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Category — environment

Our inadvertent pumpkin patch

Although you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at it–in fact, you might be tempted to conclude the opposite–I really do want there to be a recognizable garden someday in what can only honestly be called our yard. I dream about growing flowers and vegetables, and a rain garden and maybe blueberries and an apple tree. But, for a variety of reasons, I haven’t done anything and can barely keep up with mowing and controlling the weeds.

But it turns out you can grow things using the lackadaisical approach, and in our case, it’s pumpkins.

pumpkin vine in back yard

This is how the pumpkin plant looked in September.

The truly amazing bit is that I didn’t ever plant any pumpkin seeds. The pumpkin vine grew out of a side vent in our compost bin, presumably from a pumpkin seed that germinated instead of decomposing while inside the bin.

pumpkin vine growing out of compost bin

Since I didn’t plant these, I don’t actually know which variety of pumpkin they are, but I presume they are the inedible jack-o-lantern type from Halloween 2008. As with everything else in the yard, I didn’t tend to these, so they didn’t grow nearly as large as a proper jack-0-lantern would. Indeed, the pumpkins feel solid, not hollow.

I “harvested” them recently, although too late to be a part of our Halloween decorations. But, for the record, here is our garden output 2009:

pumpkin harvest 2009

November 10, 2009   2 Comments

To re-use plastic baggies

I get a fair number of yuppie housewares catalogs in the mail. I browse through them–I actually do like the style of much of their merchandise–but rarely do I actually buy anything. The catalogs want to sell you on the idea that simply buying a decorative plate will transform your whole dining room into something as stylish as that put together for the catalog shoot, and I understand that it won’t.

Of all the yuppie housewares catalogs, NapaStyle is one of the yuppiest, to the point of almost being a laughable self-parody. But I’m writing here about something I bought from them (a NapaStyle exlcusive, even) that’s turned out to be quite a satisfying purchase: the Stemware & Plastic Baggie Dryer. I hate to throw away plastic Zip-Lock bags after just one use; far better to wash and re-use them. This device is a ring of eight wood rods that make excellent places to hang plastic baggies to dry.

Of course, one doesn’t need a drying rack to wash and re-use plastic baggies, but I wasn’t regularly doing so until I bought this drying rack. The drying rack works very well for its task. It’s also a very unassuming product: it does not need to have its own box: it was simply placed inside the shipping box. It was not enclosed in a plastic bag, it was not packed with custom-fit styrofoam. It was not tied to a piece of cardboard with twist-ties. It required no assembly. It came with no manual, no marketing survey disguised as a warranty card, and no safety warnings. It has no website. You can’t get on it’s email list for exciting product updates. It’s made almost entirely of wood. It was made in Canada. 

I wish more products were like that.

May 11, 2009   3 Comments

Bringing Streetcars back to DC, part 2

Part 1 of this series looked at the beginnings of the DC government’s effort to expand the transit network. We left off in the Spring of 2005, having been to several meetings and having received several newsletters.

The study finishes

The final project newsletter, Fall 2005, and an “Executive Summary” of the whole project were presented to the public at a final meeting, held September 29, 2005. For transit enthusiasts following the project, the end results were disappointing and frustrating. Instead of a visionary transformation of mobility in the District, the final recommendations proposed a meager streetcar buildout that, despite its modest size, would take 25 years to build. The report was frustrating because it relied on tortured reasoning that bordered on downright dishonesty, it used self-contradictory and mutually inconsistent reasoning, and offered little more than poorly-defined chimeras wrapped up in wishful thinking.

Added to the project was “Rapid Bus,” as a lower-class technology mode, joining streetcars and “bus rapid transit.” Modes were assigned to routes. The newsletter used separate streetcar and “bus rapid transit” assignments, while the executive summary lumped these together as “premium transit.” In the newsletter, streetcars got a handful of routes: the crosstown Georgtown to Minnesota Avenue route; the north-south Georgia Avenue route, which would end at K street; a Union Station to Anacostia via Eastern Market route; an M Street SE/SW route, and a short Bolling AFB–Pennsylvania Ave route. A bit of “bus rapid transit” was added: mainly Woodley Park to Eastern Market via Florida Avenue, while the rest of the 50-mile route structure developed over the course of the study was designated “rapid bus.”

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November 9, 2008   1 Comment

Bringing Streetcars back to DC, part 1


Bringing a 50-mile streetcar network to Washington DC is the top priority for the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club. I have been following this issue with the Sierra Club since 2002, and it was recently suggested to me that I write down a brief history of the effort, to provide context for those new to the subject. Current progress on the issue is blogged at

The DC Transit Improvements Alternatives Analysis gets underway.

The last time streetcars ran in DC was the early morning of January 28th, 1962, after which all lines were converted to buses. Such was the state of public transit in the District until March 27, 1976, when Metrorail opened. Metrorail, of course, has been a tremendous success, but it does not serve all areas of DC, and was designed primarily to move suburban commuters to their jobs in downtown DC.

The District government has, in principle, been planning to bring streetcars back to DC for some time now. My involvement began in September 2002, when I testified on behalf of the  at a joint oversight hearing of the DC City Council. A relatively small, two-year study had recently been completed (DC Transit Development Study), and then-DDOT director Dan Tangherlini, and then-DDOT Mass Transit Administrator Alex Eckmann went before the council (read their presentation) to ask that a more expansive study be funded. Plans to expand transit in the District stretch back further than that, and are generally said to have begun with the Barry-era DC Vision Study of 1997, itself 2 years in the making. And after more than ten years of talk and study, there are still no streetcars.

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October 29, 2008   2 Comments

Fall foliage

In Sacramento, where I grew up, we would have the occasional colorful tree in the fall, but there weren’t any really impressive displays of fall color, at least not that I remember. It wasn’t until I was away at grad school, in Ithaca, NY, that I was in an area that could have really impressive displays. I also learned that the peak of fall color really lasts two weeks or so: there must be a mad dash among professional photographers who want to use beautiful fall color as a backdrop. We have this image of the canonical fall day: crisp air, blue sky, reds and oranges and yellows in the trees, but in reality we only get a handful of these days, not a whole season.

There are, for the fall foliage seeker, plenty of online guides: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New YorkPennsylvania, and Virginia all have guides. The Foliage Network maps out reports from a network of 500 correspondents, and Yankee Foliage does the same for New England.1

There is a whole bunch of data out there, somewhere,2 which could probably answer the questions that came to my mind as I was thinking about fall foliage today:

  • How much variation is there, geographically and year-to-year, in the duration of the peak color period?
  • How fast does the peak color “front” move? Could you hike along with it?
  • What is the longest hike you could plan that would keep you in peak color the whole time? Could you stay in peak color along, say, the Appalachian Trail?
  • What sort of bike ride could you plan, to stay in peak fall color the whole time?
  • Although the timing of the arrival of fall color shifts around from year to year, does all of the Northeast experience the same shift? Could one use the arrival of peak color in northern Maine to predict the arrival of peak color in central Pennsylvania?

And of course the big question, will I see any fall foliage this year?

  1. Curiously, the current reports from these two networks seem to disagree with the current reports for the state tourism boards in Maine and New York, but this could be the result of different standards. []
  2. The Foliage Network actually has ten years or so of archived, weekly maps []

September 24, 2008   No Comments

A tree falls

As predicted, our heat wave was broken in dramatic fashion last night with the arrival of some intense thunderstorms. At about 7pm, a series of small-ish storms came in. We lost power for perhaps a minute–not long enough to fetch a flashlight–but our neighbors down the street didn’t fare quite so well.

A large street tree came down during the storm:

This tree came down in the storms of 10 Jun 2008

Fortunately, the tree fell in the street, not on a house.

Alternate view of fallen tree

The tree did take some electrical wires down with it, to the point of ripping a neighbor’s meter box from the side of the house. I suspect their power outage lasted longer than a minute:

A meter box ripped from a house after tree takes down power lines

June 11, 2008   1 Comment


To be fair, it did cool to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. But that was at 6 in the morning, at the very minimum of temperature, after a whole night of radiative cooling into the night sky and before the sun has had a chance to warm things up again. And with 84% humidity, there was no relief to be had stepping into air during this moment of relative cool. By the time I leave the house, just before 8, it’s already 80 degrees. By 11am, it has hit 90, a mark it won’t drop below until the sun sets. The weather’s been at this for a few days now, and with each successive afternoon bake, the overnight relief becomes more meager. 

To keep the house habitable–which has meant keeping the (upstairs) bedrooms at or below about 81 degrees, I have to keep the downstairs at about 76. Such is life when your house is under-insulated, and your central air system is grafted on to early 1940s ductwork that was put in place presuming the house would only be heated.

This evening brings a chance of thundershowers: if they’re big enough, we will get cooling, but if they’re too small, then all we get is an increase in humidity.

To do this summer: install ceiling fans, and upgrade the insulation.

June 10, 2008   No Comments

“We should” vs. “I will”

“We should”: one of the most counter-productive phrases in existence.

As a progressive, and with my student days behind me, I’ve come to feel that civic engagement shouldn’t be considered optional. I’ve looked to local organizations for involvement: while in DC, I’ve volunteered with three organizations, plus one political campaign,  and will probably work with others as my priorities nd responsibilities evolve. 

In every setting that involves a group of volunteers–or more generally, a group of people in which the individuals each decide how they will invest their time–the words “we should” are a sure path to inaction. What the words really mean is “I won’t but hope someone else will,” but without the candor to admit that the speaker, in fact, won’t do whatever it is he is suggesting. 

These words are usually spoken in meetings, gatherings that many people claim to disdain. The fact that nothing actually gets done during meetings compels some to ask if everyone shouldn’t really use their time to actually do something. Someone might suggest meetings every other month, instead of monthly.  If a project does require the input of more than one person, however, you need meetings. In the case of volunteer groups, in which everyone has a myriad of other obligations and interests, the truth is out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Nobody’s time is so carefully managed that he could take the time that would have been spent in a meeting and use it on a project: there are plenty of other things that rush in to fill the temporal void. One might read a few more threads on Daily Kos, or watch the television program that comes on after your favorite program, or skim through catalogs you get in the mail instead of sending them straight to the recycle bin. The way things get done in a volunteer organization is through mutual accountability: we agree to take on tasks, and follow through because we value the value of our word.

Meetings are necessary: the trap is to think that meetings are sufficient. I think that even the complainers like their volunteer meetings, perhaps secretly. For one, it’s a chance to hang out with like-minded people for a few hours. There is also a sort of perverse satisfaction from attending a meeting: you get to feel that you’ve accomplished something but you actually haven’t had to expend much effort. You’ve spent a few hours getting updates and making plans for next steps; you’ve thought about the issues at hand, so it seems like you’ve done your part. 

And truthfully, for many, that’s all they do, as the meeting is the only space they’ve made in their schedules for the issues at hand. Of course, we’re all so busy, and it’s tempting to just be thankful that they care enough to show up, but if everyone at the meeting is like this, nothing will get done. Some would do well to re-evaluate their own priorities–they do so much, they get nothing done.1

Calling out the “we should”s, and insisting on “I will”s is one tool with which to separate the do-ers from the rest. Perhaps meeting organizers should keep tallies of each phrase. Each time “we should” is uttered, put the utterer on the spot, and ask if he’s volunteering to do the task he suggests. Now, this is not to say that someone can’t have good–even inspiring–ideas that he can’t carry out himself,2 but in such cases he should simply say so.

A particularly pernicious form of “we should” are the obstructionist “we should”s–that when person A volunteers to take on some task, person B pipes up with an impractical pre-condition that “we should” do before beginning on person A’s task. More than just a waste of time, this could actually derail a real action. In physics, we are occasionally encouraged to “make mistakes as fast as possible.”3 That is, you won’t learn anything, and you won’t get anything done, without doing something. So do something. Say that you will do something, and do it, and if it turns out to be not quite the right thing, then you can do something else.

  1. One of Paul Sally’s graduate school advisors apparently told this to him, when in his early grad student days he wasn’t getting much mathematics done. []
  2. One idea I’ve had for the organizations I’ve worked with, but can’t do myself, is to create a coloring page based on your organization’s work, so that if you’re tabling an event, and a parent comes by with his or her child, you can let the child color the coloring page (supply crayons) while you talk to the parent about the organization. []
  3. A sentiment attributed to the late John Wheeler. []

June 5, 2008   No Comments

Hear the hoofbeats

One horseman of the apocalypse is global warming, another is peak oil, and the hoofbeats of each are now loud enough that we can’t really pretend we don’t hear anything. The story of global warming is fairly well known, thanks in large part to Al Gore. The story of peak oil, on the other hand, although gaining in prominence, is largely overlooked, even as crude oil pushes past $130/barrel and gasoline tops $4/gallon. Perhaps this is because Americans can imagine living in a world in which the global warming catastrophe has happened (hey, just turn the AC up!) but can’t imagine a world in which we can’t each consume more than a gallon a day of gasoline.

A succinct summary of the peak oil story has been (re-)posted at The Oil Drum, which is perhaps the leading site for oil news and peak oil discussion.

May 24, 2008   No Comments

50 simple things to save the Earth

Two interviews of note on the Sierra Club Radio episode from May 3: Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, discusses his recent book Supercapitalism, and John Javna, author of the original 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, talks about the newly updated version of the book.


The interview with Javna is refreshingly candid. The original book came about as environmental issues were making news in the early 1990s, and Javna saw a need to outline steps that individuals could take to make a difference. The book was intended, Javna says, to be an entry point to environmental activism. Although many–including Sierra Club radio host Orli Cotel–took it this way, a far more sinister thing also happened: corporate polluters were able to latch on to the idea of individuals taking action and transformed that into the idea that individual lifestyle changes were the only steps that needed to be taken. If there are 50 simple things you can do to save the Earth, then saving the Earth means doing the 50 simple things, and not, say, addressing mountaintop removal or clearcutting or pesticide runoff or any number of other issues for which the solutions are beyond the 50 simple things. The message was that our major environmental problems were the fault of individuals, or at least the fault of those individuals who hadn’t done the 50 simple things to save the Earth, and not the fault of the large corporate polluters.

As one might imagine, Javna was quite dismayed to see the rise of the notion, which he acknowledges he had unwittingly abetted, that doing the simple things outlined in his book was somehow equivalent to solving our most pressing environmental problems. He knew full well that many of the steps–for example snipping the rings of a six-pack holder–were largely gestures that were more about raising consciousness than solving problems. And so his cynicism took over; he stepped away from environmental activism, moved away, and focused on raising his family.

The spark for the new edition came when his daughter asked why they didn’t compost anymore1 and after a bit of introspection came to realize that individual actions were, in fact, a crucial part of environmentalism. But the task wasn’t to disseminate random eco-tips, but rather to foster a shift towards a culture of sustainability. Instead of tips, the new edition of the book is organized around 50 issues (beginning, regretfully, with electric cars), with a variety of actions for each issue. The hope is that readers will become more deeply involved with an issue, taking on progressively more involved actions. 

A brief look at the online table of contents reveals a disappointing stance on transportation and virtually nothing about urban form. Train travel makes it, but I can’t find much about walking or bicycling or density. Perhaps I’ll review the book here at some point.


What I thought the most intriguing about the Robert Reich interview was his point was that the environmental movement (and, one presumes, other issue-focused progressive causes) needs to see itself not as narrowly focused on environmental issues, but as part of a broader progressive movement that’s working to improve the quality of life for all people in the country and planet. I find a similarity between this and the argument that Markos Moulitsas (kos) of DailyKos makes: that for each arm of the big progressive tent to keep considering only their own issues, with blinders on for other progressive causes, is short-sighted and self-defeating.

Perhaps the best illustration of this came after the 2006 election, when Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope sung the praises of the new Democratically controlled Congress, for example that changes in committee leadership would allow many more pro-environmental bills to make to the Senate floor for votes. The ironic bit is that this change in leadership happened only because Sierra Club2 endorsed  Republican Lincoln Chafee lost; had he won, the Republicans would still control the Senate and the chair of the Committee on Public Works and Environment would be Republican James Inhofe instead of Democrat Barbara Boxer. Whatever Chafee’s votes on environmental issues were, he still implicitly voted for leadership that included Inhofe and a host of other anti-environmentalists. In an era when the distribution of support for strong environmental protection is not equal between the political parties, the leadership mindset that a candidate supports is at least as important as any particular vote. If the environment wins because Sierra Club endorsed candidates lose, then something’s wrong with the Sierra Club endorsement process. 

Now, kos is talking about elections and Democrats, Reich is talking about issues, but both are asking us to consider our actions and support more broadly–kos for an issue-lousy Democrat, Reich for issues outside the environmental canon. And if we believe the popular trope that everything is connected to everything else, then this makes sense, because we can build on the synergy that happens with congressional majorities and a broader coalitions. The era of narrow focus and litmus tests should be ended.

  1. This was an especially timely note for me, as I just bought a compost bin. []
  2. and League of Conservation Voters []

May 14, 2008   2 Comments