Friday, February 29, 2008

Kestrel Kill

Another lousy picture of my exciting life!

I looked out the window and saw a bird covering another under the clothesline. "Wow," I thought, "It must be spring! Birds are mating in the snow!"

But they weren't mating. It was a Kestrel hawk, killing something. As it turned around, I saw red feathers and knew it was one of those exuberant cardinals that I heard a few days ago.

I tried to take a picture, but the window was too far away. The second I tried to sneak out the back door, the Kestrel was off, carrying the cardinal with him.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Granholm Pushes Alternative Energy for Michigan

I missed the State of the State address. There was nothing exciting about the news coverage of the State of the State address. But I heard the end of Governor Granholn's radio town meeting yesterday, when she was talking about luring alternative energy industries to Michigan by making a commitment to use alternative energy to meet the state's needs. I was enthralled. After all that "one state recession" talk, it is wonderful to hear her so comprehesively articulate the whole range of competitive advantages that Michigan has.

Here is part of the transcript of the State of the State address:
Why alternative energy? Because - to borrow a line from Wayne Gretzky - if you want to win, "don't skate to where the puck is - skate to where the puck is going."

The puck is going to alternative energy.

Any time you pick up a newspaper from here on out and see the terms "climate change" or "global warming," just think: "jobs for Michigan."

Because of the need to reduce global warming and end our dependence on expensive foreign oil, the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries will create millions of good paying jobs.

There's no question that these jobs are coming to our nation. The only question is, where?

I say we will win these jobs for Michigan and replace the lost manufacturing jobs with a whole new, growing sector.

Why us? Because, no other state - indeed few places in the world - have what we have to offer: our wind, our water, our woods - and thanks to the working men and women of Michigan - our skilled workforce.

Look at each of these resources.

The unique geography of our peninsulas makes us windy. Experts have said that we have the second best potential for wind generation and production in the country. In fact, the wind turbines we'd use to capture that power can be built right here in Michigan, because we have what's needed: manufacturing infrastructure; available factory space; a skilled workforce. And water - the Great Lakes - are one of the best ways to ship these huge turbines.

That Pure Michigan water will do even more for us. The natural movement, the waves of our Great Lakes waters, creates enormous energy. We are talking with businesses right now about coming to Michigan to convert water currents into electric currents.

And wood! The wood waste from the pulp and paper industry is being used to produce the next generation of biofuels. Cutting-edge companies like Mascoma, Chemrec, NewPage, and others are turning wood waste into fuel for your vehicles, and they want to come here because of our vast sustainable forests.

Our automotive base is also a huge asset: we are the automotive research capital of the world, and we are building the engines of the future - hybrids, clean diesel, electric, fuel cells, flexfuel - all of that is being, and will continue to be, researched, designed, and produced right here in Michigan.

There may be one or two other states that are sunnier than we are, but we are already a huge player in the solar energy industry. We have in Michigan the world's largest producer of the stuff that makes solar panels work. Polycrystalline silicon. Made by Hemlock Semiconductor right here in Michigan. They are in the middle of a billion dollar expansion, hiring 500 people in the Saginaw area. They have even bigger plans. And just last week, Dow Solar Solutions announced it was locating a new $52 million manufacturing facility in Midland, focusing on solar energy generating building materials. Saginaw Valley can be the Silicon Valley for the alternative energy business!

Even waste is being used: companies are taking household trash in landfills and converting it to green energy - the Lansing Board of Water and Light is doing it right now. Farms are turning animal waste into methane gas. Opportunities are everywhere in Michigan to create green energy.

Michigan must do as any successful business does. To compete, we need to capitalize on our natural advantages. For us, it's our geography and our history. Auto ingenuity. And our solar edge. Wind. Woods. Water. Workforce. Even waste. If we do this right, Michigan can be the alternative energy capital of North America, and create thousands and thousands of jobs.

But, for Michigan to win the race for those high-paying jobs, we have to out-hustle the competition. How?

First, we must commit as a state to use alternative energy to meet our own energy needs.

To understand the connection between renewable energy and jobs, just look at Sweden - a country with striking resemblances to our state: the same size population, similar geography with two-thirds of their land covered by forests, a strong automotive sector. Sweden set high goals for their use of renewable energy. The result? They created over 2,000 businesses and 400,000 jobs in their renewable energy sector. 400,000 jobs!

Alternative energy companies have watched closely as 25 other states have set aggressive goals for their alternative energy use. We have to meet and beat other states' goals here in Michigan if we are going to attract those companies here. That's why I am asking the Legislature to set ambitious alternative energy goals for Michigan - produce 10 percent of our electrical energy from renewable sources by the year 2015 and a full 25 percent by the year 2025. Thank you Sen. Patterson and Representative Accavitti for working to craft the bipartisan legislation that will transform our state.

There is no way to overestimate the importance of setting state renewable energy use goals when it comes to creating jobs.
It is interesting to actually watch the address, because you can see how flat footed the legislature seems when the governor segues from a hockey metaphor to the alternative energy spiel. She might as well be speaking French.

This is, of course, where we the people need to step in. I will be checking out Governor Granholm's proposal and leaning on my legislators to support it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Looks Like Spring to Me

I don't care if it was only 16 degrees today, or that the north wind blew the chop ice into Suttons Bay and clear our to Peshawbestown. I don't care if it was icy in the shade; the sun on the deck was warm and drying. Spring is near, if not here.

The birds know it's spring. The chickadees and Cardinals and nuthatches have switched to their spring songs and they are singing them insistently The chickens are laying, and one is thinking about setting. I hope she's still broody when it gets warm enough to actually hatch chicks.

I went to the laundromat this morning and hung these clothes out about noon. the light stuff got pretty dry, but the towels and jeans froze stiff as boards. Still, the sun is high enough and the wind was strong enough to pull moisture out of the clothes, frozen or not. It only took a little dryer time to finish them.

I stopped drying clothes outside in November, not because it was too cold, but because the days were too short and the sun never rose high enough to clear the barn and hit the clothesline. The sun's trajectory now is the same as mid-October, and the days are lengthening faster as we approach the equinox. I'll be planning the laundry for sunny days now.

My clothesline is in full view of everyone driving by. People will comment now that I've hung laundry. It is a sign of spring for many of the neighbors. I always think of it as a statement about energy conservation and being unashamed of doing housework. The folks at The Laundry Project have a website devoted to energy conservation, clothesline advocacy and laundry tips. I tried their technique for hanging towels doubled up and pinned at the top to make them flap against themselves in the wind and dry softer. It didn't work this time, but it might work if it was warmer.

I snapped the picture around 5:30, just before I took it all down. There is a downy woodpecker on the feeder. My favorite part of hanging out clothes in the warmer months is standing out in the yard folding clothes as I take them off the line and watching the birds.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Michelle Obama

When I first wrote about Barack Obama, Liz thought my equivocating was funny: "Mom, why can't you just like him?"

I wasn't willing to spend much energy liking someone who would turn out to be a flash in the pan. Rmemeber the Dean Scream? It wasn't all that out of line to anyone who'd ever been rooting for the winning team at a hockey game, but by the time it was cut and pasted all over the TV, it took on a new sinister tone and signalled the end of the campaign.

The attack dogs are now circling Michelle Obama, pouncing on a speech in Wisconsin where she said "for the first time I am proud of my country," a seven word sentence fragment that is being repeated ten times an hour on Fox News and trotted out as proof that Mrs Obama is not patriotic.

Is the glass half empty or half full? Is patriotism a reflex or a judgement? Can someone who is highly critical of our nation's policies still shed a tear while singing the national anthem at the ball game? If someone did, would they be a patriot or a hypocrite?

Unlike eight years ago, we now have YouTube. I found and watched a couple seven word fragments of Michelle's Wisconsin speeches. The seven word fragments didn't tell me much. Then I found this longer speech, where she talks about a topic near and dear to me, public education.

But she's not talking about prospective policy, she's talking about political will:
We have to change. We have to have leadership that will inspire us to be different, to understand that we have a mutual obligation to one another in this society in order for it to work. It's not just words when you say we are one anothers' brotherss and sister's keepers. It begins and ends there. And if we're not ready to sacrfice and compromise for one another and understand that is the root of our challenge, then no policy on the face of this earth will matter.

I've been combing the websites of the three remaining candidates. Both Democrats have pages of pages of PDF files on policy positions, much of it remarkably similar. The difference is coming down to the difference between "I will..... " and "We can......" One is a promise and the other is a challenge.

And let's salute YouTube! Eight years ago, all we could see of Howard Dean was what the networks chose to show us. Now we can see any portion of any speech that anyone thought was important enough to post online. I set out looking for the worst of Michelle Obama and found the best endorsement of Barack that I've seen yet.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lunar Eclipse Walk

When Anna and I left the house about 9 pm the temperature was about 10 degrees with patchy clouds. We could see the moon through holes in the clouds; it was already looking less than round. We walked down Popp road towards Lake Leelanau only using the flashlight at the corner so that drivers could see us should they turn off the main road.

We walked when the moon was behind the clouds and stopped when it came out. By the time we reached the lake, the moon was less than half. Snowmobile tracks told us where the ice was strong so we walked out on the lake and stood there, back to the wind, for a long time.

There was a big patch of open sky with stars right above us. I thought I was looking at Cassiopeia, but I couldn't be sure. Anna said that the clouds looked so close she thought she could put her hand up and knock them out of the way. We could see lights from the new courthouse on the horizon, lights from the casino fainter and more to the north, lights from Leland on the other side. Anna thought that she saw a bonfire on the opposite shore of the lake, but I thought it was just yard lights.

The moon got smaller. Now we could see the dark part of the moon faintly glowing red. When the lit part was a little bigger than a fingernail we watched our big patch of open sky close up without ever making it to the moon. We started for home.

On the way home, we walked with our eyes on the moon. It was just a sliver now, sliding in and out of the clouds and the trees. We knew if we lost sight of it, we wouldn't know where to look to find it again. We didn't need to watch the road, we just walked and looked at the moon. Finally, the moon was just a bare sliver and the clouds were closing in. We stopped and stared at the moon, just above the tops of the trees, covered then revealed by the clouds. The trees swayed back and forth in the wind; we stared until it seemed the moon was swaying back and forth. We tried so hard to see the moon that the trees suddenly jumped out in their own vivid relief. There was nothing left in the sky but clouds and building lights.

Even with no moon there was enough light pollution to light our way. Anna wanted to know what the various glows were from. She remembered when I used to go to town board meetings to protest the streetlights in Lake Leelanau. We talked about how little lights add up to a ruined night sky, but everybody thinks that someone else is to blame.

There were no cars on the way home. There were no more holes in the clouds. The snow was soft on the side of the road. I walked through the gate, but Anna walked on the drifts over the fence.

Everything about Caffeine

I drink a lot of coffee. I met my husband when we worked for a small Honolulu coffee company and have been drinking the stuff daily in the 20 plus years since. Working nights, coffee is essential to my ability to continue to do to math in my head while people holler at me well past midnight.

I know some of the kids in Anna's class start out each day drinking a cup of coffee with Mom. But last year's fifth grade field trip surprised me. The kids all had pocket money and bag lunches. I expected them to spend the pocket money on cheap trinkets and postcards, but the conspicuous spending was all on caffeine in the form of energy drinks at upwards of three dollars a pop. Most of the cans said "not recommended for children" but the snack stand guy didn't care. The kids claimed that they drank that stuff all the time, but it was clear that Amp and Rockstar and Monster possessed the lure of the forbidden.

The kids told me that they did better in school when the used caffeine. They knew how much they needed to "get a buzz". I thought that was strange, and I ended up talking to my bike riding companion about alcohol, and how binge drinking in teens impairs brain development. I didn't know much about caffeine, so I just listened, except to point out that if they spent their money on energy drinks at the beginning of the trip, they would be broke for the hour of shopping at the end of the field trip.

At Developing Intelligence, a blog written by a graduate student in cognitive Neuroscience at CU Boulder, I found today's entry to be a user's guide for caffeine. It doesn't answer my questions about kids and caffeine, I will be using the information there to modify the way I drink coffee for maximum effect.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse photo from

The predicted storm pretty much passed us by, although it dumped a foot of snow on Ludington, about 100 miles south. Tonight the wind is expected to shift to the north, which may set us up for the lake effect snows.

But tomorrow night the skies are supposed to clear. I hope it happens in time for us to see the lunar eclipse, which will peak at 10:26 pm Eastern Standard Time. You can read more about the event at the NASA website. There is a wealth of scientific information, and some descriptions that approach poetry:
Although total eclipses of the Moon are of limited scientific value, they are remarkably beautiful events which do not require expensive equipment. They help to cultivate interest in science and astronomy in children and to provide a unique learning opportunity for families, students and teachers. To the nature lover and naturalist, the lunar eclipse can be appreciated and celebrated as an event which vividly illustrates our place among the planets in the solar system. The three dimensional reality of our universe comes alive in a graceful celestial ballet as the Moon swings through the Earth's shadow. Hope for clear skies, dress warmly and enjoy the show!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Mom's Snow Day

I started out for work at 11:15 this morning. Although it had been freezing rain, the salt truck were out and traffic was moving. There was no "state of emergency" banner at the bottom of the TV screen, so I left the house. I had to get gas, and found that I couldn't make it back up the incline onto 204 from the BP station; I had to go out the back entrance and come around on the highway. By the time I got to M-204 store, I realized that I could probably make it over the hill into Suttons Bay, but making it home again tonight was questionable. I pulled over and called work to tell them I was turning around and heading home. They had been trying to call me to tell me not to come in.

Above is the current weather map as of 3 pm. That is a big paw of snow looming over us, but I'm preparing for a power outage as well. The barometer is down to 28.6 and the outdoor temperature is inching up to 36. We have the indoor heat up to 68, getting a head start, since we will have no furnace if the power goes out. We are baking pies and filling water containers and locating the matches and candles. If we lose power we will shut off all of the rooms except the kitchen and living room and get a little heat from the gas stove.

Friday, February 15, 2008

More on what people do with chickens

This is the Denizli Horozu rooster of Turkey, a breed that has been bred for its long crow. I had no idea this sort of bird existed until I saw it on YouTube, and even then I thought at first that it was a joke.

But, as the Turkish Ministry of Culture tells us in this oddly translated page, the roosters of the city of Denizli are a local treasure, providing a sense of place from dawn's first crow.
The sound of Denizli roosters are classified according to the tone and clearness. According to sound tones they are divided into 3 groups: ─░NCE, DAVUD─░, KALIN SES. Davudi (bass) voice is between high pitched and deep voice and is the only sound close to deep voice. According to clearness, they are divided into 4 groups, namely: SAD VOICE, SHRILL VOICE, WAVY VOICE (FUNNY VOICE).

Crowing of Denizli roosters is performed upon use of all abilities. Crowing is divided into 4 groups depending on body position during crowing, which are LION CROWING, WOLF CROWING, HERO CROWING, PUS CROWING.

A good Denizli Rooster must have: alive apearance, long and strong legs and neck, wide and deep chest, sharp and sloped toward head tail. The same features are true for the chicken. The crowing period of Denizli Roosters in the first year must be 20 to 25 seconds.

The article contains a refutation of rumours that Denizli roosters are a result of crossbreeding with Albanian birds and a local homily,
Each rooster crows at its own place,
But Denizli Rooster crows everywhere.
These people are passionate about their local breed of chicken!

Humans and chickens have evolved together since prehistory, with many interesting local variants. I have felt an urgency about publicizing these variants since I read in 2006 about a plan to fight avian flu by replacing the world's infinite variety of chicken breeds with a new genetically-modified flu resistant strain. The idea starts out innocent enough, but it is the sort of cultural misunderstanding that starts wars.

It seems crazy, but I really think I can promote peace by raising awareness of the world's peoples' chicken practices.......

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Chickens and Baseball

First the rant:

In 2002, our president was lying to us, to Congress, to all sorts of our (now former) allies about weapons of mass destruction and the rest of the reasons why it was necessary to start an unprovoked war. He also lied about how much it would cost and how long it would take, leaving us broke, stuck, and in ill-repute among our community of nations.

In 2002, Roger Clemens was directing his trainer to inject him in the buttocks with chemicals that he hoped would allow him to keep throwing strikes.

One of these men is now being hauled before Congress and asked uncomfortable questions, as a prelude to a perjury trial. As pathetic as Roger Clemens looked yesterday, I think that the real chickens are sitting in Congress, trying to distract us with this sideshow.

And then there's this:

The only good thing about the action on Capitol Hill yesterday was that it diverted attention away from the NY Times sports section piece about baseball players and cockfighting. It is no surprised that baseball players would be involved in cockfighting in their home countries. Roosters do fight, almost compulsively, and cockfighting goes on all over the world, with different local variants.

One of the underlying themes of this blog is "What Americans just don't know about chickens." That's why I published an account by a fellow casino dealer Dale S. Yeazel about visiting a cockfight with his in laws in the Philippines.

The locals move out of my way in order to give me a prime space to watch. There were no women or girls present. Everyone then starts to shout to the ringmaster in the center of the ring. Obviously they were making bets on either the white cock or the red one. I wasn't going to bet on the first match but after a couple of minutes the ringmaster looks at me and says; Hey Joe, you want to bet three hundred? I said; Yes, three hundred on the red one (pointing to the cock on my side of the ring). He waved his hand and with a smug expression indicated I had no bet. He then looked at me and waved his hand towards the opposite side of the ring. I then realized that since us bettors weren't laying odds or giving up points, he was trying to even up the betting at my expense. A minute later he asked me if I want to bet 500. I said yes and again pointed to the red bird. He waved off my bet and then grabbed himself in a Michael Jackson fashion, as if to dare me to bet on the white cock. Meanwhile the referee is writing down the bets in a spiral ring notebook.

The other man in the pit (the referee) then held a bird in each hand, faced them towards each other and released them. My bird scored the "dim mak" the other bird didn't die but was obviously unable to continue. This however, being a "fight to the death" the referee would grab a bird in each hand and face them off again. This process was repeated until the white cock was deemed to be dead.

The NY Times article describes another variation, without the casino dealer's attention to the intricacies of booking a bet. I'm not quite sure how a woman could write this story, since women aren't usually part of that scene. The last image in the article, that of a stray dog making off with a rooster's head, tells me that the rest of the rooster was someone's dinner that night.

There are plenty of reasons why a baseball player attending a legal cockfight in the Dominican Republic should not be seen in the same light as, say, the Michael Vick dogfighting debacle. For me, the two most compelling reasons are that you can't condemn the cockfight without making a judgement about someone else's culture and the fact that I can't keep my own roosters from fighting. I only have one rooster right now, and he will fight the dog, or Anna, or me, unless we smack him about once a week. If I didn't have the luxury of ordering sexed chicks from the hatchery, I would have many more rooster fights in my yard, until it was time for chicken dinner.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Meat Birds

If you were reading last spring, you'll remember our cute new chicks, ordered from Murray McMurray and living under a light in the garage. My aim was to have a laying flock small enough to subsist mainly on household food scraps, since feed has been so expensive. We had friends who also wanted a small flock, and so I ordered 10 Cornish Cross meat birds to make the 25 bird minimum order.

The meat birds were something of an afterthought, but I was curious about what they would be like. We have killed and eaten our too-old-to-lay-anymore flocks, with varying success. It took me years to figure out how to cook those "tough old biddies". I wondered if it was possible to raise meat as tender as what we bought in the supermarket, or, as the animal rights people claim, if you had to confine chickens to small areas to get that sort of meat.

I have raised mail-order chicks more times than I can count, and I approached the job like a cook with a familiar recipe. I skimmed the direction, but I didn't worry too much, especially since it was May and the weather had warmed up. But raising those Cornish Cross birds was a very different chicken rearing experience. They simply have no "off switch" on their appetites. They would eat until they passed out with their heads in the food dish. Here is a picture of the difference in size after only a few weeks. We had some that had leg problems at only ten days. I had to ration the feed more closely and give them extra B vitamins.

Our friends had wanted some banties, and I had worried about the big meat birds picking on the little banties. I turned out to have the opposite problem. The meat birds were so sparsely feathered and moved so seldom that the smaller more active chickens started picking on the meat birds' bare patches. When we moved them out to the barn, the laying breeds readily took to running up and down the ramp to the outside pen, but only a few of the meat hens could make it. My account of their behavior at that time read like this:
I've had quite a time trying to keep their breasts from being soiled by laying in dirty straw. When I put this bird down to take a photo next to a normal sized hen, it pooped a copious pile, then immediately lay down in its own poop, as if it couldn't fathom the idea of making a choice where to lay down.

This is what they looked like at 8 weeks. We didn't time the project very well, as they should have been slaughtered then, but we don't like to slaughter in the heat of summer. When we did slaughter in September, they were huge, and I wasn't sure if they would fit in the freezer, so we only did the roosters. We had 5 roosters to kill, but they were so delicate that one died the night before, apparently from the stress of being caught and carried. So we killed 4 roosters, and I thought it was great because the hens started laying eggs the next day, well before our laying birds the same age had begun to produce.

Cornish Cross are not a laying breed, though, and my plan to keep some meat "on the hoof" instead of in the freezer was a bust. Very soon those hens were laying very large eggs and two got "egg-bound" and died. One more died of no apparent reason, it didn't even get sick, just died one night. The last hen is still in the barn, not very mobile, but surviving along with the layers.

I would characterize the whole project as a flop, except for one thing. The meat was amazing. I saved the smallest rooster to roast whole, all 13 pounds of it, and it was our Thanksgiving dinner. The meat was tender and nearly without fat. I packaged the rest of them as legs, skinless split breasts, soup bones, and stock. With three of us home now, one split breast, about a pound and a half of meat, makes a meal with leftovers. I was wondering if we could raise meat that wasn't as tough as an old tire. What we got was some of the best chicken I've ever eaten, meat that makes those supermarket birds look third rate.

Would I raise these birds again? Probably not. With the price of corn going so high, it makes more sense for a backyard bird to grow a little slower and be less dependent on the feed store. If I was growing grain for market, and had lots of corn to spare, I would raise Cornish Cross chickens again, but start them later in the year so that they would be slaughtered in October. And I would--duh!--read the instructions and follow them to a T.

Do I think that breeding these birds is intrinsically wrong? No worse than the over bred specimens in the dog world.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Victory Gardens

A World War II era Victory Garden poster. (Oops, I mean WW I)

I've been on a list binge for a while and I planned on writing a list of reasons for planning a garden this year, even if you didn't last year. Sharon, over at Depletion-Abundance, beat me to it, with a nice post listing many reasons for growing a garden. I'm long overdue on posting pictures, so I found another version of her Victory Garden poster, and will add my own thoughts on gardens.

I read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma this winter. Having spent a lifetime thinking about food and where it comes from, I didn't expect any big mind-blowing revelations in this book, but I got some anyway. In the first third of the book, Pollan examines the energy origins of the fast food meal, and in the process ends up talking about a good deal of the food we find on the grocery shelf. Most of the components of processed food are derived from corn, corn is dependent on nitrogen fertilizer, and nitrogen fertilizer is manufactured from natural gas. When you look at the fuel used to plow, plant, spray, harvest, dry, transport, and further process corn and it's derivatives, you start to think of eating corn as tantamount to eating oil.

Synthetic nitrogen became plentiful at the end of WW I as nitrogen was no longer needed for the production of explosives. Our current system of industrial agriculture arose as a way to use this new abundance of nitrogen. Without synthetic nitrogen we would be soon be searching for alternate sources of calories. The caption on the poster, "Every Garden a Munitions Plant", was originally meant as a metaphor, but we might think a moment about our food security in an age when America is dependent on foreign fossil fuels to put food on the table.

So that's my new reason to grow a garden. In my last post, I listed four reasons to save energy. Now I'm presenting gardening, even just a little gardening, as a way to save energy and ensure our food security--as if eating well wasn't it's own reward!

Correction, although I found the Victory Garden poster on a website devoted to WW II, it clearly dates back to WW I

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Four Reasons to Save Energy

Too much is made of whether or not people "believe" in global warming. Many people who "believe" are still overheating over sized homes and driving over sized cars all over hell's half acre. Quick now, because I've got chores to do, are four reasons to cut down on energy consumption:

Climate change. Yup. Cutting down on your energy use is the fastest way to cut your carbon footprint. If you aren't cutting back on energy, you aren't really doing much.

Energy security. Mike Huckabee put it this way:
None of us would write a check to Osama bin Laden, slip it in a Hallmark card and send it off to him. But that's what we're doing every time we pull into a gas station. We're paying for both sides in the war on terror - our side with our tax dollars, the terrorists' side with our gas dollars.
It makes sense to be mindful of where our money is going. It makes sense to make our country more energy independent.

To save money. You can't spend the same money twice. You can't spend the same tax dollars twice, either, so we should be demanding energy efficiency in government buildings, as well.

Save some for the kids. Crude oil and natural gas are not just energy sources. They are also the raw materials for plastics and nitrogen fertilizer, and a lot of other stuff I don't know about or that hasn't been invented yet. You might need a new heart valve someday. Wouldn't it be ironic if the doctor told you, "Sorry. We used that oil back in '08 to fuel a few Hummers....."

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Two Views of Obama

Obama's Super Tuesday night speech, part one. Part two is here.

My dad wrote last week about his reservations about Barack Obama:
As I listen to him I keep hearing an imbedded message (at least to my ears) "The government can solve all our problems - whether it's health care for everyone, full employment or retirement .. you name it." There doesn't seem to be a call for personal responsibility. It seems that lots of people are expressing an entitlement to solution without taking responsiblity for themselves and the Obama message, to me, seem to support that thinking.
I'm hearing almost exactly the opposite. I like Obama because he seems to me to be the only candidate challenging us to give more than a check and a vote. I hear him challenging parents to take control of what their kids watch on tv, instead of waiting for the government to step in. I read frank talk in his energy policy:
Over the longer term, we know that the amount of fuel we will use is directly related to our land use decisions and development patterns, much of which have been organized around the principle of cheap gasoline. Barack Obama believes that we must move beyond our simple fixation of investing so many of our transportation dollars in serving drivers and that we must make more investments that make it easier for us to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives.
No other candidate has the guts to actually talk about parking our cars! Obama talks first had about his own experiences volunteering in his community, and he challenges us to take responsibility for our communities by becoming participants, not just cynical observers. He has described the call to public service like this:
I won't just ask for your vote as a candidate; I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency.”
Every time he speaks, Obama warns us that the change we seek will require sacrifices. Last night he echoed Gandhi's phrase "Be the change you wish to see in the world," with a tag line "We are the ones we've been waiting for."

Monday, February 04, 2008

Selling our Schools to Pay the Bills

Michigan's slow-moving school funding crisis tends to get lost in the shuffle amid the bad news about the Big Three, the threatened state shutdowns, and the "one-state recession". Most people think like the lady down the road who told me "As long as the bus shows up every morning to take the kids to school, I just figure our school is doing alright."

It's hard to think beyond the local. Even if my kids' school and your kids' school seem to be doing fine, that doesn't mean the system isn't messed up. An article in today's Lansing State Journal, New proposal would solve school funding woes describes the biggest problem, in terms of dollars facing Michigan's school districts:
A 2004 report from the non-partisan Citizens Research Council found "unfunded pension and health liabilities" for Michigan school employees now amount to around $19.3 billion.

In this case, a "liability" means money legally owed to pensioners who have retired, confident their pensions would take care of them after their years of service. "Unfunded" means just that. There are no assets on the books allocated to cover the $19.3 billion in pension and health care liabilities promised by the system.

School districts make annual contributions to cover pension and health care obligations for their employees, both active and retired. These contributions today consume around 23 percent of all local school budgets. And they're rising fast. Estimates by Citizens Research Council economists predict their contribution rate will increase to around 32 percent in about a decade.

And that means that school districts, already hit hard by inflation and the funding rigidities imposed by Proposal A, risk being eaten alive by their fixed costs. Even then, what the school districts are paying in isn't going to be enough to cover their obligations.
The author doesn't mention the historical basis for this problem, that former governor Engler decided that the pension fund did not need to be fully funded, and then drained that account to make his tax cuts possible. No use crying over spilt milk, I guess. And of course those health care costs are crippling this and a lot of other pension funds, just like health care costs are crippling a host of other governments and industries.

Likewise, he doesn't mention that one of the fine-print side effects of Proposal A was to raise the local districts' portion of retirement costs from 5% to 100%. The author moves right along to the great new solution: sell our school buildings!
Take all the school buildings and real estate in the entire school system. Sell them to, say, a real estate trust. Lease back the buildings needed for school purposes. Take the excess and use it to fund the unfunded pension and health care liability.

Bingo! You've resolved the problem by, in the language of the accountants, "securitizing the asset value."

.....Naturally, the schools will have to pay rent on the buildings they've leased. If the trust needs to get a 5 percent return on its $30 billion investment to buy the buildings, that's $1.5 billion a year.

But consider that the real estate trust would without doubt manage and maintain the buildings far more efficiently than school districts do. Department of Education figures for 2006 show a $1.8 billion cost for building operations and maintenance.

Could that be halved?

Possibly. What seems certain is that the figure could be greatly reduced. So even without counting building maintenance savings, there's enough money to provide a return for investors in the trust.
The article plows on from that point, with the implicit assumption that local school districts are poor money managers and with the requisite vague example of mismanaged costs.

Frankly, it's hard for me to pay attention at that point. I can only remember those many evenings I spent at our Leland Public School working on the School Facilities Committee in the late 1990's, trying to decide what sort of building project we needed, and where we would build it. I was one of thirty-some volunteers engaged in this process, a lot for this small community. Our committee was only the second generation in a process that took three different attempts to pass a construction millage. What eventually emerged was a compact, versatile building located in the village and used by everyone from early-morning weightlifters to the evening senior citizens group. The building itself came in well under budget, partly due to lucky timing in the construction cycle. Our school is a centerpiece for the community, and it sits on a choice piece of land, to boot. Sell it? To a Real Estate Trust?

Handing control of school funds over to the state has been a losing proposition for our school district. We send boatloads of money to Lansing, we are refunded a mediocre amount, and then are asked to cover more and more in fixed costs. It's hard enough dealing with the State of Michigan, now we are supposed to sell our building and deal with a landlord as well?

What a mess. I don't have the answers, but I know that if the rural areas don't pay attention, we are going to have to swallow someone else's solution.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Cutting Back on Driving.

For the first time in years, it seems I will pass the date on the oil change sticker in the corner of my windshield before I pass the miles number. Driving less than 1000 miles per month is quite an accomplishment when you live in Northern Michigan, but I've done it, at least this once. I don't feel deprived, or cabin feverish. I certainly don't miss filling up the gas tank once or twice a week.

I did it by being more deliberate about driving. I used to drive to school to drop off a lunch or Anna's clarinet when she forgot it. When I started saying, "No, remember global warming?" she stopped forgetting the clarinet.

Then I stopped driving to Traverse City. I used to drive to TC once or twice a week, for groceries or other errands. We started relying more on local produce and our own garden. I would still be tempted to hit Meijer's for the produce section, at least in the winter, if I wasn't so disgusted by the company's attempt to manufacture a grassroots movement to recall The Acme town board after they didn't like the results of a zoning board decision. I'd rather shop at Hansen's in Suttons Bay.

I've been car pooling to work two days a week. One other day, I give a coworker a ride home. I've always tried to combine multiple errands when I drive to TC, but I'm surprised how much driving I can save by combining trips to closer destinations, like Leland (5 miles away) or Suttons Bay (6 miles). We still can't find time to walk to Lake Leelanau (1 mile) as often as I'd like, but in summer Anna is always up for a bike ride.

For the most part, I've cut out the driving that I wasn't enjoying anyway. Anna has become adept at using Mapquest to plan out rides to her friend's houses. "I'll ride to Suttons Bay with Liz and then ride home with your Mom when she comes home from work!" was a plan she made last summer.

Lasr school year we drove Liz to and from Chicago a few times, also to the train station in Kalamazoo. This year she is acclimated to university life and doesn't seem to need to come home so much, although she'd like to.

Richard fishes closer to home, now, but we still splurged and took some road trips down to Benzie County this summer to see if the blueberries were ripe yet. I knew they weren't, they don't ripen until after the star thistle blossoms, but I indulged my husband and went on a 60 road trip.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Grandpa Gord's Fuel Pump

When I first started writing this blog, one of the tasks I set out for myself was to chronicle the lives of my grandparents, since I had been lucky enough to know them throughout most of my adult life. I wrote about my Grandpa Gord's early years in the Upper Peninsula here, but got diverted from continuing the story as I tried to understand the Prohibition years. I still don't understand Prohibition, or some of the influences that the prohibition years had on my family, but I ended up needing to tell Grandpa's story anyway.

What got me going was a inadvertant insult to my grandpa over at No Impact Man. The proprietor there got in a rant about changing fashions and how they drive over-consumption. That's all well and good, but the example he picked was the auto industry in the 1920's, when GM overtook Ford in sales and hired some fashion consultants from Dupont:

The newly-arrived executives at GM turned to sleek styling to make their new models of cars more desirable. Henry Ford had built his Model T market on product reliability, but the ability to last was now out. The ability of a product to make its owners look fashionable was in. GM finally beat Ford out of its market dominance.
This struck a chord with me, because I had heard this story many times, from the engineer's point of view. That engineer was my Grandpa Gord. This is how I heard it:

In the 1920's, my Grandpa Gordon Harry was a young engineer at GM, fresh out of University of Michigan. Now, Model T's may have seemed reliable in their day, but like all cars of that era, their fuel systems were gravity-fed. You couldn't run unless the fuel tank (usually mounted on top of the rear of the car) was higher than the engine. If you needed to climb a hill, the standard maneuver was to turn the car around and drive up backwards.

My grandfather was given the task of solving this problem. He had a university education, but he also had the backwoods improviser's mindset. He often told me how, when he was growing up, his family was pretty much cut off through the winter, at least as far as acquiring material goods was concerned. If something broke, they fixed it, made a new one, or did without. In his final year of high school, WW I broke out and he was rapidly promoted from the master mechanic's student helper to taking over the master' mechanic's job when his boss was called to war. I suspect that these sort of experiences blinded my grandfather to conventional ideas of what was "possible" and made him a much better inventor than he could have been had he had a more conventional upbringing.

The solution to the gravity-fed fuel system was the camshaft driven fuel pump. We used to have a replica of his first design, presented to him at his retirement party, painted red and with an ashtray mounted on top, even though he didn't smoke, because that's what they did in the 1950's. It was an elegant design, looking like a miniature of something you'd find in a mine. I'm not sure when Grandpa's fuel pump went into mass-production, but soon the camshaft driven fuel pump was in every car made, up until electric fuel pumps and fuel injection took over.

Did GM come to dominate the auto industry because of "sleek styling" and fashion? Or was it because their cars went up hills?

According to my grandparents, not many cars were being sold after the stock market crash of 1929. Grandpa, and the smart guys he worked with, were lucky because they still had jobs. Their pay was cut in half, then cut in half again, but they still had jobs. My grandparents subsisted, and fed the extended family, on their garden, their chickens, and on what game Grandpa could shoot. Sometimes Grandma Mimi told us that they lost three bank accounts and two houses during that time; sometimes it was three houses and two bank accounts. Still they were the lucky ones because Grandpa had a job.

At work, the guys were still solving problems and inventing, and fine tuning their creations. My uncle tells of the experimental cars Grandpa used to drive home. There was just a driver's seat; the rest was filled with gauges and dials measuring every aspect of the car's performance.

Grandpa kept the patent papers for his first fuel pump in a file cabinet, but he didn't talk about that stuff in his later years. The stories he did tell were about his work at the GM Proving Grounds in California, in World War II. It seems that General Patton was having trouble with his tanks in the deserts of northern Africa, because the sand, wind, and heat would clog the carburetors of his tanks. Grandpa was sent out to California to solve this problem, spending months in the desert driving the tank version of those test cars he used to drive home at night. They did solve the the desert carburetor problem, and Patton went on to victory in North Africa.

When my grandparents retired, they bought a place on Lake Leelanau and their friends, Alfred and Jackie Candelise, bought a place next door. When I was young, it never dawned on me that Alfred, with his beautiful flower gardens and old-world accent, was one of the engineers that had worked with my Grandfather at GM. By that time, guys who worked at GM were a uniform bunch, your standard clean-cut, hearty handshake types who were exceptionally good at fitting in to a rigid corporate structure. I simply could not reconcile the yesman culture of the GM I knew in the 1970's with an eccentric intelligence like Alfred's.

I remember Liz's Physics teacher, Jon Kiessel, talking about how much he had learned from the two students in his graduating class who grew up "off the grid", getting all of their power from wind and solar. In the near future we are going to have to solve some big problems and we need to be looking for inovative thinkers from all corners of our communities.