Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Humble as it may be, this is my first magazine cover. Click on this link to see the piece and a few other pictures of our work. The mill is FSC Certified and AWI QCP Premium Grade, which is about as good as it gets. The place and undergone a 5S and lean manufacturing restructuring and re-tooling and is in tip-top shape. We are grateful to be the cover story of this trade magazine's feature on the greening of the woodworking industry.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

seeing things through

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

from today's Post-Dispatch


Start now on green jobs and energy efficiency
By Richard Reilly
Tuesday, Jan. 13 2009
There's no better time than now to start educating our municipal leaders about the benefits of going green.

President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration will mean changes in the distribution of federal funds to states, metropolitan regions and cities. The state of the economy requires new initiatives for job creation amid reduced tax revenue for all government agencies. The answers are green jobs and energy savings.

Our regional political leadership must be prepared to make educated decisions that will bring green jobs to the entire spectrum of the work force, as well as ensuring that government buildings operate at the highest possible levels of energy efficiency.

These opportunities and responsibilities are both bottom-up and top-down. To make real progress and be accountable, all levels of the community must be involved.

Grass-roots groups such as Missouri Votes Conservation are working in a nonpartisan way as advocates for pro-environmental legislation on a statewide basis. The St. Louis chapter of Architecture for Humanity is beginning to work with North & South County Tech to design and build a green curriculum.

The St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association is in the draft stages of "The St Louis Climate Prosperity Project," which includes its support for businesses, organizations and cities to become more energy efficient and for the cultivation of a green-minded work force to make sure the St. Louis area is nationally recognized as a "Top Ten Green Region."

This can happen only with broad support at the municipal, regional and state levels for higher energy performance standards for all buildings, including new and renovated government facilities. If we do not begin to take these initiatives now, we will be following the herd again, instead of leading it.

We also should pay close attention to the "voice on the street," where our existing, wasteful energy practices hit families, individuals and businesses hard in the form of higher utility bills. It doesn't have to be this way. People living in Habitat for Humanity St. Louis 2008 homes — homes built with careful attention to energy efficiency — are spending 40 percent to 60 percent less on their utility bills than people in comparable housing units that lack improved energy efficiency.

The St. Louis chapter of the United States Green Building Council is going to begin working with the East-West Gateway Council of Governments to organize and present a series of seminars for mayors, city managers and county executives on the basics of energy efficiency programs and retrofits, including Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design programs for schools, neighborhood development and existing buildings.

Let's encourage these organizations to provide an excellent and flexible program that will allow as many political decision-makers as possible to attend. And let's encourage our municipal leaders to attend as many sessions as possible so they will be prepared to make informed decisions in the very near future on the environment, the bottom line of their municipal budgets and the long-term health of our region.

Richard Reilly, a native St. Louisan, is the chief operating officer of Boa Construction Company in St. Louis County and has been in the construction industry for more than 25 years.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Dante in the Modern World

The following is Eric Mink's last column in the Post. I have just finished a close-reading of The Inferno as well as recently finishing The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Both these books give great insight into the workings of pride and the epistemological problems of prediction. There will be more on Dante in the future of this blog.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with 'The Art of Construction?' Scroll down to my definition of construction for a hint. Not all constructs are in agreement with 'reality' and it is often pride, causing attachment to the construction, that stands in the way.

Dante's Commedia is one of the great works on the human psyche and it has never been more relevant than now.

Pride, more than greed, at the heart of financial crisis
By Eric Mink
Wednesday, Jan. 07 2009
It's tempting to see our deepening economic crisis through the prism of the culture of greed that flourished under the let-markets-run-wild ideology of the outgoing Bush administration.To be sure, any administration that lets private companies rip off the military in wartime and exploit the environment in the name of environmentalism deserves at least a special citation for chutzpah. But George W. Bush is by no means unique among modern U.S. presidents in embracing a greed-is-good approach to financial oversight and regulation.It was, after all, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan (a Ronald Reagan appointee), former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin (a Bill Clinton appointee) and former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr. (another Clinton appointee) who banded together in 1998 to shut down attempts to regulate the explosive trafficking in derivative investments.And it was Clinton himself in 1999 who signed into law the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, tearing down protective barriers that had kept commercial banks separate from investment banks, insurance companies and securities brokerages. The move created wondrous new possibilities for financial mischief and conflicts of interest on a massive scale.True, the Bush administration brought with it a deep contempt for government, a certain deregulatory fanatacism and, of course, spectacular incompetence, but its faith in greed was nothing new.Greed being what it is, I suspect that serious prosecutors will discover that smooth-talking (alleged) financial con man Bernie Madoff was only one of scads of hustlers in recent years who took advantage of lax enforcement and money lust to find easy pickings among true innocents and look-the-other-way victims.All that said, I still wouldn't put the deadly sin of greed at the center of our economic crisis; I'd pick pride.Last week, a brilliant three-part investigative report in the Washington Post deconstructed the fall of American International Group. The once-respected, old-line, multi-billion-dollar international insurance conglomerate failed in September and nearly triggered a world financial collapse before the U.S. Treasury intervened and took over the company.At the center of AIG's fall from grace was its Financial Products unit. It was created in 1987 by three very smart, young Wall Street traders and math whizzes who came to AIG with an idea: They believed they had devised a way to use computers to track simultaneously a wide range of changing variables in elaborately constructed financial deals and precisely identify and offset shifting risks.In other words: They'd figured out how to reduce risk to virtually zero. They'd discovered the new Sure Thing. Maybe it was, at least for awhile. By the time the trio left AIG in 1993 — long before any problems were apparent — the operation they'd created out of thin air was pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into AIG and the pockets of its executives, including the three young innovators.But as one the men, Randy Rackson, recently told the Washington Post, "The excitement of it wasn't the money. The money was the scorecard. The drive behind it was creating something new."Something new, however, isn't always something good or even something better. In the current issue of Vanity Fair, Joseph E. Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economics professor at Columbia University, describes the losing struggle he waged against other Clinton administration economic advisers over the danger of derivatives."For all the risk," he wrote, "the deregulators in charge of the financial system . . . decided to do nothing, worried that any action might interfere with 'innovation' in the financial system. But innovation, like 'change,' has no inherent value. It can be bad . . . as well as good."The increasing complexity of the deals concocted by AIG, Bear Stearns, Citigroup and countless other competitors and imitators put greater and greater distance between the financial products being bought and sold and the real things on which they supposedly were based: residences, commercial land and buildings, bonds used to finance business expansion and public infrastructure projects, student loans and so on. When the long, twisted chains of payments-due started to break after real estate prices started falling, it became impossible to tell which pieces of the deals still held value and why. Essentially, everything had to be regarded as worthless.It's fair, I suppose, to blame the alleged geniuses of the financial industry, government and academia for not realizing how interdependent the latest "innovations" really were: how even private financial deals were connected to the worldwide public financial system, how failure in what was believed to be a small fragment of a deal could resonate through those connections and crack the foundations of gigantic institutions. In other words, for failing to understand just how risky what they were doing really was.But that is the essence of pride. The innovators believed they had discovered how to eliminate all practical risk. They thought they had used the power of mathematics and computer processing to take everything into account — past, present and future — allowing them to control the way variables affect wildly complex financial deals. They thought they had outsmarted the system, history and human nature.In the afterword to his latest book, "The Ascent of Money," historian Niall Ferguson hails the positive impact that evolving financial systems have had on society. "From ancient Mesopotamia to present-day China," he writes, "the ascent of money has been one of the driving forces behind human progress . . . as vital as the advance of science or the spread of law in mankind's escape from the drudgery of subsistence agriculture and the misery of the Malthusian trap."But he also warns, citing some of the great economists of history, of the danger of mistaking knowable risks, which can be estimated based on historical data, for matters that can not be anticipated at all. More than 70 years ago, Ferguson notes, John Maynard Keynes addressed the issue of what he called "uncertainty" in his "General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money":"I do not mean merely to distinguish," Ferguson quotes Keynes, "what is known for certain from what is only probable. . . . The expectation of life is only slightly uncertain. Even the weather is only moderately uncertain. The sense in which I am using the term is that in which the prospect of a European war is uncertain or . . . the rate of interest 20 years hence. . . . About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know."The human quality that has brought the world financial system to its knees — and brought with it the potential for untold hardships for millions of men, women and children — is pride: the belief that we had discovered the secret of knowing the unknowable.

St. Louis Beacon

The Beacon is our 2nd newspaper. An online news outlet in sync with Channel 9 & KWMU. All the lay-offs from the Post have put a lot of talent to work for this community. I found out about the Beacon several months after they went on-line from a piece I read in the NY Times. It seems to me that this is an important asset for the community. Click on the image to go to their site.

The Economy and the Environment

politics from SLATE
The Green House
The recession is the best thing that could have happened to Barack Obama.By Christopher BeamPosted Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2008, at 8:22 PM ET
For President-elect Barack Obama, the sagging economy is the gift that keeps on giving. First, it helped get him elected. Now it's giving him a mandate to spend more than he ever could under normal circumstances.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on climate change. When Obama rolled out his "green team" Monday, he made it clear that he doesn't see saving the environment and saving the economy as incompatible. Quite the opposite: He thinks they're complementary.
Take the example of green buildings: "We know that there are buildings—school buildings, in particular, but I think public buildings generally—that need to be retrofitted to make them more energy-efficient," Obama said. "We will get that money back so that not only are we creating jobs, but we're also making those operations more efficient and saving taxpayers money over the long term." In other words, "green-collar jobs"—jobs created when government policy encourages people to install solar panels or research wind power or "weatherize" homes—are a kind of magic puzzle piece. They'll stimulate the economy in the short term (by creating jobs) and save money in the long term (by reducing emissions and making us more energy-efficient).
That sure sounds good. But there are a few complications. For one thing, you may have heard we're in a recession. If people are cutting back on food, clothing, and gas, are they really going to pay more for pricey doodads like solar panels and wind turbines? Obama's answer is that they won't have to. He says the efforts will be paid for by revenues generated by a new cap-and-trade bill, which will make energy companies pay for their emissions. Never mind that the last cap-and-trade bill to land in the Senate never gained much traction. Obama promises this one will be more aggressive.
Consumers may also avoid paying more for their energy use because the government is covering it. Obama has pledged to commit $150 billion over 10 years for a "clean energy future"—which includes paying for infrastructure, often the costliest part of alternative energy. The idea is that since the government is paying for the new equipment, energy companies won't pass the costs on to the consumer. (At least, not initially.) So, in theory, you won't have to pay more for electricity.
And even if you did, some economists argue that you won't be for long. As the price of bad, dirty energy goes up, the price of good, clean energy will come down, and "those lines will cross because of economies of scale," says Dan Weiss of the Center for American Progress. In other words, the only reason solar panels and such cost so much is because no one makes them en masse. Yet. Not everyone is convinced. "It's not an economy-of-scale problem," says Patrick Michaels of the Cato Institute. "It's a physics problem. … If the sun got hot enough to be an efficient provider to solar energy, we'd burn up."
So can the government really afford to pay for all this? Surely we can't spend and spend without future generations picking up the tab. Ah, but we can, say economists on the left.
Newly Nobel-ed economist Paul Krugman has taken the lead in arguing that "the usual rules of economic policy no longer apply." Normally, if you wanted to retrofit a building or weatherize a home, you'd have to get the money from somewhere. The usual way is to increase revenues or reduce spending. No longer. With the economy in freefall and interest rates as low as they can go, the only hope for recovery is to spend—and to err on the side of spending too much.
The best part: Even though we have to borrow money, eventually the government can pay itself back by printing more. Yes, that would devalue the currency and therefore would not be, to use a technical economic term, free. But the way Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research sees it, we have to spend the money now, anyway, to stimulate the economy: "It's like what Keynes said: Even if we pay people to dig holes and fill them up again, it's still good." And if we're going to spend, we might as well spend on something that's going to save us—both economically and environmentally—in the long term.
Then there's the problem of regulation. Sure, spending is fun and stimulating and possibly the only thing that will prevent total economic collapse. But regulation can slow growth. How can Obama implement a cap-and-trade plan without hurting the economy? Obama has admitted in the past that cap-and-trade isn't cost-free. After all, the whole point is to drive up the cost of electricity. In a debate on Jan. 5, he said, "We have an obligation to use some of the money that we generate to shield low-income and fixed-income individuals from high electricity prices, but we're also going to have to ask the American people to change how they use energy. Everybody's going to have to change their light bulbs. Everybody's going to have to insulate their homes. And that will be a sacrifice, but it's a sacrifice that we can meet. Over the long term it will generate jobs and businesses and can drive our economy for many decades." That was easy to say last January. It may be a harder sell in the midst of a recession.
Finally, energy efficiency may come at the cost of economic efficiency. Creating a solar panel does not create demand for a solar panel (a fact that Germany is currently learning the hard way). Another way of putting it is to say the economy moves faster than the government: By the time we're done installing all the solar panels, photovoltaic cells will be obsolete. Patrick Michaels likened it to Thomas Jefferson stimulating westward expansion by creating a state-sponsored nationwide network of barge canals. "By the time the barge network was done being built, the steam engine and the railroad would have been invented," Michaels said.
Despite all this, the economy is so desperate that the short-term outlook for Obama's plan is good. Any pledge to create 2.5 million jobs is bound to be popular. And the realignment in the House—particularly Henry Waxman's ouster of John Dingell as chairman of the energy and commerce committee—means he'll have the necessary congressional strength.
But by relying so much on an economic argument to support his green agenda, Obama risks losing momentum if the economy recovers. What happens when we no longer need to keep spending billions of dollars to create new jobs? Obama wants to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Does that mean the recession has to continue for that long, too?