Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Compost, in all of it's biological complexity and symbiosis, is an extremely simple backyard project. The problem with compost is that there are so many blogs (like this one?) and webpages touting it's beauty and simplicity that it can be a bit depressing when your compost pile goes horribly wrong. Molding piles of wet food scraps surrounded by swarming fruit flies is not what you had in mind.

The Basics of (Hot) Composting:

Compost is the process of breaking down organic matter so that the nutrients contained within become water soluble and accessible for the plants. There's other nice side effects too. Compost can get hot enough to kill pathogens and weed seeds. When added to the soil, it increases the number of beneficial microbes and mychorriza (fungus that lives on roots), aids in water retention and serves as a mulch. The action of compost isn't due to any one thing--many different bacteria, fungi, and even little critters get in on the action. Looked at as a whole, it can summarized as an exothermic (it gives off heat), aerobic (requires oxygen) reaction, that takes in carbon and a little bit of nitrogen and pumps out methane and leaves behind something you can spread over your garden.

The Problem with Composting Advice:

Without a doubt, the most efficient compost pile is constructed all at once. For obvious reasons, this is called batch composting and has a distinct industrial flavor. You gather at least a cubic yard of materials containing the correct ratio of carbon to nitrogen, plop your enormous pile in your backyard, turn it every few days and in short order your compost will be done. This begs some obvious questions:
  • Who produces a cubic yard of organic waste all at once, and then nothing for the next 3 months?
  • Who produces organic waste in the correct ratio of carbon to nitrogen?
You might, actually, if you're composting scraps from a big vegetable garden and can compensate your extra nitrogen with leaf matter, but most of us are looking for away to keep our kitchen scraps from going in landfill.

The Problem with Kitchen Scrap Bins:

The question then becomes "Whats the best way to kind of batch compost, adding materials from your kitchen and garden as you go?" We'll get there soon, but for further inspiration lets look at likely downfalls in a backyard bin. You cannot just start throwing your food scraps in a pile in the backyard. (I promise, I tried, the fruit flies were bad but the rats were much worse.) Pitfalls can be broken down into three categories:
  • Too wet -- compost piles need water, but anything leaving your kitchen is likely to contain way too much water. This has the effect of smothering your compost pile (which remember, needs oxygen!) and making it anaerobic. You can smell anaerobic. Not good.
  • Too green -- likewise compost piles need nitrogen, but anything leaving your kitchen is likely to contain way too much nitrogen. This produces ammonia. You can smell ammonia. Not good.
  • Too small -- Your too wet, too green compost pile hasn't been breaking down the way you want, but it has been breaking down (maybe by mold, maybe those rats are carrying pieces away). Your compost pile will never actually grow in size. You might think this is ok, until you go to harvest your compost and take a whiff of those anaerobic byproducts mingling with ammonia. Being exothermic, proper composting action releases heat which then speeds up it's own reaction. This is an example of a positive feedback. (Actually, fire is much the same way. Compost is just a little more mellow.) Too make this efficient, your pile needs to be insulated. What better insulation is there for compost than compost? Moral of the story: if your pile is big, it will insulate itself, trap the heat in, and make the reaction go even faster.
  • The Element of Time -- Time, like water and nitrogen, is an element in compost. It can also present compost management problems in two ways. First, some food scraps compost much faster than others. The coconut shells that have recently found there way into my bin could be there for years. Short of some time consuming process of chopping everything up, there's no way around this. Secondly, if you're continuously adding material, some material will have been in the bin much longer than others at harvest time.
Dave's New (and untested) Deep Litter Method:

Hopefully, over several posts, I will track the progress of a method of composting that I've converged upon with several iterations. The idea is to view the capacity of your compost bin not by the size of the bin but by the amount of carbon in it. If you follow this paradigm, an empty compost bin has no capacity to compost, whereas a bin nearly full of leaf litter has tons. This is very much analogous to bedding for pets or kitty litter. A little box with no kitty litter in it doesn't have much capacity to keep your house from getting smelly.

That's pretty much all there is to my method, I'm starting with a full bin rather than an empty one. I'm calling it a deep litter method after the deep litter method used in raising animals. How will I add to a bin that starts almost full? To paraphrase Abahram Lincoln, the brave microbes which live there will compost far faster than our poor power to add or detract. I'll bet dollars to donuts that my bin shrinks rather than expands, no matter how many kitchen scraps I add. Early returns seem good. I started the bin 4 days ago and the top of the bin (where I've added food scraps) is rockin' at 145 degrees while the other parts of the bin seem to be hanging out around 105 degrees.

I'll delve into more detail concerning the construction and management of the bin later, as well as discuss how this method deals with some of the problems listed above. I'll also report on some results. Unfortunately, there's more to life than backyard agrarianism. Back to real life...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Consider the wallet before dialing 911

Thomas Freedman used an article by the CBS Sacramento affiliate discussing a new requirement that residents pay for 911 calls in his in his latest column as a segue into a discussion of America's "lean years". Residence are given an option of paying $48 a year for unlimited 911 service or $300 per call. While the discussion of lean years is interesting, Freedman never returns to it. I find this issue a little too jarring to move on so quickly. Though most people would intuitively feel like paying for the use of 911 is a bad thing, it's worth unpacking the subtleties in order to understand who is really most affected by this change. But first, some obvious questions:
  • Do non-resident also have to pay if they dial 911? One would assume so, but the article doesn't actually say that. This question is particularly relevant in Tracy where a veritable web of intersecting major highways exist. (As an aside, these are extremely high speed merges with many confused drivers. For some reason I've also gotten a lot of heavy downpours in Tracy. It's never seemed safe.)
  • If multiple calls are placed to 911 regarding the same incident, is each caller charged? Again, when you think about the frequency of highway accidents in Tracy, this starts to seem like a racket.
  • What if the caller isn't the one in distress?
This last question deserves a little more fleshing out. In the case of a horrific car accident, someone would still call (one would hope). What about weird screams, people that just don't look right, those sorts of things? These are cases where 95% of the time it turns out to be a false alarm, but sometimes not. A good friend of mine once called 911 after witnessing an altercation on the side of the highway, would the risk/reward analysis be the same if there was an exorbitant cost associated with it? A man stumbling on the street who "just doesn't look right" may just be strange, or they may be having a diabetic emergency or acute Valium withdrawal, both life-threatening.

Surely this new policy is born out of severe budget woes. It's likely, though, that the answer to the "why 911 and not something else?" question is related to a mentality of frustration associated with the response to none emergency situations. Professional EMS providers get frustrated responding to relatively minor calls. City officials likewise bemoan the amount of money spent on these calls. This is a mental trap, however, that we shouldn't let ourselves fall into.

The National Outdoor Leadership School provides a conceptual definition of risk that lends insight into this issue. They define risk as the product of the probability that something bad will happen and the consequences of the accident. Risking a toe-stub while walking around barefoot (likely accident, minor consequences) and riding in an airliner (extremely unlikely accident, near certain death) are both low risk activities. Going for a serious bike ride is a considerably higher risk activity. If only 5% of EMS calls are life-threatening, this is still an extremely high likelihood (if you participated in an activities with a 5% risk of death each day, you'd make it an average of two weeks before kicking the bucket). Since consequences are, by definition, life-threatening, every 911 call is extremely high-risk.

One population that will be unevenly affected by this change is geriatrics. A doctor giving a lecture in our EMT class last week quoted his father saying "being old is not for the timid." Although their bodies maybe frail, old people tend to be tough as nails. They don't complain of pain until it's serious and, for a variety of reasons, resist going to the hospital. To make things worse, symptoms of life threatening conditions in geriatrics are more subtle than in younger people. While a 40 year old having a heart attack might complain of crushing chest pain with pain radiating down their arm, the most common symptom of heart attacks in older people is shortness of breaths. Other symptoms include back pain, general malaise, even toothaches. Abdominal pain in geriatrics could be caused by constipation or an upset stomach, or it could be a deadly GI bleed. The point is that these are symptoms that could be confused with "just growing old". In a population that's on an ever dwindling budget, older patients may think twice about spending $300 on a 911 call for nondescript symptoms similar to their daily aches and pains.

The beauty of our 911 system is that it's prepared to handle any type of emergency. While people may not realize that 911 is prepared to handle emotional and behavioral emergencies, it is surely prepared to deal with them. If you see a glowing yellow liquid flowing into a storm drain, you can call 911. If your neighbor hits their head, you can call 911 even if they want none of it. If in doubt, you can call 911. That is, unless you're in Tracy, where you should probably think about it first.

Monday, February 1, 2010


James’s parents rented a modified Jeep SUV with an extra row of seats in place of a trunk—what my British uncle would call a “people carrier.” And we filled it. The whole Mack family went: mother, father, sister, girlfriend. Even his girlfriend’s dog went. I had proposed the trip to Pinnacles, suggesting that we might see Condors , so I went too. The National Monument is also an honest 2 hour drive from Stanford, an ideal distance for a day trip.

California Condors appear, at least superficially, like glorified turkey vultures. Their most obvious distinguishing feature is their size. They are the largest birds in North America. Their wingspan stretches nine feet. More subtle, though more useful for identification, is their shape. Turkey vultures fly with their wings forming a “V”, almost as if their chests and shoulders are not strong enough to support their lift. Their clumsy shape causes clumsy flight—they rock back and forth never quite seeming to find their balance. Condor’s, with their square flat wings, look like little Cessna 172’s. To propel themselves, they flap their wings in a slow curl, tips first reaching inward. They are graceful in flight, finding thermals and soaring to heights greater than 3000 feet. A streak of white, like a mini-wing, serves as a final confirmation of the identification.

Condor’s also reflect the general thesis that the more specialized and adapted a species, the more prone it is to extinction. In 1986 only 22 of these birds remained in the world, all of them in captivity. The main culprit in their demise was the pesticide DDT, which was brought to public’s attention by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The truth, however, is that these large creatures are fundamentally delicate. Their size alone virtually guarantees a smaller population and their digestive systems are vulnerable to damage by a number of agents. Recently they’ve suffered problems with lead poisoning which paralyses the smooth muscle of their stomach and causes the bird to starve to death.

The largest conservation effort ever dedicated to the preservation of a single species is the reason that California Condor’s haven’t gone extinct. State, federal, local and private agencies have supported the birds with a tab of $35 million dollar since World War II. The result of these funds are the 350 birds currently in existence—an even hundred thousand per bird—188 living in the wild and all of them bred in captivity save one recent hatchling. Not everyone has agreed on the cost/benefit analysis of the effort. Each bird is tagged with a number and a radio beacon and its location monitored daily. When a bird dies, the park service learns of its death the same day. Adding to the difficulty and slowness of the comeback is the fact that they reach sexual maturity after 6 years and average only one chick every other year after that. Condor’s stay with their mate for life but will find another if their partner dies.

Given their unlikelihood of surviving Humanity, there is a certain irony in their post-apocalyptic facial appearance and choice of habitats. They live the sorts of places that might have been on the short-list for the filming of “Mad Max”: Pinnacles, Baja, the Grand Canyon. Pinnacles is the jumbled remains of the 250 mile journey these rocks have undergone through the motion of the San Andreas fault. The rocks themselves are breccias, angulated detritus lithofied into conglomerate. Their origin is volcanic. Their ground-up feldspars imbue a bright pink to the rock. The jumbling has created caves, not in the sense of hollowed out limestone karst but boulders that have fallen together and sealed the gaps from light. Water moves between the rocks causing waterfalls and slides within the caves. It is an ideal habitat for bats, whose breeding habits occasionally call for the closure of the caves.

I urged James to call the park prior to the trip to check on the status of the Condors. I had seen them on multiple occasions, both in Pinnacles and across the coastal range in Big Sur (an easy enough trip for a Condor but far more difficult in an automobile) but always by accident. I’ve never set out with the specific goal of finding a species and been successful. I’ve stumbled across plenty of gopher and king snakes, even a few rattlesnakes, but to go out looking for them on the most perfect snake day in the spring causes your odds of finding one to fall drastically. Also of concern was the fact that the best spot in the park for seeing the birds is the High Peaks. As the name suggests, the hike to the location is somewhat strenuous and exposed to the sun. All of this turned out to be moot, however, when the Condor’s appeared soaring over the ridge at the entrance of the park within minutes of sitting down for a picnic.

With the California Condor (as well as the Western Bluebird and Yellow Billed Magpie) added to the life-lists of all in attendance we decided to take a short hike and explore the caves. It occurred to me while fumbling for my cell phone (for use as a flashlight) that we were probably at the limit of what James’s parents were comfortable with. The comfort limit, I decided, was the optimal place to be with the curve rising gradually on one side and plummeting quickly on the other.

As someone reasonably knowledgeable on issues of local natural history and ecology, I wanted share some information that would make the experience more meaningful for James’s family. It turns out that it’s fairly difficult to achieve this, striking a balance between too little information and sharing every disconnected morsel you’ve ever learned. The line between the two declinations is probably a story or a stimulated sense—subtle features that fit into a greater picture interest people, and things with physical beauty, aroma or taste tend to delight. Several wildflowers filled the latter group. There were milkmaids (Cardamine Californica), which are beautiful but seem tamed and almost afraid to offend, Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon sp.) whose flowers are upright in the normal sense of a flower, but whose conical shape makes them appear geometrically as facing downward, and Blue Witch (Solanum Umbelliferum), a toxic member of the nightshade family with 5 pedals fused nearly identical to a potatoes’ flower.

There is a pleasure in finding things out, as Richard Feynman said, that I experienced in learning a new species. I was surprised to see pine trees at the monument. Lena mentioned that they reminded her of ghost pines. I climbed a rock for a better vantage point to key the species out and did so as best I could. Keying plants is like those “Choose your own adventure” books. A series of questions are presented (“ Are the leaves alternative? If yes, proceed to 8.”) Some of the questions are difficult (“Cones stay on the tree for greater than 2 years.” I didn’t have that sort of time.) When I had finished keying the plant out I landed on Ghost Pine and it occurred to me that Lena should be more confident. The final identifying feature was massive clawlike scales and that certainly fit the bill. The cone is large and heavy and the individual scales have a chestnut-like texture. With the name in mind I looked back at the tree and did find something ashen and ghostly about it. It seemed to fit in a post-apocalyptic environment, an environment suited for Condors.

Monday, January 25, 2010


A brief pause occurred this weekend in the otherwise 8 days of solid rain. The ceasefire afforded me the chance to reestablish my garden. In recent months my garden had floundered and finally got to the point where I could no longer claim to have a garden. Part of me was hesitant to plant anything with the possibility looming that we could get kicked out of our house in a few months. (How sad would it be to miss a harvest by a few weeks or plant a perennial knowing that not long after it establishes its roots some piece of construction equipment hell-bent on razing Shakedown St won’t even pause for the poor plant’s demise?) I decided, however, that in my case having a garden is a conduit towards present happiness that is independent of expected future harvest. It is also a bellwether for mental health—like reading and cooking—though it may not be entirely clear where the causation lies.

Gardening has evolved with me. In much the same way that medicine has done more harm than good until relatively recent ages, so it was with my treatment of plants. The first time I ever took an interest in anything botanical was when I decided with my childhood neighbor that it was imperative that we remove some of my mother’s Rhododendrons. We had decided, based on absolutely nothing, that they were diseased and to prevent a pandemic that would overtake the yard, they had to go. My mother was not pleased and, for a long time, my gardening acumen improved little. I still feel slightly guilty when I think about the Astilbe and Columbines that I mistakenly removed as weeds in High School.

My first truly well-considered garden was outside my apartment in Escondido Village. Escondido Village is part of the graduate housing at Stanford and, though some have tried, there is not a patch of dirt to call your own. The inspiration came through a New York Times article linked to instructions on how to build a “salad table.” The concept was simple: 4 inches of compost mix held up by hardware mesh and window screening for drainage elevated to a height of 3 feet. The revelation was the tremendous diversity that could be grown in only 4 inches of something less than soil. My table included bunching onions, radishes and a variety of salad. The term salad, of course, could loosely be applied to any leaves that were intended to be eaten raw. My favorite surprise of that summer was a red leafed amaranth. Allowed to grow to its full extent, the plant would have reached upwards of 6 feet and shed thousands of seeds—useful when ground into a traditional flour. My plants, neatly groomed and confined to their shallow home had a soft green leaf with red radiating outward from the center. Understated--being one of my favorite attributes--its colors intensified for any passerby inquisitive enough to turn over the leaf.

With no premeditated intent, the garden and the containers multiplied. I was a little self-conscious of its appearance. For some reason, although I’m not exactly sure why, I was concerned that the university would have a problem with it. For geometrical reason, the hose also ran through the house and out a duct that was intended to ventilate a drier. (Since the units no longer came with driers, the duct was now available.) I was worried my roommates would object to the hose running across the kitchen floor. Instead, I was astounded by the positive comments from those who walked by. In particular, an older Chinese gentleman would frequently meet me outside and, though he didn’t speak a single world of English, manage to convey his criticism of my technique. (Coincidently, his criticisms reflected my mother’s, who always accused me of being too harsh on the plants. This gentleman would have preferred that I snip around the outer leaves of the greens instead of lopping off the whole top. I still lop off the whole top.)

Moving into Shakedown St (a house, don’t let the name fool you) gave me the chance to establish my garden in the ground. One of the subtler aspects of a garden that is somehow partially lost when it is containerized is the emotion that a particular plant conjures up—each plant’s emotional avatar being slightly different. Describing these emotions would be akin to describing the color green, but I can say that it is a meld of an increased knowledge of the plant’s botany and lifecycle as well as an intimacy in the finer details of the plants appearance and touch that get recorded and brought to life with, say, the smell of a tomato plant. When a plant’s affection is particularly strong, it can persist as nostalgia for an entire lifetime. Such is the case with the smell of a tomato plant—which somehow reminds me of the passage of time.

In the course of maintaining these Shakedown gardens, I discovered a surprising affection for two plants in particular: garlic and potatoes. For one thing, these plants excited me simply because I had never thought to grow them before. The intrigue with potatoes lay in the mystery. I was forced to tend to the above ground plant, watch it grow and, indirectly through the course of care, cover its bounty from my vision. (Potatoes require mounding around the base so that the tubers avoid expose to sunlight. Sunlight produces solanine, the toxic substance present in nightshades that made Europeans hesitant to eat spuds in the first place.) Digging them up when it was finally time was a simple boyish pleasure. Garlic, on the other hand, seemed far more stately than its onion counterparts. A member of the lily family, with many other bulbed and cormed plants, garlic seemed to possess a grace common to the more oft-admired lilies. I also liked the idea that I could still be eating from the harvest months after pulling the plants out of the ground.

The decline of this garden started this past summer after several successful winter and summer seasons. I’m not sure why, but my motivation seemed to dwindle while that of the slugs, gophers and birds reached an all-time peak. I would occasionally muster up some inspiration, plants a few seedlings only to have them removed entirely by a Stellar’s Jay or evaporated over the course of several nights by the local gastropods.

This past weekend I gathered enough inspiration to not only plant a garden but also fortify it with bird netting and pellet sized booby-traps for the slugs. Hopefully this will lead to success. I still went outside this morning half-expecting my new plants to be gone or severely damaged. Contained in my fortified vegetable garden are peas, broccoli, Chinese cabbage and chard. I also planted some non-edibles on the theory that caring for something with no material gain attached to it is good for the soul. (Although, last time I planted something with no economic value, it was an Astilbe that my roommate removed as a weed—poetic justice for all, except the two Astilbes.) Among these are a rush, a grass and a sedge. I have taught several classes of sixth graders the difference between these superficially similar families by quoting the poem “Sedges have sides, rushes are round, grasses have nodes and willows abound.” Now I have an example of each. The grass is Festuca Idahoensis. Festucas, or fescues, are my favorite genus of grass because their bluish gray shades remind me that California’s grasslands used to be dominated by these colors. I cheated somewhat with my non-edible plants, buying Foxglove that is nearly ready to bloom, but I need some early successes for positive reinforcement. Early successes would be a great bellwether.