Cars, Science

Woolly Bears Unleashed

This past weekend we enjoyed what can only be described as a summer extension. Sitting by the sunny warm shores of Lake Michigan, we were delighted to find a fuzzy little friend, the Woollybear caterpillar.

As I have been deeply involved in authoring another book, a time-consuming project, I am shamelessly reprinting a story first published by the Toronto Globe and Mail, September 21, 1985.

“As we approach the end of another summer, we can look forward once again to sanity on the roads– but not quite yet.

“Any day now, drivers will be rattled by the wanton and reckless onslaught of woolly bears, those brown furry caterpillars that churn across the roadway like runaway locomotives.

“At one time I cultivated the notion that these creatures were compelled by nature’s dictates to make the near-suicidal break for the other side of the highway — in search of food, a mate or something mystically greener according to their multimodal instincts.

“This is not so. In fact, the woolly bears do it for a lark. They hear the oncoming cars and then dash for the pavement like surfers in search of the perfect wave. As the car whooshes over them, they are scooped up in a pocket of turbulence and tossed head over tail before they tumble harmlessly to the road like an old sock. Then they unfold themselves, and with antennae twitching and fur bristling, await the next car.

~ Phil Brown, Brampton, Ont.”

Thanks for reading and sharing! These little fellows are mythically said to foretell the winter coming soon. Mean time, they traverse the road for recreation. Drive carefully!

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Culture, Economics, Science

Getting Charged Ain’t Easy

The nation is getting its head around all-electric powered cars by 2035. It sparked me -haha- to wonder if electric cars really generate a carbon footprint smaller than gas-driven cars. My research confirmed it: in a “well-to-wheel” comparison, an electric car generates about one-third the level of carbon compared to the gas guzzler. So case closed on that.

But what troubles me is the generally held notion that we will just plug our car into an outlet every night, and be ready to drive by daylight. Where is the electricity coming from? That is a thornier question, and it doesn’t appear to have a satisfactory answer yet.

Here are some numbers worth knowing. 

  1. The US annual consumption of electricity in 2020 was 3,800 Twh. A ‘Twh” is a terrawatt hour. Because I know you really want to get into this, a terawatt is one trillion watts. That’s with 12 zeros.
  2. The US annual production of electricity for the same year was 4,009 Twh. 

Understanding these two numbers, you see we have a margin, say, a surplus of 209 Twh. Just for fun, that’s 209,000,000,000,000 watts.

What is interesting though is that the US also sells and buys electricity during the year, based on peak demands and capacity levels. But net, we imported 47 Twh last year. So we did not actually have enough to go around, based on our own production capacity.

Not having enough is generally a foreign concept in America, but there you have it.

So: will we have enough electricity for the car in our garage come 2035? That troubles me. Here’s why.

In 2016, American automobile mileage was 3.22 trillion miles. We are “trillionaires” for everything, it seems. Assuming that electric cars replace all the gas guzzlers, and that we still drive the same distance, happily guilt-free of carbon fears, will we have enough electricity?

I am not so sure. Tesla’s 2018 Model 3 has a commendable “mileage” rating of 26Kwh. That is, it can drive 100 miles using only 26 kilowatt hours of electricity. This is the best there is, today, beating out the Chev Volt, VW Golf, and BMW i3. By the way, 26Kwh is the equivalent of burning a 40-watt light bulb over your stove for 27 days. Doesn’t seem so bad, really.

But the total mileage of 3.22 trillion divided by Tesla’s 26Kwh/100 miles will require a total of 837Twh of electricity. That’s additional energy over what we use today. And we only have a margin of 200Kwh.

We do get one break. By shutting down the unnecessary gasoline refineries, we will save 47Twh. So our actual new requirement for electrical power is only 790Twh. That’s 790,000,000,000,000 watts.

Meanwhile, the State of California is enduring periodic black outs. Why? Because in the effort to be a good environmental steward, they have been closing their coal and nuclear power generating stations in favor of wind turbines, solar and hydro-electric power, aka, power dams.  Unfortunately, when there is no wind, no sun, and no water, there is no power. Local cynics refer to the disruptions as ‘Green Outs”. 

It turns out that the engineers in public and private sectors have been noodling on this. Some of the more common solutions are wind turbines. Did you know that today there already 67,000 turbines thrumming the winds in America?  And solar panels? There are 2,500 such farms today.  Of 80,000 dams in the country, some 2,400 are hydro-electric power generators.

These solutions generally fall under the heading “renewable energy” sources. In total, renewable energy supplies 20% of all the power generated in the US.

There is another solution which is being developed, and that is the reversible battery charger. It allows for energy to flow both ways from your electric car. You might plug it in for one night last week to charge for six hours, and then you left your car undriven, and cooling in the garage for several days. During that time, if you have a permit, the power company may take electricity back from your car to top up the grid. You would get a credit, and maybe an empty battery, but you would be a good person.

The lack of surplus electrical energy is not top of mind for many right now, but as we approach the next decade, the subject will arise much more frequently. Stay tuned, and as usual, turn out the lights upon leaving.

Thanks for reading and sharing! Will you get an electric car? Will you get the charger too?

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childhood, Culture, Science

Darwin’s Warning and The Good Old Days

We have come a long way in avoiding the classic dangers so present in our youth. But sometimes I still wonder how we got here. We can laugh today at the hapless winners of Darwin Awards, but that is only because the past three generations have regulated us to observe the principles of Charles Darwin.

I recently toyed with the idea of taking a stab at etching, for the purpose of creating an art print. Etching is the ancient science of scratching an image onto a wax-covered copper plate, and dipping the plate in acid. The plate gets engraved in the process, and when it is inked, the plate is pressed onto a paper which receives the image.

To learn more, I could have Googled the subject, but instead, I turned to the Popular Mechanics Do-It-Yourself Encyclopedia, published by J.J. Little and Ives in 1955.

Popular mechanics Do It Yourself–our small town bible.

In my hometown of Delhi, a small but once influential tobacco-growing community in southern Ontario, the PM DIY Encyclopedia was a bible. Actually, it was a collection of 13 illustrated bibles bound in red and black leatherette, handsomely gold-embossed, and proudly displayed in its own pre-engineered wooden shelf by my father, and countless other DIY-ers at the time. You didn’t have to go far to learn about plumbing, carpentry, automotive repair, sewing machines and gardening when you had these books sitting right there beside the record player.

So I was pleased on picking up volume 4 “EL to GA” and finding the lowdown on etching on page–wait, there are no page numbers–on the pages between “enlargers” and “extension cords”.

Etching– the art and science of engraving metal.

Excited now, I read on. The thoughtfully drawn black and white illustrations showed an enthusiastic, friendly looking craftsman decanting fluid into a tray. Reading more closely, I saw that for etching glass, and/or metal, the active ingredients were tallow, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, potassium chlorate, asphaltum paint, glacial acetic acid, sodium fluoride…and washed up with gasoline, before pouring down the floor drain with plenty of water.

Gadzooks!

I decided some time spent on Youtube was a better idea, and put that off for later.

But thumbing through the book “EL to GA” I was stunned to learn about all the other DIY projects we pursued back in 1955.

“Electroplating With Gold and Silver” was particularly instructive.

Electroplating..all that glitters!

A well-drawn and focused craftsman is mixing up a solution of sodium cyanide and caustic soda in a pitcher of water. When dissolved, the reader is advised that rubber gloves and ventilation are a must, to avoid deadly hydrocyanic acid fumes. To this concoction one adds some copper cyanide. The book says to hook the brew up to a six-volt battery, and dunk the target object in for an hour or so, and voila: a silver-plated stapler, shoe horn, ticket puncher, egg beater–whatever suits your fancy.

I felt like I had my hands on a secret, forbidden book– techno-porn is the only way I could describe it.

Now tantalized by this collection of ideas, I thumbed to “Electrical Rotating Contact”.

The electric rotating gizmo..for all ages!

This gem only took half a page, even with the helpful drawing. Mission: to create a spinning brush-style power source that would rotate as some electrical engine drove around it.

The picture tells a thousand words easily. A pole is positioned in the middle of a backyard wading pool. At its top is the ingenious electrical rotating contact which is attached to an electrical cord plugged into the engine of a child’s model boat, floating in the pool. The pole is cleverly hooked up to an extension cord plugged into the house, drawing from the 120-volt line. Two excited kids stand by the pool, gleefully cheering as their model racing boat  circuits the water, leaving them smiling in its frothy wake. One can only imagine the hours of joyful entertainment as the craft orbits the sparky contraption.

The book is filled with helpful suggestions for mixing your own weed killer, building a forge, a blast furnace, and simply maintaining your home coal furnace.

Thinking back, we were, if not fearless, certainly adventurous. In our house, we were frequent users of gunpowder. Simple chemistry would be put to use with benign, parental encouragement, and a helpful smiling assist from the local druggist.

Powering up the acid solution.

A typical exchange was,
“Hi Mr. Taylor! Can I have half a pound of potassium nitrate and another half of sulphur please?”
With a wry smile, his response, “Heheh, okay, and don’t blow yourselves up.”
When I consider that discussion, and our brazen, guileless approach, I should have added, “and a dozen prophylactics too, please.” It would have thrown him off course, I am sure.

Somehow, the ingredients were mixed with a third, which I will omit for current security concerns, and we would enthrall and impress our friends with carefully rolled fireworks, stink bombs and countless rocket duds that never made it off the launch pad.

Through all of these semi-innocent shenanigans, we never paid a serious price, but I am sure that there were others not so lucky. In any event, today, 65 years later, these escapades are pretty much eliminated from the experience of young kids, and I am thankful.

Back then it was just part of growing up. But Darwin was right.

Still, I have to see Volume 3, CO to EL.  I can only imagine.

 

Thanks for reading!  I hope you are thankful for all the precautions and safeguards we now have in place today. Still, you have to wonder how we made it this far.

 

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Culture, Science

Birthday Buzz

        Why did Benjamin Franklin think it a good idea to fly a kite in the rain? And why did he further believe that tying a key to the kite string was a helpful experiment?
        Never understanding the whole event, I learned that he really was determined to prove that lightning was electricity. The kite string was hemp, which was soaking wet in the rain, but contrary to many depictions of Franklin standing, drenched to the ears, in the middle of a field, he was not. He was standing dry in the doorway of a barn, where he was holding onto a dry piece of silk string tied to the wet hemp. He tied the key to the hemp.
        What happened next is important in preserving life. As the winds tore around the kite, it collected static electricity that was transmitted down the wet hemp cord. When the charge began to accumulate, Franklin saw that the strands of the hemp bristled like a brush. Impressed, he moved to touch the key with his knuckle, and got a little buzz for his curiosity. This was enough for him to conclude that there was electricity in the air around the kite. Had he hung in there for a lightning strike, he would have been a cindered lump, incapable of later writing up his findings.
        I present the true events of this mythical story because I am not good with electricity. I do not understand the relationship between amperes and watts and volts. I have experience with volts, but limited at that.
        I hate electric shocks. Like scrubbing across the living room rug and zapping yourself on the stereo. Once, I stepped out of my car and the shock was so strong I nearly welded my hand to the door. I cannot imagine the blind temerity of electric car owners who drive about, sitting on top of twelve hundred pounds of lithium battery, the same stuff that spontaneously ignites laptops and cell phones in one’s pocket.
        My electric experience was early in life, but indelible. There was a time in history, before the advent of digital cameras, that I was charged with taking a family picture at a birthday party. The flash extension on my camera used disposable flash bulbs. As the crowd grouped together, I called cheese, and at the critical moment of a united smile, the flash did not work.
        So off I went to the photographic shop—remember those? With the old flash battery in hand, I entered the store, and placed it on the counter. It was a small metal cube about the size of a thimble. The girl across from me looked at it.
        “I think it’s dead. Can you test it?”
        “Yes sir,” she responded and pulled out a contraption with wires and a needle under a plastic window, “let’s see what we’ve got.”
        The needle wavered lethargically.
        “Yep, you need a new battery. This one’s flatter than a hat on a highway,” she smiled.
        But I wasn’t so sure. “Just hang on,” I said. “What if I just do the old taste test?” With that I placed the little cube on the tip of my tongue, and touched its other end with my finger. It felt a little warm on the tongue, which meant the battery still had some juice.
        “I think it still might be good.”
        She looked at me like I might stick a pen into an outlet, or put my thumb into a light socket. “No, it’s dead. You need a new one.”
        “Well, just wait,” I countered, and lifted the battery again to my mouth. “Let’s give it another go.”   With that said, I touched my tongue to the bottom of the battery, but inadvertently my lip touched the other end.
        Shazowee!!
        The shock arced through my brain like a giant blinding klieg light with tinsel exploding in all directions. For a moment my eyes froze wide open like Buick hubcaps in a car show: bright, spinning and impossibly shiny. I had never seen stars before. The jolt was so strong I nearly swallowed the battery. Then my eyes slammed shut and I spat the battery onto the counter. It skidded to a rest beside her calculator.
        “You okay?” she asked, incredulous. I jiggled my head.  My mouth was limp.
        “Could you teth it again? I hink it thill hath thome juith lef.”
        She picked up the little brute and studied it closely, and then the tester.  “Oh! No wonder,” she chuckled. “It’s fifteen volts. I set it for one and a half! Hah! Sorry!”
        I pointed out that you can start a Mack truck with twelve volts. She tested it again, and it registered “replace”. I took her word for it, and bought a new battery, which was egregiously expensive I thought.
        “Eight bucks?? That’s adding insult to injury,” I protested.
        “Would you like to test it?” she countered.
        “Ha ha. Wrap it up.”
        I stomped out of the store and returned to the party which was in full session. I had missed the cake and candles, and the ice cream was relaxing in a pool at the bottom of a crystal serving dish. I installed the battery, and again herded the partiers to the couch for the birthday shot. Everyone retrieved their smile. The camera clicked, but no flash. A collective groan followed.
        “Hey maybe you bought a dead battery!”
        “Yeah, did you test it?”
        “Yeah, why don’t you test it now?”
        “Yeah, just put it on your tongue…”
        I cut them all off.   “We are going outside to the picnic table, now!” I instructed. “Out! Out! And when we’re done, you can all go fly a kite!”




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Culture, Music, Science

Then, There, That Song

On our Delhi FB site, my home town, I just saw a nearly ancient picture of Caffries Hardware store. Ancient, because I remember walking along its oiled hardwood floors, when all of a sudden someone turned up the radio, and the singer yelled out, “You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain…”. it was 1957.

My Dad stopped in his tracks, looking up, “Good Lord, what is that?”

Nobody responded, as they were all riveted listening to Jerry Lee Lewis pound out his iconic symptoms.  I too was transfixed, because I had never heard anything like it, and it changed my view and love for music forever.  Studying the floor, I noticed that Caffries had hammered straight lines of nails one foot apart from the back door to the front, for the purpose of measuring out lines and ropes.

While Lewis beat a bass line with his left hand and scampered on the high keys like a runaway flywheel, I stared at the ceiling, and back at the radio which was high up on a shelf, strategically placed there for audibility and security against moving the dial.

Why do I remember this so vividly?

There are reams of web pages with articles explaining the rush of dopamine, our reward hormone, Oxytocin a social/love brain spurt, and ramblings among different parts of the noggin, all feasting on music, a satisfying meal for memory.

They say that music may be a soothing and regenerative aid to dementia and Alzheimers sufferers.  I hope it is.  But on that day, Jerry Lee and Caffries were permanently bonded in my head.

I had a similar experience the first time I heard Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone.  1965, working on Monteyne’s farm, our kiln hanger, Rob Hewson had hung his mighty transistor radio on the side of the kiln.  Above the endless clatter of the tying machine, and the grind of the conveyor lifting the sticks up to Rob,  Dylan’s piano sadly rambles away among the guitars, all the while he asks the riveting question, over and over again, “how does it feel?”  I am taking sticks off the tying machine while smoking an Old Gold plain tip.  I had never bought Old Golds before, and never did again, but I remember on that day, listening to Dylan while I dragged on one from the corner of my mouth.  When I hear the song today, Old Golds still come to mind.

Where we grew up, radio was pretty tame and choices limited.  The parents listened to CFRB for news sports and gab.  CBL had Elwood Glover.  The kids listened to CHUM or CKEY.

For whatever reason, our house wouldn’t tune into 1050AM for CHUM, but late at night we could get CKEY–when it was 580AM on the dial.  Sitting at an elaborate study cabinet in my brother’s room, I would tune in quietly to CKEY, and Norm Perry as he ran the turn table.  There was a time when gimmick songs were profuse, but none more than Monster Mash.  That was 1962, and again pushed the listeners’ ears even further out of whack as the story unfolded, ‘working in the lab late one night’.

Monster Mash creates an indelible mark, a gauzy multi-sensory image of me sitting at a large gray study cabinet, designed by Popular Mechanics, and unstintingly assembled by my Dad.  It was modular, arriving from the basement in two pieces, painted battleship gray on the outside, and dark red on the inside.  Shelves to the left, it had a chained, drop down desk, and cabinets with locks to the right.  It smelled of paint and plywood, smooth at the sanded edges, with small pock marks from a student’s compass point jamming the grain endlessly.

But in the corner was a dandy little cream-colored plastic radio with two dialing knobs shaped like bullets that managed volume and tuning.  I surreptitiously listened to that radio every night while shuffling papers for homework, chewing the end off a pencil, and staring at a small fluorescent light in the cabinet.  I listened to hundreds of songs, but it’s Monster Mash that brings back the cabinet, every time.

Is there a time when the ‘music-evoked autobiographical memory’ goes away?  That’s what they call it: a MEAM.  I am not sure, but it has been years since I have experienced a new MEAM.  The last I remember was sitting in our 71 Chevelle  listening to a country station outside Port Hope on highway 401.  My parents were staring ahead, and randomly twirling the FM dial, probably looking for Elwood Glover.  Instead, they hit Loretta Lynn as she spun a tale about herself, “When You’re Looking At Me, You’re Looking At Country”.

That was my first intense audit of country music, in 1971, and I was hooked.  The Chevy was a Super Sports, two-door, racing green with a black vinyl roof, parabolic rear windows, and a beautiful chromed gear shift in the center with black bucket seats.  It drove like a dream, and drank gas like a demon.  It was the perfect vessel for delivering Loretta Lynn, which I remember vividly, crystal clear, today.

I have a soundtrack running in my head every waking and sleeping hour.  Tunes loop continuously.  I am thankful still, as a few songs come up, that I have those visual memories to accompany them; it’s good entertainment.

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Agriculture, Culture, Environment, Science, Wildlife

Marmoration Nation

The Brown Marmorated Stinkbug

I had to laugh when a recent plea came across our Village Facebook page, “Will they be spraying for mosquitos this year?”

The summer’s nearly over.  Fall’s coming.  Frost on the pumpkin.  Mosquitoes??

Skitters may be annoying, a nuisance, bothersome and carriers of West Nile disease, but other than that, well, they aren’t stink bugs.

Last fall we found scads of these penny-sized twirps on the side of our brick ranch, an unsightly rash of brown measles, sunning themselves every afternoon through September and into October.  Mindful of the laws of karma, I did not kill them.  I flicked them off the sliding door screen and wished them a good life, but somewhere else.

Brown Marmorated Stinkbugs are so named because they have a marbled camouflage suit.  Hard to see as they bask on the lilac leaves in the afternoon sun.

Halyomorpha halys: a member of the family Pentatomidae

They also smell.Before understanding what I was dealing with, I smacked one, and as it exploded under my hand, it shot off a dying waft of odor that resembled rotting, moldy underwear, which I say kindly.  Understandably, they are not tasty, so lack many natural predators.  Crows turn up their noses.  It turns out that wasps will go for them.  Terrific!

Stinkbugs are unpleasant creatures, only recently making it to our corner of the Midwest in northern Illinois. Apparently they originated in the far east, and hopped a ship to a harbor on the east coast, and with time, they have moved west.  Apparently they like soybeans which grow abundantly on a 33-acre field across the highway from us.

Time moved on, and as the snows fell in December, the stinkbug drifted out of our memory.   We passed the evenings in front of the fire, catching up on Survivor and other important social studies.

Then, one day in January, a black dot appeared on the family room wall, over the door.

“What the…?”  I stared.   “That’s a, a, a stinkbug!  What’s it doing in here?”

No longer spooked by the ironies of karmic payback, I grabbed the odiferous brown button in a wad of tissue, and walked it off to the toilet for a quick dispatch to the next world.

“Don’t know where that came from, but it’s history.” I flumphed down on the TV couch beside my wife to witness 8 publicity-hungry people attempting to dive into the Pacific ocean to retrieve a key, which would unlock a box of beanbags back on the beach to throw into a basket which would tip over and raise a victorious tribe buff.

Then, looking up over the fireplace, another brown button.

You can guess the conversation that followed, and that eventually, unbelievably, tortuously repeated itself for the next three months as every day, two more bugs appeared in the family room.

Under duress, their natural odor is intolerable.

Somewhere on the outer lining of our house, a gang of stinkbugs was holed up, waiting for spring.  We came to imagine that the ringleader would crawl among its cohorts asking for volunteers to go out and check the weather.

Everyday, without fail, two creatures would emerge, quietly, stealthily, and present themselves somewhere in the family room or hallway.  They never flew.  They just appeared, immobile, prostrate, stuck to a wall.   They stood out like 8-balls in a bathtub, and so quickly ended up mummified in tissue and expelled to a plumbing system which hopefully took them to a station miles way from us.

And then spring came, and the bugs one day missed their cue, not showing up.  We relaxed, and enjoyed the following months that scrolled through May and June’s fragrant flowers, thick lawns cut weekly, releasing the unforgettable aromas of fresh cut grass.  Deep into summer the garden fluttered under the visiting companies of butterflies, mindful robins, cock-eyed, frenetic squirrels and later the incessant, raucous buzzing of the cicadas.

As September arrived, the sun warmed our home on its west side.  Stepping out to the deck to light the barbecue, I lifted the lid, and looking up, spotted, there, on the wall, a brown, marmorated, stinkbug!

Stinkbugs: seekers of nook and cranny.

“Cripes!  A stinkbug!” I groaned.   Looking beyond this unwelcome visitor I found another.  And another.   “Holy crap!  They’re back!”  Sure enough, as I walked along the side of our house I spied more than a dozen.

The next day, I obtained a particularly bug-lethal concoction from the hardware store. Mixing approximately 3 tablespoons to a quart of water, I filled up a handheld spray bottle.   The solution was 5 times as powerful as recommended.

A crusade of epic proportions

For the balance of September I sprayed every afternoon and every morning, targeting bugs in twos and threes, clustered under the soffit, ensconced in the cracks between the bricks, hiding under the lilac leaves, perched on the window screens, and skittering along the edges of the gutters.

It was a crusade of epic proportions.   I had gone through a whole quart of the concentrate, and went back for a second, relishing the daily harvest I was taking on these annoying little bugs. The walls dripped in poison spray as the bugs plummeted to the ground, dead.

You may recall the adventure story, “Leiningen And The Ants” .  A plantation owner and his crew are defending the crops from a vast plague of soldier ants that devour every living thing in their path as they march, six-legged, towards the house.  Leiningen first attempts to fend them off with a moat. The crafty, unstoppable ants still cross. Next he douses his fields in gasoline to burn the ants, but they forge on.  Finally, he floods the entire plantation by diverting the river, only just escaping his own vivisection as the ants pulled him down.

Somehow, I felt like Leiningen, defending house and home, and winning.

Early this October, the weather turned cold and wet, and the stinkbugs were gone.  They had vacated the trees, the walls, the gutters, the screens, and the soffit.  It was over.

October in Illinois is a flighty month, climate-wise.  After raking all the fallen leaves, we were presented with three days of 80’F weather.  This past week, I surveyed the yard, and looking up to our gutters spotted more of the bug.  Returning to the house, I loaded up another quart of the juice, and like trigger-hyper Terminator in a video game proceeded to decimate the bugs, which by this time numbered a small mob.

“I just finished off 84 stinkbugs!” reporting to my wife, who rolled her eyes.  “The sun brought them out, and they got the juice.” I was triumphant.   The sides of our ranch looked like a target range for paintball, with little wet splats everywhere.

After lunch, I ventured out to the deck as the sun came around.  “Geez!!  There’s more of ’em!”  I went back to search and destroy mode, and sprayed 135 more bugs.  “That’s gotta be it.  Just gotta be.”  Indeed, it did seem like their rush was finally kaput.

Our yard hosts a forest of mature trees.  Closest to the house is a Moraine Locust.  This tall giant provides the most generous and pleasing canopy during the summer months.  Swinging in our hammock one can gaze up at the millions of tiny leaves that sway effortlessly in the wind like  green petals against a brilliant blue sky.  It’s an irreplaceable retreat, passing the time, thoughtless and serene.

The summer idyl is over in October however, and that is when the leaves turn yellow, and all one billion of them fall to the ground, and to our roof, settling in golden billows packing the gutters.  It is a regular ritual to blast them out of the gutters, and with that purpose, I climbed to the roof, leaf blower in hand, and started the excavation.

A little tank at the bottom of the summit.

Hardly into the first side, and I scan the roof for errant leaves to push over the edge, when before me creeps a stinkbug.  Crabbing across the asphalt shingles, it joins another stinkbug.  I take a moment to blow it away with the leaves.  And then I look towards the peak of the roof, and there is a long train of bugs marching along the summit like Sir Edmund Hillary’s Everest trek, complete with sherpa porters, numbering in the hundreds.

I am aghast.

Stepping up towards them I inspect the shingles at my feet, and watch as stinkbugs enter and exit every little groove in the overlapping sheets.  They are everywhere.  This is home.  Seekers of nooks and crannies, they have found refuge.  I walk up to the roof ventilators.  These are black, screened aluminum umbrellas which shelter vapor draft for the attic.  I tap on one, and 20 stinkbugs explode out from under in every direction like gangsters rousted from a crap game.

The neighborhood is a giant roof garden of marmorated chia pets.

I finish the leaf job, and descending to the deck pause to reflect.  Leiningen conquered the ants, but only after torching and flooding his land.  Not an option here.   It dawns on me, as I survey the gables and rooflines next door, that every house in town is hosting a giant blanket of stink bugs on their roofs like an enormous marmorated chia pet.  There is no defense.

We’re done for, until the frost comes, and it can’t come too soon.

Thanks for reading and sharing!  The Department of Agriculture sees these as an economic pest.  But a solution is hopefully underway.

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Culture, direct mail, Media, Science, Thank You, USPS

You Are Still On My List

A written card, delivered by mail. Old fashioned, and meaningful.

This morning, CBS Sunday Morning with Jane Pauly featured the story of a father in Valdosta, Georgia who has sent over 20,000 post cards to his kids since 1995. The kids have saved every one, and their bookshelves are packed with volumes of fatherly words to his children.

As a devout postal fan, I was intrigued and pleased that there was a fellow writer who still believed in sending cards and letters.  Indeed a while back I wrote about the beauty of the written thank you note.

It drove me to look at the latest USPS Revenues Pieces and Weights report that measures the postal pulse of the nation. What I found was both disturbing, and a little puzzling.

Direct mail surrendered some market share to the web.

We know that mail volumes have conceded their dominance to email and online transactions. Even direct mail, which is a vibrant, robust medium has also given up share to the web.

But what was revealing about our culture are the declining totals of personal mail for the last three months, from October to December, 2017.

Simply put, we stopped writing.

Year over year, the Q4 volume of “single” letters slipped 5.9%. A blip? No, because single letters had dropped 5.1% the previous Q4 as well.  A single letter is typically a bill payment, a business letter, or a personal letter.  Or perhaps a greeting card.

The Greeting Card Association reports 7 billion cards are produced every year.

Percentages don’t really tell the story though. This past quarter, the single letter volume dropped 313,044,000 pieces.

To put that into terms we understand, I remind you that every Q4 we celebrate Halloween, Remembrance or Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and approximately 75,000,000 birthdays.

The USPS counter selection is not encyclopedic, but it is enough to trigger the impulse.

The Greeting Card Association reports that we purchase over 7 billion greeting cards every year.  And it turns out that the USPS delivered 17.5 billion single letters in 2017.   Maybe the remaining 10.5 billion single letters are just business and bill payments.  So, did we stop sending personal letters, or did we stop paying our bills?

The answer again pops up in the USPS reports.  In 2017, Presort First Class letters, aka, bulk business letters dropped over 5%: 787 million fewer bills and statements going out; fewer checks coming back.

It further develops, according to the USPS 2016 Householder Diary that Americans sent 3.6 billion letters “household to household”.

Conclusion: consumers are doing their business online, receiving and paying their bills electronically.

This is a huge relief to me, because it means that we are still writing personal cards and letters…I think.

For certain, the volume will never drop to zero, because of the persistent efforts of a father in Valdosta who still writes his kids every day.

How often do you?

Thanks for sharing!  If you would like to see the USPS reports for yourself, click here!

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Culture, Media, Science

Tip-a-Tip-a-Tap-Tap-Tap-Ching

Typewriters deliver a physical honesty.  No spellcheck!

My 8-year-old grandson cautioned me that to write important stuff in an email for posterity was not a very good idea.   “It’s technology'” he explained, and pointed out, “it’ll get lost really fast.”

After 40 years in the writing, printing and mailing business, I experienced a moment of happy vindication.

He made a good point. Despite the pervasive and indelible nature of social media, unless you know what you are looking for, ten years later, that little nugget of an email is crystallizing somewhere in a cloud far away, never again to fall to earth.

I have spent most of this summer reading hundreds of hand-written letters dated between 1943 to 1947. These nearly daily journals record my mother’s life in England as the war was finally won, and reconstruction had begun.

Mom’s letters to her dad 1944-1947.

It is a safe bet that had the stories been written as emails, they would never have resurfaced. But these did, unbidden, and made for an arresting and revealing read.

They appeared in a box from her estate, neatly tied together with a shoelace. The bundles were collected and saved by her father, in New York. No internet cloud at work here.   But without doubt, their physical presence could not be ignored; they had to be saved, and they were.  As a result, her story was available to be read, 70 years later. I’ll share more on that another time.

The workhorse 1915 Underwood–engineering marvel.

Along with the letters, I also inherited her Underwood typewriter. As a child I recall working this machine, struggling with its keyboard, stumbling through sentences like a child inebriate, unable to find the right letters, the right case, the right push.

Last year I purchased some new ribbon to replace the one that was now leathery dry. The new reels came from England.

Today I installed the ribbon. It’s black and red, and very, very fresh.

Changing a ribbon: lost on today’s digerati

The Underwood is about 100 years old, and is an elegant, and beautifully engineered piece of machinery. It is built on a solid black cast iron base, and probably has about 500 moving parts, all in perfect working order. A priceless possession.

The Underwood’s engineering was as intricate as a Swiss watch…or a steam locomotive.

The QWERTY keyboard is easier to manage now, after a career of hammering away on computers. But there are some niceties, too. An exclamation mark (!) is accomplished by striking the apostrophe (‘) key over the 8 key. Back space, and drop in a period. Voila!

Wordwrap had not yet been conceived, let alone invented, so there is the iconic bell to warn that the margin is in sight. Better than that, there is NO spellcheck. What you type is what you get. The typewriter  has a physical honesty about it that today’s word processors cover up like embarrassed parents viewing a child’s essays.

Dad’s portable Corona was the picture of efficiency

At the same time I acquired the Underwood, I also received my father’s Corona portable. It comes in a cardboard leatherette case, tied together with a length of electrical cord. This machine is remarkably lighter, only 10 pounds.

The 1914 Corona flipped open to reveal a tiny keyboard

Opening the 100-year-old container, I discovered that the upper half of the machine, ribbons and all, flips over revealing a modest set of keys. These are faithful to QWERTY, but there is special efficiency in the Corona. The actual slugs have 3 different characters each. An informed operator can do upper case, lower case and special figures off of the small keyboard.  My father wrote his doctoral thesis on this relic.

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Three characters for every slug, a clever design.

Again, I marvel at the care and diligence of the engineers who designed these machines. They are quite exquisite pieces of working technology.

I recently read a book entitled, “The Iron Whim – A Fragmented History of Typewriting“, by Darren Wershler-Henry. This Canadian author has assembled a fascinating thesis about the role of typewriters in our culture. After our 30+ years of PCs and laptops and smartphones, his book is a brilliant perspective on how we have developed.  You think it’s just about stenos and typing pools?  Get the book.

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The #5 Underwood, 25 pounds of literary punch 

And then there’s Tom Hanks and John Mayer, who have just concluded a documentary “California Typewriter“.  They too are quick to tell you about the beauty of typewriters, especially as Hanks says– his typewritten messages “can never be hacked by the forces of evil.”  Apparently Hanks also has a book in the works, featuring three stories involving typewriters.  He has time on his hands?

So, returning to the advice of my grandson, I will continue to use my laptop, and thumb my way through the iPhone keyboard, but I am much more respectful of his intuition on these things.

Hard copy doesn’t go away, and especially in the long run, is probably easier to find.

 

Post Script: October 26–I just finished Hanks’ new book, “Uncommon Type”, a series of short stories written by the actor.  A great read!

 

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Economics, Environment, Government, Science

There’s No Hot Water

Shower

Shower time: the best moment of the day.

Thankfully, the EPA is taking a closer look at us in the shower.

It turns out that the Environmental Protection Agency has made the important decision to fund the University of Tulsa, which will study the showering practices of America’s hotel guests from sea to shining sea.

Boarding house lineup

“There’s an alarm clock in the sink. Hit it when you’re out.”

Their goal is to develop an app which will monitor our shower usage when we are nipping out to the local hotel for a relaxing sojourn in the tub.

According to U of T, hotel guests are using in excess of 17 gallons of water for a shower. Their proposal: we should limit the wash to 15.5 gallons.

Basically, cut a minute off the most important moment of the day.

"You're kidding me.  I just got here!"

“Already? And you want a tip?”

They report this is easily accomplished by turning off the shower while we are lathering.

Tulsa engineers suggest we can further reduce wasted water by taking “navy showers”, i.e.. freezing buck naked in the stall waiting for warm water.

accounting

“You know, this could run into money!”

Apparently, the U of T engineers are working on an app that will monitor shower water usage by room, and transmit the data, real time, to the hotel’s accounting department.  The proposed objective here is to modify guests’ shower behavior.

May we also suggest more group showers?   It used to be that Mrs. Jones’ boarding house filled the tub once, and from there, we all lined up for a dunk like kids.

"Not a chance.  I just got here."

“Not a chance. I just got here.”

Wisely, the U of T engineers have not proposed twosomes to save water, as the likelihood of less shower time is imaginatively remote.

There is a logical extension in the offing, and that is to enlist the services of outside peer-scoring agencies like the renowned OPower company which has quite successfully modified electrical and natural gas usage.

"With all due respect, your numbers suck, big time."

OPower: “We suggest you skip the conditioner.”

Using meter readings from over 60 million households nationwide OPower has delivered energy savings pushing 5% and more, while simultaneously improving utility company satisfaction ratings.

OPower’s reports provide comparative peer group scores, and also offer energy saving tips to the consumer.

Cowbiy Tub

“Time’s up Jarrod. Ranch boys are lined up waiting’ on ya.”

We can see this as a no-brainer in the hospitality industry, where consumers can receive regular reports on their shower usage at the local hotel, or the inn down the road in the next town.

After a few report rotations it would be no surprise if shower usage shrank considerably.

No doubt, the hotel’s satisfaction ratings will skyrocket too.

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Agriculture, Environment, Science, Wildlife

Something’s Rotten in Seattle

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Spreading good everywhere.

My dad and I are driving down backroad south of Delhi on a warm spring morning.   In the air is the unmistakeable bouquet of fresh manure, wafting up from a newly treated acre just upwind.  “Smell that?” asked my Dad as he leaned his head out the window, “That’s the scent of profits!”

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Gogo and Wembly consult Marjory on composting, Fraggle Rock.

Compost is one of nature’s small gifts to those of us who wish to take it.  Bagging up potato peels.   Separating lemon rinds from swizzle sticks.  Throwing eggshells and coffee grounds into a bucket under the sink.

And any kid has to wonder, “when are they going to ask me to take that outside?”

The Korsts, a Dallas, Oregon couple composted their entire consumable garbage for a year after removing all recyclables.  Turns out their actual “garbage” filled a shoebox.   For a year!  Meanwhile the compost heap quietly bubbled and burped in their back yard.  No newscast has yet reported that they have gone missing while detectives are following up some promising leads next to the tomato rows.  But we wait to see.

Today, composting is de rigeur.  Ask the virtuous and self-denying citizens of Seattle who just this week accepted a composting by-law.   Simply stated, compost-eligible items may not exceed 10% of their weekly garbage pick-up.  In other words, “if it rots, keep it.”

seattle council

Seattle City Council hash it out.

The city council opened up this can of worms in July with city ordinance 124313.  It requires the frugal and resourceful residents  to reduce recyclable contents in landfill garbage to less than 10%.

Two months later, still not satisfied with the purity of their garbage, city council expanded the 10% cap to compostable matter.  From now on, that leftover duck a l’orange goes under the Spiraea bush in the back yard.

The motive behind this cleansing is to reduce landfill waste.   It turns out that Seattle was shipping 300,000 tons of garbage to a site in eastern Oregon annually.   Remember the Korsts?

bags

Bags to go: we love ’em but we hate ’em.

Today consumers are whipsawed by legislation over garbage.   Just east of us, Torontonians are thrilled that the 5-cent tax on grocery bags has been repealed by city council.

In this instance, the “single-use” plastic bag definition ran into a legal shredder.   Lawyers argued that once home, using the flimsy bag to hold garbage was a multiple use, and therefore acceptable.

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The sweet smell of success!

You may remember Toronto has had its share of political low days.   One of its good days is the 2010 cessation of trucking over a million tons of garbage to a Michigan landfill site every year.

And farther east, in Ottawa, the citizenry of Canada’s capital were presented with a training video for folding their newspapers.  Why?   To line their wet garbage bin.  There’s government at work for ya.

Which brings me to my main interest: the business of composting.   In my world, if it’s vegetable, it’s compostable and… it’s profitable.

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Modest contributions: raw materials.

To that end, I happily walk broccoli stems, corn husks and wilted flowers out to a pile in the side yard that is the resting place for last year’s Jack ‘o’ Lantern, the weekly grass clippings, and all of the neighborhood’s fallen leaves.

Within this melange of produce there hustles a busy community of worms, sow bugs and centipedes.  They are quietly chomping, digesting and extruding high grade fertilizer.   Behind them, a trail of microbes are further breaking the matter down to its fundamental parts.

Canadian Nightcrawler

A hard, loyal worker. His rings indicate seniority.

While they seemingly toil without cease, I have learned that the earthworm follows regular hours.   A New York State College environmental paper reveals that it takes 8 hours for a worm to digest a meal, head-to-toe as it were.   And the output?  Anywhere from 2%-44% of its weight.

The scientists who made this finding also report that the optimum population density for earthworms is about 8 one-ouncers per cubic meter.   I know that my compost heap does much better than that.   Judging by the cafeteria lineups, I have a high density worm farm in operation.  Don’t tell PETA.

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Rich, dark goodure.

The compost pile delivers the richest, loamy soil every spring and fall.   In the spring, I transport bushels of the black mulch to our garden.  There, it caps the ground, surrounds the new flowers, stifles the weeds and holds the water.

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Compost delivers!

In the summer, I used another 20 bushels of compost to plant 11 rose bushes.   They are bursting in bloom continuously.

In the fall, I’ll dump another load of compost to cover over the roses and the mums, keeping them insulated until next spring.

Total cost: zero.

My hat is off to the noble and frugal citizenry of Seattle.  But my thanks is to Dad making his point on that early spring morning.

Thanks for reading!   You can “like” this on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tumblr.   Be social and share!

 

 

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