19 June 2014

Cultivating Community

tl;dr: We're forming a local conservancy with the goals of preserving our neighbourhood's natural and historic environment, and, hopefully, as a tool to help us build a community with some resilience against climate change and post-carbon energy descent. Yay (maybe).

Self-sufficiency is not a loner's game. It would be impossible for a single family to live completely self-sufficiently; at the very least self-sufficient living is a village-scale affair, and, even then, many niceties of modern life will elude even the most dedicated and hard working bunch of souls. Stuff like MRI scanners, space telescopes, quality reference libraries and large-scale semiconductor integrated circuits. Meanwhile, we can approach a reasonable level of self-sufficiency only if we work together with like-minded neighbours. (Reality dictates, though, that many of my neighbours are unlikely to be all that like minded, especially in a neighbourhood like ours. Anybody who chooses to live outside the fringes of urban life is, by definition, likely to be a bit iconoclastic; strong-minded and opinionated. And get the hell off my pasture.)

Over the past few years we've seen a number of changes in the regulatory climate that surrounds us. Mostly we don't like those changes. Some of us fear them in some degree, and generally it just rubs us the wrong way that the authorities won't just leave us alone to get on with our slightly hermit-like lives. From being outside of any municipal boundaries, and thus "deprived" of all services like piped (but fluoridated and metered) water, garbage collection and libraries, but free of property taxes, we have, against our will, been incorporated into the local municipal boundaries. So now we get to pay rates and use the library gratis. We still don't get garbage collection, and we (thankfully!) still don't have to buy municipal water or sewerage connections.

Another big change has been the promulgation of the Garden Route National Park as an enclosing super-entity managing many of the pre-existing National Parks in the region. I believe it is considered a world-first, since the super-park encompasses towns, industrial areas, shopping districts and commercial farms agri-factories, along with traditional nature-reserves. I think that nobody is sure how this is going to work, but it's a noble experiment. The close-to-home effect was to see the management of the indigenous forest transferred to SANParks – the national nature-reserve authority. All this means that both the national provincial governments, as well as local Municipal government want to "manage" us and design Structure Plans around us in mysterious, undefined and largely unwelcome ways.

For a long time we were able to stick our heads in the sand, pretending that life carries on as it did before, but the bitter truth is that the wider world has chosen to take some notice of us. Time to respond, to organise in a common cause.

We have decided to form a local conservancy: the Bibbey's Hoek Historical and Nature Conservancy (or some such name, if and when we ever get around to agreeing on it).

Several weeks ago we organised a community meeting to gauge the appetite for forming a conservancy. We held it on a Sunday evening so that the maximum number of people would be able to attend without excuses like work obligations. The weather played foul, and we ended up with a fairly small turnout – only about eight properties represented out of the thirty in the neighbourhood. Consensus was that we lacked a broad enough representation to take any decision likely to impact the entire neighbourhood, so we decided to try again.

Now, things move at Bibbey's Hoek speed here... next year is just as good as next week. Newcomers to the area are frequently frustrated at the relaxed1 attitude we have to time and calendar, accusing us of allowing our brains to become infested with Outeniqua Rust. Consequently our plans for another meeting were a little bit overtaken when SANParks management requested a community meeting (held a couple of weeks ago). Our neighbourhood and its rich history is inextricably entangled in a relationship with the forest. Indeed, our properties were carved out of the very forest itself back in the mid-1800's; some older maps even show the forest boundary as enclosing our smallholdings. It seems reasonable that SANParks management and scientists regard the area as an important buffer zone between the natural forest they manage2 and the adjoining larger farms and urban areas.

All this culminated in (yet another!) meeting last evening where we were given an interesting talk by a chap from Cape Nature ‒ the provincial environmental department ‒ on conservancies. Rather than arrange yet another meeting, we went ahead and formed a Steering Committee, tasked with drawing up a constitution for the conservancy and generally getting the ball rolling. Actually, there's not a whole lot for us to do: I had already drawn up a draft constitution, so all we really need to do now is give everybody a chance to discuss and change it to suit some consensus view, and then we can go ahead and appoint an Executive Committee and register the conservancy with Cape Nature (which gives it the status of a legal entity). Then we can get on with trying to implement whatever nature and historical conservation projects we choose. Clearing alien vegetation from water-courses and dealing with some very aggressive and destructive Baboons seem to be the highest priorities.

I have been pushing for us to also include climate-change and energy-descent adaptation as an explicit goal for the conservancy, and, so far, there seems to be reasonably broad acceptance that this would be a good thing ‒ including vigorous nods from the SANParks and Cape Nature people. Quite a large proportion of Bibbey's Hoek's residents are permaculturally minded, and quite conscious of these issues, so it hasn't really been a hard sell.

So: an interesting (and long overdue) step along the path of self-sufficiency. Having to deal with otherwise-minded neighbours and government authorities... not so much fun. But necessary.

[1] No, "comatose" is probably closer to the truth.

[2] I have some uncertainties over the notion of "managing" wild areas and just what that might mean, but that's a discussion for another day...

14 June 2014

World Made by Nuts

So yesterday was one of those days when you just know you're going to waste a bunch of time attending to annoying, but sort-of necessary, stuff.

The car has been giving some trouble, and nobody in town was able to pin it down. Yeah, it is an almost 20 year-old Corolla, so some repair work comes with the territory. It's still a whole lot cheaper than the repayments on a new or newer car, and I greatly doubt I'd find another car with similar longevity, resale value and overall reliability. But I digress...

To get the car diagnosed and fixed I took it to Dr Quincy the Car Wizard in George (he's brilliant!) which meant hanging around his office for a few hours while he sorted things out. While waiting I hobbled down the road to buy a snack – a bag of delicious mixed nuts. On the back of the bag was printed a message that made me feel eerily like Wonko the Sane.

"This product was packed in a factory that uses tree nuts."

Well, yes. I'd think so. It is, after all, a bag of mixed tree nuts.

What sort of insane, fucked up society have we become that somebody felt compelled to print a legalistic cop-out warning that the product might contain traces of nuts, on an actual bag of nuts? I don't doubt that there are some unfortunate individuals so violently allergic to nuts that they need such warnings about products that might possibly contain traces of nuts. They have my deepest sympathy. But if such a person should go out and buy and eat an actual bag of nuts,... well, that would look suspiciously like a suicide attempt.


A couple of weeks ago the news broke that the ungrounding of ice sheets in Western Antarctica is inevitable and unstoppable. We should expect a rise of about 1.2m in global sea-levels. In the words of the original paper, “this sector of West Antarctica is undergoing a marine ice sheet instability that will significantly contribute to sea level rise in decades to centuries to come.” In NASA's slightly easier-to-read synopsis, glaciologist and lead author of the paper, Eric Rignot: “The collapse of this sector of West Antarctica appears to be unstoppable”.

So. Flooding in many major cities. Goodbye to swathes of The Netherlands and Belgium, Bangladesh, south-eastern parts of the USA, and many, many more. Huge displacement of people and infrastructure. Loss of farmland. Loss of biodiversity. And that's probably just the beginning. Unstoppable.



Expect more.

Denialist nut-jobs notwithstanding, we've known for decades that this is coming. Yet we've done absolutely nothing to stop, or even slow, the process, despite the clear and incontrovertible evidence that it is the industrial-capitalist economy that is the primary driver of current global climate change.

You may note that, when we chose our farm, the altitude of the land above sea-level was an explicit selection criterion. We're above 200m. I've made plans for a jetty1.

We've known for decades that this is one inevitable result of unremittingly pouring millions of tonnes of Carbon into the atmosphere year after year. We've known and done nothing. We totally ignored the warnings printed on the packet. Well, that looks suspiciously like a suicide attempt.

My personal conclusion is that nothing can save the mass of us humans from a massive population reduction short of the total, immediate shutdown of industrial activity. And, even if we did manage to implement such a shutdown, we're still in for a solid smack from our mother Earth. Not going to happen, though, is it?

And even as we speak, Eskom, our state-owned electricity monopoly is forging ahead with their plans for three new nuclear power stations, even though the selected sites are likely to be inundated before construction is complete. What sort of insanity is this that ignores incontrovertible evidence before us, yet persists in selecting against survival in favour of this quarter's profits; in favour of stupendous, largely useless, personal "wealth"; in favour of some mythical "progress" chimerical "economic growth"?

Remember, too, that nature seldom works in a gradual, incremental manner. She works by catastrophe: One heavy rain and the Goukamma River changed course overnight, taking a section of the Buffalo Bay Road with it; one heavy rainfall and the slope beneath the George-Wilderness railway line slid into the sea taking the rails to Dave Jones' locker; one smallish earthquake and the town of Ceres was nearly wiped off the map. This is how natural forces normally work. So the statement that we can expect 1.2m of sea-level rise by the end of the century should not give too much comfort. No doubt politicians will read it as "plenty of time, and my term of office will be over long before anything has to be done," but I'll remind them that the major part of that sea-level rise could just as easily happen over mere days or weeks. It will still be "by the end of the century," just a lot more abrupt than any worldly-wise scientist would be willing to put their name to.

Is there anything we can say or do to wake people up from the collective insanity of sitting on our hands doing nothing? I sadly, dejectedly confess that I can't think of anything.

Written from Outside The Asylum.

[1] Joking.

13 January 2014

Today I Learned...

A friend visiting from Sweden brought us a few beers to sample, chiefly a few Christmas (spiced) Ales, or Julöls, which are apparently popular there. Among them a Cacao Porter from the Malmö Brewery which he praised highly. Now both of us are very fond of Porters. I have a particular Porter recipe which is one of my house beers – usually available, but, if not, I'd better get brewing. And I'm reasonably proud of it for its soft, slightly fruity, very creamy flavour that is the product of the Maredsous yeast culture that has insinuated its way into my heart (and brewery).
We started our tasting session with a Christmas Ale of my own invention, the Ale What d'If (A Molpy's Ale), originally formulated in honour of the epic and wonderful XKCD comic, “Time” and the frankly insane cast of Timewaiters who were part of turning it into a new artform. Well, it's quite a nice little Ale. A little sweet for my own tastes, with Cherry-ish notes, and frankly just a bit cloying. We are way too far past Christmas, the window when this beer was expected to be at its prime, so the warming, spicy notes we should get from the Star Anise and Black Pepper were sadly, but not unexpectedly, long gone.

We then moved on to the Malmö Cacao Porter. It poured inky black. Not a hint of light. My own Porters usually have just a hint of Ruby colouring, but from this thing, nada. Not much head retention, and what there was disappeared pretty quickly. This may or may not be true if you drink this beer in its home environment. I have found that head formation and retention frequently suffers from travel, and this poor thing had been schlepped all the way from Malmö to Bibbey's Hoek via Cape Town, under goodness knows what travel conditions.

Aroma was soft, slightly fruity and chocolatey with hints of... Coconut? Not much to comment on, as any strong hop presence would have been out of line, anyway.
The first sip was good. Definite, but not overwhelming chocolate flavours complementing the smooth, creamy Porterishness with its slight burnt, malt bitter tones that deftly balance the crystal malt sweetness. Mouthfeel is silky and soft, and the finish clean and fairly dry. In that first taste I did pick up a very sweet note that seemed out of place. My second sip confirmed: a distinct canned sweet-corn flavour. The sweet, sweet flavour of Dimethyl Sulphide – DMS, and usually considered a distinct fault in most beer styles. Subsequent quaffing became more and more unpleasant to me as the DMS flavour dominated. I was happy that there was only one glass to finish.

A slight hint of DMS is, according to my brewing books, considered OK for North-European ales. This was a lot more than s light hint, though. This was pretty much a sledge-hammer. I found it a bit hard to believe that a well regarded brewery would produce a beer with such an obvious fault, so I surmise that, being brewed strictly as a Seasonal ale, the brewery would have expected it all to have been drunk by now, so a “hint of DMS” would still be under control if consumed around Christmas. I surmise, too, that a “hint of DMS” was intentional, since eliminating it is so very easy and so well understood by brewers: just boil the wort for longer and minimise any boil condensate falling back into the kettle (but any commercial brew kettle would be designed to do that anyway).

Basically I guess that we were quaffing this one well past its scheduled “drink by” date, so I would not hold it against the brewery – at least until I've had a chance to taste more of their beers under better circumstances. I guess I'll have to find a way to go to Sweden for some beer tasting! Oh what a burden to have to bear. I might even have to stop in Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic along the way. Nice dream.

Still, it was interesting and an education to get a full and genuine sampling of what an out-of-control, raging DMS fault tastes like. I'd never experienced the results of a DMS issue before. I was still tasting canned sweet corn for hours afterwards, even after brushing my teeth. Not something I'd want to repeat.


So, Today I Learned about Dimethyl Sulphide...

19 December 2013

Measuring Energy

Not sure why the picture shows cost in £. The device is
equally happy to display cost in our native R.
One of the best birthday presents I've ever received was an Energy Monitor given to me by one of my sons this year. Electrical Energy Monitor, to be more accurate, since I hardly see it measuring the other myriad forms of energy. It's one of those that plugs in to the AC supply, and in turn provides a plug for some appliance, allowing you to measure the consumption of that specific device.

As part of the Solar Project, I know to within a gnat's pubic hair width how much electrical energy we consume overall on a month to month, season to season basis, but nailing down the detailed usage of specific appliances has long been a problem – just not a high enough priority to justify running out to buy a monitor. But having been given one,... well, now I'm measuring every electrical device in sight.

I started, predictably, with my PC. My PC is switched on pretty much all day, every day, since it's a Work Device, and although I have been quite conscious about buying lower-power motherboards that actively manage fans and power to the various components, a more efficient (and probably not coincidentally a much quieter) Power Supply, energy efficient CPU and so on, but have nevertheless remained quite in the dark about exactly how much power this beastie draws. I am not so terribly interested in the specific consumption of something like the motherboard or the disks, but of the entire cluster of equipment; the PC box and all it contains, the monitor, all those trickle drain devices hanging off various USB hubs... they're all on at once, and that's what I most needed to get a handle on.

Amazingly, it turns out that my estimates were surprisingly accurate. At a "quiet" level of operation – the stuff we do most of the time: reading emails, browsing the web, typing blog posts and so on – the entire cluster draws around 105W. That's surprisingly little for what is, I confess, quite a decently powerful machine. Well,... it serves me perfectly doing some reasonably heavyweight software development, running the usual array of server applications, development tools and debuggers. I have, of course, avoided getting any sort of serious graphics cards. For a start I have little to no interest or skill in graphic work, and for another I'm not into any level of seriously graphic intensive gaming. (I could probably get into that world quite easily, but I fear – with some justification – getting sucked into a black-hole for time.) So: pleasant to find that my energy conservation efforts were not entirely in vain.

Power draw does surge up as high as about 150 to 170W in times of more intensive CPU use, but those are pretty transient events. Stuff like my Development Environment starting up and doing a whole bunch of work for perhaps ten or fifteen seconds. I also note that the consumption increases in proportion with the ambient temperature in the office – fans have to work a little harder to cool the electronics when the weather is hot. Some day any decade now I shall get around to installing the long planned for Solar Chimney in the roof as part of the the Whole House Passive Cooling System.

What is disturbing is that the Computer Cluster, much to my consternation, unexpectedly draw around 4.5W when it is "off". What the hell is that? I surmise that it is some parts of the motherboard sitting quietly waiting to be awakened by the ring of the telephone, or some incoming network packets, these all being pretty stock features of most motherboards. I have a Raspberry Pi computer currently doing service as a household network server that only draws 3W at peak, so 4.5W when allegedly "off" is atrocious and unacceptable. I believe I will install a master power switch somewhere on the desk so that I can completely sever the electricity connection at night, thus solving the problem. I need, in any case to do this as part of my Lightning Mitigation Strategy; currently (forgive the pun) I run around unplugging all devices when ever a thunderstorm rolls to near. I've lost many thousands of Rands-worth of kit over the years to lightning induced surges.

So it's been great fun, and quite educational, using the Power Monitor so far. I plan on monitoring the computer for about a week to give me a good estimate of its power use, then I'll move on to the other part of the Compute Centre, the DSL Router, RasPi and associated wall-warts and supporting devices. I don't expect their consumption to amount to very much, but they have the attribute of being always on which is an important factor when sizing the battery pack for a PV Solar setup.

16 September 2013

Spring Planting has Begun

Hopefully slightly more relevant than my last post about The Crooked Car Dealer.

At long last. The first seeds of the season have been sown.

It's been a very sullen, cold and slow Spring so far. I know that some of my neighbours have taken their chances and sown their first Summer seed a couple of weeks ago already. I refrained, but we all agree on one thing: we greatly fear a repeat of last year's oddly fucked-up season. Last year Spring sprang pretty early, so we all leapt in and planted. Then it all collapsed. Through an unusually cold and damp October and November all the baby plants went dormant, and never really caught up with the growth we'd normally expect through Summer. Yields were way down, and some of the sunlight-hungry crops - Chiles particularly - barely produced any fruit at all until well into early Winter!

So this year, despite some promising weather a couple of weeks ago, I held back with my planting. But today was so Spring perfect a day - sunny, warm, and not a breath of wind - that you'ld have to be inhuman to resist.

So the first seeds are sown. First are the most essential Chiles, Tomatoes and Eggplants, plus a tray of Lettuce for seed. Let's see how the weird weather treats us. I certainly have enough to be getting on with to prepare the beds in the meantime, and I'll follow up with more seed-sowing in a week or so.

Crooked Car Dealer

This purpose of this post is simply to get the word into Googles Enormous Engine about a particular crooked car dealer so that any poor soul searching for a used car might be lucky enough to search first and so avoid dealing with this particular cretin. Probably not very interesting otherwise.

My son bought a used car from one Anton Pretorius of CAW Auto Parts at 28 Albert Street, George, Western Cape, South Africa. The dealer ripped him off terribly, selling him a vehicle with a completely defective engine, and numerous other mechanical problems. According to all 3 diesel-engine experts who have subsequently looked it over, the engine is worthless and has to be completely replaced. The problems were concealed by the dealer liberally dosing it with very heavy, syrupy oil which masked the oil leaks and piston/ring problems until the vehicle had been driven about 1000km.

Upon confronting Pretorius about the problems and demanding a refund, Pretorius refused to refund my son's money (against all provisions of the law) nor did he make any offer to repair the vehicle. We have subsequently laid criminal charges against Pretorius and CAW Motors at the George SAPS, but do not hold out much hope that the police will pursue the case with much gusto, such being the pisspoor state of law enforcement in South Africa. We also sent a legal letter of demand to Pretorius by registered mail. It was simply ignored. To follow up with a civil suit is likely to end up cost more than repairing or replacing the vehicle. Pretorius knows this and is relying on it, just as he relied on my son's naivety and inexperience of vehicle purchase to sell him this piece of shit in the first place.

A few days ago, in conversation with my insurance broker, we discovered that this Pretorius has also ripped off other clients of this broker in the past.

If you're thinking of buying a used car, please do yourself a favour and find a more honest dealer than Anton Pretorius of CAW Motors. The man is a thief and fraudster without conscience, morals or regard for the law.

01 June 2013

Lettuce Prey

I've been updating some of the info pages on the wiki... writing down some of the initial info (with pictures) of some of the Lettuce varieties I'm growing for seed this Autumn. The aim is to record much better notes on the habits, uses and cultivation of the numerous Lettuce varieties I grow over time. We'll see how that works out. I'm notorious for forgetting to keep those things up to date. Usually I'll notice a bunch of interesting stuff while my hands are all muddy and I'm having too much fun in the garden to go inside, wash up, fire up the computer,... so my observations get abandoned by the wayside.

Some of you may remember that I had ideas some years ago of growing organic-quality Lettuce seed as a commercial enterprise, but those plans -- indeed the Lettuces themselves -- were brought to nought by the Great Drought of 2008-10. Well, I still like the idea, and, although rain has been a little scarce in the past couple of months1, I'm trying once again to build up my Lettuce seed stocks to the point where I can produce decently large quantities of seed. Summer is, as always, too hot, and many of the Lettuce varieties bolt to seed early from the heat and don't produce viable seed as a result. So early-Spring and Autumn are my best chance at growing Lettuce seed.

Some of the varieties are new to me: Malawi, Lital, Lavi and Vulcan. Seed was acquired from friends and barter, and started in late February, and the first-to-seed varieties are just producing flower spikes about now. Others are old friends: Forellenschluss and Cimmaron, but my current seed stocks are getting too old to be reliable, so in dire need of refreshing.

I do wish I'd had bed space for growing more varieties, but I don't so that's about as many as I can manage whilst maintaining adequate isolation distances between the varieties. I've also managed to stagger them in time where I've been forced to place different varieties rather closer together than I'd prefer, and, given that Lettuces are mostly self-pollinating, I think I'm pretty safe for keeping these varieties pure.

I do need your help though!  Can anyone help me identify this beautiful Lettuce? I thought it might be "Merveille des Quatre Saisons" ("Marvel of 4 Seasons" - and ancient French2 heirloom, famed for its ability to withstand a wide range of weather conditions and temperatures) but it doesn't form a head, which my online researches tell me MdQS does. Leaves are quite large and broad, rumpled, fleshy textured and delicious even when very mature. But I'm stumped for a variety name. Any ideas?

[1] ...and as I write this, it has started drizzling. Hooray!
[2] Who woulda guessed?

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