My Son Attempts to Spend Donald Trump’s Money

Just before dinner tonight, I was watching the news about Hurricane Sandy, fretting about all the destruction, and wondering if people were all right. My son was in the room doing homework. He glanced at the screen, and said, “Why doesn’t Donald Trump take that $5 million he was going to donate for Obama’s transcripts and give it to the Red Cross?”

I thought that was a good comment, so I put it on Twitter. After dinner I was helping him with his math homework, and I peeked at my Twitter mentions. His comment had been retweeted twice, and someone responded by saying, “That would require ‘The Donald’ to have a soul.” My son thought that being retweeted was kind of cool.

But things were just getting started.

Over the next hour the mentions flowed in, as did the retweets. They kept coming. And coming … for the next two hours. Then it looked something like this:

Over 450 people had repeated it. Needless to say, he was really excited, even though he didn’t fully understand the dynamics of social media (or really, why his well-meaning comment about philanthropy had struck like a well-timed bolt of lightning).

But it made him happy. And I liked it when the commentariat started including Donald Trump’s Twitter address in responses and asking, “Well, how about it?”

As a former English instructor, I’d like to think this is empowering for him: that a good message will cut through all the noise, that it’s worth speaking up … that he might even affect change.

Will that happen? Hard to say. I think the tweet struck a chord because people were fed up with Trump’s grandstanding that if President Obama released his college transcripts, Trump would donate $5 million to the charity of Obama’s choice. It’s a gambit that looks particularly awkward, now that New York and surround states are facing billions in damages. Then again, about 10 percent of the mentions thought Obama should comply; apparently they were more concerned with how Obama did in college than they are about Hurricane Sandy wreaking havoc on the eastern U.S.

But you never know. Two hours after my son’s comment was out in the world, someone sent me a message that they had started a group on Facebook, called Donald Trump Should Donate His $5 Million to the Red Cross:

Can you see that first post? That’s the part that made me happy.

The Friday Sustainability Roundup, Quiz Style

For the past five years I’ve written a sustainability tip for my company newsletter. This past week I imitated Paul Slansky, who used to do brilliant quizzes in the New Yorker during, as he calls it, “the Bush coup d’etat.” The column appears below the tiger.

Three interesting quotes came over the transom this week, from interesting sources. See if you can guess where these came from.

1) “We call on all people and nations to recognize the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.”

2) “America is a resplendent, plentiful and fertile land, rich with natural resources, bounded by vast ocean spaces. Together these gifts are ours to be enjoyed for their majesty, cultivated and harvested for their abundance, and preserved for following generations. Many of these resources are renewable, some are not. But all must be respected as part of a global ecosystem that is being tasked to support a world population projected to reach nine billion peoples midway through this century. These resources range from crops, livestock, and potable water to sources of energy and materials for industry. Our third investment priority is to develop a plan for the sustainable access to, cultivation and use of, the natural resources we need for our continued well being, prosperity and economic growth in the world marketplace.”

3) “…the basic idea is that all the CO2 we emit stays around for a long time. That’s a very unfortunate fact, and that leads to the warming. That’s about as clear as anything can be. You can argue over, as the temperature goes up, will it go up even more. There are certain feedback effects that are the subject of a lot of inquiry. But almost no one basically doubts the fact that you’ve got to reduce the CO2 emissions.”


1) A Vatican working group of scientists.

2) The second quote is from a paper by Capt. Wayne Porter (Navy) and Col. Mark Mykleby (Marines), called “A National Strategic Narrative.” (PDF). It’s not an official military document, but the two authors are high-placed advisers to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A New York Times story goes into more detail, and quotes Mykleby speaking to the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce: “It’s a strategic liability to keep subsidizing our agribusiness model the way it is for any number of reasons — the decay of our soil, the health of our citizens, because our food is not healthy any more, etc., etc.’ ” he says. “Remarkably, it was very well received in the middle of corn country.”

3) Microsoft co-founder and CEO Bill Gates, who is now better known for the efforts of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates gave a TED talk about energy last year, and the quote comes from a conversation about the same issues sponsored by Grist.

In other news:

  • A UK government report concludes that Wi-fi internet access and other communications are at risk from global warming. (Guardian)
  • An analysis of 900 academic papers supporting climate scepticism found that 9 out of the top 10 authors were linked to ExxonMobil.
  • Girl Scouts, parents, and cookie buyers logged onto the Girl Scouts’ USA Facebook page to ask that palm oil be removed from Girl Scout cookies. (Harvesting palm oil destroys tropical rainforest, and has contributed to habitat loss for species such as orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and rhinoceroses). The organization’s response? It simply deleted the comments. (Good write-up about the story and issues from Grist.)
  • A new paper from a Swiss researcher found that singals from cell phones cause honeybees to become disoriented, and then drop dead. (Fast Company)
  • From the Dept. of Read this While Standing Up: Scientists in Louisiana found that people who sit for most of the day are 54 percent more likely to die of heart attacks. There’s also an infographic that spells out this research in more detail.

A Tale of Two Countries, and their Snack Foods

I recently traveled to Paris, which offered me a chance to observe all sorts of things, including the stunningly important issue of the ways airlines differ in feeding their passengers.

On Air France, the morning snack service consisted of the usual beverages (coffee, tea, water, juice, soda). Then the flight attendant presented a plastic tray, which was filled with breakfast pastry and little napkins. I selected pain au chocolat.

pain au chocolat

Pain au chocolat, the morning snack on Air France.

It’s a bit of trouble to get fresh pastry on a plane. Somewhere someone has to actually make the pastry, then it needs to get shipped to the airport and loaded onto the plane — all in short order, or else your snack goodie will be about as moist and chewy as your seat cushion/personal flotation device.

I’m not suggesting that Air France is being all that visionary or altruistic. They’re merely reacting to the cultural norm. The traditional light breakfast fare in France is often coffee and a croissant, so offering the same on a flight is kind of a no-brainer.

With that in mind, what does Delta Airlines offer?

Prepackaged pretzels and peanuts, the snack handout on Delta Airlines

The pain au chocolat was not the best one I had in Paris (after that one, my mouth wanted to spend the afternoon in bed, staring at the ceiling smoking cigarettes). But it was still pretty good.

The pastry was small, tasty, and not many people said no to them. I expect that the flight attendants ran out of them, or came pretty close. It was a little ceremony: the box was presented to you, and you got to choose between a croissant, pain au chocolat, or an escargot aux raisins. The latter has nothing to do with snails; in fact it’s a spiral pastry with raisins in it. They look like this:

The entire Air France morning snack ritual seemed to encompass the French approach to food: It’s fresh; it’s personal; the portions are small; it’s high-quality. When you eat good food, you pay attention to it.

So what do the two plastic packages of pretzels and peanuts say about the American approach to food? Well let’s open that package up a little.

Is it fresh? No, not in the way bakery goods are. It was put in a plastic package, but that could have happened days, weeks or even months ago.

Is it personal? No. There is no ceremony involved, no opportunity to survey the items and select one. The flight attendant reaches into a container, pulls two out, and hands them to you.

Is it high quality? Only if you think you can eat haute cuisine by shopping at the gas station.

Are the portions small? Yes, but if you’ve ever asked a flight attendant for more peanuts or pretzels, they’re all too happy to give you a handful. Since the snacks have almost no worth, no one minds giving you as much as you want.

Put another way, the peanuts and pretzels are mass produced low-cost and last for ages — they’re forgettable food widgets, but you’re welcome to eat as much as you want.

Needless to say, after eating the French way for a week (smaller, local, quality-driven, personal — the French way produces food like mom used to make!), it’s a little hard to come back to a country where so much of the food is bland, mass produced, and wrapped in plastic.

Sigh. Pass the peanuts.

Solar Highways

A while back I wrote a story for a magazine called Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure about the nation’s first solar highway project. Here are the first two paragraphs:

It’s not often that innovation comes from watching television. But don’t tell that to Allison Hamilton, a project director with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). While watching a NOVA special on PBS about solar power, she noticed solar panels on the German Autobahn. The sight of them made her sit up, turn to her husband, and ask, “If they can do that there, why can’t we do it here?”

Nineteen months after the light bulb went on over Hamilton’s head, ODOT commissioned the nation’s first solar highway project on Dec. 19, 2008, putting renewable energy into the grid to power lights on Interstate 5. By all measures, the 104-kilowatt solar array located at a freeway interchange 15 miles south of Portland is a success. Even so, the project showed some of the bumps on the long road that will exist until renewable energy is widely adopted on U.S. freeways.

Here’s the rest of the story.

Blogging for Good

Like a lot of other writers, I follow a blog by a literary agent named Nathan Bransford. His blog is so popular, he recently recorded his millionth unique visitor. And I thought, “Well, that’s nice.”

But this morning, Nathan showed what a stud he is by putting that web traffic to good use. This is from his post today:

You may have already heard of Heifer International, an organization that works to fight hunger by giving needy families around the world and in the United States livestock, training, or other assistance that helps improve their livelihood. Heifer has been recognized for its work in Fast Company and Forbes, among other places.

I know we’re going through tough economic times, but if you have anything to spare this holiday season I hope you’ll consider making a donation. And, in order to encourage people to spread the word, for every comment someone makes in this post between now and 5PM Pacific time, my wife and I will donate 50 cents $1.00*.

Now that, my friends, is a good use of your web traffic! Five other bloggers followed suit (they’re listed at the bottom of his post), and are matching various amounts.

Since my blog is just a pastime, I don’t get that kind of traffic. So I just donated $50, and hope other people will do the same.

Oh, and if you think you don’t have the money? You do. Go visit Global Rich List to see how rich you actually are, and how changing your spending patterns a little would make a huge difference:

$8 could buy you 15 organic apples OR 25 fruit trees for farmers in Honduras to grow and sell fruit at their local market.

$30 could buy you an ER DVD box set OR a First Aid kit for a village in Haiti.

$73 could buy you a new mobile phone OR a new mobile health clinic to care for AIDS orphans in Uganda.

$2400 could buy you a second generation High Definition TV OR schooling for an entire generation of school children in an Angolan village.

Happy holidays!

The “Piano Stairs” Experiment

In many situations, escalators are just stupid.


Exhibit A: One really stupid escalator

In an article called “Taken for a Ride: The Insanity of Escalators,” Jeffrey Hill rises to the challenge of describing how wasteful they are:

The national energy use of escalators is estimated at 2.6 billion kilowatt hours per year, equivalent to powering 375,000 houses; its cost is roughly $260 million. What’s harder than stomaching these statistics is finding sources to back them up.

The escalator industry is extremely secretive about pricing and energy specifications on specific models. Even though Kone Inc. provides detailed CAD drawings on their website, their cheery phone representatives claim they can’t verify the figures: “it’s a 9-11 thing.”

Hill notes that the treads are extremely heavy, and quotes a sales rep who claims that each job has to be customized (which adds to the expense). Here’s my favorite quote:

Although quiet and convenient, escalators unfortunately cost more money to install, operate, and maintain than raising a child, and there are 30,000 of them in the United States.

So I was cheered this morning to see Joseph Rose’s Hard Drive blog, where he posts this great video of a little experiment in Stockholm:

What happened afterwards? The video more or less speaks for itself. Those humans are having fun! They’re also using the stairs 66% more than normal. Good for them.

Why can’t we have more keyboard stairs instead of escalators?

The Climate Change Greatest Hits

Since I publish a sustainability tip in my company newsletter, I couldn’t let Blog Action Day go by without chiming in. The good thing about cranking out a tip every couple weeks is that a lot of good stuff comes across my desk. So I thought I’d share some of it.

In 2004, the Worldwatch Institute published a 35-page PDF called the Good Stuff guide, an outstanding primer on the environmental and social impacts of all kinds of … well, stuff.

One of the things the guide contains is a consumption manifesto, which contain some great principles:

Principle One. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. This brilliant triad says it all. Reduce: Avoid buying what you don’t need—and when you do get that dishwasher/lawnmower/toilet, spend the money up front for an efficient model. Re-use: Buy used stuff, and wring the last drop of usefulness out of most everything you own. Recycle: Do it, but know that it’s the last and least effective leg of the triad. (Ultimately, recycling simply results in the manufacture of more things.)

Principle Two. Stay close to home.Work close to home to shorten your commute; eat food grown nearby; patronize local businesses; join local organizations. All of these will improve the look, shape, smell, and feel of your community.

Principle Three. Internal combustion engines are polluting, and their use should be minimized. Period.

Principle Four. Watch what you eat. Whenever possible, avoid food grown with pesticides, in feedlots, or by agribusiness. It’s an easy way to use your dollars to vote against the spread of toxins in our bodies, land, and water.

Principle Five. Private industries have very little incentive to improve their environmental practices. Our consumption choices must encourage and support good behavior; our political choices must support government regulation.

Principle Seven. Prioritize. Think hardest when buying large objects; don’t drive yourself mad fretting over the small ones. It’s easy to be distracted by the paper bag puzzle, but an energysucking refrigerator is much more worthy of your attention. (Small electronics are an exception.)

Principle Eight. Vote. Political engagement enables the spread of environmentally conscious policies.Without public action, thoughtful individuals are swimming upstream.

Principle Nine. Don’t feel guilty. It only makes you sad.

On the heels of principle nine is a remarkable interview with Peter Senge, a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who dislikes the term sustainability. He says it “motivates out of fear, but it only motivates for as long as people feel the issues are pressing on them. Soon as the fear recedes, so does the motivation.”

He floats a substitute for ‘sustainability’: ‘All about the future.’ You just ask, what’s the world of your children or grandchildren going to be like? What would you like to see it be like? Do you have a sense of giving them a world that’s in better shape than your parents and grandparents gave you?”

If you’re looking for a reason to take action on climate change, that seems the strongest argument of all.

PS – Last but not least: three fairly easy ways to cut your carbon footprint in half.

Cool Animation About Idaho Stop Law

Back in April, when the Oregon legislature was discussing the Idaho Stop Law, I somehow missed a Bike Portland blog post featuring this nifty animation about bikes and the stop law.

One thing I really like is how it points out the difference in power generated by a cyclist vs. the amount generated by a car. After you’ve seen the video, think about all the “traffic calming”–such as speed bumps–that has to be done because cars are so overpowered.


Ikea: Scourge of the Soul

Stories about IKEA keep coming across my desk, suggesting that it’s an odd sort of cultural lightning rod. Just today I saw a hilarious story in the LA Times: “Beijing loves IKEA — but not for shopping.”

Two visitors to Beijing's IKEA enjoy a nap on a display sofa. (David Pierson / Los Angeles Times)

Two visitors to Beijing's IKEA enjoy a nap on a display sofa. (David Pierson / Los Angeles Times)

Visitors can’t seem to resist novelties most Americans take for granted, such as free soda refills and ample seating. They also like the laid-back staffers who don’t mind when a child jumps on a couch.

Purchasing anything at Yi Jia, as the store is called here, can seem like an afterthought.

“It’s the only big store in Beijing where a security guard doesn’t stop you from taking a picture,” said Jing Bo, 30, who was looking for promising backdrops for a photograph of his girlfriend.

It’s actually more like a theme park than a store:

Bai mapped out a five-hour outing. First, they had hot dogs and soft ice cream cones at noon. Then they enjoyed a long rest lounging on the beds. Bai kicked off her sandals and sprawled out on a Tromso bunk bed. The 36-year-old homemaker made herself comfortable and even answered passing shoppers’ questions about the quality of the mattress….

After that, Bai and her family took group pictures. By 5 p.m., it was time for another meal, so they headed to the cafeteria and ate braised mushrooms with rice.

Another interesting story about IKEA is actually a book review of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s new book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. The review, in, has this to say:

Shell’s chapter on IKEA is the most gently damning in the book…. But Shell also points out the hypocrisy inherent in IKEA’s philosophy. As a clever IKEA commercial, directed by Spike Jonze, points out, an old lamp (or bookcase or table) doesn’t have feelings; any piece of furniture can and should be replaced at any time. The ad, and the whole IKEA approach, suggests that objects have no lasting meaning or value. They’re disposable; when we tire of them, we should just throw them out.

From there we go into an interesting discussion about what that means:

“Objects can be designed to low price,” [Shell] writes, “but they cannot be crafted to low price.” But if we stop valuing — and buying — craftsmanship, the very idea of making something with care and expertise is destined to die, and something of us as human beings will die along with it: “A bricklayer or carpenter or teacher, a musician or salesperson, a writer of computer code — any and all can be craftsmen. Craftsmanship cements a relationship between buyer and seller, worker and employer, and expects something of both. It is about caring about the work and its application. It is what distinguishes the work of humans from the work of machines, and it is everything that IKEA and other discounters are not.”

I’d read something like that a few years back from a guy named Matthew Crawford, who has a new book out called Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. A couple years before his book came out, Crawford published a remarkable essay with the same title in a journal called The New Atlantis.

Crawford is a strange hybrid of high-powered intellectual and working tradesman, one of the very few PhDs from the University of Chicago able to fix a motorcycle. So he has some interesting things to say. For example, “craftsmanship might be defined simply as the desire to do something well, for its own sake.”

He has to be right about that. I just finished painting my front door, and I took pains to do a good job. Not because everyone would judge me by the job I did, but because everyone is going to look at the door, and I didn’t want my own front door to look like crap.

That leads to a second point about craftsmanship: part of the desire to do something well is because the object is expected to last–and that leads to a third point:

Because craftsmanship refers to objective standards that do not issue from the self and its desires, it poses a challenge to the ethic of consumerism, as the sociologist Richard Sennett has recently argued. The craftsman is proud of what he has made, and cherishes it, while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new.

Ironically, one of the biggest problems large corporations face when trying to make their supply chains more sustainable is provenance — sourcing the raw materials and assembly and logistics just to account for the environmental and social impact of the products they produce.

IKEA is so big, it’s hard to know where the wood it uses comes from (From the Salon article: IKEA is the third-largest consumer of wood in the world and uses timber that comes mostly from Eastern Europe and the Russian Far East, where, Shell points out, “wages are low, large wooded regions remote, and according to the World Bank, half of all logging is illegal.”)

This, then, is the high cost of discount culture Shell is writing about (and Crawford too, who argues that in a move away from craftsmanship, both blue collar and white collar work has been devalued ).

Without knowing about the products you buy and the food you eat, you end up with these nagging problems:

Those all-you-can-eat Red Lobster shrimps may very well have come from massive shrimp-farming spreads in Thailand, where they’ve been plumped up with antibiotics and possibly tended by maltreated migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. The made-in-China toy train you bought your kid a few Christmases ago may have been sprayed with lead paint — and the spraying itself may have been done by a child laborer, without the benefit of a protective mask.

So how do you reel in all that madness? One way is craftsmanship. A craftsman (or woman) can source his materials, and ought to take pride in what he has created — he should have built it to last.

I like that idea. Buy food that’s local, grown from a farmer you know.Buy things that are well made and will last. And if you go to IKEA, do it the Chinese way: by all means take pictures, and a nap on the sofa. But just don’t buy very much.