Thursday, January 24, 2008

English House Sparrows and the avenging angel of death

Since it’s very cold, and since my shoulder is still in recovery from surgery (feels great, thanks!), I have essentially no news to report on the furtherance of the superinsulated shop, or the superinsulated farm house. To entertain you in this brief unproductive interlude, I thought I would talk about birds for a bit.

English House Sparrows are a blight and a pox on North America. They were intentionally imported from England (may God deal with that man, be it ever so severely, for his extreme lapse of judgment), and they liked the place so well, they decimated many native species. It was thought that they would control insect pests better than the natives. Well, they don’t. And in fact, they eat and/or damage crops in a significant way rather than eat scads of bugs.

Plus, the species (like the Bluebird) that they have reduced, are the real heroes of insect control. The House Sparrows are aggressive, they are bullies and they often kill competitors and their young and their eggs. House Sparrows (Often abbreviated HOSP) make foxes look like good Samaritans by comparison. For all the gruesome details, along with gory pictures of their victims, this is a very informative site:

Ask most serious birders in North America what they think of House Sparrows, and prepare for vehemence in their reply.

I detest bullies in any species or form. Although I am six feet tall and weigh 185 pounds as an adult, I was small as a child. In first, second and third grade, I was the smallest person in the class, boy or girl. I also had bladder “issues” and wet my pants with some regularity. I know this is more information than you bargained on, but years of psychotherapy will put you back in fine form. I also was not a native in that town, but had moved there from elsewhere. This combination of attributes gave me extensive and first hand knowledge of how bullies operate. Although I learned a lot and perhaps developed some character, I did not particularly enjoy the experience. It did however give me a lifelong determination to discourage bullies at every opportunity.

Songbirds in the US are endlessly fascinating to watch. We have several bird feeders and enjoy the color, the sound, and the activity of “our” birds. On most occasions, they are more interesting than watching the television. In return, I protect them from the vile, wicked, evil English House Sparrow. There are various ways to reduce and control the local House Sparrow population, mainly trapping and shooting. Since I am a recreational shooter, and a hunter, I choose the gun method. This has the nice added benefit of keeping me and my 22 caliber rifle tuned up and very accurate.

I know that some will object to shooting these poor helpless creatures. The objections can stem from many sources. Some people are pacifists. I once helped out a bus load of communal pacifists down in Caldwell, Texas where I lived at the time. They were opposed to violence, "From the atom bomb to the fly swatter." They really lived out their credo and wouldn't kill a mosquito. I respect that. Others will object because I am killing something, and killing isn't "nice". "Oh, you can't shoot those poor helpless little birdies!" This is not a specially thoughtful position and it carries no weight with me at all. To act is to kill a sparrow. Failure to act is to allow the sparrow to kill several or many other birds, baby birds and eggs.

Some feel that "nature" is best left to her own devices, and will look upon my actions as meddling. Again, not specially thoughtful or helpful. We meddle in nature constantly. Certainly, there are good and bad examples, but consider farming. Left to her own devices, nature could supply a bountiful supply of food for a few million hunter-gatherers world wide. We had better get busy meddling right now. In this case, I think we as Christians are called to apply stewardship to creation (a much nicer concept than Mother Nature by the way...) out of obedience to the Creator.

But I digress.

The primary difficulty in controlling the House Sparrow population is in properly identifying the little buggers. There are lots of small brownish birds and it turns out, there are quite a few members in the sparrow family in the U.S. Many of them look quite similar from a distance. Since I am also a firm believer in justice, it would be very wrong for me to accidentally kill the perfectly nice and native American Tree Sparrow, mistaking him for his nasty English cousin. Here are photos of the two. From 50 feet away, it’s hard to tell the difference.

That’s the “good guy”.

And that’s the “bad guy”

The females and juveniles are even closer/harder to tell apart.

Fortunately for the tree sparrow, he is marked on the breast with a distinctive brown to black spot. It is the presence of this spot or mark that makes it relatively easy for me to distinguish between the two when I am looking through the telescopic sight on the rifle.

Aha! This is Passover all over again. I guess that makes me the avenging angel of death to House Sparrows. Those birds that bear the mark of God are safe from His judgment and recipients of His mercy. Let's not push the analogy too hard.

I am by no means comparing God’s justice and mercy to mine since His are infinitely better than mine. Even on a good day, I am a sinful, cantankerous creature. But it struck me strongly that we humans do have a conscience, and attempt to work out our lives, and influence out environments in ways that are congruent with our consciences. Some better, some worse, none perfectly. Yet God appreciates our attempts and encourages us to strive to live by His example in the best possible way that we can, given our limited and sinful nature.

Finest regards,


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Socks and Gloves Share a Problem

I think I can assume you all know about single sock syndrome. (The mystery of how only one sock of a previously matched pair comes out of the laundry.) (Ok, so I couldn’t let myself assume it. Sorry.) I have to admit this is not a frequent occurrence when I do laundry (maybe because I don’t do laundry frequently?), but I throw the lonely sock into a special drawer, and often when I’m throwing it in there I see that its mate is already there. Reunion! Delight! (I love matching things. Although, somehow, my single friends have always been safe.)

But gloves are much more devious. This very evening I went to find my bringing-wood-in gloves. Incidentally, I have gloves for everything. Gardening: digging gloves, planting gloves, shoveling gloves, pruning gloves, rose pruning gloves (with the nice long leather sleeves), etc, etc. And I have working with wood gloves (that’s firewood, not fine furniture), and putting wood in the stove gloves. I have cold weather gloves and really cold weather gloves. (The current pair makes a maple leaf when you put the two singles together—LOVE IT!) I have driving gloves, some for long trips, some for quick trips. And gloves just for looking good, elbow-length, wrist-length, and fur-trimmed. You get the idea. Having a mother-in-law that works in a glove–packing and –making factory only feeds my obsession. She’s very generous and seems to always find the right size for my long fingers.

I’m getting a little sidetracked. (Too excited about all my gloves…) Let me try to focus: so I was reaching for my bringing-wood-in gloves and…they’re not there. How can that be? I, of course, turn immediately to Troy and accuse him of using my gloves. (They’re in a pile of communal gloves, but I naturally think of them of mine. I know: I have a lot of issues to get over.) He admits to it, so I start the search for the next best bringing-wood-in gloves. So many things to consider. Leather, synthetic, insulated, size, how dirty are they, how dirty are the insides (because I want to be able to eat popcorn that Troy is making for me as I bring in wood), etc, etc. The first few I pick up all turn out to be left gloves. This is where I finally am relating gloves back to the socks. I actually try on two left gloves, but I need to pick the wood up with my right hand and the left glove is just a little too awkward. So I settle for the next least-bad gloves for bringing in wood, reach for what looks like a pair and they are two RIGHT gloves matching none of the left ones. AAHH! But at least I had a solution. I wore two mismatched gloves, got the wood in, and am now going to enjoy my popcorn. It is my consolation for a world that just not right. (Or, just TWO right! hee hee)

And if you’ve seen some vacationing gloves that seem to be missing their mates, please send them back. They’re needed at home!


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Mythbusting ethanol, or, I got my shorts all in a knot again because people are LYING to us.

Based on the amount of hoopla I have seen lately on television, E-85 (that's 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) is going to save the North Americans and all their SUV's along with their cheap energy lifestyle.

In a word, NOT.

A brief review of the facts will dispel this unfortunate and very unhelpful myth.

1. Ethanol does not magically appear from nowhere. In north america it is almost entirely produced from corn. Pretty much like the old moonshiners. It takes energy to do that, mostly petroleum energy. Hmmm, I wonder how much?

2. I'm glad you asked. The standard way of evaluating alternative energy schemes is EROEI. It's an anagram for Energy Returned On Energy Invested. Under wonderfully ideal conditions, it takes one unit of petroleum energy to produce 1.3 units of ethanol energy, a net gain of ~30%. Some analysts suggest that the Big Agriculture lobby and their government supporters may have stretched the truth somewhat. The real number could be 1.1 or even unity. If these lower numbers are true, ethanol will never reduce our dependence on oil in any meaningful way, ever. By comparison, the EROEI for biodiesel runs from 2.7 to 6, depending on if they used virgin oil, or recycled restaurant oil. So, worst case, biodiesel nets 1.7x more energy than that invested, a 5.7 fold improvement over ethanol (1.7/0.3 = 5.7).

3. But why do I see all these wonderful adds for "Flex-Fuel" vehicles? Because GM or Ford can take a regular gas hog sedan, spend a couple hundred dollars for a sensor and a different fuel map for the computer, and Voila, an "environmentally friendly" vehicle. Here's another dirty little secret they neglect to mention on those glossy ads. Your fuel economy will drop noticeably if you run E-85 because it has far less BTU's per gallon. This is strictly an advertising campaign to make the Big 3 look like they are doing something substantive about the environment, without actually doing anything. Plus, the percentage of flex fuel vehicles that actually burn ANY ethanol, is pretty low. The fuel is not widely available outside of the midwest where the ethanol is primarily produced. Which brings me to...

4. In the U.S., ethanol is made almost exclusively from corn. Corn comes almost exclusively from the midwest. So, it will come as no big shock that most of the ethanol plants are located in the midwest. Now we come to the Achille's Heel of the whole ethanol fiasco. Our infrastructure to transmit gasoline and diesel is made up of pipelines and trucks and trains to a lesser extent. Most of the pipelines go north-south. Alcohol is needed all over the country not just in the midwest, and the pipelines are already busy pushing petroleum, and they run to the wrong places mostly anyway, so pipelines are out. That leaves us with truck transport and trains. We have recently exceeded the capacity of the trucking industry to move ethanol from the midwest to the various coastal regions and refineries. Plus, trucking the ethanol long distances makes the already marginal EROEI problem even worse. Some of the ethanol plants are now forced to run at less than full capacity.

This logistical problem was predicted by scientists some time ago, but to no avail. So now we have a dip in the price of ethanol because the midwest is pretty much flooded with the stuff, and we can't ship it fast enough to the rest of the country. Trains may gear up to provide some relief. But even if we solve all of the logistical problems, we're still faced with the fact that it takes almost as much petroleum to make it, as the amount of energy we get out as ethanol. A bigger truck (or more trucks) is not the answer.

About the only reliable solution to this whole transportation fuel problem is to drive less, and drive vehicles that are vastly more efficient. Both of these solutions are effective and proven. They're not sexy, but they work.

So, next time you hear some great "news release" about how ethanol is going to make the US energy independent, you may rest assure that one of the following conditions is true:

1. They are trying to make the big 3 automakers sound more enviro friendly, i.e. paid shills.

2. They are somehow associated with the big agriculture and/or the big corn lobby, i.e. paid shills.

3. They are members of our fine government leadership. Said person is either very bad with science and facts (scary), or they are lying to you for some other darker purpose (scary), or both. One could have an interesting discussion about how money and influence go hand in hand in Washington, and if the politicians are in fact, just more paid shills, but I digress.

4. They are some innocent bystander who has accidentally believed some or all of the hype/swill about how ethanol is such a great idea. Please educate these people, for their own sake, as well as the sake of our nation.

So, duly armed, you may now cast a skeptical eye at anyone's energy policy that advocates the expanded use of ethanol. Just ask them about the true EROEI of corn based ethanol and watch them run away or make hemming and hawing noises along with considerable hand-waving. Woe to you politicians for pandering to the corn lobby and making it sound like you were helping the country.

Finest regards,


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Water troubles

Ok, so the temps sure heated up after we got back. We broke records getting into the 60s. All the snow was gone in two days. Troy got out of any more shovelling/plowing. We have had a lot of rain and many in our area are having a lot of flooding. We are happy to be living on a hill, and the landscaping and plastic around the house has helped to keep the basement dry.

We did have water troubles in the kitchen, however. The sink drain was slow so Troy decided to have a look see. He only needed my help a couple times to twist off (or on) some pipe connections. He got the clog fixed, but what he didn't know was that all that pipe wiggling broke apart a weak joint in the basement. So all that water going down the drain when we were testing was just pouring onto the basement floor. (So much for rejoicing in dry basements!) But once it was diagnosed, a simple joint repair fixed that as well. Go, Troy, go. So the house gets fixed and improved one small step at a time.

I think I am starting to recover from "jet lag." Ok, I know the DR is only an hour off (in the Atlantic time zone), but really, we had to change time zones 3 times since we flew out of Chicago and had a connecting flight in Charlotte, NC. I am clinging to that as an excuse.

All for now,

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Where did the sun go?

Hello all. We are back after an enviable trip to the Dominican Republic. We had a good time with 17 other members of Christina's family. Troy is at work. I hope he has time for a nap. We left the hotel at 2:30 pm Atlantic time yesterday and got home a little before 4:30 am Eastern time this morning. That's 15 hours of travel. We are tired. And the fun is that we got home to almost a foot of snow so we parked in the neighbour's driveway while Troy started up the tractor (which--super duper--started right up) and Christina got a shovel and we dug ourselves a way into the house. The house was a welcoming 46.5 degrees. We managed to be in bed by 5 with an extra duvet, extra wool blanket and extra quilt. Add two hot water bottles and we were toasty. (And really, too tired to notice anyway!) I managed to catch the weather forecast this morning (which was noticeably absent in the DR where the temperature didn't vary by more than 5 degrees from wonderful) and see that we are in the middle of some "perma-cloud." I miss the sun...

Here we are on New Year's Day, 2008!

In case you need to know where the DR is:

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