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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Pencils and World Peace

Jay O'Laughlin brought the following video to my attention. Since it is such a good follow-up to yesterday's post, and so timely with a respect to the state of the world today, I hope you'll take a couple of minutes to view it, and contemplate.


Thanks, Jay.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Write Stuff

Judging by tone of the emails in my inbox last week, passions are running high. Most were about stuff non-related to wood, unless I want to write about gun stocks. Perhaps I'll get a guest blogger to write about that; I know several gunsmiths who are amazing with the quality of their stocks.

But there was one letter, one of those chain things that never die, forwarded to me by Go Wood reader Tom O. that tweaked my interest, and I had to check it out. Here's the message (why are they always in BOLD and ALL CAPS?)
Now, unlike the radical Tom O. (you know the IRS is reading your emails, don't you, Tom?), I enjoy doing my patriotic duty by overpaying my "fair share" to the ruling, uh, taxing authorities. So I didn't find it humorous to poke fun at or slander our fine Space Administration. The truth is that the above story is another of those internet "urban legends" that has a tiny kernel of truth and a whole lot of exaggeration. From the urban myth debunking website we learn that a "space pen" was in fact developed, but by a private entrepreneur at the cost of $1 million, not $12 million, and that he ultimately sold 400 of the space pens to NASA for $2.95 apiece. Not a bad deal.

But my initial reaction to the story was not outrage at taxes, or even dubious curiosity at the supposed efficiency of Russian space engineers over American engineers. I, of course, was drawn to the pencil.

Haven't you ever wondered how such a thing was ever invented? Or how they get that lead (graphite/clay, really) in there?

...Back sometime before the year 1565, in a remote northwestern corner of England, some local sheep herders, gathering up their sheep after a torrential downpour, discovered an outcropping of a dark mineral that blackened their skin and clothing as they climbed across it. This outcrop turned out to be the largest deposit of pure graphite found anywhere in the world, and it remains so to this day.

Shepherds being a thoughtful breed, they thought of using the dark, greasy stones to mark their sheep inventory. No use counting sheep if you can't mark them when they're counted, right?

Within a hundred years, and a lot of counted sheep, smart folks began to discover other uses for the mineral, which was called "plumbago" at the time. One of these smart people was a certain Kaspar Faber, a cabinet maker who figured out how to make a clean, wooden holder for the messy ore.
In 1761 cabinetmaker Kaspar Faber settled in Stein, near Nurenburg, in Germany to make his first simple pencils. Graphite was cut into narrow sticks and glued between two pieces of wood which were cut and planed smooth. The family dynasty of pencil makers had begun.

The oldest pencil known to be in existence. Courtesy: Faber-Castell

In 1839, Lothar Faber, the great grandson of Kaspar Faber, began to transform the pencil industry. He mechanised production, using first water, then steam power and achieved a production rate and consistency of quality previously unheard of. He invented the hexagonal pencil and created standards for the pencil size and grades of hardness still in use today. His products were marked A.W. Faber, the first ever brand-name writing products and amongst the earliest branded articles in the world.   
Today, the Faber-Castell Group produces approximately 1.8 billion wood-cased pencils per year and is the world's largest pencil manufacturer. 
Pencils of that early time were quite expensive, and only the most qualified people could afford the technological marvel. Young surveyor George Washington surveyed much of Virginia and Pennsylvania with an imported writing stick, to which we owe nearly all of our knowledge of the young Virginia gentleman.

The war of 1812 emphasized the need for increased national security through American-made products and self-sufficiency, and a cabinet-maker in Concord, Massachusetts, William Munroe, rose to the challenge and began making pencils. At that time, Northern white cedar, Thuja occidentalis, was widely used for shakes, shingles, and posts in New England, and it may have been Munroe who first discovered that cedar made a nice pencil. He settled on cedar for his newly-found pencil business.
Munroe had then made a business out of making lead pencils. He made the graphite formula for his pencils in secret, with only the help of his wife. The business was quite successful. By 1814 he had made nearly 175,000 pencils, which sold for about six thousand dollars, a very large amount of money at the time. When the war with England ended there were better pencils available from Europe and his profits were erased by these better imports. Munroe figured it was pointless to try to compete against these superior products so took up his normal trade of cabinet-making. He also made tooth brushes and watchmaker's brushes, also the first made in the United States. During this interim time he went back to the drawing board to do further experimenting with his secret lead pencil paste. One thing led to another until he came up with a powdered graphite paste product that would make its mark.
Munroe decided in 1819 he would go into pencil manufacturing full time. He no longer desired to be number two. He made a square deal with his employees then to sell them his furniture business. He contracted with them to make his cabinet maker’s squares and pencil blanks for payment of the shop business. Munroe in turn then produced the unique graphite paste for his pencils, of which only he and his wife knew the secret formula. He rented an old textile factory building and there fabricated pencils on a large scale. In 1835 alone he made over 5 million pencils. He took the lead out to become the best manufacturer of American pencils.
Munroe figured that the best way to make pencils was by starting with a quarter inch slab of cedar wood. He then would cut the slots for his special formula graphite paste and fill them. He would let the paste air dry. The next step was to glue an eighth inch veneer of wood over the slots. The final step was to saw the slab into pencils. This resulted in a wooden lead graphite pencil that was just under a half inch thick.
The business was a struggle at first, however in ten years' time he had sharpened his skills to perfection. He figured out how to make his machinery fabricate the wooden pencils efficiently in the old textile factory, creating the first and the most successful pencil company in the United States. Munroe took the lead in manufacturing pencils in the United States from that time forward as long as he was in the pencil business. He also make ever-pointed-pencil leads that were very popular.

As pencils became more affordable and common in the country, Eastern red-cedar, Juniperus virginiana, became the pencil wood of choice, and the rolling hills of western Virginia and Tennessee were harvested heavily of red-cedars for decades. This was the heyday of the wooden pencil, and millions were produced and used in every factory, home, schoolhouse and office of the day. Eventually, the Eastern red-cedar forests were depleted, and pencil manufacturers, like other wood products companies of the past, looked west.

Calocedrus decurrens
They found what they were looking for in California. And like most things out West, it was big. The Incense-cedar, Calocedrus decurrens, made the Eastern red-cedar look like a shrub. It grows to over 200 feet (60 meters) high and the wood has a soft texture that sharpens easily without splintering. And it has that famous smell that we all grew up you know what Incense-cedar smells like.
The real story lies in the technical properties of Incense-cedar which make it uniquely exceptional for use in pencils and various other applications. It’s unique physical characteristics allow for close-tolerance, precision machining that provide a very smooth machined surface and exceptional ‘sharpenability’ in finished pencils. It’s thermal characteristics are also among the best for all softwoods. This provides dependable, predictable resistance to heat buildup which improves machining performance as well as gluing and drying.
Incense-cedar also stands up to wider variations in temperature and humidity without warping, cracking or shrinking (which is important for pencil factories in many regions of the world where there are varying climates and for pencils shipped around the world). Finally, the smooth surface and relative lack of resin canals and pitch pockets assure that cedar pencils can be easily painted or stained with lacquer or water based stains to a fine, smooth finish without bleeding or other problems.
Incense-cedar is also interesting in that is mostly grown naturally in stands of mixed conifers: Douglas-fir, Ponderosa pine, Jeffrey Pine are the predominant species where sometimes 5 to 20 percent of the stand may be Incense-cedar. They are sustainably managed in these mixed stands, not in plantations as you might expect for a species with such a specific market value.

Now if you've read this far, you've got to be really interested in pencils...or you're still wondering how they get the lead in there. So you're in for a treat. Watch the following's a great documentary on how pencils are made. And it's amazing.

And that's the story of of the best wood products that everyone has used but almost nobody ever notices.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Hopeful Story of American Chestnut Recovery

Dr. William A. Powell received his BS in biology in 1982 at Salisbury State University, MD, and his PhD in 1986 at Utah State University studying the molecular mechanisms of hypovirulence in the chestnut blight fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica. He is currently the Director of the Council on Biotechnology in Forestry and SUNY-ESF and the Co-Director of the New York State American Chestnut Research and Restoration Program. One of his significant accomplishments is the enhancement of blight resistance in American chestnut by his research team and collaborators. 
In the following video, Dr. Powell does a nice job of summarizing what happened to the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), what is being done in the scientific realm to make a recovery of the species possible, and how you can help bring the American Chestnut back to the American forest.

It would be a wonderful thing to have chestnut back in the mix of commercial woods available for our use. It's a great wood. I especially appreciate the vision of filling in all our reclaimed mine land with thriving forests of chestnut.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Going Green with a Black Locust Deck

"I'm exploring the possibility of building a black locust deck, as I understand that the wood is naturally very insect- and rot-resistant. I'm having difficulty locating sources of black locust, however. Do you know of anyone who sells it? Thanks in advance for any information that you might have."  - Yours, Laura White Huntingdon, PA
So began an interesting project. Laura White and her husband Jamie were committed to building an environmentally-friendly deck, one free of chemical treatment. The original deck site was situated partly over their well, so they were concerned about possible contamination of their water by the wood treatment leachate. They consulted an EPA website and decided that a non-treated decking product would be their best choice.

Laura googled "green decking" and found information about Ipe ("ee-pay") and found that the properties of Ipe were well suited for decking. However, the price of Ipe, and the the fact that it has to be harvested in tropical locations and then shipped around the world, bothered the Whites, and they continued to look for other options.

They next considered wood-plastic composite decking but the Whites preferred the natural look and feel of solid wood. That's when they heard of a local project, a nature walk made from black locust lumber at the Shaver's Creek Environmental Center in the Stone Valley Recreation Center. They liked what they saw, and decided to pursue the dream of building their deck from black locust.

What their research turned up convinced them that black locust was the deck for them. Black locust has been used for centuries as fence posts and rails, because of its weather-resistant properties. Tales of 50-year old black locust fenceposts used to be common. Its durability has been recognized and researched for many decades. But beyond its durability, black locust has many environmental benefits. It is a preferred tree for honey bees, and grows nitrogen-fixing bacteria on its root system. It is an pioneer species that grows well on poor and rocky soils, so it often plays a beneficial role in land reclamation and soil stabilization projects. And especially appealing to the Whites, it is a local species to much of the eastern United States, milled at many small, local hardwood sawmills. "We just felt that natural, local products are really 'greener' than many so-called green products marketed today," said Laura.
"Laura, I received your inquiry on black locust. This is a link you could start with, a company in Shirleysburg. If they don't have what you're looking for, they can probably put you on to someone who does. Good luck, great idea, like to see your deck when it done!"  - Chuck
Laura and Jamie contacted the local mill owner, and found that he had a sufficient inventory of black locust to build their deck, at roughly one-third the price of Ipe! They contacted their neighbor and local contractor, Frank Bencsik, and the project took shape. Frank had a few comments about the project; it was the first deck he had ever built from black locust. He was initially concerned that the lumber would go through saw blades like candy, but that didn't materialize. "I had to change blades a couple of times; when you hit a hard knot sparks would fly from the saw," he said. "But nothing as bad as I expected. The bigger problem was trying to organize the decking from random width/random length two pieces were the same size. I had to do a lot of shaving to get everything to look good." In time, the deck was completed, but the Whites faced another decision.

"Now for one more question...What (if anything) is recommended as a treatment for black locust? I get the sense from the internet that the stuff is so naturally rot- and insect-resistant that people don't generally treat it at all, but I don't want to risk making a mistake and putting nothing on it when it really should have something put on. Does it need some sort of treatment to prevent splintering as it ages? to prevent carpenter bee damage? Thanks in advance for any advice you might have."  - Cheers, Laura White
"Great to hear that your deck project is coming along, Laura. To the best of my knowledge, your deck shouldn't need any treatment, but you may want to maintain it with a high-quality clear water repellent to keep it looking nice. Ultraviolet rays from sunlight and cyclical wetting from rainfall dull all deck materials over time, some faster than others. Since you won't be painting your deck, and want to enjoy its natural beauty, the more water-resistance and UV protection you can maintain, the nicer (and more slowly) it will weather. Of course, the value of black locust is its durability, so you could just let it weather naturally and forget the treatments if you don't care for the trouble and expense of the maintenance. Just expect the natural "sheen" of the deck to fade a little more quickly without treatment. Splintering shouldn't be a problem, and I imagine carpenter bees will stay tastes bad and it gets harder over time. They have a lot better places to make their nests. The key time to watch for them would be in the first year...the wood hardens quickly and after that time they would need carbide jaws to carve out their niches. So just make sure to keep any bees away next spring/summer, and you'll be OK after that. 
Be sure to invite me down to see the finished product...can't wait to see it. I've never seen a black locust deck before. Is your carpenter grumbling about how hard the wood is?"  - Chuck 
Eighteen months later...
Hi, Chuck! My apologies for taking so long to get back to you. I wanted to include photos with my reply, and I'm afraid it took me longer to deal with them than it should have. I've compressed the files a bit, but if they're still too cumbersome for your system to handle, please let me know and I'll compress them even further or mail them in a few separate chunks. (By the way, the benches shown in the photos are also made of black locust, from the scraps left over from the deck construction. Man, are those things ever heavy!) 

We're thrilled with how the deck/ carport has turned out. The locust survived the carpenter bees just fine this past season. While a wooden shed 20 feet away was being decimated by a giant swarm of them, the deck was completely untouched. We didn't even see any trying to make an attempt at it. 

Our weather-proofing job could have gone more smoothly and yielded better results. On the advice of a local paint store owner, we applied Wolman's F&P Finish and Preservative -- Natural, in an attempt to prevent UV-associated graying. It ended up being a little less "Natural" than we'd anticipated, changing the color of the wood from honey to a more reddish tone -- still nice, but not quite what we'd expected. 
Our main problem arose not from the product itself, however, but from the freak 10-minute rain shower that came out of nowhere just a few hours into the 24-48 hour drying time. What a mess! We had a nasty slurry of partially cured finish and water that my husband finally ended up removing/ spreading around with paint rollers and old T-shirts. Needless to say, we had to recoat it, but the weather didn't permit this for quite some time. So the finish is now fairly uneven-looking. (To save time, my husband only recoated the decking and the bottom few inches of the sides, which didn't help the evenness of the appearance either.) Anyway, we love the deck itself are living with the imperfections of our finishing job. 
Cheers, Laura White

A great job of "going green" by Pennsylvanians Jamie and Laura White. The amount of work they did in research made the project especially satisfying. Congratulations to them for highlighting for us a remarkable use of a remarkable wood.

"Hope this all helps!" Cheers, Laura

UPDATE: In response to this TechNote, Andy Winebrenner of York County, Pennsylvania sent me this interesting epilogue...
Chuck: I was highly interested in Laura White's Black Locust deck project. I, too, built a Black Locust deck in 1994, as part of my new home. Now, 15 years later, my Locust deck is still perfect! Initially, the golden color turned to a handsome brown, then darkened further over the years. I was in the paint business as part of my hardware store, and experimented with many different finishes, domestic and imported, and easily concluded that the Locust was far more durable than any conceivable finish. 
Today, my locust has darkened considerably (looks great to me!) but I've lightly sanded a small sample area down to the original golden hue, just to show all exactly what's truly under the darkened surface. I'm now 73, and it is very apparent that my beloved Locust deck will surely outlive me! 
Beyond the locust deck you will probably be interested in this: I owned a Woodmizer sawmill prior to building, and sawed out all of my exposed beams, most of my flooring, all of my siding (board and batten white pine), the interior trim, and some handsome walnut for the kitchen cabinets, etc. But most importantly, I got Woodmizers shingle attachment, and sawed a Black Locust roof!! 4'', 6'' and 8'' random widths. My home is rather small (2400 sq.ft.) but required 10,250 shingles! Was quite a project to saw, and a real challenge to install. I obtained a stainless steel ringshank nail with special non-split tip that worked well, despite the hardness of the Locust. Now, 15 years later, the roof is just as perfect as the deck,and about the same color!! 
I have a great love and respect for all species of wood, (I used 13 different species in my home) but, needless to say, my absolute favorite is Black Locust!
Well, it looks like Black Locust is a wood well worth the extra effort, both from a "green" standpoint as well as for the satisfaction it provides its users. If interested, do a little research yourself, and if it looks like the right fit for you, give it a try!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Are Lumber Prices Too High?

That certainly is the sense I'm getting from the lumber-using community. Just when it looks like business is starting to pick up, softwood lumber is going up faster than any other commodity out there. And hardwood lumber is starting to pick up steam as well.

Rich Vlosky down at LSU sent out the following news item today:
Lumber Prices Skyrocket to 8-Year Highs on Housing Recovery
Apr 11 2013, 17:49             
Content Provider: Seeking Alpha
Author: Mark Perry

Thanks in large part to the U.S. housing recovery and an increased number of housings starts, framing lumber prices skyrocketed last week to $451 per 1,000 board feet (see blue line on chart below). The last time framing lumber prices exceeded $450 was back in September 2004, eight and a half years ago. CME lumber futures contracts fell by $11.40 last week to $379.80, but have been trading in recent months at price levels not seen since the spring of 2005, eight years ago (see red line on chart).

Looking just at these trends, you might think that lumber prices are approaching historical highs and are due to come down sometime soon. The downward movement on the futures market alluded to above seems to indicate that at least in the short term, lumber prices are softening somewhat.

But I think the good news for the lumber producers, and the bad news for lumber users, is just getting started. Why? Look at the chart I've compiled below:

I've plotted lumber prices (the red line is the Random Lengths structural lumber composite, the green line is a price trend for Economy grade 2 by 4 on the West Coast) from 1995 along with a trend line that represents what the prices would be if they had increased by the rate of inflation since then. You can see that the economy grade softwood is currently over the inflation-adjusted price, which means that that particular market is stronger now than it was in 1995. Coincidentally, the Chinese have begun transitioning from higher grades of North American lumber to lower grades in order to cut their costs as lumber prices started to move upward. Cause/effect.

However, the Random Lengths structural index is still well below its inflation-adjusted rate, which would be around $512/mbf today. That means that the structural grades are still not as high in real dollar terms as they were in 1995. Which also means that they could, and should naturally, go higher still.

And even more fuel for the lumber price fire is provided when you look at lumber prices relative to housing starts. Look at the end of the red and green lines and trace back to the last time prices were at this level...around 2004, as the article quoted above tells us. Then look at housing starts around that time...they were above 2 million...compared to just over 900,000 today.

There are many reasons lumber is higher relative to housing starts than it was back then...many lumber mills have shuttered and/or consolidated in the past five years, the western pine beetle's impact on lumber recovery in Western Canada, reduction of the allowable cut in Eastern Canada, and not the least of which, China's entrance into the North American market in a big way in the past five years. And now, the slumbering US housing market is starting to awaken...well, maybe. You can see in my chart above that housing starts are just now approaching historical lows...from the bottom. And the data from the last couple of months hint at a cooling trend.  Will it pick up again? Or has the run up in the last year been a false rally spurred by short-term federal policy? Only time will tell.

But one thing is for sure...with all the other prevailing conditions mentioned above, if the housing market continues any kind of increasing trend at all, lumber prices must surely break through and establish new historical highs.

It all depends on the global economy. If things continue to hold up, lumber companies will do very well, perhaps turn in historical profits for a few years. And lumber users will increasingly feel the pinch in the cost of raw material.

But if economies in Europe continue to crash, and drag down the rest of the world, lumber will get cheap again. But lumber users won't really care, then, will you?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Kramer, Seinfeld Agree - Wood is Good; Rosanne Takes Up Logging

Need a laugh as tax weekend stares you in the face? Hey, could be worse. You could live in France.

Meanwhile, the world of wood continues to get more in this Seinfeld bit and Snickers commercial. Smile!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (42) - The LCT1

It's beginning to get really fun watching the increasing action in tall wood buildings. Austria now boasts the LifeCycle Tower, or LCT1, in Dornbirn. This structure is architecturally designed around  passive house energy technology, and it wooden structural members of engineered spruce and silver fir are externally visible inside the building, creating that warm, outdoorsy feeling so uncommon in modern office towers.

Here's a short video of  Hubert Rhomberg, the CEO of the company that built the tower, explaining the motivation behind the tower.

And here is a great video showing time-lapse photography of the construction of the tower, built in only eight days by five construction workers, after all the components were pre-fabricated. Even the foundations were pre-built, and the second half of the video shows it all happening in the factory.

It is invigorating to watch, almost in real time, the advances in construction science, and how wood is playing an integral and primary role in the realization of sustainable architecture. Makes one think there really will be wood in the future of society, after all.

Go Wood!

An Ecosystem Management Approach to Reversing Climate Change

This is truly the best lecture I've ever heard about global climate change, and the lecturer, Allan Savory, barely even mentions fossil fuels. Instead, he focuses on the issue of desertification of a majority of the earth's land surface...why he (and most others) thought it was happening, how he now knows and admits he was wrong, the terrible consequences of his early assumptions, and what he now has proven is the right path to returning the earth's terrestrial ecosystem to its pre-industrial state.

If you care about the earth, and want to understand better what we can do, watch the entire video. It's the fastest 22 minutes on YouTube, spoken slowly, clearly, and with compelling visual proof.

I suspect there are a few livestock ranchers out there who could say, "I told you so..."

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Climate Change Update

Best fuel for best use, and let the markets drive the technology. Trust the people to learn stewardship of the planet's resources as the dynamics of society change - the markets will reflect our increasing knowledge and preferences. Don't over-think it, and don't try to control temperature and hurricane activity through regulation and taxes tied to dubious accounting schemes. Trust that the environmental calculus has already been taken care of, and use the available resources to ease the burdens of society, not to increase them.
- Go Wood: Frost, Tolstoy and Wanniski Weigh in on the Folly of Carbon Accounting
That last sentence was brought to my mind again as I read "It’s the cold, not global warming, that we should be worried about" in last Thursday's edition of The Telegraph. It seems that the concept of considering climate change policy through the lens of actual, not theoretical, human impacts is beginning to dawn on others.
Since [the 2003 heat wave in the UK], some 250,000 Brits have died from the cold, and 10,000 from the heat. It is horribly clear that we have been focusing on the wrong enemy. Instead of making sure energy was affordable, ministers have been trying to make it more expensive, with carbon price floors and emissions trading schemes. Fuel prices have doubled over seven years, forcing millions to choose between heat and food – and government has found itself a major part of the problem.
This is slowly beginning to dawn on Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. He has tried to point the finger at energy companies, but his own department let the truth slip out in the small print of a report released on Wednesday. The average annual fuel bill is expected to have risen by £76 by 2020, it says. But take out Davey’s hidden taxes (carbon price floor, emissions trading scheme, etc) and we’d be paying an average £123 less. His department has been trying to make homes cheaper to heat, and in a saner world this would be his only remit: to secure not the greenest energy, but the most affordable energy.
By now, the Energy Secretary will also have realised another inconvenient truth – that, for Britain, global warming is likely to save far more lives then it threatens. Delve deep enough into the Government’s forecasts, and they speculate that global warming will lead to 6,000 fewer deaths a year, on average, by the end of the decade. This is the supposed threat facing us: children would be less likely to have snow to play in at Christmas, but more likely to have grandparents to visit over Easter. Not a bad trade-off. The greatest uncertainty is whether global warming, which has stalled since 1998, will arrive quickly enough to make a difference.
Of course, this preposterous viewpoint is Anglocentric, and puts the best interests of freezing Brits ahead of the interests of all those Africans, Asians, and Texans who are suffering heat stress from our planet's rapidly rising temperatures. As Dr. James Hansen so clearly demonstrated in his excellent visualization of average global temperatures, the number of hotter locations and temperatures is outnumbering the number of cooler locations. Quoted recently to clarify his most recent analysis, Dr. Hansen explained... James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, observes, “the five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade.”
Uh, yeaaahh, whaaa...OK, lets start over. The quote above is taken from an excellent article in last week's edition of The Economist, that bears a carefully-worded title and sub-title:
A Sensitive Matter - The climate may be heating up less in response to greenhouse-gas emissions than was once thought. But that does not mean the problem is going away
The article is really well-written, and takes pains not to downplay the significance of all the brilliant climate change research that's been undertaken to date. However, it does admit to a fundamental stall in the climate change debate...that in spite of rising global carbon dioxide levels, the actual global climate does not appear to be changing all that much.
The mismatch between rising greenhouse-gas emissions and not-rising temperatures is among the biggest puzzles in climate science just now. It does not mean global warming is a delusion. Flat though they are, temperatures in the first decade of the 21st century remain almost 1°C above their level in the first decade of the 20th. But the puzzle does need explaining. 
The article attempts to explain the puzzle in the context of two prevailing types of climate models - general circulation models (GCM's), and energy-balance models. The Economist article does a great job of simplifying the difference between the two approaches...
One type of model—general-circulation models, or GCMs—use a bottom-up approach. These divide the Earth and its atmosphere into a grid which generates an enormous number of calculations in order to imitate the climate system and the multiple influences upon it. The advantage of such complex models is that they are extremely detailed. Their disadvantage is that they do not respond to new temperature readings. They simulate the way the climate works over the long run, without taking account of what current observations are. Their sensitivity is based upon how accurately they describe the processes and feedbacks in the climate system. 
The other type—energy-balance models—are simpler. They are top-down, treating the Earth as a single unit or as two hemispheres, and representing the whole climate with a few equations reflecting things such as changes in greenhouse gases, volcanic aerosols and global temperatures. Such models do not try to describe the complexities of the climate. That is a drawback. But they have an advantage, too: unlike the GCMs, they explicitly use temperature data to estimate the sensitivity of the climate system, so they respond to actual climate observations.
So, the energy-balance models are more sensitive to short-term climate variation than the GCM's. Which is the main reason that scientists using the energy-balance models are predicting much smaller global temperature increases over the next century than are the GCM scientists...they place higher weight on more recent data; data which, as Dr. Hansen explained above, has been unpredictably flat for the last fifteen years.

Unpredictable, except to you profligate climate deniers who claim that natural variation is the main driver behind climate change. You dare to claim that variation in solar energy and the earth's ecosphere actually count for more than anthropogenic impacts, just to justify your gluttonous SUV and flat-screen TV usage. All scientists, all scientists are in agreement you are wrong. Well, OK, you've got a couple of mathematicians at the University of Washington whose calculations seem to take your side...
Lastly, there is some evidence that the natural (ie, non-man-made) variability of temperatures may be somewhat greater than the IPCC has thought. A recent paper by Ka-Kit Tung and Jiansong Zhou in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences links temperature changes from 1750 to natural changes (such as sea temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean) and suggests that “the anthropogenic global-warming trends might have been overestimated by a factor of two in the second half of the 20th century.” It is possible, therefore, that both the rise in temperatures in the 1990s and the flattening in the 2000s have been caused in part by natural variability.
As Tung and Zhou conclude in their paper...
It is pointed out that the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation, a likely natural and recurrent phenomenon, has not been taken into account in any multiple linear regression analysis of the global warming trends using observational data in published literature. Yet, over any multidecadal period, the AMO is the most important factor affecting the deduced “anthropogenic trend,” since other, shorter-term internal variability, such as ENSO or volcano aerosols, usually do not contain any multidecadal trend, and solar forcing's secular trend is small. When the AMO is included, in addition to the other explanatory variables such as ENSO, volcano, and solar influences commonly included in the multiple linear regression analysis, the recent 50- and 32-yr anthropogenic warming trends are reduced by a factor of at least 2. There is no statistical evidence of a recent slowdown of global warming, nor is there evidence of accelerated warming since the mid-twentieth century. The anomalous early twentieth-century warming is also explained as being caused by the AMO's upswing on top of the same anthropogenic warming trend. This deduced time behavior of anthropogenic warming is different from that previously constructed by GISS and used by Lean and Rind (2008) in deducing the latitudinal structure of anthropogenic warming.
So, their analysis shows that while the earth's current warming trend is not necessarily slowing over the last century, nor has it increased since the mid-twentieth century. And that anthropogenic impacts on that change are no more than half of what we thought.

Which brings us back, unfortunately, to global warming politics and policy. Considering all the economic distress out there right now (except in those countries that are essentially ignoring climate change policy), the academic and industrial sectors that have been profiting from climate change may find sources of funding shrinking unless things start to heat up again.

That is a scenario older Brits and Canadians may justifiably be rooting for.

And I think we should join them in that effort. Why not re-direct public policy at economic growth in the form of more affordable state-of-the-art natural gas, oil, and coal energy, rather than spending huge amounts of questionable "money" to possibly prevent a far-distant climate emergency that may not occur. After all, we are more likely to successfully transition to a culture of environmental stewardship under an energy-rich, prosperous global society than in one driven to regulatory-green human hardship. We already see this happening in the most prosperous nations, and others will follow as their economy gradually allows their citizens to learn about and focus on environmental stewardship instead of the thermostat and finding a chicken for the pot. And who knows...our knowledge of what we consider to be best for the global climate may even evolve a little as we learn more.

In the meantime, let's just enjoy the extra degree or two if it comes. Remember, redwoods used to grow in Alaska and Greenland...