yup… gophers

June 6th, 2010

Lost 2 squash plants to gophers a couple days ago.  They dug up to the plant and ate it. Entirely.  Not a trace left.

Garden … moister than usual

May 25th, 2010

The garden is coming along. But it’s raining today! This is, by all local accounts, a very late spring.  That we’re getting rains this late in the spring is very unusual.  Anyway…

Here’s where things were on May 9:

Freshly tilled soil

It had just been tilled with the tractor.  Nice puffy dirt! All the weeds chewed up.  I moved a few wheelbarrows full of dirt around to try to level it out a bit; so water wouldn’t gather too much.  Then it was setting out the drip lines from last year’s garden by mostly just laying them out.  We’ll plant things where the drip points are.  Much easier than trying to reconfigure the lines!  Then setup fences for the tomatoes and the beans/peas.  Sorta looked like this:

Drip lines and tomato fences

Great to walk around in all that soft soil.  It’ll get packed down in time.  A couple yards of composted chicken manure (under the grey tarp) have been tilled in, as well as having a pile of it to add in with the plants when they’re set out.

In the meantime, seedlings are started. Corn, peas, squash (kuri, kabocha, pumpkin, pattypan).  Starter plants from stores are planted; tomatoes: red cherry, orange cherry, yellow pear, asian blacks; eggplants, cucumbers, and a couple winter squash from a local charity sale. The strawberry box is made and setup and filled with creek dirt mixed with compost.  It now has strawberries (two kinds from a nursery in Tomales), sweet onions, carrots and two kinds of beets planted.

I want to get some bales of straw and spread it around thickly for weed-control mulching.  Some cardboard from Costco stocking shelves to help control weeds, too.

There’s a new automatic drip control installed with 5 valves.  So far, no need to program it – what with the rain continuing. But it’ll be needed when summer finally gets going.  I hope this doesn’t mean that fall will arrive early!

It’s going to be a great garden!

Martin Gardner

May 23rd, 2010

One of my heroes in my days as a math major in college was Martin Gardner.  I was reading his column in Scientific American when I was in high school.  I read the column where he introduced John Conway’s cellular automata game of “Life“.  I have had a copy of his “Annotated Alice” for years.

Just heard that he died May 22, 2010 at the age of 95.

The bale-raising

May 22nd, 2010

It was a great day. Overcast in the morning, but clear and sunny by 10:30 or so.  The hosts provided breakfast and lunch (catered mostly; some potluck action, too.).

Got there around 9:00 and saw the framed buildings and 3 large stacks of bales of hay.  Rice hay it was.  People were gathering.  Things got rolling around 9:30. They showed how most of the spaces to be filled were approximately bale-sized. But between the building not being designed so that doors and windows were placed with consideration for bale-size; and that bales vary in length from 40-50 inches, it becomes necessary to cut the bales into the needed sizes.  Turns out there was a lot of bale-cutting.  They had 3 sets of tools and 3 cutting stations setup.

Since bales come very tightly tied with baling twine – and you want to keep as much of that tightly packed feature as possible – you don’t cut bales to size by just cutting them open and making new bales out of loose straw.  So the bale cutting is done by sticking 3 bale “needles” (as in sewing needles – but these are 1/2 inch round iron bars with sharp arrow-head-like points welded onto them) through the bale at the measured size. The heads of the needles have 2 holes in them and you feed new twine into the 2 holes (for each of the 3 needles) and then pull the needles back out, drawing the new twines back through the bale.  For each needle, there are now 2 threads of twine pulled through the bale.  One thread is tied around one end of the bale and the other thread is tied around the other end of the bale. As tight as you can by hand with gloves on. Do this for all 3 needles gives you 2 parts of the bale, each tied with 3 strings of twine.  You then cut the original twine holding the entire bale and then pull the bale apart into the 2 separately tied pieces. You loose a little of the tight packing, but not much.  Sometimes, the size you’re cutting to won’t leave much to really cut the bale into 2 pieces, so you only cut it into 1 piece and let the rest of the bale “flake” off.  This “flake” is used to pack into small spaces where bales aren’t fitting tightly.

I was part of the bale-cutting crews the entire day. My arm is too sore to be hauling bales up to walls (and up ladders) and using sledgehammers to pound them into place.  It was fun. About 40 people showed up. Each bale-cutting crew is 3-4 people. The bale-stuffers would measure the sizes of the spaces and then come back to one of the bale-cutting stations and write down, in big sharpie pen, the size bale they needed. It was common that a bale-cutting crew had a list of bale size orders written on their bench. You tried to work out the cutting so that you could find a raw bale of a size that would cut into 2 “orders”.  Not always possible, but you tried if you could.  Since the bale-whackers could order bales a lot faster than bale-cutters could cut them, it was often the case that by the time you got your bale cut and called out “order up” with the size you’d just made, that it might be a while before the bale-stuffers remembered what that size was for and where it was supposed to go.

We all broke for lunch around 1:00.  More work after lunch. Things faded out around 3:00-ish.  There were places where bales had to be fit around plumbing/wiring in the walls and that took more custom work than volunteers should be used for.  I hear there was another crew (paid?) coming the next day to do the custom/finish work with the bales – tight corners, triangle shaped areas (under roof edges), around the plumbing/wiring, etc.


(yes, I know the photos don’t fit in the margins of the blog layout)
Here are stacks of fresh-off-the-truck bales in front of the framed master bedroom (the house is 3 separate structures facing a courtyard).

An empty frame and a stack of bales

Here we are pulling the bale needles out after stringing them. The twines have to be kept straight so they don’t cross in the middle of the cut. Otherwise the bale can’t be pulled apart with crossed twines.

Pulling the bale-needles out after they've been threaded.

The bale needles. While this set had 3 holes per head, we only used 2 of the holes per needle. It could be an effort to force the needles through the bale. Sometimes you had to use a sledgehammer on the needles to pound them through the bale.

A workbench, 3 bale needles, water, twine.

The finished project. Exterior walls with bales stuffed in. Now you can see where the windows are. The walls will be finished by nailing up “chicken-wire” over the exterior and interior surfaces and adobe/plaster applied. Probably a plastic sheet, too, to keep the moisture out of the bales.

Bales in the walls

Community effort? Sure! Free labor? You bet! (well, they did supply food and drink). It was fun and satisfying work. Will I see these people again? Some, now and then, maybe. We all got along just fine and figured out who could do which tasks well.

One last photo.  The floor of the master bedroom will be stained concrete. As the concrete was poured, she showed up and pressed oak leaves into the wet cement.  They were brushed out when the concrete was done.  She hopes the stain will look interesting in the embossed oak leaves. Several of them all over the master bedroom floor (nowhere else in the house). The floors throughout the place are radiant solar heated hot water embedded in the concrete.

Oak leaf on concrete floor

25% wireless-only !

May 14th, 2010

Yup.  Here it is. 25% of U.S. households – households, not individuals – have no landline phone.   Related story also on NYTimes Technology pages – cellphones used for data processing more than for making phonecalls!

A “Bale-Raising”

May 7th, 2010

I’ve been included on an invitation to a “bale raising”.   Next Saturday (May 15).  I’m going!

The purpose of a straw-bale raising is to shape and place the bales of straw (which are far more energy-efficient than conventional framing) into the framework of the house. We’d really appreciate having your help! (or just your company and moral support)

Work will begin at 9am, and continue for 6-7 hours — please come for any or all of it. If you’re going to be there, please let us know approximately when you think you’ll arrive.  We’d really appreciate it if morning participants could be there by 9:00 if possible, as we’d like to begin with a brief training by the architects (who are among the founders of the California Straw Builders Assocation) and then get right to work.

Cool, huh! I’m going!

The “Business Model” of doing things…. feh!

May 7th, 2010

Yet another piece at the NYTimes about education and NCLB. (Or, as I’ve heard some teacher-friends call it: NTLS – No Teacher Left Standing). Apparently, a book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education”, by Diane Ravitch, is arguing that the latest fashion in high productivity education of children – namely that the “business model” for running schools is best – is not the best. (Amazon store page – and available on Kindle!) The gist of the article/book is, “… the obsession with tests and test results … is antithetical to the spirit and purpose of education.”  No disagreement here.

Another snippet in Richard Bernstein’s column that I suspect is exactly right on:

Ms. Ravitch shows that claims of improving scores on state tests have actually been produced mainly by ever-lower test score requirements, so low in one instance that many students could get to an acceptable level by random guessing.

This sounds like the predictable results of “the business model”.

Which brings me to my point – the “business model” for running anything, like say, a business, produces the soul-sucking corporatism that washes over the land of the career-pathed middle class in this country. Yes, the line of sight from students taught in business-run schools reaches directly to the Blankfein’s of this world and the Goldman Sachs debacle.  Bring ’em on – more adults trained (er, educated) to read and write contracts and construct “product” out of mathematics.  Who then shrug when asked in incredulous tones, “what did you think you were doing?!”

There was an opinion piece by Tom Friedman (also of NYTimes) a long while back, that touched on the subject of global corporatism. My rant there was about the lack of any perceived distinction between a company paying taxes to a government and a company paying bribes to what ever local political lackeys so they can “do business”.

Lose something at Disneyland?

May 4th, 2010

Just for fun…

LA Times article about what’s found in the bottom of the fake ponds at Disneyland when they drain them for maintenance.

Interesting claim: the water was originally stocked with actual live fish!  Of course, now no fish could live in it. Which highlights the next factoid: they didn’t drain the water to “the ocean”. I presume they mean they didn’t drain it to local storm sewer, Disneyland isn’t that close to the ocean.


April 29th, 2010

The biology club on campus is having their annual (or maybe bi-annual) plant sale.  I’ve purchased stuff from them before.  They get their wares from nurseries in the area that donate their less-than-pristine goods to the club.  The stuff is in fine shape – it’s just a little … disheveled, say.  This year, they got some stock from California Carnivores. And the Drosera multifida at the bio club’s table looked really interesting.  So I got it.  It had already acquired a good set of tiny bugs on its branches and was curling up to digest them.  They also had chives, zucchinis, various cacti, herbs, etc.

Note: the California Carnivores growing tips states right at the top of the page that these critters will not put up with tap water.  Rain water, distilled water, reverse-osmosis water are OK, but anything with dissolved crap (ok, ‘salts’ is what they say) in it will doom your bug-eating plant.

I’m going to see if I can get them to catch the little flying bugs around my apartment.  The giant begonia is blooming with the coming spring, but it’s pot is home to a nest of little flying things.  (The spiders are eating well, too.) One of the bio students at the table suggested that if I insist on keeping the plant indoors, that I may have to purchase flightless fruit flies to feed it!

Weekend plans

April 29th, 2010

We may try the Petaluma Film Festival for this Saturday’s festivities.  Here’s the event’s home page. Dinner somewhere interesting in Petaluma and then catch the 7:30 program of shorts.

Briefly considered alternative: The Beaches of Agnes at the Sonoma Film Institute. It’s a French thing (as you’ll quickly notice), but for a moment there I thought they were making a sort of pun on ‘beaches’ / ‘bitches’ and that it might apply to the movie.  But I suspect I’m totally making this up on my own.