Category Archives: agriculture

New Chinese emperor, will famine not follow

For most of its 2300 year history, the Chinese empire has rattled between strong leaders who brought famine, and weak leaders who brought temporary reprieve. Mao, a strong leader, killed his associates plus over 100 million by his “great leap forward” famine. Since then, 30+ years, we’ve had some weaker leaders, semi-democracy, and some personal wealth, plus the occasional massacre, e.g. at Tiananmen square, and a growing demographic problem. And now a new strongman is establishing himself with hopes of solving China’s problems. I hope for the best, but fear the repeat of the worse parts of Chinese history.

Two weeks ago, Chairman Xi amended the Chinese constitution to make himself emperor for life, essentially. He’s already in charge of the government, the party, and the military. Yesterday (Tuesday), he consolidated his power further by replacing the head of the banks. The legal system is, in theory, is the last independent part of government, but there is hardly any legal system in the sense of a balance of power. If history is any guide, “Emperor” Xi will weaken the courts further before the year is out. He will also likely remove many or all of his close associates and relatives. It is not for nothing that Nero, Stalin, and Mao killed their relatives and friends — generally for “corruption” following a show trial.

China's Imperial past is never is quite out of sight. Picture from the Economist.

China’s past is never is quite out of sight. Picture from the Economist.

Xi might be different, but he faces a looming demographic problem that makes it likely he will follow the president of the stronger emperors. China’s growth was fueled in part by a one child policy. Left behind is an aging, rural population with no children to take care of the elderly. As top-down societies do not tolerate “useless workers,” I can expect a killing famine within the next 10 years. This would shed the rural burden while providing a warning to potential critics. “Burn the chicken to scare the monkey,” is a Chinese Imperial aphorism. Besides, who needs dirt farmers when we have modern machines.

Lazy beds (feannagan) use only half the soil are for planting. The English experts were sure this was inefficient and land-wasting. Plowing was imposed on Ireland, and famine followed

“Lazy beds” of potatoes were used in Ireland for a century until experts forced their abandonment in the mid 1800s. The experts saw the beds, and the Irish as lazy, inefficient, and land-wasting. Famine followed.

Currently about 40% of the country is rural, about 560 million people spread out over a country the size of Canada or the US. The rest, 60% or 830 million, live concentrated in a few cities. The cities are rich, industrial, and young. The countryside is old, agricultural and poor, salaries are about 1/3 those of the cities. The countryside holds about 2/3 of those over 65, about 100 million elderly with no social safety net. The demographic imbalance is likely to become worse — a lot worse — within the next decade.

What is likely to happen, I fear, is that the party leaders — all of whom live in the cities — will decide that the countryside is full of non-productive, uneducated whiners. They will demand that more food should be produced, and will help them achieve this by misguided science and severe punishments. Mao’s experts, like Stalin’s and Queen Victoria’s, demanded unachievable quotas and academic-based advice that neither the leaders nor the academics had ever tried to make work. Mao’s experts told peasants to kill the birds that were stealing their grain. It worked for a while until the insects multiplied. As for the quotas, the party took grain as if the quotas were being met. If the peasants starved, they starved.

I expect that China’s experts will propose machine-based modern agriculture, perhaps imported from the US or Israel: Whatever is in style at the time. The expert attitude exists everywhere to this day, and the results are always the same. See potato famine picture above. When the famine comes, the old will request food and healthcare, but the city leaders will provide none, or just opioids as they did to ailing Elvis. When the complaining stops the doctor is happy.

China's population pyramid as of 2016. Notice the bulge of 40-55 year olds.

China’s population pyramid as of 2016. Notice the bulge of 40-55 year olds. Note too that there are millions more males (blue) than females (pink).

In single leader societies, newspapers do not report bad news. Rather, they like to show happy, well-fed peasants singing the leaders’ praise. When there’s a riot too big to ignore, rioters are presented as lazy malcontents and counter-revolutionaries. Sympathizers are sent to work in the fields. American academia will sing the praises of the autocratic leader, or will be silent. We never see the peasants, but often see the experts. And we live in a society where newspapers report only the bad, and where we only believe when there pictures. No pictures, no story. As with Stalin’s Gulags, Mao’s famine, or North Korea today, there are likely to be few pictures released to the press. Eventually, a census will reveal that tens of million aged have vanished, and we’ll have to guess where they went.

I can expect China to continue its military buildup over the next decade. The military will be necessary to put down riots, and keep young men occupied, and to protect China from foreign intervention. China will especially need to protect its ill-gotten, new oil-assets. Oil is needed if China is to replace its farmers with machines. It will be a challenge for a wise American leader to avoid being drawn into war with China, while protecting some of our interests: Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc. As with Theodore Roosevelt, he should offer support and non-biassed mediation. Is Trump up to this?  Hu Knows?

Robert Buxbaum, March 21, 2018. The above might be Xi-nephobia, Then again, this just in: Chairman Xi announces that Taiwan will face punishment if it attempts to break free. Doesn’t sound good.

pee in the shower and other water savers

Do you want to save the planet and save money at the same time? Here are some simple tips:

The first money and planet saver, is to pee in the shower. For those who don’t have a lawn, or who don’t water, your single biggest water cost is likely the toilet. Each person in your household will use it several times per day, at roughly 1.6 gallons per flush. In Oak Park, Michigan the cost of water is 1.5¢/gallon, so each flush costs you, roughly 2.5¢. If you pee in the shower every morning, you’ll save yourself about one flush per day, or 2.5¢. Over the course of a year you’ll have used about 500 gallons less, and will have saved yourself somewhere between $5 and $10. Feel good about yourself every morning; the effort involved is truly minimal.

Related to peeing in the shower, I should mention that many toilets leak. A significant part of your water bill can often be cut by replacing the “flapper valve on the inside of your toilet tank, and/or by cleaning the needle fill valve. To see if you need this sort of help, put a few drops of food dye in the toilet when you leave in the morning. If the color is largely gone by the time you get back, the toilet is leaking the equivalent of a few volumes per day, that is at least as much water as is flushed. If the color goes faster, or you hear the tank refill when no one used it, you’re leaking more. Check the flapper and replace it if it’s worn — it’ll cost about $3 — and check the needle-fill valve. They don’t work forever. Cleanliness is near godliness.

Mulch is good, this is too much concentrated by the tree trunk. Use only 2 inches and spread it out to save water and weeding.

Mulch is good, this is too much concentrated by the tree trunk. Use only 2-3 inches and spread it out from the trunk to save water and weeding without attracting bugs.

If your valve is leaking and you decide to replace it, you may want to replace with a variable flush valve. Typically, there are two options: a big vale for big flush (1.6 gal) and a small valve for small flush (1 gal or less). These are widely used in Europe. You can make up for this cost rather quickly at 1.5¢/gallon.

The next big issue is lawn-care. If you water your lawn and flowers daily, you’ve likely noticed that you pay about $300/month for water in the summer: a lot more than in the winter, or than your lazes-faire neighbor in the summer. Every $150 of summer-excess, water bill you pay represents about 10,000 gallons applied to your lawn. That’s a cubic foot, or 1¢ to 2¢ of water applied per ft2 per month for typical watering. While many sites advise that you can save by adding a rain barrel, I disagree. Rain barrels are costly, ugly, and are a lot of work ago plumb in. And each barrel only holds 55 gallons of water, 82¢ worth when full. You do a lot better, IMHO by putting down an inch or two of mulch around your flowers and vegetables. This mulch requires no work and will keep you from needing to water these areas for the 3-4 days after every rainfall. A layer of 1″ to 2″ will help your soil hold 0.5 to 1 gallon of water per square foot. At typical prices of mulch and water, this will pay for itself in 1-2 years and will help you avoid weeding. Mulch is a far better return than the rain-barrels that are often touted, and there’s far less effort involved. Buy the mulch, not the barrel, but don’t put down too more than 2″ on flowers and vegetable. Trees can take 3 -4″; don’t use more. Avoid a mulch mountain right next to a tree, it causes the roots to grow weird, and provides a home for bugs and undesirable anaerobic molds.

A little more work than the above is to add a complete rain garden or bioswale. Build it at the bottom of any large incline on your property, where the water runs off (It’s likely a soggy swamp already). Dig the area deeper and put, at the bottom of the hole, a several-inch layer of mulch and gravel. Top it off with the soil you just removed, ideally raising the top high enough that, if the rain garden should fill, the water will run off to the street. Plant in the soil at the top long-rooted grasses, or flowers, vegetables, or water-tolerant trees. You may want to direct the water from your home’s sump pump here too (It can help to put a porous pipe at the bottom to distribute this water). If you do this right, you’ll get vegetables or trees and you won’t have to water the garden, ever. Also, you’ll add value to your property by removing the swampy eyesore. You’ll protect your home too, since a major part of home flooding comes from the water surge of sump water to the sanitary sewer.

Robert E. Buxbaum, April 14, 2017. I ran for water commissioner, Oakland County, MI, Nov. 2016. Among my other thoughts: increased retention to avoid flooding, daylighting rivers, and separating the sanitary from the storm sewers. As things stand, the best way to save money on water– get the same deal the state gave to Nestle/ Absopure: they pay only $200/year to pump 200 gal/minute. That is, they pay only 1/3000 of what you and I pay. It helps to have friends in government.

A plague of combined sewers

The major typhoid and cholera epidemics of the US, and the plague of the Al Qaeda camps, 2009 are understood to have been caused by bad sewage, in particular by the practice of combining sanitary + storm sewage. Medieval plagues too may have been caused by combined sewers.

Combined sewer system showing an rain-induced overflow, a CSO.

A combined sewer system showing an rain-induced overflow, a CSO.

A combined system is shows at right. Part of the problem is that the outfall is hard to contain, so they tend to spew sewage into the lakes and drinking water as shown. They are also more prone to back up during rain storms; separated systems can back up too, but far less often. When combined sewers back up, turds and other infected material flows into home basements. In a previous post, “follow the feces,” I showed the path that Oakland county’s combined sewers outfalls take when they drain (every other week) into Lake St. Clair just upstream of the water intake, and I detailed why, every few years we back up sewage into basements. I’d like to now talk a bit more about financial cost and what I’d like to do.

The combined sewer system shown above includes a small weir dam. During dry periods and small rain events, the dam keeps the sewage from the lake by redirecting it to the treatment plant. This protects the lakes so that sometimes the beaches are open, but there’s an operation cost: we end up treating a lot of rain water as if it were sewage. During larger rains, the dam overflows. This protects our basements (usually) but it does so at the expense of the drinking water, and of the water in Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.

As a way to protect our lakes somewhat Oakland county has added a retention facility, the George W. Kuhn. This facility includes the weir shown above and a huge tank for sewage overflows. During dry periods, the weir holds back the flow of toilet and sink water so that it will flow down the pipe (collector) to the treatment plant in Detroit, and so it does not flow into the lake. Treatment in Detroit is expensive, but nonpolluting. During somewhat bigger rains the weir overflows to the holding tank. It is only during yet-bigger rains (currently every other week) that the mixture of rain and toilet sewage overwhelms the tank and is sent to the river and lake. The mess this makes of the lake is shown in the video following. During really big rains, like those of August 2014, the mixed sewage backs up in the pipes, and flows back into our basements. With either discharge, we run the risk of plague: Typhoid, Cholera, Legionnaires…

Some water-borne plagues are worse than others. With some plagues, you can have a carrier, a person who can infect many others without becoming deathly sick him or herself. Typhoid Mary was a famous carrier of the 1920s. She infected (and killed) hundreds in New York without herself becoming sick. A more recent drinking water plague, showed up in Milwaukee 25 years ago. Some 400,000 people were infected, and 70 or so died. Milwaukee disinfected its drinking water with chlorine and a bacteria that entered the system was chlorine tolerant. Milwaukee switched to ozone disinfection but Detroit still uses chlorine.

Combined sewers require much larger sewage treatment plants than you’d need for just sanitary sewage. Detroit’s plant is huge and its size will need to be doubled to meet new, stricter standards unless we bite the bullet and separate our sewage. Our current system doesn’t usually meet even the current, lower standards. The plant overflows and operation cost are high since you have to treat lots of rainwater. These operation costs will keep getter higher as pollution laws get tougher.

In Oakland county, MI we’ve started to build more and more big tanks to hold back and redirect the water so it doesn’t overwhelm the sewage plants. The GWK tank occupies 1 1/2 miles by about 100 feet beneath a golf course. It’s overwhelmed every other week. Just think of the tank you’d need to hold the water from 4″ of rain on 900 square mile area (Oakland county is 900 square miles). Oakland’s politicians seem happy to spend money on these tanks because it creates jobs and graft and because it suggests that something is being done. They blame politics when rain overwhelms the tank. I say it’s time to end the farce and separate our sewers. My preference is to separate the sewers through the use of French drains or bio-swales, and through the use of weir dams. I’m running for drain commissioner. Here’s something I’ve written on the chemistry of sewage, and on the joy of dams.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, July 1-Sept 16, 2016.

Of horses, trucks, and horsepower

Horsepower is a unit of work production rate, about 3/4 of a kW, for those who like standard international units. It is also the pulling force of a work horse of the 1700s times its speed when pulling, perhaps 5 mph. A standard truck will develop 200 hp but only while accelerating at about 60 mph; to develop those same 200 horsepower at 1 mph it would have to pull with 200 times more force. That is impossible for a truck, both because of traction limitations and because of the nature of a gasoline engine when attached to typical gearing. At low speed, 1 mph, a truck will barely develop as much force as 4-5 horses, suggesting a work output about 1 hp. This is especially true for a truck pulling in the snow, as shown in the video below.

Here, a semi-truck (of milk) is being pulled out of the snow by a team of horses going perhaps 1 mph. The majority of work is done by the horse on the left — the others seem to be slipping. Assuming that the four horses manage to develop 1 hp each (4 hp total), the pull force is four times a truck at 1 mph, or as great as a 200 hp truck accelerating at 50 mph. That’s why the horse succeed where the truck does not.

You will find other videos on the internet showing that horses produce more force or hp than trucks or tractors. They always do so at low speeds. A horse will also beat a truck or car in acceleration to about the 1/4 mile mark. That’s because acceleration =force /mass: a = F/m.

I should mention that DC electric motors also, like horses, produce their highest force at very low speeds, but unlike horses, their efficiency is very low there. Electric engine efficiency is high only at speeds quite near the maximum and their horse-power output (force times speed) is at a maximum at about 1/2 the maximum speed.

Steam engines (I like steam engines) produce about the same force at all speeds, and more-or-less the same efficiency at all speeds. That efficiency is typically only about 20%, about that of a horse, but the feed cost and maintenance cost is far lower. A steam engine will eat coal, while a horse must eat oats.

March 4, 2016. Robert Buxbaum, an engineer, runs REB Research, and is running for water commissioner.

State bird suggestion: the turkey

state bird stamps; robin cardinal

three US states use the (american) robin as their state bird, and 7 more use the (northern) cardinal. None use the turkey

As things now stand, three states of the union, including Michigan have the robin as their state bird. Another seven have the cardinal. Not that they have different species of robin or cardinal, they use the same species: the American robin, and the Northern cardinal respectively.

A thought I’ve had is that Michigan should change to have a unique bird symbol, and I propose the turkey, in particular the eastern wild turkey shown below. The robin is found in every state of the union except for Hawaii, and is found in several countries, it’s associated with Robin Hood, and with Batman’s side-kick. By contrast, the eastern wild turkey could be a unique state symbol. It’s basically found in no other country besides the US, and found in only a few US states including Michigan.

Eastern Wild Turkey. A majestic bird, and brave Maximum height: 4 foot.

Eastern Wild Turkey. A majestic bird, and brave. Maximum height: 4 foot.

The eastern wild turkey is a far more impressive bird than the cardinal or robin. Full grown, it stands 4 foot tall. Benjamin Franklin claimed to have preferred the turkey (likely the eastern wild turkey) to the eagle as the national bird of the US. In this wonderful letter to his daughter, Sarah, he says that it is a noble bird, useful and the source of sustenance. He also claims it is unafraid to attack a British regimen, claims that also appears in this song, “the egg” in the play/movie 1776. The turkey most definitely provided food for the Indians, for the early European settlers, and still provides for Michigan hunters to this day. Further, turkey feathers are the preferred choice for quill pens. They are used for scribes writing holy works, like copies of the Torah, and it is likely they were used for the declaration of Independence. The same history and associations can not be claimed for the robins or the cardinal. Those birds are basically attractive, and nothing else.

Not that attractive is bad, nor is it bd to have a state bird associated with Batman’s side-kick, or with a Saint Louis baseball team, but I don’t think either is particularly appropriate for Michigan. Not that there are no disadvantages to the name turkey: (1) it might suggest a slow individual or project, and (2) Wild Turkey is the name of a Tennessee bourbon whiskey. Neither of these are quite a bad as being a sidekick to the bat, or to the batman, and I think both are addressed by specifying that the state bird is the eastern wild turkey, and not just some random variety. What say ye, citizens of Michigan? Let’s do it before someone else takes the turkey.

Robert Buxbaum, December 16, 2015.