A Guide To A Good Life

The right attitude toward possessions

In this video from The Elegant Gentleman series, I talk about one’s possessions and the attitude we should have toward them. In a nutshell: it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. And it doesn’t matter if you’re wealthy or on a limited income. You should always opt for quality or you’ll pay more and feel cheap in the long run. Enjoy the video!

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Thoughts

Signs of overpopulation

Signs of overpopulation are virtually everywhere — and can even be seen when it comes to the basics of life, like food and shelter. Besides the obvious signs, like crowded cities and roads, and rampant consumption of our natural resources, there are other signs that may or may not be readily apparent, depending on your outlook.

First, let’s have a look at the current world population. As I write this, the figure stands at well over 6.7 billion people. Given people’s reproduction habits, particularly in developing countries, and the fact that population growth goes virtually unchecked, thanks to our being the dominant species on earth, with no natural predators of any kind, how many more hungry mouths do you think our planet can support, particularly when most people’s diet consists of meats instead of vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and other plants?

Housing

Have you thought about housing lately? Those of you who read my articles regularly know how worked up I am about the flimsy plywood boxes they build and call houses in the US these days, and for good reason. But, other than greed, why is it that houses nowadays are built with a 30-50 year span in mind? Even important buildings are built for only 100-year life spans. In the past, buildings were made to last several hundred years or even thousands of years, and certainly many of them still stand, centuries and millennia later. Some say it’s because tastes change with each generation, and there’s no reason to build something for a longer lifespan when it’s only going to get torn down. Perhaps. Then again, Roman and Greek architecture is still in fashion, entire millennia after it was laid out in stone.

Could it be that cost is being used to drive people toward cheaper and flimsier building methods? Have you checked to see what it costs to build your house out of stone or bricks, with nice ceramic roof tiles? And have you stopped to consider if there can be enough building materials out there to build everything, for everyone, out of thick, solid rock or brick? It’s not feasible or sustainable. We’d have to grind down a lot of mountains and dig up countless valleys, and we still wouldn’t have enough raw materials to satisfy demand. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt the pocketbooks of those who produce and distribute the building materials if the cost is higher…

Wood

How about timber? One statistic puts the rate of deforestation (for rainforests) at three football fields per second. That’s only the rainforests, mind you, not the temperate forests, which contain most of the hardwoods that are used for construction. The history of the eurasian temperate forests is a sob story onto its own. The thing is, trees regenerate at a much slower rate than current demands dictate. At the end of the day, there simply aren’t enough trees in the world.

I’ve seen what deforested land looks like, and it’s a sad sight. It’s full of stumps and clumps and roots and holes, and it looks like it’s been through war. I’ve seen entire mountainsides in Romania and elsewhere cleared of trees, mindlessly, putting the people in the valleys at risk for avalanches and mudslides and rock falls.

Very few timber companies obey the rules once they’re left to their own devices on the land. They’ll clear the trees out with no thought for tomorrow or for the life of the forest. They simply don’t care what happens after they’ve made their money. What they do is to provide a momentary abundance of wood and a long-term lack of supply, matched by increasing demand. Sadly, we’re currently in the long-term lack of supply part of history, while demand is still increasing.

Cost is once again being used to drive people to flimsier wood, if you can even call it wood. Most furniture you can buy nowadays is not made out of wood, but out of pressed wood pulp — basically, bits of all kinds of crappy wood stuck together with glue and pressed together into boards. You just try buying some furniture made out of real, solid wood — that is, if you can afford it.

On one hand, I’m disgusted by this, and on the other hand, it’s logical. In order to use trees economically, you have to use them in their entirety, even their bark. You can’t afford to only get a few good, solid planks out of a tree trunk. You have to grind it down with its bark and branches, turn it into pulp, then glue it together to get particle boards. That way you get a lot more “planks” out of a tree, and you can build more stuff out of it.

Unfortunately, companies are really cheapening out on particle boards. They’re using less glue, which means the boards will start to fall apart when put through normal use, and they’re churning out thinner boards that can’t carry any amount of significant weight. This means you can’t use your bookshelves to hold books or any sort of significant weight, and the doors on your new closet stand a pretty good chance of falling off after a few months, because the screws that hold the hinges and door handles in place can’t grip the fake wood and start slipping out. To add insult to injury, even if you manage to keep your “new” furniture in decent shape, you can’t move with it. Furniture these days will fall apart or get really wobbly if only moved around the house, much less moved around the state or the country. It’s just not made to last.

Food

What can I tell you here? It’s a mess. On the one hand, you have people who are doing the right things, like eating healthy, organic foods, and on the other hand, you have the majority of the population out there, who’s happy eating meats, drinking their sodas, and snacking on all sorts of crap food made with fillers and artificial substances and colorants and test-tube flavors. And why not, right? It’s cheaper to make that crap, cheaper to transport it and to distribute it to people, and there’s more profit in that than in healthy fruits and vegetables, which spoil. Artificial crap pumped full of preservatives doesn’t spoil. It can still be sold and turn a profit months down the road. You can’t do that with an organic apple. What’s good for the corporations in this case is also good for overpopulation. It’s much easier and more profitable to distribute crap food to lots and lots of people than it is to stock them with real food.

What’s also happening is that our food chain is being hijacked. There are several large corporations out there bent on producing genetically modified foods. The benefits quoted to the public sound good on the surface, but they’re not real. The only real benefit is to their bank accounts. You see, what they’re doing is destroying the seeds’ capability to generate life. Each new crop made from their seeds is unable to germinate. Farmers have to turn to those same corporations each year and buy the seeds, and the fertilizers and pesticides made for those seeds in order to get new crops. In essence, they have once again been enslaved, become serfs, not to medieval lords, but to corporate executives.

We, on the other hand, have become a large experiment for the long-term effects of genetically modified foods. What really gets my goose is this: how dumb do you have to be to realize that it’s not good to mess with seeds, and with their God-given right to germinate and yield new life? What sort of devilish greed runs through your veins and blinds you so much that you don’t realize that by destroying the life-giving properties of seeds, you have set yourself up for a major food supply disaster? When you’re a single point of failure in a big, global food chain, you’d better believe you’ll fail at some point, and everyone will suffer as a result of your stupidity.

I also don’t buy the recent food safety measures the White House is talking up. I think they’re really just double talk for pushing the small farmers out of the marketplace, through heaps and heaps of regulations and hoops they have to jump through. I think the goal is to make the process so onerous that only those with deep pockets will be able to afford to reach the marketplace, and once again, that will allow the large corporations that already control most of the food chain to gain more of a foothold just when things were looking brighter.

What about the famines in Africa? For decades, there have been famines in Africa. And there have been efforts to “eradicate” those famines for those very same decades, yet we still have famines. What’s really being done about it? Not much. I know this will sound cruel, but, hypothetically speaking, if you could somehow control the situation, why do something effective about those famines when you’ll only be contributing to an already out of control overpopulation?

Each year, tons and tons of corn and wheat are destroyed in the US because selling them would mess up the commodity markets. Those same tons of grains could go to Africa, or to other places where they’re needed, couldn’t they? Say they could get there through the benefit of some aid societies. Unfortunately, most of that aid still wouldn’t make it to the people. It would make it to the warehouses of the corrupt people in charge of those countries, where it would get re-distributed among those who prop up the same corrupt regimes.

Wars

While we have no more global wars — thank God for that — we do have little wars these days, and they manage to wipe out undisclosed numbers of people each time. Yet, somehow, with all our modern census methods and computers, we still can’t seem to figure out just how many people get killed in these wars.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t it the mission of the UN and NATO to stop wars? Let me quote you the primary reason for the existence of the UN, right from their charter:

“To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace”

And yet, with all of those heads of state gathered together, and with all of that clout and power, all that the UN really does is talk — nothing more but empty talk. It and NATO send peacekeeping forces to the regions where wars occur, but almost always, those forces are puny compared with what’s needed, and they have no teeth. They do nothing except stand by while the killing and raping occurs miles or even furloughs away. That’s incomprehensible.

Do you honestly think that wars cannot be stopped or dictators toppled? These things can happen very quickly through the use of spies and elite forces. You don’t need to take out entire armies, only their leaders and key points in their logistical structure. But if you did that, then certain corporations and governments couldn’t profit from all those weapons they get to sell to various governments, and that would be a disaster, wouldn’t it?

Medicine

We have all of these organizations dedicated to wiping out chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes and whatever else there is, and they’ve been at it for decades, yet no cure is in sight. Perhaps I’m more cynical than most, and maybe I have good reason to be that way, but maybe it’s not in the best interest of the world that these diseases get eradicated. They’re some of the only things keeping our population in check.

After all, we’re collectively living longer while more of us are being born each second. When you ask someone older how they feel about death, most will say they want to stay alive as long as possible. They won’t care how, they won’t care if they’ll be a bag of bones kept alive by drugs alone, they’ll want to keep living. To what end?

Better not wipe out the diseases, there should be something to make us kick the bucket. After all, who would believe you if you told people to stop eating crap and start eating raw foods, and then they wouldn’t suffer from any diseases and they’d live longer, too? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Then we have stuff like all these kooky viruses that certain labs out there get to play with and mix around, sometimes with very deadly results. Oops, how did that happen? No matter, move along, nothing to see here. Does it matter there is now a virus that could literally start a plague and clean a billion people or so from the face of the earth? No, it’s not important, right? Who knows what other nasty stuff is being cooked up for us in some government-funded test tube somewhere…

In closing…

Doesn’t it all seem like a long-term passive-aggressive punishment from a greedy yet moronically short-sighted bunch of overseers? Oh sure, on the surface, what’s important is the quality of our foods, cures for our diseases, eradication of wars, quality housing and the comforts of modern living, and yet… something’s still rotten in Denmark. It’s when you look a little deeper that you find greed is driving this freight train, not social responsibility, no matter what the short-term and long-term costs may be.

I’d like to know if we can sack the current “overseers” and get someone intelligent, kind, balanced and responsible to take care of things. This poor planet could use some better leadership.

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Thoughts

Pitch black darkness

Last night, the power went out everywhere. Completely. I happen to be staying in a village in the province of Dobrogea, Romania at the moment, and just as I stepped out of the house to walk to my car, all the lights blinked out of existence. It was, as they say, a dark and stormy night, with nary a star in the sky, not to speak of the moon, which had probably been stuffed in thick sackcloth and kidnapped.

Do you want to know what things look like when you’re in the middle of a wide open field and everything goes pitch black? It looks something like this.

Pitch Black Darkness

It’s an eerie feeling, one that throws you for a loop, even if only for a few moments. I looked around, but there was nothing to see. I reached about me, and wasn’t sure where to reach for a wall or something to hold on to. Everything was black. Even the dogs went quiet. Then, someone in a house nearby stumbled over something and mumbled some sort of swear, then called out for a light from his wife. Others, elsewhere, called out to each other. Things came back to life, but it was still pitch black outside.

I pulled out my little spotlight, the same one I reviewed recently, and found my way to the car. I unlocked it, and the interior lights came on. I climbed in, sat down and turned on the engine. The dashboard lights came on, reassuringly. Then I realized something which sounds obvious to someone who doesn’t have to deal with a power failure, but is a downright epiphany when you’re in pitch black darkness: cars have standalone electrical systems; they do not depend on the grid for power; they make their own power. When the grid goes down, your car can still run, thanks to its battery and to the fuel that makes its alternator turn and charge that same battery. It’s an amazing system when you think about it. I don’t know what we’d do without it.

Shouldn’t homes have similar standalone electrical systems, just in case grids go down? Sure, we’ve made inroads with solar panels and wind turbines, and some homes do have batteries that charge up from the sun or the wind, but the overwhelming majority of homes in this world don’t have any sort of backup power. If the electricity goes down, they’re down as well.

We should really invest more into making each of our homes more self-sufficient. Each home ought to be able to function, at least for a period of time — say 4-8 hours — without grid power, in and of itself, from power stored in batteries or capacitors or in some other container of energy, so that people can carry on with their lives and at least have enough time to prepare for a prolonged power outage once the grid power goes out.

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Reviews

How houses get built in the DC area

I thought that when I lived in Florida, the construction there was shoddy. I was wrong. At least there they used concrete pillars and floors for the houses, and the building code was so strict everything was anchored properly, especially after Hurricane Andrew. When I moved to the DC area, I thought construction would be better here, since it’s a temperate climate and the houses should be built to last and hold up to the weather. I was wrong. Construction here is horribly shoddy.

I have never been so shocked at the cheap and flimsy “workmanship” I see every time I pass some house or building under construction. It never ceases to amaze me what passes code in these parts, and I’ve lived here since 2003. It’s downright thievery, I tell you. I’ll show you some photos below to help you see what I mean. I call it thievery because you’d think housing would be dirt cheap given the materials and level of effort that goes into the construction, but it isn’t. It’s terribly expensive, to the point that people making below what would be called upper middle class in other parts of the country can’t afford to live inside the Beltway, much less outside it. They have to go find housing either in bad neighborhoods, or way out in the boonies, in order to get anything affordable.

It’s not right. It makes my blood boil. Honestly, I can’t believe what goes on. It’s the same construction everywhere, from the (relatively) cheaper townhomes and single family homes right up to the McMansions that have sprung up on River Rd, Georgetown Pike and other richer places. The only thing that changes is the size and price of each monstrosity, but they’re all just as flimsy.

Do you want to see what I mean? Take a look at these photos. They’re from a house currently under construction in my area.

House under construction

Some unwitting soul is going to pay several hundred thousands of dollars for this piece of crap, and he won’t know what a lemon he’s getting. It’s all 2×4 construction. There’s nothing solid and concrete there except the foundation, and I’m not sure how thick that is, either. It’s all either cheap, soft wood or plywood, including the upper floor. Not only that, but the beams aren’t straight, and the joints aren’t secured properly.

House under construction

It’s basically a big plywood box. I’m not sure what its projected lifetime is, but I can’t imagine it’ll last more than 30 years. It’ll start needing serious repairs even before the mortgage is paid off. Isn’t that terrible?

Do you see that cheap, flimsy Tyvek plastic? That’s the weatherproofing. No, I’m not kidding. That’s it. That’s also the insulation. I doubt they’ll put glass fiber or any other kind of insulation between the drywall and the beams. They might, but I seriously doubt it. I’ve seen the inside of many walls, and they’re usually empty.

House under construction

Can you say cheap? I can. It’s cheap construction! It’s a travesty. Look at that horrible plywood shell. That’s going to be a tower. It’s going to look so nice, clad in fake brick or plastic siding only 1-2 inches thick… It’s also going to be horribly inefficient when it comes to temperature preservation. And if water should happen to leak in through that cheap brick cladding and through that flimsy Tyvek sheet, the plywood will rot away quietly and the owner won’t even know it… Wonderful, isn’t it? Isn’t this piece of crap worth mortgaging your life away?

Should we be ill-fortunate enough to get a hurricane or some tornado in our area, the roof on this thing will probably get torn off, and the entire house might or might not be standing when nature’s done with it.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I understand that America has a long history of 2×4 construction. It’s how the West was won. It’s cheap, affordable, goes up quickly, etc. But this isn’t the West, and it’s not the 1800s. This is the supposedly refined East. We should know better by now. It’s our nation’s capital. And the prices of these plywood boxes aren’t cheap. No, they’re so high most people can’t afford them.

I also understand the builders have to make a profit and the cost of land in this area is expensive. But this is ridiculous! If you’re going to build something that someone will want to call their home, and will pay dearly for it, sinking most of their productive, working years into paying it off, then God help you if you don’t build something worthwhile, something that’ll last. You’ll get what’s coming to you, don’t you worry about that…

What I wonder about is how the people and companies that put up these things can live with themselves. That’s what I want to know. How can they sleep at night knowing someone’s going to pay a fortune for something that’ll start falling apart after the first several years, for something that’s so horribly inefficient when it comes to energy use that they’ll be paying through the nose to cool it in the summer and to heat it in the winter? Don’t tell me about efficient windows! You can get the most expensive windows out there — if the walls themselves can’t conserve the inside temperature, you’ll still be nowhere. There’s such a thing as global warming to worry about. Have you heard of it? Everyone needs to reduce their carbon footprint, and it starts in the home.

Whatever happened to the good, old masonry work? What happened to quality stone construction? Yes, it’s more expensive, but isn’t it worth it? Why can’t you builders put a little more pride in your work? Why can’t you make a concrete skeleton, and use thicker insulation and better materials for the cladding? Is it so hard to do? So you’ll make a little less money. You might have to mark up the price a little. You might have to educate the consumers that know nothing about quality construction. But isn’t it all worth it in the end? Won’t you feel better knowing the house you built will last a long time? Won’t you feel better knowing the people that will buy your house will thank you for your solid construction later? Isn’t it it worth it to build good will instead of ill will?

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The swelling McMansion backlash

Christopher Solomon of MSN Real Estate has a great article on the backlash toward McMansions, also called “starter castles”, “Hummer houses” or, my favorite, “garage mahals”. From the article: “Local governments and ordinary citizens are saying ‘no’ to so-called Hummer houses and starter castles. Tactics include energy-consumption restrictions, petitions and outright building moratoriums…” Great read!

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Earthquake safety testing

From CNET News: “Video: Earthquake safety testing. Japan’s Hyogo Earthquake Engineering Research Center tests real houses under earthquake conditions. This video shows the difference between two actual wooden houses, the one on the right retrofitted to limit damage.” Very cool! Here is the link.

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