-fill every plastic bottle in my life with the same product that originally came in it. However, there are very few manufacturers, even of green products, that make this easy. Whole Foods does get the bulk bottles of Dr. Bronner's soaps and offers refilling stations in their stores, but there aren't any Burt's Bees or Natural Organics or Zum refills available.

So my latest idea is to brew my own.

I'm looking at taking the Baby/Mild version of liquid Dr. Bronner's because it is unscented, biodegradable and available in large quantities. I'm thinking a gallon might do us fine for a year.

Next, I want to add fragrance oils to match the soaps we're using. That means lavender in the kitchen, frankincense and myrrh in the powder room, and grapefruit and ginger in the bathroom.
The dirt scent is interesting too... maybe I'll take that camping when my almond soap runs out...


I have an odd space in my bedroom that I've been thinking about turning into something useful... and in searching for loft construction ideas and platform bed ideas, I ran across this article by Joseph Schwartz (note: That link is in .doc format. For a Google html cache of it, try this). It's titled:

“Reduce, Reuse and Recycle": Prolegomena on Breakage and Repair in Ancient Jewish Society: Broken Beds and Chairs in Mishnah Kelim
And is an academic paper presented at Bar Ilan University in Israel.

I haven't gotten very far into its 34 pages, but it seems to be a study of how one ancient culture avoided making trash, at least in regard to furniture.


A New York Times article on how 9 ft ceilings are the new 8 ft ceilings. Says the article:
"eight-foot ceilings are acceptable for secondary living spaces like bathrooms and vestibules but not for living spaces."
Since I spent some time reading in Shay Solomon's Little House for a Small Planet this weekend, I have a bit of an inoculation to the pitch here -- people who are cool want higher ceilings, they're cheap, everybody is doing it. And my response: "No they're not. They're hiring Sarah Susanka to create niches and nooks they feel safe in. They may cost less than other options, but you still have to heat them. And 6 ft ceilings used to be standard." Still, I felt the sting when it went in.

Saturday, April 28

Keeping cool in summer

No Impact Man was asking for advice about washing laundry and keeping his NYC apartment cool without using power. I commented that hanging the laundry to dry inside the apartment might act as a swamp cooler. I don't know if that will work in NYC... you need to get both a breeze and a humidity that's less than 100. But I unwittingly performed this experiment today. One of my roommates is fond of loose embroidered shirts which she washes and then hang dries. She hung four of them in the doorway to my office today and as long as the shirts were damp to the touch, my office was noticeably cooler.

I may need to start hang-drying my laundry...

Friday, April 27

Rechargable Batteries, post #3

Hmm... Nintendo is making rechargeable controllers to replace the ones that come with the Wii.

.... rechargeable batteries ....
...*in* ....
... the standard controller!
.... Brilliant!


Tried this last night. It works just fine to power both the rumble pack and the built-in speaker. I had a fine time bowling and playing golf with a friend of mine for an hour or so and the battery level still shows full.

I'm sold on these batteries. Have I said that already? What I don't get is why companies go to such an effort to hide them. At Home Depot, they're on one side of one of the register endcaps. That's in contrast to at least a dozen displays of the consumable kind.

At Circuit City, batteries are on a kiosk tree, and the rechargeable ones are all hidden on the side that faces the wall. And then access is blocked on one side by a sign. It's a really clear sign that these companies make a bunch of money off battery purchases and they're not interested in promoting alternatives.

Wednesday, April 25

Quote of the day

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.

- (attributed to) Marcel Proust

Tuesday, April 24

Recommended Practices (so far)

I wanted to do an Earth day post of my top 10 tips... but I haven't tried 10 new things since starting this blog, let alone trying enough to talk about the "Top" 10. So I'm gonna summarize what I've done so far and whether it was worth it.

Change to CFLs - Definitely worth it. Virtually no impact in lighting in the house (my office is cooler without the halogens on and I think my cat misses curling up under the desk lamp) and changing 15 high-use bulbs saved $7 in the first month.
Driving Journal - Definitely worth it. I used a small notebook and wrote down the starting mileage and my destination for every trip I made. I now know I can have a very satisfying life on less than 8,000 miles per year.
Rechargeable Batteries - I think this is definitely worth it for anything I'm changing the batteries in more than once a month. Still up in the air for things that use less. I am considering whether, as batteries burn out, I will start swapping sets around... say one set for my remotes and my wireless game controller and another set for the calculator and adding machine in the office.
Wearing a hat to bed - Definitely worth it. Makes me comfortable enough in a cool bed to be able to warm it up before I get cold. Lets me turn the thermostat down a degree.
Choose to re-use - This is more an exercise in creativity than a specific thing to do. I'm getting more intentional about not allowing anything into my life that I'm only going to use once. I'm now brewing tea in glass jars at work and stashing them in the fridge for when I want a cold and/or caffeinated drink. And I'm using handkerchiefs.
Start a conversation - Definitely worth it. I'm very introverted, so this one is a challenge. But I'm finding that when I come up with a question that's based on my interests, people are interested in answering it from their experience. I've had really nice talks with energy efficiency experts, former farm kids, new farm managers, friends of various backgrounds, a bike renovator, gardeners, and at least a dozen other people I never would have known I had something in common with until I talked to them.


A FastCompany paean to the CFL (Change some bulbs, change the world)
And here are the Walmart CFLs (Yeah... union-busting, sub-poverty pay for full-time work, replacement of home-grown stores in towns across the US... but also solar generation on every roof! A campaign to replace 180 million incandescents with CFLs...and 12 packs of the 13w bulbs for $18.)
Atmosfair Another carbon-offset program. Places the cost of offsetting air travel higher than TerraPass or CarbonCounter and uses the funds to provide solar cookers in India.
Looking for information on the next home improvement project to undertake? James Dulley bottom-lines-it for nearly two hundred of projects in his on-line archive. He's also gotten his 3,000 square foot Ohio home's utilities bills down to an average of less than $55 per month.

Quote of the day

Yes, there are eaters who think it in their interest that food just be as cheap as possible, no matter how poor the quality. But there are many more who recognize the real cost of artificially cheap food — to their health, to the land, to the animals, to the public purse.
Michael Pollan
"You Are What You Grow"
New York Times, April 22, 2007

(Mr. Pollan is also the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma)

Monday, April 23

My Day at the Farm

So, on the 14th I did go to the work day at the learning farm for Compass Montessori School in Golden. They have a lot of information about what the school and the farm are about on their website, so I don't really want to get into that. I do want to talk about why I went and what I observed.

The big picture of why I went is that it makes sense to me that if we are going to address global warming, reduce our dependence on petroleum, reduce our carbon footprints, and fight obesity to boot, we need to go back to serious gardening. I mean Victory Garden-type gardening. I think that global warming has the kind of potential impact that deserves a WWII response from the US. However, I'm a wimp. I've never done much gardening and don't trust myself to have the stamina to keep at it. So, I went to practice, to see, and to build up my endurance.

We spent about 4 hours working. The first part of the time I worked on raking and seeding a new pasture for the goats and llamas.
The second part of the time I worked on a fence for keeping the llamas out of the high school area.
The day started off in the low 50's and ended up in the mid 60's which made it a darn fine day for labor. I got a little sunburned and I was pretty tired at the end of the day but not totally beaten up.

A few things I observed. First, I have a long way to go before being physically able to do a day's work on the farm. Let alone week after week. That being said, it seems to be easier in a way. Not that there isn't as much to know as there is in my industry (cable). And not that there aren't deadlines and all that. But it was really delightful to be able to pause at my rake, feel the breeze, and look off into the distance. It was so much more refreshing than a coffee break. Still, let's not get all romantical.

Second, the woman who is running the farm seems to have found something that works for her in a deeply satisfying way. She speaks with care and affection for the teens that come work with her and for all the plants and animals growing there. She has a sense of that physically-grounded at-home-ness you see in people who are building their own homes.

Third, guessing based on the amount of self-expression in the halls at the school, the kids are getting a world-class education in the power of making choices and following through on them. It seems like these kids have the wherewithal to stand up in the world and be known. Which is my way of contrasting them with people who go out into the world as young adults and then as adults who look to their sports team, their car brand, their favorite talking head, their church for their sense of self instead of it arising from some place deep inside.

I have been working on this post, but also procrastinating for a week. We have the May issue of Mother Jones on the table at the house and Barbara Kingsolver has a beautiful, rambling essay about locally grown food in it. I have been hoping it would be up before I posted this, but it isn't yet. Check there in a week or two. I especially like the call to know your farmer. Not as an exhibit, but as someone who is your partner... every bit as much as your doctor or dentist. We have an obligation to those men and women to not just shop around for the lowest price, but to understand that what we're willing to pay for our food is connected to what we're willing to invest in keeping the Earth green and working for all.

Thursday, April 19

Quote of the day

Small rooms or dwellings discipline the mind, large ones weaken it.
Leonardo DaVinci

Quotes at the Small House Society

New Template

It's feeling like spring around here and I'm wanting something... greener... for the template. So I'm experimenting. Let me know what you think. I have a post and some beautiful photos from the farm I'm working on as well as a post for Earth Day about what I've learned in my first two months. Thanks for reading!

Feelin' Lucky

So, not only are my roommates friends, and one of those roommates is a subscriber to the Cure Farm CSA, and the community garden in my area doesn't sell out, and there are bike lanes along all the major roads in a 10 mile radius... I have a new slow food restaurant opening a stone's throw away.

It's called Colterra. Read the Westword article here.

Wednesday, April 18

What's your Information Style?

I'm doing personal growth work with a guy near here (Boulder is one of those places where you can fling a wet towel and hit a spiritual teacher of some kind) named Larry Byram. There are many facets to Larry's work, and people come and go as they need and come and hear what they need to.

One thing I take away from Larry's work is an understanding of Information Styles. (He calls them creative energies.) There are seven basic styles, and I'm going to present them in the form of a story. Let's say you've taken your canoe out to the lake to do some fishing. A bit later, a good friend comes to the shore and greets you. In waving back, you knock your paddle out of the boat. What does your friend do?

  • Priest: will stay on the shore and may encourage you to see the silver lining in the situation or tell you what you should have done to not lose your paddle.
  • Sage: will swim out to your canoe and climb in so you're not alone and will spend the afternoon telling stories.
  • King: will get the next group of fishers down the shore to come and help you.
  • Artisan: will look around for something that could be used to get you into shore. Might find something. Might invent a way to keep you from losing your paddle next time.
  • Warrior: will go get their boat and row out to tow you to shore. May or may not tell you what they're doing.
  • Servers: will go get the first friend they can find to come help you. The person may or may not be equipped to help.
  • Scholars: will attempt to talk you through an alternate method of propelling your boat which they've read about.
Now, all of these are valid information styles. Some probably resonated as "helpful" for you and some resonated as "irritating."

I think whenever we come to the town commons, it is important to know our own Information Style and those of others. For example Debra Lynn Dadd is a Priest. She's gonna tell you what the best option is and why. Ed Begley Jr. is an Artisan, and he's out there trying on possibilities for the rest of us to learn and possibly benefit from. David Suzuki is a Server and he's providing resources where you can go help yourself in parallel to what he's doing. Al Gore isn't quite a Scholar naturally, he's more of an Artisan with a touch of Scholar. In An Inconvenient Truth he's playfully and creatively presenting information he's very connected to. And Gov. Schwarzenegger is bringing some much needed Sage energy to the environmental movement. He's out there talking with people, pointing out the fun, bringing people together, and basically saying this is something we can all do.

Some Information Styles are naturally going to be comfortable for you and easy to listen to, and some may be grating. Use your style to find the people you synergize with, and let people who do it differently, but who are heading in the same direction, pass with a friendly wave... not a lot of energy in getting them to change to your style.

(Thanks to Laura for help with this post.)

Off Topic Link

Okay, this is related to smaller living in an extended way... I'm both tall and plus-sized. This makes finding clothes to sweat in a bit of a pain. Last year at a customer survey section with REI, I complained about their lack of extended sizes. Looks like maybe they heard that from more than just me. They now have a section on their website devoted to extended women's sizes! You cannot believe how happy I am to imagine that there might be zip-off cargo pants in my size!

Tuesday, April 17

Whatever Happened to Returnable Bottles?

Last week I tried a Boylan ginger ale. The vintage-style bottle with all the intricate name detailing on the outside did a good job of reminding me of the returnable bottles of my early youth when Colorado had a returnable bottle deposit. I don't remember the news of the time, so I don't know why the deposit and the bottles went away.

The bottles are still available. Coca-cola insists they're just following customer preference in supplying non-returnable bottles to most of the U.S. That may be true as the returnable bottles are far more common in the three countries I've been in in Latin America. (In fact the bottles are so valuable that the sellers often keep them, providing your ice cold 6 oz Coke to go in a cup or a bag with a straw.)

I wonder if soda companies determine customer preference by putting out both kinds of bottles and seeing what people actually purchase, or if they go by bottle bills (and here).

I also ran across this document by the Agriculture Department on shipping milk in re-usable containers. They estimate that with good crating, a bottle can be re-filled 20 times.

I am also haunted by the image of Michelle's -- No Impact Man's wife -- lunch container in the New York Times article on them (photo by Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times). This seems to me to exemplify re-using. True, you can't microwave it, but it's a beautiful reminder that glass bottles were pretty much invented to store food and beverages over and over again. And given the very real risk that comes from microwaving plastic, it seems to me that taking lunch in a glass container makes a lot of sense.

I notice that Ball is now making plastic lids for sealing their bottles for the fridge. I think I may need to get some of these and try out taking my food to work in a jar. I'm sure it'll attract some attention, but that's not unusual. My lunches already look like this when I'm ready to eat:

That's lemon zinger tea in a 20 oz. beer mug adopted from a yard sale, Indian food leftovers in a Target ceramic bowl, miscellaneous silverware, and a napkin-sized dish towel from Crate and Barrel.

Monday, April 16

Quote of the day

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity... It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Wisdom Quotes

Quote of the day

Ultimately your greatest teacher is to live with an open heart.
The Ripples Project

Whole Foods 30-day Carbon Diet

Whole Foods is doing an interesting tool to capitalize on the "reduce your carbon footprint" bandwagon. This page features links to their carbon calculator tool, their booklet on their 30-reduction plan (provided in .pdf, but no note on whether you can print the coupons you want to use at home and take them in), a pledge to reduce your footprint, and information.

The booklet is designed to encourage reducing by buying new products. I am disappointed by this because there is a fundamental disconnect between reducing carbon by buying more stuff. But, as Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter write:

... the critique of mass society has been one of the most powerful forces driving consumerism for more than 40 years.
"The Rebel Sell"

Rather than telling me which new products my life is incomplete without, I'd like a 30 step guide that would include projects like "Brainstorm 25 ways to use a t-shirt". I'd like to be able to mail my Burt's Bees organic body wash bottle in for a refill, not encouragement to recycle it.

If you want the bottom line, here's their list of 30 tips. Looking over it, I pretty much agree with what's there. I'm surprised and pleased by the plug for local grown food and home-grown food... seeing as they're in business to sell food and not plants. ;-)

Friday, April 13

And the Oscar goes to...

I was so excited for Al Gore on Oscar night.

The next morning I started reflecting on An Inconvenient Truth again. I like to think it was a reminder of many things I already know and value... and yet... and yet I had exactly zero compact fluorescent bulbs replacing incandescents in my new house. I had to wonder if I really believed Mr. Gore... or if the message was still taking up residence in my, "gee, wouldn't it be nice if the world was different" category.

I don't know all that much about CFLs. In my first condo, I replaced a few lights with the elongated tube kind. They burned blue and they didn't fit in the same spaces my incandescents did. When I brought those lamps to the house I lived in with my ex, she nixed them. But the challenge Mr. Gore gave in his speech -- take the three bulbs you use most and replace them with CFLs -- plus the recent decision by Australia to outlaw incandescents... well, I decided it was past time to give it a try.

I bought $100 worth of bulbs at the local hardware store. This included a new fixture for the front porch, a couple of "daylight" bulbs, and a whole bunch of soft white spirals in different wattages.

The fluorescent fixture claimed it would save 75% over conventional fixtures, and at our house the front porch light can be on for 4 or more hours. It also had the bonus of being a dusk to dawn lamp -- turning on when the sun went down. Since I am usually the first one home and come home after dark, and in the dark, I started there. It turns out that 25% of the promised savings was because the light cycled on and off every 20 seconds, which the roommates vetoed. So I found another florescent fixture and changed it out again. The steady florescent light was acceptable.

I put the daylight bulbs outside the coat closet. The blue cast in the hall was another no-go for the roomies.

In the kitchen and the full bath, I mixed one incandescent and one soft white fluorescent in each fixture. These were completely inconspicuous to the roommates. Additionally I changed out 3 of the 5 bulbs in the dimmable dining room lamp. These also passed.

My conclusions from this exercise are:

  • We are a soft white household.
  • My roommates are fine with energy economy as long as it doesn't require major discomfort on their part.
I know the 5 bulbs we use most are among the 15 I changed, so by some measures I've done "enough". But given that Australia and the EU are banning incandescents, I'd like to go farther eventually. I haven't found a bulb that will replace the spot flood we have in the half bath... it's fully enclosed and the lights I've tried are too flat. Maybe that's a place for an LED replacement. I need to try 3-ways in three fixtures, and I need to replace a couple of torchieres.

I'm expecting to do my buying for these experiments from here. If you shop there, any bulb that doesn't say "daylight" is a soft white bulb... at least according to the customer service rep who e-mailed me.

Batteries update + Doing the Math

The rechargeable batteries I put in my camera continue to hold up well. They've reached the performance I've been getting from my alkalines. So, I would say the first charge is satisfactory.

The rechargeable batteries I got are $11.83 at That's $3 per battery.
The Kirkland batteries I'm replacing are for sale at eBay for $64.95. That's for 192 batteries, which is 33 cents a battery. And that's in the range of these.

So, on price, I need each of the 4 batteries I got to have a satisfying 8.73 charges. Or, if I don't want to work that hard at keeping track of which batteries I'm using today, keeping track of the next 18 uses (in pairs).

I think on environmental aspects, a 2 charge threshold makes sense.

Energizer says these batteries will take 500 charges. That works out to $0.006 or of a penny for each use. Oh heck. Let's round up to a penny apiece in case we lose a battery or two. Or even round up to $.10 each for all the things that happen to stuff.

That means that each of my rechargeables could be used 30 times and cost only $.10 apiece. And they could be used an order of magnitude more.

This reminds me of the exhortation to replace the 5 most frequently used incandescents in my home to fluorescents. What are the five things I change the batteries most in?

  • Camera
  • Toys
  • Wireless keyboard & mouse
  • Flashlight
  • Remotes
Hmm. A recharging station for my remotes would actually give us a place we all expect to store and find them....

Wednesday, April 11

Cool Tool!

Well, I went out to my utility company's website to grab the link for their fluorescent bulb supplier and I found the tool instead. This tool allows you to set up an account, enter in info from your bills and your house and get a report on how you're doing compared to average.
I feel like I'm doing pretty well. Of course, I really wish that my current use *was* average and then we'd be in a bit less trouble. But anyway.
I have some complaints about their suggestions and the tools they've built to make suggestions. For example, if you go to the fridge info, they don't have that sun king from the energy star list as an option. For heat, they don't let you compare ways of heating your house (steam vs forced air, for example). And there aren't any options for seeing what solar might do.
But it's brightly colored, interactive, reasonably responsive and so it's one of those "fun" tools for me. I still wish there was a tool where they'd let you print karma certificates though...

Rechargable Batteries

Once upon a time, a long time ago, my dad brought home a battery charger. This was when batteries were transitioning from carbon to alkaline. And I remember being disappointed in how sorry the charge was from a rechargeable.

But I've been thinking of all the ways that re-chargeable are part of my life today... my cell phone, my cordless phone, my laptop at work, my iPod ... all things that use rechargeable batteries that I don't think twice about.

So, what about those rechargeable AAs (flashlight, camera) and AAAs (led headlamp, calculator)? Now that I have gone through my ultra-mega box of AAs from Costco, I picked up an Energizer compact charger from Office Depot ($21+tax).

I put the AAs on to charge last night. They charged overnight and went in my camera this morning. I'm shooting RAW format at 7.1 megapixels and my camera sucks batteries dry. It will be interesting to see how many shots I get and how long these last. The camera behaved like a champ for the 6 shots I took this morning, so I'm pleased so far.

Quote of the day

If we all did what we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.

Source Unknown
Quote courtesy of a splash at The Ripples Project. (Or the "positive thinking fortune cookie project" as I introduce it to others. ;-)

Tuesday, April 10

Quote of the Day

One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.

What I'm doing April 14th

April 14th is StepItUp, a national day of action for climate change. I will be at a teaching farm in Golden, helping get things ready for planting. I figure this is a great way to begin to understand what sustainable farming really looks like.

I plan to send photos. ;-)

Things that need reusing

I'm at the point where I'm frustrated with having to recycle (i.e. melt down and re-form) items without getting to use them again. My current list of things that need re-using includes:

  • packages from spiral fluorescent bulbs (Some non-profit could buy the bulbs in bulk and use donated packaging to sell them as a fund raiser.)
  • All glass jars, but especially ones from jelly and spaghetti sauce
  • newspaper
  • cereal boxes and other light cardboard
  • photos from magazines and calendars
  • "worn out" clothes. (Does anyone really wear clothes out any more??)
  • Soda cans
  • Fleece -- ubiquitous, durable, and a petroleum product. Someone should start a "national fleece repository" that pays a bounty for fleece turned in and sells the fleece to people who will re-use it. Blankets become jackets, become vests, become hats, become gloves, become baby booties.
  • Shopping bags. We have enough of these to last us until eternity... but what about crocheting bags into netting bags for shopping or hammocks or cargo nets for trucks?
  • Wine bottles -- it's so easy to turn these into glasses... we need Crate and Barrel to release a line of re-used wine-bottle glasses and make this cool.

Monday, April 9


Pods I like

A couple of years ago it ended up that Dwell and ReadyMade did issues on modular or small housing just about at the same time. These are links from those articles and other related things I've found:

  • Blazona: 100 sq ft modern module for living, office, studio, or guests.
  • The Pod: These cardboard houses came from Icosa Village, which doesn't seem to have a web presence right now. I'm linking to the WorldChanging story on them.
  • Tiny House on Wheels: Building a tiny house on wheels allows one to register it as a trailer. Here's a video tour of one such house, the woman who built it, and an entertaining visit to a new-built home neighborhood.
  • fabprefab: modern prefab houses (have a list of tiny houses under OtherFab)
Re-used newsprint

One question I'm starting to ask a lot is, "How can I re-use this before I take it to the recycling yard?" And in particular I'm looking at stacks of newspaper and thinking that.

Today I found these clever pencils that re-use British papers:

Quote of the day

I will try this day to live a simple, sincere, and serene life, repelling [thoughts] of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, and self-seeking; cultivating cheerfulness and magnanimity; exercising economy in expenditure, generosity in giving, and thoughtfulness in conversation.
"A Morning Resolve" (edited)
Forward Day By Day
February/March/April 2007

More information here.

Saturday, April 7

Quote of the Day

When the world is running down
You make the best of what's still around

The Police

We Eat Oil

I felt tempted to pull out the old skills and do a standard book review post about The Omnivore's Dilemma but I really can't. I mean I could talk about the cleverness of his devices and the solidness of the writing and the way he makes facts accessible through personal stories... but that would be faking an objectivity I don't really feel. This book frightened and inspired me. And I only got through the first section.

The Omnivore's dilemma is an extension of the organism's basic problem -- "What can I eat?" At this point in our evolution, humans are omnivores. We've figured out that we can eat pretty much everything. Not only that, we've figured out how to get other humans to bring our favorite foods to us. So, given that, are there things which are better for us to eat? And how do we measure better? This is the dilemma.

Up until the 1950's, hunger was a major problem even in the US. The Great Depression was only partly an economic slowdown after the collapse of Wall Street. It was also a drought that threatened famine. As a nation, we did what starving animals do. We became obsessed with food quantity... perhaps at the expense of quality.

Three technologies were developed for increasing food production: irrigation techniques, pesticides, and fertilizers. Introducing these elements to farming became known as The Green Revolution, increasing food production wherever they went.

Pollan argues that corn is the engine of this food production. He makes the case that corn is more efficient than other grains at turning energy inputs into stored energy. Because of this efficiency, we can produce more calories of corn than we can actually consume. So corn has increasingly elbowed its way into our food system by replacing other calorie sources. For example, corn syrup sweeteners instead of cane or beet sugar. Corn-fed cattle instead of grass-fed cattle. Bit-by-bit corn has become the staple food of the US.

The problem with this model is that corn cannot maintain itself year after year in the same land. The traditional method of growing corn was to rotate or co-plant it with crops like squash and beans. But squash and beans aren't as efficient and aren't consumed at the same levels. The Green Revolution allows us to skip the rotation by feeding the corn through fertilizer.

The problem with this is that corn produces fewer usable calories than the fertilizer contains. Fertilizers are a petroleum product. So in other words, our diet is in direct competition with our cars. And the ethanol-as-renewable-resource meme looks to compound the problem again: use petroleum to make fertilizer, grow corn with the fertilizer, use the corn to power cars or to eat...

Fortunately, Pollan ends the section on corn on a positive note. He tells us of a visit to Polyface farm, an intensive agriculture farm where after the corn is cut down, the chickens are turned loose to finish up the grain and eat bugs. Then grass is allowed to grow, thriving in the chicken litter. Then cows are grazed on the grass, aerating the soil and providing fertilizer. Then the corn is grown again. This high-care, high intensity agriculture seems to produce far more calories per acre than the corn-based industrial agriculture we have now... but it is incredibly labor intensive.

This leads me to suspect that when we get serious about global warming, we will have to return, in some way, to being a nation of farmers and ranchers.

The story of Pollan's visit to Polyface is also included in Best Food Writing 2006, along with an excerpt from Julie and Julia, and a thoughtful article from Bill McKibbin written for Gourmet. Which is to say, I think the book is worth it for just those three pieces, but it's stuffed full (no pun intended) of good reading.

Friday, April 6

Quote of the day

Try as hard as we may for perfection, the net result of our labors is an amazing variety of imperfectness. We are surprised at our own versatility in being able to fail in so many different ways.

Sleeping in a colder house

I sleep colder than anyone I know. Always have. I also love to camp. And I'm allergic to wool and down. Put these three things together and you have a formula for a life-long interest: What does it take to stay warm at night? The following tips are from a lifetime of sleeping in all kinds of places.

Increase your R value. Camping teaches that you want fluffy layers near you to make spaces for warmed air. And then put a shell over them to prevent the air from floating off into the house at night. At home when it's cold I use a denim-comforter cover over a comforter, a fleece blanket, and flannel sheets.

Naked or clothed? I got to test this one out by taking a friend from California camping in October. I had two sleeping bags and she got the heavy one. I spent half the night awake in my clothes and the other half the night awake naked. The verdict? Clothes are just part of your R-value. If you have enough insulation from other places, naked can be great. But if you're cold, put on clothes. Layer if you have to. On really cold nights, I'll wear an undershirt under my flannel pj's.

Make sure you're insulated below. If you sleep in a bed, this probably isn't a problem. But if you're sleeping on the floor and the floor is a concrete slab with a layer of carpet over it then your body is bravely working to heat up the earth all night long. By sleeping on something that will warm up and stay warm you give it a break. In a pinch these days, I'd use puzzle mats. At my karate dojo, the difference between the concrete slab part of the floor and the puzzle mat part of the floor is night and day.

My cat is my hat. I learned the joys of sleeping with a night cap one week when I was living in a brick-on-brick construction house in a bedroom on the north west corner of the house. We had an early cold snap that September and didn't have the storm windows up and all the other usual winter warming things. Several nights that week I woke up to find I was sweating and my cat was wrapped around the top of my head. I figure if the cat thinks it's the warmest place in the house, I probably should add some insulation. I made a very loose-fitting watch-cap style hat from some fleece fabric and that's what I usually sleep with at night. I avoid hats that are stretchy or use elastic to stay on.

Heat your feet. My feet are my thermostat. If they're warm, I'm warm. I think there's a good reason behind this... when we're cold, our bodies turn down the blood flow to our extremities, and our feet are the most extreme of our extremities. I have a theory that there's also a feed-back loop at work... if my feet start to get cold, my body pro-actively shifts into cold mode, turning down blood flow to my feet. I learned while camping to make my water bottle with hot water and put it in the bottom of my sleeping bag. (Actually, I put in tea bags too so I have my morning tea without even turning on the stove.) At home I'll take a similar water bottle and stick it in the microwave for about 3 minutes. I did have one of those rubber water bottles for a while, but my cat poked holes in it. And if I'm chilled I'll go run my feet under warm water until the insides feel warm, put on loose-fitting socks and head back to bed.

Go to bed warm. The first job your body has when it goes to bed is heating all that insulation. So it helps to start out warm. 10 to 20 sit-ups usually does the trick for me. Also good for when you wake up cold in the middle of the night.

Make sure you're fueled and lubed. The #1 use of food energy is to keep our bodies warm. A wonderful book on camping and backpacking (and therefore on staying warm in all kinds of conditions with a very small amount of stuff) is the NOLS Wilderness Guide. They have this to say:

Fats are a more concentrated form of energy and a more complex food than carbohydrates, so it usually takes the body from two to nine hours to metabolize them. .. they are a good long-term energy source to keep you hiking all day and warm all night.
NOLS Wilderness Guide, 1983, "Cooking for Nutrition and Pleasure" page 168.

Thursday, April 5


Hypermiling resources:
Article on AutoBlogGreen
Article in Mother Jones
Forum post by Wayne Gerdes, subject of Mother Jones article. Explains the acronyms in the article.

And why it matters:
BBC: Billions face climate change risk

Wednesday, April 4

How to get Energy Star to tell you what the best appliances are

If you've done any appliance shopping in the US in the last 20 years, you've seen the Energy Star logo. It would be nice if the logo meant "buy this product and all will be well with the world," but it doesn't mean that. I have noticed that lots of appliances have cards that suggest they are Energy Star compliant, but in fact they say "we've been tested for Energy Star compliance" or "We're somewhere on the Energy Star scale." And actually, the SUV exemption exists for Energy Star too... "as long as you're looking for a fridge just like this -- size, freezer placement, etc. -- then we're above average."

The US government does keep a database with more information,, but even that is presented in a very passive way. It looks like it's just there to present results in a neutral way. Look up your manufacturer and the model number and it will tell you -- yes or no -- whether what you're looking at is better than average.

Well, what if you really want to know what the best option is? It turns out that's in there too. Here's how to use Excel to get at it.

  1. Go to the web page for finding consumer products. (
  2. Click on the class of product you want information for.
  3. When the new page comes up, it should have general information in the main column, and then over in the right-hand column, it should have a "Product List" subheading with links under it.
  4. Click on the Excel worksheet link. Now, if you right click and try to save this file, you'll get page data instead. So click on the link and when the computer asks what you want to do, open the link with Excel.
  5. Once the file is open, save a copy on your computer. We're going to edit the data.
  6. I start by making a copy of the sheet I'm on. That way I still have the original data if I mess something up.
  7. On the copy, I do two things:

    1. Remove the headers in the merged cells at the top of the sheet. Our goal is to sort the data and these headers don't sort well.
      Then I look to see if there is a column for what I really want to know. For example, I decided that I wanted to know the fridges that used the least watts per cubic foot. So I added a column that divided the watts by the cubic foot. You can add this column by typing a formula in the top cell in the column (=i2/h2), hovering over the lower right-hand corner of the cell until the skinny plus sign shows up, clicking there, and then dragging the formula down to fill the rest of the rows.
  8. Highlight the column that contains the information you want to use for your decision-making. (This is my new column.) Now go to the Data item in the menu bar, click on that, and then click on Sort. It will ask whether you want to include the rest of the data on your page. You do, so expand the selection and click the sort button.
  9. A new pop-up appears. Your highlighted column is the first option to sort by. Tell Excel whether you want an ascending or a decending sort. If you want to know which appliances exceed their appliance class the most, you want a decending list. If you want to know which appliances use the least energy in a year, you want an ascending list.

  10. There are some other options in the box. You can use additional criteria to sort by, like the manufacturer's name. And then it asks if you have a header row. If you kept the rows in the spreadsheet that tell you what each column is, then you have header rows.

Press OK to sort the data. You should notice that the manufacturer names are no longer in alphabetical order.

I did this with the refrigerator data, adding the watts/year/adjusted volume column mentioned above and sorting by that. I look down the configuration column for refrigerator/freezers, and the most efficient model is the Sun Frost RF-12. Now, the "Percent Better" column confirms that... this model is 51% better than the standard for fridges in this class. But would you have looked through 1800 models to find the best? Or would you have looked for a familiar name, found a part number, and gone to look for that one?

Confession time... I did that when I bought the washer and dryer for the new house. I'm going to do better with the fridge. ;-)

Nomads, Indians, Saints

I have been thinking a lot about people who inspire me in this project. I think Nomads - travelers, pioneers, and settlers; Indians - indigenous peoples adapting to and settling into their lands; and Saints - people who walk their talk in radical ways; is a pretty good way to group them.

The Nomad that's been on my mind lately is Rick Steves.

My dad was an Eagle Scout. His version of "be prepared" meant "take everything you think you might need." And while my brother interpreted that to mean packing just a pair of shorts and 10 changes of underwear for a 10-day camping trip, I have interpreted that to mean taking way too much stuff to way too many places and I have had a whole lot of misery just from schlepping my luggage around.

Rick is my antidote to Rich (my dad).

Rick's guideline is to "Pack Light and Right". This means one carry-on sized bag for all trips of any length to any destination. Why?

  • So you can have more fun while traveling and spend less energy moving and keeping track of stuff.
  • So that you are not insulated from the cultures you encounter while traveling.
Rick's Back Door philosophy is about encountering the places you travel to. In short, you haven't really been to a place unless you've been to the market, had a picnic, started a conversation with a stranger, shared family photos, had a surprising meal, slept in a house, and given something away.

Doing all these things while traveling in one bag takes some pretty intentional reducing, re-using, and recycling. There is nothing in the packing list that will only be used once. If it's not going to be used every three days or so, it shouldn't go in your bag. But also, if you have the basics, it opens up possibilities. For example, if you have a fork, spoon, and pocket knife, you can visit a grocer and eat pretty much anywhere. But if you don't happen to have those with you, you're usually stuck going to a restaurant to eat.

Doing all these things also pretty much argues that people are the best form of entertainment wherever you go.

I think it's because of reading Rick Steves that my shoulder bag now contains silverware for instant picnics, one book which can be used for notes, journaling, sketching, calendar dates, and paper. Rick is also one of those people who motivates me to try having conversations with strangers instead of going through my life afraid of them.

For more information on Rick Steves, check out his website.
Travel Tips page:


By the way, it would just be wrong to use this title for a post and not give a hat-tip to the Indigo Girls. I'm gonna do that by linking to the Honor the Earth campaign.

Quote of the day

I would not prolong
Further a life that soon enough
Must have an end
If the waste of days and months
Is only to widen the more.
- Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241)

From a scroll in the Colorado Collection of Kimiko & John Powers, currently on exhibition at the Denver Art Museum.

Report Card Day

I just got my utility bill for the month of March. I had really hoped that the changes over the last month would make an amazing difference in my bill. Okay, so I still hope for magic. ;-)

Here's the bottom line:


So, that's a difference of 78 KWh between our February usage and our March usage. Or 8.7%. How much of that is warmer weather and longer days and how much of that is conservation? I don't have real good stats on that. But since most of my conservation has been changing to CFLs, and I've recorded my changes at One Billion Bulbs, I'm gonna use their numbers.

According to my account, I've changed 15 bulbs. They're showing estimated savings of $7.55. They're also currently using a figure of 9 cents per kilowatt hour for Colorado, which means they estimate my changes have resulted in nearly 84 fewer kilowatt hours being used. They don't have a filter that allows me to see savings during a date range, so this does include a few days of February usage.

Hmm. So, it looks like, based on very rough estimates, my 8.7% savings, or 78 KWh, can pretty much all be attributed to changing CFLs over the last month or so (84 KWh). That's pretty reassuring.

But numbers over 800 KWhs feel high to me. I got a quote on a solar PV system and the estimator said, "I'd be really surprised if you were using over 400 KWhs regularly." And yet my 3 bdrm house appears to be using nearly twice that regularly.

What I don't know is whether the estimator was commenting on one person living here or a couple or more than that.

Month# of peopleKWh/personTherms/person

It is rather comforting to look at it this way. It makes it easy to see that it is worthwhile to share expenses with others, even if the bottom line numbers go up because actually the per person use is going down.

My solar estimate was $15,000 to supply 400 KWh of electricity per month off my own roof. The economics of that are pretty interesting... the system pays for itself in about 20 years assuming that KWh prices stay in the 10 cents an hour range. It pays for itself more rapidly if electricity costs go up... which is likely considering retrofitting power plants to sequester carbon and increasing demand for coal and natural gas worldwide. I am disappointed that 400 KWh isn't enough to make my household self-supporting. But maybe that's an indication that there's more to save. Hmm... how many more bulbs can I change before my roommates revolt? ;-)

Tuesday, April 3

Quote of the day

Those who speak most of progress measure it by quantity and not by quality.
George Santayana
US (Spanish-born) philosopher (1863 - 1952)
From the Quotations Page

Blow or Show?

I got the idea, looking at the 3+ boxes of facial tissue I went through last week, that perhaps it is time to experiment with handkerchiefs. Without going into all the details of all my nose-blowing habits (can you say "allergic rhinitis"? I knew you could!), I do seem to be the kind of person who could benefit from using a handkerchief during the day and tossing it into the dirty laundry at night and selecting a new one in the morning with my underwear.

So I went handkerchief shopping. I have memories of running across them in the past... they'd be hanging out by the ties in the men's section of the department store. But the department store I visited didn't carry them. I tried using a bandanna from a craft store, but it was too rough and too big to stuff in my pocket. A friend of mine suggested looking at a Men's Warehouse. So last night I was walking from the restaurant where I had dinner to the office supply store to get some garden planning materials and I looked up and realized I was walking by a Men's Warehouse. I walked in, scouted out the tie section, didn't see anything and wondered whether handkerchiefs were so far gone from our psyche that they aren't stocked even here... when a guy behind the registers asked if he could help me find anything. I said, "handkerchiefs" and he said, "Show or Blow?" Which was a really cool way of saying they are still pretty common, but there are two kinds.

So I got myself a baker's dozen for a buck apiece, and we'll see how this goes. At least I know no old-growth forests are being cut down so I can wipe my nose this week.


I have been mulling over that couplet from "The Night Before Christmas":

Ma in her kerchief, and I in my cap,
had just settled down for a long winter's nap
and that got me to wondering what a "kerchief" was to have this common use... here's the Wikipedia link for those of you whose minds wander like mine. ;-)

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NotSoBigLiving is the story of a woman inspired by Sarah Susanka, Bill McKibben, Airstreams, Tumbleweed houses, Mennonites, Jimmy Carter, hippies, survivalists, Anasazi, Pema Chodron and Joko Beck, Scott Peck, Buckminster Fuller, and Al Gore to see what she can do to reduce her carbon footprint in her mid-80's suburban townhome. Strategies include roommates, alternative travel, organic eating, planting a victory garden, mindfulness, and a belly full of laughter.