Archive for the “News and Reviews” Category

Autumn is the best time of year in Tennessee.  Spring is second-best.  The weather is nice either way, but autumn means the bugs are going away while spring means they’re coming back.  I’ve already killed two wasps in the basement this week, and Chareva has already pulled a tick from her leg.  But bugs aside, it’s nice to see the land come back to life after winter.

Chareva expanded the garden in the front pasture awhile back so we can grow more of our own food.  She also started a new one on the big hill behind the house, preparing the area with some mixture of soil, straw, compost, cardboard, sand, food scraps and other stuff I don’t fully understand.  I just know a lot of stuff was piling up back there all winter …  and that if we did this in a suburb, we’d be considered the neighborhood low-lifes.  Once the weather warmed up, she drafted the girls to help her spread the stuff around.

I can’t tell if Alana is exerting herself in this picture or just unhappy with the chore.

Sara found her own use for the sand before spreading it around.

Once the area was prepared, Chareva got busy building a fence around it to avoid feeding the local wildlife.  Here she is pounding in a t-post, apparently while preferring to remain anonymous.

She called me out to help when it was time to unravel a hundred pounds or so of fencing.  Whoever designed that fencing is a genius … no matter what you do, no matter which angle you choose, the fencing to tries to unravel itself in exactly the opposite direction of where you want it to go next.

I unwound the fencing and pulled it tight while Chareva connected it to the t-posts.  We had a couple of old gates sitting around (the previous owner left a lifetime supply strewn around the property), so those will become garden gates once they’re attached.

The garden plants are in the basement right now.  The garden is pretty much Chareva’s bailiwick, so I didn’t even ask what she’s planting this year.  But apparently I’ll be enjoying some eggplants, cucumbers and bell peppers at harvest time.  I guess I’ll also be eating a Rutgers, whatever that is.

Meanwhile, the girls have been celebrating warmer weather by looking for life forms in the creek.

On Saturday, I looked out my office window noticed something was making impressive splashes in the water, so the girls ran out to look.  Apparently it was this guy doing the splashing.

Sara also snapped this picture.  She assures me that’s a salamander under the water.

Chareva left today to spend a week in Chicago, so in addition to working as a software contractor (from home, fortunately), I’m responsible for the care and feeding of one cat, two Rottweilers, two human children and 19 grown chickens.  The girls and I agreed on a division of labor for the chickens:  I carry the heavy bucket of water to the chicken yard, Alana fills the feeders, and then while Sara collects the eggs, I keep the Rapper Rooster at bay with a rake.  Collecting eggs means having your back to the rest of the barn, which is when he usually decides to attack.

We’ll be building another chicken yard of some sort soon.  We don’t really have a choice:  Sara’s 25 chicks are getting noticeably larger …

… and so are Alan’s four chicks.

Sara has to auction five of hers at a 4-H event, but we’ll still end up with more than 40 chickens.

Great.  Because the 18 or so eggs we get every day now aren’t enough.

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I began the year with a series of posts explaining why I believe weight loss is mostly about chemistry, not character.  People who insist it’s all about character (usually people who’ve never been fat) are fond of reciting calorie math:  there are 3500 calories in a pound of fat, ya see, so if you just shave 500 calories per day from your diet, you’ll lose a pound per week.  Problem solved.  So demonstrate a little character, stop buttering your toast and pour skim milk instead of cream in your coffee, and you can be as thin as Jillian Michaels and the other experts in thermodynamics.

Those of us who spent years as frustrated dieters know it isn’t that simple.  We cut those 500 calories per day from our diets, maybe even drank crappy meal replacements like Slim Fast, lost a little weight, then stalled.  Calorie math just didn’t work as advertised for us.  The more we tried that whole “just eat less and move more” theory, the more it seemed like a myth.

Hmmm, maybe someone should write a book to explain this stuff with a title something like The Calorie Myth …

That is, in fact, the title of Jonathan Bailor’s latest book: The Calorie Myth.  (I’m more than a little fashionably late with my review, by the way.  The book was released in January, but as I’ve explained in my recent posts, I’ve been swamped with work.)

I reviewed Bailor’s book The Smarter Science of Slim back in 2012 and met him on last year’s low-carb cruise, where he gave a presentation about misguided calorie math.  As he explained in that presentation, the usual calories-in/calories-out math assumes your body works like a machine.  But it doesn’t.  Your body works like a body.

In The Calorie Myth, Bailor explains what “works like a body” means, and not surprisingly, it’s about all hormones — a.k.a. chemistry.  Bailor is quite a science wonk, and he cites published research virtually every time he makes a point.  Frankly, I’d buy this book just for the study references. But he’s also a gifted writer, so he takes what is often complex science and explains it simply enough for your Aunt Martha to understand.

I know some people will see the title and assume Bailor either doesn’t understand the laws of thermodynamics or is denying them, so let me say this for thousandth time or so: no one, including Bailor, is claiming that calories don’t count or that a high-quality diet causes calories to magically disappear.  The point is that the quality of the calories you consume has a dramatic effect on what your body decides to do with those calories … store them, burn them, use them for repair and rebuilding, etc.  In other words, the calories-in side of the equation affects the calories-out side of the equation.

For example, here are some quotes from the book about the metabolic effects of semi-starvation diets:

Eating less of a traditional Western diet does not cause long-term fat loss because this approach incorrectly assumes that taking in fewer calories forces our bodies to burn fat. This has been clinically proved to be false.  Eating less does not force us to burn body fat.  It forces us to burn fewer calories…. When our body needs calories and none are around, it is forced to make a decision:  go through all the hassle of converting calories from body fat or just slow down on burning calories.  Given the choice, slowing down wins.

… When we do not provide our body with enough essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals and essential fatty and amino acids) our body goes into starvation mode.  What does our body want more of when it thinks we’re starving?  Stored energy.  What is a great source of stored energy?  Body fat.  So when our body thinks we are starving, does it want to get rid of or hold on to body fat?  It wants to hold on.

… After our body survives starvation, its number one priority is restoring all the body fat it lost and then protecting us from starving in the future.  It does that by storing additional body fat.  Researchers call this “fat super accumulation,” and they believe it is a primary trigger for “relapsing obesity” – also known as yo-yo dieting.

He goes on to cite several studies (both animal and human) in which starvation diets led to slower metabolisms and more fat accumulation over time.

Wait, don’t get depressed just yet.  It isn’t hopeless.  The problem with those starvation diets is that they don’t adjust your set-point – the amount of fat your body is hormonally driven to maintain and will, in fact, fight to maintain.  As Bailor explains:

Long-term fat gain works like this: a person’s hormones go haywire, causing his set-point to rise, and then his body fights to keep him storing more fat…. Most obese people hold a stable weight around their elevated set-point.  Obesity is simply the result of the body defending this elevated weight – but in a very regulated way.  A heavy person’s higher set-point prompts the body to store more fat in just the same way that a thin person’s lower set-point prompts the body to burn more fat.

We all have a set-point – and that’s what determines how slim or stocky we are long-term.  Not calorie counting.

As Bailor points out, what makes the calorie-counting frenzy of the past several decades so ironic is that back in the days when most people were lean, almost nobody knew what a calorie was – and even if they did, it’s not as if there were calories counts listed on food labels.  So why weren’t they fat?  Bailor explains:

The explanation is that up until a few decades ago, we ate foods that maintained our body’s ability to balance calories automatically around a slim set-point weight.  In other words, for the past forty years we’ve been told to eat things that prevent our body from doing what it did for the entirely of human history – stay healthy and fit automatically.

Notice he wrote we’ve been told to eat things, not food.  That’s largely what screwed up so many people’s hormones and in turn their set-points:  the food-like substances that resulted at least in part from anti-fat hysteria and the push to convince everyone to consume more grains and more processed vegetable oils.  So it’s no surprise that Bailor’s prescription for lowering the body’s set-point revolves around food – as in real food.

The diet he recommends isn’t high-fat, but it isn’t low-fat either.  It’s not a low-carb diet, but by virtue of being a real-food diet, it’s not a high-carb diet either.  Rather than focusing on macronutrients, Bailor measures the quality of food by applying his SANE acronym, which looks like this:

  • Satiety – how quickly calories fill us up and how long they keep us full
  • Aggression – how likely calories are to be stored as body fat
  • Nutrition – how many nutrients (protein, vitamins, minerals, essentially fatty acids, etc.) the calories provide
  • Efficiency – how many calories can be stored as body fat

The idea is to eat foods that are high in satiety and nutrition, but low in aggression and efficiency.  Those are the SANE foods.  Sugars and refined starches (and food-like products in general) are INSANE foods because they’re not satiating, not nutritious, and easily converted to fat.  Protein is of course high on the SANE scale because it’s satiating and not easily converted to fat.  Nutrient-vegetables are high on the SANE scale because they’re nutritious (duh), not aggressive, and not easily converted to fat.  (I watched Bailor eat on the low-carb cruise.  The man is serious about getting his daily dose of vegetables.)

The meat of the book (pardon the pun) is dedicated to explaining the science of how SANE foods lower our set-points and how INSANE foods raise our set-points and thus make us fatter.  But there are also chapters on why most forms of exercise won’t make us thin, why yo-yo dieting makes us fatter, why anti-fat and anti-cholesterol hysteria don’t hold up to the actual science, and why what Bailor calls smarter exercise (the right kind of progressive resistance training) will improve our health and body composition by building lean muscle mass and triggering positive hormonal changes.  The final section of the book provides an action plan for putting Bailor’s recommendations into practice.

Bailor doesn’t label his plan as paleo specifically, but it’s pretty close, as evidenced by this quote:

The closer a food is to a plant we could gather or an animal we could hunt, the more SANE it is.  And if anything other than cooking or cutting is required between the plant or animal and our stomach, it probably does not belong in our stomach to begin with.

So it’s a real food diet, but at the same time, Bailor and I share the opinion (which we’ve discussed) that perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good … in other words, don’t freak out if you can’t find or can’t afford local and organic versions of everything you eat:

This point has nothing to do with eating organic versus conventional food.  Until someone discovers a Cheerios tree, a pasta plant or a bread bush, conventional blueberries are more SANE than organic Cheerios, pasta or bread.

Bailor’s writing is simple and direct, his advice is very SANE indeed, and I highly recommend this book.  (I also highly recommend his podcast show.)

NOTE:  As I suspected, Wednesday night’s very impressive lightning storm knocked out our cable service entirely — no signal coming into the house, according to Larry The Cable Guy, which means a crew will have to come out and find the problem.  We were told this will take anywhere between one and seven days.  So I’m posting the review, but won’t be able to read or approve comments without driving somewhere to get an internet connection.

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A truly impressive thunder-and-lightning storm last night blew out our cable service.  A technician will be dropping by on Friday sometime between 8:00 AM and 8:00 PM (so much for the guaranteed two-hour window) to take a look.

So when I leave work today around 5:00, I won’t have internet access until sometime tomorrow.  Just thought I’d mention that, since it means I won’t be able to read or approve comments.

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Looks like another chicken killer has discovered our flock.

On Saturday, we took the girls to see the Ringling Brothers / Barnum & Bailey Circus in downtown Nashville, then went out for dinner.  Chareva and the girls went to bed around 9:00 PM, but I stayed up until 1:30 AM – my usual bedtime on weekends.  Just as I was getting undressed for bed, I heard the Rapper Rooster start screeching in the chicken yard.  I could tell he wasn’t in the barn because the sound wasn’t muffled at all.

What heck is he doing announcing himself outside the barn in the middle of the night? I thought.  It occurred to me that he might be screeching at a predator.  So I got dressed, grabbed a big flashlight and a .22, and went outside for a peek.  By the time I walked partway down the driveway and shined the flashlight on the chicken yard, all was quiet and the Rapper Rooster had returned to the barn.

Oh, well, maybe he’s just a weirdo who likes taking a middle-of-the-night stroll, I thought.  I recalled that I’d also heard him screech in the middle of the night earlier in the week, and we didn’t find any headless chickens the next day.

When I woke up on Sunday, I told Chareva about the ruckus and asked if she’d found any chicken parts in the yard when she fed the chickens that morning.  Nope, she hadn’t seen any evidence of an attack.

Not yet, anyway.  Later in the day, Alana noticed a pile of feathers outside the chicken-yard fence and pointed them out to Chareva.  So Chareva tried to take a head-count (not an easy task with a flock of moving chickens) and kept coming up with either 19 or 20.  We lost the runt rooster to a hawk and three other chickens to leg injuries, but we should’ve had 22 left.

Rats.  I guess both times the Rapper Rooster was raising hell in the middle of the night, he was responding to a predator.  We’ve lost at least two and perhaps three chickens.  (I tried to take a head-count today and, like Chareva, I kept coming up with 19 or 20.  Darned chickens won’t sit still.)   So we’ve got another chicken killer to deal with.  I’m just not sure what kind of critter it may be.

When Rocky Raccoon killed three chickens last spring, he left plenty of evidence.  He pretty much just bit off the heads, so Chareva was finding headless carcasses.  This time the chickens are nearly vanishing.  Alana found feathers on one side of the chicken-yard, and I found feathers on the opposite side when I went looking yesterday.  But that’s it … no body parts, no blood, no bones.

Rocky left the carcasses in the chicken-yard.  Based on where we’re finding the feathers, whatever is killing them now is capable of hauling them over the fence to finish them off.  We put that one big net over the yard a couple of weeks ago and draped it over the fence, but there were a few gaps, and the net wasn’t tight all the way around.  There were areas where a predator could climb the fence and easily slide under the net.

I took care of that yesterday and today.  It’s not the prettiest solution, but I weaved clothesline around the top of the fence and the bottom of the net to tighten it down and close the gaps.  I’ll go for something more aesthetically appealing when I’m not working in near-zero weather.

The biggest gap was between the net and the gate – and we can’t attach the net to the gate if we ever went to enter the chicken yard again – so Chareva and I strapped chicken wire across the posts on either side of the gate, attached the net to the middle of the chicken wire, then bent the top of the chicken wire over the gate.  I hope that does the trick.

Late yesterday afternoon, I set the same trap that nabbed Rocky Raccoon.  That’s a can of cat food serving as bait.  When I bought the trap, a guy at the Tractor Supply Store told me a raccoon will take the easy meal over having to go kill a chicken.  Yeah, but I doubt many raccoons are attracted to cat food that’s frozen solid — not when there are warm-bodied chickens nearby.

It was 50-plus degrees yesterday afternoon when I loaded the trap, but we got one of those arctic blasts overnight.  The high temperature was in the 20s today, heading down to 5 degrees tonight, and we won’t get above freezing until Thursday if the forecast is correct.  I’ll leave the trap near the coop, but I don’t expect it to snag any critters until the cat food thaws.

In the meantime, I hope the Rapper Rooster doesn’t have a reason to raise another middle-of-the-night ruckus.  I really, really don’t want to check on him in the dark when it’s 5 degrees outside.

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While I was at work last week, Chareva was busy expanding the orchard, digging and planting for hours.  They don’t look like much yet, but those four saplings in the picture below will someday be supplying us with fresh fruit.  The sapling closest to the front in the picture is (or will be) a Honeycrisp apple tree.  There’s also an Enterprise apple tree and two cherry trees in the picture.

She also dug holes in the front pasture (no easy task in the rocky soil of Tennessee) and planted eight blueberry bushes.  Again, they’re not much to look at yet, but here’s a picture of one anyway.

From what Chareva tells me, we shouldn’t expect to get decent apples, cherries or blueberries for a couple of years, so this is a long-term investment of her time and labor.

She bought six different varieties of blueberries, mostly because they ripen at different times of the year.  As we discovered with the pears, there’s no point in being overwhelmed with a ton of ripe fruit all in one week.  (The plan for next year is to convert the oversupply of pears into pear cider or wine.)

On the chicken front … well, we tried to save the rooster who got hung up in the net, but he clearly wasn’t getting any better.  So he became part of Friday night’s dinner.  We had a neighbor over for dinner, so Chareva also bought a chicken at the store.  We all did a taste test.  The unanimous decision:  the store-bought chicken was bigger, but our little rooster tasted a whole lot better.

Even with another rooster down, we still have 21 chickens in the chicken yard, and some of the new hens are already laying eggs.  Pretty soon, we should be able to skip the store-bought eggs entirely.

The big rooster is still a pain in the ass, and he may yet find himself drizzled in butter and baking in the oven.  In the shot below, you may notice he looks slightly airborne (he’s closest to the center.)  That’s because as I snapped the picture, he was just about to touch down after being airlifted by Chareva’s boot.

Trust me, rooster:  don’t let her nice demeanor fool you.  If you know what’s good for you, you won’t beat that lady’s legs with your wings again.

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When we moved our first flock of chickens from the basement to the chicken yard, I looked out my home-office window an hour or so later and saw six hawks circling above the barn.  That’s when we knew we needed nets over the chicken yard.

We were given a reminder of how important overhead protection is for chickens just before Christmas.  Our second flock of chicks included some roosters, and one of them turned out to be a runt.  As the other roosters grew bigger and the runt remained a runt, I saw an example why my pal Mike (who was raised on a farm) told me not to worry about getting emotionally attached to chickens:  they’re mean little dinosaurs.  Like schoolyard bullies who had identified a weak kid, the other roosters began attacking the runt mercilessly.  So we moved the runt to a 10 x 20 dog pen in the front yard, figuring the six-foot-tall fencing would keep him safe from coyotes.  There was a tarp covering one end of the pen, but the other end was open to the sky.

As we were packing the van to leave for our holiday trip to Illinois, I caught a glimpse in my peripheral vision of something swooping into the pen.  I turned and saw a hawk on top of the runt.  I ran down to the pen, yelling and waving my arms, and the hawk flew away.  Too late.  The runt was dead.  As I turned back to the house, I saw Alana standing in the driveway, staring towards the pen.  She’d seen the whole thing.

Uh-oh, I thought.  Here come the tears.

I guess farm kids lose their Bambi-and-Thumper sentimentality about animals at a young age.  As I approached Alana, she said, “That was cool!”


“Yeah, I’ve never seen a hawk kill anything before!”

This from the daughter with the gentler nature of the two. Whew. That meant we could leave for our Christmas trip without me having to give a comforting speech about the cycle of life.  Still not quite believing how well she was taking this, I said, “Well, I guess I should toss the dead rooster into the yard so the hawks or coyotes can eat him while we’re gone.”

“Okay, Dad.”

Anyway, that’s why we have nets covering the chicken yard.  The problem was that the nets annoyed the @#$% out of me.  Our chicken yard is about 44 x 46 feet.  We bought bird nets at the local farmers’ co-op, but it took four of them to cover the yard, and no matter how many times I tried to raise them by attaching them to the barn or to poles, they’d slip off or the wind would blow them off, and they’d hang low like this:

No big deal, you say?  Ha.  You try being nearly six feet tall and walking around under those nets.  I’d end up hunched over like an old man, and even then the nets would manage to snag and yank off of my hat and/or my glasses.  You don’t want things you wear on your head falling into a yard full of chicken poop.

Granted, Chareva and the girls are the primary caretakers for the chickens, but I ended up spending more time in that chicken yard than I’d planned thanks to bad shots during my rounds of disc golf.  My driver especially had a tendency to land in those nets, slide directly to one of the few narrow openings between the nets and the barn, and plop to the ground.  You don’t want things you hold in your hands falling into a yard full of chicken poop.

It occurred to me more than once that a single big net, with the barn serving as a tent-pole, would be much better.  An errant disc would hit that net and slide onto the ground outside the chicken yard.  No more walking like a hunchback under low-hanging nets.  No more having my hat and glasses yanked off into a yard full of chicken poop while I’m trying to retrieve a disc from a yard full of chicken poop.

I’ve intended for awhile to find that one big net.  Intended, yes, but between preparing and delivering a speech in early December and then preparing to leave for the holidays, I didn’t quite get around to it.

I finally got motivated when we were coming home from an errand last week and found one of our remaining roosters hanging in a net with his foot caught and his leg looking dislocated.  The other roosters, true to form, were helping out by pecking at him.  Apparently the rooster, not content to run around on the ground, had decided to leap up into the low-hanging net and got himself caught.

After we managed to cut the rooster free from the net, I did what comes naturally to me … I told Chareva the whole sorry incident was probably her fault gave her a new Mafia nickname:  Chareva “The Legbreaker” Naughton. (This replaces her previous Mafia nickname of Chareva “The Screwdriver” Naughton, which she earned while trying off a fish we caught, as I recounted in a long-ago post on my other blog.)  She did, after all, break some chicken legs back in December while trying to move the portable coop.  That’s how we ended up with our first farm-to-forks chicken dinner.  Give that woman some chickens to raise, then just wait for the bones to crack.

After assigning the new nickname, I did what comes less-naturally to me … I went shopping.  It took awhile, but I finally found a 50 x 50 net available online.

When we first pulled the new net out of the box, Chareva was convinced someone had sent us the wrong one.  She believed it was 50 feet long, but said it didn’t look like it could possibly be 50 feet wide.  You can see why she’d reach that conclusion:

I was convinced the net probably was 50 feet wide, mostly because I’d already torn down the other nets and therefore I really, really needed the new net to be 50 feet wide.  If it turned out to be, say, 15 feet wide, Chareva might punish me by making me move all the chickens to the basement and live with them until we got the yard covered again.

As we unraveled the net a bit to inspect it, I was even more convinced it was indeed 50 feet wide, just rolled up nice and tight.  Fortunately, I turned out to be right.

Since the barn would be serving as our tent-pole, Chareva pointed out that we’d have to drape the net over the barn roof and begin unraveling it from up there.  Being a chivalrous sort, I immediately offered to steady the ladder for her while she climbed up.

Unrolling a net and pulling the edges out to the fence sounded like an easy job.  And it probably would have been if the rivets and sharp edges on the roof of the barn hadn’t kept snagging the net, and if the t-posts in the chicken yard hadn’t kept snagging the net, and if the branches of the small tree by the barn hadn’t kept snagging the net.  We spent way more time trying to figure out where the @#$% the net was snagged than we did unraveling it and pulling it toward the fence line.  We kept having to get back up on the ladders to find and release the latest barn-roof snag.  A few times we could only reach the snagged part of the net with a pole.  I was worried for awhile that we wouldn’t finish before dark and I’d end up sleeping in the basement with the chickens after all.

When we were nearly finished, Chareva pointed out how much easier the job would have been if we’d covered the barn roof with a tarp first.  No rivets, no sharp edges.  I thanked her profusely for that insight.  At least that’s how I remember it.

Anyway, we did finish before dark.  That’s Chareva in the picture below, walking beneath a net that is now a bit higher than six feet off the ground.

Here are a couple of pictures taken in better light the next day.

As you can see, the portable coop is now parked up against the chicken yard.  We made that move before the holidays so our nearest neighbor, who feeds the chickens while we’re gone, wouldn’t have to move the coop around.  All the chickens now share the yard, which means the term “pecking order” is starting to apply.  Some birds are definitely more dominant than others.

Sara came running into my home office a couple of days ago, all wound up, and told me one of the roosters had beat her legs with his wings and then chased her around the chicken-yard.  When I asked her to identify the perpetrator, she described this one:

Yeah, I figured.  We have three remaining roosters, and he’s the biggest and meanest.  He also never shuts up.  He struts around the yard all day mouthing off, chasing hens, starting fights with other rooters, and otherwise behaving like a rap star.  I keep expecting to walk out there and see him wearing baggy pants halfway down his ass.

He attacked me once too.  I was looking up, trying to keep a net from snagging my hat, when the little rapper began squawking and beating at my shins with his wings.  I responded by doing my impression of a punter.  Nothing too hard, mind you … more like a punter trying to kick the ball short and avoid putting it in the hands of a speedster.  Then for good measure, I took off my hat and whacked the rapper across the face with it.  I’m hoping he’ll decide going after me isn’t a good idea.

After he attacked Sara, I figured she’d be lobbying for him to go into the stew pot soon.  Nope.  After describing the attack, she suggested that if she can only keep one rooster, it should be him.

“Why is that?”

“Well, he’s the strongest and the most aggressive.  So he’ll probably do the best job of protecting the flock and mating with the hens to make more chickens.”

Like I said, farm kids apparently lose their Bambi-and-Thumper sentimentality about animals at a young age.

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