Archive for February, 2008

more thoughts on reducing impact

February 26, 2008

My post from a few days back on reducing discretionary travel started an interesting conversation among some friends in the cleantech engineering community. I basically asked why people generally don’t take significant steps to reduce their GHG impact, and I singled out discretionary long-distance travel as a particularly obvious example of the phenomenon. Brandon replied with a couple of interesting thoughts. First, that we take our cues as to what constitutes reasonable behavior from our social group, and don’t even consciously consider alternatives that don’t correspond. He lives in the city, and puzzles over the quantities of trash that are thrown in his yard (or, “doaahyaahd,” as we would say back in Maine) :

Mysteriously, of the thousands of hours I have spent walking around neighborhoods with other people, I have never– seriously, never– seen one of my friends throw trash in anyone’s yard, and I have never done so myself. I suspect that I live in a culture where littering is unacceptable, but I live in a city where a decent fraction of the population lives in a culture where littering is normal. It’s not that I think about throwing trash on the street every day but decide not to– I don’t even think of it.



Pedal-powered everything

February 24, 2008

I spent some time today thinking about next year’s cider-making hardware. Last year’s pedal-powered cider mill (year 3) was a revelation – we found that with a simple, well-designed pedal mill we could grind apples much faster than the previous year, when we used a 3/4hp garbage disposal with supplementary forced-air cooling. The only shortcoming was that the limited precision of fabrication made it difficult to grind the apples quite as fine as the disposal did; this cost us about 5-10% juice yield. This isn’t the end of the world; the pomace makes good compost, and if we had a hog it would put to better use, but it would be nice to have a human-powered cider mill that was in every way superior to the electric version. (more…)


February 22, 2008

I really like the bread I described in the previous post.  The recipe comes from my grandmother (I’ve modified it a bit), and I posted it last winter here.  Since then I’ve taken to adding about 1/2C of steel-cut barley and goosing the boiling water by 1/2C.  The barley gives it an interesting texture.  Alexis gave me two more unglazed stoneware baking pans for christmas, which help make the crust nice.

Bottling Blueberry Apple Cider

February 22, 2008

This evening I bottled about 4 gallons of blueberry apple cider that I kegged last week.  I didn’t carbonate it, so I put it in wine bottles with synthetic corks (like most of my supplies, my bottles come from the Modern Brewer in Cambridge).  This was a highly experimental brew produced by adding a gallon of Trader Joe’s 100% blueberry juice to about 3.5 gallons of a late cider apple blend produced by Steve Wood and company at Poverty Lane/Farnum Hill up the road, fermented as usual with Red Star Pasteur champagne yeast.  Steve won’t hear of blending other fruit into cider “There’s not room in your liver for that stuff!” but I think it came out pretty well, pleasantly tart with a nice sprightly blueberry zing. and the deep red color of beet juice.  I’ve also got a keg full of straight cider from the same batch, and a funny thing happened – while the blueberry stuff came out quite dry, the straight cider that was pitched from the same starter and fermented side-by-side with the blueberry stuff finished out noticeably sweet, with a few points of sugar left in it – it’s the first time I’ve had a batch that stopped short of complete dryness.  Three years in to our cidering project I’ve developed a taste for the dry cider that’s our customary product, but it’s nice to have some sweet stuff for a change and I suspect it will prove popular among the less dedicated cider enthusiasts in our crowd.  Since the same cider with blueberry in it went much drier, I can only guess that the cider was short of some nutrient vital to the fermentation process.  Anyway, an interesting comparison.  My mom knows people who operate blueberry barrens Down East, so next year I might try pressing wild blueberries for more intense blueberry flavor.

As it happened I also baked a batch of multigrain bread while bottling, and I can report that little could be more satisfying on a snowy evening than sitting in a rocking chair by the wood stove with warm fresh-baked bread, Vermont butter,  a glass of homemade cider, and a laptop, blogging the evening away…

Here’s the bread and cider:


And here’s to give an idea of the color of the cider – the camera hasn’t got it quite right – it looks a bit more purple than this- but this is close:


On actually changing our behavior

February 17, 2008

My uncle, who is pretty well up on the state of the world, recently concluded an email by suggesting that Alexis and I “truck over to Burning Man” in the California desert this year. That reminded me of how a bunch of people from GreenMountain Engineering (a renewable energy design consulting company I used to work for) freighted up trailers full of quirky stuff and motored out into the desert to participate in the annual orgy/conflagration last year. Now, I don’t at all want to single out Burning Man revelers; I’ve never been, but a number of people I like go regularly. But it got me thinking about how even the people who know and care about global warming and oil supply issues nonetheless persist in jetting all around the country on discretionary trips. We are certainly guilty ourselves, having recently made a 5 day trip out to California by airplane to spend Christmas with some good friends. Air travel is an especially obvious target, since its GHG impact is at least 2x greater than ground transport on a per-fuel-consumed basis, and many trips are far from necessary strictly speaking, in the sense that going to the grocery store or driving to work are.

So, why is it that even people who care about this stuff don’t actually make relatively simple choices that could significantly reduce their impact? When am I going to start hearing people (New Englanders) say, “we were going to fly to the Caribbean this winter but because of global warming we went cross-country skiing over in Vermont instead”? When will folks start spending their holidays with nearby friends and extended family rather than going home halfway across the country? (more…)

Cabin Fever

February 17, 2008

As we burned brush under bright sun on Groundhog Day, we joked about the six more weeks of winter that the apocryphal varmint was presumably foretelling.  It doesn’t seem nearly so funny now, with low temps around 0 F, heaps of snow along the sides of the house threatening to merge with icicles from the eaves, and spring still a month away.  I’ve striven to keep the driveway shoveled all winter, but the piles are now taller than the mailbox, and an inch of sleet followed by a saturating rain, and 6 inches of snow finally defeated me.  Every scoop was like lead, and it stuck to the shovel and had to be whacked against something hard to release its slushy load.  Of course, the only thing hard that’s available is the piece of ground you just cleared…

I finally gave up and waited for a hard freeze, then scooped the snow off the surface easily enough, leaving about an inch of nasty gray ice that will remain till the first real thaw.  I do like seasons, but in honesty I must admit that I’ve had about enough of this one.  Fortunately, we have evolved our compensations.  Seed catalogs arrive and provide a nearly pornographic escape from the raw gray nast outside –  the way time flies, it will be pea planting season before we know it.  There’s still three carboys of cider left to bottle from fall, and the big news is that I ordered some more trees!  The newcomers will be:

  • Ashmead’s Kernel – all around heirloom rockstar for cider, eating, etc
  • Newtown Pippin – the closest I’ve found to our beloved old wild green apple tree in the back yard, recently died
  • Roxbury Russet – the only tree I’ve ordered a second of; great for eating or cider with high sugar
  • Wickson Apple – tiny, tart, sweet, beautiful – somewhere between a cherry and a plum in size.  I held off buying one since they are likely to be such a pain to pick, but it finally won me over
  • Medaille d’Or – French bittersweet, to round out the cider apple collection
  • Reliance (Peach) – the classic north country peach, tried to get one last year but Fedco was out

A renewable energy engineer tries to make sense of economics

February 10, 2008

With all the talk of recession in the mainstream press these days, I have been attempting with very limited success to concoct a defensible narrative on how economies work from an engineering perspective. In part this is motivated by what seems to be a reflexive sense on the part of many in the left/environmentalist/social justice set that something about the economy is fundamentally unsustainable in an acute way; that “it’s all bound to come crashing down, any day now”; that consumption of fossil fuel along with widespread affronts to social justice and ecological vitality are bound to bring Business as Usual to a screeching halt, and (some will admit) “the sooner the better”. I recall even hearing a few people who’ve never taken a thermo class claim that the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates that the profligacy of the modern age will soon be a distant memory. All of this accompanied at times by a sort of gleeful anticipation, to the effect that “the greedy bastards will finally get what’s coming to them; pretty soon they’ll be scratching gravel just like the poor folks”.

Now, I will freely admit that I have a lot in common with the folks who promote this sort of thinking. I live in a small house heated mostly with wood, I drive an efficient car, and I grow organic vegetables where my front lawn used to be. I spend my days working for a renewable energy startup dedicated to producing cheap, efficient solar cells, and I am freaked out about global warming and petroleum scarcity. But, I’ve read enough evolutionary biology to understand that we aren’t going to reprogram our human nature in historical time, and I am painfully aware that when times get hard, it is the downtrodden who suffer first and most deeply. Besides, as an empiricist, I want to understand how things actually work, and I’d like to get a realistic sense for what’s actually going to happen, separate from what I wish would happen, or what might be imagined to happen were there a global spontaneous enlightenment that overthrew human instinct and the laws of physics.


Burn Baby Burn

February 3, 2008

Alexis finally had an unobstructed weekend off from her Medicine rotation, and a sleet/rainstorm made ground conditions ideal for burning brush, so we headed Down East for the weekend.  Saturday morning we made for the orchard with newspaper, kindling, matches, and a couple gallons of old oil.  My dad secured a burn permit from Rosemary Hentz, one of the leaders of the town fire department, and we got to work.  The procedure goes like this:  Hack a hole in the base of the pile on the upwind side with a chainsaw, crumple up a bunch of newspaper and heap an armload of kindling on top, then drizzle a pint or two of oil over the whole thing.  Then you touch off the newspaper and let the kindling get going hot.  The traditional technique for lighting a brush fire involved use of an old used tire, but in the interest of environmental responsibility I’ve given that up.

Especially if the brush is a bit green, you will need to feed sticks into the gap between the kindling and the brush above to keep a supply of fresh fuel linking the embryonic fire to the rest of the pile.  Eventually if it catches on in the larger pile it gets too hot to feed any more, and then you move on to light the next pile.  We burned 5 piles in all on Saturday – three in the orchard, one along the stone wall where the maples will go, and my grandfather’s annual burn pile in the middle south field.  Unless the wood is very dry, the fire will generally burn itself a hole and die down, and then you have to feed more brush from the edges of the pile to heat it up again and convince it to eat further into the pile.  Or, you can go the modern route – my dad brought over the little Bobcat excavator, and pushed the piles in on themselves, yielding a very satisfying conflagration.  It’s also tempting to do more cutting while the fire is burning and the machine is handy, so we did a bit more thinning to the west of the orchard and took out some saplings to open up a new yard for fitting firewood on a piece of high ground to the north of the cabin.

This morning the piles were barely smoldering, and we didn’t get another permit, so rather than burning more we worked down the stone wall, improving the woods road and clearing more for the sugar maples.  We have a ridiculous amount of firewood at this point; it’s a shame it’s not worth more than it is; I paid $140 per cord for green fitted hardwood this summer, and under good conditions it would take me at least a day of hard labor to fell, buck, and split that much wood.  Back in the lean times of the early ’80s my dad made some money one winter by selective cutting a neighbor’s woodlot and selling maybe a hundred or so cords; perhaps as the cost of petroleum rises it will once again be worth the time to produce and sell firewood.  Meanwhile, we’ll try to keep ahead of the stuff we’re felling, so my grandfather burns it before it gets soft.