Root Simple is 10 Years Old

The original Survive LA logo.

The original Survive LA logo.

Today, July 13th, is the tenth anniversary of our blog. In that time we’ve published 2,731 posts (and have abandoned drafts of 700 more!), numbers which are surprising even to us. Turns out that adage about a journey of a thousand miles starting with a single step is true.

We’d planned to do more to celebrate this milestone, but I’d be lying if I said this was a good week, or that I am in a celebratory mood. My elderly mom is not doing well and our lives are focused on caring for her. As a result, Kelly and I may not be doing much blogging in the next few weeks.

But I don’t want to let this anniversary pass without saying something. Writing this blog has been a tremendously positive experience. The subject matter we cover, a somewhat scattershot collection of the home arts and random opinions, somehow attracts very kind and talented readers, and it is your enthusiasm that makes us keep writing. We’ve been able to meet many of you in person and I hope to meet more of you someday.

A Short History of Root Simple
On the afternoon of July 13th 2006 I had a flash of inspiration. I realized that my disparate DIY interests could be gathered together into a blog. I felt like I had discovered a kind of unified field theory of home economics. That day I began the Survive LA blog that was later became Root Simple.

It took awhile to find our voice. Survive LA had a jokey, tongue-in-cheek prepper vibe. Some of my early posts make me cringe today. Coincidentally, I just found on my hard drive an incredibly embarrassing, downright offensive mission statement dating from the first few months of the blog that I wisely decided not to publish. Ultimately, I found it more productive to take our subject matter seriously and dispense with the posturing. It just takes a while to find your voice. Thankfully Kelly started contributing to the blog, and she’s a far better writer than I.

I should note that this blog had one false start: a blog about our parkway vegetable garden. That 2005 blog went to two posts before becoming an internet ghost site that I’ve lost the password to access and can’t delete it. The parkway itself is, ironically, still a work in progress. Our podcast, now in its 89th episode as of this week, also had two false starts but is going strong.

Much ink could be spilled on the influence on bloggers like us of events such as 9/11, Katrina, Y2K, climate change and the 2008 economic meltdown on this blog and others like it, but that will have to wait for another post or even a book.

Another blog post could be written on how Facebook has siphoned off readers from our blog and others like it. Hopefully we’ll all figure out a way to make the interwebs non-hierarchical again and send the Silicon Valley robber barons packing.

How the Books Happened
When this blog was young, Kelly and I went to a party at the house of the Jodie Willie and Adam Parfrey, independent and creative LA-based publishers. They read the blog after the party and commissioned a book from us, because we were covering territory which they wanted to include as part of their Process Media Self Reliance series. Unlike most publishers, Jodie and Adam are risk takers. We owe them a big debt of gratitude for taking a chance on two first time authors. The book that they commissioned, The Urban Homestead, published in 2008, went through many printings and is still selling copies.

After the success of the first book we got a lot of offers to write a sequel (or just another version of the same book for bigger publishers!). We ended up writing a how-to book for Rodale called Making It.

Thank You!
Root Simple is a group effort and there are many people to thank: our web designer Roman Jaster and our logo designer Eric Thomason. Caroline Clerc did the cute cartoons that adorn our masthead. And we thank our publishers Process Media and Rodale. We’ve also met many fine journalists after the book came out, such as Michael Tortorello who wrote a nice piece about us for the New York Times and Johnny Sanphillippo kindly made a video about us that went viral.

Most of all we thank you our dear readers for your support over the past ten years.

A note from Kelly:

Erik has said it all well, but I just wanted to add my thanks to his. Thank you, all of you, for your gracious and continual input, support and love. Somehow we’ve been blessed with an incredible community of readers and commenters, and we are so grateful for you all.










Restoring the Original Black Box: Our Western Electric 534A Subset


Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa invented a word, “Thomasson,” for a “useless and defunct object attached to someone’s property and aesthetically maintained.” The term is named, somewhat unfairly, after baseball player Gary Thomasson, who spent the last two seasons of his career in Japan nearly tying the league strikeout record despite being the most highly paid player in the country at the time.

When we bought our house in 1998 it contained one genuine Thomasson in a dark corner of the hallway: a phone ringer box. Somehow, over the years, the previous residents never bothered to remove the box but did feel the need to touch up the metal with a not so good black paint job.

The box in question is a Western Electric 534A ringer box. Candlestick phones in the 1920s did not have enough internal space to squeeze in a ringer so the bells were mounted in a separate box in a central location in the house. This particular ringer box was manufactured between the years 1918 and 1930 and replaced earlier wooden models. Phone expert Ralph O. Meyer speculates that the Western Electric 534 ringer box may be where we get the term “black box” from (flight recorders are bright orange, not black). Ringer boxes and the phones that went with them were also one of the first consumer electronic devices.

There’s a handsome variation on this box. Add a dial, transmitter and receiver to the 534A and you’ve got a wall or “hotel” phone:

Image: Kenton's Antiques.

Image: Kenton’s Antiques.

Ever since we moved in to our house, I’ve wanted to “un-Thomasson” our Western Electric 534A and make the bells ring again. In an earlier attempt at repair I, unfortunately, lost a few of the parts. But thankfully, after some library and internet research I figured out what was missing and got the box ringing again. For the one or two phone geeks in our audience, I replaced the missing capacitor with a new 1uF mylar/film capacitor in series. The capacitor prevents the phone line from going off-hook while allowing the ring signal to go through. I also had to replace a spring and adjust the spacing between the bells. Since these boxes were owned by the phone company, solidly built and meant to be fixed (unlike the cheap crap we buy these days) all of the adjustments to the ringer were relatively easy to make.

For your listening pleasure I posted a video of the interior of our ringer box in action. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it sounded like when the phone rang in 1920s:

And, yes, I will be making this available as a ringtone in about a week. Though, I’ll note, you probably won’t be able to fix your iPhone 96 years in the future.

Does your old house still have a ringer box?

The Degrowth Paradigm

Jim Merkel's garden, "poop palace" and power station. Photo: CBC.

Jim Merkel’s garden, “poop palace” and power station. Photo: CBC.

Now in its 50th year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Ideas show, hosted by Paul Kennedy, tackles controversial topics thoughtfully and in-depth. On the latest episode, a rebroadcast from 2013, Ideas looks at a topic NPR wouldn’t touch with a 100-foot pole:”degrowth.”

As engineer and degrowth advocate Bob Thomson puts it,

Growth has become an element of faith. It’s so deeply ingrained into our cultural narratives. Growth is something that is seen as necessary, where in actual fact, we could probably be a lot happier with less consumption.

The show begins with an interview with Jim Merkel, author of Radical Simplicity, Small Footprints on a Finite Earth and concludes with a visit to the radical degrowth activists of Catalan, Spain.

To those of you who haven’t jumped on the podcast bandwagon yet, I’d suggest Ideas as a start.

The episode I’m talking about, “The Degrowth Paradigm,” can be found here.




Science, Blogging and Peaches


Allow me the privilege of taking myself to task. Last week I proudly proclaimed that I had solved the squirrel problem once and for all by covering our peach tree in bird netting. A week later I’m not so sure of my pronouncement.

The simple problem is that there’s no scientific control in my little backyard study. On Friday, Kelly and I took the netting off the tree and picked most of the peaches. Guess what? The peaches we left on the tree are still there. At least for now, the neighborhood squirrels are eating something else.

Now let me dream for a moment. Imagine if Elon Musk would stop his silly attempt to put people on Mars and would, instead, fund research into more down to earth subject matter: how best to grow tomatoes in a backyard? Does tap water kill sourdough culture? Does hugelkultur work? These are, of course, the sorts of subjects our underfunded Extension Services could look at if they had more resources. Right now they have to concentrate on commercial agriculture with backyard horticulture taking a distant second.

Until Musk has that low-tech road to Damascus experience, we may have to crowd-source some answers ourselves. While still anecdotal, I really appreciate your comments on my posts. It may not be scientific but it’s a start. And, of course, it’s always good to remember that great Socratic lesson: that we don’t know and may never know the answer to a question especially when it involves something as complex as life. In short, we may never outsmart the squirrel.

But I think we could do a better job leveraging our experiences using the power of the internet. While I don’t have the educational background or temperament for this, let me put this idea out there: how about putting together crowd-sourced experiments and observation into backyard food production? It seems like some great apps could be developed to do this.

What do you think? What are the first questions you’d like answered?

Harry Partch: Woodworker and Composer


Back in the 1990s, in a cramped out of the way basement deep in the bowels of San Diego State University, I got to hear a pure, mathematically perfect musical interval for the first time. The sound came from a pump organ, modified by musical heretic Harry Partch. The organ was under the care of Danlee Mitchell, who kept Partch’s idiosyncratic legacy alive after Partch died in 1974. Once you hear just intonation you can’t un-hear the compromise that is modern “equal” tempered tuning (for an in depth explanation of the difference between just and equal temperament, this documentary explains it all). Let’s just say that hearing that “perfect” perfect fifth, was one of those moments that caused me to question everything I thought I knew about music.

But Partch pushed beyond just tuning. Why do we have only 12 notes in a scale? Why not 43? Here’s Partch explaining and demonstrating his 43 tone scale:

Since you can’t go down to your local music shop and buy 43 tone musical instruments, Partch had to get crafty. He described himself as “a philosophic music-man seduced into carpentry.” And, over the years, he built many beautiful musical instruments:

The Quadrangularis Reversum.

The Quadrangularis Reversum.


Gourd Tree and Gongs

Partch was a master of up-cycling, making use of military and industrial surplus. Below, his “cloud chamber bowls” made from the tops and bottoms of 12-gallon Pyrex carboys found in a UC Berkeley radiation lab.

Cloud chamber bowls.

Cloud chamber bowls.

Here’s Partch talking about the cloud chamber bowls and playing them:

You can see all of Partch’s instruments here.

Partch’s music can be jarring at first. Then it grows on you. I think my favorite Partch composition is Daphne of the Dunes. It sounds like an artifact of an ancient culture that never (but should have) existed:

Partch pushed the cultural envelope so far that he’s often labeled (I think, disrespectfully) as an “outsider”. We should instead see him, both as carpenter and composer, as a visionary.

So to the person who suggested we do a music post, this one’s for you!