Monday, February 25, 2013


The other day, as my car juddered over constellations of potholes, past tenuously-maintained schools and bus stops done up in graffiti, I got to wondering. The Califonia county where I live has some of the highest taxes in the nation. The sales tax is 9.75 percent. It costs four dollars to cross the San Francisco-Oakland Bridge. Yearly property taxes can easily reach five figures--and no, I’m not including the cents column.

Yet in return for the oceans of money our state government takes in, Californians have roads rated among the very worst in America, libraries that close for part of the week due to lack of funding, and a public school system that one respected research group has ranked 47th among the fifty states.  

Where, I wondered, was all this tax money going?  As my car dived to a stop at yet another ill-timed red light with no cross traffic in sight for miles, the answer came to me from above.  

Traffic signals. 

Apparently there’s never a shortage of funds to pay for huge, complex, and usually unnecessary arrays of traffic signals. They sprout like weeds along roadways large and small, now and then actually making an intersection safer, but more often just obstructing traffic by reflexively “regulating” some half-abandoned side street that would be just as well off--possibly better off--with a plain old stop sign.  

Apparently, an intersection unfettered by signals is a terrifying prospect to traffic engineers, and not just in California. So, after erecting jungles of signal poles on every streetcorner of every jerkwater town in America, they’ve gleefully moved on to the suburbs, slavering at all those miles of roadway waiting to be put in harness.  

Today it’s a rare suburban boulevard that hasn’t got a huge tangle of signals arching over it every few hundred feet, with redundent stacks of lamps individually addressing each and every lane and then some. Either we motorists are so dense that it takes five red lights to tell us what one used to, or else traffic engineers just can’t get enough of all that neat hardware.   

Yet despite their numbing ubiquity, far too many traffic signals remain utterly brainless, mindlessly regulating traffic flow by time instead of by context.  In this age of computing miracles, vast numbers of signals aren’t even smart enough to know that nobody’s coming.

We’ve all been in thrall to this third-rate technology for so long that we’ve come to accept its hurky-jerky senselessness as a normal part of driving.  Yet there’s no immutable law that demands traffic signals on every streetcorner in America, much less signals that can’t think straight. It’s happened in large part because many cities and towns have come to regard elaborate signal installations as a sort of badge of urbanity, rather than as a useful tool that can be senselessly overemployed.  And it surely hasn’t hurt that the civic addiction to signals offers traffic engineers virtually infinite job security.

Given this kind of bureaucratic inertia, it seems inevitable that every pair of intersecting ruts in America will eventurally be fitted with a full complement of traffic and pedestrian signals. Then, at last, you can be idling at a red light in some Iowa cornfield, while nobody’s coming the other way. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Which do you prefer, shiny finishes or matte ones?  New-looking finishes, or old? Granite, glass, and chrome, or brick, wood, and iron?  

All of these have gone in and out of fashion over the years. We tend to think that any finish that’s popular in our own time is the ultimate word in good taste, but we couldn't be more wrong.  No matter how execrable an outdated finish may seem today, you can be sure that it, too, was the height of good taste in its own time, and that sooner or later it’ll be chic all over again.  So, you haters of Harvest Gold appliances--beware.

The popularity of some finishes--paint colors, for example--simply depends on the cyclical comings and goings of fashion.  Color fads are largely created by the industries involved, although clever marketing makes it seem like consumers are driving the demand.  And since the prior color fad must be portrayed as unappealingly dated before the “new” colors can perk up sales again, successive color trends are intentionally extreme, running from pastels to primaries to whites to deep saturated tones, the better to differentiate what’s hip from what’s hopelessly passé.   

New technologies bring other types of finishes to the fore. In the mid-19th century, for instance, raw brass, which tarnished to a clove-brown color if it wasn’t kept polished, was the usual material for hardware and plumbing fittings. In the late 1880s, though, the introduction of nickel-plated fittings quickly made tarnished brass obsolete. Despite nickel’s propensity to wear through to the metal underneath, it remained popular until the arrival of more durable chromium-plated finishes around 1930.  

Chrome has had an exceptionally long popular run because of its ease of maintenance.  Still, when earth-toned colors were being pushed during the 1970s, brass came back for an encore.  This time, though, a clear lacquer coating was used in an attempt to keep it permanently shiny.  Eventually, in their never-ending pursuit for fresh offerings, manufacturers also came up with artificially patinated finishes--brushed brass, antique brass, and the like--that tried to mimic the warmth of natural patination.  

This brings up another force behind popular finish trends that can influence both marketers and consumers alike--that of historical circumstance. After World War I, for example, American soldiers returned from the front charmed by rural Europe’s timeworn vernacular architecture, and by the early 1920s intentionally rustic or distressed finishes such as hammered iron, mottled stucco, and adze-marked wood were showing up in new houses.  During the late Twenties, though, another historic event--the 1925 Paris exposition that give the world Art Deco--helped drive a complete reversal of this trend.  By the early 1930s, smooth, highly polished surfaces such as glass, tile, and Monel metal had made rustic and patinated finishes look laughably outdated.  

And so it goes--one finish vogue arriving, another departing.  Yet no matter how unfashionable a finish may seem to our marketing-biased senses, rest assured it never permanently leaves the scene:  One of today’s more popular finishes, oil-rubbed bronze, is neither plated nor lacquered, and therefore oxidizes to a clove-brown color and develops wear highlights very much like the old unlacquered brass of Victorian times. In other words, after a century and a half, some things are pretty much back where they started.