Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Good Will vs. Profit? Not a Tough Choice For Some

Author John Grisham wrote a book that I enjoyed the hell out of, but I can't for the life of me remember the name of it. Perhaps someone can help me out here.

Anyway, it was about insurance companies not paying claims that they damned well should have paid. This required that the customer raise a holy stink to get the money owed. The insurance companies had all the angles calculated and knew what percentage of customers would give up as obstacle after obstacle was put before the customer. The insurance companies knew the amount of bad will generated by such obstructionism was well worth the extra profits to be gleaned... so they went for it at the expense of their own customers.

Brilliant AND sleazy AND totally believable... because we all think the worst about the insurance scam industry.

I told you that to tell you this...

I worked for the UPS a couple weeks before Christmas as a Driver's Helper to earn a couple extra bucks and to keep myself busy. You see, the architect scam business is not doing so well lately. My friends called me the Brown Santa because I delivered packages to the good girls and boys of Northern Colorado. And maybe a few bad ones too.

UPS employees belong to the Teamsters Union, and Unions charge fees for their "services", including a one-time $250 initiation fee to join. So how does it make sense [and cents] to be a temporary, seasonal employee if you have to cough up that much coin up front just to work a couple of weeks? The answer: The Teamsters Union delays withdrawing their $250 initiation fee until one has worked for UPS for a month.

Ahhh, a loophole!

However, we were warned the Union has "accidentally" withdrawn the initiation fee from seasonal employees. There's a story that the drivers I worked with loved to tell me about a Driver's Helper last year who looked at his first paycheck delivered by the driver with whom he was supposed to spend the day with, saw that the Union took out the fees, said a few choice words, and then removed his UPS jacket AND pants right there, and ditched the driver.

Like I said, the drivers all told me this story with glee in their voices because even though they, themselves, are members of the Union, they didn't think too highly of its motives and integrity. They all believed their own Union was trying to rip off temporary employees, of whom the Union doesn't approve.

Yeah, I believe the stories... because at the training session, 20 of us were looking at a sheet of paper describing Teamster Union Fees & Dues -- $250? Holy crap! -- and in unison we all decided that working a couple weeks as a Driver's Helper was a Mug's Game [a futile endeavor]. However, the person "training" us said that the Union won't be deducting it from our paychecks this year... but.... just in case they do, here's the phone number to call for a refund: 303-433-and on and on.

Thankfully, this Howard wrote down and kept that number!

Because they withdrew the initiation fee from my second paycheck. After taxes. Which didn't leave much of anything for ME!

So I called and after many frustrating attempts, was finally instructed by the automated operator to push extension 15 to talk to someone about Union fees and dues. BUT when I did, there was no extension 15! The auto-operator told me so. So I punched in *0*, got voice mail, and left a message with my name and number and my level of dissatisfaction with Teamsters Local #17. Oh yeah, and my request for a refund.

I wonder how many temporary employees fail to call and request a refund because they didn't notice the "small" deduction? Or because they didn't keep the phone number? Or because they couldn't wind their way through the automated phone maze? Or because they did and left a message and were then ignored? Or? Or? Or!!!!

I also wonder if someone at Teamsters Local Union #17 knows the answers to these questions. If they do, then it's
brilliant AND sleazy AND totally believable because we all think the worst about Union scams organizations, right?

If it's not true, they still earned my ill will and this blog post. Way to go guys! Unions! Yes!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

2008 Year in Review

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Thin Walls Make Good Neighbors

I'm still hot on the trail of the Structured Chaos Apartment Building -- the stack of glass apartment blocks that wasn't very well stacked. Or maybe you thought they were stacked spectacularly well. Whatever.

In my research, I came across this photo of Hong Kong apartments and such that I had to share with you. Click on the photo to see it much larger.

I have to wonder what life would be like to live in one of these towers, in such a dense urban jungle, but also right on the edge of civilization/nature. Most Americans seem to have an aversion to density -- or at least their "idea" of density -- noise, pollution, traffic congestion, lack of privacy, claustrophobia...

But there are a lot of positives to such density too -- number one has to be that public transportation becomes economically viable, and thus getting around is more energy-efficient and less car-dependent. Which means substantially less carbon released into the air.

Also, people become more connected to their neighbors and surroundings by necessity... whether they like it or not! Which may help explain why all cities in America over a certain size -- I think it's 75,000 population -- have voted Democratic for the past many decades... even Salt Lake City! The ideas that we're all in this together, that we all have a stake in the success of this country, and that we all have to look out for each other are central premises to certain voters.

Why do YOU think America's population centers are also its hotbeds of liberalism? [be nice...]

Finally, just so we can all keep current, here's a drawing of the tallest towers in the world that are at least under construction as of April 2008. Again, click on it to see it VERY LARGE. The winner so far? The Burj Dubai.

Everybody's Gotta Die Someday

Which natural hazard in the United States are you most likely to die from? Earthquakes? Hurricanes? Blizzards? Wildfires? Tornadoes? Thunderstorms and lightning?

Well, if you guessed heat and drought then you were right.

What? Heat & drought? Yes, a team of researchers at U of South Carolina announced their findings yesterday. 19.6 percent of all deaths caused by natural hazards are due to heat and drought.

"I think what most people would think, if you say what is the major cause of death and destruction, they would say hurricanes and earthquakes and flooding," [Susan] Cutter said in a telephone interview. "They wouldn't say heat."

"What is noteworthy here is that over time, highly destructive, highly publicized, often-catastrophic singular events such as hurricanes and earthquakes are responsible for relatively few deaths when compared to the more frequent, less catastrophic such as heat waves and severe weather," they wrote.

And where are the safest and most dangerous places in the United States? Safe - California. Unsafe - Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, the Dakotas.

Yikes. Where's my water bottle?

What Would Wile E. Coyote Do?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

If You Find Work, Could You Let Me Know?

If you read a lot of blogs and news magazines, you come across a lot of stories that are implausible, at best. One such story I came across was hard to believe... until I did some research (I used the Google) and discovered that it was indeed true...

Latin American immigrants, both legal and illegal, are leaving the United States by the droves in search of work!

Here's the link. This was reported (UNDERreported) back in late October.

Hmmm, when Mexicans leave the U.S. in search of jobs, what could that mean?

And Here I Am An Architect!

In November, new housing construction starts dropped to their lowest rate ever since the government started keeping track in 1959. Film at eleven...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Designing A Special Place for What We Do That's Special

As you know, if you've been paying attention, my wife is a published writer and is very talented. Some day, I will design a private writing studio for her. Listen to how this architect describes his reactions to his client and the site, and his intentions for dealing with their needs, for choreographing the experience of arrival, and for capturing the passage of light and time. This is EXACTLY how all good architects think and conceptualize...

A Real (Estate) Buying Opportunity!

The sub-prime mortgage debacle and the resulting foreclosures have done their nastiness upon our mutual funds, our economy, and our capitalist souls, but now it's only a matter of months before the real estate markets right themselves, and things start to get better again. Right?

Not according to 60 Minutes. In their latest report, over the next two years, two more types of mortgages called "Alt-As" and "option ARMs" will be causing a second round of foreclosures equal to or worse than the damage and dislocation caused by the collapse of sub-primes.

Their story focuses on the horror that is the Florida real estate market, but its impacts will be felt nationwide...

Patience Alert: The twelve-and-a-half-minute segment begins with a thirty-second ad --

Saturday, December 13, 2008


A seemingly random stack of glass apartment blocks...

Except that one family owns and lives in all of these, and I'm pretty sure the structural and mechanical engineers insisted that the columns, framing system, and HVAC system (not to mention stairs and elevator) have SOME kind of order and sense to them.

And just in case you were wondering -- yes, this is real. Wow, check out all the decks!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Be Concerned, Be Very Concerned

There's no sight like hindsight.

It took a year to acknowledge, but the Bush Administration finally agreed a few weeks ago that we have been in a Recession since December 2007. And while I say we're already there because of surging unemployment, locked credit markets, and now deflation, the Bush Administration is beginning to talk a Depression if we don't bail out the Big Three automakers. Even VP Cheney says it'll be "Herbert Hoover time" if we don't bail out the Big Three.

So D.C. lawmakers, the White House, and the United Auto Workers worked out a deal for $13 billion in bail-out funds for the Big Three, and Congress passed the bill convincingly. The Senate was about to pass it too, but then Senate Republicans decided to hammer on the UAW a bit, got the concessions they asked for... but then decided to ask for MORE concessions, at which point the UAW balked. And so the bill didn't pass. And thus the Republicans could blame the collapse of the Big Three on the Unions, which is what they wanted all along.

Which brings us to another Great Depression. John Judis of The New Republic has this quick little history lesson for us:
If you look at the history of the Great Depression, what tipped that event from a global recession to depression was precisely a series of dumb, craven -- or in Keynes' word, "feather-brained" -- moves by politicians blinded by ideology or by narrow self-interest. An interest rate hike here, a balanced budget there, a spending reduction or two, and we went from ten to twenty percent unemployment. Don't imagine for a moment that the failure to bailout the auto companies isn't one of those feather-brained moves.
There's more to read at TNR if you dare...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Brighten Up Your Day Night

For any Persians, Sikhs, or Pastafarians living in the United States and decorating your homes for Christmas in the continued and wholly mistaken hopes that doing so will allow you to live another year in this country unmolested, I offer you this:

The Clark Griswold School of Christmas Season Exterior Illumination...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Howard's Greatest Hits

I'm surprised nobody commented on this...

brother, the greatest beer aficionado I know, told me via email that he's tried about half of them (did I not say "greatest beer aficionado"?), and agrees that the last one, Delirium Tremens Ale, is one of the very best. Still, it would be nice to hear from some of you as well. You DO drink beer, don't you?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Magic Water Falls From the Sky this Gizmo

Here's a nifty gizmo for churning out 13 quarts of pure water a day. It only requires a payment of $1,299 to purchase and 300 watts of electricity per hour to operate (roughly $0.50 a day).

It's called the
Watermill, and it sucks the water straight out of the air -- from the humidity in air.

It's estimated that the Earth's atmosphere contains enough moisture to fill the equivalent of Lake Superior, so we don't need to worry about ruining the local ecosystem. And this gizmo works anywhere -- from the rain forest to the desert... though when the relative humidity drops below 35%, it struggles a bit more.

You mount it on an exterior wall of your home or business and it draws its source air from outside which tends to be cleaner and more humid. The humidity is condensed into pure water, collected, and then you drink it. The U.S. Marine Corp is even using it right now.

Okay, so $1,299 is a bit steep. But if you lived up in the mountains or out in the wilderness or far from any source of water, it could be cost-efficient compared to drilling a well or installing a rainwater collection system or walking to and from fresh water with a bucket on your head.

As your architect, I would advise you consider it!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

If that cat had nine lives, it sure used em' all!

Ever seen a kitty in a Christmas tree? If so, you're gonna see it again...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Don't Shoot The Messenger

When I started this blog three years ago, I announced on the masthead, and in many of my posts, that one of my topics of discussion would be the Housing Bubble.

Well, despite the continual denial by my real estate agent -- oh, the debates we had! -- that bubble burst during these past two years.

And if you're like me and you believe that the root causes of The Entire Freakin' World's economic woes derive from the bursting U.S. housing bubble, then you're not gonna like this next bit of news one bit.

We still have AT LEAST another year of increasingly difficult recession/depression ahead of us before anything starts to get better, despite President-Elect Obama's efforts.

Why do I believe this? Because of the chart at the top of this entry and because of analysis from this blog, Calculated Risk. If you believe that real estate will only settle down once the House Price-to-Income Ratio resets to its traditional value of 1.0 -- and I do -- then we have at least another year of travail ahead.

Hey, I called the burst of the housing bubble three years ago and protected our family's finances by selling our very nice house for top dollar, and then moved us into a nice rental. If your plan is to stay in place for the next few years, riding it out, then you'll be fine too. Bt if you absolutely need to sell, then best of luck.

You can believe this new news or not. Won't change reality one bit. You know what they say about denial...

Update: Less than half an hour after I posted this, the Washington Post put up a story that the Treasury is considering plans to artificially lower mortgage interest rates to home buyers by buying
$600 billion worth of Fannie Mae's and Freddie Mac's securities. While this could dramatically improve demand for homes and temporarily squelch drops in home prices, we won't see prices go back up where they once were. People who are upside down on their current mortgages -- owing more than the house is now worth? Screwed. Nor would dramatically lower interest rates stop the worst problem, foreclosures, unless wholesale, affordable refinancing was a possibility. Still, it's a good start.


A New Film by Oliver Stone...

Life of Imagination

I am married to a writer, a very excellent writer. Right now, she's getting paid a lot more to edit other people's stuff, but really she's a writer at heart and that's where her future lies.

But EVEN more than that, she is a reader. She reads a lot. And I mean A LOT!

So when I saw this unique and charming short film, I thought of her.

This is for her...

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Translation Please?

Graffiti found on the sidewalk near the Poudre River in Fort Collins... I can figure out the first word, but what is the second word? Scene? What could this mean? [click on the photo to examine it VERY closely, if needed.]

Only One Thing to Say About Sec. of State Hillary Clinton

This from a Democratic debate in Iowa on Dec. 13, 2007...

Prescience? Could he really be THAT smart? I have to wonder.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Jeebus! How Pvt. Monica Brown Won A Silver Star

Private Monica Brown is only the second woman to be awarded the Silver Star since World War II. She's an Army medic temporarily attached to a paratrooper unit in Paktika Province in Afghanistan who risked her own life to save two critically wounded paratroopers...

And she's only 18 years old. "Yeah. I am just a child," she acknowledges.

The key paragraphs:
Brown's instincts kicked in with bullets whizzing by and mortars exploding around her. This young woman, who was not even supposed to be in front line combat, threw her body over the wounded paratroopers to protect them. "It was an uncontrollable situation," she remembers. "And I just dove over Spray, 'cause Spray can't defend himself. It's not like he can go anywhere to take cover. So, I dove over him. Make sure he didn't get any shrapnel or anything from it."
"The MedEvac bird came in. And then it all hit me. You know, what had just happened. And, you know, I could've died. And those guys could've died. And I can't believe this just happened. All this stuff was just, like, rushing to me."

"And what did you do?" Logan asks.

"I threw up," Brown admits, laughing.

Go here and read the story, and watch the 60 Minutes video on this amazing woman.

The Bottom Line: The Internet's Days are Numbered

Read this fascinating story of a man, Dan Kaminsky, who discovered a fatal flaw in the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS) and, rather than take it down or steal billions, he saved the Internet. For the time being. "There is no saving the Internet," Kaminsky said. "There is postponing the inevitable for a little longer."