Tuesday, December 30, 2008

No Child Left Inside


This proposed amendment to NCLB would provide grant money for get children outside to learn. This seems like a great goal to me and a decent way to push in that direction. In the current climate of hyper-testing, it seems to me that it would take a truly special teacher to get kids outside to learn if there isn't already some precedent at his/her school. Maybe the availability of these grants would help motivate schools and districts to set up programs for outdoor learning.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Blue is the new green? WTF?

Greenwashing (to use a loaded word) and global warming (as real and important as it is) were good to get the movement going, but are beginning to distract from the need for sustainability across the board, not just the carbon cycle


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Food fight

Although much of the statistics are specific to Japan, many of the messages in this Japanese PSA should probably be heeded all across the developed world. It was produced by the Minisitry of Agriculture, Forests, and Fisheries. It takes on many of the problems inherent in the western diet from health effects, to wastefulness, to security. There is an honesty to it that would be impossible from the USDA given the huge influence lobbyists seem to have in that organization.

The dancing people at the end are a nice touch, and I particularly like the food packer and the gas station attendant fighting over the ear of corn.

(Via infosthetics)

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Little White Market

Sometime in September, a friend told us that a good friend of her neighbor (and friend), just bought a little old house downtown behind the police station. This person previously was a chef for the Finest Gourmet, a little shop in Mendon that makes prepared dinners. The Bocks had them deliver us a meal after Alex was born. It was quite good and we've gone back a couple of times, usually on butternut squash ravioli night.

Anyway, we walked by there on Saturday and it turns out she opened for business this past Thursday. While we've been hoping for a little cafe/ice cream parlor to open up. The root of that wish was that there might be an afternoon destination downtown. The Litte White Market sells, in addition to catering and selling prepared meals, also sells sandwiches and drinks (including beer and wine). This is pretty exciting. We'll make a point to stop by as much as possible to help her out, because we'd really like to see this place succeed.

She was just closing up as we walked by, so we couldn't do more than poke our heads in. She did mention that she is having a wine tasting on November 20th as a belated grand opening event.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It is that easy

In looking for a YouTube link to Mark Bittman's TED presentation, I stumbled upon this recipe for making bread the easy way.

It really is that easy. Next time I'll try with more interesting ingredients.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Hot, flat, and crowded

I just listened to an interview with Tom Friedman, author of Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

He makes the case that we need systemic change in the way we live to face the coming challenges. The primary challenges are global warming (hot), a globally growing consumer class (flat--yeah, I don't get it either), and overpopulation (crowded). It doesn't sound revolutionary in its content, but he makes very strong arguments in the interview and seems to avoid the moral imperative that seems to get many green proponents pegged as emotional extremists. Although, he does get pretty emotional about it all. Who can blame him?

I also recommend the TED presentation by Mark Bittman on the problems with the western diet. He explicitly avoids the emotional reasons to reduce meat consumption, and makes a strong argument for going (mostly) vegetarian.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


As part of our push to have more control over our food, we decided to preserve our own food. We started with all the apples from our recent apple picking trips and the one we get from our farm share. We made a couple batches of applesauce; and it was soon clear that our freezer wasn't big enough to hold it all. So we went out and got some mason jars.

We sealed our first jars yesterday, but not of applesauce. We stopped on the way home from the store at one of our local farm stands, the one we affectionately call, "the old guy." As in: "Lets go see if the old guy has any tomatoes we could save for winter." He did. We figured we'd preserve some tomatoes and some apple sauce. We decided to start with just a few jars and it turns out that our bag of tomatoes took 11 of our 12 jars.

It took some work and a fair bit of time, but it wasn't nearly as hard as we had expected. I had this image in my mind of it being very difficult, the sort of thing that only the most hard-core home chefs would tackle. We'll see if we did it correctly, but, in the mean time, it was simple enough that we'll probably go get some more jars and do the apples next weekend.


We went shopping on Saturday and at both the baby store and the food store, there were big displays of g-diapers. If you don't know about these, they could be described as somewhere between cloth and disposable.

The idea is that there is a cloth wrap (with built-in velcro...yay!) and a snap-in waterproof liner that holds absorbent inserts. The inserts are the only part you don't re-use, but they are compostable and flushable. The impact is clearly less than disposable, since, even if you toss the inserts, they are smaller and decompose quickly.

Of course, with the three parts, they are more complicated than disposables. Fortunately, though, they are not nearly as difficult as cloth diapers. With those, you have to attach the cloth diaper then fasten the cover over it. The g-diapers can be pre-assembled, so changing a g-diaper is just like a disposable. You just have to do some prep work.

I'm not sure of the best way to get rid of the liners, though. You should only really compost wet diapers, and I'd want a good tumbler before I do that. I'm not going to toss used diapers into a pile in my yard. Maybe if we had more privacy, but all the yards in our little group of houses just run together. Flushing is nice because you don't have to have a smelly diaper pail. But then you're using a gallon and a half of water with every diaper. That can't be good. Maybe the wet ones can just wait in the toilet 'til someone else comes along. We'll see what works.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Peanut Butter

A friend of ours wondered out loud the other day if it was worth all the water it took to clean out peanut butter jars to recycle them. Would it be better to trash the jar and save the water and energy to heat the water? This is a tough question to answer. Water and energy are (in theory, at least) renewable, plastic (unless it's made from plant oils) is not.

You can reduce the water needed by using a good brush and some elbow grease. I also head that you can loosen the peanut butter by tossing it in the microwave briefly. I thought this sounded like a good idea, so I tried it out today. I thought the addition of a little water would prevent overheating.

I learned two things today. Don't put the jar in for 2 minutes or the plastic will start to melt and you'll have a big puddle of peanut-buttery water in your microwave. Also, make sure you get all the foil seal off of the rim first.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Not just a back-seat driver

I heard a great quote about cars recently:

"The car is like your mother-in-law. You have to have [a] good relationship with her, but she cannot command your life. ... When the only woman in your life is your mother in law, you have a problem."

This is from Jaime Lerner's talk at TED 2007. If you haven't seen any TED talks, I recommend them. Here are some of my favorites. It's an annual conference that gives smart people a chance to talk about whatever they want. It's a bit smug and elitist, but they do a pretty good job of defining smart very loosely and getting some really interesting speakers. There are talks by folks you've heard of (Al Gore, Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, Frank Gehry, and more) and many you instantly want to know more about. Topics range from the environment, to education, to poverty, to the frontiers of science (the LHC, the ocean, space, medicine, ...), to entertainment.

From their about page:
TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader.

The annual conference now brings together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Insulating the attic

Originally uploaded by mandy&john
We foolishly failed to insulate the attic before last winter set in. We chose this weekend to try to fix that. We bought 22 bales of cellulose and rented a large heavy machine to blow it into the floor. Having hauled everything up to the attic, I noticed the instruction suggest leaving it outside and using the hose to get the insulation into the attic. Oops.

Ah well, what's done is done. So far I've got 2/3 of the fiber in and am nearly 3/4 done. We'll see how much less oil we use this year. It'll be interesting.

TV in the kitchen is paying off

Part of our plan to try to reduce unknown substances in our diet is to stop using canned beans. Since our one-year-old doesn't like chewing meat and he's allergic to eggs, he gets most of his protein from milk and beans. So going to dried beans means we can get organic beans for much less than canned conventional beans.

We'd always been wary of the extra work of dried beans, but since we've moved the TV into the kitchen, it's much easier to do the extra work necessary to avid prepared foods.
Mandy made our first batch of chili from dried beans tonight. It was the best batch yet. It actually didn't take any extra work since it simmers so long, we didn't have to do anything but put extra beer and water in.

We also made apple sauce this weekend from apples we picked. It was wonderful. So far, things are good in home-made food land.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Go open a window

It seems to be scary contaminant day. Another old podcast, this one from Scientific American, alerts us to the under-regulated horrors of scented products.

Basically, manufacturers are not required to disclose what they put in most products that aren't directly consumed, so they only list the nice things, like honeysuckle extract, and fail to mention the known carcinogens.

Force folks to take the long view...

Make them live longer!

I'm kind of back-logged on listening to podcasts, so this morning, it was the Nature podcast from August 28. It ended with an interview with aging researcher Judith Campisi. (Not that she is getting up there in years, you can't tell these things on the radio, rather that she studies aging.) It was an interesting but mostly unremarkable piece. She describer her work with nematodes well. Cool stuff if you like animal biology. She thinks there is promise, but still lots of snake oil. She ended with a line that caught my attention, though.

"I am also optimistic that if humans really have to live more with the consequences of their actions, we might not have some of the problems we have right now."

BPA, C-8, and phtalates, oh my

Bisphenol A (BPA) has been in the news again recently. There are also pthalates in PVC and many soft plastics and ammonium perfluorooctanoate from teflon. In our house, we stopped buying polycarbonate bottles years ago (before we moved to California) and use BPA free bottles for our kids. With the latest news cycle, though we realized that most canned foods are also lined with BPA containing materials.

It's a scary world out there right now. The biggest thing we can see to do is to limit the amount of prepared food we eat and remove the obvious toxins from our immediate environment. We've already dropped the hard plastic Nalgene and Avent bottles. Although both are starting to make non-BPA versions, I still feel more comfortable going back to the old polypropylene ones. They're not as pretty but pretty well tested. Most research labs store at least some things in polypro bottles. Someone would have noticed something by now. That's how BPA was recognized as a problem.

We are also going to try to limit canned food until we figure out how to tell which don't use BPA. Apparently it's banned in Canada. Maybe we'll make a monthly trip to Montreal to stock up. That gets at one of the problems we're facing. Last winter we decided to make do with canned veggies instead of fresh imported ones in an attempt to reduce our food-miles. Maybe we'll have to start canning our own stuff in glass jars with what's left of our free time.

100 mile diet for America!

In the not too distant past, energy conservation and renewable power sources were just the concern of tree huggers and "cocaine sniffing sierra club yuppies." I think it was 5 years ago, I first read something arguing that energy conservation should also be the concern of hawkish conservatives. This was the first time I saw the term "energy independence". Now, with the addition of religious groups who see humans as the stewards of God's creation, there is some momentum to take on climate change.

However, as I've complained before, global warming is just one of many bad things caused by unsustainable practices. The reckless burning of fossil fuels is just one of many bad things we are doing to the planet and ourselves in the name of short-term profit. There are very few regulations on what can be dumped into landfills and waste water. Nor are there enough controls on what goes into food and consumer goods. This is a problem both for the planet because chemicals and antibiotics that we are dumping both commercially and from our homes will do bad things to ecosystems. It's also bad for people, because there has been no testing for what these chemicals do to people in small doses. This is just one more of many things that is going to come down harder on those without the resources or education to speak up for themselves.

Anyway all this is why we decided earlier this week to try to reduce the amount of prepared and mass-produced food in our diet. It's not the 100 mile diet, but it's more small producers and locally grown stuff. Not long after we made this decision, it came out that something else was contaminated in China. While the tainted Chinese milk likely was not a terrorist act, it underscored to us just how easy it would be to sicken and kill a whole lot of people by putting something in the food supply. The chain is so long with mass produced food that it'd be pretty easy to do.

In addition to making me a little uneasy, it got me thinking that, like energy independence before it, food security will be the next formerly eco-friendly idea to get taken up by the right in the name of national security.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Oh yeah!?

I'm not really the type to pipe up and get into an argument when people say things like "there's just not enough sunlight for solar to replace coal" or "I don't by organic because it's fertilized with manure". My instincts tell me that these statements are wrong, but I'll lose the argument every time because I don't have all the facts at my finger tips. I can do research later and refute everything, but it's like coming up with the perfect retort for that bully long after he's gone. The first example came up recently, and I let it go, but I figured this blog gives me a chance to set the record straight (to no one in particular).

Last year, Scientific American published an in-depth article explaining just how we could power the entire country on solar. Granted it would be a huge investment, but it would work. It involves building huge collectors in the southwest and building a new transmission network to get the power where it's needed. One of the problems was how to make solar energy available at night, most storage techniques are untested, expensive, lossy, or all of the above. They propose storing heat in salt domes or something.

Two recent developments will alleviate most of these problems. First, researchers at MIT figured out an efficient way to use solar energy to directly separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Traditional electrolysis zaps water with a current to pull the molecules apart. This takes far more energy than can be recouped by burning the hydrogen. The new method is much more efficient. Second, Australian researchers figured out how to make fuel cells without platinum. That should reduce the cost of pulling the energy back out of the hydrogen.

Storing energy as hydrogen may also help the transmission issue. I don't know the numbers, but it could be more efficient to build a hydrogen infrastructure rather than transmitting electricity directly.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I'm on board


This would be very good for the town. The area has been suburbanized
over the last few decades and this could be a push back in the right

Thursday, August 7, 2008

CBS News: The Decline Of Suburbia?


This is not news to a lot of people, but the combined effects of
expensive gas, a weak economy, and increased environmental awareness
have started to put the squeeze on suburbs.

This doesn't mean that everyone is going to move into big cities, but
it does mean that future developments will look more like towns than
bizarre orchards of five bedroom ranches.

Much of the country developed backwards. Cities arose in isolation and
then people started flowing out to the burbs recently. Much of the
east coast, though, developed more slowly with many towns, a few of
which later swelled into major metropoli. The other towns remained and
were affected by suburbanization, but retained some character and

With luck, the current forces will reshape population distributions
into something more sustainable.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Farm Work

We went down to our CSA this morning to fulfill the work obligations for our share. Every member owes at least seven hours of work a season, and you can cut your cost in half by working eight hours a week. This is a feature that the CSAs in California lacked. There was no real connection to the farm for the subscribers, just a box that showed up every week.

It was pouring this morning, so we were the only folks out who weren't permanent staff. We were mentally prepared to spend a couple hours in the rain weeding or something, but there was plenty to do in the barn. We spent three hours clipping the dried leaves off of over 300 pounds of garlic. We didn't get wet, but we got a few blisters.

Friday, August 1, 2008

More on recycling

Following up on the last post, it seems that Engines of our Ingenuity recently asked why some plastics are recycled and some aren't. They look at the problem with an engineering slant. The transcript also has a nice table of the types of plastics and their properties.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Economics of recycling

Apparently, Robert Siegel did a segment on 'All Things Considered' last Friday on different municipal recycling programs in the DC area. His goal was to understand why the recycling guidelines are different wherever you go.


Some towns only take some kinds of plastic, others take everything but want you to divide out your paper from everything else. This piece does a good job of explaining how it's all driven by economics. There is not enough demand for products made from some types of recycled plastics, so it can only be feasible for a fraction of municipalities to recycle the higher number plastics. Also, it is more expensive or the city to separate things, but requiring citizens to do more means less will get recycled (people are lazy) and the city has to pay more to get rid of trash.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


If you are a parent and have any thoughts about sustainability or the environment, you've thought about the great diaper dilemma: cloth or disposable. Conventional wisdom says go with cloth, but it may not be that simple if you add water and bleaching chemicals into the equation. Also, cotton is one of the worst crops from a "green" perspective.

We had Chris in cloth diapers for about 6 months while we were within range of a diaper service. Since then, like most folks, we decided it wasn't worth the effort. In theory at least, the time saved by using disposables should free us up to grow some of our own food in a garden or go cruise for reusables on the night before trash day.

We are currently attempting to potty train Chris at 20 months. We are having some success, but are aware, that we may fail and have to try again later. We figure, though, that if we can pull this off now, rather than when he is pushing 3, then we can save a whole lot of diapers. We'll see.

Friday, July 11, 2008


I was flipping through AM radio on the way back from work on Wednesday (because my walkman/phone is broken) and, out of curiosity, listened to a few minutes of a right-wing rant against everything climate change. There were a few nuggets of truth mixed in with a whole barge-load of rubbish.

My first thought was remembering how I wish that the issue weren't so narrowly focused on climate-change. Sustainability is about everything on this planet. Climate change is about a single nutrient cycle (carbon) and one hell of a bad outcome if we mess with it too much.

Next, the host went on about how China and India refuse to accept caps until they match the per capita carbon output of the west. This was used to argue that caps will needlessly hamper our economy. However, the alternative is continue to increase our output so that we stay ahead of the developing world. Otherwise I don't see how letting the indians catch up to us is any better than meeting them in the middle. At some point in the future we'll all be on equal terms, it may as well be on a livable planet.

Finally, I noticed how emotional the arguments are. The scientific community is worried about climate change because it has constructed a bunch models, crunched endless numbers, and performed numerous experiments that say we are doing our best to bump the climate out of the stable state it's been in for a few millenia into a completely unknown region that will likely be warmer.

The thing is, the earth is so complex that it just might get cooler instead. However, if you shift the chemistry as much as we are doing, something will change. Our food production system will be challenged severely and if we can't respond sufficiently, billions could die or be displaced. The problem is, since our current state is so stable, once things start changing, it'll be too late to stop. So all this arguing over whether Katrina and the floods and fires can be linked to climate change is pointless. The details don't matter because (look up chaos theory) we can't predict the exact outcome even if we had them all right (which we don't).

The details don't matter for another reason, though. Models, predictions, and robust scientific theories aren't going to spur the kind of change we need. People are not rational. Science is the application of rational thinking to the natural world. It turns out this is useful. It is also very hard because people are not rational. To change behavior and future outcomes, sustainability needs to be sold with broad, sweeping, emotionally-charged arguments.

There is this idea among those who wish to keep the status-quo that capping emissions will hurt the bottom line. This idea is not limited to greenhouse gasses. Chemical plants that produce waste products fight regulation worrying that it will cost more to clean up than they can afford.

In the short term these fears are probably real, but in the broader view, there is no reason why emitting no waste products would cost more than emitting lots. Look at the word waste. Why do we want to waste stuff. Let's use all the resources we have as fully as possible, not just as little as we need to to make a quick buck.

I have lots of thoughts on how an unchecked market leads to these self-destructive short-term solutions (ask John Nash) and how governing bodies need tilt the balance so companies take the long view. I am not an economist though, so they are just my thoughts. Anyway, no-one cares about the details.

Sustainability means to many that resources are limited, therefore we should conserve them. People need to see the positive side of sustainability. Dumping gasses into the air, chemicals into the waters, and trash into the land is waste. That's not a judgment, that's the definition of the word. These are waste products. Waste is bad. Companies should be made to feel the cost of the waste they produce. This won't cost anything overall, we are just shifting the cost from society back to the producers of the waste.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Draper re-use (sort of)

Next summer's Bruce Willis movie is being filmed all over the Boston area this summer. They seem to have built a set in the middle of the Draper complex and have been filming all month.

I haven't seen much of it, but there was a helicopter hovering over town a few days ago and there are lots of people milling about trying to spot the stars. This was taken from Jenny's window on the other side of the factory.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Run your car on water!!! Not really, no.

One of the adds that popped up in gmail while sending out baby pics was to a web site that claimed you could run your car on water. I've always had a passing interest in perpetual motion machines and other claims that violate the laws of thermodynamics and everyone was napping, so I took the bait.

It is certainly oversold and borders on fraudulent, but it may very well improve the efficiency of your car. I'm still skeptical of those claims, but not on scientific ground, just on the level of hucksterism on the web page.

Lets start with the claim. Using just tap water, their system creates a special gas that can be burnt with gasoline in your engine. They have some fancy name for this gas. It is simply a mixture of Hydrogen gas and Oxygen gas in exactly the proportion needed to make water. This is done by pumping electric current through the water. It's a pretty well known process that may have been demonstrated in your high-school chemistry class, if your teacher, like our beloved Mr Merriweather, liked to blow things up.

The problem is that the energy needed for electrolysis is the same as the heat released when gas mixture is burned. Even worse, it is impossible to turn all the heat back into usable energy. So "Run your car on water!" is complete hogwash.

There are two points that might bail them out, however, since the fine print really only claims improved efficiency. First, the added hydrogen may improve the efficiency of the gasoline combustion by some process that I don't understand. The chemistry is beyond me, but I doubt its a big gain.

Second, and more significant, using the extra current from the alternator to build a reserve of hydrogen is analogous to the way earlier hybrids store energy in batteries to later boost the engine via an electric motor. This system is worse in that the combustion of hydrogen is less efficient than recovering energy from a battery and you probably don't have regenerative brakes on your car. On the other hand, the stored hydrogen won't leak energy and the system probably weighs less than the batteries and electric motor.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008



While I don't think CFLs are going to be the big negative that crop-based ethanol is turning into, I still think they are over-hyped. That's a bit unfair, actually. I'm all for their widespread adoption. The lights in our house that are on the most are all CFL at this point. I'm still waiting for LED bulbs to be a smidge more affordable and the rest of our lights will drop their incandescents. (Getting closer, though)

Monday, May 26, 2008

A week with Mimi

Mimi was in town to help out last week. It gave me a chance to finish thing up at work while Mandy rested and recovered.

We started with indian food at the Gold Star in Framingham. Chris was a fan.

finishing the veggie korma

Mimi and Nonna took him shopping and came back with some cute stuff, including an Elmo sun hat.

elmo hat

Before she left, we stopped by EMC park in Hopkington.

at the park with Mimi

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cellulosic ethanol

One of the most intelligent things I've read on ethanol production lately comes from an anthropologist:

It seems to me that most of these drawbacks come from insisting on a monoculture, which -- if you have an efficient cellulose processing capacity -- I don't see why you care about. A real natural marsh or tallgrass ecosystem can't stand much mowing, but if you could tune a multispecies ecology for biofuel production, that would pose much less risk of invasive potential, and would be less trouble to look after. The tallgrass ecosystem was based on burning, anyway, so you should be able to maintain the soil while taking out hydrocarbons with minimal fertilizing.

Good insight, this. Cellulose is, for the most part, cellulose. At the point we commercialize cellulosic ethanol, it doesn't matter what the crop is. Just take whatever grows best locally and run with it.

I still think crop based biofuels are only a short term and/or small part of the solution. We can reduce our energy consumption many, many ways. We still need to eat. But if cellulose can be harvested from otherwise un-farmed land, maybe in lieu of prescribed burns, it'd be a win-win situation.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


I'm hoping the folks at GreenovationTV get up and running soon. They've done a bunch of reasonable improvements to their 100+ year old house to dramatically reduce their energy and water usage. These are tips I could use.

Some things I've been thinking about that they did include adding insulation to the attic and going geothermal. They also mention doing an energy audit wither with a pro or an incense stick (Just hold it near a door and look for drafts!) What I don't know yet, is if we should insulate the basement ceiling. I think so, but the furnace is down there and gives off some radiant heat. The attic is definitely the priority for now.

Friday, May 9, 2008

An environmentalist, a conservationist, and an organic farmer walked into a bar...

... the realist ducked.

Yes, it's a bad joke. Sorry. I wrote the bulk of this last summer, but never posted it. I've added a couple things here and there and a conclusion. Enjoy.

Global warming is the buzzword of the year. Going green is all the rage. Cities and towns are drafting sustainability plans. Organics are already mainstream. Local food is so big, folks are on 100 mile diets. WholeFoods is just another grocery store with over-priced arugala. The assault on school food is making headway. Polar bears are the latest species to need saving. It seems like the wolves are OK for now. Condors are coming back and the pygmy rabbits are next. Environmental justice is picking up steam. We now know it's bad idea to build schools near freeways. People are beginning to realize that there are downsides to living in suburbs. We've learned some hard lessons about affordable housing projects.

For progressives, things are great. Except there is a small problem. We're starting to get in each others' ways. Conservationists are challenging wind farms because birds get killed. 100 mile diets often require driving from farm to store to market to collect a full menu and therefore rely too heavily on cars. Diesel engines are usually more fuel efficient, but produce ugly and hazardous soot. Should reclaimed land be returned to the wild, farmed, or developed? Cities are more sustainable, but whow do you learn to appreciate nature in a concrete jungle?

Fuel cell and electric vehicles just move energy use elsewhere. Biofuels use less energy, but require land. As we are seeing this year, food is becoming more expensive. New technologies reduce pollution and energy use, but populations still grow.

More problematic is that the goals are too simplistic. We need to reduce carbon emissions. Yes. Capturing CO2 may slow global warming, but it doesn't save energy. Alternative energies are great, but we still need to reduce usage because solar and wind sources are finite, nuclear has it's own issues, and the population keeps growing.

There is, of course, far more common ground than not, but choices are not as clear cut as we'd like them to be. It is still critically important at this point to just make the world as a whole aware that there problems. As we begin to focus on these problems, though, some hard choices loom. I believe a general philosophy of sustainability will guide us well. What choices can we make that will ensure we are still here in a century or two?

Garlic Mustard Pesto

I heard this from the Environment Report. It isn't really a practical idea that will reduce your carbon footprint and we're not going to eat our way out of this particular minor ecological catastrophe. However, it's a fun illustration of a sustainable mindset.

Garlic mustard
is a weed that is crowding out wildflowers and inhibiting seedling trees. Conservationists are pulling these guys out of the ground all over the northeast and tossing them in the garbage. Here we go again, throwing away anything we don't want. According to the story, that's a bit of a waste because they are edible. Brought to the new world by immigrants, they are apparently pretty tasty. The seeds taste like mustard; the leaves, like garlic; and the roots, like horseradish.


Monday, May 5, 2008


It interesting that an country whose wealth comes largely from oil is doing something this radical.


My guess is that they understand that sustainability isn't just about energy. It's about all our resources. They only have oil and sun and both are limited. But they also have wealth and some foresight.

Granted, Abu Dhabi is pretty much a beacon of capitalism and excess, but it's still a cool idea. Good for them.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Please don't...

Clinton and McCain both are supporting a temporary break from gasoline taxes.


How long has it been since congress was jumping down the throats of oil companies about their record profits? Now these clowns want to make it easier for people to buy their products? The economy is sagging, so lets help out those poor oil companies.

The idea, I gather, is to help out struggling families that can't afford gas. That's great, but everyone is suffering, and this "relief" will disproportionately help those who chose less efficient cars or decided at some point that a big commute was OK if it got them more land and a supposedly better school system. The only big winner from this are the oil companies.

What about all the struggling families who can't even afford a car? What about those who decided not to use a car? The government is just going to bail out all the poeple who like their SUVs and their suburbs?

The economic realities of our unsustainable energy usage rears it's ugly head and congress wants to hide it. Why not, give half of this money directly to those in need. It will help them more than the tax relief will. Use the other half help folks in "sleeper suburbs" find either new homes or new jobs to reduce their commute.

Or simply redirect all gas taxes to fund better public transit and make all major highways toll roads.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Biofuel Folly?

There has been a lot of hype around biofuels over the last year or two. Any sane person can see that corn based ethanol and soy or palm based biodiesel are just plain silly. Switchgrass based ethanol is definitely a step up from corn (if we can ever commercialize it). Crop based fuels have the additional problem that we have to use land that would otherwise produce food (or remain virgin forest in the case of sugar cane or palm) to get these meager energy increases. The land is more valueable in other uses.

So why are we still hearing about corn? Because it can be done today. Never mind that it's not much of an improvement over fossil fuels. There is a big lobby behind it and it gets results now, even if the results are not worth anything. Thankfully, we're starting to hear some vocal opposition to these fuels from some sensible folks.

Photovoltaics and concentrating solar arrays can produce 100 times the energy per acre of corn ethanol. The problem is energy storage. Fuels are just more effective than batteries at storing energy for long times.

It seems algal biodiesel is the clear winner for biofuels. The energy produced per acre is much higher than even cellulosic ethanol, it uses much less water, and can be produced in locations with little or no agricultural value.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Decentralized Density

Advocates of sustainability often sound like they are pushing for either of two extremes. You can get a plot of land way off in the hills and do everything yourself, or you can move into a dense urban center so you can walk to everything. Each has its own issues based primarily due to reality.

There's just not enough arable land on the planet for 7 billion people to carve out individual plots of land. Also, you're not going to get everyone in the developed world to give up modern life.

As for moving to the cities, there are many hurdles in getting people to move to dense centers, but I think most of these could be overcome. Many are afraid of higher crime. Many people (like me) who care about sustainability also care about the environment. It's hard for us to leave it all behind. This is the real issue with moving everyone to the city. How do you get subsequence generations, raised in the urban jungles, too care about these issues? Ironically, it doesn't seem sustainable socially.

My solution is to focus on many, small dense centers. Economics will continue to support the large urban hubs, but we need to shift satellite developments from sprawling subdivisions to dense, centralized communities surrounded by a combination of conservation and farm land. These centers could be linked by mass transit to the big hubs. They'd provide all the green benefits of living in a city while still allowing residents easy access to open areas.

I'm sure this is not an original idea, but it never occurred to me in California. Having been back in Massachusetts for a while, where the country side is dotted with town centers that developed before the automobile, it's clear to me now. I'm not sure how we get there, but I think it's possible. It should almost be easy in this area.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Am I part of the problem

As I mentioned in the commuting post, I've been questioning my current lifestyle. It's not horrible. I think we are doing a really good job with our food. Most of it is either organic or local or both and we only eat our occasionally. We are working on making the house more efficient. It's more than 100 years old and no one ever bothered to insulate the top or bottom, so we've a ways to go. We are making progress, though. Anyway, it'd be more wasteful to start from scratch with a new house.

What nags at me is that we live an hour outside the city and I commute in 2 to 3 days a week. It's not horrible, but the last two years we were in Berkeley, we drove 10 to 15 thousand miles each year. This year will probably be more like 20. We are going the wrong way. I might bike to the train in good weather, but I wouldn't seem my son at all on those days (and leaving his pregnant mom home with him for a full day isn't fair). In the future it may become a more common thing, but not right now.

But there was a reason we chose Hopedale. We're actually in a fairly densely settled area. I just chose to work in a different place. When we are home, we often walk downtown to breakfast. When the weather was nice, we walked across town to our friends' house every few days. We can walk to the drugstore and to Shaws, we just have to make the commitment to. In the nice weather, we often walked to DQ for soft serve.

So I take a hit on the commute, but this is not a bad place to go green. Maybe the train will bail me out and complete the deal. Or Ed can double my salary and we'll move into the city.

Upstaged by global warming

Al Gore and global warming have put the idea of sustainability on the map. Combine it with the instability of many of the world's oil producing regions and the idea of energy independence and we are on the verge of turning a corner to the tipping point (to steal and mangle a few phrases) on how we view energy usage.

However, sustainability goes beyond energy usage. Yes, the combined threats of global warming and rising oil prices make it the most important component at the moment, but there is more to sustainability than being carbon neutral.

For the last few decades, our society (meaning the US primarily, but also most of the westernized world) has become dominated by disposable things. It is cheaper to throw something away and replace it, than to get it fixed. This is WRONG. It does cost the consumer less and makes money for most everyone else involved (except for the folks who repair things), but in terms of real resources and energy expenditures, it should be the other way. Instead of a few hours of work, we're spending all the materials and work involved in a new product (plus distribution) as well as all the work and resources (land) devoted to disposal. So we are wasting energy, land, and physical resources because it's too easy to just throw something away. That was true twenty years ago when the current torrent of toxic electronic waste was just beginning.

An (amazingly) overlooked resource that doesn't affect global warming, but will affect billions of lives, is water. It's been called the oil of the next century.

Land is another good one. Why is suburban sprawl invading the flood plains of the Sacramento River? The land is among the most productive in the world and the homes will be washed away in the next 50 years without a question.

Sustainability is about more than just being carbon-neutral. (And don't get me started about paying to be carbon neutral...). Its about conservation of everything. It's a law of physics, people. You can't create matter and the earth is only so big.


I recently heard through the rumor mill that the owner of the old railroad right-of-way through Hopedale recently acquired the rest of the old Grafton line. Will there be a train from Milford to Worcester in the future? Will it connect to Franklin and Boston? That would be pretty cool.

I've been driving to work a lot lately. I'm not sure I've ridden the train in the last month. At the moment, there is not much chance of this trend reversing much. I initially felt pretty guilty when I realized this, but it occurred to me that a 2 hour commute on 2 trains with a 20 minute drive is only marginally better than a 1 hour drive. Neither is good. That's why I'm glad it's only twice a week.

When me made the move to Hopedale, I had in mind a job at EMC or one of the many small tech companies in the area. The job in Cambridge was too good to pass up, so I took it on the condition that I only had to come in half time.

I'm not sure if this makes sense for the long term though. The commute is fine. It's long, but 2 or 3 days a week is not that much and I get some good time to my own thoughts and my podcasts. (Mandy doesn't do talk radio). When I think about the energy used to get me that far, I wonder if it's the right choice. I'm probably doing better than a lot of people, but I'd rather be out front, not in the middle of the pack on this.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


The Boston commuter rail stops in Franklin. It's about 15-20 minutes from here and takes a little over an hour to get to South Station. I like taking the train, because I can sit an work for most of my commute. Taking the train nearly doubles the time it takes to get to work, though, so it doesn't buy me any extra productivity beyond the fact that I often just work well on the train some days. I think there are fewer distractions.

The big north east cities seem to all have a commuter rail system that is separate from the subway lines. I can only speak of Boston, NY, and Philly from experience. Meanwhile, Washington, D.C. and the San Francisco Bay Area do not. The rail systems there double as commuter rail and subway, and do neither particularly well. The difference, I'm told, is that there used to be factories in the towns surrounding Boston which built railways to carry goods into the city and the port. Years later, the MBTA uses some of these lines to ferry workers from the same little towns into Boston.

We're pretty far out here in Hopedale, by Boston commuter standards, but not absurdly so. My drive time is under an hour if I avoid peak times. It's not something I'd want to do more that half the time, but it's nothing compared to hat people in the Bay Area endure.

What annoys me is that the MBTA doesn't come here. Hopedale and Milford (about 100yds from here) both had factories back in the day and the rail right of ways and most of the track still exists. It would be an easy thing (relative to laying new track somewhere) to extend the Franklin line into downtown Milford or Hopedale.

They did a feasibility survey a few years back and concluded that there are not enough riders. Come on! Have a little foresight, please. Milford is one of the bigger towns around and already has a pretty dense downtown just blocks from the old depot. Hopedale is tiny, but the regional hospital is about a 1/2 mile from the old depot and the Draper Factory is standing vacant looking for a reason to be re-purposed.

An MBTA stop may be too much for Hopedale, but it would be great for Milford. The way things are right now, it's hard to live in this area without a car for every adult. There aren't tons of jobs downtown. Most companies are in office parks off of 495. The same is true of most retail. In contrast, the residences downtown are pretty dense. So residents there get all the claustrophobia of a downtown with few of the conveniences.

If Milford gets a rail line, it can take advantage of its density. If not, it will likely continue to grow just in the suburban areas. There are the areas that are being hardest hit by the housing crunch. Meanwhile stuff near downtowns has not crashed the same way. Even in Hopedale, the downtown duplexes are still holding most of their value.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hybrid selection

I heard an interview with a car salesman who talked about people coming into showrooms asking about hybrids, but leaving with a conventional vehicle when they learn about the price difference. This seems to be the conventional wisdom: consumers want to feel good about what they buy as long as it doesn't cost much extra.

I'm not disagreeing with this in general, I think it's true to some degree. But I believe it's an oversimplification and a cop out for producers. We bought 2 new cars in the last year. (I know, not very green of us.) Sure enough, both times we went in looking at hybrids.

The first time we went shopping, we were looking for a vehicle that could hold us, 1-2 kids and some number of dogs comfortably. We loved our Matrix, but we had out grown it and were about to drive across the country. We looked at the Prius, but it didn't offer much over the matrix in ability to get car seats in. We also looked at the Highlander hybrid, but it's much bigger than we needed. We settled on the mazda5. It's a cool little car. Not much bigger than the Matrix (a foot longer and an inch narrower), it has 3 rows of seats and sliding rear doors. Exactly the car we needed and nobody else makes anything close to it. Forget about finding anything that size in a hybrid.

Once we got here and settled, it became clear that we needed a commuter car. The mazda gets much better mileage than any minivan (because it's much smaller), but not what I wanted to commute in. The Prius was higher on the list this time, but still, a much bigger car than we wanted. We went to a Honda dealer to look at the civic hybrid, but this is also a large vehicle these days. We left with a Fit. This is a great little car and still gets high 30s for highway mileage. Again, show me a small hybrid hatchback and I'd have bought it.

The problem is not that people won't spend a premium to get a hybrid. The problem is that people won't spend a premium to get a car they don't like. The Prius points to this. People who really care about fuel economy tend to think it's a cool design and it flew out of the dealerships.

A lot of our peers (young folks starting families) care about the environment but also don't care for traditional concepts of what a car should do. I consider a sedan a waste of space. With a smaller foot print, a hatchback can hold more stuff. Look at the newer car models of the last decade that aren't SUVs. When we bought our toyota echo 8 years ago, the small hatchbacks for sale were: the Golf, the Focus, and maybe the PT cruiser was out already. Now VW added the Rabbit, the Echo has been replaced by the Yaris which has a 3-door model, the scion comes in 2 flavors, the Aveo, the Aero (Suzuki), Kia has one, the Fit, the versa, the Matrix, and the crossover vehicle is huge now. The only hatchback hybrid is the Prius and it's aimed at the full size market.

Make a small hybrid hatchback and it will sell. Hell, Toyota has a Mazda5 size minivan in Japan. Put synergy in there and ship them to the US. They'll sell.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Rain Water

We got a couple small puddles in the basement from this weekend's rain storm. It the second time in the last few weeks. In the back of the house, the rain coming down the rain spout from the roof doesn't quite make it over the crest of the hill and pools under the porch and seeps into the basement door.

One easy fix would be to fit a longer pipe to the bottom of the down spout to direct the water farther from the house. But at the point we're diverting rain water, how hard would it be to set up a rain barrel under the porch? There is plenty of room, and it would only take about 10 feet of pipes to get the water under there. Additionally, all but one of our non-lawn garden plots are downhill from the porch, so we wouldn't need a pump to use most of the water.

So add a rain barrel to the list of home improvements for this summer. I still have to insulate the attic and build some shelving in the basement. Also, the downstairs bathroom is functional at this point, but still need paint and a towel bar and some shelves/cabinets. I'm sure there's more that I'm forgetting...

Friday, March 7, 2008

Small Town

I took Christopher down to the library this afternoon and on our 4 block walk, we passed 3 groups of people. Everyone stopped to say hello. Even the mom parked in a car full of kids talking on her cell phone stopped long enough to say hi. It's really a nice feeling.

March started with a few inches of snow, but most of it melted within 12 hours. It's been pretty nice out for a couple days and Christopher just wants to run around out side. On our way back from the library we stopped for a wagon ride around the yard. He collapsed into a pile of tears when I told him it was time to go in.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


I've been a bit distracted lately by work, Christopher, and home improvement, so I haven't posted much here. We've been adding a half bathroom downstairs. I found an old door in the attic that had to be stripped of old paint before we could put it up. I tried scraping it off, which created lots of, probably toxic, paint dust. I tried using something called PeelAway that I found at Home Depot. It works really well, but despite claims of being non-toxic, I was coughing al night after using it. I also tried SoyGel. Goes on really easily, works well, and didn't make me feel sick.

The other thing on my mind occasionally is politics. This quote is from an article by Ronald Bailey on the candidates' views on evolution is not related to anything, but too good to not pass on.

My favorite response from any candidate about the evolution/creationism debate was from former Sen. Mike Gravel (Alaska). When LiveScience asked the senator if he thought creationism should be taught in public schools, Gravel replied, ""Oh God, no. Oh, Jesus. We thought we had made a big advance with the Scopes monkey trial....My God, evolution is a fact, and if these people are disturbed by being the descendants of monkeys and fishes, they've got a mental problem. We can't afford the psychiatric bill for them. That ends the story as far as I'm concerned."