Forest Glen: Today with extra wildlife

A perfect day for a hike, so we went to the Forest Glen Preserve, where we not only got our hike, we got it with extra wildlife.

We scoped out several trails, with an eye toward bring Jackie’s mom with us later in the spring. We thought the trail we hiked on last year, the Big Woods trail, would be too rugged, so we wanted to evaluate some of the other trails as possible alternatives.

The first trail we tried was the Beach Grove trail, which is short (about a third of a mile) and paved. It’s marked as being handicapped accessible, although seemed a bit rugged for someone in a wheelchair or scooter. It’s the trail where we saw these deer!

After that, we moved on to the Willow Creek trail. It’s probably closer to what we want for Barbara. It’s not paved, it’s longer (about a mile), and it’s got some change in elevation (without being as rugged as the Big Woods trail). It also had some wildlife! We saw a red-bellied woodpecker before we even got on the trail. Then, just past the trail head, I saw what I assumed would be a hawk—except once he landed right in front of us, I was able to see that it was a barred owl. He sat there for a while, turning his head to look at us, and then off to the side to give us a profile view, and flew off silently the way owls do. We also saw a whole big flock of wild turkeys. They were too coy for me to get a photo of, but near the trail head, we’d seen this guy in a big pen.

Back on one of the park roads, we saw a big male ring-necked pheasant.

The Big Woods trail leads to an observation tower that we hadn’t climbed on our previous hike, but there’s an easier way to get there, hiking up an “official vehicles only” access road. We hiked up there and climbed to the top of the observation tower, which gave us a great view of the surroundings, and also a particularly good view of the turkey vultures that were soaring all around at just about the same height as the observation platform, often coming close enough that we could see the red of their heads. (Despite the great view we had, I didn’t manage to get a worthwhile picture of the vultures.)

All in all, a great outing, and I think we have a plan for when we bring Barbara—the Willow Creek trail, followed by the Beach Grove trail if we’re all up for more hiking after.

The birds think it’s spring

Jackie and I went for our first bike ride of the year. We followed our traditional first-ride route, around Kaufman Lake, past the Olympic Monument, around Parkland College, and then back. This year we went 6.27 miles.

I’d been hearing cardinals for several days, but out on this ride we got definitive expressions of bird spring. The robins are back, as are the red-winged blackbirds. I saw a crow fly up out of Copper Slough with a huge wad of nesting material in its beak.

The ride itself went fine as well. No mechanical problems. No problems with Jackie’s wrist. There had been a couple of previous days when it would have been warm enough to ride, but those days were very windy. It was nice to just wait for today and not have to deal with the headwinds.

I think we’re all set now, to be able to ride whenever we want. In particular, if there’s a day when it’s nice enough to ride first thing in the morning, we could ride to the Fitness Center and then to taiji. (That’s a bit long and complex of a ride to try to combine it with our first “shakedown” ride of the year.)

How voting helps

Plaque commemorating a lecture by Susan B. AnthonyI’ve long been peeved by how little credit people give to the power of their vote.

So many people seem to think that a vote isn’t effective unless it holds the balance of power, as if their vote only counted when the other voters were equally split, so that their vote would sway the election one way or the other.

This isn’t true for individuals, and it most especially is not true for groups.

Back in the run-up to the 2008 election, I heard a  story on NPR that provided a good counterexample. An Indian tribe in (I think) New Mexico was getting attention from state and national candidates of both parties, because they had started voting. Pretty much all of a sudden, after their voting turnout had shot up, their issues became important to politicians at all levels. And their issues weren’t just important when there was a close election and their votes might make the difference: Because they voted in every election, every politician needed to pay attention to their issues all the time.

If you’re a member of a group that votes, your group’s issues will be taken seriously. You don’t need to be a majority. You don’t even need to vote as a block. (In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t: You want politicians thinking that each individual vote is up for grabs, if they institute the right policies.)

The image at the top of this post is of a plaque in downtown Champaign, commemorating a lecture on “Work, Wages, and the Ballot,” that Susan B. Anthony gave here back in 1870. I’ve seen the plaque many times, but couple of days ago, I thought to take a picture of the plaque, and that prompted me to do a proper search, which yielded some results.

This Project Gutenberg Book Susan B. Anthony: Rebel, Crusader, Humanitarian, by Alma Lutz is pretty good:

She had at hand a perfect example in the unsuccessful strike of Kate Mullaney’s strong, well-organized union of 500 collar laundry workers in Troy, New York. Aware that Kate blamed their defeat on the ruthless newspaper campaign, inspired and paid for by employers, Susan asked her, “If you had been 500 carpenters or 500 masons, do you not think you would have succeeded?”

“Certainly,” Kate Mullaney replied, adding that the striking bricklayers had won everything they demanded. Susan then reminded her that because the bricklayers were voters, newspapers respected them and would hesitate to arouse their displeasure, realizing that in the next election they would need the votes of all union men for their candidates. “If you collar women had been voters,” she told them, “you too would have held the balance of political power in that little city of Troy.”

I turned 18 shortly after the voting age in the US had been lowered to 18. The drinking age had been lowered along with it, so it was legal for me to drink. But a big jump in drunk driving accidents prompted many states to raise their drinking age.

In Michigan it turned out to be an oddly complex process. A state law was passed, raising the drinking age to 19, but grandfathering in people who were already old enough to have started drinking before the law went into effect. After that law was passed, but before it went into effect, a state constitutional amendment was put on the ballot, that would raise the drinking age to 21, without any grandfathering. That would create a whole cohort of people who’d been able to buy alcohol for a year or more, who would lose that right. And all of them could vote.

I voted against it, of course. But nobody else I knew who was going to be in the affected group bothered to vote. They didn’t much care about the issue—it was as easy for under-age drinkers to buy booze then as now—and they didn’t think their vote would count for much. And, as it turned out, they were right. But only because their peers didn’t vote. Not only could a solid voting block of 18-to-20 year olds have affected the outcome, I rather doubt if the issue would have even gone on the ballot, if 18-to-20 year olds voted at the rates that senior citizens do.

The way voting helps is not by winning individual elections (although that does happen and it’s nice when it does). The way voting helps is that if you’re a voter, politicians take your interests into account all the time.

Entering flow state

I use a trick for getting into flow state.

Anybody who does creative work knows about flow state, where your surroundings vanish and for a timeless period you’re creating whatever is you create. If you’re a writer, the words just, well, flow.

Many writers have some sort of process for achieving flow state, such as a pre-writing ritual, or a specific place or specific set of tools that they reserve for their creative work.

I’ve seen working writers mock these techniques—making fun of the writer who needs the right kind of tea in the right special cup and the right ink in the right fountain pen before they can write. And I do see the mocking potential. But I find having such a process is highly effective in speeding the process of getting into flow state.

The key here is speeding. If your pre-writing ritual takes twenty minutes, it’s not likely to be faster than just starting to write. (Which is, after all, the only essential step.)

But some very short ritual, or some special place or object, if you start using it when you’re working, will become associated with entering flow state. And once it has become associated, just following it or having it or using it makes it easier and quicker to enter flow state.

In my case, it’s a vest that Jackie made me. I reserve it just for fiction writing. Having written a lot of fiction wearing that vest, just putting it on puts me in the frame of mind that I’m going to write fiction.

I can write without it. I probably write more without it than I do with it. But especially when I have only a short period of time to write, it’s worth the 30 seconds it takes to put my vest on when I sit down to write.

[Update: I just remembered that I’ve mentioned my writing vest before, in my Clarion journal, in reference to Steven Barnes talking about learning to enter flow state.]

Doctor Emery’s Nightmares

If you’re a fan of anime-influenced art jam-packed with memey goodness, I’ve got a treat for you: Doctor Emery’s Nightmares.

[Update 2013-12-06: Doctor Emery’s Nightmares is back! I’d take the original link down when the site was taken over by some advertising crap. Now Doctor Emery has a new tumblr site, so I’m pointing there.]

When it comes to physical objects, I’m at least a generation behind the cool kids. (I not only still have an iPod, my iPod still has a hard drive.) But when it comes to internet memes, I figure I’m only two or three steps behind. I mean, I read BoingBoing. I have an account on Reddit! Even so, I usually have to visit Know Your Meme two or three times for every one of Emily Mongeau’s comics.

But if that’s not you—if you already know your memes—then you’ll find Emily’s comics great fun. And if, like me, you’re a few steps back on your memes, you can still enjoy the art.

Oh, and I should also mention: Emily drew the picture I’ve been using for my favicon for a while now. It’s a picture of my totemic animal: the sloth.

Here it is in slightly less faviconic form. Have you ever seen such a handsome creature?

Funding the capital costs of household solar power

I was reminded yesterday that I wanted to mention Property Assessed Clean Energy, which came up in the course I’m taking on electric power. (What reminded me was Tobias Buckell’s post about how the real issue for photovoltaics is the capital cost of installing the capacity, which he mentioned in reference to a rather interesting article on issues with solar feed-in tariffs.)

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) is a clever idea for funding homeowner investment in solar power. The way it works is this: The municipality raises money with a bond issue, then lends it to homeowners to invest in solar (or potentially wind) power generating capacity. That investment is then paid back to the municipality over 15 or 20 years via an assessment on the property tax bill. The money is easy for the homeowner to pay back, because the debt repayment is funded by savings on the power bill.

The property tax assessment stays with the house if it is sold, which is reasonable because the photovoltaic system or wind turbine stays with the house as well. This means that the capital is available quite cheaply, because the money is very likely to be paid back.

The really big win of PACE is that it greatly reduces the biggest financial risk that a homeowner takes when making an investment in solar power—the risk that he or she will end up having to move before the rather long payback period, and end up being on the hook to pay the loan back, without enjoying the benefits of the lower power bills.

The problem is, even though about half the states have laws authorizing some form of PACE, the whole scheme has been blocked by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which instructed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac not to underwrite mortgages on properties with a PACE assessment.

As I understand it, the issue is that the property tax assessment (like property taxes in general) are senior to the mortgage in the event of a default. But if this regulation is legitimate, the federal mortgage authorities can regulate all municipal activity. They could ban mortgages on houses where the municipality is funding public art through a property tax assessment (or on houses where the municipality isn’t funding public art). If this principle stands, municipal governments will have to do whatever the mortgage authorities demand, or else only people rich enough to pay cash would be able to buy a house in town.

There’s a group called PACENow that’s working various paths to get the prohibition reversed.

Accurate but useless

Some years back, I read a financial newsletter article that offered a technique for predicting inflation rates six months in advance. It had charts that compared its predictions to actual results, that showed that it was pretty accurate. Not perfect, but more than close enough to be useful for short-term planning.

Then I read the details. Their “technique” was this:

  1. Take the actual inflation for the previous six months.
  2. Double it.

As I say, their technique was pretty accurate. Partially it was accurate because the economy rarely turns on a dime—recent trends tend to continue. But it was more accurate than that, because half the months they were “predicting” had already happened! Even if the next six months were rather different from the previous six months, that would only produce so much change in the full year results.

I think that was the point when I decided to let my subscription to that newsletter expire.

Peanut butter is good

We usually buy our peanut butter from a local health food store that grinds it fresh. The owner comes out from behind the counter, grabs a 1-pound package of peanuts from the cooler, and then takes it back behind the counter and grinds it while you wait. (I think you’re supposed to get the package yourself and bring it to her, but I didn’t know that. Jackie usually does the shopping there.)

Sadly, we just used up our package of freshly ground unsalted unsweetened peanut butter, and for lunch today had to make do with our backup supply—some national brand peanut butter. We keep it on hand for two reasons. It’s less runny than good peanut butter, which is nice when we’re making peanut butter sandwiches to take to a lunchtime lecture at OLLI (or any similar brown-bag event) and want a minimally messy lunch. And it stores well.

It’s not as healthy. It’s salted and sweetened. Worse, some of the healthy peanut oil has been replaced with some less runny oil. (Although they now use less hydrogenated vegetable oil than they used when I was a kid.) But you know what? The commercial stuff tastes good even so.

Still, we’ll get some more freshly ground peanut butter first chance we get.

SLF Older Writers Grant

My first impulse, when I see something like the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Older Writers Grant, is to share it with everybody. Then I immediately have a counter impulse: I should keep it to myself! Why go out of my way to encourage competition? And then I have a counter-counter impulse: I’d rather be a member of a supportive community of writers.

At that point, I usually go ahead and share the opportunity with everyone that I think might be interested, with any slight feeling of foolishness balanced by a slight feeling of virtuousness.

In this case, I got over my selfish impulse extra quickly, because I don’t know that many speculative fiction writers over 50 anyway.

They also do an annual travel grant, so that’s a reason to click on over, even if you’re under 50.

J. P. Wickwire review of “Watch Bees.”

Found a very nice review of “Watch Bees” by J. P. Wickwire in last August’s Tangent.

Not only a nice review, but one full of great quotes. Here’s just one:

“Watch Bees” takes place in an utterly engaging, but strikingly off-kilter world; full of characters doused in human potential, and whose voices establish themselves early on.