July 14th, 2008

heating in the northeast

So, I'm an idiot. When I blogged (and where this entry would be, I could not say, but I know it's somewhere) about people having trouble paying for their heating oil this next heating season, I gave a bad explanation for why heat pumps ain't no good in the northeast. I will _not_ be providing a good explanation, because I suck at explaining this. However, as it happens, there is now a much better heat pump available: the Acadia from Hallowell International, supposed to work until, way, way freaking cold. These guys haven't been in business for very long, but R. says their technology makes sense. The claim? It'll work down to -30F. Way, way freaking cold. Maybe not good enough to rely on in, oh, I don't know: North Dakota? But certainly adequate for New England.

Read and lust:


I spent about five minutes kicking myself for not getting one of these, instead of A/C back in the summer of 2004. Then I went, doh. Didn't exist yet. _That_ would be one reason why I didn't consider it as an option.

I first heard of them here:


which is a nice little article about pellet furnaces (who knew?), pellet stoves, the Acadia heat pump, etc., as options for a world of high and rising fuel costs. No, they _won't_ solve your immediate cash flow problem. However, depending on which you go for, the payback time on some of these is speedy.

How _Cheap_ Oil Destroyed Suburbia and "Restored" City Life

This will be long. I'm just saying.

I am not asserting that oil is cheap now. It is not. What I am asserting is that, contrary to all the doom-and-glooming about oil being so expensive, the suburbs were a rotting corpse _before_ oil rocketed to the moon. Expensive oil just ended the noisy (and morbidly fun) wake and passed out shovels to the party-goers.

Once upon a time, people walked everywhere. Then a few people got some horses or asses or dogs or whatever, and got to ride on the horses, asses, dogs, whatever, or some sledge or cart pulled behind same. With the added muscle power (and just plain the added everybody), people took up earth moving as a hobby -- or as an emergency measure to better control limited/excessive but definitely undesirable water flows in service of horticulture, agriculture and (more) reliable food production. Now we're done with part one of the History of Us.

Living in settlements (villages, towns, cities, etc.), people were still, by and large, walking everywhere, which encouraged a certain style of urban development, which is to say: small, dense -- crowded. Everyone living on top of each other. Literally. At one point, as the whole floating around on the water with stuff got good enough to cross an ocean, diseases transported from one really dense area to another area led to the second area being really un-dense for a few generations. Because some of the aforementioned beasts of burdens were early occupiers, there was a lot of available not-having-to-walk for later arrivals from the really dense area. Now we're done with part two, in which Europeans came to the not-quite-but-almost-U.S. and thoroughly misunderstood what had happened.

Because land was plentiful and seemingly untenanted, and there were free horses, a much larger fraction of the human population had non-walking-around choices and arranged their living spaces accordingly. Because they got used to this, when the beast/human thing started being a lot more like where they came from, they were motivated to develop alternatives, which is to say, street cars and rail lines powered by fossil fuels, and now we're done with part three, in which White People Continue Moving Away from the City Core. Just for reference purposes, we're probably looking at 18something about now, NOT the white flight of a hundred plus years later.

As roads (rail and other) and stuff to run on the roads (horses, rail cars, horseless carriages, etc.) underwent technological improvements, and as the cities grew larger in people and in space, specialization led to the rise of a managerial class which sent the men off to work in the center of the city (managing) and left home life at the periphery (being middle class, which is to say, having servant(s) do much of the work), with the women in a highly ambiguous and unstable position in which she is not to have too many children (which would torpedo the lifestyle gains), nor is she to work outside the home (because the servants and stuff require supervision), etc. Because of the whole periphery thing, the home life is kinda weird: nice, treelined streets filled with what would ultimately be called the problem which has no name. Nevertheless, the kids seemed healthy and happy and fewer of them died so everyone else wanted the same deal. Because we arrange things nominally as a democracy, and the managerial class has no particular vested interest in keeping it all to themselves, technological change enabled more and more people to participate, hollowing out the center city and expanding the periphery. Also, immigration shut down, so internal migration brought a lot of people up from the south and there was a lot of conflict over skin color and people who might otherwise have stayed in the city did everything in their power (including complaining at the ballot box, which they had rigged to keep the other people out of) to get out of the city by having the government loan them money to move to the periphery. And now we have arrived in the 1960s, Brown v. etc., White Flight, etc. And I have been born. In what are now called the suburbs, NOT city neighborhoods, and the people surrounding me will fight tooth and nail to avoid annexation in order to avoid being subsumed in the school district associated with the city.

The aforementioned technological gains were sponsored, subsidized, made possible by the letter O, which is to say, Light Sweet Crude from Texas. But that last round of exiting the city (will the last person out please turn off the lights) exhausted the seemingly limitless supply and gave control over the price of oil to some people halfway round the world who said, _finally_ we get a say in how this all plays out. Antics ensue. And it should be noted that already at this point, some people were either staying in the city, or moving to the city for the first time. Think Greenwich Village. Think Haight Asbury. These people did not have cars and in the city, they didn't need them. They shared their poverty with the folk who never left and very little else (okay, probably a shared love of certain kinds of food, and definitely a shared love of certain kinds of music). At the same time, there was a wave of migration way out into the country to take up what could be described as subsistence farming, but wasn't, because that would have been drastically unappealing. The subsistence farming did not last. The return to the city, interestingly enough, did. But very slowly, because people left again when they had children (for the most part) and those who stayed were highly marginalized, one way or another.

After a minor detour into solar panels and cardigans which was followed by public mockery of same, lots of power plants and so forth were built. Because the solar panels and cardigans were accompanied by dramatic technological change (okay, pretty undramatic -- but fridges got way efficient, and cars improved a lot), the power plants weren't particularly necessary and had the effect of blasting away at any remaining price support for fuel. The people halfway round the world cried in their, well, they don't drink beer as a religious thing, and toddlers who grew up listening to their elders complaining about how that didn't go the way it should have grew up to try stronger measures the next time around. We're up to the 1980s. Reagan. Words fail.

Right about now, the managerial classes who had dominated the suburbs prior to Brown v. have been surrounded, infiltrated and pressed all about by the folk what moved following Brown v. with public assistance, er, changes in housing policy at the federal level, er, whatever. The country clubbers in principle, knew the Correct Response: Move Further Out. Unfortunately, the rabble (my kind -- the people who didn't have college degrees but wanted their kids to) had already done that, because oil was really cheap again and cars didn't use as much of it. And further out meant a longer drive and still fewer amenities and just sucked all 'round. So the country clubbers stayed put, incorporated their town (if it wasn't already) and got stuck doing a lot of city like urban development, which they loathed and tried very hard to pretend wasn't happening, in part by zoning out of their area all the poor people and not allowing services that would permit poor people to live their (like, say, public transportation). Unfortunately, this made it Even Harder to Get Good Help. Also, their offspring were old enough to have taken over the mall, which was okay at first, but after they didn't move but stayed in place a second generation, the older offspring didn't want to shop at a place swarming with what they wanted to forget being like, so they invented the outdoor walking mall, the faux downtown, thinking maybe that will fix our problems, especially if we surround it with a sea of parking. Parking garages. But they needed more stores, and eventually, public transportation was reborn, and they were going, why the _hell_ are we living in a city designed by a bunch of people who hate the city. Let's go move somewhere else.

What about a _real_ city? And, we can pick a section, buy it up, and make it nice the way we like it with parks and bistros and coffee shops and High End Retail Experiences and really _nice_ _pretty_ _European-style_ public transportation and, okay, maybe I'm feeling a little negative about Paul Allen, Vulcan and South Lake Union. Once enough of them got onto the idea and they started building their faux downtowns in the middle of a real city (surrounded by cheap(er) help and more extensive, realistic public transit options), they all realized that with adequate soundproofing, good ventilation systems and LOTS of square feet, living here wasn't all that bad, and instead of a yard they have to mow, with a crappy playset, they can have a park with an indoor playspace and _make everyone else pay for it, too_. Maybe this whole public infrastructure thing is okay after all. Can I have a stadium, too? Two? And get rid of all that industry and make it parkland. But no skate parks. *shudder*

This would be sometime in the late 1990s. When the Economist was saying the oil was never going to end, and it would always be cheap (never mind the tightness of supply even then, and the now 20 and 30 something folk what weren't crying in their beer but were instead cuddling up to the AK-wtf and contemplating blood and destruction because this is _NOT_ the way it was supposed to go). All those beautiful new big homes and townhomes and luxury condos and etc. had to go somewhere, which meant the last folk still in the city because it was too cheap to leave/too expensive to go anywhere else were given Section 8 vouchers which would put them in a Classy Grassy Neighborhood Away from The Violence (conveniently cheap to rent in/buy into, because of the musical houses process in play). Also, apartments were sold and razed. Old houses were bought up on the cheap and renovated. You know. Gentrification. The last of the poor city folk were shipped out to the furthest exurbs with exotic home loans and Dreams of a Middle Class Life At Last. In a heavily discounted guzzler. To a place with few or no public transit options and crappy amenities.

And this all happened when oil was cheap. Short form: rich people with choices will move away from the poor people. Generally, that had meant away from the center city, until cheap oil enabled other people to leapfrog them. At that point, the folk with the choices went _back_ to the center city. And _then_ oil skyrocketed.

You could start to wonder about a conspiracy. I think that would be uncalled for. There's a lot of loose talk from the punditry about how this is going to make Murrican cities more like European cities, in which poor people live in the suburbs (like Paris! because somehow, booting the poor out of the middle of town will make your town Paris, too). All I can say is, the folk saying that are really _hoping_ that happens, because otherwise, where is there left to move to?

renting a car?

Since we're cheap and we usually are fighting for parking in a city or city neighborhood when we travel, we've always tried to rent small: cheaper to run, easier to park in parallel parking spaces the bigger vehicles passed up due to not fitting.

We have been noticing that while the smaller cars are still cheaper (more on this momentarily), they are not necessarily as easy to get as they once were. We also need slightly more room in that the car seat does have to fit in the back seat, and there's a bit more luggage. In the past, as long as the vehicle wasn't ridiculous, we'd take an upgrade that didn't cost us more per day. More recently, we've gotten snottier about it, insisting on what we reserved. In light of this, the LA Times piece on car rental companies is entertaining:


Highlights: more people want better mpg (duh). While some slow-on-the-uptake punditry still thinks that "free" upgrade is a good thing, no one else seems to. Interestingly, with the demise of "program" cars (automakers make too many, sell them to car rental operations cheap then buy them back to do it again), car rental companies are struggling with inventory management mostly by hanging onto their cars longer, and selling the winners -- the ones that retain residual value better -- which is pretty much always a long-term loser. In this case, it's a bit of a short term killer, too, in that the winners are the higher mpg vehicles, exactly what people are wanting to rent right now.


I, for one, do not understand why the rental companies are so slow to do the obvious (charge more for What the People Want, i.e. the higher mpg vehicles, and less for the undesirables, i.e. the guzzlers). But they are, apparently, slowly starting to do just that in some markets.

do you know these people?

I sure don't. This article is about a forthcoming Ernst & Young study that reveals the rather stunning news that if you make $75K a year now, and retire, and expect to maintain your lifestyle on just your social security, your money will run out (really? Ya think? This is News You Can Use, Truly):


At the bottom of the article is this gem:

"Eating out five nights a week, is that something that is important, or is that something you can forgo?" he said. "Retirement ends up being a negotiation."

"he" is David Armstrong, of Monument Wealth Management in Alexandria, Va. I would ordinarily complain about how if your non-negotiables are taking up all your income, you should be rethinking those, not just your eating habits, which will have such an impact on your health that you won't _live_ to 90 to run out of money from your poor spending habits. But what's the point? This guy lives somewhere -- or somewhen -- else from where everyone else I know lives.

_Cash for your Trash_, Carl A. Zimring

Subtitled: Scrap Recycling in America

I bought this in November 2006 from Amazon. I don't know what prompted me to buy this, although it certainly ties into several reading projects of mine over the years.

The book is a rework of Zimring's dissertation (according to the front matter) and it shows in a couple of places. I don't know how many dissertations or reworked dissertations you've read, but in my experience there are inevitably these odd passages that show up repetitively in several places that make you go, hey, I've read that bit already did my bookmark get moved? But no. Of course there are extensive notes and sources.

Zimring traces the rise of scrap dealing alongside the rise of consumer culture in the US, carefully documenting how cultural trends emphasizing newness and cleanliness generated increasing consumption, "waste" and opportunities for scrap dealing aka recycling. He examines the ethnic and racial makeup of the scrap trades and how they changed over time. He sketches zoning changes and how that affected scrap dealing, and technological changes (especially in steel-making, paper making and similar) that impacted the value of traditionally collected scrap (e.g. rags lost value when paper switched to wood pulp; Bessemer process couldn't use scrap but minimills could use scrap almost exclusively).

He walks the reader through regulatory changes, zoning, initially, but later Superfund and other environmental regulation. He also talks about how the public movement to recycle for moral/environmental reasons intersected with waste haulers and scrap dealers. The NYC suspension of curbside recycling for plastic, for example, led to a rethinking of what happened with the plastic. They had been paying to have it picked up by waste haulers whose business structure is oriented towards efficiency of getting-rid-of; they ultimately switched to having it picked up by scrap businesses whose business structure is oriented towards efficiency of extracting-value -- and who would pay for the sorted waste stream, instead of demanding payment. Zimring is emphatic about how scrap dealers have not been treated well by the mainstream recycling/environmental movement and how that has manifested in regulation and contracts and so forth.

Good stuff. It took a while to read, but I did learn a lot (and found that really fantastic essay by Jane Addams that I wrote about earlier). Should you read it, too? I don't know. I think a book that hammered more on the importance of use-less and producer-pays (implicit and occasionally explicit in this book) would be a more effective advocate for desirable change. But this is good history, which has a value all its own.

Raj Patel, Evan Kleiman, AfterWords on C-Span

After watching the latest Doctor Who ("Midnight"), I'm trying very hard to watch Patel/Kleiman discuss the food industry. I'm having some of the same problems I'm having with his book, _Stuffed and Starved_. I keep thinking that something is wrong that I really want to go after people who ostensibly are saying things I completely agree with. It can't be the accent -- Patel and Kleiman have very different accents. Racial diversity, check. Gender balance, check. Why do I want to smack these people?

Well, partly because while Patel is relatively sensible about why Americans eat so many fast food meals in their cars (they're working two jobs, taking care of kids and have long commutes), Kleiman just seems to be mocking the fact that people don't cook any more. Then there's the fact that apparently Patel got through his academic years fueled by Red Bull with the occasional salad -- and is now talking up Slow Food in its original Italian format. I mean, could we _find_ a balance somewhere between the two, something that maybe could be sustainable for large groups of people in a variety of life circumstances?

If someone were willing to talk about how, hey, down this path? You won't be having any children because (a) you can't afford them (b) you don't have the time for them and (c) it fits all too well with some seriously bad gender expectations, I'd be less annoyed.

They even talked about elitism as an issue, but

Oh, I heard a thump. Back later.

ETA: they did talk about elitism as an issue, in that, they are likely to be perceived as elitist, what can we do about that. There's _some_ awareness. But there are big problems when Kleiman thinks it's weird that supermarkets were invented, and more or less implies that somehow the counter-service grocers that preceded them were more "natural". *sigh*

And then talking about spending more time preparing food as being a pleasurable activity? Okay, I _love_ to cook. I really do. I even love the day to day. But having to spend hours every day cooking isn't a case you make based on pleasure. At least, not if you want a substantial, relevant audience.