A different way of living

I’ve been building a website about Old Regular Baptists, and putting up a lot of information that I wish I had more time to study myself. As I was adding some history about Baptists, I ran across a passage about the Waldenses that describes an attitude towards life very different from what is common today:

The celebrated president and historian, Thuanus, says: “Their clothing is of sheep skins, they have no linen; they inhabit (1540-1590) seven villages; their houses are constructed of flint stone, having a flat roof covered with mud. In these they live with their cattle, separated, however, from them by a fence. They have also two caves set apart for particular purposes, in one of which they conceal their cattle, in the other themselves, when hunted by their enemies. They live on milk and venison, being, through constant practice, excellent marksmen. Poor as they are, they are content, and live in a state of seclusion from the rest of mankind.

One thing is very remarkable, that persons, externally so savage and rude, should have so much moral cultivation. They know French sufficiently for the understanding of the Bible, and singing of Psalms. You can scarcely find a boy among them who cannot give an intelligent account of the faith which they profess. In this, indeed, they resemble their brethren of the other valleys. They pay tribute with good conscience, and the obligation of this duty is particularly noted in their confession of faith. If, by reason of the civil wars, they are prevented from doing this, they carefully set apart the sum, and, at the first opportunity, pay it to the king’s tax-gatherers.” This man was a candid enemy. [emphases added]

Today we would consider the life of the Waldenses miserable, mired in grinding poverty, something to cry out against and to avoid at all costs. But was it? How little could we get by with in material terms if we were content to meet our basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) and devoted the rest of our energies to cultivating godliness?


Arthur Koestler wrote a book (which I have not read) called The Sleepwalkers, described in this review :

The “sleepwalkers” of Mr. Koestler’s title are the great figures in the history on modern cosmology- Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton. They are “sleepwalkers,” according to Mr. Koestler, as are, indeed, most of the creative minds in the history of science, because they never quite know what they were doing.

Sleepwalkers somehow skirt disaster; they have an inner certainty that propels them although they cannot state what they seek or why they seek it. They move toward their goal by the most extraordinary and the most logically questionable methods; and when they have arrived where they have always wished to go, they frequently do not realize that they are there.

I sometimes think of Michael Pollan as one of these sleepwalkers, blithely stumbling around in murky subjects, discovering deep truths that sometimes even he doesn’t seem to recognize. For example, I think that his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma makes a better case for full-scale anti-urban agrarianism than even he understands.

While reading his latest article
I came across a couple of paragraphs which, while nearly a throwaway observation, strike deep into the heart of the fraud that is modern scientism. Here he is discussing a recent large-scale study that seems to have demonstrated that a low-fat diet, contrary to expectations, has no effect in reducing breast cancer:

But perhaps the biggest flaw in this study, and other studies like it, is that we have no idea what these women were really eating because, like most people when asked about their diet, they lied about it. How do we know this? Deduction. Consider: When the study began, the average participant weighed in at 170 pounds and claimed to be eating 1,800 calories a day. It would take an unusual metabolism to maintain that weight on so little food. And it would take an even freakier metabolism to drop only one or two pounds after getting down to a diet of 1,400 to 1,500 calories a day — as the women on the “low-fat” regimen claimed to have done. Sorry, ladies, but I just don’t buy it.

In fact, nobody buys it. Even the scientists who conduct this sort of research conduct it in the knowledge that people lie about their food intake all the time. They even have scientific figures for the magnitude of the lie. Dietary trials like the Women’s Health Initiative rely on “food-frequency questionnaires,” and studies suggest that people on average eat between a fifth and a third more than they claim to on the questionnaires. How do the researchers know that? By comparing what people report on questionnaires with interviews about their dietary intake over the previous 24 hours, thought to be somewhat more reliable. In fact, the magnitude of the lie could be much greater, judging by the huge disparity between the total number of food calories produced every day for each American (3,900 calories) and the average number of those calories Americans own up to chomping: 2,000. (Waste accounts for some of the disparity, but nowhere near all of it.) All we really know about how much people actually eat is that the real number lies somewhere between those two figures.

Who can read this, understand it, and then give credence to any “scientific” study ever again?

How to eat

Michael Pollan has a new article in the New York Times Magazine. It’s long, but important reading. Here’s how it begins:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy. I hate to give away the game right here at the beginning of a long essay, and I confess that I’m tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a few thousand more words. I’ll try to resist but will go ahead and add a couple more details to flesh out the advice. Like: A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat “food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

Uh-oh. Things are suddenly sounding a little more complicated, aren’t they? Sorry. But that’s how it goes as soon as you try to get to the bottom of the whole vexing question of food and health. Before long, a dense cloud bank of confusion moves in. Sooner or later, everything solid you thought you knew about the links between diet and health gets blown away in the gust of the latest study.

Bookstore: How to publish a book

We had a publishing company at one time, Draught Horse Press, but there were many aspects of the publishing business that I never made any effort to get good at, primarily marketing. We were able to take a manuscript, typeset it, get it printed, and offer it for direct sale. We did not make much effort to promote books or to sell them through bookstores and other vendors. Our occasional attempts at print advertising were expensive failures, and our third-party sales were through people who first contacted us.

We published two books, and though we did make a small amount of money on both titles it didn’t repay our efforts and did not end up being a foundation for further publishing efforts. Most important, we never figured out a suitable way to find additional books to publish. But we did learn a few things about various ways to get a book into print and into people’s hands; anyone who thinks they have a book they might want to self-publish might find it helpful to know them.

First of all, there is one very good book about self-publishing, Dan Poynter’s The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing. I’ve read a number of other books on the same subject, and none have taught me anything that wasn’t in this book. Poynter is himself a very successful self-publisher (he started by publishing a very expensive, very useful manual for amateur parachutists), and understands very well that it is not only possible but a good thing for a writer to maintain complete personal control over the publishing process, taking all the risks and reaping all the rewards. There is also a healthy amount of reality-checking along the way, helping the prospective self-publisher to decide whether a particular project has a realistic chance of succeeding. If you want to publish your own book at a profit, invest in Poynter’s book and follow his advice as closely as you can.

One caveat: Poynter’s definition of success, not surprisingly, a conventionally modern business definition, i.e. whether or not you make enough money to pay the equivalent of the wages you could have otherwise earned in that time. So, for example, he insists that the retail price of your book be eight times the cost it takes to get it into print. Although this sound high, he is right—if you intend to make your living publishing books, you will lose money unless you do this.

But there are other reasons to publish books, and other ways to reckon success. You may have a small but certain market for the book you want to write, and all you want to do is make sure you can cover the material costs of getting the book into the hands of your customers. Or you may even be willing to produce the book at a loss, in order to get your message out. In such cases the information in Poynter’s book is still very helpful, but it may be sufficient for you simply to know a few things about the current state of publishing.

First, printers increasingly expect copy to be sent to them as a PDF file. This file format, created by Adobe Systems and the native format of Acrobat Reader, can be produced by many document creation programs, including Microsoft Word and Microsoft Publisher. What this means is that if you are able to create a Word or Publisher document that you think would look good enough for your book, you will be able to give it directly to a printer. This is important, because the programs traditionally used to lay out books (mostly Adobe InDesign, Adobe Pagemaker, and Quark Express) are very expensive and very complicated.

Second, to have your book printed traditionally, you need to have at least 2000 copies printed; a printer may offer to print fewer, but it will cost nearly the same as for 2000. Above 2000 the cost for each additional book is fairly low. For example, it might cost $4000 for 2000 copies, $4500 for 3000 copies, $5000 for 4000 copies—in effect, 50 cents for each copy after the first 2000. There is a strong temptation (believe me) to have more copies printed, since the increment is so small and the unit price (average price per copy) continues to go down. But will you ever sell those books? With one of our books we sold about one-fifth of a large print run, making a small profit. With the other book we sold one-half of a much smaller print run, making slightly more. And the books you don’t sell, you have to deal with, either storing them or disposing of them. Five thousand 5×8 paperbacks are surprisingly compact, but not insignificant.

Third, non-traditional printing techniques have improved to the point where it is possible to print small quantities of a book with good quality. I helped Jerome Lange get his book The Seven Keys into print this way, and unless you know what to look for it is difficult to distinguish the books from traditionally printed ones—our printer, Keystone Digital Press, was able to produce the book with clean inside copy and a laminated full-color cover. There is an instant quote calculator on their website that will tell you how much it costs to print a particular book size in a particular quantity; an example would be 200 copies of a 160-page 5×8 book for $500, or $2.50 per book. KDS will print as few as fifty books at a time.

Fourth, it is straightforward to have Amazon sell your book for you, through their Advantage program. This costs $30 per year, and Amazon charges a 55% commision on each sale. They stock a small quantity of your books, and when that begins to run out they will send an email telling you to ship them some more. (To use this program, your book needs to have an ISBN assigned to it and a scannable barcode printed on the back cover; contact me if you need more details about this.)

Fifth, if you want to sell your books through book resellers, you need to have a discount schedule. This is simply the discounted prices you offer for various quantities. For example, a very common schedule would be 20% for one copy, 40% for 2-9 copies, 45% for ten or more copies, and 50% for a case (meaning an unopened box as you received it from the printer, which might contain, say, 44 books). If you offer more than one title, the buyer also needs to know if the discount applies to “mixed titles”, i.e. do I get the ten-copy discount if I order six of one title and four of another.

Sixth, it is straightforward to sell your book directly, using a website, but that is a topic for another post.

SSAWG conference

Chris and I are just back from Louisville, where we spent Thursday through Saturday at the 2007 SSAWG (Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group) conference. It was probably the most useful conference I’ve ever attended—not ideal for us, but its “shortcomings” had more to do with our unusual goals than with the conference itself.

Thursday there were eight day-long intensive short courses. Chris attended the one about pastured poultry, while I took the one on saving seeds. Mine was good, very informative except for a ninety-minute stretch where the presenter read slides to us describing the many, many disease and insect problems that are common when growing crops for seed. And during the last hour we even had some hands-on demonstrations of seed saving, using tomatoes and bell peppers and butternut squash and zinnias. Chris’s class on pastured poultry was also good, but marred by our increasing disenchantement with the approach; he learned a lot, but at the end kind of wished he had spent the time learning about something else.

Friday morning there were field trips to various local farms. We arrived at the hotel at 6:45am and they were already loading the buses. Chris was the big winner here, going to visit Paul and Alison Wiedeger’s Au Naturel Farm. The Wiedegers are particularly known for their work with high tunnels to extend the season, but they also run poultry and cattle. He enjoyed the tour, and got to sit next to Alison Wiedeger on the way back and talk some with her. Jerome Lange knows the Wiedegers, and we will probably make a trip with him this spring to go visit them.

Meanwhile I ended up not going on my trip. The Wiedeger’s farm was really the only one that interested me, but to be more efficient I had let Chris take that one and signed up for another area organic farm. The trips had all sold out, and when I got to the bus there were about six people gathered around on, hoping for a no-show so that they could take the trip. One woman looked particularly anxious to go, so I ended up giving her my ticket (which she paid for) and spent the morning reading a book I had brought along. It was a good book and reading time has been short, so I think I made the right choice.

Friday afternoon and Saturday were devoted to concurrent ninety-minute presentations. Chris learned about keeping financial records (he is a record-keeping bug), using draft animals, building a poultry processing facility, crop rotation, and producing grassfed beef (an all-afternoon course). I learned about direct marketing, the concept of the soil foodweb, running a pastured poultry business, the story of an organic farm in Austin, Texas, how to use plastic mulch, and how to use drip irrigation. There was more stuff on Sunday morning, and a dinner for conference attendees Saturday night made with local food, but we were only two hours from home and so we decided to leave late Saturday afternoon and were home by 7pm.

There were lots of good points to the conference, and I can’t imagine that it could have been done much better. The presentation topics were well chosen. The presenters were mostly farmers plus a few government/university types with a lot of hands-on experience in their area; talks were very down to earth, full of useful details. Every talk we attended was worthwhile, most of them enjoyable, some of them delightful.

However, the conference also clarified some things for us that made it a less engaging experience as we went along. Mostly we learned that the business of small-scale alternative farming is still a business, dominated by business-like thinking, while for us the business aspect is something we would eliminate entirely if we could and will be working hard to keep at a minimum. It was this that especially put us off when it came to pastured poultry. Meat chickens are a very good choice for someone wanting to get started in small-scale farming (at least in theory), and the subject of pastured poultry seems to deliberately attract the folks who are more interested in making some money than in farming as a way of life. So there is a lot of talk about cost control, minimizing labor inputs, raising breeds that customers will accept, and so on. But we are much less interested in generating cash than in finding a way to subsist on a farm, and so not only are we not much interested in those issues, we are very sensitive to the pitfalls lurking in such an attitude towards farming.

So for us the conference was a qualified success. We benefited particularly from seeing how farmers do things, whether it be irrigate their crops or save their seed or work their horses or even process their chickens. And we benefited in a roundabout way from the higher-level discussions of how to run your farm as a business, learning mostly that we are better off not going down that road. We came away with a deeper understanding of two of Andrew Lytle’s observations: first, that “a farm is not a place to grow wealthy, it is a place to grow corn;” and second, a report of an old Southerner who told him “as soon as a farmer begins to keep books, he’ll go broke shore as h—.”

Free Songs

A week or so ago Cindy Rollins mentioned that she used a two-CD set of folk songs as part of her homeschool curriculum. Chris and I have often talked about recording a series of budget CDs, focusing on songs that are out of copyright (we know a LOT of such songs). I asked Cindy if such a thing would be interesting to her, but even before I heard back I realized that the better way to do it would be to just put the songs up on our website for free downloading—we have plenty of bandwidth already paid for, and it doesn’t take much effort for us to record songs we know (or to learn new ones).

It’ll be one of many low priority projects, with progress made as time and mood allow. But I wanted to get a start at it, so I went back and culled all the public domain songs we recorded for our podcast early last year. There were about eighty all told, and I’ve put them on this page. As we record more songs I’ll have to get it better organized, and eventually I want to post lyrics for every song. But it’s a start.

Now, this is helpful

I’m not much on government intrusion, but this sort of downtown map ought to be required BY LAW of any sizeable city in the country. (Any sizeable city I am likely to visit, anyway.) Move your mouse around a little bit and marvel at the random variation in pricing.