Quote of the day from Randal O'Toole on the closure of the entire Washington Metro yesterday for emergency safety inspections
The Washington Post’s architecture critic claims that the shutdown happened because “we decided to let our cities decay.” In fact, it’s because politicians decided that spending money on new construction projects, such as the Silverand Purple lines, would benefit their political careers more than spending it maintaining the existing system.
Before that, it’s because politicians decided to saddle Washington with an expensive, obsolete technology that the region can’t afford to maintain. Metro needs to spend $1.1 billion a year on maintenance to keep the system from deteriorating; it spent about a third of that in 2014, so it’s getting worse every year.
[no spoilers] I don't mean the title negatively -- I liked the reboots of both Star Trek and Star Wars that he wrote and directed. Given the long absence of each franchise, there is no problem in my mind restarting the series with an homage to the old series and characters. In particular, Abrams is great at peppering the movie with little shout-outs and inside jokes for the fan base. And both are reasonably good adventure movies with beautiful action scenes.
The problems comes with the second movie, and moving the series into new territory. The second Star Trek movie (Into the Darkness) couldn't seem to extricate itself from fan fic mode, retelling the Kahn story for the third time, with cute little reverses like Kirk dying and Spock screaming "Kahn.....", the opposite from The Wrath of Khan.
I understand the pressure. The fan base of both franchises was ready to strangle Abrams at the first hint of heresy to the original material. But for God sakes the Star Wars loyalists, of which I consider myself one, endured Jar Jar. The new Star Wars movie has some flaws, but it is a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable reboot. Now it's time to take some risks with it.
Postscript: Is there a handbook of Star Wars Imperial architecture? Is it driven entirely by creating movie aesthetics or have directors started to work a running gag here? In the new movie -- I promise this is not really a spoiler -- there is a scene with one of those classic Imperial rooms with the infinitely deep hole in it, featuring tiny narrow walkways without handrails (I consider this not a spoiler since at least one such room has probably been featured in every Star Wars movie). Anyway, one of the characters finds themselves clinging to the walls of said infinite drop some 12 or 15 fee below the nearest walkway. And what do you know, there is some sort of switch lever there. There are wall switches in my house that I think are located inconveniently, but wtf? Who designs these places?
By the way, the movie Galaxy Quest, which I still love, had a great parody of this sort of sci fi architecture. John Scalzi's Redshirts also touches on this territory as well.
It is a tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West architecture school (in Scottsdale, AZ) that students build their own small shelter in the desert. I am a fan of Dan Simmons' Hyperion series. If any of you read it, perhaps you remember the section where Aenea is at some strange out-of-time version of this school. Following the real-world tradition, she builds her own dwelling in the desert.
These are not necessarily cardboard box and plywood forts -- many are real engineered structures whose materials can be expensive (the students do most of the building with their own hands). I wish more architecture schools emphasized their students actually constructing some of their own work.
The students are looking for your help to support their projects, and have a Kickstarter campaign in progress.
The video below shows what they are doing:
As an aside, if you are in Phoenix, I would put Taliesin West as one of the top 2 places to tour in town, along with the Musical Instrument Museum. Phoenix of course is much more of an outdoor town. The very top thing to do in town, not just to tour, is probably to climb Camelback Mountain or Piestawa peak. Both are mountains dead in the middle of the city, something that is relatively unusual (in Denver, Portland, Seattle, etc the mountains are off to one side). The views are spectacular, and there is no funicular or cable car. The view only rewards effort.
Scouting New York is coming to an end, as the proprietor appears to be moving up from film location scouting to perhaps writing and producing his own films in LA. For which I wish him luck. But I will miss his long posts on quirky and interesting New York City locations. His archives are still there, and fans of NYC or urban architecture in general are encouraged to look at his past work.
But of course, he just started Scouting LA
I think it was Tyler Cowen who linked to this photo spread on surviving examples of Soviet architecture. A few of the buildings are almost compelling.
This was one example, in Bratislava
But you don't have to go to Bratislava to see something like it. You can find something similar in Mesa, Arizona -- this is the city hall.
Kudos to the photographer for getting the shadow on the concrete pylon on the right to be positioned almost perfectly to fill out the missing part of the building. I actually don't mind the Tempe building, it looks good in context, more public sculpture than building (particularly since this is likely a really inefficient building, with minimal floor space for the money spent to build it).
I had a great day on Friday in Manhattan for the price of a $20 subway pass. I did a lot of wandering around and people-watching, but here are three great free activities:
1. Central Park. Probably the greatest urban park in the world. It is gorgeous, and everyone overlooks it. If you have never strolled the Ramble, you will not believe you are in the middle of Manhattan.
2. Walk the high-line park. Another fabulous piece of landscape architecture, an old elevated rail line running north from about 14th street (just a bit south of the Chelsea Market) along the West Side that has been turned into a park and an amazing escape. You can stroll the waterfront and urban New York without encountering a single car. It is also incredibly quiet. And train-lovers will appreciate that the architects kept a lot of the complex track-work as part of the landscape, almost like industrial art.
3. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge. I don't know that there is any similar experience anywhere else. Something New Yorkers and tourists have enjoyed for over a hundred years.
I couldn't stay until magic hour but the view was still tremendous.
In the evening, I did whip out the wallet again and took my daughter to Ellen's Stardust Diner, near 51st and Broadway. Total tourist trap. Terrible food. But an absolute blast every time. All the waiters are out-of-work Broadway singers and they take turns singing show tunes for the restaurant as they serve. We have walked out smiling and feeling good every time we have gone.
If there is anything creepier than weird children's art on the walls of an abandoned mental institution, I am not sure what it is. From here. (for those who like urban architecture, urban archeology, and/or New York, this is a great site).
The Senate will take a vote today to repeal the hugely onerous 1099 provision from the Obamacare legislation. Good news, though Obama is opposed to the repeal as he feels (probably correctly) that it will open the floodgates to further repeals and amendments. Which is pretty disingenuous, as one of the soothing memes he handed out when the legislation was being rushed through Congress was that there was plenty of time to amend and fix its rough edges. How he needs to decide if he was lying about that, as Congress addresses a rough edge that had nothing to do with health care but created a huge and largely useless burden on businesses. I know that this provision would really kneecap my business.
Meanwhile, small businesses are staring in horror toward 2013, when the 1099 mandate will hit more than 30 million of them. Currently businesses only have to tell the IRS the value of services they purchase from vendors and the like. Under the new rules, they'll have to report the value of goods and merchandise they purchase as well, adding vast accounting and paperwork costs.
Think about a midsized trucking company. The back office would have to collect hundreds of thousands of receipts from every gas station where its drivers filled up and figure out where it spent more than $600 that year. Then it would also need to match those payments to the stations' corporate parents.
Most Democrats now claim they were blindsided and didn't understand the implications of the 1099 provision"”which is typical of the slapdash, destructive way the bill was written and passed. As the critics claimed, most Members had no idea what they were voting on.
Democrats are trying to water down this repeal:
Yesterday the White House endorsed a competing proposal from Florida Democrat Bill Nelson that would increase the 1099 threshold to $5,000 and exempt businesses with fewer than 25 workers. Yet this is little more than a rearguard action in favor of the status quo; the Nelson amendment leaves the basic architecture unchanged while making the problem more complex.
Businesses would still have to track all purchases, not knowing in advance which contractors will exceed $5,000 at the end of the year. It also creates a marginal barrier to job creation"”for a smaller firm, hiring a 26th employee would be extremely costly. The Nelson amendment also includes new taxes on domestic oil production, as every Democratic bill now seems to do.
This analysis is dead on -- our company generally cannot predict exactly how much we will purchase from a specific vendor in a year, so we would still have to collect tax ID's from every single vendor, not knowing which would cross the hurdle.
I am endlessly fascinated by the architecture and infrastructure of Manhattan. I am probably one of the few non-locals who owns this book, as well as others in the series. I highly recommend the Scouting New York blog for those of you who love the hardware of Gotham more than its software. This post is a good index to many of his best features.
I don't really do news roundup posts, because losts of other folks do them better. But there were a few things I wanted to blog on today and just don't have time, and rather than lose them, here they are briefly:
- Twitter seems to be the data mining tool of the future. I have seen a number of dynamic maps and graphs of late using Twitter data. The NY Times has as good of an example as any with this dynamic map showing twitter content by city and time during the Superbowl. Flowing Data has a bunch more. Just remember the rules before you data mine: Cool, trendy application run by hip Internet guys -- data mining OK. Bad evil credit card company trying to make billion dollar credit decisions -- data mining not OK.
- This is one of the first times I have seen an Internet contest like this go on for so long without a winner. Twelve structures, you just need to say which is a church and which is not.
- There has always been a certain cognitive dissonance between a) media portrayals of employment at Wal-Mart as equivilent to a new ring in Dant's inferno and b) the reality of lines hundreds of persons long for just a few job openings at Wal-Mart. Charles Platt was curious about this too, and so set out to work at Wal-Mart to see what it was like.
HT: Maggie's Farm for the second two.
One of the most prevelent misconceptions about the political economy is the assumption that business universally opposes government licensing and regulation. Often this misconception manifests itself as someone making a statement like, "Even [name of large competitor in the industry to be regulated] supports the proposed regulation so what are you libertarians complaining about."
In fact, regulation tends to protect incumbents at the expense of new entrants or new business models. Large competitors can pass on the costs of regulation to customers, but new entrants have substantial investments to make just to build the systems and knowledge for compliance. Perhaps worse, regulation like licensing tends to lock in current business models, by making current business practices part and parcel of becoming licensed.
For these reasons, I am excited by the book In Restraint of Trade by Butler Shaffer:
This extremely important study by Butler Shaffer--professor of law
and economist--will change the way you think of the relationship
between the state and business. It makes a deep inquiry into the
attitudes of business leaders toward competition during the years 1918
through 1938 to see how those attitudes were translated into proposals
for controlling competition, through political machinery under the
direction of trade associations.
What he finds is a business sector not only hostile to free markets
but aggressively in favor of restrictions that would protect their
interests. This, he finds, is the very source of the origins and
development of the regulatory state.
The author chooses this period because it was a time when the entire
relationship between American business and the federal government
underwent dramatic upheaval. It was in this time that business forged a
consensus about the scope and intensity of competition behavior that
they would tolerate. This began to exhibit a disposition favoring
collectivist authority over one another via government-backed
Free and unrestrained competition required more of them than they
were willing to tolerate. It required constant innovation, a fight
against falling prices, a continued effort to seek out new markets, and
the willingness to subject their bottom line to consumer preferences
for lower prices and better products. They saw the vibrancy of free
enterprise as a threat to their firms and well being, so they used
anti-business sentiment in politics to hamper the market in ways that
would benefit them....
If you ever thought that the struggle for free enterprise was about
business versus government, this study, which is written in exciting
prose and beautiful English, will change the way you understand the
essential struggle. The evidence is vast that big business cooperated
closely with big government in building the essential architecture of
the mixed economy.
A friend of Megan McArdle calls the Boston city hall "a poured concrete Vogon love poem. What a great line, and entirely appropriate of a hideous example of public architecture. But I would have singled out a different Boston structure, the Peabody Terrace Apartments at Harvard.
Since this is the last time I may be hitting the theme of Vogon poetry for a while, I laughed the other day on a course on the Roman emperers when the professor said that Nero would force the upper class to attend his musical and poetry performances, and that some invitees where known to fake death to try to escape.
Via Hit and Run:
The Palm Beach Town Council on Monday voted unanimously to block "formula restaurants" from opening in the island town.
The ban, which was first proposed in 2006, applies to restaurants with
three or more units and similar trade names, standardized and limited
menus, uniforms, architecture, and decor. The measure will go before
voters this spring.
In other words, if your business has proven itself to be successful with customers and attempts to bring this proven success formula to our town - forget it.
The post digs in further, and finds the real problem to be that the Palm Beach Town Council is afraid of the "riff raff" that might come with certain plebeian chains. Which reminds me of Lexington's opposition to the Boston Red Line being extended into their town. Ostensibly, they were opposed to it on fiscal grounds, but that is a joke in a town that has never opposed a government program ever on fiscal grounds. In fact, they were afraid of the "riff raff" the metro might bring to town, but the more-liberal-than-thou residents could never admit that in public.
Just about everything in the PC architecture has been upgraded -- much better microprocessors, more elaborate OS's, more memory, a much higher bandwidth bus architecture, etc. However, one bit of 1980's era design still sits at the heart of the computer - the BIOS. Sure, manufacturers have agreed to some extensions (particularly plug and play) and motherboard makers add in extensions of their own (e.g. for overclocking) but the basic BIOS architecture and functionality, which sits underneath the OS and gets things started when you flip the "on" switch, is basically unchanged.
A few years ago, Intel proposed a replacement, but ironically only Apple has picked up on the BIOS replacement called EFI. Now, it appears, at least one leading motherboard manufacturer for PC's is putting a toe in the water:
The specification allows for a considerable change in what can be implemented
at this very low level.
EFI is a specification that defines a software interface between an operating
system and platform firmware. EFI is intended as a significantly improved
replacement of the old legacy BIOS firmware interface used by modern PCs....
Graphical menus, standard mouse point-and-click operations,
pre-operating-system application support such as web browsers, mail applications
and media players, will all feature heavily within EFI.
I remember in about 1978 going on a bus tour into East Berlin through checkpoint Charlie. It is hard to describe to my kids what a creepy experience this was. The state-run tour was clearly run by the propaganda ministry, and they really pulled out all the stops to convince you that life was great in the East. The interesting part is that all this propaganda failed miserably. No matter what streets they took you down, you couldn't help but notice the stark contrast in prosperity between East and West. East Berlin was full of buildings in 1978 that still had not been rebuilt from WWII bomb damage (this actually might have been a plus, since much of West Berlin was rebuilt in that hideous 50's European public architecture).
The most amazing statement was when the tour guide bragged, "And over 70% of everyone in the city has running water." It was just so clueless and pathetic, to be so out of touch that what Westerners considered a statistic indicating poverty was hailed as one they thought indicated wealth.
I was reminded of this story when I read the British NHS response to an article that over 70,000 Britons a year travel abroad for health care. Their response was:
A Department of Health official said the number of patients seeking
treatment abroad was a tiny fraction of the 13 million treated on the
NHS each year.
Waiting times had fallen. Almost half of patients
were treated within 18 weeks of seeing a GP. Most people who had
hospital care did not contract infections.
I had exactly the same response as I did to the East Berlin tour guide. Half within 18 weeks?! That's PATHETIC. Again, what we Americans know to be awful service is being bragged about as a sign of excellence.
The really creepy part, though, is that America is the last place on Earth that people understand that a medical system can do much better than 18 weeks. But we are likely to elect a President in the next election whose goal is to bring our system down to the level of the rest of the world. Unfortunately, someday our grandkids may not know any better.
I wanted to stream digital music from my main computer in my home office to my main stereo system in the den. After some research, I chose version 3 of Squeezebox from Slim Devices. They have taken an open architecture approach that I like, and have a proven history of steadily improving their product. Most true audiophiles I sought advice from use this device (this is an audio-only device, no video or jpegs streamed). I am currently converting my entire CD collection to lossless FLAC format audio files using EAC, which seems to be the audiophile favorite for ripping (and it is free). FLAC compression seems to result in albums 250-450 meg, meaning my 400 CD's will need about 140 gig, which I have available. I will ditch most of my mp3 files, saving only a subset for iPod rotation. New mpg files, or whatever rules in the future, can be made directly from the FLAC.
The box itself is small and well-designed. Setup was a breeze, once I fixed a setting on my firewall. Now I can point my remote at this box and scroll easily through my music collection (along with a number of Internet radio stations). No flipping through CD's or yelling at the kids for not alphabetizing them right. You can browse or search by title, artist, or album.
In addition to controlling it with a remote, I can control it with any computer on the network. Right now, I choose songs on a laptop in the kitchen, which sends music from the computer in the office to the amp and speakers in the den. Awesome. Their web site says that you can also browse your music and choose what's playing from a web enabled PDA, but I have not tried it yet.
Here is the blogger vanity part: In addition to an array of other screensavers, you can have the device connect to any online RSS feed and scroll the contents marquee-style across the screen. All day I have had my blog feed scrolling across the device, interspersed with NY Times and ESPN headlines.