Archive | June 2014


In a New York Times OpEd, They Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To – Inferior Products and Labor Drive Modern Construction, Henry Petroski rants about materials and workers:

Workmanship has declined in parallel. There continue to be expert craftsmen — carpenters, roofers, painters — who work with precision and pride, but they are increasingly being pushed out by cheaper labor with inferior skills (which is, of course, why the labor is cheaper). …

As an architect, I see good and bad work all the time. I have swum in old pools with playful, elegant ceramic tile curbs that I know I could never hope to have duplicated today. I have taken measurements in old buildings with tight brick joints and expertly-mitred woodwork the sort of which I never see when I do punch lists today. I have been to project meetings where an electrical subcontractor objected to the difficulty of the work – running utility outlets in a furniture store – by claiming to be installers, not designers.

As pointed out in the Times comments section, many great old buildings survive and many shoddy old buildings don’t. But that argument only works if there are great new buildings with excellent craftsmanship. Even the most costly of today’s buildings should probably be called assemblages or installs because to a great extent, builders do a lot more assembling and installing today than cutting, molding, fitting and building.

This is not the fault of homeowners, but of the industries whose practices favor the use of inferior products and labor that drive modern construction: the developers, lenders, builders and Realtors who, to make quick money, have created a stock of domestic and commercial infrastructure that is a waste of resources and will not last.

As pointed out in the Times comment section, cheapskate homeowners are just as complicit as anyone else. But as also pointed out, homeowners have less and less money to spend on quality work. Petroski goes on:

I can’t help but think that this experience, multiplied by those of millions of homeowners, affects how we as a country view our public infrastructure. We have seen short-term fixes and shoddy workmanship at home, and we see our bridges and roads the same way.

I’m running across that hyphenated word, short-term, in more and more articles. We have short-term energy policy, politics, and attention spans, but long-term climate, water, healthcare and employment problems that we are hoping will just go away. Unfortunately it may be our infrastructure that just goes away.

The Emperor has no Apparel

I used to walk past the skinny mannequins of an American Apparel storefront every day on the way to work. My wife stopped in once, but told me the clothing was for the very young with disposable income. Later I heard the rumors about the founder hitting on the help, but nothing seemed to come of it. Until now.

In, The Road to Dov Charney’s Ouster at American Apparel, the NY Times makes it clear that sagging profits doomed him, not predatory behavior:

“We were not blind and deaf to all the allegations and the newspaper stories,” [Allan Mayer, a board member who is now co-chairman] continued. “But you can’t take an action this serious simply on the basis of rumors and allegations.”

Interviews with nearly a dozen current and former high-level company insiders depict a recent cascade of events that essentially forced the hand of a traditionally sympathetic board. Mr. Charney’s coarse behavior was well known, and apparently tolerated, as evidenced by how unscathed he remained despite a parade of harassment lawsuits that trailed him for years.

But the company’s financial situation had grown precarious: Interest rates on some loans had shot up to as high as 20 percent, last year the retailer posted a loss of $106 million, and the stock price had plummeted to a low of 47 cents a share this spring from $15 in 2007.

With a great deal of help from the Times and other media, Woody Allen seems to have survived the accusations of his grown, adopted children, Dylan and Ronan. With the help of NY Magazine, photographer Terry Richardson may well survive the accusations of several former models. But Allen and Richardson keep making money. Now that he isn’t raking in the cash, Charney does not seem to have any powerful media allies.

JMG talk

An Archdruid commenter posted a youtube link to John Michael Greer’s talk at the Economics, Energy and Environment Conference from June 1st, 2014 in London, England.

Courtesy Call

I’ve gotten this phone message twice:

This message is being left as a courtesy. We are in the process of doing an asset and liability search and your number has come up in our records. Press ‘1’ now to speak to our pre-legal department or call today at 855-396-2263. Once again, call 855-396-2263. Failure to respond will be documented as being non-cooperative.

According to 800Notes, someone answers that number with, “Thomas King & Associates” and tries to obtain your social security number.

I can live with being non-cooperative.

Do you want Slime with that?

Seems like I can’t go to the grocery store without spending sixty bucks. A multitude of media outlets are reporting that meat, fish, poultry, and egg prices are up seven or eight percent, but it is even worse if you are buying non-processed, ethically-produced, organic foods. My wife, my stepson and I feel much better since making that switch, and so far it is paying off in fewer visits to the doctors and pharmacies. Her irritable bowel syndrome and high blood pressure have vanished. My weight has plummeted. He has more serious issues, but is feeling better.

Can we afford to keep eating this way when I retire? Can we afford not to? Yesterday morning I heard, ‘Pink Slime’ Is Making A Comeback. Do You Have A Beef With That? on NPR:

A much-maligned beef product that was once frequently added to hamburger is making a comeback. Two years ago, beef processors cut back sharply on producing what they call “lean, finely textured beef” after the nasty nickname for it, “pink slime,” caught on in the media. …

“Ultimately what happened is consumers contacted retailers. So by the end of March 2012, Cargill’s finely textured beef had incurred an 80 percent decrease in volume. We ultimately were forced to close down two of the production sites out of the five we had operating that produced finely textured beef,” [Cargill spokesman Mike Martin] says. …

But now, Cargill says, sales of the product are up as beef prices are rising. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says in 2010, the cost of ground beef averaged $2.25 a pound. Now it’s nearly $4 a pound. So grocery stores and food processors, like the makers of lasagna and pasta sauce, are buying more ground beef with the cheaper beef product mixed in. …

Yecch. I like the odd bit of meat, but I see a more affordable, vegan diet in my future. Thanks to my stepson’s green thumb, we are already growing some vegetables, and have started a few apple trees.

The Limited World of Libertarianism

A long time ago, a coworker quickly explained that he was a libertarian because it was internally consistent – he was in favor of less government control of both his personal life and his business life. He felt that Conservatives wanted to control him personally but let corporations run amok, and that Liberals wanted to rein in corporations but let people do what they wanted personally. Libertarians, he said, believed in less government all the way around.

In practice though, libertarianism only seems to have room for white people and a few people of color that act like white people. A lot of folk have noted that many libertarians seem like good ol’ conservatives that want to legalize pot. Anyway, one link led to another, and I found this critique at Salon:

Anarchism was libertarianism fully realized. Political libertarianism was a deformation of the ideology, only attractive to those who valued the sentiments of libertarianism but weren’t principled enough to carry it to its logical (and moral) conclusions. Once I realized this, there was no going back. But anarchism isn’t a part of libertarianism. Anarchism is its own broad political and social philosophy. Libertarianism is just one school of thought that can (and should) lead you to statelessness. So I stopped calling myself a libertarian, preferring “anarchist” when labels were necessary. I still considered most of my beliefs to technically fall under the umbrella of libertarianism. But somewhere in the last few years even that association has faded.

Update 20140618: If you’re stuck at anarchy, it is worth reading Dmitry Orlov’s In Praise of Anarchy Parts I, II & III, in which he discusses the theories of Kropotkin.


I’ve watched a lot of advertising in my life, and I’m guessing many people that might read this have as well. I’d like to think that after buying the back page comic book stuff that fell apart right away, and the designer-labeled stuff that quickly went out of fashion, and the user-friendly software that wasn’t, and the diet stuff that puts on weight, all that stuff, that I am somewhat resistant to advertising. But marketing people aren’t sitting on their hands.

In 2008 I read a piece in Harper’s predicting that the next bubble after the Great Recession might be in CleanTech or Green industries. As predicted many of those industries and products have steadily wormed their way into our daily life. Even though it costs too much to make, there is probably corn-based ethanol in your auto fuel. There is likely an organic section in your grocery store with something you always buy that is labeled natural, but isn’t particularly different from the stuff that isn’t so labeled. You may even drive an EV thinking electricity is cleaner and more sustainable than oil.

In the building industry, we now have standards like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C), Netzero, and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Our institutional and government clients require LEED certification, which invokes FSC and C2C. We now try to implement many LEED concepts as good practice, and some clients even ask us to fill out LEED forms without paying into the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) certification process. Some clients have no intention of spending a nickel for green building, but will eventually be required to satisfy the new International Green Construction Code (IgCC).

Or will they?

USGBC’s LEED has a competitor in Green Globes (GG), which is far less costly for both building professionals and for building owners seeking green credentials. Both certification programs have been deemed equally acceptable by the General Services Administration, but critics contend that GG was initiated by plastics and timber industries to undercut LEED and the FSC, and that their certifications aren’t very rigorous (PDF).

Last week – in what we call a lunch ‘n learn – a representative of Forbo Flooring gave us the latest version of their AIA approved presentation, Full Transparency in Product Declarations. Forbo makes linoleum flooring, which over the course of my career was largely out-competed by first the very toxic Vinyl Asbestos Tile, then by the much less toxic Vinyl Composite Tile. Linoleum is more environmentally-friendly than vinyl flooring, but though serviceable in many buildings, it is less resistant to normal abuse in others. Now that being environmentally-responsible is becoming important, linoleum companies want to see fair measurements of what is and isn’t green. Hence they cry foul that Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) of building products don’t even consider human or eco-toxicity.

A few days ago, I ran across TriplePundit’s article, How to Fight Greenwashing: The Value of Third-Party Certification in Green Building:

Greenwashing is rampant. Overzealous marketers know that sustainability is gaining importance in the minds of consumers and corporate buyers, and they sometimes make claims that are vague, misleading, unquantifiable, or even completely immaterial to the product or industry. Bogus or unsubstantiated statements like “all-natural,” “eco-friendly,” and even “sustainable” are all too easy to find on everyday products, from cleaners to shampoos to paints.

The green building industry is a hotbed for greenwashing, reflecting the fact that green building is defined by a dizzying array of attributes. These attributes range from the material ingredients and relative toxicity of products, to the environmental impact of material extraction, to the actual performance of the building itself in its energy, water and resource usage.

Probably the most insidious greenwashing concept is the idea that you always have to be buying something new or different to be green. Making do with less, or even learning to do without is often the greenest approach.