Thursday, March 19, 2015

status and sustainability

John used to be a lawyer. A real high-flyer. He was a partner in Wilkins and Partners for 10 years, and acted as QC in many well-known cases. He was 48 when he realised that his jet-setting, profligate lifestyle was seriously compromising his children's future, and that all his money and stuff wasn't actually bringing him a fulfilling life. Over a period of 10 years, he quit his job, down-sized his house and belongings, got rid of his suits, sold his car, started gardening and generally remodeled his life in what he hoped was a sustainable way. He's never been happier. He is now 58 and works 2 days per week as a volunteer legal adviser for immigrants, and spends the rest of his time in the garden, volunteering at the local school, with his kids and grandkids. He usually wears old and simple clothes, has a utilitarian garden with clothes on the clothes line, chickens and lots of vegetables and trees.

Martha graduated with John, and was every bit his equal in the legal profession. In fact, they teamed up a lot in their legal work. She was a fantastic debater, to his methodical research. In their early career they were rivals, but they eventually realised that the legal world was big enough for them both. She was 47 when John was 48, and was also a partner at Wilkins and Partners. She could never understand why John would want to abandon his successful career to be poor go grubbing around in the dirt. She liked him, and was a quite tolerant person, but their wildly divergent lifestyles meant that they steadily lost contact as he reshaped his life. Martha continued to work hard at law, and by 58 had a string of famous legal victories, including pharmaceutical, GMOs, IT and the oil industry. She was the go-to person at Wilkins and Partners for any case involving technical content. She was rich. She and her husband drove matching BMWs and lived in a palatial house at Beverly Hills.

Generally, people who meet John like him. He is easy going and calm. People identify with his old clothes and cheap lifestyle. When people meet Martha, they generally get sidelined. She can be aloof and arrogant. In her power clothes and fancy car, people don't feel they have much in common with her. But, they respect her.

My question is: which of these people garner greater respect in our society? Who is listened to? Who influences politics? Who influences voters?

I believe the answer is: the person most successful and can demonstrate it using standard measures of success -- status

All over the world, people are slowly realising that our society cannot continue in its current trajectory -- that an attempt to do so will result in disaster. These are people from all walks of life: dentists, barbers, builders, shop assistants, lawyers, scientists, street sweepers, mechanics. Some of these people are prepared to reshape their lives so that they cause less damage to the ecological systems that support us (without which, our civilisation would not exist). In so doing, those people lose many of the status symbols (eg. cars, clothing, toys, houses, travel) they previously had, and hence have a corresponding loss of status. Loss of status means that their voice is heard less in general society.

Hence, there is a status imbalance between those who "pull-back" from the status quo that is undermining our civilisation, and those who perpetuate it.

This means that people who argue for continuing the status quo have a relatively louder voice than those arguing for change. I believe this is an actual and serious impediment for societal change, and relates to such things as our innate primate hierarchical social structure, tribalism and other such deep aspects of humanity.

This is an exploratory article, and I don't have answers here. I hope to provoke a discussion on this subject.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The cost of cars

I've written a couple of articles about how expensive cars are. The main two are what does it cost to own a car, and how fast do cars actually go?

However, both of these articles ignore a very significant cost: real estate. Let me show this by an example.

Last year, we visited Sydney. We stayed in a great little (and very reasonably-priced) townhouse in Sydney's inner-North (about 10 kms out). The house has space allocated for two cars to park, and this was about one sixth of the land that the house occupied. I don't know what that house is worth, but it would be at least $1 million, and probably $1.3 Million. Therefore, the value of those car parks was about $200000, or about $15000 / year [1] (the opportunity cost of having that money locked up in fairly useless land). This is in addition to all the other expenses I've outlined in the other two articles. Amazing stuff!

Our place is similar (though not worth as much money!). When we moved in, it had a driveway right down one side of the house, a double garage and a carport out the back. I think that between 1/6 and 1/5 of the land was given over to car infrastructure. That's a significant amount of money!

We've been slowly reclaiming that car space as a human space. The carport is gone, the garage will never have another car in it (and may serve as accommodation one day), and we are slowly digging up the driveway to plant more trees. My plan is to eventually have a single car space right at the front of the block, or perhaps none at all.

This weekend I did quite a bit of work setting up a new bed in the former-driveway. I've previously dug up the hard-dolomite-clay hideousness with a pick, and today I worked in some compost and straw and planted a few trees. This will give summer shade to our kitchen window, and the external split-system unit (which will help it function more efficiently on hot mornings, not that we use it much). I've attached a couple of photos below. This also has an added security benefit, because a would-be burglar now needs to leave their car out the front of the house, in broad view of the street.
Our former driveway, now with a bed. Today I planted a nectarine, plum and wooly bush. We'll put a whole lot more there, though -- lots of chook food (leafy greens, comfrey, etc), and some other understory plants. You might also notice that the  wall for this bed is made of broken concrete. I'm slowly removing concrete from elsewhere on my block and instead of sending it to landfill I'm trying to reuse it. This is a bit ugly right now, but I'll put some soil in the wall and let plants grow over it. It also provides shelter for lizards and other creatures.

We've also made the step to letting the chooks run free through the vegetable beds. This was a bit difficult for me, as I was afraid of the destruction. After reading a fantastic blog post about keeping chickens, which said that:

Paddock shift systems often improve the paddock. Some folks report five times more vegetation when using paddock shift like the one suggested here. This is something that vegans do not consider when designing gardens with no animals. So ... imagine .... your garden without chickens produces less than your garden with chickens where the chickens eat 30%. 

We decided to see what happens if we just let them go and see what happened. I must admit, the phrase that popped into my head was "embrace the chaos" -- where before we had straw on the beds and bark chips on the paths, and a garden that many would regard as wild, now we have straw all over the grass and paths, holes in the path, etc. We did lose a few seedlings, and I think in future I'll try to protect them better, but I can already see what a great job the chooks are doing at turning things over. I think this is a work in process that will continue. We're also getting more eggs now, perhaps implying that they weren't getting quite enough food before.

happy chooks -- this bed sustained little damage, though the kale was enjoyed! Seeing a chicken jumping to reach the higher leaves was pretty funny!

Happy hens
[1] I often use economic means to illustrate the stupid things people do. I'm not a money-driven person, and often don't do things for economic reasons, but I feel this is an easier way to communicate some of these ideas.

This article was written by Angus, and first appeared at

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The just-so society

It wasn't working properly, so I got rid of it and bought a new one.

This is almost the mantra of our society. One even hears things like

I'm pleased I dropped my phone -- now I can buy a new one

This is a waste, plain and simple. It's amazing how pervasive this attitude is, and it provides opportunities for people who are not likewise blinkered. We have this idea that things ought to be just right, that if things aren't perfect there is a problem, and that problems like this are fixed by buying something new.

My stereo systems

This post was prompted by Cherokee Organics' post about his new FM rooftop antenna. (I'd been thinking about writing it anyway but was procrastinating)

I love music -- and have lots of music.
When I was a kid, I had a huge collection of cassettes, many recorded from the radio. When I was about 14, my uncle lent me an old hifi amp from the 70s and a couple of speakers to go with it. I bought a second hand Philips CD player (late 80s) to go with it for about $100. I still have the CD player, it sounds great.
About 5 years ago, I bought a "proper" hifi. An NAD 3020, with an AM/FM tuner and Bowers and Wilkins speakers for $150 (it is a proper audiophile system and would have cost $2000-3000 equivalent twenty years ago). The seller was getting rid of it because it was black and he was changing his hifi to silver (!)
I've also found an NAD receiver (amp and radio together) and CD player on the side of the road, as well as a few CD-boom-boxes. I picked up a fantastic cheap hifi at the op-shop for $25. All in all, we have 3 CD players and 5 FM radios (three of which are very good) and have paid a total of about $350 for the lot.

Wallace radio

I have a fair collection of computer music. Although I love listening to CDs and vinyl, digital music is great because it's easy to come by, and I can get music that would be otherwise unavailable. How to listen to it?
I set up an old (hand-me-down) laptop (cost: $0) with a USB FM broadcaster (brand: keene, cost: $10) and a USB key full of music (cost $30). It's on my local network and can be controlled by my (hand-me-down) smartphone. It broadcasts at FM 102.7, and I can tune in any radio in the house (it has a range of about 20 meters), and the sound quality is pretty good. I can even use it to stream internet radio and then broadcast it to FM to listen to it.

The upshot

I can set music to play on my phone and can listen to it in any room in the house or even outside -- just by tuning in the radio. Similar commercial systems cost thousands of dollars -- particularly for a 7 room system. I feel that this system is a real winner!


Computer: 2004 Apple iBook running Debian Linux
Music server: "Music player daemon" -- Free Software
FM USB key: Keene FM broadcaster. (These are not made any more, but there are others available)
My lounge room stereo. Philips CD player, $120. NAD receiver: free on the side of the road. Sounds fantastic. You can also see a heap of records -- I found about 1/2 in a box on the side of the road and bought most of the rest at the op shop for an average price of $2 each.

Sony CD boombox. It had a broken ariel and was free on the side of the road. I replaced the ariel for $3. Sound is ok, not great, but it's convenient.

GE speakers - free. Stereo $25 at op shop. Sounds great.


I wanted to talk about this system, because I'm a bit of a nerd and think it rocks. But I also think it shows a general idea: There is a lot of good stuff that is going to waste -- If you tap that resource stream you can become rich, without spending much money.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The heart of the house

Kitchens are funny things. Or, rather, the way that people relate to kitchens is sometimes funny. I read somewhere "In Australia, kitchens continue to get smaller and bathrooms continue to get larger. What this says about us, I leave to you."

The past few decades have seen a change in the way Australian houses are laid-out and how they are used. Where once there was a formal dining room and a more casual meals area in (or adjacent to) the kitchen, now the trend is for the kitchen to flow to a more informal eating area that often doubles as a living area.

However, this has caused a change in the way that people think about kitchens. What was once a utilitarian space (a place for getting cooking done) is now often seen at least as much as a showpiece. For many kitchens, the aesthetics have sometimes even come to surpass the function. Since many people these days don't really cook much, this is understandable (though ridiculous).

However, there seems to be a parallel trend, even amongst people who value good home-cooked food, to aspire to an immaculate kitchen that looks more like something in a magazine than a place to, er, cook food.

Below are a few photos of my kitchen. I've put a caption on each, describing what can be seen. The kitchen is almost exactly as I fount it when I went to do the dishes tonight. I moved a couple of things slightly, so that they could be better captured by the photo, but what you see is almost exactly what was there. This wasn't planned, and the state of the kitchen is pretty normal for us. The reason I've done this, is that I want to promote an aesthetic of the kitchen as a messy, human space which has a definite purpose of making beautiful food rather than looking good. I aspire to the kitchen that was common in Australia in the 1930s to 1950s (although I'm very happy to accept a few modern conveniences such as a microwave).

Our house was built in 1955, and the kitchen is mostly original from then. In the 1970s, there was a new cupboard installed along the meals area wall, and all the benchtops were replaced. The oven is newer, not sure how old.

Starting from left, this photo shows our microwave with the chooks' scraps bucket on top, the grey water bucket on the bench, a bag with home-grown onions poking out the top, our yoghurt-maker,  assorted plastic containers full of home made crackers, bread, a bowl of figs that we picked from a tree in the park around the corner, some semi-insulated bags that we use for shopping.

Standing in the same place, but turned 90 degrees to the right, you can see the fridge (an Electrolux ETM4200-series, which uses about 0.8 kWh/day -- very efficient. Bought second-hand for $500), the meals area (where we usually eat) our recycling box, a small container of various stone-fruit-pips (waiting to be planted) a container of grapes and another of figs. You can also see the LED strip light I installed (white line). On the wall, you can see the chasing for the ceiling-fan controls that we've just installed.

This shows the bag of flour we never put away (because we use it most days), a bowl of home grown tomatoes, spice drawers, coffee makers, roasted vegetables, a home made pull-apart loaf. This covers our old and un-funky, but very usable oven.

This shows some of our preserves in the cupboard next to the wine, a mini-oven that I bought cheaply 2nd hand to save power and heat in the house, jars of seeds/spices, cookbooks, etc

This is all mundane, I don't think our kitchen is particularly exciting. But I do think it is beautiful. I love it. So much great food comes out of this kitchen -- most of it is cooked from scratch, and a lot of it is home grown. For me, I'd much rather have a kitchen like this than something schmick but sterile. I think the idea that utilitarian can be aesthetic is an idea that should be spread.
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