Monday, September 24, 2007

Ceder Fever

Here in Central TX, Ceder trees grow everywhere. Some consider them to be invasive, since they are not native to the area. They are known to horde water even. Yet, they continue to multiply. They are very beautiful trees and happen to make excellent wood for building. In setting up for the Texas Natural Building Colloquium, taking place in Kerrville TX, we spent a few days harvesting Cedar Trees from a neighbor's ranch. Harvesting Cedar Trees in Central TX is guilt free. Using mostly human power, we carefully and considerately plucked our trees from an overgrowth, leaving only small gaps where extra sun rays can peek through to help grow smaller trees whose size have been hindered by the shadows of their neighbors. This practice is much preferrable to clear cutting, the industrial standard of quickly capitalizing on lumber with no consideration of the long term effects. They maximize their profits and minimize expenses by taking ALL trees in an area while leaving the earth below to regress quickly into a desert scape that then loses its ability to hold water and plantlife.

When Cedar Trees are stripped of their bark, what is left is a very unique beautiful and smooth custard colored wood, which Erin the volunteer coordinator refers to as the wood used in Texas country porches. The bark can only easily be stripped within 24 hours of harvesting the tree. After that, as the water dries out of the tree, the bark sticks to the wood like glue.

Getting a few friends together and finding a rancher who wants an overgrowth of trees cleared can get you some of the highest quality wood available for free, with minimal impact to the land.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Tour Share

What is tour sharing ? It's when musicians on tour combine itineraries ( and a ride ) in order to save money and increase efficiency. When Raina Rose and Hunter Paye asked me to join them on tour down the West Coast back to Austin, TX ( where I was intending to fly to ), I knew that this was the universe stepping in with a better alternative. Raina's van gets 25 mpg, which is pretty good for a van. With 3 people, it gets 75 mpg per person ! This is a great improvement, considering that songwriters often tour solo. In addition, Raina transported a mattress ( a paid craigslist gig ) for someone in Austin. There is no quesstion that we maximized all usable space in the van. The universe was good to us in return and carried us safely without incident. Most music venues will put a few artists together on one bill anyway. This method of touring offers an already completed bill to a venue. Venues like that. It also combines fanbases for better attended shows. Being that Raina is the tour monger, she already had the shows booked, but for songwriters with less experience on the road, combining tours helps to also split up the work getting the gigs. We basically put the money from the tip jar towards travel expenses ( gas, etc ) and then we each kept our own CD sales to put towards our futures.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Crow House Collective

The Crow House Collective in the Alberta neighborhood in Portland, Oregon is disbanding after two years of shared living, as members are getting ready to launch on various endeavors and international travel experiences. Members may regroup in a different location when they return. The current residents of the Crow House include Hope, Emile, Christa, Laura, Matt, and Christopher. Their ages range from the early 20's to early 40's. The Crow House is planted in the middle of the Alberta Arts District. What would otherwise be a very expensive area, this shared living experience drops the price of rent to only $300 each per month. Bills are split 6 ways, delicious home cooked meals ( usually shared ) are an everyday experience, and group outings are always being planned. Other than Hope and Emile ( a couple ) sharing a room, each resident gets their own private room. The basement has been transformed and devided into an art space, music rehearsal room, shared internet station / movie room, and even a guest room for me during August 2007. There is at least one backyard camp fire each week, usually including music and sometimes even wine. Before their decision to disband, they had 6 egg-producing chickens, a garden attempt which was hindered by a large tree, a compost system, rasberry bushes galore, many visitors, and now lots of memories. Living with 5 other people has its share of challenges, but the positives outweigh the negatives exponentially. Sharing a living space enables residents to learn new skills from each other ( new recipies, different ways to clean dishes, how to play an instrument, etc ). The financial savings coupled with sharing chores frees up many hours each week to work on personal projects, make art and music, plan for the future, and enjoy life.

Thanks to the members of the Crow House for being such generous hosts during my visit to Portland.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Go ByCycle

Check out It is a point to point mapquest-like mapping program which navigates cyclists through the city along established bicycle routes. Right now, it is only available in Portland, Oregon, and Milwaukie, Wisconsin, but there is hope that it will be available next year in Austin, TX and other potential municipalities.While cycling is one of the greatest ways to save money, stay healthy, and protect the environment, route safety is a big barrier for most commuters. This is where helps most.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Carpenter John

John Steup has figured out that remodelling/restoring his family's home can perhaps be the smartest use of time while in between jobs. John treats this project as he does any other job, with fervor, passion, and selfless devotion. He understands that it can pay him and his family back exponentially, especially when considering the money they are saving and value added to their home when comparing it to and factoring in the compound interest of financing someone else to do it for them. It helps that John has previous carpentry experience and an artistic and instictive vision for his home. John has chosen to make ethical choices in materials used for his home, purchasing much of his supplies from the Rebuilding Center in Portland Oregon. John's situation demontrates that by having a number of skills on the backburner can and will come in handy in times of necessity. It also gives him distance from the rat race and more time to spend with his family, while carefully scouting out work that fits his values. During the remodelling process recently, he uncovered a newspaper from 1929 ( the year the house was built ) in the framing of the house. On one of the pages was this quote :

If you want to succeed in the world you must make your own opportunities as you go on. The man who waits for some seventh wave to toss him on dry land, will find that the seventh wave is a long time a-coming. You can commit no greater folly than to sit by the roadside until someone comes along and invites you to ride with him to wealth or influence. - John B. Gough as seen in the Friday November 8th 1929 edition of THE OREGON DAILY JOURNAl found in the framing of John's house.

Makin' it in the City

Friend and former housemate, Jason Butler, has maximized the capacity of his small lawn by removing the surrounding grass and concrete driveway and transforming the space into an intensive, carefully thought out vegetable garden. He is harvesting tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, chard, squash, many kinds of herbs, berries, and much more. He also has two egg-producing chickens, which run freely through the garden for much of the day. Living in the inner city, Jason and his fiance, Melissa, haven given up their car. By cycling and walking everywhere, and by growing their own food, they save thousands of dollars every year, which frees up time for them to work on various creative projects. They were lucky to find their house in NE Portland a few years ago before the inflated housing prices descended upon that area.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Composting Cousins

My cousins, Terry and Barak, are now proud composters. This backyard composter, from Real Goods, can be easily assembled in minutes, keep the animals out, and will transform kitchen scraps into usable mulch for next year's garden. It is also makes a good hiding spot.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Google Transit

I am in Austin, TX for the week. After the expensive car trouble that I had last weekend, I am even more motivated to continue using public transit, where available. They say that Austin has the best mass transit in Texas, or at least the highest rideship per capita. It also is one of the test cities for Google Transit. This is a point to point mapping interface that got it right. It's fast, simple, and easy to use...a grand improvement over the city's own transit website. Search results provide walking directions to the bus stop, an easy to read map with bus stop icons, any transfer information, trip summary, and cost comparison to driving. It also works well on internet enabled phones for spontanious trip planning.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Bad Timing in La Grange

While driving from Houston to Austin, I passed through a town called Ellinger. That's the town where you have to slow down to 45 MPH for about half a mile. I always make sure to slow down in this town. I've only received two speeding tickets ever, and they were both in this town, two years apart, by the same police officer. Anyway, this time around, I slowed down, but couldn't speed up again. My accelerator wouldn't work. I coasted into the Chevron station where we looked for a ride to Austin for Yuon, who was ridesharing to Austin with me. The town mechanic came out to tell me that's it's my timing belt and that I should get towed to La Grange 13 miles away, because he doesn't have the part. They are fixing it now and I am staying in a cheap motel accross the street named Cottonwood. This trip to Austin will cost me about $400 including the motel and tow. A Greyhound would have cost me about $22. Riding as a passenger with someone else would have cost me about $15. I didn't accept rideshare payment from Yuon, since I only got her halfway.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bussing to Sam

I went to my friend Sam's house in Houston to help him start a garden in his backyard. I decided to try the Houston bus again, instead of making the 25 mile roundtrip journey in my car. I checked out the route on the Houston Metro Trip Planner . It gave me route that was 83 minutes ( inluding a 30 minute tranfer ) to his house. I figured I would bring along a book on tape to pass the time. After waiting at my transfer stop for while, the bus driver from another bus line pointed out to me that the stop I was waiting at was only for weekend travel and that I should use the stop around the corner. I looked at the sign, and yes, in the fine print, it said that it was just a weekend stop. I had missed my bus and had to wait another 30 minutes ( an hour total ) for the next one. Next time I won't make the same mistake. All in all, it took me about two hours to get to Sam's house. Coming back, there is only a 6 minute tranfer time, so the total trip time is much less. All in all, I think it was still worth it to take the bus. It cost me only $2 ( unlimited travel for 24 hours ), was very relaxing b/c I didn't have to concentrate on driving, and I got some exercise walking to the stops. Oh, and Sam and Linh ( his wife ) are well on their way to having a small farm in their backyard.


I felt like I was in the video game frogger when trying to cross this 8 lane Houston street to get to the bus stop on the other side. There was no walk signal and the middle median was like a concrete tightrope. The good news is that I made it across without having to use up any of my lives. The name of the street is called Westheimer. Ironically, the street used to be named "Farm to Market Rd" and is still labeled as such on some maps.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

I'm a hypocrite, but not entirely.

I think it's important to note that I have a car...a gasoline one. It's a 1991 volvo wagon, which I purchased for $1300 a few months ago. It's gets about 27 miles to the gallon on the highway. Not too bad for an old car. " According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) the average gas mileage for new vehicles sold in the United States has 23.1 miles per gallon (mpg) in 1980 to 24.7 in 2004. This represents a paltry increase of slightly less than 7% over the 25 year period."

Last month, I sold my methane powered van to a non-profit organization in Austin, TX . I wrote an article about it in my music blog. I used it for four years as a touring vehicle ( I'm a musician ). CNG ( compressed natural gas ) has 90 % less harmful emissions that a gasoline vehicle, but the infracture hasn't been supported by the industry or the government, thus the existing pumps are slowly shutting down. This led me to sell the vehicle, being that I couldn't get out to West Texas, where I am building a geodesic dome in the desert.

So now, the challenge is to find ways to reduce and eventually eliminate car trips as much as possible. This was easy when I lived in Portland, Oregon...a city which planned ahead while putting much focus on mass transit and pedestrian infratructure.

This week, I am visiting family in Houston, arguably the car capital of the world. I grew up in this city. At the time, I didn't have any place to campare it to, other than Johannesburg ( also a car-centric city ), where I was born.

To get here from Austin, I drove. The other options are to take the Greyhound, or fly. There is no train from Austin to Houston, though there would have been if Tom Delay didn't pull the proposal for high speed rail from a Texas Ballot. I also had equipment to haul ( instruments, etc ), therefore I decided to drive...but not before placing a rideshare ad on craigslist.

The ad was fairly last minute and I didn't think that I would get a response before leaving, but I did...right as I was leaving. I called Kira, and we discovered that we were both at the Kerrville Folk Festival and have friends in common. She felt more comfortable knowing that I was not a murderer, so I swung by her place to fetch her, and her big heavy backpack and guitar. Not only did we have alot to talk about ( folk music, natural building, travelling in Israel ), but we both saved money and time by sharing the ride. And having an extra person in the car doubled my car's fuel efficiency per person.

Growing up mostly in Houston, I don't think I took the bus even once. After living in Portland, Oregon for that last four years and getting used to having exceptional mass transit, I decided to try the Houston bus for the first time a few months ago in a previous visit. I was pleasantly surprised, after having very low expectations. I took the bus downtown from far West Houston. It's not close. It took the bus 50 minutes, which means that it's almost 2 hours round trip. In a car, this would take about 25 minutes each way, or about half the time. This is a pretty consistent formula, I've found. How ever long it takes in a car, it will take double the time on the bus. However, in a car, the time is strictly spent focusing on driving ( hopefully ). It's wasted time. On the bus, I can make/return phone calls, read, and write. Since I can sometimes get motion sickness while reading, I have books on tape, which I can play though my phone. One also has to factor in the time that it takes to work to earn the money that it costs to drive any distance. In this department, the bus wins again. On the bus, there are also opportunities to relax, wind down, wake up, meet people, and observe people in passing cars. One can let their minds and eyes wonder in ways that they can't when having to focus on the road.

catastrophic dependence ?

It's hard to find a starting point for this blog, being that there are many years, choices, observations, and factors which have lead me to subscribe to the point of view that we posess a catastrophic dependence on the automobile. Catastrophic ? Yes, I believe so.

ca·tas·tro·phe [kuh-tas-truh-fee]

1.a widespread disaster
2.any misfortune, mishap, or failure; fiasco
3.a final event or conclusion, usually an unfortunate one; a disastrous end
4.(in a drama) the point at which the circumstances overcome the central motive, introducing the close or conclusion; dénouement.
5.Geology. a sudden, violent disturbance, esp. of a part of the surface of the earth; cataclysm.
6.Also called catastrophe function. Mathematics. any of the mathematical functions that describe the discontinuities that are treated in catastrophe theory.

So, yes...I think that the word catastrophe describes the current state of our automobile dependence.

The initial reason for the creation of automobiles was to lessen the commute time for the wealthy, but as the cost of cars coupled with financing options became subsidized by various industries and government, and cars became available to the common worker, the average commute time has more than doubled from the days when people lived in walking distance from their workplaces, stores, and neighbors.

I'm not suggesting that we go back to those days, but I think it's important to look back a century or two to conclude whether this transportation model has been successful or not.

It is safe to argue that our automobile infrastructure dependence can be pinpointed as the single most catastrophic event of our time. Just in America, it leads to 40,000 fatalities each year. That's more than all of the terrorist acts and natural disasters combined from the last entire century...and that occurs EVERY year. Our dependence on oil is the primary reason for the war in Iraq and the casualties that have resulted from that.

This dependence contributes to our lethargic lifestyles, and resulting health consequences.

Sorry...running out of wifi be continued.