December 3, 2011

Unsubscribing the easier way

As usual, only after I did all the work the long way did I find the easy way.

Halfway through November’s stack of catalogs, which I promise was huge (six inches high at least, maybe eight), I got a response (from Patagonia, thank you) saying, “We use Catalog Choice, maybe you should submit a request through them.”

Sure enough, Catalog Choice was exactly what I needed. I could fill out an initial form with name and address (and specify “name variants” at the same address, so I can cancel catalogs being sent to A, H and A too) and then find each catalog in their system, fill in a customer number and key code from the mailing label (if they’re there) and click a button. They then take care of formatting and sending the appropriate email message or submitting the correct form. In some cases they forward you to a form on the company’s site, which is fine; basically what they’ve done is automate as much of the process as possible.

These are the companies I was able to submit requests for through Catalog Choice:

Then these companies I requested removal the long way:

  • Vermont Country Store by site “contact us” form; responded promptly and nicely.
  • Garnet Hill by site “contact us” form; responded promptly and nicely
  • Land’s End (Kids catalog) by site “contact us” form; responded promptly and nicely.
  • Young Explorers by site “contact us” form
  • One Step Ahead by email
  • Patagonia, as mentioned above, needed a few emails but was ultimately very helpful
  • Wine Country Gift Baskets by site “contact us” form; responded promptly and nicely. (I wonder how I wound up on that list.)
  • Giggle by email
  • Mile Marker Sports (my SportHill dealer) by site contact form
  • Ballard Designs by email
  • Eddie Bauer by email
  • Title Nine has a very good contact preferences form on their site
  • Prana via site “contact us” form
  • Home Decorators Collection has a “catalog unsubscription request” option on their contact form
  • Athleta by email
  • Sundance and Company Store have responded positively to my requests back in October, but they haven’t kicked in yet; remember, these things get queued up weeks in advance.
  • Cricket by email
  • B&H Photo has a form on their site; put in your catalog number and you’re off the list, poof!

All this represents a stack of glossy paper that weighs almost as much as one of the babies. That’s paper that has to be harvested from trees, processed, bleached, etc. etc. and then shipped across the country so I can dump it in our recycling bin. I hope Catalog Choice lives up to its promise so I can stem that flow a bit.

Posted by pjm at 8:09 PM | Comments (0)

October 31, 2011


Just as our email inboxes become choked with offers and “newsletters” from companies we once did business with, I’ve been reminded that there are still bunches of companies out there who do things the old-fashioned way and send us paper catalogs. I’ve been unsubscribing from the emails recently and decided it was time to do the same for the paper catalogs; it is, after all, catalog season.

Why bother? Ecology. We’re sufficiently busy that most of our catalogs go directly in the recycling bin, unopened. They’re not going to landfills, fine, but why waste the energy needed to make the paper, print it, and mail it long distances when we’re just going to drop it in a bin to be pulped? Better to reduce the stream.

(This is related to the philosophy Noah quoted a few months ago: “I used to put out fires all of the time. I finally figured out that it was better to get rid of the arsonists.”)

The spam legislation I’ve long derided has done one thing for us; email from legitimate companies tends to have a link somewhere at the bottom which makes it easy to remove yourself from the list, and it tends to work. Paper catalogs lack this convenience. I thought it might be worthwhile to document the hoops I’ve had to jump through in reducing the paper load to our mailbox.

Here’s the first batch of catalogs, and what I had to do. N.B. When I say, “requested removal,” that means I politely asked to have our address taken off the list, and provided the full mailing address on the catalog they’d mailed us, along with any codes which looked like they might help some hourly-wage service employee find our address and delete it. Everything was phrased as though I was asking them a favor, i.e. intended to make them feel good about helping me.

Also, every company makes the point that their mailings are often prepared months in advance, so getting our names off the lists might not mean an immediate cessation of paper. They are very apologetic about this so I have to assume it’s true.

If I used a web form to request removal, 99% of the time that means there was no indication on their site of how to get off the mailing list (although 100% of the time there is a link to request catalogs!)

  • Mini Boden: Requested removal via web form; got a robo-reply.
  • Company Kids: Requested removal via email (no form on site); no response yet.
  • Hanna Andersson: Requested removal via web form; got a polite, apparently non-automated response telling me it was done (with the usual caveats)
  • Tea: Requested removal via web form: no response yet.
  • MindWare: A FAQ on their website led me to request removal by email; at least they had that in the FAQ list! No response yet.
  • Sundance: Requested removal via web form; got a polite response but not done yet (this was early in the process and I didn’t provide enough information)
  • The Land Of Nod: This crew cracks me up. To remove yourself from their catalog, you send your name and address to their contact address with the subject line “KNOCK OFF THE CATALOGS”, as described in their FAQ. I got an automated response, but they get extra points for having a bit of whimsy in their process; they might not have a web unsubscribe form, but they do understand that someone will want to do this and they’re extending their corporate communications thinking that far.
  • Pottery Barn Kids: Turns out Williams Sonoma Inc. has a “catalog mailing preference form” in which you can unsubscribe yourself from catalogs from Williams Sonoma, West Elm, and all Pottery Barn brands. As far as one-stop shopping goes, Williams Sonoma, Inc. wins, because I’m sure PBKids wasn’t going to be the only catalog we got from them. No confirmation by email, but that’s OK.
  • Grandin Road: From best to worst. According to their website the way to be removed from their mailing list is to call their 1-800 number (which is, by the way, 1-888-263-9850). Uh huh.
  • Orvis: In line with their sustainability philosophy (although that philosophy doesn’t actually include this), they have an unsubscribe form on their website. No confirmation email, but again, that’s OK.
  • L.L. Bean: I sort of cheated here. For one thing, unlike the other catalogs, I didn’t actually get one to have in front of me, but I’ve been getting their catalogs for ages. Second, I have an account on their website, so I was able to log in and then go to “My Account” and find “Catalog Mailing Preferences” in the left navigation bar… but I can’t link you there. I suggest signing up for an account and then setting your preferences to get no catalogs. Still, thanks to Bean for making it possible to make that request online.

Maybe I’ll post another one of these when the next batch of catalogs comes in… maybe.

ETA 11/1/11:

  • Uncommon Goods, “the gifts they’ll want before they know they want them,” also has a contact preferences form. It’s a pop-up so I can’t link to it directly, but go to their home page, scroll to the bottom and click “Contact Preferences.”

Posted by pjm at 7:40 PM | Comments (0)

October 5, 2010

Taking the direct approach

Maybe it’s how plumbing, by its very nature, hides in the walls out of sight, that makes us think the only way to address its problems is pour something in and pray.

At a suggestion from my father, I popped the lid off the slow drain with a small screwdriver. Immediately underneath, the drain looked an awful lot like the underside of a rotary mower when it’s choked with grass. There was a blob of hair roughly the size of a mouse, along with whatever other gunk the hair had filtered out of the drain (and no small quantity of baking soda) which came out pretty easily. I followed that up with another dose of baking soda and boiling water, and now it’s not backing up at all.

It’s possible that the problem here isn’t the plumbing, but the lack of a large enough water flow to properly wash away everything it’s expected to wash away. I suspect I will wind up repeating this process on a roughly annual basis, but imagine what I’ll save on Drano!

Now I need more baking soda when I get groceries. And white vinegar, which apparently has become the mild acid of choice in both my cousin’s house, and my in-laws’.

Posted by pjm at 9:33 AM | Comments (0)

September 30, 2010

Simpler chemicals

We met most of our neighbors earlier this month at a neighborhood block party. (Said party’s hosts have college-age or post-college-age children and claimed they hosted the party because their children are no longer an excuse to have a bounce house and pony rides in the yard. Sure enough, there was a bounce house and pony rides in the yard, and free-range children running in herds, which was encouraging.)

My conversation with our two-doors-down neighbor, while brief due to his son, who had just learned to walk a few days before, was most interesting. The neighbor in between us apparently makes both of us feel equally insecure about the appearance of our lawns, because we spent a few minutes telling each other how we shouldn’t expect much of our lawns. (Apparently in today’s suburbia, this is how men subliminally compete: with lawns.)

Then he said, “We aren’t spraying anything or fertilizing because this one” (nodding at the toddling son) “would be stuffing grass in his mouth by the fist-full if we gave him the chance.” (This sounds silly, but if you’ve met enough toddlers you’ve met at least one whose exploration routine with anything includes stuffing it in his mouth.)

And that’s the thing. If there are going to be children in this house, I’d rather not be spraying chemicals around the air they’ll be breathing, or scattering stuff on the lawn they’ll be rolling on, or any of that. Not that I’m a knee-jerk chemical-hater—baking soda is a very useful chemical, just to name one—but I sort of get along with Sangamon Taylor in Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac, who holds that the simpler the chemical is, the better/safer it is, or at least the less likely it is to mess with the intricate function of human life. (S.T. takes this to mean that huffing nitrous oxide is the best way to get high, which is a length to which I have not taken this philosophy, but the basic guideline is reasonable.)

This is all a long way of saying I’m about to go upstairs and try to attack a slow drain with baking soda and boiling water.

Posted by pjm at 8:18 AM | Comments (0)

September 17, 2010

Making dirt

For the first time in years of nomadic apartment living, I can now compost. It seems like a little thing, but I admit I like putting out very small bags of garbage for collection.

The hierarchy of kitchen waste is something like this: compost is better than garbage disposal is better than garbage bag. Your worst option is putting stuff in a plastic bag to get buried; even if it’s biodegradable, it probably won’t be back in circulation for centuries.

The garbage disposal is a lot better, because at the worst it’s going to get treated with sewage. The negatives to the disposal are that it uses water and electricity, and it contributes in a very small way to our sewerage disposal problems, which aren’t trivial.

Compost, though, is a minor inconvenience (the compostable waste has to be taken outside to the bin, unless you’re fortunate enough to live with people who don’t mind a worm bin in the basement) and your waste actually produces something useful: nice rich soil. I plan to spread compost on the barer patches of lawn next spring, and possibly also in the garden if there’s enough to go around.

There are a lot of different bins available, but I just picked up a plain black plastic bin at the local supply. With just two of us, we don’t always produce a lot of waste, and it’s going to take us a while to fill that with coffee grounds, tea leaves, lettuce and apple cores. (I’ve actually been snagging banana peels and apple cores from the cross country team on the bus back from meets, but it might be a bit much to bring a compost bag on the bus. We’ve only just convinced them to separate recyclable bottles from the trash.) I occasionally throw in some leaves as they start to come down, but apparently one doesn’t want to let the mix go too far one direction or another, and I could easily fill it to bursting with leaves in another month or two. Grass clippings are apparently good compost food, but I’m leaving those on the lawn to compost in place.

Near the bin is the heap, where we’ve been throwing all the weeds we pulled from the flowerbeds and garden. Ironically, this seems to be composting faster than the actual bin compost (to be fair, it started earlier) and yet it’s unlikely I’ll want to use much of it. The problem is that it’s likely loaded with weed seeds; one doesn’t want to spread the weeds back out on the lawn. My father-in-law says he once worked at a garden supply operation which sterilized their compost by spreading it on a screen and piping steam through it, but I don’t think I have the facilities to manage anything like that, so the weed compost is going to have to just be forest fertilizer. Maybe it will keep the worms well-fed while we reach critical mass in the bin.

Compost, oddly, has a lot in common with training for running, so I was excited to notice Jay Johnson drawing the same parallel in Scott Douglas’ recent Running Times profile of him. We throw a lot of stuff on the heap; we don’t know exactly what ratio of stuff is best, but we work with what we have, wait a few months to see how it comes out, and tweak the inputs a bit if we think we need to. Nothing pays off immediately—in fact, it looks a lot like trash at first—but it all works together down there under the surface.

So yeah, I’m excited about the compost bin.

Posted by pjm at 10:30 AM | Comments (0)

September 13, 2010

Changing my thinking on sprinklers

I have a clear vision of myself in my former status as a renter, running with a group early one morning, in the rain, and mocking the houses we went by with their lawn sprinklers spraying: coals to Newcastle, so to speak, and with town water the homeowner was undoubtedly paying a quarterly bill for.

Can I just eat those words now? Maybe pretend I was mocking the folks who water their lawn at 2PM on a bright sunny day instead? (I was doing that too, so I guess I can’t make a case there.)

If I’d thought about it, I’d have remembered that the best time to water lawns—the time when the greatest fraction of the water gets slurped up by thirsty grass—is the early morning. Earlier than most reasonable people want to get up in the morning, generally. The practical way to do this is with a timer, it turns out, and the former owners of this house were practical people. This means that it’s very easy for a well-meaning, conservation-minded person to set their sprinkler timer at night with a clear sky, and wake up in the morning to find they watered their lawn during a rain shower.

Supposedly there are gauges available that will prevent the sprinkler from running if it’s raining, but we don’t have one of those, and I’m guessing most other people don’t either.

(The goal, of course, is to spend as little watering the lawn as possible, which means figuring out how little watering we can get away with in which sections of the lawn. The rationalization for watering at all is that we’re hoping to keep the grass sucking up carbon and burping oxygen as long as possible, and that means keeping it green and photosynthesizing.)

(Sprinklers who water when the sun is out lose a large fraction of the water to evaporation, which is why it’s better to water in the morning.)

Posted by pjm at 5:53 PM | Comments (0)

September 4, 2010

The Lawn

As I’ve previously alluded, we now have primary responsibility for a lawn for the first time since about 2002.

My history with lawn care is pretty limited; the only thing I knew lawns needed was mowing, and sometimes leaf-raking. The mowing part we have down; I have a reel mower from my days in Pennsylvania when my housemates and I had a lawn. At that house, the front lawn was barely large enough for the name (picking up trash was as important as mowing) and the back lawn was about the size of the driveway at this new house. At the new house, while the lawn is not huge (a ride-on mower would be overkill) the neighborhood is apparently one where Lawns Matter.

I like the reel mower for obvious environmental reasons (no gas, no exhaust, less noise) but it’s no harder to push than any powered rotary mower and it turns out to be nicer to the grass. As far as the actual cutting goes, a rotary mower is like cutting grass with a powered scythe, which is fine if you consider your grass a crop; mowing with a reel mower is more like cutting grass with scissors. I’ve noticed that rotary mowers give a much flatter/smoother look to the lawn immediately post-mow—that is, the reel mower doesn’t look as “neat”—but after a day or so, the overall appearance of the lawn is just as good. So I’m ready to stand up for my use of the reel mower instead of a power mower.

Watering is a complicated issue I’ll discuss separately. What I’m really interested in now is treating the lawn, and that’s because I arrived back at the house from doing some errands on Friday to see the distinctive tracks of a spreader all over the lawn, and found an invoice from a local landscaping company in the mailbox. It was addressed to the former owners; apparently they scheduled a number of treatments and forgot to tell the landscapers they’d found a buyer and moved. This one was a “4th treatment” of some kind of fertilizer; I don’t have the invoice in front of me but the word “feeding” was on there somewhere.

Obviously (to me at least) we’re not paying the invoice. We didn’t ask for it and nobody asked if we wanted it; we can’t be obligated to pay for something without being given some choice in the matter. But the deeper question (for me, at least) is how far I’m willing to go for a socially-acceptable green lawn. My gut reaction is to do very little: spread some compost in the spring, mow tall and leave the clippings, and let nature run its course. We’ll save money and avoid contributing to the phosphorus run-off that contributes to algae blooms in waterways around the country. But how many brown patches am I going to tolerate when my neighbor to the south has a lawn like a movie set?

We’ve also had some visits from moles, which is annoying but (from my point of view) unavoidable. A’s mother says moles mean grubs, and grubs mean you need to spray. I’m not so sure and I’m not convinced that we have grubs that even need a control—but I’m also not sure how to tell.

And maybe it’s not long before it’s time to do the last mow of the fall and let the snow cover the whole thing for a few months?

Posted by pjm at 10:36 PM | Comments (0)

December 13, 2009

The model downtown

Since we’ve moved, I’ve had a hard time reconciling my opinions about supporting local economies and reducing car dependence with the actual circumstances we find ourselves in. The contrast between our little house just outside Amherst’s downtown, or the awesome apartment we had in Northampton, and the apartment complex in Colonie illustrates just how many ways we (as a society) have made it difficult for ourselves to function without our cars and our shopping centers full of national chain stores.

By prioritizing living close to A’s work (thus minimizing the miles driven for commuting) we find ourselves in a car-dependent wasteland; it’s impossible to get anywhere without driving, and the near-total absence of sidewalks means it’s difficult to find good places to run and bicyclists are also forced on to high-traffic roadways. And there’s very little locally-owned business, although Troy is doing a laudable job of boosting their downtown. (I’ve already patronized Market Block Books and The Placid Baker, and I’m going to try out The Daily Grind as a place to work for a few hours when I need to flee the home office.

Meanwhile, state and national media have been pumping up my hometown as a model of a functioning downtown. The best piece is from the Portland Press Herald (you may see some familiar names in there) but there was a good piece in the local TV news as well. If you’re planning your summer vacation, the week around July 4 is always a good time to be in town.

Posted by pjm at 1:16 PM | Comments (0)

September 12, 2009

Smalltime auto rehab

I don’t really know what to do with my car.

I made a list of nine things which, if fixed (or at least most of them fixed), would make me think, “Yeah, I should drive this for another year.” I fixed five of them tonight, by myself, using silicone adhesive, silicone lube (don’t ask me, I just read the labels), super glue and sweat.

I also added a tenth I’d forgotten when I made the first list.

I also used a lot of mild detergent and some specific solvent on some windows and plastic surfaces, and removed six parking stickers from two colleges and two towns. (Stickers from a previous employer are proving harder to remove.) Someone needs to do a much more thorough job cleaning the carpets and seats.

The next five are a little tougher, and require some research to figure out how to address them.

  • The power socket has popped out of the dashboard, and it dangles. I would need to either replace it, or the collar that held it in the dashboard, or figure out how to make it stay put again. (Just gluing it in is not really my preferred option.)

  • The left headlight has a lot of condensation inside. It’s been like this for a while and it’s clearly not putting out as much illumination as the right. If I can figure out how to get it off, I can dry it out, but I also suspect there’s a gasket leak somewhere that allows it to cloud up.

  • There may be a leak in the trunk as well, which would have contributed to my problem last winter of condensation freezing on the inside of the windshields. This model of car has a known problem with leaky gaskets around the taillights, so that might be the simple fix.

  • The volume knob on the stereo, while usable, is not reliable. (It often does the opposite of what you desire.) The only way I know of to fix this is to replace the stereo, which seems expensive if I’m not keeping the car much longer. (On the other hand, it might make the iPod system easier.)

  • I’m also starting to see one of the chronic symptoms of “old car” which is the upholstery beginning to come loose from the roof at some of the edges. Oddly enough, this seems like one of the easiest things to fix, given the right solution of glue.

Any ideas or pointers to good tutorials are welcome.

When I made the list I told myself this was so I could have it in good shape for re-sale. I think having a vehicle detailed before selling it used is worth the price in terms of closing the sale for a good price. But I’m also finding that (a) I’m cringing at the idea of shopping for new cars, and (b) the more of the little things I fix, the less pressing I find the need to replace this car.

Posted by pjm at 6:11 PM | Comments (0)

August 15, 2009

Getting recycling right

In Osaka, they were pushing recycling a lot. Inexplicably, they decided to do this by pouring each bottle into a plastic cup, and handing us the cup, saving the bottle to be recycled. So we used a lot of plastic cups.

The Berlin organizing committee has come up with a better way of keeping the media tribune clear of plastic bottles. We can get all the water bottles we wish from a volunteer in a room near the tribune. But we have to pay €0.50 for each. When we bring the bottles back, we get the money back.

“We thought there would be people searching the stands for bottles to bring back,” said one of the organizers. “But then we decided we were more concerned with getting the bottles returned and recycled than with getting people their money back.”

Posted by pjm at 11:36 AM | Comments (0)

July 18, 2009

Small print: "Sign printed elsewhere"

Sign on the door of the University Drive post office in Amherst: “No bikes allowed in lobby. Please use rack provided.”

It should come as no surprise that there is no bike rack in sight.

Posted by pjm at 5:34 PM | Comments (0)

June 8, 2009

A very little cash for a laptop

We replaced A’s laptop last fall, and when, this spring, she gave me the OK to dispose of the old one, I went looking for a route which would not lead to a landfill.

What I eventually found was, which has an attractive model: you tell them what the machine is and what its condition is, they give you a quote and then send you the packaging (and a postage-paid UPS label) and you ship it back to them. They then cut you a check based on what they received.

This last stage is the part I wasn’t impressed with. The quote I was given for A’s laptop, a 4-year-old Dell with visible wear on the case and a bad monitor connection (an external monitor was needed to use it) was $55. The check we eventually received was $5.

My brother had slightly better luck, trading in my 2001-vintage G3 iBook with a busted hinge for $25 (original quote: $65).

I think the problem here is that the up-front questionnaire used to generate the quotes does not ask enough questions, or the right questions. It doesn’t ask how old the machine is, if the case shows wear, or the condition of several components, all things which are eventually used to set the final price. There is a check box for damaged LCD, which I checked, but nothing for estimating the condition of the case, for example.

To be fair, I might have had a more realistic quote had I called the listed toll-free number and questioned the original quote directly rather than simply sending in the machine and waiting for the quoted check. I haven’t seen much online feedback for the site; all the articles I can find read like they were paid for by the site owners (and some of them read like practice essays for a writing test).

In the final analysis, however, the laptop is not in a landfill (or at least most of it isn’t, I assume) and we didn’t have to pay to dispose of it, so I’m marking as a net win.

Posted by pjm at 8:36 AM | Comments (0)

October 30, 2008

Breakfast by the pound

Over the summer, I got myself a copy of my mother’s granola recipe. It’s not original with her, she picked it up at a long-gone natural foods store in our town, and I discovered on leafing through Noah’s More-With-Less Cookbook that it fits right in the mold of a generic home cereal recipe. However, I remember her making it when I was inside four bits old, and I used to eat it dry with as big a shovel as I could fit in my mouth.

After a few seasons of trying to find store-bought granola that matched my own idea of what “granola” should be (I don’t need dried fruit, but I do need some honey or other sweetener), this year the per-pound prices started reaching four and five dollars and I figured I needed to start making my own. It turns out it’s really easy, and so far it’s been a smashing success. There’s a lot of wiggle room in the recipe for improvising with what I have and don’t have, so the four or five batches I’ve made have all been slightly different, but all good.

This is what’s written on the paper:

  • 4 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup wheat flakes (wheat flakes are the rolled oats of wheat)
  • 1 cup wheat germ
  • 1 cup crushed walnut pieces
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds (raw, hulled)
  • 1/2 to 1 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut

Mix all this together in a big bowl. Then, in a pyrex glass, heat

  • 1/2 cup {vegetable|corn|canola|whatever} oil
  • 1/2 cup {honey|maple syrup|molasses}
  • Vanilla

No, I have no guidance for quantity on the vanilla, and if you know my mother, you know she never measured it anyway.

Mix that liquid in with the bowl. It will be pretty dry in the end but try to get it evenly mixed. Spread it on lightly greased cookie sheets (I use brownie pans) and bake it at 325 F for ten minutes, turn it, then five more. (I go ten, actually; it’s deeper in my brownie pans than it would be on cookie sheets.) Cool before serving or storing.

I’ve added in various quantities to different batches, teff grain (after reading that it can be substituted for sesame seeds, I just added it to the sesame seeds) and pumpkin seeds. I expect you could use oat flakes and germ for people with wheat allergies; if you know a store with good bulk bins there’s all kinds of neat stuff that could go in.

It’s almost secondary at this point, because I know I couldn’t buy granola I like this much, but because the price per pound for every one of the ingredients is lower than that of commercial granola, the cost is pretty good. I’d need to suss out the proportions in the recipe to figure an exact price, but I’m guessing I’m paying under $3/pound for it. I’m kind of tempted to try making my own hot oatmeal when I reach hot-cereal weather. And sometimes, like tonight when I made banana bread, I can double up in the oven, slipping in the cereal while the bread is baking or putting it in after a pizza has come out.

Update, 13 September 2010: Another good substitution is to consider that “wheat flakes” is another way of saying “rolled wheat” (or “rolled oats” is another way of saying “oat flakes”) and treat the four cups of rolled oats and one of wheat flakes as “five cups of rolled grain.” Then you can find a good mix of rolled oats, wheat flakes, barley flakes, and rye flakes that suits your taste. Some stores with extensive bulk bins even have quinoa flakes or rice flakes. I find rye flakes too hard to chew, and the quinoa and rice flakes didn’t really add anything to my recipe, but there they are if you want to experiment.

Posted by pjm at 9:31 PM | Comments (2)

June 16, 2008

Recipe for disaster

On the bag of brown rice, I noticed a small block of text headed, “Microwave Directions.”

Hoping that might be slightly simpler than the stovetop directions (boil water, add rice, then oscillate between too much heat and no heat until bored or rice is cooked to bottom of pan), I skimmed through. It included the phrase, “Cook 35-45 minutes.”

I’m a little alarmed at the idea of leaving anything in the microwave for a half hour or more.

Posted by pjm at 6:47 PM | Comments (0)

April 22, 2008

The silent stakeholders

I just returned from listening to a politician with a Kenyan father explain why he refused to “go negative” in his campaign. This candidate, however, also had a Kenyan mother, and in his district, a President of African ancestry would be wholly unremarkable.

I donated to Edwin Macharia’s losing campaign for the Kenyan Parliament last year, and tonight he returned to the College to speak about the current state of Kenya. His perspective on that country was clear and interesting, particularly in that he sees a real and non-paternalistic role for Americans in the rebirth of his country.

There is a silent stakeholder in everything we do. When the credit market in the U.S. collapses, there’s a run on banks in Iceland. When the price of gas goes up, the cost of transporting food in Nigeria goes up—perhaps it becomes uneconomical.

And when politicians encourage negativity and violence, they find they must govern a cynical, violent people. When Americans burn coal to power their electric lights, they raise the global temperature and cause food crises in Africa. Macharia pointed out that even though the events of 1994 in Rwanda were the worst in that country’s history, that Rwanda and Burundi have seen mass murder on a 15-20 year cycle for decades—and that that cycle is coming due in the next few years. A food crisis in that district could spark another round of ethnic violence fueled by grudges and resentments harbored since ‘94. There are many who argue that environmental changes driven by global climate change led to the ongoing killings in Darfur. As Macharia noted, just because the Kenyans are (temporarily) no longer killing their neighbors, does not mean there aren’t other countries in flames across Africa.

Happy Earth Day?

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Posted by pjm at 10:01 PM | Comments (1)

January 9, 2008

Riding bright

It’s been my experience that, at least where I’ve lived, drivers tend not to hassle a biker if they notice them in time (and if the biker isn’t doing anything egregiously stupid, of course). So aside from Not Being Stupid, the key is making sure they notice you, and of course, the biggest problem is getting noticed at night.

Given that Boston-area drivers sometimes fail to notice vehicles like ambulances and police cruisers which are actively trying to get their attention, I figure the sky’s the limit when it comes to lighting my bike. I work with these rules:

  • Blinking is better than steady
  • LEDs are better than incandescents (more efficient and usually brighter)
  • Any light is better than a reflector
  • A reflector is better than nothing
  • More is better, period.

I’ve had a headlight and taillight since the town of Emmaus required them, lo these many years ago, but lately I’ve been upgrading. Last year I swapped the Cat-Eye incandescent headlight (no longer available, I think) for a bright, blinking white LED I can’t look at for long, from Planet Bike. I lost my forward-looking lighting, but it wasn’t really all that effective anyway, and at least once I had some local toughs convinced that the cops were on to them (for a few seconds).

I got a front-and-back LED set from Planet Bike for Christmas, so last week I put the new, much brighter headlight on the handlebars right next to the old one. I let that one blink, and leave the old one steady, hoping maybe to get some visibility out of it, but maybe if they strobed out of phase I could really mesmerize oncoming drivers. The new one is bright enough that I could probably go deer jacking with it, if I did such things.

I also moved my existing taillight from the seat post, where it was sometimes obscured by my shoulder bag, to the back of the cargo rack, using some fittings from the new taillight. The new light clips on the shoulder bag sometimes, but optimally I’d like to figure out a better way of attaching both taillights, plus maybe the original red reflector if I can find a spot for it.

Combined with the Scotchlite band I use to hold my trouser cuff, and the standard-equipment pedal and spoke reflectors, I feel like I could compete with an ambulance if the siren wasn’t counted.

I completed my overhaul by adding a new rear fender which actually fits in under the cargo rack and should keep a few more drops of road gunk from flipping up on me. It came with a front fender which offers better coverage than my current one but doesn’t attach to my front fork properly. As with the second taillight, maybe more hardware would solve this problem.

Now Playing: Four Leaf Clover from Strangest Places by Abra Moore

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December 6, 2007

No more paper newsletters from the IAAF

While I confess some pleasure in the false romance of regular mail from Monaco, I’m pleased to read that the IAAF newsletter will no longer be printed and mailed, but only available online. What’s the point of using all that paper and postage (and packaging, given that the eight-page newsletter was frequently mailed sheathed in plastic, as some magazines are) when most of the enclosed news has been available on the website for weeks by the time the newsletter arrives?

There are places for magazines in this world—I happen to think that airplane seat-pockets are one of them—but a newsletter like this one is really much more useful as an online publication than as paper.

Now Playing: Dear Madam Barnum from Nonsuch by XTC

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Simple and useful

A few weeks ago, looking for some kind of technical issue, I stumbled across a site called My Mile Marker (or “M3” as the production team calls it.) It’s a very simple database application: you register a vehicle (no details needed, just a label that makes sense to you) and whenever you put gas in, you record the car’s current odometer reading, how many gallons you put in, and the per-gallon price you paid.

The output is a set of simple numbers: your average miles-per-gallon since you started using the site, your projected odometer reading in a year, and your projected gasoline expenses over the next year. There are also a set of simple graphs tracking your MPG over time (plotting the MPG for each fill-up, I assume) and your odometer readings. (This second graph would be more useful as a first derivative, I think: the slope of the line, i.e. miles-per-day, is more interesting than the absolute number.)

It’s very simple math, of course, and nothing you couldn’t build in an hour or less of bored-in-the-office time if you have decent Excel skills. But you don’t have to; it’s been done for you, now. The trick is that it’s simple (all I do is get a receipt when I fill up, and write the odometer reading on the back of the receipt; all the data is then on one slip of paper for later entry) and that it becomes a small, slowly-played game: can I run up my MPG? Can I trim that annual cost? I can look at the graph and see what makes the difference: more highway driving (i.e. trips to Amherst) than in-town, short-haul driving means better mileage on a tank. More city stoplights and traffic means worse mileage. Back on the bike, you slacker!

Now Playing: Something in the Way by Nicolai Dunger

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November 24, 2007

The iPod that couldn't be fixed

I haven’t written for a long time about the saga of my oldest iPod, the 1st gen 5GB model with the wonky Firewire jack. I still get some traffic from my posts about my failed attempts, three years ago, to re-solder the jack myself; eventually, even my brother, who had some specialized equipment available, was unable to get the thing to mount (though it will charge.) I have it in a static-free plastic bag in a drawer somewhere; it may or may not be in pieces.

Today I read a NYT article about a Denver company,, which will actually buy old, non-working iPods, rehab them, and re-sell them. I went through the menus and got an estimate of $6.40 for my iPod, which I suspect reflects the desirability of the model itself (five years old, heavy, not much more storage than a new, $150 iPod nano) more than the difficulty of fixing it. I may send it in anyway; I like the idea of having it off my hands but not in a landfill, and getting some lunch money for it is better than paying for the component recycling.

(I’m not in the market for a new iPod, either; my current one, almost three years old and slightly clunky-looking now, still works just fine for what I ask of it.)

They say they’ll be taking old cell phones soon, though I’ve not had much difficulty with those; I usually keep one previous phone as a backup in case of failure (I just swap the SIM card back, and I’m in business,) and the phone companies often give a trade-in rebate for old phones when we upgrade. I wonder how many other good businesses are stowed with obsolete gizmos in other people’s desk drawers?

Now Playing: Stand from Green by R.E.M.

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November 8, 2007

An old shoes home

My former roommate, Warren, posts about delivering shoes to the Shoe4Africa program on Monday, and mentions in passing that “a running shoe can last as long as 1,000 years in a landfill.”

I’m retiring 4-6 pairs of running shoes this year, which is about average for me; in my peak year, 2002, I went through ten pairs. I sent my used shoes to the local Goodwill; whether they judged them worthy of reuse or trashed them, I’m not sure, but I’d rather see their life extended than have them taking up space in a landfill. Warren links the aforementioned Shoe4Africa group as one destination for old shoes, but RW also has a list of organizations which accept and reuse used running shoes.

So don’t bin your old shoes. There’s more use for them elsewhere.

Now Playing: Way Away from Bread and Circus by Toad The Wet Sprocket

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October 24, 2007

Don't drive to the Olympics

No, not Beijing: 2012 in London. The Times is reporting that the 2012 organizing committee is “adopting the most aggressive anticar policy ever applied to a major event.”

The details include an almost complete lack of parking areas around the venues (exceptions, of course, being made for “a small number of disabled people”—I wonder if public transportation will be Paralympics-friendly?) and extensive promotion of mass transit, including free all-zones travelcards for many London venues. A more disturbing note is the creation of “Zil lanes” on many motorways for transportation of the “Olympic Family.” These are reserved for athletes, officials, and media, and named for the “routes reserved for Soviet Politburo cavalcades in Moscow,” an uncomfortable allusion at best. (A commenter on the article suggested renaming them “pig lanes” after Orwell’s Animal Farm.)

On the one hand, this is fantastic; London has had four years to get used to the idea of “car exclusion zones,” and this is a massive expansion of them, encouraging people to establish new transit habits. London, at least, has an adequate rail system, unlike, say, Boston.

But the need for such buzz around a low-car Games points to England’s almost American dependence on cars. For comparison, I think of Osaka: Nagai stadium had very few nearby parking lots. Nearly all spectators arrived the way I did: by subway or light rail. (Many thousands doubtless also arrived by bicycle, since the racks I saw were jammed full every night.) One hopes the 2012 committee puts up adequate bicycle racks as well as promoting rail.

I wouldn’t have been a “Zil lane” user had there been any in Osaka, traveling as I did on the subway every day thanks to the pass which came with my media credential. (As I recall, we took light rail to the stadium in Edmonton most days as well.) If I’d stayed in one of the official media hotels, I could have caught a “media shuttle,” a bus which would whisk me to the stadium, but the subway worked fine.

In Seville, we used those buses, but on many occasions we walked. I also remember seeing David Monti riding a bicycle back and forth to the stadium; he had the foresight to send one over. I contemplated renting a bicycle in Osaka, but in hindsight I was fine without one. I dislike being dependent on another (either a bus schedule or a driver) and I like being able to “get myself there”. I wonder how I’ll get to the Bird’s Nest?

Now Playing: The Creep Out from Come Down by The Dandy Warhols

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October 19, 2007

A shot of the motorized surfboard

Remember back in July, when I posted about the powered skateboard I saw sometimes on the street in Medford? Cowbark at the Boston Daily Photo got a photo of the contraption locked to a parking meter outside her office. At least, I assume it’s the same one; it seems so unlikely that there would be several of them. It’s interesting that he’s still using it now when the weather is starting to turn cool; that makes the “gas saving” motivation much more likely, I think.

Now Playing: Desire from Demolition by Ryan Adams

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July 25, 2007

He wasn't there to make an arrest

As we ran through Harvard this morning, I heard a funny sort of racheting click and looked up to see a campus policeman at the top of the steps into a building we were running past, locking his bike to a rail.

With handcuffs.

Now Playing: Something Is Me from 14 Songs by Paul Westerberg

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July 18, 2007

Gas miser

Since I’ve moved my workspace to the front of the house and the dining room (my upstairs office generally being too warm), I’ve seen more of the street and the vehicles going by on it.

The best regular sighting, for several weeks, has been a man on what appears to be a powered skateboard. It’s big for a skateboard—more like a half-length surfboard—and it has a small gas engine, about the size you’d see on a string trimmer. He wears a helmet and steers with a rod that appears to work like a tiller, and tows a small trailer. I used to see him every day around 5 in the afternoon, but on Monday there was a policeman hanging out by the softball field who appeared quite interested and may have followed him home, which may explain why I didn’t see him yesterday.

Still, it seems like one way of using the least possible gas…

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June 11, 2007

Recycling inkjet cartridges: Staples vs. OfficeMax

Staples in Medford will donate $3 to education for a limited list of cartridges, which doesn’t include their own. If your cartridge isn’t on the list, they turn you away.

OfficeMax in Everett will credit you $3 for a similar list of qualified cartridges, but if your cartridge isn’t on the list, they’ll take it off your hands and recycle it anyway.

Point: OfficeMax.

Now Playing: We Are Thrown Together from Elegantly Wasted by INXS

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April 24, 2007

How do you recycle a TV?

Remember videocassettes? Yeah, it’s been a while, but without TiVo one sometimes wants to record TV.

We have a little TV/VCR all-in-one, where the VCR was built in directly under the screen. The VCR has been unreliable for a while, but A tested it on Friday evening by putting a tape in. No dice; it wouldn’t play, and when it tried to eject the tape, it got stuck in this odd loop where it couldn’t eject the tape, detected that it was stuck, and shut off. When you turned it back on, it tried ejecting the tape again, failed, and shut off, etc.

I found the four screws that took the back cover off, then unhooked the internal bottom plate which held a lot of circuit board and the mechanics of the cassette-handling device. After removing a few screws, I managed a relatively successful cassette-ectomy, reconstructed the patient… and discovered that it was still trying, unsuccessfully, to eject a tape which wasn’t there.

If you’ve already thought, “Time to open it up again,” you think like me.

This time, I hoped I would find whatever connections existed between the cassette handler and the circuit boards, unplug them, and leave a functioning TV with no VCR. I was able to detach the cassette handler, but then when I powered it up again, it performed the same five-second shutdown stunt.

Then I started looking for things I could unplug. Being relatively cautious (as far as that can apply to someone with a VCR in pieces on the living room floor) I started by unplugging one cable, then trying to power up. This time, it wouldn’t power up at all. I plugged that cable back in… and it still wouldn’t power up.

At that point, I decided the patient had died, and it was time to stop spending time on it. I put the pieces back in roughly the right locations, bagged the spare screws, and put the back cover on. It went out for the Saturday morning trash pick-up.

Except it didn’t get picked up. I suppose it’s a “large item” or maybe hazardous waste, what with the tube and circuit boards.

So what’s the responsible, environmentally-friendly way to dispose of a TV?

Now Playing: Shining in the Moonlight from Nuclear Furniture by Jefferson Starship

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March 4, 2007

Smoother ride

Wheelworks did nice things for my bike. The ride back from the shop this afternoon was the smoothest I’ve had in weeks, making me think maybe they had even done something magical to the front fork. (It’s possible that they did; I don’t know how to clean it.) It shifts smoothly and without much resistance, and they put new brake pads on the back so those brakes now grab better than they have for a while.

I increasingly feel like being able to properly care for my bike is a skill deficiency I should correct someday, though I’m not sure quite how I’d go about it. (Paramount does offer one-on-one instruction.) I have a book I’ve turned to before in a tough spot, but while I think once it actually helped me disassemble and reassemble successfully, more often when I compare its instructions to the bike itself I’m still mystified.

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March 3, 2007


I’ve been spending time in bike shops again lately. A few weeks ago, I got sick enough of the weird noise to take the bike over to the shop closest to campus. He was disdainful of the brand—exactly the sort of reaction that makes me not like bike shops—and didn’t think I was giving him enough information to find the problem, but someone else in the shop offered to take it out to recreate the problem, and when he returned he had things pinned down to the bottom bracket, so I left the bike there.

They broke down the bottom bracket and found… issues with the ball bearings. At least one was running around outside the cage that is supposed to hold them in place, and that was causing the crunching noise; several of the others were either missing, or no longer round. The rebuilt bottom bracket no longer makes crunching noises.

However, in removing and replacing the front chain ring, something happened to the front derailleur, so it no longer smoothly shifted between chain-rings. (The handlebar shift display showed 3, but the bike was in 2 and wouldn’t go to 3.) I opened up my bike maintenance book and twiddled with a few things, which was probably a bad idea; I got it to work in 2 and 3, but not 1. Also, when in 2, the chain would gently rub on the chain-guide, which isn’t supposed to happen. I had managed to change the state from “broken” to “broken differently.”

Noting the no-longer-true front wheel and the year and a half which has passed without effective maintenance since I bought it, this morning I found the time to run it down to another bike shop for a tune-up. They didn’t look down their noses at the bike itself, but they did scold me for not cleaning it enough. (They’re undoubtedly correct, but since when have I had the time, materials, and knowledge to properly clean my bike?) Apparently I have no hope of keeping up my bike to the standards of bike shops, so why do I bother trying?

They have it for today. Hopefully by Monday I will have reclaimed a smooth-running commuting machine again.

Now Playing: Other Side by Josh Ritter

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January 20, 2007

Desperate measures

In an effort to put some bounds on our heating bill, I hung a curtain over the doorway leading upstairs to my office. (For various architectural reasons, there is no actual door there.) As a result, it is even colder up here on the third floor than usual. (On the second floor, we have forged a thermostat compromise involving A shivering and wearing hats indoors, and me walking around in shorts.)

How cold is it on the third floor?

Well, I have my laptop closed, impairing its ventilation. (I’m using another monitor.) Yet I can run processor-heating applications without the fan kicking in.

Now Playing: Little Bit by University

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January 9, 2007

Oversized loading

I’m a fan of reusing paper, and it’s not uncommon for me to print out and hand in assignments on the backs of old media kits and track meet results. But there’s a challenge coming.

I’m going through some of the stacks of stuff in my office, and found a thick pad of results I brought back from World Cross for just this purpose. But as I started taking the staples out, I realized: It’s all A4.

I will be using the “Page Setup…” menu option a lot in the coming months. Why can’t the U.S. suck it up and switch to some international standards?

Now Playing: Undo from Numbers by The Church

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November 9, 2006

Disturbing noises

My main commuting machine is making funny noises. Specifically, it pops. It’s the same sort of clanking popping noise you’d hear if the chain slipped, or if you were having a hard time switching between chain-rings, and I can feel it both through my feet on the pedals and through the seat. It’s irregular—that is, it doesn’t happen at any predictable interval, so I can’t tell when to be watching the chain for the culprit.

I thought it might have been a funky tooth on the chain ring, but it happens on both the middle and large chain-rings. It also happens on different gears on the rear sprocket, so I assume it’s not a gear issue. I also thought it might be a bad link in the chain, but I lubed the chain the other day and didn’t notice anything funky.

Any ideas? I’m back to the crankset; maybe there’s something loose or failing or otherwise sprung up there?

Now Playing: Yellow Brick Road from Five Stories by Kris Delmhorst

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October 1, 2006


Yesterday evening, as I emerged from the CS building, I noticed that the headlight of my bike was pointed straight up. Odd, I thought, and adjusted it.

Just then, a campus police officer called over from his cruiser. “Is that your bike?” When I asserted that yes, it was, he asked, “Is anything wrong with it?”

Well, this headlight. And, apparently someone fiddled with the pump—it was no longer in its bracket, but rather held in place with the velcro strap, handle fully extended. I started looking for more problems. Brakes OK, wheels OK, lock intact. I said as much, and that was the end of my conversation with campus police.

As I pulled it out of the rack, I realized that the seat adjustment clamp was loose, and the seat was all the way down, so I adjusted that again.

Where did all that come from? The seat, pump, and lights aren’t locked; if you wanted to steal them, you could. (I should probably spend a few minutes removing things, like the pump and the bottle cages, which I never use from the bike. The only way to lock the seat is to simply remove it and carry it inside with me.) As a crime, it’s pretty lame. As a practical joke… it’s still pretty lame.

On the other hand, there may have been a few intoxicated people on campus on a Saturday, so maybe someone had a low standard for amusement.

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September 22, 2006

The first rule is don't get hit

The new year of bike commuting is both encouraging and depressing. (Here, I should note, my “commute” is less than a mile and would be under five minutes if I didn’t have to wait to cross a busy street.)

There are mobs of bikes in the racks outside the CS building, and some of them are pretty fancy; some are probably older than their riders. I’m amused at how often I see someone patiently grinding along—up a hill, perhaps—in the bike’s absolute top gear; they’ve never bothered to figure out the gear system, and just planted it somewhere and leave it there forever. They’d be better off with a coaster, but sometime back in the 80s we balkanized bikes so much you can’t just get a simple one anymore.

One day last week I heard someone yelling at me after I crossed the street on my way home. Turns out I’d cut off another biker. I didn’t bother to stop; I had cut him off, but it was well after dark, and I had lights on (he’d seen me well enough to yell at me,) and he didn’t (so I hadn’t known he was there until he yelled.)

Later that week, I found two more depressing links. The first was research from the University of Bath suggesting that cyclists who wear helmets may be at greater risk than those who don’t.

Dr Walker, who was struck by a bus and a truck in the course of the experiment, spent half the time wearing a cycle helmet and half the time bare-headed. He was wearing the helmet both times he was struck.

He found that drivers were as much as twice as likely to get particularly close to the bicycle when he was wearing the helmet.

And, to top it off, Scoplaw noted this site, with the pleasant title, “How not to get hit by cars.” (While we’re at it, Ghostcycles is a bit chilling.)

The theme of the Bicycle Safe site is that wearing a helmet is not enough, and in reading through the ways cyclists get hit, I saw recurring themes: Don’t ride on the sidewalk. Right on the right side of the road (the “correct” side, with the flow of traffic, which in North America means the right.) Get lights on your bike. (I’m now seriously considering getting a LED headlight to go with my incandescent, which is getting old.) I see these simple things violated all the time.

That said, I learned some things, too. I haven’t been hit yet, though I was almost doored a few weeks ago and I’ve locked the brakes up more than once recently. I’m lucky; my commute is pretty short, and on low-traffic roads.

Now Playing: Turn You Inside-Out from Green by R.E.M.

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August 9, 2006


If I’d ever made a list of things I never expected to do (and, I’ll admit, it would’ve been quite a long list,) I might have put washing my feet with Fast Orange on the list.

Fast Orange is a pumice-based industrial hand cleanser, not entirely unlike a liquid scouring pad for skin, and I was working my feet because I had been riding my bike in sandals. The street perpendicular to ours has been intermittently ripped up and patched for weeks, and today they put what we hope is the last coat of patch on the road (though I expect the street to be poor driving for a few years.) The edges of the patch were “sealed” with exceptionally sticky, gummy tar, and my bike tires picked up bits of it and flung them around as I rode down the road. One or two wedged between my sandals and my feet.

I wonder how messy it would have been if I hadn’t had mudflaps on the bike.

Now Playing: I’ll Meet You In The Sky from Live From Northampton by The Nields

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July 17, 2006

Cooler water

Today we took another step in using less electricity (and therefore both saving money and producing less carbon dioxide.) I had the landlord show me which of the water heaters in the basement was ours, and turned down the heat.

I’m actually not sure if it’s an electric heater or a gas heater, but it doesn’t make too much difference; either way, the water as it stood was too hot, and not heating it as much (and not keeping it that hot) will save energy. I’ll keep edging it cooler until we find it too cold; it will probably require a bump up come winter, anyway.

I’m thinking about wrapping the heater, as well, but that turns out to be more complicated than it used to be; on some newer heaters, which are already well-insulated that voids the warrantee, and you also need to know details about the heater (gas, electric, size, etc.) to get the right wrapper. It might be worth wrapping some of the pipes coming out of the heater, though.

Now Playing: Nothing Too Serious from Man Of Colours by Icehouse

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July 11, 2006



I promised more on my electricity shift.

There are a few different things involved here. I’ve been an environmentalist for a long time; I remember going with my mother to the hardware store to pick up some laundry baskets and trash cans to make a recycling center for our garage before I was old enough to drive. I’ve never been a vocal, political, sign-waving environmentalist; just a person who picks up trash, buys compact-fluorescent light bulbs and recycles religiously. I was principally concerned with local issues; I like the places I live, and I don’t like how easy it is for careless people to “foul the nest” in fairly literal ways. I’ve stuck to that; I’ve noticed that A and I generate about half as much trash as the average apartment on our street, and that’s largely because we also recycle about twice as much.

Continue reading "Exhaust"

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July 10, 2006

Just a shade greener

No, I’m not ill.

I just read up on Mass Electric/National Grid’s list of alternate energy suppliers in their GreenUp program, and picked one. It was an interesting experience. The page which tells you “how to select your alternate supplier” focuses on exactly one criteria: price. “Here’s how to figure out how much more/less your alternate supplier will cost.”

But there are actually three things to work with, only one of them being price. You’ve got the alternate suppliers website(s), and the required “disclosure label” which explains the different generation methods this supplier uses, and what proportion you’re buying. Most of them offer a “half ours, half theirs” option (that is, you only buy half your power from them,) and a full option, and all of them offer a different mix of power.

So, assuming you leave price out—and, considering that all the GreenUp providers cost more than National Grid’s default service, we have to assume anyone doing this is leaving price out—the question is, what’s your favorite brand of renewable energy?

We’re going with Sterling Planet, which offered a pretty wide mix which is heavy on small hydro, landfill methane, and wind, in that order; there’s also a fraction from solar, which was what sealed the deal. I ruled out one of the four suppliers, Clear Sky Power because I couldn’t find their disclosure label or price information; I scotched Community Energy because they did nothing but wind and small hydro, and while that’s cool, wind is meeting a lot of resistance in New England and there are only so many small hydro plants. I teetered on Mass Energy Consumers Alliance, which had a similar range to Sterling Planet, but they were heavier in small hydro and lighter on solar, and I think solar has a lot more room for expansion. (And as the price of photovoltaics comes down, recovering the cost on rooftop solar panels will get faster, which means more homeowners, and hopefully landlords, will start generating part of their electricity right where it’s used. I want solar panels on my roof.)

Price was a factor, certainly, but an extremely small one. I looked at our power use history; I figure this shift will cost us about eight bucks on top of our biggest bill in the winter. That’s less than a 10% increase, and the payoff is that nobody is burning coal or natural gas (or, for that matter, splitting atoms, though I’m ambivalent about nuclear power,) in order to run our fridge, air conditioner, and computers. Our household CO2 output goes plop.

Considering what I’m willing to pay to be connected to the internet for a month—heck, considering what I’m willing to pay to keep this silly site running for a month—I think I’d look pretty silly if I wasn’t willing to pay this much for renewable energy.

If you live in Massachusetts and are a Mass Electric customer, you can do this too. (I happen to think you should, but I’m not in the business of making decisions for others.) I’d bet that even if you aren’t in Massachusetts, your supplier has a similar program.

More to come on this topic.

Now Playing: Let It Happen from A Rock In The Weary Land by The Waterboys

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May 28, 2006

It's honestly not worth getting the car out

I decided to take my bike down to a dinner with a bunch of other grad students last night, rather than driving. This might have been a poor choice in at least one direction (I supplied the beer, and might not have had enough pressure in my rear tire to support that much glass and liquid in the carriers,) but I realized it was the right choice on the way back.

I’m a relatively “good” night rider, since I have a nice bright headlight and eye-catching blinky red taillight and am therefore not invisible. In Cambridge, however, cars are simply at a disadvantage. One couple, which lives just on the other side of the University from me, left at the same time I did. I got a minute or two head start, for some reason, but that was sufficient for me to stay ahead of them as far as Harvard; from there, we leapfrogged from stop-light to stop-light as far as Porter Square. Odds are pretty good that I got home as quickly as they did.

Now, there’s no way I’m riding up to Maine for a weekend, or out to the airport, or various other trips which require some level of cargo-carrying, but for the short trips “in town,” it’s pretty clear to me now that I’m actually going to get there faster on the bike than by car—I spend less time waiting at lights, I’m less-often routed out of my way by one-way streets, and I don’t have to find parking at my destination, just something to lock to.

(Can you tell I should really be doing homework?)

Now Playing: Around This Corner from You Were Here by Sarah Harmer

Posted by pjm at 1:15 PM | Comments (0)

December 14, 2005

Bikes in wintertime

A few days ago, when we got the Ugly Storm, I mentioned bicycling through the winter. It’s not really something I’ve done before, so I don’t feel like I can be an authority on it, but so far this semester I’ve only driven to campus three times (making that $200 commuter parking pass really expensive,) and I feel like I could make it through the year yet. That said, I think the Scoplaw has always been more at one with his ride than I have and could speak more helpfully if he wasn’t in the midst of writing exams, and what got me looking stuff up was this recent post on Bostonist.

The Ugly Storm switched to rain for a few hours around noon before going back to snow. As a result, there was a lot of wet snow that got packed down hard and never scraped up by the plows. Over the warmer days since then, they haven’t softened, but they have re-frozen. On any less-travelled street, which includes nearly any street I ride on my way to campus, there are big islands of lumpy white ice which aren’t going anywhere until, I expect, March, unless someone does some hard-core salt-and-pickaxe work.

So one aspect of winter riding, which I met on my way over to the lab this afternoon, are these navigation hazards. They’re fine if you go straight across and don’t shift balance, but I tried making a corner over by the Sci-Tech building and wound up dumping the bike in the middle of the street. I’m happy, now, that I didn’t swap my knobby tires for slicks when the bike was new, though I might want some once these pavement-hard death-traps have melted.

The other obvious part is drivers. The roads are narrower now, so I’m more likely to be riding out in the road. That’s another caution-and-lights issue. (You do have a blinking taillight and bright headlight, right?)

Less obvious is storage. I can stow my bike in the basement at home, but my problem during last week’s storm was locking it up on campus. I usually use the racks, but yesterday I talked to one of the department staff and found out that if there was actually snow or freezing rain coming down, I could lock it to a staircase out by the building extension, which would keep the lock from freezing up (and the bike from sitting too long and freezing up, like it did last week.)

The catch is this: according to Massbike, a bike kept inside rusts faster than an outdoor bike. I’m not really sure why this is, but I suppose oxidation, like most chemical reactions, would happen more slowly at low temperatures. And when there’s slush and other salty mess on the road, there’s a lot of gunk getting kicked up into the chain and gears. (You’ll notice that it’s getting kicked up onto you, as well, but you’re easier to clean off, and you don’t oxidize.)

So the Winter Cycling pages suggest fenders. I’ve seen bikes with fenders before, but it wasn’t until I saw that suggestion that I realized how useful they’d be in winter. Front fenders, in particular, could keep a lot of gunk out of the chain ring.

Beyond that, regular wipe-downs of the bike and keeping the chain well-lubed seem to be the way to go. I have some chain grease, but I need to spend some more time with my bicycle maintenance handbook figuring out how to use it effectively. I think I essentially killed my last bike by not taking better care of it; it would be nice if this one lasted longer.

Now Playing: Reincarnation Song from Dulcinea by Toad The Wet Sprocket

Posted by pjm at 6:19 PM | Comments (0)

October 1, 2005

New wheels

I just made what may be my biggest long-term investment in transportation for a few years: a new bike. One of these, in the color they’re calling “Radium Blue.” It is that—so blue it looks nearly radioactive, which was one of my reservations about it. On a university campus, being the shiniest bike in the rack is probably not a good thing. I’ll have to take it out in the Fells sometime to beat some of the shine off. If I ever have time.

I started the errand off by having a new tube put in the flat rear tire of the old bike, so I could ride around on my shopping loop. I saw some nice-looking bikes in that shop, but they were busy and I couldn’t find anyone to show me the hardware. With the new tube and some lube on the chain, I almost felt like I was riding a new bike when I left, but I remembered the frayed and rusted cables, the wobbly front tire, and the jumpy shifting, so I kept shopping.

Once I’d found this one and brought it home, I spent a bit less than an hour stripping useful stuff off the old bike (rack, lights, bottle cages, etc.) and putting it on the new one. It looks a bit less flashy now than it did in the store—a rack will do that to a bike—and a bit more like mine. It kinda glows in the basement, though.

Now to get rid of the old one…

Now Playing: Not Fazed from Going Blank Again by Ride

Posted by pjm at 5:00 PM | Comments (2)

September 28, 2005

End of the ride?

It may be time for me to go bike shopping.

When I left class yesterday, the back tire on Heaven was flatter than mashed potatoes. Fortunately, I carry a hand pump, so I pumped it back up and rode it up to Health Services (for the second MMR shot—done with those now.) When I came out of there, it was flat again, so I knew I had a leak.

I pumped it up again and coasted down the hill to the bike shop closest to campus. I wheeled it in, and the owner/mechanic put it up on a stand right away. First, he chided me for the relatively un-greased chain. Then he started peering around, starting with the things I pointed out (chain, rear tire, front hub,) and then finding more (worn gear teeth thanks to the insufficiently lubed chain, frayed and/or rusted brake cables, and “Who knows what shape the bottom bracket’s in.”) He estimated $250 just in parts for “what needs to be done,” then stopped, took the bike off the rack, and said, “It’s a can of worms. You’re better off buying a new one. I’ve got one like it here in the back now; I just built the wheel, but I can’t put it on yet because I keep finding stuff that’s messed up on the frame. We’ll just keep finding more stuff to fix.”

I accepted that judgment and walked the bike home (carrying it by the back rack, actually, since the tire was flat again.) This weekend I’ll have to decide what to do.

I could probably fix a lot of it myself, but I’d still be spending a good chunk of cash on parts and the specialized tools of bike mechanics. I also lack the time and the motivation; I’d rather be riding a bike than fixing it (or, as we’ve apparently proven, even keeping it up properly.) I could find a mechanic willing to take on the can of worms; there’s another bike shop not far off.

Or, I could go shopping for a used bike, then take salvageable components from Heaven (lights, bottle cages, pump bracket, back rack, maybe those slicks,) for the new ride, and find someone to take the can of worms. There is, I should admit, some real appeal to the idea of shedding some of the nagging little problems of an old bike.

But I should try to figure it out this weekend, because I’m going to lose a lot of time walking where I’ve been riding.

Posted by pjm at 12:22 PM | Comments (1)

September 20, 2005


The Globe ran an article yesterday, titled “Many gas guzzlers are gathering dust” which should appeal to the schadenfreude in every compact-car driver, especially with this opening sentence:

In May, Holly Kennedy bought an SUV. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Of course, the lead photo shows a cyclist riding on the wrong side of the road, so we can’t have everything. And the article is careful to point out that any change in behavior due to relatively high gas prices remains anecdotal; there are no statistics to back it up.

Despite acquiring two new parking stickers for my car (Medford street parking and Tufts commuter parking,) I’ve not filled up since my last trip to Maine. It’s simply easier to walk or bike to campus than it is to drive.

The problem is that Heaven is showing signs of needing a trip to the shop. Skimming my repair manual, I suspect it would benefit from a rebuilt front hub (the front wheel wobbles) and a new chain (grinding noises, poor shifting.) It wouldn’t hurt to apply some touch-up paint in some spots, but that at least I can do myself.

I’m not afraid of walking, but being a few days without wheels will undoubtedly slow me down. I wonder how long they’ll need to keep it in the shop?

It’s picked up another sticker, too. It has three high-powered college registration stickers now.

Now Playing: I Predict A Riot from Employment by Kaiser Chiefs

Posted by pjm at 9:45 AM | Comments (3)

September 4, 2005


We are still doing odds and ends in the apartment. This afternoon we hung things, which involved (at one point) getting out the power drill and installing wall anchors. I’m a big fan of the power drill, which at one point I would simply have called a “Makita” even though it happens to be made by Ryobi. It serves multiple roles at different points in the process. (It’s a drill! No, it’s a screwdriver! Hooray for a keyless chuck.) I think it’s probably the most useful power tool I own, though the circular saw had its moment when we first moved in. I took a fifty-cent piece of scrap luaun plywood and cut a piece such that a particular hole in a closet was covered and inaccessible to a certain curious cat.

As I get ready to set out on a drive, I’ve been thinking some about gas prices, which have added about a dollar a gallon in this area over the last week. I tanked up before they spiked, on the advice of the appliance-store owner, but my day will undoubtedly come.

I’ve mentioned before that the rise in gas prices can be mitigated by simply driving less, and I still adhere to that to some degree; I have yet to drive to school, though I bought a parking pass. However, there’s more to gas prices than commuters eschewing the T and suburban SUVs. There are school districts trying to figure out where the money will come from to run the busses. I bought a used textbook on Amazon from an MIT student, and found myself wondering about postage rates; would it be cheaper, or more expensive for him to drive the book over and drop it off in Medford? And how long will it take for rising fuel prices to put pressure on grocery prices?

Plenty of people are going to be pinched by this, and the ones who’ll be more pinched are the ones who were closest to the edge to begin with—people who can barely afford to get to work, people budgeting groceries to the dime. A minority, I think, but there’s more to this than SUV drivers with higher credit card bills.

Coming back from Maine last week, I saw a full-sized pickup cruising down the turnpike with a sticker saying, “My truck uses the gas your hybrid saves.” He thinks he can afford it; it’s his money. Fine. But he’s not the only one whose expenses will rise.

Now Playing: Telepath from Forget Yourself by The Church

Posted by pjm at 6:15 PM | Comments (1)

July 19, 2005

Cheaper than gas

I can’t claim that I’ve seen fewer cars on the road lately. I’m not sure I’d notice if I had.

But I have seen a lot more bikes. I’m not sure if Lance has reminded everyone that, yes, they own a bike, or if I’m seeing more bike commuters. For some reason, I think the latter; maybe it’s the saddlebags and backpacks we’re all carrying. Even when I’m driving, I’m seeing riders in the bike lanes (where they exist.) I even took advantage of a long local rail-trail to visit six geocaches on Saturday, between South Amherst and Northampton, without benefit of fossil fuel.

See, the more you drive, the more gas you need to buy. And you may have noticed that gas is expensive nowadays.

But the more you bike… well, your grocery bill probably won’t change that much.

Now Playing: Tremelo Song from Between 10th And 11th by The Charlatans

Posted by pjm at 10:15 AM | Comments (1)

June 14, 2005

Coal to Newcastle

Yesterday afternoon, during the obligatory late-afternoon downpour that comes with all really muggy days, I saw the lawn sprinklers cheerily spritzing the lawn outside St. Brigit’s. I would’ve gone for my camera, but the rain wouldn’t have been visible, ruining the utter oddness of it.

(Of course, late afternoon isn’t the “best” time to run the sprinklers anyway. Water at night when the grass will get most of it, instead of it all evaporating in the heat before the grass can drink.)

Now Playing: Somewhere Else from Back to Me by Kathleen Edwards

Posted by pjm at 9:44 AM | Comments (0)

June 3, 2005


After a very good streak starting in April, and the triumphant four-out-of-five days in Bike Week, last week passed without me riding in once. Last week, however, I had the excuse of generally lousy weather. This week I must face up to the fact that, aside from my running (I may manage ten miles this week,) I’ve just been lazy. I’ve been trying to grab extra half-hours of sleep. I’ve been blindsided by car-requiring errands which, had I planned better, might have been clumped together in one or two days.

I need to get back on top of this.

Now Playing: Fast Way from Wholesale Meats And Fish by Letters To Cleo

Posted by pjm at 8:48 AM | Comments (0)

May 20, 2005


I can spot loose change on the roadside while on my bike. When I do, I stop and pick it up.

If I’m not wearing anything with pockets, I wedge the coin(s) between my fingers for the rest of the ride.

Posted by pjm at 5:50 PM | Comments (0)

May 18, 2005

Taking the scenic route

When I’m biking to work (as I did today: three for three!) I take a route which is not quite the most direct one. It avoids a stretch of fairly busy road, which is enough reason to start with, but it also puts a big hill in the course. The payoff for the hill is the view from near the top. On clear days, you can see both Mt. Warner in Hadley (really more of a hill) and beyond it to the left, the Mt. Tom range in Easthampton.

Mt. Tom and Mt. Warner

That’s the southwest view; I posted the west view last year.

As I was snapping this shot yesterday afternoon, a resident pulled in to her driveway and called out her window, “Nice day!” I said, “Great view, too.” “Enjoy it,” she said. Since I can, I’ll extend the invitation to all of you.

There were more cyclists out this morning than either of the last two days, probably because of an article about bike week in yesterday’s Gazette, or because the weather was great.

Now Playing: A Life of Sundays from Room To Roam by The Waterboys

Posted by pjm at 9:25 AM | Comments (0)

May 17, 2005

Two down, or three?

I realized, as I rolled out of East Plumtree to cross Route 116 this morning, that this was actually my third consecutive work-day of bike commuting, starting last Friday. If everything goes to plan, I’ll make it four in a row tomorrow, then four out of five for bike week on Friday.

It was much sunnier this morning, and I saw several other cyclists out. One or two had the backpacks or panniers which are the sure sign of the commuter. I had an eBay box to be mailed, wedged in the top of my bag, and after mailing it (and buying a roll of packing tape,) I felt curiously pleased with how much of day-to-day life I was accomplishing without gasoline. One of A.’s commenters called this the “low-car lifestyle,” which is a nice turn of phrase.

Now Playing: I’m Still Searching from Diamond Sun by Glass Tiger

Posted by pjm at 10:24 AM | Comments (0)

May 16, 2005

One down, three of four to go

Another important consideration in the gasoline-free commute is that most bicycles don’t provide much rain protection. Fortunately for me, the sprinkles did not become an actual shower until I was well warmed-up, but I still could have used heavier clothes than I was wearing this morning. There are more showers forecast for the week, but generally with less confidence than this morning. There were some forecast for this afternoon, for example, but it’s sunny and green outside the window now.

Maybe the weather accounts for the utter lack of other cyclists this morning, but I think it’s more likely that few people who don’t already do this even know about Bike Week.

Now Playing: Here & Now from Aurora Gory Alice by Letters To Cleo

Posted by pjm at 12:29 PM | Comments (0)

May 15, 2005

"I had a bicycle named Heaven..."

“…and I painted it blue, when I lived next to you.

I had a bicycle named heaven...

This coming week is bike commute week. Like I did last year, I’m hoping to ride in four out of five days. (In particular, I want to hit the breakfasts in Hadley on Thursday and Amherst on Friday.)

I’ve done a human-powered commute at least once every week since early April, so I’m ahead of last year. I’m happy with that. I think in the fall I will be riding even more, especially when I get better at locking and unlocking the bike.

Posted by pjm at 1:58 PM | Comments (0)

May 14, 2005

Dumpster season

It’s one of those weeks when everything happens at once in Amherst. The fair is spinning on the Common, soaked only in Silly String despite forecasts of rain. And the dumpsters of the local colleges are full as fully-loaded vans and SUVs bear away all but the seniors, finals having ended (at least at The College) yesterday.

After my sophomore and junior years, I was part of the crews of students cleaning dorms for Buildings and Grounds (aka “B&G”) in preparation for Commencement and Alumni Weekend on successive weekends, both making extensive use of on-campus housing. The amount of stuff we “trashed out” of rooms was phenomenal, and that was just what they had been too lazy to take to the dumpster. It would’ve made an epic yard sale, and in fact many of us snagged perfectly good stuff for re-use. I didn’t count all the loose change I picked up, but at least once it was enough to buy myself dinner at the local pizza-joint-of-choice.

At the time, my opinion was confined to what a waste it was, and how the conspicuous waste was another aspect of conspicuous consumption on the part of my classmates—a point that was abundantly clear to those of us living four-to-a-double and trying to scrape up some summer cash by cleaning up after the wastrels.

It is still that, but lately I’ve started seeing it more like the inevitable waste of mobility. Every time I have moved, while I’ve left my apartments clean, I’ve also developed a certain amount of stuff to cast off. Since the new year, I’ve been looking at stuff in this apartment with an eye to what can be shed in the next move, and I shudder at the thought of moving my parents, in the same house for about thirty-five years, into the retirement home they constantly threaten to build.

I’m hoping to do a better job than the dumpster-fillers at the College, leaving their wrack behind like the trail of an invading army. But for much of it, the question becomes, how do you get rid of it? Freecycle discourages “dumping” too many items to the list and asks users to claim as much as they offer. eBay is slow and not a sure destination in many cases; after all, there’s no promise that anyone will want a lot of this stuff.

Yet at the same time it’s not enough for a yard sale. (Nor do we have a yard.)

I wish it was as easy to responsibly dispose of stuff as it was to acquire it.

Posted by pjm at 9:43 PM | Comments (0)

April 5, 2005


…but only for today. I’ve been pretty bad, this winter, about reducing the gasoline consumption of my commute. During the winter, my only option is the bus, and I never took it. (In my defense, the scheduling of most of my swimming options made catching the bus a challenging, if not impossible, proposition.)

Last night I got the bike out, checked the tire pressure, and rode a quick lap up and down the street. All seemed fine, so this morning I packed the panniers and rode it in to work.

I managed to not forget anything significant (so far,) but I have left some cycling fitness behind over the winter. It’s not like I time myself, so I can’t compare my speeds, but I definitely spent less time in the big chain-ring this morning than I did late last summer.

Now Playing: Amnesia from Coil by Toad The Wet Sprocket

Posted by pjm at 10:11 AM | Comments (0)

December 1, 2004

Where does it all go?

Another free idea for the web entrepreneur with more time on their hands than I have: is there a web resource for the disposal or repair of stuff?

I think in a lot of cases, I don’t replace stuff I have which is in pretty tough shape because, not because I wouldn’t appreciate something new which works properly, but because I don’t want the disposal of the old one on my conscience. The breadmaker, for example, has a leaky pan and the paddle is wearing out. Can I replace just the pan and paddle? I cannot. I would need to buy a whole new unit. Then where does the old one go?

So I want a website where I can find out how to responsibly dispose of all kinds of stuff. I want to know if I can take my umbrella to pieces and give the metal to someone who can reuse it; where I could have taken all the humidifier chemicals left in our Northampton apartment by the previous tenant (sans humidifier, of course); what I can do with the umbrella which isn’t holding on to two of its vanes anymore; and so on.

I guess some of it could go to something like Freecycle, but I don’t want to deal with another hundred-plus emails a week; I want to look up a place where the stuff can go, and take it there. A lot of it is truly junk that nobody would want, but I feel like parts of it should have another life instead of going into the waste stream.

Actually, this project is screaming for a wiki.


Now Playing: Blissed from Doubt by Jesus Jones

Posted by pjm at 8:51 PM | Comments (1)

November 18, 2004

AOL and evil

Now there’s two concepts you never expected to see linked, right? After all, don’t we all wait in breathless anticipation for the next CD loaded with free hours to arrive in our mail? For the next version of the software?

Well, while I was gleefully breaking down the last gift of plastic and paper from the Dulles corridor, I scanned the case for recycling symbols.

None. On a plastic case the size of a trade paperback book. All I got to recycle was the paper label; everything else had to go into the waste stream.

I am shocked, shocked! to see such disregard for the realities of waste disposal and our environment on the part of a corporate behemoth. Now, if only we could decide who’s going to step up and bop them one for this and a few zillion similar crimes. Who’s first? The feds? California? Their customers, I mean “members”? Nope, they’re all going to sit on their hands and let the municipal waste folks take it on the chin. Ah, the politics of responsibility…

Now Playing: Auctioneer (Another Engine) from Fables Of The Reconstruction by R.E.M.

Posted by pjm at 1:20 PM | Comments (0)

October 3, 2004

Part of the precipitate

I’ve never understood the attraction of freeway overpasses as impromptu billboards, but nearly every bridge over U.S. 495 from the start in Amesbury down to Lowell has some kind of message, generally along the lines of, “Welcome home Cpl. Mike,” or, “Gina I ♥ U.” Sometimes it’s an array of American flags, which seems a little confused to me. (“Freeways are so patriotic!”)

At some point someone realized you could spell out messages by wedging paper cups in the chain-link fences along the bridges, and this method of pixelated expression spread widely. Today, though, I thought I saw the beginning of the end. Somewhere around Lawrence, a fairly large number of white cups had been used on a longer message than usual:


Posted by pjm at 7:49 PM | Comments (0)

September 30, 2004


Since I could see cords in the sidewalls of my bike tires, last weekend I dropped it off at the Laughing Dog bike shop in town. The guy who runs the Laughing Dog shares my first name, and since there aren’t many of us, we try to stick together.

He replaced the knobbies which had been on (so far as anyone knows) since the bike was new a dozen years ago with a set of “slicks.” These are still mountain-bike fat tires, but instead of big chunky treads like those on running shoes, these only have knobs around the edges; the center of the tire has a very subtle tread, more like coarse sandpaper or tennis shoes.

I rode in on the new rubber for the first time this morning. The difference is remarkable. The thing that struck me the most was the noise, or actually the lack of it. Aside from the wind in my ears, all I could hear was the hiss of the chain in the front chain-ring. No hum from tread on pavement. The other thing was the lack of resistance. I rolled like a ball-bearing, and I was able to push bigger gears for most of the ride than I had before. (I have to admit, it’s possible that I simply had more air in the tires than I’d been able to keep in my old ones.)

I’ve probably spent more time on the bike this summer than I have for years, just trying to ride in at least once a week. I’m not sure how much gas I have or haven’t saved, but it hasn’t hurt me any.

Now playing: We’ll Inherit The Earth from Don’t Tell A Soul by The Replacements

Posted by pjm at 9:10 AM | Comments (0)

September 2, 2004

Schedule shift

It occurred to me after last night’s swim that I won’t be in Puffer’s Pond too many more times this year. The water is still a comfortable temperature, but that won’t last more than another week or two. On the other end, starting next week, I should be able to get in the college pool on somewhat more reasonable hours. Relatively speaking, of course.

The ultimate schedule flexibility would be running again, but considering how good the PF was not feeling this morning, I’m a little way away from that, still. (Just for fun, today it’s both arches that are aching. Left foot, what did I do to deserve this?)

I had to double up on shirts today, riding in to work. It’s cooling off. I used to wonder why cyclists needed that bizarre article of clothing, the “arm warmer,” but I’m beginning to understand; my core is warm, because my heart is working (and because my core is usually warm,) and my legs are warm, because they’re working. But my arms, for the most part, are just along for the ride, and they’re freezing.

Now playing: Just Like Fred Astaire from Millionaires by James

Posted by pjm at 3:11 PM | Comments (0)

August 2, 2004

Waiting for the light

There’s an intersection on my bike route to work where I have to make a left turn. There’s a traffic light with a left-turn arrow.

Normally I’d be a good boy and wait for the arrow, but the early morning rides have revealed that me on my bike is not enough whatever to trigger the turn arrow. (It’s not clear exactly how the light is cued. Older lights use detectors embedded in the pavement, and you can spoof those with a bicycle by slowly weaving across the wires, but newer lights use motion detectors. Whatever this is detecting, it’s not seeing me.) If I’m going to be a good boy, I’m going to be sitting at the intersection until a car making a left turn pulls up behind me—pretty uncomfortable, since I’m not good enough to do a track stand.

Instead, I’ve taken to going when the opposing light (not really directly across, but never mind) gives that traffic a left arrow, or some other light configuration when I’m unlikely to wind up a hood ornament. It’s a morning puzzle: what’s the safest way to get across the intersection without waiting through four or five cycles of the light?

(The instructor of my systems course used traffic lights to illustrate state machines, which is probably why I sit at the intersection trying to figure out how to hack the lights instead of rolling down the hill to the town hall and simply asking.)

Of course, I wouldn’t be in this fix if I was truly a stickler for traffic rules, and didn’t ride a few hundred meters the wrong way on a one-way street to get out of my neighborhood.

Now playing: Just Wednesday from Devil Hopping by Inspiral Carpets

Posted by pjm at 9:36 AM | Comments (0)

July 22, 2004

Head in the oven

Between moving around, giving blood and the consequent weakness, and the physical therapy schedule, today is the first day I’ve biked in to work for a while. Just now, looking out the front door at the hazy sunshine, I thought of an advantage to riding, this time of year. At the end of the day, I don’t have to go out and get in a car which has been sitting in the sun all day. And I don’t have to do the little dance with the windows: leave them open for ventilation? Close them against the thunderstorm which is forever hovering over the horizon?

No worries. Just stash the bike in the basement.

I seem to have lost momentum on replacing the bike. This has the advantage of saving some money, and perhaps reducing some overall consumption of natural resources. But perhaps I should replace the tires; I can see the cords in the sidewall of one of them.

Now playing: Blues For Your Baby from Too Close To Heaven • The Unreleased Fisherman’s Blues Sessions by The Waterboys

Posted by pjm at 11:18 AM | Comments (0)

July 7, 2004


“If the furnace is hot enough, it will burn anything.” —nutrition summarized in J.L. Parker’s Once a Runner

On a cool summer morning like this one, when my thin long-sleeve shirt is barely enough to keep my arms warm on my ride to work and the mist lies down in the stream beds before the sun rises enough to evaporate it, I can feel my breath like a plume of steam. It’s easy to imagine myself as the exhaust vent for some industrial boiler, burning slowly but completely. Or one of the giant coke works I used to see in Bethlehem, coming back towards Emmaus from points east on 78, cracking molecules in intense heat and spilling off the surplus in a colorful flare.

It’s nice to imagine myself with a surplus of anything, actually.

Now playing: P.S. from Laid by James

Posted by pjm at 9:36 AM | Comments (0)

June 30, 2004

We're gaining

When I pulled up to the stop line at the traffic light in North Amherst this morning, I was the only vehicle in the center (“go straight”) lane; there were two waiting in the left-turn lane.

In the moment before the light turned green, I looked left and nodded at the other cyclist in the left-turn lane, with the car waiting its turn behind him.

Now playing: Cortez The Killer from A Box Of Birds by The Church

Posted by pjm at 1:13 PM | Comments (4)

June 18, 2004

Rolling in

It’s been two days in a row now that I’ve sat up in the bed and wondered if riding the bike to work (abbreviated in my mind as “riding in”) is really the best idea. Once I’ve sat up, however, it’s not hard to get going. This self-powered commute is much, much easier to get motivated for than a daily run. Maybe it’s just as well that I’m not running. It’s too bad the schedule makes it hard to ride in and swim at the pool on the same day, but perhaps when Puffer’s Pond is warm enough for a stop on the way home, I’ll be able to wear myself out enough on a daily basis to prevent spontaneous combustion.

I could, very easily, take side streets from the apartment as far as UMass, and pick up my route there, but I usually ride through town. They’ve got bike lanes painted on the main road, and I feel like I should use them in an effort to keep them from going away. Still, when I sit at the left turn lane in the center of town, my bike and I aren’t enough to trigger the green arrow; I usually wind up waiting until a car pulls up behind me. I should probably go on the pedestrian signal, but I think I’m too bloody-minded for that; either I’m on foot and a pedestrian, or I’m a vehicle in traffic. I can’t have it both ways.

Both days, as well, I’ve been the first one in the office. I’ve been expanding the front-page design I rolled out a few weeks ago to all the sub-pages in the site, which has given me a chance to increase the modularization of the templates (it’s a good thing, trust me) and comb for obsolete or broken pages. I’ve been putting on the headphones and really digging in, which I haven’t done for a good long while. It’s fun to see it working, and in particular the design is much more attractive than it was previously. The whole site looks more professional. I wonder if I would have done as much if I didn’t have some momentum right away in the morning. I don’t usually have this much done by 10:30.

Now playing: I Know She’s In the Building from Bring ‘Em All In by Mike Scott

Posted by pjm at 10:30 AM | Comments (0)

June 5, 2004

Temporary reprieve for the Bird Sanctuary

It’s been a long time since I posted about the Bird Sanctuary Parking Lot, but I guess it’s been a long time since I had anything to post. Today I got this update through the email list:

[The president] made an announcement concerning our efforts at the Commencement faculty meeting. The college will be converting the upper tennis courts to a temporary parking lot and halting any immediate plans for the creation of a lot in the existing Bird Sanctuary.

The email goes on to confirm my opinion that “this is very good news, but it is by no means a victory,” and urges continued efforts towards “a sustainable solution to parking at the college.” (For one, I doubt the athletic director is pleased with this news.)

One thing I observed this spring, while I was busy being disappointed that they couldn’t get some kind of commitment from the students, was a truly remarkable number of cars regularly parked above the softball field (far side of the track) for intramural softball games. Do you want to really make a difference in the number of cars students feel they need on campus? Talk to the ones that feel they need to drive to the softball field. It’s not a big campus, folks. My walk from the apartment to the pool this winter was longer than most possible dorm-to-softball walks.

I wonder if there are some opposing mind-sets on campus. On one side, the environmentally-minded long-term thinkers (like myself, except I’m neither a student nor on campus.) They recognize the way our national love affair with (and enslavement to) our vehicles is creating a future resources problem and how parking on campus is but one manifestation of this future problem. The opposed mind-set is more pragmatic. I don’t empathize, so I can only try: at best, what good is it doing for me to give up my car when nobody else is. At worst, I’m going to drive my SUV around as much as possible so those tree-hugging weenies can see how much I care about them and their precious causes.

To date, I’ve only heard the, er, tree-hugging weenies. (I’ve met some of them. Many are runners. I like them. Not just because they’re runners, I promise.) I haven’t heard or read anything from the others; in fact, as near as I can tell, they aren’t saying anything.

They’re just driving SUVs to the other side of a relatively small campus for an intramural softball game.

Until we—me and the other tree-hugging weenies—can convince the others that this is a real problem which requires a concerted solution—heck, until we can reach them and get them to engage the idea that there’s a problem—there will be no sustainable solution.

Until then I’m just one more snowflake on the less-driving snowball, hoping eventually we’ll have enough for an avalanche.

Now playing: The Day I Let Glory Steer from This Town Is Wrong by Nerissa & Katryna Nields

Posted by pjm at 7:02 PM | Comments (0)

May 17, 2004


It’s bike commute week here in the Pioneer Valley, and I’m trying to ride to work four days out of five. Five out of five would be cool, but some days it’s just not possible.

I have three possible routes to work: I can drive, which is most convenient, fastest, and costs a bit less than $2 in gasoline. I can take a bus, which is relatively slow (30 min. one way,) on a limited schedule now that the University is not in session, and costs $1.80 (two $0.90 passes.) And I can bike or run, which takes about twenty minutes (riding) to an hour (running a roundabout route,) is route-flexible (after-work Puffer’s Pond stops are both reasonable and practical) and is fueled in a way I actually enjoy—specifically, me chowing down.

(I have heard people who claim they run not because they like to run, but because they love to eat. I have some sympathy for that point of view.)

There’s the odd car that doesn’t share my view of the rules of the road (I’m not blocking traffic, I am traffic) but I’m just enough of an opinionated coot to give back as good as I get in most cases.

In a way, Bike Commute Week is an attempt at organized action on high gas prices: people voluntarily using no gasoline for a day, two days, a week. And hopefully discovering that it’s a reasonable alternative to paying for gas. I don’t, in theory, have a problem with paying for gasoline; even at $2-plus per gallon, I don’t think the price we’re paying represents the real cost of the resource. So I don’t think the proper response to historic highs in the price of gasoline is to complain about the price and ask the oil-company fat cats to lower it. (Well, maybe they’re not historic highs, but I can remember filling this same car at $0.85/gallon, so within the past six years it has more than doubled.) They are, after all, giving us what we’re asking for, and thanks to something in the pricing structure in this country (I can never figure out if it’s government, subsidy, lower taxes, or government subsidy in the form of lower taxes) we still pay less for gasoline than nearly everyone else in the world.

So, if you don’t like the price, don’t buy it. I don’t like paying $50 monthly for the two or three hours of television which might actually enrich my life (but which I don’t have time for anyway,) so I don’t. If I don’t like paying $2/gallon for gasoline, I should drive less. I’m willing to cough up for trips to see my nieces, to road races, etc., but the convenience of burning fossil fuels to get me to work each day might not be worth the real cost. So I’ll try non-motorized transit for a while.

I’m fortunate in that biking to work is realistic for me (only about a twenty-minute ride.) But I think it might be more than just good fortune; I think I’ll always want to arrange my life such that a person-powered commute is possible.

Now, where the rubber will really hit the road is when I buy my next car. Peppy and fun or principled and efficient? Maybe I can hang on to the black horse until I don’t have to choose.

Now playing: Shakin’ from Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia by The Dandy Warhols

Posted by pjm at 10:59 AM | Comments (0)

May 12, 2004

Shakedown spin

Since next week is Bike Week, I thought I’d ride in to work once or twice this week, both to get myself in the habit (I hope to ride at least three out of five days next week) and remind myself what steps I need to take to make it work on a daily basis.

This is the first time I’ve biked in since moving back to Amherst from Northampton, so the route wasn’t entirely familiar. There was at least one climb I hadn’t been anticipating, since I went up Route 63 and cut across into Sunderland rather than ride on Route 116. But I’d say the biggest lesson from today’s shakedown cruise is that in addition to work clothes, I need to remember a belt.

Fortunately these pants aren’t ones that require a belt, though when I’ve forgotten this checkbox on the list before, I have been known to improvise with Cat-5 cable.

Now playing: Where Is My Mind? from Surfer Rosa by The Pixies

Posted by pjm at 9:36 AM | Comments (2)

April 29, 2004

Roll the bulldozers

Tomorrow is the deadline for students at The College to give up 100 parking permits in an attempt to stave off construction of the parking lot in the pine grove. According to email I got today from two of the students active in the effort to avoid this lot, they haven’t even made it to ten, which will leave the decision in the hands of the president.

This is one of those cases when I hate to be proved right:

I can’t honestly see any resolution other than the students, as a body, saying, “We’re willing to give up this, this, and this convenience in order to preserve this open space.” And I’m a little too cynical to expect that outcome.

I don’t know if I’m allowed to be disappointed when I hadn’t really expected much more in the first place. But I am.

Now playing: Not The Same from the album Rockin’ The Suburbs by Ben Folds

Posted by pjm at 12:08 PM | Comments (0)

April 14, 2004

As reported in the Stupid

OK, so I don’t have a terribly high opinion of The College’s newspaper (a weekly). Still, I’m somewhat surprised at the lack of stories about the Parking Lot in the Amherst Student:

The online archive seems to lag a week (or more?) behind the printed editions, so there may be more in this week’s edition.

Update: Nothing at all in the April 14 edition. I guess this isn’t really the “spring controversy.”

Update: April 21 edition includes this Letter to the Editors (scroll to the second letter) and this remarkably reasonable Editorial.

Posted by pjm at 9:46 PM | Comments (0)

April 13, 2004

Buying environmentalism

The update on the parking lot meeting came by email today. As near as I can work it out from the report of one attendee (representing student government, so not exactly disengaged) sentiment at the meeting was pretty conservative: let’s see what we can do with alternate parking, and have a referendum on limiting student parking not in ‘04-‘05, but in ‘05-‘06. (I’m not sure what they saw that solving, other than how to tell their classmates they didn’t want them having cars.)

The president was (rightly, I think) opposed to the responsibility-ducking aspects of the referendum, and dismissed the arguments against a cash incentive for giving up parking permits (roughly, you’re giving more money to the people who already have greater resources in the form of a car) “because it’s for the common good.” (I’m not sure I buy that part.)

So the student government is going after commitments from 100 students not to bring cars next year, using $200 each as an incentive. I’m not thrilled, I guess, for a number of reasons. It reminds me of the worst sort of federal subsidy, temporarily changing behavior but not really creating lasting change (and creating a sense of entitlement in the meantime.) It misses a spectacular “teachable moment” where voluntary individual action saves a common resource. And, more to the point, it merely pushes the problem back for a year or so, while adding to next year’s debate the question, “Will we get the $200 again this year?”

There’s also the problem of who qualifies for the $200. Do you need to have a permit this year or not? (One anonymous poster on the Daily Jolt forum posted along the lines of, “Sweet! $200 for giving up my parking permit? I’m getting a parking permit immediately!”) How about first-years who weren’t eligible for permits this year?

Well, maybe they’ve saved the Bird Sanctuary for now. But I think they’ve missed a chance for positive long-term change. Still, I’ll take the woods however I can get them.

Posted by pjm at 5:07 PM | Comments (0)

April 9, 2004

Parking lot rhubarb

So, there’s supposed to be a 9:00 PM meeting on Sunday (the 11th) about this parking lot.

Of course, none of the emails which tell me that, include the vital “where” information. If you’re in the area, and looking for the meeting, I suggest standing in front of the Campus Center and hollering.

For various reasons, I have schedule conflicts. They’re inevitable, nowadays: I have trouble going to things I’m interested in due to prior commitments to things I probably ought to be doing.

Update: The meeting will be in Merrill 3. I can’t remember if 3 is the biggest one or the smallest one.

Posted by pjm at 2:42 PM | Comments (1)

April 7, 2004

The p(arking )lot thickens

The problem with being on this email distribution list discussing the proposed parking lot in a pine grove is that all the discussion takes place on student hours. In other words, long after I’m asleep.

The latest development, apparently to be reported in today’s Student, is that President Marx has “put aside $20,000 to be used as a sort of incentive for people with cars to forgo their parking permits.”


Since the latest guess is about 100 students voluntarily giving up their parking permits, that works out to roughly $200 each. More to the point, it changes the transaction from, “Give up your car to save this beautiful pine grove from sodium-vapor lights, pavement and exhaust fumes,” to “Give up your car for $200.” Something about that feels too much like the $300 “tax refund checks” from the eternal revenue service which arrived in late 2001—it feels like one’s opinions are being bought. (I considered my grandfather, and gave that particular check to the Red Cross, who, sadly, turned out to need it much more than I did.)

My concern is that a $20k incentive encourages a quick and transient fix. It doesn’t encourage long-term behavior modification to remove the root of the problem. The correlation to a current high-profile issue in international relations will be left as an exercise for the more politically-inclined reader.

The discussion is getting heated. One writer pointed out that the idea of direct incentive rewarded those who were already financially advantaged, i.e. they had cars. Clearly not someone who saw my student car, already ten years old when it arrived on campus with doors that didn’t match the body (I got them for $200 at a junkyard in Chelsea, Maine.) Or the twenty or so of my classmates who pooled $100 each to buy a beater which they shared between them.

Another writer:

The convenience of having a car on campus has a cash value, so giving up that convenience is a cash loss. Therefore the $200 (or whatever) is not a cash reward, but merely compensation for a tangible loss. Not very unfair.

I don’t buy that one either, because the “value” of having a car on campus is paid for directly in gas and maintenance (the reason I graduated with credit card debt,) and indirectly in noise, pollution, and the need for parking lots like the one that sparked this discussion in the first place. To me, it seems that the whole point is that that price is too high. And we should refuse to pay it.

Update: A point I wish I’d made: one bright lad brought up Zipcar.

Posted by pjm at 10:29 AM | Comments (0)

April 2, 2004

Parking lot

I’m in St. Louis now, so suddenly a parking lot in a pine grove seems a long way away, but I got myself added to a circulation list of discussion, so I have some email.

There was an article in the Wednesday Daily Hampshire Gazette about the controversy, but since the Gazette is now requiring registration I doubt anyone who doesn’t actually get the hard-copy will bother to read it. Nothing substantially new, except for the biology professor (!) who said a lot in a “border area” wasn’t such a bad idea compared to pushing back “further into the woods.”

The good news is, the student opposition to the lot seems to be well-organized and resourceful; rather than just complaining, they have raised an alternative site for the lot (the unused “upper” tennis courts behind the Merrill Science Center and the temporary modular dorms known as “the mods”) and have created enough momentum in student goverment to start a referendum where the students would agree to limit their own parking rights. Currently first-years aren’t allowed to have cars on campus; this would restrict parking “rights” to juniors and seniors, with a sort of draw system for sophomores to keep the numbers in check. So perhaps I was too cynical about the students being able to make sacrifices to preserve their environment.

If they can pull it off, I think it will be pretty impressive: a community of people making individual sacrifices for an indirect collective good. Possibly a more important lesson than any being taught in the classrooms.

Posted by pjm at 10:09 AM | Comments (1)

March 30, 2004

Big yellow taxi

So, it looks like the College has found its annual spring controversy.

By definition, the Spring Controversy is something (relatively) harmless that the student body can get worked up about as spring arrives and they stop worrying about freezing to death on their way to the library. In my time, it was things like a (deliberately) shocking (but, apparently, not terribly artistic) play being performed in the only consecrated chapel on campus, which then required re-consecration, an alleged homophobic hate crime in the dorms and the alleged whitewash that followed, stuff like that. Given that I only remember two from my four years, and so far as I know all directly affected by those two have gone on to productive lives (I found a link for the hate crime victim a few months ago, but won’t post it here for obvious reasons,) for the most part we made mountains out of molehills.

Now they’ve found something that actually has real-world consequences. The ongoing dorm construction on campus is about to collide with the increasing number of cars on campus (not surprisingly, more students have cars on campus now than when I was there, even though not that much time has passed.) In a note on the faculty services page, the Facilities Planning and Management director explains that faculty will be taking over the Alumni Lot (so named because it is next to Alumni House, a vestigal little building used only for functions and receptions) and displacing student parking. And they propose creating a new lot behind the tennis courts to handle the student overflow.

Since the space in question is currently woods known as the “Bird Sanctuary,” you can imagine that this has created a little uproar. Yes, they’re proposing to pave Paradise to put in a parking lot.

There’s a lot involved here.

  • There’s a student lot (Hills Lot) which is barely ever close to full. It’s just difficult to get to, because it’s on the other side of an active rail line.

  • The cross-country course goes through the bird sanctuary. I have noticed a number of runners in the discussion.

  • One good discussion that has been sparked is the, “How many of us really need cars on such a tiny campus, anyway” discussion. I doubt it will have any lasting consequences unless the students back administration restrictions on students having cars on campus, which they probably won’t.

  • There’s already a small, “temporary” (unpaved) parking lot back there, under the power lines that pass through the bird sanctuary, where contractors park. The change is: expansion, pavement, 24 hour lighting.

  • Another side discussion: why was most of the notification aimed at faculty, and not students? (I can’t say that I’m too wound about that myself; there has been no notification to the community, which we can’t really scream about, but we also can’t graduate and go elsewhere.)

  • There’s a lot of land back there, but a lot of it is swampy. It’s not the wildlife that we’re concerned about, apparently, so much as our ability to go out and walk around with the wildlife.

I can’t honestly see any resolution other than the students, as a body, saying, “We’re willing to give up this, this, and this convenience in order to preserve this open space.” And I’m a little too cynical to expect that outcome. For one thing, the time frame is too short. By the time they’re ready to make a decision, it will be time to go home for the summer, and next fall they will have forgotten it all happened. Except for the cross-country team, which will have to re-route their course (again).

Side effect of all this: I’ve discovered that, as a user of the alumni mail system, I have access to “Planworld,” a sort of community bulletin board which could be comprehensibly explained to an alum of my vintage but would be hopelessly confusing to anyone else, I suspect. I had previously thought it was limited to current members of the college community.

Posted by pjm at 2:16 PM | Comments (0)