Category Archives: ruminations

Prediction: Ann Arbor Public Schools will be completely virtual for the 2020-21 school year

It suddenly seems clear to me that plans for in-person instruction this year are wishful thinking at best and a distraction at worst.

A viable plan for in-person school would require (a) re-imagining how schools operate and (b) additional funding for implementation. The district probably can’t pull off the first on its own and the second is definitely outside its control. In a better world, leadership at the state and federal levels would contribute ideas and funding. In such a world, we might even contain COVID-19 to the point that kids and teachers can return to school without imaginative plans.

But based on the last few months and where things stand now, I bet kids won’t set foot in Ann Arbor Public Schools classrooms this entire school year.  Anyone want to wager I’m wrong?

Here’s hoping I can return to this post in coming months and laugh at how foolishly pessimistic I was.  But in the meantime, I’ll plan for the worst.

a hugelkultur mound with a log border, full of vegetable plants

Building a hugelkultur mound in a city backyard

This was a leap-of-faith project during Michigan’s bleak COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” period. I’m documenting it here as a plan for building a hugelkultur bed on a small city lot as well as to preserve a pleasant COVID-19 memory. Behold the thriving hugelkultur mound:

It’s exploding with vegetables – see below for pictures of the hill itself

Hugelkultur is a permaculture concept where you pile up organic material (logs, leaves, compost, etc.) and then grow a garden on top of it. Here is a good explanation of hugelkultur and its benefits. It’s also a fun word to say. We refer to our mound as “the hugel” [German for hill].

This was the perfect COVID-19 project. Under lockdown in April, we had nowhere to go. I was spending lots of time with my kids at home during the day. And I wanted to be outside. Building a garden bed with the materials at hand was a small act of protest against the feeling of being dependent on a global supply chain whose fragility had suddenly been exposed. I couldn’t easily get soil or lumber delivered for a conventional raised bed. And crucially, the city’s compost and yard waste collection was about to resume for the spring, so my neighbors had their maximum amount of organic material awaiting disposal.

Starting with a hole

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On Timefulness

I enjoyed and was moved by the book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud. This post is a review & reflection I’m finishing many months after reading it.

“Rates of technological progress far outstrip the rate at which human wisdom matures (in the same way that environmental changes outpace evolutionary adaptation in mass extinction events).” – Marcia Bjornerud, Timefulness

The book has a few threads going at once but the bulk of it is a geological history of the world, in a more layperson-friendly format than a textbook. It’s heavy on the science and I learned a great deal of earth science. For instance:

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Today in cars harassing bikes

Based on what I hear from cyclists in other cities, Ann Arbor drivers are relatively kind toward bikes. But maybe they woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, as I was harassed twice while dropping my kids off on the way to work.

I hate it. Car-to-bike yelling and honking carries the underlying threat that the driver could, if they wanted, kill you instantly and likely not even face repercussions. You’re alive because they tolerate you. By virtue of their speed and windows, they dictate when an exchange will happen, when it starts, and when it’s done.

When I get harassed, my heart starts racing, I second-guess myself, I stop chit-chatting with my kids. If I was harassed more often I’d be discouraged from riding my bike, and it’s undoubtedly keeping others off their bikes now.

None of that is news. But the two incidents this morning provided a useful contrast and left me slightly hopeful.

Driver #1: I was biking up Seventh Street north of Huron with two kids on the back. There’s decent room to pass here and cars often do, as they’re unable to on the previous block. A man in a pickup pulled up alongside me and drove parallel to me while he shouted, “that’s seriously unsafe, bro!” Then, not sure what else to add: “Seriously unsafe!” and sped off.

I didn’t have a snappy comeback, and don’t have one now. Bike safety is more complicated than a soundbite. My kids and I were quiet. They were rattled like I was. To the extent our trips to school are dangerous, it’s because a man like this could kill us. So it’s disconcerting to hear a warning from him.

I’ll just note here that the underlying issue is Ann Arbor’s terrible transportation infrastructure. We should not have to share a lane with this truck. In fact, the city just last year considered installing a bike lane on this stretch, but decided to use the space for storage of private cars instead. Yeah, the guy shouldn’t yell at me, but the City of Ann Arbor takes the assist on this one. I used to get harassed on North Maple Road, now there’s a buffered bike lane there.

Driver #2: having dropped the kids, I headed inbound on Miller toward downtown. The bike lane was pure ice so I took the lane. A Pontiac Vibe laid on the horn as it passed me – then had to step on the brake as the light at Seventh turned red. I pulled up alongside the car and told the driver, “the bike lane was full of ice so I had to drive in the car lane, sorry.” He rolled down his window, fumbling for words: “Sorry. It’s just hard.” Pause. “I get too pissed off, I’m sorry.” I smiled, and told him no worries, we are all trying to get to work. “Have a great day!”

His contrition buoyed my spirits and offset the incident with the truck. He was a normal human: a decent person on foot and an impatient, unkind one behind the wheel. This near-universal transformation applies to me, too, and it’s been widely acknowledged since before this 1950 Goofy clip, where driving a car transforms him from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde:

I was lucky to catch Driver #2 at the light for this moment of redemption. It left me optimistic about the power of people to get past differences, see each other as humans worthy of respect, and come together – once we log off our devices and get out of our cars.

Halfway to a keg of blood

I’ve been donating blood since I was in high school. My dad is a long-time blood donor, so I started giving because he did. Turns out he donates because his dad, my Grandpa Bill, was a long-time blood donor.

In my early 20s I set a goal to donate the largest feasible volume that was meaningful to me as a homebrewer: a keg. A standard half-barrel keg is half of a barrel (31 gallons), so 15.5 gallons or 124 pints of beer. Or blood.

I donated blood yesterday and checked my stats: 53 units with the Red Cross, plus 10 that I donated with LifeSource during the periods I lived in Chicago. That puts me one unit into the second half of my keg.

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Homebrew: art that is destroyed by experiencing it

For Thanksgiving 2013, I brewed my first Biere de Garde, after discovering the style and then reading Garrett Oliver’s suggestion that it’s the perfect pairing for the holiday feast. My brew was a hit. At Thanksgiving 2019, we drank the final bottle from that batch.

Friday we drank another final bottle that had been lurking in my cellar, an Eisbock brewed in 2013. Even as many obscure beer styles are pioneered or revitalized in the homebrewing community and then are taken to the public by mainstream craft breweries, Eisbock remains relatively unknown. I expect this is due to the fact that freeze-concentrating beer, at a production scale, would require specialized equipment that most breweries won’t acquire.

Then yesterday we drank the final bottle of a 2011 smoked porter (excellent) and one of the last few of a 2015 smoked porter (one-dimensional).

It may be a stretch to call homebrew art; I see it as more of a craft. Art or craft, it’s something that can only be experienced a finite number of times. The act of tasting it simultaneously depletes it.

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Dumb kids movies mimicking violent cliches from dumb grownup movies

Most TV and movies are trash, whether for adults or kids. The grownup material loads up on mindless violence or sex to compensate for its underlying dullness and unoriginality. Kids media sells stuff. None of this is news.

But twice this fall I’ve bumped into disheartening synergy that I felt merited a lament: the endless recycling of violent grownup-movie cliches had jumped the track into movies for small children. This seems like the worst direction this could go, though maybe not surprising.

Here is my n = 2 of complaints. I’m sure if I had the misfortune of watching such movies in increments of more than 45 seconds I would have more to rant about.

Toy Story 3

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Imagine a world without oil and gas

It’s stuck with me since I saw it in the Myrtle Beach airport in July. A young man wore a drawstring backpack printed with the slogan “imagine a world without oil and gas.” Under that it said, “IOGA WV”.

I first read this phrase the way I would if I had uttered it: as an aspirational call to imagine a world without oil and gas. Something like AOC’s “Message from the Future” or the Transition Handbook, whose featured blurb notes that “most of us avoid thinking about what happens when oil runs out (or becomes prohibitively expensive)” [more on this later].

When a search for “IOGA WV” revealed it to be the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, I realized the phrase was meant differently. There aren’t many hits when you Google that sentence, but they mostly come from oil & gas interests. The phrase on the backpack is meant not as a serious call but as a statement of ridicule: life is unimaginable without oil and gas.

The phrase captured my imagination, in part because I’m amused by its Janus word nature: its two meanings are opposites. But also because in the way I first read it, it’s a succinct, elegant clarion call to dream as we must. In the effort to move beyond fossil fuels and preserve a habitable planet, it’s likely that our imagination, not technology, will be the limiting factor.

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Growing adoption of e-bikes, cargo bikes in Ann Arbor

I don’t have hard data on this. Ann Arbor should collect this kind of data – Portland, OR has being doing bike counts since 1991. But I feel confident that the number of electric-assist bikes and cargo bikes on the road in Ann Arbor is growing rapidly.

Yesterday I parked in the excellent covered bike parking in the 4th and Washington structure and when I returned saw five e-bikes parked there:

Contrary to what you might think, not all e-cargo bikes are green.

Ann Arbor is a good town for an e-bike. It has some serious hills, which many people can’t or don’t wish to ride up while commuting. It has people with disposable income and environmental leanings who can be the early adopters. And we have two great stores for e-Bikes, Human Electric Hybrids and the newer Urban Rider (same ownership).

(Regarding one particular hill: the William Street Bikeway is slated to open this fall. This will be a veritable sales pitch for e-bikes, offering a safe and pleasant way to get to campus and downtown … to those riders who can surmount the steep, short climb up William from First to Ashley. Increase your assist level!)

Electric-assist bikes will grow in popularity here, becoming a critical part of how we move around in a world without abundant gasoline. (Even in a world with cheap gas they’re gaining steam, since they’re more fun, healthier, and cheaper than cars). E-bikes are already hugely popular in Europe and China, and while America has been slower to catch on, sales have nearly doubled annually in recent years. They’re the future.

I chatted with the owner of the Sondors bike (pictured above) as he locked up. He said he had been close to buying a moped but a friend talked him into buying an e-bike instead. He’s happy he did.

It’s a pleasure to watch e-bike numbers grow here in these early years of adoption.

A Car-Free Yellowstone

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Yellowstone National Park.  We drove a lot outside the park, unavoidably.  From the airport in Bozeman to the town of West Yellowstone, and to the park entrance every day.  We also drove many miles daily in the park.  There, we might be able to do better for our visitors (and it is our park) and the park itself.

When we talk about public transit locally, a perennial question is of ridership volume: when do we cross the tipping point where the transit service becomes financially viable and practical for users, even preferential to riding in a car?  Yellowstone may be there.  Its crowds and traffic are the cost of its success, but a bus system could mitigate these, opening the park to more people while preserving its navigability.  And a car-free Yellowstone would be better for the flora and fauna as well.

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