Friday, May 13, 2011

Mission accomplished! Now what?

Me, while finishing the main level

By the end of 2009 I was able to clear my main level of clutter, sending hundreds of items out my door via Freecycle and donations. Some spackle, paint, and flooring later, I finally had a comfortable main level.

This blog focused on me reclaiming the basement level from decades of clutter without harming family members. That is now accomplished.

As of January, 2011, the basement room (site of the previous 'incredibly embarrassing before video') became a livable space. It's almost unbelievably better than it was in summer 2010.

The incredibly embarrassing BEFORE video - August 11, 2010

The not-embarrassing AFTER video - May 17, 2011

Capping things off, Brooks Duncan of interviewed me for his very cool Paperless Document Organization Guide. I'm the 'Windows-using Physicist who has some clever ideas for naming bills, and the human side of dealing with clutter.'

The next mission for my basement space is housing a relative during a life transition. Three years ago I wouldn't have been able to help, because of clutter. So I declare the clutter sufficiently conquered.

Now to maintain the gains achieved to date and make incremental progress. It will be the work of a lifetime, that. But for now, I officially declare that we are about to live 'Happily Ever After.'

P.S. In the mean time, I've been able to pursue my passion of creating an aquaponics system, the purpose I found that really inspired me to push through to complete the job. The aquaponics thing has bloomed into its own blog ( and I now have a greenhouse with a moderately impressive aquaponics system. Love to have you come see what I've been doing on that front!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Once in a blue moon

Well, it isn't a blue moon (technically the second full moon to occur in any given month), but it is the first full lunar eclipse to occur on winter solstice in 456 years.

My eyes have seen a sight that has not been seen since 1554. Wow.

The most recent eclipse during a blue moon (by the "second full moon in a calendar month" definition) occurred on 31 December 1999.

The most recent blue moon by the "third full moon during a season" definition occurred last month, on 21 November. And the most recent black moon, defined as the new moon in a month with no full moon, occurred during February 2010.

For a list of names different cultures have assigned the various full moons during the year, you can go to the Wikipedia article on the Full Moon.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

If you are prepared...

The US Department of Homeland Security "" Homepage

The Book of Proverbs says:
Common sense will refresh your soul...
You can go to bed without fear...
You need not be afraid of sudden disaster. [Proverbs 3 (NLT)]

A Mormon scripture states even more clearly:
If ye are prepared ye shall not fear. [D&C 38:30]

Maybe because the Mormon scripture is so overt about being prepared, I used to think that "72-hour kits" were just a Mormon thing. Turns out US citizens abroad, at least those associated with government agencies, have long made a practice of having a 72 hour or three day kit. They knew that if anything bad happened, they were expected to make it for at least three days before help could arrive.

If you google "disaster preparedness 72 hour kit" you'll find all kinds of stuff. I've seen lists that fill an entire sheet of paper in itty, tiny type--lists that make my eyes glaze over. These discourage me more than help me.

Turns out several of my boxes were full of supplies for the day we I thought I might get around to assembling the "kit." I had all kinds of stuff, but not necessarily a complete set of preparedness items, and they absolutely were not easy to find or packaged to grab and go.

This past year we finally took the plunge and actually put together disaster kits. Anymore, publications from the US government make being prepared for disaster seem as easy as possible:

Basic Emergency Supplies

After consideration, we decided to make up two kits: one for each of the cars we have. Living in a townhome, our car trunks are probably the closest "storage area" to the front door (where you're supposed to store an emergency kit).

We never realized how much we'd use the kits day to day:
Kid need a bandaid? In the 72-hour kit.
Forgot lunch? Grab something from the kit.
Hair a mess? Brush/comb and mirror are in the kit.
Tired or cold? Grab the sleeping bag from the back of the car.

The only downside about having the kits in the car is they're so convenient that we need to make sure we add a checklist, so weekly shopping can replenish the kits in addition to the larder. But now that we've gotten used to having our kits in the cars, I can't imagine not having them there.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Now this is sweet...

Make logs from junk paper

OK, this is so cool. It's Kotulas 4-in-1 Paper Log Maker, only $39.99 (free shipping). I want one for Christmas.

As you know, I have 300 boxes, many of them filled with stuff I wouldn't even care to scan. And most of the pages I do scan, I discard.

With this nifty little gadget, I can take my refuse flammables, soak them in water, slop the sodden mass into the little compartments, then press out the water.

Out pop four little logs or briquettes. Let them dry. Let them burn.

No need to pay for firewood. No need to pay for shredding services. It makes me happy: dissolving junk mail into mush, crushing it beyond recovery, burning it to ashes.

It warms the heart. And the toes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Suspicious Package

The Pentagon, March 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

I wrote yesterday's analysis of carbon emissions and realized that, today, I didn't have to drive anywhere mid-day during work.

So I took Metro.

Unfortunately for me, someone chose today to discard a bag. Maybe they didn't even realize that there was an electronic ornament in the bag, or that the ornament was on, blinking merrily.

What do you think, when you see a brown bag with faint blinking lights in a lead-lined trash can? If you're in the Pentagon Metro station, you presume the worse.

For 90 minutes, during the height of DC rush hour, the Pentagon Metro was closed while authorities gingerly attempted to identify and diffuse the suspicious package.

I and thousands of other commuters using public transit only learned of the incident upon arriving at the Pentagon transfer station.

Luckily, I was able to board another bus that took me into DC proper (the Pentagon is actually in Virginia). My delay ended up being a mere 30 minutes - not bad, actually.

But I'm reminded again of the reason I want to have a small carbon footprint, food sources relatively free of foreign oil, and at least the ability to accommodate basic functions in the absence of functioning municipal utilities.

We live in an era of "suspicious packages." Most of them will turn out to be stupid stuff, like today's blinking ornament. But there could be days when water or power or transportation become unavailable. Heck, nature has taken away modern convenience several times for me in this area, between hurricanes and snowstorms and just plain thunderstorms.

My next several posts will touch on ways to be prepared, in case of emergency.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What's in a Footprint?

Our Footprint

I talked about how 69% of all available fresh water gets used to irrigate plants, and how food travels 1300-1500 miles from farm to your plate.

You'd think these factors would make unwise food choices a big issue, when it comes to carbon footprint. I mean, all that water needs to be treated, and the vehicles transporting the food need fuel.

It turns out that if I just ate, with no thought to how far the food travels, whether it is in season or organic, and ate lots of red meat, my carbon footprint would be 1.6 metric tons per year.

It appears the maximum annual amount of carbon dioxide we can emit per individual without incurring climate change is 2.0 metric tons. So wasteful food practices consume 80% of our allowable emissions.

However, we have a much bigger issue than our food practices.

We in America emit 20.0 metric tons per individual per year.


A family with two cars each driving the average 12,000 miles per year emits about 10 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. The folks put in a 1.0 ton penalty per car to account for emissions that went into making the car, amortized over the life of the car. If your two cars are Hummers, that's a whopping 16.5 metric tons per year. If your two cars are Priuses, it comes down to 6.5 - still way too high.

If you pay $200 per month for electricity, add another 2.8 tons per year.

If you're a fashion-conscious consumer, add 2.3 tons.

If you take a single round trip plane ride across the country, add 1.0 ton.

Plan to overcome your excesses by recycling? If you composted and recycled everything you use, it would only "save" 0.1 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Here's what my family might look like (ahem...):

Here's the picture of what contributes to the 20 tons of emissions:

And here's what the emissions look like for someone who only uses public transit, cuts electricity use by 70%, and eats/shops in an eco-conscious manner (we assume they also recycle):

It can be done.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Every herb in the season thereof...

Agricultural irrigation consumes 69% of the available fresh water worldwide.

By comparison, industry uses only 22% and households only use 8%. The remaining 1% is used for recreation and artificial environmental habitats.

The whole toilet discussion yesterday only accounts for 3% of all water use. It is significant, but pales in comparison to irrigation.

People have to eat. I agree. But what are we eating?

Approaching a Trillion tons Annual Global Food Trade)

Food Miles. The term 'food miles' refers to the distance food travels from farm to plate. Acording to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) this distance has been steadily increasing over the last fifty years. Studies estimate that processed food in the United States now travels over 1,300 miles, and fresh produce travels over 1,500 miles, before being consumed.

We'll ignore the fact that packages of processed food either require refrigeration or are mostly air ("contents may have settled...") or are mostly water. And for the moment we'll also ignore the chemicals and "picked green" issue with fresh produce.

Eating a diet that requires lots of "food miles" is kind of nuts. Talk about a profligate waste of fossil fuel!

Water Use. Then there is the way water is used to produce crops in the world's bread baskets. California is one such place. Simple measures can be taken to reduce the current water use (or waste), such as these water conservation and irrigation improvement measures recommended by the California Department of Water Resources.

Even so, traditional soil agriculture uses 10 times as much water as aquaponics and 4 times as much energy. Aquaponics combines aquaculture (raising of fish) with hydroponics (raising plants in nutrient water). In both aquaculture and hydroponic systems, water must be replaced periodically or heavily treated. In aquaponic systems, there is no need to discard water. The fish waste nourishes the plants, which clean the water for the fish. The only necessary water use is replacement of water lost through transpiration from the leaves of the crop.

I've heard people talk about eating 100 mile diets, where they will only eat stuff they know was locally grown. With aquaponics, such a diet need not be limited to whatever crop your region grows in bulk. Nor need one subsist just on lettuce. I've seen systems where growers are raising banana and papaya trees.

I've set up my own 100 gallon system in the basement, which will have cost me less than $700 for everything, including the lights and fish. Because the footprint of the whole system is less than 3 feet by 5 feet, I call it 3x5 aquaponics. I'm not selling anything - in fact my object was to design an affordable system that anyone could put together from locally-available bits (Lowes or Home Depot, the local agricultural store (usually a mere 20 minute ride from wherever you live).

It's early days, so I'm not at a stage where I can go downstairs and harvest dinner from my own basement.