Category Archives: General

Are we really the Saudi Arabia of coal?

I keep hearing the U.S. described as the “Saudi Arabia of coal.” This turns out to be half true. According to BP, China produced three billion tons of coal in 2009, or 46% of the world’s share. In second place was the U.S., with .97 billion tons, 16% of the world’s share. But in proven reserves, according to the World Energy Council (an NGO), we lead with 23% of the world’s supply, followed by Russia (14%), China (13%), and Australia (9%).

Awkwardly, a lot of the U.S.’s supply of coal is under stuff—you know, cities, homes, schools, roads, etc.—rendering it functionally inaccessible. China manages to export more with fewer reserves because they’re communist—property can be seized at any time—and because they mine with little regard for human life, running the world’s deadliest mines, in which thousands of people die every year, an average of six people every day. I’m not sure that we want to compete with that.

Eastern Shore ticked off the Commonwealth Quest list.

With a trip over the past four days completed, I’m inching closer to completing the Commonwealth Quest, Craig Fifer’s challenge to visit every municipality in Virginia. Wanting to get the Eastern Shore under my belt, I spent the weekend there with my wife (with a detour for a picnic lunch in Charles City Countycheck). The Eastern Shore is comprised of two counties, Accomack and Northampton. I’d been to Accomack as a kid, on a trip to Chincoteague with Boy Scouts, but never Northampton. Getting the Eastern Shore means either driving up to Annapolis and back down the shore, or southeast to Virginia Beach and heading across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. We opted for the latter, to enable the Charles City visit, spent a couple of days exploring the Eastern Shore (which I recommend), and headed home via the northern route, with a one-day stop in Woodstock/Luray in order to visit the fascinating Fort Valley. Which is not a municipality, but it sure feels like it should be.

That brings up my county count to 78 from 76, and my city count unchanged at 35, for a total of 113 out of 134. This leaves two areas of the state that remain to be visited: a small cluster of counties in eastern Southside and Southwest Virginia.

The counties in Southside are Brunswick, Dinwiddie, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, and Nottoway. (Imagine a triangle with Farmville on the north and the base defined by South Boston and Emporia, and you’ve got the idea.)

Southwest Virginia makes up the bulk of what I have left, in raw count: the cities of Galax and Norton, and the counties of Buchanan, Carroll, Bland, Dickenson, Lee, Patrick, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Wise, and Wythe. I’ve taken 81 clear to Bristol (and beyond), and I’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail up from Damascus clear…well, clear across the state. But the whole area west of Hungry Mother State Park and north of 81 remains untouched.

There are two other tiny spots in the state near neither of those places: the cities of Radford and Poquoson. Radford is right next to Blacksburg, and it’s a shame that, in a year and a half of living in the New River Valley, I didn’t once go there. And Poquoson is out at at the tip of Hampton Roads, just north of Hampton. On the shore, it’s not on the way to anything, so you’ve really got to try to go there.

It’s going to take a couple of pushes to finish these last two major chunks, probably a long weekend trip for Southwest Virginia and a couple of days for Southside. Radford I can hit up on the way to or from Southwest Virginia, but Poquoson? I’m pretty sure that’s where I’m going to have my photo taken at the border, finishing up the Commonwealth Quest.

On trying to buy American-made jeans: A success story.

At some point, “Made in America” passed from the realm of Sam Walton and into the realm of yuppies.

As a young kid in the eighties, I remember seeing TV ads that promoted American-made goods. Like this one:

These ads confused me. I recall asking my parents to explain it. The talk of economics was beyond me, but I remember objecting. Isn’t that unfair to people who live in other countries?

Buying American-made goods was the stuff of lower-middle-class union members, salt of the earth types. Then the nineties came and went, and not many people cared about buying American-made goods. Manufacturing went south to Mexico, and then across the Pacific to China and southeast asia. It’s made a comeback in the past few years, but without TV commercials or underwriting from American manufacturers. That’s because there basically aren’t any. It’s welled up for a bunch of reasons: distrust of foreign goods, concern for unemployment in the US, a desire for higher quality materials, and plain old nostalgia.

I’ve tried to buy locally for more than a decade now. Not everything, not all of the time, but a lot.

It’s easy to source food locally. My milk and cream comes from Homestead Creamery. My bread is from Albemarle Baking Company. My meat comes from a local butcher, who buys it from a few local producers. My flour comes from Wades Mill. For the next six months, a lot of my fruit and vegetables will come from our garden. We make a lot of our own butter, pasta, ice cream. Our eggs come from our chickens. And so on.

It was trickier when building our house last year. We were able to source some materials locally-ish—for example, the windows are from Roanoke, the wood flooring is from Madison and southwest Virginia, the light fixtures were hand-blown in West Virginia—but good luck getting local 2x4s, Ethernet, pipe, or drywall. Almost all of it was, at least, American-made.

My white whale, though, is jeans. American-made jeans fall into one of two camps. First are the cheap ones: $30/pair, advertised in the sizes of “S,” “M,” “L,” and “XL.” Second are the expensive ones: $300/pair, handmade in Williamsburg by a hipster collective, each pair hand-distressed by a trustafarian who drags them behind his fixie during his weekend job as a bike messenger. I do not want to buy either of these. I want a few decent pairs of jeans that will not need to be incorporated into my mortgage, but that are made in the U.S. with American-made denim by a company that is likely to exist next week.

Enter Todd Shelton. The Jersey City company sells shirts, pants, vests, t-shirts, and jeans. I ordered a pair of Watts Washed Jeans last fall, for $99. More than I’d ever spent on a pair of jeans, but as much as I’m willing to spend for good-quality, American-made, boot-cut jeans. I received a prompt e-mail confirmation from Todd Shelton. Not the company—from Todd, personally. He wrote a bit later to say that he was backordered on that style, and it would be a few weeks. To apologize, he sent me—entirely unnecessarily—a long-sleeved t-shirt, which I’ve worn about once a week since.

My jeans showed up a few days before Christmas. They didn’t fit—too small. I e-mailed Todd, and a couple of days later I had a new pair, and sent back to the old ones with a label he sent me. It didn’t cost me a cent. I’ve worn those jeans 2–3 days out of every week since. These jeans are the best-made, most comfortable jeans I’ve ever owned. The denim is more substantial than I knew denim could be. I got them broken in after a few wearings, and now they’re perfect. Though I was tempted to immediately order another couple more pairs, it occurred to me that if I did that, they’d all age out at once. Better to space out my purchases to avoid suffering total jean failure in a few years, leaving me walking around wearing a barrel. (Incidentally, have you priced barrels? They’re not cheap. Anybody who is wearing a barrel instead of pants has a very poor grasp of personal finances, on a couple of levels.) And it’s easy to justify spending $99 on these, since I don’t doubt they’ll last twice as long as a $50 pair of jeans.

If you’re looking for American-made jeans, I recommend Todd Shelton.

Need a belt to go with those jeans? I recommend Fox Creek Leather, right down the road in Independence, VA. I’ve worn my nickel buckle dark brown belt every day for three years, as I expect to for many years to come.

Muzzle Awards announced.

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has announced their annual Muzzle Awards, highlighting the very worst offenders of the right to free speech, and Virginia managed to get two of the eight “awards.” The Virginia Department of Corrections was rightly upbraided for barring a prisoner from buying a buying a legal self-help book. And Albemarle High School made the cut for destroying the entire print run of an issue of the student newspaper for running a column that questioned the value of gym class. Other winners include President Obama and BP, the TSA, among others.

(You’ll remember the TJ Center as having been one of the three groups that represented me when I was fighting a subpoena a couple of years ago. I’m a long-time fan of the organization.)

Everything that’s wrong with publishing.

In a talk at the Virginia Festival of the Book today, the director of UVA’s Rare Book School neatly summed up what’s wrong with the publishing industry today:

“The physical part of the reading experience — the paper, the cover, the reviews, the suntan lotion that spills on the pages — are all part of the reading experience,” said Michael F. Suarez, director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. “A week, a month, a year from now, if you see that paperback on the bookshelf, all of the memories are going to come back to you. It becomes an artifact and part of your humanistic experience.” […] “A digital book is not a book at all.”

This, in short, is really dumb. It’s the attitude that a lot of people in the publishing industry are taking, and it reminds me of the arguments coming out of the recording industry ten years ago. Albums are comprehensive, continuous works—you can’t break them up into individual songs. The album artwork is essential—people have to see the image on the front, the back, in the booklet. The experience of loading the record/tape/CD creates an anticipation that doesn’t come from the instant gratification of MP3s. If people don’t shop in record stores, there will be no serendipity. And so on. All of those arguments were dumb at the time, and are really just embarrassing in retrospect. (Earlier this week Jon Bon Jovi accused Steve Jobs of “killing the music business,” lamenting that “kids today” are no longer “making a decision based on the jacket, not knowing what the record sounded like.” He regards this as supporting evidence that electronic music sales are a bad thing. Blogger Davis Wiskus points out that there’s one group that doesn’t complain about the shift to digital music: People who buy and listen to music.)

It is entirely understandable, given his line of work, that Rare Book School director Michael Suarez treasures the artifact that comes to mind for most of us when we hear the word “book.” He’s in the practice of protecting, restoring, and teaching others to protect and restore physical books. So he could reasonably have said that he really likes books as a physical object. He could have said that, for a few hundred years, books as physical artifacts have been really important. But claiming that “a digital book is not a book at all” is just, well, dumb. Of course it’s a book. Let’s try a more modern version of the prior quote:

The physical part of the reading experience — the glossy screen, the weight of the battery, the reviews, the suntan lotion that spills on the case — are all part of the reading experience. A week, a month, a year from now, if you see that EPUB cover in iBooks, all of the memories are going to come back to you. It becomes an artifact and part of your humanistic experience.

There is nothing about any of these aspects that are fundamental to the transmission of ideas from the mind of an author into my own mind. Suntan lotion does not aid in this process. Suarez is confusing nostalgia with value, in a way that would be expected in a man twice his age (“I’d just used it that morning to wash my turkey, which in those days was known as a walking-bird”), but that he’s perhaps a bit young for.

The reason why this attitude is so destructive is because there are a lot of Michael Suarezes, and some of them occupy really important positions in the world of physical text. (It’s not really Suarez who I’m annoyed with—he’s just the trigger.) I’ve been seething for three and a half years after reading D.T. Max’s “Final Destination,” in the June 11, 2007 New Yorker. Max profiled the the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which is a stunningly well-funded literary archive that has been outbidding all other comers in their quest to amass the largest collection of manuscripts, rare books, and personal possessions of famous authors. When I started to read the story, I thought this was probably pretty great news. These collections have a way of getting scattered to the winds, winding up in personal collections where they’re of no benefit to anybody else. If UT Austin can afford to buy and preserve them, then Google or the Internet Archive can find them all in one place to get them online through their digitization efforts. Wrong.

[Center director Thomas] Staley’s conservatism extends beyond his literary taste. He does not want to place the Ransom’s archives online. He believes, quoting Matthew Arnold, that “the object as in itself it really is” can never be replaced by a digital reproduction. “Smell this,” he told me one time when I was in his office, as he picked up a manuscript box from the Edwardian British publisher Cecil Palmer. We inhaled the scent: tobacco, mold, dust. “See, there’s information in the smell, too,” he said.

That’s just awful. They’re limiting their collection to people who can afford to take a leave from work/school and travel to and stay in Austin because people can’t smell the books? That’s just asinine. It’s hardly any better than having them kept in a bunch of people’s attics. The 74-year-old Staley is still the director, and apparently his beliefs haven’t changed, because I can’t find a single page scan on their site. I wonder, if I visit, if he’d be OK with me squirting a little suntan lotion on the pages? For old times’ sake?

There’s an entire cottage industry of people writing about how a) e-books are killing writing and publishing b) e-books are inevitable but will require some adjustments and c) e-books are the greatest thing ever and dead trees are the worst. I’m not looking to leap into that here, so I will avoid the tropes of explaining how briefly books have been the things that we now know, and about how the loss of the oral tradition of stories was lamented centuries ago. I simply want to make the point that people like Staley and Suarez are Luddites who, in mistaking their own preferences for what is best for everybody, are playing their own roles—obviously much larger in the case of Staley—in preventing people from reading the very books that these men treasure. They’re creating a collection with a value that is going to become increasingly hypothetical, a function of its growing irrelevance stemming from its inaccessibility.

William F. Buckley famously wrote that “a conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘stop!'” I think that applies nicely here.

The Virginian Pilot’s verified commenting system.

Three months ago, the Virginian Pilot started an interesting experiment. In the face of the same crappy reader comments that virtually every media outlet gets on their site, they decided to do something different. They started requiring proof of identity in order to comment on the editorial section of the site—verified in the form of a $0 credit card charge—and displaying people’s full names and locations above each of their comments. This week, the 300th person signed up through this new system. Editorial page editor Don Luzzatto describes how successful it’s been:

We were likewise worried that we were overestimating the pernicious effect of anonymity. That requiring people to identify themselves wouldn’t have any effect on some of the nastier behavior.

That also proved to be wrong. Not just wrong, though. It proved to be wildly wrong.

Before the switch to verified commenting, we would regularly find it necessary to delete trollish or racist or otherwise inappropriate comments. Since the switch, we’ve had to do almost none of that. That’s all the more impressive because comments at the Opinion channel are posted automatically and are longer than on the rest of

The content of the comments on letters, editorials and columns has been so uniformly better, in fact, that we’ve been running them regularly in our letters column. That’s the highest praise I know.

Although some may well complain that significantly more than 300 people were participating before, I think that misses the point. In writing, it’s quality, not quantity that matters.

Anonymous commenting is sometimes a good and necessary thing—I think its availability is societally important, going back to the Federalist Papers. But publishers are under no obligation to serve as a venue for such commentary. I’m increasingly convinced that media outlets generally should make stronger attempts to improve the quality of the discourse on their sites. (If I can even use the word “discourse” to describe the shallow pseudonymous spats that are appended to so many articles.) I’m not aware of any publication taking the approach that the Virginian Pilot is—good for them for forging a new path.

Can you identify these Virginia locations?

Because I’m a big dork, when I encounter Virginia place names that I’m not familiar with, I like to look them up on Google Maps and see how many times I have to zoom out until I recognize what part of the state that the place is. Sometimes there’s a highway or a river that allows me to round it down to a particular chunk of Virginia. Sometimes there’s a park or another town nearby that I can place. But sometimes I’ve got to zoom out an awfully long way before I can find something familiar to grab onto. My progress in the Commonwealth Quest has been helpful in getting to know Virginia better, but I think it’d take a lifetime to learn every nook and cranny.

Here are a few out-of-the-way places, by way of example.

How long did it take you to place them?

Orange County has sued a couple who xeriscaped their lawn.

The L.A. Times reports on Orange County’s lawsuit against a couple who replaced their lawn with xeriscaping, dropping their household water usage by 80% by simply switching from grass to native ground cover. Under county law, at least 40% of a yard has to be covered in live plants. Never mind that the southwest is a desert, likely facing becoming a long-term dust bowl, and that a lawn is the most asinine use of water that one can envision for the region. (I have a friend who lived in Charlottesville who went around and around with the city for years over his lawn. His backyard was a wetland. The city wanted him to keep it mowed and dry. He figured nature knew best.) The excellent Elizabeth Kolbert had a brilliant story about laws and xeriscaping in The New Yorker in 2008. It’s a great example of how, at its best, The New Yorker can take a topic that seems terribly boring (a history of lawns) and turn it into something vital. If you’ve got even the faintest interest in this topic, I recommend reading Kolbert’s piece, then the Times piece. (Via Slashdot)

Ditch your voicemail. Get an answering machine.

Apropos of nothing, here’s a money-saving tip: Get rid of your voicemail.

A few years ago I cancelled our call waiting and voicemail, and disabled call waiting on my mobile. Call waiting is really rude. When you answer call waiting, what you’re saying is this: I have no idea who is calling me, but I think there’s a decent chance that I’d rather be talking to that person. Every time my call waiting would beep, I’d think gee, I wish there were some way of indicating to the person calling that I’m talking right now. It eventually dawned on me that there is such a system, and it’s the busy signal.

Answering MachineBut it’s the voicemail that I’m really happy with. We were paying Centel Sprint Embarq CenturyTel CenturyLink something like $8/month for voicemail. That doesn’t seem like much, but I’m sure I can put $96/year to better use. So, instead, we bought an answering machine. They’re cheap. Ours was something like $25. (Here’s one for $16.88.) We can check messages remotely, and it doubles as a method of calling the house during bad weather to find out if we have electricity. That puppy paid for itself in three months.

Ditch call waiting because it’s rude. Ditch voicemail because it’s expensive.

High, Wide and Handsome.

I’ve been enjoying the music of Charlie Poole for the past six months or so, and I was surprised to discover Loudon Wainwright III’s new album, High, Wide and Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project, just before I saw him perform some of the songs at The Paramount last month. If you’re an old time fan—or a Wainwright fan—I recommend watching a bit of this video that Wainwright put together to promote the album.