Monthly Archives: July 2009

Soft Paternalism

This post on ‘soft paternalism’ on my friend David’s blog. It is quite intriguing – if you don’t have time to read, the gist is: due to the fact that humans don’t often carefully consider all points on an issue, maybe an option is to have the default option offered to people (e.g. whether to contribute to a 401k at work) be an experts best choice (e.g. yes.), and have people have to opt out or change their option if they wish. Read the post for more details.

I like it. We all rely on experts we trust to shape our opinions anyway, mixed in with direct experience, etc, but still – if we are making an educated decision we have relied on other’s thinking and research to help us out. The applications seem intriguing. Given that as a landlord I have paternalistic control of some people’s lives, I will have to investigate the options for soft paternalism – setting the defaults. I am not good with forcing other people to live a certain way, even when I do have some control – I could have the washing machine only hooked up to cold water, but I can’t bring myself to do that yet. As an unintentional foray into soft paternalism, I try to always push in the ‘cold’ button on the washing machine when it has been left somewhere else, but it is pretty easy to change that option – I’ll have to think about this and be even more creative!


Keep Pedaling II – My bike was stolen

The video I posted a couple of days ago was prophetic. Due to a lapse of judgment on my part, my bike disappeared last evening when I went to feed my friend’s cats. I stupidly left it in the front yard, behind a non-locking low fence/gate for about 10 minutes. I was heartbroken. I had owned the bike less than 4 months, and it was my dream bike – a beautiful orange color, a stumpjumper just like my last nice bike (which was stolen during a breakin of my grad-student cottage in Oakland while I was on vacation), brand new rack and waterproof panniers. Luckily I had removed the $200 in cash from the panniers just before my ride over!
Just as the lyrics say though, I need to get a new ride and keep pedaling. As much as I’d rather not have lost the monetary value of the bike, and would rather spend money on other things, I can afford to replace it, and must as it is my only wheels. And I must get a replacement this weekend to pick back up with taking my kid to camp. I am torn though. Gil had the same thing happen to his bike under very similar circumstances 4 years ago, and I was really careful for a while, but it wore off. I don’t trust myself to not make similar lapses in judgement. So partly I just want to get a cheap, beater bike and tune it up the best I can and go. But I’ve gotten pretty attached to a relatively light, smooth-running bike. A cheap 10-speed could fit that bill without the hefty price of another used Stumpjumper, but would be all but useless when the snow flies, and less than perfect on Anchorage’s rough, potholed, unpaved, and root-rippled paths. Then I have been wanting a cargo/long-tail bike for a while. I was going to eventually get an extracycle attachment for my old bike, but maybe I should just walk into the bike shop and plunk down the $700+ for a new Kona Ute. Possibly what I should do, and I shudder at the excessive consumption of it, is get 3 bikes. The Ute for kid and large item hauling, a beater mountain bike to keep studded tires on in the shed and pull out in the winter, and a beater 10-speed to ride on quick, childless errands around town. Any thoughts before I go bike searching this weekend? I am really nervous about putting down any real money.
Then there are the extras. If I get a normal bike I need to pay about $30 for a new trail-a-bike hitch and get a rack and panniers to be back where I started – up to about $200 for that…depending. If I buy the Ute I’d need to get some of those handlebars that fit on the seatpost for Oceano to hold on to during our commutes, and maybe some other gizmos to make that work.
Sigh. I hate buying things.
What I really want is a new bike lock system. Maybe a tough, thick wire that retracts inside a tube of the bike frame and is always with you, that you just pull out and around and click in wherever you are, just good enough for those quick trips in broad daylight. What I really want is to go back in time and not leave my bike out vulnerable. Let it go…let it go. A whole lot of anguish for a base material object!

Update: a google search has uncovered this ‘pit stop lock’ which may be exactly what I need for the quick stop. Just wish it was an integral part of the bike so I didn’t have to remember it every time or risk losing the separate piece.

Pit Stop Lock

Pit Stop Lock

Back to the (urban) land

Living in the city is a compromise for me. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – I’m not really a city person. I don’t go to shows or movies or bars. I don’t go out to eat often, and wouldn’t miss it if I didn’t at all. I don’t like traffic (especially when I’m on my bike in it). I don’t like strangers and loud noise much.
What I like are plants, forests, mountains, a small constant social group, clean air, animals, gardens, bikes, walking, spaces devoid of people, etc.
But what I really don’t like is regular car commuting. Part of this is carbon guilt, part of it is monotony. I did OK carpooling 30 min each way in LA for a year, but that was getting old. I have road-tripped across the breadth and height of North America, but that was mostly fueled on novelty and the good company I was with. I have always been a bit of a homebody, despite my traveling and love of new experiences, and often find no good reason to leave the property I live on during a weekend. This probably rules out rural living for me.
I dream of going back to the land – living in a very small rural community (intentional or otherwise) and only getting out virtually with the internet and very occasional travel. While there are situations where living rurally may not mean a lot of driving, generally that is not the case with our global cash culture. Generally goods frequently enter or leave the community, and cities, at least, are generally good about keeping some of the sources and many of the sinks in one, compact place. I dream of being a farmer, or at least a market gardener, but I do not hold any illusion of being self-sufficient. I envision that living rurally for me would mean many trips into a neighboring city by car, to hold a job to make money or to sell things or to buy things. Not least on the reasons why is that my other family members are more into the things cities have to offer than I profess to be.
One of my favorite living situations was in a small tent-frame with a roommate in a small cluster of employee housing in the middle of Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park. I was an interpretive ranger there for 3 summers, and all in all it was wonderful. I got to hike and read and talk to small groups of people for work, which required no commute at all (after the original plane flights in). On my off time I got to climb mountains and fish and kayak and backpack. I was surrounded with a small group of mostly friendly like-minded people. There was a lodge with a bar, and almost no other exchange of money took place for those 4 months of the summer. But it was not truly sustainable – barge shipments of diesel ran the generators to power our lights and washing machines, hot water, and heaters (yes, electric space heaters – in the summer! It is often 50 degrees F or less even in the summer and the cabins and other buildings had very little passive solar gain). We shipped in big boxes of canned and dried food at the beginning of the summer, and no gardening was allowed with the bears hanging out everywhere. Some wild foraged foods were available – fiddle heads and fireweed shoots, berries and salmon, but not a large percentage of the diet.
At the other end, I also dream fondly of my distorted image of the English countryside, a la Jane Austin’s era. London may have been barely tolerable, but I imagine the rural villages to be just about my speed – some social opportunities, small, concentrated populations, no cars, living with the seasons. This romantic version comes mostly from the view of the upper class, but I’m not convinced your average farmer didn’t have a decent crack at happiness too. Improvements would include bikes, equal rights for all classes and minorities including women, possibly the internet to learn and explore, probably a few other freedoms and things I take for granted.
Here I am though, in this era and committed to the city. My family wants to be here. It allows me to not own a car. My friends live here. Libraries and greenbelts, the chugach mountains and farmers markets all exist within a reasonable radius. This is where I own a home. It’s not so bad. I have a backyard that is plenty big enough to stretch my gardening muscles in, and the true wilderness is really not that far away here – with time and motivation I could even walk to it. And this seems to be the route most thinking environmentalists are taking these days – urban gardening, urban greening, urban ecovillages, urban permaculture. Heck, this is the route most people are taking these days, with population everywhere shifting to the cities. This pull may not be resistible, so certainly the cities need to be greened. For those of us already there, there is quite a bit to be said for sending the roots down where you are and doing what you can with what you already have. I’m just not totally convinced that getting back to the land is so bad if it can be done better, with fewer fossil fuels. There is a lot to be said for growing our food in or near the cities that eat it, but I champion the small hamlets surrounded by sustainable small farms, and stretched off in between the bigger cultural center of the cities. I just don’t champion them by living there, at least not at this point. Perhaps the grass is green enough where I am, and perhaps it is too green and needs me to cover it over with diverse sheet mulch garden beds!

Keep Pedalling

How my garden is growing and bad habits

Just a little check in on the garden to start:
Most things are doing marvy – all the trees except one (I’ll get to that) look very healthy and one apple and the cherry have ripening fruit, as does a raspberry and the strawberries – not much since this is their first year. Almost everything I planted is still alive and doing its best. A couple of beans I planted didn’t come up, but that is almost an expected occurrence for me, so no beans. A rose and a couple of strawberries didn’t survive transplanting, but a high bush cran, a couple of peabushes, a birch, and some rugosa roses have so far survived being ripped from the ground with damaged or no roots and being transplanted by me. My horseradish is yellow and dying looking. The pear doesn’t look too healthy – maybe I didn’t prepare the ground well enough (it was in a very sandy, compacted area), maybe the fence it is against has toxic chemicals on it, maybe the bare root sapling was planted too late. The leaves are small and dry looking and folded and no amount of watering seems to help much. We’ll see if it makes it through the winter. Slugs have put holes in the smaller of my two potatoes in tires, but not fatally. For days and days I was picking hundreds of the very hungry caterpillar and his friends and family off of my currant leaves, which they had eaten about half of. Finally I sprayed with hot pepper/garlic water (made by me in a blender) and now the infestation seems under control – fresh green leaves are growing back. As most of my garden is perennial, the next couple of winters will be the true test.

Now to bad habits – I have been a long time cheek-biter. It runs in the family, and I’m sure has a lot to do with my nervous personality. I think I started at least by grade school – I remember doing that thing where you scrape cheek cells to look at under a microscope, and I just kept worrying my cheek after that. Dentists have told me I could get cancer. My mom read it can be due to deep body dislike. It is certainly not an attractive habit at all. I have never been able to desist – even for a day, even while really, really trying. My mom recently told me she had finally kicked the habit. Then my 6 year old, who sadly had been chewing his lip and cheek for a couple of years (either inheriting or, perhaps more likely, learning the habit from me) told me he hadn’t been doing it lately. It seems to go with late night teeth grinding, and unfortunately he still does that, as I think I do. Finally, last Friday I thought about it again and have somehow been able to almost completely not indulge in it until now. Which makes it easier not to start again since my cheeks have healed. I hope nothing takes its place – this was only the last in a string of oral fixations from thumb sucking until I was over 7, to nail biting, to this. I feel strong. How this has anything to do with the ecoplex and sustainable living is in the simple fact that many of our actions are habits, from turning the lights off on the way out of a room to starting a garden every spring. Some are more ingrained than others, some are more useful or destructive. I have just concretely proved to myself that even the most ingrained can be changed if need be, with relative ease if the will is brought to bear and the timing is right. This is tricky though – I’m really not sure why I succeeded this week. I haven’t been able to even when calmer, or on vacation, or when I was avoiding caffeine, etc. I think it must have been the assurances from others lately that it was possible to stop.

3 wishes and 3 cheap fixes

For a bedtime story for my son, I told a short version of the Aladdin story, and since I couldn’t really remember how it went, I just had my son make up what Aladdin’s 3 wishes from the Djinn would be. That got me thinking. I used to always daydream about my three wishes (often starting with the ‘I wish for a million wishes’) a lot. Then I grew up. I thought about what those would be now. Something to do with the eco-plex? No, that is way too small, when one could wish for anything – and the ecoplex is only my means to a non-reachable end of a better world. Here are some of my unpolished, 10 minutes until I fall asleep, thoughts:

1: That everyone would voluntarily have 1 or fewer children (or at least that would be the aggregate effect of everyone’s reproductive choices) until the population stabilized at some ideal (less than 1 billion? I’ve read guesses of what this ideal would be – maybe the Djinn would have a good idea what this is…), and (am I allowed ‘ands’ in a wish, or is that cheating?) that all conceptions would be totally desired by all concerned parties. My hope with this wish is to deal with the huge population component to our woes and to ensure a more emotionally stable, secure populous as each child is wanted and hopefully treasured. I happen to think this would help cut mindless consumption and other roots of misery. For full disclosure: under this system my son would not have been born. SO I’m not saying unplanned children can’t be parented and loved well, I’m just saying that would be more likely to be the outcome with planned children. I happen to think that the temporary problem of a top heavy, aging, population structure is more tractable than the alternative.

2: Through whatever means necessary, use of fossil fuels and nuclear are phased out over the next 5 years. Period. With such a weighty condition in place and solid, I have no doubt of humanity’s ability to figure out solutions – extreme conservation, permaculture design of everything, cooperation and sharing, bike commuting, distributed solar, etc. We have the means, we just need the will.

3: Hmm..after that do I need a third wish? I think that would solve most of it in enough time. Maybe some wish against wars and nastiness in the transition years. Buddha-like enlightenment for all? I mean, can the Djinn do so much to human nature? Have I asked too much already? OK, I haven’t worked out the third wish yet.

My son’s three wishes were for Aladdin to have all of Indiana Jone’s gear (we had just seen the movie), for the lamp to be clean, and for Aladdin to be home with his mom.

And switching gears – three happy cheap fixes this last weekend:

1: The window on the main entrance door is held on by these plastic, fake – divided light (grill) frames on both sides. The one on the outside was quite broken, with some of the grill part missing. I took it off and the frame fell into 4 pieces, so I went to the home improvement box stores to try and find a replacement. Not available, and no wood trim pieces, or tree branches, or anything would have worked without a lot of routing and other work. So I cut out the grill part of the outside frame, glued it back together with gorilla glue I had, spraypainted it all moss green with some paint I had, and put it back on. It looks much better than before, and perfectly acceptable. And basically free.

2: The lock was sticking on the front door. I naively thought I was going to have to replace it as it got worse. Then (Gil had the same thought on the same day) I realized that I could probably try some WD-40 in it. I asked my dad if that was ok, or if I needed to get that special lock stuff (graphite). He said he has used WD-40 and it works fine. So I sprayed some in and problem solved. Yah, WD-40 is not really clean and green, but better than a new lock!

3: Since January, the shed light and outdoor car plug-ins have not functioned. We tried flicking every switch in the house that didn’t seem to go to anything else, and checking the circuit breakers, and I even dug up the underground cable for a foot or two near the outdoor plug-ins, and had my electrician friend look at the plug-ins. No luck. Finally, while painting yesterday I noticed that a plug-in low down on the inside wall of the entry is a GFCI plug, and it had been tripped. Knowing that I was just about to solve all my problems, which I had anticipated taking money and a lot of shovel work, I pressed the reset. Sure enough, problem solved. I feel dumb for not noticing it earlier. And very happy I did notice it.

Toilets and 4th of July

Oh yah, I forgot to mention that I ended up spending my 3rd of July holiday off work replacing a leaking toilet in Unit 1. Luckily I had done it in a non-emergency situation when we remodeled the bathroom in unit 2 (see prior posts). It still took 3 trips to Lowes, and putting in and taking out and putting in the toilet again due to rotating closet bolts and other such unforeseen issues. Roughly:
walk out of apartment in late morning and notice water dripping from hall ceiling. At same time notice note on door from Unit 1 about water on floor of bathroom near toilet and toilet running a lot. Check out toilet – bowl has some hairline cracks in it. This must be the issue, though leak through ceiling is worse when flush – so maybe wax ring is giving out too? Buy new toilet at Lowes (an ultra-low flush ~$170 jobbie – American Standard Flowwise if I remember right – two pieces this time, last time we chose a more expensive and sleeker one-piece design). Install toilet, have to pull up and deal with rotating closet bolts a couple of times, messing up wax ring a bit, so unsurprisingly it leaks a bit. Pull out toilet, buy 2 new wax rings (one as back-up), reinstall with new wax ring over wax ring/rubber gasket assembly that came with toilet (I’m liking this set-up – we used it with the other toilet too as we had to deal with a raised floor when we tiled – I set the wax ring with the rubber piece in the drain pipe, put the second plain wax ring around the flange at the base of the toilet and the proceed with installation). This time the toilet didn’t leak, but the supply line did! Return to Lowes for new supply line, install that.

The subfloor under the toilet is a bit rotten from a long history of being under a toilet, but I will tackle that later – much later. Someday I will pull it out and tile like we did in #2. I did patch a hole in the wall behind the toilet and touch up my previous paint job a bit. All in all a satisfying and fairly cheap repair, and now about 64% less water will run through that toilet. I am hoping to not have to spend any emergency money for a while though, so I can get some insulating done before winter!