Ageing Infrastructure

What do you think is the most likely reason for a water grid shutdown?  It isn’t terrorism and it isn’t pollution. The answer is, the age of the infrastructure used to deliver the water or collect the sewage. Think about the city you live in. Chances are it has existed for hundreds of years, if not longer. Most cities water systems grow in phases. They keep adding to the network every year as the population grows. The end result is most cities have infrastructure that range from less than a year to hundreds of years and with many different materials. I have seen water mains made of wood in service as late as 2011. Like any piece of equipment it all has a useful lifespan, beyond that lifespan failures become increasingly more likely to be catastrophic. The result is a large volume and dollar amount of material and equipment that needs repairs or to be replaced.

Wooden Water Main circa 1909 source www.nytimes.com

Wooden Water Main circa 1909 source http://www.nytimes.com

Normally the stress on water systems comes from population growth.  A water main that was ok in the 1980’s may not be large enough for today’s population.  As cities infill and build higher density buildings they frequently overburden the water systems.  Either causing contamination or total failure of the system.

Older equipment is also more susceptible to natural disasters, terrorism and human accidents. These three things can break a new system too, however they don`t have to try as hard with the older systems.

Climate change is having an affect too.  As severe weather events are on the rise, storm sewers might be found lacking, as was the case in Calgary, Alberta and Toronto, Ontario recently.  The system was grossly undersized for the amount of rain that fell.  They said things like “it was a month’s worth of rain in one day” on the news.  When the fact is, it once was a months worth of rain, and is now something more frequent, lets say a weeks worth of rain.    I’m not suggesting we build our systems to meet a 1000 year storm, but I am suggesting that our current idea of a 100 year storm may be an underestimation and that the error is getting worse.  To bring it back to infrastructure, if we are built to the current 100 year storm levels, what happens if the 100 year storms are getting worse?  We will find out in the not too distant future.

Calgary, Flood, Floods, Water

Flooding In Calgary AB 2013 source: http://www.newinfills.ca

What are the options for people to take? The first and most important thing to do is to plan ahead and replace older parts of the system before they fail.  A $50,000 job to replace an old section of pipe at a time you choose is a lot cheaper than waiting for it to fail at the time you are least prepared.  If you are connected to a public utility, ask them about their equipment replacement plan.  If they are not looking 25 years into the future or longer then ask them why not? If you have private systems, you need to ask the same questions.  Can you afford to replace the septic system when it fails? Or can you afford to dig/drill a new well when the casing cracks?

As you can probably surmise the addition of more people + more rain + more water and more sewage means system failures will become more frequent and probably for longer periods of time.  What does this mean to the average person?  Plan for system failure.  Have a backup system ready to go when it does.  Know the age of your equipment and it`s expected lifetime. That way you wont be caught off guard.

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Rebuilding Society: Agriculture

This is my latest article on what is important for rebuilding society after a societal collapse. Agriculture is important for obvious reasons. Without an adequate food supply there is no possibility for any society. Agriculture is the only long term method for managing the food supply. Hunting and gathering take too much time and area for current populations. Storing food is very temporary and doesn’t last very long. Trading for food is something many countries do today, but this is dependent on a very reliable transportation network.

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The lowest level of sustainable agriculture is subsistence agriculture. This means the levels of production from agriculture are just enough to sustain your own existence (or your family’s existence). Subsistence agriculture is very time intensive. It leaves you with little to no time for other things like education, construction and any other form of employment. Societies heavy with subsistence agriculture are also societies rampant with poverty. Subsistence farming is not a way to grow a society, it is merely a way to survive. After a societal collapse, subsistence farming will become common place. Those with knowledge and the means to grow food will probably be able to produce ample amounts of food. It is everyone else who will struggle to achieve a subsistence level of food production. Those that fail will probably die from starvation.

The knowledge required for successful agricultural production needs to survive the collapse. Books on the subject are a good start. A much greater resource are people who are already successful at propagation of food plants and raising livestock. Agriculture at any level is more complicated that putting seeds in the ground or letting a herd roam free. There will be local conditions that determine best chances of success. Soil and weather patterns vary widely at surprisingly small scales. If someone you know has knowledge like this, make them your new best friend.

Historic techniques for farming will be very useful. Many modern crops and farms are dependent on pesticides and fertilizer. Unless someone knows how to continue making these chemicals, those supplies will quickly run out and in some cases expire. Ideally, the knowledge required is more than just historical farming techniques as many of them were destructive to either the environment at large, water sources and soil quality. The best knowledge to have are the low technology techniques for treating current agriculture problems. A good example of what I mean is how flies around cattle can spread pink eye around the herd. Currently this is usually controlled by a bovine insect repellent sprayed over the cattle. It works great at keeping flies away, but after the collapse the industry and transportation infrastructure may not be present or reliable. A low technology solution is to feed the cattle garlic. Something in the garlic makes the cattle less appetizing. You may not notice less flies around the herd as you would with the insecticide, but the infection rates of pink eye will go down, and isn’t that the problem that needed solving? With the prevalence of garlic worldwide, this solution for pink eye cold be done by almost any cattle farmer (I’m not sure if garlic would affect milk taste in a dairy cow). My point is, all the farmer needs is to grow some garlic and he/she has something with multiple uses and is dependent on nobody to do it.

After subsistence level agriculture, comes increasing levels of food security, wealth and time. Historically we moved beyond subsistence farming by improving techniques and creating new techniques, new hybrid crops and breeding animals to better suit local conditions. This was achieved through research, experimentation and trial and error. After a collapse, research and experimentation will probably stop, leaving just trial and error and people who know better slowly spreading the best techniques through word of mouth.

As society begins to reform, places with food will become boom towns and places without will disappear. Sustainable agriculture is the best way towards a stable society.

Evaluating Risk and Preparing Accordingly

From extreme weather related disasters to economic collapse, danger is a very real part of daily life. Risk is part of every activity humans do everyday. Risk can apply to our safety, economic, political, environmental and social spheres. There is a risk when cooking breakfast, there is a risk when driving a car there are risks when you invest money and there are risks when you tell someone you love them for the first time. Basically, because life is so risky, people feel the need to mitigate risk wherever possible and prepare for when disaster strikes. Some types of risk human beings are very good at evaluating, other types not so much.

Natural Disaster: Tornado  (source: tornado-facts.com)

Natural Disaster: Tornado (source: tornado-facts.com)

Risk is made up of two parts. The severity and the frequency. Both the severity or consequences and the frequency are essential for understanding the risk. Events that have a low severity and a low frequency therefore are low risk and are generally considered to be safe.

Risk Matrix for Classifying Risk Types (source: erris.org)

Risk Matrix for Classifying Risk Types (source: erris.org)

The danger comes from events that have either high severity or high frequency (or both). If an event has high severity and high frequency, it is necessarily very dangerous. A great example of these types of events are hurricanes. They happen every year and cause significant damage every year. Even if you aren’t directly affected by a hurricane, you are reminded of the last time you where hit with every hurricane.
Where humans become confused about risk is when we are afraid at the same time. If we are for example afraid of nuclear meltdown, then we will rank a nuclear meltdown as a more significant risk. This is referred to as the dread factor. The dread factor is a dangerous thing to ignore. With finite resources for disaster preparedness and risk reduction giving into fear will cause a real risk to be ignored. I’m not suggesting that the risks we dread are not dangerous, just that it is easy to over inflate their importance to our time, money and effort.

Humans have a technology bias. We feel that man made disasters are inherently riskier. This is partly due to the dread factor regarding man made disasters but it is also due to a willful down playing the risk from natural disasters. Severe weather can happen anywhere on the planet and happens very frequently.  Man made disasters can also happen anywhere, but they do not happen nearly as frequently.

Man Made Disaster: The Kuait Oil fires (source: disasterium.com)

Man Made Disaster: The Kuait Oil fires (source: disasterium.com)

Statistics are necessary for knowing what the likelihood of any event occurring could be. The good news is you don’t need to be particularly strong in math to do this. What is really important is the ranking and directing more resources to the top ranking items.
Statistics can also be used to highlight risk or hide risk. That is assuming people will read the statistic correctly. The term 100 year storm is often interpreted as a storm that comes every 100 years. It actually refers to a storm that historically only occur once in a 100 year period. The difference is you can have a 100 year storm occur two years in a row or more.

I have found some ways to learn what you are most at risk for/from. The news is a good source, if you read about forest fires nearby, then you are probably at risk from forest fires in general. Try to read the news as factually as possible. Ignore any hype and sensationalism.

Next, ask your family for a list of any health problems and causes of death. Many diseases are genetic and knowing what you may affect you can give you time to delay or stop it all together. If all your grandparents died of heart disease, then action today can prevent that fate for you.

Next, call your insurance company. Insurance companies are in the business of estimating risk. The more expensive the coverage is, the more likely that event is to occur. Another question to ask is if there is anything they won’t cover for where you live. If an insurance company won’t sell you flood insurance, I can almost guarantee that you live on a flood plain and a flood is in your very near future.

Finally, most risk can be averted just by paying attention. When we are alert and attentive we will act sooner and are significantly more likely to be prepared.

Can I use a storm-water pond as a back-up source of water?

Storm-water ponds are the closest alternative source of water for many people living in urban areas. In an emergency this source of water may be all that is available to you.  Eventually any water you have stored will be consumed and the water in a storm-water pond may be the difference between life and death.  With the proper treatment your local storm-water pond can be a great backup source of drinking water.

Industrial storm-water pond (source: info.evergreen.ca)

Storm-water presents a unique set of challenges during treatment. Because storm-water ponds collect surface water, the water is exposed to all the contaminants on the ground in the catchment area. This includes but is not limited to pesticides and fertilizers applied to lawns, motor oil and gasoline leaking from vehicles and litter like cigarette buts. It all ends up is the storm-water pond. Those chemicals are already in storm-water ponds on a normal day. During an emergency there may be additional contamination from sewage runoff from an overloaded or broken sewage system. The water in the pond will also contain all the microorganisms like ecoli, giardia and cryptosporidium normally in surface water. Any one of these will make you very sick if you get infected with them.
Finally, there will be high levels of nitrates in storm-water ponds. Too much nitrates consumed by young children can cause blue baby syndrome.

The first step in treating water from a storm-water pond is straining. Straining the water through a cloth or loose sand filter will remove large particles (ones you could pick up with your fingers). Remove as much of the suspended particles from the water as you can. Straining the water first will extend the life of your proper water filter.

If you have a clarifying agent like aluminum sulfate, this is the best time to add it to the water.  It will make contaminants too small to be filtered become attracted to each other and become significantly larger.  Larger particles are easier to remove from the water. Let the water sit still for at least 30 minutes without disturbing it.  All the newly formed large particles (called floc) will sink to the bottom.  When you take the water from this container, make sure you leave the majority of the settled material at the bottom of the container.

Urban Storm-water pond (source: greenbmp.blogspot.com)

The next step is to filter the water. Filter the water even if it looks clear, the human eye is five times too weak to detect dangerous levels of particles. Filter the water at least once through an activated carbon filter. Activated carbon is known to remove many different chemicals from water including pesticides, chlorine and fluoride. Activated carbon is not the same as charcoal. Charcoal is similar, it can remove toxins from water but it is nowhere near the efficiency of activated carbon.

The third step is oxidation. Oxidation will help with disinfection as most disinfectant chemicals are also oxidizers. Chemicals like sodium hypochlorite and potassium permanganate are both oxidizers and disinfectants. Oxidation will break down many of the remaining contaminants and inactivate many of the remaining bacteria. Keep adding the oxidizer/disinfectant till you can detect a residual after 20 minutes. The 20 minutes is the minimum you should wait for a gallon of water. Wait longer for larger volumes. This is because oxidation is a chemical reaction that isn’t instant. It needs time to complete the reaction.

The fourth step is to filter the water again. Filtering again is necessary because the disinfection/oxidation step will create some potentially carcinogenic byproducts. We filter before oxidation to minimize the amount of chlorine (or other chemical) and to limit the possibility of forming dangerous byproducts. We filter the second time to remove any byproducts that have been formed.

The final step is to boil the water.  This will help with disinfection, but the main goal of boiling at this point is to remove any volatile chemicals.  Any chemical with a boiling point lower than water will be removed after boiling.

A note about disinfection.  If all of these steps are followed there is no need for a step dedicated for disinfection.  Between the oxidation and the boiling of the water any microorganisms will be inactivated.  If you are storing the water for a long time then add some sodium hypochlorite for a residual disinfectant.  The residual disinfectant will prevent the water from becoming recontaminated before you drink it.

One additional possible step is to aerate the water.  Ponds are frequently stagnant.  Stagnant water is green with algae, it smells bad and tastes worse. After the water is made potable, transfer the water back and forth between two glasses. This adds oxygen to the water and will make the water taste better.

This may seem like a lot of work for something as small as a storm-water pond.  What I have described are the basic steps to turn the potentially toxic water in the pond into clean and safe drinking water.

Grid Shutdown: Boil Water Advisory

If you have ever had a water main break on your street or any other service disruption to your water supply you may have experienced a Boil Water Advisory or a Boil Water Order. Boil water advisories/orders are the official response from the people running the water system. Below is a brief description of when a system would issue a boil water advisory or order and some general ideas for what should and should not be done as someone under a boil water advisory/order.

Source: districtgov.org

The good news about a boil water advisory is that they are often issued as a precautionary measure. Meaning they are often used in cases where the water isn’t actually dangerous. The system operators issue the warnings so they have done the proper due diligence. The liabilities involved if someone gets sick or dies and the public wasn’t informed are huge. Ok, at this point you may be wondering what sort of situations would require a boil water advisory. Typically any time there will be work on the distribution system requiring lowering the pressure or if the disinfection of the water system is interrupted for a long time.

Boil water orders are more serious. They come into place when large and persistent problems occur. Things like contamination of the source water and major failure of critical treatment equipment can cause boil water orders.

Boil Water Notice From The Regional District Of North Okanagan (source: vernonblog.blogspot.com)

The first thing you should do when you learn about a boil water advisory or order is read the information given to you. It will have instructions for you. It will have essential information for you like the cause if it is known and the expected duration. It will also list acceptable uses of the water, you might need to boil before drinking but washing is fine. Or you may not be able to use the water for gardening if the reason is due to chemical contamination. If you actually read the notice you will appear to have inside knowledge because in my experience very few people will ever read them. It will also list sources for alternative drinking water supply. Watch how fast the corner store sells out of water. In my experience, people only let this happen once. Then they start keeping a supply.  The written notice will usually only talk about “drinking” but the list of activities that require boiled water include food preparation, coffee makers (some don’t boil the water long enough or hot enough), brushing teeth, making ice, making infant formula and anything going into an immune compromised person.  Veterinarians also recommend that any water given to a domesticated house pet should also be boiled.  Livestock are a different story.  Anything that is already free range is already drinking untreated water and will probably be unaffected by drinking the unboiled water.  However, there is still a limit for bacteria concentrations in water consumed by livestock, free range or not, just like there is for every other animal (including us) on the planet.  Here is a link to the standards for water uses for the Province of British Columbia, use table 1 as a guidline for how to use water during a boil water advisory or boil water order.  If table 1 says “no applicable standard” then it is safe to use the unboiled water. http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wat/wq/BCguidelines/microbiology/microbiology.html#toc

The biggest thing you should not do is abandon drinking tap water in favor of bottled water. This is a mistake. If you do this you are still at risk but you are significantly less likely to hear about it if something is wrong. Another thing to avoid doing is panic. This is one of those things where no news is good news. I tell the people that if you stop seeing me and hearing from me then everything is back to normal. This is because I am legislated to tell the public when there is a problem. At this time I also tell them the time line as does the written notice. After two consecutive clean water tests the system and water return to normal. It is also way too time and cost prohibitive to go back door to door and say “everything is fine now”.
If you live in a large city, there will probably be some media coverage of the return to normal situation. Otherwise if you don’t hear anything. After the date on the notice your water is fine. If there is still a problem they are legally required to tell you again about the problem.  Neither a boil water advisory or boil water order is something to panic about it is not time to call a well driller and go off the water system completely (if that is even an option where you live). It is time to start using your preparations and your backup water supplies.

If you don’t want to or can’t boil your water then you can always use an alternative form of disinfection.  Either ultraviolet radiation, sodium hypochlorite or calcium hypochlorite are acceptable alternatives.  Be careful of using these alternatives for highly turbid water sources.  The floating debris in the water can hide pathogens, cryptosporidum is highly resistant to chlorine as is girarda adding enough chlorine to kill these two microorganisims will make the water unsafe to drink.  Turbidity can also react with the chlorine to form hazardous chemical byproducts. Remember turbidity is removed from the water by setteling and filtering before disinfection to avoid these two problems. You may want to install a water filter in your home or purchase a portable water filter as a backup.

All that is left is what needs to be done after the boil water notice or order is lifted and everything returns to normal.  Flush all water-using fixtures like faucets and showers for at least one minute. Drain and flush all ice-making machines in your refrigerator. Run water softeners through a regeneration cycle.  Drain and refill hot water tanks set below 45 C (normal setting is 60 C). Change any filters either under sink style, on the faucet style and the ones in a jug in the refrigerator, regardless of the type of filter.  Filters that are designed for untreated water will not need to be changed unless they are used up.

Survival Bunkers: What Features Should They Have?

Survival bunkers are coveted by many as the ultimate survival preparation possible, providing it is full of food and water. The common elements for any shelter are food, drinking water, air circulation and waste removal. Honourable mention goes to electrical power and heating and cooling. The extent and the capacity of these essentials depends on the purpose of the shelter or bunker and how long it will be occupied. The characteristic that almost can go without saying, storage, lots of storage.

Many of the features described in this article are possible to build into almost any structure, some will only be possible or necessary in a fortified bunker. One note on fortified structures, many municipalities have made fortified homes illegal. This was done where I live to combat organised crime, and make it possible to evict criminal organisations, easier to raid these structures and to discourage to setting up of a headquarters in the first place. Be aware of what is legal before you start to fortify any structure.

The first decision to make is if your shelter will be underground or above ground. Both options have advantages and disadvantages. Underground bunkers are easily hidden and offer excellent concealment. The ground around the walls also offers protection from most explosions and most forms of natural disasters. Underground is a great place to hide. Underground is not a great place to defend. Civil unrest can easily exploit a weakness in all underground structures, if all the exits are found by an aggressive party then all inhabitants of the bunker are trapped. All anyone has to do is wait with weapons pointed at the doors, because the doors will eventually open when supplies run out. They won’t even have to wait that long. Blocking air vents, adding toxic gasses and flooding the bunker with water will flush people out faster. The primary security of underground bunkers is secrecy. Keep the location and if possible the existence of any bunker secret. This may even be more important than the strength of the walls.
Whether you choose to build above ground or underground there are features that are vital for both.
Multiple exits, are needed. There is little use in getting trapped in your survival shelter just to die later. Always have another way out. Speaking of exits, installing a barrier that forms a ninety degree bend outside the door will inhibit people from knocking the door down. A cinder block or concrete construction with just enough room to open the door will prevent anyone from swinging a battering ram against the door.

Bunkers that expect to be occupied for extended periods of time should have a UV growth lighting system. Something to at least start some seedlings. Volcanic eruption can create shorter growing seasons. Giving your food plants a head start could make all the difference between harvest and starvation. It would be awesome to have an underground farm that can grow enough food for your entire family, but I would bet money that it is too impractical to be a viable option.

Air circulation is also critical. Simple air circulation can occur with two holes and a fan. Easy to install but the can and will leave you open to any airborne contaminants or contagions. Screens and U-bends will keep out rodents and water. HEPA filters remove many small particles and some airborne bacteria and viruses. You can also use UV light to disinfect the air before it is circulated. And it is best done right after the HEPA filter.
Everything else requires a positive pressure system to keep any contaminants outside. Positive pressure is achieved when air is blown into a room faster than it can be released. This means air will constantly push out of any leaking point and physically push away from the bunker. Even when doors are opened the air will push our preventing contaminants from entering.
This is the opposite of an isolation room, like the ones in a hospital. Isolation rooms remove air from a room faster than air can enter the room. This means air is pulled inside constantly and out to an air disinfection system. This keeps the airborne contagion contained in the one room even when doors are opened.
Both positive and negative pressure systems have higher electricity costs and that could limit their applications.

Water needs mentioning. A source of drinking water is essential as well. Length of stay is the master here. If you only have a storm shelter then you can probably get away with storage of water. If you plan on outlasting extended civil unrest, then a well with access inside the bunker is preferred. A method of disinfection of drinking water is also preferential.

Next is waste, all the garbage and sewage needs to be dealt with. A septic tank can receive the sewage easily enough if the terrain allows for it. Garbage can be incinerated from within the bunker. For more on solid waste and liquid waste management see my other articles.

Fortification is a useful way to help survive many situations. Whether you expect a tornado or World War Three, having a place to retreat to that can take a beating could save your life. Anything that could save your life one day is always worth a closer look.

Rebuilding Society: Education and the Transfer of Skills

In my series of rebuilding articles, I examine what is necessary to rebuild society after a major disaster after basic survival needs are met. In a large enough disaster there will be a tendency to ignore information that is useless to the immediate survival concerns. In all my reading on the subject I rarely hear people mention that proximity to libraries is ideal. Now a library won’t be necessary when you are starving and cold. But after you have been fed, you are warm and secure; this is the time when improvements can be made. Better farming techniques, better construction methods, better healthcare, this list doesn’t have an end. Everything can be improved, and unless there is someone there to teach you a better way, that leaves self directed learning in the form of reading. I will point out, that learning is easier today then it will be after society collapses. Take advantage now.

To paraphrase John Wyndham; author of Day of The Triffids, We have something that no other group tasked with rebuilding civilisation has ever had. We have to collected written knowledge of the previous civilisation. Think about the implications of that statement, everything mankind has learned so far is written down. All we have to do as individuals and as a society is make a point to save the information. Starting from scratch is something we can avoid. We wont have to relearn everything, just focus on the dissemination of that knowledge to new minds. This is formally referred to as education if you are young and re education if you are older.

I am not an advocate of any particular format of education, as long as the knowledge is passed successfully and accurately. Whether it is more efficient to have formal schools with dedicated teachers or a dispersed network of mentors/apprentices depends largely on specifics. The size of the group, the nature of the skill being taught and the situation all play significant roles. I do see increased emphasis on self directed learning in extended periods of hardship as the negative stimulus from life will create a strong drive to improve the situation. As they say necessity is the mother of invention. Difficult situations inspire ingenious solutions.

I have some thoughts as to what education could look like after a collapse of society. Initially groups will be small, everyone will need to be able to do everything. Everyone will need contribute to the group’s survival, everyone will be busy. Education will out of necessity be the “on the job” training variety. Here let me show you how to start a fire/disinfect water/gather food/build a fence, ok, you got it, now you go do it. In small groups and solo the only other option is self directed learning through trial and error, experimentation and as always reading.

As the group grows in size, there will increasing pressure and opportunity for specialization. Is it better to teach a doctor how to garden? Or let him/her focus on medicine and become a better doctor? Does the group benefit more from having their best hunters hunting? Or having the hunters learn how to do something else? It takes less time and resources if everyone does what they are best at, but becoming too dependent on someone else to do their job can be disastrous in it’s own right. In reality I see a mix of education formats and a mix of specialization with widespread cross training. Ideally, people will specialize in one or two areas and become competent in many others. This will maximize the number of people to do any particular job, and also create strong knowledge base for educating other people and advancing the field. I see a decrease in the emphasis on self directed learning, Mostly because of the way things are today, but I have a feeling it is tied to the fact that if the mother of all invention is necessity the contentment must be the executioner and contentment grows as the basic needs are met.

It is worth pointing out that it is way easier to learn something that other people have previously discovered than to discover or re-discover it for yourself. Take the time before civilization collapses to learn everything you can. It will make any transition easier on you and the people around you. It will also help you today, because knowledge is power and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

In H.G. Wells’ book, The Time Machine, the main character builds a time machine and travels into the future. He finds that the civilization he knows has been destroyed and he finds a preindustrial society has taken its place. Without ruining the book, he returns home and takes three books to the future. He has to decide what knowledge to save and what knowledge he will need. THey never tell what three bookshelf chooses. I have often wondered myself what three books would I take? I cannot however, settle on the top three. This inability to choose led me to conclude that it would be worth saving as many sources of knowledge as is humanly possible. A conclusion reiterated by the remake of The Time Machine (the movie) made in 2000. Instead of three books, an artificial intelligence interface to a compendium of all human knowledge is brought to the future. Now THAT is something you want when trying to rebuild a society. Since that doesn’t exist yet, and I don’t have the ability to bring to Internet with me, that leaves books. I will leave you with the same question indirectly posed by The Time Machine, which three book would you take?