Thursday, July 31, 2014


Note: I'm currently in China for the summer, and due to the Google/Chinese government feud, I'm not able to post from here. Many thanks to Charles Hugh Smith for posting from the United States on my behalf.
It’s hard to believe now, but the phrase “Made In Japan” was once synonymous with laughably poor quality. After the devastation of World War II,  Japan’s industrial exports of the 1950s were indeed clumsily designed and poorly built. Yet within the span of a decade, a remarkable thing happened. A few Japanese products--first transistor radios, then cameras, then televisions--began to equal and finally surpass the quality of their American-made counterparts. During the 1970s, Japan’s auto industry followed suit. In a stunning turnaround, “Made In Japan” became an assurance of exceptional quality.
Not so the phrase “Made In China”. When the People’s Republic opened up to the world in 1978, China’s industrial products were pitiable, much as postwar Japan’s had been. The parallel ends there, however. Despite roaring economic gains and the passage of thirty-odd years, China’s product quality in general remains abysmal.
This state of affairs matters to the U.S., since so many Chinese-made building products are sold here. And with China vying for superpower status in the coming years, its culture of quality, such as it is, will eventually have worldwide implications.
When I  built my own home outside Shanghai, I was anxious to give China’s products a fair trial, and I pointedly chose the best  domestic brands available. For example, I installed handsome, flawlessly finished Chinese lever handle lock sets on all of the interior doors. Within six months of very light use, every single one of them had broken. Likewise, an outwardly attractive Chinese-made toilet failed to flush properly no matter how carefully it was adjusted. Top-of-the-line cabinet hardware, beautifully finished when new, quickly corroded or fell apart. After a string of such fiascos, I decided that China’s products were not yet ready for prime time, and reverted to buying imported American wares.
China’s disinterest in quality is troubling in a society that aspires to be the next major player of the 21st century, if not a reigning superpower. The problem, I think, lies in China’s headlong rush to catch up with the West. Its industries are often less concerned with nurturing reputations than simply elbowing their way to the front of the pack, using any expedient necessary.
Most Chinese manufacturers are content to simulate good quality by superficially copying reputable overseas brands (sometimes right down to approximating their names). Others ballyhoo adherence to international quality standards, but mainly, it seems, for marketing purposes. The results of such lassitude are only now coming home to Americans.
In Florida, Chinese-made drywall used in thousands of new homes has been held responsible for toxic hydrogen sulfide outgassing that caused health problems and corroded ducts, pipes, and wiring. Test results found hydrogen sulfide emissions at levels of up to 100 times that of non-Chinese drywall. A court ruling requiring the affected homes to be gutted and rebuilt will cost developers dearly.

Since recovering such damages from notoriously flighty Chinese firms is typically a fool’s errand, at some point wholesale buyers of Chinese products--at any price--will think twice before taking on this magnitude of risk. Eventually, even discount-happy American consumers may begin to have second thoughts about their Chinese-made “bargain” purchases. And while China’s indifference to quality may be our problem for now, it will be China’s problem in the long run.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

RUNNING ON EMPTY (Part 2 of 2 Parts)

(With appreciation to Charles Hugh Smith for posting from the U.S. on my behalf; I'm in China and can't post due to the PRC's  blocking of Google. Nor can I tweet from here; Twitter is blocked too. This is the downside to a nation where the trains run on time).
Last time, we looked at the coming revolution in automotive technology--the switch from internal-combustion power to hybrid power and, eventually, to straight electric vehicles. This time, we’ll take a closer look at both the pros and cons of electrics, which hold such huge promise for a cleaner, quieter, and more eco-friendly environment.
In order to appreciate how profound this change will be, though, a bit of nuts-and-bolts background is in order. One basic way of seeing how well a machine works is by looking at its thermal efficiency, which is simply the percentage of input energy that’s turned into useful work. The early steam locomotives of the 1840s--the first motive power that didn’t depend on wind, water, or muscle--were about 3 percent efficient. Over the next hundred years, technical improvements managed to nudge that figure up to about 7 percent--a big relative improvement, but none too good in absolute terms. Since a large steam locomotive of the 1940s typically burned about 65,000 pounds of coal per hour, about 60,000 pounds of that coal was effectively wasted.
In the postwar era, diesel-electric locomotives with thermal efficiencies of around 21 percent arrived on the scene, wiping the wasteful steam engine off the map for good. By comparison, most modern internal-combustion cars are around 26 percent efficient, although their friction-laden mechanical drive lines drag this already modest figure down to about 18-20 percent. In other words, sixteen gallons of your twenty-gallon gas tank goes toward generating heat and nothing else.
The electric car constitutes a quantum leap over this dismal performance. Electric motors are typically around 78 to 90 percent efficient to begin with, and the absence of a mechanical drive line means most of this power actually gets to the wheels instead of being burned up in friction. What’s more, electric cars can use regenerative braking systems that use braking energy to charge their batteries instead of burning it up in heat as today’s cars do. The electric drive system is also far simpler and, eventually at least, will be much cheaper to build than today’s enormously complex internal-combustion cars.
But the news isn’t all good. While electric vehicles themselves don’t produce emissions, as things currently stand, the electricity they use is far from emissions-free. In the U.S., about two-thirds of our electricity is generated from burning fossil fuels, which leaves a very nasty carbon footprint indeed.  The thermal efficiency of a typical coal-burning generating plant is itself less than 50 percent, and what’s more, transmitting this electricity to the user induces another loss of efficiency, typically around 7 percent. Under these circumstances, plugging in a purportedly “zero-emissions” electric car simply transfers environmental degradation from the vehicle to the generating plant--in effect, these new electric cars are actually burning coal.

The solution is to develop an infrastructure that can recharge vehicles using clean sources of electricity that are locally generated, whether by wind, water, or photovoltaic panels. This is the only way an electric car can truly meet its potential as a “zero emission vehicle”. The challenges are great, but, if history is any indication, our ingenuity is greater. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014


The story of America’s built environment over the past century is one that revolves largely around the automobile. Cars have ever-increasingly shaped our cities, our homes, and our foreign policy. We devote forty percent of our urban areas to cars, in the form of roads and parking lots (in some cities the number is as high as sixty percent). Our traffic laws theoretically grant pedestrians the right of way--a pretty laughable concept, since it’s obvious that traffic engineers consider cars the real priority. And of course our insatiable national thirst for petroleum, which shapes so much of our foreign policy, is in large part due to our beloved automobiles.
Thankfully, if current developments are any indication, we’re finally reaching the beginning of the end of our auto-obsessed age. That’s not to say that cars are going away soon, if ever, nor even that they’ll look very different. But internally, they’re going to be as different from today’s noisy, fume spewing machines as a digital watch is from Big Ben.
Hybrid cars, which use a small, relatively efficient internal-combustion engine to generate electricity onboard, are already making major inroads against traditional gasoline engine-powered cars. Yet any vehicle that uses an internal-combustion engine--even just part of the time, as  hybrids do--will always be inefficient.  That’s why the hybrid is just a stepping stone to straight electric cars that will run on battery power alone.
Once cars go 100 percent electric, the real paradigm shift will begin. An electric-powered vehicle will be smaller on the outside, because it won’t need a bulky gasoline engine, not to mention a radiator, mechanical transmission, exhaust system, fuel tank, or differential. Once battery technology comes up to speed--and rest assured, it will--the absence of all this clunky hardware will mean that cars will be much lighter as well. These new vehicles will be the ultimate in simplicity, because power won’t be transmitted through a friction-laden drive train of pistons, cranks, and gears, but rather by electrons flowing through a piece of wire.
All this is good news for planet Earth. But if you were expecting the old guard of the American auto industry to lead this revolution, you can forget it. Just as the personal computer revolution was begun, not by corporate behemoths like IBM or Control Data, but rather by a couple of kids named Jobs and Wozniak, the automobile revolution will likewise come from some unruly fresh thinkers who are probably still shooting spitballs in a high school somewhere. Unlike the hundred-ten-year-old auto industry, they aren’t weighed down by the inertia of a huge historic investment in internal combustion technology or a lineage inextricably linked with fossil fuels.
This historic inertia is the reason once-invincible automakers like General Motors have been so humbled in the last twenty years--and deservedly so, it must be said. It was their longtime arrogance, greed, and steadfast opposition to the need for greener transportation that brought them this comeuppance.

Okay. So electric cars are inevitable. Not all the news is good, though--next time: a closer look at electrics, and why they’re “zero emissions vehicles” in name only.