Life at the Speed of a Tractor

Life at the Speed of a Tractor

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The past few weeks have been an interesting ride, weather-wise, and have, yet again, led directly to me spending an awful lot of hours on an old tractor clearing snow - shades of 2017! Old tractors make some great thinking time too, plodding back and forth at a slow pace. And thinking? Well, that leads to blog posts!


Also, to ferret photos. Because ferrets are just awesome. And adorable.


Life at the Speed of a(n old) Tractor

Those who’ve followed my blog for a while probably recognize my tractor - a 1939 Ford 9N I’ve done plenty of work on, and use as a general property tractor for “just about everything.” Currently, I’m using it for snow removal. I’ve used it for digging post holes for solar, I’ve cut firebreaks with it, I use it to haul large rocks around the property, it tows wagons with kids, gets run around with kids on my lap… it gets used! Not many horsepower (about 23 from the factory), and needs some work this spring (the governor is bad and getting worse, the tires are long since overdue for replacement, and there’s a fancy electronic ignition kit I’m eyeing to help with cold weather starting), but it’s mine for a time (I fully expect it to outlive me), and words just can’t explain how useful a tractor is on a few acres of rural rocky hillside.


While we’re not entirely reliant on the tractor for moving snow (I’ve got a snowblower as well after Snowmageddon back in 2016/2017 demonstrated the problems with a tractor of this vintage for snow removal), it’s by far the easiest tool to move snow with. And we had quite a bit of snow this weekend, with more to come.

Old machinery has a way of talking to you while you’re using it - and this tractor, in particular, has an awful lot to say about patience and pace. You just can’t be in a hurry to get things done with an 80 year old tractor, and even within the bounds of what the tractor can do, this tractor simply doesn’t like to be hurried. Yeah, full governed RPM works, but… must you? There’d better be a very good reason for using it (a fire would qualify), and the tractor is happier running somewhere lower. We can go up the driveway in third, bouncing along at a good clip, but… is there a good reason to? Second is fine, and even in third, don’t load things up too heavily.


And this leads to thinking a lot about pace of life. Modern life (which can largely be summarized as lots of things intended to get you to view advertising) feeds a steady stream of “Do more, go faster, use this time saving hack, earn more, buy more!” Or, in other words, “Be More Profitable to Us.” Is this useful to you? Well, nobody ever actually bothers considering that…

I’ve written a bit about social media before, and how insane the modern internet is, but I still find myself caught up in the internet. The people who literally make a living hooking people on sites are really good at it, even if I regularly wish they’d find something else to optimize. The modern pace of tech life just isn’t healthy, being always connected is terrible to humans, and time on old machinery does a fine job reminding me of this.

Postman’s book Technopoly talks about how a society in the Technopoly stage ends up believing that “more information” solves all issues, and that all problems are simply a lack of information. This seems depressingly relevant to your modern social media world that believes they can solve the problems caused by too much information with big data machine learning…

Before I move on, one question I’ve had somewhat often about solar is, “How does it shed snow?” This is one of my banks, at a 45 degree angle, on a very grey and snowy day. It sheds nicely, and as soon as the sun comes out, the rest slumps off into a nice pile.

Would this pile be a problem if we got a lot more snow? Yeah. I’d have to snowblower it. Do I sincerely hope it melts before it’s an issue? Yeah. The winter of 2016/2017 sucked and I’d rather not a repeat.


Another question I feel the need to answer is, “Do ferrets like snow?” And here, the answer is entirely “It depends on the ferret.” Some of ours can’t stand the stuff. Others? They love it. Toby (~8 month old ferret boy) absolutely can’t get enough of the snow. It’s fun to bounce in, and great fun to shake in! This is a full body, nose to tail, ferret twist!


Snow is also exceptionally fun to tunnel in! A light, fluffy snowfall is just perfect for boring through, nose first, with a body built for digging!


Lucy (a ~1 yr old girl) wasn’t nearly as excited about this cold, nasty stuff, and wanted right back inside before her little paws froze. I mean, I can’t blame her. Our 5 year old loves carrying Lucy around any time she gets the chance!


How Was Your 2020?

I don’t consider myself a “prepper” by any means, but 2020 was a case study in the sort of weird disruptions one might want to think through going forward. If I’m right about our general arc of history in the United States being “a dying empire, dying in the way empires usually die,” I’ll suggest that the sort of just bizarre disruptions in 2020 are a good foreshadowing of that which is likely to come - and that we may, in the future, see 2020 as one of the stairsteps on the way down the backside of history.

We are exceedingly glad to have been out on our hill in Idaho for all of this. The alternative would have been a small suburban home in the Seattle suburbs, and that place just wasn’t set up for anything resembling the isolation we had during 2020. I won’t say that we were perfectly set up for the pandemic, but we were far better set than most people. I work remotely from a dedicated shed (“Shoffice”) and have been doing so for a long while, so work was really no change at all for me. I took some time off between positions, ending one remotely while starting another remotely, and it worked fine. It would have been radically more annoying to try and work from “home” - two kids just don’t lend themselves to focused work, and the only places I really have to work in the house aren’t isolated. We didn’t buy the house for that sort of thing.

We have enough space to keep entertained and active without having to leave the property, and did plenty of that. We also have family nearby (walking distance), and decided early on to continue seeing them (I guess “podding” is the term?) regularly, which was great for sanity.

Both of our kids are far better at entertaining themselves now than they were at the start of 2020, both inside and outside. Not leaving the property for months may have had something to do with that. But some dirt, a hose, and a few small shovels are good for an awfully long time! Throw in some battery electric vehicles to chase around the extended driveway… they’ve really learned a lot about solving boredom. My daughter likes listening to stories while she draws (they’re getting longer, which is nice), and my son will chase around in the house with toy trucks for quite a while too.

Once winter hit, we started making good use of the dark with candle (and lantern) lit dinners around the table, because we could. It helps keep kids around a bit more, and I just really, really like the light quality off combustion heat. At some point, I’ll do a bit more of a writeup on this lantern, but if you don’t own a kerosene lantern, you should really consider one. Combustion based light will be a luxury at some point in the future, if it isn’t already. We’ve already seen the return of incandescent lighting (“Edison bulbs”) in certain upscale establishments, and the logical conclusion is actual gas lamps. If it’s not a thing already…


But even trying to live under a rock, it was hard to miss that supply chains in 2020 just… broke. In weird ways. Toilet paper isn’t the sort of thing that most people think through - it’s just always in the stores. Until it isn’t. Blame whatever blend of panic buying, residential TP use replacing commercial TP use, trucking shutdowns, etc, but the reality is that for a surprisingly long time in 2020, paper products (toilet paper, tissue paper, etc) simply weren’t available. It’s not surprising (toilet paper going missing is a common feature in plenty of unrest around the world), but I think it was surprising to people in the United States that such things could happen here. It’s no problem at all to be prepared for this sort of disruption - simply keep more TP on hand than you actually need. A couple dozen rolls stashed off somewhere out of the way gives you plenty of room to wait for supply or figure out alternatives, but if you Just In Time your toilet paper, 2020 may have been a wake up call.

Trying to get my solar project finished, I started running into plenty of supply chain issues towards the end. You want PVC adapters through certain sizes? Nope. They’re literally out of stock almost everywhere. Electrical supply stores tended to be better than the home improvement stores, but… this was one of our local home improvement stores in December. This is the PVC conduit adapter section for electrical work. Note the absolutely empty spots, and the fact that very few of the boxes have much in them. It was a problem.


Or, going back to mid-March, how’d you react to grocery store shelves that looked like this? “Huh… well, that’s annoying…”? Or was it more, “Oh, bleep!” with some wondering about what you’d be eating in the near future?


Even now, auto makers are struggling with a shortage of microchips for cars, to the point that their production lines are idled while waiting for parts.

A main takeaway ought to be, “Just In Time is great as long as everything goes perfectly.” That’s literally the point of it - you minimize storage, waste, etc, by having everything working like clockwork, delivering parts and supplies just as they’re needed. Throw in some futures markets, in-transit warehousing (traditionally called a “truck”), and you’re perfect!

Then a pandemic happens. And JIT breaks down entirely.

And things like “your grocery store” suddenly go empty. Supply chain issues tend to trigger panic buying (don’t believe me? Wait for the next blizzard in the southeast). Panic buying then leads to more panic buying when any supplies show up (see… well, really, most of the last decade and a half of sport shooter ammo), and things just get weird.

A really, really good solution to this is to simply have more in stock locally than you need. If you’ve got 3 months of regular toilet paper use in storage, and can extend that dramatically if needed, toilet paper shortages are a “Oh, I suppose I’ll check on that in a few months…” thing, not a serious problem. Same goes for food. if you’ve got a few months of food around (rice, beans, canned goods, freezer, etc), empty shelves at the store aren’t nearly as concerning (you might keep more spices around, plain rice/beans are a bit bland). And all of this benefits from having more storage around.

Related, I’ve upgraded some of my storage!

A Shelving Upgrade

With one of the big takeaways from 2020 being, “We could use more storage,” I took a sunny weekend a few weeks back to upgrade some shelving in the house. I’ve realized that some storage decisions date back to when we moved in, and despite having rather radically improved the property since then (carport, garden shed, shipping container, more storage out by my shed, etc), some of the “Oh, uh… yeah, toss that over there, we need some shelves!” decisions remain. This was one!

Most manufactured homes come with cutouts in the utility room for various things. We have a deep freezer slot filled with the largest freezer we could find (and I had to replace the thermostat on it a while back). This section is intended for a bench or shelving, and while the shelf in there works, it’s pretty far from optimal.


There’s a lot of room above it that could be better utilized (that’s a stack of assorted Mikrotik radios and external hard drive enclosures, if you’re wondering).


And it doesn’t go out to the wall either. Some of the stuff stored over there was fine, but it can be stored elsewhere (say, hanging in the shipping container). It doesn’t need to be in the house anymore.

You might get the idea that we store some extra food out here, and you’d be right! We’d been putting bulk canned goods and such in the base of our little neighborhood library until fairly recently, when some neighborhood kids discovered it and for reasons we’ve been unable to work out, just use it to make a mess. So that’s on hold for now, but we still use this space for food storage.


With the corner cleaned out, I took the opportunity to wipe it down - which, as implemented, involved my son deciding that he was going to help wiping it down, and he proceeded to do a pretty good job of it! I… forgot we had an outlet down there. The GFCI was tripped from some power glitch or another. Apparently nothing else important is on that circuit…


Like most of my projects, this one makes good use of my compound miter saw and stand. Some years back a friend suggested that there was no point in cheaping out on one, because they are literally the most useful saw you’ll ever own - and he was absolutely right. I use this for just about everything these days! Circular saws have been demoted to ripping plywood and birdsmouth cuts.


Cut lumber to vertical size. While I could have followed the slope of the roof, there’s no particular point, so they’re all just 7.5’ long. A pair of 4x4s support the front, with 3 2x6s supporting the rear. Overkill? Yes. Nobody ever has decided that shelves should, later in life, support less than they have at the start of their life. And I’m tired of drooping shelves. If you look at the old shelf, you’ll see the top shelf sagging some for no valid reasons at all!


With a bit more cutting and screwing (I tend to pre-drill the 2x4s for my shelves - it helps prevent cracking and also makes it easier for the screw to pull the crossmembers tightly against the end pieces), I’ve got a bunch of lumber that will turn into a shelf.

It’s a shelf part, made of sticks. Might one call this a shelfie stick? It’s certainly not a sticky shelf quite yet.

Which reminds me: What’s brown and sticky? A stick!


Construction inside (not during nap time!) proceeds in the usual sequence. Screw the shelf support into the rear uprights (either measuring or using a level) with one screw at each point to allow for a bit of adjustment. This is the tricky part, because without support up front, the whole thing wants to tip over. Either lean it back, or find a handy kid to hold things up.


For strength reasons, and because I had some, I’m using joist hangers for the front. While the bulk of the shelf is built of 2x4s, the front is a 2x6 for some additional strength. Just because. Once the location is worked out, add more screws in the back for strength and stability.


With one of the shelf supports done, I went back outside, cut down a sheet of plywood with a circular saw, and sanded the edges a bit. It may surprise some people to learn that I’m not urethaning this shelf, and I’ll simply say, “Yet.” Mostly because it’s still quite cold outside and urethane doesn’t work well in the cold. I might just put some contact paper down too.


Slip the shelf in place, and done! These aren’t screwed down because there exists no good reason to, and I might want to remove them later for some urethane or paint if needed.


When doing a shelf like this, you pretty much have to put the flat part in before screwing the next shelf support in place. They don’t fit otherwise. Two more shelves later, and I’m done! There’s a 2’ spacing on the shelves, leaving about 18” of usable space with the 2x6 front support.

Would this picture be considered a shelfie?


It’s Lent 2021. Later!

Lent 2021 is from Wednesday February 17th (this next week) to Saturday April 3rd.

Last year’s planned disconnection from the internet was somewhat disrupted by the rise of Covid, and my (probably not terribly accurate) belief that paying at least some attention to the rise of a pandemic impacting local everything was something worth paying attention to. Was it? Maybe. It was indeed useful to know that everything was shutting down, but in terms of mental health, probably not.

So, once again, I’ll be largely disconnecting from the internet for the 40 days of Lent and resetting myself. You might try it as well - it’s hard to recognize just how insanely deep the internet has woven into modern life without some distance from it to clarify what matters.

I’ll probably remain lurking around Conversations (see the forum link at the top), and will respond to emails with my usual eventual consistency, but I’m going to be dumping unread browser tabs, shutting down a lot of computers, and focusing on some other projects for the next month and change.

I do plan to eventually finish the solar project posts… and, yes, I’m aware that this isn’t being posted on the normal Saturday. It’s my blog, and I’ll post when I want to!

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