Egyptology and the Long Legacy

by Robert

One of the books I've reprinted, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, by Amelia B. Edwards, is more than just a lavishly illustrated Victorian travel story. Amelia B. Edwards founded the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882, funded the exploration of soon-to-be-famous archaeologists like Flinders Petrie, and tirelessly promoted the preservation of Egyptian antiquities, which at the time were rapidly being plundered and destroyed. She was one busy lady! And at a time when women weren't much welcomed in that line of work. She's largely responsible for the degree of awareness of ancient Egypt that developed in Britain and America, writing two more books on the subject and traveling tirelessly. She also had a hand in creating what became the Petrie Museum.

And, as if that weren't enough, her artwork is superb, and there's a movement to fund the preservation of her watercolors. 

Egyptian watercolor by Ameilia B. Edwards

For someone who'd been dead for around 100 years, Edwards is still very much alive in the minds of many. She's the inspiration for Amelia Peabody Emerson in a a mystery series by Barbara Peters, as well as among Egyptologists. Since Edwards herself was a best-selling fiction author, being the inspiration for another woman's fiction seems appropriate.

 A Thousand Miles up the Nile is a classic travel book, describing in delightful detail  journeying through Egypt in the1870s. Make sure you get the Norton Creek edition, which actually has all the illustrations and is a faithful reproduction of the lavish 1892 edition.


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U.S. Patent #35

by Robert

Another of the patents from my day job at Citrix Systems just issued. "Systems and methods of using the refresh button to determine freshness policy," U.S Patent #8701010. This was from my Web Optimization Period. It was filed in 2007 and only now made it into the light of day.

That makes me either inventor or co-inventor on 35 U.S. patents. See my patents. Sadly, the patent attorneys obfuscated my nice clear description, so the text isn't a fun read.

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When to stop using lights

by Robert

It's March 29, and I thought I'd mention that the traditional period for using supplemental light to keep the hens laying is September 1 through March 31. By April 1, the increasing day length makes supplemental light unnecessary.

Farmers traditionally set the day length at 14 hours when using supplemental light. The days aren't that long on April 1, when measured from sunrise to sunset, but it doesn't take much light to stimulate laying, so that seems to even things out.

The big boys use a different algorithm: keep the day length constant at whatever it happens to be on Midsummer's Day at their latitude, meaning that there's just one night a year when the lights don't come on at all. Those of us with fewer than a thousant hens probably can't measure the difference, and the convenience of not messing with lights until September carries some weight.

We started using LED light bulbs this winter and were very pleased with them. We like them a lot better than compact fluorescents, which are fragile and tend not to light properly in cold weather. We found outdoor-rated bulbs at Home Depot for reasonable prices. Incandescent bulbs, being a nineteenth-century technology, are simple and reliable under farm conditions, but consume about eight times as much electricity as LED bulbs, and also last only a tiny fraction as long (in theory; we don't know how long the LED bulbs will last in practice yet).

Anyway, since our henhouses are scattered all over the pasture, it's just about time for us to wind up all those extension cords and bring them inside.

It must be spring!

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How (and Where) to Live in the Country

by Robert

When my parents got tired of the pollution, crime, and other aspects of city life in the Sixties, they decided to move to the country. They had some criteria when making their choice:

Get all the way out of town. Suburbs share most urban woes. Rural areas on the edge of an urban area are also too close, and tend to get swallowed up. Too many people look for property that has the appearance of being out in the country, without actually being out in the country. Not good enough.

Be able to make a living. Keeping body and soul together is no joke and needs to be addressed with some care. My parents chose to build a campground of the sort that they would like to visit, with clean restrooms and lots of trees. On the whole, this turned out not to be a paying proposition, since they left out the desire for campers to have electric/water/sewer hookups in every space, and for every space to be a pull-through space, since they don't know how to back up their rigs! On the other hand, a campground needs extra labor during summer vacation, so it provided plenty of work for me and my brothers: pleasant outdoor work surrounded by trees and happy vacationers. 

Get away from Ground Zero. Living in the Los Angeles area, they knew they were toast in the case of a nuclear strike, and were relatively vulnerable to other acts of terrorism or negligence. One thing they looked at were maps of fallout patterns. They may have seen this one, for example:




Fallout pattern for the US

Notice how Northern California and Oregon make up by far the largest safe zone on the map! Of course, it's not the Sixties anymore, but there are still plenty of nukes around, and certain other disasters, whether initiated by malice, incompetence, or pure dumb luck, will start in one of the targets on the map and influence the area downwind as well. (Northern California and Oregon are somewhat influenced by nuclear events in Japan, but the distances are so large that it's of little concern.)

My parents chose to move to the very northern tip of the California coast, near Crescent City, which is where I grew up.

Take two

When Karen and I decided to move to the country, we considered the same issues. In addition, we both attended Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, and we wanted to be within striking distance of OSU. OSU, as an engineering school, is a hotbed of start-up technology companies, so it didn't seem like we'd have to learn entirely new trades in order to find jobs. Yet Corvallis is surrounded by a genuinely rural landscape.

If I were doing it again, I'd probably prefer to avoid living in Benton County, which contains Corvallis, since Corvallis itself is a bubble of urban-think that passionately believes it has the anwers to all rural questions, while in fact knowing nothing whatever about the subject. So local politics can be stridently delusional. A few miles away, in Polk County -- a farm county -- this dissonance simply does not exist, and lends itself to a quiet life. My advice: When moving to the country, avoid counties that are controlled by urban voters. If possible, avoid being in a state that's controlled by urban voters as well.

Location, location, location. My parents, intent on building a campground, chose land that was right on the main highway, since that's where the customers are. It was about 15 minutes outside of town. Karen and I, interested more in a part-time farm, chose land a couple of miles off the main highway, on a county-maintained gravel road. We're about half an hour ouside of town. A half-hour drive on an empty, well-maintained highway through beautiful country is a more pleasant experience than a half-hour commute in stop-and-go traffic, but it's still a longish drive, and I'm glad we're not any further out than we are.

When looking for land, we felt that land down on the fertile plain of the Willamette Valley is too expensive, too prone to development, and too easily flooded to be our top choice, while a place in the foothills, not suited to large-scale agriculture, would be a better bet. This seems to have been an excellent choice! We are also bounded on two sides by Starker Forests, a family owned timber company that takes good care of its land and never sells any, and we similarly have good neighbors on the other two sides who are in it for the long haul.

It's also important to be within a fire protection district, or your insurance costs will be astronomical.

I also find the availability of high-speed Internet to be absolutely essential, these days. Satellite internet is the choice of last resort, must less satisfactory than DSL or cable. And I personally do not enjoy tending generators, so being off-grid strikes me as being a horrendous and noisy nuisance. 

Making a living. We've been farming commercially since 1996, and it has never replaced my day job, nor is it likely to. Most of my work as a technical writer and engineer has come through contacts I made in my Silicon Valley days, so visiting the office involves a plane flight, which I hadn't expected. I thought I'd find equivalent opportunities in Corvallis, which mostly hasn't happened. Still, companies all over the country have always had plenty of remote workers -- especially the sales force, but others, too, and they're often set up for it quite well. At one point I was flying down to California every week, and for a while budget cuts meant I didn't fly at all for over a year, and now it's back up to a few times a year. Telecommuting works. Just don't expect it to work the way you expect it to!

Even families with quite large farms tend to have a wage-earner who works off the farm, so you might was well plan on starting out that way, and having it as a fallback plan. 

 Other issues. We moved when our kids were little, and the excellence of the local school district made a difference. Being close to a major university with an emphasis on areas that interest us (engineering, agriculture, sciences) was important, too. Whatever is of special importance to you, keep that in mind. One's life changes when moving to the country, but not entirely!

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Read My November Newsletter

by Robert

My November poultry newsletter gives seasonal advice and more.

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Raising Chickens for Meat and Profit

by Robert

It's been twenty years since Joel Salatin created the grass-fed chicken industry by publishing Pastured Poultry Profit$ in 1993.

The book has many praiseworthy aspects, one of which is that Salatin describes in great detail the methods he was using at the time, and the thinking behind them. Lots of people have copied his methods, with varying degrees of success. (Farming is like that.)

Something unusual happened along the way, and I think it's something Salatin didn't expect. Because it's the only detailed book on the topic, his single example of how to go about raising meat chickens on pasture has been accepted by many as the only way, and sometimes this gets people into jams.

For example, Salatin's method is to get the whole clan together a few times per summer, and butcher a lot of chickens. These are pre-sold to customers from near and far, who drive out to the farm. Fair enough. This is a good method if you're not too far from town, have a workforce to draw upon, and can assemble a group of loyal customers who are prepared to receive chickens in large batches. We tried it, and it worked ... for a while.

One sticking point is that we sort of ran out of relatives who were willing to slog through a long day of chicken butchering. We also had the opportunity to sell at local farmer's markets, where we would sell a few chickens per market, which doesn't mesh well with the marathon butchering sessions Salatin describes.

This was back when I was doing a survey of all the poultry books, magazines, and extension bulletins ever written, and I was intrigued by an article in a poultry magazine from around 1960, describing a farmer in Los Angeles whose shtick was "the freshest chicken in town." He butchered chickens six days a week, all by himself, and delivered them to local restaurants. He sold 1,000 chickens a month this way. That's pretty fast work! But if he handle 1,000 chickens a month by himself, Karen figured she could manage 1,000 chickens a year.

She's been handling the broiler side of the business on her own for more than ten years now, so I think we can say that it works! We do two farmer's markets a week, so she butchers twice a week, the day before the market. We have fresh chicken at the market, while our two competitors, who follow Salatin's model more closely, have only frozen chicken -- a side effect of butchering more chickens than you can sell right away.

Another way we deviated from Salatin's practice is in broiler house design. Salatin uses very low metal houses, which are very hard to work with. Salatin ignores the old maxim of poultry houses, "make it small enough that you can reach every corner from outside, or big enough that you can walk around inside it," and crawling inside his houses is a real pain.

So Karen invented a lightweight, easily moved chicken house that you can walk around in, made from lightweight cattle panels bent into an arched roof. This is infinitely better, and has been adopted far and wide. See my Hoop Coop writeup.

There's plenty of room for additional innovation with pastured poultry! Or for the reintroduction of old ideas. For example, the most expensive pieces of equipment we use are the scalding tank (used to loosen the feathers) and the plucking machine. But in the old days, there was a technique called "dry picking" which didn't use either of these. Alas, the technique is quite difficult to learn unless one is taught by an expert. I don't know if any still exist. Karen has tried on her own without success.

Anyway, if you're interested in trying your hands at raising meat chickens for profit, get your copy of Pastured Poultry Profit$, and expect that you'll innovate from there to match your unique circumstances.

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Online and Offline Predators

by Robert

I logged into the blog the other day and was informed by the blog software that I had a quarter of a million comments awaiting moderation!

Of course, none of these comments seemed to have anything to do with my blog. I was just being victimized by one of the botnets, whose zombie army of infected PC's was endlessly uploading exhortations to buy various kinds of junk.

I disabled comments altogether to keep it down to a dull roar. Since spammers are the worst programmers ever, the botnet hasn't really noticed, anymore than they noticed that not one of their last quarter-million comments has been posted. You can see why these guys aren't holding down a real job.

But never mind that. It's just a nuisance.

In the real world, our egg production has fallen precipitously, down to about 20 eggs per 100 hens per day, which is really dreadful. We got twice as many last year.

We're not sure what happened. Yes, it's the natural molting season, but usually the hens drift into molt at different times, with no sudden cratering of production. A huge drop like this is triggered by extraordinary stress, not the ordinary changing of the seasons.

I think a busy predator, perhaps a dog, possibly a coyote, maybe a child, chased the flock around for some time and scared them half to death. This really distresses the chickens, far more than when a predator such as a bobcat nabs a single chicken and leaps the fence with it.

So we're keeping our eyes open in case it wasn't a one-time event.

I expect the rate of lay will start picking up any day now. Karen's talking about using lights again this winter, to encourage the hens to start laying again, and maybe we will.

Lousy intruders.

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July Newsletter is Available

by Robert

My July poultry newsletter is available on my Web site. Make your own blue ice! Give your chickens good summer care! And more.

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More Farmer's Market Tech

by Robert

We've played with a lot of different technologies at the farmer's market. Electronics used outdoors need to be rugged, easy to protect from rain, and usable in bright sunshine.

Back when we made people order fryers in advance, we brought a Panasonic ToughBook so we could take the deposits and enter the orders on QuickBooks. We stopped doing this when we started bringing chickens on spec, rather than just to fill orders. Because every cop car in the country seems to be equipped with one of these, used ToughBooks are plentiful and affordable on eBay and other places.

An iPad is also good, and has enough battery life to last all day, which the ToughBook never had. I haven't used my iPad for serious work at the market yet, just to goof off during slow periods.

This is about to change! I've been playing around with the Square Register, a dinky little credit card reader for smartphones and tablets, and it's pretty cool. You can take credit card and debit card payments from anyone, and the money ends up in your bank account after about two days, with a flat 2.75% fee. It works really well.

The farmer's market is one of the last bastions of, "Whoops, I ran out of cash, so I can't buy your stuff," and as a vendor, this is a problem I want to solve!

I've also used Wells Fargo's smartphone app to electronically deposit checks, which involves taking a picture of the front and the back. This is a great idea, but it's too time-consuming when you get a lot of checks for small amounts, especially when the checks insist on fluttering in the breeze as you try to get a clear picture. For big checks, yes, absolutely. For smaller ones, it's easier to go to the bank and deposit them the old-fashioned way.

I'm an audiobook addict, and over the years I went from listening to books on cassette to listening to them on an MP3 player -- first a Rio 500, then an iPod Nano, then an iPod Touch, and now an iPhone. The farmer's market is too busy for this, but it's nice when doing farm chores and during the half-hour drive each way.

I'm always amused at how products that are initially marketed to urban hipsters seem to be useful down on the farm.

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Pre-Season Work

by Robert

We're gearing up for a busy year in 2013 and are catching up with repairs and upgrades before the busy season starts, with contractors doing the difficult parts.

The upper part of the barn roof has been redone. In the Seventies, corrugated roofing had been nailed over the original cedar shakes, which didn't hold the roofing panels securely enough, and they were starting to blow off. So we had that all taken off and re-roofed with new steel roofing that Karen had acquired at bargain prices.

This was not a beginner's project! We stayed on the ground and let the experts do the work, which they did safely, well, and faster than I expected, and I wouldn't be surprised if the barn roof remained leak-free for another thirty or forty years.

Inside the barn, we started to suspect that the wiring might need to be upgraded when we went to turn on the lights and showers of sparks rained down from the fixtures! I like a little excitement, but not that much, so all the old wiring is gone. No more metal conduit, no more fuse boxes. Modern wiring and a circuit breaker panel, plus better placement of the lights and outlets than before, mean that we can flip a switch without flinching.

If you do your own wiring, which I do sometimes (but not this time), you'll want a copy of Wiring Simplified, especially for farm wiring, which is a whole different world from the residential wiring you may be more familiar with.

I'm a little afraid to add up what all this costs, but we've built to last, so I don't expect to do any of it again anytime soon.

How do you find good people for this kind of work? Asking around helps a lot, especially when you ask people who've had the same sort of work done. The secret is to ask, "Who's the best?" rather than "Who do you use?" because when you ask about the best, the same names come up over and over, and the best hardly cost any more than the worst in a down economy, and they do much better work. If you're going to cut corners, cut 'em on something that wasn't going to last anyway. If you try a cheap brand of kitty litter and don't like it, the experience runs its course and is soon over, no harm done, but it's different with major repairs.

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