Borage (Borago officinalis)

Borage, just about to bloom.

Borage is an ugly sounding name for a beautiful and useful plant. The moniker is probably a corruption of the Andalusian Arabic abu buraq or “father of sweat”, a reference to it’s diaphoretic qualities1. Both the leaves and the blue flowers (sometimes white flowers) are edible and have a refreshing cucumber like taste. Borage is an annual herb that we plant in the late fall here in Los Angeles for an early spring bloom, but in most other parts of North America you’ll plant it in the spring after the last frost. Ours survived a winter outbreak of aphids, but is now thriving.

We toss the flowers and leaves into salads as a flavoring. In fact we enjoyed a memorable borage spiked salad on a recent Greyhound bus trip to Las Vegas we took for a book appearance. Thankfully for our fellow passengers, we did not break out into a borage induced sweat.

For more on the medicinal qualities of borage, including “dispelling melancholy” (useful for bus layovers in Barstow, incidentally) see the borage entry in the Plants for a Future database.

Nettle Mania

“out of this nettle, danger, we grasp this flower, safety”
-Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1, Act II Scene 3

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are a common weed with a bad reputation–the plant has tiny spines that inject, as Wikipedia puts it, a “cocktail of poisons.” Miraculously when you boil the plant the spines lose their punch and you’re left with a tasty green consumed plain or incorporated in a number of dishes, from soups to ravioli, to the German cheese pictured above (thanks to Berlin corespondent Steve Rowell for the photo). When dried, the leaves make a damn good tea, with a rich, indescribable flavor. If that ain’t enough, nettles pack a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals, and are perhaps the vegetable with the highest protein content (10%).

At the risk of contradicting yesterday’s anti-media screed (After all, Marshall McLuhan once said, “If you don’t like that idea I’ve got others.”), we’ll end with some links to an obscure sub-genre of youtube videos, nettle torture stunts. Mrs. Homegrown could drone on about the psycho-sexual implications of these clips, but that would be fodder for another blog. In the meantime, thanks again to Steve Rowell, here’s some nettling to fill your evening hours: here, here and here (just three of what may be hundreds).

A Close Shave Part IV

There are a few advantages to living in ugly old Los Angeles. Homegrown Revolution contributor Hairy Picfair, in an email commenting on our post about switching to an old-fashioned safety razor, reminded us that we can find replacement blades at Ross Cutlery, the shop where O.J. Simpson picked up a folding knife while shooting a commercial next door, just a month before the murder of his ex-wife. Ross Cutlery is located in the Bradbury Building where Rutger Hauer had his showdown with Harrison Ford in the thrilling conclusion of Blade Runner. Celebrity gossip aside, cutlery shops are a promising place to find alternative shaving supplies.

Mark, another HGR reader, writes to ask about alternatives to shaving creams. We’ve been testing out Colonel Conk Products’ Almond Shave Soap with a cheap shaving brush. So far we’re happy with this product and while we’re disappointed that neither the container nor Colonel Conk’s website lists the ingredients, we’ve sent a letter to the company to see if they will let us know what is in the soap. We’ll report back when we find out.

Lastly, fellow bloggist and Starcrash scholar Doug Harvey writes to suggest a visit to a traditional barber for a professional straight-edge blade experience. We used to do this until a friend of ours started cutting our hair in exchange for lunches at pupusa joints. Perhaps we can get our volunteer hairstylist to take up the blade if we switch to three martini lunches at swankier digs.

To our international readers we apologize for the O.J. and pupusa references in this LA-centric post and we send our condolences to those about to undergo that thing called winter . . .


A Close Shave Part III

Kurt Cobain once said, “The only way I would wear a tye-died T-shirt would be if it were soaked in the blood of Jerry Garcia.” Being born around the same year as Cobain, our generational bias prevents us from donning tie-dye, friendship bracelets, or sandals. It also prevents us from cultivating a flowing beard, leaving us desperately hooked on shaving products.

As the alleged developer of the “loss-leader” business strategy King Gillette figured out that if you sold folks a cheap razor handle customers would have to come back for disposable razors for which you could charge an exorbitant price. Like desperate crack addicts we’ve been patronizing Gillette for years, plopping down ever more ridiculous sums for the latest “Mach-whatever” plastic multi-blade gimmick.

We finally decided to opt out of the Gillette trap and order up a retro safety razor from Lehmans. Here’s a comparison of costs:

Gillette Mach 3: four blades for $10.59 or $2.64 a blade
Package of double-edged, stainless steel blades: ten blades for 4.95 or 49 cents a blade.

So far so good, but there’s a catch. The fine folks at Gillette are a monopoly, as rapacious as the rail barons of the 19th century and completely dominate the shaving products industry. In a practice known as “slotting” large companies pay fees, sometimes as high as $25,000 per item, to reserve space on supermarket shelves and essentially eliminate the competition. The supermarket I checked did not have any blades other than Gillette–not even even Schick, and certainly not old-fashioned safety razors. So it appears that we may have to mail order replacement blades, and with shipping fees this will make the traditional safety razor gambit less appealing.

But we’re stubborn and just can’t give Gillette, now owned by Proctor and Gamble, any more of our money. The real way out of this dilemma is to take up the even more traditional straight razor but we’ve been warned about the learning curve on that strategy, not to mention the need to keep the blade sharp. Opinions dear readers? Any straight-edged razor types out there?

Looking for the Union Label

We’ve got a bad case of Ohrwurm, a German expression translated as “earworm” and used to describe a song stuck in your head. Our earworm came after a search for union made socks and underwear on the internets recalled a highly catchy ad jingle from the roller disco era, “Look for the Union Label” (youngsters can watch it on youtube here).

We looked for the union label and we were surprised to find it via a company called Union House which carries a functional, if unexciting line of apparel. Unless hipsters take to golf shirts in an ironic fashion judo move, these offerings will never be cool like the domestically made clothes made by the union busting folks over at American Apparel. The socks and underwear we ordered from Union House arrived promptly and are of superior quality. Homegrown Revolution hecklers will, no doubt, shout us down for not sewing our own underwear and socks, but we’ll save our time for more complicated sewing projects such as the shirt we sewed a few years ago.

We’ve all got a lot of moral geometry to perform in this globalized world–the keyboard we’re tapping this missive out on was assembled in Malaysia by workers who, it’s safe to say, probably don’t toil in the best of conditions. But, taking out the moral ruler, we’ve got to draw a line somewhere and last week that was with the clothing we chose. It’s better to mark that line somewhere than not to mark it at all.

Though we prefer this more soulful rendition, we feel the need to spread the earworm around and here’s another version of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union song (with a few inexplicable bleeps):

Bubble Wrap Your Windows


Photo by Nick Lowe

From the remarkable folks at Build It Solar comes this heating conservation tip – bubble wrap your windows. Simply cut sheets of bubble wrap to fit your windows, apply some water with a spray bottle and before it dries stick the bubble wrap on the glass. While you can buy special bubble wrap designed for greenhouses, according to Build It Solar, regular bubble wrap will probably work just as well. If you number the pieces you use, you can stick it up again next year.

Bubble wrapping the windows cuts down on visibility, so it’s a strategy best left to back rooms of your house or apartment. Of course, LA’s so ugly it may not matter . . .

Airing Our Dirty Laundry

Let’s face it folks, clothes dryers suck and even Martha Stewart agrees with SurviveLA that the way to go is the old-fashioned clothes line. SurviveLA put a retractable line up in the back yard this week to replace our hated Kenmore dryer. May the bastards at Sears suffer Pharaoh’s plagues sprinkled with Job’s scabies for designing this ugly, awkward and inelegant machine. Besides, with the blazing hot sun of Los Angeles, it makes perfect sense to use our region’s free solar power.

So why air dry? Let’s do the math. Assuming our (gas powered) dryer uses an average of .22 therms of natural gas per load at our gas company Sempra Energy’s August rate of 59 cents per therm, by using our clothes line we achieve the admittedly not too impressive savings of 17 cents per load. If we had an electric dryer we figure that the cost would be about 44 cents per load if the dryer consumed four kilowatts for a 45 minute spin. And remember that when you use electricity in Los Angeles, thanks to the Department of Water and Power, you are burning coal in Utah.

Now we would continue with the math, but that would involve amortizing the cost of the dryer and math is a shaky subject for us. Suffice to say, that gas is not the only cost. We think the greatest savings over time may be that air drying is simply better for our clothes. Besides, it’s another excuse to get outside and get in touch with the natural world i.e. the weather.

For those folks pressed for time and unable to enjoy the blessed idleness that pervades the SurviveLA compound, another drying alternative exists — the Spin X dryer. Made by the Krauts, this thing is sort of like those small spinning machines you stick your bathing suit into at the swimming pool. The Spin X spins at 3,300 rpm, and according to the manufacturer will remove 50% of the moisture of a ten pound load in three minutes. You will still need to air dry your clothes after they come out of this thing. The Spin X might be a good option for apartment homesteaders as it just hooks up to a regular 110 outlet and does not need a drain line. Water from the clothes is sent out the front of the unit into a small container that you must empty. A Spin X will set you back $469.

No discussion of dryers would be complete without mentioning the recent scandal in Britain wherein three bored firemen nearly lost their jobs for filming a member of their department taking a ride in a dryer. A hearing ensued and the firemen involved in the incident had to issue an apology, “We recognize that our behaviour was totally irresponsible and we are genuinely ashamed and would stress that no one should try to copy the stupid act.” For the idle out there you can watch the video here. Just don’t try this stunt in the Spin X, as the manufacturer also promises “1,340 G forces”.

LED Light Bulbs

The geeks over at BoingBoing have jumped on the LED light bandwagon with a post about the C. Crane Company’s CC Vivid and CC Vivid+ LED light bulbs. While it’s great that folks are beginning to think about conservation, it’s disappointing that this interest seems to be about chasing the latest new techno-gadget. As concerns about impending climate and ecological disaster increase, it’s prudent to greet all new technical solutions with skepticism. After all, why replace one kind of over-consumption with a new “green” consumerism?

Now back to the topic of LED lights. The price of LED lights continues to fall as the their light output increases. However the technology, in SurviveLA’s opinion, is not quite ready for general lighting applications. One way to measure efficiency of light bulbs is a ratio between the light output measured in lumens and power usage measured in watts. Most compact fluorescents have a lumens to watts ratio of about 50 lumens per watt. The CC Vivid light lumens to watts ratio is 24 and the CC Vivid+ ratio is 34 according to the specifications we obtained from the C. Crane Company web site. The spotlight profiled by BoingBoing, which we assume is also the C. Crane spotlight also has a lumens to watts ratio of 34. For more on these issues see the Department of Energy’s FAQ on LEDs.

As the DOE notes in the FAQ, it’s not entirely fair to directly compare compact fluorescents to LED lights, since LED bulbs have a more directed light making them perhaps better for applications such as bedside reading lights, where you don’t want to bother a dozing partner. LEDs, due to their exceptionally long life — upwards of 60,000 hours — are also great for installation in hard to reach locations where the lights will be on continuously.

LED lights, however, still bust the wallet with their high price. This issue reminds us of all the yuppies in our ‘hood tooling around in their expensive new Toyota Priuses. It’s 19th century technology, but a bicycle is still a hell of lot more efficient . . .

Essential System #3 – Sew Your Own Damn Clothes

Working down the list of essential systems that we began in an earlier post, we get to the topic of clothes. Now we could talk about layering and all the new “technical” fabrics, but that’s just about going to REI and busting out the credit card — not very interesting.

The problem with laying down the credit card at any or our nation’s retail clothing establishments is the simple fact that when you get home you have to wash off the blood of the Chinese slave laborers who sew the shit. There are two possible solutions to this moral dilemma, shopping at thrift stores, in which case you have second-hand slave laborer blood and sewing your own clothes. The big problem with the latter solution is that sewing is a bitch — it’s time consuming and at times incredibly frustrating. Nevertheless this homesteading revolution we propose won’t be a cake walk, and will be as much about rediscovering old techniques as it will be about new technologies. Fellow crackpot Daniel Pinchbeck in his funky new book The Return of Quetzalcoatl says,

Instead of envisioning an ultimately boring technological singularity, we might be better served by considering an evolution of technique, of skillful means, aimed at this world, as it is now. Technology might find its proper place in our lives if we experienced such a shift in perspective–in a society oriented around technique, we might find that we desired far less gadgetry. We might start to prefer slowness to speed, subtlety and complexity to products aimed at standardized mind. Rather than projecting the spiritual quest and the search for the good life onto futuristic A.I.s we could actually take the time to fulfill those goals, here and now, in the present company of our friends and lovers.

In short it’s time to step away from the virtual world of the computer for a few evenings every month and fire up the very non-virtual Singer sewing machine. We did this a few years ago and managed to produce the rather unattractive and two sizes too big shirt that you see above. It’s the kind of shirt that when worn will often get the comment, “did you . . . sew that yourself?” Note that this is not a compliment.

Still, we think that sewing has promise, particularly in Los Angeles where every imaginable fabric can be found in the colossal fabric district (unless, of course you decide to take truly radical action and start spinning and weaving your own fabric). Some recommendations for brave urban homesteaders who want to take up sewing. Don’t start with stretchy fabric. Don’t even think of using velvet (we learned this the hard way). Choose patterns carefully so you don’t end up looking like, well, folks who sew their own clothes. Consider purchasing a used serger, which cuts the fabric and finishes the seam all at once, which folks in the know tell us makes life considerably easier. Dress forms can also help – here’s how you can make one yourself.

Most importantly we need to reclaim sewing from the old ladies of the Midwest and make it . . . revolutionary. We think the best way to jump start this new sewing revolution would be to bring back brother Eldridge’s radical “Cleavers”.

A Close Shave Part II: The Rolls Razor

Shaving authority and Root Simple Toronto correspondent Nicholas Sammond sent these handsome pics of a unique shaving system called the “Rolls Razor”. It looks like a safety razor, but instead of using disposable blades, the blade is permanent and re-sharpened on two stones contained in the case. One stone is used for occasional re-sharpening and the other stone is a “strop” used to sharpen the blade after each use. A detailed description of the operation of this unique razor can be found on this web site.

In effect the Rolls Razor is a compromise between a straight razor and a safety razor. We say it’s time to bring back the Rolls Razor so we all can stop handing Gillette and Schick, who have the same business models as crack gangs any more money, and stop filling all those landfills with more plastic.