Thursday, May 21, 2015

Neither Snow nor Rain nor Heat, But Maybe Cutbacks

Growing up, in history class we learned about the Pony Express, and the history of the US Post Office.  When we think of modern society and the integrity we have come to rely upon, there are many pieces (technological inventions) that hold that integrity in place - the invention of time zones so we can coordinate activities, of course all the communication technologies, but to me, it seems the bedrock of that integrity consists of a reliable postal service.

Over the years, the technology involved in delivering mail has become quite massive.  Remember those bar codes that helped the computers scan your letters and route them?  They scan at amazingly high speeds in massive sorting facilities, and that pretty much unerringly routes your mail.  Nowadays the technology is so advanced, it can scan printed and even written addresses without bar codes, and accurately route it (to the tune of hundreds of letters a second).

Banks count on it.  Mail order businesses count on it.  Utilities count on it.  Legal entities count on it.  Indeed, much of the pillars of our economy and society rely on the assumption that, if you drop a letter in the mailbox, it will arrive in a predictably short time to the destination, without fail (except in extreme cases, say if a mail delivery gets destroyed by disaster).

Yes, we all know that, so what? you may ask.  We just recently had a big family event, where we sent out invitations, got back RSVP cards, and sent out Thankyou notes.  This consisted of over 400 individual pieces of mail going back and forth over a few months of time.  And that's just orchestrated by us, one family.  Imagine the load the USPS has to deal with on a daily basis.

Now, with that large of a batch, you may not be surprised to find out that perhaps a letter got lost.  And historically, that has been our collective experience - occasionally, perhaps a piece of mail falls down in the delivery truck, gets missed, and ends up being late.  Perhaps a piece is destroyed, or damaged - but if damaged, the USPS still delivers with an apology.  However, we found that around 10 invitations never made it, and several more were delayed (that's not including the few returned for wrong address).  Several RSVP's didn't make it back (we confirmed by phone), and about 8 people mentioned they didn't receive Thankyou notes.  On top of that, several more local deliveries (anticipating 1-2 days) were delayed by more than a week (8-9 days to deliver). 

Adding that up, that gives around 20 pieces out of 400 that were lost, and several more that were delayed, say 25.  That's 6%.  And when we are used to relying on it to the point where we mail and forget, 6% is a massive number.  Multiply that out by the USPS daily volume.

Now, this is not our first time around the block - we had the same family event 3 years ago, during the exact same time of year, during which it never even occurred to us to doubt the reliability and integrity of the USPS.

When we asked the Post Office about this, we also found out something quite surprising.  All my life, we had known that the USPS operated a huge sorting facility in Troy, MI, where most area mail was routed through.  We found it had been closed for what she said to be almost 20 years, and that even more mail was now routed through a much more remote facility - in Ohio.  And this, she said, was the cause of why it now takes longer to send mail, and it is less reliable.

Unless, of course, you put tracking on it.  In which case it arrives 100% of the time.  And if you expedite, it arrives faster.  To me, this seems a blatant way of holding us hostage.  If you pay the ever-spiraling First Class postage rate, you basically get Third Class service - unless you also pay the exorbitant fees of a swindler to "guarantee" that your parcel gets there.  And let me tell you, we aren't going to do that on 400 pieces of mail.

So, I ask you, where is technology going with this?  Is the sending of physical written pieces of information becoming a thing of the past?  Do we now e-mail, hyperlink, e-fax, text or post what we want to send from now on?  Do we resort to non-Post Office couriers for packages?  Maybe the USPS has mismanaged its public trust, and maybe it's time to let it fail completely.

As a society, do we now rely upon invitation management web sites and e-mail?  What about those family members who are not so Internet savvy, who don't use smart devices, and who don't keep up on e-mail or social networking?  I feel cheated and betrayed, as if yet another pillar of the country and society we grew up loving and admiring is cracking, falling apart, in an increasingly apathetic and irresponsible public.  Is that just a feeling, or is there something to that?

The Truth About Lawn Care

(picture from the NY Times)

I just listened to a voice-mail on my home line.  It says "This is Ryan, we talked earlier this spring about your lawn, and I noticed the weeds growing in your yard.  Give me a call and we can button them up for you."  That had me reflect that a lot of technology in the form of tools, chemicals, and procedures have been developed, simply to keep a single species of grass growing on an expanse of ground.

Diversity or Monocropping?

First, I know Ryan and I didn't talk, because if we had, I would have told him I have no weeds.  My lawn looks a lot like the one above (except it is mowed). So what is a weed exactly?  I have noticed that we tend to throw the word around a bit.  For example, in our herb garden, we have a plant called Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis).  This is a wonderful herb with many properties both tasty and medicinal.  However, it is prolific, and is now growing all over our property.  In the herb garden, it is an herb.  Outside that, it is a weed.  So the definition of a weed seems to be any plant growing where it is not wanted.  Indeed, from
  1. A valueless plant growing wild, especially one that grows on cultivated ground to the exclusion or injury of the desired crop.
  2. Any undesirable or troublesome plant, especially one that grows profusely where it is not wanted.
Now, we get down to it.  For some reason, it seems to have become a widespread psychotic obsession that people will do whatever it takes, spend whatever it takes, to make sure that only a single species of plant grows on their yard.  Let's think about this from another perspective.

Let's say you are looking for a place to buy a home.  Let's also say you are concerned about the neighborhood you move into - for your kids in which to grow up, as well as for property value to appreciate.  So you see this great house, but the entire neighborhood is all a single type of people.  Let's say they are all white, Christian, western-European descent - every single last one of them, from the exact same religion, who attend the same church.  And, they all work at the same factory down the road.  Now, is this a healthy society?  I'd say not.  I'd say economically, if that factory gets shut down, they are screwed.  Genetically, if a disease strikes that group, it strikes this community hard.  Culturally, they sound pretty closed off, and if you are a black, Ethiopian Jew who works in IT on the other side of town, this is probably not the community for you.

Do you remember the Emerald Ash Borer problem years ago?  Millions of Ash trees were killed in Michigan because of this pest - and why was it a huge problem?  There were entire areas where just Ash were planted.  And how did this come about?  An earlier pestilence wiped out a different tree population, and arborists replaced those trees with another single species, Ash.  Didn't learn from their mistake, did they?

Runoff and Downstream Consequences

Enough of that line of thought.  Let's talk about another fact of life - Unintended Consequences.  Many times, you see something that you think is wrong, you do something to "fix" it, only to find out that the cure is worse than the disease.  This is one case.  We spend billions on fertilizers, "weed" killers, and such just to try to get the lawn down to 1 species.  Does it work?  Yes, for the most part.  However, our yard is not an isolated ecosystem, as much as we like to think it is.  For some strange reason, those chemicals we pour on the yard don't seem to respect the property line - go figure!  They get washed into sewers, go down into the ground and into groundwater systems.  And if you live in an area like mine, we live in the midst of wetlands, so they are washed 2 yards over into the swampy pond (our neighbor's house listings do say "lake front property").  This swampy pond feeds Michigan's vast network of water systems that make their way out into the Great Lakes - 20% of the global fresh water in our "back yard."

So where am I going?  Of course you can tell - the runoff into our lakes and streams causes massive ecological damage that most people either don't think about, or don't care (why not piss in your pool before you go for a swim?).

Another unintended consequence - I don't know about any of you, but I am living on a tight budget.  If I suddenly had a huge raise, I still could find things to do with that money other than dumping it into my lawn.  Why should I bother spending all that cash to fight a losing battle that has to be fought every year as long as I live on this property, instead of, say, paying the medical bill, paying off a loan, or even buying the new Macbook Pro I so desperately want?  I'm sure if I ran a golf course, or were a multi-millionaire and didn't know what to do with all that extra money, might as well get the lawn to look like it is healthy, and still be a monospecies.  But I'm not either one of those.

What Do You Do?

So, my response to Ryan, was that I don't have any weeds (yes, I called him back - he reached out to me on a sales call, I might as well have the courtesy to let him know I'm not interested).  I have dandelion, clover, greater plantain, and, of course, a couple different types of grass.  All in a beautiful mix of healthy plants that give my lawn a beautiful look. Another interesting consequence - good one - is that the greater plantain is better than any store-bought medicine on fighting the itch, pain and discomfort of bug bites and stings. This spring, we are harvesting the plantain to make a balm we will have year round - that immediately stops itch from mosquito bite, and with 1 or 2 applications, permanently.  Get that from a hydrocortisone cream - doesn't even work the first 10 times, and we have to buy it too!

I suggest a shift in attitude, a shift in thinking about our yard.  We live on a planet that is a delicate balance of ecosystems.  If we pollute it, eventually it comes back to us - screw saving the planet, screw saving some species of plant or animal.  Let's save Homo sapiens!  I want to save my ass, and the asses of my descendents.  Learn to appreciate the beauty in diversity - both in plants, and in Human society.  It is a heck of a lot cheaper to do so, and look at all that free time you don't have to spend weeding out that diversity!  What would you do with all that time?

So, it looks like we need a theme, a unifying "brand" identity.  How about Natural Lawn?  In a Natural Lawn, we have a healthy diversity of plants, and when we do amend the soil, we do so with naturally-produced fertilizers (that don't use petroleum in their production, and emit copious amounts of greenhouse gases), minerals, and other naturally-occurring chemistry that works in harmony with the environment of our immediate ecosystem.  We don't have to tell the kids "Stay off the lawn, they sprayed today."  THAT RIGHT THERE SHOULD BE A RED FLAG TO YOU.

What's one unintended consequence of that?  A lot of lawn care product and service companies may have to come up with some creative ways to stay in business.  I'm good with that.