Friday, November 11, 2011

A money that aligns with beauty

Some of you may know Robin McKann and his Windfall Forest. They bought 20 acres of beautiful forest off in Port Townsend, WA. An FSC-certified operation, they expressed their love of the forest with their harvesting methods. This wood has gone in to some beautiful projects, from art pieces to houses. But they didn't make enough money to pay the bills, even with a very flexible lender. One option available to them was to clearcut the forest. That would have let them pay off the mortgage.

There's something a little strange here. Say you have a a forest that you could clearcut for $200M revenue, or you could log sustainably for $1M/yr. You're financially better off with the clearcut. That's because you will receive more than $1M/yr on the interest on $100M.

This isn't about "greed" as much as it is about "making a living". We are all faced with similar choices every day. Even if we want to do beautiful things, our money system puts a lot of pressure on us to choose money over beauty. Is poverty the only way to live beautifully?

Another way of describing this is the "discounting of future cash flows" - that money you make in the future is worth less than money you make today. Thus, it is in your best interest to sell the future for today, which is exactly what we've been doing. We destroy forests, poison the air and the water, overfish the oceans, privatize the commons of human ingenuity, corrupt the genetic code of life itself, to make a profit. Not just an elite, greedy few, but nearly everyone involved in the adult activity of making a living. I am in awe of this powerful magic.

What if we wanted the opposite - for the future to be more beautiful than the present. Could you imagine a kind of money that would support restoration of salmon habitat, organic local farming, and strong communities?

I want to live in that world.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Is it all about income inequality?

I just got this email:
Research seem to show that while the 99-1% split is there and is sadly unfair, a bigger problem exists among the less educated in vast portion of the population.

The most troubling problems that leave many Americans at a disadvantage have gotten lost in the debate over the top 1 percent of earners vs. the bottom 99 percent. 
One way to glibly summarize that article above is to say "while income and wealth inequality only oppressed people of color and white trash, we could ignore it; now that it affects white college graduates, it's getting attention." And that is itself a worthy concern.

However, I am wary of any attempt to summarize the "true purpose" of the Occupy movement. As a leaderless movement, it has as many purposes as it has participants.

Complaints about income inequality are also expressions of greed and jealousy. "You got rich, and I didn't; that's not fair; give me your money!" That's a difficult position to defend.

hile income inequality in the USA is certainly a factor, it is not the only one that brings people to Occupy. Certainly that would not be enough to motivate demonstrations in 1000 cities worldwide! Pollution, energy, war, food, politics-for-sale, and police brutality, are common concerns among Occupyiers today.

Personally, I am dissatisfied with any messages asking to return to the way things were, to reinstate Glass-Steagall or tax the rich at 1980 levels, etc. First, the way things were is exactly how we got here today. Second, I don't think things were that great then, either. Third, it's impossible - the coal is already mined, the CO2 already released in to the atmosphere, the fish already caught.

I believe that the true purpose of the Occupy movement is still not known, at least not broadly. I think that the issues raised by Occupiers share a deeper common cause that we are not fully ready to address. I think of this movement as part of humanity's "coming of age ordeal", and we still need to go through that ordeal before we are ready.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Corporate Greed" is only a symptom

Occupy Wall Street has successfully avoided publishing a list of demands, which is wonderful. However, one of the more common messages is "End Corporate Greed". While this may be useful as a rallying cry, it's worth asking the question "Why is there corporate greed?"

Is it just because people are greedy? The 10th commandment seems to think so.

Is it because these corporations are run by Jews, and Jews want to screw over everyone else? The American Nazi Party seems to think so.

If you agree with either of them, then I probably can't convince you otherwise. That's fine, we're all in this together, and I believe we can find a way to take care of each other. However, if you're open to other points of view:

An obvious answer is "capitalism". Suppose you & I are competing for the same customers. I behave greedily (pollute and break up unions to maximize profits), while you attempt to behave ethically (clean up after yourself and treat your workers well). My prices are lower. Investors will drive my stock price up, while yours crashes. You go out of business and I am a darling of Wall St. This is "success" in the free market.

Thus, the "corporate greed" we see is merely a symptom of the system that corporations participate in, not a feature of a few "bad guys" at Goldman Sachs or wherever.

You might argue that the big corporations don't participate in a free market - they use their considerable lobbying power to gain market protections for themselves (while letting the rest of us fight each other over every penny). However, the same principle applies: in a competitive system, where each player seeks to maximize their own self-interest, the only sane and successful tactic is to attempt to influence lawmakers in your favor, at the detriment to others. So, maybe the "free market" label isn't accurate, but clearly the greedy behavior is still merely a symptom of the system we create.

Going a little more deeply, note that nearly all businesses depends on debt. They borrow money, do business, take a revenue, and pay off the debt. A creditor will only loan your business money if they believe you can turn a profit. That is, only profit-generating activities are likely to gain access to money. Restoring salmon habitat, or sitting at the bedside of a dying person is not profit-generating so it's very hard to get paid to do that. Building machines that clearcut forests faster is profit-generating, so it's easy to get money for it (at least as long as there's a demand for lumber).

So, if we are concerned about the effects of "corporate greed", we're going to need to go much deeper than, say, the Volker Rule or prosecuting some CEOs. This is too much to fit on a cardboard sign, but it's important that we be willing to look at underlying causes as the Occupy movement continues.

I accept that you may disagree with my analysis of the causes; even if you agree, you may notice that it's possible to go deeper still. There's plenty of room for more study here.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Occupy Port Townsend

Port Townsend's population is only 9000, and we don't have the headquarters of any major financial institutions here. Still, today we had a lone protester at the corner of Sims Way and Kearney St.

View Larger Map

I took my kids to see him. I felt like I was taking them to the zoo. "Now kids, this is what a 'protester' looks like." Really, I wanted them to have this in their memory if the Occupy movement leads to something bigger, or if they ever consider protesting something themselves. They will have a concrete memory to work from.

He let me take his picture. 3 pictures, since his sign had 3 sides.
"Protest Locally"

"Support Our Troops"
"YouTube is Life Unfiltered"
That last one has me the most concerned. The only protester, with only 3 messages to share, and one of them is about how a Google property is so great.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Possible reasons your Ford 8N won't start

Over the summer I helped my friend Bill get his Ford 8N running again. He used it to clear the snow on his driveway over the winter, but then couldn't get it going again in the spring.

If an engine runs but has issues, there are some straightforward ways of troubleshooting. But when it won't start at all, there are many possible causes. You hit the starter, it cranks, but doesn't fire. Out of gas, stuck carb float, blown head gasket, bad ignition coil, burned points, etc. What could it be?

Here are the main issues that we had to fix to get Bill's tractor going again.

Elbow fuel filter clogged. Unscrew the intake elbow from the carburetor and examine the filter. It should be clean and empty. Bill's was solidly packed with gunk. We put it in a vice and aimed a propane torch at it, then blew out the ash. There are supposed to be 3 filters on the 8N, but only one was operational, and the tank was dirty. So we drained the tank most of the way, dropped in a length of chain, and shook it around. Drain, rinse, repeat.

Distributor rotor broken. We had 3 rotors break on us. If you're getting no spark, this is a good thing to check.  2 of them were because the new distributor cap was a bad fit. We ended up buying a rotor + cap together from Napa, and they worked well.

Battery backwards. Ford 8N, and many older 6-volt engines are positive ground, with negative leading to the starter. Someone convinced Bill otherwise about a month ago, and the machine has been cranking backwards ever since. It was compressing fresh air and trying to ignite it, then blowing it back out the carburetor. *sigh*

Some troubleshooting techniques:

A little carb cleaner sprayed in the air intake or directly in to a cylinder will tell you a lot (it acts like starter fluid). If the tractor still doesn't fire, then the problem isn't fuel related.

A spark plug overgapped (1/4" or more) is a great testing tool. Pull a spark plug wire off one of the plugs, connect it to the overgapped plug, grounded it to the metal. If you still get a spark, then electrical issues are probably not the problem.

You don't need much compression to get started. Compression testers are useful for diagnosing engine health, but they are only useful when the engine is hot. To get started, you just need to make sure you have *any* compression. Pull all 4 spark plugs, and put your thumb over each hole in turn. If you feel good pressure, that's enough for now.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


The other day I saw a doe walking with two tiny fawns, and snapped this pic:

One is just on the other side of mom, and is hard to see. The other is hobbling across the street. Its front hooves were turned under. Looked painful.
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