Get Ready…Get Set…Garden! 2013

This year’s trip to Baraboo for Get Ready…Get Set…Garden! is part of our continuing education. I talked about this particular educational opportunity in last year’s Get Ready…Get Set…Garden! post. The sessions are hosted by the Sauk County UW Extension, which actually puts on a substantial number of events during the year. Our itinerary for this year consisted of container bag gardening techniques, growing small fruits (strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries), and gardening with aches and pains (essentially a session on dealing with accessibility needs for gardeners).

The first session discussed container bag gardening and the advantages it offers over using buckets or over-sized pots to hold your garden on the patio. Every year Rebecca puts together a wonderful salad garden for me. Of special interest are the cherry and salad tomatoes. If I need a snack, I simply go outside, enjoy the flower garden she has put together for me, and munch a few tomatoes-nothing could be better than that. However, we had always wondered whether there might be something more that we could do. This year’s sessions shows that we can. However, instead of using the really expensive gardening bags that the instructor promoted as part of her business, we plan to use feed sacks. They’ll perform the same function and only cost a fraction of the amount (a bag large enough to grow tomatoes costs $22.00 if you go the garden bag route, the same size feed bag is free since we get them as part of buying feed for our animals). I’ll post again sometime later this year to let you know how the garden bags work.

We have also had a lot of problems growing blueberries, despite ensuring the ground is acid enough for them. It turns out that we have been doing a few things wrong-the most important of which is that we haven’t been watering our blueberries enough. It seems that they require almost boggy conditions to grow acceptably. Equipped with our new knowledge, we’re going to give blueberries another try this summer. One of the problems with gardening is that you aren’t likely to get the technique right on the first try, or the second, or the third. There are some people who think gardening is science. Well, that’s partially correct, but it’s also part art. Sometimes you just need to feel your way through a growing experience. The garden is looking great at the minute and I’m currently looking at storage buildings in PA as I need somewhere to store my tools and to put my feet up at the end of a rough day! I’m thinking of putting the building next to my allotment so that it’s looking out onto a nice view. I’m not 100% sure yet though!

Unfortunately, our instructor didn’t arrive for the third session. Someone with the UW Extension did fill in, but I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed because I was really looking forward to getting quite a lot out of this third class. As Rebecca and I get older, it would be nice to know about a few of the things we could do to make our gardening experience better. Even so, I must applaud the UW Extension instructor for getting up and giving an impromptu discussion on a topic that she hadn’t prepared for without any preparation time. To simply get up and start talking would be one thing-to do it exceptionally well given the circumstances is nothing short of amazing. I also plan to post again on some thoughts I garnered on meeting accessibility requirements for gardening.

There are some benighted people who think that education ends when you leave high school or college. Education is a lifelong endeavor. Gaining new knowledge and then turning it into wisdom adds spice and keeps our minds fit. Whether your intellectual love is technical, natural, or in some other realm, take time to embrace it by furthering your education. Let me know your thoughts on continuing education at [email protected].


Review of Darby O’Gill and the Little People

This past weekend we had a good time celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. We aren’t Catholic or Irish, but getting caught up in a celebratory event of this sort is fun despite the fact we don’t participate fully. Of course, we had to have corned beef and cabbage for dinner on Sunday. Rebecca adds a few items of her own including carrots, onions, potatoes, and (interestingly enough) parsnips. Corned bread completes the dinner in most cases, but this year we decided to have some of her delicious homemade bread instead.

Part of our celebration has always involves watching Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Yes, the movie came out in 1959, so many people will likely think that it’s had its day and no one should really bother with it anymore. However, this is a G rated movie that really is quite a lot of fun and it has some amazing special effects considering when it was made. The part I like best about this movie is that it can have a lot of fun without an overpowering script or any of the other baggage that seems necessary in movies today. Some movies are meant solely to entertain and this is one of them. There truly isn’t anything to think about—just enjoy the ride.

The movie takes place in old Ireland. Of course, there is a lord of the manor and Darby works for him. Even though the movie doesn’t apparently have any sort of specific time in mind, people are still moving around by horseback and butter is churned, not purchased at a store. The tavern is a place for exchanging the gossip of the day and it isn’t unusual to find the priest there enjoying a glass of stout. It’s a carefree sort of a movie and I’m sure that the scenery is a caricature of Ireland, rather than the real thing. It presents a idyllic scene of what we think things might have been like.

Don’t get the idea that the movie is lacking in the plot area though. This movie does have an interesting plot that includes dealings with the leprechauns, of course. (These leprechauns are a fun sort, not the dark sort found in some other movies.) There is a certain amount of drama, part of which includes a lost girl and a dark, stormy night. One of the action scenes shows two young bucks fighting over the same girl. Perhaps some of the ideas are a bit clichéd, but they’re done in a way that doesn’t make them feel old or tired.

The movie does include some scenes where it is obvious that people are drinking. In fact, there are drunken people in a few places. The drinking and drunks are portrayed in a way that a few people will find unappealing today (remember that the movie was made in 1959 and attitudes were different at that time). If you really want to keep your kids away from all mention of alcohol, this is probably one movie to skip. Otherwise, you can probably discuss the matter afterward and leave things go at that. I doubt very much that most children will even notice the drunken adults as being drunken.

Overall, Darby O’Gill is the right sort of movie to watch on St. Patrick’s Day, whether you’re Irish or not. It’s a lot of fun and the good guys win, of course. What’s not quite so obvious at times is who is good and who is not. You only truly find out the details at the end of the movie.


Using a Bleach Substitute

I have become a label commando in recent years. People actually become quite disturbed waiting for me to finish my latest epic reading of a cleaning product or food label. I read everything, including the list of ingredients when I can find one. More importantly, I look for what’s missing on the label. For example, I’m surprised at how many margarine labels refuse to tell me that they don’t contain any cholesterol. Lest you think this is one of those odd fetish requirements-some fish oil tablets actually contain cholesterol. We pay the extra to buy a product that’s labeled cholesterol free (and yes, it does make a difference when the doctor tests your cholesterol).

So I was taken by surprise recently when I read a bleach label. The stuff should be labeled toxic waste and left go at that. The label told me about the dire consequences of using the product, such as permanent damage to my esophagus. Bleach is also a terrible product to use in a house with a septic system because it kills off all of the helpful bacteria in the septic tank and causes the waste to just sit there (possibly flooding your house with a really smelly mess). However, the part about not putting the empty container in the trash or in the recycle bin is what got me most. Just where was I supposed to dispose of the container? It turns out that you’re supposed to take it to a hazardous waste disposal site, at least that is according to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulation. A product labeled hazardous waste has no place in my house. (Just consider the fact that many of the foods you buy in the store have been soaked in bleach and you don’t have to think very long about why your food is making you sick.) It made me think about what other hazardous materials around my house needed special disposal procedures and the COSHH meaning regarding these materials.

Of course, country homes require some means of keeping things clean and getting rid of bacteria, just like anyone else does. It turns out that there is a really good solution and it actually works better than bleach. Most importantly, this solution is pretty much harmless to everyone and everything. You fill up two bottles: one with vinegar and another with hydrogen peroxide. Spray a surface first with the vinegar and second with the hydrogen peroxide and you create a really effective cleaning agent called peracetic acid. The point is to keep the two components separate until you actually need to use them in order to gain a highly effective cleaner that’s a whole lot less harmful than bleach.

What impressed me most is that the combination actually works well on carpets as a stain remover. It’s also much more effective than bleach at getting bathroom grout clean and it works especially well on surfaces with small crevices. Some people do mix the two and add water for use in laundry, but keeping the two chemicals separate is the best way to avoid the potentially toxic qualities of the peracetic acid. As with any cleaner, you do want to use this one with care, but it’s frankly a lot better than using bleach. Let me know your thoughts about this interesting cleaning aid at [email protected].


Keeping Things Clean

Not a lot of time is spent in discussing cleanliness in many self-sufficiency texts except to say that it’s important to maintain the cleanliness of the animal enclosures to improve overall animal health and to reap the monetary benefits of doing so. It’s true, keeping the animal enclosures clean does provide these benefits. No matter what sort of animal is in your care, dog, cat, chicken, or rabbit, cleanliness is a requirement if you want to maintain their health. Unhealthy animals are a lot more expensive to keep and you won’t obtain much financial benefit from them.

A few texts will stress that animal cleanliness also produces happier animals. Animals tend not to express happiness or unhappiness in the same way that humans do. However, each of our animals does express happiness or displeasure in specific ways. Anyone can see these emotional conditions if they care to look. Animals do feel things and the need to be clean (after a certain manner) is a characteristic that they have in common with us.

However, I’ve never encountered a text that stresses that animals have a preference for being clean or that they even have the intellectual resources to determine the difference between clean and dirty. Over the years, we’ve worked hard to keep the environment our animals live in as clean as possible. During that time we’ve also noticed that the animals definitely have a desire to be clean and that they do, in fact, have the intelligence to tell the difference.

For example, one rabbit purposely chewed a hole in the side of it’s enclosure to gain access to the middle enclosure of a three rabbit hutch. It was only after I discovered an air leak in the side of the rabbit’s current enclosure and fixed the leak that the rabbit was happy to stay in the enclosure I chose for it. The rabbit was uncomfortable and determined a method for overcoming that discomfort. It’s method of addressing the problem showed a certain level of intelligence.

As another example, in cleaning the chicken’s nest box enclosure, some of the bedding gets tromped down, but is still dry and clean. We fluffed up the bedding and added a bit more to ensure the chickens comfort and to keep the eggs from breaking. Other bedding was soiled, and so we put it into the compost heap to decompose. New bedding was put in the nest boxes that had soiled bedding in them. The chickens unerringly chose the nest boxes with new bedding in which to lay their eggs. Since the chickens were outside in their run and didn’t see which nest boxes received the new bedding, we can only assume that they can smell or somehow see the difference between the new and old bedding. However, it’s important to note that they knew the difference and made a choice to use the new bedding, rather than the old, even though the old bedding is still clean and usable.

We had three cats at one point. One of the cats had become enfeebled due to old age and was sick. The other two cats would refuse to use the potty pan after the sick cat until we cleaned the potty pan up. The odor left behind by the sick cat signaled disease and the other two didn’t want to pick up. Even if the potty pan had just been cleaned, the other two would refuse to go into after the sick cat. The cats made a choice. Keeping your animal’s environment clean is, therefore, more than simply a matter of health or monetary gain. Animals are happier when you keep their environment clean and they do have the intelligence to make choices about their environment, given the chance to do so. That’s why it’s important that a pet carpet cleaner is always on hand for those pets who live inside. If they are sick or have an accident, it’s easy to use a carpet cleaner to just ensure that any stains or odors are removed from the area. This can benefit both owners and animals alike. Animals know when their environment isn’t up to par and you should too. Providing your animals with a clean environment is a responsibility that you should take seriously.

However, it’s also important to remember that animals don’t use human standards of cleanliness. The essentials are to keep the environment clean and comfortable. A rabbit or chicken is unlikely to want, need, or even accept room deodorizer or other human niceties in their environment. In fact, some human niceties (such as scents) are actually detrimental to animal health in some cases. Make sure you take an animal eye view of environment when you setup, maintain, and clean their equipment. Let me know your thoughts on animal environments at [email protected].


Procedures in Technical Writing

A great technical book contains all sorts of content types because different readers learn in various ways. If everyone learned in the same way, technical books would be easier to write, albeit, a bit boring. Procedures are part of the hands-on content that turns a “how” book into a “how to” book. A how book simply shows how something is done. For example, you might see a coding example that shows how to perform a technique. However, unless you actually work with that technique, it’s unlikely that you’ll truly grasp the methodology behind it.

Writing good procedures that actually work is hard. I think the point was driven home to me at an early age by a teacher who seemed to have way too much fun in class. I learned quite a bit from her simply because she made learning fun. When it came time to write a procedure, she chose making toast, which seems to be a typical example. However, when it came time to check our procedure, we each handed our papers to another student who read them aloud while the instructor performed the steps precisely as written. Many of us forgot to mention taking the bread out of the wrapper, so she’d politely try to stuff the pieces, wrapping and all, into the toaster. It was a hoot, but also a great lesson.

All authors have an issue with assuming that the person viewing the procedure knows something that doesn’t appear in the write-up. The person ends up trying to stuff the bread into the toaster without taking it out of the wrapper first. Even though the example was quite humorous in that teacher’s classroom, in real life the omission of important material is frustrating for everyone because the author truly doesn’t understand why the reader is having a problem with the procedure. I’ve gone through the process myself—many times. As I’ve matured as an author, I’ve come to realize that I need to draw the answer to the problem with my procedure out of the reader without getting the reader any more frustrated than he or she is at the moment.

Good procedures, like good newspaper articles, answer who, what, where, when, why, and how. Even that requirement seems counterintuitive. Most authors seem quite pleased when they can accomplish the “how” part of the equation. The who part of the equation is often the hardest part of the procedure. Who is performing the task? It seems like an easy question to answer, but often I need to go back through a procedure and decide who is doing what and at what time. Doing something at the wrong time is often just as bad as not doing it at all. The question of where comes into play because modern computer systems have applications that interact with each other. Deciding where the person performing the procedure is at any given moment is essential to making the procedure work as expected.

Of all the questions though, the question of why is the easiest to answer, yet the most often missed. If a person does something like an automaton, there is no feeling of accomplishment—no sense of gratification. The reader goes through the motions without understanding anything about the procedure. As a result, the information doesn’t sink in and the reader is reduced to using the procedure precisely as written to perform only the task the procedure is designed to address. The best procedures answer the question of why so that the reader can use the procedure in various ways to address a wide range of problems that the author hadn’t even considered when writing the procedure.

Procedures are important. As a hands-on tool for interacting with the user, procedures present the opportunity for the author to extend the meaningful use of a book well beyond its intended purpose. An author truly can’t aspire to do more than that! Let me know your thoughts on writing procedures at [email protected].


E-book Integration in Schools

I use every opportunity I can to track the change in how people read information. Some of this material is in articles, some comes from readers and friends, and some comes from just observing. For example, at one time people would grab a magazine from the rack at our doctor’s office. Now it’s quite likely that they’ll take out a Kindle or other reading device to view their favorite novel. Even at our library, I see people sitting in front of computers reading, rather than holding a book. Increasingly, I get questions from readers who use the e-book version of my books, instead of paper copies. Let’s just say that in the year and two months since I wrote The e-Book in Your Future, things have changed considerably. E-books are reducing the cost of reading material of every sort, especially technical books.

That’s the reason I’m a bit concerned about some of the things I read about our school system, especially when conversations with students tend to bear out the information I read. One ComputerWorld article in particular, “The e-book revolution is bypassing U.S. elementary schools” really grabbed my attention. The author, Joe Mohen, makes some astute comments about the benefits of using e-books in schools. As an author, I see significant benefits in using e-books, such as the ability to update the information as needed. Schools often struggle with outdated texts now due to a lack of funds, using e-books greatly reduces the cost of updates making it possible for schools to keep their texts updated.

More worrisome is the fact that most of our colleges still use paper texts. In talking with any number of students, I have yet to find any of them using more than one or two e-books for their classes. Given the high cost of education, it makes sense to reduce costs by providing students with materials in electronic format. A recent Forbes article, “Should College Students Be Forced To Buy E-Books?” makes a strong case for using e-books in colleges. The same article points out that only three percent of students currently use e-books for their education.

My interest in e-book technology isn’t just a passing fancy. Part of the reason I spend so much time delving into this issue is to discover how to serve you best. A large percentage of my readers are college students. What if my books were offered only in e-book format? Would you still buy them? For now, my books will continue to appear in both print and e-book format for the most part, but the time could come when I’m asked about how my readers would be affected if the publisher produced only e-books. To answer that question, I need your input. Let me know your thoughts about e-books, especially in the school environment, at [email protected].