We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

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New materialism, old feudalism

Ruth Potts, writing in the Guardian with a quill pen, says that,

…a deeper understanding of humankind’s place in a living world of materials suggests the need and opportunity for a different kind of love affair with “stuff” – a long-term relationship of appreciation, slow pleasures, care and respect.

Instead of abstinence and austerity, embracing the New Materialism could have profoundly positive effects. Inverting classic expectations of productivity in which fewer people produce more stuff for consumption, the New Materialism points to an economy in which, in effect, more people produce less stuff for consumption.

and

There are other steps we can take to accelerate this healthier relationship with stuff: a minimum 10-year guarantee would help end the scourge of built-in obsolescence. Community Supported Agriculture reconnects communities with the people who grow food. The same approach could be applied to more of the objects we use: Community-supported potteries could deliver tableware, gradually, by subscription. The same could apply to clothing and furniture. A culture of repair and re-imagining would create ample skilled employment; high street making and mending hubs could bring life back to the hearts of our towns and cities.

Speaking as the last woman in England who can properly darn a sock, I know well the pleasure to be had from “make do and mend”. Darning is quite satisfying. By plying my darning needle I have kept going heirloom socks knitted by deceased great aunts. I have been known to darn a hole in a beloved Fair Isle jumper in multiple colours of antique darning wool, which I acquired from an eBay seller in France. Don’t think I don’t see the appeal of caring for a dear old thing rather than buying a rubbishy new thing.

But that appeal is strictly contingent on it being a hobby not a necessity. For generations of women, darning was the most wretched of tasks, ruining their eyes and wasting their lives trying to eke out a little more use from a garment that was certain to “go” again almost on the next wearing. Men had it no better. George Orwell wrote in Homage to Catalonia of seeing the type of tools in use in 1930s Spain:

A broken ploughshare, for instance, was patched, and then patched again, till sometimes it was mainly patches. Rakes and pitchforks were made of wood. Spades, among a people who seldom possessed boots, were unknown; they did their digging with a clumsy hoe like those used in India. There was a kind of harrow that took one straight back to the later Stone Age. It was made of boards joined together, to about the size of a kitchen table; in the boards hundreds of holes were morticed, and into each hole was jammed a piece of flint which had been chipped into shape exactly as men used to chip them ten thousand years ago. I remember my feelings almost of horror when I first came upon one of these things in a derelict hut in no man’s land. I had to puzzle over it for a long while before grasping that it was a harrow. It made me sick to think of the work that must go into the making of such a thing, and the poverty that was obliged to use flint in place of steel. I have felt more kindly towards industrialism ever since

That’s because Orwell, though a Socialist, had trained himself to the habit of opening the door when reality came knocking. Ms Potts has not. Every pretty vision she describes, the minimum ten year guarantee, the “Community supported agriculture”, the idea that “Community-supported potteries could deliver tableware, gradually, by subscription” (sounds lovely, all the family sharing one plate while waiting for the rest to arrive); they all boil down to deliberately making things more expensive and people poorer.

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45 comments to New materialism, old feudalism

  • Typical bourgeois lefty in other words, with only the most tenuous grasp on reality 😡

  • Phil B

    She forgot to mention the organic, free range, hand knitted museli …

    One thing that people do not realise is that marketing and advertising as a form of mass persuasion is a comparatively recent thing and when primitive people were exposed to industrially manufactured goods, they clearly saw them as much better than the items they could produce. As a “for example” the American Indians grabbed trade knives, axes/tomahawks and firearms with both hands and gladly did so. They didn’t need a marketing campaign to persuade them that this manufactured item was better than their own handmade item even though it wasn’t because it clearly was.

    This “go back to a Medieval, back to the land and do everything pre-industrial style” idea is nonsense on stilts. The closest that this got to being a reality was William Morris with the arts and crafts movement but even he realised that the items were too expensive for the vast majority of people and it ultimately failed to achieve his aims. It did produce some spectacularly beautiful items though and only for the very wealthy. Mass production of tin plate and printing did more to bring art and functional goods to the majority than anything else.

    The dizzy ditz can always get herself an allotment and give it a go …

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker!) Gray

    She almost makes me miss the original ‘material girl’, Madonna! How many hand-knitted records did she manage to sell?

  • Paul Marks

    I see so economies of scale do not really exist. And the creators of the industrial revolution, such as Josiah Wedgwood, were really “capitalist exploiters” or some such.

    Sounds like Kevin Carson – the final thing that drove me into opposition to the British “Libertarian Alliance” (even though Kevin is American the person in control of the British Libertarian Alliance decided to push him)

    When a group of people teaches nonsense as truth (whether it is Rothbardian “history” or Kevin Carson “economics”) then it is time to oppose them.

    By the way the farmers in Spain (including the small farmers) tended to support the Nationalists against George Orwell’s Marxist and Anarchist friends, and for very good reasons.

    The same reasons the small farmers in Indonesia opposed the Communists in the mid 1960s – and cut them down with farm tools.

    The Communists (and anarchists) would have stolen the food (and the land) and told the peasants they were now “free” and living “communally” – even as the peasants died in heaps.

    As they died their millions in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and the People’s Republic of China in the 1960s

    And there is no real difference between a “state farm” and a “collective farm” (there were minor differences – actually the collectives were even worse) – the idea that commualism is a real alternative to statism is nonsense.

  • Eric

    Your labor can’t be worth much if darning socks, growing vegetables, and spinning pottery actually pencil out as an economic use of your time.

  • Laird

    The stupid is strong in that one.

  • William O. B'Livion

    I remained a socialist for several years, even after my rejection of Marxism; and if there could be such a thing as socialism combined with individual liberty, I would be a socialist still. For nothing could be better than living a modest, simple, and free life in an egalitarian society. It took some time before I recognized this as no more than a beautiful dream; that freedom is more important than equality; that the attempt to realize equality endangers freedom; and that, if freedom is lost, there will not even be equality among the unfree.

    –Karl Popper

    I added the emphasis.

    See, Karl Popper was, in many ways a great man and I respect his work deeply. but I can think of lots of things better than living a “modest, simple and free life”.

    Like big motorcycles, fast computers, old land cruisers done up for overland travel[1]. Scotch half my age or older (I ain’t young), 14 thousand foot mountain peaks in the distance where I can get from my fast computer into my old landy and up to a ski area in less than an hour.

    Carrying a big f*king gun if I so desire (usually not. I don’t expect to have to deal with many zombies at 8500 feet, so I carry a small one).

    Goretex, shoeller fabrics and modern wools. 25 pairs of shoes BECAUSE I F*KING WANT TO YOU STUPID TWIT.

    New Materialism? Piss on that and pass me a steak, rare and a pint of Cider.

    Anyone know where I can get a

  • William O. B'Livion

    (Footnote for the comment in moderation)

    [1] Anyone know where I can get a Toyota 12HT in good shape? ’cause I like stuff but *some* of the stuff I like is old.

  • Mr Ed

    Your labor can’t be worth much if darning socks, growing vegetables, and spinning pottery actually pencil out as an economic use of your time.

    What would that matter if such activities provide more utility than monetary value? i.e. by choosing to do such things, Natalie may be getting the best value for her time, almost by definition, unless she is under a misapprehension.

  • Darin

    Feudalism have nothing to do with technology, and now, in the early Third Milleninum, it is the extreme right that calls for return to feudalism.
    Explicit old style monarchy and feudalism, look for “neo-reactionary movement”. Time will tell whether it is just load of nonsense produced on Internet with people with too much free time, or the wave of the future.

  • Slartibartfarst

    @Laird wrote, on January 25, 2017 at 4:09 am:

    “The stupid is strong in that one.”

    Some people (not me, you understand) might say that was unnecessarily offensive, but probably technically correct, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

  • Edward Spalton

    Yes, it is all a sort of bourgeois romanticism. But you can bet that it won’t be Ms. Potts, her friends, relations and offspring ( if she has any) who will be hand hoeing the turnips or carting the muck.
    Before China joined the world, there was a song
    ” How I love to carry night soil up the mountain for the commune”
    It stayed at the top of the hit parade for fourteen years, I believe. It won’t be the Potts family
    doing the carrying. You can bet on that.

  • Stonyground

    I think that it might be a mistake to just assume that modern consumer goods are less durable than they were in the past. The difference is more that modern stuff is difficult to repair when it does go wrong and so it is usually cheaper and easier to replace it with something that is more up to date. I have a bicycle that I use regularly in the summer, it is twenty years old and has done tens of thousands of miles. My car has done over 120 thousand miles. I am old enough to remember cars that used to rust away before your eyes, modern cars don’t. Our microwave oven is more than twenty years old, our fridge is quite new but the old one lasted more than twenty years before it died.

    Regarding Ruth Potts. Lots of people have tried to set up alternative societies with supposedly improved ways of doing things. I don’t thing that the track record is that good.

  • Bemused

    There is an artisan woodworker / cabinet maker near where I live. Everything is made by hand in the traditional way. His work is beautiful. Order a largish piece of furniture and the waiting time is over a year, the cost eye watering. Sadly Miss Potts is living in a technicolor fantasy fairytale world.

  • bobby b

    TL:DR version: “Poor families should stop buying $12.99 Walmart blenders, and wait until they can afford a durable well-built blender like my $328.00 Williams-Sonoma model. They’ll be happier.”

  • llamas

    Incidentally, I see she’s still banging the drum of ‘built-in obsolescence’. Which, it is a crock of crap. Consumer goods of all sorts are built better, and last longer, for a lower price, than they ever have before. This is true for products both large and small. It’s a combination of advancing technologies (which are more durable) and manufacturers embracing quality management processes (which ensure that they get made right, every time.)

    Leaving that aside, she’s just another green fantasist, whose dream involves (as they all do) condemning millions of people to a life of grinding, debilitating, inefficient labor, endlessly doing things which are either better done by (any means other than human labor) or which would better not be done at all. She’s too stupid and economically-illiterate to fathom that the better way is not to think in terms of little shops where people fix things when they break, and little potteries where jugs and bowls get thrown one-at-a-time – straight out of the 1930s, and fabulously-wasteful of labor and resources. The better way is to make things that don’t break in the first place – and that’s where we’re going.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Jimmers

    had trained himself to the habit of opening the door when reality came knocking.

    Nice turn of phrase

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Orwell’s socialism was a kind where the desire to improve the conditions of life for the working class was genuinely meant, rather than a sort of pose.

    Much of today’s Left is morally and intellectually depraved.

  • Alisa

    I have a thing for a minimalist way of life and aesthetics – less is more, etc. The point is though that it is enjoyable only as a result of free choice. not out of necessity. And, contrary to Popper, I find equality ugly.

    Second Jummers remark: Orwell was a fascinating character, and Natalie nailed it.

  • Surellin

    I have just realized that, when I was young and had nothing, I purchased damned near anything I could lay my hands on, and a lot of it was cheap crap – but useful cheap crap. I am a great deal older now, and have largely replaced the cheap crap of my youth with higher-quality stuff. And, at this point, the only area in which I could be accused of being a compulsive and excessive consumer is in the purchase of books. And occasionally firearms. Maybe brandy.

  • CaptDMO

    LLamas “‘built-in obsolescence’. Which, it is a crock of crap.”
    I beg to differ. I’ve seen it in appliances, formerly made in USA, and
    subsequently made in China.
    (Actual nuts and bolts especially)
    I’ve seen it in steel parts, supplanted by sintered mush, and subsequently by injection molded plastic.
    I’v seen it in CLEARLY inferior steel, in clearly inferior gauge for the job.
    Yes, I’m one of “those guys” that can fix (or often re engineer)folks broken stuff.
    I DO draw the line though. After 5 repair segments in a copper water pipe I’ll replace the whole thing.
    (Of COURSE I save the old, heavier. “antique” fittings before scrapping the rest)
    Folks at “flea markets” seemed bemused when I’d buy antique tools, and announce my intention to actually USE them, rather than mount them on the “quaint” wall.
    Gosh, I wonder why those “antiques” managed to survive the slag heap, and “modern” versions are no were to be seen in the pawn/olde/curiosity shoppes?

  • Patrick Crozier

    So Natalie wants to talk about darning again? Brave.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I am kind of with CaptDMO here. Thirty years ago or so Mercedes made cars that could go on pretty much forever so long as they were looked after. Morocco is still full of W123s the newest of which is well over 30 years old.

    A deliberate decision to cut corners was made in the 1990s. Why they made this decision is unclear – at least to me – but I suspect Mercedes have/had a better grasp of what the customer wanted than I do.

    I have heard much the same said about electric shavers and washing machines.

  • Hedgehog

    Putting Thorstein Veblen’s work on its head. The woman is a bint. The world she envisions, though she will not say so, is one in which she and her ilk are differentiating themselves from the masses by their enjoyment of artisanal goods while the masses are living in poverty. It’s conspicuous consumption and the theory of the leisure class adapted to the new leftist sensibilities.

    @ William O.B’Livion: A man after my own heart. Except with my rare steak I’d go for a wine of the same description (rare, that is).

  • Jacob

    Grant the lady her wish, and let her live by whatever she is capable of producing. Problem solved.

    Trouble is, this kind of nuts love to preach to others, and don’t mean to do what they preach.

  • llamas

    CaptDMO – well, opinions may vary, but the data does not support what you say. For consumer goods, at least.

    Automobiles are lasting longer then ever before, and with less maintenance and service. The average age of US automobiles is now almost 12 years, and it’s not because people are keeping cars longer, as the new-car sales figures prove. TV’s are now rated for a life of 15 or 20 years, and the failure rates are far-lower than they were even 20 years ago – newer and better technologies. And so forth.

    Bear in mind that we’re talking about reliability and built-in obsolescence – not initial design quality. If the thing is made of thinner steel or is less-strong than it used to be – that’s a design issue, not a durability issue. Sure, you’re seeing Chinese products with lower-quality fasteners, or thinner steel – but if the fastener is good-enough when new, it’s not going to wear out in use – is it? You may be confusing initial/design quality with durability – those things sometimes track each other, but often do not.

    You also have to beware of falling into one of several traps in this regard, which are

    – assessing the repairability or serviceability of something which it cannot be cost-effective to repair or service, or which is never repaired or serviced by the vast majority of users. I always hear this about oil-filter location on cars – oh, they never designed this to be removed! Look how hard it is to reach! Well, the number of people who change their own engine oil is tiny these days and guess what? When your car is on the pit at Quickie-Lube Instant Oil Change, the filter is easy to remove. You have to look at consumer goods through the eyes of the vast majority of consumers, and not through the eyes of the tiny minority of people (like you and me) who like to fix stuff. Similarly, there can be no way in any Western country to cost-effectively repair an $11 toaster – in effect, the repair is to buy a new toaster and recycle the old one.

    – assuming that repair or service is always the best possible overall outcome. Some people, including some here, champion the idea of repairing 30-year-old cars – but it’s the 30-year-old cars that produce 99.9% of air pollution, and consume far-more fossil-fuel resources as well. It would be far better, seen globally, to scrap those 30-year-old cars and replace them with newer models.

    And so forth.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m a tinkerer from way back, I like old stuff (I mow my pastures with a 1946 Ford tractor) and I like to keep old stuff working. I just don’t kid myself that my particular jones is a reasonable, economic or efficient way to run the world.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Hedgehog

    llamas: it’s the 30-year-old cars that produce 99.9% of air pollution, and consume far-more fossil-fuel resources as well.

    Yeah, sure. But with an old car it’s not the miles per gallon that count, but the smiles per miles.

  • William O. B'Livion

    @llama:
    > and consume far-more fossil-fuel resources

    No, they don’t. At a given car size/weight, modulo hybrids, the Miles Per Gallon or Liters per 100K hasn’t changed by very much since I first got my drivers license in 1983.

    Back then I drove an Chevy Luv, then a older Volkswagen Bettle, which got about the same MPG the Mercury Lynx I bought in 1987 (It was 3 years old then).

    I have a 1984 Diesel Land Cruiser (HJ60), and a 2004 Lexus GX470 (aka “Land Cruiser Prado”). The 84 gets about 16 MPG, but was having fuel injector pump problems, and it’s a naturally aspirated diesel in the mountains. The GX–which is about the same size–gets about 18 or 19 in it’s gasoline powered EFI glory. Now, because Diesel has more energy per given volume, it’s slightly worse, but it’s also got about twice the miles on it.

    I’d really like to stick a 12HT in it, but if not, I hope to have things lined up to get the pump fixed later this year and get it back on the road.

    Now, it does *pollute* more than the Lexus, but that’s because in 1984 in Australia (where I bought it) there weren’t really any emissions requirements on diesels, so there’s nothing in the way.

  • llamas

    @ William O’Blivion – the data does not support your assertion that ‘Miles Per Gallon or Liters per 100K hasn’t changed by very much since I first got my drivers license in 1983.’

    Here’s historical fuel economy data for the US since 1980. You’ll note that (depending on the exact vehicle class) fuel consumption has declined by 50% or more during that time period, with domestic vehicles showing the largest improvements.

    https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_04_23.html

    llater,

    llamas

  • bobby b

    “But with an old car it’s not the miles per gallon that count, but the smiles per miles.”

    Exactly. I’d rather be driving my old ’66 Impala which needed to be worked on every 200 miles or so than any of the newer, mostly plastic Walmart-blender-type cars which will go 100,000 miles with very little attention.

    But the fact is that they will go 100,000 miles without attention, and then another 50k or 100k with very little attention, and then even further with some work.

    Today’s cars have no character, but they beat the pants off of yesterday’s cars in longevity, in power per c.i., in safety, in efficiency, in engineering . . .

    Still, though, as you say, I’d rather be in the ’66.

  • Bod

    I think that manufacturers are simply more savvy about functional durability nowadays.

    Why chrome a fender so effectively that it won’t rust out for 40 years when it’s mounted on a vehicle where the engine can be expected to last 150,000 miles? As an industrial designer, one of your concerns is the reasonable operational lifespan of a machine and its MTBF and you then select the most cost-effective components or materials to deliver that lifespan, and no more than that, at the minimum cost.

    Add in human behavior and the desire to have ‘new stuff’, and (for example) building a fixed disk with an MTBF of 5 years makes a lot more sense than building one with an MTBF of 10 years. Chances are that up until recently, that drive wouldn’t even be powered up for more than 3 years. For those perverse souls who never upgrade, release a premium product with an MTBF that meets their expectations.

    There’s an old Scandinavian saying: “Poor people can’t afford cheap things”, but realistically, you buy what is available. If all there is is cheap, you get cheap.

    Manufacturers simply try and build the least expensive version of something that meets their customers expectations. Some of us are prepared to pay a premium for a product which was historically only available as a premium (comparatively speaking) version.

    To coin a phrase, “In the long run, we’re all dead”. Including the fridge.

  • Alisa

    Why chrome a fender so effectively that it won’t rust out for 40 years when it’s mounted on a vehicle where the engine can be expected to last 150,000 miles?

    Indeed, which is why I always wondered why in the 90s all car makers suddenly switched to stainless-steel mufflers?

  • bobby b

    Alisa, exhaust systems went to stainless in the 90’s primarily because the changing EPA guidelines resulted in much hotter and more acidic exhaust gas.

  • Alisa

    Thanks Bobby – and why am I not surprised?

  • Yeah, sure. But with an old car it’s not the miles per gallon that count, but the smiles per miles.

    You probably have the glasses and hair, too. 😛

  • […] Samizdata’s Solent roasts a nutter and quotes Orwell. […]

  • Fred the Fourth

    My parents never got over 200K miles on any car. 150K was normal for them, but my father was a good mechanic.
    With the understandable exception of my 74 MGB, I have driven over 250K miles on every car I’ve ever owned. One made over 350K if I include the end-of-life miles it got for my sister in law. And I am a sloppy auto mechanic.

  • Runcie Balspune

    There are other steps we can take to accelerate this healthier relationship with stuff:

    They don’t always involve going back to the (mythical) “good old days”.

    Here’s an idea or two.

    Incinerate. Ultimately nearly everything with organic compounds can be burned to recover most of the energy used in its manufacture, which is then used to make new stuff. True, there’s that underlying problem of residual hazardous waste, but designing the original stuff to leave as little behind after incineration would be a good idea, of course you have to be sold on the premise of incineration, but rather than a centralized approach, how about a home incinerator that functions as a domestic power unit.

    Chemical recycling. Manufacture stuff out of materials that can be chemically broken down to produce energy, which is then used to make new stuff, or to be reused as a material in new stuff. The 3D printing revolution can pretty much use anything, so create a material that, when the 3D printed object breaks, just (chemically) melt it back down and use it to re-print the object again.

    The “healthier relationship” with stuff is to get over your sentimentality and regard it as disposable, and then work on the disposing part to solve the underlying problem (be landfill, energy, waste, whatever).

  • TimR

    A word in favor of the old EMP proof vehicles. My Mercedes “thought” one of the wheels had lost traction and applied the brakes accordingly. In case you never have the experience, let me say that it is very interesting to bunny hop to a halt from 120km/hr.

    Also took over two weeks for them to find the source of the problem.

  • Hedgehog

    A word in favor of the old EMP proof vehicles.

    That is one of the things I tell myself. When the EMP comes I shall be able to roam the streets with my pre-computer carburetted convertible while everybody else is stranded. Getting gas shouldn’t be a problem, since nobody else would be driving?

  • Runcie Balspune

    A word in favor of the old EMP proof vehicles.

    You’d need a diesel, if not, preferably no electronic ignition as well … and a hand crank … probably.

  • Bruce

    Get an OLD diesel. (And a GOOD mechanic).

    Downside is that fuel economy will not even come close to a modern diesel.

    All the automotive diesels since about 1985 have electronic gizmos tweaking the injectors for starters.

    That is one of the reasons they are so economical. Also one of the reasons they are expensive pigs to fix.

    Also forgotten is the incredible improvement in manufacturing precision and metallurgy. The tolerances possible on mass-produced machined components is mind-boggling to someone like me who started out on manual lathes and mills in the early 1970s.

    Our family 1955 Ford Customline was kept in fine fettle by my dad, an “old-school” mechanic. It COULD be tweaked to return twenty miles per gallon (imperial), but as with modern vehicles, would really slurp up the juice when pushed over 70mph.

    My first car, in 1974, was (don’t laugh) a 1950 Vauxhall Wyvern, with a rampaging 4-cylinder, 35HP (when new, allegedly), motor. Build quality was dubious, ditto metallurgy. My dad and I kept it going for a decade then sold it to a young “enthusiast” and replaced it with, God help me, a Vauxhall Viva, of mid-’60s vintage; lighter, faster, and with better,(not much of a challenge, believe me), brakes.

    Various bits of that old Wyvern would regularly break. She got a complete motor swap at about 50,000 miles. Ever dropped an exhaust valve head whilst whizzing down the highway? Makes a VERY interesting noise! Not to forget a sudden loss of performance.

    I currently drive a 1996 VW transporter, 2litre petrol job. 345,000+ Km on the clock, original, un-rebuilt engine and drive-train.

  • Laird

    I get over 200,000 miles (not kilometers!) on all my vehicles. I currently drive a 2003 Ford F150 with about 265,000 miles on it, still going strong.

    I think llamas and CaptDMO are both right, just about different things. Some consumer goods are far better built today than in the past, but some aren’t. I have a fairly new high-end refrigerator. Its refrigerating guts are basically OK (although it has needed some repair), but the drawers and interior parts are made of cheap plastic and many are already broken. Inexcusable. And some products are of worse quality simply because of government regulations (washing machines which don’t clean clothes for sh*t and only have a 5-year lifespan, etc.). It’s all over the map.

  • Bruce

    Plastic drawers on freezers and fridges are a nightmare.

    Deep cold and a polymer; recipe for fractures right there.

    PURE “plastics”, like polystyrene and polycarbonates are not NATURALLY clear; they are WHITE, just like “pure” vinyl as opposed to the “black-coloured” stuff used for LPs etc. (It appears that the record companies figured that the public would not “take” to the replacement for the old ’78s being any other colour than black).

    The “tweaking” that is used to make “clear” plastics often makes the material much more brittle. Then you stick in a freezer and apply stresses to it every time you open and shut the drawer.

    Of course, like ALL spare parts, they are EXPENSIVE, assuming they are still on warehouse shelves ten years after the parent item was deleted from the catalogue.

    Hence, the two cracked drawers in my freezer being held together with “100 mile an hour” / Gaffer tape in various hues.

  • NickG

    This back to pre-industrial basics shtick is redolent of Pol Pot’s Khymer Rouge.