Saturday, March 31, 2012

How Unemployment Affects Society

I meant for a while to make a quick comment on the Charles Murray book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010. Murray's book documents the social unraveling of the white working class (he confines himself to whites to avoid allegations of racism hurled against some of his earlier works). Essentially it blames the economic plight of the poor on their lack of moral values and behavioral fortitude - their lack of higher education, their reluctance to save, their high divorce rate, and especially their propensity to reproduce outside the bonds of the traditional two-parent nuclear family. He argues that these moral failings are the reason why whites are poor and unemployable. If they would just live like the virtuous rich, he argues, all our problems would be solved. Murray argues that people who follow the "script" - college, graduate school, marriage, mortgage, dog, 2.5 children, minivan, cubicle job, fully funded retirement plan - are doing just fine. Thus, to the extent anyone deviates from this script, they are responsible for their own economic ruin. As evidence for this, he argues that the evidence for this breakdown occurs prior to the economic hardship of the 1970's. His message has been picked up and repeated by David Brooks and the folks at Marginal Revolution, the vanishingly small remnant of "intellectual" conservatism that remains today (as distinguished from the paranoid fundamentalist reactionary majority of the modern Republican party).

I'm not going to go into an elaborate deconstruction of why I think this argument is ridiculous, because 1.) It's already been done by others, and 2.) I have not read the book (nor do I intend to). While their may be a grain of truth in his argument (certain behaviors do lead to self destruction), it seems that to write off anyone who doesn't follow the "script" to be condemned to penury is not a very valuable social analysis. To accept Murray's thesis, you would have to believe suddenly about 1960 there was just some sort of massive moral shift that occurred spontaneously ex nihilo across the entire country which just coincidentally coincided with the transformation of the post-war economy (damn hippes!). You would also have to discount literally thousand of studies and data that connect social factors and economic conditions, everything from alcoholism, divorce, suicide, drug abuse, domestic violence, etc. These have been shown to rise and fall correspondingly to economic conditions for a century. In Murray, the arrow of causality runs the other way. Essentially, Murray's work is just a dusted-off version of nineteenth century Social Darwinism. There's nothing original here, we've heard it all before:

“A Drunkard in the Gutter Is Just Where He Ought To Be” Meet the man who invented the GOP’s defense of the wealthy—in 1883. (Slate)
In making his case for laissez-faire, Sumner highlighted one of the enduring paradoxes of American politics. “It is commonly asserted that there are in the United States no classes, and any allusion to classes is resented,” he noted. “On the other hand, we constantly read and hear discussion of social topics in which the existence of social classes is assumed as a simple fact.” This was particularly true of the 1870s, which witnessed a serious financial panic and depression, followed by a major national railroad strike. In response, reformers began to argue for government to take a greater role in aiding the poor and in softening the rough edges of industrial capitalism.

Sumner’s essay rejected all such nonsense. “It is not at all the function of the State to make men happy,” he declared. “They must make themselves happy in their own way, and at their own risk.” Today, he would be called a libertarian. At the time, the term of choice was “Social Darwinist.” One of the more fashionable theories of Gilded Age class relations, Social Darwinism attempted to apply the laws of evolution to human society, and thus to explain why those who ended up on top were necessarily “the fittest” among men.
When talk first began about Charles Murray's book, I wondered to myself, what's new here? I remembered a radio interview I heard a while back with a writer from The Atlantic. His argument in a nutshell was that now that the massive unemployment that stalked the black community since deindustrialization was coming for whites, we would see exactly the same sort of social breakdown among whites that we see among blacks - drug abuse, crime, out of wedlock births, rebellion, family disintegration, falling educational outcomes. Of course, all of this, too, has been blamed by conservatives not on anything economic related, but on "dependance on government". As you would imagine, Murray's salvo is the beginning of explaining away those same social maladies for poor whites not as part of economic disintegration, but as individual moral failings. You can be sure that any attempt to halt these conditions would be claimed to lead to dependance, and that this would be said to damage to moral fiber. In any case, I long since forgot where I heard the interview, but I did look up the reporter's article. It is a long, dense piece about how mass unemployment will change the face of white America forever (I believe it was later expanded to book form). I have included a part of the article that relates to Murray's argument, but the whole article is a must-read:

How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America by Don Peck, The Atlantic Magazine :
The worst effects of pervasive joblessness—on family, politics, society—take time to incubate, and they show themselves only slowly. But ultimately, they leave deep marks that endure long after boom times have returned. Some of these marks are just now becoming visible, and even if the economy magically and fully recovers tomorrow, new ones will continue to appear. The longer our economic slump lasts, the deeper they’ll be.

If it persists much longer, this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults—and quite possibly those of the children behind them as well. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar white men—and on white culture. It could change the nature of modern marriage, and also cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a kind of despair and dysfunction not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years.

The construction and finance industries, bloated by a decade-long housing bubble, are unlikely to regain their former share of the economy, and as a result many out-of-work finance professionals and construction workers won’t be able to simply pick up where they left off when growth returns—they’ll need to retrain and find new careers. (For different reasons, the same might be said of many media professionals and auto workers.) And even within industries that are likely to bounce back smartly, temporary layoffs have generally given way to the permanent elimination of jobs, the result of workplace restructuring. Manufacturing jobs have of course been moving overseas for decades, and still are; but recently, the outsourcing of much white-collar work has become possible. Companies that have cut domestic payrolls to the bone in this recession may choose to rebuild them in Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Bangalore, accelerating off-shoring decisions that otherwise might have occurred over many years.
Strong evidence suggests that people who don’t find solid roots in the job market within a year or two have a particularly hard time righting themselves. In part, that’s because many of them become different—and damaged—people. Krysia Mossakowski, a sociologist at the University of Miami, has found that in young adults, long bouts of unemployment provoke long-lasting changes in behavior and mental health. “Some people say, ‘Oh, well, they’re young, they’re in and out of the workforce, so unemployment shouldn’t matter much psychologically,’” Mossakowski told me. “But that isn’t true.”

Examining national longitudinal data, Mossakowski has found that people who were unemployed for long periods in their teens or early 20s are far more likely to develop a habit of heavy drinking (five or more drinks in one sitting) by the time they approach middle age. They are also more likely to develop depressive symptoms. Prior drinking behavior and psychological history do not explain these problems—they result from unemployment itself. And the problems are not limited to those who never find steady work; they show up quite strongly as well in people who are later working regularly.

Forty years ago, Glen Elder, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and a pioneer in the field of “life course” studies, found a pronounced diffidence in elderly men (though not women) who had suffered hardship as 20- and 30-somethings during the Depression. Decades later, unlike peers who had been largely spared in the 1930s, these men came across, he told me, as “beaten and withdrawn—lacking ambition, direction, confidence in themselves.” Today in Japan, according to the Japan Productivity Center for Socio-Economic Development, workers who began their careers during the “lost decade” of the 1990s and are now in their 30s make up six out of every 10 cases of depression, stress, and work-related mental disabilities reported by employers.

A large and long-standing body of research shows that physical health tends to deteriorate during unemployment, most likely through a combination of fewer financial resources and a higher stress level. The most-recent research suggests that poor health is prevalent among the young, and endures for a lifetime. Till Von Wachter, an economist at Columbia University, and Daniel Sullivan, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, recently looked at the mortality rates of men who had lost their jobs in Pennsylvania in the 1970s and ’80s. They found that particularly among men in their 40s or 50s, mortality rates rose markedly soon after a layoff. But regardless of age, all men were left with an elevated risk of dying in each year following their episode of unemployment, for the rest of their lives. And so, the younger the worker, the more pronounced the effect on his lifespan: the lives of workers who had lost their job at 30, Von Wachter and Sullivan found, were shorter than those who had lost their job at 50 or 55—and more than a year and a half shorter than those who’d never lost their job at all.
In his 1996 book, When Work Disappears, the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson connected the loss of jobs from inner cities in the 1970s to the many social ills that cropped up after that. “The consequences of high neighborhood joblessness,” he wrote, are more devastating than those of high neighborhood poverty. A neighborhood in which people are poor but employed is different from a neighborhood in which many people are poor and jobless. Many of today’s problems in the inner-city ghetto neighborhoods—crime, family dissolution, welfare, low levels of social organization, and so on—are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work.

In the mid-20th century, most urban black men were employed, many of them in manufacturing. But beginning in the 1970s, as factories moved out of the cities or closed altogether, male unemployment began rising sharply. Between 1973 and 1987, the percentage of black men in their 20s working in manufacturing fell from roughly 37.5 percent to 20 percent. As inner cities shed manufacturing jobs, men who lived there, particularly those with limited education, had a hard time making the switch to service jobs. Service jobs and office work of course require different interpersonal skills and different standards of self-presentation from those that blue-collar work demands, and movement from one sector to the other can be jarring. What’s more, Wilson’s research shows, downwardly mobile black men often resented the new work they could find, and displayed less flexibility on the job than, for instance, first-generation immigrant workers. As a result, employers began to prefer hiring women and immigrants, and a vicious cycle of resentment, discrimination, and joblessness set in.

It remains to be seen whether larger swaths of the country, as male joblessness persists, will eventually come to resemble the inner cities of the 1970s and ’80s. In any case, one of the great catastrophes of the past decade, and in particular of this recession, is the slippage of today’s inner cities back toward the depths of those brutal years. Urban minorities tend to be among the first fired in a recession, and the last rehired in a recovery. Overall, black unemployment stood at 15.6 percent in November; among Hispanics, that figure was 12.7 percent. Even in New York City, where the financial sector, which employs relatively few blacks, has shed tens of thousands of jobs, unemployment has increased much faster among blacks than it has among whites.
In her classic sociology of the Depression, The Unemployed Man and His Family, Mirra Komarovsky vividly describes how joblessness strained—and in many cases fundamentally altered—family relationships in the 1930s. During 1935 and 1936, Komarovsky and her research team interviewed the members of 59 white middle-class families in which the husband and father had been out of work for at least a year. Her research revealed deep psychological wounds. “It is awful to be old and discarded at 40,” said one father. “A man is not a man without work.” Another said plainly, “During the depression I lost something. Maybe you call it self-respect, but in losing it I also lost the respect of my children, and I am afraid I am losing my wife.” Noted one woman of her husband, “I still love him, but he doesn’t seem as ‘big’ a man.”

Taken together, the stories paint a picture of diminished men, bereft of familial authority. Household power—over children, spending, and daily decisions of all types—generally shifted to wives over time (and some women were happier overall as a result). Amid general anxiety, fears of pregnancy, and men’s loss of self-worth and loss of respect from their wives, sex lives withered. Socializing all but ceased as well, a casualty of poverty and embarrassment. Although some men embraced family life and drew their wife and children closer, most became distant. Children described their father as “mean,” “nasty,” or “bossy,” and didn’t want to bring friends around, for fear of what he might say. “There was less physical violence towards the wife than towards the child,” Komarovsky wrote.

In the 70 years that have passed since the publication of The Unemployed Man and His Family, American society has become vastly more wealthy, and a more comprehensive social safety net—however frayed it may seem—now stretches beneath it. Two-earner households have become the norm, cushioning the economic blow of many layoffs. And of course, relationships between men and women have evolved. Yet when read today, large parts of Komarovsky’s book still seem disconcertingly up-to-date. All available evidence suggests that long bouts of unemployment—particularly male unemployment—still enfeeble the jobless and warp their families to a similar degree, and in many of the same ways.

The weight of this recession has fallen most heavily upon men, who’ve suffered roughly three-quarters of the 8 million job losses since the beginning of 2008. Male-dominated industries (construction, finance, manufacturing) have been particularly hard-hit, while sectors that disproportionately employ women (education, health care) have held up relatively well. In November, 19.4 percent of all men in their prime working years, 25 to 54, did not have jobs, the highest figure since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the statistic in 1948. At the time of this writing, it looks possible that within the next few months, for the first time in U.S. history, women will hold a majority of the country’s jobs.

In this respect, the recession has merely intensified a long-standing trend. Broadly speaking, the service sector, which employs relatively more women, is growing, while manufacturing, which employs relatively more men, is shrinking. The net result is that men have been contributing a smaller and smaller share of family income.

“Traditional” marriages, in which men engage in paid work and women in homemaking, have long been in eclipse. Particularly in blue-collar families, where many husbands and wives work staggered shifts, men routinely handle a lot of the child care today. Still, the ease with which gender bends in modern marriages should not be overestimated. When men stop doing paid work—and even when they work less than their wives—marital conflict usually follows.

Last March, the National Domestic Violence Hotline received almost half again as many calls as it had one year earlier; as was the case in the Depression, unemployed men are vastly more likely to beat their wives or children. More common than violence, though, is a sort of passive-aggressiveness. In Identity Economics, the economists George Akerloff and Rachel Kranton find that among married couples, men who aren’t working at all, despite their free time, do only 37 percent of the housework, on average. And some men, apparently in an effort to guard their masculinity, actually do less housework after becoming unemployed.

Many working women struggle with the idea of partners who aren’t breadwinners. “We’ve got this image of Archie Bunker sitting at home, grumbling and acting out,” says Kathryn Edin, a professor of public policy at Harvard, and an expert on family life. “And that does happen. But you also have women in whole communities thinking, ‘This guy’s nothing.’” Edin’s research in low-income communities shows, for instance, that most working women whose partner stayed home to watch the kids—while very happy with the quality of child care their children’s father provided—were dissatisfied with their relationship overall. “These relationships were often filled with conflict,” Edin told me. Even today, she says, men’s identities are far more defined by their work than women’s, and both men and women become extremely uncomfortable when men’s work goes away.

The national divorce rate fell slightly in 2008, and that’s not unusual in a recession: divorce is expensive, and many couples delay it in hard times. But joblessness corrodes marriages, and makes divorce much more likely down the road. According to W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the gender imbalance of the job losses in this recession is particularly noteworthy, and—when combined with the depth and duration of the jobs crisis—poses “a profound challenge to marriage,” especially in lower-income communities. It may sound harsh, but in general, he says, “if men can’t make a contribution financially, they don’t have much to offer.” Two-thirds of all divorces are legally initiated by women. Wilcox believes that over the next few years, we may see a long wave of divorces, washing no small number of discarded and dispirited men back into single adulthood.

Among couples without college degrees, says Edin, marriage has become an “increasingly fragile” institution. In many low-income communities, she fears it is being supplanted as a social norm by single motherhood and revolving-door relationships. As a rule, fewer people marry during a recession, and this one has been no exception. But “the timing of this recession coincides with a pretty significant cultural change,” Edin says: a fast-rising material threshold for marrying, but not for having children, in less affluent communities.

Edin explains that poor and working-class couples, after seeing the ravages of divorce on their parents or within their communities, have become more hesitant to marry; they believe deeply in marriage’s sanctity, and try to guard against the possibility that theirs will end in divorce. Studies have shown that even small changes in income have significant effects on marriage rates among the poor and the lower-middle class. “It’s simply not respectable to get married if you don’t have a job—some way of illustrating to your neighbors that you have at least some grasp on some piece of the American pie,” Edin says. Increasingly, people in these communities see marriage not as a way to build savings and stability, but as “a symbol that you’ve arrived.”

Childbearing is the opposite story. The stigma against out-of-wedlock children has by now largely dissolved in working-class communities—more than half of all new mothers without a college degree are unmarried. For both men and women in these communities, children are commonly seen as a highly desirable, relatively low-cost way to achieve meaning and bolster identity—especially when other opportunities are closed off. Christina Gibson-Davis, a public-policy professor at Duke University, recently found that among adults with no college degree, changes in income have no bearing at all on rates of childbirth.

“We already have low marriage rates in low-income communities,” Edin told me, “including white communities. And where it’s really hitting now is in working-class urban and rural communities, where you’re just seeing astonishing growth in the rates of nonmarital childbearing. And that would all be fine and good, except these parents don’t stay together. This may be one of the most devastating impacts of the recession.”

Many children are already suffering in this recession, for a variety of reasons. Among poor families, nutrition can be inadequate in hard times, hampering children’s mental and physical development. And regardless of social class, the stresses and distractions that afflict unemployed parents also afflict their kids, who are more likely to repeat a grade in school, and who on average earn less as adults. Children with unemployed fathers seem particularly vulnerable to psychological problems.

But a large body of research shows that one of the worst things for children, in the long run, is an unstable family. By the time the average out-of-wedlock child has reached the age of 5, his or her mother will have had two or three significant relationships with men other than the father, and the child will typically have at least one half sibling. This kind of churning is terrible for children—heightening the risks of mental-health problems, troubles at school, teenage delinquency, and so on—and we’re likely to see more and more of it, the longer this malaise stretches on.

“We could be headed in a direction where, among elites, marriage and family are conventional, but for substantial portions of society, life is more matriarchal,” says Wilcox. The marginalization of working-class men in family life has far-reaching consequences. “Marriage plays an important role in civilizing men. They work harder, longer, more strategically. They spend less time in bars and more time in church, less with friends and more with kin. And they’re happier and healthier.”

Communities with large numbers of unmarried, jobless men take on an unsavory character over time. Edin’s research team spent part of last summer in Northeast and South Philadelphia, conducting in-depth interviews with residents. She says she was struck by what she saw: “These white working-class communities—once strong, vibrant, proud communities, often organized around big industries—they’re just in terrible straits. The social fabric of these places is just shredding. There’s little engagement in religious life, and the old civic organizations that people used to belong to are fading. Drugs have ravaged these communities, along with divorce, alcoholism, violence. I hang around these neighborhoods in South Philadelphia, and I think, ‘This is beginning to look like the black inner-city neighborhoods we’ve been studying for the past 20 years.’ When young men can’t transition into formal-sector jobs, they sell drugs and drink and do drugs. And it wreaks havoc on family life. They think, ‘Hey, if I’m 23 and I don’t have a baby, there’s something wrong with me.’ They’re following the pattern of their fathers in terms of the timing of childbearing, but they don’t have the jobs to support it. So their families are falling apart—and often spectacularly.”
So, of course, Murray ignores all this data and claims it's all the fault of the unworthy poor and their lack of moral fiber. Oh, and as for the "virtuous rich":

For sale: house in Los Angeles: $125 million:
It was part of the divorce settlement between Texas billionaire David Saperstein and his wife Suzanne. In 2008, David abandoned his wife for their 32-year-old Swedish nanny and now Suzanne is sharing the mansion with her 33-year-old former soccer playing boyfriend until it is sold.
And see:

Health insurance CEO fired from $4m-a-year job after fight with girlfriend's husband (Daily Mail)

Friday, March 30, 2012

Permaculture, European Style

French village Pince to hand out chickens to cut waste (BBC):
A French village has proposed giving two chickens to each household in order to cut down on organic waste.  Officials in the village of Pince in north-western France say the chickens should each consume 150kg (330lb) of rubbish per year. It is hoped that as well as reducing waste, the chickens will help families save money by providing eggs. Those who express an interest will receive their chickens in September, officials say.

"To begin with it was a joke, but then we realised it was a very good idea," mayor of Pince Lydie Pasteau told France 3 TV.

"It will also reinforce community links: just as people look after their neighbours' cats and dogs while they're away, they'll also look after the chickens," she said. Between 15 and 20 households are believed to have shown an interest in the scheme so far. Ms Pasteau said she hoped the chickens would prove "a good investment as the the cost of waste disposal is bound to increase over time."
Belgium offers chickens to waste-cutting households (BBC)
The town of Mouscron has 50 pairs of chickens that it will distribute to families with sufficient space to keep the birds in their gardens. Those who take part in the scheme must agree not to eat the chickens for at least two years, or to give them away. Local officials are stressing that applicants could gain a supply of free, fresh eggs.

The town council's environment department is building on the success of a previous distribution of chickens, officials told Belgium's La Derniere Heure. The aim of the project is to publicise alternative methods of waste management. Residents included in the project will be given basic instruction on chicken-keeping.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Shorter Work Week? How About Bringing Back The 40 Hour Week?

A must-read:

America's 55-hour work weeks ruin workers' lives and don't produce extra value for employers:

Unions started fighting for the short week in both the UK and US in the early 19th century. By the latter part of the century, it was becoming the norm in an increasing number of industries. And a weird thing happened: over and over — across many business sectors in many countries — business owners discovered that when they gave into the union and cut the hours, their businesses became significantly more productive and profitable.

By 1914, emboldened by a dozen years of in-house research, Henry Ford famously took the radical step of doubling his workers’ pay, and cut shifts in Ford plants from nine hours to eight. By that point, there were a solid five decades of industrial research that proved, beyond a doubt, that if you wanted to keep your workers bright, healthy, productive, safe and efficient over a sustained stretch of time, you kept them to no more than 40 hours a week and eight hours a day.

...What these studies showed, over and over, was that industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them. On average, you get no more widgets out of a 10-hour day than you do out of an eight-hour day. Likewise, the overall output for the work week will be exactly the same at the end of six days as it would be after five days. So paying hourly workers to stick around once they’ve put in their weekly 40 is basically nothing more than a stupid and abusive way to burn up profits.
There was one exception to this rule. Research by the Business Roundtable in the 1980s found that you could get short-term gains by going to 60- or 70-hour weeks very briefly — for example, pushing extra hard for a few weeks to meet a critical production deadline. However, there were a few serious caveats attached to this which used to be well-known, but have mostly been forgotten.

One is that increasing a team’s hours in the office by 50 percent (from 40 to 60 hours) does not result in 50 percent more output (as Henry Ford could have told them).

Here’s why. By the eighth hour of the day, people’s best work is usually already behind them (typically turned in between hours 2 and 6). In Hour 9, as fatigue sets in, they’re only going to deliver a fraction of their usual capacity. And with every extra hour beyond that, the workers’ productivity level continues to drop, until at around 10 or 12 hours they hit full exhaustion.

Another is that overtime is only effective over very short sprints. This is because (as Sidney Chapman showed in 1909) daily productivity starts falling off in the second week, and declines rapidly with every successive week as burnout sets in. Without adequate rest, recreation, nutrition and time off to just be, people get dull and stupid. They can’t focus. They spend more time answering e-mail and goofing off than they do working. They make mistakes that they’d never make if they were rested; and fixing those mistakes takes longer because they’re fried. Robinson writes that he’s seen overworked software teams descend into a negative-progress mode, where they are actually losing ground week over week because they’re so mentally exhausted that they’re making more errors than they can fix.

And finally: these death marches take a longer-term productivity toll as well. Once the crisis has passed and that 60-hour-a-week team gets to go back to its regular 40, it can take several more weeks before the burnout begins to lift enough for them to resume their typical productivity level. So, for a while, you’ll get significantly less than a full 40 out of them.

After WWII, as the GI Bill sent more workers into white-collar jobs, employers at first assumed that the limits that applied to industrial workers probably didn’t apply to knowledge workers. Everybody knew that eight hours a day was pretty much the limit for a guy swinging a hammer or a shovel; but those grey-flannel guys are just sitting at desks. We’re paying them more; shouldn’t we be able to ask more of them?

The short answer is: no. In fact, research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight. The other thing about knowledge workers is that they’re exquisitely sensitive to even minor sleep loss. And the potential for catastrophic failure can be every bit as high for knowledge workers as it is for laborers. Robinson cites the follow-up investigations on the Exxon Valdez disaster and the Challenger explosion. Both sets of investigators found that severely overworked, overtired decision-makers played significant roles in bringing about these disasters.
This is the really fascinating part:
How did this knowledge, which was so deeply embedded in three generations of American business management that it was utterly taken for granted, come to be so lost to us now?

The first is the emergence of Silicon Valley as an economic powerhouse in the late 1970s. Since WWII, the valley had attracted a unique breed of worker — scientists and technologists who carried with them a singular passion for research and innovation. Asperger’s Syndrome wasn’t named and identified until 1994, but by the 1950s, the defense industries in California’s Santa Clara Valley were already drawing in brilliant young men and women who fit the profile: single-minded, socially awkward, emotionally detached and blessed (or cursed) with a singular, unique, laser-like focus on some particular area of obsessive interest. For these people, work wasn’t just work; it was their life’s passion, and they devoted every waking hour to it, usually to the exclusion of non-work relationships, exercise, sleep, food and sometimes even personal care.

And then, in the early ‘80s, Tom Peters came along, and promoted the Silicon Valley work ethic to the rest of the country in the name of “excellence.” He extolled tech giants like HP and Apple for the “passion” of their workers, and told old-industry employers that they could move into the new age by seeking out and rewarding that kind of passion in their employees, too. Though Peters didn’t advocate this explicitly, it was implicitly understood that to “passionate” people, 40-hour weeks were old-fashioned and boring. In the new workplace, people would find their ultimate meaning and happiness in the sheer unrivaled joy of work. They wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

There were two problems with this. The first is that this “passion” ideal didn’t recognize that the vast majority of people have legitimate physical, emotional and psychological needs — things like sleep, exercise, relaxation and the maintenance of strong family and social support bonds — that these engineers didn’t have to nearly the same degree. The second was that most managers, lacking windows into their workers’ souls, decided to cut corners and measure passion with one easy-to-chart metric: “willingness to spend your entire life at the office.”

The new ideal was to unleash “internal entrepreneurs” — Randian übermenschen who would devote all their energies to the corporation’s success, in expectation of great reward — and who were willing to assume all the risks themselves. In this brave new world, the real go-getters were the ones who were willing to put in weekends and Saturdays, who put their families on hold, who ate at their desks and slept in their cubicles. Forty-hour weeks were for losers and slackers, who began to vanish from America’s business landscape. And with their passing, we all but forgot all the very good reasons that we used to have those limits.

Within 15 years, everything America’s managers used to know about sustaining worker productivity was forgotten. All that remains of those heady, optimistic days is the mandatory 60-hour work-week. And, unless you’re an hourly worker — still entitled to time and a half by law — the only inducement employers currently offer in exchange for submitting yourself to this abuse is that you get to keep your job.
I've always said that if you can't get your work done in forty hours, you're either a ridiculously inefficient worker or have too much work. If you stop and think about it, forty hours a week is a huge chunk of time. Is there really that much work to do? And why, especially when unemployment is so high? BTW, the same is true for amount of vacation - workers in Europe with 4-6 weeks of vacation get as much done as workers in countries with 1-2 weeks, because they are not stressed and burned out, which makes you less productive.

The management class justifies their outsize rewards by obsessive overwork; it is not that they are more necessary or more productive. To them workaholism = ability. The non-workaholics get left behind or fired. The obsessive worker types get ahead, even though their extra work time is not productive. These workaholics become the new managerial class and surround themselves with people just like them, deriding anybody else as "lazy" and worthy of being let go. I've experienced this first-hand in m own career. If you're unlucky enough to have a workaholic office culture as I do, and you don't like sitting at a desk for ten to twelve hours (or even eight), then you can forget any sort of career advancement. Heroic overwork is seen as a badge of honor and the sign of a good worker (when it really means an inefficient worker or one who can't delegate because they are a control freak.)

I can tell you from personal experience that over eight hours, everyone's work is crap (and probably before). Obsessive overwork is not about producing better work or giving more value to your client. Remember, your client is paying just as much for hours 40-80 as they are for the first forty, but getting much lower quality work as a result. So, in fact, you're actually screwing them over. And the management class charges even more for their "services", so the client is screwed even more. Of course, most of management's "work" is salesmanship, "schmoozing", and hanging out at golf courses, sporting events and dinner parties. And if you're not getting paid for those extra hours, well, we have a word for involuntarily working for free. Slavery.

So if it's not about higher productivity or better quality of work, why do employers consistently try and squeeze blood from a stone in the United States? I can think of two reasons. One is the attitude that workers must suffer. Give them rights and benefits, and soon they'll be demanding more. Workers need to be put in their place. The others is that obsessive overwork is built into our DNA. As many people have shown, immigrants came to America predominatly to get rich and make a killing. These people carried the genes for obsessive work, and they quickly took over the business culture in America and shaped it as a reflection of their personality. Anyone who didn't conform - who just wanted to get the necessary work done and get on with the business of enjoying life - was "lazy" and soon out on their ear. As the amount of jobs shrinkgs over the coming decades, this will become progressively worse. You can expect a lot more stressed-out workers leading to more drug abuse, broken homes, poor health, suicide, and even workplace shootings as things break down:

Stress, Burnout Taking Toll on Many Still in U.S. Workforce (PBS)

Remember, we work more in the age of fossil fuels and nuclear power than did medieval peasants or ancient Incas.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Quote of the Day

You talk about a grammar of happiness – it's a lovely idea, but are you simply perpetuating another myth?

I don't believe I am. In my first book, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes, I describe them as a very happy people. That doesn't mean everyone is happy all the time: they have struggles, they have insecurities, they lose their temper, they face danger. But it was actually a co-researcher who went with me from MIT and looked at the people and said: "These must be the happiest people anywhere" and I said: "How would you measure that?" and he said: "We might measure the amount of time they spend laughing and smiling and compare that to any other society, because I don't see anyone around here who is not laughing or smiling most of the time." There is a strong contentment there that I haven't seen matched by any other society.
Daniel Everett: 'There is no such thing as universal grammar' (Guardian)
Avi: So what is the secret of their happiness?

Dan: I believe that they're happy because they don't worry about the past, and they don't worry about the future. They feel that they're able to take care of their needs today. They don't want things that they can't provide for themselves. At least they never have in my experience. In other words, I take in things and they will ask for a few little things that I have that they don't make, such as pots and pans or matches. And if I give it to them, fine, and if I don't give it to them, fine. They're not materialistic. They value being able to travel quickly and lightly. I've never met another group, not even another Amazonian group, that is so little concerned with material objects.
The Grammar of Happiness: An Interview with Daniel Everett (BoingBoing)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pedal Power

El socialismo puede llegar solo en bicicleta. —José Antonio Viera-Gallo, Assistant Secretary of Justice in the government of Salvador Allende
When we talk about pedal power, we're usually referring to the production of electricity, whether to power a gym or a prisoner's television. But Maya Pedal keeps it simpler than that: the machines they build use no electricity. Instead, they are individually designed to perform a certain task, like grind corn, pump water, depulp coffee beans, shell nuts, blend food and more.

As Lloyd has noted, bikes can do just about anything, and Maya Pedal is always working on new designs. (They even offer instructions for building some of their models online.) It's easy to see why the program has grown, and why Maya was a 2010 finalist for the Curry Stone Design Prize for social change.

These machines make a world of difference to local small businesses, which don't need to rely on or pay for undependable electricity, and are relieved of difficult and time consuming manual labor.
In Guatemala, Pedal Powered Machines Pump Water, Grind Coffee and Much More (Treehugger)

From Energy and Equity by Ivan Ilich:

A century ago, the ball-bearing was invented. It reduced the coefficient of friction by a factor of a thousand. By applying a well-calibrated ball-bearing between two Neolithic millstones, a man could now grind in a day what took his ancestors a week. The ball-bearing also made possible the bicycle, allowing the wheel—probably the last of the great Neolithic inventions—finally to become useful for self-powered mobility.

Man, unaided by any tool, gets around quite efficiently. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer in ten minutes by expending 0.75 calories. Man on his feet is thermodynamically more efficient than any motorized vehicle and most animals. For his weight, he performs more work in locomotion than rats or oxen, less than horses or sturgeon. At this rate of efficiency man settled the world and made its history. At this rate peasant societies spend less than 5 per cent and nomads less than 8 per cent of their respective social time budgets outside the home or the encampment.

Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well.

The invention of the ball-bearing, the tangent-spoked wheel, and the pneumatic tire taken together can be compared to only three other events in the history of transportation. The invention of the wheel at the dawn of civilization took the load off man’s back and put it onto the barrow. The invention and simultaneous application, during the European Middle Ages, of stirrup, shoulder harness, and horseshoe increased the thermodynamic efficiency of the horse by a factor of up to five, and changed the economy of medieval Europe: it made frequent plowing possible and thus introduced rotation agriculture; it brought more distant fields into the reach of the peasant, and thus permitted landowners to move from six-family hamlets into one-hundred family villages, where they could live around the church, the square, the jail, and—later—the school; it allowed the cultivation of northern soils and shifted the center of power into cold climates. The building of the first oceangoing vessels by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, under the aegis of developing European capitalism, laid the solid foundations for a globe-spanning culture and market.

The invention of the ball-bearing signaled a fourth revolution. This revolution was unlike that, supported by the stirrup, which raised the knight onto his horse, and unlike that, supported by the galleon, which enlarged the horizon of the king’s captains. The ball-bearing signaled a true crisis, a true political choice. It created an option between more freedom in equity and more speed. The bearing is an equally fundamental ingredient of two new types of locomotion, respectively symbolized by the bicycle and the car. The bicycle lifted man’s auto-mobility into a new order, beyond which progress is theoretically not possible. In contrast, the accelerating individual capsule enabled societies to engage in a ritual of progressively paralyzing speed.

The monopoly of a ritual application over a potentially useful device is nothing new. Thousands of years ago, the wheel took the load off the carrier slave, but it did so only on the Eurasian land mass. In Mexico, the wheel was well known, but never applied to transport. It served exclusively for the construction of carriages for toy gods. The taboo on wheelbarrows in America before Cortes is no more puzzling than the taboo on bicycles in modern traffic.

It is by no means necessary that the invention of the ball bearing continue to serve the increase of energy use and thereby produce time scarcity, space consumption, and class privilege. If the new order of self-powered mobility offered by the bicycle were protected against devaluation, paralysis, and risk to the limbs of the rider, it would be possible to guarantee optimal shared mobility to all people and put an end to the imposition of maximum privilege and exploitation. It would be possible to control the patterns of urbanization if the organization of space were constrained by the power man has to move through it.

Bicycles are not only thermodynamically efficient, they are also cheap. With his much lower salary, the Chinese acquires his durable bicycle in a fraction of the working hours an American devotes to the purchase of his obsolescent car. The cost of public utilities needed to facilitate bicycle traffic versus the price of an infrastructure tailored to high speeds is proportionately even less than the price differential of the vehicles used in the two systems. In the bicycle system, engineered roads are necessary only at certain points of dense traffic, and people who live far from the surfaced path are not thereby automatically isolated as they would be if they depended on cars or trains. The bicycle has extended man’s radius without shunting him onto roads he cannot walk. Where he cannot ride his bike, he can usually push it.

The bicycle also uses little space. Eighteen bikes can be parked in the place of one car, thirty of them can move along in the space devoured by a single automobile. It takes three lanes of a given size to move 40,000 people across a bridge in one hour by using automated trains, four to move them on buses, twelve to move them in their cars, and only two lanes for them to pedal across on bicycles. Of all these vehicles, only the bicycle really allows people to go from door to door without walking. The cyclist can reach new destinations of his choice without his tool creating new locations from which he is barred.

Bicycles let people move with greater speed without taking up significant amounts of scarce space, energy, or time. They can spend fewer hours on each mile and still travel more miles in a year. They can get the benefit of technological breakthroughs without putting undue claims on the schedules, energy, or space of others. They become masters of their own movements without blocking those of their fellows. Their new tool creates only those demands which it can also satisfy. Every increase in motorized speed creates new demands on space and time. The use of the bicycle is self-limiting. It allows people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without destroying their inherited balance. The advantages of modern self-powered traffic are obvious, and ignored. That better traffic runs faster is asserted, but never proved. Before they ask people to pay for it, those who propose acceleration should try to display the evidence for their claim.

A grisly contest between bicycles and motors is just coming to an end. In Vietnam, a hyperindustrialized army tried to conquer, but could not overcome, a people organized around bicycle speed. The lesson should be clear. High-energy armies can annihilate people—both those they defend and those against whom they are launched—but they are of very limited use to a people which defends itself. It remains to be seen if the Vietnamese will apply what they learned in war to an economy of peace, if they will be willing to protect the values that made their victory possible. The dismal likelihood is that the victors, for the sake of industrial progress and increased energy consumption, will tend to defeat themselves by destroying that structure of equity, rationality, and autonomy into which American bombers forced them by depriving them of fuels, motors, and roads.

Pedal powered farms and factories: the forgotten future of the stationary bicycle (Low Tech Magazine)

Pedal Powered Wool Carding Machine (No Tech Magazine)
A Bike To Fix Public Transit's Biggest Problem (Atlantic)
One of the biggest problems in sustainable urban transport is what's known as the "first and last mile:" that awkward part of the journey between bus or rail stop and home or office. Many transit planners consider any distance beyond half a mile too far to walk, so without a practical solution to the first and last mile problem, cities run the risk that commuters will simply get into their cars and bypass a perfectly good transit system that's juuuust outside their reach.

That's where designer Gabriel Wartofsky's folding electric bicycle comes into play. Wartofsky has tried to make his e-bike attractive to all potential commuters. It has a gender-neutral look and a low step-over height. It's chainless and electric powered, with a battery hidden in the shaft, so it's grease-free and sweat-free. It folds up neatly and quickly, making it easy to carry on buses or trains, and weighs just 25 pounds — and, if that's not light enough for you, it's even cartable when folded.

Philippine Bamboo Bikes Hit the Trail (WSJ):

Bike frames have come a long way from steel and aluminum to exotic alloys and carbon fibers. Now, in the Philippines, they’re going all the way back to bamboo. The “bamboo bike” is turning into the latest hot item for environmentalists here, with its low carbon footprint. Bamboo is also tough and light: Bamboo bike frames weigh about seven to ten pounds.

Bike-friendly cities: How to do it:

From the Netherlands to America: Translating the World's Best Bikeway Designs from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

The Velomobile:

Shipping Container Restaurants

from Matt Yglesias (Slate):

One frequent source of waste and neighborhood unpleasantness in an urban environment is when a real estate developer obtains a vacant or dilapidated parcel that he intends to develop down the road later in combination with other parcels. Since it takes time for the larger project to get off the ground, the result is that the distressed parcel just stands vacant since there's no point in investing in making it usable. This idea to build a short-term restaurant out of shipping containers, propsed for 919 U Street NW here in DC, is an interesting solution to that. The Historic Preservation Review Board describes the concept thusly:

The front elevation would consist of a combination of corrugated shipping containers flanking a recessed aluminum and glass storefront system with glass entry door, and open take-out window with an angled metal canopy. The design calls for the first floor to be topped by a shipping container with a centered internally illuminated sign. The remainder of the site would consist of an open summer garden enclosed by a 7-0’ wood fence and topped by a partially covered metal truss roof system.

This is apparently a bit of a nationwide development trend and it seems promising.

Russia in Color

I have to admit, I'm a bit obsessed with Central Asia, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ever since I was working on research for a novel. Travel writing from that time provide a fascinating window into a way of life now forgotten, and makes for great adventure reading (when you can find it). See Sven Hedin, Peter Fleming, Owen Lattimore and others. Maybe I'll post a more extensive list later.

In pictures: Russian Empire in colour photos (BBC)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Historical Collapse

New insights on Mayan collapse:
Scientists have long drawn connections between the decline of the ancient Maya and environmental catastrophes, especially drought. Deforestation linked with farming could also have triggered disaster — for instance, reduced tree cover of the ground would have led to loss of fertile topsoil by erosion, as well as greater evaporation of water by sunlight, exacerbating drought.

However, while some locales remain abandoned for long periods, others recovered more quickly. This patchwork pattern of recovery might argue against environmental catastrophes being the sole determining factor behind the collapse of the Classic Mayan civilization — if they were, one might expect such catastrophes to affect all areas equally.

Moreover, archaeologists have pointed out that ancient Mayan societies may have been vulnerable to collapse by their very nature. They apparently funneled wealth to a small ruling elite topped by hereditary divine kings, who had virtually unlimited power but whose subjects expected generosity — a string of military defeats or seasonal droughts could greatly damage their credibility. The stability of this system was further threatened by polygamy among rulers, spawning numerous lineages that warred against each other, overall generating conditions ripe for collapse.

Available data suggested the elevated parts of the Mayan lowlands, which include much of today's Yucatan Peninsula, were significantly more vulnerable to collapse and less likely to recover than lower-lying areas. Sites within this elevated region lacked perennial water sources and were more dependent solely on what rainwater they could capture and store, leaving them vulnerable to shifts in climate. In contrast, neighboring lower-lying areas had access to springs, perennial streams and sinkholes known as cenotes that were often filled with water.

Reoccupying elevated interior areas with large numbers of people would require intense labor to re-establish water management systems, helping to explain why they were left abandoned, the researchers noted. In contrast, dwelling in the neighboring, low-lying areas was less challenging, and evidence suggests that sites there were typically occupied continuously even when the major political and economic networks they were linked with collapsed.

At the same time, the Classic Maya would have implicated gods and their "divine" rulers for the collapse. In that way, their abandoned territories became thought of as chaotic, haunted places, and reclaiming any lands from the forest was at best done with great care and ritual. Survivors in outlying sites may often not have bothered. "Reoccupation called for a reordering of a most profound kind," the researchers write in the March 6 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"I have little doubt that droughts and environmental degradation — for example, soil erosion or declining soil fertility — played roles in the collapse, defined here as a substantial and prolonged decline in population, of some sites or regions," said researcher Nicholas Dunning, a geographer at the University of Cincinnati. "There is also the important role played by the environmental setting of sites — for example, sites in the elevated interior region were significantly more vulnerable to drought cycles than those in surrounding lower-elevation areas where water was more abundant."

"But the fact that collapse was often a patchwork affair and a prolonged process does indeed strongly suggest that cultural factors — for example, strength of rulership, flexibility of the society and its ability to adapt to change — were equally important for determining whether or not a given site or group of sites adapted or collapsed," Dunning told LiveScience.
Did Belief in Gods Lead to Mayan Demise? (LiveScience)

See also:

Collapse of Mayan Civilization Traced to Dry Spells

Real Mayan Apocalypse May Have Been Their Own Fault

Mystery of Great Civilization's Destruction Revealed:
Climate change might have helped bring about the fall of the ancient Khmer civilization in Angkor, Cambodia, nearly 600 years ago, new research suggests.

Historians have given various explanations for the fall of the empire that stretched across much of Southeast Asia between the ninth and 14th centuries (801 to 1400), from land overexploitation to conflict with rival kingdoms. But the new study offers strong evidence that two severe droughts, punctuated by bouts of heavy monsoon rain, could have weakened the empire by shrinking water supplies for drinking and agriculture, and damaging Angkor's vast irrigation system, which was central to its economy.

The kingdom, one of the greatest civilizations of all time, is thought to have collapsed in 1431 after a raid by the Siamese from present-day Thailand.

"Angkor at that time faced a number of problems — social, political and cultural. Environmental change pushed the ancient Khmers to the limit and they weren't able to adapt," said study author Brendan Buckley, a climate scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York. "I wouldn't say climate caused the collapse, but a 30-year drought had to have had an impact."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Wood Buildings

Can wooden skyscrapers transform concrete jungles? (CNN)

Wooden skyscrapers: efficient, fire-safe, environmentally friendly(ier) (Boing Boing)

Tall Wood: Architect Gives Away Technology To Build Wood Buildings Thirty Storeys High (Treehugger)

Plans for 30-storey wooden skyscraper revealed by Michael Green Architecture (World Architecture News)

An architect named Michael Green believes he can make wooden skyscrapers that stand 100 storeys tall, and he's prototyping the idea with a 30-storey wooden building in Vancouver. More wooden high-rises are planned in Austria and Norway. Green uses laminated strand lumber, a glue/wood composite, and has char buffers to give it good safety in fires. He claims that his buildings can be cheaper than comparable structures made from traditional steel and concrete, and will have a smaller carbon footprint.

Wood buildings lock in carbon dioxide for the life cycle of a structure, while the manufacture of steel and concrete produces large amounts of CO2 -- the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimate that for every 10 kilos of cement created, six to nine kilos of CO2 are produced.

Green's "Tallwood" structure is designed with large panels of laminated strand lumber -- a composite made of strands of wood glued together. Other mass timber products use layers of wood fused together at right angels that making they immensely strong and able to be used as lode bearing infrastructure, walls and floors.

Despite being made of wood any worries about towering infernos should be banished, says Green, as large timber performs well in fires with a layer of char insulating the structural wood beneath.

"It may sound counter-intuitive, but performing well in a fire is something inherent in large piece of wood, that's why in forest fires the trees that survive are the largest ones," he says.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Authoritarian Capitalism Watch, Spring Edition

You know, I really hate writing these. It makes me seem like some sort of paranoid wacko nut. But is no one else seeing this? I mean, I'm not seeking these articles out, really. Come on, there's really no reaction to any of this?

The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say) (Wired):
Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.

But “this is more than just a data center,” says one senior intelligence official who until recently was involved with the program. The mammoth Bluffdale center will have another important and far more secret role that until now has gone unrevealed. It is also critical, he says, for breaking codes. And code-breaking is crucial, because much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted. According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”
Could Peacetime Martial Law Be Near? (Yahoo News):
COMMENTARY | President Barack Obama signed an executive order Friday titled "National Defense Resources Preparedness." The news media is unsure of the precise meaning of the information included in the order and average citizens are left to figure out what it means in general. As a longtime supporter of the president, I've been reluctant to jump to conclusions, but the general tide of recent legislation and this order give me reason for concern about the intentions of this administration.

The order lists items such as the power of the executive departments of the U.S. federal government and its agencies to "identify requirements for the full spectrum of emergencies, including essential military and civilian demand." This same section, labeled "General Functions," also enumerates these departments and agencies might ensure availability of domestic resources and industries to secure national defense. Do these and other line items signal that America is on the verge of another war -- and will that war be with another nation or on U.S. citizens?

The first step in the direction of applying military law to private citizens occurred Dec. 31, when the president signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. This legislation sounded the initial alarm to me because although its main purpose is for providing necessary funding of the military, it included provisions that allowed the indefinite detention without charge of private citizens.

The next signal of alarm came on March 8, when the president signed into law H.R. 347, the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011. The law restricts protests at political functions among other things. This is offensive since the U.S. was founded upon protest and revolution.

Perhaps each law taken individually wouldn't be a cause for concern, but the totality of these three suggests the federal government is envisioning more control over the civilian population than it has ever enjoyed. The president's order on Friday suggests to some the executive branch might be ready to enact martial law in peacetime.
The Pentagon Is Offering Free Military Hardware To Every Police Department In The US (Business Insider):
The U.S. military has some of the most advanced killing equipment in the world that allows it to invade almost wherever it likes at will.

We produce so much military equipment that inventories of military robots, M-16 assault rifles, helicopters, armored vehicles, and grenade launchers eventually start to pile up and it turns out a lot of these weapons are going straight to American police forces to be used against US citizens.

Benjamin Carlson at The Daily reports on a little known endeavor called the "1033 Program" that gave more than $500 million of military gear to U.S. police forces in 2011 alone.

1033 was passed by Congress in 1997 to help law-enforcement fight terrorism and drugs, but despite a 40-year low in violent crime, police are snapping up hardware like never before. While this year's staggering take topped the charts, next year's orders are up 400 percent over the same period.

This upswing coincides with an increasingly military-like style of law enforcement most recently seen in the Occupy Wall Street crackdowns.
6 months later: no White House, DOJ explanation for assassinating Americans at will (Washington's Blog)

Now U.S. Intelligence can keep tabs on innocent Americans even if they DON'T have terror links (Daily Mail):
Information about innocent Americans could be stored by the intelligence community for up to five years.

New Obama administration guidelines will allow the National Counterterrorism Centre to hang on to information about people that is stored in other government databases, even when they have no clear links to terrorism.

They replace guidelines issued in 2008 under which the NCTC was required to immediately destroy the data in such situations.
Obama Executive ‘Order’: US can seize any person, any resource, any time (Washington's Blog):
President Obama signed an Executive Order for “National Defense” yesterday that claims executive authority to seize all US resources and persons, including during peacetime, for self-declared “national defense.”

The EO claims power to place any American into military or “allocated” labor use
Petraeus: CIA Could Use Smart Household Appliances To Spy (Slate)
In early March, at a meeting for the CIA’s venture capital firm In-Q-Tel, CIA Director David Petraeus reportedly noted that “smart appliances” connected to the Internet could someday be used by the CIA to track individuals. If your grocery-list-generating refrigerator knows when you’re home, the CIA could, too, by using geo-location data from your wired appliances, according to SmartPlanet.

“The current ‘Internet of PCs’ will move, of course, toward an ‘Internet of Things’—of devices of all types—50 to 100 billion of which will be connected to the Internet by 2020,” Petraeus said in his speech. He continued:

Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters—all connected to the next-generation Internet using abundant, low cost, and high-power computing—the latter now going to cloud computing, in many areas greater and greater supercomputing, and, ultimately, heading to quantum computing.
Samsung's new TV will watch the people watching it (BoingBoing):
"Smith!" screamed the shrewish voice from the Samsung 8000ES-series LED TV. "6079 Smith W.! Yes, you! Bend lower, please! You can do better than that. You're not trying. Lower, please! That's better, comrade. Now stand at ease, the whole squad, and watch me."
The Department of Homeland Security Is Searching Your Facebook and Twitter for These Words (AnimalNewYork)

And lest you think this is only an American-based phenomenon:

David Cameron unveils plan to sell off the roads: Sovereign wealth funds to be allowed to lease motorways in England, says prime minister (Guardian)

Doctors make last-ditch warning over NHS shake-up: Bill poses 'significant risk to patients and public' says study by public health specialists (Guardian)

Back-to-work schemes to face court hearing: Government will face accusations of forced labour at hearing in two cases at the Royal Courts of Justice in mid-May (Guardian)
Mr Justice Ouseley granted solicitors from the law firm Public Interest Lawyers a judicial review in the case of 22-year-old Cait Reilly, who says she was made to stack and clean shelves for three weeks in Poundland without pay or face losing all benefits under the government's sector-based work academy (SBWA) scheme.

Reilly's lawyers argue that being compelled to work represents a form of forced labour under the Human Rights Act.

Reilly, a geology graduate, says her situation was made worse by the fact she was already doing unpaid work experience in a museum, and the jobcentre made her cancel this to work in Poundland instead.
UK petrol station CCTVs will check insurance/tax status before you are allowed to fill up (BoingBoing)
Under a pending proposal, the license-plate cameras at UK filling stations will soon begin to trigger automatic lookups of every motorist's insurance and tax records. Drivers whose insurance and tax records can't be located or verified will not be allowed to fill their tanks. This requires that the existing cameras, which are there to document drivers who don't pay for their gas, be connected to sensitive government databases filled with identifying personal information. Forensic cameras -- whose records are used after the fact to catch crooks -- don't need to be 100 percent accurate, since almost every plate they capture will not be involved in a crime, and ambiguous results can be resolved by a human backstop. But cameras that prevent you from getting something you need, like petrol, need to be 100 percent accurate, since it wouldn't do to let the person operating the cash-register override the judgment of the automated system.
Tory Peter Cruddas sold access to PM, Sunday Times alleges (BBC)
Conservative Party co-treasurer Peter Cruddas offered access to the prime minister and chancellor for £250,000, the Sunday Times has alleged. It has footage of him apparently making the offer to undercover reporters.
Remember, an authoritarian police state is only possible under centrally planned economies. Just keep saying that to yourself and it will all go away. And just a reminder of some of the salient features of authoritarian capitalism:

  • Suppression of protest.
  • Normalization of random searches and intrusiveness. Ran Prieur comments: How can anyone still think the purpose of airport screening is to keep weapons off airplanes? It's an abuse ritual. And the worse it is at keeping weapons off airplanes, the better it is at training us to submit to an insane authority. Every revelation that the scanners don't protect us, makes them more effective for their real purpose.
  • Mass surveillance of the citizenry.
  • Incarceration of a large proportion of the citizenry.
  • Arbitrary definition of "crimes".
  • Criminalization of "alternative" behavior, especially by undesirables.
  • Militarization of domestic police forces.
  • Sham elections, cherry-picked candidates, millionaire funded elections, proprietary "black box" electronic voting machines, frequent voting "irregularities" that are never addressed.
  • High military spending, foreign wars, and never-ending domestic  "terror" threats.
  • State support of certain favored industries.
  • Regulatory suppression of smaller, nonfavored industries
  • Selling off of the commons to corporations for permanent rent-seeking. No more having to compete in a harsh 'free' market!
  • "privatized" monopolies (highways, bridges, telecommunications networks, utilities, government services)
  • Drastically reduced health and education services for the poor and middle class. Elimination of social safety net. "Privatized" services - fire, police, trash collection.
  • Government "work programs" that provide free labor, prison labor, unpaid internships, removal of worker benefits.
  • Sweatshop conditions for most workers except a small corporate/governmental technocratic elite.
  • Mass unemployment and downward mobility for the majority of citizens.
  • "Bank friendly" policies that punish savers and those on fixed incomes.
  • Unlimited taxpayer-funded corporate bailouts. Everything becomes "Too Big To Fail."

Lessons From The Past

Award-winning architect Manit Rastogi, who designed the academy, explains that baoli -- the Hindi word for stepwell -- are bodies of water encased by a descending set of steps.

"When water evaporates in heat, it immediately brings down the temperature of the space around it," he says.

While traditional stepwells often go many stories below ground level, Rastogi's go down just four meters. However, the effect is the same and -- like the ancient Mughal palaces before it -- the academy enjoys its own microclimate.

Rastogi wonders: "How did they think up something so elaborate and yet so simple in its basic philosophy?

"How do you begin to think that you can dig into the ground and use the earth as a heat sink, have access to water, put a pavilion into it so that its comfortable through the year? It takes a lot of technology for us to think up something that simple now."

But it's not just the stepwells that are involved in this process of "passive cooling" -- the general term applied to technologies or design features that cool buildings without power consumption.

The whole building is raised above the ground on pillars, creating an airy and shaded pavilion that is used as a recreation and exhibition space. Here, according to Rastogi, the walls are made from a heat-absorbing material that creates a "thermal bank" -- so the warmth is slowly released at night when the temperature drops.

Centuries ago, latticed screens or "jaali" filtered direct sunlight into the palaces. The effect was decorative and helped reduce the heat. Likewise at The Pearl Academy, a latticed concrete screen runs the length of the building and provides a cooling outer skin.

"We've been able to demonstrate that good green building is not only cheaper to run; it's not only more comfortable to live in -- it's also cheaper to build," says Rastogi.

The success of the academy's eco-design has had an impact. Regulations -- based on these passive cooling techniques -- were introduced last year for all new Indian government buildings.
Ancient 'air-conditioning' cools building sustainably (CNN)

Architect Uses Ancient Techniques To Cool Modern Building in India (Treehugger)

Anupam Mishra: The ancient ingenuity of water harvesting (TEDTalks)

Urban planner and architect Manit Rastogi has an idea that makes the High Line look like child's play: turning the 350 kilometers of storm water drains -- now mostly filled with untreated sewage -- in Delhi into a network of landscaped paths for pedestrians and cyclists. If he can pull it off, India's capital will be greener, cleaner, and safer for its 17 million residents.
Despite their current stinky condition, the nullahs are in many ways ideal for such a transformation, having been built close to key sites in the city and being generally lined by lush, cooling vegetation.

In an article about Rastogi's concept of a "criss-crossed mesh of waterways, with boats plying and walkways, cycling paths, and parks on either side," the Indian daily Business Standard wrote that the system of canals and drains "connects most parts of Delhi so well that one could actually walk along a nullah from one point to any other distant part of the city without ever leaving the network."
Sewers as Sidewalks: Delhi Ups the Urban Reuse Ante (Treehugger)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Getting Medieval

What I wouldn't give to be a part of this:

What did a medieval stonemason do when heavy rainfall interrupted his work? Umbrellas are impractical at construction sites. Gore-Tex jackets weren't yet invented, nor were plastic rain jackets. "He donned a jacket made of felted loden cloth," says Bert Geurten, the man who plans to build an authentic monastery town the old-fashioned way.
Felted loden jackets will also be present on rainy days at Geurten's building site, which is located near Messkirch, in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg, between the Danube River and Lake Constance. Beginning in 2013, a Carolingian monastery town will be built here using only the materials and techniques of the 9th century. From the mortar to the walls, the rain jackets to the menu, every aspect of the operation will be carried out as just as it was in the days of Charlemagne. "We want to work as authentically as possible," says Geurten.

The building contractor from the Rhineland region has long dreamt of carrying out his plan. When he was a teenager, the now 62-year-old was inspired by a model of the St. Gallen monastery plan in an exhibition in his home city of Aachen. The plan, dating from the beginning of the 9th century, shows the ideal monastery, as envisioned by Abbot Haito of Reichenau.

Haito dedicated his drawing to his colleague Abbot Gozbert of St. Gall, who presided over the monastery from 816 to 837. He meticulously recorded everything that he believed was necessary for a monastic city, from a chicken coop to a church for 2,000 worshipers. Altogether he envisaged 52 buildings -- but they were never built. That will change in spring 2013, though, when ox-pulled carts wil begin carrying the first stones to the building site in the forest near Messkirch. It won't be finished until about 2050, according to estimates.

Ox Carts and No Coffee: Building a Monastery the Medieval Way (Der Spiegel)

Since we're on the topic of old-fashioned building techniques, it's time to post this: Timbrel vaulting using carboard framework (No Tech Magazine). Be sure to see the links at the bottom of the page.

And since we're on the subject of the Middle Ages (the middle of what?):Top 10 Myths About The Middle Ages:

Myth: People of the Middle Ages were crude and ignorant
Thanks largely to Hollywood movies, many people believe that the Middle Ages were full of religious superstition and ignorance. But in fact, leading historians deny that there is any evidence of this. Science and philosophy blossomed at the time – partly due to the introduction of Universities all over Europe. The Middle ages produced some of the greatest art, music, and literature in all history. Boethius, Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli are still revered today for their brilliant minds. The cathedrals and castles of Europe are still standing and contain some of the most beautiful artwork and stonework man has been able to create with his bare hands. Medicine at the time was primitive, but it was structured and willing to embrace new ideas when they arose (which is how we have modern medicine).

Myth: The poor were kept in a state of near starvation
This is completely false. Peasants (those who worked in manual work) would have had fresh porridge and bread daily – with beer to drink. In addition, each day would have an assortment of dried or cured meats, cheeses, and fruits and vegetables from their area. Poultry, chicken, ducks, pigeons, and geese were not uncommon on the peasants dinner table. Some peasants also liked to keep bees, to provide honey for their tables. Given the choice between McDonalds and Medieval peasant food, I suspect the peasant food would be more nutritious and tasty. The rich of the time had a great choice of meats – such as cattle, and sheep. They would eat more courses for each meal than the poor, and would probably have had a number of spiced dishes – something the poor could not afford. Wikipedia has an interesting article here which describes the mostly vegetable and grain diet of the peasants in the early Middle Ages, leading to more meat in the later period.

Myth: Peasants lived a life of drudgery and back-breaking work
In fact, while peasants in the Middle Ages did work hard (tilling the fields was the only way to ensure you could eat), they had regular festivals (religious and secular) which involved dancing, drinking, games, and tournaments. Many of the games from the time are still played today: chess, checkers, dice, blind man’s bluff, and many more. It may not seem as fun as the latest game for the Wii, but it was a great opportunity to enjoy the especially warm weather that was caused by the Medieval Warming Period.

Myth: The Middle Ages were a time of great violence
While there was violence in the Middle Ages (just as there had always been), there were no equals to our modern Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Most people lived their lives without experiencing violence. The Inquisition was not the violent bloodlust that many movies and books have claimed it to be, and most modern historians now admit this readily. Modern times have seen genocide, mass murder, and serial killing – something virtually unheard of before the “enlightenment”. In fact, there are really only two serial killers of note from the Middle Ages: Elizabeth Bathory, and Gilles de Rais. For those who dispute the fact that the Inquisition resulted in very few deaths, Wikipedia has the statistics here showing that there were (at most) 826 recorded executions over a 160 year period – from 45,000 trials!
And if you're looking for a job, List of Medieval Occupations:

How did those poor sods manage to survive without Marketing Specialists, Accounting Analysts and Senior Change Agents clikcing away at computer screens and going to meetings?

And, just for fun: The Dancing Plague of 1518:

The Dancing Plague (or Dance Epidemic) of 1518 was a case of dancing mania that occurred in Strasbourg, Alsace (then part of the Holy Roman Empire) in July 1518. Numerous people took to dancing for days without rest, and, over the period of about one month, some of the people died from heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Different Sort of Architecture

The Nueva Esperanza School, which was completed in 2009, attempts to live up to its name—new hope in Spanish—by providing a much-needed one-room schoolhouse for a coastal Ecuadorian community. Simple materials (including locally sourced wood, dried palm fronds, and a minimum of purchased hardware) went into the 387-square-foot thatched-roof building, designed by David Barragán and Pascual Gangotena of Quito-based al bordE arquitectos, who were commissioned by one of the school’s teachers, and donated their services. Construction was a team effort: Members of the community assisted a team of volunteers and al bordE staffers to finish the building’s hexagonal base, walls, roof, and furnishings.

Nueva Esperanza School al bordE Arquitectos (Architectural Record)

During the ten week project, the three students designed and built the structure using only local materials and no electricity. A mutually beneficial relationship developed between the architects and Niafourang community as the two parties taught each other their skills in design and construction, leaving the students ‘inspired’ by their time in the village.

Compressed sand sourced from a nearby ditch formed the bricks used in construction, hand-pressed in a local machine and stacked with a little cement. A neighbouring village welded the steel brackets holding a corrugated aluminium roof in place, raised slightly to allow for natural ventilation and extended to create a second floor reached by an external ladder.

Every element of this design/build project is highly sustainable, from the incorporation of locally-produced building materials to the teaching of new skills to community members and development of an education space to allow the village’s youth to prosper. This modest scheme is not only inspiring to those involved.

Project Niafourang Youth Club, Niafourang, Senegal (World Architecture News)