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 "ready.gov" 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 carbonfootprint.com 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.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Water, Water, Everywhere

Installation of a Toilet Lid Sink

The world is covered with water, but less than 1% is available for drinking. The percentage is projected to shrink to less than 0.5% within a couple of decades.

What does water have to do with Peak Oil or carbon footprint? The concern is the energy required to sanitize and deliver water. And flush toilets are the single greatest user of clean water in US households.

In the 1850s folks didn't understand the link between clean water and health. Thousands of folks died crossing the plains to California due to Asian Cholera, and there are amusing reports of Queen Victoria asking why there were white papers in the Thames (they were bits of used toilet paper). Flush toilets didn't become popular in the late 19th century, and only became standard equipment in homes during the past 100 years.

We take flush toilets for granted, but they use by far the most water in domestic settings. According to DrinkTap.Org, toilets account for up to 40% of all domestic use if the toilet is leaking.

  • 26.7% Toilets
  • 21.7% Clothes Washers
  • 16.8% Showers
  • 15.7% Faucets
  • 13.7% Leaks
  • 2.2% Other Domestic Uses
  • 1.7% Baths
  • 1.4% Dishwashers

While composting toilets are an option, the >$1000 cost for flushable versions and/or the "ick" factor for the less expensive humanure-producing lovable loo make composting toilets an unlikely choice for homeowners circa 2010.

Two easy options are available:

1) Install Dual Flush plumbing. For less than $20 per toilet, you can get a unit that lets you choose normal flush (for "#2") or a reduced flush (for "#1").

2) Install a Toilet Lid Sink. For about $100 per toilet, you can put a little sink unit on top of the toilet bowl. The water to refill the toilet bowl runs through the sink - perfect for washing hands. The grey water from washing your hands then gets flushed in the next use of the toilet - long before the 24 hours when the germs in "grey water" make it scientifically disgusting.

There's another massive water and fuel saver homes can use, but it doesn't concern waste disposal. But that's for another post.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The Hubbert "Peak Oil" Plot

I've been on a detour lately, researching stuff about carbon footprint and "peak oil." Peak Oil is the idea that we're near the 50% point on fossil fuels. At the peak (which some believe has already passed) oil prices will go up, and many of the petroleum-based products we've come to rely on will become more expensive. Perhaps not rioting in the streets expensive, but at least stressful expensive.

The Good. Luckily, I have a steady job. While my employer is proposing pay freezes next year, that's a far cry from being laid off. I also own a modest townhouse near the city, along a major bus route.

The Bad. I've calculated my personal carbon footprint over at CarbonFootprint.Org. I consider carbon footprint to be an indication of my vulnerability to oil price volatility. While my footprint is lower than the national average, it's still much (much) higher than the world average, not to mention the UN recommended level.

So Now What? In the next few posts, I'm going to talk about things we're doing (or considering) to reduce our environmental impact, short of fleeing to an off-grid cabin in the hinterlands.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Blank Slate

A blank page can be inspiring. A blank blog page can be filled with anything (though hopefully an honest anything).

A blank house can also be inspiring. This past week I've been daydreaming about some lofts I see going up in DC - the Foundry Lofts in SouthEast DC, near National's Stadium and The Yards Park and Riverwalk Trail and the Trapeze School. Sigh.

I reluctantly woke up from the daydream when I saw prices for comparable lofts in DC. My dream of urban simplicity within walking/metro distance of everything is an expensive dream. Besides, I do have these other people in my life who aren't thrilled about uprooting themselves. One child was philosophical: "Could you please wait until I graduate from high school?"

Maybe it's a symptom of mid-life crisis. Others fall in love with someone other than their spouse, throwing away their old life in the belief that a new partner will magically give them what they fail to "get" with the partner and life they chose in youth. Me, I'm seduced by the idea that a new home would stay as pristine and elegant as the marketing glossies.

Yeah, right.

Back to my boxes. The good thing is that I've filled up the box shelf, and we've started in on scanning the contents of book boxes.

I have grand plans for the weekend and will report back when it is over!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Triaging random stuff

There are days when stuff piles up.

In past, stuff on the table would get swept off into grocery bags and stashed, usually in preparation for guests. We weren't like artist Andy Warhol, who swept the ephemera of his life into 610 boxes as an artistic gesture.

No. We just didn't want to deal with our stuff. [Doesn't that sound like a statement one might make about an entire generation or country, and how that large group has dealt with the world?]

Anyway, I had a friend who had once worked as a professional organizer. She used to work for Don Aslett, author of Clutter's Last Stand.

My friend taught me the triage technique they would use to sort through stuff.

1) Separate the items on the table into three piles: keepers, trash, and "Don't know."

2) Throw away the trash. Put away the keepers.

3) Sort the "Don't know" pile into three piles: keepers, trash, and "Don't know."

4) Throw away the trash. Put away the keepers.

5) Sort the "Don't know" pile into two piles: keepers, trash.

6) Throw away the trash. Put away the keepers.

That was it.

You may modify as you wish to add recycle and/or donate boxes to contain those items you want to move out "responsibly," but the basic method is the same.

Here's my table part way through triage: A bin of my stuff to be put away, a jar of pens and stuff to be put away, a pile of papers to go through (scanner on and recycle/shred bins handy), and a small pile of my husband's game-related items he needs for an ongoing auction.

All we need to do is invite some guests over, to make sure we finish the process...

Letting go (and making money)

My beloved has performed a major purge of his games. I was surprised, if gratified, at the number of games he was willing to let go.

Many games went free to charity and local friends. A few games even got trashed (gasp).

We were left with a large pile of games (164 to be exact) that he would only bequeath to fellow gamers. Thirty-four games were donated to a local game club that maintains a library.

And the remaining 130 games are being offered for auction at Board Game Geek.

Before the auction ends on 31 October, go to boardgamegeek.com and check out what Santa was giving folks for Christmas this year...

If nothing else, it's an education in what people are willing to pay for the stuff we're willing to let go.

How to minimize new paper

My 300 boxes have sensitized me to the impact of keeping stuff, particularly paper. In honor of World Paper Free Day, let me share my tips to reduce printing and copying.

1) Don't keep a printer plugged into your computer. Make it a hassle to print a page.

2) Rotate your LCD monitor to portrait orientation. This lets you read the majority of "pages" in the layout you'd get with a printed copy. [Google to find out how to do this - and don't do this to office colleagues on April 1st...]

3) Set the default printer to "Adobe PDF." [This is one way to make printing a minor hassle]

4) When reading pdf files, type CTRL-L. This will get rid of all the menus and show you just the page - works really great on a rotated monitor.

5) Save pdfs to a folder on your desktop - then drag this folder over to your e-reader on a regular basis. Then you have your documents wherever you go.

6) Keep a scanner plugged into your computer, to convert paper other people give you into pdfs.

If you've got a willing friend, have a contest to see who can produce the least paper...

Happy World Paper Free Day!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

World Paper Free Day - 28 October 2010

Paper is overwhelming us. Not just us, my family. Not just US, my country. But us, the world.

For one day, let's not create new paper - here are tips from the video, along with my suggestions:

1) Do not print or copy documents unless absolutely required.

[Meg's idea - open a text document and write down "why" each time you do print/copy something]

2) Use document scanners to convert paper to electronic format, then shred the paper.

[Meg's idea - keep a box for documents to shred and take it at the end of the day to a place that will shred by weight (often $2/pound), then give yourself a gift equal in value to the cost of the shredding]

3) Use Web 2.0 technologies like wikis and blogs for internal communication and collaboration.

[Meg's idea - blog/tweet/e-mail about world paper free day, and include the instruction that they MUST NOT PRINT out what you send]

4) Keep [put] all your documents requiring review and refinement into a single electronic place.

[Meg's idea - do this for all documents associated with at least one project you really care about]

5) Use web interfaces and forms for online applications and order placement, replace paper forms with eForms.

[Meg's idea - you know that gift you get to give yourself because of the shredding? Make that "gift" a download - buy it online using an online form. Bonus if you also e-mail a company that doesn't allow their product to be downloaded and tell them lack of electronic option is why you didn't buy something from them today]

6) Sign up for e-bill delivery or online billing rather than paper statements, and pay your bills electronically.

[Couldn't say it better. Bonus if you switch from an account that doesn't offer paperless statements to one that does (and tell them why they lost your business)]

7) Learn about electronic signatures and how they work in your environment.

[Meg's idea - send someone an electronically-signed e-mail today and forward the url for the World Paper Free Day video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGymXkIli6Y ]

8) Map, design, and manage all you business processes electronically.

[Meg's idea - disconnect a computer from the printer today and see how much you can do without hooking up the cable]

Happy Paper Free Day!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Making a Double-deep Box Shelf

So here I am with my 300 boxes, and I figured out what to do with them (storage-wise). I can't just stack them one atop the others. It isn't stable, it is impossible to get to any boxes that have other boxes on top of them, and the boxes on the bottom will collapse in time. The answer is three 8-foot wide 7-box tall double-deep box shelves, each of which will hold ~100 boxes (98 to be exact).

I create these box shelves from 2x3s, which are strong enough to bear the weight of even a paper-filled bankers box (15 pounds) without sagging unacceptably. It's true. Check out the "Shelf Sag Calculator" aka "The Sagulator" if you doubt me.

Here's a picture showing the frame at the back of the box shelf:

The horizontal 2x3s are separated by 12" uprights, placed so that two boxes will fit on either "wing" with three boxes in the center of each shelf.

Then I had to figure out where the studs were in the wall. I know there is a purpose-designed magnet stud-finder thing you can buy. I even think I have one, somewhere in one of the boxes... Lacking the stud-finder, I used powerful magnets we'd been using on our fridge:

Back-most frame attached to the wall, I created two more frames, effectively identical to the frame in the back. The challenge now was to attach the three frames so they will support both the boxes in back and the boxes in front. Each box is 16" deep, so two boxes is 32" deep. 2x3s are 2.5 inches wide, so the three of them use up 7.5 inches, leaving me 24.5 inches of space. Divided by two.

I cut a handful of studs into 12.25" lengths, and used them to space the three frames the proper distance apart:

And on the "public" side, I used three angle-cut 32" pieces of 1x3 at top, middle, and bottom to brace the piece and maintain the spacing:

And, voila! Behold the finished frame for the double-deep box shelf:

What to do with hangers?

Part of the challenge of getting rid of things is knowing *how* to get rid of things. Though these hangers hadn't yet filled a box, they were clogging up our closets.

They don't look like much in this picture, because this hanger rack stores them so neatly, but that's 109 hangers. Picture them with the paper and foam and stuff from the dry cleaners, and they took up a lot more space.

I was able to cut through the paper-covering on the hangers and quickly pull the paper off each end. For the hangers with cardboard (ones used for pants or folded sweaters) it was an easy matter to pop off the cardboard.

As for the wire hangers covered with foam [for hanging dresses/shirts/sweaters that might slide off] I've kept the foam. I understand you can re-use the foam on plastic hangers (recommended because they help clothes keep their shape better than wire hangers.

So there's one box prevented from ever coming into being in the first place. Hooray!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Why I'm actually doing this: Part 2 - Aquaponics

While I was researching the life associated with Tiny Homes, I came across the Windowfarms Project, a New York City-based initiative to encourage urban dwellers to grow some of their own food inside year-round. And I came across Backyard Aquaponics, an Australian website/magazine talking about the combination of hydroponics (soil-less gardening) and aquaculture (fish farming). Other Australian resources are ecofilms Australia, and Murray Hallam's great website.

So cool. Makes me want to move to Australia.

Why is aquaponics trendy in Australia? It started with this 2006 TV spot of Joel Malcolm in his backyard aquaponic garden:

Since I don't have a suitable backyard for an outdoor system (townhome covenants...) and I didn't yet have space for a substantial indoor system (300 boxes, remember?) I began dabbling in aquaponic windowfarms. Below is a video from July 14th, showing my daughter's windowfarm fed by a fish tank and a simple raft aquaponics system:

Fun though it is to have a window full of green stuff, it doesn't come close to providing a substantial portion of the family diet. Plus the system isn't robust - my modifications to include fish in the basic windowfarm design sometimes gets clogged. The fish are still alive, but plants in an aquaponic system don't do too well when they're left dry for a few days (business trips...).

So I dream of the time when I have enough free space to have the lowest level of my townhome free of random junk and instead have a nice garden [along with a nice guest space and laundry/utility/storage].

So there it is. After years of could-have-would-have-should-have self-flagellation, it took the dream of aquaponics to get me going.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Why I'm actually doing this: Part 1 - Tiny homes

I write. I'm not an author - yet. But I write, and I hang with writers.

A frequent topic of discussion amongst us writers is how it might be possible to go full-time. A lot of that has to do with minimizing outgoing expenses. The discussion the past year and more has become more practical because of the economy, with some of us "giving up" our day jobs before we might have wished.

The Tiny Home movement has become a loving topic of conversation. My favorites are the homes from the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company.

I like to daydream about living in a tiny home. Alas, I have people and things I am not willing to jettison just so I can live in a 100 square foot house in the woods powered by solar and wind energy.

Actually, my three-story townhome is downright itty compared to what many of my friends and colleagues own. But itty can be more than enough space if we get rid of all the extra stuff.

I've often joked that I want to die penniless (the first one to get rid of all their pennies wins). It's not that I actually want to die without anything to leave to my family and causes, just a desire to reduce the jangling change in my pockets.

It isn't a joke, though, if I die and leave a bunch of junk for my heirs to deal with. I want the precious to be obvious and catalogued and easy to handle, with the non-precious easy to dispose of, if there's any at all.

If my junk would be a burden for my heirs after I die, why shouldn't I recognize what a burden it is for us while I'm still alive?

And so I dream about the life I could lead if I had only that which would fit in a tiny home (and the tiny housekeeping duties that go with it). Bit by bit I organize and box and discard the thousands of pounds of stuff that prevent us from living that simpler life, the tons of meaningless, demanding stuff that will steal the nights and weekends we could spend enjoying the rest of our lives together.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

And the results are...

So now we know what the boxes contain.

Dang, that's a lot of paper!!! At 15 pounds per box, that's 1650 pounds of paper for the miscellaneous paper-filled boxes alone.

I'm so glad I decided to box the stuff up and label it without trying to do each box as I came to it. Boxes of random stuff and/or boxes of books I can deal with. But those boxes of paper would have stopped me in my tracks without fail.

If you're noticing the dates on my posts, let me explain the several-week break. Two things interrupted progress since August: other person A and other person B.

Other person A is a friend who needed a place to stay. That was actually cool - getting the clutter organized and boxed has freed up space so we can help folks out that way. It's been a bit more involved than merely cutting an extra copy of a key, but in the end I'd rather have spent that time helping someone than plowing through boxes.

Other person B is a family member who saw the expanse of empty space and filled it with game boxes. That's not been all bad, though, because person B was inspired to sort the games into:

1) trash,
2) give away,
3) sell,
4) archive, and
5) display for easy access.

The total volume of games is going from ~200 cubic feet to ~75 cubic feet, with many people the happy recipients of new-to-them games. There are several piles of game boxes yet, but the selling/donating process is actively continuing.

Next time I'll post a bit about the dream that keeps me motivated to keep moving forward on this decluttering journey.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The boxes are (almost) done...

The silence you've enjoyed since 17 August was partly me being painfully ill (is there any other kind of ill?) and me working feverishly to migrate stuff to the standard letter/legal storage boxes.

First, I love the Staples boxes. You can purchase them online and have them delivered to your door for only $18.99 for 10 boxes - at $1.90 per box, that's cheaper than anything else I can find. Plus, you can go to a store and get the same boxes for only $14.99 for 10 boxes - $1.50 apiece. They've undergone a minor design update in the last month and are now even easier to put together, IMO.

So now all my holdings are in these standard boxes, labeled, with the location of each box noted. I took a few videos over the transformation from embarrassing "before" state to organized "after" state. Video footage to be posted later (today?).

Part of the reason for the "feverish" effort was the availability of my college-aged daughter and two friends willing to trade hours of their lives for money I would have wanted to give them anyway to tide them over hard times. Win win all around.

I was close in estimating the amount at 300 boxes. I've got 295 boxes labeled, with 10 boxes of books yet to be labeled and about 6 boxes of games I'd forgotten my husband had in the attic. By the time I post video, I should know the total number of boxes we have currently. At that point the boxes go under "configuration management," and we can determine the baseline against which reductions in holdings will officially be measured.

Last night my friends came over, and we scanned books for 4 boxes and sorted "electronics." I now have a crate of old cables for "Keeping it Green" Computer Recycling. Plus we donated a large bag of stuff to whichever charity was driving around for pick-ups this morning. We have about 5 charities that call periodically asking to come to our house to pick up donations - how sweet is that?

I had been prioritizing boxes as:

1 - urgent
2 - easy to go through but not urgent
3 - hard to go through and not urgent

Once I had the list in front of me, I determined that:

2/3 of the urgent boxes will probably be able to disappear
5/6 of the "hard to go through" boxes will probably be able to disappear
1/6 of the "easy to go through" boxes will likely go away

So after all this is done, I'll probably still have 150 boxes. Bummer. At least I'll be able to find the stuff I've decided to keep!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Three down - a tale

I've been sick this past weekend - a night-time stay in the clinic for what turned out to be simple stomach flu followed the next day by sore throat.

Last night I felt well enough to sit up, and my husband brought me some boxes to "kill."

Box number one was full of "things" in good shape. In a few minutes I'd determined the only thing I wanted to keep was a medal from a marathon I ran in 2002. The rest went into the donate bin.

Box number two was full of mail and papers from 2005. Most of that went into the shred or recycle piles, though I have a daughter who adores crafts and another who adores food, so about 3 inches of magazines got saved out for them to consider.

Box number three was full of random books cleared from living room surfaces years ago. Took out my wand scanner, swiped the covers of all the actual books, put coloring books aside for trash or donate, and gave the box a label.

It didn't take much time to kill these boxes, which was good. More box killing tomorrow...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Finding what works, Freecycling the rest

I love organizing supplies. Truly do.

Here's the problem. Some of them don't fit my needs once I've got them in my house. Take the four examples above:

The tower of translucent bins in the black frame looks cool. But I found items went in the drawers and never came out. Hopefully it works for the person I'm giving it to (hooray for Freecycle).

The blue bins were great for storing big stuff (e.g., piles of toys and clothes) back when I had a little kid. But that was almost two decades ago.

The white bins were my mother's - she used them for art supplies. But I found things went in and never came out. Wouldn't have been so bad, but the bins weren't the same size as any of my other storage solutions.

I originally bought the 10 gallon grey bins thinking I would use them in sorting through my stuff. Alas, they are too big for me to use effectively for the intended purpose.

Speaking of solutions that fit my life - I like Freecycle. I've found eBay is too hard for anything but truly valuable stuff. I don't like the Craig's List format. And with my work schedule, dropping stuff off at donation centers is sometimes problematic.

Freecycle is locally oriented, is explicitly oriented towards keeping things out of landfills, and I don't have to haul my stuff somewhere to get rid of it (the folks who want the stuff come to me). Both giver and taker are happy.

Once we got a fridge via Freecycle. I felt bad as I drove away - it didn't seem right to get a full-up fridge for free. Then I caught a glimpse of the guys who'd given the fridge away jumping in the air and giving each other high fives. I didn't feel bad about taking the fridge after that, after seeing their joy in having the fridge gone.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Incredibly Embarrassing "Before" Video

I used to love watching organization shows on TV. A particular favorite was "Mission Organization," where a family with a problem room would go through a major make-over. I'd sit on the couch, jaw agape, thinking how cool it would be if my environment could be transformed so painlessly. Elapsed time (for me), an hour.

The problem is this. To achieve the "wow" factor when the organization has occurred, you have to see the dire situation that existed before.

So this is the entirely embarrassing "before" video. If you watch it (like you didn't already click it before reading this) you might notice that there are a few empty spaces in the box shelves. Imagine those spaces filled with boxes, plus boxes stacked five deep in the middle of the room - 38 more boxes, in fact, than you see in this video.

It's overwhelming just typing about it. I'll be at this for a bit more than an hour.

At then end of this process, I hope to have no more boxes in the rest of the living areas of the house and fewer boxes in the basement room. Many fewer boxes.

But this isn't just about getting rid of stuff. It's about freeing the space to make room for something else that I really want to have. But more on that another day.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Only 281 boxes to go...

My youngest daughter and I (finally!) got started on the boxes today.

I created labels in powerpoint - 5 per page. Each label indicates the priority, the box number, a description, when the box is from (if known), and who "owns" the contents of the box. A separate log sheet has columns for each of these as well as "where" so I can find the boxes in future.

I decided on three priorities:

1) Urgent - something that has to be gone through soon (like a box of papers that were recently swept from the dining room table to 'tidy up' for company)

2) Easy to deal with (like a box of similar items - books or games or electrical cables or ...)

3) Hard to deal with and not urgent (like random papers that someone other than me has been hauling around for decades)

Turned out the first boxes it made sense to label were filled with my husband's games. These are priority 2 (like items - easy for someone to go through but not urgent). We've already dedicated a particular room in the basement as the "Game Room," so there's even a logical space to put them. Since these are items belonging to my husband, my job is now done (for these boxes).

Would they were all going to be this easy...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Going Paperless with ScanSnap

A couple of weeks ago I purchased a Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300, a tiny little duplex scanner that promises to allow you to load up to 10 pages.

You can load way more than 10 pages. Which is cool. I've been on a business trip with a packed briefcase. All the informtion that was worth retaining is now in digital form. Most of the paper can be dumped in my shred box.

The way I like to use the ScanSnap is to have a pile of papers. As I scan each, I go ahead and type in the right name. I like to name my files "yymmdd description." That means they sort quickly.

I had a big pile of business cards as well. The ScanSnap comes with a nice little business card app, that promises to upload the images into Outlook and other organizers. Very cool.

Loving this scanner!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Naked Came I Into the World...

Today I learned a friend lost all her belongings in a disaster. She has the clothes on her back and her memories. That's it.

Made me much more motivated to convert important documents to a form that won't be destroyed just because something hits my house.

I did the experiment with scanning a bunch of books - it went very well. I was immediately able to determine one of the books could be donated. As I was tossing the book into the "donate" box, a visiting child asked why I would do such a thing. It was a teaching opportunity.

Now to bed, to dream up ways of protecting my truly precious documents from possible destruction.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Scanning Book Covers

Yesterday I mentioned that our vast book holdings resemble a library.

Here's the difference. In a library you have dedicated people who catalog books according to some classification system (e.g., Dewey Decimal, Library of Congress). In my house, the titles sharing the same shelf or box could be as dissimilar as the titles above (all of which were, in fact, on the same shelf).

With a wand scanner and the technique I used on the images above, it takes just 5 seconds to scan a book cover. I bet I can scan 10 book covers in a minute. That's pretty awesome. I guess you could also use a flatbed scanner, but I think it would take a lot more time.

My wand scanner is the Brookstone "iConvert Portable Scanner," one of the many different Brookstone gadgets you can use to that convert old-style media to digital form. The "original" is the Magic Wand Scanner made by Vupoint. I think the only difference is the painted logo.

The bad thing about books is they are thick, and wand scanners use little rollers to figure out how much distance you've traveled. Once the rollers go off the end of the cover, the scanner doesn't know it's still moving over the page, so it stops grabbing information. You can see that the images above stop short of the bottom of the page. J. K. Rowling's name is mostly missing from the picture of the Harry Potter book.


The good thing is books are thick. I have a distinct, square edge to use for aligning my scan, resulting in nicely "justified" pictures. I do lose a tiny bit of upper edge of the cover. Notice how the words "Harry Potter" are partly cut off. Fortunately, most publishers don't put the title above the top 1/2 inch of the book.

Despite missing tiny bits of the covers, this method looks promising. Tomorrow I'll scan covers for a box of books that's been in the basement and play "sort the covers" with my family. Should be fun!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Now About Books...

We love books. And that's OK. But how to deal with them when the holdings begin to resemble a library?

I had a brief affair with LibraryThing several years ago, but I think I've come up with something that will work better for our purposes - a virtual library.

The enabling tool for this is the handy Magic Wand Portable Scanner. It let's you pull the scanner over the flat surface of whatever - the wall, the floor, a book. You get an image file.

So here's the plan. I will go to a box of books or a shelf and spend a few minutes scanning the front covers of the books, labeled so I know which box or shelf contains the book. The physical books go back into the box or shelf.

Then the images can be manipulated into proposed groupings.

Like Discard or Donate or Sell or Keep.

The keepers can then be virtually arranged into categories, like in the book store. Meanwhile, the tangible copies of the virtual books identified for discard or donate can be discretely taken to their destination, without causing the natural "but, but, but... it's a BOOK" reflex.

Meanwhile, books we don't want prominently shelved but can't bear to discard (yet) can be kept in their box without being consigned to oblivion.

I'll report back tomorrow on how this works on some boxes in the basement I know are full of (currently unidentified) books.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Behold the Elephant

It's been two years now since I heard a doctor say, "It sounds like we may be dealing with OCHD - Obsessive Compulsive Hoarding Disorder."

Since that time, it became clear that all three adults in the family had beliefs and behaviors that contribute to excess accumulation of stuff:
- Bryan loves to collect things, and avoids dealing with his own stuff, much less the stuff of others.

- Meg loves paper and boxes, and hangs on to things she thinks she can fix.

- Tara loves deals, and has a knack for finding "valuable" stuff that's cheap or free.

Some good stuff has happened in the dozens of months since we learned about OCHD:
- Bryan learned to let go of some things.

- Meg discovered the joy of donating and discarding.

- Tara got married and furnished her new home with a 17' van full of furniture that used to fill our house.

We put a lot of our stuff into boxes - about 300 of them - and fit them into our basement family room.

You can see the original "box shelf" I constructed out of 2x4s - I thought the stuff would fit into the 49 boxes I can slide into that unit. In fact, I filled three "box shelves," and ended up having to stack boxes in front of each shelf and the fireplace to boot. So I've probably got more than 300 boxes, but 300 sounds sufficiently overwhelming for now.

Now to start eating the elephant...