Sunday, September 30, 2012

McCaffery's Turns 20

Looks like McCaffery's supermarket has been feeding Princeton for 20 years. The cake's probably been consumed by now, but the annual Food Showcase continues until 5pm today, under the big tent in the Princeton Shopping Center courtyard.

Having a store of McCaffery's size right in Princeton not only makes it easy to avoid a drive out to Route 1, but the store itself has made great strides environmentally in recent years, reducing both its energy use and trash volume by half, through updating of equipment, recycling and foodwaste composting. I'll come up with more exact figures in a subsequent post, but the savings the store has achieved through these initiatives should be serving as an inspiration for all of us.

Refrigerators--A Great Success Story

When our 90s era refrigerator began to run more than usual, I tried vacuuming out the coils underneath, cleaned the seal and checked the settings. But the rubber on the seal had begun to break off, and though a new seal would have cost one or two hundred dollars, it wasn't clear that that was the only problem. Calls on the home front for a newer, more attractive model won out.

Using a Kilowatt meter, I was able to document how much energy the old refrigerator was using, and then compare it to the new one. A little research shows that refrigerators have been one of the great success stories of government regulation driving technological innovation. Since the first efficiency standards were put in place in 1978, the annual energy use of a typical refrigerator has dropped from 1800 kilowatt hours down to 450. Though some in the industry complained about the standards, predicting increased costs for the consumer, costs have in fact steadily dropped as a series of new, more stringent standards have been adopted. (Google "refrigerator efficiency standards graph" for a great visual of this.)

Our old refrigerator was fairly efficient, thanks to standards put in place in 1993. But when it was on, it was using 150 watts compared to the new one, which uses 70. The old one also had coils underneath that had to be periodically cleaned, and the incandescent lightbulb quickly heated up the interior whenever we opened the door. Even when completely silent, the frig would periodically start gobbling up 650 watts of energy to heat up its walls and thereby defrost itself.

The new one, thanks to efficiency standards put in place in 2001 and the American ingenuity that ensued, is engineered to reduce these counterproductive aspects. The Kilowatt meter measures not only how much energy the frig is using at any particular moment, but also can track how much is used over time. In the case of our new frig, measurements confirmed that the manufacturer's estimated annual use of 450 kilowatt hours is accurate.

The Kilowatt meter and similar devices are available on the web for $20 or so, or can be checked out of the Princeton Public Library, thanks to a donation by the Princeton Environmental Commission a few years back.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Energy Use at Princeton High School

What's wrong with this picture?

Let me give you a hint. An electrician who used to work at Princeton High School once told me that he was able to save the school $30,000 in energy bills over the course of two months, by working with custodians, teachers and others to get them to turn off lights and computers when the rooms weren't being used, and by adjusting air handlers so they ran no more than was necessary. For example, custodians customarily turned gym lights on when they arrived at 6am, but students didn't use the gyms until two hours later. A small change in routine helped reduce the wasteful lighting of these and other empty rooms.

Those two months of extraordinary energy savings were part of a competition the school participated in to reduce energy use--a good motivation, but after the two months were over, everything I've heard thus far suggests that the school returned to its wasteful ways.

The $10.9 million dollar referendum that Princeton voters just approved for infrastructure improvements at the schools may make these gym lights and other components of the building more efficient, but it will not change people's behavior. As the competition proved, huge savings can be achieved by smarter use of existing equipment.

Of the two approaches to energy savings--updated equipment and behavioral change--the latter is vastly cheaper but requires the sort of persistence and coordination that can only be sustained when an institution is committed to energy and resource conservation. My impression, including a year working as a volunteer with the schools to improve recycling back in 2006-7, is that environmental sustainability has been given a low priority in Princeton's public schools when compared with other nearby communities. Whether it's energy use or recycling, the students, staff and volunteers who really care have tended to get frustrated and eventually decided their time would be better spent cultivating greener pastures elsewhere. Some progress has been made at the elementary schools, with schoolyard gardens and generally more successful recycling than at the middle and high schools, but there is so much more that could be done. Hopefully past will not be prelude, and the schools will realize that instilling a stronger environmental ethic in staff and students is at least as important as the upcoming facility improvements.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Rainbarrel + Workshop for $20

Princeton Township will be hosting a workshop by Rutgers on rainbarrels. Looks like it's open to all Princeton residents--township and borough. $20 registration fee gets you a 50 gallon rainbarrel, which they'll show you how to assemble. Go to this link and scroll down to the info on the workshop to be held Sept. 29, 9-11am in Princeton.

Some things to keep in mind about rainbarrels: A roof can shed a couple thousand gallons of water in a 1 inch rainstorm, so capturing 50 gallons is a symbolic gesture. Even less will be captured if the rainbarrel still contains water from the previous storm. One approach is to hook the rainbarrel up to a soaker hose so the barrel will consistently empty out inbetween rains, but then you don't have any water available for watering the garden during dry periods. Provision for overflow is important, lest the excess water simply spills out next to the foundation. After experimenting with rainbarrels long ago (with barrels donated by a local CocaCola plant), I ended up foregoing rainbarrels altogether and instead directed water out into areas of the yard where it can soak in and create an underground reservoir to sustain plants through droughts.

Still, they're worth considering. In particular, they serve to make one aware of where water is flowing. It's appealing, also, to fill a watering can with rainwater captured from the sky. The Rutgers link may offer some convincing success stories, and the price is right.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hazardous Waste and Electronics Recycling Saturday

Thanks to my friend Pat for reminding me to post this: 

On Sat. Sept. 22, the Mercer Co. Improvement Authority is having a Household Hazardous Waste and Electronic Waste Disposal Day for county residents (ID required), including aerosol cans, car or household batteries, chemicals, used motor oil, propane gas tanks, pesticides, paint, gasoline, driveway sealer, etc.  Also, computers, printers, copies, TV's, monitors, scanners, phones, microwaves, etc.  No commercial waste accepted.  Event is 8am to 2pm at the John T. Dempster Fire School at 350 Lawrence Station Rd in Lawrenceville. Here's the link for more info.

I usually drive my pickup truck out there with a load of electronics contributed by friends or gathered along the curb, but don't have enough this time around.

Jazz Feast 2012

Palmer Square's Jazz Feast had its act together, with a sign out on Nassau to grab the attention of all the humanity flowing by.
Though one longtime Princeton resident stubbornly ignored the proceedings,
the combination of jazz, food and perfect weather filled the square.
I arrived in time to hear the Claudio Roditi Septet play a mix of jazz and Brazilian sambas, given some authenticity by the large samba drum, the surdo, to the right of the percussionist, followed by a marvelous set by New York-based jazz vocalist, Catherine Russell.

Worthy of note was the thought put in to recycling, with the pairing of clearly marked recycling containers and trash containers. It don't mean a thing if you can't make that fling.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Bike Rack, Wherefore Art Thou?

A typical scene in downtown Princeton: Seven bikes parked in this section of Nassau Street, with only two able to fit on the one bikerack provided.

Last year, bikeracks full, I tried parking against a tree. The bike slipped down, which had never happened before, causing the plastic kidseat to scrape the door of a parked car. Like in a high anxiety dream, the owners appeared behind me at that very moment, clearly alarmed at what appeared to be a significant scratch on their car--a brand new, bright red Honda Fit. We got to talking, and while the woman continued to be rightly upset, the husband and I found we had various environmental interests in common. I'm sure we would all have been great friends if not for the unfavorable circumstances. Instead, the dueling themes--a sort of musical contrary motion--continued for awhile, with no theme gaining ascendancy. There was much discussion of whether the scratch had actually affected the paint or only the wax coating. Finally, we agreed that they could contact me if I needed to pay for any bodywork. Never heard back.

In any case, the moral of this story: PUT MORE BIKERACKS ON NASSAU STREET!

(and at the highschool, and at the middleschool)

Thursday, September 06, 2012

My Summer Vacation, Take 2

(A more plant-centric version of this journey can be found at

For many in Princeton, August means it's time to hit the open road, which in reality often translates to crawling along roads that would be open if not for accidents, road construction and a general outpouring of humanity and machines. It was flattering and validating to see that so many other people decided to head westward on the very same day we did. Where we were going was surely very important, given how many people were trying to get there.

One traffic jam lasted close to two hours--long enough to contemplate what it would be like if traffic never resumed flowing. Since road-building is not keeping pace with production of vehicles, there eventually will be enough cars and trucks to occupy every square foot of asphalt in the United States, at which point we will all have to get out and walk.

Arriving at our destination after 13 meditative hours on the road, I had another spooky encounter with the underlying irrationality of modern civilization, the next day at the post office in Ann Arbor. Though the town has its share of attractive buildings, this is not one of them. One time, about 20 years ago, some Neo-Nazis decided to come to town to demonstrate. I happened to be walking down the street as they drove up and climbed out of the back of their truck. Apparently it had been pre-arranged with the authorities that they would be allowed to demonstrate in front of this building. Anti-Nazi demonstrators had shown up in force to let them know they were not welcome. With police keeping the two groups apart, the Nazis proceeded to line up in front of the large windows, whereupon the anti-Nazis pelted them with stones, breaking most of the windows. It looked from a distance like some elaborate form of architectural criticism, or an exploration of deep irony--the Nazis with their violent, hateful, intolerant ideology standing silently, while the anti-Nazis defended peace, love and tolerance by hurling stones and epithets.

This bizarre event is likely replicated across the country on a regular basis. I just found an article about a similar incident in Trenton in April of 2011, with a Bank of America losing some glass in the process.

Fortunately, the rest of the trip showed the better side of humanity, with a series of inspiring encounters--inspiring in that they are examples of success in endeavors where so many of us struggle.

1) Begin with the old telescope at the University of Michigan's Detroit Observatory, beautifully restored to the condition it must have been in when my father used it in grad school in the 1930s. Many historic buildings in the Princeton area, including my cause celebre, the Veblen House in Herrontown Woods, are in desperate need of a similar trajectory.

2) Next came a highly edible encounter with the world's fastest egg. From a friend who has to rush out the door early each morning to get to his day job, I learned that eggs can be microwaved. (Scramble an egg in a bowl, add a dabble (somewhere between a dab and a dribble) of water, microwave about a minute. As it heats, it rises very impressively in the bowl like a chiffon, then collapses when the microwave turns off. Wash the bowl right after eating to prevent the residue from hardening.) This was a fine addition to my three other microwavables: corn on the cob (leave in husk, 1.5 minutes per ear) broccoli (put in a bowl, dribble olive oil and a little salt, cover and cook a couple minutes), and oatmeal (half cup each of quick oats, water and milk, heat 1.5 minutes).

3) Then witnessed was a successful harboring of pet rodents, with which I have had no luck and much grief, most poignantly when as a kid I had a hamster die after just four days. We later suspected the cage carried some pathogen despite our efforts to clean it thoroughly beforehand. After I came into the house after the burial, sitting down in the living room, close to tears, Ravel's Pavanne for a Dead Princess came on the radio. If music hadn't already become attached to my deepest pain, it certainly was after that. My kids have had little more luck than I, so we were well prepared to be impressed this August by our friends' improbably good experience with, of all things, rats. Among rodents, I now know, rats excel as intelligent, gentle pets, and can even be therapeutic to hold, as long as one monitors them to make sure they don't circle round behind you and start nibbling on your clothes. These were rats of high pedigree--"Berkshires", no less. The long, bare tail may seem more attractive if one realizes it is a clever device for regulating temperature.

4) There was, too, a rare sighting of a healthy cucumber plant in a community garden nearby. Most cucumber plants that I've seen will grow to a length of about two feet, bear one deformed, bitter cucumber, then proceed to die. Only once did I manage to grow a healthy plant, and then only by breaking the rules, transplanting an extra plant into ground fertilized with fresh horse manure and mulched with manured hay. All the books said that fresh manure will burn the roots, but the result of my spontaneous experiment was a monster plant that bore 30 well-formed cucumbers, while the others planted in ordinary soil withered in the customary way close by.

5) Just down from the happy cucumber was a friend's project to turn much of the local park's sprawling turfdom into "wet meadow" habitat to absorb runoff and feed the local pollinators with a bonanza of native wildflowers. As winter shifts to spring each year, the parks department comes out and conducts a prescribed burn, cleaning the meadow of last year's spent growth. It's an elegant horticultural tool when properly done, and draws a crowd of neighbors to witness the controlled conflagration. Though I've managed to catalyze conversion of some turf in Princeton's parks to meadows, I have not yet ventured to convince the powers that be that a nice prescribed burn late in the winter would be a good way to stimulate healthy growth and replicate historic ecological conditions.

6) And then there was a visit with a jazz guitarist friend I used to perform with in a latin/jazz group. In the years since I saw him last, he has quietly gained a prominent place on youtube, with more than three million visits to his channel. His magic formula for success seems to be to post performances of his arrangements of well-known jazz, rock and popular tunes, then sell DVDs that demonstrate how he plays every note of the arrangements. Though he also plays many gigs, he can have a very positive effect on the world and his financial well-being without venturing much beyond his basement studio.

7) Having witnessed a rare success at monetizing musicianship, it was off to Cleveland, where I saw a demonstration of how to take on perhaps life's greatest challenge, entropy. By entropy I mean the tendency of all human endeavors to sooner or later unravel, through the tendency of the product of our labors to gather dust, decay, wear out, and/or be misplaced. This is closely related to String Theory, which here is defined as the tendency of string to become hopelessly tangled at the slightest provocation. Yet on a quiet street in Cleveland Heights, my sister and her husband have vanquished entropy to a degree only dreamed of by most of humanity. Through a combination of love, time, and persistence, they have restored their historic home, placed their lifelong accumulations in a pleasing and accessible order, and continue to send packing all dust that dares to fall. The lack of stuff-out-of-place dissonance made for a peaceful effect.

8) On the drive home on I-80, boredom finally led to a short detour through Black Moshannon State Park in Pennsylvania, the centerpiece of which is a small reservoir. There awaited a different sort of serenity, the sort that comes only when all machine noise has been stripped away, allowing our ears to experience profound silence. Even if there are sporadic sounds of birds or people talking in the distance, those sounds take on a crystalline quality, and you can still hear the silence beneath them, extending up the valley and deep into the forest all around. A car may come by, bringing with it a slow crescendo of white noise that blots out silence like a city's waste light blots out the stars. If one's lucky and no more traffic comes by, the car's noise will peak, then fall and fade away until the silence reemerges in all its beauty.

And so here, in a world well stocked with humanity's failings, are a few successes worth seeking to replicate. The lion may never lay down with the lamb, but if rats can cuddle up with humans, if musicians can prosper and cucumbers find the right soil to grow, if heritage can be preserved and entropy kept at bay, and if exquisite silence can still find refuge on this earth, then maybe there's a future for us after all.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Potts Park Picnic Labor Day

Potts Park, the pocket park off of Franklin near Harrison St, is a little known Borough park that, among other things, serves as a final destination for plastic cars wishing to spend their last years surrounded by adoring children.
 This one is either a segway or half the go-cart it used to be.
One design flaw in the park is that the water fountain is located close to the sandbox. The children love to clog the fountain's drain, to the endless delight of maintenance personnel. Sand and water--if kids can't go to the beach or explore a local creek, they'll make an approximation in the local park.

Twice a year, on Labor Day and Memorial Day, neighbors gravitate to the park for a potluck picnic, starting around 5:30pm. Given that it's not clear where our neighborhood starts or ends, assume that you're welcome to come. The park is at the corner of Tee-Ar Place and Erdmann.