Monday, September 13, 2010

Sustainability in everything

Our Canada trip was amazing, beautiful, awe-inspiring, and fun, and the train ride gave me ample time to ponder... well, everything. I did a lot of thinking about sustainability, and I think the underlying concept of sustainability is really core to everything.

Sustainability, at its base level, means "something that can continue indefinitely without collapse." It is the ideal to which I strive for all the systems that I interact with. Most people use "sustainable" in the context of energy and environment. These are excellent and laudable goals, but I think that sustainability goes much further.

For instance, recently there has been a push in Merrill to move to an all-volunteer fire department. People point to the fact that some larger cities have a all-volunteer fire department and they do just fine. Now, say that someone looked at your job - whatever it is; lawyer, programmer, designer, whatever. Say they then said, hey, we can train volunteers to do your job, but we won't have to pay them! Would you be OK with that? Do you think that they would do as good of a job at your job as you do? More importantly, do you think that people should be paid for the work that they do? Basically, when you think about it like this, is it sustainable to replace paid personnel, regardless of the specific job, with volunteers? I'm not even a little bit knocking volunteers or volunteering -- just pointing out that we all need day jobs, and maybe you shouldn't be so quick to offer up someone else's living.

Local resilience also keys off sustainability. Merrill has been learning the hard way lately how unsustainable it is to shop at Walmart for goods manufactured in China but still expect well paying manufacturing jobs to stick around. We need to take a hard look at how we can use the concept of sustainability to truly reform Merrill and make it vibrant once again. One thing that I've decided/learned so far in my month without buying anything new is that I'm going to always try to search for a local manufactured alternative first; if not, then something made in the US, bought from a local retailer; if not that then something made in a country where they pay a decent wage or have a fair trade agreement, preferably purchased from a local retailer. I think we can all be individually more sustainable is just buy less stuff - but when we do, buy things that are of higher quality.

Sustainability can be applied to design in many ways; web designs (Google, craigslist) that rarely need to change because their functionality is so obvious and simple is one good use of sustainability. Using materials that are sustainable, reusable, recyclable in product design and print design is another good example. Heirloom design - things that are made to be handed down because they are so beautiful and durable - is a great design concept that really helps sustainability.

So, what are your thoughts about sustainability? How do you or can you use the concept of sustainability?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

No new stuff, labor day weekend edition

Ah, labor day, time of celebrating our nation's workers by watching politicians who hate unions and think that lower taxes for the higher classes ("trickle down theory"), less regulation, and less public assistance are the keys to a prosperous society.

Because it worked so well last time, under Bush. *sigh*

Crazy hair-pulling (and Tasha actually yelling at a van with blatant lies about Feingold on the side) aside, labor day is a time of sales on new stuff. Mostly made in China. You know, because we need to celebrate the near-slave conditions that the Chinese labor under too! Who said Communism and Capitalism were mutual contradictions? (Seriously, if people want to know what the end result of rampant capitalism with little to no oversight and regulations looks like.. look at China.)

There I go again, with the politics and social justice and pointing out the obvious. Anyway... the whole point is that labor day is a great day to buy "stuff." I was bombarded with 15%, 20%, 30%, 40% off flyers. Some of them were pretty tempting too, but I managed to avoid them. So far the only thing I've bought besides groceries is supplies for making our wedding invitations (consumables); they are made of recycled paper, with seeds in them, and are meant to be planted and produce wildflowers.

This whole exercise has me taking a close look at all my consuming habits. For instance, I really would like a 6+ quart enameled cast iron dutch oven. My ideal would be a Le Creuset, but at 250 a pop its too rich for my blood - at least, for a new one. Lodge Logic makes a nice one -- but it's made in China. When it comes down to it, once I'm back to actually buying new stuff, I think I begin saving money to buy items that are made in the USA, or have been made by fair trade deals, or made in countries where people are paid a decent wage. The more local however, the better.

Next time: what ever happened to the TV repair man?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The beginning of no-new month

I've been gearing up to start my month of no buying anything new. The one major concern is that I still haven't gotten Austin his bed; it will have to go on my list of permissible new purchases for the month. I did get the other stuff I was planning on buying new, and its all awesome, so that's all good.

I've actually been trying to only buy used since I put up the last post, and I've done pretty well. I managed to snag a nice, heavy cast iron skillet for two bucks, and a cast iron griddle with a grease channel (wooo!) for 20. The skillet has a bit of rust on the back, but nothing that can't be dealt with; the griddle is in excellent shape. We did have to buy a bunch of new stuff for school tho, but most of it is consumables (and thank goodness for the dollar store), so that's good.

Which leads me to another thought - I've seen and heard of package videos and new shopping videos on Youtube; I wonder if there would be a "market" for thrift shop/garage sale find videos? Hmm.

So, the things I will allow myself to buy new this month: consumables (tho I'm going to try and re-arrange the kitchen drawers to hold cloth towels and get more cloth napkins to cut down on how many paper towels/napkins we use); Austin's bed. That's it.

Cross your fingers for me. Resisting the labor day sales will be my first big test.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Some cheap & healthy cleaning alternatives

We're in the process of moving away from expensive and toxic store-bought cleaners (both of the body and the house), towards homemade cleaners instead. Here's some recipes I've compiled for cheap and effective cleaning product alternatives. One thing I'm still trying to understand is why so many recipes call for mixing vinegar and baking soda, as that would just neutralize them; I'm not sure about the reaction between borax and vinegar, because tho borax is basic, it is actually a buffered base/acid combination... hum. Still, pretty much everything is vinegar, castile soap, baking soda, and borax, with a little bit of club soda added in. Enjoy!

Oh, and here's how to use xanthan gum for when you want some thicker shampoo and toilet bowl cleaner.

1/3 cup castile soap (Dr. Bronners)
2/3 cup green tea
approx 1/4 teas xanthan gum (more or less, optional, for thickening)

If you're going to use the xanthan gum, I'd just add it to the green tea in your blender or food processor, then mix in the castile soap by hand; hard beating + soap = froth.

Conditioner (specifically for use after the above shampoo - don't use the shampoo without this step)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup water

Dishwasher detergent:
1 cup baking soda
1 cup borax

Use 2 tablespoons per dish load. Put white vinegar in the rinse (jet dry) cycle.

Fabric softener:
Use 1/2 - 1 cup white vinegar in the fabric softener cup

Toilet bowl cleaner:
Vinegar (can be thickened with xanthan gum)

Pour vinegar around toilet as normal toilet bowl cleaner. Sprinkle stains with borax. Let sit 10 minutes, scrub clean.

Window cleaner:
2 tsp vinegar
1 qt water


Club soda (store bought or homemade, no sugar)

Fill spray bottle with this, and wipe with newspaper.

Tub & Tile scrub
½ c. baking soda
3 tbsp. castile soap

Mix together and use as a scrub.

Original photo by Valerie Morrison

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Help: need more local meat

OK, I'm looking for more sources of local meat - beef and chicken specifically. Preferably grass fed, small farm beef, and whole pastured roaster chickens. Geiss' hooks us up with all the chicken breasts, sausage, elk steak, and pork chops we need, but we like a good steak, roast, roast chicken. I know that our CSA is selling organic certified meat, but its in quantities and at prices I can't yet justify.

I really don't want to shop at the supermarket for this stuff; too much of what they have is from the major meat producers, was trucked in, far from natural, yadda yadda. I have an excess of hormones as it is, thanks.

I'm starting to try to wean myself off the easy to use, crazy tasty, but expensive broth I normally get, but finding a ton of chicken bones isn't that easy. Bonus points for someone who can point me at duck, goose, and soup bones - I'll even take old, tough rooster for making some good, meaty broth!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

No new stuff challenge starting... soon.

OK, I'm back from the awesome week of GenCon -- highlights: spending mucho time with Josh, game demos, Damsels of Dorkington, Hickman's Killer Breakfast, the dance, and of course and unfortunately the FOOD. Sooo much good food; Sushi on the Rocks, Ruth's Chris,
McCormick & Schmick's (where I had the best dessert I've ever eaten), more Sushi on the Rocks... and I'm going to have to work out a bit extra this week to pay for it.

Still, we made it thru GenCon while only buying a few new things, and they were either presents for the kids, or out of print, or bought at a very large discount, or just plain cool (Adventures of Baron Munchausen RPG). But now that we're back I'm realizing that there are a few things that I'm going to need to buy new before going on my month long abstention.

The things that are holding me back are: an Ikea chair bed - a futon-like bed small enough to actually fit up the stairs to the clock tower; natural/safe ingredient lip color to replace my current lip color (that has started to smell a little off); and a Moon cup (reusable feminine hygiene product). Admittedly, the last two should come under personal products or consumables... but I can't say that of the bed. I also cannot find anything comparable for the price.. but if you know of something, drop me a line.

Josh also pointed out that the month without new shouldn't be hard for me, as we rarely buy anything new anyway. The kitchen stuff weakness is still there tho.

Friday, July 30, 2010

New challenge, and no-driving update

Well, today is no driving for a week +2, and I still haven't gotten behind a wheel - and I was sorely tempted yesterday. First, I had to go get blood drawn in the morning (they're still trying to figure out why I had pancreatitis). Now, I've had blood drawn lots of times before. I know I'm at least in the hundreds of times. So I've got my routine pretty much down - except when I get on my bike after, and look over, and there's nice blue-black blood spurting out of my arm onto my upper arm (just like it does into the little vials that the phlebotomist collects it in) and then dripping on the ground. So I made an emergency stop and put pressure on it for a few minutes. Its stopped and I only moderately looked like a stabbing victim, so I went home and cleaned up.

Then for lunch I had to run to the store, and it wasn't nearly as interesting of a trip. And then later I went to get my CSA - at this point I had gone over 3 miles for the day, but it was still easier getting up the Walmart hill than it was the first time - no blowouts! By the time I had got home from that, I had done over 7 miles for the day, and was feeling a little jelly-legged (yeah, out of shape) but still, proud of myself. My average speed for the first trip of the day was about 12 MPH, which got down to about 8 for my last trip, but I'm still doing better.

And super exciting, dad found a trailer at a garage sale for 35 bucks! No more worries about hauling dog food/cat food/litter... that is, if I can figure out how to mount it on my bike...

Dad also found a scanner in good condition for 5 bucks. It'll probably only work with XP, but we've got that on the tower anyway, so hey, its all good. Of course, HP never put out drivers for Vista or Windows 7, because they want you to buy a new scanner. Down with planned obsolescence!

Which brings me to my new challenge - which I'm not going to start until after GenCon (for obvious reasons, lol). My new challenge is this: for one MONTH, buy nothing new. This means no books, kitchen tools (oh, these two are going to be HARD), clothes, shoes, whatever, unless they are used. Exceptions can and will be made for school supplies, birthday presents, supplies for creating, and food/consumables(yeah, no used food), but only after used/secondhand options have been exhausted.

Some of this is going to be easy. Honestly, in the last year and a half I have bought exactly one dress and two pairs of jeans new. The hardest part is going to be the kitchen tools. There's so much I still want to really have my kitchen running well; a french fry cutter, an Excalibur dehydrator, a Kitchenaid blender, a Yogourmet yogurt maker (ok, maybe I'll get this one before going on strike), pasta roller attachments for my mixer, glass food containers, a spaetzle press, a stainless steel roasting pan... and ohhh, the books...

Still, I think I can do it. The other day I found the perfect plates for making the cupcake holders for the wedding (thanks Martha, I'm going to glue candlesticks and/or vases turned upside-down to the bottom, ta-da! cupcake plates!) at St. Vinnies, along with two of the candlesticks. Total cost: 3 bucks. Compare that with wedding/cupcake plates new - the cheapest is around 35, up to over 200. And almost all of these are plastic, use 'em once type. Yeesh. I also picked up a large Pyrex saucepan in perfect condition - for 5 bucks. Not too shabby.

So, I think I can make it, and I'll keep reporting here on the results. Wish me luck!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Inception - on level seven you face Wart

OK, if you haven't seen Inception, this will have spoilers. Kind of -- if you're like me, you won't need any spoilers, as the entire movie is telegraphed in the second scene.

Honestly, I liked this movie much more when it was two movies called "Ocean's 11" and "The Matrix." Everyone seems to think that Inception is a really deep movie with so much creativity and a lot to say. Sorry, this was just a heist movie with a gimmick stolen from a "what's real?" movie.

Now, I'm not saying that Inception is a BAD movie. Its not BAD, its just not really good. It suffers from the same lack of internal logic that Nolan's Dark Knight (*shudder*) did. You know how we made a really big deal about how your inner ear can wake you up if you are asleep? Yeah, forget we said that, because it'll interfere with our awesome van rolling/hotel spinning scene. If there's one thing that drives me BATTY, its when movies go to great lengths to establish rules, then flagrantly violate those rules.

And why exactly did they go to... Mumbai? I think? for a "chemist" when I'm sure there are qualified anesthesiologists nearer... uh...

And why are all these people so ok with breaking into a guy's head and basically screwing with who he is as a person? Especially some random architecture student. Yeah, she learns she can do anything in dreams. So go find another dream machine - there are obviously other ones around - and do it there! No one questions what they are doing even for a split second.

Was some of the imagery cool? Yep, it had that going for it. Was the acting good? Yeah, it had that too. But the dialogue was so contrived, and everything was so set up (seriously, when the rich boy died, did he end up in limbo or not? Or... wait, when you die there what happens? Sometimes its a push, sometimes you just get stabbed... and.. ) that in the end it was a internally illogical mess that masqueraded as something deep and pithy. Who didn't predict the ending when Cobb first explained his wife's totem?

I guess I just wish they had gone a few levels deeper. I was looking forward to the boss battle where you catch veggies and feed them to a giant lizard that really doesn't want to eat fresh green peppers.

Week without driving, day 7

Well, I made it. One full week without driving (and only one day with car rides even). On my last day I ended up having to make a doctor's appointment for chest wall pain, and I biked myself over to it. It's only a little one mile jaunt over the bridge and up the hill; I was able to do the bike part in five minutes flat - much faster than when I started (and I didn't have nearly the problems with the hill that I did on the first day; I'm out of shape man!) Of course, the going down, unlocking the shed, getting everything ready on the bike, re-locking the shed, parking the bike, locking it up... that all took an extra 10 minutes, but hey. That's ok.

I'm going to try to continue driving as little as possible, both for my heath and for the environment. This week has been great, and has raised a lot of possibilities and questions for me. As today is Thursday I'm going to bike to get the CSA later, and I also have to hit the grocery store today, and I'm going to use my bike to do it (Dad actually found a nice bike trailer for 35 bucks at a garage sale, so we've got that now too!)

I really only have one remaining conundrum. Not to be indelicate, but, once a month I'm going to have some serious problems biking. Seriously, how do other women deal with it? The logistics and even more importantly, the pain? I think that once a month I'm going to have to switch over to air conditioned comfort.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Week without driving, day 6

Another uneventful one. I was going to leave to go to the store, but the series of thunderstorms that we had yesterday made me decide that I didn't need to buy parmesan that badly. So, instead I stayed in the house cooking what I had (and running out of gas in the grill... grrr) And continuing to work on the bit of code. No, it still doesn't work.

I think I have decided to continue using my bike to do pretty much all of my around town errands. I still have the problem of how to get copious amounts (25-50lbs each) of cat litter/cat food/dog food home tho; I want a trailer, but people seem to want as much for them used as new, and I am not on an unlimited budget. Any thoughts in that area would be appreciated! Thanks folks!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Week without driving, day 5

Day 5 was easy again; didn't have to go anywhere. I was working on a slightly annoying bit of code all day, so that took up most of my time. I did get some thinking time in about options for people around here who don't have cars. I know in many big cities now they have Zipcars; its a great idea for people that only need to use cars occasionally. The big drawback in a place like Merrill - at least as it is now - is that many people work outside of the city and need to have their cars all day. There still isn't public transportation between the communities around here; even tho you can get almost anywhere in Merrill between the Merrill-go-round and the taxi, getting to Wausau is trickier.

Is there a way a car co-op could work? Let's say a family decided to split a car with another family. Each would pay for half of the car - maintenance, insurance, etc. The tricky part would be the actual sharing of the car; if there was one partner that was stay-at-home in one family and could give a ride to someone in the other family that worked in Wausau... but the problem of scheduling would be extremely tricky.

Ideally this area could have improved public transportation options - even just bus lines that ran four or five times a day between places like Tomahawk, Rheinlander, Merrill, Wausau, Stevens Point, Marshfield... and then something like a small, small Zipcar lot, with three or four cars (just speaking about Merrill here; other communities could use bigger ones) - would go a long way towards helping out those who don't have transportation, and maybe even cut down on how many people feel like they need to own cars at all. I'm not saying this would be easy, but it would be awesome.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Week without driving, day 4

OK, Sunday was a gimme. Didn't leave the house all day; just blanched and froze chard and cooked food and cleaned (and had a migraine, but that's par for the course). I'm thinking about extending not driving as much as possible, but I know I'll have to schlep another 50 lb of cat litter (or even a 25lb bag of food) eventually, and I'm not yet equipped to handle that without a car.

It does strike me that those without cars must buy less bulk foods. I can't imagine bringing home the quantities we get of flour, sugar, cat/dog food, noodles, etc, etc, etc on a bus or subway...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Week without driving, day 3

On day 3 of driving I took my first ride in a car since starting. We had to go to Prairie Pines (Mennonite store) in Gleason to load up on sugar, brown sugar, noodles and bacon; its a 15 mile stretch each way, takes about 25 minutes by car, and we have the kids, so bikes were out. Still, I didn't drive, and we took the little car, so at least the gas mileage was low.

Later we had a mini school reunion at one of my high school friends parents houses. It was just over 2 miles each way; uphill most of the way there, downhill on the way back. The last hill got me, and I got off my bike and walked it about 50 feet. Oh well, at least I tried. Still, its getting easier already; I need the exercise!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Week without driving, day 2

Well, day 2 was a bit easier than day one. I didn't have to go pick up anything at the store or anything, so I didn't ride my bike at all, much less use the car.

The only hiccup came when Josh was going to be late home from work, so Austin and I went to the kids' grandparents. Fortunately it's within easy walking distance - its only about 6 or 7 blocks - so we made it over there in about 15 minutes and back in about 20 (walking with a dog that stopped to defecate FOUR times and smell every little smell everywhere did not speed the process; neither did walking back with a 5 year old in wet shoes :) ) Still, it was a really pleasant walk, as it was warm but there was a really nice wind blowing.

So far the experiment is going really well. I can see myself doing almost completely without a car in spring, summer, and fall - the exception being when the kids need schlepping, but they're getting used to riding their bikes to most places in town (the older ones at any rate). Winter, however, is another matter. It's so bitter in winter around here, I'm not sure I could deal. Merrill is solidly in the band between 6 and 8 degrees on the map. That's mean temp, not lows. Frostbite is not my friend. Still, if snowmobilers can do it... wonder if I need snow tires...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Week without driving, day 1

Oh, I picked a lovely day to start my attempt at a week without driving a car.

Today I went and picked up our CSA at 1:30 - in the middle of that. It's about a four mile round trip, all easy biking except for the stupid hill up to Walmart. I had my nice rain jacket on - its breathable and has pit zips, which were very welcome. The pants weren't breathable, so that wasn't quite as cool.

I bungeed the old box to the back rack on my bike, and on the return trip did the same with the new box (and man, what a haul this week, snap beans, salad mix, cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, summer squash, fava beans, basil, swiss chard). The bungees worked well, much better than with the milk crate on the test run to get a 50lb bag of cat litter (yeah, no. Bad bad bad.)

So, here's to one day down, and six to go!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Architectural musings

OK, I'm not an architect and I never will be; it's a discipline that I totally respect and feel that practitioners of rarely get enough respect for.

That being said, I do muse on the what the architecture of our "someday" house will be. I love living in the castle in the middle of Merrill, but that doesn't stop me from dreaming of a green paradise.

Things that I'd love: I really like Buckminster Fuller dome houses. They look really cool. But they aren't the best for saving and using water, and I'd def like to be able to build permaculture landscaping around the house. I also like earth block houses, but I do wonder about the thermal properties in winter. Straw bale houses are awesome, but difficult to hang pictures in. Whatever we do, green & sustainable with good insulation is best.

As for the roof, I think it might be cool if there was a way to shade it with a light, white, perhaps retractable material in summer, but have it dark for warming purposes in winter. Something like kevlar or cuban fiber (in a non-transparent version) sail cloth, hanging well over the house, to provide shade in the summer (providing shade for big south-facing windows for passive heating in the winter too), and a black roof in the winter. Not sure about where to put the solar panels...

If only we lived in a more temperate climate, I've always wanted an open design home with a river running through it. Literally, I would want a river flowing through the living room of my ideal house. I know it'll never happen, but it would be cool.

The thing that I want more than anything is for my living room to resemble a James Bond villain's lair - Dr. No, jungle lair in Moonraker, and the Man with the Golden Gun's hideout being good examples. The beauty of these set designs (two of them Ken Adam classics) is the combination of natural features -- rock, driftwood, jungle, water etc -- with 1950's futuristic architecture and antique furniture (admittedly, some of this is interior design, not architecture, still). Love it.


Friday, July 02, 2010

Worst use of the American Flag in a design

In honor of the upcoming Independence Day, I present to you what is in my opinion the single worst use of the American Flag in any design, ever. Also might win for worst attempt at jingoistic patriotism ever. Seriously, if you're trying to honor the flag, why would you want your armpits sweating all over it? (and if you're trying to do the opposite, wouldn't flag boxers make more sense?)

Bono, you're a jerk.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Another awesome design - Fiskars Momentum Lawnmower

OK, I'm still stupidly ill, so this is going to be a short one.

I found out about the Fiskars Momentum lawnmower today from this article on Grist. Now, this is an amazing piece of design to me for a couple of reasons. It recognises that old tech can work just as well, if not better than new, but it also takes the old design and completely eliminates all the problems, and it makes sure that the user is comfortable while doing it.

Some quick points that make this different than old fashioned reel grass cutters: the blades never touch, so they rarely need sharpening; the width of the blades is the same as the width of the wheels, so there's no three-inch gap where it won't cut on each side; the height is adjustable so you can mow grass to different levels; it has a weighted flywheel to make pushing it easier and to deal with any sticks it may run across; and it has an ergonomic handle that makes pushing both easier than traditional reel mowers and more comfortable. Of course, these are its advantages over traditional reel mowers; it also has advantages over gas powered mowers like a gas powered mower in one year produces the same emissions as 43 cars each driving 12,000 miles - and you're right behind the exhaust.

It almost makes me wish I had a lawn to mow.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

When you can't think of anything to post about

Yeah, that's me today. I must be at an intellectual low; I've not been able to come up with anything for a blog entry for a couple days now. So what do I type about? Well, how about some random stuff on my mind.

Well, I just got a book in the mail, Gaia's Garden: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture. I'm really interested to read this and see how I can apply it to apartment living. I've got an idea for a window garden, watered with the extra water left from washing vegetables, on an automatic timer so I can't kill it by forgetting to water it... but I'll read the book and see.

I've got another book on order, The Transition Handbook, about how to help get your local area from oil dependence to local resiliency (economic and energy resiliency). I've started reading Transition US's Primer, and am thinking about setting up at least a mulling group. I think that we really COULD change how Merrill works, save our local agriculture and economy, and make Merrill a friendlier place to live.

Last but not least, I've been thinking about the Mustard Seed. Its no secret that the current owner wants to sell, and we've got a ton of ideas of what could be done with it (partnership with a local meat processor and local farmers to get more local groceries in to start). So, someone who has a lot more free time, please buy it and I'll gladly give you the ideas.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Excellent overview of climate change arguments

I was planning on going to a meeting to meet a local candidate for state assembly, but I'm feeling bloody awful, so I'm going to skip out. I really hate to do that, as I have some really important questions to ask, but frankly, I don't want to get more ill.

And I'm feeling bloody awful and I'm not feeling up to doing a proper blog entry, so I'm just going to link to this amazing presentation. Christopher Monckton is one of the leading climate change deniers. John Abraham is an associate professor in the School of Engineering at the University of St Thomas in Minnesota. John spent many months tracking down all the references in one of Christopher Monckton's speeches. Please, whether you believe in climate change or not, watch this presentation, and understand what the science is.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

No car challenge

I know I missed yesterday; it was the day of the pancake breakfast at our CSA, Stoney Acres Farm. The pancakes -- and the rest of the food -- were awesome. Great thanks to Kat & Tony (and their family, friends, and workers who were helping out) for the wonderful time.

I don't know if you've heard of Adam Greenfield. He decided that for one year he would live entirely without cars. No taxis, motorcycles, rides from friends. Adam was able to do it, and I've heard of others that are doing it too. But... they live in very urban areas -- in Adam's case, San Francisco. I've decided I'm going to take a week and try it out myself, but I'm going to allow myself to ride in cars, just not drive them. The absolutely no cars thing is awesome, but is strictly impossible when you live in a rural area and have kids to tote around.

When I start my experiment.. I'm not sure when. The real trick will be getting the CSA share. I'm going to have to get my bike into town and figure out how to haul stuff around with it. Should prove interesting! Once I have that figured out I'm going start my experiment. Should be in the next week or two, I'll keep everyone updated.

Friday, June 25, 2010

More ideas for Merrill

Really, this is energy fair pt. 2. But it encompasses much more than that. I've talked before about how Merrill could benefit from diversifying its small business manufacturing base, and touched on saving the remaining historical assets, and how the future will reward towns that follow small and local thinking. Here are a couple more ways that Merrill can get ahead and stay ahead of the game.

First, there's the Complete Streets initiative. I know its too late to effect the construction of the new 64 corridor thru Merrill, but it'd be awesome if Merrill took things like bike lanes into consideration in new construction. This goes hand in hand with mixed-use development, where commercial, residential, and small industry are mixed together -- like Merrill's downtown. In Japan, for instance, there are many shopfronts that were also small manufacturing workshops, where the potter sits at his wheel in the back half of the shop while her wares are being sold in the front half. Merrill's downtown and riverfront area -- and the terribly neglected 6th Ward -- would be ideally suited to this kind of development, where people could walk or bike to their jobs (even in... ugh, winter.)

Then there's the Transition Towns movement, which aims to address this question: "For all those aspects of life that our community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (in response to peak oil), drastically reduce carbon emissions (in response to climate change) and greatly strengthen our local economy (in response to economic instability)?" (If you don't believe in climate change, then... there's not a whole lot I can do for you, other than say, well, is it a good thing we're pumping tons of carbon into the air, and would we be worse off without it?)

The really nice thing about transition towns, as it applies to Merrill, is the resiliency it offers local economies. It offers a way away from foreign oil (oil at all, really), helps build up local businesses, farmers, etc, and actually helps people save money. Check out the link for a 101 about Transition Towns. Maybe something we could get going here?

So, for my peeps in Merrill, how can we get the ball rolling on these, without stretching the already stretched Merrill budget? I'm imagining that the Historical Society would be of invaluable help not only in preserving our remaining historical resources, but also with information about how people lived in Merrill before the energy boom times. Do you have any other ideas about how to make Merrill a more vibrant, livable, planned community?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Our "bucket list" of places to visit

We've got a nice list going of places that we'd really like to visit. We're especially trying to hit at least one country on every continent; then there's several that are between continents or not on continents or are sub continents. And of course, we'll be buying carbon offsets for our plane trips. They really are inexpensive and worth the peace of mind. We're hoping to hit a new country every year!

  • North America -- ok, sorta a gimme, but Canada! Its like Wisconsin, only further north, they use funny looking money, and say aboot.
  • Asia -- Japan. Nerd heaven, great food, awesome culture.
  • Europe pt.1 -- Turkey, Greece, Italy. Foundations of so much of western civilization are in these places. And awesome food.
  • South America -- Argentina. Wine, friendly people, inexpensive, nature, wine, and food.
  • Africa -- Zambia. Safe, stable, friendly, amazing wildlife, Victoria Falls, inexpensive, food.
  • Australia -- Australia. Kangaroos, Koalas, desert, great white sharks and box jellies, G'day mate and... food.
  • Asia pt. 2 -- China. Shanghai, Hong Kong, and seriously holy cow the food.
  • Europe pt. 2 -- Ireland, England, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, all the other tiny little countries. For art, culture, beer, beer, and food.
  • Other -- New Zealand, Egypt, India, Costa Rica - All beautiful and interesting and FOOD.
  • USA! USA! -- heh. New Orleans, Boston, Disneyland, Orlando, Hawaii, Alaska, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Jellystone. Beauty, culture, and you guessed it... food.
  • Antarctica --Antarctica. This'll pretty much have to be last on the list. Cheap Antarctic cruises are 20K a person. And no food. Unless you really want to club a baby penguin (ok, there's food on the ship, but no native Antarctic delicacies. Maybe snow cones....)

Can I be an environmentalist without turning into a sanctimonious twit?

I love the environment. I have been known to both talk to and hug trees. I have looked at the data, read analyses, and done heavy thinking about where the world is headed. I understand - at least deep enough that I can say some things with confidence - global warming and climate change, peak oil, the dangers of drilling natural gas, the ramifications of a factory food system, the as yet unfulfilled but amazing promises of alternative energy sources, the impact of our chemical society on our bodies. But...

Man, the environmentalist movement is filled with self-righteous, sanctimonious twits. I'm talking zealots of the first degree, who believe anything that they read that supports their world view without doing any further research.

Really, they aren't that much different than many Fox News viewers.

For instance, I have been reading about a great debate that is splitting the environmental movement. Can you be a good environmentalist and still eat meat? While many think that you can, there is a very vocal minority that disagree.

Never mind that that vocal minority mostly chose not to eat meat for their own moral reasons (and like good zealots they want to force their morals on you). Never mind that their argument that land that is used to raise animals would be better used to raise crops doesn't apply in many places that cannot be usefully converted to human-edible crop production. Never mind that a true closed system of food production includes animals for many reasons, including aeration of the soil and manure production, much less the high-quality protein production that humans are evolved to eat. Addendum: most importantly, never mind that meat-eaters actually have a smaller carbon footprint.

Of course, then there's the very obnoxious animal rights movement (as opposed to the animal welfare movement, that actually recognises that a cow is a cow and a pig is a pig and neither is a human being). Yes, this really is beyond the scope of what I'm writing about, but it is an area that overlaps a great deal with the environment movement and is filled with self-satisfied zealots.

So, I believe in protecting the environment, because we as humans cannot survive without it. I also believe that pollution, etc, is infringing on our individual rights -- I have a right to breathe air that hasn't been fouled, drink water that isn't swimming with pharmaceuticals, eat food that is free from horrible substances that cause cancer, birth defects, and endocrine disruption. I should not have any of this forced upon me.

But how can I tell people about all these things, that are very important to all of our lives, without coming across like the sanctimonious twits above? I understand that people aren't making enough money right now to shop at the places that I'd prefer. I understand that people don't have time to cook a homemade meal of organic food every night. So how can I help others understand whats at stake, and help the world be a better place, without forcing what I believe on them?

Maybe if I keep asking myself, always, "Am I being a tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood? Am telling other people that they MUST believe something, when I should just be encouraging them to investigate the matter and make up their own minds?" Maybe that'll help me from being such a delusional, holier-than-thou airhead.

Then again, I'm right. ;)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Merrill REALLY has something going for it

Have you ever heard of WalkScore? It rates an address based on how walkable it is to shops, services, goods, etc. Turns out where we live is one of the most walkable places in the nation. Literally, the very spot where we live is rated as a 94/100; a walkers paradise. Yes, its not perfect; the 51 Truck Stop is listed as being on Main St., and many of the parks are totally unlisted. Still, it is awesome how much is here.

Many places in Merrill proper have a very high WalkScore. Merrill should use this to our advantage - we're a superbly designed neighborhood for really living, not just sleeping at. We should look at where we're concentrating our development dollars, and realize that the heart of the town could be vibrant and a huge asset to maintaining and even growing our community.

More and more people are looking to drive less (with peak oil it'll get even more dramatic -- yeah, I'll write more on that some other time), and Merrill is perfectly suited to take advantage of this. If business owners could extend their hours - until 7 or 8 ideally - people could come home from work and take their time to walk to local businesses and do their shopping.

Of course, I'd like to see Merrill do even more to encourage walking and biking - bike lanes on our major roads, widening the sidewalks and narrowing the streets to make them more pedestrian friendly (and encourage the shop/restaraunt owners to expand their offerings onto the sidewalk... and maybe stay open longer especially on those beautiful summer nights...)

Now if we could just do something about winter. Hmm.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Energy Fair pt. 1

We hit the Midwest Energy Fair this weekend, and it was awesome. There's so much information that I got that I'm still digesting. Some of the coolest organizations were Midwest Permaculture and Family Farm Defenders. I'll be writing more about them, and the whole experience, starting tomorrow. Today I'm feeling really ill again so for now just enjoy the pics.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fear of change, the new, the different, the future

Please, someone prove me wrong on this one.

Why do people have so much fear of change, new things, things that are different? Recently I commented on a Daily Herald online story about pets in the city of Weston. It said that it understood the ban on bees and farm animals among other, more dangerous, less useful animals. I pointed out that many people are keeping both farm animals and bees on small plots of land in urban areas - the idea is called Urban Homesteading - and that if done responsibly I didn't understand why people had a problem with it. I even linked to a site that talked about Urban Homesteading and the benefits people can enjoy.

And EXPLOSION. "Move to the country!" "Chickens would cost you more in feed than you'd get, keep them out of the city!" etc. The only rational objection based on any kind of experience or research was that Wausau already is unable to deal with animal control, and this would be an added burden (tho no one commented on my idea for a permit system...) Most people were just absolutely HORRIFIED by the IDEA that people would LIVE that way and wanted it kept away from them.

This goes for sooo many things. Any new idea, someone who looks different or acts different by choice or by birth or by luck, any new thing, heck, any new VEGETABLE seems to be looked upon with fear and disgust by much of the population. Why are so many people so afraid to try new things, or failing that, why are so many people frightened that other people might try new things?

The future is going to be more diverse than anyone can possibly imagine in every way. You can either embrace that and learn to accept and even try the new and different, or you can reject it and be left behind. I'd encourage everyone to try something new this week - even if it is just trying to accept someone who lives a different way than you do.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

E-paper, e-ink, and the future

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Arthur C. Clarke

Ohhhh, I love e-paper and e-ink. If you haven't seen a Kindle in real life, you owe it to yourself to seek one out. It looks just like printed paper, but when you refresh its nearly magical how the paper changes -- the page blinks black, an poof, there's the new text; but it doesn't look like a computer screen, it looks like it was printed there.

This simple technology - tiny tiny dots filled with black liquid and white particles, with a charge applied to make the white particles float to the top or bottom - makes me insanely excited. Especially in light of new approaches to color versions of the same thing. This is a technology that uses almost no power - particles just have to be charged once and then they stay that way until another charge is applied. And then there are the possible uses.

The picture that I mocked up at the top (yeah, its some quick and dirty photoshop work, live with it) shows one of the simpler uses of a color version of this technology. The first three wallpapers would almost be feasable today, if you could afford a piece of e-paper that large. The fourth, turning your wallpaper into a giant tv (no backlighting tho, you'll have to light it from the front like any other piece of paper), will be feasible when refresh times improve in the future. And when you're done with the tv - just turn your wallpaper back on. Its a giant computer screen that is indistingishable from wallpaper. Decide to redecorate? Just download a new pattern. Poof, new wallpaper (you'll still have to clean off the crayon when the kiddos get at it tho).

Now imagine other uses. E-ink used for clothes - if you're a web designer, imagine drafting css for a piece of clothing. Sleaves one color, position a graphic just there, put a pattern on the back... the possibilities for a single piece of clothing are unlimited (except for the cut of the dress).

We will be living in a Harry Potter world. Pictures could move at any time. Newspapers will have video embedded (it'll look like a newspaper, but it'll be a web browser, book reader....). "Paintings" could come to life. And none of this will be on glowing rectangles. Eventually, you won't be able to tell e-ink merchandise from any other surface treatment.

Right now you can get a Kindle, e-ink watches, even soon a mobile phone. These are just initial, clumsy uses of the technology. Where will it go next?

So what will you want made with e-ink?

Friday, June 18, 2010

CSA goodness

And tastiness! We got a CSA this year from Stoney Acres Farm over in Athens. Once a week, on thursday, we get to go pick up a beautiful and bountiful cornucopia of vegtabley goodness.

A CSA works by paying the farm, before the season starts, an up front fee. A Stoney Acres share costs 460 for 20 weeks of vegetables - which comes out to twenty three bucks a week, and boy, do you get your money's worth of gorgeous, delicious organic food. The up front fee means that you share in both the rewards (in the form of aformentioned gorgeous delicious food), and the risks (the risk that some of the almost-gorgeous crops fail). Still, its worth it in every way.

Just to show what an average week looks like, I took pictures as I was un-packing this week's box. Let the drooling and nommage begin. (Yeah, some of the pics could be less motion blurred. :P)
Here's the box in its original, unopened glory.

I opened it and the chinese cabbage popped right out to say hello. There were three of these bad boys in this weeks box.

OK, I know, blurry. But this was the box after the cabbages were removed. This is the only pic I got the radishes, but aren't they pretty?

Garlic scapes - looking forward to chicken sauteed with these.

Another nice blurry one. But look how nice that brocolli is!

And a really nice big bunch of carrots...


And last but not least a cute little bag of peas. OM NOM NOM NOM.

So that's an example week of a CSA share from Stoney Acres Farm. I can't recommend it enough!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Desperate for non-homogenized milk

Yeah, its comes to this.

Homogenized milk has been implicated in high cholesterol, hormonal imbalances, and a myriad of other health issues. Worse, unlike pasteurization (which does kill any harmful bacteria as well as having some other effects, but on the whole I don't think is that bad), homogenization is done for no good reason. It was started just because people didn't like having to shake their milk when the cream naturally separated from it and floated to the top. So they decided to force the milk, with its cream, through a very, very tiny screen. This made it into an emulsion where the fat was too small to float to the top.

And that's it. Now all I can find in the store is homogenized milk; even all the organic milk available in the area has been homogenized. So, its come down to this.

I'm thinking of buying skim milk (no cream left) and cream... taking a cup of the skim out, pouring the cream in, and shaking the bottle.


Update: a local store, To Your Health Market, now carries this, and it is wonderful.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Livetwittering the Fire Dept. meeting & strategic plan

Here's my livetwittering record from the fire department meeting. I also got a full copy of the fire department's plan, and it makes for some good reading. My general take is, we should absoultely keep our paid firefighting force (random aside: I note that most of the people who are saying we should switch over to an all-volunteer force still would like to get paid to do their jobs. Huh, how about that.) Volunteers could be a valuable addition to the force however, especially in times of critical need. Check out the action plan, look up stats, decide for yourselves.

  • At the fire dept meeting and online! Wooo! 5:53 PM Jun 14th

  • Starting with the overview of the Merrill fire departments services 6:08 PM Jun 14th

  • 23 professional firefighters/rescue workers/paramedics Monday, June 14, 2010 6:10:04 PM

  • They really do it all for us Monday, June 14, 2010 6:12:01 PM

  • The tanker at station 1 is old, & depended on by surrounding area as well. Monday, June 14, 2010 6:17:03 PM

  • 1976 pumper is the backup rural pumper. Pretty but... Yikes Monday, June 14, 2010 6:20:00 PM

  • Getting rid of it might negatively effect the iso number tho Monday, June 14, 2010 6:21:13 PM

  • Iso is insurance rating for the area. Bad iso means higher insurance for everyone Monday, June 14, 2010 6:22:25 PM

  • Right now manpower is the biggest problem with our iso. We are at a 3, danger of falling to a 4 Monday, June 14, 2010 6:23:47 PM

  • Our 6 wheeler was purchased by fundraising by the fd only Monday, June 14, 2010 6:24:43 PM

  • Merrill fd is fd, rescue, ems, rural fire. 6 man crew doing all that. Covers Merrill and three townships Monday, June 14, 2010 6:26:43 PM

  • 3emts 3firefighters at a given time, but any could do either job at any time Monday, June 14, 2010 6:28:03 PM

  • They are also our hazmat team. O_o Monday, June 14, 2010 6:28:52 PM

  • And... Water rescue. Man, our firefighters are hard core and awesome. Monday, June 14, 2010 6:30:31 PM

  • Other: carbon monoxide response, remote rescue, accident response, high level rescue, confined space rescue, odor investigations, (cont) Monday, June 14, 2010 6:34:45 PM

  • Wildland firefighting. Ems covers Merrill, townships of birch, corning, Harding, Merrill, pine river, rock falls, Monday, June 14, 2010 6:36:48 PM

  • Dnr fire fighting unit critical for wildland firefighting Monday, June 14, 2010 6:37:28 PM

  • Townships cont Russell schley part of Harrison Monday, June 14, 2010 6:38:10 PM

  • Non-emergent services: fire inspections, fire prevention, home inspections, smoke detector, blood pressure, CPR classes, Monday, June 14, 2010 6:40:28 PM

  • Cont christmas party for pine crest :), mock DUI, adopt a highway Monday, June 14, 2010 6:41:36 PM

  • Advantages of a full time dept: response times & reliability, daily training, cross trained personnel, equipment maintenence Monday, June 14, 2010 6:50:21 PM

  • Prevention and education services, rescue services Monday, June 14, 2010 6:51:08 PM

  • Question: we have hazerdous waste coming thru merrill? Ans: yes, sulphourous compounds Monday, June 14, 2010 6:52:33 PM

  • Question: beehives. Won't bother writing the answer. Monday, June 14, 2010 6:54:10 PM

  • Q: do surrounding communities equipment and personal affect our iso (asked by the mayor) a: no Monday, June 14, 2010 6:55:24 PM

  • Strategic plan time! Monday, June 14, 2010 6:56:51 PM

  • This is not going to be a fast process. Budgeting is the last step. Monday, June 14, 2010 6:58:45 PM

  • Wish I had actually gotten a copy of the strategic plan. Unfortunetly I don't see any extra copies around. Monday, June 14, 2010 7:02:28 PM

  • Yay, i can get a copy of the slides. I'll post that on facebook, Twitter, and my blog of this. Monday, June 14, 2010 7:05:05 PM

  • Someone trying to make a point about private sector taking transfer revenue Monday, June 14, 2010 7:11:01 PM

  • A lot of hatin' for ministry health goin on. Monday, June 14, 2010 7:17:13 PM

  • Going thru the goals, right talking about paid on call, right now we've got the minimum going on. Now a question of compensation. Monday, June 14, 2010 7:26:17 PM

  • 70-80k? Fine by me. They are highly trained pros. I want someone who really knows what they are doing. Monday, June 14, 2010 7:27:34 PM

  • Why do people hate taxes so much, even when it's an essential service like this? Arg. Render unto caeser!?! Monday, June 14, 2010 7:30:36 PM

  • No capitol funds for fd at all. Hmm. Mayor behind me: there used to be. Man across: there wasn't any money anymore Monday, June 14, 2010 7:33:40 PM

  • indicators of sucess... All look achived... More hmmm Monday, June 14, 2010 7:34:41 PM

  • I really need an actual copy of this plan. Monday, June 14, 2010 7:36:52 PM

  • Done. I'll be posting any materials later. Monday, June 14, 2010 7:43:15 PM

Then, after responding to the Daily Herald article about the meeting and being misconstrued, lambasted, and generally beat up over my support for our paid firefighters, I tweeted this:

  • it feels like we are slowly dismantling our most important public services in the name of lower taxes & fiscal responsibility about 21 hours ago via web

Vocabulary as exclusionary vs precise. Or, happy sexy fun vocabulary time wooo!

Yeah, some people are going to find this one pretty dry.

A long, long time ago, during my college years, I took a cultural anthropology course. Funny enough, it is one of the college courses that really stuck with me. Our teacher was a really wonderful, feisty, and truly interesting Iranian woman, who was not indoctrinated with the culture that we have in the U.S. (one very memorable conversation in that class was over her assertion that the Simpsons were hideously ugly and not to be considered great art.)

One of the lessons in that class was about how small groups use vocabulary to become exclusive. Doctors were one example given, with the scientific names they give diseases, as opposed to the ones in common use. I see examples all the time; mostly people attempting to sound intelligent, arcane, or eccentric.

Still, I sometimes find myself using words that might not be in common vocabulary. Usually it's when I need a word that means something very specific. So the question comes up in my mind, where is the line between using language to be specific and using language to exclude?

I honestly don't have an answer to this question. I know that when I read Dan Simmons that there's quite a bit of vocabulary going on, but it doesn't ever feel like he's trying to write above someone's head. I have read some other very lauded authors that use language like a smoke screen, throwing in large words where smaller ones would have been clearer.

So, where is the line? Do you have any other examples either way? Let me know.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

My favorite bit of design

Seriously, I love the toilet lid sink. This is possibly my favorite bit of design ever (well, other than the old Milwaukee Brewers logo.) It combines everything that a great design should be... its innovative, it breaks conventional boundries, its sustainable, and it encourages its users to better their lives.

Seriously, this is brilliant. Normally, toilet tank water is a waste of perfectly good, potable water. With the simple replacement of a toilet tank lid (fits most tanks), the clean water is used for washing hands before it goes into the tank. Its beautiful because you don't need to replace your entire toilet to take advantage of it - just the lid.

Even better, it really encourages hand washing. As soon as you flush the faucet runs, so its impossible to miss the cue to wash -- especially handy if you've got kids around. In every way, this is an amazing piece of design.

Want one? Here's the least expensive one around, and its from a shop that's cool in a lot of other ways too.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Rhubarb chicken risotto

I was watching Lydia's Italy, and there were some wonderful risotto recipes... so I took some ideas from and riffed on it and... AMAZING. And here it is:

2-4 stalks rhubarb (I had huge stalks so I used two, but if yours are smaller use up to four)
2-4 carrots (my carrots were small so I used about four)
2 medium shallots, peeled
5-6 ramps, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
4 chicken breasts, cut into about 1 inch pieces
4 1/2 cups chicken broth/stock
2 cups short/medium grain rice (Arborio is preferable, but I used generic medium grain rice and it worked perfectly)
2/3 cup white wine (I used champagne, but any dry white will work)
1 cup grated parmesan
A little olive oil

Put rhubarb, carrots, and shallots in the food processor and pulse until roughly chopped. Start broth heating in another pan. Put olive oil in a heavy large saucepan or smaller stockpot. Heat olive oil on medium until hot enough, and add chopped garlic and ramps. Cook over medium heat until garlic and ramps begin to caramelize, then add the rhubarb/shallot/carrot mixture. Continue cooking on medium heat for another 5-7 minutes, until rhubarb is pale. Push the vegetables to the side, and add the chicken. Continue cooking on medium heat, stirring regularly, until you notice browning on the bottom of the pan. Add white wine to deglaze. Once the bottom of the pan is clean, add the rice, and stir until most of the white wine has evaporated. Add about one cup of the heated broth to the rice, and stir constantly until it is absorbed (when you stir the rice you will be able to see the bottom of the pot.) Continue adding the broth a cup at a time until it is all absorbed, stirring constantly, about 30 minutes. When done, the rice should be al dente, but not crunchy. If necessary, heat a small amount of water to complete the cooking. Once risotto is done, take off the heat and stir in the parmesan. Serve!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

In praise of turnips

I've really been enjoying our CSA shares from Stoney Acres Farm. Already we're eating more vegetables, a larger variety of vegetables, and less meat than ever before - and this is only the second week. We've gotten to try ramps (ok, we've had these before, and LOVE 'EM), Kohlrabi, bok choy, beets, and other things I wouldn't have picked up at the market. I've learned that in almost every case if the root is edible, the greens are too - kohlrabi greens are wonderful, as are beet greens.

This week there was a large bundle of turnips in the CSA box. I've never eaten turnips, much less cooked them -- my largest experience with them was reading about them in the Richard Scary version for "Three little pigs." Doing research online made me more nervous - many talked about how turnips could turn bitter and awful when cooked wrong.

Finally I decided to just roast 'em. I washed 'em, cut off the tops and roots, put some olive oil, pepper, and salt on 'em, and put them in at 375 for about 45 minutes. In the meantime, I washed and very corsely chopped the greens, then pan-fried them in a little duck fat and garlic. When the turnips came out they were lightly browned on the outside.. and then we tasted them. Wonderful. Describing the flavor is a little difficult... its something ike a cauliflower stem, but.. not. The greens were nice too, something like a more-bitter spinich. But the roots were the stars, and really wonderful.

So I can't recommend enough that you go to get some turnips and roast 'em up. Now if I can just figure out what to do with the radishes....

Friday, June 11, 2010

The future is small and local

I just finished reading a fascinating piece on GOOD, Can Walmart Compete with Whole Foods? What really got me about this particular article was not so much the Walmart/Whole Foods competition (seriously, the green movement needs to stop thinking everyone lives in big cities with access to stores like Whole Foods), but the fact that Walmart is buying and selling locally farmed produce, from small and medium farmers.

I've written a lot lately on small manufacturing, buying local, local systems of distribution, etc. This article kind of crystallized these thoughts. The future really is local. Looking back at the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, we went from a system where most people got most of their goods locally, to one where everyone could get everything from everywhere, so they did. I believe the next step is a system where people will begin to get what they can locally, and look to imports only when local is not available.

In the system that is still mostly in place for most things, large companies buy goods in bulk from other large companies elsewhere in the world. They can get these things cheaply because of a deep bulk discount, the low wages paid to workers elsewhere, and the lack of environmental standards. However, as more of the world becomes richer and expects higher wages and a better standard of living, the cost of importing goods en-masse no longer will keep up with shipping prices (and oil for isn't getting any cheaper either.) Meanwhile, because of technology and other advances small companies and individuals can provide goods (be it manufactured items, food, or other comestibles) at a price that begins to be competitive because of their much lower shipping costs (not to mention the relative quality of the goods).

Places can now begin to re-discover the flavor that makes them unique. Traditional arts and crafts can thrive in an environment like this. Varieties of produce available to the consumer will increase as farmers can really plant what grows well locally. Tourism will benefit as not all places will feel the same; each will have more local specialities available.

Admittedly, I don't feel this will happen overnight, and I don't think that the conversion will be total. The assembly line will still end up producing some goods that people want en-masse (I don't see artisanal toilet paper for instance). Hopefully tho local will return in many areas, and people will be able to connect to their communities again.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Random thoughts about... stuff.

I have a feeling this post is going to ramble. I have a bunch of stuff rattling around in my noggin, and its starting to connect up, make a pattern, but the pattern isn't quite clear yet.

It all relates to sustainability, design, planning, and systems. Living in Merrill I see very clearly the effects of the small and large decisions of many systems - government, school, business large and small, even the local social community. What I see less of is real design in these systems. There is some planning - but far to often that planning seems to start and end with the short term; there doesn't seem to be an overall design. There are so many types of design that need to happen, both macro and micro, and so many things that need to be considered....

For instance, I know lots of people want to tear down the Lincoln House. The building has been abused, but I look at it and see a building that could be renovated - admittedly the renovation might cost more than the building is actually worth, but there are also the intangible values of history and character at stake, and I don't think Merrill can afford to let any more of its history and character go. I look at M&I bank and want to cry - it was once a beautiful building, and is now a 70's monstrosity.

All this has made me think more broadly about design in general, about how a small design (say, of a registration form on a website) fits into a larger system, and how to have a design for that system that fulfills the overall goals. The registration form needs to communicate the value of registering clearly, and it also needs to meet the system goal of introducing the user into the functioning and aesthetics of the site.

For community design, it seems to me that all the components of a vital community need to be looked at. Agriculture, food processing and delivery that can be community supported. Local manufacturers and small business that can provide for the material needs of the community. It seems to me that the more we localize our commercial base, the more we will thrive as a community and the more interesting our community will be to visitors.

Anyway, these are all things that are rattling around in my head, looking for a place to fit it. Where does design end and planning begin, and vice-versa? Is the only good design sustainable design? And most of all, is there any area of life that design cannot be applied to? Hmm.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

An idea for Merrill's future

Merrill needs jobs if it to keep from becoming a bedroom community. One of the solutions, I believe, is small-scale and artisan manufacturing. Merrill currently has both barriers and advantages that will effect the success of this idea, but I believe that the barriers can be overcome and Merrill can look forward to an even brighter future.

Everyone who lives in Merrill has noticed that it isn't the major manufacturing hub it once was. Unemployment hovers at 11% in Merrill, and many people that are employed are employed in Wausau or even further away.

Small-scale and artisan manufacturing could, I believe, help solve both the unemployment problem and prevent another catastrophic loss of jobs in the future. People are turning away from mass-produced foreign goods because of recent safety scares. They are also looking for products that will last longer than the “made out of the cheapest materials possible” products at most big-box retailers. People want products that last and are willing to pay a premium for them. Small scale and artisan manufacturing are primed to fill this growing niche; with advances like rapid prototyping, computer controlled machining, open-source CAD programs, and home vacuum forming, it's easy to see how one of a kind and limited run products could be produced in a very small shop. Artisanal products can be manufactured by hand, and no two pieces will be alike.

There are some barriers to creating a small-scale and artisan manufacturing base in Merrill, however. First, many young, highly educated people who can design products for small scale and artisanal manufacturing and can sell the products don't stay/come back to Merrill after they get their college diploma. The limited dining options (I love Chips and Champs as much as the next gal, but Merrill doesn't really have any business-casual restaurants), the limited entertainment options (again, I love the Cosmo but one awesome movie theater and a couple of bars that book good bands does not for a vibrant entertainment scene make), the fact that outside the downtown area Merrill started to sprawl and is not pedestrian friendly (I'm looking at you, east side by 51), and the fact that downtown Merrill closes at 5 (?!?) are all reasons that young professionals don't stick around.

The other barrier to building a good small scale manufacturing base is the numbers game. Where a major manufacturer would employ several hundred people in one fell swoop, it would require 50-100 small manufacturers to employ the same amount.

Fortunately, there are several advantages Merrill currently has working for it when it comes to setting something like this in motion. First, Merrill has a skilled, motivated workforce that understands the rigors of manufacturing well. It would require some re-training, but many of the skills that have been learned by the workforce at the large manufacturers would cross over. Second, Merrill has started on a plan of riverfront and downtown revitalization, that I am hopeful will greatly improve the “curb appeal” of the city. Third, Merrill's cost of living is quite low when compared to most of the state, let alone much of the country. Merrill's low cost of living would allow people to take lower salaries than they would elsewhere while still keeping the same quality - or better – of life.

And there are ways to overcome the barriers to making this work. Merrill should continue downtown revitalization and riverfront development, and work to retain the remaining historic character of the downtown. Buildings need to be remodeled instead of torn down, even if the cost of remodeling would sometimes exceed the worth of the building; our historic buildings are worth more than just their dollar value. They bring added ambiance to the town, and help make Merrill feel like it has roots.

Businesses should be encouraged to stay open later. When I moved back to Merrill after 12 years in California, I was shocked to find the entire downtown closed at 5. Many people work until then; staying open until 7 would be a wonderful boon for the whole community (encouraging more pedestrian traffic downtown and having more places to eat would be nice too...)

Merrill should market itself as a place where small manufacturers can thrive, and as a place where young professionals can not only enjoy themselves but also feel safe. Merrill has many problems facing it as it continues to struggle with its identity and future, and one of the solutions that it should look at is small-scale and artisan manufacturing. I truly believe that with some hard work and dedication Merrill can become a vibrant place to live and work for everyone in the community.