The binoculars are always close at hand

A typical breakfast scene: Erik surveys the neighborhood from our “hilltop aerie.” What’s he looking at? Perhaps a lithesome jogger? Actually, no. When I took this picture he was admiring something poking out of a recycling bin over on Coronado Terrace.

I’ve never quite got used to my man’s propensity to snatch up the binoculars, but I don’t really disapprove either. Erik is a peculiar peeping tom. His viewing interests fall into 3 categories:

1) Scavenge opportunities
2) Happily spotting people and/or dogs we know on the street. Sort of as a sport. (“There goes Blackie!”)
3) Foiling wrongdoers. Because he’s so nosy, he knows who lives here, and has interfered with nefarious activities in the past (casing, tagging, etc.).

Content Mills: Pimples on the Information Superhighway

Yes, there really is a “How to Get Rid of Pimples on the Buttocks” video on eHow. If only they had a how to get rid of eHow article.

Google’s powerful search engine has become an essential component of the urban homesteading toolbox. From diagnosing tomato diseases to cooking Ethiopian injera Google has the answers.

In recent years, unfortunately, low quality “content mills,” such as ezinearticles and suite101 that pair dubious information with advertising, have replaced more respectable sources in search rankings.  An article in Wired Magazine, “The Answer Factory: Demand Media and the Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell Media Model” details how these content mill scams work. Authors and video producers for these companies get next to nothing to produce shoddy work that is then tied to keywords used to generate click through advertising.

I actually got an email a few months ago from content mill king Demand Media asking if we’d contribute video. I replied with a terse email message, “Sorry to say that we don’t generate material for content mills.” I got an astonishing response,

Hi Erik,

Thank you for your timely reply. I think you have a point about the content mill, however should you ever reconsider, and would like for us to produce high quality How To videos for you and Ehow, which you can use on your own web site, please don’t hesitate to contact me. All the videos on Ehow include links to your website, a bio of the expert, and Google Search result optimization.

Google adjusted its algorithms last week to bump down content mill sites. A study, released this past weekend by Sistrix, shows how that adjustment has changed search results. The results are mostly positive. In Sitrix’s “visibility index” exinearticles.com is down 90% and suite101.com is down 94%. But at least one content mill slipped through the cracks. EHow.com actually rose in Sistrix’s index.

So Google has more algorithm tweaking to do that runs somewhat counter to their financial interests in selling more ads. But I’ll repeat what Amy Stewart says over at Garden Rant, dear eHow: please go away.

Look To Mother Nature

While this clip is about the economy, I often think about it in relation to our burgeoning urban homesteading movement. Whenever I’m asked why we are engaged in the disparate activities chronicled on this blog, I point to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of one of my favorite books, The Black Swan.  In this clip he talks about how nature isn’t centralized. Nothing in nature is “too big to fail.” Nature depends on built in redundancy. It’s adaptable, flexible, built to withstand shocks–Taleb’s term for this is robustness.

He’s talking about reforming financial systems, but we apply the same ideas when considering our overly centralized food system. All of us who grow a little food, bake, brew, keep small stock and bees–what have you–are part of the solution. By building community ties and practical knowledge we’re creating a robust food production and distribution able to withstand shocks.

This is reason enough to do it, but as you all know, it’s a whole lot of fun, too.

Just another reason why urban homesteading rocks.

My mental glitch: hay vs. straw

Photo by David Shankbone

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So I went to the feed store to get some stuff for the chickens and at the counter I made a mistake. When the clerk said, “Anything else?” I said, “Oh yes. One bale of hay, please.”  She rang me up. The bill seemed more than usual, but being in my usual fog, I didn’t pay that much attention. The heavy lifting guys bring the hay bale to my car. It’s green and fragrant…it’s….HAY.

I meant straw.

This is not my fault. I’m a city kid. I was not taught the difference between straw and hay as a wee child, and as an adult, while I’ve learned the difference via the school of hard knocks, somewhere deep in my brain hay and straw remain synonyms. This problem shows no sign of going away.

I also persistently call my ipod my Walkman. This is even worse, because it shows my age. It’s like I’ve become one of those middle aged people who in my youth called the stereo “the hi-fi”.

*

Homegrown Evolution readers are all savvy folks, and know this already, but in case some poor soul is cast on this shore by Google, this is the difference between hay and straw:

Hay refers to grasses or legume plants cut down fresh and baled for animal feed. Hay bales are usually greener than straw bales, the plant material finer. Hay smells really nice, too. You would not want to use this stuff as mulch, or you’d end up sprouting a yard full of alfalfa or whatever. It’s also more expensive than straw, about three times as much, depending on the grass type. No one would use hay as bedding.

Straw is the dried stalks of cereal plants, like wheat. It’s a by-product of harvest. If any seeds remain on the stalks, it’s by accident. Therefore, straw is nutritionally void, and is not animal feed. However, that lack of seeds makes it a fine mulch, and an inexpensive bedding material. We line our chicken coop with it, and recommend it for weed suppression projects.

So I had this dream

Here I am, with the soon-to-be-forgotten worms and a fantastic class of Waldorf kids

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So last night I had this dream that I was sitting at a kitchen table with someone (don’t know who it was) and I noticed something that looked like a dried out worm coiled on the edge of one of the dishes. I pointed it out to this other person, and she reached out and crushed it with her fingertip. It crumbled to pieces on the tabletop. I laughed and said, “I sure hope that’s not one of my worms!” She laughed, too, and mischievously blew the crumbs in my direction.

And thus does one’s subconscious work. I woke with a start, remembering that, after showing off my worms to class of visiting school kids, I’d left the bin out on the back porch for a night, and day, and half of another night. Usually the worms live in the kitchen. I jumped out of bed and brought them back in.

The problem with worms is that they’re so darn quiet.

The worms are fine. They’re tough, and our weather is mild. But I was a little worried about them  because they are house-worms, acclimated to room temperature, and I’d left them out in the open, on concrete, and in a shallow bin.

See, worms can take care of themselves just fine if given the room and resources they need to cool themselves down, warm themselves up, and regulate their moisture. However, when they’re in a shallow little bin, they just don’t have much latitude for adjustment. It’s our responsibility as worm keepers to regulate their environment.

Luckily for us and our forgotten worms, even though it was unseasonably warm yesterday,  the sun is low on the horizon, so our back porch wasn’t baking in the western sun, like it does most of the year. Otherwise, the worms, being unable to hide deep in the soil, might have steam cooked in the bin during that long, forgotten day. 

Of course, worms can be kept outdoors in all but the most extreme temperatures, but their bins need to be sited correctly–kept in nice shady spots, protected from the rain, and elevated from cold-conducting cement surfaces. (Maybe some of you folks who live in snow country could chime in on what you do with your worms when it’s freezing out?)


No Caffeine, No Migraines

Image courtesy of I Can Haz Cheezburger



Mrs. Homegrown here:

A while back I posted about my coffee addiction and search for coffee alternatives. Again, thank you so much for all of your suggestions–I’ve enjoyed them.

As nothing is more tedious than listening to other people rattle on about their health concerns, I’m going to try not to belabor this post. All I have is a simple message, and that is if you are a chronic migraine sufferer, you may want to consider cutting caffeine from your daily diet.

Of course this is hard to do, as most migraineurs live in an intimate tango with caffeine. All I have to say is that I’ve had migraines all my life, and they were becoming more frequent. My first impulse was to attribute them to other causes, but my gut told me to try caffeine. I tapered off caffeine over the course of a month, then went totally clean for a couple of weeks, after which I assumed I was “clean.” (That’s when I wrote that last post–in retrospect I’m amused by its cheery outlook. I was about to get slammed with true withdrawal)

You see, the headaches did not stop. They actually got worse. I wondered if my theory was wrong. And, of course, I really wanted caffeine whenever my head started hurting. That craving told me perhaps I was still in withdrawal. So I persevered, for perhaps two months of total abstinence and complete misery, and then the headaches stopped. Just stopped. It was like magic.

The lesson here is that it takes a long time for your body to adjust to the lack of caffeine, so you’ve got to be patient.

Since then, I’ve allowed a little caffeine back in my life. It seems important for me to not take it in the morning, because that’s where the habit is most strong, but I will have green tea or iced tea or decaf in the afternoon sometimes, and I get away with it. However, it is a slippery slope. While traveling this Christmas I got cocky and started playing with fire–drinking the straight java–and I ended up with my first migraine in a long time. That just served to confirm my theory. Overall, I’d say my migraines have been reduced by 80 or 90 percent.

Everyone is different, and migraines are a complex phenomena. This may not work for you, but it has worked well for me, so I just had to put it out there. As much as I loved my coffee, it wasn’t worth the pain.

Help save our oaks

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Sometimes I hate this city. And county. Tonight I learned two things: the first, that the city thinks it would be a great idea to create a parking area for idling buses in the center of one of our most vibrant pedestrian zones; the second, that the county plans to allow the Dept. of Water and Power County Department of Public Works to level a gorgeous oak grove this Wednesday, Jan. 12th to make a dumping area for flood debris. The first is just silly, the second is tragic. We’ve destroyed so much of our native landscape that what remains is incredibly valuable and irreplaceable. The thought of leveling 100 year old oaks for such a wasteful, temporary use makes me want to cry.

If you’d like to help, consider the following:

–It’s late notice, but there’s a protest tomorrow: 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, January 11th at 500 West Temple in Los Angeles. 

–Sign a petition

–Send a message to 5th District Supervisor Michael Antonovich, and while you’re at it drop a note to the whole LA County Board of Supervisors.

–Get updates on this situation from our friends at LA Creek Freak or in Facebook.

Thanks for your help.

The Great Cellphone Debate

The one that worked–with bail bond ad!

Kelly and I share a cellphone, and I’m always trying to think of ways to ditch it, if just to have one less bill every month. I often deliberately leave it at home when out of the house. I hate being interrupted by it and I dislike the social awkwardness of public phone conversations. Not that many people call our cellphone anyways as we don’t give out the phone number much. When I need to text someone (them young folks!) I use my laptop and Google Voice.

Yesterday, on a bike errand sans cellphone, I found myself in a situation where I needed to call home to get some information. Five payphones later, I finally found one that worked. Payphones have been in decline for years, of course, with the advent of cellphone service. Kind of a shame since I wonder if cellphone networks will work in an emergency. And what about people too poor to afford a cellphone?

Now, I don’t want this to turn into a anti-technology rant. I recognize that many people have to carry cellphones because of job and/or family obligations. And they certainly are convenient when it comes to things like finding someone at an airport, not to mention all the features of those smart phones (our phone ain’t “smart,” so others must think of me as crazy when I’m surprised at what you can do with one of those iPhone thingies).

But I wonder if we need a time out to consider the unintended consequences of cellphones. Are cellphones creating a generation of less independent children, always tethered to parents and civilization? Is all that RF radiation good for us? Then there’s the Miss Manners questions: all that texting at the dinner table, at parties, at school, in houses of worship.

At the same time I’m intrigued with developing some of the how-to content of this blog into a phone-friendly format. It’s not like cellphones are going to go away. Maybe it’s better to work with the technology.

Leave some comments! How do you all negotiate cellphone usage with a non-consumerist lifestyle? What positive things come from cellphones? If you’re cellphone free, why and how do you manage?

New Year’s Resolutions

It’s a week for formulating New Years resolutions and I have two that stem from reading Ferran Adrià’s A Day at elBulli. Adrià is one of the main proponents of “molecular gastronomy” (though he rejects the term) a style of cooking that involves not just unusual ingredients, but the creation of entirely new forms of cooking. Think dry ice, freeze drying and culinary thoughtstylings such as “Spherification.” But back to my two resolutions which are:

1. Read, listen to and experience more divergent opinions. I checked out A Day at El Bulli from the library expecting to hate it. I’m all about quality ingredients (preferably homegrown) prepared in simple, traditional ways and will never attempt any of the ridiculous recipes included in this big picture book. That being said, I came away from thumbing through the book with an admiration for Adrià’s creativity even if I agree with Mrs. Homegrown description of the entrees looking like “dog vomit.”* It’s all too easy in the age of Google to succumb to “confirmation bias,” the errors that come with finding only what you’re looking for. While I wouldn’t buy a copy of A day at El Bulli, I’m glad a librarian chose it for the library and I’m happy I took the time to consider Adrià’s point of view even if I disagree.

2. Speaking of Adrià’s creativity–he spends half the year developing new methods in Barcelona and the other half the year working at the remote El Bulli. Making the time for creative thinking is essential, I believe. Even after co-writing two how-to books I find myself spending too much time answering emails and not enough time growing, tinkering and building things. Adrià has it right: if you don’t make that time for creativity it will fill up with unproductive duties. Of course Adrià has someone else to sort through the 2 million (no exaggeration) annual reservation requests.

* A clarifying note frome Mrs. Homegrown: I used the term dog vomit specifically in relation to their signature dishes based on flavor-infused foam. Many of their dishes are strikingly beautiful, art without doubt. But speaking as a dog owner, if you present me with a plate of chunks of food swimming in yellow foam, my mind is going one place and one place only. And when the foam is white instead of yellow, I’m thinking about spittle bugs, or pond life, or stinky beach foam. But you know…whatever turns your crank.

And speaking of those 2 million reservations, Mrs. Homegrown and I are taking a few days off to catch up with things–we’ll be back soon.