Archive for the ‘Complexity’ Category

My 1888 Brain

This is all related to slow internet which is a country thing, but sometimes can be a city thing, and a twisted convoluted story to get to the point, but really, aren’t most of my blogs like this? Bear with me?… (bare with me?) if you are so inclined.

We often get asked about what we use for internet out here in the country. We use satellite internet because there is no fixed wireless in our region. This is a good thing because it means there isn’t the population density to warrant a company installing towers for wireless. So I’m not complaining. Satellite internet is part of many people’s rural reality.

Right now, with so many (166,000 households in Canada last year so what is that in the U.S., 2 million?) canceling their cable/satellite TV and just watching stuff online, it means that at 7 pm when everyone sits down to watch Netflix, well … the whole internet slows down. But with a satellite there is limited bandwidth so the bottleneck slows everyone down … a lot. Our internet provider has launched a new satellite to deal with it, but it will take a few months to be operational.

So, we’ve been renting movies. Yes, I do a lot of reading … in the mornings … but really …  reading after dinner is a one-way ticket to la-la land for me. We rent from Tim at the local video store when we know that we’ll be driving through town and can return the DVDs the next day, and we’ve been borrowing some from the library. This is a good thing too since it shows up on their records as transactions which helps keep the local branch open, in a time when they’ve closed others in our rural area.

So, I’ve been bringing home stacks of movies, most of which we don’t get around to watching. The last batch had Season 5 of Six Feet Under,” the HBO series about the funeral home. It was exceptional and it was from 2005, so we watched it 12 years ago. But at the age of 57 this means that I when I am re-watching something a decade later, it all seems new to me.

Well, not all of it. I do remember a lot it, especially the final episode where the series is all wrapped up in the absolute greatest bit of movie/TV writing ever.

But there was one scene from Season 5 which has stuck in my mind in a big way. Okay, so spoiler alert, if you are about to watch Season 5 of Six Feet Under and want to be surprised DO NOT READ THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS.

In one of the episodes one of the lead characters, now deceased, returns to do a quasi rock video scene to the song Celebrate by ‘Rare Earth.

He is all dressed in white in a ‘from the other side’ sort of theme singing “I just want to celebrate another day of living, I just want to celebrate another day of life…,” a cautionary tale from the great beyond to remind you that you’d better enjoy every day you’ve got left … which might not be many for some of us. Because really, who knows?

I love this song and often break into quite a loud rendition as I walk this marvelous piece of land Michelle and I inhabit … briefly but extremely joyfully.

So, for 12 episodes I kept trying to recall when this video sequence was going to appear, and well, it turns out, my 57-year-old aluminum-and-soda-pop-addled brain just couldn’t reach down deep enough into its synapses to remember it. I had a feeling, and I got it, 2 minutes before it appeared … in the final episode. No points for you Cam! Oh, my memory was of a 2-minute rock video…nope…it was all of 10 seconds max!

We started thinking about all the noise that our brain would have had to filter through to get that data. How many tens of thousands of hours of videos, millions of words in books, billions of words in day old newspapers and Guardians, would it have to get through to remember something I’d watched over a decade ago.

Then at breakfast one morning Michelle and I discussed how differently our grandkids’ brains will be wired because their brains will be exposed to so much more video and imagery than ours. We’re piling on the hours late in life but when we were kids, TV was a Saturday morning in the winter thing so our parents could sleep in, and rarely did we watch TV in the summers or after school because we just disappeared on our bikes into the woods or suburbs and didn’t return home until we got hungry. Sure, the risks were probably there, but you didn’t seem to hear about them as much so parents were like, “See ya at dinner.” Antibiotics, vaccines so we didn’t get smallpox, endless freedom to play, OMG I was born at a charmed time in human in history.

So how many of the images cluttering up my brain are someone else’s creation, like the scene in the second Jason Bourne movie when he jumps from a rooftop and crashes through a window on the other side of the street and the camera follows right behind him? That was so cool but it wasn’t me doing the jumping, it was like 100 stunt people and movie technicians.

Which finally got us to thinking about the kitchen we were having our breakfast in. A kitchen that in 1888 when our house was built, or in 1910, or 1940, a farmer would come in for breakfast and every other meal, exhausted, or his wife would work in the kitchen, until they collapsed after dinner, most likely without the income to afford or the energy to read a book.

All of their memories were theirs. All their experiences were their own. As they sat and reflected on their life, it would be a recollection of only images and experiences that they had actually participated in.

It’s a very cool distinction. I created many vivid images over the years reading about Ayn Rand’s Henry Reardon or Margaret Atwood’s Grace Marks from ‘Alias Grace.’ I didn’t even see visual images of these people but somehow, they occupy my brain.

If the concept is accurate of this death myth/image of our lifetime passing before us as we prepare to cross over to the other side, I think the 1888 brain would offer a much more legitimate experience. Mine, while populated by a billion hours (into my teens) spent playing with Lego and Meccano, jumping off roofs in homes being built in my subdivision and staying out way too late to overfill a pillow case on Halloween could very likely be cluttered and corrupted with all these other images that I didn’t experience myself.

It would be great if you could get a filter to ensure that all your experiential memories were your own. I’m sure there’s ‘an app for that” on your Smartphone! Oh, and that latest episode of Game of Thrones you’ve been wanting to watch …

Gas Tube Arrestors, Busted Wind Turbines and Spiders from Mars

I’m maturing as a person.

Oh, I still have my fits and tantrums, but I’m getting much better. As one approaches their 60s perhaps this resignation to certain outcomes becomes easier.

Several weeks ago we had a major storm blow through with tornado warnings in our area. I never remember one in the middle of September, but the brutal heat of summer carried on into September so it shouldn’t surprise me.

As I was walking towards the front screen door at one point during the storm, the loudest thunder bolt I’ve ever heard struck simultaneously with the flash of lightning. It was terrifying, like a World War I artillery barrage, and more worrying from an off-grid standpoint.

We have a marvelous 1 kilowatt wind turbine on a 100 ft steel tower that reduces our generator run time significantly. But let’s be honest, it’s just this massive, tall lightning rod screaming “Hit me, hit me, HIT ME!” during a lightning storm.

Sure enough the following morning the turbine was spinning very slowly, even though the wind was still high. Not a good sign. This is when my newfound maturity appeared. Rather than grabbing an axe and chopping down the nearest tree on the “To Be Cut” list to deal with my rage, I just assumed the turbine was toast and shrugged my shoulders with resignation.

The absolutely wonderfully brilliant news was that there was no noticeable damage in the battery room. The last time we got hit by lightning (3 summers ago, a week before my younger daughter’s wedding! Read about it here.)  it took out the inverter and lots of other expensive equipment.

So the other day, my neighbor Sandy and I brought down the turbine, which is on a gin-pole tower. It’s still kind of scary, but pretty gratifying when you finally get it down. The problem last time (3 years ago) was that the DC Rectifier had been blown up. I say “blown up” because you could see where there had been sparking and big chunk of plastic was missing. A rectifier is like the opposite of an ‘inverter.’ It takes AC electricity, that the alternator on the turbine produces, and it converts it to DC to go in to the batteries. All those black ‘bricks,’ the black plastic boxes that you plug into wall outlets to power your computer or charge your cell phones are DC rectifiers, converting AC from the plug to the DC the phone battery wants.

When we replaced these the last time we got hit, Bergey, the manufacturer of my wind turbine, suggested that we add a “Gas Tube Arrestor.” A Gas Tube Arrestor is basically a fuse. And low and behold, as soon as we got the turbine apart we could see that one of these had blown.

view-of-turbine

guts-of-turbine

 

gas-tube-arrestorThe bad news was that I have to replace it and the rectifier. The good news is that it blew up and apparently took the short or surge of electricity down the turbine into the grounding wires to the grounding rods, rather than into the battery room. How cool is that?! Which begs the question … why hadn’t they provided them when I installed the system a decade ago? Continuous quality improvement I suppose.

As we were taking the turbine apart I noticed this little spider hanging around. Let’s call him/her Ziggy. I sort of assumed she had jumped on from the sunflower nearby where the turbine had ended up when we took it down. But then I noticed she didn’t want to leave the area.

ziggy-on-the-edge

ziggy-at-home

So finally I looked down the tower and noticed that she had a web there.

Nature is a funny thing sometimes. We live in the bush and have no shortage of bugs but all the things the bugs want … pollen from flowers, people to bite, etc. are at ground level. How many bugs would want to hang out at 100 feet, the height of the tower when it’s erect?

But there was the spider, and there was the web, so apparently she had a thing going.

And since she was a spider that hung out at high heights I started singing David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” with the lyrics “Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Wierd and Gilly, And The Spiders from Mars.” And I could not get that song out of my head all day, and it was a good thing.

Taking down a wind turbine is kind of a stressful process so there is a great sense of relief and accomplishment when it’s finally down. So you have a natural buzz afterwards. I’d rather not bring it down, but when I factor having to bring it down twice in 10 years, with the huge amount of electricity it has generated to improve the quality of my life, without the carbon I would have produced if I’d run my generator, then it’s a pretty good trade off.

Couple that with a catchy tune from a recently deceased musical icon, and it was a pretty good day all and all. Luckily we haven’t yet hit the grey days of November, so the wind power hasn’t been missed. Every time I bring down the turbine I get better at it and learn more. I finally understand this whole DC rectification thing.

I’m intrigued to see if Ziggy hangs in for a week or two while I order the replacements and install them. Fall is in the air; I’m thinking she’s probably better to find a place to overwinter at ground level.

I just wish Bergey could figure out another improvement that would take the lightning jolt at ground level so I didn’t have to drag the whole thing when it gets trashed. I can dream, can’t I?

 

A couple of notes from Michelle;

  • Thanks to RH for his recent (second!) donation. As you can imagine, it will help pay for these wind turbine repairs! Even though Cam does the repairs himself, the parts and various bits & pieces are not cheap! You’ll find the “TIP JAR” above on the right hand side of this page. Every bit helps and is most appreciated!
  • Many of you probably found this blog through our writing in Mother Earth News magazine. They’ve offered us a small commission for every Mother Earth News subscription that is purchased using our link; https://www.motherearthnews.com/store/Offer/EMEBGGAF. Mother Earth News magazine is one of our favourite magazines!
  • HAPPY THANKSGIVING to our Canadian readers! We’ll be celebrating here at Sunflower Farm with our family and lots of great food from our garden. We have so much to be thankful for!

Channeling my Inner Thoreau

I’m in the throes of writing my last few posts before I go dark on this blog. It seems to have run its natural course.

It’s partially that I find myself on a journey to completely unplug myself from all things 21st Century/capitalist/technological. I think we may all get there eventually, I’m just trying to get out ahead of the curve. It’s the way Michelle and I seem to have been over the last 40 years, always a step ahead of the pack.

I read “Walden” many decades ago. I think it was even before we got ready to move out of the city.  I think it was when we first started flirting with environmentalism. It’s just one of those books you should read. I know there are lots of criticisms with what Thoreau did … “well, he still walked to town once a week for food … he was still earning a living writing …” yea, whatever, we’re all blowhards, me especially.

As I get more and more committed to not buying stuff, I am forced to deal with the stuff I have which is all getting older, and therefore needs maintenance.

I have often looked longingly at those car ads that brag about the 14 air bags … front impact, side impact, bottom impact in a case a large reptile tries to burst into your car from below … and thought, boy, it would be awesome to own one of those cars.

Until recently when I had to have my airbag inflator replaced in a recall. Coincidentally this happened at the same time my SRS (supplemental restraint system…i.e. airbag and seatbelt) warning light came on which isn’t covered by the recall, of course. The dealer wanted $100 to read the error code (which takes them about 5 minutes to do) and then quoted that it would be another $200 to $500 to fix the problem. Thanks to the internet and my fantastic neighbor Sandy, I did it myself (with A LOT of his help). So I had this epiphany that everything comes at a cost, and all these wonderful safety thingees are indeed wonderful, until they break, then they are insanely expensive to fix and you have to have a high income to maintain them, or forgo them, or try and figure out how to fix them yourself. With however many lines of code in a new vehicle (1 million? 2 million?) most of us are rapidly losing our ability to fix things ourselves, even if we want to.

Then we had a plumbing issue. Which reminded me that there is PEX and copper and ABS and PVC and Poly B and CPVC and about 1 million adapters for each, and then another million to adapt one standard to the other, which makes about 14 million parts in the hardware store … and never the one you want. And if the house wasn’t plumbed properly with shutoff valves, you have no water while you’re scrambling around trying to fix it.

I am becoming an expert at finding ‘work-arounds.’ “It’s not optimal, but it’ll do” is my new mantra. Well it’s always been my philosophy, I just used to kid myself that I worked to a higher standard. Admitting it is half the battle, right?

So now, like Henry David Thoreau, I basically never, ever want to ever buy anything new, ever again. Because there is a price you pay when you do, and it’s not just that upfront cost, which includes the immense impact that ‘thing’ has had on the planet to get into that box, wrapped in that plastic bag, with all of those Styrofoam inserts and endless other things that just end up in a landfill.

So I have begun the descent to ultimate, hardcore, EXTREME simplification. I kidded myself two decades ago when I moved off grid that this was what I was doing. In actual fact with the necessity of purchasing inverters and charge controllers and phone systems and satellite internet systems and, and, and, …. I was not getting off any bandwagons.

But I’ve finally seen the light and it is me, living in the dark, foraging in the woods, drinking from a pond wearing clothing fashioned from feed bags and sandals made from old tires. Well, with the cost of used clothing at thrift shops I’m not sure I’ll ever have to go that far. And I do enjoy renting a video once in a while, and man, having the solar panels charge the batteries and pump water into our pressure tanks, then turning the tap and having cold, clean, wonderful water pour out … well, that’s pretty awesome. But that’s it though, nothing else new.

Ever meet one of those guys who says “cassettes are awesome!” or ‘do you realize you can get VHS tapes at thrift shops for like 5¢ each now?!” (but you just have trouble seeing what’s happening one the screen because the resolution is so low). Well, that’s going to be me soon. My daughters keep giving me their old iPods as iPhones now are basically iPods, but I just haven’t been able to motivate myself to put my music on them. And I think I’m finally comfortable saying it’s not going to happen for me. When the CD player breaks, I’m just going to sing way more. Poor Michelle.

When I back the manure trailer up at my neighbors’ barn I have to channel my inner trailer ball sense, because I, alas, don’t have a backup camera. My tailgate is beat all to rat crap where I regularly plunge the trailer tongue into it, when I miss the target. And at this stage in my life, I’m pretty okay having a banged in tailgate on my truck. In fact, I would not want to own a truck that didn’t have such a thing.

I know what you’re saying … “Cam is just saying that because he’ll never own one.” Exactly. I accept my lot. I cannot bring myself to participate in an economic system that is destroying the planet, making a lot of people miserable, and forcing everyone to keep buying stuff just to stay in the game.

Living off-grid and growing a pretty large volume of food, this is not a tough transition for me. When you do a little research on the likelihood of a CME in the next decade, or the Cascadia fault letting loose on the west coast, or some fiat currency scenarios in the next economic collapse, I think it’s possible that many people who would rather not be forced to go through a radical simplification, will be joining me.

It’s a tough path to follow, because the other one, the one that bombard us with a billion images a day showing us how awesome all this ‘stuff’ is, well, it is a pretty sexy one. I get it. It’s cool. It’s awesome. Until it’s not. And for me, now, it’s not.

So I’m off to the toolshed … (well, it’s actually a woodshed where I also store tools) to build a proper way to organize all my tools, because every spring it starts out amazingly clean and organized and by December when I have to crawl to the shelf at the back to get the Christmas tree, it’s turned into a death-defying obstacle course of sharp metal points and sticks repeatedly impaling me. I just love hand tools. So low tech. No upgrades. No error codes. No warning lights. Heck, they don’t even come wrapped in any packaging. Make yourself happy. Go use a shovel or a hoe.

The Pace of Change is Just Too Much

I read my local ‘day-old’ newspapers the other day and learned about the closing of The Guelph Mercury (in Ontario) and the “Nanaimo” Daily News (in British Columbia). These are newspapers that for more than 100 years provided local residents with independent news and editorial about issues of importance and relevance to them. The Mercury’s readership had dropped from 22,000 to 9,000 and they could no longer afford to print and publish it.

This follows a trend throughout North America of our traditional news organizations laying off staff and reducing service as they struggle to remain profitable. I love reading a local, hard copy, printed newspaper, but I don’t buy them. I just read out of date copies I salvage from friends and family. So apparently I’m not helping the cause. The one thing I’m not doing is getting my ‘news’ on-line. If I can’t find a newspaper I’m just as happy to be on a news blackout. Michelle would prefer a permanent news blackout for me, as it would result in way fewer ‘rants’.

So in the space of what, 10 years, we’re seeing the whole news providing model turned upside down. I know some people have switched to get their news on-line, but in most cases traditional news organizations have had trouble “monetizing” or making money from their on-line efforts. It’s tough to charge for something if there’s the perception that you can get it for ‘free’ somewhere else. Whether it’s as good remains a highly debatable issue.

When you start looking at “disruptive technologies”, things that radically change an existing way of doing things, you have to kind of wonder. Capitalism is ‘creative destruction’, which tears things down and builds new things, and we’ve all benefited from that. But now things seem to be happening at a faster pace than ever before, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

Everything just seems a little out of whack for me right now.

Economies apparently are ‘hanging in there’, but oil is ridiculously cheap. If we hit ‘peak conventional oil’ in 2005 as the IEA said we did in 2005, how is it possible that the very life-blood of the world economy can be so inexpensive? Something’s not right here.

I mentioned in a recent blog about the perception from someone who took our workshop here that most of us didn’t use the internet for banking a decade ago. And now, many of us have shifted everything on-line. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to use a large financial institution and not do everything on-line. Banks seem intent on punishing luddites like me who like to have a ‘passbook’. I say it’s because I like to have an ‘audit trail’ of my transactions, but really it’s just something that started when I had a paper route when I was 10 and got excited every time I made a deposit and my bank book got updated. Man, not only will kids today not be able to get a passbook updated, there probably isn’t a local paper for them to deliver anyway!

Let me be the first to acknowledge that this just sounds like a rant from an old, first world male about how everything ‘was better in my time.’ I DID walk a mile out to the road in my subdivision to get the school bus. I DID ride my bike 12 miles to high school some days, without a helmet, on roads without paved shoulders. The fact that I made it past adolescence seems like a miracle some days. I understand that ‘nostalgia’ can get you longing for the old days. Heck, I long for the days when I could cut firewood in the bush all day a decade ago, and not wake up with my hands clenched in a permanent arthritic curl from the chainsaw and axe handle.

But I believe the pace of change today is unprecedented and unhealthy. I think our basic gravitational grounding is becoming unglued and it’s difficult to stay balanced. There is no one to blame, it’s just how humanity has chosen to evolve. The problem is now that those who want it to slow down, who want more balance have trouble getting there. The system requires 110% focus and devotion, and if you want to get off the train, it seems there aren’t any doors for you to jump out. Oh, and the windows are locked.

As we continue to discuss sources of income here at Sunflower Farm, I just keep coming back to growing food. It just seems to be an amazing, low tech, simple way to eek out a living. Big farmers spend the winter attending shows and training seminars on the latest technology from seeds to planters. They are awesome and I am grateful to them for growing most of our food. I spent the winter cutting firewood and organizing my tool shed, which ends up in a jumbled heap of disorganization by the end of each growing season. At some point I end up stepping on a rake that had been thrown in at an impossible angle, with the resulting blow to my unprotected head, which rapidly declining reflexes don’t allow me to prevent. I mean really, can I be that stupid? I’m just grateful to see what a great NFL color commentator Troy Aiken is, even after his numerous concussions. It gives me hope that I’ll be coherent several years (or months) from now.

If you enjoy this blog you have Michelle to thank. If it had been left to me I’m sure it would have been abandoned long ago. With the number of different platforms we have used, and the number of times each one of those has gone through a major upgrade which has forced a complete relearning of the basics, I just would have walked away. I remember selling computers in 1985 and finding that customers who came into the store inevitably had more expertise than me on their particular product, because I was trying to stay current on the 5,000 products in our line. I started my own electronic publishing business in 1987 and stayed on top of the software that I used for the better part of 3 decades. But I am now advancing towards simplicity in every way I can. Whether society as a whole chooses to follow me voluntarily or otherwise remains to be seen.

Each day I grow closer to unplugging from ‘the matrix’. Shovels and hoes don’t crash. You plant seeds. You water them. You weed them. They nourish you. They don’t need upgrading to the latest version for them to work on your current browser. Then you read books when the sun goes down.

* * * * * *

And now some reminders from Michelle! Don’t forget to sign up for our spring workshop. The date is Saturday, May 7th and we still have some spots left. Or, if you can’t come to our workshop but appreciate the work that goes into this blog and the costs associated with it, feel free to leave a tip in the jar at the top righthand side of this page. Your donations are very much appreciated! And Jasper thanks you too!

face close up

Shorting the Whole System

I am amazed with the interest in the movie “The Big Short” among people I know. I was in fact amazed that someone thought the book was worth making into a movie. Clearly their hunch paid off because it seems to be doing quite well.

 

I loved the book. I had caught bits and pieces of the story of these traders since 2008 but Michael Lewis put it all together in a digestible form. It is brilliant.

If you’re not familiar with ‘shorting,’ it refers to the practice of betting against a stock or market, or perhaps betting that something will fall in value, as opposed to what most of us do when we buy stocks, which is to hope they go up. The traders in the movie were responsible for other people’s money and well in advance of the crash of 2008 they started to ‘short,’ or bet against the market.

In hindsight this sounds all pretty basic. Well, yea, obviously, why wouldn’t you bet against it … it was obvious it was going to correct in a big way. Well, it was to some people, but not the majority of people, including many of the people who had money invested in their funds, it was not. The years before the crash saw a huge run up in stock markets that looked like it was never going to end. So these traders took a lot of abuse from people who were watching other people make a whack of money in other funds. Or at least this is my recollection since I read the book years ago.

So they were pariahs for a long time, until they weren’t…at least to the people who stuck with them. Then they made a movie about them, after a book.

I was thinking about this concept in preparation for our upcoming workshop.  Many of the things I recommend would appear to go against conventional wisdom. Why would you heat that way, it’s not that convenient? Why would you bother doing that, isn’t that growing and storing food thing you do a whack of work?  Yup, I get it. It’s all a lot of work and a stupid idea … until it’s not. And then it’s going to look quite brilliant that you took these precautions.

I feel like with many of the things we do with a ‘preparation’ mindset, we are really missing the mainstream boat. We are ‘shorting’ the mainstream. A lot of this has to do with us realizing that the constant pursuit of money just leads to spending it, which isn’t the best thing generally for the planet. So from that perspective we feel good about it. From a prepping standpoint though I just think a lot of what we do makes a lot of sense.

I talk about this in my books and it’s the concept that nothing I recommend really has that big a downside. Investing in a solar hot water system is only going to save you money in the long run. Sure, it’s cheaper and easier to just keep using fossil fuels in the short run as you might right now, but having your own independent hot water system removes one more expense from your budget, which is a good thing, and reduces your impact on the planet (if you care), and makes you that much more resilient to a disruption in the extremely complex, capital intensive structure which delivers that fossil fuel to your home.

All the things we talk about are based on participation in the whole capitalist economic model. The types of food you purchase to put away and many of the things we recommend are based on being able to purchase these items now. We live in a time of extreme plenty. But ultimately, you are going to the effort to do these things in a bet that there may be some interruption to that big complex machine that could be fairly disruptive to your well being. You’re shorting the system.

The great thing about my direction … let’s call it ‘the little short’… is that you probably won’t have people yelling at you to change your course and keep on the whole “make money/buy stuff/have to keep working to buy more stuff’ treadmill. Most people would like to remove themselves from that economic model if they could, I just show you some techniques to speed up the process. And to be more resilient should things go a little sideways.

We’ve changed the date of our spring workshop to Saturday, March 23rd. Be sure to register as soon as possible so that we can reserve a spot for you. Come and learn how to short the whole big picture thing!

LINK for information and to register for the workshop here

 

The Technology House of Cards

I am a dinosaur.

I started selling microcomputers in 1982, bought one of the first Apple Macintosh computers off the line in 1984, started my own electronic publishing business in 1987 and kept pace with technology until a few years ago. Heck, I even used to set up and administer websites. Look ma, I love technology. But no more.

Michelle has taken over that part of our lives and I grow food. I put seeds in the ground and tend them and deliver food to people.

I realized I’m a dinosaur when I read an article about how automakers are starting to phase out CD players in cars, because people don’t use them. Or at least young people don’t use them. I tried to get into the whole ‘iTunes’ thing, but I just never got it. I think it was probably because I always got my daughters’ hand-me-down iPods when their batteries were giving up the ghost, so I just got frustrated and couldn’t be bothered.

The Guardian recently published an article about how people in the IT crowd were terrified about the potential for havoc caused by hackers. I guess it’s kind of like how climate scientists are terrified about feedback loops, but really, who trusts experts? Because really, putting our entire financial system and critical infrastructure like power grids on-line where they are so vulnerable to hacking, well, that’s just the way things go. Accept it.

When we moved off the grid 17 years ago our radiophone system was complicated and our internet was dial up so we couldn’t use the phone at the same time as the internet. So we didn’t do much with it. Maybe 12 or 13 years ago we got satellite internet but it was still wonky and slow and it took us (the “royal us,” in other words, Michelle) a few years to be confident enough in it to start trusting it for things like on-line banking. It’s always disconcerting when you’re doing stuff on-line and the internet craps out in the middle of the transaction. So where DID that money go? Do we have it, or does the bank have it, or is it just gone?

So I believe I can safely say that like most people we really didn’t start trusting the internet to begin migrating a lot of their key activities to the internet until about a decade ago. So in just about a decade, we have taken all the activities that humans developed over millennia, like exchanging physical goods with physical cash or something approximating that, to putting all these life supporting, essential activities into binary code, as electronic bits on this human created enterprise, called the internet.

When I see the confidence many people have in this whole bizarre concept I am quite terrified. This really hit home recently when I spoke to someone in the computer industry who seemed quite gob smacked that humans, in particular North Americans, are so blindly trustworthy to believe that nothing bad could happen to their ‘stuff’ when it all exists in the ether… as electronic bits floating around on electronic networks. Many (or most) of us have seen glitches in the matrix with our stuff, whether it’s payments or bills or whatever, and we just blindly keep trusting more and more of our essential activities to this technology juggernauts.

It’s all good … until it’s not.

And I know what you’re saying… ‘Well I couldn’t resist. My employer direct deposits my paycheque electronically into my account, and many government departments won’t deal with me unless it’s electronic, and a lot of businesses seem determined to force me to migrate to doing things on-line (you know, because they make more money when I do.)”

I try not to push our books on this blog too often, but I think people need a re-set sometimes, and that’s the reason I wrote “The Sensible Prepper.” People need a reminder that having a backup plan is not a bad idea. Indeed, it’s increasingly becoming a really, really good idea. It is not a ‘guns and ammo’ survival book. It is a logical plan with lots of tips for you to implement. The kind of tips for which there is no downside. Sometimes you just need a gentle reminder and some logical pointers on where to start. You can order the book here:

 

 

One thing that I would strongly like to recommend is that you always keep a hundred dollars in your wallet and $400 or $500 in cash at your house. This might make me sound like a crackpot, until it doesn’t. Cash machines go down some times. Interac machines go down. Computer networks go down. People’s accounts get hacked and their identities get stolen and things can go very badly sometimes. If you don’t keep cash in your wallet because you’re worried about being robbed and losing that cash, then you aren’t looking at where the real threat is.

But hey, that’s just old food growin’, wood heatin’, book readin’, CD player usin’, cash usin’ Cam talkin’, so don’t pay any attention to me. I hear Apple has a new electronic payment system you can use on your smartphone. Woo hoo, gotta go get that app!

How Did You Do It?

I just read a great article in The Guardian about how scientists sometime use science fiction to help them find direction in their research. It also talked about how some of the best science fiction writers were in fact scientists, like Isaac Asimov.

This got me thinking about one of my favorite movies of all time, which is “Contact.” Jodie Foster played the main character and it is based on a book by Carl Sagan. I’m old enough to remember seeing Carl Sagan on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and talking about the “billions and billions” of stars. Johnny then mocked him about that line for weeks afterwards, in a fun kind of way.

I took my two daughters (then aged 13 and 11) to see Contact because Jodie Foster plays such a strong role as a scientist determined to make contact with life on other planets. The three of us thought it was so great we dragged Michelle to it a few nights later. I don’t think I’ve ever paid to see a movie in a theatre twice, other than “Contact.”

Michelle recently began using our daughter’s old iPhone and one morning she showed me some video she had just shot and posted on Instagram just panning around the house. The sound of the birds was outstanding. The quality of the video was amazing. All from a box in the palm of her hand that I’m sure has significantly more processing power than NASA had to put a person on the moon. And I thought about that big honking video camera I used to lug around when our daughters were small children that made me feel like I was a news cameraperson because it was so big. Now when we watch those videos we cringe at the poor quality… especially compared to what an iPhone produces.

As I read The Guardian and other publications and see what incredible technological feats humans are up to, I am constantly reminded of a comment by Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, in the movie. A news reporter asks her what she would ask an extraterrestrial, if she met one and could only ask one question. She replies, “Well, I suppose it would be, how did you do it? How did you evolve, how did you survive this technological adolescence without destroying yourself?”

It is a profound concept, written by one of those great minds like Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, who really nailed how the future would play out.

We have these marvelous machines, this amazing technology, we’ve mapped the human genome, somehow we’ve been able to feed 7 billion people, we have backup cameras on our cars and smart phones we can talk to, and video conference with our loved ones on the other side of the world, but still, somehow, we seem to be on a collision course with our mortality by ignoring what the scientists who invented all this cool stuff we use everyday are telling us about climate change.

I don’t believe there is a technological fix to the mess we’re making of our atmosphere. I don’t believe we’ll figure out a way to remove all the extra CO2 that we’ve pumped out, and I don’t believe we can geo-engineer ourselves out of this mess.

I just don’t understand how a species that is so darn smart can be so darn stupid.

I think those of us in the developed world simply need to live with less. Less energy. Less travel. Less stuff. And with all the money we save from this, we need to make ourselves energy independent using renewables and stop giving our money to companies that use fossil fuels to make our heat and power. Michelle and I have done it and it’s pretty awesome.

But then again, maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe they’ll be a last minute “Hail Mary” fix and everything will be all right. I have to admit in the last month there has been a huge change in the amount of press climate change has been getting in the media. As I go through the day-old and week-old papers I get from town for free there is a huge amount of coverage on how putting a price on carbon in Canada is a given. It’s just a question of when and how. Angela Merkel at the G7 pushed to have western economies de-carbonized by 2050 but certain countries got scared and pushed it back to 2100. And then there was Pope Francis’s long-awaited encyclical on the environment, in which he warned of ‘serious consequences’ if the world does not act on climate change. So that’s a great thing. I mean, he’s the Pope!

Regardless, Carl Sagan knew the right question to ask that other civilization from another planet. “How Did You Do It?” And best of all, he left the response ambiguous. It’s never really answered.

This always reminds me of a great quote from Gilda Radner one of the original Saturday Night Live cast members, whose character Rosanne Rosanadana always ended one of her rants with “It’s always something.” (I provide this for our younger readers since SNL started 40 years ago and I watched it from the first show … I’m so old!)

Gilda Radner said, “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”

Stop the High Tech Roller Coaster – I’m Getting Off!

My Dad has a friend who is a techno-luddite. Well, Luddite infers that she is anti-technology. It’s more that she just can’t be bothered with having a computer, or a cell phone, or anything like that. Can you imagine? You’re reading this, so you probably can’t.

I must admit though I am finding myself increasingly envious of people who have made this choice. It’s starting to look like it might be the best one. And this is the case on so many levels.

I’m plowing through a batch of my dad’s old “Economist” magazines. They are heavy going and I find myself skipping to the later pages which just have book reviews and cool scientific stuff. But the July 14, 2014 issue has a big section on cyber security. And it’s terrifying. Do you know how much energy some people on the planet put into hacking into the computers of the world? And do you know by extension how much energy and money companies and governments spend to prevent their systems from being hacked? The mind boggles.

What I find most mind-boggling is that so much of our critical infrastructure, like the electricity grid, now seems to be connected to the internet, which allows people to hack into it from outside. I’m sure those who control the grid work very hard to protect it from this happening but really, who thought it was a good idea to hook up the support systems of modern life to a computer network that allows people to create havoc from a computer keyboard on the other side of the world?

And of course, now there is the ‘internet of things’ as the appliances and things we buy like fridges, cars and furnaces, are all getting hooked up to the internet, so we can, you know, control our fridge while we’re at work I guess. There hasn’t been a confirmed case of anyone hacking into a car and crashing it, but can that be far off? Even Dick Cheney had to have special capabilities built into his pacemaker so someone couldn’t hack into it, since he was one step from the most powerful office on the planet.

The December 13, 2014 “Economist” has a review of a book called “Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon.” Stuxnet was the program designed to disable Iranian nuclear centrifuges. The mind boggles.

I’m re-reading a great book that was given to me by a friend from Chicago called “Immoderate Greatness, Why Civilizations Fail” by William Ophuls. It’s a great book because it’s small, which means he writes concisely to get his point across. He notes, “As civilizations encounter emerging limits, they will of course make every effort to innovate their way around them.” In our case we do this by adding layers of complexity, and by thinking that printing money can mask reality.

It’s similar to the theory of Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies” which is that as societies begin to run into natural limitations, such as food or energy, or droughts or other events that make growth impossible, they add layers upon layers of complexity thinking that these are solutions. We have clearly run into the natural carrying capacity of the planet. We probably reached it 5 to 10 decades ago. And now that we’ve used up the easy to find ancient stored sunlight in fossil fuels, and now that planet is starting to tell us 7 billion is way too many people to be using up the resources on the planet, we seem to be following in all the footsteps of advanced societies that have collapsed in the past.

Which brings one back around to the James Kunstler mantra, that we have to simplify our lives and economies. We have to get smaller. We have to get more local.

I am able to live a typical advanced civilization lifestyle off the grid because of the technology in my solar panels and inverters. I am able to plug into the matrix from my laptop using a modem sending my digital bits to a satellite in space and then back into the internet on earth, in milliseconds. I marvel at the wonder of it all daily.

But I am increasingly moving to earning an income growing food on a very low-tech, non-complex level. I do not own a tractor. I do no use fossil fuel derived chemicals and fertilizers. I would miss the internet and satellite TV, but I think I could get by pretty well without all these things. We have a whack of fiction on our bookshelves that I have yet to get through.

The challenge though is that the system does everything it can to try and prevent you from unplugging from the techno-matrix. It becomes increasingly difficult to obtain information from organizations unless you have internet access. When I tried to open a new bank account recently you get a sense they pretty much don’t want to ever see you, they just want to you to do everything online. You know, where you access your account through the internet, along with all those other people who might be trying to access your account too. If you want an account where they update a passbook each time you make a transaction, they charge you an additional monthly amount. Sorry, but I like those passbooks. They provide what accountants call an “audit trail” so when their systems fail I ‘ve got a record of how much of my money they have.

Then again, if their systems fail on a big enough scale, how much ‘virtual’ money you have sitting in a ‘virtual’ pixel based whack of silicon and metal will be pretty much useless. Then it just comes down to what’s in your root cellar. No hacker has yet infiltrated my root cellar. Last fall’s potatoes and onions are still doing exceptionally well. I can relax.

 

As Quoted in “The Globe and Mail”

You may have noticed we posted a blog as usual on Tuesday this week, and then we posted again on Wednesday. There’s kind of a story to that, one that harkens back to the odd way the universe often unfolds for us.

Last week we had two bizarre coincidences related to back issues of The Economist and The Guardian that my dad saves for me. These accumulate during the growing season when I don’t have time to read much, and I get caught up on them in the winter.

On Tuesday I shared an article with Michelle about the story of the artist behind the “big eyes” paintings. We were both familiar with the paintings but didn’t know the story behind them. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Keane)

On Tuesday night we watched the movie “St. Vincent” and one of the previews for upcoming movies was for a movie called “Big Eyes” about this story. Now, I’m sure the Guardian story was related to the fact that there was probably a book about the story that had now been made into a movie, so I get that. But it just seems strange that I’d read a random article about something I’d never heard of and then saw a preview for a movie on that subject that night. What are the odds? Really.

On Friday morning I was reading The Economist from the week Nelson Mandela died and he was on the cover. There was a great obituary that I read to help fill in some of the gaps I was missing about his life. Michelle came home from Tamworth later in the day with our Friday night video. She had chosen it without any input from me or any knowledge of what I’d been reading. It was the movie “Mandela.” Do do, Do do (theme song from The Twilight Zone)

About a year ago we had just about completed our book “The Sensible Prepper” but it did not have the advance sales with our U.S. distributor to warrant a large print run. As the book business has evolved and our book sales have decreased, there was no longer an economical model for us to continue large print runs sold through a distributor. So we put the book on the back burner.

Recently we got back to thinking about finishing and publishing the book. We are using a service from Amazon called CreateSpace which is essentially a ‘print on demand’ service. You order the book, they print it. We make less money, but we don’t have to put up a whack of money for a big print run to get the ‘per book’ cost down, and potentially take a hit if they don’t sell.

We had the book ready for printing about a week ago and then I switched to getting the eBooks ready. We figured we’d pretend we were a real publisher and roll out the eBook along with the printed version. There’d be marching bands and parades to celebrate.

I had been struggling with the various electronic formats for eBooks … “ePub” for Apple, “.mobi” for Amazon Kindle … the regular headaches. I couldn’t get the table of contents to translate, blah blah blah. Finally on Tuesday morning I got the Kindle version working, it passed the test and we got it uploaded. It would be available for sale within 24 hours.

That’s when we got the phone call. It just seemed very strange to get the call the day the book was available.

There was this strange thing happening in Toronto. A ‘bunker’/’tunnel’ had been discovered in a conservation area near a university. The story led all the newscasts, local and national for the day.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/torontos-underground-mystery/article23175623/

Because the bunker was near one of the venues for next summer’s Pan-Am Games people seemed to freak out. Surely there was a sinister plot behind the mystery hole. On Monday night I heard the Toronto Police were going to be giving a press conference on Tuesday.

Every radio newscast on Tuesday led off with the “tunnel” story. After lunch we got a call from a reporter from The Globe and Mail asking for my comments on the bunker. Really? My comments? They asked if I thought it was the work of a survivalist? At that point I didn’t have much context about the bunker but it certainly looked well constructed and perhaps it was.

I suggested to the reporter how great it was the some people in the city had so much energy they could devote it to endeavors such as this. They moved a lot of soil in their excavation. But here was the problem. I realized it didn’t matter what I said, I was likely to be portrayed as the ‘survivalist’ preparing for the zombie apocalypse. I explained to her that our new book “The Sensible Prepper” is not a guns & ammo extreme survivalist book. It is a logical guide to some of the steps people in a technologically advanced society should take to deal with the potential outcomes of extreme weather that climate change is causing.

I suggested that FEMA and most governments in the developed world are starting to educate citizens that they need to stop assuming that power and water and food systems will always function uninterrupted. They are victims of their own success. Because we’ve had so many decades of reliable public services we can’t imagine a time when they won’t be there. And when some random flood or ice storm or Super Storm Sandy leaves hundreds of thousands of citizens without those systems, they are simply too overwhelmed to deal with the fall out. Is it ‘extreme’ to suggest to someone it’s not a bad idea to have 3 or 4 days worth of food and water in their home? Is it ‘radical’ to recommend someone in an apartment have a sterno stove to warm up some soup if they lose power for a week? I don’t think so.

Regardless, I got a sense that it didn’t matter what I said, the reporter was simply going to keep chatting with me until they got the response they wanted. And I made it very clear I was not a ‘survivalist,’ merely someone who had gone off-grid to reduce their carbon footprint and was merely passing along some of the things I’ve learned about living independently and ‘preparedness’.

And that’s how I got quoted in Canada’s National Newspaper … as a survivalist. Sigh.

Oh well, as Anita Roddick from The Body Shoppe used to say, no publicity is bad publicity. Mayor Rob Ford proved that for Toronto, right?

After I saw the details from the press conference I think there’s a very good chance it was built by someone prepping. If they’d moved the pile of dirt they dug up further away and spread it around it may never have been spotted. And if the police wanted to know whose hole it was, why didn’t they just put some of those remote cameras on it, the kind Canadian Tire sells for hunters? They were in such a panic to fill it in. If they’d been patient they could have asked the builders ‘what’s up’ because apparently they didn’t break any laws. And then whoever dug it could have had their 15 minutes of fame and been headline speakers at “The Survival Expo” in Niagara Falls this summer. https://www.thesurvivalexpo.com/ That’s right. A whole weekend long expo about off grid living, homesteading, and prepping. I wish they’d skip the survival word, but extreme always sells better.

Apparently there is interest in this topic by the public. If you would like get a gentle initiation into the whole concept and help yourself relax and be mellow next time the power goes off, you can order “The Sensible Prepper” here.

Sensible Prepper CVR

The Sensible Prepper Has Arrived … Finally!

I was watching the news in January and saw a report on a fire at an apartment complex in New Jersey that affected 400 Sensible Prepper CVRpeople. That seemed like a huge number of people to be affected but the buildings seemed to be wood structures and the fire spread quickly.

The report included an interview with a family who had to leave their apartment very quickly, and they lost everything. How devastating. They starting talking about how they really had nothing, they had lost all of their identification, important documents … works. Yikes. Here’s a link to the news story;

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-30929258

A couple of summers ago I saw a report on Colorado I believe where torrential rains had washed out a number of bridges and people in between had to get out quickly because the bridges might be out for months.

And I thought, you know what, these people needed “Bug Out Bags.” I know, I know what you’re saying. Mather has cracked, and now he’s a survivalist and will soon be doing reports on the proper color of camo. Or you’re saying, “What’s a Bug Out Bag?”

Well that’s just it. That’s why I think this is an important conversation. A “Bug Out Bag” is simply a backpack you keep near your door in case someday some law enforcement person or someone in authority comes to your door and tells you that you have to evacuate … NOW! No time to start rifling through your apartment for stuff, you just have to go.

Extreme weather seems to be increasing the frequency of these events with extreme rain turning into floods, and multiple tornados ripping through areas and “super storms” too. There are all sorts of great fun for weather junkies but kind of disconcerting for anyone affected.

We have friends in Boston and this winter they have been buried in snow. It just doesn’t seem to stop. Transit has been shutdown, schools canceled, the city is closed. And in a tightly wound, technologically dependent society which uses a just-in-time model of delivering food and supplies to cities, it would seem that the times of assuming that someone in control will look after you are rapidly drawing to a close.

And that’s where our new book “The Sensible Prepper” comes in. This book evolved from our book “Thriving During Challenging Times” which posited that if those trying to govern our society just had to deal with climate change and extreme weather, or the economic crisis, or peak oil and resource depletion, or you name it, they might do it very well. But because these are all happening simultaneously they will be hard pressed to keep a lid on things. Our system is highly connected and tightly wound and complex systems like ours are very prone to shocks.

So, you should take some basic steps to make sure you’re not the person lined up waiting for bottled water that might not come today. So “The Sensible Prepper” is full of ‘Practical Tips for Emergency Preparedness and Building Resilience.” Nothing Mad Max/Book of Eli/The Road sort of apocalyptic madness and mayhem. I simply suggest that it’s time you took some basic steps to make sure you’re ready for the next disruption of normalcy that is becoming more common. My daughter who lives in downtown Toronto, in a wealthy, well financed, vibrant city was without power at her apartment for 7 days over Christmas last year after an ice storm devastated the electrical system. The system is too tightly wound. It is not resilient enough, so you need to be.

While Michelle and I live off-grid and power our home independently, our lightning strike damage which knocked out all our essential systems two summers ago taught me that I needed to have a better back up plan. It wasn’t the grid that went down, it wasn’t someone else’s fault, it was just Mother Nature doing her thing. It was a huge and costly hassle but it reminded me that I had to have a redundant system if I wanted to really achieve the goal most look for in power independence. In the book I share how to do that using the grid as your first source of power and then developing a backup system as well. And I talk about how do deal with food production and storage.

We also added a section on the basic emergency preparedness that governments throughout the developed world are now starting to suggest their citizens undertake. The systems that support us have been so dependable and robust for so long we’ve just come to accept that they will always be as reliable and a whole series of circumstances from budget-challenged governments to extreme weather are working to undermine that great record. No one is to blame, you should just make sure you’re ready if and when it happens.

That’s all. No camo required. No guns and ammo, although I do discuss security issues. Here are the details and a table of contents. http://www.cammather.com/books-dvds/sensible-prepper

We really struggled with the title for this book. Some people have never heard of “prepping.” Thanks to National Geographic’s “Extreme Prepping” show others just assume this involves installing a concrete bunker in your backyard and spending weekends learning knife fighting. Sorry, no such fun in our book. But the reality of putting some extra canned goods aside with a way to cook them in your apartment in a blackout is prepping, so we just decided to call it what it is. In the old days this is just what people did. Today, we have to make a conscious decision to make ourselves more independent. And this is a good thing. It’s not radical or extreme, it’s just smart.

The past 17 years of our lives have been a constant upheaval for Michelle and me. We left a comfortable suburban life to move off-grid when the technology was still in its infancy and there was no good information on how to do it. We gave up a stable source of income to publish books about renewable energy and sustainable living and saw that evaporate with the economic collapse in 2008. We have scrambled to replace that income and have adapted to a new reality of drastically reduced income running a CSA, while loving it. It can feel like crap while it’s happening, but when you sort the mess out it feels amazing. The more you plan for an alternative future and realize that change is the norm, the easier it is to deal with it, should it begin to affect you. We are very proud of this book and we hope our readers will learn from our experiences.

The publishing industry has completely been reinvented since we entered it a decade ago. As you may recall from previous blogs, we were reluctant (and hard-pressed financially) to print a large quantity of this book and then have to warehouse them. With this book we are using a print on demand process whereby we print small quantities of books as you order them.

You can also order our book through Amazon.com by clicking here.

 

Michelle and I have a supply here at Sunflower Farm and would be happy if you ordered them from us directly. Since we can’t compete with Amazon on price and shipping what we’d like to do is that if you order the book from us at $19.95, we’ll include a copy of “Little House Off The Grid” for an extra $5.00. We’d be happy to sign the books if you’d like. Shipping will be a flat rate of $15.00. Visit here to order your copy http://www.cammather.com/books-dvds/sensible-prepper

And here’s the challenge I make to you. I am confident that at some point, if you follow a few of the suggestions I make in the book, you’re going to be grateful you did. Even it’s the time you’ve got a minivan full of kids when you pull up to the gas pump with the tank on empty and realize you left your purse/wallet in the hockey change room. You’re going to reach under your seat and pull our some cash and say, “Man did that avert a huge day-ruining mess! Great idea Cam!” That would be my main hope. Should there be something more extreme than a forgotten wallet in your future that you’d taken steps in advance to deal with, well, then, my work here has been successful!

Happy reading.

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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