Responsibility for oil spills

I’m as outraged as anyone at the incompetence that led to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the gulf: both the slipshod regulation by the government and the incompetence and criminality of BP, Transocean, and Halliburton. I wouldn’t mind one bit if all three companies were broken by cleanup costs, restitution to injured parties, and civil and criminal penalties. But I’m a bit sad to see all the blame being laid at their doorstep.

The fact is, spills like this are an entirely predictable result of consuming 85 million barrels of oil per day. If you consume that much, you have to produce that much. And if you produce that much, you will have accidents. Some of the accidents will kill people. Some will contaminate huge swaths of the ocean.

Sure, BP et al deserve much of the blame. But there’s plenty of blame to go around. A good share of it belongs to every one of us who drives a car, heats their home, or buys anything made out of plastic.

What did you think was going to happen?

Thinking about Clarion

It’s hot today. Writing when it’s hot always reminds me of Clarion—of the many sweaty hours sitting at my desk in Owen Hall, writing fiction. And I was already thinking of Clarion. In 2001, Clarion started on June 3rd, so I spent much of May getting ready to go. Since then I’ve found my thoughts turn to Clarion every May.

Thinking about Clarion reminds me how I’d been wrong about which activities would teach me the most. I’d imagined that the benefits would flow from writing a lot and getting critques on my stories. Those activities were beneficial, but what taught me the most was doing a critique of a classmate’s story and then hearing another 20 critiques on the same story. Especially when one of my fellows had a different take on the story from my own, I learned something. Some of those insights were pearls of great value that I secreted away and have used many, many times since then. Even when I disagreed, just the notion that the story could be viewed that way changed the way I thought about stories.

Sadly, I don’t have an active local critique group, so I’m not in a position to recreate that aspect—the most valuable aspect—of the Clarion experience this summer. But that’s okay. I can still write a lot. I can still read a lot. I can still think critically about the stories I read. And on hot days like today it will almost feel like I’m back there again.

Backyard Chickens in Champaign

Backyard Chickens
Chickens at Creque Dam Farm in St. Croix

When I was looking for a house a few years ago, I only looked in Urbana. The main reason was that Champaign prohibits residents from keeping chickens, while Urbana allows it. As you can imagine, I was delighted to learn that the topic of legalizing chickens has come before the Champaign City Council.

I know a little about what it’s like to have chickens in the yard, from one summer when my parents got a flock of chicks and raised them up to fryer size. We didn’t keep them for eggs, but they were around for several months, and I was never bothered by noise, smell, or any of the other problems that backyard chickens are supposed to bring.

I’ve had eggs from free-range chickens—real free-range chickens, not the mockery of free-range allowed under USDA regulations. They’re not just better; they’re so much better as to not even be the same thing.

So, I’ve written to my city council representatives:

I was very pleased to see in the local paper that the topic of changing the law to allow Champaign residents to keep chickens has come before the council. I urge you to support this change.

One of the most important changes we need to make Champaign a more sustainable community is to stop viewing the household purely as a center of consumption: it needs to become a center of production as well. Allowing residents to raise chickens is a step in the right direction.

Many communities (including Urbana) allow residents to raise a modest number of chickens in their backyard. With a few sensible restrictions (no roosters, adequate space for each bird), there’s no reason that chickens can’t be kept in an ordinary backyard without adversely impacting neighbors.

I urge you to support such a change in the law.

The picture that illustrates this post was taken at the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farming Institute’s Creque Dam Farm, which I visited in August of 2008 and about which I wrote a piece for Wise Bread: Learn Techniques for Sustainable Living. I’d earlier written a piece for them on backyard chickens called Real Eggs.

Update to add: I got a quick response from Thomas Bruno, one of the at-large city council members. He described the process for getting an item considered by the city council and adds:

Get a science teacher involved or a scout troop and your chances of success will skyrocket.

So, I guess my next step is to get in touch with some of the other people mentioned in the article as pushing for a change in the law, and see if anyone knows a science teacher or a scoutmaster.

Second update: I found and linked to a great article on how to get your town to legalize backyard chickens.

Champaign to lose Angela Rivers mural

Angela Rivers Mural

I heard on the news this morning that Champaign was going to lose (to building renovations) a large public mural by Angela Rivers.

The mural, painted in 1978, is in pretty poor shape, which I suspect had something to do with the decision to let it go, but it’s still sad to lose. I’m a big fan of public art.

Since I had some warning, I figured I’d seize the opportunity to go grab some pictures. Here’s a detail with some faces and the signatures:

Detail of Angela Rivers Mural

And here’s another bit I particularly like, horses plowing toward the sun on the horizon:

Detail from Angela Rivers Mural

If you’re local, it’s worth getting up there to see it in person. It’s on the north side of a warehouse at the corner of Park and 5th Street, just a few blocks east of downtown Champaign.

Bankruptcy article published in a book

Late last summer, I got email from the publisher Gale. They wanted to license my Wise Bread article Bankruptcy is a Good Thing to use in their book Bankruptcy (Introducing Issues With Opposing Viewpoints).

They have a whole series of “introducing issues with opposing viewpoints” books, each of which contains a variety of articles and essays on some topic. I gather that the idea is to help teach students the skill of reading a number of articles, any one of which may be unbalanced or narrowly focused, and then synthesizing an understanding of the topic. It’s a useful skill, and one that’s hard to teach with a textbook, since textbooks generally try to present a comprehensive and balanced viewpoint.

I executed the license agreement back in August. The book came out in April, and the check (payment on publication, of course) arrived today!

It would probably be worth my time to market reprint rights more aggressively, but I enjoy writing more than I enjoy marketing. So, it’s especially nice when the chance to earn a license fee falls into my lap like this.

Because of the nature of (and price of) the book, I didn’t try to negotiate a contributor’s copy. If you happen upon a copy, I’d be pleased to hear a little about it.

Esperanto Group Picnic

With the end of the semester arriving, about half of the Esperanto group will be heading home for the summer. Before everybody hit the road, we had a little celebratory picnic.

Photographic evidence:

Dum la grupa pikniko

I’m the guy on the edge looking like an aging hippy hanging out with a bunch of college kids.

It looks like enough of us will be in town over the summer to make it worth having meetings. If you’re interested in Esperanto and live in or near Champaign-Urbana, join us!

Moss



Moss, originally uploaded by bradipo.

Jackie and I visited the Fiber Event in Greencastle Indiana yesterday, after which we went to Shades State Park and spent the rest of the day hiking.

The spring wildflowers were just about at their peak. We saw spring beauties, trillium, dutchman’s breeches, violets, bluebells, mayapples, and others that I didn’t recognize.

Even the moss was trying to get in on the act.

Creative Commons License
Moss by Philip Brewer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Kind mentions from Lifehacker and Planet Green!

My Wise Bread post Buy Your Groceries European-Style picked up mentions at both the Discovery Channel’s Planet Green and Lifehacker.

Jason Fitzpatrick had kind words for my post in his piece Shop European-Style for Fresher, Cheaper Food.

Lloyd Alter was especially generous, saying (in a green-living piece subtitled “I thought I was a lonely failure as a frugalista, but I am not“):

I thought we were pretty much along among the frugal living types to do this. However, one of my favourite writers on frugal living, Philip Brewer at Wisebread, agrees…

Thanks guys!

The Google-free option

Zen Habits has a fresh post up on becoming Google-free. It’s a pretty good look at the key resources that Google provides—Gmail, Google Docs, Google Reader, Google Calendar, Picasa, etc.—and for each one provides Leo’s choice for a replacement, along with mentioning a few other alternatives.

On the one hand, this is just the sort of thing I’m a bit too prone to worry about. For me, security, privacy, and reliability are right up there with functionality. On the other hand, it had scarcely crossed my mind that I’m so reliant on Google that becoming Google-free was an important issue. So, seeing Leo’s article prompted me to give it some thought.

To me, the more fundamental issue is choosing to keep your data on your own hardware or to keep it in the cloud.

It used to be that the cloud was a loser on all four issues (security, privacy, reliability, functionality). In just the past few years, the cloud has made great strides in the latter two. I haven’t seen a careful analysis, but my sense now is that the cloud is about as reliable as your own hardware, albeit with different failure modes (less chance of a bad disk drive losing a bunch of data, more chance of the provider deprecating the tool or simply going bust). Functionality is a different kind of question—all you care about is whether the tool provides the functionality you need—but my sense again is that tools like Google Docs do fine at providing the most important functionality.

On issues of security and privacy, though, it seems to me that the cloud can never win. Well, maybe in one narrow sense: Servers in the cloud can be professionally managed with security in mind, so there’s a better chance that security patches will be applied promptly and less chance that they’ll be configured in an insecure way out of carelessness or ignorance. Except for that, though, all the cloud can offer is an unenforceable promise of security and privacy—and it rarely offers even that.

Because of that, I’ve always ended up choosing to keep mission-critical work on my own hardware. I use various cloud services, but they’re all in some way either publishing or else secondary.

Where what I’m doing is publishing (such as this blog, my account on Flickrmy account on Twitter, and so on), the privacy issues are moot—I’m explicitly making the stuff public. I still care about security, but my security interests are closely aligned with the provider’s security interests, so I feel reasonably comfortable relying on the provider to get security right.

All my uses of cloud-provided tools are non-critical. I have a Gmail account, but it’s a backup account for use when my main email account is unavailable for some reason. I have a Google Docs account, but I only use it occasionally to view a Word document or make a graph with the spreadsheet facility. I don’t use Google Calendar (I use iCal). The one Google tool that I’d really miss if it disappeared is Google Reader which I use every day, but even losing that wouldn’t be a catastrophe. I could go back to reading blogs on the websites themselves (!) until I picked out a new RSS feed reader. My latest backup of my subscriptions was really old (I just now grabbed a current one), but I’d be able to recreate the important ones easily enough.

The upshot is that going Google-free seems to be a non-issue to me. I could do it in five minutes and scarcely feel the loss. I’m glad to have been prompted to think about it, though.

Mentioned by Doctor Oz

Two of my Wise Bread posts, The Ethics of Hoarding and Healthy, Frugal Eating, got very kind mentions in the Doctor Oz blog:

Wow. Just a stellar post… Philip Brewer strikes again with a straightforward, no-bull piece on why we gotta suck it up and stop eating expensive crap. Stern, but informative!

I find it surprisingly difficult to extract quotes like that—it seems too much like bragging. I guess that’s why it’s useful to have a publicist.