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Posts from — February 2008


There are three books that form the foundation for my urban Weltanschauung, and I hope to write of each. The first of these, for me, was James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere, a polemic examination of the state of our built environment. Written before global warming or peak oil commanded the attention they do today, Kunstler focused on the dehumanizing aesthetics of postwar development, particularly suburbia.

I’d long felt an uneasiness about the suburbs: I’d had a general notion that total reliance on cars must be bad for the environment, and I also knew that the suburbs appeared dull and boring at best, but I could never quite put a finger on precisely what was wrong with them. Kunstler’s book was a clarion illumination of the problems of suburbia; he put into amusingly acerbic words precisely what I had felt.

Kunstler wrote two more books about the built form: Home from Nowhere, and The City in Mind, and he maintains a curmudgeonly website, with his delightful eyesore of the month. Kunstler is, by trade, a writer, and so his work is generally very well crafted. In the past few years he has mostly been concerned with Peak Oil and the complete catastrophe it could be for the American Way of Life, and his book on the subject, The Long Emergency, isn’t quite as captivating as his other works: in large part because the depth of research and analysis that went into his other books just isn’t there.

As someone who listens to several podcasts, I was excited to learn that he is now doing a weekly podcast of his own: Kunstlercast. The first episode concerns (chain) drugstores, and their proliferation. It’s worth listening to.

February 25, 2008   1 Comment

Seven-layer floors

When we bought our house, four years ago, we had most of the carpet and linoleum ripped up, revealing beautiful oak floors underneath, which we had refinished. The only room in which we did not do this was the kitchen, because we (and the floor refinisher I hired) were unsure whether there were good floors in the kitchen to be refinished. We’re updating the kitchen piecemeal: we repainted the walls, in two phases, and with much help from my father, we repainted the kitchen cabinets as well. We put open shelving on one wall, and fashioned a counter from Metro shelving and bamboo butcher block.

So finally it was time to address the floors, which meant ripping out the existing vinyl and seeing if we had wood to refinish, or whether we’d need to buy some new floor covering. My friend rg agreed to help with the ripping out, and as it turns out, we removed six layers of older flooring to expose a finish-able pine floor.

To begin with, the vinyl that was our floor:

top floor

(It isn’t this brown–this is an artifact of the lighting.) But it was old, and dirty. Underneath this was a layer of square tiles:

Second layer

Underneath this was a layer of eighth-inch thick plywood. The plywood was attached with several dozen wood screws: finding and extracting these was perhaps the most time consuming part of the whole process.


Here are the nails that held it down:


Below the plywood was the most hideous of the layers, a yellow vinyl:

yellow layer

Beneath the yellow layer, and tightly bound to it, was a layer of off-white square tiles:

white tiles

Below this was what I believe was the original kitchen floor: blue linoleum.


If we had wanted to “restore” the house to its 1941 look, this blue linoleum is what we’d be after, but we’re not.

The blue, white, and yellow layers were all very strongly attached to one another and mostly came up as a whole, to reveal the wood floor covered with the remnants of a black adhesive:

unfinished wood

This is the stage rg and I got to Sunday. Fortunately, the guy who finished my other floors said his crew would be available today, Wednesday, so they came over and went to work. After sanding the floors, their method is to apply a coat of shellac, which dries in about a half an hour, and then a coat of water-based polyurethane, which does need to cure overnight. This is certainly expedient, compared with other schemes that use multiple coats. Opinions vary as to the ultimate durability of multiple coats versus a single coat, but I do appreciate getting nice floors after only one day’s work.

In the case of the kitchen, the floors were pine, not oak, and were never finished. The pine was never intended to be the top layer–I suspect it was simply the cheapest substrate for the blue linoleum available at the time. So the pieces weren’t chosen for aesthetics, and in addition to a variation in coloring of the wood, there’s also nearly seventy years of kitchen abuse to the unfinished wood. This all adds up to a sort of rustic look, much more so than with any of the other floors in the house.

finished floors

February 20, 2008   5 Comments


For Presidents’ Day, the Washington Post reports: banks are closed, courts are closed, local government offices are closed, schools are closed, libraries are closed. There is no trash pickup on Presidents’ Day, and Sunday traffic and parking regulations are in effect. 

But the lotteries have regular drawings! Can’t stop the lottery for a holiday.

The lottery is a tax on hopelessness, at a dollar a prayer. The church stopped such selling of indulgences in the sixteenth century, that our governments do so today is shameful.

February 17, 2008   No Comments

We believe that hope can change

I earned my “I voted” sticker today by going to vote in the “Potomac Primary,” the day in which DC, MD, and VA all held their presidential primaries.

Perhaps the most apt description of the primary contests so far is that while Democrats wish we could have an “All of the above” choice, the Republicans wish for “None of the above.”  A rare combination of political energy and deep political networks has given us a Democratic primary season in which my vote actually means something; the nomination is still very much in play.

As has happened everywhere else, turnout has been much higher than anyone can remember for the Democratic side. The Post is reporting that the high turnout led to chaos at the polls, such that an hour and a half after the polls have closed we still have no results. But a statistic that warms my heart, which captures a story that’s been repeated in our region and nationwide: In Virginia, a state not known to be blue, Hillary Clinton, finishing second with only 36% of the Democratic vote, still had more votes than either John McCain or Mike Huckabee. Barack Obama got 20% more votes than were cast for all the Republicans combined.

I wish to see a Democratic presidential victory as much as anyone. The turnout is only one facet of a whole country yearning for change: the breathtaking political energy is fueled by an army of volunteers, many making their first foray into political work. But not me: of course there’s the baby at home, which means I don’t have any free time (although on the other hand, it’s his future that’s at stake here). I discovered two years ago that I really, really don’t like politics.

Or perhaps I should say, I really, really don’t like the stuff that matters in politics. Of course I stay up later than I should watching election results, and plugging them into spreadsheets. A fair share of my websurfing time is spent reading DailyKos. But my own personal transformation from informed voter to political junkie doesn’t make a bit of difference to any election outcome. Neither would it matter if I filled this blog, or any other, with posts about this candidate or that one.

I did do a lot of work on a political campaign two years ago, helping to re-elect the most progressive member of the DC City Council. I learned, doing this, that I don’t like making political phone calls from a voter list. I don’t like knocking on doors, even if the candidate is doing all the talking. I hate confrontational political messages, especially in multi-candidate forums. I don’t like asking people to sign nominating petitions. I hate the uncomfortable amalgam of cordiality and confrontation that happens when the opponent is campaigning at the same place my candidate is, especially when my candidate shows up late.
But this, I’ve learned, is the stuff that matters. There’s not even much need for mundane tasks like envelope stuffing or flyer labeling: that’s all automated now. All together there isn’t much need for behind-the-scenes work (at least in city council elections), not in comparison to the monumental task of connecting with voters.

The only thing I enjoy1 is handing out flyers at Metro stations during rush hour. A stack of flyers and a direct tagline and even the people supporting the other candidate are in too much of a hurry to argue with you.

So, although I’m somewhat sympathetic to the notion that those who care deeply about the results of an election ought to be on the ground working for their candidates, I don’t know that I’ll get involved in this presidential contest.

  1. I might do okay at fundraising, but as a Federal employee, I’m prohibited by the Hatch Act from asking anyone to make any contribution to any partisan political candidate, even the DC city council, nor can I even have my name listed on an announcement for a fund-raising event. []

February 12, 2008   1 Comment

Save the Planet Protest

I can’t quite decide what to make of the Save the Planet Protest: if it weren’t for the fact that there have been full-page ads, featuring the same text as from the webpage, in Express (the free tabloid version of the Washington Post that’s given away at Metro stops), it’d be easy to say that it’s just a joke, and it would probably be so inconsequential that I wouldn’t blog about it. But there on page 17 of the Express is the ad, and I can’t quite tell whether it is high snark, an over-the-top practical joke, or misguided sincerity.

The idea is (but you miss so much without reading the original wording): A guy named Lee is organizing a protest in front of the Discovery Channel headquarters in Silver Spring, MD, 12 hours a day (9am–9pm), for 9 days (15–23 February), because their environmental-themed programming isn’t working. That is, environmental problems are still getting worse, and the text is ambiguous as to whether he means that the failure of the environment to improve even after Discovery Channel programming is evidence that Discovery Channel programming is defective, or that Discovery Channel environmental programming is misguided and focused on ineffective and insufficient initiatives.

There are legitimate points that could be made here: that the Discovery Channel tries to market itself as green, with a LEED-Silver certified headquarters and a new PlanetGreen channel, but is in fact offering only feel-good greenwash programming and continues to produce anti-environmental programming, like Future Weapons. I don’t watch the Discovery Channel, but I’m in general sympathetic to the viewpoint that mass media portrayals of environmental issues overemphasize the inconsequential. Heck, even non-profit environmental groups are guilty of this.

Of course, if he is sincere, Lee’s tactics are way off the mark.

It’s easy to poke fun at Lee’s writing style, although if this is a joke, then it’s a very well-crafted parody of vacuous sincerity. But I also have a bit of admiration for the writing, because writing something like that would be very difficult for me. I am a slow writer, and am often astonished when I go back and look at my blog posts and realize how short they really are, compared with the time it took me to write them. If you ever watch me try to write (although I hope you don’t–I don’t consider writing to be a spectator sport), you’ll notice that typing only comes in short bursts. I remember using the computer labs at college, watching the people around me type furiously and continuously as they wrote up their papers, and wondering how they could get the words to flow so quickly. There have been times when I wished I could have just sat down and dashed off a repetitive, rambling, semi-coherent piece that filled up some space. Sometimes quantity has a quality of its own.

February 7, 2008   6 Comments

Listen to Pollan

I’ve been paying attention to food more or less since I moved to DC. Throughout grad school, I didn’t really take the time to cook or think about food (except at Thanksgiving). I’ve had a latent interest in cooking since college, but never had done much about it. I started cooking more frequently living in DC, and I made enough money to eat, occasionally, at nice restaurants, and I discovered Cooks Illustrated magazine, and my wife and some of our friends were also interested in food, and the Washington Post has a better food section than the Ithaca Journal, and we had the opportunity to join a CSA and shop at farmers’ markets, so everything sort of fell into place.

Without a doubt, Cooks Illustrated has been the most influential component of the “how can I make good food” question. For the “what role do our food choices have in our relationship with the natural world” question, though, the most influential voice has been that of Michael Pollan.

He’s written two books about food: The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. I’ve only read the first–it’s a lucid, alarming, deeply thoughtful, hopeful, yet non-judgemental examination of American food systems, structured by tracing the sources of the components of four meals that Pollan prepares. (See a review here.) Pollan has been one of the leading voices in the nascent revolution in food awareness, drumming up orders of magnitude more interest from non-farming states in the Farm Bill than ever before, and inspiring websites like The Ethicurean.

With that, I present and recommend two recent interviews in which he talks about In Defense of Food.

Interview on CBC’s The Current radio program.

Segment on Sierra Club radio.

February 6, 2008   No Comments

Elections return, with a spreadsheet

Sunday’s Super Bowl was an interesting game: the lead changed several times and until the very last seconds of the game, it seemed like either team could win.

Emotionally, at least, there’s a similarity between watching election night returns and watching sports: as the votes tally up, one can form a mental picture of a literal race, and if your favored team or candidate is behind, you cheer when the gap closes. Of course in sports, the actions of the players determine the course of the game, and crazy things can happen. In elections, it’s all over once the polls close. Barring irregularities like the 2000 presidential election in Florida, it really doesn’t matter what order the votes are counted in, and once the votes start to be counted, there is nothing anyone can do to get more votes. Cheering doesn’t give anyone a boost.

Of course, for all those involved in a political campaign, it also ends once the polls are closed, especially for the losing candidate. But even for the winning candidate, the dynamic of everyone involved changes dramatically. Those hours of uncertainty, after the polls close but before the winner is known, are the only possible time to have one last gathering of the campaign, and it might as well be a party, and you might as well find out how you’ve done.

And for everyone at home, watching the election returns can be entertaining, to know as soon as possible what happened. So as thoughts of Super Bowl turn to thoughts of Super Tuesday, I present my rudimentary election watching spreadsheet.

The television networks often project a winner even when it’s mathematically possible for either candidate to win, and the spreadsheet I offer here lets you play along, too. It only uses three pieces of information: the number of votes each candidate has, and the percent of precincts that have reported.

If we make the approximation that all precincts will have the same number of voters–not generally true, but hard to get a better number without detailed precinct-by-precinct data–then we can project the total number of votes that have been cast, and from that calculate the number of votes remaining to be counted, and of those the number each candidate would need to win, and finally, what percentage of the remaining votes each candidate would need.

These percentages are really illuminating: if you calculate that a candidate who has 45% of the vote so far would need to have 67% of the remaining vote to win, then you could call the election for the other candidate with a fair degree of confidence.

To use, just put the most recent vote counts in cells A3 and B3, and the percentage of precincts reporting in C3. The rest is calculated automatically. Use the Fill Down command to create multiple lines for running progress.

Watch Returns

February 4, 2008   3 Comments

The Story of Stuff

I recently found, via DailyKos, a 20-minute video and accompanying website, The Story of Stuff, that provides an refreshingly pertinant voice in the discussion about consumerism, sustainability, and the environment. The presentation is of course rather simplified, and in some cases–such as when explaining what changes in new models of computer–it is oversimplified to the point of giving defensive nitpickers plenty of ways to discredit the piece. But the overall story that’s told is spot-on, and the simplifications are unavoidable if you’re trying to compress the story of the entire journey of everything we consume, from resource extraction to disposal, and its consequences, into a short video presentation. And any inaccuracies are very tiny when compared to the mis-representation one receives daily from advertising and mass media and the other side of the consumption debate.

It was slightly ironic, then, that the video couldn’t really run well on my 7-year old G4 Cube, so instead I watched it on my year-old Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro that I have home from work.

The Story of Stuff presents a viewpoint that I wish were more common in, say, Sierra Club Radio, which more often than not is more focused on finding “green” stuff to buy, instead of rethinking our relationship with stuff. (To say nothing of Consumer Reports, about which I hope to write more later.)

Watching The Story of Stuff, two parallel “readings” come to mind.

The first is a recent Washington Post story on the debate about the CSPC’s position on the use of Brominated Flame Retardant chemicals in furniture–the same BFRs that are highlighted in The Story of Stuff. With growing evidence that BFRs are, in fact, toxic, the debate on the surface looks like it could be about balancing the long-term risks of exposure to BFRs with the benefit of reduced risk of fatal fires. But that’s not what the debate was about. A leading cause of fires in homes is cigarettes igniting upholstered furniture. The cigarette industry wanted to avoid a mandate for self-extinguishing cigarettes, and looked to push the fire-safety problem onto the furniture makers. They bought off the fire marshals (who, it should be pointed out, are in no position whatsoever to evaluate the health risks of exposure to BFRs) and were assisted by the BFR manufacturers. The furniture industry put up a huge fight, and has mostly won, but the struggle continues. Completely on the sidelines are anyone looking out for the best interests of ordinary citizens.

The second piece is a segment on This American Life about textile workers in Cambodia. No, this is not a sweatshop horror story–Cambodia, apparently, has developed a textile industry the right way. Labor laws–which, by and large, are enforced–are modeled after French laws, and working conditions are generally good and wages considered fair. One gets the impression that Cambodian garment workers really do consider factory work to be a substantial step up from subsistence farming, the livelihood of roughly 70% of the country: industrialization is more complex than being forced to leave an degraded environment that once sustained people for generations. But more than that, the degree to which Americans buy new Cambodian-made clothes makes a huge difference in the quality of life of the garment workers, and the people who sell food or slippers or whatnot to the garment workers. It’s a reminder that “the economy” is not entirely about faceless corporations and the wealthy robber-barons who run them, but sometimes resembles the system that textbooks describe.

February 3, 2008   1 Comment