Thursday, October 23, 2014

How Product Diversity and Cost-Cutting is Killing MacDonald's, and Possibly Your Business

Wow, I'm falling further and further behind on my wood-related blog posts every week, as I scramble to cover too many bases, and more and more of you send me great ideas to cover. Keep the suggestions coming in, I'll get caught up sooner or later.

But today, I'm going to divert off wood specifically to talk about the weird trends in our economy, and how I believe the signals are being misread by so many. In the news yesterday was McDonald's quarterly report revealing that their profits are off by 30% from the same time last year, on a 3% drop in sales. Watch the whole video below, the reporters' comments tell a lot about the companies issues.

As they mention, increasing raw material (food) and labor costs are hurting...but the meat of the story (sorry) is in the comment..."Is their food real?"

Sad to say, Mickey D's management hasn't realized their food quality problem, as they've been busy expanding their menu and tearing down old kid-friendly restaurants and building new, trendier hangouts that look more like Starbucks and Panera. It is a classical case of newly-minted executive MBA management not liking "the horse that brung 'em."

I noticed the same thing with Wendy's a few years ago when good old Dave passed away. You remember friendly old Dave, he was always on TV telling you how the quality of their food was the first principle of the business. And Wendy's undoubtedly sold some of the freshest food you could get in a fast-food chain. But within a month of Dave's passing, I noticed an odd thing in Wendy's burgers...the bun's started tasting like cardboard, the burgers no longer had crunchy lettuce and onions on them, and the fries were different. In fact, the new management, under the leadership of Dave's daughter as I recall, was taking them in a new direction, toward a more diverse menu. But in the process, the old reliable burgers and fries suffered.  And they are still that way today. I quit going to Wendy's.

Just this afternoon, I decided to test McDonald's once again, in order to make sure this post was spot on. As I pulled up to the drive-through window, I noticed how big the menu was. For years (decades!), up until a couple of years ago, I had simply ordered the Quarter-Pounder with Cheese Meal, super-sized the fries and drink, and added an apple pie if I was hungry. But today, I noticed myself weighing the options...would it be a salad, or a "Southern-style" (yeah, right) chicken sandwich, a McWrap, or something else? In all, their were sixteen "value meals" along with three other full boards of menu items, so many that I didn't even have time to scan them all. I decided to give the old stand-by a try.

Now before I go any further, let me digress a little. For years, when I spoke at short-courses and industry meetings on quality control, I usually included a little anecdote about McDonald's versus Burger King burgers. I actually like the taste of a well-prepared Whopper better than a Quarter-Pounder, but I had found out based on 10,000 or so personal test points that Whoppers are more variable...and the likelihood of getting a really dry or crappy Whoppper was fairly high, and depended on the attitude of the cooks that day. In contrast, McDonald's has always excelled in quality control...a Quarter-Pounder in California tastes exactly like a Quarter-Pounder in Pennsylvania, every day of the year. So, when I get ready to pull over, I have to make a mental I want a Quarter-Pounder that I can rely on, or take a chance that the Burger King isn't suffering from a hangover? Usually, I pulled into Mickey D's. A great tale on the value of quality control.

So, as to my lunch...well, to use the common vernacular, it sucked. The bun was dry and the texture of the meat was somewhat like...well, it was like nothing else that I can recall eating. I understand why folks are questioning whether the food is real, or not.

But the nub of this story is, that the declining quality of the Quarter-Pounders, Whoppers, and Wendy's Singles is not the price of great alternatives on their menus...rather, it is symptomatic of companies losing focus on what they do best, to try to do more, with the result being mediocre at it all.  Want to know why sales are down at these chains? It's not because they offer too little variety, or too few personal options as most commentators are suggesting...but it is because everything they offer in their new product strategies is mediocre.

One company that hasn't yet fallen for this siren call is Chick-Fil-A. Sure, they've added a couple of salads for those grazers who have to sit with their chicken-sandwich-loving friends and relatives. But the Chick-Fil-A menu is still basically...chicken. And it's good. And that fact is related in the company's profits. Look at the last column of the chart below, and notice how much higher the sales-per-store figure is for Chick-Fil-A than their competitors.


Chick-Fil-A's success is the result of focus on what their company does best. And they generate those numbers in six-days-a-week, instead of their competitor's seven. A pretty good business model.

So, what has this got to do with the wood industry? I suspect you're way ahead of me by this point, but let's click it off one point at a time.

  1. The necessity economy.  While the government data-crunchers continue to tell us of the solid growth in the economy, they mean that sectors supported by public spending are doing well. Businesses selling real goods know that practically every other sector is soft. And companies that are selling to the middle class, the engine of our economy, are finding that costs are swelling much faster than customers' appetites for new floors, cabinets, or furniture. Fast food chains and Wal-Mart are struggling not because people want more selection, and only marginally because the internet is offering that selection, but because generally, people are getting used to a family budgeting paradigm of less spending on prepared food, clothes, and furniture. Utilities, insurance, higher mortgages and rents, and taxes are taking much larger shares of everyone's wallets these days, so demand for non-essentials is soft with no real surge in sight.
  2. Customer focus on quality. With that reduced budget for non-essentials, people are being more selective with their purchasing decisions. Here in the western world, we have so much stuff that we've reached the point that we don't need more of the same old same old...but we will buy better. Kitchens will be upgraded, but the upgrades will provide value for the dollar spent. Homes will be built, but quality features will be the selling point over generic size. Furniture buyers are looking for that unique piece to complement their room, not a full suite of new, mass-produced sameness. Customers have the tools at their disposal to comparison-shop like never before...and they will find and purchase value. Slick salesmanship of extra inventory won't work nearly as well as it used to.
  3. Producer focus on what the company does best. The companies that prosper in the coming tough years will be those that understand what their best product is, and shift more resources to that product line. More sales, marketing, purchasing expertise, and manufacturing technology will be committed to becoming the best in the world at making that product, instead of diluting those resources over a too-broad product line. Focus on improving that line, and the options it is offered in, but don't try to offer so many different lines that customers get distracted from their purchasing intent. Nowadays, when people walk into a showroom, they are looking for a specific product, and they are looking for the best they can get. If you make it, they will buy from you...but if your competition makes a better one, they'll figure it out and buy from them. You're better off not to make a mediocre product, and lose their business, than to make it, and lose it anyway.
  4. Continuous improvement in the face of competition. No market ever stands still, and companies must be committed to continuous improvement of their products, services, and processes to deliver them. Managers must be fully committed to hiring and keeping only the best employees, and investing time and money into them. Ideas must be encouraged, and implementation of great ideas must be fanatical. Have you ever had a great idea, only to see a competitor come out with it while your company is still talking about it? Don't let that happen again.
  5. Avoid the "all things to all people" syndrome. It doesn't work.
Which brings me back to McDonald's. Their sales are declining even as they rebuild chic new restaurants and serve tofu burgers and organic mocha latte.  Why? Because those people, the folks who frequent Starbuck's and Panera, were never their biggest fans, and never will be. Management of McDonald's may like those hipsters better than the moms and dads with carloads of noisy, messy three-year-olds, and good-old-boys in pickups with a hankering for a heavy dose of carbs, protein, and sugar, but those are the folks that made McDonald's what it is, and they will stay away from the new, toned-down, quiet shrines of mediocre food. They want Ronald, and climbing structures, and inexpensive, good food. If management of McDonald's wants to really be successful, they'll re-focus on that model and figure out how to deliver it in a clean, healthy, bright, format. And the business will come flooding back.

And please, bring back those fried apple pies! The baked ones taste like the cardboard they come in. I Go Wood in almost everything, but I draw the line at chewing cellulose in my dessert.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Great Designs in Wood (60) - "Harmonie Hall"

Here's a well-named building in Kobe, Japan, that demonstrates another fundamental truth about building with wood...that wood makes every other building material look better through association.

Harmonie Hall, Kobe, Japan. Photographer:Tomoki Hahakura Source:

"The Kobe International Junior High School and Senior High School Harmonie Hall was based on an idea of a clear and open axial plan utilising concrete and wood to respond to the campus' history while creating a new relationship with the natural landscape. Harmonie Hall is an ancillary facility that includes a teacher's room, storage, toilets, and a gymnasium that can be used as both a basketball court and an auditorium.
This building is designed to capture the most from the rich surrounding environment while inheriting the formal language of the campus as it exists today. Functionally, gyms tend to be enclosed spaces removed from their surrounding environment, but this time, by utilising a wood structural frame, the building is in concert with the vibrant local environment as much as possible.
The context for this project was a combined junior and high school located in the peaceful hills overlooking Suma with a view of the Akashi Straits and Awaji Island. This school was established in 1992 with aims to foster women with prolific knowledge and grace, and the campus has since been designed with the theme that the campus has made an impression on their memory." 
Harmonie Hall, Kobe, Japan. Photographer:Tomoki Hahakura Source:
 Go here for a great slide slow and write-up of the building...

Build a concrete building, and you've got a bunker. Build a glass building, and you've got a cold, inefficient gallery. But add wood, and you've got harmony of material...a warm, inviting habitat for humanity...and a great addition to the planet.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Great Designs in Wood (59) - "Treet"

Aasmund B. wrote from Norway yesterday to confirm that yes, they are indeed proud of the heritage evoked by their "stavkirkes". But he also wanted the world to know that the Norwegians are taking the lead in modern wood construction by building a 14-story wooden building, called "Treet", in Bergen.

Thanks again to the excellent efforts of folks at reThinkWood, we have a video that tells us about the Bergen project, including great design and project justification detail. Naturally, as this is a Scandinavian project, this is not for bragging rights...the project is all about function, efficiency, and stewardship of the earth. As it should be.

In an interesting twist of history, the Battle of Bergen in 1181, the time of  construction of the famous stavkirkes, helped establish Bergen as one of the major centers of trade in Northern Europe in the 13th century. This interesting battle was between a group called the "Birkebeiners" (meaning "birch leg-ers", or something like that...some of the Birkebeiner army were apparently poor people of the forest, and wore birch-bark leggings and shoes) and the "farmers army", who were apparently trying to foist a fake king on the land. During the ongoing civil war that carried on for decades after the battle, the brave Birkebeiner rescued the true king, a two-year old waif named Haakon Haakonsson, and trundled him away over the mountains in the dead of winter to safety.
...In 1202, when King Sverre died, he had managed to acquire most of Norway, but in Østerdalen, the Baglers were still very powerful. Sverre's death meant some decrease in the power of the Birkebeins. His successor, King Haakon Sverresson, died only two years later, leaving his son Haakon Haakonsson as the ultimate target for the Baglers to get rid of the Lord on his dark throne. In 1206, the Birkebeiners set off on a dangerous voyage through treacherous mountains and forests, taking the now two-year-old Haakon Haakonsson to safety in Trondheim. Norwegian history credits the Birkebeiners' bravery with preserving the life of the boy who later became King Haakon Haakonsson IV, ended the civil wars in 1240 and forever changed Northern Europe's history through his reign.
-source: Wikipedia 

Skiing Birchlegs Crossing the Mountain with the Royal Child, painted by Knud Bergslien. Painting located at The Ski Museum. Holmenkollen, Oslo, Norway. Source: Wikipedia.
This romantic event is still celebrated every year in Norway, and around the world where Norwegian descendants reside, with festivities...
Today, the historic event of the rescue of Haakon Haakonsson is honoured in Norway by three annual sporting events, a run, Birkebeinerløpet; a mountain bike race, Birkebeinerrittet; a cross-country ski race, Birkebeinerrennet and, beginning in 2012, Landeveisbirken, a road bicycle race. Common for the bike and ski events is the requirement of carrying a backpack weighing 3.5 kg as a remembrance of the child the Birkebeiners had to carry on their journey. The bike and ski events start in Rena and all three events finish at Lillehammer. There are also sister cross-country ski races held in Hayward Wisconsin (USA) (the American Birkebeiner), in Edmonton (Canada) and in Falls Creek (Australia).
Wooden churches, birch bark leggings, toddler kings, and now the tallest wooden building on Earth. Just a small part of Norway's rich contribution to a world Going Wood.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Great Designs in Wood (58) - The Stavkirke

Another of the seemingly endless testimonies of wood as the greatest of building materials is the stavkirke, or stave church. These ancient buildings of worship were built centuries ago and stand today as testaments to the wisdom and skill of their builders.

The stavkirke in Urnes, Norway is the oldest, built in 1130...just about the time the Chinese were building the Sakyamuni Pagoda that we looked at in GDiW(11).

The largest is in Heddal, Norway, and was built about a hundred years after the smaller church in Urnes.

To those who think that "saving trees" by discouraging the use of wood in buildings and other products is the way to save the planet, consider how long the carbon in those church logs has been sequestered...centuries longer than all the other 12-century trees in that region, which have died and returned their carbon to the atmosphere.

And besides saving the planet, these old wooden churches probably helped saved a few souls as well. Not a bad return on investment for labor and lives well spent.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Great Designs in Wood (57) - The L'Aquila Earthquake Recovery Project

On April 6, 2009, a major earthquake rocked the ancient town of L'Aquila, Italy.
"The earthquake caused damage to between 3,000 and 11,000 buildings in the medieval city of L'Aquila. Several buildings also collapsed. Two hundred and ninety-seven people died in the earthquake, including six Macedonians, two Czechs, five Romanian citizens, two Palestinians, one Greek citizen, one French citizen, one Ukrainian citizen and one Israeli citizen, and approximately 1,500 people were injured. Twenty of the victims were children. Around 65,000 people were rendered homeless.
The main earthquake was preceded by two smaller earthquakes the previous day. The earthquake was felt as far away as Rome (92 kilometres (57 mi) away), in other parts of Lazio, as well as Marche, Molise, Umbria and Campania. Schools remained closed in the Abruzzo region. Most of the inhabitants of L'Aquila abandoned their homes and the city itself; in the city centre of L'Aquila, and the nearby village of Paganica which was also badly damaged, many streets were impassable due to fallen masonry. The hospital at L'Aquila, where many of the victims were brought, suffered damage in the 4.8 aftershock which followed the main earthquake an hour later. Powerful aftershocks, some only slightly weaker than the main shock, were felt throughout the following 2 days.
Many of L'Aquila's medieval buildings were damaged. The apse of the Basilica of Saint Bernardino of Siena, L'Aquila's largest Renaissance church, was seriously damaged, and its campanile collapsed. Almost the whole dome of the 18th-century church of Anime Sante in Piazza Duomo fell down. The 13th-century Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio collapsed from the transept to the back of the church, and Porta Napoli, the oldest gate to the city, was destroyed. The third floor of Forte Spagnolo, the 16th-century castle housing the National Museum of Abruzzo, collapsed, as did the cupola of the 18th-century Baroque church of St Augustine, damaging L'Aquila's state archives. This church had been rebuilt after it was destroyed in the 1703 earthquake. The Cathedral of L'Aquila has lost part of its transept and maybe more with the effects of the aftershocks. Slight damage was also reported to the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, but other Roman monuments such as the Colosseum and Roman Forum were unharmed.
While most of l'Aquila's medieval structures suffered damage, many of its modern buildings suffered the greatest damage, for instance, a dormitory at the university of l'Aquila collapsed. Even some buildings that were believed to be "earthquake-proof" were damaged. L'Aquila Hospital's new wing, which opened in 2000 and was thought capable of resisting almost any earthquake, suffered extensive damage and had to be closed."
- Source: Wikipedia 
The devastation and shock of that day looked frightfully familiar...

The silver lining of this dreadful building codes have been implemented, codes that reflect the growing awareness that wood is man's best friend, at least when it comes to building. Especially hopeful is the last thirty seconds of the following video, in which the narrator acknowledges that man has always known the value of wood in construction, and points to some great examples of that knowledge.

By Going Wood again, Italians are rediscovering the wisdom of the ages. I only wish our American regulatory folks would wake up. More on that in the next post.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Great Designs in Wood (56) - The Tall Composite Structure

I've posted videos before on this topic, and the good news is, that they keep getting better. Which is a sign, I think, that this concept has legs. Best sign of all is that young, sustainability-oriented minds seem to really latch on to the concept. And as they do, the concept of the wooden, sustainable city comes that much closer to reality.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Go Climb a Tree

Well, what else are you going to do this weekend? Sit around and chow down on burgers and beer while watching forty-two football games? Come on, do like these guys, and go find a local tree to climb. Experience the exhilaration of swaying branches while breathing in clean, fresh air. This is the way to Go Wood.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Great Designs in Wood (55): A Visit with Furniture Maker Mike Korsak

I was able to break free last week and visit Mike Korsak, a furniture maker with ties to Penn State. Mike sort of "evolved" into this entrepreneurial venture into furniture-making, and it's was nice to see someone with a desire and talent be able to get out and do his own thing for a living.

Mike specializes in what I would call "art" furniture...many of his projects wind up displayed in art galleries before moving on to their owners. Here's a link to his website, and below are a few examples of his work.

"Echo and Narcissus." These pieces are featured in the video.
An Asian-inspired bench.

And another view.

"Figured Out".

"In Time."

I hope you enjoy the visit...please excuse my limited videography skills. Technical difficulties forced me to have a commercial break, but please watch both segments, I think you'll enjoy.

And here's the shorter second segment...

Thanks to Mike for sharing a portion of his day with us.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Wood Science 101 (16) - Wood Weight Estimation Finally Pays Off

A couple of weeks ago, I was passed on an email with pictures from a Penn State student asking about the species of a log on display at a local bike shop. He wanted to know, because the log was the object of interest in a contest - guess the weight of the log and win a mountain bike. It looked like an oak, but I decided to stop by the shop since I go by it every day on the way home, just to confirm.

Measurement of the rays, which were very visible through the gashes in the bark from the grapple that skidded the log from the woods, confirmed that it was indeed a red oak, and probably a northern red oak (Quercus rubra) or a scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea).

Information conveyed back through channels to the student, I got to thinking about the poor, undernourished nine-year-old waif living under my own roof. Being the sixth of seven in the Ray clan, he had become quite used to hand-me-downs, and had never had his own new bike. Wouldn't it be fun, I thought, if we made an adventure of measuring the log together and entering the contest?

This undertaking, however, was fraught with potential downside...the biggest being, of course, that he wouldn't win, and I would fall forever from his eyes as the king of everything in the Kingdom of Wood. But, since I've discovered that Dad is pretty much completely discredited by the time each offspring reaches about the age of thirteen, I was only risking about four years. And, I figured since timber estimation has always been one of my strengths, we might actually have a pretty good chance. And if he won, the upside would be priceless.

So, on the last day of the contest, off we went to measure the log. It measured 8'4", with a 30-inch diameter at the top end and 38-inches at the butt. Since the butt had some pretty good swell, I figured a 33-inch average diameter, and a couple of eyeball measurements along the length made me feel pretty good about that estimate.

Now, at this point, I could have used any of a number of timber-estimation formulae that have been published over the last century. But, in a case like this, I always tend to follow the principle, Keep it Simple. And nothing is simpler than using a volume table built on empirical data.

So, once again, I conferred with Doctor Google...and found a Log Weight Chart at The folks at Sherrill Tree, a company that sells gear for professional tree climbers, had posted a chart from the US Department of the Interior, which probably originally came from the US Forest Service. I knew this would be a pretty accurate reference since some government research team seventy-five years ago had probably spent years cutting and weighing green one-foot sections of different species of trees found in our forests.

Ah, the green thing. I knew that many of the contestants would look up the weight of wood and use a number from a dry-weight (12% moisture content) table. Sorry folks, not the right thing to do. I made sure to ask the owner when the log was harvested and weighed...did they weigh it right on the landing immediately after cutting, or did it sit around for a few weeks before they figured out which log was going to be used.

He confirmed for me that the log had been harvested the last week of August, and had been weighed immediately upon harvesting. Since we had a fairly normal, slightly cool and wet, summer, I figured the green weight data in the table would probably be about right, once I performed a little of my magic on it.

Part of that magic included figuring out the weight of that bottom foot of the log, which had a pretty good notch out of it. From the table I decided to apply 375 pounds to each foot of the log, 375 being my interpolation of the weights listed for red and white oak averaging between 32 and 34 inches average diameter. 375 times 8 gave me 3000 pounds. Now for that extra 4 inches and the notch.

Since I knew the butt was 38 inches in diameter, a further extrapolation from the table told me that a one foot section would weigh about 500 pounds. So, one third of that would get me an additional 167 pounds. Then I thought about all the notches I've ever hefted, and seventy-five pounds for a large one seemed about right. I closed my eyes, focused on the numbers in my head, and one visualized...3093.

So, we wrote down 3093 on Wesley's slip, and left the rest up to the timber gods.

Two days later, The Wife's phone rang, and the voice on the other end asked for Wesley Walker Ray. She mentioned that she was Wesley Walker Ray's mother, and what did they want with him?

She was astounded to hear, that Mr. Wesley had guessed the closest to the weight of the log...his guess of 3093 was only three pounds from the actual weight of 3090. He was the winner of a new $1,599 mountain bike.

The beginning of a great mountain biker.
We picked up his bike yesterday, and after being trained on all the high-tech functions of the bike by the good experts at The Bicycle Shop, Wesley mounted it and rode it home, climbing a darn steep hill in State College "using only half-effort" he yelled at us as we coasted along side him in the car. The smile on his face was bigger than those 29" tires on the bike.

So, Going Wood all these years has finally paid off for me. Guessing the weight of an oak log...$1,599. Seeing that smile...priceless.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Is There Anything Better than a Wooden Boat?...

...I found myself wondering, as I toured Giesler Boat Builders factory in Powassan, Ontario. The tour was part of the annual meeting of the International Wood Collectors Association that was held in nearby Huntsville, Ontario.


At the moment I was shooting the video below, I couldn't think of anything better than to own one of these beauties. I found myself thinking that wooden boats are one of those things that we modern folk think of as unobtainable playthings of the rich and famous, whereas this tour made me realize that hey, these are really practical products for real folks, and have been for centuries. Our tour guide (sorry, I lost his name) was simply great in his explanation and detail of the process, and by the time we were ready to leave I was sorry I didn't have the checkbook along.

From the Giesler website...
"Why buy a Cedar strip boat ?
There are several advantages of wood construction besides its natural beauty. 
First of all, wood has strength. The weight to strength ratio of wood is better than most other materials being used in boat construction. This means that wooden boats are lighter and stronger than most boats made from other materials. Wood will also withstand constant flexing, thus giving cedar strip boats a softer, quieter ride, even in the roughest waters. Wood boats are also easily repaired without the need for complicated equipment , hazardous chemicals, or extensive labour. With the development of new adhesives to make the joints water tight, advances in varnishes and paints to minimize maintenance, plus the natural beauty and warmth of wood, you can see that a cedar strip really is the natural choice."
 Now this is a great way to Go Wood.

Friday, September 12, 2014

How Man Conquered the World...Using Wood

Here's another Friday week-ender, this time from the creative folks at The Danish Wood Initiative.

It tells the story of how the wood industry was born, and why it will someday rule the world "in a good and wise way".


If this simple message is so compelling, you may ask, why don't regulatory agencies, like our own EPA, get it? You might not be surprised that the answer lies in the concept of organizational self-preservation. Forbes contributor Larry Bell explains the tangled web in his January 2014 article, EPA's Wood-Burning Stove Ban Has Chilling Consequences For Many Rural People. While it uses the case of wood-burning stoves and boilers as an example, the same process applies to regulation of furniture and panel emissions, factory and dust emissions, health and safety, forest management, and on and on and on.

This is a good opportunity to recognize all the good folks who are working to get the "Wood is Good" message out there. Waaaay too many to list here, but we know who you are...and we salute your efforts. Readers, why not acknowledge your favorite group in the comments below?

Go Wood!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Make Mine Freedom

Thought you might like something a little different on this Labor Day. In an interesting look at how university Extension has always used social media to educate folks, here's a cartoon from 1946 from the Economics Extension department of Harding College, now Harding University. This conservative little college in central Arkansas put at the core of its mission teaching fundamental American values, and produced a series of cartoons like the following that extolled the virtues of the American economic system.

At the time, with World War II over, war-weary folks all over the world were looking for new ways to cast off the old and usher in the new. Great Britain, in perhaps one of the most instructive elections in history, cast off the Conservative government of Winston Churchill in favor of the socialist Labour Party. British folks were tired of sacrifice and want, and voted for the folks who promised plenty. In Communist Russia, Joseph Stalin reached his pinnacle of power as his country's victorious repulsion of the German invasion promised a new era of peace and prosperity that the Communists had not been able to achieve in the previous twenty-nine years. China was only a couple of years from the Communist revolution of Mao Zedong, triggered by mass starvation in the wake of the disastrous war with the Japanese and subsequent Chinese civil war with the forces of Chiang Kai-shek.

The economic professors at little Harding College saw all this and, in response to the rise of American socialist and communist parties, decided to tell the story in the way that folks would understand. The result was this entertaining, educational, and stunningly prophetic cartoon entitled "Make Mine Freedom." It's a great view for a slow moment on a Labor Day holiday.

Listen carefully...much of what your hear will sound very familiar to you. In an especially prophetic moment, the seller of ISM promises "...ISM even makes the weather perfect every day!" They must have had their advocates of catastrophic climate change even back then.

The last two-and-a-half minutes are especially startling in the accuracy of its message.Labor and racial strife, crony capitalism, politically-correct public officials, and farm regulation that constrains production are all predicted as the inevitable result of ISM. It seemed humorous and practically impossible in the America of 1946...not so much so in 2014. As we discussed in this note of a couple of years ago, many wood products companies are feeling the pressure of the heavy hand of ISM these days.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Rare Reading: Hough's American Woods

Kim Steiner made me aware of a most unusual opportunity for the discriminating wood/book collector.

The Society of American Foresters, through the auction house of Bonham's of San Francisco, is offering for sale an original set of Romeyn Beck Hough's reference classic, The American Woods, with an expected selling price of $20,000 to $30,000. These books, which feature thin veneers of 324 species of wood found in United States in the 19th century, were subscribed to and purchased in individual volumes, most often by public libraries. However, complete fourteen-volume sets are extremely rare nowadays, thus the extreme price they bring at auction.

These books have a great history history.
"This remarkable work was the lifetime achievement of Romeyn B. Hough, who devoted himself to the study of American trees, and who is best known for his Handbook of Trees of the Northern States and Canada, long a standard reference work in American dendrology. In this work, Hough sought to describe the woods found in America, with a detailed description in an accompanying pamphlet, and with thin cross-sections of actual woods mounted and labeled in accompanying stiff cardboard mounts. These provide a unique record of American wood types, arranged geographically. Generally each species is shown with wood cut on traverse section, radial section, and tangential section. The samples are so thin as to be easily translucent. The age of these specimens gives them tremendous importance from an ecological standpoint, as well as their great interest to students of American furniture and woodcrafts. The trees available to Hough at the time make such an endeavor impossible to contemplate today. Parts I-IV cover New York and adjacent states, part V covers Florida, parts VI-X describe the Pacific Slope, parts XI-XII cover the Atlantic states, and part XIII southern Florida. Part XIV contained a continuation of the work on the trees of Florida with text by Marjorie Hough, using specimens and notes prepared by her father before his death in 1924.
Hough explained the unique nature of the work thus: it is `illustrated by actual specimens, and being in this way an exhibition of nature itself it possesses a peculiar and great interest never found in a press-printed book. The specimens are....about 2 x 5 in. in size, and sufficiently thin to admit of examination in transmitted light...Looked at in reflected light they appear as in the board or log... These specimens are mounted in durable frame-like Bristol-board pages, with black waterproofed surfaces...and each bears printed in gilt-bronze the technical name of the species and its English, German, French and Spanish names. The pages are separable...and are accompanied with a full information as to the uses and physical properties of the woods, and distributions, habits of growth, botanical characters, habitats, medicinal properties, etc..., of the trees...The woods used for the specimens are personally collected by the author and are sectioned and prepared by a process of his own device'.
Complete sets of this work are very rare. The volumes were priced at five dollars each, a high price reflecting the work involved in assembling them. Since subscribers came and went over the 25-year period of publication and many only bought the volume or volumes on the areas that interested them. The rarity of complete sets can be judged from the fact that Stafleu and Cowan record the work as being complete in 6 volumes."

But if you want to gain possession of the real thing, you have until September 22nd to do your research on the SAF set and settle your mind on your bid. If you win the bid, and care to share its splendor with the other readers of Go Wood, just let me know, and it will be so.

Good luck!

P.S. If, like me, you find the price of this set a little too steep, you can purchase a modern reprint of the set that has been released to rave reviews. Entitled "The Woodbook: The Complete Plates", it can be purchased online at

Update, 10/21/2014: The collection was sold for $22,500, including fees.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Wood Is Alive!

Some have complained that cutting down a tree is killing a living organism. Philosophically, perhaps, it may be, although stump and root sprouting are scientific contradictions to that notion.  It's awfully hard to kill a maple forest with an axe.

Xylophiles (the Latin word for "wood-lovers") have always understood that wood is alive. Remember when Tess and I peered into that Australian blackwood table top in Bungendore, New South Wales? It was like peering into a dark, deep pool of water that sparkled with mystery. And what about that Sam Maloof rocker I filmed in Palm Desert? You can't watch that clip and tell me that chair isn't alive.

Well, wood artist Keith Skretch found a new way to illustrate the living spirit in wood. Watch and marvel. Thanks to the Woodworking Network and Keith Skretch for sharing.

Waves of Grain from Keith Skretch on Vimeo.

Mr. Skretch tells us that...
"To create this strata-cut animation, I planed down a block of wood one layer at a time, photographing it at each pass. The painstaking process revealed a hidden life and motion in the seemingly static grain of the wood, even as the wood itself was reduced to a mound of sawdust."
Stunning result. But it is a trick of the camera, after all, same as the movement of Mickey Mouse across the screen.

But my new friend and Go Wood reader Dr. Ho-Yang Kang of Chungnam National University in Korea sent me some short video clips that really, really, prove that wood is alive, and moves. First, we see a Western hemlock board getting cozy and cuddling up as it dries out under the warm breezes of forced-air drying.

Next, we see a cross-section of soft-hearted softwood begin to crack and shed a tear under the strain of being separated from its log mother.

And finally, we see a white-oak board doing a break dance.

Now, the wood isn't actually moving quite as fast as the videos imply. In fact, each frame of the video is a shot taken at fifteen minute intervals over a period of weeks. So, if you settle down to watch wood dance one evening, it's likely to be as entertaining as watching the proverbial paint dry. But, with patience, Dr. Kang has indeed proven that "Wood is Alive!" and actually does moves on its own.

For those of you who are wondering how that happens, watch future GoWood posts for an upcoming Wood Science 101 post on the wood drying process.

Friday, August 15, 2014

It's That Time Again to Start Thinking about Wood Heat

Well, maybe not down where you live, but The Wife and I were sitting out shivering at the public pool yesterday watching Little Rays #6 and #7 swimming. Yes, here at least, the autumn chill is starting to settle in, and of course, any logical person's thoughts turn to heating, and whether or not the wood pile is large enough.

More of that in future posts. This time, though, is a nice little video from the folks at the Biomass Energy Resource Center (BERC) up in Vermont, where winter and wood heating go hand-in-glove. Thanks to Adam Sherman of the center who shared this nice video with us.

Ahhh, I can already smell the hot cider! :-)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Loggers of Hollywood

Went home for lunch yesterday, and walked in on my two littlest (ages 9 and 5) and another 9-year-old watching Rio 2, a colorful movie about a bunch of birds fighting for the jungle...against, you guessed it, a bunch of bad guys logging illegally with huge chainsaws and graders. Here's the plot, as its given in Wikipedia...

"Blu and Jewel enjoy life in Rio with their 3 kids, the oldest and music-loving Carla, book smart Bia, and the youngest and mischievous Tiago. Meanwhile, Blu's former owner, Linda Gunderson and her ornithologist husband, Tulio are on an expedition in the Amazon and eventually discover a quick-flying spix's macaw that loses one of its feathers. When word gets out about this through television, Jewel believes that they should go to the Amazon to help find the blue macaws.
Meanwhile, the leader of a group that is in a line of illegal logging named Big Boss, discovers Linda and Tulio's expedition to find the macaws and orders his henchmen to hunt them down to avoid disruptions to their work...While searching for the macaws, Linda and Tulio are eventually trapped by the loggers...Blu visits Tulio and Linda's site, where he discovers a broken CB Radio. After discovering the loggers are destroying the jungle, Blu sends Roberto (who followed Blu) to warn the flock as he saves Linda and Tulio. Blu persuades the macaws to defend their homes, and they easily outmatch the loggers with help from the Scarlet macaws and the other animals. Big Boss tries to blow up the trees as a back-up plan, but Blu steals the lit dynamite...[Finally] Big Boss is eaten alive by a boa constrictor." 
Good old family fun. I happened to walk in right when the loggers were chasing Linda and Tulio with their saws. The kids were glued, eyeballs wide as silver dollars.

That's how Hollywood sells movies these days. I'd be willing to guess that Corporate World has been the "bad guy" in 90% of the action movies since 1970. That makes at least two generations, now, that have been raised on a steady diet of producers killing the world.

It wasn't always this way. Movies, at least movies put out by the government, used to promote technological advances in industry as good things, to be aspired to and worked at. We saw one of them about two years ago in a great short about woodworking in the 1940's.  Here's another in the series, an excellent look at logging in 1940. In it, you'll hear that yes, logging and related practices were once wasteful and hard on the land...but that America had awakened to the danger and was now (as of 1940!) practicing productive, sustainable professional forestry. It's pretty much been just as depicted in the video, for the past 75 years!

Which is why we now have as much standing timber as we had 150 years ago. We adjusted our harvesting to sustainable practices, and the forest recovered after having supplied the wood for every city, town, and home in our booming country.

The next to last line of the movie is a pretty succinct statement of what foresters have been trained since, well, forever...
"If you do go into forestry or one of the industries, you will be part of work that has a future, for the aim of all foresters and far-sighted owners of timberlands is a perpetual supply of products through proper management."
Modern portrayal of the logging profession and timber industries paints the whole barrel in the same light as the occasional bad apple, and extrapolates the negative impact to mean permanent deforestation the world over. Which will happen, I suppose, about the time that Richmond, Virginia, becomes a coastal resort. My 5- and 9-year-olds will not let that happen. They will save the world, right along with the millions of others that don't seem to understand that demand must have a supply to be met, or things will get ugly. Ironic, isn't it, that the Battle of Rio to save the rainforest is set in a country that today has riots in the streets as people starve in massive ghettos.

I started to walk out of the room after watching a few minutes of the birds battling the loggers. But I couldn't resist turning back and saying to the kids, "You guys know loggers really aren't bad guys like that, right?" To which my son replied, "They're chopping down all the trees!"

"Well, loggers only chop down enough trees for us to use to build things out of wood. And then the forests they cut down grow back..."

The 9-year-old neighbor girl cut me off at the pass. "They're going to build a city there!" she exclaimed, her eyes bright with passion. "But they wouldn't build a city in the middle of the jungle," I kindly explained. "Yes, they're going to cut down the whole jungle!"

I was defeated, right along with Big Boss and his Amazon loggers, and retired to do battle another day.

I retreated back to my home office, where, while pondering this exchange, I happened upon the following video. It's an excellent, high-quality story produced by the BBC about the story of the forest a fish feeds trees, and how insects feed Canadian lynx.

The video is a full hour, and I suggest you watch when you have the time. But I want to take you to a sequence beginning at 24:30, where begins an interesting explanation of the relationship between the Canadian lynx, the snowshoe hare, and the spruce budworm.

The British host tells an interesting story of the Canadian lynx, and his preference for a tasty snowshoe hare now and then. And how the hare depends on low-growing forage and cover, that wouldn't be there if it weren't for timely infestations of the spruce budworm. He explains...
"Now...the springtime assault by these caterpillars is bad news for the trees...but for other inhabitants of this forest, these caterpillars are heroes." 
"Whilst these dramatic natural events might be a catastrophe for the established trees, for anything trying to grow on the forest floor, they're an absolute bonus. In here where it's dark, there is little, very poor diversity, just some mosses and a few ferns. But as soon as there's a break in the canopy, and the sunlight can flood in, well, look at the difference.  Lots of wild flowers, there's a young maple coming through here, there a mountain ash, and most importantly of all, regenerating spruce and fir.
Now, the hares essentially need these regenerating conifers as shelter. And of course, what's good for the hares, is good for the lynx...And that's why the lynx needs the caterpillar." [Cut to shot of deer grazing in an open meadow. Point proven.].
Now, any resident of Maine and Quebec can tell you that a little spin is being applied here. The story infers that the spruce budworm is a convenient forest pest, one that opens nice little openings in the forest floor that shelter bunnies and feed deer, thereby creating a link in a cozy little natural cycle of life.

The reality is slightly different...
"Bob Wagner, a University of Maine forestry professor, describes Maine’s upcoming spruce budworm infestation as a slow-moving hurricane. The state’s large landowners, forestry experts and policymakers know it’s coming and can track its path south from Canada. They estimate the pest will start destroying forest stands in northern Maine within the next two to four years. And they know from previous experience that the damage to the forest products industry and, therefore, jobs could be extensive."
- Bangor Daily News, 12-29-2013 

So, in essence, the spruce budworm is poised to be, as it has been in past cycles,  a reason for forest devastation on a massive scale, magnitudes of order larger than any modern logging operations. And yet, the BBC can tell a pleasant story about the budworm opening a nice little opening in the forest canopy, while a logging operation that accomplishes the same ecosystem effect on a controlled basis, is demonized by Hollywood.

We have to get past the idea that if man does it, it must be bad. Millions of little minds, and their future means of having a good life, are at stake.

The birds won't be able to save us from misguided education and entertainment. Let's turn the story around.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"It Never Happened Before" - The Crazy World of Real Estate Markets

On the way into work this morning I caught an update to the "ghost city" situation in China. Hint: It's not getting better.

Consider some of the stats. Last month, prices fell in 79 of 100 cities surveyed by a regional real estate company. Land sales have dropped 30 percent. In Wuxi, subject of this morning's NPR story, has experienced a drop in prices of 15 to 20% this year.
"There's nothing you can do," says Huang Jiqiang, an agent with Central Plains Real Estate here. He says supply and demand are completely out of whack.
"Now all the new housing complexes are dropping their prices and doing promotions because there are just too many homes. There aren't that many buyers and the pool of buyers is getting smaller and smaller. Homes are still under construction out there."
One comment in the story especially caught my attention. A finance professor in Shanghai states matter-of-factly
"Since the beginning of this year there is a kind of switch of the mood. People have become more cautious. It never happened before."
That comment reminded me of our situation here in 2008-2010, when housing prices were falling all over the country. Much was made of the fact that people had invested in real estate, even at what seemed to be exorbitant prices, for the simple fact that home prices had never before fallen significantly in our history, certainly not on a national scale. It never happened before.

First of all, the statement is silly. Certainly, real estate prices have crashed, cities have dried up, all over the world, as the ebb and tide of history takes its toll. Sure, real estate prices have increased over the centuries, but I've never seen a definitive study that shows real estate outpacing natural inflation over long periods of time. And wherever people move away from, or where local economies have tanked, home prices have fallen. In some cases, dramatically. Here's an interesting story of six ghost towns in North America, including our own Pennsylvanian town of Centralia.

But the scale of, and the reason for, the people-less cities in China is unprecendented. That's what makes it an interesting story to continue to watch. It's not just the ghostly feeling of being in a deserted place...but the disquieting notion that perhaps, this greatest of all real estate booms is likely to be followed by the greatest of all financial crashes.

I began working with truss plants here in Pennsylvania at precisely that peak in the market, fall of 2007. (Hopefully that is ironic coincidence, and not cause/effect). I've watched and worked with truss and building component manufacturers as they've struggled with the realities of the downturn. This week, my visits to a few plants revealed a guarded optimism based on order files that have extended from a few days, to a few weeks.

But housing starts, both single-family and multi-family, took a significant downturn in May. The National Association of Homebuilders is still forecasting a sharp upturn in starts (which coincidentally, they have been doing for several years now) that will see a 50% increase in starts to over 1.5 million starts by 2016. This in spite of the fact that they also forecast a 1.5% increase in mortgage interest rates over that same time frame.

However, in stark contrast, noted financial market analyst Martin Armstrong, who has made a life's work of constructing an artificial intelligence (AI) model to forecast global economic trends with stunning accuracy, posits that the global real estate business cycle is a 78-year cyclical wave that peaked in the third quarter of 2007. From that peak, it fell into a trough that bottomed out in 2012, and the world is now experiencing a mild real estate recovery. But his data and models foresee the current recovery lasting only until the third quarter of 2015, after which the global real estate market will be in a free fall until the end of the 78-year 2033. At that time, we will have been in a global real estate market contraction that will have lasted 26 years, and will take us back to the level of demand last experienced at the beginning of the 78-year cycle, that is, back in 1955.

Interestingly, my own analysis of housing starts potential back in 2009 forecasts a similar downturn scenario for precisely September of 2015. You may remember the following graph, which I've shared in the past.

Source: Penn State Wood Operations Lab, 2009-2014

The blue line is the number of actual, total housing starts. The purple line represents the "official" forecast in the summer of 2009. It was calling for a strong rebound, which would have normally happened in previous cycles. The pink line, which I labeled "worst case", is my own formulation of housing starts based on indicators as I read them at the time. The yellow line I calculated as a "moderate case" reality, a compromise between my own forecast and what mainstream economists were forecasting.

The actual housing starts have fallen between my own "worst case" scenario and the compromise model I calculated. In other words, much worse that the official forecast of the time, but not as bad as my own, thankfully. The interesting point, with respect to today's subject matter, is that these forecasts all contained a cooling-off period after the recovery. The official story was that we would have a strong run-up until fall of 2012, a one-year cool-off until fall of 2013, and then a more gradual but steady increase thereafter.

My own forecast, the pink line, was for a much more modest recovery until September 2015, to be followed by a two-year decline. At the time of my original work, I wasn't aware of Mr. Armstrong's long-cycle data, so my analysis then forecasted a modest recovery from late 2017 into the future. Much of that, I reckoned, was due to the fact that I believed we would probably be realizing the impact of policy changes brought about by the demands of the electorate in 2016.

However, Mr. Armstrong's analysis tells a story of a world in crisis, created by global government policies aimed at creating wealth out of thin air, or should I more correctly say, out of devalued money. Which is why the Chinese real estate market is so fascinating.

Consider this quote from a recent Business Insider story.
"'s important to remember, too, that the ghost city phenomenon in China is partially due to how local governments are forced to finance themselves. Local governments in China are in a perpetual cash squeeze because they have to hand over a bulk of their tax revenue to the central government and because the central government often orders localities to build all sorts of infrastructure projects but Beijing often neglects to help with funding. Because the Party owns all of the land in China, local governments solve their funding problems by seizing land from their poorest residents, giving them a paltry sum in return, and then they sell the land to developers, essentially flipping real estate on a massive scale. Of course this has the added benefit of raising GDP figures, increasing the chance that local leaders will be promoted within the Party."
-Rob Schmitz, quoted in Business Insider, June 9, 2014 
Hmmm. This scenario which once might have been viewed as an oddity of China's version of party politics is starting to sound slightly not so unusual. Might the snowballing market backlash against this reality-blindered governance be a precursor of a global downturn so bad it will make 2010 look like the good old days?

Let's hope not. But just in case, I'll examine the issues, and logical actions wood businesses can take to prepare for the possible alternative futures, in upcoming posts.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Fruit of the Earth: Reality and Religion

Here's a follow-up to the post on "How to Build a Wildlife Habitat Snag".

After a short segment on fighting birds away from their cherry tree (with that great view of Mt. Ranier in the background), Wranglerstar gives us an update on the wildlife that has moved into his snag. It's a great lesson on the forest food chain...from plant, to bug, to bird, to carnivore.

And then, he takes us on a trip into his back forty, where he had been working a small fireline around a brush pile that had escaped its intended spot. As he does so, he gets into a discourse on the realities of hands-on forestry that you might find interesting. In more ways than one.

Wrangler demonstrates that he really understands well the concept of forest management, at least from an ecological standpoint. But his short discourse beginning at 9:00 against "modern logging practices", which he calls  "an abomination against this earth, and an abomination against God" is where his practical knowledge of the subject, and his religious intuition reveal an inner turmoil that he hasn't yet been able to reconcile.

I won't get into the war raging in people's psyches between Mother Earth and Father God. But I would like to say that in this particular discourse, Wrangler exhibits a belief shared by many folks...that individuals are better stewards of the earth than companies that use its fruits for the benefit of mankind (and, to make a profit along the way).

Certainly, Wrangler is a shining representative of the notion that individuals, given a piece of land, a good education, and a strong work ethic, can manage that land sustainably and produce good outcomes from their effort. This stewardship model, perhaps first best codified in America by Aldo Leopold in his A Sand County Almanac and his numerous other writings, works well on a personal level, and it's not hard to see how folks like Wrangler who "return to the land" adopt those values. I relate to them myself, on my own tiny corner of the world.

But it is in criticizing other models that folks often go awry in their thinking, and wind up "conflicted", as Wrangler so obviously is in the final moments of the video. He can see how the techniques he uses work for his family on their land...but those techniques are not very productive, in terms of the number of people they support per acre. Therein lies the conflict.

Timber companies, like commercial fisherman, industrial farmers, mining companies, and energy companies, have to produce vast quantities of natural resources from the small portion of the earth that they manage. In order to do this, they have developed techniques, technology, and labor systems that allow them to produce and harvest more per acre than you or I would given the same amount of land. The visual impact of these systems can be stunning, and many folks have felt that sense of stunned outrage when they happen upon a large clearcut...or even when they view one from fifty miles away on a mountainside.

The emotional response felt in those moments is the source of the conflict. People's minds tend to frame the vision in terms of personal impacts...a clearcut forest is far beyond the physical impact one can cause, and so its magnitude is overpowering. Our mind has a difficult time processing the scene...we see devastation, and imagine dead birds and rabbits laying under all the dead trees. Bad...bad.

But professional foresters and loggers see something different, because they have experienced the long-term cycle of forest re-growth. They understand that those large, beautiful trees are, in essence, a mature crop, ready to be harvested for conversion and use by millions for homes, heat, and hutches. And the millions who will benefit from that harvest don't have the blessing of their own patch of woods to produce their own...they rely completely on the experience and work of the timber company to provide that wood.

Further, they understand that the scene that Wrangler calls "an abomination" in fact produces a thriving new forest in an incredibly short period of time. One that supports a far wider range of wildlife, with far higher rates of growth, than the mature forest just harvested. And all that new growth contributes to and  thrives on the carbon cycle, the key process in sustaining life on earth. It is difficult to see how a process that drives life can intelligently be called an abomination.

True, harvesting practices have not always been as good as they could have/should have been. But in the more developed countries, they certainly are getting pretty good. And it is difficult to point to damage even in the less developed countries that is resulting in permanent or irreversible damage to the forest. In that sense, the earth has shown an incredible power to recover from even the worse humans can do to it.

The 1,660 square miles of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has now become one of Europe’s largest wildlife preserves.
So, yes...Wranglerstar would not want a timber company clearcutting his land. Most of you would not want that. But that does not make their business of timber harvesting on land managed for that purpose an abomination, any more than miles of wheat harvested in Kansas, million of chickens grown in East Texas, or tons of coal mined in Alberta is an abomination.

A true abomination would be returning to the Dark Ages (or the 1930's Soviet Union), where only the wealthiest or well-connected had homes and good food, while the rest of us huddle hungry in our makeshift huts. Which is where we will be, if the industrial producers of the world are prevented from performing their business of providing for the world.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Great Designs in Wood (54) - The Hannah Cabinet

Nothing I can say would add to the impressiveness of this work. Best listen to the master himself explain the work.

I've watched it three times now and am still seeing things that amaze me.

I like one of the comments on YouTube...
 If I have some spare time this weekend, I might knock one of these out. :)
The Bungendore Wood Works Gallery, which I visited back in 2011 and shared with you in...

The Bungendore Wood Works Gallery 

The Best of the Rest - Bungendore Wood Works Gallery, Part 2

...and in which the Hannah cabinet was displayed in the summer of 2013, has a web page with more information and pictures of the work...and they offer a complete DVD on it for sale. This is one for the collection of serious woodworkers out there.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Great Designs in Wood (53) - The Wooden Pallet

This post is long overdue. While we tend to think of great houses, fine furniture, and unique products when we think of designs in wood, the humble wooden pallet may be able to claim to be the greatest design of all.

Wooden pallets, as the title of the video below states, literally move the world.

In fact, Slate Magazine recently called the pallet the "Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy." From the article:
Pallets, of course, are merely one cog in the global machine for moving things. But while shipping containers, for instance, have had their due, in Marc Levinson’s surprisingly illustrative book The Box (“the container made shipping cheap, and by doing so changed the shape of the world economy”), pallets rest outside of our imagination, regarded as scrap wood sitting outside grocery stores or holding massive jars of olives at Costco. As one German article, translated via Google, put it: “How exciting can such a pile of boards be?”
And yet pallets are arguably as integral to globalization as containers. For an invisible object, they are everywhere: There are said to be billions circulating through global supply chain (2 billion in the United States alone). Some 80 percent of all U.S. commerce is carried on pallets. So widespread is their use that they account for, according to one estimate, more than 46 percent of total U.S. hardwood lumber production.
Companies like Ikea have literally designed products around pallets: Its “Bang” mug, notes Colin White in his book Strategic Management, has had three redesigns, each done not for aesthetics but to ensure that more mugs would fit on a pallet (not to mention in a customer’s cupboard). After the changes, it was possible to fit 2,204 mugs on a pallet, rather than the original 864, which created a 60 percent reduction in shipping costs. There is a whole science of “pallet cube optimization,” a kind of Tetris for packaging; and an associated engineering, filled with analyses of “pallet overhang” (stacking cartons so they hang over the edge of the pallet, resulting in losses of carton strength) and efforts to reduce “pallet gaps” (too much spacing between deckboards). The “pallet loading problem,”—or the question of how to fit the most boxes onto a single pallet—is a common operations research thought exercise.
Pallet history is both humble and dramatic. As Pallet Enterprise (“For 30 years the leading pallet and sawmill magazine”) recounts, pallets grew out of simple wooden “skids”, which had been used to help transport goods from shore to ship and were, essentially, pallets without a bottom set of boards, hand-loaded by longshoremen and then, typically, hoisted by winch into a ship’s cargo hold. Both skids and pallets allowed shippers to “unitize” goods, with clear efficiency benefits: “According to an article in a 1931 railway trade magazine, three days were required to unload a boxcar containing 13,000 cases of unpalletized canned goods. When the same amount of goods was loaded into the boxcar on pallets or skids, the identical task took only four hours.” 
Wooden pallets can be made in just about any combination of boards imaginable, in order to carry whatever load they are designed to carry. The two most common designs of pallets are the "stringer" pallet, most common in the United States, and the "block" pallet, the most widely used pallet in the rest of the world. Stringer pallets have typically three or four boards running lengthwise on edge, onto which the wooden deckboards are nailed.

Stringer pallets.
In contrast, the deckboards on block pallets are fastened to stringers or frames, placed flatwise, that connect typically nine or more wooden blocks. This design allows for what those in the logistics industry call "true four-way entry"; in other words, the loader approaching the unit load with a forklift or pallet jack can insert its forks into whichever side of the load the loader happens to be approaching. This flexibility in handling allows for more efficient use of the pallet in loading and unloading operations, especially in those which utilized automated load handling systems.

Block pallets.
While the sheer volume of pallets used around the world in conveying goods is staggering to contemplate, perhaps the best evidence of our designation of the wooden pallet as a "great design in wood" is in its frequent "second life" as affordable and personalized do-it-youself furniture. A search of YouTube with the simple word "pallets" returns around 144,000 video results...and I'd be willing to bet over 90% of them are folks showing some creative use of wooden pallets in and around their home. I've shared some of these before, and here's another great one.

Anything that can be used in so many ways, even after serving its useful primary life, surely must be called one of our "Great Designs in Wood." In fact, the lowly wooden pallet may be THE GREATEST design in wood, ever.

Friday, June 20, 2014

How to Build a Wildlife Habitat Snag

My tendency the last few months is to give you a feel-good post on Fridays, because we all need to feel good on weekends, right? And for many folks, the best way to feel good is to do something physical, and productive.

About three weeks ago, I shared a video of a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Wranglerstar as they identify themselves, taking on an unusually large project...sawing down a tree by hand. In this video, the same Wranglerstar shares with us a unique project that many can achieve, even though we may have to be a little more modest with the size of our project. Nevertheless, as a little weekend warrior inspiration, this video is great.

If you think the part where he tops out the tree looks dangerous, you're is. Experienced climbers and saw handlers only need apply for that job.

In the last couple of minutes of the video, Wranglerstar makes some interesting comments on the value of snags in the forest ecosystem. He's right on. Although, when I studied forestry many years ago, we were taught to leave what we called "den trees" in any forest harvest we planned and executed, and at about the same density he proposes, one to two per acre. I don't know where they ever taught foresters to "clean" the forest bare as he claims in the video, but if they did, they were wrong.

Glad he has taken the time to shoot his project and explain the reasoning behind it. He recently posted a follow-up video that shows the results of his project...I'll share that and comment a little more extensively on the topic next week. In the meantime, get out and do a little outdoor project of your own this weekend...and feel free to share it with us in the comment section below.

To my buddy Tom up in, lifting pints of Sam Adams does not qualify as physical productive activity. Even if it follows a round of golf. Get out and Go Wood, Tom.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Chaos of the Masses

The young Lebanese woman, eight months pregnant, was desperate. While trying to join her husband in the Land of the Free, she had suffered a cruel disappointment...she had been turned away by officials at Ellis Island in New York City and returned to the turmoil of Beirut. Her husband had sent her money from his job in the rail car plant in Michigan City, Indiana, and she was now making a rougher, more dangerous journey to the promised land...through the back door, that is, the back streets of Juarez, Mexico. She had given most of her money to a man who had gotten her from Panama City, Panama, where she had relatives, to Juarez, and now her jewelry was going to another stranger who was smuggling her across the border into El Paso, Texas. Her hope was that, once on the American side, she would meet one of her husband's relatives who would take her on the long bus trip to Indiana.

She made it just in time. On October 12, 1917, my grandmother was born in a small shack in Michigan City, the first generation of my mother's family to be American by birth. I don't know if my great grandmother ever became a legal immigrant, or not.

This was all brought back to me by some events of the past week here in my neighborhood.

I was walking the floor mop Sunday afternoon, and as I passed the high school soccer fields, stopped to watch a large group of Hispanics playing soccer. Many were decked out in soccer jerseys, all were shouting in Spanish, and they were good. Real good. Better than I was used to seeing here from our local kids.

It was notable to me because this was the first time I had seen such a thing in the neighborhood. I made mention of it to The Wife when I got home, telling her, in fact, that it was bringing back some nice memories of our time in Diboll, Texas. Hispanics are common in Diboll, home to a large, old sawmill since the turn of the last century. Old folks in town used to tell me that Mexicans used to travel across Texas, and the only two towns they knew of were San Antonio and Diboll, because of the number of jobs there. So now, Diboll, along with most of the rest of Texas, has a large population of Hispanics, many whose families have been there since long before the fall of the Alamo. And some who have come more recently, say, yesterday.

But Hispanics are not too common in Central Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh, Philly, Reading, Allentown, yes. But immigration controversies are rare in State College, other than the visa difficulties graduate students may have during their time at Penn State.

So it came as a surprise when I heard sirens in the neighborhood yesterday morning...and then this.

What made this event very personal was that it was close to home. Literally, close to home...the restaurants in the video are about two blocks from my house. The Wife and I eat at them frequently, and even know the owner by name. That was because he is (was?) a neighbor of ours. He owns several of the Chinese food establishments in town and about half of the ones that were raided yesterday.

He purchased the house next to ours about a year ago, and was using it as sort of a halfway house for his employees. I see some of them on my nightly walks, they walking home from work every night. The Wife took them cookies once, and said that the Chinese are on one floor and the Hispanics are on the other.

I should make a note here that the food in the establishments is great, the employees are real friendly...but we had a suspicion that at least some of them were illegal. Not being able to speak English is a tip-off.

But I've worked with and around illegal aliens all of my life. First as a dishwasher in a high-end Houston restaurant, where all the dishwashers were Hispanic except me. I especially remember one guy named Juan, who had fled the civil wars in Nicaragua, who didn't say much and didn't like me for some reason. Maybe I asked too many questions.

Later, as a construction superintendent for a large Houston home builder, I shared in the barbequed pigs-head lunches (weird, but tasty) brought out to the Hispanic foundation crews by their crew chief, who was by the way, the only one who could speak English. I remember wondering if they were all illegal aliens, but since they were sub-contractors, hired by superintendents like me on site, it never seemed to be an issue. All the concrete crews were Hispanic, so it was just an accepted thing. Don't ask, don't tell, before that policy was even heard of.

Then as I moved into the wood products industry, I found that there were certain types of operations that had more suspect workers than others. The wood components industries, like truss plants, and pallet operations, in particular, seemed to have more than their share of non-English speakers. Not surprisingly, these industries have some of the toughest jobs out there. If you've ever seen workers standing on their feet at a station tearing apart old pallets for eight hours a day, at about one pallet per minute, you'd understand that there are certain jobs out there that most Americans just won't do.

You may remember the most high-profile illegal worker case, a raid on several operations and the arrest of several managers of the Houston-based pallet company IFCO in 2006. Again, I was pretty close to those folks...they had cooperated with me on a large industry study on supply chain costs I conducted in 2005. When the raids came down, I remember wondering why, this particular company, now? I could think of dozens of companies in several industries that operated basically the same way with their employee supply.  Finally, I concluded that some company had to be selected to raid, and a few had to go to prison, to remind folks that our new Homeland Security folks were still on the job.

I know, that's a cynical viewpoint, but for a guy who's the product of at least one illegal alien, and who's basically been surrounded by them for most of this life, I just look at our immigration policy and enforcement as a counter-productive farce with multiple hurtful unintended consequences. Now, I'm not saying that we should have stricter or more open borders...I'm just saying, what we do now doesn't work well and hasn't for a long, long time.

You probably wouldn't be surprised to know that some economics professors have figured that eliminating restrictions on the flow of migration (i.e., "open borders") is by far the best way to go. In their paper entitled "Productivity differences and the dynamic effects of labor movements" professors Klein and Ventura state..
"...a powerful case can be made that regulation of labor movements is one of the most severe distortions facing the world today. Taking the results of the applied general equilibrium literature seriously, hardly any policy reform at a global scale, either drastic trade liberalization or worldwide tax reforms, would deliver comparable output gains. Hence, in order to defend current restrictions on labor mobility on efficiency grounds one would need to come up with some very powerful arguments indeed. Clearly, arguments to restrict labor mobility do exist (e.g. congestion of some public goods, burden on the welfare state), but it seems doubtful whether they are powerful enough to make a case for the severity of current restrictions.
The analysis of this paper illustrates the need to design and study the effects of alternative migration and transfer policies in dynamic frameworks. Although the removal of migration barriers generates long-run output gains that are sizeable, there are winners and losers in the short run. An open challenge is then how to capture these gains while making nobody worse off."
Ahh, that's the trick, isn't it? Because in the same paper, they find that...
"... the oldest individuals in the rich...location gain when barriers are removed, while the opposite occurs in the poor...location. This is straightforward: as natives of the rich location hold all land in this location and the oldest individuals have mostly asset income, lifting barriers to the movement of labor will lead to gains for these people if the value of their land increases. This is precisely what occurs as the increase in the labor input in the rich location increases the future marginal product of land, which in turn leads to an upward jump in the price of land in the rich location at t0. Of course, the reverse happens in the poor location.
Second, individuals born at t0 gain in the poor location and lose in the rich location, and the smaller are idiosyncratic moving costs on average, the greater the welfare gain (loss) for natives of the poor (rich) location. Notice, in particular, that individuals in the poor location gain substantially on average even when only a small fraction of them eventually moves to the rich location. This is accounted for by the fact that prices change in a favorable direction for newborns in the poor location as wage rates there increase over time.
Overall, the removal of barriers to labor mobility has non-trivial consequences for welfare, but these consequences differ substantially across locations and cohorts. At the date when restrictions are removed (t=t0) old and middle-aged rich location natives gain, while young rich location natives lose."
And they become members of the Occupy Movement, and go on food stamps.

I think it boils down to, one way or another, everyone working in our country ought to be legal residents, abide by the same laws, and pay the same taxes. How we get that to be, is the debate that seems to have been with us since the founding of our country. And lately, we seem to be making things worse, not better. "Comprehensive immigration reform" sounds to me like another iteration of increased ineffective bureaucracy at ridiculous expense. A wise man once said...

"If you have ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law.”
- Winston Churchill 
Hmmm...I know a few folks who can relate to that.
Seems to me that we must already have some "comprehensive" laws in place. Well, whaddya know...

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 

It's even revised as of 2013. So it doesn't sound to me like we need "comprehensive reform"...just a better and more even-handed way to carry out the law, and to revise it when necessary. There's a novel concept.

In a day where the government is supposedly monitoring everything we think, do and say (at least, on-line) there ought to be a way to enforce one consistent set of laws without starting over from scratch. I'm guessing that it would require more resources in both processing applications and border enforcement. And in analyzing the economic and human impacts of labor flows. How tough can it be?

Even Mr. Churchill would think that we'll eventually get it right. He once also said this...
“The Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”
In the mean time, the good folks of State College, Pennsylvania will have to do without our Chinese food.