peristaltor: (The Captain's Prop)
Many years ago, I reflected on the fact that the terms we use to describe—not name, just describe—behavior in ourselves and others come almost exclusively from drafting:

All of these terms, derived from geometry, have nothing to do with actual behavior. An outward willingness to follow rules has nothing to do whatsoever with straight lines drawn on paper. Nowhere on a behaviorally unusual person will you find a circle with its center point slightly shifted. No, we grab these words from the graphic arts and apply them to situations we can recognize, but which we find difficult to describe absolutely. They are metaphors for behavior, not descriptors. They are heuristics, simple concepts we apply to complex situations that allow us to communicate the situations with each other.

I also noted that these communicative heuristics don't exist in the world outside the one we have created. Nature doesn't like straight lines like we do.

I was reminded of that reflection just today when wading through John Michael Greer's weekly blog. This should seem similar:

Modern industrial civilization, for example, is obsessed with simplicity; our mental models and habits of thought value straight lines, simple geometrical shapes, hard boundaries, and clear distinctions. That obsession, and the models and mental habits that unfold from it, have given us an urban environment full of straight lines, simple geometrical shapes, hard boundaries, and clear distinctions—and thus reinforce our unthinking assumption that these things are normal and natural, which by and large they aren’t.

Sorry if this is too "down" a topic for readers needing a shot of happy, but Greer's post (third of a trilogy, actually) concerns why civilizations that manage to build cities of size seem always to peter out after a millennium or so, while pre-city "primitive" societies can trudge through the earth with much the same traditions far longer. He blames the conformity of thought patterns reinforced by the urban environment, patterns that fall apart in the natural world.

By limiting, as far as possible, the experiences available to influential members of society to those that fit the established architecture of thought, urban living makes it much easier to confuse mental models with the universe those models claim to describe, and that confusion is essential if enough effort, enthusiasm, and passion are to be directed toward the process of elaborating those models to their furthest possible extent.

And, since the map is not the territory, those realities of the natural world not featured in the urban architecture of thought will get missed, if not ignored or even hotly denied. What happens then? Economists can assume unlimited growth on a finite planet, even when the fallacy of such an assumption defies the laws of physics.

And that's just one example. Our human built world is full of unoccupied or simply buried examples of civilizations that fell because what they assumed would happen if they did X simply didn't happen that way.

The world around us—call it nature if you will—doesn't care if you don't agree with its laws.
peristaltor: (The Captain's Prop)
Just about every time I toured a church or cathedral in Europe years ago and saw beautifully carved pews, screens and other ecclesiastic detritus, I thought about how well such preserved structures sequestered carbon within the wood itself. The trouble, of course, is volume.

Take this example from a Seattle landmark (now demolished). Those curving struts holding the ceiling are laminated and bolted wood, heat pressed and formed by design to give an interior quite a bit more inspiring than the simple drop-down acoustic tile plaguing most interiors. You see them a lot in churches. That's a lot of wood, and that wood sequesters a lot of carbon dioxide. Still, if you want to accelerate such sequestration, you need to think even bigger. For example, skyscraper size.

No one builds wooden skyscrapers. Yeah, why don't we have wooden skyscrapers?

I guess we do, now.

Still, from a goofing-around perspective, wood has its drawbacks. It's more expensive, for one. And it's difficult to mold it into easy-to-use shapes. Now, cardboard? That's easy! I've done that myself. What if one were to scale up from a simple dust collector?

It's a bit more than a dust collector.
peristaltor: (The Captain's Prop)
Last Wednesday, I volunteered to take a road trip to our state capitol, Olympia, and lobby my State Senator and Representatives on the importance of maintaining public transit. Yes, that position serves me well since I drive transit; but that is something I would support even if I didn't. All one has to do is live in Seattle to see how important buses and trains are to our economy. If all the people in those conveyances had to switch to cars, there wouldn't be a way to drive in our fair city half the day. Our roads would become near-permanent parking lots.

Thanks to a persistent tooth ache, I haven't been following State Legislative politics lately. Frankly, it's taken a turn for the weird. )

X-Posted to [ profile] talk_politics.
peristaltor: (Default)
From Jim Kunstler, an observation most of us simply supress:

Do you know why scenes or even just shots of freeways so seldom appear in the movies we watch? Because they are so depressing that nobody can stand to see them. The jolts of terror that you get in a horror movie at least inform you that you're alive, but the sight of a freeway only reminds you of what it's like to be dead.

Very similar to Douglass Adams' opening to the first Dirk Gently novel where he notes that no word in any human language has a phrase that translates to "as pretty as an airport."
peristaltor: (Default)
The two words "investment" and "speculation" are to some synonymous, to others diametrically opposed. I find myself in the latter camp, though the confusions and conflations these two terms suffer makes it difficult to say the least even to articulate what about the differences should be emphasized. I guess I'll first let a supposed expert discuss the difference. Take it away, Albert Wiggin. )
peristaltor: (Default)
I've been catching up on back episodes of 99% Invisible, a micro-podcast about design. Roman Mars' show noted it 6 months ago, I know, and I should have known anyway but was given a foreign language education worthy of any 'Merican, which is to say, crappy, so I didn't know until this morning, but. . . .

Did you know cul de sac in French means "ass bag?" Really. Listen. I'll wait.

Well, technically it might be better called "butt of bag"; but still for me it has the same ring of disgust and insult one finds in the Spanish invective "¡Besamé cola!", or "Kiss my ass!"

I have this vision of a French developer in the States, pissed off over some anti-Gaulish slight, either real or merely perceived, developing this new-fangled suburb and throwing in a dead end-ish street (called an impasse now in France) and naming it an ass bag with enough obfuscating flourish to confuse those "stoopeed Americans!" I'd say it worked. People actually seek out these dead ends, these ass bags, these roads to nowhere as their preferred modus habilus. They want to be hooked on cars and the convenience they supposedly provide, but don't want those cars to go too fast near their homes. Duplicitous ass bags, they.

So many in the suburbs. So many turds in the ass bags.
peristaltor: (Default)
Brother [ profile] mcfnord has a valid point worthy of consideration: It doesn't matter how padded and restrained we make the inside of any car; car accidents are the number one killer of children.

Meaning if you value your kids, you will eschew the fancy-pantsy latest and greatest child seats and simply reduce the miles you drive them by moving to a walkable community.

Statistically, those in the 'burbs with the "Mom's Taxi" bumper stickers are the single greatest threat to their child's future. Just sayin'.
peristaltor: (Default)
I got a surprise a few months ago from one of those "word of the day" sources. Did you know what the word "normal" means? From The Free Dictionary:

normal (nôrml) adj.; 11. Conforming with, adhering to, or constituting a norm, standard, pattern, level, or type; typical.

Pretty standard, right? Ah, but looksie whence the word originates:

[Middle English, from Late Latin normlis, from Latin, made according to the square, from norma, carpenter's square. . . .]

(I emboldened.)

So what does a carpenter's square have to do with conformity? )
peristaltor: (Default)
Came home this morning to a text from The Wife about the power being out. Parked, was passed by a neighbor who heard "something" and wanted to check it out.

I joined him. Don't tell me you aren't curious about what we found. Don't even tell me that. )
peristaltor: (Default)
I've thought this for decades now. It took an economic crash and expensive gas to make it a reality.

What am I talking about?

Dubbed "smart growth," the (new urbanist) movement favors the development of a mix of housing and businesses in and near existing cities. At the same time, it discourages the Topsy-like growth of peripheral suburbs, known disparagingly as "sprawl."

The unexpected revival of a number of cities, from Rockville to Sacramento, stands in contrast to plunging home prices in the suburbs. "America is catching on to this trend," said Peter Calthorpe, who co-founded the Congress for the New Urbanism in 1993 to create alternatives to the conventional suburb.

He says the previous model was based on the assumption that the United States could prop up the single-family home in a distant location by keeping the cost of oil and mortgages low. But that era is over. "The true cost of transportation and housing is going to start to surface," he warns.

When oil got scarce (relative to demand), the cost of commuting soared. The farther you need to commute, the more you need to spend to get to work; the commute becomes, as it were, the Gas Ceiling, through which you can never soar. The only solution -- get thee to the once-despised city. The home values reflect this trend:

Now citizens with real estate savvy are honing in on the cities. Unlike the suburbs, and despite the downturn, homes closer to downtowns tended to retain their value, according to a 2008 Zillow report which analyzed the change in value for 1.65 million homes between the first quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2008.

I'm glad to see someone clarified the trend I recently suspected might be the case. Oh, and it gets better:

The Senate Banking Committee voted 12-10 yesterday in favor of the Livable Communities Act, legislation that would bolster the Obama administration's initiatives to link together transportation, housing, economic development, and environmental policy. . . .

The initial round of grants would fund comprehensive plans -- local initiatives to shape growth by coordinating housing, transportation, and economic development policies. Most of the funding -- $3.75 billion -- would be distributed over three years to implement projects identified in such plans.

What specifically would this legislation do? From the bill's summary and status page:

Establishes in the executive branch an independent Interagency Council on Sustainable Communities. . . .

Requires the use of a sustainability challenge grant to: (1) promote integrated transportation, housing, energy, and economic development activities carried out across policy and governmental jurisdictions; (2) promote sustainable and location-efficient development; and (3) implement projects identified in a comprehensive regional plan.

Directs the OSHC Director to study and report to specified congressional committees on incentives for encouraging lenders to make, and homebuyers and homeowners to participate in, energy-efficient mortgages and location-efficient mortgages.

Finally, laws might be changing back, allowing all of us a rest from the decades of constant Californication. People might finally be able to build and zone their neighborhoods according to the length of their strides rather than the horse power under their hoods.
peristaltor: (Default)
Some time ago, I posted about how the economy creates money. I then read an informative book and clarified what I had learned in the earlier post with more information.

More recently, I noted that Planet Money had an interesting post recently dealing with home values.

This graph seemed like mixed news. First, it put the peak of the housing bubble in early 2006, not early 2008 like I thought. (It's amazing what info you miss when you're not paying attention.) Given the assertion I've heard recently that bubbles take as long to pop as they do to inflate, this gives the most likely bottom point earlier, hopefully sparing us some months or years of deflation.

On the other hand, this graph is based on the Case-Schiller 20-city composite. The blog noted later in the post a chart based on this info showing change in market share by city. Some city markets went up, some went down.

Which tells us nothing, really. We might just be missing a big piece of the puzzle.

Let's assume that sharply rising gasoline and diesel prices in 2008 had a lot to do with the sharp economic contraction that year. (I'm not making that assertion as an absolute, but just for the sake of argument; I don't have enough evidence to support it as Holy Writ.) Let's further assume that this sustained fuel price increase has convinced many that the "Drive until you qualify" philosophy of home ownership is pretty silly when the cost of commuting rises significantly.

With this in mind, examine the city-by-city changes in the Planet Money post. The biggest annual home value increases can be found in California cities, a state with some very real economic problems right now.

  • Los Angeles, +6.0%
  • San Diego, +10.8%
  • San Francisco, +16.2%

By contrast, the biggest loser is Las Vegas, down 12% from last year.

Other than being in California, what do the three biggest winners in this list share in common? For me, the most significant factor is the sprawl the three cities suffer. Vast freeway networks connect these cities with suburbs in every direction not bounded by bodies of water, mountains or national boundaries. Contrast that to Vegas, surrounded mostly by desert.

Given a lack of technological innovation that disrupts an old economy, let's assume in an economic contraction that most of the professional and industrial activity (both light and heavy) will happen where it has traditionally happened. This means most of the jobs will stay in the cities.

This means that the job goers will soon calculate, given the sustained cost of commuting, that it makes economic sense to relocate closer to work. Which means that the greatest losses to home values will be felt in suburbs and bedroom cities, the greatest gains in cities with gainful employment to offer workers needing to shorten their commutes.

I'd like to see more data than the C-S index provides, specifically maps showing the annual home value fluctuation in communities surrounding the cities on the index. I don't think we can truly appreciate what is happening to our economy, what societal shifts and changes in priority are occurring, without that and other clarifying information.


Mostly cross-posted to [ profile] the_recession.
peristaltor: (Default)
Remember just a few weeks ago Warren Buffett bought BNSF outright? The press blather was predictable: "Our country's future prosperity depends on its having an efficient and well-maintained rail system."

Last night, though, while discussing an oil-poor future, my economist friend mentioned an alternative situation for buying the rail: electrification.

From The Journal of Commerce:

Earlier this year, BNSF Railway’s chairman, president and CEO, Matthew K. Rose, said he was in talks with transmission line companies that want to install new power lines in the railroad’s right of way. And he said BNSF was exploring whether that could help the railroad convert large parts of its sprawling western network to electricity.

Industry sources indicated other large carriers were looking at the same options, as Congress and the Obama administration push to upgrade the capacity of the U.S. electricity grid and tie in more alternative power sources including wind energy farms.

My friend also sent me a post from a rail site (sadly, one locked down to members only) which said:

If the wind- and solar-power crowd are really able to create some critical mass in their plans for mass conversion to such energy generation, transmission corridors for new high voltage lines are going to become necessary in the West. The battles for these rights-of-way are already starting to brew in several places in the West. . . .

Single steel pole towers, which are more easily situated on a railroad right-of-way than the old wider-footprint lattice-work towers, are now capable of handling up to the 765,000 volt lines being discussed for transmission from potential wind and solar fields in the West. . . .

Combine this observation with Buffett's planned wind farm facilities and one sees a definite business plan shaping up.

Buffett started as an oil man. He knows what's coming: Fuel shortages leading to ever higher fuel prices. Electric rail lines -- fed by the power lines sharing the corridor -- give him an incredible advantage, if he can get the major routes powered in time. And because he bought the rail outright, he won't have to dither about with quarterly stockholder reports. This means he can take his sweet time electrifying without worrying about "enhancing shareholder value" every few months.
peristaltor: (Default)
Remember my neighbor's dilapidated abode? Well, another neighbor just emailed these updated shots. The failing wall has failed, spectacularly.

Zoom in on catastrophe

For a gooder look

I feel sorry for the small gang of raccoons that lives there, not to mention the abundant rats. When it becomes no home for rodents, it's a bad house.

In happier news, it's sold! Hopefully the bulldozers will be rollin' in with destruction on their blades. We neighbors shall greet them with roses, wine and song.
peristaltor: (Default)
My brother [ profile] metalmensch was sent to work in India a few years ago. Being my brother, he had his eye trained for things I, too, would find interesting, things beyond the travel brochure, things alien enough to folks like he and I that they verge on the outright fascinating.

He found such fascination in . . . trash cans. They weren't ordinary trash cans, no sirree. Check out one such can:

Litter can in Ramoji Studios

A few details simply must be noted. First, his Indian friends consider these cans "fiercely" embarrassing. That he was constantly shooting pictures of them in scenic areas like Ramoji Studios and the Taj Mahal was even worse. Shouldn't he be taking pictures of things worth viewing? Details of Indian life that might put the sub-continent in a pleasing light?

I'll get to why his friends thought his actions embarrassing in a bit. Right now, though, I'd like to share some podcast material that illustrates why I think we in the United States might have even more reason to feel fierce embarrassment: Simply, many of our buildings and neighborhoods are just as freakish and ugly as these cans. )
peristaltor: (Default)
Jim Kunstler whipped out another gem in which he wrote:

For decades we measured the health of our economy (and therefore of our society) by the number of "housing starts" recorded month-to-month. For decades, this translated into the number of suburban tract houses being built in the asteroid belts of our towns and cities. When housing starts were up, the simple-minded declared that things were good; when down, bad. What this view failed to consider was that all these suburban houses added up to a living arrangement with no future. That's what we were so busy actually doing. Which is why I refer to this monumentally unwise investment as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

(Emphasis from the author.)

Why is he so glum about our economic expansion? For lots of really good reasons. )

Addendum, August 10, 2009: Calculated Risk shares a paper describing a move from expanded building from city cores to a "new era of infill and redevelopment." Which will have to happen if "this monumentally unwise investment" called suburbia is ever to be corrected.
peristaltor: (Default)
Eschaton brings us the new wave. Looks like we are right now in the very lowest point of the trough, with a wave of potential foreclosures looming right before us.

Pay close attention to the second bar graph in the graphic and consider what it represents. I mean, freakin' hell, people, an over 80% increase in mortgage payments by mid '11?
peristaltor: (Default)
Below I'm going to show you two pictures of buildings, both designed by star architect Frank Gehry.*

Charles Simonyi's House on Lake Washington
(Photo from a Flickr Collection)

The Experience Music Project, Seattle

Can anyone tell me the main difference between these two structures, the prime distinction that elevates one an extravagant indulgence, but condemns the other as a dangerous abomination? I'll tuck the answer and explaining rant under the cut to spare the squeamish. )

*A Correction, July 23, 2009: Gehry did not design the Simonyi House, I am informed. Rather, it was done by Seattle architect Wendell Lovett. My bad.
peristaltor: (Default)
The Wife and I are quite happy in our little neighborhood, close to downtown, close to 6 bus routes, friendly folks, and generally great little houses.


Three doors down lived an old woman. She kept to herself, choosing to keep the company of friends at the senior center and nearby relatives who she sought for "help." I put help in quotations because if she could not find someone to "help" her -- do the work that needed to be done -- it simply wouldn't get done. That work? The roof, the lawn, little things. Those little things started to add up.

A few weeks ago, The Wife saw a monster rat sauntering up the sidewalk in broad daylight. Not a good sign. Worse, the local mouser cat just lay there watching the rat. This told us that Paulo felt no need to hunt this interloper, probably because he was sated with ratty goodness and all hunted out. This says something about the number and size of the rats currently calling the neighborhood home, which says a great deal about their probable hidey-hole . . . the neighbor's unkempt property. The Wife emailed the city with her suspicions about rodent harborage; they dutifully sent out an inspector . . . who didn't like the condition of the house. A letter of condemnation followed.

Behind the cut you will see a bit of what they found. I say "a bit" simply because the family has had a chance to seriously clean up the property since the neighbor lady moved out. Remember, until three weeks ago this house was occupied! )
peristaltor: (Default)
A few years ago, my sister and her hubby took some of their extra cash, bought property and built their dream house, one she designed herself. She also pressed her builder to stop with the head-scratching and provide the house with the most energy-efficient design the house size would allow; they got structural insulated panel construction with a radiant floor fueled with an oil boiler. (The oil boiler was my suggestion. Though they have a proven track record, propane tanks can fail, sometimes spectacularly. Keep that much pressurized flammable gas around and one day, you might spring a leak. Oil tanks can also leak, but since home heating oil (essentially, low-grade diesel fuel) has a high flash point one can drop a lit kitchen match or cigarette into the tank and safely watch it fizzle out. That level of redundancy in safety appealed to her.)

She called the other day with news. Since they have been in the house a few years and have smoothed many of the unforeseen design wrinkles, she felt it was time to start further improving the energy consumption profile. Her builder suggested a Thermomax solar array (like the one The Wife and I are contemplating) backed by an on-demand electric water heater. Why electric? With the crest of Peak Oil probably upon us, electric has become a cost-effective alternative to either oil or gas for home heating. The builder estimated she and her hubby would pay for the oil boiler replacement in 7-10 years.

Me? I had to balk. )

X-Posted to [ profile] home_effinomic.


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