Saturday, December 30, 2017

Seeing the Big Picture in Our Big Freeze

A map of global temperatures is very helpful in better understanding how our record-breaking cold fits into overall global warming. Red indicates parts of the world that are currently warmer than normal, with that blob of blue over North America showing that our comparative cold is an isolated event. To compensate for parochial perceptions of climate, news media need to be displaying these maps frequently.

There's another way in which our frigid temperatures, predicted to continue for the next week at least, could be an effect of overall warming. A climate scientist at Rutgers, Jennifer Francis, has been studying how the radically warming North Pole could be weakening the jet stream. As these high altitude winds slow, the jet stream begins to sag and stagnate. This in turn leads to the sorts of stalled weather patterns that contributed to the record breaking flooding in Houston this past summer. Presumably, this same "increase in persistent weather extremes" in the summer, a consequence of climate change, would hold true for the winter as well.

From what reading I've done, the jet stream functions like a belt, or an abdominal wall that rings the planet, flexible but strong enough to keep the arctic weather mostly contained to the north. The big freeze we are experiencing can be thought of as a giant hernia, in which that wall weakens, allowing arctic temperatures to spill southward over the U.S.

Monday, December 25, 2017

An Unusual Silence

Making my usual morning coffee and toast, 7am on Christmas morning, I became aware of an unusual silence. It came from outside, where so much was not happening, so many cars not going by, so many trucks parked for the day, so many planes not flying overhead. It made me think of Santa, and how he might long ago have had the whole night to himself while the world slept. By the time I stepped outside, though, a car was coming by, and another, and the poignancy was gone.

Maybe there was a moment, sometime in the night or early morning, when all people were happy right where they were, and felt no need to be somewhere else, and the great white noise of machines stopped for that glimmer of time, opening up for all to hear, a clear, crystalline silence.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Making Sustainable Practices Visible

Behavior that makes a community more sustainable in the longterm tends to be invisible and inaudible. No one sees you not driving, or using less energy in the home. No one hears you raking leaves. Neighbors don't see a backyard compost pile. Solar panels don't make demands on our awareness the way traffic and airplane noise does. How then to model sustainable practices, given that people tend to copy what they see and hear their neighbors doing?

Have a pollinator garden, solar panels or compost pile hidden somewhere? Don't keep it secret. Tell the world. During a recent visit to Bloomington, IN, I saw a lot of these signs, indicating that the homeowner has some solar panels somewhere on the roof. Given all the reasons people can conjure for not adopting more sustainable practices, signs like these provide some reassurance that others have overcome their inner resistance and perceived impediments and taken action.

Lacking a sign, I decided to use a frontyard demonstration instead. Home composting of yardwaste and kitchen scraps is typically done in the backyard, while the more energy-intensive practice of piling leaves in the street for pickup by heavy machinery is highly visible. This "Wishing the Earth Well" leaf corral serves as a sign of sorts. Since the decorative hubcap was stolen (I guess it's a compliment), a pumpkin has been sitting in as a cap for the inner column where food scraps are tossed.

Gravity works in one's favor with a leaf corral. The leaves continue to settle, leaving room for more when the oaks drop their last leaves.

People often think compost piles need a lot of turning to aid decomposition, but if the leaves are moist and the leaf corral is set on bare ground, the decomposers work up through the pile on their own. This fall, the corral yielded a bucket and a half of high quality compost for the raised beds.

Demonstrations like this are made to show how easy and rewarding sustainable practices can be, if humanity ever chooses to adopt them.

Friday, December 15, 2017

To Fix a Problem, First Make It Worse

I'm sure this isn't always true, but it sure was yesterday afternoon, when I was organizing the frig in preparation for a party, and accidentally spilled an open can of soup. Tuscan-style white bean soup, which I mistook for minestroni as it began dripping down from one shelf to the next. Sponging up the mess caused me to notice that the whole frig needed a cleaning. Stirred by that special party-prep energy, I launched into a full cleaning. I doubt anyone will notice. People will see a clean frig and assume it always was--such is our capacity to overlook a slow accumulation of dirt. No matter. A clean frig has its own satisfactions.

The experience got me thinking, though. What other cleaning and organizing could I incite by making things worse, in order to make them better, of course.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Shout Out to Princeton Womens' Soccer

A shout out to the Princeton University women's soccer team for some exciting play this fall and a deep run in the NCAA soccer tournament, reaching the quarter finals. They combined a tenacious defense with a potent, free-wheeling offense that won the Ivy League title and took some much larger schools in other leagues by surprise.

Though I seldom follow sports, the soccer team and its season pushed some buttons for me, having come from a small town in Wisconsin whose high school teams, orange and black bulldogs rather than tigers, played against larger schools and often won. What drew me to sports as a kid was the skill, teamwork, improvisation, and the exhilaration of running pell mell down a field. Women's soccer brings those qualities to the fore, leaving brute strength and body blows to other sports and other fans.

At some level, the women's soccer games serve as a salve in this political era. The games are honest--no phony writhing in pain like one finds in men's professional soccer. There's all that positive energy of players giving everything they've got to a shared goal. No room for laggards or selfish agendas. At the same time, the players are free to express their personalities on the field--each with a distinct style. With no time outs, the coach often out of earshot, the team must depend on its own wits and chemistry. The fluency of precise passing doesn't play out as static ball control, but always leads somewhere interesting, with near goals often as exciting as the goals themselves.

Soccer games at Princeton U. are free and open to all. Knowing no one in the stands, I'd engage in the action but also feel a solitude, a sense of having stepped out of my accustomed orbit. My youth in sports was eclipsed by an adulthood of music and environmental work, but even a native plant advocate can get drawn back to the action on that broad sward of green. Go Tigers!

Related post about soccer and climate change: Cheering For the World

Friday, November 24, 2017

Giving Thanks for Improved Sidewalks

One thing I'm thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend is the new or improved sidewalks going in around town. My understanding is that Princeton no longer charges individual homeowners for repaired or newly installed sidewalks, eliminating the friction and delay caused by the old policy.

The town recently replaced bumpy sidewalks along a main route taken by kids going to PHS and the middle school. The value of smooth sidewalks becomes most vividly apparent if you walk with someone who uses a walker.

It's nice to see workers improving infrastructure in town. A closer look reveals the craftsmanship involved. The less demand for custodial functions like picking up leaves piled in the street, the more resources can be channeled to these infrastructural improvements.

May this sidewalk's utility extend far towards the horizon.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Slavery in Princeton--Some Context

The Slavery in Princeton project led to some additional reading, which in turn led to writing the opinion piece, Unethical Energy: Then and Now. The Slavery in Princeton project does a great service by showing how slavery was a part of Princeton's past, and has sparked a lot of interest, both here and more broadly, with articles in the NY Times.

People who look honestly at the past and acknowledge deep injustice are more likely to look honestly at the present as well. In fact, past injustice can help us better understand current injustice, and vice versa. There is the ongoing legacy of slavery and discrimination, and the parallel tragedy of ongoing dependence on fossil fuels. Few people--when they drive up a hill with but a nudge on the pedal, or bask in comfort while the furnace quietly heats the home--think about the distant consequence of that easy energy--the land wounded by extraction, the distant lives disrupted by or lost to radicalized weather and rising seas. Awareness of the way injustice is woven into what seems like normal, civilized life is our ticket to a deeper understanding of what it was like to live in the early 1800s, when many people may have been troubled by slavery, but also found it served their interest too much to demand change. The fine-grained rendering of the past by the Slavery in Princeton project helps make more vivid our current predicament.

There is a cultural tendency to put malefactors front and center in the news, in political comedy, and in movies. Though distasteful, the malefactors also satisfy in a peculiar way, as long as they are the "Other", whether from a distant era or members of the other political party. They satisfy in that we the audience come out looking better by comparison. Whether our ancestors were slaves or free, or both, we rightly feel disgust at the news that slaves were once sold on Nassau Street. The Slavery in Princeton project will not fully realize its potential, however, unless we ask ourselves if the disgust we feel now will, decades or a century from now, be felt towards us. Only then can the urgency of our moment in history be made clear. It's time to forge an economy based on ethical energy, that respects people and planet, present and future.

Here are some of the sources that offered insight into then and now:

Slavery in the North gives a state by state history of slavery in the North. New Jersey's is here.

For those trying to reduce consumption of fossil fuels, the closest counterparts in antebellum America were the Quakers, described in this article, Boycotting Goods Produced by Slaves. John Woolman, whose house has been preserved, was one of the leaders who influenced Quakers to take a stronger stand against slavery in the mid 1800s.

12 Years a Slave is a powerful movie worth seeing. It's one of those movies where you emerge from the theater shaken, with perceptions of the world dramatically changed. I wrote about it here.

Why Non-Slaveholding Southerners Fought gives a fascinating description of attitudes in the South leading up to the Civil War.

The New Abolitionism compares slavery and fossil fuel use, with a particularly useful discussion of stranded assets.

Rationalization, whether of slavery back then or fossil fuel use now, is alive and well. Here's an example from the current U.S. energy secretary.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Support Bike and Ped Mobility Tonight, Nov. 2

This from Princeton Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee:

Great news! On November 2, Princeton's Planning Board is to consider formally incorporating bicycle and pedestrian mobility into Princeton's transportation plan. More details on this issue are in Nat Bottigheimer's clear and informative article in Planet Princeton.

This is a huge development for sustainable transportation in Princeton, and it would be great if we come to the meeting in large numbers to show our support. Bring your friends! Bring your kids! (Tell them that it's a chance to see democracy in action; also that our town hall has good WiFi).

The hearing is on Thursday, November 2, 7.30-9pm in the main meeting room of the Municipal Complex on 400 Witherspoon Street
You can download and preview the proposed circulation element here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Electric Bike Gone in Minutes

Less than a half hour after putting an electric bike out on the curb, I heard a knock on the door. A man with a long beard wanted to make sure it was free for the taking. Years ago, I had acquired it under similar circumstances, motivated by a vision of tooling around town, powered by solar energy. The envisioned repair and reuse had languished, however, for lack of an understanding of all things electrical. The bike should be in good hands now, though. These guys are real electricians, and just happened to have room in their truck.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Follow the Water: Stormwater Workshop Wednesday

There's pleasure in exploring where the runoff goes from your roof and your driveway, and figuring out how to use that rainwater in the landscape rather than rushing it out to the street or into your neighbor's yard. Princeton Public Library is hosting a presentation about this on Wed, October 18, at 7pm. Information below:
Stormwater Management for Princeton HomeownersPrinceton residents are invited to join landscape architect Carolle Huber, architect Kirsten Thoft, and Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association storm water specialist Kory Kreiseder to learn how to best incorporate stormwater management on their property. Community Room 
Co-sponsored by the library, the Princeton Environmental Commission, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed and the Princeton Environmental Film Festival.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Science and Social Issues Come Together in "Paradise"

Update: If you missed Paradise at Passage Theatre, you can catch it at the Luna Stage in East Orange in November. Might even be accessible by train.

Some of the most moving theater I've witnessed has been at Passage Theatre in Trenton. This coming weekend's the last for a play I'm being urged to see, partly because science is in the mix. The science of romantic love, the muslim experience in America--along with the good reviews from friends, it looks like a trip to Trenton somewhere between this coming Friday and Sunday, Oct. 20-22. Go to for more information. There's a writeup at this link.

Two outsiders – a gifted Muslim-American teenager and her disgraced biology teacher – form an unlikely partnership to research first love. Science, religion, and exploitation are all fair game as both lives change forever.
The urgings from friends:
"If you go to the play at Passage this weekend, you won't be disappointed. It combines social issues with science issue, and is really well done. Passage is not allowed to have newspaper reviews--some contractual agreement--so word of mouth and blog reviews are key."
"It is first of all about the relationship between a teacher and a student and how science is done. It is also a sensitive presentation of Islam and the struggles believers face in America."

Friday, October 13, 2017

Onstage Seniors Community Theater Performs A-HA MOMENTS Sunday at the Library

OnStage Seniors, a community project that I joined five years ago and is now based at McCarter Theater, will be performing at the Princeton Library this Sunday, October 15 at 3 p.m. See our troupe of fifteen, all over 55, do monologues and skits on this year’s theme: A-HA MOMENTS. The stories are all true, gathered from people in the greater Princeton/Trenton community about those moments of insight, big and small, funny and serious, that changed a life.

A video about the group's work of gathering stories from the communities and performing them as monologues or dialogues can be found at this link. Join us!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

De facto Banning of Children's Books on Climate Change?

There was a wonderful energy under the big tent on Hinds Plaza. Crowds of people, long lines at the checkout counter, beloved authors signing books and having their picture taken with avid youthful readers. In a time when the internet dominates and downsizers leave bookshelves on the curb for trash day, this scene happily did not compute.

This feast of reading, celebratory and uplifting in so many ways, left one unexpected aftertaste. There were books on myriad subjects, but none on the one reality that will most determine the fate of children: climate change. One author told me that publishers think the subject is too "controversial", so that it can only be talked about indirectly.

If true, it merely adds one more layer of bondage to our lives. We are, after all, essentially forced by cultural norms and economic necessity to consume fossil fuels every day, directly or indirectly, as if some sinister force had harnessed us up to collective drag civilization towards the cliff. What to tell a child, as we read by a light powered by coal, in a house kept warm by natural gas, with an internal combustion engine ready to carry the child to school the next morning? The leaders whose responsibility it is to free us of this dependency are instead running from the problem, and creating false controversy by proclaiming that the problem doesn't exist. That false controversy, along with whatever guilt we feel for being collectively complicit, then suppresses discussion of the topic, which plays into the hands of the deniers who are getting elected by letting themselves and the voters off the hook.

A google search of "childrens books on climate change" shows that not all publishers are staying away from the subject. There are, for instance, overviews of recommended books at Parent and the Guardian. Another link recommends Jason Chin's books, such as Coral Reefs, which can be read online.

The Princeton Children's Book Festival was a joyful affair. How much more joyful it would be if we could uncouple our leadership and our lives from the collective unraveling of the future.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Quandary and Legacy of Overamplification

Every now and then, I have a bone to pick with Princeton University. These aren't the usual bones, e.g. University expansionism, it's impact on property taxes, or moving the Dinky station. These are smaller bones, like the stadium lights that used to be left on for long hours while the stadium was empty (which also turned out to be one of former university president Tilghman's pet peeves), or the ineffective recycling at Jadwin Gym (they improved it for awhile after my input, then reverted). All of these bones play against a background of overall gratitude. My wife is a professor there, my older daughter had a good experience as an undergrad, and I've attended many lectures open to the public. The bones are often not specific to the University, but are symptomatic of a culturally pervasive problem. The bone du post has to do with toxic sound levels.

In a world of speed limits, seat belts and emission standards, where toys, play equipment and nearly everything else we buy and consume are carefully regulated for safety, the exceptions to this safety-first mentality stand out. The most grievous is carbon emissions, upon which no constraint has been placed. The future remains unprotected and has already suffered what is now playing out as tremendous damage.

Another is decibels, whose impact on the ears, as with climate change, is unintended and often long delayed. That impact became apparent at an event this past spring (this post lingered in the draft folder): the big Princeton University graduation party known as the Senior Prom at Jadwin Gym. My daughter was part of the 2017 graduation--a meticulously planned 3 day affair that involves mass transport and accommodation of far-flung families, and a tightly scheduled series of events, all of which seems to have come off without a hitch.

Why, then, would a University that watches closely over its students not pay attention to the sound levels at the big party to which we were all invited? The cavernous gym was packed with people young and old, dancing and seated. The food was a healthy mix of humus, vegetables and fruit, but the air was toxic with thunderous sound. About one hour in, my daughter's ears "popped". Traumatized, she fled to the building's entryway, texting me with worries that her hearing had been damaged.

As someone who has played in wedding bands, I know that people who complain about loud music can be pegged as fuddy duddies trying to ruin the party. That's probably why I wore earplugs but didn't try to convince others in the family to do the same.

Regulation is often viewed negatively, but it can often lead to better products. Regulation of the producer can protect and simplify life for countless consumers. The deafening volumes in Jadwin Gym not only stymied any conversation at the tables, but by overwhelming the ears, paradoxically, the music was harder to hear with any clarity. The philosophy seems to be that people are so inhibited, so awkward at parties, that they must be pummeled by loud music in order to break down inhibitions, while providing an excuse to avoid conversation. In nightclubs, loud music is intentionally used to encourage people to drink more and talk less. But the University has no profit motive at a graduation party.

It's true that tolerance for loud sounds varies, and spectacles like a big party or a sports event are expected to be loud. But it's possible to achieve the desired intensity, sense of spectacle and celebration without destructive sound levels. In the 1980s and 90s, I struggled with this while playing in loud bands, and concluded that human nature conspires with technology, leading to volume creep. Soundmen, subjected repeatedly to loud music as part of their job, are not the best arbiters of volume. A band's volume can creep upward out of youthful exuberance. It's easier for a musician to turn up than to risk resentment and bruised egos by asking others to turn down.

These factors pushing volume upwards have no countervailing force. Audience members are very reluctant to give feedback. I remember a deafening Maynard Ferguson concert--my first but one of his last before he died--where people sat like trapped animals in their seats. A few walked out, but I was the only one to appeal to the soundman, clearly a veteran and victim of nightly decibelian overdose. He shrugged, perhaps unable to hear what I was saying. We searched for a quieter place in the auditorium, but finally had to leave.

At the least, at events where sound levels could be extreme, big bowls of foam earplugs should be displayed in the lobby. Soundmen should be required to conform to decibel limits. And any noisy establishment should be protecting its workers and customers from hearing damage. Workers in particular, such as the waiters at the Senior Prom, with longer exposure and no option to leave, are particularly at risk. Once requirements and procedures are in place, good habits are reinforced and our lives become simplified and safer. Otherwise, everyone pays. Hearing aids ain't cheap.

As with climate change, it's the delayed damage done unintentionally that slips through society's otherwise elaborate safety net.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Free Leaf Bags Now Available at Ace Hardware

This scene outside Ace Hardware at the Princeton Shopping Center will bring joy to anyone who values efficiency in government. Yesterday, Sept. 26, marked the beginning of a private/public partnership, in which Ace Hardware will take over the distribution of free leaf bags to Princeton residents. The town stands to save or redirect $21,000/year--my estimate of savings from 720 hours of public works staff time that can now be devoted to other tasks. In return for storing the bags and keeping track of how many leaf bags are given to whom, Ace Hardware gains additional foot traffic. Residents gain convenience as well, since the hardware store is open longer hours and on weekends.

Even better, the idea came not from a paid consultant, but from a resident (me), hatched in that fertile bed of creativity and insight known as Princeton. My research two years ago, working off of figures provided by town staff, showed that what seemed like a nice perk for residents--40 free leaf bags per year--was actually costing the town $2/bag, four times their cost at a local hardware store.

Now, the town's cost is more like 50 cents a bag, and that cost may be getting covered through grant funding. The town, by the way, decided to buy the bags itself, rather than give away bags with the Ace Hardware logo. The transition was a bit bumpy, as the town began directing residents to the hardware store before giving the store any leaf bags. But any new approach is likely to have a few glitches at first.

Another cost-saving idea in the works is to make rollcarts available to residents, particularly those who live along busy roads where they can't pile loose yardwaste at the curb. Though leaf bags would still be available, rollcarts of the 64 or 96 gallon size have the advantage of being weatherproof and reusable, with greater capacity and mobility. The aim is to begin a steady shift towards containerization of yardwaste, which is more efficient to collect and reduces nutrient pollution in local streams. More on this approach further down in the post from two years ago.

Many people limit their view of local government to how they individually are being served. Though understandable, that narrow view cheats people of the satisfaction of larger victories, in which we all gain. This small but significant shift in the free leaf bag program is an instance of the latter.

More info on Princeton's leaf collection at this link.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

700 Pounds of Steel Recycled on the Curb

After years of living on busy Harrison Street, I finally realized I could take advantage of the traffic flow to recycle metal that might otherwise end up in the landfill.

Most of these items had previously been put out on the curb on less-traveled side streets. If no one takes it before garbage day, I gather it and set it aside until the garbage trucks have come and gone, then put it out for someone to take to the scrap yards.

Scrap steel isn't worth much these days, compared to copper or aluminum, but most of this stuff disappeared within an hour or two, and the rest was gone within two days.

Some items left on the curb are useful, like this filing cabinet that puts me one step closer to finally getting organized. And I find it hard to drive idly by while older, solid wood furniture is consigned to the landfill, like the mid-century chest of drawers that appears to need only a couple knobs and a cleaning.

This plastic sandbox looks like it would be useful for someone, but has yet to be whisked away.

And these---oops. Didn't mean to include this photo, but I do know a couple male alpacas out towards Hopewell that may need a new home soon. That would be a sight--someone walking their pet alpaca down Harrison Street.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Community Theater Opportunity

Short notice, but Onstage Seniors, a 55+ community theater group I've been in for five years, has a couple openings. I joined five years ago, with no experience, and have found it a transformative experience. More information below. Contact the director, Liz Green, by tomorrow, Tuesday, even if you can't make the info session.

Our ensemble is made up of volunteer performers, and is looking for a few new people to join our ensemble this Fall. Participation costs a small fee (for weekly classes and workshops), though scholarships are available. Each of us participates both as a performer (learning, rehearsing, and helping to develop the new scripts) and as a company member (talking with new venues, scheduling, etc). No acting experience is required! If you love telling stories, being part of a team, and serving the community, then Onstage Seniors is right for you.

If you are interested in learning more, come to a small info session on Tuesday, September 19th between 10:30am - 1:00pm. Email to sign up for that info session.

If you are invited to join the Onstage Seniors Ensemble, you will be expected to:
• attend rehearsals on Tuesday afternoons from 1:30 - 3:30 from September until June
• memorize and act in two monologues or scenes
• perform in 2-3 performances per month, within 45 minutes of Princeton, starting in January
• support the ensemble by helping to coordinate performances at libraries, senior living centers, schools, and other non-traditional performances spaces

For more information, watch the video below, or go to

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Repair Cafe Open for Business

Looking forward to checking out the new Repair Cafe, at 10 Hulfish Street in Princeton, next to Jazams. A flyer put out by Sustainable Princeton says it's open "most evenings and weekends through July and August", with a special gathering this Wednesday, July 26, 5:30-7:30, for people to learn about bike and furniture repair.

Almost exactly five years ago, I hosted a repair cafe in "Steve's Garage".  With the help of all the support videos and chatrooms the internet provides, and a hardware store close at hand, I had had good luck fixing a garage door, my pickup truck, a Bosch washing machine, and many other things. There can be a tendency to leave these unfinished "projects" sitting around for extended periods of time, but it feels good to repair things rather than throw them away, and it's good exercise for the creative, problem solving functions of the brain. As I wrote back then, the repair cafe concept was meant to extend those solo efforts "with the power of collective thinking to solve problems, and the pleasures of good company. I think of us as kindred spirits to WALL-E, fixing stuff with our wits, spare parts and the tools at hand, wishing we could fix the planet, too."

So, throw a broken chair over your back, jump on your bike, and head to the Repair Cafe. There's also a website devoted to repair cafes.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Farrier for Patio Furniture

File this one in the "Who knew?" category. Renovated patio, with expanses of bluestone and brickwork. Lovely, but wait,

what are these marks on the new bluestone? Can't have that.

Turns out the furniture is supposed to have plastic feet, all of which wore down over time, leaving the rusting steel in direct contact with the patio stone. Fixing up the patio now means fixing up the furniture as well.

Fortunately, the local hardware store has replacements that can be hammered lightly into place, like a farrier replacing a horseshoe on a horse.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Free World Music in Princeton, July 14, 15 and 22

Blue Curtain and the Princeton Rec Department host two concerts this summer in the beautiful setting of Pettoranello Gardens. Park in the Community Park North parking lot off of Mountain Ave and walk down into Pettoranello Gardens. Or ride you bike. This year, Jamaican and latin jazz.

Meanwhile, this Thursday, July 13, African banjo player Cheick Hamala Diabate performs, 6-8 at the Princeton Shopping Center, sponsored by the Arts Council of Princeton.

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Alert: Two shifts from public to private--Attacks on Internet Neutrality, and Selling Off of Public Airwaves

Defending the Internet's Net Neutrality: A broad coalition is encouraging people to defend the internet's "net neutrality" against the current administration's revisionary zeal. Here's an easy way to express your opinion by the July 17 deadline:

Wireless Microphones: The government is also selling off additional frequencies to wireless providers, creating problems for performers who use wireless microphones. Depending on which frequency the microphones use, they could start picking up cellphone conversations in the middle of a performance. As with selling off public lands, the government gets temporary income but the loss of "common wealth" is forever.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Pomp and Political Circumstance

It was a misty and misty-eyed day on the green in front of Nassau Hall as the class of '17 was formally anointed with degrees. There is so much quality stuffed into the bounded space of Princeton University, in the architecture, the brain power. A week is devoted to celebrating it all, first with an infusion of alumni, then with three days devoted to the graduating class. This year, I was invited in, as a proud parent, to bathe in orange and black, which happen to have been my school colors growing up in a small Wisconsin town. Our mascot was a bulldog, from which I may have gained some degree of persistence in life, though as a beast it lacks the lithe charisma of a tiger. My day of birth mixed with the graduating class's year--a prime coincidence given some additional gravitas by F. Scott Fitzgerald's graduation a century prior.

Among those receiving honorary degrees was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, basketball star from my youth, jazz aficionado, and doer of good in the world, still head and shoulders above as he walked through the gates.

There was another familiar name from my youth being honored along with Kareem--Jeremiah Ostriker, an astrophysicist who had been a student at Yerkes Observatory in that small Wisconsin town when I was growing up. He went on to be one of the discoverers of dark matter in the universe.

Stirring music wafted across the crowded green, and stirring words bounced off the surrounding buildings as the rain held off. It was a good feeling to witness my daughter walking through the gates to a gallant melody from Gustav Holtz's The Planets. Later, when the band was viewed from closer up, the body language of the conductor and musicians suggested a less than inspired feeling behind the music, but they were professionals doing what they do very well.

The class victorian, in her speech, focused praise on the un-degreed--the people who day after day provide food for the students, clean the bathrooms, and offer a chance for any student who takes the time to discover magic and authenticity in plain-spoken lives. I, too, having grown up in an academic family, was attracted to that plain-speech that came not from books but from everyday experience.

In retrospect, it seemed a call for reclaiming a connection with the working class, much of which has drifted into a self-destructive allegiance with faux-populist, authoritarian-leaning politicians.

President Eisgruber's speech, too, was in part a response to the forces that are working from without and within to erode and eviscerate institutions that once seemed so secure.
"Overcoming the fractious politics and bitter disagreements of our day will require empathy; it will require friendship and love; it will require an ability to connect and collaborate together. It will also demand that we find a way to restore and rebuild faith in the institutions, of government and of society, that allow us to take on projects together. That is no easy task, for we live at a time when confidence in our shared institutions is ebbing. People are losing faith not only in government, but also in business, journalism, and non-profit organizations."
What he must know and cannot say is that words like "empathy" and "us" and "together" are anathema for those who gain power by pilloring the despised "Other" and who thrive on division. How, it must be asked, can there be so much intelligence in the world, so much analytical power, so many wise words finely crafted over centuries and easily accessed, and yet power accrues to the incurious, the callous, the arrogant and the petty?

Within the comforting embrace of campus walls and elegant gates, as good deeds were praised and the graduating class was called upon to serve the nation, I watched swallows patrolling for insects above the verdant canopy of beneficent trees. Other birds, in twos or threes, passed through, barely noting our presence as they hurried on to some distant destination. Then the birds and their vibrant energy and skill were gone, and a lost balloon rose higher and higher towards the clouds. I imbued it with meaning, at odds with the occasion, as it slipped further away. The balloon became our prospects, given political sabotage, for stopping runaway global warming. Powerless to retrieve it, I watched as it faded to a speck and then disappeared into the gray mist of low-hanging clouds.

But no, we are buoyant, each imbued with spiritual helium. Dark matter cannot draw us down. The clouds may threaten rain but cannot deter. The faces of the regally clad and newly anointed, passing through the gates at long last, were full of joy, relief and expectation. Kareem still stands tall, unbowed by age and the nation's political trajectory. Gustav Holtz still stirs the noble bedrock at our core.

President Eisgruber quoted one of his predecessors, Bill Bowan: “Institutions exist to allow us to band together in support of larger purposes; they permit a continuity otherwise impossible to achieve; and they allow a magnification of individual efforts. Learning to make the accommodations that institutional affiliation requires is not always easy,” especially for people like our students, who have been encouraged to cultivate “critical habits of thought and a fierce independence. But there is a need to cooperate and collaborate, as well as to strike out on one’s own, if important societal ends are to be served.”

Those words were spoken to Eisgruber and others in his graduating class of 1986, as Ronald Reagan's administration was spreading pessimism about government and collective effort in general, promoting instead the individual as the all and end all. That pessimism has grown, deepened, hardened into an ideology impervious to evidence or urgency, and now leaves us helpless and paralyzed, as we collectively create problems but are denied the chance to collectively solve them.

Still, hope awaits in the wings, of vibrant birds overhead, of graduates dispersing to pursue their dreams, and the spirit that flies in timeless melodies.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Scrapping Our Role as Climate Saboteurs

There was a time, during WWII, when patriotism meant contributing scrap metal to the war effort. Movie stars like Rita Hayworth lent their glamour to the cause. Soldiers were fighting on the front lines, and citizens were backing them up by contributing what they could and making do with less.

Memorial Day still honors those who have died while serving in the armed forces, but we seem to have lost an awareness of the continuum of service and sacrifice, of how our own civilian lives connect to keeping the country secure.

We know now that our biggest enemy cannot be beaten by an army. Bullets cannot hold back a rising sea, stop a deluge or end a drought. American soil is most vulnerable not to foreign invasion but to the catastrophic melting of ice caps. Despite all the positive ways we spend our days, each one of us has been recruited as an unwitting soldier in a war upon our shared estate. As civilians, our struggle every day is to limit our roles as unintentional climate saboteurs.

There are political elements that strive to slow progress, and keep us armed with tailpipes and chimneys gushing global warming gases for as long as possible. The tide is turning, though. Renewable energy and the batteries to store it are dropping rapidly in cost. One of our neighbors recently bought an electric car that runs 230 miles on a charge. In time, and let's hope it's soon enough, scrap will be doubly patriotic because it will include the star-crossed machines of combustion. Gas stations will be obsolete. We'll scrap the war on our land, our climate and our future, in a global disarmament as our machines are silenced of their engine groans and fossil carbon sighs. Our cars and homes will run on the sun and the wind. At last, our civilian lifestyles will be supporting our troops' mission to protect American terra firma, rather than working against it.

This year's Memorial Day parade was brought to us by gasoline. There's no question about the grip it holds on our lives, our hearts, our memories. I made models of souped up cars like this one when I was a kid. Can still smell the plastic and the paint. But gasoline's grip will loosen. Maybe Memorial Day will still be a day to smell the bite of exhaust in the flag-filled air. But the other 364 days of the year, we'll have moved on, despite ourselves. May the future be welcoming despite our long delay.

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Scavenger Cleans the Scene

The town doesn't pick up leaves bagged in plastic. Some landscape crew hadn't gotten the memo, however, so these plastic bags full of leaves sat in front of a rental on Linden Lane, creating an eyesore for weeks. Maybe it was months. They sat there so long the UV radiation started degrading the plastic. What to do?

Time for Mr. Sustainable to swoop in with his greenmobile--able to jump puddles in a single bound around the block--to turn a lose-lose into a winsome win-win. "Sure," he thought, "I could use the leaves. Leaves are always useful, for keeping moisture in the soil, contributing nutrients, and smothering weeds. The chickens will scratch under them for bugs. Happiness will prevail. The more leaves the merrier."

This is the sort of service scavenging species provide in nature every day. We think of them as no better than beggars, freeloaders, opportunists. A vulture exploits others' misfortune, and yet they too serve by picking clean what is foul. They find utility in others' messes, and leave the world a cleaner place. We should rank them, and their willingness to view trash as a resource, more highly in our estimation.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Recycling Plastic Flower Pots

Have plastic pots you don't want to throw away? A local resident called up nurseries, asking if they take used pots. Finally, he found out that Lowes has a recycling program for pots. Below is text from their website. I'd encourage people not to make a special trip, but integrate it into other Route 1 errands, lest the gas burned do more harm than the good of recycling the pots.

Lowe's is committed to exploring new opportunities to reduce waste and help consumers do the same. We launched a nationwide Garden Center recycling program in February to help keep rising mounds of plastic plant containers out of landfills. 
Lowe's recycled 230,000 pounds of plastic in just three months during a pilot test in which 22 stores collected plastic pots, trays and tags that are used with live nursery items. Following that success, Lowe's expanded the program to all stores in the continental United States, more than 1,700 locations.
Generally, curbside recycling programs are unable to accept plastic plant containers, such as pots and hanging baskets. This new program gives consumers a responsible recycling option and makes it easy for them. We provide a cart for stores and customers to return plastic plant trays, pots and tags, regardless of condition. No matter where consumers purchase the plant, they are encouraged to return the materials to a Lowe's Garden Center to be recycled.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Free Energy at the Princeton Shopping Center

Symbolism teams up with utility as an electric car recharging station and Nomad Pizza occupy what once was a gas station. Shop or dine at the Princeton Shopping Center and treat your electric car to a 24/7 All You Can Drink special. Get a full charge for no extra charge.

Two reports thus far from friends who are leasing electric cars: One said the station charges up his car further than he can charge it at home. The other reported that both parking spaces next to the charging station were occupied by non-electric cars. Move over, gas guzzlers!

There are some very happy electric car owners out there. A Chevy Volt owner (50-60 mile range on batteries, plus gas engine backup) said she only paid $8 for gas in the past year, and charging the car at home didn't noticeably increase her electric bill. She mentioned some additive one can use to keep the gas fresh, since it sits in the tank for a long time.

The Chevy Bolt has a range of nearly 250 miles on battery power. I had been wondering when the future would arrive, to rescue the future from a persistent, resistant present.

The logic behind leasing an electric car rather than buying new outright is that the battery technology will advance quickly in coming years. Since many people lease, that means there are good deals on 3 year old electric cars, if one wants to buy used.

Next step: Build a solar array over the Princeton Shopping Center parking lot, like they've done at some of the Montgomery schools.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Streetside Stackable Art On Recycling Day

I tend to emphasize the downside of our recycling buckets, but check out their stackability. Looks like an artist just joined the recycling crew, as all over town the buckets were left neatly and creatively stacked. We'll see if this becomes the new normal.

Reminds me of when I was horticulturist at the Michigan Union in Ann Arbor, and hired a fellow jazz musician as an assistant. He approached lawn mowing like a sculptor, leaving behind a different pattern each time.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Yardsale Desk To Star in University Play

For years, this desk, bought for a pittance at a yardsale, lived a quiet life in my daughter's bedroom, covered with all manner of things, seldom actually used as a desk. Even when it was no longer of unuse in the bedroom and relegated to a garage filled with all manner of things and seldom used as a garage, it didn't give up hope. "Life is so strange", it said to its richly grained self. "Maybe it's preparing me to star in a dark comedy." There were days, though, as the dust grew thicker upon it, that it felt like it was fated only to take up space. It sent its photo to a used furniture store in town, but they weren´t interested. A pingpong table nearby told the desk, ¨Look, I only need slight repairs, and I´ve been in here two years. Sure, I was glad to be saved from the landfill, but when´s my second life going to start? I think we´re in here until they sell the house.¨

No one paid the desk´s wild dreams any mind, but desk dreams really do come true, for one day a young woman showed up to take the desk to Princeton University campus, where it now stands proudly on the Hamilton Murray Theater stage, ready to play a role as, surprise, a desk, in a student production of Speech and Debate. Other actors will get all the lines, but the desk will get more stage time.

I was glad to see the desk get the break it so richly deserves. As the desk's agent, I tried to stipulate that the desk have a spotlight pointed at it at all times, but the stage manager, my daughter, refused to compromise artistic integrity to serve a stage prop's ego. We're hoping this could boost the desk's flagging career. Otherwise, it's back to the garage.

Speech and Debate, at Princeton University´s Hamilton Murray Theater:

Three misfit high-schoolers form a Speech and Debate club in an attempt to reveal a sex scandal, unveiling their own vulnerabilities--at once hilarious and heartbreaking--along the way. Pulitzer-prize-finalist and Tony-award-winning playwright Stephen Karam presents a dark comedy with music about coming to terms with ourselves, others, and the terrifying hypocrisy of the adult world.

By Stephen Karam
Directed by Kyle Berlin '18

February 24 @ 8 PM
February 25 @ 8 PM
February 26 @ 2 PM
March 2 @ 8 PM
March 3 @ 8 PM
March 4 @ 2PM
March 4 @ 8 PM

$8 for students
$10 for faculty/seniors
$12 general public
Student Events Eligible

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Free Heat, Free Money

Walking in front of a rental house two doors down, I suddenly felt a blast of radiant heat on my right cheek. I looked around, wondering where it was coming from. Ten feet away was a window, reflecting the afternoon sun. Either the window pane or the white shades inside were reflecting back intense solar energy. Multiply that by however many times larger the window is than my face, and you get a sense of how much free heat is being reflected away from that house. While free heat is being rejected, the gas furnace is laboring to keep the house warm, and more fossil carbon is slipping up and out of the chimney. Discontent with nature's subtle power and inconsistency, we turned long ago to the now discomfiting comforts of machines.

How deceptive it all is. The climate changing pollution seeping out of Princeton's chimneys and exhaust pipes is silent, invisible, odorless, unintended, and the winter sun, hunkered down low in the sky, seems an improbable source of heat for a home.

What's being lost is as covert as a $5 bill slipping from a pocket, noticed only by someone out and about, open to serendipity, who happens by the right spot at the right time.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Small Victory: Reaching Out To Companies About Their Products

This is a time to be thankful for small victories, and also to reach out to those beyond our bubble.

But first, a joke, heard yesterday, about a couple who collect cars. The husband tells his wife, "Honey, I'd like something shiny and black that goes from zero to 250 in two seconds." "Sure", said the wife, who then went out and bought him a bathroom scale.

We had an Escali bathroom scale stop working after about ten years, and because we liked it so much I reached out to the company. It turned out to be a great lesson for the kids. A company representative responded immediately to my email, offering to replace it for free if I filled out a form. There seemed to be a catch, because the form required a receipt, which of course we are not organized enough to have kept. Initially discouraged, I later emailed back, explaining that the receipt was long gone. To my surprise and delight, the rep responded that that was not a problem. Just send a photo of the model number on the back.

Within a week, the new scale showed up on our doorstep. The kids were impressed, and so was I.

The only downside is that the old scale needs to be thrown out, or perhaps recycled as electronics. Knowing this, I had given the old scale ample time to repair itself before reaching out to the company--a month or two sitting on the shelf in the family room. This was not completely irrational. Self-repair had worked in the past, with a garbage disposal and some other items.

Thanks to "The Escali Team" for standing by their product.

Next up, that Oxo brand spaghetti server, though at $6.95 it's more a matter of principal and curiosity.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Rain Barrels are a Drop in the Bucket

One oft-mentioned way to "go green" is to buy a rainbarrel to collect water from your roof. There are a few things you should know. I write this as an advocate for capturing and utilizing the runoff from roofs, driveways and uphill neighbors' yards. There's a role for rainbarrels, but it's often overstated.

First, a bit of calculation shows that a 2000 square foot roof captures 1250 gallons of water from a 1 inch rain. Divide that by four downspouts, and you have about 300 gallons coming into the rainbarrel in a modest rain. If an average rainbarrel holds 50-75 gallons, most of the water will not be captured. The percentage caught will be even lower if the rainbarrel still has water from the previous rain--likely, given that people tend to forget to use the rainbarrel water in their gardens.

So the question becomes, is the rainbarrel really making a difference, or is it just adding to the amount of "stuff" in the world? I have a rainbarrel--rescued from a dumpster and retrofitted with a screen to filter the incoming water and keep out mosquitoes--but the water doesn't get used much, so I just leave it on slow drip, to let the water empty out before the next rain. Attaching a soaker hose is another way to slowly release the water into the garden.

Unless you're really going to use the water, it can be more aesthetic and consequential to direct the roof water into swales or concave raingardens that can accommodate the hundreds of gallons generated. Or, if you're serious about catching and using water, check out this system at the West Windsor Municipal Center. It looks like it holds a couple thousand gallons.

The giant rainbarrel (you can get these at farm supply stores) is raised up to add pressure to the gravity feed over to what looks like a community garden.

It's fun to see a 1970s counter-cultural dream come to life on municipal land in the 21st century. The central concept was easy living by working with nature. We'd store the rain from the sky, capture nitrogen from the air by planting legumes, use mulch to discourage the weeds; and interplant to make full use of the sun's gift of energy; then sit back and watch the garden grow.

Implementation was not always perfect. In Durham, NC in the 1990s, realizing that one small rainbarrel wasn't catching much runoff, I picked up a dozen 50 gallon drums from the local Coca Cola plant, washed out the dregs of syrup, then drilled holes to connect them in series. They weren't very aesthetic, and the 220 gallon plastic cisterns I bought at a farm supply store to replace them with didn't exactly blend into the landscape either.

These experiences led to dreams of bladder-like rainbarrels that would deflate when empty--far more efficient to transport from factory to home. After a big rain, they'd bloat like a Michelin Man in a tire commercial, but would shrink down behind the shrubbery at the base of the house's foundation inbetween rains. That was the dream, and it's nice to see that these now exist, under the name "rain bladder". Though they are pricey, that could change if they became standard installations on homes.

Another alternative to the standard rainbarrel is what I call a "fillable, spillable minipond", basically a black tub placed under a downspout, which in turn overflows into the yard. It provides open water that's nice to dip your hands into while working in the garden, and a blank canvas for nature's crystalline creativity in the winter. The tippable aspect proves handy if mosquito wigglers appear.

After all the experimentation, the cheapest and most aesthetic approach to capturing and slowing down runoff from our home and driveway turned out to be the yard itself. Some downspouts send water flowing across the lawn, or into a shrub boarder, or into concave raingardens that accumulate a few inches of rain that then seeps into the ground over a day or two. (We have miniponds, too, dug deeper for extra capacity, but the attractive open water requires special attention to discourage mosquitoes.) With the help of some low berms and hollowing out here and there, the yard itself becomes the bladder, and the ground, rather than the rainbarrel, becomes the reservoir that deep-rooted plants and trees can draw on during droughts.

The little rainbarrels can still play a role, but compared to all the water a roof generates, and the potential holding capacity of a yard, they really are a drop in the bucket.