Archive for October, 2007

Banning communication

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

My daughter is writing her college admission essays. One short question asked “What is the form of communication that you would most like to ban?” I’m not sure what she wrote, but we brainstormed types of communication. Talking, writing, telephoning, email. Cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, pop up ads. Morse code. Mother nagging, sister fighting. Dogs barking in the next yard. Street preachers. Ads in the middle of your favorite shows, MovieTone News, billboards, newspapers, magazines, sale prices posted in store windows, junk mail. Gossip. Books. Vanity license plates. Telemarketers who interrupt your dinner, unsolicited faxes, fundraisers. Off-color bumper stickers. Racial or ethnic slurs. Tattoos. Pornography. Lying, slander, libel. This list seems to be going downhill fast.

It turns out to be a very interesting and not so simple question. At first, we thought: communication is a good thing – what could be bad enough to rate actual banning? But in thinking about it, there is a lot of very unwelcome communication out there – some merely annoying, but some with the potential to cause great harm. There’s a lot of discussion to be had here.

Funny how at first glance these questions seem sort of silly but manage, with some thought, to have some real depth. In many ways, this is the same with any topic – the more you look at it, the more you understand it. People, I suppose, are the same way. Perhaps we should approach our daily lives like college essays, taking time to move the experience a little beyond the surface.

Upgrading the site

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Some things aren’t working right on my blog and I’m trying to learn what I need to do to fix them. This is taking some time, so my apologies in the meantime.

Motorhead Messiah

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

The November 2007 issue of Fast Company has an article entitled Motorhead Messiah by Clive Thompson about a Kansas whiz mechanic named Johnathan Goodwin who tricks out Hummers and other gas-guzzlers to get upwards of 100 miles per gallon of fuel and with radically increased horsepower. He does this by switching out the standard Hummer engine with various motors, turbines, and kits of parts to enable the car to burn a variety of different fuels – hydrogen, diesel, biodiesel, corn oil – and to do so with minimal emissions. Goodwin uses parts mostly made by General Motors. He says, “Detroit could do all this stuff overnight if it wanted to.”

Not too long ago, I watched Who Killed the Electric Car, a documentary released to DVD in 2006. The film follows the history of the EV1, an all electric car developed by GM in the early 1990s and released under lease in Southern California following the passing of a state air quality mandate. Automobile manufacturers, oil companies, and the Republican administration fought the California mandate tooth and nail and the mandate was eventually reversed. Although the vehicles performed well and were popular, GM recalled every one of them and sent them all to the junkyard where they were crushed. Protests and offers to buy the vehicles were simply ignored. The film explores various explanations for this fiasco and provides food for thought that is particularly pertinent in light of today’s resurgence of interest in environmentalism. It’s worth seeing.

So what is wrong with Detroit? They lose market share to foreign companies year after year, yet they persist in cranking out gas hogs. If they can produce a fuel efficient car, why aren’t they doing it?

It can’t be because they’d lose money. So far as I know, Toyota hasn’t lost money on the Prius and other companies are realizing that good environmentalism can mean big gains to their bottom lines. The same issue of Fast Company has another article entitled 50 Ways to Green Your Business by Mark Borden, Jeff Chu, Charles Fishman, Michael Prospero, and Danielle Sacks, which lists 50 companies who are embracing sustainability in innovative, effective, and cost-saving ways, from conserving and recycling materials to coming up with clever means of saving energy.

I own a Prius and I won’t ever accept a car with lesser MPG ratings. I’m hoping enough people will insist that the cars and other products they consume have the best sustainability story possible. Maybe a little public pressure will encourage GM to pay attention to Johnathan Goodwin.


Sunday, October 14th, 2007

All right! The National Geographics are gone, picked up by a nice young man from Illinois, and I just sold my radial arm saw to a neighbor who is moving to the country. He says he can take a lot of my old building materials too – hinges, rolls of Romex, fiberglass batts, and so on and so on filling my basement – and either use them or donate them to the Habitat for Humanity in his new neighborhood. He also told me of an organization not terribly far from my house that will take building materials for reuse. I can load up my van with whatever my neighbor can’t use, take it to this place, and these usable things will find a new home. This makes me happy – I can’t stand it when things go to waste. But it sometimes puzzles me – where does this compulsion to rescue usable things come from?

I grew up in the Midwest in a house built in the 1880s by my grandfather, who sailed to America from Germany to flee the Revolutions of 1848. In 1913, just before the First World War, my father was born in the upstairs bedroom and, though I burst forth at the local hospital, I lived in the house until I went off to college. Now, there was a park catty-corner from the house that my father had donated to the city in memory of his father, the German immigrant. We kids spent a lot of time in that park, playing on the swings, building huts in the tall grass down at the bottom of the hill, trying to smoke cigars in the lilac bushes. I think this park may hold a clue to my packrattery, for engraved in a massive limestone step at its entry was my grandfather’s motto: “Avoid waste, vice, tobacco and booze, and you will have health, honor and plenty.”

Perhaps simply reading this motto all summer long throughout my childhood really burned the message into my brain, but maybe these sentiments are bred into my bones in some deeper way. Surely the immigrant families in the late 1800s had to make do with what they had and my father, born during a time of world turmoil, living through the Great Depression in the 20s and fighting in WW2, must have had a deep sense of the fragility of material prosperity. But, my father did prosper and I grew up without want.

I think about this history and am struck by how the lives of my parents and grandparents formed me. I have a glass of wine now and then, but basically, I live by my grandfather’s motto. Now it’s become clear that avoiding waste isn’t just a personal peculiarity – it’s got to become a way of life for everyone if we are not to destroy our planet.

So, saving everything under the sun and now feeling the need to get rid of much of it doesn’t really relate to saving the planet. Still, I’m not tossing things out on the curb for the garbage collector. Now that environmentalism is enjoying a resurgence of interest (thank you, Al Gore), maybe, just maybe, more people will start to approach their material accumulations and consumption habits with a wider understanding of the consequences of continued waste and a greater willingness to contribute to a solution.

Collecting and purging

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

I have long-standing love affair with National Geographic Magazine. Stashed in various places around my house is a collection that goes back some 30 years or more. My parents had a similar collection that spanned 50 years, lined up in rows on dusty shelves in the attic. National Geographic – the sacrosanct magazine that no-one was ever allowed to deface for school projects or leave out on the porch in the sun. I saved them religiously, but for what? Nobody ever looked at them after the first week or so. Nevertheless, year after year, I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of them, thinking that I would someday go back and re-read those interesting articles and once again marvel at the gorgeous photography.

Today I posted an ad on CraigsList offering them to anyone who would come pick them up. What happened?

I’ve been a collector (i.e. pack rat) for years, but a couple of years ago my house got full. I don’t know if it got full or if I got full, but I suddenly stopped bringing home every abandoned but still usable chair I saw on the street on garbage day (finally understanding that, no, I would never find the time to fix it up) and started seriously thinking about getting rid of some stuff. I’m talking serious thinking for, like, 5 years with little actually making it out the door. Last weekend, however, some things finally started to move. Mostly books, but also some of my old building materials (for example, spare fence pickets kept for 25 years for “kindling” but never actually chopped up and burned), a few clothes, and a box or two of knick-knacks. This was a step in the right direction, but it’s the National Geographics that may actually signal a turning point.

So what is it about collecting and purging? Is it an age-related phenomenon? Do we collect when we’re young and purge when we get older? Do we collect to create a sense of self and purge to bring about change when that self gets somewhat stale? Do we collect when we feel empty and purge when we feel full? Do we collect to learn and purge to make room in our heads for something new? Do we collect when we’re putting down roots and purge when we’re ready for a move?

Probably all of the above. All I know is that right now I’m getting rid of the National Geographics and it feels like a beginning.