ideas


I made a composter last year that has been working pretty well:

My model for composting comes from my aunt & uncle, who have three fenced-in areas for compost. They use one for a year and then let it sit for two years. It is the epitome of low-maintenance composting: throw in your kitchen scraps and come back in a couple years.

In the desert, you can’t just have a fence. The critters will eat what they can and leave with your compost in their bellies. The rest will eventually either mummify or turn to dust and blow away. In the desert, you need a box with a lid and you need to keep it moist. The plan was to have a box that held a year’s worth of kitchen scraps that we would keep moist by dumping in the rinse water when we needed to rinse out the bucket.

And it worked. The size, 2′ x 2′ x almost 3′, was perfect. Over a year we put in a couple hundred gallons of kitchen scraps, half of a straw bale, a bunch of silage from the garden, and only enough water to keep our compost bucket from stinking, and it’s standing at 3/4 full and dropping. No turning or fussing.

But we needed a new box and I’ve just finished it, with help from my nephew Ollie:

It’s a lot bigger–4’x4’x3′–for a couple reasons. We want it to last longer and we’re expecting to have more to put in it this year. Also, I think the 2’x2’x3′ box is too small to really get cooking. My brother Damian got intensely into compost this year and inspired us to buy a compost thermometer and we found that our compost peaked at 117 degrees and usually hovered around 100, no matter what we did about the carbon/nitrogen ratio. 100 is fine for a low-maintenance composter, but if we can get it really hot just by having a bigger box, why not?

I made one other design change that I’ve never heard anyone else doing. I always wonder about the bottom corners of a rectangular composter. It seems like they will have less composting mass down there and won’t be able to heat up as much. So I dug a hole inside it to make the eventual pile more spherical:

As usual, I have no control group for this experiment, so I’ll never know if it’s helpful.

My second new composter is a little more edgy, so if you’re squeamish about urine, read no further.

In the desert, we are lucky to have two places to pee–into a septic system or onto the ground. Septics are OK, and it’s great to be able to pee inside when it’s cold outside, but there are problems. If you maintain them properly, they ferment your sewage, but it’s basically an underground landfill. The city west of Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, for example, has irrevocably poisoned one of their aquifers by letting it touch their underground “septic plume.”

Peeing outside is one of the great pleasures of living in a rural area. The problem is, the pee is still a waste product. As a kid, I figured I was watering the thirsty desert plants that I peed near, often choosing which bush by who looked the most parched. I have since proven to my satisfaction that peeing on desert bushes does not help them. I’ve peed on various bushes for various periods of time and watched how they responded and they don’t. No extra growth, no increase in blooming. If anything, the pee stunts their growth.

Then I came across the idea that urine is great fertilizer, but is too strong to go directly on plants. Usually  these folks say to water it down 7:1 or so, and your plants will shoot up. I have also disproven this idea to my satisfaction.

The healthy greens on the right were watered with pure hose water. The dead greens on the left were watered for less than a week with pee watered down 20:1. Now if you are in the permaculture grapevine, you may be thinking, “Oh, that’s because you didn’t age or ferment the pee first.” OK, maybe, but don’t tell me about it. Show me a photograph of some aged-pee-watered plants next to some regular-watered plants that are not doing as well.

Now there is a rumor going around that you can make compost by peeing on straw. (Root Simple, for example.) The idea is, nitrogen from the pee plus carbon from the straw plus time equals compost. I happen to think that compost is more complicated than that, and that the benefit of compost has more to do with having the right bacterial ecology in your garden soil than just having decomposed organic matter. But the prospect of doing something useful with pee that involves peeing outside was very appealing. So I buried half a straw bale near my trailer:

Sorry about the photo–I may have taken it by headlamp after digging past dusk. Point is, I dug a hole about 2.5′ deep so my just over half a straw bale would fit in on end. I didn’t get a photo of the new finished product. Imagine the end of a straw bale–compact straw–flush with the ground.

It’s temperature has been between 80 and 100 F, and the level of the straw has dropped a few inches in the last two months. So maybe it’s making compost. If so, I get to pee outside and feel good about making compost, and maybe I’ll plant a tree near there. If not, I’m creating a slightly stinky hole in the ground that I can fill in with sand pretty easily. (And I should note here that it is much less stinky than if I’d just peed on the ground in the same spot for a couple months, which I know because I’ve done it.) Here’s what it looks like now:

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Several years ago, I realized what a bummer it is that I will never be able to hear what Jimi Hendrix sounded like with fresh ears. I remember hearing him for the first time, and it was good, but by that time, Hendrix was a practically a genre and certainly a cliche. I can only imagine the joy of hearing him for the first time in the late 60s, before anyone was bored of Hendrix-pastiche, when was hearing him in the context of his actual time: Johnson in office and civil rights moving, The Beatles best records just out, and Blonde on Blonde, and Pet Sounds. It must have been shocking and amazing and wonderful to hear something so powerful and so different and so right.

And that’s just Hendrix. What about Duke Ellington, or Louie Armstrong, or Woody Guthrie, or the Stanley Brothers, or Sinatra, or Elvis?

I have this fantasy of creating something like those experiences for myself: A nutty music buff, or team of them, puts together a big playlist–maybe 200 songs–for each half-decade of the 20th century. I’d have the soundtracks of 20 impossibly hip Americans from different eras. I’d listen to them exclusively, immerse myself in them, one at a time for a few weeks at a time, in chronological order, for a year.

I think I’d stand a chance of really hearing the newness of Hendrix, and all the rest of them, in that context. I would love to try. Any nutty music buffs out there want to take on the project? I will put my ears in your hands.

I’ve just begun reading Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. I bought the book while I was in grad school, knowing it would be years before I could get to it, but so excited by the title! Consciousness and how it relates to the body and emotions is one of my favorite topics of inquiry. Plus, Damasio is a scientist with a (rare) good reputation as a writer.

In the introduction he describes six facts that a good theory of consciousness will have to take into account. Here are my paraphrases:

1) There will be an “anatomy of consciousness”: Elements of consciousness appear to be associated with activity in certain parts of the brain.

This may be scary to those who believe that consciousness is magical, or that its magic would be somehow diminished if it relied on the brain’s circuitry. I too used to be uneasy about that idea. After diving into brain studies a bit, though, I feel both excited and humbled by it. It’s just neat that our brains apparently produce all the subtleties of our experience. Also, it’s a good reminder that our experiences of feeling, thinking, knowing, and of awareness itself is created by our brains, and is not a direct line on reality.

2) Consciousness is more than wakefulness or attentiveness. Humans can be awake and attentive without being conscious.

Damasio describes patients who are clearly awake and attentive, but not conscious, and promises to devote two chapters to the significance of this phenomenon.

3) You cannot have consciousness without emotion.

I am excited about this point because I’ve thought it both crucial and little recognized since reading The Mind’s I many years ago. It had an essay which convinced me that real artificial intelligence would not be possible without emotion. Without emotion all you have is processing power. And in human intelligence at least, emotion brings in the body. Emotions are not just mental phenomenon. I can’t wait to see how Damasio deals with this.

4) There is a distinction between “core consciousness,” producing a sense of moment-to-moment “core self,” and “extended consciousness,” producing a story-making “autobiographical self.”

This distinction could bring clarity to the debates about consciousness in infants and non-human animals. Core consciousness may be the kind that everyone has, and extended consciousness the kind that we develop as our experience becomes more and more intertwined with language and concepts.

Core consciousness sounds to me like the experience that meditators work to remain in. We live most of our lives in the useful but problematic realm of extended consciousness, judging experiences as good or bad, right or wrong, safe or unsafe, and other ways they relate to the story we have of ourselves. Once we are living this way it is difficult to escape. Meditators find that maintaining awareness of core consciousness can be a welcome rest from all that. This practice may help the autobiographical self have an easier time as well.

5) Consciousness cannot be wholly described by other mental activities. Things like language and memory are necessary but not sufficient for full consciousness.

You can’t leave consciousness out of the discussion. It is more than its parts. I like this because I think a lot of scientists are squeamish of even using the word “consciousness.” It makes you sound like a hippy. Prepare to hear a lot of scientists trying to talk about consciousness without sounding like a hippy.

6) Consciousness also cannot be described wholly by describing how the brain creates our experiences out of sensory and mental data.

I read some famous scientist saying that if he were to be at the beginning of his career, he would be looking into creation of qualia, the “particles” of experience, that this was the next holy grail of psychology. That’s a good one, for sure, but I think an explanation of consciousness is a better holy grail than an explanation of qualia.

I finally found the obscure screwdriver bits that work on my 1962 Kenskill travel trailer windows, “clutch type,” on a website called Zoro Tools. I’m happy to have found this company in almost every respect. They had my obscure parts for very reasonable prices, and shipped them to me quickly and for free. My total cost was $3.90.

So the following complaint is a small, fixable part of my experience with this company. But look at this: My two screwdriver bits arrived in a two-gallon cardboard box, stuffed full of packing bubbles.

The size and durability of the objects shipped does not seem to be a factor in choosing the volume or type of the shipping container, nor the amount of cushioning. A small envelope would have gotten them to me unharmed, even if a truck ran over them en route. A small padded envelop would have done the job if the bits’ packaging was somehow precious. 

This is not just a complaint about Zoro Tools–I have the same experience with Amazon and most other shippers I’ve used. I’ve gotten an extremely durable hard plastic container of skin cream in the mail from Amazon in a small box packed in a much larger box filled with bubble plastic. I’ve gotten an ace bandage packed the same way.

Now it may be that Zoro Tools normally ships to larger companies, so they only have large boxes to ship in. (Though Amazon does not have this excuse.) It may also be that they ship mostly to retailers for whom the state of the packaging actually is precious. And there are certainly other shipping considerations that companies make that I am not aware of.

But it actually hurts me a little bit to see this kind of waste of energy, resources, and space. I don’t want to be part of it. I’d like it if there were a “Not Fussy” shipping option to choose from: “Please just slap an address label and a stamp on the actual product and put it in the mail, if at all possible.” Something like that. The company that does that will get my business.

Sometimes I imagine being able to visit myself in the past, usually my anxious or sad teenaged self, and wonder how I could be the most helpful to him and the rest of his-future/my-past selves. One thing I like about this fantasy is that it reminds me how lucky I am. There are people who would probably want to tell their young selves something like, “It’s very important that you do not use X drug because it will ruin your life,” or “It is never OK for a romantic partner to hit you. Dump them and go immediately to the authorities.”

I usually imagine delivering a convincing version of, “If you are scared or sad, it’s because scary or sad stuff is happening, and that’s the way life is. Know, though that this all works out. Your next several decades are much better than you can imagine. Yes, there will be scary and painful stuff, but remember that it works out great.” I can vividly imagine beaming at my young self, delivering this message.

There is something comforting about this fantasy, like my young, internal Nathen benefits from hearing it. This led me to taking the question a step further: Given my life so far, what might my 80-year-old self want me to know now? I like to imagine my old, wrinkly self beaming at me, saying, “This works out even better than you can imagine…” As far as I can tell it is likely true, and it is quite calming to imagine.

It strikes me that this is something like what I do in my therapy work. Yes, there is the occasional need for advice, but the biggest part of what I do is let clients know with my mind, body, and soul that their current struggle is a small, if poignant, part of their life story. I welcome their sadness, anger, and anxiety as appropriate, given the circumstances, and I have confidence in their goodness, their strength, their resourcefulness. I try to know and show that this works out for them. It can and they deserve it.

When I find myself in the presence of a new very smart person, my favorite question to ask is,”What is the most interesting question in your field?”* It both makes for great conversation and expands my sense of the envelope of human inquiry.

If you have an idea about the most interesting question in your field, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below. If you are the kind of person who creates and publicizes websites, though, what I’d like even more is for you to create a wiki-style site where folks can go, create a forum for their field or sub-discipline, and propose and vote on most interesting questions. This could generate what I want to look at: a home page that is a self-updating outline of what professionals believe are the most interesting questions in their field. If you want to go whole-hog, you could also let them vote on and link to what they believe are the best pieces of research on their question to date.

And since I posed the question, I should probably tackle it for my own field… I am a couples and family therapist, and I propose that the most interesting question in my field is, “What are the precise mechanisms of therapeutic change in couple and family systems?” In other words, how does therapy work? We know that it is helpful in most cases, and we have endless models and speculations about how it works, but virtually no evidence about the mechanisms of change. The best research I know about on the topic is the qualitative, two-part, “What Clients of Couple Therapy Model Developers and Their Former Students Say About Change,” by Davis & PiercyEdging into that territory from another angle is the research summarized in Gottman’s The Science of Trust.

*I stole this question from very-smart-person Ethan Mitchell.

One day in my psycholinguistics class in 2009, I had two ideas that my prof, Dare Baldwin, announced would make good doctoral dissertations. I wrote them down, thinking maybe I would use them. The way my mind works is that I seriously consider doing a Ph.D in every subject I study. A few months later I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to do more research in psycholinguistics, so I wrote myself a note: “Look through notes from Dare’s class and post dissertation ideas for aspiring psycholinguists.”

Well I’m sorry to say that I’ve just looked through those notes and I can’t find the dissertation ideas, and one of them I have completely forgotten. The other I remember the basics of and if you are an aspiring psycholinguist you are welcome to it. Remember, this was in 2009, so check around to see if this research hasn’t been done already.

In Dare’s lecture, she explained that it is something of a mystery how exactly we hear voiced and non-voiced consonants as distinct from each other. If you pay close attention while you say the words “poor” and “bore,” for example, you might be able to notice that the only difference (at least with my accent) is how soon the vowel sound starts after the lips make the consonant. A slight gap between consonant and vowel creates a “p” and a smaller gap makes a “b.”

Using a computer to manipulate that gap, you can test what size of gap produces each consonant, and it turns out it’s a very specific and arbitrary-seeming size. We all hear the transition the same. And to make it even more mysterious, some other animals hear the distinction just like we do. How can this be an important distinction for animals to be able to make?

I believe that this is all due to a psychoacoustic phenomenon called temporal fusion. Any recording engineer knows that if you take two copies of a sound and space them at more than about 30 ms, you will hear both copies, distinct from one another. The second copy will sound like an echo of the first. If you space them at less than about 30 ms, what you instead hear is one, longer, thicker sound.

I bet you that 30 ms is also about the length of gap that starts to distinguish voiced from non-voiced consonants. That is, the length of gap is not arbitrary, but based on human hearing acuity. I will also bet you that other animals that can distinguish between Ps and Bs have temporal fusion that kicks in around 30 ms as well.

There you go. It should be easy and relatively cheap to test. If no one else has thought of it since 2009, it’s yours. If I remember the second idea, I’ll post it too.

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