Friday, October 26, 2007

In The Shadow of the Founding Fathers

I live in Central Virginia - a land rich with history going back to the very beginnings of America as a nation and back nearly to the beginnings of English colonialism in America.

This idyllic area used to be the Frontier, nestled against the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond which was Terra Incognita. Two of this nation's greatest explorers came from within spitting distance of where I am typing now - Lewis & Clark.

We also had our own Paul Revere type character - his name was Jack Jouett. He rode ahead of Colonel Tarelton and his English cavalry to warn Jefferson (Governor of Virginia at the time) and the Legislature that the Brits were coming for them. You should really read the wiki on him... an interesting fellow.

Also, three of the Founding Fathers came from this immediate area - Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. They were the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Presidents respectively. Jefferson was arguably one of the most notable intellectuals of his age with a list of amazing achievements far too long to detail here.

No, this isn't intended to be a history lesson. All of the people listed above come from within 20 miles of where I am right now. Without many of these people America may not exist. It certainly would be a very different place and it's unlikely that the difference would be good. In many ways, America and the promise of America were born here.

It is in the shadow of this greatness that an anger in me wells. I feel treasonous and small when I see what is happening to this country. I feel this way because with all of the shameful outrages being committed against our liberties and the promise of America, I do relatively little about it.

People from around here risked being hung to secure the liberties we are too lazy to defend these days. After 9/11 the authoritarians in this country saw an opportunity to consolidate power and they took it. Like sheep the Congress passed the USA Patriot Act despite the fact that only a handful of legislators even read the act.

We are being spied on, lied to, and arrested with no charges, no trial, and no counsel in some cases. What are we doing? Ha. We're blogging. I obviously consider myself among these less-than-revolutionary revolutionaries.

I hold myself in nearly as much contempt as I hold most of the sheep out there. The one difference is that I am a sheep who has opened his eyes. I inform myself, at least. I don't know - maybe it's worse to know what's going on and to do nothing than it is to be willfully ignorant. No, I have to believe that informing myself and at least voting from an informed standpoint makes me just a bit better than those who vote against their own self-interest out of sheer ignorance.

I do a little more than nothing. I volunteer for candidates in whom I believe. I am somewhat active in local politics. I teach my children to think and not to follow. I teach them to hold ignorance in contempt.

And yes - the book I am reading is fanning these flames in me. If you knew me, however, you'd know that I have long had these issues on my mind. I'm the conspiracy nut in my group of friends. The saying, "Just because you're paranoid don't mean they're not after you" has never been more true to Americans at large.

What do I mean by that? They know who you've been calling. Oh, yes, friend. The Administration has been pushing for a retroactive law to immunize the phone companies for assisting the NSA in their warrantless wiretapping program. Can you say data-mining? I knew you could.

They also know what your spending habits are. That means the government knows whether or not you like to visit websites about bondage and sado-masochism. They know if you visited a gay dating site. They know if you rented a hotel room last week in Richmond and not Alexandria like you told your spouse. Think of everything that goes on any plastic you own... debit or credit.

Not only do they know what you charged on your plastic, they know where you go on the internet regardless of whether or not you bought anything there. ISPs have been issued orders under the USA Patriot Act to turn over their records. Gag orders come as part of these requests for data. Not only can they not refuse the request from the government, but they cannot appeal to judicial review. Been to WebMD, lately? Got a condition you don't want anyone to know about for whatever reason? The fact that you looked up information on Erectile Dysfunction is now no longer a secret, no longer anonymous.

The one thing that protects us in the mountains and mountains of data they have to sift through. But if your name pops up on some list somewhere, blowing your "cover", they can immediately look up all sorts of information on you. Big Brother sees all. In today's world of technology it is actually possible, unlike in Orwell's time when it was merely a dark fantasy.

In today's world of multi-terabyte databases it only takes a handful of people feeling pressure from the government to cave in and turn over gobs and gobs of data to the feds. It would take entire forests' worth of paper to print the data that could be rapidly and quietly turned over to the government without a single sheet of paper. An innocuous flow of ones and zeroes streaming over a secured pipeline through the internet.

The Information SuperHighway runs through your living room, beyotch.

This spying, this mining of dirty little secrets, is made even easier if a warrantless wiretap or two are placed on a key set of influential people. Maybe they have a dirty secret or two. Add to that the notion that these federal agents are "fighting terrorism" with this information and these executives may turn over the information without requiring a warrant and with no need for blackmail.

If the FBI or the NSA needs this information, it must be important. Right?

With the War on Terror being called the Long War, we are stepping onto an Orwellian stage from which no good can come. A stage that Orwell could only dream of but which is now lit with the harsh glare of technology. A war with no end in sight is a tyrant's wet dream.
  • Crisis is the rallying cry of the tyrant.
  • If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.
  • It is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.
  • No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
- James Madison

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

From Technical to PoliScientific

I just finished the Renewable Energy Handbook by William Kemp. Great book, by the way. Lots of techie-talk and equations while at the same time written in an accessible voice. I loves me some equations.

The next book? Well, I'm glad you asked...

It's The End of America - Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot by Naomi Wolf. Basically the book outlines the ten basic steps dictators or would-be dictators take when they are trying to close down an open society. According to Ms.Wolf, each of these ten steps is underway today.

We'll see. I saw her on The Colbert Report and she sounded very convincing.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Cohousing Road Trip

The wife and I went to the mentor cohousing community this weekend to see what we might expect out of the cohousing development we're looking into. We got to see the model community in action and in practice.

The place was two and a half hours away in Blacksburg, Virginia (home of Virginia Tech). Blacksburg is much less liberal than Charlottesville (home of the University of Virginia), so I'm kind of surprised that they had a cohousing community before we did. Oh well, that's not really relevant.

Our hosts were a couple with 2 daughters (ages 5 and 3). We brought our 3 year old daughter and 6 month old son with us. Our daughter had a blast playing with the other girls.

The tour was good. We got to talk to people who were living in the community and ask all sorts of questions. Better than that, we got the answers face-to-face with the reading of expressions and follow-up questions that are just not possible over email.

Besides that, to me at least, you can look at as many pictures on a webpage as you like. It will never add up to even a short amount of time actually being there and observing something first hand. There's nothing like walking through the pedestrian oriented neighborhood and standing in the common house.

All in all it took me a step closer to being able to commit to the idea. The wifey is totally sold. She'd sell the townhouse tomorrow and move in ASAP if she could.

My main hang up at this point is the financial feasibility of it all. That and the alteration of our long term financial plans. Mainly - we had planned to never sell the townhouse we are currently in. The plan was to pay off the credit cards (thus freeing up a bunch of money in credit card payments) and then rent the townhouse. Have someone else pay the mortgage, you know?

If we rented the townhouse and shook our credit card payments we'd be able to swing another mortgage payment, even if rent didn't cover all of the townhouse payment. That way when we retired we'd either be able to sell the townhouse for a quick cash injection or continue to rent it for long-term income.

Right now it looks like the community we're looking at will break ground in April, with move-ins around September. It depends on when we would have to kick in our down payment and how long it would take to sell the townhouse.

In this market we'd have to put the townhouse up for sale soon. If it did happen to sell in short order, we may have to move in with my Mom for as many as 8 months while our house was being built. That's assuming my Mom would let us move in. I think she would, but you never want to assume with something like that.

I am also fairly certain we'd get enough out of a sale to pay off the mortgage, but you never know in this market. In the original plan we didn't have to worry about the current downturn in the housing market. We weren't going to sell the townhouse in the short term or maybe ever. Housing proces would recover eventually and even if they didn't it wouldn't hurt as bad since people had been paying our mortgage (or a large potion of it) in the form of rent.

I just don't want to get all excited about this and make a bad decision. Our current long term plan is a good one, I think. And maybe in two years we'd be ready to buy a new house without selling the townhouse - but not right now. We need to pay off the credit cards first.

Oh, well. This wasn't what I wanted to babble about. Here's the place we toured:

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Road Trip, Then?

The mentor community for the cohousing development we are looking into is located about two and a half hours away. We've arranged to visit the place Sunday afternoon for a few hours. This should give us a pretty good idea of what the community life will be like in a cohousing development (since the place we may move is patterned after this community).

That's it for now.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Cohousing Meeting, etcetera

Wow, it was sooo easy to install the new showerhead... and so cheap, too. If you haven't done this already - you have to get this one done. It took about 10 minutes. Unscrew old showerhead (with help of adjustable wrench), clean the threads (just knock off the chunks), apply teflon tape, screw on new showerhead. Done.

That's 50% less water used in the shower and therefore 50% less energy used to heat it. I think this showerhead will pay for itself in about a month since it only cost about $16 ($12 for the showerhead, $3 shipping, and $1 teflon tape).


Me, the wife, and the kids went to a meeting of a local cohousing group this weekend. The people there were all very nice and very normal. The wife came away all excited about it.

For my part, I went with an open but skeptical mind. I must say that personality-wise the people won me over. No worries there.

My main reservation about doing this cohousing thing is that it would be a good deal less off-grid than I want to be in our next place. Like - it would be totally on-grid, Buffy. My personal goal was to have our next place be completely off-grid. To my knowledge, there are no off-grid cohousing developments. I can say with great certainty that there are no off-grid cohousing developments in our area.

But, on the positive side of this, they are building these units to be solar-ready. I assume this means that they would have the inverter grid-tie in place with a line running to the roof. All units are also to be built facing south. Both good points.

I also brought up the notion of building a bio-diesel refinery in either the barn or the large shed on the property. They seemed to be okay with this idea. Another bonus. It seems like this bunch isn't into the sort of anal retentive controls for which many HOAs are known. Ironic, I thought, since this is a very planned community with a very deep social aspect to it.

The wife suggested this may be a good stepping stone for us into something off-grid. She even tickled my pickle a bit by suggesting that we may be able to start an off-grid cohousing development after learning a bit about cohousing from living in this development.

The community we're currently looking at is in the planning stage. We're supposed to go visit another cohousing community in the near future. Scheduling is the only thing we need to iron out at this point. This community is actually the community that ours will be based on (called a mentor community).

I'm pretty undecided at this point, to be honest. I feel like I would be "selling out" my dream of being off-grid. I know we could afford to build a new place in about three to four years from now.

Another draw-back about this cohousing thing is that the community we are looking into will probably start breaking ground in February. The original plan involved paying off the credit cards and then renting out our townhouse before building.

Now, there's no way I can see us doing this without selling the townhouse. This is an alteration of the long-term plan. This aspect of our family planning predates our getting serious about the whole environmental thing (well, beyond recycling at least). I'm not sure the timing is right even if I can get over temporarily giving up the off-grid goal (which is by no means certain).

It is an interesting idea, though. I must admit that a part of me is very excited about the whole notion.