Saturday, May 29, 2010

The high cost of suburban specialization

Most middle-class Americans are no longer Jack-of-all-trade generalists.  A few generations back, we traded broad farm-kid skill sets for a society in which the majority of highly-educated adults are strictly one-trick professional ponies.  They do their salaried work, but the rest of their lives gets subcontracted to others.

Theoretically, this is supposed to result in greater efficiencies and economies of scale, as each member of society concentrates on generating his own uniquely-honed output and free-market competition greases the wheels of demand and supply.

In practice, I've mostly observed that lifestyle to be a financial death sentence.  I suppose it MIGHT work better if we didn't have so darned much "disposable" income, but what seems to happen instead of a well-oiled capitalist consumer machine is that that costs of essential services rise disproportionately to devour all available income.  As a result, we tend NOT to get wealthier because of our skill specialization.  Rather, the system conspires to keep us firmly in our places. 

I'm reminded of this phenomenon today because of our beloved SteeleMobile, the Toyota minivan bought to mark the occasion of Cayley's birth, which is now rolling resolutely toward its 12th birthday.  No big newsflash here:  if you choose to drive an old car, things are going to wear out and break.  Yesterday its radiator sprung a leak.

Lawrence replaced it this morning for $198 plus 90 minutes of his time, which is why I have this pic with the leaky side of it sitting on the cardboard box in which the new one was sold.   Just yesterday, the Toyota dealer quoted me $667 for this exact same job.  Would the dealer really NEED an extra $469 (or THREE AND A HALF TIMES our cost!!) in order to make a reasonable profit?? (and for crying out loud - the dealer wouldn't even have to pay retail prices for the parts, as we did!!) Of course not - but they charge that because they know that middle-class Americans are willing and able to pay it. 

Lawrence and I are throw-backs in the sheer breadth of the farm-kid skill-sets that we have (and ahead of our times in building an 863-square-foot garage workshop in which to deploy them).  In the three-ish years that we've been together, I roughly estimate that we've cumulatively avoided expenditures and added real value to the tune of at least $20,000, just from doing our own work whenever possible (we pocketed at least that much extra pursuant to our two house sales).   You've probably heard the computer-age expression "the geek shall inherit the earth"?  Well, it should be qualified: if the geeks don't return to their roots and remorph as skilled DIY-ers, the geeks are going to live with sobering hits to their long-term bottom line (read: retirement) through financial erosion brought on by hyper-specialization AS geeks.  And the saddest part is, they won't even realize what's happening.  But that, of course, is what the "free market" is counting on.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Horsing around

Cayley rode in her first horse show (I'm sure there's a more formal term for it) this past weekend.  She did very well, winning one first-place award and placing for several ribbons.  Some pics...

Counsel from one of the trainers

Looka dat posture!

Ridin' around...

They all line up with their butts pointing toward the judge when it's time to be evaluated.

Among other lessons learned: you lose points if you grin like a monkey at your mother while competing in the ring.  :-)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bavarian bonus

Back last night from the Bavarian region of Germany and while 90% of the time was devoted to work, I did grab a couple of hours to see the sights. Here are a few pics.

Picturesque town dating back to Roman times; I don't know how old most of its present buildings are, but they are certainly old by American standards. The grey building is apparently City Hall.

Many buildings were so old that entire ecosystems had taken root on top of them, the original definition of “green roof”:

And a river runs through it all:

The old buildings had been cleverly adapted to modern lifestyle. Here’s the coolest cat door ever:

Traffic in town appeared to be evenly divided among cars, pedestrians, and bicycles. Drivers were FAR more courteous and attentive than they are in America, despite the relative lack of roadway regulation (no speed limits on most “freeways”, which scared the bejesus out of us Americans, and very few defined lanes, sidewalks, etc. in the city).

Parks were abundant, and ancient:

Some cultural references were much more recent, and somber:

Yet at the same time, with all that rich history, there were signs of neglect. Gang graffiti was everywhere, with Communism being a preferred expression, and people appeared to make no effort to oppose it. This stuff had been present for so long that vines were beginning to grow over it:

Speaking of vines, these were really pretty:

American influence was rarely seen, and usually limited to less-desirable contributions:

I came to know what illiterate people feel like in America, as I speak no German whatsoever. Signs, newspapers… it was all lost on me, a huge slice of life to which I was deaf, blind, and dumb. Here, a sign appears to indicate that you have a choice between going UP the stairs, or going UP the stairs:

I may not know any German, but wait – isn’t at least one of these a bad word? And do we have a theme going here?? Urine and schmuck??

As for the fashion side of modern culture, I sure hope that the style represented by these threads does not propagate to America, because this mannequin chick looks like she needs a serious diaper change:

And speaking of modern culture, why would anyone take a nice-looking late model car and stick this sign on it??

Great trip, but I’m glad to be back, as is the case with every trip I make!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Beach and beyond

We had a wonderful time at the beach house today celebrating a couple of birthdays with family.  Cayley donned beard of sand, hair of seaweed, and expression of assertive mischief in an attempt to make herself look like a man.  I do believe she failed miserably:

Tomorrow I leave for a week-long business trip to Germany, my first visit to that part of the world. Proof positive that I lost my taste for this kind of adventure years ago: I downloaded the hotel's German-only menu and ran it through so that I could avoid ordering cow's liver by mistake.   :-)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A doozie of a Natuzzi

In building the antithesis of a McMansion, we were well aware that some of the savings associated with a lower square footage were going to be offset by the costs of making every square foot count.  Nowhere has this been more true than with respect to our guest room.  We couldn't put a conventional bed in there, because there wasn't enough space - it must double as the exercise room.   Therefore, we needed either a Murphy bed or a sofa bed. 

The Murphy bed concept doesn't appeal to me because they are wildly expensive and they just do one thing - be a bed (lowest possible furniture versatility).  So, sofa bed seemed like the way to go. 

Except that anyone who has ever slept on a sofa bed has a story of torture to tell - most of them are AWFUL, universally painful, like sleeping on a pile of rocks. 

But fortunately for our future guests, we fell in love with this contemporary leather work of art created by the Italian company Natuzzi.  Take a look at the elegantly-simple engineering that went into this thing:

There are no seat cushions to remove and trip over prior to unfolding the mattress.  There are no detachable parts at all.  It IS heavy - but that's because it's robustly constructed - the quality vastly outstripped everything else we looked at (as did the price!).  The mattress is some kind of Tempurpedic-like stuff.  It's comfortable, simple, and solid enough to use as an everyday bed - it's REALLY COMFORTABLE and it's a SOFA BED!!  It takes 15 seconds to set up.  No hassle, no wasted time. 

Except now we're in the curious position of having a 12-year-old shabby couch in our living room, while the Cadillac of all the world's couches will sit in the extra bedroom mostly gathering dust.  Lawrence and I are jonesing to instead put the Natuzzi where we can enjoy it every day, but Cayley will not hear of that.  The old green couch in the living room was bought in conjunction with the occasion of her birth, and she wants us to replace it "only after I've graduated from university" (gulp!).

Sunday, May 9, 2010

My (professional) life, ungagged

Nothing is ever totally bad:  Deepwater Horizon has been an unprecedented tragedy, and yet it will go down in history as one of America's great educational turning points.  I describe how and why in the paragraphs below, and this has NOTHING to do with blow-out preventers, by the way.  :-) 

People from all walks of life frequently ask me, "Why do so many American businesses fail to comply with environmental laws?"  (They ask this as a general question, not with respect to BP in particular). 

One of the answers is simply this:  because their personnel haven't been adequately educated as to why compliance is necessary and, furthermore, obviously they can't be trained to put knowledge into practice if that knowledge has NOT been imparted to them in the first place. 

And why haven't they been properly educated and trained?  In part, because a lot of the information upon which the training should be based is off-limits to "for-profit" educators like myself.  "Profit" in my case means the generation of my self-employment salary which probably does not exceed that of many "nonprofit" skilled workers, but legally I'm still classified as "for profit". 

Unlike the public school system as well as both public and private universities, "fair use" protections under U.S. copyright law are NOT extended to us (section of 17 U.S.C. 107 reproduced below; underline mine). 

If we reproduce copyrighted content and other forms of intellectual property as we teach other people about environmental stewardship (and how else do you teach people but by providing them with information??), we're breaking the law and leaving ourselves wide open to career-destroying litigation.  I have been teaching principles of environmental management part time for about a decade now, but I do so in much-reduced capacity because of exactly this legal situation: in many situations, I can't tell my students what's REALLY going on because I can't communicate any illustrations that were originated by others.   (I do self-generate my own content, but there are critical limits as to what I can muster as just one person). 

The fact that we "for-profit" educators operate under an effective gag order might not be so bad, except that WE ARE THE ONLY ONES with the depth of practical experience needed to conduct the type of teaching to which I refer.  Universities don't do this - it's not their mandate and they are correspondingly not equipped to do it; they lack the degree of industrial immersion upon which effective environmental management training must be predicated.  The ability to teach this stuff effectively springs mostly from real-world experience and empirical wisdom, which does not come from books or professorial discourses or the Code of Federal Regulations.  It comes from the people in the trenches, not the people ensconced in the ivory towers and trapped behind desks in the bureaucracies. 

So THEY are not equipped to do it, and WE are not allowed to do it, which means that almost NOBODY has been in a position to really do it the way I think it ought to be done.  Voila --> one significant contributing factor to our situation of persistent environmental ignorance.

But Deepwater Horizon is changing that.  Never before in our history have we had the degree of practical environmental response information-sharing that is happening right now.  And guess what??  Most of it is originating with the United States federal government, and therein lies the holy grail of intellectual freedom:

(Courtesy Wikipedia)
There are THOUSANDS of Coast Guard, Navy, EPA, and countless other regulatory agency personnel involved in Deepwater's spill response, and darned near every one of them carries a ten megapixel camera, either on behalf of their employer and/or for personal use.   We had a trickle of public information originating with NOAA and other agencies during and after Valdez, but the internet did not exist back then, so we had NOTHING like what is being produced now!! 
(Courtesy US Navy)

A lot of those front-line regulatory personnel are Gen X and younger, who cut their teeth on YouTube, Twitter, and Blogger.  They don't need to be told how to communicate across the internet - the production of professional-quality images and journalistic content is as natural to them as breathing.  They are doing it well, and doing it thoroughly.

(Courtesy US Navy)

And as for me, I've won the intellectual property lottery.  Every cloud has that proverbial silver lining.  I and people like me are FINALLY going to be able to show our students more of what happens in the real world without fear of infringement and legal reprisal.  My main challenge now is in cataloging and crediting this incredible, unrestricted information windfall.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Euphemism of the day

The term "keeping students indoors" means "lockdown".  Some nut-job is apparently running around Friendswood waving a gun this afternoon.  I'm generally quite pleased with the way our communities handle these inevitable incidents.  No panic; they just follow the procedure.  It reminds me of Californians bracing themselves in doorways during earthquakes (still watching their TVs all the while), or the old nuclear war drills in which the kids would all dive beneath their desks (still shooting spit-balls at each other).  Excerpt from the ISD website (Westbrook is Cayley's school):

Sky's the limit

I just did my annual ceremonial walk to the mail box with one big fat cheque written to cover general liability, pollution liability, workers compensation, and professional liability (errors & omissions) business insurances.  It's a depressing fattie of a cheque, roughly equal to what I once paid for one of my favorite automobiles.  On the way back from my mail box, I was struck by this cloud formation, which seemed to be doing a "ta-da!" number over the roof of our house.  It was almost like God was saying, "Don't tha worry, my chile - th'universe'll continue to enfold thee in its benevolent beauty... especially if tha can find it in thy heart to take them trash cans in from the curb..."