now reading: Jean Shepherd

Jean Shepherd‘s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. I have rather a failing for the works of midwestern humorists, and Shep reads like a hopped-up Garrison Keillor. You’d like him.

Why I’m Allergic To ‘Cradle To Cradle’

I’m reading McDonough & Braungart’s book Cradle To Cradle, and it makes me sneeze.

Not that the content is to be sneezed at — it’s a very sensible treatise on a zero-waste, EPR-based society. It’s not the polymer that the book is made from, either. It’s the fact that the a previous borrower of the book from the Toronto Public Library was the owner of a probably very attractive grey cat.

I’m allergic to most cats. And this isn’t usually a problem with library books, as paper doesn’t attract hair. But the polypropylene pages of Cradle To Cradle do, and so reading this book makes me itch. I guess this wouldn’t be a problem if I’d bought my own copy, but it’s a deal more environmentally responsible to share a few copies amongst the thousands of library patrons than keep one for myself.

I don’t necessarily agree with some of the arguments made about the upcyclability (that is, a product that can be recycled into something of an equal or higher quality) of the book. Basic entropy tells you that you can’t reform a product without losing something of the original. Some of the material will evaporate, or the filler will degrade somewhat, or some additional colourant will be required to restore the original tone.

Some other things that don’t jibe:

  • The book is a surprisingly dense chunk of polypropylene. Polypropylene is made from non-sustainable fossil resources. This is a case of doing less damage than the status quo, which Cradle To Cradle decries as being insufficient.
  • The ‘paper’, while very smooth, isn’t fully opaque, so the text from the other side of the page is distracting. That, and the cat-hair attracting static issue …
  • The book’s printed in China. At the very least, it has been shipped half way around the world, again using a wad of fossil resources. Knowing a little of the publishing industry, it wouldn’t surprise me if the raw materials were shipped to China, printed and bound, and then shipped back for the North American market. And this is a good thing how?

In fairness, mad props for McDonough’s work on green roofs, and to Melcher Media for giving the plastic book a try. But thinking that a few polymer pages will change the world is pushing credibility to its limits.

[And I really should temper the madness of my props to Melcher, as it would appear that they’re trying to patent the plastic book. I’m sure there’s some iota of novelty in replacing the form-factor and access methods of a cellulose polymer book with a hydrocarbon polymer, but for the life of me, I can’t find it.]

like the constipated mathematician …

I’ve just finished Henry Petroski‘s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. While the standard wooden pencil is indeed a marvel of economical mass production, and you know I’m all about the pencils, I found the book to be pretty slow going. Petroski’s To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design is much more fun, if perhaps due to its wider scope.

While packed with more pencil lore than you could ever hope to learn in a lifetime (like the Henry David Thoreau connection to modern pencil manufacture), some of Petroski’s observations didn’t quite ring true. The books is written from a very American perspective, and when he claimed that the whole world is using a yellow-painted No. 2 eraser tipped pencil, I felt that there was something wrong with his usually objective prose.

To me, a good pencil is red or blue, or occasionally dark green or plain wood. A yellow pencil is a scratchy and petulant thing, consigned forever to the grubby bilges of a school pencil case. Petroski repeats the anecdote of how a manufacturer produced a batch of pencils, and painted half yellow and half green. Consumers complained that the green-painted pencils didn’t write well, and broke frequently. Curiously, I remember reading the same anecdote in the UK, except the batch was one quarter each red, blue, green and yellow. It was the green and yellow pencils that broke in Britain.

And a rubber (eraser) on the end? It destroys the balance of the pencil, and at best produces a nasty smear on the page. Rubbing-out is what your Helix Colonel is for!