How to Conserve Water (Without Really Trying)

On a Wednesday morning garden walk-about, I discovered that one of the swales behind the house was filled with water. Now had it rained, this would not be surprising. That’s what the swales are for; to keep the downside of our hill from becoming a rutted mess. With the co-benefit of watering our garden beds.

But there had been no rain.

The culprit was the water line from the well to the house. It had ruptured. Probably from the combination of basement building, power-line trenching and earthmoving equipment when we installed our solar panel array.

I’d like to blame the earth movers; they put a few dozen bees in my bonnet while they were here. But I strive to be both fair and skeptical (a classical skeptic, not the modern fundamentalist sort). So I’m forced to admit that I can’t definitively know what caused the problem.

A ruptured line next to the house would also explain the persistently damp wall in the basement. We were planning to regrade the front yard to try and shunt more water away from the house. Because the folks who built it – let’s sum up their siting skills in a word: sub-par. The house is oriented so that any water falling off the front side of the roof immediately rolls back toward the footing.

Luckily, it seems we will be able to fix a couple of problems with one solution. Even though it means we will have to get a trencher out here. And locater services.

As it happens, our next door neighbor is a trencher/well and water guy. And he is often in need of carpentry work. So there may be some opportunity for barter there. But, if you know anything about dealing with bureaucracies, especially of the power company sort, then you know we may be waiting a few days to get the water back up and running.

So what do we do until then?

Let me begin by explaining the artist’s creed.  We aren’t taught this creed in a  formal fashion; instead we acquire it through experience. It goes something like this:

We have done so much, with so little, for so long; we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.

As a rule artists, and other “creative” types, are the red-headed step-children of funding and budgetary concerns. We are given the leftovers, the scraps with the understanding that “because we are creative”, we will be able to make-do. And after eons of this archetypal narrative playing out like a recurring nightmare, we have become so entrenched in this expectation that making-do comes as easily as a child’s first breath.

The problem was a fairly simple one. We had plenty of water. The question was how to get it to the house.

The Mister Getting a Spot of Water 02/09

Initially I was taking water from our rainwater storage tanks. Two 325 gallon tanks that sit on the back corners of the house. You see, I’m a catastrophic thinker. And lately, as you might imagine, that tendency has served me in good stead.

In North Carolina, we’ve suffered a series of droughts over the past decade or so. According to this report from the Center for Health and Global Environment (pdf) it seems that drown or drought will be the “norm” for the foreseeable future. So I decided to implement some measures to deal with potential water issues . Burms and swales for the gardens and water tanks for rainwater storage.

The water from the tanks is fine for the garden, for watering the dogs, flushing the toilets and in a pinch you can boil it to wash dishes. But, without filtration and some sterilization, I wouldn’t want to use it for drinking or cooking.

Given that, we decided to “run a line” from the well to the house.

This is a much simpler solution than humping water up the hill from the back of the house.  The well water is potable and with a noticeable lack of bugs, leaves and other mystery items floating around in it.

This morning I hooked a hose up to the well, switched it on and ran it over to the front door. 

While this has all the convenience of City Living whilst keeping the native Country Charm, it could be more convenient still.

Running it through an opening in the storm door seemed like it would move the line into an optimum position near the laundry, the kitchen and the first floor bathroom.

Once inside, it was simple to get all the laundry out of the way. The only issue was being aware of the rinse cycle starting so I could add more water.

While the clothes were washing, I started heating pots of water for the dishes, filling water jugs for later use and as a side benefit I was able to get enough water on the hall way and kitchen floors that they both got a rather thorough cleaning.

I can see why women used to be relegated to the kitchen before the advent of boilers and hot water storage. Heating the water on our propane stove took up a good amount of time. I can imagine the extra time spent lighting and stoking wood fires to get the water up to temperature.

Taking advantage of the hot water available, I managed a quick “whore’s bath” as we say in the South. (Apologies to all you whores who bathe thoroughly on a regular basis) Of course, if I was worried about “freshness”  Summer’s Eve could do all that and seemingly get me a raise to boot.

Even before this incident, we had already acclimated ourselves to recycling as much of our “greywater” as we feasibly can. We can’t legally use the water from the washing machine or from the dishes for much of anything. Not yet anyway.  Luckily those laws are changing as lawmakers come to the realization that if oil scarcity has caused the problems we face today, they are nothing compared to the coming nightmare of water scarcity.

So we don’t flush the toilets every time if there is only urine. However, without chlorination, you can’t let the bacteria breed in the toilet bowl for too long before the odor begins to “waft”.  And after I’ve taken a bath, we use that water for the next several flushes; keeping a small bucket handy in the bathroom for just that purpose.

This incident is precisely why I have been pushing the Mister to look into a solar well pump. Either that or a high end hand pump. We were lucky this time. It was only a broken water line. The next incident could be more problematic.

As for heating the water; if the need arises, I can easily construct a solar water heater. That’s a weekend project made from handy scrap material (well, handy for artists, anyway). But if the electricity goes down for an extended period and we use up the stores in the rainwater tanks, that means walking down to the creek or down to the lake.

Down the hill doesn’t bother me. It’s the idea of hauling enough water up the hill that makes me shudder.

Three days of dishes were finally done. And since the Mister is the usual washer of dishes, they weren’t stacked with quite the same neatness he seems to be able to achieve. In my view, if it doesn’t move, that’s good enough. This inevitably leads to a pile of of random shapes sporting the appearance of  bad post-modern sculpture.

As for fretting over the potential lack of a functioning well. Well, here’s the thing: for the past few years a number of government agencies, including the National Research Council in 2009 have warned of the potential for a catastrophic failure of the electrical grid. The general consensus is this could occur either through cyber-attacks or from solar storms.

This past July a “Space Weather Conference” was held in Washington DC. It was attended by NASA scientists, policy-makers, researchers and government officials. One of the speakers, Dr Richard Fisher, the director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division explained that every 22 years the Sun’s magnetic energy cycle peaks while the number of sun spots (and solar flares)  hits it’s peak every 11 years.

He said these two events are due to overlap in 2013 and will produce huge levels of radiation. He also suggested that, although it was unlikely, much of the world could spend several months without any electrical power.

I guess he struck a nerve somewhere, because NASA immediately began to soft pedal Dr. Fisher’s statements suggesting that it could occur within 10 years or 100.

And that’s fine. Except for Katrina. Except for the fact that our National Guard is no longer available to do the job it was created for, to guard the Nation in emergencies and crisis. And except for the fact that, as a nation, we’re broke. Not only fiscally, but in terms of vital infrastructure.

I can’t know the future. But I can make guesses based on history. I can look to the consensus of nominal experts as an inroad to seeing the potential for a given event to occur.

But mostly what I can do is live by the Realist’s Motto: Always Hope for the Best (But Be Prepared for the Worst).

In this case, the worst would be no electricity for months. And other than the convenience of  a water pump, I’d have to say we’re better prepared than many. And that’s probably because we’re artists.

Our blessing and our curse.

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Damning Creation: abandoning the albatross of “specialness”.

Martina Skender at Six Revisions offered up  her thoughts and a bit of  history on creativity in her blog yesterday.

I honestly had no preconceptions regarding the act of  “How to Create Creativity” going into the article. The reason one reads another’s work at all is to find viewpoints that enrich your own by adding to your knowledge base or helping you to view the subject in a different light. And while I think she has many good starting points, perhaps further consideration would be in order. Because, halfway into the second paragraph, I felt compelled to reply.  And so, after finishing the post and re-reading to make sure I understood her intent, I replied (with slight modifications here for clarity):

Aaaannnd, I couldn’t disagree more. Not only with almost everything you said. But I also disagree with everything you have misunderstood about what the writers you were quoting said.

“Creativity is a mental and social process involving the discovery of new ideas or concepts.”

Perhaps a divine being can create something from nothing, but we mere humans are resigned to using what is on hand. In other words: we can never create new ideas, concepts or materials. We can only modify the ones we have.

Looking back through art history, one can see the linkages between “new” ideas and concepts in art and the social, scientific or material productivity of a culture. Dada was a reaction to social unease. Surrealism a reaction to the ideas of Freud and Jung, Warhol a reaction to both the “heroic” tone of Modernism and the ideas posited by one of the founders of Dadaism, Marcel Duchamp.

Aristotle has been quoted: “Western philosophy (thinking) is just a series of footnotes to Plato.” Of course that was not Aristotle, but a condensation of a statement by Alfred North Whitehead. But the seed of the idea holds a germ of truth: Nothing new is created. It is merely reconfigured.

There is a scientific maxim which explains it more simply: “Energy can neither be created or destroyed.” The same holds true for literally every idea, concept, “intellectual property”, science or philosophy.

Anyone can produce a new piece of art or poem or scientific discovery. But the object is only “novel” not new. Because the processes, methodology, techniques and results will be based on thousands of years of refinement and questioning before the “new” thing was even considered.

As for Lateral Thinking: The concept of Lateral Thinking in no way embraces the concept of “going around” an idea. I think one might label your description of the process as End Run Thinking or Pincer Movement Thinking.

Lateral, as the name should imply, means taking something from here and utilizing it in a novel way over there. Moving the concept, idea, material, sideways, in order to use it in a similar fashion within a new framework or in a new context.

For example, the inventor of that now ubiquitous material Velcro, was a Swiss mountaineer named George de Mestral. George had a flash of insight one day as he was pulling cockle-burs off his clothes after coming in from a walk.

He didn’t invent cockle-burs, nor did he invent the idea of them pulling at clothing fibers. No, that technique is used extensively, even today, in the fibers industry using out-sized burrs called teasle. We use this relatively primitive method because we can’t, as yet, create a hook that is both sensitive enough to pull natural fibers without breaking them, yet is strong enough to withstand industrial wear.

Herr de Mestral was lucky enough to live in an era where plastics were being actively promoted over natural fibers. And lucky enough to work with someone who chanced upon the use of an infrared lamp to curl the small plastic hooks en masse, by melting them just slightly. If  he hadn’t then he would have faded into history as the crazy man he was thought to be in his day. Now, we laud is “creativity” every day in using his product.

But he didn’t create anything. He merely used lateral thinking to join divergent ideas and disciplines into something novel. His technician/developer used lateral thinking to stream line the process of production.

Another “amateur” who lateralized her skill set to the benefit of science was Marjorie Rice of San Diego, California, a housewife and mother of five.

You see, before 1968, there was an established idea that there were only five types of convex pentagon shapes that could tile a plane. These had all been discovered by K. Reinhardt in 1918.

But in a 1968 article in The American Mathematical Monthly physicist R.B. Kershner presented three new types. He also announced without including a proof, that there were “no other convex pentagons left to be discovered”. No one challenged his assertion and the results appeared in the July 1975 issue of Scientific American in Martin Gardner’s column Mathematical Games. Soon after, Richard James III, a reader and tiling aficionado, sent to Gardner a new type of convex pentagon tiler, which Gardner published in a later issue. Now we had nine.

This news caught the attention of Marjorie Rice who also read Scientific American. She had no formal mathematical training except for a general course she took in high school. And I seem to recall that she was a quilter. But she said that she “had a feeling” that the pronouncement that were no more patterns was, somehow, wrong. So she decided to see for herself.

So she pulled out her shears and some paper and began exploring. In the end she discovered four new types of tilings in the next two years.  Thus making a total of thirteen known types.

She used Lateral Thinking. Taking a skill she already understood (quilting which uses tiled patterns) and applying within a different framework to discover something new. That embodies the essence of Lateral Thinking: discovery based on given parameters.

Lao Tsu once said: “To see things in the seed, that is genius.” He did not suggest that the things were not already there, just that we have not, as yet, apprehended them.

The problem I have with the promotion of “creativity”, “creating” or “creative thinking” is that nobody can explain how it happens except by way of example. It takes on an air of something “magic”. And since most people have the common sense to know that “magic” is the stuff of fairy tales, it both marginalizes the creative and sets the act of creating outside everyday understanding. It also allows the creative to spend their time navel gazing and contemplating their unique “specialness” rather than (as we say in the superhero biz) “using their powers for good”.

However, if I explain that anyone, any one, can take skills or ideas they have already learned and apply them in a slightly different manner inside a given context or within certain parameters; most people can grasp that as within the realm of possibility. They can paint, sculpt or draw, or make scientific discoveries or build a windmill from a trash dump to provide energy for their impoverished village. (http://williamkamkwamba.typepad.com/)

Human creativity is vastly overrated. And whether you choose to believe it or not, the whole aura of creative “specialness” is ultimately detrimental to all artists (including designers) everywhere. It is the albatross we are doomed to carry as penance for the sin of hubris; for assuming that we can, as the gods, create.

The boy who harnessed the wind @ GIZMODO

Although the book is out, I haven’t seen too many pictures of this young man’s homemade machine.  This GIZMODO piece has links to video, the author’s blog and some quotes about William Kamkwamba and his drive to create.

People don’t make the connection when I use this type of story as a supporting argument for why Arts Education is vital. It comes down to the The Artist’s Creed:

We have done so much with so little for so long that we are now qualified to to anything with nothing.

The whole of our being is geared to finding new and interesting ways to make it (whatever it might be at the moment) work. We need to engender that drive in everyone.