Archive for June, 2008

Homesteading 201: Guinea Hogs

Baby Guinea HogI went back to Brambleberry Farm last week to spend a couple more days learning about homesteading. We didn’t spend much time with the chickens but I was very excited to see that their guinea hog sow had finally given birth to a whole litter of piglets. They are super cute, as most baby animals are. Guinea hogs, not to be confused with guinea pigs, are a heritage breed of pig that used to be very popular among homesteaders because it is not too big and because it does pretty well eating grass and other foraged food (as opposed to being fed lots of grain or other animal feed). Industrial pork producers tend to favor very large pigs and have developed breeds that fatten quickly on heavy rations of grain so a lot of the old-time breeds are disappearing.

There are several very practical reasons to protect heritage breeds – they provide a diverse gene pool that can be used when commercial breeds become overly inbred, they are often more appropriate for small-scale family farms (which tend to be more environmentally friendly), and they frequently have exceptional culinary qualities that get foodies super excited. I think Darren and Espri decided to get pigs mainly for their rooting qualities so they would till under a scrubby area of their pasture. Pigs are also great recyclers, eating whatever food scraps get thrown their way (including lots of discarded produce from the local food co-op) and fitting nicely into a rotation with the chickens and ducks. But they also added guinea hogs to their farm as a way to supplement their income by selling off piglets as breeding stock or pork.Guinea Hog Family

I’m not sure that Will and I will ever have room for animals beyond a couple of chickens but I love visiting Brambleberry Farm and seeing how all the different plants and animals are part of a larger system. They’re also constantly experimenting and learning, which appeals to my desire to be a lifelong learner. Some of the lessons have not been easy and have not been pretty but it’s great to see them working into a comfortable groove and living the life of the independent homesteaders. At least now I know it could be done, if I ever put my mind to it, and I know who to go to with questions!

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Learning through feedback

Two Wattson unitsAs a game designer, I deal with the importance of feedback every day. Without feedback, games quickly become annoying, frustrating, or boring. If you start losing a game without being told why, you’ll quickly give up.

Research shows that feedback is just as important in real life, and the more immediate the better. Think about it a little and it makes sense. To improve, you have to know when you’re doing something wrong. If it takes a week (or a month or a year) to learn that you could have been doing better, it’ll take you a lot longer to improve (if you can even remember what you were doing wrong).

I think that’s one reason that people have trouble reducing their environmental impact. There’s no feedback when you buy organic instead of factory farmed (apart from some negative feedback on cost). When driving your car, you don’t get much feedback on how much gas you’re using until you have fill up again. Your electrical usage is basically invisible until the end of the month when you get your bill.

That’s why I love these new gadgets I see popping up that give you minute-by-minute updates on how you’re doing. Yeah, it can be distracting to see an instant mpg, but at least you’ll know when you’re doing well. That’s also why like the Kill-A-Watt appeals to me.

Of course, the problem with the Kill-A-Watt is that it only measures one device at a time and you have to be pretty close to see it. A group of psychologists ran an experiment where they hooked an ambient orb up to some people’s electrical usage. It glowed blue when usage was low and red when usage was high. With that change alone, people had instant feedback on how much extra energy it took to cool their house another degree versus turning on another fan. Over three months, just having that feedback reduced their energy usage by 50%!

Unfortunately, the ambient orb doesn’t connect to your electrical system by default. That’s where the Wattson comes in. The Wattson is like a whole house Kill-A-Watt that glows and tells you how much your electrical use is costing (or is costing the environment, in terms of CO2. The base unit is portable and runs on 5 watts of power, while an external wireless device hooks up to your electrical meter. The only drawback is that it’s UK-only (and costs about $300).

There are cheaper devices, like the Efergy (less than $100), but all the ones I’ve found have been for the UK. Where are the US versions? The cheapest way to make your life more sustainable is to reduce, so why are US companies focused more on things like solar panels than things like the Wattson?

Since I can’t get one here, maybe I’ll start recording my energy usage like I record my budget, by just going through once a day and recording my expenditures.

Do any of you have any cool methods of feedback that you use to help keep you on track? I’d love to hear about them!

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Videos about stuff

The Story of StuffOver the past couple of months, several people have pointed us to the Story of Stuff, a 20-minute video about where “stuff” comes from and goes. It’s okay, but neither Maggie and I made it all the way through the entire thing, so we weren’t planning to post about it.

Just recently, J.D. of Get Rich Slowly posted about the Story of Stuff and got a lot of interesting comments. Nobody was saying exactly what I was thinking, though, which surprised me. I thought my reaction would be a little more universal (or at least understood even if people didn’t agree).

A lot of people have really gotten something out of the video. And no wonder. The animation is fun, the speaker is engaging, and it’s a fresh look at a problem we’ve had for a long time (and that’s getting worse all the time).

The only problem is that the author takes a very narrow view and, in the process of simplifying the concepts to fit that view, introduced a host of technical errors. For example, the portion that J.D. embedded claims that you have to buy a new computer every 2-3 years only because the CPU changes shape. That’s almost entirely false, which makes me question how much stuff she’s wrong about in domains that I’m not expert in. A little later, she makes the claim that only 1% of raw materials are still in use after 6 months. Her annotated transcript cites a book for that number, but the book itself (which is online) doesn’t explain where the figure came from.

Even ignoring these simplifications, I had some trouble with the tone of the piece. According to the video, the blame for our current wasteful system lies primarily with big corporations (and our government, for letting big companies do what they want). Although a lot of companies have contributed to the problem, I think a lot of it comes down to personal responsibility too. For example, perceived obsolence is only made possible when we cede our decisions to an arbitrary fashion. I think people should make their voices heard and tell corporations and governments that the environment is a priority, but I also think that the most important thing is to start taking some responsibility on our own. I wish the Story of Stuff had addressed that.

Overall, it’s not bad, but the oversimplifications and overtly political overtones kept me from fully enjoying it. It’s also really long and repetitive, although I’m willing to believe that’s because I know more about this stuff than her audience. I certainly wouldn’t discourage you from watching it, but if you were to ask for my recommendation, I’d point you to a different video (mild swearing), where George Carlin explains his theory of stuff much faster and better.

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All’s quiet on the wedding front

Jeanne Hamilton\'s Wedding Etiquette HellNow that we’re in the home stretch of the house-buying process, Maggie and I are working our way through our wedding list. We ordered our invitations, but we still have to figure out exactly what to say. Since we were at the library yesterday, we got some books for inspiration (both for the invitations and for our vows).

In addition to helpful wedding books, I grabbed Wedding Etiquette Hell which consists primary of real stories about horrible wedding faux pas. I have to admit that a couple of them didn’t seem so terrible to me (are potlucks really that bad?) and that I didn’t know some of them (why is it acceptable to wait 12 months to send a wedding gift?), but overall they were just an amazing way of putting our little problems in perspective.

While I was worrying about green wedding registries, other people are apparently planning bride “kidnappings” where guests fork over money to get her back. Or money dances, where suckers–I mean, guests–pin money to the bride in order to dance with her.

In addition to those traditions, which I’d never heard of (and thank goodness my friends have had the taste not to try them), there are a lot of other materialistic aspects that I’d missed out on. I didn’t realize that it was expected to receive serious gifts at a shower. I thought they were all gag gifts, if any.

Even ignoring all the obviously terrible wedding practices, we’re avoiding a lot of trouble by keeping it simple. We don’t have to have a rehearsal dinner, so we can instead spend the evening relaxing with our families together. We don’t have to organize a luncheon after for the bridal party. And, most importantly, we don’t have to rope friends and family into working the wedding.

I guess what I’m saying is that if the wedding registry is the worst thing I have to worry about, we must be doing something right.

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Green Wedding Invitations

Handmade PaperWe went this afternoon to order wedding invitations from Twisted Limb Paperworks.  I really like the company and concept and think the owner/president is a very cool lady but their products are rather expensive.  Actually, I think invitations in general are ridiculously overpriced.  Will and I were planning our own invitations but my mom gave us a gift certificate to Twisted Limb and it suddenly became quite affordable.

Twisted Limb makes handmade colored paper out of used office paper, paper bags, junk mail, and grass clippings from the field behind their office.  The quality and variety are pretty impressive and we should have asked for a tour but we were busy trying to decide between the endless possible combinations.  We had to choose a cardstock color, two different handmade paper colors, two different flower mix-ins (that they add to the handmade paper while it’s being made), two different font colors, and two different font types.  We made our decision within half an hour, which impressed the owner greatly.  She says couples have burst into huge arguments in their office or have sat and deliberated for hours on the perfect combination.  We were impressed by how she guided us through the process and was supportive of our choices but obviously was not just pandering to us since she did put her foot down and told us we were not even to consider using the black plastic fasteners because it would be an ugly combination.

Twisted Limb has partnered with several area retailers to create a “green” wedding package, an idea that seems pretty cool.  The retailers on the list that I know are really serious about being environmentally conscious but many of them were things we’re either planning to do on our own (flowers) or things we’re not planning to do at all (cosmetics).  I think people often overlook the “green” option of “doing without.”  Anyway, it’s nice to have one more item (almost) checked off the list and to know we will have nice, 98% recycled invitations.

I guess we can’t really check it off until we decide what the invitations will actually say.

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The Real Cost of Owning A Car Continued

So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would take to go car-free and how the finances would really work out. My friend in D.C. is living car-free but says she was disappointed in the local carshare program because of its expense – $15/hour plus a membership fee (if my memory is correct). Andy, a car-free commenter, looked around and saw that rates are generally cheaper in other areas ($5-$12/hour plus mileage, membership). He also pointed out that living without a car and using a carshare money ends up cheaper in the long run because

1. you’re not paying those fixed costs of car ownership that no one thinks about

2. you learn to make your trips much more efficient when you are paying a price that feels expensive

In my Friday post I talked about the fixed costs of car ownership and figured that I spend about $2,000 a year before I even drive it anywhere. When I add in fuel costs, I spend about $2,800 a year or $233 a month. (I originally posted a miscalculated number of $3,600 a year; sorry.) I tried breaking my costs down on a per mile basis but concluded those numbers are misleading because the more you drive, the cheaper the “per mile” cost becomes. This became especially obvious when I compared notes with Will. He only spends about $900 a year on his car but he only drives about 3000 miles so his “per mile” cost is higher than mine.  (Viewed another way, once you own a car there is very little economic incentive to drive efficiently since most of your costs are the same regardless of how much you drive – gas being the major exception.)

I’m still not sure how to objectively compare the cost of car ownership to other alternatives except to say that if I took the $233 I currently spend every month on transportation and applied it to living a car-free lifestyle, I would have a lot of flexibility to cover bus costs and rent a car when needed. Plus I’d get the fringe benefits of extra exercise and time spent outdoors from walking and biking. Andy says his main motivation to go car-free was reading a statistic that the average American spends 95% of their time indoors and watches 4 hours of TV a day. He decided he’d rather use those 4 hours for walking or biking and let go of the need for instant convenience and superquick transportation time.

So I’m trying to figure out an option that will put me really close to car-free but still allow me to go on environmental field trips out in the boonies. For starters, Will and I are planning to become a one-car household. It should be cheaper for each of us and allow us to allot some of our transportation budget towards bicycle upgrades or an electric scooter or maybe a vacation fund. So the question is, which car do we sell? At this point, I think we will sell my car for two main reasons

1. His car seems to need much less maintenance (as in $120 versus $800+)

2. If we keep “his” car, I will be able to psychologically convince myself that I should really minimize driving since it’s “his” car. (I’m sure I could totally accept it as “my” car but I want to discourage myself a little from driving when it’s not necessary.) Will is already very good at not driving unnecessarily.

I’m sad to let go of the greasecar dream but my particular greasecar has needed a LOT of maintenance pretty consistently over the last three years. I also feel that greasecars really only make sense for commutes and long drives, which is something I’d like to avoid. Hopefully I can sell my greasecar to someone in town who will let me borrow/rent it for road trips. And maybe I’ll try again in the future with a newer diesel that (hopefully) will require less maintenance. For now, I’m looking forward to living a car-minima life.

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The Real Cost of Owning a Car

I feel like we’ve posted a lot about transportation the last few weeks but that’s where my mind has been. There were some great comments in response to my post last week about visiting a friend who lives car-free in D.C. and it got me thinking about alternative transportation. It also got me thinking about how much money I spend on my car.

I read a book about going car-free awhile back that claimed people could save $10,000+ per year by going car-free and my immediate thought was “Sure, if you have a new car and are making payments.” Of course, in the back of my mind was a little voice saying “Geez, I don’t want to know how much I spend on my car!” So I put off the calculations for awhile but I finally sat down this week and cranked through it. The numbers are a little rough because I didn’t track down all my expenses for the last two years. I also sincerely hope that I won’t spend as much money on car repairs as I did last year ($1,800) even though I am probably just deluding myself.

I paid cash for my car but lets spread that cost over 5 years and assume that I’ll get about $1,000 for it when I finally give up and sell it. I spent about $4,000 on the car in 2005 which included the grease conversion and a new set of tires. So that would be $3,000 over 5 years or $600/year.

car purchase = $600/year
insurance = $350/year
plates = $80/year ($35 for “environmental” plates)
oil changes = $200/year
maintenance = $800/year

So the grand total is $2,030 per year in base costs. Since I bought the car 3.5 years ago, I have driven 46,646 miles which is about 13,327 miles per year. That’s probably a little high considering I drove the car to Oregon and back in 2005 so lets say with my new lifestyle I drive more like 10,000 miles per year. (Yes, I like nice round numbers).

More rounding gives us $2,000 divided by 10,000 miles or 20 cents per mile in base costs. Ouch!

I figure a tank of diesel costs me about $50 and takes me about 500 miles, which gives me a nice round figure of 10 cents/mile.

So driving my car on (free) veggie oil costs about 20 cents per mile while driving my car on diesel costs about 30 cents per mile. On an annual basis, if I drive 80% of the time on diesel, I’m spending a total amount of roughly $3,600 on transportation, or $300/month$2,800 or $233/month (sorry, had a bad math moment there). This makes the bus ($1.25/trip) and carshare programs ($15/hour) seem much more affordable. If I were to sell my car and set aside $150/month for transportation costs, I could use that money for five hours of carshare time ($15×5= $75) plus 28 bus trips ($1.25×28 = $35) and still have $40 left to buy fancy accessories for my bicycle or save up for a plane ticket.

Alas, with my current job situation I need access to a car pretty continuously during field trip season so I probably can’t go totally car-free just yet. We also don’t have a carshare program here so that’s not an option. I’m thinking perhaps the solution is for Will and I to share one car but the next question is – which one? Tune in next week for another stimulating session of applied mathematics!

Your weekend homework: How much does YOUR car cost?

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A Laundry List

Drying rack and hanging shirtsIt’s been a little over a month since we started air-drying our clothes and it’s going pretty well although it hasn’t worked quite like I expected. Student Doctor Green has covered the biggest issue, but I’ve learned a lot of other little things too.

  1. Shirts take up a lot of space on a drying rack, so it’s much better to put them on hangers and hang them from something
  2. Our free-standing porch swing makes a perfect something
  3. Men’s underwear is a LOT bigger than women’s underwear
  4. Things dry faster out in the sun than inside (although the humidity might change that soon)
  5. I have a lot of socks
  6. Luckily, you can fit a lot of socks on one line
  7. With a portable drying rack, I can grab it and rush inside as soon as rain threatens (which has been an issue given our recent flooding)
  8. I wash smaller loads when I have to put them all on a rack, but the environmental detergent works better with the smaller loads anyway so I think I’m still coming out ahead
  9. It takes more effort to use a drying rack than the dryer, but I make some of that back because my clothes are easier to fold and put away when they’re already hanging
  10. A nice breeze dries things faster; a big wind blows everything over (not that I would be silly enough to put out laundry on a windy day…)

So basically, a drying rack is cheap, doesn’t have too many drawbacks, and is simple enough that I haven’t been able to seriously mess things up yet!

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Biking in the Rain

Maggie on her (wet) bikeOf course I had to choose the week of heavy storms and muggy weather to get serious about biking. It’s hard to tell from this photo but this is me after riding two miles home in the soggy aftermath of a crazy 2″ rainstorm. I’m not sure whether I got more wet from biking through puddles or from being smacked by soggy branches along the sidewalk. On the plus side, it was quite refreshing on a hot afternoon.

Earlier today I was unhappy biking because it was really hot and I was feeling a little sore. (I am definitely building up my leg muscles but it just isn’t happening FAST enough.) I biked over to Maggie and Nathan’s house feeling rather sorry for myself and then there was an enormous storm. It had already rained quite a bit over the last couple of days with an impressive display of thunder and lightning but this was a torrential downpour.

Nathan and I stepped out of the house after the worst had passed and discovered a river flowing across their front yard. It was only a few inches deep but it was five feet wide and had a powerful current. We waded through it and I suddenly flashed back to many happy childhood memories of playing in puddles. I really love creeks and rivers and lakes but storm water is accessible to everyone and it is loads of fun, especially on a hot day.

We waded around the yard and watched the kids next door hitting golf balls into the stream, trying to get them to float away. Of course, being grown ups, we spent a little time lamenting how the water had carried about fifty pounds of gravel off the driveway into the front yard, but we still were excited and invigorated by the storm. When most of the rain had passed, I hopped on my bike and headed home. However, I only went about three blocks before I discovered that the roundabout along my route was flooded under two feet of water and there were almost thirty people just standing and gawking at the sight. It was incredible and I loved just being there with a bunch of people who stopped their daily routines to be amazed for a moment.

Maybe that’s my favorite thing about storms and really  weather in general. It is constantly unpredictable and although it can cause terrible disasters it can also be simply a reminder of how beautiful and amazing nature is and how important it is for us to just take a moment to appreciate, and to let ourselves be impressed.

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Environmentalism the influential way

Robert Cialdini\'s Influence: the Psychology of PersuasionI love reading pop psychology, especially those that gather together lots of different experiments and tie them together. The funny thing to me is that the authors usually aren’t psychologists: Malcom Gladwell (a journalist), Tim Harford (the Undercover Economist), and Dan Ariely (another economist) have all written some really interesting books about our behavior as humans. Today, I read a similar book by an actual psychologist that was just as good, Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion.

I’d been meaning to finish it for a while, but travel plans and my always tall stack of books to read got in the way. Usually, I just renew for another three weeks, but someone else wanted it, so I had to finish it today so that I could return it. Luckily, it’s well-suited to reading in pieces since each chapter focuses on a different method of influence, ranging from time pressure to likability to context.

The part that I think might interest all of you was in the section on consistency. Dr. Michael Pallak ran an experiment in Iowa to try and get people to conserve energy (natural gas in a winter experiment and electricity in a summer experiment). For the control group, he gave his subjects some general tips on energy conservation and asked them to conserve. As you might expect, these people showed no change in energy usage over the following three month period.

In addition to the conservation tips, Pallak told the other groups that at the end of the season, they’d have their names posted in the newspaper as “energy conservers.” Unlike the control group, these people reduced their energy usage by 12% (28% for the electricity) in the next month! The possibility of public recognition encouraged people to work to be more environmentally sound. That’s pretty cool.

But here’s where it gets weird. After one month, the researchers sent their subjects a letter telling them that for technical reasons, the newspaper wouldn’t be publishing their names after all. The month after that, participants reduced their energy usage by over 16% (42% for electricity) from their original usage! For some reason, people were even more willing to reduce energy AFTER their initial reason was removed.

According to the author of Influence, the explanation is that once people decided to reduce their energy, they came up with more reasons why it was a good idea. They might start thinking about how good it is for the environment or how much money they’re saving, even though those reasons weren’t enough without the newspaper incentive.

Then, when the researchers revealed that the newspaper wouldn’t be publishing their names, this removed the only external reason. All that was left were these reasons that they’d internalized. Now, there could be no question that they were doing it for the reward (small as it was).

I find this experiment, and really the whole chapter about consistency, very hopeful. If you can get someone else to take a small first step, or take that small step yourself, then you make it easier to take the second step. In an earlier chapter on reciprocity, the Cialdini mentions an experiment that showed that signing a civic-minded petition was enough to make people vastly more likely to host an ugly safe driving billboard, even when the petition wasn’t about safe driving!

Just making a semi-public commitment can be enough to get you (or others) to start thinking about yourself as the type of person who does those kind of things.

That’s why I think Maggie’s driving promise has value, even if she doesn’t figure out what to do with the money.

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