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In 1947, Churchill said, ‘“democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.”’ When quoted, people often leave off “that have been tried.” In subsequent years, this has been corrupted and paraphrased into, “capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others.”

I wish I knew who it was that first turned Churchill’s statement about government into one about economics. I have heard or read this statement repeatedly through my life, and have always assumed that it was coined by one of the world’s great quotable thinkers – Lincoln, Churchill, Confucius, Edison, Einstein… As a quote, it’s great – it hits all the best qualities of a great quote. It is pithy, humorous, self-effacing (for capitalists), and seems to evoke a deep truth. In addition to assuming it was created by a great thinker, I have always taken it to be true. However, I now believe that it may be one of the most destructive utterances of modern times.

[Side Note: I have tried to find the original source of that quote without success. Thus, it is possible that the capitalism quote predates Churchill’s quote about democracy, and Churchill converted a statement about economics into one about government. However, I doubt that. The democracy quote sounds so Churchillian. Also, every reference to the capitalism quote says that it comes from Churchill’s. Further, it is possible that the capitalism quote is relatively new and that I have not heard it all my life, but rather conflated it with Churchill’s quote.]

Granting to the maxim, “capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others”, the weight of a great orator, and easy care-free believability, allows a capitalist like myself the opportunity to ignore the possibility that another economic system, tried or not, might, indeed, be superior.

I believe that all but the staunchest Libertarian or Anarchist will agree that selfishness is part of human nature. I might give generously to the welfare of others, but only after I have secured the wellbeing of myself and my family (or tribe, or race, or nation.) Further, I fully believe that, for whatever reasons, some people are vastly more self-interested than others. Indeed, some people appear to feel that they must diminish the welfare of others in order make themselves greater. Sociopathy exists. It is a given that humans lie, cheat, and steal. We know there are people that will work for their own interests without a care for the cost to others, present or future. We also know that there those who will actively work against the interests of others.

Given these truths, modern capitalists admit that there needs to be some regulation of business to keep things tolerable (even if it might be a façade to simply make us feel like we are doing something noble.) Capitalists tend to believe that there is a dark side to monopoly power; that there are some industries (e.g. water distribution infrastructure) that are “natural monopolies”, and thus can be given into the hands of government or forced to endure greater regulation; and so forth.

The trick, the capitalist would say, is finding the right balance between regulation that constrains the evils that lurk in the hearts of men, and regulations that put an excessive burden on free markets. If capitalism is failing in any way, it is not because it is fundamentally flawed, but rather that we haven’t correctly balanced regulation with laissez faire.

I have basically believed this my whole life, bolstered by that pithy maxim that capitalism is less bad than any other system. But I have changed my mind. Maybe capitalism isn’t the worst except for all the others. Maybe there is a system that is less bad than capitalism. Maybe it is socialism, or (shudder) communism, or maybe it is a system that has not yet been tried.

I don’t know how to change our economic system(s) to create a better, more caring, less harmful social framework. But I do know that we must expel the terrible notion that is embodied in the quotation, “capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others.”

photo by KC Noland/YouTube

[Note: I suspect that this post might generate more than the usual reaction. These are just my thoughts, please don’t be offended. I look forward to your comments.]

By now the smirking face of Nick Sandmann facing off with Nathan Phillips has become old news. I am just now coming to some conclusions for myself. About a week ago I was having lunch with my friend Diane. Discussing the weekend standoff, she said, “…it doesn't take a PhD in biology to recognize aggressive pack behavior among a group of adolescent males--of any species.” That comment was banging around in my brain all week. It finally found a spot to settle.

Looking at the photo of Nick Sandmann again, I realized that I recognized his face. It was the face of every meathead kid sitting in the back row of every cultural-enrichment class or assembly we had at my high school. I would bet that it is the face of every kid sitting in the back row at every high school. You know the type, he’s Biff Tannen from Back to the Future. The kids in the background are his minions and wannabes.

If the school wants to teach a group of students about Native American cultural traditions, these kids are in the back row, ready to smirk and sneer and make fun of the exercise. They don’t know a damn thing about Native Americans beyond depictions on TV and in movies. So, they pantomime tomahawk chops, or flap their hands over their mouths pretending war cries (not that they know what they are doing, what the symbolism might mean, nor that the subset of Native American tribes that used ululating war cries made the sound with their throats, not their hands.) But it wasn’t about the Native Americans. These kids weren’t actually racists. They were happy to ridicule anyone and everyone. If the topic of the day were French culture, they’re whispering “ah, wee wee”, puffing imaginary cigarettes and donning and doffing invisible berets. Germans are easy, goose step and put a finger under the nose suggesting a Hitler mustache. Any Asian group causes them to pull the edges of their eyes, crying “Ah so!” All Asians are one to them – they don’t discriminate. They don’t know enough to discriminate.

These kids may or may not have been prejudiced against a given group. That wasn’t the point. The point was to show off by mocking whatever the teachers presented. If a donkey had been led into the room, they would have brayed. Shown a cow, they would have found a way to “moo” derisively. Even a dog or a cat would have brought forth a creative act of rudeness beyond my capabilities. They don’t care what the object is. All they know is they don’t want to be there and want to show off their imagined superiority. The smart kids that care about that sh*t are all f’ing nerds – the kids in the back of the room sure as hell don’t want to be mistaken for one of them!

I can also picture the teacher, or the vice-principal, or whomever is running the class. They know all these meathead kids. They’re tired of them. They’re exhausted by them. For a while they try to bring these kids into line, but eventually, the adults either give up or send the unruly to the principal’s office… again. Either way they will have to apologize to the guest that has been ritually insulted.

Now it’s time to take the class on a field trip. That includes everyone, including the meatheads who make a big show of not wanting to go. However, they do enjoy a day away from the classroom; they’re gonna take full advantage of the opportunity to be a nuisance. Now they get to show off to the world, not just their teachers and classmates.

There have been many articles asking where the teachers, parents, and other chaperones were that day in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I certainly don’t know. Maybe they were lousy chaperones. Maybe the chaperones were themselves racists that condoned the kids’ bad behavior. Or maybe they were overwhelmed. Maybe there weren’t enough of them. Maybe it was just too much, trying care for the good kids while simultaneously corralling a dozen trouble makers with no principal’s office to which they could be exiled.

Much has been made of previous bad actions by Covington Catholic High students. Perhaps Covington Catholic High is a breeding ground for racism, sexism, and intolerance. Maybe the parents don’t spend enough time inculcating good behavior in their kids, or maybe they encourage intolerance and bigotry. Again, I don’t know.

But I know that deep down we all recognize these kids. The character of Biff Tannen in Back to the Future is funny because we recognize him. If we didn’t know the stereotype, we wouldn’t be laughing. The way he treats George McFly is painful to watch – unless you are in on the joke.

If I am right, why did this classic conflict between trouble-maker kids and a Tribal Elder get any attention? I believe it was the MAGA hats. If you take away the hats, then the Covington kids are just another bunch of unruly meatheads on a field trip without adequate supervision. In such a case, the video would have been viewed by a few hundred people. There may well have been complaints to the school. However, in this case, the video went viral and became the subject of heated debate about our social values. The MAGA hats turned these boys from ordinary idiots into Trump Republicans. The Native American Elder became the totem of the Liberal Democrat. It was this battle of symbols that so inflamed our attention. Not that I am suggesting we should let the Covington kids off the hook for their rudeness, nor that Phillips shouldn’t have been offended (thankfully he very much took the high road.) I’m just not sure that it should have made international headlines.

Some will say that I am gaslighting. Others that I have been gaslighted. But, from the very beginning I have been uneasy about this news story. There has been an unstated sense that a hidden agenda was being played out. That these kids in MAGA hats were sent out to onto the mall to instigate an incident. That the Christian Right, or even the White House itself, was behind this. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the subtext I am sensing wasn't in the reportage at all. Or maybe Covington is a training-ground for intolerance and bigotry. But I cant help feeling like these are just the usual dumb kids showing off, or as Diane said, "aggressive pack behavior among a group of adolescent males."

I am not saying, "boys will be boys - forget about it." But I am saying that if we want to have a conversation about this, it should be about education and child-rearing in this country. Why is there a group of meatheads at the back of every schoolroom? How do we make education something that all kids desire? How do we make the bully a pariah? How do we educate this generation so that the next generation will have the best possible parenting and the greatest desire to understand their world?

Recently I attended a Buddhist meditation event. As part of the day there was a “dharma talk” – a talk about Buddhist philosophy. The talk was on impermanence (anicca), one of the three marks of existence (the other two, unsatisfactoriness or suffering (dukkha), and non-self (anattā), were touched on briefly.) The notion is that all things are impermanent, and that clinging to things (or grasping or thirsting)  brings suffering. Accepting that everything is impermanent is necessary for the end to dukkha.

After the formal talk, the speaker opened it up for discussion. There were a couple questions and comments, then I shared what was going through my mind. Sometimes things go badly in my life, or I am hurt or sad, and I “want my mommy.” My mother is still alive. I speak to her regularly on the phone. But “my mommy” doesn’t exist anymore. My mother is now the person that I take care of. She doesn’t take care of me. Our roles have reversed. I said that I find it strange to realize that I still have my mother, but my mommy is gone. My mommy was impermanent, and moreover, she was less permanent than my mother is.

I also spoke of how strange I find it that, once upon a time, I wanted to get up early on Sunday mornings to watch cartoons on TV. There used to be a “me” that watched The Flintstones, My Favorite Martian, Captain Kangaroo, and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Now that person is gone. Where did he go? He was impermanent.

Thinking about it later, I realized that not only is the boy who watched cartoons gone, but that there have been version upon version of “me” that are gone. In a way, I have committed suicide over and over again. Each previous iteration of “me” was killed to allow for the next “me” to arise. The Hindu god Shiva dances the dance of creation and destruction, destroying the world so that it can be created anew. I am not the same person that I was as a child, nor the same person that I was in high school, nor the college student, nor 20 years ago, 10 years ago, nor even 5 years ago. Because of the health problems I have recently had, and the death of my father last year, I am not even the same person I was 18 months ago. I am impermanent.

People in the East seem to have less trouble with this idea than those of us in the West. In Japan, temples and shrines are periodically torn down and rebuilt from scratch. The Japanese will point to a temple and say that it is 800 years old, though it may have been torn down and rebuilt numerous times. A westerner would be likely to say that the temple now standing is a copy of the original – that it is only as old as its most recent rebuilding. So, what about me? Am I 57 years old, or 18 months old?

It is said that “you can never step in the same river twice.” Is this true? The molecules of water, the silt, the fish, the other chemicals and inhabitants of the river, move and change constantly. But what of the banks and bed of the river? From our viewpoint they stay pretty much the same from one moment to the next, changing only over longer periods of time. Is the “river” its bed and banks, or is it the water? Is the “river” actually our conception of “riverness”, rather than anything solid? Can we step in the same river twice?

What am I? Am I the container or the contents? Am I the river bed and banks or the water – or am instead I the concept of “Andrew”? Am I the constantly changing contents, or the slowly changing body, or some longer lived “Andrew-ness”?

I am a huge fan of David Bowie's classic album Hunky Dory. I was listening to it yesterday, and noticed for the upteenth time the strange and wonderful ending to the song Andy Warhol. There are these odd guitar rhythms and claps that move back and forth in a pleasing but confusing way. Finally, I decided to go out to the web to try to understand how Bowie (et als) made it sound that way, and why it works. I found nothing. So, I asked the "global brain" on Facebook.  Here's what I learned. Please feel free to add your thoughts!

Andrew Sigal
OK, I am not a musician. Can one of my musician friends explain to me how the guitar and rhythm solo at the end of Bowie's "Andy Warhol" works? I've always found it fascinating, because it sounds like the guitar and (claps? toe taps?) aren't in the same time. And yet somehow, they work together. What is going on here?


I'm no longer much of a musician either, but it sounds to me like the claps are just on the off beats, and the guitar is alternating off and on, but cycling around. The guitar drags a little at 3:10, which makes it sound like they're completely out of whack, but it gets back in time 10 seconds later. My first thought was that the guitar might be playing drag triplets, but I don't think it is, pretty sure it's just off and on.

I take it back. The guitar is indeed playing drag triplets, which are three notes per two beats, starting on the 2nd beat of the 2nd measure.

So the crazy effect you're hearing is partly due to the guitar playing triplets while the claps are on off beats, and the fact that the pattern the guitar is playing only has two notes, so it sort of shifts back and forth from B-E-B to E-B-E in your head.
Karlo The harmonic guitar part is not triplets in the sense of a 3:2 or 3:4 polyrhythm. It's playing dotted quarters (3 1/8th notes long) over the 4/4 time signature.

The claps are alternating stereo channels (in the mix I have), playing on the backbeats (2 & 4). This is in contrast with the part the rhythm guitar plays in the first three minutes of the song, which accents beats 1 & 3.

The beginning of the section starts sloppily, and the tracks drift in and out of sync, which makes me wonder if the headphone mix in the studio was too low.
Cameron Karlo, dotted quarters starting on two was my first thought, but I couldn't make it line up, at least for the first two bars. 3/2 lined up perfect, and then got a little out of whack at 3:10. Maybe it's both? Drag triplets, turning into dotted quarters? I dunno, I was a trumpet player not a drummer.

Andrew Sigal Someone should turn this into a blog post for the world to enjoy

Annette Andrew, I was just thinking this...

Andrew Sigal @Clark - you're a drummer... any thoughts?
Wow. Thx for the excellent explanation Cameron and Andrew for the perceptive question!
Cameron Thanks Kris, however I live in fear that one of andrew's real musician friends might show up shortly and point out my mistakes... I'm approximately 75% confident in that explanation ;-)

Kris All in the cause of sharing good information!

Andrew Sigal
Thank you for the explanation. I think I understand (?) Bowie was definitely a clever and innovative musician who surrounded himself with clever and innovative musicians. I have always felt that Hunky Dory was the pinnacle of his work.

I think another important effect in this strange sound is the fact that they are playing with the stereo separation, with the guitar bouncing back and forth between the L and R.
Cameron Ok, I've made you a little track that might make my explanation clearer, please don't laugh. This starts out with a kick, then plays the claps, with the kick, then the guitar, with the kick, then both, with the kick, and then removes the kick.  SOUNDCLOUD.COM
Cameron Also, I agree with you that something is happening with the L/R, although I listened to a remastered version, and I think it's more subtle than just bouncing back and forth.

Andrew Sigal Wow, thanks. I'm gonna have to listen to the two of the back and forth a bit...

Great song and great album. I'm on the fly but this is my first quick pass. (I did this before reading this thread but think it agrees with Cameron’s analysis.)

My father and I at the Space Needle, Seattle, WA, many years ago

Fathers and sons… need I say more?

Father son relationships can be complex, and ours was no exception.

Let’s face it, my dad could be a pain in the ass…

But, he was always there to pick me up when it mattered.

I recall one night when I was very young, falling down a short flight of stairs right on my face. My father was right there. He picked me up - literally - carried me down another flight of stairs and out to the car. He rushed me to the hospital. No questions asked.

Some of you might know of my, er, shall we say, “indiscretion”, when I was at Harvard. My father was right there. No questions asked. No, “What were you thinking?” No, “that was pretty stupid.” He was there to see me through and got me safely to the other side.

I could tell many more stories. But, I’m sure that many people in this room could tell of a time when my father was there for them. And I know for a fact that there are others here today who aren’t aware that he was there, behind the scenes, helping them.

Dad was a stubborn man. It took me years to convince him to get a computer, but, when he finally got one he readily admitted that he then couldn’t live without it. He refused to even try hearing aids until a decade or more after we all knew he was deaf. And he was stubborn when faced with a problem - he was damned well going to solve it.

He was a tough guy to love, but an easy guy to respect.

You have to respect his accomplishments. He was an eagle scout. He got into Harvard College from a small town in what was then rural Pennsylvania. He succeeded admirably at Harvard Business School. He got my mom to marry him – that in itself is worthy of respect. He bought a bankrupt chemical company and turned it into Solutek Corp – a venture that was a huge success for decades. He helped to save the Shirley-Eustis house, now a national historical landmark. And he assembled one of the world’s foremost collections of antique musical instruments. He was internationally regarded as a major figure in the world of early music, its instruments, and its preservation.

He was a tough guy to love, but in the past year we learned to love each other. Some of you may know that 11 months ago I had a heart attack. Dad was in Europe at the time and hopped on the next available series of flights to get him to my bedside in California. The process of re-bonding and healing old wounds began in earnest in my hospital room. And it continued a few short weeks ago as I sat with him at the Brigham here in Boston. I am deeply grateful that my father and I began creating a relationship based on both love and respect. My only regret is that we didn’t have more time for this process.

Sometimes I feel my dad inside me. These hands are his hands. I feel him looking out through my eyes. As I look out at this room I - no, we - we are grateful that all of you are here today to demonstrate how many people he touched, and how important he was in all of our lives.

He will not soon be forgotten.

In front of Bibliotheque National, Paris

Marlowe Arthur Sigal
Rest in Peace

At the opening of the Sigal Museum in Easton, PA

With the Celestial Seasonings SleepyTime Bear, Boulder, CO

Playing Sax, Boston, MA

On the train, outside London

In front of Musee de al Musique, Paris

I was sitting in the garden at the Nyingma Tibetan Institute in Berkeley, California. Doing an exercise in expanding awareness of sound, I noticed an odd tick, tick, ticking. It was coming from the base of a table in the garden. It was shiny, mirrored metal. A dark-eyed junco saw his reflection in the table base and was attacking it.

I felt that the junco was teaching me a lesson in the Four Noble Truths. There is the Truth of Dukkha (suffering), the Truth of the origin of Dukkha, the Truth of the cessation of Dukkha, and the Truth of the path that leads to the cessation of Dukkha. The junco was suffering. The origin of its suffering was the illusion of an enemy that needed to be vanquished. The suffering would cease. The path leading to the cessation of suffering was to (a) recognize that his reality was an illusion, (b) accept that his enemy was part of his life and did not need to be vanquished, or (c) accept that his enemy was himself.

Some three years ago I built my first composter. Prior to that I had been buying and using commercial composters. None of those managed to get the compost hot enough, so it took forever to break down and weed seeds weren't killed. After attending a class on composting, I decided to build my own compost bins based on plans that were provided. However, I wasn't satisfied with those plans, so I redesigned it, and posted my version on this blog.

It worked well, but, over time I learned more about composting in my garden, and how my composter design fared. Among other things, two bins holding one yard each just wasn't enough for the quantity of material my yard was producing. Also, I decided that I did want a third bin to hold completed compost - a feature I had deleted from the original plans. Yes, it does take space, but, I needed somewhere to put the completed compost until I was ready to use it. Another problem with the prior design is that it didn't hold enough moisture. It used a lot of chicken wire (or hardware cloth) instead of wood. I'm not sure what environment they had in mind when they designed it that way. Not knowing any better, I followed their instructions and used wire mesh for four sides of my composter. Over time I replaced the two short sides with wood, and added irrigation to keep the compost moist and cooking. I didn't want to make the same mistake this time - only solid sides for the new composter.

Another problem was that I had used pine. I knew that pine wouldn't last, but, I wasn't sure if I would really be doing that much composting, so I wanted to keep the cost down. Yet another issue resulted from the fact that I built the bin on my nice, level driveway, then carried it down to its resting place in the garden. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get the ground level where the composter was to sit, so, it ended up at an inconvenient angle and twisting to conform to the uneven spot. Over time I added and removed wood panels and screws to accommodate the bending, but, there was no doubt that its days were numbered, both by choice of materials and location.

Earlier this year I demolished the old composter and spent a couple of months building The Grand-daddy of All Composters. It is a huge three-bin affair that holds about 4.5 yards of material. I had originally intended to build it using mostly cinder blocks. However, I was fortunate in being able to acquire a supply of thick, large redwood boards from a neighbor. These were a great resource, enhancing my design, and saving a ton of money. My neighbors had recently renovated their 1950's home and had the contractor save any good redwood that came out of the house. It was a great idea to save it, but they didn't actually have a purpose for the wood, so they were happy to give it to me to get it out of their yard, where it had been sitting for some time. It took a lot of effort to remove vast numbers of nails, and there was a certain amount of planing involved, but getting all that old, structurally stable redwood was a huge win. They also had an old security door which turned out to be a great resource for screen panels. I had my own supply of redwood 4x4's left over from a prior project - another savings.

Note that unlike my prior composter design, I am not including any plans. This design is predicated on the particulars of the location, and the type and size of materials I had available. So, it is unlikely to generalize for other's use without significant modification. I am presenting the project here in the hope that some of the methods, tools, and ideas might be reusable in other contexts.

The cinder block frame for the foundation 
The first thing I did this time was to build a foundation as a base for the composter. I built a cinder block wall and drove rebar several feet into the ground through some of the blocks. After mortaring the cinder block, I then filled the holes with concrete. Granted this could be overkill since I am not building a structure for habitation. However, since I live in an earthquake zone, I didn't want my compost bins to someday slide down the hill and move into my neighbor's garage.

The cinder block frame for the foundation - front view
I spent quite a while trying to decide what to use to fill in the foundation. Initially I planned on just building the cinder block wall, and filling it with compost, but, I had a few considerations. Among them, that seemed like a waste of really good compost. I preferred to use the beautiful compost from the prior bin in my garden. Also, when turning, moving, or harvesting compost, it wouldn't be obvious when to stop digging. Lastly, I didn't want to make it too easy for rats to burrow up into the bins from below and make nests. I could have put down chicken wire or hardware cloth on the bottom, but, as I had learned, that rusts and deteriorates over time. Also, any such material catches the tines of a spading fork.

Soil, rock, and concrete are expensive and heavy (surprisingly, in bagged form, concrete is the cheapest of the three.) In addition, bringing in soil had most of the same negatives as using compost. And, I didn't relish humping buckets or bags of any such material down to the bottom of the garden where the composter was to be located. There was also cost; buying enough bagged soil or rock would have been crazy expensive, plus the cost of moving it; though loose material is cheaper, paying for delivery would have been expensive, not to mention the time & cost of carrying buckets of material from where ever it was dumped.

Checking on craigslist, I found someone giving away "urbanite," less than a mile from my home. ["Urbanite" is a neologism meaning "broken pieces of unwanted concrete leftover from a demolition project".] While urbanite is heavy to lug around, it had the distinct advantages of being (1) free, (2) a good act of recycling, and (3) relatively easy to carry in blocks. So, I used this found material for filling in the foundation. We filled in the space with as many of these chunks of old concrete as we could, then topped with a few bags of base rock.

Side note: I seriously considered using Styrofoam blocks to fill the space. Styrofoam is light, and I have a lot of old Styrofoam squirreled away in case I ever move again. However, I couldn't find out much about how Styrofoam would behave with concrete poured on top of it, and I really didn't want to have the whole thing collapse some day if the Styrofoam broke down.

The foundation partially filled with "urbanite"

Mostly we just stacked and piled hunks of old concrete into the hole, but, in some cases, a little extra finesses helped.

Here I am working with a stone chisel making a few of the pieces fit "just right"

The foundation filled with urbanite and topped with gravel before topping with concrete
To be honest, I completely lost count of the number of bags of concrete we mixed. Dozens? Fortunately, Nick, my gardening assistant, became quite expert at the task.

My assistant, Nick, mixing concrete

The finished foundation
Though I wanted a surface that would make it easy to manage the compost (i.e. not wire mesh), and wouldn't let rodents in, I also wanted the compost to be able to "communicate" bacteria, moisture, and worms with the underlying soil. So, we made a number of holes in the concrete as it was setting (hopefully none big enough to let rodents in.) The urbanite chunks made this a challenge, but, we were able to force rebar through to make the holes.

The main structure of the compost bin is based on 4x4 redwood fence posts. To hold them in place they are screwed and/or bolted onto supports. Three of the four posts are free-standing - without panels connected to them. To support those posts I used larger and more expensive brackets that were set directly into concrete. Only one of these three were set into the cinder block wall, so, for the other two, we needed to build frames and pour concrete footers to hold them.

Heavy duty fence post bracket set in concrete footer
The remaining five posts would get some support from the wooden walls of the bins. For those I didn't need as beefy  (and expensive) supports. Instead I embedded bolts into the concrete that I poured into the cinder blocks. Afterwards, I screwed the brackets down onto the bolts. Note that this also required that I drill holes into the ends of the redwood posts to fit over the nuts and bolts sticking up. Hopefully this will not introduce a point of rot.

Lighter fence post bracket for posts that don't need as much support

Redwood 4x4 bolted and screwed onto light weight bracket
We spent considerable time making sure that the 4x4's were lined up, of the same height, and properly oriented to each other. Any error now would certainly translate into pain later on.

Using a string to make sure the posts are lined up

All the posts installed on the foundation
Once the foundation was done and all the posts were secured to their brackets, it was time to begin cutting and planing the reclaimed lumber, and attaching it to the non-removable sides. Note that only the back and one end are attached to the posts. Every other panel - inside and out - is removable. We made the right end removable because interference from the tree would have made accessing that bin from the front a general pain in the butt. [Side note: subsequent to these photographs, we poured a concrete step on the right hand side.]

Boards attached to the back posts to make up the rear wall
The bolts used to attach the 4x4's to the brackets meant that bottom panels needed to be notched. In some cases I simply cut out an appropriate chunk of the board. In other cases I went entirely crazy custom fitting the pieces.

The bottom panels had to be notched to fit over the post bolts

Another of the big challenges was how to create tracks to hold the removable panels. In the previous composter, the removable panels were slid between a 2x2 and the front 2x6. In that design there were only two removable panels requiring only four pieces of 2x2. At 35" each, I could get two out of a single 2x2x8. No big deal. In this case I had six removable panels, and the way I designed it, I would need two tracks for each end of each panel. As built, these bins are 42" tall. That meant I needed 24 pieces of track material at 42" each. Using 2x2's would have required 12 2x2x8's, which in redwood is crazy expensive. I started looking around at various kinds of metal brackets, including things like carpet runners and door frame insulation. In each case I kept on blowing past $100 for these tracks alone! Anything even halfway descent in cost was flimsy and likely to corrode. Moreover, the more expensive solutions also seemed like they would be a pain to cut and install.

Then, while walking through Home Depot I had an epiphany: PVC pipe. PVC pipe wont break down in contact with soil and moisture - that is the environment it is made for! The material is slippery enough that wooden planks would easily slide by without binding. They are easy to cut and not hard to drill either. Best of all,10' lengths of PVC are cheap. I also realized that they didnt really need to go all the way to the tops of the 42" 4x4's in order to hold the panels. By cutting them into 40" segments I was able to get three pieces from a single 10' pipe. I bought eight 1/2" PVC pipes and cut them into the 24 40" pieces that I needed. I then pre-drilled them and screwed them to the redwood 4x4's. Note: I found that the easiest way to drill the PVC was using a drill press. Once they were all cut and drilled, screwing them into place with decking screws was a snap.

Using PVC pipe to make tracks for installing removable panels

Corner post with PVC tracks on each side

PVC tracks for installing removable panels (top view)

Non-removable sides in place and removable panels started

Nick demonstrating his talents with tools
The next question related to the panels between the bins. In the prior composter the two bins were separated by a sheet of chicken wire stapled in place. This let the compost in the two bins connect, effectively increasing the total volume of compost cooking together. However, there were some downsides to this arrangement: Chicken wire breaks down - I had to replace it a couple times over the years. Again, tines of a spading fork get caught in the wire (and help to destroy it.) Finally, having a permanent installed barrier between the bins made moving material from one bin to another more difficult.

For the new composter I wanted to have removable internal panels. But the panels also needed to allow for "communication" of bacteria, worms, heat, etc., between the piles. I considered making the bottom halves of the dividers be permanent, with only the tops removable. That could have added support to the structure while still allowing for some increase in the ease of moving compost between bins. However, finding my neighbor's unwanted screen security door changed everything. Security doors are tough and strong and designed to face the elements. It took some time to cut, but, a metal cutting blade on my circular saw did the trick.

Pieces of screen security door used as internal panels
Unfortunately, when cutting the door apart, it wasn't possible to cut it in such a way as to retain the bars that gave the door its structure in each of the four panels. Three were fine, but, in one panel I had to just take the screen material and sandwich it between redwood 1x4's.  It is hard to tell from the photo below, but, there are two pieces of 1x4 sandwiching a piece of screen. On the back (not visible in the photo), the long edges run the full length. In the front (shown in the photo), the short edges run the full length. Thus, I was able to screw together the two thicknesses of 1x4 with the screen between.

Building a removable internal panel

Internal panels in place
As noted, I had problems keeping the compost moist with the original design of the prior composter. With this composter I closed off all sides to keep moisture in, and added drip irrigation into the lid. I also drilled holes in the lid to allow rain in. During the winter the irrigation rarely runs, but I want the compost to stay alive and keep cooking. By drilling holes in the troughs of the lid material, hopefully enough rain will drip through the roof in the winter.

Roofing material drilled so rain can enter in the winter

Drip irrigation added into the lid
[Side note: some photos (below) were taken before the irrigation was added.]

Another problem I faced was locating this set of large bins. The slope of the area posed the biggest problem. Any spot with a steep grade meant more layers of cinder block, a deeper foundation, and the need for steps to access the bins. I also needed a location that was convenient for access and would accommodate the work area where I run my chipper. The best location in terms of grade and access had a problem of coming very close to a tree. I considered a variety of options including making the whole composter shorter, narrower, or less deep. I also considered making the first two bins larger than the third bin, either in height or depth. Diminishing the size of the whole thing didn't appeal, as I wanted to thoroughly overcome the size problem of the previous bins. Making the third bin smaller would have required complications in how it mated to the second bin.

In the end I decided to keep all the bins the same size, but, for the third bin, I left off the topmost panel on the front, and I made the lid fold up accordion style, and notched it too. The whole thing works surprisingly well.

Third roof section hinged and notched for tree trunk

Third roof section hinged and notched for tree trunk - side view

Third roof section hinged for tree trunk - opening

Hinged and notched roofing section opened
It took a couple of months of planning, drawing, re-planning, and redrawing, purchasing or otherwise acquiring materials, demolishing the old composter, and building the new one. It turned into a huge  project building this huge composter. The cost of just the purchased materials was at least a couple hundred dollars, plus several hundred more for my assistant's time. Had I needed to purchase all of the lumber and pay myself for my time, the total cost would have been absurd. But, in the end it was an interesting project, and I expect that it should create great compost for years to come.

Inside completed composter

Completed composter with roofs closed

Completed composter with main lid open

Making compost

About two and a half years ago I bought an Echo Bearcat SC3305 3" chipper/shredder. It has been a great machine and is a vital part of my composting. From time to time the machine needs a certain amount of maintenance - oil changes, air filter cleaning/replacement, and blade sharpening. Sharpening the chipper blades is pretty straight forward, and there is plenty of information available online about how to get the blades out and bring them up to snuff. But, it is not at all obvious how to remove the shredder blades, let alone sharpen them.

There is one video on YouTube that tries to explain the process of removing the shredder blades on Echo Bearcat chipper/shredders. Unfortunately, the person that made that video had already done the job, and in the video he just gives a description of what the process involves, moreover, he leaves out the most confusing parts altogether. Comments that viewers added fill in a lot of the details, but, it is still less than obvious how to do this task.

After 2.5 years of heavy use, my shredder blades are, well, shredded. I purchased Echo's "Shredder Knife Kit #70973" for "all 3-inch chipper/shredders." Fortunately this kit comes with instructions. Unfortunately the kit is very expensive; I bought mine at the local shop where I originally got the shredder. The price, with taxes, was US$188.00. I have seen it online for about $30 less, but still, this is an expensive rebuild kit, and a lot of people are likely to choose to sharpen the knives rather than purchase the kit [note too that I have not found the knives for sale - only the whole kit.]

The shredder blades on my Echo Bearcat SC3305 before replacement

So, to help out anyone that may be wanting to replace or resharpen the the shredder blades on their Echo Bearcat shredder/chipper, I have produced a video showing the process.  It can be found on YouTube, here:

Please note that I am demonstrating the process for newer units. There is a different process for units with serial numbers earlier than #11010. Go figure.

Here, in PDF format, are the instructions provided with the rebuild kit Echo Bearcat Shredder Knife Kit Part #70973.