The Weight of History

Now that I drove to the Atlantic Ocean and can claim to have driven coast to coast, I’m heading back west. I should be back in Chicago tomorrow, and California some time next month… I’m spending the night in a cheap smelly motel somewhere in Pennsylvania, but just wanted to jot down some raw thoughts from this trip.

The East Coast, especially the DC area, feels so much heavier than California and Silicon Valley. By heavy, I partially mean it literally. Great people, their words, the stories of their achievements and sacrifices, are immortalized in marble, housed in great granite structures, forged in bronze. The stories that are told hold so much more weight too. Being in a place with so much history, while reading my usual blogs that cover news from Silicon Valley made me realize how trivial that world is. In Silicon Valley, people like Steve Jobs, Sergey & Larry, Gates, Ellison are revered as if they are Gods. They founded multi-billion dollar corporations. Great. Guess what Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, et al did? They founded a friggin country, in a world where the “evil empire” wasn’t some corporation in Redmond, WA, but a mighty nation ruled by a monarch in London, who responded not by launching another version of Windows, but by sending a grand army and armada to crush this new startup called the United States of America. Then I flip to Reader, and people are going gaga about Yahoo and Microsoft’s search deal. Meh. Who’s going to remember that in a century (or even 10 years)? Who cares?

Today, I was at Gettysburg. In a three day battle, over fifty thousand Americans died. For the last week or so, people supposedly have been complaining about Obama meddling in local politics. Well, you know who else meddled? How ’bout Abe Fucking Lincoln. A bunch of states seceded, and he said “fuck you, I’m going to p0wn your ass and roll you back into the Union.” And he did. Six-hundred thousand Americans (2% of the population) died in the process, but he did it, and we have one big bickering country rather than two bickering little countries. In the Lincoln Memorial in DC, behind the big ass statue of Lincoln are engraved the words:

If you ask me, he deserves to be enshrined forever. Next to his statue, there’s another engraving dedicated to those who died in the Civil War. Many of them died after getting hit by a musket (or minie, or cannon) ball while walking, in a line, up-right, without armor, into volleys of incoming fire. They too deserve to be remembered, even if only for having the guts to do such a thing. In comparison, our generation feels like a bunch of sissies. I used to fear that little of our generation would remain centuries from now, when the silicon on which our digital lives reside return to dust. But hell, maybe nothing we do will be remembered because we haven’t done anything worth remembering. We don’t have statues and shrines ’cause we haven’t done shit.

What I’m feeling is a strange mixture of guilt and gratitude. Guilt because, while the people memorialized here dedicated their lives (and deaths) to some greater ideal, I can only say that I serve myself. But gratitude because I believe that’s what the people we remember wanted us to have. They wanted us to enjoy our freedoms, security and wealth, not to wallow in guilt or live dull lives. A few great men and women and countless ordinary people founded this country, then protected it and improved it all these years, so that we can live better lives than they did. So we owe it to them to live better lives, to fulfill more of our dreams than they did, to fill our lives with more joy than they could.

When I go off to my land and fulfill one of my childhood dreams, I’ll do it with gratitude to those who came before me, and as an example for those who will come after me; to prove that in this society, with a little luck and a little work, we can fulfill our dreams.

Quick update from DC

A quick update for those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter

My land purchase finally closed on Friday, so that land I’ve talking about is officially now recorded in my name. Whee!

I then left Chicago on yet another road trip, continuing my journey East. I’ve always wanted to drive coast to coast, and having driven most of the way across to Chicago, I couldn’t not go the rest of the way. On Satruday, I drove nearly 700 miles over 11 hours to just outside DC, where I’m crashing at @nevermindtheend‘s. We went to Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s house) today. Tomorrow, I’m heading in to DC it self. The last time I was in DC was when I was seven years old, so I look forward to seeing the place with my own grown up eyes.

I’m not sure what else is on my plate for this trip. I’m going to try and meet up with another friend in Baltimore, and of course, I actually need to make it to the coast it self. I’m also hoping to make stops at a couple of battlefields, probably Gettysburg and Antietam since I’ve heard of those two and are pretty close by. I think I still have at least a day or two still unscheduled, so leave a comment if you can think of anything/anyone else I should see.

Next Tuesday, I’m flying off to England for a wedding. Then, after I get back from England, I’m driving back to California then off to my land, and I still have lots of preparation to do for that (mostly buying tools and supplies).

The fun continues…

Things I think about…

I’ve been trying to get back into coding, but I was feeling unmotivated, uninspired and unimaginative in the dark confines of our little apartment, so I went for a walk. About an hour later, I was by the lake, and I suddenly realized that I hardly ever spend any time thinking about code any more. I don’t know if this is common, but when I’m into a programming project, I actually do a lot of my coding away from the computer. Most of the thinking behind creating, defining, and solving problems happens while I’m walking, in the shower, eating dinner, trying to sleep, driving, hanging out with friends, etc. But not any more. So no wonder I felt like I was blocked.

Instead, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about my next adventure: to go to my (well, soon-to-be my) property and spend a month or two on it. Why am I going out into the middle of nowhere? I have a few reasons. First of all, I want to get to know and enjoy this thing I blew my savings on, and also work on some improvements. Secondly, ever since I was a kid, I dreamed of living in a corner of the woods that I could call my own, and you never turn down a chance to fulfill a childhood dream. And, lastly, as I mentioned previously in this blog, I want to focus on shooting for a bit, and there’s no better place to do that than on my own personal shooting range.

In planning for this adventure, the overarching theme is “minimalist comfort.” It might seem oxymoronic, since we often associate “comfort” with “excess” and “lavishness”; not minimalism. But comfort is subjective, and I believe that my personal flavor of comfort can be achieved through a minimalist approach. That is, rather than assume some pre-conceived notion of comfort (a home, a bed, hot showers on-demand, etc) with its built-in excesses, I’m going to start from nothing, and build up until I’ve reached a comfortable level.

So, the first step is to figure out what “minimalist comfort” means to me, which is in itself an interesting thought problem. The main challenge lies in the fact that I have to define “comfort” myself; there is no pre-made model to simply adopt. I can’t treat this like a backpacking expedition into the wilderness, because my parameters are different (for instance, I don’t have to try and haul everything on my back). It’s different to camping too, because while campers typically seek some comfort, they do so in campgrounds with infrastructure already in place. My aesthetics and goals are also different to homesteaders, who might care more about long-term self sufficiency than I do (at this point). Similarly, I won’t shun technology the way the Amish and luddites do.

Having said that, I do have to start somewhere, so I’m taking my experiences from backpacking in the desert, and gradually adding things that I think make me comfortable. It’s a good place to start because there’s nothing in the desert, so the list of things to think about is similar; just with different parameters and restrictions. In any case, here’s a laundry list of things I think about all day:

  • Food – I may eventually plant a garden (once I have water) on the property, but for now, there’s nothing there, so I’ll have to buy food. I also don’t want to live off of canned or freeze-dried foods for extended periods of time, so I’ll need some fresh food. Fortunately, there’s a market about half an hour’s drive away. In general, I plan on buying raw ingredients and cooking as much as possible.
  • Food Storage – Since I don’t want to go grocery shopping all the time, I’ll need to store fresh foods for a week or more. This is one area where technology has given us a blessing in the form of refrigeration. Right now, I’m leaning towards a energy efficient freezer so that I can freeze some meat, for example, but also freeze ice (or ice packs) that I can then use to chill stuff in a cooler1. Also see, Electricity.
  • Food Preparation – I’ll bring my camping stove, but for the most part, I can probably cook over an open fire. There’s plenty of wood to burn, so I’ll just need to build a fire pit and put a grill over it. I’ve cooked some elaborate meals for myself over a camp fire, so I’m pretty comfortable about general cooking. However, I’d like to figure out how to bake, so that I don’t have to buy bread. Humans have been baking far longer than we’ve been doing most things, so this seems like a solved problem. I just need to research the solution.
  • Toilets – Whatever I eat will come out, eventually. Fortunately, I’m a dude and I can pee anywhere I want (actually, I’ll probably start a compost heap and pee on it to add nitrogen). Solid wastes are slightly more problematic, but I’ll probably do what the park services tell me I should do when I’m backpacking on their land: dig a hole at least 6 inches deep and burry my crap. Crouching to take a dump out in the open is surprisingly refreshing, but I do like toilet seats. So I’ll probably bring a toilet seat (just the ring part) and rig a chair out of it for better comfort.
  • Bathing/washing – Ironically, I don’t bathe too often when I’m in civilization, but I do like to bathe frequently when I’m outdoors and getting all sweaty and dirty. Actually, there’s nothing ironic about that: I want to bathe when I get dirty. The problem with bathing is water (see Water). Assuming I have water, I may want to heat the water, but that can be done easily in a large pot over a fire. If I get creative, I also may build a solar water heater, which isn’t hard especially in CA where there’s plenty of sun. Then, once I have warm water, I’ll probably need a bathtub or something. That shouldn’t be hard to find. I can also wash clothes in a bath tub. Then, when I’m done, I’ll need to figure out how to dispose of gray water. If I use biodegradable soaps and detergents (which they generally are), I can just dump the water, although I also want to look into recycling/reusing the water.
  • Sewage – So, it looks like I’ve found a solution for sewage. My shit goes in the ground, gray water also goes to the ground. No problem. Except, it might technically be illegal. In the long run, if I were to build a permanent structure of some sort, I’ll probably get a composting toilet so that I’m not just burying my shit. The laws might still require septic, but at least nobody can claim it’s dangerous or harmful.
  • Water – The biggest issue is water, since my land doesn’t have a well and drilling a well may cost more than I’m willing to pay right now. Given my short timeframe for this particular endeavor, I can probably steal drinking water from nearby campgrounds in 5 gallon jerry cans. If I use 1.5 gallons a day2, I can get by for 10 days with only 3 cans. Making a trip out once every week and a half to get water doesn’t sound too bad. But that’s just drinking water.

    If I want to bathe, I’ll need considerably more water, so I’ve been looking at DIY water well options. A small affordable drilling rig might allow me to drill a well myself, assuming the water table isn’t much deeper than a few hundred feet and I don’t have to bore through rock. If the water table is shallower, I can even essentially hammer a pipe into the ground. My land is pretty rocky, so I’m not sure either of these options will work well. A third option is to collect precipitation in a cistern, which is cheap and feasible, but won’t actually yield water until this winter. So, for now, how I’m going to get enough water to bathe is an open question.

  • Communication – I don’t need internet or anything, but I’d like to be able to call for help if I get hurt. I can get cell reception in the valley beyond some hills from my property, so I’m hopeful that if I could get an antenna above the hills, I can get cell reception. For that, a relatively inexpensive wireless signal booster like this one or this one may do the trick. Unfortunately, until I try it, I won’t know. More reliable, but potentially more expensive alternatives include satellite internet (then VoIP, or SOS-over-Twitter) and satellite phone.
  • Electricity – My power needs will be fairly modest. The only things I’ll have plugged in all the time are a fridge or freezer and possibly a cell signal repeater or wifi base station. Other than that, I might want to run power tools occasionally, and charge various batteries (laptop, cordless drill, phone, lamps, dry-cell for flashlights, etc). I’m still looking at various options, but a couple of deep cycle 12 volt batteries charged with a portable gas generator seems like the cheapest way to go. Since batteries are finicky about charging, I’ll need an inverter/charger or charge controller. If I plan on using a lot of stuff off of AC, an inverter/charger makes more sense, but if I don’t need a lot of AC ’cause my stuff runs on DC3, I might get by with the cheap inverter I have plugged into my car’s cigarette lighter. When I run power tools, I can just plug it directly into the generator. Either way, I’m spending a lot of time right now doing research in this area.
  • Shelter – Since I’m planning on being out there in the summer when it doesn’t rain and the temperature stays pretty comfortable, I won’t need much shelter. I’m thinking it’d be fun to use white oak found on the property to build a little structure with a roof and no walls, and hang a hammock inside. Or maybe I’d prefer to sleep on a cot. And maybe it’d be nice to have some sort of netting to keep the bugs out.
  • Fencing – The property doesn’t really have fences or signs, so one of the first things I’ll need to do is put up signs and fences. Plastic signs are relatively cheap (50-75 cents each) but how many do I need? My property has a perimeter of around 7000ft. If I put a sign every 100ft, that’s 70 signs. Is that enough? Maybe I want to use more to make sure people will see them. Or maybe I can use fewer, since there are only a few realistic avenues of ingress. Fencing is another problem. Barbed wire fencing is the cheapest, but again, 7000ft is a long ways to go. Even if placed 10ft apart, I’d need 700 fence posts, which isn’t going to be cheap. Then I’d need over 21,000ft of barbed wire if I want 3 levels of wires. Yikes. Even then, barbed wire fences are suboptimal since they don’t keep out determined humans, but do keep out wildlife (which I don’t want to do). So maybe it’s not worth the money and effort it’d require. Right now, I’m thinking of a more symbolic fence that humans will understand but animals won’t.
  • Tools – I also spend a lot of time thinking about tools I’ll need. There are a couple of hardware stores nearby, so I don’t need to absolutely bring everything I’d need, but it would be annoying to have to make frequent trips to town (since it’d take at least an hour round trip). I’ll need a shovel, ax, post hole digger, chainsaw, jigsaw, machete, chisel…
  • Ryomobile 2.0 – The Ryomobile has served me well these past few years, but the requirements of a city-dwelling Ryo and a rural-living Ryo are different. So, it’s time to look for Ryomobile 2.0. I’ll need an AWD vehicle with enough horsepower to tow a flatbed trailer, and hopefully get decent gas mileage. Options right now are a Toyota Venza, Subaru Forrester, or a beaten up old truck (which won’t get good gas mileage, but might have lower TCO).
  • Shooting – I plan getting a lot of target shooting practice on my property, which comes with its own set of logistical requirements. I’ll need to bring a sufficient quantity of ammunition and ammunition components, spare parts, and targets. I need to figure out how to accurately measure 100, 200, and 300 yards so that I’m shooting at the correct distances for my discipline (and use the correct targets). I also need to think about where on the property I can shoot safely, and how to prepare the impact area to reduce risks ricochet and fire. I also might need to think about lead pollution.
  • Forestry – By buying this piece of land, I will become a steward for hundreds (thousands?) of trees, which, in this day and age, is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Not that they need me to survive or anything, but I might be able to help them along. I’ll need to learn to identify all the species of plants on my property, and figure out how to best help them grow. There are some nice white oak trees, but I feel like they might be over crowded, so some thinning might be in order. I’ll need to do more research or I might end up doing more harm than good.
  • The Future – Naturally, I think about where all this is heading. Maybe I’ll go out there, and realize that I can’t stand being in the middle of nowhere by myself, and I’ll come back out. Since I consider this endeavor an experiment, that’s a perfectly valid outcome. Although, I am more concerned about the opposite scenario, where I go out there for “a month” and decide I don’t want to leave. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that outcome, although it may not be feasible in the long run. Eventually, I’ll run out of money, and you can’t make money being a hermit. I might be forced to rejoin the ranks of the gainfully employed, but how? Doing what? Where? Can I really go back to being a suburban cooperate coder? Or maybe I can strike a balance. Maybe I can settle down in one of the nearby cities, where I can find a job but still make frequent trips out to my property. Maybe I can find a different occupation. Who knows.

So… yeah, as it turns out, there’s a lot to think about, and there’s yet more research to be done. Then, of course, I have to make it out there before the summer ends.

1 – Actually, that’s what people used to do before refrigerators. They’d harvest ice in the winter, then burry big chunks of ice in saw dust until the warmer seasons, when they’d take out the ice to put them in ice boxes.
2 – 1.5 gallons a day might not sound like a lot, but when we went backpacking, we used less than 2 liters (a little over half a gallon) a day per person, so I know it’s doable.
3 – I’m starting to realize how inefficient this whole AC/DC thing is. For example, if I were to plug in my laptop into my setup, it goes like this: my generator produces AC, which then gets converted to DC to charge the 12V batteries, then back to AC by the inverter, then my laptop’s power plug converts back to DC. That’s 3 conversions, each of which wastes energy. It’s no wonder Google improved energy efficiency in data centers by going completely DC. Fortunately, a lot of gear designed for RVers and boaters run on 12v DC, so I should be able to get by with only on AC->DC (generator->battery) conversion, and eventually none if I go solar (which produces DC).


Question: There are a bunch of dudes with guns in your back yard. What do you do?

For most people, the first reaction will probably be to ask, or at least wonder, why there are a bunch of dudes with guns in one’s backyard. But, to make my point, let’s assume that you don’t wonder why they’re there. In that case, perhaps the most reasonable answer to the question I posed would be something along the lines of: Call the cops.

So, you call the cops, and within minutes a police car with flashing blue and red lights pulls up in front of your house. An officer, or two, perhaps with their pistols drawn, step out to confront the armed strangers. If said armed strangers are of the particularly belligerent or dangerous types, maybe more cars with more flashing lights will show up on your front lawn, inevitably knocking over a garden gnome or two in the process. They may even be reinforced by a black van full of heavily armed SWAT agents. Helicopters buzz over head. The sprinkler turns on inexplicably. All while you’re sitting comfortably in a neighbor’s living room, sipping a cup of hot chocolate, and watching the whole ordeal on live local TV.

But, let’s suppose a bunch of dudes with guns show up on my property. They’re illegal hunters. Or illegal marijuana growers. Perhaps they’re harmless. But maybe they’re drunk, or stupid, or both. In any case, there are a bunch of dudes with loaded guns on my property. What do I do?

The answer is less simple. In theory, they are on my property, illegally. I may have signs saying “no trespassing” and “no hunting” or even “trespassers may be shot”. But they’re there, and I’m out gunned. I’d call the sheriff, except, I have no land line and no cell reception. Even if I could call them, it might be an hour before they show up. So I’m on my own. The law is on my side, but I am outside the reach of law enforcement, which renders the law, at least for the moment, unhelpful. I am on my own to confront the intruders. If they decide to just shoot me, it might be days before anybody finds me. The intruders will be long gone. There will be no witnesses. So maybe I’d better bring my biggest gun with me.

Living in the city, we tend to take the law for granted. The law seems absolute. Of course you can’t do something illegal, at least not something very illegal. And if someone tries to do you wrong, you’re protected. You call the cops. They show up. But out here, it’s practically lawless. Or at least, there are different rules at work. It’s not the rules as written in the books.

Where there is no law enforcement, it becomes more apparent that the rules which dictate human behavior, are often not the same as the rules encoded as laws. Enforcement is essentially the translator between laws and “human rules”. If we are motivated by fear of violence, by financial gain, by desire for freedom, then laws are enforced by threat of violence, financial penalty, and loss of freedom. Lacking enforcement, and the threats extended thereby, we are left with something much fuzzier, subjective and unreliable. We are left with ethics and morality, and lacking even that, something more primal and violent.

So, when I am confronting a bunch of dudes with guns on my property, that will ultimately be the question going through my mind. Out here, out of reach of law enforcement, can I count on these people to act morally? Or will they only respond to threat of violence? Will they just shoot me, burry my body and leave, free as can be? Ironically, maybe my best hope is that they will be motivated by fear of God. I may hope, even pray, that they genuinely believe that God exists, is omnipresent and fearsome, even when the sheriffs aren’t. I wonder if that’s why people in rural areas tend to be more religious than city folk. Maybe it’s true that guns and god are all there is out here to maintain order.

Addendum – Rest assured, if I were actually in the situation described above, I would not confront the dudes all on my lonesome. If I were with someone else, I’d have them a safe distance back to keep an eye on things, and if I were alone, I’d actually drive out to where I get cell reception and call the sheriffs.