Monday, April 15, 2019

Dinky Buses Running on Different Schedule While Bridge is Closed

It makes sense, but there was no notice of a schedule change online.

And the NJ Transit schedule from Princeton Junction to NY still has a link to a schedule that was outdated six months ago, on October 13.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Quality Control in the Local Park

Our house straddles two worlds. In front, there's the ever increasing stream of autos and trucks on Harrison Street. But behind the house is a yard full of wildflowers and beyond that a small Princeton park. We had chickens for many years, and ducks, and the miniponds have attracted several visits from a great blue heron.

The park, into which we can slip through a small homemade gate, is hidden away, known mostly to neighbors, and tends to receive contributions of toys and basketballs from those who use it. Some of the toys are in better shape than others, and some of the basketballs are more inflated than others. Here, as everywhere else in the world, there is an ongoing influx of stuff with no clear mechanism for quality control, repair or disposal.

A friend whose kids are still young enough to go there recently told me that the level of disrepair and deflation had reached an uncomfortable high. I stopped by, and noticed the most clearly offending item. It was a big wagon that from a distance looked like it would be really cool to pull kids around on, like a hay wagon ride. Closer inspection showed it to have long since transitioned from rustic to just plain rust, with all four tires permanently flat.

For me, with a pastoral backyard and busy front yard, the solution was obvious. The rusty wagon was hauled from the park to our front curb, where it quickly disappeared into one of those scrap trucks that passes by. A little communication, a little action--the system works, sometimes.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Student Climate Summit May 11

Students are encouraged to attend and present at the upcoming Next Gen Student Climate Summit organized by students and faculty at Princeton Day School. There's an April 12 deadline to submit proposals for presentations. Liz Cutler is the contact for more info. See below.

Register now, and submit a proposal to present, lead a discussion and/or set up a table display!

Next Gen Student Climate Summit
May 11, 2019, 10:30am-4:30pm 
The Watershed Institute, Pennington, NJ

A gathering for and by students across the region, the Next Gen Climate Summit relies on you!

Help lead the Summit by sharing information in any of these environmental activism and action areas:

  • sustainability actions in your school 
  • sustainability actions & activism in your community 
  • specific impacts of climate change

Don't miss the APRIL 12 deadline to submit proposals! 

Questions? Contact

The Next Gen climate summit is an annual event hosted by Princeton Day School student climate leaders and partnering schools and organizations.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The Four "C"'s Princeton Needs to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle

Here's a useful mnemonic device for summarizing the challenges Princeton faces with recycling and collection of various residential organic materials. The four "C"'s (containers, compliance, consequence, and control) are necessary to achieve the three "R"'s (reuse, reduce, recycle).

Containers: In municipalities outside NJ, and perhaps inside as well, the 32, 64, or 96 gallon carts with wheels and attached covers are the norm. Every homeowner has the same containers, rolls them out to the curb once a week, then stows them away.

Princeton is not like that. Perhaps there's a resistance to conformity. Trash day brings out a hodgepodge of trash containers. The recycling containers are stubbornly undersized, uncovered, and unstable, and yardwaste ends up in endlessly varied piles in the streets and on the curb, for lack of containerization beyond a limited collection of yardwaste bags.

The situation begs for better containerization. More and more Princeton residents purchase trash carts with lids and wheels, proving the utility and popularity of this design. Though a small version of the standard cart design has been used for the curbside organics (foodwaste) collections (green cart in photo), there are larger versions widely used elsewhere for trash, recycling, and a mix of foodwaste and yardwaste. The lidded carts also provide an opportunity to put instructions on the lids, to improve compliance (see below).

Compliance: Lack of compliance is an ongoing problem in recycling (plastic bags, etc.) and both containerized and loose yardwaste collections.

Consequence: Princeton has cut back on the spring/fall yardwaste bag pickups because people were putting dirt in the bags and Lawrenceville didn't like that (see "control", below), but another approach would be to maintain or expand containerized pickups while enforcing the rules. Lack of consequence drives lack of compliance. Though enforcement of rules for throwing loose yardwaste in the streets proved very difficult, it would be relatively easy to enforce regulations for containerized yardwaste if compost carts were provided. The carts can be clearly labeled as to what can be put in them, and since collection is done by town crews (unlike recycling and trash), notes can be left on the carts alerting the owner of any infraction.

Control: Princeton's recycling program is run by Mercer County. That means that the town has no control over the container design and what people put in them. Thus, we're still stuck with undersized green and yellow tubs that overflow and spill in the wind. On the composting front, Lawrenceville owns and controls the composting facility, and because the facility apparently still has a grinder that cannot grind leaves and sticks at the same time, Princeton residents are required to separate brush from leaves. This requirement complicates any move towards the sort of streamlined containerization of yardwaste one sees elsewhere in the country, where leaves, food scraps, and sticks can be tossed in the same compost cart. State regulations will pose an additional hurdle, since the most logical and efficient solution--co-composting of food scraps and yardwaste--requires a special permit in NJ.

These four "C"'s all impact a fifth, namely Cost. For an example, Princeton has had four separate pickups for compostables: leaves, brush, yardwaste bags, and organics (foodwaste). That's a lot of heavy vehicles driving down the street, and a lot of administrative time working out complicated schedules. Though it would be nice to be wrong about this, the cost of all these various pickups has yet to be analyzed, as far as I know. 

Sunday, February 24, 2019

A New Use for Princeton's 1000 Green Compost Carts

With the suspension of Princeton's curbside organics collection, about 1000 households now have green compost carts that have gone idle. Residents have been asked to keep the green carts, but the suspension of service could continue indefinitely.

Is there a good use for the carts in the meantime, particularly given that the meantime could last a long time? One excellent and appropriate use is for yardwaste. For fifteen weeks in spring and summer, Princeton has a truck that picks up bags of yardwaste curbside. The green carts are the same size as a full yardwaste bag, so could easily be integrated into the existing program.

Residents could of course, still use the yardwaste bags, but will find the green cart a very useful addition, since it has wheels for easy transport and a top to keep the contents dry. Containerizing yardwaste helps keep streets clean and unobstructed, and prevents the killing of grass when loose yardwaste is placed on the extension next to the curb. Ultimately, containerization could give Princeton beautiful clean streets for most of the year.

Would some residents be confused and, out of habit, mix food scraps in with the yardwaste? The solution is to clearly mark the green carts so that residents know what's allowed and what's not allowed. If and when Princeton resumes its food scrap collection, the yardwaste-only signs on the green carts could easily be covered over. This points to a major advantage of compost carts for containerizing yardwaste. Unlike single use yardwaste bags, the compost carts can be clearly marked as to what contents are allowed, and the crews get to see what's inside when they empty the carts' contents into the truck. Any violations can be spotted, and a warning placed on the emptied cart to set the resident straight.

The curbside programs for collecting yardwaste and recyclables have both been hampered by contamination. Rules are constantly being broken due to lack of enforcement. The recycling program, however, is run by the county, so Princeton cannot enforce the rules. The food scrap "organics" collections were contracted out, again making enforcement difficult. Though the collection of loose leaves and brush is done by town crews, the nature of that process has made enforcement difficult.

Only the collection of containerized yardwaste provides hope for enforcement that will reduce contamination. Collection is done by town crews, who can be trained to give feedback, and most importantly, notes of violation can easily be attached to the container and left at the curb.

With 1000 green compost carts sitting idle, this would seem an ideal time to deploy the compost carts in a useful way, at no expense and with no reduction in any existing service.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The King's Speech on Climate Change

What happens when The King's Speech is adapted to address climate change? One of my Climate Cabaret's theatrical sketches--a climate-adapted version of The King's Speech, has been made into a film by filmmaker Sam Russell. The five minute film stars Fred Dennehy as England's King George VI. I wrote the screen adaptation from the original 1939 speech, and James Degnen producer. Sam did a beautiful job with this movie, which has been shown on Climate Monitor TV and is being submitted to environmental film festivals.

The film can also be viewed on Sam Russell's website:

The King's Speech on Climate Change from Sam Russell on Vimeo.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Do Princeton's Recyclables Go to the Landfill?

There's an urban legend that recyclables don't really get recycled. I've proven this legend false in the past, and decided to research our local situation once again after reading a letter to the editor about recycling in a local paper.

The letter rightly lamented how residents frequently contaminate their curbside recyclables by using plastic bags to hold the bottles, cans and plastics. The bags are not supposed to be included in the curbside recyclables, and in fact can gum up the machines at the plant where the mixed recyclables are taken for sorting.

You can see in these photos that part of the problem is that Princeton's recycling containers are undersized and overwhelmed. People seem to use plastic bags in part because the recyclables might otherwise spill out of the bins, as happens when wind blows them over.

Something didn't sound quite right, however, about another assertion in the letter: that perfectly good recyclables (plastics 1 and 2, cans, paper, etc) are often rejected due to plastic bag contamination, and therefore get sent to the landfill. Though this assertion is dramatic, and might motivate some people to be more careful about keeping plastic bags out of their recycling bins, it also can feed the cynical urban legend that recyclables don't really get recycled.

The letter writer had been careful to run the letter by members of town government prior to submitting it to the local paper, and had gotten her information from a staff member in the town's Department of Public Works. So the claim came with a seemingly good pedigree.

What's true? On multiple occasions in the past, I've contacted the sorting plant where Princeton's recyclables go, and even toured the facility, and though plastic bags can cause problems with their machinery, they did not say anything about rejecting recyclables due to plastic bag contamination. I tried to imagine the scenario. Our recyclables are taken to a transfer station, then the many individual truckloads are co-mingled and loaded in semis for the trip to the MRF (Material Recovery Facility--here's an example), where they are dumped on the tipping floor. Where in this process do we know of a load of recyclables being rejected and sent instead to the landfill?

I decided to call Colgate Paper Recycling, the past and presumably present destination for Mercer County's recyclables, including Princeton's. They take recyclables from towns and businesses, often arriving in semi-trailers that spill their contents on the tipping floor. From there, the recyclables travel up through a maze of conveyor belts with sensors that help sort out the recyclables. Out the other end of the plant come bails of separated paper, plastics, and metals.

Through some luck, a knowledgable man answered the phone. We talked for awhile, and it came to light that no load of recyclables is ever rejected. If a load is contaminated in some way, the plant may pay the hauler less for that particular load. This can happen a couple times a week. There is no way a municipality can be held accountable by Colgate, because they receive recyclables in large semis from the transfer station, and each load contains recyclables from multiple towns, all mixed together.

The only other place a load of Princeton's recyclables could be rejected is at the transfer station. Imagining the logistics, it's hard to see how this could happen. The load would have to be dumped in order to tell whether it is contaminated, and then the contaminated load would have to be set aside, reloaded in a truck and taken to the landfill--a tremendous inconvenience. And for the contamination to be sufficiently severe, Solterra's own crews would need to have willingly put the contaminated materials in their truck during curbside collection.

Logistically, the claim that good recyclables are going to the landfill due to contamination doesn't make sense. More likely, all recyclables, no matter how contaminated, get hauled to the Colgate plant, which deals with them as best it can.

I then asked about plastics numbered 3-7. The man said that these are no longer recycled. However, that doesn't mean that Colgate sends them to the landfill. There are alternative uses that are being experimented with. This raises the question of whether we should be including plastics 3-7 in our recycling bins. Mercer County says no, and Princetonians are expected to follow that dictate. The presence of 3-7 plastics in the waste-stream means more sorting by Colgate, for little or no profit.

But given that many, perhaps most, residents ignore the rules and put plastics 3-7 in their bins, and Princeton is not in a position to enforce the county's rules, a case can be made that any accumulation of a particular material will stimulate someone to seek a use for it. If 3-7 get sent straight to the landfill, there will be no motivation for people to find uses for those plastics. Colgate doesn't like to deal with plastics 3-7, but given their presence in the recycling stream, the plant does try to find alternatives to sending them to the landfill. To be clear, if anything having to do with recycling is clear, even though Colgate includes plastics 3-7 on their list of acceptable materials, they prefer not to have to deal with them.

All of this complexity drives home some basic truths. A lot of people like plastic bags. People want packaging to be recyclable. They prefer putting items in the recycle bin even when repeatedly told not to. Do we deal with this by sending people long, complicated lists only to see those lists ignored? Or do we demand that government at the state and federal levels regulate packaging to require that it all be easily recycled anywhere the product is sold?

Though it's true that regulation can create unnecessary complexity, it's also true that a lack of regulation of packaging has created huge complexity for ordinary people who must scrutinize each one-use container to decide whether to throw it in with recyclables or in with the trash. The unregulated manufacturers are happy. They can create a package most likely to seduce the shopper, and then the shopper, the environment, and the whole recycling industry has to deal with the "day after," the bafflingly complex task of deciding what to do with all those spent containers.

Some other tidbits: The man at Colgate said that soiled pizza boxes cause problems for cardboard processors. (This, as is typical in the complex world of recycling, contradicts what I heard last year on a PBS NewsHour segment on recycling, where an interviewee said that greasy pizza boxes aren't a problem.) He also said that a big problem comes from businesses--long strips of backing for labels get tangled in the machines.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Princeton Recyclables Litter Local Waterways

For anyone who has lived outside the Princeton bubble, the approach to recycling collection here can seem odd. Other towns and cities I've lived in or visited have long since switched to rollcarts as the container of choice for holding recyclables and, for that matter, trash and yardwaste, but Princeton has long been a part of Mercer County's recycling program, which uses these small yellow and green tubs. Despite their flaws, they sometimes seem like they will outlive civilization.

The flaws become apparent any time recycling day coincides with stormy weather. The small, lidless tubs or "buckets" are often overflowing with recyclables, and unstable. Winds tip them over, scattering their contents and causing the containers themselves to roll out into traffic. Many stormdrains have bigger openings than this one, which means that all over Princeton on recycling day, thousands of plastic containers are dropping into the stormdrain system, from which they will enter local waterways and potentially feed the widening gyres of plastic out in the oceans.

As with the feeding of climate change that we do daily, this massive littering is unintentional, and is therefore tolerated. When, as a member of the Princeton Environmental Commission years back, I suggested switching to rollcarts, which are more stable, have wheels, lids and larger capacity, there was a surprising amount of pushback, suggesting that the town and county are tightly bound to a status quo that gives Princetonians little choice but to continue collectively littering streets and waterways for the foreseeable future.

This blog has many posts about recycling in Princeton, to be found at this link.
Some examples:

Friday, January 11, 2019

Science's Role in Sustaining Democracy

"It's a readiness to be wrong that motivates the study needed to be right."

Andrew Zwicker, one of Princeton's two representatives in the state house, spoke this week to a full room at Mercer County Community College. It was part of a monthly series of talks hosted by the NJ Sierra Club. Assemblyman Zwicker is one of our few, perhaps the only, representative in government who is trained as a scientist. I attended not only because Zwicker is a gifted speaker, but also because of the subject.

The title of the talk, "Scientific Literacy and Democracy," struck a chord with me particularly because the plight of nature has increasingly found a parallel in growing threats to democracy. Both are at risk in a time when truth is being attacked, denied, ignored, downgraded, and generally dismissed. There is the national reality of a leader who cannot see beyond his own skin, and a broad-based, corrosive and paralyzing polarization that thrives on a dismissive attitude towards evidence.

Andrew Zwicker is a rare breed, a scientist who is also comfortable in front of an audience, and he has taken that extra step of bringing his scientific abilities into the political realm. An evidence-based perspective could be a unifying influence if it caught on among his colleagues at the statehouse.

Having a couple science degrees, I have found myself increasingly aware that my mind works differently from many who lack science training. Most significantly, that training can help direct skepticism not only outward but inward as well, at one's own views.

Most of the world's polarization and radicalism would disappear if people directed as much skepticism inward as outward. Science, and its pursuit of truth, is like a lifeline being extended to a world fractured by unfounded opinion. The political polarization we suffer through is artificially created by people who refuse to adjust their views in the face of evidence.

My views are built on varying degrees of knowledge, experience, and observation. Some of those views are better supported than others, and all are subject to revision in the face of new evidence. Scientific training is liberating, in that it allows facts to exist independent of what we might wish were true. Unentangled from our emotions and sense of self, facts need not be feared or clung to, but can be built into an evidence-based view of the world.

My older daughter went through a phase in which she'd periodically declare, with a mixture of surprise and pride, "I changed my mind!" There's pleasure in that flexibility, that openness to new evidence, and my sense is that many people have lost that openness. Recently I was on an advisory committee, developing a list of proposals for action on climate change. The subject had everything to do with science, but only a few of us appointed to the committee had scientific training. A couple of us with a scientific background made suggestions, with some supporting evidence, expecting that if others disagreed, they would provide counter evidence. Being open to new evidence, I might have changed my mind if someone had a more convincing argument. Instead, people simply didn't respond, and continued to stick to their own views without feeling compelled to defend them. They'd mention something they'd read in a book that they liked the sound of, and it would turn out that even the book, though about science, was written by someone who lacked training in science.

During Q and A with Assemblyman Zwicker, I mentioned this curious phenomenon, that science-related advisory committees and science writing can be dominated by people lacking science training. A science editor for the NY Times once wrote a deeply flawed oped denying the threat of invasive species. Turned out he was a Princeton grad with a PhD in english. There are no doubt science writers who know much more than I do about many aspects of science, and yet there's something about science training that cultivates a healthy two-way skepticism, inward as well as outward. It's a readiness to be wrong that motivates the study needed to be right.

After the Q and A, a woman came up to me and said that data is the issue. Most people don't know what to do with data. Maybe she was referring to an analytical ability that develops over time. Science presents you with data, and you have to figure out what the data is suggesting, if anything, and whether it's strong enough to be conclusive. The process requires a great deal of patience, but it also requires an acceptance that there is a reality outside of oneself that really doesn't care about us and our emotional needs at all.

It's possible to experience that reality out in nature, when one gets far from the ever-expanding footprint of lights and noise, far enough that the only human presence is within one's own skin. For me, it's happened a few times, most strikingly while on an ocean shore late at night. The ocean waves crashed against the sand with a symphony of sound, and the stars shone bright in unfathomable numbers overhead. It was glorious, and yet I was aware that this rich nature cared not a wit about me. The same might be said of truth.

Assemblyman Zwicker, whose first slide included a quote from an astronomer, ended his talk with a quote from Carl Sagan, an astronomer who studied at the observatory I grew up next to:

Friday, December 14, 2018

Environmental Etiquette: Finding Flaw or Doing a Favor?

If you are a conservation-minded, fixer-upper type, and are visiting a friend and happen to see something about their house or garden that needs attention, what do you do? Do you point it out and offer to help? Maybe you spotted a weed in the garden that you know will cause grief later if it's not pulled before it spreads all around. Or maybe it's a filter on the air intake for the furnace that looks clogged with dust. Knowing how you tend to forget to change out such things in your own home, you know that your fresh eyes could be of use. Your friend's hosting you for a night or two, after all, and you want to do something in return. At the same time, it can be rude to walk into someone's garden or house and find flaw.

What to do? I was in this predicament while staying with my friend Dan during a recent recording session in Ann Arbor. I was sleeping in the finished basement, and noticed that the rarely used toilet down there had a slow leak. Even slow leaks can waste a lot of water and increase one's water bill substantially.

I hesitated to say anything, but finally did. We looked inside the tank and found an ancient system with a copper "float" that is supposed to automatically shut off flow when the water has pushed it up to a certain level. Something wasn't working, but we couldn't tell what, and the chances of finding parts for such an antique system seemed close to nil.

Intimidated, we left it as is. I had managed only to make my host aware of a seemingly unsolvable problem in his basement. But then a week later, he texted me a photo of the copper float sitting on a table. It had occurred to him to take a closer look at that old float. He discovered that, despite the ancient plumbing, he could remove the float from the toilet, and when he did, he found that it was half full of water. The float wasn't shutting off the water because the float wasn't really floating. He bought a new float, installed it, and the slow leak was stopped. Then, being of a resourceful musical bent, he dried out the copper float, drilled a small hole, put some rice seeds in it, and made it into a shaker, to be used for percussion.

This experience scores in the win-win-win category of sustainability, with two of the wins being physical (copper reuse and water conservation) and the other win being emotional (my relief at seeing my intervention being validated). There would be a fourth win in there if I had miraculously been able to make the trip without fossil fuels.

There's one lingering question: Did the idea for a "copper float shaker" arise before or after Dan repaired the slow leak? That is, did his fascination with the musical potential in objects (he had previously fashioned a guitar pick out of a walnut shell) contribute to his success in home repair?

Friday, December 07, 2018

McCarter-based Seniors Onstage: Free 12/12 performance at the Arts Council

Wednesday, Dec. 12 at 7pm is the last chance to see Onstage Senior's 2018 documentary theater program: “The Road I Travel: Choices and Chances that Shape Our Lives.” 

Onstage Seniors, A Community Program of McCarter Theatre is back for the final performance of its original documentary theater for 2018, highlighting senior memories and experiences. The ensemble – all over the age of 55 – is known for its performances of stories, based on interviews with the local community, in theaters, libraries, schools, prisons, senior centers and communities, and schools across New Jersey. We work up a new show each winter, to be performed from May through December.

The Arts Council's Solley Theater is a wonderful venue for seeing our group perform. Preregistration is encouraged, but no ticket is required. Click here for more info.

(Not shown in photo are Shirley Meeker and newer members Fred Dennehy and Leonie Infantry.)

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Mr. Sustainable's Easy Fix for a Broken Microwave

When our microwave suddenly played dead--its screen gone dark, its buttons unresponsive--Mr. Sustainable was ready. He immediately remembered the last time a microwave began acting strangely, working some days but not others. Back then, his nephew Rhys, wise in the ways of electronics, suggested checking the fuse. It was easy enough to unplug the microwave, unscrew the cover and look inside, and sure enough, replacing a little fuse was all that was needed to get the machine working again, good as ever. (That's the old fuse sitting on top of the microwave in the photo, after making the repair.)

This time, it was even easier, because Mr. Sustainable had bought a package of two fuses the time before and, knowing how little things can get lost, had affixed the extra one to the back of the microwave where it could be easily found. Didn't even have to go to the hardware store. The unused fuse went in, the microwave came back to life, problem solved.

Happy with himself and a world where problems are so easily fixed, Mr. Sustainable cooked a celebratory bowl of broccoli in the microwave with a little olive oil and salt, and chowed down.

In the process, he learned why people don't stick candles in celebratory broccoli. They melt. Who knew?

For previous adventures of Mr. Sustainable with microwave repair, read "Mr. Sustainable Gets a Twofer."

Friday, November 23, 2018

In Praise of Wood Energy

There's lots of tree worship in a town like Princeton, and often for good reason, but somehow that love seldom extends to the wonderful material legacy a tree leaves behind when it is cut down. In a town dependent on unethical energy, the main renewable alternatives are solar panels and wood. Below are a couple examples of the pleasure that wood can bring, allowing us to take a break from collectively feeding dystopia.

Eating at Nomad Pizza recently, we sat near the two igloo-shaped ovens through which so many pizzas travel on their way to tables. Through the small opening of the oven, we could see in the back of the chamber a glowing orange fuel that looked like plasma. "What heats your ovens?",  I asked one of the waiters. Wood, I was told. Mixed hardwoods. "That's solar energy," I said, approvingly. She went on to say that their foodscraps are fed to the pigs on the farm where they get some of their pizza ingredients. Assuming that some of the ovens' heat radiates out into the surrounding indoor air, then wood is helping to heat the restaurant itself.

Meanwhile, at home, of all the warm and wonderful participants in our Thanksgiving dinner, by far the warmest was our wood stove. The stove radiated such heat that, combined with our own collective physical radiance, we could for many hours break free of that gas-burning furnace in the basement.

Our guests' kids showed an extraordinary and gratifying curiosity about all things, and wanted to see what was making the stove so hot. I opened its front doors, and there inside was a plasma-like glow, hot beyond flame, giving back to our world all that wonderful energy captured from the sun during the tree's life. Fossil fuels feed climate change by injecting additional carbon from underground up into the atmosphere. But the tree is built of carbon harvested from the air, and so simply gives that carbon back when it burns, causing no net increase.

Interestingly, the stove is fed from the top, through the lid where the steam pot sits. No smoke comes out into the room, in part because a wood stove generates no smoke when it's burning well, and because the draft pulls the air back and up into the chimney.

Before warming our indoor world, some of our locally scavenged firewood is fashioned into a curving wall in the backyard garden, rebuilt each summer and slowly dismantled for heat through the winter.

I urged the town sustainability planners to view wood as one of our few ethical energy options. Wood is by default chipped up and piled in windrows to decompose, its carbon released back into the air without utilizing its considerable solar energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

In the meantime, wood brings pleasure to a few of us on the periphery, and the many customers at a local pizza joint.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Pink Dragons Take to the Trees in Protest

It hasn't made it into the news yet, but the pink dragons of the world are really pissed. With the power brokers amping up their brutal attacks on nature and democracy, and the White House transformed into a loony bin, pink dragons everywhere have taken to the trees and are refusing to come down until the world starts making more sense.

One passerby, who took a picture of her friend posing in solidarity with the dragon, said it's time to fight bad crazy with good crazy. Eventually the good crazy will overwhelm the bad, and life will be crazy good. Anyone else have a better plan?

This particular pink dragon is a rescue, put out on the curb on a back street with a neighbor's trash a week ago. Just didn't seem right that it would end up squeezed into a garbage truck headed for the landfill.

I must admit to a little ambivalence about having this bright pink creature in the front yard, but this morning I glanced out the window and saw a young woman with a big smile, taking a photo. People need moments of surprise and happiness, now more than ever.

Friday, September 14, 2018

One Way to Divert Scrap From the Landfill

Another week, another 100 pounds kept out of the landfill. That's the idea anyway. These two rusted out lawnmowers and a very heavy pump, perhaps a sump pump, were rescued from the curb on side streets just before trash pickup, then put out the next day on busy Harrison Street for whatever maven of scrap might be passing by. I never go looking for the stuff, but encounter it mostly while walking the dog, then try to remember to collect it prior to trash pickup.

Within a day or two they were gone, whether to be miraculously repaired, or used for parts, or melted down for metal. It's one small way of bucking the tide of disposability--a tide that has spread from small things like packaging to larger things like democracy and ultimately the planet itself.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Our Very Own Partial Power Outage

There are many silent, hidden connections between our homes and the outside world that we take for granted. Whether underground or overhead, the water, sewer, gas, and power lines feed and drain our homes like the umbilical cord on a babe in the womb. Occasionally, this infantile condition is interrupted. It could be a storm that rips branches from trees, shattering that delicate network of electrical lines that overlays the town like a giant spider's web. Or it could be a break somewhere in that sprawling network of water, gas and sewer lines silently serving us beneath our feet.

We recently had two interruptions of that network of an unusual variety--one involving water, the other electricity.

The first had an American Water crew scratching their heads out in front of our house. Across the street, a rivulet of water had spontaneously begun flowing along the curb, source unknown. They suspected that the water main, buried 6 feet down on that side of the street, had sprung a leak near where our house's water line branches off. To confirm, they tapped into our water line and listened with headphones for telltale sounds transmitted through the pipes, like a doctor with a stethoscope.

The supervisor was not happy, as a leak in the water main meant a lot of sleuthing to pinpoint its location, then a long night of digging to find and repair the leak.

The hours of sleuthing paid off, as their digging led straight to the leak in the water main, about a foot from where our skinny little 1" water line branches off towards our house. The supervisor explained that winter and summer bring different kinds of breaks. A summer one like this is linear, and often precipitated by the increase in water pressure in the pipes. The water company increases water pressure in summer to compensate for increased use--mostly to water lawns. Theory: More lawns means more watering, which means more pressure in the pipes, and more leaks. Another reason to wish people didn't have big, unused lawns?

The other interruption was electrical, and this one was really weird. Over the past half year, we have on several occasions lost partial power in the house after several hours of slow rain. The power then comes back a couple hours after the rain stops. Some parts of the house lose power, others don't, with no clear pattern. Because there was still power here and there in the house, we could run extension cords to keep the frig, microwave and internet going, and full power always returned.

These periodic partial power outages were associated with a loud pop, coming from outside in the general area of our electric meter. The first time, the pop was loud enough to prompt the neighbor to go out with a flashlight in search of the source.

The situation seemed dangerous, so we called an electrician, who couldn't find anything wrong with our wiring. And a PSEG guy came out and told us that nothing was wrong with their supply lines. We learned that PSEG's responsibility ends at the connection to the house, before the lines drop down to the meters. Everything beyond that is our responsibility.

We didn't do anything more, other than hope it wouldn't happen again. This, interestingly, is the same response people have to climate change which, in contrast to a foreign invasion, contributes to disasters that come but don't stay. As soon as the threat recedes, be it a flood, drought, or forest fire, the tendency is to return to life as usual without making any changes.

Recently, the partial power outage happened again, and again I heard a loud pop, this time associated with having turned on the microwave. Fortunately, the electrician was able to come before full power returned and run some more tests. He confirmed that wiring inside the house was fine, and asked us to get the power company out to unlock the meter so he could have a look. This time, we got one of the better PSEG employees, who confirmed the electrician's diagnosis that one of the two "legs" coming into the house lacked power. Rather than claim the problem was ours and not PSEG's, he looked over towards the utility pole across the street, and said he thought he'd found the problem.

He parked his truck next to the pole, went up to have a look, and a half hour later the problem was fixed. Turned out a connection for one of the "legs" at the utility pole had gone bad. Rain may have been able to get into the wiring out there. He said it was strange, since water usually improves connections, but in this case made it worse. I shook my head--yet another baffling aspect of electricity--but was happy and relieved to have the problem finally solved and full power restored.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Clouds and Fountain

One of the more magnificent places to spend time in the summer, next to the Woodrow Wilson School. People still wade in the water, though it's kept shallower than before, and when we were there this past weekend, a monarch butterfly, as if a tourist visiting from Mexico, was exploring the space all around.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Marginalization of Thrift

We're livin' large at the Toyota dealership, waiting for an oil change. Ten cars in the show room, complete with celebratory balloons, with mpg's that don't go beyond the lower 30s. For comparison, our 1986 Camry hatchback got better mileage than the current diminutive Yaris.

Meanwhile, there's no balloon for the 50 mpg Prius, here shown in the foreground, tucked away in comparative darkness, back near the bathrooms. And, new in my experience at the dealership, the salesman tried to add all sorts of things on to the oil change. Didn't seem to be that way, back before the major renovation.

Rental companies also push the oversized cars. It's like entering a gun store and being smoothly ushered towards the assault rifles, with nature and our shared future as the target.

I thank Toyota for the engineering brilliance that created the Prius, but it's strange to live in an era, knowing what we know, when the one car in the dealership's showroom that tries to minimize its chemical assault on the planet's atmosphere is tucked away in a corner.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Trees Take a Hit for Pedestrians: the New Thoroughfare Along Walnut Lane

Back in early July, when local media were focused on four Norway maples threatened by construction on Hawthorn Avenue, there was considerable carnage going on just blocks away along Walnut Lane. About twelve mature London plane trees (or sycamores) met their demise.

The rings could be counted to tell the age.

Further down, across from JW Middle School, the roots of a row of hackberry trees next to the ballfield were dealt a considerable hacking when the old, uneven sidewalk was removed.

Soon, the only evidence that shade trees once stood near the highschool were neat mounds of woodchips left by the root grinder.

The reason for the logging and root disruption became clear in the weeks that followed, as workers removed the old curb and sidewalks and began installing new, along with upscale Belgian block curbs.

Judging from the double-wide sidewalks being installed on both sides of Walnut Lane, the trees were sacrificed as part of a vision for a broad pedestrian thoroughfare that, it can be hoped, will encourage walking and biking to school.

The new sidewalk construction includes the area where the highschool has been inundated by stormwater runoff twice in the past.

This is what the same spot looked like two years ago, after a flash flood sent runoff cascading into the school basement and onto the performing arts stage, requiring once again a replacement of the wooden stage. The recurrent damage is due to the school and its detention basin being lower than Walnut Lane. When the street's drain pipes become overwhelmed, there's no place for the water to go other than into the school.

A few of us had proposed a solution so that the high school would not be flooded the next time Princeton gets hit by another of those thick, heavy rains that all our earth-warming is making thicker and heavier. It's an approach influenced more by landscape thinking than engineering, and focuses on surface flow rather than putting faith in pipes that can clog and overflow. The solution would take advantage of a wonderful open field on Westminster property that Westminster's own consultant had declared unbuildable because of its wetland status. It might seem that Westminster would not be excited about having runoff directed onto its own property, but Westminster has a vested interest in preserving the high school performing arts center. I heard that they provided some of the funding for the construction of the facility, in exchange for access for periodic use. The idea, then, was to create a means--essentially a swale--for excess water from the street and the school to more easily flow into the adjacent Westminster property's field, thereby preventing the water from rising high enough to enter the school's basement and music facilities.

That idea seems not to have made much headway with the powers that be, and yet the sidewalk construction is still being used to make some positive changes.

Here you can see that the new curb is lower than the current street level. The street will actually be lowered,  knawed down by a giant asphalt-eating machine, so that the street can hold more floodwater. In addition, the town engineer informed me via email, "We are installing upsized pipes across Walnut Lane and adding an inlet to assist in getting overflow into the storm sewer system. All this increased capacity still runs into a smaller pipe that goes under the Westminster property.

The most positive change is that they lowered the sidewalk and driveway on the Westminster side of the street two inches. This is not as much as we suggested, but two inches could conceivably be the difference between inundation and preservation of the high school's basement and performing arts wing. As any beaver will tell you, when backing up water, an inch here and there can make a big difference.

A view down Walnut Lane, with hackberries on the left and Norway Maples on the right, in front of the middle school.

Though trees have been sacrificed or traumatized, the new double-wide sidewalks represent another of Princeton's improvements to the pedestrian experience near schools. It's a contrast with what many of us have to deal with in neighborhoods, ducking around shrubs left to grow by inattentive homeowners.

Some of the shade trees were saved along Walnut Lane, but it will take a lot of thoughtfully chosen and strategically placed new trees to eventually shade this new pedestrian-friendly corridor.

Update: With the passing of Aretha Franklin, the thought occurs: Why not name the walkway after her. "Aretha Way," perhaps. The sidewalk intersects with Franklin Avenue, and runs between two great centers of music.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Resourceful Californians Serve Themselves Gas

A trip to California for some gigs gave this New Jersian an opportunity to witness some remarkable behavior. People--young people, older people--were getting out of their cars, and doing crazy things. Like cleaning their own windows.

This driver managed to find a hole towards the rear of his car, and put something in it. I've never seen anything like this in New Jersey. The concentration, the resourcefulness, the skill to manipulate devices, indeed the courage to take on this sort of task was astonishing.

But I worried. What if a driver is unable to get out of the car, or it's too hot, or too cold?

My eyes grew wide as I looked around the corner of the station and saw the most amazing feature, a full service pump! With an attendant! Californians really do have it all.

(As of 2018, New Jersey is the only state that doesn't allow self-serve gas.)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Beta Bike Lane Presentation Tonight at Town Council

For one brief week or two in May, bikelanes bloomed in Princeton on Hamilton Avenue. They called it a beta bike lane, a trial run that left a trail of comments/impressions on the town website, by bike enthusiasts and, no doubt, disgruntled neighbors who saw parking spaces displaced to make room for the bike lanes on the narrow street. We get to hear all about it tonight (Monday, July 23), in a report on the results of the experiment in bicycle empowerment.

From emails urging attendance at the 7pm meeting at council chambers on Witherspoon Street, it sounds like the public will have an opportunity to speak of what it's like for a bicyclist to actually have designated space on the street.

For me, using the bike lanes was a revelation. I still remember, years ago, when I switched, mentally, from car to bike, when I overcame the ingrained impulse to grab the car keys any time I needed to go out. Over time, I became more of an optimist, slow to be deterred by a threat of rain, and I found myself feeling an inexplicable happiness while riding. What's that about? Fresh air? A new-found sense of empowerment, of freedom from the need to feed dystopia just to get where I need to go?

But the happiness is mixed with an awareness that there's no pavement upon which I can feel I belong. The sharrows were meant to show that we have a place on the street, but it's hard to feel comfortable when my uphill labors are testing the patience of the car driver close behind. My strategy is to stay out of the way of cars and pedestrians as much as possible, to be unobtrusive, unobstructive.

The bike lane removes that ambivalence. It gives a bicyclist a home, even if only for a few blocks.

Potentially relevant to tonight's discussion will be the town's policy on parking in driveways, which seems to forbid using driveways for parking except behind the house. If parking is to be sacrificed to create bikelanes, parking options for homeowners may need to be reviewed.

Sec. 17A-387. Required parking spaces - Size; design; signs.
(b) Areas counted as parking spaces include any private garage, carport or other paved off-street area
available for parking, other than a driveway; except, that in the cases of one-family and two-family dwelling, and
secondary residence buildings, driveway space not in the front yard may be counted as parking spaces.
(c) Parking spaces shall not be provided within a required front yard. If in a rear or side yard, parking
spaces shall not be located within four feet of any lot line.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Blue Curtain Concerts July 14 and 21

Every summer, Blue Curtain brings to Princeton a welcome infusion of music from around the world. The Princeton Recreation Dept. hosts the free concerts at Pettoranello Gardens, just off 206, with parking accessed from Mountain Avenue.

The concerts are tonight and next Saturday, at 7pm.

Princeton Rec. Dept staff were out this week, sprucing up the grounds in preparation.

Four years ago, the concert continued into the night, allowing for some photos of the actual blue curtain for which the nonprofit is named.